Black Ribbon Award

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“NEW JERSEY”

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“You know, people are always putting New Jersey down. None of my friends can believe I live here. But that’s because they don’t get it: I’m living in a state of irony.” –Helen Jordan (Lara Flynn Boyle), Happiness

My official induction into freelancing, and therefore my official induction into being paid to write, came earlier in this decade when a friend of mine took a position as a senior editor at Vice. He’d written some travel pieces for the magazine and so was tasked with acquiring some more. He reached out to me to write stories about New Jersey, my home. I took to this eagerly because writing for Vice still conferred some glamor and credibility at the time and my options were kind of limited generally. I managed to give him two pieces of fairly standard reportage on locations very close to me: Free Acres, a Georgist commune in my hometown; and the Mall at Short Hills, a luxury cathedral. And that was it.

Truthfully, pitching such stories was difficult for me. First there were my limitations in this kind of journalism and my lack of resources to follow-up on some of the more interesting ideas I had. (These I would overcome later, I think.) But mostly I was limited by my belief that, on the whole, there was not much that made New Jersey very distinct as a region; and anything that was interesting about New Jersey was covered long before by Weird New Jersey. Indeed, the strange proliferation of urban legend and cryptozoology in the state is a direct product of the fact that New Jersey is crushingly boring. It is a manmade wasteland of prefab housing, manicured cul-de-sacs, and endless highway. One half of the state leeches off of New York City, the other half, to a much much much much much MUCH lesser extent, leeches off of Philadelphia. Many must pass through it so that they may get somewhere conceivably better; seldom do they find anything notable, and when they do it is hardly ever good.

This would be news to a very loud section of New Jerseyans, north and south, who routinely insist on the opposite of my conclusion. These are people who summer annually at the beach shore. They argue incessantly as to whether the sandwich meat they are eating is called “Taylor ham” or “pork roll” when any rational observer can see that the product is labeled “Taylor pork roll” and is, as far as sandwich meats go, of limited functionality. They attach a special reverence to Bruce Springsteen that is somewhat ironic but mostly not, extending up to Born in the USA and resuming with The Rising, but almost always excluding Nebraska. They, especially those New Jerseyans around my age, have watched Clerks at least twice.

Kevin Smith’s debut film premiered 25 years ago this October. It was filmed at a real convenience store and neighboring independent video store in Leonardo, NJ, with a cast of unprofessional locals and a production budget of $27,575. Of the plot little can be said other than it neatly resembles Waiting for Godot. There is virtually no action, just a reem of realistically directionless dialogue. So real was the dialogue, in fact, that the MPAA slapped the film with its perennially useless “NC-17” rating before Alan Dershowitz successfully appealed the decision and it was given the cherished “R” without cuts. A shrewd move that helped encourage its cult in the under-17 set. People of a certain age, and in a certain place, remember a certain canon of cultural works conveyed by word-of-mouth and stored in clunky rectangular cartridges to be played through bulky machines that no one claimed to know how to install but, through some magic, still got installed. They varied in quality and tone but sometimes shared (young) cast members and themes of youthful suburban ennui where pizza, loitering, rock music, and/or video stores figured in significantly: Empire Records, Dazed and Confused, Clueless, Doom Generation, Scream, and The Craft were among this echelon. But the narrative tabula rasa of Clerks (and its place in the now-sordid Miramax lore) gave it some preeminence.

This preeminence was felt with special attachment in the state of its filming. Young New Jerseyans who watched the film saw a mirror in which their version of themselves was reflected back at them with truth and clarity few could match. Its characters spoke as they spoke, acted as they acted, and had the same ambivalent connection to its setting as they did. Yes, nothing of note happened in the film, save a casual encounter with a dead customer and a tipped-over casket, each retold secondhand. But the film was not boring, it was about boredom, which took on a special intensity within certain legal border along the eastern coast of the United States. Smith would build on this theme in his subsequent films Mallrats and Chasing Amy, also set, if not filmed, in New Jersey. Hence, young New Jerseyans would lay claim to this boredom and the eloquence Smith claimed it produced, if only because no young person in any other state ever would.

I was not exempt from this reaction, but it never properly settled. In fact, it was aggressively unsettled by a subsequent film.

Todd Solondz’s breakout feature Welcome to the Dollhouse premiered a year after Clerks. Like Clerks, it takes place in suburban New Jersey, and was filmed in West Caldwell. It centers on Dawn Wiener, a middle school student cursed with acute social awkwardness. With her thick glasses, remedial fashion sense, extreme shyness, and crippling naïveté, she is the frequent target of her classmates and an irritant within her family, possessing neither the intelligence of her arrogant older brother or the prettiness and charm of her spoiled younger sister. Toward her, her parents are inattentive, impatient, and incompetent.

Dawn’s problems are manifold but not alien: she’s stuck between childhood and adolescence, refusing to take down her clubhouse (“The Special People’s Club”) to make room for her parents’ anniversary party; her budding sexuality is directed at a much older high school student; and she’s fraught by a need to be accepted by her peers. In every attempt to assert herself in these matters, she is met with complete public humiliation. Her attitude is surly when it is not clueless. She hates her sister and practically wills her to be kidnapped. She rejects her only real friend. Her most intimate connection is with a similarly abject student who spends much of the film threatening to rape her. By the conclusion, Dawn is on a bus to Disney World, more isolated than ever.

Welcome to the Dollhouse was initially marketed as a black suburban comedy, a predecessor to the likes of Election (oddly enough based on a novel set in New Jersey), but as a coming-of-age story it hits some painfully realistic beats. Solondz, with the help of Heather Matarazzo as Dawn, captured the runt’s unceasing hunger for validation and acceptance, especially by the most acceptable; the tendency for the bullied and their bullies to come from the same social rung and to form strong, complex bonds; and the vacuity of adult authority, maturity, and wisdom. Solondz’s suburbs, far from the slacker communal spaces of Kevin Smith, are microcosms of mutual psychic cannibalism. Cruelty breeds more cruelty and vulnerability breeds loneliness.

I usually recommend Welcome to the Dollhouse with little reservation for these qualities, but caution those who wish to explore further that everything after that is a low-diving rollercoaster ride of depravity and misery. The good graces Solondz wrought out of Dollhouse were wholly upended with 1998’s Happiness, which returned to New Jersey but widened the scope to include a compulsive obscene phone caller (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a pedophiliac psychiatrist and family man (Dylan Baker). Happiness earned acclaim from Roger Ebert, but was rejected by Sundance, dropped by its original distributor, and given an NC-17 rating. Solondz continued with Storytelling (including storyline about a closeted football player played by James Van Der Beek that was entirely removed from the film), Palindromes (which reveals Dawn Weiner committed suicide and features a commune of pro-life terrorists caring for disabled children), and Life During Wartime (revisiting the characters of Happiness but with a completely different cast; for example, Philip Seymour Hoffman was replaced by Michael K. Williams). This is all fair warning. [1]

It would be easy to pigeonhole Solondz as a kind of transgressive artist. There is support for that. Solondz is unflinching in the deviance and hopelessness he fills with his stories, and he pays insufficient mind to trauma. But in truth, transgression is a hollow effect that doesn’t fit here. There are artists who are more intentionally eager to shock: Michael Haneke and Gaspar Noé at the high end, Eli Roth at the low end. But their work tends to go no deeper than the surface cruelty. But most films just have to follow a logical end that sometimes leads to extreme outcomes. Such a work of art is only transgressive insofar as the viewer convinces him or herself that he or she feels transgressed against. It is not unconnected to the work, but it is not up to the work or its makers to say how it is connected. If Solondz was a shock artist there would be no reason to view his films. Indeed, as they are not, we must watch them somewhat closely, hard though that may be. Solondz can dish out the nihilism, Randall Colburn attests, but beneath that veneer is a committed humanist:

It’s there, in his deep dives into the minds of the unlovable and unforgivable, that Solondz’s well of empathy begins to overflow. Where other filmmakers strain to give us protagonists that are immediately identifiable, Solondz tends to confront us with someone who, for most of the audience, is an ill-fitting subversion of a stereotype we didn’t know we had. While he’ll often spend the next 90 minutes raining abuse upon those characters, he’ll never once seek to judge them. Nor will he ask for an audience’s sympathy. Solondz simply wants his characters to exist, to be given a space in which to breathe. It’s there that humanity is allowed to blossom.

Contrast a film like Dollhouse or Happiness against a film of the same decade like American Beauty. The latter film was wildly popular for its (now very dated) visual style and its depiction of the suburbs as a cauldron of disenchantment and repression. The pressures of conformity and the false security of economic stability stifle the natural urge for liberation. The older generation—Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening—pursue self-fulfilling, if morally questionable, catharsis; the younger generation—Thora Birch, Mena Suvari, the plastic bag guy—navigate their own urges and needs, conscious that they don’t necessarily want to repeat their elders’ mistakes. Its most salient conclusion seems to be that the longer you keep yourself in the closet, the more homicidal you become. It’s a very Boomer-centric film that encapsulates the progressive’s simplistic worldview of repression vs. liberation.

Solondz’s characters have no qualms with conformity; they either blend easily into it or actively seek it out. His characters, rather, are weighed down by shame and inadequacy, and a feeling of apartness from the greater population so extreme that it approaches brutal self-knowledge. When Dylan Barker’s Bill is arrested for molestation, he tearfully confesses to his son that he did it, he enjoyed it, and he would do it again. When his son asks “Would you ever fuck me?” he replies, “No, I’d jerk off instead.” These characters seek connection and lose it; the ask for forgiveness and are refused it; they lose trust and never get it back. Solondz is a professed atheist (and was raised Jewish), but at times the empathy and humanism of his films can rise to a mercy of an ancient, far less compromising Christian moral sense not widely recognized in America. He is fixated with the lives of the wretched, the broken, and the losers; he is truthful and unsentimental about their flaws. He takes them seriously, in other words, refusing to abstract them into simplistic teachable ideas or sentient platitudes. These are people who live with us, in New Jersey.

