Paris Is Burning

Her name is Paris.

I observed her as we walked out of Jackie Robinson Park. Even though the sun had long set past the clouds, she was noticeable.

Without seeing her face, I felt her presence. Nearly a foot ahead of me, she stormed down the stairs with determination, while simultaneously undoing the bun of hair on her head; whipping it from side to side like models and actresses do when they’re in front of a camera. As it fell into place, it almost seemed as if the ghost of Whitney Houston came down and styled it as she walked. Her white eyelet mini-dress revealed her strong legs which towered a good four inches over mine (more with her ankle boots), along with toned and delicate arms attached to broad shoulders which reveal her past life.

This woman was born a boy.

As she began to speak to her girlfriends, I scurried to keep their pace. It was unusual for me to physically “body” my way into a conversation — especially between people I don’t even know — but it happened. And I listened…

To back track a bit, we had all just come from the vigil for Islan Nettles; the transgendered woman whose violent assault on a Harlem street last week resulted in her death, and sent shock waves into the LGBT community. Although I’d missed several speeches, I managed to catch a couple of gospel songs, an angry vow for justice by Nettles’ mother who looked far older than myself despite being the same age at 37, a grandstanding family member who used the platform as her moment to shine, a poetic younger sister and a few words by people who repeatedly mispronounced her name (it’s “E-lan“, not “Ees-lan“). At the end of the vigil, a group of transgendered women began to angrily confront one of the organizers, screaming “Lesbians know nothing about what we go through!” after being told they could not take the stage.

What I had missed, which Paris and her friends — and later other transgendered women I encountered further on my walk home — alerted me to, was that Islan was constantly referred to as “he”.  To most people and the media, it just seems like the natural way to address her, because there’s still such a lack of understanding with such a delicate, controversial, and perhaps unsavory topic. But to her community it was the greatest insult beyond her senseless death.

Yes, she may have been born with different parts, but Islan was a woman.

She dressed, spoke and loved as a woman. As one of her actual friends took the stage to speak of her, he was joined by a small crowd in the audience echoing his sentiment as he expressed how she would say “hello” to people she didn’t know. To those who knew her, she was kind and full of life… until it was taken away by someone filled with ignorance, fear and contempt for something and someone so special.

What do I, as a “straight girl”, know about this person or any in the LGBT community? Honestly, not one damn thing that makes me an expert. Despite going to fashion schools, working within the fashion industry for several years, having many gay friends, attending a few gay bars and being privy to some of the lingo  — I’m still about as much of an expert as the douchebags who go into notoriously LGBT neighborhoods and pick fights. Okay, maybe I do know a little more than them, but I’m about as prepared to do a dissertation or panel discussion on being a member of their community as I am on “Catholic guilt” or what it’s like to be part of the one percent.

As a straight, single, African-American woman, I do know the struggles of relationships, and finding people who’ll accept me for who I am and love me in spite of or because of it. As a teenager, I walked into a store in rural Pennsylvania with my lighter-hued father and witnessed the entire store go quiet as the customers and cashiers watched my every move because of my skin tone. So I can only imagine Islan and others like her being discomforted on a much grander scale when the entire world is staring at you while you’re discovering an entirely new skin.

The timing of the news that Bradley “Chelsea” Manning requested to have hormone therapy while serving his sentence in military prison for serving up government secrets was unfortunate in a sense that it overshadowed news about Nettles’ death, but it raised awareness about the transgender community. While folks like Chaz Bono have brought the topic into the spotlight with appearances on “Dancing with the Stars” and having Cher as a mother, the popular consensus is that they’re confused or even… wait for it… gay. (Can be explained in one word: Convert. As the “gays” say: “Look it up.”)

Unbeknownst to a majority of the population, there are many wealthy, famous and powerful men who are happily (albeit secretly) attached to transgendered women. Some even trek to exotic Pan-Asian locales to pay for their attention.

Personally, from my own experiences, I’ve found transgendered women to be very much the way Islan was described. They have consistently been some of the sweetest people I’ve encountered, but also very outspoken and passionate. Possibly because it takes a great amount of courage to be a part of that community. To acknowledge your truth and take very drastic action to make it your reality takes — forgive me — a lot of balls. Clearly they have extra, and are happier in the long run for not living a lie.

And if anyone questions if it’s natural, consider this: Manning is going to prison for providing Wikileaks with hundreds of thousands of classified government documents. Now, really, who else but a woman would spill that many secrets?

While Paris, Christina (her somewhat shy friend) and their other sister in the struggle were hoping that tonight’s vigil would be the breakthrough they were looking for in gaining acceptance, I’m not entirely confident that it will succeed. In a society that has become more brazen with its intolerance and insensitivity, the possibility of them being treated as equals may still find resistance.

But at least the conversation has begun.

Sadly, the taking of another innocent life once again had to start it.

[Author’s note: After the original publishing, I’ve since been educated that the use of the word “transgendered” is incorrect, and that Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley) should be addressed as such going forward. We’re all learning something new!]  

