Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Life of an Artist

Small Jean Genie snuck off to the city
Strung out on lazers and slash back blazers
Ate all your razorswhile pulling the waiters
Talking bout monroe and walking on snow white
New Yorks a go-go and everything tastes nice
Poor little greenie, woo ho
Get back home

Bowie

Okay so David was the one who would be my first, not Bowie, no that guy that I met at Bloomingdales, we went out a couple of times, he showed me the ropes, treated me like a gentleman, I was charmed and openly vulnerable. Eventually he would play my body like an instrument, harpsichord? I was finally able to open up, to lose myself in the heat of an embrace, he fucked me and I loved it, what a revelation, oh what joy! Of course I thought that I was in love, I was a little I guess. We did have some good times together though, even if it would not last for more than six months, but that was a record for me at that time.

With his help I found a couple of temporary jobs, that since I was fired from Bloomingdales on Christmas Eve. Worked as a coat check at Les Mouches, a very trendy at that time club and restaurant.  That gig would be short lived since the business was going under, drugs and excess I suppose. I did meet some wild people, there is a baton twirler that sticks out in my mind. Saw Kraftwerk when they toured The Robots, and was able to bring a little money home.

The days were filled with walking and wonder, joy and disappointment, the city. I would find my way, finding my way, finding my way back home. When I was with David he would put his arm out, I would put mine on his, you have got to realize that public displays of gay affection were not to be seen or heard of, of course there were the piers and other private places where one could find random sex night and day, I never went, I was terrified of the thought, wanted to go though. We were public, David and I, and if anyone said anything to us he would turn into a Pit bull and tell them to fuck off. Now that I think about it, how romantic it all was, wandering the streets, arm in arm, 1981, he guiding me through the concrete jungle, looking for the  stores that sold record albums, teaching me about Judy, Piaf and Billie, then feeding me in his captain’s bed.  


David’s apartment was tiny, nice but small, part of a massive complex on West End Avenue. His bed on the floor, a futon like thing, where I would wait for him when he went to the Saint, I didn’t know what he was doing there, he was a member, refused to take me. So instead I read his books, Maurice, The Pillar and the City, Bent, playing records, waiting defrosting that pint of Haagen Daz that we would share later.

Emile and I very quickly ran out of money, we were always getting lost on the subway, life was terrifying and brilliant, very different from the home we once knew. We’d eventually find our way back to Queens where food and jobs were scarce, our landlady a drunken nightmare with an abusive boyfriend. The city was dirty, filthy actually. Crazy people roamed alongside others that hid it better, homeless people with fires burning, drunks like me, drug addicts, squatters. Our subway train was parked at the end of the line, the lot filled with brightly colored graffiti masterpieces. Windows were broken out, danger lurked everywhere, don’t look anyone in the eye, people would get killed for that, didn’t stop me though, I was fascinated by the diversity, it made me feel like I fit in somewhere, perhaps even that was some kind of myth.

Emile asked his folks for some money, they loaned him $500, we got by. One month I had to borrow some cash from David to pay the rent, he worked at Pan Am, the call center, it wasn’t much money, he was very nice about it, I never paid him back. We got through those first six months by luck and guile, we were not returning home, not yet and possibly never.


 I would write to mom, letters filled with my fears and excitement, details about my relationship with David, my life with Emile, I didn’t hold back, she never did. I wanted her to know everything. I had no phone, so for the most part we wrote, I read those letters years later, oh my poor momma. Once in a while we’d arrange a collect call from the phone booth that was across from the apartment, practically in the graveyard, those calls would be brief and sad, I cried in many phone booths then.

I went to David’s one night, he had a friend there, an older man. I think that David wanted to have a three way or something, I don’t know just very subtle innuendos. I sat on the floor being ignored playing Billie Holiday on his record player, “you’ve changed.” I wasn’t known for speaking up but I really felt myself compromised, maybe I just wasn’t Gay enough. So I removed myself from the situation and left that night never to return. At that time I just wanted one boyfriend, one person who I could trust and rely upon, I felt betrayed by love and then let myself become swallowed up by the city, she would protect me or spit me out.

