The Pink Tea Cup

052809PinkTeaCup17MS.jpgWhen I lived in New York, on my days off from work, I would sometimes go to the Jefferson Market Library in Greenwich Village, check out a few books, then wander somewhere around there for lunch. One of my favorite places to have lunch alone, just me and a book, was a soul food restaurant, a neighborhood staple, called The Pink Tea Cup. I ordered the same thing every time, a burger special that came with fresh cut fries, a slice of sweet potato pie, and a cup of coffee. I was usually one of only a few customers during the hour or so I’d sit and read my book and eat my meal. It was a cozy joint and I especially liked going in the winter. I remember one year that I did not think I would be able to fly home for Christmas, whether it was because of money or getting shifts covered or both, but at some point, the heavens parted and I was able to get a plane ticket and make arrangements. I celebrated by taking myself to a late lunch at The Pink Tea Cup. I could not help but be conscious of the color of my skin while I dined there, but there was something Southern and familiar and comfortable about the place. I sat and ate the home cooked meal and looked forward to the home cooked meals my Mother would have waiting for me when I made it to Kansas for the holidays.

I just finished reading Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone by James Baldwin. There was a section of the book where the protagonist, a successful African American actor named Leo Proudhammer, recalls working as a waiter in a Greenwich Village restaurant called The Island that sounded, if only to me, a bit like The Pink Tea Cup. Leo remembers serving Hopping John and chicken and ribs and I closed my eyes and saw all the action taking place at my old haunt, a place that still looked like 1968 even in 1993.

I am mostly drawn to James Baldwin for three reasons. He wrote often about New York, a city I love. He wrote about the Church, it’s complicated burdens and emancipations. And probably mostly, because he wrote about homosexuals, because he was one himself. I identify with James Baldwin.

This identification resonated even more in Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone because he wrote about acting, specifically his character’s technique and process and it gave me an idea what it must have been like to be an actor in the ’50s and ’60s New York, a time and place that produced some pretty exciting actors, not to mention writers.

There is a point in the novel where Leo’s estranged brother, a man who was falsely imprisoned in his youth but has become a minister, comes to visit him at The Island. He stays until the restaurant closes and the two brothers sit to share a meal, Leo drinking a tumbler of Chianti, Caleb, the elder, drinking coffee. Their conversation is tense in moments and tender in others. At one point, Caleb asks Leo, “What does an artist really do?” I’m editing for space. More than anything I just want you to pick up the book and read it yourself, but Leo tells Caleb that an artist creates things-paintings, books, poems, plays, music. Caleb then wants to know exactly what these arts do. Leo tells him, “They make you-feel more alive.” And then Leo thinks to himself that he doesn’t trust that answer. They talk more, Leo then says, “I think it-art-can make you less lonely.” But he doesn’t trust that answer either. And then finally he tells his brother, “Sometimes you read something- or you listen to music- I don’t know- and you find this man, who may have been a very unhappy man- and- a man you’ve never seen- well, he tells you something about your life. And it doesn’t seem as awful as it did before.”

Everytime I write about Baldwin, I feel a little foolish. What could a very white boy from Kansas have to offer when talking about one of the greatest African American writers in history? His experience was not my experience. It’s kind of ludicrous for me to say, “Oh I LOVE James Baldwin because he wrote about New York!” It sounds like I’m talking about Cindy Adams. But there is something about the way he wrote about New York and Evangelicalism and sexuality that drew me into his world, that captivated me. And once he had me, has me, for James Baldwin’s work is ongoing, by seeing how much we are alike, he also reminds me of how different we are. I learn from his experience; it’s my hope that reading about his specific African American experience makes me a more sympathetic, empathetic, knowledgeable person. I think there is, in his writing, an attempt to shame me for the wrongs my ancestors did, just as I think he tries to hurt his father, even though he loves him, for being cruel and abusive and embittered and drunk when Baldwin was a boy. Baldwin offers a knife in the side and then a blanket for comfort.

It’s no surprise, really, that I feel a pang of regret for saying that something in Baldwin’s writing intends to punish or wound me. While I am gay and have always felt like an outsider, the color of my skin, reminds me, how much of an outsider could I possibly be? I’m much more Barbara, the secondary character of Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, a white aspiring actress who fled Kentucky in hopes of making her way in New York City, who forges a life long intimate relationship with Leo Proudhammer. Leo’s love for her is visible and tenable, but in the 20 years of their friendship the novel spans, there are the knife and the blanket and neither are ever very far from each other.

