Friday, December 28, 2018

Dollars and Scents

One of the oddest Christmas gifts 'Santa' brought me as a girl was this 'Make Your Own Perfume' kit. Inside the box were small corked tubes and vials of various scented liquids; you'd mix them like a chemist into little colored bottles and personalize your concoction with a little included sticker-label which you could 'sign' and color in as you chose.  It had a short shelf-life, this 'toy'... within a few days all of the liquids had been poured so many times through the little funnel apparatus, back and forth, that every formula smelled pretty much the same-- like when you stuck your nose in your Aunt Mary's parlor potpourri bowl.

Besides, none of the little containers and vials had a milliliter of the appeal of those exotic and glamorous perfumes on your mother's vanity.  Forbidden to your little hands since you poured a few of them out one rainy afternoon, they lounged on the mirrored tabletop like glass-clad sex kittens.  Some had their own little velvet coats and stoles.  One I remember was shaped like a spiral shell and didn't even stand on its own.  My mother dressed-up for an evening out was something else-- elegant and sparkling... but most of all the smell of her, when she kissed us goodnight-- was elevating and always faintly Arpège.  In her long black gown with the rhinestone straps, it was distinctly Chanel No. 5.  Days later I could bury my nose in her dress-coat and there it would be... the vision of jewelry and coiffed hair-- limousines and corsages under glass...

The rest of the time, her hands smelled vaguely of onions and cigarettes.  But her kitchen-- despite the morning coffee and her re-heated doughnuts--- always hid the sweet ghost of cookies-- banana bread, cream icings and cheesecakes-- apple pies and brownies.  She was an intuitive and serious baker.  With her ancient kitchen-aid mixer and her pre-war oven, she understood the seductive language of butter and fresh vanilla, baker's chocolate and meringues.  As she fades into my past, her complex scent remains.

She took motherhood seriously and while I was something of a tomboy, she began to train us; my sister had lessons in Shalimar... sweet and spicy and in-your-face but it worked for her cheerleadery image.  For me it was after-bath Jean-Naté--  lotion and powder, both of which mostly evaporated by morning...  but they are part of my teenage identity.

In my 20's in the city, I hung out with one of the Halston models who doused me with their perfume and kept me well-stocked.  It was perfect--  like a signature.  Into middle age, when I gave up perfumes and make-up... I kept a supply of the bath powder which lasted for years.   And as for men, I hated the 60's Canoe and Old Spice... but all my best memories of uncompromised sex are tinted with Patchouli.  A few years ago I tried to buy a box of Halston talc (discontinued)...  so the same apparent box arrived-- wrapped.. but inside, was a strange clone of the original.  Like digital music--- it just lacked something.

On the streets of the city-- in restaurants, dressing rooms, churches, museums-- everyone seems to have a scent now.  Every pop-star and reality housewife has their own concoction, and the counters of department stores are cluttered with brands and logos that suggest exotic places and situations-- but so few of them live up to the legend.  A few decades ago there was briefly this 'Opium' that seemed intriguing-- but now--- everyone smells fruity and glazed--- like they are covering something worse.

I bought a bottle of Tide the other day-- 'original scent' it is labeled; it is anything but.   I have tried 'unscented', bleach alternative-- spring fresh... clothes-fresh... they are all synthetic and hideous.  Ditto dishwashing liquids and even cosmetics.  The advanced laboratory possibilities of smell-chemistry make anything possible.  There are thousands of flavors of lipstick, toothpaste, seltzer, beer, gatorade... but they all seem to tumble precipitously further and further from the real thing.  Like the olfactory version of elevator music, it feels manipulative-- more artifice than authentic.

The number of people who have fake trees at Christmas astounds me.  The smell of Christmas is so uber-important in my home.  No matter how poor we have been, the tree is mandatory.  A friend was teasing me last week and asked-- is that the kind that smells like grapefruit?  Grapefruit?  So have trees been bred to conform to cultural expectations and the kind of distorted norm that now dominates perfume recipes? Or had he lost the ability to distinguish?  It's no wonder, in this city of exhaust and fumes, traffic congestion, competitive street vendors, incense burners and essential oil-salesmen... a thousand varieties of air-fresheners and atmospheric 'masks'-- the  domestic epidemic of scented candles... that people have lost the 'scent'.  We hire dogs to sniff out bomb and bedbugs... and we who think we are such sophisticated wine and food connoisseurs-- many of us are clueless and nose-scammed.

