Psychopathology of Everyday Life
By Mona Harden
1. The Attack of the Hummers
On the Sunday the New York Times reported U.S. tanks rolling into Baghdad, perhaps the most telling commentary on the invasion was the lead piece in its automobile section, an article titled, “Hummer H2: An Army of One.” Monthly sales of more than 3,000 of these 11 mile-per-gallon, 3-and-a-half ton behemoths have made the suburbanized facsimile of the military Humvee Detroit’s hottest S.U.V., and according to the Times, the patriotism inspired by Operation Iraqi Freedom is largely responsible – as one California salesman quoted in the article so bluntly puts it, “Nothing screams ‘American’ like driving a Hummer.”
Another piece on this theme, titled “In Their Hummers, Right Beside Uncle Sam,” had appeared the previous day on the front page of the business section, and among the many patriotic Hummer owners quoted therein was the intriguing Rick Schmidt, founder of the International Hummer Owners Group, otherwise known by the suggestive acronym I.H.O.G. Schmidt’s philosophical musings on the topic were revealing. “It’s a symbol of all that we hold dearly,” said he, “the fact that we have the freedom of choice, the freedom of happiness, the freedom of adventure and discovery, and the ultimate freedom of self-expression.” For Schmidt, love of country and love of motor vehicle were inextricably linked; “Those who deface a Hummer in word or deed,” he added, “deface the American flag and what it stands for.”
Psychopathology is generally indicated when people continue in behavior and belief systems which again and again prove inappropriate, dangerous, and self-destructive – when, against all evidence to the contrary, they persist in acting upon ideas which cause suffering and damage, and serve to alienate the trust of others. Cultural psychopathology would be this phenomenon en masse, and today we see it in the way the American Way has become synonymous with Big Oil – with 5% of the planet’s population, the U.S. consumes 30% of the planet’s oil, most of it now imported, most of it burned in transportation. The effects of this massive imbalance have become obvious: a bloated military budget, a foreign policy of aggression, worldwide resentment, global warming, environmental decay, the rise of a guerilla army of suicidal bombers. Afghanistan was about Big Oil. Iraq I and II were about Big Oil. Ultimately, the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks were about Big Oil. World War III will be about Big Oil. And one-half of all motor vehicles sold in the U.S. last year were S.U.V.’s.
The psychopathology is that, like much else in American life, war now plays as consumer entertainment, marketed along with Hollywood romances, McDonald’s Happy Meals, and Disney toys; and although many commentators snickered when, after the WTC attack, Americans were told that the best way to fight terrorism was by shopping, in fact, U.S. leaders were advising us of our proper role in the nation’s political life. We have become the consumer militia.
“Threaten men in a whole new way,” suggested one advertisement for the Hummer, targeted to appeal to women; and, yes, the escalation of aggression in U.S. foreign policy has been mirrored by an escalation of the arms-race on the nation’s streets and highways, and in fact, Nisssan will soon be marketing an S.U.V. called the “Armada.” The triumphant mood of the Bush Mob, expressed in its doctrine of “either you’re with us or you’re a terrorist,” has reached street-level as a go-fuck-yourself disavowal of any sense of communal responsibility -- gluttony, envy, covetousness, anger, sloth – a majority of the Seven Deadly Sins – have become the new moral imperatives.
2. Crash Test Dummies
Imagine what city life would be like if pedestrians behaved towards each other on the sidewalks and subways the way drivers do on the city’s streets. Say the person ahead of us is walking too slowly for our taste – do we scream at them? Bark obscenities till they get out of our way? Swerve past and give them the finger? I don’t think so – given the often cramped quarters we move in, pedestrians are incredibly forgiving and tolerant of each other, and anyone paying attention will note the innumerable acts of kindness we treat each other to every day and hour. But can you imagine someone giving up a New York City parking space the way people so often give up their seats on trains and buses?
Are we beginning to see a connection between the “American love affair with the automobile” and the increasing violence and militarization of everyday life? Isn’t “road rage” the rule rather than the exception? What other technology so insistently pits human against human in a struggle for position and square footage? Where else is the “rat-race” so literally incarnated but during the daily commuter traffic jam?
Each year in the U.S. some 40,000 people will die and several hundred-thousands be seriously injured in auto accidents, the average casualty-rate for the past half-century. Worldwide, the International Red Cross estimates that as of 2001, some 1.2 million people are killed and 30 million injured annually in car crashes. Apart from firearms and military ordnance, no other technology is implicated in so much violent death and injury; and it is difficult to imagine that, if airplane or train wrecks killed this many people, anyone would continue to fly or ride trains. To “do the math,” the 40,000 annual deaths-by-car in the U.S. is the equivalent of two fully-laden 727s crashing with no survivors each week; the worldwide automotive death toll is equivalent to three or four full jumbo-jets crashing every day. Yet somehow we’ve come to tolerate as normal this level of violence in everyday life, and to categorize this predictable mass carnage as “accidental.”
Who is the dummy in this crash test?
3. Taking Back the Streets
During last winter’s February 15 antiwar rally in Manhattan, when a quarter-million demonstrators converged on midtown, a popular chant among the protesters was “Whose streets? OUR streets!” in defiance of Mayor Bloomberg’s ban against the march. Despite the NYPD’s efforts to keep people on the sidewalks, the crowd had grown so quickly that soon Lexington, Third, Second, and First Avenues were impassible to cars and trucks. In fact, many drivers found themselves suddenly trapped in the surging masses of people who flooded the streets. The automobile usually dominates the city with millions of tons of steel rushing haphazardly down the avenues every hour; on that bitterly cold, but encouraging afternoon, this tonnage and horsepower were made insignificant.
