Episode 554 — John WrayBy TNB Editors
December 05, 2018
Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with John Wray. A recipient of a Whiting Award and a Guggenheim fellowship, his new novel, Godsend, is available now from Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
December 05, 2018
Now playing on Otherppl, a conversation with John Wray. A recipient of a Whiting Award and a Guggenheim fellowship, his new novel, Godsend, is available now from Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
July 18, 2013
Like so many people, I spent the days after the Boston Marathon bombing glued to social media, the TV blaring in the background. I read everything I could about the Tsarnaev brothers, their parents, their friends, the detectives chasing them. I learned who the victims were, where their families were standing when the blasts occurred, how close each runner was to
the finish line. Once the press had (finally) correctly identified the suspects, I started following a reporter on Twitter named Wesley Lowery, who, it seemed, was always about two feet away from the action, live-tweeting every gunshot. And on the night that police found Dzhokhar hiding in a boat in Watertown, I was up long after my husband and kids had gone to bed, unable to look away.
April 18, 2013
The runner’s the disciple of travel,
Ambassador from determination;
All the wars a runner fights are civil,
The self-turned challenge, the primal agitation.
We tritely say that running signs the human
Spirit, community of close-stepping pack,
Second wind as individual omen,
We measure with matched morals on the track.
August 08, 2011
Everyone was talking on their cell phones while walking around Oslo, taking photos of the shattered glass panes outside shoe and clothing stores downtown. Though the explosion had taken place only forty minutes earlier, the only signs that something was wrong were the long lines of police tape around the parliament building and the sound of sirens and burglar alarms. Everyone was strangely calm just after the accident. No one knew enough to be worried. At four in the afternoon, news online was hard to come by. The official report was that some kind of explosion, maybe a bomb though maybe not, had gone off downtown.
July 16, 2011
And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.
Sometimes, I’d rather just forget it all,
that almost chemically pure fatigue
in feet and lungs and… nose. It was the smell,
that post-industrial residue of flesh,
burned paper, hard drives, staplers, pulverized
concrete, polyester-cotton blends
scorched to nothing, melted to a stench
that conjured all—and none—that I remember.
I used to keep the paper from the tenth,
yellowed, crumpled from the trash, retrieved
like a lost letter from a distant home
that seems more real than this, and even now,
I can still hear the obsolete debates.
It’s so far off. The Battle in Seattle?
Remember that? So many demonstrations—
in the end a brief, deceptive thaw.
Hardly Eden. Still, though, hardly this.
We didn’t fall, but lost initiative
in toxic smoke—distant now as heaven.
Something changed, and something had to give.
This is the public part. And where were you
when the towers fell? It doesn’t matter
in the greater scheme of broadcast threats,
secret flights, and politicians’ chatter.
Like hell it doesn’t! Only scale divides
the micro from the macro, part from whole.
Metropole, periphery—each slides
into piles of rubble, though one’s role
varies—are you predator or prey
or passerby? Far off or too near
or in the middle distance—either way,
there was a break, and it began right here.
Beneath the raptor’s eager eyes, the shapes of land
are laid out like a map,
the creatures crawling in the dirt look up and pray.
The long-expected trap
will soon snap shut in wings and beaks. His blood is up,
and he needs scant excuse
to turn at greater angles as he gyrates down.
No bargaining, no truce,
no lesser offers satiate his need to gorge,
and pleading is denied.
He jackknifes like a Stuka as he grazes ground.
Aloft again, his glide
is steady as his shadow sweeps across the plain,
majestic, proud, and fast.
He’s headed somewhere distant as he flaps his wings—
but that’s too good to last.
The trains moved back and forth like worms beneath the ground,
and safely out of sight
of what moves though the sky, the tabloid headlines throbbed
through weak anemic light
in lurid colors, graphics bristling on the front
like paper porcupines,
and in the spectral, seated crowds, I strained to read
the threats in newsprint lines.
Oy vey! Here goes another day! But life goes on
despite the evening news,
and train delays in rush hour set my teeth on edge.
One rarely gets to choose
one’s useless fights or losing cause, and so I rode
my circuit as before,
emerged at 116th and Broadway at a run.
