Note: This feature was original published in April 2014.
#RealLife is a monthly feature where Consequence of Sound staffers join forces with a diverse cadre of writers to share personal stories inspired by one legendary album. Some may be inexorably linked to the album itself, others may just share its themes, tone, and atmosphere. Regardless, they’re all real.
David Bowie may have been ready to retire Ziggy Stardust after 1973’s Aladdin Sane, but Ziggy wasn’t content to dissipate with the glam-rock trend that had conjured him. His bright red shock-top appears on the cover of Diamond Dogs, Bowie’s first post-Ziggy record, and traces of his persona can be heard on the title track and, of course, the ubiquitous “Rebel Rebel”. The merging of these with the plastic soul of “Rock n’ Roll With Me” and “1984” mark Diamond Dogs as an important transitional record in Bowie’s discography, one that’s essential to understanding the man as an artist.
The songs on Diamond Dogs turn 40 this week. That’s 40 years of concerts and parties, road trips, and cover bands. And after so much time, these songs become more than just music; they become wallpaper for your brain. To celebrate this milestone anniversary, we’re scouring that wallpaper in search of the stains, rips, and tears made by our memories. This is #RealLife.
Future Legend/Diamond Dogs
By Ian Belknap
And in the death, as the last few corpses lay rotting in the slimy thoroughfare…
Re-listening to these dolesome opening strains, sounding like some dystopian cabaret in the sewers of Berlin or something, I am struck by the gulf (in discernment, in your capacity to forgive excess, etc.) that opens up inside you between your first encounter with a thing you come to love and the version of you that you eventually become. The years have put many miles of hard road in my rearview since I first goth-wallowed in the dank expanse of “Future Legend”, which in a minute-eight succeeds in evoking a fully realized, if overwrought, world.
I was like eight when Diamond Dogs was first released in 1974, so I remained unaware of it till a few years later, when I emerged as a smug know-it-all shitheel teenager. As I listen to this first track now, as a smug, know-nothing, grown-ass man, I toggle back and forth between my then-self, whose mind was blown (“he really GETS the world, man”) by the line “fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats” and my current self, who hears “10,000 people-oids” and can’t help thinking Bowie’s coasting on that singular British ability to intone malarkey-rubbish with convincing gusto. Because, let’s be honest: this is like an ass-hair away from Austin Powers-style self-parody.
What continues to lay claim to my mind after all these years, though, is this: the transition between “Future Legend” and the title track; restive crowd noise, then “This ain’t rock and roll, this is… genocide!” is one of the single rocking-est song lead-ins ever committed to vinyl. The sad fact is that the song itself fails to deliver on this promise. It’s essentially six minutes of mid-tempo letdown. Which, as I listened to these two tracks for the first time in a long while, drove home a sad reality of living. Too frequently, the artistic haymaker of your youth that snapped your head back and rocked you on your heels, proves to be, when thrown in adulthood, a weak jab or faltering left cross.
The good news: you’re not the dupe you were as a dewy-eyed child. The bad news is you’re generally less dazzled and blown away. By pretty much anything. Part of what you sacrifice by growing smarter and more skeptical is that wonder and amazement that spread around you like a wide, wide meadow when you were young. That meadow shrinks with time to a patch about as big across as a dish towel.
On the face of it, this is grisly as hell. But actually, when you think about it, this dish towel-sized patch of amazement is greater and more sustaining than the wide, wide meadow, because the totality of the less frequent amazement here on the dish towel patch is more full and satisfying than any of the dimly remembered and shabby contents of the meadow.
By Zac Thompson
In ancient epic poems, there always seems to come a point where the hero has to undertake a journey to the underworld—a moldering, mirthless place where shadowy figures shuffle around, speaking in hushed, doleful tones. To me, it sounds an awful lot like this one gay bathhouse I first visited in my early twenties.
It reeked of mildew and marijuana, and, except for the steam room, there was soggy carpeting throughout. You had to walk on it with your bare feet, too, because at bathhouses you’re not supposed to wear anything but the scratchy white towel they hand you at the front desk, presumably so that we can all keep up the illusion that we’re there for nothing more than a therapeutic shvitz.
