Friday, October 21, 2016

Myths on the Rock and Roll Stage

I saw the Ramones for the first time at the long-gone Wax Museum in Washington D.C. in March of 1984. The band was supporting Subterranean Jungle, an album that I pulled out recently to listen to and which floored me—again—with its great guitar sound, courtesy of co-producers Ritchie Cordell and Glen Kolotkin, and overall amped-up energy. Like each Ramones album since Road to Ruin, the record has its detractors, among them the band members themselves (but they hated everything). Some decry the slick, of-the-era production and drum sound; some lament the three cover songs; some hate the cartoonish cover. Johnny Ramone liked the guitar sound—aided and abetted by ex-Heartbreaker guitarist Walter Lure, who's thanked on the inner sleeve but otherwise uncredited—and he recalls watching the Cardinals/Brewers World Series while recording the album, and that's enough for me. Those cover songs—"Time Has Come Today," "Little Bit O' Soul," and the Boyfriends' transcendent, desperate "I Need Your Love"—are all great, as are the originals "Outsider," "Somebody Like Me," "In the Park," "Time Bomb," and "Psycho Therapy," the opening siren-wailing-riff of which excites me as much as it did when I first heard it in Regan America.

What I remember about the show is the scarifying ringing in my ears for a week afterward, but there was a current running through the performance that had nothing to do with the band's considerable Marshall backline. Seven months before the show, following a show in Queens, Johnny had been involved in a street confrontation with twenty-two year old Seth Macklin, a member of the punk band Sub Zero. According to a New York Times account, Ramone "suffered a fractured skull during a fight . . . that began at 3:50 A.M. when Mr. Ramone encountered Mr. Macklin with a young woman Mr. Ramone had dated, according to Sgt. Peter Ruane, a police spokesman."
Mr. Ramone, who was born as John Cummings, was injured when Mr. Macklin kicked him in the head near the end of the fight, Sergeant Ruane said. Mr. Macklin was arrested on assault charges and Mr. Ramone was taken to St. Vincent's Hospital where he underwent surgery. The hospital refused to disclose Mr. Ramone's condition. 
The following day, the Times reported that "punk-rock star" Ramone was in stable condition, and "Mr. Ramone's friend" was identified as Cynthia Whitney, twenty-two; Macklin, who wasn't injured, "was arrested and charged with first-degree assault, according to the police. He was arraigned and released in his own custody." 

Here's an account of the so-called "jealous rage" in the Prescott, Arizona Courier:

Johnny didn't talk about the incident much afterward until his posthumously published autobiography, Commando (which I wrote about here.) He devotes a page to the incident, acknowledging that he remembers little of the attack that put him in the hospital for ten days. "I was thankful that I didn’t have brain damage and that I was okay," he wrote, "but other people said that they saw something different about me after the attack."
They thought that it had changed me. I didn’t feel any different, but I began to be more cautious, and looked to avoid confrontational situations. I didn’t back down, of course, because New York is a confrontational place. But I watched situations more carefully, even people around the Ramones who might want to get too close. I did not want to get into another fight. I saw the damage that it had done. I was now more vulnerable to head injuries. 
He revealed that Macklin served only a few months in jail. "I went to court and testified," he wrote. "I never heard from him again. I was very angry. I wanted him killed. I'm all for capital punishment. I think it should be televised." Afterward Johnny worried about going soft, and he peered around a bit more while on the street, bought a gun and began carrying mace.

My buddies and I knew none of this the night of the show, of course. Somehow we'd heard that Johnny had been fighting for his life, the result of a street brawl with some skinhead on a grimy, shadowy street in scary New York City. I hadn't visited the city since I was a child with my family, and so the imagery in my head quickly grew lurid and exaggerated, a story telling its own story. This is how the imagination works: facts are replaced by desire, what it wants. Before the Internet, such vivid conjuring was easy, required even. Down in D.C., because we had no corroboration of, or updates about, the fight, we recreated the incident in our heads, giving it mythic proportions within which to grow. The details were murky, so we brightened the story with our own, internal versions. Now: every fact can be searched for and found online, and there's precious little time left for mythology to form between an incident and its instant sharing, and vetting, by millions around the world. Then: we'd heard that his head had been shaved for emergency surgery and that he was sporting uncharacteristically short hair, or maybe even a wig! (It didn't look like it the night of the show, but then again it was months later.) That fall in the tiny record store in the Student Union at the University of Maryland, I looked at the Ramones' new album and sensed that the band was working up a little myth of their own about the incident: Too Tough To Die it was called. On the cover they emerged, back-lit, from a tunnel. Inside they played faster than they ever had.

