I’m sorry. But I hate boutique hotels. I do. I hate the small minded stinginess: the lay-out of these miniscule, hyper decorated rooms that masquerade as trendy. So tiny, there’s only space enough to collapse and sleep. It’s nice. That the rooms are always so meticulously neat and tidy, the rolled up towels, the tight tucks of hospital corners, the cute little amenities displayed in metal and wicker baskets: condoms wrapped as candies, Frisbees, retro offerings of jellied Chuckles and chocolate Milky Ways. None of it has anything to do with service, of course. There is no service in boutique hotels. Even checking in and out has become like shopping at a local CVS.
No, I’ll take the ramshackle charms of The Splendid any day.
Oh my God, Mom. It’s like The Shining, “
These are the first words out of my daughter’s mouth as we stand in a lobby the size of a football field. Floor to ceiling gold encrusted mirrors, felt covered bezique tables, and the occasional tatty, group of Art Deco chairs and tables. The black and white marble floors, as cracked and wrinkled as the powdered skin of an old dowager’s face, seem to stretch on forever. And we are alone. It is blissfully empty. Totally Deserted. So, too, are the salons and dining room. I meander along another long corridor and stumble into a glass covered, sun lit inner courtyard with a magnificent, albeit dry, marble fountain .
“There are three sounds that make a Turk happy” says Selcuk, the sad eyed, elegant manager. “The sound of water, the sound of a woman, and the sound of money.” Selcuk has been here at the Splendid for 42 years. He works offseason and throughout the winter as a caretaker at a fantastically grand but rickety wooden mansion that once belonged to an Armenian shipping magnate.
The Splendid is in the town of Prinkipo on Buyukada in the Princes Islands—a 90 minute ferry ride from Istanbul. Built in 1906, at the height of the Art Nouveau movement, the hotel was a summer residence/resort for Istanbul’s wealthy upper classes . “Mostly Greeks, Jews, and Armenians,” says Selcuk. The annual exodus from the city was a family affair with the same suites reserved year after year for children, servants, and parents. Many travelled, even the short distance from city mansions and villas, with all the comforts of home, including their own silver tea services. One of them still sits in Selcuk’s office. A beautiful creamer, sugarer, tray, and pot, floridly monogramed with the initials D+D., two Armenian brothers and pashas.
Surrounded by all this luxuriously empty space, it’s easy to imagine the children, excitedly, climbing the sweep of wide marble stairs while nervous parents pull shut the squeaky metal grills of the only electric elevator in town. (2 persons only, reads the sign), As we extricate ourselves from its wood paneled cage, we step into more empty space and pull out our heavy gold keys. They stick in the tumblers and need teasing but when the doors open, I grin. The rooms are enormous, barely furnished with French windows, terraces, and spectacular views of blue skies and the sea of Marmara. Ecstasy, I say to my daughter. ‘
A nightmare, she replies. I’m not gonna sleep all night.
Centuries before the island became a posh resort, the piney hills that surround it were dotted with monasteries. Home to monks and exiled Byzantine emperors, princes and princesses who dreamed of politics and abandoned palaces while gazing out at the sea from the tiny grilled windows of their cells. Leon Trotsky was another famous exile. He lived in a fancy timbered palace that still stands with his four bodyguards and his wife from 1929-1933. He spent his days, fishing and writing. waiting for that invitation to return to Russia. An invitation that never came. “The world arrives here only after great delays, “ he wrote to a friend before moving on to what would become his final resting place in Mexico. City
There are no cars on the island. The horse driven fayton is the only mode of transport. I love that word and its allusion to the mythical boy who steered his father’s chariot too close to the sun and plunged through the skies to a fiery death. The faytons wait for passengers in a lot near the ferry. Like taxis at Kennedy airport. Taxis that snort and smell of dung. The hooves are shod in rubber from car tires to mute the sound of travel at night. This is another miracle on the island. There are no sounds at night. The 2,200 horses sleep in a vast complex of barns and stables at the other end of the island. There is no meowing from the hundreds of cats, no caw of seagulls, no bass or thrum of disco, no baying dogs. It isn’t until the first rays of dawn when the mournful horns of the first ferries arrive that our silence is disturbed.
There is a wonderful Turkish word that describes the charms of The Splendid. Buzun, they say. Broken glamour. Other hotels also had it: the old Peras Palace in Beyoglu, the London Connaught, The Grand in Rome. All gone now, unrecognizable. There will come a time soon, too soon, when the Splendid, this grande dame built during the twilight of the Ottoman empire, will succumb to the inevitable; when some property developer will either raze her to the ground or renovate and create a modern ruin. Rooms will be split up and subdivided and the glory of all this wasted space, space once filled with the gossip and chatter of those who have already disappeared (the Jews, Armenians, and Greeks) will be nothing but a distant, very distant, memory.
Do I want to walk with Jay Z?? Me and Jay Z? Jay Z and me? Are you kidding? I drop everything: wallet, pen, paper. Everything. And I’m over the rope. And it’s the two of us, strolling around this HUGE white space and he’s rapping Picasso Baby in my ear—oh what a feelin. I just wanna fuckin billion— and there are like 8 gigantic cameras, ahead of us and behind us, and in his face. And I’M DYING. Why, oh why, don’t I own a freakin’ cellphone?
It’s a performance piece—a video for the new album, Magna Carta. Fifty people at a time, mostly artists, at the Pace Gallery in Chelsea. Jay doing Marina Abramovic but not. At the MOMA, Marina didn’t move. She sat there as still as stone for hours, for days, while people sat across from her, staring, fidgeting, crying. I’m the first group in. So it’s a first for Jay, too. He’s never done it before. And it’s awkward. At least, in the beginning. “Like being in a 6th grade talent show,” says this scruffy, deeply hip painter, after his 3 minutes on the bench. “You’re in this creative force field. You don’t know what to do. I just felt soooo white!”
I know exactly what he meant. I was as stiff as a zombie during our stroll. Terrified I’d ‘bust a move.’ HAH! Me? Bust a move. I don’t think so. This was the weird thing about the event. All these deep hipster white people without a clue. But Jay took it all in that long, easy stride. He touched, he smiled, he posed. “See I’m posin’ now,” he said to two giggling women. “Did ya catch that? Did ya Tweet that? Here, I’ll do for ya it again.”
Then, he invited us all in and over the rope. And we’re this wall around him. No security. None of his people. We give him room. He raps. He breathes. He laughs. We’re polite. But the boundaries are blurred. It’s strange, how it somehow released the tension. His tension. I imagine that it must have been disconcerting—the sudden switch. Always protected; shielded by his ‘people’ from the public. Forget the fact it was a stunt (and that Marina Abramovic should NEVER have stood up and tried to dance.) Forget the fact people say he’s sold out to the system and there’s no such thing as a happy rapper.
I was fascinated by the proximity—by being close enough to sense/to feel his nerves/discomfort. On stage, the man is always in such total command/control. I’ve seen him silence 15,000 screaming fans for minutes at a time, just by quietly asking. And he seems so huge—colossal. The close ups of his face on those giant arena screens, the pyrotechnics, the amplification of sound. They’re all a reminder of the distance that both makes (and unmakes) a star. Yesterday, when he walked out alone into that vast, open space—no entourage, no spotlight, no special effects— when he rubbed his hands together and searched for eye contact, I was stunned. It was if he had suddenly shrunk. And I wondered how in hell you handle being human when it’s distance not proximity that makes you a star.
