Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Chelsea Art Walk, May 30, 31

A lot of people did a lot of work to put together the first Chelsea Art Walk in this little mile square city under the Tobin Bridge just outside of Boston. I managed to miss all the meetings of Charcoll, the artist group that planned and organized and managed it all and am sorry about that. But they put together a really good two days of gallery shows, a reading, jazz concert, drumming and a demonstration at the New England Sculpture Service, a working bronze foundry. Airline transport busses continually circled the nine sites, picking up and dropping people off and the Chelsea City Cafe served coffee and food.
     On Saturday I ran into T. J. Hellmann and Gloria as they were about to enter the Apollinaire Theatre Gallery. And took the photo of an artist's dog at The Gallery @ Spencer Lofts. I was serving as a greeter on a bus driven by Arturo and we would stop at that gallery to have quick snacks and talk to Gigi, a Venezuelan artist who was gallery sitting. He told me about having to give up the house he'd bought right near where I live. About how he often goes by to look at it, sad that it's still vacant three years later and that he lost so much. He loved that house and still misses it even though he and his wife live in a nice apartment. He likes Chelsea a lot, now. When he first moved to this country and lived in Lynn, he looked down on it.
Today I missed the drumming circle, though sheer laziness. Just like I missed the foundry tour yesterday. And again ran into T.J., Gloria and Rachel. Gloria reached out her arms to me and I got to hold her compact little self.
Luke Salisbury started the reading at Temple Emmanuel. His rich voice and easy manner make him an impressive reader of his novels. "No Common War," his recently completed work, incorporates experiences of his relatives fighting in the Civil War. Fortunately, I read before Krissy who has a funny, comfortable stage presence and very good material. One of the highlights was when a fellow, who graduated from Chelsea High School in 1947, sang the lyrics he'd written about growing up in this city.
This afternoon, Sunday, I gallery sat at City Hall where I had the chance to look at the show of Harry Siegel's street photographs that he took with a huge camera for over forty years. This exhibition was clearly a labor of love by John Kennard who collected 65 prints that folks around Chelsea had saved, scanned them in and worked with photoshop to remove the damages and scratches accumulated over many years.
I am not particularly in love with photographs (odd as that is to say if you've been a photographer for forty years), but I loved looking at these images and watching people come in to see themselves or friends preserved when they were kids. One woman said it almost made her cry to see her little brother who is now dead. An extremely attractive eighty-five-year old woman came in to hunt for her sister. And I recognized Leo Robinson as a teenager. Now he's on the city counsel.
     What seems staggering is how much this city has changed. When I moved here in 1985, I had the illusion that I could really do some interesting and useful things here. I joined Neighborhood Housing, was part of a group that funded artists and did a really complicated, long project interviewing and photographing people who seemed to represent the diversity of the Chelsea community. One of the people I interviewed was Leo Robinson. But, there was no place to show the work when it was finished, printed and framed. I ended up putting the photographs in an satellite of Bunker Hill Community College and forgetting about them for so many years that there's no way of ever finding them. Now, those old images, done over twenty years ago, exist in a few slides. The negatives are god knows where, though I did find the transcribed interviews recently. 
     It's amazing that there is now an active artist group and a real interest in what artists bring to a community. It's amazing that there was a two-day Chelsea Art Walk, that folks from other areas walked around here for hours, looking at the architecture and the art. The members of Charcoll pulled together a really successful first venture at putting Chelsea on the art map. 

Friday, May 29, 2009

"How to Fight, a portrait of Joyce Watson."

