Monday, February 28, 2011

“Patience: A minor form of despair disguised as a virtue.” Ambrose Bierce


What are we afraid of?

It takes a lot of patience, getting older. One can’t go off half-cocked at the latest insult from the rant-filled right wing talking fat heads. Patience is required when being lectured by those who won’t abide being lectured and instead take another to task for having an opposing view. Attending a rally for the rights of one people does not automatically make me hateful of the people who live under the government that practices the apartheid I protest. Those younger males who laugh at Sarah Palin’s ‘antics’ demand my patience as well. After all, they weren’t around in the Dark Ages when young women like me were making furtive plans with the unknown to have an illegal abortion. I have to patiently calm the cynic in me who has seen what flowery political campaign speeches turn to strangling weeds in the cold light of post-election.

One has to choose one’s battles.

I went to the Planned Parenthood rally/demo/protest/political grandstanding last Saturday afternoon with Rennie, Beatrice, Christina, and The Mister. While others were pleased with the turnout, I thought it only a fair showing. Maybe it was because Manhattan is a bastion of Liberalism anyway. We have avuncular Chuck Schumer cheerleading the troops. Kathleen Turner offered up her ashtray voice for Planned Parenthood to a giddy crowd of admirers, older admirers that is. All spoke in the shadow of a 60-ft, black granite sculpture called Triumph Of the Human Spirit by Lorenzo Pace. It’s meant to represent an abstract female form and serves as a monument to honor all Africans brought to America. Surrounded as it is by government buildings I can also imagine it as a great big ‘up yours’ from said human spirit.

The Mister, as usual, cautions me not to get arrested. At this stage it’s a long-standing joke. I heed the cops who direct me to the freedom of speech pens blocks away from a perfectly empty area of the rally. I bite my tongue. A lot. Though I did indulge my inner Pollybollocks and shouted to the cops flanking the peaceful parade of demonstrators. I cheer and tell them, “This is about all of us, this right to our bodies, our selves. We are marching for you, too.” All smiled and nodded in return. Except for a lone female cop. She was kinda on the short side, it has to be said, and remained stoically grim-faced.

The cops may have been more at ease in their skin on Saturday. It was, after all, a bunch of women, but any change, any perceived threat to their authority and you’d be closed in so fast you wouldn’t know which way the tear gas was blowing.

Perhaps what got any decent-sized crowd out at all was the recent move on the part of the anti-abortion group, Life Always, which is based in Texas. They had a news conference in Manhattan last week to discuss the opening of an advertising campaign intended to reach black women. This misfired on a grand scale when New Yorkers spied a huge billboard above a Mexican restaurant, located a half-mile from a Planned Parenthood center in SOHO. It showed a young black girl in a pink dress and the words “the most dangerous place for an African-American is in the womb.”

Really? Did they seriously expect New Yorkers NOT to react? This city is thriving with enough educated, righteously indignant Black women alone to have given them pause. The billboard was taken down within days. In keeping with the ‘blame game’ the reason given for the retreat was that employees of the restaurant were being threatened, their lives were in danger, of course. What still exists are the advertisements, with a similar message of intolerance from the same group, on the outside of city busses.

Ah, but I was talking about patience and fear. What don’t I have patience for? What do I fear?

Friends responded to my query with humor—“I think of the consequences of not responding to your request!!!”—and seriousness— “Being strangled, restrained by anxiety and weighed down.” Some expressed the fear of death, or of missing out on something, which will certainly happen after death. “Fear; being trapped…in any sense of the word—physically, psychologically, emotionally. Panic attacks are the worst.” I was relieved to see this friend had added: “Mine are all gone.”

I can always rely on the cheeky retorts of my Leicester Friend: “Being trapped in a room with 20 beautiful young ladies for a week. At my time of life I don't think I would come out alive !!!” Or the wry commentary I have come to expect from Noozeguy: “When I think of fear, I think of getting emails that ask me what I think of fear.”

Isabel, who is a journalist and a writer in Barcelona echoed some of my own fears, things we have discussed: “Fear to be sick, fear to be subjugated to the medical system, fear of dying because of their shamanic death sentence, fear to be homeless, fear to become crazy, mad before the injustice, fear that the world becomes more and more subjugated, that critical people are eliminated...” Kalev, too, anticipates a great suffering, “…which, after all, is what fear is.”

“When I think of fear,” Julie wrote, “I think of holding my breath—not feeling comfortable to exist.”

Missy’s definitive assertion suits her relentless optimism: “Fear is the greatest sin and the biggest roadblock to progress. Mine or a nation’s or whoever’s.” While fear of the unknown and dwindling prospects causes a sleepless night for another.

“Cool, great question,” Lexie wrote, “but requires maybe three sentences.”

“There are two types of fear, one is useful, and the other is not. The first kind is essential and alerts us to danger, it’s animalistic, and it kicks in when you know, without knowing why, that you’re in a dangerous situation and something must be done NOW to avert a bad thing from happening. I like to call this the lizard brain and it's in our DNA we can choose to take action, which is usually wise, or not (at the risk of appearing foolish) to our own detriment.”

“The other kind of fear is usually self imposed and serves no purpose at all other than to keep us in a status quo, unable to move forward or reach for a dream for fear of losing whatever it is that we think we have. This is the fear of failure or success and it is completely pointless and debilitating.”

“Ok there's a third kind of fear that governments and the media instill in us, equally useless but it keeps us in our place. Either by continuing to buy and consume or by allowing atrocities in the name of safety, I know I don't have to elaborate on this one. So, what do YOU think of when you think of fear?”

