The Most Beautiful No
Writer and performer Annie Lanzillotto talks about how, actually, old people are the future.
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Born and raised in the Westchester Square neighbourhood of the Bronx of Barese heritage, Annie Lanzillotto is a renowned memoirist, poet, and performance artist. She’s the author of L IS FOR LION: AN ITALIAN BRONX BUTCH FREEDOM MEMOIR (SUNY Press), the books of poetry SCHISTSONG (Bordighera Press) and Hard Candy/Pitch Roll Yaw (Guernica Editions). She has received fellowships and performance commissions from New York Foundation For The Arts, Dancing In The Streets, Dixon Place, Franklin Furnace, The Rockefeller Foundation for shows including CONFESSIONS OF A BRONX TOMBOY: My Throwing Arm, This Useless Expertise, How to Wake Up a Marine in a Foxhole, and a’Schapett. More info at annielanzillotto.com.
ANNIE LANZILLOTTO: I think everyone should keep their hands in their pants because there’s nothing to say that masturbating is dangerous. So if you’re not supposed to touch your face, your nose, your eyes, your mouth, so keep your hands in your pants. That’s seriously, I think a very safe way to not touch your face.
NEIL GOLDBERG: Hello, I’m Neil Goldberg, and this is She’s a Talker. This is the final episode of season two, but don’t worry, we’re already stocked up on episodes for season three and we’ll be back in just a couple of weeks. Just before Corona broke, we started asking folks on the streets of New York City to respond to the cards that we use in the show. Now feels like a good time to play a few of those.
NEIL: We’re doing a podcast and we’re asking folks to read just a card. It’s a podcast based on these millions of cards I’ve written over the years. Would you be up for that?
Passerby 1: It will take like two minutes?
Passerby 1: Sure.
NEIL: Absolutely. Thank you.
Passerby 1: Okay. Ready?
Passerby 1: Why is pre-owned better than used? Pre-owned sounds better to me.
NEIL: It does, really? To me it sounds worse. I don’t know. I don’t want something…
Passerby 1: Used sounds used, like used up, used, you use somebody for something. It has a negative connotation.
Passerby 1: To me pre-owned sounds like someone enjoyed it before me.
Passerby 2: Waking up in the middle of a dream can feel like opening a dishwasher mid cycle.
NEIL: Can you relate to that?
Passerby 2: Well, I feel like with a dishwasher you can always just push the door back and it’ll start again.
NEIL: Well, that’s true.
Passerby 2: But with a dream, I can never restart them.
NEIL: That’s true.
Passerby 2: If I wake up in the middle of it I’m like, oh, I can’t go back. If you try to recreate it, it’s just not the same.
Passerby 3: The tender way you talk to someone who’s just woken up. That’s sweet.
Passerby 3: Not even to romantic partners, just like to my friends and everything like that. I think it’s a nice… it’s like a personal alarm clock. It’s like, “What do you want for breakfast?”
NEIL: Today’s episode is appropriately a followup with our very first guest, renowned poet, playwright, memoirist, and performer, Annie Lanzillotto.
NEIL: Annie has presented her performances everywhere from the Guggenheim Museum to the Arthur Avenue Market in the Bronx where she brought the vendors together to put on a heartbreakingly gorgeous opera. Annie’s latest book of poetry is called Hard Candy/Pitch Roll Yaw. We spoke to each other on March 20th remotely from our respective apartments.
NEIL: Annie, what’s something you find yourself thinking about today?
ANNIE: Today, I think how cavalier everyone in the media is about, oh, we need 100,000 respirators. Everyone’s talking about being on a ventilator like it’s getting a lollipop. Who the hell wants to be on a ventilator? I’d been on a ventilator and I don’t want to be on a ventilator again, unconscious for weeks and you don’t know if you could breathe on your own and… I don’t want to be on a ventilator.
NEIL: Can you just give the listeners a sense of your medical background?
ANNIE: Well, I had breathing problems my whole life since I was a baby. And then when I turned 18, I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma and I got a second cancer, thyroid cancer. Hundreds of us are in a support group who are the first generation to survive blood cancers. And we’re all realizing that if we catch this virus, we’re indefensible because we’re immunocompromised. So I’m just staying inside because I don’t want to take any chances.
NEIL: Any other ways that you’re preparing or adapting to life right now?
ANNIE: Like with AIDS, all the rules changed and we were all to survive trying to catch up with the rules and obviously no one knew the rules. So there was all these questions, can you kiss, can you do this, can you do that? And so now that’s where we’re at with this virus. Deliveries are coming to my door from the pharmacy and I want to tip the guy from the pharmacy, but that means I open the door an inch, you know what I mean? And so now all those things feel like high risk behaviors until I figure them out. Until I say to him, “Leave the package, go outside,” then I’ll come in the hall and put $5 on the radiator. Then you could come back in the hall. I just haven’t figured out all the new rules yet.
