Sunday, February 11, 2018

Let the Games End

I don't know why the opening ceremony of the Olympics sort of gives me the shivers.  Maybe it's the color wash of pomp and nationalistic display that just seems so out of touch with the dull and miserable reality of the less fortunate population.  Puerto Rico is neglected; starvation and disease are rampant in so many places worldwide; the growing disparity between the haves and have-nots has never seemed so hideous.  The Korean culture itself--- the military parades and exhibitions of the North like a braggart's bluff-- the singing girls and the happy marchers... the reality of repression and forced obedience... the apparent moratorium on human rights that welcomes athletes from a hostile and hideous regime for what-- the spirit of competition?  I just don't get it.  It feels opportunistic and juvenile... some kind of #metoo madness.

Not to mention the pall cast over the gymnastic community which has colored yet another sport almost permanently.  Who protects those of our children who have been deemed special or uber-talented and marketable-- whose natural skills and talents have been parlayed into industries and fortunes not to mention a kind of national heroism?  As a young aspiring dancer, I could sense the thorns and perils even before I understood abuse and boundaries.  We each have instincts, but our ambitions so often triumph better judgment... as well as that of all those people on our path who close one eye when there is a huge pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.  Until the whistles blew.... and how many sports are now tainted by cover-ups, pay-offs, cheating, doping?  Does the best man/woman win?  Look at our elections.  Not only did we get the dark horse but we got a non-qualifier.  If politics was a sport our president would be limping at the starting-line with an ill-fitting uniform and no sponsors but his own sad brand.  Eisenhower might have been a good golfer but he was also a 5-star general.

What version of America shows up at these international competitions? The athletes are still young players in a kind of dream-- individuals with the drive and stamina to be the best they can be-- who put their skill on the line internationally for their nation-- but who are we?  A disorganized country with little focus except money-- an untrained leader whose familiarity with the 50 states came from watching the  Miss America pageant.  And now he wants a military parade-- this man who never fought a war or trained for one-- who throws around threats and battle-language like some kind of cartoon character.  The Monopoly president whose claim to office is an affirmation of the sad state of pop culture and the negation of human values.  We won't see his image on a bill or coin, but on a game-piece-- a gambling chip.  The man himself to me is an ever-expanding hot-air balloon-- the latest float at a Macy's parade...  to bring him down will take some strategy because he is not just a player but a cheater.  In the end, in my personal American dream--- to ultimately deflate the high-flying symbol of bloated greed and cartoon quackery will take a simple pin.

I can't help blaming the current flu epidemic on a certain emotional malaise among my American peers.  My friends and I have been mostly depressed since Election Day 2016.  Anything could take us down.  Few of us trust the medical system  to protect us against disease or to give a whit about healthcare beyond what profits the insurance and drug companies.  We do not get vaccinated; we get sick.  We are watching these games and athletics through feverish eyes, wondering at the lingering inequality of women in some sports, and worrying about the fate of the Korean cheerleaders and delegates.  Will they be punished?  Will there be defectors?  Why is South Korea so apparently recently solicitous of its evil Northern sister?

To me the two Koreas seem like a dysfunctional family; the South-- a beautiful place, ranked No.1 in the world in technological innovation-- so there is obvious talent and brilliance concentrated there-- a thing which might create envy in any family.  In the North-- repression is standard; starvation is rampant.  Students reputedly must buy their own desks and chairs to attend class, etc.  It is not a place that fosters creativity or joy... one pities the athletes who cannot possibly reap the rewards available to other nations-- win or lose.  It parallels my own sad family, in a way.... love has become impossible.. and although I neither respect nor admire my sister, she has used threats and fear to further alienate and weaken any family attachment I might have had.  She has forbidden her children to befriend me, although they have attempted defection... and now through force and might has conscripted the core and remaining fortune of my nuclear family so that even my own legacy will be withheld.  It is a game without rules; a rigged contest where the judges are the contestants, and there is one pre-arranged winner.

In this upside-down Trumped world where the jokers preside and justice sits on a bench with yesterday's stale sandwich, well... these villains will continue to steal the pie.  But for my true sisters of musical voice-- of pen and pencils and paint-- the filmmakers and innovators-- my teammates in life-- we will dance on their graves one day.  We will speak and write and sing and continue to raise our children with unconditional love.  We are out there-- on the streets-- in cornfields and in small homes... some of us coughing and barely able to board a public bus...  we wave to one another-- with some hope--  in our old clothing, with no medals or trophies but underneath it all,  a still-ticking American heart.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Where There is a Will….