“I did grow up in New Jersey,” Solondz said in an interview, “although I suppose if I grew up in the suburbs of Ohio the experience wouldn’t have been so different … I don’t see the suburbs as just this dreadful place, and to say that’s how I portray them in my films is little facile. It’s easy to go and dis the suburbs. It’s more interesting, I think, to try and see how seductive they are, to understand their appeal.”

In the end, I am proven right: New Jersey is not a distinct place. Kevin Smith’s New Jersey is utopian in the strictest sense: it does not exist. Or it is in the process of not existing: malls and video stores (the one from Clerks included) are rapidly closing; the communal bonds they endangered are disintegrating in a haze of whippit fumes. Yet Solondz’s New Jersey, on the other hand, endures and will endure—encompassing all of us in our various capacities as sinners, as outcasts, as strivers for something better who come nowhere near to attaining it. We call this place “New Jersey” because the reason bestowed on us has given us no other name. Anyone who denies this is deluded, or from Utah.

1 I’m aware I am leaving out later films, especially Wiener-Dog, which resurrects Dawn Wiener (played by Greta Gerwig) in a less bleak timeline, and that I’m just generally overlooking his fascinating experimental process in favor of a moral overview.

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CINÉMA TOURISTIQUE

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I’ve long admired the films of David Robert Mitchell. He’s not especially prolific, taking nearly four years out between projects, but the few he’d done between 2010 and 2015—two to be exact—are remarkable cinematic works, if not certain masterpieces. Sure, The Myth of the American Sleepover and It Follows are similar movies. They are centered on the Detroit exurbs and the young people who dwell there, adults being few and far between. The cinematography is crisp but muted, favoring dusky or nocturnal scenes. The spare and elegant (or elegantly awkward) dialogue resembles a sort of young adult Pinteresque. Bodies of water somehow narratively factor in. And there is the temporally ambiguous set design that sticks its characters in a time warp where no one has cell phones or laptops but there are plenty of porn mags and old movies on antenna TVs. The films are like siblings: containing the same DNA but distinct parental characteristics. Sleepover is Mitchell’s debut but much the younger sibling: lyrical, wistful, and consciously free. It Follows is colder and rife with dread and insecurity; it’s been tested by life. The films are the same, they are different, and they are deserving of their audiences and enduring acclaim.

I knew after seeing It Follows for the first time that what Mitchell would make next was something to anticipate. I knew, moreover, that it would be forever until that happened. When I’d heard just the title of Under the Silver Lake a little over a year before its June 22, 2018 release date, that was all I needed. How foolish it all seems now.

Under the Silver Lake, starring Andrew Garfield and Riley Keough, was bought by current indie powerhouse A24, but debuted at Cannes to lackluster acclaim. The film was delayed to December 2018, evidently to be recut. Fine. Mixed but not excoriating reviews trickled in. Then it was delayed to April 2019, still I waited. And when it was released it went right to streaming services and very few theaters.

Waiting was never my strong suit. I am, indeed, a remarkably impatient person. On the fleeting times I’ll go to confession, I have had to pencil in that very impatience while getting stuck behind a much more thoroughly repentant parishioner. But I didn’t mind after all that. If anything I was more curious. What was it about this film that required so long an incubation, even a suppression? There were no consistent hints of disaster or overshooting. Southland Tales, Richard Kelly’s infamously bloated follow-up to Donnie Darko, was mentioned at least once giving cause for some uneasiness, but not total despair. Maybe it just didn’t meet expectations, which is almost a worse fate than faceplanting. I had to see for myself as a matter of course. Mitchell is someone I take seriously just as I take Lynne Ramsay seriously. I will see everything they make. So I watched it on Prime as soon as it came out—all two hours and 19 minutes of it.

Under the Silver Lake is visually unmistakable from its predecessors. All of Mitchell’s preferred décor is present: porn magazines, classic films, thrift store couture, bodies of water, the permanent dusk photography. But it departs markedly from them in narrative, character, and setting. It is more a cousin than a sibling: older but not mature, cultured but not worldly, roguish but not charming; a bit creepy, in fact. These departures are not to be abjured for their own sake. They are admirable though still hazardous.

Depending on whom you ask, the plots of Mitchell’s first two films are either cohesive or simplistic, if plots are there at all. Sleepover was about kids hanging out in the suburbs; It Follows was about kids trying to escape a supernatural venereal disease in those same suburbs. A little atmosphere went a long way in both instances to great effect. By contrast, Silver Lake’s plot is, again depending on whom you ask, intricate or rather involved. Boy meets girl, of course. But then girl disappears suddenly, and boy, rather than let things go after online searching turns up zilch, sets on a citywide hunt for her whereabouts guided largely by subliminal codes, hobo symbols, urban legends, and wild coincidences he, in his heightened capacity to detect them, happens to come across.  It is a “puzzle movie” that doesn’t quite know how it feels about puzzle movies. This ambivalence carries over into its characters.

Character was not really a strength in either of Mitchell’s early films, preferring instead something more akin to single personified emotions. As with those films, most of the characters in Under the Silver Lake lack surnames—or just names, period. Topher Grace plays “Bar Buddy,” Riki Lindhome plays “Actress,” Patrick Fischer plays “Comic Fan,” and Grace Van Patten plays “Balloon Girl.” Andrew Garfield’s protagonist Sam, however, is Mitchell’s most substantial character yet. He’s in his 30s, has no job, is on the verge of homelessness, infatuated by alternative rock and Vanna White, perpetually horny, and fraught by his own insignificance. He is, overall, a rather contemptible person who carries a handicap parking permit despite being fully capacitated, whose answer to dealing with the petty vandalism of a group of boys is to violently assault them, who spends his depleting funds on anything but his much overdue rent, and whose indeterminate obsession with one woman does not prevent him from casually fucking more available ones. In his travels from It Follows, Mitchell has encountered a most curious cultural phenomenon: the Xennial, that overgrown airstrip of a generation between the more livable metropolises of Mitchell’s generation X and the millennials who populate his earlier films. Again the film does not know whether to pander to or send up these young-ish people who use the internet, have heard of REM but prefer their later, less majestic work, and who are anxiously clinging to their pre-adult Epicureanism. Indeed, few of the characters seem to do anything besides pass time. Riki Lindhome has slightly more screen time than Topher Grace, but her character serves no higher purpose than to amuse Garfield and to validate his world-historic FOMO. Garfield is paranoid not so much because someone is after him, but because he has nothing else going on.

The film’s position is appreciably clearer, I think, on its location. Under the Silver Lake is identified as a “Los Angeles movie.” It bares easy resemblance to the slacker noir of The Big Lebowski, its postmodern descendant Inherent Vice, their shared ancestor The Long Goodbye, their missing link Repo Man, and it even has traces of the urban gothic of Sunset Boulevard and the surrealism of Mulholland Drive. It does the city’s look some justice, filming at iconic locations like The Last Bookstore, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and the Griffith Observatory. But there’s something diminished in its presentation; that is, there is a look of being more in it than of it.

Great LA films have never flinched from depictions of the city’s singular decrepitude; the best tend to veer from gritty to bizarre but are seldom over-earnest or romanticized, not, anyway, without immediate subversion. As with New York City, feelings of love and hate are so often indistinguishably intense and hopelessly codependent. But there are attitudes toward both that come less from hate than they do from contempt, a lesser form of derision born out of frivolity and phoniness. That contempt is threaded all through Under the Silver Lake as Sam drifts from party to vapid party held in places like Hollywood Forever, where 12-year-old auteurs who “really capture the zeitgeist” are flanked by suited bodyguards, and where invitations come in the form of cookies laced with hallucinogens.

Los Angeles is the ultimate transplant city. Some of the best works about Los Angeles were by those from without who came up on the wrong end of success from within: Nathanael West (The Day of the Locust), Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, among others), Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?), to name a few. These works set the template for the exceptional Angeleno madness that comes seeking utopia and which will endure as much Hell as required to attain it, even at the price of forgetting it completely. Mitchell did not see much madness in Los Angeles, evidently. He saw plenty of eccentricity, and more than a little pathos. These, too, exist in competing depictions, but never in such abundance and with such scorn. Only in Los Angeles, the film concludes, would its richest and most powerful men concoct a convoluted, expensive scheme to build and live in subterranean “tombs” with hot young women for the rest of their lives simply because they could.

There is no doubt that Mitchell thinks Los Angeles a beautiful city, his cinematic style indicates as much, but it could be improved by a better class of citizen, say, from a more upright, more hardworking, and somewhat more landlocked part of the country. In this, Under the Silver Lake echoes the simultaneous enchantment and disillusionment of every tourist. The film concludes with Sam staring with indifference from the balcony of a neighbor he has just slept with as he is finally evicted from his own apartment. I do not know what to make of this scene, but I get the sense that after this long journey, Mitchell just wants to go home.

It’d be wrong to say that this was a terrible film; I was able to rewatch it, which is more than I can say for Southland Tales. Even error can have its poetry, albeit a very morose and incidental poetry. Credit should go to A24 for knowing exactly what they had: a very accidental Hal Hartley film, and treated it more or less as such. It’s too bad. Hartley would have done wonders with the off-kilter material; but Hartley always knew just where he needed to be, and so he can be forgiven, mostly, that that place is Long Island.

ON BEING A POSER

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20 years ago, I decided that I was going to be a punk. The particulars that went into this decision escape me today. Sure, I’d lurked around the punk crowd at that time, but I lurked around a lot of other people at that time. I was, after all, a confirmed and natural loner. It probably didn’t hurt that the summer before high school I had discovered William S. Burroughs, whose work has many documented dovetails with punk. Weirdly, I hadn’t heard a real punk album before that, not consciously anyway. The timeline of my CD purchases is a bit hazy. Somewhere in there was a basement show attendance. For all intents and purposes, though, it was simply a decision that made sense—it was almost a logical deduction. Being punk appealed to me in some way that I couldn’t quite place but I would have all the time in the world to figure it out. So I made the plunge.

