The Life of the City

February 13, 2013 § 12 Comments

A man in my writer’s group often makes the comment that the rough draft of my second memoir could use more plot.  Writing a memoir is a long process of layering, of recalling memories that are revived through old journal entries.  By the end of the process, there is always a plot, but never it seems, before the final draft.

It made me think of all my favorite books.  They don’t follow a traditional narrative arc, but they do capture life itself – ‘Post Office’ by Charles Bukowski, or any book by Henry Miller, for example.

In real life, plot does not take the same shape as in a novel.  It only exists as something to be noticed from many years past.  It’s a narrative device to hold the reader’s interest, a method of pacing and cliffhangers.  In life, we are not aware of the plot until we have reached an entirely different evolution of self.

My second book is difficult to build since it captures the time I spent living in Hoboken, NJ/New York City.  There were always a million things happening at once, much more than what should be captured on the page.  In a three year span I was a poet, a belly dancer, a singer/songwriter on the mandolin, a percussionist in a bossa nova band, a hostess at a popular restaurant, a literary agent, an artist’s assistant for someone famous, a pool player, a coffee drinker, a groupie, and a mad downer of whisky.  I was out every night, and working every day.  Many universes collided, which is part of the fun, and exactly what made it so fascinating to live through.

In New York, the parallel life shifted between being very poor, while often being among the extremely rich.  Within my tribe there was a great deal of tension within the “us verses them”.  We despised the rich.  Abused them if they came within our dive bar territory.  And yet, we often depended on the rich to get by.  To play those games, you had to pretend to be someone you weren’t.  There was a massive growing process that took place within that struggle, and a process of letting go.

This week I read Ernest Hemingway’s mostly memoir ‘A Moveable Feast’.  It’s the first book by Hemingway that I have ever enjoyed, and I’m surprised that I gave him another chance.  I never lose faith in him, though I don’t like any of his novels (minimalism, no adjectives, run-on sentences, bare expanses, macho posturing).

Of ‘A Moveable Feast’ Hemingway writes, “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction.  But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.”

Is there a plot in this book?  Of course not.  It’s a love letter to Paris and his time spent with Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the love he shared with his first wife Hadley, and their baby, Bumby (including Bumby’s babysitter, a cat named F. Puss).

Hemingway makes Fitzgerald sound like a tiresome alcoholic with a cuckold for a wife; Zelda, a wife jealous of her husband’s talent who makes him drink to distract him from his craft; Stein, an egomaniac with no patience for women other than Alice.  To get through it all, Hemingway drinks plenty of whiskies with soda and lemon juice (a delicious drink).  And then, just when you feel he’s really had enough, supreme, in all of this, is the joy of being a writer in a city like Paris.

“The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of early morning, sweeping out and mopping, and luck were all you needed (Hemingway, 91).”

By the end of the book, you feel the sadness that Hemingway experienced at the loss of this world he inhabited, and his young family.  The rich were drawn to his success and left him feeling empty.  Other women drew him away from Hadley and filled him with regret.  But in the end, there was always Paris.

“We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached.  Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it.  But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy (Hemingway, 211).”

In ‘A Moveable Feast’ the place becomes the plot.  No matter how many people pass through, or how quickly they appear and then disappear.  This is the life of the city: a constant rotation of people and experiences that you should never expect to last.  But it’s beautiful while you are at the center, watching the menagerie orbit around you.

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The Scent of the Circus

October 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

I just finished reading My Apprenticeships, by Colette – the French novelist and performer born in 1873, most famous for the novel Gigi.  My love for the writing of Colette has always felt like a guilty pleasure – like intensely dark chocolate, a red bouduior drenched in velvet, or my new perfume Black Afgano, a hypnotic blend of hashish and tobacco.  I slip into Colette’s books and fall away from distraction – finding complete understanding of all that I have left behind to be with her.

My Apprenticeships is a memoir of Colette’s young adulthood as a country girl, new in Paris, and married to M. Willy – an older man who had a knack for publishing and self-promotion.  M. Willy asked her to write stories based on her days in boarding school with a few titillating bits thrown in.  He eventually published them under his own name, and the Claudine series became so popular that every girl in Paris wanted to look just like Claudine.  But Colette received none of the credit, or the proceeds.

“Love comes disguised as a thunderbolt and often vanishes at the same pace (Colette, 103).”

