For as long as he could remember, he drank himself to sleep. Waked to oxblood drool-stains, dandruff on his pillow; removed his earplugs and gazed at the glowing red numerals on the digital clock. Behind it stood a triangular Japenese lamp of white rice paper with a black wooden frame. A mobile turned slowly on the ceiling overhead. Red, yellow, blue – circles on thin black wires; white wings revolving through intersecting arcs. Through the window bows moved gently in the wind, with the lake’s figured bass in the background. He rose, flung the sheet off – folded square at the end of the bed; swept the dandruff off the pillow onto the floor. By a chrome-framed Rothko reproduction he passed, entered the bathroom and mounted the throne.
The peristaltic movement of the column within. Wave-like contractios propelled it along. Relaxation, release; through the asshole’s tight red ring. Then plop into the water; rising fragrance left behind. A sculpture internal – perfect panatela: chocolate in lemon yellow; there at the bottom of the bowl. He wiped, flushed; felt that feeling of contentment. An anal compulsive; he had bowels of concrete. Often plugged up at the core. Solid shit at the center. At least today’s went smoothly. Abdicating the throne, he gazed into the cracked, dusty mirror.
Bags beneath the eyes. Ivoried teeth. Hairs curling out of his ears. From the side, his paunch; pale buttocks collapsed. On his thumb beneath the knuckle was a small white hair: the first he noticed on his hands. To his left, the reproduction of a late Turner watercolor, years of dust on its silver frame. To his right, the mildewed shower curtain and rust-stained tiles. Sheets of paint drooped from the ceiling, exposing a lunar patch of gray. And in the toiler paper’s niche was a stack of Starbuck’s napkins. Now he opened the medicine cabinet.
On the bottom shelf were glasses with high-impact frames, that he’d worn at the IMF/World Bank demonstration. They’d sat down in the middle of the street (prepared for pepper-spray, tear gas, arrest), wearing bandannas over their faces, soaked in lemon juice. Before them had been a phalanx of D.C. cops, in black, Darth Vader outfits. Wearing helmets, gas masks, suits and padding, they’d wielded pepper-spray canons and tear gas dispensers. Beside the glasses was a bottle of Super 31 earplugs (Noise Reduction Rating 31 Decibels). He stuck them in his ears at night, to avoid the neighbors’ noise. Above was a bottle of Eau Sauvage, that his mother had given him years before. There were old plastic cases of contact lenses. A blunt-ended scissors for the hairs in his nose. On the bottom shelve was a folded handkerchief, embedded with snot crusts and semen stains.
He washed his face; brushed his teeth; inserted contact lenses. After a shower and shave, he walked into the kitchen, swallowed a vitamin with a tall glass of ruby red grapefruit juice. Returning to the bedroom, he laced up his Ecco Receptors. Then the strap of his small black bag was flung over his head, as he locked the door and left. On the beach before his apartment lay a sleeping homeless man. He lay curled in the foetal position, in his dirt-embedded clothes. As he walked up Wes North Shore, he said good morning to his neighbor from across the hall. She was walking, Gargoyle, her Chinese crested hairless. Each night it’s screeching was heard through two thick wooden doors. Surely, a breed dreamed up by the mad scientist from the film, “The Bride of Frankenstein”.
Twelve inches high. Huge erectile ears. Coat of mist-matched patches of chocolate brown and spotted gray. Hairless – except for its feet, head and tail, from which sprouted a ragged, white main. Stray bangs fell over its forehead. Protuberant ears. A perverse crossbreed of jackal and miniature horse, Gargoyle was a canine cosmic joke.
Loyola el stop. Parallel sets of steel tracks receding into infinity. Over the intercom a disembodied voice:
“Attention customers. An inbound train toward the loop will be arriving shortly.”
Doors opened, he entered, the doors slammed shut.
