Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Greeting Card

Happy Hooligans to you and yours!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Détournement

One day very soon it will happen that our heroes, having searched and studied ancient property maps on file at the bureau of records, having rented a basement storage space on the opposite side of the block, having pretended to be a punk band and carted in instruments and actually played them very loud before switching to recordings of the same stuff played just as loud, having under cover of the loudness drilled a series of guide holes in the rear wall and then chiseled out the space between those holes, having collected the rubble in small cloth sacks and carried them out to the car and dropped them off a bridge under cover of night, having at last located the rear wall of the bank vault, having clipped all wires leading from the vault, having set off a series of fire alarms to distract the authorities and blown up a succession of metal trash cans with M-80s a block or two away to further confuse interested parties, having under that combined cover blown a hole in the rear of the vault with Semtex, having made their way into the vault, will find it as empty as Mother Hubbard's refrigerator. No cash, just an assortment of worthless securities, a few blackmail-potential photographs, an A-Rod rookie card, and somebody's collection of Beanie Babies.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Poetry of Ellery Queen

Above, a poem drawn from the depths of The American Gun Mystery (1933) by Ellery Queen (joint pseudonym of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee). The extraction was the work of an anonymous member or members of the Resurrectionists, a shadowy group devoted to finding the poetry hidden in the works of the most prosaic authors. The members never made their identities public, although rumors flew during their heyday, from the late 1950s to the mid-'70s. This anonymity, which seems to have begun as a whimsical cloak-and-dagger affectation, was before long cemented by threats of lawsuits from touchy authors. In one of their manifestos the Resurrectionists noted that they had derived their initial inspiration from Blaise Cendrars's Kodak (1924), every word of which was taken from the novels of Gustave Le Rouge, and which was threatened with a lawsuit--although the plaintiff was Eastman Kodak, and the complaint was over the title (which Cendrars changed to Documentaire, and the suit was dropped).

The Resurrectionists, who enjoyed waxing militant, calling for the abolition of "simple load-bearing literature, which trucks ideas from the factory and dumps them at your door" and the exposure of "functionaries who pretend to be writers," were actually menaced by a few of their famous victims. In 1965, Green Berets author Robin Moore was apparently set to take them to court in Florida on grounds of plagiarism and libel, although at the eleventh hour the court balked at a case directed at an undetermined number of John Does. Even earlier, Ayn Rand was said to have hired detectives to flush out the poets' identities in advance of a harassment campaign; evidently she failed. It may be hard at this late date to understand how wealthy best-selling authors could become so exercised by a marginal avant-garde prank, but the Resurrectionists seem to have had a way of exposing raw nerves, "psychoanalyzing" the books they selected and uncovering unconscious residue the authors would rather had not been noticed. Their takedown of Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain (1969) was so devastating he allegedly confessed to friends that he was done with writing altogether.

The Ellery Queen poem illustrated was one of their first published pieces (in The Creedmoor Review, 1956) and shows them at their most lyrical and even affectionate. In the following decade, in the climate of rebellion of the time, their work grew more pointed and aggressive. Their victims included many of the biggest names of the day: Allen Drury, Fulton Sheen, Taylor Caldwell, Leon Uris, James Michener, Bob Hope, Arthur Hailey, Erich Segal, Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum. That most of them have sunk into obscurity today was predicted by the Resurrectionists again and again. "By 1980 it will be as if [James Gould] Cozzens had never been born!" they crowed in a 1957 press release. In their valedictory manifesto, issued in 1976, they foresaw the eventual end of bad writing. "Best-sellers are the preliminary step for those who are forgetting how to read," they wrote. "Soon those followers will drop the pretense and give themselves over to television and thumb-wrestling. Of course, they may take the publishing industry down with them. But that is a risk we must face. After all, almost anybody can afford a mimeograph machine."

Friday, November 28, 2008

Hooliganism

Just about as rare as if it had never been published at all, this may be the only extant copy of Dave Carluccio's only book--typed, photocopied, folded, and stapled by its author in 1980 in an edition of fewer than a hundred, maybe fewer than twenty. The title and the cover image both refer to Aleksei Kruchenykh's Against Hooliganism in Literature (1926), cover by Gustav Klutsis. That work in turn, which has never been translated, is to the best of my knowledge a polemic by the veteran cubo-futurist directed against some rival Soviet avant-garde gang. But that didn't matter much to Carluccio, who most likely just saw the cover reproduced in some book and ran with it. "Hooliganism"--a word strangely omnipresent in Russian and ultimately derived from a slur against the Irish--was to him something desirable, especially in literature, which he persisted in seeing in early-modernist terms, as a genteel tea party much in need of being forcibly invaded and broken up.

I knew Carluccio's brother slightly in high school. We weren't friends, and I didn't even know of Dave's existence until half a decade later, when he showed up at my apartment one day with a group of people who were looking for a party. I wasn't giving a party and wasn't in a hospitable mood, which is probably what impelled them to hang out somewhat longer than necessary, opening the beers they had brought, lighting joints, and putting records on the turntable. While most of the five or six of them were having a high old time and I was calling around trying to find the party, or any party, to get them out of my hair, Carluccio was looking through my books. Finally, when their beers were drained and before they could go for seconds, I pretended someone had given me an address on the other side of town and sent them on their way. A week later I received an envelope from Carluccio containing a sheaf of tiny stories typed on the backs of pink "While You Were Out" notes. It was the first of more than a dozen such envelopes.

As it turned out, I was to meet Carluccio only twice more. The first time was about a year later. I was coming out of a party in Tribeca, one of those huge, brawling things where maybe ten percent of the guests had actually been invited. I had no idea who the hosts were and didn't know anybody there, but on my way down the stairs some guy I didn't recognize rushed to catch up and immediately started talking at me. He had sent me the stories because I had Bataille and Artaud and Mayakovsky on my shelves and he knew I'd understand. He talked from Franklin Street up to Canal, east to the Bowery, north to St. Mark's Place, and would have talked me all the way home if I hadn't suddenly ducked into a tenement behind somebody who had just been buzzed in. His talk was all very much checklist literature--you know, the kind of thing young guys do, like throwing names of bands at each other in lieu of conversation. He was very excited about Lautréamont and Cendrars and Traven and Burroughs and Ballard and Iceberg Slim. He wanted to celebrate murder and burn down churches and throw up barricades and liberate the zoos. He wanted to invent a new language, a new literature, make the future happen today. He was talking as fast as a sports announcer in a foreign language, sweating even though it was February. But I already knew the song by heart. I had been there.

His writings were not the unpunctuated breathless screedlike verses you might expect, but on the other hand they weren't much better. He had apparently decided that the crime novel was the essential building block of literature, the constituent unit of its DNA, and he had set about reducing and recombining it--I could just about see the wheels turning in his head--much the way punk rockers had cloned and distilled and chopped up the standard Chuck Berry guitar riff. Each story, if that's what those things could be called, was a paragraph long, titled and signed, and each resembled a page of a crime novel if you were trying to read it while it whipped by on a conveyor belt.

It wasn't much, I thought. Oh, he had a good ear and all--maybe he should have been writing song lyrics. And maybe the French would appreciate it. But it hardly amounted to any kind of revolution, literary or otherwise. I can't say that I was really disappointed. What more could you expect from the typical punk-rock overgrown juvenile, too hopped up to sit still long enough to write more than 150 words? On the other hand, he was writing something, which was considerably more than I was doing at the time, for all my knowingness and jadedness and the seniority of my 25 years. Maybe Dave Carluccio was onto something, however long it would take him to get there.

As the envelopes kept coming, their contents changed. The stories grew in length, formed series, were incorporated into collages. And Carluccio, who always wrote in the first person, became a character of his own devising, the hero of his stories, addressed by name by the other characters. One envelope consisted entirely of a sheaf of author's bios: he was variously a rogue CIA agent, a Vietnam War deserter, a drug trafficker operating out of the Golden Triangle, a con artist masquerading as a movie producer, a public-relations expert simultaneously working for and working to undermine every unsavory public figure in the world, a chameleonic and indiscriminate traitor to all sides.

I published some of Carluccio's work in an occasional zine I put out then, but I never managed to run into him again. My friends, who never met him at all, became convinced that I had invented him and was using the name as a pseudonym. I laughed along at first--if I had wanted a pen name, wouldn't I have come up with something more clever? But it started to grate a bit. I wouldn't have admitted it then, but my condescension toward Carluccio began shading into a feeling of rivalry, gradually deepening into jealousy. Meanwhile, the envelopes, which at first had all been posted in Manhattan, started appearing with more far-flung and even unlikely postmarks: Lincoln, Nebraska; Guelph, Ontario; Truckee, California; Guadalajara, Jalisco; Merida, Yucatan; Punta Gorda, Belize; Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Was he attempting to enact the character he wrote about? Or was it that his writing in some way reflected what his life had become?