As I passed with the chanting crowds around the vehicles trapped by the rivers of humanity, I had to wonder what these drivers and passengers, sitting sheepishly and helpless within their metal cocoons, were thinking. What was their awareness of the web of connections between (1) the Texas oilman President, (2) the coming war, and (3) the cars they were presently held hostage in? Did they feel historical forces gathering around? A connection between their present powerlessness and the powerlessness of the Iraqi people, soon to be bombed and invaded?
In the summer of 2004, the Bush Mob and the Republican Party will hold their Presidential convention in Manhattan – Ground Zero will be the backdrop for this massive photo op. Perhaps Flyboy George will deplane onto the deck of the Intrepid, in a reenactment of his victorious landing on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln; in any event, the entire city – this onetime bastion of progressive Democrats – will be hostage to the Republican hordes. Who will be the dummies in this crash test?
June 2003 Anti-Empire Issue
Welcome to the Empire
photo: Ando Arike
In This Issue:
The Surveillance Camera Players:
Meghan Mahar & Jim Lundquist:
Download PDF of Entire Print Issue
With work by:
Since 1996, The Surveillance Camera Players have been presenting their work to audiences across Europe and the U.S. The present piece was performed on 9 November 1999, on the 10th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. For more information see http://notbored.org/
Prelude to a Requiem for the Library of Baghdad Blues
By Roman Stoad
Apparently my anti-cell phone tirade last issue failed to draw any response whatsoever, neither ire nor admiration. Not a single complaint or compliment. I don’t know if that signals complacency or disregard. Many people have been thinking a lot lately about what can be done about both those issues – that is, complacency and disregard -- especially concerning our government and its theoretical pact with “the people.” Aside from various traumatic solutions of assassination and property destruction (shooting republicans, burning gas stations, destroying currency) I needed to think of things that wouldn’t necessarily land me in jail, although that’s getting harder and harder to avoid as the general public invites surveillance into their lives as a form of entertainment. Which has something to do with why I feel I’m being watched all the time. But that might be paranoia. Some say paranoia is a healthy thing, that we ought to bring it back as a fashionable lifestyle. Toward that end, I made up this list of little things to do for paranoids. In case someone is watching me at least they will have some behavior to interpret. One ought to look busy to avoid suspicion. After all, the symptom could trigger the disease.
Act Uncomfortable in Every Situation. This is easy. Squirm around in your seat wherever you are. If you are standing, fidget and tap your toes. Speak with a quivering voice. Whistle corny tunes loudly. When the boss asks why, tell him or her that you are uncomfortable with your role as an American citizen, and that it is affecting your job performance. Tell him you’re worried about WMDs. Show him a picture of his own storage closet and say you’re afraid it might be used to store chemical weapons. Use the phrase “diminished productivity”. If he tries to fire you, sue him for unpatriotic behavior. Tell the judge you are so afraid of a terrorist attack that you can no longer concentrate, that your judgment and your reflexes are crippled by fear. Try to get compensation. This behavior also works well in restaurants and bars. It puts a damper on the good times of others, and may provoke serious thought. Or simply tell your friends you’re not fit for public events. Besides staying home is good because you don’t have to buy anything that oppresses anyone.
Initiate Pre-Emptive Strikes on Inconsequential Targets. I don’t mean that you should bomb polling places because you fear they might be participating in an illegal election process. You could start by defending yourself to policemen on a random basis, because you suspect that they are going to arrest you anyway. You could recite long-winded lawyer-like speeches about your rights vis a vis the constitution. Then when they do arrest you, your defense is established. Sue people for things they haven’t done yet. Sue the government for violation of your right to privacy because you suspect that they were going to tap your phone when they started to suspect you of suspecting them. Be pissy with your neighbors because you suspect them of watching. Accuse your friends before they accuse you. If your shrink calls you paranoid, tell her George W. Bush said it was all right, that paranoia is patriotic (that is paranoia properly directed) and striking first is the perfect way to prove that one is innocent until proven guilty. Or better yet, accuse your shrink of manipulating you in an effort to cause mass dependency or to instill a herd mentality. After all, no one told you it could damage your health. You were misled. Have her investigated. Tell her she’s hiding something. Try to get her locked up. Punch people in the street for nor reason, call it homeland security. Live in fear.
Speak in a Foreign Language. Refuse to use English, the international language of Business and arrogant tongue of the Imperialist Dogs. Be an Ugly American at home. When you go shopping, ask the prices of items in some foreign language. Pretend you think the salesperson ought to understand. Get incensed if they don’t. If you can’t speak another language, start an Anglophone support group. Gather your mono-linguistic friends together and help each other ease the guilt of speaking the violent tongue of the Conquerors. Remember that English is a descendant of Anglo-Saxon which itself is derived from the Vikings and the Visigoths whose cultures were devoted to sacking civilized cities, rape, pillage, blood lust, and delusions of grandeur. In fact, psychiatrists have shown that just speaking English can stimulate aggressive tendencies as well as arousing a dormant sense of entitlement.
Pay for Purchases with Euros. In the same spirit, refuse to use dollars. Pay for things with Euros (or other foreign currency). Say, “Excuse me. Do you take Euros here?” Get angry if they won’t accept them. Use Euros at laundromats and pop machines. Jam all vending machines with foreign coins. Jam the MTA Metrocard vending machines with Euros. There will be a story on NY1 and Fox and CNN about the strange Euro plague. Ask your banker to change your accounts into Euros because you believe they are a safer investment. Write your congressman and demand that all prices on consumer goods be listed both in dollars and Euros, because eventually we will have to use them when the US economy collapses and the dollar is no longer worth a dime. Then, because you’re pissed off, dress up like an Outraged American Citizen and start demonstrations against the Europeans. Shout “Bring down the EU!” or “The EU is Unfair.”
