Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Northside Robbery

As he left the Greenpoint Tavern, moments before being invited to leave, James Cassese had an epiphany. The Greenpoint Tavern (or GPT or Rosies as it was known to regulars, Rosie’s for one of the owners with her blue-tinted bouffant and lacquered face that covered maternal booze-dispensing tenderness) on a Saturday near midnight was exactly the place where clarity could sweep over you. Despite the neon palm tree in the window it was always Christmas at the bar – strands of Christmas lights and Christmas streamers and Christmas banners on the wall. At the long bar, a few old Polish men drank morosely and tried to ignore the crowds of bellowing children in odd clothing who had seized Rosie’s and were holding the pool table and jukebox hostage.
James’s rocket of possibility had launched as he’d summoned the last scuffed dollars from his wallet and realized that he couldn’t tip on what it was clear would be his last drink. So then, how to get money for that next drink, and even more importantly, the drinks after that? Rosie had already given him one free drink for old time’s sake and she had more recently scolded him for borrowing the drink of one of the noisy art child who had vehemently complained about theft. Even worse, Rosie had taken the kid’s side although she had known James for twenty years (it didn’t occur to James that familiarity was exactly what had led Rosie to her decision). Cassese was a large man with a thick black moustache worn completely without irony. His bulk had always given him confidence; people thought twice before they shouldered past him on the subway and this made him feel an inherent importance. The loss of his job as a car service dispatcher in the Bronx two years earlier had inexorably directed James back to Greenpoint, where in eleven months he’d worn out the couch welcome of every family member and friend he had left. There it was late on a June night and James had no place to go with his empty wallet. Foresight had led him to wear his long windbreaker – it made sleeping in the park more comfortable.
The loss of his job had given James all the time in the world to do what he desired most – drink – but had taken away the means for him to do it. Rosies was his last stand. James had grown up in Greenpoint and he’d been visiting the bar for thirty years, back to when he was an underage drinker in an era no bartender on Bedford ever said the word, ‘ID.’ Despite the fact that James had just dispatched the final dollar from his last welfare check, he’d rediscovered his confidence as well whiskey-and-soda’s went down. The nine-inch Bowie knife strapped to his ankle in a soft leather case bolstered that confidence, which is why he wore it, of course, but the rocket of insight didn’t explode until he opened the bar door and walked out into June.
Across the street car headlights flung diamonds and shadows onto plate glass shop windows. James looked directly through cars and the people hurrying away from the subway and through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows and saw the barista in the L To-Go exposed behind the counter. That’s when it all came together for. Besides the barista, a gangly kid, the To-Go store was empty and closing, the morning and lunch rushes long past. James decided that he would walk in with his confident bulk, present his nine inches to the puny kid and have him empty the register (James had seen the barista’s pulling the cash drawer from the register and counting the money out on the counter other nights, so perhaps his epiphany was not as spontaneous as it seems). A stroll around the block and he would return directly to Rosie’s; no cop would ever suspect such casual bravado. In the bar, he would tell Rosie that an old friend had finally paid off a loan and he would buy both of them shots and he would even apologize for his earlier misbehavior. It was a happy vision.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Samuel Beckett

Certain questions of a theological nature preoccupied me strangely. As for example.

1. What value is to be attached to the theory that Eve sprang, not from Adam's rib, but from a tumour in the fat of his leg (arse?)?
2. Did the serpent crawl, or as Comestor affirms, walk upright?
3. Did Mary conceive through the ear, as Augustine and Adobard assert?
4. How much longer are we to hang about waiting for the antichrist?
5. Does it really matter which hand is employed to absterege the podex?
6. What is one to think of the Irish oath sworn by the natives with the right hand on the relics of the saints and the left on the virile member?
7. Does nature observe the Sabbath?
8. Is it true that the devils do not feel the pains of hell?
9. The algebraic theology of Craig. What is one to think of this?
10. Is it true that the infant Saint-Roch refused to suck on Wednesdays and Fridays?
11. What is one to think of the excommunication of vermin in the sixteenth century?
12. Is one to approve of the Italian cobbler Lovat who, having cut off his testicles, crucified himself?
13. What was God doing with himself before the creation?
14. Might not the beatific vision become a source of boredom, in the long run?
15. Is it true that Judas’ torments are suspended on Saturdays?
16. What if the mass for the dead were read over the living?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Bar Called Kokie's