Tea and Empathy

Every now and then, my Anglophilia kicks in with a vengeance.

In the past, it has served me well when it comes to some of my career choices, music, fashion and entertainment interests and a few friends who are always solid sources of good times.

Adversely, it has also served me two of my last three significant love interests…

Ummm… yeah… how ’bout this year’s Wimbledon tournament? Well done, Andy Murray!

Anyway, this week it was tickled blue with the news of the Royal baby being born. Although I did not personally deliver this child, his arrival was exciting because I can briefly obsess about a Kate other than Moss, and be confident that his parents won’t name him something stupid like “Knot” Windsor. (For the record, I’m having difficulty with his birth name, George, because it always reminds me of the Bugs Bunny cartoon with the “abominable snowman”. Yes, I’m different.)  

Coming down from that high could only be done one way: by watching Idris Elba in “Pacific Rim”. While the crush I once had on him has gone the way of my days of wearing long hair, he’s still a great actor, and that movie restored the joy in sci-fi fantasy that “Iron Man 3” briefly snatched away (effectively nullifying my other crush, Don Cheadle — they’re dropping like flies).

What made this picture so great, you ask?

Besides it feeling like a sick mash-up of a live-action “Voltron vs. Godzilla and Friends”, the overall theme of the characters being “connected” mentally and emotionally is always a topic that resonates in my book.

“Drifting”, as they called it, was the concept of being in your partner’s thoughts and memories to enable a cohesive — and stronger — team. In other words, understanding and working with someone’s strengths and weaknesses can mean the difference between overcoming an enormous life-altering obstacle, or watching in horror as your brother gets snatched and eaten. (That last part is totally changeable to fit your own life story, by the way.)

It’s funny to me that I should come to watch a film that incites putting oneself in other’s minds when, just two days ago, a discussion with a guy friend about my writing “voice” prompted him to advise me to “be angrier” about my subjects. My first reaction was to laugh, as anyone who has irritated — or dated — me in this lifetime can attest that I have “hulk-like” abilities when it comes to temperament. That is, when I care to even feel any kind of way about something.  

These days, I feel the only thing worth fighting for is make-up sex. Watching the world get pissed off about everything from race to real-estate is more exhausting than empowering. Frankly, it’s all counter-productive. When people spend more time thinking about how they feel about something instead of actually finding a solution to the challenge, what, exactly, gets accomplished?

As much as I’d love to say I’ve conquered my anger, and have made great strides for the better in the last few years, there are of course moments that can’t be denied. It usually occurs when someone hurts women or children, or when someone close to me has shown me great inconsideration, betrayal or disrespect. When you have a history of childhood molestation and parental abandonment, it tends to come gift-wrapped with trust issues and an occasional desire to be a vigilante. Nowadays, I would prefer any baggage of mine to be by Samsonite or Tumi.

Of course, there’s never a easy transition. People often feel a lack of passion about their plight equates to dissidence. Perhaps choosing peace over war is a confusing concept, because historically “war” has always come before “peace” in sentences and titles of books and songs.

And that’s why it’s ironic that I’m drawn to British culture, given it’s history of wars and colonization… now known as the American way. It’s like watching “All About Eve” starring the Queen as Bette Davis’ character. (If you’ve never seen this movie, now’s the time.)

I’m not sure if I can attest this to my love of tea, or my sadomasochistic idolization of Naomi Campbell.

Just to play it safe, I’ll say it was a mix of things like Corinne Baily Rae, Laura M’vula, Adele, Burberry and all things Virgin.

Okay… and Idris. “Pacific Rim” was that good.

 

End of Daze

Not sure about you… but I’ve never been happier to see a Monday in quite some time!

In addition to it starting up a mercifully short work week, it also signifies that I made it through last week without incident. With such a busy news week, anything — and I do mean anything — was possible. (Slightly dramatic, but true.)

If you were a minority, female or homosexual, you had a smorgasbord of topics to choose from: The Trayvon Martin murder trial, Paula Deen’s racially charged deposition, the removal of the Voting Rights Act, more Edward Snowden leaks, the abortion law filibuster in Texas and finally the striking down of DOMA and Proposition 8.

If you fall under all the aforementioned categories, you were on an emotional roller-coaster, which likely ended with you dancing in the street in something festive while your lesser-clad male counterparts wore either speedos or the clothes your parents wanted you to wear before you came out. (Yes, even the slutty stuff.)

As thrilled as I was for my many LGBT friends, it was still a tough week for me to embrace. The beauty of that moment, when the courts acknowledged that their love is just as real as anyone else’s and deserved to be given the same rights and privileges, was so monumental that it overshadowed a glaring revocation of a law that could potentially set up (or back) the next presidential election.

Yes, it was a particularly sobering week for African-Americans. While many of us were busy calling out Paula Deen for using a word uttered by every hip hop artist, high-profile entertainer, urban and “wanna-be” suburban kid, we totally ignored a little piece of legislature which may decide how and if areas heavily populated by minorities can vote with ease — or at all.

