January 02, 2002

The holidays felt like a 2-week vacation for the U.S.; everyone seemed to take the Friday before Christmas off for a five-day weekend; last Wednesday through Friday were skeletal workdays, and then another 4-day weekend through New Years'. The time passed very quickly; went to Macy's the day after Christmas... total mayhem, absolute plunderage, racks overturned, shoe department looked like people had just thrown the shoes up in the air and let them fall like expensive confetti. I bought a pair of said shoes, as my regular work/walking shoes wore right through the heels creating a very steep edge which continually caught on stairs and sidewalk cracks, courting disaster. My new shoes were the only basic (non-neon highheeled psudosneakers, non stilettos or upper east side matron pumps) thing on offer, although they pretty much look like bowling shoes in a two-toned brown motif. Remember when a pair of basic black Doc Martins was all you needed?

The following day, a van plowed into the back of a city bus on that same corner in Herald Square, squashing and killing 7 pedestrians.

Last Friday I went back to Ground Zero having heard the rumor that a public viewing platform was opening. An international crowd of 50,000-plus solemnly walked the circuit outside the fence. The platform did not open until Sunday, and although I wanted to get up at 6 and be one of the first on it (for journalistic coup), it was dark and cold and I slept on. The Times reported that the actual first person was one of those people who makes a career of being the first in line for major openings and events; he arrived at 5 and waited for 4 hours.

I went down at 2 pm, the line stretched 4 blocks up Broadway and then circled almost entirely back on itself around another full square block. At first I just wandered around soaking up the almost frenzied voyeurism; then, as penance for my sloth, got on the end of the line and shuffled forward as the sun waned and the wind-chill drove the temperature into the teens, reaching the platform at 5pm. We were given less than a minute on the plywood walkway. Police shouted "no stopping! don't block the walkway!" to people who'd waited almost three hours for this moment and struggled with cameras and maps, trying to orient themselves. I saw far less than I'd seen both on the ground inside the perimeter the night before Thanksgiving (when I waited almost three hours for the chance to take a Red Cross 'walkabout') and, two weeks before that, when a kindly cop escorted me onto the family viewing platform on the West side. There is, literally, less to see; all of the destroyed structured have been fully dismantled. More than that, the regimented, generic 'tour' experience creates unbridgeable distance. Although interviewees professed emotion and catharsis, I felt more estranged from the event and the site than when I stood at the Canal Street cordon (10 blocks uptown) in the first week of shock. But I did need to do the public tour to sort of create the circle or cycle of the site's symbolism.

Last night I performed in front of an audience for the first time in, what.. three years. New Years' Eve my friend Heather called from L.A. in high spirits and a sense of unlimited possibility. She told me I should break the ice, get back out there, even go to Open Mics if I had to. So the next day was bloody marys and a leisurely brunch, tidying the house and watching Topsy Turvy (Mike Leigh's Gilbert and Sullivan tribute... excellent). I went at about 2:30 over to St. Mark's Church to the annual 12-hour poetry reading to see if there were any slots available. No, and $15 to get in. But the alternative reading (there's always, in every organic, originally egalitarian annual event that becomes a scene, a growing history of slights or disgruntlement against the 'institution' that creates an 'alternative' event), which used to be a small, anarchic event at Jazz of the Streets, was now at the Knitting Factory, and profiled as a 'Voice Choice' for the day. After much bloody maryage over hours and the very long movie, it was dark and cold and 10 pm when I decided fuck it, rather than putting off onto a list things like "get out more. participate," I'll just go down for the end.

I walked down (it's at the very southern end of Soho, truly, if you go 2 blocks east, you're solidly in the government/courts/police plaza area). I walked in and there was this table with cd's and chapbooks and I signed up for the open mic. There were 150 scheduled readers, and they were running a good hour behind. The MC's.. both the one onstage and a second one who came in for the final hour... sucked. Back in '96 I MC'd a performance benefit/festival in this space; I used to know eveyone on the scene. Now, it was the same vibe and same scene dynamics.. but all new people. As usual, the range and intensity of talent in New York is astounding (and remember.. this was the alternate reading.. the 'real' talents, 12-hours'worth, were at St. Mark's). Also as usual, showcase formats have a deadening effect on the texture and uniqueness of the performers. The 3-minute limit was so strictly enforced that people rushed; you hardly glommed on to a given reader or singer's cadence, vision, or 'voice' before they were replaced, leading to a sort of tv-soundbite-sampler feel. A woman who did a surprisingly fine poem about a childhood friend's suicide was gonged off the stage just as the piece culminated in the moment the man threw himself from the George Washington Bridge; several singer-songwriters had their mic turned off right in the middle of the rousing refrain (including the guy who'd mc'd the previous hour)... and these were the invited performers. Add to this the sort of suffering-through vibe of an audience composed almost entirely of people waiting several hours to read themselves and each of their few friends waiting to hear them so they could leave... well...

I knew just 2 performers, two of the best, veterans. Joel, aka, Baron von Blumenzack, aka ZeroBoy, was there in a faux-fur vest and white cowboy har, roaming restlessly around, pissed off because he was supposed to have gone at 10:30. He did a sort of year-end wrap-up sound collage; he's unique and a fine performer if you ever get the chance to see him, well worth it. His sound effects are all from the mouth; he did news soundbites, the countdown, crowd noises, sort of mimed a dejay and slowed down/distorted the effects as if the whole thing was pretaped. He has gotten nothing but better in the last few years; he's supposed to be profiled in this coming weekend's Post. Matthew Courtney was there; he just read a few quotes from famous authors of yore about the human condition, ending with Aeschylus? Euripides? on courage. Matthew was an art star of the spoken word in the '90's, appearing on MTV and touring; I've been in a seies he curated some years back. He is very at home on stage, and very compelling, with a sort of retro, urbane understatement of faint irony, always styish shaved head and fitted black suits. He's also a better MC than almost anyone for these events and, as I've noticed before with seasoned performers, there was a visible relaxation in the room once he took the stage, a sort of relief and trust from all the striving, rushing. He took his time, made some asides and bon mots... I think there would have been a riot had the singularly insensitive flag-waver dared time him out. (I say insensitive because he would flag people who were clearly ending their pieces, not allowing a few seconds' grace or dignity).

Open mic was last, which meant that people who'd signed up at 4pm had waited eight hours already. The mc went down the list and took the first four people who were still present. I went out to the bar for a beer. There's a video monitor of the main stage at the bar, so performers and audience members know when what they came to see is going on. We watched a few rant-stylists (with sound turned off), and then the mc came back on with the list. I rushed around to the theater just as he was reading off my name (last on the list). "I'm here" I said. Went back and downed my beer, watched a rant-poet refuse the 3-minute limit and get pushed off the stage, shouting fuck you!, and went up and speed-read my 'Dear Dr. Scholl's" letter. I knew from the radio segment that it was 3 minutes and 15 seconds long, so I was editing as I went, and nowhere near as calm or rhythmic as the piece deserves. The timer waved the flag at the penultimate sentence, so I skipped nuance and read the last few words.

There were actually people there, as the final hour (scheduled for 11-12, although it was now 12:30) was given over to Surf Reality theater collective people. We stayed to hear Reverend Jen (who Heather had mentioned last night on the phone to me as running a good, non-slam open mic) describe her Troll Museum (funny and nice). I got introduced to her boyfriend, Nick Zed, the experimental filmmaker, who said "We just made a film; "Lord of the Cockrings." A woman came over to me and said "that was great; you made me cry." She then got onstage and belted out "Total Eclipse of the Heart." Walked the cold deserted streets home thinking, plus ca change, plus le meme chose.