Stop Shopping. Many people have been saying it, no one seems to be doing it. We must break the equation between Freedom and Product choice. James Earl Jones and the armies of ‘Choice Advocates” have nothing to do with the Bill of Rights. Who cares if the Corporate Powers can now make a breakfast cereal with your face stamped on every flake, or a shampoo with your personal hair problems in mind. The competition for shelf space grows increasingly savage as needs multiply and possibility seeks to align itself with desire. We have to stop this before every “individual” requires their own factory in a third-world country just to maintain credibility in today’s competitive job and spouse marketplace. Stop going to movies too. Go to plays. Read more medieval history. Or just talk dramatically to your neighbors. Stop being Hip. Avoid all “cool” mannerisms and personal tics. Stop hanging out in Williamsburg. Stop imitating TV. Agree to disagree. Say “Own less,” not “Get More.” Cook your own damn food. Drink at home.
Stop Going to the Gym. Stop making your body into a symbol of Corporate and Military Power. The old Greek body/mind interplay might have made sense before Stealth bombers and AK47 Stewart Magnum 44 KY 757 Hydra Attack Tanks. But things are different now. All those “just do it” Nike-Gatorade-Super-People you see on TV, and in the gym windows of the Exhibitionist Salons, only serve to subconsciously support the hawkish imagery of American domination and wanton consumption that has come to be seen as our “Good Life” at the expense of most of the world. Social psychiatrists have shown that corporate-sponsored body fetishism translates easily (and, we might add, intentionally) into a technocratic number-fetishism which feeds the hunger for bigger and more muscular weapons and exaggerated statistics. Has anyone noticed that the new SUVs are looking more and more like Athletic shoes these days and vice versa, which goes to show that the current body sculpting craze can be directly related to Power and Oil consumption. So wear a t-Shirt that says Gym=War. Bring back heroin chic and slumped shoulders. Deface SUV’s. Buy a tow truck, and drag incapacitated SUVs into major intersections to block traffic. Burn hundred dollar sneakers in bonfires whose acrid smoke imitates the burning oil fields we read about as kids in the Tales of the Arabian Nights.
Promote Paradox and Guerrilla Theater. Develop a series of Political Koans. Print them on posters and t-shirts for public meditation. “The Truth is a Lie” or “Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength” or “One Nation under God is Neither” or “Bush Didn’t Even Know He Knew.” Pose puzzling questions: If the Iraqi dead have no names, what did their families call them? Dress up like a WMD and wander around looking confused. Buy a powerful car stereo and drive around your neighborhood playing cranked up anti-war songs like Masters of War, or Eve of Destruction. Broadcast Islamic Prayer from the roof of your building. Wear kaffiyas as fashion statement. If you’re Christian, tell your boss you are converting to Islam; Christianity is too martial. Cite the constitution. Claim God as the justification for all your actions: “I no longer shop because God is on my side. I don’t go to the gym because God would have me meek. I am no longer hip because God asked me to be humble.” Study Hinduism. Twist peoples’ words around till they believe what you say they’re saying. Cite conspiracy theories as if they were already proven. They’re fun and they make more sense than the TV news. To hell with advertising your band’s next gig; put the photocopy machines of New York to better use—advertise alternative realities. Throw a stone through a government window with the following note attached: Be careful, this rock could be used to carry chemical or biological warheads. Hold a focus group in your neighborhood to help determine the marketing possibilities of the destruction of the Library of Baghdad. After all, history might stop repeating itself once there is no way of knowing history. Could be good for everybody.
Roman Stoad is a writer and philosopher.
The Right Bank Café opens N.Y.’s New Bohemia--New York Magazine, June 22, 1992
End of an Era in Williamsburg:
The Right Bank Café’s Final Last Call
By Meghan Mahar
Photos by Jim Lundquist
For the past fourteen years The Right Bank Café has been a vital part of the life of Williamsburg and New York City. Opened in 1989 by Kerry Smith, a retired NYC firefighter, the bar/restaurant/nightclub at the corner of Broadway and Kent Avenue has seen the neighborhood go from desolate factory district to bohemian/hipster mecca. This spring, in the wee hours of March 31st , The Right Bank served its last drink and called its final last call. The comments on the following pages are part of my ongoing project to preserve the stories of this infamous and irreplaceable saloon.
Kerry Smith on closing day
My first experience of the Right Bank was living here and there was not even a place to get a soda, let alone a cocktail – I mean there was no body living in the factories, they were actually factories. We used to be able to hear the crickety-crack of the knitting mill all night long and you’d wish there was a bar… One evening walked past this bar being built and I wondered when it would open. Kerry opened the door and was like, I think I have a bottle of wine around here somewhere…and thus was our first Right Bank evening. For a long time Kerry didn’t have a liquor license, just wine and beer. He had this garbage can in the middle of the floor that said “Give to the whiskey fund” and for years people would throw their pennies in there – contributions for the Right Bank liquor license. I’m sure once he cracked them open he found more than just pennies – people when they drank would just use it as a garbage can. And it was kind of a scary thought, you know, the Right Bank with liquor, it wasn’t even imaginable.
- Lex Grey, chanteuse and customer
You know, some of the best times were just staying up after I was done working with the few people who you liked enough or were regular enough to stay after the gate went down. Just hanging out. Kerry and I would hang out there at night just watching Star Trek, Kerry is a total Star Trek fan. You know, good family, screwed up family stuff.
-Seren Morey, bartender
So I was hanging out with Donnie and a carload of people were going to Williamsburg and I was like, nah I’m not going to go because I always have a bad year when I start out at the Right Bank…but I ended up going out. We were sitting at the end of the bar talking and as when I got up to go to the bathroom this girl grabbed my arm…If I had not gone to Right Bank that night, five years of my life would have been rescued. Who knows, I could have been a successful person.