I muttered and I swore
under my breath through lectures and through snaking lines
in grocery stores at night,
through meals I microwaved and cigarettes I smoked
while trudging through the blight
New York in winter splattered on the city streets—
the faded, grayish glow
of streetlights shone on curtained windows, billboard signs,
and pellets of black snow.
And on those lonely, late-night walks, I clutched my keys
and scurried like a bug
to read the paper once again when I got home.
Gratified and smug,
the president was smiling almost every day.
The opposition cooed
mild reservations. So it wasn’t if, but when
a bully’s chosen feud
would come to blows—but still, the monthly bills were paid,
and every curse I’d sneer
was matched with sighs and mantras that I told myself
no one would ever hear.
Defiance ebbed and resignation flowed, but still
I swore that I would fight
with words, at least, or aching feet when morning came,
but shudders late at night
proclaimed what we could not admit—not to ourselves—
no slogan-ridden shout
would save the creatures in the raptor’s line of sight
or throw the bastards out.
Invent a story and don’t change the names
or worry if the images are stock—
it doesn’t matter. Telling’s the important part
in half-forgotten chants, in memories
like photographs are memories,
or songs… or like a long-suppressed lament
as distant as a saga, or as close
as languid anecdote. It’s hard to tell.
Our plotlines come out piecemeal, episodes
of shows we hardly ever watch but see
on listless Fridays, know by reference
or catch-phrase—we despise them second-hand
or laugh at snippets, yawn as new clichés
assert themselves as truth. Accustomed order
rules each sentence—only for a while.
Pause for a moment. Take a breath, resume,
suspecting a digression, hoping it,
dreaming of a better narrative
subsuming this one. Speak it anyway,
until the fragments sag and finally give
way to the plot, or hint at it at least.
It’s not the tale. Rather we want the voice,
the way it surges, stops, reformulates
between what seems inexorable… and choice?
Tonight, it’s not dead generations’ weight
that presses against my brain, instead two towers,
a story that I need to tell, though late
in year and politics—and in the hour.
It’s almost muscle memory that forms each word,
recalls sensations I’d believed forgotten,
aspirations, touching and absurd,
and sentences more mothballed now than rotten.
And on the streets, 2003 would not replay
There were no barricades along Fifth Avenue.
The enemy shot straight
with laser guides and missiles and a satellite
and blats on infrared,
with snipers on the roofs and agents in the crowds
and choppers overhead,
with slick provocateurs on AM radio,
mendacities on air,
a rainbow spread of panic and a coded threat
behind a terror scare.
The grouplets quoted, formulated, and condensed
a bellowed politics
and combed the Manifesto for a perfect phrase,
a plan, an easy fix.
We scanned our books by lamplight, phrase by pithy phrase—
“But what would Trotsky do
if he were here?” We dug our mental trenches and
we took the longer view,
preparing for a surge, a push, a grand advance
regardless of the price
for just and fictive futures (maybe for revenge).
a leaflet’s snarled advice
lay stacked on the kitchen table for a weekend march.
A sturdy pair of shoes
was by the bed, and leaflets sat in plastic bags
beside the monthly dues.
And she and I were comrades first, and when we slept,
we did so back to back,
somnolent sentries snoring down the empty air,
and braced for an attack.
But though her touch was cold and though she turned away,
I swore that things were grand,
her picket sign by mine outside the bedroom door,
a permanent last stand.
And through the fast-food meals I ate alone, I swore
there was no other way,
that soon enough the crowds would storm the palaces.
I smoked two packs a day
and paced the carpet in the living room at night.
I muttered to myself—
names and facts and parallels in history.
The books stacked on the shelf
were barbed with aphorisms, filled with figures. They
would prick my nascent doubt,
and life was great, with take-out pizza, dirty socks…
until she threw me out.
But in the meetings and the vapid speeches flung
by speakers to the crowds,
the posture was defensive, bracing for the blow.
The thick midwinter clouds
were always present. Protest posters sagged and flowed.
The chilly moisture clawed
at slogans and at time and place, but still we fought
the rumored storms abroad.
