Monday, October 7, 2019

Old Faithful

I have recently confessed to a clandestine summer television binge-- and trying hard to sit through one of the final dull episodes of The Affair last night it began to feel like just that-- an affair with these shows-- the initial attraction, late-night meetings, staying way too long, being entertained by things which are normally boring... then the long-haul 'meat' of the relationship-- the drama and path-windings-- finally to the denouement, the sense of routine and obligation, on to the cringeworthy and downright head-shaking disengagement.

What I did take from this 'relationship' was a geographical affection-- the feeling of Montauk in winter-- the coast I'd befriended as a child-- the nostalgia and sad permanence of the sea as a neighbor, a companion-- the one that outlives us all.  My 'affair' with Montauk even prompted a quick  trip to Provincetown last weekend where I also found a piece of my past remarkably untouched.

I am of an age now where any trip or visit could be the last one I will make to that place; my activity is limited and decreased by circumstances... I find my compelling obligations and callings are those of the mind.  Television has been a guilty pleasure but it was free for some months, and it was all the vacation I could really muster.  At 4 AM Sunday morning,  I came across the movie 'Unfaithful'.  Now all my girlfriends have watched this many times; most of us have gone through phases during marriages or long-term relationships where we were either tempted or forayed... but here was the very quintessence of ambivalence-- with the very beautiful Diane Lane and Olivier Martinez-- love, passion-- the choice, when we had it, and at this moment in life, the choices are much fewer.

Coming in at the halfway point of the film, I couldn't help drawing the obvious parallels with The Affair-- the infidelity, the 'price' everyone always seems to pay as though there is a judgment and a punishment (Fatal Attraction, etc...)... that violating trust is a kind of crime which not only does not pay, but brings tragedy.  Like The Affair, what drew me into this viewing was the 'place'... New York as it was in the late 90's still resembling my version of the city: the homeyness of the loft-- the piles of books... the Soho streets, the taxis... the Strand, as it was... the old stacks before it was turned into a department store.  I tearfully recalled Friday nights sitting in the dusty basement with children (their tiny category was relegated to the rear cellar, near the proofs section) looking at books opened on the floor-- the occasional mouse running through.  Also remarkable in these late-90's productions-- no cell phones... the poetry of the answering machine.  It occurred to me that in our current culture these random meetings would not even take place--- everyone is so involved in their little screen, they do not connect with human opportunities.

When I saw Unfaithful in 1999 it was in a cinema-- on a rare night when I had a babysitter, my young boyfriend and I would go out-- have a dinner downtown, see as many films as we could manage-- be just a couple.  We used to hold hands during movies... and I remember at the end of this one I whispered to him that I had something to tell him... I can't recall now what it was, but in that moment, I felt his pulse quicken-- not just quicken but speed-- and his breath came fast, as though we was in full-blown panic mode.  I realized my very young boyfriend was terrified I was going to confess some infidelity.   And it was that moment-- that heart-racing, fragile moment-- when I knew he was truly in love, that of all partners and husbands-- he would never be unfaithful.  This was the way, as we say now, he was 'wired'.

Of course this, too, is now part of my past.  I am quite beyond my passionate love affairs and much more committed to the work I need to do while I still can-- music, writing, poetry-- these are my companions.  I have never been completely faithful to any one man, and while I have been difficult and struggled with my tendency to outgrow things, I have tried to be honest and not hurt people more than they hurt themselves.  What I now realize, after failing at these relationships-- and I tried twice to change countries for lovers and husbands-- is I have been in love with New York City--  maybe less so with this current version-- but it permeates my songwriting, my poetry, my dreams and personal iconography.  My heart sings here as nowhere else and while I have a sense of past and the people who have strayed in and out of my apartments and life-- it is the place-- fickle as it is, changeable and cruel, beautiful and hideous, sublime and filthy-- to which, in my way, I have been faithful.

Amen.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Un-combed

My friend is in the unenviable state of medical purgatory.  Many of us have been there; more of us will be, as the years accelerate.  While she anxiously awaits a full diagnosis, she must contend not only with perceived symptoms but with the unperceived.  Then there are the additional pains and discomforts brought on by torturous probing and exploratory protocol, because when you are helpless and punctured, they 'bring it on' irregardless.  All, presumably, in the name of an appropriate treatment-- a cure-- which is several steps more complicated than simply naming the disease.

Despite our compulsive identifying and classifying of things, we do not all fall into a simple solution box.  We sit in hospital waiting rooms with hundreds of bodies and faces that do not much resemble one another.  Besides obvious crutches and bandages, we know little of what ails our neighbors.  Sometimes our neighbors do not even know what ails them.  And behind the physical manifestations there are our emotional labyrinths-- our panics and anxieties, our deep childhood wounds which fester or recede only to assume center-stage when we feel weak.  All of the self-help and proverbs--  even religion-- are suddenly not enough to guide us through a sleepless night of crisis.

When I grew up in the 1950's parents weren't as 'hands-on' as parents of the 21st century are expected to be.  They left strollers outside the supermarket; we walked ourselves to school as small children, and played without supervision in parks.  Things happened-- even relatives spoke and handled us inappropriately, but no one mentioned these things.  We were cared for, but I never had that sense that I could talk intimately with my Mom about things that bothered me... yes, we had our friends, but few of us had that sense of emotional safety.  We grew up and music was like our confidante; many of us used sex and substances for comfort.