Sure, it was P.R., a spectacle, self serving. But it’s like the joke another artist, a dancer, next to me told her friend.
How many performance artists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
OF COURSE, they do, N. Of course, they love their wives.
We’ve been watching a woman in a black linen burka eat her dinner.
Her husband and kids, dressed in designer jeans and button down shirts, happily chat and wolf down their meze appetizers and lamb entrees. The woman furtively lifts her veil out with one gloved hand like the flap of a pup tent while the other hand, also gloved, forks the food into her unseen mouth. The surrepticiousness, the speed, with which she does this makes the act of eating seem almost illicit, dirty.
It’s so humiliating, says N.
For us, yes, I reply. But it’s complicated.
Later, I will ask myself… How much more complicated is it than so many women at home who “choose” to remain in abusive relationships; modern, enlightened women who may not always endure the agony of physical abuse but for whom humiliation is a fact of life. They love their men. Or think they do: these smart, vivid women who tip toe through their daily lives, constantly belittled, diminished by fear and the cruelty of verbal assaults. Why do they tolerate it? What makes them different from the women here?
Earlier in the afternoon, I had spoken, briefly, with another middle-aged woman. We were visiting Suleiman’s mosque.
Where are you from, she says, adjusting her silk head scarf.
New York, I reply with a smile
Oh, she says, touching my elbow. Such a great city. I am from Saudi Arabia.
Really, I say, nonplussed.
Yes, From Rihadh.
I’ve never been there, I say.
Isn’t this beautiful, she adds, eyes gazing up at Sinan’s soaring dome.
It’s magnificent, I reply, alluding to the nick name of the sultan who built it.
What I’m really thinking the minute I hear the words Saudi Arabia from a woman, a woman who is obviously from a somewhat liberal- minded family (she is wearing a headscarf not a full burka) has nothing to do with sultans or the splendor of the 15th century structure that surrounds us. What I’m thinking is: has your husband ever attended a public execution in Riyadh? (Criminals are still beheaded with a silver sword.) What do you think of men stoning girls and women to death? What does it feel like to be alone, to be unaccompanied, even for a moment? Is it a luxury? And why are woman like you forbidden to enter a mosque and pray on Fridays, the holiest day of the week?
I should add that my reflex response to this woman and the news that she comes from Saudi is similar to my knee jerk response when I first listen, closely, to the call to prayer. Alluh Akbar! Alluh Akbar! All I can think of is Homeland and the scenes when Damien Lewis, aka Nick Brody, Marine and suspected terrorist, sneaks out of the house to pray in his garage.
As this woman retreats behind the latticed grill and sinks to her knees, I wonder how this perversion, this unholy and distorted view of women, could possibly have a place in a building as glorious as this. I have been in churches and cathedrals all over the world, from Jerusalem to Chartres. None of them speak to me as articulately or as intimately about the power or rather, the possibility of a god as these mosques. I’m not talking about the grand, showy masterpieces that define the city’s ancient skyline. Not the Blue Mosque, or Suleiman’s, or even the New (400 year old) Mosque near the Galata Bridge. It’s the tiny jewels like Rustem Pasha and the slightly more remote, Sokullo Mehmet Pasha Mosque in Kadirgalima, that confound and move me. It’s that seduction, the illusion of space, created on a smaller, more personal scale. This is what invites me to think irrationally about the divine.
Take the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Mosque, for example. One of the greatest grand viziers of 16th Constantinople, he was the son of a Bosnian priest. Recruited as a young Christian to serve the Sultan as a Janissary, he converted to Islam and quickly rose through the ranks: admiral, soldier, confidante of not just Suleiman but of the two sultans who followed him. He commissioned this particular mosque in 1571 as a gift for his wife, Esma Han Sultan, the daughter of Selim 11.
Designed by Sinan, the great Ottoman starchitect, it’s hidden from the street, like a secret or some private thought. You descend the steep, wooded slope of a hill, overlooking the Marmara sea, and carefully walk down the mossy, uneven steps of a marble staircase. Then through a damp, stone tunnel, there is the sudden, miraculous surprise of a wide open marble courtyard. The Ablutions Fountain, folly- like with it stripey pink and white marble and whimsical conical top, still has its original brass taps.
Only gently restored in the 1930’s, the complex feels utterly abandoned. Which, for me, is part of its charm. The marble isn’t shiny or polished. The grey leaded domes of the medrese are dull with age. Tufts of grass poke through the roof in spots. Dervishes taught here long ago. They danced in a tekke beneath my feet. The tiny cells of the medrese that encircle the courtyard each had room for a single bed, a fireplace, a rug, and a shelf of books. The hamman or baths, the kitchens, the caravansary or stores that contributed to the upkeep of the mosque, haven’t functioned in hundreds of years. But oh my, the mosque itself…
First, you remove your shoes (which is practical not spiritual. Shoes would be unsanitary, unhealthy, in a space where the worship of Allah demands prostration and the repeated touching of the forehead to the ground.) Stooping beneath the heavy leather curtained doorway, a gesture of humility, you enter. The shock of snow-white plastered walls, the brilliantly cool blue Iznik tiles and swirling gold calligraphy, the sheer height of the kaleidoscopically painted dome, and the light. So much natural light…. All of it must transform the required acts of submission and prayer, the physical prostrations, into an almost unearthly pleasure.
Although the mosque does have its share of relics, chunks of the black meteorite from the Kaaba stone in Mecca are embedded in the lintels and mihrab, there are no heavy wooden pews, no altars, crucifixes or statues of saints. Not even the distracting sound of footsteps. There is nothing but stillness, silence., (Tho I am totally depressed to note that , thanks to religious authorities, the layers and layers of old rugs, some exquisite and priceless, others tatty but all donations, gifts, from the faithful, have vanished. They’ve been replaced in every mosque by the same, monotonously garish, wall- to- wall carpeting—carpeting that might just as easily cushion the footsteps of some Turkish oligarch in a McMansion on the Bosphorus.)
“He constructed a lofty medrese and house of knowledge at the courtyard of the joy-giving Friday mosque and soul expanding place of wonder which he built with artful wonders and heart alluring decorations….” This are the words of the dedication from the Grand Vizier in his foundation deed.
Where in this language, not to mention architecture, devoted to knowledge, joy, and wonder: even to heart alluring decoration, is there room for the abysmal treatment of the women who also came to worship here? One of whom was the beloved wife of the Grand Vizier himself. It’s a mystery to me: such exaltation, beauty and ugliness, this combination of the pure and the corrupt, of piety and pitilessness, arrogance and humility.
But I love that the mosque is untouched; that it remains overlooked and forgotten. For the past ninety years, since Ataturk created his vision of a secular, modern Turkey and abolished the caliphate, officially closed the medreses and took over the nation’s mosques, only the tourist attractions and heritage sites in Sultanahmet have been maintained with government money. This, of course, is now changing. Dramatically, as our ferociously smart and skeptical friend, Murat, points out. “The Arabs are bringing in money. Lots of money. They’re investing in our businesses. They’re renovating and opening new mosques, spreading the holy word. It makes us nervous.”
