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.