Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Living in Chloe's City

There are these words to describe a functioning city, now. They're not new, exactly, although their usage mostly is, or is at least new enough to sound strange. These are George Saunders-style buzzwords, half military-grade technical and half willfully opaque MBA jargon—Vibrant and Sustainable (in its non-ecological application) and Creative (as a noun) and Scalable and so on—that have taken on a weird and unearned status as terms of art when used to describe a city being a city. Everyone knows these words, though no human uses them in conversation. They are mostly void of meaning but also vaporously ubiquitous enough that you might be forgiven for thinking, while walking past some gallery openings on a block you remembered as a group home for stray cats, Wow, How Vibrant.

All of these terms are faintly consultantish in the sense that they are all to some extent ways to describe a city's relative economic health that have been built to sound as if they are describing something more complicated and human and less readily quantified. Which is another way of saying that they're insultingly abstracted—"what a vibrant home you have," try that sometime—and so sort of sad. They are the sound of a well-educated person doing a drive-by on you with one of those supermarket price-tag guns.

At some level, where New York City is concerned, you are right to maybe have a hard time mustering much response beyond the classic j.o. gesture. As if the city was ever dedicated to anything but wringing as much from every resident as possible, as if this or anyplace was ever an okay or fair or un-scary place to be not-rich. There is no home on a precipice's edge, and this city more than others has been built, higher and higher and further and further out, on concrete levered over miles of steep air. You wake up, buffeted by the din of new construction, in a place vibrant and scalable, in a place that used to be your home. Under your door comes a note: it's about the rent.

But this is old, and idle. I'm not leaving. But I have wondered, in the days since I heard that she'd passed, would Chloe move here today?

And after that: what if she hadn't? And after that: why would anyone want to be in a city where Chloe could not live, or would not want to live? What would be the point of that?


In the New York Times obituary for her husband, the novelist David Bowman, Chloe was identified as a "performance coach." This is not so much wrong as it is just a space-saving way of saying "a woman who taught the Alexander Technique and also taught acting classes at some point." But it's also unfortunate, another bit of simultaneously over-precise and obscure linguistic inexactitude. It's easy to imagine some hard-eyed Manhattan elite reading it and wondering if what this city needs is fewer performance coaches and more bold real estate visionaries or app-extruding thinkfluencers or whatever a city is supposed to want, whichever unit of person or flavor of Creative might most enhance Scalable Vibrancy.

But of course there are not two words to describe Chloe, just as there aren't for anyone else. She taught the Alexander Technique—a sort of physical practice that might be described as A Better Way To Stand Up And Walk Around. The method was the brainchild of an eccentric Aussie actor of the late 19th century whose last name you can probably guess, and while I can't know quite what resemblance Chloe's practice had to F.M. Alexander's, I would wager that it was not great. What she taught was hers, and if some of the principal ideas came from Alexander—adorned with things learned over her various years spent in meditation and invariably presented as ways to play around with A Thing She'd Been Thinking About—the way in which Chloe shaped and delivered them in turn was what brought me back to her studio for years. I'm not a performer, and as such didn't really need a coach. I went to see my friend, who helped me.

That we were able to do this for years owed somewhat to me, and my uncanny ability to find new ways to express anxiety or distress through contorted posture. And some of it is external, just the pressure of New York making defective diamonds of everyone here. Look around you on the subway or the sidewalk and see what this looks like. There are those of us, crumpled in the city's pitiless green fist, who wear that mangling on us, as us; there is the weird puffed physicality of those seeking to project that they are not, all those Potemkin chests and jutting crystal jaws. There are the people who are, usually for very good reason, slow and collapsed. Everyone wears everything.

To learn Alexander is in some sense to crack a code. You see, in the posture of others—the angle of Ted Cruz's head, the set of Michael Bloomberg's shoulders—a certain sense of that person. Chloe, I remember, was fascinated by the predatory bounce of the former Knicks forward Latrell Sprewell. She couldn't figure him out, but knew he was unique. We talked about him long after he was out of the NBA.

Mostly, though, I went because Chloe helped me. She helped me implant a signal in my head that told me when I was hunching or slumping, and maybe why I was doing it, and she gave me the means to correct it; she gave me the means to walk around as myself. But that was not necessarily how our classes went. I would come in, cramped and scrambled after a week of my life, and we'd talk and she'd tell me about a thing she'd been thinking about of late, or tell some sort of story, and then make a few suggestions that would lead to me somehow popping my spine open like a champagne cork, picking up a few inches of height and blooming out in my chest and otherwise shedding my crabbed self.