When the Arabs first arrived in Constantinople, they came as merchants. (This, after repeated attempts to conquer it during Byzantine times had failed, miserably.) They introduced the Ottoman empire to coffee which one disgruntled pasha described as “the black enemy of sleep and copulation.” Money, it seems to me, is a much blacker, more sinister enemy. I see it in the pristine, Disney-like renovation of the square in Sultanahmet. The imperial hammam of Aya Sophia looks like a spa in Los Vegas. Ditto for the gigantic fountain near the Hippodrome. Just add music and a light show and you could be at the Bellagio.
I remember when I wandered through here in the 80s. The place was deserted but so alive—It was alive not with touts pushing tours of the Bosphorus or busloads of weary tourists but with whispers of conspiracy and gossip among jealous eunuchs and ambitious viziers. Though many of the cobblestones were missing and the area was poorly lit, there was room in the shadows to imagine everything from the stealthy footsteps of the Sultan’s assassins, the deaf mutes who strangled their victims with a silken bowstring to stories of caiques crossing the Golden Horn from Topkai, dragging schools of bejeweled fish behind them (they were attached to the caique with silver chains.) Constantine, Justinian and his low born wife, Empress Theodora, Mehmet the Conqueror, Suleiyman the Magnificent and Roxelana, the most powerful woman in Ottoman history… All of them ruled, worshipped, lived, loved, murdered, even went mad, here or not far from this square. In fact, the man who built my favorite mosque, Sokollu Mehmet Pasha, issued an edict here in 1557. It guaranteed the rights and religious freedom of all inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire.
The Turkish Sherpa: a wild, mystery tour of Istanbul
“See this tiny door,” says Murat, pointing to the service entrance of the luxurious Four Seasons in Sultanahmet. “This is the door prisoners walked out of the day they were released. It is why the street is still called Happy Day.” We grin. “And the other street up there,” he adds, pointing to the hotel entrance now blocked by a line of black Mercedes and BMV sedans. ”That is where they went in. It’s called Arrest Alley. We Turks find it amusing. They spend millions and millions of dollars turning a jail into a prison but forget to change the names of the streets.”
Gallows humor comes naturally to Murat. The friend of a very old friend in London, he is a jolly looking man in his early 70’s with a small belly, scruffy salt and pepper beard, and brown eyes that glint, occasionally, even twinkle. He is also a legend, an old world Marxist, an intellectual and author, who spent three years in prison for political crimes back in the 80’s. This, when Turkey was ruled by a military junta. “I have to respect Mr. Erdogan,” he says early in our tour. “He is the man who put the generals in jail. But then—and he chuckles—he is also the man who put the press in jail.”
Dodging a sudden rush of pushcarts, we weave through the insanely crowded, steep side streets of Eminou, an area that reminds me of the once bustling garment district in New York. Here, he he comes to another abrupt halt. Pointing to the names chiseled into the sooty, stone facades of ornately decorated 19th century buildings, he says: “These are hans, commercial houses. They were built towards the end of the Ottoman empire, back in the last days of Constantinople. And the names, all the names, are Armenian.”
Not long ago, this quiet homage, this gesture on the part of Murat, would have been considered subversive, even treasonous. Because the names are a form of testimony; proof that for centuries, more than a quarter of a million Armenians lived and worked in this city. The subject of the massacres, the wholesale slaughter of the country’s Armenian population, in the 1840’s and then again, in the 1920’s when Turkey successfully fought to become a nation, is still hugely controversial. To acknowledge it endangers the heroic god-like stature of Ataturk himself. It is only thanks to the stubborn, courageous voices of men like Murat, the writer, Orhan Pamuk, and others, that the taboo has, finally, been broken.
Perhaps, it is his outspokenness, his own personal history, that explains why so many young people ask for iPhone photos. I’m delighted, of course. These occasional paparazzi stops allow me to breathe a bit; to take the weight off my broken toes. (Yes, I broke my fucking toes, a week before departure.) “I am going to surprise you now,” he grins. “I’m going to take you somewhere few tourists ever go.” And he’s off, like some Turkish Sherpa, racing through the labyrinth of the Grand Bazaar. Touts shout and beg us to buy. I see a blur of neon lit signs for Caviar (“All gone”, says Murat. “Fished out.”), trendy bath and leather shops, watch shops, shops selling diamonds, and a spectacular gold domed pavilion where we take a sharp right. “The pavilion was famous for pudding,” Murat says. “I ate it as a child. Now no one wants it anymore.”
The sharp, fluorescent lights, and these oh so clean and pristine little lanes are nothing like Aleppo. It wasn’t grand, that fabulous bazaar beneath the Citadel. The medieval maze, the labyrinth of shops… They were dirty and barely lit. Camel’s heads hung from hooks, dripping blood. Slow moving donkeys, even sheep, blocked our impatient path. Looms were worked by fast moving fingers while men whittled wood and shoveled dough into ancient ovens. Until that moment when everything changed; that moment when we stood helpless and panicked, watching Idris, our “guide”, hit over and over again in the head by men, wielding those heavy metal poles they use to roll up shutters in the souk. His screams haunt me, still. I’ve heard that half of the souk was burned to ashes last spring. Yet despite that one hideously violent encounter, I treasure the memory of being there.
And I wonder what has happened to the incredibly kind, generous people we met? Where are they now? Are the mothers and children in camps on the Turkish border? Are the kids, the teenage boys, who introduced themselves as ‘professors’ of English, now fighters? Have they disappeared? Are they dead? I wonder why it is that when you hear that someone has died, someone you may have met maybe only once or twice, they no longer feel like a stranger. Then I hear Murat’s voice. “ It’s just ahead,” he shouts. “Up those flights of stairs.” I’m grateful for the voice. Like the hand that wrenches one out from the pull of a treacherous undertow, it brings me back the present. ‘
We’re standing in the ruins of an ancient han, an 11th century warehouse. The arcade, the galleries, above the courtyard are totally intact. “Nothing can be more animated and original than the great hall of these buildings when caravans arrived, ” wrote Charles White, a wandering Brit in 1846. “A wild and picaresque mixture of camels, horses, and mules in fantastic trappings, attended by men attired in every possible garb, armed with every possible weapon.” As we climb the first set of marble stairs, stairs worn thin and slippery by the feet of those who climbed before us: Persians, Russians, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Africans, and Egyptians, I am thinking of how astonishing, how truly cosmopolitan, this city was during the times of the Sublime Porte, the Sultans. Peering into the doorways of tiny cells that line the darkly lit corridors, I fantasize about their contents. Rich, heavy silks, European broadcloth, frankincense, cotton, gold, sable and other furs, emeralds from India via Egypt, spices, even toothpicks made of ivory, orange and olive wood. I read somewhere that when money was exchanged between merchant and buyers, the coins were washed in purified water. A ritual that dated back to the terrors of the Plague.
Then, we’re climbing higher. Murat is speaking to a toothless old man, a man so diminished by time, he could be a jinn. He heads into a cell, furnished with a miniature mattress, a bunson burner. He grabs an enormous ring of keys from a hook near the window, and eagerly leads us towards another door. “We call him the porter,” says Murat. “Before I started coming up here, he had no job. He ran errands for the men who work here, carrying trays of hot tea or cleaning out the garbage. He is happier now.”
