24 September 2008

A Sweet Little Bittersweet Story

I was hanging out on Second Avenue, talking over old times and people with Adrian, who, it turns out, used to live in the same house in San Francisco that I did, back when it was inhabited by members of the Cockettes and Angels of Light, and, it further turns out, hightailed it out of San Francisco around the same time I did in 1973 and wound up on 11th Street - as I did.

The difference was that I went skulking back to San Francisco the following year, whereas Adrian has been in New York ever since. From time to time I kind of regret not sticking it out here in the city, but I guess I just wasn't ready back then, and sometimes wonder if I am even today. New York's a very different place - almost unrecognizably so - from what it was in the 70s, but while the sheer physical brutality and ugliness of the bad old days has all but vanished - or at least been driven to the nether reaches of the outer boroughs, there's still a metaphysical intensity that can pummel the soul with the same grim certainty and persistence that the Atlantic unleashes upon the perennially eroding shoreline.

But oh, never mind; I only meant to say that Adrian highly recommended the new movie Ghost Town, which, judging from the previews I'd seen, didn't seem particularly funny or entertaining. Well, I took Adrian's advice and headed up to Times Square to see it, and all I can say is that whoever threw together the trailer should be fired forthwith, because the movie is both hilariously funny and deeply touching. I wouldn't have thought Ricky Gervais had it in him to stretch beyond his usual drolly misanthropic schtick, but I couldn't have been more wrong: while there's plenty of the usual Gervaisian moaning and muttering, the man actually can act. Well, I assume that's what he was doing, to get all of us in the cinema to practically want to hug him by the time the credits rolled. A nice little meditation on how to live, and why. Perfect for seeing one of these melancholy nights as autumn closes in. New York (do they actually make films in any other city anymore?) has seldom looked lovelier as well.

22 September 2008

Middlesex Update

All my kvetching of a couple days ago notwithstanding, I'm continuing to read Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex and getting quite a bit out of it. Admittedly I'm skimming over the bits where J.E. tries to get all literary on us, but now that he's managed to transport his first couple of protagonists to 1920s Detroit, there's enough period detail to keep me enthralled.

I especially liked his introduction of the Ford Rouge plant, or the Rouge, as it was known then and during my own 1950s childhood, when it continued to tower balefully over Downriver and with billowing clouds of black, acrid smoke blot out the sun and the sky and most other signs of life, love or hope.

I never actually worked at the Rouge, though I was taken there several times on school or Scout tours. Since it was assumed that half or more of us would probably end up there, I suppose they thought it made sense to get us used to the idea. If you ever get a chance to see the Diego Rivera murals in the entrance hall to the Detroit Institute of Art - the Sistine Chapel of the factory classes, I always called it - you'll notice the portrayal of tour groups who from balconies observe the assembly line workers who in Rivera's rendering have begun to inelectuably merge with the machinery. Local auto magnates tried to have the murals erased when they saw that implicit message, but in one of the rare times in Detroit history where art triumphed over philistinism, were unsuccessful.

Another aspect of Eugenides' portrayal that rang true - despite it being obvious that it had all come from assiduous research and that he himself had never set foot in the factories except possibly as a tourist - was that of the black workers being consigned to the hellish environs of the foundry, where they worked mere inches away from flames that blazed high above their heads. By the 1960s, blacks had made their way onto the assembly line and other less dangerous and more comfortable positions on the factory floor, but in the steel mill where I worked in 1969, the crew shoveling coal into the ovens was still almost uniformly black, and I remember marveling when I learned that for this work - which almost no white man, even the most recent immigrant, was expected to do - they were actually paid less than those of us who did the somewhat cushier - "cushy" being an extremely relative term on Zug Island - jobs upstairs.

Anyway, while I'm still slightly bristling over the Briggs Stadium/Thanksgiving Day parade cockups, I must give credit where it's due: Eugenides has done his homework and looks to be constructing a mighty fine portrait of that often less than mighty fine city (but we love her anyway), Detroit.

The Last Night Of Summer

When I was a wee lad one of the boys asked our Scoutmaster what the definition of summer was. He replied that it was that time of year when you could leave your house wearing only a t-shirt and not have to worry about carrying a sweater or jacket even if you were going to be out all night.

And that's always stuck with me. The true test of the summer is not the long, sunny days - you can have them almost any time of year except in the depths of winter - but the warm, almost tropical nights where you can walk around or ride your bike at 3 in the morning and never even think about putting on something warmer than the t-shirt and shorts you were wearing when you went out that afternoon.