And while many took to the internet to write disparaging commentary about Rachel Jeantel’s physical appearance and speech challenges (much the way they did Gabby Douglas), they completely glazed over the fact that this young girl not only carried the burden of being the last person to hear her friend’s voice before he took his final breath, but she stood her own ground against a legal system ironically trying to justify “stand your ground” as a reason to shoot unarmed kids on their way home.

Meanwhile, the outrage stemming from the discovery that the government is invading the privacy of millions hasn’t quite reached the sector where they also invade the private parts and reproductive rights of millions of women. The mettle and relentlessness of Wendy Davis should be applauded instead of being subjected to vilification. But in a world where it’s a fun fact that a man has fathered twenty-two children with fourteen different women, it just seems like a good idea to attack anyone trying to make sure no child is brought into this world without the love and stability they need to thrive in what’s increasingly becoming a cruel world for anyone not meeting the societal standard.

It’s no secret; I am angry. Angered by politicians voted into office to protect the rights of the people, only to vote against gun laws and healthcare. Angered by religious zealots who preach about the love and sacrifice that lead to dying for sinners, but condemn people based on their lifestyle and right to choose. Angered by a society that reveres well-known adulterers and creates examples of marriage and relationships in highly rated reality programs where the subjects are polygamists or former sex-tape veterans who have expensive short-lived marriages and sire strangely named children with self-absorbed megalomaniacs, but wants to throw out words like “sanctity” when it’s convenient. Angered by my own race who continue to point the finger of blame everywhere but at ourselves — much like Miss Deen and, dare I say, our current President — instead of simply sucking it up and taking accountability and saying “Okay, let me fix this… starting with me.” Angered by a mass of people whose origin is mostly based in the European continent who keep trying to define immigration, while Native Americans fight to be heard and lose their land, and later, their children, in custody battles with white adoptive parents. Angered by the amount of young black men in prison for possession of marijuana when there are a growing number of free men in possession of abducted women and children and people’s life savings. Angered by the amount of money we spend protecting our “interests” in other parts of the world while our own citizens struggle to find jobs and means of supporting their families.

The list goes on and on.

We spend our days sleepwalking through life obsessing over mundane things like Angry Cat photos, Facebook posts, Twitter rants and celebrity baby news and deaths. I almost wonder when was the precise moment I decided to pay more attention to the escapades of people who contribute nothing but sensationalism over people like Nelson Mandela, who contributed to the end of apartheid in South Africa. Naturally, I’m embarrassed.

With all the greatness — and potential for greatness — this country has, it seems like now is as good a time as any to ensure our future generations are more caught up on current events than Taylor Swift’s love life and viral videos about “twerking.”

Education and an awareness of world news and changes should be the gold standard of our society. Not the option that falls by the wayside when budgets are cut. That a heavily tattooed man-child athlete makes more than a teacher is criminal. That, nine times out of ten, he’s broke by the time he retires from his respective league after spending it all on extravagant and excessive things and people (that is, if they haven’t gone to jail for murder, rape, weapons assault, dog fighting, etc…), before the rest is taken by the IRS indicates the need for better teachers (preferably ones not having sex with students or making porn). 

As I step down from my soapbox for the night, I realize the challenges of this world are so much bigger than me. It’s a sobering thing… and an even more frightening truth when you haven’t been drinking.

On that note, it’s waaayyy past my bed time.

And now… it’s Tuesday.

Sigh…

Southern Discomfort

Although it’s been said many times, many ways… this girl is a native “New Yawker”.

Born and raised in Queens. Did ten years in Brooklyn. Newly minted as a Harlemite as of one and a half-year ago. Aside from an extremely brief stint in Savannah during my infant/toddler years, I have never called another city or state home.

And yet… here I sit mentally cognizant of a faint and distinctive drawl that has managed to stick in the few days that I’ve just spent there while visiting my father.

The last time I checked, I wasn’t Kerry Washington in character for “Ray”, so this really isn’t going to work for me.

Fortunately, the twang is the only thing I picked up from my little visit to Georgia — although it could be said that the manners, affinity for fried things, and lack of urgency occasionally displayed could also be indicators that my ancestry definitely ain’t from the north.

It’s fascinating how, in a matter of a few days (and sometimes within moments) of being in Savannah, I’m always reminded of how different life and people can be when it comes to a little bit of geography.

It always amazes and terrifies me to be in a city that presumably has more hospitals, hospices, and pharmacies that boldly advertise diabetic treatment than a swath of the country. That I can also find a massive number of fast-food and chain restaurants, with a majority of the population packed into every one of them at any given hour, indicates more than just a passing indulgence or PMS-induced craving for anything that smacks of a cholesterol or cardiovascular nightmare.

Maybe it appears more so when you’re from a densely populated place occupied by a few million people — many of whom run, eat raw or organic things, and contemplate selling their kids for a space at Soul Cycle.

