A Peruvian/ New York Love Story
Romance Through the Prism of Art, Politics & The Letter Q Train
In January of 2005, around the time I began dating Jennifer, a sweet and pretty nanny
from Peru, I also started the Love Project, a series of open discussions about love
that took place in downtown cafes like Theee Coffee Chamber on Bleeker, the now
defunct Café de Artiste on Greenwich, and the Upper West Side penthouse of a friend.
Inspired in equal parts by bell hooks’ call for authentic dialogue around love,
Michael Lerner’s movement for a politics based on love and caring, my own
problematic love life (at 42, I had achieved a sad minimum of transcendent
relationship moments), along with my pedagogical faith in the transformative
power of simple, honest, human conversation: my Love Project was born.
As if a reward from the universe, a la The Secret, for my public amor
quest, around the time that my Love Project was being launched, suddenly
Jennifer appeared in my life. We met underground, damonically a good beginning,
in the Newark City subway. Philip Roth’s hometown. Poverty and crime
and the wounds of the 1967 Rebellion, which was really a police riot, were
still festering above our heads—though Mayor Cory Booker was giving it the old
college try—as her watery image appeared to me, floating, apparition-like,
in a glass partition near the subway door, a reflection of her real self
perched in the seat directly behind mine.
I smiled at the pretty floating face and, magically, she smiled back.
A degree of magic always characterized our relationship, which I attribute to
some ancient Incan thing. She was born and raised in Lima. The love gods and goddesses
of the Andes—perched high atop the mist-shrouded, craggy cliffs of Maccu Piccu,
overlooking the fertile green valleys where the llamas roam free—decided
to throw me a bone. As if on the wings of a Peruvian condor, enchanted love
arrived to sparkle me, here of all places, deep in the bowels of the city of Newark.
First date, more magic. It was an icy black December night. Setting: an ordinary
Chinese restaurant, in the NY-metro suburb of Teaneck, NJ. The moment called for wine.
Waiter: so sorry, no wine, but liquor store three blocks away. Suddenly,
out of nowhere, wine appears, like the first miracle of Jesus. A young
couple who were getting ready to leave had overheard us and were sympathetic
to our plight. Stranger couple empathy. The guy drops a bottle of red down on our
table: Bam! Enjoy! After dinner, on a deserted main street USA, drunk on
free spirits from the universe, our first kiss outshone the halogen street lamps.
But there was a fly in the ointment. She wasn’t an intellectual.
What to do about conversation? But what did Gauguin talk about with his South
Sea mistresses? How about Philip Roth’s middle-aged professor in
The Human Stain, carrying on with the young Latina cleaning woman?
Or Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolitle? Fortunately her beauty—smooth tan skin, sultry
face of a model, lithe body, young and perky—proved to be a powerful language
all its own, teaching me a rudimentary erotic grammar and sin tax I ought to
have learned years ago, thus repairing some deep-seated sexual deficiencies.
She was the first woman I enjoyed climaxing inside of, for example, a feat
that ought to be right up there with discussions of Marx or French literary
theory at the KGB bar.
Another theory: as a child weaned on sitcoms from the sixties and seventies,
perhaps I imbibed one too many episodes of Nanny and the Professor—planting a psychic
seed for a “life imitates bad television” long-gestation-period reenactment.
Jude Law’s fling with his child’s nanny, which, for me at least, added a touch
of tabloid glamour and front-page-worthy legitimacy to the concept of dating
nannies, happened a year after Jennifer and I were already an item.
Or perhaps it was simply that my love-wounded soul, still reeling from
childhood and a disastrous first marriage, demanded a nanny of its own.
When it comes to relationships,
the googoo, ga-ga truth is that I’m still in preschool.
Luckily, given my intellectual needs, Jennifer was eager to learn and grow along with me.
On Sunday mornings, through gentle coaxing, she joined me in reading
the New York Times.
The travel section was her favorite, especially when there was a story about Peru.
