Thursday, February 5, 2009

Pocket Review of Being a Freaking Gypsy


Thursday, September 4, 2008 at 2:50pm
I'm thinking about home. Speculating on it. Where it is and what it means. Is it a place or people or what? A lot of the time, I feel that the wide world is my home. I am out in it all the time, and I am mostly just as comfortable here as there. I am adventurous about most food (no cute animals and no monkey brains) and experiences (I have a Holly Golightly approach, generally speaking: “Of course, I’ll marry you, Doc. I’ve never been married before.”), and I genuinely enjoy meeting and talking with people.
My obsession with the notion of home began earlier this year, when I did a whirlwind international work tour to Berlin, Prague, and Mexico City. In Berlin, (a truly heartbreaking and amazing place), there is an 8’ tall “wall” where the actual wall used to stand, that functions as a museum installation, though it runs right through the center of the city. This wall is comprised of huge black and white photographs and captions detailing Berlin’s checkered history.
One of these photos moved me to tears: in it, there is a woman who is dressed in a crisp Donna Reed frock and pumps, with sunlight gleaming around the crown of her head. She is standing on the uppermost rung of a ladder, her head and shoulders just above the wall, and her hand is raised in greeting to two young men on the other side, who are clad in shabby woolen slacks, denim shirts, and hangdog expressions. They are her relatives. This is the only contact they are allowed. I couldn’t imagine being divided from my own family against my will. With my will, no problem, but not against it.
In Prague, (my second time to visit there, and I find it a truly magical place – the quality of the light is like nowhere else I have ever been) I picked up an intestinal parasite – “Thanks, former Czechoslovakia!” - (Let me just say that Eastern Europe is not the ideal locale for this type of ailment, as the quality and quantity of the paper products there would seem to indicate that they are still under communist rule), and spent a significant chunk of time hoping that I would not have to go to the hospital while in another country.
I am by no means a jingoist, and it would not occur to me to think that their care is in any way inferior to that I would receive in the U.S. (I’ve been to the emergency room a few times in the good ol’ U.S. of A. in the days before I was insured, and I only recommend it if you like seeing people with knives stuck in their eyes). However, when I don’t feel well, I feel vulnerable, and when I feel vulnerable, I crave the familiar. I crave home. When I identified this feeling in Prague, I realized that I am no longer certain where home actually is.
Mexico City is, in many ways, just like any other city (and like all places in Mexico feels home-like to me as it reminds me of Los Angeles, a.k.a. “North Mexico”). But the people are proud and kind, and the onus is on family, always. This notion of being near one’s relatives is often the deciding factor in what people pursue and where they pursue it. Many Mexican families spend their entire lives under the same roof. (This might account for the fact that cerveza is the national beverage, and that the margaritas are SO very exquisite there).
After spending a solid month on the road, I was lucky enough to get a coveted exit row seat for the five hour flight from Mexico City to JFK. (Every time I sit there, and the flight attendant asks if I am willing and able to assist in an emergency, I giggle uncontrollably, as in my mind’s eye, I see myself pulling a Costanza: elbowing my way through a knot of children and the elderly, throwing the door open, and holding my nose while I cannonball onto the yellow inflatable ramp, pausing barely long enough to deliver a “Later, Suckas!” over my shoulder right before I drop from view. I want to believe that I would be cool, efficient, and helpful in an emergency, possibly even recalling my CPR training of yore. But the truth is, I have no idea how I would behave, as I have, thankfully, never had to evacuate a plane before.)
When we finally landed in New York, the sunset was still smearing its iodine-stained fingers over the glinting razor blade buildings of the skyline, all of which was clearly visible to me through the fisheye window of the exit door. I stared at the city for the seemingly interminable drive to the gate, and a voice in my head said, “You’re home. You live here. That’s your home.”
I didn’t buy it, though.
My real “home” by the standard definition, is Birmingham, Alabama. I lived in a duplex there until I was 12 (and lied about my address so I could go to a better school in Gardendale. My mom used my grandmother’s address on all school documents, and I lived in constant fear of being found out), then moved to a house right next door to said grandmother, (who suffered from severe arthritis, diabetes, and a form of mild dementia associated with the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and at that time referred to as “hardening of the arteries.”)
Gardendale is a tiny suburb about 25 minutes from Birmingham proper, but offered an experimental program for “gifted” children in which I was placed at the end of first grade. They segregated we gifted into an “enrichment” class, so instead of “traveling” from class to class (with a different teacher for each subject as the great unwashed did), we stayed in the same room with the same teacher all day. Once a week, a segment of the enrichment class went to another building on campus for something called Resource Learning Center, or RLC. (Interestingly, this building also housed the severely mentally retarded in our school system. The lunchroom on RLC days featured a row of math nerds averting their eyes from the opposite row of seriously debilitated kids, who unfortunately drooled quite a bit.) Being a small group who were always together, we RLC kids came to know one another very well.
I left Gardendale High and transferred to a magnet high school (also called RLC) for my junior and senior years, and lost touch with most of the Gardendale crowd. After that, I attended the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and then moved to Los Angeles for 9 years. I tend to think of myself as having had many lives, each based on my city of residence at the time. (L.A. never really felt like a home, though. More like an extended vacation.)