The door seems reluctant to open, even with the cajoling of our jinn. He pushes, it creaks, he pushes some more, and slowly, ever so slowly, it opens. Murat smiles. “You’ll like this,” he says. And I do. Suddenly, we’re strolling across the roof of this spectacular han, wandering along its twelve leaded domes. Grass, flowers, even a small tree grow around us. Like a meadow on top of the world. The sky, as blue as an Izmit tile, and the view… I put my hands on my knees for a moment and breathe. Suleiman’s mosque is so close, I feel as if I could reach out and touch it. Hundreds of boats: ferries, fishing boats, even cruise ships make their way across the Golden Horn. I can see the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara, and Uskadar, the Asian town once known as Scutari, where Florence Nightingale came as a nurse during the Crimean War. I am so moved by this orgy of sensations, I want to cry. And then, there is that explosion of sound from the minarets, the muezzin’s call to prayer. It’s everywhere. This is what I’ve missed in my years away from the world of travelling— these rare moments of such radiant happiness; of such child-like awe and wonder, you don’t think. You don’t dream. You just submit. You surrender. “Thank you,” I say to Murat. “Thank you.” He touches my arm. “A pleasure, he says. “Really.”
Ceyda G. is the daughter of Turkish diplomats. 31- years- old and eight months pregnant, she was with us in Gezi Park on Thursday afternoon, proudly pointing out the marvels of improvisation that, until police savagely destroyed it on Saturday night, had transformed this makeshift encampment of protesters into a symbol of hope and change for millions all over Turkey. An executive assistant for the president of a small but successful mergers and acquisition firm, Ceyda is one of the most level headed, dispassionate women I know. “Our company is connected to the government, of course. All successful companies are. But I have been here every night after work with my colleagues since June 1st. And my boss knows it. We bring medicine for the hospital tent, fire extinguishers, and food. “ Circling in and around the maze of tents, I stopped to read a placard: “Foreign Spies Within,” it said. The tousled head of a boy popped out. “We’re Erasmus students,” he croaked, before disappearing back inside to sleep. I also shook hands with an author who was signing copies of her new novel at the free library. The books were then inked with a special stamp: Gezi Park, Istanbul, 2013. The children’s art school was closed but the café was open. Two bearded middle-aged men in suits handed out hot bread, luscious fresh tomatoes, and bottles of cold water. I nodded and smiled at a beautiful, dark haired, woman emerging from yet another tent. Dressed in a linen floral print shift and slender brown leather sandals, she was carrying a briefcase. “Business as usual In Turkey,” Ceyda laughed.
Not quite, I thought. The night before we had eaten dinner at Bukhara, our favorite restaurant in Sultanahmet, the ancient neighborhood of Istanbul where busloads of tourists wait in endless lines to gape at the Blue Mosque, Aya Sophia, and Topkapi. “Two weeks ago, you could not get a chair inside or out without reservation,” our waiter said. “Now look.” The place was almost empty. There was something surreal not just about the vacant restaurant but about that whole scene at Taksim Square, the day before we left for New York. The idea of a woman, 8 months pregnant, casually strolling past hundreds of armed riot police—the same police who, only two days earlier, had fired tear gas and water cannons into the crowds. Yet here we were watching them devour their lunch-time salads and kebabs from take-out containers while peddlers in nearby carts and kiosks sold fresh flowers, gas masks, and pastel colored swimming goggles.
“Many of them have been here as long as we have,” said another young woman named Aylin as she walked us towards a restaurant to re charge her iPhone. “They don’t sleep, they haven’t seen their families. They’re scared.” Her compassion astonished me. A freelance human resources consultant, she and two friends had been sharing a tent since June 3rd. “I haven’t left the park for a meal in over a week,” she added. “Not until today. I feel guilty. The energy, the connection, inside here is so strong. “ As the waiters embraced her and offered free glasses of tea (‘from the heart’, they said. ‘On the house.’), she talked about her social media campaign. “Allah versus the Internet, I call it. There’s a big group of us who reach out every day to friends in Europe. But it’s getting more difficult. I’m not sure if the government is jamming our servers or if they are just overloaded.” Taking me by the hand, she then led me down the street towards the 5 star Divan Hotel. “These are our heroes right now, “ she smiled, waving to the uniformed doormen. “The Koc family. They have opened their floors to us, taken in the wounded. People say that their friend Erdogan, has already launched a tax investigation into their businesses.” The Koc family also owns Migros, a chain of Turkish supermarkets. “They have set up a digital service for protestors,” Aylin said. “We place an order on line, punch in our credit card number, and the food is delivered right to the park.”
This complicity, this silent support on the part of one of Turkey’s richest families, with a group Erdogan himself has referred to as ‘looters’ and ‘drunkards’ would have been unimaginable a mere month ago. But no more unimaginable than the support of women like Ceyda, and Aylin and the corporate lawyer we met in Alacati, a resort town on the Aegean coast that is Turkey’s version of East Hampton. Dressed in a short black silk skirt and transparent white chiffon shirt, she and her extremely elegant date were seated at a table next to us. Within minutes of our arrival, she insisted on sharing a glass of Raki, (“lion’s milk,” she winked) and their main dish, a salt encrusted sea bass. “I have been bored for years in my work,” she said, delicately removing the skeleton of bones for us. “I have wanted a job that would make me happier, more peaceful. But for the first time in my life, my work means something. I am helping defend the people who have been arrested.” Her date leaned over and kissed her.
Oddly enough, it was the coffee we shared with a rug dealer three hours before our departure that touched me the most. He and his uncle owned a store down the block from our hotel. We called him the Turkish Daniel Day Lewis. Every morning, he would catch a glimpse of us, rushing past and run out, shouting: “Please, let me help you spend your money, lady. I am good at spending your money. “ (The only thing more persistent and/or reliable than the muezzzin’s call to prayer in Istanbul is this constant, clamorous call to buy, buy, buy.) But on Friday afternoon, there was no sales pitch. “Come in for coffee,” he begged. “No rugs, I promise. Just coffee and talk. “ So we sat, cross legged on a magnificently threadbare old Kerman and listened. “Did you go to the piano concert,” he asked, hopefully. (The concert in the park on the night of June 12th made news all across the world.)
“No, we missed it.”
“Ah! It was so good, he said, wistfully. “There is no business now,” he added, matter- of- factly. “I have never known this to happen. But it is OK. Because I don’t think about that now. All I think about is Gezi Park.”
This is all I am thinking about, too, on this Monday morning in New York. I am thinking about and wondering what happened to Aylin and the beautiful, young woman I saw emerging from her tent with the briefcase. I am wondering if the lawyer we met in Alacati has been arrested and if those doormen at the Divan Hotel were hurt when police tear gassed the lobby on Saturday night. I am even wondering about the Koc family. Thankfully, our friend Ceyda is fine. We spoke on Saturday morning, an hour after the police, those same police I had watched eat their lunch on Thursday afternoon, demolished the physical evidence of what had become such a fragile but incredibly courageous symbol of hope and change. “I’m alright,” she said. “I thought about going in but I was so tired. So I stayed home. But I forgot to tell you about my appointment with the doctor. He did a sonogram. He pointed to the baby’s hand. “See that?” he said. “The fingers of the hand are closed.”
“Yes, because it’s a fist,” I said to the doctor. “A fist of defiance.”
This morning, Wednesday, Ceyda is back at work in her office near Taksim Square. She e mailed me a photo of the famous Standing Man with this comment: I love the idea of a movement symbolized by stillness.