ANNIE: And you feel a little nuts doing that. I mean, I’m spraying Lysol on dollar bills over here.
NEIL: Okay, Annie, on that note, let’s take a hard pivot and go to the cards, shall we? The feeling of your breath when you breathe into a mask. It can be a kind of meditative experience or something.
ANNIE: I really like wearing the surgical masks. I like how the breath stays warm in the mask and I feel safe with it on. I love them. I’ve always loved them. And it also makes me feel like the old days of cowboys with bandanas on your mouth or pirates or whatever. Dressing up for Halloween, I often put a bandana around my mouth and had a fake pistol when I was 10 years old or whatever. So a mask brings up some of that Halloween fun. But the past 15 years I’ve been wearing those masks in shopping stores and grocery stores and stuff. People would stay away from you, but now everyone’s got a mask. So now that’s a new world too.
NEIL: Paradoxically, it’s less isolating in a certain way.
ANNIE: Well, it used to give me some power because people would steer clear of me, which was safer for me in the grocery store. So if they saw me with a mask, they would assume I was infectious, not vulnerable, which was a wrong assumption on their part. But I used the mask to my advantage and safety. I’d get in and out of the store faster. People would move away. Now that everyone needs a mask or wants a mask, I think that would be different.
NEIL: Here’s another card. On a cruise ship, how a feeling of virtue and duty was associated with disinfecting your hands before going into the dining room and eating. I took a number of cruises with Jeff’s family and I loved being with their family, but I always felt like there was all this rigor around disinfecting your hands. And I felt like everyone felt so virtuous and like we were all pitching in on this war effort or something. But it was really just about enabling you to go and eat a ridiculous amount of food.
ANNIE: Well, I’ve never been on a cruise ship. I’ve been on ferry boats and that’s about it. On hand washing, you wash your hands in a ritual ablution before you enter a mosque. And it’s a long and very detailed ritual like up beyond the wrists and then the feet up beyond the ankles. So I think there’s a lot to learn from mosque culture with this hand and feet washing and take your shoes off and wear sandals in the house. The point being there’s hand washing, then there’s hand wash. We all have to scrub our hands in this moment like surgeons. And if you ever saw a surgeon with a scrub brush clean under their nails and clean the backs of their hands and clean the [inaudible 00:08:37] and up beyond the wrists, it takes a long time.
ANNIE: Maybe, I don’t know, instead of singing happy birthday, people could do some kind of meditation or prayer or whatever. Not that I’m advocating prayer, but I think the happy birthday song is stupid. I don’t think it offers anything. So I think if we could be more creative around that. I mean, for me maybe the Ave Maria works, but I think everyone should keep their hands in their pants because this virus attacks the lungs. We do know that. So there’s nothing to say that masturbating is dangerous. So if you’re not supposed to touch your face, your nose, your eyes, your mouth, so keep your hands in your pants. That’s seriously, I think a very safe way to not touch your face.
NEIL: So we should just masturbate our way through the COVID-19?
ANNIE: Yeah. And there’s a site called Porn Hub and they are giving free high-end accounts all over Italy for people to get through this. The skill of adapting to survive really takes a lot of creativity and resilience.
NEIL: Do you think about all the water that is being devoted to this? I just discussed this with Jeff.
ANNIE: No, I’ve heard you say that and I think it’s a brilliant thought. I like water running, I’m very different about water coming from Acquaviva delle Fonti, which really means there’s a sorgente or a source of water been below you all the time. And it affected me with a different consciousness. I like running water and I grew up with that privilege and it’s soothing to me. I guess I should have some kind of fountain even in the kitchen that recycles water.
NEIL: Next card. I just said the most beautiful no.
ANNIE: I said no to a neighbor the other day. She texted me and said, “Oh, I just bought flying sauces. Are you outside?” And I said to her, “I’m socially isolating over here. What am I going to come get an ice cream from you?” So yeah, no is a beautiful thing.
NEIL: That is maybe one of the silver linings of this. Just all the exquisite nos one gets to say.
ANNIE: Yeah, to everything. Everything’s being canceled.
ANNIE: There’s a relief in that.
NEIL: Toilets are abject, but the tank refilling is a beautiful real-world metaphor.
ANNIE: It is miraculous, the tank refilling, and I took great pleasure in figuring out, when it wouldn’t refill, you had to open it and reattach the chain to the arm that pulled the big black ball up and down and all that. And it’s simple mechanism. It’s a simple little thing.
NEIL: It’s so analog too. It’s not the internet of things.