The passage of relative time is a perpetual surprise for me; the pool of my past is filling so quickly with years… I can remember well when it was near-empty and the sense of  'brink' was like a permanent slow companion.  Looking at images from yesterday's women's march I remembered how I lived around the corner from Jackie Kennedy in her young widowhood.  She came in and out like a movie star, was civil but not very friendly to neighbors.  Still, despite her aura and the unequivocal celebrity status that seemed somehow to protect her, she was visible and often took taxis like anyone else.  She'd occasionally sit by the Central Park zoo with her children or a friend; people seemed to respect her privacy, from sanitation workers to other socialites.  After all, she was part of maybe the most important American story of her era… and she'd moved on-- she'd stepped outside the drama and assumed life as a regular woman.  She had children-- she had a job.

My mom was close to her age, and like all American women of that generation, she was influenced by her style: the hair, the hats and sunglasses-- her tall, understated elegance.   But what so many of them had in common was this silent acceptance of their husband's infidelities.  My own father's were not as flagrant or exciting; they were not even always centered on other women.  But there was a sort of pact these women kept-- a tolerance for behaviors that undermined and insulted their dignity in some way… and yet they carried on. They had their hair done, their nails manicured,  they met friends for lunch and took taxis to meetings.  They volunteered at schools-- they played bridge and shopped.  But they exchanged few complaints about their marriages.  They were committed, they were locked in.  My own mother feared being alone and made so many concessions I both disrespected her submissiveness and admired her stoicism.  It was the other version of #metoo:  I'm a wife and mother-- my husband doesn't treat me the way I deserve, but I have a sense of dignity.  #metoo.

In the wake of the current epidemic of accountability and blame, of revelations of abuse, I think about the variations and B-sides of the trend.  My son tells me about men-- athletes he knows, who avoid fun and flirtation because they are so targeted, like starlets, by predatory women who plot to cry monster as soon as they entrap.  It's like a reverse #metoo.  And how about the betrayals-- those of us whose husbands cheated, slept with our friends and sisters-- our beloved life partners… and we left-- we had to leave-- the pain, the humiliation was intolerable?  We were not Jackie O or my mom, but women who needed to save our children from marital tension and reinvent ourselves.  #metoo.

On Jackie O's corner, when I was 20-ish, a beautiful boy used to stand between 5 and 6 every evening. I'd return home and he seemed to stare at me.  I thought maybe he was a stalker, or just waiting for a ride or a bus.  But one day, he left me a note… a love note.  He smiled while I read it… and waved.  I ignored him... but gradually he came closer… he rode the bus with me, did funny tricks and made me laugh.  He had this beautiful long blonde hair and different colored eyes, like a huskie.  It was inevitable that we would consummate this little flirtation… it was passionate and innocent.  Without clothes, he was angelic like a boy-- it went on for weeks, until my boyfriend came back from wherever he'd been… Later I learned he was only 17.  I'd actually committed some kind of violation of a minor-- this romantic little game we'd played out of pursuit and conquest.  I could have been prosecuted in some scenario as a predator.  #metoo.

I grew up a little sister.  I followed, worshipped, loved and occasionally feared my older sister.  She was conniving and manipulative; like all first-borns, she'd been the little princess and then had to share.  I gave her anything she wanted, to win her affection and maintain her trust.  I was loyal and lied for her.  She was often in trouble and I wanted to help.  At a certain point, she turned on me-- maligned and backstabbed and betrayed.  She wanted to regain her territory and I retreated-- moved on.  It's an old story-- either fight it out, tooth and nail, or find another place.  I made friends, created my own family.  I missed my mother-- her stoicism and old-school devotion to the fictional hearth of family.  She missed me, too.  Toward the end of her life, I couldn't stay away, despite the threats of my sister.  My mother read my heart and confided her fears and regrets and sorrows.  Now that she has passed, I have to manage the harsh consequences of my lack of involvement in their legal arrangements.  I am marginalized and passed over-- misunderstood and-- again, betrayed.  It is painful to receive this, and yet I know I must 'eat the document', as they say.  I find I am one of a legion of naive family members who are the victims of competitive siblings and a kind of justice of greed.  I am a sentimental party, and I will lose my right to inherit any thing of beauty to keep my mom close to me-- around my neck or on my dresser.  There are many of us, and we seem to be women without men to assert our rights with a loud, combative voice.  A 'will'… the document is called.  It seems to have none.  A won't.  #metoo.