Anyway, it wasn’t really why I became a punk that stood out to the other punks at school so much as how I became a punk. I was in line for lunch with two of them and asked point blank if I could become punk. Yes, I asked permission to join a subculture prided and derided for its anarchic tendencies. My present company, two people in the clique of generous natures, said something to the effect of “Yeah, sure.”

I commenced immediately with an intensive self-education, mostly by way of whatever I could find on the Yahoo! directory. I discovered bands that my peers had never mentioned, explored and compared neighboring subcultures (goth, rivethead, metalhead, rude boy) and punk’s own taxonomy (SHARP, emo, skater, pop punk, oi, hardcore, and so on). I had heard about straight edge before without really knowing what it was, but having connected it to punk and not being interested in pursuing hedonism, I embraced it. During a later lunch period I asked a friend to draw X-marks on my hands using a black Bic. At some point in the day, I asked that friend to make the X’s darker.

Though my autodidacticism makes up a sizeable part of my overall education, I was especially sensitive when I turned it to this subject. I always had the convert’s scholastic zeal; but at the same time I was intimidated by the group. They had forged bonds with each other over the past several years while I plumbed my own psyche in solitude trying to mine an identity worth having. It felt a bit like barging in, and to be quite honest, some seemed to confirm that sense and were not keen on mentoring, not that I could blame them. For instance, reading a Rolling Stone record guide in the library during a study hall, I discovered the term “indie rock” for the first time. When I asked them what precisely it was one answered “It sucks” while another said, possibly sardonically, it was Duran Duran. This is not to say my presence was manifestly unwelcomed. Some people were generous and perhaps sincerely enjoyed my curiosity, some people were not and could be dismissive or cruel, and some people were amused or at least very patient. But the sense of being judged was always hanging on me.

High school, as I am constantly reminded, is a territorial society. It may not be as strictly zoological as pop culture suggests, but it is remarkable enough that protecting one’s territory is of some importance. Protection is accomplished in a number of ways: pecking order, peer pressure, gossip, and, failing those, bullying. With punk all four manifest in the ferreting out of posers. To the befuddled adult, this concept seems trivial, but to an insecure adolescent mind like mine, few stigmas were more potent.

A teen becoming a punk was making an explicit stance of dissatisfaction, if not disgust, with the surrounding status quo, against parents, teachers, youth pastors, and other students. It did not matter that the status quo more often than not waved off this stance as an excessive affectation of hardly unique sentiments, it was a matter of principle and commitment—an expression, to borrow from Nicolas Cage, of one’s individuality and their belief in personal freedom. The credibility of this position was not going to be threatened by interlopers who either tried way too hard or not at all.

I witnessed these remonstrations firsthand with a classmate whose entry into punk coincided with mine, enduring repeat, and sometimes direct, ire from members of the punk clique. I cannot for the life of me remember what the nature of her transgressions were, I boil it down to a matter of taste. She embraced pop punk, which at that time in New Jersey had a very active scene and which was not very exclusive or demanding, certainly it was not authentic. Whether she minded the bullshit or not I also can’t remember. I do remember that I did nothing to prevent it, so preoccupied was I with my own status anxiety. I was trying far harder than she was and knew in my bones how much more I deserved the mockery.

It actually hit me that spring when I tried to escape from punk by going into industrial. Industrial was a much smaller scene, like of three other people, and it appealed somewhat to my burgeoning curiosity with dissonance and experimental art. But I entered it in so desperate, preening, pedantic, and opportunistic a fashion that I made for an irresistible sideshow attraction. Everything was acquired for maximum signaling effect. I bought a pair of clunky black steel-toes and black jeans. I bought an Einstürzende Neubauten anthology on some random chatroom recommendation, which I didn’t like at all, so I could justify the purchase of a t-shirt, which I wore on yearbook picture day. I vacillated on whether Nine Inch Nails was true industrial or just Cheap Trick with harsh synthesizers (as if that was a high crime). Most comically—most comically—was when I bought a chain wallet, and removed the wallet. Add this to my preexisting social imbecility, and you have what amounts to performative self-destruction.

It was by a gradual, years-long process that I was able to overcome much of my status neuroses, falling back into punk, settled by an ideal of eclectic individuality. In fact, I came to be better defined by my “individualistic” tendencies. Not that I tried to forget my embarrassing beginnings; or maybe I did at first but soon came to accept the futility of doing so. I had the sense that I would encounter that anxiety in the future. Indeed, the upshot of that struggle was its clarification for me about how life actually worked.

The urge for belonging was something from which I could never entirely shake myself free. This seemed to persist because rather than in spite of my natural individualism, which always seemed less like a personal blessing or genius and more like a series of accidents crashing comically into a single vessel. No one of greater wisdom could ever give a contrary assessment to my satisfaction. So it seemed to me more likely that I would trudge onward in search of a place to fit in and falling short each time. I have always regretted this, though I’ve never been quite able to place on whose side the problem lies: my side or the group’s.

For some people in the same position the answer is clearly not them. These are people who claim a certain degree of “tribelessness” from groups caught up in powerplays over the scraps of political and social capital. Rather than resign themselves to the side that offends their instincts the least, these tribeless opt to take a high road on their own—or more accurately a middle road. Think of Dave Rubin, a man of the left utterly disillusioned with its embrace of “outrage culture” and who seeks a “new center” with others “outside looking in” like Ben Shapiro and Mike Cernovich. Think also of the post-Greg Gutfeld punditry of Bridget Phetasy and the post-Tom Wolfe journalism of Art Tavana. There’s much overlap with these figures: they are not experienced political activists, they are connected to the culture or entertainment industry, they dwell largely in blue states, they hate the “regressive” or “postmodern” left, and they are fed up with the hyperpartisan atmosphere that enables the left to thrive.

At a broad glance I should have some affinity with this group. If I understand Rubin, he’s promoting a kind of agree-to-disagree non-ideology, a sort of suburbanization of politics. It’s right-wing in the sense that it resembles what Bernard Crick acidly described as the “lonely nihilism” of Michael Oakeshott, the branch of conservativism to which I am most drawn temperamentally. But it’s hard to tell if Rubin grasps that. He is a savvy promoter of himself and people who best embody his political comfort zone, but he lacks the inquisitiveness and humor of someone like Joe Rogan, and he simply doesn’t seem to be very intelligent, and otherwise more interested in attitudes or fashions than ideas proper. Indeed, his sagacious olive branches to good political opponents barely masks a much more potent contempt for his real enemies. Rubin’s philosophy, so far as it can be called one, is structured like a mullet: Oakeshottian in the front; Schmittian in the back.

More than that, the tribeless are just another variant of tribalism. They are the new try-hards presenting themselves as something they are not: independent rogues of a political warzone. Imagine the father and son from The Road either concealing or in absolute denial that they’d succumbed to cannibalism.

But at the same that savviness is illuminating. For what they lack in intellect they excel in atmospherics. They understand that today’s political atmosphere is more dependent on ethics-based live-action roleplay than on the finer points of philosophy or policy. It is easier than ever to become an ideological adherent, in fact there are videos on YouTube that can walk you through the correct concepts, the proper language and actions, even when to talk and when not to talk. There are nearly 300 million Google results for “how to be ally” alone. To this the tribeless respond in kind, “truth-bombing” their audience with the finer points of who they can and cannot “converse” with, who they can and cannot tolerate, what they can and cannot believe. Though the tribeless don’t really have a language or code so much as a posture: innocent idealism of a liberal golden age tarnished into cynical righteousness by the betrayals of brainwashed mini-tyrants. In either case there is less room for idiosyncrasy or stylistic innovation. There is no room to play with what few ideas are actually laying around. Hitting the right beats, presenting the right team appearance is what counts. Being a poser is essential to today’s discourse. The call for belonging is answered by the demand for cohesion.

Of course to equate political teams with punk culture is not entirely correct. A punk can be on a political team, but punk does not seek popularity as these political teams do, it does not seek to dominate other teams but to defend itself against whatever bulbous bland hegemon of respectability that is seeking to inhale it. Punk is also a bunch of kids with kid problems, a silly clique trying to pass time with self-made culture. It’s a complex mixture of communal insulation and a (mostly) innocent pursuit of fun. When I return to what went wrong, me or the group, I come up empty as to what actually went wrong in the first place. The struggle to belong is everyone’s struggle. If I had to do 1999 over again in whatever level of Hell that happens, I would still resolve to be a punk, but at least of the firmer understanding of its meaning to every other young person who, through whatever catalyst, heeds the call: the craft of belonging well.

DAVID BROOKS AND THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL

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Explosion of nuclear device from Operation Tumbler-Snapper, Nevada, 1952.

One of the most fruitless things one can do is respond to a newspaper column. Given the strictures of the medium and the frequency that is demanded of each columnist to write one, the quality varies wildly from piece to piece. It’s a tension that arises when someone’s job is to say what they think on-demand. The best the columnist could hope to manage is something clear and serviceable for someone’s morning commute or lunch break. A reader committing more thought beyond those timeframes is a loser’s gamble.

Though at times I envy the columnist’s exposure, I never forget the steepness of its price, and venture infrequently into that octagon. When I do, I need to have a very good reason first: a sort of clear and present danger rule for hot takes.

Today’s very good reason comes from David Brooks, which is already a fairly dicey proposition. Mr. Brooks provides people who pay attention to this kind of thing with routine fodder. (And this is not the first time I’m writing about him on here.) Much of his output is sort of lightly, if unintentionally, comical in that sidewalk-sage-trying-to-make-sense-of-the-world-around-him kind of way. He tries to address monumental subjects with accessible frameworks and anecdotes that end up somewhat eccentric on the page. Remember the sandwich column? His prolificity in this type of column was always astounding to me at first; then I read one of his columns aloud, and got caught in the gentle grace of his prose as countless regular New York Times readers likely do. But it would be one thing if Brooks was some kind of spin class Andy Rooney; Brooks sees himself rather as a moralist defending the American civil order from corrosive actors, and when he hits his stride he reaches noxious levels that his benign style cannot mask. Such is the case with his June 13 column “Voters, Your Foreign Policy Views Stink!”.

