Thursday, December 26, 2013

The fault…. is not in our stars.

   I didn't graduate from college.
   Didn't fulfill my major. One credit short. One class I walked out on, cursing the professor. 
    My fault. No excuses. 
    Hell, I dropped another class -Econ 148 "Industrial America: Eden to Empire" it was called- to go dancing. Every Thursday was "Funk Night". Term paper due on Friday. Or dance till 3? 
    I chose the latter. 
    But I minored in art history and took more classes in that than I had to. 
     Like they say, that little itch may be telling you something.
   Anyhow. I've traveled a lot since I was 25. And wherever I go I try to find the museums, the galleries, the architectural gems, the houses of such and such an author or artist or composer. 
   I've crossed major time zones to see a single museum. A single painting. It's just how I work. 
   Put me on a beautiful beach in a gorgeous sun splashed equitorial country with sweet wind in the air and succulent fruits for the mouth and by day two I'll be digging around the alleys of the port looking for a two room museum devoted to the regional history of processed flax. 
    Sad, I know. 
    But of the 34 known Vermeers I've seen 28, face to face. I've stood in front of Rembrandt's Nightwatch in Amsterdam, his Lady with Ermine in Krakow, I've seen the Botticellis in Madrid's Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, I've wandered the gardens of Kyoto tended to continually since the first crusades, I could draw you a layout of the paintings in the Frick, I walked the whole of the Louvre in a day, I've seen the Freer and the Frye and the Tates and the DeMenils. I like the Providence Atheneum more than the Hartford but the Alexandria one ain't bad. The guards in Atlanta's High are the sweetest but the docents in the DC Phillips actually like that you like their art. There's a world class collection of Netsuke in Butler PA and a museum of cosmetics in the hills behind Osaka. Winslow Homer's house in Prout's Neck, Maine used to be privately owned but I knocked on the door till someone answered and that someone, who told me sternly this was NOT a museum young man, turned out to be the father of a friend of mine from that college I didn't graduate from and I ended up sharing a bottle of wine with him in Homer's studio. After college, I broke into a steel mill to see a giant deer head that some brilliant street kids made out of the mill's dying hardware and got arrested, I've bribed guards to let me stay in the Giotto chapel in Padua after closing, I sang Soviet war ballads to a docent in Leningrad to get into Tsarskoe Selo when it was closed the day we were able to find a driver, I pretended I was a location manager for ABC TV to tour North Carolina's derelict Oaks Plantation.
  I've begged, borrowed, and I've stole. 
  My hero's the guy who lived in the basement of the Hermitage for two years to make sure its treasures survived the Seige. 
  I wasn't pissed at the bad guy in Red Dragon till he ate Blake's drawing. 
  The Taliban never registered on my radar till they blew up the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan
  I desperately avoid going to museums with anyone I'm dating for fear they'll get bored and I'll have to hate them. 
  I've threatened people who flashed their photography on ancient drawings or tempera. 
  I chase cell phone users out of galleries.
  For art's sake.
  It's a commitment. 
  But the finest piece of art I know is in a little park in Western Pennsylvania. 
   During WWII, the Mellon family tore down a gigantic home in Pittsburgh's East End. (It was their home so who can fault them and from all accounts it was kind of a pile.)
  Pieces of the place ended up in a church not far away and they donated the grounds so the city could make a park. 
   Mellon Park. Sitting on the vector where Fifth Ave meets Beechwood blvd. A green triangle - like Pittsburgh in miniature. Undeveloped land held above three rivers of traffic. Beloved of dog walkers and private school girls on the lam, perched on its hill overlooking Homewood and then East Liberty sweeping beneath Garfield on the way to Highland Park. 
   A fine view. Not a large space. Nothing too special about it. Good for small garden parties, art classes are taught in the adjoining lot, there's lots of parking, and they don't lock the gates so it's fondly cared for by the locals. 
   Go in the day you can play frisbee, you can lay on a sloping field of grass and catch the sun, you can smell the roses, you can introduce your dog to the canine crew of Shadyside. 
   Go at night and it might just change your life. 
    There are only three roads that run east out of downtown Pittsburgh through the flatlands called The Strip. Penn, Liberty, and Smallman. They're the only exits. Come rush hour, in either direction, they're jammed. 
   Some people know that there's an alley parallel between Penn and Liberty that runs the length of this jam. Spring Way. 
  None of the 30 streets that cross Spring along its length have stop signs for it. You take it, you take your chances.   
   A man in a particular hurry to get home one October afternoon in 1999 blew across one of those streets and killed a young girl named Ann. She died in her boyfriend's arms. 
   A month shy of her 20th birthday. 
  Go to Mellon park after the sun's gone down. Come in off Shady ave. Park in the old Belgian block lot, there's always space. Behind the art studio bldg, and cut into the garden wall, you'll see a small wrought iron door propped open  
  It lets you into a walled walkway. A few steps down to the left and you'll be standing next to a fountain that generations of Pittsburgh high school students have met and played by and flirted around. Spread before that is a lawn a little larger than a tennis court. 
  Embedded in that lawn are 150 stars. Lights. Each surrounded by a tiny stone collar on which is written its name and location in the sky above. This pattern fills the lawn but to see it you have to cross the grass and wander within it. The stars at the East end can't be seen from the West. You must enter. You must take the steps.   
   Stars above and stars below. And on November 20th they're the same. The lawn mimics and draws down the sky. Real stars and our stars and us in the middle.
   November 20th was Ann's birthday. 
    I come home to Pittsburgh and invariably I overschedule. I do too much, promise too much and focus too little. 
  Every museum, every gallery, every happening, every play, every reading, every thing that anyone's ever made for me to see and be astonished by, everything I've tried to find in art that I found not in myself and consequently everything I have not finished….each defaulted class and task and journey. These make me forget that this little park makes them pale by comparison.
  I'll be home a week and come some evening, driving from a bar to a restaurant, from a meeting to a drink, it'll suddenly snap into my mind. Mellon Park.
  And I'll pull into the lot and my car will rattle across the cobblestones and I'll curse my suspension and then two minutes later I'll be standing suspended between heaven and earth, but very much of the earth and as human as I let myself be.  
   To say that there aren't words for it is to want too much. We have words for everything. We're built by them, crippled by them, but sometimes they're what make the species worth not wiping from the world, that we engage and remake and recast, with our words.
  But sometimes fewer of them more finely fit the music of a place.
  And there are places where even your breathing seems privileged, the movement of your eyes in your head and the sound of the blood passing round your body an astonishment. When I'm in this tiny park, when I'm standing among this girl's long lost stars, mostly I stay silent. I never knew her. Never even met her. But sometimes I'll sing. Or hum. Or pray. I can't really carry a tune and half the prayers I remember I remember half of them, but it's a way to say thanks.

Friday, December 20, 2013

And they were sore afraid.

