Monday, March 30, 2020

Losing my Religion

When I was small and sick with one of those textbook childhood illnesses, the prospect of days in bed was a true delight.  There would be toast and jam and meal trays in bed... an opportunity to study my Robert Louis Stevenson and copy out my A. A. Milne into a book where I could draw my own pictures.  I could lift the quilts into a sort of tent and pretend I was an Inuit princess trapped for the winter in my house of ice while the arctic winds raged outside.

The novelty of this quarantine is wearing off.  My reading is piled up-- yes, and my projects sit before me... but I am less productive and a little more restless.  My body is telling me it's spring and just outside my window the dogwoods and cherry blossoms are doing their teasing best to tempt us before that magic moment when the soft pink carpet of petals covers the sidewalks and gutters for the briefest anti-urban blessing, and then turns to paleberry slush.  The crocuses and daffodils are blooming and the Park Avenue malls will be decked out... and we are stuck here in our cubicles, noses in our technology, binging on television, taking occasional breaks for a walk in the park or a trip to the supermarket.

Over the last few days I've had plenty of those mass-messaged Facebook posts suggesting 'tips' on defeating the Coronavirus.  Bad jokes, cartoons, sillinesses and distractions... personally, I am losing my urban religion.  I've had enough of film-watching and listening to the silence in my building hallways.  I have had a welcome few voicemails from old friends-- relatives-- people who worry about solitary people like me, checking in... making sure I am still here.

One of these was the beautifully resonant message from an older poet who lives in my neighborhood--  one of those old-fashioned voices made for reading aloud on vinyl recordings... for recitation and declamation...   wondering if I'm alright, this man, who once introduced Pablo Neruda to New York and appeared alongside John Ashbery on panels.  He has supported and read my work in the past.   We met on the crosstown bus, late-- he keeps his old Columbia University studio apartment on the west side where he writes overnight for the last 60 years, simply because he doesn't want to disturb his sleeping wife.  He and I would often meet on my way home from work; occasionally he would share with me... he wrote in longhand.

His wife passed away from cancer several years ago, but he continues his crosstown habit as though she were alive... so it touched me especially that he thought of checking in on me because I have not recently been bussing back and forth.  I watched him the other day; he rarely wears a coat, like an old Englishman... but is always impeccably dressed with a jacket and trousers, a button-down shirt and his hair combed gracefully in an old-style pompadour. He walks with hands clasped behind him like a distracted professor, looking down at the sidewalk.  He is always alone.  His fierce allegiance to this habit-- inspiration or none, rain or snow-- somehow touched me in this crisis... the loneliness and the solitary duality of two empty spaces suddenly seemed so poignant.

When I began this post I was sad and distracted-- less-than-inspired... but now in the past day I have suffered the terrific loss of my best friend and bandmate of years.  I am beyond devastated-- violated..
as though the cruelest wind came through and removed my favorite things from the city.  How do we go on from deaths, from loss?  My poet friend is teaching me something, I know.  Where is God, I want to ask him?  I am looking.

My friend was the kindest, most generous, most fun-loving, stage-gracing human.  He performed with exquisite musicality and dignity even in the worst venues, with the worst equipment.  His very presence was a poem for me... our stage and personal intimacy was like an award.  One whole day has finished without his gracious persona on this earth and I am waiting for some kind of choral requiem from the heavens-- a bucket of seawater on every street, a falling star exploding rooftops... Tonight I don't how to honor his memory nor celebrate his accomplishments.  I just want him to come back, to pick me up for the next gig and stand beside me while he sings like the godamn soul angel he always was until the old pre-Coronavirus sun rises over the east river.

I have cried a thousand tears and have nothing to show, nothing to trade, nothing to bargain.  Death is the tie that binds us all; it waves its hideous flag of warning over my lovely city and has banished so many of us to our lonely quarters like prisoners.  I feel like a solitary wooden ship left behind with no sail, an old poet traveling back and forth between lonely rooms with his blank notepad, reciting old verses memorized in another century.   Where is God, each one finishes, like a refrain:  we are looking.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Corona, Corona

There's a Taj Mahal moon out tonight... I mean the musician, not the palace, although you can take her anywhere and she'll never fail you.  A photographer friend tipped me off to the moonrise... he described it as orange and liquid... but here in the city I went block to block without a view until she had risen to the height of an average 10-story building and had become more like a bowl of raw milk.