It wasn’t named for coke, the bartender said. That’s the funny thing. I mean, the place opened in the 50s and it sure wasn’t pushing coke back then.
The bartender was thick – thick torso, thick neck, thick skin, fingers like cannolis and that blunt LI accent, Brooklynese tempered by a generation in the suburbs. But he could tell a story.
They got this frog in Puerto Rico, he said. It’s called a coqui because of the sound it makes, ‘ko-kee, ko-kee, ko-kee.’ The guy who owned this place was Puerto Rican. Back then, it was some kind of social club. He used to have card games in here, strippers, that kind of thing. I mean he was half a wise guy anyway. One night he got stabbed in some card game. That was it for him. He was like, ‘I’m seventy years old. I don’t need this shit.’ So he gave the place to his nephew and that’s when it got started. One of the old doorman comes in here and we talk.
The Antique Lounge had opened a couple of months earlier. Its antique flourishes came courtesy of a restaurant catalogue – tin ceiling, exposed brick, classic moldings, and a fireplace. The furniture was so plush you could drown in it. Nothing was left from the long reign of Kokie’s.
I’m forty-three years old, the bartender said. I’m in it for the long haul. This place is my dream. I was born in the neighborhood. When I was four my parents moved out to Lynbrook but we stayed connected.
The bartender was also the owner. Blond salon streaks in his hair and his padded face made him look younger.
They had a great take here, he said. Twenty-thousand dollars for a four-day week. That’s not bad – even if you include the coke. Of course, you don’t know how many people were getting envelopes. I’m sure the police chief got his envelope. And the fire inspector. After 9/11 that all changed. The precinct got a new patrol chief, a woman who used to work narcotics. She said, ‘I’m not having this here.’ It’s hard enough to be a woman in that position anyway – and then have a coke bar under your nose. Right out in the open. I mean, if you’re gonna do that, at least be discrete. But no. They had the salsa band in here. The noise after hours. Still, they didn’t even get busted. That’s the funny thing. They lost their lease. They got some kind of three strikes thing in New York, I don’t know the legal particulars but the landlord was afraid they’d take away his building. So he didn’t renew the lease.
The owner bought me a drink. The way he talked, I figured that he’d been a Kokie’s customer himself and not just once.
The neighbors hated them more than anything, he said. When I took over they came in to check us out. When I told them what I was doing, they thanked me. You know, the Kokie’s crew thought they were being discrete. That’s the funny thing. With the booths in the back and leaning against the wall to put in your order. And the way they used to cut that stuff to shit. Why not have a decent product? But they really stepped on it. What went on with Kokies, I couldn’t have that. Most of my family is cops so…
We looked around the quiet lounge – five or six people on the couches and sofas, classic rock playing on the jukebox. We could have been in any of fifty NYC bars. ‘Antique’ was in.
We did all our own renovations. We soundproofed the ceiling. We put in our own hot water – the guy upstairs used to share it. And it’s working out. Couples like it in here. We got the couches. It’s romantic. Last week we had fifty dykes for a party. Not too many of them were those lipstick lesbians, I tell you. But nice people. Polite. That’s the kind of place I want. The guy who owns Rain came in here last week. You know what he told me?
Rain Lounge had opened the year before on Bedford and North 5th. The ‘urban’ vibe made it an anomaly even on a changing Northside – flash cars parked in front, gangster vines, hip hop thumping, meaty bouncers. The fact that both long-time locals and newcomers disdained the only neighborhood club that catered to African-Americans said something about our tolerance for ‘diversity.’
He told me, the bartender said, ‘I dread going to work. The fights. The girls passed out on E. The guns.’ I told him, ‘You don’t have to do it.’ But he said, ‘No.’ That’s the choice he made. But he probably takes in thirty-five hundred on a Friday night. Me, I’m doing good if I get that in a week. Then again, he’s probably paying eight grand a month for that corner. I pay twenty-five hundred. The authorities have it out for him too. I had the fire inspectors in here, the safety marshals. They told me, ‘We got the inspection list for Rain. We’re going to nail them for this and this and this.’ That’s not the crowd I want. I won’t play hip hop or techno. I’m in it for the long haul.
I went back to the Antique Lounge a few times after that, hoping to commune with the ghosts of Kokies but the bar had nothing for me. But the next winter, it had closed and Rain wasn’t too far behind. Kokie’s business model beat theirs by almost a half-century.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Patrick Bateman: White Negro

The hipster’s immediate descendent, the hippy, became a figure of disdain, at least if you didn’t like patchouli and the Grateful Dead. Anyway the hippie seems to have very little to do with the hipster qualities outlined by Mailer in ‘The White Negro.’ You don’t really expect some granola-chomping tree-hugger to spontaneously kick the crap out of a store clerk. Bret Easton Ellis’ anti-hero in American Psycho, Patrick Bateman, embodies Mailer’s hipster better than any hippie kid, his evolution accelerated by three decades of market manipulations, the individual split between an empty social order and the indulgence of his most immediate desires – for Bateman sexual violence and murder. Ellis’ characters express their individuality through minute concern with gradations of style, and yet remain generally unrecognizable to each other (a running joke in the book). Bateman’s bloodlust is, in part, a reaction to the fact that there are others cooler than him.

Mailer focuses on the most romantic aspect of the hipster – the impulse to spontaneity and violence – and says very little about the elaborations of cool. Thus his hipster is lopsided, no Lester Young there. Mailer is onto something though with the idea of the hipster trying to make real his ‘infantile fantasy.’ What’s changed is the way in which the marketplace has nurtured the infantile fantasy. Nothing is more pleasing to people selling things than customers who can’t resist their most immediate impulse. The social revolutions of the 1960s fell short, but ‘expressing yourself’ by way of ‘lifestyle’ has conquered the world.

The origin of the contemporary hipster has everything to do with Reagan-era America. The manufacturing of a new national consensus in the 1980s left many out. Thrift no long figured into the construction of the American character – the most lasting legacy of the 1960s was comfort with debt – but flag-waving, conformity, and a return to traditional gender roles swept across the country. The corporate raider became a hero. On the outside: baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. On the inside: Patrick Bateman.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Charitable Case

This poor woman just wants to give me her money. How can I deny her final wishes?
Like everyone with an email account - that is to say, everyone - I get these letters constantly. There's something particularly charming about this one. Maybe being addressed as 'God's elect' or perhaps 'serious tears'?