There are a lot factors that affect the memory of a great show: the songs; the performance; the venue; the size of the crowd; the drugs or alcohol coursing through or absent from your body. Within minutes, driving or walking home afterward, a show can grow large in our retelling of it. Also graphically affecting a show are the stories that we carry inside of ourselves as we're rocking out, narratives that may or may not have happened to those guys and girls up there onstage, or next to me on the floor, but which cast the evening on an even larger stage.

Anyway, RIP John Cummings. Turn it up:

Photo of Johnny Ramone via David Corio / Getty

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Guy at Hammerjacks

The things that stick in memory. I'm at a Godfathers show at Hammerjacks in Baltimore, Maryland, probably in 1987. The band's in the States promoting Birth School Work Death, but the song I remember most is "I'm Unsatisfied," a tune that first appeared on a 12-inch in the U.K. and was later gathered on Hit By Hit. What I see when I hear the song now: a guy near the front of the stage, to my left, decked out in standard-issue Hammerjacks black-leather, head banging during the song's opening lines. In memory I associate him with the leather-clad, Marginal Man crowd that used to hang at Back Alley Cafe in D.C., lining their motorcycles out front, but it's more likely that he was a Baltimore native. The memory is devoid of any real meaningful context, but there it is, always, when I hear this great song. He's forever enshrined, and I'll likely carry him wherever I go. Where is he now? A dad, a boss, far removed from Baltimore? Dead? Who knows, but he lives in the eternal present, a perfect, decay-resistant image of rocking out.

I have other memories of Hammerjacks: my buddy returning from the bar clutching four shots of Jägermeister, grinning and excited because "It's like brushing your teeth"; in the parking lot out front, gathered around another friend's car, talking randomly and self-consciously about fucking; the time I almost got pulled under the mosh pit at a Ramones show; the seedy and thrilling shadows of Route 395 and the cars roaring above our heads as we'd leave the club.... But no image sticks quite like this head-banging dude, utterly lost in the intense elation of a rock and roll song, enacting a silhouette that occurred the night before, the following weekend, and last weekend, too, there and elsewhere and everywhere. But he's mine for good. He's become a kind of favorite character from a book or TV show. This is how memory works: the guy's emblematic, representative, without my having asked him. What if I'd looked the other way at that moment? He wouldn't have been cast. He doesn't matter, and he means a lot.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Bill Milhizer and The Charades

In recognition of the Fleshtones' 40th anniversary in May of this year, I've been combing through the Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America's Garage Band and online archives for some little-seen nuggets. Here's a terrific photograph of Bill Milhizer and his first band, The Charades, in Troy, New York, in the mid-1960s. The photo appears in an article at The Spot 518 promoting the Fleshtones show this weekend in Troy, where Milhizer lives. Local hero, and all that.

Here's the story of The Charades, from Sweat:
In the summer of 1964, Bill bought his first drum kit, the same set that he plays now with The Fleshtones. In March of that year The Beatles had completed their infamous assault on North America by holding the top five spots on the Billboard singles charts, and now every teenager in Troy wanted drums and guitars. Forget the old accordion players, the soft-shoe horn players, the sequined Big Band dance players (Bill’s parents had hung up their own patent leather shoes around this time). Rock & roll and pointy boots were in and listen to the girls scream!
Overnight, [Paul] Buehler [Milhizer's drum teacher in Troy] had dozens of Beatle-wig-wearing students. So he turned to Bill, his best and most serious pupil, and asked him if he could take up some of the slack for the beginning students. Bill was only sixteen but he was capable in getting students off the ground and off to playing a set, because by that time Bill had been out playing with his own band The Charades, named after the popular movie from the previous year starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. The title tune, a Henry Mancini number, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song in 1963, and Bill and his band loved it and played an instrumental version as their theme song. Local desires and circumstances required that the band play and sing everything because people in Troy wanted to hear old swing music as well as popular rock & roll. A couple of guys in the band were Polish, and since they played some Polish weddings they had to do polkas, and later they clumsily learned some Latin music because people wanted to do a tipsy cha-cha or samba. And of course they had to do the hits so every weekend they’d throw in a new Beatles tune. 
Milhizer found his way from Troy to the Lower East Side in a characteristically roustabout, roundabout way. Nearly forty years after joining The Fleshtones, Lucky Bill's going strong. “I make enough money to easily take the bus,” Milhizer reflects in the article. “And, I do…. To that extent, we’ve been a success… We’ve met a lot of people in little places around the world.”

