13 March 2018
I’m full of bad poems.
For example, from eighth grade:
Late at night
I lie awake
Looking out my window
I see a star
And stop and think upon it.
In second grade, I wrote some damn poem about a goldfish. Maybe named Fred. But I don’t remember.
In high school, I was forced to write poetry for a project; a whole sheaf of them. The only one that came close to mattering wasn’t (needless to say) good. But it had to do with a hanger as an analogy: Having the words, but no ideas to place upon it (like having a hanger without the clothes, the tools without the project, you get it, you’re smart).
I’m in my forties now.
I started a magazine so I could have a place to put my writing.
At which point I promptly forgot how to write. Not bad poems. Not anything.
Got the hanger, missing the clothes.
A million ideas in my head, truly, good and bad and ugly and indifferent. None of them important, I’m sure. And I don’t even care, so long as I could get one of them down, into words and sentences, clauses and paragraphs.
A really shit jacket on a wire hanger is better than nothing.
A shit jacket can still keep you warm. Or at least warmer than you’d be without it.
I miss whatever it was in me that used to give the permission for me to pump out words without caring so much I stopped them before they had formed.
I miss, maybe (or maybe not), being forced by the threat of a B letter grade, to write a sheaf of really terrible so-called “poetry.”
A million ideas: I start writing now and I kill things before they begin. Edit before a syllable has been (in its way) uttered.
Did I have things to say before, back when writing was a daily thing, if not a thing well-done?
Do I have things to say now, now that my fingers, my ink, my keyboard, my pages are empty?
I don’t know.
I know a lot of words; I was a spelling champ in elementary. Sometimes, no kidding, I read the dictionary and the thesaurus for fun.
I have, as it were, a hanger. (Yeah, it’s wire; I’m no genius. My hanger is cheap, misshapen. Things fall off it all the time; it’s the one I wait until last to use when I’m doing laundry.)
I have a hanger. Not the hanger I want, but a hanger nevertheless.
And ideas to hang on them?
A billion possible. So, like, what, patterns or pictures of clothes: 2-D, 1-D, undeveloped.
Nothing real, nothing of substance.
The emperor has no clothes. And neither do I.
Late at night, I lie awake
——that’s because I have insomnia and nightmares. And my husband has restless leg syndrome. And I’m afraid for daytime to appear, with its needs and requests and its repetitions.
Looking out my window
——my neighbor has a halogen front porch light. It keeps my husband awake sometimes. And, when dawn breaks, roughly at the same time I’m falling asleep, the light makes me miss the darkness. I never see stars out of those windows. I would wonder why the universe prefers the back yard, except I prefer it, too.
I see a star
——A star is dust and so are we. Ideas? Less than that. Maybe nothing; in my case, certainly nothing.
——You are here.
And stop and think upon it.
—— Good for you. Why do you have to stop in order to think? Can’t you just think?
Bad poetry, which I don’t care about; words in my head that I can’t get to gel around the ideas I can’t get a handle on?
Now that, my star, my window, my goldfish named (or not) Fred, that I can’t quite accept.
16 December 2017: Christmas 1994 (New York)
That was you, you had your hair freshly cut, a full 8 inches off (Her name was Helga. She wore white jeans. She had an accent. This was not the Fiesta nor the Great Clips of Home.) You stopped by your employer, a cut-rate ophthalmologist on Broadway. He didn’t recognize you at first. The power of a good hair-cut and your fanciest coat.
That’s okay, you thought. He paid under the table, a phrase you’d never even known existed until you moved to New York. The first day he’d met you, he said you looked “corn-fed” or “wholesome” or “corn” something. It had never really sat well with you, but what could you do? Well, you’d quit in a month or so, because, after all, he really was quite an ass and one of your co-workers was racist and, well, depression is a beast and even at 19, at 20, eventually it catches up and you realize selling dumb frames for untaxed money is vaguely dishonest and seriously interrupting your vocal rehearsal, stretching, laundry, and memorization time, and
Back to December. 1994. New York.
