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.