1THE TONE-DEAF RECORD COLLECTOR
The title of this introductory paragraph is less a paradox than a commonplace. I have known tone-deaf, or music-insensitive, record collectors who loved vinyl discs with a great, deeply religious passion and an avarice bordering on murderous jealousy. They rarely, if ever, listened to newly-acquired love-objects: they carefully filed them away. I knew a famous rock critic, now deceased (death by injection). We walked the streets of Berlin together for years and often yakked about music. Here was a man who was published in the very early iteration of Rolling Stone, of Creem, who’d sat in a hotel room with Bob Marley, who knew the Lennons, and so on, and he liked my music. In fact we hatched a scheme in which a band I created might snag a higher profile (he got a semi-spurious review published in PASTE). I was gratified that he was into my voice and music (the man who’d had a lot to do with Little Feat’s big break) but one day he handed me a CD (i sat carefully on his junk-heaped, never-dusted couch) by an old friend of his… a lawyer by day (always an ominous sign) and told me he’d really like my opinion of it. I took it home and it was horseshit; every bit as bad as the eponymous CD’s dinner-jacketed “new wave” lothario, pictured standing on a roof (edgy), in medium-shot, looked. With his beady, close-set lawyer eyes and silly quiff. I reported via email to famous rock critic that the CD was brilliant because what difference would it have made? But I was no longer “gratified” that he liked my music. I thought of all that as I read this:
“The problem of how much of the tool to employ plagues both painter and prosateur, for the availability of hues and words, if too restricted or too rumbustious, conditions the scope of the work, the approach to the subject, the formal outlook. A rigmarole of rationales has made the outcome of this choice inseparable from ethical aspects. Given my partiality to verbal exuberance, I often register its bad rep for superficiality, obscurity, coldness, deceit, glibness, hollowness. Such stereotypes tend to come unsurprisingly from proponents of sackcloth syntax self-servingly standing up for their sovereignty; but it’s worth paying attention to this warning when it’s delivered by our last sumptuous, sedulous stylist, Alexander Theroux. In “Chosen Locksley Swims the Tiber”, the vapid, venal, vampirish fashion industry is castigated for manufacturing wants, selling illusions, trivializing privacy, and supplanting reality with a colorful make-believe world whose unrealistic ambassadresses pose for covers and centerfolds dressed “in new and bizarre over-the-top hues, like sorrel and puce, perse and ochroleucus, nankeen and watchet, nacarat and cramoisy, smalt and jessamy, liard and eau-de-nil, badious and haematic, infuscate and lovat, tilleul and atrous! Such inanity.” The outrage is heartfelt and deserving; it’s also a luscious cornucopia of a sentence.”
As I often say, the basic unit of meaning, in Lit, is not the word but the sentence. The permutating interrelationships of words in a sentence; the process (and justice) of word-choice behind every sentence structure; the sentence’s synergistic fit with its neighbors near and far: these are key. Brute-force litanizing, in the foothills of Sesquipedalia, does not an exquisite or fancy (or even passable) literary experience make.
Having a good look at Alexander Theroux’s artfully top-cropped photo, the one illustrating this puff-piece on the webpage I am open to, I am astonished by the audacity of his comb-over.
2love in the early stages
I arrived in Berlin the early evening of November 13, 1990, at Tegel Airport, flying out of London. I arrived in Berlin just shortly after suppertime.
I arrived with a woman I barely knew. Two male friends of this woman met us at the empty arrivals gate of the airport and drove us from the airport to the flat that I was planning to sublet for a year.
The flat I was planning to sublet was occupied by Cali, a German DJ, who was friends of the woman I arrived with. I was acquainted with the woman I arrived with for two or three months prior to the flight we both took to Berlin.
Cali was supposed to leave for London the next day. I was 31 years old. It was a Tuesday night.
I had arrived with the 3,000 Deutschmarks I got by converting British pounds at the airport. I had thirty big blue 100-Deutschmark notes secreted in a money belt. It was my first time wearing a money belt. I can’t remember how I got it. I had gotten the British pounds from my American girlfriend who was working illegally at a popular nightclub in London called Stringfellow’s. I wasn’t sure if my American girlfriend and I had broken up when I left London. I think we were both ambivalent about the separation. Still attached but excited by the freedom.
