Artist Date 93: The IS in HIStory

album-David-Bowie-Heroes

I’ve been listening to David Bowie a lot lately.

It’s a bit like returning from travels abroad and insisting on eating as I did while away.  Toasted bread rubbed with fresh garlic and tomato following a trip to Spain.  Cucumber-tomato salad for breakfast after a press trip to Israel.  And most recently, coffee made in a stove-top moka upon returning from Italy.  Each time, holding on to that place, that experience, for as long as I am able.

Except Bowie takes me back to a place and experience I mostly do not care to hold on to — high school.  It begins at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the David Bowie IS show — Artist Date 93.  I am transported.

I am 14 and wearing a baseball jersey from the Serious Moonlight tour.  My cousin from Los Angeles has turned me on to Bowie.  The same way he turned me on to weed, the Culture Club and all things French.  He is cool with bleached-blonde hair and skinny ties that match his skinny body.  He lights my cigarettes, walks on curb side of the sidewalk and stands up when I leave the table.  He is my ideal man.  He has been all of my life, and although I don’t yet know it, he will continue to be — long after I stop smoking weed, and Boy George gets sober too.

I am rifling through bins of used albums at Sam’s Jams in Ferndale, Michigan and find ChangesOneBowie.  Soon I will commit the words of each song to memory.  I will know them like I know my own name.  My hair is a pinky-red, spiky and sticky with Aqua-Net Extra Hold.  I am wearing iridescent blue lipstick, a plaid pleated skirt from the Salvation Army that doesn’t quite zip all the way up and a Cranbrook Lacrosse sweatshirt  — hooded with a torn front pocket — that I “borrowed” from a boy named Simon, who I met just once and never saw again.

I am in Ann Arbor visiting my friend Stacey.  We have taken the bus from her house to the University of Michigan campus.  There are no buses in suburban Detroit, where I live, save for a yellow school bus.  I feel urban and cool.  We are watching The Man Who Fell to Earth on a big screen.  It is terrible but we love it anyway.  Stacey has also seen The Hunger and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.  I have not.  She is clearly the bigger fan.

I am sitting on multi-hued blue shag carpeting in my bedroom holding the cover of Heroes in my hands — singing every word printed on the sleeve.  “And you, you can be mean.  And I, I’ll drink all the time.”  Little do I know how true these words will turn out to be.  A few years later it is TonightBlue Jean and a cover of Brian Wilson’s God Only Knows passing my lips.

I am on the cold sidewalk outside of Record Outlet with my best friend A.  We are here overnight, in line for tickets to the Glass Spider tour which go on sale tomorrow.  I cannot believe my mother has agreed to this.

I cannot believe how long it has been since I have talked to A.  Nearly five years.  That the last thing she said to me was, “Keep them.  They look better on you anyway,” referring to the sunglasses I borrowed and that were still tucked in my bag as I drove away from her apartment.  I no longer have them.

I cannot believe I left Heroes and Tonight in Seattle with my ex-husband, along with The Specials, Thriller and the original soundtrack from Hair.

I cannot believe I remember Simon’s name, how long I held on to that sweatshirt, or that I am waxing nostalgic about high school.

But it is.  And I did.  I do and I am.

In 1990, David Bowie played his greatest hits on tour “a final time.”  “…it gave me an immense sense of freedom, to feel that I couldn’t rely on any of those things. It’s like I’m approaching it all from the ground up now.”  In 1996 he resurrected Heroes onstage.

There is an IS in hIStory — as well as a story.

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Artist Dates 91 and 92: Schooled

How do we know this is David?

I never thought about it. But here I am in front of him at Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence – Artist Date 91.

David is a boy and this is a man. David is a Jew and this man has a foreskin.  And what is he holding anyway?  And why do we have to walk around him to find out?

Paul, the tour guide from Walks of Italy, lobs the questions rapid fire until I feel like my brain might explode, but instead, cracks wide open.

I purchased my first walking tour – my first tour ever – last fall, in Dublin. It was my friend Steven’s idea.  And, much to my surprise, I enjoyed it.  Even looking like a tourist.  Which I was.