Mr. Brooks’s column opens thus:

Most of human history has been marked by war. Between 1500 and 1945, scarcely a year went by without some great power fighting another great power. Then, in 1945 that stopped. The number of battlefield deaths has plummeted to the lowest levels in history. The world has experienced the greatest reduction in poverty in history, as well as the greatest spread of democracy and freedom.

Why did this happen? Mostly it was because the United States decided to lead a community of nations to create a democratic world order. That order consisted of institutions like NATO, the U.N. and the World Bank. But it was also enforced by the pervasive presence of American power — military, economic and cultural power as well as the magnetic power of the democratic idea, which inspired dissidents worldwide.

For much of the 20th century, Brooks argues, this was the great unifying idea of the American people. Yes, there have been “terrible mistakes” like Vietnam, but that was the price America paid for defending and upholding “the liberal order.” “This was abnormal,” Brooks writes, unprecedented in the history of world power, but it was a positive good all the same.

But Brooks finds this sentiment less compelling among the American people in 2019. He finds Americans not only disinterested but “actively hostile” to the prospect of “maintaining the liberal international order.” “Instead of widening the circle of concern, most Americans want the U.S. to simply look after itself.” Their highest priorities include “negative aspirations” like “protecting against terrorist threats, protecting jobs for American workers and reducing illegal immigration.” They are evidently less interested in “promoting democracy, taking on Chinese aggression, promoting trade, fighting global poverty and defending human rights.” Brooks does not entirely blame the American people for this shift to “the self-righteous sense of innocence that the powerless and reclusive enjoy,” but he shakes his head nonetheless. David Brooks, ever the national Dad, is not mad, just disappointed.

“Social trust has collapsed” in the past few decades, “especially among the young. Distrustful, alienated people don’t want to get involved in the strange, hostile, outside world.” This has given rise to a “low-trust voter,” of which there are two types: “On the right there are the Trumpian America Firsters, who want to cut immigration and break alliances. On the left there are the New Doves. These are young people who express high interest in human rights, but having grown up in the Iraq era, they don’t want the U.S. to get involved in protecting them.”

This distrust amounts to a “dark spiral,” a “dark view of human nature” that enables “wolves” like Putin and Xi to wreak havoc in the world. He concludes with the hope that a leader can “build a younger, credible leadership class and embody an optimism” to pull us from the spiral.

I suppose we should be flattered that Brooks thinks that we, the Young Americans of America, have such power as to entirely deflate the national mood; and not just deflate it, but spiral it into the blackest recesses. It’s almost as if we don’t even need to have an election. The true powers have usurped democracy because they’re cranky, freedom is cancelled until further notice. Yet I’m going to err on the side of modesty and place emphasis away from us, if the young folk (who aren’t reading this anyway) wouldn’t mind indulging me for a bit.

Brooks’s argument, again speaking at least in part to the restrictions of the column form, is full of vague gestures and contorted logic. He writes rhapsodically about America’s moral mission after World War II, and its dovetailing with “the liberal order.” Though it is peculiar that he treats events like Vietnam and Iraq as lapses of judgment and not the logical outcomes of that very order. Vietnam, Christopher Lasch wrote, “was not a war thrust on the country by reactionaries or marginal elements; it was a liberal war, the culmination of twenty years of cold war carried out under liberal auspices and reflecting the traditions of a ruling class supposedly enlightened, mature, and superior to the grosser strains of American life.” “It was the French Jacobins,” John Gray wrote, “who believed that democracy could be spread throughout the world by fiat; today it is American neo-conservatives. … [T]he neo-conservative intellectuals who are calling the shots at the [Bush] White House accept that terror will be necessary; but like their Jacobin predecessors, they believe it will be just as merciful, a brief pang before the advent of a new world.”

“Terrible mistake,” moreover, is the language a parent would use to paper over a major breach of decorum, like slapping a child in a heat of an argument or crashing through the garage door after having “one too many.” It barely covers those transgressions, but applied to Vietnam and Iraq it is a laughable Gob Bluthism. Sure, they were “mistakes” in the sense that region-destabilizing and credibility-deflating strategic blunders maintained through escalating acts of questionably lawful (sometimes completely unlawful) cruelty just to save face are “mistakes.”

But Brooks makes his own terrible mistake when he writes how young people “don’t want the U.S. to get involved in protecting” human rights because of Iraq. This is raw emotional blackmail, for one. It also waves away serious concerns that young people like myself had in 2003 and beyond that our invasion, already conducted under vague and shifting rationales, was making a bad situation much worse and that human rights abuses were happening in our name. Far worse things have been committed and are being committed in the history of warfare, we’re not that stupid and the expanse of digital media gives us greater exposure to those realities every day; but to see the United States conduct the war in the way it did was to see a leadership that was either overselling its moral qualifications or those qualifications are of less value the further we go into the 21st century. Brooks reduces this dissenting view as the dithering of do-nothing extremism. Brooks is channeling, if not agreeing with, the sentiment that is not mad, just disappointed that Lynndie England had a camera.

And what of those qualifications? America’s leading “a community of nations to create a democratic world order” and its “magnetic power of the democratic idea, which inspired dissidents worldwide”? People outside the United States are sometimes intrigued by our reliance on comic books, though it’s pretty clear from how Brooks appropriates their language here. It’s language that makes victory seem assured and destined, the resulting peace right and welcomed, and its maintenance just and wise. In a word, it spins a utopia out of what any other previous world power would have called an empire. Of course empires aren’t very nice. They have to keep order and appease their interests before any altruism can be divvied out. At least Brooks is right that the United States brought (relative) peace to the world in 1945 with an idea. Though the idea was less the promise of democracy than it was the awesome force of the applied sciences.

Brooks seems more interested in placing blame than offering any clear prescriptions beyond “credible leadership.” We could go to war with Iran tomorrow and he could still find a way to blame the voters rather than risk praising Trump for doing something he evidently approves. But the voters have been given hint after hint that a new kind of world is emerging, one more complicated than a “dark spiral” that is not amenable to simple assertion of National Greatness or moral authority, such as it is. To suggest that the problem is as simple as a spiral and that its vortex was set in motion only recently brings Brooks ever further away from intellectual seriousness, and leaves me with a feeling somewhat higher than disappointment.

PROMETHEUS’S LAUGHTER, OR REMARKS FOR A DINNER PARTY FROM WHICH I WAS DISINVITED

prometheus-eagle-eating-liver

Laughter is the least examined of the human experiences. There is good reason for this. Thinking about why one laughs is far duller than just laughing. Laughter, after all, is entirely involuntary and its prompting is self-evident.

At the same time, to not think about laughter is also to miss the sheer variety in which laughter is exerted. There is the eruptive guffaw, the sustained titter, the flirtish giggle, the genteel chortle, the belly laugh, the spit-take, the milk hose, the nervous laugh, the crying laugh, bathroom laughter, laughter in the dark; there is the hushed laughter between intimates, the boisterous laughter of the crowd, laughter at oneself, laughter at one’s expense, laughter that doesn’t seem to come from anywhere. This is to say nothing of the warmth felt from making others laugh, particularly people or a person you admire. The way each of us laughs reveals more about us than any other attribute. Try remembering a time when you knew someone who has never laughed. They either stand out immediately or cannot be recalled at all. Our laughter leaves the most lasting, and admittedly not always greatest, impression on others.

Yet my favorite kind of laughter is one of the rarest. There are probably many names for it; I like to call it “Prometheus’s laughter.”

We have a fixed idea about Prometheus. He is this sort of heroic figure as our creator and our benefactor. He risked his eternal freedom to bring us fire and our civilizational capacities. Today he is an archetype for the bold belief in progress and thirst for greatness on the one hand, and good intentions gone wrong on the other. He is, in any case, always benevolent, noted for his intelligence and altruism. He was a trickster, but always at the expense of the haughty Olympians.

That reading cuts closest to mythical tradition, and has its share of complexities. Americans see themselves in Prometheus: clever against the snobs as we are generous toward the slobs. We think about this especially when the latter backfires.

I recognize these attributes, but I form a different picture with them; one rooted in Prometheus’s cleverness.

The popular conception of Prometheus embodies an ideal in which one can be clever and can compartmentalize that cleverness to resist one force while serving another. I won’t go so far as to say that’s impossible, but it’s not easy. Cleverness is sharp and logical, but not patient or methodical, it lends itself to excess. Perhaps if one possesses a certain level of genius that equilibrium can be achieved. But who ever heard of someone who was clever first and a genius second?

Prometheus’s cleverness served him well for a while. He sided against his fellow Titans knowing that victory over the Olympians was futile. He might also have understood that a Titan in an Olympian-dominated universe meant all the trappings of deification and none of the responsibilities. When it came to humans, I see Prometheus as more curious than committed. His brother Epimetheus half-assed his contribution to the race leaving them incomplete. You can’t really advocate for them but you can make a good pet project out of them. So Prometheus stole the fire from Olympia and gave it to humanity, because why not? It could work out! Or it could not.

Here you might balk a bit. I am running roughshod over mythical canon, recreating it without crucial developments, namely Pandora and her jar. (Though I believe this echoes Aeschylus, from whom I borrow the most.) I’m also turning Prometheus into something more like Loki. Fair enough, but seeing as we are rehabilitating Loki, I thought debilitating Prometheus, with all the erasure and implications, might be worth a look. But moving on: where does this leave us?