The car in which I was driven from the airport made its way through the neighborhoods surrounding the airport and onto a highway across town toward the main shopping street of West Berlin.
The main shopping street of West Berlin was called the Ku’Damm but the car I was driven in didn’t drive along the Ku’Damm at any point in my first journey through Berlin. I saw none of those West Berlin lights of commerce or the overcoated shoppers they illuminated. All the streets the car drove along were narrow and dark or the featureless highway which was bleak and bright with overhead signs announcing the exits to take for Stuttgart and Hamburg.
I had escaped.
I had escaped and I felt that euphoria and that euphoria was soon amplified by the unexpected kick of being driven in a car in which the conversation was incomprehensible to me.
I felt like a newly bulletproof man who tests his brand new bulletproofness by stepping into unabating gunfire with his hands on his hips, laughing. Hard as I listened in on whatever it was they were saying in the car I was being driven in, it meant nothing to me.
The woman I had arrived with was speaking her broken German with the driver of the car. Even as someone for whom German was incomprehensible, her German sounded broken to me. The music I remember on the quieted radio as they spoke was a song from a group one of the members of whom I would meet the following year. The song was in English but I was immune to every German word that was spoken among the people in the car with me.
In the back seat I sat on the right, behind the woman I barely knew, in the passenger seat, and to my left, behind the driver, sat the driver’s boyhood friend. I could not understand a single word the three were exchanging and this was liberating. I had arrived in the darkness surrounded by the insulating womb of a secret language I decided then and there never to learn. It felt like one of those spy-exchanges of the legendary near-Past of Berlin’s Cold War (B&W) golden age.
It was like arriving at a writer’s retreat, or Philip Roth’s cabin in the woods. Now I can start writing, I thought. The mysterious words filled the car like insulation. Like fire-retardant foam.
Now I could start writing.
Yes, now you could start writing. You didn’t write a word until years later, when you were preparing to leave. You got nothing quantifiable done for the duration of your first stay, a fact that would embarrass you when you returned to your friends in the Upper Midwest a full five years later.
I got nothing done but I lived. I read a lot, fucked a lot, as I had been doing since my early 20s. I got a slow start. A virgin until I was 18. The first sex I had was a good-natured disaster. I must have ejaculated, in the first vagina, exposed to the tiny tits and pale skin of the first woman I ever fucked, in under a minute. The sex I had my first year in college wasn’t much good either. I had lots of options but wanted romance, a true love, a real story instead of the loveless life of a sport-fucker.
You got that word from the Germans. You didn’t know the term “sport-fucker” when you were 19, 20, 21.
I got all kinds of words from the Germans. I broke my vow not to learn the language and the language seeped in like perfume. Not to the extent that I would one day dream in it, or speak it especially well, luckily.
Obviously not. You always excuse your bad spoken German by assuming the guise of a hapless tourist. This still amuses you. Even after being in Berlin for five, ten, twenty, thirty years.
Along with the language comes the psychology. I’m afraid of crossing over.
I’m afraid of losing my voice as a writer.
I know expats, I hang out with expats, who have mastered German and can no longer quite handle English at a higher, more nuanced level of expression: they rely now too heavily on camp and clichés when they attempt to use English. They still aren’t German yet neither are they recognizably native English in a long conversation. German turns them circumlocuitous in the passive voice. Not always. I’m acquainted with an American writer who writes in both personalities and can handle the two-brain problem quite well. But German and English can often fight in one mind. The facial expressions are so different. On one level it’s like tones expressed between two instruments not quite in tune with each other. Vladimir Nabokov had the advantage of learning several languages as a child. He had an English nanny. A French nanny.
My voice as a writer is precious to me.
Some multi-language writers can handle the transitions (code-switching) without getting muddled by them but I can’t.
Again the writing excuse.
Most words, the vast majority of all words, in any language, are just small talk.
