Thursday, December 28, 2017

Hark the Herald Angels

Like my father before me, I often watch Bloomberg television in the overnight.  I'm fascinated by economics, the way they graph and predict and analyze what seems the bizarre and illogical behavior of current financial markets.  It's also a little comforting, in the thin hours where late-night dissolves into dawn, to know that across the world people are awake and bustling, when you are just home from a gig  that isn't quite what you wanted it to be, and sometimes considering life-alternatives.

Apparently, according to the financial pundits, it was a healthy Christmas.  Retail in-store sales were up, despite the anticipated online shopping dominance.   Personally I didn't really buy into the holiday spirit until I met my son in Herald Square at 5:45 PM, Christmas Eve.  Everyone should have this experience once in their life; it puts capitalism in some kind of warped perspective.  To be honest, there was less panic than I'd have predicted… and we managed to score the last pair of black Timberland nu-bucks in his size.  They were more than I could afford, more than I spend in two years on my own clothing-- but he wanted them.  He wanted the same ones in 2004, but I didn't bring that up.  It's imperative to buy something I can't afford; especially something that rappers seem to endorse universally.  Of course, he'd really like a Rolex, but he'll have to wait until he can buy it himself which is imminent, I sense. As for me, I've given up the ritual of exchanging gifts with everyone else… I can scarcely manage building employee tips and they all know they earn more than I do, but it keeps us on some kind of level ground of courtesy.  God knows the value of courtesy in this city.

My son always buys me a tree-- my only wish-list; this year he gave me a phone-- for emergencies, Mom, he explains to my idiosyncratic luddite head-shaking-- an extra line came with a huge discount in his bill, and a free phone… so I had to concede, even though I will not carry it.  He  knows me well; I have a history of wondering at the yearning of most people for what they do not have, and not often wanting what I get.   My childhood Christmases, after initial dismay that Santa did not leave me a horse, were not materially memorable.  I spent long days shopping, wrapping, and crafting things for everyone with my babysitting income.  I loved the giving.  Presents for me were generally the little-sister version of whatever my mother had selected from my sister's hefty list, which included prices and sums.  My Nana knew me best; she gave me boxes of scraps and spools of thread for making doll clothes-- rocks and old stamps for projects.  These were my treasures.

One year my Mom gave me Judy Collins' 'Wildflowers'.  It was the first record album that was designated mine and not communal like the scratched and dog-eared Beatles and Stones in the hifi bin, and it was like a coming-of-age joy-- one of those moments that let me know my Mom really 'got' me.  I loved it to death.  Sisters of Mercy.

Another year I remember tonight: I must have been 18, planning a summer trip to Europe with my boyfriend, and I begged for cash.  Christmas morning there were the usual piles of gay-looking boxes and bags, and not a thing for me.  In the toe of my stocking, something rustled: it was a $1.  Fuming, I took off-- skipped the traditional pancake breakfast and ran downtown.  The city was deserted and I was sulking and in desperation hopped a bus back to college.  It was a day like today-- frigid and unforgiving, and when I reached my empty dorm, I found there was neither electricity nor heat.  I wept in Christmas solitude and called my boyfriend in Boston from the house-phone who consoled me and directed me back to New York.   Anyway, trying to sleep that night under piles of blankets, I heard a strange noise-- found a flashlight and discovered one of my eccentric roommates in several hats and coats in her bed reading the novels of Jane Austin.  She'd stayed behind, intellectual that she was, and not buying for a second into either the holiday or home-sweet-home.  I'd never have really known her,  had I not had this little learning excursion which also taught me that I was an adult, and had to rely on myself if I wanted something-- that home was where I was, not some kind of story-book picture.  I thus weaned myself from my sweet Mom for the second time.

I've been thinking about her all this week-- my first motherless Christmas, the first time I wrapped no gift for her.  I remember how she understood me, even though she disagreed-- how she had to align herself with my Dad and refuse to sanction or even witness my artistic and romantic ambitions, but how she'd send me something like some candy bars I loved taped together, with no card-- or an old ribbon.  How she called to cry about John Lennon when he was shot that cold December day… how she tried.  I suppose death is the final weaning.

There's a Code-Blue out tonight in New York City.  It's so cold they've directed the police to round up homeless people who are at risk outdoors.  I was in Harlem at dusk; on the steps of a familiar church where a population beds down, two cops were trying to coax a sleeper to a shelter.  I don't mind the cold, he kept saying, but I mind the shelter.  After they left, I asked if he needed something.  Plastic bags for my feet, he said, and asked about my dog.  My dog has been dead for years… but he seemed to recognize me.  You gave me a sweater one night, he told me--- you were on a balcony and it was raining, and I was digging through restaurant trash… and you brought me a blue sweater.  I remember this… I did… and I remembered seeing that sweater in the trash bin the next morning, like a dis.

It's hard for me to believe this was that homeless man whose face, I confess, I don't recall… I keep thinking he is some sort of angel or apparition; his voice was soft and resonant and musical,his leathery smile so kind.  He also gave me a bag of socks to wash; I threw them into the machine at 2 AM when no one would be there to judge.  I will take them back to him tomorrow evening even though I wonder if he will be there; it is my foot--washing opportunity-- a real Christmas gift and I resisted the temptation to buy him a new pack, but executed his wish, as he presented it.   Clean socks.  I will sort and fold them in the Christmas spirit I failed to embrace this year until now.  If he is not there, I will leave the bag along with a candle for his night, and a prayer.

This is the sort of thing my Mom frowned on; after all, she was a lady, and didn't understand this is my version of rolling bandages for soldiers as she had done in her day.  In the scriptures, the woman who washes Jesus' feet with her hair, no less, was a sinner.  I've sinned plenty, as my Mom did not, and maybe you must be a sinner to want to serve the homeless.  I'd like to think it is compassion, not guilt that compels me.  But maybe some of those smug Bloomberg guys need a bag of dirty socks left under their tree with the Rolex boxes and the new-car keys.  How about putting that on your billionaire-list, Santa? For the naughty or nice, financial sinners all-- the ones who drank the Trump tax hand-out just as happily as a Christmas egg-nog.  From your warm golf-courses and holiday Caribbean hideaways, may you dream of some human foot-washing in the arctic cold as you kneel before a man who has maybe never seen the inside of a an airplane, or a decent restaurant, or a lovely warm home, but who is closer to some version of grace than all of your graphs and statistics will ever be.

Amen and Happy New Year to all.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Santa Clause

Like an old deer in a city park, I am beginning to pick up the scent of Christmas.  When I think of shopping-- merchandise-- well, tears are all the currency I can muster; even the pounds of butter for cookies will be tough to manage this season.  Thank goodness I conned my son into picking up a bargain tree on Black Friday.  Having a good month with it makes me less guilty about kidnapping nature for selfish decor reasons.  Yes, it's a symbol, and it certainly receives plenty of love and attention in its place by the shelves of vinyl and my double bass-- but come the New Year it gets put out on the curb for recycling, stripped of its finery, and I feel like a cruel step-parent.  Anyway, it is in its domestic adolescence, still drinking up water and I love the smell.  It is my companion, my forest.  I wake mornings to the banging radiator and the piney ghost-aura of Christmases past.

I am closing in on another lifeline benchmark;  it is also the first holiday without my mother.  She would not have believed my age; during our last visits, she refused to believe the woman before her was truly me.  My daughter, she laughed quizzically with those famous eyebrows roof-high?  My daughter is young and so beautiful.  You-- you're not my daughter!  I had to agree, in the end.  I am no longer that girl; I am quite someone else, becoming, every year, still another version of this woman in whose skin I feel not quite myself ('Mice elf', as Sly with cleverness observed).

On Saturday afternoons I often gallery-sit.  It provides a little extra income and keeps my finger in the art pie where all of them once wallowed and explored.  I take the train to Union Square and walking west I can't help observing there is a blossoming colony of homeless or hapless people-- most of them young, with signs, blankets, home goods, possessions, wares for sale.  There are couples and small groups.  Many of them have pets-- dogs, cats on leads, animals wearing sweaters and T-shirts, bandanas and hats, reminding me of the old Tompkins Square population from the 1970's.  There is money in their cups and bowls; tourists and locals chat and pet the animals who are the pimps, in a way, for donations.  People are uncomfortable with poverty and homelessness, but the animals seem to be an ice-breaker.  Many of the young people are reading; they might be students living on the edge, relying on charity to make room and board.  These days I have so little extra; a few dollars each month and my own skill at thrift keeps me from the street.  I pass, I empathize, I apologize silently, and I say a prayer thanking God for another  month of eking by.

There is coffee at the gallery.  The space is luxe and white and the reverb is perfect for recording vocals.  The objects are expensive and beautiful.  I am comfortable with these; I understand their history and their context.  The irony of my life is that I was brought up in museums, among cultural institutions-- I studied art and history and architecture and despite the extreme financial circumstances which ally me with the culture of homelessness, I am steeped in the love and lore of art and at home in this place.  During the week salespeople and stylists and media-experts bring clients in and out; on Saturdays it is church-like; no one calls, and celebrities and billionaires come in to shop low-profile-style.  We are connected by affection and understanding of these things despite the fact that I cannot even afford to buy lunch.  I also encourage students and passersby to browse; I am instructed not to let anyone use the bathrooms but find this kind of rule difficult to enforce.  I am a populist and also know, from years of gallery work, all visitors deserve the same hospitality.

This week there was a plumbing issue and the bathrooms were off limits.  Mid-afternoon, in the first snow of the year, a young woman came in-- wet and snow-dusted, wide-eyed and sweet-faced, and asked to use the washroom.  I had to explain-- felt a tiny pang of awkwardness, knowing the policy of places like this one… but she was cordial and spent some time looking around.  I was speaking on the phone to a relative, admitting my dark mood and still coming to terms with the sad week I'd had-- the loss of another close friend and musician.  I'd been not just on the verge of tears all week… in fact, since the fall leaves began to turn, I haven't been the same, as my Mom might have pointed out, had she lived another season.  The girl left; I apologized again.  

Maybe it was the weather-- the beautiful quiet snow, the dark afternoon, the Christmas lights through the window,  the hangover from yet another funeral, the sense of the dying year… but I was feeling bleak and isolated.  Gigs are getting sparse-- book sales are slow, my holiday calendar is quite blank.  I will see my son-- he will have a brief rest from his work; maybe it is his missing father-- his slightly handicapped childhood, but he rarely expresses much emotion.  He seems so 'normal'-- I do not often expose him to my 'shadow'.  His father-- my husband-- was a happy-go-lucky boyish sort of person who embraced love and marriage with great alacrity, but not so much the 'to the exclusion of all others' clause.   I never nagged or complained; I left.  It didn't bother me that he never sent a penny; only when he complained to the next crop of spouses that he was crippled from child support payments.