But how to fight? The opposition puckered up
and joined the frenzied cheers
while pleading chants of thousands in the winter wet
were banished from their ears.
Pray, if you can pray, or fall asleep,
or stay up late with twenty-four-hour news,
scanning the ticker for the next attack,
or breach, perhaps. Volcanoes, hurricanes,
floods, new deployments, and rendition flights.
We’ll never be the same, and never were.
A target is an opportunity—
we’ve always known this. Now we know too well.
The march of progress turned into a slog,
a forced march leading into God knows where,
a dull parade of hollow victories.
It doesn’t matter what you think or do—
the radio shouts; the television’s shrill;
the internet takes what is blogged upon it;
and verse? There’s always verse; anthologies
appear before they’re pulped by the next disaster.
But still, somehow, I don’t look at the scar
where, once, the towers stood when I buy ties
or compact discs or shoes. I know it’s there,
but keep on moving and avert my eyes.
It’s everything and nothing, simple loss
as unredressed as thwarted ignorance.
The cries for vengeance fade. Officials change.
The thing that stays with us is circumstance—
this mutilated city and the word
that seems to fit but doesn’t or the threat
from outside or within, the way a bird
flies lower than before, though as of yet
it circles, but we know it has to land.
Call it premonition, call it fate,
conspiracy, or just a sleight-of-hand,
a warning that we all got wrong, too late.
May 02, 2011
They come from bars and frat houses,
Chins sporting the last chug’s dregs;
They’ve shut down the POTUS block
Down lawn chairs! Time to tap the kegs!
“Na na na! Hey hey hey! Goodbye!”
Caught in the unstoppered ear—
Perspective fails the sloppy street
It’s just one terrorist’s career!
What giant wheels when Brezhnev sent
Red troops into Afghanistan;
House of Saud and CIA,
Tipped shots to Charlie Wilson’s plan.
October 30, 2010
This is a continuation of my series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1.
17. Nobody deploys the witty put-down quite like Wafi and Safi boys (and girls). You know it by many names: “the dozens,” “snaps,” “cracks,” “yo mama jokes,” and such. The tradition of non-violent contests of wits through rapid-fire mutual insults is well know anywhere Black culture has left a mark. But in my travels I don’t think I’ve met any group that dishes it out quite as expertly as folks from the Niger delta towns of Warri and Sapele (AKA Wafi and Safi), rendered in the particularly extravagant brand of Pidgin English for which that region is famous. I myself still bear the scars from some such encounters. And if you are trying to get cozy with a girl from that region, you had better come correct, or you might not survive the resulting put-down.
CHAPTER ONE: COMPROMISES
“We took some tea as a symbol, as a gesture, to the Palestinian people, picked by the Tamil people, as if to say, ‘This is our sweat and blood, this is the only thing we have to give.’”
The Day That Started with a Bang
It was 5:01 AM, October 22, 1984. It could have been a morning two thousand years ago. Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo, slept under the pink clouds of dawn, palm fronds nodded in the tropical breeze, large-billed birds summoned up the sun, and the 5:00 AM train blew its whistle. In the street below, a couple of three-wheeled tuk-tuks sat, their engines puttering: taxi drivers waiting to take children to school or businessmen to their desks. One of these drivers leaned forward to turn on his radio, and his tuk-tuk was thrown backward in a spray of dust and debris, as if by a silent hurricane. The corner of the church across the street rose several meters from the ground. It sagged back down, crushing a Tamil man underneath, and then it rained cement shards and pieces of glass for a full minute afterward as people scrambled awake.
The explosion was heard over ten kilometers away. Since the country was in the teeth of a civil war, this wasn’t as much of a surprise as if it had happened in, say, Oklahoma City, but, just to be safe, security forces, medical personnel, and a bomb squad were deployed, quickly scurrying to the address that was broadcast on the radios. They expected that the mop-up would be quick and minimal. Multiple ambulances were deployed—again, just to be safe. The Sri Lankan army was put on alert. More than a few people assumed that the explosion was caused by a gas line that had caught fire, or that maybe the church had just collapsed because it was so old.
