Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A quarantine is not an opportune time for a break-up.  While we hear news reports (and occasional courtyard noise) that warn of spikes in domestic violence, the operative word of shelter-in-place would be 'shelter'.  For some couples, even a honeymoon is claustrophobic... but we have ventured beyond even a long holiday confinement into what feels for some like a prison sentence.

By the Harlem Meer today, I met a young man with a suitcase, desperately phoning everyone he knew. His girlfriend, he told me, kicked him out.  That is cruel punishment at this time when it is not charitable but dangerous to offer your sofa to a stranger.  What did you do, I asked him... and he muttered, through his mask... You mean what DIDN'T I do?  Which I understood to mean not his transgressions but the simple boyish failure to meet his partner's standards.

It's harder to deceive in the unstaged world of home confinement.  We are each other's mirrors; we can't hide behind excuses of 'I'm working' or 'at the gym' when we're having a drink at a bar, flirting a little too long at the office... hanging out... having a cigarette--- enjoying a little personal solitude.  Personally I cringed when one of my guests posted a Thanksgiving dinner photo; my home is my private domain?  But this month alone I have received so many home-broadcast videos, films, demos... if I looked at them all I'd be screen-blind.

At first it was a little novel seeing the usual TV newscasters sitting at their desk... their bookshelves revealing years of research and reading choices.  Most all of them, I've noticed, have the Robert Caro biographies-- the Winston Churchill World War II set (often unread-- mint condition).  I have a place in my heart for the dog-eared spine of Judy Woodruff's Oxford History of the American People; it looks just like mine-- a well-used souvenir of student days.

But the jokes have worn thin... the celebrity cameos seem callow and annoying.  Happy people in their well-stocked places with clean children-- housekeepers, toys, amusement, music-studios, ping-pong tables... showing how homespun they are-- mixing facials out of refrigerator ingredients, trying on costumes... looking 'casual', showing just enough of their personal environment to seem privileged.  Many of them are not aware of how this fuels domestic discontent for viewers.

A few blocks north of me is a woman with 9 large children... and a small 2-bedroom apartment.  Her husband is out of work but trying to drive a rented Uber car to make ends meet.  I have seen her in the grocery store where she stretches out her enormous shopping task into an afternoon activity for the kids who are literally bouncing off walls and turning over carts.  At least there are distractions-- label-reading opportunities.  She has aged five years since the pandemic began.  They have no wifi, she told me-- the kids received BOE tablets but they are useless unless they are 'somewhere'.  The youngest one was sitting in the front of the cart with a box of Confetti Cupcake Poptarts showing me how she knew her colors (well... a couple of them).  At any given moment, at least one child was crying, one stomping his foot.  Her tab was impressive; food stamp allowance for eleven people edges well into 4-figures.  Eating is the narcotic of the poor and under-stimulated.  Her boys have hoop-dreamy eyes and seem to grow by the hour.  She gives me a look-- shakes her head.

I would like to take one or two off her hands... to shelter that poor boy on the bench by the Meer... to even reach out and host a friend.  But we cannot.  I remember a time when I broke up with someone-- and you just wanted the world to end-- you wanted that person to have no life and no friends and no future without you.  We are not supposed to complain in the face of the litany of names listed every day of the pandemic victims... we are supposed to wait on lines and gladly pay twice the value for second-choice staples we need to survive.  Today I waited 35 minutes  just to find the price of chicken was more than I could manage.

But I am alone; I am old.  My son, I know, has violated the quarantine-- has 'dated' against social distancing recommendations.  I really can't blame him... I remember the early days of the AIDS epidemic, standing in a crowded bar weighing disease against passion-- and the latter always won.  There's a risk, yes... but I can't imagine being so young and independent-- having worked hard to make himself a home--  to watch his future being wrung out like wet laundry.  He is restless and ambitious.  I cannot answer his questions.

Personally I have no regular means of support... but I do recognize that I have a place to live in which I have collected things of importance to me-- books, instruments-- things that offer me a window in this solitude.  My rich neighbors with the renovated new space-- they have nothing... I hear their children, too-- trying to learn an instrument, being scolded, in the end sitting in their large bookless rooms with phones and tablets like social pacifiers.  They order food deliveries-- that is an event, an adventure.  Yes, occasionally I see the restaurant bags and sigh. They have no idea.

On the street outside the tent hospital Ubers line up at 9 PM to transport the medical staff home.  We applaud the workers every night, and they seem a little happier these days... less stressed.  At least they are not confined to a hostile apartment. The shiny black Billy Graham truck announces they are 'Sharing in the name of Jesus Christ.'  I'm not sure about that...  I don't like to speak for Him.

Shout out today to the white egret at the Meer today who almost let me touch him...to the fruit-vendor who stuffed a finger of fresh ginger in my bag and would not take my money... to the market that sold me a giant honeydew melon for $3 that is the best thing I've had in weeks...  And to all those who have met disappointment in love-- better sooner than later, I suppose.  The pandemic at its best will be like a sieve that filters truth from illusion.  And may that boy find a mother or grandmother who will take him in... the night is cold and bench-sleeping is not for the weak of heart.