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Playoffs Are Here!

And I'm as excited as these fans at Sportsman's Park during Game Six of the World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox, seventy years ago this week. Here's to chilly afternoons and nights of languor and drama.

My fearless predictions:

American League
ALDS: Blue Jays > Rangers
ALDS: Red Sox > Indians
ALCS: Red Sox > Blue Jays

National League
NLDS: Cubs > Giants
NLDS: Nats > Dodgers
NLCS: Cubs > Nats

World Series
Cubs > Red Sox in six

Photo via Mashable.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Memory À Go-Go

We rarely know when we're in the middle of a moment that will become historic. We have our conventional markers—our high school or college graduations; our weddings; the baby's first tottering steps—but these are marketed, by Hallmark, and to ourselves, as unforgettable. Usually when I say to myself, at a show, a party, on a river, alone or with someone, I'm gonna remember this, the memory's gone within an hour or a day, called up only when I will it. It's a melancholy, and maybe disturbing, thought that we don't choose our memories, they choose us. On my darkest (or is it my most lucid?) days, I feel that we're little more than the sum total of our memories, but those memories tend to stay with us, and thus define so much of ourselves, for random, scattershot reasons.

Anyway, I mulled over all this today while washing the lunch dishes as Johnny Rivers's terrifically fun Johnny Rivers At The Whisky À Go-Go played in the next room. The album was recorded live ("very live!") at the famed club during a Rivers residency in the early Spring of 1964 as the Beatles were in ascension, months after their Ed Sullivan Show appearance and weeks from storming and occupying the first five spots of the Billboard Top 100. The album features a throaty and tipsily enthusiastic audience, and I wondered, when they clapped and whistled, if they knew that 1964 was going to be a watershed year in American pop music. Of course they didn't. I'd like to track down an audience member who was at one of these Rivers gigs, and ask him or her: what do you remember most from that night? Rivers's singing and his slashing Stratocaster, dancing in front, twinkling Sunset Boulevard, or the trouble getting a babysitter for the night, a random billboard on the way to the show, the fight you had with your sister that morning,...?

Sunday, October 2, 2016

So Long, Vin Scully

Words can't approximate what I've felt, thought, and imagined as I've listened to Scully call baseball games over several decades. I'll let him have the last word: "It's a mere moment in a man's life between the All-Star Game and an old timer's game."
Vin, Lucky Strike, and Schaefer


Saying so long

Top photo via Lockerdome, middle photo via Awful Announcing, bottom photo via Diamond Hoggers

Friday, September 30, 2016

Road Trip

Driving west on I-70 in Maryland, I encountered a massive backup east of Hancock. Trusting my GPS, I hopped off of the interstate and into the Maryland panhandle country. I drove north into Pennsylvania on a series of stunningly pretty roads that wound and dipped and banked and gently lifted and lowered me in and out of the Allegheny Mountains, a friendly blur of churches, farms, and small storefronts (and Trump placards), the pleasantness interrupted only by a series of handmade painted roadside signs warning about an incoming pork rendering plant and the damage it might cause to local streams and rivers. I'd always wanted to drive on these particular roads, as the view looking east on I-70 driving below I-76 is breathtaking, one of my all-time favorite vistas in the country, a steep, CinemaScope view of Pennsylvania farmlands and tiny, steeple-dotted villages. This providential side trip eventually took me onto Route 522 heading north; after a half hour or so I picked up Route 30 going west. The road felt familiar, and soon enough things were clarified when a sign indicated that I was driving on the old Lincoln Highway, Route 30 being the southern Pennsylvania leg of one of the country's earliest transcontinental highways. I arrived at Breezewood—an icon of sorts, for me—from the east rather than the south, for the first time in my life, and approaching the legendary junction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and I-70 on the old Lincoln Highway—well, let's just say that this surprise Americana road trip, wholly unplanned, the result of traffic congestion on a major interstate, was a welcome amusement ride that I won't soon forget.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Skeptical Roger Angell

Roger Angell in 1954
I recently stumbled across an interesting mid-1950s essay at This I Believe, the radio program originally hosted by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s and popularly revived by National Public Radio a decade or so ago. The contributor here, reading "The Dignity of Man," is none other than Roger Angell, at the time an editor at Holiday magazine and, as the introduction informs us, "a frequent contributor of fiction to The New Yorker." A year or two before he joined The New Yorker as an editor, in 1956, and nearly a decade before he began writing about baseball for that magazine, Angell essays the nature of humankind from his suburban perch over the Hudson River in Palisades, New York. The writing is somewhat stiff and unusually abstract, and the tone is serious-sober for Angell, but already intact, and characteristic, are Angell's deep affection for skepticism and his appreciation for the surprising gift of empathy—two of the most valuable tools for a great nonfiction writer, it seems to me.

