Saturday, August 29, 2020

Abandoned Ship

I was up earlier than usual for a Saturday-- took a jog uptown and saw my Boxer training by the Meer-- it's been months and we were happy to see one another-- enough to exchange smiles... his a kind of stiff grin through his mouthguard.  I love that he trains alone with the guard in.  He's serious. No mask.  No one is going to step into his 6-foot ring.  

By the public bathrooms a large man singing through a cheap karaoke kit-microphone... Stuck on You... of all things.  Last week it was Ain't No Sunshine.  He was bad.  Not Michael Jackson bad... just bad.  As I passed, like an announcer he cheered me on, through the little speaker-- yeah, Baby Girl, you do it...  Even I had to laugh... no one called me that even when I was a toddler.  I'm certainly no one's baby. 

Most of my life I have chosen the 'high road' in bad situations.  I have opted out of payment, given to charity, refused to argue when greed was the protagonist on the table, gone home with my pride a thin coating against the weather and the haters.  You and yo' damn principles, Tyrone scolded me when I refused to trade food stamps for cash.  I'll buy him lunch, but don't want his benefits.  

Me and my damn principles.  I feel like it's Act III of this Corona play; we're all in it, scriptless, rolling around like blind pinballs waiting to hit some bell or whistle-- illness, death-- job loss, eviction.  We're hunkered down here, some of us.  I've never abandoned the ship of my city before, but my building is less than half-occupied at the moment, and day by day I read Facebook announcements of emigres, deserters. What am I proving here?  I feel like a smoker on my last pack... what next?  

Uptown seems calmer than downtown; no moving trucks here, not much action on the street before dark.  People jogging, shopping... walking dogs, setting up for street barbecues and picnics-- but little anger... more like a what's next attitude and the hangover from 5 months of diminished life. We've become lazy-- flabby, unproductive.  We accept shitty television and whatever sports we can get.  We overpay for cable and internet-- it's become our new expensive bedmate. We argue less at checkout.  We drink alone and accept curfews.  

I've been getting a ton of art-related email.  Virtual exhibition tours, panels-- opinions, critiques, advice.  The 5 or 7 or 10 curators who have shaped the art market.  Over and over.  The social relevance of new art...  etc.  What does it take these days to be an art curator?  When I went to school we had to distinguish forgeries from authentic signatures-- fakes from actual.  We had to know.  Art meant something; there was a history and formal principles to be analyzed.  Like a history of classical music.  And contemporary.  Of course now that 'markets' are more important than art, all bets are off.  People are anesthetized and too lazy to look; they take the opinion of 'experts' like a medicine.  They buy what they are told.  They sell. These things don't wear well; back into the cycle.  

The way things are framed in this life seems to be important.  This is advertising-- presentation; wardrobe, make-up.  I have been shocked in my lifetime seeing celebrities totally 'naked'.  Unrecognizable.  The framing is essential.  I have seen paintings-- works of art-- sloppy and frayed, sometimes finger and foot-printed from an old studio floor... then transformed like funky ducklings into graceful wall-swans, surrounded by mounting trickery like celestial cloud-rendering. Ready for luxury customers.  

I started to think today-- how the unexpected afternoon sunshine transformed the Meer. There was even an unscripted rainbow-- or at least half a rainbow.  The water had just enough current to make a kind of quiet surf-music.  While I am pretty well-versed in naming painters and identifying artwork, I still haven't learned to recognize trees.  Nature doesn't really speak to me the way I know roads and cornerstones-- rooftop profiles and water-towers against skyscrapers... I have befriended lampposts and painted messages... they resonate in my human heart the way bookspines, cigarette packs-- have meaning.  Photographed faces in a row-- vinyl album covers-- stamp books and bootlaces-- cassettes in repurposed wine crates.  The way things hurt, when you are young... the way girls fell in love with one another at a certain age... you knew-- this face-- was going to be your best.  

Trash piles outside the projects are the same as ever... old TVs, discarded furniture, broken airconditioners-- strollers... but downtown, they are filling with things... with cast-offs and cartons of memory.  My people are deserting me.  Not for the first time I have the sense of a sinking ship... but I can find few reasons to hang in.  Maybe the 'principled' of us are on the diseased cruise ship of New York.  After the fear, the distrust, the social distancing and unrest-- the demonstrations and demands... the sorrow... Death has become at least one of the starring roles in this new play. Suicide, I have come to believe, is in all of our DNA... it is part of the human condition and the unique privilege we have.  Maybe the concept of suicide has yet to invade the collective soul of an urban animal.  Maybe we are on some verge.  

I've been thinking about the ocean-- watching hurricanes rage and recede, massive wave formations.  I've been listening, again, to Procol Harum's A Salty Dog... it's a kind of metaphor for grief, this album. It's beautiful and I miss this kind of songwriting-- these albums of our heart that seem memorialized in vinyl. My old copy is quite worn.  It asks me who will inventory my life when it is over? Who will curate, present and frame?  I'm not sure how this play ends; by then the ship may have sunk, and my moot and principled life will surely not be deemed seaworthy.  I hope someone somewhere will still treasure the lyrics of Keith Reid, or whomever...they resonate with even more truth in these times... Let him who fears his heart alone/Stand up and make a speech...