She also sent along a recent government press release with her favorite paragraph highlighted. “I think I am living in the Twilight Zone,” she said.
Statement on the Recent Developments by Egemen Bagis
Minister for EU Affairs and Chief Negotiator
“Turkey has the most reformist and strongest government in Europe and the most charismatic and strongest leader in the world. Should anyone have a problem with this, then I am truly sorry. Only for those who feel overwhelmed, the leadership of Prime Minister Erdoğan is a problem.”
"She carried herself in such a way as to suggest that she judged you by how you overcame your fears. This, she seemed to say, was the purpose of being alive."
"I can say that this moment is what makes us human and the very darkness you confront will make you burn with a light so heartbreakingly short, just a breath on coals, but which (if you are like me) will be distinguished by your caring for others. That is the best. The darkness that you face is cunning and it knows that time is its ally, its devious, vicious compatriot, and that the two together can get people to do all kinds of things out of fear, out of terror, which let me tell you, is not something to be sneered at."
"just a breath on coals…" sublime. From All the Dead Yale Men. A marvelous, marvelous book
Picture this… It’s Friday night and you’re at a pet circus. (And OK. What the hell are you, what am I, doing at a pet circus?) The theater is packed, hundreds of little children, screaming. The lights dim. More screams. Then we see a four story cardboard building. It’s on fire. No, surely not. But yes, smoke billows from the windows. We hear a sound track of barking dogs and meowing cats. The audience whimpers. What the fuck? Pets trapped in a burning building? How sick is this? But hey, we’re in Brighton Beach. And this is a RUSSIAN pet circus. So, of course, there are pets trapped in a burning building. A tiny red fire engine roars to the rescue. Bells ringing. Cats stand, drunkenly, on two legs, carrying pails of water. Two of them attempt to climb a ladder and fail. We gasp. Eventually, with the help of their trainer, a man who looks like a geriatric, alcoholic, Daniel Craig, the fire is put out.
Oh how I love Brighton Beach. Land of tortuously teased, blown out, bottle blondes in spiky heels; of thug-like men in shiny suits and the original babushkas, grandmothers wrapped in the carcasses of short-haired mink and squirrel. Smiling, always smiling. This is not a group with much grace or style. But there is canniness, a great love of small children and a sense or respect for occasion. I’m sure that the audience still dresses not just for Church but perhaps even for trips to the airport. Stuck in its own twilight zone; in a time warp, Brighton Beach is all that is left in the world of Old Russia. Pre oligarch, pre Putin and designer logos, it is the Russia that was once ruled by a single logo: the hammer and sickle. Obviously, this is a demented sort of nostalgia. No one misses Communism, except perhaps, for the millions who are pensionless, hungry, and broke. The audience around me are immigrants, all of whom fled the old Russia. But there is something about the tackiness; the fact that the show is so imperfect and even wildly inappropriate, that appeals to me. Unlike extravagant, multi million dollar spectacles like Cirque de Soleil , spectacles that are now almost boring, precisely because they are so flawless and sanitized, there is an intimacy to the shows here in Brighton Beach. It is an intimacy that, despite its casual cruelty to animals and the weary, sad face of the trainer, seems utterly human.
When we discreetly sneak out of the theater for dinner nearby, I remember my favorite scene in Slava, The Snow Show. (Slava is Russia’s most famous clown.) Slava enters the stage dragging a rope. There is a noose around his neck. He’s tired. As he slowly, ever so slowly, walks towards the other side of the stage, he continues to look back, pulling and dragging on this endless piece of rope. He looks out at the audience. He shrugs. He goes back to work., Then, suddenly, we see what’s at the other end. It’s another clown. With a noose around his neck. I guffaw. I laugh so hard, I’m crying. The rest of the audience, mostly American, is not laughing. They sit there, stunned and silent, wondering what they missed. Namely, the point. Two suicidal clowns, unable to even kill themselves because they share the same piece of rope. I thought it was brilliant. The scene was cut after that first performance on opening night.
“I like a man whose life has been anything but a smooth trip,” says the writer, James Salter. “Storms have battered them. They’ve lain, somehow, for months, becalmed. There is a residue even if they fail. They have grand chords.”
“Nothing stands still and remains as it is…” Rilke
No idea why I’m sitting here this morning, thinking about snow. It’s spring. But there I was, standing on top of the steepest, most lethal, sledding hill I’d ever seen. This was in Russia. The landscape below looked like a Bruegel painting with a miniature snow covered lake and tiny ant-size figures, moving about in bright, primal colors. Kids thrust themselves off the precipice and flew down the hill, lost in war whoops of sheer terror and joy.
“I’m going,” I, suddenly, muttered to myself. I’m going down that hill if kills me.” (Keep in mind here that I am the woman who got so sick on the ride BodyWars at Disneyland, I had to be escorted from my seat and out of the theater by security officers.) Tucking my pants into a pair of cozy felt boots (Boots so warm, I’m convinced they helped Russia defeat the Germans in WWII,), I grab a sled, sit down like a guru, wrap the rope around my fingers, and close my eyes. “Across the lake,” says my Russian friend, P., like a general, goading on his troops. He’s pointing to what looks like fucking Latvia, it is so far away. “And no brakes!”
He gives me a running push. And I’m off. Eyes squeezed shut, heart in throat, back as stiff as a tree. I’m barreling down the slope so fast, I can’t close my mouth. “I’m going to die. I’m going to die,” I’m thinking, sneaking a peak at the giant bump ahead, that finally, shoots me over the last hill and onto the ice. My grin is frozen. My face hurts. But I’ve made it.
The struggle up the hill is murderous, feet sinking in deep, cold snow, dragging the sled, gasping for breath. But when I arrive at the top, my kids are cheering and the Russians are laughing. “You are a fighter,” P. says, lifting me up off the ground when he hugs me. “I always knew you were a fighter.” P. is the only man who has ever picked me off the ground when he hugs me. But this is the greatest, most touching compliment, I have ever received from P. Because it is he who is the real fighter.
Anyway, the sledding, no, the hill, must be some kind of dumb metaphor. I am obsessed with fucking metaphors. Maybe I’m thinking of it because I am furious at myself for all this standing still. Or because I wish to hell the hill that lies ahead of me was just a tiny bit smaller. I’ve never mastered the art of taking life one step at a time. I like to leap, even if means I lose my footing. What’s missing are those child-like whoops of terror and joy. Enough of THIS. I’m off to the dentist.
April was my birthday month. In yet another bizarre, possibly desperate move, to reinvent myself, I bought a ticket for the New York Post Page Six tour bus. R. recently suggested I work as an official guide. “It would be great practice for your stand up/one woman show,” he said.. I thought it was hilarious. A brilliant idea. I’ve been crazy about Page Six, not to mention Post headlines, for twenty five years. (The rest of the paper, of course, is a nightmare.) Which might explain why I was the only customer. I wasn’t totally alone. There was also a hunched over, elderly, thin haired man and three young, Post photographers. “We’re here to promote the tour,” one of them said.
"Good luck with that!’ I thought as they began snapping pics of everything but the empty bus.
It was not an auspicious start. In fact, I was ready to pay to get OFF the bus (which is saying something considering it cost 49 bucks to get on) when we turned left from 7th Avenue onto 55th street and the elderly, thin-haired man (my guide) reached for an inhaler. Yes, an inhaler. “This,” he gasped, pointing feebly at a building, ” is home to, gasp, the most expens (deep breath) ive apartment in Manhattan.”