And that's how it was last night for what was literally, i.e., chronologically, the last night of summer. I rode my bike over to McCarren Park to meet an old friend; we walked around for a couple hours, and then I retrieved my bike and got back home around midnight, never once wishing I'd worn anything warmer. Today, the first day of fall, was quite a different affair. The morning dawned sunny but much cooler, and by midday sullen clouds were scudding across and eventually overwhelming the sky.

I went out to the park to do some t'ai chi and some running - a new personal best of three miles, I note - and the weather made it easier yet more melancholy. My supposedly random iPod got in the spirit of things by serving up a topheavy diet of Joy Division and the bleaker, more wintry end of the Weakerthans catalog. In the evening I went off to the city carrying an umbrella but no jacket, my only concession to the change of season being a long rather than short-sleeved shirt, but I'd gotten it backwards. The clouds vanished and with them the remains of the day's warmth; by 9 or 10 o'clock the streets were no longer made for sweaterless walking and I reluctantly headed back to Brooklyn where, for the first time since June, I'll sleep with the windows shut.

20 September 2008

A Sense Of Place

One of the things that can almost immediately spoil a piece of writing for me is a wrong place name. I can put up with paper-thin plots, cardboard characters, even - though with great reluctance - playing fast and loose with tense and perspective, but tell me that the action is unfolding on such-and-such street when I know perfectly well it's an avenue, and you're well on your way to losing me.

I'm not alone in this: at least two writers I admire greatly, Aaron Cometbus and John K. Samson have told me how important an accurate sense of place is to them. Aaron in particular can get extremely exercised when someone who purports to know his or her way around Berkeley misspells the name of his favorite cafe, and I don't blame him. It's bad enough when you're dealing with a memoir or a history: the immediate reaction is to wonder whether the writer was even there, or if we're just reading extrapolations from research that could have been conducted on a laptop parked in some cafe thousands of miles away.

But where it's really damaging is in a work of fiction. Unless a writer is an absolute master of the craft, he or she is depending on a certain willingness to suspend disbelief on the part of the reader. A single misspelled or misidentified place name is like the sour note that reduces an orchestra's otherwise sublime and soaring moment to bathetic farce, or when Romeo's impassioned declaration to Juliet is interrupted by a stagehand's cell phone going off.

It's probably why many of the best writers, even when they're clearly writing about the towns where they grew up or currently live, substitute a simulacrum or doppelgänger town. It's also why I've always been hesitant to write about London or New York, despite all the time I've spent in those cities: although I'd like to think I know them both reasonably well, there are always likely to be bits of knowledge that I'll have missed by not growing up there. Hell, I'm even afraid to tackle Detroit, even though I did grow up there, partly because it's been so long since I left, and partly because the city has changed nearly beyond recognition since that time.

Which brings me to my original point: for the last several years people have been telling me that since I was from Detroit, I "had to" read Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. Even the Free Press, Detroit's approximate equivalent to the San Francisco Chronicle (figure out for yourself if that's a compliment), got in on the act: "At last Detroit has its great novel," it proclaimed, going on to compare it to Joyce's treatment of Dublin.

Well, that may be, but I'd only got to page 12 before the flowery if not downright rococo narrative delivered a distinct clunker. It was 1959, according to Eugenides, and the priest at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church regularly had to shush the parishioners because they "treated the church like the bleachers at Tiger Stadium." Only trouble is that in 1959, THERE WAS NO TIGER STADIUM. A small point, you say? Not to a kid who grew up attending games at Briggs Stadium, which was the name of the place until 1961 (and long after that to those who grown up under the old regime; it had taken my father at least 20 years to start calling it Briggs Stadium instead of Navin Field, and he wasn't about to change again).

Granted, Eugenides had barely been born at the time of the name change, but you have to wonder if he ever attended a game there or had any interest at all in Briggs/Tiger Stadium other than as a cheap and not particularly accurate simile: unlike some other towns, Detroit wasn't renowned for the antics of its bleacher bums, at least not in those days. But I do know that as a kid, I could have told you the entire history of the stadium, from its earliest beginnings as Bennett Park, when Ty Cobb led the Tigers to three consecutive pennants, and I wasn't half as nuts for baseball as some of the kids on my block. You'd think someone setting out to write the epic novel Middlesex is supposed to be could have at least checked with Wikipedia.

But never mind; let's give the guy the benefit of the doubt. After all, he was only off by a couple years, and as a prep schooler off in wealthy suburban Grosse Pointe probably never set foot anywhere near Michigan and Trumbull. But before he's even finished that paragraph, he unleashes an even more jarring solecism: something, he tells us, is "as big as a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade."

