Sunday, June 29, 2008

Jonathan Lethem - Motherless Brooklyn ****

I've got this bad habit. Sometimes, in half a frenzy, not even knowing what I'm doing, I find myself on the way out of a bookstore with a bag of books that I've just bought for no other reason than the fact that I felt like I needed a book. I am not at my most discerning in these shopping sprees, judging books not only by their covers, but by their font, their publisher and their author's name and its corresponding coolness. Sometimes, I come out on top, and I stumble upon amazing authors before anyone has heard of them, like when I bought Max Barry's first novel, Syrup. Other times, I'm even luckier, finding authors who, despite their talent, will never see their names on the New York Times Bestsellers List (British satirist Gordon Houghton unfortunately belongs to this camp, with his novel Damned If You Do--which, by the way, Christopher Moore totally fucking ripped off for his A Dirty Job). But other times. Oh, other times. The dangers of buying books willy-nilly is that sometimes you come up with a fistful of shit. Adam Johnson's Parasites Like Us was a Frenzy Buy, and look how that turned out.

But it seems as though the fates are shining upon me this time around, with Jonathan Lethem's 1999 release, Motherless Brooklyn. Of course, buying a Lethem book (as I've already insinuated) is not so willy-nilly as my spotted purchasing past has demonstrated. Obviously, the acclaimed author of The Fortress of Solitude's accomplishments precede him. Hell, even Motherless Brooklyn's got a National Book Critics Circle Award For Fiction logo right there on its cover. However, it was the first Lethem book I ever picked up, and I picked it up solely because I realized that I had yet to pick up a Lethem book. I knew nothing about him, other than the fact that my roommate liked him, and that he was on The Simpsons once. But, that's the kind of mentality one should have when going to the library, not throwing open a wallet at a bookstore. Fortunately, this time luck was on my side.

Motherless Brooklyn
is a detective story of sorts, an interesting blend of Silver Age shoot-em-ups and Golden Age intellectual-case-cracking. But at it's core, it is a study on its main character, Lionel Essrog. A young man with Tourette's Syndrome, thrown into a world of confusion when his boss Frank Minna dies, Lionel provides a narrating light into a grimy nightmare of mobsters, femme fatales and Japanese hitmen. The Tourettic compulsions Lionel has to fend off during the course of the novel could be a story unto themselves, let alone teamed with the edge-of-the-seat detective thriller that drives the novel forward. I was worried at first that these compulsions might weigh the story down, but really they made Lionel all the more believable, which is important in a detective story since the mystery itself is hardly ever able to be solved by the reader (in the true spirit of Sherlock Holmes and Scooby-Doo, the plot is way too complicated and far-reaching for a reader to have a chance here).

But that's not to say the plot is bad. It's one of the most original and well-executed detective novel plots that I've read in awhile. But, as with any good mystery, the novel should be more about the detective than his detection. Developing a character we care about and want to see make it through to the other side, bloodied and battered but still breathing and with the bad guys in cuffs. Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle a hundred years before, Lethem succeeds handily in creating a detective worth reading about.

Score one for Frenzy Mode. Lethem is a treat. Perhaps I'll pick up The Fortress of Solitude next time I lose myself in the Fiction aisle.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Look Back and Laugh

To me, the '80s don't really seem like they were all that long ago. Sure, I was born in the middle of them and therefore remember basically none of them, but thanks to my dad's vinyl collection, my musical taste for much of my childhood was stuck firmly in the '70s (Lynyrd Skynyrd, Alice Cooper, Ram Jam), and as I got older, I moved on to the '80s and never got much further. I listen to modern music now (how couldn't I, spending the last four years working at a college radio station?), but my true musical love still hangs on the sleeved-hearts of Ian Mackaye and Henry Rollins. So maybe I'm a little older than my time. It still blows my mind that I can remember when Pearl Jam released their debut album, Ten. It feels like just yesterday that I first watched the video for "Jeremy" on MTV, but really it was almost 18 years ago.