Odysseus and Aeneas get all fearful and weepy in Hades; I recall feeling repelled, horny, and deeply embarrassed, all at the same time (and there’s my twenties in a nutshell for you). The interior was eerily silent, not because it was devoid of patrons but because they had reverted to the pre-Grindr mode of wordless cruising—lots of smoldering glances and sustained eye contact.
The exception was a garrulous, fiftysomething guy with the build and head-to-toe auburn fur of an orangutan. When I passed by him, he launched into a carnival-barker pitch about his unseen boyfriend. They had a private room, he said—a key was dangling from an elastic band around his bicep—and the boyfriend was about my age and the orangutan would love to introduce us. “Maybe you’ll think he’s attractive,” he said with a little who-knows shrug. “I think he’s attractive. Maybe you will, too.”
He opened the door to their room with an air of showing me the merchandise, and I saw that the display of modesty in the hallway was just for show. Because the boyfriend was flat-out beautiful—blond, beamish, and way out of my league. I did not, however, dive right into the three-way implicitly on offer. I felt put on the spot and a little put off by the prospect of joining the orangutan as he genuflected at the feet of this god from Olympus slumming it among we shades of the underworld.
I said I had to go. Like I was running late for a 3 a.m. dental appointment or something.
The orangutan was annoyed. “What do you want, roses and violins?” And he made a sawing motion across his chest to indicate fiddling.
Not knowing what to say to this, I just sort of slinked away, rejoining my companions aboard our ships and setting out once again upon the wine-dark sea.
By J. Merrill Motz
We had to get to Morris Street. There was some kind of costume party out on Morris Street. Nobody had any fucking clue how to get to Morris Street.
They told me you can’t miss Halloween in Athens. You can miss graduation, whatever, but don’t you dare miss out on Halloween.
You could hear it before you saw it. You can’t miss Halloween like you can’t miss the Pacific.
There were DJs and bands set up on stages in the street, food trucks, cops on horseback. The bars had their music cranked to compete, and people were lined up to go inside. Sheesh, why bother, they’ve got ice buckets of Bud every couple steps. We think Morris Street is at the other end of this?
We’re bobbing in an ocean of 2010-era clever costumes. Kim Kardashians, “sexy” Chilean Miners. I think that dude puking by Citibank is supposed to be Antoine Dodson. And look, Iron Man just stepped in it.
Uptown Athens, Ohio, is only about three blocks on Court Street, butting up against College Green. Hoofing it to class, even hungover, you can cover it in 10 minutes. Tonight, this shit is shoulder to shoulder, and we were pushing 45 and not even halfway to the other end. I wasn’t giving up. Not back then. That girl is wearing black lingerie, stilettos, and a wolf mask. I’m not going to ask.
“Morris Street,” sings my roommate Ira, decked out as Alex DeLarge. “Gonna sing Morrissey to a girl I meet on Morris Street…”
I didn’t have a costume, so I’m a hobo, since most of my clothes can double as a Preston Sturges wino anyway. Yeah, even fingerless gloves — though it scares me why I have those.
Phone rings. Missed four calls. All Carolynn, where are we? Shoot back, “Where the hell is Morris Street?” She tells me.
Of course we’re going the wrong way. Well, back through it all we swim. Not giving up. Not back then.
There’s the wolf mask again.
The bar at the end of Court street is called Broney’s.
“Brah,” I say to Ira, starting an old joke. “Broney’s?”
“Broney’s, brah,” he replies. But we’ve never even been inside, just like the name.
We kind of think Morris street is…this way? Fiona’s giving up and heading home. I’m not ready to pack it in yet. A few years later, maybe, but not tonight.
The power goes out. Everywhere. Court street, the surrounding houses. Music, yelling, laughing, then: nothing. Utter vacuum. Then, the roar. A cheer so loud it shook the windows. We turn to look, but it’s already over. The lights, the music restore; somebody flipped the switch or plugged the town back in, whatever, and the roar turns to a disappointed groan. A distraction, is all…an interruption. Probably not even going to be remembered tomorrow or years later.
“You think there woulda been a riot?” I ask those left.
“Morris Street,” sings Ira.