- Carl Watson
The summer when I first moved to New York I was looking for jobs and not having much luck. I went to drop off my resume and the bar was packed and it was in the middle of the day. Kerry was like, “ Well, I don’t know what we have right now. Can you mix drinks? And I was like, “well I don’t have any bartending experience but I can’t imagine it’s too difficult.” And he was like, “Yeah, you got your gin, you got your tonic and you put it in a glass. There. Waahhh.” So I was like, yeah ok sure. And he said, “Well we’ll call you if we need anything.” One morning a few weeks later, I got a call from Kerry and he was like, “ Ahh…my bartender didn’t show up, can you come in and work?” “And I was like, yeah when?” He said, “In 15 minutes.” So I said sure why not. And the rest is history.
- Parinaz Hosseini, bartender
Meghan Mahar is a Williamsburg writer.
Jim Lundquist is a Williamsburg photographer.
By Brian Kelly
M. had silver hair and a craggy face. He wore an old, green T-shirt stretched out around the neck and limp in the pocket where his Marlboros hung in the worn fabric. His voice was rough and usually booming. He was always perched on his stool at the end of the bar close to the entrance where he would hold court with union Ironworkers and Domino Sugar Plant workers. Dusk is glowing behind him through the café doors that look out onto the East River, lower Manhattan, and ultimately New Jersey. As the sun set in the west and cast it’s nearly horizontal beams across the bar and multi-colored bottles behind it, anyone facing M. from inside had to squint to make out his gruff features. The bartender that late fall afternoon was Seren, who was very attentive to him. After all he was extremely regular in his late afternoon patronage and always a good tipper. Being seated by the door, he had and seized the opportunity to scrutinize all whom entered. This made him an excellent tool to filter out any of the thick-rimmed spectacled folks who frequented some of the more pretentious establishments around the recently gentrified neighborhood. He also had a way with any unfortunate Hasidic Jews the nervously crossed the threshold. “GET THE FUCK OUTTA HERE!” he would bellow making them retreat like scurrying mice. On some occasions, M. would host a game of his invention called Horse Balls. Horse Balls was a welcome attraction for the patrons who were being weaned from the recently defunct QuikPick lottery game. What it was, he would bring in this bucket of ping-pong balls with numbers on them. You would pick one, place your bet and then root for the corresponding horse in the next race on the television hanging over the bar.
I had been friendly to M. to the point of nodding to him upon entrance in the past. To me, he was an urban redneck who I thought wise to steer clear of. Mostly all the stools on the other side of the bar were taken. Either I would stand against the far wall or I would saddle up next to M. for my trek into drunkenness this afternoon. We exchanged timid looks and “Hey, how-r-ya”s in low, quiet voices then drank quietly staring blankly at the TV. As the alcohol clock ticked, 1,2,3, Maker’s Mark for me and a few beers for him, we began to show the signs of ease. Mostly making sarcastic cracks about whatever was on TV or humorous exchanges with Seren. In one of those “tune it at 6” news promos, the cheerful announcement was made that then President, Bill Clinton, would be in town this week making speeches. “Whoop-dee-do!” exclaimed Seren. “Hey, I like Bill,” I replied. “So do I,” she added,” but I wouldn’t drop my drawers for him.” This she followed with her famous guffaw that I always found strange coming from such a quiet girl. Jokingly I came back with a lascivious, “ I would!” M. glanced toward me, laughing for a few seconds, then turned serious. His eyes darted back to somewhere amidst the beer in his glass, paused, back at me, back to his glass. “Don’t tell me you’re one of those fruity loops?” he demanded. Yeah, I liked Bill Clinton. He was the one who brought about the old “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for the military that I had already been following in my life. But here M. was….asking. I didn’t want to hit him over the head with it, but I had decided years ago, although I wouldn’t flaunt it, I wouldn’t deny it when asked. Had I not been a bit sauced up already I might have just avoided his question altogether but instead I beamed at him and answered, “Sometimes.” For what seemed like minutes, he search my eyes for sincerity verification, then practically fell backward off his stool as if I had just maced him. “JESUS CHRIST,” he yelled,”motha’ fuckin 3 dollar bill, cock sucker, son of a bitch, faggot!” I caught Seren’s knowing eyes for a sec before she let out another or two guffaws. I started laughing and admitted, “Why yes, yes, I am.” Turning red now and signaling for another refill, he glared at me. “What da fuck is da matter wit you? Dis ain’t no fucking fern bar.” This made me laugh harder and Seren add a few more trumpets until a smile finally broke over his face. “Jesus Fucking Christ, a 3 dollar bill.” He climbed back on his stool and took a long chug. He kept muttering, “fucking 3 dollar bill” between bewildered glances shared between me and the TV and Seren.
“So, let me get this straight -- and I’m straight by the way so don’t get any funny ideas -- you like to take it up the ass?” I then proceeded to inform M. about my sexual identity. I explained to him that technically, I’m gay, however my sex life, or should I say, my virtually non-existent sex life did not define me. I know I’m queer cause I’m attracted to cock. And usually that cock is connected to dangerous, over macho men, who are extremely likely to be straight. In other words, I crave the forbidden fruit. I don’t like taking it up the ass, basically because of the excruciating pain and I don’t frequent gay establishment or events because, as I have said, I’m attracted to real manly men. I went on to comfort M. by reassuring him the I wasn’t on a mission to get laid, but rather to get drunk at my local tavern with neighbors. Although, most good- looking blokes who ‘ve caught me in my drunken red-zone over the years will tell you, I’ve hit on them once or twice. It’s the pursuit and the danger in the risk of proposition that turns me on. Thank God I’m always turned down because actually getting an acceptance blows the whole thing. It just gets messy and self-degrading when it comes to any actual action. I hereby apologize to all of you who’ve endured the sometimes extremely blunt overtures of my bourbon-induced Mr. Jeckyl side -- rest assure no disrespect was intended. So, there you have it, I’m a dysfunctional faggot. This is why I feel comfortable a bar like The Right Bank. With its variation of characters, a mad ensemble of artists, Latinos, Ironworkers and whatever, it’s a good analogy to call it the Island of the Misfit Toys. A gaggle of real folks who come off as common as ice till eventually you find out most of them are geniuses and maestros of their varied crafts. From painters, writers, and bridge builders to computer geeks and filmmakers. An extended family including quite a few neurotics and a psychotic or two. All of us related by our varied degrees of alcoholism, love of good music and familiarity that comes over time. Sort of like “Cheers” on crack. I became the token faggot after countless nights of debauchery and mayhem around this very bar on which awaits another glistening tumbler of amber nectar.
