Saturday, February 28, 2009

Why a Man of Ordinary Intelligence Would Want to Sit at Home and Spit His Strength Away Is a Wonder, but We Americans Do Some Foolish Things

Friends: a century ago our forefathers put together a set of city ordinances banning the practice of spitting in public.  Yes anti-expectoration ordinances had manifold purposes in the eyes of the city fathers, public health officials, women's clubs and urban leagues. From the dawn of city planning when civic beautification was tantamount to moral beautification, spitting has been considered anathema to the public weal.  

Chawl spit stains paths. The trains of goode ladies' dresses dragged through the tobacco muck spouted from the men of this fair towne.  The microbe rides the sky to the mouths and noses of young children from the same brown tobacco sludge. 117 US townes and cities enacted anti-expectoration ordinances after Asheville, NC started the whole thing off in 1898. New York and Chicago were included in this number.  

Once the ordinance passed the police found cause to make arrests and hand out tickets. Strict enforcement of the law gave cause for small local uprisings. Keeping the men indoors to do their spitting proved too much of a burden for housekeepers and resulted in several lawsuits. But overall the reasonable enforcement of the law resulted in a drop-off in public expectoration.   

In Singapore the act of spitting, jaywalking and littering are punishable offenses.   The spitting law has been on the books since the 1900's, like in the US.  Its enforcement was heightened in response to tuberculosis and SARS outbreaks. First time offenders can be fined up to $1000.  MSNBC  breaks out some of the standard arcana of Singapore's civil codes.  In South Africa kudu dung spitting is a sport (other fun facts here).    

In NYC today spitting seems to be reserved for joggers, men and women with smoker's coughs, people with over-active pituitary glands, or autistics with temporal lobe epilepsy and the practice of chewing tobacco is relegated to lawyers, business mean and professional baseball players (and all except the last resign their spit to 7-11 Big Gulp cups).   Anti-expectoration leagues of the past, victory is yours.  

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Nonexistent City

This morning on the subway I saw a messenger bag printed with an image of old trolley tracks on cobblestones surrounded by and disappearing under asphalt. I thought: beneath this city, there is another city. We live in one city, not entirely different from the one that came before, only partially plastered over it. However, many still live in that other, nonexistent city.

An old lady gets on the bus slowly and says, at the top of the steps, "Bus driver, live while you're young. It only gets harder." Once settled, she starts talking about elevated trains. "Driver, you're too young to remember them. We had them on second, third, and ninth avenues. I rode to work along the ninth avenue line, at least until ninety-sixth street."

In that city, with its trains rumbling overhead, she moved freely. Here, in the existing city, she stands up anxiously and the bus driver tells her, "We're not at forty-third yet." She says, "We're at forty-fifth." Him: "There's traffic. Sit down. Take a load off."

She obeys. As she leaves the bus, she moves so slowly. The bus hydraulics sigh, lowering the bus down. We all hold our breath, imaging the fall, the bones broken, the woman lying in a pile, never to heal again, if even to live. Then, with intense focus, she alights and our watching minds kiss the ground that steadies her. Against a seething crowd, she moves as if blown by a breeze, held up only by her orange knit hat. She moves in this new city that is exiling her into its nonexistent quarters.

Her body does not fail her because of its years. It fails her because the air has changed, and her lungs have not changed enough to fully breath it. The food has changed, and she cannot entirely gain sustenance from it. Locations have changed, and this disorients and confuses her, causing her accidents. She lives not as we might live in another country or city, but as we might on another planet. Yet that's a poor analogy, since existence and nonexistence are not different places, but are the difference inherent in the same place.

One day, she will decide to move out, to leave existence for the nonexistent city entirely, stop her constant shuttling in between. She will lose her timeshare in existence and we will stop noticing her on her brief visits. She will stop this tiresome existing and move into the covered-over city year round, riding its trains, walking its streets, perhaps occasionally peeking back from an illustration on someone's messenger bag.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

When Imagination Matters Most

Reality more or less is a deal struck upon between people.  Everyone perceives the world differently. The difference creates the need for discussion, which creates the need for compromise and agreement.  There are a few basic conditions that hold true for all people: hunger, thirst, the need for air, the desire for shelter-- all of those conditions that link to our mortality and to those elements in the world that seem non-negotiable.  

People arrive at solutions to these non-negotiable elements based on the strength of their ability to transform their perceptions into reality.  This is the way that imagination influences reality.  What was once in someone's head is now out there, a new thing for people to discuss: systems, laws, objects, words, Thigh Masters. 

