Monday, June 10, 2019

As-salted

It's been a cranky week for Writerless... annoying editing setbacks, difficulties transferring analogue files... the older I get, the harder it is to move on from technology to technology.  Things get technically easier, but across the board, quality suffers.  Nothing like home-made pie, reel-to-reel recordings, dark-room printed photographs... I found one someone made of my son as an adolescent-- it was like a cross between a Calvin Klein ad and a Rebel Without a Cause handbill. Shot on the old roof of my building which is now divvied up among the rich for their air conditioning outboard equipment, it was timeless-- powerful... it had a vibe.  Things today don't seem to have a vibe.  Go pick up your new KAWS Uniqlo T-shirt... be a walking cartoon ad...  I see the same tattoos on people, over and over.

Last weekend was my 45th college reunion.  Did I go?  Have I ever? I am a lifetime committed absentee.  But Thursday and Friday night I played (again) at the (44th?) Max's Kansas City Reunion Extravaganza.  It was in a different venue this time which didn't quite feel right... besides, the bar portion of the club where you enter is a late-night hang-out for the young nouveau LES high-renters who have only just discovered the eighties.  Hardly anyone over 30; as opposed to the Max's performers and audience on the 'venue' side who were pretty much 50 and up.  On the way in I pass 2 young couples engaged in a little drunken hysterical repartee and this tall blonde spontaneously throws her drink in the air-- maybe unintentionally... christens me everywhere, except fortunately my old motorcycle boots shield me from the broken glass as it shattered on the hard floor.  So she looks at me-- points... Are you gonna buy me a drink?  I let her have it, verbally.  Are you going to buy me a new shirt and jeans, I ask her? Getting into full-armed Princeton bitch mode... I stared her down accusatively...until she backed off... but it changed my 'vibe' (that word again) and that was on her.

After a week of gigs--- subways, walking-- not a single purchased drink or bag of chips--- I earned $50.  Yes.  That is the deal.  Either you play in tribute bands, club dates, do Broadway... or have a job. I remember way back as a young bassist someone in a punk band told me I played like I had a job.  I did-- have a job, that is.  If you wanna really play, he said-- quit your day job.  So I did.  He was right... there's a difference... but looking around the room at the Max's reunion, nearly everyone played like they had a job--- or a husband.. or a trust fund, or an inheritance... except the few of us who stood around without drinks (for playing for no money, you get 50% off at the bar which is still out-of-reach) waiting to play like our lives depend on it (they do).   Of course the few bands who were successful from the old days were not there (Blondie, Television, etc.)  Or passed on (Lou Reed, etc.)... or decided to have a job, become a doctor or lawyer.

Anyway,  Saturday I worked all day at my friend's gallery to help make my monthly apartment payment.  I had no sleep, no lunch... some free coffee... but at 6 PM on the way home I had $2 and besides a hot dog, there isn't much you can do with it.  Union Square market is so pricey... no samples out at that hour, stands are packed up for the day and despite the advice from the HRA that you use your foodstamps at greenmarkets, they want your credit not benefit card.  Then I see the Martin's Pretzel truck.. loading up... remember they have those $1 plastic baggies of broken pieces... get a little energy buzz... until the vendor guy says to me-- nah.. no more... all packed up... except in a barrel waiting for loading are a bunch of bags that look about to become trash... How much, I ask?  $5 he says.  $5... for a small sandwich bag of crumbs.  I look sheepish... How much you got, he asks?  I show him the contents of my poor wallet... $2... okay, he says, as though he is splitting his steak dinner with me and while I eagerly tear into the bag because I am on the verge of passing out, he points his finger in my face and says... like you would scold a misbehaving child... Remember that, next week.  I wanted to spit the pretzel at him... they are stale and hard enough to break a tooth-- another unaffordable... but he had my $2 and I'm not that stupid.  I had no choice except put him in that mental box with the drink-spiller of the previous night.

On to the 4 train which is backed up and local and messed up and everyone is cranky.  There is a pre-Puerto Rican day crowd and demonstrators from another parade and the car is packed.  I am sitting next to a fat asshole in a tank top with cheap tattoos and shorts and he has his phone angled so he seems to be photographing the strange-looking crotch of the guy crammed in over us.  He gives me a sideways look and shuts his phone down.  We are stuck at 28th St... and a girl across the car seems to be freaking out... she is cursing under her breath and scrunching her face and slapping her knees... but she is a knockout... maybe 27... black hair, pale eyes... white skin and this look of punk exoticism from another planet.  So the fat asshole is maybe trying to flirt with her... and he asks.. What's your problem? She answers-- and she is tough... I'm pregnant and I'm sick and I need to get home.  Me..I offer her a pretzel... but she is getting into it with the asshole who calls her a cunt and other things...and she stands up and starts ragging on him... until some crazy old woman (my age?) takes the stage waving her handmade flyers and shouting at us all because we are cruel meat eaters.

Anyway, the fat asshole is now standing up in his shorts which are disturbingly short and enough to make us all sick.... and I gently grab the pregnant girl and walk her down to the end of the car.  It's not worth it, I say. You have to protect your baby...  which I can't really see, because honestly she doesn't look pregnant to me... but who cares?  Anyway, after a few minutes of the fat guy ranting about women some hefty black girl built like a linebacker walks over to him and screams in his face and makes a fist and all hell is about to break loose but the guy realizes he's like a Trump supporter in a small crowd of democrats and Gay Rights Activists and Black Lives Matter supporters and he sits down... then a young black kid with dreads goes over and rags on him, too, calls him a motherfucker and cocksucker and other things... and the car is cheering him on... but the pregnant girl and I are by the rear car door and the train is finally moving and now her eyes get red and she is worn down and starts weeping on me.   I remember how a train accident caused me to lose a baby once... and think... here.. this could be the one, the girl that has my baby's donated organs-- and she is really hanging onto me now-- letting it go--- and here we are, like a religious pastiche of Mother and Weeping unidentified Daughter...  and finally it is my stop and she says she'll be okay.

The black guy says he'll make sure she gets off safe in East Harlem... and now I am on my way home where I can strategize the $1.82 left on my benefit card until Tuesday and I'm nearly safe.  I'm weeping myself, wet with the pregnant girl's tears which could be DNA-simpatico to my own, the taste of the stale salt pretzel on my tongue like a bad communion wafer, and the stench of that spilled drink still in my nose because I have on the same old jeans.

The phone rings as I come in and it's an ex-boyfriend driving back from Nashville, lying his ass off as usual about how he misses me and about a phantom divorce except he doesn't know I know he's not so secretly married and he makes an excuse he has to fix something in the car when it's another call from his wife, because these stalking spouses have radar for when their men call ex-girlfriends...  but then I turn the ringer off... and I remember it was he that took that great shot of my son on the roof... kind of a good souvenir of a bad relationship... and I also realize someone found my missing guitar strap and the evening sunset is just so warm and the city is almost quiet up in my hood... just the car radios and the Puerto Rican flag wavers yelling as they pass...  and I can still play bass like I don't have a job, which I don't, except for playing bass... and for now I can close my front door and rule the world. Que vaya con Dios, I pray to my pregnant daughter-- another orphaned dream in the urban mix.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Coney Island Baby

Now that my father has been gone 3 years, Memorial Day is not the same.  Not that he spoke much about the war; it took him a good 50 years after his last medals were processed to begin meeting with other WWII veterans and survivors.  He never really considered his daughters as 'legacy', and one thing I respected about him most-- he considered it bad form to self-aggrandize and accept accolades of bravery when the real heroes had come back in boxes.

In my childhood, it was called 'Decoration Day' and it fell on May 30th.  No Monday euphemisms in the 50's and 60's.  Holidays were observed-- not shopped and marketed to death.  Yes, there was a cookout... even a trip to Washington DC where I experienced presidential and military Memorial monuments which were humbling and inspiring.  I was maybe 5-- the scale of these buildings was enormous... the lines of people waiting to enter were impressive; it was my first brush with 'America'.  What did I know? My father was a mystery-- a man with a hard shell who occasionally held my hand in crowds.