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Monday, August 10, 2020

If Six was Nine

Among the thousands of stories and heroics of ER and hospital personnel we read in the news daily, there was yet another recent version of the Jimi Hendrix tragedy.  More last-minute accounts and conflicting narratives of his final night:  the number of pills he took, the one found on the floor, the testimony of Eric Burdon, bad decisions of poor Monica who was scarcely a reliable or competent 'nurse'... whether the Mafia or the CIA or his own greedy management was responsible.  We read, we go back to that moment-- What if, we wonder-- and repeat our frustration and sorrow at the cruel loss of one of our cultural icons who in a few years changed rock guitar--- opened up a door, as these people do.  It is like a record-- it goes round endlessly and really we cannot see between the vinyl lines.

Beneath the veneer of this pandemic which has become 'life' for so many of us, there are other layers of existence-- one being made up of the lonely and otherwise sick, because death does not kindly stop for a global illness.  He rages on, tormenting his victims with cancer, allowing motorcycle accidents and fires-- terrifying explosions and bullet wounds.  And then the secret dying-- the suicides and sleepers, the debtors and evicted unemployed, the ones too confused to apply for government aid-- the panhandlers who can no longer survive on what frightened people do not put in their cup... the sidewalk singers and saxophones, the crawlers and street-barkers who have lost their place.  For all of these on the underbelly of the city, things have become more difficult.  Some reach out a hand for any substance anyone will spare-- bets are off, fear is the black cloud that follows their evening dread.  I see many sitting on the park perimeter, where they can still find the rare city benches that allow a person to lie down.

Many of these people surround themselves with things--- carts and strollers-- anything with wheels that will allow them to transport their possessions a short distance-- to the public bathrooms by the Meer, to food sources which are plentiful these days, ironically; at a bus shed the other night I found three small shopping bags with wonderfully packed dinners inside-- 'Please Take'  the packages said.  I did not.   But most of the homeless still scrounge through trashcans, scavenge outside fast-food stores where lines of people often eat quickly and discard scraps.  Yesterday a girl on Park Avenue and 111th Street was sitting on the curb eating from an old KFC bucket... a Citibike lying next to her-- she was filthy-- her lovely skin streaked with street soot... how do we save these people, I thought?  She looked up at me with eyes that rolled in her head... Yo, Mama, she said...  I kept walking.

I've been going through the possessions of a friend who passed from the virus.  It's a huge daunting task and even his family cannot manage.  He is of that 'race' of people who become a kind of hoarder... we are all guilty in my generation-- we collect things-- we are sentimental-- records, cassettes, cds, photographs... old clothing.  For those who are celebrities and musicians-- fans give them things; fans make them things.  When I was 15 I had a crush on Dustin Hoffman and waited outside his stage door to give him a careful portrait I'd drawn.  I met him at one point as adults and he claimed to still have it... who knows?  People with money have storage spaces and large homes-- on the street one must carry on their back or their carts.  Who is to say what is precious and valuable?

As we go through things-- postcards and pins and guitar picks-- each one opens up a little storybook-- a memory we might otherwise have lost... and some of these things, as we age, become 'orphaned'.. we have lost their identity, that moment... which boyfriend, which pressed flower.. which country?  When people die suddenly, they leave behind a flood of information, of sentiment and even secrets...
back it flows-- out to a vast sea of lost time-- the achingly beautiful moments and the useless unworthy junk... altogether.  Writers and artists sacrifice their lives to unravel these things-- to sort them, rescue them... because we failed somehow to rescue the deceased.

I remember a friend's father who was a compelling but complicated man;  he went home one night when he was in his alleged prime and put a pistol in his mouth.  Just before, he'd been at a diner and had a grilled cheese and coffee, smoked a cigarette... tipped the waitress modestly, as he did.  She spoke to me afterward-- how she could have saved him, had she only known.  Oh, but you did, in a way, I reassured her... perhaps many times... and she did not understand.

The death of my friend's son is the current knife in my back.  He belongs to one of the underlayers of these times-- the privileged happy, with the so-called 'everything'-- and yet they take their lives.  We spend endless nights tossing and regretting and wondering-- if we only-- just to go back-- those minutes-- he was alone and did this thing-- or perhaps, as I like to think, crossed a line-- knew immediately he wanted to go back-- the way jumpers who survive often describe the moment-- and was unable.  If only... Jimi Hendrix... Kurt Cobain... the sad suiciders full of brilliance who deprive us, who cannot bear their burden.  And then,  perhaps we have the story all wrong.

My mother always used to tell me, when I brought home sick or stray animals-- You cannot save everything.  It happened with men, too-- so many worth saving but so little time-- I eventually gave up.  Still, in my evening rounds of the Meer, I meet eyes with those who are willing;  I wave at the ones who seem 'parked' semi-permanently in the dusk with their packages and odds.  The pond is becoming greenish and murky at the edges, like the pool of New Yorkers who remain stubbornly in their city.  Please, I repeat to myself at night, please do not... to all of those who may be teetering on the edge of another world that beckons.  Do not leave us here, wondering, missing... beating ourselves, the way women in ancient cultures beat themselves in mourning... I understand this ritual, now.

I have on my table here a cheap little box with a metal pick inside-- the souvenir of my friend... equal to maybe one single cell in a massive organism that was his legacy.  He died of the virus, not his own hand, although we are left with the same sense of helpless failure.  In the multitudes of minutiae and memories, I realize he was saving himself, in a way, knowing that there is really no one at the end...  who will save us, tragic as it is.  If Six was only Nine....

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