A man approaches a microphone mounted on a canting stand in the beam of an unspectacular spotlight (the setting is possibly a high school auditorium or the basement of a well-funded church) and reads into that microphone with the stock cadences of a slam poet, a somewhat nervous slam poet, the sheaf of papers he’s reading from fluttering in his signet-ring-bearing hand…
“Damned at birth, by the damnable accident of birth, he was born the stupidest, ugliest, least-civilized and most threatening kind of person there is, a boogieman to out-boogie all previous attempts, with the bushy hair of a troll and the fat-lipped mouth of a cannibal. He had twice the strength, and vitality, of an acceptable citizen, exemplary in the practise of every vice that doesn’t require guile or finesse or intelligent planning, sure to defile and destroy every decent community of humans he invaded, certain to rape any decent and vulnerable human female stunning or plain, young or old, non compos mentis or not, which he happens to be within reach of at sundown. Or in the middle of the day, even. Destined to rob and beat, also, her fathers and brothers after ejaculating all over, and beating and cursing, her mother and grandmothers too. And that’s not the worst of it.
“On the other hand. He had what they call a high IQ. He bathed daily, brushed his teeth more often than that, was polite to a fault, and had been told, more than once, by members of the opposite sex and race, later in life, that he was “cute”. A “catch”, even.
“He had never been drunk on alcohol, high on drugs, or committed even the pettiest crime. His spelling, grammar and moral compass were all much finer than average. Still: repulsive. A monster. Society’s biggest problem.
“What homo sapiens thinks and feels as a species is exactly the kind of thing a scientifically-educated boy of eleven or twelve considers trivial.
“An intelligent twelve year old boy, with a not-bad telescope and a shelf of books by the like of George Gamow and Isaac Asimov, considers human affairs to be an imaginary blip on a vast screen showing a nondescript corner of an unremarkable galaxy only a fool would waste precious rocket fuel to visit. Who cares what a trivial species in the intergalactic boondocks loves, hates, needs, fears, worships, hopes, destroys, creates or imagines? Ignore their rules, ignore their prejudices: to do anything otherwise would be absurd.
“Up the gantry into your spaceship, child! Unimaginable wonders await!
“A few very real years later, slightly shell-shocked by all he’d learned in that very real (disorientingly so) world, that world beyond those nutritive books and his ravenous imagination and the high, protective ramparts of his oblivious self-regard, the boy-thing knew better. Slightly better.
“Human thoughts and feelings, ridiculously meaningless as they are, rule everything. If Alpha Centauri or the Crab Nebula don’t know this, it’s because they don’t need to. If the outer rim of the expanding time/space bubble of the Big Bang is unaware of this fact, that, sadly, changes nothing.
That sadly changed nothing was him.”
2. BEN ZIEGLER
At a young age he came to the attention of certain authorities. Not (as you would expect) because of crime but because of the freakishness of his apparent intelligence. Twice a week he would knock politely on the door of Room 222 at HARRIET TUBMAN K-8 and the door would open and he would greet a man, from the University of Chicago, named Ben. Every time they met, Ben would inquire, of the specimen…
“What shall we do today?”
On one such occasion the specimen replied…
“Do you have the record I asked for?”
“Would that make your day?”
Ben winked and slid the requested platter out of his attaché case: the newly released soundtrack of the motion picture 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Ben very carefully put the shiny new vinyl on the portable record player with PROPERTY OF HARRIET TUBMAN K-8 stenciled on the record player’s gray plastic flank. The record player was on a desk between the two of them in the little room dominated by a chalkboard vague with pentimenti. The shades were down and Ben stood with his back to the windows, arms folded over his pigeon chest. Ben’s sleeves were rolled up and his arms were shockingly hairy: the specimen had never before seen a hairy arm. Ben had a beaky nose and short, curly foam-on-a-Pepsi-colored hair. He had a new, chewed up pencil behind his ear every week. Ben and his black-skinned specimen listened to the first side of the record.
Where did the specimen go for those minutes on that afternoon? He left his body and came back slightly changed, his sense of scale expanded. Ben asked the specimen if he was happy with the record, what his favorite parts were and why. They listened to the second side and Ben let the specimen keep the record and the record informed the specimen that the specimen would have to leave home. It informed the specimen that this home was not the specimen’s home and he must leave it. Not now but soon. Everything, all energy, every scheme, must point to the leaving. But because it was a vinyl platter speaking to him the details were vague.
We now realize Ben was probably just twenty two or twenty three at the time. A grad student. The specimen would sit in a quiet room with the mysterious Ben in Harriet Tubman K-8 once a week while all the other kids hollered and twirled on the chalk-marred blacktop behind the school during recess. Sometimes the two would just chat and Ben would take notes and sometimes the specimen took tests and sometimes Ben had others (older white men) with him and they would say nothing while they watched Ben and the specimen interact. Sometimes they grinned at things the specimen couldn’t understand their reasons for grinning at.
They gave him the novel (expanded from a short story) Flowers for Algernon to read and he read it in three days and when next they all met they asked him how he felt about it. That was the sort of thing they got up to in Room 222, Ben and The Specimen or Ben, The Specimen and the Others (for whom Ben was also, perhaps, a specimen). Then the school bell would ring and the specimen would run the gauntlet of rats and jagged bottle-bottoms home.
Eighty per cent unemployment and forty per cent literacy and half of the B&W TV sets with jerry-rigged antennas weren’t working and most of the automobiles were repossessed or up on concrete blocks with four men seated inside with the windows rolled down and a baseball game on the automobile’s radio. There was always the awful odor of burning, near or far, and often the countercomfort of the sound and odor of city-owned riding lawnmowers grooming the fastidious park, on the literal other side of the tracks, at Riverdale.