1980 was an insane time, at least for me: drugs were spiraling up, romance was spiraling down, and melodrama was abundant. I had gotten a job in the mailroom of a prominent literary journal, a job that permitted me to arrive at noon--since my co-worker had to leave early to attend music lessons--and then not return after taking the mailbag to the post office, which I usually contrived to do before four o'clock. I was not serious. I was fucking around heavily, not writing, pretending to be a musician but not managing to practice. I walked around in a daze of self-kidding. Late one night in early summer I was perhaps on my way to or from a party, probably high, when I happened to pass the 24-hour copy shop on Mercer Street just south of Eighth. I glanced in briefly--it was the place where I had put together my zine, and I knew most of the employees. A few doors south I felt a hand on my shoulder. Once again I didn't recognize him. I've never been good with faces, but this time there was an additional reason. Carluccio had grown, broadened, darkened--he was very nearly a different person altogether. He led me back to the copy shop, where he was collating and folding stacks of sheets laid out in a row. He finished assembling one, stapled it, signed it, and handed it to me. We must have made some sort of conversation, but I remember none of it. I didn't even remember the chapbook until days later, when I picked my jacket up off the floor next to the bed and discovered it sticking out of the side pocket.

The book collects all the contents of all those envelopes, along with a sampling of other matter--letters, pronouncements, manifestos, poems, all of it strung together apparently in chronological order. It is hasty, confused, random, jejune--and it is bursting with every kind of world-beating youthful energy. It would have made a fine first effort for anybody, the sort of thing that sits unsold on the consignment shelves of bookstores for months and even years, and then suddenly is changing hands for four figures, and eventually cannot be obtained at all unless some major collector dies. But Carluccio's slim volume is both exceedingly rare and exceedingly obscure. For all intents and purposes it doesn't exist. He will never produce a follow-up. It was my friend G., then working for the AP, who spotted the item on the teletype in 1983. I've managed to lose the printout he sent me, but the gist was that a corpse of foreign appearance, found at a border station near Antombran, Guatemala, just across from El Salvador, had been indentified as a certain David Carluccio, 24 years old, of Scotch Plains, New Jersey. He had been killed with a machete. Local police were investigating the matter.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Grasshopper and the Ant

Like the ant, the teenage stoner labors ceaselessly and uncomplaining, pursuing an arduous task that casual onlookers would dismiss as pointless, yet which is essential to the little creature's survival. Like the ant, the stoner lacks an animating concept, but sets to work at one corner and emerges, hours or days later, at the opposite corner. Like the insane who express themselves visually, the stoner is drawn to symmetry, to altars and monuments, to murky quasi-spiritual allusions, and like them, too, the stoner abhors a vacuum. Like Manny Farber's termite, the stoner "leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity," although unlike the termite the stoner is unlikely to be rediscovered by the French. Like the ant, the stoner can carry many times his or her weight, often traveling through dense undergrowth or over endless arid terrain, and appears to enjoy using outmoded or simply impractical tools--in this case a Hunt's Crow Quill pen, hence the blots. Like the ant, the stoner endures the contempt of family and friends in stoic if sullen silence. Unlike the ant, the stoner will require eyeglasses--if not now, then soon. Unlike the ant, the stoner works to the accompaniment of music, typically some carpetlike stream of psychedelic monotony. Like the ant, the stoner is as yet innocent of carnal pleasure. Like the grasshopper, the stoner--as the name would indicate--is on drugs.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Not Fade Away (part 6)

“Sally Go Round the Roses” is a strange song that can seem as though it is following you around. A writer somewhere called it an ovoid, and that seems apt. The instrumental backing is functionally a loop, a brief syncopated phrase led by piano and followed by bass fiddle and drums, that repeats as often as a rhythm sample. It makes the song float, hover like a cloud. Sitting on top of the cloud are girls, a lot of girls, at least eight of them in multitracked call-and-response, at once ethereal and obsessive. The chorus tells Sally to go round the roses, that the roses can’t hurt her, that they won’t tell her secret. It tells her not to go downtown. It tells her to cry, to let her hair hang down. It tells her that the saddest thing in the whole wide world is to see your baby with another girl.

The record is credited to the Jaynetts, although that seems to have been a label applied by the producers to various aggregations assembled in studios on various dates with varying results. There were other songs with that attribution; they left no mark on the world, nor did they deserve to. This one made it to number two on the charts in 1963. Even the first time you hear it, it sounds as if you’ve always known it. It comes over you like a glow or a chill. It comes over the couple as they sit, shivering, on the rooftop of an old building in Chinatown. It is August, but that does not prevent the air from feeling glacial. They’ve been talking all night, at cross-purposes. Each feels that only a personal failure of rhetorical skill prevents the other from embracing the correct view. But every clarifying or corrective word widens the gulf.

How many Jaynetts were there? Did they ever appear before an audience? What did they look like? Did they wear bouffantes and long gold lamé dresses, or kerchiefs and sweatshirts and three-quarter-length pants? How was the song heard by its first listeners? How is it heard today? Did everybody but us mistake it for an ordinary anodyne pop song? Where did the song really come from? Was the song actually written by someone who sat down at the piano one day? Was it sung to the pretended author in a bar by a stranger who thereupon dropped dead? Did it just somehow materialize, in the form we know today, on a reel-to-reel tape with no indication of origin? Why does it seem to resist the grubby quotidian context from which all things come, particularly pop songs aimed at a nebulously conceived teenage audience? Is it simply a brilliant void like those that periodically inflame the popular imagination, which allow their consumers to project any amount of emotional intensity upon them and merely send it back in slightly rearranged form, so that it can seem to anticipate their wishes and embody their desires and populate their loneliness and hold out a comforting hand, when it is in reality nothing but a doll with mirrored eyes?

Now they’ve stopped talking, from fatigue and futility. They’re drained, and that in concert with the cold air makes them feel as if they’re drifting, carried by breezes far from their rooftop and away over the city, over its skyscrapers and bridges, flung this way and that, speeding up and slowing down, weightless as a couple of feathers. There are trucks moving below them, and pigeons at eye level, and up above is the contrail of a jet. There are few lights on in windows, no visible humans anywhere. They sit, or float, atop a dead city, enmired in a darkness that does not even manage to be satisfyingly black. Just then the sun’s first rays point up over the horizon and begin to describe a fan, each separate ray distinct, almost solid. It is the dawn as represented in nineteenth-century anarchist engravings: the advent of the new world. Silently they regard this phenomenon. It seems cruelly and pointlessly ill-timed, purely gratuitous and designed to mock them. It is the earth’s epic ritual enactment of beginning, and they are at an end. They become aware once again of the song, hovering over the rooftops, emanating from some unseen radio. Sally goes round the roses and keeps going around them: it is a circle. It has no point of entry or exit. They have no purchase over it, no more than they have power over the sun. It, whatever it might be, will continue beginning and ending, over and over and over again, per omnia saecula saeculorum.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Not Fade Away (part 5)

Dear D.,

I went over to M.’s to retrieve my letters and whatever else from the four big crates of stuff she salvaged from E.’s apartment when E. entered the nursing home a few months before she died. It took me a few years to work up the courage to ask. I wanted the letters, I justified, because they were probably the closest thing to a diary I ever kept, in the key years 1979-1983. In other words I was exercising my usual dodge, which is to turn all of life into research materials. M. was game if not exactly eager. One corridor of her apartment is choked with boxes--the rest consist of her father’s belongings, and they will undoubtedly soon be joined by her mother’s. She hadn’t opened any of the crates since hurriedly packing them more than four years ago.

Late in the evening, after dinner, we began to dig. It was quite literally like entering a tomb. There was E.’s Perfecto jacket; there was a small box containing a gold tooth and a lock of her hair; there was a whole box of her eyeglasses. There were boxes and boxes of collage materials, of her photographs and negatives, of notebooks. There was copious evidence of her study of botany (she took university classes in the subject at some point), of her various pursuits of therapy, of her adherence to Buddhism (much more serious and longstanding than any of us unbeliever friends realized). And there were many bags and boxes of letters. This was just the stuff M. kept--I understood firsthand the harshness of trying to make those sorts of decisions, in a hurry and under major psychological stress, and my parents’ house didn’t even reek overwhelmingly of urine.

Going through the boxes caused me to enter a state that I suppose was not unlike shock. I took my letters and nothing else, went back to my hotel and read all of them, then couldn’t sleep. On the one hand I wasn’t wrong; the letters are indeed the only real record I have of those years, and I have nothing to cringe about concerning their style or expression--E. always brought out the best in me that way. They are full of detail about those days, that is when they don’t consist of naked pleas. Reading them felt vertiginous, like being admitted back to that apartment on First Avenue for fifteen minutes of an afternoon in 1979 and experiencing all over again the despair and optimism and boredom and love and fun and heedlessness and anguish of that time. And it brought her back into a kind of three-dimensionality that I’d forgotten--my jealousy rushed right back. There were a few unmailed letters from her to me, too. One of them, from after her last visit to New York in 1990, may be the most romantic letter she ever wrote me. I can’t help but speculate on what would have happened had I received it.

