StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

Disturbance in Arizona

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on April 15, 2010

This week, the Arizona House of Representatives passed a draconian anti-immigrant bill that could give free rein to ethnic profiling throughout the state.

What is it about Arizona?  Much as I loathe John McCain, his opponent J.D. Hayworth sounds far worse.  (Notice how Sarah Palin didn’t badmouth Hayworth when she spoke at McCain’s rally.  She might be the biggest twit on the tour bus, but she knows she might need Hayworth later.)  A talk radio host, Hayworth is one of the titans of the bourgeoning industry of misinformation that conservatives churn out big and fast for Tea Partiers and other gullible nitwits.  I hope Democratic challenger Rodney Glassman knows how to roll in the mud with dirty dogs because he’s in for the pit fight of his life.

But I have a friend who moved to Arizona six months ago and loves it.  She’s a nature lover and New Age healer, who has found a vast community out by Prescott where she can openly discuss astral projection, medicine wheels and all sorts of other occult practices that make mine and most other people’s eyes glaze over.  Lest we forget, the rise and fall of James Arthur Ray took place in Sedona.  (Did that story fall off the media’s radar screen?)

Martha Beck has lived in Phoenix for over a decade and has never publicly condemned Arizona’s ultra-conservatism (of course, she’s from Utah; Arizona must look like a nudist colony by comparison).  But in a chapter on the “essential self,” she did offer this discourse on a true-crime story from The Grand Canyon State:

Here in Wild West Phoenix, where real men still have obscene tattoos and keep rattlesnakes as pets, we recently experienced a rash of brazen burglaries.  The thieves entered empty houses to steal any jewelry, silverware, and electronic equipment they could find. In one home, their loot included an expensive camera. The thieves sold the goods at a swap meet later the same week, leaving no clues to their identity – except that they’d taken several pictures of one another burgalizing the houses, then left the film in the camera when they fenced it.  The police had lots of nice photographic evidence to help them find and convict the whole gang.

Many criminals do incredibly stupid things like this, because they’re actually conflicted about breaking the law.  It’s a rare thing to find a burglar who thinks it’s dandy if other people steal his stuff; when it comes right down to it, his deepest self believes stealing is immoral.  Your essential self will fight you by committing ‘stupid’ blunders when you violate your own values.  It’s as likely to happen when you try to be too virtuous as when you break the law.  Do you think it’s an accident that every time your mother-in-law arrives to take you to her Bible study group, she finds you naked in your backyard hot tub, singing the blues and drinking Kahlua through a straw?

I think not.

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Stuck. Progress… Stuck…Progress. Stuck. Progress…

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on March 25, 2010

Murray was having his thirtieth birthday party at the Pour House in Harlem, so I took the 2 train from Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, all the way up to 96th St and transferred to the 1 train to 110th.  Yeah, it was a long-ass ride, so I took a book with me – Saturday Night, Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe, which I didn’t get to finish after I came back from Scotland.  The book is about the stuck life of 1950s factory worker Arthur Seaton, who tries to dispel the tedium of his experience through hard drinking, banging his coworker’s wife and working on his Teddy Boy look.  These stand-ins for progress don’t suffice and, while normally I would yawn over the predictability of plot, Sillitoe’s writing is so eloquent and compelling that I stuck with it the whole ride north.

When I walked up the stairs at Cathedral Parkway station, I couldn’t believe how white Harlem has gotten!  When did this happen?  When Clinton set up his foundation there?  I counted so many young white hipsters, making their way in packs up and down 110th and Amsterdam, I thought I was in fucking Williamsburg!  (Harlem is a lot prettier than Williamsburg, by the way.)  Langston Hughes and Jessie Redmon Fauset wouldn’t recognize the place today, that’s for damned sure.

The Pour House was mostly white too – we’re talking frat-boy white…but there was enough diversity for me to feel comfortable.  I mean, yeah, I’m white but I’m also gay and homogenous environments scare me (even all-gay environments, don’t get me started on that disaster weekend I spent in the Hamptons!), so I always gravitate toward the multicultural.  Quite a few people I know – of all ethnicities and sexual orientations – were there for Murray ’s birthday, so I settled in quickly.

Murray looks like he’s taking 30 well.  Honestly, it’s no big deal, especially these days with the erosion of the generation gap.  Enough twenty-somethings have seen their friends make the transition that it’s hardly the shock it used to be.