(A pause: the present being what it is, the author had to Internet search her old grocery store- The Fairway, her old buildings- The Broadway American in December but The Ansonia in January, and Fish’s Eddy- which no longer seems to have a location on the Upper West Side, which makes the author feel sad. It was an excellent place to visually feast when one was dawdling on the way to any detested classes.)
1994. New York. December, specifically Christmastime.
You ate a lot of pears that month. Quite a few bagels (from Fairway, mostly; from H&H occasionally, depending on pocket money; maybe two from Zabar’s, which store smelled the best of all of the three). There was a steel-drummer hanging out in front of Zabar’s; he played Caribbean versions of Christmas songs. And you, in the present, writing this now, you hope he’s still there.
You spent one crystal cold, clarified butter sun, icy cold morning dealing in Tower Records. Your stupid-ass assignment for Musical Theatre 1-0-whatever was 1776 and “He Plays the Violin.” So you needed the damn CD: you walked there, in velveteen heels (the 1990s had a neo-Victorian kick), and a couple floors up, bought the original cast recording.
Back to your room. Listen. (The roommate is witchy; she’s prone to sitting on the floor in front of candles that are blue, red, and orange, and chanting in languages you’ve never heard. But, luckily, she must be doing one of those “Just Drama Student” things and isn’t present…thank god.) Pause to listen to Harry Simeon Chorale, to Harry Connick Jr, to every Christmas mixtape you had ever made. A pause to think of your mom (always, especially, forever your mom), your dad, your little sister. Maybe another pause, but you can guess what our homesick dumb-ass self was doing just then.
Damn 1776. Rehearse (lip synching, mainly, in the tiny laundry room; your school had precious few rehearsal rooms — distinctly odd for a school that specialized in any kind of vocal, musical performance, but -as the kids say now- “whatevs”). The good thing about the laundry room was that it was tiny. It was warm. It was very, very private. You could sit on the dryer and rehearse (inaudibly— not helpful, if your thing is vocal performance) and/or scrawl capital-F FEELINGS in your journal, while doing your laundry, avoiding your roommate, and being alone. (This, the warmth and the privacy, is a commodity, highly prized, in December, in 1994, in New York.)
At any rate.
There was, at that time, a lone Hallmark sort of store: one street over from Broadway, probably the 70s, but I’m old and don’t remember. It had stickers by the roll and all the normal Hallmark card sorts of things, plus a distinct aura of “our days are numbered.” Maybe they knew printers and Internet so soon would take away their mojo, but the carpet had too few shelves resting on it; the cashiers numbered one; the entire theme was “going out of business.” Nevertheless, the times and me, being what we were, I bought one roll of wrapping paper and a couple stickers. If I hummed “He Plays the Violin” in my head, dreamt about home, and/or got so homesick for my mother, for proper over warm Midwestern mall stores with their wholesomeness and their kitsch and their schtick and their mistakes, well, it didn’t matter that much. A decent bagel and cup of coffee was a block away. If I walked fifteen minutes, I could both smell Zabar’s and hear the steel drummer…and I was pretty damn content/reliant on the part where I knew I’d be going home in a couple days (after the 1776 thing; after the last shift or two at the shady optometrist’s). So, weird 1990s Hallmark, whatever with your ghostly out-of-business-ness. But thanks for the wrapping paper (pink, with Christmas tree illustrations; Indiana had never seen anything like it. Not then, anyway.)
(An interlude to ask oneself: why record memories, perceptions, especially from the ’90s, which doesn’t count for anything. It was so long ago and other decades mattered more and…)
You went to Macy’s, at Christmastime. The real Macy’s, the one in Times Square: you did not see Santa (disappointing), you did visit The Cellar (kind of homey), you bought a stupid needlepoint pillow with angels for your grandma (Spoiler: she never used it but did, at least, that one Christmas, pretend like she thought it was nice. It was, actually, nice. And very grandmother-y).
