Monday, October 16, 2006

Old Friends, Big Dreams, and a Synchronistic Hair Story

Last Thursday, October 12, I flew down to LA (doesn't that sound cosmopolitan and sophisticated? I flew down to LA. Actually, if you book two weeks ahead of time on Southwest Airlines online, it only costs $60.00,) to see my friend Carla Zilbersmith perform her hilarious, poignant one-woman show, Wedding Singer Blues, at the Hayworth Theatre.

I've known Carla for twenty years. She's one of the few friends I have now who remembers Alan, my ex-husband. She knew me in that other long-gone life when I drove cross-country with him in 1985 and '86 and '87 and '89. We listened to AM radio since it was all we could get, grilled toasted cheese sandwiches over campfires, and at night pulled the car off the road and slept on the seats. (It was a '66 Ford, which we called the Trashmobile, built like a tank. Long gone to rust now.)

I met her when when I slept on her floor--she had graciously opened up her tiny apartment to ALL the members of the Boston Village Gamelan, which had been invited to perform in the World Expo 1986, in Vancouver. Alan and I were in the early, blissful, wayfaring part of our relationship then, when we could be together day and night and never run out of things to talk about.

I remember we broke down in Blue Cloud, Minnesota, when the radiator exploded. We had to wait thirty-six hours for a part to get shipped in. I remember the pale pregnant girl who worked behind the counter at a bakery there, where we bought bread and cheese. I remember wondering what it would be like to live in a place like Blue Cloud, Minnesota, a place I never would have even heard of in my life before Alan. It was a voyage into the interior. Then the part we needed arrived and we left, driving around the clock to reach the West Coast in time for the opening ceremonies.

Those were the days when I could sleep in cars and on people's floors and didn't need much in the way of amenities to be cheerful; a bag of peanut M&Ms, a hot shower. Carla was tall, red-haired, funny, and generous. Both of us were fresh-faced babies, just starting out in life, not yet woken up to our own gifts. I liked her right off but of course I was a little in awe of her. She had so much charisma. I think she thought I had depth. Whatever. What we had then was potential.

We both got married and moved; me, Boston, California; her, New York, then California. I got divorced. She had a son. We lost touch and met each other again unexpectedly. She taught theatre at College of Marin, and performed locally; I taught wherever I could and published poems and stories. With two other women we formed a playwriting group in 2001; I wrote Saying Kaddish with My Sister; she worked on Wedding Singer Blues and another show.

That was five years ago--this spring Saying Kaddish finally got a short little run at a NY theatre where it was seen by all 30 members of my immediate family, a couple of supportive friends, and a few stray people who walked off the street. This summer Carla took a risk and rented a theatre in LA, in order to gave her play the long run it deserves. I've seen Wedding Singer Blues at least ten times--it's bawdy, poignant, delicate, fierce, musical, surprising, witty, literate, and full of heart, just like Carla.

I saw it again Thursday night, watched my friend play her heart out for the heartbreakingly small audience that had showed up to see this gem. I was so proud of her, her huge talent and even huger courage, not afraid to put her heart on the line as she delivered song after song, character after character, with full, eloquent committment.

I stayed with Vicky, a friend from the SUN workshop, who generously slept on her own floor (on an air mattress) so that I could sleep in her bed. Mid-life women; the combination of grace, humor, wisdom and guts is hard to resist.

I flew back to Oakland with Carla, and we talked about what it's taken for both of us to hang in there making art for so long. The path of the artist is a spiritual battlefield designed for a full encounter with ego, illusion, and disappointment. There is the mirage of "making it," of "getting there." There are many false hopes along the way: this publication, that show, this review, an agent, a grant, a review, an audience. There are unexpected rewards and surprise betrayals. It never turns out the way you thought. But then something else happens.

There's the reality of just showing up and doing it, year in year out, whether you're playing to a mostly-empty house or revising and sending out a poetry manuscript for the fifth year in a row. There's faith, and self-doubt, questioning if you're being selfish to devote so much time, energy, and money to these chancy creative projects when there's so much other "real" work you need to do.