She was getting crazier and crazier as well as sicker at the time. Photographs of her from before she became immobilized by her illness show her grinning wildly with a missing front tooth, aggressively unkempt, looking like someone who’d hit you up for spare change in Tompkins Square Park. Could I imagine myself nursing her until her death? But she wouldn’t have permitted that anyway. M. reports that at her memorial the room was crowded with people, few of whom knew any of the others. She needed to compartmentalize her life, and that was one of our chief stumbling blocks as a couple. Of course I understood, since I have similar tendencies, but I wanted her exclusively. I can’t begin to account for the chaos of emotions this has all raised in me, the sheer number and variety of them. Part of me wanted to take those four crates--M. doesn’t know what to do with them. They are E.’s life, her complexity, her unbelievable array of talents and their utter dissipation. She’s going to haunt me for the rest of my days--do I wish I’d never met her? But that’s like trying to imagine my life as another person. She changed me, totally and irreversibly.

Interesting to hear M. say that as far as she’s aware E. cracked at some point in her last year of high school, and was never the same again. A banal incident--she backed over a row of metal garbage cans while trying to drive (she was always an awful driver)--sent her over the edge. M. dates E.’s cruelty to her (she was consistently vicious to M.), among other things, to that time. That sounds too neat, but who knows? In my experience she didn’t start seeming or acting weird until we’d been together about nine months, maybe sometime in the spring of ‘75. Here’s a random snapshot of E.: One time during her next-to-last New York visit (’87?), M. and her boyfriend of the time were going to a club and invited E. to come along. She insisted on stopping to get some takeout food, and then, to M.’s and boyfriend’s dismay, insisted on bringing it into the club to eat. You didn’t do things like that in clubs by that point. To me the story graphically illustrates an aspect of her. She specialized in the inappropriate. You’d constantly be wondering: What’s the deal, exactly? Is it that she wants to accommodate her own needs and conveniences regardless of whatever social codes are in effect? Does she mean to provoke? Is she oblivious to the reactions of others? Does she want to reorganize the whole world, starting here and now? Is she deliberately doing something gauche as a way of wrestling with her feelings of inadequacy and gaucheness? It may have been that all of those things were true, and that even ranking them in order of importance would be irrelevant. I could go on, but I won’t.

Love,

Friday, November 14, 2008

Not Fade Away (part 4)

Let me play you "Arleen," by General Echo, a seven-inch 45 on the Techniques label, produced by Winston Riley, a number one hit in Jamaica in the autumn of 1979. "Arleen" is in the Stalag 17 riddim, a slow, heavy, insinuating track that is nearly all bass--the drums do little more than bracket and punctuate, and the original's brass-section color has been entirely omitted in this version. I'm not really sure what Echo is saying. It sounds like "Arleen wants to dream with a dream." A dream within a dream. Whether or not those are his actual words, it is the immediate sense. The riddim is at once liquid and halting, as if it were moving through a dark room filled with hanging draperies, incense and ganja smoke, sluggish and nearly impenetrable air--the bass walks and hurtles. Echo's delivery is mostly talkover, with just a bit of sing-song at the end of the verse. It is suggestive, seductive, hypnotic, light-footed, veiling questionable designs under a scrim of innocence, or else addled, talking shit in a daze as a result of an injury: "My gal Arleen, she love whipped cream/ Everytime I check her she cook sardine...."

General Echo, whose real name was Errol Robinson, was prominent in the rise of "slackness," the sexually explicit reggae style that began to eclipse the Rastafarian "cultural" style in the late 1970s; his songs include "Bathroom Sex" and "I Love to Set Young Crutches on Fire" ("crotches," that is), as well as "Drunken Master" and "International Year of the Child." He had his first hit in 1977, put out three albums and a substantial number of singles--an indeterminate number because of the chaos and profusion of Jamaican releases, then as now. Along with two other members of his sound system, he was shot dead on the street by Kingston police in 1980; no one seems to know why.

I bought the record at the time it was on the Jamaican charts, from some punk store in downtown Manhattan. I first heard it at Isaiah's, a dance club that materialized every Thursday night in a fourth-floor loft on Broadway between Bleecker and Bond. This was a few years before the enormous wave of Jamaican immigration to the United States, which was mainly a phenomenon of the later '80s and a result of the kind of violence that killed General Echo. Nevertheless the club regulars were more than half Jamaican transplants, nearly all of them men. The walls were lined with impassive types wearing three-piece suits in shades of cream and tan, and broad-brimmed, high-crowned felt hats that looked at once Navaho and Hasidic, with their locks gathered up inside. They danced as if they didn't want to dance but couldn't entirely contain themselves--the merest suggestion of movement: a shoulder here, a hip there. It was hard not to feel judged by this lineup; I kept ratcheting down the enthusiasm level of my dancing. But they didn't even see me. Whatever else might have been going on in their lives they were, in immemorial fashion, bachelors at a dance, and this gave the club a taste of the grange hall. Sometimes I went there with a girlfriend, sometimes with a group of people. We smoked weed and drank Red Stripe and sometimes inhaled poppers, which would lend you huge brief bursts of euphoric energy and then foreclose, leaving you in a puddle. I hardly ever made it to the 4 AM closing because the next day I had to work, and four hours' sleep made me feel sick. As a result I missed all the incidents involving guns, which invariably occurred at the end of the night. The club would have to shut down, for weeks or months at a time--it was anyway unclear what went on in the loft the other six nights and seven days; maybe people lived there. Eventually the owners installed a metal detector, the first one I ever encountered, little suspecting they would one day be ubiquitous.

We went there for the bass, and the trance state resulting from hours of dancing to riddim that stretched forever, the groove a fabric of stacked beats fractally splitting into halves of halves of halves of halves, a tree that spread its branches through the body, setting the governor beat in the torso and shaking its tributaries outward and down through shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, feet so that you couldn't stop except when you collapsed. Most often I went there with E., who danced like a whip, and who could keep on well past my exhaustion limit, and because I needed her I did so, too. Dancing was our chief mode of communication, an intimacy like two people sleeping together in different dreams, our bodies carrying on a conversation while our minds were in eidetic twilight. Neither of us really trusted language with each other, so we found this medium of exchange that trumped it, precluding silence and misunderstanding. She had a small body whose axis was set on powerful hips with an engine's torque, while above the waist she was all moues and flutters, a belle minus a carnet de bal, so that the sum of her was exactly like the music: the massive horsepower of the bass below and the delicate broken crystal guitar and plaintive childlike melodica above.

We lived in that place called youth where everything is terribly, punishingly final day by day, and at the same time tentative and approximate and subject to preemptive revision. We broke up and got back together, again and again, we lived together or we lived at opposite ends of the island, then she moved west and didn't come back, and I went out there but elected not to stay. Then her body betrayed her. She became allergic first to television, then to television when it was turned off, then to inactive televisions downstairs or next door, then to recently manufactured objects, then to so many various and apparently random stimuli she became her own book of Leviticus. Then her muscles gave way and she couldn't dance, then couldn't walk, then couldn't speak, and in the end became just a head attached by a string to a useless doll's body before she stopped being able to swallow and soon after to breathe.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Not Fade Away (part 3)

“Finally have enough ideas for my own things to work on that I can see the advantage of not having to work. Not that I ever wanted to have a full time job but it was a little mysterious to me what I’d do w the free time besides get fucked up etcet. On saying that I suppose I’ll promptly dry out. On the other hand, sometimes I get sick of imposing myself on my environment. But I console myself by saying its merely a matter of degree since you can’t stop that jazz except by getting dead anyway. All trottoirs lead to the junkyard.”

“Got offered a job in Montana as cook on a ranch--explained my job situation, was told to call collect in the spring if still interested. May vy well be. What passes for the advantages of the city don’t impress me. Meantime I start teaching Monday, me and S. planning an interior house painting biz, may have silkscreening/photo jobs freelance. Lots of film to mess with and some collage ideas still intact. Got a Greek dictionary the better to write to my grandmother. D’ like to start making casts, finish my videotape, learn how to use a gun, buy a bicycle, play better pool, do more architectural drawings & keep my dirty socks out of my work room, my newspapers & bus transfers out of my bed, & myself out of shitty klubs. Am going to try vy hard to have no more catatonic afternoons/hung over mornings (starting day after tomorrow). The odd dates are all New Year’s Day, the evens the day of atonement. Well, no, I really am in more control of things. Don’t give a shit about any particular end pts as long as the process is satisfying. One life to live--organ break here. Then ad for disposable razors.”

“I hope I don’t get dull out here. I consult myself periodically to see if I’m ‘done,’ ready to leave. I’m anxious in a way to have this period behind me, to be frivolous is a social embarrassment. But at the same time the theme of the period is to wish away nothing so I can’t regret it.”

“Walking to work through the neon in the Stockton tunnel at 6:30 A.M. it occurs to me that I’m a PRODUCT OF EVOLUTION. But I’m not satisfied. I suppose its no better than even odds you’d believe I’m working the morning shift in a restaurant in the financial district for minimum wage.”

