Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Lady and the Tramp

I maintain my own private version of 'New Yorker of the Week' awards.  The designees get no public accolade or acknowledgment... just a silent heads-up from me...  some spare change occasionally, because most of my heroes are either under- or unpaid for their courage and humanity... but since I am a member of the economic underprivileged, I hesitate to insult them with my pathetic donations and instead offer a kind of prayer on their behalf... or literary-underground immortality in one of the poems I scatter like autumn leaves find their way to obscurity-- or maybe to some school-child's fall art-project where they will be briefly loved.  I can't help myself.

Last week's winner was a homeless man, sleeping temporarily on the steps of a church on Varick Street.  I would not have noticed him; it was late, it was beginning to rain…and the staggering numbers of men spending nights on the streets in the last few years has inured us all to the sidewalk population.  They seem to have food; their daily panhandling income, they tell me, averages somewhere between $50 and $150-- more than most real musicians I know earn for a gig.  They stay out of the shelters where their egos are filed and shaved down to a brand of humility that is more lethal than an overdose.  These places are dirty and dangerous.  Despite the rules and regulations,  possessions are not protected and sleepers are subject to violent attacks from other occupants who refuse to take their meds and experience psychotic and hostile episodes.

My man had risen around midnight-- relative calm on the streets-- to relieve himself… because as we all know, there are no public restrooms in the city after dark.  The homeless visit and even bathe in Grand Central, Port Authority, the various library branches, MacDonald's, those Starbucks stores which are kind enough to share their restroom combinations.  But at night-- well, even the parks are curfewed.  We have well-enforced dog-waste laws, but my son tells me in Soho and Tribeca there is so much human shit on the streets these days that business owners have had community meetings about this.  One store recently built an outdoor boxlike structure for advertisements and artistic displays.  Every day they had to shovel out the excrement and hose the receptacle down with disinfectant until they just gave up on the whole campaign.  Coming home at 2 and 3 AM, I have many times seen men defecating at either end of the subway platforms.

So my man squatted quietly at the edge of the steps,  and with his head bowed, stood carefully to clean himself with the pages of an old paperback novel.  I resisted the urge to see the title… but some passing young couples who witnessed his naked butt in the lamplight shadow-- well, they gasped and sniggered and pointed.  The thing was-- he was tall-- like a basketball player… and his sinewy legs and butt were so perfect and beautiful, and the grace of his rising, and even the way he pulled up his layered pants and fixed his clothing-- well, it took my breath away.  The sheer aesthetic reality of this man, trying to avoid falling into the cracks of the shelter treadmill, the humiliation and the consideration with which he waited until dark, until the traffic was moving, how he tried to avoid spectators… how his little pile of possessions was so neatly wrapped.  He was not that far from being a boy; I could imagine his mother, who loved him, or maybe failed to love him and care for him… the women he could have had, in another version of the story… an athlete-- a star… it broke my heart.

I got on the train, feeling helpless and almost guilty because I have a place to go back to-- a place to sleep and take a hot shower, where my books and my instruments, God-willing, are relatively safe and sheltered enough so I can leave them and go about my work.  Another disgraceful story on the discarded tabloids on the subway floor, with our orange-skinned Lego-President spouting more of his anti-humanitarian rhetoric.  He in his gilded rooms on Fifth Avenue, security alone costing more than the annual food budget of a small country… with his umpteen bathrooms and his tanning beds and hair-magicians… he couldn't survive a week in the wilderness.

Why is it we all pick up after our dogs-- we pamper and love them.. and have little compassion to adopt stray people… are disgusted and uncomfortable about their natural needs? Hunger is a force here… disparity is baffling, and for these fallen souls-- getting back onto the track is near-impossible in a city where so many of us are barely holding onto our homes, finding ourselves with a lower standard of living than we could ever have imagined.  I think of all those legends and fairy tales where the kings traded places with the paupers-- how it changed their worldview… what happened to this?  We are all counting our money here… me, and some of these homeless--- counting the change in our pockets to see if we can buy a slice or a coffee… and the Wall Streeters assessing the daily fluctuations in their portfolios-- pushing a button and making more money in a single trade than most of us will see in a lifetime… and they are happy to lend you credit, your friendly banker who pays you no interest-- for a mere 25-30%.  They bet on your failure to repay and they win big.

It makes no sense.  My version of this week's fairy tale has the winning Mega Millions ticket belonging to my man of Varick Street… although things don't work this way.  I do know the affliction of extreme poverty and homelessness is epidemic and chronic.  It leaves scars and residual symptoms for even those lucky few who manage some kind of recovery.  But most don't.  No sociologist or journalist or researcher into the phenomenon quite understands what it is like to be homeless and needy in a city like this, where you are chased from doorways and sidewalks of buildings filled with tenants paying $10,000  month for a few rooms… Lady, a local man begged me-- Can you let me in the gate?  He wanted to sleep in our trash alley where he will be locked safely against attack and theft.  I was reprimanded by my Coop Board for this nominal act of compassion in a neighborhood where a bakery now charges $10 for a doughnut and coffee.  Personally, I haven't bought myself a cup for years now.  Things are tight.  There but for fortune…. but that's another tale.

Today I remembered how my Mom once dressed me up as a 'tramp' on Halloween… at the time I had no clue what that meant, but I wore an old beat-up suit jacket and a bent hat and she smeared my face with coal like dirt.  I had a scarf-sack on a stick over my shoulder.  Everyone laughed and filled my sack with candy.  A man on the block told me about 'hobo' life; it seemed romantic.  I dreamed of runaway trains, of wandering, of campfires and hitchhiking…

Today I dream of a lottery for the poor-- where the billion dollar ticket gets divided among the homeless deprived angels of the street-- What was that old TV show… the Millionaire? The 21st century New York City update… that would be a reality show worth watching…  (to be continued…)


Tuesday, October 16, 2018

America the Reality Show

At some point during the summer, one of my friends asked me to blog for her while she went on vacation.  Apparently she is a paid 'tweeter' or commentator in various livestreams and publications for television, and apparently it is lucrative enough to allow her to have a holiday.  The catch? I had to binge-watch several shows so I could quip with credibility.

So the first assignment, and my 'audition', was The Bachelorette... regular network, fairly appalling, required reviewing a previous season of The Bachelor to get the backstory on the heroine who had been pretty well re-styled and made-over during the year, was admittedly all-American nice and gorgeous in a high-maintenance way, but likable.  I couldn't help inserting opinions on the pretty good-sized pool of racial diversity even though most of America knew she'd never cross-breed.  But what we were not prepared for was her choice of sub-par intellect, not to mention his bigoted, homophobic and misogynistic tendencies.  Is this the New America, the one that makes Kanye do the Presidential dance? My comments were disallowed.  Politics nixed.  Lovelier thoughts, my friend encouraged-- Keep it light... The only positive I could come up with was about her not-quite-as-attractive real-life (presumably) sister who was truly wife-worthy, loving and supportive, but this was not valid currency.

Next task: I binge-watched two entire seasons of Real Housewives of New York.  At least I could GPS locations... and one of my girlfriends had actually worked on some charity with Carole Radziwill... so I focused in on her.  At first she seemed relatively intelligent and independent-- dating a young chef, leading a life... but I watched her morph from a respectable, carefree woman into a botoxed, desperate fashion-hag-- a true mean-girl whose trajectory took her from top to bottom of the lady-heap.  Her clothing became ridiculous, her snide comments bitter and nasty, her constant style changes rivaled the Kardashians.  What could she have been thinking?  The reality show kiss-of-death for some who seem to compete with the kind of fierceness that eclipses character.  I sided with Bethenny-the-bitch whose real life tragedies won her the sympathy vote, and Carole fell both from grace and cast.  Good riddance... still no payment for all my television efforts, and an inability to separate Carole from my own real-life-nasty sister.

Oh, the fame-whores and phonies, the no-talent celebrities, the ass-kissing extras and free publicity opportunities.  Who are these women?  No one I would want to hang out with, except maybe Luanne-the-convict-version whose cabaret performance was entertaining in a horrific kind of way.  Some of my best friends have been in prison, rehab, various institutions...  almost relatable... but for the most part,  an entire mockery of my New York.  About as real as cartoon-Disneyworld, but not quite Thanksgiving float-worthy... Needless to say, my comments were undervalued.

But I'd been summer-bitten by the TV reality-bug.. and poor as I am, there were few evening options to distract me from the heat besides gigs.  I moved onto My 600-pound Life which is truly reality-worthy and eye-opening.  We in New York City rarely see this sector of population who are compensating for deep emotional wounds with food and essentially no more bloated than our local urban billionaires, just more honest.  Personally, I cannot fathom how they pay for all these meals; I can hardly afford restaurant or prepared food.  What I do know is the sin of gluttony seems far less heinous than the wanton greed of the 21st century corporate culture.  These people wear their weakness;  the Wall Streeters have personal trainers and plastic surgeons to keep them lean and mean while their investments balloon in 1200-ton portfolios.

Maybe the real reality show now is America... the Celebrity-Apprentice Presidential Candidate himself, with Kanye this week migrating from the Kardashian set to the Oval Office stage... flubbed his lines and embarrassed his audience but no apologies from the Trumpsters.  Protocol, ethics, intelligence, logic, respect-- all bets are off, all clarity is blurred and justice itself is on mock-trial.  Journalists and quipsters are hyper-provoked... pundits are ubiquitous and political cartoonists  hemorraghing material.  Endless dialogue and competitive commentary-- verbal bullying and misstatements are considerably more common than truth; little is unscripted except the pathetic presidential tweets...  and let's face it-- the viewer population is way more familiar with Bravo 'anti-stars' than political candidates.

