"Each Chinese Lunar New Year is named as follows, consecutively and, then again, in rotation: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. I seem to wear all of these personae or masks throughout the day, on any given day of the year."
Commotion of police sirens and hubbub... . Clambering onto the windowsill and peeping over the window guard at the street below, I watched as ambulance attendants in bloodied white coats carried away on a stretcher the bloated body of a black man, his throat slashed from ear to ear, trailing a thick pool of blood; behind him, his distraught wife, led by officers on either side of her into protective custody and a detective carrying the murder weapon (a carpet cutter). --I'm four years old and living in the Bronx.
Julio, my birth name, is a handle that quickly establishes me as a newcomer to this land of plenty. First generation cubano, born and raised here in NYC. My immigrant family aggressively bought into the American Dream.
One nondescript September morning my father awoke me from my deep childhood slumbers and helped me to dress in my Sunday best; father lent me one of his thinner ties, and taught me how to make a Windsor knot. Suitably debonair and exceedingly gleeful at the prospect of making new friends, led down five flights of stairs and out onto the Manhattan street; Central Park West fragrantly beckoned in the distance, as we walked along the stately short blocks to the rectory of St. Gregory the Great Grade School.
Greeted by waves of children and their guardians, streaming into the building; instead of following the crowd, father firmly held my hand and led me through a side door. A penguin-garbed lady, seated at a plain table with black metal index boxes, greeted us and asked my name. Rifling through these boxes, she again asked father to spell our last name. Again, looking through the file cards ever more earnestly, in consternation, she excused herself and got up abruptly. Within seconds, another similarly garbed, older and more authoritative figure, waddled by the desk and made yet another thorough search of the neatly hand-printed files... . "I'm sorry, sir, but your child's records are not here; are you certain you registered your son to attend class?" "Yes, I registered him here earlier in the year." "And, do you remember with whom you spoke that day?" "Yes, I spoke with you." A slight crimsoning of her bespectacled cheeks betrayed her momentary embarrassment, as she ushered off the novice to tender to another crowd of children and their parents; efficiently snapping open an enrollment form, she proceeded to fill out the questionnaire: "And, the child's name?" "Julio Antonio." "Oh, that won't do. 'Anthony,' now that's a nice name... ."
That day "Julio," the loving little Spanish speaking boy, became "Anthony" (latterly, "Tony"); that afternoon further sealed my fate, when my grandfather, this time, came to walk me home; instead of the bright prodigy and scion of the family name, he found a tattered heap of bloodied disarray on the sidewalk, where the upper classmen had beaten and left me, ostensibly, because I did not speak nor understand a word of English.
Grandfather elected to live with us in NYC during those first three years of grammar school; he taught me how to write longhand and count, accompanied me to school, brought me home at lunchtime, returned me to school and picked me up at 3 o'clock when school let out. My constant companion took me on trips through Central Park to fly the kites he made for me by hand; we'd stay up late some nights to catch mice with special mousetraps he constructed. He wrote poems in Spanish in the Petrarchean sonnet form, keeping these hidden away in wooden cigar boxes, along with his collection of special Bacardi pourers that had the bat logo and long spouts with a glass ball and reddish rubber stopper, also the kite string, rolled up on a twig he'd whittled smooth for this purpose, so that it would roll along easily in my hands and not snag, and a dog-eared and weather-beaten Spanish/English dictionary.
Curious and enthusiastic about everything around him, he had a great unquenchable thirst for knowledge and understanding. As a cigar maker in Cuba, he had an impressive knowledge of world literature because of the tradition of having a designated person read to the factory workers from the classics while they rolled cigars, and he practiced his English on the sly with the super of the building where we lived, the local policemen and shop keepers (despite Jose Marti's, his favorite Cuban poet's invectives, comparing spoken English to the barking of dogs).
Grandfather was very sought after as a genial conversationalist and bon vivant (my father too developed along these lines, and so have I). But, I'm afraid that, just as a xerox copy of a xerox copy loses some definition and crispness in the copying, my talents are like nothing compared to that of my forebears.