So imagine my surprise when I went to the Three Rivers Arts Festival in downtown Pittsburgh last Sunday night to see the classic glam-punk pioneers, The New York Dolls play a free concert and saw a sea of fat, old people. Now don't get me wrong, I expected to see a few--it was a free concert after all, in a city where the elderly outnumber the stars in our sky--but not the droves of tattooed, leather pants and studded jacket-wearing yinzer-cum-street punks that I was presented with. There was a couple behind me who looked roughly like my aunt and uncle, complete with doofy white hi-tops and fanny packs, who were singing along with every word coming out of David Johansen's mouth. In that moment, as they shook their hips to the beat, a sleeve of the woman's t-shirt pulling up slightly and revealing a age-blurred tattoo of either an eagle or Satan, I came to an astonishing realization:

Holy shit, punks are old now.

In all the time I spent looking at the youthful faces and listening to the cracking, adolescent voices of The Ramones and Minor Threat and even the New York Dolls, I had forgotten that they had been steadily aging all the while, as had their fans. I did the math in my head. If the punks had been about my age (22) in the late '70s, by now they'd be about... 52! At least! Holy fucking balls! My parents were even their juniors! What had happened? Where had all the time gone? These people weren't punks, they were building contractors and bank tellers! They had jobs! Hell, they'd be closing in on retirement in the next ten years! I was suddenly hit with a wave of nostalgia for a time that I hadn't even lived through. I wondered what it would have been like to be a punk back when these people were the first time around. As real as the music felt to me, I knew that Sony was just putting out re-issues and that the t-shirt money wasn't going to the bands (half of them were dead from drug overdoses anyway). But to these people, punk music was as real as anything--they'd lived through it, grown up in it, not just with it like I had.

And then, as the nostalgia swept by, I felt suddenly depressed. The second largest demographic of the crowd that bobbed along to the New York Dolls on Sunday night was chunky high school girls wearing obscenely short skull-printed skirts and too much black eyeliner. I realized, looking around me for a second time, that while my brand of punk was a step away from what real punk music had been, these kids were miles in the distance and not even bothering to squint. They bought their punk rock from Hot Topic and FYE. "Mallcore," we called them in high school, back when we thought we were the real thing. Now they're all that's left. It's sad in a way. I used to introduce myself as a punk when people would ask what kind of music I was into. Now, I usually say "Wellllll..." and follow it with a lot of base-covering and excuse-making.

The music isn't even good anymore, let alone honest. It's commodified, bred for some record executive's cheapened vision of quality. Ian Mackaye wouldn't charge more than $5 for a Fugazi show--one of the biggest and most important punk bands the world over. How much does Davey Havok expect us to pay to see the bloated nightmare that has become A.F.I.? The worst of it all is that these girls are paying. And then buying the t-shirts, and the posters and the clocks and the coffee mugs. Seriously. Did any of those girls look around at the rest of the crowd like I did, at all the people my age and older, and wondered what they had missed? Did they know that they were just buying a product, not living a life, supporting a culture? Did they even care?

Of course not. They're punks after all, and old people don't know anything.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Mark Haddon - A Spot of Bother ****

People going into Mark Haddon's latest novel, A Spot of Bother expecting anything like his smash-hit debut, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time are going to be sorely disappointed. And rightfully so, because if Haddon had reproduced the same sort of story as he did in his first novel, we'd all be complaining about how he was such a one-trick pony. In fact, I'm glad he got the unconvential work that is The Curious Incident out of the way first, so that he can now settle himself into what he really wants to do (and ultimately does anyway in The Curious Incident): study people.

One of my coworkers asked me if what I was reading was a detective novel. I'm not sure how they came to such an assumption (I don't have a pronounced taste for crime fiction, that I know of at least). I suppose there is an outside chance that they were familiar with Haddon's first book and made the assumption, but if that is true, I'd like to put a million dollars on the Pirates to win the World Series this year. But when they asked me about what kind of novel A Spot of Bother was, I said, "It's kind of a character study, about this guy who is having a mental breakdown." That guy is the main character, retired playground equipment salesman and constructor George Hall, who has found a lesion on his leg and convinces himself it is cancer, allowing his sanity to slowly crumble to dust.

