Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A backgammon blouse, for old time's sake. I can't tell who is winning in this game, perhaps you can.

This is merely a pretex for a long rant.

The Argonauts on their quest for the Golden Fleece, so legend tells us, were constantly repairing the Argo. After 7 years of repair, the ship had been entirely rebuilt. Piece by piece everything had been replaced. Is it still the Argo?

This is entirely rhetorical, perhaps.

The human body, I once read, is up to something similar. At the cellular level, we are all constantly repairing ourselves. After 7 years, all of the cells in my body have been replaced with new ones. Am I still Samsara? As all of my annoying (one could even say crippling) foibles are still intact, I am forced to admit it’s still me. Without quite the same spring in my step, but here I am.

Of course my city had been gentrifying for decades, that’s not news. Back in late ‘80s, I was among the horrified onlookers as Gaps and Barnes and Nobles sprouted up in Astor Place. I was out of town for a few years in the early ‘90s (one could call it graduate school, but I prefer to say I was just out of town) and upon my return I could no longer afford to live in downtown’s tenements. I didn’t like moving uptown but enough of the things I loved remained. I could still shop at Fifi Le Frock, the Fleamarket on 26th Street, or if I had enough paprika in me, head out to Domsey’s to dig through the dollar-per-pound bins. I could still chow down on dim sum at the Hop Woon Sing Tea House for $1.50 per plate, pop into Cafe Degli Artisti for cannoli, catch a Kung Fu movie at the theater that is now a Buddhist temple, or hear live jazz at Augie’s. I could rehearse a show at Harlequin Studios, or Fazil's, or Charas el bohio. I could see thrilling experimental theater by expensively trained actors for a mere $12. If I had had the dough, I could have learned to ride English saddle at the Claremont Riding Academy and gone galloping through Central Park. These are all the ghosts of Christmas Past, goslings, all gone. And gone too those days of loft parties that were actually fun and when I seemed to be constantly running into Bjőrk pushing Matthew Barney’s lovechild in a stroller.

I know, I know. I am beginning to sound like those old anarchists who are forever going on and on about the Thompkins Square Park Police riots. And what grand times those were. We had unity then, they insist, we all came together against the cops. But in the end, the tent city of homeless people was driven from the park, and the surrounding area is now inhabited by investment bankers. I personally know an i-bank millionaire who lives in of these now fancy schmancy buildings and bemoans the gentrification of the neighborhood. Yes, just like that. Without any acknowledgement of his role in this dynamic. Nostalgia, I tell you, is corrosive.

Lynne Yaeger’s column this week follows some new store openings and the continued gentrification of our town. I apologize for the New York centrism of this post, but perhaps the same thing is happening in your home town?

Ms. Yaeger explores the fate of the old CBGB’s, now the serious upscale retail space of a John Varvatos store. Varvatos has evidently preserved some of the famous filth and graffiti of the old club, as a historical monument, for folks to view while shopping, I guess. I went to the club a few times in the 80s, but I was never a big fan of CBGB’s, except in Nan Goldin photographs. I never got into that rock n’ roll the kids listen to. But it’s hilarious that rich people will look at the remains of it now safely behind glass. But it’s not just that theaters and art and music venues are being replaced by retail space. That’s bad enough. But does it have to be such overwhelmingly expensive retail? She writes: “A few cute little stores on Bleecker? No prob. But Bruno Cucinelli? If you want a $1,200 cashmere cardigan, can't you just go to Saks?”

But what cuts me to the quick, is that Florent, an old meat-packing district 24 hour French dinner, is closing tomorrow. She writes: "So traumatic is the passing of Florent, so symbolic, so fraught with pain, so rage-inducing, that the restaurant has launched a series of upcoming performance pieces under the rubric 'the five stages of loss.'"

Now whenever I visit the Strand, St. Mark’s books, The Village Chess Shop, Film Forum, Anthology Film Archives, Tea and Sympathy and Caffe Reggio it’s like a dowager visiting her charities. As if they are orphanages in need of my philanthropy, but of course, I also the orphan. Please stay open, please. Raise your prices, fine, and I’ll surrender my seat to a tourist in 10 minutes, I promise, just please stay open. Otherwise I'll have nowhere to go.

Reminiscence is probably the last affordable vintage place left standing in Manhattan. (Yes, there is Brooklyn where vintage is still to be found, but sometimes I'm too tired to spend 1 hour each way to get there. But that's another post entirely.) They still do a lot of vintage reproductions which I never cared for, but it’s probably what kept them afloat. It was the sort of place I used to look down on, back in the day when there were piles of 40s rayon dresses to be had for $5 a piece at Dalia’s on 7th Street. Just piles of them. Sigh. Ah, well. Reminiscence has been good to me over the past decade. I can usually find interesting evening wear for under $20 there, including some real workhorse evening gowns that are still in high rotation. I was in there last week when I overheard a very adult-looking young woman telling her friend: “My mom used to shop here when she was young.”

