Monday, December 31, 2018

Colosseum


I went to my first New Orleans Saints game Sunday in the Superdome here in New Orleans.  After living here since 2011, it was my first time in the Dome.  The game was inconsequential, the last of the season; the Saints’ future in the playoffs had been established already.  Their star quarterback, Drew Brees, would not be playing.  No sense in risking an injury to the man who will hopefully guide the team to the Super Bowl.  Neither was Cam Newton, the quarterback of the Saints’ opponent, the Carolina Panthers.  No sense in injuring their multi-trillion-dollar star.  So, the game was essentially meaningless, and that’s how I was able to afford a ticket.  My seat was actually quite good, on the 50-yeard-lone, albeit 5,280 feet above the field.  Like seeing a concert live, there is something about seeing a football game live that can’t be duplicated on television.  You see everything, and you see it happening all at the same time.  It’s a visual banquet.

About ten minutes into the game my eyes started wandering around the stadium, this enormous structure, with a capacity of 73,000-plus people.  Despite the unimportance of the game, it was nearly full.  New Orleans loves its football team.  It’s a kind of modern-day Colosseum, the Superdome.  (The capacity of the Roman structure was about the same.)  The screens, lighting, loudspeakers and whatever else they have going make this far more than just a football game.  It’s a spectacle, and for me, at least, the spectacle seemed at times far more prominent than the game. Every single opportunity there was to plug something, to use ordinary citizens to be part of promoting the Saints organization, and every chance there was for the announcer to bellow over the stratospheric-reaching loudspeaker system—“IT’S THIRD DOWN!—those opportunities were exploited.  You are led by the hand at the Superdome, as if you’re a child.  Television has its advantages. 

At one point, I looked up into the far reaches of the Dome, and started thinking about the air conditioning, which seemed to be working quite well and was actually refreshing and not especially overwhelming, as AC often is.  How do they do that, I wondered, and then I thought of 2005 and Hurricane Katrina and how the very space I was seated in became the 10th circle of Hell.  I thought of how everything broke down and turned into chaos and fear for the refugees from the storm who were directed to come here.  Then an eerie feeling settled over me.  The place looked so spanking fresh and clean.  The same place that was, for a week, one of the worst places on earth.  If anyplace is haunted, surely the Superdome is.  I am clearly not the first person to have these sensations.  Rafi Kohan writes very well about this Superdome experience in this excerpt from his book, The Arena.  I’m sure there are many other people who have written accounts about what it’s like to attend a game at the Superdome and think about what the place was like in September of 2005. That doesn’t make the feeling any less arresting.

A place for sport had once been a place of great suffering.

Not unlike the original Colosseum.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Putsy


Putsy Ford was a tall, slim girl with a lighthouse-strength smile.  Her laugh was at her expense, and there was always a little edge of pain in it.  Elizabeth was her real name.  I'm not sure where she got the name Putsy, but that's what everyone called her, and that never changed.  She lived in that same neighborhood as I did in Virginia Beach, Virginia in the 1960s.  We were teenagers together.  She and my younger sister were best friends and stayed best friends their entire lives. I got to know her when she would come over to visit my sister and, later, when she dated one of my best friends.

There was an element of sadness about her.  She didn’t think she was smart.  She would joke about that, even say, “I’m not very smart.”  Then that painful laugh.  She was better than smart.  She was kind, compassionate and generous.  And she was smart.  At a certain point, her parents bought a motel.  Putsy had to work there when she was in high school on the weekends.  She always worked.  She had three younger sisters, and if she wasn’t working at the motel, she was babysitting one or more of those sisters.  While my teenage friends and I lazed around, she worked. 

Putsy went to college and then, soon after, married a Richmond lawyer.  She moved to Richmond, had two sons, and raised them in that most conservative of cities.  She and her husband bought a summer house at Virginia Beach.  Putsy would bring her sons there in the summer, and her husband would join them on the weekends.  I would see them from time to time.  Putsy was always the same—laughing, self-deprecating, with a shoulder shrug at the curves life threw her.  She and my sister had in common a strong selflessness, and they never complained.

Years later, I remember going to her older son’s wedding in Richmond.  She had become a florist, and a highly sought-after one.  I remember the breathtaking stairway she created for the wedding, with flowers curling around the banisters, like they had grown that way, all the way to the top.  When I complemented her, she said with a bemused resignation that she had to do it all herself at the last minute because the florist she hired didn’t show up. She was a natural with flowers, and all Richmond came to know that. 