We've lost children, we've been sick and no one showed up-- we've survived without child support, or any support… #metoo.  We've made mistakes with our children, and we've had no one to share in the joy they have given us…#metoo.  We grieve alone, we are misread, underacknowledged and passed over.  We grow old and have to make difficult choices… we remember the victories, the losses, the insults-- the love and the sex and the confessions and the lies, the satisfactions and the frustrations, the fresh beginnings and the hopelessness of the tide running out.  And yet we are still here-- me, my friends, my work… the legacies which may or may not mean something when we are gone… another kind of will.  I do…#metoo…

For several days I have wept out loud watching excerpts of the US Olympic gymnasts describe the disturbing abuse they endured under the guise of medical treatment.  This is not a new story, but the courtroom testimonials are devastating.  The #metoo movement has revealed that the greater majority of women have been subjected to mistreatment in one form or another.  When it targets our entire life's focus-- our dedication and dreams, our passion and talent-- it is that much more heinous and difficult.  I kept silent when I was attacked and threatened by a producer who had invited me to discuss the music I wrote which he had described as brilliant,  only to find he had another agenda.  It was humiliating and traumatizing, and I carried it in silence; I paid a price, and survived.  But what bothers me in the case of the gymnasts-- they were children.  Were their parents completely unaware? Their perfect proud mothers whose dreams were being realized by the prize-winning performance of offspring-- did they fail to rock the boat, did they disbelieve?  Did their daughters keep quiet because they feared disappointing their parents?  Can children actually be raised to keep these dangerous 'secrets' with their moms?  I know I was.  In the 1960's this would have fallen on deaf ears.  My sister acted out in ways that were beyond disturbing, but no one seemed to want to take her for help.  My own father suffered from paralyzing depressions and manic periods, and no one wanted to speak.  I asked to visit a shrink-- to discuss this-- and my Jackie O-esque mom ignored my plea-- what if it went on my perfect college transcript? For the siblings, friends and parents who fail to blow whistles, who worry about consequences and selfish ambition and fail to observe and protect their children… shame on you... #youtoo.

So while I am now excluded from family money because the truth-- awkward as it might have been--was my blood sibling,  I will always choose not to ally myself with the guilty.  Attached as they were to their agenda, they not only neglected to protect, but punished me.  I forgive my mom; she herself was marginalized and disrespected often, and did not have the courage to do anything but enable.  Here we are, horrified at the testimony of these young athletes… and failing to protect so many children in our midst.  We elected a president who is not only abusive to women but ignorant, bigoted and hateful.  What message is this sending?  My mom reached out to me late in life-- she confessed and apologized, opened her heart.  I will love her and miss her forever.  As for the rest of them.. there is karma, but there is also great injustice in the world; we can only try to leave a legacy of truth and compassion going forward… #metoo... our work has only just begun.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Closely Watched Trains

At 8 or 9 PM on New Year's Eve I generally try to phone one of my friends overseas where the year has begun in earnest.  It feels a little special-- as though we are bridging some time gap and violating some order-- me here in the past, getting ready to go to a gig, listening to the sounds of the future-- the singing and rowdy partygoers who have passed the finish line and have already begun to unwind and absorb the vaguely monotonous reality that 2018 or whatever year is not so different from 2017-- at least not yet.  My Norwegian friends were drunk and optimistic that we are all going to blow this one wide open.

Working as a musician on this night is a sort of brilliant copout.  I am not responsible for the success or failure of the party; there is no anticipated date, no dinner reservation or romantic disappointment-- just amps, microphones, music, dancing, alcohol and noise-making... and then I get paid and go home to my peaceful little uptown hideaway where I am relieved that the world passed another milestone without disaster, that there were no deaths in Times Square; the MTA is at least holiday-operative, and the global clock is still ticking.

The subway ride home at 4 AM January 1 is special.  Back in the 1980's public transportation was free on this night-- a gift to the city, so anyone could afford to get home somehow-- even those who had lost their wallets or spent every last dollar in bars and clubs.   I can remember being so poor as a student, we rode the train to Coney Island and back as our celebration; standing on the beach watching distant fireworks was intoxicating.  At some point full-fare was restored;  this year the extreme cold was the main topic...  it made things little extra festive-- we were all so relieved to be off the street and in a relatively warm car.  There was, of course, the prerequisite vomiter, the sleeping drunks... but mostly just revelers with their parties still in tow, stumbling in and out of train doors with paper hats and crowns and joy.

