Wednesday, February 17, 2010
#60 – MY TOWN
But New York was not lonely. I was not just going to meetings. There were things like Eco and Komo at the BAM. I saw these slow moving nude dancers as lost people, struggling to hold on and stay alive. Peter Cooper was in town for a few days and we took in Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon at the Public Theater, a play about this strange and awful family that seemed to me so true. I rode up to New Haven with my photographer friend Wayne Sorce for a show of Winslow Homer watercolors at Yale. Jacqueline, the photo agent who lived near the Carlyle, had brought us together because Wayne had been traveling in the Philippines with the NPA. I did not see Jacqueline now but I became an admirer of Homer, who seemed able to do anything with rare magical connection – a dot of red bringing back bougainvillea in the Bahamas, a single brush stroke evoking a gliding canoe in the Adirondacks. Art and nature together again.
And I still was getting up at sunrise to ride my bike up along the Hudson, where there were those nearly naked girls only on the warmer days. Over through pleasantly sharp winter cold to Gracie mansion, where in the past I had admired glamorous airline stewardesses of the old time young sort bathing in the sun on adjoining greenery. Then down slowly along the East River, or over to Second Avenue, where from 42nd Street on down I could coast fast timed with the changing traffic lights, feeling that coasting would never end. It did not occur to me to use a helmet. After a close call with a bicycle messenger, and another with a newspaper delivery truck, I did stop wearing my Walkman when in city traffic. And anyway beyond the tapes there was plenty of internal art running through my head. People of the past from the stories I was putting together, and people of the present in the stories I was hearing.
One very cold night I walked east on 23rd Street all the way to a coffee house near First Avenue to meet Bonnie. I was wearing long underwear, which was part of my program. In ACOA people were getting things they had lacked in childhood and now found they deserved, whether sufficiently warm clothing or dental work or ice cream. I sat and talked with Bonnie and a pretty young friend she had brought along. We talked about all the people we knew in common who were part of this ACOA movement – as if these were friends and acquaintances of many years, not just months or weeks or days. Then I rushed back across town on 23rd, some of the time running it was so cold. Then up to 25th and over to my building near Eighth, where I shot up the stairs. Inside, I looked in the bathroom mirror, where I saw a flushed man of indeterminable age whom I did not recognize. A man of certain substance. Certainly not at loose ends. I could almost be looking in the mirror at Henry Miller.
In the mirror I was wearing a two-dollar black stocking cap I had picked out from a street vender’s bin. Something new, like the shirts that were not dull, and denim trousers that were essentially jeans, and the blue scarf, and like a wrist watch with rubber watch band that I wore now as compared to the cheap pocket watches that men in my family, including my brother, still used. Until I started flying small planes in Beirut and Cyprus 15 years back I too used pocket watches, which, like dull clothes, now seemed an outward sign of enslavement to other people’s stories from other times.
In my brief time flying I had needed to know the exact time for navigation purposes. From Beirut I could go a few minutes too far one way and maybe risk being shot down by the Syrians, another and risk being downed by the Israeli’s, and in Cyprus my flimsy Cessna from the Greek side would surely not be safe if I strayed to the Turkish side.
I did not see my old friends now on any regular basis. I was tied up in meetings on Sundays when I would otherwise have been at Walter’s listening to him talk. Occasionally when I had been there his children would come through, a girl who was becoming striking while not yet into puberty, a boy who the little girls liked. Could they be in a decent family situation?
I went once to the sort of small dinner party at Alex’s that I used to go to before I had stopped drinking. Not that he was a heavy drinker like I had been but he was a leading literary expert on wine, and wine was at the root of so much we had had in common. It was also hard to talk to John, who was obsessed with mountain climbing now, though we did meet up as in the past to go to My Dinner with André, Wallace Shawn again and the cult figure director André Gregory. Although I identified with Shawn, Gregory made sense to me now that I knew people who were in touch with New Age things.
The meetings were my main social life. I would talk for hours with Lewis Levine, a man of my age with similar young men’s aspirations. Lewis had begun spending his days mostly in ACOA now that he was on early retirement with full pay following an attack by a student in a Queens classroom. Lewis looked more like a football player than a teacher, and like someone not nearly so sensitive as he actually was. He looked too young to have grown daughters. The big memory that had come up for him in ACOA had to do with sex with his mother.