Not speaking the language I was suddenly surrounded by was the first moment of my life, since I’d learned to speak, that I was protected from small talk. I stopped watching American television for long periods in an attempt to escape from small talk. I rationed my phone calls to my mother in Chicago to minimize the small talk. I strictly avoided chatting during intercourse. There is insincere small talk, which is advertizing, and there is sincere small talk, which is just silence-phobia. When the Walkman was invented, in the 1980s, I over-used it to escape from small talk. But I couldn’t listen to music 24 hours a day. The instant I removed my Walkman headphones, small talk flooded my ears again. Suddenly, not being able to comprehend the language I was surrounded with was like a wonderful recurrent dream I never knew I’d been having all along.
I remember the joy. But some would call that laziness at best and Ugly Americanism at worst.
But you and I know better.
Just another way you set yourself up for being judged.
People love judging. Understanding takes too much work. What can I do?
You do very little to help that situation. You do what you want.
It’s my life. My one shot at inhabiting an existence so thoroughly that I will relinquish the gift without qualms when the time comes. Making my own rules for my own life is what I must do. I will live to be 100 and regret very little.
So you say. Get on with the story.
The Germans are very mysterious.
Is that the story?
Where they got this reputation as being supremely logical, I’ll never know. They are mystics.
Why are you being negative about the Germans? The Germans gave you a home.
I’m not being negative about the Germans. I’m trying to be accurate. I trash everything, myself included, I trash the universe in an attempt to describe it accurately. In some ways you could say I learned this honesty from Germans themselves. And so many (though not all, of course) of the German women are exquisite. Tall and fit with cut-glass features. Beautiful like young Americans were in the 1960s. Now the Americans are fat and money-mad and armed to the teeth. If I call Germans “mystics,” how is that a criticism compared to what I just said about Americans? Americans are frightening. Germans are mystics.
There’s nothing wrong with that but call it what it is. The confusing way that the actual fact of higher German irrationality butts up against the cool, hard, logical stereotype of the Hollywood German is almost beautiful. Also comical.
The language is not logical. It’s as good a language as any other, of course, but something about its randomly-gendered articles and the long lag of the verb-placement… it jars me. It’s like street signs in Berlin, which are often not visible, missing for miles. You are just supposed to know where things are, quite often, if you want to navigate. Germans seem to memorize thousands of sentence templates when they’re young so when they begin to speak these sentences, other Germans know what they are going to say, with these sentences, these thought-templates, before they’ve finished the sentence. If you try to pick apart one of the longer varieties of these sentences logically, as it’s coming at you, you’re lost. Language in Germany is less a means for communicating specific information, quite often, than it is a liturgical experience and/or a performance of social status.
My God. Control yourself. Stop digressing.
Life is digression. You’ve been trained by simple-minded narratives designed to get to the point. Functioning as the countering voice of hindsight, you’re a little older than I am. You’ve been exposed to the simple-minded narratives for too long. These narratives get right to the point, which being that they have no point to get to but they are easy to read. Imagine if you could be convinced that lifting a feather a few times would make your skinny arms big and strong!
And what happened next was…?
We drove from Tegel airport to a street behind the Ku’Damm called Suarez Strasse. There was a South American restaurant the driver wanted to eat at. I guess it was his favorite restaurant. Maybe the driver, who was the ex-boyfriend of the woman I arrived with, thought he would impress me with the non-Germanic ethnicness of his choice of food. He was a DJ, too.
He was one of those Germans who specializes in fucking Blacks.
Yes. Frank. A weight-lifter and the head DJ at a soul club. A nice guy.
An idiot, as you would realize thirty years later.
Not an “idiot”. A Normie. A German bank executive’s spoiled son.
We took our seats at the table in the South American restaurant on Suarez Strasse, the walls draped in Peruvian textiles and wooden bowls and other carvings… that sort of place. Almost immediately a beggar entered the restaurant selling shoes. I’d never seen such a thing. I had been disappointed, in London, at how little I felt the fact that I was in a “foreign” city while I was there, despite the confusing power outlets and the reverse-polarity of the traffic . It just didn’t feel as strange as I had wanted. Berlin felt strange immediately. The language barrier and the beggar strolling freely through a restaurant selling shoes from a cart he dragged behind himself. I loved it. I had finally escaped the banalities of American life. I only had one pressing problem at that moment.
The four of us sat around the table during the very long wait for our orders (another Berlin specialty, as I would learn) and I detected jealousy and suspicion from Frank, Nikki’s ex. Nikki was the mixed-race Black woman I had flown in from London with. I had met Nikki at Covent Garden while hanging out with a top-hatted busker who calls himself Steve W.