Two excerpts:
And this is not, it seems to me, a time of certainty, of faiths easily espoused and firmly held. I suspect that this is a good thing, because I am a great believer in skepticism. I think that a man should grasp a belief warily and carry it gingerly. He should always be ready to test its worth against experience and to abandon it without regret if it begins to look ugly, expensive or cumbersome.
Once in a while, in my dealings with other men, an astonishing thing happens. Something I cannot get out of my head. Suddenly I see straight into a man and find, to my shock, only myself there. This is a rare moment, because men do not often give themselves away, only by accident or in times of great pain and happiness. In that moment, if I dare to look, I see in any man my own desires, my deeply hidden beliefs, my need for love, my inner seriousness, and my hope. This moment is a lightning flash in an unlit room that suddenly illuminates all. After it is gone, I still see, pressed on my eyes for a few instants, the shape, the bright highlights and the true vivid colors of the dark room in which I sit. In that moment, the dignity of man is an almost visible thing.
A rare recording of Angell from a relatively obscure era in his professional life, the three-minute essay is worth listening to in full.

Friday, September 16, 2016

R&R in Technicolor

The :59 mark in this song always affected me the same way as the moment in The Wizard of Oz when the sepia-tinted black and white transitions to glorious Technicolor. Depending on your taste, or perhaps your fondness for two-tiered harpsichords or your political stance on Eric Clapton, you might feel differently. And on some days it reverse for me too, the raw, chugging middle throwing the brightly-colored exoticism of the opening verse and chorus into harsh, below-ground B&W rumble. Such is the glory of mid-1960s rock and roll: B&W to color to B&W in the same song.

Sleeve pic via Psychedelic sixties.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Nostalgia, Play Loud

Rock and roll and nostalgia go hand in hand. The songs you loved at [insert age here] can't possibly matter as much to someone born ten years younger or ten years older than you, and each of them has songs that have indelibly soundtracked their lives and who look at you, baffled, when you don't share their passion. Nostalgia is a tattoo that you can't remove, and most of the time, we don't want to.

Carrie Brownstein's 2015 memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is a terrific account of Brownstein's early and ongoing identification with punk rock and creative expressions. On one level a chronological narrative of Sleater-Kinney—loaded with details of road-and-stage exploits, band dynamics, Pacific NW Riot grrrl history, fly-on-the-wall songwriting and recording sessions with fellow members Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss—the book also allows Brownstein to maturely essay more personal questions about queerness, gender performance, friendship, intimacy, and personal integrity. Brownstein's references throughout the book to Joseph Mitchell, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, and The New Yorker didn't surprise me: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is a very well-written, literate and cerebral book, but thankfully Brownstein doesn't sacrifice anecdote or evocative details. Her tone is humble—self-deprecating without false humility—and her style conversational, though it suffers in places from over-writing—8 out of 10 Brownstein metaphors land, on average, but when they do they are memorable. (It also didn't surprise me that during Sleater-Kinney's hiatus in the late 90s Brownstein considered studying nonfiction writing in an MFA program.) 

One of my favorite passages comes early in the book when Brownstein—first and always a fan of music—writes very wisely about the value and limitations of nostalgia:
Nostalgia is so certain: the sense of familiarity it instills makes us feel like we know ourselves, like we’ve lived. To get a sense that we have already journeyed through something—survived it, experienced it—is often so much easier and less messy than the task of currently living through something. Though hard to grasp, nostalgia is elating to bask in—temporarily restoring color to the past. It creates a sense memory that momentarily simulates context. Nostalgia is recall without the criticism of the present day, all the good parts, memory without the pain. Finally, nostalgia asks so little of us, just to be noticed and revisited; it doesn't require the difficult task of negotiation, the heartache and uncertainty that the present does.

