Friday, November 17, 2017

Homeward Bound

On the way home last night, I hitched an uptown First Ave bus; it was after midnight-- my card was near-empty but the driver was kind and waved me on.  The ride uptown took nearly ninety minutes.  It seemed every stop was crowded with the down-and-out crowd.  By 34th Street the bus was jammed with passengers-- many of them homeless men and women with oversized carts filled with stuff.  The stench was strong, but the driver patiently rolled out the handicapped ramp and let them all board, mostly without paying.  it occurred to me that they wait for this man-- maybe the beginning of his shift, and they know they can rely on transport, these forgotten untouchables.  Maybe some of them ride all night to stay warm.  A few disputes erupted among cranky territorial passengers, but for the most part people were complacent; many came from the VA hospital, Bellevue… a drunk man kept yelling he needed a hospital… but then he passed out and slept like a baby.  It was a kind of pre-Thanksgiving reality check.

When I was young, I used to visit my friend's grandparents in the same building where I now live.  It was a little far uptown to be fashionable, in those days-- a great old turn-of-the-century prewar with a grand lobby but no doormen or luxury services.  Their space was massive-- lofty-- with skylights and high ceilings, and resembled my imagined version of a successful European artist's studio c. 1900. It stretched from one end of the building to another, with huge windows onto upper Madison Avenue.  Sparsely furnished, there were plenty of loungey sofas and reading chairs with quaint lamps-- tables and ashtrays-- window-seats and desks.  As they were part of an important publishing firm, they entertained writers and intellectuals; there were books everywhere… yards and yards of shelves, and piles and piles of treasured volumes, magazines, journals.  The radiators clanked in winter; in summer, in those pre-air-conditioned years, the top floor was sweltering.  The park was half a block away, and there was often a breeze on the roof, if you climbed up at evening.  It was a source of gossip and rumors-- secrets were exchanged here, a few inappropriate relationships, many drunken dinner debates-- a million cigarettes, deals inked and stories begun.

The sprawling apartment-- undecorated and decorous as it was, felt like the heart of adult New York.  This was what I would be when I grew up and got old--  a host-- a home-conversationalist in a book-lined room alive with  dialogue and energy-- ideas and excitement-- like a sort of club whose membership required no dress-code or mindset, but a passion for literature and art.  But more than anything-- it was a home.  You knew where you were when you were there; you could wander and browse, sit and lose yourself in a poem or look out the window… but you felt 'embraced'.

Thirty-five years later, I bought into their building-- a funky back-door apartment in need of renovation but with the pedigree and bone structure that had become part of my Manhattan dream.   It was cheap and a little dilapidated, but I was a young single Mom and felt so empowered to have bought what would really be my own true home.  My first Thanksgiving was blessed, for so many reasons… but I felt the tradition of that building, even though the publishing family had died long before, and that grand space had been divided into smaller units.  There were neighbors who had grown old in this place that seemed magical to me;  there were senior couples with piles of books and great art and they welcomed me into their homes with the often shabby old chintz curtains and the beautiful but worn Persian rugs; they spoke the cultured and human language of old New York; they had ideas-- they loved music-- they wrote, still read Latin and Greek, many of them… they treated their neighbors with kindness and generosity.

In those years the old building had a single employee: a superintendent who'd been born here… he was in his 60's, had raised his family in the ground floor rear unit.  He painted, polished brass, cleaned the old marble.  The rest of us chipped in and tended the garden, had lobby parties-- we were a true cooperative in the old sense-- a group of tenants who all cherished our home, who seemed to agree that our space and privacy were sacred.  Our individual priorities included maintaining a low public profile, modest monthly fees, a non-pretentious simplicity of style.  The architecture spoke for itself-- a quiet, old elegance, without luxury.  They welcomed me-- financially limited as I was, because they knew I was happy to be part of this lifestyle.

It took years to fill what seemed like a massive space to me-- to furnish it with my books, the art I've collected over the years, the finds and objects, the old furniture I've gathered at random auctions… It is quite full now-- my instruments, the things I love… I have quite everything I ever longed for as a young woman… and yet I am no longer content and secure the way I was twenty years ago.  In the early 90's, I helped a senior woman in my building-- Jane, was her name-- to pack up her spartan belongings.  Regretfully, she told me she had intended to die in this apartment, but her very modest pension from years of brilliant editorial work no longer covered rising maintenance costs.  I recognized so many of the wonderful books we carefully piled into these boxes like relics from a life well-lived and no longer valued.  The economy had changed,  New York had undergone a massive progressive facelift; the Wall Street culture had created a greed-bubble that has not just priced most of us out of the market, but has altered the rank-and-file New York City human profile.

While Jane was forced to move in with her son somewhere out of state, I find myself living on $3 a day most weeks--- having given up all luxuries including the subway, some days, in favor of walking, rice-based meals… my entire annual clothing allowance is less than some people spend on lunch.  Haircuts… movies… vacations… a day at the beach… have been so long left behind… but these days I dare not buy myself even a coffee.  Until last night's ride, I have been plagued with my annual Thanksgiving dinner anxiety-- putting on a brave face while calculating how I will pull together the meal on a skeletal budget, how it will set me back.  But turning the key into my place-- like a souvenir-shop of my life, a three-dimensional photo-album of memories-- I realized I was 'home' and the idea of these people on the bus having nowhere to 'let down' just seemed tragic and inhuman.

