Narrative has always fuelled my artistic life as a painter and musician. In these ways I have always been a storyteller.
As a story teller I still paint and sing - shaping and crafting words to paint my canvas - propelling my story forward with rhythms and rhymes as I would in a song.
Festival of Oral Literature, workshop performance at the OWL cafe in Toronto.
'Drowning is Fun…once you get used to it'
...It’s 1959. I am a child of war refugees growing up in a Bloor Street fish store. Huge carp, ready for slaughter, are my pets. A kookie ‘bag lady’ is my nanny, and a near drowning at Christie Pits becomes sublime oneness with the colour turquoise…..I stare deeply into the sunset behind the sailor on a discarded Players cigarette package. Beautiful pinks and oranges pose a glowingly incongruent backdrop for the music at play in my mind - my mother’s sad Yiddish ballads drowned out by the painfully percussive sounds of live fish struggling on the chopping block...”
I grew up in a fish store. My best friend/nanny was a bag lady whose name was Udasha. The following is a small excerpt from a 40 min. performance piece I do called ‘Drowning is Fun’.
Udasha is a bag lady and lives no where and sometimes stays with us. Udasha shows up and then disappears and we never know when she will do either.
Daddy says Udasha is a little bit kookoo nuts in her head.
Udasha is the colour of fresh rye bread without the caraway seeds!
She has a big clowny face just like the two clowns she always brings with her that are on the brown paper shopping bags that say
‘its fun to shop at honest eds its fun to shop at honest eds’.
The first thing the 3 clowny faces do is go up stairs.
Udasha sits herself down on the kitchen chair and sets the clowns on the floor one on each side of her and then she picks up her big skirts way above her chubby knees. She wears band-aid coloured old lady stockings that come up to her thighs and are held up with wide elastic.
In these stockings Udasha hides her most important stuff – stuff that she doesn’t want to lose and now that she is safe inside she can take all her treasures out and that is just what she does.
From one stocking she takes out:
- a package of buttons (wrapped up with a cloth tied up with an elastic)
- a bunch of safety pins – all sizes- safety pinned together (wrapped up with a cloth tied up with an elastic)
- an envelope of streetcar tickets (wrapped up with a cloth tied up with an elastic )
- a bunch of elastics all elastic-ed together (wrapped up with a cloth tied up with an elastic)
- and most important a little wooden stick with a hook
called ‘crochet needle’!
From her other stocking she removes bits of string that she has collected – string collected from the street or the park and mostly from daddy’s stinky fish garbage.
She ties them together to make a long piece so she can crochet and she starts crocheting and she starts telling stories…
She makes little circles that turn into hats for my doll (when my doll had a head ) or she just crochets little circles that get bigger and bigger…she crochets until the string and the stories run out…and when the string runs out, she undoes all the little circles and starts all over again…circles and stories (the same circles and the same stories).
There is a fine line between circumstance and syncronicity.
How about this for a life changing example.
I am 19 with no particular ambitions
except to one day have some ambitions.
I have moved to NYC to be with my brand new, very first boyfriend. We live in one tiny room /loft with 2 cats and an enormous German Sheppard dog. There is a pole in the middle of the room…for holding up the ceiling I supposed…the pole was also the pivot point for my boyfriend’s nightly meanderings while he tugged at his hairless beard writing poems in his head.
We live in a cheapo flophouse outside Greenwich Village. The residents belong to two general categories-live ins and transients – and to four sub categories- junkies, hookers, Buddhists and wandering souls.
My door is wide open on this particularly muggy summer day. I am sitting on the fire escape windowsill smoking KOOLS, wearing my light blue Bedouin dress… the one I immigrated to New York with – greyhound bus, no shoes, 53 bucks in my pocket, boyfriend waiting for me at the bus station tugging at his hairless beard… when a man (transient – wandering soul) runs into my room. I had never seen this person before and after about less than a minute I never saw him again.