Okay, Eugenides, I know your biography says you were born in Detroit, but did you ever actually live there? If you had, wouldn't you know that Detroiters, at least not back then, did not think in terms of Macy's when it came to Thanksgiving Day parades? Why would we; we had our own J.L. Hudson Thanksgiving Day Parade that was as big and wonderful and magnificent as any kid could ever hope for. What did we care if they had some other parade at the same time in far-off New York, sponsored by some department store we'd never heard of?

Oh well. I've now read another five pages without encountering any egregious errors. And, as no doubt or more of you may take pains to point out, Eugenides wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and I'm writing a blog for a few hundred readers, so let's keep things in perspective. Also, all this fulminating has no doubt virtually guaranteed that if I ever do write something about Detroit, I'll make an ever bigger and more obvious mistake.

So I'll plow on with Middlesex and hope to be so wowed by its overall scope and excellence that my present indignation will be completely assuaged. Or nearly so, anyway. But based on what I've read so far, Eugenides is going to have to step up his game when it comes to painting a true picture of Detroit; as of now, Eminem's Eight Mile pisses all over it.

19 September 2008

Remember Globalization? Remember Capitalism?

Seeing a MSNBC puff piece for Battle In Seattle, itself a puff piece that romanticizes and glorifies the know-nothing thugs who set out to destroy capitalism by smashing the windows at Starbucks back in 1999, I was reminded of those not-so-long-ago days when, we were told, global capitalism was rendering national governments obsolete.

Multinational or transnational corporations were too big, too powerful, too quick-moving and adaptable to be reined in or even troubled by government. The New World Order (remember that?) would see everything being run by corporations, which, depending on which end of the political spectrum you inhabited, would be either an Orwellian nightmare or a far more sensible and efficient arrangement.

All that ideological posturing and dogmatic folderol vanished faster than John Q. Public's 401(k) when things started getting scary for the financial institutions of the world. AIG may have had its tentacles in nearly every country in the developed world, but just like a trust fund kid who blew his load on whores and cocaine, wasted no time in running back to Big Daddy, Big Daddy in this case being the good old US government and its long-suffering taxpayers.

By the end of the week, capitalism itself had been put in abeyance. A couple of the crankier crankypants on CNBC and Fox were bellowing about how "We might as well be living in the Soviet Union" because their favorite hedge fund had been temporarily banned from short selling what was left of the financial system into the ground, but apart from them, there was near-unanimous agreement that the most radical governmental intervention in the marketplace since the days of FDR was not just desirable but absolutely necessary.

And it's hard to argue against that notion, regardless of what strange bedfellows it might entail. As the Guardian's Larry Elliott put it, "Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Hank Paulson, the Goldman Sachs tycoon who became US treasury secretary, have done more for socialism in the past seven days than anybody since Marx and Engels."

The question is, will it work? Although honesty requires me to confess to being as baffled as anyone up to and including President Bush about the precise nature of what is going on in the murky and opaque worlds of high finance, I do have a hunch that odds are probably no better than 50-50. Well, I hope they're better than that, not least because I'm getting a bit long in the tooth to relish the thought of living through Weimar-style hyperinflation or Mad Max Armageddon antics (when I was 20 I would have been positively salivating at the prospect). But I'm not counting on it, because it just may be that America, the banker and fiscal guarantor of last resort for much of the planet, may have already spent itself into terminal decline.

Which means, presumably, that I'd better not be counting on those Social Security payments to cushion the travails of my declining years. Question: in terms of the economy, is it likely to make much difference at this point whether McCain or Obama is elected in November? Maybe. If McCain gets elected AND if he keeps Paulson, Bernanke et al. on board AND if he keeps his own nose out of things (as Bush, in an uncharacteristic paroxysm of judiciousness, appears to be doing), we might muddle through. If, however, McCain, who has been appearing increasingly loopy and demented these past few days (or maybe he's always been a wild-eyed pathological liar and we just didn't notice) decides to put some of his own "ideas" into effect, he could have us waxing nostalgic over Herbert Hoover.

Obama, on the other hand... He has yet to display the Rooseveltian (or Kennedyesqe) timbre that the times call for, but at the same time, he hasn't said or done anything too foolishly awful. With the right staff and advisers, and some plans a bit more specific than "Change We Can Believe In," he could make a difference. For the better, I mean, though if he starts channeling his inner Jimmy Carter again, we're in big trouble.

In the long run I'm sure things will work out somehow, but we all (most of us, anyway) know what Keynes had to say about the long run. If my parents could get through the Great Depression and World War II, I suppose I can handle whatever the Masters Of The Universe (now, apparently, a wholly owned subsidiary of USA, Inc.) have cooked up for us. Eventually, should I live long enough, I may even be able to look back and laugh, but at the moment I'm more inclined to agree with Rudge, who, asked to define history, replied, "Well, it's just one fucking thing after another."