I've been tough on my father, as he was incredibly tough on me.  In the current culture, fathers are so hands-on... they are intimately involved in pregnancies, present at the birth, they change diapers and share parenting equally.  They are emotional and tender... this is accepted and acceptable... but maybe not so in my father's day.  After all, here was a tough military hero suddenly dropped in the big city with a young wife and domestic responsibility.  He left home a boy, lived with terror and violence and a daily task of staying alive against massive odds and challenges... then returned laden with medals and souvenir uniforms to join the city workforce-- to get an apartment, shop for groceries.  Every day on the subway and on street corners we are accosted by these displaced veterans who are struggling to adjust to regular life, and failing.  We are aware of this now.  Back then, there was little empathy built into the system-- they were expected to simply pick up the ball and continue.

The concept of a father, I suppose, was as important as the actuality.  Even though I had little communication with mine, it was assumed he paid bills, went to work, had the car fixed, etc.  Kind of the way we viewed our President as kids-- the Father of our country.  It was Eisenhower, during much of my childhood-- then Kennedy came and we all bonded.  He was the movie-star President-father-- our handsome hero  who was camera-ready and charming.  Brave and smart.  We didn't pick our heroes apart in those days;  Elvis was King.

By the same token, the concept of children was different.  No one bothered to ask me if I was happy or unhappy.  I was told where to go and what to do-- Scout wilderness camp, music, ballet... my parents placed their kids into the same slots all their neighbors kids were in.  There was no discussion, no question-and-answer.  I grew up and left home a teenager.  I had little desire to return.  As I studied and observed the world, I realized some things just look normal and pretty.  My independence, despite the ultra-dependent model of my Mom-- such a perfectly functional 50's style housewife-- was supreme.

Memorial Day now is a day of nostalgia for me.  Sure-- the sense of oncoming summer, and the absence of the excitement we felt as children about the end of school coalesces on the brink of June, but for me-- well, no parades, but memories.  As a single parent, it always brought the seasonal stress of how to amuse my son with no school and very little money.  There were camp options, sports options... but essentially we spent summers sweating it out in the city, me feeling guilty about lacking the means for a vacation... my own father judging me for my failure to do this, but never offering to help out; not his style, nor mine.  It is also the anniversary of the death of my baby daughter-- something I could not process for years.  It was a beautiful day... she held out until the post-Memorial Day Tuesday at lunchtime.

Coney Island was a frequent treat when I was very small.  Ditto for my own son.  It was something I could manage-- a subway ride, a day on the Boardwalk.. a few kiddie rides and a hotdog.  This year I kept remembering one incident... we took the D train to Brooklyn on the Friday after school.  My son had a full scholarship to a prestigious prep school which was great-- but all his friends would be whisked off to exotic weekend destinations and Fridays were kind of a finger pointing at me tattooed with 'Loser'.  So he was maybe 10--- had just reached the required height to ride the Cyclone.  I'd had my fill of that roller coaster as a child.  It was a rite of passage and I closed my eyes and made it through-- terror being the operative emotion.  Something about those old wooden rides... but my own son was determined-- it was like a test, a badge.  I'd put aside a little extra-- that was becoming tough for me-- to even afford a day at the amusement park.

So there we were, at maybe 4 PM-- we circled the park, watched a few games... finally approached the great ride, the King of the amusement park.   How he had grown in one year-- we'd measured him with his running sneakers...  even my heart was racing at the foot of the rollercoaster... we could hear screams every several second intervals and the unique rumbling noise of wheels on wooden tracks.  I'm really hungry, my son announced... there was a small stand across from the entrance that sold corncobs.  We ordered one... they were so good... he drank a coke... slowly... the cars stopped, dropped off their happy human passengers and reloaded...  watched another course.  Another.  He ordered another ear of corn... ate it with deliberation I'd never seen in a boy.  We watched.  It was loud... terrifying...  Five o'clock passed and lines were becoming longer.

8:15... the sun was going down... Four ears of corn, one pretzel for me... I finally announced I think I'd run out of cash...  there was barely enough for the Cyclone ticket-- we'd have to walk home.  So he scolded me, my son... damn you, Mom... let's go.  We rode quietly back, changed trains... he said not one word to me... I never brought it up; he never again asked to go back to Coney Island except to watch Marbury and Sebastian Telfair on the courts as a teenager... that was that.

I often thought-- if he'd had a father-- my father--  he would have been walked up to the ride, strapped in... done.  I had enough issues mothering a boy;  but I wasn't going to coerce him into anything.  I went to all his games, wildly cheered him on... God knows how I ended up with the star athlete, the girl-magnet in High School...  Maybe this was kind of a rebellion?  Anyway, it was his path.  He once commented, after some kid's Dad was coaching his basketball team-- you know, Mom... I'd rather have no father than that father.   There was a man downstairs who'd been a professional soccer star in South America.  He was rough and tough and his son was gay-at-birth.  The soccer star screamed and gave beatings and the kid often took refuge in my apartment; he'd sit and paint, wearing one of my hats; he had incredible talent.  Still, I wasn't sure.  The very word father made me emotional.

On Memorial Day Monday my son who is nearly thirty now buzzed my apartment unexpectedly.  He is rarely in my neighborhood and I am usually at home these days, holiday or not, obliviously working on music and poetry projects.  I was dressed in old clothes, unprepared for guests... and he was with a new girlfriend-- they'd been on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum-- one of my favorite places.  They came up.  She looked at his old room, the photos I have on my shelves and walls...  and I realized he was showing her the little monuments and souvenirs of his past-- no medals like in my childhood home-- but his old musician/writer mother in her cabinet of curiosities here... this boychild I had brought into the world with no skills or experience-- without a man to show him the ropes,  here he was-- no military honors, no Cyclone ticket stub, no cookouts and grilling contests or company picnics, but plenty of memories --not ashamed but proud of his roots and the  past we had somehow created in our own random uncharted family way.  Something to salute.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Sex in the City

Lately I've been feeling not exactly discouraged but 'slackened'-- maybe I'm coming off the cruel backlash of April, but the spirit of May has felt more like a nagging hangover than a renaissance.  The indignities of our political climate are being swallowed down like the shitty mediocre coffee we've all come to accept here... one tweet from some useless celebrity talking head, and the crowd sway seems to drown out all protest.  The spring art auctions used to cheer me up-- but now it's all a huge manipulated hedge fund... who needs the tax burdens and massive maintenance issues of real estate when they can buy and sell for millions per square inch?  Much more practical... and you get your name out there not just in the tabloids, but the mainstream media.

So many of my beloved old venues have shut down, having given up trying to keep their heads above encroaching debt-water.  I have fewer gigs, and can ill-afford going much anywhere with a door.  Restaurants don't appreciate food stamps.  My overnight inspiration feels sorely moot and underappreciated.  I stray--- like a sad old lamb.   I readily confess to binging on familiar television noir films, but when those run out-- I admit I have recently discovered Sex in the City.  Yes-- me, who shunned Seinfeld, Friends--  every other sitcom in their time... I've found something addicting in viewing the version of 'ruined' New York I snubbed in the 90's.  Compared to what we get now-- it looks decent.  Obviously others have discovered this, too, apparently, because it seems to be on 24/7 in endless loops.

Of course, each generation had its own version of urban life--- the 'ripe' adult phase-- your girlfriends and roommates-- the inappropriate affairs... the intoxicating hurricane cultures and fads.... bars and restaurants, clubs-- infinite entertainments of menus, club music, art galleries.  Things were being invented nightly... men were plentiful and you could go uptown or downtown-- upscale or slummy/grungy... there was nothing like being on your own, with safety in numbers... and people were wide-eyed and alive-- not buried in their phones and texting.  We danced and yelled and sang and ate and ran around streets which still felt historic and important and yet new.

What I've discovered, twenty-something years later, is the 'vintage-lite' appeal of this show-- well, the girl-gang thing, a non-familial and more intelligent form of Kardashianism-- but also a certain marketing of New York to the rest of the world who peered in with fascination and voyeurism.  How many girls spent their salaries on shoe collections and longed for a West Village studio and a newspaper column?  Or the old-school Park Avenue husband?  The jogs and horseback rides in Central Park, cafes and bookstores, club openings, new restaurants... billboards on buses, New York Times reviews...these things have changed.  The internet has changed most everything.  And New York-- well, the local celebrities and eccentrics have all but disappeared in the whitewash of social media.

