Here in New York Mr. Godwin was getting ready to go to APEX to study automotive stuff. Meanwhile, as he waited for school to start, he came to Bryant Park, signed up for ping pong and played all night for hours.
There was lots of running and dashing and jumping and slamming.
No indeed. There was not much of anything. Except a lot of bad, bad, bad people taking a break from crime, a lot of drugs, a lot of selling of drugs, and in the middle of this dangerous neighborhood, the deserted walking path between 40th where the office was and 42nd Street where an old bar served Happy Hour from 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. and had little hotdogs and other cute things to eat for dinner..
And at 4 p.m., especially on Thursdays and Fridays, all of us - all the young girls and every single one of the old broads, including Mary who was easily 60 or 70 - all of us would make a wild dash from one side of Bryant Park to the other. For someone almost not quite five feet tall and about three feet wide, Mary ran fast.
There was no table, no ball, no paddles between our running from one spot to another.
And there was no Mr. Godwin, shyly beaming as he described how he worked hard to be an O.K. ping pong player.
This piece first posted in 2008, while Florence was declining, I was in touch with the woman she had been in love with, involved with and in war with since they were teenagers.
Today the highest court of our country has recognized gay marriage as a right, making gay marriage, well, just marriage marriage.
As I have in the past, I wonder what my mom and her lover's life would have been like if only the world had loved their love as they had. And knowing Florence more and more as I enter the ages she began to set herself free, I wonder if, in fact, she would have even gotten married. How wonderful to think that if she had been alive and well today she could say "I do" or "I don't" just like everyone else.
THE LIONESSES RULE THE PRIDE
Florence walking in the Gay Pride March
All the other gay seniors rode.
In the convertible, on the bus, in wheelchairs.
But not Florence.
She was in her 60s. She had waited her entire life to walk down a street as who she really was. And she wasn't going to give up that walk for anybody or anything.
Whether it is 4 a.m. or midnight, leaving home is never terrifying when you know you get to come back.
Home is the place where all the roommates are gone and all the ripped
off clothes have been flung against every single wall and it's a
hurricane outside and you're laughing so hard and the beat-up furniture
that had been left behind in 1980 has never looked so beautiful and your
1950s bathroom so bright and cute because suddenly someone you like is
happy to be lounging around with you.
Home the place you run to when your heart is so broken the cab driver keeps throwing you tissues.
Home is the place where, after you wake up to in the middle of the night, uncertain and worried, you pray in until your heart calms down and hope returns.
Home is where your parents and your friends' parents, all raised in
brutal poverty, got to go to school for free and then college for free
and become the artists and thinkers and musicians that made the
neighborhood exciting which made all the other artists and thinkers and
musicians move here because home was a place you could afford the rent
as you went out into the world to create amazing things.
Home is where you never go to sleep and when you look up at the clock it is 3 a.m. but you lost track of time because you got deliciously lost writing a story about what it was like to grow up in New York City, riding the train by yourself when you were seven or rolling sanitation truck tires down Columbia Street. And you look outside the window and there's a riot going on so you go downstairs to check it out.
Home is the watertowers and the smokestacks. Not trees.
Home is the city you grew up in, doing normal things like performing bluegrass in the subways and theater on the streets and demonstrating against wars and nuclear bombs and homophobic assholes and you could do it here because your parents and their parents and all the neighbors, everyone all made sure that's what you could do at home.
Home to millions of New Yorkers is the place they were born in, defying all the rules and getting to the point fast, and that's why in the movies when you want a character to be different than Barbie and Ken you give them a New York accent.
Home to millions of New Yorkers is the place they immigrated to with nothing in their pockets except their individuality and their dreams and goals and they got to make this city amazing because they could afford the rent.
And that's the reason New York is the center of the Universe.
Because it's home. Not to an expensive apartment or loft or luxury building with two entrances depending on your income, but a land where everyone is welcomed to the table. Including the people who, because they had affordable rents and could do all these amazing things, made it an amazing home for everyone.
After all, isn't that why everyone keeps moving here? Because of all those interesting people? Doing amazing things?
After all, if all those people weren't here, what would New York be?
