Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A Foreign Country

I learned to drive a car in the summer of 1983 when I was 36 years old because I had landed a visiting artist teaching gig at a prestigious California University and I was told that I would have to learn how to drive by a number of friends. “You can’t go anywhere without a car in California, you know its not like New York” M told me, and I knew he was right. I was very nervous not only about learning to drive, but also about picking myself up and heading west for 3 months to a place that I’ve never been. “It’s like being in a foreign country” M also told me. Great I thought. I have to learn how to drive in New York City no less, and I was about to head out to a “foreign country” for 3 months. I wanted out of New York City for sure. After I had been nearly murdered in this city, I made up my mind to get the fuck out of this place that I didn’t really love anymore, actually I hated it. Besides which the city was full of dying or dead friends. AIDS was here, and it wasn’t going to go away anytime soon. I lost my first friend, a very handsome somewhat hedonistic but fine painter right before I was due to leave for the coast. I went to the hospital with my friend Cynthia to see him for the last time and to say goodbye. I was shocked when I walked into the room where he lay barely alive. This was not Bill, but a near death very old man, all skin and bones, who barely recognized us. “Ira Joel is going to California Bill, isn’t that great, and he’s come to say goodbye.” Cynthia said. I was so choked up, that I could barely say anything. We left and when we got out of the elevator I broke down and cried large sobs that racked by body. People looked at me and Cynthia held me as she led us to a bar to have a drink to calm me down. Back then it was easier to pick up and leave. I was still young and I left my loft with my roommate (our rent was $300.00 a month) threw myself a big going away party and that was that. I passed my driving test the 2nd time I took it. There were many hours of instruction from a tough red headed Italian woman instructor from Brooklyn. I paid for the lessons with some of the money that I got from my 3rd National Endowment. My first day out she took me to 14th street where I promptly got into an argument with another driver who didn’t care that I was learning to drive. “Never argue with another driver Ira Joel no matter what, for all you know he might have a gun and shoot you and me dead.” All in all Nina was patient and fun to be around and finally I was all set to go west. Rebecca Rhodes who was a painter and was married to the well-known theatre critic Lonnie Gable had interviewed me for the position at the Annual College Art Association meeting at the New York Hilton. Lonnie was also a painter and both of them taught at the university. In fact there were several well-known married couples on the art faculty, but on this cold day in February it was Rebecca who interviewed me. I liked her right off the bat. It was her comfortable face and body and soft voice with a slight Irish accent to it that won me over and like most of the close female friends that I’ve had throughout the years, it was for me love at first sight. I had a strong feeling I would be hired because I knew several of the artists on the faculty and my work was not exactly unknown so I was more then confident that I would be going to the land of la la.
M had been out there 8 or so years before and had fallen in love with G and our relationship ended when he returned to New York. When I finally arrived in California after a long plane ride it was night and I was met by Rebecca and Lonnie who were going to put me up at their house until I found a place of my own. “You really can’t see much now, Ira Joel but wait until the morning, it’s really lovely here. It took me a long time to adjust to California, at first I really hated it here, but now I love it.” Rebecca said as she drove on the freeway to their house, which was lovely. All the rooms were painted in bright blues, reds and yellows and greens and there were lots of cacti and plants everywhere. Most of the wall space was taken up by both their paintings, Lonnie’s large and abstract, and Rebecca’s small and representational. I was thrilled to be with them both. Lonnie was much older than Rebecca, and had been married before many years ago, and had a grown daughter who was studying art at the university. Lonnie was a legend in the New York Theatre world for his smart savvy and sometimes difficult to read theatre reviews and essays that he wrote for small but important literary magazines. He knew everyone in the New York Theatre world during the 30’s & 40’s but he left that world when he got an appointment at the university to teach theatre, painting and art history. His mind and intelligence was amazing, and I was a bit intimated by him. Tall in stature with a head of white curly hair and a quick wit and a tart tongue that I knew he had having read his collection of reviews on the plane. He could also be grumpy, opinionated and difficult as well but he had a loyal following among the students who flocked to his classes. On my first morning in California he took me to the Pacific Ocean, which I think is much more beautiful than the Atlantic and Rebecca was right, it really was lovely here. I started to really like the place when I saw all the palm trees and strange foliage that was everywhere and the marvelous California light. Oh how wonderful was that California light. Sharp at one moment than soft and diffused the next. I knew I needed a change, and I wanted so much to like California. I was with Lonnie when I found the place that I would live in. We saw the for rent ad on a bulletin board at school and we quickly removed it before anyone else had a chance to see it. It was a very small house that was most likely at one time servants quarters. It was located behind the main house which was a big Spanish style California number right out of a Raymond Chandler novel or a noir film from the 40’s and I half