"The true New Yorker secretly believes that anyone living anywhere else has got to be, in some sense, kidding."
"But it's the truth even if it didn't happen."
"I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations."
-George Bernard Shaw
The photo show and trips to New Orleans and Italy have kept me distracted. Regular posting shall now resume.
For now, something that never fails to get me going:
BELIEF & TECHNIQUE FOR MODERN PROSE
by Jack Kerouac
1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
4. Be in love with yr life
5. Something that you feel will find its own form
6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
19. Accept loss forever
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
29. You're a Genius all the time
30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven
taken on the ponte vecchio - florence
(the first of the italy shots)
I watched Saturday's storm from the back seat of a livery cab, driving carefully down Harlem streets then on the lake-filled FDR drive. Every other stretch of road on the highway held a deep pool of water we drove slowly through, or slowly at least for a NYC livery cab driver. The Hudson River stretched out to my left, wet and stormy. A small sailboat maneuvered back toward land. Joggers and skaters and bikers gathered under stairway overpasses and covered piers along the pedestrian path. Some ran or biked anyway through the violent rain and I thought about their socks soaked in their sneakers and wondered if their feet might into slide around inside that wetness and make them slip and fall.
Inside the car, my bare feet slid around inside my black sandals and I opened a compact to check the damage. Mascara was smeared under my left eye and my hair was wet and scraggly. The storm began the moment I stepped outside my apartment building. If I had left five minutes earlier I would have missed it entirely, would have made it to the subway station only a block and a half away. Instead, I ended up stranded on an island in the middle of Malcolm X Boulevard, unable to make it the 200 feet to the train. The rain came down sideways from all directions, turning my umbrella inside with a breath and actually pushing me around the island. I don't think I've ever experienced a wind that could actually move me around, at least not in New York, maybe once or twice in New Mexico. I braced myself against the light pole, afraid that I'd be pushed into traffic. My denim skirt was already soaked and being blown around my legs, the slit up the back that I already hated now revealing even more of what I don't ever want seen. I looked across the street to the subway station and knew that if I could only get there - half a minute's walk, really - I'd be safe. Hard, tough, fearless New Yorker done in by a little wind and rain. But I knew I wouldn't make it. The wind was so strong I felt myself gasp for breath. I felt my hand shoot up in the air as I struggled to remember if I had any cash on me. What the fuck - who was I kidding - I needed a car. Many zoomed by me - you're not supposed to stop in the middle of an avenue by an island under the best of circumstances, much less in a violent thunderstorm - but finally one pulled over and I struggled to get to it. He backed up a bit to meet me halfway and I pulled the door open, getting fully drenched in the minute it took to get me, my two bags and my purple umbrella into the back seat.
I was on my way to meet up with Lenore, a writing friend from New Mexico, and her daughter Alison at Yaffa Café, the place I take all out-of-towners for a truly bizarre New York café experience. Zebra wallpaper, red velvet lampshades, sparkly purple tabletops with old newspaper clippings decoupagged onto the surface. It sounds hideous but actually is quite beautiful, impressive in the way every item seems to have been created for the very purpose of sitting beside the item next to it, purple and orange and red and black all melting into one perfect, soothing explosion of tacky elegance.
The rain poured down a little less violently as we exited the highway and crossed Houston Street. He dropped me in front of Yaffa and I popped my umbrella open, descended the stairs into the tiny entrance way. It was packed, which it never is. Must have been the sudden storm. Wall to wall East Village beauties with pierced eyebrows and lips, long flimsy thrift store thrift dresses sticking to still-damp skin.
