Moth for the Naked City

Moth for the Naked City (etching by Tony Fitzpatrick)“There are a million stories in the Naked City, this is one of them.” –Weekly coda for the television series, Naked City

There are people who have “yesterday”‘ kinds of faces. Those who looked like they should have lived 50 years ago.  Or a century ago. I thought John Sayles did an amazing job casting Eight Men OutHe chose actors who looked like they could have walked out of the 1920s–the granite-faced Michael Rooker, the perpetually country-looking D.B. Sweeney. . .John Mahoney, who looks so much like a guy from the middle of the American century  it makes even his voice sound like the past, and my pal, John Cusack, who looks like every hopeful Irish guy from the levee district of Chicago’s 1920s.

They are faces that carry the histories of the places we come from.
I’m fascinated by the old television series, Naked City, where the cops look like cops and the people look like average Americans– New Yorkers, actually.  There was nothing cosmetic in this show.  The cops were bulldog-looking-type actors who, in the parlance of the old days, “had faces for radio,” which made sense.  A great many of these actors, William Conrad, Jack Warden and  Ward Bond
had been radio actors.  In the early ’50s, television was a brand new thing and Naked City was kind of television “noir” as it were.
They took on themes of racism, drug addiction, delinquency and recidivism, with a surprising frankness.  There was a reason for this.  Television, back then, was written by playwrights, getting a quick paycheck as well as getting their message across.  There was right and wrong and thankfully, in Naked City, good didn’t always triumph over evil.  It was, for its time, a tough bromide for middle America.  Life isn’t fair, and bad men are as much a part of history as good men. It was not cynical.  It was cold-eyed and honest and knew us for the ungentle species we are.
I’m an insomniac and my favorite chewing-gum for the brain is cop shows.  The sun never sets on the Law and Order franchise. Somewhere in the bowels of cable, 24/7, one of those shows is on. My favorite ones were the old ones with Michael Moriarty and George Dzundza and the young Chris Noth, who was believable as a hot-headed young Irish cop (and later not so much as the vacuous Mr.Big on the “Four Annoying Sluts from New York Show” or Sex in the City, as you probably know it).  Let’s just say, it was never any mystery to me why these idiots were single.
The first seasons of Law and Order reminded me mightily of Naked City. The pie-faced Moriarty’s rectitude and moral certainty was at the center of the show.  The two cops, Dzundza and Noth, were not nice guys, but harried men grudgingly doing their jobs
honestly, but not immune to the unfocused bigotries their vocation has taught them to have, and full of working-class resentment.  In other words, they were believable.
The great Broadway pro, Steven Hill, was the old and wizened and politically savvy and mostly expedient Adam Schiff, who covers his ass publicity-wise at all junctures and is still, somehow, just. I liked that they were imperfect people doing lousy jobs that coarsened them as humans and colored their dim view of the world.
The last great TV cop was, ironically, a career Broadway song and dance man named Jerry Orbach, who was an interesting man.  He logged more performances of The Fantasticks on Broadway than almost anyone in that cast. He was also a friend and confidant of Crazy Joey Gallo, the Columbo family mobster and hit man widely rumored to be the killer of Albert Anastasia in 1957.  Orbach’s performance as a bent cop in Prince of the City redefined his career, and after Paul Sorvino left Law and Order, Orbach was paired with Chris Noth to play Lennie Briscoe, a former alcoholic cop with rumors of a shady past. Orbach took a sketchily drawn character and gave it real weight, imbuing Briscoe with a world-weary exhaustion and cynicism that manifested itself in gallows humor in the face of tragedy.
Briscoe is a tragedy himself.  A failed husband and negligent father who loses his only daughter to the streets, his only defining  grace is as a policeman.  Ever-vigilant, competent and unrelenting, it is the purpose he clings to because it is the only decent thing  that inhabits him.
Orbach played this role until his death in 2004–he worked right up until the end battling prostate cancer.  He was one of those guys with the yesterday face; a guy who had the face he deserved–impossible to forget, and unlike any other.
Published in: on January 28, 2012 at 7:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

Out of the Car, Ass-Ho

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You have NO idea how many times me and my friends heard this command from a squad car parked behind us in Lombard and Villa Park.

The only way they ever addressed us was, “Asshole.” On Friday nights, we’d drive around trying to nurse a six-pack and a few loose joints and make them last and figure out where all of the young women of questionable virtue would be doing the same thing.  This is before texting, sexting, and even cell phones.

