October 31, 2011 by The Citron Review
by Alexandria Montgomery
I severed myself from Alex the previous Spring when he threatened to kill my dogs back home in the Virgin Islands. “If you don’t find them a place to live I will be forced to have them killed. I simply can’t take care of them AND get treatments. I have throat cancer which you seem to have conveniently forgotten!” I was up in New York City earning my cosmetology license at the Learning Institute of Beauty Sciences among a sea of Lil’ Kim’s and instructors straight out of “Pink Flamingos.” I was broke and transient at the time, pet sitting in exchange for places to stay. I never tried to reason with him, never said goodbye.
The call came at 7:30a.m I was preparing a bowl of highlights for a powerful Fifth Ave blonde. It was my friend Jen in St Thomas.
“I’m sorry, Janey, Alex died.”
“Not funny Jen.”
“He died last night in Staten Island Hospital.”
“What are you talking about? That’s not possible.”
“I’m sorry. He’s dead.”
“Alex is dead.” It was as if the marbled, mirrored salon I stood in suddenly grew twice its size and everything in it fell away.
It sunk in: Alex. Gone. Drowned in his blood. Alone in a hospital. As my trembling hand hung up the receiver, I felt the ground slip out from under me, and my insides crumbled. A thin veil formed itself around me, transporting me to the edge of a world that bordered on nothingness. I moved robotically through foils and bleach. My boss called out, “You were a double processed platinum blonde for 17 years. You can get through anything,” as I left.
I walked along Avenue A where we first met at the Park Inn Tavern in the fall of 1982. I was fourteen. I lived in Tompkins Square Park among the feverous energy of the Lower East Side. I layed claim to this bar as my living room; it was conveniently located across the street. It had the best jukebox in the neighborhood, where a bouncer named “Ike the Dyke” affectionately referred to me as “Candy Hips.” Alex was a bartender and head bouncer. With so many characters bumping into each other every night there were plenty of fights to break up. He was infamous throughout the neighborhood as protector of the defenseless and enemy to the offending. He was also a poet who attended Exeter on a scholarship and earned a Masters from the School of Hard Knocks on the Lower East Side. He always looked out for me as a friend and eventually, as lovers. Now 20 years later, I literally walked into his sister in front of that very spot. We hugged and cried harder. The funeral was at St Mark’s Church, a fitting tribute to a larger than life warrior poet. Standing room only, the love for Alex within that church that day was as big as him.
The next three years were a blur. I functioned against my will: Pull clothes on, cry, brush teeth, cry, wash face, cry, groom my hair, cry, catch the subway, don’t cry, go to work, cry in the bathroom, go home, cry, run and cry, sleep and cry, go to the coffee shop in the middle of the night to stop crying.
Do it all over again.
August 31st, 2005, a friend called me, “Can you believe the government is saying it isn’t SAFE enough to go in and rescue those people?” I’d just gotten home from the “Save CBGB’s” rally in Washington Sq Park and had no idea what she was talking about. I went over to my neighbors to watch the news. My mouth dropped as I witnessed live on TV human beings, American citizens-our neighbors! Waving from rooftops, wading through water, crying in sweltering masses, for help. How could this happen? Then I noticed all the animals in the frame. I knew that if help hadn’t come for these people then the animals didn’t stand a chance. Within a few days I was at the animal holding facility in Gonzalez, Louisiana where there were over 3,000 of them in pens for “livestock” auctions. There were only about fifty volunteers to walk, feed, and clean them. Every cage was deep in shit and piss. All animal eyes were big, hungry, scared and tired.
In New Orleans there was an eerie silence. Occasionally the silence was pierced by the sound of a helicopter or a National Guard tank. No electricity sound, no bugs, no birds no rats, no life. It sounded how I felt. Must have been a beautiful city, too bad it’s just a memory now, I thought. Everything was in gradations of grey. I plodded through this black and white photograph of a dead city frantically looking for signs of life. I pushed doors through sludge and heavy debris, listening for sounds. I kept the corner of my eyes peeled for life.
The yards were full of their sunken decaying bodies on chains or simply dehydrated to death. Inside houses they drowned in carriers or their swollen dead bodies were lying on the floor next to their masters beds after trying to chew their way through their front door. Water killed them either too much or none. Nobody came to rescue them. Not soon enough anyway.
Late October, I was driving through St. Bernard Parish, just outside New Orleans. In St Bernard the water had risen up to 13 feet in less than 15 minutes drowning 180 people. Cows were found in trees, crypts from above ground cemeteries were scattered out onto the road and the oil refinery had bled its toxic sludge into the mire. I passed abandoned malls of flooded crap that gave way to cul-de-sacs and trees all grey and dead. I parked just beyond them. Cars rested up in branches; boats balanced on rooftops. Desolate, I felt the isolation of my existence: the distant howls of feral dogs. Once domesticated, they now gathered in packs to stay alive in a dead zone. There was no human garbage because there were no humans. I set my dog traps at sunset. Putting my truck into drive, my insides unclenched for the first time since Alex’s death. I felt a strange kinship like I was home and no longer alone there on the edge of the world.
In Winter, people slowly trickled home. By spring, color breathed itself back into the city. Mardi Gras was celebrated to the bone. I was smitten by the myriad of residents fiercely rallying their sacred city back to life. New York City, though teeming with bodies and money and traffic, had been drained of life worth living for me. Rent had risen so high that entire communities were split apart. Whole neighborhoods were replaced by franchises and frat kids.
One spring evening, shortly after I’d moved down, I was on the phone with Alex’s mother. I’d taken a job right down the street from Baptist Hospital off Napoleon Ave. Joelle had lived in New Orleans in her early years and told me she had given birth to Alex in that very hospital. He had grown up to be a legend on the Lower East Side. He had bravely lived imperfectly and with his entire being and he had died a warrior poet. Alex, born in New Orleans. No wonder this place reeked of him. I felt him in the live oak trees, the beckoning brass bands, the proud multi-colored shotgun houses and the big red Louisiana sun. I had come home to him; to his spirit, and I was going to stay a while.
Alexandria Montgomery is a multimedia artist with a focus on performance, video and installation. After participating in a national rescue effort during the aftermath of Katrina, Montgomery was inspired to move to New Orleans (in 2005) because she “felt an undercurrent of creativity within New Orleans and its people that was unshakeable.” Her current sound installation, “I know you’re disintegrating but I can’t see you” is on view at Prospect.Us Gallery and is a Satellite Project of the Prospect 2 New Orleans biennial. For more information go to: www.lexiemontgomery.com