We retreated instead to Simone, Yaffa's cousin down the block, with its red walls and glass beads hanging in the windows like diamond curtains. Lenore and Alison are both tall and talkative, confident, and seem deeply happy. Alison stared out the window at first while Lenore and I talked and I felt distant from her, far from her age, her mother's friend, not hers. I am now closer in age to the mothers and it pisses me off. But Alison was not a withdrawn teenager. She looked distracted but listened to every word, turning back to us to fill in the spaces of her mother's stories. She talked about her recent trip to Europe with 300 other high school kids and Lenore would reach over to tuck her daughter's hair behind her ear, or just to rub a thick bunch of it into her palm with her thumb, and I thought of my own mother's visit last weekend. I had no idea what to do with her, nothing to say to her. I ran out of quick updates like 'work is fine' or 'I'm going to Italy in the fall' within the first hour and the next 24 stretched out in front of me like an endless, unpaved road. Alison and her mother together told me the story of the Austrian bus driver and the American chaperone on Alison's trip, how they were both in their 30s, both watching each other intently when the other wasn't looking, about the way the bus driver held a cigar in the lobby of a Venetian hotel as he talked to two of the kids about the chaperone: "She ees goot. She ees goot," the kiss he finally managed to give her on the last day of the trip - on the cheek. They both told this story that only Alison had lived and I realized that she had told her mother all these details, shared with her the meat and bones of the trip, and I knew I would never do that with my mother, that I'll probably just tell her that Italy is beautiful, the food is good, I had a great time. I envied them. I cannot break that barrier with my mother.
I left them at one point to go to the bathroom, staring at the shiny black door wondering if they were saying things like, she's nice, isn't she nice? Yes, she's nice.
I came back to the table and Lenore said, we think you are beautiful. And I thought of my still-rain-damp hair and washed away makeup, laughed and waved the compliment away with my hand.
I left them and caught a cab to the West Village for a pedicure, looked out at the hard gray afternoon and wondered about that. I considered whether or not they were right that I'm beautiful, my eternal question to myself. I looked out the window at a girl standing at the corner, waiting as we were for the light to change. She had jet black hair down to the small of her back, a short white skirt comprised of three big ruffles wrapped around her hips, a baby pink halter top with thin straps that tied gently at the back of her neck. A voice in my head told me, no one ever has to tell that girl that she's beautiful. When they do, it is said as a mere statement of fact, not a gift. The voice told me that what they meant was that in spite of *all that*, you are still beautiful, you *would be* so beautiful if only, if only - and the compliment lost its legs.
Twenty minutes later, I sat on a cushioned bench four feet off the ground with my feet in warm soapy water, an elegant, middle aged, dark haired woman rubbing layers of dead skin off my feet and gossiping in Russian. I thought about the news trucks lined up just outside along thin, single-lane Christopher Street. When I had arrived and checked in for my appointment, I asked the stunning counter girl what all that was about. She told me, "The guy who was captured in Iraq? He lives on this block. There are reporters here all the time now."
Jesus. Right here, two doors down from the chi-chi salon where I get my toes painted for 30 dollars. I took a seat to wait for my appointment, staring at the silver colored hair dryers and thick, solid men dressed all in black, folding little pieces of foil into the hair of women talking low on cell phones. I thought about that man exiting his building, right here, on this block, hailing a cab to take him to LaGuardia, a cup of coffee from the Factory Café in his hand as they sped across the Triborough Bridge, on his way to Iraq. And then I thought of that same man in that video, hands and legs tied, surrounded by masked men pointing machine guns at him and talking about cutting his head off. And him kneeling there in front of their camera, reaching his fingers out to touch home, to touch Christopher Street, his fiance two doors down from me, having to imagine where he was, what was happening to him, every second of every day.
I left the salon with my toenails painted pink, went around the corner to Café Rafaella and wrote in my notebook for a long time, until the sun set and street lights came on along Seventh Avenue.