These teams pulled up to the front of the smoldering church at the moment that another bomb, at the south end of town, ripped open a bus station. Phone lines started to jam up, police and security forces were told to station themselves at the edges of town, and the Sri Lankan army picked up its weapons and headed over to the bus station, since these events were turning the dawn quite dark.
Five minutes passed. As this second emergency team arrived at the second scene, a third bomb, this one at the west end of town, detonated at a television transmission station owned by the state-run Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, dropping the tower into a smoking mess of steel shavings. Five minutes later, an office building downtown erupted in a spray of concrete, spitting pebbles, rebar, plaster, carpet, and a few twirling chairs into the sky. Then, as if inhaled back into the building, the material returned to earth, collapsing floor after floor under its weight, instantly burying four people.
In a suburb, two people, clueless as to what was happening in the city at that minute, opened a box they found on the sidewalk. An enormous smoking mouth opened in the middle of the road, and their limbs were launched more than ten meters away. About two minutes later, at Fort Railway Station, an unexploded bomb was found by the police. While the Sri Lankan army was busy defusing that one, a second detonated nearby, flicking a train car that had just blown its whistle onto its side like a matchbox.
Six minutes of peace followed. Just as the police dispatch began to breathe a sigh of relief, someone called in to report a blast near the foreign ministry office.
There were no more emergency workers available, and the Sri Lanka Broadcast Corporation, from what remained of the broadcast tower, pleaded that people stay indoors, remain calm, and wait for authorities to unwire a city that had been turned into a distributed detonation device.
But it wasn’t over. Five more explosions were yet to come in the next ninety minutes. And since that morning in 1984, more than one hundred thousand people have died early deaths in Sri Lanka as a result of “civil war,” “terrorism,” and “political unrest.”
The attack was organized by a man named Shankar Rajee, who, over afternoon tea, told me why he did this. He said his intent was to cause terror. He said, “We realized that we needed to make the ruling class and the bureaucrats feel the pressure and tension of the war. We needed to make them listen to our grievances. With this in mind, we drew up an action plan . . . These would be symbolic explosions that would be designed to create enough panic, and, well, terror . . . to make the government realize that they were not as powerful as they thought.”
Rajee brewed many dangerous ideas in the course of his life, and he spread the danger generously. An exporter of the concept of suicide bombing to the Middle East and one of the founders of the Sri Lankan Tamil militant movement, he fueled enough terror on that October morning to draw the attention that the Tamil cause needed. He felt justified. He had grown up under the heavy weight of riots, lynchings, arson, refugee camps, and an intimate education on the finer points of segregation. Raised in the war zones of Sri Lanka, and finding himself muzzled because of his ethnicity, he’d had enough. So in his early twenties he moved to London. While there he met Palestinian militants, traveled with them to Beirut for training, pulled a trigger on the front lines, and explained the basics of suicide terrorism to the Fatah party. He left with a souvenir given to him by the PLO: enough ammunition to start a small war. Which he promptly did, as soon as he arrived back home.
The decade leading up to this bombing had been a politically charged competition of physical force between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority (both of whom have been living on the island of Sri Lanka, or Ceylon, for as long as either of them can remember). Up until Rajee bombed Colombo, the civil war had grown gradually from attacks by petty criminals to deadly discharges launched by organized groups. Murders committed out in the farms triggered riots in the towns, which in turn provoked multiple murders in temples, which then set off massive riots in the cities. With each blow, the government grew harder and more conservative—and this in turn led to harder and more conservative militant groups.
One of the militant groups born in these hotbeds was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)—or the Tamil Tigers. Founded in 1976 in the extreme north of the island, the LTTE waged a violent campaign against the Sri Lankan government and, like most Tamil groups, sought to create an independent Tamil state in the north of the island, which would be named Eelam. The LTTE became notorious for civilian massacres, child conscriptions, drug smuggling, weapons stockpiling, and high-profile assassinations. They came up with the wearable detonation device known as the suicide belt, invented suicide bombing, pioneered the use of women in suicide attacks, and were proscribed as a terrorist organization by more than thirty countries by 2002. And they had their dark side, too.
