August 16, 2010 § 1 Comment
The Famous Writing Professor (FWP) looked around her office. She did not want to go back. Back to the un-professor days, the zero-land of non-professorship. That dead TV-screen-turned-off-world outside the university. Sitting in her office she knew that she would do whatever president Branch told her to do. Anything. She felt herself the precise equal of any crack-head ‘ho groveling at the gold tipped, iguana skin boots of her Mack Daddy. Snowden Branch, you’s my pimp. Twenty five years of sneering, snorts and finger-air quotes at the words “male” and “man” might as well belong to some stranger’s life. Twenty five years of deriding male hegemony blown, poofed away. Sneeze, as substantial as a sneeze—never had she felt so strongly the hollow evanescence of words, their spittle-flecked nothingness. Of Branch’s body there was no protuberance she would not suck, no orifice she would not probe, tongue-wise, to maintain her status as university professor. Not that Branch would ever make such demands but the famous professor needed these clarifying blasts to get a handle on herself.
She felt a chill and crossed her arms, her hands rubbing their elbows opposite. She yawned. How did president Branch put it? The extension schools—Snohomish campus, Skykomish campus, Snoqualmie campus—needed help just now and they could do worse than receive the oversight of a seasoned and prestigious senior professor. Great. It came to her unbidden that when a fan wrote Walt Whitman asking why he hadn’t made a visit to Washington territories Whitman wrote back teasing and said why would anyone want to visit a place where you can’t pronounce any of the names. The FWP would be a kind of higher-ed missionary then, bringing the enlightenment of freshman composition to the natives in the unpronounceable boondocks. And when visitors came to the main campus from Dubai or Saudi Arabia she would be, conveniently, nowhere in sight.
The FWP glanced at the literary insert spread out on her desk. She looked away quickly but she couldn’t unsee the title: The Koran: 4 Translations by Joffrey Simpson O’Day. The rare winter light coming through her office window drew her eyes back to the paper and she read:
The Valley Girl Koran:
Surely, like, Allah does not do injustice to thuh weight of an atom, like, wow, and if it is like, ya know, a bitchin’ deed That dude multiplies it and gives from Himself an awesum reward—
She couldn’t read on. She was afraid she would laugh and enjoy it. And there was more. The Barney Frank Koran, The Pig Latin Koran, the Adult Koran. Why did he have to write up four versions?
The FWP looked around her office and scanned hopefully her talismans: the small bronze naked dancer given to her by a famous lesbian Mexican sculptor, the set of Sunbreak City cityscapes, charcoal, by famous gay Portland artist Toshihara, the large pine cone from the Whidbey Island Wymynz Retreat, the shelves of thin poetry books, how she loved them, the whale vertebrae found on the beach at Seaside, the poster of Susan B. Anthony, the poster of Mao offering apples to smiling apple-cheeked children, the Che poster. She beheld her autographed, framed poems by Adrienne Rich, Richard Hugo and Tess Gallhager. Everything seemed to agree with her gut-feeling: not much hope here; everything would soon be boxed and in transit.
. . .
Joffrey lived in Sunbreak City’s southwest neighborhood, Rainier City. Teachers, social workers and local politicians liked to extol: 98118 the most diverse zip code in the nation. They wanted the word “diverse” to mean people of varied skin tone and global extraction living together in loving, hippy, communal splendor. True, so many spear ends warmed their points at this campfire. But it also had one of the highest murder rates in the country. Sunbreak City was made up of neighborhood clusters called “Citys”: University City, Capitol Hill City, Queen Anne City, Ballard City, Roosevelt City, Freemont City, Rainier City.
Walking around his neighborhood, Rainier City Joffrey observed:
whites with enough money to buy a first house,
mostly software workers, young two-income couples.
They did stroll the mostly black neighborhood
even with baby carriage but they were usually
accompanied by a large, shark-toothed, dog.
The couples gathered at a local breakfast diner
on weekends and the women wore their ponytails
pulled through the backs of their baseball hats.
The husbands looked worn and slightly abused
like newly broken palominos.