10 September 2008

Obama: Too Wimpy To Be President?

The way things are going, you have to ask yourself if Barack Obama really wants to be President. Coming off a triumphant and nearly flawless convention, three to six points ahead in the opinion polls, facing an apparently weak opponent who wasn't particularly loved even by his own party, Obama was blindsided when McCain, who turned out to be far less moribund or dull-witted than he'd appeared, completely outmaneuvered him with his wily pick of the Alaskan pit bull for VP.

Since then the tables have turned completely, and it's Obama who looks like he's sleepwalking into oblivion. Oh sure, he's still putting forth solid, sensible proposals couched in crystal-clear and at times downright elegant language, but suddenly nobody is listening. They're too busy watching Obama get pummeled and pushed and bullied every which way from Sunday by a doddering old wreck and his strident female sidekick.

When it comes to making a scripted presentation to a stadium or lecture hall full of adoring followers, there's no one in the business who comes close to Obama (though Palin shows signs of giving him a run for his money). But in the rough and tumble cut and thrust of everyday politicking, Obama is like a deer caught in the headlights, the skinny kid on the playground who bullies naturally gravitate to, and who tries, usually with humiliating results, to reason his his way out of his predicament.

Americans like a little testosterone in their Presidents, and Obama is showing none. Joe Sixpack can be forgiven for asking how a President Obama would stand up to the Russians or Islamic terrorism if he turns to jelly in the face of insults from an inarticulate old man and a glib but ultimately silly woman. Even I, though I still want Obama to win, can't help wondering if he's up to the job.

This whole ridiculous lipstick-on-a-pig business (a phrase, by the way, that McCain used himself last year, and that Vice-President Cheney used at least three times during the 2004 campaign), for example: it's the perfect opportunity for Obama to stand up tall, and with an appropriate measure of disgust, say to the American people, "They (McCain and Palin) must think you're really stupid." He used that phrase once in reference to McCain's newfound strategy of selling himself as an agent of change, but he should make it his mantra, repeating it every time some Republican operative or talk show host tries to hijack the discussion into the realm of preposterous namecalling and accusations, every time McCain or his minions trot out yet another lie about taxes or national defense or "change."

Instead he staggers from one onslaught to the next, barely able to mount a credible defense, let alone the sort of scorched-earth offense he needs to lay on the bald-faced liars running the Republican campaign. Why isn't he? Either he's being very badly advised or he simply lacks the character.

Obviously I'm hoping for the former but fearing the latter. Could it be that Obama so resolutely plays Mr. Nicey-Nice-Above-The-Fray because he's wary of coming across to his white supporters as an Angry Black Man? Possibly, but if so he's already taken it way too far. Or maybe his mother taught him never to pick on girls, which might explain why he circles warily but speechlessly around The Palin while she's busily running off with his female voters. Or - and here's a touchy subject - could it be his experience with affirmative action, and its implicit lesson that adequate is a reasonable substitute for excellent?

Obama has refused to discuss whether he was a beneficiary of affirmative action, but given the period when he went to college and the college he attended (Harvard has been especially assiduous in its pursuit of minority students, perhaps in hopes of defusing its longstanding reputation as a bastion of white male elitism) make it fairly likely. The bitter irony is that, as demonstrated daily by his obvious erudition, he had no need of affirmative action programs, but that doesn't mean he couldn't have been part of one, nor that he didn't absorb one of affirmative action's most pernicious lessons: that second or third best is more than good enough when combined with the "right" skin color.

I'd hate for any of this to be true, and love for Obama to prove me wrong by coming out kicking and screaming and cussing and punching on tomorrow morning's news. But I hope for the best while fearing the worst: that once again the Democrats will hand the country over to the radical right not through a paucity of ideas but from a failure of nerve. If nothing else - if Obama just can't bring himself to say something mean about his opponents - get Hillary Clinton on the case. Promise her Secretary of State or whatever else her little heart desires, but turn her loose on McCain and Palin and I guarantee you'll see some results. You might also get people wondering, "Tell me again why we nominated him instead of her," but that's the chance the Democrats have got to take. Unless of course they - and you - are quite happy with the way things are.

To The Post Office

I like the idea of visiting the James Farley General Post Office on 8th Avenue and 33rd to take care of some after-hours mailing business, but the reality... Not so much.

