StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

Greenhorn of Africa (Part Two)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on October 9, 2009

A New York Navel-Gazer Looks at Botswana, South Africa

and Mozambique by Way of London

By Kyle Thomas Smith


Part Two


August 23, 2009 – Flight from Heathrow to Johanesburg

32nd Image Steve Toltz

8:00 am flight to Jo’burg. Wake up @ 3:30 to get morning pages & meditation done. 11 hr flight. Reading Steve Toltz’s Fraction of the Whole. Genius. Total fucking genius. 320 pages into it, realize author is 7 or 8 yrs younger than me. I despise upstarts/wunderkinds. I live in a city full of them. Put book down forever.

33rd Image Plane over Morocco

Plane cruises over Morocco.

34th Image Judy Dench

Watch Notes on a Scandal. Like movie better than book – much less bombastic. Judie Dench’s character = such a freak. I grew up around inordinate # of sociopaths & narcissists. Know the type.

35th Image Van Gogh Bandaged Ear

Read Barbara Ueland’s If You Want to Write. 80th Anniversary edition or something like that. She hated braggadocio writers almost as much as I do. States disdain for zingy copywriters & precious mag columnists of her day. Loves Van Gogh, Checkhov – sensitivity makes them consummate artists in her book. Thinks D.H. Lawrence a dirty bastard. I happen love them all. Van Gogh’s letters to Theo = heartrendingly exquisite. Will read them again when get back to NYC.

Last couple hours of flight, watch The Who live @ Isle of Wight, 1970. Don’t understand why Isle didn’t get same att: as Woodstock & Altamont. More people were @ it. Documentary not as good, tho. Bored by Who performance until Tommy medley. Come out swinging then. Worth the watch.

(Side note: Excellent Who clip of “Quick One While He’s Away” on The Rolling Stones’ Rock N’ Roll Circus (1968). Variety show reflects Stones’ proclivity for shooting themselves in foot @ height of career, but Who’s performance = stand-out.)

After Nighttime Landing

38th Joburg @ night

Coming to Africa w/o expectations. Jo’burg has one of highest crime rates in world. Waiting for shuttle to Mondior Concorde. Mountain Travel Sobek guide has to ward off encroaching parasitic/unlicensed drivers. Hotel = high security. Told most residential areas = gated = understandable, given theft/murder rates but = tragic, given gates = artifact of apartheid. Room is notch above Spartan; has TV but mostly only S. African variety shows, all in Afrikaans.

J & I go to pizzeria next to Emperor Palace Casino (attached to Mondior) for late-night dinner. Drink wonderful bottle of local Merlot called Fat Bastard – can’t get it in States. Pizzeria playing Queen’s “Bicycle Song.” Never understood Queen’s appeal. (“Under Pressure” = brilliant, but mostly Bowie.) Knew woman who said that, in 70s, her libido went ballistic whenever she saw Freddy Mercury live. Said not even handlebar mustache threw her off. Whaa?! To me, he’s indistinguishable from Village People. Also know African-American woman in Chicago who loved Queen but stopped listening & threw out tapes when she discovered they played Sun City during Apartheid. Will never forget being 11 y.o. & watching them rock Wembley @ Live Aid. But, even back then, didn’t understand why crowd went wild.

40th Image S Af Casino

Walk through Emperor’s Palace Casino – faux marble/plaster Greek & Roman replicas; glinting gold roulette tables; people of all colors, many visibly down-on-luck, growing unluckier by minute @ craps tables. Not joining them.

August 24, 2009 – Botswana

41st Maun Airport

Morning/Early Afternoon

Take early flight on Botswana Airlines from Or Tambo airport in Jo’burg. Exit plane via rolling staircase on arid strip of sand & dust. Trees in distance look like deadwood w/ gnarled branches. Again, coming w/o expectations. Carry bags to customs.

3315016996_72759f8cdc
42nd Image Irish PassportPresent Irish passport, just like I did @ Heathrow & Jo’burg. J’s suggestion. Says if we run into terrorists abroad (think, Mumbai), they’ll seize Americans but let Irish go. But J only has US passport. What’s he expect me to do? Just wipe my brow & say “Bye!” while stands @ gunpoint? Won’t happen in Botswana, tho. Customs is nice here. Everyone files thru w/o incident. Still, it’s clear we’re not in Heathrow anymore. Walls look like they’ve been cracked & graying for centuries, taking on tincture of dust & desert landscape.

43rd Image No. 1 Ladies Detect

Passing thru metal detectors, Julius asks yawning customs officer if she likes No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Guard & I both cock heads. Where hell did that come from? J says show’s set in Botswana. Ah, makes sense now. But in Jo’burg airport, J & I looked up Botswana on Wikipedia & saw has only 1.2 million people. Capital city, Gaborone, has ~ 187,000 people; Maun has ~ 45,000. How much mileage could No. 1 Ladies get out of places that small? Wonder how long show’ll last before runs out of plotlines.

