Everything Changes

We’ve been watching a man drive a narrowboat down the canals and through the locks of the midlands of England. Chug. Chug. He stops to buy a curry in a small town. He talks about the curry. Tied up along the path, he works on the boat’s engine. 

Every night we watch another episode of the narrowboat show. We’re not going anywhere, except where the narrowboat guy takes us — and he’s very limited by the speed of the boat and the (actually very impressive) network of canals and locks in the UK. I used to scream “Nooo!” when Eric said maybe we’d have a holiday on a canal boat someday.

What have I become?

*

There’s this house you pass on the NY State Thruway heading north, somewhere around where the exits start getting further and further apart; that hypnotic stretch between the Harriman exit and the Newburgh exit/I-84 interchange. A proud old house that sits at an odd angle established before the Thruway that makes it impossible to ignore as you drive by. There’s not a lot to look at along the road for miles around there and that house has always intrigued me but as I pass I’m usually driving nearly eighty miles an hour and am eager to be home. The thoughts “I wonder who lives there” and “that place is cool” plus “I think I can make it home without stopping at Plattekill rest area” float by.

I drove by last Saturday and the house had burned down. 

It seemed to sum up everything.

I came up the thruway because I’d driven my daughter back down to the city. She’d come for a visit, staying a week — the longest she’s ever had time to stay with us. It seemed safest if she didn’t have to take the train. And god I do miss driving. 

She was here when our town held a march in solidarity with protests all over honoring George Floyd and highlighting and demanding an end to the systemic injustice and racism in this country.  Hazel and Eric and I went together. Enough Is Enough was what the young women who’d organized the march named it. I was worried about Eric — it had only been two weeks since he’d had a heart attack — but he felt up for going; insisted we march. It was moving and eye-opening and inspiring. Shouting and chanting with our neighbors, kneeling together — I hadn’t realized how much I needed to do these things, to show up and join in.

A middle-aged woman stood behind us in suitable upstate wear, cotton skirt, sports sandals, greying hair. Her large poster read: LISTENING. I could feel my daughter cringe. I found myself cringeing at the earnestness. But I decided I loved this woman. However embarrassing it might feel, she was making an attempt to learn something, to step back from talking and telling and being the expert on everything that is a New Yorker’s birthright or chosen state of mind. Here’s where we have to stumble along and admit our ignorance, or blindness. You can’t always know it all. 

*

People have asked if I’ve met the neighbors that I wrote a blog and a song about. We had a short, hazy encounter over the hedge – me saying “hi there I’m your neighbor” and them looking terrified of me, the guy introducing himself and “my wife” while she stood mutely by. I thought they probably couldn’t figure out anything based on my working in the backyard garb of shorts, ballcap, long sleeved shirt and mask, and maybe they just saw me as that pesky older lady next door and then there was the matter of the white haired gentleman attired in a suit coat who comes out occasionally to talk to a groundhog.

The other day a delivery driver left the neighbors’ J.Crew package on our porch and I thought oh right, better take that over when I have a minute, planning to just quickly dump it on their porch, no meet and greet required. When I went to do that, the package was mysteriously gone! Leaving me to wonder if they’d come up on our porch and why and how? I imagine they learned there’d been a delivery and not seeing it had come looking for it but the whole thing left me feeling a little less than satisfied — like there was something accusatory in them coming up on our porch, whereas it would have been largesse if it had been me on their porch. Oh it’s a minefield this neighbor stuff. It was so much easier just having that house next door be empty…

*

Our neighbor on the other side Jason’s dad comes over every Monday to mow the grass. He uses a riding mower and is very focused when he’s mowing. This past Monday, I was out with the push mower and he came swooping around when I was pushing towards him. I waved and he waved and for two minutes we were dancing with our mowers — I backed up and he cut in and it was so sweet I thought “is this what it means to become an old person?” 

