Tuesday, June 19, 2007

That Brittle Stasis

Quick rewind:

On the plane to NYC, I sat next to a serious looking young man, wire glasses, Michigan t-shirt, hardcover novel in his hands (didn't recognize the author). He kept checking his watch, looked around, went back to his book, then repeated the routine.

On one of his passes, our eyes met, and I said something innocuous to break the ice. Turns out the kid's about to enter his senior year at U of M, majoring in Middle and Near East studies, and is learning to speak and read Arabic.

"Well, that should come in handy, given where we're going."

"Yeah. I'm looking to get into the NSA."

Hoo boy! I hit the statist goldmine! Here's a kid, maybe 21, whose dream is to work for the National Security Agency. Only once before, back in the 80s, had I met someone like him, a young female acquaintance of an old friend of mine who had just begun to work for the CIA. Since this was during the Central American wars, I naturally called her out on this, and soon discovered that she knew very little about the mass murder her employers were overseeing at the time. This sent me into minor hysterics, and before long she and I were loudly trading insults in the restaurant we were in, near the Museum of Natural History. I confess I was quite cruel, going for her throat with everything I (then) had. She began to sputter, then cry, and quickly left the restaurant.

Another victory for The People! Viva Mí!

Well, age has mellowed me somewhat, so I had no interest in attacking this kid. Far from it, in fact. We talked about recent Middle East history, and he was pretty well versed (Juan Cole had been one of his professors). I took the discussion a bit deeper, getting into the tangled roots of Zionism, Palestinian nationalism, Ba'athism, and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. While I didn't hide my feelings, neither did I pontificate, for I wanted to see how much the kid could take before he tipped his ideological hand. But he never really did. Seems the kid views the NSA as a straight career choice, few flags attached. Yes, he's going into the Air Force for a couple of years first; but there he'll become an officer, and once he's discharged, his path into the NSA will become much smoother. An Arabic-speaking Air Force vet working on translations? That's about as steady a gig as you can get these days. And I'm sure it pays well. Too bad it's in the service of endless regional war. But hey, you gotta go where the work is.

Now, where was I?

After the rooftop party, Smilp, A., and I went back to their place for the night. A. went to bed, and Smilp screened a documentary about "TV Party", the Manhattan cable access show that ran from 1978-82, hosted by Glenn O'Brien, a writer for Warhol's Interview. I'd only seen snippets of this show, as its run ended just before I moved to New York in the Fall of '82. But the boho mood and ramshackle downtown style of "TV Party" took me back to my initial days on the Lower East Side, where heroin was openly sold and used, everything was covered in graffiti, and people's tiny apartments doubled as performance spaces. The docu is really worth having, especially if you like free form television. Plus, the show featured Chris Stein of Blondie (along with Debbie Harry from time to time), David Byrne, Fab 5 Freddy, Klaus Nomi, Charles Rocket playing punk accordion, and a very young Jean-Michel Basquiat, who at the time went by the tag Samo, an aphoristic downtown graffiti artist. As one of the commentators put it, back then, you didn't need to be rich to live in Manhattan. Thanks to Giuliani, Bloomberg, and the many pigs in support, them days is long gone.

Next morning, I bid Smilp and A. adieu, then went down to Soho to drop my bag at the art gallery where my close friend Tim works. Tim was the Best Man at my wedding, was with me the morning my son was born, and together we closed more than our share of bars. So whenever I'm in town, we always hook up.

Tim had to work until 7, after which he would meet me uptown for a gathering of more friends. When I arrived at the gallery, I noticed it was in the same building where Michael O'Donoghue lived as a starving writer in the mid-to-late 60s. I immediately mentioned this to Tim, who thought it was such a strange coincidence that it gave him goosebumps. While researching "Mr. Mike," I came to this building several times, but the whole place was then shuttered up, so I could never get inside to look around. Imagine my delight when I could finally see the place where O'Donoghue wrote and imagined "Phoebe Zeit-Geist." Several people had told me how the loft was laid out, and I'd seen a few photos (which are in my book), and they didn't lie: the apartment was your classic cold water flat, with long, warped wooden floors, a tiny kitchen and adjoining bathroom. It was easy to picture a young O'Donoghue living there at a time when Soho was pretty much deserted. I snapped a few pix on my cell, thanked Tim for letting me in, then walked to the West Village to meet another dear friend for lunch -- Steve G.

