The other day on the Plaza Saint-Hubert, I walked past a man in a wheelchair. He must have been in his late fifties or sixties. He clearly had some kind of syndrome— not very mentally debilitating, perhaps, but some malady that, probably from birth, had contorted his body and speech, thereby also further limiting his mental abilities. This man looked at once very dignified, adult, and childlike, world-weary and ingenuous, intrepid and severely disabled. He had a bald pate with brown hair on the sides, a brown goatee (that someone no doubt groomed for him), and a stately physiognomy. He actually looked somewhat like a close friend’s father, a man whose bearing and moral qualities I’d always admired— a parallel, handicapped version of my friend’s father.
He was near a street corner, holding a metal cup out for money. I walked past him a bit, the impression registered, I stopped, backtracked, and gave him a dollar. He tried to say thank you, but I was surprised to hear that what came out was a guttural, twisted, almost unintelligible attempt at a thank you. This man looked so earnest, compassionate, jocund— in some ways his expression was almost like that of a faithful dog, or of a young boy— but also infinitely world-weary and put-upon, with some kind of access to the nature of suffering beyond that of the countless masses. I felt the urge to hug him and keep him regular companionship.
Today, I was walking back to my apartment and this man passed along, rolling down the street slowly in his electric wheelchair. A few moments after I passed him, I began to cry, and then weep uncontrollably, but silently. I felt as if I were weeping not just for him but for the infinite sorrows of the material world. I felt as if I wanted to embrace all beings in compassion… This feeling, of course, passed after some moments.
∆ Appeared in Hirschworth Magazine
Disclaimer: Okay, since releasing this piece, there has been speculation from some parties, as there inevitably will be among those not much versed in the distinctions between fiction and non-fiction (admittedly, at times very fine for some writers), and between lived experience and the vagaries of the creative process, that it is autobiographical. Maybe by putting up a caveat here I invite more speculation, and also risk offending the greater audience by suggesting that they cannot distinguish fact from fiction or appreciate the sometimes fine balance between the two in creative works; but, for a number of reasons, it seems that it must be done. I will say this: This piece plumbs a darker side of my psychology, and also tries to reveal and magnify certain onerous aspects of contemporary culture. While doing historical research, I became increasingly interested in the history of my own lineage, and employed some of these details, as well as some relevant background facts. Otherwise, for the most part, the similarities end there. Ok, with that said, read on.
Prologue To A Novel
(Parts I & II)
The boy sits mute on the carpet. His face awash in the pale light of the television. He watches cartoons, he watches sitcoms. His eyes alive as if he does interact with the figments he watches. The potboilers of Hollywood. The land is empty and expansive and vehicles roam the wide streets. No one is near to join him.
His relations are decimated, their records effaced. Those who aren’t stamped out by Stalin are lost in that cataclysm called the Holocaust. His maternal grandfather sixteen escapes a Belorussian ghetto, lives in the woods with the partisans and kills men; his hair is silver when the Russians free Berlin. His maternal grandmother flees with her kin to that vast cold region called Ural. The paternal grandfather patches up dying men in the far east. The paternal grandmother patches phone lines amid crossfire. Two months premature the father is born, tiny and ashen. In the wilds he wails and is indurated with buckets of cold water. He has a powerful constitution, a photographic memory. He looks like an actor and attracts easy women. At the polytechnic institute in Minsk he meets the mother, pretty, upright, and kind.
The boy knows this history only indirectly, he is separated from it by an ocean and decades. His parents speak little of it, nor does the school in which he is placed, a provincial school ruled by the slack knowledge of the land and the hour, illumine it. Lost are those statues of scientists, warriors, and artists that stand in every corner of that country, those fragments and untarnished shining examples of museums, monuments, and architecture. Lost too is the mind of the people, the Jewish people, the Russian people, the mind of Russia itself, across a land once thought uniformly flat, a sea where once men believed fantastical creatures tread, where the first gropings of investigation were as those of a child first exploring his own small neighborhood. Only in vestiges in the personalities of his parents, in some of the traits he inherits, is that place with its devastations expressed.
The father works in a yonder state, returns on weekends. The mother labors beneath her station in a flower shop. With caution the boy is charged to the paternal grandmother. A wizen widow of indifferent attitude, unsteady health. And, lo, she fails to enforce the rules set forth. When the parents are away he is wholly free to divert himself as he pleases. Else he enjoys the lenience of guardians ill equipped to fathom the new diversions.
He is brim with imagination but is slow to gain worldly experience. Neither do knowledge or context come early: for he is blinded by flashes of odd information that come ever from all sides, a static as familiar as the air.
