Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The greatest wealth is health. Virgil


I had forgotten how much I missed ‘shouty.’ The real kind of individual, educated and well informed shouty, and not just the protest chants sung in unison at organized demonstrations. Sure, that’s terrific and there isn’t even enough of that these days, but nothing beats an informed voice—or fifty or more— hollering to a politician and basically saying, “You just listen to me for once!”

There was such a protest in front of Carolyn Maloney’s office on Third Avenue and 93rd Street this afternoon. She’s my Democratic representative in the U.S. House of Representatives. Ms. Maloney made only a brief and apologetic appearance, explaining to the protesters that she’d had to be in Washington D.C. for a vote and, in fact, there was a car waiting to whisk her away to the airport. Her assistant appeared without a coat and in the brisk winter sunshine valiantly tried to answer everyone’s very shouty complaints.

I grew up without health insurance. We were a family who lived marginally in a housing project in Astoria, Queens. My father was a self-employed antiques restorer, which meant his income, when it materialized at all, was erratic. His clientele, such as they were, came from the very wealthy avenues in Manhattan and his services, though valuable when a beloved heirloom needed repair, were not often amply rewarded and just as often he was the last person on a long list of creditors to be paid. A rabid Conservative, he was just as cowed by the rich as he was bitter about government. To be on welfare was a disgrace and made you one of ‘them.’ Well, we were ‘them.’ We may have been, as residents of Astoria, considered part of the so-called Silk Stocking District then (I’m not sure where the boundaries lay at that time), just as I am now, being a long time inhabitant of the upper East Side, but we knew who wore the silk stockings and who didn’t.

Our health care needs were seen to only in dire emergencies. Then, when the fever was too high or we were covered in spots, our family doctor would make a house call. It cost money my parents didn’t often have but a doctor’s fee never broke the bank in those days. Visits to the dentist were not regular and I recall only a couple of years when my sister and I saw a dentist with any consistency at all. Nothing sophisticated about his practice, our young teeth were drilled mercilessly, and I came away with a mouth full of mercury and absolutely no real education concerning healthy teeth. It would be many years later that I would find out I had a serious genetic condition that should have been seen to when I was a child.

I married into a wealthy family—the ones who gloried in that ‘Silk Stocking’ appellation—who lived on Park Avenue. While their son’s health care needs were seen to mine were not even discussed. Divorced, I remained an adult without health insurance because my employers did not provide even basic coverage, never mind paid sick days.

I did the best I could on my own and had a few scares that were mitigated by angelic doctors who found a way. One, who I adored and who saw me through a crucial time eventually left the medical profession, undone by it all. In fact, until my early forties when I remarried and The Mister got a job that provided health insurance, I was pretty much winging it. But even now we struggle with inadequate dental insurance, and shudder at the expense of new eyeglasses which are not covered. There is no complimentary medicine that is valued among the medical profession covered under our plan and when I walk into a doctor’s office the first thing he’ll tell me is that at my age I should be on whatever drugs it is that people of ‘my age’ are on. When I saw a dermatologist for what turned out to be a painful case of shingles, her assistant was blatantly shocked that I had not listed even one medication that I took regularly and stopped short of accusing me of not being entirely truthful. A GP I once saw pooh-poohed my resistance to prescription drugs and assured me I would be happier on whatever cholesterol medication she was shilling even though my cholesterol was normal. “You’ll need it eventually, so why not get started,” she sagely advised. When she pretty much sneered at my vegetarian diet and admitted she’d not heard of soy milk I bade her good day and never looked back. I can break a leg though and if it doesn’t mean a starring role on stage for me, at least it means the bones will be repaired and covered by The Mister’s very basic health insurance.

Most of the protesters this afternoon were my age, some years older. And they were pissed! “Call them what they are at this point! Unconcerned. That’s what they are. They are un-American!” “Let them go”, another shouted. “They aren’t even listening to us.” One woman, clearly disgusted suggested in a loud, uncompromising manner that our president should, “…grow a pair!”

That smarmy turncoat Joe Lieberman would have gotten his comeuppance from voters who are damned well fed up with the likes of him. When Maloney’s assistant patiently advised that we might wait and see what Obama’s State of the Union would deliver regarding the issues, I’m afraid the President didn’t fare too well either. “Bring back Howard Dean,” they chanted. “Get rid of Rahm Emanuel!” Music to my ears.

The recently reported dictate by insurance providers that hospitals would have to notify them within the first 24 hours of a patient’s admission or the patient would lose up to 50% of their benefit caused outrage among the protestors. They loudly demanded a public option while a few of the older folks interjected and reminded the crowd that it started out as a campaign promise from Obama—that he would fight for single payer. “That died a pretty quick death.” “Let them filibuster!” another shouted. One woman proposed rather meekly, “I gotta say we should get what we can at this point and then incrementally a bit more at a time.” But she was roundly shot down. Why pay for insurance execs salaries? Why pay for the advertising those companies are already bombarding us with. “Single payer. Single payer,” repeated one man and another a few years younger who had been pressing for the public option agreed he was right. A middle-aged man, perhaps in his fifties, said he worried dreadfully for the Democrats.

But my favorite activist of the day was a white-haired man in an old-fashioned peak cap reminiscent of the men in my father’s time. When one of the organizers of the protest tried gently to shepherd him behind the barriers—that lovely New Age area called a Freedom of Speech zone—he snarled and said, “I don’t like the word ‘barriers’.”