The problem with M. Willy was that he was in love with his own power over oblivious doe-eyed youth – the minute Colette began to near thirty, with success in the theater as an actress, he was done with her.  He suggested a different kind of life, and by different, she understood that he was asking her to leave.

“How old was I?  Twenty-nine, thirty? – the age when life musters and arrays the forces that make for duration, the age that gives strength to resist disease, the age when you can no longer die for anyone, or because of anyone.  Thirty already – and already that hardening which I would compare to the crust that lime-springs form, dripping slowly (Colette, 101).”

Before M. Willy’s suggestion of a different kind of life, a woman offered Colette a traveling show with thirteen trained greyhounds.

“I have forgotten the name of the envoy who let fall this balm, this dew, this temptation, this breath of the high-road, this scent of the circus.  I shrugged my shoulders and refused even to see the thirteen greyhounds.  Thirteen greyhounds, their fabulous necks outstretched, the curve of their bellies drinking in the air.  And thirteen hearts to conquer.  Disquiet, anxiety.  It was all very well for me to shrink back into my scribe’s virtue, my familiar, faithful fear, anxiety remained, working within me, for me.  Thirteen greyhounds, a rampart, a family, a home.  How did I ever let them go (Colette, 122)?”

Just as I am, Colette was a complete nomad and a solitary homebody at the same time.  She was theatrical (No matter how many times I turn my back on it, there are always new ways to be on the stage).  She never had many female friends (women blow in and out of my life like the breeze).  She lacks sentiment, or any idealistic tripe, and yet, her writing revolves around love – realistic love rather than fake, idealized love.

For a long time I worked for the circus.  Unfortunately, there was no act with thirteen glorious greyhounds.  As suited to my homebody needs, it was a circus that doesn’t travel – they just change shows every four months to create a different theme on the same variation.  Teatro Zinzanni – a dinner theater involving vaudeville acts, an opera singer, a chanteuse, acrobats, trapeze artists, aerialists, jugglers, and lots of sequins.

The tent is one hundred years old, and imported from Europe.  You get the sense that Colette could have performed there.  Table 13 is haunted, and the guests that sit there always behave in a ridiculous way and leave feeling dissatisfied somehow.  Sometimes in the back hall, the chairs flip themselves off the hooks on the wall.  At night, after the show is over, one lamp is left lit on the stage to keep the bad spirits away – it’s an old circus theater tradition.

To be in the tent after everyone is gone late at night, is more intense even than the spectacularly glitzy show.  The quiet is strange because you still hear the sounds in the air – forks clinking, voices singing, the announcer bellowing, the instruments swooping music to the swinging people in the air.  The tent holds an enormous amount of energy.  Every night 268 people are served their food simultaneously.  Within five minutes they all have their plates.  Every entrée somehow always tastes the same, no matter what it is.  It tastes like it’s been in a heating box for hours.

At the circus, I worked as a dancing server.  Every night I crammed into a small mirrored-dressing room with ten other girls who had beautiful bodies and very loud mouths.  We applied our liquid eyeliner, tons of rouge and bright matte lipstick.  We swapped fishnets (this weird extreme version that are so strong they leave dents in your legs, but are not quite strong enough to withstand the abuse that we put them through).  The girls gossiped, sang at the top of their lungs, and swapped stories about auditions, boys, and crappy day jobs.  Being quiet, I always felt like I was on the outside looking in.  The loudmouths had their own club, and the quiet ones had secrets shared backstage when everyone else couldn’t hear.

99 percent of the performers were introverts when offstage.  They were from all over the world, and the one thing that stood out, was how lonely they all were.  Well, except for the performers that lived in Seattle.  As for the international stars – the more beautiful, ethereal, and otherworldly they were, the more alone they seemed to feel.  They never stopped traveling from circus tent to circus tent, wherever they could find them, throughout the world.  Marriages didn’t last, unless the partners were in an act together, or always in the same show.

The servers looked up to the performers with adoration and jealousy.  Almost all of the servers were actors or musicians.  We presented the performers like diamonds every night, while we were relegated to the periphery of the tent with brief food-baring dances at the center.  We were scolded whenever we accidentally stepped into the performer’s spotlight, or tripped into their path.

Every Sunday night to make up for it, we all went to sing karaoke down the street.  We needed that moment in the limelight to refuel our egos.  One night, we found ourselves up against the cast of Hello Dolly, and surprisingly, we put them in the dust with our singing skills and audience lust.

