StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

85A Log: “How It’s Done in West Town” excerpt; Todd James, Michael Bevilacqua @ Gering & Lopez Gallery

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on February 6, 2010
Todd James, "Hot Dogs & Hamburgers," Gering & Lopez Gallery, New York

Todd James, "Hot Dogs & Hamburgers," Gering & Lopez Gallery, New York

A couple weeks ago, I went to see graffiti artist Todd James’ new show, “Make My Burden Lighter,” at the Gering & Lopez Gallery in Midtown Manhattan. Though James is an artist who began his craft as a teenager, tagging in the subways of New York, the whole experience brought me back to the kind of graffiti that was erupting all around Chicago in the Eighties.

But I’ll get to all that in a minute.

Point is, “Make My Burden Lighter” is an event that’s at once shocking and masterful. The images are pointedly obscene but rendered with a gimlet eye on the excesses of our uber-consumerist society, which now has much less money to buy. You’ll soon be able to see my review of “Make My Burden Lighter” in WhiteHot Magazine.

Todd James’ “Make My Burden Lighter” shows until the February 20th at the Gering & Lopez Gallery, which is located in the Playboy Building at 730 Fifth Ave (b/t 56th & 57th).

If, God forbid, you miss James’ show, keep a weather eye on what will be happening next at Gering & Lopez. They never disappoint.

For instance, I was awestruck by this other painting, which was hanging in a room off to the side of the James exhibition, by the insanely talented California artist Michael Bevilacqua.  It’s called “White Punks on Dope”:

Michael Bevilacqua's "White Punks on Dope" at Gering & Lopez Gallery, New York

If I’d had the cash, I would’ve bought it on the spot. But genius like this doesn’t sell for cheap. So instead I stared at “White Punks on Dope” until I damned near passed out. I’m so glad this kind of work is in such high demand now that 85A is on the market.

In honor of, and in resonance with, the James and Bevilacqua boom, I’d like to post part of the “How It’s Done in West Town” chapter of 85A. Once again, the book is set in Chicago in January 1989. The narrator, Seamus O’Grady, is fifteen years old and, in this chapter, he’s referring back to his freshman year of high school when he was 14 years old. Now, he’s also got one hell of a mouth on him and he worships Johnny Rotten. (He’s also recently seen Amadeus on Channel 9, so now he wants to be Mozart.) Like so many Chicagoans of his day, he’s also intensely race-conscious and is fascinated by African-Americans and Latinos. He wishes he wasn’t just another white kid but there’s not much he can do about it. But his best friend Tressa is a young black woman who is always helping to open brave new worlds to him as described in Chapter Ten, “How It’s Done in West Town.”  (Naturally, all rights are reserved on this chapter. No part of 85A may be reproduced with my own expressed written consent.)

"Money Bags McCoy" by Todd James, Gering & Lopez Gallery, New York

From “How It’s Done in West Town,”

Chapter 10 of 85A

(circa late 1980s)

By Kyle Thomas Smith

The bus is on fire. It’s got bloodlust Ozzy Osbourne eyes, Jaws’ razor teeth, and a face like the Soul Train on Soul Train. There’s a white guy in a Gestapo uniform. His eyes are bulging. His tongue is wagging. He’s sticking his finger in the blue bus’ ass. There’s a Red Dawn explosion behind him, a nuclear holocaust. There’s a black hooker painted space-invader green. She’s standing on top of the burning bus with a great big fuckin’ fro, a tight-as-fuck pink mini, ten-stack platform shoes, fists clenched and pinned to her hips.

Too bad you can’t paint that shit on buildings without a permit. It’s cool as fuck.  Takes a shitload of talent too. Man, I wish I could paint, but I can’t even doodle out a damn circle. No wonder I’m flunking geometry. If we were in a state of anarchy like we should be, we could paint whatever the fuck we want, wherever the fuck we want. Just listen to Mozart. Did he have to wait till he had a permit to make music?—Well I guess maybe he did. There was that scene in Amadeus where he had a bitch of a time getting approved by the imperial court to do a harem opera. But…whatever, man…it shouldn’t fuckin’ be that way.

But, I gotta admit, some of the murals the city does dole out permits for are pretty fuckin’ impressive too. I mean, lots of times they use rubbish Day-Glo colors and a lot of times they paint a lot of corny-ass get-high-on-life, school-is-cool themes, but you can tell the painters put their heart in that shit. Lots of times they get little neighborhood kids to help out and they teach them to paint and let their imaginations roam. And, even though I think we should all have the right to paint whatever the fuck want, wherever the fuck we want, I gotta admit, it does bother me when gangs spray graffiti on murals little kids helped paint.

