Midwest Trilogy, Part I: Illinois

I’m on a Greyhound Bus, en route from Des Moines to Chicago, back in the Midwest for about a month to visit my parents (who moved to Iowa from our hometown, Milwaukee, the previous year) and a few friends dispersed among three other states. Having just finished grad school in Boston and very much burned out on academia, I’ve spent “A Summer Wasting” (to quote a then-recent Belle and Sebastian song), filling my days writing in coffeehouses, biking along the Minuteman Trail and methodically weeding my way through Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which I never finish.)  I have no real prospects or cogent ideas as what to do next, so I’m living off my dwindling savings, prolonging the real world for as long as I can.

This six-hour express route has one stop along I-80 just outside Davenport at a large facility frequented by truckers and fellow travelers. I sit in a white plastic booth amidst the bleeps and blare of a nearby video arcade, sipping an Orange-Mango Tang juice box, eating fresh grapes from a plastic baggie and a cinnamon bagel generously spread with Smucker’s Strawberry Preserves. My bus driver’s in the booth behind me, downing black coffee and greasy Wendy’s potato cakes. After popping in my contacts in the men’s room, leaving the sink a saline-soaked mess as others line up behind me, eager to take my place, I return to the bus. It’s muggy outside and also unseasonably cool for mid-August.

Crossing the Mississippi River, a sign proclaims THE PEOPLE OF ILLINOIS WELCOME YOU. From there, the road stretches on, the landscape pancake-flat with endless fields of nothing, flanked by the occasional tree, decaying farmhouse, string of power lines, crop duster or road sign like NEXT EXIT 36 MILES. With Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions on my headphones, I attempt to write in my journal, but it’s too bumpy a ride, my pen involuntarily jerking all over the page.

Eventually, cornfields give way to strip malls and subdivisions. Off in the distance, I make out the faint visage of the tall, thin, severe Sears Tower. We pull into downtown Chicago a half-hour ahead of schedule. I look around the crowded station for Dana, a friend from high school; she’s currently working on her graduate degree at Loyola. I don’t see her, so I schlep my luggage outside onto Harrison Street, along with a dozen other folks also waiting for rides. A lanky, 68-year-old black man insists on divulging his age repeatedly to an uninterested eight-year-old white boy. I’m not certain that they actually know each other.  The man then does a few push-ups for him, showing off his impeccable-for-his-age strength, I guess.

Finally, I spot Dana down the block walking towards me. She wears bulky denim overalls and her braided blonde hair’s far longer than it was the last time we got together, about eight months before when we met up over the holidays.

“Hey old person,” I call out.

“I’ll never be older than you,” she replies, deadpan. She is a year younger than me, but we maintain this running joke.

Pleased to see each other, but not overly excited, we don’t hug (we never do.) The punishing late afternoon sun, along with the concrete-heavy surroundings somewhat casts a pall on our reunion. We walk for two blocks, then enter the subway deep into Chicago’s bowels and take the L outbound to the far North Side. Her neighborhood consists of long rectangular blocks dense with five and six story pre-war apartment buildings. It’s also close to Lake Michigan, where there’s a number of post-war high rises along the coast (one of them was likely Bob and Emily Hartley’s in the 1970s.)

We take a manually-operated elevator up to her fifth-floor studio, during which I had to follow one rule, due to Dana’s fear of elevators: Stay Still. Her studio apartment is cramped but cozy, densely packed with her canine figurines and an assortment of Pez dispensers. Not wanting to be cooped up in this shoebox on a hot August night, we get in her Blue Tercel and drive out to the ‘burbs for an early dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. Although we have our pick of an array of cosmopolitan cuisine in this mighty city, we’re both poor grad students and it is our tradition to dine out on reasonably priced Navajo Chicken Sandwiches at our favorite chain restaurant.

Returning to her neighborhood, we look for a parking space, circling her block (and adjacent ones) over and over until something opens up. We spend at least 20 minutes completing this task, which, according to Dana, is less time than usual. After a quick freshening up, we hop back on the L inbound to Wrigleyville. There, among all the other people in their 20s and 30s enjoying a Friday night out on the town, we check out an immense store specializing in leather jackets, Doc Martens and other “alternative” clothing. Curiously enough, it also sells plenty of unpainted stone gargoyles.

We head up North Halsted over to Boystown, a “gayborhood” flanked by rainbow beacons. Lots of guys out that night—we see one young man wearing tight leather pants. This prompts Dana to ask me, “I don’t get it – why would you wear something just to show off your package when you don’t really have much of one to show off?” I honestly don’t know the answer to that.  She’s still fixated on it as we consume two-and-a-half pots of coffee and a slice of cherry pie each at a nearby IHOP (this one still in its classic A-Frame design.)