I raised my son with attention to a parental safety zone.  I wanted him to be independent, but I also wanted him to feel confident that his needs--emotional and physical-- were being met.  Yes, there were rough patches of infancy-- colic, bad phases-- but he was a relatively easy baby.  He spoke words at 12 months and expressed his needs as best he could.    As a 24/7 single parent this made a difference; I had no help and worked most nights doing gigs, while he was sleeping.  He rarely woke to notice I was absent.  One night a neighbor was sleeping over while I worked... he woke up... she gave him a water bottle and put him back to bed.  But he kept calling-- asking her for a comb.  "Comb.  He needs a comb,' he implored-- using the third person, as he did.  So my neighbor kept taking his little blue baby comb out of the drawer and fixing his hair.  But he would shake his head and repeat.  When I called during break to check in, I could hear him crying.  She put him on the phone --'Mama-- COMB'... he was saying...  At last it occurred to me... we had a bedtime ritual, after I put him in the crib... I would read him some rhyme from a huge old coverless anthology of verse... so I recited on the phone some things I knew from Robert Louis Stevenson-- the Swing poem, the Land of Counterpane...  and immediately he calmed and curled up with his little finger.  Poem, not comb.  It was comical... but also I realized it was his little bedtime 'need'... his comfort.  Fortunately I figured that one out.

My baby girl was born with a fatal heart defect.  Neither the doctors nor I were able to diagnose and repair the hole through which she disappeared.  Her needs, unlike those of her brother, were unreachable.  They haunt me still, because when we love someone, we adopt their pain.  She and I had barely been separated; I grieve daily not only for her angelic soul, but for my failure to provide her comfort.

My son is a man and his needs are a lot more complex.  Tonight we spoke about Antonio Brown and the dissolution of his once-promising career.  I always feel so much empathy for these athletes-- knowing how much they put in day after day-- the sacrifices, the sweat and training.  Then they are thrust into a spotlight, showered with sums of money that are almost beyond their ability to manage, preyed upon by media, women, fame parasites.  And once they taste this kind of celebrity-- well, there is no normal. What are his needs now? He is in the midst of meltdown mode.

Our needs change as we grow older-- they increase, and then in ways they decrease.  As adults, we figure out how to provide our own needs-- not to depend on partners, friends and children. But when we are ill, all bets are off.  A day without pain is a gift; a successful treatment is a reward.  We paddle upstream hopefully toward some version of recovery.  But first, this requires a proper diagnosis-- for someone to really listen to our symptoms and complaints, and devise a medical course.  For this, we are at the mercy of professionals whom we pray are astute and on point. As for emotional symptoms-- I have friends who have been seeing a shrink for decades.  Some have regressed into childhood memories and early trauma to encounter their younger, less damaged self.  Does this help?  At this age, no one is going to rock us to sleep or read us nursery rhymes out loud.  Still, we can try to listen.  Loneliness is easily diagnosable; fear and anger less so, but we can check in and listen and offer not to deliver our signature brownies or cookies, but to see what they need--  a clean stove or some menial errand or maybe to simply hear a caring voice tell them how much they mean to us-- that we are not just who we are, but who we have been-- with our canes and limps and aches and scars.  This life is a package deal and we all get our unraveling at some point.  So share the wealth, whatever that may mean, with someone who needs it today.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

And Justice For All...

This September-11th week I'm called upon to fulfill my official civic obligation and serve possibly my last stint of jury duty.  This time it's Federal Court-- where the jurors' waiting room with its high ceilings and wall of windows is way cheerier than the claustrophobic quarters of civic and criminal court, as I recall.  The rule in Federal Court, unlike the others, is no-technology-- no laptops, phones or tablets. You'd think this would encourage socializing among the juror pool... but besides rustling of newspapers and the occasional roll-call or announcement from the desk microphones, there was nearly no conversation.

Except for me... somehow I struck up a temporary rapport with a young man behind me in the building security line, and we stayed together, like newly orientating freshman, for the entire first day. We talked-- we shared-- drank coffee,  amused ourselves-- spoke about family and children-- college, musical taste, films, sports-- and stayed awake throughout an uneventful long day of waiting.  Seven hours with a stranger, minus lunch, when I suggested we separate to give him a break from my company.  We ended up ironically running into one another and sitting out the final 30 minutes of lunch at an outdoor table, talking.

Scanning the motley crowd of New Yorkers, I am struck by the irony that by mere coincidence of place, it is we who may decide the fate of an individual or group who happens to be on the weekly docket. What qualifies us, besides citizenship, to pronounce and determine this way?  Do we suddenly sprout ethical wings and rise to some occasion?  We flawed and imperfect humans who make errors of judgment every single day, order the wrong sandwich, forget to phone friends, miss appointments?

Standing in the middle of Foley Square at lunch, I am a little nostalgic.  During my first experience as a juror, the defending lawyer was 30-ish (old, in my eyes) and developed a mad crush on me... he'd look my way and blush as he gave his depositions.  In the court elevator he handed me a note asking me to have dinner as soon as the trial ended, explaining he wasn't permitted to speak otherwise.  I guess it was flattering-- looking back, I had my own agenda then, and my own constantly shifting plans. The whole experience was like a party--  a group of us formed a little clique-- we shared ideas and music during lunch;  I had a little walkman in those days and headphones... we were all happy about missing work and went out to a bar afterward.  We joked about being on the right side of the court barriers, at least for now.  For years, these people came to my gigs. Today I can't remember a single one of them-- one was Jose-- I'd have to look back in my ancient phonebooks.