Putsy (l) and my sister
After her sons were grown, she left her marriage and went to live in Montana where her parents had a vacation house.  That’s where she met her second husband.  The last time I saw her was at my nephew’s wedding in Colorado in 2012. It was like the sun coming out from behind the clouds.  She was with her new husband, an older man who was in a wheelchair. Putsy guided him around the festivities with care and humor.  She looked happy, and I thought that her husband was lucky to have her in his life.  They lived in western Pennsylvania where he was from.  By then her name had changed a few times, but I always thought of her as Putsy Ford.

A few years ago, my sister told me that Putsy had brain cancer.  Then, one day, I got an e-mail from my sister telling me that Putsy had died.  That sweet, sunny spirit, gone.  The preciousness of friends becomes more apparent as you grow older.  As does the idea of living graciously and courageously.  This is how Putsy went through life. Graciously.  Courageously.  I hope, with the time I have left, to live by her example. 

Friday, December 28, 2018

The First Motel


We looked in awe at the construction as it rose day by day. There had been nothing like it in our narrow world.  We were filled with unrestrained glee, something like Christmas, as the builders produced more and more of it, as it became more itself.  Look at that! we said to one other.  We felt it was some kind of magnificence coming to our town, as if we’d been chosen above all other places in the world for the honor of having this building on our sandy shore, fronting the ocean.  

The first motel.
This was 1957.  I was twelve.
I don’t think we even knew what a motel was.  Yes—what was it?  Why didn’t they just call it a hotel? 
Before the motel, visitors to our town of Virginia Beach, Virgina would stay in small one-story guest houses.  These white wood buildings had expansive porches that faced the ocean. Families who stayed there summer after summer could sit in the evenings after supper and breathe the balm of salty breezes.  The houses had names like “Mrs. Wilson’s Guest Cottage” or “Sea Breeze Guest House.”  Families from Richmond and Washington, DC—so far away!—would come and stay for a week or two, year after year, at the same guest house.  
Day after day we watched the motel rise.  Finally, one day, it was finished.  It was called La Playa.  What was La Playa?  What language was that?  Someone finally told us that it meant the beach in Spanish.   It rose straight and narrow into the air four stories, obscuring the beach from the town’s main street.

La Playa Motel, around the time it was built in 1957

The first motel seemed to us to be the solution to something.  We didn’t know what needed a solution, but it seemed to suggest that something needed the solution of this stone, many-roomed building.  What we didn’t know was that once ensconced, this invasive species would be impossible to extract.  Like a brick and mortar Kudzu, it propagated others. Soon, there was a second motel, then a third, a fourth, then a twentieth and so on, each practically touching the one next to it.  
One by one, the wood guest houses were torn down to make way for these motels.  Soon, there was just one Mrs. Wilson’s.  Then none.  It was hard to even see the beach and ocean from the street where once the views had been plentiful and free.  The small stores that served the community were transformed into T-shirt shops and sellers of beach paraphernalia to serve the swarms of motel guests.  The movie theater became a haunted house.  Miniature golf courses sprung up everywhere. Each of these concerns was architecturally crass, as they always are.  We were too young to understand what this meant.  What it meant was the disappearance of intimate town life.  
Now, nearly sixty years later, there is no Virginia Beach.  There is a city with that name, but the personality of the town, the casual, human-scale living, has vanished.  It’s just motels and trashy shops.  I recognize hardly anything from my growing up.  Archeologists, many years from now, on some dig, will only be able to find traces of what existed, what sort of life was led, before La Playa and its stone companions arrived.  

Beware of the first motel.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Junior League


For sixty-two years, I had the same name as my father—except with a diminutive tacked on at the end. 

I was a junior.  Or, as normally depicted, "Jr."
His name was Richard C. Goodman. My name was Richard C. Goodman, Jr.  Being a junior made me feel like I everything I did, or had, was smaller.  My brain, my accomplishments, my room, my penis—you name it. 
After all, what does the word “junior” mean?  “Of lower rank or standing,” says my dictionary.  Even more than that was that I didn’t have my own unique name.  My brother John did; my sister Mary did; my mother Marianna did; even my dog Nikki did.   
Though I hated writing my name with “Jr.” at the end, I hated saying it even more.  My mouth would tighten when I got to the end of my name, like I was masticating glue. 

