Now playing on Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with Vanessa Grigoriadis , author of Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, & Consent on Campus (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). It is the official October pick of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club.

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CONTEXT: On February 5, 2011, David Shields and I spoofed jocks in The Nervous Breakdown. Less than two months later I wrote an article at TNB about a dubious competition run by a Seattle sports radio station, KJR. Then I sent a link of the article to KJR, and they responded. This is the next chapter: 

According to Forbes Magazine, Seattle is the most miserable sports town in the United States. As a Northwest native and long suffering fan of the Mariners, Seahawks, and the now departed Sonics, I cannot disagree.  Our bad teams are complemented by Seattle sportscasters with Moobs (Manboobs) and Seattle whiner-fans griping about East Coast Bias. Yet I never have minded being the underdog. Unfortunately, the Seattle sports scene has deeper problems. As a father of three daughters, and a lifelong sports junkie, I’m having a mid-life crisis.

THE JOSH LUEKE “RAPE”: In May of 2008 two baseball players on a Texas Rangers farm team met a woman at a bar and took her home. The woman, unidentified, promptly threw up and passed out in their apartment.  She woke partially clothed and physically violated, and went to the authorities. The results: DNA from her jeans, tank top, hair, and semen on an anal swab matched one of the athletes, Josh Lueke. He was arrested, charged with rape, but eventually pleaded guilty of a lesser felony, the obscure False imprisonment with violence. He emerged relatively unscathed, his career intact.

Last summer the Seattle Mariners traded for Lueke, and he is now on the big league club. His presence makes the transgressions of other Mariners tame (one has battled domestic violence accusations and another shoved last year’s manager). I’ve had it. This year I will not listen or watch Mariners games, and if the team does not get rid of the scum, I will not watch next year or ever. Our family will now enjoy baseball games played by the Everett AquaSox.

THE MORAL PLACEBO: Okay, I’m boycotting the Mariners. So friggin’ what? Sex crimes happen across the spectrum of society. Every city has their scandal. Pittsburgh Steeler Ben Roethlisber has similar trouble, but this just gives me one more reason to hate the Steelers. It’s true there are two sides. Gold diggers like Karen Sypher, who was sentenced to 7+ years for extortion after an affair with Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, are an element, but her egregious actions in no ways justify a defense of the creeps.

So what’s a moral placebo? A “moral placebo” is when an individual makes a pledge or action on ethical grounds, yet the main beneficiary is the individual: he or she feels better about him or herself. Examples: Swearing not to drive an SUV; praying really, really hard for the well-being of starving children in underdeveloped countries; or boasting about how your eight million-dollar mansion “saves” energy because it has solar panels, even though you consume twenty times more energy than the average citizen. Yes. Words and action have a relationship (perhaps the person praying will actually send money or volunteer), but without action these stands are useless. Call me cynical, but brandishing a candle against the proverbial darkness often comes off as bullshit.

Nevertheless, I brandish, I spout, and thus I’d like to add a few words about my other “moral placebo,” a boycott of KJR Sports 950 and their sponsors. My previous TNB post took on KJR’s Mitch “Dork in the Morning” Levy and The Bigger Dance. I sent a post of this article to KJR, and soon after a few members of the KJR Society for the Legalization of Date-Rape responded. One KJR DJ took the time to engage me and defend his right to objectify women.

EXCHANGE BETWEEN KJR DJ & MYSELF:

Caleb Powell: KJR supporters have revealed themselves in the “Comments” section.

KJR DJ: Wow. Nice to see such an intellect using the proper narrow brush.

(He pasted from my interview with David Shields)

Powell: Angelina Jolie or Katherine Zeta-Jones?

Shields: Uhhhh…Angelina Jolie or hmmm…I would say Katherine Zeta-Jones.

Powell: Beyoncé or Britney?

Shields: Uh…I must admit…Britney.

I think it’s the consistency in your point of view that I find so refreshing. By the way it’s “Catherine” with a C.

CP: It’s a Spoof on Barkley. Thanks for the ‘C’ tip. Didn’t you notice the intro: “Using questions often directed at jocks, specifically Charles Barkley, we did a quick Q&A…”

KJR DJ: Ohhhhhh. I see. When YOU do it it’s a spoof. Got it.

CP: Didn’t know the Dance was a spoof.

KJR DJ: So you think we take it seriously? Honestly…it seems wildly hypocritical of you to ask David Shields what you asked him and then trash us and our listeners for what is in fact a harmless little contest. Then you play your deal off as a spoof but still want to take ours seriously.

If you don’t like the contest then there’s an easy way to deal with it. Don’t pay attention to it. But don’t demand that every other person has to see things your way…or that one or two people who respond to your post are suddenly representative of the entire listening audience of KJR.

CP: Representative? Even one KJR fan thinking like that should make you worry. “Wildly hypocritical?” That’s hyperbole. My piece with Shields ridiculed the “dumb jock.” “Harmless little contest?” Bullshit. You and KJR take it seriously. The contest is not a spoof, it’s a cash cow for KJR; sure, to you it’s fun and for the most part harmless, but it objectifies women. That’s a problem. Men that objectify women are more likely to be violent. There is a direct correlation, the evidence is there, and yes, I’m giving you a conclusion, but the studies behind it are complex and cogent.