He wore a long kaki coat and held a small cardboard box in his hands.
The man ran up to me …looked me straight in the eyes and actually threw the box onto my lap.
He shouted….”Here , you take it …I don’t know what to do with this anymore!” …and he ran out…disappeared.
Wish I knew where that guy went to….there were so many times I would have wanted to thank him…or slap him…
The box he dropped onto my lap was a box of paints.
I have been a visual artist now for 35 years.
On days when fitting in feels like a pretty tight squeeze, I do not, if I can help it, leave home.
It is better for me and it is better for you.
But I could not disappoint my surly friend. I had promised to take fetching photos of him in an urban setting for his CD cover. This meant I would have to leave the safety of my bubble.
I chose some downtown back alleys where I thought I could work quietly without having to deal with too many other people. After I faked my way through the photo shoot we went for ice cream.
The ice cream shop is all about organic -including the sweet, helpful, young girl behind the counter.
She offers us taste samples of Parsley Passion Mango and Cappochino Cardamon.
I get Vanilla, which I am grateful still exists.
I am in a perfectly happy ice cream zone when my friend locks all our stuff
along with his keys in the trunk of his car!
He has an extra key to the car at home across town.
But his house keys are also locked in the trunk.
There is one other spare key. It belongs to a young female friend of his who dog sits for him when he is on tour. But he can not call her to retrieve that key as currently she is very mad at him.
She is mad at him because he bought her an adorable miniskirt as a thank you gift for house sitting.
She felt it was very inappropriate and too intimate a gesture for him to have bought a mini skirt for her because that is the kind of gift she could only accept from a ‘boyfriend.’
…and now she was very angry and insulted. And she told him so in no uncertain terms.
And she told him so in no uncertain terms… as she stomped around his apartment in her string bikini.
I encourage my surly friend to call the string-bikini house-sitter.
But his cell phone is locked in the car.
I suggest we go back to the ice cream shop to use the organic-ice cream-girl's phone.
Towing begins in 40 minutes.
No big deal I assure him.
Worse things could happen.
And they do.
Our leading man leaves a message for the string-bikini house-sitter using the organic-icecream-girl’s phone and starts smoking many cigarettes at once. ‘I absolutely can not afford to get towed’, he moans.
I am feeling really bad for him and somehow I am also feeling co - responsible.
Empathy was my second mistake.
My first mistake was leaving the house at all.
We go back around the block to the car. We try to break in using a coat hanger. The leading man has given up. He is looking down at his feet watching the cigarette ashes fall. I kick into Single Minded Messianic mode.
I am asking passers-by if they have ever broken into a car and if so could they help us. The leading man is embarrassed, not because of what he did with the keys and not because of what I am saying but because I am talking to strangers at all.
I ask the people in the bike shop nearby. Sure, they know how to break into cars, they confess.
But they refuse to help. They say they did not want to be liable incase something… 'broke’
I leave the shop muttering how unhelpful people are in this town which makes the bike shop guys hate me and which makes them really enjoy watching me struggle and suffer when the struggling and suffering begins…which is soon.
The organic-ice cream-girl is running around the block towards us waving her cell phone.
The string-bikini house-sitter has left a message!!!!
-No problem, he can come by to get the key!
The leading man is thrilled that the string-bikini house-sitter is talking to him again!
He is positively, and quite uncharacteristically giddy.
He hands me the hanger, hops in a cab and not waiting for an answer, yells out the window as the cab drives away, ‘…you know how to drive don't you? If you manage to open the lock with the hanger just drive the car around the corner... if the cops come to tow just..uh….charm them…and don’t worry they won’t tow you or ticket you if they see you can' t get into the car!’
Only 1/2 hour before towing.
….um excuse me, but do you know how to break into a car.....excuse me
....do you know how to break into a car...um....excuse me ...but do you know how to ....
Some people had admitted to lots of experience breaking into cars...
but they somehow had no luck breaking into this car.