Over the intercom a disembodied voice:
“Doors closing. Granville is next. Doors open on the left at Granville. Standing passengers, please do not lean against the doors. Smoking, drinking and playing radios and other loud devices is prohibited. Priority seating is provided for the elderly and the disabled. Your cooperation is requested.”
Chicago unwinding frame per frame, its film unreeling through the windows of the train. He felt its rhythm, vibrant lurch; heard the roar of air-conditioning, the ear-splitting squeal from the loudspeakers overhead. Over the seats, beside them, were rows of ads. Passengers talked on cells. Light glowed in dim neon tubes. Then the sudden assault of aftershave worn by the passenger sitting beside him.
The disembodied voice once again:
“Your attention, please. We are being delayed, waiting for signals ahead. We expect to be moving shortly.”
They pulled in and out of the station, past a morning commuter frieze. Then they rushed past the graffiti on the cemetery’s walls. Sprayed on walls and sidewalks, scraped on bases, trains; their anxious scribbles, scrawls. Their scattered cries, adolescent pains: youth’s angry hieroglyphics. Behind the cemetery wall, tombstones spread across the vast green lawn. Like a silver bullet, they shot across the city, tossing and lurching along rattling tracks, chains clinking between the cars.’
The disembodied voice:
“Standing passengers please do not lean against the doors. Soliciting on CTA trains is prohibited. Violators will be prosecuted. Thank you for riding the red line. Our next stop is Lake. Transfer to orange, green, purple and brown line trains at Lake.”
Across the aisle a passenger read, Psychopath.
He walked along the pedway, its two-way rush of traffic flowed through tunnels beneath the city. At its center, on a plastic crate, sat a blind musician. On a second crate, before him, was a portable keyboard, and a plastic pail for passersby to toss in coins. His rich, raspy voice. Pale receding sockets.
In line at the local Starbuck’s:
“Hi, there. What can I get you?”
“Tall mild, and madeleines, please.”
The barrista stood behind the LaMaarzocco machine, in baseball cap, black t-shirt, green apron – all emblazoned with the Starbuck’s logo. Behind cash registers were workers with identical outfits; tow more filled the paper cups and bent down to retrieve pastries from beneath the counter. Their work team sizzled like an assembly line at Ford’s.
“Hi, there. What can I get you?”
“Can I help someone over here?”
From the registers they got orders, relayed to the barrista, who memorized the compex formulas and prepared them. Sound of boiling brew. Cool jazz on the speakers overhead. One after another, the orders were prepared: the tall deaf Americanos, grande vanilla lates, venti three-shot caffe mochas. Speed-up and intensity. Labor-power exploited. Extraction of surplus value. Unlike those at McDonald’s – flipping burgers and fries – these kids had IQs approaching genius.
A cool jazz sax bebopped in the background. La Maarzocco’s witches’ caldron bubbled to the crush of grinding beans. Dipping a Madeleine in his coffee, he toasted the spirit of Proust, placing a stack of Starbuck’s napkins in his bag (to replenish his toilet paper stock). Now he read the pamphlet he got at the register: Highlights of Starbuck’s 2003 Corporate Responsibility Report. “Respect and Dignity for Partners”:
“Our highly engaged partners are emotionally and intellectually committed to the company’s success. Starbuck’s workplace culture stands for respect and dignity. Our partners want to add value to the company. They want to contribute to the Starbuck’s experience…”
Starbuck’s didn’t hire workers, he thought; the assembly line before him were “partners”. It reminded him of Walmart, whose workers were called “associates”. And what about “adding value’? – it had a Marxian ring. Adding surplus value. Exploitation of labor-power by capital. Oppression of the many by the few.
