Archive for January, 2013

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The Watts Towers. 1.20.13 Los Angeles.


Yesterday, on my mother’s birthday, I went with two friends to the Watts Towers–one of the more significant spiritual journeys I have ever had in the company of other people, let alone a neighborhood. Poverty in LA (unlike poverty in NYC or the West Indies) always confuses me, since many people who live in houses often have gardens and NYC poverty sends you OUT to gardens–the Botanical Garden, etc. But, if you’re paying close attention in places like Watts, you begin to see deprivation–the outsized desire for “more,” while living with less–i.e. an enormous truck that’s bigger than the structure housing a family; suspicion and dogs. In any case, our tour of the extraordinary towers, which were never defaced or anything by Rodia’s neighbors (he was the only white man in the neighborhood and he was often referred to as Don Rodia), cast a pall of quiet joy in my soul if those words and feelings are possible together. It felt like writing to me–this architecture of invention and all made by hand, scrap after scrap, like words piling up in one’s head, or on the page. The tour was conducted by the handsomest man with the most beautiful voice–sonorous–and when I was a kid and would meet black people from California, I was always struck by the accent–a Western lightness or flatness?–that didn’t sound like “us.” In any case, it was impossible to tell the tour guy’s age (I called him, in my heart, Daddy Watts) and the beautiful play of upper body muscles as he talked and gesticulated and told stories about Rodia did nothing to betray that, either: he was our authority for the day, and also a kid-as-wit. To wit: while telling the story of Rodia, and his obsession with getting his work done, Daddy Watts–who works at the art center attached to the towers; it’s called the Charles Mingus Art Center, I believe–pantomimed Rodia’s first wife giving him the boot because he spent most of his time making his work and drinking than being married and at home. (He eventually stopped drinking.) But Mrs. Rodia how marvelous to be married to such a person, with an evangelical vision, poking around along the railroad tracks, bending metal and so on to make a third dimensional dream even more so. In the little documentary we saw afterwards, we saw Rodia at work, and his little croaky voice–he stood about 4’11–along with his felt hat warding off the sun was so moving to me, especially when he said things like: “I couldn’t hire someone to work with me. No money! I also could not tell them what to do because I do not know what I am doing.” He also said: “I am awake all night!,” as he described trying to understand his work, his life. The language of the artist. Prior to watching the film, as the tour began to wind down, Daddy Watts came up to me, on the side, and said, regarding my shoes: “Brother, where did you get those saddle Oxfords?” And when I told him New York, he said: “Nah, I ain’t going there.”

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The Beauty of Hello, the Gorgeousness of Goodbye

Screen shot 2013-05-17 at 2.47.17 PM2012 becomes 2013 with these words from Maurice Sendak. My mother shared his sentiment: Let me say goodbye first so I will miss none of you in your complications and loveliness.

 

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The Shoes

Moments after the memorial they stepped out into less complicated air. It was warm for an early winter day; the atmosphere was grey and humid and still, despite the traffic sounds, and the people movement beyond. Clutching his friend’s hands, the man said: I’m glad you were there. They looked at one another. One man was chewing gum, and the one who wasn’t longed for some of his own, so, they decided to cross the avenue to get a stick. But before that, the man who wasn’t chewing gum was stopped by another man. He was as tall and brown as the gumless one. He said: Excuse me but are you–. The man without gum nodded. His interlocutor continued: You may not remember me. But I’m –. We met many years ago, through –. And it was maybe twenty years ago and you were wearing the same shoes. I just have to say how much I like them, and what you do. The man without gum, but with the shoes, looked down at them. They were saddle shoes, the first he had ever bought for himself. And he knew the man who complimented him was referring to his previous pair of saddle shoes, a gift from a friend. Looking back as he looked at the man who had admired them–remembered how, after his friend had presented him with the saddle shoes, he sat at another desk at the newspaper they both worked at then, and polished them. Such was the work and emotion of that day. Years later, the backs of those shoes broke down, and, as he crossed 8th Street one day, the always grateful and shy recipient of his friend’s largesse saw a variation of those saddle shoes in a shop window, and put them out of his mind, almost at once: he could not replace the memory of his friend slowly rubbing oil into those first pair of shoes, ever, despite the fact that he hadn’t seen his friend for many years. He went to the organic food shop and thought about the shoes; they would not leave him alone. What was he supposed to do with his memory of love and care, and the necessity of new shoes? Would he buy his own shoes forever? Why did buying new shoes feel as though he was cheating on the old? His friend–the man who bought him his first pair of saddle shoes–was sacred, and yet he needed new shoes, shoes that reminded him of his friend, and yet carried him into the future. He bought the new saddle shoes and as he crossed the avenue in search of his stick of gum, he realized that the person he and his present friend had just memorialized was one of the few people who knew something of his old saddle shoes, and already hope and death stuck to the soles of the new pair, like gum.