13 July 2006

3 O'Clock In The Morning

I don't usually have trouble sleeping these days. Trouble getting to bed, yes; no matter how tired I am when I get home, no matter how determined I am to get to sleep straight away, I always find some excuse for putzing around the apartment, either on the computer, or in front of the TV, or suddenly deciding at a quarter to two in the morning that I can't really go to bed until I've done yesterday's dishes. It's crazy: if I had lain my head anywhere near a pillow back around 11 or 12 I would have been out like a light, but after an hour of checking email or calling someone in a different time zone or simply sitting there thinking about the day, I'm wider awake than I was when I got up that morning.

But tonight's different. I've already been to bed once, no, twice, I think, and I'm back up again at a quarter past three, completely unable to shut my eyes. There is the occasional rumble of thunder off in the distance, but quiet enough to be almost soothing after the horrendous storm that tore through here about 11 o'clock, just as I emerged from the subway on my way home. I'd chosen the stop before my house, even though it's further away, because I thought the few blocks' walk would be pleasant and relaxing. A few minutes earlier, I'd lingered on the edge of Union Square, watching the lightning streaking across the tops of the skyscrapers and thought to myself, "Wow, that's moving in really fast." But the weather forecast had said the storms wouldn't arrive till about midnight, so I thought I'd be all right.

Not so. My umbrella, the $2 one I got during the last bout of stormy weather, turned inside out within seconds, and huddling under an awning wasn't doing any good, either, because the wind was driving the rain in six directions all at once. Once I got around the corner onto my street, the trees and the buildings cut out the worst of the wind, so I was able to re-deploy the umbrella, which kept me dry from about the chest up. But as I hurried home, I could see the bolts of lightning marching up Metropolitan Avenue from Manhattan - i.e., in my direction - at a considerably swifter pace than I was managing. What are the odd, I kept telling myself, out of eight million people, a couple hundred thousand buildings, and God knows how many trees, that I should be the protuberance to draw down a bolt from the blue black night? I was comforted by this line of reasoning, but not much.

I think it was one of the fiercest storms I've ever witnessed, and definitely one of the fiercest I've ever been caught out in. It had an almost camp-like quality, like one of those Hollywood films about a hurricane where a bunch of coked-out queens are in charge of the special effects and they go completely over the top with them. And it passed almost as quickly as it had come, giving up the ghost with a petulant whimper almost the moment I finally got my key into the front door lock. It took me a while to get out of my wet clothes and unpack my groceries; it's been one of those days where the humidity has been about 127% and everything sticks to everything else and you pray no one will sit near you, even on the air-conditioned subway because you can practically see the heat and moisture radiating out from their bodies and the last thing you need is any of it spilling over onto you.

I'd been uptown to see Dr. Frank read and sing songs from King Dork at Coliseum Books on 42nd Street. Very good turnout, even though half the Pop Punk Clique had deserted the cause at the last minute in favor of a punk house show in the outer boroughs (okay, Brooklyn, but a far-flung part of Brooklyn) and an earlier thunderstorm had descended on the city just before Frank was due to go on. Saw some faces I hadn't seen in a while, like Ira Robbins, and some I hadn't seen in forever, like Skip from the Wynona Riders. Several of us, including Jersey Beat's Jim Testa, had planned to head out to Brooklyn after Frank finished his reading at about 8 pm, but a phone call from the front informed us that none of the four bands had even started playing yet, which meant we'd probably be straggling back at 12 or 1 in the morning. Not an hour, Ira commented, that you'd want to be out in that particular neighborhood unless you were looking for the sorts of adventures that I wasn't.

Still, I was a bit sad, because the headliner was This Is My Fist, from the East Bay, and guitarist Todd was a longtime friend and fan of the Potatomen, dating back to our first shows in Corvallis, Oregon in around 1994. But I just didn't have the energy or the fortitude for the long trip, especially after Jim Testa bailed and headed back to Jersey. So I ate dinner, did my shopping, and came home.

And there I was, putzing around as usual, this time catching up on all the Seinfeld and Will and Grace episodes that I missed by living outside the USA and without cable for so many years, and still fully expecting to be in bed by 12:30. Well, 1 o'clock, max, which was when the phone rang.

I don't get many calls apart from telemarketers, and even they don't usually call at 1 a.m. It was Rachel, calling from London. Rachel is, shall we say, a colorful character, but also quite a wonderful one, a transexual who spent most of her working life "on the game," as they say in Britain, and who has spent most of her retirement years helping look after people, despite the fact that she herself has been battling lung cancer for most of that time and has defied every doctor's prediction by continuing to be alive years after they started measuring up her coffin.

One of the people she helped most has been Olivia, my adopted auntie (she's actually my sister's ex-mother-in-law and grandmother to my niece and nephew). Olivia, who was 88 this past year, has been living with me in London ever since I bought my apartment there from her, and before that, I lived with her whenever I visited London. She originally came to Notting Hill around 1964 and fit right in with the hippies, kooks and Rastafarians who were beginning to take over the place. Prior to that she'd also been a communist, an anarchist, a hell-raiser, and the centerpiece of a scandalous court martial involving her adulterous affair with an American officer at the height of World War II.