As with most of my Midwestern friends, I came out to Dana in an email the year before. She wrote back, “Frankly, Chris, I was more surprised when you said you were dating a girl.” (Yes, that was a thing only two years before, and a story for another time.) Presently, I hadn’t dated much or even slept with another guy; Dana, on the other hand, was actually engaged, having met her fiancé Marc while attending the U of M in Minneapolis. It was clear our lives were heading on divergent paths. Dana, oddly enough, was who’d encouraged me to check out Boston for grad school, her having visited relatives there. I’d secretly hoped she’d even come out there for school as well. Instead, after getting her master’s in social work the following year, she’d move back to Minnesota and get married. We talked about all of this and seemingly every other little thing that came to mind, from our waitress’ hot pink lipstick to how neither of us had ever found a scone as buttery and moist as those we use to regularly get at Gil’s Café, our haunt of choice back in Milwaukee.

The rest of that weekend passed by unremarkably: we watched movies, walked along the Lake and all over the Loop, had the requisite Chicago style hot dog (topped with seemingly every condiment except for ketchup, of course) and sought occasional breaks from the relentless late-Summer heat (contrary to the popular expression, it was not all that much cooler by the Lake.) Monday morning, we took the L all the way out to O’Hare so I could catch a United Limo bus to Milwaukee. This trip took ninety minutes—roughly the amount of time it would take to drive from her apartment to Milwaukee. Our parting mirrored our meeting: no hugs, just a pat on the back, a “Stay outta trouble” and a “Maybe we’ll met up at Christmas”; we’d next see each other at her wedding.

As much as I enjoyed spending a weekend with Dana, I admit I was seeking something in Chicago that I did not find—a sense of direction, perhaps, a reason to relocate again and reconnect with the region I came from. All I felt was ambivalence, a city that was essentially a supersized version of my hometown, less than 100 miles north.

Go here for Part II.

Film Journal: July 2020

Speaking Parts

With The Criterion Channel now streaming Atom Egoyan’s first seven features (plus an eighth, actually his eleventh), I decided to start rewatching them in order—my first viewings of all except for Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter in over twenty years. So far, Next of Kin is as unique and assured a debut as I remember, Family Viewing a more ambitious but less resonant follow-up (before this rewatch, I barely recalled anything about it) and Speaking Parts less frustrating and infinitely more layered this time around. Having a blast doing this, so expect more deep chronological dives into directors’ filmographies in the future.

Got to see two early Miranda July shorts on Criterion as well (in July! That didn’t occur to me until after the fact.) Both are inessential compared to her first feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know (which could also use a rewatch) although it’s genuinely interesting to see July run through numerous ideas (particularly in Nest of Tens) that she would fully realize (albeit in mutated forms) in Me and You…

My highest rating of the month goes to The Living End, which I hadn’t seen since 1997 when it nearly changed my life in terms of queer depiction/representation, its frank approach to gay sex and desire and Araki’s DIY spirit. It holds up far better than expected thanks to how well it captures an ultra-specific zeitgeist and also for its daring, humanizing ending. Also revisited My Own Private Idaho, an invaluable record of River Phoenix’s presence (and Gus Van Sant’s talent before he pivoted to the mainstream) and The Age of Innocence, one of Scorsese’s most improbable, successful adaptations.

As for new movies, I checked out two at PIFF’s reimagined-for-streaming edition of their annual festival. Black Bear is, in some ways, a riff on Mulholland Drive-style duality without David Lynch’s genius or flair for the bizarre, but it becomes its own thing by the end, with Aubrey Plaza here nearly as good as Naomi Watts was there. Stage Mother is far more conventional and sentimental, but entertaining and affecting thanks to great work from Jacki Weaver.

Got to a few things that were on my watchlist forever: The Sheltering Sky (as odd as you’d expect from a Bertolucci/Malkovich/Winger pairing), Kramer Vs. Kramer (Hoffman’s iconic, but I prefer Baumbach’s homage/update Marriage Story), Gaslight (the best Bergman?), two from Godard’s peak period (neither of which compel like Band of Outsiders or Pierrot le Fou) and Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, a provocative time capsule of Los Angeles, 1968 reflecting back a metropolis both tarnished and sinister even a year before the Manson Murders.

Films viewed in July in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10)

David Holzman’s Diary (Jim McBride, 1967) 6
Golden Eighties (Chantal Akerman, 1986) 8
Next Of Kin (Atom Egoyan, 1984)* 8
The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, 2012)* 7
Disclosure (Sam Feder, 2020) 6
The Amateurist (Miranda July, 1998) 5
The Sheltering Sky (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1990) 8
The Living End (Gregg Araki, 1992)* 9
Mucho Mucho Amor (Kareem Tabsch, Cristina Costantini, 2020) 7
The Married Woman (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964) 7
Edie (Simon Hunter, 2017) 6
Nostalgia For The Light (Patricio Guzman, 2010) 6
Family Viewing (Egoyan, 1987)* 7
The Boy With Green Hair (Joseph Losey, 1948) 6
Stage Mother (Thom Fitzgerald, 2020) 7
Black Bear (Lawrence Michael Levine, 2020) 8
Kramer Vs. Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979) 7
Nest of Tens (July, 2000) 6
My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991)* 8
Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944) 7
Yes, God, Yes (Karen Maine, 2019) 7
A.C.O.D. (Stuart Zicherman, 2013) 4
The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1993)* 8
Made In U.S.A (Godard, 1966) 6
Tchoupitoulas (Turner Ross, Bill Ross IV, 2012) 7
Speaking Parts (Egoyan, 1989)* 8
Model Shop (Jacques Demy, 1969) 8

