Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 19 - THE SLAVE TRADE

I was not thinking much about Gillian, the blonde girl I had been dating and found so appealing, even when she talked too much about Buddhism. As I drove, I was thinking more about my new red-headed friend Tina, who had a butterfly tattoo over her shoulder blade and passed on the art magazines that came to her sister’s uptown gallery. I was thinking further back to Susi and Judy and Vannie and Kitty – time appearing now as if all time took place in the same time. I could see Tina in the passenger seat keeping track of the tapes. Maybe I was lonely.

At moments I felt forward movement from the inside – as if now at last I had gotten rid of such nonsense as the Humphrey Bogart ideal, and the need for death-defying adventuring and being lionized for what I would write.

The first time I had talked before an ACOA group – it was a big meeting in the Village – I went in scared even though I was a practiced public speaker. When it was over it felt not just that I had declared what I needed to declare and that their applause was heartfelt. My main sensation was that I had secretly crossed over the line from the free world into family territory, stolen the most dangerous of my family’s secrets, then fled back across the border to give give the secrets to the people I had chosen.

And now I was in an aftermath in which I might need neither bravery, nor bravado, nor extra adrenaline, nor stealth. In this place I was in I was accompanied by original art in my head, and recorded song on the tape deck, and trees billowing out in mountain air, and memories, always memories. This place I traversed now, Vermont, with its lakes and green mountains and its carefully tended fields of grass and clover.

I remembered finding that the Alps as I had known them in Slovenia seemed so different from the alps in Switzerland because in Switzerland they had been turned into a manmade landscape. In Vermont, like in Switzerland, you could look up into the mountains and see carefully tended fields in different shade of green, arranged in perfect squares or rectangles, right up there in high places. The old family people in the summer crowd in New Hampshire always said the White Mountains region was just like Switzerland – which was one of the those absurd things I used to hear as a child, and often thought I was at fault for finding absurd. Sometimes the White Mountains actually seemed mainly black and gray granite, never tended except by natural disaster – lightning and avalanches - or by an occasion ski-trail gash. Sometimes a little soft and blurry, but never carefully tended. And where our families lived in summer, clouds would descend and you would not see the White Maintains for days, even weeks, which was like Slovenia too. I spent nearly a month in Ljubljana before I realized I was surrounded by high peaks.

Now maybe some people went to Switzerland merely to risk death on the Matterhorn but most, I think, went for the softer beauty, the reason often given for exhalting Vermont. Maybe it was too much softness, land that had been tended so carefully it did not look like what it really was. Maybe Vermont was too soft for me. It had no outlet to the North Atlantic, though New Hampshire had Portsmouth, from which clipper chips and whalers had sailed. When I was 14, the slowest student in school, I began what I hoped would be a novel I would write about a cabin boy sailing from Portsmouth – a character I stole form one of my grandfather’s novels. Much later, because I had once been commissioned to write about such things for a notoriously slick publishing company, I knew that ships that sailed from New England might be filled with men following the whales, but were almost surely on the New England angle of the triangular slave trade.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 18 - ELSEWHERE

Leonard Cohen, I had not heard about him, did not know what everyone else knew, for I had been out of the country, far, far away. When I first went to Bangkok I was impressed that it was 10,000 miles away whether from New York you flew east over Europe or west over Hawaii. The air fair was within pennies of being the same either way.

So when everyone knew that Leonard Cohen had come down from Montreal, I was nowhere near. And now I am getting him on the my happy car’s tape deck, though getting him through the sweet, but maybe watered down, sounds of Judy Collins, who is also introducing me to Joni Mitchell and others I have missed.

And Judy Collins has another song that is new to me but not to practically everyone with whom I empathize – this one about whales – The saving of the whales never having been on my radar in the years before I went away. And here are these great giant sea mammals on my tape deck – a song that starts in mid-19th century Scotland with a guy setting off on one of the new steamships that go much farther than sailing ships. He is going all the way to Greenland, where till steam engines the whales have been safely out of range. And the Judy Collins version has actual whales on the tape, their hollow, sad piercing cries, a kind of instant nostalgia, more haunting and evocative even than the sound of distant locomotives at night.

