PARIS, FR –

“If you are lucky enough to have visited Paris as a not-so-young person, then
wherever you go for the rest of your life, even if it’s Palatka, Florida; Shangba, China; or Flint, Michigan (okay, maybe not Flint), it stays with you, for Paris is a portable snack — but like the best snack ever: a crepe jambon et fromage on a cold day, for instance.” – JL Stankus

Montmartre

We left the windows open at night so the room was cold in the morning and the cold was good.

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We woke to the municipal workers watering the trees in the square at Place Emile-Goudeau below us. I went to the window and saw one of them as he watched a young woman washing the big window of the pâtisserie on the corner.

She wore the Converse “Chucks” that were the rage, tight dark hip-hugger jeans and a bright pink blouse that rose up as she stretched, her olive skin winking at him. This was Montmartre waking up.

NEW YORK CITY-

Today’s issue of The New York Observer ran an article about me by George Gurley titled “Who’s That Girl? It’s Rebecca Schiffman!” Maybe I’ve been out of school too long because lately I’ve had the urge to write letters to Harper’s Magazine responding to various articles. Once I begin the effort, however, I quickly become discouraged because I know Harper’s usually publishes responses from people of some related scholarly authority, and unless I have some revelatory insight on the subject, which has not yet happened in these mere self-assigned challenges, I will not be saying anything new or worthwhile. But now an article exists on which I might be a leading authority! So here is my response. 

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George interviewed me over the last several weeks and I must first say that he did a great job of parsing the hours and hours of taped rantings to output this fairly accurate and vivid (graphic!) depiction of where I am in life.*

Illuminating some references:

Title: I am assuming George based the title “Who’s that Girl?…” on an article in Vice Magazine that he alludes to when he mentions he saw my bare ass on the internet, called “Who’s That Ass?” The April, 2007 issue of Vice Magazine featured a cover photo by Ryan McGinley of my and Lily Wheelwright’s butts sporting fox tails, and an interview with us inside.

Randy: During the interviewing process George was indecisive about what alias to use for his friend. For a while we were going with ”Tommy” but on the last day he said we should try to think of something better. “How about Randy?”

The way he said it, which was nonchalant, made it seem like “Randy” was one of many casual name suggestions. I never particularly cared for the name Randy, but after a few seconds when I realized it’s obvious function as a charactonym (which should be made clear to the reader from the scene in the taxi cab where Randy unzips his fly,) I said yes.  And I wonder if George’s mind is so well-exercised at these writing assignments that he can subconsciously come up with this kind of literary
device.

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Some Beef:

Stands: I am pretty sure I said my brief relationship with Randy was the longest one in a while past a “two-night stand,” which is a phrase I like to throw out now and again. Since George has everything I said on tape, I do not accuse him of misquoting, but merely selecting one quotation when I would have selected another.

Painting: The only part of this article that made me cringe (well, not including the part about buying lube, but even the word “lube” alone, along with “pube,” which incidentally is also used in this
article, makes me cringe) is when I read that I have “a style reminiscent of Lucian Freud in its tactile depiction of nudity.”  Well-phrased, perhaps, but the main thing I dislike about Lucian Freud
is the gross, pasty viscosity of the strokes he uses to form nudes in his later work. My paintings depicting nudes are all done in watercolor, the least tactile of the paints. I would describe my method
of rendering as quite the opposite- using flat color fields to create the illusion of a three-dimensional naked body.

Missing shpiel creates unwanted slant: I talked to George about so many parts of my life, but I honestly cannot remember if I gave him my whole Upper East Side shpiel. Whether I did or did not, had he included it, I do not think he could have gotten away with the epithet “Park Avenue-bred” to describe Charlotte Kidd, who is probably one of the coolest Upper East Siders either of us (yes, I will venture that on his behalf) has met. So I’ll include my shpiel here as briefly as possible:

I grew up on The U.E.S., thought it was lame, went to college downtown, realized that was even lamer because everyone thought they were not lame, moved back uptown and discovered The U.E.S. anew.
I started a photocopy zine in 2005 called The U.E.S. Journal which I sold at St. Marks Bookshop and which I now maintain as a blog.  In short, I’m proud to be an Upper East Sider, and you can’t use that tone on me, you know the one, where you say that I’m from uptown and I’m supposed to feel ashamed.