Eight or nine years ago, my friend Linda took me to the Jewish Film Festival at the Museum of Fine Arts because a friend of hers was showing a film about immigrants who became chicken farmers. A short was shown with it that was called something like "The Collector of Bleeker Street." Actually, it was nominated for an academy award in the documentary short category.
I fell in love with this compelling film which looked deceptively simple, just following a guy with below-modernate mental abilities, a gregarious nature and a generous heart, who lived in the Greenwich Village, was friendly with many neighbors and was supplied with  meals by an elderly relative. It was a long story, packed into a relatively short space, about this guy's parents (whose graves he visited), the need to find social services for him once he was no longer being cared for by family, the way folks in the neighborhood gathered to plan how to help him, the intervention of Jewish Neighborhood Services (or some such organization), his acquisition of a girlfriend and so on. It was fast-paced, absolutely endearing and showed the best of collective care and oversight. He was also an interesting, lively guy with numerous foibles who collected for various causes including a local Church.
I sat in the audience, entranced, thinking "I could do that."
I started out in photography because of obsession. I only know what my mother looked like through a few snapshots taken before I was twelve, when she died. But, had I not been pushed by this inner drive to record the daily life of my daughter, and had I been capable of consciously wanting to become an artist, I certainly would have worked in documentary video. I like stories, the complexity, the details, the backs and forths, the deceptions and revelations.
Now I know how naive I was to think 'I could do that' about "The Collector..." since it involved film, hundreds of hours of film, a professional editor and director and god knows how many grants. It was a very expensive labor of love. But the voice of the devil told me that I could do something, should do something in video....and then put the image of Joyce Watson who I've known for well over thirty years into my mind as the perfect subject.
This immigrant from Guyana went to Curacao and then to London before settling in a small superintendent's apartment on 11th Street between 5th and 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village where she raised her two children. She was a teacher's aid, a teacher, catered (lliterally, not figuratively), babysat and art modeled once she gave up being a dental hygenist because the hours interferred too much with her children.
I met her because she was taking care of children after school, after she'd finished teaching. When I picked up my daughter, we'd sit on her couch, talking. and she'd tell me stories of what she'd done that day, who she'd met, what adventures she'd had. Often she'd say, "Someday I'm going to write a book about all I've seen." That phrase, stuck in the back of my mind for so many years, presented itself when the devil told me I needed to make a video. Oh, yes, I could transmit some of Joyce's stories....
Not having done much video since I taught at MIT and fooled around a bit in the Film Section, I asked a colleague at UMass if she wanted to work with me on this project, bought a camera and we started. It was far more difficult that I imagined. And it took six or so years and hiring an editor to finish it.
I wanted to cover the difficulty a black, relatively uneducated woman had earning a living. Racism. Being a single parent. Joyce's belief that fine educations would provide opportunities for her children that she never had. Problems she and her children were facing as she aged and became more frail. Skirmishes with the landlord. And her inevitable annoyance at her childrens' attempts to help her remain in the apartment. I wanted to make sense of all these big ticket ideas through the vehicle of this beautiful woman with smooth dark skin, white hair, a lilting voice and a firey temper.
My experience as a documentary photographer took me only so far and not far enough. But after a lot of time, considerable heartache, many ups and downs and a huge amount of money, the video was done and I could send it out.
I did. Sort of. I picked some festivals that looked plausible from Out of the Box and sent "How to Fight, a portrait of Joyce Watson" into the world. Maybe five times. Without any fancy case-cover and with handwritten notes on the front of the DVD. And no one showed it.
After a year, I realized that I needed a better presentation so I bought a printer that writes on DVD's. Unfortunately doesn't come with a program for the MAC. I let that problem sit unsolved for six or so months. Finally I asked T.J. Hellmann, the young guy who designed the perfect website for me, if he could design the covers. Not only did he do that, but he came over and spent four hours figuring out how to download a workable program to create and print on the DVD's. Today. May 29th, 2009.
Soon I'll figure out a few festivals to mail the new incarnation of "How to Fight" to. And, maybe, it will fight its way through the thousands and thousands of other documentary videos and find an audience. I hope it does.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

"Law and Order"

     When Krissy was little, we didn't have a TV. As an adult, she hasn't had a TV. However, she loves watching Law and Order because of Dick Wolfe's writing and because there's quite a fine male actor on it. She said that once she watched seven hours when she was staying in a hotel. An orgy of Law and Order. 
      Recently, she's started coming upstairs from her apartment to watch it at 3:00 with the dogs. They get ready for the show early. 

Ice Cream

     I do try to eat well. Sometimes I try to eat extremely well. Often I swear that I won't eat anything that isn't as nutritious as red peppers and organic chicken are. And sometimes I fall apart and think about chocolate. And eat chocolate. 
     Today my leg hurt and it was cold and the idea of ice cream filled my mind. I was trying to replicate the sensation of eating ice cream that Susan bought in New York. On the good side, it advertised itself as having half the fat content as most ice cream does. ( I never eat ice cream except the Weight Watchers Cookies and Cream 2 point chocolate ice cream sticks.) And it was very creamy. And it was chocolate. And it was supremely comforting.
     The ice cream I bought in the supermarket was probably the same flavor that she bought. But it didn't have the chance to thaw enough. And I wasn't in the same happy setting. Still, I did feel better. 
     Isn't it odd that chocolate really does that? I've read why many of us are addicted to fat. And why chocolate has a positive effect on the moods of some people. There's enough written about the pros and cons of each. There's just something about lying in bed with the dogs and eating chocolate ice cream that really is comforting.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Shelia's Garden