“Someone gave me a blue black pearl earring so I got my ear pierced & am wearing it. Its vy beautiful & looks good but makes me look vy fem(me) (?) & seems unnatural almost perverted to me for me.”

“So a new legs been added to the graph of moods & it’s a goat’s leg. Expect to be bored to death today at the liquor store. Had a marvelous day of filling a brick wall w cement yesterday.”

“I have an outrageous calligraphic scar on my ass that I got fr accidentally leaning on the grill of the beloved Sahara heater when it was red hot & I was stark naked. Its one of my favorite things abt myself along w my gold tooth.”

“The birds are singing, the 4:30 A.M. ones.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Not Fade Away (part 2)


Historically, she got off the bus. Most of the rest is conjecture on my part, but she did get off the bus, in the aquarium depths of the lowest platform at Port Authority, a bus of the Pallas Athena line, from someplace in New Jersey--western New Jersey, she insisted, out near the Red River declivity, where the mesas begin, “the biggest sky you ever saw.” West of Trenton, even. She claimed there were fourteen people in her family and that she had to leave because they needed her room to lodge hands for the pea harvest. She carried a large plastic suitcase and an army duffel bag reinforced with duct tape. They were too heavy for her, so she dragged them along, past all the chaotic intersecting lines of people waiting to get on other buses, past the black nun with a basket on her lap at the foot of the escalator, past the lunch counters and drugstores and necktie displays, past the hustlers and the plainclothesmen and the translucent figures who came to the terminal just because they liked the smell of people.

She marched through the main hall and out the glass doors onto the avenue, and then, I imagine, she unhesitatingly turned right and started downtown, because she wasn’t one to dally. I can see her plowing down the avenue with her twin cargo containers angling out behind her, scattering the lunchtime crowd like bowling pins. She cut quite a figure at five foot nothing in boots, although I don’t know if she yet had the black leather Perfecto jacket she was to wear in every possible kind of weather. Her hair was long then, gathered in one braid like the heroine of a Chinese proletarian opera. She hadn’t yet started on her campaign--spectacularly unsuccessful--to make herself unapproachably ugly, so her glasses were delicate wire things rather than welder’s goggles with perforated side-pieces. She looked about fourteen, maybe even nine in certain kinds of light, and yet there was something about her, some kind of juju she emanated, possibly the adamantine stare that seemed to precede her into a room, that caused grown men to tiptoe around her. Whatever she was wearing, nobody would have given her any guff about running over their toes with her ten-ton bags.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Not Fade Away (part 1)

(As long as this blog is sitting on its hands, we might as well assign it some make-work, in this case as a slap-up reprint house. For the next six days we'll be serializing a story that was published in the spring of 2007 in Conjunctions, and has appeared online only in French translation.)

Very late that night, riding home on the train as it shoots past the graffiti-washed vacant stations on the local track, they stare straight ahead, unable to explain or articulate the sense of dread that fills them both except by reference to the lateness of the hour, or the ebbing of the drugs, or the onset of a cold. The nearly empty train is going too fast, and it leans around curves as if the wheels on one side have lost contact with the track, and the lights periodically wink off for as much as a minute at a time. They sit slumped in a double seat next to a door. Whenever the train stops at a station the doors open and nothing comes in, an almost palpable nothing. Neither bothers to look because they can feel it slide in and take its place among the already assembled nothing. The air is heavy with the weight of an earlier week, when it was still summer in the streets above. The light breaks up into particles. Down here the night could last forever. The song is "Florence," by the Paragons.

Mind if I play it for you? Here it is, on The Best of "Winley" Records, volume seven of "The Golden Groups" on the Relic label, an ancient copy with varicolored stains on the back of the sleeve and a skip in the middle of the cut in question. The skip is annoying, but it also feels like a part of the fabric, along with the hollow-centered production, the dogged piano like the labor of the accompanist at a grade-school assembly, the groans of the four supporting Paragons, and the agony of Julius McMichael's falsetto lead. It's a daredevil performance, a miracle of endurance--he sounds as if he will dissolve into coughing and retching or perhaps even drop dead before the end of the track. The song wants to be a ballad but keeps turning into a dirge. It's so ghostly you can't imagine it ever sounding new. But then doo-wop is a spectral genre. It actually happened on street corners; what transpired in the recording studio, afterward, might sound posthumous.

"Florence" happened below street level. It happened in a cave, in an abandoned warehouse, in an unknown room eight stories under Grand Central Station at five o'clock in the morning. Probably it took place in an impersonal studio off Times Square panelled with that white pasteboard stuff gridded with holes, with folding chairs and ashtrays and demitasse-size paper cups of water and a battered upright piano. Probably the Paragons got a twenty-dollar advance apiece, if that, and then they took the subway home to East Tremont or wherever it was they came from. "Florence" has reached our couple two decades after its release through the medium of oldies radio--a medium of chattering middle-aged men, audibly overweight, short-sleeved even in the dead of winter, who are capable of putting on the spookiest sides without seeming to notice the weirdness as they jabber on about trivia before and after. Doo-wop became "oldies" in 1959, when it was still kicking, a premature burial but a phenomenon that allowed records that had sold a hundred copies in the Bronx when new to suddenly go nationwide and become phantom hits a couple of years later. But "Florence" cuts through the format with its breathtaking weirdness. The piano, the groans, the keening falsetto--it comes on as Martian. "Oh, Florence, you're an angel, from a world up above," raves the singer in a dog-whistle register that symbolically indicates the purity and intensity of his passion, while an Arctic wind blows through any room where the song is played.

Naturally our couple don't know that each has "Florence" playing on the internal soundtrack, not that either would be surprised. The hour, the chill, the sticky yellow light, the vertical plunge from a high--all call down "Florence." The moment could feel merely depressed, small-time, pathetic, but "Florence" in its strangeness lends it magnificence. They feel heroically tragic in their stupor. "Florence" places the moment in the corridor of history, makes it an episode, emphasizes its romance and fragility and proximity to heartbreak, suggests that a contrasting scene will follow directly.

Now they have emerged into the weak pre-dawn light of the street. The place is empty except for garbage trucks. The traffic light runs through its repertory of colors to no effect. They still haven't spoken, not in an hour or more. Words feel too huge to shovel onto their tongues. The lack of traffic is convenient, since their reflexes are too slow to negotiate any. They walk, side by side, down the street of shuttered stores, each plodding step a small conquest of space. The apartment seems impossibly distant, their progress the retreat from Moscow. At this hour time doesn't exist, actually. The hour just before dawn looks like night, but with all of night's glamour stripped away, and although habit assumes that dawn will soon arrive and peel back the sky, there is no real evidence of this. Darkness clutches the world and will not give it up. The calendar year is an even flimsier proposition; only the 24-hour newsstands maintain it, here and there shouting it into the void like street-corner proselytizers. The year is a random set of four digits that may or may not coincide with the information imparted by the posters wheat-pasted on the windows of empty storefronts. In all probability, "Florence" has not yet been composed or recorded. Our couple has imagined it. When they awaken the following afternoon, they won't remember how it visited them.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Placeholder

It's when I see how many people link to this blog that I feel bad about being so erratic and moody and cyclical and distracted. But yes, Pinakothek is still alive. It's merely sitting out a few games with a rotator cuff injury that probably will not require surgery but does demand a great deal of staring off into space. It shall return.

Friday, September 5, 2008

That's When Your Heartaches Begin

"Cats," I said, "Let's get real, real gone"--and the rest is history. Or it should have been. Because no one outside my immediate family has ever heard this legendary performance, recorded in a rickety booth on the Rockaway midway on August 16, 1952. My sidemen, Carl Jr. and Bip, were sadly caught in the eye of a multi-vehicle pileup on Cross Bay Boulevard on their way home, and their talents were claimed for the choir eternal. And neither my family nor myself have heard the recording since the evening of that fateful day. The minute the tone arm came down on its grooves we trembled, realizing its revolutionary significance. We knew that if anyone were to release its contents, the course of history would be altered and the youth of America--nay, the planet--would never be the same again.

Aghast at what I had wrought, I immediately arranged to meet with an agent, a fancy man from one of the Sixth Avenue talent farms. He summoned me to his office steam room, where he smoked a panatella while one sleek beauty buffed his toenails as another marcelled what was left of his hair. He didn't want to hear the recording; he wanted to hear my pipes. I tried to explain; he waved away my concerns. He wanted me to sing "Silver Threads Among the Gold," there and then. And I could have, you know. I could have capitulated, and warbled right there in the steam room, and signed a lucrative contract, and endured a career as the next Danny Kaye or Mario Lanza. But I gagged at the prospect. He was not a man with a vision. I left, dejected, and went to sit in a booth at Jack Dempsey's, barely able to choke down my double order of banana cheesecake.

