Trivial Observations

I love New York.  It is the very best and the very worst of everything, randomly assorted about the five boroughs, and it is always a surprise.          154478_10151743976298267_943420043_n

Little things are what dazzle or repel here on the Island of Manhattan.  The nearly full third-gibbous moon over Morningside Heights with three tiny specks of starlight on an early-September evening looks like the cover illustration for a fantasy fiction tale; the rosy claret color of morning before the sun has risen or the vagrants have found a place to set take the breath away.

And while I am enjoying either sight, I nearly stumble over a rat the size of a raccoon ambling unperturbed out of a garbage sculpture on the curb.  Or,  on my return from my morning walk, as I attempt to settle into my writing routine, my next door neighbors, whose speakers are on the wall their living room shares with my bedroom, both taking the day off from work this day, will crank the volume up on their bass, and the beat will rock me to the brink of insanity.

Then comes the evening, and I stroll through the lowering dusk to Lincoln Center, where I watch the dying light transform the sky to a sapphire backdrop behind the digital projection of perfect Puccini opera.  It doesn’t get any better than this.

The hunger, the joblessness, the impossibly high rent pale in the face of opportunities.  One night a friend treats me to a production of Brecht-cum-Ethan-Hawke theater, and Paul Dano stands next to me in the outer lobby waiting for the house to open, talking softly to a girlfriend, sipping a small drink.  Jeremy Irons approaches the entrance and held with everyone else, unacknowledged, unlauded, till the ushers allow us to enter, and afterward, when he finds a purse on the seat next to him, it is I who say to the woman coursing up the aisle, “Ma’am, does that bag belong to you?” and receive Irons’ sincere gratitude.

Another night, still teary from a pre-release screening of Enough Said, I stop at Handles for a shot of yogurt, and who’s standing in front of the eponymous handles, befuddled by the choices, but Mandy Patinkin.  The cool I felt in the presence of Dano and Irons heats up; I’ve been in love with Patinkin since the first time his clear, true tenor plunged into golden baritone range then swung back again on my Mamaloshen cd.  The man sends me. 180px-MandyPatinkin

This time I had to stop, breathe, remind myself that any minute now I will most likely be accosted by a foul-smelling man with oozing sores guilting me into giving him my last quarter, and I smile benignly at Mr. Patinkin, who has now figured out the delivery system but isn’t sure what to do with his yogurt at the check-out station.

“It’s easy,” I say.  “Just place the cup on the scale. She’ll weigh it for you.”

It Wasn’t So Very Long Ago. . . .

I wrote this two years ago, and today much of it still rings true. . . . Especially the last paragraph.  I do mourn the lost time in getting to this glorious day on which the Supreme Court of the United States of America finally that the bonds and protections of marriage are legal and binding nationwide, but it should not have taken this long.  And the decision should remind us that there is still a terrible disparateness in human rights in the country; women and minorities, neither of which is  in the minority at all, are still oppressed, and the rights of gun owners are killing our loved ones.  We have a long way to go before we have achieved liberty and justice for all, and while I celebrate this momentous day, I want my granddaughters to live in a society of true equal rights.

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June 3, 2013

The announcement on Wednesday of the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred federal recognition of same-sex marriages, is unconstitutional set me to thinking about Gay Pride Day, a day we take for granted in New York, an institution.  This year it will be more raucous than ever, and with good reason.  Yet, as the day approaches,  I await, as I always do,  with awe, elation . . . and with no small amount of sadness.

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It is easy to forget how recently there were so few who were straight without being narrow, so few gay men and women able to admit who they were in public, so few willing to support the notion that being gay was no less normal than being straight. Back then, we whispered secret messages, talked about “gaydar” and prayed whenever one of our friends went out for the night that he or she would be back unbruised, unbowed from a night of partying.

In that distant past of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, gay men often sought beards to protect them from the prying sensibilities of those who might want to out them, and when I, a naïve innocent from upstate New York, arrived on the dating scene with my tentative self image, I was immediately identified as one who would do very nicely.

