A Book Review Masquerading as a Memoir, or Vice-Versa, Depending on One’s Point of View and Opinion of Absurd Clothing, plus Praise to James Bernard Frost for Giving a Voice to Aging Punk Rockers.
If ever you should have an epiphany— and I think you know what I’m talking about— latch onto it, no matter how large or small the epiphany, and try your best to make it happen. You might make a fool of yourself, but better to make fool of yourself than to spend your life jealous of the fools.
Bartholomew Flynn, A Very Minor Prophet
A few months ago I went to a holiday party, an annual affair revisited with different themes every year.
This year’s theme was “Fancy Pants.” It could be interpreted any way one wanted, and I, going against type, decided to dress up “fancy pantsy.” I looked lovely—if too tightly poured into my really flattering dress—and I wore a pair of heels, a sartorial choice reserved for a few select events: weddings, funerals and gay bars with drag queens.
Our family wandered four houses down the block, into holiday festivities with costumes galore and a wealth of fancy pants. There were glittering pants and zebra-striped pants, and an amazing collection of rip-away pajama pants, which revealed tighty-whitey’s festooned by Bedazzler pens and “Jingle Balls.”
I was looking FABULOUS, and completely out of place.
I’m the perfect guest at costume parties. I take it as a badge of honor and personal responsibility—Thou Shalt Not Arrive Un-Costumed—and I worry about my costume for weeks in advance.
What can I say? I was unprepared. I didn’t understand the milieu, or I was distracted, or maybe I just had a bad day: but I was miserable. I walked in looking f’awesome, yet I wanted to pull the manhole cover over myself. I slammed a cocktail, and then a Jell-o shot— I wanted seven— realized I was the worst party guest ever and walked four houses home.
I looked through my drawers: there were no obvious “fancy pants” to be seen, not unless outdated corduroys count. I probably cracked a beer, wondering “Where-oh-where could things have gone so horribly wrong?” I was going to call it a night. I was off my game—people are allowed a few failures, right?—so I’d go to sleep early, waking up refreshed.
Then I remembered the pants.
The convict pants.
I had a pair of honest-to-god black-and-white-striped convict pants.
Not just any convict pants, either—these had legs (no pun intended). These had history. These were, in many respects, my legacy.
This pair of pants was discovered in the late Sixties— no later than 1972— by my father in Salvation Army for 59 cents (more or less). Being the late Sixties (or early Seventies), my father bought them. It was fortunate that he was a professor of art, because to own such pants and be unable to wear them would be a crime. And he did, too. I have a photo of him wearing the pants (I looked for it high and low, but it eluded me), talking to a dumpy hippy art student with a braided leather belt and bell-bottoms. He’s wearing a snap-button cowboy shirt, leather moccasins and fucking convict pants while teaching at an institution of higher learning.
I don’t know why he eventually hung up the convict pants. Maybe the Eighties got the better of him, all the perms and shoulder pads, and profound dissolution of the social net. By now I was a teenager, looking for personal definition of my own, and I started by rifling through Dad’s closet looking for objet de fuq yü.
There were two things in my father’s closet which I stole as soon as I found them: a mechanic’s shirt that had blazoned on the back: BIG SQUIRT IRRIGATOR; and the convict pants.
I knew I’d hit the jackpot. It was like mining for copper and coming up with perfect-cut punk rock diamonds, straight from the mines. I was over-the-fucking-moon with my treasure hunt. Very few could claim such largesse from their parent’s closets, and I…well.
Let’s just say I knew I had the crown jewels.
Portland, Oregon is the nicest backwater you’ll ever visit. We are a bunch of lucky fucking bastards. We have no sales tax to pay for anything, crumbling schools, cops shooting citizens all the time—mentally ill, unarmed, completely in the right—and yet, we have it all: massive parks, beautiful, slightly disheveled people, half-assed weather, and real honest-to-god innovation. Too small to thrive, too big to fail, we tolerate the behemoth corporations who deign to call us home, though they leave little for us to cling to.
Paradoxical, some call it. PARADISIACAL, I call it.
James Bernard Frost—a name too big to fail—wrote a book about us.
It’s called A Very Minor Prophet: the Gospel According to Joseph Patrick Booker, as Interpreted by His Faithful Scribe, Barth Flynn. It is about Portland.
It is also about my pants.
Those of you who survived the Eighties know things. You know that:
- Punk rock thrived.
- Punk rock thrived because of—as the antidote to—Reagan.
- The scene was packed full of a bunch of ironic dicks.
- We ignored them.
- The dicks tried to prevail—over what they were prevailing was mysterious— but we still ignored them.
- We were actually really earnest.
- We were, in fact, so earnest, that we were hurt by people who were dicks.
- We didn’t realize that most people thought we were all dicks, not fighting for a cause.
- Those of us who thought we were fighting for a cause felt empowered by each other, even though we looked like dicks to the status quo.
- It didn’t matter, because in the end, we tried — the best we could, under stupid hormonal conditions and the absence of any definable cause (which is not to say that our cause didn’t exist—it merely moved, like quicksand, like the devil, under our feet) and failed.
- We, the aged punk rockers, the pariahs, the tarnished saints, the jezebels and bohemians, still believe we were not wrong.
James Bernard Frost (the person known as “Jim” but he isn’t sure about “Jim”, because “James Bernard Frost” is, if nothing else, an exquisitely authorial name, but he doesn’t feel authorial, and he isn’t a dick) wrote A Very Minor Prophet about us: Portland, full of tall bikes and clowns and donuts and crappy beer and sex workers and excellent coffee. But he wrote it for us, too.
