Thursday, April 29, 2010

Marina Abramovic and the peonies

One of the things I wanted to do while in NYC was see the Serbian performance artist, Marina Abramovic, at MoMA, but when Mekko and I went last Thursday evening, Marina and her crew had taken off for the day. So Monday morning I went again, using a friend's membership card. Good thing too—people were standing in line all the way back to Sixth Ave. I slipped in through the front doors, straight up to the second floor gallery, where Marina sat staring at a bearded man.

Marina Abramovic staring at man; man staring back

Marina's stare was inward, soft and somewhat collapsed, but the bearded man sat upright, trying not to blink. I walked around the gallery, looking at the pair, but after a few minutes, I lost interest; what was I missing? What was I suppose to glean from their stares? I went up to the sixth floor, to the large retrospective of Abramovic's work dating back to the seventies. I hoped I'd find the answer there.

 On the way up, looking down; another participant

On the sixth floor, a gaggle of African American teenagers pushed past me, giggly with delight that they'd soon squeeze by two naked ladies to get into the exhibit (at other times, a man and a woman). But the passageway through those naked bodies was a passage into a much darker space, a space with little air, and no joy, full of images of blood and bloody bones, cutting and instruments for cutting, tasks of brutality and torture. When I ran into the giddy teenagers again they seemed downright depressed, unsmiling. 

In one room, a naked woman sat on a bicycle seat attached high on a wall, her arms and legs extended into the air, with her crotch the only visible contact point (Luminosity, 1997). The artist describes this performance piece, with the "luminous light," as being about the transcendental quality of the human spirit. But for me, it was a scene out of Abu Grahib—more terrifying than transforming. I asked the guard how long the woman would be in that position, but she'd been instructed not to tell; the only thing she'd say was that there were alternating performers throughout the day.

I still didn't get it.

When I left the exhibit I went into the bathroom, where I stood in line transfixed by two young women looking at themselves in the mirror. Now, that was interesting.

bathroom at MoMA


The day before I had visited the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens; the sun was out, the air was warm. Russian women walked arm-in-arm, old men held their wives' frail hands, intellectuals talked about the existence of God, children ran around each other dancing under the cherry blossoms. The fragrance of the flowers made it hard to move away from the lilac grove.

At the peony monument, people stood in astonishment at the brilliant colors and different varieties in full bloom, a sensual pleasure that took your breath away.

Tourists almost fell over backwards into the flower beds to get pictures— snap, snap, snap, snap!—everyone tried to drink up the beauty with their cameras. It was impossible to get enough of the day; we were all united under a glorious blue sky, walking in paradise.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


I completely forgot about Agnus until I saw the Williamsburg Public Bath House the other day walking down Bedford Ave, and remembered: I used to go to the bath house on the lower East Side, Tenth Street, wasn't it?  So this morning I went to take the baths, the steam, the dry heat, the freezing cold pool of the Russian and Turkish Bath House, built in 1892, the first of its kind in the East Village. Agnus, I was positive, wasn't there any longer, and sure enough new Russian women had taken her place. But they all remembered her, and well, who could forget Agnus? Not quite five-feet, wide as tall, short dark hair and probably a day's growth of beard and [warning: pornographic images forthwith] with the most expansive humongous breasts known to man. Here's how I remember Agnus: 

I'd go to the the baths at least once a month, paying a few kopeks (i.e. ridiculously cheap) for entrance and a massage. I'd start in the Russian room where women sat taking in the heat, at least 120 degrees, then they'd douse themselves with buckets of cold water. I'd work my way steadily from steam room to hot sauna, alternating with dipping into a pool as freezing cold as the Blue Hole of New Mexico. (Although pictures are forbidden, here's one I took from under my robe this morning, avoiding any naked ladies.)

  inside the bath house

After about a half hour of shvitzing, I'd have a massage with Agnus. She'd beat my body with a brush of oak leaves, called Platza, still used today. Agnus' center of gravity was located low to the ground, giving her the strength of a mud wrestler. She'd knead my sore muscles like a loaf of challah. At times I could feel her big floppy breasts bouncing up and down on my back but I thought nothing of it. Back then no one dressed for dinner, if you know what I mean. It's different now, the masseuses wear clothes and some of the patrons wear bathing suits. But for the most part everyone's still pretty relaxed. Eighties punk rockers and Agnus might be gone from the lower East Side scene but the bath house, and its loyal customers, remain. 