Less vivid were my pre-marital registry visits to the adjacent civil courthouse, and one divorce.  I remember climbing those stairs, the two of us, to mutually agree to our failure as a couple-- no argument or litigation... Today a funny couple dressed in street clothes was pinning cheap white veils to their heads and taking selfies... a marriage of love or convenience. Who knows?  'I give them six months' a friend used to pronounce every time he saw a wedding party.

Maybe these civic marriages are taken less seriously... or maybe moreso because they lack the distraction of pomp and party.  I personally was way young and made hasty decisions.  I had slews of boyfriends along the way and never really considered or even knew that each of my two young husbands had summarily dumped a decent partner when they met me.  What kind of future did that predict?  My version of commitment was at best under-done.  I somehow knew I hadn't mated for life.  Still, the disintegration of these relationships is painful and familiar.  Our Prince Charmings grow weary and bored; one difficult night-- or you are late from a gig-- they go out and drink and blink their eyes at flirty women who do not inspect their hands for rings.  I, too, found myself inappropriately bonding with band members and artists who confided and begged.  My role as a wife never acquired the habit of fidelity, the ritual of one-bed/one-mate. What wrecked me was the aftermath-- the reality that this person who'd been your absolute intimate-- the left hand of your pair of gloves-- was becoming a stranger, was whispering into a new pair of ears, walking down the aisle with someone else.  Love is the prize of life; then the death of intimacy is lethal and cruel.  Many divorce cases mitigated in these courts are the sad attempts to punish one another for the loss of something that can never be regained, only recalled.  There are pre-nups but no real insurance for the missing emblems of love; there are designated thieves and burglars, but the real culprit is time-- familiarity, lack of trust, resentment... failure.

If I knew then what I knew now... most likely I would have made the same poor choices.  In four years-- my next jury-service date-- they inform me I will be old enough to opt out.  I now know this will pass all-too-quickly.  In my twenties, four years was a virtual lifetime. Coming out of Federal Court I wonder if I am any wiser or more qualified than the young people in this room. One thing I notice-- they don't seem to be having nearly the fun we all had back in the 1970's and 80's.  They are all reaching constantly for their absent phones like an involuntary reflex rather than exploring the experience-- or trying to be cool.  As I said, my friend and I were the only 'talkers' of note... even in the bathrooms on a break, no one spoke; no one laughed.

Today I miss my friend a little-- they placed us on different panels. Still, Monday we bonded and shared.   I am old enough to be his mother, but we exchanged small intimacies and anecdotes and a few laughs and it punctuated the enforced boredom of waiting.  Jason from Irvington-- I never asked his last name, paid little attention to the roll calls... although I know how he liked his coffee and what little league position his son played, his little girl's favorite Disney songs.  The irony of New York-- the five degrees thing-- he might end up somehow reading this blog and thinking I'm a crazy old bohemian bassist-stalker.  Forty years ago we might have exchanged numbers-- or not.  It was like a two-act play, complete with intermission.

These days most of my acquaintances are past not future... here as elsewhere I am among the oldest in the room-- only one or two others, with canes, are close.  No lawyer will ever notice me on the panel, no one will blush or wink or smile or hand me a note in the elevator.  This suits me now somehow... as though the relentless justice of time is finally served.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Mrs. Jones


Sunday marked the second anniversary of my poor Mom's passing.  My son and I went to visit the gravesite, to pay our respects.  I dread these visits; they are unbearably sad for me and I am reminded by the military footstone which marks my father's adjacent resting place of her lifelong uncomplaining 'curtsey' to his rigidity.  We walked over the grassy hillside where she had been laid to rest presumably for eternity, where she has already endured eight seasons' passing in the loneliness of the deceased.

The cemetery upstate is like a city of tombs; it reminds us how the dead far outnumber the living in this world.  On the day we visited it was late afternoon and quiet-- no funerals, no steam shovels, no cement-laying, stonecutters or even gardeners.  We brought a bluetooth speaker and played some Frank Sinatra for my poor old Mom who'd begged to be cremated, because she couldn't bear the thought of being in a box.  While I tried my best to fight for her final wish, I was overruled by petty family tyranny.  After Frank, we played Billy Paul's 'Me and Mrs. Jones'...

In 1972 my Mom was still elegant and beautiful.  I'd come home from college and she'd be baking a pie or pulling some magical concoction of cakey lightness from her old 1940's oven.  The gardeners and workmen would hang around hoping for a slice... they loved her, and she flirted in a tiny way with their reverence for her kitchen skills.  When she was alone upstairs she'd sing along to the radio-- 'we've got a thing going on'... the song seemed to be in extra-heavy rotation that summer-- and she'd blush when I caught her.  She even bought the sheet music and tried to play it on the piano.  My Dad was always darkly burdened and serious.  They didn't use the word depression lightly in those days, but he suffered and she never complained.  That summer she was still young enough to understand longing, and passion.  She was a wonderful wife-- an enabler and a team-player... but the Billy Paul song, and the daily workmen's coffee breaks were her little window onto some kind of womanly heaven.

For some reason the bluetooth got stuck and kept repeating the song over and over--- loud and resonant over the hills.  No one came out to scold... and after three or four plays even my son's mood lightened.  I buried a few small trinkets, as I do-- an old Egyptian scarab I bought as a child from the Smithsonian Museum, a button from my son's prep-school blazer-- things to comfort her.  'Is Grandma a skeleton?' my son asked, as though he were in grade school.  It made me shiver.  I'm not sure how they dressed her when she was buried; my sister had the purse and called the shots.  I wish I could have had the closure of spreading her ashes in the places she'd loved, and not the deep remorse of being unable to carry out her final private wish.   Such is life--  and the relentless tide of death which carries us all out to the darkest depths of some universal sea where we are all theoretically 'one'-- infinite grist for some cosmic mill.