    Christmas, rush down upon us.
    If there's true evidence we've passed from youth to age, if there's any rock solid proof we are not who we once were, and have been put aside from our childish things, it's that the entire month of December moves like lightning, when once upon a time its passage was a glacial pleasure.
   One night. The 24th. Xmas eve, was an eternity. An opera of pre-adolescent impatience. So many hours, so many minutes, every second counted down in the dark. Murmurs and shapes beyond the bedroom door cased and interpreted like cold war intel. The youth of America become a horde of late night holiday Stasi. What are they doing? If, when, why, what? What will I get…..?
   And now I lift my head from the Thanksgiving table and December's in double digits. It's the solstice. Rudolph and Frosty long gone from their prime time slots. Holiday concerts concluded. Company parties thrown early to include Hannukah. There's barely enough time to put stamps to cards and hope they get there before Christmas. O-mail, oh o-mail (original mail), oh where have you gone?
   I'm 46. I don't own a house. I don't have a dog. I don't have a "primary physician". I have things in storage I haven't seen since 9/11. I walked away from a life in a hometown most people could only dream about to work part time on tv in a city I have about as much interest in as I do magazines at the dentist. My family is fractured, my friends have married and moved away, women I could have made a home with have made homes without me, and still, God, in desperate spite, do I love this time of year.
   Before I flee, I love driving down side streets in LA, seeing random Xmas trees being dressed in apartment windows. Row after row, after acre after square mile of Los Angeles rentals, the irregular holiday glitter gilding the low rim of the California night…. and the day after I leave everyone waking there to say "But how about this weather!" While we in the thousands funnel back to an odd Appalachian hill town in Western PA.
   I miss the different darkness which surrounds advent in the East. In Pittsburgh. The heavy cold, the slap of iron air on the face that drives us indoors to light candles and burn fires, and then what those candles mean to passers by. 
   Walking along streets I've known by heart and hand since I was 12. Houses I've dreamt about, wandered by, traced with my eyes, since before I could give a name to longing. That visceral thing that comes out the windows of my home town. That thing I fill them with. Sash and portico lit,  thresholds glowing, balconies strung with cords.
  I go to the same Church, same Christmas eve service that I have since I was a boy. When no one knows I'm in town or when I have no place to stay, I still go, and sit in a side pew and listen to the preludent hymns and carols, and watch the magnificent space fill with bodies. The coats and the scent and the murmur, the same it has been for decades.
  We kneel on rich cushions, our throats struggle to sing, the men have become too old, the acolytes impossibly young, was the church this bright when you were a child, the sermon seems glib, the Bleak Midwinter too short, but the body folds in your mouth, the blood still scours your heart, did I see a friend descending from the altar but his family leaves quickly when the organist leaps into a bright concluding solo that would have made Ginger Baker proud and when I shake the priest's hand at the far end of the nave I notice he doesn't remember my face.
  And when we're let out into the new born world, for the life of me I cannot sleep, so I walk Pittsburgh's East End streets and poke around to catch a glimpse of the families who stay awake, listening for the muffled music of their parties running deep into the nativity, their houses burning safely, domestic scenes framed in windows like paintings taken from the museum, and made animate for a day.
  There's a Catholic church set on the slope of Pgh's Polish Hill which doesn't even begin its midnight mass until freaking midnight. So I can do my wander of the lanes of the greater city like a yuletide stalker, watch scores of families and lovers and the scorned and the solitary head to bed, and still in the wee hours show up at the steps of this place and see the faithful pour out. Carrying their children, stunned themselves by the length of the rite, quiet in the calm of evening, nodding to each other before they drive off to their suburban homes and leave this church of their forefathers to the inner city silence. It's breathtaking. I want to hold my hat in hand when they descend the stairs and leave me standing on the cobbles. The street built by the same men who built the church.
  I guess I should feel lonely right about then. But what I feel instead is peace. Calm. I guess that's what comes from Christmas' blunt communal heat. The furnace from which Spring's pentecostal fire will leap, so brilliant it should hurt, so fierce it should terrify but it leaves you, it leaves me at least, right where I should be. In tune. Everybody's listening. Everybody's facing the same direction. Like they said of Basie's band, everybody's breathing at the same time. Well, almost everybody. I don't know why I love that so…I'm suspicious of crowds, of parties, of the dull chants we all know (USA! USA! We will we will ROCK YOU.) ….but somehow come December 24th I'm enthralled by this herding of the faithful.
  I guess, at base, what stuns me into happiness and what hovers all around us all at Christmas is what I think can still be called …..revolutionary.
   A prophet's radical request. 
   The religion I was born into has all sorts of dramatic problems which are debated daily and its followers have a particularly bad habit of thinking every other religion was simply another rung on the ladder of faith that lead to them, but Christ did lay down one still remarkable challenge. I have no interest in individuating Christianity from Islam or Judaism or ….Zoroastrianism…. it has no privileges for its particular believers, but what it asks of of us, what it insists upon day to day to this very special day is dumbfounding. And brave. As the old prayer says, "We are bold to say…
  Poverty is not a poverty of the spirit. Wealth cannot be a wealth of things. In fact a wealth of things is an act of violence upon one's brother and sister. A prophet came into the world, as other prophets will and have, divine or otherwise, it cannot matter, to tell us…..Give it all the fuck away. 
  I mean, "….Jesus...".
  So when I stroll among the discount shoppers of mid-town Manhattan searching for a gift, when I watch the millions crush down 5th ave more interested in the grand opera of consumption than actually finding that gift, when foyer after business foyer is filled with Salvation Army clangor, blood and fire, and person and after person posts how much the holidays exhaust their patience, I can't do anything but smile. In all its forms, all the noise noise noise gets hushed for me by that simple ask.
   Give unto others. Something. Anything. I would bring a lamb. I will play my drum for him. Hold a door open. Nod to a stranger at a cross walk. Wait quietly in an insane line.  Laugh with your fellow waitees at the truth of that. Happily return to an analog humanity. Take half a day to buy something completely useless to honor someone priceless. Send a note. Put pen to paper and in your own hand express something which is proof positive of some actual time you spent to tell them that they matter.
   Neither you nor they nor most anyone you'll ever met will ever "matter" to the history books or to NASDAQ but in the ledger of humanity you took a second, you took an hour in a certain season, to give thanks and praise to those you know and maybe love. And if that isn't a good and joyful thing, what the hell is?
  Merry Christmas. Every one.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Left Unread

  Last month, I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time. We all hide that list of things we haven't gotten to; books everyone's read we haven't, cities yet to be seen, deeds to be done, movies. Etc
   Classics. Rows of them. Upon rows. Stacks. Barns filled to the swallow scoured rafters.
   Some years ago, I helped an old teacher take down his library. A terrible thing to even say, he had to cull his books. We had boxes of them in the hallway, heading down the stairs, cases he was going to give away. He said, "Well I know I'm never going to get to …."
  Fill in the blank. The title. The name. The place.
  It took me awhile to realize he was talking about dying. His backlog was longer than his lifeline. I'd never heard someone say it out loud. Or give it a page count.
  I still think I'm going to read all the books on my shelves. I still think I'm going to get to Nepal to hike up thru the foothills to the tea plantations. To Vietnam to see where the American Dream got dropped out of the sky. Get back to Russia and compare it now to what my teenage mind made of that mythic land. And Algeria to see the Atlas Mountains. And Israel. And Greece. And Northern Japan and Newfoundland and Wales, and, and, and.. and of course someday I won't. I'll miss one of those…won't do one of the other deeds chartered in the itinerary of my mind, the story of the progress already half-written.
  And that's okay.
  No. It's not okay. It's awful. But that's what makes life precious. As the slave tells the roman general entering the victorious city….."All glory is fleeting." All glory, all thrills, all the youth you had, all the time, ( I sound like Roger Waters), all the chances, all the songs, the poetry, the music, the stories…you had your chance to let them possess you, to have them make you their host and then they passed on. And you pass away.
  So, I didn't get to Jane Austen until I was almost 50. She's been around two centuries. She'll keep. No worries. It's all good. (Two sentences hopefully no one will say two centuries from now.) For her.
  But ..what if…."If I read it 20 years ago…..if I'd picked it up when I was 14…..would I be someone else?"
  Sounds a little dramatic but honestly, like the love you're shown when you were two years old or four, you don't remember it much, but it's kept you from killing someone or blithely leaving a hit and run. It keeps you from revenge porning your old flame or leaving anonymous, seething postings on somebody's website. It makes you hold the elevator door for the couple that wouldn't even see you if you just let it close. Love stops you. And love gets in there by being told. It's the oldest story there is. Your parents and your family tell you parables to keep you from becoming a sociopath and right at the same time, you learn to read. And those books you first read, that read you into being when you're trudging through the rich black bog of adolescence, they fucking mark you.
  So when I pick up Pride and Prejudice now or a modern classic from 1965, or say an Updike story I skipped, that was published when I was 8, a hardback that's been sitting on the shelves in the house of every girlfriend I've had since the Reagan years, every party I went to, every holiday excursion to somebody's place lent by the friend of a friend, the rental home on an Island or some coastal cottage with the family's library left behind, or in the pile of novels backstage of this or that production….this book's been there, within arm's reach for most of my life but only now, now I pick it up. Would I had read it at 14. Would I have patterned my life differently?
   I miss it. I miss the years we didn't have together. 3 decades have gone by in which I could have heard and known Miss Elizabeth's sharp voice. Had her determination and pride as a model. Held an image of her in my mind, of her home in a country I wouldn't see till I was almost 30. Those phantom portraits the desirous brain makes out of a story that even film can't entirely erase.
  I read To Kill a Mockingbird last year for the first time. I wish I'd known those children when they were younger…..when I was a child…when I could have felt more closely the fear of that run they make across the final chapter's field. Had in my not yet 15 year old mind the sensations of a Southern summer's night walking with a father I admired. Instead at 45, fatherless both literally and in truth, I read the story of a young girl and imagine myself not too far from Atticus' age, wondering what did he think of his punchy daughter?
   It was interesting to be kinned with him but I wish I'd graduated into it. I wish I'd moved thru the cycle;  the virgin read when you're a boy and sense on your skin what Scout sees and hears. The odd run thru in college during a summer break when your friends make fun of you for reading such a "classic" and you wonder should I be liking this old saw as much as I do, this "kids' story"? Then reading passages again with the children of your friends who married young. Listening to the unnerving duplicates of your binge year buddies or of your sophomore lover sound out the familiar paragraphs, and thinking you're about to provide "wisdom" when suddenly your vision of the novel changes in their voices. And then you're middle aged and you think Christ how can I read a book four times and still be floored by it? And it floors you. And there are sentences you can't believe you ever read before.
   And if so….why do we keep reading other books? Don't we owe it to the ones that knocked us on our 15 year old asses, don't we owe them more time, more of our life as fuel for their passions? Because they do, don't they…need us? We're the gasoline. We throw ourselves on the printed word, we breath onto the type, into it and boom, they live again….Liza, and Boo and Nic and Billy Parham and Vronsky and the Judds. Poured into the pages we give them life. Literally. And after we're gone, someone else will do the same. Tipping the heart's attentions into a story that will outlive its beating.
  We feed them and for awhile they feed us. We both occupy and are colonized by books. I can't imagine ever completely freeing myself from their benevolent tyranny. I've seen old men and women living without books or music even, and frankly if I ever got to that stage- if I could no longer feel enriched, quickened by their presence in my life- I hope I'd have the self-respect to end it. If life became waking, feeding, watching and counting, I do hope I'd snuff it out.
  I think we all live in the prison of ourselves. The limitations of the self we construct. And some of us are worse jailers than others. We strip and burn that self down as the decades go by. The lucky few get refined, they distill it, I suppose. The rest get left with what they pretended wasn't there all along. It's like what you read about in gulag stories, or war time memoirs…..they had nothing left but what was in their heads. And the people who had poems memorized, had chapters down, or verses from the bible, who could sing songs by heart, or recall whole plays in miniature, those people were treasured. They still lived with hope. They were hope. It's voice lived in them.
  When I'm down to a grey creaking nothing in a 'home' or curled by a fire in the resentful living room of my grandkids, I hope to God I have the sense not to have left my last days to the whims of that season's tv or to some jingle I can't get out of my head. Or how much I was able to save from my IRA. I hope I can still call up Henry's prayer for his troops, or Richard's epiphany in jail, or the first paragraph in The Crossing, or anything by Yeats or Auden or Wilde. Please. Let me remember.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving. New York

