Monday, January 16, 2012

Tara #2

"Tara, Charlie, and Princess", Rockaways, NYC, 2002. Juliana Beasley

             Over the last year, Bobby had left several messages on my voice mail, one an invitation to Memorial Day BBQ at Jacob Riis Park, another from both him and Tara inviting me to come out and visit. I was walking towards the Path Train, listening to my voice mails one day in March. I became concerned when I heard Bobby’s message.
             "Hey, Juliana. It's Bobby! Are you in the country or are you still in France? I have some bad news. Tara was in the hospital. She’s sick. Call me when you get a chance", he said softly.
             I sat down on a stoop on Mercer Street. I called him the right away. My throat felt tight.
             "Juliana, we thought you weren't in the country. I would have called sooner. I got some bad news. Tara had to go the hospital and they told her she has 3-6 months to live if she don’t stop drinking. They say it’s her liver. She ain’t listening to nobody. She don’t want to hear it. She's still drinking. I don't know what to do. It's pretty serious. You still out of the country?" he asked.           
“Can’t you talk to her about this?” I said. “Is there something I can do?”
            “I think you should just come out here. I don’t know how long she got”.
             I heard a shrill of laughter in the back round.
             “Hey, Bobby. Who you talking to?” I heard Tara’s voice in the back round.
"Look, Juliana,” Bobby said. “Tara just walked in the door. She don’t want to talk about any of this stuff. So, don't bring it up.”
“Hey Tara. It’s Juliana. Do you want to talk to her? Here take the phone.” He sounded exhausted. Tara depleted almost everyone of patience despite her childish charm.
             "Hey, Juliana you still in France? When are you coming back? Where are you anyway? When you coming out here?" she asked like a toddler shooting questions rapid fire, one after the other, without necessarily any interest in the answers.
             Tara sounded giddy, excited and emotionally unavailable. I could imagine her holding her mainstay, a plastic big gulp cup, endlessly filled with beer, and eternally attached to her right hand.
             “I’m coming out soon. I’m busy with work. I’ll try to make it out there in a couple of weeks”, I said. I had every intention of going out there but never did.
Bobby had given me fair warning. Tara had a death sentence. She was 41, she would be 42 this year and she was dying of cirrhosis of the liver. That was the last time I heard her voice.