As I exposed her to NYC’s rich cultural life for the first time,
she opened up to art. We saw the Rauchenberg exhibit at the Met. You
could say there was something collage-like about Jennifer and I:
the randomness of how we met, our creative collision of culture and language
(I tapped my crude knowledge of Spanish while she stretched and expanded her
English skills, but we often settled into a co-constructed, playful, sometimes
erotic Spanglish of our own invention, with me slipping Zelig-like
into a Spanish accent to be understood better) that evoked the peculiar alchemy of Rauchenberg’s startling contrasts.
We saw the Munch exhibit at MoMA. “The Scream,” in addition to reminding me
that love is the ultimate cure for alienation, gave a chill of foreboding: my
soul would be lost forever in a scream of pain if anything bad ever happened to
my vulnerable Jennifer, living in a basement apartment with her 12-year-old daughter,
Maria, barely paying the rent, a hand-to-mouth existence in the typical
underground shadow world of today’s immigrant. Marriage with me, Jennifer once
begged me, her incorrect grammar adding poignancy to her request. Please, Yon
(her touching pronunciation of my name, John) marriage with me.
Her neighbor across the street, a nice black man who owned an auto repair garage in Harlem but was also a minister, confided to me his fear that if I ever left Jennifer, her life would spiral downward on a slippery slope toward disaster. In his opinion, I was the only one propping her up. But at 42, having been unhappily married once, I was in no rush to give up the freedom and privileges of bachelorhood. On more than one occasion, sensing an impending breakup, Jennifer sobbed gently on my shoulder as we rode the 167 bus from New York to Teaneck (exhausted as she was, too, from taking care of some rich Manhattan family’s kids all day—she got a more upscale nanny gig): prompting a compassionate flood of my own hot tears.
Hurry, run! Hurry or we’ll miss the bus!
The 167 to Port Authority arrives at Queen Ann Road in Teaneck at 1:30 pm.
Necisito vamos muy rapido! How peculiar a sight we must’ve been—Jennifer,
Maria and me—a tiny, temporary family-of-the-moment, constructed out of blind fate
and happenstance, running like maniacs down this quiet, leafy street on the outskirts of Gotham, past a scarecrow and a few pumpkins left over from Halloween, trying not to be late for the Universal Health Care protest march over the Brooklyn Bridge.
We made it! Wow, here we are, in this spectacular New York moment! Check out that
million dollar view of Manhattan! Look, Jennifer and Maria! Mira! See how beautiful!
Take a picture to send to your family back in Peru. Welcome to America.
You can protest the government all you want here and not get shot or thrown in jail.
Isn’t this amazing! Look, the people are waving to us from their cars on
the bridge, the people, the people, they’re cheering us on, honking their
horns in approval. Marching triumphantly with the protestors, we chanted
along with glee: “Everybody in, nobody out!”
Jennifer often accompanied me, quite happily, on many of my crazy, visionary political quests. She became an avid Reverend Billy fan, for example, cheering passionately and beaming with joy and sometimes dancing in the aisles during several “Stop Shopping” gospel services held at Saint Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery during the 2005 and 2006 theological calendar years. On more than one occasion she joined me at a meeting of a group called the Politics for a Human Community. Emerging, in equal parts, from Marx’s critique of the alienation of capitalism, and Michael Lerner’s call for a new bottom-line in American society based on expanding not just money and power (which the current, destructive bottom line is limited to) but love and caring and kindness, as well as a sense of awe and wonder at the grandeur & beauty of the natural world. PHC holds regular meetings in Hell’s Kitchen’s Skylight Diner, and at the Odessa in the East Village.
How soul-satisfying it was to see Jennifer, whose previous education consisted of
two years studying “communications” in Peru, hold her own at a table of New York
intellectuals, soaking up the caring/intelligent vibe—even if she couldn’t grasp
everything being said—a glow of curiosity in her eyes as she managed to tread
water on the flow of words and stories and friendships and quests, bearing
witness to a social, articulated gearing into the world as an imagined alternative,
an “as if” world that, to quote philosopher Maxine Greene, “might be otherwise.”
