Saturday, September 10, 2011

Distinguishing Characteristics

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

Below, Part I, is an unfinished piece I wrote shortly after 9/11. 

Part I 

Dental implants. Old burn scar covering entire right knee. Gold tooth.

My idea at first was to write a poem about the distinguishing marks, which were at once lyrical and heartbreaking and overwhelming. To this end I carried a spiral notebook up to the armory. People gathered there to register their missing, and the walls outside were plastered with hundreds of flyers showing pictures, giving descriptions of their relatives and their clothing, telling where they were last seen. This is when we were calling them missing.

I also carried a cheap automatic camera that my credit-card company had given me as a gift (I found out why when I developed the pictures, which were hardly worth keeping). I took only a few pictures. The first was of a bride (at first I wrote “a bridge”; this seems significant) and groom in Madison Square Park. I’d always been leery of the whole institution of marriage, but something about the delicacy of the short tulle veil—lifting as the bride ran a little, smiling, her new husband right behind her, both of them of a dark-skinned extraction that would not help them in the coming days—tugged at something inside me, made me want to cry as so many things did.

I also took a couple of pictures of the flyers, which were ubiquitous, well before I got to the armory; they were on lampposts, on windows, on fences. I stopped so many times to read about this person, that person, to take notes, to stare at their faces, that by the time I got to the armory the light was getting very dim. One of the posters that stopped me cold—it was scotch-taped to a store wall—showed a photo of a thirtyish man with his family. That family now begged him, “Please come home!” This made me—inexplicably, guiltily—furious. Of course he would come home if he could! As though it were up to him whether he was dead or alive. And of course he was dead—didn’t they know?

Birthmark on hand in the shape of Puerto Rico.

In the shape of Puerto Rico? What shape was that? I had to look at an atlas. It’s not like Texas or Florida, not a really distinctive shape. Kind of an oblong island with a curl or a twist here or there. But this island danced every day on the man’s hand, or anyway his loved ones wanted to think so, even while he negotiated the mind-boggling island of Manhattan.
That morning I’d gotten an e-mail, among the flurry of e-mails sent in those days, that asked the receiver to add an item to a list of things about Manhattan to love. The woman who’d sent it to me—an old friend who’d moved to Colorado—had written something about bagels. I thought about writing in the Chrysler Building or the sunset from Hudson River Park but never did. It was odd in a way to remind ourselves; could we possibly have forgotten? It came to me, though, that everyone in New York who loves New York (and of course there are those who don’t) thinks secretly that no one loves the city the way they do. If I’m thinking that—even with the occasional fantasy of escaping to a less target-rich, as the military might say, place, some remote corner of Vermont maybe—then so are millions of other people. Which is fine, because otherwise how would we survive here?

Tattoo on left shoulder of whale/dolphins surrounded by starfish. Butterfly tattoo on lower back.

There were many, many tattoos. Imagine someone sitting in a tattoo parlor enduring the pain of that big needle for their own whale, their own dolphin, their own unique butterfly or rose or heart (one of these in the webbed area between the thumb and index finger). They are not thinking, here’s a good way to identify my body when I am crushed or burned to death. There were scars too, which are rather like tattoos that nobody asked for—an appendectomy scar, facial chicken-pox marks, a “bite mark on the chest.”
On the way home I passed by the Gramercy Park Hotel. My husband (domestic partner then) was staying in New Jersey, visiting relatives. It occurred to me to check into the hotel, even though my apartment was only a twenty-minute walk away. I wanted to forget everything, even who I was. To be somewhere clean and stark. I thought of the woman in the novel The Hours who checks into a hotel just so she can read. I didn’t have to be anywhere the next day because my office, like my home, was in the “frozen zone” below 14th Street. That meant no cars, no people who weren’t residents, and very little business going on. I had to show my ID twice to get home, at 14th Street and at Houston Street.