The smug bike shop owners are watching like this is a reality show…
(yeah , my reality)
The hanger isn’t working. It is now 4 pm.
Now let me say here, I am a lot of things. And I can ‘pretend’ to be a lot of things too, if necessary…like a photographer, for example. But there's one thing I know I can never, ever be or pretend to be
- and that is a cute-helpless-sexy-blonde-flat-belly poster girl for a beer ad.
And that, and only that, would have have melted the tow truck driver's cold, cold, tattooed heart.
Jupiter had a neck…well, the size of Jupiter.
He had a neck so wide that you could tattoo seven 3 inch BLOCK letters on just the side of it
…which, in fact, he did...
and the tattoo reads,"REDNECK."
And i am not kidding.
(Poetic license is as much of a non-entity in this story as is ‘drivers licence’.)
Jupiter will break into the car for me but it will cost 60 dollars. Or I can wait 5 minutes for the cop behind him to ticket me and the ticket and towing will cost 200 dollars not including the taxi to the towing yard.
Never having been in this situation or close to this situation before- because, guess what, I don' t own a car or in fact drive, or rarely leave home if i can help it -I subsequently had no idea what to do.
Finally the numbers added up and it started to sound like a bargain. I only had 30 bucks in my wallet but I thought I could use my Credit Card for the rest (saying a silent thank you prayer to my sister who finally convinced me if I wanted to join the world I needed one).
The driving part? well, I had seen it done…
How hard could it be? - get in - turn key - go.
Jupiter takes out a piece of dental floss which seems strange because he barely has any teeth.
With the dental floss and a putty knife he opens the car. It takes him all of 2 seconds.
But I don’t know how to open the trunk. ‘Um, excuse me, do you know how to open a trunk?’
Jupiter does something around the front seat that magically pops the trunk and I am able to find the keys, get my wallet and give him 30 dollars. I confidently ask him to please use my Credit Card for the rest.
He starts stomping his big Jupiter feet like a big fat cry baby of a planet….’Ma'amming me all over the place ‘…Ma’am I don’t have time for this….Ma'am i need to make a living, Ma’am! He goes back into his truck and in the mean time I am trying to start the car. But I can not start the car. I try and I try. ‘I am sure the key goes here’, my brain is screaming… ‘Why doesn't it start!!!!!?’.
I look in the rear view mirror and I see Jupiter yelling on the phone and waving my card around.
I get out and (sweetly, I think) ask him , ‘ UUUhmmmm... could you please start this ummm car… uhm please start the umm, car for me…if you just start it I can… umm, move it around the corner.’
He grabs the keys and he roars that my Credit Card is overdue. He yells at me that the car is a standard vehicle— ‘see the stick shift!?’ And if I can't drive standard he is not giving me the keys and if I did not get 30 dollars to him in 2 minutes he will throw the keys over the bike shop roof.
The bike shop guys love this.
I tell them to fuck off and they don't. And I wish I could just tell myself to fuck off which I would but I can't because I am now responsible for this car and everything in it.
‘I need to make a living,’ he yells… ‘and you are wasting my time!
I could just tow this and make more money!’
‘MONEY MONEY MONEY,’ I yell, inanely.
Is it always about MONEY?’
‘YES !!!!!’, he yells back.’ IT IS!!!!!!’
I then think of something else profound to say.
And here it is…
I actually say ‘please’. Thats it.
‘Please’, …I say ... ‘please’
then I say, ‘please ... please???!!! PLEASE’!
Then - ‘please have a heart…’
…’don't you have a heart?’
And then, then….then I say something else a cute-sexy-girl in a beer ad would never ever EVER say.
And I can not believe I say this…
but I do
' Haven't you ever had a mother? '
Jupiter turns in half orbit and looks at me. His mouth opens real wide. I look right into the gaping, black hole of his huge tow truck driver maw.
