Saturday, January 2, 2010

Heightened Security and Withheld Apologies

Hip hip hooray for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, for whose intention to blow up a Northwest Airlines airliner bound for Detroit we’ll all pay a high price in low-grade torment for years to come. We thought it was bad before, having to take off our shoes, being snarled at, poked, prodded, and provoked by jackbooted Transportation Security Administration thugs before being allowed to head for our respective boarding areas? Now it’s going to be much worse.

Stupid terrorists. Heightened Security caused one of my most heated early arguments with Claire, on our first visit to New York City. She wanted to go to the top of the Empire State Building. I, hearing that, because of Heightened Security, we would have to wait hours in line to be patted down, wanted to go elsewhere. We got well shirty with each other, to employ the vernacular of her country. And this mere hours after I’d had to see her little green eyes mist over with disappointment because nobody was being allowed into the Statue of Liberty for fear that someone would try to blow it up.

My impression is that the worst people in any given community usually wind up doing its airport security. It’s an occupation that calls out to those whose fondest memories of childhood are of bullying smaller, weaker classmates on the playground at recess, an occupation for those unable to pass the tests to become…correctional officers, an occupation for those who watch news items about the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo and feel only envy — for those who inflicted the mistreatment.

Or maybe I’m mistaken. Maybe it isn’t actual former bullies in these jobs, but the vindictive formerly bullied.

In either case, the worst ones I’ve encountered anywhere, and my passport barely has room left for another stamp, are in Chicago. In 2007, before Claire and I flew back to London, the guy who was summoned to pat me down after I set off the metal detector (because my titanium right shoulder, substituted in 1995 for the one I was born with, always sets off the metal detector) seemed to have been advised that I’d raped his daughter on the way to O’Hare, and did his best to provoke me. All he got for his trouble was the most murderous glare I could muster, but even that gave him some small pleasure, as he was able to ask if I wanted to speak to his supervisor. When I said I might, he smirked triumphantly, and advised me that doing so would involve our missing our plane, as his supervisor took long dinner breaks.

Of course I deserved this treatment, having had severe arthritis in my shoulder.

About six months later, when we were going to fly down to Miami, we arrived at Chicago Midway early, so when Ms. Patricia Carswell, attending the metal detector, took enormous umbrage at my observation that she might think about appending “please” to her requests, and not snarling them, I had plenty of time to confer with her supervisor. I asked if he enjoyed being spoken to like a dog. To his credit — he was black and probably could have made something of my question that it certainly was not — he answered directly: no. I told him that we had that in common, and advised him of Ms. C’s fervent thuggishness. He gave me a form, which I dutifully filled out and mailed to the appropriate authorities. I wrote also to Mayor Daley Jr., pointing out that Ms. C was unlikely to leave visitors with terribly fond last impressions of the toddlin’ town over which he presided.

My guess is that, in The Current Climate, La Carswell, the sort of black person who seems to hold every white person personally responsible for the horrors of American racism, is herself a supervisor.

Let’s consider the above for a second. In describing Carswell as I just did, I’m not for a second forgetting that for much of America’s history, blacks could count on being treated with contempt or at best condescension by most whites. Maybe, then, I should shut up and accept my share of the responsibility for white America’s gigantic karmic debt?


I’ll acknowledge that my dad firmly believed black folks to have natural rhythm, and probably wouldn’t have been very comfortable with my sister marrying one (not because he denied their humanity, but because he’d have expected her to be letting herself in for a life of harassment). But while Carswell’s great-grandparents were being exploited and scorned by white Americans, my own were being treated little better by their gentile neighbors in Germany and Russia. Carswell’s people lived in terror of being lynched? Well, my Russian great-grandparents lived in terror of drunken Cossacks burning down their homes and raping their daughters.

I think American racism was and is a monumental tragedy, as I think homophobia and xenophobia and misogyny have been tragedies. I have apologized to gay friends for having acted insensitively around them in my early adulthood. But I’m sorry. I don’t think I owe the Patricia Carswells of the world a syllable of contrition.

[Hear my life-changing new album Sorry We're Open here! Facebookers: Read more All In Tents and Porpoises essays and subscribe here.]

Friday, January 1, 2010

Extraordinary Good Fortune

You have read here that it’s my extraordinary good fortune to be friends with Mr. Rod McDonagh, The Nicest Guy in the UK. As I write this on the first day of 2010, it’s with the realization that it’s now likewise my extraordinary good fortune to be friends with The Nicest Couple in New York, James and Naomi — sometimes, a la Brangelina, Jaomi, or, as I would prefer, Names.