Oh My God, I muttered. Please don’t tell me I have 2 hours ahead, watching this poor man gasp and inhale while sitting on the top of a windy, practically empty, fucking tour bus on my birthday. But yes, this is precisely what lay ahead of me. When we hit Fifth and he signaled me to move to the seat directly behind him, I probably should have just jumped. “It’s only the, gasp, two of us.” He smiled. “Right, i said. “How intimate.”
What followed was a half- hearted, listless litany of very old headlines (Ie Headless Woman in Topless Bar) and truly ancient gossip re Ivana Trump (Ivana who?What was she? Like three, four, lives/wives ago for Donald?) When we reached 23rd St, I couldn’t bear to watch the guy suffer, anymore. So I stood up and started telling/sharing my own stories about life and gossip in Greenwich Village. They were mostly stories about money. Duh. My 1 million dollar parking space, the 33 million dollar fully furnished, uninhabited townhouse which is owned by a former hedge funder who actually lives in an apartment across the street, etcetc. The photogs ate it up. Some of it was true, some of it I made up on the spot. I’m good at that, making things up.
But sure as hell not as good as TJ and Dave, two wonders of the long form improv world. Their show, a one hour, one act play at the Barrow Theater, is like watching an Olympics for brainiacs . The one liners at the end of each scene come as fast and furious, as faultlessly on the mark, as those breathtaking backflips in Monday’s video. Their feats of mental derring do and wit defy not just the imagination but death itself. Because to do this for sixty uninterrupted minutes, to work without a net, puts you at the mercy of the merciless. That being, an audience. These men,however, had us at: Trust Us, This is all Made-up. (Their version of hello.) Oh. wait. My son also treated me to Moth.
The line to get into this short (‘Im talking very short) story telling event in Soho meandered all the way to the end of the block. So, the first thrill for me, was skipping the line and walking straight to my seat. How I love when that happens. The second was listening to 5 enthusiastic amateurs condense a real life mystery into ten minutes, including punch line. All before a jury of their peers. Even if some of them faltered, stuttered and/or lost their train of thought, you had to love them just for getting up there; for their bravado
Speaking of which…. Bravado, I mean. How bout a one woman show about working the wilds of Alaska as a stripper? Naked in Alaska was the title. It wasn’t wasn’t just the extraordinary story that left me short of breath (and what is it about me and fucking breathlessness in this post?) it was the pole dancing. HOLY GOD! I was mesmerized. The woman practically did one handed back flips. It was a sublime final act in my week or two, living the lives of others. Now back to studying for my exam as an official tour guide. Just kidding. I discovered, shortly after my tour, that becoming a guide ain’t exactly easy. There are three volumes of New York history to read and a 400 question test.
”What were you thinking, Mom?” said my son. “Were you just gonna get up there with a mic and make it up?”
"Yup," I said. "That’s exactly what I was gonna do. Tourists wouldn’t know the difference. And at least, it would be interesting."
“One does not find solitude, one creates it,” says Marguerite Duras in her succinct, albeit solemn, essay on writing. “Solitude,” she adds,”is the thing without which one does nothing.” On Sunday, I abandoned a gloriously sunny afternoon for the darkness of a movie theater on 12th St. They were showing, Herman’s House, a documentary about convicted killer, Herman Wallace—a man who has spent 40 of his 72 years alone in a windowless, 6 foot by 9 foot prison cell. The dungeon, they call it out at Angola.
In 2001, Herman begins a relationship via letter and telephone with Jacki Summell, a young, highly strung, visual artist from Long Island. “The only way out of prison,” she tells her distant new friend, “is to dream.” What Herman dreams of is a house. Over the next several years, he and Jacki continue to communicate/collaborate via snail and telephone, eventually bringing that dream house to life—virtually and then with a wooden model, complete with swimming pool, garden, and hot tub. (A hot tub that measures exactly 6 ft. by 9 ft.) Unlike Herman who never leaves his cell, the house and the artist travel to galleries all over the world.
I rarely have a problem with solitude. I revel in it. For me, solitude is a luxury. But I also know that there are times when the joy and the luxury of solitude, somehow, slip into the quiet anguish of isolation. I know this because I have spent too much time recently, alone and unoccupied.
I like that word: unoccupied. It implies vacancy. Which is how I feel when I am isolated. Vacant. Spiritless. I try and write my way out of it. The same way others go for a jog or a swim. Ferociously, gracefully, awkwardly… It doesn’t matter how I do it. The act of doing it, the effort, consoles me. Yesterday, I did a word count on my old blog. The blog that once had the same population as the island of Malta. Over a three year period, I wrote 172, 342 words. That’s 574 pages at 300 words per page. Or the equivalent of THREE books. Within that time, I also wrote my first novel. But I’ve strayed seriously ‘off message’ here.
Solitude versus isolation. “Hold your head up and keep moving,” Herman tells his young friend after yet another appeal for his release from solitary confinement is denied and she weeps on the telephone. What astonished me was the bizarre reversal of roles. It should have been Jacki not Herman speaking those words of comfort and reassurance. But it seems that words (versus Jesus) are Herman’s salvation. Although alone, he has been far from unoccupied. He reads. I sensed such pride and power in his casual use of very big words—words like conducive, perfunctory, incumbent… I assume that books are the only company Herman keeps. They are not just his window, his view of the outside world, but a way to connect with other humans. As such, they also give him dignity, perhaps even the hope that one day he will be free to go out and see the house he built with Jacki. In the meantime, I will think of Herman in those moments when I despair; when words elude me and I dare to whine/complain about isolation.
Keep you mouth SHUT! These were R.’s last words to me before falling asleep on Saturday night. This, after I momentarily lost my senses at a tiny Greenwich Village Theater called Rattlestick. We were there to see Buyer and Cellar, a one man show/satire about Barbra Streisand. Apparently, the diva has built her own private mall in her basement to house a lifetime’s worth of compulsive collecting. The actor plays a sales assistant in the mall. I laughed out loud when I bought the tickets.
Unfortunately, that was my last laugh. I spent most of the brilliant performance in a state of such heightened anxiety, my palms were sweating. Because from the second the guy next to me sat down and shoved a black nylon backpack (Ohoh! you’re thinking) under the seat in front of me, I knew he was… That’s right. A jihadist. Ludicrous. Totally unhinged. I mean, what the fuck is a jihadist doing at a sold-out, one man show about Barbra Streisand? What jihadist has even HEARD of Barbra Streisand? But logic has nothing to do with panic attacks. I elbowed R and nodded to the left. The guy was now removing his sweatshirt. R. just closed his eyes and shook his head.
It wasn’t racial profiling. Not exactly. It was an accumulation of small, insignificant details. Like the backpack. And the sweatshirt. It had a green (the color of Islam) and black triangle on it with the letters A.S.A.
Arab Spring in America, I thought. (Also Autism Society of America, Amateur Softball Association, Association of Siamese Architects, and Aperture Switching Assembly.) He was young, alone, and dark-skinned. He couldn’t speak English.
How long it is? he asked me.
90 minutes, I replied. At which point he took off his shoes (OMG—he’s taking off his shoes!, I shrieked to myself) and punched something into his cellphone.
A timer, I thought.
He then stuffed the phone into the backpack and fell asleep. Which certainly would have reassured most people. Not me, of course.