Thursday, January 21, 2010

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”—Muriel Rukeyser


Okay so I never would have bothered watching The Golden Globes if it weren’t for the gleeful irreverence I have come to expect from Ricky Gervais. I like to see the pointy bit of snark puncture the inflated, self-generating praise at these award ceremonies. I doubt that we’ll ever see the likes of a Native American woman accept an award as she did for Marlon Brando’s role in The Godfather and excoriate the Hollywood community, at his behest, for their racist portrayal of her people. No simpering squaw she.

There surely wasn’t a sign of that at the Golden Globes among the ribbon-wearing glitterati—even with Ricky’s barbs—in that room full of entitled celebrities who can single handedly turn back time. I mean did anyone catch Cher up on stage? Still, Gervais was chewed up and spit out by critics the next day. Nothing of his ‘schtick’ made them laugh—not the gleeful reference in a crowd of tight smiles to cosmetic surgery (duh), exorbitantly expensive, confidentiality-demanding celebrity divorce (duh), celebrity adoptions (duh), and the hysterically funny introduction to a now not-so-closeted anti-Semite—“I like a drink as much as the next man…unless the next man is Mel Gibson”—tickled those critics (double-duh!). It’s what the Brits delightfully call ‘taking the mickey.’ Married as I am to one of their kind I have been at the mercy of that sport, but when I have tried, in vain, to invoke it myself, well, woe betide to the American who tries that in a roomful of Brits. It’s a distinctly British phenomenon and better left to the well-practiced experts.

This year I actually got to see a few fine films and a few that were crap. Being able to afford a movie is relatively new again, so, “Yay” for the senior discount. The Mister, more than a decade from that dubious milestone, stands aside at the ticket window and, full-bearded, is automatically allowed the discounted price of admission. Who knows where we will be in ten years so get it while we can say I. Inglourious Basterds, A Serious Man, Precious, The White Ribbon, Moon, District 9; all were deeply satisfying film experiences for this moviegoer. Some were hysterically funny, others imaginative on a small budget, politically challenging for our time and deeply moving if not strongly disturbing. What they all had in common was uncommonly good story telling. Other films like Sunshine Cleaning, Crazy Heart and the mostly hauntingly beautiful film, Before Tomorrow, were not entirely brilliant works of art or strong directorial achievements or even significantly great performances but they had more than their share of good moments. Kate and Anna McGarrigle scored the music for the Innuit film, Before Tomorrow, and it is especially poignant in light of the sad passing of Kate McGarrigle. But small as these films are, they gave us a couple of hours of pleasurable escape with—I’ll say it again—good story telling; gentle reminders that not every film has to be great and if I don’t find myself repeating my social security number in my head or thinking about what needs to be done at home or did I leave the oven on, or what hellish kitten chaos will greet me when I return, that’s a plus. Other films I saw, like Up In the Air which pretended to be comedy about people losing their jobs and suicide was only meant to get the preppy head of the firm to rethink his strategy for firing employees; Pirate Radio manipulated (re: watered down) history and which I can’t begin to dislike enough despite brilliant turns by Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson; and the even more forgettable, which I can’t remember, were crap.

It was a pleasure to see Mo’Nique glowingly accept her award for an outstanding performance in Precious that must have been brutally hard for her to elicit such soul-searing pain and still create a real human being. The rest of the awards? Not so much. I had not seen most of the films and the television entries escaped my notice for the most part. Medical shows like Grey’s Anatomy are just soaps with blood and gore. I can’t watch House because I have seen too many hysterically funny episodes of Black Adder and Jeeves and Wooster to be able to bear Hugh Laurie’s dour, pill-popping, American persona. I do like Nurse Jackie's dour pill-popping American personality though.

But even before the awards night talk of Avatar had already shifted argument into high gear that sometimes very nearly approached verbal knock down drag out proportions. Basically I would have been happy to ignore yet another over-the-top animated spectacle. 3D glasses that oik up the price of admission are no draw either. As well, James Cameron is a director I avoid, actually run from. The Mister and I were fairly rigid with boredom during the epic-long screening of Titanic and finally bolted over the knees of the audience irritated from their rapture as we made our way to the exit, not really caring how many more times Jack would call shuddering from the freezing ocean: “Rose! Rose!”

It started with me curious as to why certain friends whom I consider to be enlightened ended up raving about it. I read an article condemning it for being a “White Savior” movie and passed that along. Indignation ensued and I was told in no uncertain terms how wrong, how pathetically far reaching the author, an African American woman, was in her misguided criticism of the film. Following the earlier threads on facebook among people I do know, some I hardly know, and some of whom I have never met and now can call “friends” I sensed dissention in the ranks. Some loved it, some didn’t. Those with children had another take, which usually meant, “What can I do? There are so few good kids’ films about?” A few, from abroad, threw in the ‘American schmaltz’ complaint. Some reported it was the best thing they’ve seen since Star Wars. Others claimed it bored them to death or it gave them a migraine.

