Hard times

It may be that the economy’s on the upswing, but New York City’s homeless people might argue with that analysis. So, too, might the folks I encounter nearly daily in central New Jersey.

As my son and I walked along Canal Street and up Second Avenue in lower Manhattan, a few days ago, we saw more homeless people than I remember seeing in NYC for a while, including a young couple camped out on a sidewalk in late morning, the girl sleeping on a pile of blankets while her companion stayed awake and kept watch.

Next day, early in the morning, at a park along the Raritan River in central New Jersey, I saw what has become a familiar sight: three homeless men, wearing all of their clothing (including winter parkas in 80 degree weather, as they left a small, wooded nature preserve in Highland Park where they apparently spend the night and then headed toward a long-established encampment along the riverside in the shadow of the New Brunswick-Highland Park bridge.

I believe that many of us these days are so distracted by our own lives and other issues — that the problem of poverty, both urban and rural, has faded from our view. There’s a feeling, I think, even among well-meaning and caring people, that food pantries and government programs and volunteerism have got the problem under control. But, just walk around Manhattan these days, just visit rural Virginia as I did last fall, and drive around the old section of my old hometown of Yonkers, New York, and it’s clear that as the rich are getting so much richer, the poor are getting so much poorer.

Here’s Woody singing his “Hobo’s Lullaby” —

Here’s Dylan, singing Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” —

And here’s John Prine, singing his classic song about being invisible and lonely, “Hello In There” —

“Hair” turns gray-haired

There was a sweet nostalgia and a vague sadness and a squirmy embarrassment — and not a whiff of marijuana — in the air when my very groovy tie-dyed companion and I recently embarked with friends on a mind-blowing, far-out excursion into the Age of Aquarius and a production of the great hippie musical “Hair.”

A little history. When I was 13 years old, I somehow aced the admissions test and was accepted into the ivy-covered embrace of the prestigious Fordham Preparatory School in the Bronx, N.Y. While I was there, I wore penny loafers and sport jackets with sewn-on elbow patches. And my impressionable mind was shaped not as much by the teachings of Fordham Prep’s Jesuits as by as the happy fact that “The Prep” was located on the campus of Fordham University, where I witnessed demonstrations by the SDS and the Black Panthers, and where I one day wandered into the university bookstore and purchased the first record album I ever owned: The original Broadway cast recording of “Hair.”

Why was “Hair” my first record album? I suppose there was something stirring in my blood, a combination of teenage angst and youthful rebellion and righteous but silent anger and protest at the economic and racial injustices I already sensed in this country (maybe my not-quite-comfortable presence at the still mostly white and still mostly affluent prep school had something to do with this Yonkers boy’s angst). And I know I was very aware of the vague but real prospect of being drafted into the Vietnam War-era military five or six years down life’s road.

But back to the future:
As we sat in a New Jersey theater waiting for the Age of Aquarius to dawn once more, we amused ourselves by checking out the audience and commenting on how OLD many of them were; noted with gladness that at least one-third of the audience looked to be of high-school and college age or a little beyond; and wondered if the young cast of this production of “Hair” would “let the sunshine in” and take off their clothes during the notorious production number at the end of the first act.

Yes, they took off their clothes. And, yes, I enjoyed the show and still liked the music — the title song, “Aquarius,” “Good Morning, Starshine” “Where Do I Go,” “Easy to Be Hard,” “I’ve Got Life” “Frank Mills” “What a Piece of Work Is Man” and “Let the Sunshine In” still have a surprising emotional resonance.

But the audience reaction, at least what I sensed, was disconcerting , a sort of bland, happy-faced, homogenized, weren’t-we-young-and-crazy-and-hip, superficial, Disneyworld, pastel-tinted, self-satisfied response — the hippie generation’s idealism and energy giving way to tired generalities and sappy nostalgia.

Perhaps it’s inevitable….”Give me a head with hair/long, beautiful hair” is now “I used to have hair”…The Age of Aquarius is now the Age of Viagra commercials…”Let the sunshine in” has given way to “Let’s move to retirement community in Florida”…They who were once hippies now get hip replacements.