I remember my mother assuring me as a young child: God takes care of things in your mouth.  I’d fallen and split my lip open… a few days later a teacher sent me to the nurse—it seemed my bottom teeth had poked through the gash… no, I did not blame God… but maybe that was the first broken promise.  What are promises anyway?  A marriage vow?  A prenup? Like my college honor code agreement-- a kind of contract which by its very existence assumes it will be challenged or violated?

This has obsessed me lately-- walking the streets,  relentless monologue in my head, the confessions and titles-- a hurdy-gurdy monkey cranking out lyrics, pulling on my ear... filling in the spaces.  Jesus-- give me structure--a blank-line stability-- a simple page.  On what can we rely? In my Mom's case not even her last request was honored-- or, more likely, she lacked the strength to demand such a thing in the context of her old-fashioned view of male-dominated decisions and one-way unconditional love.  I was her daughter; it was not filial love she really craved and I only wish I could have witnessed her in that cafe being indulged as Mrs. Jones. 

We are growing old now, my friends and I.  No one is going to kneel down and cup our face in their hands and reassure us that anything is going to be okay.  We ricochet from day to day, from narrow escape to close call-- entering medical offices to be handed a grim prognosis no matter how hard we have worked, how we have either abused or cared for our bodies.  My facebook friends post and celebrate-- and suddenly there is some ominous news or shock.  First it was our parents; now we ourselves.  A few have moved from the city-- retired, escaped, become sustainable farmers and nature-worshippers in some enviably remote agrarian paradise-- and suddenly they, too, are asking for help, for donations.  Nature  has no favorites; we are all at her mercy when she stretches her limbs or opens her global mouth and lets us have it.

The denouement is not nearly as interesting as the build-up; life gets thin and brittle as we age as do our longings and desire.  In the end it is 'missing' that so often replaces love.  I miss my young Mom-- the one who baked and sang and dreamed.  It is that version I choose to imagine buried with her passions and memories on that hill waiting patiently for her daily romantic rendezvous long after her great grandchildren are gone.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Nine (nein)

For me there has always been something about the number '9' that brings a kind of recognition.  Yes, it is my birthday 'number', but that always felt more like a synchronicity than a reason for numeral kinship.  I liked the way it looked, the way it mimicked the six, the way it embraced the perfect three threes...  To turn nine years old on the ninth was childhood-sacred (I remember when my little boy turned seven on the seventh).  I was a winter baby and my parties, in those rougher weather-years, were often cancelled because of snow, or flu or chickenpox epidemics.  My Mom made a funny tradition of celebrating my 'half-birthday' on August 9ths.  She'd give me a half-cupcake, half of a card, one bookend-- things like that.

On this day in 1962 I turned 9 1/2... it was a poignant time: the Beatles were getting ready to change pop music.... Kennedy our president.  I was away at summer camp-- a time for reflection, nostalgia, some suppressed homesickness-- and a realization that I 'needed' the city.  I was urban-anemic.   Marilyn Monroe had just suicided which touched me;  Arthur Miller was my great uncle on a side neither of us cared to own, but it made the drama 'real'.   I was already touched with pre-teen 'noir' and heard melodies in my head: Soldier Boy... Johnny Angel... She Cried.  At home, my Mom was listening to Moon River and realizing her housewife dreams were going to have to be supplemented with other things.

At camp we put on an elaborate production of the Wizard of Oz.  I had won the part of Dorothy... we spent long weeks rehearsing and my parents were allowed to visit for the performances.  They filmed everything, although the soundtrack somehow is missing.  The video footage that remains is shocking for me-- I remember being inside that person, but to look that innocent-- with the braids and the little sailor dress-- seems unlikely.  There is a shot of my sister in the front row-- weeping, as I sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow.  It is the last incident I can recall of my sister showing any heartfelt emotion.  For years I tried to process this as evidence of love, or at least a kind of soul.... but it sits there, like an old tin can in a puddle.

I thought about my half-birthday today--- the way time is telescoping and tumbling forward.   Despite the marks we make, like bent pages in a book, it doesn't much change things.  August was a sad month as a child-- it was full of moons and drifting rainclouds-- drawn-out sunsets and lonely nights at a lake or a beach where I didn't really belong.  I craved library bookshelves and museum walls and subway noise... I missed phantom and real boyfriends... my turntable, solitude.  My Mother died two Augusts ago with little understanding of the world, toward the end.  It is a loss I will never overcome.

The events of this week have tainted August forever for so many families.  On a day when even global warming seems to have taken a breath to let us fathom sorrow... I find it harder to process the relentless juggernaut of violent hatred that seems to breed from the selfish nature of this political climate.  It is as though every senseless act of cruelty and killing has numbed some of us rather than incited reaction.  As a human here-- an aging human-- I feel small and unimportant.  All around me, daily-- and certainly on our screens, in conjunction with these shootings-- there are acts of heroism-- human instincts that are pure and good-- and yet the screenshot remains...

