Monday, December 22, 2008


Just listen and weep! LOVE this fucking song.
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Saturday, December 20, 2008


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Friday, December 19, 2008


Late last night, a hedge fund friend forwarded me a list of the monies lost by Jewish charities in the Madoff fraud. The numbers were staggering.
“Jesus Christ!” I e mailed back. To which he responded:
“No. Jesus was one of the few Jews Madoff did NOT rip off!”

And now for something completely different…
The story of a far from ordinary Joe.

“Cullerton! Cullerton”
Joe is shouting my name from across the street. He’s always shouting my name. My last name. I have no idea why he refuses to use my first name. 
“Lunch?” he says. And then again, “Lunch?”
“Sure, Joe.”

Joe is homeless. He’s been shuffling up and down my block for the past 16 years. I’ve often asked him why he makes the long trip downtown, everyday. (He sleeps somewhere on the Upper West Side.)
“Friends, Cullerton,” he says. “Friends.”
I smile. It’s the same answer we all might give when asked a similar question.

Lunch with Joe means keeping him company on the stoop at Dean&Deluca while he slurps down his free soup and smokes a cigarette. (My cigarette.)
He wears a pair of dirty khaki pants, a blue button-down shirt, and an old-fashioned camel hair coat. With his brush cut white hair, a face chiselled from stone, and his very patrician voice, Joe could be George Plimpton. If you cleaned him up.
“So Andrew? Andrew. How’s he doing?”
Andrew is my son, Jack. Joe confuses his name with the name of the university in Scotland where Jack is a student.
“He’s good, Joe. He’s coming home. We miss him.”
“Yah! Yah!” he says. “I remember…” His eyes and mind are drifting. “Got another cigarette?”

I reach slowly into my pocket and hand him a Marlboro. I do things slowly with Joe. I’m afraid that abrupt movements will scare him away. Joe speaks only in short, clipped phrases. Even his walk is clipped: three short steps forward and he stops. Three more short steps forward and he stops again. He starts to puff, inhaling in short, clipped breaths.
“So how’s the novel,” I ask. Joe is never without his bag of papers. He hugs it to his chest as tightly as a briefcase full of ransom money. 
“Ah! Cullerton. I’ve given it up!”
“You can’t, Joe. It’s your life.”
“Yah! Autobiographical. Philosophical. I’ve been writing for ten years. (The stationary store on 12th gives Joe free legal pads.) “I’ve lost some of the pages, unfortunately. But it’s OK,” he says, tapping the side of his head. “I’ve got them all within.”
“Within. I like that turn of phrase, Joe.”
“Im going to phone my friend, Jeff Wattles later. He inspired me to write, you know?”
I nod my head.
“I’m going to call him later on or this morning or last night.”
Joe isn’t comfortable talking to people for very long. So when I sense his growing uneasiness, I discreetly slip him some bills and stand up.
“I’ve gotta pick up the laundry now. I’ll see you, OK?”
“Yah! Say hi to Andrew.”

There are many New Yorkers for whom the homeless are far from strangers. But what do I really know about this man who is such a vivid presence in my life and in the life of my family? This man who, sometimes, holds out a fistful of dollars and asks me if I need anything. I know he went to Browning, a private boy’s school uptown. I know he was only thirty when his father died.  I know he went to Stanford where he majored in music and philosophy. I know he had a nervous breakdown after a love affair in his sophomore year. The shock treatments addled his brain. He snapped. I don’t know much about his illness. Asking for that kind of information embarrasses him. But every time, I stop and chat, I wonder how in God’s name this very bright and once handsome gentle man ended up where he is. Lost. And unaccounted for. 

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Grasshoppers etc.

“Brenda, we’ve been partying like it’s 1929 for the past ten years.” 

I laughed when a friend said that to me on the phone yesterday. I always laugh when I hear a truth that hits me where I live. It reminded me of a lunch some months ago. I reconnected with a childhood friend who had become a high -octane ad exec. As we chatted over lunch, he told me that I was a member of the so-called “Experiential generation.” 
“Meaning what?” I asked.
“Meaning you spend all your money now and save nothing for later,” he chuckled.

It was disconcerting. Sitting across from a man who had suddenly sprung from my memories of him as a young boy into a silver-haired grown-up. No gentle transitions. No time to assimulate change. Like a brutal jump cut straight from adolescence to middle-age.