Things went recognizably south for Prometheus. Zeus got to that very high level of Greek God rage. Compared to the grueling, ironic punishments of mythical figures like Sisyphus, Tantalus, Midas, Atlas, Io, and Narcissus, the punishment dealt to Prometheus is horrifying: to be chained to a rock for eternity as an eagle eats his liver. But Prometheus, being clever even here, surely anticipated that pissing off Zeus would bring him enduring harm; so it had to be worth his while. When tried and sentenced, what can someone like Prometheus do but laugh? None of this is his problem anymore. The humans are fine, probably. It’s all very funny to him, especially because it’s not funny to anyone else. And so he keeps laughing up to and during his punishment.

Prometheus’s laughter is the laughter of someone who is beaten and hit rock bottom (quite literally in this case) with no chance for redemption, but who did so on his own terms having managed to pull the rug up from under his nemesis anyway. It’s the true ideal of the clever: laughing at your own joke that, this one time, is actually kind of funny.

ON SUCKING

9ggZoYO

I first heard about the “Manos” the Hands of Fate episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 as everyone else had in that halcyon period of 2005: through word-of-mouth. I had seen several episodes of MST3k before its cancellation in 1999, but that one being from an earlier season caused me to overlook it. I was nevertheless assured that it was the worst creation in cinematic history, and that I must see it. Thankfully the college acquaintance who told me this was pleased to enlighten me further by way of lending me his DVD copy.

On a Friday night, I placed the DVD into the drive of my MacBook and everything was as described. I marveled at the ineptitude and crudity of this ill-fated product: the terrible almost alien sound quality, the lobotomized acting, the barely focused photography, the desolate setting, the meandering plot, literally everything the goat-legged henchman Torgo did. It’s rather difficult to put into words just how poorly made this film is, and the writers of the show were hardly better as their humor gave way to frustration. Crow T. Robot’s line asking if “this is going to turn into a snuff film” is probably the harshest riff of the series. Even the usually low-key host Joel Hodgson loses his patience yelling “DO SOMETHING!” at the film’s seemingly Quaalude-induced pacing. By the time it ended I could hardly believe I’d even watched it. Was it all a dream? If not a dream, then, have I been altered in its viewing? Is Torgo going to call me, his “theme” playing in the background, to tell me I have seven days to live and so must show it to someone else?

Naturally, a film this bad ignites significant curiosity as to its genesis and execution. And the data is a treasure trove. The film was made by Harold P. Warren, an El Paso fertilizer salesman by trade with some connections in community theatre, from which he got most of the cast along with others from a modeling agency. The film was shot with a camera that could only take 32 seconds of footage at a time. Most of the voices in the film were dubbed over by other actors. For marketing purposes, Warren signed up costar Diane Mahree for a local beauty pageant without her knowledge. The gratuitous car make-out scenes that bookend the film happened because one of the models broke her foot. Despite Warren’s assurances that the shoddy production would be smoothed over “in post,” it’s quite clear that those assurances were empty. The film was made in the first place because Warren bet Route 66 writer Stirling Silliphant that anyone could make a film. In this light, some cultural artifacts are not just failures or mistakes, but gifts carefully crafted by the hand of Providence.

When something sucks, you know it in your bones. Or maybe you know it in your gut, possessing as it does an onset feeling not unlike nausea. The feeling gets very severe very quickly, without much nuance to soothe it. Finding that something sucks is rooted in your unique palate, and yet you have no control over something that has been determined to suck. Things that suck are obstinate; they resist manipulation and redemption. Simply put, you cannot turn back from “This movie, album, show, party, date, job, essay, or family sucks.” You can deny that something sucks out loud. You can forgive something for sucking after a certain maturity is reached. But you can never forget that something sucks. That feeling, so acute and echoing so far, never leaves you; or it leaves and comes back in quick, regretful pangs.

That doesn’t prevent some people from developing a fascination with sucking, and with finding things that suck with aplomb. What is done with those things depends on the person looking. Some people like to strip them to their elements, to find a definitive catalyst that sent the object away from the path of not sucking. Some people like to set a thing that sucks up next to themselves to see how they measure up to it, confident, of course, that they are free from sucking in the way that the object assuredly sucks. Some people just like to watch an object self-immolate for their amusement. This is what the Culture has deemed “hate-watching,” even though the term never sat well with me. “For what he hate,” Montaigne wrote, “we take seriously.” I never found anything truly serious about this endeavor. That was its charm for a while.

MST3k aired 198 episodes from its start on Minnesota public access to its end on the Sci-Fi channel. The show covered a pretty wide gamut of bad cinema. There was standard mid-20th-century schlock, the Japanese, Mexican, or Soviet equivalents of that shlock, rejected TV pilots from the 1970s, Conan knockoffs, Jaws knockoffs, teen beach movies, dour suspense films, films that only make sense as money-laundering fronts, and a few that are truly, truly unexplainable. I can’t say I ever hated anything presented to me on the show. I was baffled and amused, mostly, by the often surreal nature bad film can assume in, say, Ed Wood’s conveniently exploitative anti-porn polemic The Sinister Urge, the proto-mumblecore of Track of the Moon Beast, or the unintentionally postmodern disjointedness of The Wild World of Batwoman. That such a show could drive a cult obsession was a given, but it was that innocent, purely aesthetic cult clearly without hazards, ramifications, or hunger for the trappings of power.

The nature of the dedication, however, allowed seriousness to creep in. Quite against its intentions, the show took on an educational role. First in helping hone my critical faculties. MST3k had some of the most erudite people ever placed in a single writer’s room. The show’s most enduring merit was that it never assumed the stupidity of its audience. Having intelligence and a humorous streak (though that would make itself known to me later) were not mutually exclusive and in fact quite essential to each other.

Second it instilled a broader sensibility about making art. Though the sensibility was not so much aesthetic as it was moral. Some of the films that left an impression on me in the later episodes showed how a bad film was a form of abuse. Films like Space Mutiny, The Projected Man, Time Chasers, Soultaker, and Future War were not just ridiculous films, but pretentious and hubristic, made by deluded people out of their depth. Mocking them was both really fun and a service to prevent future lapses. This was not explicit, but the shift is somewhat detectible in the change of hosts. Joel Hodgson, the show’s creator, was laconic, easygoing, and upbeat, something like a class clown and a champion of “good-natured ribbing”; his sixth-season replacement, head writer Michael J. Nelson, was more cerebral and acerbic. The show gained an edge. It was less reserved when it was losing patience with a film. To take one example, Invasion of the Neptune Men, thanks to its reliance on World War II-era stock footage, took them to the breaking point. And this new lack of patience, this edge, oozed out from the screen and onto its viewers. Or at least one viewer.

That a show should evolve with changes of personnel is nothing new, let alone objectionable. What is objectionable, perhaps, is one of its viewers taking that evolution to such heart as to make an authority of it. This is something I’ve always done. When I become dissatisfied with the world that was given to me, there is the classic urge to strike out a path for myself. This is more of a contingency measure, however, until I could latch onto someone or something that could express my inner convictions more forcefully than I could or who could make sense of, if not bring order to, the noise constantly frazzling me. Once found, sycophancy and pliancy very quickly became my love languages. Some might call that blind obedience; I prefer self-abnegation: lesser power ceding to a greater one. In this case I accepted all the bad things as singularly bad and which should be stopped at all costs. I accepted it by not saying anything that didn’t echo preexisting sentiments. I didn’t become witty or intelligent for my own sake or to address my own needs. In other words, I spent a lot of time nodding along to message boards. It was like being frozen without the added annoyance of being cold. It is approximately what sucking feels like.

In a foreword the MST3k episode guide, Kevin Murphy (the voice of Tom Servo) recalls the time he met his hero Kurt Vonnegut. Murphy explained MST3k to the author, who had in fact seen the show, but was less than warm about it, saying that even bad artists deserve respect. When I read about this in college, I wrote it off as bitter tut-tutting; but I came around eventually. Vonnegut languished in pulp science fiction for years before achieving his iconography. His recurring character the prolific but obscure author Kilgore Trout was based on his friend and genre fiction lifer Theodore Sturgeon. Vonnegut, like Philip K. Dick, did not necessarily like being associated with lowbrow lit, but being in that world probably offered an understanding of the dimensions of badness that was not as narrow as the MST3k’s was.

Art that sucks isn’t an act of cultural sadism. Error, even comically flagrant error, isn’t cruelty. Sometimes it is more revealing than perfection. Sometimes art that sucks even has a purpose. Most of what MST3k ridiculed was hack work meant to meet some market requirement, and quickly dispensed with once it had. Even “Manos” had a purpose. True, the crew mocked the film during production and no reasonable person expected that payment through shares from the profits would ever be made. But it was completed, screened in a local theater, and reviewed (poorly) in a local paper, all to prove a point to the guy who wrote The Poseidon Adventure. What was Harold Warren’s failing there? That he was a technically inept man of his word?

So, what then? Am I reborn? Do I find the good in the lowest of things? Am I a reveler in the potentialities for the sublime in garbage? Am I, in a word, a schlocktimist? Not really; I’m just reoriented. The world turns as it always has. Americans awaken to propel commerce another grueling day toward their tombs. Garbage continues to be made; it is more profuse than ever. Indeed, I am reminded how just about everyone can suck. Everyone has the potential to fall short of even their most modest expectations, to miss the mark by a spectacular distance, to pander shamelessly to the crudest spectator, to bore me to tears, to insult my intelligence. When it happens there is neither a ghetto to which we are confined nor a rehab in which we can convalesce. In this world we can not suck before we very badly suck. More dazzlingly we can suck and not suck at the same time. As “Sturgeon’s Law” puts it: “Using the same standards that categorize 90 percent of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90 percent of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap.” Sucking is something from which none of us are immune. Not even sucking’s arbiters.