They might think I don’t realize how attentively and generously they look after me, but I do. Knowing that Claire is in the UK, they invited me over for Xmas Eve, as they’d invited many other friends. Even more generous (I suspect they feared that, left on my own, I’d go into a frenzy of self-pity, though I stopped doing that the first year I had no contact with my daughter on Xmas), they invited me over on actual Xmas Day too, as part of a much more select group. Hearing that I was without ideas for New Year’s Eve, they invited me to accompany them to a party they were going to, and there, knowing that I’m deathly uncomfortable at parties, except those thrown in my honor, were ever so attentive, Every time I was left with no one with whom to try to make small talk, there was James, the most charming man in the American Northeast, grinningly beckoning for me to join him and whomever he was talking to. Such extraordinary kindness!

I’m reminded, speaking of this, of my longtime (1970-1990) best friend, with whom I tried so hard, ultimately in vain, to reconcile in 2009. His practice at parties was to hone in on the most ill-at-ease person on the premises, and to lavish his attention and enormous charm on him or her, commonly causing the person to glow with pleasure. It was a remarkable thing to witness, and no, I’m not being even a little bit sarcastic.

2009 got almost unendurably rocky for long stretches, but when I look back and realize that it brought me both Jaomi/Names and Lady Gail-Gail, I can see it only as a red-letter year.

[Hear my life-changing new album Sorry We're Open here! Facebookers: Read more All In Tents and Porpoises essays and subscribe here.]

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Auld Acquaintances, Not Forgot

New Year's Eve and I have never been well matched. When I was 20, I was invited to the home of my precocious 17-year-old college freshman girlfriend, she of the glorious Jean Shrimpton mane and wild dancing. She’d gotten all tarted up for me, in a very short skirt and sparkly stockings, the idea being that I would relieve her of her virginity. But my squeamishness (she wore a colostomy bag) trumped my horniness, and I made up a not-very-credible excuse to go home well before midnight.

When I was 22, I went to the home of another girlfriend. There was a lot of singing along to the then-recently-released Abbey Road; my fellow revelers exchanging cute, knowing smirks on the title line of "Maxwell’s Silver Hammer" made my flesh crawl. I sneaked upstairs several times to phone a former girlfriend, M—, who’d just been left by the guy for whom she’d left me two years before, and who’d phoned that afternoon to ask if she might come down to Hollywood and stay with me while she recovered. I was still a little bit in love with her, and eagerly — foolishly — agreed. Her subsequent visit later inspired one of the bitterest songs on the Christopher Milk album. Against all odds, I am now Facebook friends with her, as with the girlfriend at whose house the Abbey Road sing-along occurred.

When I was 26, I took P—, the universal object of desire, to dinner at Au Petit CafĂ©, a French restaurant on Vine Street in Hollywood that I adored. It may have been the only time I actually paid to dine there. Ordinarily, a record company publicist (P—, for instance) would pick up the tab, which sometimes, almost inconceivably, exceeded $40 for two.

By the time I was 27, P— had left me, as I’d given her abundant cause to do, and I welcomed the new year by getting very drunk at the Rainbow Bar & Grill on Sunset Blvd., where some weeks before, The Kiddo and I and Earle from Sparks had gone to forage for prospective procreative partners. I, the shyest of the trio, had stayed behind at our table while my two companions approached a gaggle of prospects. Said prospects made it known that they found me the cutest of the three, and asked my friends to convey that they would return on New Year’s Eve. A few minutes after midnight on which, nearly too drunk to slide out of my booth, I staggered over and invited them en masse back to my slightly greasy bachelor pad high above Sunset Blvd. (in what today is the Hotel Mondrian). They seemed not to find charming my disinclination to distinguish between them, and I drove home alone and unfollowed, gravely endangering the lives of both pedestrians and fellow motorists.

When I was 32, I went with The Kiddo to Flipper’s Roller Disco (formerly La Cienega Lanes, where P— and I had happily squandered many an evening playing pinball). I was myself a universal object of desire by this time (as the preternaturally good-looking Kiddo had been for years, though you wouldn’t have known it from the way the maidens of Hollywood bypassed Christopher Milk’s dressing rooms en route to others’), but no less shy, and spent the first few hours wishing I had the gumption to strike up a conversation with one of the spandex-encased sexpots who clogged the place. As the new decade drew ever nearer, I resolved to greet it with my tongue in one of their mouths. As the countdown started, I tapped a gorgeous young thing on the shoulder and then, when she turned around, kissed her with fervor. Boy, was she not amused. Boy, do I feel a jerk remembering this.