*

About that groundhog. Eric calls him Graham. He lives in the overgrown area near the decaying Hammond organ. We love Graham. One morning, I saw him sitting in the pouring rain, looking happy to be alive. He’s ungainly, he’s unapologetic. 

I’d gone for months without coloring my hair. Not because I go to a salon to get it done but because it felt like the type of penance I needed to be doing. Or an experiment. All those posts people put up about going grey.

Well I’m not grey yet. Just…washed out with a silver streak. I missed that little boost that color brings. Maybe I will be one of those little old ladies you see in France or Brooklyn or wherever, with that chocolate-colored cap of hair. Not trying to fool anyone. Just doing it because it makes you feel like you have something under control for a minute.

I’m not as relaxed as Graham — not yet.

*

I went to pick up Chinese food from our local place. Linda, the nice woman who runs it, stood alone behind a plywood and plexiglass barrier. She’s always so friendly and we have a good laugh, this time as there were no other customers we chatted for a minute. She talked about the virus, how her niece in the city had survived it, and two relatives in New Jersey died from it. “Why can’t people just wear a mask? Why do they have to be mean about it?” she asked. I thought she seemed so brave and tough, standing there in an empty restaurant, handing me my food and thanking me for wearing a mask. They’d basically rebuilt the front of the place to let them keep working. They are one of the few options in our little town and I really missed having them there when they were figuring out how to do business. I just wanted to hug her but of course that wasn’t possible. All I could do was thank her so much and tip her more than usual. I cried when I got back in the car, partly that anyone would give this lovely woman a hard time, but mostly just at her resilience.

*

I stopped by the bookstore/bar, which has been open only for pickup book and beer orders since the middle of March.  Sitting at the bar talking to the owner, seeing and smelling the books, like a load of old friends and some new ones I hadn’t seen before; the floorboards I’ve swept hundreds of times, made me emotional. I’d thought I wanted to go back to work, but what I really want is for things to go back to the way they were before the pandemic and I realized that isn’t possible. Browsing ie touching everything in the store, drinkers pressed up next to each other, these behaviors will not be possible again for a long time.

I still have my main job, that I’ve been working at for almost forty years: writing songs and recording; performing. I almost had a show this weekend — it was going to be an outdoor event, socially-distanced, about forty five minutes away. A house concert so the host would know everyone, but in the end they decided to postpone until…August? How will things be different then? Maybe we will just be so tired of sitting still and used to putting on masks and staying away from each other in public that it actually will be possible. I hope so. I think I have a couple actual gigs still on the books for this year. And I don’t feel confident about them. And I’ve been tested and I have antibodies! I just don’t know about promoting things, until people are ready to go out again. Until there’s a vaccine? It seems pointless to fret about it. I’ve been trying to do the thing I never have time to do when I’m out working in music: work on music.

*

I saw a beauty salon chair just over the road and thought “wait, that’s free?” It seemed to have my name invisibly emblazoned somewhere on it. I jumped on my bike and wheeled around to take a look.

Yep — free. Nobody was around so I decided to think about it over night, and if it was still there in the morning, maybe it would have to come home with me. I doubted I’d ever actually plug it in and use it but who knows? Everything is in flux. Maybe it’ll be a whole new life path for me. My grandfather was an Italian barber and I’ve always been able to cut hair a little.

The next morning, the guy who lives in the house with the salon chair out front was in his driveway. I decided to run over and ask him about it.

“Hey Dave, hi! Are you really giving that chair away?”

“Yeah, it was my daughter’s. You want it?”

I was giddy. “I think I do!”

“Take that chair and you’ll be my friend for life,” Dave said.

Dave is our town’s Chief of Police.

Timing was never my strong suit. 

I took the chair.

Today, we’re getting a boat.

Jellicle Cat

I’ve been looking for the cats. 