“I’m currently seething with great well springs of rage over Carnival of Souls, a horrible, completely worthless piece of crap, incompetent in every conceivable way that garners an impressive 83 percent on the Tomato Meter.” So said Mike Nelson, who in his current manifestation of RiffTrax (along with other MST3k costars and writers) has turned his attention to the film more than once. Carnival of Souls is not perfect, the Criterion Collection edition was probably overkill, but it doesn’t meet any of the aforementioned symptoms of sucking either. Certainly it’s not “incompetent in every conceivable way.” I like the film, the film is fine; A24 would put it out if it was made today. Not that this particular disagreement makes me cast a pox on my past viewing; Mike Nelson hands down such judgment calls like it’s his job, which it is. It just happens that this judgment fucking sucks.

FEEDBACK

francisbacon

I must admit I was very surprised when you reached out to me to meet.

I’m sorry, I forgot how you don’t like surprises.

I think surprise is the art of the bad first impression.

I’ve heard that. But does that include birth? That, I’d think, is very surprising.

I’d say it laid the foundation for every subsequent surprise. I have never been surprised pleasantly. People tell me about it happening to them, but I wouldn’t know how to even conceptualize it. You could say I was a virgin to the pleasant surprise.

Oh boy.

But you’ve robbed me of my purity! It is very pleasantly surprising to be standing in front of you in your studio right now.

Cheers to that, I guess.

Cheers!

It’s been a while. I want to say … five … six months?

It’s more like a year and a half.

That long?

The data doesn’t lie. If my text logs are any indication. Look … note the date of the text you sent me to be here now. Now above that is the last text I sent you, about 16 months before. I had to count to make sure.

Here I was flattered by your keeping such careful track of my absence. But having it on record humbles me.

The feeling is mutual I assure you.

The testament to true friendship: mutual humility.

So then, why am I here?

Of course. I invited you here for two things. First to inform you of the nature of my absence, which in no way is rooted in some defect on your part. It is not rooted, for instance, in your tendency to be overbearing in the presence of others.

Okay.

I think, though perhaps some may not agree but I haven’t surveyed, that your sense of presence is sharp and adequately applied. No, it’s not that at all; the fault lies completely with me. You will recall that when we were last together that I was fresh off my most recent project.

Yes.

And that I was eager to start a new one. Well that was easier said than done, as it always is. For several weeks I sequestered myself in this very room, subsisting on whole milk, ramen noodles, and milk chocolate bars as I tried to stake out my next great idea. Ideas came, don’t be mistaken, but they left almost as easily as they appeared. Nothing seemed to attach itself to my membrane with much eagerness. No idea seemed … hungry as I was hungry. Soon I lost track of time. This was not working at all. Then I had a party, a few parties actually.

You had parties?

Yes, but they were a purely professional matter, for the purpose of honing my craft. It was a prized method of my mentor Klaus Darwin; may he rest in prurience.

Did it work?

Alas, it was also easier said than done. I sequestered myself again, breaking the solitude occasionally with the interventions of women.

You’ve been dating?

I assure, yet again, not with any enthusiasm. Doctor’s orders, you see, entirely therapeutic, like taking a pill rectally. The wisdom of Dr. Tilda Hidalgo, PsyD.

I don’t know her.

May the angels sing her sweetly, etc., etc.

Were you cured?

No, I actually felt emptier and more spiritually destitute than ever I had felt in my life. But it turns out that was precisely the feeling I had to chase in order to clean my imaginative pipes. Pretty soon an idea did latch on with vampiric force, we assumed a symbiosis and the next several months—more, apparently, than I thought—were spent in challenging but not tedious collaboration. Which brings me to the second reason for my need of you. I suspect you’ve noticed the blanketed structure just over in back there?

I have.

The fruit of my toil. I give you … The Drowning Spoon.

The Drowning Spoon?

Yes.

It’s …

It’s a work in progress; a prototype, you might say. It’s about an eighth of its actual size, which I reckon would be on par with the tallest building in any midsize city. Like Montclair. Or Minneapolis.

Is that a working title, The Drowning Spoon?

It is final. The Drowning Ladle did not quite have the right ring. It is the title I’ll be bringing to the Foundation for the Arts next week for my grant application.

In what sense is it drowning?

You are here to help me explore that and other potentialities. You are not an artist, yes, and you maybe possess a greater hardness of perception and a literal-mindedness that the funding committee is not quite comfortable with. But maybe that’s what I need to see this through.

Can I … can I touch it?

If that will help you.

It’s smooth.

Texture is another potentiality. Does it feel right?

It’s what I expected, if that helps.

It doesn’t not help, I suppose. 

I’m sorry … I’m not sure … Do you want something more … constructive or …

Nothing too involved. I just want your … your … your impressions. Impressions you, as an amateur but informed lover of art, have upon seeing this work.

Even though it’s not full-size?

Just imagine it’s full-size in some outdoor exhibit upstate or some rotunda somewhere.

Okay. I want to say, somehow, it’s … phallic in some way?

Is that a question?

Sort of?

In what sense is it phallic in nature? What made you go there?

I’m not sure … it’s the first thing that came to me.

Somehow I doubt that.

Isn’t that what it always boils down to?

Maybe in an MFA assessment; but I’m thankfully past that.

Sorry … I’m sorry. I’m looking at this thing, you’re telling me it’s The Drowning Spoon. I’m … I’m having a hard time understanding.

Understanding? I’m not asking you to understand it. I’m not even asking you to like it. I don’t even want you to like it. A lot of people like sitting on the toilet. If the Foundation for the Arts wanted art they liked I’d just send them a fecal punch bowl and we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Great art is not about preference; it’s about imposition. I want to know what this thing I made is forcing on you. How is it cornering you? How is it getting in your face? What is saying as it clouds your glasses with its breath?

I … I don’t …

Just … just stand right here and look. Take a long look at The Drowning Spoon. You see it now?

Sure.

Now look at it and tell me what it’s telling you with as much accuracy as you can manage.

If you say so.

Well?

I see myself. But it’s not me now, it’s me from the past. I’m 11 or 12 maybe. And I’m running.

Where are you running?

On a road. It’s dark.

To where?

It’s not where I’m running, it’s what I’m running from. I’m running away from a broken home.

Your house is broken?

No, the house is fine, it’s sturdy. The home, its contents are, in their way, broken—toxic, unlivable. I’m escaping them, crudely, as a child would. I don’t really know where I’m going. It’s a country road and there’s no one around. No one driving, no other houses. No light but the moon. There is … there is a field though, to my right. I stop and look at it and …

And?

It’s a field of spoons. They’re wafting with the wind. Like amber waves of grain, but silvery.

Silver waves of spoons. Fascinating.

When the sun hits it just right, they shine blindingly. And in the moonlight they glow incandescently. They can probably be seen for miles. But now I hear them singing. It is a chorus. An ejaculation of sound in unison. A chant to the stars. No, I’m sorry, to me. They’re chanting to me.

What are they singing?

Can’t you hear it? It’s getting louder. I think they’re calling me, trying to coax me off the road. They’re saying it’s safe, maybe, that’s just a guess. Maybe, deep down, that’s what I want. I think I’ve made a mistake. But I can’t remember what direction I came down on. I think I’m going to be sick.

There’s a sink in the corner.

Oh … oh God. I’m so sorry. Has someone already puked here?

Don’t worry about that. Just run the faucet on hot.

I feel like that didn’t help you in the way you hoped. Like I misread your whole idea.

Well … things like “concept” and “intention” are pretty fluid before the check is in-hand.

I should probably go.

Use the service elevator in the back. It’s faster. Here, I’ll show you.

Thank you. I hope you get your grant.

I think you’ve helped me a lot in that regard.

You think? Hey, there’s nothing here, it’s just a shaft.

Thank you again for your help, I mean it.

Hey, what the fuck are you doing? Hey. HEY.

Some progress. But still a way to go. Sorry … I’m sorry! Hello. I was doing some last-minute cleaning. It’s a mess in here. Terribly embarrassed.

Oh, it’s fine.

Come in, please.

I must admit I was very surprised when you reached out to me to meet.

Oh yeah, sorry. I remember how you don’t really like surprises.

I think surprise is the art of the bad first impression.

I’ve heard that.

MY “LEAVING NEW YORK” ESSAY: A MUSICAL WITHOUT MUSIC

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MAN: I crawl to the top of the tallest building in the city and ask if it will eat me.

THE CITY:

***

MAN: Back in Indiana, Grandma takes out her teeth and holds them up to the phone.

GRANDMA: The city is always hungry. Its mouth is wide and black, like an introverted star.

MAN: Dad shoots a beer can with an air rifle.

DAD: Eat or be eaten. It’s your life. Need money? Just kidding.

MAN: Mom sends a Jello-O mold the shape of Robert Moses.

MOM: “The city won’t eat you if you’re not tenderized. XOXO, Mom”

***

MAN: “The tallest building in the city” is a four-story brownstone in Clinton Hill.

*** 

THE MAYOR: Everyone in the city is the neighbor of everyone else.

COMMISSIONER OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods,” I’m told.

THE MAYOR: That’s a jurisdictional matter. You’re not in Port Chester anymore.

COMMISSIONER OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS: Sir, I’m from Mystic.

THE MAYOR: “Port Chester” is a play on words, from a Basque term meaning “your dad’s balls.” The Neapolitans have a similar expression. Few know this.

***

MAN: The Brownstone feels a door for heat.

***

MAN: The performance artist ties a bluefin tuna by its tail and hoists it in the center of the loft. A man in a black rubber suit holds a baseball bat.

THE PERFORMANCE ARTIST: BIGOTRY! INCEST! MURDER!

MAN: The rubber man whacks the fish.

THE PERFORMANCE ARTIST: ROBBERY! ARSON! BROADWAY!

MAN: The rubber man whacks the fish again.

THE PERFORMANCE ARTIST: PATREON! VENMO! PAYPAL!

MAN: The tuna erupts in candy, confetti, and mackerel.

***

THE CITY: 🏢🏬🏣🏛️

***

DATE no. 1: I read The Economist for the tits.

DATE no. 2: MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

DATE no. 3: In my short story, your name is “Man.”

DATE no. 4: I’ll know I’ve made it when my penthouse apartment has a washer-dryer and a model trainset in every room.