There was yet another story this morning of an 'unknown' songwriter suing a rockstar for copyright infringement.  Three notes, it is, this time... as though the clich├ęs and dumbing down of pop music is not enough,  there is competition to own this lack of originality.  I've written songs and had several of them 'pirated'.... but what is the point, really?  There will be lawyers-- money, youtube comparisons and mash-ups.  And which one is better?  Both of them seem equally derivative and weak... just one is well produced, with all the bells and whistles, the make-up and fashion and the machine of publicity and social media.  So some poor unsuccessful singer wants a small piece.  Let him eat cake, I say-- a piece of the half-cake I used to get on this day when I was small.

During the brief moments I made it outdoors today, the Somewhere Over the Rainbow melody came to me, walking along the park after a quick storm-- my August souvenir.  Like it or not, it was a song-- written for a story which I knew well from bedtime readings... but with a silhouette-- an identity.  Things had some identity then-- a core-- a reason, a unique 'shape'.  There was no cutting and pasting-- you had to stand up and sing-- live.  You had to type letters and schoolwork and page through books and run and jump rope and learn how to save people in the water.

My son's basketball team won the championship.  Yes-- in the park in Brooklyn, on the asphalt, with hoops and balls and their brave sportsmanship... they fought and won.  Aside from the on-court soundtrack of Hip Hop, and the sneakers, it could have been anytime, USA.  What I felt was their breathtaking heart, their body and soul and drive all at once, jumping and leaping and catching and passing and dunking... the '9' of them, I call it... no tricks, no twitter-- just sweat and flesh and talent-- real talent that will ultimately dissolve into the tough universe of athletic anonymity.  I see men every day-- tall men sitting out in their collapsible chairs along Lenox Ave... with their canes and their injuries.   They, too, once ruled the courts, briefly... never reaped enough to get them out of the projects... and I sense the shadow of the power of '9' in them, too-- maybe for them a 5 or an 8... but they had it.

The half year until my next number will pass as quickly as a galactic second.  What I will manage to do with this is a mystery.  I can almost guarantee I will witness violence, will lose someone dear-- something dear.  I can only promise I will try to stand on my 'core', I will try to create my own templates and support the good of others.  I will be the 'ninest' I can be; it seems so simple-- if only it were... if only we could find some common starting line-- some core, some championship...  to take our individual pulse at the half... and make the rest count.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

G(RACE)

Saturdays have become classic movie nights in my household.  Either post-gig or not, it's still a work day and I try to clear my mental clipboard in the 3-5 AM time slot watching something from either my or someone else's past.  The television somehow offers plenty of quality films, without pay-for-view.  So last week I picked The Great White Hope.  I'd been fortunate enough to have seen that on Broadway, with the larger-than-life James Earl Jones, and Jane Alexander-- live-- in the lead roles, well more than 30 years ago.  It was brilliant-- resonant-- devastating.

Yes, I've been re-reading (the great) James Baldwin... Richard Wright-- but watching the theatre version of hard-edged racial tragedy was jarring and upsetting in a way I'd not expected.  In context of the current discussion of reparation and debt... everyone needs to go back and re-evaluate their African-American history course.  The juggernaut of the 'Me Too' movement stirred up some memory of that book title (acknowledged in a Lennon/Ono song) Woman as Nigger.  Even my laptop did not want to type out that phrase.

Now I'm a white woman with a prosecutable Me-Too incident of my own-- a life-warping, hideous, morally reprehensible, humiliating disgrace I have never brought much to light because, as we women well know, the procedural justice process can double-indemnify the victim.  We are sole witness... testifier, prosecutor, injured party-- and we set ourselves up, in the legal system, for the pillory.  Ask Robert Mueller.  But the ethnic and massive cultural wrongs against a group of people brought here as captives-- against their will--- enslaved, mistreated, and then left-- misplaced, without tools and respect in a foreign country-- unable to go back to their homeland, deprived of comfort and dignity-- and identifiable and stigmatized by physical characteristics that were interpreted by status quo as 'less-than-equal'-- well, it's a disgrace beyond comprehension. For most of us in the current culture where Beyonce is American 'royalty'... Hip Hop dominates the music industry-- fashion-- this is not simple.

Maybe the largest lesson of the Trump presidency-- and I see it as a huge disgusting presidential finger in my face every day-- is the survival of racism.  It's still everywhere.. in spite... despite.
I grew up a relatively privileged little white girl in New York... I had an Irish nanny some of the time, but like most middle-class households in the 50's and 60's.. we had a black housekeeper.  I've written about her many times-- more than a caretaker, she took me to church, sang to me-- loved me in a way no white mother ever did... I used to pray I'd turn black and live with her.  I envied the kids in the projects-- they had a community-- they hung out summer nights playing ball wth friends-- they barbecued and every night seemed like a party.  It seemed so 'safe'.  Little did I understand.

I married a black man.  My first husband-- yes, he was kind of a rockstar.  I'd never dated or been intimate with anyone but white men-- and it was different-- the chemistry was undeniable and the ceremony was like a dare.  I was actually surprised not one member of my family showed up at the wedding.  My parents had seemed like liberal democrats... no, they had no black friends; the soft boundary between me and our housekeeper made my mother nervous, I could see that;  I never told when I went to hang in her 'hood.  And as an aside-- no one in her hood ever made me feel unwelcome or different.  She referred to me as 'My Aimesy' and I loved it.

