Wednesday, September 15, 2010

We Are What We Are

Now this is more like it--from another window, drunken bellowing in Russian accompanied by garish (trust me) Russian breakables being smashed; this guy, it's almost a weekly routine with him. Ah, but that's my Brighton.

As I think about it, I have spent an inordinate deal of time and mental capital these past few days entertaining uncharitable thoughts about several elderly people I know. Granted, I've had my reasons; but I wonder whether there isn't happening inside me some reflexive action triggered by the final weeks and days and hours of Jean Valjean--specifically, by their finally maddening martyred passivity. Marius, in fury at misunderstanding (an elemental fury, Misunderstanding with a capital "M"), screaming at the dying hero through helpless tears: Why didn't you say something? Why didn't you tell me? Marius, how I sympathize with you in this scene. The dying voice: How could I? Unanswerable.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I Was Here

I was prompted to write last night by the circumstance of hearing a woman scream angrily somewhere outside my kitchen window in rude and not completely comprehensible but English. Which was a strange sound to be coming from my neighborhood which is predominantly Russian. It's true, it's still summer when it's truly crowded here and tempers fray; no bars or "taverns" on the street but several nightclubs, lots of liquor, lots of louts of either sex and every nation. Drug addicts, menacing, Hummers, beggars, caviar kiosks, shop windows festooned with garlands of sausage and dried fish bouquets, panes of sunlight scattered by the elevated line, sand, sea, two Chase banks facing one another at an intersection, a Starbucks filled with teens--this completes the current picture.

I wanted to write about how Brighton Beach to Coney Island celebrated September 11th this year, a Saturday night by the sea--the answer is by dancing--under a hazy black sky; to the north, above the blocks of co-ops, the bandshell park, the New York Aquarium, the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel, were more or less distinctly visible the twin searchlight beams from Ground Zero. In front of the Russian restaurant at the end of my street, Jews who'd grown up in the Soviet Union were dancing in the middle of the boardwalk to schmaltz played on a tape machine by a guy providing live vocals (in Russian) and trumpet solos of some panache--and these sexy people in their sixties were showing off their ballroom moves, some polished, all executed with joy; one congestion-faced dancer let loose a big laughing shout from the belly on him.

I'd have liked to linger in the crowd encircling the Gulag Survivor Dancers but my sister craved a hot dog--that Indian mustard greens recipe, I should warn, even when served with pink rice from Madagascar, may not be found sufficient as a main course, even (especially?) by family members--so we were headed to Nathan's; posthaste. Just beyond the last illuminations of the Russian boardwalk restaurants, two banks of sound speakers and a DJ were blasting dance beats from beneath the concrete eaves of the resting bum shelter at a crowd that many newscasters today would describe as "sporadic," four or five couples gyrating and swaying and a little interracially grinding, in almost complete darkness, before a scattering of interested loners. Above them, looking city-ward, the two columns of light seemed at different points to have burst and leaked their substance into cloaking cloud sprays yet continued their ascent to the roof of the sky; all in silver. (It's lovely--once a year!) Maybe it was a bit seamy. We didn't linger at all here, so I can't tell.

On toward Coney Island we continued past the Russian weekend guy who sits shirtless on a particular bench facing the ocean with a portable speaker that blares execrable Russian pop music, possibly vintage, not necessarily, though, which he accompanies on his electric bass guitar. No one was dancing to his tunes. Did he resent this? I thought so. What, after all, was he doing so different from Mister Solo Trumpet up by Tatiana Grill? Uncourted, unfeted, unhired: he seemed morose. I didn't blame him.

Soon, extremely soon, if not already, we were within earshot of the greatest, the loudest, the writhing-est in the most darkness-est boardwalk dance circle on earth; just up the block and drowning the screams (no mean feat) from the Cyclone, it's The Coney Island Dancers, shattering the lower windows of the stratosphere from a gazebo flanked by a steriod-induced sound system for one full summer now. The packed crowd is in every way enormous. Hand drummers, settled in deck chairs, pound along to the amplified beat of dance classics, thankfully, and not the trance-y European sounding dreck the DJs were spinning in June and July--when I even asked some cops who were there in their little two-man Boardwalk scooter, "Isn't this breaking any laws?" They have a permit, I'm told. Who knows, maybe it was out of respect for September 11th that they turned it down a notch and played some oldies for the dancers at the hidden liquid center of the crowd and the crowd itself which sang along: "Oooh Oooh Oooh--Dance! Boogie Wonderlaa--and!" Dance, dance: from which--as from every dancing step we'd witnessed--it seemed natural to draw conclusions about New Yorkers, New York, Brooklyn...