M. grumbled on as I sipped away at Momma’s milk until he confronted me with the moral issue. “Well, don’t you know you’re going to end up in hell? Do you even believe in God? Do you know what the bible says about people like you?” The invisible force that had previously knocked him from his stool returned for an encore when I answered his question with mine, ”Did you know that over half the Catholic priests in this country are gay?” This was during the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era in America, long before the church sex scandals of recent times. M. was in shock at my blasphemy. He assured me I would get what’s coming to me on judgment day. Again the growing drunk led me to humorously accept his curse as my fate. He regained his perch and stewed with his beer awhile until he turned and grabbed me by the fabric of the old army jacket I had bought in a local thrift shop. “Don’t even fucking tell me YOU were in the army? I’ll pop you in the head right now!” “No, I never served; I’m blind in one eye. Did you serve?” “Damn right, I served. Back in a time we didn’t have a draft-dodging President allow fruity-loops in!” Misjudging his age, I supposed he was in Korea or possibly the end of WWII, so I said, “Well, I hope you served in a noble war and not that Vietnam fiasco.” For the third and final time his body was lofted backward. This time toppling the stool and him landing on his ass returning my now cautious look with a face one would view the anti-Christ with. He got up, chugged what was left of his half-pint and darted out the door. The silence in the room lasted until it was finally broken by yet another honking explosion from deep in the belly of the bartender.
Over the years, I continued to habit this watering hole, as did M. who would always announce my arrival: “Oh, Jesus Christ, it’s the three dollar bill!” He found my presence annoying sometimes, I’m sure, and his greetings to me sometime irked me but after a while it just became a running gag. It got to the point where I would playfully flirt with him to see him get disheveled. “Me thinks the lady dost protest too much,” I would share with the others. Or, I blow him kisses from my end of the bar and remind him to be nice to me or he’d pay when we got home that night. But, the point is, he, as did so many of the other regulars at the Right Bank, accepted me and eventually shared with me a mutual respect and love. At no time was this more apparent than the night of the WTC disaster. By nightfall on this tragic day, still in shock, confused and intense needy of being with fellow New Yorkers, I was drawn to the bar not knowing if it were even open. It was open and filled beyond any event I’ve witnessed there. Mostly everyone was blankly staring into space or at the TV, which constantly replayed the horrible images captured earlier that day. Barely audible were the few conversations going on in corners of the room before me as I stood silently in the door taking it in. It was M. who turned from the TV and looked deep into my eyes as tears welled in his. Sobbing, and with a guttural whisper, he began to mouth “three dol…” when he just jumped up and hugged me tightly and shook my hand. “Glad to see ya…ya fucking queer.”
Lex Grey Right Bank Postcard
By Reverend Billy
The following is excerpted from the Reverend’s just-released book, What Should I Do If Reverend Billy is in My Store? (The New Press 2003). More information is available on http://www.revbilly.com./
We’ve been malled and chain-stored so thoroughly that, if a neighborhood is healthy, roaring with humans – with, can I say, a special Oddness – this is now politically radical. And evidence that a neighborhood is happening comes out mostly in the hot talk. The seed of a neighborhood is the unsupervised talk of a particular kind, by three people on a corner.
That sounds simple; it isn’t. It’s complex and that is the point. For instance, you can’t plan this, you can only get out of the way. You don't need Celebration, Florida to prove that real neighborhoods cannot be made by policies (read corporations). The phrase "planned community" is oxymoronic. Do I have a witness?
We’ve seen 3 talkers on the corner, and we’ve heard them too.
You can tell when the talking and listening is intense; even if its lazy and it is a hot day, there is a jumpiness, an edge. If anyone is touching anyone else, that's a good sign, whether it is chest or shoulder slapping or touches on the hands. If one person listens with disbelief or exaggerated dismay on their face, if the group seems to exchange comic smiling masks, that's it. If the three seem to be in suspension while a story is acted out, and suddenly burst with abandoned laughter, that's the revolution right there.
I remember one time I was riding through Richmond, California, on the east end of the weird San Rafael bridge, and this was a Sunday. A gray windy Sunday, and we were driving through by a church where a funeral had taken place. There were three African American mothers in Sunday dresses and great hats -- brims that went way out. And each of them had a white hanky, and with the wind shaking their dresses and hats ready to fly off they each tended with their hanky to the face eyes and cheeks and nose of the lady to the left, each dabbing the one to the left, each of them talking and listening as they did it, joined together in that circle.
Original individuals originate more original individuals that generate a neighborhood that has that mix of comfort and surprise. Like our three talkers on the corner, originating people trade their stories artfully, but without the designation of an art form or the sponsorship of a corporation. The stories, and I mean to include shorter forms like jokes, memories, gossip, lies, insults and even grunts -- they all have an agreed-upon drama. There is a presence of no planning, of, I-created-this-right-now, of, at the climax of the tale, an unknown. In my neighborhood, the talk is hot because it is constantly unfinished, created-now, aching towards but subject to all the forces that the rest of us might push into it.
Paranoid police and transnational capital outlets share the message: “Move along.” A chain store creates a hush. In a verbal culture like New York, chain stores, full of awkwardness and muzak, have no place in their place.