For the last seven years, traveled out to the Rockaways.  I brought my camera to photograph many of people whom had shared themselves and their lives in front of the lens.  Only twenty miles from midtown Manhattan or a one hour trip on the subway, whenever, I get off the train at the last stop, I felt like I have I had taken a trip to another country, maybe even another planet. With the passage of time, many city neighborhoods, now gentrified, were left indistinguishable to others, but not Rockaway Park. Many of the buildings and the people I portrayed in my project felt like abandoned relics of another past decade. Many of the locals seemed hermetically sealed in a bubble, cut off from the rest of NYC. During my time spent out there, I witnessed the real devastation of poverty, mental illness and addiction upon the lives of my friends and acquaintances. They were occupied with the survival of day-to-day life. Colleen’s daughter gets pregnant again, Bryan dies way to young, and Phil was beaten near death in an act of gang violence. For many of them, anything beyond the scope of the 10-block radius was foreign territory. They read their own newspaper called “The Wave”. They are loyal to their peninsula and the various neighborhoods that make up the Rockaway’s. Liberal-minded Manhattanites represent a threat to their secular way of life and for the most part, are not welcome unless it is tourist season and they have money to spend.
 I remember one summer, early morning; I walked onto the veranda of my friend Charlie’s SRO. The cool air from the ocean wrapped around my body and activated my senses. I was surprised at how well rested and limber my body felt. I had slept on the floor in Charlie’s room the night before. He woke me several times during the night, “Juliana. Hey, stop snoring.”
Two older men, sitting on beat up office chairs on the porch wished me a good morning. I had gotten to know them through past visits. As much as they seemed fond and accepting of my untimely visits, the strange old camera that I carried around my neck, and my endless probing questions about the neighborhood, they liked to make jokes on my account. I didn’t fit in. They smelled it and knew it.
            “Where are you going?” they asked as I was walking down the stairs of the SRO.
            “I’m going to get some coffee,” I responded.
            “You won’t find a Starbucks out here, “ they laughed and snorted.
            “Hey, I know that,” I responded defiantly, “I’m on my way to Dunkin Donuts,”
But, I knew that they were right; if there were a Starbucks in the neighborhood, I would have dropped my loyalty to D&D and in line with my city-slicker ways, would have picked up a two-dollar “doppio on ice”.
Over the years of photographing out in the Rockaway’s, I had occasionally mentioned when I would leave the country for a photo festival or a show. When I returned to the neighborhood after a long hiatus they always asked me if I had been out of the country. Beyond the blinds of their provincial and forgotten neighborhood, I often believed they imagined I lived a jet-set life, flying from one continent to another when really, I was just one state away in Jersey. Often, I was just at home with Moishe and Howard. Maybe they thought I didn’t exist at all outside of the Rockaways. I was certainly out of sight, and felt very much out of their minds when I was anywhere else.
            Last winter, my life wasn’t the perfect fictitious story of an artist globe-trotting from one show to the next. Unlike, my friends and acquaintances out in the Rockaway’s might have imagined (or at least what I imagined they imagined), my life was hardly glamorous.  My life was not carefree. I wasn’t flying around the world.  My life was on standby. I felt more like a mouse stuck in the gelatinous glue of a sticky trap. Everything appeared lackluster. All the familiar signs were there. I was no longer in remission. I was in the middle of major depressive episode.
My antidepressant, Nardil, the fluorescent orange pills that I had been taking for the last seven years, once worked, now no longer worked.  I called my psychiatrist for an appointment. I needed to be tweaked.
I went to his office in midtown Manhattan. I took the R and got off at 60th and 5th Avenue. I walked briskly with purpose, blinders on and eyes focused straight ahead. The irony of walking past Barney’s and the DKNY store on either side provided the wicked reminder of a time when I still had shopping privileges beyond the rare underwear or bra purchase at Kohl’s or Marshalls, of a time rid of financial worries, and of a time when I still believed that I could make a living as a working artist.
“I don’t think the Nardil is working anymore.” I said to Dr. Long.  “It hasn’t been working for a long time. Anyway, didn’t we want to try to put me on Ritalin? Anyway, I remember you scored off the charts on that ADD diagnostic exam I gave you before you left the last time.”
No, surprise to me that I passed for positive since most of the books on my shelves remained half read.
“Plus, “ he added, “I think it might jump start you out of your depression”.
I was ready to take any measures not only to concentrate but to get out of bed even if it meant getting hooked on speed, at least for the time being.
Nardil presented all kinds of problems when mixed with a long list of foods and many other drugs—namely sudden death. Nardil is one of the oldest anti-depressants on the market. I have never met anyone else on the medication. The only other person I ever heard of that had been prescribed Nardil is Marilyn Monroe. This makes me feel a little more glamorous, despite the fact that she died of a fatal overdose.
I sat across from him, a large wooden desk between us.  He shuffled through his notes, refreshing his memory of past trials, questioning me ever so often of my previous success or troubles with various medications. I looked at the creepy rubber band dispenser, an arm’s distance away. The transparent Lucite human head was missing the top of his skull. A clean lateral slice had left it topless, exposing a purposeful cavity: the perfect compliment to any psychiatrist’s flotsam of office supplies complimentary of pharmaceutical reps. I reached over, dipped my hand into the top of the head, pulled out a rubber band, wrapping it around my fingers while we talked.
Juliana”, Dr. Long said. “We can give it a try but you remember you have to go through a 3 week wash out period once you taper off the Nardil before I put you on a SSRI. It won’t be pleasant”.            
I left elated his office elated with the prospect of new meds that possibility could lift me out of my depression.  Yes, I want speed.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Christmas for Tara #1

"Tara and Charlie on Rock Boulevard", Rockaways, Queens, NYC, 2002. Juliana Beasley.

I wrote this piece or actually, began to write this story about my Christmas Eve out in the Rockaways in 2010 and what led up to the events in the story last year. I never finished it, got stuck in my writing and hence, never posted it. I began to look over it today and felt the need to post it. It's needs a good edit but who cares about perfection. I miss writing so, I have come back to this piece about Tara who passed away over two years ago before she ever turned 40. She was my first friend out in Rockaway Park and oddly, I have very few photographs of her since she shunned my lens. Here goes.

