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.