My suspicion that the neighborhood is the last worthy opponent of the transnationals comes first of all from how corporations act like sexually crazed adolescents around us. Picture the Starbucks scouts coming into a neighborhood and listening for the laughter, sneaking up on a diner and staring at us. The arriviste corporate folks tear apart neighborhoods every day with chain stores and malls, but the entire source of their aesthetic for the new anti-neighborhoods is what they just destroyed. Very love/hate, I'd say. They just crave happy people. They do expensive smile research. Then they broadcast smiles back at us until we're depressed. Exactly like the jilted lover who finally ends up banging you over the head with the roses. In a typical K-mart, nobody in the aisles is smiling, but the walls are covered with huge high-resolution smilers.
If a real neighborhood still exists somewhere, say in the community garden near your home, or a half a ghost town still there along Route 66, or a street corner in Washington Heights, or little towns up the Hudson or up the Pacific Coast from San Francisco along the water east of Mobile, and say that you live in one of these places and someone tells you a story and you start grinning, be careful -- a camera will find you. See it there in the window of that touristic SUV? ...see that hip location specialist for ads? Smiles, the facial contortion they cut and paste from the neighborhood, sell. Smiles sell.
can I tell my story now?
Now -- back to the emporium of bad soft-porn that is my own neigborhood, because with who I am, children, I always have to return there. It's my neighborhood. Can someone help me? Keep it hot. Amen. In Noho, just uptown from Soho, like much of this part of New York, we are suffering from "development;" -- new buildings whose edifices come straight down to the sidewalks and don't afford a place to lean and talk. They want to keep us moving. Fewer stoops or steps for human words.
We have rubble from demolition, and towering models sulking with sex quandaries rising from the vacant lots. The chain stores are coming in, although high-end ones, with the falsely bright light and the hush of styled posing and no hot talk. The minimum wage sales people are unhappy and disconnected from the products on their shelves, which are covered with -- you guessed? -- smiles.
The high-end shops are essentially the same as the chains, maybe the light isn't in fluorescent tubes on the ceiling, but they are hushed too; commodification leaves the neighborhood strewn with silent boxes of stylish air. The rents are so high that there's centrifugal spinning here, and lots of us fly off to outer Queens. Me? I'm starting to get dizzy, but am curious to see how long I can stay. (In the time following this writing, I moved to Brooklyn, then back to Tribeca, then Nyack, then back to Brooklyn, spinning, looking for my hot neighborhood.) The people who are selected out to stay here are very, well, they are tall white people. Their clothes are flown in from the same runways. Chinatown to the south is still a neighborhood; but all the Italian talkers that used to be around here have been sucked up into Scorcese films and haven't been seen since.
That's the thing that makes us suspect that the Devil is in our midst, children. That flattening of natural hot chatter into white noise and big ads. That's Evil.... When you walk into the Starbucks at Astor Place there is no recognition, no-one shouts YO or calls our your name. This is Evil. There is a narrowing of the kinds of language that is shared in public, a regularization of gestures. It happens so gradually as a neighborhood dies, that people only notice an untraceable emptiness, a certain dullness.
Can we say this? Whatever God du jour you are hanging with, don't go shopping. God wouldn't be in a chain store I don't think. In fact, let's just say: GOD IS THE ABSENCE OF GENTRIFICATION. Let's add this to our beliefs next week. Someone give me an Amen. Because god really has to be interesting, or, let's make it rhyme for effect: GOD GOTTA BE ODD.
You must have noticed children that I've been whipping ordinary living with words like "odd" and "hot". I've been circling around it, poking it, calling it lots of things. But three people talking on a corner, at least this should be, just every day life. So how did ordinary life become colonized? Lots of people have discussed with greater skill than I about how the corporations conquered the last frontier, ordinary living. Please study the words of the Saints: Tom Frank, Naomi Klein, Jean Baudrillard, Kalle Lasn, Benjamin Barber... we have the anti-consumerist brilliant writers. They explain how in much of the world we talk after, and never before, we accept the brand.
Oh we can talk, go ahead, but let Cindy Crawford in on the dance, have those logos everywhere. They are your platform for your subsidiary creativity, and, yes, go ahead and do your own things, but the logos are a vast swarm of purchasing commands protected by a psychic vacuum of graphics and shilling celebs. These writers have labored to explain a decisive phenomenon, brandufacturing, where a company persuades us a whole way of life is indicated by the sacred acceptance of a running shoe, a cup of burned coffee, a smiling rat. These writers are, children -- Saints in the Church of Stop Shopping.
Today let us ask this question: How do we retake our life, how do we take back our neighborhoods. Let's talk practical politics. How do we revalue (or even notice) our commonest gestures and exclamations. And as I've been saying from this pulpit -- remember our memories, our personal ones and our public ones. So much of resisting trans-national corporations is remembering things that we've been told to forget. As in: what is oddly scary about each of us as individuals who bellow and coo in public space without any particular sanction, i.e. what is not a consumer in me. What story do I have that isn't a part of a product's language? When my neighborhood's working, those are the stories that come up.
The Revolution is just a neighborhood. Three talkers on a corner. Amen.
the pastor wants to fess up
Amen. Can I tell my story? Can I take my time? Alright, I'm going back to my neighborhood now. I'm walking into the Jones Diner.
The Jones Diner has been there for 65 years, since 1938. The Olmstead development company is building multi-million dollar luxury apartments on all sides and is in court trying to break the Jones lease. David Bowie moved in next to the Puck Building. The supermodels are waiting in the limos in front of Balthazar and Pravda But so far, George and Alex are still there in the Jones. They come in every morning from Astoria at 5 AM.
