Back before Christmas in what feels like another lifetime, I treated myself to a pair of loose overalls. I’d seen the young barista in the coffee shop near where Eric and I were working on a flat in England looking so cool in his and had to ask where he got them. They were made by a local company, and not expensive. Dare I? I thought. I ordered a pair in dark blue corduroy, my Christmas present to myself.
When they arrived and I put them on, I wasn’t sure. They were waistless and shapeless, but that’s what gives the wearer power, I thought. If I stood in just the right way, I felt bold and strong and free. I’m used to clothes fitting, defining my body. That’s an old way of thinking, right? This would be the new me! The clothes don’t define the wearer, the wearer creates their own shape! I imagined the whole exercise of owning a baggy pair of overalls rearranging my personality, an important step in my development as a human being. I strode around in them as much as a person can stride in all that fabric, unsure whether to commit or send them back.
“I think if I wash them, they’ll really come into their own—when they’re softer,” I said, knowing that washing meant I had committed to keeping them.
I washed and wore the overalls once or twice in England, each time feeling my body like an ungainly child inside a bouncy castle as I walked down the street. It’s just too windy here, I thought, as fabric whipped around my legs. When I get back to America, they’ll really come into their own.
Then the coronavirus hit and again I thought “this is the moment for this shapeless garment to come into glory.” We’re all rethinking who we are and what matters to us now. Three times I’ve put the overalls on—literally to walk from one part of the house to another, or wheel a garbage bin out to the street. Instead of reveling in the freedom: no waistband! No tight fabric around my knees or calves! I’ve found myself depressed, wondering what life is all about (I guess that’s kind of a blessing, the ability to hold a pair of corduroy pants responsible for providing meaning and purpose). I hung them on a hook in the closet and will no doubt take them out and try again, only to fling them off in near rage : “I’m just not FREE enough for these overalls.” It’s helpful to have a goofy, friendly pair of sustainably made pants as a target for your anger.
I took a moment the other day to fold up the black cloth we use to cover equipment in the back of the car, if there are extra guitars or stands etc that don’t fit in the trunk. The cloth had been sitting there crumpled up since a gig one or two months ago. Folding it felt ceremonial, like the folding of the American flag soldiers do at a military funeral. There was a finality to it, or maybe I was just feeling dramatic. When will we use the black cloth again?
Do you wonder who you’ll be when it’s all over? I read of men growing beards, women casting off their bras, their hair dye and I think again “I’m not that free…” I like the structure of a bra. Putting color on my hair isn’t something I do for others, but to make it easier to feel like me. What will fall away and what will remain of habits, routines, work practices that we use to define ourselves?
I got myself ready to play an online gig a few weeks ago. I felt sort of like a man who’s lost his job but gets up and puts on a suit and tie, sits down at the breakfast table at the same time he used to, reading the financial section of the paper even though he’s out of money, then folds over the classified/want ads section and pulls out a red marker, circling possibilities. Setting up some lights, making a little set list, putting on makeup and boots, a sharp jacket was me feeling like I had purpose. I missed the audience though, and only days later saw that people were commenting and clapping along with each other in a comments thread. It was sweet and what makes the whole show thing worthwhile in the end—not the performing but the communion. I think next time I would just sit with the phone in front of me like a person, not a camera.
We’re quarantined, we’re isolated and have been for weeks. I’ve been to the supermarket in mask and gloves and the post office. Where else is there to go?
I pulled out of our street and saw children holding up signs and waving, cheering and couldn’t figure out what was going on. There were moms and dads out in their front yards too, waving their arms and smiling. I sat one in a line of cars ahead of and behind me, and as we moved slowly I stopped and rolled down the window and shouted across a lawn to ask some neighbors what was going on.
“It’s the kids saying hi to their teachers.” I felt sheepish, a pretender in the line, simply on my way to the post office. Kids need their teachers —no matter what they say— they love their teachers. It made me cry.
If I use a night cream that purports to take off ten years, and “results appear after four weeks,” and I’m aging two years every week due to stress and fear, how can I time it right so that I’ll have stayed pretty much the same by the end of all this? I remember a product called Hope In A Jar. This is a much deeper hope, to not be wrecked completely. Will anything remain from before when this ends?
When will it end?
I just removed the next round of dates from my calendar…goodbye May in Ohio. Goodbye July festival in Nottingham.
I still haven’t taken my canceled/postponed UK tour dates off my Facebook header. It’s like a little memorial to my UK book tour.
I’ve read people say they don’t ever want to see another photo of what people are cooking due to being isolated at home during the coronavirus pandemic.
I love those photos. I’ve cooked soup and gumbo and make dish after dish, night after night, as we all do. I feel lucky to have the money to buy fresh food. Eric is cooking a lamb stew right now. It’s the first dish he ever cooked for me, years ago, and he’s usually too busy touring or recovering from touring to cook.