Finally finding my way home at dusk after taking the Roosevelt tramway, being stuck there on that island, hearing in disbelief as the conductor announced that it was the last ride of the night, spending what was left in my pocket to ride a bus back to the city, ending up on 14th street at a pool hall with the runs, convinced the guy to give me the key to the bathroom, shitting in the urinal, jumping the turnstile after pleading my case to the toll worker, again letting my bowels loose by a dumpster once back in my neighborhood in Queens, I was home so I rested. It was over. I didn’t have a phone, no computer, no socializing network, David called my Italian neighbor Peter’s phone, the only way to reach me in case of emergency, I had nothing to say, I was silent on my end. Peter made some terrible baked noodle thing to cheer me up. It was just Emile and me again. He had been terribly jealous of David, but one of us had to be the first to date someone else.


David would become my first real stalker. Months later I was back working at Bloomingdales, I convinced them to rehire me, they happened to be looking for someone to work the Herb de Provence department, the woman who was the representative would fly in from France, she looked just like Greta Garbo, showing up in flowing minks, smooth skin, high cheekbones. I told the guy that interviewed me that the store was the best store ever in the history of mankind and I would be so grateful just to be able to apply myself again, all in the honor of our namesake, that plus I had experience in herbs.

So I was happily plying my trade, my managers were great, a guy and a girl, she was a Lesbian who lived in Carroll Gardens, my first trip out there for some holiday party of hers, a once desolate outpost that has since become so hip. The male manager, his name was Rob, both wonderful and kind people to work for, they would let me do my thing because I was a solid employee, one who worked alongside the older Irish guy, that man from Jamaica, Mary who thought that I was a drag queen because I grew my nails long and plucked my eyebrows, the young Black women, Nita who took me the Bronx for a party where we danced to Reggae nearly getting killed on the way home, we all wanted to be something else, somewhere else, all except for Phil, the older Irish guy.

David would show up at my department, sixth floor, what did they call it then? Saw Imelda Marcos during the Philipines promotion, Andy Warhol gave me a copy of Interview, waited on Brooke Shields and Claudine Colbert. David would show up and sit there in my department, staring with a half assed grin, taking notes, I would run to all of my co-workers, that guy is a freak and this is what happened. The managers said that there was nothing that they could do as long as he kept his distance.  The end of a brief love affair.


A couple of years later when I was with Jason, who would be one of the loves of my life, you gotta have more than one, we’d do the Sunday in the City circuit, brunch at the latest place, then the flea market, that street fair, everyone did the same thing, going to the latest restaurant, looking for the cool stuff that you could buy for cheap, walking through the streets without traffic. David would show up unexpectedly, he’d stand there across from some bric a brac filled table, staring with that weird smile on his face.

One day I finally talked with him, I can’t remember what I said, and then he simply disappeared from my life. I wouldn’t see him again for years and years. It was that night, that party that Jason and I threw, we were living in a huge loft in Tribeca, our second place in that neighborhood, rent was cheap, less then a dollar per square foot, we had lots of parties. In walked Scott, I had such a huge crush on him, thought that I was in love, my friends thought that he was in love with me. I would later leave Jason to pursue Scott, that was a disaster.

Anyway that night, what was the theme, I think it was when we had topless male bartenders, maybe, lots of chile, plenty of booze, joints rolled ahead of time, placed throughout the apartment, pot brownies for those who didn’t smoke, was that the night that we drank all of that Opus One?  

Scott walks in, he was the physical opposite of Jason, my heart was on fire, he had a friend with him, it was David! Oh how I played that one, not really sure in retrospect what I was trying to prove, if anything, something about some weird Gay-world type of revenge, even though there was nothing to be vengeful for or about, I guess that I was just happy about what in appearance was my success, my standing in New York at that time, how I went from being that lost boy that once needed guidance to a veritable hostess with a huge apartment filled with friends, my paintings lining the walls.


I don’t know where David is now, I’ve googled him and looked him up on facebook, I guess that I could ask Jason to ask Scott, they’re still great friends.

Monday, November 12, 2012

I Wish I Was a Painter

One of my favorite pages to follow is The Paris Review.  There are constantly quotes from novels or short stories, or poems or little bits about writers.   It's often revelatory and always entertaining.

You can follow it here.

It's a strange thing to be a writer amidst mostly painters.  Openings are made for painters and sculptors and not so much writers, who, by the nature of their passion, hang around a lot and can contribute little more than a ten minute story to what is kindly called a reading.  A reading is more often than not a group of people who been cajoled into hopefully filling a room so you can nervously read them something you have written and hope was worth listening to.

Reading my work out loud is the ultimate testing ground for me and I have found it to be the best editor of all.  But, before you go reading to others, you need to make sure you have read out loud to yourself plenty because failures of rhythm and chronology can pop up like unexpected weeds on a freshly mowed lawn that will soon play host to a banquet - you think you got them all but you didn't.