It’s also interesting, and helpful, to know that if I want “exotic” fare such as Indian, Mexican, Sushi or Thai food, the wait to get into those places are nonexistent since the natives steer clear of anything foreign — ironic (or prophetic, depending on perspective) — since Savannah is a military town.

Yes, I’m a city girl. I like my newscasters glamorous and equipped with the ability to read teleprompters with the ease and grace of someone who has either perfect vision or respectable corrective surgery. I’m resigned to believe that not all eyewitnesses bare resemblance to Sweet Brown. I prefer attempted suitors to not have baggy, low slung pants or call me “ma’am”. I didn’t realize there were still people in the world using paper checks to pay for things — better yet defrauding store clerks with them. That the latter was done by a very large black man dressed up as a woman is all the more horrifying and down right hilarious! (C’mon… a fake check and a fake chick?? I mean… really??)

But a part of me loves the smell of rain, and walking barefoot in it. Loves looking up at a night sky full of stars. Gets joy out of cracking crabs with my bare hands and doing it “just so”, so the meat comes out of the leg perfectly intact. Eats pecans until I catch a “bad one”. Walks the cobble stones of River Street with full knowledge that centuries ago my relatives congregated there to both buy — and be sold as — slaves.

Alas, these are Summer pleasures… so it was waayyy too cold for that!

As convenient as it may be to see an Oscar nominated movie like “Silver Linings Playbook” in a theater of about ten people (none of which were of my ethnicity) on a Friday night, there’s an overall feeling of loneliness that can quickly wash over you. In New York, it’s a self-imposed isolation that comes with the refusal of finding an outlet among the thousands available at the flick of a Time Out magazine page. In Georgia, it’s a bit more palpable.

Sometimes I make the mistake of believing I’m adaptable to any environment because I can pick up a dialect or digest a meal in various parts of the world without much fanfare… only to discover I’m a “fish out of water” in my country of birth.

That’s the funny thing about the American South. As “inclusive” as the country claims and dictates itself to be, there will always be a part of it that subtly reminds the rest of us that it was never their idea or desire to embrace the transition. And as archaic as some of the ideals may be, there’s almost a certain beauty and admirable quality in their defiance to maintain certain traditions.

…Except when it comes to elections and anything legislative. Then, they’re just irritating. Thankfully, the food is significantly more palatable and digestible than the politics, although it can initially be deceiving since everything seems like a good idea when southern hospitality is involved. For all I know, Paula Deen could be a fascist, but her hoecakes are so amazing that I may inadvertently vote for a Bush in the next election.

Still, none of this has good long-term effects on the heart.

In the meantime, perhaps there’s a future for me in voice-over work.

Ironically, I do not have a New York accent.

Suddenly, I have an urge to go juice something and watch a “Law & Order” marathon.

In Slave

It’s February already.

The shortest month of the year, and the only one where you could run into timekeeping issues with your age if you were born at the very end of it during a Leap one. Thankfully, my dad dodged that bullet by a day… although sometimes I felt it would’ve explained a lot of his behavior.

It is also most notably Black History Month, which used to mean reports and special school plays in honor of famous people of color during my childhood.

Today, it means I spend the weekend watching the NAACP awards, frying shrimp the way my grandmother taught me in Savannah, catching “Django Unchained” finally, and taking to Twitter to read and review commentary on the performances and ads during the Super Bowl while simultaneously trying to watch the game and contain my audible reactions to the game. All in that order.

Like most New Yorkers, I went into watching this game more for the ads and Beyonce’s halftime show because the Giants weren’t in it and could therefore care less who won. I moderately appreciate football as a sport, but fully enjoy the uniforms and the use of words like “tight end”. I’m crass. Get over it.

That said, it turned out to be an awesome game.

But the NFL went full-on “Sista-girl power” with a line up that began with Jennifer Hudson and Alicia Keys, and ended with that fem-bot Sasha Fierce leaving no questions about live performances… or why she now performs without the other members of Destiny’s Child. It was like a precursor to the Essence Music Festival.

Anyway, back to the point of this story…

The NAACP awards turned out to be emotionally overwhelming. After tearing up from the story of Vice Admiral Michelle Howard, I was then struck by the iconic moment of Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte standing on stage together, as the former presented the latter with the Spingarin award in recognition of his tireless charity work. That’s when the cosmic shift in the room occurred.

Mr. Belafonte is no stranger to calling out black celebrities for not taking a more active role in enriching the lives and opportunities of the black youth. But on this particular night, he used his moment in the spotlight to challenge all of them to use their influence to make and be the change needed in the communities to ensure kids today are educated instead of incarcerated. His speech was so moving, it jarred Jamie Foxx to the point of getting him to stray from his rehearsed speech of the season (only briefly, unfortunately).

For me, it sparked thoughts of the days when black actors were “actorvists”, and entertainers were outspoken in their community and in turn the community responded. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Poitier and Belafonte, Paul Robeson. All walked alongside the legendary Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X. Today, the number of celebrities willing to get their hands dirty are few, with exceptions such as Don Cheadle, who after making “Hotel Rwanda”, began campaigning and co-authored a book in efforts to end genocide in Darfur. The going trend is now to sign large tax-deductible checks or make photo-scripted appearances to boost one’s PR.