My mentor Bill Corbett said, "Anyone can be a poet at twenty. If you're still a poet at forty, you know you're committed." I like being over forty. The question of what am I going to do with my life has been not so much answered as just lived through. I'm doing it.

Like an idiot, I left my wallet on the plane. A few anxious and fruitless hours at the Lost Baggage claim area (what a job! A bunch of stressed-out pissed-off travellers taking out their frustrations about the new flying regulations on these poor employees.)

By 4:00, no wallet; I phoned Ellen, Ellen called Beth; Beth picked me up and loaned me a towel and we headed up to Harbin Hot Springs for our ritual Libra-girl love-fest. They would have to shoot me if I revealed the details of what goes on in our sacred rites, but I can safely say they involve a lot of singing, laughing, trash-talking, eating, soaking, talking, praying, teasing, hiking, dreaming out loud, and life review. The results are salutary.

On Sunday morning, my piece about having wild unruly "ethnic" hair came out in the magazine section of the San Francisco Chronicle. Ellen was getting a massage, Beth was soaking in the warm pool, and I was drinking coffee in the dining room, looking like the love child of Bette Midler and Don King, my hair sticking up wildly in 10,000 directions. A woman approached me and said, "My boyfriend is a great hairstylist; he specializes in curly hair. I'm learning his techniques. Would you be open to...?"

"Receive a free haircut? HELL, yeah!"

I sat on Harbin's deck, gazing the at glorious fall mountainside, while he snipped and she watched. A big nest of my hair gathered in ringlets on the wood planks. Ellen and Beth found us and stood around kibbitzing. He told me how he used to cut hair in Beverly Hills for all the rich women, but the lifestyle had caught up with him. Too much money, too many drugs. His mother made him move back closer to the family, so she could keep an eye on him. Snip, snip.

Beth: I've been waiting for years for her to get a good haircut.

Me: What's wrong with the haircuts I always get?

Beth and Ellen together: Oh Ali!

Rafa: See how I'm cutting away her bulk, here? So it still stands up, but it's not quite so bushy...

Even though he was teaching his girlfriend, he did it in a gentle unassuming way. I thought of when I am teaching--am I this patient and quiet and humble? Kate, the girlfriend, watched him cut, read my article, and laughed with Beth and Ellen. We were having a party out there on the deck.

After he was done with me, he gave them primo haircuts too. He loved cutting hair; he said, "You gotta love it." Kate concurred. "If there's even one person in the shop who doesn't love what they're doing, you can feel it. It drags everyone's energy down."

Beth said my new haircut opened up my face more. Rafa cut seven people's hair that afternoon, one after the other, and never charged a dime, although he accepted offers of free massages.

I was a little blown away at the synchronicity of my article appearing on the very day I received my first grown-up outrageously luxurious salon haircut. Writing works in mysterious ways. It is a letter to the world, and then it's always a surprise when the world writes back.

After Rafa was finally done with us, we invited him and Kate to dinner, scooped up out hair, and went out to the woods to give it back to the earth. We found a blood-red manzanita tree with tiny scrolls of bark all over it, and hand-dug a shallow grave. Then we buried our hair, thanked the earth for being alive and in such a beautiful place and together. We sang a full prayer service for that manzanita tree who turned out to be Jewish: who knew?

I went to the warm pool and got hit on by so many men I needed a flyswatter. Either it was the haircut or all the PMS pheremones. Before dinner, I interviewed Rafa--we'd talked a little about me doing an article about him. He told me he was in the Mexican mafia from the time he was a boy. (I have changed his and his girlfriend's names here to protect their privacy.)

As a child he ran messages, did pick-ups and drop-offs. When he was nine he saw his uncle shoot a man because there was a contract out on him. As he got older he began to rise through the ranks, until younger men were working for him. He sold drugs and did drugs, eventually becoming an addict. He went to prison where he was raped. His eyes were big and shiny as he told me all this.