    It's still Thanksgiving in Colorado. And in California, as I write this. And Hawaii. Though they must get a good laugh celebrating colonists settling down with natives for a fine feast. After we gave them syphilis and cholera and the common cold we gave them…. statehood. Hang loose haole.
   The couple downstairs are in their late twenties I suppose. Kids really to me now. But they cook like grown-ups. The boy does. She sings and dances in the backyard and he digs into the kitchen and cooks. Like I remember and think grown-ups should and I almost never do anymore.
  The hallway to the front door, usually a forlorn sort of space, smells of bread baked, and the melange of a long meal come to a close. It must have been a good one because their guests spoke in laughing voices all night.
   And after the meal ended, they sang. Not traditional hymns or holiday tunes but a la Baz Luhrman, or besotted football fans, pop songs they took up and made their own. Fleetwood Mac mostly. Homemade karaoke, a little off key a little too brash but damn…. when was the last time I heard anyone sing after a meal.
   Summer camp, college, Scotland.
   Bed Stuy.
   The sun was brilliant today. That and the cold and the cinematically empty streets made a walk thru Brooklyn into a waking dream. I got off the subway at random, crossed thru the giant mall strewn thoroughfares of downtown, doubled back a block and found myself on Pierrepont st. Which goes into the heart of Brooklyn Heights, past St Ann's school, and smack onto the promenade overlooking Manhattan harbor and the City itself. The river sparkled, the helicopters circled, the skyscrapers shown, the great bridge coursed beside to my right and tourists filmed it all.
   Isn't that the "magic" of New York? That it constantly reminds you you are not the only seer, not the only "user" in the too close to the true modern parlance, you are one of a jostled million. It is messy, jarring, inconstant and hard and yet it sweeps you into wonder all the while. Like a fervent dance out of Jane Austen, like a run down a ski slope you shouldn't be on, you come out wide eyed and breathing heavily, sometimes when you just went out to get some bread and the paper.
  A man gardening in his sleeves in a guttered planter beside a house worth the cost of a fighter plane. Passed by 5 Japanese kids who'd found parking somehow on one of the most elite blocks in America. And why did they have cars? Two Russians and then 4 more Russians, the pair not knowing the foursome but turning at the sound of their own language going by. The guy with the Chilean flag on the shoulder of his jacket skateboarding badly as his girlfriend filmed it. Locals shaking their heads. And more locals trailing their kids in the playground of Columbia Place. This is their home. They call this epicenter "home". They come home…. to here.
  And one of their homes, where they sleep and watch cable shows and run out of toilet paper and wish they'd tossed an old appliance when it screws up a holiday meal and whisper with their HS lovers in the lower rooms and then get surprised mom left their posters up twenty years later, one of these 6 story brownstones has a plaque on it that says "From 1939-1940 W. H. Auden lived and wrote in the top floor rooms of this building. New Years Letter was completed here." And two doors down another of these homes has a plaque that says "Thomas Wolfe wrote "Of Time and The River" in this house."
     To put it in the vernacular , "WTF!?"
     I mean isn't it enough that from any of these houses you could look out a wide-paned window and see one of the greatest, most mind-blowing cityscapes on earth? Now you have to take in to account that two of the greatest writers of the twentieth century did the same.
    And for some reason, in New York…..that's reassuring. I don't feel dwarfed by the immensity of Manhattan or Auden, I feel in kind with them, with it. I feel his humanity and that of the city. It breathes closer. He sits there, the color of his eyes, of course a cigarette, and his fading hair.
   What New York does so well is demolish charm. It strips affect. You almost always see the tools at bear here. You know how the trick is done or you know at least that a trick is being done and you acquiesce.
  I stand at the promenade and I know the river's filthy and filled with undeserving dead. I know generations of people gave their lives trying to build lives around the shores of this urban palace. The financial district is strewn with some of the worst architecture in New York. The captains of industry on Thanksgiving even are waiting in line to land their Bell and Hueys. The Bridge is crammed with tourists and painted a military desert brown I suppose to shock and awe them. The BQE roars below spitting carbon dust over the living and the dead and as we gaze across the water and New Jersey retreats in ever more greying layers toward the rest of mundane America, I want to cry it's so damn beautiful.
  What do the Chinese have? Death by a Thousand Touches?
  I think New York has Grace by a Thousand Hands. Touching you daily, relentlessly, unpredictably, jarring and then enchanting, like inspiration, there one minute and gone the next mocking you, but there. Ever there. And like parenthood, or friendship, or love, ain't that the key? Just showing up? Being there. Reaching out. You head out into the streets of New York and good God the place itself just reaches for you. For some, that drives them nuts, for others it's the only gas they run on. And possibly in the middle, if you hang in there, I think oddly enough, the most immense city in America, the most competitive city we have, the most abstract set of right angled streets and buildings on earth can actually make you sane.
  You get human here. You get democracy. You get American.
  What an accident of history that this little island off the coast, so unlike the rest of the massive republic is in many ways its finest creation. The truest distillation of its ideals. Messy, muscular, polyglot, irreverent, but still protective of a gossamer beauty. In other words, the best of us.
   I like that the bridge which holds it at arm's length from Greater America is called George Washington. A man of probably impossible virtue leading us from the kitchen of democracy back across to the places where everyone needs to be fed and housed and kept safe.
   There's twenty six minutes left to the continental Thanksgiving 2013. In Hawaii, where the mountains majesty really are purple, there's hours and hours. I open the hallway door and there's still a little bread left in the air.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Dates, deadlines, and lists

