Joshua Mackin

Joshua John Mackin is a public school teacher in New York City. More of his work can be read at signsandmarvels.com.

The Democratic Pleasures of the NYC Health Department Rating System

This piece was first published in 2013. 

 

There is this whiskey bar around the corner from where we live. They sell oysters, too.  It’s the kind of place that mines a very specific vibe and mines it very well. Picture floor-to-ceiling windowed façades separated by tastefully stained strips of dark wood. Imagine low wisps of orange light ensconced in vaguely European fixtures—gracefully set above white candles in cute little vintage crystal holders—to create the kind of mystic glow that makes anybody’s face look both mysterious and more appealing. Beneath the 150-year-old Massachusetts barnwood beams, picture refugees priced out from more expensive zipcodes by their socioeconomic betters. Picture upwardly mobile hipsters. Picture white people.

My wife and I pass it every day on the way home from the C train after work. We imagine the place filling as the evening comes down and the conversations, the cigarettes, the talk of young creative people who have been liberated from fashioning things with their hands to better produce ideas with their minds. What wit! What interesting anecdotes!  Pour another drink! Try the Blue Label! We can hear their voices through the glass, blitzed with all the color and carefree whimsy of liberal arts graduates whose friendships are mostly based on the lubricating effects of alcohol. We marvel at the insouciance of those who do not have to worry about the children because they have been on birth control for the past twenty years, or else the Caribbean nanny is in tonight. I’ve just got a promotion! Another round on me!

If you detect a trace of jealousy, reader, I do not deny it. Another’s success, as terrible as it is to say, always invites dark thoughts in the secret places of the heart. Witnessing the enjoyment of something that one cannot have is a cruel burden to endure. It’s the reason I still feel the urge to knock lollipops and ice cream cones out of the hands of passing children on the street. On occasion, let it be said, I have indulged those urges. Better that none should have if I should do without. So goes the resentful logic of the heart.

It is true: I cannot afford whiskey.

But do not think me grotesque in my jealousy, reader. My wife tells me that envying the rich is one of the few remaining pleasures left to the poor. Do not take it from us.

And indeed, one of our paramount consolations came as of July 28, 2010, a date to kindle the democratic impulses lodged in the cockles of every equitable New Yorker, no matter how cynical or browbeaten. For debuting this day was the Health Department’s infamous A-B-C restaurant grading system, which cast a scarlet letter upon those unfortunate eateries whose stainless-steel sheen in front belied the dissipation behind the counter. Each letter grade, no matter how offending, must be placed prominently on the entrance to the establishment. Better still, the public penny paid for a searchable online database of all restaurants in the city, with detailed explanations for each grade given. It was like a beautiful dream: an open society, with transparent public information made readily available, empowering its citizens to be the rational economic actors the Republican party believes we all can be, and, as God intended, allowing the free market to determine the public’s standards of acceptable queasiness.

Cut to my wife and I, late September of the same year, making the usual tired trek home from work. More tired than usual, actually, as it had been pouring steadily all day—one of those days when the tops of the buildings are obscured in grey infinity. We had stopped under an awning to shake the flecks of water from our umbrellas when my wife gasped at something behind me and clawed at my shoulder. It was no Damascus moment, to be sure, but there were suddenly parting clouds, and rainclouds breaking into a hundred shafts of light, and crepuscular rays like the fingers of God through the dome of St. Peter’s. Turning around, with the skies upending and the light falling out and over everything, I saw the utilitarian font of the Health Department glowing like an icon.

The whiskey bar got a B.

The system was still so new that we didn’t know what it meant. But there was a sense of something momentous happening, an understanding before understanding, as though perhaps for once cosmic justice was to replace cosmic disappointment. We removed our shoes. We rushed home.

With surgical glee we dissected the account given on the website. The descriptions were frustratingly uniform, the result of an inspector punching in the code for a standardized comment, but gradually we came to see them as all the more tantalizing for what the bureaucracy of it did not say. There were limitless possibilities, entire worlds, in what was left unspoken.

Take, for example, the first violation: “Evidence of mice or live mice present in facility’s food and/or non-food areas.” You could drive a truck through the gaping holes of ambiguity in that sentence. The inclusion of ‘live mice’ alone opens up the horrific possibility of the physical presence of rodents at the time of inspection, perhaps tumbling playfully in the flour or skittering among the pots, so unconstrained that even a jittery staff couldn’t keep them out of sight for the duration of an inspection. And think about ‘evidence of mice’—a coy phrase including, presumably, everything from the droppings of the animals to teeth marks to chewed holes in dry goods, to—God help us—the severed limbs of the creatures, dismembered accidentally in the closing of a door or a particularly vicious fight. Which raises the question—why are dead mice not even mentioned as a possibility? Is there another code altogether for dead mice? Or is a subtle philosophical point here emphasized by the Health Department, that a mouse may be simultaneously dead or alive, until the moment it is observed, like Schrödinger’s cat?

And consider that ‘and/or.’ A phrase as demanding of greater explanation as there ever was. Are they saying that mice—evidence or otherwise—were simply in the food areas, milling about underfoot? Or merely confined to the bathroom, an area more rigidly non-food than any other unless, perhaps, you are a dung beetle? Food or non-food areas—which is it? I think I am not alone in the presumption that a healthy amount of foot traffic depends on the careful resolution of this question. But there is a third possibility, too, like a spectre arising in the mind. There is the genuine and sobering possibility that perhaps ‘food’ is meant to remain on its own, decoupled from its adjectival pairing with ‘areas.’  Yes, live mice are in the food. Or else ‘evidence of mice’—attach whatever meaning you will—has made its way onto the serving plate itself, to be dished up to an unwitting public blissful in its ignorance.

Retaining all the ambiguity of the first while introducing fresh horrors, the second violation reads thusly: “Evidence of flying insects or live flying insects present in facility’s food and/or non-food areas.” Again with the ‘evidences’ and the unfortunate conjunctives! But now imagine—flying insects! My God! Gnats I can forgive, some mosquitoes, even a moth or two fluttering against a light bulb at night—but what are we talking here? An infestation of grasshoppers? Flies? Flying—gasp!—cockroaches?  And surely ‘evidence’ in this case is more mentally redolent than mere mice droppings. What does it mean? Smashed bugs, limbs akimbo, mashed onto counters? The proverbial smoking gun of a hastily stashed and gummy flyswatter? Eggs, like grains of rice, deposited into foodstuffs or onto the inner lip of crockery?

But the coup de grâce of the inspection is the third violation: “Facility not vermin proof.  Harborage or conditions conducive to vermin exist.” Vermin? Can it be…? Google tells me that vermin can include all types of small objectionable animals that are destructive or injurious to health—but, in its most common usage, the term refers specifically to rats. Rats! So it’s far worse than anyone feared. Once the purvey of subway tracks and sewers, the noxious conditions of eating and drinking establishments are luring the large rodents of New York City into their already-tiny acreages. There are rats in the whiskey bar.  This is several orders of magnitude beyond mere mice and arthropods. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Furthermore, what does ‘harborage’ mean? And where have you heard—or will ever hear again—that phrase in the 21st century? But more to the point, what does ‘harborage’ really tell us, besides the evident use of an outdated thesaurus within the Health Department?

The implication is that someone at the whiskey bar is actively promoting the interests of the rat population. Yes, the Health Department is trying to tell me that my local whiskey bar harbors rats, like they were the members of some kind of traitorous faction.  Someone in that establishment is waging an active campaign against his or her own species in preference for an alternative vision of reality, one which elevates the nonhuman to a place of special, even prime, importance. The conditions for some kind of rat army, an explosion of rodent society, are being nourished just around the corner.  Far worse than a union rat, or even a Communist, we have a Rattus norvegicus sympathizer in our midst.

I know. I was shocked too. What possible motivation could the proprietor have? But, then, ideology has never needed reasons, has it? The illusions of a fevered mind are enough. The vain reaching for transcendence furnished, if only temporarily, by the seductions of a totalizing narrative. The feeling of being part of something greater.

And all this attached to that single letter B at the whiskey bar we pass every day.

Imagine our glee. My wife and I held each other and made love vigorously. There is justice in the universe, after all! With shivers, we whispered to each other in the filtered light beneath the sheets of the bed. All those Junior Manhattanites—those monstrously poor sufferers of the peculiar cognitive dissonance that ensnares persons desperately proud to have moved to Brooklyn three years ago but who would move to SoHo if they could afford it—frequenting a place of infestation! Rat tails disappearing like slurped spaghetti into the bloated, corpuscular lips of the rich! Insane laughter over dram after dram of exorbitant spirits—joy so refined it is oblivious to mundane matters like floating rat turds! We made love again.

I say: do not think me jealous, reader. For the democratizing effects of the Health Department make us all equal before those vaunted letter grades. It is the great leveler, whereby even the very poor may lord it over the very moneyed. Taking in food— the voluntary insertion of foreign objects inside your body to be made part of your very flesh—is intimate in a way that few things are. Dysfunction there breeds dysfunction everywhere. Every valley high and every mountain low, indeed.

And so, when I close my eyes to sleep, and fancy myself able to hear the clinking of the glasses and the hearty cheers of the clean and well-dressed upper classes around the corner, I see an apocalyptic vision firing the inside of my eyelids. For I know a day is coming, and that right soon. My wife and I will rise late one night, past midnight. We will don our Sunday best. I will put one leg on at a time with great care into the void of my trousers. She will help me part my hair crisply so no strand is out of place. I will tie a bow into her fresh curls and zip her flowered dress. Our shoes, polished black as mica, will be new. We will have a moment together in silence before the mirror. And then we will leave.

The whiskey bar will be bright with its bacchanal festivities. No one will see us coming. Streaming in together at full speed, quick as thieves in the night, we will spread our hands to heaven with a shout. They will see our faces, radiant, beatific, like that of St. Stephen’s, and they will be afraid. We will relish their fear. Their surprise will invigorate us. Our fingers will splay and arch. And with one voice we will thunder to shake the foundations of the earth:

“Rats! Rats! All this time and you’ve been eating rats!”

The Roaches Of Matrimony

This piece was originally published in 2013.

There we were a few months in—hunched on the sheets with our knees crushed up beneath our chins, covers flung out to make a malformed mirror-bed on the carpet at the feet of the terminal post—when something small crawled out of the silence and into my ear canal, the slightest of rustles, a bundle of miniscule prairie grass tossed onto a pile near a microscopic fire.

