When kids are in high school, doodles usually adorn every surface of their textbooks; at least they did on mine. I loved scribbling on the back of my tablet, or in the margins of my history book, or just on looseleaf and in notebooks. Anything was better than listening to the teacher and taking notes on whatever useless drivel they were going on about. It could be anything: hot rods, planes, Rat Fink, giant dicks, monsters. . .especially birds, tits, monkey heads, and always band logos and comics. . .a character named “Bong-Man” and voice -balloons containing thoughtful utterances like, “Shimmy-shimmy beat my meat,” “Transistor Sister,” and “Maggot-Brain.”
I had a lot on my mind.
What I’ve most enjoyed about making my “Lunch Drawings” is just how much they remind me of those drawings I made trying to escape the mind-numbing dogshit they tried to teach me in school. With very few exceptions, my teachers talked like a roll of toilet paper; one bloodless, colorless factoid after the next, until I had annihilation fantasies about blowing up my high school.
I also had this problem of sometimes thinking something while not realizing I was also actually saying it until after.
One time one of the Christian brothers was babbling on about some treacle about one of the saints, whom I gave not a fuck about. There were some cool saints to hear about. . .Saint Heckta, a loony tune possessed of much feverish faith, who iced some idolators with a broad axe, just ran through the pagans like a crazy bitch, swinging and playing Whack-a-Mole with the unworthy. This guy only concentrated on the more acceptable self-loathing whackjobs with their hair shirts and self flagellation.
On and on in this monotone drone. Brother Leo was the prick’s name, and finally I just thought to myself, “Jesus…H…Christ…will you just, please, God, shut him the fuck up.”
I heard some titters of laughter before I realized that I had actually SAID it, and then it was off to the races. Brother Leo engaging in the not very saintly, nor even Christian, act of beating the holy snot out of me. Brother Leo was pissed. His face was as red as a baboon’s ass and he was spitting while he was yelling and swinging like a madman. And for some reason, I started laughing my ass off, which pissed him off even more. He screamed, “Oh, you think this is funny, Mr. Funny-man!!!” and that did it. I couldn’t control the laughter then. I was laughing so hard my nose was running and I was snorting and the only thing I could think to say was, “God, you’re a fucking idiot.” This only prolonged things and finally I got sent to the office where I started laughing again and got suspended.
They told me I couldn’t come to school for three days.
The history I was taught was a lie. The math, I can do with a calculator. The English lit was the boring shit only Catholic schools would teach.
I went to a high school with no windows. At least in grade school, I could look outside at the birds. This became my great escape, and when I drew them, it became even better.
Often the drawings wound up situated in the middle of the crazed and vulgar doodles that I made. I didn’t realize it was my subconscious telling me to broom the rest of this shit and just go somewhere and draw. Eventually I got it. Drawing birds and naked girls became my passport to what the nuns used to call, “Tony World.” I liked it there.
I could do whatever the fuck I wanted there. When I was drawing, nothing that the teachers, cops, or other pain-in-the-ass authority figures had to say meant dick. It was all a blur and I learned how to shut out the noise.
I didn’t know it then, but those drawings were a foundation. . .the rock on which I built my work.
I still hate authority. Hate bosses. Bullies. And still insist on doing precisely whatever the fuck I feel like doing. I still doodle all of the time; eventually it turns into drawings. I still get the same subversive charge out of it. I’m happy that it has allowed me to not have a boss or have to kiss anybody’s ass or answer to any of the swinging dicks. I’m happy that at the end of my pencil is another world and I get to go there, and if I want, stay there. . .with the birds. I got it made.
The common starling or European starling was introduced to North America a couple of centuries ago by enthusiasts of Shakespeare. That’s right, Shakespeare. I had to read that twice, myself. Evidently, the Bard was fond of the plucky bird’s gift for mimicry and a bunch of blue-bloods thought it would be jolly-good fun to have the little winged gangsters over here. The first thing the common starling did was muscle as many songbirds out of nesting spots as it could. It spread wildly, becoming one of the most successful species in the history of the continent. Particularly hard hit were bluebirds, who were pushed damn near across the Mississippi River, population wise. They are just beginning to come back now.
