Stone Killer

Stone KillerStone Killer, All Day… The Watchman of Juarez…

This is a hooded crow, which is found nowhere near Juarez. I just loved the hungry look of this scavenger bird. I’ve written a lot about Juarez and Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666 which is, in part, about the epidemic of murder on the border. This piece is about the nearly 500 unsolved murders of women that occurred there.

It is said that the land itself possesses a memory. . . “el gente“– the Mexicans call it.

This piece is a bit about this idea.

Published in: on June 1, 2015 at 11:06 pm  Comments (1)  
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Lunch Drawing #37: City Bird

Lunch Drawing #37: City Bird

Every once in a while, the young woman who works for me will have her ear-buds in and be singing one of her songs. She records under the name, “Czesha,” and she sings a trip-hoppy blend of rap, soul, and surprisingly melodic pop. Think Beyonce-meets-Massive Attack. It’s very danceable and while it is not my usual taste, it’s good and I’ve grown to like it. This kid works hard. She’s a talented visual artist as well and every day at 4:30, she runs off to the recording studio or to her studio and it is a heartening thing to observe. At 25 or 26, it’s all in front of her. Her career will become what she makes of it. It is an exciting time in one’s life.

She brings to mind the music I listen to every day and how much of it is made and sung by women. From Billie Holiday to Neko Case, each voice contains its own aural reliquary of sounds, secrets and stories; and I need all of them. Each of them evoke a different kind of picture out of me. Each of them bathe different words and feelings in light and I realize what a rare instrument the human voice is.

It never fails to astound me how Aretha Franklin can hurl her voice around the planets, or Kelly Hogan can conjure the sweetness of Harold Arlen’s, “Tis Autumn,” or how Annie Lennox, with her wounding, perfect, upper register can will us into feelings we don’t really want to have. The song, “Why” can make me bitch-up at the drop of a hat, or Emmylou Harris’ aching rendering of “Wrecking Ball”…I could go on and on. And when I flesh this out into an article, I will.

This one is for all of the Women who’ve made songs such a holy thing.



“For all of the amazing women I’ve worked with in theater and for Tennessee Williams, maybe our greatest playwright.”

When you hang around New Orleans long enough, eventually you run into someone with a Tennessee Williams story. He lived there for a long time as a young man. His plays and repartee would have one believe that he lived in the quarter and was part of that milieu.  The truth is he lived out by Elysian Fields in a working-class enclave that was infinitely less glamorous and lacked the transgressive chic of the Gay Quarter culture. My friend, Henri Schindler, told me stories of Williams flirting with the waiters at Galitoire’s , while drinking the afternoons away.

He also relayed another tale of Williams, after he was famous–meaning after ‘A Streetcar named Desire’– waylaid by a group of blue-haired ladies from a book club wanting to know all about New York and Williams not quite knowing how to handle this group of curious interlopers.  For all of the drunken Williams tales, he was actually quite shy, or those who knew him have told me. He is, perhaps, our greatest playwright.  At the very least, he is probably our most internationally known.

Thomas Lanier Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, the son of an alcoholic and abusive shoe salesman and a fading southern belle-type mother.  He was closest to his sister, Rose who, sadly, suffered from schizophrenia as she grew into her teen years . It is thought that Williams ability to write women characters with great insight and empathy has its origin in his close relationships with his sister and mother. It is rare to find anyone who writes better women’s roles than Williams.

It is hard to over estimate the impact of A Streetcar named Desire.  It made a star of Marlon Brando and also holds up today as a great play. No matter where you are in the world, the sun never sets on this work of art. Some company, somewhere, is staging it. And why not? It serves up the great thematic human desires in spades; sexual tension, madness, loneliness, abandonment and animal longing.

For zctors, this play has it all. How many Blanche DuBois wander our streets to this day; the perennial ingenues still harboring illusions about their youth, beauty and desirability? I would guess many. I mean, really. . .where do you think all of that Bo-Tox is going? And how many Stanley Kowalski’s, with their working-class furies and sexual piggishness knotted like tangled kite-string? Hell, try any Lincoln Park sports bar . . .