When I was 34. I took my first wife (The Kiddo’s ex-girlfriend) to dinner at an expensive, allegedly Italian restaurant on Beverly Blvd., all of whose wait (and, presumably, kitchen) staff were patently chicano. Though we got along famously the first four years, and even had a daughter together, my first wife and I were severely mismatched, in that she was fervently fun-loving and I anhedonic, innately fearful of pleasure. Five years later, she looked spectacular in a sort of tinsel wig on New Year’s Eve, which we spent dining at a Japanese restaurant in Petaluma with friends, and we shouted at one another in the car on the way home to Santa Rosa. It would be our last New Year’s Eve together.

When I was 40, I went with a friend from the fascist law firm at which I worked to a chic Boz Scaggs co-owned nitespot in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow. My friend was connected, and we were able to breeze past the plebes lined up on the wrong side of the velvet rope. When she saw that we were about to get the royal treatment, a tall redhead who looked a lot like Jerry Hall mused pointedly about how much she wished she were going in with us, but the old shyness kicked in. I spent the evening getting drunk with my pal and gnashing my teeth.

I had a couple of wonderful New Year’s Eves with my daughter when we lived in San Francisco. One year, we had Korean barbecued chicken at our favorite place, on Polk Street, and then drove into the Castro as midnight approached. When the new year arrived, loudly, my daughter was flabbergasted, and not a little amused, by the spectacle of dozens of gay men dropping their trousers in unison. But the following year was even better. She wasn’t feeling well, so we came home early and watched Nickelodeon, snuggled together on my big garage sale recliner, for a couple of hours before we both nodded off.

On the last night of the 20th century, Nancy and I watched the bombs bursting in air over Seattle’s Space Needle from our pleasant hotel room in an art deco hotel while nibbling Trader Joe’s pralines. At my insistence, we’d earlier dined for the second evening in succession at my favorite restaurant in the Pacific Northwest, Wild Ginger, and then been pulled over on the way home by over-zealous cops who were pretty displeased with me for having had only one Tsingtao. We woke up the next morning to discover that there’d been no Y2K cataclysm, and drove to Vancouver for a look around.

At the end of 2001, Claire and I invited my daughter, seething because she didn’t have more glamorous plans with other teens, to accompany us to see Ali in San Francisco, and then dine at the Stinking Rose, famous for its immoderate use of garlic. We had to miss the end of the movie to arrive at the restaurant in time, the food wasn’t very good, and within three months my daughter had ceased to speak to me, as she continues not to.

Back in the USA (specifically, Madison, Wisconsin) in 2007 for the first time in five years, I went to a big jamboree sponsored by the local alternative newspaper for which I was about to begin writing so controversially. But if I’d been shy when I was a universal object of desire, I was even more shy as a withered old embarrassment, and soon beat a reluctant retreat down to the Brazilian restaurant where a couple of friends from a local Gypsy jazz band, with a dreadful pickup drummer, were entertaining the local carnivores. Last year, in Beacon, New York, I took a solitary walk on Main Street, and was wished a happy new year by a trio of young men in very baggy clothing I had half expected to try to mug me — the young men, not the clothing.

This year’s will be the third successive New Year’s Eve I’ve spent alone, but if I’m not accustomed by now to the feeling that the rest of the world is having a lot more fun than I, to what would I be accustomed?

[Hear my life-changing new album Sorry We're Open here! Facebookers: Read more All In Tents and Porpoises essays and subscribe here.]

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Truth About Blood Tests and Lady Gaga!!!

I was getting gasp-inducingly sharp pains in my chest that, had they been on the left, would have struck me as Nature’s way of saying, “Time’s almost up, pal.” But they were on the right, so I summoned up all my courage and went to see the only GP in my neck of the woods who seems to accept the AARP-brokered insurance for which I’d been paying for nearly two years. Dr. Njad, white-haired, tiny, Iranian, sad-eyed, stuck his finger up my ass more gently than any of his fellow healers ever had, pronounced my prostate reasonably proportioned, given my advanced age, and said I should get a blood test. When it turned out that my insurance paid in full for my brief consultation with him, I hummed "C'mon Eileen" and danced gaily round the room.

When the fine folks at Quest Diagnostics sent me an apparently satirical $1012 bill for my blood test, I chucklingly phoned United Health Care once more, only to discover this time that they intended to pay only $312 of it. For the first time since I repatriated to America in the fall of 2007, I wished I were back in the UK.

I phoned the fine folks at Quest and advised them of my incredulity. I pointed out that I’m unemployed, and that it wasn’t as though I’d gone into Emporio Armani and splurged on a sports jacket whose price tag I could clearly see. If I’d had any idea what their services were going to cost, I’d have urged Dr. Njad just to guess, or to read my palm or something. Who, I wondered winsomely, had ever heard of a $1012 blood test? Well, according to the woman I spoke to in Quest’s billing department, she had, lots of times. This put her in a category very different from that of everyone else I spoke to, including the good doctor, who was flabbergasted at the lab’s audacity.

