Gil and His Vespa
Friends don’t come out to my house on the North Fork much, because they think it’s two hours away—which it is, but it’s not like that. It’s like you don’t want to get on your bike on a perfect spring day because you think it’s going to be exercise, which it is, but it’s something else too. Or you think you can’t practice meditation today because it’s…uch…you know…you have other things to do—but it’s not like that: when you get there you realize, “Oh my god, I need this.”
Today I was out on my bike (having resisted it), riding to Orient Point, trying to find you an Osprey nest. I forgot the smells by the sea: brine and salt, oil from boats, and something damp and warm that comes from mud and bugs. I forgot the sound of the bike on sand, and the way you wave out here when you pass someone. Two carloads of boys whistled at me. An extremely overweight girl with a bicycle helmet perched on her head like a pillbox hat said “Hi” ecstatically, her face flushed from wild pleasure. I rode without hands going down hill, the way I did when I was fifteen, and I brought back shells.
This is what I was thinking about: My old friend Gil bought a Vespa last week, and last week we tried it out in the hills. First he rode it, then I rode it, then he rode me on it, and then I rode him on it. This was extra fun because Gil and I both owned motorcycles back in L.A. in the early Ninties, and we rode around then, too, until he got in an accident and ruined his bike. (His fall was broken by his laundry, which was in a big bag on his back.) Anyway, I’d like a Vespa like Gil’s out here: a hundred miles to the gallon, take it on the ferry. Some simple things really are heaven: I’m not kidding. The wind all around you; a single bird, chirping.
Gil and I (when he was in his late-twenties, and I was in my mid-thirties) used to do outrageous amounts of yoga together at Ana Forrest’s studio in Santa Monica. Gil managed the place, and sometimes after yoga, we’d play pinball on his computer, and when it was my turn, he’d stand in the middle of the room doing crazy things with his face and body, trying to break my concentration.
When my marriage broke up, Gil stepped in, in a way: I would hold Maudie’s left hand, and he would hold her right, and we’d walk down the promenade swinging her high in the air—she was five—while she laughed and screamed, “Again, again, again,” before it was even over. Gil would take us out for Burritos, then, and then to the candy store, where he’d always steal one of those huge round hollow gumballs, and pop it in his mouth while we looked from bin to bin. Gil is always walking the edge between legal and not, and neither Maud nor I were happy about his tiny thefts. I remember once Baby Maudie, so serious, saying to Gil, at the cash register, in front of the cashier, “Where did you get that gum that you’re chewing? You stole it.” Gil just laughed, his mouth a big happy obvious blue hole. Like I said: some simple things really are heaven.
Riding the Planet
O.K. one more, even though I have to go move my car again. So I was stopped at a light the other day, and I noticed that the clouds were moving faster than usual across the sky. I watched them until the stoplight changed, and in that time I got a little perspective: we’re on a planet moving through space. We have about a minute of life and then it’s over. It’s amazing, this fast, little life on this beautiful planet in this infinite universe. Why waste it? Really, why not just be amazed?
More on that later.
Dog is God
If I only wrote about dog love, would you keep reading? I feel like a teenaged girl, only instead of boys it’s those semi-retarded, furry creatures with their tongues hanging out, their fluffy tails bouncing down the sidewalk like the feathers on a majorette’s baton. Everywhere you look there’s another nut-job human living the drama, but down near the earth are those that are happy and innocent—better than most babies, even, because they don’t ever feel the achy, angry longing to differentiate.
I duck into pet stores whenever I can. I stare the tiny spaniels, with their sad faces, and the shih tzus. I can’t decide which I like more, the feisty ones who stand on their back legs, cheering you on to take them home, or the ones that just lie there, buried in shredded paper, their baby faces crushed up against the glass. (When Maud was a little girl, she always wanted the stuffed animal in the store with the crooked ear or the creased arm—the others, I think she thought, didn’t need her massive love.)
Here’s something I’ve been thinking about: people should apologize, genuinely and with full acknowledgment of their wrongdoing, if they’ve behaved in ways that are traumatizing to those that they love (especially their children). Genuine pologies go a long way in the healing process, I think.
Until then, back to getting my Vitamin D from dogs.
I’d been staying in the city for days and days, in my friends’ son’s room, with it’s narrow bed and wacky sunglasses by the stereo. I’d kept my suitcase, filled with two pairs of jeans, a few long-sleeved T-shirts, socks and underwear, on the closet floor so it didn’t look to anyone like I was living out of a suitcase—so it didn’t look like I was freeloading. So when I opened my eyes the other day and discovered that I was home, in my own bed in East Marion—the light pouring in through trees, the only sound the wind and the birds, no one else in the house—I was, simply, surprised. Surprised, that is, and very, very, very happy.