   I signed a check last week. My union dues. I like that I'm still paying my dues. I like even more that I belong to a union. Makes me feel at home. That I'm somehow still part Pittsburgher. Part of the Pittsburgh that's always mattered most to me. In touch with my ancestors and in their company, strengthened by numbers and not alone in the illusion that one can go it alone
   When I signed I noticed it was November 12th. The day after the WWI Armistice. The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and all that. 11/12/13.
   And look. 11/12/13. Next year on December 13th it'll be the last time for a century we have a consecutive date line. 12/13/14. And that, 100 years from the beginning of the First World War.
   Why stuff like this matters to me, or strikes me I have no idea but it does.
   Maybe we all search for signs that there's a path out there, that there's a guiding hand, an order that can be counted. And when you sift through data there's some meaning to be gleaned.
   Or maybe it's just about mortality. When you can spot when you're gonna die somehow dates and time aren't just numbers. Or they are and that's what's scary. Numb numbers and inside one of them you cease to be counted.
   I read today that the Japanese want to build another high speed train line from Tokyo to Osaka. It'll be finished in 2045. When I read that, I started. Literally did an internal double take as I realized there's a good chance I'll never see that day. The death we all carry around inside us gave me a kick.
   Someone will turn a calendar over, flip a page in a planner, wave their hand in front of a virtual screen and it will be the day after I've died. Poof, you go from being angelic animated mud to dust in a day.
  JFK was shot half a century ago tomorrow. I was watching one of the myriad specials about his "anniversary" when the narrator said, "Kennedy landed at Dallas airport around noon that November day and was dead within the hour." His ears still ringing from Airforce One on the runway. Poof. Air through a keyhole. Any given day.
  One of my favorite parts of AS Byatt's novel "Possession" has to do with lists. Writing as I'm doing right now with my mind jumping from thought to thought, from Union dues to Dealy Plaza, from one image to another that in my brain lay behind the same darkness on the same canvas or that live in my brain tied together in a huddle and I'm trying pull them out - it's erratic and sometimes I feel like I'm doing what I hate to see writers do which is make lists…. "What I've been pondering this week"……"My top ten ___" fill in the blank.
   It grates on me this filling of space, the filling in of blanks with mediocre effort. The column has to come out on Wednesday so this Wednesday we'll make a list.
  The soldier in me, the guy who still thinks men should wear ties to work and jackets at dinner, he  thinks if you're paying to read my magazine or my paper, if you literally buy the magazine to read a column then this column should be made with care. You should feel it in framework of the prose.
   I had an acting teacher who once said "I don't go to the theater to watch people be themselves. I go to be astonished."
   When I read Adam Gopnik or Joanne Acocella or Updike or Amiri Baraka I feel like I'm walking thru a finely built home. A thing made to demonstrate some kind of love toward the inhabitants. Toward the visitors.
  I don't want to know what they had for brunch that day or what they may or may not be working on. I don't want to know what Gopnik's 5 favorite flavors of Gelato are. These are things he'd tell his friends. And as my friend Denise once captured on film, a man with the t-shirt, "Fuck you, I have enough friends."
  Now obviously I'm advocating for the devil here. It's a linguistic knot I'm tying myself into, the cords made partly of belief and partly practice. I tell myself if I wrote for the New Yorker I'd never ever write a blog. Well I never will but here I am thinking somehow a blog has some merit…..that the levels of incompletion can have beauty to them, curiosity, informal merit.
  Which brings me back to Byatt- the lead character in her novel is a British academic tightly described as tightly wound, intellectual to a fault, coldly beautiful but as the book draws to a close she realizes, we realize, that she's something of a poet. Her heart can't live within her professional bounds any longer and she... unwinds. She reaches a kind of stasis, a bottom, and then finds herself making lists. Of words. Just columns of language, stacks of nouns that strike her, hard verbs in her hand, and Byatt makes a quick argument that this is really how poetry and song start. How they get made. Shapes that fit next to each other, that sound fine one after the other, paired with thoughts that repeat again and again in a dream order that puzzles the will.
  Poetry is the unpuzzling. Singing the simplest thing we can make of the puzzled dream. What did Frost say when a student asked him what his poem meant?
  "If I could say it any clearer I would have."
  So I'm piling up my thoughts where they seem to go together. Looking for clarity in a bloody mess. Patterns in the field where I've run tracks across the trails of any guiding hand. Digging like a good union man and trying to make something worth the company stamp. Shouldn't be embarrassed that it's not custom. Not made with finish.
   I get it. Blogs are exercising in public. Letting the folks on the street watch the building go up. And yeah, sometimes as the man on the curb, I want them to stop and just leave the frame. All that steel drawn and angled against the sky. No more, no more. It's perfect just like that.
  Today's November 21st. One month from the Solstice, that brief beautiful day which for me has a simple import. A real festival. Ritual given inverse strength by the brevity of the sun. And in the shadow of Christmas….like the family bakery still in business next to the Nabisco plant.
   One week ago, my close friend George... his wife Michelle had twins. Two years from the day of my brother's death. I held them in their first living hour as I held my brother in his last. Held their hands. 6 pounds 15 ounces, 6 pounds 7 ounces. Phil didn't see 50.
  All these digits. Dates, times, measures and markers. Scratched onto paper. Carved into rock. Birth certificates and headstones. Fed into a server. Knicked into a dial so when we come back around again we can say where we were? Nah.
  Left there for someone to see when we're long gone. For someone to lay their hands on and find us in the details. The living will count our numbers, draw our letters through their fingers and feel among them the hands of the dead, working.

More letters

   I love the internet.
   I love that the air around us is literally filled with content. With meaning. Urgencies and voices and orders and rants. Streams of them. The idea of the ether resurrected.
   I love that there are galaxies of gaming forums, Romanian mansions of chat rooms, and endless apps. What was Borges' famous quip, "In the future every absurdity will have its champion."? Soon every absurdity will have its app. Once young strivers made for the Great American West, then the Great American Novel, then they made the Next Great Film. Now they make apps. Love it. Though neither could Borges nor present day Wall Street predict how they'll make money.
   I love that there's a music server named after a Greek goddess. I love that teenagers by the millions text missives and love letters by the many more millions every day. The daily correspondence of Edith Wharton or Anna Karenin (see Nabokov on the spelling of her name versus the novel) or Madame Bovary gone wireless, gone to hyper speed.
   We write again. Constantly.
   When I was in college I had one mad love. Mad for her. Me so serious and she the snark. My Neruda wrestling her Stevie Smith and almost always losing. We fell in love at about 7pm in a college deli the last day of Passover 1986, stayed up all night, sitting in front of a tomb, and then were separated for 8 months. We wrote almost every day. I would hold her letters up to my face in bunches. The light effusions of my muse. Like they were leaves fallen from the tree of life. Her scent made me ravenous. The first paragraph in Anna Karenina uses the word "home" ten times. Her, her, her, I'd not have been embarrassed to do the same, albeit so badly, when I wrote of "her".
   I still have those letters. Well, they exist. They're objects I could travel across the city I'm sitting in right now and within reason and a modicum of excuses place my hands on and hold again.
   On a bad night, after a few too many drinks they might even take on the quality of something sacred. Something scary. Something that might move me anew as I trace her spelling, the ridges of her handwriting and the folds of the pages she made either in a rush or with deliberate pressure, coffee or tea carved into the margins, which envelope she used, the hotel she was leaving embossed above, what foreign postal mark graced the corner. A trace of her mouth, her nails, the hot palm she put down on the paper. Still there.
   Such fucking wealth.
   Do I have that any more? Will I keep my emails? Even the ones that matter?
   What happens when whatever storage I'm using crashes and dies?
   Everyone has the same handwriting now. Everyone in some sense smells the same online.
   But I do love the internet.
   I hate that people use it to dabble in other people's affairs, I hate that the comment section below an article's become the epistolatory equivalent of a sucker punch. I hate that people hide in it. Hide behind their half efforts. In the constant noise it provides, the virtual crowd that can't touch you, the dog that always comes when you call.
   I love it because it shows how desperate we still are. Ravenous for contact, for exchange, for touch. Things that can't be virtual. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013


  hey folks

to the people I originally linked this out to on an email chain

the reason I wanted to do this blog thing was to practice writing again AND to get advice, feedback

not from the greater world or strangers (and God bless you strangers) but to hear you

guys say "Yeah that works" or "No that's a mess" because you are people as writers and thinkers who I


so if you have the time….and one of these strikes you, please, the whole point was not to get an internet

audience or to get flattery, which is nice sure, but the opposite…..critique me if it bothers you or

seems ineffective. (Matt I thank you for doing that recently) Im not trying to goad people into response

but to say "Don't worry i can take it. " I woulda kept it in my diary if I couldn't.

 much love


Thursday, October 24, 2013

It's not even past.