Murray ’s got a new girlfriend now, I can’t remember her name, and his old girlfriend Sandhya was there too.  Sandhya and Murray broke up over a year ago but they stayed friends.  Good friends.  They still get together every week.  She texts him several times a day.  Sandhya even renewed her lease a few doors down from Murray ’s apartment in Hudson Heights for another two years.  But next week, Murray is moving all the way down to the Bedford-Stuyvensant area of Brooklyn, where he’ll get twice the space for $300 less a month.  He’s also first on the waitlist for Berkeley’s doctoral program in semiotics, so he might just be moving a lot farther away than Bed-Stuy.  Sandhya will still be up in Hudson Heights, though.

But Sandhya says she’s got a going concern in a new café she might open with a woman she knows.  She’s lamenting that she’s out of work and about to turn 40.  Yet, after working for too many years at jobs that had nothing to do with her passion for cooking, she’s got a shot at opening her own café.  She’s digging her heels in, though.  It’d be a huge commitment.  I felt like telling her, “Honey, everything else is desert and wasteland.  Grab this before it gets away!”

What I didn’t know is that Sandhya didn’t know about Murray’s new girlfriend.  How he kept it secret is beyond me?  Sandhya didn’t even know the other woman was part of the party.  She just thought she was another random boozer.  Murray didn’t tell Sandhya about the new girlfriend until they were getting ready to go back to his place…leaving me with Sandhya, who by now had had more beer than the spot-welder who was counting popcorn kernels and drooling on the bar.

Set ’em, bartender.  We’re in for a looong night.  I ordered Sandhya a Yyenling and I got a Goose Island for myself.  I also got us a heaping order of nachos with the works.  I had a feeling Sandhya would need a couple more drinks to process the girlfriend revelation and I thought it’d be a good idea if we had food in our stomachs while she did it.  As Sandhya collected her thoughts, the quiz-game emcee’s voice came over the loudspeakers from the room next door: “What mythic tribe of women cut off their left boobs because they thought it would make them better archers?”  Ah, shit.  This was going to be a long night.

Sandhya looked up with a beaming smile.  “I’m so happy for Murray,” she said, “I’m so happy he’s out there dating.”  I didn’t know what to say.  So I said, “Yeah!  And he won employee of the year at his job!”  Then I remembered, shit, she’s still out of work!  Better bring up something else.  So I decided to lift the mood by raving about her café prospect.  “Yeah,” she lifted her shoulders and swayed in a lager stupor, “I mean, the neighborhood needs a coffeehouse.  It doesn’t have one.  But…I don’t know…I don’t know how practical it is.”

“But you said it’s one of the things you want to do before you die,” I said.

“Yeah,” she went on waffling, “But sometimes I think, at one point of your life, there’s a time for dreams.  And, at another point, there’s…y’know…a time for…”

“Harsh, cold, unrelenting reality?”

She picked at the nachos and nodded, not even looking at me.  Defeat was thick at the bar as the Rangers game roared in the background with cheers and jeers coming from all around the room.  When will I learn not to talk people into following their dreams unless they pay me first?  But I went ahead and tried anyway.

I told Sandhya about a woman I’ll call Martha whom I worked with at an organization I’ll call the Machiavellian Center for the Dark Arts.  Martha was the Senior Officer for Administration who reported directly to a woman I’ll call Termagant, the Head of Organizational and Financial Affairs.  Martha was a chain-smoking, gum-smacking, middle-aged broad who ranted on about her onerous workload and mistreatment at the hands of Termagant.  Martha was also morbidly obese, terminally single, and steeped in the dramas and traumas of her wildly dysfunctional parents and sisters when she wasn’t at work.  You couldn’t walk past Martha’s door without her pulling you in to report some new horror that Termagant had inflicted or some new spat that her sister had gotten into with Martha’s brother-in-law or niece.  And yet, when anyone else came to Martha in tears over a new insult or dirty deal dealt by Termagant, Martha’s face would screw up as she’d make it clear to the hapless soul that if he or she couldn’t handle Termagant’s wrath, then they might want to think about packing up both their desks and their lives and heading to some gentler planet where only nice people live and work.