Farewell to Tarwathie, adieu Mormand Hill,
And the dear land of Grimmond I bid thee farewell

For I’m bound out for Greenland and ready to sail,
In hopes to find riches in hunting the whale.

And the sad, haunting whale sounds come back before the song is finished. And I am wondering about those decades of adventure and danger and yearning – and who gained and who lost.

And then I am listening to Roger Whittaker, who is as comforting – dare I think “light weight?” – as Judy Collins, and through whom I am catching up on even more that I have missed or knew but forgot. And through this Roger Whittaker I also I have another folk song, an Irish one, known to everyone who stayed in the country after I left, for I had missed Cat Stevens doing “Morning has broken” – as omnipresent in America in the early seventies, I learn now, as Frankie Laine’s “Up in the Morning” had been in the early fifties.

And strangely each time I come out of the city and point my car north, in the direction of what I know is far more a family place of hidden horror than just the beautiful place I had once thought it, I turn up the volume not on a dirge, which is what I think I should be doing, but, to my surprise, such lines as,

Mine is the sunlight
Mine is the morning
Born on the one light
Eden saw play

Praise with elation
Praise every morning
God’s recreation
Of the new day.

Once when I was back home for a brief spell I want to jail in Mississippi, not because I was drunk or disorderly or a loiterer but because I was in the civil rights movement. Now I am thinking that in the these past years I would have been out saving whales, and I think too of saving Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, as well as warring on poverty and promoting civil rights.
Saving the whales and myself and all the others. Janis Joplin. Janis Joplin giving head on an unmade bed in the Chelsea Hotel.Children were not part of my actual world, but now I think I could have been catching the falling children the way Holden Caulfield wanted. And maybe – if everything had been calm and I had not sought a certain sort of adventure – I would have been looking not so much for sweet longing as for love.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 17 - VERMONT DECISION

She does most of the talking now that we are dating. Sort of dating. One night, shortly before I leave for my summer in Vermont, we are in a still little known, wonderfully seedy, Italian garden restaurant on lower Sixth Avenue, to which I first took a tall, passionate, rich girl 26 years ago when I was 24, in 1961, and drank huge amounts of Italian white wine, and was about to board a freighter to get to my real girlfriend Vannie in Rome. It is different now in that I am not drinking now. This woman, whom I think of as a girl, this Gillian, seems outside time, as does my entire life this year.

In this garden restaurant the subject of my father’s death comes up – how he died three years back in unbearable pain, his entire chest an open wound, dying in a fifth rate hospital in Naples, Florida, where a staff fearful of lawsuits withheld morphine, and none of the family, none except me, the black sheep, and my angry then wife in a failing marriage, came to sit by him. I am reminded right now of how often I talk with people and tune out what they have to say, for Gillian is suddenly giving a very precise, very linear Buddhist explanation of what happens in death, a numbered-item-by-item outline of a version, exactly what happens and exactly what it means, and this time her talking bothers me too much for me to tune it out, though usually she does not bother me no matter how much she talks, usually I like her talk, and I have a certain childish feeling of maybe having the upper hand because, since she does most of the talking, she knows much less about me than I know of her.

One day in September, hints of autumn in the air, one day in September after I am back from Vermont and New Hampshire with the aqua Mustang, I leave my car in its hard won parking space between the union houses and I take my bicycle down in the elevator of my small building and ride up to the Modern Art Museum again. I chain the bike again, with one detached wheel again, to the usual post just west of the museum, and as usual Gillian is right there being an appealing sidewalk sales person with blonde hair and healthy skin and eyes that I think speak of sex – there with these African fetish figures that it turns out she buys by weight at some harbor warehouse. Like ordinary people we talk about the weather. Autumn in the air. And soon the autumn foliage. And I mention that my birthday is coming up. We hug, but in the meetings we go to everybody always hugs, just the way everybody passes around phone numbers. And she says something special must be done for my birthday, saying it in a way I almost am ready to think she would say it if we were lovers, which we are not. And talk of the fall foliage puts me in mind of Vermont. Just a little change of color in Central Park now, but in northern New England it is nearing the peak of the foliage season, as it always does up there at the same time as my birthday, which is September 23rd.