I learned to be resourceful, to get what I wanted; father used the same trick a second time to get me into the local Catholic school, when we relocated to Jackson Heights, Queens in 1958. The exchange between the school reps and my thickly accented father went down as pre-rehearsed, a flawless performance... and, why not? After all, he had written the script; we were playing ourselves, only this time I joined him in the ruse as his 10 year old crony, my credentials (grades and deportment, speech and ability to spin the yarn) impeccably above board, having just completed a two year stint at a semi-military catholic academy in upstate New York.
Introduced to Portnoy's complaint (and Rousseau's guilty pleasure), by a cousin that summer; in very graphic words indeed, he outlined for me the requisite manual dexterity required to achieve a self-induced orgasm. The drunken bees buzzed busily about the wild rose bush blossoms, through the drowsy air heavily laden with musky scent, there, in the backyard of our house, under the clearest of skies, he revealed the connection, the final piece to the sexual puzzle I had somehow (on my own, as an only child) missed. Oh, I'd had my share of playing at doctors and nurses with other boys and girls, achieving involuntary erections, while duly fondling, poking, sniffing and generally inspecting the others. But, penetration and lubrication and the in-and-out mechanics of the oral and genital thing, seemed abhorrent! Nice people didn't do such things! Yet, that night, alone, in bed, with myself, ah!, the stirrings and the giddy rush finally gave up its liquescent reason for being.
I remember a pretty, red-haired and freckled boy in grammar school, who every time I sat near him in class, proceeded to reach into his pants and tear off a handful of red pubes to toss at me, like petals off a flower, a love token of his unbridled lust. Others in class made these herky-jerky motions in the air directed at me; I guess wearing my mother's underwear beneath my blue serge pants may have sent them a subliminal message too irresistible ..., too distracting, in such a hotbed of pubescence; beginning with 4th grade on until my senior year of high school, attended an all male class.
Around age 11, my father suspected I wasn't developing properly. Several indications, perhaps the most salient among these, the stunt I pulled in 5th grade: I hated military school and, in the second year there, in the school production of Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Mikado," cast as a geisha in the chorus. After the performance, while everyone else hurriedly wiped off their make-up and changed into their regular clothing, I remained in full drag and ran out to greet my parents in the most effusively effeminate manner I could muster.
My father had me withdrawn from school soon afterwards.
Though I had achieved my goal, rushed off to see a child specialist, who proceeded to put me through a painful series of monkey gland injections; don't know whether the seemingly huge syringes contained actual extractions from monkeys or human males (probably prisoners, I cannot imagine any other segment of the general male population of the 1950s other than an institutional or perhaps a military source for these sperm donations; testosterone, synthesized later in the 60s, I believe); be that as it may, the treatment yielded successful physical results. Seemingly overnight, the beaming boy, who used to dance atop the kitchen table unashamedly in the nude to entertain my father and grandfather, transformed into a hairy ape of an embarassed teenager!
"Hey, look at this!" Steve ran out from under the over pass, waving a black ragged object overhead, the stiff corpse of a black cat he'd found and held up by the tail. He stopped to place the dead thing on the rail (we had grown tired of flattening pennies by this same method earlier) and jumped away in time to watch the oncoming train sever the cat in two.
"Wow!," gushed Bobby, as he poked at the pieces with a stick, while Charlie and I kept our distance.
Not to be outdone, I recklessly picked up a broken half of brick and hurled it with all my might at the next passing train.
Time froze, while I watched (my greatest expectation had been no more than to strike a glancing blow at the lower side of the train). Then, suddenly, spectral hands appeared, guiding the hurtling rock toward its destination, crashing through a window precisely at the mid-section of a passenger car... .
Murder and mayhem kept pace with the generally deranged state of the nation throughout the ghastly 60s; the Cuban Missile crisis, the assassinations, sexual liberation, alcohol and drug abuse, the ever widening chasm between the generations, all contributed. And, the monotony of newscasters reading off casualty lists every night on tv, like the scores of a grisly football match and as antiseptic as a weather report, made the War in Vietnam much more harrowing. Pills prescribed for every and any ailment and anxiety; the tupor of generalized anaesthesia, mistaken for nirvana.
And, then, shortly after graduation, my parents separated; blame infidelity and the ever rising distrust and lack of communication or perhaps the boredom of routine lives mis-matched yet held together for the sake of the child (now on the brink of adulthood). We had lost our house earlier on due to some infidelity on the part of one of my uncles with another in law; all four families lived in the same house, everyone related either by blood or through marriage. The family business went under.