The one who interests me the most in this most American of plays is Stella. Stella Kowalski knows her mentally-challenged, Pop-Tart of a sister and her brutal, sexually rapacious husband are headed toward one another like two locomotives, and it has always seemed to me that she practically curtsies to get out of the way as this happens; knowing that both will exact their temporary satisfaction, as well as their own damning punishments from this act.

After Stanley rapes Blanche, he is finished as a man.  Even he knows it.  Blanche is taken away to an institution and grateful for “the kindness of strangers” and Williams hints that they get not only what they deserve, but perhaps, darkly, what they actually want.

My friend, the film maker, John McNaughton, just directed a stage version of Streetcar in Pasadena and loved it.  He also told me a story of Tennessee Williams in observing previews for this play, cackling with laughter when Stella delivers the “kindness of strangers” line, a story passed down from a lot of people who knew Williams.

There are also stories of Williams, surreptitiously attending productions of Streetcar, all over the country and raising hell if they fucked with his play. He had many other successes, but Streetcar seemed to be the one he was most protective of.  The Rose Tattoo and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  were also hits. Later in life, his plays were not as well received, though recently in Chicago, Camino Real, a darkly surreal Williams play of a dead-end Spanish town, got a fitful production full of imagination and great performances at the Goodman Theater. I was bummed to have missed it, but by all accounts, it was a sexually frank, no-holds-barred imagining of a wildly misunderstood play, directed by the great Spanish director, Calixto Bielto.  The reviews were mixed, but everyone I spoke to loved it and admired the fact that it was an adult piece of theater–Tennessee Williams, very close to the milieu of his own life in New Orleans, with its people for the ‘other’ side–boxers whores, poets, strippers and stoned dreamers, those Williams counted as his own, the marginalized and the mad, all coming out to dance.

Published in: on April 25, 2012 at 6:50 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Whispering Women (For the Daughters of Juarez)

The Whispering Women (For the Daughters of Juarez)

Yesterday was the birthday of Cesar Chavez, the heroic leader of the Mexican migrant workers throughout the 1960’s and 70’s.  Mr. Chavez would have been 84 years old; he passed away in 1993.
Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, through non-violence, Cesar Chavez fought for immigrants, working people, and the dignity of those who do the jobs we Americans think we are too good for.  I read the notice of his birthday with the ironic thought that I am glad that he is not alive to see what has happened to towns like Juarez and Tijuana and to some extent, Mexico itself.  That through the bloody vagaries of the drug wars and the human trafficking, Mr. Chavez’s country has devolved to an almost primal state of insanity and murder.

Of course, Mexico had help getting here.  The North American Free Trade Agreement, which was supposed to lift impoverished Mexicans out of their desperate state, brought only more poverty by paying stoop-labor and starvation wages in the maquila-style factories scarcely paying more than 40 dollars a week for 50 hours of work.  The maquilas hire women almost exclusively for the seamstress piece-work and circuitry jobs, because their smaller hands and fingers are better suited to the fine, close work.

It also helps that they are more docile than the men–easier to exploit and jerk around.

A great many Mexicans believe the mass murders of women in and around Juarez has its genesis in the bosom of the Capitalist system of the Maquladoras.  Hire the women and they become the family breadwinner, while the men are left to the streets and the narco-cartels like La Linnea, the Aztecas and Los Rebeldes.

When the wives get home and assert some new-found independence, the men kill them.  Alcohol and methamphetamine-fueled rages are often cited as the cause.  Some of the younger women go the party-girl route and are murdered by the cartels if they hear too much or say too much or are perceived as indiscreet–any goddamned reason, really.  Women are expendable in Juarez.  You can kill them all day and not get arrested. . .men too.

In Charles Bowden’s great, if grim, story of Juarez, Murder City:  Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields, the author carefully presents several stories of individual Mexican citizens and their fates until a portrait from whole human cloth emerges of a city in the grips of a genocidal insanity.  What is remarkable about this account is how Bowden was able to complete a whole portrait of Juarez with so few facts available.  It is just good feet on the ground journalism; talking to one person at a time, until he has the story.  It is also worth mentioning that many, many journalists have been murdered in Juarez.  In fact, Bowden dedicated this book to one of them:

For Armando Rodriguez, who was gunned down on November 13th, 2008, after filing 907 stories on the murders of that calendar year.