The Tamil Tigers waged war with the Sri Lankan state for three decades. Nearly one hundred thousand people died in the longest-running civil war in Southeast Asia. The Tamil Tigers attacked not only shrines and monuments of symbolic importance—they also carried out the assassinations of public figures such as Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa and former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Then, on May 17, 2009, the Sri Lankan government announced the death of the elusive and dictatorial Velupillai Prabhakaran, the founder and leader of the LTTE, claiming victory in the war and ending this chapter of a three-thousand-year-old story.
The war the LTTE waged was cultural, ethnic, social, and economic. What I saw was a cultural dialogue: Sinhalese chauvinism fueling Tamil chauvinism, and vice versa. The LTTE argued that the ruling Sinhalese (primarily Buddhist) majority was suppressing the Tamil (mainly Hindu) minority. The LTTE’s justification for its felonious habits was simple: Ethnic suppression demanded military response. Indeed, over the years the vision and mission of the LTTE managed to earn some support among the diaspora of seventy-four million Tamils currently living in Europe, North America, and India.
Rajee’s goal, like the goal of many Tamils, was to make the government realize that it was not as powerful as it thought. A former colleague of Rajee’s and one of the cofounders of the Tamil Tigers, Dharmalingam Siddharthan reiterated Rajee’s message when he told me, “The only way to move the elephant is to prick it with something small. You can’t move it. You have to make it feel something.”
April 28, 2010
Having been a fan of David Goodwillie’s excellent 2005 memoir, Seemed Like A Good Idea at the Time, I was a bit apprehensive when I heard he was publishing his first novel, American Subversive. I feared the worst: the dreaded second book bomb. It’s almost a cliche, to follow a great book with a flop. Then I read the book.
David Goodwillie is working on another novel while he follows the Mets in what he hopes will be an amazing season of victory.
April 22, 2010
JC: Last week JR reviewed David Goodwillie’s new novel, American Subversive, saying that it picked up where Trance left off, and reminded him of Eat the Document, both of which are good enough to get my attention. Here he is again with a fine interview with the author himself.
It was at least in part because of the memoir that I started writing about two characters completely different from myself (unless you’re David Sedaris, one memoir at a relatively young age is more than enough). Paige Roderick is an idealistic young woman from the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. She’s from a military family, and when her older brother dies in Iraq, she turns to radicalism as a way to avenge his death. The book’s other main character, Aidan Cole, is a failed journalist-turned-gossip-blogger, who starts investigating Paige’s group after a bomb goes off in New York. I saw them as two sides of my generation—a woman who cares too much about the world, and a guy who’s apathetic and barely cares at all (at least in the beginning). I guess I fall somewhere in the middle. The book had been evolving in my mind for some time. I wanted to write about serious and often controversial themes—politics and media, apathy and activism, the way people should react to events in the larger world—and do so in a thriller-ish way.
I’ve always been fascinated by American extremist movements—especially The Weather Underground. Imagining something like that occurring today—an organized group of middle- and upper-middle class students (most of them liberal arts kids or Ivy Leaguers) using violent means in an attempt to stir revolt, and end a misguided war—might be hard to do. But that’s exactly the problem. We’ve been so conditioned as a nation—and this dates back to Joe McCarthy and the early rhetoric of the Cold War—to worship at the alter of untethered capitalism, that a dangerous close-mindedness—a bunker-like us-against-them mentality—has come to define our politics. I’m reminded of a great line from the New Yorker writer, Ian Frazier: “Capitalism, having defeated communism, now seems to be about to do the same to democracy.” Well, I’m not saying there’s a better answer than capitalism—indeed I haven’t found one. Certainly, The Weather Underground (misguided as they were) didn’t provide one. But the seeds of their struggle, their idealistic conviction that taking some form of action could not just jumpstart wide reform but change the face of a nation…well, we could use a bit more of that these days. You can look at what happens to the characters in American Subversive to understand that violent extremism is no cure for what ails us, but neither is burying our heads in the sand. Collective apathy, silent terrorism (if you will), may be the deadliest form of all.