I am always relieved, these days, to go home after a gig-- relieved that there are no major disasters, no stage-pissing or broken bones, no lost chords or tuners-- and somehow this night I sensed the awkward-shaped package of 2017 tie itself off.  I felt clean-- unburdened of dread, and slightly lifted from the muddy ground of the old year which brought month after month of sad news-- death, illness and tragedy.  I was letting it go; or rather, it was releasing me.  Across the car from me was a twenty-something man with his knees drawn up,  skinny jeans down around his hips, designer underwear and bare back in full view.  Obviously he'd lost his coat-- he'd had a rough night.  The boys next to me began to try to wake him-- what should we do, they asked me, the obvious 'senior' passenger and designated mother? Let him sleep, I advised; he's safer in the warm car until he sobers up and can figure out his itinerary.... but they were adamant... he woke, the sleeper-- and in his dark wet eyes was the halo of narcotics.  He was angry-- defensive-- he was some kind of beautiful and non-gendered persona-- belligerent, wounded.  I could imagine he'd been personally traumatized-- disappointed or even abused just hours earlier; there was guilt in his attempt at defiance-- there was also resentment and old grief.  It took a few minutes until he recognized something behind my guitar case and my wraps...  a maternal presence;  on the verge of complicated tears, he at last confided his destination-- yes,  completely disoriented and traveling further and further from his Brooklyn home.  So we all put our January-1 heads together and mapped out a route with transfers and station-jumping so he could remain inside until the last exit.  A young couple took him across the platform at 42nd Street-- they hugged me as they departed the train.

There is always a great media-fuss made over the first baby of the year; inevitably in this huge city there is a birth shortly after midnight.  I realized, as I rode the rest of the way uptown, my train-mates were my newborns of 2018.  The sad, wounded coatless Brooklynite... the young couples with glitter-tattoos, the chef on his way to the morning shift at Mount Sinai, the tired bartender from Artichoke Pizza who plays upright bass and hopes for a career in music; he took his hat off as I left and let down his beautiful black hair-- with his lovely voice and hands-- I know he will be a star.

We humans begin to lose our memory as we collect time, but most of us seem to retain a special slot for 'firsts': the first day of school, the first dance, the first minute of pregnancy, first night we spent with almost every single lover-- even if it was also the last.  We can play back things-- the room, what he wore, the way he felt under the sheets... these things seem to persist somewhere, like a recurring dream.  And of course the moments with our children... even the difficult ones, when you are wracked with some fever or even labor, and your toddler is needing you to read to him.'

I played my  usual Monday gig, still in the spell of the new year, and returned home on the Q, realizing things were already dissolving into normalcy.  People were tired and cold, not many smiled or shared on the train or the platform.  Today I stopped for a coffee and finished my first book of the year, or really, the last of the past year-- a Salman Rushdie.  There was a little girl, nagging her father to read to her; he was distressed, searching his phone, pacing a bit...  she came over to me with her book, and her sad mouth, and I was nearly unable to read-- my voice cracking and nostalgic for the babies that were so grown up and the one that had not made it.  Here, I wanted to say to her father-- you have a clean slate.. what can be more urgent than this opportunity which fate can take from you any moment?  She leaned on me, this child, the way they do--with trust and affection, like a stray dog.

Tonight, January 2,  I wept in the cold-- for the already widening distance of the last year, for the missing children of my first day who are already lost in the city... for the lights, for the ghosts of the Christmas trees that lined the sidewalk on Lexington with hope and anticipation and now would be lying spent on the curb for sanitation pick-up, for the homeless men who must leave the warmth and light of the 96th Street library at 7 PM closing, for the crosstown bus driver who confessed he had no one to go home to after the night shift; for the passion and love and first nights of the past, the small family searching these buildings not so long ago for the home we discovered, for the emptiness of the future as a solitary woman who gleans from fruit vendors and thrift shops in a nondescript coat of non-recognition, trying to savor the grace of the beginning, while the world and time is thrusting us ever-forward.  We are prepared for the weather, some of us-- but not for whatever fate holds for us in the next onslaught of days and weeks and months.  I was so blindsided by 2017, trying hard to re-baptize myself into some incarnation of hope-- resolving, as we do, we perennials, to observe and honor what we are given, and to pray for another beginning when this one, too, has worn itself out.


Thursday, December 28, 2017

Hark the Herald Angels

Like my father before me, I often watch Bloomberg television in the overnight.  I'm fascinated by economics, the way they graph and predict and analyze what seems the bizarre and illogical behavior of current financial markets.  It's also a little comforting, in the thin hours where late-night dissolves into dawn, to know that across the world people are awake and bustling, when you are just home from a gig  that isn't quite what you wanted it to be, and sometimes considering life-alternatives.