In recent years young bankers and hedge-fund managers have recognized my old building as the potential cash cow they envisioned. These families renovate, destroy, combine, disregard… and then sell. They have way more space than anyone requires; they are rarely home and they have no observable sentimental possessions or books. They have architects and designers, and mostly photoshoot-ready but soulless apartments.  The ghosts of former tenants and the spirits in old walls and floors sigh and creak at night.  The old radiators still bang, although they will manage to eradicate these eventually.  They have forced doormen and lobby improvements-- fancy elevators. They have usurped the great old roof with their equipment and air systems. Even as the smallest shareholder,  monthly costs nearly exceed my very humble income as a musician/poet.  My slender spending habits have become emaciated.  And tonight, as I listen to the soft roar that is New York City seep through my leaky windows, I wonder if these people feel 'home'.  As in home-less.

There is some George Segal movie on from the 70's and this is New York, the way I remember it… before clothing advertised things.. when even rich people's apartments were comfortable and slightly messy and filled with things... when hair was not perfect and women had wrinkles and the buildings looked habitable and a little dirty.  I realize I am of a dying or defeated generation here-- hanging in, holding on to what I know and love-- my building, my old guitars… sentiment...

Things change-- I know this, and not all change is bad. But this Wall Street generation changed the rules for many of us who thought we had secured some kind of tranquility for our older age.  Our trusted annuities and medical plans have been up-ended, our modest pensions have been diminished and decent healthcare is precarious and prohibitive.  I naively bought shares in a wonderful institution, only to find myself a tiny minimized partner in a corporation with an agenda of money and attitudes and little regard for human values and the great cultural mesh upon which this city was founded.

I will be home for Thanksgiving, and I will try to forge onward and resist what feels like a tidal insult to everything I am.  My neighbors will never share a bus ride like the First Ave. M15 at 2 AM; they don't want to see or smell this kind of thing, and they seem to enjoy the demolition of old walls as much as they enjoy their indulgent vacations.  They will grow old, too-- not as gracefully as this building has, and maybe one day they will discover nostalgia or homesickness-- that nothing is ever as precious as that which has been lost.   By then I'll be sharing a cigarette with the old ghosts on the stairs while, God willing, someone might be enjoying a home-cooked turkey in what will always be the old rooms with the book-lined walls.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Hollow

Monday morning my television was left on, after a fantastic 5-hour World Series game… I was half listening to some evangelist rambling on about holy water and salvation which sounded absurd enough for me to take a look.  Here was one of those fake ministers whom I could swear had been indicted and mortified in another decade--- back on-screen with his bad hair-weave and dye job, a surgically enhanced blonde wife reading letters and testimonies with the emotional presence of a talking doll.  He was throwing away crutches, walking wheelchair patients around a huge room, choosing person after person to come to the front, cast off their pain and praise the power of the monthly sum they commit to this shyster for the promise of some God-backed pay-off.  How is this legal, and how are there numbers of people-- not actors, I assume, willing to participate in this scam?

It is Halloween.  The day dawned with a chill wind… children awaking with energy-- dreaming about their costumes.  Classes will not be so bad; teachers will forego homework… townhouses in my neighborhood are decorated with ghoulish puppets and spiderwebs-- a haunted real-estate fantasy.   Most everyone has their carved pumpkins and candles out, and piles of candy ready at the door.  Then we had a mid-afternoon incident… the city takes a bullet.   For the victims, who began this day innocently-- maybe even taking a personal day since we all get involved in trick-or-treating festivities, the parade-- this was a catastrophic synchronicity of geography.

I can't help wondering who these people are who execute heinous killings-- whether they are heartless ethical mutants passing as human beings, or maybe lost, confused children wearing a costume of evil someone has loaned them or given them like a kind of armor with which to manage the world.  Indoctrination-- brain-washing, initiation… creates monstrous murderous machines which have only physical human resemblance.  Like the tales of science fiction, they walk among us, drive cars, buy groceries… and then, the switch is thrown and their image is on all our screens and devices.

Our president, of course, as he does, used personal tragedy to promote his own bizarre agenda.  The man couldn't protect us from a mosquito, let alone the threat of terrorist-driven violence; this particular murderer is not even from one of the restricted countries on the Trump list, although he would have us believe this.  He has not a clue about psychology, about deep-seated resentments and human suffering, about children who grow up without proper protection, without dreams, exposed to horrific acts of war and often without any kind of stable home or haven.  He is a tiny man in a larger man's costume.