Maybe Pete Townsend and The Who were on to something when they sang about “My Generation” and Roger Daltrey declared “Hope I die before I get old!” I mean, look at Daltrey now, old and tired and hoarse. Look at the embarrassing and cringe-worthy spectacle as one of the two remaining Beatles — Ringo — walks out on stage and flashes the peace sign and the other surviving Beatle dyes his hair and leads arm-waving, he-used-to-know-better “Hey Jude” audience sing-alongs. Look at the 100-year-old Rolling Stones, looking like they’ve been let out of the crypt for just one more tour.

And look at the world and what things are like more than 45 years after “Hair” opened off Broadway in 1967. War, hatred, poverty and bigotry all survive and even thrive, ”

But there was still something good about seeing “Hair.” It’s hard to define, but maybe that long-haired poet Shakespeare said it best, in the lyrics adapted by James Rado and Gerome Ragni and set to music by Galt MacDermot: “What a piece of work is man…”

Homeless for Christmas

How does it feel to be without a home? To be on your own? Like a complete unknown? It probably feels something like what these people must feel, these people who are living in a tent alongside the Raritan River in New Brunswick, New Jersey, on a wooded embankment in the shadow of Route 18.

I first spotted the tent about a week ago — it’s blue, quonset-style, probably meant to fit two people. Today I saw a man walk out of the tent and sit down on a rock. Last week I think I saw three people walk out of the tent and up a tramped-down trail leading to the highway — perhaps they were heading to a nearby food pantry across the road.

Are there fewer homeless people than there were a decade or so ago? I doubt it. The economy’s worse, jobs are fewer, welfare benefits have been cut, and the poor and needy are poorer and more needy.

When I was living recently in Lowell, Massachusetts, I was struck by how many homeless people walked the streets or nodded off in downtown doorways, smacked out on crack. They were everywhere, night and day, pushing shopping carts containing  their earthly possessions, gathering bottles and cans to redeem for cash at recycling depots, congregating outside a nearby shelter, and poking through restaurant dumpsters looking for food. They were  thin, lost, beaten down, often drugged or drunk, wearing layers of second-hand clothing, their sad eyes fixed straight ahead or downcast, oblivious to my gaze.

In New Jersey, I think, the homeless are less ubiquitous.  I’ll sometimes see homeless people on the streets of New Brunswick. Now, of course, I know of the tent-dwellers, and I know that for years there has been a rude encampment of homeless people who live a little farther up the river, on the eastern shore near the bridge that carries the old Lincoln Highway over the Raritan, and I’ve seen other homeless who congregate in a tunnel beneath the approach to that same bridge.

On a cold day in Manhattan last week, a homeless man peeked out through an opening in plastic sheets he had tied to a fence to create a rough lean-to on the sidewalk near the Flatiron Building.

And when I drive around the old, poorer sections of Yonkers, New York, the part of the city where I grew up , everywhere I look in my old neighbhorhoods, I see poverty and fear and blank looks in bloodshot eyes.

I guess the idea of home — having one, not having one — is more on my mind as Christmas nears. I’ve many warm memories of Christmases past in places I’ve called home — and of the Christmas that dwells in my dreams and rests safely in the haven of my heart.

And so I am thinking now of a rude manger, and of a brilliant star, and of that blue tent pitched by the riverside in the shadow of the highway. May the highway’s hum give way to silent night. May the brightest star shine upon that blue tent and those who dwell within it. May that star’s light be a soft healing light. May those without a home tonight be safe and warm. May they sleep in heavenly peace.

9/11

Take a few minutes to read this elegantly written and beautifully felt 9/11 remembrance by my daughter Laura Gutmann.

A few nights ago, I read the New York magazine 9/11 tenth anniversary issue. Not recommended before bedtime if you want to have sweet dreams. Nonetheless, as each piece of that day was dissected and reexamined, I couldn’t help but go back to my own ten years ago:

The Day of:

My roommate stuck a Post-It note on my laptop which told me to turn it on instead of rushing straight to class. My homepage was the same as always – set to the New York Times. As I read about the first plane, I called Harold to see if he’d heard. It was so difficult to conceptualize the news that I actually said, “Well, at least no one got hurt.” He kindly reminded me about all the people onboard and the workers in cubicles and conference rooms that were now on fire, smashed and broken. Oh.

