Thursday, March 12, 2015

Trickle Down

I saw this at a burger joint, today, and realized I hadn't seen a pay toilet since 1973. The reason I remember it was 1973 is that the whole business of pay toilets was my formal introduction to the idea of feminism as an organized movement that people took part in.

Ma was home with the new baby (who was born in 1973) and my dad was taking me and my older sister to Wurtsboro, NY, where he was to photograph the artwork of an 85 year old woman who chiseled these amazing figurative sculptures out of marble and stone. We didn't own a car, so we were taking the Greyhound Bus upstate, and getting picked up by friends who would drive us the rest of the way. NYC's Port Authority was and still is a miserable place. Toilets on a bus, however, are possibly the MOST miserable places. Dad told me and Lisa to head over to the "girls' bathroom" and try to take care of any business before we boarded the bus.

I was 6, Lisa was 8.



As we headed to the women's bathroom, Dad headed to the men's room. What Lisa and I found was a long queue of women. In those days, many women's toilet stalls were coin-operated. One needed to put a dime in a slot to unlock the stall door. Lisa and I knew this because, whenever Ma encountered a coin-op toilet stall, she would pay the dime and all three of us would share one stall. On this day, at Port Authority, a huge group of women decided to protest the pay toilet system (which ONLY applied to women, with men using free-standing urinals without stalls) by limiting use to one stall. Evidently, the first woman to have used that stall on that morning, held the door open for the next woman when she was done. That second woman did the same, and so on...until every woman who stepped into the bathroom and saw all the empty stalls, with a few women waiting to use the one stall without paying, decided they would do the same. In no time at all, the only stall being used was the one that had been paid for that morning, and held open by woman after woman. Of course, the line became very long.

When Lisa and I got there and saw the long line of women, we didn't know what to do. Dad had given us a dime. One of the women on the line explained to us what was happening, and said she thought we should get in line and do the same, and save our dime. That's what we did. It was, as you can imagine, a long wait. But it was sort of nice, the way a woman would come out of the stall and hold the door open for the next woman. I didn't have the language for it then but, in retrospect, I have to say there was a buzz moving through that queue. Good mojo.

Eventually, it was our turn to go into the stall, which was a good thing, because Lisa and I both needed to pee. We both peed, and then we left, making sure to hold the door open for the next woman.

When we went to find Dad, he looked a little annoyed. He asked what had taken so long, and we explained it to him. He listened, and stopped looking annoyed and said something like, "Oh, yeah...you ran into women's libbers." I'd never heard that term before and asked him what that meant. Dad looked as if the question confused him. He didn't say anything for a few seconds. Then he said, "It means it's not fair that some people have to pay to take a pee, and some people don't."

A short time later, pay toilets were done away with in NYC.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Pressed Up

Something about the way the sun was shining, and how the shoes were laid out. Maybe, too, it was the earthy fabric of the vest, draped over that one mannequin. The well-worn suitcases. The acetate lamp shades. Even the oiled canvas awning. All of it looked like you. It pulled at my heart. Quickly, before the light changed, I snapped a picture, thinking that this was as if I were snapping your portrait. If you were a shop window, you would look like this. Nobody else looks like this.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

2014: The Year in Review

You know the drill. My picks, random categories.

Winner of the "Political activism and kick-ass bravery are hot" award: Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokno. More than just a pretty face, but such a pretty face, all the same.



Winner of the "It's only important if it happens to white people" award: EBOLA. It's been around for ages, without making a ripple in the American consciousness. A white guy caught it and not only did it make global news, but they cured him.

Winner of the "Where's Waldo" award: Malaysia Airline's Flight 370. Too soon?

Winner of the "Drought's over" award: Toni Morrison, for announcing a new novel is forthcoming. Praise be!

Winner of the "Sorry, drought's NOT over" award: The state of California, where not even two weeks of downpour, complete with flooding, power outages, sink holes, and mudslides could end the drought.

Winner of the "Who knew watching a teen-aged boy die in a disgusting way could be so delicious?" award: Joffrey. Boy did he have this coming.  Joffrey died and everyone in the world cheered.




Winner of the "Who says sequels are always a letdown?" award: Mockingjay. Each of the Hunger Games movies is better than the one before. Mockingjay Part 1 kicked ass. The only thing that sucks? We have to wait until next year for the final installment.