I really don’t know where I am going with all of this. Baldwin raises more questions than he answers for me. But God, I love him. I love the way his stories burrow into me and I laugh and I weep and I think to myself, “This is MY STORY. He is telling my story.” And the ridiculousness of that statement doesn’t even occur to me until I am pages ahead.

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I Love L.A.

10649791_10152729980567755_6169964462608463712_nOn Saturday, I started feeling a little guilty about how much I’ve been writing about my recent visit to New York. I’d written two very NewYorkophilic (new word?) blog entries and was on my way to writing a third when I stopped myself and decided I needed to step away from the computer and you know, stop spreading the news…

I had the afternoon free, my morning swim done, a backyard barbecue to attend in the early evening. And I know this sounds nerdy, but I wanted to go on a little date with my other city love, my main squeeze, Los Angeles. So, I drove downtown to one of my favorite haunts, the Central Library. I parked my car in the garage, since parking is only $1 all day on Saturday and Sunday, during library hours. And lucky me, as I was stepping into the grand entrance, I saw a sign that said a free tour of the Maguire Gardens was starting in front of the gift shop at 12:30. I looked at my watch. 12:28. I scurried to the gift shop where I found a petite woman, a little older than myself, in comfortable shoes and a sensible straw hat. She was standing alone.

“Are you here for the tour?”

“Yes, I am.”

“It’s going to be a good one because you’re by yourself.” And we were off, and her words were prophetic. We toured the gardens for some 45 minutes while she shared the history of the library, pointed out key architectural and artistic features, including the friezes of Herodotus, Virgil, Socrates, Da Vinci and Copernicus, the Ceramic Fountain, Jud Fine’s Spine Sculptural Installation, the Grotto Fountain, the World Peace Bell, and much more. And because I was an eager student of one, she took me inside and gave me a little history about the Rotunda, the card catalog elevator, and the Therman Statom chandeliers, too.

While we were walking around, I asked her how I might find some old pictures of my neighborhood, Larchmont Village and specifically, the street I live on. “Oh my goodness, I used to live on that street.”

“Which building?” I asked.

And she gave me my own address. “That’s my building!” She told me that she had lived there 11 years in the 70s and 80s. She remembered Mae West living just down the street. I told her that I’d lived there since 1998 and she said, “Wow, you’ve been there a long time too!”

And our bond deepened, she asked where I was from and I proudly told her I was from Kansas. She told me that she had been raised in Pennsylvania. As she told me more about the Central Library’s history, I must confess, I was probably equally interested in her personal history. I mean, she didn’t paint a mural or build a fountain or import Italian tiles or anything, but I sensed that her story was part of the fabric woven into the story of the Central Library, too. Here it was, Saturday afternoon, and this kind woman was giving the tour of the century to an attentive party of one.

Later, she took me to the section of the library where I hoped to find old pictures of Los Angeles and specifically my neighborhood. She introduced me to a gentleman (“He’s supposedly retired, but this place couldn’t function without him.”) who kindly set me up on a computer and instructed me how to find photos with specific search words. My friend the tour guide told me I was in good hands and disappeared not unlike a fairy godmother.

And I spent another hour or so, sleuthing the library’s databases, finding old pictures of the El Royale and the Ravenswood, and Wilshire Country Club. I hoped to stumble across a picture of my old building, but alas, I did not unearth one on my first effort. I kept sending pictures to myself and pictures to Eric, who was at work. He’d text me, “Love the photos!”

And reluctantly, I had to leave, I had that barbecue to attend and I had to go home and walk the dogs first. I paid my $1 at the kiosk and drove down a quiet Wilshire Boulevard, past MacArthur Park and the Talmadge and the HMS Bounty, on my way home.

I walked my dogs and put on a white linen shirt that flattered my summer tan and I went to sit in a leafy backyard with old, dear friends where we ate grilled meats and drank my friend Traci’s signature cocktail.

Really, not a bad way to spend a Saturday. It was a quintessentially Los Angeles day. And you know what, you might be reading this and thinking, that’s not MY ideal Los Angeles day! Well, that’s one of the magical things about the City of Angels, it really is whatever you want it to be. It doesn’t take it personally when you complain about traffic or come back from vacation tittering about how amazing New York or Cabo or Portland is. It’s always changing, evolving, but also, always distinctively it’s own. It welcomes all, our crowded freeways remind you of that. It’s everything and nothing like the city you dreamed about when you grew up watching The Brady Bunch and Beverly Hillbillies and Knots Landing. And I love it, I do.

The Books We Read In College

irv0-002I am reading a book right now that I’m not really in love with.  All of the characters are unlikeable and it’s set in New York in 2001 and I know something catastrophic is getting ready to happen and I look forward to it, because, like I said, I hate all of the characters.  