I sound like an old person now, and I am.  Maybe I failed to 'get' what everyone else got, immersed as I had been in my Proust and Jean Genet and David Foster Wallace... but I guess what I'm saying is I would gladly take this SITC version of New York over what we have now.  The early episodes still feature landlines and answering machines... cigarettes in bars,  couples actually looking at one another over dinner-- taxis-- labels and not brands-- video rental stores and Tower Records...coffee shops... it's 'new' nostalgia but it beats what we're getting today.

In the 90's I had many visitors from Scandinavia who obsessed over the 60's and the roots of American rock and roll.  They wandered around Greenwich village looking for Bob Dylan's footprints and Jimi Hendrix's old apartments.  They photographed places where Allen Ginsberg had drank and read, visited CBGB's and bought Patti Smith books. I tolerated their hero worship with my 'been there, done that' attitude... after all-- I'd been at Newport in the 60's and met John Lennon several times... I am/was a true New Yorker.

Earlier this week a young couple from Norway visited.  One of them had never been to America.  He is a renowned but not rich guitarist and she is an artist.  In order to afford the lowest fare level and a one-star hotel for 3 nights, he worked painting houses and gardening.  They arrived during the worst spring weather I've seen in years-- a stubborn nor'easter pattern which spread a 3-day pall of cold rain and cloud-cover over the city like a punishment.  It was funereal and depressing.  For a tourist budget which allows for little more than self-directed walking tours and street food, it was a wash.  There were rats in their dark room and the communal bathrooms smelled of sewage.  Visibility was low on the bridges; the Empire State building seemed to evaporate in the fog.  I can't remember a drearier Mother's Day; I wore a fleece coat and watched basketball playoffs with my son in a local bar; everyone seemed muted and cold.

The Norwegians showed up at my Monday night gig, where we old rockers were doing our best to keep up an electric tradition.  I can't even buy anyone a drink these days; at least there was no cover... but I had to resist the urge to apologize on behalf of my city.  The presidential American shame is bad enough--- but here we all were--- downtown on the Lower East Side... and I was hard pressed to muster a little rock-and-roll joy and to keep myself from talking about the good old days.  It is what it is, my guitar player says, as we headed west toward the ailing nighttime trains, past the stores and spaces of what used to be... thinking about the concept of future shock and the reality that every three months Downtown morphs and sheds another skin.  I used to guide people through architecture and galleries, down streets; even the Metropolitan Museum is now wearing a Play It Loud banner like an old seer dressed in young man's clothing.  I no longer belong anywhere except my own apartment.  I wondered how this couple processed the city-- the dream they'd had-- the streets of gold vinyl and talent-- the art and the poetry and the grit now a slick modified vision of pseudo-luxury and bling... the unwholesome smell of over-taxed sewers and wet garbage and the omnipresent homeless-- soaken and broken and swollen.

So I failed in my usual role of tour-guide and old-cultural liaison.  They looked cold and hungry and bewildered from their miserable trek in what seemed like winter rain.  They came looking for paradise-- a souvenir honeymoon to remember for all time from the Scandinavian countryside, and found a shrouded, subdued island in the midst of an urban identity crisis.  Was it the nor'easter that spoiled the dream or was this just a meteorologic excuse for something that has long evaporated except for in late-night television re-runs?   I wanted to cry and only hoped, from my cold but dry bed last night, they had enough love between them to have a little sex in the city.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Collections- 2

On the very first day of school I was confused when the teacher announced she was coming around to 'collect' the papers on which we had drawn our self-portraits in crayon.   It baffled me that she wanted to take home our childish work and put it in a box.  My Mom had always given me old candy tins and cigar boxes for my 'collections'.  These I piled up and secured with a rubber band.  Children are natural collectors; my passions were rocks, shells, small rubber dinosaurs and tiny glass animals.  Some children on the block collected insects or worms-- the ambitious ones caught butterflies and pressed them sadly between plastic sheets where they miraculously, unlike other things, retained their beauty although dead.

By second grade, I began to save stamps-- they looked so amazing swimming around in their box, like fragile paper mosaics...  and they were labeled with exotic words and people I'd never seen-- landscapes and fairylands.  Some of them had traveled so far to live in my little room.   On rainy days I'd take the boxes out and look at their contents... I'd line them up and study them one by one-- I'd create little plays and vignettes and move them around, hold them up to the window or shine a flashlight on one and then another.

At school, I began to understand there were other meanings to words.  After all, there was the collection plate on Sundays, the toll collector when we crossed bridges, the trash and bottle collector
who came for pick-ups, and later, the tax collector.  What I don't remember is ever exceeding the limit of my boxes.  I did glue the special shells onto a felt board so I could hang them on the wall... but mostly, my little collections remained happily within the boundaries of their containers.  My father had a stack of Roman coins in a tennis-ball can.  I was not allowed to open this myself, but I often sneaked into his closet and shook it around like a tambourine.

These days, when I visit an art fair or museum, they often ask me-- am I a visitor, a dealer or a collector--  the collector, here, being the preferred tag, because they continue to offer you categories and boxes to check so they can identify your 'area of interest'.  An adult collector is a buyer-- someone who acquires things not just because they are beautiful or interesting, but because they are assumed to have value.  You are not just an audience here, but a necessary participant.  The whole show is for your entertainment, your enticement to support the platform-- to buy, spend money, perpetrate the system.  The wares are a few dollars' worth of canvas and paint, or material-- but pulled from the tall hat of the art gallery, they are transformed into 'art'-- they are labelled not only with a signature and a title, but with a corresponding number of dollars which affects the way you perceive these, after a while.  Of course there is true talent out there, but it is less common among the unending unloading of product.  Imagine the numbers of students finishing art school every year, entering the vast pool of what already exists-- not to mention the posthumous forgotten in overpopulated storage bins.

Despite the galactic numbers of images available on anyone's internet allowing nearly anything to be viewable at any time in your home, the acquisition ambition has never been stronger.  It seems also, each successive generation has a certain nostalgia for objects of the previous generation-- vinyl, vintage leather, watches, jewelry, fashion.   Everyday things, removed from their 'era', are not just collectible but valuable.  Online auctions have grown from primitive eBay beginnings to thousands of high-end auctions which offer anything from old master paintings to cars to grand homes and purchasable islands.  For some items, the more they are traded, the higher the value.  Almost everything is searchable, and eventually find-able.

It's no wonder people become hoarders in this culture.  Things are so available and viewable in numbers-- so easy to 'have' at the click of a button, a PayPal 'confirm'... free shipping, the anticipation-- the arrival.. the joy or disappointment... the perpetual Christmas, the careless cheap collections-- for the ones who find happiness in sheer number, the ones who agonize and painfully decide, the ones who like fickle lovers detest within days the very item they have bought-- the research and storytelling, the 'marketing' of a period or a place-- celebrity provenance... There are people who pay many times the value of an item because it belonged once to Madonna, or Andy Warhol, despite the fact it had little relevance to their life...  it has gained the status of a relic, and is doubly collectible.

The amount of available 'art' on the market is overwhelming.  I grew up thinking I 'knew' every important painting and its location.  Now I can't keep track of the museums opening globally, everyday, in every city... in multiples.  As old collectors die, their holdings are acquired or donated to institutions so we find ready-made collections within collections.  Upcoming artists are promoted and marketed with a vengeance; the Warholian model has been extended-- where he put the soupcan ironically on the canvas, now the art is almost simultaneously produced as skateboards and T-shirts-- coffee mugs and umbrellas-- phone cases and sneakers, toys and souvenirs.  Art advisors and gallerists, like stockbrokers, navigate options for their clients and guarantee their full art wallets remain so.  Artists run their studios like a business, maximizing output, manipulating sales, jumping from gallery to installation to institution, merchandising their product and becoming overnight superstars.  It takes years for a tree to grow tall, but some  seven-figure art is produced in an hour.  It seems wrong.  But the art audience is massive, and buyers are impatient and greedy-- insatiable.  Facile art suits the competitive 'soft' market.  Collecting is epidemic.

