Sunday, November 06, 2011

You Can't Dance with Architecture. But Still...

Today was proofing day at East Village Magazine, meaning that I showed up at 4:30-ish to read my column (copied below) on the table at Gary's cluttered office on Second Street. And to make my little edits. I found only one thing I wanted; I wanted the word "interesting" italicized. Gary says he CAN do anything I request. Whether he WILL is another matter. I love the scraggly-bearded Rip Van Winkle of East Village, who sleeps on a desk in the back of his store-front and for 35 years has been working 14-hour days, seven days a week to get his little paragon of community journalism out.

As I've noted many times before, one feature of proofing day is that Gary sets out a bottle of Bushmills, along with my proof and a pen, and a chipped cup. He knows I like a finger or two when I'm editing. It is one of the high points of my month. We sit there and argue over writing and I drink a couple of fingers and ask him to pour just another finger or so, and we talk about stuff that we both remember. No matter how depressed I am in the morning, by the time I've had a couple of slugs of Irish and an hour or so of conversation with my friend Gary, I feel better about life. Tonight it had to do with John's Mini-Mart, a stop-and-rob that used to sell beer and lottery tickets and bad junk food next to the EVM office. It was torn down and leveled years ago, and now there's just some desultory grass there. But when I lived in my first Flint digs, a walkup on Avon Street right across the street from Gary's family homestead, John's "mini-rip" was a big neighborhood hangout. John, a broad-bellied white-haired con man, used to be a friend of mine, and I'd go over there a lot to buy beer, cheap wine, boxes of mac and cheese, and lottery tickets.

Tonight I told Gary my old house on Seventh Street is vacant. It makes me sad: I lived there for 15 years with my first husband, a wonderful poet and the man with whom I once thought I would live forever. I once thought we would be literary lights and thrive and prosper. For a time, it came true. But something went wrong. We disappointed each other. Booze came between us like a rude mistress, not to mention that when it came down to it there were lots of ways in which we struggled to connect. There is no way to write about this without being overcome by melancholy, by the lingering grief that comes with a relationship that went awry.

But that house...I loved that house. Everything I feel about that house has to do with my first husband, and my hopes for a life of poetry, and a deeply embedded love of romance.

I told Gary I'd just discovered the house was vacant -- a victim of what's going on in this town and has been going on everywhere in the country lately. After my first husband and I divorced he sold the place, capitalizing luckily on a decent market just before the bubble burst. I was happy for him -- I had abandoned my claim to the house out of the guilt of my escape. But the new owners eventually foreclosed. For the first time in its 92-year history, the house is empty.

Gary always says "you can't dance with architecture," meaning, I guess, that some kinds of art defy analysis. He's probably said that to me about two dozen times. I always nod and agree, though half the time I don't know what the hell this actually means. I just googled it again, and it looks like Martin Mull might have said something like that back in the '80s...but actually I think it goes back to about 1918. Gary probably knows and will tell me eventually.

Anyway, even though Gary says you can't dance with architecture, I am very susceptible to buildings. That place at 942 E. Seventh Street is in my heart, in my memory, in my soul -- whatever that is. It hurts me that it's vacant. As Neil Young said in "Helpless," it feels like "All my Changes were there." I'm going to take a break now to think this through more, and then I'll come back to it.

...So, after I left EVM I turned onto Second Street, and then onto Crapo, and then to Court, where I had my turn signal on to turn left to go to the house I live in now, in the nicely manicured and upper-class neighborhood known as "The College/Cultural Neighborhood." We have a big sign and everything announcing this. But when I got down to the light at Crapo and Court, I looked in my rear view mirror to see if anybody was behind me. There wasn't. So I turned right instead, going up the hill to the light at Court and Avon, and turned left. I turned left off of Court at that light for 15 years -- it was so habitual that for about three years after I left I used to turn left there without even thinking about it, coming and going for other reasons. My body and brain thought I still lived in my old neighborhood years after I left. I would go down Avon to Seventh and turn left again. My old house was the last one on the right at the dead end of Seventh. There is a brick gate into a mansion at the dead end. My old house is a solid gray stucco place on the right, NOT a mansion but a lovely, solid square place. An immense maple still arches over the front yard -- a tree I'd written poems about for years, a tree that turns gold every fall and used to send brilliant light for a week or so every October into the second floor master bedroom where my first husband and I slept together for years. This is all I can say now. The memory of that tree, that brilliance, that bedroom where we cleaved and cleaved, is all I can handle at the moment. I have to take another break.

So...I went down to the dead end of Seventh and pulled into the driveway, on the first night after the time changed and it was already dark. The maple tree was leafless, and a three-quarter moon overhead glinted silver into the yard I'd spent many years in.

In a way, it's a gift that the place is deserted. Now I can stop and be there. I used to go by there from time to time, usually when I'd had a drink or two, and sneak a look, but it always felt a bit invasive. Were the new people happy there, where my own life as a poet had flowered? Where my life as a wife had foundered? The place always looked nice. But now there is a sign on the mailbox that says, "Vacant. No Mail" and a paper on the door that says it's managed now by a "Five Brothers" company in another county. I know that because I parked my car in the driveway and audaciously walked up the walk and climbed up the three steps to the front door. After staring at the depressing signs, I turned around and sat on the top step of the porch. I spent many hours on that front porch. Here is a poem I wrote on that front porch once:

Smoking on the Porch, Winter Night

I want just this moment of flagrance.