Keith was my friend on the west coast, a musician who’d always change guitar strings for me when I used to play that Guild with the slightly warped neck that snapped strings. Over a dozen years ago, when Keith was planning a visit to New York City, he asked for recommendations. “Go ride the Cyclone at Coney Island!” I told him, among other ideas. One of my favorite places and things to do. Scary but worth it.
Keith broke his neck riding the Cyclone. He died a few days later in the hospital.
I can’t help but think of Keith now when I think of my family in New York City, the epicenter of coronavirus. My brother Michael followed me to Parsons in the late seventies. Would he have gone there without me being there? Michael is New York City now – he’s truly a New Yorker who doesn’t drive, lives in the same apartment he has for decades, is a musical fixture in the East Village.
Our youngest brother Riley found his way to New York eventually. He was heading for a career in politics maybe, when he traveled with Michael and I on tour in the eighties. He’d been a talented guitar player at school but the tour seemed to flip a switch and sent him headlong into music, and he found his way to the city where he has established himself as a studio owner, producer and player. His lovely girlfriend now wife Natalie moved from Cleveland to New York to be together, to follow her dreams.
My daughter Hazel was born at St. Vincents hospital and grew up in Brooklyn, until my desire to make a living at music sent us down to Nashville and farther into the other part of the Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover map, until she made her own way back to the city over five years ago.
I think of Keith and the Cyclone and think why did I tell him to ride it? It was a crazy fun thing I liked to do but could take or leave it and it took Keith, so now I leave it – I will never even think of riding the Cyclone and will tell anyone who listens not to ride it. I left New York City twenty years ago, always expecting to go back, until a couple of years ago when I started to realize maybe I never would go back. New York City was that crazy fun thing I did for a long time, until it wasn’t so fun anymore. But what about my daughter and my family right there in the thick of it in the city?
I wrote to Keith’s girlfriend after he died, and apologized. Why did I tell him to ride that dangerous ride? It’s okay, she said. Everybody told him to go and ride! Who didn’t tell him to go?
Who didn’t at some point in their lives want to live in New York, the greatest city in the world? It breaks my heart to see it overwhelmed with this illness. I thought it could cope with anything.
I drive out to pick up takeout food for the first time in weeks. Eric and I are recording and I just need a break from the now continuous process of cooking a meal and cleaning up. Our local coffee place/bar offers Korean food for takeout only now and it would be good to support them. We drive to the curb for pickup. A guy is leaning against the wall next to the takeout window, wearing a bandana around the lower half of his face.
“It’s Ted,” Eric says. Ted the photographer was my old neighbor in Brooklyn. Of course it would be Ted. Catskill is a small town and a number of the residents were my neighbors in our former lives in the city. Ted holds up a hand in greeting. I think back with nostalgia to the elbow bumps of less than a month ago – the thought of getting that close to anyone you don’t live with, even one of my oldest friends, is unthinkable. We shout conversation to each other from a few sidewalk slabs apart.
Eric and I wheeled the garbage cans out to the curb at about three in the afternoon Wednesday, for pickup Thursday, like some old retired couple with nothing to do but groom the front yard and put slightly used water glasses in the dishwasher. (Usually I’m trundling out there in the moonlight mildly inebriated, or rumbling out just post-dawn with a winter coat over pajamas.) “Damn it —Ray and Carol beat us to it…already!” Ray and Carol are the nice retired couple with pristine house and yard across the street. We’re not Ray and Carol—yet.
I recorded another episode of my podcast and Eric and I are recording an Adam Schlesinger song. He was a genius of melody, lyrics & harmony. I loved Fountains of Wayne so much, I think Chris Collingwood made singing these beautiful, memorable melodies seem easy. Like Burt Bacharach or Brian Wilson songs, the listener believes they can sing along, no problem and then you find out it’s not easy at all. That’s when you know you’re in the presence of genius. It’s a magic trick.
I cried for Adam, and for our Scottish friend Davie who just passed away, and for Hal Willner, who I encountered a few times, especially when the Shams sang as part of the Tim Buckley tribute at St. Ann’s Church in 1991. When we heard John Prine had died I sobbed, thinking how we’d probably all thought he was going to hang on in and be here forever. I made us bowls of raspberries and whipped cream, and Eric and I sat on the couch at 2 AM listening to the Beatles in mono, and I thought how that kind of looked and sounded like a John Prine song and it made me cry again,
And yet Donald Trump will probably play golf this weekend.
It’s raining and cold, and Eric’s taking a nap. I can almost smell coffee—almost (my sense of smell disappeared a few weeks ago, other than that I’m fine). And I’m giving the baggy overalls another try. I’m going to adapt, adjust my character—our lives, those of us who get to go on living, will change in ways big or small whether we want them to or not.
Okay—forget the overalls. I’m done with them. I’m back in the clothes I feel comfortable in, even if they do bind here and there. I tried, really I did, to just let myself go but life—as we know it now and going forward—is full of enough challenges.
I spoke to host deXter Bentley for the Hello GoodBye Show on Resonance this Sat, Apr 11
You can listen or subscribe to the Girl To City podcast here.