44th Image Charter Flights

Rickety-looking, propeller-driven craft w/ only 8 seats awaits. A 1st for me. Have no idea where we’re heading or what we’re in for. Is this another one of J’s adventure travel schemes? When we first met, he told me that, before becoming lawyer, he wanted to be war correspondent. Added, “I like travelling to parts unknown…places where I can get shot or catch plague.” Shit, he knows I don’t want in on his Deliverance fantasy! Still, he suckered me into it. To top it off, shaven-headed Dutch pilot in green fatigues tells us, “I need everybody to please wear your seatbelts. We’re experiencing a lot of bird traffic & I might have to swerve a lot to miss them.” Fuck! Miracle on Hudson wasn’t that long ago – & that kind of precision landing can only happen once! & that was New York, not the fucking Kalahari Desert! Board small charter flight, strap myself in b/h pilot & close eyes, chanting “Om Mani Padme Hum” the whole way.

45th Image View Plane Flying Over Africa

Now & then, my peepers open & spy vast tracts of Africa many thousand ft below. Sometimes J looks over & smiles sheepishly @ me. Am in no mood to smile. Plane hangs in air like string-bound toy mouse, battered by antsy cat’s paw. My wincing face presides over silent Tibetan chant. Try remembering story Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg tells of friend Sylvia Boorstein on moribund plane; she started doing loving-kindness mediation…and shit! Can’t remember rest of story! Of all times to forget! Must be saying this shit out loud. Botswanan woman next to me, who’s probably been on same plane 100 x’s, looks @ me like I’m craziest white man ever.

46th Image Buddha

40 Minutes Later

Land on wilderness airstrip. Open eyes. Still alive! “Thank you, angels, protector spirits, & totem animals! I know this was an ensemble effort!” Botswanan woman laughs @ me. Lean forward & thank pilot who’s been watching me in rearview mirror whole time & got good sense of my faith in his abilities. Gives stone-cold, you’re-not-welcome glare. Don’t care. Just glad to still have all my parts attached.

47th Image Johnny tubu tre

Smiling Botswanan man (~ 5’11”, muscular build, green safari fatigues) on dusty airstrip approaches J & me, introduces himself as Johnny. Helps w/ bags, takes us in jeep.

Kyle Hat Sunglasses Dylan

I reapply copious amts of 50+ SPF sunscreen over face, neck, arms; don wide-brimmed safari hat from bag & tie strings below chin – can’t take chances, am Irish. Johnny looks @ me in much same way as indigenous woman on plane, but, unlike pilot, understands I’m not from these parts.

48th Image Tubu Tree Arid

As Johnny drives us to camp, his jeep fells bare-branched bushes. Goddamn, this jeep can mow down tree-sized bushes!

Elephant maleAntelope Tubu Tree

Passing mastodon elephants, chimpanzees, warthogs & water buffalo. None even care we’re there. Johnny exhorts: “Stay seated in jeep. Don’t stand up.” As long as stay in jeep & don’t stand up, animals won’t view us as predator or prey. Dusty, sandy roads have jeep tracks but wind sweeps dust/sand over tracks every few days & Johnny must make his own way. No prob, he’s from here, knows drill.

20 Minutes Later – Tubu Tree Lodge

Arrive @ Tubu Tree Camp on Okavango Delta. Staff of 5 or 6 natives sings tribal welcome song upon jeep’s arrival. I look down; am not type who digs being fussed over. 2 camp directors stand behind staff, introduce themselves – Justin & Jacky. (From here on out, there are so many J names, I’ll have to reference Julius by full name instead of just “J”.)

Bird Tubu Tree Marsh

56th Image Tubu Tree Grounds

Camp bldgs span ~ an acre. Located in remote region w/ next camp ~ hour away by jeep/boat. Roofs = thatched. Floors = logs. Walls = decked w/ tribal masks, cotton throes, low-hanging talismans.

57th Image Common Area

Common area = spacious; generous spread of sliced breads, iced tea, guava juice, Roibost tea, & plump, floury scones (mouthwatering).

jim_beam_whiteJustin & Jacky take us down deck toward bar area, stocked to rafters w/ Jim Bean, Tequila, red/white/rose wine & spirits. Tell us we can help ourselves if no one’s behind bar. No hard-liquor drinker myself, but still nice to know.