The building itself is a mighty impressive edifice, both inside and out. In fact, if delivering mail were a religion, this would surely be its cathedral. I can't walk past it, let alone enter it, without thinking of my dad, who put in 35 years or so at the considerably less glamorous Detroit Post Office. Although Dad never expressed any particular love for the Postal Service - on the contrary, he repeatedly insisted that he'd only taken a job there instead of pursuing a career in art because he needed a reliable income to support us four brats - he showed enough interest in all things postal, even years after his retirement, to convince me that at least part of his heart subscribed to the whole "Neither rain nor snow..." ethos. I remember him getting a kick out of driving last-minute letters out to Detroit Metropolitan Airport where his Post Office credentials allowed him to pretty much put it on the plane himself, and he never tired of telling my unemployed sister, with respect to the job she'd left back in 1972, "You should have stayed at the Post Office."

When I was an especially strident leftist, somewhere in the middle of the Vietnam War, I denounced my dad for being "part of the system." Having been vehemently opposed to the war for longer than I had, he was bewildered by what I was getting at (unfortunately it hadn't yet occurred to him that I was a stark, raving lunatic). "You work for the federal government," I seethed. "You're part of the war machine. You bring people their draft notices."

"I bring them their welfare checks, too," he said quietly, either having the decency or lacking the presence of mind to point out that I and much of the antiwar movement would be in a sorry state without said welfare checks. But I digress. The reason I had to make a late night visit to the Post Office yesterday was to send off a couple things to England. In the old days - e.g., when I was doing mail order for Lookout Records - I had all the mailing supplies, customs declarations, stamps, scale, etc., at home, and could just drop the packages in a mailbox at my leisure.

But no more, and anyway, one of the packages weighed over a pound, which means you can't drop it in a mailbox anyway, or use the machines at the Post Office to weigh and stamp it yourself. No, because some genius at Homeland Security decided that anything weighing more than a pound was too likely to be a bomb, you have to present it in person to the clerk at the window (who of course does absolutely nothing to ascertain whether or not it is a bomb, or who you are, or anything else other than weigh it and take your money).

So I had to line up for one of the three available clerks. As I said, in theory it's a great service to have a Post Office open all night; in practice, they keep just enough clerks on duty to make sure you'll be standing in line for the better part of an hour. And being the middle of the night - okay, it wasn't even ten o'clock when I was there, but you know - in New York City, you get, shall we say, an interesting clientele to share your space with.

All well and good, but I was mildly frantic to get my packages mailed and get back up to Times Square for a 10:35 showing of Pineapple Express (and for those of you who suspect I never see anything but trashy comedies and shoot-em-ups, I'll have you know I'd gone to see the Woody Allen picture Vicky Cristina Barcelona the night before - true, only because neither Tropic Thunder nor Pineapple Express was playing at a convenient time, but still...). And as luck would have it, I only missed the first five or ten minutes of the movie, which meant my waiting time at the Post Office was a mere... 48 minutes. I've seen worse, and don't even think about going there on tax day unless you're planning on making it an all-nighter.

Of the two things I was sending, one was a copy of the new Cometbus (#51), The Loneliness Of The Electric Menorah, which, as the title makes abundantly clear, is a nostalgic and winsome study of the booksellers of Telegraph Avenue. I'd mentioned it to a friend in England who sells books himself, and he was mightily intrigued, enough so that he's asked me three times to send him a copy.

The other was an oral history which I did with my Auntie Olivia in the year before her 80th birthday, which was in 1997. Unfortunately, we only got as far as the 1970s, but it still made for quite a story, and I had a copy of it bound, and presented it to her as a birthday present. Unfortunately there was only one copy of it, and a couple of her friends, especially Rachel, who did a great deal to care for Olivia in the last year of her life (and while Rachel herself was suffering from supposedly terminal cancer!). I saw Rachel last month in London, five years after she was given six months to live, and she let me know she'd be ever so happy to have a copy of Olivia's story, and so, after a bit of proofreading and editing, which it was sorely in need of, I printed up another copy and sent it off to her. For those of you who might be interested, here's a sample from it:

I'd left, and I'd got myself a room in Victoria. I was very broke, ever so broke. I just managed to pay the rent on the room, and I'd got a little dog, Dizzy, which Dingell had bought me. I was in this room one evening, there was just Dizzy and me, and all I had was one of these little, tiny thruppenny pieces. Teeny, like half a sixpence, but they were silver. And that's all I had, just thruppence, and I was dying for a cigarette. And poor Dizzy hadn't got anything to eat.

I went across to a news agent shop, and he used to sell five cigarettes for thruppence... Oh, this thruppenny bit, some silly ass, showing off one day, had bent it with his teeth, double. So I had a doubled-up truepenny bit, and I went across... Oh, I hammered it out, I went and asked the landlady if she'd got a hammer and tried to hammer it out straight, but it was all sort of battered. But I went across to the newsagent and got five cigarettes, and there was a butcher's just up the road, and I went and cadged a bone for Dizzy, and I went back in.

