June 25, 2010

Vestry Street

Many people talk about unconditional love, including Oprah and Dr. Phil, as if it were something that human beings are capable of, the pious cant and personal divinization marketed by pop spirituality notwithstanding. Mere love, apparently, doesn't quite get us there any more. Those pesky conditions do spring up of course, usually sooner than later, often the moment our convenience isn’t consulted. Yeah, I know... unconditional love does have its limits. But that's OK. Be real, and we'll get along fine. "Let your 'yes' be yes, let your 'no' be no." Love, in my experience, is pretty amazing as-is.

Steven was certainly one of the most generous human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure to know, asking nothing in return. He plucked me out of a difficult situation and let me stay in the Christopher Street apartment of a friend of his who was abroad for months, no strings, no rent, no problem, until it ran out. And when it did, he invited me to join the tribe at the Vestry Street loft. He lived there, off an on, with his boyfriend Earl, while wisely maintaining his own little pied-a-terre elsewhere in the Village.

Steven and Earl were restaurateurs, mostly, proprietors of Odile, a bisro near Tribeca, named after the wicked black swan in Swan Lake. Earl had been, for many years, in the corps de ballet at New York City Ballet, and the loft was a crossroad for a lot of dancers, among others, forever passing through on their way to Tanglewood, or Quogue, or Key West. We lived there, my roommate Bill and I, in our own little annex, for most of the late seventies. Herewith, a photo album, with captions. The rest of the saga awaits a more ambitious day...

Steven was a talented shiatsu masseur and naturalist, a New York native. We had dinner together, just the two of us, at the loft once - he made roast cornish game hens stuffed with millet.

That's Earl, doing the arabesque. Seated behind him, all in one chair, are Jerry, Rob, and Lemuel. Weezy looks on.

The ceiling at the loft was high enough to play badminton under. This is where we left phone, and assorted other, messages for one another. There were few personal computers back then. The big technology was the stereo, a monster. Music came and went in binges. We'd play Nina Simone for a month. Or Traffic. Aretha. Dr. Buzzard. Maria Callas. Jazz on the edge of insanity.

Rob smokes a Winston. He did prep at the restaurant, as did I for a time. Rob revealed to me the zen of prep.


Jerry paints the floor. I told him to paint his hand, and he did. He'd do anything.

Dennis paints his eyelashes orange with a match stick. We were dressing up for a night at some club. Dennis had beautiful eyebrows. He was a regular in my underground super-8 movies.

Hunky little mad John Rosser, a musician and an artist with a pirate vibe. One of his sculptures makes an appearance in one of my stories. He invited me into his bedroom at the loft once, where he was crashing with his girlfriend, Chloe. Half undressed himself, and with the three of us sitting on the bed, he demonstrated, after hiking up his girlfriend’s T-shirt, how a pencil could not be made to lodge under her breast. It fell. He tried again. It fell again. “That’s important,” he said.

Nietsche. An agreeable cat, like most big orange toms. I don't have a photo of Oyster, the other cat. Their names, and their names only, were on the front door of the loft.

Peter was a very bright and adventurous human being, a novelist, my bud.
We went a few places with each other that I can't go with you.

Felipe, the Indian from Village People, out of costume. We'd done one of the shoots for the group's first album cover on the roof of the loft. (The record came out that summer. I had a pretty good time at Fire Island that year.) At the Bicentennial party (the loft had a commanding view of the Hudson River) I'd described this to Louis Falco who tried hard to get me to go up there with some of his dancers for some shots. But a light drizzle had begun, and I was nervous about lightning and the camera and the rain, and declined... something I remember now with burning regret.

Chris. Had I remembered, at the above mentioned party, that Steve Sondheim and I shared a mutual interest in Chris, we would have had more to talk about. (Well, that hit the page with a clang...) The last time I saw Chris, ten years later, he was sitting crouched, high up in one of the sculptures at Battery Park, beautiful as ever, mad as a cat, watching the world going around. I saw in his eyes that he half-remembered me. I didn't have the presence of mind to not look startled. He made a sweeping gesture with his hand, said "Whoosh!" and I continued on my way...

Tom, a dancer. I photographed him a lot. Tom had a remarkable face.

Bob, a regular, a Texan, and a tropical plant dealer. He did a lot of work for Tiffany's, a lot of which I photographed.