How many soon-to-be martyrs fall asleep before blowing themselves up? R asked during dinner.
A lot, I said. They give them tranquillizers to calm their nerves.
When the guy finally woke up, he couldn’t stop fidgeting. And he kept fiddling with the fucking backpack. It was when he pulled out the cellphone, again, and his face lit up with that spooky blue glow, that the terror inside broke loose and I bolted. “I’m outta here,” I whispered to R. You’re out of your mind, he whispered back.
Obviously. But what the hell possessed me? How could I possibly have made such a wild and unforgivably dangerous leap? My own so-called ‘accumulation of small, insignificant details’, details that led to such a baseless and deranged assumption was something I would ordinarily associate with ignorance and bigotry. Or madness. Precisely the same kind of ignorance, bigotry and madness that triggers riots and ‘inspires’ murder. I have never believed that Muslims are killers. Some Muslims are killers. Like some Catholics and some Protestants and some Americans. But there I was, abruptly stumbling out of a packed theater, 20 minutes before what I later heard was a standing ovation.
Roman also has a frickin’ missile defense system onboard that will alert he and his crew of 70 former SAS soldiers that there be pirates in these waters. Personally, I think the pirates are on land but hey…. What do I know?
(It’s 8 pm and snowing. I’m in a seedy 3rd floor acting studio on 37th St. with my master teacher, Matt Hoverman, and a small group of fellow students. It’s our last class of the semester.)
I want you to close your eyes. Relax your shoulders. That’s it. Now a gentle inhale. You’ve just finished the first performance of your solo show. Picture the room. Maybe you’re at the Public or the Beacon. It’s standing room only. Imagine the feeling… The exhaustion, the adrenaline, the triumph…
Now open your eyes and write the review. The rave review that brings Frank Rich out of retirement and back to The New York Times. You have five minutes.
4 DIAMONDS from Jay Z for extraordinary show at Joe’s Pub!
I’m not going to humiliate myself here with just how good Frank Rich thought my performance was. Suffice it to say, by the third sentence, even I would have been on line, buying tickets. The point is, every one should do this exercise at least once a month. Because I’ve always believed in the concept: That if you say something out loud often enough, it becomes true. This is also why people who suffer horrendous trauma, repeat the story over and over again. Not just because it dulls the edge of the pain but because it makes the trauma real.
Speaking of which…. It is an amazing experience to sit in a roomful of strangers and listen to their stories. We seem to live in the new/neo age of story telling. The success of Moth and the TedTalks, stand up comics, one man/woman shows. It’s fascinating, this trend, this desperate need for truth. It’s also occasionally, excruciatingly boring. Maybe it’s a reflex reaction to the so called miracle of technology; to the reduction of our desires to data, of talk to text, of snap chats, and posting on walls. “ Perhaps, it’s an attempt to reclaim what we’ve lost in what Ballard once dubbed “a world of monastic machines passing down memories.’
The best part of the past five weeks has been experiencing this hidden, secret life of New York City. A life of artists; of ordinary people who report to day jobs in hair salons or as real estate agents or office temps (who isn’t a fucking temp these days?) All of them together, animating the night in dingy studios and rehearsal spaces—- dancing, acting, singing, sweating… Wishing and working on dreams that we’re told are more impossible, more implausible, than ever but somehow are NOT. Yeah… I love that.
In May 2012, a parking space in what was then an empty garage across the street from our loft, hit the market for $1 million dollars. For fifteen years, we had parked out VW Passat in that same garage for $285.00 a month. The hallucinatory leap in cost seemed to stupefy everyone but Dolly Lenz, the celebrity broker who listed the space at Prudential Douglas Elliman. “It really is the ultimate luxury amenity,” she said in an interview with ABC News. “We’re not talking about really big numbers, here at $1 million. It will be more about getting it. I think people will bid above the (asking) price.”
The only place more extravagant to park a car in Manhattan these days would be onboard the Eclipse, the $358 million dollar mega yacht owned by Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovitch. It’s been floating over at Pier 90 on the West Side since Valentine’s Day. But Ms. Lenz was right about the landlocked space across the street. $1 million wasn’t “a really big number.” Not compared to the $38.5 million dollar price tag for the penthouse, which is currently under construction above that parking space. There are five other condominiums in the building, including a 12,000 sq. ft., four-floor townhouse. “Nothing is in contract yet,” reports Renato Termale, a partner involved in the conversion. “Nothing is sold. We begin marketing next month.”
It’s hardly news, of course—the most recent non-sense surrounding real estate ‘values’ in cities like New York. But when this kind of money suddenly moves in across the street; when it is literally in your face (the scaffolding that has shrouded the building came down on Monday. I am now staring directly into the townhouse living room), you have to wonder. How exactly does a parking space end up costing six times the average cost of a single-family home in America? And what, other than a promise of immortality, makes a condo on E 11th St. versus a castle overlooking Lake Como worth almost $40 million?
Enter Delos Living, the company converting our once humble garage into homes fit (and I do mean fit) for the 1%. Named after the birthplace of Apollo, Greek god of healing and the sun, Delos is the world’s first developer devoted to the concept of Building Wellness. First introduced by President Clinton at his Global Initiative Conference last spring, this trademarked concept marries architecture and construction techniques with state-of-the-art technology, creating environments in which it is healthier for humans to live, breathe, eat, sleep, and meditate.
Designed to improve everything from cardiovascular to respiratory health, a few of features unique to Delos include: photo Catalytic coatings on susceptible surfaces that break down bacteria, circadian rhythm lighting that dims lights according to one’s body clock, special water and filtration systems, bathroom lighting with a dose of Melatonin, and Vitamin C and aloe enhanced showers.
Talk about life in the fucking bubble.
But what about that parking space? “We’re lining the concrete walls with solid gold,” says one of the construction crew when asked about its particular amenities.
“So, no circadian lighting?”
“ I don’t think so,” he says. “But it’s big enough for two cars.”
Presumably, one of those cars will be a Hybrid.
In the meantime, the ‘greening’ of E. 11th St. continues… I have no doubt that our new neighbors will feel right at home, strolling past Wagwear, the dog boutique, an Ishta yoga studio, the vegan bakery/kitchen, Peacefood Cafe, and a holistic family wisdom center called YinUva. This, as my own memories of the sound of gunfire that first week we moved in and the vision of two Russian antique dealers shooting at one another with pistols recede into the oh so distant past. Right there on the corner where one of the men bled to death,I see a very pretty little store with a 19th century head of Buddha in the window. I can imagine it perfectly on a table in the living room of the townhouse.
Whether or not we will actually ever meet these neighbors,however, is another intriguing question.
“They’re like ghosts,” says one of the workers, leaving for the day. “They own so much property, they’re never in one place for long.” So maybe they should consider’investing’ in one of Bloomberg’s 275. sq. ft. ‘micro’ apartments instead? Tho I’m not sure they come with Vitamin C and aloe enhanced showers.
Six years ago when I still had cash to burn, I bought a sterling silver Russian purse from Sotheby’s in London. It cost me $500 dollars.The leather accordion like wallet opens with a snap of a silver clasp. Inside, there’s room for what was the last of the Czar’s currency, for small change and a mirror just big enough to see your nose and lips. The outside is engraved with mysterious messages in Cyrillic and tiny charms: a bluebird of happiness, a gold elephant and a red lacquered ladybug, even a diamond studded ruble, for luck. The purses were given to young girls on their 18th birthdays to carry on their wrists to their very first ball. This one in particular is dated 1916—one year before the Revolution.