So it was Dizzy and me, lying on the bed. I'd got my cigarette, and the front door went, and the landlady answered. Then she came to me and said there's a man here to see you. And of course it was Dingell, with his bike. He'd biked all the way up from Bedford. And I thought, oh, no, I'll never get rid of this man. Well, there he was, and of course he'd got no money, nobody'd got any money. I couldn't turn him out; it was late in the evening.

At the time I was between jobs, as you might say. I'd left the office long before this. I'd left because Truda... Her father was head wine butler at the Criterion, and she was a waitress at the Cumberland Hotel in Marble Arch. Of course she was making a lot of money, for those days. And there's me, scraping along on seventeen and six, giving ten shillings to Auntie or something. I never had any money, and Truda always had money. And she said, 'Well, I don't know what you're doing sitting in that office with no money and what have you. Come to the Cumberland, come be a waitress.'

And I thought, well that makes sense. I don't want to work anyway, but if I do work, I might as well work and have some money as work and have none. Of course Uncle George and Auntie Nell fell about when I said I was going to be a waitress. Oh my God, that was awful. Mr. Welch and everybody said, 'Oh, Olive, you can't go and be a waitress.' But I said, yes I can, it's a lot more money. And off I went.

I became a waitress with Truda, at the Cumberland Hotel. I was earning much more, I was earning as much as Uncle George, practically, with tips. We worked long hours, mind you, and it was hard work. But I certainly had a lot more money in my pocket when I was working, but I didn't stay at one job. I went all around the hotels, I worked at the Strand Palace, at the Regent Palace... We'd just go from one to the other. We worked in the restaurants, the lounges... In the lounges everybody fiddled like mad. It was very stressful, but you made an awful lot of money.

However this was one of those times in between, when I hadn't got a job, and I was broke. Another old boyfriend, a friend of Maurice's, Jack Wall, I'd rung him up, and he came up and took me out to dinner, fed me, and lent me some money. But that had just run out as well, and I was down to my thruppenny bit when Dingell came and parked himself on my doorstep. And of course I couldn't throw him out, so I let him stay there that night. I didn't sleep with him or anything like that. And of course the next morning the landlady said, 'That's it, you've had a man in your room all night, you've got to go.'

So out me, Dizzy and Dingell went. Waifs, strays, in the heart of London, so to speak. Him and his bike, me and Dizzy. I don't know, we wandered around, we'd got to find somewhere to stay. And he wasn't going to go, so it was quite obvious that we had to take a room together.

I don't know how, but Dingell found some money somehow. It was sixteen shillings to get a room, I remember. We found this room in Mornington Crescent, in the end, and I think he had just about enough to pay for the room. So there you are. He sort of moved in with me. I still didn't sleep with him, not for ages. We slept in the same bed, but no way would I let him touch me. But there we were, the three of us, the dog, him and me, and I think the next day I went out and got myself a job at the Strand Palace Hotel.

Well, then it was very expedient to have Dingell there, because otherwise I had to leave my dog. But now I could go to work and leave Dingell to look after the dog, you see. So it was working out okay for the moment. I remember I used to save chops and things for my dog. If somebody left a piece of steak or whatever, I would gather it all together and bring it home for Dizzy. Never thinking of Dingell, just the dog. I used to eat in the Strand Palace, of course. And Dingell once said, 'Yes, I remember those days very well. You used to bring home steaks and chops for the dog, and I was eating the dog biscuits!'
A bit long, but hopefully you got the flavor of it. And as for Pineapple Express? Hilarious, I thought, but also an excellent riposte to those terminal hippies who insist that marijuana is "all about peace, maaaan." The violence, blood, guts and gore, all played up for maximum comic effect, made it pretty evident that marijuana is actually about amplifying what's already in your heart and mind, as the nonstop commentary and guffaws from a row of fat stoners just behind me made clear. Oh, and I did live in Mendocino County for ten years, where an Uzi is as common an accessory to the marijuana trade as a peacock-feathered roach clip or a handwoven God's eye. Anyway, I hope I won't be giving away any crucial plot developments by informing you that the good (i.e., the stoned but not habitually murderous) ended well and the bad badly, and that, as Oscar Wilde reminded us, is the meaning of fiction.

05 September 2008

Take That, You Damn Community Organizers!

Back when I lived in the mountains of Northern California, our little 12 volt black and white TV only picked up one channel with any regularity, and among the shows I most avidly watched were Green Acres and The Dukes Of Hazzard.