The present financial crisis seems like a collective failure of imagination.  We've run to the end of a certain system of thought and so suddenly all of those necessities that were once tied to the productiveness of that solution are now jeopardized.   The purely imaginary aspect of money, let alone the hundreds of trillions of dollars purported to make up the world's worth, seems to be in full display at present.  We come across cliques of people who worked around the existing laws to create bogus wads of cash.  Who do they think they are?  Well it seems strange that this small group's use of rules just as arbitrary as this other group's would seem so desperate and flagrant, but in the end we don't know a better definition of the word anti-social.    

We were all born into the system that is currently coughing and gasping.  We inherited a number of rules and created a few more with the idea of the public good in mind. By and large the private citizen was not involved in the creation of these laws.  The private citizen held out a proxy to someone they thought would get the job done, someone good at imagining solutions based on existing parameters.  The private citizen carried about their business within the workings of that system while being entirely ignorant of its mechanics.  Whether or not this system was a parochial means of amplifying money then siphoning off the excess remains to be seen.  That system had its good points as well as bad.  

Now we're left with the dizzying prospect of re-assembling a financial system using only the dregs of the last one. Imagination called on to bail us out of a collective failure of imagination.  Well it would seem that the people in power for all of these years cleaved so wholly to an ethos that they may have destroyed their ability to imagine anything different.  Or maybe in the down moments of their office life while looking out over the South Cove they harbored their own quiet heterodoxy and kept it un-stifled for a time when better judgement might win out.

Whether or not you and I are implicated within this system, our inability to convert the population to a better way will simply be translated into hunger and our children will look at those Thigh Masters lying in landfills and wonder what possible purpose they could have ever possibly performed. At least we now know the possibility of change is open.  

What We Talk about When We Talk about Hipsters

I have yet to come across anyone who proudly self-applies the term hipster.  A hipster is always someone else and someone who is exhibiting one of the many characteristic failures of the post X generation.  Hipster then is a label, not an identity.  As a label it is capable of conjuring a dozen different shades all at once.  Its imprecision is part of genius. Like Indy Rock a little too much? Hipster.  Interesting haircut? Hipster.  Boll wevil? Hipster.

The hipster spectrum as far as I can tell includes: fashion kids; haircut kids; indy rockers; po-mos or theory kids;  anyone under the age of 40 who hasn't worked in Finance, Law, or Medicine; rich white kids living in poor black or hispanic neighborhoods; bloggers; liberals; and contrarians. The word hipster is revenge for every perceived shallow short-coming the speaker has felt since the age of 12.  The one point of agreement in the many uses of hipster I've heard used is the shallowness.  Hipsters are not deep.  They live on the surface.

As a potential hipster on at least 3 counts, I tend to use the term to refer to people who are holier than though in their aesthetic choices.  People who make you feel bad for the music you like, the clothes you wear, the books you read, the art you like, etc.  Normally this is an unconscious defense built into the hipster's years of trifling toil. It is their own severe unease with enjoyment that keeps them searching for the next new (or rediscovered) thing.  It is that inability to enjoy things that makes hipsters feel as if they are deep, because they do what they do out of a compulsion that seems natural, but is just a displacement of the same materialism they no doubt watched their parents slop in the '80's. The subversion of mainstream materialism aside, anhedonia breeds sadism.

There's no genuine pleasure in being a hipster.  It's like being Tantalus, except instead of bending to drink from a lake that eternally disappears they are bending over the dregs of post-60's western/global culture.  Just as soon as sustenance seems within their grasp, it disappears: buyers remorse or the approaching stampede of the masses toward their tastes.  

Part of the issue is that with the closing of the Cold War nihilism no longer has any real caché.  Sure nukes are still everywhere and we are more likely to suffocate on our own mass than by anyone else's hand, but the fear is less true and we all have a sense that we need to build something new.  The problem is that everything created in post WW II America is part of the condition of the wealth and power we won from the fascists.  U.S. power in and of itself is a useless, uninspiring lie for the landed gentry.  For the immigrant who has sat among a few thousand fellow immigrants without water for a week in the belly of a tanker pulling into San Francisco harbor the promise is more tangible.  The only genuine motivation available to the middle and upper classes is the prospect of  humiliation.  Rarely do we find the sort of noblesse oblige that would bring a person to commit themselves to making millions of dollars to create a new U.S. culture and when we do it is always distasteful-- should I mention Waco, TX, Jonestown or Jerry Falwell?  

As long as the U.S. exists as a comfortable and more or less accepting place, there will always be new cultures arriving on our shores-- even as we burn the forests and villages they used to live in.  Our culture is slight enough to shift with the advent of every new invention.  People coming from highly ordered places have no idea how to navigate the looseness of our system.  The U.S. is held together by bubble gum, spit and string and this can make for some odd decisions in your twenties.  

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Paint It Black

I wandered the Met for half a day a few weekends ago.  I went in thinking I would only check on El Greco, but wound up circling the Rembrandts, then the Whistlers.  I was struck by the contrast between their uses of black-- at least in the portraits on hand.  