From Mrs Sarata Farah

Dear God's elect,

I believe you will do better than I think,

It is understandable that you may be a bit apprehensive because you do not know me, I am writing this mail to you with serious tears in my eyes and great sorrow in my heart, My Name is Mrs. Sarata Farah,Am contacting you from my country Tunisia . I want to tell you this because I don’t have any other option than to tell you as I was touched to open up to you, I am married to Mr. Toyo Farah who worked with Tunisia embassy in Ouagadougou the capital city of Burkina Faso: in west Africa for nine years before he died in the year 2005.We were married for eleven years without a child. He died after a brief illness that lasted for only five days. Since his death I decided not to remarry again, when my late husband was alive he deposited the sum of US$ 8.2 Million (Eight million two hundred thousand dollars) with a bank in Ouagadougou ,

Presently this money still in the bank there. He made this money available for exportation of Gold from Burkina mining. Recently, My Doctor told me that I would not last for the period of seven months due to cancer problem. The one that disturbs me most is my stroke sickness. Having known my condition I decided to hand you over this mission to take care of the less-privileged, you will utilize this money the way I am going to instruct herein. I want you to take 30 Percent of the total money for your personal use While 70% of the money will go to charity work" helping people in the street.

Because I grew up an Orphan and I don't have anybody as my family member, just to endeavour that the house of God is maintained. am doing this so that God will forgive my sins and accept my soul because this sickness has suffered me so much. As soon as I receive your reply I shall give you the contact of the bank in Burkina Faso and I will also instruct my lawyer to issue you an authority letter that will prove you the present beneficiary of the money in the bank that's if you assure me that you will act accordingly as I Stated herein.

Hoping to hear from you soon.
Remain blessed
Yours Sister
Sarata Farah.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Where Is He Now?

Ying was a filmmaker with peculiar fashion sensibility. During the week, Ying wore business casual to his job managing containers on freighters coming from China. On weekends, Ying favored spangled bustiers, dresses with spaghetti straps, and expensive lipstick (I remember one of his girlfriends borrowing a tube of his – was it ‘Harlot Red’? – and saying, ‘This cost thirty dollars!). For years Ying wore a speculum on a cord around his neck; later, he replaced the speculum with a bicycle horn. Like a lot of the other Williamsburg characters in the early days, Ying was an instinctive eccentric. Eccentricity was often the only thing the characters had in common but in Williamsburg that was enough. I first met Ying in San Francisco at a party where he screened a film he’d shot on the Brooklyn Bridge. The film was beautiful and we talked about collaborating, even though Ying’s films didn’t have stories or actors. Still, we became friends: Ying introduced me to off-menu delicacies in Chinese restaurants (crab roe, pig intestines) and wu-xia films – together we watched a young Jet Li flying across the screen spinning and kicking. Ying’s father was an admiral in the Chinese navy [TK] and Ying worked for a Chinese shipping company. His first job had been in the Chinese merchant marine. One night I had to defend Ying from a bunch of Mexican guys who jumped out of a car because Ying was so damn cute in his tight black dress. Ying didn’t like to talk about his past and my questions annoyed him; Ying had fled China for the same reasons I’d run from Catholic school. When Ying’s company transferred him from SF to New York he ended up in Williamsburg.

Ying’s studio in the former Tung-Fa Noodle Factory had a large bed, a folding movie screen, tens of thousands of dollars of film equipment – including a camera with a shutter speed so fast it had been designed to film rocket launches – and not much else. The Noodle Factory was a fourteen-story white monolith that had once housed a lot of small-scale businesses – most of them sweat shops – a central feature in industrial NYC since the Civil War (a feature that continues to this day, if you squint. One night in a Soho dance studio, I looked out the window into a neighboring building. At ten p.m. dozens of Chinese women sat waist-deep in fabric leaned over sewing machines).

Ying had started off in New York delivering pizzas via bicycle but he’d graduated quickly to a big American car. He loved big American cars and in the decade we were friends he was never without one. He loved the automatic windows, the plush upholstery, the leisurely steering. No matter how much Ying drank or how far we were from my apartment on 169th Street, he’d always drive me home. But most nights we went out together we landed at the Noodle Factory. Film canisters, lengths of film and empty cognac bottles covered his floor. Through the 11th-floor windows J-M-Z subway cars clanked over the Williamsburg Bridge. The bridge lights and the headlights made it look like Six Flags. A darker skyscape rose to the south, warehouses crowded together and behind the warehouses the squat towers of housing projects. Like Drew and Stefan, Ying spent most of his time in Manhattan and when he came home, he parked his car and hurried inside. The Noodle Factory was a retreat, cut off from the street, a place to hover near the city.

Watching the bridge and the Manhattan lights from Ying’s studio, I didn’t think about the streets. They were just an obstacle as we moved from the car to the building, fear vanishing only when we sat cradled inside. It a long time for me to realize that you couldn’t have the freedom without the fear.

Friday, April 15, 2011

David Foster Wallace's Cruise to Nowhere

Kicking a dead writer isn’t a particularly classy way to go; after all, he can’t kick back. This isn’t egregious though (at least I hope it isn’t). When I read this particular essay by this particular dead writer, it – besides pissing me off and making me really sad – turned on all the lights, gave me a handle on my discomfort with a whole bunch of writers a little bit older than me and a lot more successful. The essay is called ‘Shipping Out: on the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise.’ David Foster Wallace wrote it.