“What’s your name?” someone would ask in any number of daily situations.  
“My name?”  
“Yes.  What…is…your…name?”
“Richard Goodman…Ju…Ju…”
“What?  I can’t hear you.”
“Ju….ni…”
“What?!?”
“JUNIOR, Godammit!  JUNIOR!!  Richard Goodman, JUNIOR!!   There!  Now, are you happy????”
At least—thank God for small favors!—they didn’t call my father Big Richard and me Little Richard.  Imagine the taunts, living in the 1950s South, as I did:  “You’re Little Richard! Well, Whop-bop-a-looma-a-whop-boom-bam!”
Here’s the worst, though:  My father’s nickname was Dick.  Lord, it almost makes me insane to contemplate Big Dick and Little Dick.  You may laugh, but my own aunt was called Little Elsa and her mother—my grandmother—Big Elsa.  It happens, I assure you, and not just in Tennessee Williams plays.  
From time to time, I would look around for role models, for other Jr’s I might identify with and gather strength from.  It was always a “he,” of course.  A mother doesn’t put “Jr” after her daughter’s name if she names her daughter after herself.  
I looked and saw—William F. Buckley, Jr.  I didn’t want to be like him.  He seemed to hate everybody, and he always sounded thirsty.  I was glad to see that he gave his son a unique name--Christopher--and didn’t make him William F. Buckley, III.  
Then I thought of Cal Ripken, Jr, the great baseball player.  But even his name sounded ridiculous to me because of all the mighty things he did on the field.  How, I wondered, can you call the man who broke Lou Gehrig’s record of consecutive games played Junior?

Then there is Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  A distinguished Harvard scholar is a Junior?  And don't get me started on Frank Sinatra, Jr.  What a weight to bear.
Parents, take ten minutes out of your day and give your newborn child his own frickin' name!  What is it with this bloated ego-mania determination to give your kid your name?  Quell that.  He's not like a building you want named after yourself.  Or a boat.  He's probably not even going to be anything like you.  You're a Republican businessman?  Well, he'll probably end up acting off-Broadway, voting for whatever Bernie-like candidate who's running and picketing your company.  By that time, you'll want him to have a different name. So do it now and save yourself the trouble.  Or just do it because you've had your own name and he should have his.  

Hey, Junior!

Sunday, December 23, 2018

City of Night

There is a certain pleasure in reading a book about a subject that at the time was taboo, about a practice that had to be clandestine. You're a kind voyeur, looking into a forbidden world, and there is satisfaction in that, because you suffer none of the stigma of being a peeping Tom, since the author himself is asking you to peer inside.

This was the case for me when I read John Rechy's City of Night, a book about the underworld of homosexuality in America. The book was published in 1963.  I read it around 1968, fifty years ago.
                                                           

This book about a young man who travels across the United States encountering a variety of strange people, many of them gay, who you would never hear or see otherwise--at least not then.  Very few people were openly gay at that time.  Homosexuality was considered by many to be aberrant, sinful, not to mention illegal.  Many people--my father being one of them--were disgusted by queers, as he called them.  That word had no positive connotations back then.  No one was proudly appropriating it.  

What books were out there about homosexuality?  There was Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar (1948). There was James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (1956).  What else?  The novels of Jean Genet.  The much earlier The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall (1928). Most everything else was underground.  There was really no such thing as mainstream gay literature. 

Then came City of Night.

Rechy is a curious fellow.  Even as became famous with his book's success, he continued with his previous life.  He'd been a hustler.  Actually, he kept at it well into his fifties.  I didn't know anything about the author, though, when I read the book.

What happens when you read a book like this, about "a love that dare not speak its name," as the quaint phrase used to describe gay love, is that you feel just a bit complicit.  Hey, wait a minute, I seem to be enjoying this book a little too much.  Ever feel that way about a book about, say, a serial killer?  Or some kind of catastrophe?  

It gave me pause, reading this book.  I learned a little something about myself, about the complexities swirling inside. 

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Simone Weil and the Need for Roots


Don't we all need roots?  A place where we can take hold, flourish, bear fruit?

Especially now.  Especially today.