Thinking About A Move

     When I was visiting Joycie, Jim and Orson in Dorchester the other day, I asked Jim about the folks who had moved into the huge, glorious house next door and he said they seem to be fine, two gay couples and one single person, all good friends. They're somewhere in their fifties, he said, and maybe they're creating a haven for old age, where everybody takes care of everybody else.
     Susan, Shelia and I talked about what we'd each want, what we'd be willing to give up, if we all decided to move somewhere close to each other. They would be terrific companions, so it was a real spark to my present thinking to be talking about any possibility like this. I've been vaguely wanting some change, something that represents another big adventure. My last one, a relationship, ended badly for me, but those almost ten years were interesting and lively. I learned a lot. 
     I figure I have another ten or fifteen years of health and brain power in which to do something different. I'm a decade older than Shelia and Susan (though I really don't feel it) so perhaps my needs are more pressing. And each of them has more money, either in expected earnings or in property investments.
     I've owned my little two-family house since 1984. It's gone up quite a bit in value, but that was starting low. It needs work. The roof has started leaking and a drain pipe just fell off.  I really can't manage the overgrown yard. It's been good to me, inexpensive enough to have allowed me to save (much of which has been lost in this downslide), but it's rather isolated (though only a five minute drive to the racetrack which is a great plus and a place I want to be around for at least two more years.)
     I would be willing to give up living in a house. Though gardens are nice (and Shelia has a fabulous one) I could trade  for house plants. I definitely need to have a dog. Maybe two small ones, two Bogies. I could happily live in a co-op that is close enough to New York so that I could wander around there. (I would even brave dependence on elevators, though I don't like them.) I'm excessively untidy and have not yet managed the niceties of middle-class life that allows  unannounced visitors. Actually, I'd like to get a hold on my need to create clutter, but maybe that will happen in my next life.
     I don't want to shovel.
     I wouldn't at all mind leaving Boston (a city that I've never fallen in love with) for somewhere closer to New York. Where Krissy plans to be living. I figure I have two more years of teaching here to supplement my pension. And maybe the economy will recover and my investments will reconstitute.
     We had a fairly long discussion, just tossing around ideas. It was nice to sit at Shelia's table, with chicken, bread and cheese and talk. Their advice to me was to think about what I really want, not just what I'd be willing to give up. That's a hard pattern to break. I do have, of necessity, a poverty mentality. But I'll try to listen to that advice.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Stephanie's Lamp

