Wednesday, November 24, 2010

#168 – ADRIFT

On the news is a horror scene in the subway, a station not far from here. A pursed little man named Bernie Goetz had cornered three black men and shot them, leaving one paralyzed from the neck down. The police catch up with him and there is suddenly a right wing campaign to honor and save Bernie Goetz. It somehow – no mystery to my mind – gets all tied up with the exaltation of Ronald Reagan. Rita is on food stamps and also distributes government food, cheese and honey, to everyone on the block, whether they qualify as officially poor or not. But she is a great fan of Reagan who would take all this away from her. Also, she is Puerto Rican in this time when Washington is in the hands of racists. And now she has become a great fan of Bernie Goetz. And still she is about the nicest person I have ever met.

She keeps tabs on everyone in the neighborhood. Judging by her sweet, confident smile, and by the looks of a daughter who comes through, she was extremely pretty when she was young and thin and working as a catalog model, which was how she met her late husband. She rents to me illegally since this is a rent control apartment. She is all over the neighborhood, goes to mass frequently, knows everyone and everything. Although her apartment is cold at night, there is a feeling of plenty – a refrigerator full almost to overflowing, everything from ice cream to apple juice to turkey, sandwich spreads, ham apples, frozen deserts, and there are pantry shelves crowded with other fruits, and canned juices and meats, bread and pastries and crackers and cookies.

I am lonely here in this rented room that is so cold at night. Its linoleum floor feels refrigerated. And, moreover, I have the illusion I am wandering again in strange towns where I do not speak the language – Sarajevo, Cairo, Tokyo – though I am having this experience right here in New York where there are so many people I have known for so long. My window is on the ground floor, right on the sidewalk on 25th Street, and there is some sort of bar nearby that at 4 in the morning empties out a batch of men who then traverse the block singing drunkenly.

It has become incredibly cold in here. I am reading, and also following on public TV, the Raj Quartet – sex and double dealing, in stifling hot places. Brits in jodhpurs, lovely tragic girls, some dark and some light, the Indians looking as Indian as the Brits look Brit. My old friend John Thackray has me going once a week to a yoga session, which takes place in a high apartment on Central Park West that looks out over the Central Park reservoir, which is so clear in the winter light. Three lithe girls, John and me, and the teacher, a personable out-of-work dancer. There are signs of the times here. Books linking angels to dolphins, and two flotation tanks. John tells me, in his ironically British tones, how you an be put in one of these wet coffin-like affairs in order to have some by-the-numbers spiritual experiences. But the guy who teaches the yoga class is no yoga martinet and is anyway not the owner of the place. John, who is a world class mountain climber and always in first rate shape (though he wasn’t when were friends 20 years ago) says it is the only yoga class where what they say about how to breathe makes sense to him and works. This yoga guy is a dancer who goes to auditions. All the classes are called off when he gets a role dancing and acting in a road company of A Chorus Line.

I go over to Murray Hill to see my doctor, who is actually the son of a doctor who delivered Peter and me and was a close friend of my grandfather’s close friend, an immigrant doctor with whom my grandfather worked in the settlement house movement early in the century. I like this doctor, who by now is himself getting old, because while we talk he chain smokes and his brash nurse brings him cup after cup of strong black coffee. Once when I was back from abroad and feeling awful he sent me to a series of specialists, all of whom were elderly men with thick accents. He gives me the sleeping pills I want, and I still see him even though he had told me a few years ago my only problem was is that I did not have a regular job. He had held up as an example his brother, whom he said was in the same situation, wanting to be a writer, until he got good job in public relations. He had said I needed therapy, but the kind where the therapist does most of the talking. He doesn’t repeat any of this now, but he does say that nothing physical explains the fatigue I feel, and so maybe I should look at certain aspects of my life. In the past he had said it was probably too late to do anything about whatever it was that kept me awake. My wife went to him once for a checkup and she told me he had said I was a person with whom he would enjoy having a drink.

On my way back I run into my Aunt Alice who has just arrived from New Hampshire to spend the winter in a residential hotel in New York. She is full of ideas of things we should do. At the top of her list is the movie Gandhi which is playing on East 23rd and which I do not want to see. I really cannot take these fictionalized versions of real life. I know what Gandhi looked like. I have seen a thousand pictures. He did not like Ben Kingsley going for an Academy Award. Also, in recent years I have found I cannot stand to be in the same room with Aunt Alice, which I have thought might mean there is something wrong with me. She has always been, to the family and myself, my favorite aunt, the careful rebel of her generation.

Aunt Alice asks me to come to dinner at her club. She say the words “my club” in the English way she learned in her years in London. It turns out, strangely, to be the National Arts Club where some very safe artists have studios and which is stuffier than the Players Club, where my father went when he was in publishing, and nearly as stuffy as the Century, where my father once took me to lunch to tell me I should not take an offered book advance because my grandfather never took money until he had finished a book. For this dinner Aunt Alice brings along the daughter of someone she knows. Match-making is being attempted.

The girl, who has a pretty face but wears a tailored suit, talks about a long love affair she had just gotten over. She works at what sounds like a boring job in finance. Her lover, however, was a painter. She talks of the long quiet evenings at his place where she would read and he would paint, and it all sounds so ideal that she must be sadder than she looks. There is nothing much between us, though it seems like there should be. She speaks about how her father has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Aunt Alice talks about her brother, my father, and his long decline into death with Parkinson’s – giving us and this girl, my aunt seems to be saying, the bond of having things in common.

Near my place I run into a neighbor, Harvey, who had been John’s best man years back when he married an appealing young actress at the Little Church Around the Corner, the Actor’s Church. Harvey is a smart lonesome guy who had a long affair with a woman who loved him but whom he rejected when they were in couples therapy. He works at part-time college teaching and never speaks about ambitions to do anything else. He is amusing in his pessimism about the political state of the world and the sad state of the arts. He lives in a studio apartment in London Terrace, an old middle class and upper middle class development, with strict controls on rents, that covers a full block just west of me. It has a long waiting list to get in. Elliot says it has dawned on him that he has such a good deal he will never leave, though he is unhappy that he did not think at the beginning to go for a one bedroom. I used to think we were at opposite ends – Elliot always down, me usually just back from some adventure or off on another. Now it looks like we may be interchangeable.

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