He sits silent on the carpet glutted with information. He watches game shows, he watches music videos. In the commercials appear the selfsame mascots of the breakfast cereals he eats, of the cleaning products his parents use, of the fast food chains he hungers for. The virgin whores, the emaciated whores who praise hygiene products, cosmetics, ladies wear. The neutral men and women who seem serene in the medications they take. The lesser figures of his tawdry mythology. They have tenuous histories, they speak in lies, they pander, shame, and cajole.
He watches horror movies. By adolescence he has watched almost every horror movie. At night he can’t sleep with visions of monsters. It is not the monsters who murder outright he fears, but those who exist in other worlds or can pull one into other worlds, specters, vampires, demons, those who can drive one mad with fear or even invade one’s dreams. But when his fear wanes he watches another.
He lives more of his life by the television than apart from it. He takes meals by it. One television stands in the bottom floor of the home, one in his bedroom, one in the bedroom of his parents, a smaller one in the kitchen. In their gaze he passes his youth: they watch him grow as in them he watches a world without time, people who remain eternal.
Unto television arrive video games. And he plays: he plays in his home, in arcades, in the homes of schoolmates. The world begins to blink neon and everywhere orgies of sight and sound excite the imagination.
He reads comic books: which are easy to consume. He picks up tabletop roleplaying games: which rouse a challenge. He operates a primitive personal computer: which further forges the new pathways.
And he is presented an analog camcorder with which he does imitate the media he follows. Of books he reads seldom and without aim. Song lyrics are his poetry.
He counts a handful as authentic friends: yet the meaning of the word rings empty. For happiness is measured by the outward: such is the message of the culture. And all but the closest are cloven by the surfacemost.
His own modest circle is connected by the virtual. While the hedonism that media promotes, that the craftier elements assume as commonplace, eludes them.
Surely there must be something deeper. In a crisis would even a one rush to his assistance?
He desires women but knows them little. While the masses cry, Beware the plague of AIDS: conquer concupiscence. Some cry, It is a sickness brought upon the Homosexuals for their grievous sin. Some cry, It is a sickness of the apes.
And behold! The internet, email, cellphones.
Thus might he dwell on an island for all he knows of the events that have wrought the world around him. He lives in a pocket, a lull of isolation in which all is calm and gluttonous and a strange unease prevails. He tarries unfledged among a people who hold few laws and retain fewer traditions.
There are a few entanglements, a few middling engagements: these pass as flickering images and are no different, maybe more remote, than the fictions he watches.
God? All Gods have long been dead, and myth suffers to join them. All faiths in man seem disproven.
By instinct and slim sporadic guidance he fixes through the static on those clear patches he can and absorbs them curiously well.
He is at a university. He is awakened from without. To action. To a broader view of knowledge.
He gropes amain to amass the experience he esteems. The reckless experience that is much informed by media. The particular knowledge that captivates his penchants.
The place is one where fashion passes for scholarship. Where a host of vested interests, sequestered from humanity, confined in comfort, of torpid mind and pampered temper, do forego thought, do forego integrity, to hasten their own zealous agendas or worldly ambitions. And, withal, in a babel unintelligable even to themselves.
Yet herein also move the few brave and brazen who would seek out truth for its own sake. And all the learned inquiries, all the rich activities, all the lively people that an earnest student should want are in surfeit.
He stumbles with drink, he puzzles with narcotics. He reads eagerly but not of those texts assigned.
He haps upon friendships of more selfless character. A staggering of women, ingenues and wantons.
And he proceeds to set down various impressions. As pictures, as essays, as stories, even poetry. They expand in scope as they narrow in precision. He experiments in film.
He watches television scarcely. As the work he is given is copious: and his disposition, though dubious, though dalliant, does not abide mediocrity. At least not in those pursuits he deems legitimate.
Also does much of the matter on television seem vacant against that he now values. And why ogle the lives of others, their adventures, their endeavors, when actual opportunity beckons.
On breaks he interns in professions the parents uphold as profitable. Business, Law, Marketing. And ventures to places apt to proffer insight. The South, The West, Europe.
Of metaphysics he knows as much as has been known in any age, that is to say, next to nothing.
On reckoning he is not satisfied: for his progress does not meet his expectations.
A nebulousness, an aimlessness that may befall a young man released from formal education. A summer of travels and gaieties with university friends who thereon scatter to the corners of the country, the corners of the world.
And he almost penniless returns to his awaiting home. A plot in the suburbs on the east coast of America. A plot of once woodlands now landscaped and riven by a long bituminous driveway ending at a tall gabled house sided gray.
Here all things that have not much changed, all things that are as inbred as the language he speaks, the face of the land, the objects in the home, the old sounds and smells, are alien for he sees them anew.