Striding across campus, I called my father to make sure the ground was still standing in rural New Jersey. I knew that it would be, but it felt good to get confirmation. My morning professor told us that her approach to these sorts of things was to go on as normal, so we half-heartedly agreed and pushed forward. In my next class, the tone was quite the opposite. We spent the next few hours in collective shock as students swapped stories and updates – more planes, more losses. This professor openly sobbed and I appreciated that.

9 months later:

Harold and I moved to NYC, beginning our adventures in a city that we would only come to know post-9/11, post-tragedy. That first summer, we trekked down to the place where the towers once stood. Everything had sort of been cleared away, but there were still buildings covered in black shrouds and an incomprehensible hole and grey, dusty, empty streets and frozen, boarded-up storefronts.

At first I would indulge visitors who wanted to go see the site, too, but after a while I would send them down there alone, with subway directions and an apology for being too tired of seeing all the emptiness and the leftover flyers. The missing person flyers were especially the worst, still attached around the fence surrounding the church across the street from the WTC. You knew that they probably hadn’t done any good, and there were so many, filled with snapshots, filled with life. They were like the sum total of the Portraits of Grief being thrown at you in one fell swoop. The Portraits of Grief that ran in the Times after 9/11 were perfect and poignant, but they made me ache. Not to mention the vendors selling flags and trinkets and cashing in on graveyard souvenirs. Those folks were the second worst.

That fall:

Our apartment was just down the block from a firehouse that had lost several members that day. To mark the first anniversary of their sacrifice, a woman put up a huge, ornate display of flowers and candles below their photos, which hung outside the station. I passed her as she stood in panic, trying not to burst into tears as her carefully placed candles accidentally set all the flowers on fire. ”Oh, my God!” she cried. I half-joked that she was in the right place to be starting a blaze – that she could just go inside and the guys in there would help her out. She stared at me for a second and then pulled herself together. ”Right – I’ll go get the guys.” At least this mishap had an easy solution. I watched the flowers until someone came to the rescue.

By Halloween, Harold and I were confessing that we both purposely avoided walking on the firehouse side of the street, because passing the photos of those who had been lost was just too depressing to confront on a daily basis. In the next moment, we passed the station doors and caught sight of a baby dressed up as a firefighter, taking pictures next to the real thing. We smiled and said, “Well…I guess that was uplifting!” Life goes on.

Afterwards:

The flyers were eventually taken down from the church fence. People started to bustle around the gaping hole again. Yet, there were still emergency drills every few months with my kindergartners. There were bag checks at subway stations, and police cars lined along 42nd Street, and no liquids and shoes off at airports. There were the “See something, say something” posters, urging us to fear large backpacks during each step of our morning commutes. There were Arab (or Arab-looking) friends who faced discrimination. There was the knowing that there was no going back and President My Pet Goat was going to shepherd us through this new reality. New Yorkers will always remain confident, but now there was that lurking bit of uneasiness that kept creeping through, that couldn’t be stamped out.

Now:

It remains difficult to imagine that we’ll ever be able to shake those insecurities and fears. But, at least memories of the past ten years have also been coupled with hope and pride in Manhattan’s ability to rally and thrive. When we lived there, Harold covered a race held in memory of a firefighter who heard about the incident, put on his heavy gear and ran through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to get to the scene of the crime, three miles away. He left home on his off-day to help out – and it eventually cost him his life. Each fall, his friends and supporters race that same path in his honor, some wearing the same 60 pounds of gear.

Why did he feel compelled to rush to the scene? Was it his training, his sense of responsiveness? Was he drawn towards the action, feeling the pull of potential heroics? Perhaps. But I’d like to think that the greater part of him simply wanted to go help his firefighter comrades – and to help the people trapped in the towers. That undeniable sense of humanity is the most hopeful part of 9/11, by far.

