Ali Mcgraw on the Cross Town Bus, and Other Problems of Therapy



W 96th St & Broadway, New York, NY 10025

Neighborhood: All Over, Manhattan

I have been in psychotherapy just over a year, and the whole experience at this point boils down to the single image of a young private school girl sitting two seats down from me on the cross town bus. She is accompanied by her Dominican nanny, who gazes absently out the bus window on to 96th Street as it crosses Fifth Avenue, then Madison and Park Avenues. The girl, perhaps eight or nine, has bypassed cuteness for something closer to what Linda McCartney looked like in the early 1970s or Ali McGraw looked like in Love Story.

Her hair is pulled back in a head band and she has huge eyes that somehow suggest she already knows a good deal of French. She wears a blue blazer and knee socks.

My therapist’s office is on 83rd Street and Park Avenue and my appointments are at 9:00 on Friday mornings. Before beginning therapy, I rarely rode the bus or visited the upper east side, and now that it’s been a year of back and forth, a year of so many versions of this girl and her nanny and so many mornings stepping around the maintenance men who hose down the sidewalks of Park Avenue, I am starting to see why so many people pay someone to listen to their problems. A resident of a cooperative building on Park Avenue in the Eighties probably shoulders a maintenance fee of one thousand dollars per month in exchange for services that include a washing of the sidewalks every morning. This is a wonderful thing, particularly in the summer. It’s wonderful not just to feel those cool water droplets whirling beneath the awning, but also to observe those squares of concrete going from unclean to clean. There must be a daily catharsis to living in one of these buildings, to step outside every morning and tip-toe over sheets of water and soap.

I went into therapy because the constant presence of a low grade anxiety was making me a very irritating person. I was twenty-three. Before my first session I’d been in a bad mood for three and a half months. It started suddenly one day when I walked out of a movie theater and passed a line of people waiting for the next show. I looked at their hair and at their scarves, which were wrapped perfectly around their necks and chins as if they were all professional scarf wrappers. I looked at the way their hair came springing out of their scarves, an effect I could never produce, and thought about how they had yet to experience the terrible movie I had just come out of. I walked past that line and was in a bad mood for a solid three months. It was the longest sustained mood I‚d ever experienced. I disliked all objects and individuals, especially those who walked too slowly down the street. For two weeks, the thought of getting on the subway to go to work made me choke back tears, so I took cabs. For two months, the only people I didn’t despise were my roommates, my boyfriend, and the woman with whom I shared on office. She had recently entered therapy herself and, like me, was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which is coded as 300.04 on most insurance claim forms.

My father, who has always disliked Simon and Garfunkel, has on several occasions equated people who engage in psychoanalysis with people who don’t realize that Paul Simon’s American Tune is in fact a derivation of Mein G’müt ist mir verwirrt, Hans Leo Hassler’s 1601 composition, which was later popularized by Johann Sebastian Bach. One of my earliest memories involves watching Paul Simon on television in the mid 1970s and hearing my father say “he is just lame.” My father holds a doctorate in music and is now a composer and arranger of commercial jingles. When I was growing up, his musical sensibility was a totalitarian regime. There were and are probably only about fifty songs in the world that my father approves of; they manage to simultaneously be wide in scope and slim in picking. One of my father’s favorite songs is Just Once by James Ingram. He is also a fan of Sergei Prokofiev‚s opera Romeo and Juliet and once called the police in order to shut up the neighbors’ barking dogs so that he could finish listening to the end of the Fifth Act, to which he was following along in the score.

It took me over twenty years to revise my opinions according to my own musical tastes. When I was about 21 and driving to home to New York from Boston I remember listening to Paul Simon while accessing the West Side Highway from the Saw Mill Parkway and seeing the buildings on Riverside Drive veer into the left side of my vision. I remember the bumpy, messed-up texture of the road and seeing all the trashy cars closing in around us and thinking, with the kind of revelation particular to 21-year-olds, that, just like Paul Simon sings in American Tune, I really didn’t “know a soul who’s not been battered.” Then I decided that Simon and Garfunkel could be a good thing.

For many, the principal image of Simon and Garfunkel, particularly for those of my generation who experience The Sound of Silence and Bookends as relics of a charming but rather facile period of history, is that of Central Park in 1981. This was when Art Garfunkel made a sheepish yet valiant appearance next to his far more talented and celebrated partner and mustered the courage to sing his only known composition, “A Heart In New York,” in front of one-hundred thousand New Yorkers who used the occasion to visit any of the hundreds of Port-o-johns provided by the Parks Department. Another salient aspect of Art Garfunkel’s performance, as any listener of the Concert in the Park album will know, is his unfailing knack for saying the stupidest possible thing at the worse possible time.