And even though, for the most part it’s harmless and most guys that get off on the Dance are okay, enough of them are “date-rapes waiting to happen.” Those comments here at The Nervous Breakdown are frightening, aren’t they? You want those guys dating someone you care about? Hey, I don’t know if you have a daughter or a sister, but would you want any woman to have to deal with men that think objectifying women is “harmless?” It’s not.

KJR DJ: And it’s pretty damned convienient that YOU do this and claim you were just ridiculing the dumb jock. But we’re doing it and we’re equated to rapers (sic) and murderers. THAT my friend is bullshit. Tell yourself anything you want.

CP: You’re not rapists, but rapists feed off your schtick.

KJR DJ: But no rapist read your interview with David, right?

CP: What? Another non-sequitor?

That’s it. KJR DJ at least thought about the issues, yet his argument was hampered by a rudimentary use of rhetorical modifiers and his inability to understand irony. He chose to remain anonymous. I don’t listen to KJR, and though I’m boycotting their sponsors, like Mike’s Hard Lemonade, big deal, I never drank it, anyway.

Yet maybe I’m wrong. Maybe beliefs and stands matter. My wife backs me, our oldest daughter plays T-ball, and I’ve discovered other parents agree. Seattle Mariner attendance is down, and a young struggling team is not the only reason. The lit candle might not be a mere platitude. Our views influence how we raise our children and treat our peers. They’re not just token moral placebos.

I bet it’s hard for some people not to be jealous of Madison Smartt Bell.  He published his first novel, The Washington Square Ensemble, in 1983 when he was only 25.  Since then he has published 20 more books and has been named a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award for All Souls Rising. Additionally, in 2008, Madison was awarded the Strauss Living Writer Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  Aside from all the awards, Madison has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, he plays guitar, and he sings like a cross between John Lee Hooker and Johnny Cash.  And let us not forget that  Richard Avedon took a very cool photo of him once for The New Yorker!

I’m a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. A fair weather one—I don’t start paying much attention until the playoffs—but lifelong, and when I give my attention to a game, I’m there all the way. My body reacts as if it’s the one straining and slamming. My tape measure’s out—just ram your shoulders forward one . . . more . . . yard. My mind spits questions about players’ mental states. It’s cathartic to get that far out of myself. So goddamn it I was angry at Ben Roethlisberger when the grumblings about his sexual assault charges started up again around playoff time. Why you killing my buzz, Ben?

I sought only the most basic information before turning away—a bar in Georgia, a bathroom, a college student, a lot of alcohol and a raft of bodyguards who might or might not have blocked a door, but charges were dropped, just as they’d been the year before when an incident had been reported in Nevada. And what was that one about again? Oh, never mind.

On the one hand, my hesitation was characteristic: I don’t follow celebrity scandals; I’ve clicked not a link about Charlie Sheen. On the other hand, I do tend to get obsessive about sexual assault stories that don’t involve the NFL. There was the dust-up when Keith Oberman and Michael Moore appeared to shrug off the rape allegations against Julian Assange. There was the gang rape of a fifteen-year-old girl outside her school homecoming dance. For these events and others, my initial reluctance—because who wants to spend their days thinking about rape?—gave way to frenzied clicking. I read everything I could get my hands on, hunted down small news items, scrolled through hundreds of comments in an effort to understand or to bear witness, I wasn’t sure which, and I got angry and brittle and nauseated in the process. I’m a woman who’s broken a lot of rules in the course of pursuing independence and played closely by a lot of others because I’ve been aware of how vulnerable that made me. I’m a woman who’s been afraid. The discussion around assault—especially of the she’s-lying or she-was-asking-for-it variety, and they’re almost all of that variety—can make my heart shake as if even now I were walking down a dark street or laying awake in a bed where I had chosen to sleep alone behind flimsily locked doors after talking too long to, or maybe just strolling past, a man. I’ve never been raped, but I’ve asked myself again and again whether that’s because I’ve been smart, or lucky.

To compensate for my own ill-informed unease about Roethlisberger, I gave loud voice to complaints about him at the dinner table. I wanted a pound of flesh from my husband—there’s nothing fair weather about his fandom—and I wanted, mostly I wanted, him to let me off the hook. And that’s what he did.

Football players are assholes, he said. The Nevada thing always looked really shaky, and the Georgia charges . . . it’s hard to say, but they were dropped a year ago. He was suspended for them. But he’s an asshole. The Rooneys are on him. The fans are off him. You don’t see many Roethlisberger jerseys anymore. It’s all Palamalou.

Troy Palamalu. A soft-spoken, philanthropic family man. Have you seen his beautiful hair flying like a badge of all that’s noble as he sails across a whole line to hold them at the two? It’s all well and good for feminists who don’t like football to call for a ban, but for those of us who do, can’t we watch it with our eyes open? And the Nevada charges—those ones at least—they were pretty thin. Women do go bat shit over celebrities.

