We Were Never Promised Jetpacks

Twenty-five years ago, I was in a group called The Shams. We were three women singing and playing together. Richard Hell called us “beauty shop soul” and it fit: the sound of a couple friends sitting around a kitchen table talking in harmony, with guitars. We’d just released our first album on Matador and the label gave us a small budget to make a music video. In the early nineties everyone was doing them, and it was another chance to play dress up and escape from dirty dishes and day jobs (I had a three-year old and temped in an office; Sue painted fancy apartments; Amanda designed clothes). A filmmaker fresh out of college stopped by Sue’s tiny studio on 10th Street and Avenue D to give us his pitch for “Dark Angel”, an eerie song from our album Quilt.

“I see the three of you, in lingerie. You’re in a bathroom, posed around a tub. In the tub is a naked man – he’s dead, and you’re all caressing him.” Pause. “Sort of like the Pieta?”

The three of us nodded, trying to hide stunned expressions. “That sounds…interesting,” one of us managed. “We’ll, uh, let you know.”

As soon as he left, we laughed for an hour. “Never!” we shrieked. “That is the worst, most ridiculous idea EVER! Can you imagine us in lacy underwear, trying to keep a straight face while some guy lies there with no clothes on, pretending to be dead?”

“Nuh-uh,” said Sue.

“He’s got to be kidding,” said Amanda.

“When hell freezes over!” I said.

Still, we all agreed it was the funniest thing we’d heard in ages.

Two weeks later at The Shams video shoot, the tub was now a bed for practical reasons. The dead guy left for another engagement midway through, so a lighting man with a different configuration of chest hair stepped in and laid down to take his place. Other than that, it was pretty close to what the filmmaker described.

A stylist friend of Amanda’s worked a trio of Todd Oldham suits in there, in addition to the lingerie – there was no escaping Todd’s odd mix of loud patterns, quirky details and classic tailoring in 1991. Did it work with the aesthetic of the video? Who cared, it was free clothes! We looked like Mildred Pierce on LSD.

We’d moved on to the lingerie portion of the shoot, the three of us sitting around in satin and lace, bare legs, hair finally starting to droop from the two hours of curling irons and freeze spray we’d subjected ourselves to that morning. Silly as it all was, we were having a blast. We always did. “Stop laughing at yourselves!” my daughter screamed at us once, but why would we do that? Wasn’t this supposed to be fun?

Then Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth came strolling through the gallery space where the video shoot was set up, just as a makeup artist friend pumped up our lip gloss and adjusted the straps of our old-fashioned slips.

“I think they live in the building,” Sue said. They seemed to be heading our way. Maybe they’d say hello – after all, they were on Matador, we were on Matador.

In their t-shirts and unkempt hair they looked raggedly perfect. Like they were in the middle of doing laundry. Only they went on stage looking the same way. I went on stage to get away from doing laundry.

We were never afraid to make fools of ourselves – that was one of the perks of being in a band. Sonic Youth were serious. I suddenly felt like a complete dork. Like the cool neighbor kid next door just walked in my room while I was singing in a hairbrush in front of the mirror.

Kim and Thurston said hi to the camera guy. Then kept gliding across the gallery floor, right past us, like their grubby sneakers had jet packs.

“We’re cool, too – honest!” I wanted to shout. But the lip brush was in the way.

Time Capsule

The only thing missing was Geraldo.

They were opening the old serving cupboard, the one she’d carted from Brooklyn to Nashville to Cleveland, where it had rested several years in a storage space before making the trip to upstate New York, where it now stood, as a server should, near the dining table. But somewhere along the way the original key went missing. A series of skeleton keys, bobby pins, toothpicks, small screwdrivers – nothing worked. The server was locked tight as a tomb.

“What’s in there?” he asked.

She knew and she didn’t know. “Linens?” she said. “You know – tablecloths and place mats and…aprons. A whole lot of aprons.” Things she didn’t really need, things no one needed unless they were a housewife from 1952 or a flea market dealer low on stock.

The server held things on top: a lamp, CDs, guitar pics in a bowl. Bank statements. It bugged the practical him – a potential storage space gone to waste. We need to open those doors!

“Maybe there’s money?” they wondered. Maybe there’s something she’d been looking for for fifteen years. She wasn’t sure when the lock had jammed. She remembers the server sitting in a turn of the century house in Nashville – a room with tall, tall ceilings, an arts and crafts tiled fireplace, a gold sixties sofa from the West End Synagogue rummage sale. A screen door onto a front porch with an old-fashioned swing. She and her daughter age thirteen watching Seventh Heaven in smugness and envy, and a huge white cat named James.

A hand saw is out – the back’s coming off.