The diner is at Lafayette and Great Jones, near my home, down in the soft-porn canyon. So here's my story. I walk in to have the stuffed pepper special. I sit down. Now -- there is an advertising campaign that put bright purple signs everywhere. Fairly small signs, featuring a single phrase in quotes, like someone is saying something. As I eat I have to read these things. I have about six of the purple signs in my field of vision. They have a friendly look, a very Smith Corona-ish old font -- friendlier than email fonts. The print is cheerily reversed out, white language on a purple background.
surrounded by chummy purple signage
The messages of these six signs add up to what I call a "loneliness campaign." The signs' text reads like the off-hand remarks of a close friend. In that tradition, some of the phrases seem almost aimless, like the way a buddy talks. So, this one day I'm sitting there in the Jones and I'm reading one of these signs. It says: "You mean she actually went up to your apartment?" That's it. Just that phrase, hanging there in the window while I'm having lunch. "You mean she actually went up to your apartment?" And so I'm thinking, and saying-- maybe my lips are moving -- I'm saying, "Yeah she did. Unbelievable."
Now you may say that's harmless, most ads taken alone are harmless. But my point: the people I was with in the diner were exactly the best friends that would have said this very phrase, to me, in my real life. Alex and George , who are right here, now, without the advertising, they would crow, after my kvetching about a relationship for weeks -- "You mean she actually went up to your apartment?"
So, while I'm eating Today's Special, the afore-mentioned stuffed pepper with the boiled carrots, delicious actually and only six bucks... while I'm sitting there chewing Alex notices that I'm staring at this sign. He's looks out the window at what I'm seeing, maybe he sees the furtive arch of the eyebrow and small interior speech when I cooperate with the sign and have a full-blown memory of the disastrous visit by this young Parker Posey cum Audrey Hepburn figure to my 5th floor pig sty, and then maybe Alex remembers me bringing her into the diner also, to a sort of general held breath. Maybe he's seeing all this in a flash and he's ready to intervene.
I'm stunned daydreaming now, watching a full scale movie of this visit that I'm projecting through the awful coffee steam, and Alex slaps me non-injuriously across my lost face. He's shouting, "Well what WAS she thinking? I know I wouldn't ever go up to your place. First, what are the diseases? They've never been seen in this country, your diseases. I mean we might read about your diseases in the news but they haven't been seen around this neighborhood for years, what you got..." George then comes over with.. "And then there's the insurance question. The rates for going up to your room would have to be worse than collision coverage in Jersey. What was she thinking? Send her over here so we can counsel the poor girl. I mean she has no idea! "
Before long others in the Diner, the usual motley human comedy, they are assisting this routine with well-placed wisecracks. My ex-accountant is one of them, and a guy who runs a small furniture store nearby, Bob, he chimes in too, although he always talks to me through the Reverend Billy persona. "Reverend you're depressed again!!" And of course, I am in the sing-along myself, "Well she, in fact, had very little idea, up to that point she had done no meaningful research, on what might happen, going up to my room." Around the diner people where shaking their heads slowly to empathize with what she must have experienced, like they were remembering what a great gal she was and how she was last seen with me, and to be in my arms is some vast maw of purgatory.
We were acting out any insecurities I might have had, a neighborhood full-court crowing contest, a giving back the clown his catharsis. We were our own best audience, laughing to show how much we're liking our own wit but also laughing how you do when collateral understandings, forgivenesses, encouragements, must be told by a parallel eye-winking and friendly pat.
Then the odd, the unknown rose up. Alex, a Greek-American from Astoria who probably voted for Rudy Giuliani, drops to his knees and shouts, "But will you come up and see my etchings sometime? You've never been to my apartment." I'm taken aback. He's either laughing with or at gay culture, but I don't think if he knows what gay culture is. But we're all laughing, and it's probably because he is a male male and I'm a sort of gay heterosexual, to him, a college-educated slummer who nonetheless is liked. But everyone in the long narrow diner took trajectories to be here, everyone is suspect and grounds for a good-hearted suspicion of closets of some kind.
I'm saying, "Well I understand you have etchings featuring scenes of a famous diner." And he said, " Yes different scenes, one with snow, one with just regular garbage everywhere..."
And Alex starts singing, crooning, like Vic Damone... "I etched my etchings in a night course at Cooper Union, just for you... " George was vibrato-ing with his thick fingers an air violin on his arm and starts singing in his heavy Greek accent "I have diners on my walls just for you... " And I’m thinking, where is this going? And then suddenly a German tourist family appeared in the door, all smiles, and we abruptly stopped the bit. Alex and George were instantly gracious and helped them to a table.
A curious thing happened. I noticed it later as I was walking home with my to-go bag. The labyrinth of joshing had saved me from the six purple signs in the windows. The comic serenade of Alex and George-- I could feel the signs shrink away. In fact, here's an important detail: I can't even remember what those signs were selling. Amen!
what would it take
The hope for freedom starts in the body, in the psychic body. And in the configuration of "3 talkers" -- as with Alex, George and me circled by purple signs trying to pass themselves off as confidants, we can leverage our way to freedom from the incoming seduction with the home-grown Oddness of our own conversation.
When you start with the hoped-for revolution, you keep wandering into military metaphors. But our revolution would not so much be an attack outward, because our opponent is not standing there in one place like the Berlin Wall. I understand our resistance as a neighborhood-claiming, a re-honoring, strengthening, of what we already do. Our opponent is everywhere and nowhere; does not have to retreat or advance. They melt into air. And then they re-appear; as they did that day. It was suddenly clear to me that their experts had been studying my loneliness. I would have been distracted for sure, lost in it, and sharing confidences with six purple signs, except, I wasn't in a chain store, I was in the hot, odd part of my neighborhood – and thank god.
