Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A thought

         “The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how
          to stay quietly in his room.” 
                                                      Blaise Pascal, Pensees

More later.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Nightmare on Main St.

Invited a realtor up to look at the money pit on Sunday. “Just to see what our options are,” my husband said. Hah! In his dreams. Options. I remember ancient times (like seven months ago) when people whined about too many options. Anyway, the woman shows up at noon on the dot. Badly dyed, oily, red hair pulled back in a tight rubber band, baggy clothes, mid fifties. She looks like the matron at a high security prison or a death camp. 

Wasting no time getting down to business, she grabs a seat at the dining room table. “I’ve been in real estate thirty years,” she says. “I owned my company till I got bought out. But I haven’t sold a house since June. Never seen it this bad. Nope, never. We’ve got 220 houses for sale right now. And it’s the Stimula package that’s really gonna kill us.  Because everyone who’s taken their homes off the market will be putting them back on again.”

I can see my husband turning into the incredible shrinking man as she bullets ahead. “Oh, and you can forget renting,” she adds, gleefully, sliding a sheet of paper towards me. “Just take a look at that list.” I glance at it, reluctantly, and stop counting at around forty. “Let me tell you a little story. I had this guy and his family. It was back in August. Another corporate transfer. We used to get alot of those. He was custom building his own mini Mac (small McMansion) and needed a place to live till it was finished. I told him to show up down at the Bee (the local paper) at 5 in the morning. So he could be the first person to check out the Classifieds. That’s how FEW rentals there were.” She’s cackling. I swear to God the woman is fucking cackling.

My shoulders are shaking. I can feel the beginnings of  crazy, nervous laughter. “But these people,” she says, stabbing at the list. “These people are desperate. They went in with 90, 95% financing. Then at the closing, they took another hundred thou for renovating. Now their husbands are out of work. Contracting has totally dried up. Shut down. So has the plumbing business. There’s no work for electricians or carpenters, either.”

I am offering this woman biscuits, cake, coffee. Anything to make it stop; to shut her mouth. But the bad news just keeps coming, even when she’s climbing the stairs. “Wow! I LOVE color, she enthuses.I smile. “You must be a decorator.” We’re in the room I call Prince. My pride and joy. Deep purple walls, sizzling orange satin bedspread and polka dot pillows. “This is FABULOUS!” she says, stepping into the blue and white striped walled room with fire engine red trimmed windows. I elbow my husband as if to say, “See. It’s not so bad, after all. She loves it.”

Then the axe drops. “But you’ll have to paint the whole place eggshell white or beige,” she says. “Maybe sage green.” I grimace.”This is a classic Cape. People expect traditional. Whew.” She’s practically wiping her brow. “The husbands would have a heart attack in here.”
 
The irony is, I appreciate her honesty. I do. There’s no bullshit.  Of course, people can affford to be honest when they have nothing to lose. ”But listen,” she says, patting my arm as we head downstairs. “It could be worse. You could be trying to sell a place in Westport or New Canaan.”

Tomorrow… how we cut her into tiny pieces and buried her in the backyard and other nightmares on Main St.. 

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Dicks and Bears

“Coon dick bone,” says B with a grin. “Never heard of ‘em, eh?”
“Nope,” I say, matching his grin. “Can’t say I have.” 
“There are only three mammals with bones in their penises,” he adds with a deep Georgia drawl. “And the raccoon is one of them. I’ve seen men use them as toothpicks down South.” 

B used to be just another suit with a man trapped inside it. (That’s not me. That’s Steve Toltz in his novel, A Fraction of the Whole.) Not anymore. Seismic changes have turned his life inside out and loosened him up. Liberated him. We’re at the Knickerbocker, our local bar. And it’s his hat that’s triggered this unlikely chat about coons and dicks. The hat is raccoon, complete with striped flaps, a long tail, two beady eyes and ears. It ain’t PC. But I love it. I love it because it takes a man–and pardon me here– with balls to wear it. 

This is what I’m thinking as I stare out the window at a guy squeezing his pimples in the rear view mirror of an SUV. Jesus. Is there no shame, I wonder, missing B’s transition to bears. 
“It was a wedding gift,” he says. “The bear hunt. The guy who made my hat was our guide up in Alaska. I don’t how you feel about hunting but this was a great trip. Two days stalking and sleeping in tents. Bears have lousy vision. But man, the sense of smell is incredible. Uncanny.” 