I decided to see for myself and headed to Times Square for a ridiculously early showing of the film at a humongous theater on 42nd Street. Ten o’clock in the morning is the time I am usually on the running track at the reservoir in Central Park or if I have had a late night of it, fast asleep under warm kittens that have finally given up trying to tell me when to rise. But the film had already left other theaters around town presumably—in the spirit of the current vampire-y trend—having drawn the last bit of viewers’ blood, and swollen with a take of over a billion dollars would now focus corporate’s insatiable appetite for revenue by re-inventing itself as a DVD with all the requisite extras to further pad the coffers. An unexpected perk was the relatively low admission price of six dollars for any showing before noon. I had my choice of seats, being only one of half a dozen viewers in the cavernous theater. A couple of older men made their way up into the rarified air and I overhead one of them say as he forged past me slightly out of breath: “Look at the size of this. We gotta go higher. The screen is still big.”

I lifted the armrests beside me and settled in for the duration. First I had to sit through half a dozen previews of what looked like the same film. It certainly sounded like the same soundtrack: A Carl Orff chorale extravaganza assaulted my hearing again, and again, and then again. Blood and gore splashed across the screen from one preview to the next until the characters and the over wrought special effects became indistinguishable from each other. I get it: Gary Oldman is evil. Denzel Washington is good. Russell Crowe is, well, Russell Crowe. Titans will clash and Robin Hood will forever be remembered as Gladiator II. None of these films will be on my “must see” list anyway. But I was more than a trifle irked by the preview for some hate-spewing rhetoric by those old reliable liars Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly. Both men are off-putting enough but leering back at me from a huge screen with nostrils the size of moon craters they were positively frightening—and before noon no less. Then there was that patriotic team of propagandists, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, with yet another stirring drama about what war really, really is like. Tucked right in there among all these previews was an ad for some arm of the military and this really, really infuriated me. It was shot like a Wagnerian opera on steroids with—you guessed it—that Orff chorale hammering away at the viewer. The tag line? “A Hero Will Rise.” Because we know what war is like—really, really like—don’t we?

But I was talking about Avatar, the film that won the two highest awards at the Golden Globes of best director and best film and might as well have stuck a gun in Quentin Tarrantino’s back and growled, “You wuz robbed!” From the beginning, like a dog sensing dangerous territory ahead, my (imaginary, yes) hackles were raised. After the opening shot of the Marines being dropped onto the planet Pandora (subtle, not) and the one black actor to fill the screen, the entire cast—apart from one young Asian woman and a male scientist who might have been Indian or Pakistani—was white, white, white—the human cast that is—until one chubby black man suddenly appears with no discernible purpose among the white scientists near the end of the film.

Black actors delivered voices of the main characters of the Na’vi. The gentle natives were all blue, of course. The features of these exquisitely built and incredibly strong inhabitants of Pandora were not those of a thin-lipped, weak-chinned white scientist who had no compunction at all about prodding her Asian assistant to “Chop, chop” to her demands. When that same anthropologist is somehow allowed into their midst, the Na’vi women gather around her cooing stupidly about how pretty she is. Right. One would have thought the director might have gone to a little more trouble in finding an actor who really was prettier than this gorgeous race of females. And a people so evolved as the Na’vi, with their long, deeply rooted history of communing with and respecting Nature can easily be understood, even conquered by a seemingly under educated, white Marine, self-described as a ‘jar head’ in just a few months. Right, again. It’s an old rehashed story that should be put to sleep once and for all. But Cameron seems not to have any compunction about stealing bits from other old, rehashed stories like Kevin Costner’s epic failure, Dancing With Wolves. Resorting to stealing an old engineering joke and calling the precious substance the Marines are sent to kill for ‘unobtainium’ is just lazy. Billion dollar lazy

Any rant about the racist implications is much better served by reading an article by Ezil Danto online. She is an award winning playwright, a performance poet, political and social commentator, author, and human rights attorney. She was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and raised in the USA. No shrinking violet, she states categorically that Avatar is indeed a ‘White Savior’ movie and wastes no time with literary special affects in backing that up. Her references to Haiti are eye opening. She aptly quotes Richard Pryor: “Do you have any dreams? They’ll want them too.”

And as for one friend’s stated opinion that Avatar was so brave a film and such a powerful condemnation of the Bush years that she wondered how it ever got made I say there is more bravery and blatant excoriation of our government in any one episode of the former television series Boston Legal or a film like “Three Kings” which, under the guise of comedy, fingered the real criminals of war.

Will kids come away from this extravaganza wanting to change the world, reverse the course of murderous civilizations that exist on our planet today intent on bending nature to its will? Will they go no further than thanking that bit of chopped beef on a bun before devouring it or will they actually see a connection between torturing animals for food and creating even more aggression in the world? Will they grow up to actively resist being drafted to fight unjust wars and bear the punishment that will rain down on them from a government hell bent on ‘civilizing’ the natives of the world who do worship nature? Will they ultimately be depressed to find out that there is no mythical Pandora and shiny, tiny things that alight on the Chosen One will never alight on them? Will they be disappointed to learn that a white man is not the highest order of all beings and must, in most cases, destroy the lives and rituals of others who do not believe as he does, have a darker skin than he does and who aren’t particularly impressed with ‘pretty’ when ‘pretty becomes their jailors. Or will blue skin and snakey dreads become the Halloween costume of choice this year? Maybe the film needed Ricky Gervais in the lead, you know, just to lighten the moment.

To friends who are parents and ask what I think is a good children’s film I am woefully unprepared. I adored Babe and the follow up, much darker story of Babe, Pig in the City. I grew up to Lady and the Tramp and Bambi. Later it was the likes of Old Yeller until as a young woman I discovered foreign films, especially the black and white kitchen sink dramas of British filmmakers. Ken Loach’s 1968 film Poor Cow was my introduction to the genre and I never looked back. Until a saccharine-laced French film called Cousin, Cousine I thought all foreign films were the best. I have just seen the most current kitchen sink from Britain directed by Andrea Arnold, Fish Tank, with a jaw dropping performance by a non-actor named Katie Jarvis.