   The A train's a long ride thru Brooklyn. We're a ways from the mythic express to "Sugar Hill up in Harlem". A subway with an anthem, written by a kid from Pittsburgh. The reality is; you wait. It's a workmen's train. A student teacher's train. A feeder line from deepest Brooklyn into downtown. Brooklyn. Much less Manhattan. Alas, you must take it.
   Some wheelmen aren't so subtle with the brakes. There's an art to releasing them as you lay on the power. Time it wrong and it's like a blown shift. The train bites forward. It jumps, you jump. And curse.
  My mother told me her uncle would sit by the window of his train on their trips across the country into the great Western mountains and he'd stand a spoon in an empty glass. When the spoon rattled more than he cared for he'd start counting, wait for the next mile marker and then jot down the number.
  The next day men would reballast the spot.
  My great uncle, grand uncle I suppose, ran a railroad. How odd.
  I've seen home movies of him sitting by that very window looking very continental in his black blazer and black shirt, a strange Tuscan cast to this Philadelphian power broker.
  He died in 1960. 7 years before I was born. My mother's uncle. The railroad halted operation for three minutes in his honor. I suppose when you invent standard time you get to suspend it. 
  My mother also remembers as a five year old being told by her great grandmother that as a five year old she remembered meeting Confederate soldiers the family used to hide in the basement coming thru the back door of their Alexandria home and pausing in the kitchen.
  1863. My mother tells me this in 1993. Three voices. Three people speak to each other and 130 years pass.
  I was walking down the stairs of my best friend's fifth floor walk up when I noticed that the steel framing for the stairs was bare. It had never been covered or painted over. I followed one of the I-beams back for a few feet and upside down in the middle of the span were the letters J&L.
  As anyone from Pittsburgh knows that's not J and L, that's J&L. Jones and Laughlin. One of the original industrial pillars of the town and nearly every building in Manhattan under 14 stories ( Lord knows why that number) was framed out with Pgh steel. Almost every one. Now I know this conceptually and I've walked up and down the 5 flights of Etsu's place for over a decade but when I put my mind to it, when I put my hand on it, and then walk out into the New York din and look about me, it's astonishing. I think of row after row of homes hung on the hills of Pittsburgh and the names…..the lists of men and women who came in waves to settle and work there and this is what they made. If I could strip away the walls and the brick and the paint and the doors of all of Manhattan and just see the gridded forest of their work. I sometimes wish for it.
  The past compresses, and leaps right into your lap. The riveter who fixed the ceiling of your NY subway stop lived half a mile from your childhood home 100 years ago. The woman who sat for the portrait in the foyer of the second floor galleries of Hartford athenaeum was buried in the earth in 1801 and yet …there's her smile. Those are her eyes. Whitman had it right. Chekov. Shakespeare. Those yet unbidden and unborn, hear us.
  I think it's a kind of a mortal sin that I can't remember every Christmas I've ever had. Toss out the first infant four and that's 41 days. 41 memories. Now I can remember 41 books. 41 lines of poetry is a laugh, something done in a day. 41 meals is easy, 41 women not even a question, but Xmas, one of the central rituals of my life I have left lost to busy memory. And they're literally in me, fixed in my brain and its wiring like buried crystals waiting for the water of I-should-give-a-greater-damn. But I didn't. I let them be mortal.
  So why do we? Why do we allow the cord to slip from the hand? Why let the loved one walk away? Why not speak out, write it down, remember it unmixed with baser matter?
  I can remember things Vronsky did in Anna Karenina more than I can remember all of junior year in college. I go to Gettysburg and walk around and I feel closer to their needs, those of these doomed men than my own the following day. Or the day before.
  I went to Trinity College once, not to Dublin where Swift and Beckett and Wilde went but to Hartford. Connecticut. Where not only does time forget, but no one remembers when time ever gave a damn. Birthplace of Colt Arms and the Insurance industry, the Scylla and Charybdis of American progress, this town gives new hope to backers of the Neutron Bomb. Evidence that if we dropped one it wouldn't be so bad. Business would carry on.
  My grandfather and great grandfather on my mother's side went to Trinity. I thought I owed it to them both to walk the campus. And a woman I'd loved madly and stupidly had gone as well. Something had to happen in the halls of trees that lead from the gate. And it did. They were, two of whom I had never even met and the girl with her ice blue eyes, all around me. Like the groan of planes you think are in the soundtrack to a play you're watching but are simply planes flying over the theater. Or music scored in the film next door. You follow, it's lovely, but it's not your life.
  But anyone who thinks life has a soundtrack you get to choose is truly lost. To history.
  So maybe that's it…..I try not to try and remember because to me it's like always being your own DJ, always using the I-pod in the car, like you have any idea that you know what you really need to hear.

Friday, October 18, 2013

One teacher

  Bill Turley taught me calculus in High School. 14 years later he died watching the cooking channel. I was on the roof of a theater in San Francisco. I'd called a classmate to get my mind off the play and after a few minutes he realized I'd called just to shoot the breeze. "You know Turls died?" He hadn't shown up for his 9 am class, the boys shrugged it off, but after the 10am went by folks went looking. Found Bill on his couch, the tv still blaring. His pure bred bulldog so frantic she'd clawed a hole in his face. I used to think that was gruesome or unseemly to speak of but having stood and watched a few people die since then, if I had fewer brain cells or a fiercer instinct I could imagine tearing at my beloved's face to get them to wake up, to say something, to feed me.
  In Bill's last years which shouldn't have been his last years -he was 50, and his parents lived into their 90s- he started taking trains across country. To nowhere in particular. He just liked moving through the landscape. He liked sitting with complete strangers, sharing a meal, he liked the rhythm and the pace and what they had to say. Now mind you, this was not someone you'd call a people person. At first glance, well at any glance to call him formal would have fallen short of the mark. Robert E Lee not receiving a single demerit at West Point gives good example of Bill's aspect. For instance, though the previous sentence works on a casual level -let's call it a bloggish one-  Turl's would have nailed me for the mixed metaphor. "Ah David, calls and glances are not arrows and though they too may fall let us say on some Mark and not short of one."
  I woke up on a train from Pittsburgh to DC last week. A tiny sleeper room. All sliding doors on one side and a window on the other, the width of closet. A box of light bisected by a bed I could fold away. I woke up in the middle of the Appalachians, the Cumberland forest below the Mason Dixon, country both Bill and I could call home. Mist rose like steam out of the trees which at this elevation wore their full Fall colors. I'd left Pittsburgh in the dark. Rust, mass, hunkered hills and dark green. And now I was in some glowing summit dale. Even the mud looked bright and clean, a brown you'd be happy to wear you boots through.
  Bill and I wrote letters back and forth for about the last five years of his life. Letters with envelopes, on actual paper. Bill was a computer whiz and had no time for Luddites, he would have loved the internet I'm sure, but things had their place for him, their way. You could dress like a bum in his dorm, but when you walked in to his class you were at attention, he loved a good joke but if you laughed at someone's mistake you felt his wrath. Manners were not the code of a class to him, they were decencies, they were gestures of respect and the grace notes of civilization. "I don't wear this tie to impress you, David, I wear it because I take what we're doing here seriously."
  What we were doing at that moment was having lunch. Being friends. Listening to each other.
   In his letters he said he was going back to church. Sometimes. And then more regularly. He loved the hymns, English evensong and the matins, the vocal tradition of the Anglicans. I smiled because Bill had been raised a Southern Presbyterian, and his father a Baptist. I was the Anglican. He was saying he thought of me, that he remembered something about me which at the time I didn't even know I valued when he drove the 30 miles to the nearest Episcopal church.
   I don't know why it breaks my heart and at once make me smile when I think of Bill listening in a pew in some Gothic revival chapel with the regular ladies of that corner of Western PA glancing at him or in a diner car somewhere outside of Sheridan Wyoming hearing out the story of a miner headed West or a couple from Chicago whose love for trains happily hid the limits of their love for each other. I was elated that he was out in the world, putting his arms out to it and saying out loud, I like this.
   "Ah David surely two 'outs' is enough? Let us when we write follow Shakespeare and not.....the Yankees."
    Brief candle no doubt.
    And he mentioned a few times that he had met someone. Or that he was going to a particular church because of a particular person. And I thought this is what it means to feel the earth move, when one of your idols confesses to need. How divine.
    I suppose you can extrapolate that Bill was unique, that he was extraordinary, as sensitive as one of those machines that measure tremors in the earth ( Fitzgerald fans forgive me) brilliant in a way that hurt the eyes, that still does. I'm 3 years younger than Bill was when he died and I still shake my head as his references land, his gifts, his intentions. Seeded in me as boy, bearing fruit in a bookstore, or a concert, or an argument 30 years later. He was one of those teachers scores of men would swear their lives by, that could in gesture, in a phrase pull you out of the basement of your adolescence and make you want to dream. I could list the instances all day, Wildean epigrams; never ending, always good, he had the right words ready like Cyrano, they flew from him like birds.
   One example. I blew a test. A mid-sized quiz really. But I was strung on a wire in high school. My scores were my armor, my fuel, they got me from dorm to class, held me up from weekend to weekend. Without them rising I wept. So I'm a grown up now and an actor and I can still see as clearly as I can see Fonda in Grapes of Wrath, or Deniro in The Deer Hunter, I can see Bill Turley laying that quiz on my desk, the turn of his body, the light tension in his right hand, the timbre of his voice "Now don't despair David", everything he did to spare my feelings, or play them against themselves. It was masterful. A dance, a performance. The tiny breath of privacy as he spoke, the informal placement of the paper, the knowledge that something so small could be so colossal, both comical and profound and to transmit as much as he passed my desk one afternoon in the Fall of 1983....Genius.  Every day. 30 years. Hundreds of kids. He loved us and we loved him back.
   And I suppose you can garner that Bill was what we would now call "gay". That he was "closeted". That he had to "repress" something for most of his life. But I wonder is the spectrum of human happiness so manichean? Are our desires so simply plumbed they can be slaked like thirst?
   ( Oh Bill now I'm slaking some sorry...)
   We define ourselves by such weak machines, such indelicate meters. People spend their lives plumbing the depths (that's better) of a novel, one book, but rarely does anyone let their self, their soul have an equal measure. Whitman, Thoreau....what would they say.....I knew a man once who had what I think Leaves of Grass is praising, who felt in the world what Walden Pond says is in there.....had he lived among the Romantics they would have said he vibrated with song.....had he been a Jacobean he would have cast lightning on the day.....I guess he did, anyhow, in Saltsburg PA in the age of calculators and video tape, when phones still had booths and Berlin had a wall.
   I wake up on a train in damp forest rolling by, softly visiting the yards of the rich and poor as we fall toward Virginia and I think of my math teacher.....every trip is like this I suppose, even the crap ones... there'll be a place you want to posit someone, to see them set against the landscape and listen to them speak, what they would see and what they would tell you. Funny how we go all that way to find them.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013