The first dance is in a dim bar on 2nd and 2nd with no dance floor, no customers, no windows, almost no music. Maybe Careless Whisper or another gay dance song since it is a gay bar and that's where Steve works and that's what she loves, how he doesn't care, doesn't even really seem to notice but must on some level because its the only place he wears loose sleeveless tees that hang conveniently away from his body so you can sneak a peek at his torso from the side. Urge is red lit with TVs that no one watches and during the day coffee sits in a clear glass decanter stained brown from hours and years of heating coffee that no one ever drinks. In the middle of the day, new shy fags come in to get a feel for the place, to get the lay of the land, to decide if it might be a place they could handle twelve hours later when it is dark and pulsing with bodies sliding and folding around one another mysteriously in the dark corners and even right in the line of dusty red light. They order a beer, peel off the label slowly and nervously and look around, look at the TV, look at Steve's torso, and she sits at the bar, sleeves of her black cardigan stretched down over her fingers, picking at edges that fray right into her hands, little black threads floating down onto the wet floor.
She twists one leg around the other, because she knows its flattering, even though he can't see her legs from behind the bar. Steve's hair is wavy and clean from leaving home still wet, no smells yet at the bar for his skin to absorb so he still smells like his shower. She wants to press her face into the space between his pecs, between his perfectly pink and round nipples and smell him, smell him before he becomes the bar.
She sips a tequila sunrise at 2 in the afternoon because why the fuck not and because its pretty and pink and Steve fills more than half the glass with tequila and gives her extra cherries. While he fills the ice chest and replaces the empty liquor bottles from last night with hopeful shiny new ones, while he chops up enough limes and lemons and orange wedges to last him a while, he places a shot glass full of olives in front of her, and she'll eat them one by one, pulling the pits from her mouth when he isn't looking and stuffing them into a napkin. She'll lean forward enough so that he'll just see the top of her cleavage and he'll stand in front of her, arms spread wide, leaning on the bar, a small white towel pressed into one hand. She'll wonder why when his hair is too long and too black and his moustache is too bushy and his face is too unshaven, why she has to press her fingers into the countertop to keep them from shaking, to stop them from picking the threads out one by one from the edges of her sleeves. She'll wonder why she likes it so much that the square bar is sunken into the floor just a little, just enough to put her at his eye level when she sits on a stool, and why its so sexy to be able to look him straight in the eyes when he is actually four inches taller than she is. She'll wonder why he is her type because he is suddenly definitely unquestionably disturbingly her type, and she'll wonder if she could possibly make herself into his. She'll try to pinpoint what exactly is so sexy about a straight man who is equal parts amused and unaffected by his job at a nearly-sleazy gay pick up bar, she'll love that he doesn't care if they see him leering at her, that he doesn't care about coming out to them, that he doesn't try to make them believe he's something that he's not so he can get their money. He'll take what they're willing to pay for the privilege of looking at him, while he mixes them drinks with exactly as much alcohol as he thinks they can handle at that moment.
She'll love that outside there is the blinding white summer sunshine and the searing yellow heat of the city in August, but that inside the door there is dark and cold and quiet and the pretty fuzzy feeling her brain gets as she empties her second glass and she'll love the thin voices that ride the pumping wave of the music and she'll bob up and down thoughtfully in her seat, shake her shoulders at him shamelessly and laugh at herself (as will he) and when it is only them and a sixty year old man sipping a clear cocktail that she assumes in a vodka gimlet, she'll love that that song comes on, that slow song that isn't Careless Whisper because that's too easy and obvious but is slow and silly and endearingly earnest in the same way, and she'll love that he'll take her shaky hand and walk to the end of the bar, her on one side, him on the other, until he can press himself to her body and pull her laughing into a slow dance that reminds her of junior high, except that junior high was never a gay bar, none of her boyfriends ever had a moustache, and she has never felt the greedy 12 year old urge to belong to a boy quite as much as she needs to belong to this one.
1. Being in the writing program at the University of Iowa, even if you're only here for a week, is roughly equivalent to being the quarterback of the football team at any other university in America. Even the cute little blond cheerleader at the student union and the lady with eyelids full of blue eye shadow at the front desk of my hotel were agog when I told them why I was here. "The Writers Program? Wow!" If you're a big, dorky writer and you want to be BMOC, this is the place for you.