In Rembrandt's Portrait of a Man, the sitter is wearing a fathomless black tunic, black without detail. The brush strokes are fanned and somewhat less tidy. I was quick to associate this blackness with the old European sensibility.  Death is everywhere, we are all poised on the brink of eternity. Naturally the black creates a perfect field for studying the sitter's face.  The face is brought out that much more because the blackness is secondary, something of which we're only marginally aware.  The whole trick of the face rests in a single pink wrinkle on the sitter's right eyelid.  The weathered character is brought out in perfect luminous detail and all the flesh suddenly has the gelid pallor of plated meat.

In Whistler black is just another bauble.  In contrast to Rembrandt, Whistler shows an astonishingly frank practicality.  He doesn't use black to invoke American puritanical austerity or severity.  If his sitters have mystery it is their own.  Take Madame X.  Every detail of her black gown is shown in true faith, yet her face is turned in profile and her eyes are nearly at the spot where the viewer would be lost to her peripheral vision.  What we have is a black dress fitting the figure of a pale woman with a striking profile, poise and elegance, but the flesh is reticent-- distant, apiece with the composition as a whole, flat.  

The difference might just rest in the technology of the day, the price of paint or patron expectations.  There may be a dozen Rembrandts where the black is dealt with in perfect detail-- or Whistlers where fathomless black fills the background.  The contrast got me thinking  about film noir, in particular Stanley Kubrick's The Killing.  The Killing is one of the most terrifying movies ever made-- partially for the casting, but mostly for the use of the dark.  Figures pop in and out of bottomless shadows when they're not brought into painful detail by bared light bulbs.  Lighting in film noir is at least a quarter of the story.  Here we have yet another use of black-- the invocation of the underside of reason and Modernity.  The unknown. Death is a portion of it, but it isn't the whole picture.   

For next time I'll try to think of a way to incorporate Malcolm X's cultural reading of the word black, Jean Luc Godard's Sympathy for the Devil and Richard Avedon's use of white.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

I Am The New Hobbes

I've often wondered in disgusted awe at the fact - it is a fact - that most mornings, the first words to breach my lips are curses I toss at strangers. Someone merges into my lane: "Fuckingcocksucher." Someone won't let me merge by driving at just the wrong speed: "pieceashitdouchebag." Then, I am slightly shocked at the possession that has passed, as if I had just thrown up green on myself and came to my senses with a religious icon sticking out of my sphincter.

It took a cartoon character to make me laugh myself out of shame - Calvin. I had made the gauntlet from the Cross Island over the Grand Central and onto the exit ramp into Astoria - stopped - behind a big red van with a Calvin sticker on its rear window. I'm angry in my usual morning way and there he is, transparent and perfect, giving me an exaggeratedly large middle finger while pissing on nothing. The finger was made larger so that it appeared to be projecting directly into my face: Calvin meant fuck ME, not the guy in the car next to me, not the world that forces him to ride the big red van until seasons strip him off...fuck me. And peeing - the splash made it seem like he was peeing on the van itself. So fuck his driver too? Piss on him?

The light was long and with the delay of drivers slow to get their asses moving at the green, I had just enough time to realize, yes, fuck me, piss on you, we are all the same asshole getting off the Grand Central. And there was a comfort, a peace even, in this new brotherhood of fuck everybody.

That and my coffee had finally kicked in. No, nothing so permanent as epiphany. I would rise again the next morrow to spit curses at my fellow commuters - spit that would splash back off the inside of my own windshield right into my face.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Patagonian Dog Orgy

We were in Puerto Madryn walking towards a Parilla joint that had caught our eye on an earlier walk.  Parilla is a special kind of Argentine grill with smoked, salted meats and this particular place was a little off the beaten path.  We were tired and hungry.  That day had been spent bicycling to Punta Loma, where the sea lions congregate.  This had been our third attempt to reach Punta Loma sans car.  

The first two attempts were ill-advised hikes born out of our total ignorance of what a kilometer actual was.  For some reason we pictured 13 kilometers as being a reasonable post-prandial stroll after our free western style breakfast.  Both times we returned to Puerto Madryn rankled and sore, spilling sand from our crevices and malice from our eyes.  We got wise on the third day, rented bicycles and headed out.  There and back again just like Mr. Bilbo said.  The distance still proved to be formidable, even with wheels at our disposal.  We rode on a dirt trail and worked for the progress we made.  We reached Punta Loma and the sea lions were sounding off like a sex party in the gut of a starving giant.  Groans and belches and bellows and squeals.  We rode back with an eye towards dinner.

