This weekend my friend Gerri invited me over to her place in the country, near the town of Saugerties. Actually she invited me several years ago, the first time I met her, in Madras, in the company of Ranvir Shah – but that is a story too long and pleasurable to relate, so I will spare everyone the effort of wading through it, except to say that I thank Ranvir warmly for that introduction (and for much else too …).
Saturday morning dawned gray and gloomy – by the time I struggled out of bed, buckets of rain were emptying out of the sky and thunder was ricocheting off the craggy skyscraper-peaks all around me. Two hours later, however, by the time I had my backpack secured and was ready to make the short trip across town to the home of Gerri's colleague Heather, the air was clear. I caught a cab at the corner of Lex and 35th and in the course of the brief journey, not only heard over the cabbie's radio that Macaulay Culkin the (one-time) child actor of the Home Alone movies had been busted for possession of drugs, but the cabbie felt moved enough by this tale of lost innocence to tell me that he had been a serious drug-abuser himself. "There's only two things that can happen to a serious addict," he said. "Either you can get killed or you can go to jail – and they both happened to me!" I said that he seemed remarkably alive and unshackled for all that – but he explained that it was all behind him (he appeared to believe that death is a semi-permanent condition, of which he experienced the semi variety) – but he didn't expect to live more than another couple of years because all his friends of that era had died by the age of 55 – and he was 53. My ride had come to the end by this time, so all I could do was wish him better luck and a longer life than his friends.
Heather lives in a tall building with a fantastic view of the river – I had just enough time to admire it before we hit the road, following Gerri's instructions, by around 11.15. There was a strong wind blowing and small patches of sky appearing between scudding clouds, while Heather's formidable collection of music was made magically available to us courtesy her i-Pod(a small gadget of the kind I would normally find impossible not to own except that it relates to music and I've not been connected to that world of excitement for a LONG time). The two of us had met for the first time only about a week ago at dinner with Gerri, but had bonded quickly. Now, in the course of a very enjoyable two-hour drive, she introduced me to several new continents of music as, it turns out, she is a very serious music buff. She has striking black eye-brows, black hair worn spiky, and a warm, crisp-apple-cheeked personality full of crunch and we talked about vegetarianism, cyber-friends, animals and the importance of coffee in all our lives.
We arrived at Gerri's country home in good time and were ushered into a charming house, full of books and paintings, wooden furniture and all manner of amazing and interesting things to look at. Gerri is an ace-planner and since she had told me weeks ago that she was thinking of inviting a number of her friends over for the evening on the 18th, she had organized what she'd do and how she'd do it well in advance of Heather's and my arrival. Gerri is like a little bit like a grown-up pixie, wearing her curly auburn hair in a short bright cap on her head, her face is round and precise and she's always smiling. She has many gifts and talents aside from running her office – the one I'm going to mention here is that she is a wonderful quilter. Years ago she'd shown me a design she'd started for a gorgeous piece made entirely from South Indian silk – in deep purple, gold, hot magentas, electric blue and charcoal black - magnificent.
The evening was a great success. It began early, around 5.30, but the light was already beginning to wane. Gerri, Heather and I had changed into party clothes – nothing very fancy, just a friendly refining of the familiar daily tones. All of Gerri's friends brought something to add to the table so that aside from Gerri's huge salmon – the whole fish laid out in all its delectable pinkness and decorated, with half an olive for its eye and a quizzical expression on its beak-like mouth, salads and side dishes, there was also lasagne, Italian-style meatballs in sauce, a small forest of artichokes, asparagus, potatoes-in-jacket – oh and sooo much else – including a great Brie-and-potato pie, a crab dip, crisp veggies and chips for appetizers! And then, barely had we recovered from the dinner, but the serving dishes were all whisked off and the whole table covered again with desserts! Gerri had invited around 40 friends, most of whom knew one another but others who were meeting for the first time. The average age-range was in the fifties, I'd say, with Heather and only one other young friend holding down the below-thirties element – and everyone, so far as I could tell, was either a painter or a writer or a professional in one field or another.
Gerri's friend and partner of many years, Ron, was also an artist. His favourite subject was rabbits and his paintings, carvings and countless other representations, including a marvellously whimsical Last Supper in bunny-face! Sadly, I was never able to meet him, because he died suddenly some years ago. Many of the people present were his friends too, and between them they seemed to be channelling his spirit, because everyone said they felt his presence, smiling amongst them. It's been a very long time since I've been to any kind of party – and certainly a VERY long time since I've been in a company of people, none of whom I've met, before yet they all seem friendly and interesting, doing creative things with their lives and adding to the net worth of the Universe. I don't think I had a SINGLE boring or repetitive conversation the whole evening! And to the best of my knowledge, there were ZERO Republicans within a hundred yards of the house …
Best of all, everyone present not only contributed some of the food, but also, as the party flowed along, helped with a gentle, but continuous process of clearing and consolidating the food. Even though I had told Gerri that washing dishes is my solitary skill in the domestic arena, by the time the last guest had left, there was almost nothing left for Heather and me to help Gerri with. By eleven o'clock, the house was returned to normalcy, with everything put away and only the four black garbage bags on the porch remaining as a physical reminder of the so-recently-concluded revels!
The next morning was a glory of blue sky, fresh-laundered clouds and sunlight like Mösel wine, golden and heady. We had to make an earlier start than any of us would have preferred, but I needed to be back in town for a rehearsal. Gerri brewed up a percolator of coffee and enticed Heather out of bed with a platter of French toast made from Italian bread, sprinkled with powdered sugar and set off with maple syrup. A couple of hours later, still warmed by all the friendly flavours, scents, conversation and memories of the evening before, I was on the train and rattling discretely towards New York, with the Hudson river swollen with summer rain flowing swift and brown beside the train's tracks.