Winner of "Same-sex marriage is soooo 1825" award: Charity and Sylvia. If you think you have it tough being a lesbian in 2014, this true story is downright humbling.



Winner of the "How the fuck did I miss this?" award: Skeleton Twins. You probably didn't see it. Almost no one did. You really should. Wiig and Hader are pretty terrific in this brother/sister love story. Not like that, silly!




Winner of the "Dammit, and Victoria Jackson is STILL alive???" award:  The late, great, insanely talented Jan Hooks. Damn. Bye, Jan. You were really fucking great.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Casualty



I was a preschool teacher for many years. The classrooms in which I worked always had dress-up areas. Pre-schoolers love putting on outfits and pretending to be different types of people: moms, firemen, bakers, police officers, teachers. Dress-up is for four-year-olds. So is playing at toy soldiers. How many of our young men and women - and young men and women of other cultures - have lost their lives because of men such as this one, and their penchant for playing dress-up and toy soldiers from behind the safety of a mahogany desk? 

I am not a fan of the military, as a whole. I don't understand why, when so much blood was shed in the effort to eradicate slavery in this country, any individual would willingly sign up to become the property of the government. On the other hand, I thank God such people exist because, truth be told, most people who enlist do so because they want to make the world a better place. I respect that. We all should.  Men in positions of power donning these uniforms as if they were costumes, and treating war and military service as if they were bits of play-acting is disgraceful.

Play time is over.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Fine Balance

I have an eight-year-old friend who had a big, cuddly, white cat named Jasper. A little over a month ago, Jasper's family made the difficult decision to have him euthanized. He wasn't well. He was sick, in pain, losing weight. He'd stopped purring. He looked sad. It was clear that Jasper was dying, that it wasn't pleasant for him, and that helping him along was the right thing. For Z - my eight-year-old friend - losing Jasper is her first heartbreak. She asked me, the other day, how I coped with the loss of my mother. She was hoping I could give her some clue as to how to mend her broken, little heart. I believe any question a kid asks is worth answering honestly, whenever possible. I told Z that the sadness of missing Jasper will probably never go away, but that she would get more and more used to it. I told her that she would never forget Jasper, and always love him, but that a time would come when remembering him would be more about remembering how great he was, than about how sad it was to be without him. I told her that being as sad as she is makes sense, because Jasper was a really important part of her life and that, because he's gone, her life is different, now - different forever.

What I didn't tell Z was that this heartbreak is only the first in what will be many losses, that life is all about loss and that the losses only become more frequent as we get older. She doesn't know that recently, when I was transferring my contacts from my old phone to my new one I was shocked to find so many people in my world - or at least in my address book - are no longer alive. Should I have told her that I still have the last two messages my mother left on my voicemail? Or that I don't have the heart to remove my favorite cousin's name and number from my address book? Should I have told her that as recently as last week I saw something that made me laugh and started to pick up the phone to call my friend, Heidi, who has been dead for over a year, now? I wonder if she'd understand how sad I am that the plan I had, with my old schoolmate, Joseph, to meet for a shot of bourbon when I finally get to Alaska, will never come to pass because Joseph died a few months ago?

It seems to me that we start out in life with a set of scales that are weighed down on one side by the people we have around us. As time passes, and these people leave - move or switch schools or divorce us or die - they jump onto the other side of the scales, weighing that side down a little more. Most of the time, I pay these scales no mind. For this reason, it's shocking to me to look over and notice that the two sides of the scales are closer than ever.

I'll probably never get rid of those voicemails or my cousin's phone number. Audaciously funny things will always make me think of Heidi and wish she were around to laugh at them with me. One day, when I finally get to Alaska, I'm having that shot of bourbon, and toasting to Joseph and a life well lived. I don't even like bourbon. I don't like cats, either, but I'll never forget Jasper.

  

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Cosa Nostra



This morning I woke up with a sharp pain between my shoulder blades.

It felt - still feels - as if a long, jagged knife had been stuck into the middle of my back while I slept.
It felt - still feels - as if the handle of that knife at some point snapped off, leaving the sharp blade inside of me.
It felt - still feels - as if that blade cuts a little deeper with each move I make.