“Sustaining Coffee Communities.”:
“We pay the farmers a fair price for their beans. Our coffee is grown in an ecologically sound manner. Our goal is to help ensure the sustainability of coffee communities…”
“Contributing Positively to Communities and the Environment”:
“Environmental stewardship is vital. Our partners have volunteered through Make Your Mark, Starbuck’s program that oversees waste and recycling…”
“When Starbuck’s Guiding Principles were conceived, profitability was included as a core value, but intentionally placed last. Ultimately, Starbuck’s commitment to social responsibility depends on our partners’ willingness to uphold our values. In 2003, total net revenues were $4.1 billion and net earnings were $268 million, both up about 25% from the previous year…”
Another Madeleine was dipped in his brew, a salute to the spirit of Proust. On the final page was Starbuck’s “Mission Statement and Guiding Principles”, ending with:
“Profitability is essential to our future success…”
Laughing aloud, he nearly fell out of his seat. Customers across from him stared. The “Starbuck’s experience”, “ecologically sound”, “sustainable communities”, “environmental stewardship”…”What Madison Avenue mastermind had penned it?” he thought. “At least they finally got to the bottom line – profit. After all, Starbuck’s didn’t operate for the good of all mankind.
On display were shiny aluminum bags. An assortment of blends from throughout the exploited Third World: monocultures where millions lived or died, depending on the world market price of beans. Columbia Narino Supremo (bright and sparkling). Tanzania (citrusy and lively). Ethiopia Vegacheffe (floral and elegant). Kenya (bright with citrus notes). The image of Juan Valdez danced in his head: stooping to pick beans with a smile on his face, as his family was gunned down by Colombia’s “death squads”.
Chicago Law Library. Reference Department. Through its foor-to-ceiling 29th-floor windows, sun glistening on the lake, a harbor of sailboats by Seurat. Cloud whales moving as the sun shone through. Fire reflected in towering citadels of glass.
At his desk he sat, a middle-ages, Marxist law librarian: not exactly at the top of most women’s eligible bachelor list. His colleagues had dubbed him the Courthouse Jester. If they’d allowed it, he’d have worn a joker’s suit, swung a madcap at the patrons on the far side of the desk. His daily routine began with the New York Times. At the bottom of the front page was “As AIDS Continues to Ravage, South Africa ‘Recyles’ Graves”:
“Durban, South Africa. The city is being battered by an AIDS pandemic so sweeping that people are dying faster than the city can find space to bury them…Five years ago they used to have 120 funerals a week, but this number has now jumped ti 600. In order to cope with the current rate of mortality they will need to have 12.1 hectares every year of new gravesites. That is nearly 30 acres, which would turn Durban and the whole country into one big graveyard…”
Above the story was a picture of Phmelele Diamoni, 4, visiting the grave of her mother, who had died last October at 25. Phmelele’s sole support was her grandmother, Judith Diamoni, 73, unemployed, divorced and broke.
A holocaust was occurring in Africa and around the world: tens of millions suffering, dying. But til kids of the pharmaceutical giant’s CEOs had got it, they’d remain blind, with hearts of stone.
“New Boomtowns Change the Path of China’s Growth”:
“Dongguan, China. Dongguan has exploded from a mere town to a city of seven million in a little over 20 years…It is one of a score of Chinese megacities whose extraordinary growth reflects China’s boom, its rapid urbanization and the ferocious competion between cities…The results are wasted resources, loss of arable land, fiscal crises, corruption and pollution…Each of these megacities, engaged in cut-throat competition, tries the same formula: manufacturing and export zones, research parks and self-styled Silicon Valleys…Each scrambles to woo more business by giving away more land and building even larger industrial parks like Lazer Valley, in Wuhan, which contains fiber-optics, electronics and pharmaceutical companies arrayed one after another on a huge grid. By selling off assets to foreign and domestic investors and encouraging foreign automakers like Nissan, Honda and Citroen to enter into joint ventures with Chinese companies, Wuhan is positioning itself fo re-emergence as the Detroit of China…”
There was a photograph of skyscrapers with an enormous Wal-Mart Supercenter in their midst. It reminded him of the Ehrenreich piece, “Wall-Martian Invasion”, that he’d read on Common Dreams:
“The mega-retailer was “Bigger than General Motors! Richer than Switzerland!...Two new stores opening and $1 billion worth of U.S. real estate bought up every week; almost 600,000 American employees churned through in a year (that’s at a 44 percent turnover rate)…But more than half of its own “associates”, as the employees are euphemistically termed, cannot afford the company’s health insurance…Some stores encourage their employees to apply for food stamps and welfare; many take second jobs…With hourly wages declining throughout the economy,Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest employer…is the world’s largest sweatshop…”
“If that’s how they treat Americans”, he thought, “you can imagine how they’ll slave-drive Chinese. It was the sweatshop of the world, the land of market Stalinism.”