When I met Charlotte she was introduced to me as a writer who grew up in my neighborhood. I asked her if she would write something for the zine and she wrote a great piece.

Missing credit: The Observer did not photograph me for this article. I recognize the photo included in the online edition as one I took of myself in Paris two summers ago to show a friend via e-mail the
sunglasses I had just purchased near Les Puces. I am guessing they nabbed this photo from my MySpace page. But, more importantly, in the print edition, they used a photograph by Tim Barber, also on my MySpace page, of me performing at The Canal Room. This photo was not credited and should have been. This should have been taken care of by the permissions/licensing department.

Factual Error:
My jeans are from APC not ABC. A forgivable mistake since, even had a fact checker contacted me I cannot imagine he/she saying “And Ms. Schiffman, just to be sure, who makes your jeans?”

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Clarifications:

Mexian food: George writes “They picked up some fish tacos then stomped up the stairs to Randy’s East Village apartment.” Since anyone who knows me or reads my TNB posts knows that I do not eat seafood, I just want to ensure everyone that we did not pick up fish tacos. Randy picked up fish tacos, I picked up “Macho Nachos.”

Woody Allen: George quotes me as saying “I just feel like he’s a great contemporary example of a decadent figure … and so far in the head that his body is sort of in decay and not very healthy. And the thing with Soon Yi is sort of decadent, you know, just go for it.”

I would like to clarify that I know nothing of Woody Allen’s actual health. Besides the fact that he is pale and thin, and clearly not a tan rock-climbing surfer, I imagine he takes good care of his health. I
was mostly referring to his self-portrayal in his work which I think makes him a contemporary version of Nietzsche’s and Huysmans’ decadent figures- a person overly intellectual, obsessed with death to the point of morbidity, and who loves women- and my point in all of this is to embrace decadence- a decadent person can still produce great things for the world, and probably will more so than someone who constantly meditates- and Woody Allen is awesome.

Welbutrin: In case the reader wonders how it is that I ended up ”taking too many anti-depressants” so that I was up all night twitching, here is what happened. First of all, anti-depressants are prescribed for OCD at a higher dose than for depression, so there is already a greater potential for side effects. One night in Paris I took my medications, and then an hour later forgot I had already taken them,
and took them again.

Fallout:

I cannot decide which part of this article I worry will upset my father more- the details of my sex life and nighttime escapades or the fact that I say “like” so often. It honestly might be the latter.

My mother and her friend are concerned that I come across as a slut. That is their first reaction. It is funny because mine was that I come across as a prude, someone who goes home with men but does not sleep with them. It is difficult for me to gage how I will be perceived, especially by other generations, although I am a little surprised at my mother because I think she likes the show, Sex and the City.

As regards safety, the bars I frequent are not like those in a movie, near an airport where a serial killer may take home a prostitute (I have no particular movie reference for this). They are scene-based establishments where you always meet someone through someone who knows
someone, etc. This is illustrated by the fact that I first met George through his relative and then by chance hooked up with his friend during the course of the interview. In fact, this particular scene is
so incestuous that I am pretty sure within five years everyone who hasn’t been filtered out through a committed relationship, moving, or death will have hooked up with everyone else. Of course a serial killer could be among us, just like an anvil could fall on my head while crossing Park Avenue, or my plane might crash.

Regarding my promiscuity or lack thereof, the reader may judge for his/herself based on his/her personal knowledge of how Americans do or ”should” live, where I sit on the spectrum, whether or not I sit there with crossed legs, etc. I can only give you the facts.