His speech stayed with me as I watched “Django”, which, when one isn’t focused on the graphic and gratuitous violence or the use of the N-word, you can appreciate for what it is: a good — no, great — revenge fantasy. Just like “Inglorious Basterds” before it, this movie takes a very real and very traumatic page in history for a race of people and asks the question “what if the tables were turned?” If you go looking for inaccuracies or expecting to be offended, you completely miss the true story buried within; the one where slaves were whipped, torn apart by dogs, put in “hot boxes”, and subjected to numerous atrocities — least of which is being called an N-word — worst of all being conditioned to betray and mistrust each other for their own survival.

And there it is… centuries later, we’ve become our worst enemies .

As Mr. Belafonte calls for an end to the penitentiary mindset that has been steadily crippling our communities over the last few decades, the city of Chicago has just tallied over forty homicides just in the month of January. Before the ball dropped to mark the end of 2012, they had notched over 500 murders in total for the year. Crime in minority neighborhoods have risen with the desperation of those who see more opportunity in guns, drugs, and professional sports than with degrees or specialized training for careers that can’t be outsourced.

It’s become customary to point the finger of blame at our lighter-hued counterparts for the lack of progression in our community, but we are squarely to blame for it. When we fail our children by denying them basic things such as quality education, stable and healthy home environments and just a strong sense of pride and self, we set up the future generations to follow suit.  When we put programs on where our women fight over men and money, put out songs that glorify violence and misogyny, and teach our kids at a young age to value expensive, high-tech and designer items they can’t possibly afford  — we are mixing a recipe for disaster. We are enslaving ourselves.

I’m sure they’d be remiss to admit it, but if Spike Lee had done that movie instead of Quentin Tarantino, they would be hailing him as a genius for sparking a conversation about slavery that hasn’t been explored since “Roots”. Personally, I think Spike should have done the film, so more people would be talking about it instead of fixating on a word.

It’s great that we celebrate the achievements of accomplished people of color. It would be even greater if we didn’t just allot a month out of an entire year to make them feel special. It’s almost akin to picking one day out of the other 364 to express your love for someone (hmmm… coincidence that it’s the same month?). It would be fantastic if we could make a habit out of excellence, instead of pointing people out like zoo animals, but I guess in some way it inspires one to aspire to something more.

But enough about this.

How about those Super Bowl commercials?

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time…

These days, the art of reflection has become a constant source of amusement to me.

We’ve all had them… those “WTF?” moments where we questioned our judgement and motivation in retrospect post incident, or two… or fifty.

The night of tequila-based drinks that ended in the ruin of both your purse and dignity in the eyes of a unknowing cab driver.

The time you tried desperately to fit in and divulged your deepest personal secrets to a bunch of women with superiority complexes.

That guy you met outside The Strand.

That chunk of time fondly referred to as “my Twenties”.

Okay, those are my moments of reckoning, but as long as you were able to fill in your own blanks with equally humiliating and regrettable tidbits, then my work is done.

But the key is to recall them with a lightness of heart that can only be matched with the feeling of your feet dangling in the air — because you’ve fallen off your chair laughing at how stupid they are now.

There are so many things that hold such importance in our lives to the point where we feel lost without it; material things, status, relationships, appearances. If we lost any of these things tomorrow, would it really be that big of a deal?

Is it that important for you to have that lifestyle at the risk of breaking your bank?

Do you actually give a shit if people don’t accept you for who you are, or support what you do if they don’t consider you on “their level”?

Would life really end if that person didn’t love you back?

When we read it, it seems absurd to even contemplate any of these notions. But in the heat of a moment, when phrased differently in our minds, we answer a resounding “yes” more times than we care to admit.

If we didn’t, it would be a perfect world where people didn’t go deeply into debt, succumb to insecurities to be part of a group, or feel like a breakup is proof we don’t deserve loving and respectful partners and friends.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t take anything seriously. In fact, when we reflect on how badly we cocked up a situation in our past, it should ideally give us pause and perspective on how we can get it right in life the next time.

These days, I find reason to smile even when my thoughts turn to tragic things. If I’m unable to find a funny instance in the moment, then I find comfort in knowing that whatever it was… it’s over and I survived it.

This frame of thinking might have made high school and college significantly smoother transitions, but hey, better late than never.

Happily, my relationship with tequila has since improved… vastly.

Sometimes laughter truly is the best medicine.

 

 

In The Dark

Night has fallen here in New York.

Normally, it would be a welcome sight. I’d look out the window at the Jersey skyline reflecting on the Hudson River, and find a comfort in the simple beauty of it.

Tonight, it brings me pause and even haunts me.