My hope is that Jennifer’s sense of agency grew, if only by osmosis, during
these radical political exposures. She joined us in our project to hand
out sandwiches to the homeless in Tompkins Square Park, and work the food
line at a Bowery mission the day after Christmas.
Of all things, strangely, the subway began to crystallize for me as a symbol
of our love. Perhaps it was the urban and fluid nature of our relationship,
symbolized by the dependable mechanical snake that zipped us here and there
to various cultural events around the city: like a front row seat to hear
Erica Jong read from her memoir Seducing the Demon: Writing for my Life in
the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble, or Jonathan Ames debuting his essay collection
I Love You More Than You Know in the now defunct Chelsea B & N. Ames has a
piece in that collection about a breakup with his girlfriend that is
so sad—titled “Our Selves Between Us”—after reading it I decided to hold
off at least a year
before daring to ever leave Jennifer.
I taught her how to maneuver underground, tricks like hopping the L
to meet me at Galapagos Art Space in Williamsburg, for a Poetry vs. Comedy event,
after which we rode back to Manhattan with my friend, the writer Thaddeus Rutkowski,
who, while we talked writing on the crowded, brightly lit L with its lavender seats,
was kind enough to smile and hold eye contact with Jennifer,
to keep her in the conversation as much as possible, unlike so many of the
city’s snooty artists and writers—deeply crippled people socially—who
instantly tune out anyone not in their insular, ethereal circle.
The first time we coordinated a meeting on the West Fourth Street subway platform,
she arriving from her nanny job uptown, and me already situated in the Village, en
route to an opening at the Fusion Art Gallery in the Lower East Side, it felt like
a miracle. We hugged and kissed and celebrated our underground victory as the teeming democratic masses rushed around us and a black man banged out a rhythm on his upside down plastic container drum. I flipped him a quarter because I was happy, and we jumped on the F.
Another tender subway memory is me singing “A Jealous Guy” to her (she loved John Lennon)
over and over on the downtown C, not giving a rat’s ass what anyone around us thought.
Encounters with street musicians performing ethnic music underground
during my time with Jennifer never failed to tug at my heartstrings.
The Asian mandolin players always got me. In particular, if the musicians had an
authentic South American sound, wore indigenous garb, or appeared that they might
actually be Peruvian, it brought an automatic lump to my throat and a welling up
of tears; a heart-storm of pre-sadness for a future break up or, god forbid,
something worse. (And that elegiac James Taylor song from the 70s just
yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone will haunt
the rest of my years.) The subway soundtrack of such tragic presentiments—melancholic
whisperings of the violin, flute or guitar—was already being orchestrated in my
imagination, via these serendipitous musical collisions. It made me love her more.
While watching Mardis Gras: Made in China at Cinema Village,
a brilliant documentary that, for my money, is still the most powerful,
aesthetically-crafted critique of third world sweat shop labor in existence,
I hugged Jennifer closer to me, weeping over the fact that she herself was
once a part of this nightmarish, Dickensian underworld, and could easily
slip back into it. Before becoming a nanny (one of the better gigs for
an immigrant female), while living in California, she got up at 4 in the
morning to work in some horrible factory for slave wages. During that
period of her life, not surprisingly, she grew deeply depressed.
My sadness turned to anger, a desire to repair, to make things better.
Luckily, my indignation had an outlet, since I serve on the executive board
of the downtown NYC-based Village Independent Democrats: the most famous and
historically significant left-leaning political club on the planet. Created in
1957 as a vehicle to elect Adlai Stevenson for president, the VID had the
blessings of Eleanor Roosevelt, took on and vanquished the corrupt Carmine De
Sappio machine downtown, and boasts Ed Koch as an alum. As a fledging VID
officer, I “made my bones” by proposing my first resolution: to support
the plight of immigrants by endorsing Ted Kennedy’s plan for a pathway to
legalization. It was approved by a unanimous vote. The best, though, was
when I got to tell Jennifer; and see the gratitude shining in her eyes.