Oh, I tried other agents, with similar results. I called record companies cold and was offered a typing test. I called radio stations and was taken for a subversive and visited by government agents and compelled to sign a loyalty oath. I called a legendary all-night disk jockey whom I will not name, and he was amenable to meeting me and hearing my recording. He even sounded enthusiastic at the prospect, and arranged for me to come to his table at the Hotcha Room, in the Hotel Murray on 44th Street. When I presented myself, though, his face fell. Perhaps it was because I was over forty and a slight bit out of shape. He abruptly gave me the gate, with no apology or even a drink. And so it went, a veritable calvary, a trail of tears. I could not get anyone in a position of power and influence to so much as listen to my recording. Eventually I gave up. I faithfully went to work each day in the mail-sorting facility in Woodmere and tried to forget. My family was sympathetic, and plied me with baked goods to assuage my sorrows.

Now, however, I am at peace, living here in quiet comfort, gently swaying in the sea breezes not very far from the beach in Palm Shallows, Florida. I've been traveling every day to my self-storage facility nearby and sorting through eighty years of precious memories. I've found many, many irreplaceable relics from a life rich in love and laughter and have systematically sold them on eBay, gradually assuring further monthly payments on my trailer lot. Then, just yesterday, I turned up my history-making record. I had actually managed to forget it; for a few minutes I wasn't sure what it was. Then the memories came flooding back. Reconstructing the events of that day, I could hear its unprecedented sound in my mind's ear. I instantly knew that even today, after so many rotations of the earth and so many changes in fashion, my recording would still sound like nothing else. And so I will be listing it on eBay, with a modest opening bid 0f $10,000, with free shipping, insurance included. The buyer should beware, though. Should it be released to the wider world, thrones will topple, beliefs will be scrambled and the very conduct of life will be upended. I will retain copyright. And if you leave me positive feedback, I will do the same for you.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Summer in the City


One night an old Pontiac driven by an overburdened father of six went out of control on Avenue A and crashed into a corner building, bringing the whole thing down. The noise was overwhelming, an explosion. People came running from bars and bedrooms. The tenement--empty for years--just dissolved into a hill of bricks, from under which one solitary taillight poked out, its turn signal still for some reason pulsing red. Eventually the cops showed up and tied off the scene with sawhorses, but by then a party had begun to take shape. Somebody had a radio or maybe it was a cassette player, emitting charanga. Joints and bottles of Ronrico and forties of Olde English went around. Percussion started up, keys and knives on bottles tapping the clave rhythm. A man in late middle age who looked like a goat kept enjoining the crowd in a loud bray to "show some resPECT," but nobody paid him any mind. Cop cars at night, with their lights spinning around, splashing the sides of the buildings and visible from blocks away, nearly always put everybody in a party mood. By now there were at least a hundred people milling around, laughing and pointing, shrieking and clowning, quite a number of them dancing. Even the cops were getting into it.

An ambulance and a firetruck arrived along with another squad car. The firemen got busy digging through the rubble while the ambulance crew stood around and shot the shit with the locals. It turned out it wasn't even the second or third building collapse of the day, but the seventh. One in Inwood, two in Chinatown, three in Harlem. This not counting the fires. Even as they spoke, said somebody, two separate tenements along Avenue C were burning, one of them for the third time--what could be left of it? And how about those Mets, somebody else said. Everybody laughed, then the conversation petered out. What could anybody say? For all anybody knew, their building might be next. You didn’t really want to go around to the back and see the fault lines in the brick face, or go down to the cellar and see the sag. You really really didn’t want to speculate about what your landlord might have in store or what his tax situation was like.

Time passed. It seemed like the whole neighborhood had showed up. People in pajamas rubbed elbows with people in disco outfits. A guy appeared with a shaved-ice setup in a shopping cart and immediately began doing a brisk business. By now the cops had gotten to the car and were deploying mammoth pliers on the roof, trying to wrench it open. It was something to see, like mice trying to open a can of sardines, but it was taking too long. The crowd started losing patience. "Hey papi, you want a hand?" yelled a woman who looked like a ten-year-old until you saw her face up close, and some guy in the back shouted a rejoinder in Spanish that cracked up the whole crowd. Pretty soon everybody was calling out lines at the cops the way they shouted at the screen when a movie started to drag. The cops fastidiously ignored the backchat, just as they ignored the characters standing right next to them smoking cheeba.

Everybody who was anybody was in the crowd. The man with the crutch was all over the street. It was never clear whether he actually needed it or just used it as a stage prop. He was often, as now, seen walking normally while gesticulating with the crutch, shouting all the while. Over there, bending the ear of a young cop who was attempting to pry himself away without leaving his post, was the little man who showed up at all public functions, waving a greasy, much folded piece of paper that may once have been an official document. His cause, an ancient and esoteric grievance, was instantly forgotten by anyone who listened to two minutes of it, although it seemed to keep him alive. The dirty shirtless man with the nine misshapen and mange-ridden dogs was there--from the look of them you assumed a carnival of incest--and so was the marooned Swiss woman with the stainless-steel hip who regularly woke up everybody on the block calling all night for her cat, Gaston. Lolling here and there were various of those locality drunks--usually somebody's brother--who got themselves adopted by the tenancy of a half-block, so that little girls bought them jelly cakes at the bodega and their mothers thrust sweaters upon them in October and baseball hats in June.

An hour limped by while the cops kept working. Soon after the crowd hit its maximum the excitement level started dropping fast. People went back to bed or dominoes or television, probably, but it almost looked as if they had just evaporated, like spilled beer on a car hood in the sun. One minute there were fifty people standing right in front of you, and then you blinked and they were gone. You could hear the music fading away down the avenue. Soon enough there were just three skels left alone on the avenue with their quart of Don Diego rum, and everybody else was spared the sight of the crushed body as the cops hauled it out on the gurney. The ambulance's doors finally slammed, and it took off at full throttle with lights spinning and sirens blasting, followed by squad cars doing likewise. You might wonder how dead a body had to be for them to slink off in silence, but most likely they were just having a little fun.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Corpus Delicti

Inventory of the effects of Nils F., deckhand, found dead of undetermined causes in doorway on Ruelle des Prêtres, Toulon, 19 February 1933.

One canvas duffel bag. Two cotton jerseys, off-white; four pairs woolen underdrawers, off-white; three pairs woolen socks, blue; one pair serge trousers, gray; one pair waxed canvas trousers, blue; one cotton shirt, white; one necktie, maroon; one woolen turtleneck sweater, blue; one serge suit coat, brown; one waxed canvas jacket, gray; three cotton handkerchiefs, white; one pair espadrilles, blue; one flat tweed cap, gray. One safety razor; one opened package Wilkinson Sword razor blades; one shaving brush; one cake tallow soap wrapped in butcher paper. One-half link hard salami, wrapped in butcher paper. One bone-handled knife; one tin spoon; one tin cup, blue. One packet letters, in foreign language, tied with string; one exercise book, covered in blue paper, three pages filled with writing in foreign language; one pencil. Brown envelope containing three photographs: woman, man and woman, child. One book, apparently devotional, in foreign language, covered in black imitation leather; one copy, Danseuses et Baigneuses, published in Antwerp, 15 August 1928, water-stained.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Shroud

In the late spring of 1964, a freshly-minted graduate of the Lutheran Seminary in Choctaw, Kansas, I was assigned by the synod to my first pastoral posting, a church in the small town of Abelard, on the North Dakota plains, up near the Canadian border. My car had recently died, and so had my father, conveniently enough, so that I inherited his '55 Buick Century Riviera coupe, which passed for a small car in those days, since it only had two doors. The car was certainly big enough for me. I tossed my grip and a box of books in the trunk, unbent the aerial and got the radio working, had Don down at Sheffly's take a look at the tires and the fluid levels, and took to the road. I had plenty of time. The congregation was still celebrating the retirement of the incumbent pastor and weren't expecting me until after the Fourth of July. I could have sat around my parents' house for a few weeks, but I was restless, and all my friends were off starting their adult lives in coastal cities, so I decided to zigzag my way northwest in leisurely fashion. I could live on bread and peanut butter and sleep stretched across the back seat, which was more than adequate for the purpose.

It quickly became apparent that the route was monotonous, and that no matter how slowly I drove I would still arrive in Abelard within a week. I should have figured that out in advance, of course, but I really hadn't traveled much outside my home region and still carried an illustrated map in my head that owed a great deal to the pictures in the books I had read as a child. I imagined that every stretch of road would include a body of water, a mountain range, a forest, a city, and a wayside inn where I would stop for refreshment and meet a cast of colorful characters. None of these things was forthcoming--anywhere, apparently. So I decided to get myself lost. I began turning randomly and suddenly, now pointed south, now west, now north again. After two days of this, and with signage erratic enough that I had no idea where I was, I noticed, rather belatedly, that I was almost out of gas.