Seven nights ago, the lights went out in the midst of what would end up being the most devastating natural disaster to hit the city that I can recall as a native New Yorker. Even as it was happening, I was still somewhat sheltered from its impact; the initial terror of moving around in pitch blackness was replaced with sitting in a hotel bar dripping in candlelight, drinking a “dark and stormy”. The serenade of the wind against the windows was briefly usurped by one of the servers crooning “Hey Jude” on the piano as a respite from our guests reality.

By the next afternoon when my journey back home to Harlem began, it was still unknown to me the severity of the damage the city had sustained. We listened to the radio, but couldn’t fathom anything beyond closed airports. Sure, I’d seen a building with no facade just a block from my workplace… and a hanging crane as I made my way midtown. But it wasn’t until the pictures and video footage started surfacing on news channels and websites that Sandy had truly been recognized as a monster.

Despite the images and personal stories inundating the media, it still never hit home to me. Upon returning, my neighborhood was bustling and filled with people going on their way and blissfully resuming their local routines. My relatives in Staten Island were untouched. A friend sent me a video of the damage his friend’s house sustained. On Facebook, friends posted about losing power and finding refuge with other friends and family. Others lost their cars. One former colleague actually did suffer major damage to her home of only two weeks. While bothered by their misfortune, I was mostly distracted by sickness and the unexpected restlessness that overcame me in place of sleep. Donating money to the Red Cross was a quick and easy way to alleviate the guilt I felt for spending my days in the comfort of my own home medicating my troubles away and having the audacity to be stressed.

It wasn’t until I finally left my neighborhood this weekend that it hit me. Strolling the Upper West Side, I came across children having bake sales to raise money for Sandy relief and countless food and supply drives around restaurants and churches.

Today, I spent the day in Chelsea at the Fulton Houses going door-to-door asking residents if they needed blankets and supplies, making sure the elderly and disabled had their medical needs in order, and informing everyone about the warming center being provided by the New York State Housing Authority.

And this is when it truly became real…

When you encounter something akin to a post-apocalyptic scenario — where people are lined up for basic necessities such as food and water — it wakes you up. That it is happening mere doors away from high-end real estate and eateries is all the more sobering.

I take for granted that I grew up in a house in the suburbs of Queens and had my own room. That I’ve had my own apartments and lived for the most part in buildings that have had very little problems with heat and hot water. During the brief time that I lived with several family members, I was a toddler in Georgia and too young to understand any other way. While life has dealt me its share of hardscrabble situations, for the most part it has been charmed in comparison to what I encountered today.

Steps away from some of the poshest addresses in Manhattan, there are people who live about eight to ten deep in buildings with staircases that smell of urine. They reluctantly open doors and look at you skeptically because they don’t want you to know how many people live there. It’s only because you have a kind face and look somewhat like them that they eventually trust that you are genuinely there to help them, but still give you a ballpark figure of how many blankets they need. They refuse the offer for a warming center, but one particularly desperate looking man with two sick children and family uptown starts to reconsider his options after you and your fellow volunteers insist that he does what’s best for the kids. Those that speak very little English need younger relatives to translate that the power they’ve only had for two days is going to be cut off at night to preserve energy, and they should expect it to be fully restored in a week.

It isn’t until you are right there… in that moment… that you can truly see what a person is going through. All the empathy in the world doesn’t make you an expert on what anyone is experiencing until you really see life through their eyes and hear it from their mouths. Everything else is bullshit that allows you to be self-righteous and judgmental… much like political talking heads. We can watch people stand in rubble that used to be their homes, but unless we’re standing there with them, we can’t possibly say “I know what it’s like”.

Looking out my window, a swath of Jersey has vanished from the picturesque skyline. The sight and sounds of military helicopters has become disturbingly normal. Once again, New Yorkers find themselves adapting to a new reality that is both unpalatable and yet necessary for the greater good — like drinking cod liver oil straight.

In this, our darkest hour, one can only hope and pray that as we embark on what has chillingly become a close election, the people will ultimately choose the best man who will lead us all toward the light…

 

The Week of Champagne and Ice T

At the risk of having Cindy Adams come for me… I must express that the events of last week can truly happen “only in New York”.

Last week, I accompanied one of my girlfriends to a screening in Tribeca of Ice T’s directorial debut “Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap”. The nearly two-hour long documentary was a love letter to the craft of the Rap/Hip Hop genre, in which the former rapper turned actor and reality television star waxes poetic and gets poetic with over thirty-five legendary (and soon to be) hip hop artists.

With a roster that included Big Daddy Kane, KRS One, Lord Jamar of Brand Nubian, Kool Keith, Run DMC, Grandmaster Caz, Afrika Bambaataa, Mc Lyte, DJ Premier, Raekwon, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Nas and Kanye West — to name a few — it was a miracle that Ice was able to edit his four hours of footage to make an entertaining and still relevant movie. That he not only had them speak their mind and occasionally display their varied styles, and manage to squeeze a few classic tracks in for the soundtrack clearly shows his love of the art that got him where he is today, and shows what he’s learned from the lucrative one he currently embraces.