In 1995 Harper’s Magazine sent David Foster Wallace on a ‘megaship’ luxury cruise. You have to appreciate the hook: young novelist with straight-razor wit encounters fat, ignorant Americans and starts carving blubber, hilarity sure to follow. It didn’t hurt Wallace that he’d done similar stories for Harpers’s before and was about to publish a chapbook called Infinite Jest. Harper’s was right about the humor but maybe they missed a couple of things.

The piece opens in a mock heroic voice: ‘I have seen a lot of really big white ships. I have seen schools of little fishes with fins that glow. […] I know the difference between straight bingo and Prize-O.’). It’s an invocatory ‘I’, a drumming cadence, witness’s statement to a jury turned to comic effect, as if to say that we live in a world without heroes, or at least that a mega cruise isn’t the place to find one – in case we didn’t know that already. It isn’t until page three though, that the strangeness kicks in, the moment when you realize that all is not sunny in the mega-cruise Caribbean. DFW mentions a kid, sixteen, who ‘did a half gainer’ off the upper deck on another megaship cruise. It wasn’t just adolescent angst that made the kid jump though. No, according to DFW it was something else, some malaise inherent in the cruise itself, something ‘no news story could cover.’ His experiences on the cruise lead DFW to believe that he has penetrated the darkness beyond the news.

So what is DFW’s insidious killer, the asp in his expense-account Eden? ‘Pampered to Death’ is the title of the section that highlights the upper deck leap and DFW claims that there is a horror at the center of the big white ships: ‘…the ultimate American fantasy vacation involves being plunked down in an enormous primordial stew of death and decay.’ (He’s talking about the ocean). The word DFW uses for this malaise is ‘despair’, despair at the fact of ‘absolutely nothing.’ Not only does DFW witness the despair, he experiences it. Eventually, jumping off the deck becomes as attractive to him as it was to the teenager.

Over ten thousand plus words, DFW chronicles those aspects of the cruise that drive him toward suicide. These include the fascist inclinations of the Greek captain, the sadism of the cruise magician, the stupidity of the passengers, and the suffering of the lower-ranking crew members. DFW aims for laughs in all this and he finds them: fellow passengers catch most of rounds. We learn that Americans are fat, that their menfolk like to play golf, that the bodies of the middle-aged are unlovely and should probably eschew bikinis and Speedos. Rarely do these the victims of DFW’s intellectual drive-bys rise to the level of the fully human. They exist only as lists of physical shortcomings, bad hobby choices, or fashion atrocities. For these other passengers on the 7NC Luxury Cruise, what DFW refers to as ‘hard play’ ‘activities, festivities, gaieties, song,’ keeps their fear of death at bay, renders them infantile with pleasure; DFW however, is the infant who will not be pleased, who squalls, who won’t fool himself and ‘hard play’ the game. Typically, DFW is proud that he didn’t bring a video camera. ‘I’m not like them!’ he wants us to know. As with much of the literary writing of his generation, DFW’s tone combines snark and sarcasm (let’s call it ‘snark-casm’.).

The distinguishing feature of DFW’s snarkcasm is how distant it is from his targets, so distant you could measure it in light years. He barely interacts with anyone on the cruise, and his putdowns remain broad and indistinct. In fact, his isolation on this cruise is the outstanding feature. We’re seven pages into the article before individual passengers are introduced (or culled for butchering). The only people DFW seems to get to know at all are his dining-room tablemates, of whom he writes: ‘I like all of my tablemates a lot…’ Mostly, it seems, because they laugh at his jokes – although the way they laugh terrifies DFW. One of the people he likes best is Trudy. ‘Trudy…looks – and I mean this in the nicest possible way – rather like Jackie Gleason in drag…’ DFW tells us that her laugh is so vulgar that it can cause heart attacks. It’s a good thing DFW likes her, or he might have been really mean (a typical DFW strategy is to write ‘I really like him/her but…’ as we’ll see later). The one tablemate he doesn’t like, eighteen year-old Mona, gets both barrels: she’s too tall, she has the face of a corrupt doll, she complains too much, she isn’t grateful for the money her parents give her, she lies about her birthday to get free cake, and she doesn’t know the difference between Mussolini and Maserati. Mona seems like a typical spoiled teen but she becomes DFW’s latrine. For DFW, Mona is the human embodiment of the emptiness at the heart of the big-ship experience, as empty as death.

In a very real way these ‘fellow’ passengers aren’t human to the forever distant Wallace. Even their personal tragedies are subjected to the same snarkcasm. The kid who committed suicide ‘did a half-gainer.’ People who are taking the cruise for relief from a death in the family have ‘finally buried’ someone. This inability to empathize is nearly autistic in its imponderability. You can make the argument that sardonic distance is DFW’s way of showing how middle-class American leisure has become an ‘air-conditioned nightmare’ that robs us of individuality and courage. Of course, this contempt tells us as much about Wallace as it does about his subjects. Wallace has an equally distant relationship with the ship’s crew. He hates and fears the bosses, and he has a puzzled admiration for the workers, with whom he can’t communicate. In each case, distance remains the defining feature of all his interactions. DFW claims to talk to people yet no other voice even registers, no personality, nothing except the crudest caricature.
To be fair, DFW doesn’t let himself off the hook: he’s a self-styled uber-nerd, the kid who used to ‘memorize shark-fatality data’, who can’t shoot skeet targets without endangering onlookers, who embroiders his text with the now-famous footnotes (for the book version of the essay, DFW added over a hundred new footnotes). Who spends a lot of time flushing his hi-tech toilet, then develops an irrational fear that it will ingest him…. There is self-satisfaction in this of course. Nietzsche wasn’t wrong to say: ‘Whoever despises himself still admires himself as one who despises.’ The crew, captain and passengers might think DFW is pathetic but he’s securely insecure in the knowledge that he sees through the charade of their lives. It’s cold comfort, and the tone reminds me of no one so much as that J.D. Salinger mannequin, Holden Caulfield, still railing against ‘phonies’.