In the end, I failed miserably as a TV tweeter... earned not even subway fare for all my viewing efforts, and feel a bit slimed, as though I skinny-dipped in contaminated surf.  If rap is the new poetry, 60 is the new 40, American politics is surely the new comedy... and I'm not sure where I belong.  It's like I'm looking at a chessboard with Monopoly game pieces.   Things are rigged and backward and ruined and even the weather for all our technology is less predictable than ever.   Everyone is a follower and no one is a clear leader.  I am betting that more people trick or treat than vote; however we celebrate Halloween, there seems nothing more horrifying than the Apprentice-president in the White House and his ghoulish team of clown-hearts with their golf-bags of tricks.
There are real tragedies, real victims of real disasters, real catastrophes and suffering.  Not reality shows but world events... not television entertainment but life.  May the better man, for God's sake, win.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Not Losing My Accent

Shortly after 9/11, in the storm of teenage hell, I wrote a novel.  I was aware that the city was morphing around me;  kids were bumping their heads not only on playroom ceilings, but on the new restrictions and security procedures that changed New York like a kind of bad facelift.  The short chapters captured a certain moment of LES nostalgia that was becoming fragile.  I got an immediate offer from a successful film producer… Get yourself an agent, he said-- I want this script.

So I got myself an agent.  She was experienced and reputable and famous; she loved the idea, the narrator, the project… but wanted me to develop the literary property before I sold it out.  Week after week, chapter after chapter.  At a certain moment, she called me.  I am worried, she said.  This is a compelling story (it was semi-autobiographical-- a single-Mom musician returning to the city from the UK, struggling to maintain her identity in the club-culture)… but the narrator is a teenage girl (true).  It straddles two categories, she observed.  I am very uncomfortable when things straddle two categories.  We are going to have to pick sides.

What? I said to myself and to her… It's a book… It's going to be a film… It's a story… What do you mean? But she was adamant.  Her industry, she explained, needs to know whether this is an adult or a young-adult product.  We need to know our market.  I looked on with horror as her editors deleted and chopped everything that was vaguely X or R-rated… down to PG and NPG and NFS and PDA… having decided the narrator's age was going to 'brand'.

The end product was a little like a deflated guitar.  It lost its bite, its charm, its soul.  I abandoned the dream of indie-film success and went back to songwriting and starving.  Teenage Hell.  Unsaleable poetry-- even the word terrifies agents-- especially mine.  Besides foundation grants and literary prizes which are generally doled out to those who already have lucrative teaching jobs and plenty of support, poetry is a non-existent economic entity.  Excluding Kardashian-quotes and viral facebook-memes, that is.

Two weeks ago on Primary Day, my best friend assumed I was voting for Cynthia Nixon.  In principle, I find her appealing… but the phrase my agent used appeared in the 8-ball window of my mind's eye like a word-flag.   Somehow I couldn't reconcile her political candidate-persona with the Sex in the City lawyer-image.  I wasn't sure which one was running-- my bad, I know… but she straddled two categories in my head, and I couldn't check the box.

Saturday night my blues band played a midtown club.  Ticket prices for a couple exceed what musicians like me receive for a usual gig.  We keep alive the traditions and music of Junior Wells, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Little Walter.  This was folk music-- of and for the people... juke-joint stuff, dive-bar fare.  We used to play small clubs on the lower east side for no cover charge.  Many of the original bluesmen sat in with us and gave us their nod.  I did my first gigs with Charles Otis... Bill Dicey... men that are long gone, but lived the poor-man's life.  We played for tips, mostly.  Occasionally real rock stars would stop by and want to sit in-- it reminded them of why they began to play.

I got home Saturday night to a slew of messages and apologies-- people who wanted to come-- some of them actually showed up-- but they couldn't afford the cover.  I happened to notice the only black person in the room was a friend of mine who works for a bank.  So what categories were we straddling?  Me, the artist-- I received a meal I could never afford to buy from a venue I could never afford to enter.  These days I'm lucky to manage subway fare home.  Not complaining-- just finding the irony here.

Outside of Fine Fare on upper Lenox around midnight is a man in a wheelchair who straddles categories.  He's partially blind and missing his legs.  He has a voice, though, and a good brain.  He is not afraid to ask for what he needs, and while I rarely have enough to buy him a sandwich, just bread is no good.  I have my food stamps card and am happy to get him an instant soup container which is allowable.  How he will get the boiling water is another issue, but we both know hot food is not a card option; it straddles another category.

Ironically, someone at my show had bought a Kindle copy of my old novel which was posted in some edited version by an eager friend who passed away before she had the chance to shop what she loved of the manuscript.  It now belongs to another generation of nostalgia; after all, the current culture seems to revere everything that reminds them of the disappearing East Village culture.  The old leather jackets and thrift-shop clothing have been canonized and relics of squatters and street pioneers and poets are behind glass in museums.

The literary commercial phenomena of the 2000's turned out to be the category-straddlers--- Twilight, Hunger Games, etc....  I've since learned that the tiny group of my book-readers are mostly adults-- men, even-- who loved the content and related to the teenage narrator who is the voice, not the author.  Was that not the point? I'm  sure my agent never ate her words, and I suspect she was glad to relieve herself of a badly-dressed client who spent more time in dive bars than she would have liked.  My novel is somewhat water under the bridge-- or is it?  I have crossed new boundaries of time and age, and straddle more categories than I ever imagined.  Cynthia Nixon lost the primary by a virtual landslide, but she still has plenty of money in the bank from her TV lawyer-role.  Maybe she should have changed her last name.  Personally, I am guilty or innocent as charged... I cannot and will not be other than who or what I am, categorically.


Saturday, September 8, 2018

#Chasing-the-Dollar

I had kind of a shitty day today.  Maybe it's just the September back-to-school seasonal dread... it persists well into adulthood where you are forced to acknowledge that mixed in with the old fall apprehension was a sprinkling of anticipation-- new people, new challenges, new teachers, new tasks.  Hope, I think it was called...  a little excitement-- an opportunity to use your new pens and notebooks-- a clean slate-- resolutions... and somehow always some new boy in your class you'd never noticed who gives you extra motivation to wear your new fall wardrobe.

At this point in my life, I've given up Halloween.  The natural indignities of aging are a sufficiently terrifying disguise; if I don't have a gig I quietly avoid my apartment-- leave the candy bowl by the door.  While I do enjoy seeing children in costumes wandering the streets,  I don't really need to supply my rich neighbors' kids with goods they're forced to discard or donate.  Let the homeless eat cake and sweets: God's Love We Trick-or-Treat.

I divide my girlfriends into two groups these days: the go-getters who travel and eat out and socialize and jump around at the gym... and the ones who isolate and sit home passively waiting for old age to seep in like slow-rising floodwater.  The former group-- they go to meet-ups and class reunions because they have never been thinner, or richer, or more (or less) single; they wear make-up to the grocery store and subscribe to dating sites.  The latter have stopped trying to look seductive; many of them were formerly beautiful and have nothing to prove.  They had some richness in their life (or not) and no longer want to advertise.  Both groups have used or use drugs-- recreational or prescription-- Group 2 with limited benefits.

One thing they have in common with my male friends seems to be Facebook.  Group 1 posts meals and travel-logs and happy group-shots of family and friends celebrating.  They use emojis and abuse exclamation points. The latter group members comment and 'like' passively;  they look forward all week to Throwback Thursdays,  spend way too much time on the Manhattan-Before-1990's page, and observe all new deaths with personal mourning posts.  For the Goth sympathizers, the Plath-ites and Genet-lovers, grief is a comfort zone.  We are in our shadow-years... and yet all of us are shocked by deaths among our peers.  There is an epidemic of disease-chronicles, treatment logs and Go-Fund-Mes because baby boomers often failed to heed the ubiquitous and ancient warning that youth is not forever.  Many abused their bodies and failed to squirrel away money for a rainy sick day.  So they post... they confess... they cry publicly... and we look and sympathize and occasionally help.

Both groups are political pundits and animal aficionados, chronic chronologists and nostalgia nurds.  Within categories they find sympathizers and like-minds; they join pages and compare breeds, refer and recommend books, art and music. And they lie.  The first group maybe more than the second-- they lie to themselves and they lie to us.  They photoshop and post old pictures as new; they 'like' things they don't like, out of reciprocal courtesy.  Some of them post happy pictures of themselves with children who have not spoken to them in years.  They pass away-- some from sudden accidents or medical anomalies, some from chronic disease they did not disclose, some from the illness described in great detail in posts-- and some-- just suddenly-- suicide, hours after a non-loaded comment or observation, a wonderful meal-- an event.  Their friends are horrified-- that is, their Facebook friends.  Their real friends-- well, where were they?  Watching their page as though it was life, failing to read between lines (i.e., posts)...  and how much time is left, after our social media binges... to listen to friends, to reach out?

Part of what disturbed me today is the fact that despite all the public presence we have, there is a huge lack of truth-telling and genuine, soul-to-soul communication.  I was horrified by a friend's failure to disclose things which are very pertinent and shocking, in a way.  And I was provoked into providing an opinion by a couple who visited me-- throwing out queries and remarks, and expecting facebook-style comments rather than a conclusive, solid discussion.  I let them have it, my dose of reality... and I suspect I will not see them again soon.  Do I feel badly?  I do.

One trend that bothers me is the exchange of money on facebook-- the Go-Fund-Mes, the campaigns and gifts-- the charity birthday apps which are admirable... but how many of us pledge before a cyber audience, to emoji  accolades, and fail to 'see' our unfortunate neighbors and homeless who lack the organization to even ask... or who ask and ask and are chained to the poverty treadmill of hopelessness?

Today on the way to my afternoon job, a dollar bill literally floated by my head in a small wind, like a cartoon. I ran after it; like a playful child or a bird, it would land and then take-off again, flapping and cartwheeling in the cool air current.  I persisted, to the entertainment of pedestrians until I captured it under my shoe.  I waved it in the air... no takers... well, I guess I'd earned it.  Not my dollar, I wanted to announce... Not my president-- 'Not the planet I signed up for', my bandmate says at least five times daily.  But I pocketed it anyway, knowing-- not unlike the moments and events on our timeline, it would be spent and re-spent... given away or received... valued and appreciated or misused and wasted... but would not remain for long.    



Friday, August 31, 2018

All the rest have 31.....

The cusp of August is the cruelest of all... after all those days of long, lingering heat and humidity-- of pink sunsets and procrastinations... September is staring me in the face like a damned balance sheet.  It's been a year now that my Mom is gone;  I stood over her grave last week-- listened for her shadow... praying that old family feuds would allow my stonecutter's dream to mark her peace... I sang her little song ... If ever I would leave you...it wouldn't be in summer... but it was.

