Monday, August 8, 2022

Snake Shack

It seems no matter what the state of the world, one can never avoid the New York City dog-days of August.  It's a kind of spell that descends on everything-- a unique bio-chemical atmospheric effect, the set-up of which requires 4 consecutive days of maximum heat and humidity with no noticeable cool-down.  The scent of everything wafts together like an old bad song-- damp animal fur, sweaty humans, car exhaust, fragrant foliage and most of all garbage-- food, organic dog-waste and that indescribable stench that reaches for you from the back of every urban sanitation truck in the universe. Couple that with the image that every inhabitant of the city exhaled all at once.  

Pandemic-empty trains are a thing of the past.  We are crammed in once again on platforms, in cars, absorbing way too much intimate physiological information about our fellow riders. Monkeypox-- other nightmarish summer threats, like shingles and vicious itchy rashes... normal insect bites are relatively benign if you're lucky enough to score an outdoor gig where you watch the little buggers feed on your playing arm. 

Some people leapfrog from air-conditioned room to room-- home to office, bars, restaurants, supermarkets, theaters.  I am still without this luxury... and while older age brings with it lower body temperatures, these days can be brain-cooking and challenging.  My laptop radiates heat like a small furnace, and I hesitate to open windows which let in no breeze but plenty of exhaust from my neighbors' window-units.  

Snake-weather, our young and beautiful live-in housekeeper from South Carolina called it.  Retha slept in a room down the hall from us where the only summer appliance in those 1950's days was a huge attic fan that blew air from the roof down a flight of stairs to nominally cool things off at night.  The sound of the crickets outside was like a symphony... the windows had to be thrown open to maximize circulation.  Before we went to sleep, Retha would recount tales of life in the South... mostly snake-lore.  It terrified me.  They come up the sides of the house, she explained-- wrap themselves around the pipes and slide along the eaves.... they even break the windows with their head-- the ones that have a blunt nose like a hammer.  But we had screens... I protested.  They turn themselves into spaghettis, she said... slips right through and comes together on the other side. Same with the shower-- they comes right through the holes-- they love the water.  Baths only for me.

I could smell the snakes at night... I could hear them slithering around in the flower-beds, coiling themselves around the garden-hose.  When the lights went out, I could see shadows in my sister's dust ruffles, moving.  After a particularly vivid tale one night I vomited.  There were serpents in my mythology books--- I stuck pages together so I wouldn't see... some of them had snake-hair or human heads. It was too much.  

I guess I was 3 or 4-- I'd broken my leg in some spectacular playground feat that failed... so I was less mobile.  My mother had the brilliant idea of taking me to the Bronx Zoo snake house... the hair of the dog?  Anyway, in my cast, I was wheeled around helplessly from cage to cage, from glass cube to cube with these monstrous slimy slidey creatures hissing and coiling and uncoiling like one of those slinky toys.  I remember the smell... it was August, like now. No air conditioning in those days... according to Retha, that's how the snakes liked it... hot and humid-- tropical.  There was one gigantic snake with this spectacular elaborate diamond pattern-- like argyll socks in pinks and blues... pressed up against its window... I puked up my cotton candy and whatever else.  Retha had to clean me up later. My mother was highly disappointed in me and the fact that her housewife psychology had backfired.  But the bedtime stories continued-- with that fascination kids have with horror tales... and the nightmares kept on.  I was chased, I was stalked... I was surrounded, fell in a pit of writhing legless bodies... they dropped from the skies like a Biblical plague.  I woke my sister, had to save her from the under-bed reptiles.  

Still, I never ratted on Retha.  I adored her... her cosmetic rituals and hair-braiding... her incomparable black skin.  We'd go to the store and men glared at her.  She was sexy, although I knew little of that then.  Eventually she was fired.  My mother told my sister she was pregnant... I had no idea what it meant, but with her plaid suitcase in hand, she put my hand on her bump and told me she'd swallowed a damn snake.  It seemed plausible.  

What other animal has those incredible patterns on their skin?  I mean-- there are zebras and leopards and tigers-- but the exotic pictures on reptiles?  For years I never really liked tattoos.  There's a famous anecdote about some old bluesman asking Mark Wenner of the Nighthawks why he done went and made a freak of himself.  Another remarked to me backstage how he can't figure why white people like to turn themselves into snakes.  I dated a guy with a snake tattooed on his arm and I couldn't bring myself to touch it.  In the end it was sort of a dealbreaker.  And a reminder, although my mother assured me there are no snakes in New York City, there are plenty, lol. 