“I knew it,” I shrieked with something not quite like triumph, not quite like dread.

“Unbelievable,” my wife said.

“I’m telling you. It’s there—something is there.”

But there was admittedly difficult to locate, so I waved the back of my hand generally across a representative arc of the room.

“Where?”

Again the fluttering noncommittal hand.

“Oh right. There.”

She looped her brown hair behind her right ear in a motion that was either one of those unconscious movements beloved by men everywhere or—more likely—a subterranean signal of annoyance. A husband knows how much depends on a proper reading of signs like these. Only the skilled augur restores erogenous relations briskly. I squinted into the tea leaves of her eyes.

Listen. It’s there. I promise.”

“I believe you. Now quit being so annoying about it.”

“OK.”

“I mean it!”

Shh!

There it was again. The dead-leaf sound of a dragging carapace, the periodic pin-touch of a low but active intelligence slouching through a wilderness of school papers, something more than the aimless creaks and aches of an old rowhouse radiator-heated in winter. Then gone again.

“Surely you heard it.” A statement, an accusation.

“I honestly didn’t.”

But was there something tentative, half-hearted in her tone?

I leaned cautiously with a long foot over the expanse of floor—quarantined, in my mind,infested!—and nudged a stack of ungraded essays. Nothing. Clawing an errant magazine up with my big toe and index, I grasped the spine with prehensile strength and rushed it back to the safety of the bed. The written word weaponized. I rolled the thing deliciously.

A crinkle! A subtle brush of insectile limbs!

My head jerked around with involuntary haste. I pointed with growing horror to the base of the bedside table.

“There! For sure now! You couldn’t have missed that!”

My wife rumbled with laughter beside me.

“It’s just your imagination,” she said, poking at my seriousness.

“No it’s not,” I said. “Now hush!”

“But you can’t really—”

Shh!

Corkscrewed paper, fists curling inward like a pinch-hitter up to bat, elbows bent and tendons convulsing visibly beneath the skin with wound energy, all senses purposeful as radar waves pinging across the room…

“This isn’t really about cockroaches, is it?” she said quietly.

I heard her as though through a filter and managed an answer somehow from out of the deep waters of my consciousness. Straining, straining, my perception stretched way out, bat-like, to the limits…

“What do you mean?”

“You’re trying to prove a point,” she said with hooded eyes.

Absent-minded, I gave a reply, still fishing in the deep, close now, close…

“What point?”

“I dunno, some point, how I never listen, or—”

“A-HA!”

I had him. Scuttling among the W-2s. On the bedside table—the violation! beside the very bed of our marriage!—an ambulatory thumbnail of brown and coagulated red. Serpent strike of arm, deathly arc of magazine cover, cottage cheese sign of death.

“What were you saying?” I said, and wiped him up in triumph.

And so began the roaches of our marriage.

***

There were dozens that first year. Nasty things, interminable, a great wheel of shivering wings and barbed legs, innumerable triangle heads. They would come as if by secret agreement into the very heart of our domestic bliss. At the most mundane moments, in the sweet tranquility only lovers know, they inserted themselves as though feeding on the excessive pleasures of matrimony itself. Our very cleanliness attracted them—all the more to blot our virtuous living, our clean counters, our polished surfaces and unblemished floors!

In memory their visitations compound as images. I see them in the wok we left out one night thick with peanut sauce, and the little slapdash trails of russet they left as they scattered. In mind’s eye, I conjure the speck high up on the eye of Jesus, an irreligious brute staked out on the stained glass, no doubt gloating as the prayers of confession arose to vibrate his ribbed antennae. Home again, we once laid about with a gloved hand, four, five, six times before catching a quick one between the shower and the sink. Then breakfast, some weeks later, between the weekend ritual of A6 to A9, a subsonic scritch almost lost in the wife’s scrapping of kettle on stove coil, found again in pot to white smiling lip of porcelain, now hidden in a reverse waterfall of steam caught in waxen light—there, there, the wisp of thin membrane rubbed together, femur on grooved wing, an unbending limb!

And so on. But two catch in my throat like craggy ootheca—even there they have colonized!—and rise in time like twitching forelimbs from the muck of memory.

***

In fantastical inward mirrors she is there at the sink, a copper light burnishing the windows of the condo behind her, framing my wife in quicksilver. I enter the room at her back, without her knowledge, not even a period point in the relentless novel of her consciousness. An apron string encircles the small loop of her waist. She is poised at the edge of some great work, like an empress surveying the empty deserts where her palace will rise.

“This bastard basin,” she says to herself, looking evilly at the heaped grave of dishes in the sink. “Waterproof. I wish I were waterproof.” She sighs and looks down at the wet line transcribed across the midriff of her apron, soaked through to her blouse.

And there behind her, emerging from beneath the cool refrigerator, I see a fish-hooked leg, slowly at first, and then another, and then the whole ugly rest of it, one huge elongated pebble dressed in folded onion skins. I watch as the creature languorously traverses the tile floor toward my wife’s exposed ankle—unprotected, as bare as the day she was born—as though it were an old friend on an evening jaunt determined to stop in at the neighbors. A crawling horror convulses my stomach. My God! It desires her abalone limbs!

She remains wrapped in her innocence. The thought of this blemish on the purity of her moment, this disease on her being—at the dishes, with the light turning the sky into mystic colors just over her head, the exquisite essence of herself alone with herself—no, no, no, I could not allow it, I dare not allow it. The creature continued in that curious clap-clap-clap, plopping up- down gait of its kind, like a playing card in the back of a bicycle wheel—and I rushed forward and clutched it up silently with my bare hand before she noticed.

She turns. Her eyes find me. She smiles.

“Oh hello darling!” she says, radiant in the dying sun. “What are you doing there?”

“Nothing,” I say, smiling back. The lie in my eyes. My hands behind my back.

I crush the creature bitterly in my palm.

***

Her presence lingers in the glass. I am returned to the apartment, a month hence, lights flashing on with a Pavlovian finger flick, coat already off one shoulder, face flushed still with the evening’s debauchment—and in my abode, dear God, my own home, there met with the terrible pressed penny, the unhurried backside, the foul oval adhering to my lady’s Valentine roses, cruelly, cruelly. Not even dislodged by the sudden springing to life of an electric sun—what vanity, what brash ignoble maleficence! I felt—feel—myself impotent. Yes, I could see it—first a sailing shoe; then the vase tipped, possibly broken; greenish water bleeding out like a melting clock onto the floor; and it, the damned thing, disappeared in the commotion. Alas! Alas! How could those flowers which proved yesterday so stimulating to my lover’s amorous attentions today appear so limp, so unable to resist a hurled paper, so powerless to provide enough resistance to crush a bug between two green leaf nubs?

A solid wall! My kingdom for a surface to be crushed against! Never before had I longed so keenly for the firmness of things.

So it would have to be close quarters, then. I espied the most likely route the creature would take when disturbed. A creeping hand to shake slightly—a touch, the merest touch—one slender stem and then it would be off stage-left for the relative protection of the underside of the table lip—a stronghold it must never be allowed to reach, as a sort of protective triangle could then be achieved by which expiration by shoe or paper would prove difficult. Death on the flat field of wood! Quick death, as on the plains of Troy! I shook my wife’s roses and the thing fled predictably into the existential crevices of my impending boat shoes.

How difficult it was to get the mark out before she came home!

***

Why these above all the rest? Why these islands only in the stream of time? Where the other sunnier climes? I don’t know. I offer these alone like cigarillos in a gentleman’s sterling case—you take, you pick. Read the signs if you will. Light up. Applaud.

***

These rendezvous ended one day in a curious manner. It was about six months ago, in the last furnace-blast days of summer, when I saw one scuttling through a crack in the plaster on my way out of the shower. The beastly thing got away but not before serving its purpose—a hooked pretarsus being the one thing needful to prime the mental pump. All day I felt my nerves on edge. Shapes crawled at the edge of vision but disappeared when seen full on. Strange shadows flared into horrid blooms of winged infestation for a few thrilling moments until the light passed. The footfalls of an upstairs neighbor became dens of writhing thoraces shifting a millimeter to the left in unison. I avoided the bathroom. Too many mouths gaped in the plaster between the tiles. Too much hidden watching. Where there’s one…

But a few glasses of water got the best of me by midafternoon. Midafternoon, midstream —it was a fitting symmetry dimly appreciated. I was doing my business when I registered by touch something tingling at my feet. How instantaneously an active brain can provide morbid furnishings! Immediately from my frontal lobe sprung the razor-edged image of two split antennae searching the long hairs just above my heel—a vision so obdurate I stubbed my toe swinging my foot into the garbage can—and my hand leapt to action also, swiping involuntarily, lashing blindly, wildly into space—kill, kill! Noisily my excess nutrients spilled into the orbed bowl only a moment more before pinching up.

It’s hard to describe what happened next. My hand came away empty; my vision registered no entomological anomaly. But a cord of liquid hung in the air, flung up, presumably, by the action of swatting at the encroaching insect. My brain, poor thing, failed to silence one member before engaging another! And there, weightless like an astronaut’s languid plaything (admittedly the accretions of memory may have embellished this last image), the stream doubled back in an impossible curve—some pagan god’s infantile mockery of physics—to land on my gasping face.

The humiliation was complete and immediate. Urinating on one’s own countenance! Impossible act! A degradation reserved for war camps or mass graves or the more pungent forms of internet effluvia. And not even a corpse to show for it, no sticky hand, everything clean, clean, unbroken tile as far as the eye could see! A quiet draft from under the door tickling the hairs of my bare legs. Sunlight through the frosted window. Shadows of leaves crisscrossing on the wall as though in mocking applause.

In the mirror, washing up, I feel time like a weight—and there my vision shifts, meanders into the past. I see my wife at the sink. Her apron is belted tight. She is wreathed in viridity devoid of guile. And behind her, creeping on its bristled feet, is the cockroach. The segmented wires dance across her flesh. She looks down. She does not react. I see the bitter word she forms when her lips touch, the gliding tongue ticking the ridge just behind the teeth, the cave of her mouth closing a second time, the final hiss from the back of the throat—and I was ashamed.

Did I imagine it? Did I really believe myself responsible to polish your immaculate luster? Did I think I could keep those cursed brown orbs from you? Even now, I see a smirking pair of compound eyes in the sink overflow. I observe an ovate silhouette imprinted on my optic nerve. And in your eyes, my love, I have put the shadows of fluttering wings.

No matter, you say from the mirror. Come.

