Amy makes a horror film

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First time I met her was about 1978, in a walk up apartment over a bar on Avenue C. I was dating her brother. The family had no phone so if I wanted to call him I had to call the bar, and the barmaid would go outside and holler up to the open window that he was wanted on the phone. In the beginning she used to sound pissed off, but as I became a regular caller, she softened, and would sometimes even ask me how I was doin, what was the weather like in Queens, as if it were a different country, which it almost was, compared the the Lower East Side.  Back then it was where you lived if you didn’t have much money. Where I lived, it was a combination of enormous houses and small apartments, the latter mainly for airline staff, because it wasn’t too far from the airport. We lived in one of the small apartments, my father, when he lived, which was not for that long,  rented a two bedroom apartment near the end of the E and F train lines. Better than Jamaica, which was the end of the line, but not as nice as Forest Hills. After he was killed we just stayed there. It seemed the least disruptive thing, to not move, after our lives had changed awfully,  quickly, enormously, after he was killed. Because the neighborhood was designed for transients, people catching a plane from one place to another, the only cinema we had was a triple X porno one. So if I wanted to see a movie that let kids in, I had to go to Forest Hills, or beyond.

So first time I met Amy she was on an overpopulated bed, full of other little girls ( she would have been about nine or ten) one who was her true sister, the others, her nabe sisters, kids from the block, the other blocks nearby.  She had five true siblings and about five or six kids who just seemed to live there anyway. The bed was full of little girls, cats and kittens. In an apartment that was overcrowded, not in the best shape, the basslines from the disco jukebox in the bar downstairs throbbing up through the floorboards, there was this little paradise girl’s room, which smelled of talcum powder and some very strong scented shampoo from the 70s, maybe Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific, or Herbal Essence, and  cats.  I said hi, and they chorused back a friendly hello, and I just wanted to dive into the bed with all the little girls, and we would brush each other’s hair and play with the cats.  I was 17, new to dating, and I found this familiar girl and cat world far more comfortable than the uncharted waters of dating, of blossoming sexuality, of figuring out the exact point you stopped being just good friends and started being boyfriend and girlfriend. It was desperately exciting, and yet still I craved the familiarity of the girly sleepover. That shit , I knew.

Amy reminded me of my younger self. All flesh and bone, never really finding clothes that didn’t fall off a little. Except she was prettier, as was her sister and all her siblings. They were blessed with photograph friendly bone structure, little grown up faces on wiry bodies.

The Lower East Side was not gentrified in those days. As you walked down the number avenues and got to the letters, it got seedier and seedier. Every doorway had some guy or a group of guys drinking beer or spirits covered in brown paper bags. The garbage men were on strike a lot. There was always more garbage than there should be, rats as big as cats darting over the rubble of the buildings that had burned down or had just been bust up.  So it was nice to go from these mean , scary streets and enter this little girl heaven, kittens and shampoo and lots of laughter. To a girl of  certain age, almost everything is funny, all humour is infectious. One starts to laugh and everyone joins in.

There was so much love in this family. There was  a boy’s room. They would nod politely but they were always busy doing their boy stuff.  There was a dog, with chronically infected ears. There were boys from the block as well, hard to tell who was blood and who was of the hood, but it really didn’t matter. The mom had enough love to go around them all. She worked her socks off, crazy hours, and everything she had , she gave to those kids, her own ones and her sort of own ones.

Within a few months dating, I was falling in love not only with Amy’s brother but his whole family. They were exotic, and there were just so many of them. There was always a child or animal to cuddle.

But despite this happiness, this new love, I was plagued by some unknown terror. It would grip me in the stomach, and it would come on swiftly, and suddenly, and where ever I was,  I would have to leave. Cabs were affordable then, so I always had cab fare, and Valium, should these unknown vapours attack me.  At times, necking my pills, watching the meter of the taxi go up by ten or twenty cents every few minutes, I kind of knew I was in no real danger.  But it didn’t matter. The terror was real, and felt much more scary than walking through bad neighbourhoods at midnight or beyond, depending on how liberal my mother was feeling.

These attacks never happened in Amy’s girl world. Everything there was safe and familiar.