This is the catalyst that sends the story initially into motion, but George's friends and family are all major players as well, and their characters are warped and molded and nurtured throughout the novel with masterful strokes. From George's wife to his children to his former colleagues, we are introduced to a sweeping cast who each exist within their own world of insanities. If anything, the characters are too painfully accurate--more than once I was brought to boil over their attempts to avoid reality. George in particular is seemingly afraid of everything and makes bone-headed decisions out of his fears. For awhile I was mad at Haddon for making George so unbelievably scared to go to the doctor about his lesion, until I remembered my great uncle who lives in a house that is literally falling in on itself (think the Lisbon House after the first suicide, only scarier) who hasn't been to a doctor since the 1980s despite hardly being able to get around the house in his deteriorating health. Oh, and he still drives too. But it reminded me that people really are that paranoid and that just because I would go to the doctor in an instant if I were convinced I had cancer, others would shy away worse than before and retreat into their own cracked psyche.

A Spot of Bother really takes on a lot (both in story and in philosophy) and comes out amazingly successful. A lot of critics have said it missed its mark, that it is boring and doesn't live up to his debut, but these are absolutely the same people who would be skinning him if he'd done another book with clip art on every page. If they'd take the time to actually think about the two novels, they'd realize that there are more similarities than differences. Haddon wants to see what his characters can take, so he pushes them into situations and lets them spiral out of control and captures whatever he can from that flaming trail. At the heart of both A Spot of Bother and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, that is what the story focuses on. With his latest work, he just does so in a more traditional but much more all-encompassing way.

In just two novels, Mark Haddon has proven his impressive range, all the while remaining focused on what he ultimately wants to achieve in his writing. I'm excited to see what he does next. Hopefully, whatever it is, it will have a better paperback cover than A Spot of Bother though. Seriously. I waited so long to buy this to see if I could get a second edition but then just couldn't put it off any more and had to settle. This has to be one of my least favorite book covers of any that I own. Alas.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The smell of freshly cut ass

On my way out the door the other afternoon, I was greeted with the smell of freshly-cut grass on my lawn. I stood for a moment, taking it in, the sun baking down all around me and really drawing the smell up from the ground. Suddenly I asked myself a question:

What's so fucking great about the smell of freshly cut grass?

Just about every person I've ever met looooves the smell of a wet, recently-sheared patch of lawn. There are even webpages for people to jerk each other off about how deliciously wonderful the smell is. But despite what abbadabbadoo18 and panicingchemically have to say about it, it remains one of my least favorite smells, right up there with baby shit and broccoli cheese soup. The smell actually turns my stomach, but it also reminds me of the miserable, blistering hot days spent mowing the acre of land my family still lives on in Lancaster. My younger brother and I would trade off responsibilities, one week driving the riding tractor around the majority of the yard, and the other doing the trim-mowing around the mulched flowerbeds and trees and clotheslines with a questionably self-propelled push mower. At least we traded until my brother got smart enough to consistently do a terrible job with the push mower, so that I forever was put on Trim Duty and he got to do figure-eights while sounding off peals of victorious laughter. The little bastard. As if it wasn't enough to do our own mowing every week, we also got shipped off to my grandparents' to do theirs, and to my violin teacher's to do his, but for those jobs we at least got paid.

My parents can't, for the life of them, understand how I can live without a yard, but I count that as one of the many benefits of living in a city. I don't have a son to play catch with or a dog to shit everywhere, so a lawn is pretty much useless to me anyway. And if I ever do get a dog, I can just let it shit all over the park down the street from my house. Problem solved. Give me a balcony (or at least a fire escape) over a yard any day. The only thing I miss about having a big swath of greenery behind my house is the fact that we could play quoits on it. But I think the two little patches of grass on either side of the walk in the front of my house here in Pittsburgh are big enough that I could probably dig quoit beds if I really wanted to. Which I don't. Or I would.

Don't get me wrong, grass absolutely has its place: in parks, in the woods, in vast expanses of country estate in northern Scotland. To be honest, I think that our world absolutely does need more grass and trees. But as a 22-year-old, exceptionally lazy and opinionated city dweller, I just don't have the time or effort to concern myself with going out and mowing a lawn. If my house did have a ton of grass that the landlord wasn't expected to take care of, it would probably look like I live in the African Savanna. Frankly, I'd rather have sand. Show me a big ol' yard of bright, healthy, green grass and I see the potential for a totally sweet personal beach.