I left Avatar as soon as the big yellow eyes appeared on the screen and in the elevator I struck up a conversation with a young man who worked there. “Have you seen Avatar?” I asked him. He had. Did he like it? He gave me a non-committal smile and said he did. Sensing some doubt, I asked why he liked it. He smiled again shyly, mumbled something about special effects, and asked if I liked it. “No”, I said quite more determinedly than I had intended. He asked me how come and I replied that I was kinda over the story of the almighty white guy going in and rescuing the natives. His eyes widened. He said, yeah, he knew what I meant. “Did you see Pocahontas?” he asked. When I replied that I had not he said, “Same thing.”

Shrek will be 3D in its next incarnation. Hopefully filmmakers like Werner Herzog and The Coen Brothers will resist the temptation. But as far as Avatar goes, I think children deserve better. I think we all do.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


“The face is the mirror of the mind, and eyes without speaking confess the secrets of the heart.”—Saint Jerome

“No, no, no.”
Lana Cook, mute and uncomfortable, stood rooted at the foot of a hospital bed. She regarded Rodolfo’s still handsome face; his pronounced forehead struck with a single thick eyebrow drawn from a brush loaded with India ink. A puckish glint had been dimmed for some time but she detected sparks again; coal black irises speckled with gold leaf. His pronounced nose pinched into an elegant curve. Teeth still white and strong looking, but ill fitting in his gaunt face, forced his mouth into a menacing grin. A full beard was new. His flawless hands danced tenuously across her offering.

She had chosen with care and now he was displeased. Artfully arranged on the bed table, nesting in a white plastic bag, laid the fruit she’d brought him. It was already into November and late-season plums, especially ones as tempting as those, were hard to come by. His last minute request that morning had left Lana barely enough time, but she’d found the obscenely expensive plums in a gourmet specialty market on Third Avenue. Further east, his request would have proved more of a challenge. Second Avenue boasted mostly restaurants and bars. It was chock-a-block with multifarious havens for boisterous students, aggressive social climbers, and bone-weary construction workers—all easily accommodated in their choice of libation. You had your pick of pizzerias which vied for famous originality. When she was younger Lana foraged for cheap, vintage clothing among the many charitable thrift shops on First Avenue. At York Avenue it was high-end auction houses, the antiseptic grandeur of acclaimed hospitals and the leafy, gated enclave called the Rockefeller Institute. It gave the neighborhood the air of a separate reality.

“I’ll cut one up for you. Maybe…?” She looked toward the door. “I could get the nurse to—.” “No”, he whispered hoarsely. “No plums.” She was helpless. “I want a banana. La-a-a-na, why didn’t you bring me a bana-a-a-na?” Lana pouted involuntarily. He had often confounded her, genially poked fun at her by exaggerating her name and this is what she resorted to: curling her lower lip into a moist rebuttal. It usually made him laugh and softened her vexation with him.
“You asked for these. You said the kind you liked. Remember?” Lana moved to the side of the bed and reached for a smooth blackish-purple orb. Hesitating she then placed it back in the bag. She picked another. He’d telephoned after months of ignoring her calls and then disappeared. He called her. He didn’t want the plums. She would banish them from his sight.

He placed his hand on her sleeve. His touch was as light as the leave taking of faeries. “No, don’t. They are beautiful,” he rasped. “I want to look.”

Rodolfo Gomariz stared up at her, his eyes dark and forgiving. It had been a while since she’d seen him but that was not her choice. He was a painter, impresario, publisher, contractor; he wore all of those hats easily and well. He had the Golden Touch. Everyone said so. But to her mind he was a painter above all. He lay amidst the whiteness of pillows, bed linens, and a thermal blanket. He was a passive subject in a painting by El Greco; Christ nearly disrobed, clothed only in a disposable hospital gown. Lana followed the trail of an intravenous drip. His arms were exposed, furred with the thick, black hair that undid her still.

A lock of hair had fallen onto his forehead, a black question mark on a blank slate. Lana pressed it back and bewildered by its delicacy let her thumb linger. At first sight it looked glossy with health, as seductive as the first time she’d met him, but stroking it from his face she felt the difference. “I’m going to get you a banana. I’ll be right back.” Fiercely he gripped her hand, hurting her. Lana cried: “I don’t know, what?” Her pained expression caused him to loosen his grasp. He coughed and flashed a familiar wry expression. “La-a-a-na, where are you going?” She smiled from relief and drew her hand from his. “To find a banana for you, silly.” He giggled, nearly as lustily as she remembered when they’d parlay innuendos between them. She looked back at him and his eyes were closed. His delicately sculpted fingers, like translucent porcelain bamboo, rested on his thighs.

The hospital corridors were decorated in subdued shades of gray and pink—a corporate decision to remain neutral on a ward of unjust diseases. Framed art prints pictured gazelle-necked Native American women, sleek black hair framing identical expressions, whether hugging clay pots, rolling fry dough, or gazing into a cloudless lavender sky. “Bad Santa Fe,” thought Lana.

“She know what she know. What I’m gonna do? She’s not a baby. She wait at the bakery across the street from her school.”