Sweet Thing (Reprise)
By Randall Colburn
St. Andrew’s Hall. Detroit. 2001? I’ve elbowed my way to the middle. I can’t elbow my way any further. I just want them to play the song. The song I came to hear. They have one song left after this song. THIS song which SUCKS and I wish it would END to get to the GOOD song and I can’t elbow anymore because I can’t move my arms. I’m so squished on every side I am literally immobile. I wish I’d stayed in the back. I wish I’d stayed in the back with my friends. “I gotta get close,” I said. “I gotta get close,” I said LIKE AN IDIOT. And from above it’s like I can hear it before it hits me, the bubbly flecks sluicing air to my hair. Spit. Someone’s spit from the balcony and it’s in my dyed black hair, oozing through the dyed blue streaks in my hair, oozing onto my forehead, amalgamating with my sweat and I’m thrashing my arms against the denim vests and leather jackets boxing me in but nobody moves and that song is still playing and I’m starting to suspect they might never play my song as the spit dampens my eyebrow and inches onto my lid and my eyes are closed as some stranger’s spit slides over my eyes and onto my cheek.
By Paul Moulton
“Chris is wrong. ‘Rebel Rebel’ is the greatest song of all-…”
“Will you come visit me in Australia? Because I’m not going to bother becoming really close to you if I won’t see you again.”
I turn to the stout silhouette who interrupted my rant and smile in a way I hope she’ll interpret favorably. In her wide-brim hat and men’s overcoat, she cuts a benign figure in the dead-white lamplight of the southbound platform. She is not. She’s told me we’ll never have sex and that her Swiss girlfriend is moving to London next month, but I still try to play suitor, like tonight, when I walk her to the Battersea Park station after spending an hour in the pub gibbering about tonight’s Bowie sighting in the theater. Her train comes at 12:07. I have 15 minutes to convince her to invite me aboard.
A uniformed old man approaches us, scowling. The broken veins in his face make it look like a Tube map. He barks something in a thick Northern accent indecipherable to me but understandable to Australians. I follow them into the stationmaster’s office. We huddle around his scratched-up old desk with its bare-bulb lamp, and he pours us each a finger of Scotch.
“The niggers and the poofters and the foreigners are going to destroy this country!” The alcohol has unslurred either his speech or my ears. “You can’t trust those Africans, my girl! I was with the British army during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. They’d all slit the throat of a white man if they had the chance! Do you know how the rebels call to each other in bushes? Like insects, ‘cause they’re all animals. I can still hear them. Tsss-tss. Tsss-tss. Tsss-tss. You heard that, it was the last thing you’d ever hear. Just as soon kill you as look at you. Bastards, all of ‘em.”
“That’s not true,” chirps the Aussie hippie lesbian. “We work at a theater with black people, and we all get along!”
I gulp the last of my Scotch, thank the gentleman for the drink and say we’d better go outside and wait. She surprises me by nodding, wishing our host the very best, and trudging back outside after me. After a minute of silence I’m ready.
“I won’t be coming to Australia any time soon. I’m going back to America and starting grad school.”
I turn to her but can’t see her face. The train is approaching.
Rock N Roll with Me
By Lior Phillips
He said hello to me in a calm, singsong voice that straddled three syllables. “He-lo-wa,” I replied hitting a loud scream, “SHALOM AVI! MAH SHLOMCHA?” At a puny 16 years old, to him I was just a South African volunteer with particularly chubby, undefined facial features. My excitement caused the chocolate milk carton my fingers were cradling to explode onto my uniform, which already bares resemblance to the colour of a gingerbread man – or human poo.
“I needed that, Lior. Aval chaveiri meit bayom shelishi.”
I wrinkled my nose prompting translation.
“M…my friend, heard my friend is dead fighting the other day.”
Even in another country I exercised levels of comic relief in moments so deeply drenched in pain. At that age, death is something that happens only to animals and grandparents, and even growing up faced with the concept of human evil constantly, my default setting clicked back to a giggle, as if my body knew bad news was about to boom through the speaker forcing me to quickly change the channel to a rolling laugh track.