Besides being told every now and then that I needed to “sparkle more” or that my tickets were “too perfect,” I suppose I wasn’t so bad at being a server at Teatro Zinzanni.  Five nights a week, sometimes more, I was there doing the exact same repetition every night.  The circus began to feel like a broken record, a loop that could suck me into the vortex.  I had tendinitis from carrying too many plates, and my back was always a mess.  Without fail, just before we opened the curtains to let the guests into the tent, I had anxiety attacks – dizzy and nauseous, like I was about to pass out.

Work came home with me too.  The same workmares haunted me over and over in my sleep – flashing lights, lurid faces, and some terrible obstacle course to get to my tables.  In general, the same cluster-fuck that I lived every single shift.

Now when I see my past coworkers from TZ, I am always impressed by their extreme energy.  I wonder if it’s the tent that gave them that tenacity, or if they would just naturally be that way if they had not worked there.  Being around greatness makes you strive to be great as well.  No one wants to be that server in the wings, and if you don’t get out eventually, you languish there until you are too old to “sparkle” anymore.

It’s obvious that the theater added to Colette’s greatness as a writer.  In the theater she studied people and places, traveled, and gained admirers.  She became a ravishing woman in that circle of activity.

In one of my favorite scenes from My Apprenticeships, Colette meets Mata Hari, and relays what a fake she thought she was.

“The people who fell into such dithyrambic raptures and wrote so ecstatically of Mata Hari’s person and talents must be wondering now what collective delusion possessed them…  the colour of her skin was disconcerting, no longer brown and luscious as it had been by artificial light but a dubious, uneven purple…  (Mata Hari) did not move a muscle as the voice of Lady W________ rose beside us, saying in clear, plain words:

“She an Oriental?  Don’t be silly!  Hamburg or Rotterdam, or possibly Berlin (Colette, 129-130).””

Teatro Zinzanni was exactly like Mata Hari.  For a while I was in love with the fantasy life.  On rainy, depressing days I could escape into the lights and forget my own life.  But then the cracks began to show – the constant stench of body odor backstage and non-stop febreze spray in the pits of our costumes, the guy who refused to pay on New Years Eve, the way we all had to fake it every night of our lives, the way I had no life outside of the tent, and how the rest of the world began to feel distant and strange, like it was passing me by and I was missing it.

On my bookshelves, there are fifteen books by Colette.  I stumbled onto them in chance meetings in bookshops.  Some are almost impossible to find.  My favorite (and her favorite as well) is The Pure and the Impure – a dark foray into the erotic underworlds of Paris.  There is really no plot, just character after character swimming in their own particular decadence.  When I first read the book, decadence was my tool for self-discovery.  Now I see it as a tool for avoiding pain.  I’m not in pain anymore, so I don’t’ really need decadence, at least, not all that much of it.

Colette understood life, unflinchingly – her writing is poetic because of this.  It’s not the poetry of solitude, but the poetry of human understanding – beautiful life, dark life, art that imitates life, life that always has a new beginning.

 

 

 

European Sampler Platter

February 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

In my junior year of college, I had the opportunity to tour Western Europe in a student group.  We traveled through Rome, Florence, Venice, Vienna, Salzburg, Munich, Normandy, Paris, and London for three weeks, and I chose to extend my stay for two more weeks in Paris, London, and Edinburgh.  At one point, we hit four cities in 24 hours, and I experienced culture shock in each new destination.

The energy was frenetic in Rome.  Vespa’s buzzed between lanes of traffic and came inches away from our feet in alleys.  Buildings loomed majestically and echoed with centuries of history.  Sexy people were everywhere in tight pants and bright colors.  My fellow classmates made embarrassing comments like, “The women here dress like whores.”

They taunted me for checking out the men and I started a running joke, “I’m admiring the architecture.”

When the men approached us, “American girls!  Where are you from?”  One of the girl’s snapped, “Don’t talk to them!  They’re probably in the mafia!”

I desperately wanted to talk to them, but every time I made an attempt, the girls pulled me away.  The boys at our school looked nothing like Italian men, didn’t know how to dress, and never acknowledged us as sexual beings.  It was thrilling to be noticed, even if they noticed everyone.  I didn’t care.

I felt as I usually did, that my classmates were from the backwoods, and had no compass for reading other cultures.  I began to completely disassociate myself from the group entirely.  I did not want to be identified with them, and started doing whatever I could to blend in wherever we went (something I have mastered so well over the years that in foreign countries, people ask me for directions).