A vision of the land. Where once were woods and open fields now is a frightful maze of molds. And this maze is made of streets, of plots, of houses.
And these streets are smooth and cast of hard dark stone, entailing travel by vehicle, and twine every which way through the earth.
And these plots are pared into even shapes unknown to nature, and are of a grass so bright it might be thought a similitude, were it not for the sight of machines that do water it of their own accord
And on these plots stand houses that seem sturdy in construction, but behold, their insides are filled with loose fillings, their foundations are slipshod. Were a tempest to come they would fall like green soldiers in a slaughter.
And all the structures are of the same somber palate, all the materials cheap, all the plots the same artificial color, so that all is unified only in nondescriptness
And odd pieces of refuse lie in cracks, in gutters. At night they shine with an uncanny glow. Plastics, styrofoams, metallics. They are designed to be discarded: yet they will outlast generations.
And at first light the streets are an exodus of vehicles, and these vehicles are as enclosed dwellings, and are driven by strangers. And on the faces of these strangers pass nary an expression of harmony.
And of these strangers many sit in corners, in cubicles, in offices far off, and pray for the time to pass, and by darkness return in the same solemn fashion to abodes of few or no relations. Thus do they shift ceaselessly between solitaries of their own devise.
And a silence can be heard: a silence like the collective plaints of the residents herein. For under the banners of Freedom and Privacy have they unwittingly raised a desolation of the Unnatural. And have they come to know this desolation as prosperity, as serenity and beauty. And in it have they hardened their hearts to humanity while embracing all media that humanity provides.
In secret do their souls bewail the griefs their minds will not permit them to see. And at night these wails are the most pitiable: a nightmare of the wistful and the fearful. A symphony of sorrowful songs. And the maze grows outward slowly and threatens to swallow what is left of nature.
The vision cedes. They are the surroundings he remembers: only paler and more insipid.
Now he is severed again from the sapid experience that accords the greater world. Now in the household of his relations he feels infantilized. Of course he will save enough money and plunge back into the bloody world. But as what? And where?
∆ This is the first time this piece has seen the light of day
My god, Bourbon Street sounds crazy as we approach from the curb! It hits me as I round the corner. All of it. Shoes scuffling pavement, laughter and cries high pitched and shrill or deep and throaty resonant abrupt, all manner of chit-chat accents and dialects, angry words, drunken screams, howls, accusations, trash plastics and paper crunching underfoot like cinder, “Show your tits, show your tits,” chanted over and over by an enraptured crowd— all of it, here, coming closer, blending into enveloping raucous, a typhoon of discord. And as we draw even closer… smells, carried on sun-warmed air, smells of body odor and sweat, all types of perfumes colognes deodorants cosmetics, alcohol and beer, mixed drink sickly sweetness, grilling meat, and more, more, something more, a stench rising from the ground, and all of it— mixing together, frenetic, dissonant, an overwhelming cloud, a living organism, an amusement park of sounds and smells. And we’re not even close! “Show your tits! Show your tits!”
Long stretch of narrow street, but I can barely see anything, not the street, not the buildings. Just the crowd. The crowd teeming and swaying like blades of grass. A mix of every race creed religion sexual orientation, pushing heaving maneuvering jumping and shoving, but— the individuals, they meld together, disappear. The Crowd. From here, from a block away, there’s only the Crowd.
