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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They Can’t Take That Away From Me

1558465_10152687343022755_4171630263640324445_nIn my first few hours in Manhattan, I wondered if this would be the trip where I learned that I’d aged out of New York. After a frustrating three hour Super Shuttle experience from JFK, when I finally checked into The Jane in the Meatpacking district, I felt like New York City’s oldest, most out of the loop visitor.

I had actually hopped out of the Super Shuttle with the second to last customer whose hotel drop off was a trendy hotel on 16th and 9th avenue. Chelsea was my old neighborhood so I definitely felt safe walking at night from there to my hotel. As I maneuvered from Chelsea through the Meatpacking district, I passed a world of 20 and 30 something’s, enjoying their Saturday night in the city, dining al fresco at expensive restaurants, spilling out of loud, expensive night clubs, walking around in expensive, impractical footwear.

After a quick check in and shower, I was out on the streets, looking for a place to eat something easy and inexpensive. I walked down Hudson to Christopher, then up 7th Avenue. Eric called me as I was grabbing a slice of pizza at an old pizzeria I sometimes visited back when I lived in the neighborhood. A little lonely and missing Eric and the dogs, I talked to him while I ate my slice, watching the cool, young people walk up and down 7th Avenue, to and from their youthful adventures. After I ate, I walked up to 15th, past my old apartment and then up 8th Avenue to 22nd before I turned around and headed back to the hotel. Back in the room, I watched a little tv and had a somewhat restless sleep.

I awoke at 8:00 a.m., unadjusted to the time change, but my first thought was, let’s get going, make the most of your time here. I put on my shirt and shorts and tennis shoes and hit the streets, stopping to get a cafe Americano from the hotel’s Cafe Gitane.

When I was a New Yorker, my favorite time to roam the city was Sunday morning, before the crowds woke up and I felt the city was all mine. I walked up to Chelsea Market and bought a Grilled Cheddar and Ham Biscuit from Amy’s Breads. As I sat there enjoying this old favorite, sipping my coffee, too, I felt a restoration begin, maybe New York was still mine.

After my meal, I walked over to the High Line, new since I lived there but not new for the locals. I walked along the path, taking pictures, enjoying the momentary quietness of a favorite tourist destination. It started to sprinkle and it was just the right amount of rain for me to enjoy walking in it. After the High Line, I walked southward down the Westside Highway paths, looking out onto the water and New Jersey and beyond. The sun came out and continued shining as I walked back to my hotel through Soho and the West Village.

And that morning, as I took my shower, preparing to leave the hotel, to move uptown to the hotel where Eric and I would be staying for his work, I was giddy from my long, adventurous walk, revisiting the old, discovering the new.

I covered a lot of ground in my 5 days in New York. I had my Metro Card, too, but mostly I explored the Upper East Side, Roosevelt Island, Midtown, Lower East Side, Little Italy, Wall Street, Chinatown, Upper West Side, Hell’s Kitchen, Time Square, Chelsea, Greenwich Village and Central Park by foot. Every time a New York friend commented that I still walked like a New Yorker, I blushed and beamed. They can’t take that away from me.

New York is something different for me than what it once was. I am not a cute young hayseed in cutoff shorts and tight white t-shirt and flip flops anymore. Eyes don’t fall on me and linger with the same frequency as when I walked around Chelsea and the Village back in my glory days. I actually can’t even wear flip flops anymore. For the duration of my trip, I tsked my way through Manhattan thinking, you children need to take better care of your arches!

So, I wore my sensible Adidas and I soldiered along, with a spring in my step and a song in my heart. And that song was They Can’t Take That Away From Me. Time and again, I would find myself humming or quietly singing it as I walked the streets. A Gershwin tune, made more famous by Frank Sinatra, it was an apt companion. Because here I am, aging faster than I want, fatter than I wish, remembering to take my blood pressure medicine every day, but I could still behold the beauty that is New York at a fast clip because I had my strong legs and feet to carry me. And New York is no longer mine, not really, but even separated by physical distance, my memories will always remain.

And maybe someday, I won’t even have my strong legs and fast clip. Maybe someday, I won’t even have the opportunity to get on a plane and fly to New York and take a three hour Super Shuttle into the city. Maybe someday, all I’ll have is my Instagram pictures and my Manhattan skyline dishtowels from Fishs Eddy. But, hey, it’s nice to know that even if all I one day have of New York is my memories, it’s still mine. She’s still mine. They can’t take that away from me.

Night Blooming Jasmine

securedownload-1When I moved to LA from New York several years ago, I went about 8 months without having a car. I bought a car for $800 and it broke down irreparably three weeks later and I scrapped it for $120 which means I lost $680, not counting the money I spent to get it smog checked. But this story is not about a bum car or even about foolish decisions. Well, maybe it’s a teeny bit about foolish decisions.

It’s spring in LA and it seems everywhere I go, I smell the night blooming jasmine. I’m not an olfactory expert, I wouldn’t know how to describe the fragrance to someone who doesn’t know it. Pretty? Flowery? Springy?

There are a copious amount of jasmine plants in Southern California and I love walking down a sidewalk and catching a whiff of it before I even see the distinctive plant and flowers.

And every time I smell jasmine, night blowing jasmine, I think about my first few months in LA, when the town was new, new to me, anyway.

I moved to LA from New York, where everything was outside my door. In New York, how do I put this delicately, I sometimes frequented watering holes that catered to a gay male population. Trust me when I say, it was a lot of me standing in the corner, watching the room, futzing with my bottled water, hoping someone would come over to talk to me. And I’m not going to lie, sometimes guys, some handsome, some not, would make their way to me to start a conversation. And most nights, I would head home from Uncle Charlie’s or Splash or The Break unattended, my safety assured by the many others who were also walking through the streets of Chelsea and the Village at the same time, regardless of the hour.

And then when I moved to LA, to Detroit St and Wilshire, the nearest gay bars were 3 miles away in West Hollywood, 2 different bus rides away. And because I did not have many friends at this point, I would go to West Hollywood by myself. I’d take the bus, two buses, to go to Revolver and Rage and Mickey’s. And for the most part, the results were the same: I would stand in a corner, bottled water in hand, hoping someone would come over to start a conversation. And sometimes they did, but mostly they didn’t. And before I knew it, it would be 2:00 a.m. and I’d have to weigh my options of how to get home. A $20 cab ride was not an option. A few times, I took the bus, but that took over an hour, with long waits at each bus stop. So eventually, I just started walking home, from Larrabee and Santa Monica to Wilshire and Detroit.

My routes would vary each time, sometimes I would walk along Willoughby, other times I’d take Waring. I learned the street names, like Sweetzer and Spaulding and Martel and eventually, I’d unwind my way back home. I’d dream about living in homes or fancy old apartment buildings I’d pass by. I’d dream about being a working actor and finding my way. I’d dream about making enough money to afford a $20 cab ride. And also, I’d dream about falling in love. That hope of meeting someone special was what called me to those places in the first place, I understood that much.

And the entire walk, in the middle of the night, through the heart of Los Angeles, the night blooming jasmine was my constant companion, my accompaniment, my pomander. And finally, I would make it to 649 S. Detroit, unlock the door and go inside. I’d lie in bed, the jasmine permeating my apartment through an open window.

Last night, as I walked along Melrose to meet Eric and a friend for dinner, I passed by block after block of jasmine. I breathed it in, took the above picture and went on my way. As I continued walking, I remembered those late night walks. Oh my, how things have changed. And yet, a part of me will always be the Kansas boy discovering a new city for the first time and with every inhale discovering that Los Angeles can be his.