The specimen would run home where, more often than not, there were primal scenes to almost avoid witnessing; awkward, Bosch-like tableaux of the specimen’s mother kneeling before a chieftain sat in the leatherette armchair (an armchair with its own aromatic forcefield) near the beaded curtain dividing the tiny kitchen from the room which housed the Magnavox. The chieftain on the leatherette throne would more often than not be dressed in ducal earthtones with a velvet collar that opened to his Naugahyde chest and the centerpiece of its Zodiac medallion. Chieftain in Dingo boots or sandals and a pitchfork-like comb in his polyhedronic Afro, frowning with affectionate incomprehension at the wonder of his own spit-shellacked, cudgel-sized cock swiveling in the puffy socket of the specimen’s mother’s painted mouth. The specimen would excuse himself and run upstairs and find himself in his books but this once it was the soundtrack to the motion picture 2001: A Space Odyssey he busied himself with, eyes closed, ear close to the monophonic speaker built into the detachable lid of the portable Philips record player.
Specimen never saw any other kids go into or come out of room 222. Was the program concerned only with him? Whenever the specimen rose from his seat in the classroom at exactly 11am, once a week, and left the classroom to meet the young man from the University of Chicago, the specimen’s fifth grade teacher said nothing. Which was the same as saying Go. Leave.
One day Ben gave the specimen something to give to his mother to sign, a thick sheaf of papers in a big brown envelope with an impressive embossed stamped on it. She refused to sign it. The specimen never saw the younger white man with hairy forearms from the University of Chicago again.
3. A BOWL OF INFINITE-POSSIBILITY PUDDING
In 1975, the subject of our story wandered into a dark theatrical props shop in “The Loop”, in the shadow of The El.
He was sixteen years old and already six foot something and walked straight to the back of the shop and took a tricorne hat off a mannequin’s head, on a high shelf, as if he’d known it was there all along. The subject bought the hat with money he’d got from a pedophile on his birthday and began to wear it as soon as he paid for it, making the old hippie who ran the shop laugh and salute him as he walked out the store with louche grace. The subject’s reasoning being that he was old enough now, in his neighborhood (which was three bus rides, on three different bus lines, from The Loop’s loud wonderland, blue with bus fumes) to have to choose.
He was growing a faint mustache, which could mean a death sentence.
When you were under a certain age in The Ghetto in those days you enjoyed a kind of amnesty, you were allowed to be a kid, you were allowed to skip rope and shoot cap guns while no one stabbed or shot you or expected you to suck cocks for the gang. You had a grace period. But when your tits popped out or you started shaving, you became fair game, whether or not you were still into Dr. Seuss. You were expected to either choose a gang or become the moving target of every gang of the neighborhood as you walked through two or three warring territories to buy your mother a quart of milk and five warring territories to go to and from school every day and four just to take a walk to the post office and back with a package from Edmund Scientific Company, located in Edison, New Jersey. The only way to avoid this peril was to become one of the well-known crazy motherfuckers of the neighborhood.
The crazy motherfuckers were laughed at and sometimes playfully pelted with little rocks or half-eaten snacks but never shot or stabbed or required to suck cock or open some ass up. Crazy motherfuckers of the neighborhood have served a sacred purpose since the beginning of neighborhoods, forty thousand years ago, when some tribes lived by the river and others camped in the hills. People assumed the crazy motherfuckers had special access to the gods. This was long before the “defective machine” model for everything that doesn’t fit: a factory-capitalist worldview. Before the factory-capitalist worldview took over, a crazy motherfucker passport gave one diplomatic immunity of a kind.
“Yo, crazy motherfucker!” someone would shout from a huddle of magnificent princes on the corner.
“Peace and love, baby!” he’d wave back.
Much laughter. No mayhem. Thank his tricorne hat.
“Yo, crazy motherfucker!” a wino would shout from beside a post-apocalyptic fire in the middle of a vacant lot.
“With every day and in every way you are getting better and better!” the crazy mofo would shout back.
He was working on a theory of Time at the time that Time Travel isn’t possible because there isn’t Time for it. It’s just a semantic concept, Time. Everything we call a “moment” is just the collapse of infinite possibility to a possibility-limiting particularity of zero potential and infinite irrevocability, as though Time is a large bowl of infinite-possibility pudding very slowly being scooped out with the microscopic spoon of possibilities-foreclosing Perception. The more Perceivers, the more quickly the bowl is scooped out. But he wasn’t good enough at math to prove it.
He hated Math. He understood Math well enough to know that Math didn’t love him.
He loved Girls but he was disgusted by the impersonal (evolutionary, species-propagating aspects of the) imperative of Sex: Sex didn’t care about what he thought; Sex didn’t need him: why should the subject need Sex? Life on Earth was an aeons-old blob of pulsating, continuously self-renewing, protoplasm and he, as its mass-maintenance-program called Sex reminded him, was just a platelet on a follicle of this impersonal substance.
He wanted to start a band called P and the Perceivers but sing he couldn’t.
Crushing a tricorne hat over his big Afro while wearing a red velvet cape with his Oshkosh B’Gosh overalls was as good a way to look crazy as any. With the perfect side effect that no girls from the neighborhood, no Sisters, would even think of being seen with him, not even the fat ones, not even the one or two who really were crazy, nor risk having a rumor leak that they’d been with him even in secret, so when he graduated early from the war zone high school he survived by being its freak, he graduated as a freak first, the valedictorian second and, last and always least, the virgin who couldn’t have Sex despite the fact that he was against it.
One day he took a bigger test than most and soon after he was on Greyhound bus away from there with the sense of leaving a smoking crater behind him. A smoking crater filled with the radioactive lake of unreflective life.
This time his mother signed the necessary papers.
His first day as a scholarship case at St. Jeff’s college in the upper Midwest, standing in front of the dormitory he was assigned to, a cracked leather suitcase between his legs and his tricorne hat at a rakish angle, his cape flapping in the wind, he was approached by a tall girl with a frazzled blonde bob and exaggerated Egyptian eye-liner. She had an underfeminine way of walking in what appeared to be a ripped and tattered wedding dress with big picture buttons of what appeared to be aliens (he later learned they were called “punk rockers”) pinned all over it. The lower rear portion of the wedding dress was spray-painted with a dripping orange infinity symbol.