A few years ago, a friend from the Gardendale RLC program found me online, resulting in the usual electronic catch-up. Last week, this same friend was in Manhattan, and I had the pleasure of hanging out with him. He is a very talented musician, and has never really been employed as anything else. Seeing him play made me realize that I have lots of pride and admiration for him, as he is actually living his dream, and doing it gracefully.
He played snare in the marching band when I was on the dance line (we used to neck on the bus traveling to and from away games), and he has since toured with many heavy hitters in the music world. It’s been 20 years if not longer since we have seen one another, but I was struck by how the same he is. It made me wonder if I am the same, too.
In spending just a few hours in his company, I was assailed with memories I thought I had forgotten. The memories weren’t just specific to him (among other things, I remembered his middle name), but to my childhood – my Gardendale life - from which I have been distancing myself slowly but steadily all these years. This is due in part to the fact that in addition to my ailing granny, the adults in my life consisted of divorced parents (narcissistic mom, and alcoholic but wildly talented and charming dad), and a truly evil stepfather.
I realized about 4 years ago that I have spent a great deal of time separating myself from my own Southern-ness (and it was easy to do, living on the other side of the country as I was. My dad died on his 39th birthday, and, as a by-product of her illness, my mom stopped speaking to me about 10 years ago. I am happy to report that I have no idea what happened to my stepfather). It just seemed so limiting, and well, sad – intertwined as it is with some difficult memories.
With the realization that I was denying a big part of my heritage, I’ve spent the last several years attempting to re-integrate myself. And, maybe because of that, many people from my Southern past have re-entered my life. There’s my drummer friend (who made me homesick with one phrase: “Damn, girl, you grew up GOOD!”), and my friend, Tim (whom I have known since 5th grade and who is one of the most important people in my life - we just had a lovely visit in July), and a friend I’ve known since I was 14, (whom I saw a few weeks ago when I was working in Birmingham for 24 hours. It’s been nine years since I saw him, and for six of those we were out of touch completely, but when he hugged me, I still felt like we had been dropped from a great height into a little pocket of safe. He told me that a big difference between him and me is that I have always valued individuals, and he values ideas. I knew this, but couldn’t help thinking, “Of course, I do. What the hell else is there to value?”) just to name a few. And, with all these friends from my past, little bits are recovered – pleasant and happy bits. I love that, though it is always a tad bittersweet for me. SO wonderful and comforting to know the connection is still there, but so melancholy, too, to realize how much our lives get in the way of our relationships.
Additionally, talking to folks from the past seems to make me see my life on a parallel time-line - like, "Who would I be, if I had stayed in Birmingham or Tuscaloosa, Alabama with these wonderful people?" Obviously, I am part gypsy, and staying in my hometown my whole life wouldn't have suited me. And truthfully, I am grateful I left, for two reasons:
1) Living in non-Southern parts of the world contributes to who I am just as much as being from the South does, and
2) It allows me to be nostalgic about what I left behind.
I do value individuals, partly because the actor in me is constantly engaged in character study (If I weren’t the laziest student in history, I’d be a psychologist by now. Though my laziness wouldn’t be the only impediment. I probably wouldn’t excel at that “just listen” thing either. Instead of, “And how does that make you feel?” I’d be far more likely to say something like, “But what has he done for you LATELY?! Dump his stupid ass, already!!!!!”) If there is any common denominator between me and another person, I always investigate to see what else we have in common. I love to know what makes people tick, and therefore shed a little light on my own operating mechanism.
The other reason I value individuals, is because there are lots of special ones who comprise my family. I oftentimes feel like a sculptor chipping and chipping away at the same old stony, immobile issues. Or, like a cobbler working endlessly on the same old pair of shoes. But, the cool thing about being well… sort of orphaned, is that one has the liberty to cobble together one’s family of choice.
My 20th high school reunion is next year (about which I am in UTTER denial), so I assume I am right on track to be taking stock the way I am, but I just find it all so fascinating. The individuals I know now that I knew then, and that still want to know me. Tim said, “If Mrs. McPherson had said to us in 5th Grade, ‘Look around you. Who do you think will be your friend in 25 years?’ would you have thought it would be me?” And the truth is, I probably wouldn’t have thought so (though he did ask me to marry him on the playground once. Sadly, this was not to be the only proposal I would receive from a gay man).
And, it is nice to feel a little homesick and nostalgic (Call me old-fashioned, but I much prefer “Damn, you grew up good!” to what a guy in my ghetto-adjacent Brooklyn hood said to me the other day. I had thrown on a T-shirt and shorts but skipped the undergarments to run down to the corner bodega. As I passed this guy unloading a dresser into his recently fire-damaged building, and felt compassion for what he had been through, I heard “Nice nipples. I like that.”) It is also nice to realize that my home IS everywhere. It’s here in Brooklyn, where I keep my cats and my stuff, and where my neighbors smoke weed on the street (no fights, and lots of snacks). It’s in Palm Springs, where two of my chosen family members reside (being in their home feels like being in my home – only better, ‘cause they’re there.) It’s in Birmingham, which I still know better than any other town. It’s in Tuscaloosa, and L.A., and Utah, and Fire Island and Orange Beach, and every damned where. And, that is a fact that I would totally have sex with, y'all.

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