I don't know what it would be but I can tell you what it wouldn't be. It wouldn't be New York.
Amy put out a call to all of us who contributed to Shades of Blue: writers on depression, suicide and feeling blue (Fall 2015, Seal Press) asking us to write something about writing our particular 'shades of blue'.
It meant remembering a life that now feels as far away as Mars.
And that was just it. Writing “Nothing Helps, Except…” brought me back to the decades I spent living on Mars – a barren landscape, barely hospitable that occasionally promised me that life existed there. It took decades of heart-breaking-open work to heal and then transform my assumption that life was and always would be so bleak.
As I recovered my soul, remembering how it FELT to live like that became a distant memory, not a daily reality. And, quite frankly, it was nice to forget how waking up to morning was often like crashing through glass at 90 miles an hour. (While I was drafting “Nothing Helps…” I found in one diary of that time my describing one morning as “I woke up screaming ‘I’m tired of waking up backwards’.”)
On top of stepping back into those long-ago emotional layers, it was daunting to fit a complex and repetitive journey into 3,000 words or less. Many false starts, lots of Buddhist practice, more false starts, even more Buddhist practice. Nothing helped.
Then one day, I visited with someone I loved very much who lives on the other side of the world and practices a much different religion. We were talking about the anthology, when without thinking I blurted out, “Planning my suicide was the only thing that kept me going. For years."
And that’s when I saw how I had traveled out that brokenness and returned to who I had always been. The rewriting of the piece still took tons of prayer but once I got through the sadness of how I had lived for so long, I began asking fellow writers, some who barely knew me, to give feedback. I appreciate their courage and honesty that helped me make the piece even stronger, for I can’t imagine it an easy thing to read how someone lived with such self-hate for so long.
An unexpected benefit came out of all this. That pain is no longer a memory I held at a distance, but a cherished and respected one. I wake up every day so happy – happy that I don’t live on Mars; I live on Earth and there’s life here. Yet, because I reopened those old days, I now also see where that shadow still seeps into my hopes and dreams.
Writing that piece and writing this has strengthened my muscles of gratitude and prayer and each day I take a bigger step back from the ledge and back into my birthright.
That meant shoving said beast into a huge plastic box, which has a handle on it to give the illusion a human being could actually pick the box up while there was an animal in it. No, you cannot.
I get that one's arms are too short to box with God. Mine are also definitely too short to carry this plastic box. So, getting to the corner of the street headed west to shaving-it-all-off-land looked like a scene out of Benny Hill, only not as funny and dangerous to anyone within a 2-foot radius.
Holding the box, jumping out of the way of marauding cars turning right at 90 miles an hour, and watching a sea of yellow cabs whoosh by already filled with paying customers, my heart and my arms sank.
Until this bright, shiny, new, van-like taxi flashed lights at me from all the way on the other side of the avenue and then somehow, without crashing into anything, cut across four lanes of traffic to pull up to the corner.
Mr. Emmanuel A. from Ghana.
Usually, taxicab drivers just want to know if their back seat is going to be the same after you leave.
And it was no different stepping into the chariot of Mr. Emmanuel, who immediately wanted to know all about a now VERY unhappy feline banging about against plastic walls. And also if I could direct him to where I was going as he had only been on the job for a month.
Mr. Emmanuel loved being in New York! He loved driving a taxi in New York! He loved living in New York! He loved the United States Government because at least when there was corruption here you could do something about it!
In Ghana? Mr. Emmanuel just rolled his eyes and then told short horror stories of bribes and injustice.
But back to more wonderful and happy things to talk about! He loved animals! Because back in Ghana he had been a farmer with a degree from the university in animal husbandry. And yes one day he would like to practice that here, maybe even in New York.
Was there anything he missed, I asked.
Leaving his animals, he told me. Including his 22 ducks.
Goggla aka Laura Goggin aka Goggla always took the best pictures of the East Village, our neighbors, beloved bars, the sky and sometimes it seemed even the wind.
Then some red-tailed hawks moved into the neighborhood. Christo and Dora. And Goggla turned her camera on them.