On the airport bus in Sweden last month, I sat behind a calm young couple on their way to some honeymoon or vacation junket.  She was wearing a powder-blue coat-- haven't seen or heard that color described since the 1960's…  he in a button-down and tie.   They were chattering and whispering-- like coloring-book illustrations of perfect good Swedes talking about the weather-- friends, new clothes-- innocent and so clean… the crease of his shirt, her pristine coat-- giggling and acting like grown-ups-- the epitome of normal-- the golden-rule standard.  Struggling myself with a tape-reinforced old carry-on bag, worrying about getting through customs with my home-made sandwich-- flying on the cheap-cheap-- no luggage, no meal, no water…  an old black-haired odd freak in my thrift-shop denim… I felt like a blot on the milk-white paper of homogenized Stockholm.

I imagined my perfect Swedes in my city taking the Circle Line tour, going to see Kinky Boots and staying at some Times Square Hotel. They'd visit Brooklyn, eat soul food at Sylvia's in Harlem, walk the High Line… and suddenly, pulling out my dog-eared James Baldwin and my notebook-- I started to pity them.  They are just people-- like most of us-- with jobs and little houses and furnishings and a coffee maker and maybe a dog… wearing the costume of normalcy.  All dressed up and nowhere really to go, because it occurs to me now, in this culture of Trump and Instagram and Twitter--- that we are all followers and post-its-- the subjects of our own blogs and photo-albums, but very few of us really know who we are.   So busy are we looking at  Facebook and dumping out on the galaxy-sized digital garbage pile, very few have taken the solitary and tough independent time to dissect and analyze ourselves old-school.

How did my generation evolve-- listening to the words of men like Martin Luther King who urged us to drive out hatred with love, to shun violence and to feel the oppression of others and stand up for their dignity when they could not?  Believing his words-- that we are all one, we must not be silent, we must think and care and do right, we must protect those who cannot protect themselves.  But he also encouraged us via action to become better people.   This is religion for me-- love and truth and compassion… not praying for a shiny new luxury car, or executing an act of human violence in the name of some distorted version of God.

On the sidewalks at dusk, throngs of children went on with their ritual--- ghouls and monsters, super-heroes and princesses, witches and wizards… terrorism did not stop our Halloween.  I wonder how many of these kids become their costume-- try on their character, melt their own little soul into the persona that is already formed and clear.  Tomorrow they will just be children again, although many of their parents will continue to wear the costume of hair-weaves and plastic surgery, having learned nothing of the lessons of my generation-- of the inside shining through the outside…of beauty of heart beating out the skin-deep kind.  We are judged these days by our instagram image, by our facade… the quick profile… and so many of us have lost our own judgment.  Witness the president we 'chose'.

My person-of-the-night award goes to the little Mexican girl dressed as a Pilgrim; with her orange plastic pumpkin-basket, she explained to me how Thanksgiving is about celebrating the immigrants, how she is learning to read even though her parents cannot, and how she will grow up to be an important American woman.  Her mother's shy ambivalent smile said it all.  I wanted to hug this girl, and to cry for her future among the Trumps and Harvey Weinsteins, among the privileged UES botoxed ladies and the corrupt hierarchy of American economics.  Be true to yourself, be kind to your sisters, I wanted to say, and you may still be a victim; you may be deported and disrespected and very poor.  In my permanent costume of poverty and human sympathy,  I went back upstairs to watch baseball.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The One That (almost) Got Away

 When I was twenty-something and had produced my first little 4-track demo of songs, I decided I might be-- well, special, and sent my cassette out to a few record companies.  Miraculously, I had a reply from not just a great label but a well-known producer who had masterminded brilliant releases for some of my rock icons.  He set up a meeting at his hotel; I was over the moon; the sequence was described in another blog.  For him, it was a forgettable evening; for me, it was not just humiliating and hideous, but forever fused my songwriting aspirations with a kind of cheap, lecherous, predatory prerequisite.  Not only did he deflate my ambition and my belief, but as a young 'no-one', I couldn't find the headroom to even share my experience with anyone but my own husband.

30 years later, as I divulged in a prior blog, the guy actually friended me on Facebook.  He's sober, he's old, has passed his prime.  I meant nothing to him-- maybe a twinge of morning-after guilt mixed in with his first cocktail of the day, but by evening he would have washed the proverbial blood from his hands, the hotel cleaners would have tossed the torn bits of my clothes he ripped as souvenirs.  Me?  I took my ruined outfit and went underground.  Sure, I play and write-- but I never again put myself out there in the same way.  The anger I feel?  Yes, it's been diluted with distance… and maybe I should have taken the cue differently and steeled myself into a rock and roll warrior but I was not tough.  In fact, it wasn't until I got old enough to be less attractive and less susceptible that I started to get some swagger.  Throughout my thirties and even forties, I cautiously sidestepped opportunities.

For some years I worked in the art business.  My very first job was in the massive apartment of a handsome collector from whose bedroom almost daily a variety of companions emerged-- most of them younger than his own daughter; some would even sometimes share a coffee with me.  I was extremely cautious and ignored his flirtatious remarks; he had some class and didn't grab.  I needed the job.  In fact I needed all the jobs I've ever had, and tolerated a level of inappropriate conduct we didn't learn to label 'harassment' until more recent times.  Even my female bosses schooled me on how to manage some of this without causing a scene, without losing the sale.