Above the article was a photo of the Democratic National Convention: a sea of signs and American flags. Convention coverage dominated that week’s TV. Below was a story, “Party Offers Patriotic Images, And Veterans Play Main Role”:
“Boston, July 26 – They rolled in on wheelchairs or hobbled on canes, wore one-sleeved shirts or breathed through tubes, decked themselves out in biker vests or American Legion hats. Hundreds of military veterans – many of them bearing the physical and emotional scars of the Vietnam War – mustered here…to enlist as John Kerry’s shock troops…”
Above them hung a mammoth American Flag. One wheelchair amputee after another had been paraded across the stage to prove that the Democrats were “tough onterror”. General Wesley K. Clark had marched up to the podium, declaring “This flag is our flag!” Those vets with legs had leapt to their feet to applaud. Kerry, “soft on defense”? “Weak on national security?” Why, he’s been awarded THREE PURPLE HEARTS! Generals, admirals, the disfigured and maimed had risen in a thunderous ovation. Ehrenreich’s op-ed had said it all: “The Dems couldn’t be more butch if they took to wearing codpieces.”
At the bottom of the page was “Employees Take a United Stand In Insisting on Labor Concessions”:
Jefferson, Wisconsin. For the 470 workers on strike at the Tyson Food sausage and pepperoni plant here, the big question is why the company is so eager to cut starting salaries, freeze pensions and adopt a health plan with less coverage when the plant is so profitable…The figure that this is the time to take money out of our pockets and put it back into theirs, said a company employee…The fact that they’re making record profits doesn’t seem to matter…Healthy profits or not, Tyson joined hundreds of companies nationwide demanding concessions from organized labor. They have made concessions a locus of labor negotiations, often demanding wage freezes, lower starting pay, stingier pensions and higher health insurance premiums and co-payments. The push comes not only from businesses, but also from the public sector – states, cities and school boards that face their biggest budget deficits in decades… “We’re seeing a return to the bargaining climate of the 1980’s as a lot of negotiations appear to focus on concessions, givebacks and reductions,”, said a labor relations professor.”
“…the modern working class…who live only so long as they can find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital…” he thought. “Only connect! That was the whole of his sermon…” But you needed a theory to make the connections.
Throughout the day, pro se litigants approached the reference desk. The unemployed, homeless, defendants in foreclosure, bankrupts, welfare recipients, elderly hounded by creditors. The library’s collection included more than fifty-thousands books: millions of rules and their exceptions. Equality before the Law. “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.” The Scales of Justice. “Justice is the sanction of established injustice.” The Rule of Law. “…your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into a law for all…” And there was their usual cast of characters.
Young law clerks dashed about like headless chickens. Mr. Moore – nicknamed “Moore is less.”, gabbing non-stop like a speed freak for hours at a time. The bearded, balding architecture librarian, Public Nuisance Number One. The lady who sued her stylist because she didn’t like her dye job, who’s found her starring role in life was bringing nuisance la suits. Behind the reference counter were desks at which his colleagues sat, Alphonse, Frank and Lenny.