2. Everyone here? Is really, really, really good. Really.
3. And I absolutely swear this is true: I came thisclose to dedicating that last entry to you, trasker, for all the love you send my way from up yonder in the great white north. The only reason I wrote that last entry was because I knew you'd were reading. We are so BFF4EVA.
This top is too low cut for this hour. It's still light out and I'm walking into a bar with a black silk blouse cut down past my breast bone. The sky is turning orange and the summer air is thick with the distinctive scent of the lower east side - air conditioner fumes, half-smoked cigarettes and dog piss.
It's too obvious. I should have gone with the white tee shirt. It would still show off what I want but wouldn't make me look so desperate. I step in front of the blacked-out windows, which always did provide a good, strong reflection. No, this is good. This will look good inside. All that matters is how I look in there, where he will first see me.
I step quickly into the darkness and dim candlelight of Urge. Nothing has changed. Same big square bar in the middle of the room, same never-used wood paneled dance floor behind it, same dusty rainbow flags hung along the side wall, same old queens sitting together at the corner of the bar with the same beer mugs that have sprouted directly out of their hands. The Met game plays on the two overhead TV screens. If anyone here really cared about baseball, they would be tuned to the Yankees.
And there he is. In the dim red light, Steve is moving back and forth behind the bar. Flesh and blood. Even more overwhelming than the deep, breathy, disembodied voice I hung up on just ten minutes ago, when I called from a pay phone to make sure he was here.
His hair is longer than it was two years ago, and I get a small charge out of the fact that I recognize the tee shirt. Its baby blue with a navy blue collar. I smile because it was always my favorite and take this as an excellent sign.
His back is to me as I scurry toward the far end where there are no customers. I pull the stool out with fingers that I notice are ice cold. I am turned to the side, arranging my blouse and running fingers through my hair, trying to decide what the hell my opening line should be, when I hear the unmistakable sound of a glass being set on the bar right in front of me.
It's a tequila sunrise. Damn.
His smile is unfamiliar. He has had a minute to prepare. I wasn't supposed to be the one caught off guard. Damn. Damn.
"Hey," I say. Brilliant as ever.
Turning toward him, I smile and lift the sweaty glass to my mouth. "Nope."
He looks around at the Met fans in the corner and two other guys sizing each other up from opposite ends of the bar, both trying to decide if its too early to settle.
"I wanted a drink."
"There are three other bars on this block. None of which employ me."
"I'm well aware of that."
As I struggle to maintain unapologetic eye contact with him, I rub my freezing hands together in my lap and realize that in spite of the smirk plastered on his face, he has been drying his hands with a dish towel for almost a full minute.
"How have you been?"
It takes him a moment to respond, and I wonder if the drink he just put in front of me is about to be thrown in my face. But he answers, telling me about his hand, a recent gig at CBGBs that he seems particularly proud of, his beloved niece who is now three, and I listen, really I do, but, see, there's also his face. There was no way I could have prepared myself for being this close to it again. The bushy moustache has reappeared and he hasn't shaven in a day or two. My favorite tee shirt is snug across his chest and he has a couple of new tattoos on his left arm. He looks like a porn star from the 70s. I find this unbearably hot.
"That's great." I smile at him. My mind is a complete blank. I am violently rearranging the ice in my glass with my swizzle stick as he just look at me, calmly, arms folded over his chest. "You woke up late today."
"Yeah. Your hair is all curly. You shouldn't leave home with a wet head."
"Whatever." I smile and for the first time, he returns it. This makes me brave. "I've wanted to get in touch with you for a long time."
"So you thought that you'd hunt me down at my place of business and just show up one Saturday night. Not even a phone call to warn me." A pause. "Or was that you who hung up on me earlier?"