At 14th, I passed through Union Square Park. Amid the flowers, candles, and taped-up signs—“Osama bin Laden, look out” but also “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” …

Part II

I thought then that my idea for a poem—or, rather, a compilation in poem form—had not worked out, but when I recently looked back at what I had, I decided to finish it.

A birthmark in the shape of Puerto Rico
on his hand.
Scar between eyebrows.
A heart tattoo on her right hand,
between the thumb and the index finger.
Gold necklace with jade pig.
Mole at jawbone near right ear.
(Young man:) tattoo of tiger on right shoulder;
(his sister:) gold chain with key charm.
A circular beauty mark
on his right wrist.
Tattoos: dolphin on foot,
turkey on hip.
Right-hand ring finger severely bent;
gold neck chain with cross.
Yellow rose tattoo on right ankle;
orange-and-white sneakers;
two earrings in each ear.
Bite mark on his chest
just below left shoulder.
Appendectomy scar,
birthmark on one of his shoulders,
and a small dark mole in the center
of his back.
Black mole on each cheek,
black spots on his neck.
Has a Florida tan.
Chews tobacco, so first fingers
on his right hand may be stained.
Wearing a gold rope chain on his neck,
with a rectangular charm that says
“Jesus Is Lord.”
Faint birthmark on back of neck
under his hair
(may need to look real hard for it
since very faint).
Has thick hair on his chest,
a very hairy man.
A scar which extends from the
upper right side of forehead to the eyebrow,
which appears to be an upside-down V;
scar on left arm has a black tattoo
one-inch in width
that bands around left bicep.
Two gold bangles and one gold bracelet.
Wearing a wood cross.
Tattoos lower back tribal (dark green),
upper right heart and rose with initials LER.
Has on a silver fossil watch.
Has a French manicure on both her hands
and her feet.
No scars or tattoos.
Brown spot, right shin;
scar from hip surgery;
hammer toes.
Chicken pox scars on cheek.
Gold tooth.
Tattoo on left shoulder of whale/dolphins
surrounded by starfish.
Butterfly tattoo on lower back.
Skin tag on neck;
small scar on chin;
cast on right hand.
Tattoo of Puerto Rican flag
on right arm.
Dental implants.
Old burn scar covering entire right knee.
White gold ring with the letter C
in diamonds.

McDreamy Dancing with Nellie McKay

Originally posted July 10, 2008
Nellie McKay pounds the piano at a “Midsummer Night Swing.”

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

An elderly man in a straw hat was getting his mojo on with a flushed, swivel-hipped blonde—I’m talking swing dance—as Nellie McKay (rhymes with McPie) channeled Ella Fitzgerald to sing “A-Tisket A-Tasket” last night at Damrosch Park, in Lincoln Center. McKay—she of the acerbic lyrics, feminist stance, and vegan-activist politics—might seem an unlikely choice to kick off the “Midsummer Night Swing” series (starting with, naturally, “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing”). But really, you never know where the 26-year-old might turn up: recently it’s been Broadway—with Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper in The Threepenny Opera and as the composer for the forthcoming show Election.

The girl loves music, and it’s clear from her CDs—her latest is Obligatory Villagers—that she’s steeped in all things Tin Pan Alley. Looking demure in a black velvet and red satin dress that seemed an homage to the 40s (big red bow in the back), she appeared delighted to be sharing the stage with the Aristocrats Swing Band, lending her impressive piano skills to such standards as “Satin Doll” and “Take the ‘A’ Train” (on which she also scatted) and picking up a ukelele for “Route 66.”

“It’s like a regular dance hall,” commented my husband as he surveyed the large dance floor between the press box and the outdoor stage, with its purple-curtain backdrop. We were watching pogo-ing punks and smooth-stepping preppies, saddle-shoed boppers and suspendered hoppers, all ignoring the heat and grooving to “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” Some of them had doubtless just learned their moves and/or just met their partners; the event began with swing-dance lessons.

