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.