6th October 10
Below is from a short story by Mickey Hess (you can read it in its entirety here). Mickey is an old friend of mine from Louisville now living in Philadelphia that I’ve written about on a number of occasions:
After I moved to Philadelphia, I had a series of dreams about Louisville, Kentucky geography. I would drive around town, kind of watching myself from above, planning the shortest routes from Bardstown Road bars to used bookstores across town. The dreams were very strategic. It felt like I was auditioning for a job as a taxi driver.
One night I left work after a long day of writing and teaching and couldn’t figure out what street I was driving on. I thought I was still in Kentucky – it was so much a part of me that it was the default setting for my sleep-deprived mind.
These Kentucky dreams are me clinging to the past. Even in an unconscious state, I am trying to remain who I was.
After a few months, I don’t have them anymore.
Compare to my own experience, recounted here on the fifth anniversary of my own relocation:
What I miss most about those first two months here is the dreams, oddly. I would have the most vivid dreams about the city at night. I didn’t know how to find my way around, besides the most basic notions of where my house was located. At night, my unconscious would fill in the gaps, and I would dream of hills and tunnels and winding streets and alleys that turned into bridges and skyways that led to the Cathedral of St. Paul.
I’d sometimes drive around in those first two months trying to remember where that hill with the beautiful view of the Basillica was located. Then I’d remember there was no such hill; it had been a dream.
Despite these dream versions of the city, I remember writing a letter home to my friend Ted in my first months here, noting that my dreams still all took place in Louisville. It wasn’t until I’d been here several months that my default factory dream settings changed over to Minneapolis.
Of course, the sad part of this was, as I became more aware of the city around me, the mundane features like topography, I lost the dream version of the city.
10th May 10
Screen shot from The Atomic Cafe (1982). An archival animated depiction of a nuclear warhead falling on Minneapolis — quite near Powderhorn Park, in fact. It’s part of the long, almost completely silent sequence set to Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody #2 in C Sharp Minor that ends the film (the spooky part of the Liszt piece, not the Daffy Duck part). I have to admit, I jumped in my seat a little.
28th January 10
No one? Not one single renegade D.I.Y craft kid in any northern city in the world has thought to make twee handmade clay radiator humidifiers? Step up, reader: there’s a niche and you could fill it.
27th January 10
I woke up this morning to read that our man in Chicago, Falling and Laughing, was suffering from some distinctly north-of-the-42nd-Parallel troubles:
I woke up this morning with such a dry, sore throat. So dry! …I wanted to talk to someone about it, but when I opened my mouth, all that emerged was a sepulchral croak.
I was very sympathetic, beause I too was having some similar problems with sepulchral croaks. Showers solved F&L’s problem for the time being; I am still feeling very dried-out. Are there better solutions?
S. 12th is, like many apartment buildings in the older mixed-use neighborhoods of northern cities, heated by metal radiators. I’ve long heard that placing a pie tin filled with water on top of the radiator works beautifully as a makeshift humidifer, but there are two problems with this approach: first, every radiator in the apartment has a wooden shelf of one kind or another constructed on top of it, and second, no one wants to walk into an apartment and see empty pie tins everywhere. “Where did the pies go? Did you eat all of them?” they might ask. “My apartment is dry,” I’d croak. That is a terrible way to begin a conversation when you’ve walked into my apartment. Didn’t we come up here to look at my etchings?
So I’m thinking of other solutions. Does a pie tin (or a metal container) under the radiator work? My understanding is that for the water to vaporize, the metal needs to be in contact with the radiator.
I have seen some nice ceramic and metal radiator humidifers, like the kind mentioned here. Look how attractive this is:
Also, this old article from the New York Times lists some possibilities, and is full of dead and dying links to online sellers of such items. Have you had luck with these?
I wonder how difficult it would be to personally fashion one out of metal, or commission one of our great local ceramic artists to fire a few up for me.
What are your experiences with radiator humidifiers? Or empty pie tins?
In honor of the 42nd parallel, incidentally, I would perhaps create humidifers illustrated with hand-drawn vignettes from John Dos Passos’ novel of the same name. Dos Passos is my favorite leftist-turned-reactionary crank. It happens sometimes.
9th January 10
Here is a hard-ass New York City street narrative for all of my hard-ass, street smart New York City readers. It could have been ripped straight out of the pages of a Luc Sante anthology. And it happened to me.
I was using a restroom, somewhere in Manhattan, and I realized too late that there was no toilet paper. It was a very small bathroom. It only had one toilet in it. The door was locked. No one else was nearby. It would have been very difficult to check under the sink and see if there was more toilet paper there.
“Um,” I said quietly. “Can someone bring me some toilet paper?”
But no one heard me. No one cared.
And at that exact moment, the bathroom lights, which were connected to a motion detector, cut out.
I tried my waving my hands, but to no avail — the detector was out of range. I sat in the dark, powerless to do anything. The Empire State Building twinkled off in the distance through a small, barred window.