DFW’s satire takes on greater precision when he doesn’t have to deal with human being: inanimate objects, while also threatening, are not quite as hellish as les autres and therefore can be examined more closely. DFW is especially witty on the cruise brochure and pages of text are devoted to his interaction wit his cabin, where he seems to spend the majority of his time. There is extensive complaint about the ubiquity of towels and how clean his room is kept. It’s meant to be funny, and it is, in a way, but you start asking yourself: ‘Can’t he find something more interesting to talk about?’

The focus and tone of DFW’s critique marks a major shift in literary journalism. Writers practicing the form in the generation before DFW had equally severe critiques of mainstream American society, but their critiques came from very different places. In typically grandiose fashion, Norman Mailer tried to channel an entire country through his voice, as in his book-length pieces on the presidential conventions of 1968 and the march on the Pentagon. Joan Didion never failed to reveal her fragile psychic state, but she attempted to link it to the disintegration of the mainstream consensus that had nurtured her (her articles appeared in places like the Saturday Evening Post!). Who then, is DFW writing ‘for’ as he writes ‘against’?

Although DFW took some ‘conservative’ positions, his audience is without a doubt liberal America, and a very particular segment of it at that. One defense I’ve heard of DFW’s contempt for the other passengers is that he’s castigating the rich. But it isn’t only the rich who go on those cruises. I know a cosmetologist in Fountain Valley who sells her ova to pay for luxury cruises (perhaps not the best use of her earning but still…). My far from wealthy parents took such a cruise to Alaska. For my mother, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Since her feet and knees are ruined from standing as a nurse for forty years, it was impossible for her to do it any other way (I had firsthand experience of her infirmities when we tried to rough it on a trip to Newfoundland and she could barely hobble along in my wake). Those DFW pisses on are members of the only group that NPR liberalism allows to be despised: white mainstream Americans (in another Harper’s essay, DFW displays typical liberal guilt when he tries to correct a student for writing in ebonics, then realizes that no, he, the teacher, is actually the oppressor).

The main reason for DFW’s NPR-approved contempt is that these other people don’t get it, and seem perfectly content not getting it. They didn’t attend a small northeastern liberal arts college or an Ivy League school, and they, poor things, never learned what culture is. They haven’t been raised in the atmosphere of subtlety and nuance that cloaks a college campus, a particular kind of college campus, that is, one that swaddles the upper-middle classes, the rich, and those who possess what Pierre Bordieu refers to as: ‘cultural capital.’ For NPR liberals, stupidity is the only explanation as to why these hippopotami would vote for Bush, live in the suburbs, watch American Idol (in a non-ironic way). By about page ten page of the article I felt as trapped a DFW did. The adolescent self-regard is mind-numbing. It does in fact lead to despair, but despair for the hell that DFW inflicts on you. To experience the world as he does is suffocating.

The reason for the celebration of DFW has as much to do with how he came to represent a particular segment of Generation X – the Believer, McSweenys, This American Life segment, which has now become institutionalized in bohemian theme parks across the country. Along with writers like Dave Eggers, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, DFW became the mirror of a generation – a generation that really, really likes to look in the mirror, snickering all the while, but finding nothing else so pleasing to look at . I call them ‘soft ironists.’ ‘Irony’ because everything is fallen for them; ‘soft’ because it doesn’t really matter anyway. Enthusiasm, for anything, is suspect, although the ‘soft ironists’ descend into sentimental mythologizing, as in Lethem’s superhero book or in Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay. In most these cases it feels like you’re reading the effusions of very smart, extremely insecure children. DFW’s inability to interact with people who don’t have a subscription to the Utne Reader explains why he spends so much time in his cabin playing with the various mechanical utilities.

Like most members of this generation, Wallace is an expert bet-hedger. After brutalizing Frank Conroy’s throwaway prose on a insert he wrote for the cruise line, Wallace tells us in a footnote that Conroy is a really, great, guy, a great guy who understand that he’s a whore. If I was Conroy I’d find this passive-aggressive behavior more insulting than a simple dismissal. What is the great lesson from Conroy’s sell out? Apparently, even writers, even good writers, will take on less than virtuous gigs to make a little extra cash. Yet since DFW’s footnotes mention Conroy’s ‘serious’ work, Conroy is being assured that he’s not being thrown under the bus. After all, DFW tells us that Conroy has written one of the great memoirs of his era. This is what’s known in the business as ‘covering your ass.’ With this defense in place, DFW could run into Conroy at a writer’s conference and not be too uncomfortable.