Along the way she managed to produce two sons by two different fathers and hand both of them over to different women to raise, though she brought one, the father of my niece and nephew, back to live with her when he was 10 or 11, and run through a few other relationships before announcing at age 50 that she'd given up on men. From then on, her social life centered around a retinue of gay boys and drag queens some 25 or 30 years younger than herself, of whom Rachel was perhaps the most vociferous and certainly the most volatile.

Many of them are dead now, and most of the others have scattered into exile or obscurity, but Rachel stuck close to Olivia, often making four hour return journeys across London to run the simplest of errands for her, even when I'd tell her she didn't need to, that it would be no trouble to handle it myself. When I was away from London, which has been a lot of the time lately, I knew Rachel would be there to keep an eye on things, so when I heard her voice on the phone instead of Olivia's, I kind of knew right away that something was up, and this was even before I'd managed to calculate that on her end of the phone it was 6 o'clock in the morning.

Rachel is Scottish, and has never been one for beating around the bush. "Olivia died last night at 6 p.m.," she matter-of-factly informed me, and though she kept her voice firmly modulated, hardly wavering from her purpose of providing me with all the relevant data, I could tell it was all she could do not to start sobbing. For at least the past 10 or 20 years, Olivia had been her closest and dearest friend, and there's no one who will come close to replacing her.

As for me, well, it's hard even to begin to describe what kind of relationship I had with Olive over the years. We fought a lot, argued anyway; one of her favorite entertainments was to sink half a liter or so of gin and spend the night screaming abuse at anyone - but especially family members or loved ones - who dared contradict her, only to patch it all up with hugs and sentimental declarations of affection as a bleary dawn crept over the tops of the nearby council houses. After I stopped drinking, this form of amusement lost much of its appeal for me, much to her disgust. She couldn't comprehend why anyone would not want to drink, and frequently shared that opinion. She herself was a legendary gin drinker, but possessed with a degree of self-control I've seen in very few drinkers. Though she loved getting drunk, and frequently did during her younger (read: up to about age 75) days, on a ordinary evening with no company in, she'd religiously measure out her daily ration of two large gins and drink no more (nor less). The only time in 30 years I saw her go more than one day without a drink was when we were snowed in for a couple weeks up in Northern California. She claimed it didn't faze her, and I believed it. Anyone else who drank as much as she did, I would strongly suspect of being alcoholic, but I never really thought she was. She had an iron constitution, but, more vital than that, an iron will.

During the past few years we rubbed along rather easily, she upstairs and me down, sometimes barely seeing each other for a couple days at a time. I helped her with her shopping, changing light bulbs, picking up prescriptions from the chemist, but most of the time she was remarkably self-sufficient, still going out on her own several days a week, and occasionally stumbling home from a night on the tiles long after I'd gone to bed. Her friend Brenda, a retired schoolteacher and one of Notting Hill's original hippies, would come over with a couple bottles of wine and a bag of cannabis, and the two of them would sit upstairs getting drunk, stoned and playing Scrabble most of the night, usually erupting into a screaming match at about 3 a.m. over whether such-and-such counted as a word or not. I didn't appreciate the reek of dope that crept through the house - Brenda, being a bit of a cheapskate, always bought the lowest-grade rubbish from the old Jamaican shysters she'd known since she was a girl - but it was a fairly minor annoyance. I suppose when I go back to an empty apartment, I might even miss it a bit, just as it will be a long time before I stop expecting Olivia to stick her head over the top of the stairwell calling, "Larry, are you there?" to summon me to deal with the latest domestic crisis.

"Ah, but she'll be haunting that house for a long time," Rachel assured me, and I don't doubt it. As for me, it looks as though instead of going to California next week as planned, I'll be making an unexpected trip back to London in the next couple days. The funeral, according to Olivia's oft-stated wishes, is supposed to go as follows: we find the cheapest place possible to have her cremated, then gather together all her friends and family into a van or bus and transport her ashes to the cemetery in the tiny Bedfordshire village where she spent most of her childhood. There we are instructed to scatter the ashes across the graves of the granny and grandad who raised her, and with the money we've saved by avoiding conventional funeral rites, take everybody over the road to the village pub and drink the place dry.

As perhaps the only non-drinker in that crowd, I'll probably be driving the bus, and I won't be surprised if I end up wearing a funny conductor's hat, or spending half the day trying to corral people back on board or retrieving drunks who insist on trying to fall out of the windows. I expect there will be both tears and laughter, but probably a lot more laughter, which is exactly the way Olivia wanted it. I expect it may also knock my plans for a tranquil summer into the proverbial cocked hat, but tranquility having always been the bane of Olivia's existence, I suspect that will be just the way she wanted it as well. And before I think of complaining about any disruptions to my life, let me spare a thought for her: although this last party will revolve around her, just as every party she ever attended did, for the first time ever she won't be able to say a word about it. Rest in peace, old girl.


Spoke said...

Bit tricky to comment on the blogs (heart) you share. So much, so deep, so full.
Cheers mate.

Jonathan said...

You missed a really good show at my friends' house, if a really uncomfortably hot This Is My Fist! set.