When we first moved to Catskill, they were a minor annoyance. Cheery, cheesy fiberglass cat statues lining the main street of our small town for a few months every summer. Decorated to please in tutus, army fatigues, Santa suits. Things were so quiet around town back then that next to the marina they were the number one attraction. Eric and I were both cranky and churlish about the cats.

“Oh—them.”

“They’re back. Again!”

I’m not even sure why but they bugged me. The cats weren’t cool. Local artists or just plain folks wanting to express themselves would go all out decorating their cats. Some day around Memorial Day there they’d be, jauntily lining the curb at intervals, between parking meters and trash receptacles. At the end of the summer, the town auctioned off the cat statuies to raise money for…the local arts council maybe? Never quite engaged enough to figure it out.

One summer the cat factory must have miscalculated and there sprinkled among the larger than life size cats on posts around town were…fiberglass dogs? Painted up and looking very wrong.

I started to realize I was actually fond of the cats. Sure they were a cheap thrill, but they were our cheap thrill. When people stopped in town to photograph grandma and the kids with the Catskill cats, well it was better than a lot of things. Better than them passing the town by completely, or referring to it as “that dump?” as a woman I met once did. “That sad place where they give the driving tests…” had been another.

Apparently this town is always on the verge of a comeback, always on the brink of becoming more than the best-kept secret of the Hudson Valley. The cats helped in a way —because they were so uncool — to distinguish Catskill from Hudson. Nothing pretentious or aspirational about the cats. Nothing glamorous to see here fancy people, move along.

I’ve written here before about wanting some of those amenities that either spell the arrival of big city visitors or are a direct result of them having arrived: a good restaurant, a bar or two, shops where you can buy nice cheese and produce that is grown right around the corner. Coffee and wine and books and things that help make life enjoyable. But that can also spell the arrival of money that makes the place suddenly unaffordable for a lot of the residents who’ve been there forever.

The cats aren’t exactly the antithesis of that. Nobody is directly earning anything off the fiberglass cats, and no single aesthetic is at work. They are a mish mosh, they are an ersatz parade of bright paint and glitter and cartoon motifs. You’d have to be a real grump to expend even one ounce of energy being against them.

Around about three years ago, I decided I loved the cats. I’m not exactly sure which year but for some reason the cats were slow in making an appearance. Life felt duller, Main Street just wasn’t the same. We need those cats to tell us who we are.

I just couldn’t bear it if the cats didn’t make an appearance this year.

My husband had a heart attack.

How’s that for burying the lede?

A week ago Eric was in the hospital. He wrote so vividly about it on his blog. How it all went down was his story to tell, not mine. I mean, I guess it’s my story too, but I don’t have all the details. Only the “oh shit, what the hell is happening,” drive like crazy to the hospital part. Only the saying the words “my husband is having a heart attack” not because I knew that with certainty but because if anything would make a gatekeeper think “urgent” – that was it. I think by Saturday I felt pretty sure he was going to be okay. In fact it was very fast from taking him to the emergency room, seeing him whisked away in distress, in a wheelchair, until hearing from him via cellphone and also from a nurse, that the situation was in hand and he would be fine. Heart attack, when caught in time, can be dealt with by a string of procedures a good hospital has down to, yes a science. Science is incredible. Doctors and nurses and medical staff are – I know it sounds trite because we say it so much- heroes. Every day they save people’s lives. I start crying just thinking about it. There was no visiting allowed at the hospital because of coronavirus restrictions so I don’t have faces to put to any of this, except for Scott the nurse who came down to talk to me while I waited in the hospital parking lot in Hudson. But they are all scrub-wearing angels to me.

Eric is home now. He came home after a few days, or rather I picked him up at the hospital, expecting a crumpled man in a wheelchair when in fact he looked like…I’m sorry, a pop star—coming out of a health spa retreat. The orderly pushing him in a wheelchair looked both entertained and confused by Eric. They probably don’t get many like him in Albany. I imagine everyone up in the ICU missing him, going “wow, what was that?”