The year I was born saw the hottest streak of the century.  We toughed it out in those pre-air-conditioned days at the beach at Belle Harbor, or the city river boardwalks... I swear I remember the heat of my stuffed crib-reindeer, his wilted felt lashes fluttering in the fan-wind, the buzz of flies and mosquitoes outside the apartment screens whining to come in and sample the sweet room-babies... Perry Como on the radio...  It set a bar for high temperatures; I've never really minded the heat since then-- well, maybe one year, with a cast on my leg, I struggled through, sitting under the apple tree, distracted by my new discovery of language and books; my mother made frozen lemonade and taught me to sing Que sera, sera...

In 1969 I spent the month in Mexico where it seemed a daily rainstorm relieved baking afternoons, and neighborhood boys brought guitars and played 'Yo sin ti'  over and over.  We hitchhiked to the city where I locked myself in a record-store booth with 'Tommy' and realized how homesick I was for rock and roll.  See Me... Feel Me... it was like a shiver.

Another summer I danced at a festival-- eight grueling hours of practice and technique in hot studios and gymnasiums..  I'd lean on the sill of my tiny Connecticut room at 2 AM and hear the same loon moaning.  Weekends I rode bone-tired on the back of a vintage BMW motorcycle between New London and the city, clinging to the hot leather back of a budding rock-God, hearing the young Van Morrison in my head and watching the road for a Dairy Queen.

A few years later, I had the first taste of The Dark Side of the Moon sitting outside a hunting lodge in the hills of Northern Italy with a bunch of British hippies and piles of drugs... thinking through a fog of smoke and Valpolicella how the word august meant celebrated and auspicious from the Latin... we were high and dry and often naked and the world spread beneath us like a vineyard... the days baked on, Money was a song... it seemed the summer never ended until one day we woke up happily back in our dormitory.

Lately the summer funerals have draped the dog days with mourning.  On 103rd Street there is a new shrine to another young neighborhood casualty.  Papi, the messages spell out in tears.. rows and rows of candle-glasses and stuffed animals for Di-Quai who was just 19.  This, too, shall pass.  Already in the 104th-Street playground there is a barbecue with yellow balloons.  Someone has brought a light... the boombox blasts No Tears Left to Cry and then Diamonds by the Boatload... they are done with Aretha-- that was last week's old-school.   And Saturday's perfect cupcake-top moon... the iced vanilla round,  pearl of my heart...   is now a lemon slice in the sky to these sun-baked eyes tonight.

No matter how rough it gets, we gonna go 31 this month.  It seems unfair that they are unequal, that September 'hath' 30,  and February we all pay for an extra two days of cable we don't get.  But August... it held out its hot breath until Aretha, John McCain, Di Quai and a host of others realized they would not see the changing of the leaves.  Where do they go, I wonder... sitting by my mother's burial site with my ear to the ground, feeling the afternoon warmth in the grass, trying to fight the terrible urge to dig through the soft earth and see what is left of her-- just once more... like an Edgar Allen Poe poem.  Forgive me, Mom.  For not cremating you, for failing, for your missing epitaph.

On the way back down Madison tonight, I passed that big black hospital; outside, a few men in wheelchairs were taking in the night air, smoking forbidden cigarettes and comparing bandaged legs in various phases of amputation, whistling at the young nurses.  Where are their mothers, wives, children?  I wonder if they miss the old summer songs the way I do.  They don't seem nearly as miserable as some of my neighbors here in the building-- with their renovations and their botox and their summer hair treatments.  My Van Morrison is old and heavy,  Elvis is long gone.... my lovely Mom who mourned Perry Como and Frank Sinatra with true grief barely had a voice when she lay down for the last time.  I wonder who she dreamed of, who she took with her that last trip... I hope Di Quai had time to make a wish.  Happy Birthday, Papi... whenever it will be... 31 candles I've blown out now... I don't know what song you'd like to hear, but I'm sure someone does... For now I'll just whistle like an old train and greet the September morning with courage.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Mama Don't Take My Kodachrome...

When I was a girl, and my Mom moved us to the suburbs so we could grow up like the wholesome girls she'd always wanted to be-- sisters-- with pink and blue sailor dresses and ribbons and a maypole in our backyard, I still swore I could see the city skyline on a clear day.  It was the already-printed backdrop of everything I thought and did-- the buildings-- like a crooked lego profile behind the clouds and the blue sky.  Through my classroom windows--- the massive glass panes of 19th-century schoolhouse walls, above the clanky radiators and below the suspended fluorescent ceiling fixtures like circus equipment threatening to smash us, I daydreamed and listened for the traffic buzz and the sirens, the rumbling of trains and the bus horns.  And it emerged-- like a distant mirage--- my Emerald City where I'd left a tiny heart and a future.

There's a famous photo of Marilyn Monroe at a lunch counter somewhere in Harlem-- maybe by the Meer where I go so often these days.  It dates from around the same time I was sitting in my first grade class looking left toward the outside.  She's eating a hotdog-- nothing more innocent, she is nearly saying, but knowing somehow this too will be sensationalized, sexualized by her male audience.  You can almost put yourself in the scene-- it's so candid and palpable... and so nostalgic... it feels like you-- or me...

One of my early New York City friends in my 20's was a model.  She was more beautiful than even she knew... and she struggled with this, the way models do... because everyone wants them-- to possess them, to date them... but most of the men who claim them are fickle and shallow, or ambitious conquerors; they chew them up and spit them out for the next course.  Anyway, she was marrying a musician-- typical story-- he was tall and narcissistic and she was mad for him.  He was one of those romantic troubadour types who carry a torch for some old love-- or they convince themselves of some such myth, because it suits their tormented-songwriter image.  The night before the wedding, he was drunk and begging me to sleep with him.  Not my thing.. but it didn't feel right or funny or bachelor-party cool.  So cut to the next day-- they were married... and she eventually had babies... and they lived pretty unhappily and mismatched until there was a divorce...  and he drank and cried in his beer at bars to leggy models and dancers, none of whom came anywhere close to his wife who had a brilliant sense of irony and fun... but there it was-- the overlooked bird in the hand.

Anyway, sometime before the unraveling, she had to have her appendix out--  in that huge black hospital overlooking Central Park... and she somehow, against my recommendation, charmed the surgeon into giving her a boob job, which was not nearly as common as it is now.  Yes, models were not super well endowed, and we went up to see her-- the troubadour and I, after a night of surely drying his crocodile tears in someone else's sheets... and there she was, my beautiful friend, with her surgically altered silhouette-- gauze bandages around her chest in that pathetic polka-dot hospital gown, standing by her IV apparatus like a microphone, singing in a whisper 'Happy Birthday Mr. President....'

Well..  I laughed and cried and it was like a box of mean tricks had been opened, and I caught a glimpse of the sad, sad future-- with the city skyline across the park-- no mirage-- and the place where poor dead Marilyn had finished off that hot-dog just yards away in her summer dress with her hair blowing around her... and then another photo came to me-- one of Marilyn and Arthur Miller standing by while she ate her dog on the street somewhere-- everyone staring except he looks away as he often did-- stern and judgmental.  You could read the future in his face-- the turning away,  the sweet desperation of her smile despite the shadow of the death-of-love, which is the prime murder suspect in all suicides.  The Anthony Bourdains, Kate Spades, L'Wren Scotts,  Sylvia Plaths, Marilyns... on and on they go... sad, fragile victims of the turning of the fickle tide.

What is the moral of this little anecdote?  I am recording a Birthday Song--  it is dark and fractured, and I thought of my old friend whom I see little of these days when I look out my window and see what I see; the walls and the present and the future are blocky, but the past-- like those old nostalgic photos-- is now the mirage of skyline, and the dreams of love-- well, they are filmy and blurring like old polaroids we cannot restore.  The surgery--well, it is stock and standard, and love-- well, love... is what it is... sad and distant or urgent and lethal... but it will not be tamed, or explained, and it is mortally dependent-- even if we can't have it, we can see it, or miss it, or watch it drive away down an old road, and wonder late at night whether what we hear is the rumble of trains or thunder, and the rain will come anyway... long after all Birthdays are gone...


Monday, July 30, 2018

Up in Smoke

I'm writing this to the accompaniment of the Spectrum hold-music from the earpiece of my heavy old landline phone-- the only one I own-- waiting once again to try and negotiate a reprieve from excessive charges for inconsistent service and the potential privilege of watching mediocre television on 4000 irrelevant channels I will never explore.  I am reminded of ordering multiple Happy Meals just to get the nineteen-cent toy for the kids which seemed to be exclusive in those innocent pre-internet days; and how can we be horrified by the habits of these TLC-channel reality-show hoarders when our lives are chocked with exponentially massive digital tonnage?  Mall-scaled stacks of unopened TV dinners defrosting in the global-warmed polluted air?  Does this give anyone even a fractional glimpse into the hourly generation of froth-data and marketing congestion? All you binge-texters and iPhone junkies-- no, you are not 800-pound obese and homebound but somehow morbidly bloated with nutritionally unsound brain-feeds.  Is anyone out there?  Back to my yellow lined pad and cheap ballpoint pen.  Does anyone remember Koko the Clown?  Back to the inkwell....?

Friday night I had a midnight show.  We arrived at the bar and I was corralled by an attractive  youngish woman who in blunt verbal and body-cues let me know she wanted to hook up.  Yes, she was drunk... and if she'd been a man, I would have freely given her the fuck-off response... so I began to wonder, with the #MeToo history we older women have navigated, why I would give my own sex a free pass.  I do not find the aggressive come-on appealing-- even when it's a rockstar or celebrity; it's just not flattering to be flash-craved like a cupcake by a food addict.

Similarly, I met a man recently who seemed intelligent and interesting enough; we bonded over the book I was reading.   He is literate and musical; we had a coffee-- benign.   On the phone, later, he made a few lewd outside comments and references to his sexual superiority.  Jesus.. I am a senior citizen now?  Certainly he is.  Dealbreaker.  Are there people out there who respond to this?  Who like it? Apparently.