Fresh out of high school, left home (on amicable terms with my parents) to try it on my own for awhile; moved in with a school chum who lived in a walk-up pad off of St. Mark's Place in the East Village, near the then infamous Fillmore East and The Electric Circus. I didn't mind the five story walk-up, the old lion paw footed tub in the kitchen nor the shared bathroom outside in the hallway, all new and too cool and divine! Got a job as a busboy at Serendipity, the trendy ice cream parlor near Bloomingdale's; set up and cleared tables for about $100 a night in tips; one of my first purchases, a second-hand blue peacoat with big blue enamel lettering on brass "Volunteers of America" buttons, blue and white swirl bell bottom pants, granny glasses and a Cossack shirt and Fry boots.
King Kong and Fay Wray at Radio City Music Hall (overheard talk at the time of tearing the theater down to make room for a parking lot); on the lower level, a kind of flea market had been set up inside the theatre and I remember buying from an elderly couple these two scarves: one, a gentleman's scarf, satiny red, white and blue silk with gold anchors throughout and gold fringe at the ends, and the other, a very sheer fauvist influenced hand-painted ladies' scarf (which I wanted to give my Chinese girlfriend); they could have belonged to Astaire and Rogers, typically deco and in excellent condition! I wore this huge brown heavy, thick flannel British Great Coat (regulation kind, issued to the British Troops during WWI or II) I purchased at a surplus store for all of $8 and looked absolutely smashing, with the scarf round my neck and a pair of aviator sunglasses.
Tore apart the appointed extra room in this flat: emptied it out of all the garbage accumulated there, got down on my knees and scrubbed the red painted wood floor clean, beat the mattress, painted the walls and installed a bamboo shade over the single large window and a frosted, crackled glass dome over the bulb in the ceiling hanging from a wicker shade, hung a single empty gold frame askew on a nail as the only other decorative element on one of three walls; filled the bathtub with hot water and took a soak in a bubble bath; changed into my pajamas and went to bed. No door to the room, and the "real" hippies invited to crash over and smoke hash by my friend fell into hysterics at the sight of me in pj's as they cavorted around the pad in the nude.
Only lasted a month before whimpering out and returning home, but the experience did offer me some insights into adult independence and responsibility. Also, I fancied myself a poet a la Rimbaud and ran around the Village wearing a brown wool cape with a huge brass chain and medallion of Medusa serving as a clasp and holding the cape at my neck, allowing the flaring sides to flap wildy, as I walked along the street. Everyone was eccentric then, so I don't believe I stood out much from the "hip" crowd. Someone else always seemed to have longer hair or a fuller beard and mustache or cooler threads or a more insouciant and nonchalant cultivated manner; I dabbled with the lingo, the look, the drugs, but not the sex. At least, not yet.
"Care for a cookie?" asked of every passerby along Christopher Street, offering them a macadamia nut cookie and an enticing smile. Joints were a buck apiece, but rarely did I have to pay the dealers, who accosted all and sundry with "GRASS...ACID...HASH"; listing delightful sounding names as "Panama Red," "Acapulco Gold," "Maui Wowie," "Golden Sunshine," "Windowpane," "White Lightening"... from bongs to blow, tried 'em all, at least once. "You want to put WHAT? ... , where?!," (I don't think so). Watched as a transvestite hopped out of a john's car, adjusting her raincoat and suddenly running after the careening car, shouting: "My Pants! My Pants!" A tall rugged man (like the Brawny towel logo mountain man) strolled into a gay bar one afternoon wearing shorts; he stood there flexing his muscles and flashing a terrific smile; after a full 15 minutes of posing, flexing and grinning, peeved there were no on-takers, he suddenly dropped his shorts and ran out the bar, streaking down Christopher Street.
He's still around; saw him recently, wearing a cowboy hat and boots and not much else, save red spandex bikini underwear at Father Duffy Square, by the TDF theatre tickets line in the dead of winter (either at the end of January or beginning of February of 2004). Two blond youths trotted off like prancing unicorns, laughing over their shoulders at a crazed black man chasing them; then he spied me and side-winded like a snake, gesturing in the air like a balinese dancer; like a mouse, I was entranced and stood still, watching as he crept closer and yet closer ... until he lunged and clawed my face, knocking my aviator sunglasses to the ground. A taxi driver chased him away and drove me off to St. Vincent's... gratis! [These little acts of random kindness make life all right in New York.]