Writing American Subversive was certainly a learning experience. I was trying to toe that very thin line between literature and suspense (so many books, it seems, fall into one camp or the other). I wanted to write the best book I could write in terms of language, but I was also quite aware of keeping the story moving, of building momentum. It was hard at times, especially since the novel is told in (more or less) alternating voices and styles, and flips back and forth in time. Once or twice I wrote myself into a corner, but I always got myself out (with an occasional assist from my editor). Now, I think the plot may be the strongest part of the whole thing.
I’m a stickler for facts, even in fiction. It was important that American Subversive “feel” real, that the reader could envision these events actually occurring. In researching the book, I read dozens of novels and memoirs, from political thrillers to extremist tell-alls–even bomb-making manuals. I also ended up speaking with all kinds of experts, including an FBI ordnance specialist, and a former member of the Weather Underground. I wanted, as much as possible, to understand what living underground was really like—not just the issues of movement, technology and assimilation, but the minute-to-minute pressures and anxieties. Most were helpful, some were wary. One former Weatherman told me, via email, to stop dredging up the past, and he actually got pretty angry. When I told my agent, she laughed and asked me what, exactly, I’d expected. These people blew up buildings for real. Some of them might not be the most stable members of society.
I didn’t want American Subversive to be a “9/11 book”—for one, it takes place in 2010—but of course it’s impossible to write about politics and terror without 9/11 looming over the story. The events that precipitate the narrative—the Iraq war, the mood in New York City—can certainly be traced back to 9/11, and yet most New Yorkers I know feel pretty divorced—or at least separated from that awful day. Many of us lived through it first or second hand, but we’ve moved on—or should I say pretended to. We’re aware, of course, that we’re still target number one on most terrorist hit lists, but it’s not something you can think about too much without going a little crazy.
I never took many writing classes—I thought being surrounded by so many other (no doubt better) writers would scare me off. Instead I learned to write by reading voraciously—all kind of stuff, from serious literature to whodunits. I write about books quite a lot now (for The Daily Beast and other places) so my reading is a mix of books I pick out and stuff that’s picked out for me. A few recent favorites include Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, (absolutely hilarious), Donald Ray Pollack’s Knockemstiff (absolutely devastating), and—to throw in a little nonfiction—Ian Frazier’s On The Rez (absolutely perfect).
Yes. And they don’t get any easier.
My pleasure, Jason. Thanks so much.
August 01, 2009
I’ve only recently shaken off the trepidation associated with taking public transport after riding a local train through Atocha railway station on the morning of March 11th, 2004, but I still occasionally feel exactly the same kind of paralysing fear that I’m sure every Londoner, Madrileño and every New Yorker is acquainted with, if not every person in the world who is even cursorily aware of terrorism lore.
Strapped into an international flight, delayed on the runway in Jakarta in November 2006, due to the fact that Air Force one was passing through the airport, I fixated on a Semitic man sitting opposite me who was holding a copy of The Economist open in front of him.
Working his way through the paper steadily, the man was spending an equal amount of time looking at each double-page spread. Eerily, he was staring just as intently at an advert for Continental tyres, and for just as long, as he was spending reading the longer pieces.
Over the space of about an hour, blasted with sleep deprivation, culture shock, beer, Valium and memories of the film, ‘Flight 93’, I’d convinced myself he was pretending to read the paper and was, therefore, attempting to appear like a normal passenger, when, in truth, he was actually a member of al-Qaeda.
In no time, I’d managed to work myself into such a state that I’d dismantled a pen I’d found in my pocket, and was vacillating between squeamish thoughts of just what plunging the improvised plastic shiv into the guy’s neck would actually feel like, and how to explain my suspicions to the stewardess without breaking down and/or causing some kind of paroxysm.
I even wrote it out on a napkin, leaving out the words, “let’s roll”. I was preparing to hand it off when the resignation to the fact that I was going to die began to set in. The only consolation was that in doing so, I would have a part in ridding the world of George W. Bush. This was surprisingly comforting.
At what point does social conscience become interference?
When I was 12 years-old, I witnessed what would now be termed a ‘racial attack’. Some might say I participated in it by proxy. Indeed, apparently “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.