We had gone to Puerto Madryn in the off-season.  I have been told that the port in Jan- March is normally filled with orcas nursing their calves. Our whole trip to Patagonia coincided with their Fall, which meant gorgeous foliage, but no orcas, no penguins.  Everywhere we went we did notice what we came to understand as the Patagonian dog rule.  Patagonian dogs seem to belong to the community.  In the instance of our trip from the top of the glacier in Ushuaia we were attended by a single yellow lab who carried a stick in his mouth, walked in the center of the road and guided us back to town.  Perro.  

In El Calafate this became a bit more of an issue, since the dogs were much more pack-like and loved tourists.  We would walk down the street on our way to the bird sanctuary and suddenly be surrounded by the most tenacious pack of wild looking mutts and mongrels-- one still flaunting the remains of a broken chain around his neck-- a dozen others sniffing, trotting, growling, yipping, etc.  When we passed the random pony tethered in someone's yard we tried to sneak away while the dogs surrounded and sniffed at her heels.  To no avail.  Three steps on the dogs were at our side.  We finally had to walk back in to town and duck into a supermarket in order to lose them, thinking the keepers at the bird sanctuary would be none too pleased if our pack of dogs dragged their flamingoes out one by one.  

We had yet to really encounter the same effect in Puerto Madryn, though we did see the occasional pooch bolt the boardwalk that stretched for the length of the port.  Since we were there in the off-season a number of restaurants were closed.  This is frustrating for the weary saddle sore bicyclist.  We had decided upon the Parilla place after returning our bicycles because it looked authentic.  When we arrived the smell was enough to carry us to our seats, but we noticed-- just happened to see-- beside the restaurant, just outside the kitchen door there was a little dog orgy.  I've never really had the opportunity to see a dog orgy before, and for the uninitiated who wonder how you can tell if it is a dog orgy, don't worry it's one of those things that you know the second you see.  

There were four larger male dogs sitting, wagging, sniffing, circling around waiting for a fifth to finish with a smallish yellowy female. Each dog took their turn, each being pretty tender with the little female, even licking her belly.  A sixth dog, a sheep dog, was trotting around the perimeter of the restaurant as if on guard duty.  We watched for a minute-- I mean it was free and we were a little y'know curious it being our first Patagonian dog orgy.  We were wondering if this was a comment on the food, but we decided to go in and try the place out all the same since most of the restaurants in quick walking distance were most likely closed and were were tired and starving.

Where we sat we could watch the sheep dog make his rounds on the perimeter every five minutes.  We really began to wonder about his role in the whole thing.  What social status had conferred upon him the security detail?  We decided he must be the only one that was neutered. He looked like the only pure breed in the group and probably belonged to the Argentine naval officers who kept watch on the near-by docks.

The meal was perfect.  We ate and walked home looking for the perros. We didn't see any for the rest of the trip and it was left to us to imagine the bizarre canine concoction that little yellowy dog would birth in a few months.       

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The First Car

The first car on the subway, or the car closest to the stairs, is populated by the lazy, the desperate, the infirmed, the work-worn and the broken.  Do not seek a seat in the first car if you are able-bodied, humane or energetic. Their clothes are all lined with lead and their doomed shuffle is contagious.  

Move down two or three cars past the clot of human cholesterol crowding the bottom of the stairs, but don't sit in the middle car. The middle car is reserved for paranoids and obsessives who need to be near the train conductor just in case. 

Similarly if you watch the train arrive and every car is jam-packed except for one, do not go on that empty car.  It is most likely home to a smell so full and noxious that it will take up permanent residence in your olfactory bulb, reset your index of smells with its extremity and leave you incapable of sensing fresh baked muffins.  If it is the dead of summer that will be the car with no AC-- acceptable for some.  

Even still-- once you make it onto a car, past the last little flecks of human cholesterol who cling to their spots by the door as if it were the gate to heaven, there is no guarantee that you will not be sitting next to a woman busily filing her nails into a fine dust for everyone in her proximity to inhale or some obnoxious cling-on singing a song about how he makes that pussy wet or a crackhead washing her pipe-burnt hands with gin or a genuine crotch-o-dile (thanks, KW, for the term) masturbating, flashing or otherwise rubbing sexually in public or be assailed by aggressive pan-handlers.  

Or you may get a treat: Mariachi band, pre-teen subway back flip pseudo-dance squad (the ones who do the Spiderman work out "Girls, if your boyfriend can't do this leave him!").  One great night the man who raps to his Casio keyboard  (formerly partnered with a women who would drum a bucket for him-- "It ain't no joke, for real I'm broke.") got a dollar from just about every person on the train.  Everyone independently reaching into their pocket to give this guy some cash-- he was ecstatic, Jimmy Stewart at the end of It's a Wonderful Life ecstatic, he couldn't believe more and more people kept giving.  He was ready to walk off the train and someone else would hold out a buck.  It was maybe the best moment I've ever had on the subway, the code of silence still in tact, people grinned sensing at least that locks could open every few years for people to show a common kindness.