But I cannot stop these greedy mouths! I cannot keep them from striking your heel!

No matter. What man can?

But I am afraid. I am ashamed.

No more cracks to hide in, you say. No carapace of lies to cover one’s nakedness.

Then where to? Where to go?

There is only light here. And applause.

Help me!—I am afraid to go!

Hush, child. You are loved. Come.

***

Your shape in the doorway as I mop up my piss: “Is it just me, or have all the roaches vanished lately?”

***

I wake from my reveries. She says vanished, but that isn’t quite true. Respite—even a few months of it, years of it—is not victory. It is easy to be careless after so many days have passed without the stain of their flat bodies on the margins of our lives. We live with the lights on. We know better.

Trawling the internet, trance-like, face aglow with pallid blue like a corpse underwater, I see them there, bleeding out from the corners of my mind. Always. Peel back the wallpaper. See beneath the sink. From what darkness are they? From what restless evil do they spin their existence?

For the roaches of our marriage wait, watchful. She sleeps carrying my burdens in the next room—and nightly we fear their coming, this dark matter I cannot contain, reminders of a world we cannot circumscribe, yes, these malicious bodies with whom I tremble to contend.

photo by: mugley

Saccharine Perspiration Blues

Some friends who used to live in Brooklyn drove in last week and we all thought it would be fun to see what we could see in the penumbras emanating from Corporate Art these days. Kara Walker, a big-time artist known primarily for skewering the U.S.’s dismal history of race relations, fortunately fit the bill: a huge opening in the hulking Domino Sugar Factory on the banks of the East River. It was the kind of installation you knew would get raves in the press even before it opened.

Domino Sugar Factory

A big art installation in Williamsburg posits a kind of dilemma: can the work be judged on its merits apart from the accompanying hullabaloo of twentysomethings in rompers and Ray-Bans? Not to mention the gobs of money that surely tumbled down various craws to make it happen? I don’t know the answer to these questions, except to say, these events are not good for my soul.

There is a sideshow element in these things, something perverse and weird. You turn up to see the spectacle just as much as you do to see the statues. I wasn’t disappointed: the line, by the time we got there, extended far down Kent Avenue, almost to the Williamsburg Bridge. See them there, these iPhone-burdened laborers of Instagram, these servants of the feed, snapping up shots to give their digital lives a shot of New York cool. Feel the hangdog air, the knowing sheepishness—being seen, my generation pleads through every online artifact they share, is just as important as seeing. Maybe more so.

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So it is fitting that the work, too, is about being seen—a canny choice on the part of Creative Time, a New York-based non-profit that specializes in big public art displays, because we can all relate. The installation bills itself as “an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.” In other words: to see those who remained unseen for so many years—the black faces upon which the gears of commerce turned.

Like much of Kara’s work, the racial elephant in the room is brought squarely center: no chance of diverting eyes here, no glossing over. In this case, literally: a giant mammy sphinx dominates a large portion of the space, dusted in lily-white sugar. Sugar, the sweetest of commodities, was for centuries dependent on a bitter system of black labor. The contrast of the stereotypically black features coated in refined whiteness exhibits Ms. Walker’s heightened sensitivity to the many cruel ironies of history.

Unfortunately, the overall effect is reminiscent of  “some corporate idol you might find outside a hotel in Singapore,” in the words of critic William O’Leary. Even if this garishness is part of Ms. Walker’s point—the vicious banality of sanctioned greed built on a foundation of white supremacy—I am not sure it is particularly successful beyond that of a stencil of Ronald McDonald with an AK-47 swapped into his hands. Is this revelatory to anyone anymore?

Curiously, despite a brave attempt with the giant sugar-sphinx, it is the space itself that ends up being the main attraction. The walls drip with the collected decades of sugary detritus from molasses production and refinement. The effect is oddly beautiful—the inimitable abstract brushes of rust and oxidation and sea air painting the walls ocher and brown and tan in huge gradients and slashes. Ultimately Ms. Walker’s sphinx diminishes when placed against these geologic forces.

Domino_he_5D_126

For all its larger-than-life bravado, Ms. Walker’s installation is best viewed at an intimate scale. Tucked among the steel beams and supporting braces, the artist has placed four or five-foot high statues of plantation boys in various poses of molasses production. These small sculptures of harvesting boys were to me strangely moving, even creepy, in their forlorn positions tucked away at random in the space. Cast from sugar and matching the mottled factory walls in hue, these sculptures seemed plaintive and almost weeping as they melted, their trails of deep brown and taupe running in little melancholy channels across the floor. Like the walls of the factory, they seemed to perspire, as though the space itself was alive to its own history, remembering still down through the long years its dark saga of suffering and sweetness. Sweating ghostly children reflexively working invisible sugar fields and leaking out dark blood onto the floor of the factory that once refined the fruit—well, the fructose anyway—of their labors. I have to admit there is something lovely and aching about that image.

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Anyway, the whole kit and kaboodle will disappear into the maw of capitalism and inexorable market forces this summer once the wrecking crews come bulldozing in. The insatiable appetite for millionaire housing will soon consume it whole—from highest I-beam to lowest brace bar—and spit out luxury condos. Take the chance to see the inside of this incredible industrial building before it is gone forever. There is not a lot of seeing to be done here otherwise. Although the people watching promises to be pretty good. You can rest assured they’ll be watching you back.

Meanwhile, the molasses children will continue to melt until they are no more.

In Plain Sight

It is strange that we come at it so sideways, so often.  Brutal asides in Family Guy, the brushed steel gallows humor of stand-up punch lines, the deep horror in Chapelle’s Show so misunderstood, the strange complicity played for laughs in Key & Peele, a chronicle of suffering drenched in spite and cynicism in Ask A Slave.

So charged, still.  Slavery—a hot potato for all Americans, black, white, and every shade in-between. You have to squint your eyes just right to get a glimpse of it. When was the last time in popular culture that somebody approached it directly in full sincerity?

To their credit, Steve McQueen, a Black British director with art-gallery pedigree and critical acclaim for previous films Hunger and Shame, and John Ridley, an African-American screenwriter, attempt this rare and singular task. Watching their latest effort, 12 Years A Slave, one is struck by how lonesome McQueen’s film appears in the theaters and electronic screens of American media consumption. The ‘peculiar institution’  is conspicuous mostly in its absence.

Consider the apparently inexhaustible appetite we have for World War II-as-commercial-product, still going all these years later, achieving what appears now to be permanent cultural cache.  (Of course that war remains so tightly bound up with the American self-regard for its proper place in global affairs, continuing to comfort us with its seductive lies about ourselves post-September 11.)

Or consider the strange self-negation of a future apocalyptically shorn—the shambling zombie hordes blotting out our communal hopes like locusts the sun in a pop-culture wave that may now be just cresting – yet no less puzzling for its sudden coming and going, for its rich mining of an inscrutable vein in our current psyche.

Of greater consequence (and concern) is the retreat from the real evidenced by innumerable prequels and sequels from fantasy worlds, comic books, space operas and mythology.  We are in the grip of incessant reboots and spin-offs, a witches’ brew of diminishing returns and special-effects exhaustion, the special hell of truly awful travesties making billions of dollars.

But slavery.  You could drive a truck—many hundreds of trucks—through the gaping hole it leaves in American popular media.  Does it have a chance of ever catching the zeitgeist?

Sure, Roots was an event in its day, and the occasional drama like Glory, The Color Purple, Amistad, and most recently, the vengeful Django Unchained keeps the coals stoked in certain cultural corners.  But, taken as a whole, we have to go all the way back to Uncle Tom’s Cabin to find the last time slavery was so, well, enthralling to the entire nation as an artistic subject. How can this be, when slavery informs the entire backdrop of race relations in America?  When it lingers behind so much of the dialogue around President Obama and the meaning of a black president?   When in black America and white America slavery is always everywhere hidden in plain sight?

***

McQueen’s movie doesn’t provide any answers to these questions, but he is aware of these cruel interrogatives in American history. In fact, the entire film may be understood as an exploration of the irony of slavery as a system, its play of hiddenness-and-revelation, its intermingling of light and dark.  For a director who promised to “not pull any punches,” the approach is oddly intellectual—a check dragging on the visceral experience of the protagonist, and, ultimately, a source of  distance when immediacy was wanted.

The ironies begin early with an inversion of the comforting storyline preferred by white Americans: slavery to freedom, ideally through the mediation of some benevolent and brave Caucasian with which we can identify and invite into the circle as “one of us.”  Here we have the opposite—and, lest we forget, the far more common, historically speaking—passage from freedom to bondage.  Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a born freedman from Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, lives a comfortable middle class lifestyle with his wife and children.  A family man and musician, he is lured by the promise of short term but lucrative occupation while his wife and children are away on a trip, and is thus convinced to journey south to Washington, D.C. as a violinist for a traveling circus.  Poisoned by his unscrupulous companions within sight of the nation’s Capital building, he wakes—horrifyingly—in chains, beaten until he accepts his new identity as Platt, a runaway slave from Georgia.  Shipped to New Orleans, Solomon is sold as property to three different owners over the course of twelve years.  The first, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a paternalistic and sympathetic owner—the kind face slipped like a mask over an inherently brutal system.  Soon, this brutality resurfaces in the persons of Tibeats (Paul Dano) and Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), Solomon’s second and third owners, respectively.  He is the property of the deranged and troubled Epps for ten years, subject to his capricious whims and insane bouts of cruelty, until a smuggled letter to the North eventually wins the prematurely-aged Solomon his freedom.

Imagery of hiddenness, masks, and adopted personas abound.  Most forcefully is the scene when Solomon is strung up by his neck for an entire afternoon in the hot Louisiana sun, on the tips of his toes, where any slip in his resolve or footing would ensure death by asphyxiation.  Around his gasping form, life on the plantation continues as normal.  Slaves keep on laboring, eyes on their work so fixedly, they avoid even furtive glances in Solomon’s direction.  Children play in a sward meters from the lynching, apparently carefree and undistributed.  The white overseer, although not responsible or approving of Solomon’s treatment, remains aloof and uninvolved.  Equilibrium on the plantation is maintained through studied ignorance, through fearful refusal to acknowledge what is unavoidably there.  Both as baleful witness to Northup’s experience and as a metaphor for the chattel system, the scene works awfully well.  What was more foundational to the illusion that was slavery than to reject the humanity of the person standing right in front of you?