Now the smell of the ocean, that's a smell I can get behind.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Adam Johnson - Parasites Like Us *

"After trashing his cherry '72 Corvette, illegally breaking into an ancient burial site, and snacking on 12,000-year-old popcorn, Hank Hannah finds that he's inadvertently unleashed the apocalypse."

So begins the blurb on the back cover of Adam Johnson's debut novel, last year's Parasites Like Us. Sounds pretty interesting, doesn't it? It certainly did to me. Interesting enough for me to buy the book on a whim when I saw it at a discount book store. I had seen the novel a year earlier when it had just come out in paperback and had almost bought it then, for full price. Now I even regret shelling out the four dollars I spent on the overstock copy.

The problem with that opening sentence is that it effectively skips ahead to approximately page 232 of the 341-page novel. Blurbs, as any good editor should know, aren't not meant to do this. I'm certain that the reason it was used was to fish something interesting enough out of the mess of a plot to trick people like me into buying the book, but if such tactics need to be employed to sell a novel, perhaps it doesn't belong on the shelves in the first place. In this case, I'd argue that Perhaps into a Definitely. The first 231 pages are an attempt to build characters that we care about, and the last 109 are to show us how their lives Spiral Out of Control (a wonderfully hackneyed plot device these days), but both come off flat as a board. The only reason I continued reading was the promise of the impending Apocalypse that the back of the book fed to me.

But as boring as the plot turned out to be (and as disappointing as the Apocalypse turned out to be), the most painful aspect of the story had to be the characters--especially the protagonist, Anthropology professor, Hank Hannah. It is taught to writers young and old to "write what you know" so that your characters have a sense of life in them and your stories are realistic, so inevitably the writer themself begins to show up inside the characters. This does not bode well for Hank as he obsesses over his step- and birth-mothers. An Oedipal Complex of frightening proportions surfaces in Hank, but it is not done with a keen and sarcastic eye (as most authors would do so, distancing themselves from the freak of a character and letting us know that this sort of obsession is, in fact, weird), leading me to believe that Johnson, too, suffers from a weird psychosexual tie to his own maternal figures. Hank also has a constant tendency to do things that no normal human beings would do, engaging in amazingly awkward moments with almost every supporting cast member, regardless of gender, race or relation. The way he leers at his student Trudy made me physically uncomfortable.

None of other characters come off as particularly lifelike or likeable either--each preferring their own brand of stilted poetry to normal, human dialogue. It's a real shame too, because Johnson knows how to write. In the exposition areas, this poetry works wonderfully (though it becomes extremely long-winded at time, inspiring me to flip through entire scenes without even skimming, coming back a handful of pages later and still knowing exactly what was going on), but this beauty of language is the only thing Johnson's got going for him here.

Perhaps if Penguin had blurbed the book differently, I would have had more accurate expectations and been less disappointed when I finally put down the book--but if the blurb had been accurate, it is unlikely that I'd have picked up the book at all. And when it comes to sales, disatisfaction still leaves their wallet a little bit heavier in this case.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


I've got a new entrepreneurial venture brewing in my mind, so if you'd like to get in on the ground level and make some big money, you'd best get ahold of me soon. As we all know, because our parents, Fox News and the D.A.R.E. program drilled it into our brains at a young and impressionable age, the only thing the internet is good for is porn. The internet is not a big truck, after all; it's a series of tubes, and the only thing tubes are good at transporting (other than your banking, if you go to the drive-thru) is smut--and lots of it. But the smut is spread all over the internet, making it hard to find exactly what you're looking for (big-breasted transvestites who dress up as aliens and pour ranch dressing on their toes). The tubes spew the smut everywhere, not unlike cum from a big, fat, punishing cock.