When the young Israeli soldier passed the cafeteria serviette wedged between the arms of his plastic fork, I caught a glimpse of my two best friends cupping their hands to their foreheads and smiling in the background.
Considering the environment, death was a common topic of conversation.
“But I have to go to Israel.” I told my parents this in the way one might say, “I have to get these freckles looked at” or “I really need a new riding crop for Horse Riding!”
It’s 2001 during the second intifada, and a group of 10 South African teenagers decide to volunteer for the Israeli army in the hopes of rolling out meters-long parachutes and shooting M16 rifles.
…He continued, and even though I regularly petition for conversation with everyone I meet (about anything they’ve ever done), I felt I was hearing a tribal dialect spoken only by anthropologists researching a small population of cannibals. To offset this, I snatched the boiled egg from my plate like the claw crane in the teddy bear vending machine and chewed my nerves away.
“Tonight I’ll see party!” he ecstatically reminds me, “released army we ending services!”
Unleashed by these words, I was now free to run and tell everyone about the news, but every gesture made me seem more guilty “Egg!” I sighed. “I was eating a bladdy-egg while he was telling me his friend died!” By focusing on how embarrassed I felt about that interaction, I realised my pretentious allergic reaction to bad news – bittersweet was the taste of teenage coping mechanisms.
When we joined the soldiers later that night and watched as they celebrated life, mourned death, and altogether lost their shit, the courtyard vibrated in ’70s rock, Israeli trance and Britpop beats that formed a backing track of a sad, brutal reality.
A poignant moment that pierced time, like the slow-motion scene where the lead character stands centre frame as the camera tracks backwards revealing wild soldiers wielding water-fights, blowing whistles, and linking arms together to sing.
And there I was, covered in spilt milk… and the last thing I could do was cry about it.
We Are the Dead
By Lott Hill
It is the summer of 1984. I am 14 and riding shotgun while my grandmother drives to the grocery. We are alone in her whale of a car — a gleaming royal blue Chrysler — that smells like gardenias and is bigger than anything else on the road. From the vast, air-conditioned expanse of the dark leather seats, I feel protected and distant from the crackling afternoon heat. As my grandmother swings the Chrysler into the parking lot and past the rundown 24-hour Steak And Egg restaurant that faces 4th Street, my eyes lock on to those of a young man crossing the street. He is maybe 17 and wearing acid-washed short shorts and a tight, white t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. He has delicate — almost angelic — features. His hair is carefully styled, his cheeks are slightly rosy, and to me it looks like he’s glowing in the blaring spotlight of afternoon sun. In just a matter of seconds, he’ll become etched in my consciousness as a puzzle that will take years for me to solve. As we lock eyes, something unspoken and powerful passes between us that seems to communicate: I may not know you, but I recognize our kinship, we are of a kind. These are things that I will think about later, but on this day, I have no words to describe.
My grandmother must notice as I crane my head to watch the guy slip through the grimy glass door of the Steak And Egg because she suddenly jabs a finger in that direction and warns, “Don’t ever go there. That’s where the funny men and poofters go. That’s where the men who like boys hang around. It’s not safe there.” She slides the Chrysler into an empty space and shifts the transmission into park. She’ll never again tell me such things and she won’t live long enough to see me come out, so I’ll never know if she suspects that I’ll be gay. My attraction to men is still just a glimmer on the edges of my subconscious.
Men who like boys? I have no frame of reference for what she means. The idea of men hanging around looking for boys behind the cracked windows and peeling paint of that ratty restaurant is unsettling and yet somehow compelling. I have no idea how my grandmother knows what goes on inside there, but her warning is a finger on a switch in my mind that is still years from being flipped. I will study the restaurant closely every time I pass by, but will never go inside before it is closed down and demolished. I will never see this guy again but will remember this moment every time I am in the vicinity of that parking lot.
Eight or ten years later, my older gay friends will confirm that my grandmother is right. The Steak And Egg’s where men go to look for rent boys. A few years after that, I will be flipping through an album of photos collected by my friend Danny as he reminisces about the days when sex still felt safe. I’ll turn a page and see an angelic looking guy who seems to glow from the faded photo. Danny will lean over my shoulder but not notice how my breath has stopped. He’ll let out something between a sigh and a moan and point to the photo. “Lonnie was so gorgeous, even in the end.” The memory of that afternoon and the unspoken power of that one brief look will hit me as Danny softly sings, “We are the dead … we are … the dead.”