Let me be clear: There is no heavy lifting going on, no jumping jacks. What I mean to say is that, when I inhale, the expansion of my chest to let air into my lungs causes the constant pain to become sharper, clearer, more intense. It hurts to breathe. Other things that hurt include:

Lying on my side
Lying on my back
Lying on my stomach
Sitting up
Standing up
Putting two slices of bread in the toaster

You get the idea.

I love mafia movies. Invariably in these movies, there's some WASPy, rookie cop who asks what "cosa nostra" means, to which the older, seasoned detective always answers, "It's what the Italians call the mafia...it means "our thing.""

Words and phrases lose a lot in translation. "Cosa nostra" shouldn't be translated in such flat terms. The phrase is charged with emotion - love, even. It's not "our thing." It should be something more like, "this thing of ours" or "this thing we share."

The pain of crumbling bones is not one of the things I thought I'd end up sharing with my mother. It's certainly not a thing I ever hoped to share with her, or that she ever would have hoped to share with me. But here it is. This thing of ours. This thing we share.

When I wake up on a morning such this one, and feel that knife in my back, I can't help but imagine my mother: 22 years old, pregnant, suffering from asthma so severe the doctor worries she might die in the same way her sister died - gasping for breath. He has her come in every morning for a shot of steroidal drugs. Drugs that keep the asthma at bay and allow her to breathe, and her baby to grow. Drugs that also, over time, turn her bones into brittle pieces of chalk. I imagine this as I roll out of bed. And, as that rolling movement makes the pain between my shoulder blades sharper, clearer, and more intense, I imagine being that baby who was not yet born when those life-saving, bone-crushing drugs started flowing through our shared blood stream.

This thing of ours. This thing we share.

When I put it in these terms, it's so much easier to bear.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Law #116

San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1944

It's necessary, they said.
You'll sleep right through it and you won't feel a thing, they said.
We know what's best, they said
It's for your own good, they said.

A boardroom on the U.S. Mainland 

It's necessary, they said.
These women are simple, they said.
They don't know what's best for them, they said.
It's for their own good, they said.
There are already too many of them, they said.

San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1944

I'm not sick, she said.
But, you're a doctor, she said.
You must know what I need, she said.
I trust you, she said.

She slept through it, just as they said she would, but it did hurt. The next day it hurt. And for many days after. It hurt more and for a longer time than giving birth to her son had hurt. And it left a scar. And she stopped bleeding every month. She was 34, and she'd stopped bleeding. But, then, so did the other women she knew: her sister, her cousins. They'd all stopped bleeding. She, at least, had her son.

A Gynecologist's Office, New York City, 1963

When did you have a hysterectomy? the gynecologist asked.
I don't know what that is, she said.
You have no uterus, the gynecologist said.
I don't know what that is, she said. 
When did you stop having periods? the gynecologist asked.
After la operacion, she said.
Who performed the operation? the gynecologist asked.
The American doctor, she said. 
Why did the American doctor do this? the gynecologist asked.
Because, she said.
Because? the gynecologist asked.
Because it was for my own good, she said.



Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Go home, Taylor Swift: I'm walkin' here!

Growing up in NYC in the 70s and 80s meant being told to be careful.

"Be careful of Bryant Park - the junkies all hang out there."
"Be careful to hold on tight, if you ride between subway cars."
"Be careful around Times Square - that place is bad news."
"Be careful not to stand near the edge of the platform."
"Be careful with that wallet in your back pocket."
"Be careful who you buy a hot dog from - that guy with the cart on 9th street picks his nose."



We were careful about so many things. We were afraid of almost nothing. The Boogey Man didn't have shit on muggers, rapists, subway rats, roaches, Coney Island on a hot, summer day, the East River looking more solid than liquid or all of Alphabet City. We were the kids who grew up reading about Son of Sam in The New York Post, every day, and following his exploits the way kids in Kansas followed The Hardy Boys. Son of Fucking Sam captured our attention, but he didn't keep people off the streets. Because no white boy with almond-shaped eyes and Dirty Harry's gun was going to shut down the most ass-kicking, hardcore, take-no-shit city the world has ever known.

We were careful, but we were never scared.