***

Ejiofor plays Northup with great nobility, a performance that relies on presence and heft and brooding interiority.  He does much with his character’s sudden erosion of agency.  Shorn of the privilege of moral action, he becomes a moral witness, instead—his watching eyes outraged, brutalized, an American Dante dragged through the underworld and returning to tell his tale.  Fassbender’s Edwin Epps is a marvel, a man unbalanced in the extreme but never a caricature, a man of appetites and impulses beyond his understanding or control. Lupita Nyong’o does incredible work with Patsey, an unfortunate slave caught in a vicious triangle between Epps and his chilly wife.  In the midst of unbearable circumstances, her Patsey manages to combine both royal grace and vulnerability—a woman whose gaze pierces and condemns.

There are powerful undercurrents, a sense of dread, inhumanity, and fear here. A mother is separated from her child in ghastly tears.  Brutalizing violence prowls at the edges of every scene, warping the moral fabric of every character with its strange witchcraft.  Northrup’s keen longing for his wife and children are gradually tempered by the horror of his own dissipation, of losing himself as Northrup only to be consumed by the new slave identity of Platt.

Yet at certain moments of great feeling, the director decides to pull back, to drop a veil.  Twice, at least, Northrup turns his face away from the camera, his emotions hidden in shadow—in deference, perhaps, to the fact that none of us now, with all the distance of time and history between us, with a standard of living so high it would be impossible for even the richest in that era to fathom, could ever approach his horror.  The slave is essentially unknowable, McQueen hints. The slave is hidden. Any attempt to psychologize or enter in is prima facie futile.  Who can know, in the terrible solitude of his soul, the dark interior nights that passed while stranded on the edge of a hostile bayou with all the world against him?

***

I am not sure McQueen’s choices in this regard stand up to scrutiny. Turning to the real Solomon Northup’s memoir of the same name, one finds a whole world among the slaves on Ebbe’s plantation, distinctly rounded and sharply drawn personalities, with a great deal of the interior life of the slave on display. The reader is privy to hidden and hushed conversations, to moments of unguarded social intercourse away from the gaze of the slave master, to human quirks and foibles and the capacity for magnificence. We see slave society on a human level, grounded in real characters with real names, with histories and backstories and their own moments of moral triumph or failure. Northrup allows himself his own little asides and observations, even indulging in occasional visions of vengeance.  But if the movie is your guide, Eppe’s slaves barely spoke to one another. Aside from Patsey, they are essentially nameless extras—background scenery.  One is forced to conclude this distance is a deliberate choice on the part of the director, and the more you notice it, the odder it becomes.

Strange tableaux result: whips arcing gracefully through golden air, fields white with cotton edge-burned in the setting sun, black backs bent almost in supplication—­in slow motion, nonetheless, in repose, like a Constable pastoral.  The whipping post with its distracting movie-perfect puffs of blood.  The awful torn flesh of Patsey, lit so lovingly it could be an abstract painting.  Why such beauty? Why such grand painterly strokes?  (One recalls McQueen’s art gallery roots, unfavorably.)  Perfect cinematic brushwork like this betrays an artist’s inability to enter in, a willful intellectualizing damaging in its incapacity to plunge sincerely into an honest point of view.  This becomes problematic when the camera detaches from Northup’s perspective and floats off into what is presumably intended as an ‘objective’ documentarian angle on the events.  At these moments, the camera lingers on the outside of things.  Troubling questions of point of view assert themselves: who is watching? Why? What particular interest, even complicity, do they have in this story?

What is left is the parade of ironies that is slavery mingling with the ironies of McQueen’s filmmaking: the white slave owner enslaved by lust for his black field hand; the many British actors in a film about the most American of topics; the man born free bearing the bondman’s yoke; the immaculate camera work capturing a sordid era; a religion of liberation used to pacify and oppress; a beautiful film about violence.

Despite its considerable merits, the film has a sense of the “almost-chosen” about it.  Consider the heaps of praise it is receiving.  Isn’t it sad, really, that critics are lauding it as such a watershed, a work of art at the head of a very short list of ‘serious’ slavery films? For a country that has not properly reckoned with slavery—despite eleven million human lives snatched from their homes and sent across the seas and the snuffing out of over six hundred thousand lives in civil war and over a century of legislation and countless marches and songs and lynches and speeches and gunshots in the night and bodies dumped in hate in Mississippi swamps and an incarceration rate that will send one in three black men born today to prison at some point in their lives and an education system that leaves only fourteen percent of black eighth graders reading at what is considered proficient and the exceedingly deep ignorance about each other that enfolds us still—it isn’t the film we might have hoped for, but it is the film we deserve.  At any rate, it’s the best film about slavery yet produced.  And it’s not even by an American!

Isn’t it a tragedy to say maybe that’s the best we can do?

Nothing But The Blood

One of Dickens’ antagonists, Ralph Nickelby, boasts he is a man never moved by a pretty face, for he always sees the grinning skull beneath. It’s a vision whose austerity is meant to be an attribute—a steely verisimilitude which prides itself on seeing through all such delicate coverings. But it must be a very poor realism that can’t see the pretty girl staring it in the face.

Fortunately for us, Ezra Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij, the primary songwriters for the band Vampire Weekend, are no Ralph Nickelbys. Their latest album, Modern Vampires of the City, is no nihilistic gutter crawl through a world devoid of meaning. It is, in fact, frequently joyous and relentlessly buoyant. But neither has the band “found religion,” despite the spiritual imagery and themes in their latest. Instead, the lyrical thrust of the album captures the experience of many college-educated, twentysomethings in the city emblazoned on the cover: a smoggy, slightly-retro, slightly-futuristic New York. Heaped upon itself, only partially visible through a mist made of humanity’s greed and ambition, the city becomes us: an existential muddle, alive to ironies, unsure about dogma, unsure even about our unsure-ity, possessing an aversion to strict dichotomies yet full of longing, full, at times, even of faith, drawn by turns to the old and new. It’s the skull and the girl, all in one, but without the assurance that anybody knows what either of those facts really mean.

First, the skull. Death and the inevitable passing of time infuse nearly every track on the album. “Diane Young” elaborates on the homophonous pun in its title by managing to reference both the Bruce and Dylan Thomas (“So grab the wheel, keep on holding it tight / ‘Til you’re tottering off into that good night”). Koenig plaintively asks on “Don’t Lie” if “the low click of a ticking clock” bothers you, since “there’s a headstone right in front of you / and everyone I know.” (“Bother” puts it mildly, one might say.) The ambitious “Step” dons the mantle of elderly wisdom to intone: “We know the true death—the true way of all flesh / Everyone’s dying.” Absent are the wispy impressionistic vignettes of earlier albums in favor of a more direct lyricism that somehow manages to traffic compellingly in ideas and less in recounted experiences.

Not that direct means unambiguous or simplistic. Koenig and Batmanglij are too subtle a pair of lyricists to allow their songs to be straightjacketed into singular readings. Lines are undoubtedly chosen for their multiplicity of understandings. Take, for example, “I was made to live without you,” from “Everlasting Arms.” If the “you” is understood as God—which the title suggests, referring to the 19th century hymn—then this could be a simple expression of evolutionary logic: no divine intelligence, no “you” to live for. Or perhaps, more cannily, “made” here follows the secondary meaning of “forced” or “led,” as though society has (wrongly?) influenced the narrator into discarding the idea of a divine being as a meaningful premise for existence. But let’s be honest: it’s just as likely about a really, really bad breakup.

Such purposeful ambiguity speaks to a sense of craft and intentionality that is missing in the earlier two albums. In the press, members of the band have cultivated the notion of the three albums as a trilogy, with themes developing and maturing as the artists have aged. A bildungsroman for our time—from the carefree college days of their self-titled debut, to the worldly travels of Contra, to the purposeful and denser Modern Vampires of the City. It’s a neat narrative, but it’s also one without any real resolution. Fittingly, the album was first announced in The New York TimesLost and Found section—as unresolvable an existential conundrum as any, if taken literally. Many press outlets have noted an evasiveness from the band when asked what it means. Pitchfork says Koenig and Batmanglij are “scrupulous and cautious” as though “each Vampire Weekend song and artifact comes along with its own little puzzle”; The Guardian’s interviewer calls them “pretty circumspect” and “suspicious…second-guess[ing] our queries.” Meaning always hides, it would appear, just like our lads from the Upper West Side.

Instead, we get longing. That great and terrible longing—the soul-thirst that poses questions to divine beings only half-believed-in, that sees the possibility of something beyond the world in the world. It’s the pretty girl that is no less than a grinning skull but is possibly something much more.

Koenig implores so sweetly in the aforementioned “Everlasting Arms” to be held in “your everlasting arms,” even as death like a chandelier comes crashing down. He sings of the Dies Irae used in the Funeral Mass, and pleads, in words similar to C.S. Lewis’ concept of discipleship as a kind of dying to live a truer version of the self, “Lead me to myself / Don’t leave me in myself.” He asks, in various tracks, “Who will guide us through the end?” and “Who’s going to say a little grace for me?” He speaks of “never-ending visions” and of Milton’s “red right hand” of the Lord. And in “Unbelievers” he sees holy waters everywhere yet wonders if any “contain a little drop for me.”

But the biggest thrill, for the religious listener, is the dubby “Ya Hey,” with its direct references to Exodus 3 and its implicit sympathy for a God who has love for everyone even if it’s mostly unrequited. A marvel of referential compression, the chorus puns off the unpronounceable personal name of the Lord and Outkast’s famous song (you know the one) with swinging confidence, evoking wistfulness for a God “who won’t even say your name / Only I am that I am.” It’s hard not to get a sense of respect for Jewish tradition here, and I suspect those who see this song as an attempt to knock the Big Guy down a notch are badly mistaken. (Note that the Steve Buscemi-directed videos for the album tend to put the lyrics to the fore by pasting them in large letters in front of moving images of New York City. Yet the mutant chirping that sings the name of God demurely gets but a single question mark.)

The concept of a God who won’t even say his name seems to fit the album’s millennial unease. After all, an unknowable God is one that makes no demands. It’s an empty signifier to be filled with whatever passions hold us in their grip. But such a situation soon grows intolerable. Contradictions and questions inevitably assert themselves. And indeed the sense of being mistaken about the holy, even with its demands and humiliations, leads to what may be Vampire Weekend’s circa-2013 version of the prayer in Mark 9:24: “ I don’t wanna live like this but I don’t wanna die.”