DATE no. 2: EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

***

THE BROWNSTONE: “It Happened to Me: Tao Lin Was Inside Me for a Weekend.”

***

MAN: A homeless man sits on the bench across from me in Madison Square Park reading a used copy of Slaves of New York and chuckling to himself. A Guardian Angel walks up to him and commandeers the book and reads it in front of him, also chuckling.

HOMELESS MAN: No spoilers!

MAN: The Guardian Angel returns the book.

GUARDIAN ANGEL: Thanks, I’ve been meaning to read that one story.

MAN: The Guardian Angel walks away, the homeless man resumes chuckling but not reading.

***

THE MAYOR: This city is a glorified corridor.

COMMISSIONER OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS: How many “corridors” can accommodate both expressionist yoga and intersectional dodgeball?

THE MAYOR: What this city lacks is a gesture of hope, a reason to smile in unison, the biggest group selfie known to mankind.

COMMISSIONER OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS: I’m putting on as many slam poetry competitions as space will allow. I need more resources!

THE MAYOR: We can go without 911 for another season.

COMMISSIONER OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS: Gregory’s Coffee employees are burning you in effigy.

***

MAN: The brownstone checks itself for ticks.

***

MAN: In Indiana, Grandma prays the Rosary using a necklace of SweeTarts.

GRANDMA: The city only knows hunger. It does not know how to picnic. Bring the city out to Missouri, the picnic capital of the More or Less Free World.

MAN: Dad tears up over FaceTime.

DAD: All I ever wanted was an archetype. But what I … what I got was … an idiolect. And Mom says hi.

MAN: Where’s Mom?

DAD: Alaska. I don’t know.

MAN: In Alaska, apparently, Mom tells Dad to tell me she says “Hi.”

***

THE CITY: 🔥🔥🔥🔥

***

MAN: Two cops play hooky to ride the Cyclone.

COP no. 1: You see, Cruising isn’t a very good movie on its own. But the best part is, bad movies invite some really interesting readings.

MAN: The second cop nods and bites his hot dog.

COP no. 1: So when you think about it, like really think about it, Cruising is really a misandrist manifesto. It’s not about murders in a gay subculture, but the beastly self-destructive arc of all men. There’s only one female in the film, that’s not a coincidence.

COP no. 2: I like the soundtrack.

COP no. 1: I think it’s about the future, a not too distant future, than any present or even past we recognize.

MAN: The second cop vomits on a child. Children being by law a symbol of the city’s purity of spirit, the second cop is stripped of his pension and forced to live out his days on Hart Island.

***

COMMISSIONER OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS: Sir, every attendee of the Governors Ball self-immolated!

THE MAYOR: Did they leave a note?

COMMISSIONER OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS: The detectives think that it seemed more authentic not to.

THE MAYOR: Even so, they should have left a note.

***

MAN: I lie prostrate on the couch while the TV gaze back at me.

SAMANTHA GUTHRIE: Gregory’s Coffee employees took to Park Avenue this morning, marching northward to Grand Central Station, where they hoisted up a black flag and underwent ritual suicide.

HODA KOTB: The event follows a series of “resistance actions” taken against the city’s Tim Hortons locations, reducing their number from two to zero. The Secretary of State has been sent to Ottawa to apologize and ease tensions.

SAMANTHA GUTHRIE: It’s hairy out there today.

HODA KOTB: It really is.

***

THE CITY: 🌚

THE CITY’S THERAPIST: I’d like to explore that further in our next session.

***

THE MAYOR: This city has become a reflective surface of my inner pain.

COMMISSIONER OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS: All Gregory’s Coffee locations are now public utilities.

THE MAYOR: I mask my inner pain with outer pain, but the city reflects my outer pain now, too.

COMMISSIONER OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS: They are now used to store everyone’s unsold Dash Snow pieces. And for holding cells.

THE MAYOR: Holding cells?

COMMISSIONER OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS: For play purposes. Sometimes interpretive dance goes on. You will be given the Congressional Medal of Freedom for your decisive leadership. Marcia Cross will play you in the TV miniseries.

THE MAYOR: That is a higher threshold of pain. The city won’t know what to do with itself.

COMMISSIONER OF CULTURAL AFFAIRS: Give the city the key to itself.

***

MAN: I stand on top of the brownstone as it takes a dick pic.

***

PERFORMANCE ARTIST: THE DOG PARKS BELONG TO THE PEOPLE.

RUBBER MAN: BARK! BARK! WOOF! WOOF!

***

MAN: A woman takes a picture of me in Warby Parker.

WOMAN: Congratulations on being given the key by the mayor!

MAN: She posts the photo that goes sufficiently viral that it requires me to write letters to amNew York, Time Out, and Vulture to clarify a substantial misunderstanding.

***

DATE no. 5: I’ve learned you need a good routine. Even if you can’t afford it, you can get a good routine. Not that I can’t afford one, I can. It’s just that the one that is most affordable for all works best for me.

DATE no. 6: Before I moved to New York I had a language problem. I didn’t have the right language to express myself authentically.

DATE no. 5: I buy a 30-pack. I stand in front of the mirror behind my apartment door and do 10 squats wall holding the 30-pack.

DATE no. 6: But living here gives me the tools I need to feel good about feeling dead inside and saying so often. I wasn’t able to do that back in Hazlet.

DATE no. 5: I drink 15 of the 30-pack and donate the rest to the Unitarian Church who distribute it to orphans.

DATE no. 2: E.

DATE no. 5: College-aged, gainfully employed orphans.

***

MAN: The brownstone does not text back.

***

MAN: The performance artist earns plaudits from Jerry Saltz when she falls into the city’s mouth along with several traffic enforcement agents, a garbage truck, tourists on Citi Bikes, the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, the casts of Dear Even Hansen and The Deuce, all of Hudson Yards, and Saltz himself. The rubber man goes to Washington University in St. Louis to earn his MFA in Picnicking.

***

MAN: I pack my things and write a letter explaining most of everything. Before I go to the Port Authority, I walk to the brownstone to leave it on the door. When I get there, though, I find an empty lot with a swivel chair in the center of it, upon which a letter is place.

THE BROWNSTONE: “Sorry, not sorry. But, really, sorry. 😛 XOXO, The Tallest Building in the City”

***

MAN: A Gregory’s Coffee employee sits across from me on the G train, wearing a balaclava and reading a bloodied copy of Speedboat. The train stops somewhere under Queens and won’t start again until the Gregory’s Coffee employee finishes reading. He reads every word aloud, with appropriate feeling. I exit somewhere dark, moist-seeming.

***

THE CITY: 💃

MY FELLOWSHIP

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Pictured: My distinguished fellows.

Not long after I founded the Chris R. Morgan Memorial Fellowship for Inner-Meaning and Personal Greatness, people have occasionally stopped me to ask, “Chris [or ‘Mr. Morgan’ depending on the contextual formality], why is it you came to found the Chris R. Morgan Memorial Fellowship for Inner-Meaning and Personal Greatness? Understand that I don’t mean to be rude. I’m mostly curious. My basic impression of you is not the kind that goes around founding fellowships. There are, in life, people who are capable of founding a fellowship and people who aren’t so capable. In my observation of you over the years, I’ve never considered you to be eligible for the former category. You don’t display any notable gift for organization. I’m not saying, please be assured, that you are totally, hopelessly, cripplingly disorganized; only that you are not special in that regard—going, again, by my extensive observation of your faculties. Other fellowship founders, who I’ve also had the distinct pleasure of having observed extensively, are master organizers, committed managers of people and resources. Seldom do they ever abuse or waste either, and when they do it is never their own doing or intent. A fellowship is like any other institution, which are like giant beasts. It needs to be soothed, validated, and catered to by the most compatible overseer. Compatibility doesn’t seem to be a part of your skill set from the looks of it. Neither does discipline. Discipline is key, Chris/Mr. Morgan. Though maybe determination is more key than that. You need to get out of bed every day prepared to face down the fresh regimen of challenges that founders of fellowships tend to face. I don’t know any specific examples off the top of my head, but I’m fairly confident that they are myriad. Though I’m also guessing that appeasing donors is a big challenge for fellowship founders. Here I also question your capacity. It doesn’t look as though you’ve monetized a single thing in your life. As soon as I reach the point in my life where I am able to consider turning over parts of my income to invest in something, I’m going to make sure that the idea that I want to invest in has viability. I want to make sure that its vision is far-reaching but also that its means are practical. I would not want to lend my hard-earned money into a dead-end or a bottomless pit; not that it is always easy to tell one from the other, but that is a question for someone else and for another day. And sure, no investor is free from being compelled by a vague, even faulty, premise. But often the flimsiest, most blue-sky proposal must be grounded by sound metrics, tangible projected outcomes, and basic competence. None of that seems to be your forte, in addition to your earlier mentioned deficiencies. Again, Chris/Mr. Morgan, I mean not the slightest disrespect. If I had I would withhold my honest feedback and conceal my skepticism of your plans with total accolades, setting your ego completely afire and putting the few people of whom you’ve been able to win trust at risk for monumental embarrassment. And never would I wish on my worst enemy the frazzling that comes with trying to meet impossible demands and unreachable expectations. While I’m here, I’m curious about the ‘memorial’ part of your fellowship. You appear not to be dead. You are standing in front me, in imperfect but still dignified posture, your chest expanding and contracting in the expectant rhythm. This leads me to assume that you bleed when cut, defecate after eating, are prone to base desires and instinctual urges, and pay taxes as a result of being a living citizen of this particular nation. ‘Memorial,’ I must tell you, sounds not a little solipsistic and prematurely pompous, doubtless not the most attractive form of pompousness. The only way you could possibly get away with it is if you had died in a cultural, social, or otherwise abstract sense. By this I mean, in the present American milieu, you no longer feel signs of life. You are a ghost walking against the march of progress and sit on the outside of the ever-widening sprawl of prosperity. I guess that makes me just as curious about standards, guiding philosophy, selection process; things you’d normally have to deal with as the founder of a fellowship. But, and I cannot emphasize this enough, I don’t want to be rude. You don’t seem to have a giving nature about …”

They trail off at some point. I ask them to repeat the question. Once they do, I give the following answer.