My very first boyfriend was Mark, a Native American from outside Santa Fe, and he was the perfect match for me. A fellow theater major at the University of New Mexico, he knew just how to make me happy. Squiring me around in his fancy sports car – we even ran away together over spring break to escape the boredom and would have landed in NY if the car had not thrown a rod – he took me to plays and films, taught me to order alcohol, introduced me to all kinds of excitement and never expected me to “put out.” I was 17 and as grateful for his companionship as he was for mine; we co-shielded until I finally found a way to get to New York.  I adored him, and I thoroughly enjoyed his friends and family.

images-1When I moved to New York, a bit older and slightly more worldly wise, I was comfortable within that niche I had created with Mark. Uncomfortable with women, I chose to room with gay men instead. At Mark’s behest, I had read City of Night, which led me to expect that things should be far more liberated and out in the open in NYC, but to my dismay, people were nearly as closeted and far more anxious about being outed because here the threat of discovery was far more ominous – night life, clandestine and guarded as it was, was always in some Nosey Parker’s purview.

My last roommate before marriage changed me into a less participatory but equally supportive friend was Barry. Barry was gorgeous – a raven-haired Ned Romero type, tall, muscular, with seemingly black eyes that burned a hole in your heart if he caught your gaze, and a cleft in his chin that looked as though it would be a nifty place to go spelunkering.  A brilliant young man who wanted to be a filmmaker if only he could find a camera, Barry drank too heavily, smoked too constantly, and loved too voraciously. He had a lover named Donny, who would today be called his partner.  Donny was the gentlest poet I have yet to meet, a deep thinker who adored being challenged by Barry, and it seemed like the two of them had it all; but Barry was restless. He wanted more than anyone could give him. He wanted to be out in the open, to let everyone know that he was gay and proud, and unashamed to be all that he could be.

Which, I guess, is why Barry attempted suicide in the wee hours of the morning following Mother’s Day, 1969, a brief month before the Stonewall Uprising. I had spent the weekend at home with my mother in the Adirondacks and had gone to sleep late, worried I wouldn’t awake in time to catch the early morning bus back to the city.

Mom came into my room and called my name. I didn’t budge. She called me again. Still no response. Then she said, “Carla, Barry’s on the phone.” It was Barry’s name that woke me. “I think there is something terribly wrong.”

There was. A many-hour struggle ensued. I had to call the State Police who called the local precinct in Chelsea where our apartment was, and they in turn called the fire department, who broke down the door and took him to St. Vincent’s to have his stomach pumped. He had taken enough Secanol and Demerol to kill a wilderness of monkeys, but he survived. When I got to the hospital later that day – an eight-hour bus ride sans the solace of information (how did we survive before cellphones and texting!) — he was in ICU. The nurses allowed me to see him briefly, and he was only quasi-conscious.

When he did wake up, he told me to leave him alone.  “I didn’t want you to save me,” he said, his black eyes dripping with remorse. “I wanted to be free. I just can’t stand the charade anymore.”

We lost touch . I married, had children. AIDS happened.  I lost a nephew who was far too young, far too gentle, just like the friends I watched suffer and die.  Then things changed, albeit too slowly for too many. I am positive that Barry fell to AIDS; he was a prime candidate, and so many of our less vulnerable friends did.

In 1982, when I was living in Phoenix, the phone again rang in the wee hours of the morning, and I answered with trepidation. This time at the other end was the poet, Barry’s lover. “Carla.” The voice was unmistakable; few deliciously true bass voices exist in my world of then or now. “Donny.” There was a long moment of breathing. Nothing else. Then, “I just wanted to know if you were still alive,” he finally said and hung up.

I am guessing, though I cannot be sure, that Barry was already not alive. I never heard from Donny again, and I wish I knew if where he might be, if he yet lives, though I fear he probably does not.