Another figure from long ago, step brother to my friend in Rutland, also lives in Vermont now – Jason Bacon, whom I have known since we were in the 3rd grade in Connecticut. By chance we both wound up in Indiana just after college, Yale, Princeton, and just after that both did Ft. Benning only a month apart in basic training before he went to Germany and I went to Atlanta. When two years later we were sharing an apartment, the first for both of us in New York, we were going to start a magazine, and then both moved away from it, he making certain decisions that led do his current state, retired before 50 with investment banking money, spending part of the year in a big house in London, and part in a big house near the genteel college town of Middlebury, Vermont, and in Vermont he also has an extra house – he would later call it a “camp” – on Lake Champlain. We met there one day in the summer when I came over from Rutland to go with him to try out his new Boston Whaler. We didn’t talk about my investigations into my dark family past, which was linked close to his own family past that he maybe really believed was not so dark as what I had seen – which included his father smacking his stepmother in a practiced way to cause sharp pain. I said something about our alcoholic families and Jason said he did not know what I was talking about. Jason said I could make use of the lake house almost any time I wanted.

Up on 53rd Street yet again, on the sidewalk with the fetish figures, Gillian and I are talking about fall foliage, which both of us know but have rarely seen for many years, and I mention that in a few days it will be my birthday, and she says – as if we are very close – that we must do something really special for my birthday, and I say let’s go to Vermont, where I have this amazing place to stay and where the foliage is nearing its peak. I don’t say lets go to New Hampshire, but she knows my unfolding New Hampshire horror stories. I say let’s go to Vermont and she turns her eyes right on me and says, like the girl I take her to be, without the darkness I know because of those meetings, “Fred, what a super idea!”

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 16 - LIONS, TIGERS, ZEBRAS

In the spring of this year, 1986, I would ride my bike up to the Museum of Modern art. By this time I was in museums seeing my life in paintings every day.

This new bike was a Raleigh, an English racing bicycle. Before I rode it away from the store on 14th Street I had them change the handle bars from the bent-in attack-style racing kind, where you are so hunched over you see nothing but the road in front of you, to something like the bike with wide handle bars that I rode in Connecticut before I was old enough to drive. With the wide handle bars I can lean back and take in what is around me – the trees, the water. Sometimes when I am on the bicycle/runners foot path along the East River, sweating, puffing, downward looking joggers pass me. Sometimes I am up at dawn and circle Manhattan, up along the Hudson, then down along the East River. Sometimes there is a limousine waiting by the helipad on the Hudson for some mobster coming in from Atlantic City, a uniformed driver and a burly cat-eyed bodyguard standing looking at the sky. Sometimes there are still nearly naked working girls, some of them surprisingly pretty, on the look out for Jersyites who come through the tunnels. Sometimes on the East Side down past Stuyvesant Town on the lawns by the public houses there are, as the day goes on, Hispanic men setting up illegal outdoor casinos, like the illegal casinos at Italian street fairs except that here they are in operation every day in the year that the weather permits. Makeshift black jack and craps tables between stands with roasted meats and rum.

I stop just west of the museum, remove the front wheel and with a chain called Kryptonite lock it with the rest of the bike to a “No Parking” sign post. I hear a voice – sweet, with English overtones - saying “What a neat bike,” Fred. It is Gillian. We may not have met yet but like in all 12-step ventures we have heard so much of each other’s stories in fierce Manhattan ACOA meetings that we know each other better than we would as long-time friends, though we know each other only from a fairly public place, the wild Sunday night meetings in the Corlears School on 15th Street.

Gillian is seated in a canvas chair on the sidewalk. She has a sign, drawn with a girlish hand, that says


And she has laid a sheet on the sidewalk and on it is a huge array of wooden Africa fetish figures she is selling.

She asks if I a member of MOMA, which is something I have been meaning to do because I am here several times a week and cannot get in without paying full fare. I appreciate her interest. I go into the museum, retrace times of terror with Gorky, and as usual get great hope from the small Matisse bronzes of nude women reclining, and especially from his tall painting called “The Piano Lesson” where a boy who seems on a knife’s edge is at a piano, behind and above him a harsh sickly old women keeping track, but in his line of sight a bronze Matisse nude right here in the painting. I think I see the bronze girl stir and stretch. On the way out I stop to buy a membership.