Here I need to note that, as a consequence of the fact that I never use the toilets on airplanes (not even on transcontinental flights), I had the pressing problem of a terrible need to void my bowels. I hadn’t wanted to go to a restaurant at all: I had wanted nothing more than to be driven straight to my sublet flat in Berlin and dropped off there with my suitcase and my carry-on bag so I could take a huge private dump and relax in a fresh new place alone. The dark mass of this longing to take a dump had become a second self at my core since slightly before the plane had landed at Tegel and I’d foolishly skipped the chance to use the facilities at the doughnut-shaped airport, too self-conscious with Nikki pacing around outside the WC door. Instead of taking a dump I had taken a piss and hurried out of the WC and followed Nikki, clopping on her heels, to the luggage carrousel.
The self-consciousness of vanity has fucked you up more than once.
Nikki seemed very attractive. She was beautiful at first glance, with long, spectacular, corkscrew hair, a pretty face the color of lemony cake batter, a petite frame and big tits. She was on the short side, which made her tits seem even bigger. When I first met her I wanted to fuck her, I thought she was perfect, the perfect woman, another mixed-race person and with a British accent and big tits, what more could I have asked for? But the desire faded the longer I knew her. The desire faded by the end of Day One. There was something of the puritanical fuddy-duddy or fusty old biddy about her. Which was either an irony, considering her body, or a condition caused by her body itself. She referred to sexual intercourse as “thrumpy-pumpy,” which turned me right off. She had a very deep voice.
The thing is, on top of being a bit puritanical, Nikki was ignorantly almost-literate. Ignorance is a major turn-off for me. When we first met in London, Nikki and I began hanging out and conceptualizing a musical project. I wrote some songs for her to sing and I discovered that unless the tempo of the song was low enough, she couldn’t enunciate the words in a sequence. The words were like pies on a conveyor belt she couldn’t decorate and package properly before they each rolled off the edge of the conveyor belt and landed in a pile of smashed pies on the floor.
I remember that show from childhood.
We all sat around this table at the South American restaurant listening to pan pipe music, waiting for food (while I fantasized about evacuating my trussed up and pressurized bowels) and Frank was slit-eyeing me suspiciously, unaware of the fact that I had no desire to fuck Nikki who, by the way, was flirting, at the time, with Lesbianism. Being a Puritan with a body like that and hanging out in the milieu to which she was intellectually suited, you could see how Nikki would flirt with Lesbianism. All the men in tracksuits, guzzling Lucozade, hands on their dicks, trying to seem like American gangsters. Because of this male-averse inclination, Nikki was lightly fixated on the girl I had left behind in London, the American girlfriend I had travelled to London with.
J. was five foot seven and someone at the Ford Modeling agency, in London, told her that if only she were a few inches taller she’d be able to write her own ticket as a model. This was right before five foot seven inch Kate Moss became a sensation. Nikki was telling Frank how beautiful J. was and I got out a picture of J., from the red plastic wallet that carried my London Tube ID, and Frank, who specialized in Black chicks, said he didn’t find the picture that beautiful.
What you didn’t understand at the time was that although you weren’t attracted to Nikki, Frank realized that Nikki was probably attracted to you. Why had she flown with you from London to Berlin? Why was she introducing you to her friends?
We were served our food, we ate it, Frank drove us the fifteen minute ride to Marburger Strasse 8, right off the Ku’Damm. On the other side of the street, at the other end of it, was the nightclub where Frank and Cali were DJs. Nikki pushed the doorbell and we were buzzed into the building, entering a courtyard through a dark, narrow hall that had been designed to admit the little horse-drawn carts, then trucks, that delivered coal bricks to the building. The courtyard was surrounded by four stories of lit windows. The ground floor counts as the zero floor in the German system; the second level counts as the first floor. Cali’s apartment was on the first floor, to the left. She opened the door and cast a shy, furtive look at me and said something to Frank, as we all entered her front hallway, as I later learned: “So what are we going to do about him?”