You went, that December, into fancy boutiques. You walked past the occasional gated courtyard, pristine and severe and so very gray. You studied in Barnes and Noble and the New York Public Library; you cursed the Xerox copying fees. You thanked God and Santa and everything holy and less-than-holy for the privacy of the laundry room.
You went to Nick’s ( a Greek cafe) and you ordered falafel, received free baklava (one per order!), watched the elderly waiter; you ate grapefruit and pears from Fairway, bagels from H&H. You dutifully practiced a rancid combination of vocal performances: a saccharine thing from “Cheaper by the Dozen,” that goddamned “He Plays the Violin,” and an assortment of Purcell for Voice Potato, who had, apparently, never explored the depths of any other bel canto or art songs or, well, anything other than Henry Freaking Purcell.
It finally reached the 23rd of December: you had smelled smoking and roasting chestnuts and almonds on every New York street. You had viewed the decorations on Fifth. You had seen all the Duane Read or drugstore parfumerie chains drape themselves inside out and sideways with red and white and feathers. You had had, quite frankly, enough.
You longed, at that time, for a perfectly decent (in fact, innocent) cup of coffee: no flavors, no paper cup, no sweetener, no anything. Just Joe. In a cup.
You longed, at that time, for the sublime over-abundant-schlockiness of a mid-western mall: the Santa, the excess, the chains, the fundamental ordinariness.
You longed, at that time, for the creche placed on the piano at home. The white-lit tree in the living room, the multi-lit and remembrance-garlanded tree in the basement. The ornaments from your first Sunday School, the badly-glued star from some church thing or another, the neighborhood back home you could count on to be extravagantly-lit. The mint-chocolate-chip ice cream you knew would be in the freezer. The sleepy headed sister you would wake up with nudges and “It’s Christmas!”
The early morning of the 24th of December, 1994, was wind: themed by wind; a cacophony of wind, a perflituity of wind; nothing but wind. It howled between the stucco and old walls of old and new New York. One in the morning, two in the morning, three in the morning: all of it was listening to howling, maleficent wind blowing between skyscrapers and threatening flights.
At four in the morning, you concede to the banshee wailing of the wind. You pack your few packages, your memories, your stupid “He Plays the Violin” and Henry Purcell December. You thank God for Entenmann’s in New York but dream of sugar cookies and Chex Mix at home. Screw, you think, the wind; I’m going home.
You, freshly hair-cutted, with pink-wrapped packages, with nostalgia and impatience, take Penn Station and every earthly device to get to the airport.
It’s nice in New York, you rehearse: there’s a steel-drum in front of Barnes and Noble, I get free baklava at Nick’s, the streets smell like smoke, chestnuts, and history.
You rehearse but your heart is stuck in popcorn balls, pipe-cleaner icicles, Hershey kisses, coloring books, your parents, your kid sister, cheap felt bathrobes and cookies for Santa (Chex Mix and carrots for Rudolph and team).
Never did a flight take longer. Never did a flight move so fast.
Even in 1994, one could move from concrete jungle to cornfield in an hour, give or take.
Even in 1994, one could take their fancy New York haircut and still find their way home. They could (you could) forget your bad Broadway, turn on the radio and hear Bing Crosby, and just be home again.
I don’t sit on the dryer anymore. I don’t keep a diary. I have not, since that time, had wrapping paper that is pink.
I haven’t had a haircut from Helga.
I haven’t worked under the table. (Look, the Indian/Calvin Klein/ Donna Karan eyewear is quite nice.)
I haven’t sang, performed, or even studied “He Plays the Violin.” Nor anything by Henry Purcell. Nor, another ditty of the moment, from She Loves Me, “Dear Friend:” “charming, romantic, the perfect cafe…”
In the million years that have passed, I have not any of the following: been to a “going out of business” Hallmark, purchased stickers from the roll, listened to a steel drum while it spit snowflakes, spent the 23rd into the 24th of December in a sweat while the wind howled angrily and intimated I might not go home.
In the million years that have passed since 1994, I have not forgotten a single year that preceded it: my family is everything and the years I have lived until 1994 are, quite possibly, the mother lodes and keystones of the essential “my existence.”