Alphonse was lazy, incompetent, self-pitying; vindictive, bald and fat. All day long his syrupy voice could be heard on the phone, sending and receiving e-mails by the dozens. A rollicking chorus of laughter for his pitiful jokes, he resembled a baby seal with a roll of fat between the back of his head and his collar. In fancy sack-like suits and gold-rimmed specs, he’d got the job through bigwig connections, through the strings that he could pull. As they say, he supped at the city trough. Always threatening to file complaints against his fellow employees. And on the rare occasion when he’d have to do a bit of work, he whinpered “Oh Jesus!” , with a heavenward sigh. He switched from diet to diet, without the guts to stick them out. Rubbed lotion on his hands, into his fat bald head; always greasing up the computer’s keyboard. When a thought was required, a look of strain appeared on his face: his forehead wrinkled; his thin lips formed a pout. The Necklace Wonder wore pairs of hundred-dollar shades, a pork pie hat and shiny wingtips. His puerile script appeared on evelopes, calendars; proved he even wrote like an idiot, had nothing but bone between his ears. He didn’t hate Alphonse, the leech; he wasn’t worthy of hatred. He simply despised him, like shit on the sole of your shoe. Beside him sat Frank – playing George to Alphonse’s Lenny, straight out of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Frank possessed the power of gentleness.
A passionate vegetarian and animal rights activist, he’d preach on the virtues of nutrition. He was petite, quick, bearded; wore Polo shirts, New Balance sneakers. His tender eyes were magnified by lenses in totoise-shell frames. And, as he worked, his mind focused like a beam of light through a lens into a single point of fire. A baseball savant (lover of the music of Sam Cooke), he’d met his Chinese wife through an internet chat room. His many flights to Beijing and back, had truly been a long-distance romance. Their German shepherd puppy, Li Li, was taking sheep-herding lessons. Next to Frank sat Lenny.
Lenny was a Jewish Hugh Griffith, in his role as the father-in-law in the film, “Tom Jones”. A kibitzer with a parrot-like schnoz, he spoke with a loud nasal New York twang. His pink bald head was circumscribed by a plastered-down rim of hair. With elephant ears and a pear-shaped body, he limped like Laurence Olivier in “Richard III”, a result of childhood cerebral palsy. He wore a cowboy hat, with a braided leather kangaroo band; they called him Hopalong Goldberg from down under. His best friend, a cop, took part in re-enactments of historical battles. When Lenny was invited for the weekend, he’d recommended this year that they re-enact My Lai. Lenny often told them Jewish jokes: “Why don’t Jewish mothers drink? It interferes with their suffering.” “Jewish telegram: Begin to worry. Details follow.” But, for all his antics, Lenny had guts. He never complained; always did his job. His life was a marathon of aches and pains, sacroiliac injections, never-ending doctor’s appointments. What could he say? Lenny Goldberg was a mench.
Later that day, Gerald would arrive for the second shift as night librarian. Gerald looked like Shrek, minus the conical ears and green complexion. He as a heavy-set dude, with a deep, bass voice, who smoked cigars and moonlighted as a cell-phone salesman. He was always leaving his half-smoked cigars around. You could tell where he’d been by the stink and trail of stubs.
A pro se litigant now appeared at the desk: a divorcing mother with a tiny daughter in her arms. Scooping up the petition, judgment, instruction sheet and legal aid list, he gave her the usual spiel. As she copied these forms, he grabbed Karl the Cardinal from his perch, beside him on the volume of the Longshore Reporter. A small, stuffed toy bird, it played a recorded call, when you squeezed its furry breast. He introduced the kid to Karl. She squeezed him again and again.
Although he adored them, he didn’t want kids. Didn’t want to bring them into this world. No matter how good a parent you were, there were circumstances beyond your control. Better to create a decent world for kids who were already here.
At the circulation desk, beside him, sat Roberto. They dubbed him “the bean eater”, “SBD”. Ir there had been an Olympic event for heavyweight farting, he’d have bagged the gold. It was his greatest and only talent. Beside him sat Emil, who had a laugh like a wild hyena.