For Barry and for Donny and for so many other friends I made and cherished over those years, I weep whenever I see the Gay Pride Parade pass by, as I wept when the Supreme Court made its positive but still wishy-washy decision the other day.  So many Donnys and Barrys and gave their freedom, their tears, their blood to the fight; those of our generation who managed to stay together through the decades can now at least “enjoy” the benefits of widowhood, can stop being taxed and fined for their inheritances and can claim the social security payments that are rightfully theirs.

But those men and women who cannot partake of the limited bounty, those who did not live to see these days and those who lost their partners far too soon must be remembered.  They earned the right to be celebrated, to be recalled with gratitude for what their lives have wrought.

So I wave, and I cheer, remembering the laughter and the nonsense of it all; and I am glad the gay community finally pulled together, invoked some sanity from the non-gay world and affected all this positivity. I am grateful that except for the –finally! – infrequent backlash to the movement, gays can be who they are with impunity.

But I mourn for the years lost, the lives lost, the dreams lost because up till now the world was blinded to an essential reality that has always seemed so crystal clear to me. It is far easier to find happiness by taking pride in one another’s humanity than to invoke stress by worrying about what consenting adults might be doing under the bedcovers in their own privy chambers.images-2

Clash of the Titans

            You know why New Yorkers are so depressed?  (beat, beat) It’s because we have seen the light at the end of the tunnel,
and (sigh) it is New Jersey. Ba-dum bum.

As an undergrad at Columbia, I worked as a receptionist in the School of Engineering.   I loved my job for two reasons: first, because I had a lot of time to do my own work while I kept watch on the front desk and fielded questions; and second, because I could listen bemusedly to the idle gossip of the students and professors who were constantly milling about the offices.

A favorite topics of discussion, and one that kept the entire entourage laughing, was the preponderance of New Jersey residents who commuted to Columbia for work and study.  Considered an inferior lot by the resident New Yorkers, they became the butt of a favorite euphism.  “No, s/he’s not dumb; s/he’s from New Jersey.”

New Yorkers and New Jerseyans have always rankled  one another.  And for good reason: we’re a lot alike.  Despite some historical divergences, we come from a nearly identical background.  The Dutch and the English — followed by at least a smattering from every other nautical country in the world  — settled in both places and created a multicultural community conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all merchants are created equal to the task of making money.  New York and New Jersey have beaches and farms and cities and quaint small towns, and their people are reputed to be abrasive, loud and insistent.

Since the 19th Century, people have chosen to live in New Jersey in order to work in New York or have chosen to work in New York because that is where the jobs are. New  Jerseyans have been subjugated to service of the big brother state as well as the city, and the citizens of NJ have had to pay two tax masters for their incomes, one in a state that offers no benefits for the money charged.  When I was young, the resentment toward my city was palpable; today it’s more subtle.

New Jersey and New York have a lot in common and a lot to compete over, and the states have had a tradition of rivalry that has, at times, been less than congenial.

I often imagine what it might be like if one day the people of New Jersey felt that New York had dominated them long enough and signed a pact to obliterate the city and its environs, replacing it with Jersey City as the Big Apple.

It wouldn’t be a difficult task to target NYC for ill.  A few well-aimed scuds or rockets, and whole sections of the city would fall before any defensive measure might be taken.  The playgrounds in lower Manhattan would easily be destroyed, and the bodies of small children would make appropriate poster photos for use in the manipulation of public opinion. In no time at all, NY would return fire, and all too soon, the children of Secaucus and Newark would be lost in heaps of flames, and their photos, too, would adorn the banners of the righteously infuriated.

Whose side would the world take?  The people on both sides of the Hudson look alike, smell alike, sound alike — most people outside the area can’t tell the difference between a New Jersey and a New York accent.   To a Californian, residents of New York and New Jersey are roses that pretty much smell the same.

You can see where this is going, and I am sure you get the drift of my parable.  I apologize, but I can’t help it that there is an obvious, albeit overly simplistic, kinship between this scenario and Israeli-Palestinians conflict.

Both New York and New Jersey were populated by people who arrived from somewhere else with nowhere else to go.  They over-ran the locals and set up shop, creating a refuge for others in a land that had once been hostile but now offered succor.