One of the characters was an English major in college, she says at one point that she looks at the books on her shelves and realizes that she read them in college but can’t remember anything about them.  I pondered for a moment about the books I read in Bible college. From the entire four years there, between assigned and pleasure reading, I only remember one book definitively.

If you and I have talked books, you might even know how much I love this book.  It’s a “like” on my Facebook wall.  I’ve read it now 3 or 4 times, but you always remember your first.  I don’t remember when I started John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.  It must have been over Christmas break of my senior year.  I came back to school a few weeks early to go to some kind of convention that was being held on campus.  I loved the feeling of walking around campus with 30% of its usual population.  And everywhere I went, I carried A Prayer for Owen Meany with me.  I ate lunches in the cafeteria by myself, just me and the book.  I don’t remember a single thing anyone talked about at that convention, but I remember that book.  My roommate had not yet arrived for the spring semester and every night I stayed up late reading.

On one of those nights, I stayed awake later than usual, so committed, so spellbound.  I measured the bulk of  the remaining pages in my hand, questioning whether I should turn in and finish the next day or keep going.  I kept going.  And then I finished.  If I tried hard enough, I could probably explain to you why the book resonated so deeply with me, it’s about unconventional people, it’s about complicated relationships with religion, it takes place in New England (and Canada).  There is also something about the ending, the theme of fulfilling the perceived will of God, that spoke to the 21 year old version of me on his final chapter of undergraduate life at a Bible college.

All this is to say that I remember this vividly, that the moment I read the last line of A Prayer for Owen Meany,  “O God—please bring him back! I shall keep asking You,” I shut the book and started weeping.  I lay on my little dorm super single bed with a royal blue Montgomery Ward bedspread and wept for poor dead Owen Meany and broken John Wheelwright and John Irving for being so brilliant and for me, preparing to go into the real world and not feeling equipped to do so.  And I cried until I was done and then I wiped my tears and put the book on my shelf, took off my glasses and went to sleep.

And right now, just thinking about that experience, that kinship, I am there in that January in Missouri cold dorm room, under those covers, reading a book about the world out there, beyond Joplin.

If you’ve read this far, you are probably on your own journey, thinking about that book or maybe two that you read at that time, such an impressionable time.  And you felt like John Irving or maybe Alice Hoffman or maybe Armistead Maupin or maybe James Joyce had written something specifically, singularly just for you.  And what a gift, when you think about it: you will carry that book with you forever, wherever you go.

San Francisco Stories

I love a used book store. I love uncovering a treasure, a biography of an actor that I never knew existed or a great novel by an author I’ve never heard of. But also, I love that every book tells a story, many tell more than one.

I am on the plane back from New York as I type. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that I’ll be blogging about the trip for days to come, but this is not necessarily a New York story. Yet, New York plays her role here, too.

I was browsing in Mid-town along 8th avenue and popped into a thrift store that I like to visit when I’m in NY. I found a book, San Francisco Stories, a collection of pieces written by famous writers about San Francisco, a city I love and a city where I once lived. I vacillated about buying it until I saw the inscription inside the jacket:

Michael-
Here’s thanks for your many kindnesses. I had some fun with this book. I hope you will, too.

10/26/92

Steve K******

It’s a simple inscription, clearly Steve was thanking Michael for something. He actually wrote his own short story in a collection of short stories and in some ways, so far anyway, it’s the most captivating. I want to know who Steve is. Will I learn more about him by reading this book? Maybe. Steve thought enough of it to buy it and gift it.

And then there is the mystery of Michael, did he hate it or perhaps even hate Steve and that’s why it ended up in a thrift store? Did he deposit it here because he moved away? And because I am gay man living in a certain time in history, I do wonder if Michael, or Steve for that matter are even still with us. I hope so.

Also, it occurred to me that since I lived in Manhattan in 1992, I might have known them or passed by them on the street. Maybe we frequented Splash or Uncle Charlie’s on the same nights or shared a lane at the Carmine Street Pool or ate at cramped nearby tables at MaryAnn’s. Maybe we auditioned for the same plays or NYU student films? Who knows?

It’s humbling and comforting that a book can live on after we lose interest or even perhaps pass on from this earthly plane. It can travel from hand to hand and touch soul after soul. Obviously, all art is like that.

So, I don’t really know how many of these San Francisco stories I will read, but I’m glad I bought the book. It seems like it’s already brought me $4 worth of joy. And maybe some day it will find it’s way into the hands of another, and I hope that person will appreciates it, too.

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