Was I trying to prove something?  I was not.  I loved the guy.  I was disowned by my family.  They clearly and verbally pronounced that they had one less daughter-- the Princeton/Harvard daughter.  Why was I surprised?  This was bigotry and racism in my own little clan.  It was real.  Was it difficult?  It was.  Even in Harlem people looked at us funny.  He had dreadlocks then and that was not part of Northern American black culture.  We went on a car trip and people in rural New England yelled out their windows at us-- 'Bob Marley go home'.  My girlfriends asked me inappropriate clinical questions about physical traits and ignorant narratives.  I learned things.  Among his people I felt comfortable-- but it was clear they would have preferred dark skin.  We struggled with the normal marital difficulties of rock musicians touring-- separations and misunderstandings... there was no communication technology in those days... just a rotary telephone and letters.

In the end we divorced... yes, we are still very, very  good friends; I am godmother to his 'black' children with his black wife.  I next married a British journalist-- couldn't have been much whiter-- and he was a 'dog' of a husband-- a cheating, hard drinking rogue who never paid a ha'penny of child support.  In the end-- a white non-present baby-Daddy with ghetto behavior.  Do I have the right to talk about racism, bigotry, issues?  To draw conclusions? I do not.

My son who is white British-American might have preferred to have been born black.  He was immersed in basketball culture and Hip Hop from an early age.  He was an incredibly talented young athlete-- was recruited and acknowledged-- and once snapped at me that he had zero chance of becoming an NBA player because of his color.  Not true, but it was his teenaged truth; he was occasionally the only white boy in the better leagues.  His friends are racially diverse in a way that should be normal here in our country.  He was raised just a few blocks from Harlem, and I often walk the streets of my James Baldwin world, remembering and fathoming.  The idea of being a cultural icon in those difficult days, where incarceration and physical threat was a constant-- where inequality and injustice was so ingrained no black person could walk safely down his own street.  Where-- then as now-- white authority represented the biggest threat of all.  Life-stopping.

Last week in the rain I went to cash a check at my bank on 126th Street.  They insisted I remove my hoodie... for the cameras.  Me-- an old white lady.  I retorted I had a hole in my head that would make the customers wretch.   In the end, they let it go.  I showed my ID.    I don't know where this fits in, but it sits there on the pile of racial profiling nonsense we all walk among in this century.  If I'd been a young black man I would have kept my mouth shut-- or I might have given the security guard a reason to put me in a fatal chokehold.  I thought about this on the way out-- how I had the freedom to make a disrespectful quip at what I found a ridiculous and inappropriate request.  

Tension has lightened a bit in the 21st century, but it's still there.  It was still there Friday night when I walked uptown to buy groceries and a kid was shadowing me on the street for whatever reason.  I apologized, in my heart, but I crossed the street.  One hour later on my way back, he was handcuffed and bent against a cop car.  Was he guilty?  Was I guilty? Me and my stupid James Baldwin and my compulsive apologies and my love of blues and black men in white T-shirts...

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Promises, Promises

When my Mom was alive, we had this annual personal New Year's Eve ritual. Wherever I was-- wild party, gig (usually), even at college or in El Salvador (once in the 1970's), I'd call her up and she would promise (yes, promise) that this was going to be the 'year of years, that brilliant things were going to happen, blessings fall like magic stars and the fairy-tale would come true.'  Something like this.  I would hang up and feel great about my future.  It was a kind of spiritual medicine.

I'm not sure if it was those childhood experiences in Holy Family Church with my Irish nanny, or the osmotic indoctrination by my Italian Catholic neighbors who warned daily of mortal sins and an eternity in hell, but I took my promises seriously.  Most of my friends, and my son, will testify that if I have promised something, I never fail them.  Not that this has not cost me a great deal of angst and often absurd attachment to things I held together with wires and nails or needles and thread-- safety pins, pie dough.  Cakes baked on a campfire, gifts sewn by hand, trips to nowhere at great expense, and some pain and tough rehabilitation.

Not so the rest of this world.  People like me, people who take words seriously, are in the minority.  The fake news is old news for us; we have been not just disappointed and duped but personally injured by liars.  'Campaign-promise' has acquired the status of crocodile-tears.  It's something you say to get what you want, like all those men in our lives who swore up and down their eternal love.

I promise I will be back, I tell the homeless man who is nagging me for a sandwich again.   All I have is foodstamps and he smashed his hands again, hitting the wall to relieve his bi-polar mania; they are bandaged and the jar of peanut butter and loaf of bread is unmanageable today.  So I walk the 21 blocks home, wrap up a few in plastic, walk back in the stifling evening heat.  No one ever comes back, baby, he says.  Not from the final walk home, I joke...  but this time-- well, I did.  I promised.

My baby boy was born amidst some turmoil in my marriage-- the devastating realization that although my English husband solemnly promised to love me 'to the exclusion of all others', this was not to be the case.  Forget the 'till death do us part'.  No one really expects that these days... but after producing his heir (yes, I'd promised to marry him and have his child) which he'd promised to care for so I could continue my career path-- my gigs and recording contracts-- he was montaging into an alcoholic mess of irresponsibility and drama.  I looked at that baby, the first night home-- me, who'd had to sit in on the 'new fathers' class at the hospital where you diaper a doll-- and I promised him-- whatever it is that is bothering you, whatever is making you cry-- I will figure this out.  I will do it.  At that moment he was on top of a vibrating clothes dryer in the laundry room (a remedy for colic) and he seemed to open his little eyes and relax.