There was nothing open about his face. It was all sharp, stony edges and angles. I imagined that the only time he had yielded to anything was probably at a stop sign. But I liked him. He had a thin-lipped smile, a great laugh, and a sense of humor as dry as the desert. He serves “The Man.” The System. But he’s also a ‘playah’. A powerful one. Watching him sip from his second glass of Chardonnay, I wondered why I have never dared to venture closer to power than its periphery. Why I am so captivated and repelled by those who choose to follow its “calling.”  I romantize power.I assume that those who wield it have something to hide; something more mysterious, more seductive, than those of who have less power. Today, I can’t help but think, again, of Madoff.

Anyway, I am way, way off point here….
Because this ad exec, this childhood friend, was right. I am a member of the “experiential generation.” I have always put experience ahead of saving. I figured it would pay off. Pay off in the sense that if one defines experience, like exposure, as a crucial part of education, there is nothing more valuable. The thing is, and this is no excuse, I was brought up with a very weird concept of money. My mother came from plenty but hated spending it. My father came from none, made plenty, and loved spending it. As a kid, this left me sort of torn. Actually, no it didn’t. Leave me torn, I mean. What kid is torn when it comes to spending money? But I spent it pretty inconspicuously. I didn’t have a credit card. I didn’t own a car. I wasn’t interested in stereo systems or fantastically expensive clothes. I just liked to travel. And so I did. With a vengeance for years. 

It was not the kind of travelling I associate with rich tourists. Perish the thought. I am a despicable, judgemental snob when it comes to the travel experience. In fact, I am a despicable, judgemental snob when it comes to most things. But there were no $100,000 African safaris or Christmases in Gstaad or St. Barth’s. No, sir. Not for me. Not for us. Instead, I’d haul the family off to remote places like Syria, Mongolia, Cuba, Russia, Panama. Christ? And how spoiled rotten do I sound here? 

But I was in for the experience. Like the grasshopper in that boring old fable. Everybody knows about the grasshopper, right? He’s a party animal. OK. Insect. He fiddles away all summer long. Lying in the sun, smoking, drinking too much, sleeping it off, having a ball while the industrious little ant grunts and sweats, carrying around twice his body weight in food for storage. When winter comes… Like duh? The grasshopper is FUCKED. He has no food, no shelter, no clothes, no house. He starves, gets pneumonia and dies. All while the ant stuffs his little face, warm and cosy, in his dirt hill/house. Unfortunately, as Ricky Gervais points out, the moral of this story is totally ruined for children these days as they are told that the ant decides to “share.” 

It would be nice to think that in the lean months and years ahead all the ants out there will decide to share. But I doubt it. In the meantime, I did hear that one of Madoff’s unlucky losers took the subway, yesterday, for the first time in thirty years. Her lover had to show her how to buy a Metro Card. I’m sure this will come as no  consolation to her. But she won’t be alone down there. Travelling by subway is just about as remote and exotic as it gets for me these days. 

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008


should be the last word on ‘open book’ post.  What the hell is the matter with me, anyway? I’m losing my mind/memory…
Posted by Brenda in 18:34:26 | Permalink | Comments (1) »

Open Books etc.

Anil Gupta is the most charming man I have ever paid to hurt me. He’s a tattoo artist. Graced with Buddha-like proportions, a head of unruly, black curly hair, and heavily lashed brown eyes, he has a belly laugh that comes deep from the depths of somewhere I have never been. Somewhere only a fellow immigrant who has endured the same operatic struggles to thrive and succeed here can understand.

A professional illustrator in Bollywood, he arrived in New York in 1991. His first job was at a tee-shirt factory in Staten Island. “Horrible commute,” he always says with a grin.”And eight-color tee-shirts. A nightmare.” His wife is lovely–gentle and soft-spoken. She was born into the Marathai caste–India’s merchants and warriors. Anil was not. So I suspect the marriage may have been a secret one. Perhaps, even the reason for their flight to New York. Thanks to more than a handful of celebrity clients (and more on them at a later date), Anil and his wife now live in a two bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side. Its blizzard of pristinely white, white walls and furniture is a long way from the chaotically cramped and dirty streets where Anil grew up in Bombay. (He insists on using the old raj name for his birth city.)

Currently one of the country’s most acclaimed tattoo artists, Anil launched his career from a small studio on Canal St. His first clients were cops. “Tattooing was illegal, then,” he’s told me. “What irony, eh?
After 9/11, his clients were firemen. Hundreds of firemen. He inked their pumped up arms and chests with portraits of the Twin Towers and of  lost friends. “Meteors of the past,” Gupta called that homage to their pain. This was when I also learned that a tattoo is a scar.