On the reference desk a pamphlet had been left from the U of C’s Conflict Management Program:
“Do you want to more effectively address, manage and resolve conflict? If so, join the Conflict Management Program…Its three core courses are Understanding Conflict, Conflict Management Skills, and Conflict Resolution Strategies…Conflict Management Skills teaches active learning, building rapport, containing conflict and reality testing…”
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles…” he thought. In their back-assed way, even those U of C reactionaries understood this.
Logging onto Google, he entered ’god’. There were 58,900,000 entries:
The Interview with God – Inspirational. Peaceful music. Uplifting message.
”True Life in God” – A love hymn sung to us by God himself.
God Hates Figs – Tells the God-given truth about an issue of the utmost importance. God promises terrible vengeance for fig-eaters.
Young God Records – features the Swans, Angels of Light, Heavenly Choir Rapsters.
God Hates America – When you fill the army with fags and dikes you have sown the wind and shall reap the whirlwind.
He logged onto the Interview with God, featuring a Healing Prayer flash film, the interview in a dozen languages, posters and an autographed book. God’s autograph. Why that would fetch a pretty penny. Did he alss share in the royalties?, he wondered.
One of the regulars, the Noseless Lady, now approached the reference desk. For hours she’d gab on the phone, down the hall; her life was an endless series of telephone harangues. With a white mop of hair in a multi-colored headband, she wore polyester slacks, big basketball shoes. Over the bandage, covering her absent nose, were huge brown bifocals.
On the reference desk, beside him, was a copy of the Death Care Advisor. He flipped through it, noting the titles:
“Understanding the Five Great Stages of Grief.”…”Cremation company accused of holding cremains hostage.”… ”House votes to repeal the death tax.”
Logging onto Google, he entered ‘devil’: got 10,000,000 hits. Then he clicked on The Devil’s Dictionary
website. One of his favorites, Ambrose Bierce was an acerbic master; his Dictionary, perhaps the greatest collections of aphorisms ever penned. He clicked on ‘l’ in the alphabetic sequence:
“Lawyer, n. One skilled in circumvention of the law.”
“Litigation, n. A machine which you go into as a pig and come out of as a sausage.”
“Litigant, n. A person about to give up his skin for the hope of retaining his bones.”
From the desk he rose, walked to the wrap-around ceiling-length windows for a 29th-floor view of Chicago’s shoreline. A metropolis of congealed labor stretched out before him. “…wonders far-surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals…” he thought. Product of the “…expenditure of human brains, nerves and muscles…”, it was a social hieroglyphic – and entire city mad of capital – just waiting to be deciphered. “Accumulate, accumulate…their Moses and the Prophets.”, everywhere he looked, it rose in towers. Lake Pointed Tower (based on a Mies van der Rohe sketch): a seventy-floor torso of tinted glass and steel. Further east was Millenium Park, with Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion and “Cloud Gate”, by Anish Kapoor. Perhaps the city’s ugliest building, the Harold Washington Library, was four blocks south, on State Street.
A Fortress of Wisdom, it bristled with owls of bronze; squatted on State street on its massive marble rump. Elephantine Temple of Learning – filigreed with leaves and fronds -- it straddled Chicago’s el tracks. Nightmare Monumental. Mastadon of Gloom. A cyclopean tomb at the heart of the city.
Outside the window tiny spiders spun their webs.”A spider puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her web.” He paraphrased. “But what distinguished the worst architect from the best of spiders is that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.” The spiders outside were a mystery to him. How could they possibly have gotten up here to the 29th floor?
Lunchtime at Millenium Park. He was seated in the last row of Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Gehry was one of the few so-called post-modernists, who wasn’t a mere eclectic. He had forged a pure new style. A new term was needed – post-modern was inadequate – perhaps it was futuristic? It wasn’t after the modern, but its antithesis. The opposite of modern, with its rectilinear, reductive mode. It was curvilinear, .