At the end of the afternoon a girl came in again--- left something on the desk-- I was about to call after her, when I saw it was the same girl-- and she'd left a lovely wrapped cookie… with a note, saying I seemed to need some cheer-- and whatever it was, she could tell I was a strong woman and would overcome the darkness.  I burst into tears-- like the touch of angel.   It wasn't just that in this culture of phone-addiction and shallow human interaction it's so rare someone actually reaches out to a human (as opposed to a sad dog), but also that I remembered being that person-- the one who felt things, whose daily empathy called for these gestures and this sort of gift-giving and random affection to strangers.  It isn't just that I look different as I age, but that my limited lifestyle has also limited my generosity of soul.  I cried for my lost heart, for the girl I was and now suddenly missed so terribly, realizing my mother was maybe more astute than I knew.

I locked up and went back uptown in a cloud of quiet tears camouflaged by the falling snowflakes, mourning not just my friends but my old self… trying hard to absorb the Christmas message.  After my solitary spartan supper at home, I found her cookie-- realizing with a bit of horror it had been so long since I'd treated myself to anything-- and I loved every bit; it was healthy and handmade and filled with festive ingredients and just so good.  While I was busy worrying, struggling to maintain my minimal post-parental life in the 21st-century city which is not kind to the poor and the non-spending population, I had neglected more important things-- my soul, my heart, my own kindness not just to others but to myself.  Thanking you, Kayleigh (she signed the note) for reminding me; maybe you are truly an angel, the ghost of my Christmas past, come to bring me not just a gift, but-- like the old story, an awakening.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Branding of Leonardo

Post-Thanksgiving for me is a calm time-- no more pre-Christmas frenzy in my current state of financial deprivation; my son and I managed to snag the very last tree of the Whole Foods Black Friday Event; it was deemed unsaleable because of a trunk defect-- tall and skinny, it was the one for me, and as it turned out, harbinger I hope it is, the ugly duckling Frasier swanned into utter holiday perfection.  A work of nature's art.

Anyway, with the scent of the forest, I was dared by an old friend to take an entire night 'off' and binge on reality television.  To parallel the US 'marketplace', the Housewives have morphed into a brand rather than the ridiculous parody of what happens when you mix the ingredients of mediocrity, extreme cosmetic prosthetics and Twitter with absolutely no content but scenery-- real estate-- restaurants, bad behavior, etc.  Their share of the store-bought network pie, from the jewelry, cars, homes-- is now huge.  The Kardashians have become a dynasty-- it's like the Partridge family with 21st-century values and portfolios.  Everything is scaled to enormity... and the words 'real' 'reality'.. 'real-real'... are everywhere, reminding us that we are being not just scammed but duped and insulted.  At least the cooking shows have some entertainment value although it baffles me that an audience is so hooked on an experience which depends primarily on the two senses missing from television.  Would we watch a Dylan concert with no audio? Doubtful.

It's been many years that we've overused the term 'really'; as a teenager I doubled it for emphasis... because like so many things, we need these words to prop up and convince.  Authentic-- another one.  Art these days often comes with a certificate, a pedigree or document.  Why?  Because its authenticity, in this sea of mysterious Monopoly money, is uber-questionable.  There used to be a chain of command... things were traceable and there were stamps and marks for ownership.  Things were commissioned-- things were kept in institutions or palaces-- churches.  Yes, things were stolen, occasionally.  But talent was unique and copyists were copyists.  Scholars kept logs of these things, which became catalogue raisonnés.  I studied Art History... connoisseurship and restoration.  It was a responsibility.  We looked and compared, had many hours in museum basements looking at forgeries, copies... comparing to masterpieces.  We discussed and often failed to conclude.

Then money entered the equation.  Art is one of the least regulated businesses.  It is mysterious and incomprehensible for many.  Collectors rely on 'experts' for advice and education.  Besides an important jewel, it is one of the few instances where one man can own something rare and unique.  Priceless, they say.   There is one Mona Lisa.  But we read about scandals-- even catalogue raisonnés where the authors received fees for certificates and inclusion.  The question of authenticity becomes dubious... which only seems to fuel the market further.  Cut to the Leonardo da Vinci sale... the star of the Post-War and Contemporary auction-- does this not, in itself, speak to us?  Okay-- since the $110 million Basquiat, all bets are off.  Wall Street loses and gains many billions each day.  This is the way money moves in a world where the managers make the market and profit either way.  A million dollars has become cheap in Manhattan culture.  Money has grown geometrically for the rich.  The housewives might have begun in apartments, but now they have jets... mansions; the Countess looks poor compared to her friends with the diet margarita-mixes and personal enterprises.  Their twitter audience is massive.  They rub shoulders with the celebrity culture and now our President himself is the greatest American reality show.  His brand and personal wealth will be many multiples of its pre-election worth.  Stupidity reigns and Greed is its Prime Minister.

But seriously... the Salvator Mundi-- it just doesn't look right.  There is a reason this painting was shelved and sold for a mere 45 pounds in my own lifetime.  No one claimed it.  The experts who taught me, way back, are gone. I doubt they would have been fooled. The restorer, from the IFA-- my alma mater, although I dropped out of the program because the ethics of restoration began to worry me.  This is big business now... and piles of crooked money are laundered through the art market-- masses of fakes are certified and authenticated and carry this like a vintage sheepskin.  I owned a Jean Michel Basquiat and a couple of things Andy gave me.  Did they have certificates?  No, they did not need paperwork because they were actually real.  At the time, of course, they were inexpensive.  Unmarketed art is affordable and sometimes very, very good.  There are artists quietly suffering and painting small masterpieces.  For the ultra-rich, this is not sexy.  Hedge funds do not buy a man selling home-goods on the street; they are invested in the geometrics of money.

Art, like religion, is suffused with belief.  The art market exists because collectors believe in the value of what is really a few dollars' worth of linen and paint.  It is a symbol, the way this da Vinci has become a symbol, to me, of the way anything can be marketed and deified-- not unlike those TV evangelists.  I hated this painting... found it uber-ironic that the number 45 was still in the figure-- with an additional string of zeroes.  The Christ figure crosses his benediction fingers... he reminds me a little of the king on the new BBC Versailles series-- the handsome and indulgent sovereign who is beginning to get a little fat and just corrupt enough to try to use religion to consolidate power.  Glam piety.

How many scrappy start-ups have gone public and raised a billion dollars overnight-- the market pushes up share prices and investors sell for profit?  Another kind of 'belief'.  Not to mention this is the way they can afford these paintings.  Monopoly money buys hotels, golf courses, mansions and art.  It's a whole network, an incestuous web of artifice and fantastic wealth.  Look at our president.  The Midas asshole of quackery.  The man-who-would-be King, if he could only....

At 3 AM, we watched a back-to-back of My 600-pound Life.  More dubious reality? You can't really make up this kind of thing.  What struck me is these people who consume food all day until they are literally paralyzed--  they are all poor.  They are mostly suffering from some childhood abuse issue... and they are not alone.  They have a partner who loves them-- enables, yes-- that, too.  But they have some kind of love the housewives lack?  The scale of obesity-- well, it maybe parallels the obscene scale of wealth on the other shows... this is a different kind of greed, though... it is some kind of inverted need that becomes desperate and personally destructive.  And they all have TVs.  Large ones.  They are victims of this culture, trying to make their way and failing on a massive scale.

I took a break and went up to Harlem to see what I could buy for $1.  I got 5 pounds of slightly defective but decent tomatoes.  A haul.  On the street I stopped to pick up a penny.  What you want that for, a man asked me as he smoked a butt in the mild night air?  Because it's real, I said.  I know it's real.  And it's free.  And I can trade it in anywhere.  Unlike the Salvator Mundi-- a very large title for a painting that enriched those involved in the deal... but saved no one. Certainly not the world.  My bad, Jesus might say.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Homeward Bound

On the way home last night, I hitched an uptown First Ave bus; it was after midnight-- my card was near-empty but the driver was kind and waved me on.  The ride uptown took nearly ninety minutes.  It seemed every stop was crowded with the down-and-out crowd.  By 34th Street the bus was jammed with passengers-- many of them homeless men and women with oversized carts filled with stuff.  The stench was strong, but the driver patiently rolled out the handicapped ramp and let them all board, mostly without paying.  it occurred to me that they wait for this man-- maybe the beginning of his shift, and they know they can rely on transport, these forgotten untouchables.  Maybe some of them ride all night to stay warm.  A few disputes erupted among cranky territorial passengers, but for the most part people were complacent; many came from the VA hospital, Bellevue… a drunk man kept yelling he needed a hospital… but then he passed out and slept like a baby.  It was a kind of pre-Thanksgiving reality check.

When I was young, I used to visit my friend's grandparents in the same building where I now live.  It was a little far uptown to be fashionable, in those days-- a great old turn-of-the-century prewar with a grand lobby but no doormen or luxury services.  Their space was massive-- lofty-- with skylights and high ceilings, and resembled my imagined version of a successful European artist's studio c. 1900. It stretched from one end of the building to another, with huge windows onto upper Madison Avenue.  Sparsely furnished, there were plenty of loungey sofas and reading chairs with quaint lamps-- tables and ashtrays-- window-seats and desks.  As they were part of an important publishing firm, they entertained writers and intellectuals; there were books everywhere… yards and yards of shelves, and piles and piles of treasured volumes, magazines, journals.  The radiators clanked in winter; in summer, in those pre-air-conditioned years, the top floor was sweltering.  The park was half a block away, and there was often a breeze on the roof, if you climbed up at evening.  It was a source of gossip and rumors-- secrets were exchanged here, a few inappropriate relationships, many drunken dinner debates-- a million cigarettes, deals inked and stories begun.

The sprawling apartment-- undecorated and decorous as it was, felt like the heart of adult New York.  This was what I would be when I grew up and got old--  a host-- a home-conversationalist in a book-lined room alive with  dialogue and energy-- ideas and excitement-- like a sort of club whose membership required no dress-code or mindset, but a passion for literature and art.  But more than anything-- it was a home.  You knew where you were when you were there; you could wander and browse, sit and lose yourself in a poem or look out the window… but you felt 'embraced'.