Now l can’t listen to some of these records alone, in my house that l have cleaned and organized, books arranged just so, sheets washed. The sounds don’t hold up. In these cases, fandom is contextual and experiential: it’s not that it happened, it’s that you were there. It’s site-specific, age-specific. Being a fan has to do with the surroundings, and to divorce the sounds from that context often feels distancing, disorienting, but mostly disappointing. I think of all the times I’ve had a friend over and pulled out records from high school or college, ready for the album to change someone’s life the way it changed mine. I watch my friend’s face, waiting eagerly for the “aha!” moment to arrive, only to realize that my affection for this intentionally off-key singing, saggy bass sound, and lyrics about bunnies isn’t quite the revelation it was fifteen years ago. “You had to be there” is not always a gloat or admonishment—often it’s an explanation for why something sounds utterly terrible.
Carrie Brownstein and Jessica Hopper

This passage put me in mind of Jessica Hopper, author of the pointedly-titled The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, also published last year. Gathered from pieces Hopper's written over the past fifteen years for magazines and online sites such as SPIN, Chicago Reader, Village Voice, and her own tumblr, Tinyluckygenius, Hopper's pieces are smart, meaningful, and affecting. She writes conventionally solid album reviews as well as evocative profile pieces, and in between personal essays, all of it benefiting from the intelligence of a fan who's steeped in historical knowledge and the perspective it grants. My favorite essay in the book is "Emo: Where the Girls Aren't," first published in Punk Planet in 2003. Hopper's a powerful writer when she zooms in on individuals in the middle of living inside of historic moments, in this case the rise of punk feminism in the 1990s. Hopper, too, writes about nostalgia in her book, devoting an entire section to it, with essays on Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Dinosaur, Jr., and Hole, but in this essay she comes at nostalgia from a different angle than Brownstein; Hopper's nostalgia carries some troubling questions. Writing about her early experiences with punk rock and emo, Hopper turns her attention to the generation of hungry and wide-eyed female fans who came after her:
My deepest concerns about the lingering effects of emo is not so much for myself or for my friends—we have refuge in our personal-political platforms and deep-crated record collections—but rather for the teenage girls I see crowding front and center at emo shows. The ones who for whom this is their inaugural introduction to the underground, whose gateway may have been through Weezer or the Vagrant America tour or maybe Dashboard Confessional's Unplugged. The ones who are seeking music out, who are wanting to stake some claim to punk rock, or an underground avenue, for a way out, a way under, to sate the seemingly unquenchable, nameless need—the same need I know I came to punk rock with. Emo is the province of the young, their foundation is fresh-laid, my concern is for people who have no other previous acquaintance with the underground, save for these bands and their songs.
When Hopper was that age, she too "had a hunger for a music that spoke a language I was just starting to decipher, music that affirmed my ninth grade fuck-you values—music that encouraged me to not allow my budding feminist ways to be bludgeoned by the weight of mainstream, patriarchal culture—I was lucky I was met at the door with things like the Bikini Kill demo, Fugazi and the first Kill Rock Stars comp." She continues, "I was met with polemics and respectful address; I heard my life and concerns in those songs. I was met with girl heroes deep in guitar squall, kicking out the jams under the stage lights. I was being hurtled towards deeper rewards. Records and bands were triggering ideas and inspiration." Hopper knows that she wouldn't be who she is now, as a woman and a fan and a professional, if she "had not had gotten those fundamentals, been presented with those big ideas about what music and, moreover, what life, can be about."

And now Hopper recognizes that at shows she watches the girls up front as much as the band, looking for signs:
I watch them sing along, to see what parts they freak out over. I wonder if this does it for them, if seeing these bands, these dudes on stage, resonates and inspires them to want to pick up a guitar or drum sticks. Or if they just see this as something dudes do, since there are no girls, there is no them up there. I wonder if they see themselves as participants, or only as consumers or—if we reference the songs directly—the consumed. I wonder if this is where music will begin and end for them. If they can be radicalized in spite of this. If being denied keys to the clubhouse is enough to spur them into action.
Hopper acknowledges that she wouldn't have considered starting a band until she saw other women in bands—a clarion call that previous generations of female artists recognize and are grateful for. "It took seeing Babes in Toyland and Bikini Kill to truly throw on the lights, to show me that there was more than one place, one role, for women to occupy, and that our participation was important and vital—it was YOU MATTER writ large," Hopper writes.
I don’t want these front row girls to miss that. I don’t want girls leaving clubs denied of encouragement and potential. As lame as punk rock can be, as hollow as all of our self-serving claims ring—that the culture of punk is truly different somehow than that of median society—at its gnarled foundations still exists the possibilities for connection. There is still the possibility for exposure to radical notions, for punk rock to match up to what many kids dream, or hope for punk DIY to mean. But much of that hinges on the continual presence of radicalized women within the leagues, and those women being encouraged—given reasons to stay, to want to belong—rather than diminished by the music which glues the community together.
Hopper ends her essay with a demand: "Us girls deserve more than one song. We deserve more than one pledge of solidarity. We deserve better songs than any boy will ever write about us."