I try to hold his gaze, but I can't. The Met fans call for refills and as he backs up and turns away, I remember the last time I saw him, hailing me a cab at 68th and Broadway on a strangely quiet Sunday night. I had long since decided it was over, and the disappearance of sex and the tapering away of my phone calls hadn't sent him a strong enough message. I was a coward, never told him outright, not even on that last night, and when he tried to kiss me, I opened the taxi door between us, gave him a tight smile and a "good night." The desperation I saw on his face as the driver sped away is the same I see on mine now as I glance at the mirror over the bar.
In the Writing Center, Beth and Lisa talk loudly with their students. Beth is always loud – much, much too loud – and Lisa raises her voice so that her student can hear her over Beth. They are all going over essays, talking about how each paragraph has to have a point, its own little thesis. Same old shit. Beth's student was born and raised in Russia and therefore does not know how to use articles. There are no articles in the Russian language. When native speakers start trying to learn English as adults, it is almost impossible to make them understand when or why to use "the" or "an". They just never get it.
I am sitting at my own table, thumbing through short story collections by Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates. I leave for Iowa tomorrow and have to bring two pages of a scene that I think works well (along with a couple of my own, of course). I will probably fall back on "Ugly", my old standby favorite Oates story ever. Sitting in the middle of Brooklyn in a building on Flatbush Avenue, I find it hard to believe that 24 hours from now, I'll be in Cedar Rapids. I have no idea what the streets will look like, if it’s all really cornfields and general stores like I picture in my mind. I wonder if I'll be the fattest girl there. I wonder if I'll be good enough, if my story will take shape.
Honestly? I’m scared shitless. That I'll be the fat girl in the class, that I won't get a chance to prove I can write. I am scared to be alone on a plane again, to be lonely on a plane going once again to a place where I know no one, don't know what the land looks like or where people eat their dinner. I am afraid because it is completely unknown to me and Iowa is the most prestigious writing program in the world and I might not be good enough. I think of next week and those five days lay ahead of me, gray and lumpy and unknowable. I don’t know how to shape my anticipation into something I recognize. In my mind, the roads in Iowa are wide and dusty like in New Mexico, the hotel is sunny, white and antiseptic like the dorm at Naropa.
In Iowa, class will be in the afternoon. In the morning, there will be a daily shmoozefest over coffee, hours to mill around a vanilla classroom with a paper cup of coffee in my left hand. People in that program are all built to shmooze, says Michael Cunningham, who went there. I imagine their eyes slipping on and off me quickly, moving on to someone who looks more like they belong there, someone worth shmoozing. I have nothing to offer anyone there, no contacts or editors or publishers. I'll just be standing with my coffee cup in hand and this half-written novel that claws its way out of me one agonizing page at a time.
My suitcase sits zipped up and unpacked by the front door. I keep telling myself I don’t have to pack it yet, that I still have time. It is 18 hours until I leave for the airport and I am scared shitless. Last weekend, I had this fantasy in which I decide not to go, chicken out and secretly stay home all week. It was a nice fantasy, but I'd never do that. My hatred of failure will push me out the door and into the airport tomorrow morning. Lots of people might not. I know I have balls. This is one time I wish I didn't. Fear would keep me safe and familiar next week, but instead I'll be in a cold, scratchy hotel room, wondering how the next day will go, wondering if I'll be the best one or even good.
Maybe I'll be absorbed with Violet and inside the mind of my story, and I'll be in the Midwest away from my job and investment banking and this writing center, and I can sit at a faux mahogany hotel desk and let the words pour out of me, talk about Violet and Kathleen walking up Park Avenue or sitting by the Delaware River. There is a certain romance about leaving New York and disappearing into the barren Midwest to write a book. I imagine crafting the story with my bare hands, putting one block on top of another, balancing, building, leaving it for sleep and waking up to find it on my desk as I left it the night before, and stepping right back into it, still asleep, still dreamy. I imagine driving down dusty roads in my compact rental car, stopping to take pictures of I don't know what, but it won't be New York, will be the anti-New York. And I'll be home in a week and then it will be Pride and everything will be back to normal at the Gay Pride parade after a week in the scary city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.