“What career?” my girlfriend Jenya asked in her deep cynical voice as she applied lipstick in the mirror. Her question was in reference to my musical aspirations. Or, more accurately, to my tribulations. I was a singer, trying to make it professionally. Jenya had been out all night without calling me. She was 24, Ukranian and, of course, beautiful, with ice blue eyes and moon-colored skin. I was 42 but claiming, professionally, 26. It was Feb 13th, a Saturday at 11:07 am. We stood in my cramped bathroom in Jackson Heights, Queens. I’d stupidly sold my Greenwich Village pad and bought a place far from the madding crowd. (Where I could compose). On the cheap sink was a bottle of my rocker-black hair dye, the color and consistency of motor oil. Next to this stood the five or six different anti-wrinkle and aging creams I used twice daily. Jenya brushed out the equine sheen of her own hair. Her freshly painted mouth was set tight with the stubborn resolve that women get when they’ve just made a decision. She zipped up her make-up bag conclusively. She was breaking up with me. She’d bet on the wrong horse.
“Where were you all night?” I asked timidly. Jenya squeezed by me out the bathroom door.
“Where were you?” I repeated more powerfully, coughing, following her.
“I had terrible evening,” Jenya muttered in her terrible English.
“But you’re not answering the question,” I cleared my throat, looked around at my crappy living room, strewn gymnasium style with laundry and boxes of the stuff I sold on ebay for a living. Barely. Jenya was collecting her things, all the while keeping one eye on me, as if I might pounce.
“Where are you going?” I said. I knew the answer.
“But I’ve given you a home. You live rent free,” I said desperately, magnanimously, spreading out my arms.
“Yeah, in Queens,” she said with revulsion.
How I loathed Queens. How spoiled I was. How different were my priorities then, for this was long before joining Beach discovery and trying to heal the earth.
After the breakup, I took the F train into Manhattan every day. I spent hours and hours commuting. Queens was like another country. A third world one. The borough I’d taken for granted became a charmed island that could do no wrong. Every one of Manhattan’s famous flaws, her emblems of filth and rage, were all at once yearningly quaint. As long as they were in Manhattan. A dust devil of garbage was a magical Charybdis. A phone booth with the receiver ripped out was “picturesque.” The magic carpet that would lift me out of Queens…continued to elude me. Had my muse not gone AWOL during this period, it no doubt would have allowed me a skeptical, a merciful narrative distance from myself. That is, had I been able to express my true feelings of that year in song (rather than the self-pitying little self-portraits I was producing), it might’ve gone something like: “I’m 42 years old. I’m single. I’m childless. My girlfriend dumped me. I hate Queens. I had to sell my home. I’m suffering from an acute case of Manhattan envy. I miss my father terribly.”
Evenings I spent obsessively practicing my songs and trying to write more. Nights I spent endlessly and nostalgically walking the circuit in downtown Manhattan near where I’d lived–along Bleecker Street and McDougal, from Kenny’s Castaways to The Café Wah?–where I stood outside of those clubs, smoking and all bust booing at the musical acts inside.
One Saturday in February, by the Church rampart wall on Mott Street that DeNiro scales in Mean Streets, I walked with my guitar on my back past the church garden. It was a cold, dime-bright afternoon. The gate, which was usually bound shut by a chain and padlock, was now open. I went into this church courtyard and wept among the statuary.
Four years later, hanging out with Gregory J on a weekday April morning, before work. I’d been employed by the Beach Recovery for a year, day by day trying to heal the earth. On our way to the office we wandered past that same SoHo garden. We were able to access it by walking through an antique store, empty save us. The door to the store had been open. Out in the garden I told Gregory the story of my past romanticism, my selfishness, my music career, the day I’d wept in this garden. And here was Gregory. Idealism personified. A man whose life had been changed by a car accident, who’d actually died and come back to life another person. A man whose value system had shifted. Who saw how precious every moment was. Especially in light of the impending peril of global warming, this doomsday quickened by coastal erosion. Gregory put other’s needs before his own. He lived like a Spartan, like a Ralph Nader. A man who’d dedicated his life to healing the earth. Suddenly, at our backs we heard:
“Get out of here.”
We turned around to see the antique store owner, a crooked, white-haired man of 80, his face red with rage.
“Are you crazy? Walking into a man’s home?”
“But we thought this was a business,” said Gregory in his soft, hypnotic voice. “It’s me, Allen. It’s Greg. I’m still trying to heal the earth.”
“I know who you are,” said the store owner, for Greg had two years before helped the man with protecting the garden from being turned into a development. “You’re crazy coming in here like that. Get out now. Leave me alone,” he yelled. His hands were shaking with anger.
I felt sorry for the guy. Gregory’s compassion was infectious, and so was his strength. Allen needed a hug. This was the epic problem with humanity. Nobody was listening. We had merely tried to walk out into the garden for a moment of peace, had walked through an empty store whose front door had been open. We’d sought refuge. To get out of the craziness. From a human harmonic frequency, when the world attacks you, you throw a childish tantrum. That’s what Allen, the antique store owner had done. He lacked respect.
As we left the store, Gregory spoke about the importance of respecting the people working hard to protect our country and the planet we live on. He spoke about loving our planet. For Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. Love the beach. Heal the Earth. The Beach Recovery.