Today I passed a huge glass cage that had been discarded on the sidewalk, close to the river.  It was big as a room, with decorative rocks...and kind of flat.  Obviously it had housed a snake... I wondered whether it had died of natural causes or slipped out in the dog days of summer to find some hot shade in which to coil or molt. Rats don't bother me-- mice, cockroaches... I'm a city girl.  But the image of a slithery stray moonbathing on the sewer grate gave me a hot shiver.

Retha promised to write even though I could barely read.  I guess she forgot, or as I later learned, our mother censored mail.  I wonder what her baby was like, and whether without her tales of swamp horror, whether I'd have tolerated reptiles the way I still don't.  I have an ex-boyfriend who turned out to be secretly married-- for decades. Not just a lying cheater but a cheating liar.  When I called him a snake, he had no idea of the depth of revulsion it conveyed.  I guess in these air-conditionless August nights, when we play back summer scenes from a life, when dog-day feverish sleep induces nightmares, the modern urban versions have at last replaced the ones from childhood.  Not sure which are worse.  Snake-days.  

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Monday, July 25, 2022

The (He)art of Things

Speaking with my younger friends, I get an overview of current office culture as it has morphed post-pandemic, and the job market in general.  It's a much more welcoming environment than when I first entered the day-gig world in the mid-70's, fresh out of full-time academia, working as many jobs as necessary to get through some graduate courses.  

My first actual job paid $92/week.  Or maybe that was the take-home... I know I used to forego bus-fare and walk to boost my spartan weekly budget.  There was a recession and employment was scarce.  In the end I'd offered myself for no pay to an art gallery where I craved to just 'sit'.  They accepted, and then kindly gave me a weekly check; I was in workplace heaven.  Besides greeting clients (who ranged from Andy Warhol to Edward Albee), one of my tasks was entering auction estimates into the catalogues.  Prices were listed on separate sheets in those days, and nothing but descriptions were on the pages, with occasional illustrations. Auctions were sort of a dealer's market-- a wholesale meeting place for trade.  But writing-in figures-- and studying results-- 'set' things in my head-- value attached to the invaluable. 

The other part of gallery administration was registering new work. Artists delivered paintings (usually by hand-- personally)... there was a face attached to work.  My job was also logging things in-- you measure, you describe-- you make a label for the back, and an index card for the files.  Sometimes we'd photograph something-- a visual record.  But when things were important, there was a photographer named George Roos.  He did all the work for Sotheby's and had a studio nearby.  With a 4x5 camera he'd make a special skilled color transparency that was as close to the original as possible.  One-- sometimes with 2 or 3 copies.  These would be mailed out to a collector or a museum and then returned.  It was a process; if the prospective buyer was interested, they'd come in for a viewing.  In very special cases a work was shipped on approval.  In this event a card was pulled, put into a different drawer, like a library.  We girls would do research and write up extra information on the cards-- provenance history, exhibitions, etc.  We'd contact institutions and try to procure old pertinent catalogues.  Scholarship was integral. 

Most of us in the art world had a common frame of reference.  We'd studied the masters and knew our contemporaries.  There was a limited number of galleries; at lunch I'd stop by other exhibitions; most 'shops' were on the upper east side in those days.  We knew one another and looked forward to shows with mutual anticipation.  Each place had its own POV... its traditions and its emerging 'stable'.  With every opening, we'd nervously anticipate the arrival of Hilton Kramer or Clement Greenberg.  Their opinions were everything; their critique could make or break an artist's sales.  Galleries depended on their favorable reviews and these were honest and rigorous in their approach. 

Art history studies included connoisseurship.  We went into the rooms of museums, into their basements and storage spaces and looked at things-- signatures, details.  Our final exams involved determining authenticity.  We also learned photography, as a tool.  This was archival photography-- the point being to capture the object as closely as possible to its physical reality.  Flaws, discolorations-- all of these things mattered.  If something was reframed, it had been documented in its original state. 

In this current world of altered states-- of digital tricks and ubiquitous images-- it seems almost absurd that the value of art has skyrocketed rather than leveled.  The sheer number of works produced-- the masses of artists on all levels, the reams of galleries... it's overwhelming.  My daily email receives an average of 50 announcements from art fairs, galleries, auction houses.  I browse and peruse endlessly, it seems.  Whereas the rarity of works seemed part of the pursuit in former days, universal visibility now seems the status quo.  Millions of views are logged on these platforms; auctions are publicized and people are paid vast sums to celebrate realized prices.  Images are spread like viruses-- the more views the better. Photography is enhanced and backlit... it's often hard to recognize the actual painting after seeing its more photogenic version online. Things are sized, staged, mocked up on virtual living room walls, as though they are 'worn' by some architectural model. Art itself is viewed as not just commodity but an asset class.  Buying has become a kind of competitive sport. Art criticism is sadly tainted by the fact that many publications are supported by paid advertising.  How can one pan the very source of income and support, look the gift-horse in its eye?  Reviews are tempered; taste-makers can be clique-ish and overfed. 