     If I wasn't blogging, I would still have the lamp that Stephanie gave me. That's not her real name, but the one I used after I interviewed her when I was doing a project on women who had been homeless. Stephanie Hawthorne. It sounded right, a good fit. 
     She was remarkable. I met her in the Women's Section at Pine Street Inn when I would do occasional fill-in 3-11 work as a counselor. The rest of the staff got annoyed by her tendency to clean out her locker ten minutes before the lobby closed. That meant she'd pulled out forty plastic bags that held more, smaller, plastic bags that held various belongings and that all of this was spread on the floor at her feet with no possibility of stuffing it back into it's space where it belonged.            
     During some of this time I was working in the clinic as a coordinator, an almost full-time job that I had when I took a leave-of-absence from teaching in order to delay my tenure decision for a year. The job was the best one I've ever had (though I love teaching) and I learned even more about what it meant to be homeless and why a person might have found herself in that position than I had being an irregular counselor. 
     Stephanie would come into the clinic with the problem of having spilled a container of yogurt in her mammoth handbag hoping that I'd let her use the back examining room to wipe down the many plastic bags. And I did. 
     She was a fabulous story teller so I loved listening to her. I never know whether what anyone says is true, and that's even more relevant in a shelter when there are many reasons for people to lie. But it doesn't matter. A story is a story and hers were lengthy and funny and almost always involved the way she fooled people with her very classy voice. 
     She might have grown up in Wellsley in a well-to-do family. Her use of language and diction certainly indicated that this was possible. And she probably had been married to someone of some stature. And she might have had a good number of children. And I'm quite certain that she had a Great Dane when she became homeless and that the dog had many, many puppies. That has to be true. I imagine that she just drifted away from some apartment or other just as she drifted back to one during the time that I knew her. 
     One evening, just before she was leaving the shelter for the night, I took her into the clothing room. This was quite a lengthy event and I know that the regular staff was probably cross with me, but I spent a lot of time while she looked for an appropriate dress to wear to a downtown hotel, I helped her find a good pair of stockings while she tried on shoes (she had large feet so she was lucky to find heels.) Her plan was to pay for a drink in the hotel bar where she would read a book, then sleep in the upstairs ladies room. The doorman would knock on the door to wake her in the morning and she'd get dressed and leave. She'd done this many times, she said, having become quite friendly with whatever staff at the hotel helped her carry out her ruse. 
     I would not have believed it possible for her to actually rent a place in a brownstone on Commonwealth and furnish it with things she found in the back alleys that were still in their original wrappings and a living room suite paid for by a married airline pilot who saw her whenever he was in town. Nor would I have believed that she would rent the extra room in that apartment to a boarder. I've forgotten how long she was there before she was evicted, but it was some number of months. 
     Once I let her stay in my tiny apartment because she was between funds, between fancy rooming houses and coughing like mad. It was just for a week and I was very hesitant, but she promised that she wouldn't smoke inside and I was out working almost all the time. When she left, the bed and the room where she slept was covered with cookie crumbs, 
    As repayment, she later found two lamps for me. One was quite modern with a number of necks and the other was a brass floor lamp with a rather exhausted silk shade. Neither had working plugs. I threw out the modern one almost instantly to Stephanie's annoyance. Why wasn't I capable of rewiring it? She could have done it in ten minutes, just as she could manage many odd feats. 
     But I kept the brass lamp. Maybe I didn't dare throw it out because she'd scolded me. Maybe she'd emphasized that it was 'brass.' She'd been carting around two huge cloth bags of brass lamp fixtures and selling them in some way so I knew that she knew brass when she saw it. I never did rewire it. And I've never used it. It's just stood somewhere or another for well over fifteen years.
     But I'm thinking more about paring down so I decided to get rid of it. I got it as far as my landing. Then I thought -- well, I could give it to Lorna's daughter. She and her husband, Muna, have a huge house in Chelsea that they are fixing up and they need all sorts of things, like Stephanie's lamp.
     Quite magically Lorna called me just a few minutes after I was thinking about Madeline and Muna. Lorna wondered if I would mind if she took the photographs she'd matted for me down to the Chelsea Cafe where they were required. Usually I try to stop Lorna from doing too much, but I said yes, that's great, please. And would you like to pick up a lamp for Madeline and Muna? It has a brass stand.
     I have no idea where the lamp is now, whether Madelaine and Muna can find someone to rewire it, but Lorna did pick it up. 
     I lost contact with Stephanie after a few years and was really sorry when a social worker from Healthcare for the Homeless told me that she'd died. He'd asked her if he could call me, but she wouldn't let him. I'm sorry that she didn't. She was a remarkable woman and I would have liked one more chance to tell her that.

my friend and our teeth

     When I started this eight month self-portrait series again, now at a five year interval rather than ten, Susan said something like, "Can I be one of the funny looking people standing with you, too?" And I was delighted, of course. But she wasn't up here during December and January when I was photographing myself with friends, so she couldn't be in it. And I wanted her there. So, I asked if she'd substitute for Krissy when I was just in New York. By then I knew that she really doesn't like photos of herself, though she's extremely attractive -- tall and willowy, sturdy calves that are so much fun to watch when she's striding, short, blonde messy hair, lots of colorful layers and unusual jewelry. She's a woman you notice when she walks into a room. And she's smart and lots of fun. And she smiles a lot.
     But she hates photos and always wants this one or that one deleted. This time she decided that teeth are the problem. We tried taking some pictures where our teeth didn't show and then laughed like fools about how impossible this is. I happen to like Susan's smile.........and though I rarely smile, being a much more dour character, I like mine. But our teeth are nothing to write home about.
     When my dentist repaired my missing right eyetooth that finally died after a root canal, he had to cap two surrounding teeth. So, three of my front teeth are fake. Those are the teeth that are whiter and more even. Dr. Sowels used to suffer over matching the color when he put in a crown. He had so many possibilities to chose from and so much to fight against. But he made, at the time, a fairly decent job of matching these fakes with the improbable real teeth. 
     Some years later, he fretted a lot about the real front tooth that's next to the fake. It really bothered him that it was discoloring because of a filling. I hate having dental work done so much that I kept saying no, don't fix it. Now that I look at a video I made during those years, I can see how peculiar my front tooth looked. It called attention to itself continually.
     Finally I gave in and let him fix it. But it's discolored again and the gum is receding. My new dentist, a lovely fellow whose novocain shots don't hurt in the slightest, was working on an extremely expensive crown (dental insurance covered next to nothing!) and offered to refinish the front tooth. Only $480. Unfortunately he and his wife have moved back to Baltimore because his mother, a doctor, developed early-onset dementia. 
     I don't think I would have had it fixed, anyway. 
     Besides, one of the problems is that the fake front tooth is now longer than the real one which I must have ground down, so my front teeth look even more crooked than they used to. And there's nothing to do about my bottom teeth which have shifted and poked around here and there, knocking each other even more out of place. 
     My lovely dental hygenist, Lyn, is having her teeth straightened. She told me that as you age, your teeth move so that peculiarities become much more pronounced. She could afford to do this preventative work because she is part of  a dental practice. And she's only fifty.
     Though my father managed an aneurysm when he was 84, (he waited it out for three weeks until he could be operated on -- that was the Canadian system and it worked perfectly well) and then, a few years later, the stroke (when he could move his left foot a quarter of an inch by pushing it gingerly, he knew that he'd walk again.) And when he was asked to make a presentation to justify going into rehab, he did and did it quite well, testifying that he needed to get back home to take care of his wife. But when it came to his teeth, he would not darken the door to a dentist office. He looked like a jack-o-lantern with blackened teeth. I have been told many times how much dental health effects general health, but he didn't care one bit.