It gets especially difficult to navigate when you delve into the fetish websites. As much as the producers of these websites might have their hearts in the right place, they often mis-sort their models, leaving the fetishist sadly underwhelmed in both quantity and quality. One of the worst mis-sorts has to be the Goth/Punk/Emo/Nerd divide. To pornographers, these four types of girls are interchangable: dye their hair black, give them glasses and a Hello Kitty t-shirt and put 'em on whichever site needs some fresh pussy. But to true connoisseurs of the art, while the differences may be subtle, they are essential.

So where does my brilliantly flawless plan come into play? I intend to remedy this sad situation and start my own line of fetish sites that actually tap into the needs of the thousands of sad, strong-handed men the world over, the first of which being www.EroticN00bz.com, a site catering toward your typical "internet nerds" who enjoy World of Warcraft and 4chan. The models on my site will be actual internet nerd girls who you can actually play World of Warcraft with as they put a variety of common household items into their vaginas. Like these live camshows, the still galleries and videos on the site will also feature the models partaking in internet fun, from surfing YTMND to playing Halo 3 on XBox Live with their online friends (you with your $24.99/month subscription fee!). With EroticN00bz, for the first time in history there will be a porno site that truly understands what fetishists need because everyone involved in producing it will be fellow fetishists as well. Finally, Porn For Gamers By Gamers Who Also Like Porn. It's not quite as catchy as FuBu, but it will have to do.

Interested models, photographers, webmasters and anybody else who would like to do this while I go figure out other clever and cunning schemes to make money off of underage girls and lonely, pasty white guys with ponytails who live in their parents basements--please contact me. We can all become thousandaires on an idea this good.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull ***

A few days ago, I went to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and I've been putting off writing a review ever since. I just don't know what I thought of the movie yet. To be sure, I'd have to go back and watch it again, but I have neither the time nor money for that, and I don't think it would be a fair assessment, seeing that my other reviews (and all professional reviews) are written after seeing a film for the first time. So now here I sit, knowing that I should write this thing, but still not knowing exactly what I thought. On one hand, it was a visually-stunning tour de force. Easily the most brilliantly executed of all the Indy flicks, with remarkable special effects that make the original trio seem even more dated than it already is. And yet, I don't know that I can award the film the four stars that I keep wanting it to have. Why? A lot of little things that add up.

First of all, for as good of shape as 65-year-old Harrison Ford is in, he did look visibly tired in a lot of this film. The slack is picked up by Shia LeBouf, but it's just not the same as watching Indy himself leap around and deliver plucky one-liners. Don't get me wrong, Harrison still does plenty of leaping (or his stunt double does, at least), but in his face, the tiredness is evident. Even his lines sound exhausted, and his delivery of them only paints the bags under his eyes darker.

Then there's the script. Indiana Jones is not a realistic, dramatic franchise in the slightest. It is an all-fun, high-speed action flick that doesn't so much border on ridiculousness as it does leap into it face-first. Across the last three films we've seen people have their hearts torn out, faces melted off, and Sean Connery guest star; but when the "reveal" is made in Crystal Skull, I just couldn't buy it. And that was even after figuring out said "reveal" in the first ten minutes of the movie. I think we're supposed to figure out the mystery right away (because there really isn't a mystery at all), so that we can accept what is going on later, but someone should have mentioned to screenwriter David Knoepp that hinting at things early on is no way to sell a crazy idea. I need back-story and historical context (two things that the other Indy films were so good at giving me) to believe in the unbelievable.

The cast of co-stars also got to me. I liked Shia's "Mutt" a lot, but everyone else felt pulled out of a dream. I knew I was supposed to recognize a lot of them, but couldn't through all the years passed. And as fun as Cate Blanchett's razor-sharp Stalinite, "Irina Spalko" was to watch, I just never felt threatened by her in the slightest. Even in the original trilogy, knowing that Indy obviously had to make it through to the next film, I felt more worried about him than I did for any characters in Crystal Skull. There just wasn't a level of consequence developed here, and that led to a minor case of character boredom for me, I will admit.