Friends of ours came over for dinner this playoff season—Packers fans and fellow flag-football coaches. The Roethlisberger thing came up (guess who couldn’t quit picking that scab?) and we got into the discussion of what it must be like to be these guys. We talked about the aura that surrounds even the fourth grade football star at our kids’ school. The way a lifetime of such intense grooming and fawning and pressure—not the mention the blows to the head—must mutate players’ sense of self long before they make it to the pros, the way their career affects everyone around them. Of course they’re assholes. They’d have to be almost superhuman—like Troy Palamalu—not to be.

I like to swim in the grey area of almost any dirty pool, and when my friend posed the question of why the hell would a girl go into a bathroom with big, drunk Ben Roethlisberger, I was up for some discussion about how stupid women can be, especially when it comes to the mix of fame and men and money. (For the record, I’ve done some more clicking as I’ve been writing this, and it’s not at all clear that the Georgia accuser agreed to go into a bathroom with Roethlisberger.) We talked about our culture, how sexed up it is, how even clothes for little girls are provocative. How at four years old girls are already wearing short shorts with writing across the butt when they should be wearing smock dresses until they’re ten. But when I caught myself nodding as if there were some causal link between the selection in the Target girls’ department and rape culture, I took a few steps back.

Being stupid doesn’t mean that a woman deserves to get raped, I said.

No. It doesn’t, my friend agreed. And we were quiet for a moment. The men in the room had been quiet for a while.

Then my friend, who’s from Green Bay, ventured that Packers players couldn’t get away with such boorish behavior. Their coach is very religious; they live in such a small town; they all go to same churches as everyone else.

Maybe you’re right, I said doubtfully. Maybe she’s right, I thought, and I tried to kindle a flicker of hope. And then I thought about all the preachers and priests accused of sexual abuse and the statistics about how the states with the highest number of churchgoers are also those with the highest pornography usage, and I wondered about what keeps anyone clean when rules don’t seem to apply to them, and I wondered why we need so many rules, and why rule-followers themselves buck so hard against the laws they lay down. What is our nature?

Just a few days after the dinner, my eye alighted on news item recounting allegations of sexual misconduct against members of the Packers. They’d been participating in a charity golf tournament in the Wisconsin Dells, land of family water parks and theme restaurants, when two women claimed to have been raped by them. Charges were dropped after the women changed their initial story, although the consensus seems to be that sex of some kind was had.

I didn’t forward the link to my friend. I was fighting my told-you-so obnoxiousness, but I also understood all too well her impulse to give her players the benefit of the doubt—most of us want to think we’re exempt. The world’s going to hell, but not my country, not my congressmen, not my neighborhood, not my man, my men, my boy, my boys.

To function fully, we almost have to believe that. When the story of the fifteen-year-old girl’s gang rape broke, about one out of every four or five commenters in the local paper lambasted the victim for having gone into the school’s darkened courtyard with her classmate in the first place, which is where the attack took place. What kind of girl goes off to imbibe alcohol alone with a boy? But what kind of world do we live in when a high school student is supposed to look around her classroom and see every male in it as a potential rapist? In my fits of compulsively searching for information about sexual assault, I’ve read about various universities whose rape prevention programs consist mostly of cautioning women to watch each others’ drinks when they’re at parties and to never walk alone at night or deviate from the campus’s blue-lighted paths. What kind of culture expects women to socialize in environments where they’re so likely to be drugged they have to keep their hand over their cup as they talk to a guy with whom they might be hoping to get lucky? We have to believe that the attitude that gives rise to the gang rape of a school girl, that accepts running rough shod over a woman’s hesitation as if any kind of resistance is a linebacker blocking a first down, is one that doesn’t permeate our own immediate world, where we work and play and fuck and fall in love and raise our daughters and sons.

Green Bay beat The Steelers in last months’ Super Bowl, of course, so news feeds are no longer flashing as many updates about players’ sexual misconduct. But the Roethlisberger issue’s been on my mind because I’ve been fixated on the recent story of the eleven-year-old girl gang raped in Texas by eighteen men and boys and by the outrage over The New York Times’ reporting of it. The backlash against the Times concerns its framing of the story, and in the debate about whether the writer is blaming the victim or just reporting on locals who are, here’s an oft-mentioned quote:

“Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.”

I’ve read so much about the incident in the past week that even if I could formulate some insightful thoughts, it’d be hard for me to write about my reactions without inadvertently plagiarizing. Still, I have to say this: So, according to some of the town’s residents, the girl dressed like a woman in her twenties. That makes it understandable that boys and men would gang rape her? Because it’s OK to gang rape twenty year olds? Because it’s . . . what?

She was eleven.

Yeah, I’m not ready to write about it.