     I spent all winter watching for ice patches so that I wouldn't fall. I've gotten very afraid of falling. Fifteen or so years ago, I slid on black ice down the outside front stairs that I'd carefully cleaned the day before. That was the April 1st snowstorm and I got a sprained ankle that, unfortunately, put paid to my swimming. If I'd been a bit braver, I would have kept swimming while I was limping around in the boot, but I didn't and by the time I got back to it, I was too out of shape. That was a big mistake.
     And I fell six or seven years ago when I was walking Bogie. The sheet of ice was hidden under grass. I decided that carrying a cell phone is really important after that, not that I remember to bring one. I was fine, but felt that bone bruise for about a year.
     It's May and I've fallen twice in a week. Once was in New York when I was walking with Susan and tripped going up a curb. My Teva caught and I fell forward. There was Susan standing above me, "Are you alright? Are you alright?" I was alright, though I can no longer spring up as I once did. She thought I had misjudged the curb height which would have been far worse, as far as I'm concerned.
     And then I fell last night. Krissy got back from New York late and we rushed outside to take another May self-portrait that she'd promised for my 70th birthday. But she realized that she had no makeup on and looked exhausted. "No, you have to let me see all of these, erase them, I look terrible. I'll put on makeup." I was following her up the back steps, feeling a bit scolded and perhaps somewhat resistant to her orders, when I fell backwards, nothing can be done about falling once you start, down a few steps and onto the macadam. I could get up. No real damage except that I am limping today. Unfortunately I didn't take the tylenol as she suggested. But we took the picture with her hair down and makeup on. It was getting dark anyway, so the image is a bit wobbly. 
     I've listened to the PBS instructions on enlivening the elderly brain that are continually repeated during fund raisers, not that I've accepted being elderly. That happens when you're eighty. The old gentleman scientist says that older people look down too much, not realizing that the eyes establish stability. So I've been trying to stand up straight, resist the desire to bend forward, slightly. My posture has always been rotten and gets steadily worse. And I've shrunk. Almost three inches. The space between my discs must be miniscule. 
    And I do the exercises where I stand on one foot, balancing. And I'll start doing Chi Gong again. Or that's what I say to myself every day.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Richard's Underlining