expected Barbara Stanwyck to answer the door when I rang the bell. Instead of Barbara there stood before me a young person who I couldn’t tell if they were a girl or boy. It was a girl, a rather butch girl but definitely a girl unless of course Californians were naming their boys Tanya. She was the daughter of the owners of the house and was as I later found out a music major at the university and a lovely person. The owner’s of the house, her parents were a middle aged married couple. Petra was a slim attractive woman, who still had some small stitches near her hair line that I guess were from a recent face lift and was very agreeable to my renting the small house. The house was perched on the highest hill in the most expensive area of the town and overlooked a still green and not yet developed valley, and best of all was up the road from the most beautiful beach that I had ever been on. This was definitely not Coney Island. My beautiful little house had a patio, which hung over the hill, a small kitchen, bath and bedroom and it even came with a small TV. You reached my house by going through a small wooden latched door on the side of the big house which led to the back area and my tiny home for the next 3 months. I settled in. The first thing I had to do was rent a car, and this was real scary for me. Rebecca took me to a car rental place and when I drove out of the lot she had a look of terror on her face, (think Joan Crawford in Sudden Fear) and I could swear that I saw her cross herself. She later told me that the clerk was aghast at how I pulled out of the lot, and she told him that I had just gotten my license, and I was from New York City where no one drove. I hated driving and it’s a miracle that the car and me didn’t wind up twisted around some Palm Tree. Before getting in the car in the morning for the drive down the coast road to the university I would have dry heaves. I just didn’t feel comfortable behind the wheel and would make mistakes left and right. Several times drivers would yell at me. I was a wreck. I was always getting lost but somehow would find myself at the right place. One night I was invited to dinner at Blanche and Herbert Botz’s home located somewhere on top of some mountain. Blanche Botz was a performance artist and one of her best known pieces was the one in which she screamed for one hour while kicking a dummy who represented her mother across the stage. Very impressive. Herbert was a writer of magic realist novels and poems. Their house was so isolated and difficult to get to that they arranged for another faculty member to meet me at my house and lead the way in his car, making the trip easier for me or so they thought. I would have preferred if he had just driven me in his car, but I stoically and dry heavingly got into my car and followed him up this curving dark road that finally ended at the top of a mountain and the Botz’s beautiful house. Nights in California were pitch black as I soon saw, and the only lights that greeted me as I parked the car were the lights in their house. The evening was a disaster. They had invited a visiting female playwright who it turned out was a nightmare. I even thought that she may have been psychotic. I had seen a play of hers many years before when I was 18 or 19 at the Judson Poet’s Theatre and enjoyed it, but I did not enjoy the playwright. I had heard from several people that Michelle was a difficult and shockingly homophobic woman, and I was soon to find this out for myself, as she launched into a hysterical monologue about how the New York Theatre World was controlled by a homosexual cabal that prevented her plays from being produced because she was a heterosexual woman. I couldn’t understand the Botz’s being friends with her, were they just being nice to her because she was all alone in this strange place? Things soon went downhill rather fast after that. In fact I got so angry with her that I made her cry, and I wasn’t even drinking, since I had to drive. I was not the only one angry at the table. Blanche and Herbert tried so hard to be diplomatic but there was no saving the evening. I ended the night by telling her that I had liked her play but could not say the same thing about her and that if I never saw her again I would consider myself blessed. The other faculty member would be driving Michelle back to her place, and I would follow them down the dangerous road. It was pitch black outside, and there were no lights turned on the property to help me maneuver my way out. As Willy started up his car, I backed up a bit, but suddenly I realized that I was stuck. What the fuck I thought just what I needed. I got of the car, and saw that I had backed out and over the edge of their property and that the car was hanging over the edge of the mountain. I nearly fainted. I had almost gone over the edge of the top and would have most certainly been very hurt if not killed, as it was a very long drop. Stumbling my way back to the Botz’s front door, I could barely speak when Herbert opened the door. Light poured out of the house and I pointed to my car. Herbert and Blanche tried to get me calmed down, and called a tow truck that would come in the morning to remove the car. In the meantime Herbert drove me back to my house, telling me that it wasn’t my fault he should have warned me about the edge, should have had the lights on out there, he would pay for the towing not to worry. By morning everyone on the faculty knew what happened and Lonnie especially was pissed. “Why the fuck didn’t they warn you about the edge, how could they not have lights on out there, stupid stupid stupid.” So now I was without a car, and had to depend on the bus and the kindness of friends and students to drive me around. My landlord’s husband Stu came to my rescue offering to lend me one of his many cars. “It runs ok, Ira Joel but it might give you some problems.

To be continued.

The images used in this post are photos of my little house in California and some of the drawings that I did while living there.


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