Wow. So much negativity. And yet, I really did like the film. Nothing is without its flaws--especially not an Indy movie. They're all rife with plot holes and cheesy lines. Hell, that's half the draw--good, honest adventure with a sprinkle of humor and hold the realism. Crystal Skull was ridiculously fun and a great addition to the Indy franchise. I'd like it even more if I knew this represented the crossing of a threshold for the franchise, having Shia LeBouf pick up where Ford will inevitably have to leave off. I'd love to see Speilberg and Lucas give Ford a Connery-esque role in one more film, and then let Shia take the reigns. This series is far too interesting and fun to just end, especially on such a wonderfully open note (when Shia picks up the hat, my heart soared in hopefulness). I am only so critical of this film because it has so much to live up to. It's a great film when I had hoped for an excellent one. Still, great films merit watching, and I'd love to see this one again.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman - Good Omens ****

Remember back when funny books were funny? Back before you went to college and found out that Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen weren't funny after all, but Samuel Beckett and Charles Dickens were hilarious? Remember when the words on the page didn't just make you smile wryly and shake your head in shame for humanity, but actually made you laugh out loud? Well, that's the kind of humor that Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's 1990 release Good Omens brims with, and it is so damn good.

The two British authors were both relatively unknown at the time of their partnership, having met when Gaiman (working as a journalist at the time) interviewed Pratchett on the success of his first major novel, The Colour of Magic. The two became quick friends and proceeded to write the 398 pages of the now cult classic novel by sending floppy disks through the mail and calling each other on the phone. Of course, that story is all explained in the appendix, provided you don't pick up an original printing of the book (if you do do that, however, you can probably sell it for quite a bit of change, so don't be discouraged by your lack of author interviews).

But the real story at hand is, of course, the narrative of Good Omens itself--the tale of two friends, a demon named Crowley and an angel named Aziraphale who have spent all of human existence on earth and have rather come to like it, so when it comes time for the Apocalypse, they try to do whatever is in their powers to stop it. The cast of co-stars can only described as "vast," with some characters only popping in long enough for Aziraphale to take over their body or to go on a shooting rampage. The main other characters though, include: the Antichrist himself, a young boy named Adam, and his gang of friends; a witchfinder named Newton Pulsifer and his love interest, Anathema Device, who just happens to be a witch (and one whose ancestor, Agnes Nutter was burned at the stake by Newton's great-great-etc. grandfather, Thou-Shalt-Not-Commit-Adultery Pulsifer.

Perhaps you're beginning to pick up on that sense of humor I mentioned?

That's what makes this book so great. I'm sort of a sucker for religious humor (and religious horror movies), and I've read a lot of books about the End Days. This one has to rank near the top, maybe even as the downright finest. It's humor ranges from simple little comedic bits to social commentary on religion and the human race--but no matter how big or small the joke is, every one of them is attended to equally, and they are all funny because of that. Though some of the British jokes and references flew by me (a problem the authors usually account for in their humorous footnotes), I really did enjoy this book, all the way from the plot down to how it was written. It really is an impressive feat for a co-authored book to feel so seemless (this honestly almost puts shame to the excellent Stephen King/Peter Straub double-ups, The Talisman and Black House).

So let down your guard, pack away that condescension that your professors poured into you Lit class after Lit class, and resist the urge to turn up your nose at any novel you can buy in trade paperback form in airports for $7.99 (but higher in Canada--oh wait, not anymore!). I actually laughed out loud as I read Good Omens. A few times, to be completely honest. And that's pretty impressive for a cynical, jaded old bastard like me.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Mushroom cheesesteak, hold the hatred

I think that Uncle Sam's Subs is one of the finest sandwich establishments we have here in the beautiful city of Pittsburgh, but the location in Oakland today was... weird. Depressing, even.

When I came through the door and took a look around, I suddenly felt as though I had just walked into the cafeteria at Buchenwald. Other than the girl at the counter asking what I wanted (and then angrily crossing it out when I said the order was to go), none of the four people behind the counter said a word. Not to me, not to each other. Not a word. They sort of just milled about, doing their jobs, looking impossibly downtrodden. Their faces were blotchy and red, eyes ringed and bloodshot. The one wrapping my sandwich sort of half-heartedly glared in my direction as he put it in the bag, but I don't know if he even tried it, because it certainly wasn't intimidating, it just made me want to give him a hug and tell him everything would be okay. Even the guy leaving his shift solemnly plodded out the door with his head down, silent. It looked like they had all just spent the last hour crying in the back room, which I guess is a possibility, so maybe I shouldn't make fun. Maybe their manager had gotten his face caught in the meat slicer and died there in front of them, bled to death over the sauteed mushrooms. But probably not.