Not that Martha never talked back to Termagant.  On the contrary, at least three times a day, Termagant’s door would be closed and you’d hear Martha behind it, upbraiding her for being the kind of boss who wouldn’t even, say, pay for a single 10-mile cab ride home after Martha would put in five 15-hour days in a row.  Martha would then stomp out of Termagant’s office, proud to have made her point.  Yet this never brought her any closer to being able to pay for a cab out of the petty cash box.  It’d been this way from the day Martha had first interviewed for the job and Termagant had said to her, “Maybe we should sit on the floor.  You don’t look like you can fit in a chair.”  Instead of taking this as her cue to walk out of the Machiavellian Center for the Dark Arts as fast as her stubby legs could carry her, Martha shot a stabbing finger at Termagant and said, “You need me in this job because you have no people skills!”  Thus began Martha’s life of unquiet servitude.

To be clear, Termagant wasn’t the only cruel soul at Machiavellian.  Booby traps and viper pits abounded at every turn, which eventually led me to walk into work one day and resign.  Martha couldn’t have been prouder of me.  She got me in one of her bear hugs and swung me all around the room for having the courage to buck the system.  And she had more news.  She was interviewing for another job!  She’d often told me that, before she joined Machiavellian, she’d worked in the HR department of a social service agency where she’d been one of the layoffs after a merger.  But working for her former employers had been the happiest period of her life.  Although she’d always struggled with obesity, in her tenure at her old nonprofit, she weighed much less and smoked much less and her boss couldn’t have showered her with more praise for her hard work.  Now she was interviewing at a similar agency, in the same field, with the same vibe and with more money attached.  I told her that, since I’m no longer a Catholic, I’d leave it to my mother to say a novena for her.

Martha kept in touch after my last day on the job.  She’d tell me about every last mean thing Termagant was saying or doing.  She’d tell me who got fired and who was about to be.  She’d tell me about how the Machiavellian Center for the Dark Arts was about to collapse under the heft of its own evil.  And one day she told me that my mother’s novenas must have done the trick because, for however hard it is for a person of size to get a job in our body-conscious society, she’d landed the very job she’d so coveted at the social service agency.  I cheered.  There were tears of joy in her voice as she told me, “I’m going to tell my new job that I want to give Machiavellian three weeks’ notice instead of two.  But I’m not giving three weeks.  I’m only giving two!  I’m taking a week off before I start. I haven’t had a week off in two years!  I’m sleeping in.  I’m taking long walks around Central Park and I’m going to catch all the movies I haven’t seen because I’m always slaving in Termagant’s fields! I’m getting a week off!”  My heart caught in my throat as Martha celebrated her liberation.  “I’m going in tomorrow,” Martha told me, “and I’m telling Termagant that I quit!  I QUIT!  And I’m going to tell her everything that’s wrong with her and her stupid job!”

Much as I try to stay out of people’s business, I couldn’t help but wonder about Martha the whole next day.  I had asked her to report back to me on just what happened when she cussed Termagant out.  I turned my cell phone up to top volume and, lest I miss her call on the subway, I even elected to walk all the way from my apartment in Brooklyn to an appointment I had that afternoon in downtown Manhattan.  Day faded into night, though, and her call hadn’t come.  By about 10 pm, I couldn’t take it anymore.  I called Martha.

Without even saying hello first, Martha told me she’d gone into Termagant’s office and told her she was quitting.  Termagant said, “You can’t.”  Martha said, “Yes, I can.”  As per usual, their exchange resulted in a verbal brawl.  They called each other names.  Martha stormed out of Termagant’s office and slammed the door to her own office, where she got busy with what she was determined to make the last of her work at the Machiavellian Center for the Dark Arts.  Termagant turned up at her door and Martha said that, if Termagant came any closer, she’d grab her purse and leave today instead of in two weeks.

So Termagant got every board member to call Martha and exhort her to stay.  For six hours on the telephone, with a few cigarette breaks in between, Martha pulled no punches in detailing her every reason for leaving Machiavellian and for loathing Termagant.  She raged and shed tears as the board members cajoled.

“I might not know everything,” I told Sandhya, “But I know this much.  When you’re just about to cross the threshold into the life you want, some sort of adversity shows up to either scare or coax you off the path.  And for Martha, that adversity took the form of Machiavellian’s founder, George W. Rove.”