And the buildings, the buildings, like cardboard cut-outs— I see them now— a potpourri of shops stands saloons bars nightclubs jazz clubs strip joints. Like a two-dimensional Hollywood set. Glitz, kitsch, and sparkle. Greens purples yellows, squash and pumpkin-colored brick, reds auburns, deteriorating whites, stuccos, all glowing in the sun, and trimmed with gold, bright yellow, silver, and track lighting, lanterns, sconces (lit even in day), fluorescent and neon signs, railings banisters doors covered in splotches of paint, posters flags and banners, falling confetti, streamers, and beads…
A shower of beads. Prismatic spray. Thrown by people atop the balconies. Ornate metal balconies, green and calcified, relics of Old Orleans— draped in metallic streamers (gold silver violet emerald and purple), intertwining, and dangling in clumps— and decorated with banners, white and yellow banners bearing logos… B & A Bolt Supply, Inc. Lafayette. Freeport, TX. Baytown, Texas… 104.1 FM. Your Jazz Source… Dustin Francis Unlimited… Hanging masks, faces of jesters, and harlequins. (The people on the balconies, my friend James tells me, are mostly from corporations; their companies rent the second and third floors of clubs and cafes.) “…show your tits… show your tits…” Interplay between the balconies and the crowd. Beads drop in a haze of sparkles. Some dangle in long strings, just high enough, out of reach. Expose your breasts, gets beads, it’s that easy, I guess. But what do men do? White torsos appear with rhythmic regularity. People reaching upward, straining, following the beads’ paths to the ground, ducking, submerging themselves, the risk of being stepped on, or worse, trampled…
And above it all, above the crowd, this seething teeming mass— above it all are street lamps, wooden posts, street signs sticking out like colored swords or umbrellas in a cocktail. Orleans… Bourbon… St. Peter written in white lettering on black background… Oriental Isle, TO GO, Hand Grenades, Exotic Drinks, Newspapers, Cigarettes… Watson Bourbon, Dedicated to the Preservation of Jazz… Fire Lane, No Parking… One Way, Do Not Enter… Krazy Korner…
I take a breath… and step into the Crowd…
Tumult. Momentary loss of personality. Everyone hypnotized, doing things beyond their will. Release of instinct, impulse. And the heat! A catalyst. Muggy warmth. Outside it’s cool, a cool day, but here, inside, it’s like the tropics. And that stench! The ground rising up, mingling with cosmetics and sweat, putrid rancid and pungent, like carrion. Charred black, littered with fluids and every piece of trash imaginable. Everyone too drunk or drugged to care. A strange land of strange natives, chanting and writhing, gold raining down from the sky, the boon of some Aztec god. I’m packed tightly, around me people jostling shoving people reaching for beads, throwing beads, spilling beer and spraying sweat. I’m sweating too. It’s kill or be killed. Darwin in effect. A girl trips and falls, clings to my shirt, whispers something unintelligible and pushes off into the crowd. A wave pool without a life preserver— or the Caribbean during a gale. If I didn’t have a strong stomach, I’d be seasick. Beads rain on my head, but I’m too slow. Too slow. Someone almost hits me trying to grab them. I kneel down, look around, but some thirteen-year-old’s swiped them already. Hundreds of legs pounding around me like pistons. Jesus. I spring up quickly. A chain of camera flashes…
A girl throwing her shirt off. And everywhere I look, naked torsos. Men crowding around, like a school of sharks circling, taking snapshot after snapshot. The timing has to be just right— when the hemline rises above the stomach— and then click, flash, a stranger’s breasts captured for eternity. Some men pull their pants down for the right price… I see a woman tan as a leather suitcase. Guys decked out like pimps, and guys in business suits. Hippie girls with flower dresses. Muscle-men. Bulging biceps. A white sign reading Huge Ass Beers in blue letters. Next to it, a guy in Wisconsin Football poncho, stupid grin on his face. A black man in tuxedo. Signs. Posters. Rows and rows of nudie pics (advertisements for strip clubs)— women in red robes, leather fur satin lace, coquettish positions— bordered by blinking lights… Maiden Voyage… Hobgoblin Ale… Perch Balcony, Look Upstairs. Great view of Bourbon Street… Michelob… Everyone is welcome, but this is a straight bar… Budweisers… Bud Light… yellow neon sign shaped like an alligator… Party Like It’s 1999… One attractive woman atop a balcony especially popular with the crowd, showing her breasts over and over, hundreds of beads around her neck. A bald guy in jean jacket bending over the railing for a better look. James behind me somewhere, but I can’t see him… A guy running by, chanting Indian war-whoop, parting the crowd, a camera swinging from his shoulder; a mass of muscle and sinew, and he’s dressed in a Minotaur suit. A Minotaur suit! Fantastic outfit. Terrible mask of real fur, complete with ivory horns, and leather loin cloth, Viking boots— skin even glued with patches of fur. Old man next to me in tweed suit propositioning a young girl to show her breasts. Latino guy— gelled hair, tinted glasses, feather-boa— sucking on an old woman’s nipple. This I’d like to photograph. Flash. Captured in my cheap camera…
Can’t stand much more of this. I push onward, knocking people aside, James following. Eventually we push through to the other end, the mouth of the crowd, breaking away. Smells and sounds of Bourbon trailing behind us like a foreign cloud. Sweaty and warm, met with cool breeze, shivering, and teeth chattering. I smell like the crowd. Beer, cologne, perfume. And no beads to show for it.
We press on through the French Quarter. It’s more posh here, upscale, and the streets are narrower. Not many people around. Shops white and clean. Bulletproof display cases. Expensive watches, mink coats, bottles of perfume. And the street itself smells vaguely of perfume; a pleasant change from Bourbon. A group of three very old ladies walks by. One stops along the way, bends down, taking a good ten seconds of effort, and picks a pair of cheap beads off the ground.
– From the novel Mardi Gras in the Moment
∆ Appeared in Flaneur No. 3 (ed. Lawrence Levi, NYC)