If we’re lucky, we get to choose our home. We get to choose, within reason, our sheets and our comforter covers and the smell of the laundry soap we use. We get to choose whether or not to cover our windows and how hot or cold we want our room to be during the night. We get to choose the kind of bread we like, the fat content of the milk, the channel of the radio, and whether or not to watch TV (or not have a TV at all). We get to choose who we talk to at night before bed, and what we do, and what we don’t do. What unbelievable freedom.
The next morning—the one after the morning when I woke up at home—I was awakened, still at home, at 6:30 AM, by the sound of my phone. I keep it on at night in case Maud calls; I think I’ll always feel a little nervous about her out there in the world, a little (a lot) responsible. Anyway, my phone said, “Blocked,” so I didn’t pick it up, but I must have pressed the wrong button because I heard a man’s voice saying, “Hello? Hello?” by my ear. He sounded young. He sounded a little dull. I pushed the off button.
The phone rang again a minute later, also with the message that it was a blocked call. Knowing it was that guy, and not someone I knew calling with bad news, I picked it up. “Hello?” I said, and he said, immediately, in that same dull voice, “Is nine-and-a-half-inches big enough for you?” I hung up.
You see, there’s no predicting. There’s no controlling. It’s all one big rat fuck rolled together with some really nice times. Nine-and-a-half inches? Rhonestly. All I wanted was a little more sleep, and then maybe a coffee in the silence.
Tonight, after an upsetting play in Times Square, I literally found myself on the uptown platform of the 1 train, when I was supposed to be on the downtown platform of the Q. It was habit. My heart hurt from the play, you see, and I headed for the comfort of home. Only home is no longer in the direction of the uptown 1. This happened to me once before, when I was 10 and my father died: all you want to do is go home, but there is no home. Home, for me, I guess, is people.
Or dogs. You think this is a photograph of three of them, and it is, but it’s also more: it’s a photograph of home. Not only that, it’s a photograph of love. I know that. I know that. No one can tell me any different. I know it. I have a photograph. It’s right here.
What they say is that one loss brings up all losses. Today I woke up overwhelmed by loss, and made the decision to deal with only one—today, at least—which is the loss of my dog, Scout. My feelings about his death, and my massive missing of him, got lost in the onslaught of all the other deaths and losses, but he was so kind to me throughout his life, and I loved him so much, that I need to rest with him, for at least a moment, or a few days, or a few months, or however long it takes until I feel like I’ve honored him and mourned him and really grocked what he did for me, and meant to me.
I started writing all about the minutes before his death, but what I think I’ll stick with is a memory I have of him in the few days before he died. I have to work with this memory because it’s so painful—maybe it will be obvious why. My friend L.B. was over for dinner, and Scout, who she knows well because he and I lived at her house all spring, couldn’t stop circling. He was going faster and faster and he was so obviously uncomfortable, and we were uncomfortable, trying to have dinner and talk with Scout circling in the background. Finally L.B. said to me, “Maybe you could try putting him to bed.” Well, Scout hadn’t slept in my bed for about year, for a variety of reasons I won’t go into, but he’d started, just a few weeks before, because I was scared in my new house, and because he was always my protector, my great dog love. So I said, O.K., and I brought him into my room, and I put him up on my bed (he couldn’t jump anymore), and I lay down next to him, and spooned him. It didn’t take more than thirty seconds for him to fall fast asleep. He stayed asleep for hours after that.
Anyway, most of my memories of Scout these days, have to do being in bed with him. It is his humor I miss most, but also his body next to mine.
Today is Scout day. Toby and I have erected two shrines to him in my house, and I am allowing myself to be sad that I’m making soup with a bone that he would have loved, if he were here. We’re trying to stay away from other sad subjects, and just allow me, really, to miss my boy. I miss my boy more than I can say.
Belief in Berlin
Today, on the fabulous U-Bahn, I saw an elderly woman, dressed in a long brown skirt with Silly Putty-colored shoes, wearing a very large and ornate crucifix around her neck. Beside her was a young guy with a paunch and slicked-back hair, wearing a black jean jacket with four Elvis buttons pinned on the pocket, just over his heart.
Down at the end of the car, a young woman was a reading a book, her legs stretched out on the seat. Under her shoes, so as to protect the seat from dirt, she’d put a paper towel.
I asked Bronnie’s dad today, while he was eating his Progresso split-pea soup—his foot throbbing because he’d fallen off his wheelie thing twenty minutes before—if he thought that people were basically good or basically bad. I asked this because he’s had dealings, business and personal, with a lot of people over the last seventy-seven years, including Kennedys and Bushes and Fondas and Plaths and Kissingers and so on, and a lot of the stories he tells involve fighting high-end, white-collar crime and righting high-end, white-collar immoral wrongs. He said that he thought that the vast majority of people were basically not very “decent,” but that a small minority were.