I don’t think Raul’s ever defaced a kid’s mural, but Tressa says the cops are on the scent of whoever put graffiti art like the nuclear-holocaust bus up around Logan Square and West Town. Apparently the Nazi finger-fucking the bus’ anus isn’t Raul’s only brainchild. Just his most famous. He sprayed it on the back wall of the roof where, from March to November, pitbulls wheel around a parked Harley-Davidson and crumpled Miller cans. Raul tags under the name Snipsta, and he’s tight with the dude who owns the pitbulls and Harley. I don’t know what that bandito’s story is, but I always wonder how the fuck he maneuvered a Harley all the way up to his roof. Did he drag it up the fire escape or hang pulleys down to the alley? Who knows? Drug lords can arrange anything, at least that’s what I hear.

I’ve met Raul a couple times at Tressa’s house on Logan Boulevard. Skinny kid, brown as a colt, kind of sits around a lot with his head down, groovin’ to EPMD, making macho street gestures in time to the beat. He’s friends with Tressa’s brother Joshua. Raul’s in some gang; I don’t know which; I didn’t ask and I won’t. Agatha is afraid Joshua might be in a gang too. Joshua got busted for graffiti twice. He’s twelve years old and on parole. I’m sure he’s just fuckin’ around with his friends. I don’t think he’s in any real kind of gang. He’s too sweet a kid to ever hurt anybody. He always gives me a hug good-bye whenever I leave their house. He gets lots of As in an IB program like Tressa and he’s learning Russian so he can talk to Babsha better now that she’s slipping and thinks she’s still back in Stalingrad. Joshua’s not Raul, he just dresses like him—a gangsta wearing jeans that are, like, twelve sizes too big for his scrawny ass, and, when Agatha’s not looking, Joshua puts a blue bandana on his head. But he’s no more in the Folks or People than the fuckin’ metalheads in Jarvis Park are Satanists or Gaylords. But even sweet kids get killed out here, especially if the wrong assholes see that sweetie pie tagging the wrong name on a wall.

I worry right along with Agatha and Aubrey about Joshua being on the streets. He’s the little brother I never had. And there are all sorts of stories out there about how gang leaders threaten to kill kids who won’t join up and do drug runs for them. But, then again, I don’t think Mexican gangs in Logan Square and West Town are gonna go out of their way to recruit a black kid. That shit just doesn’t happen.

The L’s already out of Logan Square station and the West Town tunnel. Tressa didn’t get on this morning. Not surprising, we’re almost never on at the same time. She doesn’t have class first period at Lincoln Park, so she usually doesn’t leave this early. When she does step on the L, though, her patchouli precedes her.

For the longest time, all I knew about West Town was what I saw out the L window. Riding above the neighborhood, you look out and see blocks and blocks of tenements. Most of it’s not public housing, though. The buildings look a lot better than they do in Cabrini Green or the Abla Homes near St. Xavier. They’re not caged in at the backstairs and there are almost as many gorgeous buildings mixed in with the uglies. Got lots of turn-of-the-century graystones and whitestones too, like Tressa’s house, where gargoyles still perch on ledges and people still grow bountiful gardens behind filigree gates.

But when you look at the alleys and rooftops: fuckin’ graffiti everywhere. And not every graffiti artist out here is a gifted artist like Raul. Some of this shit goes way back to the disco days—balloon letters in hot pink, blueberry Bubbalicious blue, and Squirt yellow—shit straight out of The Warriors, shit they just left up there, never took down with turpentine. I mean, shit, if you’re gonna keep graffiti up, at least keep it in the same decade as now.

Lots of the other scrawl on those brick walls will spook your shit if you stare at it too long. See the lynched skeletons and rolling skulls painted on the buildings? See the names tagged next to them? Joshua tells me they’re all on the Folk Nation’s hit list and that, when you see a line sprayed through a name, it means the Folks made another hit and are making their way down to the next name, the next hit. Look at all those fuckin’ crossed-out names! Not an inch left on the walls. And I hear some of the names belong to El Rukns, Chicago’s biggest street gang, the one on trial now for accepting money from Muammar al-Gaddafi to blow up the country. Man, I’d rather have fuckin’ George Herbert Walker Bush running the country than the El Rukns—and, coming from me, that’s saying some shit.