Thirty-five years later, I bought into their building-- a funky back-door apartment in need of renovation but with the pedigree and bone structure that had become part of my Manhattan dream.   It was cheap and a little dilapidated, but I was a young single Mom and felt so empowered to have bought what would really be my own true home.  My first Thanksgiving was blessed, for so many reasons… but I felt the tradition of that building, even though the publishing family had died long before, and that grand space had been divided into smaller units.  There were neighbors who had grown old in this place that seemed magical to me;  there were senior couples with piles of books and great art and they welcomed me into their homes with the often shabby old chintz curtains and the beautiful but worn Persian rugs; they spoke the cultured and human language of old New York; they had ideas-- they loved music-- they wrote, still read Latin and Greek, many of them… they treated their neighbors with kindness and generosity.

In those years the old building had a single employee: a superintendent who'd been born here… he was in his 60's, had raised his family in the ground floor rear unit.  He painted, polished brass, cleaned the old marble.  The rest of us chipped in and tended the garden, had lobby parties-- we were a true cooperative in the old sense-- a group of tenants who all cherished our home, who seemed to agree that our space and privacy were sacred.  Our individual priorities included maintaining a low public profile, modest monthly fees, a non-pretentious simplicity of style.  The architecture spoke for itself-- a quiet, old elegance, without luxury.  They welcomed me-- financially limited as I was, because they knew I was happy to be part of this lifestyle.

It took years to fill what seemed like a massive space to me-- to furnish it with my books, the art I've collected over the years, the finds and objects, the old furniture I've gathered at random auctions… It is quite full now-- my instruments, the things I love… I have quite everything I ever longed for as a young woman… and yet I am no longer content and secure the way I was twenty years ago.  In the early 90's, I helped a senior woman in my building-- Jane, was her name-- to pack up her spartan belongings.  Regretfully, she told me she had intended to die in this apartment, but her very modest pension from years of brilliant editorial work no longer covered rising maintenance costs.  I recognized so many of the wonderful books we carefully piled into these boxes like relics from a life well-lived and no longer valued.  The economy had changed,  New York had undergone a massive progressive facelift; the Wall Street culture had created a greed-bubble that has not just priced most of us out of the market, but has altered the rank-and-file New York City human profile.

While Jane was forced to move in with her son somewhere out of state, I find myself living on $3 a day most weeks--- having given up all luxuries including the subway, some days, in favor of walking, rice-based meals… my entire annual clothing allowance is less than some people spend on lunch.  Haircuts… movies… vacations… a day at the beach… have been so long left behind… but these days I dare not buy myself even a coffee.  Until last night's ride, I have been plagued with my annual Thanksgiving dinner anxiety-- putting on a brave face while calculating how I will pull together the meal on a skeletal budget, how it will set me back.  But turning the key into my place-- like a souvenir-shop of my life, a three-dimensional photo-album of memories-- I realized I was 'home' and the idea of these people on the bus having nowhere to 'let down' just seemed tragic and inhuman.

In recent years young bankers and hedge-fund managers have recognized my old building as the potential cash cow they envisioned. These families renovate, destroy, combine, disregard… and then sell. They have way more space than anyone requires; they are rarely home and they have no observable sentimental possessions or books. They have architects and designers, and mostly photoshoot-ready but soulless apartments.  The ghosts of former tenants and the spirits in old walls and floors sigh and creak at night.  The old radiators still bang, although they will manage to eradicate these eventually.  They have forced doormen and lobby improvements-- fancy elevators. They have usurped the great old roof with their equipment and air systems. Even as the smallest shareholder,  monthly costs nearly exceed my very humble income as a musician/poet.  My slender spending habits have become emaciated.  And tonight, as I listen to the soft roar that is New York City seep through my leaky windows, I wonder if these people feel 'home'.  As in home-less.

There is some George Segal movie on from the 70's and this is New York, the way I remember it… before clothing advertised things.. when even rich people's apartments were comfortable and slightly messy and filled with things... when hair was not perfect and women had wrinkles and the buildings looked habitable and a little dirty.  I realize I am of a dying or defeated generation here-- hanging in, holding on to what I know and love-- my building, my old guitars… sentiment...

Things change-- I know this, and not all change is bad. But this Wall Street generation changed the rules for many of us who thought we had secured some kind of tranquility for our older age.  Our trusted annuities and medical plans have been up-ended, our modest pensions have been diminished and decent healthcare is precarious and prohibitive.  I naively bought shares in a wonderful institution, only to find myself a tiny minimized partner in a corporation with an agenda of money and attitudes and little regard for human values and the great cultural mesh upon which this city was founded.

I will be home for Thanksgiving, and I will try to forge onward and resist what feels like a tidal insult to everything I am.  My neighbors will never share a bus ride like the First Ave. M15 at 2 AM; they don't want to see or smell this kind of thing, and they seem to enjoy the demolition of old walls as much as they enjoy their indulgent vacations.  They will grow old, too-- not as gracefully as this building has, and maybe one day they will discover nostalgia or homesickness-- that nothing is ever as precious as that which has been lost.   By then I'll be sharing a cigarette with the old ghosts on the stairs while, God willing, someone might be enjoying a home-cooked turkey in what will always be the old rooms with the book-lined walls.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Hollow

Monday morning my television was left on, after a fantastic 5-hour World Series game… I was half listening to some evangelist rambling on about holy water and salvation which sounded absurd enough for me to take a look.  Here was one of those fake ministers whom I could swear had been indicted and mortified in another decade--- back on-screen with his bad hair-weave and dye job, a surgically enhanced blonde wife reading letters and testimonies with the emotional presence of a talking doll.  He was throwing away crutches, walking wheelchair patients around a huge room, choosing person after person to come to the front, cast off their pain and praise the power of the monthly sum they commit to this shyster for the promise of some God-backed pay-off.  How is this legal, and how are there numbers of people-- not actors, I assume, willing to participate in this scam?

It is Halloween.  The day dawned with a chill wind… children awaking with energy-- dreaming about their costumes.  Classes will not be so bad; teachers will forego homework… townhouses in my neighborhood are decorated with ghoulish puppets and spiderwebs-- a haunted real-estate fantasy.   Most everyone has their carved pumpkins and candles out, and piles of candy ready at the door.  Then we had a mid-afternoon incident… the city takes a bullet.   For the victims, who began this day innocently-- maybe even taking a personal day since we all get involved in trick-or-treating festivities, the parade-- this was a catastrophic synchronicity of geography.

I can't help wondering who these people are who execute heinous killings-- whether they are heartless ethical mutants passing as human beings, or maybe lost, confused children wearing a costume of evil someone has loaned them or given them like a kind of armor with which to manage the world.  Indoctrination-- brain-washing, initiation… creates monstrous murderous machines which have only physical human resemblance.  Like the tales of science fiction, they walk among us, drive cars, buy groceries… and then, the switch is thrown and their image is on all our screens and devices.

Our president, of course, as he does, used personal tragedy to promote his own bizarre agenda.  The man couldn't protect us from a mosquito, let alone the threat of terrorist-driven violence; this particular murderer is not even from one of the restricted countries on the Trump list, although he would have us believe this.  He has not a clue about psychology, about deep-seated resentments and human suffering, about children who grow up without proper protection, without dreams, exposed to horrific acts of war and often without any kind of stable home or haven.  He is a tiny man in a larger man's costume.

On the airport bus in Sweden last month, I sat behind a calm young couple on their way to some honeymoon or vacation junket.  She was wearing a powder-blue coat-- haven't seen or heard that color described since the 1960's…  he in a button-down and tie.   They were chattering and whispering-- like coloring-book illustrations of perfect good Swedes talking about the weather-- friends, new clothes-- innocent and so clean… the crease of his shirt, her pristine coat-- giggling and acting like grown-ups-- the epitome of normal-- the golden-rule standard.  Struggling myself with a tape-reinforced old carry-on bag, worrying about getting through customs with my home-made sandwich-- flying on the cheap-cheap-- no luggage, no meal, no water…  an old black-haired odd freak in my thrift-shop denim… I felt like a blot on the milk-white paper of homogenized Stockholm.

I imagined my perfect Swedes in my city taking the Circle Line tour, going to see Kinky Boots and staying at some Times Square Hotel. They'd visit Brooklyn, eat soul food at Sylvia's in Harlem, walk the High Line… and suddenly, pulling out my dog-eared James Baldwin and my notebook-- I started to pity them.  They are just people-- like most of us-- with jobs and little houses and furnishings and a coffee maker and maybe a dog… wearing the costume of normalcy.  All dressed up and nowhere really to go, because it occurs to me now, in this culture of Trump and Instagram and Twitter--- that we are all followers and post-its-- the subjects of our own blogs and photo-albums, but very few of us really know who we are.   So busy are we looking at  Facebook and dumping out on the galaxy-sized digital garbage pile, very few have taken the solitary and tough independent time to dissect and analyze ourselves old-school.

How did my generation evolve-- listening to the words of men like Martin Luther King who urged us to drive out hatred with love, to shun violence and to feel the oppression of others and stand up for their dignity when they could not?  Believing his words-- that we are all one, we must not be silent, we must think and care and do right, we must protect those who cannot protect themselves.  But he also encouraged us via action to become better people.   This is religion for me-- love and truth and compassion… not praying for a shiny new luxury car, or executing an act of human violence in the name of some distorted version of God.

On the sidewalks at dusk, throngs of children went on with their ritual--- ghouls and monsters, super-heroes and princesses, witches and wizards… terrorism did not stop our Halloween.  I wonder how many of these kids become their costume-- try on their character, melt their own little soul into the persona that is already formed and clear.  Tomorrow they will just be children again, although many of their parents will continue to wear the costume of hair-weaves and plastic surgery, having learned nothing of the lessons of my generation-- of the inside shining through the outside…of beauty of heart beating out the skin-deep kind.  We are judged these days by our instagram image, by our facade… the quick profile… and so many of us have lost our own judgment.  Witness the president we 'chose'.