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Saturday, April 11, 2020


A friend sent me a meme the other day of a beat-up old telecaster; crayon-scrawled on the body roughly and without finesse as though in an alcohol-fueled or museless funk the message: SONGS INSIDE FIND THEM.  It could have been a self portrait.  The songstress scarecrow that is me these days-- the hollow-man with the heart hanging from a string, the tear-tracks I literally feel like tattoos-- me the living girl-with-guitar sad emoji-- a smeary red smile graffiti'd onto a blue surgical mask which (has anyone else noticed?) conceals sorrow.

My symptoms have subsided... the tsunami of late March drama has ebbed a bit and the sun is out in spades, the cherry blossoms are in full bloom-- the dogwoods, the pink gibbous moon spread the evening curtain Tuesday to reveal herself between buildings like a taunting spotlit showgirl.  The evil wave took so many with it;  I was spared, clinging to an old leafless tree like a baffled and wounded survivor.  We all knew April was the cruelest month, but many of us did not believe.

Walking through Central Park, past the eerie tent city where so many hearts lie beating tenuously while loved ones wring their hands at home... the meadow grass is uncut and long... those without the virus can smell the green spring.  Crocuses and narcissi have poked through and a few robins are hopping over the gates.  The playgrounds are empty-- vacant swings like camera-shots in a kidnapping horror-film.  This is an R-rated place.

After 10 PM I can walk up the east side of Fifth Avenue without a mask; the streets are quite deserted except the ambulance activity, hospital personnel crossing from building to building.  The huge mobile-aid semis have put down metal roots along the west side of the street.  We see only the 'closed' side with the huge ominous signs that advertise not carnivals or circuses but Billy Graham.. Samaritans... these billion-dollar charities whose presence is linked to disasters and death.  The oversized cabs of these trucks are parked along the street.  They are shiny and buffed--- beautiful in a way, like gigantic luxurious and expensive accessories separated from their purpose.  Inside the tents we know is some chaos-- exhaustion, anxiety, medical expertise mixed with despair and frustration-- a kind of battleground complete with the structures which have grown weedlike across the meadow and remind us of wartime.  Gates and blue tape surround the area, keeping the public at a distance, warning that there is an infestation within.  Death breathes from the compromised chests of patients.  I heard it when I last spoke to Alan, hours before he passed away.

I feel guilty for my restored health-- for the clear air I breathed today on the way uptown-- for the minutes I have gained since he left the world, for the fact that despite my grief-- I am not even blood. Family members of the thousands of victims of this pandemic have reserved this right and privilege of grieving.  I am just a poor mourner at the window, looking in.

The city, as we all know is unrecognizable-- a skeleton of its former robust self.  It's like one of those ant farm toys where the ants have all died.  Empty corridors and unused pathways.  Halls and monuments without witnesses and participants.  I am some strange animal whose habitat has been profoundly disturbed-- a frog with no water, stranded on a rock somewhere in the midst of plague-- an urban dinosaur fossil dying of cultural and social deprivation  If a painting hangs in an unlit room, how does it exist?

'Widow' always struck me as a beautiful word; it is the title of the opening poem of my latest poetry collection...  a sequence of letters sadly missing the 'n' in the third place.  I have lost before.... a mother, a daughter, my greatest love... but here I am again-- much older, less solid.  I am made of glass-- sympathetic and transparent, reflective, breakable, scored and cracked-- trying to believe in a future, trying to believe in the darkness.

Earlier today I stood on a grocery line on Lenox Avenue, trying to sense some pedestrian normalcy amidst the relentless sirens.  The sun, the car radios, the boomboxes are still there... the people like me waiting to spend a bit more of their food stamps on overpriced stock.  I buy one thing at a time-- as though life is so fragile I cannot see my way into next week.   Much hip-hop noise from the street.. someone practicing saxophone... still the panhandlers out with no protection; they are long accustomed to the precariousness of life.  From 116th Street I heard Marvin Gaye's 'Sexual Healing'.  Not so much of that going on... and at this point in my life, it does not seem plausible.

When my turn came to enter the store, I headed for produce to see what I could afford.  Irony of ironies... Joan Jett came on the system, singing--what else?--  I Love Rock and Roll.  A message?  It taunted me.  I had to leave.  What's up, Mami, the security asked me... you no like? I tried to smile.  Walking home blinded again by teary eyes... the mask condemning us all to this faceless urban anonymity... I love rock and roll, I thought.  It is a no-brainer.  I sacrificed everything in my life for this passion.

Rest in Peace Alan Merrill, my friend of friends, who sang his heart out for this damned city, as though his life depended on it-- and it did.  Audience or no audience, he was the quintessential working man with the voice of a dark angel, another hero in the halls of remembered fame, another urn on the mantel of memory... taking another little piece of my heart and life with you.  I am nothing more than a cliché here, a human meme.  Do we not all love rock and roll? Of course we do.  It is just so rare that it loves us back.

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