15 September 2009
Twenty-Five Years Ago in Soho
Today I had lunch with Bruce. He works in Soho and we went to a very Soho-like restaurant that featured high ceilings with lots of wood and brick. It's a bit like standing in one of those mirrors that makes you feel taller because it makes you look skinnier but is only about six inches wide.
It's a pleasant, if sometimes noisy atmosphere. And the food is also pleasant, or sometimes even better: a dozen or so varieties of Asian noodle soups. Bruce had an Indonesian curry; I indulged myself in a fragrant Vietnamese soup with beef and bean sprouts.
Afterward, we walked along Spring and Prince Streets to Broadway. Along the way, we passed a lot of trendy shops and recalled the days when they weren't. At the northwest corner of Spring and Broadway is a kind of sidewalk mural that looks a bit like something Keith Haring might have done had he picked up a chisel. According to Bruce, there is a series of such murals on various corners in the neighborhood that are aligned with each other. They were done by an artist that neither of us has seen in about twenty years.
That artist used to hang out with me, Bruce and a writer who used to work with me in the Poets In The Schools program when Bruce was the program manager. That was back in the days when one could run into a prostitute along one of those streets, as I sometimes did when I was going to leaving my job at American Youth Hostels when it was on Spring and Wooster Streets. Many of those stores were studios, some of which housed the artists themselves as well as their work, as well as galleries.
The writer who used to hang with us was ostensibly an art critic as well as a poet. I don't recall whether the guy who did the sidewalk murals had a day job. Anyway, we--sometimes all of us, other times some combination of two or three of us--would go to the exhibits and openings that lined those streets the way sales line them today. Our writer friend could get us into the more "exclusive" ones with his press credential: the one and only thing that made me believe he might actually be an art critic.
We would spend some time looking at the paintings or sculptures. Bruce, although not always as outgoing as I sometimes am, would get into a conversation with an artist or some other interesting person. Meantime, the writer and I would load ourselves up with wine and cheese, and then some more wine. Then, another glass of wine in hand, the writer would hit up on some woman who had absolutely no interest in him. I might spend more time looking at the paintings or sculptures, but I would definitely drink some more.
Then, we--or I alone--would go to Fannelli's, which was still something of an Italian-American working class bar that just happened to be frequented by some of the artists. Some of those artists had tabs (Remember those?) there.
After Bruce and I parted, I realized that those days were now a quarter-century past! In other words, we've all lived (assuming the artist and writer are still alive) another lifetime in addition to the one each of us had lived up to that point.
But I didn't find myself becoming, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, woozy with deja vu. It's hard to do that in Soho these days: So much has changed! But more important, there didn't seem any point to it.
That's not to say I wasn't remembering some of it warmly. Soho certainly had an interesting "vibe" in those days and you could actually do quite a bit on little or no money. And, in working at American Youth Hostels, I got discounts on equipment and airline tickets. So, even though I wasn't making much money, I managed to take a bike trip from Italy into France that September and another trip to California at Thanksgiving.
But today I was neither pining for those days nor trying to forget or disavow them. I am not proud of everyting I did: Even the trips I did were a form of running away from what I actually needed (and wanted) to do; I guess I don't have to say that all the drinking I did in those days was a form of escape as self-medication.
Yet I found myself, today, wanting to embrace, to hold, that person who did those things. No, I don't want to be him again. Rather, I found myself valuing him for the things I was able to learn from having lived his life. It made me into someone who would like to see that writer and the sidewalk-carver again, just to know that they're safe and well--and, hopefully,doing interesting, productive, creative and helpful things. And, of course, I came out of that life as Bruce's friend, and with Bruce as a friend. Both have left me a very privileged person.
Yes, I am happy to have had my operation. I'm even proud of it: For a change, I didn't back down from something I needed to do. But I realized today that I have even more pride in the person I'm becoming. And I feel even more privileged to be her, to be Justine, to be myself.
After all, I had to live, literally, another lifetime after those days as a young man who drank and let his friends chat up artists and chase women. And I've had to learn that to move forward in life, there is no choice but to love whomever you have been, or lived as, as well as those who were part of the life you lived.
And then, after all that, I went to work: I was talking about poetry with my students. I love poetry because it is, and my students because they have helped to define the person I am and am becoming. After all, I didn't have any --nor did I imagine I would ever have any--hope of becoming who I am in those long-ago days in Soho.