Saturday, October 31, 2009

New York Won't Leave Me Alone!

I thought I was a California girl. From the time I was four years old I knew I'd be living here one day, just didn't know when. In 1957 I flew with my mother and little brother on American Airlines from Indianapolis to Los Angeles. During the flight I became a qualified Junior Stewardess, which entitled me to wear the official ring. It would be the last time I'd ever see my great-grandfather. During our stay in Los Angeles, my mother took us to visit the empty-seated Hollywood Bowl. This is where I made first contact with the spirits of entertainment, while climbing the stairs between rows of benches. I also knew I'd be back. Twenty-six years later I packed everything I owned into my old van and drove myself and my dreams to the California Coast.
So... What the hell does that have to do with New York?

Well, it seems New York got under my skin and left this California girl in quite a tizzy. Other places have found their way into my misty recesses over the years. But not until September 2009 did I take such a plunge into deep mysterious waters. I had given myself permission to go visit a friend on the Upper West Side, for no other reason than to reconnect with her, and with the city I barely knew. I suspected New York was going to change me; I just didn't know how much. Below is the view from my girlfriend's apartment. She lives in one of the Trump Place towers along Riverside Boulevard overlooking the Hudson River. I hung my camera out through the narrow window opening to get this shot:
I had only been in New York on two other occasions in my life. The first time was early in my childhood, before the Twin Towers were built. It's only a vague memory, one remote feeling accompanied by the view from the Empire State Building. It's all I remember, but the memory is infused by the image of what I saw that day.

My second visit to New York came in 1980, while I was touring with Little Rock, a Nashville-based show rock group. Four significant things happened while I was in the city this time. One good, and three bad. First, the good thing: I and the two other girls in the band got to take a voice lesson with Bette Midler's vocal coach, Sue Seton. Toni, our band leader, passed Gilda Radner on her way in. At the time Gilda was performing her one-woman show on Broadway.

Bad things one and two: My Korg Synthe-Bass was stolen out of Donna's car, along with my favorite antique necklace with the green triangle-shaped glass stone, and I got a ticket in Central Park when Toni's friend's dog (notice I am twice removed from this dog) finagled his way off his leash.

Bad thing number three: (A side note: I believe there was intervention here from forces beyond this world, otherwise I'd be dead.) This is when I first drove into New York and got lost after my first turn past the bridge. I ended up in Harlem. Now how could this have happened?

First of all, I'd been driving for two days nonstop from Columbus, Ohio, a journey which had its own mystical episode, one that's earmarked for a chapter in my back-burnered "On the Road" memoir ("What A Fool Believes") about a non-famous keyboard player obsessed with a famous keyboard player. I had been driving Donna's car.  Donna was Little Rock's front singer, along with Toni. Both of them kicked ass, I'm telling you. But Donna let me drive her car to Columbus, my home base, so she could traipse off to New York with Toni in one of the Little Rock vans.  Below is said car and van in question:
Okay, so I was lost. In Harlem. How I got there I have no idea. It was dark, not a lot of street lighting; the streets were empty this late at night. I stopped at a gas station that appeared to be open to get some directions. A drooling double-fanged German Shepherd was perched on the concrete stoop in front of the gas station entrance, ominously lit by a blinking tubular light. So what did I do? I got out of the car, squirrelly from driving for two days. And wouldn't you have guessed: that dog charged after me like a ravenous wolf to a rabbit. I think I left my body because it seemed like the deafening death-barks that numbed out my eardrums were penetrating me from all sides. I was a goner. But at the last minute the gas station watchman screamed his lungs out at the dog, "Fido, Stop!" Miracles of all miracles: the dog obeyed. The guy couldn't believe my balls, I know it. Afterward I couldn't believe them either. But I got my directions and found my way into Manhattan. I later wondered if the gas station attendant knew he had named his dog the same name Abraham Lincoln named his dog.

Okay, with that preamble, flash-forward to September 2009. Here's the deal:
New York captured my spirit and stirred my soul, so much so that I don't think I'll ever be satisfied in this life until I get my own apartment overlooking Central Park. I know I'm not going to stop until I have achieved that dream. And of course I wouldn't stop there, because, well... I'd be in New York!
Its hold on me is beyond logic, and my comprehension. I told my friend Teresa, first up I wanted to go to Ground Zero to lend whatever energy I could, even if but a little. I wanted to be present with the space left by 9-11. We arrived by subway, and when I looked over the construction site, I could feel hope, and that surprised me. The city had wrapped herself around the wound, and she seemed to be contributing vibrant and unmistakable energy to the healing of this sacred space...