Eventually her brother and I split up. I was bereft, but I could see it coming. The anxiety was getting in the way of everything.  I guess Amy grew up and had to do whatever it was to survive out of the girlworld of sleepovers and kittens. She moved far away, they all did, at some point.  And they all grew up into fine, talented, super smart and kind human beings.  Amy and some of her siblings moved somewhere that looked like paradise when she sent me photos. Long beaches. Blue water. Two little girls of her own, looking quite like her, but also, not her.

Now I keep in touch, mainly with the backbone of this wonderful family, on facebook and the like.  And Amy, I read about, sometimes in magazines, sometimes on newsfeeds. She makes movies. Just today, I found out she’s made a horror film. The kitten girl, making a movie about, who knows, an ax murderer with a old grudge and a sharp ax.  Something that will scare seven shades of shit out of this fraidy cat, I am sure. It’s weird to think this girl , who had many real dangers in her real life, has found solace in making a proper scary movie. Me, I still get the horrors, but I struggle on without the pills, which were bringing their own horrors, eventually.  One day soon, Amy will be walking down a red carpet, waving, smiling, and go into a star studded cinema, and they will roll the horror film, and everyone will be scared in all the right places. Me, I still get scared in all the wrong places. But my love for her, for her family, remains constant. The Lower East Side has been unrecognizable for years.  I don’t miss it. I miss the girls, who have grown up to be women, and the kittens, who grew up to be cats, and now must be dead.

Being trapped in an en suite bathroom in New Jersey during Live Aid

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The day of Live Aid,  even though I didn’t really like telly, it just seemed like one of those things you had to watch, so you could tell people, years later, that you watched the whole thing.  A momentous pop occasion, like Woodstock, without the mud and bad acid.  Actually maybe less like Woodstock, more like Eurovision, without a winner as such, apart from, if it worked, the starving people the concert was meant to save from starvation.It was just one of those things you had to watch with other people, and eat snacks, and at some point, give them some of your fookin money.

I rang my best buddy first thing I woke up. She was living in New Jersey with her boyfriend. I was living in Brooklyn, having just finished a pretty awful year as an assistant schoolteacher in a progressive school. This meant this kids progressed at their own rate. So some, by the end of the year, were still playing with He men action men, and building perilous towers of wooden bricks, and others were starting to form alphabet letters. They were only six. Sometimes I google their names now. They are children of big telly stars, or magazine editors. I worry myself when I do this. It’s a bit serial killerish, a bit stalkerish. I am just pathologically curious, if this so called education did them any good, or harm.

I called my bud and said, “Can I watch Live Aid with you? My telly has bad reception. I can stop off at West Fourth Street and get deli stuff. We can have a picnic in the bedroom.” It didn’t occur to me that as we were tucking into cream cheese bagels and coleslaw, across the screen there would be scenes of emaciated and dying children in long queues. Too tired and dehydrated to swot flies from their eyelids. Cut to sunburnt girl in Philly, on boyfriends shoulders, singing along to a pop star and raising her arms in the universal gesture of girls on boyfriends shoulders at arena gigs.

I got on the train at Carroll Gardens and stopped off at West Fourth, and found a deli that wrapped everything in about three lots of paper and containers, so my t shirt would not get oily.

I got on the Path to New Jersey, the smell of my heavily mayonaised feast cutting through the great unwashed smell of the subway.

When I got to the house, my friends were sitting on top of the bed, half reading the papers, half watching huge crowds of fans and then huge crowds of starving people. Everything felt enormously wrong. I felt as if I had invited myself, because I had. I laid out the greasy feast in the living room and then joined them on the bed. We all had coffee from their Mr. Coffee filter machine, and watched in awe and horror, the well fed crowds at the gigs, the starving crowds who were meant to benefit from the gigs.

None of us felt hungry enough to tuck into the deli feast.  We just kept drinking more coffee. When nature called, I could see the bathroom was off their bedroom, and there was no way to get in or out of the bathroom except to walk through the bedroom. I hopped off the bed and went into the bathroom. I had a pee and looked in the medicine cabinet for interesting drugs, knowing it would be a very long shot if they had any. Apart from the odd joint and cans of beer, they were pretty clean living.