The 'look' of contemporary art, to me, has a certain built-in clock.  I can smell obsolescence the way I never trusted those beanie babies children begged for in the 1990's.  It's all too easy-- too facile.  Part of the beauty of being--say, a record collector in the 1960's-- was the chase.  Ask Keith Richards-- how he came to America and went to record shops.  Things were rare-- things were treasured.  They were listened to and looked at and loved, the way I loved the tiny glass animals in my Eldorado box.

I am finished collecting, now.  It is a time in my life to take stock of what I have and look at things.  Besides the art, I'm not sure anyone will appreciate my home 'museum', but I have grown to understand the soul of objects and the words they elicit.  My friends tease me because I still don't have a mobile phone... but I spend many hours outside observing and listening to the city.  I come home and am embraced by modest things I find beautiful and compelling.  It is enough.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Collections-- Part 1

Saturday afternoons for years I work at a gallery.  Generally it is quiet there- people come in one or two at a time, spend time thoughtfully in what are generally minimal displays, occasionally engage in a brief dialogue, and leave.  But for the past month, visitors have come in droves more or less, brought in by review after review of a place that is usually off the press radar.  What brings the attention is a small show of selected collections of seven artists.  Each grouping has been carefully curated from objects or small precious things from their respective homes.  In one case, the articles are gathered posthumously from the apartment of a deceased photographer who was apparently kind of a hoarder.  These are grouped on a wall in the front of the gallery-- close together and informally, as they might be in one's home-- simultaneously thoughtfully and not thoughtfully, so they seem a bit spontaneous and natural, in direct contrast to the clean minimalism of the gallery.

The number of people attracted to this random grouping has been astonishing.  I mean, it looks a bit like any vaguely middle-class bohemian parlor-wall-- things painted a bit amateurishly, things of vague value from thrift shops and flea markets...  of a certain period.  Week after week, people gaze in through the glass and sigh at this wall-- with a kind of nostalgia-- young people, well-dressed people; some even ask prices, which are irrelevant to this non-selling exhibition.  What they are seeing is a kind of diorama of this now-deceased person's home, of his aesthetic.   And they respond.

Each of the artists in the show is a collector... of things-- of art, toys, objects... souvenirs.  In a way it is a voyeuristic non-verbal biography of their personal culture-- a portrait of what they love, what comforts them or reminds them-- what inspires and excites them.  True artists are pioneers.  They discover things-- places-- in a different way.  They see a landscape and go home and paint horizontal geometry; they hear a siren and a crash and they compose a violent symphony.  They find a rock or some random object, and they transform it-- they absorb and transcend.

Over the last twenty years or so, people's homes in this city have become more and more minimal.  Technology allows them to live without paper; many have renovated apartments and removed books, records--- things.  Their lives are hard-edged and their lines are clean.  They have windows onto the city, gadgets which fit into drawers and low-tables with only a single book or object.  Clutter has become something to be shunned or hidden.  Closets are organized; there are experts who assist  with this process-- they oversee the discarding and paring-down of the unnecessary.   iPods and phones hold thousands of albums; we no longer need the packages.  Thrift shops are crammed with donations; some have recently declined to accept books; they are glutted with material.

But I have noticed-- inspiration has changed.  The things that 'drive' contemporary art have changed.  Art is about walls, or computers, or animation-- or concepts.  Art is packaged, marketed, less 'hands-on' and more mechanized, impersonalized.  It is digital-- animated, computer-generated.  It has ideas-- large ideas-- but less soul, less heart.  Some of it is created on a huge scale--  cute things-- toys, animals-- that tower over us, as though these 'soft' things are only culturally relevant when they are bloated or monumentalized.  We are jaded and spoiled and cannot 'see' the obvious.  We are adult children and are emotionally unsophisticated from the constant bombardment of phone-stimuli.  The New York Times recently revealed staggering numbers of adults who admit to sleeping with a stuffed toy.  The culture of pets and domestic animals is larger than ever; we sublimate and transfer and rely on our animals for affection.

So maybe this is a clue to the reception of the show-- that these same people who have eliminated the clutter in their lives, but maybe not the longing of their hearts-- are looking at this wall with a kind of recognition.  It represents domestic nostalgia-- a version of visual comfort and aesthetic calm-- like seeing a wall of small landscapes, or a display of rocks... a row of vases, or a garden of things that have grown, things that are interesting to see and aesthetically pleasing.  Inspiring and spiritually nourishing.  Beautiful and not inaccessible, the way museum art can be-- but small and personal and meaningful, the way life and 'collecting' used to be.   They find a connection, here-- they look and look, they ask prices, and standing in front of the wall seems to change their 'speed'.

When my son's friends came into the gallery to see this well-received show, they  remarked that the 'wall' looked just like my apartment.  Millenials come into my home these days and marvel at the number of paintings on the wall, and the rows of books-- the shelves of vinyl and the instruments.  They look around and sometimes they take down a book and absorb themselves.  Sometimes I remind myself I am not going to live forever and I must begin to sift through my possessions.  This is difficult for me; it is a life lived here--- my things, my friends, my nonhuman children-- my muses and my comfort.  Yes, there is a degree of relative clutter, but there is also a kind of soul.  The room is not about the space but what defines it-- the content.   This is my life... my collection, my object-family.

The exhibition ended on Saturday.  It gave me a little hope that gallery-visitors and cultural trendsetters are maybe beginning to thaw just slightly from the techno-cold aesthetic that has defined interior design and contemporary office decor.   These people who paint their skin and own animals and live in 'clean' spaces are beginning to let humanity in... a bit of history, nostalgia-- vinyl, materials... the thrill of a forgotten thrift-shop painting.  Take out your earphones once in a while and talk to an older person-- listen to the sound of things, and find your passion, your own unique collection.  You will be rich in ways you have yet to uncover.

 (To be continued)

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Mad Marchness

On my first day at Princeton, I was asked to sign a copy of the university honor code.  This is an agreement, made with complete solemnity, that (a) as a student I will not cheat or violate the school's ethical educational protocol, and (b) that I will report anyone who does.  So I submitted my document, crossed out the second part, and signed it.  Of course I was called in and questioned, and I explained my thinking-- that if everyone 'oathed' to be honest, how could there be anything to report?

The point being-- there is a sort of assumption that the code will inevitably be broken, but to acknowledge this seemed a denial of the version of academic innocence that presumably qualified us for entrance in the first place.  The Deans-that-were thought I was being rebellious and argumentative; on the contrary, I was being honest and clear.  In the end they allowed me to sign off on the first clause, and delete the second-- an exception, in good faith, because they could see I was clearly committed to an education process.  In retrospect, they had to allow me my innocent belief that the academic world was built on a solid ethical contract and that we were there to learn.  Why would I think otherwise?

Granted, my first week of class I was terrified that my fellow students would realize I was under qualified.  Sure, I was a good student-- mostly because I loved to read-- but I'd come from a public school; my parents had never attended college, and my Mom's reading list consisted of Ladies' magazines and local newspaper stories.  She was certainly not stupid, but she used to read the spines of my library books as though they were in another language.  My roommates were from Boarding Schools... they'd had sophisticated specialized classes and some had had tutors.  I was naive and thought this some British system of advanced one-on-one teaching.

I survived... actually graduated with highest honors and won some awards and scholarships.  Yes, my Mom put the Ivy League stickers on her car and 'wore' my alma mater with some pride.  Both parents never forgave my foregoing the Harvard Law scholarship and depriving them of bragging rights.  But my life was my own;  the career choices that horrified them suited me.  Most of all I am uber-grateful to Princeton not for the guaranteed access to a certain society, but for the opportunity of learning.  I am intellectually rich and gained a sense of context... this is the world, this was the world... I know how to ask questions and where to go for answers.  I have an appetite for information, for art-- to understand, to look, to listen, to have an opinion.  I paid very little, other than work-study assignments.  Is this not education?

