Archive for October 2007

Behold the Power of Travertine

October 22, 2007

After a flight I will not attempt to describe, I see many taxis. I see long lines of people waiting for taxis. Then I see a wilderness of darkened freeway tunnels, followed by a wildnerness of light-up billboard advertisements. Actually, I sense them rather vaguely as I am propelled at fantastic speeds mixed randomly with bone-jarring full stops by a driver likely to have emigrated recently from a war zone in which human life is fantastically cheap. I tell myself that I am having an Authentic Taxi Experience, and the death rate is probably quite low. In fact, I tell myself this a number of times. Eventually I am hurled bodily from the cab by centrifugal force and have just time to pay my fare before I find myself propelled into a concert of new chamber music flawlessly performed by a string trio.

Welcome to New York.

I like New York. Okay, I don’t exactly *heart* New York, but I like the city. This comes as surprising news; my last memory of New York City comes from the days when cockroaches and other forms of life could afford to live in the East Village. My brother said, “Come, visit! You can sleep under the kitchen table.” At the time their kitchen table was also their living room table, their dining room table, their bedroom table, and their eldest daughter was sleeping in a bureau drawer, so this was a very generous offer.

I spent the fourth of July celebrating our nation’s founding with the Hell’s Angels across the street. Believe me, in those far-off days when I was young, the Hell’s Angels knew how to put on a fireworks display. Police didn’t come near us for days. As my brother said, it was probably the safest neighborhood in New York.
Quentin Crisp lived next door. My brother reported sightings of the Sanctified Queer on his neighborhood rounds with a breathless excitement now reserved for travertine countertops. Meanwhile, the national conciousness seems to have moved on to the Passion of Brittney Spears. As I said, I didn’t expect to like New York. (News Flash: Times Square now looks like Las Vegas, but with musicals.) But then I didn’t expect to like travertine countertops, either.

Which brings me to the topic of travertine. Travertine is, according to our friends at Merriam-Webster, a mineral consisting of a massive usually layered calcium carbonate formed by deposition from spring waters or especially from hot springs. If you’ve ever been to a museum, you’ve probably seen quite a bit of it. Our nation’s founders took seriously the idea that the word Museum means “the house of the Muses.” (who were all women by the way except for their pal Orpheus, who didn’t last long in that environment.) Their interpretation of this sacred mandate involved lots of NeoClassical pillars and white marble.
(Marble: a: limestone that is more or less crystallized by metamorphism, capable of taking a high polish, used especially in architecture and sculpture
b: something (as a piece of sculpture) composed of or made from marble
c: something suggesting marble (as in hardness, coldness, or smoothness) a heart of marble
2 a: the rewards to be won in competition especially for a championship —used in the phrase all the marbles
4 plural : elements of common sense; especially : sanity.

Actually, what most U.S. museums are made of isn’t marble. It’s travertine. Travertine tends to be irregular, less tightly structured than marble and browner in tone, which you might not notice if you didn’t have a lily-white piece handy for comparison. It also costs a lot less, which is why it holds up the walls and smooths the floors of our great museums. You’ll notice I used the word great. This is apparently a controversial idea in some quarters, though the three Secret Spies and approximately fifty thousand fourth-graders sharing the American Museum of Natural History with me on Friday seemed in total agreement. More in a moment on the Travertine Question.

Return with me now to those halcyon days of the New York City of yesteryear. I was a young Nebraskan with breasts, and therefore predictably terrified to be in the East Village. It was the best kind of terror; it opened my eyes and ears to be imprinted for life with the indelible image of my brother (whose alternative lifestyle choices can best be suggested by his position teaching electronic music to students at a small college in New Jersey) with elderly homeless chess players, the Hell’s Angels, Quentin Crisp, gay leathermen, and mothers of all colors with babies in tiny crocheted hats of all colors (99 cents right here) sold by Jamacian immigrants hawking homemade reggae albums, all finding a home in the dirty but rent-controlled streets around Saint Mark’s Place. It was like heaven, with roaches and the occasional mugging.

Since the East Village has become suitable for the heroes of a Harry Potter novel and I have not, I didn’t go back. My brother now lives in Harlem. His family, their softly glowing travertine countertops, and a multinational construction crew all cheerfully inhabit a former crackhouse on 145th Street, which allows me to take the A train (actually, the B train is much less crowded). The travertine apparently didn’t take the A train either. It arrived through a picaresque series of adventures involving a fall from grace with a midtown art dealer, a period of homelessness, a midnight truck raid, rejection by the hoi palloi of Sugar Hill as unfit for the Harlem Renaissance, and finally a welcome home through the intervention of a bohemian artist type and a little old Harlem lady who’d see it all. I think my brother’s countertops are the heroes of a Gordon Merrick novel.