When I polish the purse with a toothbrush and old fashioned Gorham’s paste, I think of the girl who must have looked in that tiny mirror at the ball. How nervous and thrilled she must have been that night… Did she dance with the boy/man of her dreams? Was her mother watching, full of her own hopes and ambitions for her daughter? Did they live in the country or in town? And what happened to them in the civil war? The purse survived. But did they? The oddest thing about this piece is that I found a similar one in my favorite cabinet of curiosities downtown. A magical shop full of ancient, useless objects: hand painted lacquered pen cases from Iran, extravagantly embroidered old Ottoman velvet pillows, solid gold cigarette cases. And there on a shelf all by itself? A smaller silver purse, just like mine. For $22,000.00
I have another friend, a wildly eccentric and obsessive collector of 17th and 18th century antiques who lives down the street. For years, his landlord has tolerated the vagaries of this man’s finances, often waiting months and months for rent. But I am one of very few ‘outsiders’ he still allows to wander alone through his shop. “You don’t find a piece, it finds you,” he is fond of saying.
I always feel like the last, lonely explorer on these solo expeditions of mine through the sepulchral darkness and chaos. (The man rarely pays his electric bill which is why I hold a flashlight. ) Within minutes, I see it. It’s Venetian, I think. A Chinoiserie desk, the original bright red enamel faded into a delicious, pale pink. The color of peppermint ice cream. The lacquer is chipped and the wood, cracked. When I, gingerly, open the top, I know enough to realize that someone has ruined it. Someone very, very rich. Rather than leave it intact, they’ve added a series of black lacquer drawers. ”Obstmesser Gabeln” Fruit knives and forks reads the label on one drawer. Lined in plush blue velvet, there is space for twenty place settings. And there are five more drawers with empty slots that once held silverware for everything from meat, fish, oysters, crab, caviar, lobster, tea, ice tea spoons, dessert forks, and expresso.
Touching the velvet triggers the memory of a fantastic castle I saw on the cliffs of Trieste. It belonged to Archduke Maximilian, the one who was assassinated in Mexico. Long ago, I imagine that there might have been 200 servants in the house with sixteen in the kitchens, alone. I see young girls, giggling and gossiping quietly while they polish the silver that comes from these very same drawers. Men are hoisting pulleys, getting ready to light the candles in the two Bohemian crystal chandeliers while the lady of the house sits in front of her vanity table mirror, upstairs. She’s powdering her face while a maid stands, attentively, behind her, fiddling with the clasp of a diamond necklace before gently placing it around her mistress’ neck.
This is why I feel such a desire, a craving, for old things. Because they transport me. Like books. Just the act of touching them holds some kind of magic for me. I feel as if I’m in touch with the hands, the lives, the stories, of everyone who has touched them before me. This is also why I hate pieces that are too restored. Pieces like this have been around for centuries. The damage is part of their identity. When a piece is stripped down and comes back all pretty and polished, it loses the very thing that defines its beauty. Its loses the marks of its experience, which is precisely what makes it (and us, of course) unique.
A while ago, I wrote a post all about silos and ladders—stuff I’d overheard at my local Newsbar. Last week, I have the first interview with an agency in months and all they’re talking about is fucking silos and ladders and thread counts (and no, not as in high quality Italian linen sheets) and seamless this and seamless that. And I’m ever so fiercely nodding my head up and down, just like I did when I was first learning French and only understood two words out of ten. Then, some little tweenie at the end of the table says: How much of the runway left do you plan to work?
I’m like huh? Runway? WTF? And then, I see the light. Boy, do I ever. This guy’s talking about my age!! It’s a euphemism. I could sue him. Instead, I burst out laughing.
Listen, kid, I don’t HAVE a runway. Runways waste fuel. I’m like one of those British Harrier jets. I just take off and go straight up.
The Yoda in the room—who’s probably 40— guffaws.
I head for the door and another tweenie asks :
I notice on your resume you don’t give out your cell phone number.
I don’t have a cell phone.
The look on this kid’s face… I’m talkin’ polaxed. But, but, we’re in here discussing social media and digital platforms and you don’t….
My daughter left her Facebook open. And I do have a blog. That’s social media, isn’t it?
Yoda guffaws again.
Also spent Valentine’s Day touring the world’s most beautiful sewage plant. The huge silver domes, they call them eggs, reminded me of some mosque in a William Gibson novel. All I remember about the facts is that the busiest time at the plant is between 9 30 and 10 am. Apparently, that’s when all of New York flushes away their intake of Starbucks. The highlight was meeting a young woman who is homeschooling her children.
We’re fishermen, she said. Third generation up in Alaska. But we live here off season. We run a coop with the catch. Sockeye salmon. We even smoke it right here in Manhattan. I’d never tasted lox till a year ago. Now, I’m obsessed. We also make wine over in Red Hook.
Hot damn. How cool is that? It was like my encounter a month ago with a young girl called “The Nose.” She was a perfumer. Or a guy they call the Hanger. He installs million dollar art in the houses of billionaires. Forget about tweenies into apps and digital platforms. Maybe it’s time I give it all up and go fishing. Or learn to blow the horn like the guy on Friday at the Brooklyn Bowl. Man, did he clear my head.
I’m excited. And nervous. Monday, I start workshopping my solo show. The first assignment from the coach? Write your life story in one page or less. The glorious thing about an assignment like this at my age is that it is all in the edit.
My Life Story
The most revealing thing about me, in terms of my life story right now, is the fact I don’t own a cell phone. Not owning a cell phone in an age and a world defined by that device, probably speaks volumes about a certain disconnect—a disconnect that dates back to childhood.
I was born, the eldest of three, in a small Connecticut town. My father was a hugely charismatic and ambitious man who made a fortune selling shoes while my mother inherited a fortune from a family that made hats. Despite this peculiar affinity and a shared passion for reading, they did not get along.
Like my mother before me, I left home at 10 years old for the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Albany, NY. This was a boarding school for young girls that also functioned as a nunnery. I did not become a nun. Instead, I left hurriedly (I seem to have left many places in my life hurriedly) for Simon’s Rock, an early college now known as Bard, There I remained until my departure for a spring semester in Paris. A spring semester that soon turned into summer, fall, winter, and yet another spring and summer before a belated return home.
I left home, again hurriedly, to finish college—a blessedly lengthy process that entailed a short, depressing stint at Mc Gill in Montreal and at N.Y.U where I majored in French medieval poetry. This was a subject that inevitably led to a career in advertising. I loved advertising. Not only was I paid to think—the greatest luxury of all —I also earned more money for a three word tagline than I would later earn for a 60,000 word book.
My memoir, The Nearly Departed or My Family & Other Foreigners, was published to very quiet acclaim in 2004. My satire/novel, The Craigslist Murders, was published to even quieter acclaim in 2011. I long for somewhat louder acclaim—the kind I associate with 20,000 screaming fans at a concert venue.
I have been married for thirty years to the same man and am the mother of two extraordinary ‘adult children.’ All of whom own cellphones. I am currently working on a show, Jay Z and me, a Talking Memoir, which I hope to perform at some point before I am on a walker.