Sunday, March 27, 2016

Biblical Sense

When I was in graduate school a girlfriend of mine convinced me to audition with her for a topless dancing job.  Just come and watch, she urged.  It was somewhere on 42nd Street; some nights I imagine it was the very stage where I have played bass guitar so many times.  I was maybe 22 and she was even younger-- still had baby fat, she did… but she was sophisticated and read Proust and Kafka, like I did, and she was very sure of herself.  Besides-- I was taking home $92 a week working 40 hours… and she assured me I could make that in one night.  No one would ever recognize me; it was not the kind of place our Dads-- Madison Ave. businessmen-- would prowl.  We went down on a sunny Tuesday afternoon-- but there was like a night curtain in the bar, the way Atlantic City casinos keep you time-blind.  We both liked to dance-- the music was decent… we were bold and bohemian and our boyfriends were bandmates; it seemed safe, in a way… like a sister-thing.  She was less shy than I was; afterward, while the manager was laying out the rules, I covered myself and she didn't.  But it wasn't about the dancing-- it was about getting guys to buy you an overpriced drink, which would actually be ginger ale or seven-up or water… and there was just something so sleazy about the cheap little scam of it… I turned it down.  She, on the other hand, took the gig.  Years later-- maybe 25 years later-- my guitar player went to a strip club in San Francisco, and there she was-- a little matronly but still working it.  No judgment-- I admire her, in a way, and if she writes the novel we both talked about when we were young-- well, hers will undoubtedly sell better than mine.  She friended me recently on Facebook.

On my first trip to Amsterdam, I went with the boys to the Red Light district.  I was fascinated: the working girls were in these little shadow box environments-- they reminded me of those doll-suitcases they made in the 1950's… where you'd open a mini-trunk and there would be this unclothed doll with her wardrobe and little accessories in a compact cardboard closet.  I selected an angelic looking blonde in aqua lace for them-- but the guys went for the slutty ones in red and orange.  I waited in a coffeehouse-- envying the girls, in a way.  No one looked worried or sad or lonely.  It was like a tiny stage-- and they were both the play and the actor.

Backtrack to my junior year in college.  I lived off-campus and our little flat was famous for welcoming transient rock musicians, writers, travelers… one of our regular guests was a prostitute from Manhattan who was hands-down the most fascinating woman I'd met up to that point-- built like a model, the face of a madonna--with style and taste, a razor sharp tongue and an exotic vocabulary of 4-letter euphemisms.  She smoked like a chimney, borrowed money from everyone--  perched herself on our living room sofa for days at a time, generally on an amphetamine-fueled binge-- preferred the company of my gay roommates.  One night a drunk psychotic ex-boyfriend threatened me with a gun, and she stood up and decked him.  It was incredible.  Then she called campus police.  Fearless.  Dignified.  Plus she had carte blanche at Max's and treated me to a few nights at the Chelsea when it was memorable.

I noticed last week's New York Magazine chose the subject of prostitution for their cover article.  Not sex trafficking, but the voluntary kind.  Seems kind of tired and overdone-- especially with lines of sexuality culturally blurring and the constant parade in New York City of old men with fat wallets and their much-younger well-heeled dates.  It's a bit of a yawn, the whole issue.  I was surprised recently to hear a friend of mine acting horrified that someone at our table was on his way to a late-night massage in what is effectively a brothel… I mean-- how many dates, dinners, boring conversations has he paid for-- anticipating… okay, so romanticism is not dead.

But really, what is unromantic about paying for sex?  It doesn't seem bad to me.  In a culture where every other storefront is a spa or hair salon or a specialty food merchant --a photography studio or gym or cosmetic boutique--- acupuncture, facials, massage-- colonics and manicures-- it seems a tiny leap to seek some essential physical pleasure or relief.. or variety.

When my son was a baby-- I struggled and occasionally took a few odd jobs-- painting or learning how to prep and tile bathrooms… the money was decent and I kept nursery school hours.  One day my 'boss' asked me to paint his dick.  I laughed-- but then I realized he was serious.  So I did it.  He gave me a $50 and I felt some kind of power.  Okay… it progressed.. no details… but I felt no shame and no  guilt.  I bought things for my son.  Clothes.  Nikes.  The guy was obsessed with me and brought me breakfast and overpaid me for my work.  It was a little fun-- we listened to music.  He had a wife.  I felt 'professional'.  Then after a while it began to feel a little desperate and needy and I was turned off.  Years later he tried to 'hire' me-- I thought about it--  but it turned me off.