For many years, maybe as a kind of payback, I've interviewed prospective freshmen for Princeton.  It is volunteer work and my students are nearly all from the outer boroughs, so I do not overlap with neighbors and acquaintances.  I've watched the boroughs become more and more gentrified over the past decades.  My students in the 90's had rarely been to Manhattan; now some of them are world travelers-- but most are low and middle class people, and many are recent immigrants.  Their parents have not been to college, and they all need financial aid.  Some of them work-- even full time, at places like Wendy's, after school and weekends.  One of them this year cared for a blind father.   They are eager and timid but all of them seem to have this faith in themselves-- this belief.  They are satisfied with their performance-- even proud.  It touches me-- their young ambition, their dreams.

Once in a while I am assigned a privileged student-- from a city private school who has been prepped for the interview-- who is well traveled and has an iPhone.  They often come in winter without a coat--- they are driven to the meeting and have a bit of swagger.  They reel off their accomplishments and social service hours with professionalism, their global sophistication and their intentions.  Often they are legacy children; many generations have attended before them and they are nearly certain they will be accepted. They have had lessons and gone to specialty camps.  One of them last year had his own sailboat and competed in some junior version of the America's cup.

I have grappled many times with the admissions committee-- how can you compare these prepped and college-ready kids to the boy I interviewed in January from Kashmir-- who had sat in a public library in Queens day after day trying to absorb the new language, looking at Chemistry texts with familiar formulae?  Or the homeless girl who apologized for not having a shower... who slept in an abandoned basement, borrowed pens from her teachers, wrote in discarded notebooks and was reading Murakami?  They assure me these children will get every equal opportunity, and our assessments are being studied so they can properly 'read' the potential of unusual students and 'weight' achievement accordingly.  I believe them.  I believe when they tell me they can spot a professionally written essay in the first sentence.  They are good at what they do.

My own son has a great brain-- the city prep schools fought over him... but as a teenager, he lost interest in school.  I tried-- and let him fail, while we watched much less gifted kids achieve comparable scores and competitive grades with many thousands of tutoring hours.  I will admit he made some decent pocket money writing papers for his classmates in middle school.  It was a kind of job and at least he was doing someone's homework, if not his own.  I never ratted-- but along these lines, I've noticed wealthy families feel they are delinquent if they do not spend large sums on outside SAT tutoring and college advising services.  None of these are indicated on the applications.  Is this fair?  Not really.  My son has complained to me recently that many of his most successful friends have start-ups funded by their affluent families.  I can only agree.  Is this fair?  Maybe.  This is life.  Really beautiful girls are more readily acknowledged...  tall men are generally better equipped for basketball teams.

We live in a world fueled by money.  Our presidents have cheated.  Our star athletes have cheated.  Art dealers and museum curators cheat and lie.  Singers lip-synch; recording artists use machines and auto-tune.  They put their names on music written by others-- they steal and adapt things written by lesser known artists.  Not so many are punished; success seems often to whitewash the spotlight.  I suppose what bothers us most about the recent college entrance scandals is the villainous parent scenario.  It scars the institution of the American family, not that it hasn't been exposed as an often dysfunctional body with a perfect face.  It shows both a level of personal sacrifice, and a complete disconnect with the 10 Commandments of parenting.

Am I surprised?  Maybe at the particular scheme, but not at the modus operandi or the intention.  In fact it goes far deeper than this, which seemed almost innocent compared to the scandalous manipulations of our political and religious leaders.   And we have known for years about NCAA schemes.  I used to be warned never to buy even a coffee for one of my interviewees in the event he or she is an athlete and this could be construed as bribery.  So this, I thought, is where they get the money they use to pay off.  On the brink of the basketball tournament, the amount of media attention paid to these two actresses is a little suspect.  Especially one who stood for a kind of American innocence.  If these were just non-celebrity wealthy people would the news give them this much time?  Another instance of inequitable receipts.

In the end, the parents seem less guilty to me than those who received the money and offered the schemes in the first place-- who prey on the insecurities and vicarious ambition of the monied.   As do the overpaid college advisors who claim to offer access to the front of the line, who enable and pad applications.  Whatever happened to the level playing field?  Failure as a learning tool?  As a reality check?  Every brilliant athlete loses games, fouls out.  In the end we can't stand in for our children or hire stuntmen to take their pain.  Surrogate parents only go so far, and surrogate students do no service whatsoever but for themselves.  We might do better addressing the students, without their family-crutches... without their tutors and coaches and advisors.  In their unadulterated innocence, as it exists today, if we can peel back the digital masks and uncover some human shine.

Friday, March 8, 2019

And Then There Were....

You'd have to pay me to watch The Bachelor, I recall vowing to one of my friends who was investing in the odds.  Well... while it's not much, a blogger-friend has actually offered me financial remuneration for a few snide comments and speculations.  She's getting stale, she complained, Season 23 taking its toll and she's pretty much used her verbal ammunition several times over-- not that anyone remembers.  Despite spin-offs and the desperate appearances of the hard-core reality-show whores,  these girls are pretty much a flash in the cultural pan.

But for me, it is a bit of novelty.  Sure, I remember the Dating Game, but these were blind interviews and resolved between commercial breaks.  The couples rode off in their sponsored limos and were never seen again, for the most part.  Here, it seems to be an obvious promotional vehicle for some of these misinformed women who are ID'd onscreen with their age and profession every time they get a little cameo.  It's like a three month video audition selfie, with the terms 'rollercoaster', 'skeptical' and 'I'm not gonna lie' recurring in nearly every scene.

America loves a contest.  We watch Top Chef, Project Runway, The Voice, Dancing with the Stars... week after week we tune in to see the paring-away of players until a winner is crowned.  The Bachelor, as I see it, is like Miss America with one judge who gets to sample the contestants.   It's every man's fantasy, in the sexist old-style world.  What woman do I know who would submit herself to this kennel show?  And the prize?  A ready-made husband.  Pre-fabricated happiness.  Essentially all the women are pretty homogeneous-- no one is short or ugly or handicapped... their hair and make-up are perfect, their teeth are straight, their wardrobes are similar... no one talks about politics, no one reads, no one does much of anything but sit around with the other boring girls gossiping and waiting for the next opportunity to see this Colton, who is very un-Americanly a virgin (!).  Is this more or less than we wanted to know?  For me it's a red flag.  How can anyone who is parading themselves in a bikini before audiences of millions be on the same page as this guy?  Oh... there is one girl (eliminated) who had never been kissed.  How she got through middle school is beyond me.  Really? Frogs have done better.

So the final episodes have filtered out all but three women, and the bachelor has gone to their hometowns to meet their families whom we see in staged home settings.  Three women-- one of whom will become his fiancee and eventually his wife in a few short weeks... and he is still kissing all of them, using the words 'falling in love'... and wary about getting his heart broken, needing to be certain his feelings will be reciprocated, and the girl is not in it for the media attention.  There seems little doubt anyone on this show has any other motive?  But still America watches... believes...
We believe in love, don't we?  Despite statistics, betrayals, perversions, secrets, duplicities, plastic surgery and the fickle nature of this internet age, we believe.

So there is one girl in the final three... she is young, naturally and wholesomely beautiful, has cascading blonde hair and looks great in her bikini-- obvious chemistry-- the guy can't keep his hands off her on their one date... and you can't blame him.  But there is something reticent and unsure about her.  She is perhaps there for ulterior motives-- not too smart-- but knows exactly how she looks when she pouts or cries... she's immature and cannot even lie that she is ready for marriage because she still needs to ask her father to make her decisions...  I suppose this is a kind of honesty, there... I mean, who can swear eternal love after three weeks of television shoots and zero intimacy? So she is the one who admits that she is 'on the fence' which is either a ploy for more on-camera dialogue or a bold-faced strategy.  And it seems to work, because despite the main premise that he must select the 'one' who is also ready to reciprocate, he not only does not eliminate her, but refuses to accept her resignation.  

Here we have it-- not the Aesopian moral of sour grapes, but the American male obsession with the one that 'got away'.   He is now sure, throwing the whole show under the bus, before the scheduled countdown, that this is what he wants, and this is what he wanted the whole entire season, while he went through motions of bonding with 20-some-odd other women.  From the get-go...he wanted the doll-- the surfer Barbie, the blonde bride on the cake in realtime.  Sound familiar?