Nostalgia, from nostos, implies a return home—but more accurately, it's the inability to return to a home that we've defined, often inaccurately, by its absence. (I've weighed in on this most human of impulses here.) Hopper isn't explicitly writing about nostalgia in her piece, but in looking hard at those young women up front rocking out at shows, she's seeing them through her own feelings about, and memories of, herself in that very position, years earlier—nostalgic for a liberating and empowering era that she hopes lives on. Brownstein pulls albums that may or may not rock your world as they did hers; Hopper hopes that what she longingly recalls is happening right now for you. Nostalgia simultaneously redefines our past and our present. Someone should write a song about it.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Autobiography, Drinking As.

The May 25, 1929 issue of The New Yorker featured "A Short Autobiography," a casual by F. Scott Fitzgerald comprised of seventeen brief segments. Four years after The Great Gatsby, seven years before "The Crack-Up," his great Esquire essay about his nervous collapse, Fitzgerald identifies his life's key moments chronologically as seen through wine and cocktail glasses. The list essay spans "four defiant Canadian Club whiskeys at the Susquehanna in Hackensack" in 1913 to the weary admission a decade and a half later of "A feeling that all liquor has been drunk and all it can do for one has been experienced, and yet—...". In between are fondly remembered toasts with champagne, burgundy, brandy, bourbon, red and white wine, sherry, crème de cacao, and "oceans" of ale. Friends and associates drift in the background as blurred accomplices and walk-ons to important occasions. The essay ends with another drink order.

Eleven years later, Fitzgerald would die of a heart attack, his body weakened by years of alcoholism. "A Short Autobiography" reads tragically now, of course, our take on Fitzgerald tempered by a host of things, not the least of which being a wide view of his reckless drinking and a grim understanding of the word "short" in the title. But in the late 1920s, moments from economic and not a little emotional collapse, the merry little essay must've tasted like the first of many drinks, Last Call being an unimaginable nuisance. The opening:


I first read "A Short Autobiography" in My Lost City: Personal Essays, 1920-1940, a terrific collection edited by James West, who assembled the book of autobiographical nonfiction that Fitzgerald had hoped to publish in the mid 1930s but was discouraged from doing so by his editor. West helpfully explains that the "Nathan" in the dedication was the drama critic Jean Nathan, and that the ingredients in Sazerac Cocktails are "absinthe, sugar, bitters, water, and whiskey." I might have to try one.

Photo of Fitzgerald in repose via Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald. Astonishingly, I couldn't a photo of him drinking.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Subterranean Epiphany: Vivian Gornick Rides the Subway

For decades, I've been immoderately obsessed with the New York subway, in part because I don't live or work in the city and can indulge my obsessions on leisurely visits. I try to get to New York a couple of times a year—with my wife Amy, or solo—and when I'm in town I ride the trains as often as I can, for hours. A marvel of engineering and efficiency (nowadays), the subway is an unparalleled way to take a measure of the city's social pulse, an intensive and rich experience I don't quite feel in trains in other American cities (San Fransisco, Chicago, Washington D.C., etc., though I did experience something similar in the crowded and noisy London Underground). The hours I've lost sitting in a front car, gazing forward through grimy glass as the train moves through tunnels under boroughs and the East River, ascends and descends in and out of daylight, arrives at stations. I've even fantasized about moving us to New York and taking a job as a subway conductor—an indication of the urban romanticizing of which I'm unfortunately guilty. I recently finished 722 Miles, Clifton Hood's history of the subway, an engrossing if in places unexciting read, a well-researched account that unfortunately stops short of the subway system's notorious era of mechanical and cultural dilapidation and disrepair, a time period in which I'm especially interested. Then last night I came across "A Ride on the New York Subway," an essay by the great Vivian Gornick, in The Village Voice Anthlogy (1956-1980).