At an exhibition of works on paper by Cocteau at Brentano's one afternoon, especially attracted by one piece, two friends drawn with one continuous, contiguous line, proceeded to copy it in the inner flap of the book I was carrying (reading Tolstoy, either "War & Peace" or "Anna Karenina," a sizable volume); the woman clerk became alarmed when she spied the resultant drawing, paying me an inverse compliment by stating: "Please don't copy any other drawing; it must be illegal to do that!" A Rock Star had paid the sum of $10,000 for that exquisite drawing, and the ease and skill with which I had copied it might elicit questions of authenticity from her customer.(?)
Still have one poem from this period:
"Fallen leaf: paper boat, drifting
o'er an undulating mirror, tracing a zephyr dream;
limp balloon tear dangling from howling crimson branches,
neural trees crackling against cerebral skies,
the icicle slivered pitch night
captured in grey crystal eyes."
Reminds me of my then favorite huge painting "Hide & Seek," by Pavel Tchelitchew, which has fallen into disfavor of late and has been kept in deep storage by The Museum of Modern Art.
Met Andy Warhol; loved his artwork, though NOT impressed by the person nor his hangers-on. My heart bled for Jim Morrison, whom I caught draped over a table, alone, covered in vomit, at a café off MacDougal Street. But, all in all, I really wasn't ever into the groupie mentality; I wanted to develop in my own way, on my own terms. Though very much a love child, I still preserved within me the grounded sense that all of these outer happenings were just so much frou frou and would all go the way of the dinosaurs in time; I honestly believed there were still true values to champion and uphold, but my mistake (I think) is I stayed too long at the party and did not have the grace to leave before my welcome expired... .
"Bitter Sweet Almond Apple," my girlfriend at that time, bought tickets to Woodstock and wanted me to hitch a ride upstate for the festival; but, I passed up that invitation. Don't like crowds, and I don't like wallowing in mud, free love, loud music and speed freaks! Not then, and certainly not now. (I've only been to one early outdoor concert, Joni Mitchell's at Central Park in the late '60s.)
That I had somehow survived as a technical virgin (if such a tag can be levied at a sexually inexperienced male), not because of any professed virtuous stance but because the brutes at school made my daily life a living hell with their constant teasing and bullying, still is for me today a bit of a sore spot. I hung out with other similarly inexperienced school chums who shared no more than the mutual experience of a repressed and surcharged "educational" setting, run by a repressed and super-charged religious cult; ah, the days before sex education!
Father never really explained anything to me. In grammar, an "enlightened" priest attempted to give us a pep talk regarding the facts of life; he suggested we write down our questions on a piece of paper, anonymously fold and drop these into a box passed around the classroom. Reaching into the box and randomly selecting the first question: "What is a condom?," his bald pate turned beet red; he cleared his throat, grabbed the box and walked out the room. Much the same nonsense occurred in high school; even the Biology instructor never really got down to the nitty gritty; sex remained a covert subject, eliciting sneers and spoken of in violent monosyllabic thrusts, disguised under indecipherable dissection maps and charts of the human anatomy. The official message - every single sperm and egg cell is holy; matrimony, a holy state of sexual release for the sake of procreation. Any variation from this theme, a sin punishable by eternal damnation in Hell.
Physically a SUPERMAN yet emotionally a mere babe in the woods, I came out the year of the Stonewall riots, in 1969. I remember it took me at least three separate weekend visits to get the nerve up to walk into the Old Danny's bar on Christopher Street in the West Village, through the back door, to be sure. A Norwegian sailor introduced me to the gay life; more than his willing partner, a bit too eager perhaps for his taste, he dumped me the next day, when I confided he had been my first lover. [In first grade, at my very first Halloween costume party, one of the parents announced the winning costume as "SUPERBOY"; wearing my official superman costume, I quickly walked to the podium, standing behind another blond boy, wearing a similar costume and accepting the award. The embarrassed judges and announcer quickly found some gift to give me as well, and then a third winner showed up in the guise of a black boy, also dressed as SUPERMAN.]