“Has anyone ever told you that you resemble a very tall Black Rudolf Nureyev? You’ve got the longest eyelashes I’ve ever seen on a man. Are you bi? My name is M-M-M-Mary. What’s yours?”
He pointed at the sky. She smiled with delighted incomprehension and walked away.
He tore through sixty drafts of a sonnet about his refusal to write a sonnet about her ass that very night.
Subject and Object had finally met.
5. THE YEAR OF TACTICAL ACQUAINTANCESHIP
One of the important mysteries of Art is that Beethoven had access to the same keys on the piano that Stevie Wonder does, essentially, yet never managed to write “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”; the world had to wait almost exactly 150 years after the completion of the 9th Symphony for “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”. Why didn’t Bach write “The First Time (Ever I Saw Your Face)” or something like it?
Oddity wrote songs he could never sing and called them poems.
It was the Monday morning after his first weekend on campus. He had slept through the tinny Chicken Little admonishments of the winding-down alarm clock’s spent potential and missed the first session of the class called Medieval Theology from a Heretical Pre-Enlightenment Perspective with Special Emphasis on Cosmology. There was a knock at his dorm room door and he opened it while combing out his Afro. M-M-M-Mary handed him a poorly-written book by Saul Bellow, a writer whose value on the literary stock market seemed pegged to certain world-historical events, and Oddity looked it over and read its inside-cover flap blurbs, his lips moving silently, and closed the wretched book and delivered of himself a quip he’d been saving up for some time:
“Who is the Coltrane of the Lubavitchers? The Tatum of the Lev Tahors? I’d be happy to hear them.”
“How big is your c-c-c-cock?” M-M-M-Mary said, undeterred (she stuttered when sexually aroused). “Erect, I mean. How big? This big?” She held her hands a reasonable distance apart. “Or m-m-more like this?” She doubled the distance. “This child of Rousseau with the Brobdingnagian ph-ph-phallus, this is you?”
Oddity was too shy to respond to the flirtations of his future wife and very slowly closed the door in M-M-M-Mary’s face. The time had not arrived. While waiting for the time to arrive, he cultivated tactical acquaintanceships with people on the staff of the college literary magazine.
Oddity fancied himself a poet. Oddity submitted poems. Oddity thought they were good. He thought they were original, interesting, thought-provoking, erudite, these poems of his, but every poem he submitted in his name (Oddity)was returned to him with a polite “thank you” and a whiff of disapproval that he couldn’t, at first, make sense of. The fourth time he understood; by the time of the fifth he had learned the lesson.
It took him about ten minutes to rectify his previous blunders by including the word “nigger” in his next poem.
the nigger bard
at best avoided, at worst
black inconsequence affords
the nigger bard few
even then, the ones who do
confuse his grief
The first and last poem he ever got published, in his own name, anywhere.
Publishing isn’t just a method for introducing the audience to a new voice, as it turns out, but also, at the other end of the transaction, a channel of collateral instruction. His classmates in charge of reading through the modest slush pile for The Scribbler had taught him, in four easy lessons, how to be the only kind of writer he was allowed to be. However, Oddity got his friend Jocasta Freed (niece of Alan, the golden age disc jockey who supposedly invented the term “rock ‘n roll”, as well as perfecting the practise of “payola”) to submit another poem of his, in her name, a less earthy work, slightly experimental, playfully postmodern; the kind of literary effort that probably would have seemed bizarre and pretentious coming out of his Brother Portable but was more than okay coming out of Jocasta’s Olivetti, because that poem was accepted two days after it was tossed in the postbox in front of the student union.
The Evening of the Air Show over Midcentury Paris
a girl looked up
Emboldened by that success, and with two weeks to go before the submission deadline for the Winter/Spring 1977 issue of The Scribbler, he conscripted Justine Cartwright, whose grandfather had worked closely with Tito after The Great War and who lived at the end of the hall on his floor in their unisex dormitory and who had perpetually red earlobes, to re-type one of his other poems on her cutting edge Selectrix and walk into The Scribbler’s office (second floor of Old Main) with this new submission, which was accepted on the spot with applause from the senior editors who interrupted a game of ping pong (on a an old metal desk with a jerry-rigged musty L’eggs panty-net twanging ‘cross it) to read and re-read and praise the poem, which one of them claimed was the most moving thing he had ever read, bar none, and, by the way, if she ever needed anyone to talk to…
things have been lost
things have been lost since
before things worth having existed,
a steady progression of the taken and mislaid
by geometric increment increased, the vast lost-listed, the virtually
the ratio of them to us is
many many over
one until it’s us, now, the glum
unsearched-for missing while
the so-called Lost are safely amassed at Lost’s home and
cosseted, in yearned-for-world of
wallets, keys, old friends, gold pens and those
ghost-gifted poems we awoke and
failed to scribble down, now mouthed
by lovers gone and children flushed or
For his karate-expert friend Sanjar, a wealthy Iranian exchange student, he ghost-wrote, like Cyrano, an effectively florid love letter (for another exchange student) in exchange for Sanjar’s fronting the submission of this one:
a fresh clay pot, smooth
as bread, cools amid kin
in the back room of
the potter’s shop along the most
pleasant boulevard of
this outpost. clay-brown men in
ice cream as white and
domed as the
mosque in whose shadow
the boulevard see
Which called forth not only a typed acceptance letter at the end of the week but a semi-legibly written note of effusive praise, in the margins of the letter, from Dr. Schamansky, the magazine’s faculty adviser.
It belongs to the genre of the college caper, this part of the recollection.
Usually the domain of the upper class alumnus who enjoys a cackling, liquor-breathed re-telling of the time he fucked three sorority girls in a row, one night, or swindled a Tijuana whore with a counterfeit thousand dollar bill, or managed to replace the framed photo of the dean’s wife, on the dean’s desk, with a snapshot of a big fat naked Hawaiian the morning of commencement. In our Oddity’s case the caper resulted in the fact that every of the dozen poems, in half a dozen styles, featured in the Winter/Spring issue of the literary quarterly published by St. Jeff’s college, that year, was written, secretly, by Oddity. The issue was hailed as the best in living memory by several bookish types, of little consequence, on campus. Either an astonishing achievement or a pathetically pointless prank, depending on how one looks at it or whether one is recalling it late at night or early in the morning or at the top of a ladder in the punishing noon day sun, decades later, with a superior smirk on a paint-spattered face.
