Poetry in the Time of COVID-19

Here’s a fine poem about this time.

quarantine TV cuomo

When
by John O’Donnell

And when this ends we will emerge, shyly
and then all at once, dazed, longhaired as we embrace
loved ones the shadow spared, and weep for those
it gathered in its shroud. A kind of rapture, this longed-for
laying on of hands, high cries as we nuzzle, leaning in
to kiss, and whisper that now things will be different,
although a time will come when we’ll forget
the curve’s approaching wave, the hiss and sigh
of ventilators, the crowded, makeshift morgues;
a time when we may even miss the old-world
arm’s-length courtesy, small kindnesses left on doorsteps,
the drifting, idle days, and nights when we flung open
all the windows to arias in the darkness, our voices
reaching out, holding each other till this passes.

Tales of Times Square 2

I woke up, smelling smoke and went to the window of my fourth floor room to let in some fresh air. A cloud of smoke came billowing in from a fire below on the lobby roof. Across the way, in the tower opposite me, the old black man was pouring glasses of water on the fire.

I ran into the hall, shaking from head to foot and called the desk on the hall phone.

The old man came into the hall. “Goddamn! That’s a fire!” he said in a huge voice.

The woman at the switchboard answered that they knew about the fire, but it was on the other side of the building from me. I hung up. Back in my room, I looked down and saw firemen breaking windows on a lower floor and attacking a small wooden structure on the roof.

The next fire I woke at three a.m., smelling something cooking. Calmly, I got dressed. I opened my door to see a fireman walk by in hard hat and knee high boots and carrying an ax.

People were coming out of their rooms. A young man in the hallway greeted people as they came out of their rooms, some in pajamas and robes. He nodded at me. I stared: he was the most handsome man I had ever seen. Black hair, great body, beautiful eyes and face. He must have seen the way I looked at him.

He said there had been a fire that afternoon. “You missed it.”

As walked down the four flights of surprisingly elegant stairs, another neighbor started joking with him about the fires and trips to the lobby, many in the wee hours of the night, in all sorts of dress and undress.

We waited in the lobby for the all clear, which was signaled by the firemen tramping out the lobby doors. The street was quiet, deserted; even the prostitutes had retired for the night. Upstairs the young man said goodnight, opened the door to his room, and I saw a plant hanging in his window facing 43rd Street. We spoke occasionally after that. He had been a model (maybe still was).

A few weeks later, on Eighth Avenue crossing 42nd Street, dust and trash swirling, cars braking and honking, the Port Authority Bus Terminal looming on one side, the air thick with car exhaust and hot dogs and stale pretzels, I saw him near the corner with some other young men. He was wearing white hot pants and not much more. We exchanged glances and I saw in his expression: this is the way it is, but you know me, you know who I am.

I looked ahead and went on my way.

Tales of Times Square

Times Square Motor Hotel 1976

Times Square Motor Hotel, West 43rd Street, New York City, 1975 Photo by Mary Clark

Diary of A Mad New Yorker

On August 20, 1975, I carry one suitcase into the Times Square Motor Hotel, 255 W. 43rd Street, to a room on the fourth floor. The hotel is on the corner of West 43rd Street and Eighth Avenue, next to the New York Times building.  My room has one window, from which I can see an adult bookstore.

That night I hear bottles crash on the roof below, prostitutes shout to one another, cops on bullhorns, police and fire sirens. A din of iniquity, so to speak.

At 4 a.m., the New York Times trucks screech and snort in the street as the morning paper rolls out.

“Don’t they know,” a neighbor complains to me, “that there are people trying to sleep here at night? Honest, hard-working people? And elderly people?”

A few days after I move in I overhear a man say, “I wouldn’t live in a place like this. Not if they paid me.”

I decide it’s a challenge. ”It’s not a bad place, “I tell a friend visiting me. “At least it’s clean.” Just then outside the window, leaves of toilet paper flutter down. A few tissues come to rest on my plants, which are inside the room on my air-conditioner.

Across the airway from me lives a huge old black man. He has no air conditioning. He keeps his window and curtains open night and day. It’s summer now and if he could climb out on the ledge and live there, I think he would.