My person-of-the-night award goes to the little Mexican girl dressed as a Pilgrim; with her orange plastic pumpkin-basket, she explained to me how Thanksgiving is about celebrating the immigrants, how she is learning to read even though her parents cannot, and how she will grow up to be an important American woman.  Her mother's shy ambivalent smile said it all.  I wanted to hug this girl, and to cry for her future among the Trumps and Harvey Weinsteins, among the privileged UES botoxed ladies and the corrupt hierarchy of American economics.  Be true to yourself, be kind to your sisters, I wanted to say, and you may still be a victim; you may be deported and disrespected and very poor.  In my permanent costume of poverty and human sympathy,  I went back upstairs to watch baseball.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The One That (almost) Got Away

 When I was twenty-something and had produced my first little 4-track demo of songs, I decided I might be-- well, special, and sent my cassette out to a few record companies.  Miraculously, I had a reply from not just a great label but a well-known producer who had masterminded brilliant releases for some of my rock icons.  He set up a meeting at his hotel; I was over the moon; the sequence was described in another blog.  For him, it was a forgettable evening; for me, it was not just humiliating and hideous, but forever fused my songwriting aspirations with a kind of cheap, lecherous, predatory prerequisite.  Not only did he deflate my ambition and my belief, but as a young 'no-one', I couldn't find the headroom to even share my experience with anyone but my own husband.

30 years later, as I divulged in a prior blog, the guy actually friended me on Facebook.  He's sober, he's old, has passed his prime.  I meant nothing to him-- maybe a twinge of morning-after guilt mixed in with his first cocktail of the day, but by evening he would have washed the proverbial blood from his hands, the hotel cleaners would have tossed the torn bits of my clothes he ripped as souvenirs.  Me?  I took my ruined outfit and went underground.  Sure, I play and write-- but I never again put myself out there in the same way.  The anger I feel?  Yes, it's been diluted with distance… and maybe I should have taken the cue differently and steeled myself into a rock and roll warrior but I was not tough.  In fact, it wasn't until I got old enough to be less attractive and less susceptible that I started to get some swagger.  Throughout my thirties and even forties, I cautiously sidestepped opportunities.

For some years I worked in the art business.  My very first job was in the massive apartment of a handsome collector from whose bedroom almost daily a variety of companions emerged-- most of them younger than his own daughter; some would even sometimes share a coffee with me.  I was extremely cautious and ignored his flirtatious remarks; he had some class and didn't grab.  I needed the job.  In fact I needed all the jobs I've ever had, and tolerated a level of inappropriate conduct we didn't learn to label 'harassment' until more recent times.  Even my female bosses schooled me on how to manage some of this without causing a scene, without losing the sale.

When I was 14, my best friend's father accosted me on the way to the bathroom one night.  I glossed it over.  Who could I tell?  My friend? My Mom who would never have believed me?  And what then-- have my best friend's life ruined?  There is a price to pay for honesty, for confessions and personal testimonials.  I adjusted my behavior, insisted she sleep at my house-- that I had a homesickness issue.

So many of the women who have come forth in this Harvey Weinstein scandal are beautiful, successful actors.  I can imagine what they've endured… especially in the 60's and 70's when women's lib was a campaign, a mindset-- but it never stopped the bullying behavior of men.  Why?  Because they can? Because the process of ratting and tattling smears the victim nearly as much as the perpetrator, but in different ways.  You get blacklisted; people call you crazy.  My own Mom turned her cheek when I tried to explain how my pervy uncle took advantage of us girls.  I learned not to sing or dance or perform at family reunions.  I kept silent and tried not to call attention to myself.  Is this fair?  It is not.

I've been date-raped, bullied, had inappropriate things insinuated and spoken by bankers, lawyers, politicians and rock stars.  Some of them were high or drunk, but this is no excuse.  One of my son's ex-girlfriends who was extraordinarily beautiful shared with me some of the reasons she was abandoning modeling.  I cried.  It seems so much more hideous when you hear someone else's story, when you see someone else's innocence spoiled, their dreams smeared.

So the question on the table-- the pink crippled elephant in the room-- why did these women not come forth?  Because they loved their career, they needed the job, they did not want to permanently taint their reputation with these heinous personal scars?  There is no way to emerge from this stuff unscathed.  You make a choice, and so many of us choose silence.  Knowledge is power, they say; there is our self knowledge, our self worth.  The really sad under-story is the enormous talent-pool who were so discouraged and burned by this kind of thing, they left the stage.

Here's a new twist.  Recently I've been the victim of some heinous back-stabbing remarks and behavior perpetrated by a jealous bystander trying to destroy one of my beloved bands.  Not only had I tried for months to 'let it go'… and to ignore, but I did not really protest until this woman insisted that a male band member had made all kinds of sexual advances.   Like reverse, slanderous sexual harassment, because it seemed credible.  So I took up the cause and began to fight back-- not for myself, but for others whom she has wounded and maligned-- why?  Because she can? Because the nature of social media allows this kind of behavior to ignite in new ways and gives her power?  Isn't that what this is all about?

How sad this is.  Our own president is a perpetrator of this kind of personal sabotage-- of bullying, of sexual denigration, of the low-level insult, of the under-the-table communique.  He sets the bar so low it is hard to pass underneath.  As for my own vendetta to save the reputation of my friends and fellow band members, the whole incident has left a mark on us.  Our little musical family is awkward and our brotherhood is undermined.  There are no winners in these cases; well, maybe the ones who are financially compensated-- but the world is full of snakes, especially where stakes are highest.  We can only keep our eyes open, become accountable-- learn to decipher fake from real news, and make sure the silent innocent have a voice.  Our children are growing up in a strange culture, where sexuality and the way we wear it is a personal choice.  There are available methods of protection, even in the face of powerful facilitators and celebrities...and no one has the right to charge an intimate nonrefundable price to promote our dreams.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Physical Graffiti

I'm feeling like one of those cartoon characters, hoisting myself onto the ledge of the deep well of September, having clawed my way up walls with no footholds, no light… the tarry residue of recent events stuck to my skin, matting my hair, coating the bottom of the pit with the purgatorial sludge of beyond-my-control.

For those of us who have been watching the PBS Vietnam documentary, we are somehow haunted by the resonance of the messages-- or the absence of message-- in those events which both brought us together and split us apart.  History and hindsight are crucial to understanding.  Lack of transparency, skewed communications, mixed motives all contributed to the catastrophe that was this war.  These lessons are surely not absorbed or understood by our current Lego-esque president who is tragically under-qualified for most any position of leadership.  We saw various styles of politicians; were often betrayed by those we trusted most.

Besides the personal losses of recent days, the political climate, natural disasters and tragedies have made our lives that much less 'safe', our nights that much more sleepless.  Despite the news that the average American's income has risen, I find my artistic friends more encumbered than ever with impossible rents, dwindling income, constantly inflating everyday expenses.  I have down-sized virtually everything-- buy nothing at this point except cheap food on sale at varieties of markets.  It requires vigilance and time to glean the necessary information, and miles of walking to achieve the smallest victory over the relentless threat of poverty like an enemy ambush, waiting to take me down.

I do not miss the tiny luxuries-- a coffee in a cafe, occasional sushi box, new boots-- and manage to find museums and exhibitions without fees, but in this time of desperate global need I feel humiliated that I cannot contribute.  I'm no longer young and able-bodied enough to be part of some rescue or rehab coalition, and I have little to offer but my cheap grief, no matter how heartfelt.  'You ain't changin' no lives here, baby,' my local homeless man reminds me when I sacrifice an occasional quarter into his cup.  It's humiliating.

So I'm especially offended by the grotesque luxury culture that seems to be a sort of status quo among way too many Americans, whether they can afford it or not.  Because I was gifted a privileged education, I did rub shoulders and trade licks with some of these people in my past.  They make fun of me and occasionally offer me money; when they show up at gigs I buy them a drink.  I do accept payment for my books and cds.  But last week one who happens to be building some new residence of palatial proportions called me up and told me he's thinking about buying a urinal.  'You mean like the Duchamp, I asked in utter disbelief, realizing that for a split second I registered 'unicorn'?'  'No,' he replied, 'I'm not that sophisticated.  But for my billiards room (contiguous to the cigar bar)... I thought it would be a hoot. '  So I laid into him… about how I knew plenty of guys I could get to provide poolroom atmosphere and men's room grit, who would grind out their cigarette butts on his mahogany floors and stink up the place with street-sweat and the poetics of ghetto-slang and give him credibility.  Not to forget the gender ramifications, etc.  He can always rely on me for a 'dressing down', as he called it.

I hung up and in my head began to rack up the unpaid debt people like Banksy owe Duchamp.  For me there was one urinal.  He did not keep on repeating himself and was incredibly clever and inventive.  I remembered walking with another friend, passing one of those exquisitely quilted walls layered with various random graffiti souvenirs and posters-- rippings and peelings that rival any great Ab Ex museum painting for beauty and depth.  My friend wanted to remove one of the particularly brilliant postings and have it framed for his collection. We argued.  Next day I went back and sure enough, it had been skillfully excised like the work of some plastic surgeon.

It's not enough that these people have made LVMH and Ferrari massive billionaire brands… that they own and own and renovate and build and collect.  They now must own what was made by and meant for everyone-- especially the poor among us who don't have the same access to visual artistic stimulation.  Basquiat has become the quintessential collectible of these inner sanctums and massive living rooms.  The Basquiat I knew who threw his gut and brain onto old doors and walls… is now the ultimate status symbol.  Duane Hanson used to make facsimile sculptures of homeless people-- like his wink to these collectors.  In my old art dealing days I placed one of his Museum Guards in a huge Park Avenue foyer.  A sort of joke, but with another meaning that boded ill for private art fantasies.  A version of Jean Michel is rolling in his grave, while the worse version feels flattered.  Andy, too.  Fortunately for me, there are so few museum shows I really regret missing lately; it seems these institutions have bowed to the culture of Instagram and popularity.  Art galleries are filled with stuff that seems amateurish and shallow.  But I'm a cranky old no one.  What do I own?

On top of my plate of cheap rice this week has been the disgraceful intrusion of a lone hater with a fake name, hiding behind a pretentious Facebook profile and slandering and posting accusations and falsehoods.  I play music… I go home.  I write books and columns, I give my poetry away almost daily.   I worry about how to pay my monthly maintenance; I stretch dollars and perform tiny economic acrobatics.  It is distressing and discouraging.  For three days I cannot shake the image and repeated accounts from the Vietnam documentary about the hills-- the bloody, senseless military operations to occupy a hill-- causing massive casualties and deaths… and then… the hills are abandoned-- like a wicked game, like the ultimate Sisyphean war tale.   And then my stalker-- attempting to level the tiny reward of my creative inner conflict, like a grenade of hatred.  I am haunted; I am angry.  I own this.