Of course, there will be some questions as to some notable omissions, but the OG director assured the audience it was more a matter of scheduling and content, and encouraged any potential filmmakers in attendance to carry the torch and continue the story. “The artists I included were the ones I had direct contact to,” he explained. “These were the people I came up with and the music I listened to. Y’all can make another movie!”

From my personal thoughts and experience, I felt Ice’s message and the movie was right on time. In a day and age where most “Hip Hop” currently being played on the radio is heavily materialistic and misogynistic, the original storytellers who created songs about struggling with poverty and racism  are becoming forgotten heroes. It’s his hope that the film becomes part of a curriculum for future students to understand the origin and history of the music they’ve come to identify with in various forms, and not to forget those who laid the foundation for the current crop of “entertainers”.

That being said, the move is a must-see for my generation and beyond, and not just for the nostalgia. Sitting across from Ice T (which was a moment in itself), it was hard not to catch the intensity in his face… somewhat akin to that of an artist who just unveiled his masterpiece for the world to interpret. While the rest of us laughed, cheered when we saw our favorite artists and bumped to the familiar tunes, he simply looked at the screen; pleased with the story he had begun and eager to see who would take on the next chapter.

A few days later, I would go from Hip Hop to the Horsey set.

Attending the Fifth Annual Veuve Clicquot Polo Classic is the only acceptable reason to dress up for a picnic. Although I sadly didn’t bring a large hat to wear, I managed to have a nifty basket on loan which drew lots of envy, and the dubious honor of being one of the relative few “ethnic” attendees.

While I frown upon the obscene markup of the champagne bottles, there is something to be said about taking  a ferry on a sunny Saturday to the picturesque Liberty Island and indulging in a day of watching and meeting beautiful people and Polo players like Nacho Figueras, while sipping bubbly. Yes, the game is essentially an abridged version of soccer played with horses, mallets and smaller balls, but there’s a grace and majesty in it nonetheless that should at least be experienced once.

…And the way I see it, if you’ve owned a garment or fragrance by Ralph Lauren or watched “Pretty Woman”, it’s sort of rite of passage, really.

It’s all the more fun when you’re there with a globe-trotting, social-climbing bestie, who serves up wicked commentary on fashion and feet faux pas while on the prowl for his next heiress. Sadly, he only got to take pictures with a bevy of leggy models and a few fierce sisters. Tough life. 

And what were they playing at this upscale soiree, where Clive Owen, Rachel Zoe, Zoe Saldana, and Padma Lakshmi whooped it up in VIP, and men wearing boater hats and cravats bought bottles of Veuve in nifty carrying cases to share with women dressed in their finest CFDA-approved outfits? Biggie, Jay-Z and Kanye, of course!

Upon return to the island of Manhattan, while the polo masses headed to Beauty & Essex — no doubt to partake of even more champagne in the ladies room (seriously, my friends and I spent a good half hour or more in there once) — I joined the rest of Brooklyn for a night of music, comradery and art with free admission at the Brooklyn Museum’s Target First Saturdays.  Surveying the crowd, I knew Ice T would have had a proud papa look to see the mass of men, women and children dancing to what is now old-school Hip Hop.

It only seemed appropriate to end the night having faux-southern cuisine at Pies N’ Thighs in the hipster enclave that is now Williamsburg. A day full of juxtapositions called for mac and cheese that seemed more “gourmet” than “Georgia”.

I can, and will, go so many places in this world, but only in New York can I have a week, a night, and a life that allows me to be all things and still remain true to myself… and have a blast learning in the process.

There might be a Jay-Z song for that…

 

 

Fashion Weakened and Legends of the Fallen

For all its glitz and glamour, Fashion Week can be a pretty ugly scene for those seasoned in the process. 

Beautiful clothes, gorgeous models, endless parties, celebrity-filled front rows and flamboyant personalities are what the world has come to know when they hear the words fashion week. The pageantry that takes place twice a year gives New Yorkers a shot of decadent escapism, as many flock to Lincoln Center and other venues around the city just to get a glimpse of the famously fashionable — some hoping to be photographed and discovered themselves.

What people don’t see are the moments that just aren’t pretty. The fights for invites and seating. The show crashers. The falling models. The plethora of unbalanced personalities with an obscene amount of self-importance. The freebie-scavengers who descend on goodie bags and open bars with the speed and lazer focus of a hawk snapping up a field mouse. The obvious look of desperation from someone hoping to be photographed or filmed in their most revealing outfit — which they’ve worn on a day baring 30 degree temperatures and snowfall. For some people, fashion week is the adult version of prom, and many are still waiting for their dance.

Overall, the week was a boring mix of lackluster collections and D-list celebrities making the rounds because everyone worth seeing was in California for the Grammy Awards. It did, however, take an unusually dark turn when this particular week was marred by not one, but two major deaths. The death of Zelda Kaplan, a woman who went from being a suburban housewife to a champion of women’s rights in African countries was jarring not only because she was a seemingly ageless 95-year old woman who outlasted 20-somethings on the club scene — but the fact that she literally checked out in the front row of Joanna Mastroianni’s fashion show. My colleague and I watched with curiosity and later with horror as we witnessed the guards race across the live streaming screen and seconds later return with the hoisted body of Ms. Kaplan. We’d only learn later her condition was fatal. It was a fitting exit for someone whose life was devoted to fashion and fanfare.