In April of 1932, Hart Crane, drunk and depressed – for good reason, as he’d just gotten a beating for coming on to a male crew member – jumped off the deck of the S.S. Orizaba into the Caribbean after shouting, ‘Goodbye everybody.’ His body was never recovered. There is an appeal to death in the sea, the warm welcome and slipping away. A friend of mine who has a few suicide attempts under her belt said DFW’s death-wish was the most obvious thing in the world. ‘Well of course that’s why he went,’ she said. ‘You don’t go on a cruise like that to have your joy in life reaffirmed.’ While Harper’s saw it as a great opportunity for humor, DFW saw it as something else entirely. If anything redeems his work, it’s that frustrated sensitivity, always giving in to the snarkcasm, yet always unhappy with his lack of connection to the people he either lionizes or skewers. The footnote mania becomes a desperate attempt to create meaning that he can’t find in the actual experience, a cry for help: ‘Talk to me, before I add another footnote!’ But can you connect to people you either have complete contempt for, fear, or idealize? In this context, DFW resembles Salinger’s most tragic figure, Seymour Glass, whose Florida honeymoon ended in suicide. It may well be that the flipside of this contempt is despair.

It’s only in the last few paragraphs of the essay that DFW returns to the dead boy and to an empathy with him. For DFW, being on the cruise made him want ‘…to die in order to escape the unbearable sadness of knowing I’m small and weak and selfish and going, without doubt, to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.’ As too many biographers fail to understand, it’s dangerous to conflate writing with psychology. But given DFW’s unnecessary death (which I will refrain from calling a ‘half-gainer’), it’s hard not to read ‘Shipping Out’ as a suicide note written a decade in advance. The death he saw in the water may have been the one he was looking for.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Entasis: Badlands

The latest issue of our journal Entasis is up. It includes fiction, poetry, memoir, art and photography from extremely talented artists. Please check it out.

Here's my editorial note from the issue.

150 years ago on April 12th, soldiers in Charlestown, South Carolina opened fired on soldiers in a small masonry fort in the harbor. A few months earlier, both groups of soldiers had been in the same army; they would spend the next four years killing each other. The Civil War may have officially started on that day but the divisions in American society had been obvious, and increasing, for decades. Until they couldn’t be covered up any more.

We weren’t thinking about the Civil War when we picked ‘Badlands’ as the theme for this issue but division and darkness were on our minds. In America today, we see a country that seems increasingly at odds with itself and a media that resounds with rage, mendacity and shrill desperation.

The artists and writers for this issue all explore these growing divisions, separations, cruelties. It’s the dark alleys that draw them. They feel the undercurrents; they can’t overlook the contradictions, even when it’s their own selves that are divided. As Jimmie Dale Gilmore sings, ‘My Mind Has a Mind out of Its Own.’ It makes for compelling work.

Monday, April 4, 2011

White Death

I've been running on Turtle Rock ridge at dusk. The last couple of days a barn owl has floated over me, its underwings and belly as white as death. The owl is hunting, waiting on the slightest movement of some rodent or lizard so it can drop down and kill. Every time I see that peculiar profile hovering there, I feel incredibly happy.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Women I Have Loved (Part 1 of Too Many)

The summer before my senior year of college I spent a month at a sublet in Brooklyn Heights on Pineapple Street. Right across the street was the St. George Hotel, which provided cheap rooms to the indigent. There was a subway entrance in the lobby and old black men sat outside on lawn furniture basking in the sun. There was also a strip club in the basement, called, I believe, 'Club Wildfyre.' My girlfriend had moved into the apartment at the beginning of the summer but I went to New Orleans to live with a friend. I visited her on the way south and she asked me to stay but I told her no. 'You won't respect me if I don't go have this adventure,' I said. There I was hit by the thunderbolt and running away from it. Not running exactly...I was 21 and there was so much time, time to do everything.

I didn't have a phone in the former slaves quarters of the French Quarter apartment. So I called her from payphones on the street late at night, often so drunk that I slumped on the ground, the receiver cool on my ear.

One night before I made it back north, she decided to visit the strip club. Feeling like this wasn't a good idea for a woman, She dressed as a man, going so far as to bind her breasts and ink a mustache on her upper lip. The disguise worked. She shared drinks with the lowlifes in the club and even stuffed dollar bills down the g-strings of the dancers. Before she went out, she took mirror photos in her apartment. The photos showed a really pretty girl in a tuxedo jacket with a black smear across her upper lip. Sarah had curves that no binding could hide and I don't know how it fooled anyone but people see what they're programmed to see and boldness can take you a long a way (and she had plenty of that). Ah, Sarah, the memory makes me miss you.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Punk Rock Saved My Life

'Punk rock changed our lives.' - D. Boone

A couple of years before I went to high school an ad played in heavy rotation on the local rock radio station.
'Hello America,' said a woman with a British accent. 'This is London calling.' A track played behind her as she kept repeating the catch phrase and then the track took over a few seconds before the spot ended. The track had an attack that sounded like very few of the stadium rock anthems that filled the AOR airwaves in 1979. I hadn't heard anyone like the vocalist, either. He had rasping delivery that made Bob Dylan sound like Perry Como and I couldn't understand a word he was saying. I wanted that record though but it was my friend Ray who had the money, so he bought it. It was London Calling by The Clash. Some A&R men had decided that punk rock would be the next big thing in music (boy, were they wrong) and The Clash were going be the ones to break it. Well London Calling didn't sell in America but me and Ray wore that record out. Even with the lyrics printed on the album sleeves every song was a cipher. Who was Jimmy Jazz? What were the guns of Brixton and the Clampdown? It didn't make sense to us but the music did. It was fresh, it opened a way.