I have a hard time imagining how he can kiss so many women-- I mean, at my most promiscuous, in my prime.. when we were all sampling and curious-- there were maybe 2-- maybe 3... at a time.  Especially this stupid pantomime when he knew from day one what he wanted... when he apparently and admittedly made a judgment based purely on the physical 'layout' of flesh and features, as nature calls... and the fact that there was a slight hesitation on her part-- either she is smarter than we know, or he is just fulfilling the old prophecy of dating lore-- that he must have the one who doesn't really want him.  And for her, clever dumb girl, she has left the game... and somehow I sense she will feel insecure and sorry... and maybe the drama is totally calculated because isn't she really the truest player, the winner?  The one who left while she was in first place?  Who broke his heart and made it impossible for anyone else?  I predict there will be a sequel-- she will return because there must be a twist now, America is bored of the game-- there has to be a coda, some drama... or else ratings will plunge.

And is he looking for love--- or a job?  His football career was over... he has obviously been groomed for TV, seems a little more on-camera comfortable than he was as a contestant... his hair is thicker, his abs are better.... he relishes his own shower-cameos.  Maybe he is in love with himself.   It's a little suspect that the guy has never had sex, although this is television-- who knows?

I can't help remembering once this very handsome guy used to come to my gigs... handsome like you rarely saw in NewYork City downtown... beautiful.  He tended bar midtown in one of those clubby cavernous side street places with a famous name.  He was in an off-Broadway play.  He begged me to come by the bar and I reluctantly looked in one night-- surrounded by great-looking women, he was... but he went crazy when I came in.  I went to his play... he was good.. more than good.  He took me on a romantic picnic in Central Park... made love to me, begged me... but something about him... lying there underneath this guy that everyone stared at... I just stalled out.  And then... as I pulled away.. the guy went nuts.  Showed up everywhere.. followed me, stalked me, delivered flowers and gifts...  It was like he had this picture... of me and him.. already on his mental 'mantel'... the New York City thing... me, the Bohemian musician girlfriend.... And he was getting famous... and still I had more interest in some rat-faced guitar player at the time.  Anyone.  It killed him.

The guy married a well-known actress who was equally beautiful... they moved to LA... I'm sure he was happy... I didn't deserve him.  I never earned him.  It was nothing but the one that didn't want him-- the challenge, the competitive conqueror thing... I don't know.  I don't know what I want half the time, and most of what I wanted didn't exist yet.  It was not in another person, but it was waiting for me to create it.

The perfect fairytale reality-show couple thing... yes, you ride off into the sunset... but then what?  You and your beautiful mate on a desert island without a camera.  I guess then you make babies and you do some other kind of dysfunctional couples-therapy reality show.  I think it's a little sad to be The Bachelor.  Like pin-up of the month.  In a few years you get old and no, you don't lose your hair because they fix that now... but there you are with your decision and the ring that the sponsors have bought for you... your fantasy televised wedding and your celebrity Instagram... and you are yesterday's model.  Without the Bachelor Culture, courtesy of this Chris Harrison who is determined to be a media mogul, you are nobody.  You are last year's Ken in the Bachelor Barbie game.

I used to work in a club Monday nights.  Bachelor night.  Okay... so now I am underemployed and earned enough from my catty blog-comments to buy a new guitar strap.   Am I culturally enriched?  I felt like a voyeur and cringed during kissing scenes.  Afterward I lost my appetite.  I felt sorry for the women.  I even felt sorry for the bachelor.  I never felt sorry for Miss America but I already felt Colton Underwood's pedestal crumbling.  And he cried.  That was maybe unscripted.   He cried because he maybe wasn't winning anything, especially not his 'queen' but is himself a pawn of the entertainment conspiracy and this is the end of his fifteen-minute road. Surely she'll be back, Colton... maybe even as soon as next week.  Or, as an ex once said to console me during a heartbreak-- Somebody will.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Dreaming in Orange

Walking downtown from Harlem today I saw a disabled city sanitation truck being hitched up for towing. It was kind of spectacular-- these are heavy pieces of equipment, filled with stinking tons of garbage in various states of compression and processing-- organic and inorganic.  I couldn't help thinking back to the days when my son's early boyhood obsession was observing and naming all the trucks and service vehicles on the streets.  It was like an all-day movie-- endless spontaneous entertainment-- and a scene like this would have provoked much pointing and shouting and the inevitable slew of toddler speculations and questions.

So there I was, across the street with my eyebrows raised, mouth open-- and no one was there.  I thought of my grown son downtown, with his expensive watch and his designer boots and his iPhone--- how we went to a little playgroup at the Presbyterian church two mornings a week.  There were wooden blocks there-- and little cars the children rode around on.  There were puppets and some books and puzzles.  Things seemed innocent.  My childhood toys from the 1950's were even simpler-- a tin house with a few pieces of doll furniture-- books, crayons, puzzles.  Mostly we dug with spoons in the garden and filled cups with water from the outside hose.  We chalked up the sidewalk and played hopscotch, made costumes and pretended to be pirates or gypsies or gangsters.

I used to wheel my baby back and forth to my job with his little things-- a reindeer made out of a sock, a few small cars.  Later-- a tiny garbage truck and a digger, a firetruck and an ambulance.  These days most babies I see holding their mother's phones, or with plastic replicas.   No one seems to be pointing things out-- few kids standing around construction sites all day watching these massive excavations-- steam shovels and dump trucks.  We read some simple books over and over; we sang songs and clapped hands.  Today technology seems to have replaced so many of these activities.

There were times, raising my son alone, when I lived on a bag of stale doughnuts.  One fall I collected discarded pumpkins from our garbage area and we ate these until my dreams turned orange.
A phone message one day that same season ordered me to report to an address on Fifth Avenue; it turned out to be F.A.O. Schwartz where I was informed some anonymous man had paid for a shopping spree.  We were overcome; my little boy asked for play-dough and we were sent home with a lovely set of wooden trains that made me feel ashamed.

I'm getting old now; I stop on the street and exclaim at funny dogs-- or children when they are fretting or sad.  They are eating complicated food products and drinking sophisticated drinks from
places like Starbucks with well-designed containers.  I feel like an alien from another century, and I suppose I am.  I gasp open-mouthed at the sunset when I look toward the park at the end of the day-- or up at the moon as I leave my apartment at night.  These things seem new and wonderful.   On the Saturday train there are still break-dancers who risk their limbs on the poles and straps to entertain riders.  They leave me breathless and gaping; my fellow riders simply hold their phones up.

Recently I read in the Times that an enormous percentage of adults sleep with a stuffed animal.  I found this a little shocking, although I do know many people who share a bed with their dogs and cats.  Surely these same people have their cellphones on the night-table and consult their Instagram or Facebook.  I used to sleep with a land-phone by my bed when my first husband was touring, hoping he'd call at some ungodly hour from a far-away hotel room.  When he didn't, I'd stare at the ceiling and wonder.

Somewhere between the monied rush of well-heeled pedestrians in my neighborhood and the homeless street population there should be a place for me.  I go to the library and take home books...
I feel both fortunate and passed-over.  I am no longer a player and yet I am just that-- not a brilliant but a decent musician who manages to find a place for myself between a song and a kind of spiritual vehicle.  I am both lost and found, misplaced yet contented.  Like everyone, I am stuck here between past and future, but somehow more committed to the present than ever.  There is nothing I really need, beyond the barest necessities-- and yet I live in a complex nest of cultural insulation.  I have banked many things of value, although none of them are monetary.