The 18-hour series ended with the anthemic 'Let It Be' playing over the final credits.  Somehow this infuriated me.  Let it be?  A message of apathy and concession after reliving the whole disengorging saga of the 1960's?  The Beatles?  Let Puerto Rico be, as President Lego would do?  Let Mexico be? Let the rich eat cake and the poor starve?  Let the current pop culture undermine history and prioritize sacred museum space with the products of fashion and commerce while they discard the true foundations and sacrifices that constitute art?  Not me.  I will fight.  I will resist… old and weak as I am, I will try to express my contempt for what is morally hideous and grieve for the poor under-acknowledged saints and martyrs of this abysmal culture whose memory grows shorter and shorter, dimmer and dimmer… fade to black.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Night Manager

In the 1970's, New York City was a very different place.  It was dangerous and sleazy; anything could happen.  You'd walk down a side-street at night with a sense of shadows, with your heart beating.  Muggings were common; crime was woven into the fabric and you expected to be threatened.  In a way it was like the dare of the city-- are you tough enough, are your dreams compelling enough to lie down with rabid dogs, spar with the urban devil himself?  There was a certain underlying surf we had to ride out-- a dark fire we were expected to navigate.  The noir permeated our art-- our music and poetry-- our clothes, our choices.

On the other hand, there was a wild freedom in our private sex lives.  We were walking an edge-- trying out things.  There was no internet or linked-in.  You'd meet someone and take a risk.  There were no personal phones-- only a door or a window to crawl out if you found yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I was young and all-connected.  I was straddling worlds-- downtown, uptown-- the art world and the music underground.  It was thrilling and new.  Every day I'd get introduced into someone's world that rocked my own.  I'd walk into a club at night and hear something new-- see someone trying to change things.  Sometimes you'd exchange ideas; sometimes you exchanged bodies.

One afternoon I was studying at the Figaro on Bleecker Street, and this actor sat down at my table… he wasn't super famous but I recognized him.  He was slightly older… and he was smart; we spoke about theatre and Proust.  We made a date to meet the next night at a west-side bar.  I went to the library that evening and looked him up; he'd written a couple of books, and his publisher was well-known.  Everything in those days ended up in bed, and we had a few nights of passion.  I was dating a guitar player at the same time who came back to town and I wasn't home much to answer calls.  I don't think I even had an answering machine.  Anyway, one day I was getting into a car with the guitar player and the actor passed me… I looked the other way.   He called me a few nights later, sounded drunk and insecure about his sexual performance… it was a stupid conversation and I was 22 or 23 and didn't feel like getting into a whole psychological tunnel…

Two days later, someone broke into my little apartment on the first floor.  It was a vulnerable place and I probably never even drew the curtains when I stayed out all night… but they took everything.  In those days everything fit into a couple of suitcases-- but it was all I had, and when I came home on a Sunday evening to find my window smashed, the mattress stripped and the place ransacked, I was spooked.  The cops assured me it was no Kojak episode but most likely a desperate junkie looking for cash and things to sell for dope.  My guitar player was going on the road; I stayed with a friend at the Chelsea Hotel for a few days while they put in a new window and locks on the door.

At the Chelsea I inhaled the quintessence of 1970's New York.  Sid and Nancy were there; Viva and I shared a cigarette on the stairs.  My friend was working with John Cale; he'd been robbed too and he processed the dare of the city with a certain bitter mistrust.  It was a cool hang, but I needed to face my independence without a support system.  I moved back to my little place, bought new sheets and a cheap little TV, was at last drifting off to sleep with Johnny Carson on the black and white 12-inch… when the phone rang.  I'd been gone for a week and thought it was my guitar player-- whispering… but then I heard the actor's voice, indisputably, asking me if I knew what he was doing… I jumped out of bed in a cold sweat, and ran up the stairwell to the next floor-- banged on a random door.  Some guy answered-- I begged him to let me in… I'm sure he thought I was crazy; thinking back, he had no pants on--  I stuttered something about someone stalking me…  anyway, he went into his bedroom and I curled up on his dirty carpet.  He had a small dog and it had new puppies… I lay there like a dog myself until the sun came up and I had the nerve to go downstairs.

I hadn't thought about this for so many years, but it was maybe the first coming-of-age reality check of the city.  In a way I'd been lucky; no one had really hurt me… and thinking back, it was undoubtedly a total coincidence that the actor phoned at that moment.  I'm sure he had no knowledge that I'd been robbed, that I'd been away… or did he?  It was the first time I felt genuinely unsafe-- a little terrified-- and had thoughts about finding a more secure apartment, about making wiser and less random choices, about becoming part of a couple as opposed to being the wild and free girl.  In a way I changed my vision that night; in a way I accepted there would be a kind of dependence on men in my life.  The end of innocence, which for girls is so often some threat or unmanageable fear which changes us and forces us to make a slightly desperate choice.  It's not 'live free or die', but  'live'.  It's a form of terrorism, but that's another discussion.

Like most things in life, we give up one thing for another; nothing stays the same, no one retains their innocence unless someone else arranges this for us.  Of course life in the city today feels much safer; people have phones for emergencies, everyone's marital and employment status is pretty much general knowledge, as is their age and address, their political affiliations and criminal record-- their net worth.  People sort through hundreds of prospects on dating sites-- they hook up, they regroup, they text and sext and move on.  I seldom walk into a club these days and encounter something that changes my world.  I no longer fall in love and rarely walk the dark streets with a sense of danger and excitement.  I miss those times; I've had a good and a rich life here, but I do miss myself when I was still brave enough or maybe dumb enough to take a nightly walk on the wild side.  When there was a viable and findable wild side.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Grave Thoughts

Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me…over and over in my head the last week,  the over-used Emily Dickinson couplet like an annoying nag, a childhood haunting-- because I never loved that poem… and the image of the threesome in the carriage… Death, the deceased, and immortality-- well, three's a crowd and they seem somehow incompatible.  Death is neither kind nor proud, as John Donne pointed out over three centuries ago… and how many generations of Donnes have stopped for Death-- have thought about these things, have struggled with acceptance or resistance, embraced God in strength or desperation?

Despite the fact that the only absolute certainty of life is its demise, we are universally unprepared when death touches us-- when we are diagnosed or when we lose a loved one.  Some of us obsess and read obituaries daily, commemorate daily passings on our Facebook pages, indulge in private rituals and personal prayers.  Are we thinking of the departed or of our own selves, trying to rehearse the moment, to cope, somehow, with the ultimate thing we dread?  Some cultures celebrate death; my own foray into Goth-dom explored the macabre and dark; it was appealing and brave-- confronting the monster head-on, wearing fear on our clothing, tattooing its image on our skin like a boldfaced dare.

It's ironic that my last post was a sort of Eulogy… just days later my beloved mother died and the farewell was neither noble nor poetic.  I have had altogether too much intimacy with Death this year-- family, mentors…  my friend with whom I sat, whose witness and unwilling end-of-life nurse I became because she was unable to accept her fate and fought until the very end.  It was something I wish I'd not experienced, although I am told I did a humane and sympathetic thing.  There was no closure; the end was hideous, painful, sad and desperate.  The posthumous silence was heavy and haunted; it all felt terribly wrong and as though I'd been let into a private room no human should see.

My Mom-- the version I knew-- had been fading into some emotional and physical place of distance.  I could seldom reach her, although she occasionally came back into the present and looked at me with such deep poignant recognition and love; I craved those brief moments, and was not ready to lose her.  Personal grief is like a wave-- like a tidal undertow that knocks you off your feet and takes your breath away.  It is the end of possibility, the absolute curtain on something that feels like your true love.  It is undeniable and difficult.

Burial feels like a primitive ritual.  For me the concept of burial associates with hiding something-- covering something up which will eventually be uncovered.  Maybe that was the point of the ritual; I haven't researched this… but have read plenty of Edgar Allen Poe, and have noticed the enormous popularity of zombie and vampire films in recent years.  Still, as far as I know, no one has actually yet come back and described the experience.  Seeing my mother's coffin in a hole in a graveyard surrounded by strangers made me feel a little more desperate.  Leaving her there felt wrong; I sensed in my broken heart a calling-- don't go… stay with me, I wanted to scream-- to tear my hair and rub dirt on my face, to lie on top of her and sing to her… but I had to behave, to place my small shovel of dirt with a single white rose and wait for the gravediggers to follow later on with their little dedicated steamshovels.

The gravestone is a symbol, for most of us… but we still visit-- we leave flowers and stones; my friend brings his trucker Dad a coffee light and sweet with a glazed doughnut.  I've even seen a pack of cigarettes in a cemetery… a ball and glove, a Yankee hat.  Does this help?  It is so literal.  Death is literal; the afterlife is vague and unexplained.  We speak to the dead, we pray, we cry-- we write songs and poetry… we find things on the street, we look for signs.  Who knows?   Que sera, sera, my mother used to sing to me, but she didn't really believe that.  She even told me she wanted to be cremated because she feared suffocating.  Her wishes were not honored by my sister who always seems to manage the last word in my little family.  My brand of sympathy is discredited, my rock and roll existence is like a stain on the stiff white-washed facade of her artifice.  She has invented her version of dignity, of shame-hiding and cover-up.  Yes, burials of all types are familiar to her.  She speaks in cemetery tongues.

My Mom's interment took place on the day of the solar eclipse.  This offered some comfort for me, in the cosmic confluence of the heavens and the transition of my Mom who despite her old-fashioned ideas and obsolete code of ethics was rather pure of heart.  It forced us to look upward, to the sky-- a sort of directive to symmetry, and to the place she, in her funny naiveté, along with so many of us, imagined.   She also loved me, truly and deeply, while often objecting to my lifestyle and regretting what to her seemed my shameful and unnecessary oath of poverty and allegiance to a difficult and vague life-plan including single motherhood.   But I never complained, and everyone else did.