Of course, we rock and rollers are used to an entirely different behavioral code at the workplace.  Audience (and band members) scream, curse, strip down, fight-- throw bottles and themselves onto the stage, bleed-- we've seen it all.  Some bands instigate extreme behavior-- it's part of the experience.  Alcohol and drugs stir the pot to a quicker boil... and the music itself is both exciting and inciting.  We love it.  But I gave up going to hardcore and punk shows.  When ambulances park outside of a club waiting for customers-- well, I'm done with it now.  Does that make me a prissy-assed prude?

In the midst of teenage hell, a school psychologist told me I had not given my son clear boundaries.  Yes, at his worst gangsta-phase, he referred to me (and his teachers, apparently) as 'Niggah'.  We had worse battles and issues... but even he, who has emerged from the delinquency and acting-out a remarkable and beloved 'mensch',  told me I had failed to maintain disciplinary lines.  I am not the military type.  What does one do.. beat them?  I was a single Mom ex-hippy playing seedy rock-clubs in bands with less-than-stellar role models.  Admittedly, I failed the teenage parenting non-exam.

At this life-juncture, where way more is behind me than before me, I have much more clarity than I once did.  Musically-- it's a yay or nay.  I avoid things I once tolerated.  Personally-- it's fairly black and white; there is little time for people who annoy me.  We live in an over-populated city where there is limited width for individuality and attention, let alone a seat on public transportation.  I have grown more selfish about my personal latitude; I spend much more solitary time -- sometimes in crowds, but as an observer, not a companion or subscriber.  I have drawn those lines more graphically around me-- whether it is the nightmarish approaching white-chalk of my own imagined fatality, a sort of protective prison, or an adult time-out.  I have finally acquired a sense of boundaries.

Our clown president (back to the inkwell for him, if only...) is obsessed with the US/Mexican border... but has absolutely no awareness of his utter failure as a human to perceive or respect the concept of personal boundaries, and has crossed and violated every imaginable line of justice, decency, courtesy, ethics, acceptability, humanity-- we can go on forever.  He offends women daily, is bigoted, ignorant, intolerant--  embodies the antithesis of everything I believed as a child was 'presidential'.   How can I expect drunk women in bars to respect my personal space?

Last week I went up to Dyckman Park to watch my son's spectacular basketball team play a league game.  I was frisked by the police-women on the way in, and handed one of those blow-up plastic thunder sticks to taunt the opposite team.  The stands were filled with mostly twenty to thrity-ish spectators and fans, some kids.  There is loud music blasted through the speakers-- a DJ-styled announcer runs around the court during play.  It seemed everyone was lighting up cigar-sized spliffs.  They were passing them around-- even to me, by the guy in front of me who asked me if I noticed I was the only white person there... and was I nervous?  No, I am not... but the smoke was so thick... it was like eating a heavy meal; I honestly don't see how the players maintained their skills.

On the train downtown, afterward-- I kept smelling marijuana.  At the grocery store the cashier looked at me like I had facepaint on.  At last I ran into a friend who did a double-take and said.. woman-- what have you been smoking?  I went home and took a shower.  Next morning-- even my sneakers in the hallway smelled like a fresh-lit joint.  There I had been, watching a great game... minding my business-- an observer-- and the smoke permeated... I breathed it,  I wore it... even though my days of getting high are many decades away.

There is little we can do about some boundaries.  Smoke-- the dark-- the weather-- people in ridiculous states of dress in our visual field-- sirens-- overheard conversations.  Men and women in my gym... at all ages-- choose to display their naked flesh in varying states of youthful beauty or decay... we cannot change their choices.  Maybe the fashion police are out there, or the actual dress-code enforcers.  Our own friends will say things or do things that bother us... I care about people, but I care less and less what strangers think of me.

When I was ten years old, I smoked cigarettes but I didn't always inhale.  It made me feel like a teenager and I liked the way it looked in my fingers, the way the smoke curled up around me.  They became prohibitively expensive, and really bad for you; smoking is banned in public places in most countries because it's too hard to draw a non-permeable line.  Other seriously offensive, unhealthy things are duked out on sidewalks, argued in court,  debated in international forums, protested in human marches and on picket-lines.  These things are important... and time is too precious to get our feet stepped on and watch others helplessly violated by schoolroom or presidential bullies.  As far as intimate personal boundaries, I can still imagine the cigarette, sympathize with the smoker, refuse to inhale and walk away.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

All Apologies?

I suppose every working man or woman has a certain anticipatory excitement on the way to a job… maybe not every day, but on special days.  For us musicians, it never gets old; if it does, you've chosen  the wrong profession.  Usually I'm struggling on and off a combination of subway platforms and crosstown buses because my compensation has pretty much excluded the economic possibility of a taxi or car service.   Except this one gig, where my 'boss' happens to be my neighbor and we ride downtown together frequently.

On the drive tonight looking east, a pumpkin moon was rising, orange-ghosty and huge over the Roosevelt Island skyline.  It wasn't quite full-- I'd missed that, but still was glad for the panoramic view across the river and the sense of being on the way somewhere-- to stand up in front of some people (hopefully) and give them some kind of memory or joy.  It had been a long complicated day without air conditioning in the first summer heatwave-- and a little over two years since my Dad passed.  Night trips in his car were always upriver-- on the way home from Brooklyn or Long Island or wherever… me always glad whatever celebration or visit was over, that there was less to dread-- burdensome meals, hours in strange homes trying to be normal and sociable… feeling the judgmental glare of parents and waiting for the inevitable adult argument when they got home.  I'd learned the pattern, and was just glad the faithful moon always remembered the way back to my bedroom window.

The death of my father, I've said many times,  brought me a kind of relief.  It was final… there was no more slim possibility of reconciliation or the tense notion of it.  There had been a moment-- maybe seven years ago-- I'd printed out and shown my Dad a pile of articles I'd written-- blogs, essays… well-censored… and he'd given me a sort of near-embrace and said 'Let this be the start of a new regime between us.'  It felt pivotal and grown-up, like some kind of breakthrough.  But the next time I saw him, he'd reverted to that barely tolerant hostility he'd shown me since my college graduation where he seemed publicly pleased at my awards and achievements.  And what have you done for me lately, I could almost hear him sigh under his labored breath?

I suspect my sister had something to do with maintaining my enemy status; it was imperative that I be deleted from the final recipe of his will.  God only knows what false vendettas were added to the maybe legitimate ones to which he seemed to cling:  I'd built a wall out of it.   But one day past what would have been his 99th birthday, my cousin sent me a listing of his truly heroic wartime feats and medals.  It came on like a surge today-- the pride, the humility, the legacy.  Me… with my smalltime club gigs and shows-- how could I possibly fathom the aftermath of this kind of performance?  The theatre of war, it is often referenced… here I am, the progeny of one of the great honorees… failing to understand the impossible wake of such a life-- caught up in the petty deeds of offspring who seemed more a requirement than an elective in his family reality.  Here is a man who faced down death and massive terrifying wounding violence daily--   clearly marked but never whining about his trauma-- with an estranged daughter who was raised in safety and maybe suffered from occasional stage fright.

So I spent the afternoon and evening in some kind of penitent state-- with a bit of shame and remorse thrown in, a bit of delayed grief.  Meanwhile a beloved musician had passed away this week; he often joined us onstage to sing one of his band's anthemic songs, and his sweet lack of narcissism was extraordinary.  We were planning a small tribute-- unrehearsed, of course-- from the very stage where we'd all been together just six weeks ago.   On the way downtown, watching that moonrise, I was a little excited to be trying a couple of his original compositions-- embracing the challenge and the music.  As we started the first song, I saw a familiar profile in the audience-- was about to wave and beckon-- and then realized with a tremor that he'd gone-- what was I thinking?  Was this a ghost? A mirage?  Or just some generic tall rock and roller with a hat and dark glasses?  And here was the first song, the dedication… I was totally thrown, and flubbed my way through like a blindfolded man in a cave.

So I failed them both-- my musical friend, who would have forgiven me-- and my Dad, who wouldn't have.   Or maybe I got it wrong… maybe this was the lesson of the night:  shame, a little unintended disrespect, to have messed up the great music…. but maybe I didn't fail my Dad.   Even the chorus lyrics were questioning and ironic: 'She may call you up tonight/Then what could I say that would sound right?' Maybe it was just impossible to succeed, to follow an act of historic heroism that had no sequel.  I felt a little faint onstage, but fought my way through the rest of the set.

Another friend gave me a ride uptown… He intends to live to be 140, and so has not even turned the corner into the second half of his story.   As for me, I am looking ahead and behind tonight-- trying to forgive myself for my terrible performance (so many musicians and old soldiers use alcohol in place of forgiveness)-- not less for my failure to understand my father and accept his lack of forgiveness-- after all, maybe I failed him less than he failed himself.  It seemed apt, on the childhood drive upriver, realizing with irony that I was on the Left Bank(e)-- our tribute-- and my moon had receded into normalcy in the hot night sky that promised a brutal morning in the urban world of no-air-conditioning.  Me the post-midnight pumpkin now-- on the B-side, the roundtrip return-- still a daughter, in spite of it all.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Who's Your Daddy

On Father's Day I walked down to the East River.  Like most things I count on in life, it was testing boundaries, flexing its liquid muscle, changing its face from calm rippling smiles to smirks to choppy grimaces and swirls and whorls of angry warning.  The sun had set and there was little moonlight.  The humid air was a prelude to the long New York summer which no longer spreads but looms like a warm dare.  There will be fireworks... there will be sleepless nights in damp sheets with dogs howling  through open windows and passing sirens belting out their urban lullaby with even more urgent frequency.  On the concrete boardwalk, the roar of the current duetted with the city hum, like some symphonic grey wind-- the thick planetary breath which seems to crescendo in these mid-year months.  My son used to complain that he couldn't hear the stars sing.

Who's your Daddy, I wanted to ask the river on that night?  But we know that.  From whence it comes, to where it goes-- the oneness and duality, the calm and the storm.  Men deftly steer their way from one side to the other... on barges, on tugboats... while uptown the Hellsgate Bridge like a kind of red heaven threatens to take any challenger to the deep cold bottom from which few have returned.