Well, pretty much what has already been described? Ill health, the prospect of hospitalization sends me into that sphere of anxiety that tightens my chest like a vise. Close friends have recently ended their days in hospital beds. I fear the surrender a doctor demands from the patient. I fear capitulating to that demand.

I fear the complacency on the part of Americans, and what nefarious use powerful, greedy, soulless individuals will make of that complacency. I fear the patience I have been striving to achieve will be undermined by inaction, that I will continue to go to protests, but that I will capitulate to complacency and allow myself to be penned in these new-age freedom of speech zones. I fear that I might not make the best traveler on my own odyssey, that I might not get to complete a self-examination that will strip away the fear and replace that with courage to bolster my convictions, no matter how others might react.

And, while I am trying my best not to, I fear encroaching age for a myriad of useless reasons. Rob Will is a young man I know on death row. He has every reason to be fearful and yet he ploughs through his fears with activism behind bars in a world that I am gradually learning more about. A world that is really the culmination of all of our fears; the Kafkaesque rabbit hole any one of us can fall into and never crawl out of; a place so dire and soul crushing.

I have to learn not to mistake patience for complacency. I have no patience for the feel-good-soft-focused-within-an-inch-of-their-screen-lives moments.

Terrorism is all smoke and mirrors, dangerous smoke and mirrors to be sure, but we have to wrench that smoky curtain aside and see just who or what is running the smoke machine and installing all those mirrors.

Rob’s incarcerated youth is my mirror as I age. He shows me what I must value, where my priorities must lie.

I went with friends to another rally some weeks ago, where even fewer demonstrators were in attendance. This one was in support of the peace activists in the Midwest who have been hounded and arrested by the FBI. The case before the Grand Jury is a fishing expedition and could very well be thrown out of court. But the government has very long poles and plenty of them and they will keep fishing until the fish are too exhausted to fight.

“Stop the subpoena!

Stop the raid!

We are here and not afraid!”

As I chanted with my friends Christopher and Tom in that moderate-sized clutch of demonstrators, so much older than the ones we saw at the Planned Parenthood rally, I felt the familiar surge of, if not fearlessness, then, at least, willingness.

A very tiny and elderly white-haired lady scrambled to the podium toward the end of that rally. “This is what happens when you become part of a movement,” she cried, “if you’re small you stand tall.”

And when you are aging, you will be young again.

"Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy." Dale Carnegie, American lecturer, author, 1888-1955

Sunday, February 27, 2011


February 1, 2011, Tuesday

How Do I Describe It?

“When there is disharmony in affairs,

that means that there is something unknown.

When there is collusion but not solidarity, there is

overt alliance but covert alienation. When there

is disharmony in affairs sages do not make

plans for them. Thus, when there is intimacy in

spite of distance, that means there is hidden virtue.”

The Master of Demon Valley,

Classic text of the

Zongheng Xue school of

Chinese philosophy, circa 500BCE

Earlier I went to rec and, as always, I carry some type of supremely powerful anti-indoctrination weapon. Today I went to the rec cage with a collection of Eastern classics on strategy, council and the acquisition and exercise of power. I’ve found that in this environment people are much more likely to listen to you if you talk about such things as The Art of War, The Way Of the Zen Warrior, Ways Of Warriors, Codes of Kings, Bushido Warrior Codes and such things as opposed to say Ghandi, M.L.K., Yoga or perhaps strictly sociopolitics.

I had a bunch of passages marked and a list of topics of discussion. I held council with a few dudes while working out. I don’t care how disturbed my mindset is I never have and never will let it affect what I do around here on a daily basis, what people would call “activism.” I don’t give a damn, it’s just not going to happen. I wonder how many people out there in the activist community, in the social justice struggle, live this way? I don’t write about or mention 80% of the things I do around here. I would feel a bit silly doing so and plus I have no desire for accolades or praise. A few of my friends always tell me I need to write about such things but the prospect of doing so seems rather embarrassing and ridiculous to me. Perhaps I’ll try, however.

A thought just occurred to me: When I talk about something like discussing a book while working out as I described above, I think this may sound quite strange to people in the Freeworld. For one, I always feel very mechanical when I write something that isn’t going to someone I know; I feel as if I write in a very bland, machine-like manner that severely lacks the personal expressive quality that is conveyed in letters I write to actual people I know. Also, this place is so very insane, just absolutely, fundamentally twistedly Orwellian that I’ve found it impossible to properly describe how things are around here. Plus, the way I interact with people is…How do I describe it? I’ve never been one to have mundane, trite, banal conversations. All human interaction should have purpose. Life is to be Lived. The future is to be grasped. I generally speak in a dialectical manner and naturally use the language of metaphor and symbolism. I’ve been told I’m a very eccentric individual and hell, I don’t know and whatever-the-hell, let me try to describe what I mentioned above.

So, I was out in the dayroom rec cage, which is just a larger cage than our cells, which directly face the dayrooms. I holler at a few dudes I’m cool with while stretching:

Me: What’s going on?

Person I: Just listening to the radio.

Me: Yeah, I thought I heard some wretched corporate propaganda that is viciously assaulting and corrupting the youth of America coming out of your cell.

Person I: Hell’nah! I had KPFT on and they were talking about what’s going on in the middle east.

[This person is pretty politically conscious so we had a short discussion on current middle east sociopolitics.]

Me: (To Person II) What’s up? You ready to catch this workout and chop it up on this hard-ass book I have out here? It’s on a warrior vibe (I flip open the book to a marked passage and read) “The way of the warrior means familiarity with both the cultural and martial arts. In ancient China the single word ‘Shi’ or ‘Knight’ mean both scholar and warrior. The training of this class of men was considered to be one of the most important tasks of the culture.” This is some real serious stuff right here.

Person II: Sounds interesting but, man I can’t work out at all. That hernia I told you about awhile back has gotten much, much worse.