Where’s Geraldo? There are treasures here a little bit greater than the contents of Al Capone’s vault. Curtains, napkins and finger towels if such a thing ever existed, in homey prints pre-dating mid-century. It was the eighties when she compiled her trousseau without meaning to, for that’s what this is really – preceding independence and her own taste even. These were choices her mother made for her, cocktail napkins embroidered with drunken sailors, card table cloths with suits of cards threaded in pink and green; western motifs and a surplus of Mexican-themed fabric from back when Mexico was cartoon exotic, all unearthed at estate sales and swap meets south of Pittsburgh. She remembers wearing some of these aprons ironically but still almost blushes, thinking of first attempts at cornbread and dinner parties in an apartment with a tub in the kitchen.



atomic age

No money, but nothing scary either – no dead mouse or half-eaten seven-layer burrito from Taco Bell, from back when the novelty of middle American fast food appealed to her and her daughter. Nothing great, but nothing bad. Only a mound of Pittsburgh cast-offs covered with late twentieth century New York City grime and the white hairs of a deceased cat.

The doors don’t open from the inside either. They’ll have to call a locksmith.


Winter Of This Content

The pressure was off – the storm of the century barreling in and scheduled to hit right in time for my birthday. I was ready to embrace the nothingness, the world of white: roads closed, businesses closed. I’d already determined there are no restaurants north of Poughkeepsie open on Tuesday, so this solved the problem of what to do. We would hunker down. It would be fun, unless the power went out.

I felt like a kid waiting for snow day in the night. I kept peeking out the window expecting a dazzling snowglobe. Instead I kept seeing the same tire treads on the driveway. I’d treated myself to a new book from work, a bottle of bubbly, a chocolate bar. Eric had bought me a bottle too, and cooked a lamb casserole.

I would write, I would draw, I would play guitar. Watch movies. I went over the last several years of birthdays, and saw how I was often aimng high: there was Venice in 2008, Toulouse in 2009, back before I stopped having a credit card; the quest to find somewhere open to eat and the movie in an empty cinema in La Rochelle (2010). That awful gig in Angouleme where I had to argue with the owner to pay us what we’d agreed, she insisted we should have played three hours instead of two (doing gigs on your birthday can go a few different ways). Our first year in the US we were completely broke and stayed home eating pasta. The next year Eric’s daughter and granddaughter were visiting, we took them to the city and saw my daughter play when she still lived 1000 miles away. Last year it was bad coffee and getting recognized at Housing Works bookshop and a great Austrian meal on Ludlow Street – but we spent a fortune and I decided the next year we’d just have a great time somewhere up here.

I finally accept that having a birthday at the end of January sort of sucks, unless you live in Australia, because it’s always cold. Maybe that’s a major contributing factor to my personality – it is my birthright to be cranky!

I’m glad I’ve been keeping a blog for eight years now. As the years go faster and faster, because I’ve had so many of them, having it all written down helps me keep track of what happened.

Acceptance is a big part of adding another year to the pile. I see the anger and uncertainty in some of my older posts and think getting older is not a bad thing.


Time To Pour The Sake

They say a busy person gets more done – they do say that, right? I really hope so because this month for some reason I find myself working 4-5 shifts a week at the bookstore/bar. Why did I take on more shifts?

Maybe I was picturing the days of yore, two or was it three years ago when I first started working there, where I would drift around a peaceful store with a book in my hand, dreamily place it on a shelf.  I’d pour someone a beer, pick up another book. That was before Hudson became everyone’s favorite weekend and mid-week destination. We used to serve beer and two kinds of wine, red and white. Now there are ten wines, and even dreaded sake. Food to prepare and all the accompanying greasy dishes to wash. The tips are better but my cozy little slacker job feels like a full-time grind right now.

When I was driving to Hudson yesterday, a guy on a radio show was talking up his book about the good old days when artists like “Lucinda Williams…and, and Patti Smith!” worked in bookstores to get a foothold in the arts. “Quentin Tarantino worked in a video store!” How thanks to big corporations those days are gone, the little stores are gone, and artists are becoming hobbyists now because they’re not able to make a middle class wage publishing poetry or putting out records any more. I was clawing at the radio, practically driving the van off the Rip Van Winkle Bridge in exasperation – yes people don’t pay for music that much anymore and my quarterly BMI royalty check this week is half what my weekly bookstore paycheck is but I still have to believe I’m working for something greater. I wanted to grab the well-intentioned guy and say stop being a doomsayer and see individuals still coming up with new stuff and don’t equate having to do it in a different way than grandma or grandpa who had things like record deals, don’t equate that with failure. Can’t we see the job to make money part as the hobby and the work, the work goes on forever. same as it ever did?

And then I slung beer, wine and sake for eight hours and sold the occasional book. Talked about Hemingway with a customer. Wrote in my head. Came home with a wad of tip money. The warm cozy feeling has gone out of the place for me because my friend Karen isn’t there anymore. She lovingly ordered the books, rocked as a bartender, helped me get the job and we were compadres. Got to have someone to moan with – I miss her. At least we play music together now. There’s a Schoemer Formation show next week. It’s good to play again – even after all the touring my hand is out of condition for this stuff, it feels like a shriveled paw on the fretboard and keyboard. Must rehearse!