In the million years since 1994, I have perpetually been grateful that I do not open my door and instantly fall into my roommate’s strangled (and, no doubt, quite genuine) emotive thrusts to the red, orange, and blue candles. In whatever (probably very blessed) language that was.
In the million years since 1994, I have been glad that Sunset Boulevard has not hit some kind of resurgence. It had two good songs. And, well, not much else.
In the million years since 1994, I have been married twice, divorced once. And I would go through a million divorces to reach the marriage I have now.
I would go through a million years to find my parents and my sister and revisit any Christmas from about 1980-1992.
But, failing all of that, I would write too many words. To revisit one Christmas is to revisit them all. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
And in 1994, if that damned plane hadn’t landed on time, well, there’d be a news story for the ages.
1994, 1984, 1974, 2004, 2014, doesn’t matter the year: If I can’t be home for Christmas…
Fish’s Eddy has glass things that sparkle in sunlight. H&H Bagels has the freshest, puffiest bagels in all Christendom. Zabar’s still smells like cloves and sophistication. Nick’s (most probably) still has free baklava with any order. Fairway still has cheap Bosch pears and “pimple mousse.” And, well, it’s 2017.
You’ll still prefer the chain generics of home. You’ll still take a flight too early, too crowded, too windy.
You’ll still— you’ll always— go home.
There is, really, no place quite like it.
19 December 2016: The Man With the Peach Blanket
A couple weeks ago, I was driving to work, late as usual (I can’t sleep. It’s a problem.)
There was a man at the corner of Southport Road and Madison. He was eating cold pizza under a streetlight, in a late November sun. His cardboard sign asked for food and blankets. “Anything will help.”
And three seconds later, I’m jerking my tardy car into a strange parking lot because, as it turns out, I’ve got a blanket.
The blanket I’ve had since 1986, when my mom bought one for me and one for my sister. It has been my beach blanket since 1999: the blanket I keep in the back of my car on the chance that I might accidentally drive to a beach. It doesn’t usually happen, but you never know. The blanket is peach flannel. Lightweight. Soft. A girly color* and full of 1980s good will and children’s dreams in the age of Wham and Barbie and the Rockers.
The guy accepts this blanket, with or without my memories attached. He rolls it up and it becomes a beacon on the top of his more staid and masculine blue backpack.
I watch him walk on. He didn’t say thanks. He didn’t say anything. Those are my memories on his back now and I just think he’s cold. My peach blanket is bouncing along Madison on the back of a stranger.
Most strangers ask for money. He asked only for food and a blanket. I had a blanket.
I don’t know how to solve homelessness. I don’t know how to solve cold. I hope my memories as much as the flannel embrace that man but I don’t hold any hope that a blanket can solve a social fabric that has holes.
It is good, in this world to give to others. But I wish there was, in this world, a version in which need was not necessary and want, a virtue of luxury and not food and blankets.
Bless that man.
Bless all who need blankets. And all who need food.
And bless those men carrying peach and girl-y blankets. I bet there’s not much heavier, if you want the truth.
*I “get” that color is ungendered, but as things go, this particular peach carries connotations of associative femininity.
7 November 2016: The Manson-Dixie Line
Oh, youth, you were so cute. You were from Texas and genetically gifted. You were in my conservatory classes in New York and you were, well, vapid seems harsh and I’m going to believe you grew out of it.
You upspoke, before up-speak was a term.
And there was a time, God love you, when you stood up in front of the entire class and blathered on about the Manson-Dixie Line, that one which divides the south from the north, that one which had its correct name in 12-point font on the paper you were holding. That one you might have actually heard of growing up in the South and all.
And your inflection and your tone went up and you were 20 and perfect. But so wrong.
Student loan dollars being what they are, I’m feeling my loans from that class were exceptionally well-spent. Oh, Manson-Dixie Line, I almost wish you existed, a magical line dividing serial killers from paper cups and/or Designing Women.
The Mason-Dixon Line is so boring by comparison.