Our best chance was the Ski-Hi Drive-In, which was also a respite from cops.  They’d roll through once or twice a night, but it wasn’t nearly as perilous as driving around town where you knew the fuckers were looking for you.

Eventually they would find us, steal our beer or make us dump it and feel us up for drugs, which we would promptly eat the minute we’d hear the siren and see the lights.

It was cat and mouse.

Published in: on January 27, 2012 at 6:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

Wint-O-Green Moth (for Etta James)

Wint-O-Green Moth (for Etta James)“All the good ones die or get murdered.  Jesus: murdered.  Martin Luther King: murdered.  John F.Kennedy:  murdered.  John Lennon: murdered.  Malcom X: murdered.
Ronald Reagan? WOUNDED.”–The late, great Bill Hicks on fate.The great Etta James has died. Her baby face and angel’s voice are gone.

The Sun came up.  The mail got delivered and life goes on, but the world is at least one shade more gray.  If her soaring, soulful rendering of “I’d Rather Go Blind” doesn’t break your heart, well. . .you don’t have one.  If  “At Last” doesn’t bring a sad, mournful smile to your face, then you’ve never been in love.

Miss Etta was the real thing. You know it when you hear it. It freezes you in your tracks and makes you stare at the radio. She was only like herself.

Jamesetta Hawkins faced no small amount of turmoil in her 73 years; addiction, obesity, poverty and finally Alzheimer’s and leukemia.  None of it could dim the thousand-watt smile or the spine-tingling contralto.  If one believed in the music of angels, Etta James was their evidence.

Winter has finally showed up in earnest in Chicago.  Nine inches of snow fell and again my fellow Chicagoans are running around with sparks shooting out of their asses, acting as if they’ve never seen the stuff before–driving like retards, putting all manner of shit in the streets in the name of “dibs” wherein, because you shoveled your own car out.  You now take over ownership of that part of the street; a basic “fuck you” to your fellow citizens and taxpayers.

Myself? I LOVE when people put out folding chairs.  I always need folding chairs.  Some of them even put out step stools which, as an artist, I’m always in need of.  I do like when guys with service industry trucks just run this shit over.  Was that your Lego table?  Sorry. Maybe you shouldn’t put shit in the street, asshole.It’s also fun to watch the Ukrainians swing shovels at each other.  Shoveling your walk in my neighborhood is a big deal.  I have my assistants or a couple of wine-soaked Mexican dudes shovel mine and the old Ukrainian ladies down the street a few houses…some of the Ukie’s get pissed at me.

“Why you not shovel your own fucking stoop, Meester Beegshot?  Why somebody else walking your dog and cutting your grass?  You too good for this jobs, huh?” I get this shit from Uli, who has lived here for 30 years and always shoveled his own walk.

I tell him he is right; I’m way to good to be shoveling snow out there with the cabbage-eaters.  Hell, somebody might see me and think I’m. . .Ukrainian!!!!

He laughs and tells me I’d have to have a bigger dick to be Ukrainian.  That the Irish.  . .”They are hung like fucking CASHEWS.  Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.”

Uli is a funny motherfucker who is also not fond of people leaving stuff in the middle of the street.  On occasion he knocks back six or seven shots of Stoli and grabs his aluminum baseball bat and lays waste to some of the crap left out to preserve parking spots.  It is funny as hell because he shouts and swears while he is having batting practice and nobody tries to stop him.I don’t shovel snow for one reason.  Every year, the first time it snows heavily, all over the nation, there are 50-year old guys, red as a monkey’s ass, face-down in snow drifts, dead like a fucking hammer from massive heart attacks.

No thanks, Bunky.I want to die like my grandfather, peacefully, in his sleep. . . not screaming in terror, like his passengers.

It always fascinates me at the reaction.  This is Chicago.  We get an assload of snow every year, but people still drive like morons the first snow of every year.  Without fail, a senior citizen T-bones somebody at a stop street, or drives up on the sidewalk and kills some poor asshole from East Bumfuck, because they confused the brake for the accelerator.  Inevitably kids go “skeeching,” which is when you gab onto the bumper of a CTA or a school bus and slide down the street with it.  This, actually, requires real balls.  I’ve never done it.  There are a myriad of ways to wind up fucked-up or dead from skeeching.

When I was in high school, there was a kid named Tony Rogles who was the most fearless skeecher I ever knew.  He’d mosey up behind the bus and grab on, riding it a quarter mile until it intersected a really busy intersection, where the pavement had been plowed and therefore no good for skeeching.  I remember he’d go skeeching by as I walked to the corner to hitchhike home. He’s have this crazy smile and a Kool hanging out the corner of his mouth.  I don’t remember another thing about Tony Rogles except this.