The common starling is a striking bird that gives off a metallic sheen of purples, reds, greens, bronzes, and bright yellows when the sun shines on its plumage. They are hearty and boisterous and given to spectacular flight when in large flocks that often result in “murmuration,” which often makes the sky itself appear to be changing shape. It is something to see thousands upon thousands of starlings moving as one shape-shifting organism.
At my feeder every morning the starlings are usually here first. Though they prefer berries and insets, the ywill suck down some seeds as well. They are improbably beautiful and tough little bastards. They are much like Irish brothers, in that they know the best way to win a fight, is to bring a crowd.
There was an event the other night at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park, just north of the Zoo. It was in celebration of the publication of my friend Joel Greenberg’s fascinating natural history account of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, A FEATHERED RIVER ACROSS THE SKY. It is a remarkable book about the squandering and wholesale slaughter of a single species.
In 1840, there was a description of a single flock of passenger pigeons so huge and in such great volume, it took three days for this one flock to fly over. The estimate is something like three billion birds. So many that the sky was darkened; a phenomenon reported on many other migratory paths as well. It is almost unfathomable that these birds would ever NOT be in the world. A scant fifty years later, they were gone. The last one, “Martha,” died in captivity in a Cincinnati Zoo; having never flown or even been in the wild. It is almost impossible to believe that this hearty species, a bird that could swallow acorns whole, could be wiped out in such short order.
There were “pigeon shoots” where, for days on end, yahoos with birdshot would blow them out of the sky and lure them to blinds and blast them at will, with no bag limit. One could kill as many as one could carry. They were often thrown to their pigs as a cheap food source and served in restaurants as squab.
The only grace note the extinction of the passenger pigeon affords us, is that the idea of the conservation of endangered species came to the forefront. The idea that the bounty of species this country was so blessed with might NOT be endless.
Greenberg’s book is a detective story, cautionary tale, and natural history of a species we decimated perhaps because its outsized appetites were too much like our own. This book is every bit as vital as Rachel Carson’s, “SILENT SPRING.”
A couple of years ago, while my friend, the painter Jenny Scobel was in town, we ran across what we thought was a dead bird in the street. We stopped and Jenny went out to pick it up. It was a beautiful bird that looked to be some kind of woodpecker. While holding the bird, she jumped for a second as she realized the legs and wings were beginning to move, and then the eyes opened. Not only was the bird not dead, but the plucky little bastard wanted to fight. She wasn’t quite up to flying yet, as we’d put her on the ground and she just kind of hopped as though drunk. It seemed she was still in shock. After bringing her back to my studio, a consultation with a bird guide helped identify her as a yellow-bellied sapsucker, which actually is related to woodpeckers.
What amazed me is just how beautiful this bird was. The reds and yellows and black and white and ochres really knocked me out. I’d never held a songbird before, and had not ever realized how fragile and tough they are at the same time.
Our best guess is that she’d flown into a windshield and knocked herself out and she was by no means ready to re-enter the wild yet. She’d have been easy pickings for some cat (fucking cats) or coyote.
We found a bird rescue operation and within 30 minutes, a humorless woman with a bird bag walked through the door and gently placed the wounded bird in the bird-sack. She eyed us suspiciously, I assured her that the bird hadn’t bounced off of our windshield, and she gave me a suspect look and wordlessly left the studio. I guess all of her excess personality and compassion is reserved for her feathered friends.
This encounter made me serious start looking at birds again. I’ve been fascinated with them since childhood and I rigged some bird feeders in the back yard. Every morning is a miracle. Sometimes 30 different species of songbirds show up at my feeder–sparrows, juncos, blackbirds, finches of every kind and here and there, the odd warbler, as well as cardinals. I don’t know what it is about them that makes me so happy, gives me such peace and fills me with such wonder. Perhaps it is the idea that nature isn’t something a hundred miles away; that it surrounds us and makes city life more bearable and beautiful and wondrous–and it doesn’t cost you a thing.