On the sidewalk, Gillian and I exchange phone numbers, which does not have to be significant since people in the meetings routinely give each other their numbers.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 15 - CLICK FORWARD

I am on a verge. Verge of what? I have not crossed over to the White Mountains yet. In fact when I am with people here I am talking about making Vermont, which is the anti-New Hampshire, my base – staying in countryside, even staying in this country, taking up painting, improving my horseback riding. Though I cannot shake the near certainty that I have crucial unfinished business already unfolding in the city. A new life in art, perhaps. And I carry this mental picture of blonde Gillian, who had returned in early spring from Dharmasala to join these meetings I had been going to in the city.

The meetings in this search for the past, and my dreams too, in this time that the visual has taken over from the literary. Dark woods in Hobbema, Gorky’s knife edge passage into suicide, light and hope in Deibenkorn and Matisse.

The songs in the car:

Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

Gillian back from India. We had begun to date, or was it dating? She said she was drawn to me because we were the travelers. We are going mostly to inexpensive outdoor places in the East Village, a little like a couple of buddies getting together. Neither has seen the other’s apartment.

I had been watching her when she was sitting a few places away from me in these circles of people probing the past. She had seemed to me like a model for a Matisse bronze.

What she says in the circle shows she’s been around, must be older than she looks. But she seems pure girl, soft, a heart-breaker. She sits there attentive, so pretty when she concentrates on what is being said, sometimes with a mysterious knowing smile that I think speaks of sex, sometimes raising fine arms to pull up and back strands of long blonde hair, then letting the strands fall down, playing with them. Serious. Then that smile. Eyes laughing at something secret. And that is my main picture of her still when we are sort of dating.

Lets the river answer
That you’ve always been her lover
And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind

On Vermont roads with these songs playing, the parade of women, who were meant to be left before they left me, is passing through the car again but this time in reverse order, starting now almost at the beginning, not my mother but chubby, eager Sandie from our sister boarding school, kissing with tongues when we were 15, Sandie whom I betrayed, click, then click click click Kitty, then click Alma,then Alice, click Dina and Tina and Ina, click Cindy, click Jeannie, click Irma, click click Bonnie and the other Bonnie too. Click Gillian and then back a step, Jocelyn.

On Vermont roads with these songs in the car, I go from the just past memory of Gillian playing with her blond strands to the not long past memory of Jocelyn, when she and I watched Traufaut’s Small Change while in her bed. She had the video long before it was available in America, just before most people had VCRs, had it because she had connections with celebrated figures who were connected to everything.

Watching the scene where the schoolmaster explains to his class in Lyon that a mysteriously missing boy was abused at home, I have to check myself from starting to cry – the schoolmaster’s kindness, the almost forgotten boy.

“Were you an abused child?” Jocelyn asks, and I do not answer. And she tells me how her grandmother in Algiers used to set upon her in the shower, beat her black and blue. But I cannot tell her anything about myself, not then and not when she talks of what she for the moment seems to take to be our star-crossed love, me lying on my back on New Year’s Eve, she talking while sitting up above me in gleaming nakedness. Like what was in dreams in lonely times, but I have no words in this non-dream time, no words to even say I have no love to give her. Though I feel on a verge.

There are heroes in the seaweed,
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love now
And they will lean that way forever.

Driving through green Vermont, a stone’s throw from granite New Hampshire. My head filled with music and these women.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 14 - CLICK BACK

Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbor…

Over and over these tapes in this time drifting over these Vermont hills, driving by pure water and below the soft Green Mountains. These tapes, Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne, as real as anything, a girl in a song who could be one of any number of women I had known or gained or lost or longed for. This music coming back to me, some I once knew, some that came while I was away. My car now filled with this gentle Judy Collins version.

You know that she’s half crazy
But that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges
That come all the way from China…

It is all mixed up with the old deep and bright and very dark places over in New Hampshire, and it is all mixed up with other women there and in the world.