Got to keep up with the gym and yoga. I made a quick trip to the city last weekend and I hate to say, aside from the beautiful Matisse show the highlight was finding a pair of jeans at Uniqlo that fit me. Okay, maybe that was number one. Bette Midler in the elevator down from the Matisse exhibit, THEN the Matisse exhibit.

I have a goal to get to 100 pages for my draft revision by the end of February, I’m up to 40 so I still have a lot of work to do. How can I get anything done when I have to spend most of my waking hours hydrating my skin? Either moisturizing, drinking water, eating oily fish – this winter is killing me. And to think I didn’t go for living down south partly because of the humidity.

There’s an Eric & Amy show at our house at the end of this month, a Homemade Aeroplane January 31. We have a wonderful special guest coming over this weekend to work up a set with us, I am so excited – one of my favorite singers. Must rehearse!

The house looks like a tornado hit it and the laundry is piling up. Eric has been putting new cabinets and a counter in the kitchen, it’s beautiful but I swear everything we eat comes with a side of sawdust.

And before the end of the month, looking for that magic moment when the tire balance and check engine lights haven’t come on yet in the van so I can get it inspected. It can’t pass with the lights on. What repairs does it need? Maybe that’s why I’m working these extra shifts…

That’s enough of this list. Don’t you hate those “I’m so busy…” people? I’ve got to go open up the store.

Eric  & Amy’s Homemade Aeroplane Saturday January 31 Catskill, NY

Peace Is

Car wheels stop rolling and we’re home. The house is like we left it – suitcases and empty record boxes, laundry and guitar cases but cleaner than I remembered. Out the back window I see a lone glowing Santa – it’s almost Christmas.

neighbor santaI’m fighting off a cold and Eric is limping. My hair’s gone white in one spot, lines under my eyes. The bathroom mirror doesn’t lie – I saw myself in here two months ago and thought I looked pretty good. Now I think I need to sleep, drink more water. Wonder when that Kiehl’s Midnight Recovery Oil will arrive by mail?

I go back to work. The bookstore is all changed around, but I don’t have time to think about it, there’s a line of customers doing Christmas shopping. At the bar the regulars call out my name and I feel happy to be back.

Yoga. I lie on the floor looking up at the tall tall windows with red curtains, and the medallion in the ceiling of this beautiful old building, listening to Sasha the instructor talk in a low familiar voice. This is easy yoga, Monday morning basics. After, I go to Swallow for a coffee. I pick up my phone to call Eric to see if he wants to meet me there but he’s already texted asking if I want to have coffee in Swallow.

The farm store. There are a few Christmas trees leaning around, starting to yellow – it’s two days before Christmas. “Are these on sale?” I ask the tree guy. “Nope.” We buy one anyway.

Back at work the customers are lined up to the back of the store. I’m a swiping, smiling, wrapping machine. I pour a beer for a regular and before I can set it down in front of him, he says “I’d like that wrapped please.” I reach for the wrapping paper without thinking. We laugh.

Christmas morning I get up early and decorate the tree. It felt indulgent spending money on something we’re just going to throw away in a few days, but hanging up the box of old ornaments, I think of my mother and how she loved decorating for the holidays. She’s been gone so long I don’t feel close to her very often anymore but for a few minutes with little glass ornaments and bits of ribbon and straw in my hands, I do.

Eric and I take a walk in nearby Athens. Twenty-six years ago when Hazel was a baby my group the Shams played a Christmas party at Stewart House, an old hotel on the Hudson River. From New York City it felt like traveling to outer space – do people actually live all the way up here? For a while now Christmas has meant a visit to NYC but this year it doesn’t occur to me to go, I’m too happy to be home, all the way up here.

stewart house

“Wish we could look in one of these old houses.” Athens is full of historic buildings. “Hey, isn’t that Frank?” Our friend Frank is loading some tools out of his truck and into an old house that he’s bought and is renovating. He takes us in and shows us around.

Hazel and Ben her boyfriend arrive from the city by Zipcar. We tromp through the bird sanctuary at sunset, laughing about stuff. Hazel helps me roast a duck (non-sanctuaried…bought at the farm store). The recipe says “Easy” but eight dirty pans and a slightly desiccated crispy duck later we’re not so sure. Everybody tears at the bird with bare hands to get a little meat. We open presents and laugh some more.


Christmas is over and it’s back to work. Eric tidies up the studio and we sing together on the microphone, feeling like the Archies for a minute.

Next morning the sun comes through the window next to the tree, I see the past year start to recede and wonder what’s up ahead?

december 26Thanks for making it this far with me, and here’s to the next part. 


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 107 other followers