Emily Dickinson once wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers.”
For a woman who didn’t get out much, she knew her stuff. I’m betting she had a bird-feeder.
There is a silhouette of a woman in each of these drawings. That woman is my grandmother who, every morning, would toast a couple of pieces of bread and put jelly on them. She would then dice them up and toss them out the back door for the birds. When I asked her why she was giving our bread to the birds she would hold a finger up to her lips and tell me, “Listen. . .”
When I did, I heard blackbirds, mourning doves, warblers, finches,and sparrows. My grandmother, Mae, would look down at me and tell me, “For a piece of bread, you can hear God sing.”
Some stories write themselves.
This bird, the mamo, was killed for its plume; one of the astonishing number of Hawaiian birds that have become extinct. The “settling” of other countries were not only disastrous for the human inhabitants, but for the animal life as well.. “Settling” means you kill everyone and steal their shit. Then you declare the place, “civilized.”
Shortly before his death in 2004, Roberto Bolaño, the great Chilean novelist, mailed off the manuscript for 2666, his sprawling, frustrating, multi-layered masterpiece about a world coming apart in many locations and time periods– all at the same time.
Central to this story–stories, actually–are the murders of women in the fictional St. Teresa, which is actually Ciudad Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. Authorities fear there may be as many as 5000 unsolved murders of young women and admit that there are at least 1200. The Mexican government blames the outlaw Narco-Mafias, as well as members of Los Rebeldes, a notorious Juarez street gang involved in drug and human trafficking. Police have also arrested itinerant workers and bus drivers known to drive the routes where some of the women’s bodies have been found, all to no avail. The murders continue as well as an eerie proliferation of corridos, or “murder ballads;” songs circulated about killings of unfaithful lovers, hookers and “bitches.” It is a horrifying phenomenon that has been going on since around 1993, with the indifference or incompetence of police forces too afraid of the gangs to adequately protect the young women, mostly from other parts of Mexico and Central America.
What resonates from all of the conflicting stories are ugly tales of sexual mutilation and violence accompanying each murder. Rape is almost always a component of these crimes. Bodies are found in vacant lots and trash dumps as well as by the sides of the roads. What is shocking is the cavalier nature of this brutality. Women are murdered routinely and with impunity, with no fear of consequences. At the center of Bolaño’s messy novel is the idea that someone or something in the air suggests these are “sacrifices” for a world devolved into a degenerate state. There are lots of other ideas ventured as well, but the sickness at the center of the world’s heart is never more acutely rendered in this novel than the murders of these women. That it is based in concrete fact gives the novel a chilling moral authority.
Before Bolaño died and his novels were published, he traveled widely throughout Mexico and South America and Spain for a time, embracing Marxism and then abandoning it, all the while bearing witness to down-at-the-heels governments unable (and in many cases unwilling) to help those they govern. He seems to have adopted a mordant gallows humor about the condition of mankind.
I’ve read 2666 once and am re-reading it now. I’m not now convinced this was ever supposed to be one book. It’s always felt to me like a combination of books. That Bolaño died before this book was ever in galleys tells us that he was not the final voice in deciding what exactly went into this book. Of course, once 2666 was published, the posthumous Bolaño became a critical fetish-object; the praise being hurled from every quarter, for this door-stop tome full of digressions, contradictions and multiple stories; some having very little or even nothing to do with the others.
The underlying thematic device, for me, seems to be the world’s rapid untethering from any idea of sanity. The murdered women part of 2666 is where we hear Bolaño at his most ferocious. the murder of innocents is still a thing of incomprehensible sadness; well-worthy of moral outrage even in an insane world.
I’ve heard people describe this book as “apocolyptic” or “millennial,” whatever the fuck that means. I’m not so sure. I’m not so sure about anything with 2666–even as to whether it was completed or not. Oddly enough though, I was convinced I’d read a great book–in fact, a great few books.