I read this week that Woolrich is going out of business.  How I remember the wooly smell of those double-knit sweaters we wore like loggers beneath our jackets on the ski-slopes... where the snow smelled more arctic-- and the vague smoke of burning logs welcomed us back home to a real fire and cocoa made from baker's chocolate and bottled milk I can no longer reproduce.  Even the smell of money has changed.... clean sheets, natural hair, car interiors, books, corn flakes--- everything seems altered.  My mother's drawer of old cashmere-- even the labels looked handmade.  She kept them in tissue paper... the vague, soft scent of wool and Lanvin when you opened that drawer.... my children do not have these memories; nor will their children.

In Williams-Sonoma they were selling a candle called 'Winter Forest'... it simulates the piney smell of a fir... for people with fake trees and electric fireplaces.  But I still remember the vintage city smell of winter--- it was clean and bluish and starry.  I pass certain bakeries and think of my Mom--- the butter and fresh vanilla-- the rich traditional ingredients you can't really alter... but her perfume--- none of today's fragrances have the magic of the ones in her little collection.  I am well aware the memory of her scent and the scent of these memories will evaporate with me... The world moves on, new sweaters are produced by machines with yarns made of many kinds of materials.   My mother used to sit by the real fire and knit, with dyslexic left-handed mastery... things I would give a hundred Christmas trees now to find in an old box and bury my nose in the scent of what has been lost.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

What U Need

What u need Mama, a homeless man asked me this morning, effectively reversing roles? Very little, I didn't reply, thinking of the holidays and the 'neediest cases' the newspapers used to publish daily in the weeks before Christmas... the downhill, the slippery cold slope that ends with a wall-slam on January 1.

I've recently been working a temporary job-- just to bridge the financial gap in my life... it's limited and will end with the year, but it's given me a dose of  the 9-5 commuting 'cram', the stress of train-delays and overcrowding passenger nastiness, and a sense of my own reality-- people occasionally offer me their seat, because I am often the oldest occupant of the downtown 6 morning jam.  But it's the Saturday morning trip that brings the entertainment-- like a traveling sideshow.  The cars are just full enough for audience and the tourist density is highest... here come the indie rappers, Mexican huarache bands, crooners and sax players-- break dancers and acrobats... one after another, they enter, announce, perform and pass the hat between stations. They have it down to a 90-second kind of thing... like an on-air radio commercial; timing is everything.

Then there are the underground evangelists-- the spreaders of gospel or frustrated actors who need to soliloquize publicly-- to declaim, orate.  Most of them, sadly, are either mediocre or misled.  The boy who is 23 and giving us his urban poetry-slam-- well, he is neither edgy nor clever nor really angry but a clichéd living instagram-meme.  I don't want his little scraps for $1.  I want him to stop.

Mostly there are the beggars-- the city untouchables-- the homeless shelter-evaders, the un-censused, non-counted, failed hustlers and drug casualties.  Last Saturday we had 'Phil'.  He was young-- not as young as he claimed-- the first scam-- he worked the 'just trying to get my knapsack and schoolbooks' angle... and he was dirty.  Caked with old black soilage everywhere-- as though he'd been sleeping on the tracks for weeks.  Acne-scarred and needle-pocked... greasy haired and clothed in soot-dyed jeans and a coat of filth.  And he was thin-- his clothes hung... his knuckles stood out when he offered his hand, because he didn't even have a cup for coins.  When I was small my Mom used to sing us this little limerick about 'Garbage Phil'... it was funny and she would hold her nose and squinch her face up.  But here he was-- an Irish boy from Staten Island... me, with my sad, uber-empathetic, old-mothery eyes looking... knowing I walk the streets without even a coin some days... just my SNAP card... telling us we were good fuckin people-- not like the ones from his borough who were a bunch of scumbags... but no one stuck their hand in a pocket except to extract a phone... me-- I had 7 cents from money I pick up on the street-- and I shamefaced put this into Phil's blackened hand on my way onto the Union Square platform, and Phil forgave me... you're a decent fuckin woman, he said... and I prayed for his angel... for the one that put a wad of $550 in a money clip on the street beneath my feet as I crossed with my baby boy one hungry winter night, years back.

The Saturday before, we had Kyle.  Kyle got on and began his bitter speech... he had a dog... a wife... no dogs in shelters...  and then we were at his stop... his timing was definitely amateur and he had no minute to make the rounds so he cursed us all, through his prematurely toothless mouth, from his face caked in the same soot as Phil's... in those extra seconds it always takes as they maneuver the moveable platform into place... interminable, punishing seconds of Kyle's acid wrath, the simmering malice of untended need like an emotional ulcer... and there is no hand into which to place any pathetic offering... there is only the flush of shame, standing there beside him, inhaling his untended canine scent.