Presentation is everything; one must lust after these things like the latest Birkin bag... possession is for the highest bidder. It baffles me... how the brand of art becomes more expensive... as the images become cheapened and common.  The exclusivity, the rarity-- the intimacy of old collections-- has been violated.  Middlemen and advisers take huge cuts for simply moving merchandise around. Prices escalate; the art world parties on.  

This week I am working a few extra days at the gallery where I spend many Saturday afternoons.  While I have some kind of relationship with the objects here and their narratives, I find myself completely helpless when faced with the various publicity and social media protocols that are prioritized. I find the complications of the numerous inter-office platforms not just baffling but time-consuming. Notations and remarks are shared, conversations and internal information create a digital vine that has my hands tied and my brain on high anxiety.  Dings and bells on my laptop are perpetual interruptions... staff meetings and procedural updates are constant. One wonders how any work gets done... and yet it does

At home, in my non-air conditioned bohemian cave, I am lucky to have a full house of creativity.  A library of music, of books... a selection of instruments ready and waiting for me, and walls lined with the work of mostly artists I have known-- things I cherish and understand, things I have lusted after, logged in with joy, lingered over during my nightly walks up and down the hallway.  They are exclusive-- unique--  my roommates and family-- my intimates, these things.  They have no instagram presence, no online likes, no followers other than my actual houseguests who are fewer and fewer in number these days.  I am old; some of them are even older, yet they greet me with fresh energy; they inspire me.  They matter. Party on, art world. 

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Thursday, July 21, 2022

Can I Get a Witness

I've been thinking lately about truth... how I once believed there was a singular version of things-- as they occurred-- and it was sacred. Simple. Not biblical, because there are versions-- interpretations, translations... but sacred.  Today I can't even get two identical thermometer readings-- there's the air temperature, the ground, the heat index. There's exaggeration, and there's the margin of error of human memory.  With all the technology and recording of moments, there is photo-shop and there are erasures, corrections... these change history.  The Rashomon-reminiscent January 6th hearings... will they lead to justice, conviction, or just a massive national shrug?

In the small-print news items, there has been a spate of suicides. Jumpers. This always shakes me to my core.  Looking further into a couple of the incidents that happened just blocks from me, there are local postings-- discussions, comments.  Yappers and criticizers observing the selfish nature of this kind of drama-- the clean-up, the damage, the risk to innocent human life passing on sidewalks below. Someone's car windshield was smashed.  Jumpers are not always considerate; they do not warn.  Or do they? And how do we know at the last instant-- they could have been pushed... tripped on the brink of some decision? I remember watching that documentary about the Golden Gate Bridge-- how the few survivors of a leap spoke about regret when it was too late.  

Some days I feel as though I'm in the middle of some Murakami novel. I'm not quite sure what is real. I observe, I even record, sometimes-- write things down... but I am too often missing a witness. Occasionally I lie awake worrying about being misunderstood.  The indignity of having your final gesture misinterpreted-- the poor suicide being not just victimized enough to end his life, but to be posthumously chastised--- well, it was a little overkill.  Who really knows his last thoughts-- his intention? Even Ivana last week-- what happened? I'd rather, in the end, not rely on a Coroner's report.  

Over the years I've done a bit of support work-- for medical patients, cancer sufferers.  Mostly this requires listening.  In the end, these people need not just care and pain-relief-- but they need a witness. Even Sunday confessions-- it's not absolution as much as the release of information-- sharing, letting go... to be heard, if not seen.  Their own truth, or their guilt as they process it.  Once it's witnessed, well.. it becomes perhaps bearable.  Psychologically, a large percentage of therapy is just talk-- having a 'paid friend', one of my acquaintances used to describe his shrink sessions-- but for me, it's the designated witness that somehow shifts the burden of guilt.

My friend reminded me this morning about the importance of sunscreen.  I suddenly had this memory of a distant summer in the city where I sat out on my rooftop in a white bikini day after day, at peak afternoon heat, maybe trying to turn myself into a different race.  Coincidentally I was married at the time to a West Indian who was often on the road.  In my neighborhood there were tons of musicians; many of them knew I'd be lying around on the rooftop, and they joined me there.  It became, more than anything, a kind of therapy... people would tell me their problems... I was a captive sunbathing audience, absorbing not just rays but extraordinary tales of infidelities, band-infighting, bad relationships. Unpaid witness that I was, exposing myself to not just future skin cancer risk but the toxic unraveling of people some of whom became celebrity fair-game. Today the memory gave me a laugh.  Nowadays of course I'd have to go to their instagram or whatever and see their secrets and minutia exposed for the world.  A little cheap.  Would I sell my experiences?  I would not.