As Paul Simon begins strumming the initial chords of American Tune, Garfunkel, like a stoned college freshman with a girl in his room , says “I’m so in the mood,” with a voice so self-conscious you know he probably spoke the words into a tape recorder three hundred times just so he could sound “dreamy,” the way he thinks maybe he had in previous days. Then he starts up in unison with Simon, singing those lyrics about being mistaken and confused. For me it‚s a matter of putting out of mind the issue of the song being stolen from Mein G‚müt ist mir verwirrt. Then they reach the line about the Statue of Liberty sailing away to sea, and I remember that I actually do like the song.

I’ve heard that for years now Art Garfunkel has been walking across the United States. He does this in increments, walking perhaps ten or fifteen miles at a time, and then getting back in his limousine and returning to wherever he was before. I often wonder about the precise details of his treks. Does he walk along main roads or hike through mountains? Does he bring a canteen of water? A stereo headset? I would imagine that he wears a pair of top-of-the-line walking shoes, which makes me wonder why he hasn‚t become the spokesman for a line of athletic gear. I also wonder what Art Garfunkel‚s chauffeur does in the space of time between seeing Art off and picking him up at the finishing point. Usually I picture the chauffeur leading against the hood of the car and smoking a cigarette, the Rocky Mountains exploding all around him. Other sources have told me that Art Garfunkel takes an airplane to his walking spot and sets out from there. I wonder if he flies on a commercial airline and, if so, how he gets to his destination from the airport. Does he save up frequent flyer miles specifically for this purpose? I have a hard time imagining this is true, even though several popular magazines have confirmed it. Still, Art Garfunkel seems more likely to be puttering around Southern California in a Toyota Corolla. And it‚s precisely this “every man” quality that gives us all such a fright. He’s our national nightmare, the guy who didn’t become a superstar, the guy left at the altar. He‚s the guy who millions of Americans see on TV every once in awhile and say “he is just lame.

My guess is that Art Garfunkel is in therapy and that these issues come up all the time. Of course there is the chance that he forgoes psychoanalysis altogether, that his walks, the kind my mother might prescribe, prove more cathartic than fifty minutes staring at some Degas or Monet lithograph in a shrink’s office and rehashing his childhood in Forest Hills, Queens.

But he does seem like a therapy kind of guy, and how could he possibly not discuss his feelings about being left behind on a national scale? I feel sad when I think about “A Heart In New York,” the only song he wrote that anyone has ever heard. I feel even sadder when I think about the way Art Garfunkel introduces the song on the Concert in Central Park Album. He says “This is the only song in the show that is not a Paul Simon tune.” It‚s not the gross nature of his being upstaged that gets me but his use of the word tune. This usage is presumptuous and cheesy. He‚s assuming a kind of collective, earthy rapport with the audience that, because of the crowd’s sheer size and because it is 1981, is inherently false and totally impossible. He thinks that using the word tune will momentarily revive his persona. He thinks it will cause everyone to shed their snobbery, to get back to the days of being just folks playing folk music and singing the tunes that make everyone feel like they‚re okay and Art‚s okay and the Pan Am building still says “Pan Am” on the top and there’s still even a chance that Art will have a solo career.

I brought this up with my therapist and she was curious as to why Art Garfunkel’s career presented such a source of anxiety for me. I said I didn’t know, that I had started thinking about Simon and Garfunkel as I was riding the bus through the park and it made me feel depressed and anxious. I said I hated to think about how a normal person with an above average voice could be turned into a national joke just because of his proximity to a genius. Then I corrected myself; I said, “thought by many to be a genius.” I didn’t feel comfortable deifying Paul Simon considering my father‚s feelings about him. I started to tell my therapist about my how my father once said that Paul Simon‚s marrying “that Princess Leia actress” wasn‚t going to kid anyone into thinking he wasn‚t the shortest celebrity in the country. I started to say it but we ran out of time.

As I walked home from that session I thought about my father and the fact that the only Simon and Garfunkel song that he can name is Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard. He pronounces Julio with a hard “J.” Whenever I try to think of my father as a kid in a schoolyard the only image I come up with is of him standing in line in a parking lot waiting to receive a polio vaccination. Other than a specific recollection of drinking a glass of milk at his mother’s kitchen table, that is practically the only incident my father claims to remember from his childhood.

Click here for info on Meghan Daum’s excellent new book, “My Misspent Youth.”


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