Downstairs in the lobby, the same group congregates every day. A lot of elderly people live here and most of them are on social security. There’s a lot for them to see. One hot summer afternoon an old bum wandered in, completely naked, drunk and fully erect. He walked to the front desk and asked for a pair of pants, saying he couldn’t remember where he had put his clothes. Another time, a woman asked to have her shower fixed and ten minutes later when the engineer hadn’t come yet, she came down on the elevator, walked through the lobby stark naked to complain about it. The night manager hurried her into the office and threw a raincoat over her.

There’s romance in this group too. One day coming down in the elevator an old woman was crying, rejected, hurt. Later that day I saw her back with her boyfriend, sitting in the lobby looking a little resigned and grim, but much calmer.

One man, confined to a wheelchair because he has no legs, sits in front of the couches closest to the entrance and watches the people come and go all day. Then there is Mr. C, a neighbor of mine, who doesn’t like to go up on the elevator with anyone else. For an hour or more every afternoon after work, he waits for one that is empty or only has one passenger. Another elderly man walks around with his hands behind his back, observing everyone and taking notes in a small notebook. He always wears the same clothes, summer and winter, and won’t take the elevator either. He walks up the five flights to his room.

The elderly woman across the hall says when she can’t sleep she sits by her window and watches the fights on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 43rd Street.

One night, as I close the window, I hear from the street below, “All right, let’s break it up. Move along. This is the vice squad.” Let them stay on the streets, I think. I don’t want them inside where I am.

Good night, New York!

The Times Square Hotel is now run by a non-profit agency and provides affordable housing. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

 

The Diary of a Mad New Yorker – Broadway 1975

“Equus” was on Broadway at the Plymouth Theater on West 45th Street, starring Peter Firth and Anthony Hopkins, Frances Sternhagen and Marian Seldes

Broadway 1974

March 29 (circa the 29th)

Anthony Hopkins bowed with the others, one foot on end, and turned and bowed to the stage-seat audience. He seemed embarrassed or mad as he went off-stage, from the angle of his head with his hair flopping over his forehead. After the applause ended, I went in the stage entrance. There was another young woman there waiting for another of the actors and a security guard wearing a Scottish-clan type hat. He asked who we were waiting for. After a while, the woman sat down on the bench and I leaned against the wall with one shoulder against the radiator. The man said that you could always tell a Shubert theater because they turned the heat off before noon even on the coldest days.

Hopkins came downstairs alone, pulling on his coat, took the step from the landing heavily and too fast.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hi.”

He turned by the door to sign an autograph for a man who had come in, and faced me. He signed his name silently; he looked pale, almost grey, and his clothes were disheveled, but not good-naturedly and charmingly as usual. He had on tan slacks, a yellow shirt and a brown knit tie that was spread suggestively over his shirt, and a coat and winter coat. The public display of unhappiness was mesmerizing and I stared at him unabashedly, which annoyed him more.

He did not want to talk and ran off, and I followed him past the Booth Theatre and through Shubert Alley, he on one side near the theaters, cutting through a crowd outside the Shubert Theatre, and I on the other side.

On Monday, I read the Tony Awards nominations. He was not nominated for best actor for his role in “Equus.” I think he knew last Saturday. [He should have been nominated.]

May 31

I waited outside the theater. I was wearing my black velvet jacket and blue bells. I met him just inside the stage entrance. He came up to me as I stood by the door so fast that I was startled, but there was no place to step back. His eyes were light grey-blue, so was his voice, but forceful, when he said hello. He wore a blue denim jean suit and a pink shirt. There was a little bit of shaving cream or cold cream at one corner of his mouth and by the opposite ear.

I followed him outside. A woman had photos of herself taken standing with him and some young woman joked that they would meet him at Sardi’s. He came toward me and put out his arm to sweep me along with him as he went down the street.

“I have nothing to say to you today. I’m just hanging around.”

He smiled at me, indicating that it was all right. Two other people, a young man and woman started walking and talking with him and by the Booth Theatre, he stopped momentarily to talk to someone else and we three went ahead slowly.

Rejoining us, I walked beside him. They asked about a letter and he said he wasn’t sure, then reached into his coat pocket, “Oh, I’ve been carrying this around all day.”

The young couple left us. He asked me to have a drink with him.

I said no. “I can’t drink.”

He said that he was going to have a Coke.

“Oh? Can I have a Coke too?”

“Yes. I’m meeting some people. I don’t know what they’re up to.”

“I’ll just have one drink and leave,” I said, thinking he was meeting business people.

“No –”

At the curb of 44th Street, I said, “Maybe they won’t let me in.” I looked down at my blue bells, pull-over shirt and sneakers. “I got my sneakers on.”