The whole Facebook/instagram culture attests more than anything to some human craving to be 'seen', for those of us with no lifetime heroics to display ourselves in all our petty daily activities as though we were being paparazzi'd to death.  Then there are the endless autobiographies and blogs (guilty as charged) for everything that a photograph cannot convey.  

I recently read a disturbing but important history of Eastern Europe under the Hitler and Stalin regimes. The author reiterated the fact that the horrors of concentration camps and cruelties as described by survivors cannot even compare with the atrocities that passed without description, with no witnesses besides the silent perpetrators who were unlikely to retrospectively record their wickedness.   While we sift through the endless mountains of media product, the competitive surfeit of daily information, there are still the unsung, the unobserved-- the lost and perhaps longest-suffering unseen and unheard.  For all the history books, there are perhaps just as many unknown narratives.  

Last week I ventured out to sit on a park bench at sunset, with a book.  There seemed to be an endless stream of older neighborhood people looking to talk, to share... asking me if I'd listen, or speak... they'd been so solitary during the long months of pandemic quarantine... they'd lost loved ones and friends, jobs... homes.  It was a bit reminiscent of my bikini roof-top days.  I got no reading done but felt a certain communal sadness realizing with all the outlets and connections, we have very few valid witnesses of our own deeper realities and truths.  On every level, it's a little tragic.

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Thursday, June 16, 2022

Reel Fiction

A friend and I were reminiscing about our first records... not the ones we shared with our parents, not our adolescent rock-obsessions but our very own early-childhood albums.  Mine was Funnybone Alley.  I played it over and over on my machine-- with the switch and the heavy rotating disc covered in some kind of wool or felt-- the metal bullet in the center. There were silly songs and dreamy songs-- marches and sad ballads. Just for children. I inhaled these... memorized every melody, every lyric. One step more sophisticated than the little colored plastic sing-along rhyming discs, it sang to me, this album.  It changed me.

My first book-- the one that was really mine.. was A Fly Went By.  I was already a pretty good reader at 5, but this was a gift. I devoured it-- over and over.  'A fly went by...he said oh, dear... I saw him shake... he shook with fear...' I could recite the entire text now, 60-something years later. The color blue on the cover was perfect.  The little freckled boy-- unlike the drab boys in my pre-school-- he was adventurous and independent; he was there for me, whenever I picked it up. He was my friend.  The boy.  No names, these books. Likewise A Hole is to Dig...  A Hat for Amy-Jean... these were my companions, my confidantes-- my familiars.  They never abandoned me.

Lately I've regained the habit I once had of reading.  I've been through Dostoevsky, Murakami, Eliot, Musil.  The depth of my library never ceases to thrill; I will never finish. I also frequent the library for discovery.  Coincidentally, I live on a street rich with writers.  My neighbor's son recently wrote a novel.  It was pretty decent... but I couldn't stop looking at his picture on the back sleeve;  I knew him. The book won an award, and now he wrote another one.  Again, the photo.  You feel close, like you have shared some intimacy... this time he divulges his masturbation fantasies, he dissects his father's flaws.  It's fiction but you know better.  He passes you occasionally on the sidewalk... for you it's like seeing an old lover.  He has no clue, of course, that you applaud him for craving his father's approval while giving him the finger.

In college there was a famous Physics professor.  Or maybe it was Philosophy.  There were rumors... he'd written a bestseller and his boyish profile with the shock of hair on the backcover-- the loosened tie and open collar... sold books.  Not long after I graduated he let my college advisor know that he'd had a little crush on me. Flattered, I agreed to go on a date-- intimidated but somehow reassured by the familiarity of that image on the book-cover.  I knew him... the way his fingers absentmindedly held the piece of chalk-- the way he gestured with his hands, and pushed the shock of hair off his forehead. When he came to pick me up, he told me he'd often thought I had the legs of an extinct running animal.  I'm sure I wore a very short skirt; we all did in those times. As we walked he calculated the number of shades between the whiteness of my skin and the black of my hair.  I was a little speechless... out of my element.  He took me to the movies-- something almost embarrassingly pedestrian like Rocky.  The smell of popcorn and urban movie-theatre didn't quite fit in with that disheveled young professorial silhouette.  I wanted him on the cover. That version. Somehow I felt humiliated when he left me at my door, as though he had put me back in some inferior student slot.  I thought about the comments he made... Liar, liar, pants on fire I said to myself over and over in my apartment, like a 5-year-old, to console my ego.  