At the School of Visual Arts, the room is packed. Students shift, fidget with pencils, stare at their desks, and sneak sideways looks at us out of the corner of their eyes as we read. After a few terrified moments of being a writer, my brain shifts back into visual arts mode, at which point I realize we’re talking to them and they’re drawing us back. This means they’re interested. Afterward, they ask lots of questions. A Jamacian woman talks articulately about the culture clash between her mother, who is all about language, and herself, whose mind is full of pictures of New York and who cannot find the words. One elbow of a very young man armor-plated with muscle edges slowly upward, like the eye of a snail. When Hilda smiles and calls on him he shakes his head wordlessly, no no no no no. Then he ducks over his desk and begins frantically to draw. A skinny guy in hornrims takes up the space he leaves behind, smiling. I talk about the questions that are answered by my body when I walk into a room. Finally everyone realizes that it’s okay to look at us. For a long moment we all just look at each other. The room becomes breathtakingly still. Afterward, their teacher Ginny MacKenzie tells us she may not know what LGBT means, but she knew it would be a good idea for us to come read to her students, who are artists studying writing. She’s pretty sharp.

Our second reading of the day is at a LGBT center.
Before the reading, I check out the Center, which is the size of a small midwestern town. I ask at the front desk for a good local resturant and a guy with boxer’s stance gives me a complete rundown on every diner in the neighborhood in rapid-fire Brooklyn. Afterward, my mother leans over to me and says, “Here I was, a little old lady sitting on the benches of a beautiful building, surrounded by these tough dykes and these crotchety old men who sounded just like my grandfathers. I felt totally at home.”

At the reading, I see many of the same people I saw in West Hollywood. This gives me pause. Briefly, I wonder if the gay community is actually the jet set after all, or if perhaps Llewyn Maire‘s definition of performance art may apply–something that performance artists do in front of an audience of other performance artists. The room, however, is quite different from a park in West Hollywood, and we get to sit in a pair of camel-colored leather lounge chairs across an end table with individual microphones, a setup which makes me feel as if I am the host of my own talk show. Disguised as a mild-mannered literary activist, Charles Flowers strikes again! Meanwhile, my brother arrives. He is an instant hit with the community.

On the subway home, we’re talking about the challenges of transcending identity politics when my brother fixes me with an expression of sheer bewilderment. “I know what you mean about difference,” he says. “That feeling you describe? That’s exactly how I feel every time I walk into a mall in Paramus. It’s just like suddenly, I’m Zippy the Pinhead.”

Over breakfast I read an interview with country musician Steve Earle, who explained his choice of New York over Nashville by saying, unless I can look out the window and see an interracial same-sex couple, I just don’t feel safe. That night on my way back to my brother’s house in Harlem, I pass a black man standing on his front stoop in a satisfied pose in the soft evening air, wearing a ten-gallon hat.

Meanwhile, up the street at the American Museum of Natural History (suggested donation $8.50-15.00, actual admission free), the new Halls of Biodiversity include this exhibit, surrounded on Friday by a crew of rapt young admirers with notebooks.


Behold the power of travertine.

The well-known Mssrs. M and W tell me the Word for the Day is denegrate:
1 : to attack the reputation of: defame
2 : to deny the importance or validity of: belittle
and whose literal meaning comes from the Latin word denegrare: “to make black.”

Therefore, the Website for the Day will reveal the mysteries of ENDA, and give you the power to make the terms of our future better than those of our past. Go, thou, and do it now.


The Brilliant, Palm-littered Afternoon of the Soul

October 15, 2007

As the plane begins its descent into Los Angeles, the child behind me begins to scream. His parents try every trick in their considerable library to quiet him. “There, Jerry, it’s almost over,” his mother soothes.
Jerry shrieks.
“Look at this nice toy.”
Jerry pauses, but only for breath.
“Your brother isn’t crying,” his father says gently.
The boy screams without ceasing, long, high-pitched wails not of fear or exhaustion but of actual anguish. Meanwhile, I take photographs of our approach.
After about twenty minutes, his mother says with intense relief, “It’s all over, Jerry. We’re here.”

Jerry continues to scream.

His parents slowly wrestle themselves, their gear, and their several young children off the plane with the patient determination of Angelinos. They carry a varied mix of shapes, features, skin tones, and accents from all over the world or just the neighborhood. As they pass my seat I catch sight of Jerry, whose eyes are wide and dark and unforgettable as a Hester Street photograph. His parents smile exhaustedly at me, as if a little frightened at something they see in my pale face, and apologize for their child.
It occurrs to me that perhaps Jerry’s mother was mistaken. Maybe it wasn’t the descent that bothered Jerry, but where it was going to end.
Welcome to Los Angeles.

In the twenty minutes Jerry was screaming, this is what Los Angeles looked like:


When I walked off the plane, this is what Los Angeles looked like:


Which clues you in on everything you need to know about Los Angeles.

I was heartened to note, however, that at the airport the sign for baggage claim had been adorned with band stickers. Just in case a high-powered talent scout happened to need both band and baggage, the sort of thing which might happen in L.A. at any moment. You never know.

Given the natural process of wear and tear, years ago everyone I knew in Los Angeles either died or moved at least three valleys away. So naturally the moment I set foot outside the airport, someone is shouting my name. The total stranger who joyfully pumps my hand turns out to be the director of an LGBT organization that has set up an East Coast reading from the book. I do know him, as a set of thoughtful and generous lines of text in my email program.

