Broadway Beast

Few memories evoke as much giddy joy for me as Halloween.  For myself and the  collection of miscreants, juvenile delinquents and future felons that comprised my peer group, Halloween meant that we owed our community some smashed pumpkins, obscene renderings, trees full of toilet paper and of course, the odd flaming bag of dog shit on the front stoop.  Halloween untethered us.  It was the day we more resembled the beasts we were to become.  Halloween was the day we handed some of the horse shit back to the adults. Halloween was AC/DC, a monster sugar buzz, stolen liquor (in my case, my father’s fifth of Jim Beam) and getting some payback.

My friend, Rick, made a full-scale dummy so life like, that when it was hurled from the top of a building into oncoming traffic, you honestly thought some poor dildo had  fallen or jumped to his death.  The “body” was loaded with mushy pumpkins to assure a fairly decent spray of guts upon impact with the car.  It was a hoot.

I, myself, opted for a more artistic approach. Whenever people decided not to be home for trick-or-treat, we made them pay.  We smashed their pumpkins, loaded their trees with toilet paper and, on their front doors, I would leave an original drawing; usually a giant cock and the words “Rat-Tat-Tat” exploding from the end.  One time this nearly got my ass kicked.  We assumed the people weren’t home because nobody came to the door.  So I went to work.  I’d seen some Japanese erotic wood-cuts and decided to render a Samurai-type schlong on the glass door.  I drew it with a wax candle, knowing they’d have to scrape that shit off with a razor; it didn’t just wash off like soap.  Right when I finished, the light went on inside and I kind of froze, as the door suddenly opened.  The guy was a big, oily motherfucker with mutton-chop sideburns and a greaser haircut, and for a moment we locked eyes.  Then he stepped back and looked at what I had drawn in all of its glory.  It took him a second to realize what it was; a giant cock–a big, fleshy, veiny motherfucker attached to an ample nut-sack.  I heard him yell, “Jesus Christ, it’s a  cock!”  For some reason, I  started laughing my ass off as I turned to run and in an instant he was out the door and right on my ass.  This guy must have been an old track man because for two blocks he almost had me a couple of times, and he didn’t give up for four blocks.  My friends made it worse by yelling back at him, “Fuck you, Elvis!” and  “Next time, give up the candy, you cheap prick!”   It just pissed the guy off more and made his ass run faster.  I finally lost this prick and was completely out of breath from running and laughing.  My pal, Jimmy, laughed so hard he wet his pants.

As we grew older, we realized that the experience of Halloween could be greatly enhanced with a couple of dozen grade ‘A’ large eggs and some mescaline.  At my high school we had a hard-on assistant principal and every Halloween we’d plaster  his car with more eggs  than a Denny’s.  One of my friends Krazy-Glued a double dong to his front-door, with the words, “For you, and the horse you rode in on, Motherfucker,” underneath the blessed gift.  Somewhere, there still exists a Polaroid of this; our crowning Halloween  achievement.   The assistant principal knew it was us.  We called him, “Doughboy” or “Rubber Ed.”   He’d have us all called to his office and try to lean on us and get us to give it up.  He’d tell us he had a witness; an old bullshit cop-ploy we were hip to.  My friend, Eddie, would say, “Go get your witness, let’s have breakfast.  Let’s get some EGGS,” and we would fall out laughing. Doughboy would fume (he spit when he talked) and threaten to expel all of us.  We’d tell him to go ahead and he’d instead suspend us for three days.  In other words, we’d get a three-day vacation  for egging this pud’s car.

There’s a downtown fairy singing out Proud Mary
as she cruises Christopher Street
And some Southern Queen is acting loud and mean
where the docks and the Badlands meet
This Halloween is something to be sure
Especially to be here without you

‘Halloween Parade’– Lou Reed

As I grew older, Halloween became even more important to me.  The first time I saw the Halloween parade in New York was a revelation.  A celebration of being whoever you needed to be in the world; a bacchanal full of love, imagination and freedom.
The Lou Reed song about this may be my favorite  song in the world.  Being raised Catholic, I was fully expected to believe in ghosts, holy and otherwise.  Lou’s sad, elegaic tribute to those free spirits no longer with us resonates with me in a way religion or any other of the claptrap I was raised to believe never did.  For me it is the only holy song I love.

Coming from Chicago, the Halloween parade was something alien and wonderful.  We didn’t have this back home.  We were still (and still are in many way) a provincial, prudish place, where  celebrations of one’s sexuality of any kind or freedom were frowned upon.  It’s gotten better. The brave folks who started the gay pride parade here broke down a great many barriers. Many of the sexual outlaws are now part of the system, including a gay alderman.  All of this stuff New York was way ahead of the curve on.

For me though, Halloween is still about letting that beast that lives in your heart off of its leash, finding  your inner outlaw and tossing him the keys for 24 hours or so.  I’m talking to you in the cube; let it loose. . .come dance with the beast.