And then (I know this sounds horribly contrived but so help me it’s true) when I got home I found a letter addressed to me personally from a funeral home. It begged me to take the pressure off my loved ones by buying a grave stone and plot now. I’m only 38, for crying out loud. And how did they get my name and address? (A friend of mine was recently outraged when she received a letter from a fertility clinic advising her to freeze her eggs before it was too late. She only felt better when I told her that I got that letter too, almost 8 years ago.)

Last summer I saw a documentary film, Manufactured Landscapes, which chronicles the work of Canadian photographer, Edward Burtynsky. Mr. Burtynsky’s photographs show the massive impact of industry from the denuded hillsides of iron ore extraction to the displacement of people during China’s 3 Gorges Dam project. The film also shows Mr. Burtynsky at work photographing shipbreaking in Bangladesh and the remaking of Shanghai from a city of two story houses and communal outdoor kitchens into a terrain of high rises. In one scene, filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal interviews a Shanghai real estate developer, a starkly beautiful young woman, skinny as a runway model. The developer sits in her obnoxiously modern penthouse looking down on the city. I believe that even the windows are remote-controlled. She speaks of her current troubles. In knocking down all the old 2 story apartment houses on a particular street, everyone had accepted buyouts (or perhaps succumbed to threats) except for one old woman. She just won’t leave. Skyscrapers were going up around her, blocking the sunlight to her garden and still she won’t leave. The developer simply can’t understand it, and she’s pissed off. This old lady is just gumming up the works, and what value could she possibly have? The developer says unabashedly that Shanghai is for the young, without acknowledging the impermanence of her own youth. Of course, you’d get a more sympathetic interview on the plight of minnows from a shark. And I thought, I have a lot in common with this old lady who’s staying put. I'd love a chat with her.

How much needs to vanish before I cry uncle? Before I say that the New York I loved no longer exists? The festival I dance in every summer has been cancelled. It’s kind of a relief since I can no longer afford rehearsal space. Even my more successful friends have nowhere to perform. All of this is to be sung to the tune of “Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair?”.

Many of my friends have left this town, and gone on to mortgages and children. All of them call me to express how bone-chillingly miserable they are. Between working and marriage counseling and potty training, they say that the thing that grinds them down the most is the utter lack of impending fabulousness. Gone is the feeling that maybe you’d get booked into a better venue, or meet a gallery curator who is putting together a show of pinhole photography and wants your work in it. That maybe you’d become a glove model, a dj, a UN interpreter, or Ru Paul’s ghost writer. Or perhaps you’d be lewdly propositioned by Salman Rushdie, or run into Laurie Anderson in the elevator. The feeling that something note-worthy is about to happen, and that all of your hard work could pay off.

I tell them: this place existed only in our imaginations. The sense of impending fabulousness was just a feeling. And even worse, that feeling was just a by-product of youth. And I repeat: nostalgia is corrosive. This is especially funny if I am on my analog 70s phone, wearing a 40s vintage suit and sitting in the yellow velvet chair I rescued from the garbage. Ah, it's amazing just how hard it is to see your own blindspot. Corrosive indeed.

And then I find Akhenaten staring in horror at my cassette tapes saying: “Habibi, Egypt is a third world country and even there we don’t listen to tapes anymore.” And I am at a loss, perhaps all five stages of loss, on how to move forward. Oh, I suppose I could buy an ipod, cut my hair, whistle a Sondheim tune, look at where I'm going not at where I've been. And then what? Then my 78- year-old father calls and asks me how to attach a document to an email (though he says "mail it through the internet") and I find myself filled with more compassion and patience than I thought possible.

"How do you really preserve a part of history, but keep something moving?" Mr. Varvatos asks Ms. Yaeger, "almost," she writes, "pleading for understanding."

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Blogger tea said...

Oh, what a very very wonderful post. I identify especially with the bits about the place of fabulousness merely being made up in our minds in the first place. That it's a byproduct of youth. And I'm glad I no longer live in a hard, big city that wears me out, but rather a smaller one that's easier to live in and lets me have a yard and not panic so much about the possiblity of not making enough money for an exhorbitant rent. Sure, it's not as exciting, but then again, neither am I anymore either. If I ever was.

And I must admit, I think the gentrification phenomenon as experienced in NYC is unique to the place. In my own neighborhood in the Midwest, I am welcoming the gentrification. It brings safer streets at night and higher property values to my house. BUT it doesn't bring high dollar boutiques or shove out hardworking people. Mostly just the crackheads and drug dealers are gone(ish).

10:13 PM  
Blogger Pratishtha Durga said...

The first part of the looong rant reminds me of that Hollywood film where the original people are being replaced by their clones. The clones have no idea they are clones and go on believing that they are the real people. Whatever.

If the body is replacing itself, cell by cell, how come those ugly scars from age old acne are still there?

10:46 PM  
Blogger Pratishtha Durga said...

You haven't posted for sometime now. I hope it's just because you are really, really busy keeping friends and family entertained with your sharp and quick wit :P

2:02 AM  

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