“Now you’re just being paranoid.” He stood, looking over and down at me, putting his weight on his right foot.

Outside Sardi’s he mentioned the girls again. I still didn’t know who he was talking about, and then he said he didn’t know if they were going to show up but they’d said they were meeting him at Sardi’s. I suddenly realized who he meant.

“Oh, do you think they’ll show up,” I asked, as we walked into them. I didn’t know we were already in front of Sardi’s door. He rushed forward and gathered them in and we went inside.

He told Sardi he was going upstairs to have a drink.

“Just one?” said Sardi.

He turned as he started up the stairs and put up one finger. The five of us followed, with me last in line.

“Oh, I see,” said Sardi (or whoever he was).

I glanced back to see everyone in the restaurant looking up at us. Upstairs we went past the bar and he looked for places in a small area on the other side, but there weren’t enough. After hesitating, he went into the dining area and we sat at a table in the back.

I sat next to him. They ordered drinks, he ordered a Tab and I a Coke. When the drinks came, I stared at mine. He poured it for me. One of the women, sitting on his left, was talking about “Equus” and psychology. I couldn’t hear him well, but at one point, he said, “Oh, but he does help the boy.”

They discussed Nazi concentration camps and “QBVII.” He said he’d told his agent he didn’t want to do “QBVII” – Dr. Kelno, his part, was hateful. They had tried to make him a more sympathetic character.

They mentioned “War and Peace” and their favorite scenes. One woman told us how many times she saw it. But the book is unreadable, she said.

“I’ve read it five times,” he said.

He had another Tab and asked what I wanted. “I’ll have what you’re having.”

He said that he wanted to stop smoking, but that one could always find an excuse for everything. He lit up a cigarette after just finishing one and everyone commented.

“I have an excuse,” he said.

I asked one of the women if she was going to finish her drink and she said no, so I took it. “If he’s not going to have any control,” I said, “then neither will I.” Later, when we left, my legs shook and I had to hold onto the bannister.

Then he talked about “absolute truth,” a subject which clearly defeated us all.

I heard two of the people giggling self-consciously. I realized we would have to leave soon.

When he got up, he kissed several of them rather abruptly. I hung by my chair, having some trouble standing up. The woman next to me knocked her chair over and I helped pick it up. Just before they got up, they thanked him, said they hoped they hadn’t imposed on him. He said it was nice to have an audience. The most talkative woman said his talking to them was a “mitzvah” – a nice thing, a good deed.

June 18

I stood by the Tonight 8 P.M. sign just inside the door. Most of the people were gone when he came down.

“Just a minute. I have to make a phone call. I have to confirm an appointment.”

With one foot on the step where I’d been sitting, he talked to someone. “Hello, this is Tony Hopkins.”

I stopped listening to imitate him, putting my opposite foot on the same step. I felt like a mirror reflection.

One of the horses asked him something about the phone [or the phone call?] and Hopkins boxed at his shoulder.

I followed him outside. While he signed autographs, I turned in circles, and waited in front of the lobby. A few minutes later, he came by with a middle-aged woman who was wearing an overcoat in the 86 degree heat. I thought he would put out his arm to bring me in, but his gesture was minimal. I walked along, just a little behind him, wondering what to do. He glanced at me while he talked to the woman.

She thought the show last Thursday night was “uneven,” that it started out rough and never came together. What did he think?

Yes, yes, you’re right, he said. I remember it seemed to be out of rhythm. It was “jarred.” I realized that a few minutes into the play and “it’s my responsibility to establish the rhythm” of the play. I think we got it together by the end.

She went on when he stopped, “It started off slow” and didn’t seem to get going or come together.

“Oh?” he responded. “Did you think so? I didn’t think so.” Thursday, he asked himself, last Thursday? Oh, I know what it was. I had a blood test that day and didn’t feel well.

“It was much better today,” she said.

“Thank you.”

He dusted some talcum powder off one of his pants’ legs. “It wasn’t as bad as that woman said,” he muttered when he straightened up again.

Good night, New York!

The Diary of a Mad New Yorker

I’ve decided to share some stories of my life in New York City on this blog. 

Broadway 1974

Broadway 1974 Photograph by Mary Clark
Are love and rage the same passion?
They are the same in me
- William Blake

Why a diary of this place, at this time? Why my story?