Since the pandemic has completely disintegrated whatever skewed temporal reality I once had, I often stay up and watch films-- great ones: Godard, Almodovar, Fassbinder, Kurosawa. I am transformed by the better of them-- the way I was when I took my first course in film in boarding school, and was shown Truffaut and Fellini and Bergman. They seep into the cracks of me-- the ones that haven't been filled by novels and text.  They haunt my dreams and my strange daily existence which is at least five degrees more separated than it once was.  Sometimes I feel as though I've been transferred into another human form.  I am married to my solitude; I have said this many times, and it has been a wonderful and attentive husband.  

Tonight I ventured out to witness the Philharmonic on the Great Lawn-- this annual event I'd attended so many times-- with husbands, boyfriends, schoolmates, babies... I stayed on the outskirts like an eavesdropper, with a book to fill the intermissions.  At the end I wandered back along the reservoir-- my daily habit... and pausing to watch the post-concert fireworks... I was nearly alone-- not even the ducks were awake-- waiting, except for two large dogs who are normally prohibited there, but it was late.  Suddenly I began to sense there was a couple embracing in the shadows... it was awkward; the dogs eventually forced them to address me. The girl was familiar-- I'd seen her on the way to the park with her dog...  beautiful like a younger, prettier Natalie Portman... and sweet;  she smiles at me often with true kindness.  The man was older--- boyish and familiar... I recognized him hours later... an actor... anyway, it became apparent that I was somehow inserted into their story-- or film.  We made a little smalltalk.. and then the actor came over to me and began speaking-- nervously-- soliloquizing... mentioning his little sons.. how one of them was terrified by fireworks, their sleep habits, etc., etc...  It was a moment of intimacy he opened and I suddenly realized they were meeting illicitly there... he, perhaps, had a family-- a wife.. but the two of them were so magnetically attached, there on the path-- watching their dogs play... touching, waiting to touch... and there I was, the unanticipated witness... maybe the only witness. I am safe, I did not say... you are safe. 

Once the fireworks ended, I took off down the steps of Engineer's Gate... they waved from the wall, and recalled the dogs who followed me for a bit.  The night could not have been more perfect... one day past the Strawberry Moon.  I have plenty to grieve this year-- the loss of friends, relatives-- the absence of my former habitual performance schedule-- the closing of so many beloved shops and venues.  I am a shabby aging writer/musician... a dying bohemian breed with barely enough income to cover the most basic expenses. Apologies to my late mother, I pay little attention to my wardrobe and appearance; she who was proud and always groomed would surely pass me by on the street, the way she publicly ignored me when I was going through my grunge phase.   

And yet I am still in love with New York-- the silhouette, the stones and sidewalks, bricks and facades... the graves and plaques and benches which memorialize so many vanished writers and artists and composers and heroes. The faded narratives and unseen films-- the diaries and heartbreaks. I will be gone one day but tonight I participated in one of those random urban tales of intrigue and passion and some kind of longing... and it felt like closure. My own little movie-- no wardrobe, no lines... just me, the intruder and the witness, who altered the narrative just that bit-- left my tiny mark on the city. 

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Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Somebody Loan Me a Dime

'I'm in a phone booth baby... got your number scratched on the wall...' The moment we all radio-heard Robert Cray sing those lyrics over two basic minor chords... well... it was an instant urban classic... so good even Albert King had to do a version.  I had to run out and buy that album-- not just because Robert sang those lines with authority and played like he meant it,  but because every one of us in the 1980's had had a phone-booth moment.  The vintage, 10-cent variety from the song.  

Not a few of us mourned the recent removal of the last public phone in the city.  The booth thing-- well it had been 21st-century minimized into a sort of 3-sided metal stall-- no glass, no funk, no soul. Not much privacy... not much use.  You could bet on some discarded lunch-garbage or worse on the little shelf.  You could also bet the line was dead-- cord vandalized, coin return mangled by some desperate junkie hoping to retrieve some change.  Not an appetizing thing to put the plastic receiver to your ear, especially with pandemic awareness.  In its favor, the thing was still weighty-- solid.

The very first time I made a pay-phone call I had to stand on the phonebooks to reach the dial.  Yes, there were phonebooks placed there in the old days... sometimes with chains, sometimes without. Who would steal a phone book?  They were free.  My Mom put dimes in our little penny-loafers so we could use them in an emergency.  I knew a few numbers in case she wasn't home-- there were neighbors, aunts and uncles.  You didn't call your father at work-- ever.  