Not that I am a saint by any means; I am a writer and a reader and I respect 'the word'.  I suppose God never promised anything; he spoke, he acted (or failed to act).  Promises are mortal things.  Oaths of office and swear-ins, vows and contracts are human inventions which are necessary in a world that assumes the eventuality of falsehood and failure.  Our president is a walking ball of tangled yarns-- the elephant-lie in every room, the cardboard cartoon character with a skin costume and an unremovable wig.  What is this country if we cannot apprehend its signature villain, trap a crazed animal and keep its prey safe?  No one promised us goodness from the government.  Some of us made these assumptions when we were small.  Our first-grade history teacher read the tale of the first George W. confessing to chopping down a tree; we grew up thinking this was not just presidential but 'precedential'.

From my college graduation, I was forced by my tough father to commit to an old-school major-medical policy.  It covered anything the standard hospitalization didn't... and built in was an annuity to begin at 65, life insurance.  I paid into it every year.  The premiums increased.  I complained.  My agent was a woman named Mildred Kornhauser.  She worked from home-- from her voice, I had an image of a Joyce Carol Oates type.  She convinced me every year-- these policies were obsolete after 1975.  They were air-tight and irrevocable.  The company was The Equitable.  It could have been on the PanAm building.

My friends know how I struggled through the single-parent years.  How we had no vacations, no movies, no dinners (occasional Happy Meal on a holiday), how we walked-- how I worked, how I picked up and dropped off every single day, managed to barter some skills for camps and sports programs... worked nights while he slept, etc.  But I paid my premiums.  For 45 years?  I called Mildred Kornhauser, we negotiated, raised deductibles... but I kept up, knew I'd have a little security as I grew older-- the comfort of extra medical assistance-- private nursing, a better network of physicians for me and my growing boy.  The annuity.

When The Equitable was bought by AXA, Mildred promised no change in anything.  After all, the policy was irrevocable.  But several years ago... I was informed that it was discontinued.  Just like that.  The AXA executives party in the Hamptons and on Donald Trump's golf courses; but me-- my annuity vanished.  Some nights I lay awake and calculate... in the 40-some-odd years I paid in something like $250,000.  Mildred Kornhauser, God rest her soul-- was dead.  She probably earned very little in her lifetime-- I always pictured her wearing an old bathrobe and eating a packaged donut dipped in Maxwell House when we spoke.   My new agent was an electronic prompt.

And oh, yes, there was a class action suit.  I received exactly $572.  Yes.  Annuity?  I will spend my senior years the way I spent single motherhood--- lying awake, thanking God for health, praying, wondering how I will manage to keep my home, wandering from supermarket to supermarket, stretching out my food stamps the way these homeless men cannot seem to do, and I don't blame them.

So when I saw the negotiated Facebook fine of $5 billion... well.. who gets that money? The $2.5 billion remaining after lawyers have taken their share, and closer to $1 billion by the time everything else is deducted... certainly not anyone who was actually hurt or compromised? And the Equifax settlement?  The company that promised security and protection but violated your privacy?  Would Mark Zuckerberg even notice a $5 billion debit in his account? maybe his accountant would.  Maybe Equifax would send him a text-alert.  It reminded me.  Equifax.... Equitable...

For those of us who pay on time, raise our children without support, carry on responsibilities, take out the trash for our handicapped neighbors and feel committed to our life projects, however much this costs in emotional and financial sacrifice... what reward is there?  The universal promise of death lies ahead for us all... And yet there is the soft blanket of the word when someone whispers it in our ear.  Yes, it changes our chemistry, that word-- however it has been beaten and distorted so that its meme might look like a question mark, however it has been infused with killing irony and a unique kind of weapon. I would still give anything to have my Mother's voice come through my phone as I did one July night when the fireworks reminded her of New Year's Eve.  I must call my daughter Amy, she must have thought.   It made sense-- through her dementia and confusion... in the heat, she left a message promising a wonderful year.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Post Post-Partum Post

Walking in East Harlem today, summer Fahrenheit beginning to assert in the city mix, the uptick from air conditioner exhaust... a young mother with one baby in her arms, another at her side tugs at her tank and points toward a bakery.  'Did I tell you to shut your mouth?' and she whacks him-- hard... across his ear... his little face scrunching into a silent wince, tear-tracks clearing a clean line down cheeks stained with a long-day's soot and play-dirt...

Babies are little heat-machines... any woman who's carried inside or outside well appreciates the relief a stroller allows, cumbersome as they can be on public transportation.  And children are simply overwhelming-- especially when echoes of your old carefree life creep in like passing car-music-- some 5-inch heels you crave in a store-window... your baby-daddy taking just a little more time to pick up the Happy Meals...  and all new mothers know the shock of cataclysmic hormonal changes--  swimming in estrogen as you are during pregnancy, small issues ride over you like candy... but suddenly you are sweaty and cranky and exhausted and your front door feels like a prison gate.

I noticed this week Alanis Morissette doing the talk-show rounds-- maybe some promo for a coming album... proudly pregnant and bringing her rock-star confessions about post-natal depression.  The Queen of TMI whose well-produced radio-ready emotional cries occupied a generous portion of the 90's airwaves... now the spokeswoman of depressed new mothers.  Who else--Cardi B?  Brooke Shields a few years back?  The society of botoxed, fashion-elitist, nannied, chauffeured, and all-around privileged-- now earning talk-show and book-income as conflicted mothers.   Somehow this high-profile whining doesn't move me.  Even Khloe Kardashian, publicly humiliated by the father of her new baby-- deals with billionaire motherhood.  I salute you, Khloe-- victim of the same insulting behavior so many of us have passed through.  You are a role model.   But my hot friend today with the two babies and God-knows how many at home has no glam squad.  What she does have is food stamps and a place to live in the Projects, unlike some.  What she does not have is help.  Tutelage.  Someone to listen to her. NEI (Not Enough Information).