George W. Rove and Termagant couldn’t have been closer if they’d slept in the same bed, which I don’t think they ever did since they were both balding and only attractive to their subjugated, optionless spouses.  While Martha battled the pleading board members, Termagant ran to Rove to tell him her favorite whipping post was pulling up stakes.  George W. Rove waited until Martha had lain down shield and sword after beheading her last Dark Arts, board-member dragon.  Then he strode into her office in his glorious Brooks Brothers raiments, shut the door behind him and sat down for a down-on-our-haunches, eye-to-eye deal-brokering session.  Like Nixon deftly telling Soviet Russia that under capitalism, they can each have two cars and a washing machine, Rove told Martha that, if she stayed, she could have a 50% raise, an assistant to help her with her workload and she would only be subordinate to Termagant in title.  In effect, he told Martha that she and Termagant would be equals.  With no more fight left in her, Martha shook hands on the deal as Rove walked out of her office with the status quo in tact and his fingers crossed behind his back.

I begged Martha to call Rove’s voicemail.  I told her to leave a message saying, upon reflection, she has decided to turn down his empty offers. “Don’t talk to him directly,” I told her, “He’ll con you out of it.”  She said it was too late, she’d already told the other agency that she’d accepted his counter-offer.  “Call them back!,” I yelled, as if it was my own soul I was trying to buy back, “Say you see the light!”  She said, “Nah.  When you make these agreements, you have to stick with them.”

I didn’t hear from Martha again, but I heard from another former coworker that, the minute Termagant got wind of how George W. Rove had promised Martha that she’d no longer be a subordinate, Termagant raised holy hell until Rove reinstated the old chain of command.

A year and some months later Rove lost a huge part of his net worth in a Ponzi scheme.  Termagant called Martha into her office and told her that there would be budget cuts, staff reductions, hour-cuts and no benefits for part-time employees.  Termagant then informed Martha, “We’re cutting you down to part time.”  Being both obese and a heavy smoker, Martha knew Termagant had her over a barrel.  She clutched at her heart and said, “I need my benefits, Termagant!  I have to work full-time.”  At this, Termagant looked at her with undue calm and said, “Then you’ll have to go back to your old salary.  And, I’m sorry, we can’t afford to hire the assistant that George W. had promised you.”

Sandhya looked at me bleary-eyed.  We were almost done with our nacho plate.  I ordered her another Yyeling and me another Goose Island.  “What’s Martha doing now?” Sandhya asked me.

I told her about how, a year ago, I happened to be near the Machiavellian Center for the Dark Arts and thought I’d give Martha a call.  I hadn’t heard from her in well over a year, maybe two, and I’d sent her Christmas cards and a With Sympathy card when I heard her dad died.  I called Martha and she said she’d come down and talk to me.  When she saw me, all she did was turn up an eyebrow and say, “You look…the same…”

The comment actually had teeth, implanted and sharpened by the punishing tone in her voice.  I thought to myself, “I’ve been taking good care of myself.  Working out, eating well, following my dreams.  And here she is giving me that tone, telling me I look no different and no better than before.”  Meanwhile she was more roly-poly than ever!  Her face looked as wrinkled as the bottom of a mushroom blossom.  And she complained about Termagant, same as before.  And she also told me my replacement was doing a better job than I used to do.  To this, I said, “Well, now I’m on my own, doing what I love and I’m damned good at it.”  She stomped out her cigarette well before she smoked it all and said, “It’s cold, so I’m going back inside.  I still have your number…”  The door hit her in the ass on her way in.

Sandhya took a sip out of her beer.  I still hadn’t picked up my new beer yet.  I wanted to finish the story with a moral first:  “You see, Martha had convinced herself that she was the good one and I was the bad one.  She was a better person because I didn’t stick with a bad situation as long as she did.  Tell me, did she follow her dreams?  Did she do what’s best for her?  Or was she straining to reach around and pat her own back because she did what was expected of her?  Now, as for this café of yours, Sandhya…”

The bartender interrupted and said, “Let me get these nachos out of the way for ya.”  He reached over the bar and knocked my Goose Island beer straight on to my lap, where it proceeded to pour down my leg and waterlog the whole right side of my cargo pants.  That’ll learn me to tell someone else what to do with their life.