I would look in the mirror—she had a big one in her old studio, and a smaller one once she started teaching out of her East Village apartment after her husband passed—and I'd see someone who only sort of looked like me. It was still me, of course, but a version of me filled out and filled up, tenuously un-kinked. I saw her, always, in the early evenings and late in the week. In that stretched-out light, I looked like some other person, a person who lived only in Chloe's presence, and who smiled in a way I have not seen myself smile in pictures.

And we would get there, oftentimes, by way of the most outrageous metaphors, all of which she chirped out, smiling, in an almost comically honeyed Carolina Low Country accent. The top of my head popped open and a geranium bloomed out of it. I dropped things into the chasm of my chest and they burst into flame. My toes and fingers opened up and blasted light out into the apartments below, energy bouncing out towards the Bowery. My skin went permeable and the room and the city around it came in and I achieved a bright and blinking equilibrium. I have taken a number of the drugs that are supposed to do this for you, and there was nothing that worked like this.

And then I'd pay her, generally in cash, and say hello to the next student up—I remember all of them, if not their names—and would walk out into the city. It was stunning, always: the airlock between the building's buzzers and then the shock of New York felt so fully—the air so strange and loud and sweet, the movement through it so fluid and light, the first sip of beer afterwards so bizarrely alive. I'd close back up, in time, and then go back the next week to unlock something else. I sense, given the way that Chloe's other students have written about her since her passing, that this is what everyone got from it. You went up the stairs yourself and walked out better. You left the sleepy sanctity of her studio and walked into the city and felt it immensely, if only briefly, and understood the thrumming awesome greatness of it—not the notional vibrancy, but the actual loud vibration of it.

The thing that changed you was Chloe, who was just a person—a woman born in 1947 on Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, who moved to New York after college and worked briefly at HBO in its early years and was a friendly-enough acquaintance with her ex-neighbor Tom Noonan, who played the towering killer in Michael Mann's Manhunter. She would tell stories about herself or others or append names to things—the cold weather hunch you do was The Chicago Syndrome, for instance—and they were either true or they weren't. She was performing, but she was also just herself, blasting her miraculous singularity outwards in a helpful way as, I sense, she would have had there been no one else there.

Her husband, whose fantastically strange debut novel Let The Dog Drive I somehow read when I was in high school, was always sort of sick; he died suddenly in 2012. And then Chloe was suddenly, shockingly sick—a massive dodgeball of a tumor, out of nowhere—and there was carpet-bomb chemo and recovery, and she was back, smaller and hurting but still herself. She moved her classes into her apartment, where she was assisted by her dog, a gangly sad-eyed Pointer that skittered across the wood floors. When she was sick, I took the dog for walks in the neighborhood. He looked up at me with the sad eyes of a thousand-year-old sage while he took robust dumps on East 11th Street.

There were problems with her medication, and then some mixed diagnoses, and then some canceled sessions. I rang the buzzer one Friday and she told me she wasn't well enough to teach. I offered to take the dog for a walk and she thanked me and declined. She was, at that point, apparently already refusing treatment on the thing that had reared back up. She didn't tell anyone about any of it, just stopped seeing almost everyone. I called her, what I now know to be right around the time of her death, to tell her I was thinking of her and let her know I'd be ready to start up again whenever she was. I hope I told her I loved her, although I probably didn't. I know the apartment where she died and have thought about it a lot since then. A tiny television; books crawling over every wall, with more books atop those; old tenement fixtures; that loving, loping dog wrestling his toys in the long light from big windows.

To believe in the promise of this city, or any city, is to believe that—for all the churlish churn on the streets, the neighborhoods turning over and upside down, the way that it throws off and throws out people—there are still some apartments yet unvisited, and that those apartments might have people like Chloe in them. It's to believe that there are still doors that could be opened to reveal people as wise and generous as she, people whose sweet vastness can prise you open, head and heart. It's to believe that there are people who can and will pour great goodness through you and leave something behind even as their wild, laughing love beams from you in every direction at their happy behest, their bright beauty bounding down Second Avenue in the twilight and then out, everywhere.

1 comment:

  1. Incredible. I don't know you or Chloe, but this was damned beautiful. Bravo...to you both.