ANNIE: But there’s all these new toilets now and they open, they sense you coming in, some play music, some spray smells like nice smells, they’re like little discotheques. They have purple lights, any color light you want. Probably they’re going to pretty soon be greeting you and talking to you and cheering you on. “Nice one. Good job, nice one. Wash your hands.”
NEIL: Wash your hands, sing Ave Maria while you do it.
ANNIE: They’re making fun of us in this country because people have been ordering toilet paper. And so like the Italians are saying they all have bidets. They were saying, “[foreign language 00:12:35].” Why do you need all this toilet paper? Why don’t you just get bidets? It’s like an American source of shame that we are not as clean as the rest of the world with bidets.
NEIL: Choosing a coffee mug in the morning is a little like choosing which saint to pray in front of at a church.
ANNIE: That’s brilliant. It’s true. I go through a lot sometimes choosing a coffee mug. Now I don’t have that many options, but one reminds me of my mother because it was hers. One’s a little big, so sometimes it’s too big to drink coffee, but it’s good for tea. I don’t know, it’s a big decision. I don’t have one go to coffee mug.
NEIL: Which did you use today?
ANNIE: I think I probably used the plain white Fiesta wear that an old softball buddy sent me a set of, I think that’s the one I used.
NEIL: And so if you were going to choose a saint to pray in front of at a church, which would you choose today?
ANNIE: Well, it depends who’s there and it depends how crowded the saints are. Right? But I usually do [crosstalk 00:13:47]-
NEIL: The saints get crowded?
ANNIE: Yeah. I mean, it depends who’s talking to them. But I usually choose Lady of Mount Carmel [inaudible 00:13:56] if she’s free, because that was my mother’s patron saint. But up the block somebody has a little Saint Francis out like a little God. And so I’ve seen him the past couple of days and that’s been nice actually.
NEIL: Beyond the crowds, what drives that decision of which one you’ll go to? Let’s say you can only go to one.
ANNIE: Well, there’s never a reason to only go to one. I mean, for me personally, it depends what city I’m in and what church I’m in. If I’m at Saint Anne’s in Hoboken, you go to Saint Anne. If I’m in New Orleans, you go to Saint Jude. I recently went to Mother Cabrini up in Northern Manhattan and her body is there in a glass case with a wax head. I think her head is in Rome, but her body is in a dress right there on the altar on 180 first or somewhere around there right by Fort Tryon Park. So when you go to Mother Cabrini, you go to Mother Cabrini, you’re not walking around and looking for Saint Anthony in the church of Mother Cabrini. But everyone’s going to the Madonna now for this plague. I mean, people are just praying to the mother.
NEIL: Is that breaking out the big guns kind of?
ANNIE: Yeah. I think everyone’s on their knees. All of Italy is on its knees praying to the Madonna.
NEIL: Do you ration your pleas to the Madonna? It’s like, “No, let’s save a plague for the Madonna.”
ANNIE: Yeah, you kind of do. You don’t want to bother them with nonsense. It’s like you want to go to them with something serious.
NEIL: Okay. Next card. Actually old people are the future.
ANNIE: Oh, that’s fantastic. Today I had this experience where I have a lot of things piled on top of each other and I’ve been baking, so I had to empty the oven of pots and pans. So these two pots are on top each other and one keeps swinging and moving as if it’s enchanted. And I took a video of it and I posted it. You could watch it or I’ll send it to you. But yeah, I felt grandma in the room telling me to cook because I kept thinking why is this pot moving? It kept moving. It wasn’t like it just moved and stopped. It just kept moving and moving and moving. Swinging and swinging, it’s swinging right now actually.
ANNIE: And so in that way, maybe the old people are the future because they inhabit and make things happen.
ANNIE: I tripped the other day because I’m doing laundry all in the sink. So I was carrying a glass bowl full of wet socks and I tripped on the bed leg and I went flying and I pictured myself cracking all my teeth. And then in this time you can’t go to a dentist, you can’t go anywhere. Where are you going to go? Who wants to go to a dentist? And then I just didn’t fall. I ended up against the bed and I felt like my grandmother and mother had just not let me fall, had just pushed me onto the bed because there was no way I wasn’t going to fall and crack my head. So yeah, maybe the old people are the future in that way. They intervene and intercess.
NEIL: Okay, let’s go to a lightning round remotely here. We can just do quick responses to these. And if something doesn’t speak to you, just say pass. A documentary about people who write in library books.
ANNIE: Oh, who does that? I don’t think [inaudible 00:17:54] done that really. I used to like the old system where you put your name in the back of the book and then you could see whose name was there-
NEIL: All right.
ANNIE: … who took the book out, and some books weren’t taken out for years and other books were constantly taken out. And I used to find that really interesting.
NEIL: I always feel so virtuous when I close a browser window.