It’s kind of like the cats. Not the part where I didn’t get it, was annoyed at first. I’ve gotten Eric from the first second I heard Semaphore Signals. Or…maybe not gotten but wanted to be in his world, the one he creates wherever he goes. When I met him for real it was the same – he was brushing snow off his coat, said “they just closed the Humber Bridge, I was the last one they let across” and someone had told me he lived on a boat and I just thought “Oh I want to be on that boat.”

When Eric and I were first together, living in France and playing often in the UK, there’d inevitably be a gruff bloke at a gig here or there who’d say, in a voice so deep it seemed to come from an old coal cellar or the place where they kept the beer kegs: “Look after him for us.” It didn’t exactly sound like a threat, but I felt the weight of responsibility. We all mean something to the people in our lives, but he was telling me that Eric meant something to a lot of people, beyond family, friends and co-workers. People who’d held him in their hearts, who’d looked up to him and heard him telling their experiences through his records and shows for decades. He wasn’t just my guy, he was their guy.

When there’s no Eric, just like when there’s no cats, I’m not exactly sure where I am. They brighten up the place. I think how much easier it would be to get the car door open at a parking meter if those crazy cats weren’t in the way, but then I think how preposterous and great they are, the way they add so much color to the place.

This is all kind of a forced analogy but then, my husband just had a heart attack.

The cats are back.

When they’re here, and when he’s home, I know where I am.

Bites/This

I tried to stop myself, knowing it was pointless, but I couldn’t help it – at six AM yesterday morning I typed into Google: WHEN WILL THINGS GO BACK TO NORMAL?

That there was no apparent answer wasn’t surprising. I guess what was surprising was how many people asked the same question, in actual publications, news programs, and just online in general. I pictured a few of them at that very moment, some in England five hours later 11 AM all dressed and doing their best to at least appear to be having a semblance of regular life. Others like me, sipping coffee in that weird mid-spring combination of winter and warm weather sleep garments, the sun coming up and the garbage truck going by for what felt like the fourth time that morning. I’d been reading a noir thriller to try and fall back asleep (is it possible there’s something comforting in the evil men used to do vs the evil they do now? Probably not but at least there’s comfort in knowing evil men of the past are DEAD) and since that wasn’t working, I thought I’d throw my question out there, like shouting into a dusty canyon and hearing the voices of other lost hikers coming back instead of your own. We are all lost, but we are not alone in being lost.

I finally went back to bed to try for another hour of rest, after telling Eric I’d noticed a mouse had eaten the potholder. “Right,” he’d answered from a deep sleep, sounding just like Brenda Blethyn as Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope, and I was comforted, first knowing he was very slowly getting back to normal and also that the mouse would be dealt with in due course.

A couple years ago I bit lustily into a baguette and chipped my front tooth. The dentist did a good repair but told me “I’m sorry, but your days of biting lustily into baguettes —or apples, or anything hard and crunchy —are over.” It does diminish the joy of eating, that having to be careful. But I still love good food and I can still eat what I love, I just have to approach with a degree of caution. A year ago I forgot to watch out and crunched into something delicious, and damn —it broke off again. Same repair that insurance didn’t pay for, so I felt it more, paying again, and have been even more delicate this past year, to the point where when someone in a film crunches into an apple I jump in fear and at the same time want to applaud. 

Screen Shot 2020-05-07 at 8.45.48 PM
Episode 3, Season 10 of Curb Your Enthusiasm – Larry deals with his own apple crunching issues…

So when I  did manage to fall back asleep, I dreamt that I bit into a baguette and looked in the mirror and had broken a sizable part of my front tooth off. Now this being a dream (sorry, I won’t go on much longer) my front teeth were the size of Bugs Bunny’s. So that was a lot of tooth to break. I felt like such a fool, and thought “oh well, guess I need to get back to the dentist and she can probably fix this but it’s going to cost a lot more and be that much harder to not break it AGAIN.”

