Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sisterhood of the Praying Hands Tattoo

My local homeless man asked me this morning if I'd been to 72nd Street and Broadway recently.  I have, I said… and yes, I'd noticed that a sort of shantytown is beginning to take shape on certain nights… and yes, there is a definite proliferation of the homeless.  They come in all varieties-- the ones who seem absolutely hopeless victims of circumstances-- then the poor planners, the drug addicts and alcoholics who would trade any kind of security for a fix… the beggars, the wounded and afflicted, the vegan dog-lovers who squat on corners and feed their pets boutique food, who ask for practical things like flashlights, batteries, toothbrushes and water packets.  They are safe there--- it's almost a little festive in the balmy summer nights… a kind of reality show of their own-- some of them swearing to me that they wouldn't trade their freedom for the oppressive landlord-tenant system, for a 9-5 existence working in fast food or retail just to put cornflakes in the breakfast bowls of a tableful of kids whining for $200 Nikes and an iPhone 7.

Sister, one calls me as I get off the 2 train at 3 AM… because I am susceptible to that nomenclature, since my own sibling is mean and heartless, wealthy and estranged.  He can almost feel my knees buckle imperceptibly as I reach into near-empty pockets and dole out whatever is left… 42 cents last night… yes, I travel light, when I am carrying my instrument.  Yes, he needs all 42… and I am painfully sympathetic to the less fortunate, despite the fact that a small thing like shoe repair is beyond my budget these days.  No, I cannot imagine not having a dry place to write on rainy nights, clean sheets and a warm bath for my babies, in past days… a door behind which I can lock my guitar and know that it will be there, unstolen, when I return, God willing.

I have thought long and hard lately about this will of God, as I check up on a neighbor who is in final stages of a wasting and wicked cancer-- a woman who just 3 years ago was living the careless and happy life of a bartender/actor with marginal financial success but with a devil-may-care attitude and a spirit of independence witnessed by her wild red hair.  She is now terrified, this new friend of mine-- of the unknown, of the pain, of the power of the disease to outwit any treatment or diet or prediction.  Fear is contagious.  I approach her with steeled nerves-- with love, because I know how callow people shun the sick at times…and with great admiration because she is living with a kind of grace and dignity that I don't think I could muster.  She thanks me for my kindness-- when I have not earned that attribute.  I can scarcely afford to buy her a Gatorade while her electrolytes are haywire and she is unable to manage much of anything by mouth at this point.  She apologizes for the occasional outburst or protest at the medical staff who calmly stick and stab her, wound her and send her home, because she is still, most of the time, categorized as 'ambulatory'.  So she goes upstairs and thanks God for her remote so she can distract herself with television, go online on her ancient computer where she can share side effects and symptoms with other patients, most of whom are desperately seeking affirmation or answers which do not exist.

God?  I ask myself, knowing full well He has never been the sort of miracle worker on a throne with a magic staff.  I imagine He, too, is as baffled by cancer as He is by the internet and robotics and Uber vs. Didi; by an artificially tanned presidential candidate, and by the bitterness of the lower half of the one percent.   No, there have not been many wealthy saints-- no matter how philanthropic this fractional minority with the economic majority may be, they still have way too much.  I, on the other hand, am in the lower half of the 99%… somewhere above the homeless, I suppose, but struggling to pay for intermittent phone service and lousy TV, afflicted with leaky pipes, insufficient heat, mice and various mechanical Catch-22s which make reasonable repairs impossible.

Still, I am alive… I am detached from some of my most cherished lovers, my children are independent but good humans…. my possessions have become things that are deeply poignant and meaningful… as though people have receded and the souvenirs have taken their place.  Try as I do, I cannot impart to my son the importance of this or that book, this pile of old handkerchiefs, these letters-- these hand-painted envelopes and this shirt from 1968… this beat-up guitar case.   To him, they are all things for the future post-mortem bonfire, the enormous thrift-shop pickup which will punctuate my departure.  For me, this seems unbearable now.

I am going out of town for a gig-- I asked my ill friend if I could do anything.  'A postcard,' she said.  'I would like a postcard mailed to me with an exotic stamp.'  And how that touched me--- how I hope I'll find something which will not let her down because that has become my mission.  I wonder if she will notice if I send her something from one of my collections-- because I fear I won't be able to find something worthy in a souvenir shop-- or even in a museum-- in this disappointing digital culture of ours, so I think I am going to cheat and take along something I cherish.