Though the others were amazed at religious sites, I felt sick over the obsessive power of the Catholic Church, and the awe instilled for the church through art.  We were told that the foot on the statue of Saint Peter had been replaced because it had been worn away from too many kisses of the devout.  I watched as people broke down in tears, so moved to kiss a stone foot.

I never quite got over how much I loved Italy.  I’d been so excited to see the other cities, that I failed to grasp completely, the place I was in.  Austria was beautiful, while Germany was the exact opposite of Italy.  We went from anarchy, passion and wine to precision, sterility, and beer.

In Bavaria, amidst the opulent rooms of Kind Ludwig’s Hunters Palace, I actually passed out on the floor.  Once again, the history of squandered wealth, over-consumption, and insanity overtook my psycho-sensitivity.

On the outside, I managed to put on a happy front, and had a song to sing for every place and time.  But I felt increasingly alone, and recorded my thoughts privately in a journal.  I figured out how easy it was to get lost on purpose and lose the group.  In Paris I lost them in the Metro, and realized I hadn’t been keeping track of how to get back to the hotel.  I stared cluelessly at a metro map when a little man approached me, “Come with me!  I can take you where you want to go!”

“No thank you.  I’m fine.”  I learned quickly to make it look like I knew what I was doing and spent the afternoon wandering the Champs Elysees.

When the tour ended, the other students went home or broke off into small groups that I met up with now and then.  In hostels I was suddenly exposed to the sort of people I’d been kept away from all of my life.  Aimless wanderers hoping to hook up with someone, bragging about how many bottles of wine they’d finished off in a night, solving the mysteries of humanity through astrology.  Before this, under the scrutiny of our group leaders we’d been lucky if we could sneak off and drink a glass of wine.

In Paris I stayed in a crappy hostel and caught something, possibly from brushing my teeth in the tap water.  I was later diagnosed with a strange combination of virus’s that resembled a cross between Mono and Hepatitis.  My neck swelled up to the size of Rocky Balboa’s, and I needed to sleep all afternoon.

By Scotland I was very weak.  I walked through the ruins with a girl from Quebec.  On her first day in Scotland a guy on the street yelled cuss words at her for no reason at all.  She hated it there, but I kind of enjoyed the grittiness of the culture.

The day before I met her I had a fit of extreme anxiety and depression (a common occurrence back then).  I realized that if I took a walk without my ID, and got hit by a car and died, no one would have known my identity.  Insignificance and immortality hung over my head, and I fingered my laundry cord, trying to think of a place to hang from.  Preposterous, since I didn’t even know how to tie the knot.

I had met someone in a nightclub in Portland before the trip, a trombonist whose band was #2 on the pop charts in Paris.  It was strange to hear their music on the radio.  He had a golden look about him, and was everything I’d ever dreamed of – intensely creative, passionate, and most unbelievable of all, attracted to me.  In every city I kept seeing his face over and over – in the server in Austria who winked at me, in the Englishman who gave up his seat on the tube for an older lady, in the sexy dancer who stole the show in Fosse.  I was so obsessed that I bought tickets to see the show again, but an understudy filled in for my dancing man.  I was afraid that being gone for so long, the trombonist would disappear, just like the dancer.

For the last few days of my trip, I left my hotel where I’d had breakfast with stamp collectors and workingmen, and took the tube into a wealthy neighborhood to stay with an American couple that could put me up for the weekend.  When I arrived there was banana bread and tea waiting for me on the table.  They gave me a large room with a queen size bed, sink and vanity in my room.  It felt like a luxurious paradise after all the dank empty rooms and nasty beds with springs poking up into my back.

I was painfully shy at the time, but as my trip progressed, I began to talk to people more and more.  The desperation of traveling alone with little contact stretched me out of my comfort zone.  I was about to come into a new place in life of empathy.  And my journey through Europe would change me, most noticeably after I returned home.

That following summer I would fall in love with the trombonist, or think I did, and begin to write obsessively about everything that I felt.  I learned that in order to truly experience people, you have to take risks.  I didn’t want to be like the other girls on my trip, constantly shying away from life out of fear.

This week I read one of Henry Miller’s lesser-known works, The Colossus of Maroussi.  As World War II broke out, Miller left Paris and went to Greece where he found a spiritual place, uplifted by the history of gods who share our humanity.  He was stunned by the white lightness of the landscape, the generosity, the poverty, and the women who resembled queens, even in such a harsh way of life.