Naturally, she rewarded me with a sizzling hot fuck.
Like Martin Luther King, I too have a dream: that the Democrats will one day renounce their corporate centrism and return to the party of the people they were under Roosevelt. So I do what little I can to make this happen, through my teaching, writing, and activism. Believing I have something to learn from the best political strategists out there (however much I might disagree with their policies) when James Carville came to town—a shrewd operative I admire for his work in Bill Clinton’s 1992 War Room, though I disagree with Clinton’s neo-liberalism—to read from his new book Take It Back: A Battle Plan for
Democratic Victory at the Union Square Barnes & Noble, I had to be there.
On the phone with Jennifer, who was coming in from Jersey, I was, quite frankly,
stumped as to what train would get her to Union Square the quickest from Port
Authority. But her own subway savvy was starting to kick in, out of experience,
and she surprised and delighted me when she said: I think I take the Letter Q.
was something touching, and even funny, about the way she pronounced The Letter Q.
With her musical accent, she chirped it in a precise, bird-like staccato rhythm,
infused with an element of wonder at her own eureka moment. Laughing, I responded:
The Letter Q? Yes, she replied, laughing herself now, at this funny and silly
letter Q. She had the pride of victory in her voice, for achieving this
subway-knowledge tipping point: The Letter Q!
Q for question: How long will America continue to suffer under the current domination
of corporate terror, akin to fascism, which infects both major political parties?
A deadly regime that’s profoundly anti-human, anti-environment, and anti-love. How
long must we wait for a humane, and loving, immigration policy? Barack Obama,
a world-healer type whose father was born in Kenya and who appears open to a more
loving politics, is a huge step in the right direction. Though his peculiar choice
of chief of staff, Rahm Emmanual, who helped ram through Clinton’s disastrous
globalization plan (Ron the Rammer) that exacerbated our immigration problems,
gives pause for concern. With hearts full of hope, still, we’ll have to keep an
eye on Obama.
A few months after Jennifer and I broke up (it was simply time to move on: no deep
Freudian analysis needed), the emotional meaning of our relationship became
crystal clear to me. Not surprisingly, my love catharsis took place within
a political context, at a gathering of the Left Forum at Cooper Union,
while Stanley Aronowitz was being introduced by Cornel West.
Stanley had just published a new book,
titled Left Turn: Forging a New Political Future, in which he argues
that a third, radical-left political formation is absolutely necessary to
break the corporate stranglehold of the Republicans and Democrats. But
Cornel also announced some sad news: that Stanley’s wife, Ellen Willis, had
recently passed away. They were married forty years. As Stanley wiped the
tears from his eyes, visibly shaken and unafraid to display his humanity,
I was reminded of the meaning and power of love.
But I didn’t connect the sadness I felt for Stanley’s loss, with my own recent
break up with Jennifer, until the next morning: en route to day two of the Left
Forum. It was a crisp Saturday in early March. At the Times Square subway,
looking for the downtown N or R, I searched through the maze-like station.
Where’s the sign for the trains? Suddenly, the plaintive sound of a woman
singing a sad song seized my heart, at the exact moment my eyes fell upon
the sign for the N and R and...Q! The Letter Q! A hurricane of sadness swept my soul. My flood of tears rivaled Katrina’s soaking of New Orleans a year-and-a-half earlier. Reminded of love’s vulnerability the night before, through the humane leadership of Stanley’s courageous, public show of grief over his deceased wife, now it was my turn to mourn, as the Letter Q whispered memories of my Peruvian angel.
Love is still the answer. The billions of people on our planet
whose humanity is denied so that 1% of the population can live in decadent luxury
would enjoy more love if the ideas discussed at the Left Forum ever gain traction.