Paul and George "adopted" me; they lived together on Christopher Street. George loved the finer things [he came from old money with connections to the City Ballet and owned a rare replica of the statue of Liberty, which had been cast by the French designer with an Italianate name "Bartolomeo(?)," an early model of the design we now know]; Paul, his then free lovin' ball of fire from San Francisco,(a chicano hippie with an assumed name), morphed into my closest friend. They shared their small but hip digs (studio cum cook-in closet) with two lesbian siamese kittens. We tooled around together in George's MW (I sat in the bumper seat) on a heady tour through gay society, writers, artists, whores and saints, all along the eastern shoreline.
I followed a gypsy moth of a beau I had met through Paul to Haight Ashbury in San Francisco for a roller coaster ride of a year. Back again in New York, I helplessly watched my mother lose all her savings (and my college money)in yet another failed business venture.
To celebrate my 24th birthday, my father took me on a week long holiday: 2 nights in New Orleans, 3 nights in Dallas and 1 night in San Francisco... a lark, the result of a winning lottery number; financially, we three (as a family unit) never raised our heads again beyond a modicum of gentility.
Two comical sketches in print: my seven year stint at The Port of Authority at 42nd Street/Times Square working for the Greyhound over the bicentennial celebration, yielded a depiction of a frog prince with the golden key to the city in his mouth; later on, about the time the stock market warmed up for its brilliant rise in the late 70's, this beaming disco child, depicted as bringing home instead a chunk of coal to his beleaguered parents. A beach bumb at Miami for about four months, I entered the 80s with a flash of tan and a new attitude, lean and mean, a hungry sex-machine!
In the Bronx of my childhood, where neighbors lived passionate and private lives, secure behind doors locked with no more than a hook and an eye, the lovely little girl next door, with long blonde hair and immaculately dressed in stiff pinafore, practiced daily at her piano; even at such an early age, she played with skill and entranced by her perseverance and quiet yet assured beauty and the music [Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major ("Elvira Madigan") K. 467], always wanting to share my daydreams with her, forever to safekeep her as mine alone, I kept my respectful yet adoring distance; like the way I loved my father's sister, Orchid, the then spinster aunt, my surrogate second mother, at whose vanity, overladen with lipsticks and perfumes and nail polishes and scented powders and hair balms and lotions,I would play for hours before the round mirror, painting my own face into the coquette of my dreams.
The orange-red scream that erupted from my aunt's lips on a Manhattan winter's day, as she stood atop the gray steps to the apartment building where we all lived, ten immigrants seeking a new land to call their own, caught turning back to watch unfold every parent's nightmarish scene of childhood folly, echoed by the sound of the old 37 black Packard screeching to a halt inches from my tiny form, running to fetch a ball out unto the street, extends into my very breathing space today... .
Brother MAC, the principal of my all boys high school, forbade me to take part in prom night because of some disciplinary infraction, cutting of classes and walking away from detention, a general surly refusal on my part to automatically vest any authority in anybody older than myself; blamed the older generations for everything wrong with the world. From being a straight A student on the Dean's list every semester, my grades plummeted along with my class standing that final semester; I received a passing grade in Calculus and flunked Physics, which I repeated during the summer on a college level, walking away with a "B+" for my efforts.
As planned, the white limo had been hired, the reservations had been made at the various supper clubs, the tickets to the prom and my graduation ring had been purchased, an eggshell colored Nehru suit had been tailor fitted and cut to my form, a floral corsage of creamy yellow roses for my escort had been ordered and paid for... . I broke the news to Marci that the principal himself had barred me from the school dance but, if she too felt rebellious enough, we could still go as Bonnie & Clyde and, worst case scenario, if asked to leave, we could ride off in the limo to the various nightclubs. Nothing at all interfered with our prom night; after the dance, out on the town, everything went off as planned: after dinner and dance at the Park Plaza, we took a horse drawn carriage ride around Central Park; later still, the limo drove us out to the beach, where we made out under the moonlight.