     Shelia had a book on the dresser, Atul Gawande's "better, A Surgeon's Notes on Performance." I like his writing a lot, so I asked if I could borrow it. When I opened it, I found pink magic marker highlighting the pages. I knew that Richard, Shelia's husband, had made these marks and that now that Shelia's selling his books on Amazon, she always notes how much of the book is over-lined. Sometimes someone buys a book that's completely marked because it was printed ten or twenty years ago and it's hard to find, but the purchaser always knows what it's going to look like since Shelia is scrupulously honest in her descriptions.
     Before I met Shelia this week, I'd heard many stories from Susan, her friend, about Richard's long, difficult illness, about all the people who gathered around them and helped in various ways. About his fortitude and about the struggles. About his death. About that big loss.
     The first chapter of the book is "On Washing Hands," about the difficulties of controlling infectious diseases in hospital settings even in this day and age and about Gawande's tour with Deborah Yokoe, an infectious disease specialist, and Susan Marino, a microbiologist, to see the improvements, difficult as they were to make, at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. 
     One of the nuggets in this chapter concerns Ignac Semmelweis, a Viennese obstretician, who realized that women who gave birth at home had a far smaller chance of dying of childbirth fever than those who had their babies in the hospital. This was in 1847.
     To quote Gawande --"Semmelweis concluded that doctors themselves were carrying the disease between patients, and he mandated that every doctor and nurse on his ward scrub with a nail brush and chlorine between patients." 
     Richard has run pink marker across the words "scrub with a nail brush and chlorine"  and then "some colleagues were even offended by his claims" and [Semmelweis] "ultimately dismissed from his job." The point that Gawande was making is that it often takes an obsessive, totally focused person to make any significant changes, but that it's better if that person is moe tactful than Semmelweis was. "It was another twenty years before Joseph Lister offered his clearer, more persuasive, and respectful pleas for antisepsis in surgery." (Richard had only marked two words, Joseph Lister, in that whole paragraph about Semmelweis' diatribes against his fellow doctors who would not follow his painfully clear instructions.)
     I like following Gawande's line of thought and I liked following Richard's markings. I felt lonely when they stopped after the first chapter. Shelia said he marked whatever he read, but that sometimes he started a book and then stopped reading it. I imagine that he was particularly interested in the specifics of this first chapter because he was undergoing so many hospital procedures and that he might not have had the intellectual energy to read the rest of it. The book was published in 2007 and he died a year and a half ago. 
     He'd noticed a lump in his neck, Shelia said, and went to the doctor who said he thought it was nothing, but to come back if it got larger. It did, but Richard didn't go back for a number of months. I can imagine how easy it was to ignore that problem. I'm more surprised when anyone rushes back to the doctor than I am when he doesn't.
     The most surprising and instructive story I've heard was from a friend who had fallen on the street and then found a lump in her breast the next day. She's just had a mammogram, so there was no reason to worry, but she went to the doctor immediately. By then the lump had disappeared so he didn't feel anything, but he said something like, well, you might as well check this out with a surgeon. The surgeon felt a thickening in her breast and sent her for an MRI. Thus, the cancer was detected and the long treatment, including two operations began.  
     I'm sure that I would never have gone to the doctor if I'd found a lump right after I'd had a good mammogram. Then, if the lump disappeared, I would have decided it was from the fall. I can't imagine that a doctor finding no lump would send me on to a surgeon.  That all seems highly unlikely, yet it happened.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Phyllis and Yonah Shimmel's