But I’ve been staring at the train wreck since the article appeared. The people quoted are distancing themselves from the girl—she’s not like my daughter; I’m not like her mother—and sympathizing with their favorite team—their sons, friends, students. I don’t want to narrowly equate dropped charges against some NFL players with the documented gang rape of a child, but the two things are on the same continuum. I see them as part of the same lesson to be studied about people’s—my—reaction to things we don’t want to believe.

I had a dream when I was in college that’s recurred in various forms since. I was in a bedroom of a house, and I knew that in the next room a woman was being raped. Instead of bursting through the door and trying to disrupt the crime, I went downstairs, where a party was raging, and shrilly tried to rally a group of men to go up and into the room with me. Hysterical, I physically tried to push the men up the stairs when they weren’t moving fast enough, but I remember staying firmly behind the broad back I had my hands on. I remember being glad a guy was in front of me. When I recounted the dream to a friend, she said: I think many men give tacit approval to rape, and that’s what you were responding to. I was relieved at her analysis, which took a page from the women’s studies classes we were both enrolled in, but I felt it was off. My biggest sense upon awakening was that I had failed to some extent, that under the guise of rallying help, I’d been mostly self-protective.

We have to all work together on this one, though: How about we teach boys not to rape? How about we acknowledge that, yeah, you know what, life does have a lot of grey areas. We should talk about those. And if you have your penis out and something looks like a grey area? Guess what. It’s probably not one.

Last night, when my son’s eye caught on an article about the Roethlisberger accusations that I had open on my computer, I slapped my laptop’s cover down: That’s not for you to read, I said.

My son is nine, which I feel is too young for this discussion.

And that girl is fucking eleven.

* * *

If you want more discussion on the Texas rape and the media response, Jezebel’s covered the whole thing well, starting here.

Roxane Gay has an impassioned response at The Rumpus.

 

I am not who you told me I was, every time I looked into your eyes and saw reflected back to me the image of who you told me that I am. That is not who I am. You have never known who I am. If there is anything that I know, and there is so much that I don’t, it is that I am not what I have felt: my depressions, or hungers, my compulsions, despairs: they are not who I am, though they are wells I fall down into, for long times knowing nothing but their dark, cavernous mouths swallowing me up whole. Rage is also what I’m not, and there is so much rage. Days where all I do is swim through it, oceans of fire, praying one day it will end, that I’ll have strength to face what came before, before the rage. Neither am I the thoughts I think that tell me who I am. More often I’m the dreamer forgetting he’s asleep. My body’s mostly what I think I am, but I am not; this body that I’ve pierced and tattooed, raped and drugged, tried to kill, snuff out like a candle, or sell for sex because by then cash seemed like the only thing of value men could give. I am not that sex, though sex is what I found when I, abandoned, went looking for myself. I am not my scars, the scars that you, and I, and they, we all razored into me, even though for years that’s all I saw: not the house I was before the storm, but the ruins, the brokenness left standing, that’s left me wanting just to tear down all that’s left and start anew because there’s no way I’ll be whole again, not this time ‘round. I am not my story, even though I tell, or want to tell, almost everyone I meet “who I am.” I do not know who I am, have no idea, and grow weary of the language that I use in place of being me. Words like “victim,” and “survivor”: I am not a survivor, not of you, not of anyone. Or maybe if I am it is of me that I’ve survived. Funny, all these words I’ve used and thought were me—sooner or later they all become like boxes, and I am not a box. If I am anything I am bigger than all the boxes that I’m stuffed inside, or stuff myself, a marionette, inside. Boxes, no matter how immense, cannot contain the size of who I am, because I am immeasurable. That is all I know I am: immeasurable, even though I, daily, measure who I am by what I make, do, see, think, touch, taste, feel. I am none of what I make, do, see, think, touch, taste, feel. Perhaps if I am anything, then I am everything you did not want me to become, that you did not show me I could be, you did not allow me to explore, did not permit me to discuss, think. If there is sin in forgetting, perhaps then that is what I am: a sleeper, having sinned from choosing to forget. If I am anything, anything at all, I fear that I am much of what is coming to me now, a visitor I called forth. Today, if I am anyone’s house I am my own, and no one, not anyone, enters me, not even during sex, but myself.

On February 2, 2009, the sentencing of reputed Mob boss Joey “the Clown” Lombardo was all over the Internet. I read about it while in the final stages of finishing a draft of a new novel, and the sensationalism of the trial felt far away and fake . . . which may be less a reflection on the nature of Mob trials and more on the nature of what seems real vs. surreal to writers finishing projects. I was, it is clear in retrospect, in a full-blown state of mania last February: the third or fourth in my lifetime, but probably the worst, the most disruptive and acute. Which is to say, the best, the most intoxicating. But the mania was just beginning at this point; it had not yet hit its peak, though already I had not slept in days or maybe weeks, not more than a couple of hours in the deep middle of the night, and already I was starting to drop weight (one of the more pleasant side-effects of mania.) Joe Lombardo was sentenced to life in prison, but it would be fair to say I didn’t give a shit about this; it was not on my radar. The legendary Mafioso, even now reputed to still be either Consigliore or Boss of the Outfit from behind bars, was reported as 80 years old at the time of the sentencing, and I remember, as I read the news off a computer screen in my home office, that being the only part of the story that really made an impression on me: his age.