“I can’t relate to any ways of thinking that divide the world into two distinct parts,” Koenig tells the music magazine NME. “There’s all these false dichotomies in the world that can be very confusing…I’ve always had an extreme dislike of these false choices you’re presented with.” Rather than the skull or the pretty girl, Modern Vampires of the City’s reasonable impulse is to see the two together as one. Listening to it all, one wonders if Koenig and Batmanglij finally show their hand for a moment by lifting the album title from the opening lines of Junior Reed’s reggae track “One Blood.” Do the boys from Columbia agree with the singer from Kingston that red blood, the common mark of our humanity, can really cover over the “false dichotomies” which plague and divide us? (See the patois-chant of “blood” on “Finger Back.”) Ever referential, it would be supremely fitting if Vampire Weekend’s latest located a balm for the metaphysical incongruities of modern life in the same place—a vein.

For my part, I’m not so sure if the skull and the pretty girl, if alienation and transcendence, can be reconciled so easily. A stronger tonic may be needed. But blood!—they’re on to something there. In fact, it reminds me of another sanguinary song I heard somewhere: “O precious is the flow / That makes me white as snow…”

 

 

 

A Film Divided

There is a scene in Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln in which abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, clearly relishing every moment) stares down his Democratic opponents in the House of Representatives and, clothed in righteous indignation and the audience’s sympathetic moral sentiments 147 years on this side of the 13th Amendment, utters what is meant to be a brutal takedown of all simpering slave-state accommodation:

“Slavery is the only insult to natural law, you fatuous nincompoop!”

That such a childish rejoinder is counted as wit in the logic of the film is bad enough[i].  But as directed toward Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), a character of whom the audience knows nothing other than the fact that he is smarmy, and racist, and a Bad Person, well, it’s just downright unsportsmanlike.  I think I winced in the theater here, not least because out of 140 purported speaking parts, one line only is needed to expose in miniature what is true of Lincoln as a whole, namely:  1) The audience’s expectations are rarely to be subverted or much complicated—whichever character holds our own collective opinions on race and politics circa-2012, as a general rule, they’re the ones to back; 2) some very complicated and committed historical figures will be flattened into gruesome caricatures of themselves; and—the biggest blemish in what is sometimes, despite what you have read so far, an astonishingly wonderful film—3) in a movie ostensibly about compromise, Spielberg (and his scribe, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tony Kushner) undercut their argument with this troubling fact: the good guys get all the lines.

***

This is not to say that the whole thing isn’t a rollicking good time.  The film takes us through the fraught passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, whereby the twin goals of abolishing slavery and ending the enormous suffering of the Civil War come into unhappy conflict for the president, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis). Both are morally imperative goals to pursue, in Lincoln’s view, but the nuance is fiendish. End the war too soon and the political will to scour the nation of its original sin will vanish; abolish slavery and any chance of peaceful reconciliation with the rebellious states evaporates. That each half of this political conundrum is championed by the opposing conservative and extremist factions within Lincoln’s own party provides much of the fuel driving the narrative. The gamesmanship, the backroom dealings, the tortured political calculations—rarely has a movie been so successful at making partisan politics so hugely engaging.

But to leave it at that is a luxury Lincoln does not allow itself. As Kushner says in the production notes for the film, “[Spielberg and I] both felt it was incredibly timely, because in this day and age when so many people have lost faith in the idea of governance, it’s a story that shows you can achieve miraculous, beautiful things through the democratic system.”[ii]

Most reviewers have picked up this line, to one extent or another. Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir calls Lincoln a throwback to “an era when Hollywood…mainstream entertainments were also meant to edify and inspire.”  Writing in The Atlantic, Christopher Orr asserts “[it] is a film about the arts of suasion…in short, about politics,” while his colleague, Joshua Zeitz, hopes “President Obama will soon take the opportunity to see Lincoln” to be reminded to use his “immense power” in ways that are “wise.”  Time’s Richard Corliss breathlessly recommends the film as an “urgent civics lesson” that “dares to remind American moviegoers that its government can achieve great victories against appalling odds.”

Beyond mere amusement, then, Lincoln is intended (and received) as a lesson in politics, a love letter with an evangelical tinge written to a divided country of red-and-blue states, persuading us that democracy really can save our national soul. Remember, the film asks, when we could get stuff done?

To be successful in this endeavor, Spielberg and Kushner must strike a tricky bargain which plagues all self-consciously democratic art and to which the integrity of the film ultimately stands or falls—how do you give a fair and legitimate accounting of the interests of all parties involved while still elevating the viewer’s gaze to some larger moral purpose or goal?  Real balance is demanded in a democracy: between one’s principles and the present possibilities; between one’s opponents and friends; between one’s own interests and the interests of others.  Compromise doesn’t work with a stacked deck.

And yet one must admit the dice are hopelessly loaded when confronted with the magnificence of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance. For a president who has persisted in the popular imagination mainly as a literary figure, Day-Lewis’ performance amounts to a new canon, a definitive reordering of cultural assumptions.  One can already feel his tangential manner of speech and high tenor seeping deeply into the folds of one’s brain, annexing all previous conceptions of our 16th president as surely as one’s childhood imaginings of Frodo have been thoroughly expunged by Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.

It is hard to overstate the nature of this accomplishment. Of all presidents, perhaps save George Washington, the tendency to mythologize and inflate is strongest with Lincoln.  Even William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner in Springfield for many years, who knew him as well as any man knew him, called Lincoln the “noblest and loveliest character since Jesus Christ.”  Yet Day-Lewis is able to fashion feet of clay from the alabaster monolith of fable.  Here we have a Lincoln who, by all accounts, accurately reflects the paradoxical nature of the historical man—a uniquely American concoction of homespun and highfalutin, prairie lawyer and politician, good humor and gargantuan ruthlessness.[iii]

Witness Lincoln stalking the halls of the White House like a specter at all hours, an insomniac—as the historical record shows—who never took a break, much less a vacation; who sags as he walks beneath the weight of enormous unseen grief; who wraps himself in the consolation of time with his youngest son; who surprises his advisors with parabolic stories of questionable relevance; who was willing to cut the Gordian knot with adamantine willfulness when necessary.  This human-scale Lincoln nevertheless maintains a sense of greatness—a greatness that enlarges with his humanity, not diminishes.  It is hard to imagine any actor other than Day-Lewis who can take the best scatological joke about George Washington you’re ever likely to hear and a solemn discourse on the moral applications of Euclid and make them not only believable, but essential to the character.

***

This is all another way of saying, via contraposition, that the towering humanity of Lincoln abides no contenders in Spielberg’s film. Nobody else comes close—not Thaddeus Stevens (Jones), not Mary Todd (Sally Field), not Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), nobody. Day-Lewis is in a color film; everybody else plays black-and-white.  His dramatic triumph highlights in chiaroscuro the artistic failures on the part of the director and screenwriter.

Most egregious is the treatment of the Democratic representatives who must be “turned” to vote for the Republican-sponsored legislation.  Cartoonish at every turn, these scenes are great fun, with a touch of Mark Twain around them.  (At first blush an astute choice, incidentally, as Lincoln himself had something of the famous humorist’s farcical humor.  “I don’t like to hear cut and dried sermons,” Lincoln once said, in a sentiment that would’ve surely put a glitter in Sam Clemens’ eye.  “No—when I hear a man preach, I like to see him act as if he were fighting bees!”)  But their slapstick humor and broadly-drawn characterizations, sadly, are at cross purposes with the thematic undertow of the film.   In the climactic voting scene near the end, the sound of chattering teeth is half-expected to emanate from the theater’s sound system.  One is astonished by the absence of literal knee-knocking on the part of the cowardly turncoat congressmen.

For a film about compromise, this is sorely disappointing.  For what, after all, can such a work teach us about the messy business of human community?  Narratively speaking, we are back in the days of the Three-Fifths Compromise, where some persons are more so than others.  The good guys get all the lines, remember.  While this may be flattering for an audience who can accordingly congratulate themselves on holding elevated (and triumphant!) moral principles over rank stupidity and racism, as an artistic device it exerts a dulling effect, robbing the audience of drama and mystery and, well, properly democratic feeling.

Illustrative of this is a detail which Spielberg lets jangle loose in an interview with 60 Minutes.  As the final voting call for the abolition of slavery rolls through the House name by  name, astute observers will note that several of the Democratic naysayers have had their names changed, “in deference,” according to the director, “to the families.”[iv]  Spurious as this may sound—does anybody’s family really care after 147 years?—it nevertheless shows a curious truth.  From an artistic perspective, Spielberg’s Lincoln does not afford its malcontents the dignity of reality—that is, the dignity of acknowledging even one’s sins—which is necessary for a true accounting of a man, and thus for true democracy.

A movie about accommodation is unaccommodating in its generosity toward humanizing Lincoln at the expense of everyone else.  It’s a shame Spielberg didn’t follow the grain of his themes and make a truly epic film about one of the most grown-up figures—and moments—in American history.

 


[i] In contrast, take the following from the Congressional Globeof January 11, 1865as instructive.  On this day a gentlemanly antiwar congressman named George Pendleton took the floor in the House of Representatives.  A Democrat representing the first district of Ohio, Mr. Pendleton advocated for the peaceful reunification of the splintered Union by accommodating to the Confederate demands regarding slavery.  His argument was a designedly academic one, adhering to a strict constructivist interpretation of the Constitution and arguing for the sovereignty of each State regarding the status of its own citizens—in essence, his position was such that certain amendments to the Constitution would be invalid and illegal if they went beyond the powers expressly provided within or against the character of the Constitution as a whole.

Thaddeus Stevens was having none of it:

Mr. STEVENS: Suppose that three fourths of the States now ratify an amendment while the remaining fourth do not, are the States refusing to ratify still members of the Union?

Mr. PENDLETON:  That will depend on the character of the amendment, and whether it is in pursuance of the authority granted.

Mr. STEVENS:  If the amendment should be adopted by three fourths of the States, while the other fourth refuse to ratify it, do the non-agreeing States go out of the Union or remain in it?

Mr. PENDLETON: If the amendment be without the scope of the power granted, legally they remain in the Union, and the other States go out.  [Laughter]

This is wit, though admittedly less suitable for the big screen.  Note the subtlety with which Stevens disembowels his opponent—a trap laid with such gossamer threads his opponent doesn’t realize until he springs it himself.  By placing the reductio ad absurdm—of States unwittingly voting themselves out of the Union—into Pendleton’s own mouth, Stevens thoroughly discredits the argument with such force that everyone in the Chamber sees it for what it is, and cachinnates accordingly, as the transcript shows.