After my soak, I walked down Tenth St. through Tompkin's Square Park, from Ave A to B. Since last here, the needles have all been swept away and the homeless uprooted. In their place, young professionals, tulips and squirrels.

East coast black squirrels are very handsome, don't you think?

I finally made it to my lunch date with Cynthia...

 Cynthia at the Cafe Colonial on Houston

Cynthia is one of my oldest friends from our theatre days in New York, when she designed a gigantic lizard tail for a performance piece I did at the Theatre for the New City, which is still there! Cynthia went on to design costumes for big-time movie directors but has returned to working on a smaller scale. Maybe it's true, the more things change the more they stay the same. What does that mean exactly? One gets the feeling in New York, at least, that a fancy facade has been constructed over much of the city, obliterating wide swaths of the original blueprint, which is true, but if you look a little deeper, the authentic spirit of New York is still strong, pumping a creative force that is neither rich nor poor, old or new. Perhaps when you live here permanently, you know the truth of that more than someone like me just passing through.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Lost in Chinatown

The good thing about staying in NYC for longer than a few days is that I get to explore places I've never been before. Take for example Columbus Park, in Chinatown. This little park used to be called Mulberry Bend Park in the 1800s, located in what was known as the Five Points district, where gangs and criminals of all stripes hung out. It was a dangerous place full of treachery to be sure, as Charles Dickens noted, but was also home to a wide mix of people—Chinese, Irish, Italians, Jews—basically, every poor immigrant in the city. I wandered into the park for the first time the other day and came across large groups of men and women playing Chinese chess. French tourists strolled by as if they were taking in the Bois de Boulogne, admiring the trees and gardens; but for me, it was the faces.

chess aficionados

After the park, I wandered across Hester Street, heading east, across the Bowery:

Said the man to nobody in particular, "I'm gonna tell you all about it, so stick with me." 

Across Hester Street, down to Division Street, then back around to Mulberry St, which was full of fruit and smelly fish. Chinatown can be such a dense maze of people, noise and traffic that you can get totally turned around and lost, like the medina in Fez, Morocco, where you need a guide to find your way out. That's how I felt today in Chinatown: Please, someone, point me in the direction of Broadway and Canal!
Above Canal, at Kenmare and Mulberry Streets, I saw these three auto mechanics, performing a hacky sack ballet. Don't try this in your garage.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

R.I.P. Luna (April 2008 - April 2010)

Our good rat Luna died tonight. May she rest in peace. We loved our little albino rat and she loved us. We played with her and feed her well and in return, received the sweet benefits only a rat can give. When she was ready to go, we had to muster up the courage to be ready too. It wasn't easy as it fell on Tom to take her to the vets when it was time, but he did (letting her sleep one last time under the couch) and then he buried her next to the bird feeder with her favorite cheerios. We will miss you, Luna. Two years is too short for a good rat.

Let us know what rat heaven is like, won't you?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Canal Street, North and South

Old Timey Camera Guy

Saw this dapper gentleman sitting on a window sill outside a store on Broadway the other day; the contrast between the man's old-timey flash camera and the hip new clothing store behind him made me stop. This fellow, who looks like he walked out of the 40s, with his cocky felt fedora and his antiquated equipment, is a remnant of the past, blending in with the new, and what NYC is all about these days. Much of New York is unrecognizable from when I lived here before, half a lifetime ago in the early seventies and then later, in the eighties. One can get used to anything, but still...