Which I am.

Paul takes me and 11 others to the Galleria dell’Accademia . To the Duomo.  To Piazza San Marco.  Ultimately dropping us at Ponte Vecchio.  Stringing us along with juicy bits of history.  Linking them together, telling a linear story.  Ultimately letting us know why we should care about these tourist attractions.

Ponte Vecchio
Ponte Vecchio

It is like Jeopardy – Italian style. Where everything comes in the form of a question.  Or at the very least, begins that way.

And it works. It is sticky in my grey matter.  Days later.  Weeks later, when I write this.

I learn that in religious art, the one wearing fur is always John the Baptist.

That Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor and was pissed off when asked to paint or to build.

That he never had sex, slept in his clothes – to save time – and thought art was for the people – and sculptures, the newspapers of the day. But that as a reporter with a chisel he was never neutral — a Michael Moore of Renaissance Art.

Outside the Duomo I learn why Renaissance Art was born here. A simple Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  The temporary capital of Italy, Florence was flush.  Issues of survival were no longer issues here, so the people of Florence could turn their attention to things of intellect and beauty.  They could build the largest church known at that time, its dome an architectural quandary.

And it is at this basilica that christening changed from a dunk to a sprinkle.  Seems while no one was dying of the plague, newborns were dying in record numbers following baptism, and someone figured out that while the water might by holy, it wasn’t particularly sanitary.

duomo1700
The Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence

I learn that families claimed turf by marking corners of buildings with the family crest. An early form of tagging.  And a series of balls is the sign of the Medici family.

That Ponte Vecchio survived World War II, while all the other bridges in Florence were bombed by Nazis upon their crossing, because of a Medici. That in 1565 Grand Duke Cosimo de’Medici had a private passageway built into the bridge for the occasions when communication with his estranged wife, living across the Arno River at Palazzo Pitti, was necessary.  He filled it with Renaissance Art – art that remained there.  Art that Hitler commanded be “saved,” along with Ponte Vecchio.

A few days later in Rome, Cecilia (also from Walks of Italy) similarly schools me on the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Sistine Chapel, as well as Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and a killer gelateria. Artist Date 92.

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Getting schooled at the Colosseum.

 

Suddenly I am a history nerd, walking at her hip, never losing sight of her umbrella – the raised symbol moving us forward as a group. I think about how much I missed in high school.  In college.  Because I was hung over, hanging out or just plain disinterested.

About how much I surely missed in Madrid and Barcelona, Amsterdam and Brussels, Paris and London. Because I didn’t believe I needed someone to school me in their city.

I receive my final lesson leaving Vatican City when I ask Cecilia the way back to Trastevere – the neighborhood where I am staying – either via foot or cab. She offers me another option, inviting me to take the bus with her instead.

On our ride, Cecilia tells me I am brave. That she noticed me traveling alone.  Heard me talk about volunteering in Umbria.  That for all of her education and seeming worldliness – she is terrified to travel alone.

I hear her.  I believe her – that I am brave. I own it.  And share the greatest lesson I have learned.  That I am terrified too.  Of getting lost.  Of looking stupid.   Of…insert fear du jour here.

That I am terrified…but do it anyway.

Arttist Date 51: Now I Know

There are a couple of memories that permeate my childhood.  Stories I asked to hear again and again until I knew them word-for-word, by heart.

detroit 67My origins, my adoption and my first eight weeks on the planet – captured with typewriter ribbon on onion-skin paper and tucked into a red vinyl bag with my report cards and school pictures.

The loss of my mother’s biological child.  One she didn’t know she was pregnant with until she lost it.  The event which, to my mind, secured my role as my parent’s child.

The day my parents packed up their bags and their bird and moved from Oak Park to Birmingham, Michigan to live with my father’s sister for a short time.

It was the summer of 1967.  The city of Detroit was on fire — literally.  Residents rioted and looted.  Police unleashed with unrestrained force.  Both the Army and the National Guard were called to quell the mayhem.

My uncle living in California called to say he was watching the news, and did my mother know that tanks were rolling down Woodward Avenue.