The best booths were inside buildings... the train station-- airports... they had wooden sides and a little seat.  The door folded in and didn't fog up so much.  I got my first job acceptance from a phone booth...   there was even a free number you'd dial to get the exact time and still get your dime back.  Information was free.  When I ran away from home in high school I called my boyfriend and wept inside a phone booth.  I learned the sex of my baby boy from a payphone call... in Italy I learned to use gettone to wake up my secret lover six hours behind.  The studio where my first band rehearsed had no bell; you'd call from the street and they'd come and let you in.  I knew the number of the backstage phone at the Beacon theatre; the stage hands would let me in to see a show.  I sheltered from hurricane-force rain in one on Madison Avenue, collapsed there after being mugged.  I witnessed a pervert press himself against the glass while I was talking...  a girl change her entire outfit, like Superman... make-up and all... and yes, once in the UK (the best booths of all) I had sex with my husband in a phone box. 

I've personally written a small pile of songs about making calls from the street... I still don't carry a cellphone and for years have noticed the lyrical malaise of songwriting in general... the aching, the separation- the voice.  It's heartbreaking, in a way.. the things that are missing.  Hello, Baby?  Or the Muddy Waters... Sounds like a long distance call... and Here Comes my Baby flashing her new gold tooth... just to rhyme.  The Primitive Radio Gods song would never have broken hearts in this day of mobile phones.   

I, too, have written the poems-- from the Chelsea Hotel to 125th Street-- short stories and vignettes... witnessed infidelities, confided and confessed... I could have given a tour of the city from downtown to uptown with a caption for every phone booth.  I wish someone had made a film-- like Burt Lancaster in The Swimmer where he goes from pool to pool in Los Angeles.  No more.  The Colin Farrell movie remake will have to be re-staged; the next generation won't 'get it' anyway.  And when you see someone on the sidewalk you want to avoid, there is no hiding place.  

Noir films will never be the same... the streetlamp-light and the desperate tearful hang-up with the metallic ring-echo in the slam. The sound of coins dropping.  The little bucket that held your change.  One of my friends had a Twitter post... about how it was a little sad to see the last public phone be removed.   Me-- I'm deeply grieving... watched Manhattan the other night... in black and white they look especially good.  Poor old Woody Allen had his share of not just cinematic booths but undoubtedly real-life phone-drama.  And these calls were not traceable.  Drug deals were often completed... meetings set up.  People banged on the door after 3 minutes and lurked and threatened.  

When I lived in the UK a record collector asked me to get him a pay-phone from New York.  We had the whole thing shipped over and he set it up in his studio.  It cost a small fortune but he loved it.  I wonder if it's still there... if he's still alive, if that phone-box on the corner of Acton and Graham is still there-- the one where I sat up all night trying to decide whether to leave my British husband, waiting for the morning church bells and for the endless London rain to stop. 

Deborah Harry knows what it's like to be desperate in a phone booth... but maybe the all-time killer is the Fenton Robinson lyric, immortalized by Boz Scaggs among others... 'Somebody loan me a dime... I need to call my old time, used to be.'  If it were only that simple.    

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Monday, May 23, 2022

Catch Me

My daily running ritual came to an abrupt end last week when I found myself hurtling through the air, wondering whether I should give in to physics or fight my way to some kind of survival.  It was one of those moments where time literally hiccups and allows your brain to review various scenarios.  In the end, it wasn't quite the Humpty Dumpty thing, but enough to shake up my runner's denial of clinical age... with blood, a knee-dislocation and general banging.  Like a piece of bruised fruit I limped home, realized I needed some x-rays and reluctantly checked into the ER for an inordinate time.

Of course, in a medical institution, one must be patient and polite-- grateful for a simple chair and an icepack, uncomplaining that the overnight queue for an x-ray seemed absurd given staff appeared to vastly outnumber us-the-sick-and-wounded.  Plenty of time to mull over the well-documented shortage of supplies and simple drugs-- the astounding poor quality of the small accessories they provide, while thanking Jesus I was able to think and move my fingers.  

As though life had not slowed enough, it's now snail-ish.  I am well aware the running thing was like some kind of illusion of speed-- an antidote to pandemic reality, not to mention a kind of meditative salve.  We are profoundly changed, many of us... yes, the covid years aged the ageless rockers, deprived us of our lifelong passions... dethroned our heroes, even took away our sense of smell, as though fading vision isn't quite insulting enough.