I go out dancing and drinking every week and this is where I get much of my “fodder” for writing, music, and painting. I can never tell if I will meet someone I like enough to go home with next week or next year, but let us say, just to say something, that I might go home with someone every few weeks. Maybe we just go to sleep, maybe we kiss, maybe we fool around, and just maybe we will “do it” (still one of my favorite expressions) as was the rare case with Randy (which makes it all the more strange that we continued to see each other at all if you believe certain common wisdom.)

Why?:

I recall a dinner conversation from when I was around 12 years old, where I learned that for each of my parents one of their greatest fears was embarrassment. Hearing them say this later in life left an impression on me. At this time I was as a very shy person and felt inhibited by fear of embarrassment.  When I learned that this inhibition might not go away on its own, I began making a conscious effort to rid myself of it.  Although I still have much work to do regarding inhibitions in certain social situations, when it comes to sharing information about myself, I can no longer find any line telling me what to keep inside and what to reveal.

One rule I would like to follow in life is to never do anything of which I would be ashamed if the whole world knew. Shameful acts include things like lying or manipulating for selfish reasons, and being a bad friend.

Here, I would like to point out that there is a difference between shame and embarrassment. Some friends have asked if I feel embarrassed about this article. I am not a linguist and do not know if there is an actual etymological relationship between the English word ”embarrassed”, and the Spanish word “embarazada” which means pregnant, but I am giving it a metaphorical relationship right now. Being embarrassed is like a blushing, or a timid pride about a natural secret you have to let out. Yes, I feel a little embarrassed or self-conscious, but those are feelings I thrive on.

I am not, however, ashamed of anything George wrote about, and I knew I would not be, since unless George were to completely fabricate something, and that too I knew would not happen, I did not tell him any of those secrets. I am still working on those. The reader here is privy to a small step for me in that I am even writing that I have certain memories or thoughts of which I am ashamed.

To elaborate further, since I can:
A continuing theme in my artwork, music, and writing, is the overlap of specificity and universality. I have written previously about first grasping this sentiment in Andre Breton’s Nadja. What I have
gathered is that within the field of art and expression, the subject upon which I have the greatest authority, and where I have the most potential to offer something truly interesting, is in relating those events that could only have happened to me, and me alone, based on my individual place and time in the world. I find that the more honest I am with myself and others about these experiences, the more people can relate to what I am sharing. In fact, this paragraph is my footnote to George’s mention of my painting ”Endearing Moments…#1.”

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George

I just realized that while George has been politely referring to me as Ms. Schiffman, I have been calling him by his first name. I suppose it’s necessary to do that when writing for a big, legitimate newspaper. But since I am a mere blogger in the wild wild west that is the world wide web, I make no apologies.

I think George Gurley and I are on a similar page, or share a sentiment, that being the value in revealing oneself. His honest inclusion of his own experience while interviewing a subject, for me, makes his writing, and the fact that he wrote it, more worthwhile. One root for this sentiment, historically speaking, comes from art critics like Walter Pater, Gianfranco Baruchello and Henry Martin, who realized the futility in trying to describe an artwork or artist objectively. Instead, they put forth their personal reaction to their subject, along with their own prejudices, so that the reader could then add or subtract these two things at his/her will.

George was quick to realize that I am eager to try to answer any question put to me as honestly as possible, and I appreciate him for recognizing me as a worthwhile mine for information. I also personally like how he and his friends, including Randy, still carry that musky scent of the old-school reporter who drinks, is a bit of a lech, and can get me a seat at Elaine’s 45th Anniversary.

-End-

*To make this post even more Talmudic (in its cylcical references,) I will add this footnote. “Parse?” “Output?” Yes, I’ve been reading computer language manuals. But I found the best one I have ever read in my life. Why’s Poignant Guide to Ruby. Not only is it a great tutorial, it’s a great novel! You have to read it to understand. And, I don’t have to tell you, (or do I?) that the Talmud is widely regarded as an early model for the internet.