“Why not try to get something published?” M-M-Mary inquired, innocently, hoisting his Sargasso-slick chin, from between her legs, by its handle-ears. “Really, I mean. A book or something. Why not?”
“Justine Cartwright has fielded several respectable offers, I hear,” Oddity muttered, with pussy-numbed consonants clinging to his tongue, too overwhelmed by the recent loss of his oral virginity to worry about anything else.
And still: the dick remained unpussydipped.
6. THE DINKYTOWN THEFT
By the end of the year of 1978 M-M-M-Mary and I had been married, separated, reconciliated, blissfully happy for a few weeks and divorced, “still-good-friends” who would actually never see each other again (the last time I saw M-M-M-Mary she was rich, a fur-bundled beauty with dead eyes waving from a Cadillac convertible at a stop light I was too spooked to cross at), although weekly late-evening phone calls lingered as an improvised ritual for a sweet interval that I now wish I had made more of at the time; I never even knew her middle name. I moved to Dinkytown, a folksy, toy-like shopping district on the campus of the University of Minnesota, on the other side of town from St. Jeff’s. I lived in a small apartment over an Italian restaurant on a diagonal from the small apartment Bob Dylan had lived in twenty years before. I had dropped out of St. Jeff’s shortly after the marriage, intoxicated by the invention of semi-Sex and tired of the burden of gratitude I attached to the stupendously generous (yet vague) scholarships I had gotten simply because I was preposterously well-read for a black kid. Or so I assumed.
“That was the best short story I have ever, bar none, read, why aren’t you f-f-famous?” M-M-M-Mary would ask, emerging from our tiny bedroom with a wet sheaf of onionskin and a clove cigarette dawn-pink-stinging the corner of her least-defended eye.
My shrugs drove her mad.
At such times I often remembered sitting in the primordial grammar school with the well-muscled man-children of my tribe, the already handsome and powerful palace guards of sad Black Erewhon, back in ’69, long before college; how I’d listen to them drag their big fingers across the big-print page of some woefully out-of-date textbook, trying to sound out syllables like pulling European shrapnel from their tongues and lips and how I would imagine walking up and down those rows of desks and pressing a gun to the back of each neat or wild Afro in turn, very quietly, very calmly, without blood (only the gesture was necessary) putting them out of their miseries.
“Why aren’t you on the T-T-T-Tom Snyder show, at least?” would shout M-M-M-Mary.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” she would gesture with her sky-writing cig. “I refuse to take this lying d-d-d-down!”
But oh we did.
Just like we took everything else: my face between M-M-M-Mary’s legs. Our placebo panacea.
“It’s you and me against the shits,” I’d whisper, cradling her after she’d come.
“Except I’m one of the shits.”
“No you’re not.”
What fascinated me about M-M-M-Mary’s ritually unentered vagina was how its presence on her body presupposed me (or someone like me) just as the presence of my penis on my body presupposed M-M-M-Mary and all the others like her. I liked to picture M-M-M-Mary’s vagina’s Platonic ideal. Smooth as a manila envelope, durable as Manila hemp.
I tried to write a poem about Sex (write what you wish you knew is the only maxim a writer need know) but after a thousand drafts (and a look through a few of the books on M-M-M-Mary’s reading list in Jewish Studies) ended up with an untitled doodad about the Holocaust:
ah to be
on the list sighed crapitsky with
arp, bellmer, breton, chagall et
ernst, lipchitz, varo et
al but alas dabblestein’s not
brilliant enough (nor, probably, at all): varian
fry has refined the cull (or flushing) and
you, nobodyvitch, are staying to
leave the kitsch of your praying
hands to the fatherland’s gushing
Too obscure; I ripped the poem in half. But then I wrote, in a mad rush of precognitive invention:
future cities as
gift shops in the
earth’s museum. future kids with
sky to play with
kinda boredly and mutagens
to dabble in. future sex
like polio eradicated: no his’ or hers’ just
thems’. i see
those long thin silver twilights, perforated like
player-piano rolls, performing
the weather. yes i see golden
violet tongues licking
themselves with vile aplomb like
i see on commemorative coins. coins i see
in teflon-lined sarcophagi. brazil will be miles of
amusant bonsai forests itching with
speck-like game and stars in trillion-tonned
lots by deed and
obscured by a Moon in
books of the ancients in
Sino-African translations inscribed
on long blonde strands of
hair: The Collected Works of Pearl S. Buck in
a hooker’s wig those
golden cats shall wear. Yea
i see our city in this vision
though we’re no longer
and decision-making breezes will
cool certain hotspots here and
seeds and drive the
in fertile twos, certain
balloon enthusiasts off course to
Which M-M-M-Mary read with a growl and kicked the refrigerator, wailing that the poem was so good and hopeful and evocative of mankind’s second chance that she wanted to gas herself in the shower. What I needed was a woman more attuned and reconciled to the world’s inevitable injustices. The Artist can’t change the world’s inevitable injustices but she or he can use them.
By the end of ’78 I had quit college, divorced and started a house-painting company called House Ting (“We take the ‘pain’ out of House Painting”) with a sophomore at St. Jeff’s who hadn’t quit, Gregg Paystee. Gregg had a Volkswagen van without which the enterprise would have been unthinkable. Despite Gregg’s inability to draw a straight bead of paint along a door jamb or a windowpane or use a roller without leaving splatters or streaks or highlights or lowlights we got offers.