Then, I talked with the guy for a while about how to strategically resolve the extreme medical neglect that the medical staff around here is quite fond of. I talked about various policies, forms, paperwork, grievance procedures and legal procedure around lawsuits; who to talk to, how to talk to them, who to have his supporters talk to and how to have his supporters talk to them. After this, I started working out and discussing the passages marked in the book. Probably sounds strange…Picture this: I hit a set of push-ups, an intense set, leap up and reply to what the guy I’m talking to has just said concerning the topic of our discussion. And, as always, I relate everything to our current situation and its relation to our larger collective Existence.

I also talked with another guy about some crazy drama going on with some of the overseas anti-DP groups. Dudes around here have all these “girlfriends” and “wives” and engage in all sorts of labyrinthine drama the likes of which Jerry Springer would stand before in confused disbelief, as if before him loomed some great drama beast whose intricate make-up has rendered him speechless. I’ve never engaged in any of that wretchedness and I see it as absolutely undermining the Struggle. The guy I talked to has a girlfriend who is with one of these groups and we discussed some productive ways to weave through the wretchedness and advance the cause of Abolition.

Now I’m back in my cell and Ah(!) Stravinsky’s Firebird is about to come on. Some good music to finish my workout to…The evil ogre Katschei appears. Strength training! Weight bag curls…The tempo picks up and I have a Firebird to catch! Running in place…Ah-ha, my most beautiful Firebird, I’ve caught you. What is that you say? You offer me the gift of a magical feather for your release? What do you take me for, a marauding hoodlum?! I merely was transfixed by the illuminating brilliance of your flaming beauty my dear Firebird, and I had to admire it up close. You are, of course, free to go, but thank you. I certainly appreciate your gift, indeed your beauty is certainly a gift bestowed upon the earth from the Mystic Heavens. Shaolin Qi Gong “Joining the Heavens and the Earth” exercise…

(This music is nice, Stravinsky wrote some pretty good music.) What is that I see? A bunch of hot maidens in a garden grove reading poetry, doing Yoga, holding dialectic on socio-politics, strategizing on how to bring about social change, painting, playing sitars, violins and cellos, playing with golden apples? Gotta make sure the 6-pack abs stay rocked up. Crunches and Ab twists!…O.K., O.k., I know the original story only mentions the maidens in the garden playing with apples, but what the hell is that? Perhaps they were listening to Britney Spears and gossiping about celebrity news and the latest must-have fashion trends also? (My apologies to Comrade Igor, but I added a bit of personal fantastical flourish to the idea of enticing women.)

Thus, I venture into the garden and chill with the maidens for a while and follow them back to the palace of the great demon-ogre Katschei. Dah-Dah! The Infernal Dance Of King Katschei ensues and … I’m caught. Well, I guess I’m not the Billy Bad-Ass I thought I was—more curls and some jujitsu!… “To Stone!” You say Katschei? Solidarity call to the Firebird! And the Firebird arrives and charms Katschei and his nefarious demonic minions into a friendly dance…Dancing Shiva Asana, more Jujitsu…And Katschei and crew fall asleep and I’m freed and go and find the hidden casket where the ogre King’s demonic soul is kept and…I destroy it—swift sets of 1-2-3 punches…

Katschei and his ghoulish companions disappear, his captives who he turned to stone become human again, and the evil of the Kingdom is gone! Now, I form a life long bond of Love and Solidarity with a Princess who was Katschei’s captive and we help form a Peoples’ Coalition to transform the toppled autocracy into a true participatory democracy! Yes, in the original story the hero of the tale, Ivan, just marries the princess and they rule the Kingdom happily ever after. But this is indeed my workout session while listening to Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird so I’ve felt free to remix the story a bit. Whew, that was an excellent training session. Now for some nice cool down Yoga…very nice. Now on to some important legal organizing work—time to move my scimitar, my battle-ax, my pen in a different direction and hope to create more harmony in the fight. I’m engaged in, despite being distanced and confined in this twisted infernal Hell.

From the Spirit of

Mastering the Art Of Life

In a Valley Of Sorrows

Rob Will

February 1, 2011, Late night/early a.m.

Earlier at mail-call I got some discouraging news. I desperately need a legal team, more funds, to do productive organizing, more solid proactive solidarity on the outside…whew…thinking of all this was a bit overwhelming and I suddenly had the urge to pick up my pen and some colored pencils to do a bit of sketching. It’s the middle of the morning and I’m about to crash out but I figured I’d write this short note and with it send out the quick sketch I did. The basic center outline of the woman is something by Mike Hoffman and the words in he background are a hymn from The Gospel Of Sri Rama Krishna:

In dense darkness, O Mother,

Thy formless beauty sparkles;

Therefore the yogis meditate in a dark mountain cave.

In the lap of boundless dark,

on Mahanirvana's waves unborn,

Peace flows serene and inexhaustible.

Taking the form of the Void,

in the robe of darkness wrapped,

Who art Thou, Mother,

seated alone in the shrine of samadhi?

From the Lotus of Thy fear-scattering Feet

flash Thy love's lightnings;

Thy Spirit-Face shines forth

with laughter terrible and loud!

Vivekananda (1863 - 1902)

On the back of this little quick sketch I wrote, “Kali, Kali, Kali…” I need to get some rest. I’m sentenced to die for a crime I didn’t commit and things are just not going good right now…Yes, I need to try to get some rest…


Friday, February 18, 2011


Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.— Truman Capote


The day before she was fired from Ladies Home Companion was the day I met Ivy Olsen. It was sometime in the early 80s, a Tuesday in late June as I recall. I’d arrived in Manhattan a few weeks before, sublet a small, rent-stabilized walk-up on the upper eastside, and commenced an independent life. Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut had handed me a piece of paper that stated I had a degree in American Literature. Still, I’d failed spectacularly at securing my dream job at The New Yorker. To pay the rent I accepted the one job I was offered at the Companion.