Given the hyper-capitalistic drive to sodomize every American, it’s a wonder gay marriage and anal sex aren’t condoned. In fact, I suggest that we all bend over in front of the nearest flag and wait for the creditors to bang us in the ass three times, once for the interest and twice for the mysterious penalty charges. Freed from criminal liability, the banks have managed to legalize ass rape. “Oh,” they cry, “but the plaintiffs’ attorneys, the plaintiffs’ attorneys!”

Now, let me guess: It’s our personal responsibility we’ve landed in this doggie-style position, perhaps because we made the mistake of returning to school to complete our useless educations and become slaves of the fed, or we re-mortgaged our homes to buy, you know, food.

This is a recession song, and very soon it will be even more depressing. If you like that kind of music, finding it cathartic, you need only say, “Brother, can you spare a dime?” and you’re 1/99th the way to purchasing it from I-Tunes.

I don’t mean to complain. I would never do such a thing because I have great faith in this country, faith so deep that I know what to expect at every moment: the worst. “Our system may not be perfect, but it’s the best in the world.” Sounds like Microsoft explaining Windows.

Yes, let us count our blessings… -1…-2…-3… That’s in Fahrenheit. Were it Celsius, the U.S. dollar might be worth more than a Dorito. And that’s what you’ll be living on soon, so be thankful. It could be worse; it could be a pork rind.

Now, I don’t want my atheism to get in the way of my faith, but let’s paraphrase John Lennon and put it simply: Atheists are the niggers of the world. I don’t want to be a nigger, nor a Negro, nor black, nor African-American, because I’m screwed enough as a cracker; that’s the way it goes, so watcha gonna do? I gave up Lent for Lent.

I tried lying to myself. I almost gave prayer a shot, but the pennies kept falling from my hands, and I dropped the gun. Besides, the pennies might have come from heaven, for they proclaim, “In God We Trust,” although a better motto would be, “In Trust Funds We Trust.”

Why anyone comes here, especially legally, ’tis a mystery. It’s the height of governmental irresponsibility not to force immigrants into watching five episodes of Cops, then telling them, “That’s going to be your neighborhood…It’s up to you.”

Yet again, I say unto thee, “Do not lose faith.” Good News is on the way, in the form of a depression not subject to the effects of SSRIs. It’s even possible the wealthy might suffer by having to sell a fourth home. I know how that goes; I just had to move out of my first home. Imagine moving out of your fourth home! It’s too much to comprehend such misery; it confounds the imagination.

Before I moved, I lived on Sanibel Island, Florida. It’s enough to make a normal person sick to watch four retards pedaling a canopied contraption as if they desire to be ridiculed, but I never judge others. I love my neighbor from a distance of five miles or more. I do unto others as they do unto me. Isn’t that how the Copper Rule works? If so, it should count its blessings; at least it has a job.

I might as well admit that I’ve abandoned my quasi-socialism and become a God-fearing capitalist. I am doing quite well capitalizing on myself and have already earned a healthy profit for someone else. Soon, I will whore myself to myself, in order to pay the holy tax of free enterprise. Every act of fellatio would put a quarter in the jar, but my back hurts from bending over based on reasons I enumerated in the first paragraph, and the National Endowment for the Arts has yet to contact me.

Still, I am taking personal responsibility for myself. I, in fact, am responsible for everything. I live in Sarasota, Florida. Kill me, if you like; the PR might allow me to leave an inheritance. After all, Personal Responsibility is my middle name. It’s such a thin line when forty is the new twenty, which is the old ten, which is the new eighteen. By these calculations, my age of 43 years varies from fifteen to sixteen. I’m proud of it. I stand with a torch held high and call myself the Statue of Puberty. I was sent by France, as a gift, bought on the cheap with American dollars.

In life, giving is the main thing. Why, even the Canadian dollar buys more than the American version. That’s because Canadians drink a lot of beer and generate better hockey players. They give us good hockey, and we give them dollars worth 1923 German marks.