By Ruth McCormack
On the first day I marched in like Jane Fonda, wearing a smart black skirt and understated makeup, travel mug in hand. The wholesale geometric art seemed so civilized, the neat rows of shabby beige cubicles, so orderly. Here, I imagined, I would gossip with my coworkers, I would meet a man in Accounts Receivable, I would play a vital role in supporting the American economy. I had had the kind of career that consumed me, had dreamed of work, had subsisted on meals from the gas station down the street from my office. It wasn’t selling out, the corporate job. It was a return to sanity, to healthy boundaries, to work-life balance. I walked upstairs to meet my trainer.
“Is that coffee?” the trainer asked. “We’re not supposed to have coffee.”
I looked at the dirty, industrial-grade carpet and traced an ancient stain with the toe of my sensible flats. “We can’t have coffee?”
“People spill,” the trainer said.
“Oh. Um, ok. Sorry. I’ll finish it.”
I crammed into the trainer’s cubicle, sipped my forbidden coffee, and listened to him answer the phone. We were interrupted by a parade of oxford shirts and cardigans. “I just wanted to introduce myself,” they said. First names only. “Who was that?” I asked the trainer, and he repeated their names.
“No, I mean, is she someone? Who’s in charge?”
“Well, you’ll get a supervisor when you’re done training.”
“But what’s her title?”
“Don’t think of it that way,” the trainer said. “We’re all colleagues.”
We had gone over the Correspondence Guidelines and Words to Avoid when I told the trainer I had to run to a meeting in the basement.
“It’s the lower level,” he said.
“Yeah, the conference room down there.”
“I mean,” he looked around, “we don’t call it that. The basement. It’s the Lower Level.”
When I finished training, I was assigned a desk next to Todd. Todd was my colleague, but his cubicle was twice the size of mine, and he owned a horse. He very pointedly learned everyone’s first name, the better to small talk us with. “How was your weekend, Ruth?” “Got any plans for the weekend, Ruth?” he would ask me, sneaking up to my cube and grinning through a wall of shiny, white teeth.
I chose this, I reminded myself as I arranged my three allotted personal items on my desk in accordance with the Guidelines for a Neat Workspace. I didn’t want to put so much of myself into my work. I was contributing to society. I looked presentable in my business casual slacks. It wasn’t selling out. “The usual,” I said to Todd. “Brunch, errands. Maybe some laundry.” His teeth gleamed.
By Carlos Murillo
Fiona. I’d been in a room with her maybe a dozen times in my life. I don’t remember her last name. Why does “Big Brother” conjure her up? Especially since the music of David Bowie has served as a de facto soundtrack to my life. Countless memories, indelible experiences are set to his music. Quick pics: 1989, 3 a.m., winter night, college dorm in Syracuse, listening to Low with my close friend Todd, end of a mind bender night, watching heavy snowflakes fall outside the window to the rhythm of “A New Career in a New Town”, dreading I might have to take Todd to the hospital due to his reaction to the Cosmos pizza we ate earlier that night; 1995, tiny, barely furnished room in Minneapolis where I’m in exile on a playwriting fellowship, seducing Elizabeth, who lives down the hall, while Station to Station plays on repeat; 1999, Princeton, NJ, I insist “Heroes” blast from the sound system after my bride and I exchange vows, kicking off our shotgun marriage (we’re still at it 15 years in); 2013, Lake Shore Drive, my two kids and I singing at the top of our lungs the freaky “Ya Ya Ya” chorus of “Where Does the Grass Grow?”, the creepiest track from his most recent album… I could go on.