My coming to a (semi) adult consciousness took place in the Reagan years when I was on the wrong side of everything. Reagan America turned the world upside down. A song about the sufferings of a Vietnam vet in his indifferent homeland became the anthem of America triumphant. A film about a Vietnam vet hounded by law enforcement became the story of American resilience defeating the foreign menace. My brother watched Rambo a thousand times and hung an American flag and a cross over his bed. He was an Eagle Scout, then a ROTC frat boy, and then a soldier. I didn’t understand. Didn’t they watch the movie, didn't they hear the lyrics to Born in the USA? The Official Preppy Handbook became a primer for dress and deportment to my high school peers. Irony had been chased out of the building. Money mattered again in America. The greatest athlete in the world, a man whose physical genius and ferocity on the basketball court left you gawking, was a bland simulacra off it, the perfect corporate shill. I was quick to sneer at this obsession with money but the preppies had connected to something deep in American culture, deeper than I could understand. Money made America's heart beat, had given the country its biggest sexual charge since Ben Franklin started hopping around his printing press. After a brief interlude of hippie indulgence - and maybe the the wealthiest generation in history anywhere - money had risen again. Yet money meant almost nothing to me (to the dismay of friends who would have appreciated me paying for more of the beer). I was lost in my own country. Yet The Clash gave me something to hold on to, and friends who felt the same way as I did.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Entasis Reading

A new Entasis blog post about our reading, and the aftermath.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Revenge of the Zombie

I was an ESL teacher in San Francisco when this starts. I think I was twenty five.

It was only when she caught me leaving the school that I first registered her. That pretty Japanese girl with the crooked teeth. She’d been in my class but you didn’t notice most of the Japanese girls: they’d been trained in invisibility. I realized that she’d been trying to make an impression for a while – asking questions, hanging out after class. She hadn’t registered though. That day I think she gave me her number. Walking away I realized that she didn’t even go to the school anymore. At some later point she invited herself to a party in a friend of mine’s warehouse in the Mission. She showed up with another Japanese girl whose hair was always changing color (which was one way to not be invisible). Around midnight, my former student pressed up against me and said, ‘Will you jilt me once again?’ That made me notice Misako, that and the fact that her stockings were tattered and she felt warm and womanly pressed against me, soft and firm. I was drunk and the easiest thing seemed to be to take her home. We got into a cab.

Misako had come from Japan full of vague but powerful hope. All the freedom you wanted in America. She hadn’t known how much she’d been suffocated until she was in SF for a few months. Always knocking against the corners of Japanese society and bruising herself. Being discussed, censured, not fitting into a society where fitting in was everything. In San Francisco she didn’t have to worry about what she wore or what she said or the company she kept. In San Francisco she got invited to parties. In San Francisco it was okay to be different, especially if you were pretty. All she needed to make it perfect was an American boyfriend. There wasn’t any shortage of men ready to take out a pretty Japanese girl but none of them appealed to her. Then she fell for me. I seemed lively and fun but she’d made a terrible mistake. I would have felt bad for Misako if I was capable of feeling bad for anyone: she didn’t know that the boy she’d fallen for was a zombie.
That first party started the pattern. I’d call her some nights when I was bored. Usually it was a Sunday. ‘Come over,’ I’d say. ‘And bring a pint of Hagen Das.’ And she did. We’d sit on my bed listening to music and eating ice cream as I edged closer. It wasn’t exactly what she’d wanted but she didn’t complain. Sometimes I’d let her spend the night and in the morning we’d eat breakfast at a diner around the corner. Then she’d get on the bus and go back home. While mostly dead in an emotional sense, I still had a craving for flesh. Since her flesh was tasty and I didn’t have to waste any energy to get it, I made use of her.

One night Misako followed me home from another party; I was drunk, very drunk, so that was probably the night that it happened. I don’t remember much because I was pretty drunk but I do remember being annoyed because she was following me and maybe asking some invasive question like: ‘Where are you going?’ Anyway, this conversation took place not too far from my house, on Gough I think, and we ended up in bed. I remember the hunger taking over, that need for flesh, and I was tossing her around on the bed and it was satisfying, a way to work off the annoyance. It was deeply satisfying, because here was a pretty girl sacrificing herself to me. I could do whatever I wanted to her. At 25, I wasn’t usually comfortable with abusing women but I was very drunk and I tossed her around. I remember kneeling on the bed, her body arched against me at a forty-five degree angle, nude and smooth. How Misako felt about all this, I don’t know because I didn’t ask.

I might have been able to do anything I wanted to her, but I didn’t want to get her pregnant. That’s what happened though. Misako called me regularly but one day she called nine or ten times in the course of a few hours. The folks taking my calls finally got annoyed (These were in the days when housemates shared a land line. I know, ancient history). At the time, I had two strippers staying with me. Their stripper names, the only names I knew, were ‘Otter’ and ‘Squishy.’ They had cosmetically bonded fangs and were performing a lesbian-vampire act at one of the SF clubs. Other and Squishy were friends with one of my housemates, which explained why they were living with me. For months. The pair had hitchhiked to San Francisco from New Orleans, mostly with truckers who were of course thrilled to have two twenty-something strippers sleeping in their cab. (We got along until I went out of town and the roommate let them sleep in my bed without telling me. I found out when I noticed the lipstick stains on my pillow cases).

Squishy, the girl-next-door of the pair, asked my why I didn’t call Misako back.
The more she calls, I said, the less I want to talk to her.