My own son grew up without a father.  Or he grew up with me straddling the two endpoints of parenting with limited skill.  I was unprepared by my own dad whom now that he is gone I can witness as a complex mess of post-war PTSD and garden-variety guilt that sabotaged what could have been a happy and productive life.  I feared and hated him most of the time; the feeling was mutual.  Like my son, I adopted a series of role models from ballet-teachers and coaches to movie stars and literary heroes.  One day it was Atticus Finch; the next it was the gardener.  Even the Good Humor man seemed to look at me with something closer to love than any holiday or ordinary greeting from my father.  I'm not sure if it was more painful for him, but I took that on, too.   I never got to have payback, or closure, or any unravelling or confession.  It stayed the way it began-- an awkward pantomime of familial choreography at best, and at worst just the outright poison-gas cloud of anger.  Meanwhile, I was glad to get out of there-- to go off on my own to college... to experience relationships and daily life without the straitjacket of familial angst.  I was happy and in love with the world... maybe a little too generous with emotions, and a little naive.

Tonight I went by the Art Students League to see the work of a young painter and I suddenly flashed back forty-something years to my fresh young urban-independent days.  As much as I obsessed over music-- the boiling pot of fantastic ingredients that produced the bands of the downtown scene-- I was in love with the city arts-- especially the painters, whose spattered clothing and long days of physical dedication to craft were like the wizards and shamans of my imagination.  There was a community of them then-- some in the relative wasteland that was Soho in those days--- occupying huge unheated raw lofts with their yards of canvas and piles of stretchers and stacks of paint cans.  They were tormented.  They were sensualists and passion-seekers.  They looked and listened and agonized.  At night they'd congregate at any one of the bars where a beer and a burger could be negotiated for about $2 for regulars... Fanelli's, the Cedar Tavern, etc...  

They loved the young art students and were too willing to 'father' us into the New York scene.  I slept with them... loved to awake in a strange mattress on a hardwood floor to the thick smell of paint and coffee brewing on an old gas stove.   There were no televisions in these places-- no air-conditioning-- just the hot soundtrack of Coltrane or Miles' Jack Johnson or occasionally Exile on Main Street or even Beethoven for some.  An array of books--- Picasso or Velasquez or Giotto-- poets, Henry Miller, Anais Nin... Beckett.... I inhaled.

The subways were hot and gritty and covered with graffiti-tags... the colorful trains of the early 80's were still a dream... but as a nod to the New York artists, the mayor funded a program called City Walls and a few of these painters got to design and cover a huge conspicuous building-side with one of their compositions.  I remember riding downtown in an old beat-up volkswagon with the back seat removed, my eyes closed for the big reveal... there at the end of Broadway, on Houston, was a huge layering of colored mountains and horizontal strata, like a great desert cake... done by my driver named Mel Pekarsky.  Shitty Walls, he called the commission, but his creation was amazing and I'll never forget how proud I felt to know him.

My young painter at the Art Students league tonight had done a huge landscape divided into grid-squares by lengths of string-- like a fresco design... and I thought about Mel's old wall which had long been covered over but which signaled in a way a sort of go-ahead for legal and illegal appropriations of urban surface for artistic messages.  The age of Haring and Basquiat, of the spectacular trains of Dondi and Lady Pink-- was just dawning.  I looked on the internet and was happy to see Mel is still alive and creating-- teaching-- a regular job to soften his senior years and hopefully pay his studio rent.  The art world will never be the same. The Art Students League gallery tonight was a little empty and without festivity... a little clinical and derivative... no angst, no insanity, no joy.  I remember how Mel wrote me postcards back in those years-- he'd paint and draw and address the verso.  Some of them were x-rated and confiscated by the post office.  Somewhere in the boxes of things stored in my father's old house, these treasures have been turned into trash, I learned recently.  One more tragic loss in this world where Soho is a pricey mall, galleries are stores, artists have become brands and the graffiti of the 1970's is being auctioned to rich men with clean apartments and housekeepers.

Looking ahead at the long summer weeks, I can't know what is in store.  My beloved BB King's is no longer; more of my favorite local musicians have packed up and gone to Nashville or Woodstock... I can't afford much more than a good long walk to the river or an occasional subway ride.  I still have no air-conditioning, live among stacks of paintings and piles of books-- these are and were my fathers, my mentors... my instruments are still my children, waiting for me to come home and wake them up.  Tonight I will close my eyes and remember that ride down Broadway into the enormous colored mirage of that painted desert dream.  Who's your Daddy, the painter blurted out, laughing, when he heard me gasp in awe in that hot Volkswagen with the stacks of canvases where the back seat used to be.   So forty-something years later,  four days past Father's Day, I just got it.  

Friday, June 15, 2018

23 Skidoo

One of my cousins voicemailed me recently, apparently thrilled with news that he'd had his DNA analyzed in one of those kit-lab mail-ins and discovered that we are related to a scandal-besieged low-grade criminal art dealer.  Apologetically, I failed to be either shocked or impressed... in fact, in this facebook and instagram world of over-exposure and data breaches, why would anyone want to participate in a cellular-level scientific confess-all to God-knows-what information-bank or repository? I have already shared the maiden name of my second-grade school teacher, my first dog breed, where I met my husband (which one?  The Palladium or the Camden market one?) and my favorite author in so-called security locks on various online forms.  Not to mention my unlisted number and private email... just so they can be extra sure I am not an imposter.

We've all been warned that a large percentage of Pap smears and other tests and biomarkers have come back with false positives or negatives... so how can we trust a chromosome-mill which has no biological or genetic responsibility?  The number of people I know who are now claiming Navaho heritage from these kit-results is suspicious.  I don't think the Native Americans were that quantitatively promiscuous.  One of my friends has taken to wearing moccasins and beads.  Her daughter claimed dual ethnicity on her college application to play the diversity card.  And wasn't it a local president of some NAACP chapter that turned out to be faking her Afro-American-ness?  Not only is she a biological Caucasian but a confirmed fraudster who extracted many thousands in public assistance for which she did not qualify.  A perm and a dye-job did wonders for her-- maybe weekly time in a tanning bed.  Did anyone see Kim Kardashian on the news last night standing beside the newly-freed Diane Johnson and looking many shades darker than her previous press appearances?

So do we really need these identity kits to prove or discover who we really are?  Okay, I had to have amnio-centesis to rule out genetic disorders in my unborn fetus.  And disease-wise--  transplant candidates, biomarkers-- for these purposes tests can be useful and life-saving.  But as a teenager I'd already had a white-haired man approach me and swear he was my real grandfather.   Since my own had long since been ousted, it was enough for me.  Fake or real, he sent me great books and gifts and listened to my little demo-tapes with some kind of pride and love I never had from my own family.

My older sister as a teenager used to claim she'd been adopted.   I'm not sure my son could pick his real father out of a lineup.  What is the point?  Besides the forms we fill out and the college applications and census data, we are all mutts in this culture that seems to rather value pedigree and blue-bloodedness only where horses and dogs are concerned.  The new royal Princess or whatever her title is a mixture of things.   Even her name sounds oddly popster or like a plastic doll: Princess Meaghan.  Not historic nomenclature.  But there she is, holding hands with the Queen of England, slated to carry truly royal blood in her bi-racial American womb.

We are all one, was the great mantra of the 60's... embracing human brotherhood and diversity.  But the data-machines and marketing hoovers need to know what makes us all uniquely susceptible to bait-and-hook consumerism: how to use our genetic and acquired predilections to manipulate and influence our buying habits;  how we, as individuals, can be corralled and herded into transferring our money into huge corporate pockets.    So for all those angry facebookers who took the little personality tests and the aptitude quizzes, voted for grey or purple, circle or square, salt or pepper, Beatles or Stones.... do not be fooled by these advertisements promising they will reveal your 'ancestry', your ethnicity and heritage-- your profession suitability and athletic potential.  They are collecting more information from a speck of your spit than Cambridge Analytica amassed over years of sifting through a million posts.

My neighbor was holding court with the little dog-clan he parades around at night.  The new mutt, he was explaining, is part samoyed, part sharpei, part retriever, part spaniel.  I wondered how he was so sure about all of this.  Canine DNA testing?  I had a mongrel dog for years I'd found in Harlem-- abandoned, in bad shape.  He continued, over the years, to show marked preference for black people.  It was uncanny.  As for me?  His adoptive keeper? He tolerated me.  My black husband?  He went to the door 5 minutes before the guy came home; ditto his friends.  Love and devotion.  It was like they were brothers.  Do Not Ask.  Do Not Analyze.

A friend of mine years back had a strange phonecall from a woman he'd apparently slept with in a drunken amnesiac stupor after a party in Washington DC.  She claimed she was quite pregnant with his baby... he balked for a while, but began sending money-- child support.. even visited the baby periodically, paid for her college education.  She looked not at all like him-- went into the military (he was a 60's love-child/ardent pacifist) and married young.  Did he ask for a paternity test?  Not even.  That's the kind of genetics I'd be proud to have in my heritage.  A father.  Accountability.

We are what we eat, my nutritionist friend maintains.  She believes our blood-type determines the optimal individual dietary choices.  I can see the logic in this... but for a narcissistic culture with the flood of information available to us-- the choices and surgical options-- the supplements, treatments, neuro-biological neutralizers and enhancements-- if you don't know who you are at this point, well, I doubt an ancient family crest is going to change you much.   Get your face out of your phone and have a conversation with the person next to you.  You'd be surprised at how much you will uncover.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Signs of Where

I had a strange phonecall this evening... a woman's name ID'd on the screen... a writer I remember meeting some years back when we were both editing on our laptops in an air-conditioned Starbucks during a sweltering August heatwave.  She'd smiled at me, we had several non-smoking cigarette breaks on the sidewalk outside where we'd briefly thaw out in afternoon heat.  We exchanged numbers... she was working on a difficult historic novel which had required years of research and period reading.. a sort of Name of the Rose mystery.  Unlike me, she had some family money-- sold a pricey Carnegie Hill coop and downscaled to the upper west side with plenty of cash support.  She was beautiful in a pale, fragile book-worthy way.  Well spoken and intelligent-- but soft and womanly.  We were both brimming with our projects and ripe with future.  Ensconced in a literary neighborhood, we'd trade rumors about at least one of our elder urban mentors as he shuffled by with rolled newspapers or muttering to himself beneath a wide-brimmed disguise.