Other hit-list names belong to that white supremacist gang, the Gaylords. The metalheads in Jarvis Park keep tagging the Gaylords’ name in the underpass, even though none of those pussies ever met a real live Gaylord. But, if they’re gonna scam a name, it figures they’d pick the KKK gang. Wonder if those racist fucks ever noticed there’s a “gay” in “Gaylords.” Bet they wouldn’t be so quick to say, “I’m a Gaylord” then. Gaylord wannabes in my neighborhood think watching Faces of Death and Headbanger’s Ball makes them badass, but they ain’t never been within ten miles of a drive-by.

Gangs in Logan Square and West Town don’t play. They’re not Satanists like the metalheads near me try to be, but the pitchforks they spray in the alleys are satanic in their own way—their own motherfuckin’ psycho way. Gangbangers here think nothing of massacring whole warehouses full of rival gangs. If the metalheads in my neighborhood only knew the shit that goes down on this side of town, they’d piss their Metallica-Megadeth pants sopping wet and plant their asses on the 85A back home, pronto. There’s a whole lot of killin’ going on in these parts. You can see Agatha’s got cause for concern. I mean, that non-permit, finger-fuck mural that Raul put on that pitbulls-beer-cans-and-Harley roof is tame compared to the pitchforks, skeletons, severed heads, and crossed-out names on the backs of the buildings right down the alley.

But last year, I noticed something else happening at the West Town stops: whites getting on. That’s right, whites. Hot ones too. The guys, man, lots of them had this shoulder-length hair, but not at all like the dumb-fuck metalheads. No, this was classical-looking long hair—refined; in Mozart’s time, people got wigs custom made to look like them. Except these guys were also wearing the kinds of moth-eaten coats and clothes that people clean out of their attics and give to the poor.

– Excerpt from Chapter 10 of 85A by Kyle Thomas Smith

BTW, the pic I used for the back cover didn’t work, so I had to offer two new ones. I tried to get Julius to take quick pix of me in our gangway but nothing took. I had to resort to a couple shots we had on file.

This is one of me at Castle Warwick in England. I’m not a big fan of any of my own pictures, but this has a pensive quality. Julius doesn’t like it at all. He says I look like I might be contemplating suicide – and if my skin got any whiter, my picture might wind up on some fucking Ghost Sightings series or something!

He infinitely prefers this one. It’s a shot he took of me off Cape Good Hope in South Africa. He says I look like an actual writer in this photo. He even went so far as to say “author.” But I have all those goddamned cowlicks in it!

He called them “wind-swept.”

So if you ever wonder why I’ve chosen to spend my life with him, there’s your answer.

In conclusion, I’d like to close with a Public Service Announcement from the BBC, Seamus’ favorite (favourite) broadcasting system. Especially you of the fair sex, pay special heed to “Women: Know Your Limits!”


Posted in Film by streetlegalplay on November 11, 2008

This is my review of Opium: Diary of a Madwoman, which will be published tomorrow in Edge Magazine.


In 2002, I was at the Foreign Theater in San Francisco for the American premiere of Jean Pierre Denis’ Murderous Maids. Denis’ superb film about incest and cold-blooded murder was so disturbing and fraught with treachery and suspense that, by the time Christine started banging her head against her prison-cell wall, I forgot where I was and blurted out to the absent director, “Could you give us a break here!” If you take something like that one head-banging clip – minus any intrigue or suspense – and stretch it out to 109 minutes, you basically got Janos Szasz’s Opium: Diary of a Madwoman.

This Hungarian film scatters its jabs so consistently that it becomes a pointless melee rather than a commentary on the history of mental institutions or a meditation on the connection between genius and insanity. The year is 1913 and Gizella (Kirsti Stubo), a mental patient who believes that the forces of evil have hijacked her brain and body, is subjected to every draconian treatment that a pre-World War I insane asylum could devise. Dr. Josef Brenner (Ulrich Thomsen) is a morphine addict, an aspiring man of letters and sexual deviant whom the asylum welcomes with open arms. Upon entering the gates for the first time, Brenner witnesses the head surgeon performing one of the institution’s many lobotomies in a graphic and gruesome scene involving a mallet and a needle. Later the same day, he meets Gizella for the first time when he finds her in the basement, masturbating and screaming about the Evil One. Brenner cannot help but feel he’s found his true love. Better yet, Gizella is also a writer, one who transcribes every word the Evil One dictates, be it on paper, the floor or the walls, depending on whether she has another of her many shriek-fest fights with the fascist nuns who confiscate her pens. Brenner continuously remarks on how he admires Gizella’s genius but the film gives few examples of the lunatic’s written ravings. We mostly just see her screaming, masturbating or getting strapped to many and sundry racks.