Point to communal bathroom (toilets in cabins too) & tell us, “Monkeys might jump in & join you. What can we say, we share this space w/ them.” Let us know we have to stay on wooden & stone paths @ all times – general rule for camps – lest we wander off into wilds & meet our match. Also let us know hyenas might giggle, lions might roar, elephants might graze, baboons might knock on cabin door or shake coconuts from trees above roof while we sleep. No need for alarm. Nothing more natural. Any probs: blow blowhorn & either Justin or Jacky will come running.

tubu-tree-camp-pic4

Justin walks us to cabin. At least 3 x size of Mondior Concorde room in Jo’burg. Deep Woods bug-repellent incense burns – surprisingly pleasant & meditative. Comfy king-sized bed with 5-star white beddings & plush pillows. Deluxe furnishings belie treacherous landscape, spanning infinite terrain w/ food chain in full swing. Ceiling lights always dim, maybe to create suspenseful jungle feel. Whatever suspense might lurk in fields beyond cabin screens, bet sweet ass I’m sticking to wooden & stone paths.

20 – 25 Minutes Later

After unpacking & settling in, Julius & I wander into common area. 3 other guests – Julia (matronly woman, early 60s, from Melbourne); her husband Graham (retired law professor, now practicing Melbourne attorney); & Giles (taciturn retiree from Sydney). Meeting genteel bunch calms & emboldens me. If they can survive flock-dodging propeller jets & prowling hyenas so far from civilization, so can I! How much danger could there be @ lodge w/ 200-ply sheets?

Coming Up

Tubu Tree Afternoon & Sunset

Tubu Tree Afternoon & Sunset


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Dylan at Prospect Park (August 12, 2008)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on August 13, 2008

Last night, Julius and I went to see my hero Bob Dylan at the Prospect Park Bandshell, just up the street from our house in Brooklyn. We had ninth row seats.

I’m not a big show-goer. If it’s a newer band, especially one I don’t know well, I end up feeling like a big ole Rip Van Winkle next to all the hipsters jamming on every riff and word. If I go to see my old favorites in concert – Bowie, Stones, Dylan – I get easily disappointed when their studio and live sounds don’t match up. (I know. That’s my problem, not the performers’. I mean, what do I want? A bunch of damned lip-synchers?) So, I wasn’t sure how I would take to this Celebrate Brooklyn event.

At the same time, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Not even for George W. Bush’s impeachment ceremony (which should’ve happened, but didn’t).

For many years, I’ve been a Dylan devotee, wearing out CD after CD. He’s my favorite solo artist and, next to The Stones’ Exile on Main Street, his Highway 61 Revisted remains my favorite album of all time. Never have I been prouder of a musician than in 1997 when he released Time Out of Mind at age 56 and walked away with Album of the Year at the Grammy’s. I liked his follow-up album, Love & Theft (2001) even better. His most recent album, Modern Times (2003) is also a staggering achievement. All three albums rely heavily on crunching, powerhouse guitars, replete with old country and blue-grass twists. On all three, he also seems to replace his easily parodied nasal drone with a voice of deep, gravelly foreboding.

His look has changed over the past decade too. Unlike the Stones, Dylan holds no illusions about his age, as both his music and his attire demonstrate. In recent years, he’s been sporting a sort of august Dixie gentleman look, complete with a wide-brimmed hat. That was more or less his style last night, except that his button-laden coat and side-striped pants were made of navy-blue velvet. His band was swathed in the same sort of elegant, Deep South mafia roué chic. Rather than trying to pull off the kind of youngish Monkey Man act that Jagger has played to death for way too many years now, Dylan has been more than content to step back into the shade and let his masterful blends of rock, country, folk, and blue grass lead the way.

Last night proved that Dylan remains unmatched in his capacity to be at once ultra-charismatic and low-profile, self-possessed. Never one to accede to anyone’s comfort zones, however, he did not do a number of things. He didn’t play guitar. He was keyboards-only. He switched the tempo – hell, he switched the whole score on all of his old standards. He seemed staunchly averse to making his set a big kumbaya sing-along with the audience, as he muffled many lyrics into the mike and kept his head down, often turned away from the crowd. Even if you knew all the words to most of the songs and wanted to keep up, you couldn’t. As usual, he didn’t cater to our complacency.

I heard some people complaining that Dylan hid behind his ingenious backup band. It may be true that, with age and attrition, he can’t crank it like the younger guys – which may be the reason he only did keyboards last night – but he writes all the songs they play and choreographed the stage.

He did not rest on age-old laurels either. Most of his set comprised highlights from his two most recent albums (Love and Theft; Modern Times) like “Summer Days,” “Lonesome Day Blues,” “Honest with Me,” “Thunder on the Mountain,” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” Oldies included, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”

Considering his corpus and the thousands and thousands of gigs he’s played over the course of his career, Dylan could do a three-hour concert in his sleep and on his head. Sadly, he ended the set after only about 90 minutes. No, he wasn’t Roger Waters giving us the whole of Dark Side of the Moon or The Who playing Tommy live, front to back, as those artists have been known to do in recent years. I guess Celebrate Brooklyn didn’t pay Dylan enough for that. The crowd roared for a second encore, but the stage lights all went up in an end-of-show sheen and stage crew started collecting instruments from the departed players.