First Bowie recollection: 1979. Caracas, Venezuela. I’m eight. My family just relocated to South America from Long Island. High school-age siblings seize every opportunity my parents go away to stage hedonistic parties in the palatial Spanish villa where we live. My siblings were horrible babysitters, but I thank them to this day for introducing the chameleon to me. Late one night sitting at the coffee table, surrounded by randy teenagers, smell of cheap wine, aguardiente, beer, smoke from things that resembled cigarettes but smelled sweeter than the Marlboros my father smoked. Having survived two years of Catholic school, I know I shouldn’t look – to distract myself I fix my gaze on the stack of LP records on the table: Queen, Sex Pistols, Pink Floyd, Undertones. Then the cover unlike any other: torso of a being part male, part female. Turn the sleeve around, torso morphs into the body of a dog. My first experience with the therianthropic universe. To my eight-year-old eyes, the image is grotesque. But also something else I could only assign words to after I hit puberty: it’s fucking sexy.
I keep a handful of songs in the back of my mind that serve as benchmarks to my playwriting. Meaning: if I could write a play that’s half as good as “X-song”, I might feel happy. ’96, when I lived in Minneapolis, I wrote Schadenfreude – which tells the story of Elisabeth Nietzsche torn between the love for her demented big brother Friedrich and her love for proto-Fascist Bernhard Forster, a monster of a man with whom she embarked on a doomed quest to establish an Aryan colony in the jungles of Paraguay. I wanted the play to feel like “Big Brother”. I’m sure I drove my neighbors (including the lovely Elizabeth) to madness, I played it so often and loud over the many months I retched up the play. The beauty of futility, the sinister underbelly of all utopian dreams, the image of people reassembling a world that’s been shattered from shards and dust, the aching need for contact when you’re face to face with the abyss that often separates human beings.
I digress. Fiona. The mystery: why “Big Brother” conjures her 18 years after I last saw her. I met Fiona at the first Bowie concert I went to in 1987, when the infamous Concert-Extravaganza-as-Exercise-in-Futility known as The Glass Spider Tour (in support of the truly dreadful Never Let Me Down album) plopped down at Madison Square Garden. I was too young to have experienced the classic Bowie tours of the 1970s, which by 1987 had already achieved Rock Myth status. But even though this was Bowie at his most God awful and artistically bankrupt, it was still Bowie. I went with my older brother Mario – one of the teenage hedonists who inadvertently turned me on to Bowie when I was eight. Sitting down in our nosebleed seats, I noticed Hilary, a tall redhead Goth schoolmate of mine, a few rows behind us. Next to her, a girl I didn’t recognize – but immediately knew I wanted to know. I went to them. Hilary introduced me to Fiona. They both wore the obligatory suburban weekend Goth-girl costume: Bauhaus t-shirts plastered with safety pins and buttons advertising various punk bands, Catholic schoolgirl plaid miniskirts, black tights with artfully placed rips and runs, Doc Martens boots, Siouxie Sioux white pancake makeup with thick, black eyeliner and lipstick.
Fiona … heartbreakingly beautiful. We exchanged glances suggestive that something, someday, somewhere might happen.
Bowie played – Glass Spider epitomized preposterous ’80s MTV excess – garish costumes, Bowie’s worst haircut ever, pointless choreography, a gargantuan set – a fucking giant glass spider – that embodied a concept that I still scratch my head trying to decipher. Nonetheless, it satisfied me to see my hero, even in this debased form. One of the handful of moments when his genius peeked through all the rubbish? His performance of “Big Brother”.
Cut to a few months later. Party in the basement of a friend’s house. I’d become the randy, hedonistic teenager I’d been exposed to when I was eight. Hilary’s there. Hope. Did she bring Fiona? Yes. Fiona sits on the floor, cross-legged, in the opposite corner of the basement, smoking, drinking a beer. Our eyes meet. She smiles. Invitation to go to her. We talk. Her eyes. Falling. Mouth. Bliss.
Months pass. Another party where Fiona and I dare each other to prove which of us can be more punk rock. Chaotic game of one-upmanship resulting in us getting kicked out (I believe the offense was our rearrangement of the absent parents’ master bedroom… ) We walk all night aimlessly around the neighborhood. I listen to her dream of a future world where everything is made of concrete. The beatific smile that spreads across her face when she describes trees, bushes, grass transfigured into cold impenetrable gray; she makes it sound like the most beautiful world possible… This is no teenage rebel I-need-a-reaction-now irony. She’s deadly serious. Hours later we lay in the field of an elementary school holding hands, gazing at stars, plying each other with images of what the world will look like once we seize control of it. The sun rose. We went separate ways.