David worked as a paralegal at the midtown headquarters of a huge corporation involved in a class action lawsuit against it. Although we never talked about it explicitly, I can say with confidence that David had little hesitation doing whatever he could, overtly or otherwise, to favor the victims. He had an astonishing knack for networking, and was forever turning up with tickets to some premier, piano-side seats for Blossom Dearie, a summer cottage on Quogue Island. The last time I saw David was at his 10th Street apartment, overlooking a garden. His boyfriend had died of AIDS, David was holding on. I brought caviar. We munched and talked and sipped Chablis until the sun went down.

I think Dennis took this one. I was crowding thirty by then, as were we all.

June 17, 2010

Of the realm

I use the coin-operated laundry at the condo, so I’ve developed a watchfulness about quarters,
and sequester them from the rest of my coins. They’re kept in a jar of their own in the kitchen.
The rest, pennies, nickels, and dimes, go ecumenically in a dish on the sideboard, handfuls of
which I grab when I’m on my way out. My strategy when making a cash purchase is to accept change
if it is likely to include two or more quarters. So if the decimal portion of my purchase is
over fifty cents, I dig into my pocket and tender the change. I suspect this is not altogether
appreciated by cashiers, since I assume it’s easier to make change than to receive and sort it.

When I was a boy pocket change played a significantly more important role in my life than it
does now. Its value loomed large, first, because it was usually the only money I had, and
second, because it was simply worth more then.

Coins had totemic significance. Personality. Pennies, earth-colored, acorn-common, and
imperishably friendly, were useful in many non-transactional ways that would have been
unthinkable with their nobler cousins. Markers, shims, decorations, flattened on railroad tracks
into gleaming copper wafers by awesomely indifferent trains, an occasional, and affordable,
entertainment. Nickels were friendly and familiar, like pennies, but bigger. If pennies were
dackels, nickels were labs. And yet there was something “just right” about nickels. Spendable
but never trivial. Good ole nickel!

Compact but powerful, bright as the planet mercury and just a swift, the dime was a sports car,
a fitting transition from the pedestrian ways of pennies and nickels, to the upward mobility of
serious coin. True silver made its first and brightest appearance in this exciting little
paragon of the decimal system. Such was my fondness for this starlet that I once found myself
sitting on the lawn at the lake, moping, after having lost one somewhere in the cruel summer
grass. My dear aunt Marilyn, having noticed my sorry state, came out and sat down next to me to
help find the errant pet. But the lawn had claimed it. She comforted me as best she could,
patiently and wisely. I listened. But my inner brat kept wondering if she was going to match her
words with a replacement dime... the way aunts do. She never did, which left me fiercely
disappointed. It wasn’t until decades later that I realized that the time and heart she had
shared with me were, of course, worth infinitely more than their little silver proxy. I made it
a point to tell her exactly that, not long before she died.

“But I didn’t have a dime to give you,” she said, and I realized, shamefully, that my
disappointment had made an impression. I forged on...

“You gave me more than any dime, aunt Marilyn. You gave me love and wisdom. And that’s something
I’ll never forget.”

“Thank you, Joe,” she said.

The mere presence of an eagle-carved quarter in hand or pocket, its weight and monetary
gravitas, conferred those same qualities upon its owner. Nothing less than Washington’s
Romanesque profile, rendered strikingly articulate by the coin’s leap in scale, adorned the
noble coin. Quarters were sufficient unto themselves to purchase things, a popsicle, a decal, a
roll of caps, that only a coalition of their lesser compatriots could approach, while often
multiplying, by way of change, their number. The fertile quarter had the power to sire children.

I worked for a time, when I first moved to Staten Island, at a coffee supply store at South
Street Seaport in Manhattan. One night a pushy tourist and his wife came by, demanding change
for a dollar, quarters specifically, for some vending machine. “We don’t give change without a
purchase,” said the proprietress, whom we all adored. Indignant, the man complained, rather
nonsensically, “I don’t know how you people make any money.”

“We try to sell things,” Leslie shot back. The man retreated amid a hail of guffaws.
Quarters, and the lady, were not for burning.