Last year, after the briefest of times together, early 1985, I had had a final falling out on the phone with Jocelyn – Joce-leen, I used the French pronunciation – who was exotic French and Jewish and had grown up under the North African sun. Joce-leen, calling from near the Carlyle, me answering the call down in a furnished room off Eighth Avenue, me hearing her say it was over. She had caught me in something small I’d hoped she missed, but to her it meant betrayal. I had told her I had not checked my answering machine and so had not caught a loving message from her that I had heard all too clearly. I was revealed as someone who had no words for her. Never had, she now knew, neither at her table nor in her bed, nor in her bath, nor in those French places where we ate steaks in the West 50s. And when she broke with me on the phone, I still said nothing, though I was suffering the white hot anger I was beginning to know from looking into the mystery of my early life.

And to my horror, as I held the phone, things went click-click-click in my head and groin, click-click-click all the way back. Click Jocelyn, click anger at ex-wife Anne, click Bonnie in Bangkok, click Judy in New York, click Sheila Ng in Singapore – click Vannie, click, Rae, click Susi, click Anne Marie. Click click, click click – all the way back till, by God, I was trapped in a sad cliché, clicking on my mother.

And just when you mean to tell her
That you have no love to give her
Then she gets you on her wavelength
And she lets the river answer.

I’d lied to Jocelyn that I’d missed her message.

And afterwards, before now, I tried so hard to get everything back where I had long thought it should be. Before now in this short time I tried for the last time the old way of writing to put my life in place. Before in this short time another dream figure, this gorgeous travel photographer from Rome briefly traveled with me. And before a dead end in the tourist-ridden Bahamas topped by an even deader ending just afterwards in New Hampshire, where they were all speaking trash covered by fake British accents. Before, in this very short time, what seemed like the ultimate depression. And before what then seemed a time touched by grace as I stepped for the first time into the deep past with my eyes open, for the first time stepped with no control into my stories. And so much had happened that I was skating through Vermont, alone and ready in the aqua Mustang, playing songs that, unexpectedly, had lodged in my heart.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 13 - FRIENDS?

And it was not just the addition of parks to my life that made everything so new and different. I hardly ever saw my friends of a lifetime who were still living in Manhattan. Which might have been fine with them, but I think was not for it but made one of them, the political writer Walter Karp, angry enough to call and shout at me as he was finishing his usual a six-pack on a Sunday afternoon, which was the time I had for years, when in town, been part of a group including Walter that often met at his apartment, which I had once used as mine in exchange for he and his striking wife Regina using an apartment I had had for time on Cheney Walk in London.

This time when I was moving in these intimations of counryside was when it began to seem to very strange to me that I never met by chance the many people I had known in the many different times and live I had lived in New York between my lives in the Balkans or the Middle East or Far East or Africa – lives that went all the way back, though I did not remember the city part of that first year of my life, just the chaos in a drawing room of an old steam train that was taking me in my first summer up to the White Mountains, which was supposed to be the place from which no one of my blood would ever escape.

I did not see the people from all those years in the city between years of travel, even when I walked on streets I knew they lived on. But I was meeting by chance, nearly every day, people I had come to know in the past few months , some of them from these new meetings where we were all attempting to unravel our lives. I saw them on the streets and on the subway and in the parks and in the lobbies of movie houses where the new Traufaut would be showing. Saw them in coffee houses I had never noticed before. Saw them in all these places just as I never saw the people – there must have been thousands of them by now -- from what I had thought had already been such a long and, though often discouraging, basically fruitful life. And what more recently I had thought of, as I entered what seemed like the ultimate and final depression, thought of as a life that could never change, no matter how often I went away – which was something that at one time had given me hope and a feeling of solidity, and by now made me fear that life would end without any of its possibilities realized.

But these new people. These new places. And always the pull of countryside, countryside even if it was just a single tree coming out of a square of earth in the sidewalk. This pull. And the pull of the museums, that I had nearly forgotten, as I had nearly forgotten my first time in Paris at the Jeu de Paume, nearly forgotten my first year in New York with my girlfriend Vannie, an action painter with whom I went over and over again to look at Franz Kline and deKooning and Pollack, and also Rembrandt. His deep sad self-portraits, and the silent but exciting Polish Rider. Nearly forgot what I loved even in the crushingly lonely times that I tried to edit out of life. And also Central Park, where long ago I had known what I honored. All of which might never have been retrieved if this present time had never happened.

