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.