Art was his own religion. And Gehry’s Pavilion, a futuristic cathedral, in which he worshiped on bended knee. Through a trellis of arced and intersecting gray steel tubes, it rose above rows of red seats and a great green square of grass. Vast armada of cubist cumuli. Advancing prow of welded plates. Shattered fragments of a bomb (of a 747), it exploded there above the stage. On the stage, itself, intersecting tubes, flanked by metal trees, with black box speakers, like musical fruits. More speakers hung in clusters from wires overhead, together with floodlights focused on the stage. Nearby, was a bridge spanning Lake Shore Drive, like a winding ribbon of stainless steel.
Entrance to the Granville el stop. Beneath an overpass of crumbling concrete. On a portable table were displayed their newspaper, Socialist Worker, ISR, and flyers. The Communist Manifesto, Lenin’s What is to Be Done, and Trotsky’ History of the Russian Revolution. Standing before the double-doors, they sold their paper to the stream of passengers. Trains arrived with a rumble, roar; passengers flowed down the stairs, passing clickety-clack through turnstiles out the entrance. To their left was Gino’s Bar, with its inebriated regulars. On their right, Edgewater Restaurant, with its heavy diner smells. And above them passed the el train – with its rattle, roaring; deafening on its arrival. A procession passed by: local drunks; panhandlers; shoppers. And a boom box blared from the far side of the street.
“If you’re against the war, who can you vote for? Bush and Kerry both support the war.”
“Sign petition to get Nader on the ballet. Give us someone to vote for, not just someone to vote against.”
A Gulf War vet approached him, exiting Gino’s Bar; he worked in a veteran’s hospital. They had talked before. He was slowly dying of cancer: exposed to depleted uranium shells. He’d tried to get help, but couldn’t afford the treatment. Last week, on their sale at the Jefferson UPS hub, he’d talked to a youngster who was planning to enlist. He couldn’t get a decent job, couldn’t afford college. They called it the “poverty draft”. Rich politicians sent workers and the poor to fight their wars for oil. He remembered sitting in a paddy wagon with his wrists behind him, when the U.S. had invaded Iraq.
They’d arrived early that morning at Federal Plaza, and laid down before the Federal Building’s doors. Cops had cuffed them, led them to the paddy wagons; then they had driven them to a South Side jail. Fourteen hours later, he’d finally made bail, and had emerged at nearly midnight. “Under a government which imprisons unjustly the true place for a just man is in jail.” he thought. Unity of theory and practice: “To know and not to act is not to know.” Theirs was the revolutionary newspaper according to Lenin. Their job, always, to “patiently explain”.
A Rogers Park apartment. The Nightly News. Five-minute sound-bites framed by endless TV commercials. On a love seat he laid, facing the TV screen, his legs hanging over the arm. On the floor, beside him, were three remote controls – for the TV, dvd player and the stereo. Between stations he surfed, from TV to music via remote control.
A disk was inserted in the dvd player. Oistrakh playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto, with Sixten Erhling conducting. At eight, his dad had taken him to Detroit’s Masonic Temple Auditorium, to hear Oistrakh in recital with his accompanyist, Vladimir Yampolsky. In the middle of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata, he’d broken a string. So he walked off stage, and grabbed another strad. Returning to the stage, he’d turned; and began, again, where the string had broken.
The Nightly News’ top stories were the “jobless recovery”, the DNC and Iraq. The first block of commercials were reserved for the pharmaceutical giants:
“When you need help with erectile disfunction, Viagra is the one. Viagra is not for everyone. Erections lasting more than four hours, though rare, may require a doctor’s attention.”