Lana remained at the nurses’ station. The woman on the phone acknowledged her presence with a raised eyebrow; a finger held momentarily poised in Lana’s direction. Lana, arms folded, let her hands drop to her hips. Her elbows bent in readiness, demanding and yet respectful. The woman’s conversation continued. Lana guessed Jamaican. She made out the tiny cartoon characters printed on the woman’s scrubs: Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck. When did they stop wearing white?

“She be aw’right. The church is there, like a block away.” The woman paused before addressing the listener on the other end who seemed to have annoyed her. “I’m only leaving my daughter until I can get her. She have half day. I’ll be off a here soon.” Lana tilted her head in a can-I-say-something-manner. The finger curled, dropped limply to the desk and fidgeted. “Why you surprised?” There was an irritated pause. “Those boys killed by they own mama. She some ting to blame it on a black man. Why you surprised? Shame. Those poor little boys. A shame.”

“Yes?” Lana, startled, realized the woman was now addressing her. “Oh, sorry I….” “Who are you here to see?” Lana said she was visiting Mister Gomariz in—. “Room 36A,” interjected the nurse who had come up behind Lana. “Are you a family member?” Lana replied that she was a friend; that she didn’t think he had any family here and he’d called her that morning. “I’m a close friend,” she added. Lana started to say where Rodolfo was from when the nurse cut her off. “Argentina. I know. His brother is due to take him home.” She looked at Lana as if expecting a rebuttal. “Oh,” was all Lana could manage before asking if it was possible to get a banana for him. “Only,” she added, “I brought fruit, what he asked for, and he doesn’t seem—.” “He’s being fed intravenously. It’s a long flight to Buenos Aires.” The nurse rolled the pronunciation, and it slid off her tongue like a native, which, as far as Lana could tell, she was not. “I’ll see what I can dig up.” Lana asked: “Is there a—?” “Water fountain. In the visitors’ lounge,” was the curt reply as the nurse hurried off.

He’d telephoned at seven in the morning. She knew it was Rodolfo, even before she heard his voice. It had been many months since she’d heard from him. Not for lack of trying on her part. His voice was sheer but not frail. His condition had been revealed in whispered allusion between friends and inflammable rumor from hangers on. Elvira, his wife, had left a message on Lana’s answering machine a few weeks before. A dull monotone stood in for the singer’s usually dramatic timbre: “I’m leaving New York. Going back to Denmark. Thanks for everything.” Rodolfo’s close friends had no idea where he was. The studio was locked up, the telephone disconnected. Lana tried to reach Rodolfo and got nowhere until the call that morning.

“La-a-a-na, can you bring me a large bag?” Lana asked where he was, how was he and he told her only that he needed the bag for a painting, a gift for his doctor. Rodolfo sounded lucid but she was confused. What doctor, she asked. She asked again “Where are you?” And then he begged her to bring him some fruit, his favorite kind. Lana, exasperated, nearly barked at him. “You have to tell me where you are if I am to bring you these things.”

In the empty visitor’s lounge she filled a paper cup with water. Regarding the cup she decided against it, and drained its contents into the grill of the water cooler. She watched it trickle and then disappear before crushing the cup in her palm. “I’ll just sit for a minute,” she said under her breath and sank into a chair.

Lana remembered exactly how they’d met nearly fifteen years ago. She had not been divorced for long, her future was economically unsound, but she had immediately returned to painting—her first love—with the renewed passion of a newly single woman who had learned her lesson. Her friend Manu, a Basque writer, wanted her to meet a young man who was an Argentine painter. Manu and his wife had been introduced to him at a party and the painter invited the white-haired writer with the raging eyebrows to his studio.

The decade of the 70s was heading to a close. It was a sweltering August morning. Lana and Manu stood under a metal canopy at the far west end of 14th Street near Gansevoort Street. The area was called the Meatpacking district. It possessed a split personality guided by the time of day or night. An abandoned elevated railway line near Tenth Avenue added to the demilitarized feel of the place. She suspected the same characters who frequented the bars and sex clubs were dead asleep now in other parts of the city or nearby on Christopher Street. Manu would have been shocked to know the unmarked doors they had walked past were entrances to places called The Anvil and The Mineshaft. And probably even appalled to discover his friend Lana had been, on occasion, to some of those clubs with her gay male friends. They had introduced her to a nightlife that didn’t start until after midnight and ended at some greasy spoon at six in the morning where they shared tables with frazzled, foot-sore drag queens who had not yet crashed. The sight of a bare-chested man’s naked buttocks bulging from leather chaps no longer surprised her. Once, being snuck into a club dressed as a boy, she laughed so hard she nearly gave the game away. Their ruse proved fruitless. Instead of beefy naked men engaged in extraordinary sexual feats she had only heard about she saw one scrawny fellow in a jock strap swinging above the bar, oblivious. She had been fighting self-consciousness at her friends’ promise of audience participation and was secretly relieved. An off night had been just fine with Lana. Another excursion, less charged with apprehension, found her at The Spike for a Mother’s Day brunch as the guest of an older, leather-clad friend.
Lana was coolly outfitted in a white sleeveless t-shirt under a light gray windowpane check cotton jumper from Putumayo. Her long, light brown hair was pulled back in a single braid to which she had attached an artificial lily. She wore simple woven leather huaraches on her feet; her legs and arms were radiantly tanned. After a freshly divorced dedication to flannel shirts and jeans she wanted to feel feminine again. Men and some women were easily seduced. Manu was enthralled and, with his wife’s blessing because it exercised his old bones, he and the 27-year-old Lana developed a robust, if unlikely, friendship that entailed long walks all over the city while they talked about art and politics and life.