A classmate at Trinity, someone I once suspected had also mourned his body’s misconception, had lit out for New York before his mortarboard hit the ground. True to his word he contacted me as soon as I arrived in the city. Firmly stonewalling my egress he introduced me to a burgeoning revolution, my own.

That Sunday I had attended The Lesbian and Gay Pride March. It was my first and would not be the last for some time. Pressed shoulder to shoulder with men—all sizes, shapes, and ages of men—men who pumped fists and shouted, men who sang loudly and proudly. Men, like me, who were gay. Buffeted by a groundswell of pride at the march, I experienced a rush unlike anything I had ever known. Protesters shouted from behind police barricades at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “You are all sinners!” they screamed, and my stomach muscles knotted as tightly as my determination.

Television cameras scanned the jubilant throng of marchers like greedy Cyclops devouring images. In my excitable innocence I had no qualms that my face would be one of them on the evening news. I had never actually thought about it.

By the end of a long march down Fifth Avenue I was too exhilarated to be exhausted. At the close of the rally in the West Village I tumbled from the wave like a happy seabird into the Monster on Grove Street and spread my wings until dawn. My ‘Manhattan Project’ was charged with possibility. The following evening I telephoned home and came out to notably acquiescent parents who did not appear to have their lives changed significantly by the bomb I’d dropped. Mother still welcomed me warmly on visits home. Father, never demonstrably affectionate, now brushed my shoulder tentatively when he greeted me at the train station. “Everything going alright I trust.”

I had called in sick on a Monday barely two weeks on the job. Seated at my desk just outside Myra Blair’s office, I arranged pencils and a yellow brick of Post-its, all the while reminding myself that assisting the formidable editor-in-chief of a women’s magazine was temporary.

“Hello TV star.” Ivy poised above me like a B movie femme fatale, outfitted in chic, though clearly vintage black from neck to toe. Her hair was bobbed and frosted, her lips red and full. A barely discernible lisp made it seem as if her tongue was too plump for her mouth. She had just returned from a 2-week vacation. Leaning slightly backwards, she cupped the elbow of the other arm held aloft, and tipping a pen in her raised hand like it was an opera length cigarette holder she purred, “Why don’t I let you take me to lunch and you can tell me all about it.” The chatter among some of the older women in the office that morning had been discomfiting. I knew exactly what she meant.

Lunch with Ivy was an alcohol-fueled, confessional hour for which I paid dearly with my under fed wallet. I sat across from her dressed in what would come to be a reliable package: Clean white button-down shirt, club tie, and neatly pressed chinos. Over sour-smelling tacos left limp and half-eaten we’d discovered a shared appetite for reading and a mutual desire to write great fiction. In order to do that we simply had to sever the familial bond, click our heels and escape to the Emerald City. We shared our youthful literary crushes. I’d deified James Baldwin and Hubert Selby. She adored Dorothy Parker and Truman Capote. We had both read On the Road. Everyone had. Ivy gasped when I ventured to describe a homosexual subtext in Kerouac’s novel. I told her I had also got it into my head that Holden Caufield was gay. “Go figure,” I laughed, and shrugged off her confusion.

When I bemoaned the tart office comments she dismissed my concerns with a wave. “Revel in your cause célèbre Christopher. I simply adore gay men!” I told Ivy she could call me Chris. “But darling,” she replied, “Christopher Leonard, sounds so much more literary.” She raised her glass. “To Christopher, then.” I saw its salt encrusted rim as a symbol of the diamonds I would undoubtedly mine from my new life in Manhattan and returned her toast. “To Ivy.” She lowered her chin coquettishly. “To us, darling.”

I’d considered my upbringing to be plainly bourgeois, devoid of surprises. My father was an insurance executive who read Wallace Stevens. He was a quiet man, reserved and careful in his movements. Mother decorated the West Hartford homes of our neighbors, her friends and fellow patrons of the arts. My parents subscribed to the best Hartford had to offer: The Hartford Stage Company, Hartford City Ballet, the Hartford Symphony, and the Wadsworth Athenaeum. But it was all Hartford. Trips into Manhattan occurred at the holidays, when childhood expectation met Rockette precision. Afterward a hot chocolate at Calico Kitchen sweetened the disappointment.

Ivy came from truly provincial stock. Her father raised dairy cows in rural Wisconsin. She described a childhood awash in mud and cow dung as deep and impossibly difficult to shed as her Norwegian heritage, which sunk back four generations. She’d planned to discard for all eternity, as she put it, those foul-smelling rubber boots and slide her foot into a slender high-heeled satin pump. She wanted to inherit the streets of her literary heroes. She’d longed to brush pastry crumbs from her fingers and sip hot coffee from a paper cup in front of Tiffany’s at sunrise. No trace of a flat Midwestern delivery ever surfaced, not even by the third margarita. We hurried from the Mexican joint in Murray Hill and returned, weaving, to the office. Ivy stopped me at the building entrance. Lowering her oversized sunglasses, she craned her lovely neck to take in the pinkish stone building towering over the corner at 34th Street. “Have you noticed, my dear, that we work in a gigantic phallus?”

Afterward I stood mute and red-faced in my boss’s office before a lacquer-haired Gorgon who would step over the dead to get where she needed to go. I got off with a warning and avoided Ivy for the rest of the day.