This is his 'stop'... what is the meaning of that, for the homeless-- that this is where HRA has its linoleum-floored headquarters, yes... where you sit in the stale air-blown on plastic seats in a room facing forward with no music or reading material besides barking signs-- where uniformed guards stand by and ignore... where women in cubicles take their time pushing papers around, sharing holiday candy, giggling, talking on phones... while Kyle sits and waits...?

I have never seen so many homeless as around Union Square-- like a cult, like a community-- they sprout everywhere with their signs and blankets.  On the corner of 4th Ave... underneath the Food Emporium there is a cluster-- wrapped in layers like Arctic explorers, with their sleeping-cardboard and tents of old coats.... a young man from my train, I have noticed... daily... puts a bill into the pouch of a woman there... as though he knows her, as though there is some relationship.  I love this man--- he does it so nonchalantly... I wait for him, mornings--- because it gives me some joy.  Thank you, I want to say to him-- not to the Salvation Army saints ringing bells, but to him-- I imagine his arm like a chimney and then there is coffee and doughnuts inside the supermarket cafe for these people who are more or less as welcome there as in the HRA lobby.

On the platform heading toward the L train is The Little Drummer boy.  A young man without arms... with small hands attached to his shoulders who sits and plays-- shirtless, with a strange plump egg-body and tiny legs.  He keeps time... not too loud... and you want to cover him-- it is not pretty, his torso from the back as you come upstairs.  It is freezing even in the station... but there is no sweater that would let his little hands do their acrobatic flipping with the sticks... he plays on like a wind-up toy, with about the same lack of grace.  No crowd gathers... it is difficult to watch, this side-show... I want to ask the sidewalk saints to be sure and share their bucket with him... I want to cover him with a blanket... a vest, I am thinking... a down vest... for Christmas.. but I can't figure out how not to insult him.  And so, I add him to my list of the Neediest.

At my job there is a circulating memo for supplies: Things We Need, it is called. On the list is an order for hand soap which they use here; ordering, I have learned that one small pump-outfitted bottle costs $78.  That is maybe my food budget for the month.  The new hedge-fund family below me who combined and renovated 4 apartments needs many, many deliveries of new furnishings.  The daily pile of boxes would make several tent-homes for the homeless of Union Square...

As for me, I need nothing.  Not even lunch today... a tin of cookies arrived here, a gift of some bank or supplier for this place-- and they are not quite up to the gourmet taste of people who use $78 hand soap.  So I will eat them... and leave some for the drummer boy who might be insulted by my coin contributions but maybe will condescend to take a holiday food-break.  The timekeeper-- he of all people is aware that the year is running down, like an old battery... and what we need, all of us, is that which evades us all equally.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Being Poor (part 2: Mr. Darkside)

So besides the hippie-romantic/back-to-the-earth/recycle-everything/spartan-asceticism-contrarian/anti-bling version of poverty, there is the sticking, handicapping, cracked-heart variety where you must say no to your children, where you glance in posh bakery windows which might as well be Tiffany's, where you pass fast-food fried chicken outlets and the scent of cheap oil and breading intoxicates and you cannot participate in even a wing, because it will break the daily bank of your pocket.  Where you plot and plan and divide your dollars with economic razor-blades because you are smart and determined and physically capable, thank goodness, of fighting the good fight to survive in this city.  Where on your heart the word 'No' seems permanently incised because you cannot have anything you formerly craved or desired or even simply wanted, in a former life.

But I have been to countries where poverty is of another variety altogether-- where the unrelieved sting of need and want is like the constant corrosive pain of chronic hunger and mothers watch helplessly while their children suffer to death.  It has warped me, in a way, so that I can never quite indulge in the relative luxury of normal life without an underlying sense of guilt.   I never fail to appreciate simple comfort, and process Manhattan daily spending habits, for the most part, as excessive.   While it's true I can no longer sit in a cafe with a sandwich, I don't miss it often.  If someone else is buying I will generally decline the favor unless I have done something valuable in exchange.   If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would undoubtedly observe the same habitual economies that became a part of my survival as a single mother.

My son, on the other hand-- like a rapper or athlete who steps from low-income into a reality of wealth-- is indulgent.  I admire it, in a way... new-found money often brings with it a kind of entitlement or revenge-spending which is part of the process of becoming 'comfortable'.  For me, I cannot imagine how I managed to buy us a home, and maintain the basics in this culture where the golden ring is heavy and placed beyond arm's length for basic people.  It also seems absurd that the 'haves' these days-- the extreme 'haves'-- are receiving more than they will ever need, and have often done far less than in former times where hard work and invention was a slow and cumulative phenomenon.  And it doesn't seem all that difficult, as it was in my father's day, to become a self-made millionaire.  Athletes are paid massively; entrepreneurs can sell an idea overnight and buy themselves a small island.