What was the thrill in living in a mostly black neighborhood? Did the white couples want to get closer to glamour? Did Joffrey? To look at him you could tell there hadn’t been much glamour in his life. The pictures of black men on his uncle’s jazz records from the early 1960s embodied glamour for Joffrey. They showed black men in suits and sharp sport jackets or white shirts and thin ties. They wore a very cool variety of hats, always angled perfectly. Sometimes they were short-sleeved and smoking a cigarette. Always the cigarette. It made Joffrey want to smoke, handling those album covers at age nine. Their sense of style was unmistakable and spoke strongly to a poor kid living in the irrigated desert valleys of Washington State. He wouldn’t have known how to express it as a child but he felt, yes, black men embodied glamour. Even working class black dudes, the field guys he had actually observed, had a certain style, the way they arranged their collar or wore a nifty hat, they gave off style. Without knowing any black men he imagined them strained through the harshest mesh of American experience—from prison to academia and onwards through the executive political and business gauntlets. They had permeated America and they were America’s greatest experiencers. A 21st century black American man would have traveled through the criminal justice troughs and eaten the extreme slops; traversed academia or local politics and on into business—another set of slops but, again, an extreme range of exposure to everything American, its sexual extremities and crannies and multiple personality disorders; all that would have been tasted by an American black man.
And Asians. Viet Wah was a former large supermarket, a Safeway or Albertsons converted into an immense Southeast Asian grocery store. A smell walloped you upon entry: deep fried shellfish in a garlic batter. It featured exotica, the full palette of Asian appetite which was essentially the entire squirming sea-world. Surveying the plain of Asian edibles is a lifetime project but let’s say there is little non-poisonous (and some poisonous) that cannot be called Asian food. In the fish section mackerel, red snapper, catfish lay with their still living underwater colors on ice rubble. Sometimes the store featured a large tub of frogs. You peered into a barrel and were startled by the dark slightly moving mass and the multiple swimmy eyes looking up at you. It made Joffrey feel like an anthropology major shopping at Viet Wah. Bent grandmothers and improbably slender-limbed women with polished-carbon black hair—it was Indian hair, Indian cousins’ hair (Joffrey could easily imagine an alternate world in which such hair would be packaged in small silk packets and used as currency).
And Muslims. This was unexpected. At first Joffrey didn’t know what he was seeing. He thought the bundled and clad women were Catholic sisters or some kind of strict Christian sect. But they were Muslim women, deeply wrapped and religiously spoken for. He had news for Allah: the scarves, the hijabs the burkhas—none of it really worked if the goal was to prevent men from getting turned on by the female form. There seemed to be many kinds of female wrap. Some gowns were heavy and some were sheer. When a tall dark striking Muslim woman stood at a bus stop wearing a headscarf while Allah’s own wind tore at her, she appeared essentially naked with light colorful silks clinging to her shapely body; the wind hugging her into sculpted, near-blasphemous nakedness. Jesus had a better grasp of the male mind when he said men, you gobble women down in your heart. Male lust in imagination goes all the way down to the root. Clothing is no barrier to the male mind. Or when sitting in the coffee shop and you see a Muslim woman enter, covered except for a small net at eye level. Her ankles are bare and her brisk steps waft open the floor of her long skirt. You notice she has smooth brown skin. You then extrapolate: beautiful skin all the way up to her neck. Beautiful skin everywhere, it must be. And more, there are two generous bumps at chest level; for those bumps to show through all that cloth they must be extraordinary.
But let me hang on this a minute, thought Joffrey. A religious group marked conspicuously by their dress, moves into secular American cities, very much in, very much apart.
Apart how? They simply dress that way.
And by their dress, forward a religious preference into the neutral zone of the civic commons.
Is that wrong?
No, but it is stretching the unspoken boundaries.
What unspoken boundaries?
Americans don’t generally bring intimate declarations into the public commons. Political declarations, religious declarations should be reserved for private gatherings.
What about buttons or wedding rings or crucifixes on necklaces. Aren’t these on display out in the public sphere?
But they are considered small and unobtrusive. With Muslim clothing you are defining the whole person from head to foot. But let me ask you: don’t the women of the majority culture, fed on their own sense of liberation, the oppressiveness of men, scream inwardly at the burkhas Muslim women wear? And don’t men of the majority culture smart inwardly at the Muslim men who dress in gowned fashion—Afghani or Saudi gowns—similar to bin Laden, murderer of so many innocent Americans?
If they do, so what? They must keep such inward screaming to themselves.
But you’re not only asking fellow citizens to suppress inward screaming; you also demand they deny outward observation. Now the majority citizen is wrong to even notice the religious distinction. Observation is now judgment and judgment racism. An ancient antagonist might settle in the urban centers of the west’s larger cities but you will not write a newspaper article highlighting his particularly noticeable religious wear. [Will the bearded Muslim clad figure—the bin Laden figure—enter the culture as a monster, a kids costume at Halloween?] Will the children of the majority culture and the children of Muslim immigrants, now classmates, be taught any of the historical conflicts between Islam and the west going back well over a thousand years?
Probably not. And?
No because any expression other than delight in diversity is proscribed. 98118, the most diverse zip code in the nation!