On winter days, he looked into the icy face winter–and spit in its mouth.

Published in: on January 21, 2012 at 4:31 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Assassination of Crazy Horse

“This is good.  He sought death and now he has found it.” – Touch The Clouds, Crazy Horse’s cousin, and witness to his death.
“No shot was fired, and Crazy Horse– a man who had lost his brother, his daughter, the woman he loved, several friends, his way of life, and even, for a time, his people, began his leaving as a man and his arrival as a myth, a man around whom stories that are like little gospels accumulate. A variation death of Crazy Horse would consist of at least a score of versions, all contributed or recollected by people, white and red, who were in the fort that night.” — Larry McMurtry, Crazy Horse

What I most admire about Crazy Horse is that he helped kill Custer; a stone, murderous, psychopath. The movie Little Big Man, I think, pretty much has Custer’s number. Custer pretty much attacked when he was sure he had a superior number to the opposition. Years ago, I traveled all over the West and stopped in a small town not far from where the battle of Little Big Horn occurred, Spotted Horse, Wyoming. It was basically a post office and a diner/bar, and the guy who ran it was an old cowboy who had a tank full of rattlesnakes out in front of the place and he wore a six-shooter in a holster. It was he who told me that Custer died slow. He said that Custer was “turned over the women.”  I was shocked. I asked Mark Turcotte, the Chippewa poet about this and he said, “Custer’s last breath wasn’t on the battle field.”

There are moments of history when I’d have liked to have been there; like when Custer was introduced to the Oglala nation. . .when he looked around and realized the Oglala had the ass over him and that he was truly fucked. The wet-ass hour.

Did he pray? Did he ask forgiveness? Did he ask for mercy?

Crazy Horse was born around 1840 to Lakota Oglala parents. His father was also named Crazy Horse. In his entire life, he was never photographed. He had curly hair and was paler of skin than other Oglala, leading other children to taunt him about the possibility of white parentage to which the boy took great umbrage. However, this taunting did not persist, as the young Crazy Horse routinely fucked-up anyone who attempted to bully him.
He was fearless and contrary and an absolute natural warrior; a tactician to equal some of the best generals in U.S. history. He was an expert decoy warrior, often using himself as bait. Such was the case in the “Fetterman Massacre” in which Crazy Horse personally lured Lt. Fetterman and 80 of his cavalry to their slaughter.

Crazy Horse painted his cheeks with lightning bolts and his forehead with hailstones, in honor of the Yakiwans (Thunder Beings) and, according to many eye-witnesses, was the most fearless of warriors; always getting very close to soldiers and screaming other-worldly battle screams to his fellow braves. Crazy Horse terrified even his own men.

Crazy Horse is one of those mythic American characters that entreats conflicting historical information at almost every turn. Even his death ( an assassination) is shrouded in mystery and varying accounts. After his death, a photograph of him was produced which was quickly proven a fraud. Crazy Horse believed that the camera stole one’s soul and, given the nature of celebrity, he was not all the way wrong. History is an odd creature. It tends to be the lie we all agree upon. Crazy Horse is a hero to the Lakota Oglala and actually to me, as well. History, for the longest time, regarded him as something of a terrorist. It’s an odd paradox; one is a terrorist until one wins, and then is proclaimed a patriot.

There is a powerful kind of atmosphere around that part of the country. It is as if the land knows and that the scene of the American genocide of its first citizens still carries its ghosts. Montana and Wyoming are places where nature is, to say the very least, formidable. One doesn’t curse the snow, the rain, the dust, the hail, or god, because here; it is all the same thing.

When I was a kid, I thought thunder was something that walked the earth. Maybe Crazy Horse did, too. I don’t try to explain what Native Americans mean when they speak of these things. I’m not meant to understand it. The more I read about Crazy Horse, the more admirable he is to me.

There is a mountain being carved up as a monument to him; something he’d have probably found obscene. Russel Means, the former leader of AIM, has spoken out against it on the grounds that it is contrary to the spirit of Crazy Horse. While meant as a tribute, Indian peoples realize the mountain, itself, is triumph enough.

Public political assassinations are not a new American story. In my own lifetime there have been the brazen and shocking murders of JFK, his brother Robert, Martin Luther King, and Malcom X. In all cases, there were plenty of witnesses and one thing can be said of all of them; nobody ever tells the same story of the same killing. Such is also the case of the assassination of Crazy Horse. Many claim he was held by fellow red men while bayoneted by a white soldier. Little Big Man, his betrayer, claims he stabbed himself. There are many versions; so many, any is impossible to believe. What is known is that for the interests of the Army and some Indians, he could not be allowed to leave the fort he was murdered at. He was onto them.

