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.