Manu, a broad-shouldered man in his late 60s, was a separatist far from his embattled homeland; a man who preferred always to wear a jacket and tie, even in the sweat-stained summer months. He and Lana made an odd pair. Manu studied the scrap of paper in his bear-like hand. Lana grabbed it from him and looked from the scrawled address beyond raw carcasses hung in a row inches from their faces. Neither of them mentioned the smell. She pointed to a red metal door and said, “This is the place.” Manu, who often regaled an international set of urbane dinner guests with tales of bloody revolt in his country, stepped back gingerly. “Lana, these are dead cows.” Bracing the back of her hand against its flank she shoved a carcass aside, dislodging a few flies. She would try to forget that image when she polished off a cheeseburger. “After me,” she giggled.

Later Manu telephoned to tell her what a strong impression she had made on Rodolfo. His wife, Miriam, joined in on another line—a habit of theirs—and reported that Rodolfo had called in high spirits to tell them he was in love; that he wanted to marry Lana! She was taken aback. Not because they didn’t click instantly. Lana was impressed with his work; large canvases of somber urban abstracts. Rodolfo was handsome in a way that brought a flush to her cheeks, with an aristocratic bearing that melded seamlessly with his apparent poverty. He made her laugh and she was charmed by his attention, his unabashed inquiry into her own painting. Lana guessed he was a little older than she. But that was in actual years. In life-lived-years he was well past her. They drank sherry and enjoyed a spread of herbed olives, fresh baguette, quince and manchego that Manu had brought. Music filled the loft. Caetano Veloso’s seductive voice tickled her spine and the heat in the un-air conditioned loft caressed her. The room smelled of turpentine and oil paint and Manu’s strong cigarettes. She’d felt light-headed, seduced by it all.

“But Miriam, that’s impossible. He can’t be in love with me.” Manu interjected. He was adamant. “Why no, Lana? He’s very handsome. A very good painter, no?” Miriam persisted. “Lana, he was very taken with you.” Lana, unable to stop herself, blurted, “But he’s gay!”

A few months after they’d met, Rodolfo hosted a party in his loft for a friend, a celebration of sorts. It was a wild affair; a bombastic mix of personalities and nationalities, genders specific and not so specific. She watched as Rodolfo, swarmed by a colony of fawning poseurs, basked in their giddy adoration. The intensity, the level of excitement was exhilarating. Everyone danced as uninhibitedly as they drank and ate, laughed and argued. Manu held forth among a clutch of Spaniards in fervent political discourse under a cloud of cigarette smoke. Strangers chatted up Lana in Spanish and French. Some spoke Portuguese. There was no language barrier to nodding and smiling and Lana, strangely, felt easily connected. She allowed herself to be drawn into the graceful tangle of dancers and swayed under a marijuana haze as if she had done this all her life.

When Lana first arrived and guests were still sparse, shyness took over and she found a quiet corner to wait for Manu and his wife. The loft began to fill up quickly and she wondered if she should circulate, that maybe she somehow missed her friends’ arrival. She hesitated as a tranced man of indeterminate age in a rather bizarre getup, even by the standards of the rest of the party, made his way through the revelers. His rose bud lips puckered in his face painted to look like a Kabuki dancer. Shellacked hair rose in a black pompadour high above his forehead. He headed toward her. Lana froze. As he approached Rodolfo swooped in, beaming. “This is my friend I want you to meet.” The man spoke softly in a German accent as he offered her his hand, raised as a champion show dog might lift a paw. “How do you do?” he whispered. “Can you tell me, vere ist da bathroom?” Lana, bemused, pointed in a direction and he floated through the crowd. “The guest of honor,” Rodolfo beamed. “He’s a chenioos. We are so excited for heem. He’s singing with Daveed Bowee—.” Lana interrupted, confused. “I thought you said he was a pastry maker?” “He ees a pastry maker,” laughed Rodolfo and left her to greet a fresh round of guests.

Laughter slipped out with departing guests who tripped carelessly over uneven cobblestones into a cold blue daybreak. Earlier Manu suggested dropping her at her apartment but Rodolfo drew Lana to him. “I take good care of her. Don’t you worry old man,” he teased. Lana, high from the music, the wine and the pot, sensed everything was just beginning and played out a scenario over and over in her sweetly muddled mind. Would she have sex with him? If he was gay what did it matter? Maybe—surely—he was bisexual.

They stood in the doorway at the end of a long night like a couple in love, familiar and new at the same time. He clasped Lana’s waist affectionately as the young acolytes, the last to leave, exchanged pouty air kisses with Rodolfo and minced past Lana boldly ignoring her. Later, after he had made them strong coffee and while they were clearing up she asked about the young men. She said something she thought would make him understand that she knew. He slipped a record onto the turntable. Lana witnessed a meteoric eclipse in his eyes, a brief yet overpowering shadow, dispelled instantly in a flash of white teeth: “No, La-a-a-na, for me only women.” He took her hand and dropped a small, ripe plum into her open palm. “It’s kind of late for these. Where did you get…?” He lowered his eyelids and stretched his full height above her, covering her hand with both of his. “I can get anything for you.” A woman sang in Portuguese, her voice a muscular expression of lament, its meaning Lana could only intuit.