(Tell that to the Dalai Lama…)
A few seats down the bus from me, a friend of mine challenged a younger boy to specify his ethnic origin as among the people of one or the other of two neighbouring South Asian nation states; one of which he labeled with a racial epithet, the other of which he referred to with the standard demonym. My friend challenged this boy, the only non-Caucasian on a bus full of white people, clearly using the racial slur to antagonise him.
Another friend in attendance began laughing loudly and continued cackling throughout the provocation and the ensuing one-on-one fight. The public racial challenge meant that the onus was very much on the kid to escalate the conflict, and my friend certainly deserved a punch for his bigotry.
Should I also have been one to administer this, in addition to the kid’s justifiably violent reaction to what my friend had said to him? The answer is quite clearly in the affirmative: The influence I had with my friends was the power I had above and beyond that of this beleaguered kid.
A comment or an action from me may not have been able to stop the fight, but it would have certainly registered my horror and disapproval as some kind of ‘societal’ protest, and it certainly would have been easier for me to do this more effectively than he, and perhaps the fight could have been turned more in the kid’s favour.
A typically resonant line from ‘The Sopranos’ comes to mind here…
Character, J.T. Dolan returns to admonish the attendees of a Writer’s Guild seminar he has just been physically dragged out of by Mafia goons:
I suspect people who weren’t on that bus are still disgusted with me for doing nothing. I don’t feel great about it. I think that the incident lies behind my obsession with ‘jobs’ that legitimise; indeed that require a passive, observatory stance. eg. writer. In both situations, I just sat there shocked into inaction.
I got off the bus well before my stop as a boy, and off the plane as a ‘man’.
I walked the rest of the way home in silence.
IMAGE: Screengrab from ‘The Sopranos’ from youtube.com
November 12, 2007
Picture the scene.
It was the early 90’s.
REM was singing about losing their religion.
President Bill Clinton had appeared on the Arsenio Hall Show, playing sax with the band.
The “Rachel” Friends-style haircut was on the way in.
The mullet haircut was on the way out.
I was on the way out, too.
At that point in my life my San Francisco band and love relationship had crash-and-burned simultaneously.
In response my personal Magnetic North had spun completely out of whack.
My up was down. My down was sideways and backwards.
I was feeling just like the title of that REM album: Out of Time.
I hastily devised escape routes: I’d move to Boston. No. Austin. No. Seattle. No. Athens, Georgia. No.Norman, Oklahoma.
Prior to this time I’d made a few musical connections in LA.
One of those people suggested that before leaving the west coast I check out LA.
I decided to give it a year. If it worked: great. If not: Anywhere USA here I come.
Very soon I realized the City of Angels was way too sprawling and disconnected for my liking.
I had a hard time making friends.
Had a hard time connecting with musicians.
My car eventually was rear-ended and totaled by a UPS truck on the freeway.
I’d only lasted seven-and-a-half months and already I was screwed. I wanted out. Way out.
The same friend who’d advised me to come to LA now told me she had a friend in London that might be willing to put me up if I wanted out. Way out.
A few phone calls were made and before I knew it I’d purchased a one-way ticket to London.
Screw America, I thought.
I’d been giving it my heart and soul for years.
Now was time to do the expat thing. Be just like Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders.
Say goodbye to the states, get a band together in London. Then have Uncle Sam get down on his knees to beg me back.
Before I left my homeland for good I hopped a Greyhound back to the East Coast to visit family and friends.
The night before I left for London I visited an old college buddy in New York City.
We proceeded to get seriously wasted.
While stumbling through the East Village, we began spotting these business cards strewn about. They were in gutters, pinned under windshield wipers, pried into doorjambs.
The cards advertised a 1-900 sex phone line.
Each card had a different model on it.
One was African-American. Another Puerto Rican. Still another: Corn-fed White Girl.
They all had pillowy lips and come-hither looks.
Each card had a saying on it.
“Sex without the hang-ups.” Or, “Cum closer to hear sex the way it should really be.”
My buddy and I thought the cards were hilarious. We began picking them up, stuffing them into our pockets.
By the end of the evening, I could barely find my money on account of all the sex cards I’d jammed into my jacket.
The next morning I got up early and grabbed my flight out of Newark.