In her book, The Need for Roots, French writer and philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943), writes about this. (It would be tempting to write just of her unconventional, agonized life, but it's the work that's most relevant.)  She begins the book with a section called, "The Needs of the Soul." And what are they? Surprising things, as far as I was concerned when I first read the book.  The first four she lists are Order, Liberty, Obedience and Responsibility.

What?  Liberty, certainly, and Order, yes.  But the soul needs Obedience?  What else is on her list?

She follows with Equality; Hierarchism; Honor; Punishment; Freedom of Opinion; Security; Risk; Private Property; Collective Property; and Truth.

Maybe not what you expected if someone asked you, What are the needs of the soul?

Here's what she has to say about Risk: "The absence of risk produces a type of boredom which paralyses in a different way from fear, but almost as much."

Even with the Internet, what she says about Truth still holds: "There are men who work eight hours a day and make the immense effort of reading in the evenings so as to acquire knowledge. It is impossible for them to go and verify their sources in the big libraries. They have to take the book on trust. One has no right to give them spurious provender."

The next section of the book is "Uprootedness." She believed uprootedness to be "by far the most dangerous malady to which human societies are exposed." She even hated the Roman Empire because of all the uprootedness it caused. To her it was clear: "Whoever is uprooted himself uproots others. Whoever is rooted himself doesn't uproot others."

Having numbingly, and, at times, desperately, worked in a Renault car factory, she was most conscious of the vanishing of the traditional French guild worker and, potentially, even of the farmer. Central to guilds was the idea that young craftsmen would journey around the country learning from masters. No more: "Nothing demonstrates more clearly the essential failure of the capitalist class than the negligence shown by employers in the matter of apprenticeship."

And of those drones, like herself, working assembly line jobs: "Nothing in the world can make up for the loss of joy in one's work." Echoes of Thoreau's most men living lives of quiet desperation.  Echoes of today.

She died in England.  She was only thirty-four. 

She could be severe and intractable on her way to the betterment of mankind.  T.S. Eliot said, referring to Weil, "A potential saint can be a very difficult person." But, in the end, he said, "What she cared about was human souls."

She is a voice to listen to for our troubled, uprooted times.  It still rings.
                                                       

Monday, December 17, 2018

The terrible infant

It's a surprising thing to find yourself, or something you've written, as a source for part of a famous dead poet’s biography. Especially a famous dead French poet with an exotic, volcanic life. I’m speaking of Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891). 

I wrote an essay for a magazine about Rimbaud's time late in his life as a coffee trader in Ethiopia, about how he got there, unlikely as that was. I was thinking about writing something else about Rimbaud, so I promptly went to everyone’s convenient source of choice, Wikipedia. Lo and behold, there it is, citation number 64, a reference to the article I'd written seventeen years ago and nearly forgotten.

It made me think of how strange it is the places we end up in our lives. Here was this enfant terrible, possessed of extraordinary poetic powers, who ended up in a small house in Harar, in what is now eastern Ethiopia, having abandoned poetry forever some fifteen years earlier, counting his money, forever suspicious that local merchants were cheating him out of a few pennies, or whatever currency they used.

But that’s not the way it began. 
                                                                        
Arthur Rimbaud

He sprang full blown as a poet from a small city in northern France. He was writing lasting poems by the age of sixteen. Arthur Rimbaud was a poet whose life was like one of those Roman candles that goes astray and sweeps erratically across the sky with the possibility of crashing into a house or a person or you. Everything about his life was dramatic, self-destructive and extreme.
 
He wrote incendiary, sometimes gorgeous, sometimes fearlessly sexual, frustratingly complex and often incomprehensible poetry in the remarkably brief period he wrote poetry. Which is to say, from the age of sixteen to the age of nineteen or twenty. His most famous poems are "The Drunken Boat" and "A Season in Hell." (For pure exquisiteness, I love his early poem, "Au Cabaret-Vert".) Nothing had ever been seen like this in French poetry before, even from Baudelaire. After the age of twenty or so, Rimbaud stopped writing altogether. No one knows why. The rest of his life, he was a wanderer. He went in search of something he could never find, because it wasn't there. He looked for it in Paris, in Indonesia, in London, in Cyprus, in Yemen. And, finally, in Ethiopia.