When I was 14, my best friend's father accosted me on the way to the bathroom one night.  I glossed it over.  Who could I tell?  My friend? My Mom who would never have believed me?  And what then-- have my best friend's life ruined?  There is a price to pay for honesty, for confessions and personal testimonials.  I adjusted my behavior, insisted she sleep at my house-- that I had a homesickness issue.

So many of the women who have come forth in this Harvey Weinstein scandal are beautiful, successful actors.  I can imagine what they've endured… especially in the 60's and 70's when women's lib was a campaign, a mindset-- but it never stopped the bullying behavior of men.  Why?  Because they can? Because the process of ratting and tattling smears the victim nearly as much as the perpetrator, but in different ways.  You get blacklisted; people call you crazy.  My own Mom turned her cheek when I tried to explain how my pervy uncle took advantage of us girls.  I learned not to sing or dance or perform at family reunions.  I kept silent and tried not to call attention to myself.  Is this fair?  It is not.

I've been date-raped, bullied, had inappropriate things insinuated and spoken by bankers, lawyers, politicians and rock stars.  Some of them were high or drunk, but this is no excuse.  One of my son's ex-girlfriends who was extraordinarily beautiful shared with me some of the reasons she was abandoning modeling.  I cried.  It seems so much more hideous when you hear someone else's story, when you see someone else's innocence spoiled, their dreams smeared.

So the question on the table-- the pink crippled elephant in the room-- why did these women not come forth?  Because they loved their career, they needed the job, they did not want to permanently taint their reputation with these heinous personal scars?  There is no way to emerge from this stuff unscathed.  You make a choice, and so many of us choose silence.  Knowledge is power, they say; there is our self knowledge, our self worth.  The really sad under-story is the enormous talent-pool who were so discouraged and burned by this kind of thing, they left the stage.

Here's a new twist.  Recently I've been the victim of some heinous back-stabbing remarks and behavior perpetrated by a jealous bystander trying to destroy one of my beloved bands.  Not only had I tried for months to 'let it go'… and to ignore, but I did not really protest until this woman insisted that a male band member had made all kinds of sexual advances.   Like reverse, slanderous sexual harassment, because it seemed credible.  So I took up the cause and began to fight back-- not for myself, but for others whom she has wounded and maligned-- why?  Because she can? Because the nature of social media allows this kind of behavior to ignite in new ways and gives her power?  Isn't that what this is all about?

How sad this is.  Our own president is a perpetrator of this kind of personal sabotage-- of bullying, of sexual denigration, of the low-level insult, of the under-the-table communique.  He sets the bar so low it is hard to pass underneath.  As for my own vendetta to save the reputation of my friends and fellow band members, the whole incident has left a mark on us.  Our little musical family is awkward and our brotherhood is undermined.  There are no winners in these cases; well, maybe the ones who are financially compensated-- but the world is full of snakes, especially where stakes are highest.  We can only keep our eyes open, become accountable-- learn to decipher fake from real news, and make sure the silent innocent have a voice.  Our children are growing up in a strange culture, where sexuality and the way we wear it is a personal choice.  There are available methods of protection, even in the face of powerful facilitators and celebrities...and no one has the right to charge an intimate nonrefundable price to promote our dreams.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Physical Graffiti

I'm feeling like one of those cartoon characters, hoisting myself onto the ledge of the deep well of September, having clawed my way up walls with no footholds, no light… the tarry residue of recent events stuck to my skin, matting my hair, coating the bottom of the pit with the purgatorial sludge of beyond-my-control.

For those of us who have been watching the PBS Vietnam documentary, we are somehow haunted by the resonance of the messages-- or the absence of message-- in those events which both brought us together and split us apart.  History and hindsight are crucial to understanding.  Lack of transparency, skewed communications, mixed motives all contributed to the catastrophe that was this war.  These lessons are surely not absorbed or understood by our current Lego-esque president who is tragically under-qualified for most any position of leadership.  We saw various styles of politicians; were often betrayed by those we trusted most.

Besides the personal losses of recent days, the political climate, natural disasters and tragedies have made our lives that much less 'safe', our nights that much more sleepless.  Despite the news that the average American's income has risen, I find my artistic friends more encumbered than ever with impossible rents, dwindling income, constantly inflating everyday expenses.  I have down-sized virtually everything-- buy nothing at this point except cheap food on sale at varieties of markets.  It requires vigilance and time to glean the necessary information, and miles of walking to achieve the smallest victory over the relentless threat of poverty like an enemy ambush, waiting to take me down.

I do not miss the tiny luxuries-- a coffee in a cafe, occasional sushi box, new boots-- and manage to find museums and exhibitions without fees, but in this time of desperate global need I feel humiliated that I cannot contribute.  I'm no longer young and able-bodied enough to be part of some rescue or rehab coalition, and I have little to offer but my cheap grief, no matter how heartfelt.  'You ain't changin' no lives here, baby,' my local homeless man reminds me when I sacrifice an occasional quarter into his cup.  It's humiliating.