Because the people of New York City are going through a tragic time. While I don’t live there now, I have friends who do. One of them told me the city is a “very sad place.” I want people to remember what a vibrant and inspiring place it was. And will be again. I know New York will come back, and its people will create an even more luminous city.

So, at the age of 71 and in the time of COVID-19, I want to tell my story of how I became a mad New Yorker.

Tally: Lucid 90 Proof Vodka

Tally: An Intuitive Life by Mary Clark

PJ_1979

Amazon UK Review by Philippa Rees

I think a reviewer owes a reader some declaration of his or her intersection with a book, why they read it and why review it, so any opinion is given a clear lens.

I bought this book for its title, knowing little about its subject, except that it was bound to be philosophical. I am interested in any reflections on the meaning of our seemingly haphazard existence and any wisdom pulled like threads from a personal tapestry and rewoven.

The discovery that it was about the near heyday of Greenwich Village, and characters living like rats in neglected garrets or churches momentarily vacant and underused, and the noble small presses pushing out chapbooks or poetry readings was a definite plus. This is a world I had heard about, but never directly sampled. The shadow of Alan Ginsberg and his ilk loomed large.

My only connection with this world was through a long and wonderful correspondence with an editor at Alfred Knopf, Sophie Wilkins who had mentored John Updike, George Braziller, Thomas Bernhard, William F. Buckley and many others now renowned, but who also found time for me. I did not deserve the attention she gave me but that was a reflection of the world of letters in that period, and this book, and the character of PJ evoked that distant generosity in which writers and writing were the only things that mattered. So my inclination was to absorb it as it came; sympathetic to the exhilaration of a world open to youth, even jejune youth avid for acceptance. That I did understand.

What makes reviewing it problematical is the autobiographical celebration of the main character PJ (Paul Johnston) who was clearly the seminal influence of the author’s life. His almost total (and vividly recreated – seemingly verbatim) philosophical reflections are almost all interesting, many provocative, never dull. Yet he is in unwinking focus throughout. I seldom abandon a book once I have committed to it, and I was never tempted to abandon this, for its lucid re-creation compelled, and it is cleanly written. That ‘cleanly’ is not meant to be derogatory, on the contrary, it served to keep the tungsten light firmly on the stature of its single character PJ whose shadow deepened increasingly, although his actual daily presence diminished. He was like a thread of elastic, the more stretched the greater his pull.

In a way the influence of PJ was to effect a growth of the author, incrementally strong enough to escape him. Yet the narrator Erin is in such thrall to PJ, so bent upon her tribute to his ideas, and his tragically diminishing physical powers she hardly seems to exist. Her peripheral relationships founder one after another, as perhaps they did, but this self-abnegation extends even to the absence of smell, or colour or atmosphere. It is a work about ideas, mostly the ideas of PJ, and nobody has a greater appetite for ideas than I do – a wonderful section on art being invisible but authoritative when it takes the creative reins – yet the author gave herself little liberty to live outside the mind. Or not on the pages of this seeming memoir.

What seems to happen is the repeated distillation of ideas repeated and refined until they have the clarity of 90 proof vodka, sharp, invigorating but with scant taste. I would love to meet this author and exchange vodka for single malt whisky with peat and autumn and the scent of heather, and woodsmoke and ask her to tell me about why PJ had such power, and whether having delivered her tribute she could now live a little lighter for it?

I urge you to read it nevertheless, if only to enjoy a quarrel with PJ, or to give thought to his uncompromising belief in intuition as the basis of relationship, a better index of love, a more autonomous source of creativity. In this he did master an understanding; and this work does certainly illuminate his originality, recognised by his (over) modest scribe, Erin.

Tally: An Intuitive Life by Mary Clark, published by All Things That Matter Press, is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble

Where the Crawdads Sing Book Review

Where The Crawdads Sing

Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens raises several great questions, but also has major flaws. In lyrical language, the child Kya’s relationship with the natural world conveys a sense of wonder and appreciation of life. This is the best part of the book, showing how we are renewed and supported by our natural environment. However, this story is set against a gloomy plot. Some of the main characters are vibrant, but others are hollow and vague.

Two books are being written. One is the story of a child growing up despite a minimum of parenting but with the comfort and lessons of the natural world, who suffers abuse but finds help from other outcasts and compassionate people. The other story is a crass justification for people behaving badly. Love and death are reduced to a non-human level of understanding. People who have good character are sent into the background.