She’d handed me her card at lunch with instructions not to forget her. When she was summoned to Myra’s office the following morning, a hush fell over the department, a palpable urgency like the quiet in the pens just after the cattle have been spooked to slaughter. Women poked around their cubicles and agitated the silence with whispers. Myra’s door opened and Ivy, head held high, breezed past as if nothing in the world had happened. She made no eye contact. At her desk she’d gathered a few personal things, put on her sunglasses and left the building.

The fact is I had no idea Ivy was about to lose her job. As I was the only male in the office and gay to boot, gossip soon gravitated to my desk like ants over an abandoned Twinkie. “What a drama queen,” they moaned. One woman laughed wickedly: “I thought for sure she’d have to be escorted out of here by security.” I became a mascot of sorts. My earlier transgression was forgotten. AIDS and the fear of it were never mentioned again.

I had not planned to call Ivy. My concentration was better served meeting other gay men, and that meant I was ready for unattached sex and the thrill of fingertips and smells other than my own. A few weeks later she telephoned me at home, catching me off guard.

“Darling, you have abandoned me,” she mocked querulously. I hadn’t learned the native art of deflection and still the polite boy from West Hartford I apologized immediately, not even venturing to ask how she had got my telephone number. I nervously dished office gossip telling her I thought she was well out of it. She had found freelance editing at another women’s magazine. She hated it. “I don’t do women,” she said and coyly let drop there was an opening at The Nation. When I nonchalantly queried her on her experience she replied, “Sweet boy, when one has worked at The New Yorker, one is prepared for anything.” I was at attention again. “Really, you worked at The New Yorker?” “Yes, darling Christopher. I still know people there….”

The rest of the conversation left me vaguely uneasy. She spoke of swooping me up, taking me under her wing. I felt I had been chosen, if you will, by a mother recently made childless. I already had flown one nest. I promised to call and hung up.

Though stalled in the job at The Companion, my responsibilities increased and soon I was also writing small pieces for the magazine. I avoided the wrath usually directed at female staffers and freely curried Myra’s favor. I think now that I was unnecessarily disdainful of my coworkers, but at the time it was the armor I needed. Meanwhile, I scoured the want ads and kept to my writing pursuit away from the office. Rejection from The New Yorker was made less painful when an underground literary magazine called Van Gogh’s Other Ear accepted a short story.

Nearly a year and a half had passed since I’d met Ivy. On a late evening in December I left my apartment on Lexington Avenue and caught the crosstown bus to 97th Street. A miserable downpour and an available cab scuttled my plan to transfer for the Fifth Avenue bus to a rendezvous in the Village. Just as we took off I noticed a lone female figure at the bus stop. I asked the driver to pull over and called to the woman to join me as I was going all the way downtown and surely could drop her along the way.

She shook her umbrella closed and wedged into the back seat. “Aren’t you a dear,” she said, breathless. I recognized Ivy immediately. “Kismet!” she’d declared, and easing my stupefaction she chatted as if no time at all had passed. I asked her about The Nation. “Ugh,” she huffed, brushing me off with a laugh, “Never let it be said that Liberal men are any less misogynist than their political rivals.” She was still freelancing, mostly at women’s magazines. But she had begun her novel and soon all the rest would be history.

I learned that she lived around the corner from Fifth Avenue on 94th Street. “We are neighbors,” I said and told her I lived just a few blocks east on Lexington. She was clearly pleased. “I have a darling studio in a charming old brownstone. The fireplace is a lovely perk on a night like this. But you simply must visit in the spring when the terrace is in full bloom. I’d love for you to meet Byron.” She left me at Washington Square Park. “Always, if you hear of anything in the business, be a dear and keep me in mind.” I said I would and waved her off. She had never mentioned her destination.

Spring arrived with Ivy’s call. “Your presence is required to celebrate the equinox Christopher. I won’t take no for an answer.” My emotions were all over the place. I might have suffered unrequited love at the time. Whatever it was, her timing was perfect. “Do be a love and bring a bottle of bubbly. Maybe two?” She gave me her address and I set out for her place, rife with the expectation of the season.

On a block of white limestone mansions and imposing low-rise townhouses, Ivy’s modest building tucked in among them. It was a five-story putty-colored affair, gamely holding its own among ornate carved stonework, sweeping staircases, stained glass, and grand bay windows bellied over the quiet street. I stepped down into the entrance, ignored the trashcans huddled there and caught a glimpse of the park at the end of the block.

I searched for her bell and found a handwritten label: “Ivy Olsen, Author of Dreams.” Strange, I thought, but that’s what I liked about New York, the uninhibited display of individuality. Steps creaked underfoot when I grabbed the wide oak banister and made my way on worn carpeted stairs. Cigarettes and jazz drifted from the top above the musky smell of age.

The high-ceilinged studio apartment was cluttered with an odd assortment of furniture I would later learn were all street finds. A king-sized bed nearly filled the room. The only thing missing from an exotic jumble of brocade, silk, and velvet pillows was a hookah. An old-fashioned Royal typewriter sat atop a painted pink Deco-style desk. Yellowed prints of what appeared to be Roman ruins hung in chipped gilt frames. Guests in casual attire stood or sat tentatively anywhere but on the bed. Nearly all were dragging deeply on cigarettes, their drink clutched in a free hand. People who seemed not to understand fully why they were all in one place halted their muted conversation only when Ivy introduced me. “Voila! Here is our guest of honor.” Startled, I drew one of the bottles from its carrier bag and held it up as if in surrender. “Everyone, say hello to Christopher. Soon to be a very famous, um, person.” Ivy drifted off with the champagne to a tiny open kitchen and the company returned to their isolated conversations.