I can't say that in the Jones, that our guy rumble of cracking wise, shoving each other and acting desperate, that it completes some general strategy. But I suspect that anything I ever say about saving ourselves could be folded back into what happened that day in the diner. I know that the signs shrank away. And I know that somehow this comedy routine is the seed, the 3-on-the-corner, the revolution, my neighborhood.
oh, we three on the corner
We have something in us that ad departments have an intense need for, but which we ourselves have undervalued. They know that their seduction must find a way to interrupt Alex and George and me. Those purple signs nearly did. They came pretty close. The ad departments need to know exacty where the vast interior of the individual joins up with the mysterious souls of the other talkers. How do we instantly create these bonds? How do we do it without products? Where do our stories come from anyway; they just seem to rise out of us magically. Wait a minute, was that a completely new word? Oh yes, the logo-driven must harness our brilliant banter, and this is as clear to them as placing a dam on a river for power.
The extraordinary is in the ordinary. The odd pleasure rises through the trusting teasing that we off-handedly tend to together. In its ho-hum way we build a sneaky buoyancy in the room. A counted-on psychological-gravitational pull. We have to claim that in a more forthright way now, because they see it as a market. We have to claim it. We don't have to give them our power.
Thus ends today's message. Let us pray.
By Jill Rapaport
Certain mantras of the current administration's rhetoric concerning its relations with the former ancient Mesopotamia formed a thematic trend which, when perceived as a pattern, revealed things that the mantra-sayers may not have realized they were revealing. This might have been called the Boomerang Style of communication. Even as endless repetitions of the sloganeered words "freedom," "democracy," and "humanitarianism" aroused the recognition that one was in the presence of inhumanitarianism, autocracy, and slavery, certain other words, like "evil," started to make those parabolic turns in the sky that signaled their return, with force, to the tough skulls that had launched them.
George W. Bush was enamored of making multiple repetitions of the words "evil," and "evildoer." His cabinet and his aides, spokesmen, entire entourage used and reused the words, too, in that sort of homage to kings and would-be kings that had been popular in old Castile.
Military strategists serving the Texan ruler coined military jargon for his invasion, such as the reinvented term "decapitate." To borrow a locution from the down-home pedant-regent, that means to kill the head of state (of the former ancient Mesopotamia). After all, the decapitee-to-be was despised throughout the universe for his documentedly evil deeds. Decapitate meant to pay him back in kind. In spades. Take him out. Wack him.
The war was with a Moslem enemy, a Semitic enemy, who still upheld the ancient credo of eye for eye and tooth for tooth. And so that boomerang made preparations to come flying back around, sharp and javeliny.
It was chilling to be one of those who found themselves present at the beginning of the deepest, saddest linguistic fashion to be bandied about by the Bush-land palace guard. One by one, from Rumsfeld to Fleischer to the heavy-breathing, shufflin‚, shitkickin‚, overgrown boy-king himself, each in turn packed his unsweet lips around three words that by the utterance of the last gave a distinctly indigestion-like anxiety to the unsold hearer: “A dying regime.”
A dying regime. A regime dying. A regime that was dying, slowly, dying surely, dying bigly and hugely and really all over the place, if not dying tragically, or mournably, or unjustly. The regime was dying, yeah huh. Long live the dying regime.
George W. Bush still had his head, but that headedness was nominal only. For a head like Bush's was as good as decapitated. There the boomerang had done its work without losing a drop of energy, saving its strength for its next tour.
And in the reflecting, weaponizedly blinding heat of day, the Mesopotamian nasty, like his predecessor, the Saudi brat prince, slipped away untaken.
Bush went to Baghdad to bag a big bad dad. The bad dad, who had bagged Bush's dad's stab at bagging him, was a damn Hussein, name Saddam. The bushed Dad Bush, having nonbagged the big bad dad, grabbed the shrub Bush and sadly bade the boy nab the damned Saddam. So it was back to Baghdad to bag the bad big dad for sad Dad back in the rabid brag lab where bagging Bad Dad had been a big bid to make the lad‚s dad not look bad, a drab blab and a damn sad drag and a had hack on his back on a slab.
A Few Bad Men
One seeks simplicity in life and in the design of life and culture.
Simplicity is elegant, authentic, the zenith of achievement.
Simplicity is sanity. At the same time, one overcomplicates, seeks byzantine explanations for mysterious turns of event, refuses to believe that the dread by which one feels brushed at horrible moments could be coming straight at one, with no rocks nor stray twigs in its path to impede its velocity. Sanity is not attainable for everybody all the time. To modify the old phrase, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” -- what if they made an unwinnable, impossible, and immoral war and they won?
One overcomplicates: They had it all planned out in advance. They wrote a script, then acted it out. The embedded scribe writes what they tell him to write. They’re running video games as war reportage. They did it to get the oil, to save the CEOs, to freeze out the people who might blow the whistle on them for doing 9/11 and blaming it on the hijackers.
Then one oversimplifies: The tyrant is gone. The people are free. Pressure is off gas prices through the summer.
And then one sits back and gapes, doing neither: Where did the tyrant go? Did they / we get him? Is he dead?
If one reads all the articles and listens to all the reports, one will never be free of complicated simplicities that stun the brain and make conclusion impossible.
But just not reading or listening is not the answer either, because it seeps in from the mouths of others, who don’t even have to be talking in order to make one hear. They’re on the trains, the streets, the walkways of shopping centers. They’re in the buildings, out in the courtyards, the doorways, the elevators.
And simple complexities continue to flow from the fount of information that will never be stilled.
One always thought that the ways of the master manipulators was dark and complicated. They shielded their actions from light, masked their endeavors.
But one realizes at some point that the masters not only masked and shielded nothing, they walked naked in broad daylight and put across their deeds. They pulled their heists under the cover of sunshine, in front of cameras. They signed their own names, and kept on walking, strolling even, barefoot and happy. They had nothing to hide! It was one’s own self that ran scared, near the dark night walls, afraid, like a rat, escaping but never escaping.