Published in: on September 27, 2010 at 10:48 pm  Comments (1)  
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Cannery Row

“Cannery Row in Monterrey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

This is perhaps one of the greatest first sentences ever written into any novel. Steinbeck is best known for The Grapes of Wrath, the novel that won him the Nobel Prize for Literature. For me, I’ve always been a fan of his book, Cannery Row. This is the one I’ve always regarded as Steinbeck’s masterpiece. In this book, Doc, the oddly dislocated marine biologist and Mack, the putative leader of the local stumblebums, are not put out by their poverty of material, but rather enriched by their hope and possibility. Theirs is a world of flophouses, tenderhearted and straightforward hookers, and the natural beauty and stench that surrounds them. Steinbeck rendered them in all of their unvarnished beauty; a people caught between eras who led a threadbare existence but very rich, communal lives.

This book is fairly populated by hobos. In hobo-lore, canneries were a good place to get work on the West Coast, particularly Monterrey, where one could also sleep on the beach. Steinbeck’s coastal atmosphere is a pungent slice of down-at-the-heels America, populated by “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” even though a look through another keyhole would yield “saints and angels and martyrs and holy men” for, in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, they are all the same thing.

I love the language in this book. Very often I heard criticism of Steinbeck as being “too spare”–always from lesser writers who were not fit to knock on his door. What thrills me in his books is that, like Nelson Algren, he does not appraise his creations, or moralize; they are who they are. There are a million reasons people wind up where they do in life. His bums are the genuine article, fully committed to bum-hood, his whores honest about what you get for what you pay, and best of all, Doc, a collector of sea creatures, is the kind of man who tips his hat to dogs. Mack, a good-natured hustler and swindler, is one of those human case studies of “the good in the bad and the bad in the good.” And there’s Eddie, who supplies the hobos and bums with recycled booze filched from the backwash of the paying customers’ drinks…yum; and Dora Flood, the pragmatic keeper of the restaurant/whorehouse The Bear Flag. These are Americans. These are the people who the great Nelson Algren once observed “lived behind the billboards.” What a joy it has been to become reacquainted with Steinbeck. Dust this one off and rediscover a country no longer with us. We know the people in these books, they may go by different names and occupations now, but they still walk the walk.

There are any number of neighborhoods in my own city that, right now, reflect the same hardscrabble poverty Steinbeck described eight decades ago. I see men selling tube socks and bottles of water at the off-ramps in the city; panhandlers looking to feed themselves and hustlers selling two-year old Butterfinger bars for their “church.” Those who survive, have a hustle.

I’ve not seen an inheritor of Steinbeck in the literary world. Writing about working people seems to be out of fashion. I’m not whining; there are a great many writers who excite me right now–Jonathan Lethem, who writes with limitless imagination and immense humor; Murakami, who seems to take new shape with every book; Elizabeth Crane, whose short stories strike the heart and intellect with equal force; there is a lot of great writing right now.

I have a soft spot for Steinbeck and Nelson Algren, John Dos Passos and Carl Sandburg though. They were writers still trying to supply a definition for the ever-changing nation we were then still forming. They found it big, impossibly loud and full of hope; the body politic of our new nation hungry for a cultural identity of its own. Ambition writ large. We were willing to fix our country then. We were, as a nation, a community of tribes to be sure, but a community nonetheless. Sometimes I imagine I’d like to conjure their ghosts and show them the nation we made of all of that ambition; all of the murder and conquest. . .all of the hope and sweat and sacrifice. What would they think? Could they bear to tell us?

I feel like they’d understand. They had to hustle when they were alive to make their marks as artists and as witnesses. Like I said before, Those who survive, have a hustle. This is mine.

Published in: on September 22, 2010 at 5:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Black Moth

I have to laugh when I hear the code words the Tea Party braintrust bandies about.  “Loud Tribesman” was Newt  Gingrich’s latest euphemism for the “what-can -we-say-besides-N-word” code that identifies this large, scary and vocal American street gang.  It is what they are.  They come to our President’s speeches strapped.  They engage in a just-above-the-white-linen-and-hood rhetoric that aims to point out at every juncture that Barack Obama is black, and they ‘got” theirs.  The huge, angry, and incredibly entitled white middle class is their target.  In fact, I’m their target audience.

Among other white guys, I do notice a more disheartening and cavalier use of the n-word.  When I point out it isn’t acceptable, the conversation halts and I get the hurt look of betrayal back in exchange.  It is a careful meter of “us and “them.”  There is this feeling out there in white America that people of color have arrived to the promised land; that all of the inequities of 400 years of pigment-based subjagation and oppression have suddenly gone away.  Such are the petty delusions of the Tea Party folk. Oh that, and the idea that they are the only ones in America paying too much in income tax.  Welcome to the big world, whitey.   They didn’t seem to mind taking this fucking when George W. Bush was creating the biggest deficit in the history of the Republic.