I shop carefully, as I have said before, in the poorer markets of Harlem.  I consider myself relatively fortunate, having had the foresight to become a home-owner rather than a renter and like the ant and grasshopper story, this has paid off for us.  My life is simple and apparently spartan enough so that the city insists I receive foodstamps.  While I can't eat in restaurants, this allows a pretty generous monthly amount to stock the pantry.  My fellow shoppers do not watch the sales the way I do; they make unhealthy food choices and don't seem to worry.  Many of them are on welfare-- get cash for things,  live rent-free in city housing which is not luxurious but adequate.  Some of them have river views which would cost the rest of us at least $3000 on top of the monthly rent.  But what I have also observed,  from my tiny circumscribed life of personal urban stoicism, is the way that being poor leaves a lasting mark.

On street corners in Harlem there are habitual loiterers who panhandle and hustle year in and year out.  There is no future in this... but there is a present.  Being poor keeps people in the present.  They can't worry about what will happen, or their retirement or funeral expenses because they are dealing with NOW.  Maybe that's not such a bad thing.  You only need to visit  upper Central Park on the 4th of July and smell the barbecue and listen to the ringing laughter of Hispanic children enjoying the holiday while their wealthy counterparts in the Hamptons are often smug and cranky and disappointed or drunk and miserable.  The competition of rich people-- with themselves, with their colleagues, their neighbors, their own family-- is relentless; even leisure is a call-to-arms.

My beloved friend took me out to a 4-star restaurant... maybe THE 4-star restaurant.  The breadth of menu was not just daunting but dazzling.  Course after course was served-- with such artistry and exquisite execution I felt like crying.  Beyond awe-- I was enchanted-- touched by the wand of dream-royalty, fairy-tale dining.  I looked around... people were laughing, eating, talking-- just like this was a daily meal.  Personally, it was like a sacred experience... I could not even recall the sequence of edible treats like tiny artistic tableaus which blew out my visual expectation and challenged my palette.  I wanted to stop it all-- to say--- just this, or this... I'll have this next week--- to go-- a postponement.  I felt overwhelmed-- overindulged-- like having a bath in liquid gold when all you needed was to wash off.  It was more than I could process.  The check-- I could not process that either-- enough to feed a family of 4 for a year, in many countries.

Last night I came home after a rough day-- cold and tired and tried-- and I made myself a pot of cheap potatoes and chicken.  Total cost: maybe $1... and it was warm and comforting and I felt grateful and happy.  I remembered working in a homeless shelter on the Bowery-- was it guilt which compelled me to do these things?  Because I am in a sense among the voluntary poor.  I look ahead, worry about some future- cannot spend more than I actually require, and if I had some opportunity, I would undoubtedly give it away.  After all, isn't that what rich people do, theoretically-- give things away?  And poor people... the kind I shop among in Harlem-- they do not generally want what I have to offer; they want something else-- an expensive watch, a vacation-- fashion... things that will do them no good... but still they want them; they will buy them on credit if they must.

According to national income statistics, I am at base-poverty level... but I feel pretty 'sated'... so how can I be poor?  There's no magic formula between need and want; it is warped by experience, expectation, poor values, materialism, distorted economics... I pity my downstairs neighbors who have just renovated their bloated apartment and continue to receive masses of boxes from Restoration Hardware.  It's so meaningless and pathetic... being at the bottom of the 1 percent: the poor rich, while I am among the rich poor.  

The man who won the $300,000,000 in Harlem-- I wonder what he needs now.  Something money can't buy?  Less? I would not want to walk in his shoes,  nor trade tickets.  I wonder what the moment felt like-- when he went from poor to rich.  Whether that happened.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Being Poor (part 1: Mr. Brightside)

My alma mater is a highly endowed institution; the weekly alumni publication manages to find us no matter where we go, whether we subscribe or not.  We are all potential endowment contributors.  I personally gave as I could.  These days my level of contribution  is $10-20 at best, and even that is a stretch... I have several times joked with classmates, many of whom have illustrious careers and paths of success, that I single-handedly lower their average income by double-percentage points... so I was a little taken aback when my alumni magazine cover article was titled 'Being Poor'.  Of course they were not referring to 'us', but to 'them'.