Now I'm old.  The idea that someone would pay me for sex is absurd.  But the idea that anyone is paid for sex seems not only reasonable but obvious.  Plenty of women get the on-the-job harassment anyway-- why not put it on the table and get your end-of-year bonus in advance?

It's Easter.  There's a well-believed myth that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.  I think the Bible nowhere states this; she was a sort of fallen woman, or maybe suffered from nerves or mental illness.  The image of a woman washing Christ's feet is compelling and pious and loving.  Maybe erotic in a chaste way.  Whatever-- in Saramago's version of the Gospel, they slept together.  Sometimes we love someone and the only gift we can really give is ourselves.  Sometimes they want this.  Sometimes they want to pay for it-- guilt, or gratuity.  The act of love is sometimes just sex… maybe the next best thing-- why not make it available… is it not a need?  Are these Craigslist posts and desperate online dating shoppers not looking for some kind of pleasure if they can't find true love and many of us never have this?  We have arrangements-- marriages, affairs, relationships.. a consensual contract and exchange of money seems to distribute the power equally.  And as any divorced man will testify, at least you get what you pay for… in some version… as opposed to giving away what you bought and didn't have.

Anyway, less judgment, more acceptance-- we're human; the lesson of Jesus is forgiveness and mercy.  We do what we do to survive and we are all accustomed to paying for food and shelter… if we could just as easily order take-out physical intimacy, there might be a lot less aggression and anger.  I'm sure Jesus wouldn't mind that.  And I'm not looking forward to debate or discussion-- just airing a bit of slightly dirty intimate laundry...

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Saturday, March 12, 2016

Seasonal Adjustments

Last week at my gig a man propositioned me. I mean-- we're musicians… and even though we're old and these things don't happen as often, this is fairly routine.  Of course, we dismiss them like email hoaxes or refundable trial subscriptions.   But here… circumstances were a little pre-ordained-- he seemed familiar-- he was-- as the fairy tale goes-- just right-- in so many ways.  He was passionate and convincing--  he was athletic-- in fact he was some kind of professional competitor --he was pleading a little, he was so sure-- looking for this his whole life.  We've all had this kind of thing-- it's the prologue to how many one-night stands?  But he even smelled right-- he reminded me of something.. he laid out various scenarios and options-- I felt a little flush… a little more alive… tempted in a way… even though I have little faith in the alcohol-fueled passion of a man from the UK on his last night in New York during an already intoxicating summeresque late-winter weather hocus-pocus… But I had projects waiting-- I used my refusal-reflex, I turned him down.

Next morning-- yes, he emailed a couple of times… he friended me-- yes, he has a wife-- all of that he might have even confessed… to make his proposition more honest, more convincing.  I didn't sleep much-- I admit-- but do I have regrets?  No, I don't.  The fact is, I've weaned myself of these consuming passions and interludes which have taken me on so many tangents.  I feel 'ruddered' these days-- committed to writing and playing-- and like an athlete in training, I do find my work much more 'infused' when I'm not sidetracked.

Children are super emotional.  They cry when they drop a lollipop, when they're tired, when they're hungry.  They answer questions incorrectly because their hearts beat out their brains-- they have little impulse control and no matter how many lectures we give, most of them will walk off with any stranger who offers them ice cream or a puppy.  This is who we are-- creatures rooted in emotional, maybe bad choices;  some of them have terrible consequences-- some just give us scars that don't show.  But in the end, we take risks-- we grow, we develop a sense of how much we can push the speed limit, we trade a little safety for thrill.  And love… well, all bets are off.  Probably the larger percentage of babies are conceived from something that began as a one-night stand.

For years I lived with a much-younger man.  Years.  In some cultures I could have been his mother.  We were aware of maybe 3 or 4 parallel couples in our hood with similar profiles-- a 40-something woman with a 20-something man.  It's sexy, it's hot-- it's a compelling configuration.  One couple was also a younger musician and a much older woman-- she was some kind of designer-- a former model-- lithe and great style-- you could sense their connection.  But recently-- I saw her with a cane-- she seemed to have some kind of neuromuscular issue.  She was quite alone-- vaguely recognized me--- but what startled me was this set-in sort of aging pain I could read in her face.  She'd been ruined… she'd been left-- the fear most older women have when they embark on one of these risky ventures.