Gregg’s open white face was very helpful when we showed up at a nice house to give an estimate. While Gregg and I together, in our matching free caps and painter whites, were a charming demonstration of racial brotherhood, I, on my own, looked like nothing less sinister than a felon casing the property, if not the vulnerably precious white body of the housewife answering the door, were I to show up to conduct the estimate alone. Not that, within earshot of Gregg’s reassuring presence, apron-girded clients didn’t sometimes make eyes or even flirt or, I swear to you, once, proposition me non-verbally through a second-storey bedroom window I was removing the screen from, one-handed, while perched on Gregg’s rickety ladder. We were making ten dollars an hour, on average, at a time when the minimum wage was slightly less than three. We were young-prole rich, in other words, though Gregg was not a prole, although he loved pretending that he was a prole and spoke with a prole’s drawl that must have baffled his white Midwestern parents, both of whom were alumnae of St. Jeff’s, class of ’61. There was even a family crest and I saw its double-headed eagle on Gregg’s father’s official stationery as well as on a cufflink and a tie pin.
1978! I was a divorcee and more-or-less an adult, my own boss, earning good money with a job that afforded plenty of thinking-time. I had this wonderfully-bleakly-furnished bachelor pad in Dinkytown. I was still a virgin and making the most of the contradictions.
I had been reading and learning, gulping sopping chunks of information, since slightly before the age of five and now my formal education had stopped. Not because I decided, randomly, to walk away from the banquet, but because I realized, about six months into my first year, that higher learning, at least where I had gone for some of it, was a sham, a glorified summer camp or day care for kids who came from money, a place where you called the profs by their first names and the girls had gone looking for husbands and the profs were there looking for girls and the boys were looking to drink beer together in party-proof mock-ups of their childhood bedrooms. Everybody but me was there for the connections.
I, as an info-mad minority on a mysterious scholarship, was both more and less serious than the campus was calibrated to accept. I expected to have my eyes opened and instead found myself, several times a week, being put to sleep while some milk-blonde castrati read his confessional poems in a self-important sing-song, or some furry-faced prof in white sneakers chastised the morose shade of Heidegger, or his predecessor Tegel von Schönefeld, with a bemusedly-tolerant “now that we know better” tone that was the official tone most of the students and faculty very carefully inverted in order to address the poor minorities on campus. Like me.
Not that all the Black kids on campus were charity cases.
7. CHADWICK ENTERS THE PICTURE
There were a handful of bourgeois Black kids who were using St. Jeff’s as a stepping stone to advanced degrees in law or business. Or other things. First they wanted to make important, life-long connections with moneyed whites and second they needed to burnish the bit of the CV to which prospective employers look for subtle evidence of civilizing experiences in a Black interviewee’s life.
“Blood!” is how Chadwick Long, Black as I am but much more conservative-casually dressed, in his Izod sports shirts and painstakingly-worn-looking deck shoes, invariably greeted me whenever our diametrically-opposed paths crossed, between classes or after lunch, on the commons.
“How’s it shakin’?”
“You know me, Chadwick,” I could be counted on to respond.
If we were lucky enough to be more than a ten meters apart when our paths sort of crossed, we were ethically free to forego the “Black power” handshake, which had become incredibly intricate in the years since I first saw anyone do it, on the playground, in 1968, and nearly impossible to keep up with. Some Brothers, somewhere, were always adding to its complexity and expecting the rest of us to know.
“Right on,” would say suave Chadwick then, from a healthy distance, before disappearing around an ivy-covered wall or into a glass-walled building and we’d be done with it, free to interact even more frictionlessly with liberal whites for the rest of the day. Those satisfyingly meaning-free encounters were the best. Solidarity in singularity. Although we were very different types and Chadwick’s wick had been dipped a thousand times by the time he’d aced his SATs in short pants. Chadwick “We Gotta Be Twice As Good To Come Half As Far” Long.
I saw that wick on Chad in action once.
It was a chilly Friday morning, minutes before my Epistemology class. Someone slipped a crudely-Xeroxed invitation to a “REPARATIONS PARTY” (what is that? I thought) under my dorm room door. I hadn’t noticed, at first, because my enormous padded headphones, connected by a long, grey, curly cable to my sturdy old TEAC reel-to-reel, was blasting CLOSE TO THE EDGE, by the progressive Rock Group YES, deep into the stalactite caverns of the heart of my mind, with shattering shards of rainbow decibels of force. When I got the headphones off and made an ears-ringing move to open the door and run, late, to Epistemology, I found the invitation under the door.
Twelve hours later I was standing on a narrow, tree-lined street in front of the grand-looking, neocolonial, white-lawn-jockeyed, off-campus student housing the invitation had directed me to, thinking (because the popular TV serial Holocaust, featuring Aryan types playing Jews named Weiss, was a big hit that April) that the Reparations theme had something to do with WW2 and being a little worried that I’d gotten the invitation by mistake and that I was about to walk into a dark, beer-breathed room full of either militant Jews or Nazis.
With me I had M-M-M-Mary’s Polaroid One-Step camera, which I had brought with the notion of making friends.
There was a large Television set in the living room with the sound off, shimmering in the druggy velvet darkie dark while Bootsy’s Rubber Band throbbed from futuristic Bose speakers on tall pedestals flanking the set and the Television showed, anachronistically, vintage footage of Veronica Bennet, Estelle Bennet and Nedra Talley, aka THE RONETTES, with their kohl-rimmed eyes and huge, Egyptian, lacquered, hair, miming Be My Baby on some 1960s variety show, the camera lingering on the edibly sensuous mask of Ronnie’s perpetually teasing face. I knew everyone in the room with me who was staring at the screen with me was missing what I was seeing and seeing very light-skinned Black girls, the kind of Black girl it was always safe to say was pretty, even in mixed company with racists. But I saw something different, I saw the obvious instead, that these three girls were genetically-enhanced white girls, made sexier and sassier and much better at singing through a careful program of exogamy that added just enough Negro to their molecular structures to improve them without pushing them over the line, where they might have been spat on or bombed or fire-hosed instead of hit with the spotlight.
Chadwick, an exemplary conservative Black success story of the 1980s, who rocketed from a cushy, functionless corporate position to state politics to lobbying in D.C. for the poultry industry and then for Solar Power and from that to a seat in the Senate and from the Senate, after only two years, straight to Federal Prison (and Christian redemption thereafter), busted for doing only once what his white colleagues got up to almost every day of the year and during vacations, too. Still, big things were expected of him and I suspect, in retrospect, he was being groomed by hidden hands. But that was decades ahead of us as Chad and I bumped into each other at that Reparations Party.
