From the swamp to the ocean

I spent Thanksgiving with the in-laws and associated family who live deep in the hinterlands of Florida, just a mile from the hard edge between suburbia and wilderness. Staying there makes me sad, I’ll make no bones about it. Nobody moves very much at all, and all the food comes from bags and boxes, and the there are veritable dunes of sweet junk accumulated in various places around the house, which the kids consume at all hours of the day. Not just on Thanksgiving. All the time. Much of day-to-day conversation is taken up by what’s on sale where. Perhaps understandable because they are so barely hanging on economically, having painted themselves into small corner via revolving credit, car leases and no retirement savings. So much fear, barely kept at bay with Xanax and Wellbutrin, and a reluctance to accept it or address it. I try not to judge. Self control comes easy to me, generosity is a bit harder. I try to see my in-laws as heroic but tragic figures within a larger game they haven’t quite figured out how to control. I wish I could figure out how to connect. They think I’m odd and a bit nuts. I probably am, in my own way.

But that’s why I get so restless there. After just a day I’m yearning for escape. In my self-tracking days I used to just wander for miles and miles through the de-peopled “communities”, along the strip malls, trying to make up my daily distances, six miles, seven miles or even eight miles, trying to control what can’t be controlled.

Now that I only walk for pleasure I decided for something more ambitious and perhaps symbolic; to walk from the swamp to the ocean, which happens to be 14 miles. The purpose of the walk was not only to shake off the mental confinement of being trapped between kitchen and couch, but to look at the Sunshine State from a pedestrian perspective rather than from a minivan or SUV, and perhaps impress upon those nieces that the world doesn’t end at the bottom of their cup-de-sac, that there is a way out.

Here are some of the pictures from that epic walk, which took me just over three hours:

2013-11-30 13.58.44 2013-11-30 15.14.58 2013-11-30 15.18.51 2013-11-30 17.24.00 2013-11-30 17.38.55 2013-11-30 15.36.082013-11-30 17.39.36 2013-12-01 18.14.442013-12-01 18.06.582013-12-01 18.13.352013-12-01 18.51.17 2013-12-01 18.41.532013-12-02 10.51.262013-12-02 11.14.142013-12-02 11.33.432013-11-30 18.04.27

I know the images are pointedly melancholic and not at all how most people experience South Florida, but that’s how it feels to me. I only saw a handful of pedestrians on my walk. Like, a few people standing on the sidewalk with boards announcing bargains. Some unexpected shared humanity there.

Needless to say everyone thought I was crazy, even crazier to take the bus back, but on that bus, humming with conversations, I felt I was somewhere, a real place.

Family, lost and found

You might have noticed at this point that my family was more of the “unhappy in its own way” kind. Helmed by parents whose own parents had never shown them much affection, which meant they never learned how dispense it themselves, my family was an archipelago of six individuals with few bonds. We were four girls, who could have been friends and should have banded together to defend ourselves against the unhappiness around them. Instead we all retreated into our private miseries, desperately alone.

Now, many years later, everyone’s worked on fixing what got broken, with middling success. I’ve managed to patch together reasonable, respectful relationships with both parents and two of my sisters. However, my third sister was so traumatized by her childhood that she, like me, ran away young, but then permanently severed all ties to her family.

She was my favorite sister, even though I never let her know. Blond, very thin and vulnerable, she was the little-est of the bunch, and generally got ground under in the fight for whatever crumbs of attention were to be had. I know where she lives and what she does; she has a general idea of what we’re up to, but remains determined in her refusal to re-establish a relationship.

It breaks my heart but I respect her choice.

A while ago, a new person came into my life through a circuitous route. She’s 87 and lives in my beloved Brighton Beach (I can see the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel through the windows). She started life in what used to be Romania, but is now Belarus, and has lived in Russia, Poland and Israel. Her whole family was murdered by the Nazis. Her husband and son are dead. We see each other every week, and have long conversations and go on little outings and errands. She lets me practice my still halting Yiddish on her. She is sharp, and witty, and beautiful. She stuffs my pockets with her rugelach, sugar cookies and sponge cake. She makes sure I wear a scarf and a hat. She loves to see me dance at the events we go to, and one day I will get her to dance with me.

I walk to her apartment from mine, one straight line 6.8 miles, down McDonald Avenue, the most utilitarian of thoroughfares. Everyone else is going to work. I am disappearing. Her apartment is my little refuge from the world, a place utterly peaceful, outside space and time, with just the F train clattering by every few minutes.

She is the third of four girls and her name is the also the name of my favorite sister, #3 of our lot.

She calls me the daughter she never had. I can’t call her my mother, because I have a mother. She’s not really like my grandmother either – at 87 she’s still too young, in a way. Maybe somehow, someone has given me another sister.

Oyfn pripetchik

The saddest song in the world

When I was still living in London, in a blitzed out, wistful little corner of Limehouse, I had an upstairs neighbor from Colombia. He was studying the shoemaking business at Cordwainers College so that he’d be able to support his father who owned a shoe factory. Most days he would be fairly quiet but occasionally he’d get quite drunk late in the evening, and he’d play music at full blast. Unfortunately, Stairway to Heaven was the first song that would start off these fits of melancholia. There were other songs however. He had a fondness for Gardel, for example. There was also one song he’d play that I found mesmerizing (the ceilings were that thin). It was sad, determined, monotonous, hypnotic and long. It had some kind of Latin rhythm.

And then one day my neighbor left for Colombia and I vowed to myself to find out what that song was. Surprisingly, I struck gold early on. In the early 1990s Portobello Market used to have many vendors selling bootleg cassette tapes. At that point I had no knowledge of Latin music whatsoever so I ended up with some Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe, merengue, and a live recording called “The Montuno Sessions“,  live broadcast from Studio ‘A’, 99.5 FM, NYC, later released by Mr Bongo. The song I was after was on this tape, a version of Oriente by Henry and Orlando Fiol.

This is what Stephen Mejias from Stereophile has to say about this song:

 But what really caught my heart was the plaintive, urgent, yearning sound of Henry Fiol‘s  restoration of Cheo Marquetti’s “Oriente.” The song delights me, troubles me. I say without doubt that I’ve never been moved this way. It’s stifling. Time-stopping. Indeed, Fiol’s “Oriente” is a wash of sadness and beauty, ten fleeting minutes of churning, swaying, and pleading; tres locked in dance with guiro, delicate piano backed by heartrending trumpet lines, and, above all, that mysterious, otherworldly croon: “Yo me voy a morir / Caramba, me voy a matar.” It’s magic. I could cry.

I don’t want to leave the impression, however, that “Oriente” is morose. It’s not. There is hope, pride, strength in its many movements. It ends where it begins, with a wave and a graceful turn. It, this song, feels so true to me, I’m nearly afraid no one else will understand. The thought is painful. It’s difficult to imagine another person being lifted, moved, possessed by this song in the same way.

I happen to feel exactly the same way about this song, and I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The Live from Studio A version of the song can’t be found free online (which is just as well), only the studio version which is a little overproduced. This performance gets close but lacks the full hypnotic length.

Oriente, an indestructibly beautiful song, was actually written by Cheo Marquetti, one of the great unrecognized heroes of son. A man who was connected to some of the greatest bands of his age, but kept moving on – who knows why? – and died early in semi-obscurity. There is a beautiful version of Oriente by Conjunto Chappottin with Cheo singing.

Where did that deep sadness come from? Cheo Marquetti wrote other beautiful, classic songs – Sonero, Amor Verdadero, Labrando La Tierra – but none are as yearningly obsessed with death. If I had to select a single song of all the world’s songs to last me to eternity, I would pick this one.