I remembered all of this, as one does, in a flash-- this is how our brains work-- we get a cue, and we unravel the relevant 'bank' with all its stored observations and details: a profile, like our own personal Facebook page we create for each of our friends-- facts, details, family names, images of moments we have shared or imagined from conversations and communications.  I used to pride myself on something of a 'phonographic' memory; I recall sounds-- associated music, accents and voices...  and images... the setting, geographic details-- how I stared at a painting on the wall while someone unburdened themselves of a sad story... the way the old window sashes crossed while my mother read aloud the March Hare or the Lilliputians.

It felt especially pertinent-- this associative process-- because less than a minute into today's phone call, I realized this woman had dialed a number she found on a random scrap of paper... had no idea who I was, confessed to having a terrible memory... commended me on mine... did not recognize my name, insisted after a bit that she'd met me at a meeting and we'd gone to a bar (not a chance), etc.  I asked her where she lived... she mentioned the number 104 and couldn't seem to move on from there. You're on the west side, yes, I suggested...? and she replied, Not very far west, I think.  By the end of the brief interrogation-- she began repeating questions... her focus was disintegrating.  I began to inquire, hoping to steer her into some familiar space, as I used to corral my mother in her dementia into some small fenced-in area in which she could function.  Her book-- she'd tried to write and failed...  I eventually hit a wall-- had to somehow disengage; she took my number (!) and asked if we could get together... having me carefully spell my last name.  I will be very surprised to hear from her, or perhaps she will call again tomorrow, looking somehow for some mental foothold.

On the street I felt a little distraught; after all, we are about the same age and I'd recently watched my own mother take the slow fade from bright and bitchy to a milky soup of confused and unrelated word-strings.  So I took time to listen to one of the chattier housekeepers who was often out walking her pair of lazy retrievers. She'd raised 3 children whose mother had just died of a terrible cancer;  the kids were acting out and the father was already dating.  The dogs were not healthy...  one was worse than the other; the housekeeper's accent was slightly Caribbean.  Where were they going for the summer?  I memorized her braids, her part-- the way her left eye was brighter than the right-- her lovely teeth...  Stories... I needed stories.  I stopped to listen along my 10-block way.  I spoke,  I watched... I heard sirens... followed firetrucks and ambulances until they disappeared... noticed baristas and customers inside shops.  They nourish me.  I need them.

Back home after a long evening, I retrieve my 'eye-photos'... I recall things, thoughts I've had... plots I've woven around simple facts and remarks.... nothing remarkable today-- a few confessions and bad date-stories, a friend's itinerary... some phone calls... music... my Latin Hip-Hop class where thankfully I am able to reproduce the chain of steps that constitute a routine... I know whose voice the singer reminds me of, what melody has been stolen... I've written lyrics in my head, forgotten most of them... but still I am able to retrieve, to unpack a few folders.  Of course, at my age my mental knives could use sharpening--- but they function... for today, anyway.  It is like unpacking a small basket of groceries you have gathered for a modest meal.  It is there-- your substitutions, your little economies--  your process that will become something you will make.

It has been a dark year for me and for many of my beloved friends.  I have had hardships and losses-- disappointments, cancellations, betrayals.  I have been hungry and tottered on the edge of envy.  But to speak to someone-- a complex map of neurons and synapses-- of brain power and creativity-- a talented, delicate writer-- and find her stumbling in a pool of her own confusion-- was more than upsetting.  Maybe the worst nightmare of all is the one in which you can't find your way home because you can't find you.  To lose all my orts and scraps of ideas--- to see them as indecipherable, as odd word-bits, not pieces of a puzzle only you can assemble... well, for me that is terrifying.  Not poverty, not failing at love--- even the sorrow of death-- but the concept of living death, of wandering without consolation or direction.

Months ago I asked some auction house about an old drawing which touched me-- its condition... 'Light signs of wear' was their email assessment -- but they'd typo'd and exchanged the g and n.  Light sings of wear, I read.. and my heart opened-- the charred, fragile, disintegrating version I've been carrying-- with its slow uneven beating and its careful mourning hesitations...  well, I felt its light and its tiny soul shaping into some lyrical epiphany for me.  Like an Amen... one of those tight banks of imagery unfurled into something like a miniature parade, a tiny joy.  I will carry this forward for now,
in the name of the writer, Abigail, who has quite lost her place in line.  I will continue.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Wildfire of the Vanities

The passing of Tom Wolfe is yet one more fallen leaf from the tree of my New York City.  Like Quentin Crisp, Truman Capote, Andy Warhol-- he walked among the ubiquitous social landmarks of the version of our eccentric and rich urban culture I inherited in the 1970's.  He'd occasionally show up at the gallery where I worked; you could find him daily lunching at his favorite table in the Isle of Capri on Third Avenue and 61st Street-- right in the windowed perimeter area as though he was willingly on display, in his signature white suit, impeccably groomed and accessorized.  His hair was perfect.  Like so many writers of the 20th century who lambasted and loved the city, there will be no one to fill the vacuum he leaves.

A year or so ago, I saw him on the street, looking frail and aged maybe beyond his years, and it occurred to me that his generational tide was receding in a sad way; my own peers have grown old, whether they fight this or not.  We prepare ourselves for these clockwork ravages of time-- the natural purges of decades... but unlike the seasonal rhythms of nature-- the human race is not deciduous.  We die off, and the replacements are quite unlike their parent foliage.  If our annual cherry trees lost their color we would notice; not as much with the changing of the cultural guard.

The Bonfire of the Vanities seems innocent now, compared with the widened gap in our economic architecture; the millionaires have ballooned into billionaires, crime is criming, institutional corruption is rampant and pungent-- Wall Street, politics-- the music business-- just about everything is tainted with the stench of greed and the manipulations of power brokers.  Our daily news brings us one falling man after another-- the ones who grab, who touch, who lie, cheat, hoard and dissemble.  We are a diseased culture all dressed up like queens and princesses-- like strippers and whores-- we are enhanced, coiffed, made-up, pumped up like nothing else.

Coming uptown last Monday I was re-routed by the massive security barricades surrounding the Met Gala.  The police presence rivaled the Pope's visit.  Pedestrians and traffic were forced to bypass a wide radius around the temporary palatial-scale tenting surrounding the museum like a Christo installation-- for what?  So that the rain or elements did not alter the finery of the attendees who are not the New York social stars, but the usual nouveau celebrities-- the Kardashians, Beyonce, Rihanna--- on and on...  my museum-- selling itself to Hollywood for money-- so that the crowd-drawers-- the Costume Institute-- the rock and roll culture-- can continue to put on show-stoppers that bring audience but dwarf the art for which the museum was built to house?

I grew up at the cultural knees of this place.  I wandered its vast rooms and explored everything from Greek amphora to Chinese porcelain.  I prayed to the virgins, wept over the Dead Christ images, held my breath at the exquisite painted life of these dedicated artists of the past-- dreamed their dreams,  absorbed their images of history and mythology like my own bloodline.  A library card was all it took to gain access to these halls...  even as a young girl I let my princess fantasies loose when I ascended the Grand staircases.  I often did my homework in the Temple of Dendur and walked my dog at night outside the windows so I could imagine myself alone by the great silent pool.  

I've been experiencing for years the pop-wash of the museums-- the DJ's and soundtracks in the auction houses, the clublike atmosphere they create to pull in the younger crowd-- to make art 'relevant'... but somehow the paparazzi and celebrity-pomp seemed misplaced at the Metropolitan Museum.

Of course, that is the point now.  The celebrity culture owns everything; even the British House of Windsor, come this Saturday.  I used to get my fashion sense through art-- studying the great costumes and creations of the past via these paintings.  Now art is fashion, fashion is art...  the museums take their inspiration from the culture rather than lifting us to some artistic epiphany.  My first Graduate School 'talk' at the museum was the Giovanni Bellini Madonna-- most of these artists worked on Church commissions-- religious subjects and altarpieces; the spiritual informed their work and they innovated as they observed life:  humanized saints and Christ himself-- fleshy angels and suffering martyrs.  So the themed Gala-- with Catholicism nothing more than a fashion statement-- seemed like true trashy irony.

Not that I'm a religious prude-- but for Christ's sake, the pretentious uber-spending on religious grounds was Vatican-esque.  And Katy Perry literally stopping traffic in her angel wings which seemed more Victoria's Secret than Catholic... Rihanna with her Papal helmet and Sara Jessica Parker-- from the side of a bus to a Nativity on her head--- it was a little ridiculous. And yes, offensive, especially in light of the events of the world, the religious suffering, the poverty and devastation elsewhere, where religion maybe has a different meaning.

Downtown the Rockefeller sale reminded that wealth used to go hand in hand with some reverence for culture.  The collection was staggering and amazing.  That 1905 Picasso was haunting and deep.  Who among the Gala attendees will leave behind anything of this stature-- something museum-worthy in the old sense?  I don't know.  Tom Wolfe was in the hospital with an infection.  I wonder if he'd even had an invitation; whatever, I'm sure the display of vanities on 82nd and Fifth Avenue did not escape him.

Among the objects in the upstairs rooms of Christie's were small furnishings and things which seemed personal and precious.  A huge sort of greenhouse was constructed, with birdsong piped via speakers, and real hedgerow foliage around the display, like real gardens.  Scads of young employees waltzed around with their catalogues, eagerly waiting to show and open things-- unable to answer 99% pf the questions because they haven't a clue about the subject matter-- the meaning.  A young Hispanic woman circled the large greenhouse perimeter sweeping stray leaves into one of those old-fashioned movie-theatre dustpans...  this was her job.  Sweep, sweep... around and around.  She wore a black maid's uniform with an apron, and her eyes were red as though she'd been crying.  I imagined this was her second job and she was glad to have it-- and then perhaps regretted having to lap around while all these gapers got a glimpse of the formerly treasured objects maybe lovingly selected by an American royal family.  She was looking down-- engrossed in her task.  Around her neck was a simple cross, which touched me-- so like a young saint she was-- pious and simple, bowed and lost in the crush of the pursuit of something like money, less like art...