Riding up in the elevator with my neighbors, I am the shabby tenant.  Then again, no one suspects my groceries were purchased with foodstamps, or that there is a poem brewing in my head.  It occurred to me-- phone-less and vaguely out of synch with sidewalk traffic, watching that garbage truck through the eyes of a boy who no longer exists,  I have regained a kind of old innocence and it feels fine.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Dear Liza

Back in the 1970's, when I'd been living out my first chapter in the city as a self-supporting independent dreamer, my father showed up at my humble apartment which was a converted first-floor office I rented on the cheap.  'You're overdrawn,' he announced, without a trace of sympathy or paternal emotion, which was his MO.   At first I took this as a backhanded critique of my drawing techniques...I was still studying art... but then I realized he was talking dollars and sense-- the only advice-road he ever crossed where I was concerned.  SO... my checking account was $10 in the red and this, according to him, was a financial and moral sin.   Did he offer me a coffee-- an ice-cream?  A street pretzel?  I'd given up all luxuries to survive my little spartan life as a student with part-time jobs at Bloomingdale's, at an art gallery, babysitting... earning $90 maximum per week.  I gave him my word it would never happen again... and it didn't.

It occurred to me, listening to my son rattle off the numbers of his friends with wealthy parents who backed their start-ups, bought them apartments, set them up with stock portfolios... this was my strict lesson in economics-- my hard-landing, my teenage Brexit.   While I had little in common with my military Dad who disapproved of my life choices until he died, I raised my son with a parallel ethic.  But somewhere in the last 40 years, urban values have changed.

Last night I listened to Danny Fields talking via the LES Biography project about city life back in the 1960's and 70's... the music scene, especially... and I nearly salivated.  Yes, I remember when there were maybe 1000 hip people in New York who were doing things--- very few of them had money, but there was a certain fierce bohemian patriotism... we hung out and listened and exchanged... things were being discovered... things were new and hypnotically interesting... you'd miss them if you stayed home.  Even mainstream music was pretty good-- bands were inventing and becoming.  Records were important and in the clubs, no one dared get up and perform unless they had a concept.  Not much of the avant garde was on television, and punk was so much more than a recording-- it was energy. It was live.

Not watching the Grammies has become a no-brainer.  This is not music-- it's some new kind of industry that has little to do with discovery and everything to do with marketing, cultural manipulation.  Money.  I admit I turned on television for a quick minute in time to catch a quick visual meme of Jennifer Lopez thrashing it out on a piano-top... and I literally felt sorry for her.  Okay-- I'm pretty old now, way past the age of strutting onstage half-clothed... but let's face it, there's a small fortune's worth of spandex and Spanx in the Beyonce and J-Lo shows these days.

The truth is, I feel rich.  I am grateful to have lived in the Danny Fields version of New York, and lucky to have seen what I saw, usually without paying very much if anything.  But the time-- it was worth it.  Staying out all night year after year, dragging myself through classes and gallery afternoons just to make it to another night of back-to-back gigs and inhaling the charged air of downtown.   I never 'made it' in the music business... and I still feel rich.  I never asked anyone for a dime, once I settled the 10-buck debt with my father.  In fact I paid him back in spades, but that's another tale.  He went to his grave without sampling a single one of my living catalogue and it doesn't bother me.

I guess we can't help wanting things for our kids-- I'm sure he wanted me to have the best appliances and home decor-- the perfect tennis-playing husband, the country club and the vacations... For my son, I want him to have that discovery New York gave me-- the jolt, the inspiration-- the courage to be what I wanted-- the values I cling to that had me starve for years for a painting I craved, work weeks on end to collect $50 at a gig, walk miles carrying heavy equipment...   But it seems while I was mothering and forging onward, the urban garden turned into a money crop, and I'm a bit lost here.  One thing I do notice: rich people, with a few exceptions,  do not feel rich.  They are insatiable and often unhappy.  They trade in their wives, their homes, their cars, their clothes... and still they search for more.

Someone asked me the other day about my Bucket List.  I remember the first time I heard that expression and didn't recognize it.  It's a recent coinage, I think... although a bucket is a pretty Mother-Goosey kind of image.  What I thought of immediately is that old folk song-- 'There's a Hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza... '

There's a hole in my bucket, for sure.  But my list is kind of checked off.   And so many of the things I'd wish for-- well, I've done them, in a sense.  Traveling the world-- I guess I saw plenty of places playing backroom gigs and going to art auctions when I was young; and I can look at images, watch films... no hotel room hassle, stressful delays, no airport security.  My shelves are lined with the best books I'm lucky to have become acquainted with-- because plenty of young people come in here and have never read Pushkin or Celine or Borges.  I visit the past with these authors who open their minds and landscape for me.  I read on trains and kids sometimes ask about my book... they often note titles on their phone-- their version of a bucket list.

Maybe the after-effects of something like poverty have seeped through my cracks and wrinkles and changed my chemistry from a longing young girl feverish with passion and ambition, to a wiser and warped older woman who just wants some time to finish my work and study that of my heroes.

Last night that Supermoon was pretty amazing.  It outshone any of the red carpet jewels the Oscar nominees will be showing off.  As for me, I'll be doing a gig somewhere, wearing the not-on-the-bucket-list necklace my son gave me for my birthday.  It's tiny and magical and so perfect, the way these things are meant to remind us of a star-- an unattainable tiny point of light...   perspective.  Somewhere in this city of competitive bank accounts and 7-figure Valentine gifts they forgot the point of beauty.  Nothing compared with that moon that hung there for every single one of us-- homeless or penthoused... not the ring of Steph Curry or the trophies of Tom Brady and Cardi B.  So keep your eMemos and iNotes going... I've still got plenty of work to do, God willing, but fixing the bucket is not on the list.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Boxed

Last night I came home from a gig in the freezing tailwind of a tempered arctic weather-pocket-- three subways and a couple of cold stretches on foot with my gear.  Shivery, I turned on late-night television, along with a brief blast of warmth courtesy of my otherwise underused hairdryer.  Not much to watch, except My Lottery Dream House-- where this utterly charming host shows recent ticket-winners three alternate choices of new digs, with new money, and they choose.   The host/agent is someone you want to hang with at a bar-- this helps.  He is kind and warm and the scenario is one which keeps many poor Americans hopelessly addicted to leaking major portions of their hard-earned salary to Lotto dreams.  It's a lot more democratic than those Bravo shows--- Million Dollar Listing, etc... where we watch toxic real estate agents and their more toxic clients greedily wheeling and dealing and spending more than ten times my average annual income on open house entertainment.

Two weeks ago, the day that the $238,000,000 Manhattan apartment closed, I began this blog.  Thinking about that apartment, to be delivered as a 'White Box', according to press, makes the Lottery Dream House shoppers look provincial and homey.  In fact, I cannot imagine any Lottery Dream House contestants taking on the Manhattan real estate market where their average windfall winnings would dwarf into maybe a one-bedroom uptown.  Income requirements in most buildings in New York are far beyond those of even the luckier Lotto millionaires.

I am currently reading a book called Dark Money (also a film,  2018) which I highly recommend.  The manipulation of not just our economy but public opinion and political systems by these cloaked communities of highly moneyed individuals and self-interested foundations is not just nauseating and evil, but revelatory and jarring.  It explains and accounts for the disturbing misuse of ethics and religion to solicit unwitting American dream-buyers onto these horrific bandwagons which are puppeted by money machinists.  I have also been reading a brilliant investigative journalist named Lucy Komisar who has been following the Dark Money for many years; her exposés of offshore bank accounts and trillions of non-taxed unreported dollars are riveting.  I am not the writer she is and sadly unequipped to explicate the shameful state of our oligarchic economy. But Lucy reveals the facts behind the horrifying polarization of extreme wealth and the epidemic of poverty and inequality that co-metastasizes while we look at our phones and share our tiny narcissisms on Instagram.

For years I worked in a gallery which was a living 'White Box'.  It was a backdrop for paintings and objects which showed without prejudice or context as pure living art.  The space was easily transformed with lighting, with people-- without.  Empty, at night, I could play my guitar and experience the chill of real acoustic reverberation.  One large room, and the sense of space most of poor New Yorkers are denied both on the streets and in our tiny barely-affordable apartments.