To keep his film from degenerating into gratuitous balderdash, Szasz dresses his sets and cast up in elaborate period décor and costumes. But, to quote Barack Obama, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” Opium: Diary of a Madwoman does not give us The Snakepit or Suddenly Last Summer‘s searing expose of abuses in the mental-health industry. It doesn’t give us the Marquis de Sade’s trenchant writing and revenge in Quills. It gives nothing on the order of Salieri’s cathartic confession in the loony bin in Amadeus. Scene by scene, it just gives us more reasons to avert our eyes.

85A Log: Joshua Furst, Salieri Complex, Virginia Woolf, Humility, and the White Horse Tavern

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on August 19, 2008

This is how Virginia Woolf agonized over Marcel Proust’s talent in a letter to a friend:

Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh if I could write like that! I cry. And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation that he procures–there’s something sexual in it–that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can’t write like that. . . . How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped–and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp.

Then, even after writing Mrs. Dalloway (1925), she continued to give herself the short end of the stick in relation to Proust:

I wonder if this time I have achieved something? . . . Well, nothing anyhow compared with Proust, in whom I am embedded now. The thing about Proust is his combination of the utmost sensibility with the utmost tenacity. He searches out these butterfly shades to the last grain. He is as tough as catgut and as evanescent as a butterfly’s bloom. And he will I suppose both influence me and make me out of temper with every sentence of my own.

It’s good to know that a writer of Woolf’s stature had these feelings toward a contemporary too.

It’s exactly how I’ve been feeling – diffident, self-loathing – while reading Joshua Furst’s The Sabotage Cafe. It’s how I felt yesterday, reading him on the subway on my way to see Mike at White Horse Tavern. It seemed like I was underlining every other line of well-turned phrases, wishing I had it in me to write them. Take this one, for example, about 15-year-old, punk-rock runaway Cheryl getting it on with her new boyfriend Trent:

It was oceanic, a salt-heavy weight roiling under her skin, lapping at her pelvis, dampening everything, condensing on the surface in filmy layers. She imagined taking him whole into her system – like that weird spiny fish she and Jarod had seen on the Discovery Channel – and holding him there, soaking him in her juices, until the two of them became a single organism, sharing veins and arteries and internal organs, never to be parted again.

Mind you, these are just two sentences. Most of the sentences I’ve read so far approach this level of brilliance. Furst’s narration is both documentary – capturing all sides of these kids’ interactions – and unfathomably deep, probing each character’s unconscious. Every sentence is so exacting and panoramic. Also, Furst knows his hardcore, he knows the punk scene, he’s not just guessing at it. It’s like D.H. Lawrence meets Lester Bangs.

To make matters worse, he’s writing about the same subject I am in 85A. I mean, Seamus is totally different from Cheryl and Trent, but Seamus is dabbling in the same subculture and, just like Cheryl, dreams of freedom from teenage confinement. Reading Furst, I think much the same thoughts that Woolf thought about Proust: “I can’t write like that”; “And he will I suppose both influence me and make me out of temper with every sentence of my own.”

I got a big ole Salieri complex. According to Peter Shaffer at least, Salieri felt cursed with a lethal combination of mediocrity and burning ambition. I think it’d make my life a lot easier if I’d just accept that there are many people – maybe many, many – who are better writers than I am.

When I was flunking out of high school, I consoled myself by thinking, “I will grow up to be among the greatest writers.” It’s embarrassing to admit that, but that’s what got me through each day. I did my best to walk like a writer, talk like a writer, master all the books that writers master, and even write like a writer. I felt like an impostor, but still I persevered, thinking that I’d have to fake it until I made it – all the way up to the summit; I had to redeem myself for not being a prodigy sooner.

Plus, it’s also true that many had told me, “You have a gift.” Not only that, but I also had so much sorrow, disillusionment and angst that I felt I was a shoo-in for greatness.