Bowden reports that people used to keep “lists” of the dead and then the list-keepers became targets themselves;  the killers knowing that the most dangerous thing to these predators were facts.  Bowden’s careful crafting of these stories help us understand the city of Juarez’s descent into madness.

One of his subjects is a hitman, now eroded by drugs and alcohol and perhaps his own conscience.  In his desperation, he tells Bowden, “You don’t know me.  No one can forgive me for what I have done.”

Mr. Bowden also tells us the story of “Miss Sinaloa,” a party  girl from the west coast of Mexico (Sinaloa) who, in becoming involved with drug dealers, is used, drugged and raped into a state of madness, finding sanctuary (such as it is) at a makeshift asylum in the desert run by a worldly convict known as the “Pastor” who has taken it upon himself to care for all of the broken psyches of Juarez.

He also details stories of murdered police officers–many in bed with the dealers–and tells stories of police that refuse to leave the station for fear of drive-bys, and with good reason; over 40 officers were murdered in one calendar year.

After reading Bowden’s account, one wonders why the government has not appealed to the U.N., for troops.  Their own army is clearly out-gunned and probably out-manned.  Mexicans I know say it is out of fear for their sovereignty.  Asking an occupying force, especially a foreign one, to enforce order is never an ideal choice.  But clearly President Calderon no longer has control of his country, nor can he protect its citizens. It is the wild west.

I had planned a trip to Juarez.  Two men I know in Texas, who were former employees of Blackwater–a security firm who famously deployed soldiers-for hire in Iraq–turned down top-dollar to accompany me for two afternoons.  One of them telling me he’d “rather be in downtown Baghdad, than fucking Juarez.”   A high school friend, Kevin Crowder, whose company outfits security devices for high-risk places in the world told me he would feel safer in Qatar; that Juarez was probably the most dangerous place on earth.  To quote Charles Bowden’s book, “They kill people on the way to the mall.”

We have a murky relationship with Mexico, each country a dark mirror of the other, each country in possession of what the other wants. . .each country, sadly, the worst thing possible for the other.

Published in: on April 1, 2011 at 7:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Girl of the Falling Planets,

Girl Of The Falling Planets

I’ve written a lot of love poems.  This one is kind of a love poem for Japan or, more specifically, Tokyo.  It is seductive and full of secrets . . . like a woman.  It is probably a metaphor that would perplex most Japanese ñ a very male-dominated society.  The women I spoke to in Japan seemed sadly resigned to, at some point in their lives, becoming part of a man’s life as almost chattel.  Some of the young women, who worked at the hotel I stayed at, told me that their mothers and their fathers encouraged them to find a man, rather than pursue an education or a business of their own.  The encouraging thing in these conversations was that the women bristled at these thoughts.  One young woman, Sayaka, made it clear that her parents were going to have to realize that it was a new Japan; that the cultural revolution, acted out between young and old, had already happened, albeit quietly.  The young men did not desire to be salary-men and the young women wanted lives, careers and businesses of their own.  It is ironic to view this very old culture and think it has taken this long for young women to liberate themselves from old patriarchal customs and expectations.  Of course, many young women in Japan looked to American women as symbolic of the empowerment one can achieve in the new Japan.  The image of the passive and quiet Asian woman is a quickly disappearing stereotype.

In Japanese art there is no small amount of erotic content; the woodcuts and paintings of artists like Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi are full of geishas and courtesans.  Manga is full of some of the most brutal porn you’ll ever see, replete with rape-fantasy storylines that are degrading and sadly very common.  For centuries, women have very often been sex objects in Japanese art.  There are young women artists in Japan who are turning these paradigms on their head.  Mariko Mori, who seamlessly cobbles together Eastern myths and Western cultural motifs, often makes videos and photographs using herself, more often than not, as a goddess.  Work like hers points to a newly realized “Girl Power” that emboldens other young women artists.  She is a big deal–a real role model to young Japanese women . . . a woman in control of her own art and her own image . . . a woman who owns herself.

I also found out that the cherry blossom season of spring in Japan is a time when many young men propose marriage.  It is a beautiful time of year when the blossoms are in full roar and the parks are full of bright, gauzy whites and pinks, plum wine and music.  It is a lovely thing in a lovely city.  This one is for Tokyo.

Published in: on November 16, 2009 at 3:18 pm  Comments (2)  
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