On the living room walls hung reproductions of the New York School. Before him was a Rothko: while painting, he’d listened to Mozart. Into its luminous cloud he’d gazed: drawn in, floating above it’s cobalt blue abyss. Behind him was a Newman. “The problem with painting is to destroy the wall.” The wall was destroyed. Space sliced open. Red seared white with a lazor. To his right, hung a Kline, “Andrus”; and beside it, one of Motherwell’s “Elegies to the Spanish Republic”. “An artist without ethical consciousness is no more than a decorator.” His elegies were rorschach ink-blots raised to the one-hundredth power. A chorus of dogs in the distance. Sounds of the lake and wind. Neighbors crossing back and forth upon the ceiling. The mute was pressed, as he surfed the channels or switched to dvd. With legs extended over the arm of the couch, he conducted Sibelius with his toes.
The Nightly News was followed by a TV commercial:
“Gas X beats the bloat that acids won’t.”
Next, came coverage of the DNC. Next month he’d bus to the Big Apple to demonstrate at the Republican National Convention. Kerry vs Bush: two candidates: one agenda. “Do I dare to watch this without a barf bag?” he thought. As they began with the pledge of allegiance, he recalled the Matt Groening cartoon:
“I pledge impertinence to the flag, of the unindicted co-conspirators of America, and to the Republic, for which I can’t stand, one abomination, underhanded fraud, indefensible, with liberty and justice, forget it.”
Since 9/11, he’d loathed the flag. Overnight, they’d appeared on auto antennas, in home windows, on lapel pins, kerchiefs, t-shirts and ties. They’d even marketed bikinis with a red, white and blue “stars and stripes” design. Since then, he wouldn’t wipe his ass with it. A commercial break had followed.
“Ex Lax gives you gentle relief.”
Next, a chorus of kids in Kerry/Edwards t-shirts:
“This land is your land, this land is my land…This land was made for you and me.”
Hitting mute, he rose, replaced Oistrakh with Glenn Gould , playing the 14th Sonata of Mozart. As a kid, his dad had taken him to hear Gould play Bach. That broken-down chair. Glass of water on the piano. Those gloves he removed before playing. Caressing the keys, he’d sung softly to himself: transported; in another world.
Fleet Center, Boston. A huge coliseum. Delegates waving Kerry/Edwards signs, standing between banners, wearing buttons, hats, t-shirts, waving miniature American flags. Speakers appeared before the podium beneath a mammoth “Old Glory”, in a blizzard of confetti and red, white and blue balloons. Between speakers, TV anchors, in high-tech booths, broadcast to 30 million viewers. Their commentary was followed by another commercial:
“Vagisil’s space-age odor-blocking technology helps control women’s itch and odor.”
The scene outside Fleet Center resembled an armed camp. Helecopters overhead, bomb-sniffing dogs, soldiers lining the intersections. Behind concrete barriers was the “Free Speech Zone”, sealed off with razor wire and nine-foot cyclone fencing. Inside the “protest pen”, a Palestinian demonstrator was interviewed. “The Cage” provides an ideal location for our message of opposition to the Israeli occupation,” he said. “Unlike Palestinians on the West Bank, or internees at Guantanamo Bay – we can leave our cage.”
Others had marched against the war in Iraq, against the occupations of Afghanistan and Haiti. At the head of the march were cops on bikes. Behind it, police S.U.V.s, detention wagons and school buses, provided in case of mass arrests. Columns of cops moved alongside, flanking the demonstrators. Fleet Center was a war zone. Helicopters and fighters patrolled overhead. Coast Guard and police gunboats cruised the harbor. National Guard, in camouflage, patrolled the convention center, surrounded by double-rows of iron fencing.
Free Speech in the era of Ashcroft and the Patriot Act. An Affront to the First Amendment.
Gould’s Mozart was replaced by Boulez conducting Stavinsky’s Le Sacre, with the Cleveland. He was a Szealot (had nearly all of Szell’s recordings); was a passionate fan of the Cleveland. And what Szell was to the repertoire of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Boulez was to the twentieth; perhaps the greatest musician alive.