Suddenly, I see that lunatic Treadwell in the Werner Herzog documentary, Grizzly Man. He’s kissing the snout of a 1,000 lb. bear and whispering “I love you. I love you.” All Treadwell talked about in the doc was himself. I mean, there was no information about bears whatsover. None. I remember thinking that he could have, at least, Googled Bear. And in the end, he should have. Because the 1,000 lb. Winnie the Pooh turned into Jaws with fur and ate him. 

But back to B. He used to work for Bear Stearns. OK. What the fuck is going on here? All these bears? So the talk shifts to… Sorry, I can’t resist. The bears hibernating on Wall St. Argh. B calls himself an optimist. An optimist who is doing “very nicely, shorting.” Seems like an oxymoron to me. An optimist into shorting. But nevermind. He adds that most of the “real money, ” not the guys with 20 or 40 million to spare but the ones with 100 million and more are all circling the wagons.”
“Call me when the war’s over,” they tell me. 

It’s late. And I don’t want to hear about men with 100 million to spare. So we go home. At two in morning, my snorts of laughter wake my husband up out of his usual comatose-like sleep.
I’d been thinking about a New Year’s Eve two years ago. We’d gone down to Miami with a wonderful friend and her Russian husband, V.  At dinner, he kept talking about beer. 
“So the beer has a massager with him,” he says as his wife and I exchange discreet, confused glances. 
“A beer?” I say ” I don’t understand, V.”
“Yes, the beer is an American. The massage helps with relaxing.”
His wife and I, again, exchange perplexed glances and begin to titter.
“What do you mean the beer has a massager?”
V is annoyed now. Which only further incites our fits of tittering and hysterical laughter.
“THE BEER!,” he shouts. “What is the matter with you? Fur, four legs….”
“BEAR!” we shout back in unison. “Oh My God! You’re talking about your movie about bears.” We don’t even go near the subject of massagers.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Jetlagged…

I’m pretending I had too many mohitos on flight back from Cuba. So short post today. Did anyone see the photograph of all those bankers seated at that table in yesterday’s paper? It looked like Judgement at fucking Nuremberg. My suggestion? Shove em all onto that bad bank boat, the one full of toxic assets, and let it drift to Guantanamo. 
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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Cuba Finis

There are times one roams, eyes nailed to the ground, through sewage strewn side streets and alleys, when one can’t help but ask “What of the future?” Where is the future in a city that teeters on the edge of physical extinction. A city that can barely afford to feed its own children. Because I’m convinced that Tito’s cynicism and humor, his resigned acceptance of “problems with the system” disguise a barely repressed rage. Rage at a system that jails a man for killing a cow and turns women into “state investments”; a system that has no work for fathers or brothers and turns a blind eye to teenage girls selling themselves for the dollars that keep their families alive. It is a rage that Pierre, a Frenchman who has lived here for over ten years, talks about passionately over dinner in Marinao, a slum in the north of Havana.

“I’m the contact person down here for the French who want the “real story.” But noone wants the real story. A month ago, I took a journalist to a club here in Marinao. I told him that there had been thousands of kids, squeezed into these streets, protesting. They were wearing American flags, stitched together from pieces of red, white, and blue rags. The State passed a law. Anyone caught wearing anything resembling a flag would be arrested. So you know what the kids did? They shaved their heads and tattooed their scalps with logos for Coca Cola and Nike. But all the French guy wanted was photographs of old men, playing guitars.”

I think of Pierre at the wedding, a bizarre, surreal affair at the elegant old Hotel Nacional. Foreigners seated in rickity bridge chairs on one side of a glorious, gilded room while Laura’s father and family are seated, mutely, on the other. There is an interminable wait for an elderly female lawyer who reads, as if asleep, through the State Marriage Contract. Vincenzo stumbles through his “vows” holding, tightly, onto to Laura’s hand before giving her a gentle kiss. Then I watch her family shuffle, quickly, out to the veranda where they stand, dumbstruck, soaking up a view they will never see again. A view of manicured, green grass, a swimming pool, and sunbathing tourists. (Cubans aren’t allowed in hotels. I’ve seen Security Patrols escort them out.) What are they feeling, I ask myself? Are they angry? Humiliated? Disappointed?