Anti-War Protest at Veteran's Day Parade along 5th Avenue: my school friend and I constructed a make-shift Peace Symbol out of plastic straws a Hot Dog vendor let us have; an impromptu poetic subject for the photo hounds, we held aloft the sign to the drunk and bellicose marchers, the very fragile symbol of Peace blasted to pieces by the winds of War, ripped from our hands by surly vets who pushed us away with a slap to the back of our heads into the hands of nearby stationed cops, ordering us to go home and not come back.
My greatest childhood fear, being abandoned (left alone among strangers): both my parents had to work, and they would entrust me to strangers (at least, they did that first time, to this puertorican woman who lived in the neighborhood). I remember feeling so sad; ever afterwards father spoke of the shocking sight of finding my little body all covered up and set in state under the watchful eyes (blank stare) of a large plaster statue of the virgin ablaze by candlelight and the woman babysitter veiled in black, kneeling alongside the bed and praying her rosary; I had actually willed myself into a non-responsive catatonic state. My father rushed me to the hospital, where they administered some "alcohol laden" medicine that had me bouncing in my crib in no time. I have an entire life behind me to select from and build upon and approach the canvas with a seemingly random splash of color or a scrawling line ...trusting I will thus find my way into the painting (which is always there but must be brought to light).
At Summer camp, relief from the sultry heat of midday could best be obtained by going swimming. A large wood plank platform buoyed by large empty metal drums violently pitched in the middle of the swimming hole; a new acquaintance, squatting curiously to examine my bare feet, scrutinizing my webbed center toes, snapped upright with a scream and jumped off the edge into the water in horror; though a hand-painted sign posted warned swimmers NOT to swim under the platform, many an intrepid underwater tadpole did just that, in order to save themselves a few seconds to reach the metal ladder to get back up onto the platform, to push someone else off the top and dive or belly flop gleefully again into the delightfully cold water. I darted under the turbulently careening platform and, as I came up for air at the other end, one of the huge metal drums banged into my skull, knocking me to the bottom of the pond, semi-conscious yet breathlessly threading upward towards the light to catch a gulp of air. It took me some time to drag my limp body onto the platform, where I immediately collapsed into paroxysms of involuntary contractions. [Another boy broke the news to me: Marilyn Monroe had died that same day in Los Angeles.]
An otherwise uneventful day at school, suddenly interrupted by a crackling announcement over the loudspeaker: "President Kennedy is dead, the victim of an assassin's bullet, in Dallas, Texas." My sweet, lovely teacher, Sister Angela, set her head down upon the desk and cried.
Bill arrived at camp at the very end of summer; as fast friends, we would sneak out before dawn to wander through the nearby cornfields (eating sweet corn fresh off the stalk and still warm under the starlit canopy of night) and slide down the precipitous sand dunes to the pebble-strewn beach and shoreline below; returning exhausted, we pretended to be asleep as the counselor in charge made his morning inspections of the crew by shining a flashlight at each one of us in our bunks. When it came time for our parents to separate us and take each of us home, Bill embarrassed me by turning fire engine red, every freckle on his wailing face screaming "Don't take my Tony away; please don't take my Tony away!" Many, many years later, we met again in a disco; twenty years further on, and we're still partners for life.
Never truly interested much in sports, preferring the rich life of the imagination I found in books to the sweat and grime of physical activities, this penchant did not prevent me from trying out for the grammar school intramural baseball team (caught a line drive popped by one of the parents to centerfield with my left eye and landed in hospital for a week and almost lost the vision in my eye) and the basketball team. I even ran track for awhile in high school, earning a bronze medal as part of a four man relay team (at least, I didn't quit and got to hand off my baton to my team mate, without puking my guts out afterwards at the side of the track).
Returning from playing with my friends after school one early evening, I entered the empty apartment and helped myself to a glass of milk; the light in the refrigerator flickering, I looked about me and saw the ceiling light as well, yellowing and dimming; I threw my coat on again and walked quickly through the hallway, noticing the lights also dimming there. I proceeded to take the long walk up Junction Boulevard, past the elevated subway, which strangely wasn't running; an eerie twilight and silence filled the usually bustling thoroughfare, the street lights emitted a peculiarly yellow dim flickering light. I arrived at my parents' grocery store; in the darkness, business proceeded as usual, if a tad too briskly and by candlelight, many, many melting candle forms gave off a peculiar light; we had fallen into a time warp and jumped back into an earlier century.