After some clean-up and poise-maintenance, I told Sandhya I’d walk her to the subway.  She was stumbling at this point.  I don’t know if it was because she drank too much or because my cautionary tale was too long.  But my right shoe squeaked as I squired Sandhya down three different streets as she pointed in one direction saying, “I live this way,” and then later pointing in another direction, saying, “No, I live that way.”

In order to take the edge off my rotten mood, I asked Sandhya to tell me more about the rituals that her relatives in India practice in their Jain religion.  She slurred out the words, “They…they…they swa…swa…swa…”  I said, “Sweep.”  She snapped her finger and said, “Yes.  They swa..eep.  They sweep.  They sweep…”  I said, “The bugs out of the way?”  She snapped her finger again, “Thank you.  Yeah.  They sweep…the…um…”  I said, “The bugs out of the way when they walk down the street.”  She smiled, giggled and nodded a la stumble drunk as a chill wind froze all the beer that clung to my right leg.

Never in all my born days have I been so glad to see the 1 train.  I took Sandhya right to it and caught the first cab I could on the corner of Broadway and 110th Street.  There was no way in hell I was taking the subway with my squeaky shoe and beer-stained leg.

Julius called my cell phone while my cab was speeding down the West Side Highway.  He was watching CNN and saw how the Republicans are obstructing all the progress they can after having lost the healthcare battle in congress.  They found some weird provision in the laws of congress that said that, as long as they make up a reason – any reason – they can get out of conducting legislative business in the senate after the hour of 2 pm.  With that, they’re now refusing to do any business with democrats.  John McCain has vowed to do no further business with congress for the rest of his term.  He’s a senator!  The taxpayers pay him to do his job and he decrees that he won’t do it.

Worse, the head of the Tea Party in Alabama said his constituency is “cleaning their guns as we speak” and heading up to a rally, within shooting distance of Washington D.C., toting their rifles.  Republicans are egging them on with incendiary commericals and, not until this morning, after a barrage of bad press, did House Minority Leader John Boehner agree to make an official statement condemning Tea Party violence.  One Republican senator said healthcare reform is the single greatest injustice ever perpetrated upon the American people, which would mean it’s even worse than slavery!

Julius told me he spoke to our friend Tony, who heads up a large firm in Atlanta.  A couple of his staff members, who belong to Southern Baptist and other reactionary churches, have participated in Tea Party activities.  Recently, the firm had a workshop and all the participants were supposed to take turns, standing up and saying a little bit about themselves.  Most people got up and talked about their spouses and children.  So did Tony.  He talked about how his spouse, Rick, is directing a production of Brecht’s Galileo across town and, even though it’s a demanding piece, he’s still found time to work with their daughter on her project for her school’s science fair.  The aforementioned staff members looked away as he spoke.  One sighed.  And a member of the team he heads up, whom he lets out early every Wednesday for worship at his fundamentalist church, stormed out of the room.

I’ve been feeling the vitriol in the air ever since healthcare passed on Sunday night.  What scares me as much is that the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations can pour unlimited funds into the campaigns of candidates who seek to do nothing but make the rich richer and the poor poorer.  Stuck.  Progress…Stuck….Progress.  Stuck.

Harry Reid kept debate over the healthcare amendments going in the senate and, last night, there was word he’d keep it going all morning to plow through Republican delay tactics.  But, lo, the Republicans succeeded in sending the bill back to the House at 10 o’clock this morning.  Stuck.  BUT if it’s back in the house, this means that Pelosi can reinsert the public option!  She has the votes! And Reid says he does too!  Progress!  But democrats don’t want to make those kinds of waves right now.  Stuck.

To make matters worse on my cab ride, when we crossed the Battery Tunnel, the bridge to the Prospect Expressway was clogged.  Clogged.  Clogged.  Clogged.  I could have passed out from the beer fumes on my leg as Julius read me a furious email he’d written to get Olympia Snowe to keep her party from shutting down the government just because they didn’t get their way this time.  The cab inched forward.  I thought about how the wifi is out at our house, so I couldn’t rifle off all the petitions I want to sign and send to friends when I get home.  Stuck.  But I fired AT &T; the Geeks Mobile guy set up our modem yesterday morning; and the Verizon guy will connect us on Monday.  Progress!  But as Julius read me his email to Snowe and my pant leg stiffened like a brewery rag, the cab driver leaned over and said the traffic jam was caused by how the construction guys had closed off all lanes to the Prospect Expressway.  Stuck.