She did.  Oak Park was just a few miles over the 8 Mile Road border that separated the city from the suburbs.  It felt close.  Too close.  And the tony suburb of Birmingham seemed safely a world away.  So they went.

Photo by Phil Cherner
Photo by Phil Cherner

I don’t recall any more of the story than that.  How it ended.  When it ended.  When they came home.  Only that the chasm – racially, culturally, financially – between Detroit and the suburbs appeared to be sealed that summer.

Over the years I asked my parents what started the riots.  They hypothesized.  But the truth was, they weren’t quite certain.  Neither were other white people of their generation, and the one just behind them, that I asked.

I got my answers last Saturday night at the Northlight Theatre – Artist Date 51.

The first time I saw a poster for Detroit ’67, with its black upturned fist of Joe Louis, I knew I would see it.  That I needed to see it.  I didn’t consciously think I might get answers to the questions left hanging from my childhood.  I merely felt the pull, a tug that took me to Skokie on a dark December evening — alone.

The audience is mostly older – boomers and above.  Mostly African American or Jewish.  I recognize the latter by the smattering of kippot (head coverings) and conversations about Israel.  And, at risk of sounding politically incorrect, as a Jew raised among mostly other Jews, I “just know” my people.  Many of them are dancing – some in the aisles, but mostly in their seats – to Motown.

Martha and the Vandellas.  Smoky Robinson and the Miracles.  Stevie Wonder, when he was still called “Little Stevie Wonder.”

It is the music of my childhood.  The Big Chill soundtrack, and Big Chill-like gatherings at my cousin Wendy’s house.

The couple behind me is singing.  They know every word.  During the performance, they respond to the actors.  More than a mutter but not quite “out loud,” either.  I like it.  I feel like we are all, “a part of,” and I am not so much alone.

Meanwhile, I tuck into the program and get schooled.

This is what I learn:

Detroit’s 12th Street Riot began on July 23, 1967, with the police raid of a blind pig — a home illegally selling alcohol under the guise of “an attraction…with complimentary beverages.”  (Not unlike memberships sold for experimental AIDS treatments in Dallas Buyers Club.  Artist Date 47.)

The raid itself was not unusual.  Detroit’s white police officers were known for harassing, and even brutalizing, the city’s black residents.

The aftermath.  Detroit Free Press photograph.  Public Domain.
The aftermath. Detroit Free Press photograph. Public Domain.

But unlike other raids, this one did not resolve quickly or quietly.  And what began as a conflict between police and patrons soon engulfed the whole city.  To end the disturbance, Governor George Romney ordered the Michigan National Guard into Detroit.  President Lyndon B. Johnson sent Army troops.

Five days later, 43 people were dead.  More than 500 were injured, and 7,231 arrested.  Half of those arrested had no criminal record.  Sixty-four percent were accused of looting and 14 percent were charged with curfew violations.

Losses from arson and looting ranged from $40 to $80 million.

But I don’t see any of it.

Only the actions, and reactions, of five residents of Detroit, black and white, who want to feel safe.  Who want something better for themselves.  Not unlike my own family.  In a basement in the city’s near west side, with an eight-track player, a phonograph that skips, and a dream.

Artist Date 42: Dressed, Safely Shrouded

I think I need a headdress.

2013-10-03 14.50.37Feathered, painted and beaded.  Like the one I’m standing in front of at the Chicago Art Institute – Artist’s Date 42.  According to the description, it is meant to express a sense of beauty, while spiritually protecting the wearer, providing potency in battle, diplomacy and/or courtship.

I could use that – spiritual protection and potency.  Especially in courtship.  I feel like I’m fumbling all over the place in this suddenly, or not so suddenly, single world.

Perhaps a wig would suffice.  Cover up my naked head.  My naked heart.

My cousin Andrew told me I should consider wearing them.  Over dinner a few weeks ago at a trendy, too loud, see-and-be-seen, restaurant, he leaned in and said, very seriously, “I’ve been giving it some thought…I think you should wear wigs.”

