Thursday, February 16, 2012

Newark Afternoons

Matt Domino weighs in, briefly, on the recent passing of singing legend Whitney Houston.

Insanely famous people tend to die in the same few ways: either they are torn apart by the public that demanded so much from them and left to die at the hands of their own neuroses; they become reclusive and fade into oblivion; they lose it all and die in tragedy; or they are gunned down or drugged down before their time. In truth, many of us of us regular people die in one of these ways as well. We cannot deal with the demands of the world, so we tear ourselves up; we can’t deal with the challenges of life so we fade into the recesses of our own lives; we lose it all by making bad financial decisions and become a sad blurb in a bad newspaper; or we buy the wrong bag of poor cocaine or are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. And yet, there are still those that push on to die the way they want to or to just die simply at peace. And that happens to a good many of us. And that is all we can hope for.

As we all know, Whitney Houston died on Saturday Night. Her death most likely had something to do with being torn up by the public (as well as her subsequent/simultaneous drug use) and then being cast aside. Whitney Houston was once synonymous with perfect, otherworldly singing brilliance, but she eventually became the punch line to a joke about drugs and bad marriage. She was built up and then torn down—just like any figure of worship or any American hero. By all accounts, Whitney brought it on herself, so it’s not totally surprising or completely devastating. Yet someone died and so it is sad. And it’s also sad because for some reason this one meant something; this was one of those celebrity deaths that really stuck.

I’m not going to pretend to know a lot about Whitney Houston. I know the hits, but barely. I don’t know anything resembling a “deep cut.” I had to look up her entire career on Wikipedia just to refresh my memory on most of it, even the low points in the early to mid-2000’s. But like any person between the ages of 25 and 45, I grew up with Whitney Houston. She was more than a pop star or even a diva; she was a way of life. I remember living in Pennsylvania and playing the Michael Jackson Moonwalker video game in my friend’s basement. While my friend played the game he also sang Whitney’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” We were about seven years old, so the song wasn’t sung out of some great love or appreciation, but more out of something pathological, something tied to pop of the highest order. Whitney was in our brains. I remember the Super Bowl, the “National Anthem,” The Bodyguard, Costner, The Preacher’s Wife, and Waiting to Exhale. I remember learning about the perils of Bobby Brown and I remember her fall from grace.

So, as I sat in a Mexican diner the other afternoon, drinking beer and eating salsa and chips, I listened to a Whitney Houston tribute marathon on the radio for about an hour. I felt like Hemingway, which is to say that I felt like my idea of Hemingway: brutish, American, comfortable wearing a sweater, drinking beer and talking and ordering things from people who don’t speak English. I had done my work for the day and it was cold outside, so as I listened to the Whitney Houston on the radio, I thought of cold Newark, New Jersey in the 1960’s and the 1970’s. I thought of blowing tufts of industrial smoke, the impossibility and eternity of a long winter Saturday where the threat of snow hung over all the streets and homes. And there was a little girl there who was Whitney Houston—or maybe she wasn’t. But those winter days were so long even though she could sing to pass the time and that was all she really wanted to do anyway. I kept thinking about that image and watching the clock. I felt good listening to the music and I didn’t want to go home but I had to. I couldn’t get the attention of any of the waitresses and finally a guy who seemed to be some sort of manager came over.

“What do you want? Anything else?” he asked.

“All I want to do is to pay.”

He brought the check and I simply paid it. And then I walked out into the cold, feeling lightheaded and still thinking about Newark—or at least the Newark of my mind—in the grey interminable winter. And there was that girl shining against the grey. She could have been Whitney Houston or she could have been any girl that wanted something from her time in the world. And maybe she’d get what she wanted, if only for a little while, or maybe she wouldn’t get what she wanted at all. At the heart of it, Whitney Houston could have been any American girl and maybe that’s what makes it so sad. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s so sad because Whitney Houston had so much talent and we loved her songs; we loved the songs so much that we made memories tied to the melodies.  

I can’t figure it out, but then I never really knew her that well anyway. All I know is that no matter what, those late winter afternoons can sometimes stretch on forever.

1 comment:

  1. There's something very touching about this, we all shared her, her voice, her career, her foibles. So in a way, yes she is that American girl in our minds who was somehow let down by life, even life at the 'top'. There was something in the quality of her voice, like everything inside her was being poured out, and maybe that's what let to her demise-too much of her coming out all the time. It doesn't look like she could live life half-way. Maybe the rest of us make compromises that she couldn't. So we toil on in that long winter afternoon of our lives, morning the loss of that vulnerability and sharpness.