Two weeks ago when I walked down for tea, I watched him work on a young man. The man seemed oblivious to pain. After 4 1/2 hours in the plastic shrouded bed/chair, of course, he may have simply been delirious. Anil was creating three, number 7′s on the inside of his right forearm. All hidden, disguised within a series of ornately wrought interlocking bones and joints. There was a sinister beauty in the design and I silently wondered about its significance. People confess to odd and disturbing things while seated in Anil’s chair. But the question about significance is rarely asked. As deft as a surgeon, Anil blotted away the drops of blood with peroxide soaked gauze and rubbed in some Vaseline. (The grease keeps the bleeding at a minimum.) Dipping his ink gun into a pot of white pigment, I turned away. White pigment is the toughest ‘color’ for the skin to absorb. It has to be punched in. It hurts.

Three years ago, I’d sat in that same chair while Anil punched white ink into the pages of the open book on my left ankle. “So what’s the story here?” he asked. “I’m building my brand as an author,” was my flippant response. When he chuckled, I thought about its real significance. Mostly, the book was ironic. As I am not an open book. Not even after having written a soul stripping memoir. For me, the image was a symbol of a certain coming of age; of an elation that had suddenly sprung up out of nowhere. The blank pages would remind me of all that was yet to be written.

As so often happens in life, the elation dissipated. I wrote a novel that failed and slammed straight into a wall. It hurt. Alot. But this casual friendship with Anil continued. And I’m hugely grateful for it. As a woman who like “her green peas to grow already buttered”–That’s Balzac), my visits to Anil remind me that pain really is a process. It has be endured. The pain may never disappear, entirely. But much like a tattoo, it tends to fade. 

After I finish my tea, Anil’s partner and assistant strolls into the room. He’s wearing a bodysuit. Every inch of skin is inked, except for his neck and face. 
“How many hours,” I ask.
“120,” he answers, casually. “And we’re not even close to finished.” 

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Warning

There is no “F” word today.
Posted by Brenda in 17:30:23 | Permalink | No Comments »

‘Knife In The Heart’

All set to write something funny this morning. Something light that might make you laugh. I can’t. I seem to be haunted by Bernie Madoff. I’ve lost nothing. I don’t know Bernie. Until Robert mentioned his name at dinner on Thursday night, I’d never even heard of him. Today, my friend, ‘Grace’, e mailed me an article from the Palm Beach Daily News. It’s the story of Carl Shapiro, a 95 year-old textile magnate who ‘adopted’ Bernie more than 48 years ago. He became the son Carl never had. A son who was on the “short list of invitees to every family birthday party, anniversary, bar mitzvah, wedding, and graduation.”
“I can’t believe this,” says his wife, 91-year-old Ruth Shapiro.”What he did to people. Some down here are completely wiped out. They have nothing left. Nothing.”

I’ve gotten other calls, too. Calls about other big and small time losers. People I do know. People who endow foundations. And every cent they’ve given is gone. Millions given not simply to avoid taxes but to causes close to their heart. Causes to which they have devoted their entire lives. So it isn’t just money, you see, that Madoff has taken, it’s the good that people do. 

That’s the thing. It isn’t Bernie’s ruthlessness or greed that’s knocked the wind out of me. It’s his indifference. News of ruthlessness and greed have become as boring, as common, as weather reports. When institutions go bankrupt and close their doors, sure, you sigh. You feel sorry for all the unemployed ‘suits.’ But there’s an emotional distance from the carnage. You’re angry, perhaps, even enraged, but the sadness isn’t there. This 50 billion dollar implosion seems to be the work of a single man. A married man. A man with children and friends like Carl Shapiro. I imagine his wife must love him. I read somewhere that she had been seen cradling his head in her arms. Like Eva Braun and Hitler. But enough.  of my mourning and monsters for one day…

Posted by Brenda in 16:31:02 | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, December 15, 2008

a correction

The Willie Morris quote below should read: “Surely as one gets older, friendship becomes more precious to us for it affirms the contours of our existence. It is a reservoir of shared experience, of having lived through many things in our brief and mutual moment on earth.”
Sorry about that.
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The Dinosaur Club

An important word to friends reading my blog. Should I ever “use” you as material, I will always ask permission first. The reason is fairly obvious. Not to do so would be a betrayal of trust. Which brings me straight to the subject of today’s blog…

Dinner on Thursday with friends from Greenwich. Table for four at the Harrison in Tribeca. Cold, pelting rain on picture windows outside, all brick and wood and safe inside. The woman, I’ll call her Grace, is one of my oldest, finest friends. Her husband, I’ll call him Robert, has become a friend, too. I like him because he doesn’t pretend to be someone he isn’t and because he makes no bones about the fact that money (inherited money) makes him extraordinarily fortunate. “Anybody tells you money is a burden,” he told me once, “is a liar or doesn’t have any.”  I like him because despite his money, despite living in what I consider to be a bizarre form of captivity, he is always asking questions. Always. He is voraciously curious about everything, even women. Especially women. He wants to know why we’re angry, why we cry, why we’re suddenly leaving our husbands. “Up where I come from,” he said on Thursday night, “it used to be the men leaving the women. Now I don’t know. The rules have changed.” There is something almost naif about Robert but then there are also moments of uncanny lucidity, even wisdom.