When Crazy Horse witnessed the filth and conditions his fellow Indians were subjected to, for him, all bets were off.

Early in Larry McMurtry’s account of the life of Crazy Horse, the author is clearly puzzled by the perceptions of Crazy horse by whites and by Native Americans: “They depict Crazy Horse as a kind of being never seen on earth: a genius at war yet a lover of peace; a statesman who apparently never thought of the interest of any human being outside his own camp; a dreamer, a mystic, and a kind of Sioux Christ, who was betrayed in the end by his own disciples–Little Big Man, Touch-the-Clouds and the rest. One is inclined to ask, what is it all about?”

Crazy Horse is certainly an American kind of enigma; a man many would build monuments to and then sneer at clay feet of their hero. The more I read about Crazy Horse, the more fascinated I am. Every account I’ve read seems to be about a different person. He defied type and was his own man.

Published in: on January 16, 2012 at 10:14 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Chain-Gang Dreams of Kryptonite

The Chain-Gang Dreams of Kryptonite etching by Tony FitzpatrickIt has become easy to think of the American Political Parties as two mammoth and unending chain gangs, most Americans belonging to one or another and blindly cheerleading for each group’s particular brand of mediocrity.  I watched the Republican debates the other night and thought the American body politic could be done a great service
if one were to roll a grenade or two into the green room about five minutes before the scheduled event.

The rest of them ganged up on Romney, the Hair-Gel candidate with the Rotarian smile and better suit.  He is the presumptive frontrunner, meaning that eight Iowa farmers liked him better than the cement-head, Rick Santorum, an off-the-rack walking pile of Republican cannon-fodder whom,  I suspect, is only there for the base to hector Romney with.  In their hearts, Republicans know Santorum cannot win.  They allow him to run because they want Romney to move further right in order to court their support.

Every four years we are reminded of the Zero-Sum-Gain American Party politics really are.  It is a massive experiment in the idea of negative capability.  Just HOW loathsome must a candidate be in order for you to support our guy?  What would more repel you as a voter–your guy being caught red-handed with a live boy or a dead girl?

The other day I posited the idea on Facebook that I might not vote.   Jesus.  You’d have thought that I’d pissed into baby Jesus’s manger.  I actually had people I know tell me I didn’t have the RIGHT not to vote.

Huh?

If our Constitution means anything, it means you have the right to do whatever the fuck you want–provided you not infringe on anyone else’s right to pursue happiness.  This is what I love about the Constitution.  If you want to walk around your house with a lobster hanging from your sack, you can.  It’s legal.  This is America and you are free to get your freak on, however you want to, and nobody can bust your onions about it.

One of the unwritten tenets of the Constitution is that however,  understood–Loud and Clear is,  “Mind your own fucking business and we’ll get along fine, Butchie.”

I have every right in the world to vote or not vote no matter what the squeak-heads say.

It always amazes me how susceptible our culture is to thinking as a group.  All it takes is one fuck wrench in a bar somewhere, floating an idiotic thought or opinion, and the next thing you know, people are pouring Redbull into
perfectly good vodka and grown-ass men are wearing ‘Crocs’ and Axe body spray like 15-year olds hoping to finger-bang a cheerleader.

It is as if our heads are chained together.

One hundred and forty years ago or so, the Transcontinental Railroad was built by slaves; Chinese and Mexican and newly-freed Africans. . .Confederate veterans of the Civil War. . .the newly-indentured Irish immigrants;  you name it– whomever was at the bottom of the American economic scrotum pole.  The railroad was built on the backs of the poor and destitute and was built with as much thoughtless cruelty as the captains of industry could muster.  The amount of discretionary power the railroad had even superseded that of the government.  At a certain point, they had their own police force–actually a collection of mercenary goons called the Pinkertons who were, by and large, the slobs who couldn’t become legit peace officers.   The same assholes you see at Wal-Mart with the spray and the stick.

There is a pretty good TV show about it right now called Hell on Wheels.  It follows the murder of Indians, and anyone else who gets in the way, with a necessary brutality.  When we teach our children how we “settled” and “built” America, it is important they have an idea about just what those words are code for.

It means we stole and murdered our way to ownership.