He said that what made that small minority decent was the fact that they had some awareness that they were capable of behaving in very self-centered, selfish, and basically hurtful ways, and that they made a conscious effort to try to overcome these impulses to do what was best for them at someone else’s expense, in order to be decent. The example he used was simple: How often, when you’re in a crowded movie theatre, does someone raise their hand and say, “There’s a free seat over here.” He said that he believed that most people didn’t even know that they had a habit of behaving selfishly—they were oblivious to the fact that there was a possibility to even consider doing otherwise.
Anyway, I think this guy is one of the good guys, and one of the few people very much on my mind lately who is not a complete hypocrite.
New York on Under $15 a Day (Almost)!
Deitch’s Tricks to Being Almost Homeless in New York on the Cheap!
O.K., so if you start out with a tea in the morning at Starbucks, rather than a yummy milky drink (which isn’t good for you anyway), you only have to spend $2.50 a day on caffeine, and the person behind the counter will actually say your name when calling out your order. This is really good if you’re on your own in New York, because it can get kind of lonely (sometimes the only people who talk to you are the one’s asking for money). Then, if you join the New York Society Library, at 79th and Madison, you can have a beautiful, stately, clean, quiet place to stay during the day, seven days a week—with wifi, books, and a bathroom!—for 47 cents a day. (The fee is $175 a year.) So far that’s less than three dollars! The library closes at 5:00 most nights, so you’ll probably have to spend some time afterwards in a Starbucks again, but I’ve discovered that if you order a hot water, they don’t charge you, and it makes the person behind the counter feel good, too!
OK. So you’ll have to eat. What I’ve discovered is that most places that serve soup, serve it with a roll. This is a real plus. Soup is good in the morning, good in the afternoon, and good in the evening. You’ve got to find the right places, though, for good soup (and that roll!). Toby turned me on to two Thai places in Chinatown where you can get a big bowl of Pho (with noodles, bean sprouts, and beef), for six dollars. (Don’t get the one with belly button, even if Toby says it’s good.) I can’t spell or say their names, but one place is on Baxter, just below Canal, and one is on Mott, just above Grand. That’s a whole meal. B & H Dairy, on Second Avenue right off St. Marks has amazing soups with buttered challah for under five dollars. And the Silver Moon on Broadway and 104th-ish, has soup avec pain (that’s “bread,” not “pain”) for $6.
So say you skip one meal, that’s .47 plus 2.50 plus 12.00, that’s a whole day on less than $15!
Now the thing is finding a place to sleep. I am lucky because I have people who love me who also have couches and showers. That’s a necessity in the winter, I think, though I haven’t tried out Grand Central or the Shelter establishments. Who knows? Maybe they’re great as long as you keep your boots tied on tight! I’m guessing you’ll find people there who will talk to you. I guess it’s important to have had a previous life in New York, when you were not almost homeless. Developing friendships while you’re wearing your life on your back is not that easy.
Speaking of which, there is the issue of what you carry on your back and keep in your pockets. You know when you move and you end up with a pocket full of keys to nowhere, screws, pennies, and lint? Well, that’s how it is when you do New York on $15 a day! You’ve got pocketfuls of important stuff! So you have to keep your head screwed on, because it’s a special trick, keeping things, when you’ve got nowhere to put them!
A mantra, too, is very important, I’ve found, too, for winter homelessness. One of my therapists (that’s an extra expense) reminded me of metta, which I’m using, and, guess what?, it works! It goes: May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy, and may I live at ease. Just say that over and over, especially when you’re walking from place to place in the cold, and you’ll feel a hundred-million times better. Or, if you’ve only got a second for mantra, remember this: Always only apply a joyful mind.
Wow, Bronnie’s dad and I have a lot more in common than using paper towels as napkins and liking canned fruit. Turns out he’s had three of his screenplays made into films (Nola, The Warrior Class, and Reunion), and at least one of his plays produced at one of my favorite off-Broadway theatres (59E59); he also directed Waiting for Godot at the Actor’s Studio, to rave reviews, and represented Henry Kissinger and Katherine Graham (the old editor of the Washington Post), when he was a lawyer. He and his wife started the Soho Press in the eighties, and his wife (who was turned away from Yale after she was accepted, when they found out that she was only fourteen) discovered Edwidge Danticat. I love this kind of man: brilliant, curious, hungry, and unstoppable. Sydney Pollack, my old boss, was like that: like, “Life is so fun! Let’s do something amazing—right now!” It’s very good to be reminded that that is a possibility.