A very large and flaccid man, considerably younger than the rest of them yet dressed in a dark, ill-fitting three-piece suit, descended on me steeped in cologne one can feel even before smelling. His pale face was glazed with a dewy sheen. A bristling black mane and soulful dark eyes were the only hints of what might have been a very handsome fellow once. He grasped my hand with long, surprisingly delicate fingers that were cold to the touch. “Pay no attention to these bores” he whispered. He drew me bedside and I shifted uncomfortably. A quick glance assured me absolutely no one else was interested in engaging me. “You are?” I ventured. “Truman Kaplan. I am Ivy’s attorney.” Later I would find out that he was a court attorney, though at the time they were called law secretaries. “Please,” I said as I withdrew my hand, “call me Christopher.”

The guests disappeared in a seemingly concerted effort to be the first to leave. I was alone with Truman and Ivy. I needed a reasonable excuse to end a Saturday evening so early, but the smell of marijuana intervened. At school I had never been in the company of those who indulged, nor was I much of a drinker. My parents insisted on the nightly cocktail before dinner, but I had less of an inclination in their company. I had been honing my drinking skills since arriving in Manhattan, but as yet had not chanced the temerity to add pot to the mix.

“Come darlings, let’s take this out to the terrace.” It was a cool evening, not yet the balmy heart of spring. We bundled into our coats and sat huddled together on plastic lawn chairs. I could make out the twisted skeleton of a substantial wisteria vine and what appeared to be empty planters surrounding us. “You should see this place in full flower,” Truman said as he dragged deeply. His fingers trailed along my sleeve when he passed the joint to me.

I don’t remember much about our conversation, or how I got home. What I do recall was suddenly demanding to know who Byron was. Where was he? And then barking uproariously, shrieks of laughter that echoed across the backyard canyon and bounced off surrounding terraces when she told me Byron was a pigeon! Ice cubes tinkled against glass like delicate wind chimes. A raging hunger overtook me and it wasn’t until the haze cleared the following day that I realized I had paid for a feast of Szechuan take-out.

All that spring and summer I made my way to Ivy’s. Wisteria burst across the iron railing on her little terrace in clusters of lavender that swayed like feathers on a seductive fan dancer. Yellow and white daffodils shot up from the planters. There were strawberry plants and pots of rosemary and basil. The smell on a warm summer night was intoxicating. There was the inevitable visit from Byron who picked birdseed from Ivy’s open palm.

True to Ivy’s declaration that her favorite thing to make was reservations I was called upon to bring in a little something. Sometimes it was a matter of dropping into the pastry shop on the corner. Or she requested smoked salmon, cheeses, and prepared salads from the gourmet deli on Madison. More often, it was vodka as required. If ever there was anything edible before I arrived it amounted to nothing more than salty tidbits arranged in an assortment of decorative glass and china bowls, her thrift shop finds.

I stopped going to the bars on Christopher Street. Nothing about the predatory life-style appealed to me. I wanted to concentrate on writing. Evenings and summer afternoons on Ivy’s terrace were easier. I had developed a taste for very dry martinis, at which Ivy was particularly skilled. And there was all that pot.

Often Truman was already there or had arrived directly, panting and sweating, as if he had been hastily summoned. He swung between fawning and aloof, but he proved to have a sharp intellect and a wicked sense of humor. Although I assumed he was gay his sexuality remained unspoken. One very late hot summer night we left together. I still had no clear idea where he lived, only that it was further uptown, and he usually caught the bus at Madison Avenue. That night we had been, as usual, drinking martinis and smoking dope. I waved him off at the corner, but he grabbed my arm, pulled me to him. Incensed, I shoved his chest as hard as I could and stammered a harsh, “Good night, then!”

I had faced this uncomfortable position once before.

Through mother’s connections I’d met the first demonstrably effeminate gay man I had ever known. It was a month before I graduated Trinity. Mother invited me along to a cocktail party at Ben Scott’s, a fellow decorator. Father had declined the invitation. Ben’s bachelor pad, as mother referred to the studio apartment on Farmington Avenue, was painted scarlet and shone with gilt. The furnishings embodied the flamboyant eye of a man who wore black velvet smoking jackets and red paisley ascots. He spoke with an unembarrassed lisp, often screeching with laughter at his own joke. Mother revealed I would be leaving for Manhattan and he presented a vintage hand blown glass rooster, flecked with gold. “It’s a beautiful cock, don’t you think?” He embraced me in the front hall, planting a wet kiss full on the lips and I’d shoved him as hard as I could. His gift stayed hidden in my closet at home for a long time.

Ivy’s incredulous response was to assure me Truman was not gay. “Please darling, let’s just keep the peace in the trio of us. Entente cordiale, eh? But Truman did not appear again.

We adjusted. Ivy decided we should focus on my writing. “I shall be your personal editrix,” she announced. When I suggested we read each other’s work-in-progress she demurred. “No, dear boy, we shall concentrate on you.” Her writing was fetal, she said, it still needed time to gestate. She asked me to listen to a popular variety show on radio. “I’m writing a novel about that man. I knew him, you know, quite well.” When sometimes I balked at her over enthusiastic editing of my prose she’d declare: “I am a born editor. I edit the back of cereal boxes for Pete’s sake.” Once she told me about a poem a former lover had sent her. She’d edited it and sent it back. “Poor dear, never could take criticism,” she laughed.

I would arrive to find her in high spirits. “I had a rare male cardinal this afternoon,” she’d announce. “That red energy really infused me.” Or she cheered the mocking bird that had spent the morning on her terrace. “Big as a robin. They are great singers, of course, but in springtime.” Her personality took a hairpin turn by her third martini. I declined cocktails more often, preferring instead the much more languid pot-smoking Ivy.