Take Wooster Street for example.

  mysterious floating globes

 chairs for the king and queen

I remember hanging out on Wooster Street in Soho, going to the Wooster Street Theatre, a funky gathering place for the downtown art scene, to see the experimental theatre group Mabou Mines, where David Brisbin wrung the neck of a rubber chicken in Dead End Kids. Now it's a consumer's paradise, with expensive art galleries and furniture stores up and down the street. One website advertises condominiums on Wooster Street as: "The Heart of Soho, the Art of So Many." Another tells the story of David Wooster, whose moniker was borrowed to name the street:

David Wooster was a lackluster Revolutionary general who was killed in action. He led his CT troops in the Battle of Harlem and the Battle of Long island. While Wooster was adored by his undisciplined soldiers, he was considered inept by his fellow officers, including General Washington. Wooster died in a brief battle with the Briticsh at Ridgefield, Conn. on April 17. 1777. Congress voted to erect a monument to him, but never followed through.

 David Wooster?

or the real David Wooster?

Ironically the Wooster Collective (a group of ephemeral street artists) presented a Banksy film premiere, "Exit Through the Gift Shop," in LA last night...


 I didn't know Banksy loved rats!

...probably the only creative use left of the street name known as Wooster.


My first ever living space in NYC was on Canal Street near the Pearl Paint store.

I lived with a jazz musician who I'd met in college; we lived on the north side of Canal near Broadway, close to where I'm staying now, only now I'm on Broadway, south of Canal.

Every night after work, I'd trudge up five flights of stairs, stepping over bodies of Chinese restaurant workers laid-out on the landings, drunk or drugged out or sleeping off an 18-hour shift. The apartment smelled of chow mein and fish sauce, and the grease from the restaurant below hung heavy in the air. I had a job at the main Public Library on Fifth Ave after begging the HR lady to take me on, even though my typing speed was an abysmal 30-wpm. Because I was such a poor typist they put me in with a special group of employees: ex-heroin addicts assigned to on-the-job training  through a methadone maintenance program. I guess the librarian thought I'd be a good fit. 

For the most part I liked the group of recovering addicts, who treated me as their mascot. These men and women sincerely wanted to come clean but methadone was no savior. I witnessed this sad fact first-hand when we lunched together in beat-up Bryant Park, not the well manicured garden it is today. To get through the working day, they'd drink out of brown paper bags during their lunch hour or get high, sing old songs from "Hair" (many of them, part of the original cast) and then drag themselves back to work, happy to be filing. I was cool with it since I'd no idea what I was doing or where I was going with my life, only that I knew I couldn't live on Canal St. with the jazz musician or negotiate the Dewey decimal system forever. And so it came to pass that I left the jazz musician and NYC and my job all at the same time. A leave taking necessitating a quick departure; I regret I didn't even say goodbye to my pals at the library.

I'm still using Pearl Paint as a sign post to find my way home.


Saturday, April 3, 2010

Walking the Bird

On my way to exercise class this morning, I saw this guy walking up the hill. I had to stop despite the fact that I was late. His name was Nobua and I asked him if I could take his picture; he said something to his bird and she flared her plumage for the camera.

Nobua with his bird

I will miss this about LA, people walking their birds. As I head out to NYC, I'll miss a lot of things about LA that I didn't think I'd miss. For so long I wanted to be back in the city living the life I'd lived half a lifetime ago, but now that I've got the opportunity, I'm realizing, despite my greatest efforts, LA has become home.

I will miss driving on the freeways.

(Seriously, I could give this up but on Saturday mornings it's not so bad.)

I will miss California poppies taking over the hillsides.

I will miss this peaceful writing space.

I will miss, miss terribly, my husband sitting in his chair reading the morning paper.

I will miss my rats. (I hope Luna's still here when I get back.)

I will miss my meditation bench and what I see looking out.

I will miss sunlight streaming in through the windows.

I'll be living in a dark NYC loft, south of Canal St., but I plan to take plenty of walks with my friend Melissa (shout out to her humorous nature loving blog outwalkingthedog) in Riverside Park, where I'll report back here and tell you what I love about being back in the city. See you there!