It is only after the wedding when everyone travels on to a deserted mansion by the sea to dance that both sides of the family, finally, unite. And this is where I catch a glimpse of the future. Because the future is, as always, in the moment. And in Havana, it is music that brings one back into the vividness, the intensity, of that moment. Music is everywhere in this city. Twenty four hours a day. It’s in the gardens of a 19th century governor’s villa; a garden where conservatory students come to jam and to practice saxophones, congas, and trumpets in the open air. It’s in the group of gnarled old men who cluster together in cafes and sing son. It’s on the public beaches near Miramar and in nightclubs like the Macamba, a Xanadu-like tropical hideaway for Cubans only where taxi meters are shut off and one arrives and leaves by a back door. There is such defiance, such ferocity and joy in the response to music that one suspects it is the only thing that keeps the heart, the hopes, of this country, intact. 

As I sit, quietly, on the staircase of the deserted mansion, I watch Laura’s father move, slowly but proudly, onto the dance floor. Not long after, even he has surrendered to the delirium, the euphoria, of the moment. And I am reminded again. Havana is a city of pride not arrogance; a city that survives not simply by virtue of what Caribbean poet, Derek Walcott, calls “The triumph of stubborness” but by its ingenuity and grace. Perhaps, because its music, like the rhythms of mood and desire, reminds us of the importance of human versus digital connections; of how it is humanity not the most sophisticated software that continues to create memories and passion. This is why the sound sof Havana hits home. It hits home for those who leave it, longing to return and for those who have yet to arrive. 

the last fuck

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

More Cuba

When I return to the hotel on my third day, Vincenzo’s mother and his fiancee sit, rigid with discomfort, in the hotel lobby. His mother is 80-years-old and this voyage to Cuba is her first out of Italy. She has brought an entire tribe of equally befuddled aunts, uncles, and cousins with her. As I introduce myself and sit down, I patter away in Italian and Spanish. Anything to help break through the anxious silence. The ache of smiles. While the mother smiles across the small space of carpet that separates her from her future daughter-in-law, I think of how vast that void that separates them really is. It’s more than language. Or culture. It’s more even than the fact Laura is a jinetera. The literal translation for jinetera is female jockey and Google lists over 52, 700 results for these teenage girls who refuse to call themselves prostitutes but who accept “gifts” in return for their company. No. It’s how the system will force the woman’s son and his bride to compromise; to abandon all of the euphoric expectations one associates with newlyweds. 

“We don’t have children,” Irina tells me later that night in another hotel bar. She married an Englishmen three years ago.”We don’t have children because it makes it tougher to get an exit visa.” Irina is a 27-year-old doctor. She works six days a week for $17 dollars a month. “My family didn’t speak to me for a year,” she says, wistfully. “People don’t like it. They resent it. The only reason the State allows these marriages is because the husbands bring in dollars. She laughs. “I am a State Investment,” she says. “That’s how I look at it.” 

During the days before the wedding, Tico delights in showing me the real Cuba. “Solomente la verdad,” he promises when we stop to buy a single cigarette at another hole-in-the-wall bodega. Women push me gently towards the front of the line, all smiles, so courteous, as they wait hours to turn State coupons into rations of sugar, milk, and eggs. (Cubans are permitted eight eggs each, per month.) Tico hasn’t drunk milk since he was a child. I spend an hour wandering around the fabulous, turn of the century railroad station, too. “One train a day for Cubans,” Tico tells me. “And a few more for tourists.” There is another morning when he drives me out to the newly renovated Havana Country Club. “I don’t want the security guards at the gate to see me,” he says, nervously. We park a block away and I walk back alone. This is the club that was once so exclusive, not even Batista himself was invited to join. Beyond the gates, a labyrinth of crystal blue pools, a spa, two restaurants, and a magnificent old bar. All empty. The restoration is shoddy. Too bright. Too shiny. Like the Sistine Chapel, you wish, they’d somehow just left it alone. “It’s for the tourists,” Tico says as we head back to town for lunch. “We have had so many invasions here. Now we wait for the invasion of American tourists.” 

Sharing a plate of cold lobsters at an out of the way paladare (paladares are private houses with permits to serve food) we sit, precariously balanced, on two beach chairs near an empty, cracked pool and hold our noses. There is an abominable stench coming from the sea. “The water’s polluted here,” he says. “Only our local boys are immune.” But this is when I begin to suspect that is loss that has loosened Tico’s tongue; that has made him such a reckless talker, not to mention driver. His youngest brother was sentenced to fourteen years in jail for killing two cows. (The State prohibits slaughtering cows for meat. They are used for milk production only.) ”They were his own cows,” Tico says. “That’s seven years per cow.” He also tells me his older brother was run over and nearly killed by a drunk. “My brother was on his bike. People who saw it told me the man in the car was a colonel. Sometimes, these men stop and give money for the family. Not this one. He just kept going.” 