The other day The Paris Review posted a Frank O'Hara poem that really rang true for me.   I often watch Max and sometimes Billy paint and wish I had the gift of painting.  My girl Tess paints, too, and brilliantly.  So does my friend Scott Parker.  I have surrounded myself with painters and photographers and people who work in mediums more difficult for me to describe.  They are the group I have chosen to live my life with for the most part.

Here is the poem:


Why I Am Not a Painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.

Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg

is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is 
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of

a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a 
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.

(1971)

Of course, this explains quite well that being a painter and being a writer or actually very much the same.  It's just that one seems to have more to show for it than the other.

I saw a bit from another writer cum painter.  I can't remember his name.  But he said something like this, "Once there were words in front of me when I worked.  I exchanged the words for cadmium yellow."

This is a painting by Joseph Hughes.

I suppose all of this painting intertwined with writing stuff came to me directly from Hemingway, who famously wrote a lot about painting and in particular the paintings of Cézanne.   What he got out of looking at these paintings for what he described as "a thousand times" was called the Iceberg Theory - an image on the surface but the true meaning and depth of the story is hidden.

From Wikipedia: At the time he wrote "Big Two-Hearted River" in 1924, Hemingway became influenced by Paul Cézanne's painting style. In an 1949 interview with Lillian Ross he said, "Cézanne is my painter after the early painters .... I can make a landscape like Mr. Paul Cézanne, I learned how ... by walking through the Luxembourg Museum a thousand times."] He wanted to structure "Big Two-Hearted River" like a Cézanne painting—with a detailed foreground and a vague background. In a letter written to Stein in August, 1924, he wrote, "I have finished two long stories .... and finished the long one I worked on before I went to Spain where I am doing the country like Cézanne and having a hell of a time and sometimes getting it a little bit. It is about 100 pages long and nothing happens and the country is swell. I made it all up".  

I have been trying to learn to write like this for a long time.  Just because Hemingway (and Raymond Carver) did it does not mean no one else can.  It's not hard to get away with it any way since the things Hemingway actually wrote seem to be fading even though the image of the man rings loudly still.

This style of writing takes a long time, which is not conducive to creating what my neighbor, the painter Max Martinez, calls "a body of work".  I believe in this theory that to be any good at all - to be a real writer or painter or poet - you must have a body of work and it must live and thrive and never be discarded but built on.   It's the only thing you will call your own when you draw your last breath.

But it takes a long time to write a story that has much beneath its surface.   A lot must be written and a lot must be left out.  It may seem spare in the end but the fine details of the narrowly examined part of the whole are the real story and more often than not what you started out to write is not what you meant at all.

In December, Zaguán will be hosting its annual holiday show.  I will be reading.  So will Adam Eisman.  Maybe others, too.  We will let you know when.  Bring your trepidation along.  We will make it worth your while.

Jeff Norris, November, 2012.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Home at Last (Sorry Steely Dan)

I am just beginning my third month at El Zaguan.   I have told friends that living at Zaguan has been more of an experience than a place I simply live in.  Even better, living here has made me feel like I have never lived any where else.

This is an interesting feeling since I have owned two houses and lived so many places I have lost count.

I came to the Zaguan for several reasons.   The most important one is that I want to write.  This place exudes creativity - even in its most tragic or comedic moments - and you feel like you have to produce to make the ghosts of the many, many writers and artists who have lived here happy.  I think they let you know when you are not making them happy by not doing your honest real work.

Last Sunday I was doing laundry - it's pretty communal here - and I did my laundry while talking with another artist here and you do this in the office of the Santa Fe Historic Foundation so it's really not like doing laundry anywhere else I've been.   I can honestly say that in the past six years I have done laundry in some dismal and lonely places and it is so nice to be in this place doing something so basic to life.

So I'm poking clothes in our shared washing machine and she's cleaning the place and we stumble upon a huge old black and white photo.   A really large tabloid-sized print and I look at it and realize it is an old photo of where I live, taken from what I use as my bedroom back into the room where I am writing this now.  The art and furniture from whoever lived here then was so beautiful and I am so fascinated by the photo that I go in there and look at it even when I don't need to wash.


So that's what I am seeing as I write this.  An old corner.  My corner.  Our corner now.

I am the newest here.  I am maybe the oldest.  I cannot say I am the happiest.  But I could be.  - Jeff Norris