I related all this to the woman with whom I spent the 90s, whose aversion to authority has made her long career at a famous California zoo a very bumpy ride indeed. At her urging, I phoned the New York state attorney general’s office, by whom I was advised that health care providers are free to charge whatever they please — and aren’t legally compelled to tell you in advance what they charge. I marvel at having heard not a syllable about any of this during the whole health care brouhaha.

Speaking of my already long-suffering publicist Lady Gail-Gail (who's working so hard on behalf of my new album), as we were in my most recent post, I neglected to note that accusing someone like Lady Gaga of being a genetic male is far from new. In the Christopher Milk days, our guitarist asserted with great vehemence that Nico, the celebrated Warhol-patronized chanteuse, was a guy, though he declined to divulge the source of his information. Judy Collins was also said to be transgendered, and Joni Mitchell, Marianne Faithfull, Janis Joplin, Michelle Gilliam of The Mamas & The Papas, Goldie Hawn, Chrissie Hynde, Donna Summer, Debbie Harry, Pat Benatar, Jewel, Tracy Chapman, Morgan Fairchild, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, all three Dixie Chicks, former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Condoleeza Rice, Beyonce, Madonna, Castor Semeyana, Amy Winehouse, and Taylor Swift. My own theory is that it’s all about male musicians, actors, and politicians trying to get back at women whose greater success they feel has somehow emasculated them.

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Sunday, December 27, 2009


As my excellent friend and (already!) long-suffering publicist Lady Gail-Gail will ruefully affirm, I am avidly into retro porn — but more for aesthetic than prurient reasons. That is to say, I don’t look at it as I used to look at the Lili St. Cyr ads in the backs of gentlemen’s magazines, in order to work myself into a priapic frenzy. I just think it’s cute and endearing.

It’s probably no coincidence that my favorite stuff is from the early ‘60s – that is, from right around the time my own hormones were beginning to shout, “Hey, you! You’re almost 15; reproduce already!” I swoon at the sight of the bouffant hair and excessive eyeliner (inspired by Elizabeth Taylor’s in Cleopatra?) so fashionable in that era, and then am overwhelmed by simultaneous feelings of regret and relief. At the time, painfully shy as I was, I’d have been as likely to try to talk to one of the bouffant hotties at Orville Wright Junior High School as to have tried out for the US Olympic team as a gymnast, and my natural clumsiness made the weeks that we concentrated on gymnastics in PE purest torture. Thus, it’s a relief to realize that the big-haired young beauties on the retro porn sites, now in their 60s and even 70s, would no longer intimidate me. The downside, of course, being the realization that I’m in my 60s or even 70s now too, old enough to be asked, not entirely credulously, by people who see photographs from the days when I was a smoldering Semitic rock and roll sexpot, “Izzat you?”

Speaking of bouffant hair, I think we can agree, now that rock and roll is officially dead, that The Who, circa 1967, were the greatest rock and roll group ever. All they had, and were, was…everything. They were glamorous, and funny, and terrifying, and tuneful, and pulverizing, cerebral and brutish, deeply introspective and wildly exhibitionistic all at once. Nothing was what it appeared with them, with the possible exception of Mr. Moon taking too much of whatever he was taking. The smallest and most effeminate-looking of them, Roger Daltrey, he of the bouffant orange hair and antique shawls, was actually the group thug. They recorded sweet, airy three-part vocal harmonies, and then, on stage, scared you half to death. Even the one who barely moved on stage was intriguing in his own right -- jaw-droppingly virtuosic. God, how I loved them. The last 42 years haven’t produced a group who can begin to challenge their memory.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some glorious music being made. As far as this century is concerned, I believe that Sigur Ros’s inexpressibly beautiful, mournful recorded music towers over everyone else’s. (For two decades in a row now, my favorite music has been recorded by artists who don't sing in recognizable English; Ros sing in their native Icelandic, and the Cocteau Twins sang gibberish.) The UK’s Delays and Brooklyn’s Depreciation Guild are quite wonderful too, and I’ve never enjoyed a rockabilly group more than I enjoy The Lucky Cupids, whose Andrej Rudolf might be thought of as the new Chris Isaak, but with an irresistible Slovenian accent.

I can’t help but believe that Western tastemakers’ energy would be far better spent trying to foment a Slovenian Invasion than in writing 25 more biographies of Iggy fucking Pop. He was indisputably revelatory in his day, but his day was 40 years ago, for Pete's sake.

Some of my Ramones T-shirted cohorts’ disinclination to investigate new music reminds me of how people of my parents’ generation dismissed The Beatles. Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman…now that was music.

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