Of course a Nellie McKay concert would not be complete without those unique McKay songs (by all appearances, eminently danceable). Nellie performed “The Dog Song,” with its attendant woofs (a little help there from the Hawaiian-shirted band) and “Happy Flower” (“Me and you / We misbehave / We trample fecklessly upon the bladder of our hearts”—see what I mean?).

The series runs through July 26.

Putting the Art in Arthur and Party: Joseph Arthur’s Gallery Closes

Originally posted September 27, 2008
Musician and gallery owner Joseph Arthur

“MOMAR is finite. It is not an ongoing concern. Its building and its organization will disappear.” Along with other tenets (“MOMAR answers the eternal question ‘What Is Art?’ with another question: ‘what isn’t?’”), this was part of the mission statement of the Museum of Modern Arthur, founded by Joseph Arthur, a painter and poet but best known as a singer/songwriter. His new CD, Temporary People, with his band the Lonely Astronauts, comes out September 30th.

Because of a dispute with the landlord involving an art installation that includes a mattress, a mannequin head, and shower plumbing, MOMAR is indeed about to disappear. But not without a party, held last Thursday night in the gallery’s space at the end of the earth—Brooklyn’s earth, Dumbo’s earth, Jay Street’s earth. Walk down another half-block and you can put your face against a metal fence marked “The End” and watch the ships glide by, with Manhattan twinkling across the East River’s brown choppy waters.

Or you can just watch from the industrial-metal steps of MOMAR—as I did, with fellow blogger Bob Rosen, letting the wind whip my summer-dressed self into autumn on this rainy, chilly night.

But inside it was warm, T. Rex was playing on the boom box, and impossibly chic-in-that-Williamsburg-way young people were drinking wine, beer, and instant margaritas amid Arthur’s Rorschach-y, amoeba-y, spidery, E.T.-y paintings. (Perhaps his mentor Peter Gabriel describes them better: “They seem to connect to Expressionism, Art Brut, Basquiat and the Graffiti movement.”) Studying my favorite of the works—a set of nine (one piece unceremoniously fell off the wall, prompting a woman in very high sandals to scale a ladder and tape it back up)—was the dancer Michelle Mola, to whom I was drawn by her DKNY-but-looks-like-vintage coat (my first glimpse of her was when the very tall Arthur lifted the very small Mola way off her feet in greeting). Mola, she told me, sometimes performs with Arthur but was delicately kicked off the stage when, dressed as Cupid (it was Valentine’s Day), she attempted to dance along when Arthur made an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman: “They kept saying, ‘Would the dancer move downstage,’ ‘Would the dancer move further downstage,’ and then, ‘Would the dancer exit the stage.’”

 Dancer Michelle Mola with Bob Rosen

The question of the night was whether Arthur, whom I wrote about for Vanity Fair’s blog last May, was going to perform (with or without Mola)—and whether he’d do so on the aforementioned mattress, since there was no stage to be seen. Wandering around in a black felt hat and black jacket, he seemed, perhaps taking a cue from his paintings, to be more into just hanging. (For someone who comes across as very laid-back, Jo, as his friends call him, is remarkably productive—check out his website. That’s what he was doing—sitting on the steps outside with a friend, hat still perched on his long, Romantic-poet hair—when Bob and I left the party, still going strong.

Up the street, we stopped to look at a homemade shrine, featuring a photo of a Chihuahua, attached to the wall of a converted factory. “Are you interested in Chicken?” asked a woman in a black trench coat who suddenly appeared out of the darkness. She explained that she’d rescued the dog, named Chicken, and that he’d been beloved in the neighborhood, but that he’d been hit by a car crossing the street to their building. (Without meaning to, I had the sad thought, Why did the Chicken cross the road?) She stopped to fix a few of the shrine’s tchotchkes—a tiny Ganesh statue, a tiny blue bowl, a tiny duck—before going inside.

This made Dumbo seem like a small, sweet town but also somehow like Oz, with not a yellow-brick road but a cobblestone one, and with a wizardly glowing place of art at the end of the line, about to disappear.