From there it was expat rock and roll stardom here I come.
On the flight I ended up sitting next to some guy. He was decked-out in a rumpled white button-up shirt with stains beneath the armpits. His glasses were taped across the bridge of his nose. He sported one of those pocket protectors jam-packed with pens and such. His forehead was sweat shiny. His hair was short, greasy and slightly unkempt.
About an hour into our flight he offered to buy me a drink.
I politely declined.
About a half hour later he asked again.
This time I figured what the hell. If I don’t say yes, he’ll just keep bugging me the whole trip. Besides, he seemed harmless enough—albeit a little weird in that Dungeons and Dragons, computer nerd, holed-up recluse kind of way.
The first J.D. and Coke went down nicely.
The second even better.
That’s when my seatmate really began talking.
He leaned into me, whispered into my ear:
“Kill one person and you’re called a Murderer. Kill a million people and you’re called a King. Kill everyone on Earth and you’re called a God…”
That one had me practically spitting out my third drink.
“Excuse me?” I said.
His eyes grew wide with delight. “Ever heard of white magic?”
I gulped. “Is that anything like black magic?”
He began spouting out phrases like The Witchcraft Act in 1951; Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; neo-paganism; Earth religions; magical religions, pentagrams and the like.
My head was reeling. I wasn’t sure if it was due to the alcohol, or the fact that I’d been stuck on a Trans-Atlantic flight next to the bastard child of Aleister Crowley.
“Here,” he said, “check this out.”
From his pocket protector he discretely slipped out a tiny stone dagger.
“Pretty cool. Huh?”
I nodded. I wasn’t sure whether that nod was due to genuine curiosity or the fact that I didn’t want to upset a guy who had a knife pointed at me.
“How did you get it past security?” I asked.
He tapped it against my knee.
“It’s stone. Goes right through metal detectors.”
“What are you gonna do with it?” I said. “Use it in some kind of white magic ritual?”
He smiled a wicked smile.
Now things were getting kind of interesting.
“You ever sacrifice anyone?” I said.
He flashed another smile. “Want another drink?”
That was the last thing I needed at that point. If I had any more, I thought, I might risk passing out.
The next thing I knew I’d wake up dead from having my throat slit by a stone dagger.
“That’s cool,” I said. “I’m fine.”
We didn’t talk much after that.
It was only when we’d reached Heathrow that he said as we were deplaning:
“You know, the funny thing is, the way you’re looking like some kind of hippy, and with me looking like I am, I’ll sail right through security, but you won’t.”
At first I thought, Screw You. You’re Full of Shit.
But soon I realized he was right.
Just as we’d reached Heathrow security he was allowed to pass. But I was stopped for interrogation and inspection.
Up ahead, I noticed him glance back over his shoulder, and flash one of those I Told You So looks.
Part of me wanted to rat him out.
But another part of me thought fine. This already messed-up world won’t be much different with another white magic nerd lurking about.
The security guards gave me the once over.
They scrutinized my long hair, my straw hat, sleepy eyes, rumpled clothes, and guitar slung over my shoulder.
“Empty your pockets,” one of them said.
Without thinking, I dug down deep, pulled out a wad of something and threw it across the counter.
Tons of those sex cards spilled out.
Puerto Rican girls. Corn-fed White girls. African American girls.
They were everywhere.
Their pillowly lips and come-hither looks were telling one and all to call that 1-900 number for a good time.
The guards scoped out the cards then checked out each other.
“Empty your other pockets,” the same guard said.
More sex cards spilled out.
Asian girls. Hispanic girls. Russian girls.
Now I was really screwed. I’d never make it into London.
Thinking fast, I said:
“Oh those cards. Pretty crazy, huh? We Americans are pretty silly.”
I went on to explain how I was a student writing a paper on the commercialization of sex in the U.S.
I’m not sure whether they bought it, or if they just felt sorry for me, or if they just wanted to get rid of me so they could gather up those cards and start making some long distance booty calls.
Either way, they let me go.
I was officially off American soil and had my whole expat rock-and-roll fantasy waiting for me just beyond those airport doors.
But I was minus about sixty sexy girls in tow.