As things so often come in threes, I feel almost released this season, although I realize the acceleration of life at my age will bring the next round altogether too soon.  The Houston floods have brought the specter of mass grief and loss into everyone's horizon, and this tempers our selfish personal sorrows,  or inspires in us that much more sympathy.   For me the musician--  timing is everything.  My sleepless nights now are spent watching endless footage of rising waters like tears-- of rescue and sacrifice and devastation.  We are so reminded of our helplessness in the larger 'picture' of the world; for those who have laid loved ones to 'rest' in graveyards and cemeteries… the ravages of nature have as little regard for the dead as the living.  It is tragic and will leave an enormous scar.  And yet, one day, the sun will come out, as it did here all week while the southern coast was pounded, and the universe does not feel shame or grieve for its acts of cruelty. We sad humans must mourn, and save, and help, and love, and try to come to some understanding with Death, because he is surely not kind and will not pass us by, not a single one-- not so far.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Camera Obscura

When my adorable son was barely three years old, he came upon his first 'little person' on line with us at the supermarket.  After thoughtfully scrutinizing her, he cried out… 'Look, Mom! It's a girl just turning into a lady!' Of course it is difficult for young children to comprehend the phases of life-- the concept that they are going to grow up, that their own parents and Grandparents were once young-- that this is a slow, gradual, continuous process.

Now that I am entering a late phase of life,  I again find it hard to grasp the lessons of time, to accept the harsh losses and assimilate the regrets of my peers who seem oddly unprepared, despite decades of identical 24-hour daily allotments, for their senior years.  Recently I saw my Dad cross over-- cross, with all its meanings, is the appropriate word, because he wore a tough and cantankerous skin over his purple hero's heart, even in death.

My mother, on the other hand, has deteriorated slowly and with a kind of demented grace.  She sits in a chair like a soft throne, with her thinning white hair pulled up in a tight knot, her famous cheekbones still defining her profile, her skin still soft but papery.  It is her eyes that tell the story-- watery, unfocused-- occasionally expressive but progressively less and less present.  Where are you, Mom-- in some honeymoon dream with your handsome decorated lover lifting you over some threshold, standing above the falls with the deafening roar of water rushing you off into another undertow of memory? It is difficult to know whether the sadness I read into her increasingly blank stare is hers or my own.

From her chairside, I facetime my son-- her favorite grandchild, the nurse-companion assures me-- and the three generations share a moment.  He is quite a man now; time has done its work here, too.  I meet his old school friends on the street and some of them have begun to lose their hair and take on that look of premature disappointment men in their 30's and 40's often wear.  The babies I held so recently are adults now-- the young couples I knew are turning grey, losing their religion.  Witnessing these passages is the way I process my own.  I am relatively unchanged, consistent.  I have different expectations.  I gave up on my vow to own a limestone townhouse on East 70th Street; I no longer want one.  I treasure my things, my books---  thank the angels I can still play bass and write songs and poetry.   I ask for little else-- can survive on the barest minimum in this city where I feel rich without money.  Yes, I was fortunate enough to have had the foresight to invest in an apartment when they were oh-so-cheap… exchanged vacations, movies, restaurants-- for a home, 'ant' that I was, having left my 'grasshopper' husband in the UK with the rest.

When I moved into my building it felt palatial.  We'd come from a studio apartment; my son endured his kindergarten friends remarking he slept in a closet; he did.  The head of our new coop was this elegant, intelligent woman who turned out to have been the fashion editor of the New York Times at a time when this was culturally important.  Her husband was a world-renowned Swedish photographer whose fashion photos were spectacularly smart and iconic.  Since I had a Swedish boyfriend, our kinship was sealed.  They took me under their wing, so to speak.  I adored them.  We shared evenings and ideas.  They were perennial attendees at my all-night musical Thanksgivings, and were treasured and wonderful guests.  Gus, the photographer-- also shared my passion for music.  He came to my gigs-- even the difficult solo ones-- critiqued my songwriting with brutal honesty and a sharp POV… gave his opinion freely of my friends, their work, etc.  He came to school events and photographed the children.  He'd knock on my door at night when I was home and sort through cds and art books.  He brought me albums and tapes and taught me so much about jazz.  When I visited Sweden, I'd bring him small things… I even photographed his boyhood home-- the apple trees and the stream running through his memory.  He was like the father I never experienced.  His love for his own children was boundless and unconditional, and somehow he realized I'd missed out, and generously shared a paternal affection.  I was proud of him.  His choice of wife-- stellar.  More than anything-- his decisive modus operandi-- as though he knew exactly what he thought and wanted and laid it out there.  This is rare.  True honesty and a point of view to go with it.  He attended coop meetings and harshly criticized injustices.  He supported me in my crusades and shared my sorrows without pity.  As a couple, they were the emotional roof over my head upstairs.

As he got older, he was a little more cantankerous-- scolded my friends at my own table, announced he disliked people to their face… knocked on my door and demanded that I cook him Swedish meatballs, bake him cookies-- insisted on eating on my sofa where he left stains and spilled wine.  Whatever was on my stereo, he would take it off and put on either Bud Powell or Art Tatum or his very favorite, Slim Gaillard.  He liked a bit of humor with his jazz.  He loved women, beauty in all forms… and knew how to convey a message with an image.  During the last year, he began to pocket small things from my apartment.  I caught him in the act once, and he responded, without remorse,  'You don't NEED this.  You don't even notice it!'  It was as though he was aware our time was a little foreshortened, and he needed some souvenirs.  He was becoming greedy of moments as the sand ran down in his hourglass.  I, too.

Last week he passed away.  My grief is disproportionate; after all, I am not even a relative.  To their children, with whom I am not nearly as intimate, I can only express sympathy and condolences.  To his wife, who somehow understands my attachment, well.. I will cherish the future hours we can hopefully spend together, sharing ideas, like two women.  She is the maternal role model I never had; the enduring, amazing wife-now-widow.  I will listen and learn what I can, while she is here and generous with her evenings.

Recently an aging fashion designer stopped me on the street and asked for them.  They were quite the 'it' couple in their day, he always assures me, and generally accompanies this with an anecdote or two.  This time, for some reason, he graphically described the palpable chemical attraction one could sense between them in their prime.  For some of us, imagining people in their 80's and 90's as the Rihanna or Brad Pitt of their era-- well, it takes imagination… but I have learned now… such is time.  These waves crashing onshore at this moment, the surfers riding this crest, the shells and animals and fossils that we find in their shallow temporary graves at the water's edge-- will be less than memory in mere minutes.  All our selfies and photos-- well, they are just digital sand.

The images Gus left behind-- both photographic and realtime-- are etched in my memory.  The photographs are fortunately ingrained in the internet and in books; he has left a hefty legacy and will not be forgotten.  It is his persona that has left a mark on me-- the in-your-face direct line to his mind-- his affection, his humor-- his laugh, not to mention his gorgeous physical presence and unique style even into his 90's-- his personal fashion and his pride, and his compassion-- his unequivocal appreciation for whatever I had made, and the example he set as a father, a husband… and a friend.  I grieve for selfish reasons, as one does.  Last night, in tribute… I reached for my Slim Gaillard… and it had vanished.  Dearest Gus.



Monday, July 24, 2017

Noise of Summer

Summer mornings, rather than waking abruptly,  I occasionally slide from sleep into a sort of continuum of awareness.  Maybe it's the open window-- the way muffled night sounds blend into day noise-- a sense of nostalgia in the warm breeze, the birdsong-- but sometimes I forget where I am, what phase of life I am coasting into-- a sort of soft landing… as though I am steering through a dream, and for seconds feel I can time travel.  I often think of my Mom-- she is somewhere between life and death, between awareness and dementia-- and I miss her voice, her quiet singing and those kitchen sounds that are part of all of our personal geography.  During these moments, I can bring her back-- I can bring myself back… I listen for familiar clues, for music.

Most people these days reach for their phone, upon waking-- the way we used to reach for our lover, check the alarm, calculate how we could prolong morning bed-time-- before children, responsibility, reality called us into our day.  For some of my friends, waking brings the hard landing of depression, of regret-- we are no longer who we were, we are no longer lying with our great loves, no longer waiting for our babies and toddlers to jump on us with their laughter and their affection-- our puppies and kittens have aged and passed on.  Here we are with our past-prime selves, reconciling our agenda with
another remembered present… bringing the sounds of the day into focus.

Friday afternoon I went to have my hearing checked.  I am on Obamacare-enforced medicaid, like many of the income-challenged in this city, and while they relentlessly remind us to visit our healthcare facilities, they generally cover very few reasonable remedies.  Reluctantly I agreed to see the audiologist, having abused my ears for a lifetime, played ten thousand loud rock and roll gigs swimming in decibel-rich oceans, weathered a virtual hurricane of guitarists who have heard little above 4,000 Hz since their teenage years.  Many of them nevertheless lay it on for the rest of us, like a thin audio sandwich slathered in ketchup and mayonnaise so the main ingredients are virtually indistinguishable.

Not that I am innocent; volume was definitely my substance of choice, I confess to the ENT specialist who made me earplugs 10 years ago when a European tour left a permanent souvenir in my ears.  I remember how as a young player I'd melt into Marshall stacks and absorb the aural loops and acrobatics of stage audio.  I'd imagine riding a rough massive sound wave which rose and curled and brought me breathless to some new beach of musical denouement... but like all great drugs and unprotected sex-- there's a price and I am paying it.  My Dad survived five years of combat with some wounds and scars; his hearing loss was low on the macho-hero list of complaints; there is no purple heart for inner-ear damage.

In the city, there is a constant subtle roar; some neighborhoods are louder, but few are completely free of this-- motors, traffic, air conditioning, underground sounds, airplanes and helicopters-- the cumulative buzz of voices-- a rush, like wind-- even in the quiet patches.  There is very little silence, and when there is-- in these dead audio moments, I am aware of the rushing in my ears which crescendos to a whistling in the hours after loud gigs.  Yes, I now use my earplugs-- my protective devices which are a little too little, a little too late… but they take the edge off, and they don't really ruin the experience.  Some of my peers lament their hearing loss chronically.  They miss their old acuity and the way music sounded.  For me, I chalk it up-- I'm alive... I can put headphones on at medium-volume and still indulge.  There is perpetual noise in my life.  I ride subways, I walk the streets, I leave my windows open and hear the living sound of urban energy, like a blend of grey-waves.

What surprised me Friday is how little my hearing parameters seemed to have changed, despite the tinnitus.  I can understand speech, and apparently the new normal is significantly less acute than it was years ago.  Look around.  Scarcely anyone in the city is not wearing earbuds or some kind of headphones.  Speak to anyone on the street and they first remove their device.  On subway platforms musicians are playing to a vastly diminished audience; most everyone has their own portable entertainment in their phone.  But the ambient noise level-- when trains pass, especially dual trains-- exceeds most normal phone volumes.  No wonder we are an increasingly deaf culture.