“To live creatively, I have discovered, means to live more and more unselfishly, to live more and more into the world, identifying oneself with it and thus influencing it at the core, so to speak (Miller, 206).”

Europe was really the beginning of my life as a writer – learning to breathe into the world, awakening to my senses.

How We Perceive Nudity

November 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

In my evolution of what I like to call “Gypsy Jobs” my latest addition is working as a model for the art school up the hill. I have always had a fascination with Bohemian Paris, artists and their muses, Kiki de Montparnasse. So after several months of thinking about it, I finally brought in my application.

On my first day I had two back-to-back three-hour classes. Bright and early that morning, when I usually wake up, I began with an open studio, monitored by a student. There is always that initial funny feeling when you first take off your robe, like here goes nothing. They started with 10 one minute poses, then 5 ten minute poses, and 2 twenty minute poses. During the longer poses I began to hallucinate. I was staring at a speck on the blanket covering the stage. The speck started to move. I was convinced it had come to life as a bug. In the next class, I stared out the window at a tree and soon I was a heron flying through the large open center of its branches.

I didn’t feel awkward once I was on the stage, only when I was waiting to go on. The pain however was another thing. By the end of twenty minutes, even in a basic standing pose, my feet fell asleep and my legs felt stuck when I was finally able to move. I realized you can’t rest your weight on one straight leg or else you’ll hyperextend and cause an injury. Even though it’s less striking, I’ve learned to always keep both knees slightly bent.

I’ve gotten a lot of compliments since then on my stillness as a model. Having an active mind saves me. I focus on a point, do breathing-exercises to work through the pain, and then distract myself by thinking of interesting memories or ideas for my writing. Now that I model two to four times a week, it feels completely natural, and I forget that I’m not wearing any clothes. It actually feels cozy.

Last week at a long pose session I walked through the class to see their interpretations. In the drawings my weight ranged from 110 to 160. One woman was drawn to the more Rubenesque, and said she tends to draw what she is working with, as in her own body type. The men drew me much thinner than the women. I thought of our differing perceptions – how women put themselves in the females position, and men see women with rose-colored glasses.

The experience of posing got me thinking about how we interpret nudity in our society. Years ago my friend took two of us girls to a nude beach in New Jersey. It was a gorgeous place. I found it beautiful that people of all ages, shapes, and sizes were completely out there. I swam topless and hung out with an older guy in the waves, having fun. Later on at a restaurant I saw him again with his clothes on and had to look twice. He looked like a Senator or an Investment Banker, though I’d had no way to interpret him without his clothes. Now we were back in our hierarchies and I wanted to go back to the beach where we were all equals.

I had a phase when I lived in Hoboken, where I’d drink so much gin I became inspired to take off all my clothes in the confines of my apartment with friends. I guess I liked the feeling of absolute freedom. But the guys interpreted it to mean that I was ready to go. Climb on in or take a number and come back another day. I look back on my own spontaneity in amazement – a desperate need for an adrenaline rush. And it is interesting how nudity outside of the confines of an art class, a nude beach or a hospital is interpreted as sexual. But nudity is much more nuanced than that. Nudity also brings to mind our own mortality, our equality as human beings, the mystery of existence, anatomy, art, beauty, the poetry of motion and form.

Friends and family may not quite understand my job or how I can feel comfortable without clothes. My mother still asks my husband, “Are you okay with this?” But for the first time in years I am enjoying a job and looking forward to going to work. I get to learn more about something I love – art, and be in an academic environment with enormously talented people. I take romantic walks afterwards, feeling poetic, drinking coffee and eating crepes with enough time left in the day to write for a while before dinner. When I’m not at the school, I’m thinking about the next time I get to be there, creating new poses for the students.

It’s an instance where life led me to two books. The Nude Female Figure and The Nude Figure by Mark Edward Smith. They are both visual references for the artist working without a model. I am learning the range of the human form, thinking of ways to inspire the artists. And now, I find myself returning to the place where I began – painting and drawing figures just as I did when I was a kid and was obsessed with fashion illustration and portraiture.

Artists of all ages are honored to be able to work from a live model and respect the opportunity. I get the sense that they are grateful for the model’s bravery. And in the stillness of a pose my mind is in motion, building ideas and images, undisturbed, in perfect meditation.

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