Lyrics for Songs that May Never be Written

by

05/17/2020

Neighborhood: East Village

I started writing these for my dear friend and frequent collaborator, the jazz saxophonist John Ellis. We both live in Village View, a Mitchell-Lama Housing Complex in the East Village, one building over from each other. When COVID hit, I started sending him material – “rough cuts” that we might eventually work on together to turn into songs. At least that’s what I thought I was doing. Mostly, I was trying to capture a feeling of the neighborhood – a place which I loved, and where I felt, at the time, a little bit trapped.

And then my family and I left town. We made a quick decision to go out to Northern California where my wife is from. I didn’t write any more of these for a while. I “quarantined” my mind from New York, though a large part of my heart was still there. John hasn’t left – I’ve been texting or talking with him several times a week.

We haven’t written these songs yet. It’s unclear if they even are songs. But they capture moments of loneliness and fear, longing and relief. They capture the beginning of what feels like it may be a very long journey.

March 18

Song of David the security guard

I’m coming in. It’s two hours in. I take a bus to the train.
One day last week I work late until 2am, get home at 4, get my daughter up at 7:30, come back to work by 10am.
Long day.
My daughter she’s home from school now. She’s happy to be home from school.
She think she doesn’t have to take the tests now. But the tests they’re still coming I tell her – she got to study. She better.
I take care here. I’m careful. You careful? Be careful.

Song of the Cement Turtle in Village View’s Turtle Park

Scrape me down. Find out what’s underneath.
I weigh hundreds of pounds.
I been painted dozens of time.
They peel me, then put it right back on.
They lay it on thick.
My park. My people.
Kids who are grey now – I knew those pipsqueaks.
New pipsqueaks by the month.
They ever take me out, they better put me back.
Turtle Park. What’s this place without me here? 

Song of the people from the same small village in Poland.

They don’t want to talk about it here.
No one wants to talk about how it happens.
They don’t know what it like.
We come here. We work hard.
We find our way in system.
We make families.
We get apartments.
We make money.
We eat good chocolate.
Polish, Swiss. No Hershey Bar.
My son he got Rolex watches.
Grandkids here. Great-nieces, and nephews.
We watch them while our children go work.
Like little village.

Song of the agoraphobic man in my building

Stay away.
Don’t touch.
I shake. I shake.
Elevator ain’t big enough for the both of us.
Yes that’s my pee you smell.
If it keeps you away, all the better.
I’m shaking.
I got the shakes.

Song of Daphne the congressional staffer

I’m writing letters for my congressperson.
Not to her – for her.
These are letters of inquiry, and letters of concern, of protest.
To Homeland Security and the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
There are kids, immigrants, being shipped around.
Being denied basic rights.
I write a draft, and my boss looks it over.
We run it by the lawyers, and then her Chief of Staff sends them on.
I am stressed – this is not to be denied.
But to work for something greater, for kids, makes me better.
That and running.

 

March 19

NORC song

We live in a NORC,
It’s a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community.
Our neighbors are old.
We’re keeping our distance; we’re worried.

We live in a NORC
There’s a crabby guy on 15.
I wish he wouldn’t talk to me.
I’m on the board so everyone talks to me.

We live in a NORC.
The maintenance guys are working so hard.
The security guards too; they are good people

We’re not retired, we’re just middle-aged.
But we’re stuck in our home so it feels that way.
Someday this madness will end.
We might be old by then.

Song of Escape

I dreamed last night of escape.
Of heading for the hills.
Why stick around as things get worse?
Why live with this fear?

But I love this place.
The view out our windows: buildings, and concrete, and a sliver of river.
I love our friends whom we can’t see just now.
Whom we phone.
I love talking on the phone.

We could go to California, but COVID is there too.
And this is home.
I have a fishmonger here – Nordic Preserves, at Essex Market.
I love smoked fish.

O.C.D. – that’s my chocolatier.
My daughter loves it too – I’ve spoiled her.
Sebastian’s chocolates are sweet and weird – he makes the wildest stuff.
His hair is wild too.
He’s like Willie Wonka.

Song of Darwin

Darwin is our porter.
Bearded and friendly – free with his smile.
Named after Charles or his dad – I’ve never asked.
He cleans the lobby and the halls.
He sprays down the elevator buttons and mops every floor.
His job is about COVID now – kill the germs, protect the NORC.

No survival of the fittest we hope.
Though the city might switch to triage if it runs out of beds.
Darwin’s young and so are we kind of.
We’ll be okay, right?

I hope they’re giving him time and a half.
I hope he doesn’t get it.
I hope none of us do.
Did Darwin ever meet a civet?
Charles, I mean.

Song of the morning run

Keep your distance, folks.
If you want to pass me go wide.
Six feet minimum.

I’m out there every day now whatever the weather.
It’s the only time I leave my apartment.
It feels amazing.

Satchel Paige said “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”
And I’m not.

 

March 20

My Daughter

My daughter asks me: “When am I going back to school?”
Not for a little while, I tell her. Not until April 20th at earliest.
“After Easter!? After April Fool’s Day!?
I want to see my friends!”

She won’t for a long time, months I fear.
I’ll be her playmate and her mom will be too.
Zoom school, Zoom friends.
Audio books – Jim Dale speaks Harry Potter.

Today she rode her bike for the first time.
I let go of the seat and she kept going.
Wobbly but okay: She was proud.
Me too. I will remember this day.

We’re teaching her how to read.
We’re working on math with coins.
Quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies.
I have no idea how to teach her.

Still, she’ll learn. They always do.
She’ll grow up and she’ll remember this.
A brief moment in a long life.
Or the beginning of a long hard time.