While Kaplan’s passing certainly was tragic, it was the death of Whitney Houston that sent ripples around not just the fashion community, but the world over. When I first heard of her death, I was hoping it was one of the many false deaths posted on Twitter. But once CNN and the Associated Press confirmed it, my heart sank and all hopes were effectively dashed.

In a way very similar to Michael Jackson, Whitney’s life had become more scrutinized from a flawed human perspective over the years, and she was often spoken about as a punchline more than as the incredible artist that she was. Admittedly, my thoughts as of late had mostly been her unfortunate public appearances — the damning interviews, the awful reality show, and the unflattering shots of her looking too thin or sickly — but at the core, we all wanted Whitney to make a comeback.

Like every little black girl growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I’d do my best Whitney impression, belting her hits from the top of my lungs and singing “The Greatest Love of All” with my school chorus. When “The Bodyguard” came out, you couldn’t escape the song “I Will Always Love You”, or resist the temptation of trying to hit that note the way she did… as only she could. We couldn’t wait to exhale with her and Angela Bassett in “Waiting To Exhale” or stop playing that soundtrack. She was that spiritual sister who brought church to every performance and we were her devoted followers. We grew up with her. Her songs were the soundtrack to our lives.

Like a lot of people, I felt so connected to Whitney through her music that we blurred the fantasy of the ingenue songbird with the grown woman facing personal demons, who ultimately made extraordinarily self-destructive decisions. When she chose to marry Bobby Brown, the world collectively gasped and hoped she’d come to her senses. Years of drugs, domestic abuse, fidelity issues, and publicly embarrassing episodes would ensue before she finally parted ways with Brown, but as much as we’d like to point the finger at him for steering her in the wrong direction, the awful truth is Whitney made the choice to stay with him. We can all say she deserved better, and should have been with someone who elevated her as opposed to bringing her down, but how many of us actually practice what we preach? I’m sure those who did say it was likely met with a strong and possibly expletive-laden response.

Her death still doesn’t feel real, but if anything the last week has taught us is to be grateful for the life we have and never take our blessings for granted. Her voice was a gift from God that was ravaged by drug use, and her determination to stand by her decision to be with Brown overshadowed the amazing career and reputation she had built before doing so. I cried for Whitney, but now I pray for her daughter and mother, who must now face the devastating loss of a mother and child gone too soon.

For the rest of the world, we have lost a true artist who didn’t rely on theatrics or barely there outfits to keep the audience enraptured. She simply sang like the angel that she has now become.

It’s ironic that a week in which the main goal is to focus on newness… mostly championed and honored retro looks, artists whose style favors said retro period (Adele), ageless doyennes and a diva who showed us the greatest love of all.

Clearly some things never go out of style…

Apples and Oranges

Most days, I love being a New Yorker. What’s not to love about a city that offers so much in culture, experiences and various personalities?

Today, however, it blows… right through my closed window, which sits next to the Hudson River. On a perfect Spring day or a warm Summer night, the breeze is my friend and savior. Tonight, it has conspired with the schizophrenic radiator in my room to keep me addicted to Booster C vitamins for the rest of Winter. With temperatures in the teens, the big apple is now what clever newspaper caption writers (whose job I semi covet) call the “frozen apple”, and I’m not loving it. Give me the “orange state” of Florida, please.

Sitting here, fully clothed and huddled up in sweats and two layers of socks and sneakers… my mind wanders wistfully to places like Jamaica, Bermuda and Miami — where I not only had the time of my life, but I was significantly warmer (although not by much in Bermuda). Just thinking about South Beach and the ocean waves cooling off the hot sand that I wish was running through my toes instead of this shooting pain that feels like frost bite.

But as much as I’d prefer the warmth of the sun and sand, this brutally cold city has my heart. It’s where I can get pizza, Thai, Caribbean, and sushi within blocks of each other. It’s where I’ve checked out the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the upper east side, and a local homegrown artist exhibition at the awesome Apt 78 Lounge in the upper upper west side neighborhood of Inwood in the same day. It’s where I meet and connect with people who own multiple homes and use “Summer” as a verb, in addition to those who are just getting by in their rentals and looking forward to Summer the season so they can hit Coney Island. It’s where I can converse comfortably with hedge fund executives, marketing and media wizards and unemployed folks taking advantage of the free wi-fi in the coffee shops and libraries. It’s where I can watch the majestic dancers of Alvin Ailey and Ronald K. Brown’s Evidence troupes, and then see young kids with moves defying gravity on the subway ride home.

Physically, I feel the bitter chill, but the thought of New York always warms my heart.

When I think of Florida, I think of Alligators, and unless I’ve decided to become a cobbler for the pimp industry — there’s just no reason for me to be near them.