Apparently, according to the financial pundits, it was a healthy Christmas.  Retail in-store sales were up, despite the anticipated online shopping dominance.   Personally I didn't really buy into the holiday spirit until I met my son in Herald Square at 5:45 PM, Christmas Eve.  Everyone should have this experience once in their life; it puts capitalism in some kind of warped perspective.  To be honest, there was less panic than I'd have predicted… and we managed to score the last pair of black Timberland nu-bucks in his size.  They were more than I could afford, more than I spend in two years on my own clothing-- but he wanted them.  He wanted the same ones in 2004, but I didn't bring that up.  It's imperative to buy something I can't afford; especially something that rappers seem to endorse universally.  Of course, he'd really like a Rolex, but he'll have to wait until he can buy it himself which is imminent, I sense. As for me, I've given up the ritual of exchanging gifts with everyone else… I can scarcely manage building employee tips and they all know they earn more than I do, but it keeps us on some kind of level ground of courtesy.  God knows the value of courtesy in this city.

My son always buys me a tree-- my only wish-list; this year he gave me a phone-- for emergencies, Mom, he explains to my idiosyncratic luddite head-shaking-- an extra line came with a huge discount in his bill, and a free phone… so I had to concede, even though I will not carry it.  He  knows me well; I have a history of wondering at the yearning of most people for what they do not have, and not often wanting what I get.   My childhood Christmases, after initial dismay that Santa did not leave me a horse, were not materially memorable.  I spent long days shopping, wrapping, and crafting things for everyone with my babysitting income.  I loved the giving.  Presents for me were generally the little-sister version of whatever my mother had selected from my sister's hefty list, which included prices and sums.  My Nana knew me best; she gave me boxes of scraps and spools of thread for making doll clothes-- rocks and old stamps for projects.  These were my treasures.

One year my Mom gave me Judy Collins' 'Wildflowers'.  It was the first record album that was designated mine and not communal like the scratched and dog-eared Beatles and Stones in the hifi bin, and it was like a coming-of-age joy-- one of those moments that let me know my Mom really 'got' me.  I loved it to death.  Sisters of Mercy.

Another year I remember tonight: I must have been 18, planning a summer trip to Europe with my boyfriend, and I begged for cash.  Christmas morning there were the usual piles of gay-looking boxes and bags, and not a thing for me.  In the toe of my stocking, something rustled: it was a $1.  Fuming, I took off-- skipped the traditional pancake breakfast and ran downtown.  The city was deserted and I was sulking and in desperation hopped a bus back to college.  It was a day like today-- frigid and unforgiving, and when I reached my empty dorm, I found there was neither electricity nor heat.  I wept in Christmas solitude and called my boyfriend in Boston from the house-phone who consoled me and directed me back to New York.   Anyway, trying to sleep that night under piles of blankets, I heard a strange noise-- found a flashlight and discovered one of my eccentric roommates in several hats and coats in her bed reading the novels of Jane Austin.  She'd stayed behind, intellectual that she was, and not buying for a second into either the holiday or home-sweet-home.  I'd never have really known her,  had I not had this little learning excursion which also taught me that I was an adult, and had to rely on myself if I wanted something-- that home was where I was, not some kind of story-book picture.  I thus weaned myself from my sweet Mom for the second time.

I've been thinking about her all this week-- my first motherless Christmas, the first time I wrapped no gift for her.  I remember how she understood me, even though she disagreed-- how she had to align herself with my Dad and refuse to sanction or even witness my artistic and romantic ambitions, but how she'd send me something like some candy bars I loved taped together, with no card-- or an old ribbon.  How she called to cry about John Lennon when he was shot that cold December day… how she tried.  I suppose death is the final weaning.

There's a Code-Blue out tonight in New York City.  It's so cold they've directed the police to round up homeless people who are at risk outdoors.  I was in Harlem at dusk; on the steps of a familiar church where a population beds down, two cops were trying to coax a sleeper to a shelter.  I don't mind the cold, he kept saying, but I mind the shelter.  After they left, I asked if he needed something.  Plastic bags for my feet, he said, and asked about my dog.  My dog has been dead for years… but he seemed to recognize me.  You gave me a sweater one night, he told me--- you were on a balcony and it was raining, and I was digging through restaurant trash… and you brought me a blue sweater.  I remember this… I did… and I remembered seeing that sweater in the trash bin the next morning, like a dis.

It's hard for me to believe this was that homeless man whose face, I confess, I don't recall… I keep thinking he is some sort of angel or apparition; his voice was soft and resonant and musical,his leathery smile so kind.  He also gave me a bag of socks to wash; I threw them into the machine at 2 AM when no one would be there to judge.  I will take them back to him tomorrow evening even though I wonder if he will be there; it is my foot--washing opportunity-- a real Christmas gift and I resisted the temptation to buy him a new pack, but executed his wish, as he presented it.   Clean socks.  I will sort and fold them in the Christmas spirit I failed to embrace this year until now.  If he is not there, I will leave the bag along with a candle for his night, and a prayer.