As we grow older and become more and more familiar with loss-- this is embedded in our life.  Friends have begun to die-- some of them prematurely, from tragic accidents or illness-- some of them from self-inflicted things-- cumulative effects of drugs and alcohol-- depression, suicide… and some of them leave after a reasonable amount of life.  We're beginning to wind down here.  So I need to ask myself-- how much time I can afford to spend in emotional purgatory after a risk-taking venture… and the answer is-- not much. A day? A week?  Even that seems maybe not a fair deal.  I have an agenda, a schedule, a compelling and ever-growing scroll of projects that seem overwhelmed by whatever sandy substance is filling the bottom part of my cosmic hourglass.

I let myself have a long walk in the March 'summer' evening this week… saw plenty of young bodies prematurely shedding clothes-- even in Harlem, the shirtless buff basketball players coming off the court-- in their prime-- their swagger, the girls giggling and yelling-- smoking-- pairing off… it's a sexy thing.  You think about things-- things that happened-- when the temptation is unbearable, or the situation is just right-- maybe even 20 years ago on a night like this… and you think… this is perfect-- this is a peak passionate, nameless, identity-less thing-- I mean, at certain moments of life, there is no one with whom we are more physically honest than a stranger.  But then there is the afterward.  Maybe they start calling you--- maybe you want them to call you.  Maybe it will become a relationship -- an affair--- something.  Maybe it will be impossible-- or difficult.  Difficult is the worst.  It eats you, it encroaches… it wrecks you.  And then you abandon it and you miss it.  You miss it so badly you replay it over and over, like a home movie.  You distort it.  You dream it.  You crave it and it keeps you awake and feverish at night.

Once I had one of these crazy episodes with someone-- and he made a tape-- it was way back.. not a video-- no one had these… but an audio tape.  I ran into him years later and he had it in his car.  It was appalling and hideous of him… maybe a little flattering, after I got over the horror, the sense of violation?  I had to shrug it off, to pretend I couldn't care less-- he might have used it for some damage-- and there was no image attached--no one was going to have enough interest to let it play for hours and listen to the space and the noise because it had been overplayed-- more disturbing.  But in a way I realized we all do this in some way-- we record these moments-- we play them back endlessly-- we use them to escape our boredom and the monotony of relationships which are maybe healthy and practical and long.  And some of us, like the man from the UK,  are not satisfied with memory or imagination, and still feel a need to create these moments.

Maybe I am just too old, or too wise, or too committed to work, the way I'd always wanted to be… I feel I am finally arriving at some platform where I am a little happy with my own playing, a little less critical of my own poetry.  I wake up in the night with ideas, and even more than my black coffee, I am fueled with some kind of personal ambition.   It is private and compelling and has nothing to do with financial or outer success… it is like a calling.  And I am certain of my direction.  I know exactly where I need to go, in this last leg of my little journey.  Does this obliterate my susceptibility to romantic interludes?  It definitely presides.  But my little confession is-- if I had felt just a little more desire for the man from the UK… maybe a few centimeters more--- I would have gone with him-- personal lumps and bumps aside….yes, I would have said yes.  No regrets… I would have loved it, and he would have  been happy enough to maybe never try this again.  Or maybe he would have felt an unbearable loss… I can't answer this… and if I'd had a more compelling connection, I might have known this.  But I didn't.  I don't have any sense of his real heart.  And I turned him down.

I have so many young girlfriends.  I love my girlfriends-- young and old.  So many of them look for these opportunities-- they say yes, they take the bait… and so many of them are disappointed or hurt.  The center of our universe is not the center of someone else's.  People have their agenda, they have more choice than ever, because of this online dating phenomenon-- the sheer number of potential and actual encounters and the thinning layers of casual relationships.  Yes, I have my inappropriate little passions and flirtations… and I don't venture out onto tightropes anymore, or risk a derailing heartwreck.  I can no longer afford the time.. and the truth is, I am a little content with my past memories, my current version of love, my heartbreaks and scars and even my age.  I do way less 'entertaining' in my emotional home, these days… too many good friends to console and embrace… too much music, too many gigs--- too many songs to record and poems to create.  Not that I don't occasionally open a window--especially in this early spring, on a night where we philosophically push our clocks ahead, to let in a little mischievous wind--  and sigh….

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