“Fuck!”  I screamed for more reasons than one.  Julius asked me what was wrong and I told him about the Prospect Expressway blockade.  “So where are you now?” he asked.

I said, “The Verrazano Bridge.”

“What!” he screamed.

I said, “It’s okay.  We’re getting off at 39th Street and we’ll drive home from there.”

“Oh no you won’t!” Julius barked, “You get out of that cab right now!”

“Get off on the highway?”

“Yes!”

Looking at the gridlock, I said, “Are you fucking craaazzzy!”

He said, “That cab driver is just trying to take you for a patsy.”

I said, “Hey, I’m an adult too!  I know when I’m being had.  And this time, he didn’t know any better than I that the Prospect Expressway was closed!”

“Oh yes he did,” Julius said.  “Tell him that you’re talking to me and I have the cops on the phone and he’d better let you go!”

“Julius,” I said, “I’ll talk to you later.”  I hung up.

Stuck.  Stuck.  Stuck.  For at least fifteen minutes until 39th Street in Brooklyn.  Then, when we got off the Verazzano, we got all green lights to 3rd Street.  Progress!  I was home within 10 minutes.

Right when I walked in the door, my cats milled around my legs, blocking my every step as they smelled my pant leg.  Stuck.  I found a clear path.  Progress!  My right shoe squeaked as I ran upstairs with both cats on my heels.  I took my clothes off and threw my pants in the hamper first.

I got into my flannel pajama bottoms and my 2008 Obama T-shirt, flopped down on the couch and turned on msnbc.  There’d be a full hour of Chris Matthews before the rebroadcast of Rachel Maddow.

Stuck.

BUSTED!

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on March 5, 2010

Politico got hold of a fundraising strategy that the RNC was putting together to drive even more fear into the hearts of major donors. In the PowerPoint presentation, they refer to their very own donors as “ego-driven” “reactionaries.”

The presentation depicts Obama as the Joker, Nancy Pelosi as Cruella De Ville and Harry Reid as Scooby Doo. The red-scare buzzword plastered all over the document: “SOCIALISM”!

Michael Steele called the strategy “indefensible” and said that the RNC will be handling investigations of this scandal internally.

Um, this memo was developed internally under RNC finance director Robert Bickhart and no one believes Steele didn’t know about it. Tea Party rhetoric is simply too fashionable for the RNC not to appropriate.

This is sick, sick shit from sick, sick people.

In the meantime, it looks like Nancy Pelosi is on the brink of a glorious victory for healthcare reform! Then it goes back to the senate and unfortunately Harry Reid* is no Nancy Pelosi.

I just try to keep the faith by watching Rachel Maddow**, who assures us every night that healthcare reform will happen no matter what Stupak and “The Family” on C Street say or do.

________________________________

* This is somewhat off-topic but I want to go back a few months to when John Heilemann and Mark Halperin reported in Game Change that Reid had referred to Obama as “a light-skinned African-American with no Negro dialect.” This was a hideous thing to say as Reid himself admitted in his apology.

But William Bennett, former Drug Czar under the Bush administration, got on CNN and started demanding censure for Reid, even though Bennett had infamously proclaimed on his Morning in America radio show that aborting all African-American babies “would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but the crime rate would go down.” For some reason, Anderson Cooper didn’t tell this racist and homophobe to take the log out of his own eye – so much for “Keeping Them Honest.” (But then Anderson Cooper has to stay impartial, which means he must stay in the closet while everyone else on staff can feel free to mention their opposite-sex partners.) Where do these hypocrites get off! And the Republicans in congress are embarrassing themselves left and right these days, denouncing proposals in democratic packages that they themselves had authored and decrying the reconciliation process that they themselves had not only endorsed but used over and over again under the Bush administration.

**Why is msnbc the only station that’s exposing the Republicans for what they are? I hope more truth leaks out.

UPDATE: A right-wing website called Obama’s Snafu has been referring readers to my blog!  Don’t they know that this is the domain of a flaming liberal?!  Did they even read a thing I wrote?

A Man of No Importance

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on March 3, 2010

Crapper's Valveless Waste Preventer - Hazlitt's Hotel, London

This is how the name on the water basin above our toilet at the Hazlitt’s read.