I love the literature of Mexico and South and Central America. As a young man, I felt as though books like Eduardo Galleano’s Genesis: Memory of Fire and Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold and One Hundred Years of Solitude kind of set me free with their magic and their shape-shifting. In a lot of Mexican-Indian cultures, birds like sparrows, starlings and blackbirds are interlopers between worlds, often carrying the spirits of the dead from this world to the next, or in Haitian literature, to the “gray world”–a kind of way station between the living and the dead. These authors and those stories warned us that the natural world stood witness to our evil and our folly; that in daylight or in darkness, to some living entity, we are always visible. This thought used to give me comfort. And now, I am not so sure.
The ongoing murders of women in Juarez are still largely unsolved. There have been many arrests for individual murders but better than 99 percent of them are still without resolution. Ciudad Juarez, in fact the whole state of Chihuahua and its governing body, stand as a black mark on the earth; unholy ground marked evil by its own inaction.
Last year I was quite fond of saying that there were only three magical cities in America–New York, Chicago and New Orleans; the rest of it was fucking Cleveland. I said this in my effusiveness to rally support for New Orleans and it was a funny, if cheap, laugh at the expense of Cleveland.
I’m going to stop saying that. A great many of my friends from Cleveland didn’t appreciate it, and have fond memories of that city like I do of Chicago and New Orleans. And the more I read about the city of Cleveland, the more I realize it is not very different than Chicago. Dumb luck has made us the sexier city. Dumb luck, geography and machine politics is what kept Chicago from sharing the fate of Cleveland. My studio director, Stan Klein, is still a Cleveland Indians fan,which lately is a lot like being a Cubs fan; thankless, joyless exercises in the absence of reciprocal affection.
There is a longing about the city of Cleveland. Many citizens groups are fighting the banks in the wake of the mortgage crisis, where banks and lenders fucked citizens with mortgages and interest rates that they knew the folks they sold them to could not repay and then getting even richer by selling “reverse mortgages.” Clevelanders have not taken this lying down. They’ve pushed back and tried to wrest some of the primacy of their neighborhoods back.
There are beautiful parks in Cleveland. Cain Park, in Cleveland Heights, on the east side is a place loaded with birds, gardens and hills for sledding, as well as a theater and art studios. My friends from Cleveland remember this place with great affection.
I wanted to make a metaphorical songbird for Cleveland and some months ago I bought a collage from my friend Alpha Lubicz. She is my favorite collagist right now and last September she accompanied my crew to Japan. In almost every flea market, Alpha and I went after the same kind of stuff. She has an amazing eye for scraps and makes astounding works. She is the goods. For those of you reading this on Facebook, look her things up in my friends list and get one.
For months, I looked at this beautiful bird-woman collage and finally called Alpha and asked her if she’d mind if I drew it into my new piece. After getting her blessing, I made this piece. I changed it a bit, but make no mistake; it is a case of out and out theft and generosity on behalf of my friend Alpha. I’ve learned much from looking at her work and so should you.
I gave her a bluejay’s body just because I love the fuckers. They’re obnoxious and noisy and operate like gangsters; and they are so beautiful. They, like starlings, often steal their nests by muscling the occupants out of it. They just kind of show up and chirp, “Fuck You. Leave.” And the other birds comply. Bluejays are badasses and don’t take any la-la from other birds.
When I was a kid, I caddied and every once in a while would find a bluejay feather on the golf course and I don’t know why, but these were real treasures to me; simply because of that paralyzing blue. . .somewhere between cobalt and cerulean. . .a blue you saw nowhere else in nature. A jazz blue. A story blue. A midnight kind of blue. . .carved right out of the holy sky.
There is a part at the end of No Country for Old Men, where Tommy Lee Jones’ character, a sheriff, gives up and, over his morning coffee explains to his wife, that he is out-matched by the evil in the world. It is a weary, resigned and grim assessment of the world around him.
In my Catholic upbringing, all evil was neatly ceded to the devil or the Communists who, of course, didn’t believe in god. Years later, reading philosophy. I was told that evil is a small, banal thing. I think one must become a grown-up to realize that it is volitional; it is a choice, and it is very human. In nature, I believe there is no right or wrong, merely consequences. With us, it is an action and we know it when we do it.