Breath mingling with smoke, smoke with

breath, no difference. I am on fire and

the sweet air snuffs me. I am beeswax

stolen from church. Leave me alone.

It takes eight minutes to smoke each one.

All eight stretch to my fingers’ tips.

I lift up, up to the relief

of oaks and that recumbent moon. Who

is that woman smoking on the porch?

She is a timer for a small death.

She chugs knifey air like whiskey

to compose herself. She solicits

the blues. She gets itchy waiting, wrapped

in smoke and her good black wool.

Okay, I've reached another moment where I have to stop writing. More later.

Give This Old Woman Some Air

Make way, step aside, back up, get the smelling salts…and give this poor woman some air. This poor…old woman.

Yes, your friendly neighborhood writer is feeling a bit weak in the knees right now, a bit dizzy and faint. I might need to plunk down, right here on the floor, among you.

Here’s why: as of Nov. 14, I qualify for Social Security.

So I’m officially elderly. I’ve seen it coming. I’ve been spurning invites from the AARP for ten years and even though I’ve been ripping up the packets and stuffing them into the trash, the calendar is winning. As I wrote last month, my arches have collapsed and my bunions have set up their own rogue government. My grey hair insistently pushes out the “Red-brown #6” judiciously administered by Esteeve, my Pico Rivera stylist. My neck rivals Nora Ephron’s. I’ve got age spots and a menagerie of bumps and flaps suggesting my skin has been on the planet too long. My tri-focals keep getting thicker, prosthetics for myopia, presbyopia and some other –opia I can never remember. And while I’m at “remember,” what was it I was going to say next? I forget. Has anybody seen my cell phone?

I’m not just old enough to be my students’ mother, but now their grandmother. My allusions to Talking Heads and Twin Peaks, to name just two items from my moldy pop culture baggage, are so unknown to my students I feel like a lumbering brontosaurus.

What has been occurring to me about old age, though, is not so much how my body is falling apart, but how my dreams are faring.

The other day I was recalling the first time I traveled overseas. It was 1974 when I flew alone into Athens, Greece, where I arrived in the middle of a coup. I holed up taking bubble baths in an overpriced hotel until things calmed down and I could proceed to the Parthenon and Delphi and eventually Crete. It was exhilarating.

I was driven back then by a focused dream: to get out of Ohio, to get out of my ordinary life, to flex my choices, to be interesting as I thought of it back then. That energy propelled me through many more adventures: Peace Corps, marriage, more education, many jobs, a lot of writing good and bad.

Perhaps it’s part of the inevitable course of things: my dreams have changed. Now, some mornings I’m just satisfied with waking up. My dream is to sleep with my husband every night and go out for breakfast at Westside Diner. I could give up traveling tomorrow and never miss another TSA frisking, another roller bag. I have enough stories. I have enough material.

Now, I realize, my dreams have to do with my “village,” my neighbors. My dreams have to do with being in a community that is humane, safe, and manageable. I’ve given 30 years of my life to Flint and I have never been more anxious about its survival, as homicides pile up, break-ins plague even my own street, and the city seems unable to stop a spreading failure of the basic human services we need to live peaceable and sustainable lives together.

I see my young neighbors, beloved additions to my recent existence, struggling with life – raising their children, making sense of their careers, making ends meet. I see their exhaustion and worry. I see my students pulsing with the restless energy I once had, and I want them, like me, to have the chance to fly off to Greece if the impulse propels them and have the satisfactions I once enjoyed. I fear that the world is tightening up for them, the country miserly, crimped and divided. I want a better dream for them.

I’ll wrap this up with an actual dream. One night recently I woke up from a deep sleep, finding myself tightly tucked into a fetal position. My husband was in LA and I had a pronounced sense of solitude, not quite loneliness because I was enjoying the warmth of the bedspread and a nest of cushy pillows I’d assembled around myself in the scary darkest hours. As I unfolded my legs and stretched onto my back, the blankets warm under my chin, I savored the reassuring slats of morning light tipping over the rooftops and venerable silver maples of Maxine and brightening the blinds. I love my street, I thought. About Maxine, I’m a conservative: I want it to stay the same forever -- lovely, neighborly and green.

Suddenly I remembered a dream I’d just been having: I was in my apartment – one of those dream creations that bore no relation to my actual house. I had bought a new bed. It was big and lavish, with an ornately curved brass headboard. But where would I put it? Suddenly I realized my digs had a room I’d never noticed – a room I didn’t know was there. When I discovered it, open and empty and with a glowing hardwood floor, light streaming through big windows, delight and relief washed over me. I went and got my husband. Look, Ted, we’ve got another room!

So, my subconscious seems to be saying, there’s some leeway here somewhere, and when the door opens, it’s going to be good, even for an old lady eligible for Social Security.

But I no longer think that room is only for me. It has to have room for everybody. What we put inside should help us build a smarter, more compassionate life.

Oh, there’s my cell phone on the counter where I left it. Can somebody help me find my glasses? Once they show up, I’ll plunge right in to filling that new room. Here’s the thing: making that dream come true might turn out to be a job for the whole village.