So I'm especially offended by the grotesque luxury culture that seems to be a sort of status quo among way too many Americans, whether they can afford it or not.  Because I was gifted a privileged education, I did rub shoulders and trade licks with some of these people in my past.  They make fun of me and occasionally offer me money; when they show up at gigs I buy them a drink.  I do accept payment for my books and cds.  But last week one who happens to be building some new residence of palatial proportions called me up and told me he's thinking about buying a urinal.  'You mean like the Duchamp, I asked in utter disbelief, realizing that for a split second I registered 'unicorn'?'  'No,' he replied, 'I'm not that sophisticated.  But for my billiards room (contiguous to the cigar bar)... I thought it would be a hoot. '  So I laid into him… about how I knew plenty of guys I could get to provide poolroom atmosphere and men's room grit, who would grind out their cigarette butts on his mahogany floors and stink up the place with street-sweat and the poetics of ghetto-slang and give him credibility.  Not to forget the gender ramifications, etc.  He can always rely on me for a 'dressing down', as he called it.

I hung up and in my head began to rack up the unpaid debt people like Banksy owe Duchamp.  For me there was one urinal.  He did not keep on repeating himself and was incredibly clever and inventive.  I remembered walking with another friend, passing one of those exquisitely quilted walls layered with various random graffiti souvenirs and posters-- rippings and peelings that rival any great Ab Ex museum painting for beauty and depth.  My friend wanted to remove one of the particularly brilliant postings and have it framed for his collection. We argued.  Next day I went back and sure enough, it had been skillfully excised like the work of some plastic surgeon.

It's not enough that these people have made LVMH and Ferrari massive billionaire brands… that they own and own and renovate and build and collect.  They now must own what was made by and meant for everyone-- especially the poor among us who don't have the same access to visual artistic stimulation.  Basquiat has become the quintessential collectible of these inner sanctums and massive living rooms.  The Basquiat I knew who threw his gut and brain onto old doors and walls… is now the ultimate status symbol.  Duane Hanson used to make facsimile sculptures of homeless people-- like his wink to these collectors.  In my old art dealing days I placed one of his Museum Guards in a huge Park Avenue foyer.  A sort of joke, but with another meaning that boded ill for private art fantasies.  A version of Jean Michel is rolling in his grave, while the worse version feels flattered.  Andy, too.  Fortunately for me, there are so few museum shows I really regret missing lately; it seems these institutions have bowed to the culture of Instagram and popularity.  Art galleries are filled with stuff that seems amateurish and shallow.  But I'm a cranky old no one.  What do I own?

On top of my plate of cheap rice this week has been the disgraceful intrusion of a lone hater with a fake name, hiding behind a pretentious Facebook profile and slandering and posting accusations and falsehoods.  I play music… I go home.  I write books and columns, I give my poetry away almost daily.   I worry about how to pay my monthly maintenance; I stretch dollars and perform tiny economic acrobatics.  It is distressing and discouraging.  For three days I cannot shake the image and repeated accounts from the Vietnam documentary about the hills-- the bloody, senseless military operations to occupy a hill-- causing massive casualties and deaths… and then… the hills are abandoned-- like a wicked game, like the ultimate Sisyphean war tale.   And then my stalker-- attempting to level the tiny reward of my creative inner conflict, like a grenade of hatred.  I am haunted; I am angry.  I own this.

The 18-hour series ended with the anthemic 'Let It Be' playing over the final credits.  Somehow this infuriated me.  Let it be?  A message of apathy and concession after reliving the whole disengorging saga of the 1960's?  The Beatles?  Let Puerto Rico be, as President Lego would do?  Let Mexico be? Let the rich eat cake and the poor starve?  Let the current pop culture undermine history and prioritize sacred museum space with the products of fashion and commerce while they discard the true foundations and sacrifices that constitute art?  Not me.  I will fight.  I will resist… old and weak as I am, I will try to express my contempt for what is morally hideous and grieve for the poor under-acknowledged saints and martyrs of this abysmal culture whose memory grows shorter and shorter, dimmer and dimmer… fade to black.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Night Manager

In the 1970's, New York City was a very different place.  It was dangerous and sleazy; anything could happen.  You'd walk down a side-street at night with a sense of shadows, with your heart beating.  Muggings were common; crime was woven into the fabric and you expected to be threatened.  In a way it was like the dare of the city-- are you tough enough, are your dreams compelling enough to lie down with rabid dogs, spar with the urban devil himself?  There was a certain underlying surf we had to ride out-- a dark fire we were expected to navigate.  The noir permeated our art-- our music and poetry-- our clothes, our choices.

On the other hand, there was a wild freedom in our private sex lives.  We were walking an edge-- trying out things.  There was no internet or linked-in.  You'd meet someone and take a risk.  There were no personal phones-- only a door or a window to crawl out if you found yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I was young and all-connected.  I was straddling worlds-- downtown, uptown-- the art world and the music underground.  It was thrilling and new.  Every day I'd get introduced into someone's world that rocked my own.  I'd walk into a club at night and hear something new-- see someone trying to change things.  Sometimes you'd exchange ideas; sometimes you exchanged bodies.