I kissed off the idea of a merciful god in about 4th grade. I’d found a skunk that had been hit by a car and was suffering and dying. I picked it up and brought it into the Catholic school I was attending (there were a few). I rushed down the hall to find a nun or better, a priest, to bless the skunk before it died. I believed all of the horse-shit the brides of Christ had said about “all god’s creatures. . . yadda, yadda. . .” At the entrace of the church, I found Sr. Anisia and presented the skunk to her, explaining that he needed to be blessed before he died so god would know he was a solid skunk and let him into heaven. I was sincere. I wanted this skunk to latch onto a little mercy on his way off this mortal coil.
The nun lost her fucking mind, screaming at me to remove that filthy creature at once. I told her that I would after she blessed his ass and said “Really Sister, how hard is it just to bless him?”
She had the custodian carry me and the skunk outside and I decided right then they were liars; the whole merciful god fairytale was one big hand-job. They tossed my ass out of school and the nun called my mother and had another melt-down. I told my mother I thought Sister Anisia was a lying sack of shit and that the skunk deserved a little kindness and Christian treatment. My mom didn’t say anything, but I’d noticed I didn’t get punished at home for this. My mom and dad had to go up and meet with the twat nun to get me back into school, and this crazy old bitch would light me up every chance she got. I didn’t take it laying down though. Many a bag of dogshit found its way into her Chevy Impala; usually under the driver’s side seat. Her side.
I started to make drawings of naked devil girls and leaving them out on my desk and also pictures of nuns being attacked by eagles only to be carried to a great height before being dropped like a bad sack of guts.
Needless to say, this would make the nuns spot their shorts and they sent me to the school shrink, who would leave his pack of Newports on his desk, only to have them stolen by me. He was also a religious dip-shit of some kind. A brother or friar or some shit.
I came to the decision that if this group of fuck-heads were God’s ‘A’-team, then he was truly screwed.
This piece is called, “The Devil’s Songbird.”
Nicholas Dandolos (Nick the Greek) was a professional gambler and high-roller of legendary repute in the ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s. Rumor has it, he once broke the house in Vegas in the early ’50s. He is also the subject of a marvelous novel by the great Chicago novelist, Harry Mark Petrakis, whose Greektown-set novels illuminate that community for the rest of the city.
Dandolos was fearless. He is said to have won and lost over 500 million dollars in his lifetime, only to die in near destitution in Gardena, California in 1966.
He was born in Crete to wealthy parents in 1883. At 18, he moved to Chicago and pretty much cleaned up at the racetrack. He was a flamboyant and charming guy whose legend quickly grew until he was nearly as big an attraction at casinos as the headliners who entertained the swells were.
Petrakis’ novel, Nick the Greek, was published in 1978 and is a marvelous read. It chronicles the life of a man who went from rags to riches some 70 times; always with good humor and charm. At one point, after a marathon poker match, lasting some 5 months and down a couple million, Nick told his opponent (a man some 24 years his junior), “Mr. Moss, I have to let you go.” Such was the good humor of Nick the Greek.
As a kid I was a caddy, which was where I first learned how to gamble. And Jesus, did we gamble; on cards, Ruts (a mutant form of miniature golf, played in the caddy yard on a stone parking lot), football, baseball, Pins, (where you bet on whomever’s golfer gets on the green first), how far you could piss, pitching quarters…you name it. No game in the caddy shack was without a gambling component. And it was a good thing; you learned how to hold your mud when you were down, how to win graciously, how to lose like a gentleman. . .or not. You learned a lot about who you were in relation to other guys; how to compete, how to bluff, how to stand, how to protect yourself, how to strut.
There were always assholes; the guys who won or lost badly, the braggarts and whiners, the badmouth guys, who were soon enough separated out from the elite gamblers who’d not make time for them or give them a seat at their game.
There was no small amount of social Darwinism in the rituals of caddy shack games of chance. It was frowned upon but tolerated. And in these games of chance we found out a little more each day, who we were going to be in the world.