“Hey Bobby”
I heard a man’s voice on the other end but I wasn’t sure if it was Bobby. Almost, several months had passed since we had last spoken on the phone.
Past noon and I was still lying in bed, tangled in-between sheets and a comforter, I was dressed in the same pair of pajamas that had become my standard indoor outfit. The Jersey City parlor level apartment, filled with inescapable natural light, original fixtures and looming sixteen-foot ceilings, rented at a price well beyond my means was littered with cardboard boxes, stacked against the walls. Six months after the movers had deposited my belongings, I was still daunted and paralyzed at the prospect of opening and dismantling the colossal disorder that doesn’t compile over several months or a year but over a lifetime.  For safety and sanity purposes, all misplaced DVDs, obsolete files, and family photographs would remain under house arrest, securely and neatly sealed away in cartons, marked “Miscellaneous” with a thick black Sharpe.
My head was propped up on a pillow, turned toward and close to the window facing the street. I had discovered the precise angle, location, and position to hold my cell for perfect reception.
 “Yeah, is this Juliana?” Bobby responded. “How have you been?”
Bobby is probably one of the few people I know in the Rockaway’s who hasn't changed his phone number or lost his service in the seven years since I had begun photographing a personal project out there in 2002.  I could rely on him. He is probably as predictable and stable as it can get in a place where human encounters and relationships are often fleeting and short-lived. Upon my return after a couple of months break, I had become accustomed to hearing about another acquaintance or friend who had died or got up and left.
"I want to come out to the Rockaway’s for Christmas. Do you have any plans yet?"
"I think you should come out on Christmas Eve instead,” he said. We’re thinking of going over to the Kerry Hill. They’re having a free buffet. Would you like to come?”
Everything from our basic fashion sense, our interests, our back rounds, our economic class and our politics, Bobby and I were the most unlikely pair to spend time together let alone the Christmas holiday. We did have one thing in common, namely Tara That had kept us connected over the years.
Tara the shimmering enigma. Tara the bleached blonde waif.  Tara who disappeared and reappeared into our of our lives with no warning. Tara who never drank enough to quench her relentless addiction. Tara who lived a life that would have broken the spirit of most people. Tara who smiled and laughed more than she ever complained. Tara who had the charisma to appeal to the benevolence of those around her.
Years would pass when I couldn’t find Tara anywhere. I’d hope to find her walking up and down Rockaway Boulevard or standing at the bar of a local pub that hadn’t 86’d her yet, but no luck. She didn’t have a phone. And she was prone to losing anything that anyone had ever given her so, I was sure that she had already lost the last piece of paper with my number written on it.
“Oh, Tara?” someone would say from the neighborhood. “Haven’t seen her around much lately.” Other man sitting at the pub, “I think I saw her last week. The last time I heard she was living with that ex-cop out in Masbeth (another neighborhood in Queens),” I always missed her by less than a week.
Then on one visit someone at Kerry Hill told me she had moved back to the neighborhood. She was staying at Bobby’s. He was letting her stay in the room he rented in a boarding house on 119th.  The house had a bad reputation—whether true or not—as a den for crack addicts. I already knew several people living there or who had lived there. The place was a dump. The few renters who still remained kept heavy-duty padlocks on doors, marked with the holes and bruises of angry punching and kicking limbs.
His claustrophobic room was decorated with celebrity magazine tear sheets of Madonna at various times of her career. Now, I saw paparazzi shots of Lady Gaga. The moustache above Bobby’ lip, the mullet hairdo and his middle age appearance did not evoke an aura of top popular dance music, but instead the acid worn out hits of bands from the 70’s like the Altman Brothers.
Whenever, I was at his place, I noticed that the Venetian blinds were closed and imagined they stayed that way only because the slats were covered in a layer of dust. Beneath, Irish lucky clovers and smiling leprechaun stickers covered the windows. The tight living quarters made me curious about the exact nature of Bobby and Tara’s relationship. I assumed they shared the same fold out futon, but I never dared to ask either one of them about it.
“Can I have your phone number?, I asked him once when he called me. Finally, I could scribble down a real phone number to reach her and cross her name off the “missing persons” list in my notebook. From that point on, I could depend on Bobby to let me know where to find her.
My only commitment this year for Christmas was to make sure my dogs, Howard and Moishe got their mandatory three walks in Jersey City. According to my tradition of recent Christmas day’s past, I felt my rightful place was in the Rockaway’s with my camera.
The day before the day before Christmas arrived, I wanted to call Bobby and cancel. The thought of a two-hour trip each way on public transportation from Jersey felt nearly impossible considering that as the winter season progressed and temperatures fell, my growing lack of motivation grew and I spent more time secluded behind close doors.
I couldn’t cancel. I had to go for Bobby’s sake. I knew the last couple of months had been difficult for him. I could still hear his mournful words over the phone.
“I kiss her photos on my wall every morning and every night before going sleep. I have pictures of her all over my walls. You have to see it. Ya’ know she died on my birthday on October 1st? How I’m going to live with that for the rest of my life?” he said during our last conversation.
I called him around 8:00.
“Bobby? It’s Juliana.”
“Are you going to cancel on me?”
“No, Bobby”, I said. “I can’t stay for long. I haven’t been feeling well and I can’t leave my dogs alone longer than 6 hours, but I am coming.”
“Are you sure now you’re coming? Are you sure?” He sounded desperate.
“Bobby, I promise. I told you I was coming out, didn’t I? I have something for you anyway.”
“You didn’t have to get me anything,” he said. I could hear the guilt in his voice.
“It’s just a photo of Tara. You’ll like it. Oh, and don’t bother buying me a bottle of Jameson’s. Just two cans of Diet Coke. I don’t want to drink.”
“Sure a can or a bottle of Diet Coke?” he asked.
“Whatever’s easier? I’ll call you when I get to Broad Channel.”
I had a plan: stay for 2 hours, 3 hours max, give my good wishes to those that I had gotten to know over the years and leave. I had a purpose: deliver a gift to Bobby. Packed safely away in my camera bag, I had a photograph of Tara, adhered to foam core and wrapped in plastic. She was smiling and standing at the water’s edge. I wrote under the photo, “Tara at the Beach”, Summer 2006.