He brought this up in a classroom building beside Riverside Church at an Alanon meeting we had entered late. We had not realized it was Alanon for it had been listed incorrectly as an ACOA meeting. The word “incest” was as dangerous to this crowd as it was to the judge who had excused Bonnie from jury duty. In the silence after he talked, and still thinking this was ACOA, I thought I would have everyone with me by saying how so many people were such cowards about these important memories – especially “overly genteel and careful people who run to Alanon.”
I often drank coffee with Vittorio, a dramatic silver haired man, older than me, who had been raised in Florence, the home city of his Italian father, and been abandoned by his American mother, a grande dame sort, and was now in a marriage with a pretty young half-Japanese girl, whose work in a theatrical agency paid their rent on a Village walkup, which they shared with a very large German Shepherd, and which had its toilet down the hall. The young wife was the daughter of a CIA man, Vittorio said. She hardly talked herself, and he talked all the time. He painted verbal pictures of what he had been like before he joined AA, which had led to ACOA. He said that in the present he had given up classical music in favor of optimistic music. He told of how in old seduction scenes he would turn up the volume on Toscanini, whom he had met when young, and pretend to whatever girl who was in bed with him that it was he, not Toscanini, who was conducting, that the soaring music came from him. But that sort of thing was in the past, he said. He was different now. He just wanted the bright side now, as in literally always walking on the sunny side of the street. And now he actually had albums of Doris Day singing happy movie songs. This seemed like such nonsense to me, and yet I was able to suspend judgment.
Although there were all these new people, I also felt the need to be alone on my bike or on long walks. Sometimes when walking it was as if I were in a trance, feeling inside me the death and destruction of what had gone before, and feeling something like birth pangs at what was emerging. One day on Eighth Avenue a cheerful black man called out, “It can’t be that bad” – which seemed like the ultimate misreading, for what I would have said was “It can’t be that good.”
And now here in the colorful old garden, going inside myself while still gazing at, and more or less listening to, Gillian, I hear my brother’s voice sounding definitive and terminal. My brother, who admires pretty girls as much as I do but also makes fun of pretty girls. Lightweight girls who are so silly and so pleased with themselves.
We are 15 standing just outside the summer theater in Westport where we are about to see a play starring Grouch Marx, and a happy golden skinned apprentice comes past us practically skipping, and Peter says something disparaging about girls who are always posing, girls so arty and pretentious. He points out that she is in bare feet as if this is something to be held against her. And he says he knows she is the daughter of the Connecticut governor, a man with the name Lodge who has acted in movies and thus is pretentious himself.
All these girls of memory tied to each other but each one distinct even after many years.. For surely I have never known anyone just like this girl in front of me in the Italian garden. So pretty, and the garden so beautiful, and yet surely in its final days at last. This place so much a part of romantic despair that can be so appealing. I drift to a time I am sitting in a café in Ljubljana and the first leaf of autumn falls as I wait for a girl who I know may be with someone else. Sweet despair. I think of standing near the first tee at the Profile Club beneath the Franconia Range of the White Mountains on a Labor Day, a beer bottle in my hand, so aware that something is so near to being over, streaks of autumn color already in the trees. And also I am 20 and about to leave Paris after my second time around, ,walking past a romantic fountain in St. Germaine, a place where romantic adventures have not materialized, leaving while there is gentle summer drizzle that turns bright colors into pastels. Sweet regret, sweet despair. And now I am just past 50 and pastels have become bright colors again, and this girl, who looks like the girl who should have been in the picture in Paris, is talking away and smiling at me.
And I am certain there is a connection between Gillian and the other pretty heart-breakers I admire, but am puzzled as those words I recently found myself speaking in this happy time of new beginnings, those words that I heard myself speaking involuntarily, not speaking of the appeal of pretty heartbreakers but rather saying. “My heart is breaking.”
Leaning across the table, leaning close, looking in her eyes as she talks about what I am not sure. And I am hearing my brother Peter make fun of this too. I know I do not find what she is saying any more connected and sane that Peter would. But I want him out of here.