On the uptown C train today, there was a young girl with a 10-month-old baby in a stroller.  He was her 5th, she told me, with her tired eyes and her wifebeater and shorts.  I wonder how many were with her when she got that incredible tattoo of the praying hands on her chest… or the cursive-written ink names on her breasts.  She was shaking her head to music from her iPod as her youngest boy nodded off and his little hand let itself down to his side the way children do in their sleep-- with a slow grace that eludes even the most accomplished ballerinas.
There is God in this gesture, I thought, although his mother was in the world of Hip hop.  This is how He would bless us, if He did… how He will lower us, we pray, from living to some kind of rest… with a sense of compassion and control… from tears and the hot sweaty crowded subway car of life to some eternal dream of peace... where there are no more bandages or treatments or malignancies or Medicaid, no more bills and hateful sisters… no more homelessness and fearful sleeping in damp ominous doorways under mercury streetlights but the safe breeze of a starry summer night.  Amen.

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Sunday, August 14, 2016

The See of Faces

My doorman yesterday complained that Hip hop is dead.  He is not even 30-- a former gang-member and South Bronx graffiti tagger-- hooked into the pulse of this culture.  I informed him that he is in the very beginning phases of becoming a cranky-old-man in New York-- which isn't necessarily a bad thing.  We both agreed-- he with his 10 years of artistic perspective, me with my 40-something-- there is a negative progressive pattern here-- like things are born, seem maybe edgy for a minute-- the sharp cry of a wet newborn-- and then they get swaddled-- muted-- begin to blend into our smoggy web.  The imitators and false inventors steal ideas, re-mix… become soon vapid and diluted in the sea of pretenders where art and originality are sadly drowning in the sewage-laced tide.

Walking through the city in this sweltering August weather-- everyone with their plastic bottles and iced lattes, showing off all their tattoos... people taking selfies in the heat... like some kind of tropical paradox… an urban jungle-hell.   I can't help thinking-- things seem to matter less in this oppressive atmosphere… not just the obvious things like clothing-- but ideas and substance.  I feel dumbed down and less passionate-- in a way, maybe less sad.  It's easier to mourn in the fall, in the winter.  Everything seems overlit and even tears, except for cranky sweaty babies in strollers, seem to evaporate before they are born.

For some reason today I'm reminded of that Saramago book-- where everyone in a city is suddenly stricken with white-blindness… searching for water, food-- compassion-- in a kind of living sightless hell.  Where would we be, without the 'see' of faces… with our iPhones and our instant images?  Someone complimented me yesterday on my writing.   I did not reply that it is my public attempt to try to make some kind of artistic and personal sense of what I am able to see, because I begin to suspect-- with everyone absorbed in their phone, that there is an epidemic of reality-blindness

Essentially I am disappointed, like my doorman, in core content-- even in the media spinners-- they err and misspell, they gloss over and misinterpret, they write with their thumbs and think with someone else's ideas.  Music is so plentiful and cheap… a sea of white rice-- of disconnected words and endlessly recycled notes and ideas… of 500 million beat combinations or notes on Jay-Z-blue screens that will be processed in nano-second installments while people are reading the news, breaking up with their girlfriend, checking the score and weather, pre-ordering their smoothie, reserving an uber to some random place which is over-designed and soul-less but where the food is excellent.

In this urban world of 9 thousand TV channels and an internet where every page offers you 1000 options and distractions--  where people experience museums and concerts via their phones, after the fact-- where everything is shared, inhaled and posted-- we seem have lost the art of description.  We are so over-dependent on visuals now-- the number of photos on the web has increased like a hyper expanded universe of infinite space… we no longer have the skill to digest and interpret, express our opinions and passions with art and words and music the way a great chef has to simmer a sauce for hours-- it's all too quick and easy.  

I read a biography of one of my Ab-ex painting heroes… yes, it was great to have some of the anecdotes and details I hadn't known… but there were so many typos and mistakes in the text… I began to doubt everything.  Even the address of her studio-- 2 different buildings on one street?  I need to know-- to go there and dream.   Only one of them with walls that held the great minds and talents of New York in the 1950's-- where floors were covered with paint  spatters and scuffs… where artists had paced, jazz musicians had vented, cigarettes had been stubbed out, bottles had been thrown, glasses smashed, bodies had ground themselves in passionate episodes-- where canvases had been stretched and transformed into museum content.  But which one was it?  It reminds me of the stories I hear every day of people who slept with Elvis, played with David Bowie, traded needles with Lou Reed… documentaries of interviews and hearsay… talking heads reaching into some kind of past with selfish hands and plucking feathers and treasures they turn into lucrative souvenirs.  And who is here to contradict, to witness, to contest their accuracy?