We fought about my stories. They were too long she complained, too wordy. Any attempt to read my work aloud was met with derision. “You have to give me carte blanche dearest if I am to be any help to you,” she’d say and then order me to light a Dunhill for her. When I’d told Ivy a short story had been accepted in some admittedly obscure periodical she reacted with effusive praise before reminding me of my literary failings. We altered our routine when little tensions threatened to escalate. She’d pop a tape in the videocassette player and repair our friendship with tears shed for poor Bette. “You ought to be ashamed of being Miss Charlotte Vale all your life,” we whispered at the screen.

Winter was the excuse I needed to cool things with Ivy. I needed to focus on getting a new job. I thought it might be time for a real boyfriend.

More than three years passed before I saw Ivy again. One half of a divided Sonny and Cher was now Mayor of Palm Springs. Ed Koch was finally running out of New Yorkers who would vote for him. We were urged by the singer Bobby McFerrin not to worry, but to be happy. I had not lost sight of Ivy though. I’d inherited her dealer and called Chino from time to time. He kept me apprised of Ivy’s new venture, which was making pot brownies that he sold to special customers. He’d just assumed that I knew they slept together.

“Can you rattle right over here, darling? It’s important.” I nearly dropped the phone; more rattled myself. “Please, Christopher. I need to see you.” I’d just got in after having stopped at Hanratty’s on Madison. It was my refuge after a dispiriting week at the Companion. The Irish bartenders were friendly and still honored the third round on the house. Usually I drank red wine, but when I felt flush I rewarded myself with a hefty beef burger and fries, washed down with a couple of martinis. A familiar scent greeted me. I looked up to the mirror behind the bar and recognized Truman. I nodded hello and he moved closer with his drink. We chatted about the one thing we had in common, Ivy. “She’s lost her case,” he said. “She insisted on going it alone finally.” Clueless, I asked him what he meant. “The Nation,” he said. “She sued them for sexual harassment. She stupidly went pro se. I did what I could.” He shook his head, drained his glass and left.

I found her markedly changed, a rounder face, and a neck disappearing into soft folds. She offered white wine, and then coyly referenced her girth. Expecting a sob story about her court case instead I was greeted by a sheaf of photographs. I put my glass down slowly. “What do you think?” she asked, spreading them across the bed. They were 8 x 10 black and white prints of a bare breasted Ivy in a variety of grossly exaggerated poses mostly seated before her typewriter and got up as what I could only describe as a dominatrix. The long black gloves, horned rim glasses, a braided whip, and those large, pendulous breasts!

“Oh, don’t be so shocked,” Ivy scolded. She unraveled the story of her affair with the radio show host. Red River Round Up was broadcast from her home state of Wisconsin. I’d listened to it a few times, but I found the guy’s delivery flat and unappealing despite his homespun persona. He was no Mark Twain.

“My novel has been rejected. He can help me, but he won’t do it.” And the photos, I asked, what’s that all about? She thrust a slim typewritten manuscript at me. “Here darling. Please read it and tell me what you think.” I promised I would, slipped it into my bag, and left.

In the kindest possible manner I approached a critique of the most disheveled writing I had ever read. Whole paragraphs had been repeated in different chapters. She freely used expressions like “sun-dappled” and “his majestic member.” “Be funnier,” I wrote in a note. “This could be a hilarious romp. Forget about him as a lover. Better disguise the main character and run with it.” She left a message on my answering machine, that she must thank me. And ominously she’d added: “In person, when you return the manuscript.”

I was right to dread that meeting. Ivy was drunk, but still feigned graciousness. We did not discuss the manuscript, which I left on the fireplace mantel. She was no longer smoking pot, but the room smelled rank. “Hand me my cigarettes will you dear?” I jokingly told her: “Those things will kill you.” She flung herself onto the bed and drawled something about suicide being good enough for Dorothy. “Dorothy Parker, contrary to her constant carping, did not actually suicide, but rather enjoyed some screenwriting success into her 70s,” I returned testily. I made a show of looking at my watch, and pleading a prior engagement I left Ivy mumbling furiously to herself.

I met my life companion Tom in the summer of ’94, not in a bar, but at a fundraiser for a community health center for gay and lesbian youth. He was the new executive director, recently arrived from Philadelphia. My crisp white tee shirt and khaki Dockers paled alongside the unabashedly loud Hawaiian print shirt that he wore above loose lime green pants. We locked eyes beside the seal pool in Central Park and held that connection while he juggled the hired cover band, celebrity guests, raffle-selling drag queens, and children of same sex parents jostling in line for the face painter.

It was right after father died. Mother sold the house and moved into the Gold building, a luxury hi rise in downtown Hartford. I was left with a healthy legacy and gentle though recurring reminders not to squander it. “Buy something,” she said. I made the decision to leave the Companion and everything changed. Tom and I bought a brownstone in a still marginal Brooklyn neighborhood and crowded into my studio on Lexington while renovations were under way. I was able to free lance and devote more time to the novel that had been on the backburner for too long.

The weekend before we moved into the house in Brooklyn we stopped into Gourmet Garage near my old apartment. Tom insisted on a farewell romantic dinner in our little hovel whereas I was just as happy to throw the key away and never look back. A plump woman dressed in baggy black sweats caught my attention. Hunched over the cheese samples displayed near the deli, she methodically speared one cube at a time, over and over, ignoring the counterman’s disapproving stare. Startled, I realized it was Ivy. Nudging Tom to the cashier I quietly begged him not to turn around. Later, over champagne and an excellent mushroom risotto, he chastised me for my behavior, albeit gently, when I told him the story of Ivy.

I guiltily called Ivy to tell her I was moving to Brooklyn, that I was sorry I had been out of touch, that so much had happened. Her father had also died. “Do come for dinner before you are lost to the hinterland,” she begged. “I cook now. There is much to tell, darling Christopher.”

