Thursday, October 27, 2011

Everybody's Talkin' About Fantasy Fest

Once upon a time this was writer James Leo Herlihy's house on Baker's Lane
I was 19 years old the first time I saw the film Midnight Cowboy and decided I had to get out of New York City. The film’s opening musical theme, “Everybody’s Talkin’” suggested a magical place “where the sun keeps shining through the pouring rain” and “where the weather suits my clothes.” Ah, yes, I wanted to escape to that place. And when handsome, sweet-natured, generous, blue-eyed blond Joe Buck headed to New York, the greatest city on earth, only to find delusion and relentless loneliness, I related to that too. So I came to Key West. And never looked back.
   Since then, we’ve watched Midnight Cowboy many times. It is a family favorite. The first time my husband Michael heard the song “Everybody’s Talkin'” in 1969 he was a businessman, in a city on the mainland, yearning for the freedom he heard described in those freewheeling phrases. He immediately went out and bought the record. Thirty years later, when he heard it for the first time, our son Miguel downloaded the song onto his iPod.  I’ve noticed that songwriters (my husband and now, too, my son) will listen a hundred and ten times to a song they find particularly intriguing, analyzing it, examining it, deconstructing every line in search of the magic button.
    Key West is like that. We come here for something magical, something we cannot name, something we are oftentimes in too big a hurry to find until it’s too late and we rush back to the safety of the tried and true of our hometowns. But what remains, the broth of humanity reduced again and again, is a rich soup indeed.
Fred Neil in New York City, where he wrote "Everybody's Talkin.'"  He died in July 2001, one month before Jack Maple.
    Singer/Songwriter Fred Neil, who wrote “Everybody’s Talkin,’” traveled to the end of the road to spend the '90s in comfortable seclusion on Summerland Key, where he died of cancer in 2001. After "Everybody's Talkin’” Neil's best-known song is "The Dolphin." In 1970 Neil and marine biologist Rick O’Barry founded The Dolphin Research Project, an organization dedicated (according to Neil himself) to stopping the capture, trafficking and exploitation of dolphins worldwide. After that Neil progressively disappeared from the recording studio and live performance. I have heard that Neil was such a recluse that he hired taxi drivers to pick up his prescription drugs from the pharmacy and deliver them to his house. He lived alone. He died alone. But he’d made it to where the sun keeps shining through the pouring rain. He died having written songs that will live as long as time.
The flap over the peep hole at the front door
    I wonder if he knew that James Leo Herlihy, the guy who wrote the novel Midnight Cowboy had lived on Baker’s Lane in Key West? I wonder if he ever visited the house with the peace sign gingerbread and the peep flap over the window on the door that you lifted so see who was knocking. On it, Herlihy had written: “God is at the door. Let us see what face He is wearing today.” We walked over to Baker's Lane this morning and met the new owners: the Antonis, from Freeport, in the Bahamas.  The Antonis graciously allowed us to see the door and peep hole. My friend, writer Stacy Rodriguez and her famous crime fighter boyfriend Jack Maple, rented the historic place for a while in the ‘90s. Herlihy spent the '60s in Key West, but later returned to Los Angeles, where he took his own life in 1993.  He was 66 years old. I wish he’d stayed longer.
Turn the flap and read: "God is at the door. Let us see what face He is wearing today."

    Jack Maple, a New York City native, loved exploring the streets of Key West, and when someone on a bike or in a car got in his way, he quoted the famously improvised line by Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy,  “I’m walkin’ here,” he’d say.
Jack Maple, always dapper. He died in NYC, one month after Fred Neil died here in the Keys.
     It’s Fantasy Fest week, and outside my door the streets are teeming with tourists, in mass pursuit of  that magic button they have only heard about, the mystical thing that quiets that yearning to belong, to live true to your dreams, to feel alive. It resides here, that magic, I’m sure, but I think it leaves town for Fantasy Fest.

Scenes from Midnight Cowboy. Oscar winner for Best Picture 1969.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Rainy Day Woman

A rainy day on Duval Street won't stop these tourists from enjoying their vacation.
This week it rained in Key West. It rained for days. It flooded the streets, trapped people in their homes, closed the schools and got us on the TV news. At the beginning of the rain, when the temperature dropped a few degrees and the air was heavy with dampness with salty breezes tossing the palms, it was sweet—a welcome change. But then it turned dark and relentless. Enough! The five-day season of rain reminded me anew of why I live in Florida.