This is the sort of thing my Mom frowned on; after all, she was a lady, and didn't understand this is my version of rolling bandages for soldiers as she had done in her day.  In the scriptures, the woman who washes Jesus' feet with her hair, no less, was a sinner.  I've sinned plenty, as my Mom did not, and maybe you must be a sinner to want to serve the homeless.  I'd like to think it is compassion, not guilt that compels me.  But maybe some of those smug Bloomberg guys need a bag of dirty socks left under their tree with the Rolex boxes and the new-car keys.  How about putting that on your billionaire-list, Santa? For the naughty or nice, financial sinners all-- the ones who drank the Trump tax hand-out just as happily as a Christmas egg-nog.  From your warm golf-courses and holiday Caribbean hideaways, may you dream of some human foot-washing in the arctic cold as you kneel before a man who has maybe never seen the inside of a an airplane, or a decent restaurant, or a lovely warm home, but who is closer to some version of grace than all of your graphs and statistics will ever be.

Amen and Happy New Year to all.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Santa Clause

Like an old deer in a city park, I am beginning to pick up the scent of Christmas.  When I think of shopping-- merchandise-- well, tears are all the currency I can muster; even the pounds of butter for cookies will be tough to manage this season.  Thank goodness I conned my son into picking up a bargain tree on Black Friday.  Having a good month with it makes me less guilty about kidnapping nature for selfish decor reasons.  Yes, it's a symbol, and it certainly receives plenty of love and attention in its place by the shelves of vinyl and my double bass-- but come the New Year it gets put out on the curb for recycling, stripped of its finery, and I feel like a cruel step-parent.  Anyway, it is in its domestic adolescence, still drinking up water and I love the smell.  It is my companion, my forest.  I wake mornings to the banging radiator and the piney ghost-aura of Christmases past.

I am closing in on another lifeline benchmark;  it is also the first holiday without my mother.  She would not have believed my age; during our last visits, she refused to believe the woman before her was truly me.  My daughter, she laughed quizzically with those famous eyebrows roof-high?  My daughter is young and so beautiful.  You-- you're not my daughter!  I had to agree, in the end.  I am no longer that girl; I am quite someone else, becoming, every year, still another version of this woman in whose skin I feel not quite myself ('Mice elf', as Sly with cleverness observed).

On Saturday afternoons I often gallery-sit.  It provides a little extra income and keeps my finger in the art pie where all of them once wallowed and explored.  I take the train to Union Square and walking west I can't help observing there is a blossoming colony of homeless or hapless people-- most of them young, with signs, blankets, home goods, possessions, wares for sale.  There are couples and small groups.  Many of them have pets-- dogs, cats on leads, animals wearing sweaters and T-shirts, bandanas and hats, reminding me of the old Tompkins Square population from the 1970's.  There is money in their cups and bowls; tourists and locals chat and pet the animals who are the pimps, in a way, for donations.  People are uncomfortable with poverty and homelessness, but the animals seem to be an ice-breaker.  Many of the young people are reading; they might be students living on the edge, relying on charity to make room and board.  These days I have so little extra; a few dollars each month and my own skill at thrift keeps me from the street.  I pass, I empathize, I apologize silently, and I say a prayer thanking God for another  month of eking by.

There is coffee at the gallery.  The space is luxe and white and the reverb is perfect for recording vocals.  The objects are expensive and beautiful.  I am comfortable with these; I understand their history and their context.  The irony of my life is that I was brought up in museums, among cultural institutions-- I studied art and history and architecture and despite the extreme financial circumstances which ally me with the culture of homelessness, I am steeped in the love and lore of art and at home in this place.  During the week salespeople and stylists and media-experts bring clients in and out; on Saturdays it is church-like; no one calls, and celebrities and billionaires come in to shop low-profile-style.  We are connected by affection and understanding of these things despite the fact that I cannot even afford to buy lunch.  I also encourage students and passersby to browse; I am instructed not to let anyone use the bathrooms but find this kind of rule difficult to enforce.  I am a populist and also know, from years of gallery work, all visitors deserve the same hospitality.

