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.