Was this why you, Joffrey, did up the Koran? Did you want to force the issue? The women of the majority culture, the men of the majority culture will mute their inward screaming until…
I don’t know.
Brilliant answer. But you do know. You do know: When the next attack comes. If it is Muslim led there will be no inward screaming. All will become outward.
Hold on partner; I didn’t say that. Pause the apocalypse.
I agree. Just remember: they are here. And here is no static proposition. What else are Muslims doing but becoming Americans? To be American is to be in motion. The women are driving and studying and taking classes and buying property and starting businesses. It is, as they say, a fluid situation.
The Somalian Muslims lived in the revamped public housing section near Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. These were new town houses available for rent or purchase. In the mornings the women stood with their kids on street corners waiting for school buses. A scene right out of the Dick and Jane readers of Joffrey’s youth except the mom was gowned in full burkha, the little girl wore a headscarf and the boy, a little man, free and running circles around his sister.
. . .
Somali dudes walking along Martin Luther King, Jr. Way pressed a thumb and forefinger to a nostril and, blowing hard, slammed their monstrous gob of snot to the pavement. Sometimes Hispanic guys did this too.
. . .
At nearby Aki Kurose playfield about sixty to eighty Somali men ranged in enthusiastic weekend soccer games. They had light bulb shaped heads, stick legs and tallish frames. They were good players and fun to watch. One thing Joffrey didn’t get was: how could they tell the difference between teammates and opposing players? Every player wore a different colored outfit. No kind of uniformity seemed to exist for either side. Red, white, black socks, shirts, shorts and jerseys. After making the observation Joffrey realized he didn’t want to know. The opposing masculine forces organize themselves somehow, invisibly, and the atomic confusion delighted Joffrey. He didn’t want to speculate even. He made it his private, delicious question; a grace note of his new life in Sunbreak City. He didn’t want to wreck it by knowing.
. . .
Jamus Delano was Dayfresh House’s only black resident. “I’m a first,” Jamus said to Joffrey one afternoon. Jamus was blocking the doorway to the kitchen but he needn’t have; Joffrey found it easy to fall into Jamus’s loud, unrestrained aura. “My mom was the first black Registered Nurse in Sunbreak City. My dad was the first black bank president. My sister the first black Nordstrom Headstone executive and I’m the family’s first drug addict!” Jamus then let out a blast of shouting laughter so laden with psychological buckshot—insecurity, shame, defiance, bluster, self immolation, jollity, resentment, hilarity,—that Joffrey could only stand there, a frozen headlight facing a family of prancing mule deer.
Jamus’ turbine-geyser-laugh washed away every social nub and tenet, leaving you feeling mentally slicked down and prepped for his next conversational bizàrrité. You were always embarrassed for Jamus but somehow you always felt the joke was on you.
“Business is really my thing,” Jamus said. He was on his way to the bathroom with a towel over an arm, a purple toothbrush in one hand and an I heart Sunbreak City cup with a mug handle in the other. “I think,” he paused with his usual dramatic caesura, “I think I must have gotten hooked on drugs to escape the continual feed of business ideas that blast through my mind. They don’t give me any rest. I’m not bragging. They just don’t. The ideas just pour in. Take the 900 number. Phone sex lines mostly. The phone companies rake in millions every year off 900 numbers—all that heavy-breathing sex blather. Last year I tried to take out a 900 number. Not for phone sex but for philosophical conversation. A Philosophy Chat Line. I’ve got a pretty good grasp of Philosophy 101 and so I thought: who wouldn’t want to talk philosophy at lunchtime? Or so I thought. If a caller got real technical I’d have a copy of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Philosophy on hand. And if a caller got really pushy I could always get out of any conundrum with a philosophical question like, Well, what do you think? Anyway, I went downtown, down to corporate, to enquire about getting my 900 number for a Philosophy Line. Just pure philosophical phone chat. The girls at the reception desk didn’t have a clue what I was after. I’m sure they thought I was the usual 900 line perv. And the names I was tossing around―Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger―I’m sure they thought I was talking about strange sexual practices they’d never heard of. So there I was downtown, a black guy going on about weird sex positions and a new approach to 900 calls. The more I tried to explain to the girls about the Philosophy Line the more nervous they got. Soon enough, I’ve got a security guard—one on each arm—floating me towards the door. They gave me an extra shove to make sure I landed on the cement stairs. I never did get the 900 Philosophy Line. I still think there’s got to be a market for it. Men and women who would like to talk about Kant, Plato, Hegel and Descartes and Nietzsche at lunchtime or stuck in commuter traffic…”
. . .