One afternoon I was studying at the Figaro on Bleecker Street, and this actor sat down at my table… he wasn't super famous but I recognized him.  He was slightly older… and he was smart; we spoke about theatre and Proust.  We made a date to meet the next night at a west-side bar.  I went to the library that evening and looked him up; he'd written a couple of books, and his publisher was well-known.  Everything in those days ended up in bed, and we had a few nights of passion.  I was dating a guitar player at the same time who came back to town and I wasn't home much to answer calls.  I don't think I even had an answering machine.  Anyway, one day I was getting into a car with the guitar player and the actor passed me… I looked the other way.   He called me a few nights later, sounded drunk and insecure about his sexual performance… it was a stupid conversation and I was 22 or 23 and didn't feel like getting into a whole psychological tunnel…

Two days later, someone broke into my little apartment on the first floor.  It was a vulnerable place and I probably never even drew the curtains when I stayed out all night… but they took everything.  In those days everything fit into a couple of suitcases-- but it was all I had, and when I came home on a Sunday evening to find my window smashed, the mattress stripped and the place ransacked, I was spooked.  The cops assured me it was no Kojak episode but most likely a desperate junkie looking for cash and things to sell for dope.  My guitar player was going on the road; I stayed with a friend at the Chelsea Hotel for a few days while they put in a new window and locks on the door.

At the Chelsea I inhaled the quintessence of 1970's New York.  Sid and Nancy were there; Viva and I shared a cigarette on the stairs.  My friend was working with John Cale; he'd been robbed too and he processed the dare of the city with a certain bitter mistrust.  It was a cool hang, but I needed to face my independence without a support system.  I moved back to my little place, bought new sheets and a cheap little TV, was at last drifting off to sleep with Johnny Carson on the black and white 12-inch… when the phone rang.  I'd been gone for a week and thought it was my guitar player-- whispering… but then I heard the actor's voice, indisputably, asking me if I knew what he was doing… I jumped out of bed in a cold sweat, and ran up the stairwell to the next floor-- banged on a random door.  Some guy answered-- I begged him to let me in… I'm sure he thought I was crazy; thinking back, he had no pants on--  I stuttered something about someone stalking me…  anyway, he went into his bedroom and I curled up on his dirty carpet.  He had a small dog and it had new puppies… I lay there like a dog myself until the sun came up and I had the nerve to go downstairs.

I hadn't thought about this for so many years, but it was maybe the first coming-of-age reality check of the city.  In a way I'd been lucky; no one had really hurt me… and thinking back, it was undoubtedly a total coincidence that the actor phoned at that moment.  I'm sure he had no knowledge that I'd been robbed, that I'd been away… or did he?  It was the first time I felt genuinely unsafe-- a little terrified-- and had thoughts about finding a more secure apartment, about making wiser and less random choices, about becoming part of a couple as opposed to being the wild and free girl.  In a way I changed my vision that night; in a way I accepted there would be a kind of dependence on men in my life.  The end of innocence, which for girls is so often some threat or unmanageable fear which changes us and forces us to make a slightly desperate choice.  It's not 'live free or die', but  'live'.  It's a form of terrorism, but that's another discussion.

Like most things in life, we give up one thing for another; nothing stays the same, no one retains their innocence unless someone else arranges this for us.  Of course life in the city today feels much safer; people have phones for emergencies, everyone's marital and employment status is pretty much general knowledge, as is their age and address, their political affiliations and criminal record-- their net worth.  People sort through hundreds of prospects on dating sites-- they hook up, they regroup, they text and sext and move on.  I seldom walk into a club these days and encounter something that changes my world.  I no longer fall in love and rarely walk the dark streets with a sense of danger and excitement.  I miss those times; I've had a good and a rich life here, but I do miss myself when I was still brave enough or maybe dumb enough to take a nightly walk on the wild side.  When there was a viable and findable wild side.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Grave Thoughts

Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me…over and over in my head the last week,  the over-used Emily Dickinson couplet like an annoying nag, a childhood haunting-- because I never loved that poem… and the image of the threesome in the carriage… Death, the deceased, and immortality-- well, three's a crowd and they seem somehow incompatible.  Death is neither kind nor proud, as John Donne pointed out over three centuries ago… and how many generations of Donnes have stopped for Death-- have thought about these things, have struggled with acceptance or resistance, embraced God in strength or desperation?

Despite the fact that the only absolute certainty of life is its demise, we are universally unprepared when death touches us-- when we are diagnosed or when we lose a loved one.  Some of us obsess and read obituaries daily, commemorate daily passings on our Facebook pages, indulge in private rituals and personal prayers.  Are we thinking of the departed or of our own selves, trying to rehearse the moment, to cope, somehow, with the ultimate thing we dread?  Some cultures celebrate death; my own foray into Goth-dom explored the macabre and dark; it was appealing and brave-- confronting the monster head-on, wearing fear on our clothing, tattooing its image on our skin like a boldfaced dare.

It's ironic that my last post was a sort of Eulogy… just days later my beloved mother died and the farewell was neither noble nor poetic.  I have had altogether too much intimacy with Death this year-- family, mentors…  my friend with whom I sat, whose witness and unwilling end-of-life nurse I became because she was unable to accept her fate and fought until the very end.  It was something I wish I'd not experienced, although I am told I did a humane and sympathetic thing.  There was no closure; the end was hideous, painful, sad and desperate.  The posthumous silence was heavy and haunted; it all felt terribly wrong and as though I'd been let into a private room no human should see.