Mom and Dad expressed relief to see me; unable to reach me by telephone, they planned to send out a posse to look for me. Besides, Dad could use the extra help now, as he went off to find ice at the local Ice King in Corona. Ice, batteries and candles, at a premium that evening, as we all gathered round the transistor battery operated radio, convinced the Russian invasion had landed. [During the Bay of Pigs incident a couple of years before, people found themselves building shelters in their backyards and basements and stockpiling canned goods, dry goods and water or forming long lines around the churches to make their peace with god at confession, convinced the bomb would fall at any moment and the world would groan to an end.]
The second time the lights went out ... . My mother, my aunt and my cousin (a teenager armed with a baseball bat) drove into town, ostensibly to rescue me, finding me instead enjoying a Heineken beer at the entranceway to the Port of Authority in the company of some fellow employees; I thanked them for coming but told them I intended to finish my shift and stay over at a friend's (Age of Aquarius, afterall). Later that night, I walked down Fifth Avenue in pitch black to Washington Square, heading for a local bar in the West Village, settling into a romantically candle lit evening there.
The third time ... . At home, conversing with a friend, again the dimmed refrigerator and ceiling light and the stopped fan magically brought us back to a deja vu state of alertness and paranoia; the 911 incident and our military involvement in Iraq and the Al Quaeda terrorist threats still fresh to our collective memory: candles, water, ice and the handy old 1959 model transistor radio and flashlights, quickly brought out of storage; stoically, perhaps more at prosaically, continued our conversation as I went from room to room, unplugging all the major appliances from their sockets, anticipating the surge of electricity that would inevitably come at the tail-end of this recurring crisis.
Sauntering into the Monkey Bar at The Hotel Elysee one evening to meet a friend flying in from Copenhagen, sporting a fresh tan and beaming with a virtual alphabet of naturally induced vitamins over my designer black turtleneck, tweed jacket and timberland boots, my enthusiasm (shall we say) waived away the de rigeur tie restriction, as I segued up to take a seat at the bar near two lovely ladies and proceeded to entertain them with my conversation about having gotten off a flight from Miami, where I had been pursued by Irene, the hurricane, who in turn had been pursued by Julio, another hurricane, etc.
My friend walked in and found me totally engrossed in conversation; I introduced him to every body and, since they all had been alerted from the maitre'd to the bartender to the other guests seated around me of his coming, my friend, treated to a thoroughly uplifting and agreeable welcome from all and sundry. We moved off to a table to exchange more salubrious salutations, then, made our polite retreat to the hotel lobby, where the desk clerk regaled us with reminiscences of Tallulah Bankhead's pranks during her long sojurn at the hotel as a resident and infamous guest, after all it had been she (in spirit) who originally brought us together; we both have web sites dedicated to her memory on the internet. Not yet feeling hungry enough to step into the dining room, we canceled our dinner reservations and elected instead to take a taxi drive down to Soho. Entering Balthazar's, The Metro Café on Spring Street, and quickly seated at our booth, we proceeded to order oysters on the half shell, a carafe of red wine and two bowls of French Onion soup.
The two young ladies at the next table seemed so enticing I casually requested the wine list from one, as a means to strike up a conversation with the very image of a young and beautiful Tallulah! (I would love to write a biographical screenplay someday; someone like a worldly and sophisticated Paris Hilton could be cast in the role, but I would give it to Drew Barrymore at the drop of a hat, if and when she decides to stretch out of her present "cutesy" image.) My friend offered me a $50,000 a year job as an Office Manager for his internet concern in Copenhagen, but I regret I could not accept the offer. He dropped me off in the West Village later on that night on the cab ride to his hotel.
My ideal job would have been as one of Tallulah's caddies; but, regrettably, I'm too young to have met her in life. She did, in fact, select me, three or four years after her death though, while crossing Times Square, saying a rosary for the dearly departed entertainers who had earlier brightened all our lives; a sudden whisk of colors, like the tail-lights of a passing taxicab, alerted me to something inexplicable suddenly happening to me, standing there at the crossroads of the world, waiting to cross. And, as suddenly, someone whom I had never heard of before: Tallulah Bankhead, that iconoclastic and controversial actress, that I could not have known (because of my insular catholic upbringing), suddenly invaded my space. I knew her at that moment more intimately than if I had slept with her. My life has never been the same.