I'm sure it was just the heat that was getting to them. And the grease. You could play hockey on the floors of the Oakland Uncle Sam's in your sneakers. But I worked at a Pizza Hut for a year and a half back in high school and it got pretty fucking hot and greasy in there too, but we didn't go moping around like spousal abuse victims all day. We just went outside and got high and smashed the shit out of those long-ass flourescent lightbulbs. Well, I didn't get high, but everyone else smoked enough weed to get me high by association. Instead of getting baked, I had the distinction of being the only person at any Pizza Hut (to my knowledge, at least) to clearly spell out "FUCK YOU" in green peppers on a pizza and send it out for delivery. But I didn't do it out of hatred for the world, I did it because it was funny. I don't even know who the pizza was sent to, but we never got a complaint about it, so whoever received it must have thought it was pretty funny too.

But those four poor souls today at Uncle Sam's, they didn't think much of anything was funny. Those four hopeless beings in their matching Uncle Sam's t-shirts with the words "SMILES SERVED DAILY - WHILE SUPPLIES LAST" in big, bold letters across the back. Maybe they were just waiting for a new shipment? I hope they get them soon. I mean, honestly, they're getting paid to make sandwiches, so they least they can do is not visibly resent me for coming in and ordering one. That, or find a new line of work. Maybe as IRS agents. I don't even think they're allowed to smile.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

"Hey Blue!

When'sa lass time y'seen a white boy in th' Hill? I tole you them mufuckers takin' over."

So went the first words spoken to me in the Hill District this evening. I was taking a bike ride after work, camera in tow, trying to shoot some of the broken old buildings I see every day on my way downtown (none of the building shots satisfied me, but I got a few other pictures that I liked quite a bit). Just passing through the Hill is a real exercise in hopelessness. To think that it once was a major cultural hub, full of jazz clubs where Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith once performed--it's just about heart-wrenching to see what it's become. Half the buildings are gone, replaced by tall weeds and trash, and the other half look like they're ready to fall in on themselves. It's hard to even tell which houses are being lived in; almost all of them seemed to have their windows nailed shut with graffiti-smeared flakeboard.

So I decided I had to take a day and shoot it, as much as I could. What I ended up with wasn't much (I wasn't daring enough to go into, or even close to, any of the really crumbling houses without someone like Mark Rawlings egging me on), but it was enough to make the trip worth while for sure. Even though some guy across the street made a vaguely threatening reference in my general direction. The man he was addressing the comment to, "Blue" I suppose, was walking in front of me down Centre Avenue, and after the heckler was out of sight, Blue apologized to me, saying that the other man was just trying to give me a hard time. I said it was alright and kept shooting, but it had shifted my consciousness to Slightly Concerned, which slid further in that direction as the sun continued to go down, but obviously I'm fine.

In retrospect, what Heckler yelled actually makes me really mad. He made me feel uncomfortable in a place where I shouldn't have had to feel uncomfortable. For the hour or two I spent in the Hill yesterday, he created a divide clean down the concept of race and actually succeeded in making me afraid of "his half" that I began to get concerned for my safety. I think I'm a pretty accepting guy, cool with just about any race, sexuality or religion (except for Scientology, which scares the piss out of me), but Heckler made me into a racist for those two hours, gripping my camera tightly and keeping my eye on my bike when I'd rest it against a trash can to shoot a painting.

Maybe I just should have been stronger than that and let his words roll off me like the jeering of a mean old man, which is all it obviously was (later, I even struck up a brief conversation with an extremely sweet black woman about art and photography), but the way he delivered those two single sentences made me feel like not only did I not belong there, but that there was a reason I should fear hanging around. And I think that's a real shame.

(The pictures throughout this post are selections from the shoot I did today. To see a few others, and more of my portfolio, visit my flickr site.)