     Phyllis and I were supposed to meet in front of Vselka's on 9th Street and Second Avenue. I was sure that we'd recognize each other and we did. Her first words were something like, "We haven't seen each other in fifty years." That isn't true, but it's basically true. We were good friends in high school, though I remember nothing of her story, of her family, of being in her house. What I remember, and what I needed, were the Hai's who lived next door, who she introduced me to and who became our Mama and Papa. They were Ruth and Andre Tao Kim Hai. He worked at the United Nations and fished for minnows in the bay right when the high tide lapped at the wall of their house. He used a large white net on a pole that I now recognize as similar to those used in Vietnam. Then he put them in the small pool he'd built so the cats could catch tiny fish.
     I adored the Hai's. I needed a surrogate family and they provided one, always accepting and with food in the house. Phyllis and I spent quite a bit of time there, as I remember. She'd be in the kitchen with Ruth and I'd be outside with Andre. She was there much more often, of course, and remembers their house with more clarity.
     I recognize traits that the high school Phyllis had, the rhythm of her speech, the way she slowly spoons soup. But she didn't have the same laugh. She said that she got it from her husband who laughs a lot. He can be sitting in a chair, thinking, and he'll just start laughing. I'm glad that she has a laughing husband, a man whose gone back to study play writing with a teacher who he remembers liking and who likes his work so much. 
    The fifty years part isn't quite true. I remember her in the loft where I lived with Krissy's father. Krissy might have been just starting to walk. I remember the sound the scuffing of the plastic soles of her pajama feet made. Phyllis, her son, Benji, and I once sat at a table, some table, can't remember much of that, toward the back of that gloomy loft on the Bowery. I'd given Benji, who must have been around two, a tablet to draw in and I was surprised that he drew on one page and immediately turned to the next to draw more. That shows how much I knew about little children. I truly expected him to take more than a few seconds with each page. I was so stupid and so worried and so poor.
     That also means that Phyllis must have met Krissy's father. Unless he'd gone out while she was visiting, he would have been up in front, by the windows, in the bit of light.
     But what's more amazing than this tad of a memory is that Phyllis remembers being in the studio apartment that my father had rented when he thought that he'd be free of me, on his own, in New York. It was the top floor of a corner building on Charles and Bleeker Streets. I had no idea that anyone I knew, now know again, had been there and could testify to the low partitions that somewhat divided the space, who saw that I had no privacy, who remembers the configuration of the space where my bed was. That's quite amazing and I'm grateful.
     And she went with me to Ruth Ingalls, to the lovely dance studio she rented one night a week on 57th Street. I don't remember Phyllis's presence, but she remembers being there and liked that form of unrestricted, wide gestural movement. Ruth Ingalls taught interpretive dance in Port Washington. When I was a child, before my mother died, she sent me there to whirl around with butterfly scarf wings made from tie-dyed parachute silk, to walk like a bear and hop like a frog. For a while, after I graduated from high school, I worked with her, demonstrating, carrying the illusion that I would become a dancer. How I imagined that was possible is hard to fathom. I would have been entering a art form  no rules, no directions, no support. And an even harder one that I actually did enter some years later.
     I don't know how to explain that Phyllis seems almost like a template of who I might have been had I not allowed myself to get kicked around so much, had my childhood not been so ungrounded. While I don't remember Benji's father, I know that they had a close and lasting friendship even after their divorce. And that she's had a long and good second marriage with a man she met, I think, in graduate school. She's pursued various directions that included learning Chinese calligraphy, living in China for some time, teaching in a Montessori school, writing poetry and running a small press. She always wanted to write full-time, she told me during our visit, was waiting for the time when she could do what she's doing now. She's really engaged in the New York poetry community, appreciating the support and the challenges and she's learning Tai Chi with a group of Chinese and Vietnamese folks who practice together. She was allowed to join it after promising that she's be there every Monday and Friday mornings. Her life seems mellow, contemplative, rich and unstructured and it provides her with a lot to laugh about.
     We walked downtown and went to Yonah Shimmels for my old times sake. They do still have glasses of yogurt to drink, and the heavy blueberry knishes that Krissy's father and I used to eat because they were inexpensive and good. It was so nice to be there. To find it so much the same. To watch Phyllis eat her barley soup.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Shelia's place

     I was supposed to stay with Susan during my 70th birthday trip to New York. Well, I'd planned to stay in a hotel, but Susan wanted me to stay with her. That was really much better, a good idea even though my plan had been to see how tough I was and whether I could do it all myself. The last time I'd been to NY was with my big guy, three or four summers ago, before that relationship ended.
     New York was my city, for eighteen years. I still consider myself a New Yorker, not having ever forgiven Boston for the disgusting display of racism during bussing when I first moved here in 1974. But New York has changed and so have I. And it was a bit daunting to make this trip. 
     I travel very little since my body is so cranky from fibromyalgia. If I sit too long, it gets angry. And if I carry heavy things, it gets angry. If I work at the computer, it gets angry. It absolutely hates the bus and loathed PeterPan all the way down, no leg room and uncomfortable seats. And I'd had a hard week, helping out a friend whose mother is very ill, going back and forth to deal with the cyst and taking antibiotics that produced stomach angst. So, I wasn't in the best of shape. 
     Because Susan wasn't able to have me at her condo, she asked her friend, Shelia, if I could stay there. Shelia (how do you spell her name?) makes friends just walking up the block, gives away many keys to her apartment and was willing to try me out. Susan bought a blow-up mattress and took me there on Friday night after I got off of the bus. 
     Shelia is easy. And nothing could have been better, barring the fact that I couldn't stay with Susan. 
     Lady, Shelia's golden retriever who seems more like a large refrigerator that moves from place to place, placidly, quietly, was rescued from a friend whose mother, in Mexico, died. Lady understood only Spanish, had never been on a leash, and lived in extreme luxury. Shelia's friend had found good homes for the servants, but couldn't find anyone to take the dog. When Shelia said that she was finished mourning for Chico, their former beloved dog, part Chow, part Pit Bull and something else that seems equally fierce, her friend flew to Mexico and brought an extremely frightened Lady back to New York. 
     Lucky Lady. Adored Lady. After having tried giving her the food that she was used to, and trying many other brands, Shelia now boils chicken for her, adds green beans to a bit of kibble and stirs it all up. 
      I don't know how Sly got adopted, but he follows her around as if he's a dog. It took him a couple of days before he'd allow me to photograph him, but on the last day, after I'd moved to a hotel, he allowed me to capture a few images. I'd stopped by her house on the way to the bus station, dragging my suitcase. I'd forgotten the bones that I wanted to take back to Boston so that I could make pinhole images of them. Why I got this hair brain idea is beyond me. But the bones, that Shelia had put on the shelf when Lady finished with them, were fascinating. Perhaps they remind me of "50 lbs. of clay," an installation piece. I'd never been at all interested in making anything that's beautiful, but for the last four years, I've been working with clay, amassing these impractical installations that I won't ever find a place to show. Anyway, I saw the bones. Photographing them with the digital point-and-shoot wasn't enough. They have to be pinhole images, I thought. Insanity.
     Shelia said, "Don't take them all. Your suitcase will be too heavy to pull." I obeyed, though I wanted them all. The suitcase was very heavy to pull. But now I want her to send me a monthly supply of bones by mail. I'll send her postage money. I hope I make the pinhole photos. 
     And Shelia allowed herself to be part of my 2008-2009 self-portrait series. That was terrific, more terrific because Lady wanted to join us.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