    I live two blocks from a mosque. I don't know if it's Sunni or Shia but most days I hear one of the calls to prayer, at least.
    I had no idea they have names. All five, each of them phrased differently, sung in different patterns... melismas. What a word.
    I know next to nothing about Islam. But there have been times amidst the general din of Brooklyn, or sunk in the dull hum of daily entropy that I've heard the prayer and I can't put it any other way but I felt relief. I felt lucky.
   That there was this beat taken, this pause, this space made by the voice of someone saying 'In all this.... God's all there is."
   How you define God or Godliness is up to you but some presence of the divine or the divine in us is at base, I would argue, all there is.
   (That and of course economic equity based on a marxist model. But that's another story)
   I used to wonder how in the Hell anyone could be a scholar or a writer in New York. How do the Hasids survive here? How can you choose limits within such limitlessness?
   But it's really the opposite that's true. New York was made to harbor the peculiar and the intense, the zealot and the artist. It's the perfect place to turn your back on "all" because here you can imagine that this IS everything, that the universe has been packed down and put up to shop on a couple islands 8 miles wide. So once offered, once seen in a literal sense, the land commensurate to your capacity for wonder can be .....ignored.
  But that's a fatal dream as well....
   I came home one night, it must have been after 4 and as I was opening one of my three front doors the muezzin started his song. The fajr I think it was....after dawn but before the sunrise, the coming of the white light.....or maybe it wasn't that early and what I heard was the rarer Taraweeh, sung throughout Ramadan after midnight late into the dark. Coulda been. But this time the song wasn't quiet, it wasn't sliding under the din of the day, it was everywhere. The whole block in a mist of music, of prayer. My long street of nineteenth century brownstones built by Dutch sailors or Jews from eastern europe some of whom still owned them others held by Barbadian and Trinidadian families waiting for the coming Bobo a language I can't even break into verb or object , God is great, God is Greatest, a language of liquid poetry, Hasten to prayer, Hasten to success...
  I sat on the stoop and thought about a line from a Dawn Powell novel..."and why no rest house for the runners in this race.." Dawn Powell writing and writing for 40 years, her Cassat to Hemingway's Degas but without the fortune that kept Mary safe. Dawn Powell dead and her lover lets the city dump her in pauper's grave.....two years before I was born.
  Somebody pray for us.

Monday, October 7, 2013


   This is a true story I find hard to believe. What's odd about that is it happened to me, I was the of the players in the drama..... and I still don't buy it.
  In 1984, I spent a week in Saratoga Springs. It was spring break, but Spring was still Winter in upstate NY that year. The town was buried in snow, the temperature hovered in the twenties. It was glorious.
  My closest friend, the Neil Cassidy in my life, the Gatsby to my Nic, the Fin to my Gene, the Hall to my Oates, had lived there on and mostly off for most of his 18 years, back and forth between his father teaching at Skidmore and his mother searching for its HS equivalent from Texas to Pittsburgh.
   He was not a Steel town boy not by a long shot and he relished the difference. Artist, dancer, bon vivant, and boy about town, he was as close to fabulous as we were ever gonna get in Western PA. He was a piece of downtown NYC or what we'd later learn was happening in the Manchester club scene delivered to us by divorce. Mom got custody, dad got visits. We got Lowell.
   Anyhow he was divine - not a breath of fresh air but a window broken open for us self conscious snivelers from Scots Irish Pittsburgh to jump thru. He made us dance when dancing was standing by the stage and nodding to Skynyrd. He made us dress when boys got beaten for anything more than a tour shirt and jeans. He smoked cloves and spat out Reagan's name. When he walked down the street grown women followed him. When we talked about the Steelers he laughed. He hated lying.
   He was my idol in all things. I must have been unbearable.
   Junior year he asked me to visit him at his father's place. The deal was we could stay out as late as we wanted, we could drink as long as we didn't drive, and we had the run of the college his father had tenure in. All this as long as when we got home...whenever that was, staggering at 3 am... before we went to bed we wrote out the story of what we had done that night. His dad had a tax. You're free, I trust you...but you've got to tell the tale.
  And I can still see Lowell, hunched over a notepad in his father's kitchen scoring out the night's adventure.
   He showed me where Legs Diamond's famed casino had been. He showed me the track where the millionaires would be that summer, as every summer. He showed me where the stars of the NY ballet liked to stay and smoke when they were in town, summer as well, but I didn't care, I had Lowell what did I need with fantasy.
   We danced, we got thrown out of clubs, we walked home shirtless in the frozen daylight on a dare, we affected, we posed. We were kids waiting for someone to invite us home.
   And then I met Debbie, a friend from his childhood. As if he'd had one, as if he ever could have been little. His dad liked to remark that they'd taken baths together as children, Lowell joked it should happen again. She was beautiful as a clear day. She was dark and light and perfect and my heart cracked the second I saw her. Lowell saw and laughed. Two wholesome american kids he said deserve each other.
  I was a swimmer so she said let's go swimming sometime and we did, in Skidmore's pool, her in the lane to my right and drifting out of my turns I'd watch her body glide by turning to the surface wrapped in the medium, a perfect selky of a girl, unfathomable, simple, there. When we were done she rose up out the pool, shoulders shifting, water falling from her like a sheath of grace. What do they say? Beware the books you read at an impressionable age for they'll mold your mind for life? It's a legitimate question. What do I remember better; Charles on the stairs of Brideshead telling Julia, "I hope your heart will break, but I understand" or Debbie Butler rising from the sea of my imagination in Saratoga?
   I think we sat somewhere and talked. I remember that she didn't blink much or have a problem holding my gaze. We talked preciously about what we liked to study, where we wanted to travel, and cold war kids that we were we both said Eastern Europe, and of course college. Sometime later all three of us went out for ice cream at this new place, Ben and Jerry's, of which there were probably three at the time in the entire country, this in an old gas station and we thought, smart business. We walked. Lowell invented something he had to do and I actually asked her if I could kiss her goodbye and we did. Her lips strong on mine. Her eyes like dark precious stones, worlds hovering so close I couldn't bring them into focus.
  And then I went back to Pittsburgh and I never saw her again.
  The next year, Spring break of my senior year I was in Leningrad. I'd never left the country before. I'd never been on a plane. And then I was in Soviet Russia. At some point we'd broken away from our tour group and wandered over to the frozen gardens behind Peter's statue, the famous Bronze Horseman of Pushkin's story, that the Soviets protected during the War as if it were alive. Kids were building snowmen and throwing snowballs along a park walkway, tiny railings not two feet high covered in rime. We joined in, things escalated and a little girl's snowman got wounded by a cocky little Russian. I walked over knowing full well I was now the heroic foreigner, the good boy, and gathered some snow to heal the wound. I patted it better, she looked at me with that look men work their whole lives to find in a woman's eyes and in that high pitched sing song voice some Russian females have said "Spa see ba".
    "That was kind." English. He was my age, maybe a little older. His eyes were blue like people's are when they're hurt. They were so blue they looked like they hurt him. He had on the big fur hat and a long military overcoat. A student at the Admiralty, he said. A naval cadet. Would we like to come back to his apt for some tea and listen to music.
   Every time I read a Russian novel set in St Petersburg or Leningrad, every time they talk about the housing stock of the city, like that of Venice, left to rot and decay, battered and polluted by 70 years of war, famine, poverty, and indifference, in the 30 years since I entered this boy's flat I see it come back to life on every page. His 18th century rooms, cut from a stately home, they must have been the morning room or the one just off the foyer where you could leave your card from 2-4, the paint mottled like dying skin barely adhered to the walls, the lights run at illegible wattage, his bed a cot, and on his walls drawings tacked and unframed, pastels of some Blakean demon run riot thru the Russian psyche and I thought, we are not from the same place, he and I, we are not.
   But he was gracious and he certainly had guts- a military student inviting a trio of foreigners into his home during the Cold War. The tea he made had a jam in it I haven't tasted since. He brought the pot to a boil on a hot plate the size of a coaster. We looked at a map of the United States he had on his wall. Pins in it. Tiny pins. They were every American he'd met, they were their homes. One was stuck directly into the small city of Saratoga Springs NY.
   I was just there last year.
  Oh I met the most beautiful girl....she was on a school trip like yourselves...
   What was her name?
   Oh she had dark hair and such eyes.....
    Do you remember her name?
   Of course, are you mad, look here she wrote it down....
   And in some corner of Leningrad not far from the Hermitage, in March of 1985, 3 days before Gorbachev was installed as the General Secretary of the Soviet Union, setting in motion the beginning of the collapse of what we called the twentieth century, I met a guy who'd kissed the same girl, right on the same mouth, both of us lost beside those same eyes, in two cities 3000 miles apart.
    And then I left for Moscow by the night train and I never saw him again.
    I don't remember his name.
    Maybe there was more than one Debbie, in Saratoga Springs in the 80's.
    I don't know about you but I don't believe it.

