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.