The years went by. I wrote my ass off. A lot of people were still giving me a lot of credit for my writing, but I still wasn’t producing major works. In my twenties, this bothered me. But I took solace in the belief that, in my thirties, I’d wake up one morning, possessed by some spirit of genius and my hand would move across the pages of my notebook – or the keys on my keyboard – without my will or effort. I wouldn’t have to depend on a limited human brain. I could rely solely on the muse. I could produce canonical works and then sit pretty on my laurels.

Here I am, though, in my thirties, wishing I had the talent of Joshua Furst and many other 30-something (or even twenty-something) authors. It’s one of the most humbling experiences I know. I mean, Jonathan Saffron Foer is literally my backyard neighbor. Sometimes, I catch myself resenting that whole tribe of elites, shaking my fist at the heavens, saying, “I’ve done my time on the bottom! I’ve suffered! I’ve worked myself into exhaustion! Won’t you please move me up!”

As Salieri learned, though, these things are beyond our will. The gods have given some people drive and other people talent and still other people genius. Yet we’re left with a choice. We can either train ourselves to honor and learn from geniuses (whether or not they’re humble about their genius) or we can let our envy and self-hatred eat us up for the rest of our lives. It’s a wretched ultimatum, but what other choice do we have?

In the final chapters of Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl describes how he predicated his whole form of psychotherapy, which he called Logotherapy, on the following idea that he evolved while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp:

The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life.

A man came to him in enormous grief over the sudden passing of his wife. Frankl asked the man (this is not word-perfect): “What if it had been the other way around? What if you had died and your wife was left to mourn?” The man said, “That would have been terrible. She would have suffered horribly.” Frankl then pointed out to the man that, by dying before him, his wife had been spared the suffering of having to bear his death. Now it was up to him to bear that suffering for her. The man nodded. He didn’t walk away happy, but he had at least found a reasonable and meaningful explanation for why he had to endure this struggle.

Maybe my struggle is to accept my Salieri complex for what it is, a test, and other people’s genius for what it is, a gift. Actually, Virginia Woolf elucidates this struggle extremely well in To The Lighthouse (1927) when she describes Mr. Ramsay’s Salieri complex over his shortfalls of intelligence and artfulness:

It was a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is arranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q…But after Q? What comes next? After Q, there are a number of letters, the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance. Z is only reached by one man in a generation…

He stood stock-still, by the urn, with the geranium flowing over it. How many men in a thousand million, he asked himself, reached Z after all? Surely the leader of a forlorn hope may ask himself that, and answer, without treachery to the expedition behind him, “One perhaps.” One in a generation. Is he to be blamed then if he is not that one?…Who shall blame him? Who will not secretly rejoice when the hero puts his armour off, and halts by the window and gazes at his wife and son, who, very distant at first, gradually come closer and closer, till lips and book and head are clearly before him, though still lovely and unfamiliar from the intensity of his isolation and the waste of ages and the perishing of the stars, and finally putting his pipe in his pocket and bending his magnificent head before her – who will blame him if he does homage to the beauty of the world?

Last night, all those thoughts had run through my mind on my way to see Mike at the White Horse Tavern. He had lost his debit card yesterday morning, so he got there late after having to haggle another debit card out of his bank. That was fine. I had a lot of journaling to do.

He got there eventually. We sat at one of the outside tables. We celebrated a great new job he just got, managing the website of the 92nd Street Y. Like a lot of people, he has had to manage through a lot of twists and turns and flotsam and jetsam in this economy. It’s good to see him safe and secure in such an excellent institution as that. He likes it a lot. He got the job partly because of all that he learned creating my website! I’m glad this was a win-win.

We talked for hours about everything under the sun. Then he asked me how the book was going. He hasn’t been reading my blog, so he didn’t know the rundown of my lunch with Shell. I told him that Shell’s suggestions were excellent and now I’m back to Square One with 85A.

Then I pulled The Sabotage Cafe out of my bag. I raved about it. Then I said, “I have to face it. I could never write a book this good. It’s hard as hell, but I just have to face the fact that some people are better writers than I am.”

He listened, but he didn’t nod or shake his head. All he said was, “Well, that guy has one thing to say with one voice. You have another thing to say with another voice. Don’t let that stop you.”

Simple words, simple idea, but it was enough to silence the monsters in my head.

Then I told him that I wrote a new opening sentence to 85A. This was after I read an essay by a writing teacher who said that the first sentence of a book should promise not only the beginning of the story, but also the end. So, this is the working opening sentence for 85A:

“Every detention, every spear of glass swimming up through my forearm, every minute the 85A is late brings me one step closer to London.”