After lunch, we stop for gas. On a battered sign, I see the words: Cerrado. Las Problemas con La Sistema.” (Closed. Problems with the System.) Siphoning a whispers worth of gas from the tank of another taxi, we both burst out laughing. “This should be our country’s motto,” says Tico while stripping the gears and peeling what’s left of the rubber on his bald tires. 

The morning before the wedding, a friend suggests we go for a ride in one of Havana’s quaintly preserved American cars. Bouncing along in the rumble seat of a 1927 Ford convertible–a car that like most vintage American automobles for tourists has been reassembled from parts salvaged from other vehicles– we drive through the steamy, jungle-like park in the once elite suburb of Vedado. These dilapitated villas and mansions were the homes of Cuba’s professional class. Doctors, lawyers, judges, dentists. This is also where Johhny Weissmuller courted Jane in the Tarzan movies.  Now couples come here seeking privacy. A rare privilege in a country where secrecy and silence have been facts of life for centuries. A country where freedom and fear, poverty and unimaginable wealth, the quaint and the corrupt, seem to mesh together as seamlessly as a couple locked in the sinuous embrace of the salsa. 

Finale tomorrow.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Cuba (con’t)

For Americans, of course, there is the allure of the forbidden, too. Of taboos. The fact that it is illegal to come here; the fact that, like old-fashioned mobsters, you pack cash in a suitcase and pay as you go. (What could be more quaint for us than this?) Checking into the Riviera, for instance. My favorite.You dig deep into the bag where you’ve buried your dollars and stack them up like casino chips in front of the receptionist. It’s $120 a night for a two room suite on the 14th floor. 

I love the Riviera. This is the hotel, the dream, that did in Mafia’s biggest kingpin, Meyer Lansky. Not as in dead or murdered like his buddy, Bugsy Siegel, but bankrupt. Lansky sank every cent he had, millions and millions, building this ultra-luxurious monument to his own greed and ego. And with the exception of an occasional dusting (and I do mean occasional), the hotel appears totally intact, untouched since that New Year’s Eve in 1959. That night when champagne soaked resolutions in the Copa Room gave way to full scale panic, flight, and revolution. The marble floors, the turquoise mosaic walls, even the Copa Room is still here. With its frescoes of dancing girls and men in fedoras, its Murano chandeliers, orchestra pit and tables set with white linen and crystal, it feels as if Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Frank S. and Lansky were running fashionably late. Ginger Rogers was the opening act that evening in 1957. And Lansky was bitterly disappointed. “She can wiggle her ass,” he said.” But she can’t sing a god damn note.” Black and white frame photos of Lansky and Ginger, Johnny Weissmuller, Lana Turner, and Frank S. hang on the wall near the grand staircase. A staircase that led to an even grander casino below. (It is now a down-at-the-heels cafeteria.) 

The suite smells of mold but there are two clean white towels folded into perfect swans on the bed and a breathtaking view. Breathtaking because you gaze out an endless expanse of empty sea. Empty because there are no boats. No freighters. No container or cruise ships. No trawlers. Just a few lonely fishermen bobbing around in inner tubes close to the shore. In its golden years (and it had many), Havana was one of the busiest, most prosperous harbors in the Americas. Today, thanks or no thanks to the American embargo and Cuba’s own poverty and paranoia about people escaping in anything and everything that floats, the sea looks pretty much the same as it did when Christopher Columbus sailed by. 

On both visits, I’m fortunate to have Tico for company. Tico is short and as scrawny and sinewy as a half-starved cat. (I usually, meet him a few blocks away from the hotel where the prying eyes of Cuban security still note down the license plate numbers of cars, coming in and going out.) Part-time cook and taxi driver, he talks with same recklessness with which he drives around Havana. “Condoms are the only thing we never run out of in Cuba,” he chuckles as we zoom along the Malecon. “There’s always a problem finding medicine and drugs but never condoms. That’s because our biggest import is men. Foreign men.” (I don’t mention that I’m here for a wedding between one of these foreign men and a beautiful young girl who hopes the ring will come with a visa out of Cuba.) Unlike once upon a time, when women came out to the Malecon to keep watch for their men returning home in ships, this is where, until a year ago when the State banned casual strolls, girls came to watch for men stumbling through jet lag and their first dizzying sips of a rum Mohito.