It seemed crazy, because my father has always referred to Joe Lombardo as a “good kid.”

For the first time in my life, I googled Joe Lombardo. I was sure they’d gotten his age wrong in the news, but no, he was born in 1929. My father was born in the final weeks of 1921. When you grow up around somebody, I guess that window of time makes a great deal of difference.

Prior to the “Family Secrets” trial, Joe Lombardo was supposedly on the lam. He eluded the police for quite a long period, which would be curious enough considering he was already an elderly man and in no condition for life on the run, but was all the stranger considering that—during the time he was supposedly “in hiding”—people I knew from my old neighborhood, including my father, saw him frequently cavorting in plain sight. He continued to dine at my father’s favorite Italian restaurant, for example, where he was widely known and where he commonly bought drinks for other customers, including my parents. He did not, it would be fair to say, seem like a man trying to exist under the radar or full of anxiety about being apprehended. My parents never seemed to think it was particularly strange when they ran into him.

This makes sense when viewed from a certain angle. Once, many years ago when I was still a girl living on Race Street, across the street from Joe Lombardo, my father told me a story about him. In the story, my father asks Joe why he doesn’t move out of the old neighborhood. “You’ve got more money than god,” my father says. “What are you sticking around here for?” And Joe says simply, “This is the only place on earth where I never have to look over my shoulder.”

It was true. In our neighborhood, Joe Lombardo had the status of a President or a King. Though any powerful man has powerful rivals, such rivals did not dwell in our one step-above-a-ghetto near the intersection of Grand and Western. The men in our neighborhood were either average blue collar guys like my father—bartenders, truck-drivers, cops—or they were such small-timers in the Outfit that Joe was like a father to them, not a competitor. It would probably be fair to say that most men in the hood would have been thrilled to take a bullet for him. It would have been like the equivalent of becoming a war hero.

For a week now, I have been thinking and writing about my father, who turned 88 on December 14. Though one of my dad’s brothers was a Mob bookie, for the most part ours was a “civilian” family. Well, perhaps that would be an overstatement. My family, over the years, has included street-gang-founders, drug dealers, murdered gangbangers, and several criminals of the more “private” variety, whose crimes may in fact have been more devastating—or were to me. But ours was not a family that attracted media attention for lawbreaking, and in the neighborhood where I was raised, some amount of lawbreaking was par for the course, so what I mean is that we were “typical” for the milieu in which we lived. My father had worked in a factory, and later he owned a bar, and later still—after his back and leg and ulcer all deteriorated; after the death of his elder brother propelled him into a nervous breakdown that ended in his institutionalization—he sold his bar and worked at a friend’s until retiring early, in poor health, in his mid-50s, when I was only ten years old. He was a man who had claimed for years that he would never live to see 40, and with sound reason: he had had two-thirds of his stomach removed from his bleeding ulcer before I was even born, and throughout my youth he tended to be hospitalized and to hover at near-death almost yearly. Yet now he is an old man living on the first floor of my home, and in most ways his life has been an unremarkable one.

He was devoted to jazz, but he was never a musician. He was an Anglophile, but rarely traveled due to a lack of money and rabid fear of planes—the last time my father was airborne was 1961. Once or twice, our phone was rumored to be tapped due to my father’s relationship with people who might have relationships with organized crime; once he and his nephew believed they had been tailed by an unmarked car while they were driving to buy some doughnuts . . . but my father was, at the end of the day, an average guy whose relationships with the Infamous and Glamorous were casual and loose, and whose own life was certainly of no interest to the media. He was the sort of Italian man who lives below the popular radar, while Don Corleone, Tony Soprano and Joe Lombardo become American Icons. He was invisible, as most people are, and that has always been absolutely fine with him.

I have been struggling now for a week to find a way to define my father on paper, but of course anyone could have told me from the get-go that such a task was impossible. Like everyone, my father is defined by a complicated and paradoxical web of what he is and is not—by where he fits and has always failed to fit. The great paradox of Giovanni (“John”) Mario Frangello’s life may be the sentimental attachment he held until he was nearly 80 for his old neighborhood, where he had been born with a midwife in the apartment where I was raised. He refused to leave the neighborhood even after marrying a non-Italian girl who didn’t fit in there; he refused to leave even when, in the late 1980s, a rash of murders killed several people in one summer, including a teenage boy with no gang ties and was shot in a case of mistaken identity right across the street from our house, and well as an actual gang leader along with his pregnant girlfriend, an old friend of mine from elementary school. He not only refused to leave, but on the night I went away to college he wept to my mother, not so much because he was going to miss me (though I hope that was part of it) but because he felt betrayed. The way I was raised, family didn’t leave. Blood was thicker than water. Higher education was synonymous with putting on airs. My departure symbolized that I thought I was “too good.” When he told my mother that he predicted I would fail or drop out of school within the year, oddly this was probably wishful thinking on his part.