[iii] Which has always been evidenced to me, at least, by the chilly Second Inaugural, an address the likes of which had never been seen before in America and, very probably, never will be again.  It is remarkable to consider how closely this speech parallels John Brown’s final words in the court that would sentence him to death and furthermore, how closely Lincoln hews—near the end of his life—to the viewpoint expressed by Brown on December 2, the morning he was hanged: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”

Where We Left the Octopus

What particularly struck us, as we scanned the Lonely Planet travel guide for things to do in Croatia, was the fact that you may ask the monk precisely one question, to which he will answer or not answer; or respond to with a question; or not respond at all.

It should be said right off the bat that Sviječ had gained some small notoriety over the years for his exploits. (And, oddly enough, for a well-received chapbook of poetry in the Croatian press, which was subsequently translated into English by the National Geographic writer and ethnic Croat Paul Kvinta, and furthermore reviewed favorably in The New Yorker.)  Enough notoriety, that is, to earn him a mention in what is surely the quirkiest entry in the Croatian Lonely Planet. His epigrammatic responses and obscure mystic replies—as well as his habit of keeping court and charging high prices for visitations—have led many to wonder if he is not part-and-parcel a practitioner of some elaborate performance art. Perhaps a kind of strange Croatian Catholic satirist thumbing his nose at the West’s perennial obsession with amorphous spirituality and sages-on-mountaintops and making a mockery of our hunger for long beards and Zen-like simplicity, our craving for pronouncements as austere and unfathomable as the open sky of Idaho. (If not an out-and-out fraudster.)  Either way, the monastery seems not to care, reaping the benefit to the tune of 1.7 million kuna a year.  And either way—or rather, because the possibility of either way existed—we knew we had to see him.

“Besides, what else are we going to do?” my wife said to me, clipping her nails straight onto the hotel room floor in Split.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Swim? Eat? Whatever it is tourists do.”

“Stop dragging your feet,” she told me. “This man is a spectacle from the looks of it. We’ve been married three years. We’re not going to learn anything new sitting around in a hotel room.”

It was two o’clock. We were both still in our underwear. I watched the nails falling.

“Think about it,” she said, looking at me.

I watched her in her underwear clipping her nails.

“You’re right,” I said.

So we were on a journey to see a monk, for reasons which were altogether ambiguous, even to ourselves.

 

 

In the midst of his linen robes, Sviječ sits from 9:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays (excluding holidays, both religious and bank), praying for the health of the world. For 125 kuna, the guidebook said, he may be persuaded to defer this religious duty and receive visitors bearing tendered bills in an obscure antechamber in the farthest left-hand corner of the monastery grounds. Religion being what it is in a continent of ever-emptying churches, few guests may be presumed to arrive seeking specifically Christian instruction. And yet they stream to him anyway—creedless and irreligious, dabbed in sunscreen and smelling of lavender, the oil of which may be purchased at the many roadside stands flecking the dusty switchbacks of the island.

“A cynic,” my wife said with some satisfaction. “A cancer!”

“No better than a war profiteer,” I said, trying to catch the spirit.  “A feaster upon flesh!”

But because motives are difficult to judge from afar, we paid the ferry fee to see for ourselves.

 

 

We took the morning crossing with glee, resounding like a bell—the sea breeze and salt spray, catamarans and suntans, every European brow and ancient gull-galled lighthouse striking our city-parched souls with the force of bronze clappers. The slough of a troubled Continent was spat upon the decks with us—Spanish youths, no doubt unemployed, blazoned in red and yellow; a clutch of olive Greeks, eyes askance and mistrusting; untroubled Italians, immediately shirtless and well oiled; Germans, so pristine they seemed indifferent to anything at all—and, to one side, a ring of hip Londoners clung also to the railings, fleeing the Games, unsure of where they belonged but intoxicated nonetheless. Despite a certain smell of destruction lingering stubbornly like ash from distant fires, we judged the collective mood to be upbeat, even celebratory. The detritus made us giddy, awash in crooked possibilities. We felt open to every winding eventuality like the passing sails on the starboard side. Damn the euro! More sun! Split the very ocean in half around our bow!

Only the Greeks were suspicious enough of the free bottles of water distributed by the crew—“for the heat wave,” they said—to refuse them.

We disembarked on the island of Hvar, an ancient fixture of dolomite and limestone bearing the travails of humanity for well over five thousand years, adhered to the mainland under a mile of water in the depths of the Adriatic Sea.  By hired taxi, we made our way to the village of Sućuraj, as picturesque a place as can be imagined (according to the guidebook), where the marina disgorges fishing boats every morning and welcomes them back every evening; and the hills, lined with the grasping hands of fig and olive, encircle homes and streets hewn from white stone millennia ago; and the church bells mark the hours of the day as punctually as the tinkling of wine glasses and espresso saucers.

“To the monastery?” the driver asked automatically in broken English.

“To the monastery,” we said.

In the midst of Sućuraj the Franciscan monastery looms, the oldest building in a town of old buildings, and in the midst of the monastery we paid our 250 kuna to see the monk named Sviječ, still feeling pretty ambiguous about the whole thing.

 

 

My wife and I went to him in his chamber on a Monday, noting the incense that clouded our vision, the many mystic candles burning, the excruciating two-hour wait in a line sandwiched between a woman wearing parachute pants from Bali and a shirtless man with dreadlocks wearing a string of Buddhist prayer beads slung wide around his neck.

The woman was excited, trying to make eye contact with everyone around her in an obvious ploy to initiate conversation. We observed this seconds too late.

“The aura of this place is good. Can you feel it?” She smiled broadly, revealing a row of clean, well-kept teeth. There was a smudge of North Carolina clay in the ends of her sentences.

“No,” we replied, “but we are open to feeling it.”

“Oh good!” she said, clapping her hands. “Openness is good, you know. Without openness we are like blind eyes. The divine passes us right by.” She made a little whooshing noise as she waved her hands.

“We’re from New York,” we said.

“Oh, I love New York,” she said, not a drop of makeup disguising her face. “There’s so much there. To do and see. To experience.”

“That’s what we’re trying to have,” my wife said conspiratorially. “An experience.”

“It’s our third anniversary,” I said.

“Love!  Just another name for God, you know. For each other. Sometimes I feel that one word could swallow me whole.” She closed her eyes, apparently imagining her own cannibalization. “Infinite bliss, all the way down.”

We shifted our feet. “That’s very beautiful.”

Eyes still closed, she said, “Thank you.”

And then, upon opening her eyes, “I’m Janet.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Janet.”

Her voice intensified. “You know, don’t you think it’s funny that we met like this? In a line? In Croatia? You probably don’t even know your neighbors back home, in New York. All those cold apartments and empty stairwells. Everybody rushing around. Nobody ever looking at anybody else except to judge them. And yet here we are, chatting it up, perfect strangers! And don’t you just feel it? The divine in me opening to the divine in you. And we’re finding ourselves when we do it—our true selves—saying yes to each other, yes to you, yes to me, yes—” She cast her outward palm in an arc before her face “—to all of this.  That’s the important thing—to keep saying yes.”

“Keep saying yes,” my wife repeated, looking at me sidelong. “I like that.”

“It sounds like you’ve got things figured out,” I said.

“Oh goodness no!” she laughed. “It’s the journey. You never arrive, not really. I’m trying to find Him—Her, It—wherever He—She, It—can be found. Further up and further in, as they say! Divinity’s under every rock, every tree. I am trying to learn, to slowly learn, that every place is holy ground.”

She closed her eyes again. The dreadlocked man, silent, nodded in agreement behind us.

“Sviječ,” she said at last, “has it. The aura. The divine finger.”

“We read about him in the Lonely Planet,” we said, sheepishly.

“Mysterious ways,” Janet said, and loosened the bandanna that held up her hair.

 

 

At last my wife and I were ushered in. The chamber was appropriately dark, sunlight penetrating the gloom from only one oval window, just above the door, so the shaft made a little solitary circle of light on the ground. We stood in the light and gazed through geological layers of burning myrrh, stilled by the golden eyes of a dozen joss sticks burning before an icon of Christ on the cross. With his back to us, kneeling before the icon, a monk in robes was chanting a low, sad song. Five words, each one ascending in tone, then repeated. The breath of his lungs caused a trio of candles to flicker on the altar before him. And behind this monk, seated in the center of the room where the darkness was most pervasive, Sviječ gestured to us through the haze.

He was younger than we expected, a little bloated, with a stark widow’s peak visible even from across the chamber as his defining feature. His hair was cut close, just a touch longer than his Buddhist counterparts. Nothing could be read on his face except pleasant self-forgetfulness, like a child at play alone and unwatched in the house of his birth.

We had the feeling of being incidental and petty and we suddenly regretted our coming, but he beckoned to us anyway.

Engleski?” he asked, once we were close.

“Yes. Please.”

His English was marble-mouthed, his syllables lead-soled in Slavic shoes. “Are you open to hearing the word of God?”

“We are open to many things,” my wife said.

“It’s our anniversary,” I said.

Sviječ nodded, but it was a practiced nod, too solemn, too world-weary. We noticed the stitches and hems of his robe, how they seemed artificially aged, how they seemed a little too worn, like the costumes in a movie. And his rings! Where does a monk get gold rings?

But something about his eyes made us stop just short of allowing ourselves the vulgar pleasure of clandestine mockery.

“And are you open to the holy presence in every manifestation, even the ones you do not expect?”

“I don’t know what that means,” I said.

“We’re not even sure why we came here,” my wife said.

He bowed his head a little, as though in respect and deference, but to what we could not discern. We stood there feeling uncomfortable and a little thick-headed from the incense and unable to decide if he could be written off or not. Seeing him, we realized, clarified nothing. If anything, it made things more confusing.

“We should go,” my wife whispered to me as discreetly as possible.

“This was a terrible idea,” I hissed between smiles at Sviječ.

“We should go,” she repeated, her voice a little bit higher.

Sviječ shifted his robes in his chair. “And what about your question for me?” he said, indulging his mouth in a small upward twitch. “Don’t you have a question for me?”

My wife and I looked at each other.

“Not really, no,” she said miserably.

He frowned.

“But you say you are open to hearing the word of God?”

“We are open to many things,” I repeated. “We don’t like to limit our possibilities.”

“For example,” my wife continued, “we are open to the possibility that you could be who you say you are. That you are a saint.” We exchanged a glance, she sighed, and I knew she was taking the plunge. She was stubborn and brave and I loved her for that. I also hated her for that.

