Roads Taken, Roads Imagined

March 18, 2012 § 2 Comments

I wasn’t born in New York, but I feel that New York is the city of my birth.  Everything important and life changing that ever happened to me feels like it happened here.  Even if I wasn’t here when it happened, I brought it back here where experience moved into result.  And there’s something about the iconographic imagery in this city (Times Square, Central Park, Grand Central Station, the Grand Concourse, the 59th Street Bridge) that I always respond to with a mixture of joy and sadness — for New York is both those things — 50/50.

I took this photograph (a view through the courtyard of the building that I live in), because it looks like — for someone who has never been here — proof of something about this city that is timeless.   It could have very well been taken 50 years ago.  Everything in it — the brick and the steel — is at least that old and it could have been taken the day I am starting the 11th grade at the High School of Music and Art on 135th Street, even though I live even more uptown now.  The view from my bedroom window in 11th grade looked a lot like this one and I remember it exactly the same way as far as this particular light is concerned — the sun beginning it’s fall towards dusk.

The city is always reminding the native of how it used to look and when something disappears — like the complex of businesses that went up in flames a month ago up on 207th Street — the lapse in the landscape takes longer to get used to than the new building that will probably go up to relieve it.  The new Apple store in Grand Central Station, didn’t really relieve anything (the space used to be occupied by a restaurant) and while the designers respected the exisiting space and basically just covered one end of the station with tables and technology, one feels as though the future has blasted a hole through one of the walls of the terminal with the reminder of our own life’s architecture:  technology, not a reverie of the past, is where we go now to disappear.

Nick and Nick Flynn and “Being Flynn”

March 17, 2012 § 1 Comment

“Try to make your life as though it’s a movie, and you and God are going to watch it. Try to make some parts that he will like.” — Bawa Muhaiyaddeen

I went to a screening of “Being Flynn” in Chicago a few weeks ago and had that exhilerating and eerie experience of seeing somebody I knew in real life being presented as a character in a movie. How strange it was to see scenes played out that were once real conversations I had with somebody named Nick Flynn years ago on Cape Cod. It’s a hard movie to watch, even if I wasn’t already familiar with the true story that makes up the screenplay of Nick’s life (based on his memoir “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City”) and specifically, his relationship with his narcissistic father who is homeless and living off and on at Pine Street Inn, the shelter in Boston (the movie made it New York) where Nick himself works. When I met him more than 20 years ago with Marie Howe at a pot luck dinner at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, I thought that he was also homeless in some ways — wild and unmoored, trying to get clean and sober, just beginning a serious commitment to writing poetry and working on a boat that was parked on dry land at the end of Bradford Street so it could hopefully one day hit the water again. I think Nick was living on it, but he may have gone inside somewhere at night. It was that kind of relationship in the beginning, I didn’t see him much. And over the years, we’ve become good friends and he’s stayed remarkably the same person while the frenzy of fame and whatever fortune rushed in to meet him with the life that he has now — a very different life and like so many of us, a resolutely saved life. I kept being hit with that hard knowledge of Nick’s saved life as I was watching his movie about it and struck harder still by the idea that he and his father have been living off and on at different ends of the same boat.

I ran into Nick the next morning in the hotel lobby where we both had breakfast and asked him — like a fan — what he was working on and he told me that he was finishing a book called “The Reenactments” about the making of the movie “Being Flynn” and of course, I thought in the same way that a mirror reflects a mirror reflects a mirror through a hall of eternity that I was looking at Nick Flynn who wrote a book about his life that was made into a movie about his life that was made into a book about a movie about his life. How odd. What if nobody likes the movie? Who’s going to read a book about a movie nobody liked? And then in back of that thought came this: it didn’t matter. However “The Reenactments” turns out, it will be like everything else that Nick Flynn writes — a gorgeous meditation on the new version of Nick, in Nick Flynn’s life.

I Should Have Had Sex With Him

March 17, 2012 § 2 Comments


This is a picture of my dead brother’s best friend, Bruce and I’m not sure how I ended up with it, but I love it for a lot of reasons. It might even be the cover for my new book of poems which is called “The Talking Day”.  The photograph’s beauty is made with what you see and what I know.  For one thing, Bruce is, obviously, beautiful and he is doing something not so obviously beautiful (what are those rings made of?) — something that looks like a sorcerer’s trick, probably outside his home in Colorado where he had been living the day he walked down a path into a valley and his heart just stopped.  Bruce had a rare heart condition, and like so many rare  heart conditions, nobody knew — nobody I knew, anyway — exactly what it was, what it was doing to his body, how long it would mean he would live.  Still, I think Bruce knew he could go at any time, and if it was anywhere close to the time that this picture was taken, I would say that he lived a charmed life.  Like many charmed lives, it was very short, and in retrospect, necessarily emblematic.