I had been in there five minutes when I heard ruffled, muffled sounds coming from the bedroom. I knew these sounds. They were the sounds of a couple about to make love.

What to do. I said, “Um, it doesn’t feel right to come out of the bathroom right now, unless I close my eyes and run past.”

They both uttered with urgency, “No, not now.”

I thought, maybe I should ask them to turn the tv up. In a way, how life affirming, to make love in front of footage of starving and sick children. Or how wrong. I could not decide.  There again, maybe they turned the tv off, or the volume down, as I heard the sounds of building passion rise , then fall, as if one had his or her hand over the other one’s mouth.

I will say this. They did not hurry things up in order for me to leave the bathroom. I ran the taps and flushed the loo a few times, to pretend that I was still there for a reason other than not butting in to their love making. When I heard the final stifled cries of pleasure, I decided to wait for about a three minute cooling off period. I found floss on the sink ,and flossed each tooth with the utmost care.

When I felt it was safe to go back into the room, they were both propped up again, drinking cold coffee and watching Live Aid again. I noticed my gal pal had a red rash going from her clavicle right up her neck. I know that rash, it is post coital. It signifies pleasure was had.

There was not much to say after that. There was a lot of shouting from Bob Geldof. I got his point, but it was irritating. I don’t recall him saying fucking money, but the tone was , hectoring  Fair play, if you are going to hector people for money, this is a good cause.  I wasn’t even sure I had enough  subway fare to get back to Brooklyn. But I did, and I got back on the PATH, back on the F, with the cleanest teeth I had had all summer.

Cookery lessons, with Shingles

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It’s hard to get interested in the methods of making white stock when you are recovering too slowly from Shingles. Shingles is a Christmas-y jolly name for a horrible Biblical plague type of illness, with sores or blisters all down one neural pathway of your body, in theory, confined to one side, but in my case, bi-lateral. Pain and itching are your main symptoms, with lethargy, bouts of light- headedness and a profound loss of appetite, bordering on nausea, ever present, even after the bit when you look like a Dickensian poverty stricken orphan, in a hoodie and trainers and joggers baggy enough to stick your hand down and have a mighty scratch. If you were sat next to me on a train, you’d move your seat.

So I’ve already winged a cookery in the community lesson, mainly by standing still as much as I could, smiling wanly and offering to do the least arduous tasks, such as washing up.

Today, I had to go to cooking school, or I would get an incomplete. Yesterday my doctor asked me how I was feeling, and instead of saying I want to scratch myself til I draw serious blood, I said, oh, ok, I guess, I have my moments of “mercy me, I am well, I am cured” swiftly followed by moments of “I need to take to my bed, lest I perish” So he wrote me this sort of part time fit to work note,” and this morning I got up very early, slathered myself in anti itch cream, took the last dose of anti virals and lined up my knives and chef whites.

I got on the overground, got on the tube and made it there 15 minutes early, enough time to change into my whites and get a good scratch in beforehand. Chef saw me standing at my locker, confused in the general “I’ve been mainly in bed for six days, now I am confronting a locker in Victoria and don’t know what I do next, do I put my stuff in first, or the lock on, or what?” He is the jolly, rotund German ( favourite food, he tells us rather regularly, is chopped raw beef with a raw egg in it, which makes you think, why COOK? Why cook if raw is your thing?) who calls everyone banana , those who are late , or cut their vegetable dice in uneven pieces. I like him. He’s on our side.

Today we are making stocks. Chicken stock, fish stock and Dasheen, generic Chinese-y stock that involves the nicest smelling stuff, like lemongrass, dried  kafir limes and coriander, as well as less nice smelling stuff, Bonito, which smells like fish food.  The key to a good stock, he keeps saying, is to watch it and don’t let it boil and skim off the scum. Scum. Is there not a better word? And I’m like all wow, that’s like a metaphor for life, don’t get all boiled off, and skim off the scum at regular intervals. The ordering people “Bananas!” have not ordered enough fish, so we don’t actually each have to gut and fillet a fish, as he showed us, leaving the head on, but pinging out the eyeballs, the roe sac, the beardy bits, the skin, the collagen, which we can sell to beauty colleges to inject into people’s lips ( not really). We stand there, watching him surgically remove all these disgusting things, and I think don’t let me faint, it’s only a dead fish, it’s only Shingles, you will survive.