The first time I ever heard Taj was a hot full-moon August night... I had no idea what to expect-- just the strange name-- and there he was, this simple hypnotic 2-beat weaving a Calypso-ish spell in the steamy club.  'Without my Corinna... sure don't mean a natural thing, ' he sang and it went straight through me like summer wind.

Years later my young husband showed up one day with none other than Mr. Henry St. Clair Fredericks, Taj's born-name... apparently they'd worked together and were friends.  I had many surprises in the early years of my marriage;  he spoke little but his past followed him like empty cans tied to a rear car-fender.  All colors-- all flavors... ('I learned to love you...' the song goes... accent on the 'you'...).  His rockstar friends, as well as the motley entourage that surrounded him, provided two kinds of education-- one biographical, and the other-- well, those were different times.  How many years has it been since I've seen anyone put out a bowl of milk for their pet cat?

When Wall Street has a bad day-- a really bad day, that is, there's a kind of pall over the city.  This virus scare has spread a film of slime and mistrust that no one needed at this moment.  In Harlem, little has changed.  Not so many investors up there... and life goes on-- illness or no illness.  People in their wheelchairs and leaning on walkers, asking for food and money-- no gloves, no masks.  But downtown-- midtown-- trains are less crowded, people seem subdued,  the way they were post-9/11.  Asians cover their mouths.  It's certainly taken us down a notch or two.

My man Salih who sells fruit from a stand across from Metropolitan Hospital says business is way off.  In February he refused to sell ginger, assuring me the Chinese were spreading illness; last night he was practically begging me to take any of his wares before they went bad.  Here, have a bag-- he packed it with a honeydew melon, some red peppers-- give me $2 he said, knowing I won't resist a bargain.  What will become of him who works 14 hours, 6 days... commutes 2 hours to a 2-room share in Staten Island, but is happy to be so close to the Mosque where he gratefully prays sometimes three times a day?

Last winter he was mugged and beaten badly for the $72 he had in his purse.  They dumped his fruit and stomped the bananas.  He is friendly with hospital staff, and they treated him on the sidewalk, but Allah-willing, he is terrified to visit the ER where he might be deemed undesirable and only partly legal.  Salih means virtuous...his son is named Aytagin which he tells me means 'Moon Prince'.

Tonight they have drawn a map-line around several neighborhoods.  When I was small there was a brief quarantine during the final polio outbreak; I thought the word meant something bad-smelling that came in a can-- like turpentine.   It made my mother scowl and keep us close to the small yard.   I keep thinking of that Wallflowers song 'the same black line that was drawn on you was drawn on me..'  We don't need this kind of thing now.  What is the meaning of it?  Threat?  Warning?  Punishment?  Things seemed so much happier at Christmas.  St. Marks Square in Venice is deserted now; the Gondoliers are sitting idly by the water, making smalltalk, telling jokes... but they fool no one.  Here we are trying to smile in our striped shirts, but we are anxious and defeated.

I saw a photo of Jakob Dylan recently; he looks tired and drawn, the way his father often did.  I am old enough to be his mother.  Henry St. Clair Fredericks is fat now.  He can still play, but he is not the same.  Just this week... festivals are being cancelled; music is receding into phones and online venues.  We are like closely-planted islands in this city-- isolated and selfish; few of us know our neighbors or notice when they fail to come home.  Even fewer are sitting quietly on a stoop tonight smoking-- listening to the music in their heart, watching the sky change.

My moon ages little; she hides, she circles, she shifts-- and then there she is, clean and untouched by what ails us here... same as she was the night I heard 'got a rainbow round my shoulder... looks like silver, shines like Klondike gold...'   Shine on, little Aytagin... may you grow strong and healthy as Salih, whose blessing today, in his broken Turkish-English, sounded like 'may you sell a million grapes in one hour.'

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