“In the back of my house,” I begin, “there is this porch. I like to sit out there sometimes and drink my coffee. While doing this very thing one spring day, a gopher crawled out from under the porch. Rather than run away into the surrounding woods, as may often be the case, this gopher calmly walked around me until we were face to face. Standing on its hind legs it told me that I should divert my efforts and energy from whatever I am currently doing (nothing, as it happened) to founding a fellowship program, and that that program should be called the Chris R. Morgan Memorial Fellowship for Inner-Meaning and Personal Greatness. In fairness that is not word for word what it said, limited as we were by our mutually incomprehensible dialects. A more literal translation might be the Bipedal Object Merit-Based, Obligation-Attached Credit Dispensary for All Eternity. This setback aside, the gopher, being wise and modest, gives me a free hand with the course of the program. I notify him on a routine basis of our doings as a gesture of professional courtesy, and he has not voiced any objection so far.”

When I am finished, they usually reply, “Wait, really?”

To which I tend to respond, “No.”

Then they would in all likelihood say, “My dream investment would be a new, disruptive zipper. The kind that zips and unzips more seamlessly than regular, analog zippers. Also it never gets stuck. Hopefully that idea—or something like it—will crest at the same time that I have the money to put into it.”

Then I’d say much more definitely, “Huh.”

They would then say, “Zippers are recession-proof, you know.”

This continues for an extended period (just under two hours is the current record), then they apply to my fellowship.

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Pictured: The enchanted gopher. (REËNACTMENT.)

DISHONESTY HAS ITS USES

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1. MAKEUP

I look at the clock. I need to finish my makeup soon or I’ll miss the train.

This morning I received a text: “8:45 the usual place.” And just after that: “but *think* 7:00.” That’s the signal, to which I respond: “;-).”

Every couple of weeks I have this exchange with my husband. He thinks convincing myself that I am extremely late will electrify my thinking.

“I don’t think you lack imagination,” he’d say.

“I wasn’t saying you said I had a lack of imagination, but now that you are saying it—”

“What I mean is that you’re more visual. I’m more verbal.”

I look into the vanity mirror. All the physical needs are met. My blush is healthy, my lipstick is subdued, and my mascara is neither fierce nor weak.

But the makeup is not done.

He’s not wrong, my husband. I get by on aesthetic choices. I am an aesthete. I was a graphic designer out of college and now I am an art teacher at a charter school. My husband is a lawyer and gets by on stories. We live together in New Rochelle. He commutes into the city and I work a town over. On occasion, meaning this one, he calls me in, though he does not expect me, exactly.

I lay my options out on the bed, things I’d acquired over time as a shrewd bargain bin and thrift shopper. A ratted blue t-shirt with the RC Cola logo on it. It’s about two sizes too large; I could probably wrap a belt around it or tuck it halfway in. A plaid-pattern farm dress that I have never ironed. A striped tank top that reminds me of my mom sitting in the sunroom on days off from school. I think to myself that mannequins might make this easier.

I don’t think my “lack of imagination” is entirely my fault. My husband expects certain things. Suspension of disbelief and poetic license are not things a lawyer would be comfortable with, in most cases anyway, and he is no exception. He likes things that are tangible to him, but barely; someone on the street that catches his eye, someone from his past he regrets not having known better. He tells me these things, often at night when I’m reading an article or just about to fall asleep.

I look at the tank top and think college reunion. We went to his 10-year reunion two years ago and he had a return car ride’s worth of possibilities.

I look at the t-shirt and think fresh startup intern. But that cuts too close to something I’ve already done. Maybe two things. Then I think sweet-natured barista, new to the city, hungry for experience, naïve but resourceful. I laugh.

My husband’s inspiration is sparked by his clients: an auctioneer, a pharmaceutical executive, a middling suspense author, a prodigal trust-fundee, a plastic surgeon with an avant-garde streak. It’s not that he does these poorly, quite the opposite. His income depends on inhabiting their worlds almost as much as they do. But I sometimes wish he’d work with different clients.

He once told me about this public defender acquaintance of his. “They call him ‘the UPS man,’” he told me, “because he practically delivered his clients to Rikers. It got to the point that they’d sing that ‘Mr. Postman’ song whenever he approached the metal detectors. He took it in stride, outwardly.” I suggested taking up that role sometime and his face froze into this pained expression as if a needle was going into his arm. He doesn’t respond well to sadness.

I look at the farm dress. There was this girl in art school who would wear things like this, often under a thick, oversized cardigan, colored stockings, and black sneakers. Her dirty blonde hair was long, thick, and poorly combed. Sometimes she’d double-braid it and it would look like steel wool. I think her name was Emily or Elle. We had a painting class together, she would use a light, sometimes pastel color palette for paintings with vaguely religious imagery: hands clasped in prayer, figures in Christ poses silhouetted by the sun, crying virgins in an empty field. “I think she was in a cult out west, like the ones that live in silos or something,” my roommate said, “and she’s guilty about something.” My professor hated her style and themes and criticized her especially hard. The only time I talked to her was outside after class when she asked me for a cigarette. As we smoked she asked me who my favorite painter was. I said Andrew Wyeth, which wasn’t true. “I like Munch,” she replied, “and some Renaissance stuff.” Later she tried painting with darker colors and more abstract themes which only made the professor’s critiques harsher. The last I saw her she was waitressing in a diner off-campus.

I pick up the dress. I turn to the full-length mirror on my closet door and hold it over me. I think it doesn’t need to be too drastic or melodramatic. Maybe it just needs to be mysterious. I don’t have to provide all the answers. I remember there is a pack of Natural American Spirits I haven’t used in years in the junk drawer.

Did I miss the train? I look at the clock. Of course I did.

2. CASUAL INTIMACY

“What is this music?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Is it jazz?”

“Some form of it, I guess.”

“They’ve changed the music.”

“Oh, you’re one of those people, aren’t you?”

“Who are those people?”

“People who don’t like jazz.”

“I like jazz just fine.”

“Who is your favorite jazz musician?”

“I don’t know … Dizzy Gillespie?”

“How are you spelling ‘Dizzy’ in your head?”

“Look, I like jazz. I just don’t like change is all. I like the old music.”

“I see.”

“I like the old décor, too. What is this? Much less … contemporary than it was, like, a week ago.”

“It reminds me of a speakeasy.”

“I don’t understand the appeal.”

“They’ve changed management maybe.”

“I don’t recognize the bartender either.”

“You’re here a lot?”

“Often enough. I’m reconsidering some life choices. Theme of my week.”

“Your one of those authenticity bros.”

“What the hell is an ‘authenticity bro’?”

“Broadly it is someone who does not have a sense of humor.”

“I have a sense of humor.”

“No one who has a sense of humor has ever said that.”

“You never said if you liked jazz.”

“You never asked.”

“Do you?”

“Not especially.”

“Hypocrite.”

“Identifying a type while omitting your membership is not hypocrisy. Dishonest maybe.”

“Ah.”

“Do you find one worse than the other.”

“Dishonesty has its uses.”

“I don’t see how it does.”

“If it’s being used without malice. It’s possible.”

“As in … how?”

“If something is boring, you can make it interesting.”

“Am I more interesting as someone who might like jazz?”

“If you could convince me it is a passion of yours.”

“I’m passionate about Ranier Werner Fassbinder.”

“I’ve never read his books, but I am now interested to do so.”

“He’s a director.”

“I’ve never seen his films, but I am now interested to do so.”

“What is your passion?”

“I am passionate about other people’s passions.”

“You do have a sense of humor.”

“I have a flight of fancy … that may be more accurate.”

“What’s the difference?”

“I can’t quite explain it. It’s just something I do. In the same way people watch sports.”

“Okay.”

“But I can have a flight into a life where I am someone who likes to watch sports. In these instances I tend to become someone who likes to watch the Chicago Bears.”

“We’re nowhere near Chicago.”

“I know! That’s kind of great about it.”

“It’s like you’re willfully dissociating.”

“Kind of.”

“There are people who do that pretty maliciously.”

“Fair enough. But let me put this to you.”

“Okay.”

“Hold on. Sir?”

Another gin and tonic?

“I will actually have an Amstel Light.”

Another for you, miss? Whiskey sour, right?

“I’m fine for now.”

“Without getting too personal into things—think of this as a hypothetical—what do you think is a more interesting fantasy casual encounter: one with someone you don’t know or one with someone you know well?”

“I never actually thought about it.”

“I only thought about it very recently myself. Virtually everyone on this planet is a stranger to one another. Strangers are the least endangered of all the species. And it seems rather easy to meet a stranger and to be … casual.”

“That’s one way of looking at it.”

“To wit, people living in the same space for God knows how long can be mutual strangers to on another. Like, deep down. That doesn’t stop them from sharing a bed and even procreating a new generation of strangers.”

“Well …”

“And think about the flipside. How rare friends are. How much rarer still it is for friends to become casual.”

“That would be intimate, not casual.”

“Casual intimacy?”

“But … fantasy?”

“Yes.”

“Not real.”

“Never.”

“Not once?”

“Once is more than enough.”

“I agree.”

“It is splendid to agree.”

“Are we becoming friends?”

“What if we already are?”

“Ah ha.”

“And have been for some time. We’ve developed rapport, established mutual respect, and a comfort between the two of us that is, I guess, unique.”

“Why do you keep looking at your phone?”

“To check the time.”

“You have a watch.”

“It’s not my watch.”

“Are you meeting someone here?”

“Someone might come with the hope of meeting someone like me. But of course you know this.”

“What time is it?”

“8:42.”

“Almost time.”

“Very nearly.”

“Sir?”

Yes, mam?

“I will have … a black Russian.”

Black Russian, right away.