My Mom-- the version I knew-- had been fading into some emotional and physical place of distance.  I could seldom reach her, although she occasionally came back into the present and looked at me with such deep poignant recognition and love; I craved those brief moments, and was not ready to lose her.  Personal grief is like a wave-- like a tidal undertow that knocks you off your feet and takes your breath away.  It is the end of possibility, the absolute curtain on something that feels like your true love.  It is undeniable and difficult.

Burial feels like a primitive ritual.  For me the concept of burial associates with hiding something-- covering something up which will eventually be uncovered.  Maybe that was the point of the ritual; I haven't researched this… but have read plenty of Edgar Allen Poe, and have noticed the enormous popularity of zombie and vampire films in recent years.  Still, as far as I know, no one has actually yet come back and described the experience.  Seeing my mother's coffin in a hole in a graveyard surrounded by strangers made me feel a little more desperate.  Leaving her there felt wrong; I sensed in my broken heart a calling-- don't go… stay with me, I wanted to scream-- to tear my hair and rub dirt on my face, to lie on top of her and sing to her… but I had to behave, to place my small shovel of dirt with a single white rose and wait for the gravediggers to follow later on with their little dedicated steamshovels.

The gravestone is a symbol, for most of us… but we still visit-- we leave flowers and stones; my friend brings his trucker Dad a coffee light and sweet with a glazed doughnut.  I've even seen a pack of cigarettes in a cemetery… a ball and glove, a Yankee hat.  Does this help?  It is so literal.  Death is literal; the afterlife is vague and unexplained.  We speak to the dead, we pray, we cry-- we write songs and poetry… we find things on the street, we look for signs.  Who knows?   Que sera, sera, my mother used to sing to me, but she didn't really believe that.  She even told me she wanted to be cremated because she feared suffocating.  Her wishes were not honored by my sister who always seems to manage the last word in my little family.  My brand of sympathy is discredited, my rock and roll existence is like a stain on the stiff white-washed facade of her artifice.  She has invented her version of dignity, of shame-hiding and cover-up.  Yes, burials of all types are familiar to her.  She speaks in cemetery tongues.

My Mom's interment took place on the day of the solar eclipse.  This offered some comfort for me, in the cosmic confluence of the heavens and the transition of my Mom who despite her old-fashioned ideas and obsolete code of ethics was rather pure of heart.  It forced us to look upward, to the sky-- a sort of directive to symmetry, and to the place she, in her funny naiveté, along with so many of us, imagined.   She also loved me, truly and deeply, while often objecting to my lifestyle and regretting what to her seemed my shameful and unnecessary oath of poverty and allegiance to a difficult and vague life-plan including single motherhood.   But I never complained, and everyone else did.

As things so often come in threes, I feel almost released this season, although I realize the acceleration of life at my age will bring the next round altogether too soon.  The Houston floods have brought the specter of mass grief and loss into everyone's horizon, and this tempers our selfish personal sorrows,  or inspires in us that much more sympathy.   For me the musician--  timing is everything.  My sleepless nights now are spent watching endless footage of rising waters like tears-- of rescue and sacrifice and devastation.  We are so reminded of our helplessness in the larger 'picture' of the world; for those who have laid loved ones to 'rest' in graveyards and cemeteries… the ravages of nature have as little regard for the dead as the living.  It is tragic and will leave an enormous scar.  And yet, one day, the sun will come out, as it did here all week while the southern coast was pounded, and the universe does not feel shame or grieve for its acts of cruelty. We sad humans must mourn, and save, and help, and love, and try to come to some understanding with Death, because he is surely not kind and will not pass us by, not a single one-- not so far.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Camera Obscura

When my adorable son was barely three years old, he came upon his first 'little person' on line with us at the supermarket.  After thoughtfully scrutinizing her, he cried out… 'Look, Mom! It's a girl just turning into a lady!' Of course it is difficult for young children to comprehend the phases of life-- the concept that they are going to grow up, that their own parents and Grandparents were once young-- that this is a slow, gradual, continuous process.

Now that I am entering a late phase of life,  I again find it hard to grasp the lessons of time, to accept the harsh losses and assimilate the regrets of my peers who seem oddly unprepared, despite decades of identical 24-hour daily allotments, for their senior years.  Recently I saw my Dad cross over-- cross, with all its meanings, is the appropriate word, because he wore a tough and cantankerous skin over his purple hero's heart, even in death.

My mother, on the other hand, has deteriorated slowly and with a kind of demented grace.  She sits in a chair like a soft throne, with her thinning white hair pulled up in a tight knot, her famous cheekbones still defining her profile, her skin still soft but papery.  It is her eyes that tell the story-- watery, unfocused-- occasionally expressive but progressively less and less present.  Where are you, Mom-- in some honeymoon dream with your handsome decorated lover lifting you over some threshold, standing above the falls with the deafening roar of water rushing you off into another undertow of memory? It is difficult to know whether the sadness I read into her increasingly blank stare is hers or my own.