She was looking him in the eye.  “Mostly we are open to the possibility that you are a charlatan.”

Sviječ frowned.

“It’s our anniversary,” I said again, stupidly, trying to cover her indiscretion.

And then, because it was true: “We have lost touch with each other.”

And then, because once you start telling the truth it’s hard to stop: “We are trying to find ourselves and we’re not doing a very good job of it.”

The expression on my wife’s face was hard to read. I thought for a moment she hadn’t heard what I said, but the slight opening of her eyes and a sudden wetness there betrayed her. A moment. The breath of a moment. Then she turned back to the monk.

“But mostly we are open to the possibility that you are a charlatan,” she said.

He looked at us a long time. Any emotion at all was difficult to register. His eyes remained placid. At first we thought he was angry in that place beyond anger, where the blood chills to a perfect hatred. It was true that in the cloying perfume something had changed. But it wasn’t anger, we realized. A new regard was in his eyes, as though seeing a familiar face suddenly materialize in an unfamiliar crowd. There was something appraising in the gaze, a sense of being weighed upon the scales. The other monk repeated his five rising tones innumerable times in the interval. No one was saying anything at all.

At last Sviječ held up one finger.

“You have never killed before,” he said, a statement of fact. “Bring me the corpse of an octopus. One you have killed with your own hands. You will find yourself in this act of bloodshed.”

And he motioned us out the door.

 

 

Later, in the monastery courtyard, we laughed off his bizarre imperative.

“A charlatan,” my wife said. “And not even a very good one.”

“Too heavy,” I said, “for your average reader of Eat, Pray, Love.”

“Too concrete,” she agreed.  “Besides, whoever heard of a church that doesn’t use censures?”

We never mentioned any of the other stuff.

 

 

But a strange thing happened as we snorkeled that week in the clear waters of the Adriatic. Every day brought a partial sighting, the merest hint of a sucker-bearing arm disappearing into a crevice, perhaps nothing more than a trick of the imagination. We laughed it off. We told ourselves it was important to scramble along the bottom collecting abalone and bachelor’s buttons for an art project, nothing more. Overturning rocks and poking sticks into holes was simply a matter of scaring up reluctant fish. Digging about in the weeds was a gambit for rustling out hidden crustaceans. Our intentions, we assured ourselves, were sufficiently small in scope to exclude any presumption of cephalopod.

But behind our feigned innocence we knew the truth. Every half-seen octopus pricked at our gray matter, niggling deep into the wrinkles of our cranial folds. We heard his pronouncement at night as we lay trying to sleep in a heat wave. Flashes of violence invaded our fitful dreams—knife blades winking silver like fish in the sun; murderous faces smeared into ambiguity, like jam on bread; menacing, wriggling tentacles stretching across our gasping mouths; heads, corpuscular and fleshy, churning in deathly pirouettes in the deep. Daylight brought no relief. The curling fingers of grapevines on the terrace at lunch became squid-like in our periphery, the splash of red wine in the bottom of a glass indistinguishable from a burst of dark ink.

By Thursday, after the fourth spotting, with a shrug of her shoulders, my wife voiced our defeat.

“Should we do it? Should we give it a try?”

“Of course not,” I said.

We gave it a try.

 

 

Armed with a mesh laundry bag, we dove into the depths. Beneath the sun-warmed surface, where the blues edged a first touch toward black, our eardrums quivered with pressure. Searching among the rocks pained us. Hidden urchins left their marks in our flesh. Sea water occasionally, perniciously seeped into our masks and consequently into our eyes. We saw the bottom through a double screen of liquid, blurring every line into an abstraction. Our fingers ached with cold in the deeper currents and our lungs burned.

“Here’s to finding ourselves,” my wife said at the surface, plucking an urchin spindle from beneath her fingernail.

“Happy anniversary,” I said, and wept salt from my carmine eyes.

We dove. The world narrowed into patches of sand and rock. All sound receded and then fled. We dove and dove.

 

 

Midday, and the creature was in my hands. I plucked him from the bottom in a snarling ball around my fist, limbs an inch in diameter, deceptively strong. He came up with me as easily as if he were on a platter, a meal with no garnish to cling to except my forearms. The tubular siphon beneath his head heaved and ink trailed us like smoke in the water. His yellow eyes were substantial, weighty—intelligence was at work behind those pupils, something beyond dumb instinct.  He was holding me as much as I was holding him.

In the open air, he seemed enraged. Writhing his tentacles beneath my grasp, swelling and contracting like an iron bellows, the octopus made steady headway up my arm, peeling his suckered limbs uncomfortably close to my neck and face with every contortion. One-handed, I flailed for the shore. My wife appeared, grasped a tendril, was in turn grasped by two, the three of us abruptly linked into one messy knot, each bearing the other in strange intimacy across the sea to land. By the time we reached shore, the creature had made its way to my back while still clutching her stomach, conjoining our bodies in the facsimile of a couple spooning.

“We need to kill him and fast,” my wife said, unpeeling one row of suckers only to be adhered to by another.

“Wow,” I said, marveling at the serpentine way each limb curled in on itself. “Wow.”

“Shut up and kill it,” she said, remarkably calm. “Kill it, kill it, kill it.”

All up and down the beach we went, the three of us wound together at odd angles, the octopus impossible to keep fastened to one spot. We plucked his limbs from our arms, our chests, our necks. They kept coming as though multiplying, implacable, fierce. He slithered from my right forearm to my left, up my wife’s shoulders and down her back. It was like having sentient gum in your hair. The yellow eyes glowed without compromise.

And then it was over. Seizing an opportune moment the octopus released us both, springing onto the beach and out of our hands like a Houdini. He crawled swiftly on unfurling limbs toward the ocean, thought better of it with my wife in the way, then dashed perpendicular to the waves toward the discarded laundry bag and pulled it over his speckled bulk to crawl inside. He remained still within the mesh, presumably hoping for one final bit of desperate camouflage, or perhaps mercy. But we both knew it was over. Out of the water, outnumbered, out of breath. Fighting had availed him nothing. The yellow eyes watched in defeat from between the mesh. Wretched, not exactly cowering, but pathetic nonetheless.

“I am open to the possibility of killing you,” I said to the octopus. But I wasn’t really sure I was, or if I was supposed to be.

My wife reached out. “Does he really think himself protected? Covered in a sack stitched out of holes?”

The yellow eyes were open as wide as they could go. His piteousness took our breath away.

“No,” I said.  “I don’t think he does.”

My wife reached out to me.

“No,” she said, “I don’t think so either.”

Reflected in those inclusive orbs, we saw what the yellow eyes saw—all possibilities, and how each ended the same.

My wife reached out to me and I held her hand.

The thing continued to watch, each of his three hearts pumping a diminishing amount of oxygen through his extremities, each sucker tasting the bitter grit of sand and faded detergent, each gill heaving with fear and exhaustion on either side of his upper mantle.

Killing this creature was not a new experience I wanted. We left the monk in his monastery. We left the octopus in the sea.

 

Passports Four, Five and, Finally, Six

Continued from Passports Four, Five and Six.

My sixth passport was a long time in coming. Five weeks, six weeks, seven, eight. I began to worry. Perhaps there was some sort of special code that postal employees could punch in for those who were clearly fanatics, damning all the crazies’ passports into an institutional abyss in lieu of denying them in person. Much safer that way. Less need to staff federal agents with guns at the postal offices.

Finally, I called the customer service number and was of course put on hold for at least half an hour.

“I’m sorry, we have no record of your account,” the woman on the other end said at last.

“What?  How is that possible? I watched them send everything in.”

“Who’s ‘them?’”

“The postal employees.”

“Oh.”  She seemed to be processing this information. “What did you say your address was again?”

“3690 Bergen Street.”

“3690?  I don’t see a….oh. Ohhh.

This was not reassuring.

“Yes?”

“I’m afraid it was sent April 6th—let’s see, that’s a little over a month ago—to, well, a 3640 Bergen Street.”

“Excuse me?”

“It was sent to the wrong address.”

What?

“I’m sorry there’s nothing more I can do. You must’ve written the return address wrong on the form—”

“Hold on, it was the postal worker who—”

“—but you can always reapply. The fee, of course, can’t be waived but—”

What?”

“Sir, there’s no need to raise your voice.”

“But this isn’t my—”

“Sir, I’m sorry, if you’d like to reapply, you may do so—” Her voice took on a curiously electronic tone. “—by completing the DS-82 form at your local post office. If you would like to declare your passport lost or stolen, you may download form DS-64 from our website. If you have a complaint, you may call our Customer Complaint Hotline at one-eight-hundred—”

It was clear she had repeated this litany innumerable times and there were surely a dozen more options she would bulldoze me with. I took some small consolation from the fact that it probably took her a full two minutes to realize I’d already hung up.

So I went to 3640 Bergen Street. What else could I do?  In my frustration I was determined to win one against the system that had cheated me, belittled me, forced me to suffer illusory fears. It was only two blocks down from my apartment, anyway. What was there to lose?

The block is mostly industrial, metal doors and sooty brick. 3640 Bergen in particular presents an intimidating facade, marked chiefly by an enormous rolling gate made for truck deliveries that never seems to open. There is little to indicate how people—actual, real people—can enter the building, as what presumably once was the door appears welded shut and impossibly closed.

I rang the doorbell anyway.

No response.

I rang again. No response. And then again. Nothing.

It was at this point that the weight of despair finally welled up—a substantial burden that had been growing steadily since the fateful decision to toss my fifth passport into the microwave—and lodged itself with some surprising resolution into the end of my index finger. I leaned on the buzzer and wept, a sad little man desperate for contact whose fumbled reaching for more, for some small crumb of happiness, was mediated, eternally mediated, by forsaken doorbells and inscrutable documents and postal errors. It was clear that nobody existed in the entire world, not one person, just institutions and paperwork and aggravation all the way down.

The impotence of the buzzing seemed to me cathartic, so I kept my finger jammed on the button and closed my eyes.

A shrill, fierce howl opened them.

There in the welded-shut doorway—which apparently wasn’t—a Chinese woman had appeared, angrily gesticulating and shouting something I didn’t understand. She kept waving her hands, shooing me away like I was a mist to be dissolved with extreme prejudice. Over her shoulder, through the doorway, I could see a low-ceilinged, large space dotted with immense vats of a cloudy white liquid. Each vat was filled with what appeared to be bars of a pearly gelatinous substance, like blocks of waterlogged goat cheese. A forlorn Mexican woman was stirring another vat with an enormous wooden paddle. Water appeared to be dripping from pipes in the ceiling and the floor was slick with something foul-smelling. In the corner, five Chinese men sat on their heels around what appeared to be two roosters, and each of the men had fistfuls of green bills.