I was weeping, with thoughts of politics and love fused in my psyche like a
Rauschenberg collage. My catharsis, triggered by this random collision of
sad music, the death of Stanley Aronowitz’s wife, and the sweet way my ex-girlfriend
pronounced the Letter Q train, was alchemized in the luminous, multicultural
cauldron of the Times Square subway itself: its swirling, democratic grittiness
evoking the imperfections, and unpredictability, of real relationship. As if in
silent prayer, I wished my Jennifer a lifetime of victories and growth
(like how she learned to master the New York subways) now that my condor had flown our love nest for good. Then I headed for Cooper Union.
Fast-forward a year-and-a-half later. October of 2008. I go to see Stanley Aronowitz (I’m a proud groupie!) give a lecture at the Community Church of New York, titled: “Into the Abyss.” In his attempt to make sense of the world-wide financial meltdown, Stanley again calls for the creation of a third political formation in the United States: to address the evils of capitalism which are destroying the planet.
For the past year, I’ve been waging a campaign to have the VID
sponsor a speech by Stanley that would offer him a more mainstream audience
then the far-left choir he typically preaches to. This has met with strong resistance.
But, given the obsessive tenacity of my bringing it up again and again,
in meeting after meeting, the crucial importance of Stanley’s message—often to
sighs, snickers or rolling eyes—including lobbying a key opponent by calling her
at home to make a passionate plea on Stanley’s behalf (a-la Lyndon Johnson),
and discovering that Assemblywoman Deborah Glick is a fan of Aronowitz,
it looks like it’s going to happen. I tell Stanley the good news, but he remains
skeptical. I’ll be dead in the ground before the VID lets me speak there,s
he says, with that rascally twinkle in his eye.
After, walking west on 35th Street, I chatted with a writer named Robert Reiss
(a brilliant older man who’s been around New York left politics all his life), who
was also at the Aronowitz talk. I often run into him at the Bagel Buffet
in Greenwich Village, or at the Communist Party Christmas Party on West 23rd
(hey, they got great food!). We paused at the subway entrance on 35th and Broadway, since I was headed to a poetry reading at ABC NO RIO on the Lower East Side.
Robert was in the middle of a fascinating discourse on the Catholic Worker, letting
me know about their Friday night meetings in the East Village. While he handed me
a copy of their famed progressive newspaper, I heard my name called out. John!
Her accent had improved; I was no longer the Yon of yore. But there she
was, radiant and in the flesh, bathed in crisp autumn sunshine, before my
eyes for the first time in a year. New York really is a small town.
Musically, it marked the crescendo that punctuates a silent pause near
the end of a classical piece. It was a religious moment.
While our bodies and minds struggled to make sense out of the
unexpected social awkwardness, I imagine our souls sang
a tiny hymn of praise (as the yellow taxis streamed down Broadway),
both to our love and the city that nurtured it.
She had stepped out of a deli restaurant, where she and Maria and...her husband!
were enjoying a bite to eat. Would you like to meet my husband?
I was overwhelmed with joy for her happiness. A mist dedicated to
the miracle of love suffused my eyes. My #1 fear after our breakup,
that she would be destroyed, cast off like flotsam and jetsam
into the ragged borderlands of poverty and loneliness—and cursing me
with a lifetime of guilt if I ever discovered her fate—was at last allayed.
Her husband seemed like a great guy: a special ed teacher in a Jersey middle school who’s down-to-earth and sensitive and grateful to find his Peruvian princess. Maria looked happy too. A happy family at last! Perhaps my purpose was to get Jennifer from point A to point B in her romantic life, the warm up act for her soul mate, a job well done that I’ll forever cherish the memory of. Call me the superhero of love. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it!
Headed down the subway steps, I glanced at the sign. Yes, of course, of course. How could it be otherwise? The Letter Q winked at me. Q for love quest. This one, at last, complete.
©2010 by John Bredin