RIP Tom Wolfe-- whatever you represented, you will be missed.


Friday, April 20, 2018

Liars and In-no-cents

The US attack on Syrian chemical weapons facilities last Saturday garnered little viewership from the American public.  Certainly the Stormy Daniels interview had better ratings; television in general has lost its centrality in our lives.  I couldn't help thinking back to the Desert Storm airstrikes we watched from our sofas with a bit of nervousness and yet the detachment you feel watching someone else's video game.

It was a small maybe calculated distraction from the smeary smutty onslaught of the latest Trumpery-- an executive wielding of power from our clown-at-the-helm who spent the earlier part of the day bashing James Comey in characteristic unpresidential  excrement-slinging-- his usual weapon-of-choice.  Comey... with a quasi-presidential-scale faux-pas on his permanent conscience, or whatever the political version of poor judgement might be called... will have the last laugh in massive book-sales; there will surely be a seven-figure job for him out there...

Then there was the Zuckerberg testimony... the wide-eyed, studious false sincerity of a billionaire who sold out our privacy, claiming his innocence with every sycophantic reply, sugared over with
an overdose of courtesy and those huge, bloodshot deer-eyes dripping with candor, watery from his contact lenses.  It rivaled the Steve Cohen testimony... he didn't remember, he didn't know... who was actually less culpable than these Facebook thieves.  Nothing in this world can be undone.  The sins of the billionaires have shifted the axis of our political and social morality.  Nothing is free; everything is bait... and we like fish have hook-holes in our palates.  Nothing will ever be the same.  The end of the innocence, what little there was in the well-trod sites and pages of New York before the 70's, the 90's my friends visit frequently... anything but this.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the vast majority of medical and drug trials are not reproducible... that data is manipulated, cooked... so we are given medications and treatments to benefit manufacturers, and do little for our health which is nothing but a vague platform for massive financial gain.  We are the poor guinea pigs, obediently swallowing things, following instructions like schoolchildren... led down useless paths in our quest to cope with pain and the sicknesses that are byproducts of our culture.  There will be a small slap on the wrist.. and then we will go on... Zuckerberg's net worth will dip and then re-surge, as he promises vigilance, having thrown us all under the bus irrevocably.

An eight-year-old this week brought a knife to school and slashed his fellow students.  Sort of a flip-side to the story of the pre-school teacher who threatened a toddler with a slashing.  As I read the online version of the eight-year-old article, a huge pop-up ad accompanied the text-- some new state-of-the-art men's underwear in my face, eclipsing the news... like some kind of obscene big-brother shout-out-- the incongruities of this life-- the disconnects and random juxtapositions, the senseless acts of violence which seem to stem from some underlying emotional seismic rumbling-- the discontent, the warped and confusing version of democracy that is America.  How does anyone process, prioritize these disproportionate images, the flash-like brainwashing of Instagram-style imagery... pop Goddesses and queens with very little content but huge coverage-- Beyonce and her untouchable Coachella moment... the new Statue of Liberty? And it is as though she believes her own legend.  The Midas ass.

Where is compassion, where is humanity when the great God of money seems to have cast a golden shadow over us all, like the looming sky-touching penthouses which shadow and obscure our values and connections?  What is truth when lies dominate.. and win?  No longer does the tortoise come out on top.... they are choking on bad meds... while the hares are full-speed ahead with Ritalin and fat purses.  I see fewer and fewer real faces--- features altered and tweaked, bodies re-shaped-- even our most beautiful actors and actresses are compelled to make themselves more beautiful...  Television ads baffle me-- everyone is being urged to change their emotional state, their skin, their hair... Some days I feel as though I'm conducting a social experiment... trying to maintain a truthful commitment to my values, my modest goal to leave something behind in this world-- not a giant monument or a building facade, but a few songs or lines or poetry that might somehow find their way into a heart and sit there, like a tired passenger-- like company.  I am left behind... no seat for me on this bullet train of the culture which lies to me, which poses and manipulates and convinces... we must all be beautiful, we must all be young.. we must all watch this and that and have this and that... and those that cannot are angry and bitter and desperate.  All of us unhealthy... and there is contagion.

Yesterday on Lenox Avenue I collected 41 pennies between 110th and 126th... lying there on sidewalks like a trail left by some lost angel, like tiny sentries of some lost currency-- little copper discs that somehow made sense although very little cents... in 2018 terms... no one else wanted them... and I collected them.. from the damp street.. like tiny rescues... I tried to make some meaning of the small weight they became, of the cumulative purchase power... of the fact that they were free, they were gifts.. outside the Dollar store where people were hoarding bargains they mostly don't need-- piling packages of cookies and chips and frozen dinners into huge sacks... I wanted to stop them... to tell them something... but no one is going to listen to an aging woman who seems poor and powerless and maybe a bit mad.  I am mad.... I am angry-- not slasher-angry but beating-heart upset.  A penny for my thoughts here? No, actually, not even that.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

You Can Leave Your Socks On

Late-Mondays Times Square underground platforms are a kind of reality stage for a cross-section of New York City not everyone gets to sample.  Recently there is a sprinkling of track workers because
there is always post-midnight repair activity and endless delays... so you have more time to settle into the drama. By 2 AM there is little musical entertainment, but plenty of hustlers and salesmen of a variety of wares-- stolen cheap watches, re-wrapped candy, articles of clothing and discarded earbuds...  talkers, lonely displaced people with nowhere else to spend the night... shuffling old women often close to your own age...dragging their shopping bags, hunched over and unwashed... the squishy stenchy hardcore car-sleepers... rats taking their time doing a sluggish diagonal dance on the tracks because train traffic is sparse; there is a kind of rare silence.

Last week a nice-looking guy with sideburns sat down on one of the wooden seats and took off his boot.... he had clean white sport-socks on, and he started in scratching.  Minutes later he'd scratched so hard the ground was littered with dancing clumps of white fuzz from the cotton... and still he went at it; I tried not to look.  After a time, a sick yellow-green ooze started to penetrate his socks; my stomach turned over...  he stopped-- as though the liquid seepage was the antidote to the itch.  He shook out his boot, stuck his foot in and walked to the north staircase of the uptown 1/2.  Just like that.

Not even a minute later, a drunk young couple sat down where he'd been working his foot... I tried to warn them, but they were too busy groping each other.  I'm no germaphobe but I felt a little tense in my seat on the train;  I started to reconsider trying on shoes in thrift stores.  In every car, the late-shift was working the crowd--- asking for handouts-- food, old gloves, a smile...  the same girl I've seen nearly every week gets on looking for enough money to buy a room for the night.   Her eyes are glazed, her feet are filthy and bare, her skin is pocked with needle-marks and infected sites.  It's more than sad.  You squirm and don't give her money to get high... but you feel ashamed of the C-note in your pocket even though you can barely come up with your month's expenses, even with the care packages from the kitchen at your gig.  A man gets on and sits across from you-- bloodshot eyes, a wedding ring-- he looks guilty and somehow sated.

All the stories in New York City-- the lit and unlit windows, the drawn shades, the silhouettes.  My friend's boyfriend has been seeing another woman; I know this and don't say anything.  It's not my role to hurt her, to bust him... I'm caught.  Another woman just ended her marriage when she found her husband hopelessly addicted to porn and heroin.  She must have been the last to know, or the last to want to know until it was in and on her face.

My best friend in the world is an ex-- one of those men who comes in and out of your life between disastrous relationships and marriages. You figure one day you'll marry him, but you're not quite ready to surrender to yesterday's clothes that have lost their style and no longer really fit.  Still, he's there.... or is he?  You walk by his place one random night; he always comes to yours-- his is essentially a mattress on the floor, some piles of books, dingy walls and permanently shut blinds.  You buzz up... and a woman answers... it seems he no longer lives there... has he forgotten to mention to you that he's moved?  Who are you, you text.  You get home late-late and he's been calling..  and the tales begin to unravel like a committee of scriptwriters batting around a scene.  On the third night your lawyer friend looks up his court records and it seems he's secretly married.  He's living with some Asian waitress--- sublet his place and moved to Queens.  You are stunned... not exactly hurt, because it's not like that-- but stunned.  Like your security blanket has been ripped away... like a betrayal.  He cries... how could he have lied to you?  Every day-- every FaceTime, every call, every joke-- because he sees you nearly every day-- tells you everything... except this.  Day 4, he claims he's miserable, he hates his life-- he hates the lies, he's always loved you-- well, sort of, because it never really worked out between you...  but he has been your health-care proxy, your emergency contact.  Who is this man?  The Asian woman is a bitch and is showing her age-- not a nice comment, because she is like twenty years younger than you are.  I guess this happens once the green card is inked.  The double life thing...

When I was a teenager I saw my best friend's father making out with a young woman in a restaurant.  It wasn't him, my Mom assured me... but it was.  Or it wasn't 'him' but it was my friend's father.  Itch.  The oozy, itchy leaking feet underneath those clean white socks.  Like a metaphor.  Who are these people?  I remember when we were young kids--- underneath our clothes we were beautiful and innocent... still honest enough in our free-love practice not to really hurt anyone... clean, even when we were bad.... but life goes on-- our scars and wounds and complications besiege us with small disappointments and failures... and we escape-- some of us have music and art-- fantasy... but others confuse their life opportunities with an emotional vacation... they create these webs of deceit and they knot themselves up so there is no way out without ripping off an arm or leg.

I don't love the guy.  No, but I expected loyalty-- honesty?  Some version of this... after all, what did he have to lose?  Me?  If you watch someone scratch long enough you start to itch.  I don't want to see what's underneath most people anymore.... we use our imagination.  This is why people love their pets-- their babies...  with humans it's complicated.  Needs... secrets-- stuff we hide that festers into addictions and lethal diseases... syndromes and mental illness.  So what now?  Amputate the guy?  You would never have known-- what were you missing?  Not  much?  You didn't need so much from him-- just trust, faith-- the phone calls and facetimes-- the seat next to you at your Mom's funeral.... It's a quandary.  The truth is more complicated than it should be.  It's a dirty fork in your road, here.