When he finally turned his life around, it was through music. He played guitar in his brother-in-law's band, and began to write songs. He went to Beautician College. He likes to draw and paint. He's good with his hands. His father can heal people of serious illnesses like cancer just by laying hands on them and praying for them.

He looks like a round Teddy bear, eyes of a child, impish grin. Some of the stories he told me were too terrible to repeat. He's a master of his art, which he had given away freely all afternoon. With the same hands that had clipped my hair, titled my head and massaged my shoulders, he had killed a man.

We sat with them a long time over dinner, talking and laughing. When we finally parted it was dark and an hour later than we'd intended. We loaded up Beth's car sadly--none of us wanted to leave. On the way home, I told Beth and Ellen the stories. They were shocked. Then one of them said, when a man gets raped maybe it makes him understand what a woman goes through, and the other one agreed. I could not.

When I was attempted-raped thirty years ago, I was told afterward that it was good that I, as a privileged white woman, now understood something of what women of color go through every day. It was true; the whole experience was an incredible education for me. And I remember to this day, which of the Native Americans on that reservation were able to get over their own oppression enough to offer me genuine compassion, and which ones weren't.

A young man in one of my writing workshops wrote about a similar experience: he was walking home and cruised and sexually harrassed by a scary-looking man in a car. When he'd told his experience to the first female friend he encountered, she'd said something along the lines of, "Now you know what it feels like." The young man who wrote this story was slight, not much more than a boy.

I love my friends. But we have to get over ourselves. Don't we make art, tell stories, and perhaps hurt each other in an attempt to make someone else understand how it feels to be us? And is there an end to that, and a beginning of something else where we make art in order to understand how it feels to be the other?

We sang all the way home.


Corey Fischer said...

Hello Alison. Good to read you in this new context. I've met Carla, though not had the good fortune to see her perform. We could probably form a large support group for performers/writers who have had the unmatchable experience of working for years on a piece that winds up being played for tiny audiences. If the audiences are passionate, receptive and or appreciative, size can become irrelevent. I'll never forget performing one of Traveling Jewish Theatre's earliest works in West Orange New Jersey at a community center. The piece ("The Last Yiddish Poet") was a non-linear, expressionistic exploration of Yiddish poetry, Jewish mysticism, death and rebirth. It used masks, puppets, music, and some very dark comedy. The very conservative, mostly elderly, suburban Jewish audience in Jersey was 500 strong at the top of the show. After the first ten minutes there began a slow, measured, inexorable exodus that left maybe 20 or so behind to clap for us at the end of the show. The only person who stayed to talk with us was a member of Jews for Jesus.

Fortunately I've had enough really satisfying experiences as a performer to achieve something like a balanced perspective, realizing that, on one hand, doing art for approval can drive you mad, on the other, you can't work in isolation, you have to know that somewhere, some other is receiving.

I was also quite taken with your musing on the idea of the tension between making art to make ourselves known to the other and making it so that we may know the other. I think actors and writers of fiction have the chance to do both -- to find the other in yourself, to put your "self" at the service of the "other."

I also want to mention that I've started a blog myself on this same host. I don't know how to stick a link into this response, but the blog's at

And you're right, it is addictive.

Askinstoo said...
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Vicky said...

It was a pleasure to host you!

So glad to have stopped by. I loved this entry - and can attest to how excellent Carla's show is, having been one of the select and lucky few who saw her with you.

What a beautiful birthday experience in magical Harbin. Happy Birthday again, fellow Libran. As for comments such as, "Now you know how it feels," I think the sentiment is a little simplistic, especially in such a horrendous situation. We all bring our own unique experiences and sensibilities to bear, and the pain has to be different for each of us. I think the comment can almost be seen as dismissive of that uniqueness.

I shall be reading more. Glad the hairdo was such a success!

Alison said...

Thanks, Vicky! Thanks Corey!

It's exciting to receive comments--it's exciting that someone besides myself reads this thing! I will have to figure out how to post a picture on the profile thing-y.

Happy birthday, Vick!