No one needs to justify a liking for such brilliant windows into the American soul, but if I ever felt guilty about being parked in front of the TV when there was wood to chop or varmints to roust, I told myself that I was gaining insight into the ways and wherefores of my neighbors. Toss in a dash of Hee Haw, Petticoat Junction, a hefty measure of Hank Williams Jr.'s "Country Boy Will Survive", and you had your finger on the pulse of Greater Laytonville (pop. 995 or 1,036, the highway sign declared, depending which side of town you were entering from) and the back side of Iron Peak.

Well, not completely, but it was a start. I say this only to explain why VP candidate Sarah Palin and her remarkable entourage/family/posse don't appear nearly as strange to me as they do to some of my fellow cosmopolitan elitists. I lived side-by-side with people very much like them for better than ten years, and came to like and respect quite a few of them. Ever since then I've felt uncomfortable using words like "redneck" or "white trash," because they seem just as thoughtless and abusive as racial slurs like "nigger."

Which might be a little unfortunate at the moment, since it would be only too convenient to dredge up just such words to deride and dismiss the Palinistas. But I'd hate myself in the morning, and what's worse, I'd be stooping to the same level they did in attempting to whip up hatred and suspicion against big city slickers who read books and, like, know stuff. Not to mention those dreaded "community organizers."

To be fair, the term "community organizer" has been known to raise my own hackles from time to time, especially when appropriated, as it often is, by unprincipled scam artists of the Al Sharpton/Jesse Jackson ilk. If I were advising Obama, I'd tell him to think up another name for his work on Chicago's South Side, because to quite a few people, "community organizer" is always going to come off as a synonym for "rabble rouser."

Never mind that COs come in all shapes, sizes and political motivations. Someone ringing doorbells for the Natural Born American Yahoo Party or organizing a book drive for the PTA is every bit as much a community organizer as that shady beardo soliciting donations for the Communist Front to Overthrow Everything. It's just one of those phrases that's gotten stuck with a negative connotation, like "peace" or "liberal" or "tolerance and understanding."

Anyway, back to Hooterville, which is apparently where the newly energized GOP expects to find the constituency to propel it into power for another four years. As I said, I found many of my rural neighbors to be charming, down to earth, and wise in many ways of the world, and by that I don't just mean how to gut and skin deer and bear or where to lay culverts to keep dirt roads from washing out in the winter monsoons.

Once I got over my initial big city suspicions about them (and they over their country suspicions of me), we could sit and talk for hours about everything from local politics to global cosmology. We didn't always agree - far from it - but we were often able to have a good laugh about our differences.

But there was the occasional time when it stopped being funny. Like when the lady who owned the local bar - it being the only one around, she had more congregants than all the town's churches combined - was stymied in her attempt to build an asphalt batch plant on her back 40, which just happened to be smack dab in the center - such as it was - of town and next door to the high school. Not only did she shut down the bar for the day, leaving an entire community bereft and adrift, but rampaged around town with her gun muttering dark threats about anyone and everyone who might cross her.

Nobody did, and as everyone hastened to point out, she was a good old girl about 99% of the time. Just had her tetchy spells every now and again. Or the town's logging supplies baron, who despite having strong and not always well thought out views on everything, especially when it came to the desirability of cutting down trees, was an incredibly generous and community-minded fellow. Hell, he once tossed $20 in my tip basket when I was playing piano at a local restaurant, and as those of you who've heard me play can attest, that's real charity in action.

But he was also the one who spearheaded the campaign that was to briefly make Laytonville an object of international mockery when he tried to have Dr. Seuss' The Lorax removed from the elementary school reading list because it allegedly painted loggers in an uncomplimentary light. The town meeting that ensued was like having the Republican and Democratic conventions conducted simultaneously in the same rec room.

Sarah Palin would be right at home in Laytonville, and if the town should ever grow big enough to have a mayor, she'd be elected in a landslide, because not only does she share the views of the local matriarchs and patriarchs, she's a heck of a lot better looking. And if I still lived there, I'd give her a good-natured ribbing from time to time, but otherwise would probably get along with her just fine.

But if you were to propose to me that she, or any of the other colorful local characters were the second most qualified person to be President of the United States, I'd assume you'd gone clear out of your ever-loving mind. And yet, this is essentially what John McCain has just said to the country. Okay, what he's really saying is, "I've made a cold-blooded calculation that nominating this woman will give me the best chance of winning the election, and if I should croak and leave the rest of you stuck with her as President, well, that's the way the cookie crumbles," which shouldn't be too shocking coming from a politician whose primary, if not sole purpose in life is to win elections and wield power.

Only trouble is that McCain has constructed an entire career out of pretending NOT to be that kind of politician, only to blow that carefully crafted image to smithereens at the final hurdle. It's hard to imagine that six months ago, when I was more concerned about what I saw as the Democrats' overly leftist tendencies, I could have seen myself voting for him.