This past Saturday night, up five or six flights of old marble stairs - because sometimes you gotta climb up high to see birds - in a building still overlooked by developers, in an apartment where the bathtub in the kitchen transformed into a bar, in a home lived in for 40 years by the same person, Goggla's photos of Christo and Dora covered the wall and amazed our eyes.
"I'm trying to find an attitude that fits all fears," she had told him.
A woman, like Florence, who had traveled the five corners of New York and a good deal of the world, Dana now traveled between rooms of her apartment. No matter her delight at soup brought to her or company kept, she wanted different. "I"m becoming a vegetable from sitting around all the time. I want to become meat again."
But not on the main avenues and thruways...there were just way too many tourists pouring over the the city, slowing down for the good weather or stopping suddenly for the map that always seemed to be upside when I would peek over their shoulder.
So we walked with other tired and rushed New Yorkers in the know, weaving along back streets and odd walkways. For a brief moment it was as if it was a sleepy day in an almost empty city.
Tillie needed to get food before heading back to the western part of downtown.
Forty years ago, there was no place to shop for food because no one lived there except industrial sites and diners. Now there was no place to shop for food because everything was exorbitantly overpriced, often in triplicate because most of the people living in the former industrial sites were billionaires.
"I have to repack my bags," Tillie said and we stopped in one of the small side streets that also doubled as a parking lot and was once named after a police commissioner now in jail.
That movie, Fame didn't come out of someone's wild imagination. It was a real school and a real place and yes there was dancing during lunchtime but not in the street and certainly not on top of taxis. Those guys needed to make a living.
In the street there was pot-smoking, hanging, walking and, according to some rumors, the pouring of bubble soap into the expensive public fountain that heralded the prestigious theater across the street.
This Saturday night was the 40th reunion of the class of 1975 - one of the classes that partly inspired that movie. Lots of picture-taking and memories shared, and maybe some secret regret none of us knew enough to enjoy those days more then. (Well, Youth is wasted on the young.)
But, like Joni Mitchell said about memories being like tattoos, the faces, the joy, the embraces, the LOUD ENERGY (as the young waitress remarked) were the same.
photo: A. Skylar
Surrounded by a city of constant challenges, we traveled on subways, buses and ferries from the five corners of the city to Performing Arts. It was there we had safety and respite and a home to become ourselves. We were barely not children, but practicing our disciplines like adults - picking up the instrument, the ballet shoes, the script every day and working at it like professionals.
photo: A. Skylar
And there was so much less time for bullshit because there was only so much time for art before we got back on the subways, the buses, the ferries to return to the five corners of the city. And the next day we'd do it all over again.
photo: M. Andreano
With special love to Yeudi who survived with me, the cute violinist I still adore, and the pretty oboe player who I'm delightfully back in touch with.
And in memory of the Prodigy who recently died too young, too soon, from cancer.
Originally posted November 28, 2010:
Stairs in the former High School of Performing Arts
on 46th Street
My withdrawal to the back staircase during lunch hour had nothing to do with any sense of integrity or autonomy. It was a full body retreat. I just gave up trying to fit in with the kids who seemed to have figured out how to be human.
So I sat by myself and to this day I wondered what I was eating for lunch since I don't remember anyone at home making any more food during those days.
Not sure how it started but the cute violinist came across me one day and asked if he could join me. He too needed a break from attempting to fit into a scene completely foreign to him.
Soon after, the accordion player who was the only one in the school found us. I think the cute violinist had said something.
The 13 year old Prodigy sent to New York by himself, living in a walk-up railroad on the east side by himself, taking care of himself by himself, began to eat with us.
Then so did the pretty oboe player, who the Prodigy liked.
I had without realizing made some friends. ** Related Posts:
MY PRIVATE CONEY presents IT WAS HER NEW YORK, the short stories that accompany the work-in-progress video and photo collection of the same name (myprivateconey.com - media link - IT WAS HER NEW YORK). The stories and the media explore the tender rubble that holds both my mother, Florence's and New York's soul as one disappears into old age and the other into gentrification. All are real observations and/or experiences with very little tall-tale telling.
Except when it makes the story better.
Please visit myprivateconey.com for additional information and sample works.