Maybe I'm sick of hearing everyone's version of someone else.  Art has become kind of a Selfie-- like those cardboard portraits of people in Times Square-- you get your picture taken with Beyonce and suddenly there you are, the two of you-- as though this really was a memory.  People insert their input into something pre-existing… pre-recorded-- a remixed album with their own picture on the cover? Like one of those Mad Magazines from the 1960's with the crazy image of Alfred E Newman on the US dollar or Kanye West photo-shopped onto Mt. Rushmore.  Who can tell the truth now? And who knows the truth?  You do, actually.  I do.  But how can we approach art without the message because we don't know where its truth is? We don't have time, or patience to find it-- or does it matter?  People take the cake out of the oven before it's even baked… and in fact the batter is from an instant mix and it tastes sad and artificial.

I spent years trying to find a lost love in someone else's face… and realized at last that the soul of him is all that's left and I must try to honor that-- to write lyrics about him and try to conjure the sense of him, and the kind of songs he would have written had he lived.    In Brooklyn people remember when Marilyn and Arthur Miller briefly walked the streets in love, had their first moments of passion… she the larger-than-life movie star, he the intellectual playwright with the cool Jewish heart of guilt.  An unlikely couple in a world where everyone wanted to touch her, see her, be her-- and then even her husband fell for another woman-- moved on.  Where was this building?  I want to know.  I want to know definitively where Grace Hartigan's first studio was.  It matters.  Not a google-image or to take a selfie in front of it; I want to see it.  I want to describe it somehow… to absorb its memories and sorrows and ghosts-- to listen to its story.

Recently I've become interested in the Rescued Film Project.  A photographer takes old rolls of undeveloped film and puts them through a difficult and tedious process to not just develop them, but to scan them and enhance them with digital technology so we can see images from even damaged negatives.  Most of these are old.  Some rolls are from World War II.    Most of the people are gone now; the children would be old people-- streetscapes are nearly unrecognizable.  They are inherently nostalgic and sad.. but somehow we trust these images; we are moved by them.  They tell a truth which cannot be manipulated or changed or  photo-shopped.  Somehow this past feels like part of us in a way that so much of the present moment does not.  We can't identify the people but somehow we sense their story, and we sense the invisible photographer.

My mother's old photo album is only maybe 40 pages.  There are under 100 photographs and I know most of them by heart.  When my son was small I didn't have money to develop much film.  I don't have as many photographs as my friends do-- certainly I have fewer than an average American family takes these days on an average vacation.  But I never forgot to look.  I remember, I cherish the moments; each one is like a musical passage in the symphony of my son's childhood-- deliberate and meaningful and memorable.

In some cultures there are 100 words for snow, maybe 50 words for the smell of wood-- I want to know these things, to understand something.  I have learned that I can only try to find my own truth, to wade through the 'See' of faces and find my own familiar footholds among the embellished and re-processed people, the invented stories and misinterpretations… to try to wrap my brain around the incontrovertible fact that even this meteor shower we might be able to witness--- if conditions are right, because with all our photoshopping we can do nothing about the actual weather or cloud coverage-- think about this--- this is already a nearly 1000 year old episode we are just finally able to see.  It puts things into perspective.

My doorman will continue to prefer his vintage Hip-hop-- the way music sounded to him when he began to sense some meaning in life-- the way he connected.  Was it better then?  He is sure that it was. I have to say I think I agree.     I read about things like singularity, I hear digitally produced music,  admire the incredible capacity and speed of iPhones and technology, and I still prefer the varied texture and slow vulnerability of the analogue and hand-held.  I have yet to take a selfie.  I have yet to pinpoint my place in the culture of the present, with the mega-quantities of data and where a modern version of art is generated and disseminated in quantity.  I guess I am not ready for the future.  Like the astronomers with their very advanced telescopes and devices, the metaphorical lesson of the Perseids-- we have come all this way to get a clarified view and everything we see clearly is the past.

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