It about summed up how I was feeling on Saturday morning. I’d just found out I’d lost a writing competition. I won’t even say which one, it’s too embarrassing. The story I submitted didn’t even make the second round! The panel didn’t even read it! For the first round, all they do is skim the synopsis to see if it’s anything that might interest them. From there, 1,000 entries are chosen for the second round. How can you go about envisioning a future for yourself when you don’t even make the top 1,000!

The night before, Julius and I had gone to our friends Neil and Matthew’s house in Islington. Rachael joined us. We were celebrating Neil and Matthew’s engagement. They’ve been together six years. They’re having a civil union in South London on July 3rd.

Matthew is a lawyer at the Bailey like Rumpole. The only thing I envy about lawyers is that, unlike me, they picked a sensible profession. And Matthew does good work defending juvenile offenders and negotiating more humane sentences for them. Even so, Matthew is welcome to his job.

But Neil, I envy. He doesn’t even know I envy him. He’s too humble and lovely a guy to think anyone would ever envy him. But I do. Besides being able to hold down a job as deputy editor of a top design mag, he writes and sells many of his own TV and radio scripts to the BBC. Alan Cumming acted in one of the short films he wrote. Unlike me, he’s temperamentally suited to succeeding in the regular workforce while steadily making his name as a creative writer. Yet his modesty and overall graciousness keep me from wishing him dead.

Which was pretty much what I wished for myself the next morning when the email came, announcing the contest results. I stood back, stared at Crapper’s water basin and compared myself unfavorably to Neil.

Julius and I had big plans for the day. My friend Rose, a writer whom I first met through Rachael, was hosting The Book Club Boutique, a writer’s salon at Black’s Members’ Club on Dean Street. By now, I wanted to back out of it. Most days, it’s just me and my laptop or notebook and I get to thinking I’m the only one in the free world doing what I’m doing. Then I go to some place like Black’s and see I’m, as the Brits would put it, “ten a penny.” But Julius did an admirable job of talking me down from my wounded-diva dirge, so I forged ahead with our plans.

First we had to go buy our tickets to The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters at the Royal Academy of the Arts, though, and then we were going to walk over to Somerset House on the Strand to see Michelangelo’s Dream, a series of drawings from the Renaissance master. Nothing like Michelangelo to make you feel like even more of a nano than you already do!

As ever, Michelangelo proved himself incomparable. I was just about to sink into a corner and go from comparing myself to Neil to comparing myself to Michelangelo, but some angel must have tapped my shoulder. For a minute, instead of beholding all the humbling sketches, I turned around and looked at the other onlookers. They looked like nice people. Some were old and weary. Some were young and healthy. But nobody looked exceptional. I asked myself if I would wish on them the grief I was giving myself. Would I have wanted each and every one of them to go home – especially the parents with the teenage boy with Down Syndrome – and rip themselves to shreds for not being Michelangelo, or anyone else for that matter? Well, no. I’d be horrified to see anyone do that to themselves. So why was I doing it to myself?

This brief meditation made all the difference. I stood back and appreciated Michelangelo’s drawings and then moved on to the other rooms and appreciated the Degas collection and the handful of Van Goghs.

We went to Black’s. We didn’t get there until the afternoon readings were over. Probably another blessing. I didn’t want to revert to my old Neil-and-Michelangelo pattern with the other writers grabbing the mic. Instead, we just went upstairs and each had a Foster’s Lager. The vibe of the place felt mod with a beatnik twist. Lots of Northern Soul playing and Mississippi blues. The walls were black and sometimes a white wall frame would make an appearance, Tudor-style. 45’s were nailed to the wall and used paperback poetry books from authors as diverse as Baudelaire and Bukowski were laying all around the mantlepieces and ledges. Julius and I sank back into one of the couches and all around the room, people were lounging on beds or sofas or sitting on toadstools. I ended up talking for a couple hours with a guy named Nolan, who manages images for an art library. He wanted the inside scoop on what Obama’s up against and of course I had loads to say – and I told him about how I have non-sexual crushes on Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Kirsten Gillibrand and Nancy Pelosi, none of whom he knew, and how I dream of having a non-sexual five-way with them. Julius was talking to a writer named Vivian, a young London author who’s co-writing a book about the current Americanization of England. She remarked on how lucky I am to have a partner who is so supportive of my writing endeavors, and I couldn’t agree more.