It was then that I realized the sad truth. That I was just another rube from the sticks; a flyover country yokel that thought he could breeze in off the Greyhound and use the bathroom in the big city. But I was wrong. So if you’re using the bathroom at night in the office building where that friend of Sam’s works, make sure there’s enough toilet paper before you go. Because this could happen to you, too.
16th October 09
Back in Louisville, there was a radio station run out a local high school across the river in New Albany. During school hours and into the early evening, the kids would operate it, taking call-in requests and playing different types of teenage-oriented music. It was almost always a lot more interesting to listen to then any of the other local stations, because teenagers, for all their hormonal unpleasantness, are generally really inventive. They’d play Rage Against the Machine and then “What is Love” and then Weird Al and then something from Use Your Illusion II, all in a row, because that’s how teenagers are.
When the kids went home at night, though, the station became fully automated. Computers would cycle through the station’s enormous library, playing music uninterrupted except for station identifications. With no kind of curatorial hand, the selections were even more wildly unpredictable than the teenage DJs, because the music library comprehensively spanned the last five decades of pop music — they had everything from ’50s novelty hits to the sort of financially aspirational hip-hop that teenagers in the early ’00s loved. All sorts of weird juxtapositions would turn up.
There is still one juxtaposition in particular I think of to this day, two songs that you typically never hear back-to-back. But I did, and it completely transformed the way I think about both of them.
It was “Ode to Billy Joe,” by Bobbie Gentry, followed by “Ghostbusters,” by Ray Parker, Jr. The remarkable thing about playing these two back-to-back is that, in doing so, the high school computers made “Ghostbusters” a sequel to “Ode to Billy Joe.”
If you’re not familiar with “Ode,” it’s a beautiful, creepy bit of ’60s Southern Gothic country, a story about an illicit love affair and the resultant suicide. A girl comes home to dinner one night, and her parents break the news to her: “Today Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.” And, it turns out, before he’d died, Billy Joe had earlier been seen throwing “something” off the bridge with a girl that “looked a lot like you.” What was that “something”? Well, the general consensus is that it was a baby.
So the song ends with the strings fading out, you reflect on it uneasily for a minute, but when I heard it in this context, one second later: more ghostly sounds, then some synthesized drums kick in and a familiar sax riff. It’s “Ghostbusters,” almost making a mockery of the song that came before it.
It’s more complex than that, however. Despite Ray Parker, Jr.’s good cheer, consider some of those bizarrely specific lyrics:
If you’ve had a dose of a
freaky ghost baby
Ya better call
An invisible man
sleeping in your bed
Who ya gonna call?
In this context: Billy Joe and his/your illegitimate child, that so-called “freaky ghost baby,” have returned in spectral form. That “invisible man sleeping in your bed” was once a visible man. A visible man that you loved, and who is the dead father of your dead child.
The air of dread in “Ode” infuses the pop trifle of “Ghostbusters” with an undercurrent of real terror, and the supernatural phenomenon described in ”Ghostbusters” soldifies the aura of menace in “Ode.” The insistence that ”I ain’t afraid of no ghosts” rings hollow. So, too, does the boast that “busting makes me feel good.” Busting makes you feel good temporarily, but it’s really just another way of not having to confront the messy, horrific past, which is what “Ode to Billy Joe” is all about. I’d have never realized it, until the high school computers spelled it out for me.
16th September 09
Inspired by Elizabeth Wilcox’s recent-ish essay on Withnail & I, I have assembled here a comprehensive list of the greatest movies of the 1980s that end with a character reciting excerpts from Act II, Scene 2 of Hamlet. In each of these films, the “what a piece of work is a man” excerpts are the last lines of spoken dialogue before the credits roll.
- Withnail & I (1986): Here, beginning at 5:25. The lines are recited by the out-of-work actor Withnail (played by Richard E. Grant) in a rainstorm to a group of indifferent zoo animals. His best friend and partner-in-crime has abandoned him for a lifetime of responsibility, and Withnail is alone. This very hammy, but very moving recitation is as vulnerable as we’ve seen him throughout the whole film.
- Britannia Hospital (1980): Here, beginning at 1:40. The lines are recited by a talking computer made from Malcolm McDowell’s brain, which was non-surgically removed from his body a few scenes earlier. Britannia Hospital is a violent, messy, absolutely furious film, a catalog of broad indictments of every aspect of British society (and also starring Mark Hamill!). This is the one scene where every character in the movie is gathered in one place, and they all get to witness together in mute horror the bleak future that the bureaucrats and technocrats have in store for ’em: a robotic perversion of Shakespeare and, by extension, the human sprirt!
Actually, I think those are the only two. Or I can’t think of any more. Are there more? But regardless, you really see the full range on the subtlety spectrum with which this monologue can be employed in wrapping up cult films of the 1980s.