I occasionally run into Fiona over the next several years in New York City – at gigs, at clubs, at bars in the East Village. Each time she appears a little more frazzled, unhinged, seeming bent on defacing her natural beauty. The number of piercings explodes. She’s dyed her hair so many times the remaining color is sickly greenish gray. Her eyes – those striking blue eyes, seem a little less alive each time I see her. She’d tell stories of her life: dropping out of art school. Living with a musician boyfriend in an Alphabet City squat (when there was still such a thing). Going to Texas where she befriended Butthole Surfers’ front man Gibby Haynes, who invited her to the Butthole ranch outside Austin. A month there losing herself in a haze of LSD-, booze-, and speedball-fueled recording sessions.
I last saw her in the fall of 1996. I’d come back to New York from my playwright-in-exile year in Minneapolis. Out one night with friends at Vazac’s Horseshoe bar on Seventh Street and Avenue B – my hang in the ’90s when I lived in NY – I step outside for a smoke. There she is on the corner. Swaying. Smoking. Glassy eyes. With some strung-out guy staring off at something down the street only he could see. She smells like she hadn’t bathed for weeks. Doused her pasty skin with patchouli to mask her stench.
She doesn’t recognize me. She squints her puffy eyes at me as if she recalled some vague memory of something… someone… somewhere… Her conversation as scattered as she looks. She says things that in one moment suggest she knows me, the next she says something else that only makes sense if I was a stranger.
I never see her again.
Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family
By Jac Jemc
Overdosing squares. Brain-washed thrall. Shake it up. Move it up.
“I’m a minimalist,” I told my father, a man who hadn’t bought a new pair of pants since 1980, and I never lived it down. For years, I’d sit down to dinner in a blue polyester fur hoodie or glittery lurex, and my father would announce, “The minimalist is here.”
Last year’s caper. A hussy coming out of the garden. Live wires transmitting this mess.
I grew up in a house where my mother artfully arranged as many vases on a table as would fit, so many picture frames in the bathroom that they expanded into the shower, a dozen decorative items that needed to be removed from the kitchen table just to make space for our dinner plates. Calling myself a minimalist felt like rebellion, but it wasn’t the right word.
Yawns like sweet curses. Caress the withered theater. Tea leaves full of air.
Reading Amy Hempel, Barry Hannah, Mary Robison: that’s what prompted me to call myself a minimalist. But when I break down what it is I like about their writing, it’s not sparseness I see. When the weak verbs and the action that can be guessed at is stripped away, what’s left is a maximal glut of concentrated language.
The cellar drips and shakes. Clawing deals. Poor old riff-raff. Tacky faces. Divine wrongness.
My childhood home gets smaller by the day. The space closes in on itself, as new planters get placed behind furniture, as storage bins fill in rooms once used for living, as a new set of holiday decorations is purchased each year, while last year’s sit in attic boxes. Everything gets pushed closer to the center of the room. One small stamp of space to turn in a tight circle.
Renting our memories back to ourselves. Scavengers kept warm by the fog.
I have the urge to clean out my old bedroom, but I can’t actually get to any of the stuff that is mine. The closet has been blocked for years by piles of identical denim jackets, many with tags still on them. I fight off the anxiety this causes: the uselessness, the waste, the worry for my parents’ future and safety.
Blame in the eyes of the blind. Nimble rails of legs walking farther away. Brave fools.
I have inherited the love of fine things at a good price. I try to force myself to get rid of the old to make room for the new. My apartment is often referred to as “cozy,” and every time I hear that, I wonder, “Cluttered?”
Stolen, pulsing mayhem. A whirlpool savior. Trust the beat of the scrambled creature.
In writing, I am allowed to overdo it, to purchase all the words and put them to use. I pack on the metaphors, checking in to be sure the narrative can still shine through. I am bored by sentences that exist purely to relay facts, but that just requires some fattening up. It’s a harmless way to indulge what I worry I will become in the material world.
I like to throw all of those perfectly placed vases into a sack, knock that bag around until it breaks, and piece a different world back together.