The book tries to have it both ways: that the child Kya matured and excelled intellectually because of a few relationships with other people and with nature, but also never really developed emotionally, morally and ethically for the same reasons. This doesn’t make sense. Kya is shown examples of morality and ethics in her relationships with those few who did help her. There are lessons in compassion and non-violent resilience in the marsh life as well as the cruel ones. She has the ability to read and write. She does reflect, which is essential to making moral and ethical decisions. She relies on certain people, knows they care for her and will accept her gifts.

Do repeated hardships keep her from maturing as a human being, or does she choose which examples and lessons to follow? Either way, she has a thin excuse for the actions she takes with the man who loves her and the man who threatens her. In this view, Kya only understands human behavior well enough to mimic it, and only understands the natural world well enough to mimic it. But that is not the dreaming, loving, artistic and forgiving person who appears in some parts of the book. So which is it?

After the story shows growth from experience and reflection, it reverts to an old paradigm of past mythology (the tragic flaw in the hero) and psychology (irremediable damage from childhood trauma), rather than moving forward into greater understanding, that is, toward an advance in humanity.  That would truly be going far beyond—where the crawdads sing.

Favorite Books of 2019

Eggshells, by Caitriona Lally

Eggshells

Viv is a special needs person who is functioning in her unique way. As she says, “my life soundtrack is more of a nursery rhyme with three repeated notes.” But what a symphony she composes from these notes. Viv (or VIV or Vivian) is a great character who totally inhabits her skin and we see everything through her eyes. The humor occurs at piquant moments, elevating the narrative into a mythical realm. And she is at home in Dublin. “I like living in a city where I am mostly unknown, and going into small places where I am known.” She writes in a notebook of her daily journeys and makes lists of things she notices or likes. Her tour of Dublin is more than a spoof of James Joyce’s Ulysses. While radically different, it is just as revelatory about humanity and myth-making.

Go, Went, Gone, by Jenny Erpenbeck

Go, Went, Gone

This New York Times Notable Book 2018 and bestseller in Germany takes on one of the most controversial issues of our time. Go, Went, Gone tells the story of Richard, a widowed man and retired linguistics professor in Berlin who at first does not notice the refugees in a nearby square, but when he does, he is drawn in to learn about them. Shy and uncertain, he comes to know them and understand how they are caught in the barbed wire of laws and policies designed to reject refugees. Slowly, as Richard is enlightened, he is also emancipated from the falsehoods of politicians and populist rhetoric. You’ll have to read the book to know what he does.

Happiness, by Aminatta Forna

Happiness

Attila, an expert on PTSD, and Jean, a wildlife biologist, meet in London where Attila is speaking at a conference and Jean is conducting a study of urban foxes. Both could be discouraged by their experiences, but they draw strength from their contemplation and action. The theme of damage and resilience is introduced by the Nietzsche quote, “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.” Attila comes to realize his profession of psychiatry has emphasized damage almost to the exclusion of recognizing that people can and often do overcome adversity. That people are changed by trauma is a more helpful view. The other main theme is love and the healing power of caring. Attila and Jean and several other people in the story engage in quiet acts of kindness. Through these acts, and their accompanying thoughts and emotions, people find the strength to overcome trauma. A book worth reading.

Uncertain Light, by Marion Molteno

Uncertain Light

The story begins with the kidnapping and presumed death of a U.N. Refugee worker, Rahul Khan, in the inhospitable yet alluring landscape of Central Asia. Rahul is a seasoned worker in war-torn areas, with refugees and rogue groups, a dangerous job, but his inter-personal ability has seen him through many tense situations. His loss shocks his friends and co-workers. They reflect on their relationships to him and their loved ones and begin to re-assess their lives. Meanwhile, the uncertain situation in the borderlands near Tajikistan continues. Work goes on. Two of Rahul’s co-workers, Hugo and Lance, who became his friends, struggle to continue this work. Another, Tessa, is moved into transforming her life and taking bold action. In time, the different individuals whose only connection is a man whose death has shaken them, are drawn to one another and discover the depths of their bonds. 

An Honest House: A Memoir Continued, by Cynthia Reyes

An Honest House

This sequel to A Good Home continues the intimate journey of its author and her husband as they deal with her illness and major changes in their lives. The home stands strong and almost has an eternal quality as the human beings in it struggle and strive toward health, hope, faith and joy. I admire and enjoy Reyes’ writing and highly recommend her books.