Con Leche, rehearsing in the kitchen.
During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, to promote tourism, the Key West Chamber of Commerce promised to pay $5 to the library fund for any day the sun didn’t shine, at least for a little while, on the island of Key West. The announcement was made in March. It was not until the following March that they had to honor their vow and pay the first $5. That’s the norm for this place. The average annual rainfall in Key West is around 38 inches. It’s twice that in Miami. It’s a benefit of living on a coral island, a hundred miles out at sea. 
Miguel. My baby. Singer. Songwriter. Teacher.
    People in Key West remember big rainstorms the way people up north remember historic blizzards. Sometime around 1980 I was home alone with my baby when the rain was so overwhelming I called a taxi to bring me diapers for my baby and cigarettes for me. When the cabbie, a woman, arrived I invited her in. We ate. We drank. We chatted. We had a great time. That’s the way it was back then.
    On Wednesday, Day Five of the deluge, I decided to work on my project of downloading my CDs onto my computer. All went well until I came across a Raul Malo album, and a song that touched my heart. The song "Remember" reminded me of many sad things: the way it always seemed to be raining in the autumn when I lived up north, and of how I fought an annual depression from fall till spring year after year. I thought of my mother, and of how much I miss the woman I feared and adored in equal measure, of when she was young and beautiful and magnificently nuts. I thought of my friend, wheelchair bound, recovering inch by painstaking inch from a stroke that happened over a year ago. I thought of the swift passage of time, of how fast life goes, and of how, in spite of how rich you make it, in the end, it always ends the same.
For the street or the reef!
    Then I did what I always do when my sprits sag. I cooked. Chicken soup, with lots of veggies. I called my son, my baby, grown into a man who teaches school and plays in a band and loves Key West as much as I do. I told him I was bringing soup. He was home from work as school was canceled for the rain.  He and the band were rehearsing. The guys played a command performance of their hit song, "Keys Disease." I photographed them, while outside the rain fell mercilessly.
    Con Leche, the band, is playing at the Pegasus Hotel on Fantasy Fest weekend. This, Will, the guitar man told me, is a “rare opportunity” to see the band live—and to buy their album. Why rare? I asked him. It’s a marketing thing, he told me. Oh. Like the Chamber of Commerce, and the sun.
    Today we’re heading to the beach to celebrate the return of the sun, our long lives, and the passage of time. In Paradise.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Heaven Can Wait -- But Not for Carla

My recent PET scan revealed that my body is free of detectable cancer cells. My future today looks far brighter than it did a year ago. And I certainly feel a whole lot better than I did back then. It looks as if I may live beyond the reach of those diabolical renegade cells.
    An article in the New York Times recently reported that throat cancers caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) Type 16, which is precisely the virus found in my (now gone!!!) cancer cells, is becoming “a major epidemic.” Throat cancer is on the rise, although still relatively rare. There are fewer than 10,000 new cases a year. Most people with HPV don’t develop cancer. Researchers now believe that infection from the virus is usually fought off by the immune system. In an unlucky few, like me, the virus causes cancer. My husband is certain that my immune system was gravely injured by the stress of watching my mother die a slow and terrible death from a brain disease called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy.
    When Mom died, ten days after my final chemo treatment, I was relieved that her suffering was over. Her disease, which to me resembles Lou Gehrig Disease in slow motion, is uniformly fatal. My disease is often not. In fact, median survival in HPV 16 throat cancer patients who manage to make it through the horrific treatments of radiation, surgery and chemotherapy, is 131 months. That means I’m probably good for ten more years on the planet. Old age, here I come. Heaven will have to wait.
Carla Zilbersmith was a singer, comic, writer, actress, teacher and mother. She had a whole lot of living going on. Then she became ill and died, in May 2010, of Lou Gehrig's Disease. She was 47 years old.
    In the meantime, I have been inspired deeply by Carla Zilbersmith, a funny and adventurous woman who, before she died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, created this bit for you and me. Having had the experience of watching a loved one die from this type of brutal and humiliating illness, I have deep empathy and profound respect for the courage exhibited by Carla, who is beautiful, energetic and gutsy enough to prepare this video to be shown at her funeral. See you soon, Carla and Mom. Meanwhile, I've got some living to do.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Two For A Nickel, Three For A Dime