But for these hedge-fund owners-- the ones who pay no taxes and set up fake philanthropic foundations which garner goodness points but are really just tax shelters and loopholes which leapfrog to the next level of ownership-- a White Box is a kind of diploma.  I mean-- who needs 16 bathrooms?  I can barely clean one.  Having grown up in a family of mostly women with only one-- well, we survived, didn't we?  There is actually a funny episode on Lottery Dream House where the big winner wanted a home in the Hamptons.  When asked what his priorities were, he answered--  "We're in the Hamptons, so we want lots of bathrooms!"  I visited my rich friend once in one of her luxury Manhattan renovations which she regularly flipped; when I remarked on the fragile tilework, she replied-- you don't think we're going to USE that bath, do you?

For the rest of us, I recommend the series of photographs Gordon Parks took of a Harlem family in the 1950's, where their one bathtub served overtime as both washing machine and storage.  In my first apartment, the living-room bathtub often served as an extra sleeper.  But these were the days of old New York-- when millionaires lived on Park Avenue and were relatively quiet and even a little sheepish about their spending and collecting.  Those innocent days when journalism served to inform the public and people listened or did not and usually had a conscience and were appalled at what they saw and some of us tried to change things.

In my closet I have several white boxes.  One holds cotton spools and threads of all colors.  One is filled with tiny patchwork samples of printed cottons I have collected over the years.  One holds colored papers--- origami, wrapping tissues and samples of things.  I open any one of these and a night is passed-- of memories, color, visual collages... and then back in the treasure box, back in the closet.  I feel rich-- me in my bed, dreaming in technicolor of my old mother with her knitting-- the two of us, in the yarn store, holding naturally-dyed skeins next to one another, imagining our blankets and sweaters and scarves.

A White Box, as opposed to a Black Box, implies some kind of architecture or system which is visible although not available for tampering.  The Black Box is utterly invisible, except for input and output response.  It begins to occur that this $238,000,000 White Box would not be affordable without the Black Box mentality behind it.

Ken Griffin, the hedge fund manager and White Box buyer,  has spent about 700 Million dollars recently snatching up real estate and breaking records.  He makes poor Michael Dell's $100,000,000 apartment look positively paltry.  Ken has recently gone through a hostile divorce and obviously has money to pare and shed.  Or to park in an apartment as opposed to the shaky banks.  He surely has a box in that building on the Cayman Islands where trillions of dollars sit, although there are only 45,000 official residents.  Or in Basel, where 1/3 of the world assets sit-- safely protected by the Swiss government or by shell companies and corporate 'layering'.  Also, we learn, he had an 'agreement' with the builders.  This means the same money that purchased also helped fund the building in the first place... my brain box hurts-- it's all a big 'shell' game.. and as my son tells me, at this level, the cash doesn't exactly change hands.  I mean, billions of dollars takes up space.  White Box Space.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

What a Wonderful World This Would Be

Tuesdays are trash nights in my neighborhood.  This week the Christmas trees are stacked high for mulch trucks; recyclables are bagged up, and discarded household items-- furniture, bathroom fixtures, books, framed posters and old appliances-- are piled up like flea market dumpsters.  On one corner, an almost-new baby walker sticks up-- clean and unmarked, with its Elmos and Cookie Monsters, rattles and spinners... I couldn't help patting the muppets on their little plastic heads, and wondered how these young parents could have left them cruelly on a garbage-pile.

Okay, maybe it was never a preferred beloved plaything but a space-hogging despised gift from someone the family disliked.  Maybe it caused a household accident and left a scar on their perfect son or daughter.  It tugged painfully at my worn heartstrings, and reminded me that parenting, one of the commonalities in all our lives, comes in all varieties.

I just finished reading Savage Beauty, the biography of world-renowned poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.  Few women writers of her era reached the kind of star-status she held for some time, entwined as it was with her femme-fatale/girlish image.  One of three intelligent and complex sisters, she was raised by a mother who was multi-talented and a little narcissistic, and who will be remembered mostly for her illustrious offspring.  She is a photograph-- a letter writer-- in the Edna St. Vincent Millay archive.

Recently I've read several statements by 20th-century women of achievement in the arts.  Most all of them contend that motherhood holds little place in the trajectory of a serious and committed artist.  Not one of the Millay sisters reproduced.  Single parenthood is near-impossible.  I suppose I am forced to concede that my career was pre-empted by parenthood... not that I have regrets or bitterness or even second thoughts.  What I do know, most of all, was this 'skin' of sentimentality that descended on the day my son was born.

Pregnancy was fine-- I was tough, a veritable icon of feminism with my bass onstage and my leather boots and rock and roll attitude and huge stomach.  I ignored audience comments and journalist's criticisms about exposing my unborn child to not just excessive noise and jumping around onstage, but the thick cigarette smoke that filled clubs and venues in the unhealthy 1980's.  Then came birth... and somehow all those inborn natural hormonal instincts came in like high tide.  All bets were off-- not only was I protective and 'attached' to the baby, but every single television ad, sappy movie, crying child in a supermarket aisle brought me to tears-- like some latent Pavlovian response.

The biological co-dependence of mothering is a function of nature.  Animals require no instruction in caring for their young, but some of us humans seem to have lost our instincts.  Child abuse, family dysfunction and issues are common; while marriage requires a license, childbearing does not.  As I weathered the various storms of parenthood, I became more aware of the emotional challenges and less quick to criticize others.  I have also realized that everyone has their own parenting 'style'.  For some, it is compatible and peaceable; for others, the needs of children and parents are at odds.  We the parents, one would think, have the burden of adapting or handling the dynamic... but in many families there are immaturities and resentments that disrupt the hierarchy.

While I took responsibility for many of my son's objections, I also know I empathized-- agonized, at times-- disciplined not quite enough, but tried.  My heart was smitten.  It was difficult at times to focus on my own life's work, so entwined I was with the equilibrium of this growing person.  But most of all, I am accountable.

Every year I interview prospective freshman for my alma mater at this time.  It fascinates me to see these kids becoming adults-- their dreams, their local accomplishments about to become maybe global.  Maybe not.  Many of them have parents who were role-models; many do not.  I can remember myself on the brink of college-- my parents seemed to have little to do with my academic soul, although they claimed bragging rights when I achieved something that was traditionally impressive.  Most of what was valuable to me was not so to them.  Music? Poetry?  Not a viable tradable commodity in their world.  Were they responsible for my life?  Not really.  I have friends who were accountable-- who raised amazing humans.  Some take credit for their child's achievement; they brag, boast.  A few of them, tragically and irrationally lost children-- to complex emotional and mental labyrinths, addictions and fragile compositions that lured them to the darkest destination of all.  I don't know how these people recover; they don't.  But life goes on.

While I could never blame my child for anything-- excluding premature grey hairs and umpteen sleepless nights-- I find it most absurd that my adult friends have persisted, through middle and now older age, to hold their parents accountable for their own failures-- even when those failures manifest as a kind of success or creative output.  I used to have a cartoon on my refrigerator of a girl at her desk, penning a letter home--'Dear Mom and Dad... thanks for the happy childhood; you have destroyed any possibility of my becoming a successful author.'  Irony?  Still,  two or three friends of mine go on and on about their issues, despite the fact that fathers have been long defused by age, and narcissistic mothers have been reduced to nursing-home patients.  Ironically, they have usually not become parents themselves; or they have become fallible parents--either overdoing what they lacked, or failing in some other way-- expecting....

There is always someone to blame; ask Donald Trump.  But the most effective problem solvers are ourselves.  We must let go-- on both ends.  Isn't that what love is?  We must do our best, and then withdraw, let things happen.  Accept responsibility but also foster independence-- let the apples fall as they may, we of this culture that values 'eye-candy'... who watch the Kardashian babies becoming style icons before they can walk, who see our friends buying their children guitars, coaching games-- wanting so much for their kids to succeed maybe where they did not.

I have two friends with trans-gender kids.  The bravery of these families is inspiring.  I'm not sure how I would have managed this, being alone.  But there are no guarantees in life.  Despite our illusions, there is an awful lot of improv-- of unknown passages and discovery, accidents and wrong turns; there is no real GPS for the 'lost in the woods' thing.  Parenting is a vague map... some walk, some ride, some fly and some crawl.  Some spend most of their life retracing steps, regretting, analyzing... wasting energy.  We are biological entities... but we have heart and soul.  Lost dogs find their way home, despite odds.  If only we loved one another the way we love our dogs....