Thirty dollars in New Orleans is eternity, if you spend it right.
13 May 2015: Happy Birthday, TWM. I Wish You Were Here
I like, very much, whatever it is that makes certain that nothing ever disappears. Not even a grain of sand. — Coco Chanel
It’s May 13th. There is not a single May 13th that I have never thought of you.
Thank you for asking about my dinosaurs and pretending that you’d never heard of my friends Stegosaur, Brachiosaurus, Trilobite, and Pterodactyl.Thank you for driving me in that yellow Nova and for always smelling like calmness and Aqua Velva, with a hint of Old Spice.
When I sang my first solo ever, you said how my necklace sparkled. (It did. Indeed.)
When I triumphantly showed you my First Rating blue ribbon medal, you asked if I would build a case for the rest.
When I was three, you sat on the kitchen floor like you were my size. When I was five, you hoisted me on your back. You said “good gravy, Davy” at the weight and said I was a bag of potatoes. And you carried me up the stairs. When I was nine, you colored a coloring-book-dachsund with the bittersweet Crayola crayon and you said there was no other color a dachsund could be (And that’s still true. All dachshunds are, in fact, bittersweet). When I was ten, you looked at my acrylic heart earrings and you said you liked them, because the bottom heart was “what do you call that? Ice blue?” Yes, ice blue.) And when I was eleven, you tried to tell me about solar powered cars and electric engines and the car in the magazine was red and you were, well, you were sick. And I tried so very hard to ask something smart and to care about cars.
You used Chapstick every night after dinner. Original, the black wrapper. Your sport coats had leather buttons. Your garage, with its old brooms and its grandfather smells; its nails in old coffee cans and that weird orange-colored epoxy stain on the floor, was one of my favorite places in all the world. Next to your (and Mamaw’s) pantry: paint-stained nineteen-thirties chair and saltines tin and warmth and closeness and safety and wisdom and calm.
I will live my entire life trying to re-find that and you.
You were very fond of that sea turtle coloring contest I completed: you seemed proud when I won and it was displayed at the municipal pool. You are still the only person I ever knew who could create sailboats from Solo party cups. You’re so much like my mom, still, it hurts.
And there has never been a May 13th that I don’t think of you and wish you Happy Birthday.
You liked Anne Murray and Abba. There was a framed photograph, signed or at least stamped, from President Ronald Reagan on your desk. And there are, at least, five radio patents that are registered in your name.
I wish I had known you better.
I never built that case for my medals. But I do still like dinosaurs. But not as much as I like you. I wish you were here. Happy Birthday.
-The “not even a grain of sand” quote is paraphrased from one I read years and years ago in a biography of Coco Chanel. It was written by Axel Marsden. (Whoever wrote or said it, I like it.) I’d have to re-read that book to be certain. And I just don’t feel so fashionable right now.
10 March 2013: Bright Dry Things
It was a cold, gray day in Indianapolis, a day of putty-colored sky against putty-colored road accompanied by putty-colored drizzle and a cold, damp, unforgiving wind. Four-lane road, busy at rush hour with no visibility because it’s all just one dun-colored world.
And there they were, the busy road and they, The Sweatpants, on the sidewalk wearing non-descript, invisible coats. If it weren’t for the sweatpants, the pair of them would have been camouflaged, completely unseen in the shared non-color of their coats and the sky and the rain. But she wore brilliantly hot-pink sweatpants and an air cast. He wore sweatpants that were somewhere between cobalt and bluebird. The Sweatpants were seen. In the rain. On a busy road. Hugging one another for dear life and for reasons I couldn’t possibly imagine.
They were nowhere near a bus stop. The sidewalk, frankly, led to nowhere. I don’t know where they could have been going or how they were going to get there. But there was some kind of story there. In 35 degrees Fahrenheit of cold and wet misery, on a four-lane road backed up with short-tempered commuters in dirty, spotted cars, the Sweatpants hung on to one another, unsheltered but anchored, the only bright, dry things on a wet and sullen road.