We could have gone all night talking to the two of them but we had to head out to our show. We had tickets for A Man of No Importance at the Arts Theatre. I remembered when the movie came out in the early 1990s but I didn’t go see it. I knew it was about a bus driver in early Sixties Dublin who wants to stage an Oscar Wilde play. I’d also read in a review that he’s having a gay identity crisis. One would think a movie like that would have had my name all over it, but at the time I was so repulsed by how so many Irish had sacrificed so much of their happiness on the altars of the Catholic church. I’ve seen it happen a million times over and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s all for nothing! But Stephen Fry, whom I love, gave this musical-theater version of A Man of No Importance his seal of approval and I’d since been to Dublin and found it to be a dynamic, cosmopolitan city, so we got tickets.

Unfortunately, the play showed us the old Dublin (1963) up close and personal. Everyone goes to church and says rosaries. Vanity was an even bigger sin than blasphemy (the Irish do more than their share of that, mostly by accident), so everyone dressed in tweed and chintz, fashion being a byword.

The lyrics are packed with obscure saints’ names. Everybody in town is putting everybody else (except the clergy) down, which just goes to show the old culture’s level of self-esteem. The bus driver, in his fifties, lives with his spinster sister who is driving heaven batty with her prayers that a good lassie will come along so she can marry her brother off. Lo and behold, not a single lady turns his head! And since his kind of love dare not speak its name, he holes up in his room reading poetry and occasionally making up for the gloom by staging miserable short-runs of Oscar Wilde plays in St. Imelda’s basement. This is what Irish families expected – and many still expect – their gays to do. Happiness is for the afterlife.

It brought back too much of the paradigm that blighted my own clan of origin. The production did an exceptional job of underlining the drabness of the locale, though, not to mention its artistic offerings. The acting wasn’t bad either. Still, I’d like to someday see a piece where Ireland shuffles off the old yoke.

The next day we went to see the Van Gogh exhibit, which I’m covering for WhiteHot. I’ve been reading lots of biographies on Van Gogh. It’s amazing when you put his output up against his reputation in his living years. Before he left for Arles, he was producing a large body of work in Paris alongside his friends Paul Signac, Henri de Toulous-Lautrec, and Emile Bernard, none of whom thought Van Gogh had any potential for greatness. In Arles alone, he produced over 200 paintings. He’d worked himself into exhaustion. He went mad.

Two months before his suicide, Van Gogh wrote to his younger brother Theo, an art dealer who supported him financially and with whom he had a regular correspondence, and said he felt like an utter failure. Yet he’d painted over 70 canvasses in his last nine weeks of life alone when he lived in the Yellow House in Arles with Gauguin. Yet Theo could sell Gauguin’s work. At most, collectors winced at his own brother’s achievements.

The exhibition is radiant. You can see why Barbara Ueland summed up Van Gogh’s life as follows:

During [Van Gogh’s] life, he made only 109 dollars in all on his paintings…He had a terribly hard life – loneliness, poverty, and starvation that led to insanity. And yet it was one of the greatest lives that was ever lived – the happiest, the most burningly incandescent.

But his suicide casts a pall over all the hope that beams off his canvasses. Would things have turned out differently if he’d stuck around longer? I don’t know. There is a story of an out-of-work actress in the 1930s who became so discouraged over not getting parts that she hurled herself off the Hollywood Sign’s H. Two days later, her uncle received word from the Beverley Hills Playhouse that they were offering her the lead in their biggest play ever. Van Gogh paintings are of incalculable worth today, but it took until about ten years after his death for the pot to start boiling.

So I guess the point is to keep going.

We saw Un Prophete after Van Gogh. It’s nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards this year.

Good mafia/jail movie. I wish it didn’t end with no karmic retribution for the killer, but I guess I’m just unsophisticated. I wondered why the film is called “A Prophet,” other than for its Islamic overtones. Julius says that a prophet typically emerges as a leader after a period of isolation. I won’t give too much away but this isolation is what the character Malik experiences to varying degrees in jail.

It’s what Van Gogh experienced in Arles. It’s what I’ve experienced any number of times in my life. So I guess the message, once again, is to keep going.

(Not that I have aspirations of being a prophet. But a fan base would be nice some day! In the meantime, I’ll keep my eyes on the prize and off the Crapper.)