With no name of its own the fifty-cent piece seemed to have been hewn, like a shard of flint,
from a solid block of monetary virtue. Fifty Cent Piece. Big, bossy, rare, the half-dollar had
the mien of a visiting warlord. Half-dollars were never shiny. This was weapons-grade coinage,
reserved for only the most serious spending, but kept primarily as a threat. “Watch out,
Mother’s Day Card. I have a fifty cent piece in my dresser, and I’m not afraid to use it.” And
although two quarters may have sufficed, few things were more empowering than dropping The Boss
at the ticket booth of the roller coaster at Edgewater, a vintage Detroit amusement park,
already fraying around the edges, that was my preadolescent Valhalla. 

“Did you see that, Vinny?” I could imagine the ticket girl shouting to the roustabout who ran
the ride. “Put this kid in the front car. He’s a mogul.”

I was fond of coasters. I rode them, I drew them, I dreamed them. “Dad, what do you call those
guys who run the roller coaster?” I once asked.

“Riff raff,” he said.

“That’s what I want to be when I grow up. A riff raff.”

One received the Queen of Coins, the silver dollar, with something akin to wonder. Dedicated to
ceremonial visits and honorific transactions, the silver dollar wore its polish with majestic
serenity. From the earliest birthday that I can remember, to the year I graduated from high
school, my uncle gave me a silver dollar and a box of chocolates to celebrate the day I was
born. I sometimes wish that I’d saved them all. But the majority found their way into the stream
of commerce as some passing lust or necessity claimed them. Which is not to say they were not
well spent. Youthful lusts become abiding passions. And the front car on the coaster is reserved
for no one, not even aspiring riff-raff.

One commemorative silver dollar that I do still have, and it’s matching fifty-cent piece, were
given to me by my brother in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, and his
visit to me on Staten Island for the occasion. Twenty years later he gave me a safe to keep it
in, along with whatever else may need safekeeping, in this hurricane-kissed kingdom by the sea.
There they sit, gleaming in their elegant case flocked with royal-blue, stamped with imperial
gold. I show them off to friends or visitors once in a while, an occasion to rhapsodize about
that memorable weekend. Only the two of us understand the narrative that the gracious metaphor
that that gift represents. And that is the way it will remain.

I’ll dig into my quarter jar and do a laundry tonight. I’ve gotten into the habit of doing a
load during Wheel Of Fortune, when the machines in the laundry room sit silent and are mine, all
mine. Four quarters to wash, four to dry. Ka-ching. And out tumble the functional equivalent of
new clothes. “A fair exchange is no robbery,” my grandmother, who enjoyed slipping me a quarter
once in a while, for no reason at all, used to say.

June 9, 2010



My new neighbor Kathy, who turned out to be an avid kayaker, joined me for an outing on Tuesday down the Estero River.

We put in at the Estero River Outfitter's launch, where a friendly and knowledgeable salt pointed us in the right direction.

map courtesy The Great Calusa Blueway

It was a sweltering day. Minutes into the paddle we were enclosed in an exotic setting for all the world like a scene from Apocalypse Now. "Are we in Florida or Cambodia?" I wondered. We half expected a detachment of chalk-dusted natives, bristling with spears, to be lurking around the bend.

Dragonflies abounded... and bounded, difficult to capture from the boat. We spotted a half-dozen species, from garnet red to bottle blue. This one had a touch of bronze on the sunlight side.

How long before these rivers and trails, their ecologies eons in the making, run desolate with oil and blood and death? I'm taking in as much as I can, while we can.

Wildlife on the kayak trail seems remarkably tolerant of water-borne visitors, and lets me drift close. I have never seen this kind of bird before.

Another bird, a song bird, unseen, serenaded our passing by...

The somewhat miasmic Estero, dense with the cycle of life and decay, is sporadically perfumed by crinum americanum, a flower which shares much, in form and fragrance, with jasmine.

It was so quiet on the river that we could hear the bamboo bend and groan and tick in the breeze.

Kathy is an adventurous sort, dauntless and great company. Before moving to Florida, she spent two years in Kenya, with a project funded by the Rockefeller Foundation out of Duke to enhance the African Studies collection at the University of Nairobi library. She's also dealt poker games in Las Vegas. 

Two and a half hours in, the midday heat was upon us, "burning like a man," and we turned back, deferring the bay for another trek. Sodden and seared, we grabbed iced tea at the shack, and piled into the truck for the trip back to the Cape.

June 7, 2010