Anyway, it’s confusing: I’m supposed to be The Help, but we’re gabbing. I did leave when he ate his tuna sandwich tonight (which he made himself from his chair—I just took down the ingredients from the shelves and washed the tomato), so he wouldn’t make a spectacle of himself sandwich-eating. I would like to make him nicer food—everything comes out of a can or a box—but he’s just not interested in that. He did invite me to have lunch with him tomorrow (reheated spaghetti and meatballs that his sister brought over), and that’s intimidating. I really do like being the strange, slightly wild woman who can’t find the canned apricots even though they’re right in front of me; it’s a little less comfortable for me, at the moment, having to keep up the pretense of being a regular, functional person. I mean, honestly, I did step into the den to take half a Xanax tonight between the sandwich and the canned apricots.
But I wanted to report on Madison Avenue in the seventies and eighties, which I took two walks on today, because Bronnie’s dad lives up there. Oh my God. In one window there was a real fur desk. In another window there was mannequin in patchwork pants and a bow tie, with his headless date in a hot-pink pleated skirt. There was half a block of animated polar bears in Santa costumes (one looked like he was humping a fallen tree, but I think he was supposed to be snoring), and a clothing store for a wide-variety of wealthy or wannabe babies: there was the store for perfect preppy kids, the store for the lederhosen kids, the store for kids who aren’t allowed out without bows in their hair, the store for the Jon Benet Ramsey kids, and the store for the kids with trashy moms.
On the other hand, in the subway on 86th and Lex was woman noisily, animatedly begging for money with her silent, twelve-year-old daughter sitting painfully blankly beside her. I bet she would like a bow in her hair and a plate of reheated spaghetti and meatballs.
Love, Part I
So we’re going to talk about love, but I apologize, because first I have to go on a little bit more about suffering. I wrote about this once, in the Shambhala Sun, about how, the first time I meditated, I was shocked to discover that the last place I wanted to be was here, now. You’re supposed to put about twenty-five percent of your attention on your breath when you do this kind of meditation, and then, when you notice you’re thinking, you’re supposed to say “Thinking” to yourself, and then come back to the breath. But I didn’t want to come back to my breath; I wanted to think. I wanted to think about the book I was reading (Was it Harlot’s Ghost?), or the show I was watching (I think it was “Thirty Something”), or the implications around the fact that a five-year-year-old boy was actually in love with my five-year-old daughter. I wanted to have fantasies about having an affair, or quitting my job, or killing my boss, or taking a trip. I found all this so enjoyable.
Being here, with my breath, I discovered was actually something that was so painful for me that I wanted to get away from it, by thinking and reading and watching TV and fighting and drinking wine and constantly fantasizing and making mental lists and/or having elaborate conversations in my head with people who were bugging me and/or I liked. The weird thing (apart from the revelation that right here was that painful) was that I had thought, up until that moment, that those things in my head—those thoughts—were actually my life. That is, I didn’t know that they were just thoughts and fantasies, and that, on some level, I was avoiding my actual life—that is, what was actually happening right then and there—at all costs.
So back to the here and now: it hurt. I mean, what the fuck? I said this to the man who was leading the weekend meditation retreat at the yoga center I went to every day, and he smiled at me and told me that he thought I might be interested in checking out Buddhism. Buddhism’s first noble truth, he said, is the truth of suffering.
Anyway, I’m not going to talk about Buddhism and love, don’t worry. But I still would like to talk about loss a little more. I’d like to just say that I learned something amazingly new two weeks ago, from Scout’s death. I had always thought that my feelings basically were in my head, or in my metaphorical heart. But what I realized from Scout was that my feelings are entirely—entirely—physical.
The way I realized this was that, when I left the vet’s office, I started to cry, and I didn’t stop for days. It wasn’t a boo-hooing kind of thing (I mean, it was sometimes)—it was just that tears poured out of my eyes and down my cheeks without end, while I cooked and did the laundry and vacuumed and made the bed and worked. I even had to go into Starbucks and Salamander’s with red eyes and a runny nose—you need coffee and soup and big salt, one way or the other.
Crying, I soon realized, was like the escape valve on my stovetop coffeemaker; without it, the thing would explode. So my endless crying was my body’s reaction to all the physical pain I was feeling: it was like someone was stabbing me in the heart. It was like my heart was being squeezed. It was like I had the flu: I wanted to vomit, I was sweaty, I was hot, cold, shaky, weak, my stomach hurt, my back hurt, I had butterflies, my muscles ached, my teeth hurt, a constant anxiety rushed like hot lava, like mice, like bugs, up and down my body. It still does. The thoughts—the thought of Scout suffering, playing, sleeping, dying—they were something else: they had an effect on the pain in my body, but they were not the pain itself. If I told you, “I miss my dog,” what I meant was, “The pain in my body is so unbearable that I might need to claw my eyes out.” No wonder people become alcoholics and drug addicts and sex addicts and exercise addicts. No wonder people eat so much they become obese. No wonder people kill themselves. Fuckin’ ouch.
That’s my start on love. I’ll be back. First I have to go do some work, though.