Bruce died the same year my brother died — only a few months apart, actually, in 2002.  And even though Bruce was straight and my brother, Kevin, was for the most part, gay, they would probably each say that they were in love with each other.  Of course that love must have been — at least in part — fueled by the fact that both of them knew they would probably never have sex and I think that probably both of them lived in that incredibly charged erotic space that separates two people who want each other but won’t step out of the force field of their own making.  Even when one is willing (Kevin), the field is sealed by the one who isn’t (Bruce).  So I was surprised in Chicago, recently, when one of Bruce’s ex-girlfriends — also a good friend of Kevin’s — told me that Bruce told her once that he should have had sex with my brother.  Because he loved him.  Because it would have meant so much to Kevin.  And now they’re both dead sweethearts and only Bruce had the grief of Kevin’s death and only Kevin died without ever knowing that Bruce should have had sex with him.

They Can Sing

March 15, 2012 § 3 Comments

I’m reading “Wild”, Cheryl Strayed’s hugely anticipated memoir and my friend Sallie who lives in Plymouth asked me if I’d read Cheryl’s novel, “Torch” and I told her I hadn’t and probably wouldn’t (even though I am devouring the memoir) because I have a bad habit, bias, whatever, of rarely reading works of fiction written by someone who has written a great book about something that really happened to them, or to the world.  I’ve read novels by Ann Patchett, Kathryn Harrison, Michael Ondaatje and others and feel that their memoirs are their best work.  And it isn’t just the movement of the prose or the lucidity of the subject matter or the beauty of the syntax turning on a line or any of that (but also all of that) that I think makes the non-fiction better, it’s the fact that when I’m reading the other stuff — the fiction — I know they are lying.  Each one of these writers — and there are others, Elizabeth McCracken, Anatole Broyard, Suzanna Kaysen, etc. etc. — are so compelling and wide-ranging and improvisational and completely original in their autobiographical impulses that listening to them tell a story they invent is like watching an opera singer warming up their vocal cords before hitting that made up world of wall to wall music.   You already know they can sing.


March 14, 2012 § 3 Comments

I’m starting this new blog with a homage to “Back on The Block” released by Quincy Jones.  I love that recording. It flies in many different directions and the singers on it are just terrific and young and full of surprises which Jones has, as a producer, always been a master at making happen. Actually, I’ve been in love with Quincy Jones for most of my life. It began in a classroom in a school that sat at the beginning of Harlem (unofficially — 110th Street, which, of course, is below the “official” 125th Street). I sat there with his daughter, Jolie Jones, back in the sixties and the school was called New Lincoln — one of those great schools where you got to call your teachers by their first name. The best thing about calling your teacher by her first name is that whenever you have a fight with her about anything, it’s taken much more seriously because you get to say, “But, Harriet!!” back to her “Michael!”.

The school had once been a prison, and I actually think it’s gone back to being a prison though I haven’t been up there for a long time and the school closed long ago. Jolie was a beauty in those days when beauty wasn’t a somewhat vicious commodity the way it is now. And she was funny, which made her physical beauty even less obvious because the humor deactivated the glamor. And her father wrote music for the movies which was something then that I had always wanted to do (I actually bought soundtracks, when they were real soundtracks and not the silly compilations of soft-cock rock they are now). I also wanted to be an astronomer, but I didn’t know any astronomers and here was someone in my immediate world who had a father living out loud the dream I was having so it was much easier to want to be that than wanting to be a stargazer. At that time, Quincy Jones had only written the soundtracks to “The Pawnbroker” (his first, I believe), and “A Deadly Affair” — a complex, immediately forgettable movie starting Simone Signoret and James Mason. But that music, Quincy’s music, was unforgettable because it came out of a jazz tradition and movies didn’t generally have that kind of music playing on top of them — unless, more often than not, they were foreign movies. (I don’t believe it when anybody says jazz is an American invention. I’m convinced it came out of France). I saw every movie Quincy Jones ever wrote orchestrations for, whether they were good or not. It didn’t matter. More than the director, or the actors, or even the writer, I wanted to know what Quincy had been thinking about.

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