He, on the other hand, has recognized me from my press kit.

I stand on the oily concrete floor of a rental car agency and bask in my first perfect LA moment. As a handsome man eagerly congratulates me on my artistic achievements, palm fronds and freshly washed BMWs drift in and out behind his head.

Much driving follows. As LA is a city of Catholic tastes, this might be considered penance.

I do, however, find time to visit a tar pit.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology is closed for the duration of my free time. This is a disaster of epic proportions. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, I purchase a Pink’s hot dog and lounge between dueling sabretooths and dying mammoths at nature’s hommage to petroleum products on Wilshire Boulevard. As the sun dies over Westwood in blazing pastels, native fauna emerges from the shrubbery; crows, vagrants at a picnic, grim-faced joggers, and gay men with tiny dogs. Though no tiny dogs sink slowly into a tar pit to be preserved as fossils for future generations, I do fulfill my lifelong dream of being accidentally left inside the building when the museum is locked for the night. Overall, the evening is highly satisfactory.

More driving follows.

At some point, I can no longer work the pedals. This is how I end up in a hostel in West Hollywood, watching Revenge of the Nerds lll at one a.m. with young German tourists and several French-speaking West Africans. Though they are all elegant and I learn quite a lot about worldwide marajuana prices, this does not improve the movie.

Somewhere South of Pico Boulevard, I hear Jerry Quigley advertising my gig on the radio. I feel famous.

Once again, I decide my wardrobe is inadequate. Since I am slated to appear at the West Hollywood Bookfair on a memoir panel entitled Who Am I? I purchase a bowling shirt that says Ed on the pocket and a strand of artificial pearls. Though we speak in the shadow of the Pacific Design Center, my ensemble seems to do.

We are outdoors in a park hemmed with star jasmine. It is extremely hot. Both my fellow panelists and my audience are extremely cool. There are reading glasses and summer dresses. Though I am the only man on the panel, everyone seems to like me very much. Perhaps it is the patient, boundless optimism of Angelinos. Perhaps it is because I inform several aspiring writers that they are not required to write anything they think is boring. I also tell them they are not required to relive their childhood agonies on paper and publish the results; they can throw the results away, now free to write about the lives they’ve lived on any terms–for instance, food and wardrobe. Perhaps it is the bowling shirt.

Back in the green room I deconstruct a turkey wrap, then drink several quarts of water and an entire can of Cragmont Grape Soda. I appear at a second event entitled Michael Kerns and Other Queer Renegades. This time my fellow performers are all gay men. There are cowboy hats and deltoids. Though I have walked approximately fifty feet, I believe I am the only person in the district making the transition from the first type of West Hollywood audience to the second. My ensemble still seems to do. I am by now so addled by the heat that Tim Miller has to remind me that while performing, it is actually a good idea to remove the microphone from the stand.

Perhaps it was the grape soda.

In spite of my failings Tim, Michael, and the rest are all wonderful. I thank them effusively if incoherently. More driving follows. But first there is air conditioning. As a result I live to see another day. In it, I do a reading at A Different Light bookstore (L.A. division). Staff members–some of whom spent their Sunday selling copies of my book in the jasmine-scented oven of the Bookfair to eager post-panel attendees from the other West Hollywood–listen attentively as I read. They ask smart and honest questions, as do those secret spies who have made it through the traffic in time to join me. Afterward, I buy a magazine from the back racks called Bare-ass Wrassling as a joke gift for my boyfriend’s birthday. The event organizer spends fifteen minutes gift-wrapping it with loving care. Thank you, Billy. I come to the conclusion that the staff of A Different Light are recruited straight from heaven.

It is not until I am on my way to see said boyfriend and am startled by the diversity of people sharing the BART train from Oakland that I realize how much I have missed this collective company. Of course, LA is the captiol-in-exile of nearly every nation and fashion on earth. So many varied and amazing lives were all right there the whole time, separated only by stucco, star jasmine, and several million panels of enameled, impact-resistant steel.

Sitting in a plastic chair beneath the fabulous neoclassic dome of the Tenderloin Shih Yu-Lang YMCA (soon to be ejecting its residents in favor of increased hotel space) I pick up a newspaper and discover the new national civic money-saving fad is privatizing public libraries.

I consider standing up, walking North across the multicolored marble balcony of that venerable public institution, and continuing until I reach Canada. But my legs are too tired from all the driving. So I kiss my boyfriend, give him a copy of Bare-Ass Wrassling lovingly wrapped by a stranger in another city, go home for a few days, and get on a plane for New York. Via Detroit. Detroit has an indoor monorail, the friendliest service staff, and possibly the worst airport food in the world.

The question of the day is: How do we know if we are doing any good?

On the flight across America, Bonnie Raitt and John Prine sing through my headphones the Thought for the Day:

Bring me an angel
That flies from Montgomery
Bring me a poster from an old rodeo
Just give me one thing
That I can hold on to
To believe in this living is a hard way to go.

The word for the day is impervious, which Merriam and Webster define as:

1. Not admitting of entrance or passage through; impenetrable.
2. Not capable of being harmed or damaged.
3. Not capable of being affected.