Joffrey discovered the patch of Rainier Ave between Graham and Henderson was not far from Dayfresh House: drugs, murders, whores, Buddhist temples; Joffrey incorporated it into his neighborhood walks. Iron bars go up on the windows of small shop windows and doors and of course on first floor apartment windows. Wouldn’t the bars on the windows stand as monuments to the stupidity of thieves who crap in their own front yard? Jesus, thieves are lazy. At night gas stations turn into Plexiglas coffins. Out come the trigger-ready drug dealers and apprentice pimps; cock-pinching young black guys with the sagging pants, flat-billed baseball caps and ice pick threads of disconfidence in their eyes. You’ve got the official whores, glowy and glossy when young and freezer-burned when old. How could these women unbeautify themselves so? Coppery-smooth dark skin transformed into a rotting banana brown, announcing hospitality to every wasting disease known. Joffrey walked here to educate himself. This would be Sunbreak City’s poor neighborhood. It didn’t feel poor to Joffrey. I know poverty, Joffrey thought. This feels too rich in strut and assertion. Rich in rub and bristle. There is too much vitality; these are not a people done to. My people were done to. And they barely recovered or became too comfortable in their loss. Here on Rainier were people of style and taking umbridge, a demiurge of pelvic thrust, there was no supplication, it was all warning. What Indians were before the white man came. But now sitting around regretting that they didn’t fight them to the death and disappointed in their offspring. Too much delicious violence, death-ready. Yet full of life. Did that make sense? But it was poor, Joffrey knew. But damnit, blacks had such an instinct for the Royal Jelly of the culture. They knew how to slice the choice rhetorical cuts of the language. The gravitational pull of Death was heavy. Everything sucked back into the neighborhood. This was fact. A bars-on-windows, standard hard-scrabble, big city American neighborhood. Almost nightly, police helicopters hovered stationary, machining the air, blasting powerful light beams into the backyards and alleys, hunting fleeing suspects.
Last night walking down Rainier Joffrey heard the chopper overhead and he thought for a second that it was coming for a tree that he and his crew had readied for harvest deep in the Cascade hillsides. He saw a young black man pressed onto the hood of a police cruiser. The young man was shirtless and his naked torso revealed a swatch of black skin that was striking even under the muggy light of the streetlamp. It was a uniform black without patch or blemish, as though painted on with great care. No tattoos. It was beautiful. The beauty must have hit the cops too. One cop was talking into a receiver and the other cop was holding the young man by the neck, not brutally but firmly almost affectionately and with enough time to notice the contrast of his pink hand and arm against the gloss of the young man’s back. The young man turned his head that was knotted with tiny braid strands, short as cigarette filters, so Joffrey saw that his face was also the same even and pure black. He had a full curled underlip that because of the contrast with the skin made the lip seem deep red. Beauty hits us but we deny it. We don’t give it words. The cops wouldn’t put out an all points bulletin saying police are looking for a black youth, male, with beautiful, even black skin all around with a full dark red lip that curls under. When the cops went back to their suburban homes at night, to their white families, would this image stay with them and haunt them? They couldn’t tell their wives, “Hon, today we busted a black pot dealer and his skin was this amazing beautiful black tone you don’t see very often.” Even when Americans were driving slaves in the public square, selling bodies and black flesh on the market blocks you wouldn’t hear the language of beauty, though every onlooker might be struck by it. I doubt the slavers cried out, “Look at this beautiful glossy skin? Isn’t it just fucking amazing?”
Or did they?
If you live around black people you’re amazed at how brown they are. Their color is distributed interestingly in patches of dark and light here and there, depending on the body. But occasionally color chooses a body and paints it to perfection. Fontina was like this. At parties where there were mostly white people sometimes the wives would wander over and comment upon her beautiful skin. And Joffrey thought, Is that it? People? Shit! Is it just plain old envy or what?
Back at the cop car the young man’s shirt was still up and the cops gingerly tapped him on his lower body. The young man was yelling over and over: “Hey man!” “Y’all got me mixed up with my twin brother, y’all got me mixed up with my twin, man. I’m Jason. Ya’all looking for Jaden!”