I'm sorry--should I continue? I drifted off into how stale and tiresome actually drawing those conclusions sounded. I like Victor Hugo's addendum letter to that Italian publisher, where he's been told that Italians think Les Misérables is "about France" and he's writing to correct this once and for the globe.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Was it good.

I finished reading Les Misérables at work today. I sobbed (silently--it would have sounded more like a strange cough) when Cosette and Marius entered the room; I went through four or five sheets of the Kleenex provided in a no-name box by my employer as part of last year's anti-flu contagion campaign along with bottles of bubbly sanitizing gel and a hand-alcohol dispenser installed outside the men's room. I also used up some of the takeout napkins I keep in a pile on my desk beside my big red lucky Chinese money card. My desk--my luck--my tears; someone on the Montenegran cleaning crew tying up a bag of empty paper cups and wadded tissues.

El señor Tormenta

Last night I had to open my other pack of notebooks and start a new one for writing about reading Les Misérables at work, right in the middle of an entry that wound up too lousy to publish. (A highlight: "I'm having a three-notebook night.") Ended up watching half of Nacho Libre. Now a beautiful morning rolls past my window seat. With all the holidays this week, the train isn't crowded. But the MTA construction gangs are out in force again, just like yesterday; the long long-unreconstructed outbound platforms south of Newkirk teem with orange vests making time and a half in slow motion.

It's painful to contemplate, really: Marius, on the morning after his wedding night, meeting Jean Valjean and his confession--the confession of a virgin to a man still throbbing. The bride overflows the bridal chamber and appears dressed in pleated foam, demanding kisses. Her virgin father must oblige. Marius, Marius comma you almost looked like a villain there, you with your normal life.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I'm an Artist

I have been sublimating my anxiety and grief and fear of vertigo at the prospect of finishing Les Misérables at work next door to Ground Zero, into writing a tennis novel. Sunday night, I sat there staring at my notebook where I'd just added "sadly" until a voice inside my head said, "Hmmm." I took a break then; came back, completed and almost posted the entry; took another break; came back and posted the entry "as is" and then started writing this tennis novel. Somewhere in there I also cooked excellent Indian mustard greens for dinner and watched Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, also excellent and highly recommended.

The next day being Labor Day, I'm off work, I'm sleeping late, drinking coffee, farting around on the internet. Tennis comes on TV; I head for the Mah Jong Tiles, level 4, and I beat it in three tries, less than fifteen minutes later. Six hours to fill before I ride up to eat with my sister. I opened the notbook with the tennis novel--not quite a new notebook; there was already a half-page of notes for another novel that I guess remains not quite a ready one to write. The night before I'd made a list of names and I don't know how many paragraphs I'd written. In any case I sat down and picked up where I'd left off and I've kept going and now I've got pages and pages that take place at the US Open plus the opening lines of two sequels in this other black Moleskine notebook that's lying on the other side of me from where my cat Tippi's sleeping--no, bathing. And this other work has been so fascinating to me that I couldn't picture how I'd ever return to writing about reading Les Misérables at work until the conclusion of this year's women's tournament (at least) because how much spare time do I have, really. I have to go with the flow, where the words flow. I'm writing this tennis novel for pure pleasure--pure--pleasure--and I've got to follow that. It's kind of my law. But that doesn't mean I can just stop reading Les Misérables at work when I'm back at the grindstone peering at the grindstone's screen through the almost invisible haze of hazardous building and building and building and building and building and building and building materials being so boldly utilized by all those boys next door. Of course I'm not going to stop reading, for one thing I've made this commitment but you must know, I have no idea how Les Misérables ends and I'm dying to find out.

Dying--like everyone else, actually dying, eventually, maybe soon; this horrible thought again. I did, somewhere, read a spoiler and I know that Jean Valjean will die. I will be reading his death scene while sitting in the building with the best view of a monument to human carnage (no matter what it eventually looks like). And I, too, myself, will someday die. I don't, I really don't want Jean Valjean to die. And so, I have been sublimating my anxiety etcetera and etcetera.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Love is the only ecstasy.