I was on the plains, as I had been since the hour of my departure. The road was yardstick straight, the landscape ironing-board flat. Great fields of weather were broadcast far and wide in the sky--a low front over that way, sunshine back there, in front of me a range of tall yellow clouds so massively three-dimensional I could imagine angels milling around atop them and plucking their lyres in the recesses. As soon as I had snapped out of my reverie and realized that what I saw was a thunderhead, the storm was upon me with a vengeance. It was hailing, with stones so large I feared for my windshield. It sounded as if a team of strong men was having at the top of my car with ball-peen hammers. Visibility was close to nil, but up ahead I could make out some buildings. The first one on my right was a decrepit Victorian house that had some kind of shed-like extension on the side, functionally a carport. Without asking anyone's permission I drove straight in and parked under it.

I sat there for more than an hour, waiting out the storm, suddenly feeling troubled. My heart, for no apparent reason, was racing. I forced myself to get out of the car--I saw that the body sported a few new dents, but they blended right in with the old ones--and noticed that the downpour had eased to a light rain. I got back in and turned the key. Nothing happened. I was out of gas. Cursing myself, but grateful that I was in some kind of settlement, I decided to see if someone would let me siphon a gallon and tell me the way to the nearest service station. The hamlet had decidedly seen livelier days. There were three other old houses, a building with large, filthy windows that was presumably a store, and a wooden church missing the upper half of its steeple. I couldn't see any vehicles around. I knocked on the door of the house that had sheltered me. No response. The same thing happened at the other houses. The store was clearly shut, although I could make out dim shapes of groceries on the shelves.

The church door was unlocked, and I walked right in. The first thing I noticed was that, although outside the hot, muggy plains summer was already in effect, inside the air was as cool as a cave. The church seemed not to have been used in recent years. There was a thick, fleecy coating of dust on every surface. The hymn books were mildewed. The altar cloth lay in strips, as though flayed. Above, the spindly cross had lost the top nail fixing it to the wall and hung upside down. I left and began systematically walking around the houses, inspecting their outbuildings, but all I managed to find were an ancient panel truck and an even older touring car--I think it was a Pierce-Arrow, although the tag was gone--both of their fuel tanks bone-dry. Finally I decided to see if I could locate a telephone.

I fully expected to find the houses empty, actually, but the first one I tried--the house that I had sheltered next to--was as unlocked as the church, and as cool, and as decayingly furnished. The parlor was a riot of carpets and overstuffed chairs and draperies and knicknack shelves, all of them variously torn, sagging, broken, and coated with greasy layers of dust. The piano appeared intact, but when I experimentally plunked a few keys, the result was a sound like tearing metal. The dining table was set for six, with cut-glass goblets and gilt-edged plates all strung together with spiderwebs. Astonishingly, it appeared that there had been food on the plates when they were abandoned. The only trace left was a scummy residue on each of the plates, along with a scattering of bones. Even the flies had gone. The kitchen, likewise, was filled with signs of activity--bowls, whisks, roasting pans, cutting boards and knives, all out on the counters, all of them dust-covered and as it were mummified. There seemed to be a yellowish pall in the air.

Upstairs, the bedrooms were in comparable condition. The quilts and the horsehair mattresses were so decayed they looked like growths at the base of a tree. I had been trying not to touch anything, but then I tripped on a corner of a throw-rug and fell sprawling across the master bed, which erupted in a shower of dust and what looked like dandelion fuzz, and emitted a smell like rancid mustard. The mattress and bedding completely gave way and I landed, heavily and painfully, on the springs. I would at that point have run out of the house and tried hitchhiking to a gas station--although I was suddenly aware than I hadn't seen another car in hours--but I was genuinely hurt, my chest lacerated and the wind knocked out of me. And I was dazed, not just by my fall but by all that I had taken in. I was getting a little funny in the head. I found myself thinking that I could see motion out of the corners of my eyes, that I could hear some kind of muffled music.

In fact, both those impressions had the same source. On the wall, or in front of it, at least, was a kind of shroud, a white cloth that was improbably rippling in the unmoving air, and giving off a kind of zizzering sound as if it were nylon with a heavy static charge. I confess I was afraid of it, even though I knew better. Reflexively I groped for the silver cross that hung around my neck, as if I were confronting a vampire. I forced myself to reach for the cloth, to pull it back, but the instant I did so it dissolved into specks in my hand. Then the thing that had been behind it fell forward and hit me in the face. It was a picture, on metal--a tintype--apparently a portrait of a woman. One of her eyes appeared to be floating out of her head, and she was surrounded by a cloud of what looked like...writing, or drawing, or maybe musical scales. It was hard to tell in the dim light. Clutching the picture, for no good reason, I somehow made it out of the house without the staircase or the floorboards caving in under my weight. I don't remember much of what happened after that. When I regained full consciousness I was handing a five-dollar bill to the pump jockey at a Sinclair station in Heliopolis, Illinois. Over his shoulder I noticed the tear-off calendar in the office. The date was July 7, 1965.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Turf

This was the view out my back window in New York City for more than ten years. That time (1979-1990) was the heyday of Wild Style, when graffiti truly became an artform, as is documented most vividly in Henry Chalfant's photographs. These tags, though, are primal. You can imagine them--in chalk--festooning an alley a century ago, or even earlier. Gang tags probably go back to antiquity. Today, owing to a couple of decades of outsized police response to graffiti, much urban tagging, accomplished under great pressure, is even cruder than this primal sort.

Wild Style graffiti is a late, studied, self-conscious phenomenon, a sterling example of postmodernism in action. This sort of zero-degree tagging, by contrast, seldom if ever even gestures in the direction of art (although photographs by Helen Levitt, Cartier-Bresson, and John Guttmann show examples of it that qualify as poetry). Both are unauthorized sets of marks made by urban youth, generally, on surfaces that do not belong to them. Graffiti of both sorts aims to broadcast and publicize the existence and identity of the tagger.

You might say that graffiti is, at base, a form of advertising. In the places where graffiti is found there is frequently also advertising of the authorized sort. Space rented from the owner of the surface in question is given over to printed tags that publicize goods and services for sale. You might say that the one form of advertising is intransitive--no action is required on the part of the beholder other than perhaps to steer clear if one is of a rival crew--while the other is transitive: it intends to prompt expenditure.

So the form of graffiti that inveigles the passerby into surrendering cash is viewed as legitimate by society, while the kind that is strictly gratuitous, or nearly so, is considered vandalism. The financial aspect has further ramifications, of course: the first sort pays rent while the second squats. But squatters never displace other tenants; they merely occupy otherwise vacant spaces. Likewise, graffiti roosts on unemployed surfaces. And as ugly as it sometimes is, it's indisputably human, which cannot be said about the post-industrial walls and sidings it occupies.

Yes, this is an argument I've been carrying in my pocket for thirty years. The passage of time may have made it less pressing, but hardly obsolete, I think.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Vile Smut

Reminiscing about my early days in the used-paper trade, I find that I can become tender if not actually moist-eyed at the thought of the publications that were both produced and purchased by the raincoat brigade. You young people today, saturated in smut, are so jaded and jaundiced and all that you may not immediately appreciate the pathos of the many approaches to porn in the time before the soi-disant sexual revolution. Consider the many shadings of the word "art," especially as applied to privately printed portfolios and editions of "exquisite" and "piquant" and sometimes "frank" character, intended exclusively for an audience of "discerning connoisseurs." Think of slim paperback novels, published in Hollywood in awkwardly boxy typefaces and dirt-colored wrappers, armed with introductions by persons able to append a Ph.D. to their names. Imagine a bookstore of the bygone sort, as discreet as a boudoir, with a curtained doorway in the rear leading to locked glass-fronted bookcases housing a category known as "curiosa."

These musings were occasioned by the rediscovery on my shelves of Sadism in the Movies, by one George [sic] de Coulteray, published in 1965, in a translation worthy of Babelfish, by the important-sounding Medical Press of New York City. "The book that shocked a nation," screams the dust jacket, an unlikely encomium coming from a starchy scientific publishing house. To read the book I find that I have to reverse-translate in my head, since many sentences make no sense whatever in English but are convincing in the presumed original as St.-Germain des Prés table talk:

"But one must admit that since the end of the 19th century one is in the presence of a rise so brutal that in our times the spanking has become the privileged form of what may be called minor sadism, a harmonious mixture of pain, slight in itself, and a ceremony which by making ridiculous, emphasizes its humiliating character, followed by the double arousal, active and passive."

But nobody ever read it, anyway. They bought the book for the pictures, half of which derive from the original and look as though they were photocopied with a machine of the era--they're so murky you can barely make them out. All the pictures are stills, all are unidentified, some show garden-variety brawls and others get into skulls-and-chains territory. Nearly all are so smudgy and hasty and low-rent they seem much smuttier than the movies themselves (or even a decent print of any given still) ever could. The one shown above is in its own right a terrific example of the power of film stills--you just can't imagine that the rest of the movie, whatever it is, could possibly measure up to the sheer sordidness of the image.