Last night’s Prospect Park show wasn’t Budakon by any stretch, but I’m still glad I showed up to witness the greatest artist that America has ever produced.

Progress Report: 85A

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 9, 2008

Lord knows I have my days, but, on balance, I could not be more thrilled with how my novel, 85A, is shaping up. It’s already crossed its 174th page and there is way more to go.

The Patron Saint of 85A

Johnny Rotten - Patron Saint of 85A

Set in a racially stratified Late Eighties Chicago, 85A centers on the life and consciousness of a foul-mouthed, Johnny Rotten-obsessed, 15-year-old boy named Seamus O’Grady. Despite his rough edges, Seamus is actually a sensitive artist trying desperately to come to terms with his sexuality, spirituality, and creativity amid the authoritarianism, racism and homophobia of his household, school, neighborhood and city. At the same time, he has big dreams to live in London as a writer or actor or maybe as a psychologist like his mentor Dr. Strykeroth (with whom he has a more-than-questionable relationship).

This day-in-the-life, stream-of-consciousness narrative tracks Seamus’ inner life and outer struggle as he takes the 85A bus to the Chicago L, which brings him to the high-performing Catholic school that is itching to kick him out. Will the heads of the school expel him? And what would he do if they did? These are but two of the besetting questions facing Seamus. My largest ambition for this work is to plumb the depths of Seamus’ character while giving readers a vivid snapshot of life in 1980s Chicago.

Given Seamus’ emulation of Johnny Rotten, my fear is that this book would be too vulgar for a publisher of fiction and/or Young Adult fiction, but…

editor extraordinaire

Shell Fischer - Writer/Editor extraordinaire

Shell Fischer will be helping me edit the manuscript once I manage to heft it on to her desk. I couldn’t think of a better ‘nother-set-of-eyes than Shell. She is a freelance writer and editor here in Brooklyn and the author of a saucy new novel called The Joy of Mom. If you require writing and editing services, I highly recommend her. Go to http://www.shellfischer.com.

So, having Shell sets my mind at rest. Plus…

I ran into my friend Libba Bray today at Tea Lounge on Union Street & 7th Avenue, here in sunny Park Slope, Brooklyn. Libba is the author of the monstrously successful Young Adult books A Great And Terrible Beauty, Rebel Angels, and The Sweet Far Thing. We used to write in the same cafe together – she the legend, me the aspiring. Today, when I voiced my trepidation about the marketability of a book as profane as 85A, she spoke with enormous pride and conviction about how YA genre books have become more and more unflinching. If A Clockwork Orange were submitted for first-time publication today, it’d probably find a happy home in YA. I breathed a sigh of relief. I don’t know why I was surprised, though. Libba’s work is pretty two-fisted itself.

When I do get a publisher, I’m going to make a special request that I get to keep the quotes already featured on each of the three sections of my book. (That is, if it still has three sections after the publishers get done with it…)

The first quote for Part I comes from:

The Who - Quadrophenia

The Who - Quadrophenia

The song, “Four Faces” from The Who’s Quadrophenia:

You must have heard of them, a kind of screwed-up blend

Split personality

Two sides to fight and argue all night

Over coffee and tea…

I’ve got four hang-ups I’m trying to beat

Four directions and just two feet

Got a very very secret identity

And I don’t know which one is me.

From the time I started writing this book (originally, a short story) in January 2008, it never ceased to amaze me how much influence the album and movie Quadrophenia had on my personal aesthetic and sensibility. Seamus is just as confused as Jimmy, if not more so. (He’s younger, though…)

The quote from Part Two comes from…

New York Dolls

New York Dolls

The New York Dolls’ 1973 invective, “Personality Crisis”

All about the Personality Crisis

You got it while it was hot

But now frustration and heartache is what you’ve got…

In 85A, Seamus’s got a personality crisis, big-time.

Final quote, Part III, comes from:

Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams

The great Tennessee Williams: “There is a time for departure, even when there is no certain place to go.” Part Three is where Seamus finds himself at the most harrowing crossroads of his life.

Earnest Hemingway at His Writing Desk

Earnest Hemingway at His Writing Desk

Speaking of literary masters and writing (and because I have not been overzealous enough with posting pics), I read somewhere that Hemingway only wrote 500 words a day. This was an enormously helpful bit of news on those days when I had a famine of ideas but couldn’t answer to my conscience if I didn’t meet some healthy writing quota. I set 500 words as my daily minimum and often found myself surpassing that number each time a narrative momentum started to pick up. But we must also heed the advice that Hemingway gives in A Moveable Feast, which was basically: quit while you’re ahead; otherwise you won’t have anything to start with the next day.

Okay, so, that’s all for now re: 85A. More field reports coming soon.