I am considered by many of my friends to be eccentric; my life choices are difficult and not conventional.  I live by my art.  I am somewhat proud of this, and fierce about my refusal to give in.  I am a hold-out-- a relic of the old New York bohemian cliché.  I do not live in subsidized housing-- have managed to make my own way, somehow.  The frequent 'number-crunching' sessions which challenge me at 3 AM are not about growth and retirement issues, profit and loss, value and cost... but basic bottom-line life issues.  How to eat, maintain my 'roof' (i.e. apartment), and manage to pay basic telephone/internet/Con Ed.  Beyond this, I buy virtually nothing--- a few subway rides to gigs... taxis are not on my expense sheets-- nor are clothes or movies, cellphones, take-out, a slice of pizza.  Over the past years I learned to forego my old craving for New York City street pretzels.  They do not accept foodstamps which, now that I have stopped resisting this benefit, provide a much more generous nutritional budget than I ever allowed myself.

Certainly I am not complaining.  I used to remind my son, growing up, when he whined about being the only player on his team without Jordans...  we are RICH-- we just do not have money.   I believe this, somehow.  I also distinctly remember the irony of what I would tell my mother, when she asked what I would become when I grew up-- that I want to be POOR-- a slap in the face to her fierce bourgeois values and the covert shadow of bitterness she hid so well when my Dad's personal psychology warranted an economic downturn in our household.

Unlike my mother, I have pretty much always had control of my life.  I had the best education money can (cannot?) buy without spending much... all the opportunities anyone can want-- a chance at the Golden Ring, a taste of self-made wealth... and then the haunting ironies of the dream of music and art.  As  a single Mom who traded everything for sole custody, I found myself back in the city with nothing-- my hands, my brain, a newborn who needed little I could not biologically provide-- a 'roof'... and a daily challenge to somehow manage foraging enough to keep us going.  There were days I played in the subway, did bars for the bucket-- got just enough gigs to get by, many days, on a bag of yesterday's donuts.  I learned the meaning of 'no':  no luxuries, no restaurants, no non-essentials, etc.  I had feet... my main means of transport... I was young enough that people wanted to give us things.  There is a sort of barter system here-- even in the city.  You discover these things-- free clinics, donated food-- the things people no longer need-- one man's garbage, etc.  You become resourceful and make things out of nothing-- the beauty of music. Yes, I had a guitar... and then you create out of your dreams... you paint with words-- you become, in the motto of my neighbor who chalked this everywhere he could-- on sidewalks and trees and discarded appliances-- your dream.

My friends know my personal economics are beyond any normal concept of thrift. Since I haunt the bargain-corps of Harlem and uptown-- I know the price of everything, to a penny-- I walk among the poor, and I am pretty much accepted into their society.  It is a different kind of culture-- and admittedly there are those who abuse the system, rely on being given what they need, have a certain reverse-entitlement.  But there are also the 'finders', like me, who navigate and calculate.  I will walk a good mile to save cents on potatoes or vegetables.  Occasionally I look into a cafe-- see people enjoying a coffee and a bagel-- anything-- sushi-- and I envy... I mean, I could splurge just once-- but something else must suffer.  And what I do 'score' ... is processed like an unexpected floral delivery.  It's all a gift-- it's the B-side of 'nothing'... which is everything, in a way.

Not that I don't worry obsessively and wake in the middle of the night (or day-- because my nights are when I 'make' them-- when I have finished my poems or my gigs or my puttering around with books) regretting that I didn't marry that nice man with the Hamptons estate and the baseball team... panicking I will lose my head or my mobility and be taken from my home into the worst city-run nursing facility with no reading material and bad TV.

But yesterday I found a quarter on the curb... 11 cents further uptown, shining like a diamond on the sidewalk.  The Turkish man who sells slightly damaged vegetables cheap gifted me a lemon and some ginger.  I will manage my bargain turkey I carried all the way from Target and will eat with a few friends-- my son... all the trimmings, thanks to foodstamps which no longer make me feel guilty but rewarded, in a way... and I can share this bounty.  I find I have everything I have ever wanted-- and a little more-- I am spoiled, and privileged, and I am damned grateful for this life of mine.  My classmates often accuse me of conducting some kind of socio-personal experiment, of feeling morally superior because I don't need money.  Oh but I do get paid for things... and I work hard, I do.  We musicians can make $100 for a night's work and with a little mercy and smart-economics, I can parlay this into a little joy, which is more than I can say for a good sector of this city population who have organic meals and grain-fed turkey, salon-hair, silver service, football tickets, Amazon Prime, Apple stock and i-Phone-Xs, balcony-views of the parade... healthy children... and fail to look out of their own windows as they mouth their grace.

(to be continued)


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.