What had happened was that the romance she had intended to pursue to London had fallen through, cancelling her plans to move. This was explained to me by Nikki. Great, I thought, the ups and downs and random stupidities of Life in the demimonde. Cali had broken up with this prospective boyfriend while the plane was in the air for 45 minutes? There were no commonly-available mobile phones in those days, so I suppose it’s feasible. Cali (tall, fairly homely) gave me those furtive glances while they all conferred in German regarding my fate and all I wanted to do, my sudden homelessness notwithstanding, was liberate the dire contents of my exploding guts. I noticed that Cali wouldn’t make eye-contact with me.
In the early ’90s you were in your thirties and at the peak of your physical attractiveness. You were a centimeter over six foot tall and fit and nut-brown with ambiguously handsome (what nationality?) facial features and wavy black hair. You had the animal confidence of your big brown dick.
She was a homely White German who was used to sleeping with Blacks. On the one hand she was intimidated by your looks, on the other hand she considered herself your social superior, though this, too, was complicated by the fact that you were American. She was used to sleeping with Africans or dumb Yankee soldiers and looking down on them. She could feel treasured, or like a catch, to someone near the bottom of the social scale; maybe she was from a middle class family like Frank. Appearing to ignore you is how Germans flirt.
You excused yourself and went to Cali’s WC with a sense of enormous (and soon to be ironic) relief, remember, and you took your carry-on luggage with you, a bag with deodorant in it. You were then confronted by the strangest thing you’d seen since leaving America in March of 1990: a German toilet.
The toilet was not a big bowl full of perfumed water designed to make your waste-products disappear as quickly and odorlessly as possible, it was a bowl with a shelf in it, a shelf placed about six inches below where the ass would hang. The shelf overlooked a narrow drop of about six inches into a well where the toilet water waited. You stood and stared at this shelf and realized that you would have to deposit your waste on this shelf and by flushing send the load down the well. Germans had designed this toilet during an earlier epoch when inspecting one’s stool for parasites was a daily protocol. Freud must have written on this. No English-language travel guide about Germany had ever mentioned it. You had not seen your own waste since you were a toddler.
I came out of that WC feeling shell-shocked by my confrontation with the “foreign”… and with my own foreignness on two levels. It is not possible to see one’s shit sitting on a shelf in a well-lit room and think of oneself as suave. Daily confrontations with this fact of life could well explain the famous Berliner lack of suaveness.
Toilets of that design seem to by dying out, along with coal-brick heating, strict obedience to pedestrian traffic lights and the tiny dormitory refrigerators everyone seemed to have when you arrived.
When I made my chastened re-entrance into the living room, some kind of deal had been brokered with Cali. She turned to me and said I could stay for a week or two until I managed to find my own place. I had a small room to stay in; I was sleeping on the floor and trying to keep out of her way.
In a few days, Cali went from being standoffish and furtive to flirting with me. This shift worsened until the morning she came out of the shower, soaking wet, with a towel wrapped around her, to “ask (me) something” in the kitchen. She stood on the black and white checkerboard of the kitchen linoleum, in front of her little gas stove, dripping. She wasn’t fat but her body was saggy and her thighs were bruised and her thighs and ass bulged beyond the towel’s coverage on both sides and I was disgusted. I mean, had I seen, accidentally, candid shots of her, like that, I wouldn’t have judged her at all. She offered herself to judgment by confronting me with some of the obvious facts of her naked body. One of my favorite writers, as a kid, was Isaac Asimov, but who would want to have seen Isaac Asimov naked? The bruised and lumpy ass and thighs made me wonder if homely women aren’t more likely to indulge in S&M to make themselves more interesting? This wasn’t the first time such a staged moment of supposedly-tantalizing self-exposure had happened to me. There was a middle aged banking executive who tried the same stunt, once. I was sitting downstairs in her living room, looking through Art Books, while she was taking a shower. Suddenly I heard the shower stop, rather too soon in the process. The silence was significant and I felt apprehensive. And the bathroom door opened and steam emerged and she said, down the short flight of stairs, that she needed to “ask (me) something”…
This is a good time to go into the matter of looks. Looks not in the third or second party sense but looks as self-reported.