When I had my son I was already 36.  My career had taken a positive turn-- my record was doing well in the UK-- I had a huge deal on the table-- and then I found myself pregnant-- unplanned, unwarned... with a young husband who pleaded and begged and promised to become the Mister Mom every working woman dreams about.  Okay.  I toured-- I performed-- I wrote, I signed deals, made promises.  The baby came-- my husband, as was his custom, was drinking heavily.  The doctor threw him out of the delivery room and I met my son for the first time as I was to live most of his childhood-- alone.

Okay... many, many dramatic episodes as only the finest British actors can play them... in and out, drunk and sober, on his knees, on planes, on telephones-- with and without flowers... and I found myself back in New York with a baby-- the ultimate heaven-blessed gift of nature-- a healthy, perfect, adorable little boy-- and a heart-splitting slam of psychological claustrophobia that felt like a perpetual car-crash.  Unwilling to share with anyone this sense of abandonment-- failure-- inverted joy, whatever... I wandered the streets of my neighborhood at night with my stroller-- up and down-- in and out of 24-hour stores with my little sleeping bundle... trying to walk myself into exhaustion... but when I returned home, I couldn't lie down--- I couldn't listen to records-- it was too memory-soaked-- or even watch television-- it was like being assaulted.  Reading was impossible-- when it rained I'd talk on the telephone, or move us up to the laundry room where I'd count headlights on the wet asphalt outside and wish I was a passenger.

One night I was so exhausted I was maybe hallucinating, worrying I'd neglect some crucial baby-caring task-- and I wheeled us into a Mental Health clinic.  I need to see someone, I said.  The intake process was weeks.  I am not going to make three weeks, I announced, and while a nurse carefully lifted the baby into competent arms, they sent me upstairs to the facility director who told me he thought my thyroid was completely out of whack.  The diagnosis-- an educated stab in the dark and a kind of pretext-- gave me a little relief... and just confessing to this stereotypical Psychiatric Neurobiologist with a bowtie and a theory... was therapeutic.

What they did not diagnose then was this postpartum depression or postnatal or whatever biological or emotional havoc these things wreak on women.  Coupled with my missing husband and a disintegrating marriage, an abrupt change of lifestyle-- I was used to playing in clubs, hanging out until dawn--- wilding and feeling like an uncaged animal.  Or after breakups-- tough days--- you'd go out to a bar, listen to other people's issues, drink surrounded by good music and flirt a little with a cute bartender who reassured you the future was going to be so much better than the present.

I survived... no meds, no prescriptions--- a few sessions with a therapist while a nice intern played with the baby through a glass door... and of course I never had the urge to hurt my child... I loved him all the more, never drank, never left him even for a second-- I nursed my own wounds and failures into a scar of motherly fortitude and managed somehow, through free clinics, $1 bags of doughnuts, and Goodwill stores, to get through the challenges of babyhood.  Yes, Alanis.  No herbs or oils or mountain retreats.

So I am less sympathetic to the whining celebrities on television-- with their perfect makeup and clothing, looking like cover plates and talking about their tough life... while a gorgeous husband, a team of nannies and assistants waits at home with a clean bathroom, freshly washed crib linens and perfectly mashed organic baby food.  Walls of sympathy for Beyonce and Cardi B-- more than I earn in a year for an appearance to raise awareness of this syndrome.  Did my mother and grandmother not suffer?  Surely this is not new--- what is new are the meds and treatments which earn some people money.  The public whining-- the celebrity confessionality which fuels Instagram and social media like nothing else.  Tiny tragedies-- nothing bloody or gory... just infidelities, rehabs, breakdowns-- that kind of thing.  A little postpartum retrospective, to give some credibility to the perfect image.

Motherhood is hard; single parenthood is long and relentless.  Even when you are sick, there is no relief.  And when something wonderful happens, there is no one who claps their hands with you.  I was a mature woman.  I had no money, nor public assistance, but I had some experience.  For these young unprepared girls without role models there is little comfort.  They have traded their girlhood and their freedom for a dream of family that mostly deteriorates with time.  Every day we hear about abandoned children, hurt and abused children.  I try to understand the sorrows of the mothers-- not to condemn them.  There is help, but not really.  You are in this or you are not.  God save the society that disallows abortions and thereby fails to protect children from suffering future neglect.  I know very few women who have not made these difficult choices, in favor of a life.

It is Pride weekend.  When my baby was young, a gay couple moved in down the hall from me.  They were very handsome and very much in love but withering and sick with AIDS.  They were also so kind and loving... they loved the baby so much and came often in their pajamas just to hold him.  One died and the other threw himself off the balcony; I missed seeing this by seconds... but I will remember them especially on Sunday... two men who somehow empathically understood my mothery loneliness-- they embraced me with the baby and the future they would never have, shunned by their families, but enviably with one another in an eternal bond... they healed me like nothing else, and I cared for them as I could, in vain.  I cannot write this song... and my son is a grown man now.  Even the memory of my sadness has a kind of nostalgic sweetness that never shows in those baby photos.  And unlike the little boy who was slapped today, my son never had to worry that it was his fault... that he was wrong... in any way... because he was just so 'right'... and that is a blessing.  Amen.

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.