But there are people-- some of them friends-- who buried themselves in the pandemic-- crawled into its salty covers and hid.  They dressed in its camouflage, the way narcissists and drama queens slip unnoticed into parades and march and sing without rehearsal in the uniform of histrionics. People who are dangerously gifted, prone to isolation-- they wrapped themselves in bedsheets of nostalgia and their past, binged and fooled themselves on Facebook.  

And now what? Like Rip Van Winkles they sit at their windows, their long beards the only hint of existence-gap.  Procrastination, not cancel-culture; our physical age has for now become the tortoise that beat the hare of creativity and production.  We arrived-- disheveled, unshowered and like bewildered dogs without scent--  at some unmarked finish line.

We have grieved, we have lost-- directly or indirectly-- Alan, Buzzy, Ian, Howie Pyro, Andy Storey... Naomi Judd whose three weeks in the same nightclothes didn't faze us at all.  We were right there with her, a whole race of unwashed people wrapped in our own stench, baptized into the comfortably numb by the new religion of covid. 

Not to mention the climate of unsettled mistrust-- the fear and skepticism we have acquired from following bad instructions.  No wonder crime is up-- there are few outlets for public screaming... the protests have for the most part died down... across the ocean, the horror of war has far eclipsed covid.  We feel helpless and guilty-- lucky and cursed at the same time.  We wait for directions... and no one seems to agree.  

A couple of generations ago, I wrote a novel-- a post-911 narration in the voice of a teenage girl.  Last week I was sending it to a friend and I noticed at the opening of a chapter... 'so it just happens that the first years of the 21st century are turning out to be the Age of Personal Mediocrity-- no punks, no graffiti, no more Nirvana, no elephant-shit-smeared Christ-images at the Brooklyn Museum, no presidential blow-jobs.  Like those terrorists have taken the edge off us, scared us into a round corner.' 

It felt like a refrain.  How profoundly changed we were by the 2001 political climate.  We happily engaged in wars that made no sense and gave up our personal privacy in exchange for the sense of protection.  But where are we now?  As if the endless rippling of this virus wasn't enough, we have shooters and-- Curious George disciples, we-- monkey-pox.  We line up to have sticks stuck in our noses and receive the gifts of Big Pharma in our arm-- again and again. We want to be safe, and are anything but, we who have honed only our procrastination skills and are about as sharp as an old butter-knife. Of course a few of us leaked ink from hearts, gushed lyrics on the telephone, but for the most part we remained as we were, which in the language of physics translates as traveling backward. 

As I tripped and spilled and waited for the final verdict, I thought how close the words falling and failing--  undoubtedly lifelong neighbors on the dictionary page and to the average clouded senior eye virtually indistinguishable.  I will heal, I suppose-- a little worse for wear, but our culture-- my context-- my heroes... too many have stopped answering phones and hearing doorbells.  On the streets people are smoking themselves into a kind of oblivion.  This summer will have no landmark title... I will name it 'another'.  

There are days when I almost believe we must go back to the past to go forward-- to find our old vinyl and remember how we watched these oracles spin on repeat until we were changed.  And then there are the nights when I find the prayer of poetry and swear I will walk-- maybe even run into some future.  Amen.

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Thursday, May 5, 2022

Roe is Me

Okay.  I was born in the 1950's, when we wore white gloves to the theatre, when our mothers cautioned us about how to sit, how to cross our legs, spread our skirt just so on our seats, to place our hands correctly, to button up our blouses and even how to curtsey-- yes.  

As a teenager in the 1960's all bets were off.  We were free-- we fought for civil and feminist rights-- we wore overalls and workboots or flimsy gauzy dresses with no bras and shouted and shed clothes and celebrated our bodies.  We had access, as minors, to Planned Parenthood and the clinics; we embraced sexuality and took the consequences.  Many of us as young women were disrespected by the men around us-- teachers, bosses, our friends' parents, pederast uncles-- priests, rabbis...who took advantage of generational boundaries, the fact that few of us discussed intimacies with parents. But even my mother, who blushed at the word 'sex' and never discussed it with me, who was horrified by feminism, volunteered at Planned Parenthood.  It was the 'right' thing to do. 

The fact that abortion is a legislated issue at all seems not just absurd to me but a little medieval.  Until covid and the onslaught of online medicine, we were protected against sharing privileged medical information.  This was private-- exclusive... our own unique medical profile.  Who has biological control?  We do.  What happened in my Ob-gyn office stayed there.  My personal doctor had written a 1970's book called Healthy Sex which laid out without judgment the various sexually transmitted diseases-- risks and how to avoid these pitfalls.  A pregnant college student was treated as she requested... respectfully, clinically, safely.  From the age of 15 I've shared confidentialities with my Gynecologist.  He knows me for more than fifty years; I trust him. 