Palestinians and Israelis are in the same place because they are unwanted anywhere else.  They live in a hostile environment that needs considerable adaptation before it provides sustenance, but both peoples have learned a way to get what they want from it.  Both peoples need to live in the land called Israel, and both peoples deserve to stay and call one another equal.

What they need from the worldwide community is assistance in finding a way to make peace, to find a way to live together without killing one another’s children.  Both sides have suffered greatly, both sides need to stop fearing the other. But instead of encouraging peace,  the world seems eager to cheerlead for a war. Television and the web casts encourage us to be spectators, to take our lunches to a hill and root for one side or the other while we watch them gouge one another.  And the attention does little more than to egg the violence on.  Facebook is covered in posts about the evil Jews — why is it still okay to openly hate Jews and women? — and the bloodied Palestinian children and  with retorts reminding the world about the so-called Holocaust (as though there haven’t been numerous holocausts in the past century and its successor) and the horrors wrought against the Jews.  Antisemitic diatribe, answered by indignant defenses, fuel the fires of dissension between the peoples, and the violence simply escalates.

Whenever I pass through the Columbia campus, I am reminded of how similar today’s students are to my classmates and me back in the olden days.  Much as we were during the Viet Nam War, students are out in varying numbers, marching with placards, chanting, demonstrating.  Only there’s a marked change in the sound and feel of the presentation today.  Most of the protesters on College Walk favor the violent overthrow of the Israeli government.
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“Violence is justified,” chants one large group holding a poster bearing a Magen David (Star of David), an equal sign and a Nazi Swastika; “when the people are occupied.”  “How many babies will you allow Israel to kill?”  “How many babies will you allow Hamas to kill?” Someone answers from a shadow. The chanting gets louder, the peripheral voice is hushed.

I find myself nostalgic for the good old days of anti-war protesting on campus.  Whatever happened to “Give Peace a chance”?  Or “Stop the violence.”  “No war. Peace now.”

Where are the cheerleaders for peace?  Where is the outcry against the jihad to eradicate the Jewish people?  Where is the nonviolent pressure brought to bear toward an independent Palestinian state and the coexistence of two equally liberated, fully empowered peoples to live alongside one another . . . kinda like New Yorkers and their counterparts in New Jersey?

There’s enough vitriole out there.   No one wishes for war.  Ask a Palestinian mother what she wants, and she will reply the same way a Jewish mother will respond:”I want my children to be safe and to live in peace.”Shalom and Salaam are the same word.

Hey, neither New York nor New Jersey ever really needed to be the conqueror.

Aging Fantasy

You are a cooling comfort

Flickering gently in the pink-golden light

That tiptoes through the half-open window

Thinking to surprise us with the newborn day.

The city blares a welcome home,

The tree-lined sidewalk already teeming – still teeming –

With the blood-forced pulse that has

Compelled us to come back to where we began –

To the city insanity that revives the

Very marrow of our souls.

We’ve just returned from ruddy respite

In the Tuscan Hills.  Our garden has been tended,

And the villa walls are fortified for the season,

The hills around it are secure.

No winter rains, no summer dust will drive

The ancient heart from our retreat

We can always go back, and we shall.

But for now, we sit in silence

Regenerated by the thrumming rhythmic riffs

Repeated refrains humming in the retreating shadows

At the corners of our sight.

In a little while we’ll dash into the subway to

Chase down a film at the Forum or maybe at MOMA.

Or perhaps tonight you’ll have your own plans

As I’ll have mine . . . whatever they may be.

But for now there is only this scintillating

Silence of our intimate sharing.

Each of us immersed in a separate world of words

I at my computer, coffee mug for strength

You on the couch, Espresso tasse for taste.

You clear your throat, and I no longer cover my ears

Your distraction no longer threatens to obscure the words

At the core of my self.

 

I no longer simply see you, no longer simply read you

I feel you all around me, in the wash of my emotion,

In the cooling crepuscule of pink-golden light

Tiptoeing gently thru a now-open window and

Tinkling with the laughter of

Taunting, playful, tantalizing dawn.