Though he adores me in the way the parents of only-children often do, I suspect I am still a bit of a disappointment to him in small but myriad ways. He does not like how much I work. He does not like my son, age 3, being in full-day preschool. He thinks I get angry too easily, though he is the only person in my entire life who has ever accused me of this. He doesn’t like that I straighten my curly hair. For most of my life he has chided me for my eating habits, mocking me for not eating more meat and—whenever I’ve been ill, which is admittedly often—saying there’s nothing wrong with me that a good cheeseburger wouldn’t cure. He doesn’t like that I don’t wear tweed, even though I am confident he has never met a woman in his entire life who did wear tweed. Still, it is something he aspired to in his daughter, and I failed to live up to it. The day I left to study abroad in England, which might have sounded like his lifelong fantasy given his Anglophile nature, he was hospitalized with a severe ulcer attack. He did not like me getting on airplanes, but probably he also considered my living outside the country as a form of high treason.

If it ended there, of course, it would be simple. How many stories seem to end there—with the ways fathers are never “satisfied;” with the ways they find fault.  Those stories hurt, but they are easy.

But the truth is, my father was also a role model in ways he never anticipated, simply by being himself. In a neighborhood where the heroes were Mobsters—reputed killers—as well as gang leaders and thieves who evaded capture and the occasional crooked politician who rose from our ranks, my father was a gentle man. Not a gentleman, perhaps, of the Cary Grant variety he aspired to just as he aspired to tweed for me, but a gentle man who rarely rose his voice. When I routinely watched the other kids around me get smacked around by their fathers—watched them come to school with bruises and heard their stories about “getting the belt,” my father never raised a hand to me, much less my mother. When I was in seventh and eighth grade and my friends were becoming prey to predatory older men—their divorced mothers’ pervy boyfriends or twenty year old guys who would give them coke in exchange for a blowjob—my father offered a silent protection by virtue of his status as a neighborhood patriarch: nobody fucked with me. When a former classmate of mine was gang-raped at fifteen by a group of neighborhood men who beat her with a coat hanger and threw her down a flight of stairs, and the men were never brought to trial because everyone—male, female, young and old—seemed to concur that the girl “deserved it” for being “a slut,” and many rushed to offer faux alibis for the rapists, I was forced to digest both the knowledge that this place, this neighborhood where such things happened under the radar everyday, was where my father had insisted on raising me, and yet also to digest in turn that my father was eons from those animals and would never hurt a woman. For that story—and for others much closer to home—I have often struggled with a kind of “survivor guilt” because I got out, relatively unscathed, of a place that, for young girls, could be a war zone, due in no small part to my father’s constant gentle protection. I had a safe haven, whereas most of my girlfriends did not.

And yet, when my best friend was raped by a man we’d gone to school with while she was asleep at his mother’s house, my father argued that it wasn’t “really rape” because she had gone there to sleep, and what did she expect?

This, the same friend of mine whom my father paid to bring on family vacations with us, whom he bought countless lunches and dinners and who practically lived at our apartment on the weekends when her mother, who was young and divorced, was out drinking and meeting men at bars. This girl he called his “second daughter.”

Can this be what he means when he says that I get angry so easily?

The truth is: the paradoxes of my father cannot be fit onto any page. They cannot be curtailed into one week of my mind. I will digest them, fight them, mull them over, contradict them, yearn for them, for the rest of my own life, in story and quietly, alone.

From my father, I learned or inherited a fear of planes. A propensity towards mental instability that, like him, I manage most of the time to keep at bay, occasionally succumbing to an undertow beyond my control. A cynical humor, a religious skepticism, a strange obsession with all things English even though as a kid I often said “I hate England!” just to spite him. A penchant for Valium and narcotic painkillers and old Woody Allen films and dark wood beams on ceilings and old dilapidated barns. A loyalty to family that borders—in the WASPy, middle-class America in which I now dwell—on the unseemly. And an abiding belief that “blood is thicker than water,” but—unlike the Italian blood lineage of which my father’s family spoke—a belief that I, with my Chinese daughters and surrogate gay, Latino “brother,” am the one who chooses what falls within the definition of “blood.”

This is longer than I planned.

I could go on.

Instead, one final story. Once upon a time, when I was maybe ten years old, I was given a bunch of M&Ms to sell for school. Whoever sold the most got some crummy satin jacket that nobody wanted anyway, even though we all wanted to win. I brought home my sales sheet from school, prepared to start humping it door to door like every kid who has ever had to sell some meaningless shit for some cause we can’t even remember anymore. My dad, however, said to me, “You know what, Flower, I was just at the club earlier today, and Joe Lombardo was saying he had a taste for chocolate. You should go over to his house first.”

“The club.” Yeah, that’s one for another post someday, not now.

Joe lived across the playground. Back then, the world in which I lived was so small that I remember being put out by the fact that my father wanted me to walk all the way across the playground instead of just going next door to troll my candy. But I did it. I was aware that Joey the Clown was “famous” and although his daughter babysat me sometimes, I don’t think I had ever been to his house before.