Any woman who has had an abortion knows this is not an easy decision.  It's a painful choice, an unhappy one; there are risks, yes... complications for some... and a post-procedure emotional response that is unpredictable.  I remember paying cash for my procedure in the 1970's.  Whether that was an indication that it was a deliberately undocumented choice-- I may not know.  Birth control, I recall, was out-of-pocket and could be procured at free clinics.  

The Affordable Care Act ensured basic contraceptive rights were protected and covered.  Unfortunately Obama-care became the targeted symbol, for the Republican conservatives, of everything that was wrong with the Democratic left.  To go back and attack the issue of birth-- to unravel 20th century logical human progress-- is not just absurd but twisted. 

The so-called moral majority that emerged in the late 1970's began this strategy of weaponizing religion for political ends.  They helped Ronald Reagan to get elected and planted the seeds of what America reaped in spades in 2016.  It was beyond ridiculous that these people were ethically or morally motivated.  Especially when the heinous abuses of the Church were revealed as their movement gained in popularity.  Trump couldn't be farther from a believer, and yet he managed to suck in a whole electoral population who suddenly became more aggressively religious as they found themselves with unprecedented power.

This country was founded on religious freedom-- on separation of church and state.  Where are ethics, morality, humanitarianism and kindness?  How is religion turning the Supreme Court on its own head? It's as though the undermining of American institutions has become a contest-- like Donald Trump's golf games and financial hocus-pocus maneuvers.  When did a major court decision simply leak out, for political reasons?  When did the word of a Justice nominee become disposable?  

For me, it began with Anita Hill-- the bravest woman I recall in American history. She bared her humiliations before the American public in the interest of saving the Court.  Day after day I watched that testimony... listened to the heinous descriptions of a man who abused his personal power and disrespected her dignity.   I read about her polygraph tests, and the ones Justice Thomas refused to take. This man-- who is now part of the Supreme Court backline-- gets to deliberate the fate of women, to unravel the process of justice and autonomy every person deserves, by dint of our Constitution, if nothing else.  I often wonder if the Me-Too movement had taken hold in those days, could any man accused of these transgressions be allowed to sit on a revered and powerful bench? Even one year later, the tide began to turn for women.  So is it any wonder that thirty years later we are handed our fate by men like Thomas?  And others who owe their career to political obligations and promises which belie the mission of their office?   

A friend of mine was violently raped in the 1970's by a high-profile man.  She agreed to testify in court, despite what it did to her career-- despite the humiliation her family suffered.  They were southern and judgmental and disowned her for her courage.  With no DNA testing in those days, her attacker was found not guilty.  He was maybe socially ostracized for a few months.  She, on the other hand, was blacklisted by her industry-- married badly, suffered depression and other physical ailments... decided not to have children. 

Anita Hill was born a little early.  We witnessed her intellectual and emotional lynching in a public forum-- we learned that honesty in a politicized justice system rarely pays.  She and so many of us had to cull our strength and go on with our lives while these men took office.  Then there was Donald Trump, the ultimate Disrespector of women who ties the Evangelical movement to his rear bumper like old cans on a bridal getaway car. 

We are born with bodies; we are not Gods.  We have brains and we think.  We have choices, and we are not constitutionally compelled to think one way or another.  We can worship as we please, and follow whatever individual beliefs we choose, as long as we don't interfere with another's rights. We protect these bodies from harm, from ourselves and from others. What we put inside ourselves is personal. The medical decisions we make are our own inalienable right, assuming we are in compos mentis.  To remove our ability to decide is tantamount to taking away the right to vote.  

Anita weighed in on the Kavanagh confirmation; beside Thomas, he looked like a choirboy.  But it was like a memo-- the past will come to bite you.  Already the sanctity of the court is broken by this leak. Personally I have lost respect for the Institution. Two of my classmates-- both women--  sit on this version of the Supreme Court. I have been proud of their thinking and their careful deliberations. Both have exercised their right not to have children, and beyond this fact, their choices are none other than private and personal.  Barack Obama saw the writing on the wall.  He did what he could to write into law certain protections.  He tried to appoint a reasonable Justice, to guarantee these assurances, but was prevented by the conservatives who were hungry for revenge. No better pathway for Trumpists  to undo the Affordable Care Act than pro-choice issues-- the ultimate wolf in the sheep-costume of evangelism.  This is not what Jesus meant.  Personally,  I always thought the courts were there to protect our rights, not to remove them. 

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