This is a good time to go into my relationships with Homosexuals. Not sexual (I’m not Homosexual) relationships but my friendships with Gay men who wanted to fuck me and/or liked hanging out with me because I read as straight if compared to Straight White Males but I read as Gay compared to the standard image of Black American Males, who are expected to present on a spectrum from mildly-to-extremely rapey. I often say I’m “sexually straight but culturally Gay”. David Bowie and Paul Bowles and Harold Brodkey and all that. I like things I’m not allowed to like. Also, I blew myself regularly as an inhumanly horny teen. I got so good at it that I could do it standing up. But please go on.
Well what I was going to say is that I’m reminded of Harold Brodkey. Brutal honesty and painstaking accuracy were Harold Brodkey’s shtick so when he came to describe himself physically (which most writers avoid, except in the case of Martin Amis, who was very good at self-lacerating reports on the matter of the precipitous decline of his former famous beauty), he tried to do so with unflinching shamelessness, as though to transcend the bourgeois morality of good taste, the good taste of humility, the noblesse oblige of the smashing-looking, but what he did, in fact, was undershoot the target of accuracy by overshooting the estimation of his own good looks. Perhaps his Gay component was preening. Brodkey was never as handsome as he would have you believe (though one can imagine lima-bean-faced Frank O’Hara going mad for Harold’s cock): the pictures tell us that.
Your pictures tell us another story. You knew it and yet you didn’t. You were gifted with good looks and a good body. Off and on you dabbled in throwing these gifts away and then lazily getting them back. Girls were always after you. Boys too. Strangers approached with open invitations. Women followed you into supermarkets to chat you up. You noticed and somehow failed to notice.
Your looks were judged on unstable scales. In college in the late 1970s all the girls on your dormitory floor would rave and swoon about Al Pacino, who was a big-nosed shrimp compared to you but White and enhanced on the screen, rendering your looks, especially in the 1970s, as second-rate. You were “only” Black. The mainstream culture was both sexually obsessed with your type and outwardly dismissive. Blacks did not have leading roles in general interest Hollywood films back then. You were reduced to being a dream-idol of the twilight minds of many of the middle class girls in your dormitory, despite how they swooned over Al Pacino in broad daylight, in public. Remember….?
Yes. And those girls, the Cuban girls, Marisela and her little cousin. Calling me at my apartment in Dinkytown one afternoon (it wasn’t even late at night), in the late 1970s, and both of them crying into the phone, saying they loved me! They were mildly hysterical.
Then Prince and the remodeled Michael Jackson came along, in the 1980s, and used plastic surgery to get a look that appropriated your own racially ambiguous appearance. You were known for your little poems and short stories, back then, and your little songs, and they were clever, people admitted you were clever, but the work you did then was nothing showstopping. You couldn’t get out from under your looks to the extent that anyone really paid much attention to anything else. You were frustrated.
Your looks have always complicated your life, while making life easier. Why was a middle-aged banking executive paying your rent for two years before you left for London? Because you were ugly? You wanted to be valued for your mind. This was not possible in the 1980s and 1990s. Nearly everything you ever got was because someone wanted to fuck you.
There were others. There was a man who owned a little framing shop, he resembled a tonsured Alfred the Butler, his name was Dick, improbably, and I brought in an ink drawing to be framed and Dick rather cynically raved over it. Of course he was hoping to exploit my youth. I fell for the praise but that was all. While I was in Dick’s shop a woman came in to have something framed, as well, and also exaggerated her impression of the drawing, because she, too, hoped to exploit me. She gave me her business card and a few days later I found myself being ushered into her South Minneapolis apartment at lunch time. She was a woman who reminded me of a mousey, half-as-pretty, alternate universe Margot Kidder with a bubble perm. She took me into the living room and offered me a seat on a couch before which there stood the requisite steel-and-glass coffee table and upon which this table flapped a large picture book called SEXUAL FREEDOM. Open to some specific passage. The book was very prominently displayed and as she sat on the couch beside me I could see her lacy red brassiere under the blouse unbuttoned to the freckled spot between her tiny breasts. I played dumb/ innocent and deflected the attempted seduction. She told me she had been diagnosed with MS and didn’t have much of a normal life left to look forward to. She hired me to paint a logo for her church on a 24″ x 36″ canvas.