This week there was a plumbing issue and the bathrooms were off limits.  Mid-afternoon, in the first snow of the year, a young woman came in-- wet and snow-dusted, wide-eyed and sweet-faced, and asked to use the washroom.  I had to explain-- felt a tiny pang of awkwardness, knowing the policy of places like this one… but she was cordial and spent some time looking around.  I was speaking on the phone to a relative, admitting my dark mood and still coming to terms with the sad week I'd had-- the loss of another close friend and musician.  I'd been not just on the verge of tears all week… in fact, since the fall leaves began to turn, I haven't been the same, as my Mom might have pointed out, had she lived another season.  The girl left; I apologized again.  

Maybe it was the weather-- the beautiful quiet snow, the dark afternoon, the Christmas lights through the window,  the hangover from yet another funeral, the sense of the dying year… but I was feeling bleak and isolated.  Gigs are getting sparse-- book sales are slow, my holiday calendar is quite blank.  I will see my son-- he will have a brief rest from his work; maybe it is his missing father-- his slightly handicapped childhood, but he rarely expresses much emotion.  He seems so 'normal'-- I do not often expose him to my 'shadow'.  His father-- my husband-- was a happy-go-lucky boyish sort of person who embraced love and marriage with great alacrity, but not so much the 'to the exclusion of all others' clause.   I never nagged or complained; I left.  It didn't bother me that he never sent a penny; only when he complained to the next crop of spouses that he was crippled from child support payments.

At the end of the afternoon a girl came in again--- left something on the desk-- I was about to call after her, when I saw it was the same girl-- and she'd left a lovely wrapped cookie… with a note, saying I seemed to need some cheer-- and whatever it was, she could tell I was a strong woman and would overcome the darkness.  I burst into tears-- like the touch of angel.   It wasn't just that in this culture of phone-addiction and shallow human interaction it's so rare someone actually reaches out to a human (as opposed to a sad dog), but also that I remembered being that person-- the one who felt things, whose daily empathy called for these gestures and this sort of gift-giving and random affection to strangers.  It isn't just that I look different as I age, but that my limited lifestyle has also limited my generosity of soul.  I cried for my lost heart, for the girl I was and now suddenly missed so terribly, realizing my mother was maybe more astute than I knew.

I locked up and went back uptown in a cloud of quiet tears camouflaged by the falling snowflakes, mourning not just my friends but my old self… trying hard to absorb the Christmas message.  After my solitary spartan supper at home, I found her cookie-- realizing with a bit of horror it had been so long since I'd treated myself to anything-- and I loved every bit; it was healthy and handmade and filled with festive ingredients and just so good.  While I was busy worrying, struggling to maintain my minimal post-parental life in the 21st-century city which is not kind to the poor and the non-spending population, I had neglected more important things-- my soul, my heart, my own kindness not just to others but to myself.  Thanking you, Kayleigh (she signed the note) for reminding me; maybe you are truly an angel, the ghost of my Christmas past, come to bring me not just a gift, but-- like the old story, an awakening.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Branding of Leonardo

Post-Thanksgiving for me is a calm time-- no more pre-Christmas frenzy in my current state of financial deprivation; my son and I managed to snag the very last tree of the Whole Foods Black Friday Event; it was deemed unsaleable because of a trunk defect-- tall and skinny, it was the one for me, and as it turned out, harbinger I hope it is, the ugly duckling Frasier swanned into utter holiday perfection.  A work of nature's art.

Anyway, with the scent of the forest, I was dared by an old friend to take an entire night 'off' and binge on reality television.  To parallel the US 'marketplace', the Housewives have morphed into a brand rather than the ridiculous parody of what happens when you mix the ingredients of mediocrity, extreme cosmetic prosthetics and Twitter with absolutely no content but scenery-- real estate-- restaurants, bad behavior, etc.  Their share of the store-bought network pie, from the jewelry, cars, homes-- is now huge.  The Kardashians have become a dynasty-- it's like the Partridge family with 21st-century values and portfolios.  Everything is scaled to enormity... and the words 'real' 'reality'.. 'real-real'... are everywhere, reminding us that we are being not just scammed but duped and insulted.  At least the cooking shows have some entertainment value although it baffles me that an audience is so hooked on an experience which depends primarily on the two senses missing from television.  Would we watch a Dylan concert with no audio? Doubtful.

It's been many years that we've overused the term 'really'; as a teenager I doubled it for emphasis... because like so many things, we need these words to prop up and convince.  Authentic-- another one.  Art these days often comes with a certificate, a pedigree or document.  Why?  Because its authenticity, in this sea of mysterious Monopoly money, is uber-questionable.  There used to be a chain of command... things were traceable and there were stamps and marks for ownership.  Things were commissioned-- things were kept in institutions or palaces-- churches.  Yes, things were stolen, occasionally.  But talent was unique and copyists were copyists.  Scholars kept logs of these things, which became catalogue raisonnĂ©s.  I studied Art History... connoisseurship and restoration.  It was a responsibility.  We looked and compared, had many hours in museum basements looking at forgeries, copies... comparing to masterpieces.  We discussed and often failed to conclude.