(sidebar: regarding Reparations: I’d like to see “Reparations” (for North American chattel slavery) become an Official Program, though only to see how they might possibly calculate who the beneficiaries would be, and how much each lucky post-slave would get. If the standard maximum amount were established at, say, 1 million dollars per head, would this 1 million dollar prize go to very Black Godfrey Cambridge types (whether or not they had lots of Free Black in their ancestry) and would lots less go to light-skinned Blacks with White ancestors (whether or not these mixed types were descendants of generations of House Slaves)? Would families who had been “passing” for White, for a hundred years, come forward to claim some free Black cash… ?)
Chad and I ended up chatting near a crowded trophy case while eyeing the pretty white girls traipsing, in varying vintages of shit-face déshabillé (the fancy French uncle of “shabby”), in and out of the lamp-lit zones of the bong-fogged rooms of the fratty mansion. Chadwick was clever enough to be clutching a prop-beer (his ingratiating show of weakness), in order to fit in, but when he gestured too emphatically with it, it sloshed on me, a queasy-making metaphor.
At some point Chad said something like,
“The ultimate point of total surveillance is not the information gathered but the gradual erosion of any expectations of privacy in the first place. Are farmyard animals under ‘surveillance’? Only a pig that suddenly decided that it deserved the dignity of privacy would draw the farmer’s attention to the extent that it would, as a result, find itself under surveillance. This paranoid pig may or may not be defective or troublesome but it is certainly too interesting for its own good. Civilization as we know it is built on certain shared illusions: one such illusion has to do with Death vs Progress (ie, that a historical evolution towards a Greater Human Goal trumps the logical Nihilism inherent in the clear-eyed contemplation of the fact of universal, and total, mortality), another has to do with the notion that we, as humans, are distinct from the Animal Kingdom. And this distinction allows (even obligates) us to, at the very least, defecate, and copulate, in private. Upon this fundamental privacy is built a pyramid of finer (optional) privacies, structured by individual sensibilities. But what if the illusion of the distinction between all of humanity and the Animal Kingdom is not shared by all of humanity? And what if the humans who don’t share this illusion are disproportionately represented by humans in positions of Real Power? Then you, the ordinary human, become the pig who decides it deserves privacy. And the farmer is keeping an eye on you until you relinquish your pretenses. Relinquish your pretenses to a right to privacy (ie, stop being an interesting pig) and the surveillance ceases.”
And I said, “Nigger what?”
We were by then both leering at the same cross-eyed, pointy-chinned, top-heavy blonde History Majorette who was molting painlessly out of her pink cardigan as a fistfight flared in a bouquet of backlit violence before the swinging door of the jock-stuffed kitchen. Because it was a Reparations Party, and (as Chadwick had explained to me) Reparations had something to do with Slavery, the girl had a theater-prop noose around her neck. As a symbol of guilt or empathy? Chadwick and I both glanced at the kitchen and thought, with simultaneous smiles, what “the kitchen” meant. Then we refocused on the strange and serious topic at hand.
What was Chad really trying to tell me?
“Pay attention, brother,” he said, “I’m trying to tell you something about yourself. Prolly because I’m high as she looks,” he said, sloshing his pantomime beer toward the blonde, who was giggling and wincing like a delighted kid, someone’s gym-socked big toe in her ear. “Or at least that’s my cover. You ain’t the only one being watched and evaluated and I aim to put on a good show. You bess be polishing up your act.”
“In short: you have a function and a purpose. Who you think is paying for us both to be here?”
“Destiny, bro. We are The Chosen. Few are called. But one of us is going to make history. And it sure ain’t gonna not be me.”
Whereupon Chadwick whipped his half-inflated cock out and slashed through an infinity-symbol-shaped arabesque of reefer-essence that happened to just then be floating by. He slapped the palm of his own hand with the weighty cock until it filled out nicely, a technique I made a mental note to investigate; the Majorette flopped like a Golden Retriever, on all fours, mouth open and eyes closed, in Chad’s direction.
I got some very good shots with the Polaroid but left before the finale and reprise.
I joked with M-M-M-M-Mary that if Mr. Chadwick Long ever attained prominence, the ten Polaroids, of a furious-looking Chadwick being blown by an innocent-looking white girl with a noose around her neck, was our Retirement Fund. I kept the ‘roids bundled in a manila envelope in a cigar box at the back of my closet under some books and I dug in the closet and fetched out that cigar box and fondled that sealed manila envelope whenever money got worryingly tight. But I did not give in to the financial logic of the temptation.
8. GREGG PAYSTEE, ILSE MATRESKY and ME
“You have got to be the strangest Black guy I have ever met,” said Gregg Paystee, six months later, after I’d quit St. Jeff’s. I can’t remember who initially approached who in order to bring us together.
We were painting the house of the woman who later wordlessly propositioned me through the second storey window (while I was easing the screen up off the window with one hand and clutching the ladder with the other; reached right through the suddenly barrier-free window and pressed the flat of her palm against my crotch) and I was, by then, quite used to the Othering (licking her quickly, expertly, while Gregg rolled up the drop-cloths at workday’s end). Gregg had walked around from the shaded side of the house with a bucket of paint and a quizzical expression. As though it had suddenly hit him.
“Seriously. You have got to be the strangest Black guy I have ever met.”
“Should I be offended, Gregg?” I called down to him.
Gregg shaded his eyes as he grinned up at me. “Gee, I hope not,” he said, with his faked Southern accent. “I am sure not trying to offend you on the one hand or give you a big head or anything on the other but you are smarter than my dad, and he is pretty smart. You use the same vocabulary as he uses at the office when you’re just bullshitting on a ladder. But you talk a lot faster. When you said ‘ relinquish your pretences,’ just now, shoot, I had to climb all the way down my own ladder and come around to see what the hell I was looking at.”