I don’t faint. We go about the business of making chicken stock, and I stand over it, watching my pot boil, because a watched pot does indeed boil, sometimes boils over.  The kitchen smells briny, salty, fishy, chicken-y, nauseating, the bile coursing up and down my gullet with the frequency of say, the Victoria Line, one of the more reliable tube lines, the one that got me here.

At a certain point, owing to lack of fish, we make one large pot of fish stock, to which jolly chef adds cream , and we line up, Oliver style, with our bowls, and he ladles out the creamy stock over our previously pan fried fillets of Plaice.  As we are in uniform, I keep thinking, this is like Oliver, please sir, can I have some more? Except its please sir, can I have less, in fact , none of it?

It looks high falutin, with its garnish of smoked salmon, and bits of white fish poking out of the velvety soup.  Everybody eats with relish. I take pictures of mine, for the portfolio, and quietly tip it into the bin.

We finish early, and I can’t wait to get out of my whites to get into a ladies’ cubicle and scratch to my heart’s content. Never before has a girl asked for more.

Cookery lessons

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Jing says I can remember his name like this:”Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way..” or I can just call him Neil. Neil is Chinese, but not his Chinese name, which is Jing. Jing is  a bit hung up on what he calls passion. He has studied auditing for five years and can be a really good , well paid audit guy. He does not feel a passion for this. He can put people out of business and call it restructuring, but hold his head high cos someone has to be the bad guy.  But he’s also done two years of medical school and has to choose a specialty, and he’s thinking pediatrics but could not stand the thought of being very tired and killing a child by accident. I say, “I think that’s part of the thing, the doctor thing. People will die. Some will be young. It does not mean you killed them, maybe their appendix burst, or cancer spread rapidly, or blood poisoning kicked in with savage swiftness after the menengitis rash came up under the glass.” But he remains unconvinced, it’s a doctor’s job to save lives. So ( we are whispering, we are in the college library, looking up recipes involving boiling bones, there is a circularity here) he is buying some thinking time and added a third skill into the mix, which will be cookery. He likes food. He spent 200 quid at a pop up. He took photographs of a heritge tomato salad he had in a Mark Hix restaurant. I didn’t want to tell him I polished glasses and cutlery in a Mark Hix restaurant for a very long time, because I felt it was all I was fit to do. It’s hard to say that to someone as multi talented as Jing. I go Jing, I wish I had your problems, that I had two things I was really good at and one thing I was getting good at.  He seems unconvinced. He tells me the starting salary for the audit jobs are way better than the starting salaries for NHS. You make more money saving money or getting jobs lost, than saving lives. In this fucked up world, that makes all kind of sense.

We stare at the cookery lesson screen and sigh. Stocks are a long way off. Today we have made beautiful salads, and salad is one of my favourite foods, but we’ve gone and 70s the lot of them by heaping globs of home made mayo over all of them and dotting them with carved heritage tomatoes.  I hate mayo to near phobic proportions.  And yet my first culinarly lesson is a sea of yellowish emulsion, inolving such rapid and frenezied whisking I feel this is task best suited to prositutes or guys who wank a lot.

All my cheffing gear arrived in a box big enough to climb into and send myself parcel post to somewhere warmer and mayo-less.  I have knives and whites galore. A recipe book full of sauces and things suspended in gelatine. Cruise ship cookery.  The first day I have my stuff, I play with all my knives and cut every edible thing in the house into tiny cubes of not entirely even sizes. Even sizes are important so everything cooks at the same time.

Do I have a passion for food? Nah, not really. But I like colour and fresh ingredients but most of all, I really love knives. Which is unfortunate because I am also slightly subclinically dsypraxic and given to lobbing off bits of my hands with stuff that is too sharp, you only feel the pain when you’ve bled all over the beetroot and realize it’s not beetjuice but your Type O.

My world is changing.  But I will julienne my way through bags of fat carrots while I am deciding my next move, or my next move decides it for me.