I feel I am getting sucked into an abyss…into a vortex with two gold piercings.....2 gold piercings on his massive astral tongue.... they are jingling …as he roars…
’ONE MINUTE AND THEN I AM TOWING THIS CAR!!!!!!!!’
I am now running, running…running randomly.
I am running randomly...thinking- how am i going to get another 30 bucks....in 2 minutes!!!
I end up at the ice cream store.
And the organic-ice cream-girl is there and I beg her. ‘…Please I will give you my whole useless wallet as collateral it has everything please lend me 30 dollars so Jupiter doesn't tow the car!!!’
The organic-ice cream-girl gives me the money and takes my wallet.
Jupiter gives me the keys and drives off in the tow truck.
And now i need to move this vehicle out of the way of the rush hour traffic.
Sounds simple enough - UNLESS YOU DONT KNOW HOW !!!!!!!!!!
-everyone honking and the police inching forward.
I ask the bike store guys who are still watching.
Sure, they know how to drive standard.
Nope, not unless I can show them my insurance.
‘But it’s not my car !!!!!!!’, I cry…
How can I have insurance, if its not my car?’
Primitive child brain kicks in…it advises…Men- find Men. Men will know. Men drive standard,don’t they?
Men and machines … guys….things that need to be handled…stick shifts and all that
I ask every novo - euro - trendy - arty- macho guy walking by on Queen St.
- No one drives standard.
‘Excuse me..do you drive standard…no?
Excuse me...do you drive standard...no?
Excuse me do you drive standard...no!!?’
I am desolate - a desperate Biblical heroine looking for one kind-hearted person.
One kind-hearted person who drives standard.
Is there no one left on God’s earth who can drive standard?
I wanted to cry.
I sit in the drivers seat and wait for...defeat.
A petite young woman with a camera around her neck approaches the bike shop.
I watch her pass by.
Without conviction…weak and parched - a pathetic, barely audible squeak…,
' …hey um you don’t drive standard, - do you?’
‘Ya !,’ she chirps, ‘…sure… who doesn’t?’
I whisper-yell ….The Exorcist … hisses from between my lips ‘ help ! …. me ! … now!
You have to drive this car around the corner before the police come…and it’s not my car’.
I slide into the passenger seat.
She doesn’t even flinch.
She gets into the driver’s seat and hands me her camera and her knapsack. She even buckles up.
She was raised on a farm in Saskatchewan.
Her mom taught her to drive tractors when she was 10.
She has come to Toronto to study photography at Ryerson.
We drive around the block and park.
Now, I have no money to put in the meter because I have given all my pocket change to a street person and his big dog, and the organic-ice cream-girl has my wallet. So, I leave the photography student in the car, with all my cameras and the leading man’s beautiful Martin guitars.
(ah yes!…the leading man…remember him?)
I go back to the ice cream shop to get my wallet so I can get some change to put in the meter
…and....and …AND !!!!!!!!
and…there he is!
… !!!!!!- nonchalantly leaning on the counter - taste testing some exotic flavours
on tiny plastic spoons and engaging in some awkward middle aged flirtation.
I begin to explain everything all at once!
‘Calm down! Calm down!’, he hisses - embarrassed.
He has no time for all this!
He is gloating about the string-bikini house-sitter!
“Isn't it great that she forgave me and look, she had my house key! And she knew just where to find it!
What a gal! I am so glad it's okay between us again….she really is a great friend!”
I give him the short version of the story which was all he has the patience for,after which he declares,
”Well, I bet you could have just waited for me and none of that would have happened.”
To wrap it all up neatly I ask the photography student if she would like to take our leading man’s photograph
for his CD cover using my camera.
Maybe if they are good photos she can get the photo credit!
Wouldn't that be great for a photography student?
Besides she saved the day.
She takes his picture.
And then she asks me if she can take mine too.
(I wonder if Jupiter is also up til all hours
writing his side of the story…