“Listen,” I said, squinting far above Gregg’s head as I drew a clean line of paint on the fresh white putty against a windowpane on the sunny side of the house, third level, thirty six windows to go, “What you don’t know is that what you call the ghetto is full of people even smarter than I am, much stronger than I am, who talk even faster than I do, and that’s why they’re interned in the ghetto, which is just the socially acceptable version of a concentration camp: to protect people exactly like you, Gregg, from the subversive shock of invidious comparison to people like me.”
The heart of Dinkytown was the intersection of Fourteenth Avenue and Fourth Street, on the northwest corner of which was Gray’s Drugstore, above which the pre-Dylan Bob Zimmerman, in the late 1950s, had twanged his guitar and eaten hot breakfast cereal early every morning while dreaming of romance with beautiful Shiksa princesses in his garret. Further southeast on Fourth Street, in the direction of downtown, when I lived there, long after Dylan was Dylan and famous and gone, was a big record store called Positively Fourth Street. But around the corner from Positively Fourth Street. Ah. It was Gregg who hipped me to it. Around that corner was that much smaller, lesser-known, poorly-lit record shop called Damned Wax.
Damned Wax was owned and operated by Ilse Matresky, a striking woman in her thirties or forties or fifties or sixties, with long white hair, brick-red lipstick, a cherub’s shining forehead and the cinematically foreign demeanor that certain Dylanesque outcasts can not resist masturbating, and/or writing songs, about. What I had heard, from Gregg, who heard it from Ilse, was that at least six lines in Like A Rolling Stone were angled at Ilse by Bob itself. The long white hair notwithstanding, Ilse was not a hippie and she did not play music in her record shop. In her record shop it was silent except for floorboards creaking and the particular sound of knowing thumbs on dozens or hundreds of album jackets per minute.
Ilse Matresky favored black or blue or dark red satin pantsuits and antique ivory cigarette holders and she stood like an SS Officer, chin up and hands clasped behind her back, at the big dirty window at the front of her shop while you flipped through her long boxes of strange, rare and damned records, her back discreetly turned toward you until you were clearing your throat at the cash register and ready to purchase, as though your tips touching her records was an embarrassingly intimate act until capitalism’s alchemy changed what your thumbs had touched into yours.
Most often it was just Ilse and me in the shop, my fingers thumbing and flapping vinyl sleeves against the sound of Ilse’s life-breaths being sucked through the crackling singularity of her obscenely tasty-looking cigarettes. Sometimes, with her back, and the flash of her long white hair, to me, Ilse spoke, as if addressing a distant figure on the silent side of her dusty shop window. She’d exhale a collapsed-lung-shaped entity of smoke and in a painfully over-enunciated approximation of a posh British accent say things such as,
“ARE YOU CONVERSANT WITH THE WRITINGS OF TEGEL VON SCHöNEFELD? BY DESTROYING THE THING ONE CREATES THE CONDITIONS NECESSARY FOR THE THING’S ACCEPTANCE.”
“THEY HUNG MATA HARI WHEN SHE WAS 40. IN OTHER WORDS, THEY EXECUTED HER WHEN SHE STARTED LOSING HER LOOKS.”
“ARP, BELLMER, BRETON, I KNEW THEM ALL.”
Ilse once remarked, rhetorically, after I inquired as to the ballpark price of a Ruritanian import of a bootlegged Bulgarian Dylan concert,
“WHAT IS BOB? BOB IS NOT BOB + BOB. WHAT ARE YOU? YOU ARE NOT YOU + YOU. MINUS WHAT, OLD CHAP?”
I never knew out to respond. Once she snacked from a bag of shelled pistachios and offered me some, the palm of her hand smelling faintly of spit, as I stood at the cash register, like a man facing a tribunal, several rare and beautiful slabs under my arm.
“You are a college man?”
The very next day she said “My daughter Clio,” and it made me jump.
Ilse had stood behind me; I had stood thumbing the S-STs section; she had been blowing smoke on my neck and I had watched the eddies and arabesques curlicued around both sides of my face like the jaws of grotesquely fancy glass pliers as my thumbs slammed the slabs on auto; I wasn’t even watching the record covers blurring by: I was doing it by feel. First we eliminate sound, then vision, to arrive at the record’s tactile Platonic ideal.
“She was there.”
“Who was there?”
“Who was where?”
“My daughter. Intern in the Mayor’s office. My daughter Clio who was raped as she attended a frat party at St. Jeff’s and transferred in shame to St. Gilda’s to complete her studies.”
How could I respond?
The most heard-of recording artists you would find on Ilse’s premises were Soft Machine, King Crimson, Eno or The Residents. Most of the records were secondhand, and when you understood the rhythms and patterns of the shop, you knew to be there when one of her half a dozen best sources for arcane platters came in to unload a couple of hundred records for rent money, a few days before the first of every month. Some of the records were so rare that I’d never even heard of the respective countries-of-origin mentioned on the bottom back edges of the sleeves. If Ilse liked you, she’d lead you to life-changing acquisitions.
“COLLEGE MAN. TRY THIS,” she called to me, one unseasonably chill Autumn morning.
I had happened to be walking towards Damned Wax with a freshly bought newspaper featuring a front-page photograph of a sheepish Jimmy Carter in blackface (headline: “THE RETURN OF THE REPRESSED!”) when Ilse jerked open the Damned Wax door and dashed out to stop me in the low-tide sunlight on the broken-backed sidewalk. In the refrigerated light she looked her age (whatever it was) but I saw vitally dark roots undergirding the platinum wings of her widows peak versus the slavic heartbottom of her dainty pointed chin. Ilse handed me the record and I followed her back into Damned Wax in order to acquire the slab on her recommendation alone. I was almost too calm. I think I knew.
Into the shop we went and Ilse locked the door behind us. There was something different about her. Something gripping.
She kept the door’s shade drawn and the CLOSED sign was swinging and the reversed, low-East-sun-illuminated letters of the DAMNED WAX sign in the window cast parts of the arch of its shadow on two pillars in the middle of the shop. Ilse took the album, which she had just handed to me, away from me again and opened her other hand to reveal a fresh-but-unwrapped tampon with a very tiny red smiley inscribed like a name on a cotton bullet. A bullet with a dangling tail.