Like the old Luddite I am, still without a cellphone, I am hyper-aware of the constant public phone-use.   Everyone in the street is talking-- earbuds in, microphones on-- looking straight ahead, and having a conversation-- on buses, trains… in elevators, at the gym… everyone is talking at once.  It's loud, as well.   I often wonder if lovers ever have those late night phone-in-the-closet dialogues when they sleep apart-- where listening is the focused activity.  No visual-- nothing but waiting for the voice on the receiver telling you what you want to hear.  It was everything-- the whispering, the confessions… the sound-on-sound intimacy.  We exchanged our first words of love in the dark, this way, so many of us.  It felt important and sexy-- listening.  It was all we had, and we invested in it.  Anyone could pick up another extension and eavesdrop, but it still felt so private and safe.  With all the texting and face timing, I don't think voice-to-voice communication is the same.

The face of the city has changed so drastically.  Many of my friends spend time on sites that post old photos of New York.  They look important and great to us, these images.  What people don't often speak about is how the sounds of the city have changed-- how not just the music has changed-- but how the way we hear music is different.  We are in our own little worlds, listening to our personal downloads-- watching clips, sampling songs-- texting and sharing… but essentially we are solitary. We are missing that version of conversation-- whispering, lying in bed in the morning with the street sounds seeping through windows, the stereo on… looking up at the ceiling, sharing our dreams and plans… inventing dialogue-- a version of love that relied less on visuals and more on what we said and how we said it.

So while I function with a soft roar in my ears-- a whistling and ringing and rushing I can never remove, I realize it is the memory of things I heard that I value more than the actual sound.  Like a painting of the moment-- a cinematic recreation rather than a digital accuracy, or like old photographs where not everything is in sharp focus, but the image is somehow present, and important.  I will take my audio memories any day, vintage as they are, faded and fingerprinted with static and ambience, blurred like dreams and weighted with longing and love; I am still listening.  

Friday, July 14, 2017

Fourth Prize

Independence Day.  241 years after the fact, the meaning changes.  I am wearing a safety pin on my black T-shirt, supposedly symbolic of my sympathy toward all genders, religions, ethnicities… you are safe with me.  Excepting, of course, those that profess bigotry, hatred, prejudice, exclusion… It is still alarming to me to find traitors among my circle of musicians, as though musical talent guarantees some sort of humanistic tolerance and empathy… and doesn't it?  Are you listening, God?

Actually, I often wear a safety pin because my clothes are tattered and torn; my sewing machine was repaired by a Chinese man in a tiny garage filled floor to ceiling with junk who swore technical mastery of my 1970's Swedish brand but failed to honor his promise despite the nine months of service and my additional monthly payments.  I believed in him.  The fact that he scarcely spoke English only made my faith stronger; somehow I make assumptions that immigrants have way more passion and dedication to the American dream than our birth-citizens who seem more likely these days to pledge daily allegiance to the Apple logo and little else.

Walking through Central Park in near-perfect weather, there was an unusual sense of tranquility… the birds were louder than the cars; Mexican and Puerto Rican families barbecuing and sharing… children playing in the grass… tourists headed to Brooklyn for the fireworks later… up here people are enjoying a holiday, trying not to think of politics and patriotic complicity.

I no longer understand America… the meaning, the immigrants giving speeches about liberty and opportunity that no longer 'ring'.   The bells of freedom, like the bells of St. Martin's church, are in need of repair.  We are like a mis-diagnosed country, the victim of our own philosophical health-care emergency.  Not to mention an early-Alzheimer's epidemic, because no one seems to even remember the melodies that are being recycled, scarcely a decade later.  Where are the lessons learned?  They are archived somewhere digital eons before the 'cloud' of recent invention which is bloated beyond galactic proportion with trivial bits of cultural and personal narcissism.

What will future archaeologists find?  Where are our fossils?  The detritus of our own waste-- unrecyclable plastics and packaging-- corpses and buried secrets from the hideous wars and crimes of warped humanity?  Where is our goodness buried?

Recycling is a good thing in the wake of our wasteful ravaging of this planet… but cultural recycling?  Where is our history, our memory?  Man in his heyday invented writing, to record for posterity things that happened, things that were invented-- instructions, testimonies-- memorials.  Most of us know how to read, but we ignore the important documents of history in favor of entertainment and froth.  How many of us have piles of books by our bed and dedicate time to deciphering ideas and digesting text?  We have televisions-- we have phones; we have instagram and Facebook.  Few lessons are learned here.

In our day, we have invented all kinds of things-- we have created chemicals and microbes; we have changed DNA and bred flowers and dogs.  We have diagnosed strange diseases, chronicled epidemics--- and yet we do not have cures.  We build skyscrapers and house thousands of people in a small space; and still, when calamity strikes, we cannot save these people.  We invent weapons of mass destruction… we fight wars of ideas, but we kill and injure; we cannot spare the innocent victims of these weapons.  We do not really know how to solve our global problems.  Are we independent, any of us?  Do we think independently and make our own decisions?  We rely on our technology and do not think for ourselves.  Somehow we have en masse elected as our national leader a man whose ignorance  is impressive and who could barely survive a day without a network of staff making decisions and executing procedure.  It is a flaccid state of affairs…

Rereading the Declaration of Independence which I am motivated to do after pondering the state of our nation this July, I am baffled that many of the original principles seem to be underknown and disrespected by the priorities of the current presidency.  Are we so codependent and selfish that we cannot look around us and prioritize humanity over material and economic gain?  Are we so shallow that we no longer read or remember any historic lessons?  How many Americans can name Beyonce's new twins and cannot identify 90% of the countries on an unlabeled map of Africa?

Of course, we have our phones; we have Google maps and Alexa and Siri.  We do still use our thumbs, but for many of us, we don't retain numbers and names; we don't wrestle with ideas or walk from place to place but take the physical and mental uber.   As far as history is concerned, we seem to welcome remakes of Hollywood movies and epics that succeeded once; someone seems to believe that massive budgets and contemporary celebrity actors will improve on the original, even though these actors' names will disappear from the horizon in a few telescoped years.  The lessons of history are absorbed in the collective Alzheimer's of our society which is so busy streaming and amassing data that it has forgotten its own origins, and sacrificed the independence of its brain, once the shining crown of Man.

We believe in God, so many of us…  but is religion another excuse for laziness? How many of us fall back on tenets and cliches and fail to have faith in our own ability to think with clarity?  We change our bodies and faces, we are obsessed with style, and yet we rarely spend effort to change our minds.  The tragedy of dementia affects us so deeply, yet here we are, daily, failing to protect or invest our most valuable asset.  Think about it… in the fast-fading afterglow of twilight's last gleaming...

Friday, June 30, 2017

Sisters of No Mercy

I've bookmarked on my computer a piece from the New York Times which follows the four Brown sisters via forty years of an annual photographic portrait.  Maybe it's because they are all around my age that I find the slow transformation so riveting.  And here we have just a visual-- a snapshot-- an annual moment... but we infer things-- there are deep emotional changes-- darknesses and distances.  The body language of the girls shifts and alters.  One year they are tightly embracing...  another year they seem isolated.  The dynamics between sisters changes-- the hairstyles, the clothing... what they seem to represent.  We are given so little information and yet so much.  It's like a sad film without a soundtrack... and why is it sad?  It is sad to me.  It is life-- the effects of time which are the only way we can really understand it.  Passages.  One of the women is the photographer's wife.  She seems to be a little more mothery... one or two of the others seem to be going through a more traumatic metamorphosis-- maybe a gender or sexual identity thing.. who knows?  But I keep speculating... observing.

Maybe it is because I'm so estranged from my own sister that this fascinates me.  I mean-- I have so many close girlfriends who feel like my family-- a kind of girl-intimacy I've always enjoyed since I was small and shared bunks and cabins at camps and schools.  But the sister thing-- the genetic similarity, the familial DNA blood-bind... to have lost this is tragic in a way, although so often necessary.  I would say I am more the victim than the perpetrator of familial betrayals and they hurt, even though we do without and go on and have a rich life in spite.  My son, on the other hand-- I can't imagine anything coming between us.  My sister-- there was a sort of underlying competitive schadenfreude I became aware of only in middle age.  It seemed so contrary to the sort of thing I felt-- wanting to make things and give things to my sister.. loving her children, sharing their joys and sorrows... it was shocking and terrible. It was an awakening and a lesson.  I moved on.  I tried to learn to share my affections where they are at least respected if not reciprocated.

There is a small human drama I have been observing now for two or three years.  A girl I used to pass in Harlem, with her pimp, or her dealer...  pretty, white-- mid-20's-- out of place in the crowd she hung with on corners late-nights: people smoking weed, slapping one another, playing loud music-- a local party and social 'club' for some.. for others, opportunities to exchange things, make some deals, etc.  More recently I began to see her on her own, walking quickly like a dog with a scent-- underdressed in winter-- disheveled and nervous... or walking slowly and without linear sense because she is high and distracted.  The last few months I see her outside crack houses and project yards-- begging, pleading.  The hood boys have a way of ignoring these girls.  They are blocked.  But I have observed that each Friday her sister comes uptown, hunts her down-- hands her an envelope-- maybe cash, maybe some disability check she receives for her.  I watch the sister and her boyfriend.  She used to buy her a sandwich or some food-- sometimes they'd eat somewhere.. and then the sister took off, back downtown-- sometimes looking backward, with teary eyes... sometimes just looking down.   Lately there is only a cursory hug-- the using sister is emaciated and her face is marked with sores and infections.  Her arms and legs are covered with needle punctures gone bad, track marks and other scars.   I am obsessed with this story-- what I infer-- the enabling, the attempts at rehab, the kidnapping, the betrayals; I know well the path of addiction with and without intervention-- the rocky  stumble downroad and the pain of loved ones watching as though through a television screen-- unable to prevent, unable to touch.

My own sister and I were reasonably close; of course, you are thrown together-- share bedrooms and toys... but as the younger, I always assumed too much-- that I would have a protector, a team-mate, a
sympathizer.  I was fiercely loyal and covered for her, took some parental hits.  At a certain point, her life became unmanageable and she just walked out of her old self the way moulting snakes slither away from their skins.  I can scarcely remember her scent-- maybe her acne preparation she wore at night-- I even thought bad skin was cool, craved it back then-- although I hated the smell of the gunk she used.  Shalimar, by day.  Years later, in my 30's, I reached out one night--- my second marriage was deteriorating and I was hitting a wall.  You go back to childhood for clues... No, she said, I never think about that.  A slammed door.