And now I was going further afield. To the Bronx Botanical Garden. To Bear Mountain. To a small house in Sullivan Country owned by a photographer who, like me, had been with the New People’s Army in the Philippines. And on I went to Vermont – and this seemed a far bigger start and change than when I first took a freighter to Italy, a plane to Bangkok, a market truck into a place with no roads in Central Africa.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 12 - CARS?

Until now I had never had a car in New York. The last car I’d owned – a tank-like Humber, which I learned to my dismay was the car of choice for the police in England – had been in Singapore, 17 years ago. Before that in Bangkok I’d had another big, heavy English car, a green Rover with leather seats that was simultaneously and seedy jaunty and I loved it. We lived across the river in Thonburi, so we’d take a small ferry to a Bangkok side landing where I left the Rover. When we got in we’d sit for a time with all the doors open, it was so hot. I would put two cigarettes in my mouth, light them both, and place one of them between Bonnie’s lips. This was living.

When I was first in Bangkok a friend there from days I’d lived in Greece was talking about the Indian merchants in Bangkok, and he asked me what the people from India were like in New York, and I had no answer, for back then you rarely saw Indians except around the UN. Then the friend asked me what kind of car I drove in America, and again I had no answer. I had never owned a car in New York City. I’d dismissed people who did as adding an unnecessary burden to their lives since it was so easy to get around and if you really did leave town, which I did not do so often as I thought I did, there were always rental cars. But even as I had these thoughts I suspected they were the sort of thoughts appropriate to my old play-it-safe relatives, not to me. Though for the two years before Bangkok I did keep a 90cc Honda motorcycle.

My pattern of life from very early, from the late fifties on, was that I would be in New York for two or three-year stretches between my times abroad – except for this last stretch, in the final five years of a marriage, which I’d spent in an Upper West Side apartment whose living room view was of an air shaft. But now a year later, 1986, I was in this bright new place on 25th Street with South light and a view that stretched seemingly into infinity.

And now I was being physically pulled into countryside, as if I had never been aware of nature before. I was moving from being a wild but prudent non-car owner to someone who needed a car to get into countryside. I knew I needed it, for I was getting closer. At the start, even with some snow on the ground, I had begun to explore Central Park, where I practically never went when I lived in that airshaft place on 81st Street even though from there the park had been only a crosstown block away.

Now on 25th Street I could not just stroll over, but I was in the park every day and so much of it was new to me – the great lawn, the band shell, the Dairy, Bethesda Fountain, the Ramble, the mall where I walked between even rows of great tress planted in the French style to a place with silly romantic statues, such as one of Beethoven with his pretty muse. New places to me even though I had been dealing with the city for decades. Rolling hills and water I had missed except for the lake where I used to take girls out in rowboats. Now I also had the pond with its romantic curved foot bridge down in the shade of the Plaza, and now way up on the edge of Spanish Harlem, the Meer, where people fished with worms in the shadow of graffiti splattered concrete – the Meer like so much else neglected by the city in 1986, a year I had to step around or over homeless people to get to the subway. And I discovered the great formal Conservatory Garden with its fountains and statues, not least Secret Garden kids and the three graces, and also its perfect hedges, just below the gone-to-seed Meer. And I moved on out to Brooklyn, partly for the museum and partly because I became fascinated with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, saw the spring of ’86 there —all of it new to me, from the Japanese garden, so calm and pure that even Japanese tourists came to out to Brooklyn for it – but I also saw the nearby area that displayed local wild flora that kind of frightened me because it had been the flora of Connecticut when I was growing up.

A young woman from the new life and I – her father had been a failed Republican politician in Alaska which gave us family horror stories in common – went to the casual Prospect Part stables, which were the flip side of the Central Park stables where everyone went in costume, dressed like prissy little Upper Class English horse people. Out in decaying Prospect Park I thought I had never been happier than sitting in the sun in a Western saddle while astride a big lazy old Brooklyn horse.