4 East 15th Street, New York, New York

      I was in New York and staying with a friend of Susan's who told me to go left when I left her front gate and then walk across to the Farmer's Market. Since I was strangely disoriented, very strangely, I needed instructions on how to get anywhere and I did just what she said. As I was walking across 15th St., I passed a barricade of suitcases and carts and glanced at it. A man with a ruddy face was sleeping there. He looked like a farmer, large and capable, covered by a blue blanket. 
     Much later in the afternoon, I walked by again and noticed that he'd awakened, made a blanket hood to hide his face and had a pack of cigarettes lying next to him. The smell of urine was pervasive.
     That was Saturday. 
     The next day it threatened rain and I wondered how he would manage to protect his mattresses and belongings, wondered whether he was going to lie in bed until the rain began. But when as I crossed Fifth Avenue, I could see that his belongings had been consolidated, that the mattresses were folded and the carts pushed against the elevator structure that had served as his headboard. There's no telling where he had gone.
      His address had been 4 East 15th Street, but on Monday his make-shift home was gone. The only trace of it was a cigarette pack, the same brand that I'd noticed on his blanket, tucked into a corner of the window ledge. And the large gray push card was still there, almost cleaned out. 
      I think he'd had two mattresses, one buttressed against the building, the other tucked against his partitioning. But they were gone, his broom was gone, all the suitcases had vanished. The area was swept clean. I couldn't help myself. I had to look into the bin to see if there was any evidence of his presence left.
     When I lived in New York, there were derelicts on the Bowery, and men wandering in and out of the Dorothy Day house for homeless men near where the Hell's Angels lived on Second Street near Second Avenue. But there was nothing, nothing, like the level of homelessness there is now. If it was ordinary to see men sleeping in doorways near that loft where my daughter, her father and I lived right after she was born, it wasn't ordinary to see them sleeping near Fifth Avenue in a neighborhood that was considerably better.
     I understand some of the issues of homelessness in Boston, having worked some in the women's section of a shelter. Once the state mental institutions were closed and patients had been released, supposedly, to residential living and, after the many rooming houses had been sold for private residences, there was an exponential increase in the number of people who were homeless and in shelters or living on the streets.  
     I can't know whether the man who'd made a bedroom so resourcefully has a social worker who has helped him get some services. I have no way of knowing whether he's one of the many who refuse medication because they hate the side-effects or are afraid of going to doctors and afraid of sleeping in shelters which seem far more dangerous to them than being on the streets. And I don't know who was paid to toss out all his belongings and sweep away his traces.

     I was staying on 15th Street with a friend of Susan's who told me to turn left and walk across to on Square to the farmer's market on Saturday. Since I was strangely disoriented and didn't know uptown from downtown, I followed her directions. Just as I crossed 5th Avenue, I walked by a barrier of suitcases and carts and noticed the ruddy face of a sleeping man. He could have been a farmer, lying there, covered by a blue blanket, on top of a mattress. I could see him through a crack between his partitioning.
     When I walked by much later, probably about two, his head was covered with a blanket hood, his face hidden, a pack of cigarettes lying next to him. I could smell urine from several feet away.
     The next day it was threatening rain and I wondered how he would manage that. It seemed probable that he had two mattresses, one buttressed against the building and the other against the carts and his suitcases. How would everything stay dry?
     But when I walked by his area, 4 East 15th Street, the mattresses had been folded up and the carts pushed against the outside elevator shaft that had served as the head of his bed. He was gone.