“College man, do you know how to use one of these?”
“You are a quick study.”
I followed Ilse, between the pillars (one with a shadow W and the other an N), to the back of the shop. The scenario was premeditated: she was wearing an (for her) extremely unusual thing: the kind of short skirt that was in fashion that Autumn. Pleated. It was only then that I also recognized that Ilse, who was between 30 and 60 years old, was dressed like a cheerleader, with a pleated short skirt of grey and a purple St. Jeff’s hooded sweatshirt. She looked uncannily youthful. The top half of the photo of Jimmy Carter in blackface on the cover page of the folded newspaper I left on the floor appeared to watch us. Those eye-bagged innocent eyes.
After it was done (with some effort and several grunts), we were again at the cash register and Ilse handed me the record (which I dared not inspect, critically, in her presence) and I handed her a ten. She kissed the change before handing it back to me, the most romantic premeditated gesture I’ve ever…
But wait. I should mention the fact that I used my erect penis to drive the drive tampon home. The tampon absorbed the ejaculate.
To say the cover art of the album I purchased, that day I surrendered my virginity, was dauntingly devoid of imagination, fell a little short of matching how far my heart sank when I took the measure of both sides of the jacket, at home, Ilse’s brick-colored tracings of my fingerprints on my fingertips. In very fine pink print on the dark blue back cover someone claimed the record was a product of Onyxx Records, a subsidiary of PIE WERX, itself, a subsidiary of Onyxx Records Reissues, a recursive joke. And that was all.
I felt vaguely, if passionately, conned.
Is that all there is?
If a particular group or singer wasn’t featured heavily on the radio, in those days, and advertized on billboards and newspapers, it came to your attention late, or not at all, which explains why I often discovered my musical obsessions at least five years after the trend they belonged to (if they belonged to any trends at all) had peaked. If it wasn’t The Beatles or the Eagles or Fleetwood Mac, most fans were playing catch-up just like I was, with the added complication, in my case, that I was listening to music that I wasn’t supposed to be listening to, and not out of any reflex perversity or need to be different, I simply was different and wanted only to be myself and listen and sometimes purchase the music that really moved me. I didn’t care for either of the two types of music I was expected (nearly forced) to like: Soul or Funk. Hip Hop barely existed, the term was unknown, it wouldn’t become the Third Option for Blacks (and then the only option for Blacks under forty) for another decade and a half.
When, late that night of the afternoon I became a man, after scrubbing my fingertips with the pumice stone I usually only resorted to after working in oils, then washing the cup, dish, fork, spoon and knife I owned, with a few chastely romantic candles burning low on the windowsill of my one-room apartment, I finally listened to the album that Ilse Matresky had forced on me after she had helped me force my dick in her, crying out, nonsensically, as one or both of us came, that a handler must never fall in love with her project. It blew my mind (a fading idiomatic cliché from the 1960s that also happens to be the only way I can possibly put it), this music.
Over and over I listened.
Reader, I wept.
9. KEVIN MacMURRAY-McNULTY
I wrote, on a stolen piece of butcher’s block paper, with a borrowed grease pencil…
mapmaker has lost himself. the stars
swarm shining in the unfamiliar politic
of an improved
zodiac, the compass pin
spins irresponsibly and moss
all sides of the oak now. before he was even human
he was able to locate the
insignificant speck of
an egg on the
vast red continent of
the womb. how could he now be
so lost? his hunger
decorates the dark woods with
a fire he puts
rabbit on, nostalgic for the days
he petted them. twigs in the fire
curl like atomic tracks. the forest
feels abandoned. Fall roams through, a
mute landlord inspecting
property at night
…and balled it up.
“The First Black President” was elected and it wasn’t Chad.
I read, later, in the alum newsletter, with some interest, that the Hon. Rev. Chadwick Long died on the day of the inauguration; some say of a broken heart… and the organ failure consistent with the oxygen deprivation typical of an adult male’s well-muscled body suspended by the least opportune placement of a supportive pantyhose ligature. A right wing editorial made an unpardonable pun about Chad’s death but it was lost in the greater jubilation. A few dozen million fools celebrated the “historic landmark” of this winking inauguration and others wept but my sympathies aligned best with the sharpies who shrugged and went back to their darts or card games. Included among them being friends and higher-ups of Chadwick’s I’d never known nor dreamed of. How had Chadwick’s ultimate ambition been so thoroughly derailed by the blank-slate mediocrity who replaced him?
I realized that now was the time to cash in the old stash of incriminating ‘roids (Chadwick was beyond being hurt by them now and I needed the money) that were bundled safely in an envelope in a cigar box at the back of my closet under some National Geographics and I fished out the envelope and out fell not Polaroids of Chadwick being blown by a noose-wearing deb but a series of ‘roids of me sucking my thumb while sleeping.
Innocence as pathos squared.
I suck my thumb?
M-M-M-M-Mary. I reported to work that morning with a self-mocking smirk of nostalgic admiration. I should have penetrated her.
I was painting a cottage on the grounds of a grand estate on the outskirts of London, singing the title song from the mind-blowing record Ilse Matresky had forced on me, back in 1978, because I knew the words (simple as shitting) by heart. I had never been much of a singer but because I was no longer a young man, nor even quite as clever as I had once been, by then, the earthy song in my raspy throat sounded unbearably authentic, somehow.
Even to myself.
“Lord I love those old gutbucket blues,” whooped the flash biographies-writer, Kev, a tenant in the rustic cottage I had been hired to paint, the first in a string of renovated cottages on the property. He was fairly well known around town and had got me the gig after spotting me painting the ceiling in the plush WC of the Groucho Club. Kev paced around the base of my ladder in a hot pink running suit and made me nervous that he was going to upset the paint bucket in his dizzy exuberance.
As a precaution I held the bucket as I painted and sang, the fumes providing a transcendent experience.
“Life,” Kev marveled. “Life.”