In it, set during the reign of King Dubya’s second election, our hero/anti-dick Barth Flynn follows a completely unorthodox dwarf prophet, J.P. Booker through sermons, and journeys and heroes quests, up and down hills on a bike. Along the way, Flynn falls in love, makes horrible mistakes, gets taken for a ride by countless dicks–all the while dutifully recording, and responding to, the sermons of this madman dwarf.
But Booker isn’t raving—not really—because we know that what Booker says is true:
Jesus wasn’t preaching about the afterlife—how you can get there, what awaits you after you croak—he was preaching about how you can exist now, with less crap, earnestly, unburdened by careerism. He was preaching about the inchoate nagging suspicion that something has gone horribly, horribly askew, and just because you can’t identify it, does not mean that you’re wrong. Booker, the midget prophet (played in my mind’s eye by no less than The Station Agent and Game of Thrones star, Peter Dinklage) tells you that we, the freaks, are on the right track: Make the earth what you want, which is pristine; make your life what you love, which is full of art and sex and peace and fun, but most of all not being a dick.
Frost weaves blasphemy and sincerity, theology and insanity seamlessly, because here, in Portland, it is seamless. Though irony and sarcasm pollute our pristine waters, and political correctness can be a strangling, boring trial, we know that there are their opposites: honesty, and the courage to look foolish for a cause. We’re sullied by assholes dressed like radicals, and bloated bureaucracy, and people shooting each other over two pops of hillbilly heroin, but we raise chickens and ride bikes and vote during every special election because we are believers.
We believe in being decent. We believe that many people who get the brass ring are assholes, but know better than to be jealous of them. We know we are weak, but we want, more than anything, to do right by our fellow beasts.
We know we are beasts.
We are One with beastliness.
We know that beastliness is sublime.
In the Eighties, I wore the convict pants with pride.
I looked like a clown in them—a five foot tall nymphet with poorly bleached hair, black eye make-up above some holey shirt I stole off a boyfriend, convict pants, and Tai Chi shoes: six dollars at a hippy patchouli outlet in Boulder, Colorado. I cut them into Convict Capris, so they hit me below the knee; to wear them to my ankles would have been to admit a schizophrenic break with reality, so I trimmed them to a reasonable length—one which made me look like an Oompah Loompah, but not homeless, which was something.
I wore them so often that they frayed in the knees and the bum, but I patched them up: a green patch in the crotch, an old t-shirt across the knee, a black pocket replacing the one that eventually wore away. They were held together with badly sewn stitches and a prayer.
Some dick stole the BIG SQUIRT IRRIGATOR shirt when I was sixteen, more proof that we were a nation of dicks. But the pants traveled with me: the most valuable heirloom from my father’ iconoclasm, and my own. As I grew older, the pants moved from my drawer into a box with old letters. Then they moved to an old Samsonite overnight case with other gems and family heirlooms, shuffling from basement to basement to basement. I married my husband, hated George W. Bush, had a child, hated George W. Bush some more, and forgot about the pants…
…until that fateful holy-shit-why-am-I-wearing-a-foofoo-dress party. When I found them, it was a homecoming.
They were supple with age. The patches were meaningless, though I have no doubt they meant something to me once. The convict pants fit me perfectly: like love and hope and mischief.
I’m a crappy female: I always need pants. I’m slightly too plump for most of them, but not so much that I can’t squeak by. I have two pairs that fit me reliably, but one of them is ugly. I wear sweats a lot.
Yesterday was warm, and I needed to garden in a compulsively Portland way. But I had nothing to wear–nothing but the convict pants which I haven’t worn since the holiday party, for obvious reasons. I have no pride to speak of, so I put them on and began to garden with an obsessive zeal that burns brightly in Portland.
I went to pick up my son from school, wearing the same pants I wore when I was seventeen, full of vim, passion and conviction that I wasn’t a dick, even though most people probably thought I was. A parent of one of my son’s classmates walked by and laughed when she realized who I was. “Oh my god,” she said. “You look like a twelve-year-old boy!”
I honored the very best part of my clown-iness in that exchange.
I didn’t take them off, even after all that: the twelve-year old boy, the fraying patches, the utter lack of forty-year-old dignity. I walked my dog in the damned pants. Even after I felt a slight breeze suspiciously close to my bum, I didn’t think to change. I shouldn’t have been wearing them at all: this heirloom, my legacy, cleansed in the fire of silliness, a treasure of my youth. But above all things, I’m lazy. And possessed. I wanted very much to garden, while chewing on A Very Minor Prophet, thinking about my father, and all the things that being here, now, in this moment, with a very minor pair of pants meant. I took my son to the store, where we were going to buy, among other things, iron-on patches for convict-pants-triage.
As we walked through the sliding doors of the supermarket, my son said, “I can see your underwear. That must be embarrassing.” The pants had split straight up the back.
It was a Very Minor Moment.
I don’t know why you’re going to buy A Very Minor Prophet.
You might buy it because you’re a dick, trying to one-up some other dick who doesn’t quite get it, but YOU DO, so you want to prove it by having it in your book collection, and the boy (or girl, or egg, or shoe) you want to have sex with is going to be impressed that you have it.
But I think you’re going to buy it because it speaks to your longing.
The longing for sincerity, for the truth of doing right by people, and for authenticity, even when we’re surrounded by a bunch of ironic dicks.
You might buy it, or borrow it, or even steal it, because it tells you that your suspicions are right. That all your struggles for the little people and against an inchoate but very real wrongness— are the right struggles. You will buy it because you identify with the longing to ride a bike in a cocktail gown even though you’re a dude, and to walk your dog wearing convict capris even though you’re a woman in your forties. You are better than ironic mustaches— except when you’re not; and you want the best for people— except when you happen to be a beast. But mostly you’re a good person, and you believe that people are good, and that we all deserve good.
This is the heart of the Gospel of Portland.