But to go back to the French, the adjacent book on the shelf is Lo Duca's L'Érotisme au Cinéma (J.-J. Pauvert, 1957) which is both serious and sumptuous in exactly the ways its neighbor isn't. Just flipping through it is guaranteed to inspire indulgent fondness for the French at their most nominally insufferable. Take this chart, for example, which is worthy of Edward Tufte's books:

The movies are (1) The Blue Angel, (2) Ecstasy, (3) Tabu, (4) The Lady from Shanghai, (5) Notorious, (6) Bitter Rice, (7) Manon, (8) Los Olvidados, (9) Miss Julie, and (10) One Summer of Happiness. No, I'd never heard of that last one, either. Don't you wish you could nonchalantly illustrate your humid reveries with charts so rigorously white-smocked? I certainly do.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Dunt Esk

This is the problem with blogs: You start blogging in an idle moment, and one thing leads to another and you wake up one day to find that you have readers. And readers, no matter how coolly disinterested they are nor how they are getting the deal free gratis for nothing, eventually become something like customers: they begin to have expectations. They expect frequent deliveries of new material. For the blogger--excepting, I guess, the fanatically driven or the logorrheic--the situation is like being a columnist, like one of our heroes at the great gray New York Bugle, with all the problems and responsibilities inherent, only you're not being paid. You're still bagging groceries to pay the rent, and that profession like all others has its seasons and its crises.
Maybe the association of ideas is why today we're featuring the work of the great Milt Gross, who knew from daily deadlines in his decades of newspaper employment. These are from his (criminally) out-of-print Nize Baby (1926), a work in prose and drawings that is one of the funniest books ever, and is especially recommended to children of immigrants, even if your home language wasn't Yiddish. But to reduce its matter merely to the comedy of ESL is to do it an injustice--imagine it as an episode of E. C. Segar's Thimble Theater with Finnegans Wake performed by the Marx Brothers. Even Smokey Stover fans will have to give it up to Milt, who as far as I'm aware actually coined the immortal password "banana oil."
So anyway, postings have become scarcer around here, and they may well become scarcer still, as our unpaid author contends with a mountain of past-due obligations, each of them with a promissory note attached to its curly little tail.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Amoenitates Belgicae

Early yesterday a friend across the Atlantic emailed me: "Tonight in Parliament the fuse was lit for the implosion of Belgium in sixty days." I've heard much doomsaying of this kind over the years, but this was a trifle more specific. The crux seems to be that the Flemish will claim a certain number of the ring towns around Brussels and make them Flemish by fiat, which means that residents (who may, depending on the town, be largely or even overwhelmingly francophone) will get electoral ballots naming only Flemish candidates, have access only to Flemish schools, face public officials who will refuse to speak or reply to French, etc. This in a roundabout way addresses the issue that has prevented Belgium from splitting into two parts thus far: that Brussels is both overwhelmingly francophone and at same same time the capital of Flanders. The Flemish militants appear to be on their way to making Brussels a Flemish city whether it likes it or not, a task which may also involve the purging of the--largely francophone--immigrant populations.

If Belgium splits into two, Flanders will vie with Norway for the top of the European Union food chain, while Wallonia will scramble with Portugal for the bottom. How is all this possible, you ask, in a stable, prosperous First World nation? The matter may or may not go back to the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302, as Flemish mythology would claim. It definitely goes back to the nineteenth century, when the country's post-independence ruling class spoke French and marginalized the Flemish, who could, for example, be arrested, tried, and sentenced without understanding the charges against them. My worker and peasant ancestors didn't speak French, either, and were marginalized themselves, but as Walloon speakers they could at least catch the rudiments of another Romance language.

The matter heated up after World War I, when the fact that Flemish militants had sided with the Germans occasioned public rancor. A similar set of issues caused unrest after the second World War, but it wasn't until the 1960s that the subject came to dominate the daily life of the nation. The heavy industries of Wallonia--steel, textiles, coal, glass--were dead or moribund, and Flanders, once largely rural and backward, had taken the economic lead. The Flemish separatists achieved a new credibility by stressing their unwillingness to carry the ailing South financially. I happened to be in Belgium in 1969, when the formerly state-mandated and universal bilingualism ended under pressure, with the other language being painted out on road signs, disappearing from menus and train schedules, the University of Louvain/Leuven splitting into two parts, and so on. Ever since, it has been a slow motion dissolve.

You can compare the situation to that of the former Yugoslavia: minor differences between neighboring populations with much interbreeding are exacerbated after the formerly overrun, colonized, and exploited area--as the future Belgium was for centuries before 1830--recovers its autonomy. Even so, I don't expect the situation to make much sense to outsiders. It hardly makes much sense to me, but then even though I carry a Belgian passport I've spent most of my life abroad. Belgium is a sick country. Flanders--in which I have quite a few friends--is disturbingly under the sway of far-right elements, while Wallonia--home to whatever remains of my family--is a swamp of corruption and institutionalized incompetence. I still carry a Belgian passport because, ironically enough, I have no belief in nations and no sense of any kind of national identity. (I am, ethnically, nearly one hundred percent Walloon, for whatever that's worth.) Will my ancestral home plunge to Second World status? Will it be propped up like a corpse in a chair by the European Union? Will it be adopted by France if it wags its tail hard enough? Will anyone not immediately affected even notice?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Who Owns New York?

That is the apt title of the Columbia University fight song. It's odd that I remember it, because I can't have heard it more than once or twice--my time there was the absolute nadir of school-spiritism, fraternities, attendance at sporting events. The old traditions were dying like bugs in a jar, and I did my best to help see them off. Still, the song's sentiment was implicit in the university's conduct, an arrogance barely dented by the events of a few years earlier--forty years ago this month.

Columbia University in the spring of 1968 was preparing to construct a gymnasium in Morningside Park, a park outside the school's property line and used mostly by the residents of Harlem. Very generously (in its own view) the university would allow Harlemites--who in those days were nearly one hundred percent African American--use of the gym, as long as they entered through the back door. To make a complicated story very simple, Rap Brown informed the citizens of Harlem of Columbia's plan and Students for a Democratic Society informed the students, and very soon the campus was enjoying an occupation and a strike. The gym, and the Jim-Crow and land-grab matters it entailed, remained at the center of the outrage, although Vietnam, corporate investment, institutional racism and elitism, the purpose and design of education, unthinking assent to social injustice, and dormitory visiting rules also entered the equation. Few people realize that Columbia's Spring '68 bacchanal preceded the one in Paris by several weeks.

A bacchanal it remained only briefly, though. The administration refused to negotiate with the striking students, the police came in with helmets and clubs and badge numbers blacked out, and they were abetted both by right-wing students and by the faculty, whose studied neutrality led them to block food deliveries to the strikers--their high-minded cowardice illustrates better than anything why "liberal" remained a vitriolic insult on the left for many years. Quite a lot of blood was shed. The police broke heads of people who were only standing up for principles. Nothing like it had been seen, at least not subsequent to the 1930s or north of Mississippi. If you want to read more, please see Hilton Obenzinger's extraordinary personal account, Busy Dying (Tucson: Chax, 2008).

I entered Columbia in the fall of 1972. The last real flare-up had occurred the previous May, when an antiwar demonstration led to a Days of Rage-style smashing of Fifth Avenue shop windows. I enthusiastically attended the semester's first meeting of SDS, only to have it turn out to be the meeting at which the local chapter dissolved itself. After that came political fatigue. I first heard the term "political correctness" then, but what it meant was that some campus politico would confront you on the Walk and ask where you stood on, say, the Polisario Front, and you knew it was a trick question--were they the true Spearhead of the People, or merely running-dog roaders for the CIA? Political involvement meant endless factional disputes, paranoia, poison. Lyndon LaRouche was prominent, as well as several competing varieties of Maoists. You can tell by looking at the eyes of the figure above what replaced political passion for the rest of us.

Despite the prop robes, I never bothered graduating, although to be fair I had a number of great teachers and happily lost myself in the vastness of the library, as well as making seven or eight friends who are still my friends. Not having graduated (nine incompletes; hundreds of dollars in library fines) did not prevent me from returning to teach there, in the MFA program, a couple of decades later. The place was no friendlier then than when I had been a student, maybe even less, since the Reagan years had infused a renewed spirit of entitlement, and the radical shift in the value of Manhattan real estate had considerably increased the institution's wealth. Right now Columbia is engaged in a wholesale annexation of West Harlem, proving that some things never change, although today there is little organized resistance and no publicity given to what there is. Anyway, the university is now only one of a hundred entities that could adopt the fight song as its own.

Photo by Matt Kennedy. And where is he now?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Pinacotecata

"I have painted thought." --Nicolas Poussin

"The magnificent light in Courbet's paintings is for me the same as that of the Place Vendôme, at the time the Column fell." --André Breton, Nadja

It's just occurred to me that I have less than a month to see shows at the Met by two of my favorite painters. For someone who runs a blog carrying a name that means "picture gallery," I've gotten very much out of the habit of visiting museums and galleries. And yet they were crucial to me once. If I had a single Damascus-road experience in my life, it was seeing Géricault’s "Raft of the Medusa" and Delacroix's "Massacre at Chios" at the Louvre when I was not quite nine years old. I went to high school a few blocks from the Met, when it was still free, and used to wander through at random, haunting it as if I were its ghost. When I was 20 and very earnest it seemed to me the whole point of traveling, to go see pictures in remote churches and unlikely state-run cultural complexes out in the middle of fuck-all.

