The Traveler…

I called this blog Traveler’s Tales. It’s a bit of a homage to Carl Sagan. His book Cosmos was one of the things that made me see science could be poetic, and for that I wish I had thanked him when he was alive.

I travel a bit, and I write about science. Where possible I like to combine the two, but not always. I’m interested in places, and how those places interact with people, and sometimes how the world — the things we like to call natural laws — shape that.

I also live in one of the great cities of the world, so oftentimes I will be writing about that too. One of the things about living in New York is that while it’s symbolic — cue up Frank Sinatra — but it is one of those places that after you’ve lived here a while, sometimes it’s hard to imagine yourself anywhere else.

That’s one of the things about the traveler. That person isn’t just bringing tales back home from elsewhere, they bring tales of home to other places. When I write about science I do the former, and when I write about New York I do the latter, and with any luck I’ll do it reasonably well.

 

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Halloween, Lou Reed, and Stories

I live in New York. It’s the city that you can’t imagine Lou Reed without – his being here, from when he played the clubs to the exhibits of his photographs. Listening to his music was a kind of snapshot of a place that I unabashedly aspired to be in — and to an extent, still do.

Lou Reed wasn’t just about great music. He told stories. When I first heard a full album of his I was a DJ for my college radio station in 1989. In the pile of CDs – then a new technology – was the album New York. And when I heard it I thought, “I want to write stories like that.” Not songs. Stories.

Concept albums hit their heyday at least a decade before New York hit the shelves. Even then they were rare and strange beasts, and in an age of sampling and mp3 files may be even more so. New York is often ranked in the bottom half of Lou Reed’s oeuvre, yet to me he still ranks with Carl Sandburg among the great poets of the city. And also someone who spoke up for the people who other folks would just as soon stayed in the closet.

And as Halloween is upon us, I want to talk a bit about one of those stories.

There’s a downtown fairy singing out “Proud Mary”
as she cruises Christopher Street
and some Southern Queen is acting loud and mean
where the docks and the badlands meet

People of a certain age might remember the fear that once came with the term “AIDS.” Before modern (and still insanely expensive) drugs were available, there were few diseases that could scare a 20-something as much. I’d had blood transfusions previously, before the blood supply was cleaned up. I remember the jolt when a nice clinic worker asked about it during a blood drive. I had that nagging voice at the back of my head – what will the test results be? For LGBT people – especially those in the closet — the situation was far, far worse.

Many still had all kinds of weird ideas about how it was transmitted. Gay people I knew in college were still trying to get across that people without HIV posed more danger to the infected than the other way around. Even a decade later, I still had someone ask me if it was safe to have dinner with an HIV-positive friend of mine.

In New York City, the death toll was mounting. And in the arts community especially, there were funerals. A lot of them, though a lot of the time nobody said what the cause of death was. Some were famous names like Robert Mapplethorpe and Alvin Ailey. But most weren’t. They were just local actors or musicians or artists who were struggling to get by.

Lou Reed’s songs often touched on the gay and transgendered – “Walk on the Wild Side” was only the best known. Lou wrote about the people at the margins, the nooks and crannies of a city that produced some great talents. The Village was  one of those places. Given the neighborhood’s status as an emotional center for many in the city’s LGBT community, it should be no surprise that Reed chronicled the hit the neighborhood was taking. And he chose the Halloween Parade, a Greenwich Village institution, to show it.

There’s no Peter Pedantic saying things romantic
In Latin, Greek or Spic
There’s no Three Bananas or Brandy Alexander
Dishing all their tricks
It’s a different feeling that I have today
Especially when I know you’ve gone away

Reed rattles off the names, sounding easy as you please – each one was a friend, a lover, a son or daughter. On Halloween you show the pieces of yourself that aren’t allowed the rest of the time – is there a better metaphor for so many that were still in the closet then?

And yet the parade itself was never a “gay” event. It was just people in the neighborhood having a blast. Sure it grew, but how many local parades showcase the talents of puppeteers? By the late 1980s it was one of the biggest parties in the city. That’s why the event has survived – after Hurricane Sandy, people gave money on Kickstarter to make sure it happened again this year. Tourists come, sure, but it’s also an event for the people here, by the folks that live here.

There’s the Born Again Losers and the Lavender Boozers
and some crack team from Washington Heights
the boys from Avenue B and the girls from Avenue D
Tinkerbell in tights

And that’s why “Halloween Parade” is so moving. Give it a listen. Put yourself in the shoes of the community struggling with a crisis and facing the indifference, even fear, of the surrounding city. A community that said they’ll put on a show anyway, and invite everyone, because no matter how bad things got it was never a reason to tell people they weren’t welcome.

It’s all history, one might say. The Village isn’t the Village anymore, not like it was in the 1980s and early 90s. And even then, it was disappearing. New Yorkers didn’t know what it would become, though we knew the kind of artist Lou Reed represented wasn’t likely going to be part of the neighborhood’s future. The Village has been a home to artists and bohemians of various stripes for a century, and I am sad to see that fade away.

So I will stand on Sixth Avenue this year, and wave to the people who wear their wildest fantasies on the outside for one night. And I’ll be thinking of the man who once wrote the eulogies for denizens of the old neighborhood. It’s not his best song, but it doesn’t have to be.

See you next year

Lou Reed, 1942-2013.

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