My favorite playwright right now is probably one you’ve not heard of unless you live in Chicago.  J. Nicole Brooks was born on Chicago’s west side and grew up tough with a single mom on the south side.  Besides plays, she writes a withering blog called, “Close Captioned for the Jive Impaired.”  In it she skewers white racists, black racists, rappers, the vain, the rich and the richly deserving–there is nothing PC or out of range for her bitterly funny barbs. It is a destination blog.  Her plays include Fedra, produced by Lookingglass Theater last year to lavish and ecstatic reviews, and my favorite, Black Diamond: The Years the Locusts Have Eaten, which chronicles the rise of Liberia’s first woman president, who was catapulted into power, in part, by a guerilla brigade of women who dressed like Foxy Brown and Coffy and other blaxploitation heroines they’d seen on videos.  It is a nutty, subversive and uplifting work of art which also garnered rave reviews.  Her plays are dangerous and they challenge the myth- making of both blacks and whites.  Nobody gets off easily.  Nikki is that nuanced idealist that locates the bad in the good and the good in the bad; forever the moth dancing with fire.

I first met Nikki acting in a production of Studs Terkel’s, Race at Lookingglass Theater in 2003.  All of us from this cast became close friends and have pretty much kept in touch.  What I admired about Nikki Brooks was her absolute refusal to let anything in life or theater defeat her.  After Race she did the requisite move to Los Angeles to better her career choices as an actor and a playwrigh, only to find precious few roles for women of color that were not demeaning.  Now at 34 she is fully aware that she will play and write different parts that come with age. She can handle it.

Some years ago, an asshole tried to carjack Nikki and she got away with her keys and ran into a construction site.  The goof followed her there and Nikki found a piece of rebar pipe and tuned this dip-shit up but good, all the while screaming for help.  When the construction workers finally arrived to her aid, she asked them what the hell took them so long.  The hardhat replied, “Girl.., you were doin’ jus’ fine without us.”  The goof required an ambulance and Nikki returned to her car.  From what I understand he never again messed with the favorite Daughter of Vera Brooks.

Published in: on September 18, 2010 at 9:56 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Archer

The ArcherI have so much fun making the White Canary Samurai Chicks that I may make my own little army of them.  They are kind of based on the teenage girls I saw in Harajuku in Tokyo last year and then I realized they’re kind of like teenage girls every where.  They don’t dress differently from the teenage girls I see at the 5-corner asylum that is Damen-Milwaukee-North in Chicago, or Williamsburg in Brooklyn or any other hipster enclave in the world. I  have a teenage daughter and know the many hours of grooming it requires to achieve the requisite style of “idiotic” before walking out the door.  I love when they wear stockings, shorts, boots and slacker fedoras, complete with the raccoon make-up and teal colored streaks in their hair.  I love when my daughter rolls her eyes in conversation with me as if she is talking to a mental-defective and it requires her every last bit of patience.

For a bunch of individuals, they all kind of look alike.  Lately they’ve been throwing a little bit of  ‘True Blood’ wardrobe into the mix.  The popular and campy vampire series is WAY big with teenage girls.  Of course, they like the boys on that show, who are the most pussy vampires I’ve ever seen.  I like my vampires like the one’s in ‘Near Dark,’ the Kathryn Bigelow masterpiece where they all ride around in a Winnebago and kill hicks.

The ones on ‘True Blood’ all look like underwear models in search of their first shave. As vampires go, these guys are a bunch of tampons.

I love that my daughter and her friends travel in packs dressed like this.  They go to music fesivals like Pitchfork and Lollapalooza where they can be among another 50,000 young girls all dressed like them.  When one of them goes to a different stage, they all go.  When one of them gets a ‘bubble tea’ (whatever the fuck that is), they all get one. When one of them lights up an American Spirit, they all do. They are all vegans.  Of course they’re vegans.  On occasion, I take her and her posse out for ‘vegetarian sushi’ and they eat like a pack of fucking timber wolves; nothing dainty about the vegan appetite at all, Bunky.   It’s like ‘Lord of the Flies’ with chop-sticks.

On occasion, I walk around the city with my iPod  listening to music stupid loud.  I like to do this in New Orleans, New York, Tokyo. . . places I don’t live.  I love soul music and R&B and particularly New Orleans music.  It is one of those things I can do for nothing and it makes me happy.  The loud music makes me feel oddly invisible and as if I’m supplying my own sound-track to the world around me.  In fact, I’m doing it right now; listening to the great Dr. John’s ‘Creole Moon’ from some years ago.

I think a lot about my daughter lately and young women like her; how I’m kind of jealous of their courage to foster  a look of their own. . .about how much she has in front of her in the world. . .that she is at the beginning and how I wish I could do a lot of it over myself.  I think about the ridiculous articles of clothing I treasured at her age; my pointy-toed, square-heeled greaser shoes, my white wife-beater (we called them, “dago-t’s), my black leather jacket. . .my shades.  When I was a young man, this stuff was my armour—my way of telling the world I was my own man.   My daughter is becoming a young woman and she doesn’t need me to tell her what’s cool, and I guess I don’t like it–not one damn bit.

Published in: on September 8, 2010 at 12:18 am  Comments (1)  
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