There was a classical musician who hit on me as I sat on a bench, in knee-length shorts, in Loring Park, one spring (my hair bleached blonde) and he told me he had a spinet at home so I thought, why not? I followed him there and sat on a wicker chair waiting for the spinet concert and he moved very quickly, very animal kingdom, he managed to get his fat pink hand up the leg of my shorts and under my boxers and on my un-erect cock before I knew what was happening. I ummed and ermed and he retreated slowly, sheepishly, leaving only the lingering impression of his spinet-playing fingers on my cock and balls. Not erotic but strangely like an experience at a Free Clinic. Why hadn’t he instructed me to cough?
People wanted to fuck me as a handsome specimen of Black, often, and didn’t know what to make of me the more we spoke and the less of a Racial cliché I revealed myself to be. I was sometimes then read as “Gay” because, as I noted, “authentic” Black males are expected to give off middling-to-high vibes of Rape-ishness. I can remember walking a woman home, after a date, rather suavely and having this woman confused and then offended by the fact that I had sincerely walked her home, to make sure she was safe, and hadn’t tried to make a move on her doorstep or force my way into her flat. I never pressured any woman for Sex. I never fucked a drunken or drugged or lied-to woman and I often fucked in the middle of the day. Nothing to hide; wanting to reveal. I always considered Sex to be an escalation of Romance, not the prosaic satisfaction of a banal creature-need that is an end in itself.
That “middle-aged banking executive,” Lynne, to whom I’d been introduced by a girlfriend of the time, Wendy, who was Lynne’s hairdresser, once told Wendy, “I get the feeling Steven wishes he weren’t Black.” The next time I saw Lynne I said to her, jokingly, waving a finger, “Now you’re in trouble!” She said, “Why?” I said, “Wendy told me what you said about me wishing I weren’t Black. That’s nonsense. I just reject all those Racist clichés. You and all the other liberals, you believe in these clichés the same as the conservatives do, the only difference is that you don’t believe in these clichés as a harsh critique, you believe in them as non-judgmental facts of life, anthropology, you think Blacks are born sexy, rhythmical, lazy, illiterate, emotional, maybe a little prone to violence, maybe a little prone to being superstitious and vulgar. I reject that. I don’t play that game. I am none of those clichés. Do you want me to be those clichés? Why would you want me to be those clichés? Why do you think of being polite as a naturally White attribute? Why do you think of being well-spoken as a naturally White attribute? You think Whites are born loving books and Blacks are born wearing pimp hats?”
And the banking executive seem humbled, at the time I believed she was, but all of my experiences during all these subsequent decades… that conversation took place c. 1985… leads me to realize now that her basic, or make that fundamental, beliefs, beliefs and opinions, wouldn’t have been changed by that one conversation. We never discussed that topic again. She was probably shocked that I had the cheek to talk to her like that. She continued for another year to pay my rent while trying to get me into bed. She had a nice face, a pretty face, big eyes, thin blonde hair, tiny mouth, very large breasts, but a huge ass and lumpy thighs. Those are turn-offs for me. I saw her in a fancy supermarket, once, I think it was Lund’s, it was on a very hot day, and she was wearing peach-colored shorts and a lime-green t-shirt, hair in a bandana, dressing down to feel “real,” or substantial, as the wealthy sometimes do. I glimpsed those sun-seared thunder thighs and I thought no way. Never. I was living with a girl at the time, a stunningly beautiful girl, a girl I think I loved, J., not just because she was beautiful but because she was very funny, too, and intellectually curious.
Would you have ‘loved’ her if she had been just as beautiful but with no sense of humor?
Maybe I could have talked myself into it but my feelings about her wouldn’t have been the same without her sense of humor. I would have desired her, sexually, as much but I wouldn’t have enjoyed the time together as much and I wouldn’t have felt as close to her. So I had this funny, beautiful girlfriend at home and this bank executive, who lived in a big house near Lake Harriet, trying to bed me and writing me checks for nothing. I don’t regret not giving in to Lynne and not fucking her, although it would have been the ambitious thing to do. I’ve always been ambitious to improve as an Artist but I’ve never been ambitious in that cut-throat, insincere, lie to yourself and others, careerist way. She was in charge of the ____ _______’s annual 30 million dollar budget to acquire edgy Art for the corporate collection and if I had played along I probably would have “had it made” for a few years. She was chums with Andy Warhol and she wanted to fly to Paris with me. I just didn’t want to sleep with Lynne. She was too “square” and her ass was too big. This thing about Black men preferring big asses… that’s another cliché I can’t get along with. Maybe that was Lynne’s underlying problem with her perception of my “deracination”… she probably knew that if I ticked all the boxes in that debased (and debasing) racial cliché menu, her big ass would have been attractive to me, an asset in surfeit, a bumper crop of lumpy and ballooning caboose. I frustrated her. I find big asses to be an erection-killer, even when they’re dressed. Imagine them naked! I’d rather not.