Every majestic building surrounding Ground Zero was keeping ever-faithful watch, holding the ground solid beneath its own structure.
And though the Empire State Building seeks the limelight no longer, it still stands a powerful monolith of a nation's unshakable will.

While I was in New ork so many things happened supposedly by happenstance, in this serendipitous land of make believe. The city challenges you, gives you a nudge, makes you look inside yourself and feel the vibration in the rhythm of your walk down Fifth Avenue.
People you didn't think you'd see appear in beautiful regalia. This bride and groom were walking the streets, still basking in their wedding. The bride looked at me, and I was grateful for her smile, though the video photographer next to me probably wished she was looking at him.
People, yes, but also other beings appeared. A gnome at the edge of Central Park made himself known to my camera, letting me perceive the thin veil between worlds. The nature spirit of earth delivered a message: "You won't be able to stay away. Gotcha!"
Wondrous shadows, building shadows, a tall dark forest of intrigue, and Sophie's Cuban Cuisine sign swaying in the tunneled breeze.

And then in a twinkling I heard on a roof, Norah Jones Chasing Pirates in a video shoot.
I zoomed in my lens, tore open the shutter. Looked through my viewfinder, wanting to see better.
(Sorry about the poetry. Just trying to get the New Yorker to take notice.) New York has so many dichotomies. There was a Goddess Festival near the Battery Wall. I just had to get a picture of this keyboard player. The Goddess herself stood in the background, New York Harbor's beacon of welcoming.
Interestingly enough, before my friend and I could even get over to the festival, we were stopped by a female secret service agent near the Ritz-Carlton. She put her arms up and told us we couldn't cross the street. We asked why, but she wouldn't tell us. She held us back until an entourage of black SUV's zoomed out of the hotel, accompanied by NYPD cruisers.
Since there were no reporters, this must've been a hush-hush event. I tried to capture whoever it was in the big black van. After the entourage had passed, we were allowed to cross the street to Battery Park. I decided to try asking the secret service agent again who was in that big black van, and she relented: "The President of Iraq." Jalal Talabani in New York!  And there we were, Teresa and I, witnesses.
Later we "happened" to find ourselves standing in front of the National Museum of the American Indian, housed in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House. For three years I have been researching several tribes of Native American people for two different story projects: my current novel and a screenplay that waits second in the queue. New York is an ancient land, and, according to W. Richard West (Southern Cheyenne), "has become a center of new thinking about Native cultures."  The Hopi have a prophecy about a time long ago when their people "would travel to the east to meet with the nation of the world in a 'house of mica.'" I looked up at the allegorical statue of the continent of Africa, and once again I saw New York's dichotomous relationship with the natural world.
Inside the museum I found a Crow girl's dress from Montana, decorated with elk teeth, bone, and hide. One of my novel's secondary characters is a young Crow woman from Montana, learning the ancient skill of horse doctoring. She finds herself lost with only her medicine bag after chasing a herd of wild Mustangs who have somehow entered through a portal to a Montana Otherworld. When I saw the Crow dress in the museum, now you can understand why I was grateful.

Nearby was another striking view of the city's tall, angular forest. The guy with the New York Yankees hat wasn't sure about me. But I thank him now, just the same, whoever he is. For without him and his hat, this photo would be a little less complete. I call it, "Morris Street."
The subways were amazing to me, mysterious underground passages that spilled every sound into a wash of echoes: bright 3-dimensional canvases smeared with loud, dark-colored paint.
During one of the days I walked the streets alone, cherishing the solitude and deepening my personal connection with New York, the city gave me another surprise. A cormorant. This whole past year, I've been blogging about seabirds in Port Hueneme, California, especially grebes and cormorants. Well, when I strolled through Cedar Hill (Fifth Avenue side of Central Park), there he was just standing there on a floating wooden platform.
At first I couldn't believe it walking past the outdoor tables where people sat drinking coffee. From across the pond he looked like a statue. And it's not like New York doesn't have its share of statues.

Now I have seen seagulls and sandpipers standing on one foot, but I never saw a cormorant doing that. It wasn't until I looked more closely at the images that I started to think this guy only had one leg. He never moved from his position the whole time I observed him. And there were plenty of disturbances that could've prompted him to lift from his platform, but he never did. I remember how content he seemed, so I don't worry too much about him now.
I could write to eternity about New York, and that's why I know I'll be coming back to the city to spend more serious time folded within her magical layers. But for now I'm leaving you with my favorite Central Park tree photos. They whispered to me, all of them; they are Human Whisperers. They stand as guardians between worlds, between the human world and the Other world that imbues the magic. It's hard to let go and move on to my next project, as these words and images have drawn me back. I can feel New York in my bones, in my soul. Like I said, I'll never be the same.