Because of this, I remain grateful for the firefighters and police who did their best to respond and remember them along with the ordinary citizens who did nothing to deserve their terrible fate. All the same, I have to believe that looking forward is just as important as looking back. When my sister and I end phone conversations, our sign-off is always, “Peace, love & happiness!” It might be a bit much to ask, but I hope that the world ahead is full of just that, even when confronted by our darkest challenges and a city full of dust.

Close encounters (of the celebrity kind)

Actor Mickey Rourke and one his beloved dogs

Spend a decent amount of time in Manhattan, you’ll encounter celebrities — they’re everywhere, and there’s so many of them around that you probably spot only a small percentage of the famous and sort-of-famous in your midst.

They could be sitting at a table in the same restaurant where you’re being revived by paramedics after you look at the wine list and go into fiscaleptic shock. They might be standing next to you at MOMA as the two of you admire one of the Pollocks or Monets. They might be slumped in back of in one of the fifty cabs that pass you by with their OCCUPIED light turned on. They might be sitting next to you at that Broadway show (they’ll be the ones wearing the dark sun glasses in a dark theater unless you’re sitting in the balcony or you’re at “The Lion King” or “Jersey Boys” — they won’t be there and the guy with the sun glasses is probably a potential serial killer visiting from Nebraska or upstate New York).

I’ve encountered more than my share of celebrities in Manhattan. I once saw John Belushi hop out of a limo on Greenwich Avenue, run into a pharmacy, then jump back into the limo. I heard and watched Woody Allen and Diane Keaton outside a movie theater as they argued about where to go for dinner — he wanted to go to the Russian Tea Room; she wanted to go somewhere else for a change. I sat behind frizzy-haired film critic Gene Shalitt at a showing of the Scorcese documentary “The Last Waltz” soon after it opened. I once saw Telly Savalas walking in midtown, a gorgeous young woman on each arm. I think I once encountered Patti Smith in Chelsea. I saw Allen Ginsberg on the subway. I once literally bumped into Stevie Wonder outside a jazz club.

Wait, there’s more! A couple of weekends ago, my companion and I were walking on the fringes of the West Village, heading to dinner with friends at a restaurant off Bleecker Street. A man was walking toward us with four small dogs on leashes, the leashes in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. Another man came from the other direction, walking one small dog. Dogs being dogs, they all got excited, and in the excitement, in the tangle of dogs and leashes, one of the first man’s four dogs got loose. The other guy managed to grab the stray pooch. My companion held the first man’s three other dogs – and his cup of coffee — while he got his runaway’s collar reattached to the leash.

The rugged-looking fellow with the four dogs? We’re pretty certain it was actor Mickey Rourke. He loves dogs. He reportedly lives in that neighborhood. And if that guy wasn’t Mickey Rourke, then we had just encountered walking, talking evidence that the government has been conducted cloning experiments — and one of their first successful clones was a copy of Mickey Rourke, this following botched cloning experiments which spawned Michele Bachman, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, George Bush the Younger and, of course, Gary Busey.

The coolest thing about encountering celebrities in the city? It’s when you’re cool about it. Little dog back on his leash, there was no “Aren’t you…?!” from us. Leashes and coffee cup were returned to their rightful owner. “Thanks” and “No problem” were exchanged. We headed off to dinner. He kept walking his dogs and drinking his coffee. New York, New York…it’s a wonderful town.

It was Christmas Eve, babe…

This song by the Irish band The Pogues is spinning on my inner turntable today…

It just so moving..so very human…a take-your-breath-away beautiful Christmas song for the ages — and a great sad love song, too, I think:

Really down

Amazing. Sad. It’s been thirty years since the murder. Lots of great post-Beatles songs — “Imagine,” “Jealous Guy,” “Watching the Wheels,” “Mind Games”…..but today I am thinking about The Beatles at Shea Stadium performing “I’m Down,” featuring a great lead vocal by Paul McCartney and wild organ playing and spectacular showmanship by the band’s leader, the late lamented John Lennon.