I have a surprise night to myself--surprise following upon violent relief that my sister wasn't lying dead or helpless in her apartment when she didn't answer either phone for a half hour when she'd been expecting my call, but was merely napping through one and recharging the other. (I've got an hereditary tendency to worry.) We've rescheduled my coming-going to her neighborhood for dinner for tomorrow night. Again.

But this really was a surprise, this night to myself. On this long weekend, I have been deeply embedded in my own tennis fantasies and playing computer mah-jong, in no frame of mind to write, until tonight. Today I was closely engaged with the fourth and last level of free on-line Mah Jong Tiles--I defeated it once, earlier this week, and vowed then as I walked into the bathroom to step away entire. Two days later, while tennis balls popped and tennis folk brayed in the background, I was back to the first level: easy. Second one: still almost pathetically easy. The third level, hard enough to be fun: I was sorry to leave it and be back so soon in the fourth, such a laborious battle to win--as I knew full well. So I should have known better: the fact is I can't watch most of these hideous matches these days and as for tennis "broadcasts" with all the commercials please don't get me started. Yes I'll keep it on, but I'm sitting there with my back turned and my eyes busy matching disembodied mah-jong tiles for my mouse finger to click on and make go "Bung."

Sometimes my fantasy alter-ego daydreams are so vivid and uplifting that I step aside to look and wonder what they mean. Like today, some new fillip to a well-worn tale arrives that sends it blazing into new life--true, perfectly true, and even more perfect the whole now--an inspiration wrung out of headache-inducing Labor Day tennis rituals and perfectly, sadly useless. It just is. Sadly, sadly: this is what comes from watching Ana Ivanovic for even five minutes--sadly. I'm just trying to be cute! Poor girl--the uselessness of my pleasures is possibly something, but sadly is Ana Ivanovic; poor, like the Lark, Cosette in rags and wooden shoes, but with not as much crosscourt mobility. Pray: I pray for Ana Ivanovich that she has a great love and the perfect wedding night before her, too; Amen.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Laundresses of Les Misérables

A boat owned by some laundresses, Javert's body bobs up under. At reading this at work today I think I thought something like, Oh dear! I was startled. It was just--but then I kept reading, the plot so compelled me, the plot and the beauty of young love refracted through old, lovesick eyes into prism-casts of brilliant soliloquizing (I love the grandfather).

So it's not until tonight as I am sitting peacefully in my own living room that I am all at once compelled to wonder: What?

What were two laundresses doing owning a boat? (For some reason I remember it as two.) For what? Why? What did they use it for? What were they washing clothes in the Seine from a rowboat--of course not. There were shops full of vats of boiling water and lye where they worked; this is in Zola. Nana's mother was a drunken laundress, just like I might have been in her day (and others). So what's with the boat--ladies? Naturally I find its joint ownership suggestive; even unto the extreme. A shared pleasure craft, is it? Maybe with even a small sail to flutter and double as shade and triple as cover: oh dear. Or maybe, who knows by 1832 how long they've been together: two years? Ten? Twenty? Say fifteen, and say that one of them wasn't always a laundress and that they've begun to get tired of each other. How tired? Enough that they've both got other women who if they could just get them alone in that boat on a nice day, then everything afterwards would be Fine. Doors close, windows open--whatever: it's a common way of feeling. But what happens when these two long-linked laundresses keep feeling this way at the same time? Do they start to fight about that boat? They do. Why do I need your permission to go out in our boat? Why do you want to go out in our boat? Why do I need a reason? Are you going alone? Are you telling me I need a reason? Who is she? Where are you hiding her? This manner of thing become commonplace in the home, in the workplace, by the riverside, say a small crowd, mostly muddy, has gathered to hear it again. Two laundresses, fighting over their boat, their drink-cracked voices ringing true again against the stone feet of the nearby Pont-Neuf: who notices the boat's strange humping as it's rocked from beneath, or the rope anchor's tautening at an added weight that pulls? Who and how many turn from the fight to witness the emergence of something else ghastly?

Or maybe they're just two (or some) laundresses who've got a marginally lucrative and wholly platonic sideline in carp; or they're sisters. What am I, psychic? (Although I think it would have said if they were sisters. I mean, why not? Frankly, for all I know they really were doing laundry from a boat in the Seine--because they were cut-rate amateur Parisian laundresses whose customers couldn't afford to send things to the lye-shops; and their edge on their competitors is that they've got this boat so they can take your clothes out to wash in cleaner water than the rest.)