I laughed, but he was dead serious, waxing the possibilities of an Uma Thurman Pulp Fiction bob.   I showed him a photograph of me wearing a large Foxy Brown afro wig many years ago in Oakland.  I told him I wished my hair grew like that.  How I longed to wear a wig but worried about offending people – lest those whose hair grows that way think it is a joke, this seriously small white girl sporting a do belonging to someone else.

We made a date to go wig shopping but never quite made it.

I had forgotten about it until now.

afro lesleyAnd really, I probably shouldn’t be thinking about it now.  Or even be here at all.  My friend Julie arrives from Detroit in a few hours.  Her visit comes on the heels of my friend Ernie’s visit from Seattle, which came on the heels of my trip to Dublin, and precedes my trip to Minneapolis – for my cousin Andrew’s wedding – by just days.

And yet, I am here.  Stealing away for an hour or so, by myself, with no intention any more noble than to see with different eyes, hear with different ears, feel with a different heart.  To leave here a little better than I arrived.  To fill my mind with something other than “me, me, me.”  It is a relief.

My plan was to visit the African Art.  But I am stopped in my tracks in the Native American section.  Thinking about wigs.  About my cousin.  About my other cousin – Diane.

I visited her in Albuquerque when I was 17.  The trip, my first time traveling alone – to see Diane in New Mexico and Andrew in Los Angeles – was a high-school graduation gift from my parents.

I bought suede fringed boots, the kind with no hard sole, on that trip.  They snaked up my legs, stopping just beneath my knees and tied with crisscrossing leather cord.  Burnout style.  And also, a wooden box, the top decorated with a sand painting of Father Sky – it says so in pencil, written on the underside, good for storing treasures.

Diane bought me a miniature wedding vase, a smaller version of the kind I would drink from at my own wedding 15 years later.

It seems like forever ago.  As does my trip to see Diane.  Except the memories of my marriage feel sneakier – unexpected – and not as purely sweet as those of my trip to New Mexico.

So I keep on moving, rather than sitting (or like my friend Sheila likes to say “bathing”) in the feelings.  I look at pipes, teepee covers and silver jewelry, eventually moving on to the African Art section – something without connection to the past.  Something entirely my own.  Sort of.

Unless you consider it is my ex who bought me a gift certificate to the Old Town School of Music and Dance, where I study West African dance.  Or that I found myself in Rwanda right in the middle of our divorce.

And yet, Africa is mine.  It always was.  A dream since I was a child.  He just helped get me there.

The collection is small.

2013-10-03 15.09.25A few voluminous robes – the kind I have seen my instructor Idy dance in, constantly moving the sleeves in gorgeous gestures to keep from getting the fabric caught up in his feet.  A couple of headdresses and costumes, one depicting the ideal mature woman in the 17th century – prominent nose, jutting chin, and large breasts.

I think of my own breasts.  Small.  No longer pendulous.  Faded scars run from breast fold to areola – subtle reminders of my reduction surgery.  A different beauty ideal.

I am struck by the words tacked to the wall.

“Dress is among the most personal forms of visual expression, creating a buffer and a bridge between the private and the public self…Special forms of luxury dress…may (also) signal particular standing within a community or a moment of transition from one role to another.”

I think about the Native American headdress.  Of my own dress.  My friend Tori says I dress differently since my divorce.  Sexier.  It was not my intention, but I believe she is right.

Across the room is a timeline of events, highlighting key moments in both African and world history.  I snap photographs so I can remember them.

1884: European nations meet for the Berlin West Africa Conference, initiating the European scramble to colonize Africa.  By 1900 only Ethiopia and Liberia remain independent.

1957: The nation of Ghana gains independence from British colonial rule, launching a continent-side decolonization movement.

1980: Zimbabwe gains independence from Great Britain; it is the last European colony to do so.

1990-94: Civil war in Rwanda leads to genocide.

I remember my friend Geri’s map-of-the-world shower curtain – so old, Rhodesia was still on it.

I think about my own map.  My timeline.  My dress.  My independence.  Messy.  Uncertain.  Liberating.  But unlike Rhodesia, I got to keep my name.