But there is hope. Raise your heads. Our God is an awesome God, and man-made miracles wait just around the bend. This morning, a pigeon delivered to me a prophesy: The sun shall melt the human race into a puddle of flesh, and verily the heat-resistant insects will control the earth. They’ll take a bigger bite than bankers, but at least we won’t be present to feel it. I told you the Good News was coming. It’s here; it’s there; it’s everywhere.

Sometimes I wonder. I wonder a lot. “Why?” is almost always a futile question, with one answer contradicting another, if any knowable possibilities exist. And in this case, I’m not sure they do exist. I used to wonder about the “Why?” of my own failed ambition. Then I realized where publication had gone and how it could only descend into an even worse abyss. “I was addicted to cocaine” must be the first line of a thousand memoirs.

Louis Eugene Walcott was born on May 11, 1933, in the Depression-era Bronx.

Around the same time, a preacher in Detroit named Wallace Fard Muhammad disappeared.

This is significant.

A white man by some accounts and Arab by others, Wallace Fard Muhammad was a salesman. Peddling raincoats door-to-door afforded him just the right opportunity to evangelize.

Fard’s message went something like this: as descendants of the transatlantic slave trade, American blacks had been stolen from their spiritual and physical home in Africa. Because of Islam’s widespread influence in West Africa, most slaves had originally been Muslim. Which meant most American blacks were originally Muslim. According to the Qur’an, Muslims were Allah’s original human creation, so by proxy, Black Americans were actually God’s chosen people. The white man had been sent down as a test, a test blacks in America were failing. Once all black people returned to Islam, the only true religion, Allah would come down, return his people to Mecca and kill the white devils.

Fard’s gift of persuasion and the stress of the Depression worked in tandem; he quickly amassed a devoted following of black congregates.

Thus was founded The Temple of Islam.

Islam is the Arabic word for ‘submit’ and it refers to a person’s submission to God’s will in order to achieve peace.

Fard’s version of Islam espoused the prototypically strict moral code against drinking, smoking and pre/extramarital sex while also focusing on self-improvement and self-reliance. But the introduction of black supremacy essentially contradicted established Islamic practice, as the Qur’an explicitly rejects racial discrimination. Hatred of whites therefore defined the Temple of Islam as a distinctively American creation and heretical from an Islamic perspective.

Fard Muhammad was not the first nor the only person in America at the time preaching a mélange of Islam, Christianity, black nationalism and sundry religious elements. He picked up most of his ideas in Chicago, where the ideology was having a major moment, and in various other major cities poor and malcontent blacks were also gravitating towards similar schools of thought.

Meanwhile, Louis Eugene Walcott’s mother, a woman named Sarah Mae Manning who had come to the U.S. from St. Kitts in the 1920’s, moved Eugene and his brother Alvan from the Bronx to the Roxbury section of Boston. She was a strict disciplinarian who talked candidly to her
two sons about racial injustice and self-reliance.

Louis Eugene’s father was reportedly a Jamaican cab driver from New York uninvolved in his son’s life.

Louis Eugene went to Boston’s public high schools for gifted children, Boston Latin School and English High, where he made straight A’s, ran track and was a model student. In junior high he took up the violin. By age 13 he was performing with the Boston Civic Symphony and winning national competitions.

In 1951, at age 18, Louis Eugene won a track scholarship to the all-black Winston Salem Teacher’s College. Instead of attending Julliard to study music, he moved to North Carolina to pursue a teaching degree.

Because of the Temple of Islam’s burgeoning popularity, Fard Muhammad needed to train an understudy, and so he selected an autoworker named Robert Poole who fervently believed Fard to be Allah incarnate. As was de rigueur, Poole cast off his slave name and accepted the moniker Elijah Muhammad. Together the two continued converting hundreds of members, enjoying considerable success recruiting directly from prisons. The movement was just gaining traction when Allah incarnate was ordered out of Detroit as a result of his “cult activities” and subsequently dropped off the face of the earth. The circumstances of Fard’s disappearance have never been resolved.