Then money entered the equation.  Art is one of the least regulated businesses.  It is mysterious and incomprehensible for many.  Collectors rely on 'experts' for advice and education.  Besides an important jewel, it is one of the few instances where one man can own something rare and unique.  Priceless, they say.   There is one Mona Lisa.  But we read about scandals-- even catalogue raisonnĂ©s where the authors received fees for certificates and inclusion.  The question of authenticity becomes dubious... which only seems to fuel the market further.  Cut to the Leonardo da Vinci sale... the star of the Post-War and Contemporary auction-- does this not, in itself, speak to us?  Okay-- since the $110 million Basquiat, all bets are off.  Wall Street loses and gains many billions each day.  This is the way money moves in a world where the managers make the market and profit either way.  A million dollars has become cheap in Manhattan culture.  Money has grown geometrically for the rich.  The housewives might have begun in apartments, but now they have jets... mansions; the Countess looks poor compared to her friends with the diet margarita-mixes and personal enterprises.  Their twitter audience is massive.  They rub shoulders with the celebrity culture and now our President himself is the greatest American reality show.  His brand and personal wealth will be many multiples of its pre-election worth.  Stupidity reigns and Greed is its Prime Minister.

But seriously... the Salvator Mundi-- it just doesn't look right.  There is a reason this painting was shelved and sold for a mere 45 pounds in my own lifetime.  No one claimed it.  The experts who taught me, way back, are gone. I doubt they would have been fooled. The restorer, from the IFA-- my alma mater, although I dropped out of the program because the ethics of restoration began to worry me.  This is big business now... and piles of crooked money are laundered through the art market-- masses of fakes are certified and authenticated and carry this like a vintage sheepskin.  I owned a Jean Michel Basquiat and a couple of things Andy gave me.  Did they have certificates?  No, they did not need paperwork because they were actually real.  At the time, of course, they were inexpensive.  Unmarketed art is affordable and sometimes very, very good.  There are artists quietly suffering and painting small masterpieces.  For the ultra-rich, this is not sexy.  Hedge funds do not buy a man selling home-goods on the street; they are invested in the geometrics of money.

Art, like religion, is suffused with belief.  The art market exists because collectors believe in the value of what is really a few dollars' worth of linen and paint.  It is a symbol, the way this da Vinci has become a symbol, to me, of the way anything can be marketed and deified-- not unlike those TV evangelists.  I hated this painting... found it uber-ironic that the number 45 was still in the figure-- with an additional string of zeroes.  The Christ figure crosses his benediction fingers... he reminds me a little of the king on the new BBC Versailles series-- the handsome and indulgent sovereign who is beginning to get a little fat and just corrupt enough to try to use religion to consolidate power.  Glam piety.

How many scrappy start-ups have gone public and raised a billion dollars overnight-- the market pushes up share prices and investors sell for profit?  Another kind of 'belief'.  Not to mention this is the way they can afford these paintings.  Monopoly money buys hotels, golf courses, mansions and art.  It's a whole network, an incestuous web of artifice and fantastic wealth.  Look at our president.  The Midas asshole of quackery.  The man-who-would-be King, if he could only....

At 3 AM, we watched a back-to-back of My 600-pound Life.  More dubious reality? You can't really make up this kind of thing.  What struck me is these people who consume food all day until they are literally paralyzed--  they are all poor.  They are mostly suffering from some childhood abuse issue... and they are not alone.  They have a partner who loves them-- enables, yes-- that, too.  But they have some kind of love the housewives lack?  The scale of obesity-- well, it maybe parallels the obscene scale of wealth on the other shows... this is a different kind of greed, though... it is some kind of inverted need that becomes desperate and personally destructive.  And they all have TVs.  Large ones.  They are victims of this culture, trying to make their way and failing on a massive scale.

I took a break and went up to Harlem to see what I could buy for $1.  I got 5 pounds of slightly defective but decent tomatoes.  A haul.  On the street I stopped to pick up a penny.  What you want that for, a man asked me as he smoked a butt in the mild night air?  Because it's real, I said.  I know it's real.  And it's free.  And I can trade it in anywhere.  Unlike the Salvator Mundi-- a very large title for a painting that enriched those involved in the deal... but saved no one. Certainly not the world.  My bad, Jesus might say.

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.