Laura's Toiletry Party: Always a hit!
I have a very smart daughter (she’s from my husband’s previous marriage; she got her mother’s brains) who is quite accomplished at saving money via couponing and savvy shopping. Whenever our family gets together Laura stages the toiletry party, where she dumps onto the floor a satchel of helpful items like toothpaste, shampoo, body wash, aspirin, muscle salves, razors, shaving cream, deodorants and all manner of drugstore stuff, from which we get to choose, and keep, whatever item catches our fancy. It’s big fun. It doesn’t always go smoothly, of course, as occasionally more than one person is interested in a product. Sometimes you have to fight for your favorite dental floss. And sometimes Laura gets stuck taking back less desirable items like, say, four tubes of Bengay.        
There's something for everybody in the toiletry pile
    We all know we don’t need to pack toiletries when visiting Laura’s house. She’s got it all there, somewhere, in her impressive stash of products, purchased for pennies. Sometimes she gets stuff for free, or in her words “they paid me to take this out of the store.”
    Lately there is a new reality show on TV about over-the-top couponers who head into the grocery store armed with looseleaf notebooks full of clipped coupons, stuff six or seven carts full of groceries, and then nervously head to the check-out line where they describe to the camera the terrible, stomach churning agony of hoping and praying their calculations are correct and they really will get $1400 worth of groceries for only $2.49, which, of course, they do. The bargains are stunning, and they maintain tremendous stashes of food in their homes.  Nonetheless, I have to wonder how those women plan to use 108 jars of mustard in this lifetime.
    How do they do it? Laura says the first thing to do is to join the store savings clubs. Get the card. Use it. At CVS, for example, you get extra bucks. And those extra bucks add up, until eventually you’re barely paying for anything. Of course you’ve got to work your way up to the major leagues. You don’t become a super saver over night.
    There are many coupons to be had on line. Laura gets a bunch of hers there. But when I tried to hook up with some of the online coupon sites they wanted information I am unwilling to give. I don’t like junk mail, which you get a lot of when you let people know you’re interested in saving. I asked Laura if she’d found a away around that.
    “No,” she admitted. “It comes with the territory.”
Uh oh . . . No cream or deodorant in the hot tub?
    Laura, who is thin and only mildly interested in food, does not coupon for groceries. She has nothing to teach me about that.  From local smart shoppers I have learned that to save on food you’ve got to go to every store, and make bargain buys at each of them. Last week I really did cut my shopping bill just about in half. But I spent many hours in the stores, and often found that the real bargains were shopped out—like canned black beans. They went on sale at Winn-Dixie on Wednesday and were gone by the time I got there on Thursday. Sometimes I discovered that the coupon deal was actually not as economical as simply buying the store brand. I also found some subtle trickery. In a colorful circular, for example, you might see three quarts of orange juice, tantalizingly posing for an ad which reads: “Orange juice! Buy one, get one free.” Or, in the store, a sign that says “50% OFF - the second item when you buy 2.” Or, “10 for $10” which used to make me think I had to buy ten of the thing to get each one for $1.
    Clearly there is a learning curve to this. It’s hard work, and often frustrating, but it’s fun, too. The old rules about grocery shopping still apply: Don’t shop on an empty stomach. Take a list to the store or you’ll overspend. My rule: don’t take your husband shopping. Men shop with their stomachs, not their brains or their wallets. 
    Publix is where I see people I haven’t seen in months or years. My favorite checkout guy works at Albertson's. Winn-Dixie is near Ross, and I can’t go within a block of Ross without stopping in for a peruse. At Fausto’s you see tourists with sunburns and cameras around their necks, with that crazy, happy vacationer’s sparkle in their eyes.
    Nowhere in Key West do you find double couponing. I’ve checked.
    As for those super shoppers on TV, wherever they are, I’m impressed with their dedication. I’m envious of their huge closets that resemble the bomb shelter stashes of the ‘60’s. But I gotta wonder where in hell they’re gonna find a recipe for mustard soup.