Joffrey walked past the mini-Muslim mall selling halal food and phone cards, where Somali men with henna-orange beards sat and hung out. They chewed khat and always gave him closed-mouth nods when he walked by. He walked passed a Vietnamese Buddhist temple with wrought iron flames atop the property fence. Then a black church, The Rose of Sharon, comes into view. And then more drug dudes hanging out. Kids rizzle-razzled, swarming apartment buildings. Crack hos with chalk lips and shock hair and solar-flare eyes. Nightmareville: they seem sexually overused, abused, like Sunbreak City windshield wipers. Cars speed by declaring nihilism; cars speed by, cars with shiny spinning hubcap rims. They look like show cars and they try to tell me something, what, I don’t know. Shiny wheels and chicks: there’s got to be a link. Everything is linked to chicks. This is not a delay-gratification neighborhood. The pants are tight and goods are displayed; it is a grab market. Some survive on cheap rent and prayers. The oxy pills of welfare moms scatter the neighborhood to provide supplemental income from the street. (Oxys looking for their morons.) All you have to do is ask. The cops are represented by their fictitious stand-ins—the fake police ho’s, women too good to be true; regular paycheck women with bright dentition and empidermal warmth. Real ho’s have the thousand yard stare (so sez the Commander) and some kind of marking—tattoos or scars or burns. Joffrey’s immersion is full and complete. He is and is not scared. But what are you doing here if simple observation may extract its price? The bullets may fly. While here you can’t imagine another world. You are in Rainier Valley. Is this God’s creation? Yes, but all the human gravitation falls inward.
(We incorporate Death. We make of him a family member—a hated family member—or we turn Him into someone—like the city guy who comes to turn your water or electricity off. Make room for Death, awful as that sounds.)
Joffrey recognized the process, the makeover.
Drugs and stupidity go together, but in this, your neighborhood, the easy, good money comes from dope and it seems worth it. You do not have to read or study. You do not have to go outside yourself. You can stay the same more or less foolish young man that you were; you don’t have to bend or embrace yourself in the wide world—it is a simple world of cheese and mousetraps. The big powers—the men who build tall buildings employ mouse traps but their real designs have nothing to do with you.
Where does this Mind come from? Wrapped inside the great overcoat of technology—a technologically advanced civilization carries within it beings who are content to hang back. There are pockets inside the great coat of technology. But make no mistake—they live in technology’s pocket—whatever ride we’re on it is a technological ride. They are grazing like lint in the pockets. Catalogue of Death—I am the mother you shouldn’t have loved. Even Death doesn’t change things. But Joffrey already knew this. Why should it? The poor. Dope is stronger than Death. Having a little to do with White culture as possible is stronger than Death. Why does the neighborhood exist? In the middle of the most technologically innovative city in the country. Why do young black guys go in for pimping and selling drugs and killing each other over nothing? Because they are living another life. A life that tells them they are legendary and living a life of adventure and risk (As opposed to one of stupidity and inertia) and does any of this have to do with slavery?
. . .
Preach it brother, said Jamus.
How can you read my mind, Jamus?
Because I have thought every thought.
. . .
Joffrey turns off Rainier Avenue and walks eastward to the top of the hill. Wealth breaks out. Splendor and views of the immense blue of the lake draws him down to its water. The outcroppings of money strike him as odd geological formations until his eyes get used to them. The lawns are trimmed the hedges are molded. No sculpted. Descending to the shore of Lake Washington wealth and tidiness return. The lakeshore is overwhelming tidy lovely breathing Joffrey thought especially on a late summer day like today.
To come upon south Lake Washington for the first time. Joffrey eyes sought out, against his will or in spite of himself, those savage places of no human development—large clumps of trees along the shoreline that would reveal what the lake was before the white man came. If he squinted he could imagine that time: wild flowers, bramble, berries and unmanaged rough for large swaths across the opposite shore. The young braves would have marked out favorite berry patches, fishing ponds and inlets and perches from which to contemplate the soaring mountain. Lots of outdoor sex?
The south shore of Lake Washington goes on and on, becoming wider and strangely intimate. Then you come to the cove of Seward Park, an exquisite frame of tranquil water and forest land like few places on earth. Some sections of the lake seem as raw as the day they were made, cut by giant glaciers. But Seward was softened by the planted poplar rows and the cement walking path along the shoreline. Across the narrow road a dirt bank and hemlock stands alternate with magazine cover homes and their broad yielding lawns. The unambiguous primary colors startle in their outsized simplicity: pale sky, dark blue lake, green grass. Everything held a slightly fluorescent tinge, Joffrey, with a musical note coming off the lake. The joggers and walkers and bicyclists of every shape and color seemed endowed with riches by just being here. Joffrey could only gather his unbounded feelings by imagining himself God, the Creator and telling himself he was happy with his creation including the men, women and kids roiling under the slow lazy, cement-truck twirling sun of this afternoon trust. He pronounced it Good. As far as he could tell, Man had not yet eaten from the tree or slain his brother; all was blessing and bounty in the Garden.
No, the original inhabitants were gone.