His willingness to risk saddling us with a right wing, religious demagogue - he is 72, after all, and not in the best of health - was more than enough to write him off all by itself, but if there were any doubt remaining, his sanctimonious yet deeply and fundamentally dishonest acceptance speech will have put paid to that.

"Change is coming," he declares? Hello, John, you and your party have been in charge for the last eight years and you've succeeded in nearly bankrupting the country. You're going to cut spending and balance the budget? Of course you are, just like you've been doing for the past... oh wait, biggest budget deficits in history, massive increases in public spending... Don't get me wrong; I'd like a tax cut as much as anyone. But as any of you who's ever had a credit card or a mortgage can attest, it's nice to get an increased credit limit, and even nicer to be told you don't have to make any payments for a year or two, but sooner or later you have to start paying off your bills or you go broke.

Not in McCain World, apparently, which is apparently the same la-la land occupied by Bush World, and which is powered by what the first, not quite so incompetent Bush correctly derided as "voodoo economics." Many if not most of our current financial troubles can be traced directly to the Republican policies of the past eight years: the plummeting value of the dollar which has made everything, particularly oil, appear to be far more expensive than it is, is a direct result of Bush attempting to run the country via a series of increasingly dodgy sub-prime loans.

McCain's only strength is, or at least appeared to be, with regard to the war. However you felt about the war at the beginning - I was neutral, perhaps very slightly in favor, but in retrospect think I should have opposed it, at least until such time as we had an administration capable of running it - it's both cowardly and irresponsible to suggest leaving the Iraqis to their own devices now that we've dismantled their country for them. But while Obama has moved toward the center - maybe not quite enough, but at least in the right direction - on this issue, McCain is resorting to cheap appeals to faux-patriotism and hey, did I mention that I was a POW?

That's not to say he doesn't also have some sound and reasoned things to say about how to oppose terrorism and Islamism, but unfortunately, I just don't believe or trust him anymore. I'm also afraid of his legendary temper. It's one thing to go off half-cocked in the Senate, where you've got 99 other Senators to act as a counterweight, but quite another when you've got your finger on the nuclear trigger.

So, blogger comes out in favor of Obama. Not exactly earth-shaking news, though it might come as such to those who for whatever reasons have come to perceive me as some sort of neo-con race-baiting lackey of Fox News and the Michael Savage show. My friend Ben Weasel, a fervent McCain supporter, warns that Obama will be a "disaster," and I'm not so sure of my opinions that I'd deny this was possible. If he's as left wing as he once appeared to be, we could have another Jimmy Carter on our hands, compared to which I'd almost welcome a President Palin. If he's as pragmatic and as reasoned as he's appeared to be lately, we could have another JFK.

02 September 2008

It Just Keeps Getting Better

Haven't seen anything about this in the American media yet, but the Daily Mail has tracked down young Bristol Palin's boyfriend, a self-described "fucking redneck," doesn't want kids, and warns, "If ya fuck with me, I'll kick your ass."

Judging from the photo, he looks like he means it, too, but I'm counting on him being a little too busy at the present to come find me in Brooklyn. But just in case, hey dude, I totally respect your redneckness, know what I'm sayin'?

01 September 2008

Bristol Honey, Would You Do Mummy A Favor And Go Get Knocked Up?

The news that your unmarried teenage daughter is pregnant is not usually greeted with unalloyed delight, especially when you're a politician running for office on a platform of fundamentalist Christianity and traditional family values. But Bristol Palin's just-announced pregnancy could be, if you'll pardon the expression, a godsend, as it would appear to put paid to the weekend's rumors that her mother, VP candidate Sarah Palin, faked her own pregnancy to cover up a previous indiscretion on Bristol's part.

If the chronology being put forth by the Palin campaign is correct, it would be a near-impossibility for Bristol, supposedly five months pregnant, to have also been the mother of baby Trig, born in mid-April. Still, there does seem to be something a little strange about this particular family drama, particularly the fact that Governor Sarah was never seen looking notably pregnant and seems to have been barely if at all inconvenienced by giving birth.

Nonetheless, barring further information (which, given the hyperactivity of the interblogs these past couple days, is not at all unlikely), I'll have to conclude that the faked pregnancy story, while a good soap opera or movie premise, is not true, and let Governor Sarah get on with explaining why her much-vaunted executive experience doesn't seem to have come in very handy in constraining her own home-grown teenage pregnancy epidemic. I mean, how does a teenager from an even semi-functional family manage to get knocked up these days (spare me the obvious comments)? Is this the 1950s or something? Or merely a rather stark reminder of what the fundamentalist campaign to bring back the 1950s looks like in real life?