At the end of the 2 train ride, you get out.. you've got a couple of bucks to buy vegetables at the fruit stand; the same panhandler always there to greet you at 3 AM.  Hey, Baby, he says, like a question.  You wind up with 17 cents.  You tell him... 17 cents.  That's it.  That's not it, he says-- that's a fucking blessing.  He thumbs-up you as you drop the coins into his cup and he looks happy.  Clean.  Simple.  The truth.  He's a damned angel, this guy.  Somehow you feel better.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Pocketful of Wry

Yesterday on the sidewalk two small birds were having it out-- a bonafide squall... a few others flew in for the entertainment; two extras got involved in the fray.  It was like a game of 3-card monty... squawkers and gapers and rooters and much flapping around.  Finally I got a glimpse of the prize-- it was a chicken wing-tip-- like a discarded piece of Kentucky fried bucket-stuff on the sidewalk.  Hey, hey, I shouted to the sparrows-- not even pigeons who have no shame in this town-- that's your cousin there you're tearing apart-- what are you, cannibals?  Or maybe the processed stuff which passes as meat at KFC has no authentic bird DNA.  They dispersed, only to return when I got a few feet ahead... to peck it out until death....

I thought about Aesopian philosophy-- mocking bird humor-- an Ogden Nash or Edward Lear would surely come up with a limerick.  A Wall Street parallel?  A dog-eat-dog kind of thing?  What occurred to me is the fact that people have lost sight of the 'prize'... they will duke it out, compete, race and grab out of some instinct... kind of a Donald Trump thing-- going all out for a political campaign when you have no idea of what you might do if you actually win.  And, as we suffering Americans have learned well, not only does the best man not win, but the worst man wins, the best men stay home, the race ends in a brick wall collision-- no trophy, no pride, no victory-- just a kind of sick realization that you ruffled your feathers for some kind of cannibalistic irony...  a bad joke... fuel for all the cartoonists and comedians and late-night talk-show hosts.  I'm not laughing this week.

Last Saturday school kids led the country in a meaningful protest against gun-violence; they spoke with emotion and pride-- the mourners, the victims-- the girl vomiter who displayed her facial wounds to millions on international broadcasts, while the president-- the Commander-In-Chief whose worst pain is from a hair transplant procedure-- played golf or watched shark-week TV.   The demonstration totally eclipsed this year's NCAA tournament and imparted another ironic meaning to  Sweet Sixteen.   Brackets lost their edge anyway; the hype this year seems larger than the competition. Wth the exception of the first round, the winners seem less appealing-- no dreams, no legends, no compelling stories.

On the train this week I sat beside a homeless girl-- Maria from Panama who came to New York for her boyfriend-- shining and bright-- having won hands down her high school talent contest, she hoped to become a star, but had to sell her violin and saxophone for food.  Where is her joy of winning? What harsh lesson has she learned here?  I wanted to take her home with me, but I can no longer do these things.  I can no longer saddle myself with more causes and sorrows and sicknesses; I am worn from not even three months of the new year; my shadow is dense and dark-- daylight savings time seems ill-omened and premature.

One of the workers in my building complained to me about the way some new tenants have treated him-- with disdain and disrespect; these people who have bankrupted old Wall Street firms with their greed and shenanigans, their margin-trading and derivatives manipulation.  Here they are, the criminals and crime-masters of finance, buying weighty shares in my coop, throwing their power around like the entitled brats they are, tearing down walls and wrecking old fixtures as they move onward, losers become winners...  You are a good woman, this man told me, with his thick accent; you will be rewarded by Jesus; I believe this, he said, pointing to his heart.

My friends question the existence of a God who countenances childhood cancer, these senseless innocent killings... I do not hold Him personally responsible;  I know this is not the way the world works.  There are no Superheroes who catch falling infants from burning buildings, but firemen and people who reach out and sacrifice themselves for others.  We honor them, we decorate their graves and donate money to their families... but who are the winners here?  I don't know anymore.  All day the nursery rhyme has been going over and over in my head-- the Trump-as-King is in his counting house, counting out his money, the Queen is in the parlor (Trump Tower) eating bread and honey; the maid is in the garden hanging out the clothes...along came a wing-eating blackbird and snipped off her nose.  It seems the poor and the good are being punished here; they are shot and homeless and suffering from asthma and cancer and poor medicine while the losers have become the winners.  Crooked men are we, the new Americans, with our phones and selfies and downloaded lives-- broken brackets, crumbling White House, obscene coffers and man-made poverty; we are no longer dreamers but streamers.   Maria in the church basement cradling her empty violin case like a baby, waiting for her sad supper on a paper plate, singing a song of sixpence...


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Now You See It….

Many years ago I was working at a highbrow art gallery and made my first important sale to a rock star.  As he handed over what was then a small fortune, he asked me, politely, how he could be certain that his new painting was real.  You can't, I assured him; but I can.  I knew.  In those days part of our rigorous art education was connoisseurship-- we looked and studied masterpieces and were tested on deciphering fakes and forgeries from the real deal.  At a certain point, you get a feel for it-- you just 'know', like fresh-baked cookies from the boxed kind, like a green plant from a plastic one.  Guitar collectors search and play and touch and study-- the real musicians just 'know'... they pick up a guitar and it sings its history-- its wooden roots-- the skill of the luthier who lovingly put it together with electronics and bits of material so that its soul matched its beauty.  The best of them, like old paintings,  have passed through one or two owners who played them and loved them-- broke them in and seasoned the wood... they feel experienced, layered.

I was having a vigorous discussion Saturday with a visiting Frenchman about the art market, and out of my mouth came the word Authenticity-- like a sentry, like a pillar or goddess... like one of those lovely intangible names so many girls in the hood proudly wear around gold chains these days--  Destiny, Felicity, Cadence, Chassity (yes, I looked twice at that one... ).  Authenticity, in the end, is what matters, I heard myself saying… not the kind that is guaranteed by a stamp or certificate or committee when you buy a Warhol or a Keith Haring, but the real thing.

Back in the day, there were sketchy galleries on Madison Avenue who sold Picassos, Miros, Chagalls-- with or without signatures; most of these came accompanied by a piece of paper like a pedigree, guaranteeing their authenticity.  None of these galleries are currently in business; their provenance is a sort of black mark on the merchandise, even if it is real.  They reminded me of the papers issued when you bought a certain breed from one of those puppy stores which are also a thing of the past, buried beneath lawsuits and claims.   A guarantee of purity and lineage…  how were we to know this was a grey-market dog?  Would we return it after adopting it into our family?  Of course not.  Imagine the paperwork that comes with religious and historic relics--- Napoleon's penis which is insured for an obscene sum and would auction for far more-- who knows the absolute truth, the DNA nitty-gritty?

Most of us would be horrified if we bought tickets to hear a great rock band and ended up with their lookalikes simulating the music... or if they showed up and played cover songs all night.  We would know.  But the art world-- the quick overnight successes-- do we feel the depth of what they do?  Yes, Jean Michel Basquiat had a kind of genius-- looking at his work was like hearing the young Ramones at CBGB's before anyone told us it was cool.  But too many of us are happy now to hang a poor imitation of his unique style with a bunch of silly text scrawled across the page.  It 'looks' hip-- but it's really just bullshit.  Half the artists showing in galleries are wannabes or followers-- and the audience lacks the time or interest to investigate who their mentors were.  Most people these days get their blues from Eric Clapton, not Lightnin Hopkins or Blind Lemon Jefferson. People in general settle for the 'light' version, take their selfies and go home and watch Netflix.

There are so many awards-- nominations, honors--- a self-proclaimed candidate can produce a roster of accomplishments and offices held.  Is anyone really bothering to certify these things?  Our children play in sports leagues; virtually every child is given a trophy... it's misleading, not democratic-- and gives children the idea that they are the best when they are not even good.  It's a Snakes and Ladders game of fame-- press the right Instagram button, and you are an instant princess-- not that I am bitter about the easy success of the undeserving-- it's just the substitution of this, like artificial sweetener, that leaves a bad taste and ruins the dream.  And in the runway 'walk of fame'... who is bothering to distinguish what is authentic from the rest?  Some of us are.

In this day of fake news, puppet presidents, internet hoaxes, and instant fame, some of us can feel what is authentic, like an old patina-- not a manufactured coating.  You can feel beauty, too-- in people-- even older people who have not had their faces updated-- you can sense a certain grace in their hands, in their eyes when they speak to you: who they were, who they are...  like slow wisdom or a ripening.

When I was a girl, my favorite book was The Prince and the Pauper.  I loved kings and queens in disguise--- even The Princess and the Pea-- the way real heroic nobility and royal kindness shone through rags and tatters.  We no longer have the example of  'good' rulers.  Quite the contrary.  But there are still things out there to be discovered that are badly dressed and brilliant-- or unmarketed,
non-Instagramed, and wonderful.  There is more soul in a couple of the men I hear singing in the train stations than in all the top 40 recordings I can't name.  Talent is no guarantee of success, and too often the best of them drop out.  It's too damned hard.

I still can't get over that da Vinci painting... I mean, when I was ten, my mother took me to see the Mona Lisa on its world tour.  Of course we waited endlessly on a huge line, and we were rushed by the viewing stage... but it was magical.  Yes, it was curtained and 'presented' with theatricality-- but you could breathe its importance-- its quiet beauty.  I had chills... I nearly cried; it was authentic.  But that $450 million painting? It spoke not a word-- no song, no chills, no magic.  It was flat.  Like a bird that choked, or a clown in couture.  It just didn't feel right;  but then there are always those who want to believe in the charlatan, in the false messiah, the doctored unicorn.

For years I tried to imitate my mother's simple yellow cake recipe-- it just never came out tasting right.  I finally gave up and did things from scratch my own way and discovered something else.  I'm not a baker, I'm a bass player.  Of course I definitely have my heroes, and have plenty to learn from the masters, but the last thing I want is to sound like them.  I may never be famous or celebrated, but I'll be myself.  People used to ask my Mom what her secret ingredient was, and she'd laugh it off.  I finally realized it was her hands-- her skill, her unique story, the passion and love she baked in-- her inimitable recipe for authenticity.