His wife came to the door. But when she saw it was John Frangello’s daughter, she fetched Joe.

I showed him my forms and told him about the M&Ms.

And he said, “I was just telling your dad I had a taste for chocolate.”

He bought every M&M I had. Though I may be embellishing this in my memory, I think he actually insisted on signing his name to every line, even though I explained it was unnecessary, and that under “quantity” I could just write “all.” Maybe things like this are what earned him his nickname.

I got the satin jacket. I never wore it, but for years this was a story I traded on in school, and the other kids liked the story, just as they enjoyed hearing about my mother’s grandfather who died by falling into a volcano while on vacation in Hawaii.

I realize now that Joe probably never told my father he had a “taste for chocolate.” I realize now that there was simply a kind of “Adult Group Think” going on that had to do with coming from the same place and having a similar sense of humor and code, and that it was somehow imperative to both men that I believe I was doing Joe a favor, instead of realizing that Joe was doing my dad one.

In defining my father, then, one small point on the scale–along with him not being a gang-rapist or abuser; along with him not being the kind of father who could help me with my homework or who was proud of me when I was accepted to college but who has come, over the years, to be proud of me for not dropping out after all, and for growing into the kind of mother who will be able to help my kids with the kinds of papers he didn’t understand–along with all of these things is this: my father is neither a criminal nor a glamorous public figure like Joe Lombardo.

He is an old man who refers to Joe Lombardo as “a good kid.”

Hostage

By Peter Schwartz

Memoir


Wednesday, October 14th, 2009. I’m in my room on Albert Street in Augusta Maine, being held hostage. A woman almost a decade my junior has just told me she was raped last night, but for some reason she is directing all her rage at me. I’m trying to be supportive but she’s hitting me with everything she has, making fun of my anthropophobia and bi-polarity. It’s actually not the words that hurt so badly, it’s the fact that she would go after me like this. If she knew more about me, she’d have even better ammunition.

I’m asking if she wants to call the police but I know she doesn’t want to go through the degrading process of a trial so now I’m asking if she knows where this fucker lives. She likes that. I fantasize with her about finding his house, cutting his lights and phone, running in there, hurting him like he hurt her. But that part doesn’t last long. Now I’m getting questioned why I would make such an offer when I clearly hate her guts. She hates me so much right now she can’t even imagine I don’t feel the same way about her. I’m a safe target and I get the sense she has been waiting for this moment for years. I’m a monster, and nothing I say is going to change that. She tells me in a slightly different voice that if I hang up she will most likely kill herself.

I don’t understand rape, I really don’t. The whole turn-on with sex for me is that someone actually wants me. Simply taking that from someone is the most un-sexy thing I can imagine. I do understand the desire for vengeance though. My father used to beat the shit out of me over twenty years ago and I still occasionally fantasize about flying to his apartment in New York City and getting justice. Now she’s mocking my poetry and fiction, saying I think I’m so spiritual but I’m bullshitting myself, I’m just scared. I want to call her a fat, disgusting, piece of shit but I know those are the last words she needs to hear right now.

I’m think I’m him now. She’s making fun of the fact that I couldn’t get it up once. I’m not a real man and probably want to fuck my mother. I can’t take this. I cannot sit here and take this. I want to fight back but society’s rules are pretty clear here: victims have carte blanche to say whatever the hell they want. I’m a leech, a user, a liar, and a cheater. I contribute nothing to society. Okay, I’m there. I can’t believe I’m about to do what I’m about to do. Deeply nauseous, I instinctively glance at my toilet. I’ll most likely throw up later.

Even though according to her I have her life in my hands because I’m her only real friend, I’m telling her she can do whatever she wants. Another person entirely, I’m hanging up, imagining her hearing the sound of that dial tone, how that must be the loneliest sound in the universe. How alone she must feel. I fucking hate myself; I’ve proved her point; I really am that monster. But I’m also finally free of her wrath. I take a deep breath and try to remember who I was an hour ago.

 

 

 

A man stands motionless on a street corner in single-digit morning temperatures.

He’s holding a sign that simultaneously calls the mayor of Chicago a dictator while demanding a certain FBI agent to stop raping his wife.

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The top portion of the sign reads: “FBI Agent Chris Saviano, Stop Raping My Wife!”

And the first thing you think when you read it is: “Jesus Christ! Somebody help this poor guy whose wife is God-knows-where getting raped by this FBI agent!”

And then the next day you see him, dressed as before, in the same spot holding the same signs, you think: “Fuck! It’s still happening? How is this still happening? That FBI guy should be fired and thrown in prison by now! And yeah, you know, that Mayor Daley is totally a dictator when you get down to it.”

But it’s on the third morning upon seeing him on the same corner with the same signs, you think: “Yikes. How long has this dude been out here doing this?”