A Few Questions about COVID

Questions I have about this virus:
Will I get it? Will I give it to anyone?
Will my marriage survive this?
Can I bear being in the apartment?
Can I stop looking at the internet?
Will my kid be emotionally scarred?
Will I get enough vegetables?
Should we leave right now somehow, and head for the hills?
Will my profession exist when this is over?
Will this change my life?
Is that a good thing?
Will this save the environment?
Is that a good thing?
Will this get worse?
Will people I know die?
Am I allowed to enjoy myself?
Is it okay that I like running and being by myself sometimes?
Can I find a good rhythm?
Can I go visit my favorite small shops without stressing out my wife?
Can I not drive her crazy?
Will I get to see my friends anytime?
Will my daughter get to see her friends?
Will I still have teaching work when this is over?
Will we be in a Great Depression?
Will the old people in this building die?
Will things be different when this is over?
The answer is yes probably, but if so, how?
How do I stay calm?

Song of Barry the Bigot

In a group email Barry referred to “The Chinese Virus.”
I replied all to the whole board.
I wrote something like this:
‘Just because the president chooses to say it doesn’t make it okay.
Viruses don’t have a nationality.
There is violence out there, and bigotry
In London, in New York, across the land.
We can and must do better.’
I wanted to tell him to fucking resign already.
To go jump in a lake.
But that wouldn’t have gotten my point across.

 

March 21

Covid Shutdown Snack

Yesterday’s text from John:
I’m crushing guacamole over here.
You gotta try this once we’re out of jail.
I didn’t realize it was this easy.

I told my wife – she said, “What, he’s never made guacamole?
How is that possible?”
I said: “You’re from California – he’s from the south.
They don’t have avocados there, at least they didn’t used to.”

John sends me the recipe link, plus modifications for these crazy times.
(Aleppo not jalapeno, ground cumin, not seeds.)
Highly recommend, he writes.
Covid shutdown snack.

 

April 26

How we got here

Five weeks ago yesterday we left.
That’s when I stopped writing this.
Because what else was there to say?

J train to Kennedy then non-stop to Reno.
Eight passengers on the plane including us.
Two weeks of groceries in Crystal’s mom’s Previa.
She left it for us in long-term parking.
Keys hidden by the front tire.

We drove an hour to Crystal’s late grandpa’s house.
She spent Christmases here as a kid.
He died just three years ago – age 99.

Here in Big Bob’s house, among wood paneling and taxidermy ducks
We watch old movies, and teach our daughter to read.
The mornings are cold – late April and we’re still building fires in the
wood burning stove.
I get up early and read the news from New York.

A writer in a privileged place

I wonder if I have anything left to say.
I wonder if I ever had anything to say.
I ask myself such questions as I walk through the forest.
Back at the house, I type my thoughts up in a Word doc.
I’m trying to focus, to not check my email or my phone or the internet.

Upstairs on Zoom, I teach my students.
I encourage them to revise their plays.
Something I’m unable to do for myself.
I encourage them to keep going, to embrace the struggle.
They look tired.

The stimulation of a city street, overheard words and bodies passing by.
Wordsworth found inspiration in nature.
But nature feels like not much to me.
I value it in theory, and it comforts me to walk or run in the woods
But I don’t feel sparked by it.
Playwrights thrive on character, on language.
Where do you find those things when you’re alone?

I speak to a friend who is troubled now, stressed.
Her work has been delayed, her career thrown off course.
I feel, have always felt, her ambition.
Or is it fear?

If this doesn’t work out, or that doesn’t work out, what does it mean?
What does it mean for it not to work out?
It isn’t working out for me.
It may never work out for me.
To feel so selfish in the midst of something so awful.
It’s not my best self, but I can’t help it.
I’m not sure how else to think.
How do I find my way to the things that actually matter?

 

April 28

If I Stay Forever

If I stay forever in the High Sierras,
Will I become a different person?
Will I only wear flannel shirts?
Will I get a crossbow, or a gun?
Will I become less neurotic?
(Unlikely)
Will I lose all my friends?
I miss my friends.
Will I remain a writer? A reader?
Will the time and solitude make me deeper and wiser?
Like a monk on a hill.
Or will my intellect atrophy from worry and Netflix?
Will I give up on my dreams?
What are these dreams anyway?
Isn’t it about time that they changed, given the circumstances?
What’s about me, and what’s about New York?

Monica

Monica took care of my mom when she was dying.
She lives in Rockaway. She owns a house out there.
She called me the other day – we talk now and then.
She turned 71 this week, and last month became a great-grandmother.
The baby’s on Long Island – she hasn’t met her yet.
Monica had the flu last month, not COVID.
Her neighbor Maria shopped for her, and brought her chicken soup.
Maria left it by the door, and said, “I’ll call you when I get home to let you know it’s there, and that I’m okay”.
Monica got better.
On April 8th, Maria fainted on her kitchen floor.
They took her to the hospital and four days later she died.
She was 72.
Monica’s grandson asks her “When is this going to get better?”
He is a college basketball player in upstate New York.
She reassures him.
She tells him that things will get back to normal soon.

 

April 29

My daughter

My daughter is beside me on the couch.
In her lap: “Dory Fantasmagory,”
It’s a series you would not have heard of unless you have a six year-old.
She reads the book out loud, in her small, high voice.
It is “Project time,” when we each work on whatever we want.
In the last few weeks, she has learned how to read, mostly on her own.
We sit together. I eavesdrop.
It’s possible, I think, that this might actually be happiness.

——————————————————————
Andy Bragen is a playwright, and essayist.

 

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§ 2 Responses to “Lyrics for Songs that May Never be Written”

  • Alana Flores says:

    So good Andy. Thank You for being a writer and continuing to write in the deafening madness and under/overwhelm that is this strange time. I feel all of this and I’m not even from Manhattan.

  • Bob Ari says:

    We miss you at V.V.

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