Elijah Muhammad was immediately promoted to Supreme Minister.

On September 12, 1953, Louis Eugene married his childhood sweetheart, Betsy Ross, at 6:00 p.m. in St. Cyprian’s Episcopal church in Boston, where he had sung in the choir growing up.

He was forced to drop out of Winston Salem when Betsy began having pregnancy-related complications with the first of their nine children. Teaching career iced, Louis Eugene returned to music, pursuing a career in show business and recording a successful calypso record.

His stage name was The Charmer.

After playing a show in Chicago one February night in 1955 (which he headlined) Louis Eugene was invited by his saxophone player to a church gathering. The church turned out to be a mosque and the gathering turned out to be the Nation of Islam’s Saviour’s Day convention.

Elijah Muhammad was speaking that night.

Louis Eugene felt Truth dawn on him.

A few months later, in July of the same year, Louis Eugene officially joined the NOI and customarily dropped his slave name, replacing it with an X and later adopting the Muslim name Farrakhan. He convinced Betsy to convert as well. They had been married two years.

Ideological tensions between Elijah Muhammad and his most legendary convert, a young ex-convict named Malcolm X, were wreaking havoc inside the NOI. After Malcolm’s horrific but unsurprising assassination in February 1965, internal NOI politics gets so shady and twisted it cannot be adequately explored here.

Louis Farrakhan ascended to Minister at the Boston mosque in a few short years, and was transferred to Harlem Mosque in New York, where he served from 1965-1975.

In 1975, Elijah Mohammad died.

His son, Wallace (later re-named Warith Deen) Muhammad, succeeded him, and began moving the organization in a Sunni direction, closer to orthodox Islam. The NOI began accepting white members.

Although these changes had been brewing for some time (in fact Malcolm X attempted to bring about a similar transformation) Minister Louis Farrakhan freaked, walked away, then re-grouped and came back in 1978 with his own faction of the NOI, preserving its doctrine of black separatism.

Warith Deen Muhammed renamed his particular group and broke away from the NOI.

In the years after Elijah Muhammad’s death up to the 1990’s, Minister Louis Farrakhan attracted a level of attention the NOI hadn’t seen since Malcolm X. He was accepted as the NOI’s national leader and became The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan.

The H.M.L.F. is a beloved figure to many prominent members of the black community regardless of their, and in spite of his, religious affiliation.

Over the course of his extremely controversial and influential career, the H.M.L.F.has stated and retracted, then stated again, then clarified and re-re-stated an enormous number of shall we say charged remarks about Jews, homosexuals and whites, which is why he ranks pretty high up on the Anti-Defamation League’s blacklist (for lack of a better term). But his rhetoric, and what the press loves to call his “rage”, is almost always taken out of the smaller context of his famously prolix sermons and out of the larger context of the black liberation tradition, in which preaching has always been characteristically loud, physical and impassioned.

And while Farrakhanist delivery is often mistaken by the mainstream as a call to violence, theology scholars argue his preaching style should be understood mainly as an aesthetic to engage listeners, challenge those in power and raise questions for society to ponder.

Perhaps the best summary of why the H.M.L.F. is so revered and hated may be this:

Farrakhan, in his unremittingly vehement rejections of integrative ideals and his shrill calls for racial separation, succinctly articulates the sentiments of an increasing number of black – and many non-black – Americans, for whom the post-civil rights era of race relations in the United States has proven to be a very deep, painful and persistent disappointment.

– The Farrakhan Phenomenon, Robert Singh. Georgetown University Press, 1997.

In 2003, the H.M.L.F. celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary to Betsy Ross, now known as Mother Khadijah Farrakhan.

It is reported the H.M.L.F. is suffering from an untreatable recurrence of prostate cancer.