Gornick's essay ran in the December 21, 1972 issue of the Voice, and opens with a familiar note of nightmarish terror at the deleterious condition of the subway. "The New York subways are, and always have been, a kind of Kafkaesque parallel to the life that is lived above ground on the streets of the most quintessential city in the world," Gornick begins.
Each working day of their lives, millions of New Yorkers “willingly” descend hundreds of feet, through huge manholes in the street, into a subterranean world of darkness and gloom; there, in the dimness, they crowd mechanically together in astonishing numbers at the edge of a deep pit riven with tracks of steel fatal to the human touch, along which will hurtle with exhausting irregularity an iron monster spitting flame and noise like some pagan construction designed for the express purpose of intimidating the cowering human; when the monster comes to a temporary halt, doors slide open in its sides, and the men and women at the edge of the pit tumble inside, very much like Jonah tumbling into the whale; the doors then lock shut, and the iron creature goes roaring off down the pitch-black tunnel with its cargo of human prisoners—sullen penitents all: confused, silent, passive-aggressives doomed to an hour or more of suffocating companionship; during which time it becomes extremely difficult for anyone aboard the monster to see his own reflection in the closed faces that are relentlessly jammed, eyeball to eyeball, breath to breath, blackhead to blackhead, up against one another. . . .

But there are times when the subway, like the city itself, seems so grotesque that, indeed, one wonders how this entire enterprise can continue to call itself human. Much less continue.
Vivian Gornick
Gornick's eye for detail is remarkable, such as in this terrific paragraph, which is as evocative as a sharply-focused photograph:
The platform was indescribably filthy; the tile walls surrounding the staircases were streaked with years-old dirt and the graffiti of a thousand greasy marker pens: Johnny and Velda, ’69; The Jets Was Here; Lindsay Sucks; Tony and Maureen, ’71; Benny and Concita Forever; Loreen Is A Cunt; The Black Hawks Can Beat The Shit Outta The Silver Eagles Anytime. On and on it went, in an endless abstraction of red, blue, and black that covered the walls, the staircases, parts of the platform itself. The floor was littered with the overflow of the few trash cans that stood vaguely about: candy wrappers, orange peels, leaky milk cartons, prophylactic wrappers, torn nylon stockings, pellets of chewed gum, discarded junk mail, globbets of spit. The lights in the ceiling were crusted over with webs of dirt that threatened, momentarily, to fall onto the heads of the passengers. The ceiling of the tunnel seemed lower, the walls more porous, the floor harder than ever I remembered; the black metal pillar supports were caked with rust; tiles in the walls on the far side of the tracks had been ripped out, and the plaster within hung loose like a set of nerves that have been severed.
As Gornick scans the station, her feverish reaction intensifies, and she dissociates herself:
I was the only white person on the platform. All around me were New York‘s working-class blacks and Puerto Ricans, pouring down onto the wide, gloomy subway platform from the offices and factories that filled the streets above our heads, jamming the uptown trains that, at the end of a weary working day, would release them some sixty or seventy minutes later into the streets of Upper Manhattan and the Bronx. Their numbers seemed extraordinary to me; I seemed to have no recollection of this many people on the trains, even at this hour. The platform was filled to capacity, and still they kept coming: the strongly muscled young black men who push the heavily loaded dress racks through the streets of the garment district; the fat Puerto Rican women who sit at the machines in the dress factories; the Puerto Rican men, thin and wan, who spend forty hours a week tying packages or keeping track of shipping orders; the black and brown girls who bring home fifty-five dollars on Friday after a mindless day of clerk-typing; the gray-haired messenger boys, the round-shouldered bookkeepers, the lunch-counter waitresses; that whole tight, closed, no-way-out world up there seemed bent on pushing its way down here, onto this grimy black metal construction, and now threatened, nearly, to spill over onto the tracks. . . . I looked around in alarm.
By this point in the essay, even forgiving Gornick the era in which she's writing, the reader might be turned off by Gornick's racist, obsessive attention to cultural otherness, as her fears—mostly, it appears, stoked by imaginary threats—mount and as her self-pitying overheats. Standard-issue brown-skinned juvenile delinquents and a young black man, to Gornick clearly high on drugs, loom nearer and nearer, and Gornick sees no one to aid her, only faces battered by exhaustion and lost to defensive and intractable self-absoprtion.

Gornick makes eye contact with a woman whom she'd noticed in passing earlier in the essay. "Abruptly, I looked up and out into the platform crowd," she writes, "and there, still leaning against the metal pillar, was the young Puerto Rican woman in the pink plastic slicker—staring at me. What’s this? I thought, and looked back at her."
Our eyes locked. For a length of time which felt eerily like a slow-motion sequence, that strange mutual stare endured, creating a sudden, curious silence in the midst of all this turmoil. And then—as in a dream that may take only eleven seconds to unfold but gives the illusion of hours passing—I felt the entirety of my immediate experience here on this subway platform tumbling, quickly-slowly, through a kaleidoscope of altered meaning, spinning and jerking inside my head, buzzing through the unnatural silence that now surrounded and penetrated me.