I'm not a kid, anymore, though, and what I see in New York scares me. I'm scared of a SOHO that looks like Mall of America. I'm scared of a Starbucks and Jamba Juice on every corner, and of my beloved bodegas disappearing. I'm scared of Pier 46, and the Ikea Ferry, and of Red Hook no longer having any edge. I'm scared of hipsters with ironic beards taking over Williamsburg and Greenpoint. I'm scared of Greek diners in Astoria closing down, the clerk at a Brooklyn deli not having any idea what Manhattan Special is, and of the scarcity of cuchifrito. I'm scared of a plate of fried plantains costing 8 bucks at a vegan restaurant.

I'm scared of the Disneyfication of Times Square.

MY New York isn't Mickey Mouse, dammit. My New York is Daffy fucking Duck, Miguel Pinero, Ratso Rizzo, Patti Smith, Roger Grimsby, Bella Abzug, Walt Frazier. My New York was that crazy, androgynous woman displaying the meatgrinder cover from Hustler magazine, and terrorizing passers by with her loud, aggressive orders to "SIGN THE PETITION!"  Even that crazy bitch is gone. Who would have guessed I'd end up missing her?

I bet David Berkowitz is scared shitless of gluten-free vegan pizza.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Air and Light



This morning, when I left for work, the year's first bit of autumnal splendor greeted me like an old friend. Not the changing of the leaves - SF doesn't get much of that. It was the air and light. Do you remember the air and light of changing seasons, when you were a child, and the way those changes were like living things? For me, this time of year...the time of brisk air and shorter days, of overcast skies wrestling for dominance over sunlight....this time of year is like an old playmate come back for another round of hide-and-seek. The air and light remind me of new school supplies, sharpened pencils, the sound of a rubber ball bouncing on the asphalt, afternoons spent at the library, and the crunching of leaves under my feet as I'd cut through Prospect Park to walk home. And also Halloween, with candy corn - always so much nicer to look at than to actually eat. The thing about autumn - the air and light - it's over in the blink of an eye. Like everything.



Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Sucking Teeth

"Here, kiddo -  this is for you, since you're always writing something or the other," she said, handing me a leather loose leaf binder, which closed securely with a zipper, and had a little corner where a monogram could be added. There were two of them. Mine was dark brown. The other was blue.


"Who's the other one for?" I asked.


"Your nephew."


Steven was all of four years old.


"What the hell is he going to do with a thing like that, Ma? He can't even read or write, yet."


My mother did that thing she did - that thing people from the Caribbean do, where they suck their teeth, and silently ask themselves, “Why am I wasting my time with someone who just doesn’t get it?”


"Time goes by quickly," she said, "before you know it, Steven will be in school and then, in the blink of an eye, he'll be in fifth or sixth grade, and he'll have a use for this, and I'll have it waiting for him. You'll see."


"You mean to tell me you bought these with the intention of giving one to me, and holding on to the other for five or six years, just so you can give it to Steven then?" I asked, mocking her, but with love.


"Laugh at me if you want to. I don't really care. I saw this and I liked it for Steven when he's older, so I bought it. Actually, it’s none of your business." This, too, was said with love. It was like this between us.


She walked away to stow the binder somewhere until Steven was old enough for it. On her way out of the room she said, without looking back, "Time goes by quickly. You'll see, smartass."


I was living overseas, years later, when she called me on the phone to tell me that she'd just given Steven his binder for the start of the sixth grade school year. She sounded pleased with herself. I could tell from the sound of her voice that she was waiting for me to eat crow.


"You're nuts, you know," I said, "But you do always give the best gifts. He loved it, didn't he?"


"Of course he did. You knew damned well he would."


I laughed and had to admit she was right.

That was all a long time ago. Steven is a grown man, now. In less than a week he's getting married to a wonderful young woman. It will be the first time the whole family - what’s left of it -  is together since my mother’s funeral in 2010, where Steven took the podium and spoke so lovingly about his "Gram.” His words -  those of a young man who, for a moment in time sounded like a wounded, heartbroken boy - made me ache, and wish he really were a little boy, again. Just last week he was a newborn baby who fit in the palm of one of my hands. Just a few days ago he learned how to write his name. Just yesterday he was giving one of my mother's eulogies. I keep thinking if she were still here, she'd say it, again: "Time goes by quickly." This time, I'd get it.