Monday, September 30, 2013

 You know what's not fun? Most every airport on earth. You know what is fun? Going to the airport when you're not flying anywhere. Incredibly pointless, but a remarkable thing happens.
  I signed up for this Global Privileged Rich White Guy Pass thru customs program - which if you haven't tried to take advantage of and you are a GPRWG/W you should. It saves hours in line. Eons. And makes you feel like a BAD MOTHERF@@#%ker when you walk by everyone else.
  It's terrible I know.
  But first I had to go to JFK and be interviewed. It took about 5 minutes. The guy looked at me, I apologized for not shaving, gave him my fingerprints, he said it's okay you're a Global White Guy,  congratulations, and out the door.
   And then I walked into it...the melee, the scrum, the maelstrom we all know, the cavalcade of flyers falling back into the real world, friends shouting for them, guards yelling at their friends, drivers holding up the rigeur placards with every family name from Somalia to Somerset, half built concession stands promising to stop taking up space cramming everyone into lines half as wide as a medieval alley with half dazed pilgrims trailing luggage colliding within, coffee lines longer than cab lines, and no more seats arrayed for the weary than your average dentist has.
  And I just smiled.....because I was immune. I was unticketed. I didn't need anything.
   It's incredible how much "flying" is a state of mind. You literally become your own anxious avatar. But now, I felt like I'd died and gone to Germany to work on a Wim Wenders' film. I wandered and listened and smiled. I lowered the temperature of the room I was so calm. I let people cut in front of me at the self serve Dunkin Donuts line, I let a guy take my car service, I let another guy know his kid who was exhausting him was adorable. I was, in short, a banner example of a GPRWG. They should hire people to just show up in airports who aren't flying. Like dog walkers or cat comforters at the shelter they'd make everyone else breath out for just a moment. They'd be stones in the river, chicanes on the track, milk in the tea.
  What a disjunction there is then between one's self and oneself flying. And I fly a lot. I'm used to it, I know the tricks, the short cuts, the uselessness of ever raising your voice to anyone behind a desk who holds your fate in her/his hands, and the importance of wearing a jacket when you approach them - those dreamers of the continental lifestyle, of taking a minute and talking to them about absolutely nothing to do with the flight you're about to miss so that they'll have a second in their crammed and misery laden day of tolerating the absolute lowest in the behavior of desperate, nervous, entitled, spineless air travelers who rush their guns all day long wave after wave - release them from that and they'll perform wonders sometimes.
  Because in an airport so very little goes a long way. A single plant watered and happy in a football field of a hallway. Cheers. One employee doing nothing but greeting people. The TSA lady who moves your bag onto the conveyer belt rather than standing beside the machine, watching you do it and the line slow even more.....I used to despise all flying. The flattening of the landscape. Leaving one suburb, entering a tube, and emerging in another suburb. Hated the plasticization of everything. The terminals, the stores, the floors, the air, the carpets, the planes themselves, the air on the planes, the food when there was food, the coffee, the beer, the seats....eveything seemed to be off-gassing. Everything in the entire industry seemed to be made of some version of the jet fuel it all depends on for life.
  But then there's that moment....when you, amidst all that hydrocarbon death, when you notice the human. Or the animal still in us, beautiful and calm. And the surrounding depravation makes the revelation astonishing. I've burst into tears in airports, stood stunned, wanting to sing, felt like I'd just watched Wall-E for the first time when the little machine man reaches out for the absent hand in Hello Dolly.
   It's out there. Or it's in there, the item of reprieve , even in those horrific cattle shutes called LAX or JFK or whatever roman triplet of evil they nail up next. 
   So if you're going: 
   PHOENIX. Yes, Phoenix believe it or not. First off when you land there notice you're literally crossing over downtown. It's as close as you'll get to the approach to old Hong Kong airport where the feeling was you were about to be delivered to your hotel nose first.
  And once down, wander from terminal to terminal thru those pathetic overheated glassways and you'll almost miss the etchings in the windows themselves. There are scores of them: the structural drawings of just about every plane that's ever landed in Arizona lightly cut into the glass and next to them a poem, and not some facile praise of the industry but actual poems, real writing hovering next to the gossamer lines of these old machines.
  I had a huge layover there once and I read every one of them, thinking of my dad and his teenage love for this new technology, the spare beauty of the original plans, the heat of the sun and the light of the hot desert fixing the designs in my mind.
   MADRID. The roof of the new terminal is held up by the most gorgeous stalks. They filigree into arches, half cathedral groining half bamboo fantasy. It's the best place to have to run thru to catch a connector to Barcelona. A nave of orange and tan flickering over your head as you pant.
   JFK. Of course terminal 5, Saarinen's masterpiece now hidden among the masses of Jetblue warehousing. It's so damn small. You realize how much they underestimated post war travel. How unlike the Railways they planned for scarcity, privilege. But the walk from ticketing to your gate is still the only transformative architectural corridor in American flight. You are cleansed, wiped, you get the Kubrick treatment, the James Turrel feeling for a hundred yards and when you emerge into the seating area you're a modern traveler circa 1959. And then the phones start ringing and the guy has his bags on the seat to his left and his lunch on the seat to his right and you are returned to the puerile present.
  DENVER. Is a mile high mile long misery with the worst food of any major modern airport and God help you if your connection is in a different terminal but....landing and taking off, driving towards it, with its white peaked tee pees lit up before the front range of the Rockies, the rich farmlands rolling out the last of plains to the Mts. Maybe a storm coming in. A sunset.Damn. Purple majesty. USA USA...
  LAGUARDIA (in Memorium) There was once a water taxi. You could leave your apt on Ave B with a bag or two, walk to 14th st, take a right, walk to the East River, pay your 14 bucks and get on a little crapola boat which took you under the Queensboro bridge and the Hell Gate bridge with Manhattan and Brooklyn lighting up the water on either side, be dropped off at an Art Nouveau terminal your grandfather had used and fly home in under an hour.
  And the best part was you could come back and watch everyone waiting for a cab in a line 20 minutes long or haggling with a car service and you'd turn right again and walk toward what looked like a derelict pier. And then enter New York by water at night the three great bridges the Williamsburg the Manhattan and the Brooklyn shimmering before you as you docked.
  KANSAI, OSAKA JAPAN. If you want a religious experience, if you want to feel in an airport the way you felt when you first walked in to Grand Central or Union Station Chicago or whatever town you're from that once had a great railway fly to Japan and don't go thru Tokyo, go thru Osaka. Not only will you eat better and be 30 minutes from Kyoto and not have to take a 130 dollar taxi past 50 foot fences built to prevent aggrieved farmers whose land was taken to build the place from pelting you with cow dung will be able to simply sit in a chair at Kansai and look out the window.
   I can't explain it. It's some architectural voodoo but the view from under the 1/4 mile - 1/2 mile(?) (help me Ginny) canopy and out across the bay to Osaka peninsula is mesmerizing. It's the greatest achievement in wide screen letter box technology you'll ever experience. It hovers, it glows, it holds.....and it's in Japan where you're still dazed from jet lag, culture lag, food euphoria, peace, calm and indescribable civic concern. Your brain will hum with content.....and then like the cherry blossom this too will pass and you'll be in your seat listening to a recorded airline functionary talk about deals on sky mall and would you like a credit card.
  The entrance to Kansai too is astonishing. You walk across a massive raised promenade thru what look like two giant metal boxes. An open air gate to a better modernity.
   BURBANK. If you go to LA just figure out a way to do it thru Burbank. It aint pretty it aint in a good hood it aint big but it's fast and they can get you into your rental car or into a taxi faster than you can believe possible. And it will be the last time anything pleasant involving an automobile happens to you in Southern California.
  VANCOUVER. Best floors. You can wander around looking at the art imbedded in the tiles for hours. And the nice canadians won't swear when you bump into them.
   SFO. Go early. Eat and hang out in the International terminal and then go get on your sad little domestic flight.
   LAX. Almost always a mess but most of the terminals have curated displays of decent art. The first two gates peel off away from the main corridor and in one of them you'll usually find a well hung show. Beats hanging out in the undersized useless frequent flier lounges.
   MIDWAY. Best sandwiches and coffee and the Chicagoans have a gruff sense of humor always makes a layover worth a damn. Get your food and then go sit in the hallway headed toward another gate wing. Quiet, bookstore nearby, WWII fighter hanging over your head in honor of the guy the airport was named after. And think..."Im not in O'Hare, I'm not in O'Hare...."
   LONDON HEATHROW. ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE WITHOUT A FIRST CLASS TICKET. Just chuck it. But taking the subway in to London after you arrive is fun. Not the nightmare of the A train from JFK.
   PULKOVO, ST PETERSBURG RUSSIA. I'm sure it's all changed since I went when it was Leningrad but I hear when you take a cab (which you'll probably have to since the cabbie mafias buy up all the train tickets and pay off the conductors not to let anyone on and you end up paying Tokyo level fares just to get to your London priced hotel room) but I hear along the highway back to Peter's great city they still have the German tanks lined up in the fields to show you how where you're going is still standing.
   well that's as good a place as any to pause..