Her comment was forgotten. He’d won a Guggenheim Fellowship and Lana watched fascinated as his reputation and his circle of friends grew. He prepared intimate meals when it was just the two of them. Impromptu parties materialized out of an otherwise quiet afternoon and she found her way easily around his kitchen. Lana listened raptly as he sketched out his future. The one-man shows in SOHO were not enough. “La-a-a-na I have beeg ideas.” He ran with artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. She was not invited along. He still wooed her, but the intensity leveled off to an affectionate joke between them. Yes, of course she would marry him—someday.

Prostitution and drugs proved an intolerable playground in the early 80s when a murderous drive by shooting scattered the men outside the Ramrod. Until AIDS put the fear in those who had the power to close the bars and bath houses some of her gay friends still frequented Badlands and The Mineshaft. Danger went part and parcel with sexual bondage. If Lana was at all unsure of Rodolfo doubt ebbed when these men crossed paths with him at her parties or at a vernissage for Rodolfo’s latest exhibition. Rodolfo’s disdain was palpable and he kept his eyes averted when introduced. That flicker of interest, a covert recognition. “You know him,” she’d say later, catching the look. Eventually they revealed that they had witnessed Rodolfo—or somebody who looked very much like him—engaging in the sex play or cruising the treacherous territory of the piers. Rodolfo dismissed her encouragement to ‘come out’ as trespassing. Once angry with her, she never spoke of it again. If he mentioned someone in his crowd: “La-a-a-na, I am a frahnd to Jean-Michel. What I can do? Terrible, terrible, the drugs,” she knew, at that point, what kind of a friend he meant.

Lana remarried. Her husband Ian, an English musician, eagerly embraced New York nightlife. Many of the clubs she had frequented and grown tired of were now his venues and she ignored a mercurial relationship with rank caves like CBGB’s and returned to cheer his bass onstage. The first place she’d brought Ian was Petrol. Rodolfo, bored with painting, had flung himself into an entrepreneurial role and rehabilitated an abandoned corner of Avenue B on the Lower East Side. With minimal attention to décor, at first, he transformed the formerly defunct gas station into a hip bar and performance space for the emerging trend setters who flocked to New York City from abroad, ravenous for a bite of fertile urban underbelly. Alcohol was served illegally. One responded to the bartender’s query: “Con gas or sín gas?” and vodka flowed surreptitiously into ice blue drinks. Ian’s first encounter with Rodolfo was on a bitterly cold night. While Rodolfo fed a hunk of discarded timber into a blazing makeshift stove, a Nuyorican poet—one of the avant-garde writers published under Petrol’s imprimatur—spit out his poetry as he pelted a worshipful audience with condoms. Ian loved it and he and Rodolfo got on famously.

Rodolfo moved to Williamsburg. It would be, he predicted, the next big thing. Artists were attracted to the generous space and light, to the sense of entitled discovery an intrepid newcomer gets when renovated derelict overshadows entrenched residents. He put his shoulder to the dirtiest jobs alongside his workers and in no time was a sought after contractor. In a factory building he’d renovated at the end of Berry Street he carved out a sizeable loft for himself.

For some time Rodolfo had been ardently pursuing the lead singer of a band called Deus Ex Machina. Elvira was a sculpted Danish beauty, severe if you didn’t know her. Her ermine hair teased into an operatic frenzy to match her outsized voice. The Goth driven band behind her, the antithesis of Deborah Harry and Blondie, generated a hardcore following. Rodolfo plagued Lana moaning of his unrequited love for the singer who coldly rejected his advances. He dragged Lana to all of her shows and stared white-hot at Elvira frothed in billowing vintage gowns. He laid exotic blooms at her feet during the performance. Lana cautioned against stalking. And then, inexplicably, they were a couple. He became her Svengali, dismissing her band, monitoring her, directing her every move. She would be bigger than Madonna. Lana, disturbed by this, pulled away for a while but eventually came to see that Elvira, sweet natured, was wholly dependent on him and had entrusted her fate to him.

They were married in the loft on Berry Street. A Buddhist monk in a saffron robe presided. Elvira was gowned spectacularly in yards of antique white satin, her hair embroidered with outlandish silk flowers, while Rodolfo was outfitted entirely in black. Never one to underestimate an impression he wore a black felt hat that veiled his face. The company stood shell-shocked as the two exchanged gold bands. Guests gave him wide berth and a studied friendliness pervaded the surreal atmosphere of the party afterwards. An Afro-Caribbean band went largely unnoticed until copious amounts of champagne were downed. Commanding one end of the loft was the marriage bed, a grand four-poster. It was a gift from the Rivington Street Welders, the same artists who’d constructed the infamous iron fence around Petrol. The bed, sprung from a dark fairy tale, was heaped with duvets covered in lush funereal fabrics—dark plum-colored velvet, embossed black silk—its four iron tentacles curled against the ceiling. Seated alone, Rodolfo motioned for Lana from the bed. He took her hand and she was shocked by its coldness. “Tell me you love me,” he whispered. Of course, of course, they loved both of them, she assured him. “No, La-a-a-na, say you love me.” She squeezed his hand, hoping to warm it with her own. “I do love you.” He lifted the veil slowly. “Kiss me.” Lana brushed his damp cheek. “No, on the lips.” He held her face in his hands, her lips pillowed on his, for a long time.