For, there in the eyes of the young Puerto Rican woman staring at me, I could see my own face reflected. I could see all of my thoughts and feelings of the last twenty minutes being summed up and appraised. I could see the mixture of mockery and sympathy in her eyes that said so clearly and so honestly what I had not quite been able to say to myself. “We are ‘those people’ to you, aren’t we?” her eyes said, “and all this is happening in another country, isn’t it?” I could see the weary, working-class sophistication with which she “recognized” the entire human scene around her, and the amusement with which she observed middle-class panic. I could see the bitter intelligence that indicated she knew I’d been looking at the people around me as though they were animals in a 200. But, more than any of these things I could see in her face, I could see me in her face. I could see me at seventeen (she was no more than eighteen or nineteen), standing exactly where she now stood, thinking exactly what she was now thinking....
This empathetic communion (felt by Gornick on her end, at least) has an unburdening effect:
The young Puerto Rican woman and I were still staring at each other; I shook my head slightly, and smiled into her face. I wanted to laugh and hug her. I felt free, as though a weight had been lifted from my chest. It wasn’t racism, after all, that I had been experiencing, only a classic instance of “class alienation.” Which, of course, is what New York is all about. . . . How was it possible that in only one short generation I had forgotten who I was, and where I came from? And what I knew of the varieties of human pain experienced behind that annihilating phrase “those people”?
Appalled, Gornick uses this moment to delve into her past and into her Jewishness, a cultural heritage she recalls in her family's own dire and oppressive rides on the subways decades before her, a stigma she now recognizes that she herself was applying to others. This passage is the essay's strength, and it's a turn that I'm glad Gornck makes, as she indoctrinates herself in her own unappealing, knee-jerk behavior, and writes honestly about it. But I'm of two minds about Gornick's subterranean epiphany. Her discovery—led by innate biases and personal history to a surprising and humane recognition—rings true, and feels as if it's the genuine occasion of the essay, but there's a tone of defensiveness also, as if she needs to work extra hard in the first half of the essay to dramatize her revelation in the second half; her descriptions of minorities' unhappy and burdened experiences in the opening, though finally something she understands as spirit cousins to her own past, smacks of overwriting. If Gornick did inappropriately feel as oppressed and ganged-up-upon as she describes in the first half, then she might've done a little more self-interrogating in the second half. But an essay is as imperfect—or as perfect—as the essayist's imperfections. That's why I love the form.

"A Ride on the New York Subway" ends with another moment of communion, unspoken but deeply felt largess from a man whom Gornick had earlier, characteristically, stereotyped. He steers her away from perceived danger on the platform, toward the relative safety of the train car. At the ride's end, Gornick is warmed by her experience of empathy and dignity, and possibly altered:
At 149th Street and Third Avenue, in the Bronx, the train left the tunnel and emerged into the early evening twilight. Half the people in the car in which I was riding went spilling off onto the first elevated station, which is situated in one of the worst black and Puerto Rican slums in the city. The man in the red shirt was one of the last to leave the train. As he reached the door, he suddenly turned and looked at me. The dead cigar was still stuck in his mouth and his eyes were once more expressionless; but he lifted his porkpie hat to me, and lowered his head slightly in my direction. I nodded back. He disappeared through the door. We had spoken not a single word to each other.

For an indication of how much things change to remain the same, check out Colson Whitehead's underappreciated The Colossus of New York from 2004, a smart, kaleidoscopic, essayistic take on the city. Writing three decades after Gornick, Whitehead considers riding the subway in a manner that echoes Gornick's epiphanic experience, his perspective shaped in part from being African American, in part from being a fellow, and weathered, native New Yorker. "This is the fabled journey underground, folks, and it’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better," he writes in the essay's second segment:
On the opposite track it’s a field of greener grass, you gotta beat trains off with a stick. From his secret booth the announcer scares and reassures alternately. The postures on the platform sag or stiffen appropriately. With a dial controlling the amount of static. What are their rooms like, the men at the microphones. One day the fiscal improprieties of the subway announcer’s union will be exposed and that will be the end of the hot tubs and lobster, but until then they break out the bubbly. Look down the tunnel one more time and your behavior will describe a psychiatric disorder. It’s infectious. They take turns looking down into darkness and the platform is a clock: the more people standing dumb, the more time has passed since the last train. The people fall from above into hourglass dunes. Collect like seconds.
Moving forward darkly underground in vastly different times in the city's history, Gornick and Whitehead arrive at similar destinations.


Finally: some terrific photos of New York subway history here and here.

Top photo via Historical Images of New York City Subway.
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