At Sotheby's, the endless parties! Every week brought a new opening reception, for yet another preview of a very special auction event. Much grander than my experiences at Phillip's Auction house earlier on, though not as cozy. The prima donna specialists there were more aggressive and back-biting, not sweet and gentle like the Brits I'd worked for earlier, an enchanting group, warm and caring. Though, of course, I had my reservations about their class-structured manner, a dyed-in-the-wool, built in condescension that irked me at times and ran against my sense of self.
My forefathers came to AMERICA in 1829, seeking their fortune like every other immigrant from Europe to the New World; though they did not settle then in Manhattan (this took another 120+ years), they are as American to the core as anyone who settled in the New World, all north, south and central of it; after all, the entire Western Hemisphere is named after the same little old Italian map maker, Americus Vespucci! And, none of them has ever been "in service" nor consider themselves servants; we have performed menial jobs, yes, yet preserve within us a sense of being free agents, not indentured servants or slaves.
Somewhat chafing for me to suddenly find myself expected to serve these people their tea and having to clean up after them, because they'd left the pot on the burner overnight and wiping up spillage and washing dirty cups and saucers and dishes and silverware and throwing out rotten half-eaten food and the like. I did it to maintain a sanitary work place; but, it irked me nonetheless. And, they knew it irked me but went ahead absentmindedly or deliberately, ignoring the brewing tempest in a teapot they were provoking in me until, one day, I walked away.
What I did not understand is that these "little services" expected of me, came with the territory, the finer print not included in the job description; at Sotheby's, for instance, it didn't matter I had no life outside of work, working seven days a week, putting in extra overtime trying to keep two bosses happy, the one that had hired me in the first place and the one that reassigned me to another department. Stretched tautly between them like a rubber band, I'd be asked to serve tea and coffee, and so-and-so would rather have a Coke or Pepsi, prefers diet to regular, cherry, vanilla or original formula, decaf and Earl Grey, and bring me a little cup of tuna salad. When I'd arrive with it all and dispensed it to all and sundry, then, the tuna salad would taste too salty; please return it and exchange it for chicken salad. I would take the container and stand outside the office for ten minutes, then return again with the same container, watch them again taste the same salad and hear them comment: "Oh, that's much better!" And, dismiss me with an imperious wave of their hand. I walked away from this unhealthy situation as well.
Got called in for a final interview; the job, mine (a done deal), BUT "we expect you'll be flexible and consider it as part of your duties to serve lunch, tea and coffee to our guests during various meetings... ." I walked out, leaving them with their mouths open in mid-sentence.
And, be of good cheer, for nothing in life lasts forever ... though it may seem otherwise at times.
The first astronaut... the moon walk... up to that point, telecast in black and white, but the space shuttle disasters, those later images came to us in living color; I never understood until now why the two blacks I worked with laughed as they saw the space shuttle disintegrate with all those brave pioneers onboard... . Why is it that the best of our species must be sacrificed for the rest of us? There is no escape, no pill, no quick and ready solution to the ingrained disparities in society, the unfairness and inequalities. Now, we are reaching ever further to Mars and beyond; perhaps the battles between the sexes and the different hybrids of man will right themselves one day. I hope and pray this comes to pass.
My beloved father's death... (followed by my aunt's death) and, in between, the 911 incident and my new sense of life under siege (hey, ever any different?), brings me to this now of dazzling, warm sunshine, a new spring day for a very old planet, spinning, forever unraveling, this unfolding story. And, I haven't a clue (about what tomorrow may bring); "Que sera, sera... " and "How much is that doggie in the window?," my favorite childhood tunes; Howdy Doody and The Mickey Mouse club, my favorite tv programs; endless hours spent watching those black and white cat and mouse cartoons, Leave it to Beaver, Lucy, Donna Reed, Father Knows Best, My Little Margie, all those early tv broadcasts must be reaching the other side of the galaxy; I wonder if anyone is receiving these transmission signals?
And, what about this note in a bottle?, cast off into the ocean of off-and-on-again data bits that compose the internet. Is there anyone out there?
Is anyone listening?