More tomorrow… fuck.How small is this? smaller than yesterday?

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Monday, February 9, 2009

I Wish I Were…

In Havana

Tuesday night, we walked over to the Village Vanguard to listen to a new Cuban drummer. His name is Francisco Mela. What bliss! A kid, a thirty-year-old kid with cocoa colored skin, green eyes, and oh! the smile. When he plays with his sticks or sings son, those old Cuban love ballads, you sit back, sigh, and wish to God you were there. There where this stupendously sad but sensuous and joyous sound that is Cuba was born.

I was alone the first time I went to Cuba. An Italian friend had fallen desperately in love with a young girl and I flew down for the wedding. The second time, I went with my husband. Even the flight into Havana on Air Cuba was surreal, otherworldly. It’s not just that you’re onboard a Russian built, Ilyushin, a sliver of silver thinner than any American airliner. It’s the fog. The air-conditioning system is so antiquated, it shoots these wreaths of ghost-like mist into the cabin. You feel as if you’re flying inside a cloud. 

Oddly enough, it’s the total absence of sound that startles you once you’ve arrived. All the noises one associates with big cities….Gone. No ambulance, no police, or fire sirens. No blaring of horns or revving of car engines. And the beauty. The unearthly beauty. All somehow, enhanced, made even more palpable, because, like Venice, one senses the very real possibility that it all might simply slip into the sea and disappear. Vanish. 

Gone the wave washed, gently eroded Malecon, the boulevard that stretches along the sea where you can still dangle your feet in plunge pools carved from coral. (The pools were created to protect aristocratic Creole ladies, las Criollas, from sharks and the curious eyes of passersby. )Gone, too, the crumbling ruins of pastel-painted Baroque Spanish palaces and churches and the sprawling, ornately decorated but decrepit Art Deco mansions in Miramar that once belonged to the island’s sugar and coffee barons. Gone, perhaps, even the 19th century Opera House with its flocks of birds nesting in the cupola and its 30ft. teak bar where men, and only men, came to smoke cigars and sip neat, dark Bacardi rum. The civic landmark, Il Capitolio, still stands. An eerie replica of the U.S. Capital building, it’s deserted now, a symbol of the island’s shaky, short-lived dreams of democracy. 

There are so many haunting reminders here of those who have come and gone. Of so many immense fortunes won and lost and promises made and brutally  broken. The Spanish, the British, the French,  the Americans, the Russians. What remains of their presence is a combination of the quaint and the corrupt: the flickering, sherbet-colored neon signs at the old Mob run hotels and casinos like the Sans Souci, the Deauville, the Tropicana. The bat that still flies on the spire of the Bacardi headquarters downtown, the flaky gold letters of an RCA logo. Especially the faded slogans on Soviet billboards: Revolucion de la Verdad, Para La Gloria de la Patria, and the larger-than-life red neon lit head of Che, gazing out at an empty Plaza de la Revolucion. 

Maybe this is part of Cuba’s allure for tourists. This head-on collision with history. This proximity to the past. For those of us who embrace the future so frantically but who hunger for a glimpse of something that remains untouched, Cuba is intoxicating. Because it is both falling apart and intact. It is also faraway. When you live everyday in a wired world, a world so incestuously small and tightly knit, you forget what it feels like it to be this impossibly faraway. This remote…

More tomorrow. fuck!

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Saturday, February 7, 2009

Things That Glitter #11

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Friday, February 6, 2009

More Mo

Watched Mo, the antique dealer, go through the rituals of getting the Rolls out of the garage this morning. He rents a space at Avis. The Rolls is a 1932 “woodie”, a station wagon. The only one of its kind in the world. It’s like watching the grand levee of a French king. First, there’s the laying down of the wooden planks, the building of a ramp, outside the garage. The car rides low to the ground. The ramp protects the undercarriage. Then comes the unveiling, the removal of the tarp that covers the car after which Mo gently rubs the hood with a chamois cloth. Finally, after filling up empty mineral water bottles from the garage tap (in case the radiator overheats), the car is ever so gently driven–more like cajoled–down the ramp and onto the street. 
“Wanna come for a spin,” Mo shouts when he sees me, smiling. “We’re not goin far.”
“I can’t!” I shout back. “Maybe next time.”
 I’m thinking how much I’ll miss this man when he moves up to ”the boonies” in Troy, New York. ”I’m goin open up a bar,” he told me last week. “An old fashioned workin’ men’s bar.”  
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