From her chairside, I facetime my son-- her favorite grandchild, the nurse-companion assures me-- and the three generations share a moment.  He is quite a man now; time has done its work here, too.  I meet his old school friends on the street and some of them have begun to lose their hair and take on that look of premature disappointment men in their 30's and 40's often wear.  The babies I held so recently are adults now-- the young couples I knew are turning grey, losing their religion.  Witnessing these passages is the way I process my own.  I am relatively unchanged, consistent.  I have different expectations.  I gave up on my vow to own a limestone townhouse on East 70th Street; I no longer want one.  I treasure my things, my books---  thank the angels I can still play bass and write songs and poetry.   I ask for little else-- can survive on the barest minimum in this city where I feel rich without money.  Yes, I was fortunate enough to have had the foresight to invest in an apartment when they were oh-so-cheap… exchanged vacations, movies, restaurants-- for a home, 'ant' that I was, having left my 'grasshopper' husband in the UK with the rest.

When I moved into my building it felt palatial.  We'd come from a studio apartment; my son endured his kindergarten friends remarking he slept in a closet; he did.  The head of our new coop was this elegant, intelligent woman who turned out to have been the fashion editor of the New York Times at a time when this was culturally important.  Her husband was a world-renowned Swedish photographer whose fashion photos were spectacularly smart and iconic.  Since I had a Swedish boyfriend, our kinship was sealed.  They took me under their wing, so to speak.  I adored them.  We shared evenings and ideas.  They were perennial attendees at my all-night musical Thanksgivings, and were treasured and wonderful guests.  Gus, the photographer-- also shared my passion for music.  He came to my gigs-- even the difficult solo ones-- critiqued my songwriting with brutal honesty and a sharp POV… gave his opinion freely of my friends, their work, etc.  He came to school events and photographed the children.  He'd knock on my door at night when I was home and sort through cds and art books.  He brought me albums and tapes and taught me so much about jazz.  When I visited Sweden, I'd bring him small things… I even photographed his boyhood home-- the apple trees and the stream running through his memory.  He was like the father I never experienced.  His love for his own children was boundless and unconditional, and somehow he realized I'd missed out, and generously shared a paternal affection.  I was proud of him.  His choice of wife-- stellar.  More than anything-- his decisive modus operandi-- as though he knew exactly what he thought and wanted and laid it out there.  This is rare.  True honesty and a point of view to go with it.  He attended coop meetings and harshly criticized injustices.  He supported me in my crusades and shared my sorrows without pity.  As a couple, they were the emotional roof over my head upstairs.

As he got older, he was a little more cantankerous-- scolded my friends at my own table, announced he disliked people to their face… knocked on my door and demanded that I cook him Swedish meatballs, bake him cookies-- insisted on eating on my sofa where he left stains and spilled wine.  Whatever was on my stereo, he would take it off and put on either Bud Powell or Art Tatum or his very favorite, Slim Gaillard.  He liked a bit of humor with his jazz.  He loved women, beauty in all forms… and knew how to convey a message with an image.  During the last year, he began to pocket small things from my apartment.  I caught him in the act once, and he responded, without remorse,  'You don't NEED this.  You don't even notice it!'  It was as though he was aware our time was a little foreshortened, and he needed some souvenirs.  He was becoming greedy of moments as the sand ran down in his hourglass.  I, too.

Last week he passed away.  My grief is disproportionate; after all, I am not even a relative.  To their children, with whom I am not nearly as intimate, I can only express sympathy and condolences.  To his wife, who somehow understands my attachment, well.. I will cherish the future hours we can hopefully spend together, sharing ideas, like two women.  She is the maternal role model I never had; the enduring, amazing wife-now-widow.  I will listen and learn what I can, while she is here and generous with her evenings.

Recently an aging fashion designer stopped me on the street and asked for them.  They were quite the 'it' couple in their day, he always assures me, and generally accompanies this with an anecdote or two.  This time, for some reason, he graphically described the palpable chemical attraction one could sense between them in their prime.  For some of us, imagining people in their 80's and 90's as the Rihanna or Brad Pitt of their era-- well, it takes imagination… but I have learned now… such is time.  These waves crashing onshore at this moment, the surfers riding this crest, the shells and animals and fossils that we find in their shallow temporary graves at the water's edge-- will be less than memory in mere minutes.  All our selfies and photos-- well, they are just digital sand.

The images Gus left behind-- both photographic and realtime-- are etched in my memory.  The photographs are fortunately ingrained in the internet and in books; he has left a hefty legacy and will not be forgotten.  It is his persona that has left a mark on me-- the in-your-face direct line to his mind-- his affection, his humor-- his laugh, not to mention his gorgeous physical presence and unique style even into his 90's-- his personal fashion and his pride, and his compassion-- his unequivocal appreciation for whatever I had made, and the example he set as a father, a husband… and a friend.  I grieve for selfish reasons, as one does.  Last night, in tribute… I reached for my Slim Gaillard… and it had vanished.  Dearest Gus.