I’ll remember that, Squishy said.
[It’s funny. Six or seven years later, I was reading the New York Observer when I saw a gossip piece about an Irvine Welsh book tour in Manhattan. At one point, he’s in a bathroom stall doing some kind of drug, and the woman he’s with opens the stall door and chases the reporters away. The woman's name? Otter].

When I did call Misako back, she didn’t want to talk about Hagen Dazs and my cavalier attitude about sex. She told me she was pregnant. I felt…annoyed. This person who had inflicted herself on me now had a real demand on my attention. Misako told me she was going back to Japan to get an abortion.

When she returned to San Francisco I met her on Van Ness near her apartment to give her money. We walked to an ATM. She had dressed up for the occasion and I abstractly noticed how good she looked – a blouse with broad blue and white stripes showing her breasts, tights displaying her excellent legs. It had no more effect on me than pretty wallpaper. The zombie felt hunger – that blue and white striped blouse – but even zombies have survival instincts. If I had sex with her again, it would be complicated.

At the ATM, we haggled over money. She told me that the trip to Japan had been expensive. I told her that she could have had it done in SF, and then gave her a hundred dollars. She wanted to talk more but I wanted to leave. I think she called me a few times after that but I didn’t call back.

Not too much later I left San Francisco, bummed around for a while, and ended up in New York City. Somehow, Misako and I stayed in touch (I think I called her late one night when I was on speed. In those days, Doctors were throwing around Dexedrine like Reeses Pieces. After a night of drinking and Dex it would be four a.m. and I’d say – Hmmm, I wonder if anyone’s awake now? Who do I know in Australia?). I put together a picture of Misako – she played cello, had a rich father, was a sensitive reader with a quirky sense of humor. She was a cultured and interesting person, a human being. I fantasized a lot about having sex with her. I fantasized about ordering her to get on her knees and unbutton my Levis with her teeth. At one point she went on a trip to Ireland and I almost convinced her to stop in New York. My friend Ying Guo, a transvestite Chinese filmmaker, had lusted after Chieko and he was in New York now too. ‘If she comes here,’ he said, ‘I’ll make a porno of the two of you.’ I didn’t know how I felt about the porno but Misako ended up skipping New York.

Around the time Misako was considering her New York visit, I was dating another girl. Lisa was a med student who’d wanted to be an artist, but her mother had insisted on medical school. Since her mother had attempted suicide several times, Lisa had obeyed. I’d met Suzanne at Max Phish; Suzanne loved poetry and I seduced her by whispering Yeats in her ear. Then we started making out in a booth. She wanted to give me her number but we didn’t have a pen, so she took out her lipstick, unbuttoned my shirt and wrote the number across my chest.

(Farewell Max Phish! I just read that it shut down for good).

I was living on the corner of 169th and Broadway in Manhattan, right across the street from Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. It was loud there, traffic down Broadway and ambulance sirens day and night. It was a Dominican neighborhood. During the day, you heard meringue and shouting from the Dominican markets. At night you saw the cars lined up at off-ramps from the George Washington Bridge. People drove in from Jersey to score crack. The bus shelter at the bridge was designed by an Italian Brutalist architect, Nervi; it looked like a spaceship, and sitting in my room I felt like I was floating over an alien planet. My room had scarred wooden floors and a bedsheet for a curtain. When I brought girls there they’d look at the bedsheet hanging from the curtain hooks and say, ‘Really, Robert? A bedsheet?’ It was a fitted bedsheet, because the elastic clung to the hooks. I turned twenty-nine in that apartment.

One night in my room, Lisa told me that she would have sex with me but that I would have to ‘talk to her’ first. I didn’t know what she meant: we talked plenty. What it meant was that she was going to talk to me.

She said: Don’t you know I’ve met you before? You’re the kind of man I want to be with but this is what I keep getting. Some people get their hearts broken but they get better. You got yours broken and you stayed that way.

I was flattered: she’d cared enough to lift up my rock and see what was crawling underneath. I’d never mentioned Sarah to her but Lisa could tell; she could see the zombie. Her words thrilled me – I was broken, damage you could see from five years away. I didn’t feel broken though. Girls liked me, I had plenty of friends, I had writing. If being broken meant that love couldn’t tear me apart anymore, then it was better to be a zombie. We ended up just going to sleep. I don’t think I saw Lisa again after that night.

From what I could figure out, Misako’s life in Japan didn’t bring her much happiness – she worked in an office and then for a literary magazine. Her father died. Her friends and lovers told her for years that her mind was still stuck on America.
Eventually, we fell out of touch.

It’s been at least five years since I’ve heard from Misako. I feel bad for her. She got badly hurt, by me, and nobody deserves that. I don’t know if I ever felt guilty though. Misako had decided to play in traffic and a hit-and-run driver had flattened her. It must have been obvious that she couldn’t get what she wanted from me but she’d persisted. I’d been broken by someone, and so I turned around and did the same thing to someone else. It was the zombie way and by sacrificing herself to a zombie, Misako had become a zombie too.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Can You Pick Me Up at the Airport?

I emailed a friend last night to see if he could pick me up at John Wayne Aiport today. His answer, via text, this morning:
'Hit me up when you land. If I'm around I'll come get you. But I may be in L.A. Or with a chick so I can't confirm or promise.'
This made me extremely happy. Really. I'm reading 'A Scanner Darkly' and that is exactly what one of the degenerates in the book would say to one of his friends. 'A Scanner Darkly' is set in Orange County, too.