Elvira’s career demanded all of his attention and Lana saw little of him after the ceremony. Rumors continued to circulate, speculation boiled like an unwatched pot. He was losing weight or he was bloated. He was suicidal or he was tackling a new project. Elvira was depressed and on the verge of leaving him or she was pregnant. Lana spoke with Elvira and she seemed oblivious to anything but the possibility that he had some unshakable flu. She and Ian attended the premiere of his pet project—meant to be a starring vehicle for Elvira. An audience of downtown luminaries took in battling lovers, role reversal, a hyper realistic set design of a bombed out urban landscape. It was an opera that Lana found confusing at best and overwrought at worst. Critics called it ambitious but fell short. Elvira, they wrote, though obviously talented seemed out of her depth. Rodolfo, in black, looked wan and angry. The opera closed after three performances.

They saw less of the couple until Elvira telephoned in a panic. Rodolfo was painting over his canvases. It was a mess, she cried, bizarre, nightmarish images. And they were broke. Lana pressed Elvira for more information. Was he ill? How could they help? They would go right away to Brooklyn. Elvira dissuaded Lana and instead begged to meet her in the city. Lana was shocked at her appearance, the careful attention to hair and makeup no longer in evidence. Absent the garnish she seemed in a state of torpor. Lana gave her the money and made her promise to keep in touch.

Lana’s invitation to dinner to cheer them up was readily accepted but Elvira pleaded, “Please, nothing fancy.” In an Indian restaurant on East Sixth Street that Lana knew well the three of them chatted lightheartedly while Rodolfo gazed around the nearly empty dining room. He had lost weight. His shirt ballooned over his distended belly. Elvira fussed and spoke softly to him, as if he was a child. Midway through the meal, he rose from the table and shuffled toward the bathroom. After awhile Elvira suggested she’d see if he needed help. Rodolfo appeared clutching the hem of his shirt, stepping gingerly as he approached them. He was completely naked from the waist down. Elvira, stricken with anguish, rushed to dress him. They left their unfinished meal and apologies along with a generous tip.

Keith Haring was dead. Basquiat was dead. Klaus died in the same hospital where Rodolfo lay. Lana had lost friends to AIDS who were unabashedly homosexual. Gay friends, like Brendan, still made art. Bren was an overtly political conceptual performance artist, HIV positive and nothing closeted about him. A U.S. embargo on the drugs for HIV caused him to consider leaving New York but a return to Ireland was too painful. His lover, an Argentine, had a job waiting for him in London and wanted Bren to go with him where he would be better taken care of. He was the one who enlightened Lana to the shame. Gay Latin American men at home avoided the stigma with bisexual relationships, even the married ones. “It’s why there are so many of us in New York,” he told her. Turner, an impoverished writer with expensive taste, bragged about his sexual conquests, scoffed at protection, and boasted of hiring rent boys, sometimes nine or a dozen at a time. Lana found out eventually that he was whoring himself out. Another friend had told her, a paying customer. So far, he was untouched by the disease. She’d recently attended Chip and Jeffrey’s commitment ceremony. Lana was a middle-aged married woman with a punky, bleached blonde crop of hair who wore comfortably distressed linen. She’d had to ration her time for painting and go back to work. She and her husband both had. New York was an expensive city.

Lana returned to his room. Rodolfo was sitting up, laughing with the same nurse who had brought him bananas. His cheeks shone with mirth. “La-a-a-na, where were you? I have to make love to Miss Chen because you deserted me.” The diminutive nurse slapped him gently. “Be good Mister Rodolfo.” “No, I’m back, sweetie.” Lana moved to the other side of the bed. “I thought you were sleeping. What can I do?” Miss Chen removed the intravenous drip. “He’ll be going home soon. He’s had lots of vitamins and minerals.” Her small yet tenacious frame righted him into a standing position. “Walk with him a bit.” Lana was shocked, not fully prepared for his diminished state. “Are you…is it okay?” “Yes Miss, it will be good for him. He has a long flight ahead of him.”

Rodolfo took her arm. There was nothing to him. They walked slowly through the halls, him sneering at the pictures. “You are a real painter, La-a-a-na.” She laughed. “How would you know? You haven’t seen anything of mine in—.” “I know,” he told her. She asked about his paintings. Where were they? Who had them?” He dismissed the questions with a wave of his hand. “You are the painter, Lana.”

They talked about easy things for an hour or so until he abruptly told her he had stopped taking the AZT. They were making him fat, he said and they giggled like school children. At a bank of elevators Rodolfo told her he was tired. “New York is not a good place to be sick, Lana. I don’t want to die here.” He pushed the button for the elevator. Lana hesitated until she saw Miss Chen coming toward them, waving her on. As the doors closed he pushed the button again. “I want to look at you.” Lana smiled. The three other passengers smiled. The doors sprang open again. “I love you,” he whispered, steadied by the nurse. Her fellow passengers seemed undisturbed by the scene. “I love you too,” Lana said, fighting back the tears. Once again the doors sprang open. “The plums,” he said, “They hurt my mouth.”

PLUMS is an original short story by Linda Danz.
STORIES ON THE AMERICAN FRIEND Writers Guild of America, East #R28299
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business organizations, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. The use of names of actual persons, places, and events is incidental to the plot, and is not intended to change the entirely fictional character of the work. © January 2010