This was it. I was going to die. I had clearly stumbled onto something illegal and would be summarily executed as a witness.

The woman kept shouting, but God only knew what.

“Who you?” I finally made out amidst her incessant screeches. “Who you?”

“Nobody,” I gasped. “Nobody important. Please, I saw nothing. I want no trouble. I have a wife.” I almost laughed at this point, a kind of despondent gallows chuckle. “I just—my passport—all this because of my—”

“Passport?”  She looked at me closely.

“Yes, but that’s not really important anymore—”

“Passport!” She seemed suddenly delighted. “Mah-keen! Joss-you-a!”

Our conversation had caught the attention of one of the men. He squinted at me and appeared to spit on the ground.

“It’s quite alright, really, I’ll be going, just a mix-up, sorry to have—”

“No!” She insisted. “I keep! You wait!” Everything she said seemed shouted and impossible to disagree with.

She disappeared and now all the men were watching me. I saw what looked like a blade attached to the leg of one of the roosters. One of the men saw me looking and sneered.

The woman reappeared. She seemed happy with herself, nodding, clicking her tongue against the inside of her teeth.  She held an opened express mail envelope in her hands and inside flashed the tell-tale blue jacket of a U.S. passport.

“You see? I keep! Very important.”

I didn’t know what to say. One of the men had gotten up and was walking toward us. His fists were clenched. This consumed much of my attention.

“A passport,” she said, suddenly much softer. “Like a life.”

She leaned in close.

“Your life,” she said again in a gentle voice. “Your passport.”

I frowned. This was not particularly comforting, considering the abasement my fifth and sixth passports had so far subjected me to. Even this woman’s unexpected benevolence did not change that. I prefer my dispensations to be free of humiliation, thank you very much. In any case, the mix of degradation and grace offered in her words contained implications I wasn’t ready to face, not with a strange Chinese man advancing on me.

“Thank you,” I said, and took my sixth passport from her hands. I fled. Behind me they began to argue over my retreating person, harsh noises in a strange tongue that I didn’t apprehend, and I ran, swept away on that torrent of words I couldn’t understand, didn’t want to.

 

Passports Four, Five and Six

 

“It’s like your whole life’s in there,” a friend remarked once about my fourth passport, flipping through the many stamps on its worn pages with a twinge of jealousy. At the time I was flattered. After all, I had traveled so much on it—mostly through my previous work—that I got new pages sewn in, for free, at the U.S. embassy in China. There are few more tempting grounds for self-aggrandizement than this. Imagine the comfort it affords, for example, walking home alone from bars on nights when the other guy went home with the girl. Your amusing anecdotes may have won the aggregate favor of tonight’s party guests—so the consolation goes—but have you ever had to get extra pages sewn into your passport?

Besides, my fourth passport covered ten of the most pivotal years of my life. Pimples to paychecks, make-outs to marriage, dormitories to domiciles—years 16 through 26 presented an agreeable progression, not unlike our own species’ passage from Lascaux to Lautrec. Each stamp was a geological age in my emotional maturity. I went to those places, I saw those things, I overcame—a resplendent Caesar triumphing over the shadows of my earlier, more puerile, selves.

Like I said, my friend’s comment buttered my ego nicely. Who doesn’t want to be known as a rough-and-tumble world traveler? It was only later, however, that the implications began to be downright unsettling.

For starters, my fifth passport was destroyed by fire. Not a house fire, nothing so tragic as that. I did it myself. Under my own volition. It came in the mail when I ordered it after my fourth expired on my 26th birthday, and I received it, held it in my hands for a few moments, and then threw it into the microwave, upon which it immediately burst into acrid flames.

As impulsive as this may seem, I was acting out a bit of advice from a friend who I now realize is some sort of anarcho-libertarian. All new U.S. passports since 2006 have a RFID chip inserted into the cover, he told me, which broadcasts the holder’s biographical information and current location to electronic readers in customs queues in airports around the world. First issued under the second Bush administration (that old conspiratorialist bugaboo), he told me hackers—and governments—have the ability to steal your information from these mindlessly broadcasting chips and put them to nefarious use. For privacy’s sake, he urged me, you should destroy the RFID chip with a quick hammer blow, a bout in the washing machine or, his personal favorite, a 3-second go-around in the microwave. At the time it sounded sensible. Nobody would know the difference, he said. You can’t see the damage, he said. It’s not illegal, he said. He certainly never mentioned the possibility of flames.

Clearly I did not think this through.

After the fact, with a melted RFID chip and a charred passport stashed away in a shoebox under my bed, I discovered the State Department website warns that tampering with passports is a federal offense subject to 30 years in prison, right up there with treason and insurrection. I thought of draft dodgers, anarchists, wild-eyed and frothing, men and women without reason who trample on social norms and believe in aliens. These were people who believed the moon landings were staged. They would tell you to your face that the CIA created AIDS to kill black people. My God! I was not one of these people! I was not ready to join their ranks! Relent! Relent!

But the facts were there under my bed. What kind of man would destroy his passport with fire? What noxious fumes exhaled by a fevered mind would lead to such symbolic violence?

As though in confirmation of my fears, the website noted that damaged passports had to be brought in person to a local post office for an interview before a reapplication could be granted.

Surely this was meant to check the mental wellness of the applicant, to ascertain his or her political views, to judge their proclivity for violence against the state. Why else the need for an interview?

Perhaps they would ask me vaguely ominous nonsensical questions like, “You’re watching television. Suddenly you realize there’s a wasp crawling on your arm. How do you react?” or “You’ve got a little boy. He shows you his butterfly collection plus the killing jar. What do you do?” The horror! My twitching eyes and dilating pupils would be all they would need.

I had diarrhea the day the interview came. The nervous kind.

They ushered me into the conventionally small room beloved by bureaucracy everywhere, with a single table, four chairs, and a dangling light fixture of middling quality overhead. Everything was grey except the door, which was off-white. You could hear the sound of air circulating in vents. I waited in silence for some moments.

The door opened and a Chinese postal employee with slick hair came in. He was followed by a big Anglo-Saxon man in a black suit and crisp white Oxford-collared dress shirt. I could smell the starch—oddly menacing, intrusive.

The first man sat down in front of me and shuffled some papers around. He didn’t even say hello.

“Your passport was—burned,” he said at last. The last word was elongated, mouthed with a peculiar emphasis. I noted the use of passive tense. Ironic? Sneering? It was impossible to tell.

“Yes.”

They both exchanged an inscrutable glance. The postal worker marked something down on a pad of paper before him.

“Is there anything else you wish to say?”

Was there? Should there be? What magic word was I to utter to dispel all suspicion from my person—I, who held the proverbial smoking passport there in my trembling hand on the table? Surely, to them, I already appeared crazed. Surely, to them, the jewels of sweat inch-worming down my face were signs of suppressed guilt, not merely the body’s natural coolant mechanism employed against the devastating heat of the room. But no verbal deliverance could be sought; no utterance could clothe my nakedness against the uniform eye of the State and her institutions. Had I ever thought to displease her? Had I thought myself obdurate enough to grabble with her will? The worm of diarrhea twitched again.

“No. I have nothing else to say.”

The Anglo-Saxon man shifted on his feet, the barbaric blood of his pagan ancestors no doubt baying for violence in his druidic veins.

I felt fear. Real fear, hot in the blood vessels beneath my skin.

Suddenly the Chinese man pushed his chair back from the table. The metal legs grated loudly against the linoleum, etching white trails into their speckled grey-and-black surface. He looked over my shoulder at a vanishing point somewhere outside of space and time.

“Goddamn, I just can’t do this anymore,” he said. He swept a hand through his gelled hair and held it there with a kind of desperation. “Trent,” he said, presumably to the Anglo-Saxon man, “I’m sorry. I just can’t do this anymore.”

Was this a kind of ruse, some kind of elaborate theater intended to break my resolve? To expose my chattering insanity in the cruelest way possible—through machinations and mind games? I didn’t understand. What were they playing at?

He looked at me searchingly. “You don’t mind if I smoke? Of course not. ”

He had answered the question already, so I said nothing. He flicked out a pack of Kent from inside his postal uniform and slipped one between his lips. He lit it and took a long drag.

The diarrhea kept twitching deep within, but there was a new sensation dawning now, slowly of course, but with an unfolding inevitability. It was a sensation of—what? Kinship, perhaps. A sort of fellow-feeling, one that was alive with shared bitterness. It was a bit like biting into a steak at a restaurant and realizing, with a grimace, that the meat was rotten—and seeing the same grimace on the face of a man across the way, steak-knife in one hand, the first bite still bursting with corruption in his mouth.

“I hate my job,” he said, to nobody in particular.

And then he said, “Supervisors don’t give us smoke breaks.”

Later he said, “It’s been a long week.”

The possibility that I had been wrong about everything broke across my mental landscape for the first time.

Trent and I watched him smoke in silence, the whole thing, probably five or ten minutes. You could still hear the air ventilation, enough sound to fill in the blank edges of your perception.  The Chinese man kept his eyes closed. Trent stood with his arms behind his back and maintained a face that was unreadable, blank—a void onto which one could paint a thousand different possibilities. It was remarkable only in its absence of expression.

In the silence, I realized they were both essentially sad and pathetic characters, mere cogs, like myself. What I had mistaken for cold menace was in fact indifference—but a brutalizing indifference, the leveling indifference of procedures, memos, and bureaucratic seals.

After a while, the Chinese man pressed the butt into the table, rotating his wrist to grind out the last bit of life left in the coal. He brushed the detritus onto his hand and then deposited it into his breast pocket.

“Sorry, Trent,” he said again to the Anglo-Saxon man. And then to me he said, “Thanks for that.”

He looked at some papers before him, stamped two of them, signed another and then got up. Without looking at me he said, “Ok, we’re done here. You’ll get your next passport in four to six weeks.”

And then both he and Trent walked out the door.

My bowels unclenched in the gastrointestinal equivalent of a hallelujah. I had no idea what had just happened in the particular, but in the general sense, I knew I was home free.

Not quite, as it turns out. My sixth passport was a long time in coming.

 

 

The rest of this piece can be found in this week’s issue of the Curator.