“Call me Rosemarie,” Ivy announced when I arrived bearing the requested white wine. She beamed from an outsized caftan that she fanned about her like an aging flamenco dancer. Her hair was still frosted, though cut very short, which emphasized her fuller face and even redder lips. There was an unfamiliar scent in the room. “I am now known as Rosemarie Laitue,” she boldly announced, drawing my attention to the home-cooked banquet displayed on her desk. She was going to make me try every single dish, she said. Before I could ask she told me she was writing a cookbook for eastsiders on a budget. “Isn’t that divine darling? Me, who only makes reservations? It will be called, “Down and Out On the Hill, Carnegie Hill.” Her good mood was infectious and I laughed along with her as I sampled surprisingly tasty bits from each dish.

Humor wore thin as the evening wore on. She’d been in Wisconsin for the better part of the winter, watching her dad dying from cancer. “Watching?” I blurted out. “Yes, dear boy. I’m a persona non grata with the Olsen clan”, she said, slipping into the familiar doleful whine. “Dad never forgave me for moving to New York, for changing my name. “I was a Pat,” she said, addressing my surprise. Distractedly she picked up a poker and scratched among the ashes. “When I returned ‘Hotel Ivy’ was a mess. They toasted marshmallows in the fireplace, for Pete’s sake.”

It was her idea to change her name to Ivy. A pretty good one, she reckoned. Pat didn’t exactly ring with joie de vivre. Pat was fat. Ivy is light, thin as a boy and jolly well loved by all. Her father, until his death, called her Pat. Ivy gathered the voluminous cloth about her and sighed. “I walk a little further every day now. The recession will certainly help the diet.”

After awhile, maintaining a sensible conversation was impossible. Ivy tripped over one fragment to the next, never following an even path. She mumbled something about the Asian grocer in the 24-hour shop on Madison. “He shouts after me,” she blurted. “I don’t know what I did. I feel guilty, but why should I? I have a long standing account with him.”

The hour was later than I had anticipated. Tom would be home, waiting to hear what I had to report of my strange friend. She called after me from the landing: “He’s written a blurb for my book.” I turned to mouth ‘who’ and she said, “You know, Mister Radio. He wrote that I am a real dish.”

I never saw Ivy again. Over the years she’d sent e-mails, each more disjointed than the last.

“My manuscript was turned down. The mushrooms were the fait accompli. One just can’t, it seems, recommend hunting for fungi in Central Park anymore.”

“Thought I’d be dead by now, or in an asylum or worse…married.”

“I hurt him, he hurt me back? A cry for help? The slack is unraveling at great speed right now...”

“I am clever about lunch. Tastings at Dean and Deluca. A good day I can get to Fairway and Zabar’s. Anyway, I eat like a bird, as you know.”

“Steaming hangover. He did something that can only be designed to make me upset. Sent me a photo with his new 23 yr old girlfriend making love. I'm drinking a glass of red wine, as an act of rehabilitation.”

My novel was published to limited, though promising reviews. I would not be inundated with invitations from talk show hosts just yet. But it was displayed at the Corner Bookshop on Madison Avenue. “I saw your book in the window,” Ivy wrote. “I cannot go in there anymore. There was a little incident…trés trieste.”

After 9/11, I telephoned Ivy and did not leave a message on her voice mail.

I called again, on impulse, to tell her I was leaving New York. We were a decade into the new millennium, and it seemed everything and nothing had changed. Tom missed Philadelphia. An opportunity arose for him. The market was rebounding and we sold the house. Mother was both disappointed and pleased. She liked the trips into Manhattan to visit her son, the writer. But she adored Tom and was easily seduced with the promise of a guestroom. Tom had already left for Philly. I stayed behind to wrap up the closing on our house.

Ivy had left a rambling message on my cell phone: “Darling, I’d imagined that at this stage of the game I’d be thought of as, um, a major player. Not a kiss and tell, oh, um, how déclassé. No, I was thinking along more literary lines. My own, that is. Sadly (sighs) not been published. Yet. There is still, oh at the very least the, um, expectation someone would have written a book about me. Settle for a slim volume of musings? Maybe. Depends on the writer. It works for you. (Exhales) all about personalities, a different world. Tweet used to be about birds. One danced under the stars and not with them, darling. And why would I watch TV, when I haven’t, oh can’t remember when. Plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.

Soon after that call I bundled up and stepped gingerly into the makings of a record snowstorm. I knew it was nuts, but I wanted to go to the upper eastside of Manhattan. I wanted to see Central Park under fresh snow. The big meadow at the 97th Street entrance was fenced off for renovation, and to stave off disappointment I headed for Hanratty’s. The façade was a jarring bright yellow; an Italian name now shone from under those tiny bistro lamps that were popping up all over. I ordered a martini from the uninterested bartender, but left it half finished. I knew I had come all this way to see Ivy. Muffled under a thick, woolen scarf I headed for 94th Street.

I ran down the names on the mailboxes. No sign of Ivy among them. She could be going under another name. But there was no Rosemarie either. Snow lapped into drifts at the entrance. I knew I had better head back to Brooklyn. The night sky was black, like a blotter that catches errant stars. What’s in a name, I thought. She’s probably moved on.

I made my way to the subway, carefully stepping through streets yet to be shoveled. Wet snow fell about me like little reminders. Ivy. Ivy. Ivy. She’d tapped into a nascent daring in me. Later I realized it was her desperation that shaped the tone of us. She demanded I be called Christopher and from that moment I’d insisted on my full name. The rooster is perched among Tom’s collection of Venetian glass.

GO NOT SO LIGHTLY is an original 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. © February 2011