Then I woke up and felt so happy when I realized I’d been dreaming, and my tooth was still intact. Delicate and fragile but still there. And for one second, I flashed on WHEN WILL THINGS GO BACK TO NORMAL? and how it would maybe be like my tooth going forward. Nothing will ever be the same as when I could just crack the skin of an apple or chomp right into that golden crust of a baguette, but I still have apples and bread to enjoy. And I will remember and treasure forever what it was like to feel so carefree. 

Maybe there will be a vaccine for coronavirus soon. In the next year? I sure hope so. Normal will not be resumed as much as a new normal take its place. I don’t have a tidy ending for this, just a wish to share my feelings of loss, and hope, across the dusty canyon.

IMG_3377
At WFMU Toddophonic’s show, Oct 2019

If you have a little spare time, Girl To City podcast is here

Welcome Wagon 2020 Part Two

If you’re a songwriter, especially one who writes about everyday things, it’s not unusual – quite common really – for people to say “write a song about it!” when something unexpected or completely ordinary happens. A couple people said exactly that regarding my last post and I started to write this song as an exercise really, but then it kept flowing. Instead of making a demo, I filmed it to share.

PS…The day after I wrote the song, I was working out in the backyard and heard the new neighbors just over the hedge. I felt like it was up to me, waved, said hello from about ten feet away and “I’m Amy, I live next door, congratulations on your house and…Welcome To The Block.” They looked a little terrified but seemed nice.

Welcome Wagon 2020

We’ve got new neighbors! The house next door that’s been vacant for nearly five years finally has occupants, a young couple I spotted unloading a U-Haul and standing out on their back deck. I wonder what they see when they look over into our yard? The decaying Hammond organ…a falling down shed and fenced in small area left over from the previous owners (a dog pound apparently?) we haven’t gotten around to dismantling yet…A pile of branches and sticks…some mismatched garden furniture…a picnic table and bench that need painting. I hope they feel happy and secure in their new home. I wish I could go over and say hi…

Maybe I should write them a letter, tie it with a ribbon to a rock and throw it over into their yard?

“Welcome to the neighborhood – sorry we can’t bring you apple cake from Price Chopper rewrapped in aluminum foil so it looks homemade (like our neighbor across the street did when we first moved in – we think she just wanted to get a look at us) but…we’re quarantined.

We’re so glad you moved next door – just, please don’t come over here – we’re quarantined.

And don’t hesitate to ask if you need anything at all: hedge trimmers, lawn mower, cup of sugar – but, sorry can’t help you right now- we’re quarantined.

Excuse the constant stream of Fed Ex, UPS, post office trucks, wine deliveries, friends in Subarus dropping off food, and sorry if they use your driveway to turn around in but – we’re quarantined.

Would love to share some of the bounty with you but…

If you see the Greene County health officials stopping by, not to worry – we just have a deadly infectious disease and are living right next door but really, WELCOME TO THE BLOCK!

You’ll find us a friendly bunch under normal circumstances but since that may never happen again, and we never actually get to meet in person, we’re just glad to know you’re there.

We promise not to be a nuisance or make a lot of noise over here, because we’re under lockdown.

But if we do make a lot of noise and act like a nuisance, come on give us a break, we’re under lockdown.

Did you move up here from NYC? That is so cool, to have hip city folk living right next door but for god’s sake don’t come anywhere near us, we don’t need your city virus compounding the upstate version we already have thank you.

If you see a man and a lady wandering around in separate quadrants of the backyard, looking like they should be somewhere else, or hear someone howling at the moon or crying under the stars, just know we’re really happy to have you as our new neighbors. The world is a mess but neighbor helping neighbor, in theory but not practice – that’s what it’s all about. Depending how long this goes on, we may never actually meet but just know, it’s great having you as our neighbors.”

IMG_3447

Thanks for all the messages of support, and food & vitamin deliveries. We have a great neighborhood really, that stretches miles and miles…just very safely.