Is that the only reason you never fucked the middle aged bank executive?
Possibly. If she’d been trim, who knows? Though I did love, or genuinely think I loved, my funny girlfriend. One more thing…
The middle aged banking executive you avoided fucking, after she staged the supposedly-tantalizing self-exposure, dripping-wet in a towel on the landing overlooking her living room… she pressed a paperback copy of Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room on you the very next week… remember?
Yes. Lynne’s “intervention”. If I had turned out to be closeted, what a vindication of her insulted powers of seduction that would have been.
You were saying about the beautiful girlfriend you lived with while resisting the bank executive’s charms…
The only problem with my beautiful and witty girlfriend was her big Catholic family and their mild-to-medium Racism. Anti-Black Racism is such a fundamental aspect of American culture that people often find it hard to self-diagnose. It’s like detecting your own sweaty armpits in a packed and sweltering elevator of people with sweaty armpits. Someone who has stepped in dogshit will enter this elevator and everyone already therein will quite confidently identify this person as someone who stinks. The person with dogshit on their wingtips, in this analogy, would be a member of The Klan. But the others stink, too.
This witty and beautiful girlfriend and I loved each other. Or we genuinely somethinged each other. We understood each other, a little, at least. We both aspired, initially, toward an Arty kind of Life, a Life of ideas and learning and Art Museum afternoons. But what is love in the early stages, before the years accumulate, before the responsibilities of a life together develop depth, complications, the habituation of perfected patterns, the wear-and-tear of useful and constant use? Love in the early stages is just a simulation, really.
After 18 years of being with and loving the same woman and fucking no one else and raising a brilliant and complicated and extravagantly-beloved Daughter with her, I know this as well as anyone.
We both knew, J. and I, deep down, that our future together was impossible.
She was too attached to her mildly-to-medium-Racist big Catholic family, and not only was I Black, but I was a Bohemian, not interested in a career, not aimed toward obtaining a house in the suburbs a short distance from the rest of that family. If I had gotten a square, soul-killing job at a law firm as a star Token and worked my way up to an upper-middle class position, the family may well have tolerated me to my face. Family gatherings may well have bifurcated into gatherings with me (during which everyone tried to mind their Ps and Qs) and gatherings without me (where the spouses who had married into the family could sling epithets of the antebellum freely, to guilty belly laughs or nods of scandalized recognition). Maybe the parents and grandparents would have made a sincere effort to treat our mixed-race offspring as just as cute and dear to them as the blondes in the family. As it was, I was their second-worst nightmare of a boyfriend for their youngest square-jawed daughter. I only had the facts that I wasn’t a junkie, or gang member, in my favor. Our love was doomed but we didn’t know this with enough clarity or frankness to fully inhabit the years we had together. The untenability of our future together inspired us to bicker. We had laughs, threesomes, long talks, adventures, bickering. We could’ve skipped that bickering and enjoyed a pure and wild romance for five years. She fell back into the arms of the incurious bourgeoisie and attended Fourth of July celebrations unironically, Hollywood movies enthusiastically, masscult crazes and idiocies by deploying her inverted-commas-fingers like a get-out-of-jail card or a crucifix … but at least she retained her looks. She is a looker still and perhaps a decade older than my Beloved Wife.
I had to escape to the former capital of the Third Reich to one day find a better match, a greater woman, a talented and beautiful woman with a minute fraction of the Racialist baggage to overcome. It took me 15 years but I did it. The precious energy I formerly committed, unto near-depletion, from adolescence until my early 40s (the blind-alleys and false alarms!), in seeking Love, I can now commit to the act of transcribing this.