There are scenes where Indians look positively fierce and heartless when attacking Whitey.  And as well they should. They were being murdered into submission by colonialists who regarded them as less then human.  The wholesale slaughter of the Plains Indians and every other First Nation tribe is still–along with 400 years of brutal slave trade–part of our country’s original sin; a country built by people in chains.  We forget this when asked about rightful things like reparations and creating equitable economic change for those we enslaved and stole from.

When we go to vote, this is never what is on our mind.  We think what our friends think, and this is dangerous.  History is an ongoing narrative. . .
it didn’t happen 100 years ago , or 10 years ago or even yesterday–it is happening now.
And now is our best chance at making it more just. Ask yourself,
if anyone your voting for? –has any of this on their minds.

Published in: on January 9, 2012 at 9:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Ghost is Born

A Ghost is Born

In Catholicism, ghosts are part of the Liturgy.  We are taught that the holy trinity is the Father, The Son and The Holy Ghost.  Combine that with  Irish ancestry and you have someone fairly willing to acknowledge the unseen, the invisible.  In religious practice, it is meant to drive home the premise that the eyes of God are on us always.  It is an imperative, I think, in order to get one to believe in God, that he be invisible.  One of the odd ironies of Christianity is that while it forbids “pagan” worship and idolatry, it furnishes a host of spooks and idols to worship in its own practice.

The spirit world is a big deal in other cultures and faiths as well. I spent part of 1987 in Haiti, where people practice voodoo and Catholicism in equal measure.  In Native American culture, the Spirits surround us and manifest themselves in nature.  The sun is often ceded the entity of the almighty, with water and rain and wind, and hail and thunder also occupying significant spiritual primacies as well.  The First Nation people don’t curse floods or hurricanes, fires, dust storms or God.  To them, they are all the same thing.

Many of us believe that our dead and departed relatives, or friends or lovers, send us missives from beyond.  The presence of  birds, objects, music– you name it– we will attach great spiritual significance to as a function of grief and wish fulfillment.  Our desire to maintain some tether to something or someone we deem precious, encodes all manner of cognitive associative images attached to the object of our longing.  The rational part of me KNOWS this.

The Artist doesn’t. He lives with the unseen–the invisible.

I’m always ready to believe that the past, the dead, and history possess a memory and they walk with us.  Fuck, I believe the birds speak to me.   I’ve heard it said, behind my back, when the person thinks I’m out of earshot, “You know, I hear he’s not. . .all there.  He isn’t quite right.”  More than once I’ve heard this.  Of course I hear it from people who wear ties and get up at six in the morning.  You tell me who is nuts.

At least once a week I wake up sitting up, on the side of my bed and I’ve been having  a conversation.  My wife and kids tell me I hold whole conversations in my sleep.  A couple months after my father died, I had a dream so viscerally real, it shook me up.  I dreamt that me , my dad and my pal, Nick were standing in the shallow surf in Miami Beach drinking martinis with our linen pants rolled up.  I remembered thinking we were drinking the good shit because the gin had the juniper sting in it that the better stuff has–Bombay, Tanqueray—and I swear the tops of my feet were a little sunburned.

Longing and imagination are powerful things. Combined they project us fitfully into the reality we search out–the narrative we wish to be real.  Still, I am one of those who puts some faith, rational or not, in the idea of the Spirit world; that maybe the dead and the past walk with us through this world; that 100 years ago is happening, still, at the same time this current moment is, just in a different world.  It is very hard for me to articulate or defend.

I realize I sound like a full-on drool case when I try to explain this, but I come by it honestly.  As a kid, I would see smoke or steam and think it was ghosts.  My mother enjoyed my imagination and she indulged it, and so I went to great lengths to tell her elaborate stories and would insist to her they were all true.

You see, the Irish believe in all manner of supernatural, happy horseshit–faeries, Jenny Linds, bog-trotting goblins and leprechauns.  The latter, I suspect, to explain midgets (The Little People”) when some not-terribly-bright Mick got snot-flying drunk.  More likely, we believe these things because life on this slimy rock full of drunks is rainy, cold, more-often-than-not impoverished and mercilessly unfair and short.  The faeries, leprechauns and red-headed nymphs?  Well. . .they give us something to smile about.

Even now when I see steam rise from the ground or the Northern lights, I think of these as missives from the other world, what Haitians referred to as “The Gray World.”
A year ago, I heard something funny and immediately picked up the phone to call my father.

My father died September 17th 1998.

I put the phone down and went to pieces.

For him.  For my friends no longer with me.  For the awful and real fact that we get one life and it is as tenuous, as elusive, as fragile and fleeting as the end of a kite string.

Published in: on January 7, 2012 at 12:02 am  Comments (1)  
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