                                                                                
Rimbaud by Picasso
Some artists love Rimbaud because his chaotic, fiery life gives them validation for their own self-generated chaos. Or what they would like their own to be. (I am sometimes a passenger on that ship.) And Rimbaud's life was as chaotic as any self-destructive American artist's has even been, if not more so. Typical is the affair he had with the (married) poet Paul Verlaine that ended with Verlaine, in a rage, shooting Rimbaud in the wrist. As Allen Ginsberg said, "Rimbaud seems to be a complete turn-on catalyst to every poet in small town isolated, or big megapolis, staring at the city lights over the roof."  What that means to me is: don't let those small town minds stop you from becoming the comet that you are. So you destroy a few things, or lives, along the way. You're an artist. Yes, an artist! A pass for crashing through life! But, really, Rimbaud harmed himself more than anyone else.  Verlaine, after all, was responsible for his own life and marriage.

                                                                               
Rimbaud in Ethiopia
The last years of his life Rimbaud spent exporting coffee from Ethiopia—an astonishingly able linguist, he learned the two languages spoken there, Amharic and Harari, quickly—and smuggling guns. All he cared about was money. In those later years, someone realized who he was (Rimbaud had become famous in Paris without knowing it) and asked him about his poetry. "Disgusting!" Rimbaud replied.
 
One of his last letters, written to his sister from a hospital in Marseilles, where he was soon to die at the age of thirty-seven, says, "Our life is a misery, an endless misery. Why do we exist?"   

Friday, December 14, 2018

What I learned from Ebony


I don't remember when or where I read my first copy of Ebony Magazine. It was surely sometime in the late 1950s, though. How would I have found a copy in my segregated world of Virginia Beach, Virginia back then? It wasn't until 1959 that the schools in nearby Norfolk where integrated and then just barely. I grew up in a white Southern world with little knowledge of black people beyond their roles as cooks and maids. It's almost impossible to describe the effect of a background like that had on me. No, it is impossible.
                                                                             

In any case, somehow I got my hands on a copy of Ebony. (I later subscribed.) Now, I would venture to say that most white people never read Ebony in the 1950s and 1960s and probably still don't. It was really Life Magazine for black people. It was, basically, a way to show all aspects of black life in America, from the heralded high achievers to the everyday ordinary man and woman. It had an agenda, and that was to always show the positive side of black life in America. It didn't shy away from speaking up about civil rights, but that wasn't its main purpose, at least as I saw it.

Later, I even read Succeeding Against the Odds, the autobiography of Ebony's founder, John H. Johnson.  It's good.  By the way, when Johnson learned that 12% of his readers were white, he wasn't especially pleased.  "I want to be king of the black hill," he said, "not the mixed hill."  Sorry, Mr. Johnson!  I'm staying!

Looking into Ebony for me was like taking a trip to a foreign land. It was absolutely transfixing. Why? Because I saw black men and women, black families, doing the same things my family did. I had never seen that before. I saw black people in advertisements--with no white people. I saw them getting on airplanes, drinking Ballentine's Scotch, using Listerine, buying Goodyear Tires, ordering a Bell Telephone, using a GE hairdryer. Only someone who grew up in the segregated South as I did would understand how powerful this was.  The simple fact is that I knew nothing about how black men and women and their children lived.
                                                                           
                                                                                   
                                                                              
                                                                               

There was normally a story about a famous black person--Sammy Davis, Jr, Jackie Robinson, Harry Belafonte, Ralph Bunche, Marian Anderson and so on.
                                                                                

But there were many more stories that didn't make the national news, the stories of a high school baseball coach, a stock car driver, a construction foreman, a ballet instructor, the head of a reform school. My favorite department was "Speaking of People." It was a section that featured small but significant successes of ordinary people. This, more than anything, made a permanent impression on me. Here you had people who were just ordinary folks, doing well at what they did in just about every way you could imagine. I loved that part of the magazine.
                                                                      

Only drawback: Ebony had a disappointing recipe/cooking section, "A Date with a Dish". It was like many of the other cooking sections in magazines of that era, and that was the problem. With such an amazing tradition to draw from, the dishes were incredibly bland and ordinary. I knew how good it could be! It continued that way far into the era of Gourmet Magazine. Alas!
                                                                               

Well, can't have everything. The fact is, I read Ebony regularly from about 1959 to 1969. It influenced me, enlightened me, entertained me and surprised me. I don't read it anymore. I hardly read any magazines anymore. I'm glad it's still with us, though. And I wonder if there are many others like me who, through Ebony, crossed the color line when you simply couldn't any other way. And were the better for it.