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The High Line Sucks

   New York's High Line. The elevated rail way once connected to the now buried Riverside tracks which delivered machinery and product from all of New York State to the many long shuttered industries running along Manhattan's Tenth ave.
    The Park. It's on top of everybody's top ten list. It's the game changer. The one that made it- made it past the bureaucracies-past the real estate hyenas, past the railroads, past the forces of entropy preserve and beautify 30 blocks of suspended industrial park land and utterly transform the West Side. Chelsea was on its way already- the High Line just made it make partner, made it a made man.
   And it's shite.
   The High Line is not a park. It's a stage for conspicuous consumption. It's where everyone goes to show that they know where to look, they've read the blogs, shopped at the stores, dined at the market. It's a strip of sidewalk where you have no choices. You either keep walking or you sit and perform. Perform sitting, perform being a person who wanted to take a break, act out your lunch or moment of inspiration. You are always in frame. 
   It's the apogee - I hope- of this generation's inability to do anything alone, without broadcasting it, annotating it, tweeting, blogging or sharing it. It's the physical manifestation of that mania. It's the grand platform for those sad hordes who instead of sitting in their homes and writing, studying, or working, have to go out and cordon off a corner of the local cafe and show that they're at work.
    A real park demands the random. By definition it needs to include the idea of the "wild", the undesignated.  IE you should be able to wander off, sit where next to no one sits, double back and take another path, decide to turn what nobody else would call a perch into a perch and perch there and do your thing. It's a retreat from the gaze, not toward it. It doesn't require an audience and it allows people to redefine its space. A park has a physical democracy of access and of usage.
   The High Line is like Foucault's panopticon. The prison where in any space one can stand one is seen by the guard tower. There's no escape in the High Line. It's for people, for a generation that doesn't want one. It's for people who can't imagine committing to an activity that isn't observed, remarked upon, graded and reviewed.
  In other words it's for a people who no longer believe that some things have no value. Or that there's value in doing things that are not being evaluated, that won't add up to a grade or a post, or a poem or a like.
  I remember when the line was just that, a chopped off piece of elevated railway suspended above the city. You could clamber up to parts of it. People who'd had lofts in Chelsea for years abutting it would have impromptu parties or meanders drinks in hand among the tall wheat and loose ballast. It was something you knew you were right to break the law for, it was something you thought ....what if.....? And I think in the same way that you might by some astonishing chance - and the High Line is that, it is astonishing when it lifts you into the air above the great city of New York and lets you sneak around- but in the same way that you might run into a wolf in Yellowstone and think what if I could HAVE that creature and put her in a perfect endless yard or what if I could clean up that dangerous path to Machu Picchu so it was available to everyone......these are things better left imagined. They die when brought to the surface.
   We didn't preserve the High Line when we rebuilt it and redesigned it with boutique architects and gave it a closing hour and signs that might as well say "You can't sit here it's too well designed". We ended it. It's not a piece of industrial history anymore it's a museum piece. It's not a park it's a runway. It's a commodity. The commodification of the stroll. 
  The wreckage of industry should always make us remember the reasons why the wreck happened. No Steel Mill shuttered for 30 years, shut down on the hopes and lives of a generation of people should come back as the shell for a Hard Rock or as a Mall. There's some smiling vapid violence in that. Some kind of brutal disdain in what people call "development". The High Line to me is the high end version of this ignorance.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

One more time

 So I'll give this another shot....hopefully I'll keep it up. If not ....laugh and consider the fork's put in it. Me. 
   I've been thinking that the phone's a failure. A bad invention. It doesn't fit us like a tool should fit the hand. Should want to be reached for.
  Texting's the proof. Who talks more than they text? How many fewer calls are made today than ten years ago? Who has a land line? Who uses it? How often have you seen people carrying tablets that can text and tweet and youtube but have no phone to speak thru. 
   I take pictures of phone banks in airports. Now art installations. Artifacts. Sculpture. Signs and a trace. 
  What I mean is we like to write more than we like to pretend someone's right here when they're not. The disembodied voice is discomforting. It always has been, a subtle evil we let become necessary. "I can't be with them least I can hear their voice." 
  The nearness of but the lack of that is awful. With the phone, the industrial age made of all of us Orpheus listening to our Eurydices, but unable to touch or even see them. 
    Texting's the return of the missive, the notes of Cyrano or Madame de Vicomte on steroids, Lee's pleas to his cavalry arrived on time, everyone from Herodotus to Edith Wharton dashing off a note and giving it to their courier, the IPhone. 
    Only difference is they move now with no less celerity than that of thought. That's the chorus in Henry V and I'm sure he would have been very happy not to have been speaking in metaphor. Hell, Romeo would have lived alongside his Juliet for decades. The friar's note would have arrived in time and left them fat and happy, two kids together in Mantua. 
    Which makes one pause......someone told me there's a comedian who has a routine called "of course of course of course.....but maybe..." IE yes we should rabidly leap to the protection of children who might have nut allergies of course of course of course we should......but maybe if you're gonna die when you eat a PEANUT maybe you shouldn't survive at all... Etc .( Pardon my HBO ignorance.)
   So yeah it's great that our culture is returning en masse to an embrace of the written word. Kids, grown ups, grandmothers all text like mad- Hell Seamus Heaney's last words were a tweet - the Latin for "be not afraid" I think- and our phone calls are reverting to continental usage: how the English of a certain generation used to converse "Hello, I'll meet you at Charing Cross at 5, goodbye" - the phone's original utility was its speed not its sentimentality. Radio was for ships to be saved by not to hear hearts beating. The Internet was made to co-Ordinate artillery fire and to call in air strikes on the button or trade swaps in the nanosecond before your profit went from 2 million to two. 
  We made email have a heart. We realized it's just mail delivered at Cupid's speed and who hasn't since the Greeks or before wanted their words heard ..or seen and made aural by the mind of their beloved - in the time it takes to pray for such a thing?
    But maybe......there's a reason why people who get what they say they want exactly when they think they want it end up getting laughed at by the Gods. Made into fools and playthings. Tied to rocks, fed to birds, pitched headlong out of a golden chariot and into the sea. 
   Maybe Romeo must die and Juliet after. Maybe there's something more to be gleaned there than "God if only the mails worked better in 15th century Italy everything would have turned out the way it was supposed to. What a lesson!"
  The simplest way to put it is I'm glad there's a send button. You can wait. You can - even now - reflect and review. You can edit. 
   You have time. 
    And time isn't just money it's