Thursday, August 19, 2010


There are some new faces in ACOA. A powerful young actor who was a cop and now plays a TV cop on Hill Street Blues, a show my wife and I never missed, one of the things that bound us, these stories of smart, reasonable police figures. The actor comes to many meetings now and talks, sometimes shouts, with theatrical annunciation, his strong voice sometimes projecting anger, sometimes intense charm – as he speaks about what it was like his real life to be in a family of unbending and violent policemen.

And I talk about this with my new friend in ACOA Robert, also from a cop family, who himself was thrown off the police force, something to do with cocaine, and is now a fireman. Sometimes he looks sad and questioning, sometimes he is confident and funny. He has been going with Julia, a sexy and popular member of ACOA who is a success in some business despite family opposition. She has wound up supporting her elders, though the only advice she ever got from her boozy father was “Don’t fuck up.” Julia goes to London on a business trip, at the same time an English artist friend of hers, Iris, comes from London to New York. Robert is suddenly smitten with the friend, who has that strong but vulnerable look that make her appear an almost clichĂ© English beauty. Iris says she had been hearing about this fireman for a long time. She quickly gets a good job at an architecture firm making scale models. Robert and Iris set up housekeeping. They find a small house on City Island, which is something else new to me, a seashore village within the borders of the Bronx.

Robert talks of how
he goes through flames and demolishes doors with his fireman's ax. He reveals that he is writing poetry, and also that he has just begun painting. Since he knows I was a writer he asks me to go with him and Iris to a poetry reading in a church, the only such event I have ever attended. It is pretty bad. A smiling guy reads without irony that “I see the world through rose colored glasses.” Robert, however, brings words to life as he reads about getting at his experiences in the violent family he came from, and about his life in 12-step programs.

In the daytime when I wander through the East Village galleries I start hearing about how landlords, expecting to make big money from gentrification, are raising rents and pushing the small gallery owners to to out of business or switch to Soho, which till now had been the more costly place. An era ending?

I stop by an art supply store east of where I live. A pretty black woman is behind the counter. I say I want to buy a drawing pad and some good pencils. I don’t actually say this is my first time, but she congratulates me.

I forget to take the pencils when I go out to draw, but I have the pad, a
nd I always have a basic Bic black ball point pen with me. I have carried the exact same model of pen since I first started using them when I was living in Athens, 26 years before this time, writing novels on a tiny Smith-Corona portable and making manuscript corrections with these BIC pens. Novels that were unpublished but did get an agent's interest, I did not think entirely because the agent sometimes sold things to my father.

I go down to the street, cross 8th Avenue and go sit in the Aqua Mustang, which I have parked on a street that curves through the union houses. I bring out my pad and my pen.

I start by drawing other parked cars. To my surprise they actually look like cars, if a little anthropomorphic and cartoon-like. I draw a hanging traffic light, which looks really warm and amusing to me. I draw those round wooden water towers that are high over most rooftops in the city. They have always appealed to me, and I am not sure anyone else notices them the way I do. And then I draw box-like corner buildings up above the cars and behind the traffic light. I use what I know from maybe 3rd grade about perspective. I had not been one of the children selected out as a talented budding artist. I did not know till now that I had any worthwhile memories of art from past times. And now I remember sitting with my brother at a café around the corner from the Paris Opera, drawing in charcoal that wildly romantic baroque building. And then in Venice drawing the Doges Palace and a giant clock on which two iron men with sledge hammers hit a gong to mark the hours.

That was in the crucial summer that I was about to turn 17 but was back with the family. That time of discovery
the Impressionists in one direction, lively nude girls in another. But after the summer I had never tried to draw again. Like so much else that came to an end when I found myself back in the family again in that crucial time when I was 16 and went to Europe with them.

I go out to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, which now feels like a home I have found after years of searching – the botanic garden and the Brooklyn Museum and all the other museums and parks that have become my city haunts in this year of change. It is still sunny in early November. Sitting cross-legged beneath a tree are three little girls in a semicircle facing a protective seeming woman who is sitting cross legged with them.

My friend the former therapist said the little drawing of that group in the botanic garden was so good it could go in the New Yorker. And this felt awful – like writing only to be published. Like writing a false version of reality imposed by someone else. Then she said she would love to have one of my ball point pen pictures of buildings with a water tower and a hanging traffic light.

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