You think about him – Farhad Khoiee-Abassi – and about the day he walked into a Kinko’s or a Fast Signs where he had to explain to whoever was behind the counter that he wanted these exact signs made. And you imagine how he had to explain that he really wanted the word “Raping” to be in red and a bit slanted, and how he wanted both the T’s in “Dictator” to be in capitals. He maybe said, “Oh, and let’s totally underline the word ‘DicTaTor’ and make the word ’stop’ into a stop sign. Can you guys make a stop sign? Yeah? Yeah.”

Oh, and on that third morning you totally start to think he’s schizophrenic.

I’ve worked down in the Loop on the corner of Clark and Randolph for over a year now, and Farhad Khoiee-Abassi has been there almost every morning.

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Holding those signs.

Staring straight ahead.

Oblivious to the whispers and the shaking heads.

If it’s cold, he’s bundled up in ski pants and jacket, hat, gloves.

If it’s not cold, wearing a full on suit.

The story, or so say the peoples on the ‘net, is that he has been in a long-fought legal battle with his ex-wife.

Custody rights.

Protection orders.

He’s self-representing himself after his lawyer quit.

He’s mocking the legal and political systems, standing out there day after day after day trying to bring awareness to his cause.

He’s been reported to have been seen in DC and New York City with his signs, always keeping the rape one, but substituting the Mayor Daley sing for another that says “Alberto Gonzales – Outlaw! Trial!”

Exclamation points.

He’s been doing this for years now.

It’s a pretty sad sight.

But the saddest thing to me is that he’s not really helping his cause out there.

He doesn’t acknowledge those reading his signs.

He doesn’t try to retell his story, doesn’t retell whatever drama has driven him to this.

He doesn’t ask for donations or pity.

Doesn’t verbalize his need for help.

Doesn’t seem to have any other agenda than to stand there, every morning, with those signs.

So, as it appears, Khoiee-Abassi gets up every morning headed for the Loop like so many other Chicagoans.

He eats his breakfast, drinks his coffee, watches some ESPN or a little TODAY show action while he ties his shoelaces, he flosses, makes sure the cats have food, and then he heads out the door with his briefcase.

Just like me.

Just like you.

Just another day at the office.

But instead of a laptop or some manila folders, Khoiee-Abassi’s briefcase holds a collapsible pole and some crazy-ass signs.

And like you or me, he’s out there doing his thing, speaking as little as possible to those around him, careful not to touch anyone, careful not to be touched.

I suppose there’s nothing wrong with this.

Free speech, and all that.

He’s got his agenda.

Like you and I have ours.

But.

My.

Curiosity.

Won’t.

Subside.

Now my original plan, when I finally decided that I was going to approach him, was to hand him an envelope containing a letter about how I’d like to sit down and hear his story. Get an article out of him so that he could finally explain himself. An interview for the Chicago Reader, maybe.

My girlfriend said that was a terrible idea, and after visions of him barking in tongues in my face in front of hundreds of commuters, or another one where he tries to impale me with his collapsible pole but it keeps, well collapsing against my sternum, I reluctantly agreed with her.

Then I thought I would maybe just start off by saying “Good morning” or “‘Mornin’” or “Cold one, eh?” for a week or so, breaking down the barrier until we had a real conversation. Then a coffee sit-down. Then I could get his side of this story that unfolds before so many Chicagoans every morning.

But that was so hard to do, seeing as how he stands right across the street from my building where coworkers I know and don’t know stream past every second. I thought that being seen regularly conversing with this guy by higher-ups would be awkward and detrimental to my ladder climbing.

But.

My.

Curiosity.

All winter I almost made my move, approaching and second-guessing.

Totally pussing out, over and over.

And then on a February morning that couldn’t have been over 10 degrees, I mentally lowered my balls from my warm abdomen, and I spoke to Khoiee-Abassi.

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I approached from behind.

He stared straight ahead, focusing on nothing.

“Excuse me,” I said, also facing straight ahead, but now right next to him. “So, I work across the street.”

He says nothing.

I steal a glance and he doesn’t even blink as I say: “Yeah. I see you out here all the time and I was wondering if you would like some coffee.”

Nothing.

“Or maybe some hot water,” I said.

Then there was a quick blink, but not the kind of blink that said: “Yes, stranger. I would love a cup of hot water as I can’t feel my extremities. Thank you. You are very kind. I want to tell you all my secrets.”

Rather, it was more of a blink that said: “My eyes are dry and so I choose to refresh them with a blink.”

Nothing more.

The lights changed, people swarmed the street from both sides.

Crushed, I walked into my building without looking back.

I wonder how FBI Agent Chris Saviano, the supposed raper, handles his name being out there on the corner of Randolph and Clark.

If there even is an agent by this name, honestly.

I read that in open court, Farhad Khoiee-Abassi’s wife admitted that she has never even heard of a man with this name.

Which makes this man’s stand all the stranger.

He’s out there right now.

I just saw him.

Holding those signs.

Not saying a thing.

Dressed the same as yesterday.

And I will try leave him alone.

But, I gotta say, it sure seems more than crazy to stand out there in the freezing morning wind and not take a man up on a cup of hot water.

After all, you have to take care of yourself so that you can make it to work the next day.