ANNIE: I feel a measure of success. I think clicking the little red button, the little circle and everything closing properly, it’s like housekeeping.
NEIL: It’s primal how the symbol we use for love is an abstraction of a bloody organ.
ANNIE: Yeah. I wonder how we got to that. They made it look sexy by putting breasts on top of it. They made it bogus. That’s not the shape of the organ. It’s a curvy thing with cleavage, but it could be other things too. It could be ballsy or assy. It’s two curves. There’s a lot of two curves on the body. For some reason, curves are sexy to people I guess.
NEIL: I just want to end with two questions. So if you can imagine this being over, what are you looking forward to.
ANNIE: During this crisis what I’m looking forward to is meals, cooking meals and some FaceTime, singing with… singing Italian songs with some Italians here and in Italy. So sometimes we FaceTime and sing songs. I think what I really would hope to look forward to is to really get a nice hug and some human contact because right now I don’t know when that’s going to happen or with who that’s going to happen. When I’m going to feel safe to really hold or be held and hug someone.
NEIL: What keeps you going?
ANNIE: What keeps me going? I don’t know. I think that’s a little mystery. I’m not sure what keeps me going. Something in the brain though I think.
NEIL: Like it’s hardwired?
ANNIE: Yeah. Something saying, “Get up, cook breakfast, make the bed, rinse a couple of things out, watch the news, see what’s going on, check in with a friend and see how they’re doing. What’s the next project on the list?” So it’s also the example of my mother and my grandmother in my head because they always just carried on with the tasks of the day and their hands were never idle. They were always knitting or sewing or cooking or preparing or cleaning. I become more like them as the years go on and in this crisis it’s definitely brought a lot of them out inside me. So like my mother for economy’s sake, she used to have Brillo pads cut into halves because Brillo pads, they rust very easily.
ANNIE: So you use them a few times, you got to throw them out. If you cut it in half, that’s usually enough to do what you would do with a whole Brillo pad. So she literally would pay half for everything because she only bought things on sale and with coupons and then she’d make everything last double as long as normal use. And I used to laugh at her cutting Brillo pads in half. And then when she was gone, I tried to cut a Brillo pad in half and I used all different kinds of scissors and I couldn’t do it. But then during this crisis, for the first time I bought Brillo in years. And out of necessity I tore the Brillo pad in half and it came out pretty good.
ANNIE: Not as perfect as hers, but when I was trying to figure it out intellectually, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t cut it. But when I needed to do it, I was able to do it in one shot. And so I felt like I became her because my inner necessity matched hers. And so her example and my grandmother’s example, their diligence and their hands were always working, fixing, mending, taking care of people. That definitely becomes then my hands and my actions.
NEIL: On that note, Annie Lanzillotto, who we’ve known each other for what, more than 30 years, possibly just shy of 40 years. I don’t know, but we’ve-
ANNIE: No it is. It is. 2020 and 1981, isn’t that going to be 40 years 2021?
NEIL: Yeah. It’s coming up on it.
ANNIE: [crosstalk 00:22:52].
NEIL: May we see each other in 2021 healthy. I love you. Thank you for being on She’s A Talker.
ANNIE: Let’s survive the plague. I love you, Neil.
NEIL: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of She’s A Talker. Before we get to the credits. here are some thoughts from people who wrote in via email and Instagram. In my conversation with poet Nick Flynn, we talked about the card, the specific, tentative, hyper-attentive way one tastes something to see if it’s gone bad. In response, Instagram user Brokebackdesert wrote, “The specific, tentative, hyper-attentive way a parent smells their baby’s bottom is not unlike a chef decoding recipes from aromas.”
NEIL: John Kensal wrote, “The exquisite mix of repulsion and fascination to have edible raw within one’s grasp. As a willful gesture, the action possesses a regretful yet compelling relationship between hand and mouth at best to test our capacity for the humanizing effects that accompany a sense of revulsion.” Another card Nick and I talked about was when a toddler falls, that space before they start to cry. Will Heinrich wrote, “Isn’t that where all of adult civilization takes place?” Thanks to everyone who wrote in. As always, we’d love it if you’d rate and review us on Apple Podcast or share this episode with a friend.
NEIL: This series is made possible with generous support from Stillpoint Fund. Devin Guinn produced this episode. Andrew Lytton mixed it. Molly Donahue and Aaron Dalton are our consulting producers. Justine Lee handles social media. Our interns are Alara Degirmenci, Jonathan Jalbert, and Jesse Kimotho. Our card flip beats come from Josh Graver, and my husband, Jeff Hiller sings the theme song you’re about to hear. Thanks to all of them and to my guest, Annie Lanzillotto and to you for listening. See you back with season three very, very soon.