Then, a few years later, I stopped. Why? Maybe it was the Met's Book of Kells show circa 1976, which as far as I'm aware began the era of massively hyped traveling exhibits with their advance ticketing and crowd control. Maybe it was the awkwardness of accompanying nice young ladies to museums on Sundays and shifting my weight from one foot to the other as they drank in the Monets. Maybe it was the increasing authority of the must-see dictates issued by the cultural commissars of the media in New York City. Maybe it was the time ten years ago when I visited the museum of fine arts in Lille, France, a vast train station of a museum laid out in an ellipse and stuffed with mediocrities, and I realized the best way to take in its holdings would be by bicycle or possibly roller skates. Maybe it was when I discovered that I derived more enjoyment and illumination from sifting through big piles of trash. But I figure I owe some discomfiture, at least, to Poussin and Courbet.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Case Study

The subject, a recent immigrant approximately nine years of age, was asked to depict his mother. It was specified that he should present her in a particular context of his choosing: a setting or activity. The resulting picture is of considerable interest. The woman is only marginably noticeable, and then only because her coat presents the largest single expanse of white space in the composition. Clearly, the subject entirely subordinates maternal affection to the far greater stimulus of commercial consumption. For that matter, the nature of the consumer products themselves is of secondary interest; the subject is enthralled by packaging, and above all by names.

Because the composition is so crowded and frenetic, it is worthwhile to break down its constituent parts. The woman is pushing a shopping cart overloaded with products down a supermarket aisle. It would seem to be aisle six: coffee, tea, juice, soda. The items heaped in the cart seem at least partly stereotypical: the protruding head of celery in particular is a trope familiar from myriad cartoons and illustrations. It might likewise be doubted whether she purchases toothbrushes on a regular basis, and ditto for "wax"--presumably floor wax. Other items seem more likely to be true to his actual experience of grocery shopping: that the sack of potatoes has been placed in the cart's bottom tray, for instance, or the exact replication of the Fritos logo, or the prominence of the detergent Beads O' Bleach.

But even the groceries in the cart are overwhelmed by the serried ranks of products on the shelves, which are depicted in disproportionate scale. The boxes of Lipton tea bags are nearly the size of the cart itself. (The curious symbol on the boxes represents the subject's attempt to come to terms with the concept of the tea bag. Coming from a coffee-drinking culture, he had only ever experienced tea bags as pictures on boxes, and averred he thought they looked like "pants on a hanger.") It is fascinating to observe the rigor with which the subject records brand names, even the ones that make no sense to him, resulting in solecisms: "Early' Morn" for "Early Morn'" and "Chock O' Full Nuts" for "Chock Full O' Nuts."

A strong reaction to American consumer abundance is typical of recent immigrants. It can take various forms: hysterical blindness, catatonic undifferentiation, at least eighteen catalogued types of aphasia. The delirium on view here, in conjunction with the subject's powers of observation, leads us to predict that he will become a highly achieving adult, one who will subordinate all other drives and desires to the acquisition of brand-name goods. He will work three jobs, if necessary, to purchase the latest model automobile, equipped with all the premium features--such a goal, in any event, will encouragingly overshadow romance or idealism. If the subject is properly steered, he will actually work three jobs to achieve his goals. The danger remains that he may choose to rob service stations instead. The subject should therefore be closely and carefully tracked, but for now we do not recommend deportation.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Rod and Custom

After I wrecked the gull-wing Porsche I acquired an Aston Martin--James Bond model, of course--then a Lotus when my Jim Clark fixation got into full gear. I never could afford the Isotta-Fraschini I truly coveted, but for daily use I could choose among a dandy Rover (right-hand steering, which could get a little tricky), a venturesome little Karmann Ghia, and a Citroen DS diverted from the French government fleet. Then, abruptly, I deaccessioned all my European automobiles and poured every cent and every ounce of energy into hot rods. I had the bucket "T", the chopped and channeled 1940 Plymouth, the fully blown 426 Barracuda. I had been content to let professionals maintain the factory specifications on my continental cars, but with these American babies I really worked. I spent all night cutting, sanding, drilling, welding, mounting, painting, waxing. My cars--and my planes, too, for that matter, but that's another subject--were the envy of the neighborhood. I traded one to a neighbor for a nearly complete set of Hardy Boys books, and another for the collection of arrowheads some kid was left by his grandfather. I still have those.

Then, when I was 14, I went off to New York City, and rarely thought about cars again. For a decade and a half I hardly so much as rode in an automobile. I didn't get my license until I was 30, and was well over 40 by the time I did any sort of regular driving. Now I drive all the time--I have no choice--but it's been all Toyotas and Subarus, the sexless shelf models, reliable as canned sardines. I don't have so much as a single battered Camaro on my résumé. I'm bitterly disappointed in my adult self. Yet at the same time I wouldn't be at all unhappy if cars disappeared from the face of the earth, as long as there were trains and trolleys to replace them. Cars were fun when there weren't so many of them on the road (and, it must be said, when gas cost 50 cents a gallon or thereabouts). Nowadays I think my car is useful and unobtrusive, and consider that I'm a fine driver--it's all those other cars that are the plague. But then I realize that every one of those other drivers is having the same thought.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Skins

Aside from brandy and cigars, no product on the market is packaged quite as traditionally as cigarette papers. Nearly every item on your grocer's shelf gets an image update every few years to make sure it passes the nowness scan the shopper's eye performs as it scrolls down the aisle. The rolling-paper package, however, like its fellows, presumably appeals to aged gentlemen who consume those items at their club while leafing through bound volumes of Punch, and remain faithful to the brands favored by their grandfathers; they care that their brand won the gold medal at Saragossa in 1908. Okay, but really--haven't those old gentlemen already gone to the glue factory, and aren't rolling papers mostly consumed by stoners, backpackers, squatters, Deadheads? I guess we can assume that a polite fiction is at play, the manufacturers of cigarette papers pretending that their product isn't really employed as accessory to what some people might consider a crime. Meanwhile, potheads can spend hours in happy contemplation of the complex patterns and inscrutable imagery on the packages.

I had never seen the Ottoman package until I spotted it recently at a Turkish import store in Berlin; it became an instant favorite. More than any other design I can think of at the moment, it succeeds in activating the wayback machine: looking simultaneously venerable and startlingly new, it manages to replicate permanently the effect that its modernism must have had a century ago, its modern-style curlicues blending in with Victoriana to a degree, but in their asymmetry preparing the eye for the shouting Broadwayism of the logo. More than any other brand, Ottoman has suffered no updating of any sort. Its boast of excellence, within, is printed in four languages: Arabic, French, Greek, and what appears to be Amharic. The only change is that, although "Constantinople" is printed in Roman and Greek characters along the edge and "Stamboul" appears in the inside flap, the papers are now made in Italy.

Abadies, with their imperial arms and fly device, were so much the most elegant of the brands that I, for one, manfully struggled with them for years even though their adhesiveness left something to be desired. Like the famous Zouave on the Zig-Zag package, the trappings of the Abadie pack seem to hark back to the reign of Napoleon III. Today, as shown, the import version is marred by a textual addition in a drastically ill-judged typeface and size. Most American vipers had no idea what that central word meant; as a result it became a kind of stoner invocation: "Riz, man..."

Riz La Croix, on the other hand, just became "Rizlas" in America. If you tried to buy them in France, though, you'd have to respect the quasi-rebus and ask for "ree lah crwah." The ravages of globalism are demonstrated in this pack, made for sale in France: the gap between the "z" and the "l," formerly distinct in the European version, has been closed up. The packaging has been updated in other ways, too. Those fine white lines, not unpleasant although they nearly obscure the escutcheon, weren't there before. On the back, the phrase "Rolling Since 1796" appears, in English, a nod to the international confraternity of hacky-sack players.

Finally, from the archives come the Spanish-made Blanco y Negros, a package from circa 1980 that may or may not have changed since, although I would suspect some more racially sensitive adaptation must have taken place. These fall into a different category, since they proclaim not long and immovable tradition but modernity, circa 1923. They perhaps meant to encourage subsistence farmers in Extremadura to imagine themselves reveling in the sensual delights of Harlem skyscraper speakeasies every time they rolled up a gasper. They didn't change for at least sixty years for the same reason that innocent but eager Euros perpetuated the misconceived idea of Dixieland jazz well within living memory, in thrall to a confusion of exotica and modernismo as firmly rooted in the European mythosphere as Karl May's idea of the American West. As with all these papers, whatever was being smoked in them, the packaging itself sold the consumer a viper's dream of otherness and elsewhere.