I've known Steve for nearly 20 years. He used to do volunteer work at FAIR, and always had something significant to add at our weekly political meetings. Like me, Steve's self-educated, a working class intellectual who's incredibly perceptive and smart, and who possesses a wicked sense of humor. After lunch, he and I took the 2 Train out to Park Slope, Brooklyn, the last neighborhood where the wife, kids, and I lived before moving to Michigan. I hadn't been there since the move, which occurred during a traumatic period in our lives, and I wondered how I would feel walking down 7th Avenue once again. It was a weird sensation -- most of the stores and businesses from that time are still there, and I felt like a ghost floating through the past, experiencing once again the dread and anxiety of those brutal, final days in the city.

Steve suggested we walk over to Prospect Park. It was a beautiful, sunny day in the low-70s, and like 7th Ave, the park brought back all kinds of feelings, mostly wistful. We strolled past the baby playground where I used to take the boy before he could walk, and it was still in good shape and being used by another generation of parents. We then ended up on a bench under a tree, and chatted about various topics while watching kids romp around, a group of teen girls text messaging en masse, seniors walking and talking in Hebrew, and dogs chasing balls, leaping up to make a catch. Whatever anxiety I had soon vanished, and I allowed the whole park to swallow me up.

Later, en route to our evening gathering on upper Broadway, Steve and I spent some quality time in Central Park, snagging a bench next to the toy boat lake just off 5th Ave. I hadn't felt so relaxed in months. A saxophone in the near distance played as kids sailed their boats, parents pushed strollers while their children pushed tinier strollers, couples held hands, strikingly beautiful women strode by, and people walked their dogs. Just to our right, a performance artist portrayed a living statue as numerous tourists took pictures of her. Against this lush backdrop, with the sun filtering through the trees, Steve and I began to talk about comedy and film, then discussed Godard's work. As we chatted, a very attractive, 20-something woman sat next to Steve. She smoked a cigarette and appeared to be in a tense mood. Each time Godard's name came up, her head snapped in our direction. Finally, when I said something about Godard's cinematic capabilities, the woman jumped in with a deep French accent.

"Of course Godard is capable! He is a great filmmaker!"

For the next few minutes, Steve and I exchanged thoughts about Godard with this intense French woman, who somehow thought we were denigrating the director. But before the conversation really gelled, the woman looked at her watch, said "I must leave now!", sprang up and headed toward 5th Ave. And that was that.

Have I mentioned how much I love the city?

Not long after this, Steve and I met up with Doug Henwood and Beth Renaud at the back of an old Irish pub on Broadway. I hadn't seen Beth since our days as copy editors at Billboard, and she looked great, as did Doug, who is clearly lifting weights in defiance of how radical economic writers are supposed to appear. Pints of Harp began filling the table, and soon we were joined by Louis Proyect, Steve Rendall, Isabel MacDonald, who is FAIR's new Communications Director, Liza Featherstone and her and Doug's baby boy, Ivan, and finally Tim, with my bag in tow. It was a fine, funny gathering, with various conversations occurring at once. This is what I truly miss about New York, for I don't have anything like it here in Michigan, apart from my meetings with Juan Cole, that is. To say that I savored every moment of that evening would be understatement.

After several hours, the gathering broke up, and we said our goodbyes. Tim and I grabbed a cab to the East Side for a nightcap at American Trash, then back to his place where Tim's wife Suzy had graciously set up my bed. Suzy's about to deliver their first child, but she's as energetic as ever, and one of the sweetest people I know. It was the perfect ending to the perfect day; and the following afternoon, I flew back to Michigan, smiling at everyone I met along the way. To see me smiling a lot these days is rare, but that's what New York brings out of me. It will always be home.