“So, Brenda. Tell me. Are people talking in New York?”
“What do you mean, Robert. About what?”
“About money.”
“Of course, they’re talking about money. Isn’t everybody?”
“Not in Greenwich, they’re not. Listen, I’ve been in this group for years. We call it the Dinosaur Club. (He smiles sheepishly.) I’ve known the guys forever. We golf, we lunch every Tuesday. And we’re talking about everything BUT money. Sports, wives, ex wives…I just don’t get it.” 
“Maybe your friends have lost money,” I say. “Maybe they’re embarassed.”
Grim chuckle. “Yeah. Remember when I saw you a couple of months ago? I was only down 20%. Those days are gone. Now I’m just angry.”
“At who, Robert. Everybody’s lost something.”
“At myself. I’ve always been so prudent. So careful. So on top of it, you know?”
(I don’t know. I’m utterly clueless.) “You don’t take risks, right. That’s what you’ve always told me.” 
“Exactly! I mean, I know guys. My brother, for instance. He’s blown through millions and millions. Guys inherit money. They’re arrogant. They think they know it all. They take big, big risks. It’s the women who inherit money who hold onto it.”
Here, I am genuinely intrigued. “Really?Why?” I say, “What makes…”
“Because they know they can’t make anymore, Brenda. They know this is all they have. So there’s less ego involved. They’re cautious.”
And then he says: “Listen, this guy, Madoff? Have you heard of him?”
“No. I don’t hang out with a lot of high flyers, Robert.”
“Right. Well, read the paper tomorrow. Because he’s gonna be front page news.”

And sure enough. Friday morning. There he is. Bernard Madoff. Genial, affable Bernie. The kind of sweet old Jewish guy everybody wishes was their grandfather. The FUCKING Devil Incarnate. This is a guy who masterminded the greatest Ponzi scheme in history; who ripped through 50 BILLION dollars worth of other people’s assets. Actually, not just “other people’s assets.” Friend’s assets. Friends he played golf with, dined with, travelled with. Polite, old Jewish money that funds hundreds of worthy charities; that takes care of its own. Yet this man whose betrayal of his own tribe ranks right up there with Jesus Christ is most often described by those who knew him in New York and Palm Beach as “lovely” and “generous.” It beggars the imagination. The irony of it. The cruelty.

I mean, what if these friends had known that Bernie’s lavish contributions to their favorite causes was coming straight out of their own pockets? And how do you think the guys Bernie turned down must feel? The guys who joined the Boca Raton Club in desperate hopes that Madoff might, just might, take them into his oh-so lucrative and exclusive fold. How deliriously happy/relieved they must be this morning. And what his poor wife and sons? The sons who turned him in?

People always say that true evil is banal, ordinary. Well, there ain’t nothin’ about Bernie Madoff that seems banal or ordinary to me. As the brilliant Willie Morris once wrote: “Surely, as one grows older, friendship becomes more precious to us for it affirms the contours of our existence; of having lived through many things in our brief and mutual moment on earth.” He then adds: “In the lexicon of human cruelty, I rank the betrayal of a friend–as dastardly almost as child abuse or manslaughter.” Morris was too kind. In the case of Bernard Madoff, I would substitute manslaughter for murder. 

As for my friend Robert…He’s been commuting between New York, Greenwich, and Palm Beach since he was a kid. His mother owned a magnificent old place with one of those secret tunnels under the highway that leads to the ocean. Robert’s father was Jewish. The two of us love to gossip about the infamous “No Jew” policy at the posh, Wasp clubs down there. But obsessive golfers like Robert need access to clubs. So I can’t help but wonder…Maybe once, just once, he might have teed off with the Devil at the Boca? Maybe they took turns washing their balls. (I’m talking golf balls.) I’d also love to be a fly on the wall at the Dinosaur Club lunch Tuesday. Because even if Robert and his friends haven’t been talking about money much till now, they sure as hell will be talking about it tomorrow. I’m going to give him a call. 

Oh. A detour. I thought I harbored a ‘secret’ love for Dexter Filkin’s The Forever War. I had no idea it had even been reviewed. But it’s listed as #2 in Best Non-Fiction of the Year in the NYT Book Review.
and it’s GOOD! Better than good. 

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