I have always been a girls'-girl... I have tons of great women friends who are my family, who have my back... my acquired sisters-- even my beloved cousin, who shares my heart... we are honest and intimate.  My sister is not only lost to me forever, but she has re-invented a story in which she is the true heroine-- the good girl, the one who inherits the birthright,  like a twisted version of the Biblical tale where the hairy brother shaves his arms and pretends.   When I see this sister in Harlem-- taking the difficult trip uptown -- I know I would have done this... I do this, for my 'other' sisters, for the women in my life who need uplifting or assistance or even a nurse.  The word itself... the way it is used for nuns-- yes, it is a privilege, a title-- a sacred thing... not a mere juxtaposition of birth and DNA.

Looking at the Brown sisters-- their subtle movements and frozen gestures, their metamorphosis and transformation from girls into women-- from strong into vulnerable,  mature, complex beings.. like a painting which evolves... which deepens and completes.... I still feel a kind of sorrow and maybe envy.  This tableau of intimacy and womanhood, of genetic similarity and connection-- it fascinates and evades me.   I am missing this, despite all of my wonderful and fulfilling friendships-- old and young--- I am somehow a failed sister, an orphan of sorts, a disconnected twin.  It is loss, in life, that makes us realize what we have had; I have learned this, and maybe this is the lesson of my family.  I have tried-- once or twice-- at my father's funeral, for example, which was a 'show' run by my sister-- I have tried to sense the missing in her.  But it is not there.  I do not recognize the woman she is; I do not feel her or know her.  Not for a second was there the smallest opening, the millimeter of Achilles heel.

No one in my original birth family is quite like me.  They resent and despise my honesty and truthfulness.  They fear it, in a way.  I suppose this is a kind of power I do not fully appreciate.  I write, I confide, I disclose to my friends, I absorb their vulnerabilities and never betray.  Never.  The younger-- my son, even my niece, although I should not betray her-- they sense and love me.  But familial estrangement is in itself a kind of betrayal.   Among four sisters there is room for relationships to wax and wane.  But between two sisters-- it is like a marriage that either thrives or ends in divorce.  There was so much at stake, for her.  She had to be the winner, and I am glad, in a sense, to have conceded that.  If only that had made her feel complete.   My poor father went to his grave misunderstanding me (this was important to her), and I forgive him.  My success as a human has little to do with his version.  I was valuable to my sister as long as I gave and donated, have come to terms with the harsh reality of this.  In our fictional moving portraits over 40 years, there would have been so little touching, so little revealed-- just the aging, and in her eyes, the desperation and subtle anger-- the determination and the deception.  Here I am, I am what I told you I was.  As for me, my eyes would be watery, despite everything I know... I am breakable and here I am-- anyone's sister, trapped in a loveless photograph without a birthright, wearing last year's sweater.  I am what I have done, what I have left behind, the love I have had, the love I've been given, the failures, the betrayal:  I do not love being photographed but I no longer mind if you look at me.  I stand alone.




Friday, June 16, 2017

The Fire Next Time

Living in a city we are accompanied, it seems, by sirens.  There is not an hour that passes when some police or firetruck is not racing to some emergency call, followed too often by an ambulance or EMT vehicle.  If you are a parent-- no matter how old your children are-- this is your first association.  You worry, you pray.  People who have lived in cities during wartime have a deeper relationship with sirens.  After 9/11, we in New York city will never be the same.  For some, a siren may be comforting-- the sound of rescue.  For me, it is like a nerve which wakes.  If you have ever been involved in a fire, you understand its destructive power... the damage, the pain, the devastation... is beyond comprehension.  If you have ever been burned-- or cared for someone who was burned-- the process of treatment and healing, if this is even possible, begins at a threshold of pain most of us cannot imagine... and it escalates from there.  It gives war a new meaning.  And the prospect of nuclear war-- the threat-- seems like a hideous anomaly of humanity and an intellectual distortion of the 'program' of mankind.

The London fire this week brought this horror into graphic consciousness.  Our 20th-century symbols of urban progress-- skyscrapers-- can become dangerous traps of mass destruction, as we have learned.  Personally, I like living where I can climb down a fire escape somewhere... the luxury of a view is something I can bypass and something I will not again afford in this lifetime.  But the projects-- every city has its council flats, low income housing.  You get what you pay for; people accept their assignation.  Some are fortunate and live in great Manhattan neighborhoods with river views which cost them nothing.  I used to envy kids in the projects when I was little-- they had a common playground, a sort of small gated community; everyone seemed to know everyone.  They barbecued, they played radios and boomboxes.  Fathers came home and sat on benches in the summer; kids ran under sprinklers, their grandmas knitted and crocheted and gossiped after dinner.  But these come with a price.  The families have very little voice; if there is one bad egg the kids are a little unprotected.  Things happen, the police treat these communities with tough vigilance and less sympathy.  The maintenance is often sloppy and utilities are under-serviced.  The city or state can be an unresponsive landlord.  These people don't always complain or have the resources to know how to complain.

A friend of mine just confessed he is facing the horrifying prospect of losing his teeth.  How many times, recently, have I run into a musician or any one of my bohemian friends who lives below the economic horizon (most of us!) and lacked the means and medical support to take care of this?  Clinics won't repair beyond the minimum.  They extract.  You are poor-- what does it matter?  I worked at an East Harlem clinic one summer and found the dentist pulled children's permanent teeth because he claimed none of them will follow up a root canal; once their pain is gone, they are gone.  It seemed cruel.  I also saw 10-year-old kids with teeth rotting from sweets and lack of care.  Many of them were illegal immigrants and terrified they would be reported if they saw a doctor or dentist.  So they waited.

The point is, decent medicine has become an economic privilege.  It's not Obamacare, it's the damned insurance companies-- the drugs, the ads, the money.  It's a horrid business and corners are cut everywhere.  People are massively rich from this business; system abuses are everywhere and poor people must accept what they get which is substandard. My friend died of cancer, with maybe standard treatment but such minimal palliative care and very little sympathy from the system.  She had no voice, no lawyers to get her missing family millions of dollars from Johnson and Johnson, no experience or ability or even strength to complain.  As her advocate, it was an exhausting and losing struggle.  We had no access to new, experimental and less cruel treatments.  She suffered and died in agony.

Good countries like Sweden house their lower and middle classes with respect and dignity.  These people are cared for with socialized medicine-- just like their richer neighbors. There are jobs for people; there are resources and people are happy and do not seem bitter and angry.  In cities like New York and London-- the populations are huge and growing.  The gap between rich and poor has become so wide, most of us have fallen in.  Business opportunities are abundant in a city, but poor people are poor consumers.  I haven't bought myself a new anything in so long, I wouldn't know what to do with an extra $100.  I scrimp and save, glean cheap staples from weekly sales, walk among the poor.  I do not get food stamps.  I qualify, but I have issues here. I am a survivor.  I live in a coop I managed to purchase many years ago when this was possible.  No building now would ever allow me to rent or buy.  My income is meager.  I am far below poverty level and yet I survive because I have a brain.  It is incredibly high maintenance to navigate New York on $20 a week but I manage and I continue to chip away at my goals and my work.  I feel privileged. I am no longer a mother and can subsist on rice and coffee without kids complaining.  God help me if my brain goes.  I will become a statistic.

People with large families who struggle do not have the time or energy to deal with so many things.  They forget, they postpone.  Daily urgencies take priority.  Some people forget to put batteries in their  smoke alarms.  The people in Tribeca last week who succumbed to carbon monoxide-- what was their economic profile?  But poor people in projects tend to be treated as children.  They are cared for and managed by the state.  It is all they can do to feed their families and get a little sleep.  They have little control over maintenance and options.  They are victims of the system, and when something goes wrong, they are victims of someone else's poor decision.

Bernie Sanders was shut down.  The business of medicine in the US is so vast I doubt anyone will ever blow it apart.  The epidemic of greed is way larger and way more hideous than the plagues of medieval times.  Illnesses are an income opportunity.  Vaccines are sold in the millions; our television is constantly advertising new costly drugs... they are buzzwords in our children's ears... and months later it is the TV legal teams soliciting users of these drugs for lawsuits.  We are lab rats, we are victims.   As long as the medical professionals follow proscribed 'protocol' however absurd and useless it seems, they cannot be sued.  This is the benchmark of medicine in a country where insurance premiums make private practice nearly impossible for medical students who dream of saving people with good preventive care.  So they prescribe, follow the system.  Even when they know better.  They look the other way.  They need to pay their exorbitant rent.   Their patients are for the most part obedient and become dependent.   Especially the poor whom we see sitting patiently in their medicaid-provided wheelchairs, waiting for buses with reduced-fare passes and piles of medicaid scripts and food stamps which allow them to buy masses of groceries which are not necessarily nutritionally sound, but which allow the supermarkets to sell quantities of product at uber-retail.  They offer their benefit card; they do not price-check.  It is not their fault.  They are under-informed.  Some of them voted for Trump because they do not read real news and nothing seems to change their life anyway.  They live in the moment.  They have food and go home and watch television.  They watch on their phones.

I can't even wrap my brain around this government.  What I do see is that people not only have a constitutional right to be free, to voice their opinions without fear-- but also to safety, to health care-- the same care for everyone.  The same engineering and building standards for everyone.   All lives matter.  Not just rich, celebrity lives but every single one of us.  The London fire called attention to this... and for a week or so, we urban people may consider these things... but then most of us will go on and binge watch our shows, and shop, and complain on Facebook, as we do.

Here I am, the aging lefty liberal, on my tiny digital soapbox offering very little.  But at least I am thinking...  and I walk around the city without a phone.  I look at things and talk to people-- not just my peers and artist and musician friends, but regular people.  Everywhere I see and hear things that upset me-- red flags, injustices, infractions.  If you see something, say something, the subways warn us.  Well, there is a human application of this as well.  Not the shysters and crooks who want your money on the streets, but the hundreds of thousands of good, hardworking victims of the system who maybe need a friend or some help.  One at a time, we can do something, all of us.  Put down your phone and look around.  Some things are inevitable.  But there is right and there is wrong.  There is daily tragedy; but maybe some can be prevented.  At least one life might feel 'mattered'... otherwise we are all victims of this regime of the monied, vassals of the Wall Street culture and the perversion of capitalism.  We can be creative... we can think, we can reach out and speak out, we can revive the concept of personal heroism-- love our less privileged neighbors and remember what it meant to be a real citizen in a free country.  Amen.