1980: A Ride Through Paradise

I’ve already written about how 1980 was an exceptionally weird year for pop culture: on the basis of such stupendous offerings as The Jazz Singer (starring Neil Diamond!) and Pink Lady and Jeff, one detects a higher-than-average collective lapse in good taste. Happily, that’s not the case regarding the year’s music—I had to show restraint in limiting it to forty tracks.

While not perverse enough to include anything from The Apple or Can’t Stop The Music soundtracks, I’ve made room for two from Xanadu without apology: Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic”, because I retain so many memories of hearing it in the backseat of my parents’ Mercury Monarch, and ELO’s “All Over The World”, arguably the Xanadu song most perfectly capturing the futuristic cheese it was attempting (even more than the beloved title track, I’ll argue.)

Still, I don’t think any of these annual playlists will have as many actual number one hits as this one. At its death throes, AM Top 40 radio gave us such glories as Diana Ross’ Chic-produced eleganza, Blondie’s Moroder-produced iconic New Wave sleaze, Streisand’s Gibb-produced immaculate, melodramatic soft rock, McCartney’s kooky new wave experiment (actually a hit in the US in a less interesting live recording), and, most intriguingly, Lipps Inc.’s midway-between-disco-and-synthpop one-shot whose remedial genius will likely outlive all of its chart-topping cohorts. I didn’t even have room for worthy number ones from Queen (take your pick) or Pink Floyd, instead opting for two from the UK: one of Abba’s least overplayed (and thus, freshest) standards and Bowie’s chilling-but-catchy “Space Oddity” sequel.

As Macca knew, Post-Punk/New Wave was a big thing at the time, if not always on the charts. The Brits were all over it (The English Beat, The Cure, The Soft Boys, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, XTC, etc.) as was Australia (Split Enz), Canada (Martha and the Muffins, Rough Trade), and in the USA, representatives from Akron, Ohio (Devo, Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde), Athens, Georgia (The B-52’s, Pylon) and, oh, New York City (Talking Heads). Proto New Wave stalwarts Roxy Music effortlessly adjusted to the times (the scintillating “Same Old Scene”); forgoing easy categorization, Prince on his third album crafted a New Wave song because he could and naturally it was great.

The rest is a typically eclectic assortment of post-disco both mainstream (The Jacksons pushing lessons learned from Michael’s Off The Wall into euphoric overdrive) and esoteric (Cristina’s deranged Peggy Lee cover) brushing up against a bevy of smooth pop that we now call “Yacht Rock”: late Steely Dan, brief superstar Christopher Cross, Rupert Holmes’ slick and drenched-in-irony follow-up to “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” and George Benson, who pioneered the R&B strain of this with 1976’s Breezin’ and this year brought Quincy Jones on board for Give Me The Night, its title track his biggest and best hit.

Go here to listen to my favorite songs of 1980.

  1. Diana Ross, “Upside Down”
  2. The English Beat, “Mirror In The Bathroom”
  3. Roxy Music, “Same Old Scene”
  4. Blondie, “Call Me”
  5. Split Enz, “I Got You”
  6. Prince, “When You Were Mine”
  7. The Cure, “A Forest”
  8. Martha and the Muffins, “Echo Beach”
  9. Steely Dan, “Babylon Sisters”
  10. Stevie Wonder, “Master Blaster (Jammin’)”
  11. Cristina, “Is That All There Is?”
  12. Kate Bush, “The Wedding List”
  13. Visage, “Fade To Grey”
  14. Lipps Inc., “Funkytown”
  15. The Soft Boys, “Tonight”
  16. Rough Trade, “High School Confidential”
  17. Devo, “Whip It”
  18. Paul McCartney, “Coming Up”
  19. Peter Gabriel, “Games Without Frontiers”
  20. Barbra Streisand, “Woman In Love”
  21. Olivia Newton-John, “Magic”
  22. ABBA, “Super Trouper”
  23. George Benson, “Give Me The Night”
  24. Christopher Cross, “Ride Like The Wind”
  25. Rupert Holmes, “Him”
  26. Squeeze, “Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)”
  27. Siouxsie and The Banshees, “Christine”
  28. Pylon, “Stop It”
  29. The B-52’s, “Private Idaho”
  30. The Jam, “Man In The Corner Shop”
  31. Joy Division, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”
  32. Talking Heads, “Crosseyed and Painless”
  33. Pretenders, “Mystery Achievement”
  34. Donna Summer, “Cold Love”
  35. XTC, “Towers of London”
  36. Stephanie Mills, “Never Knew Love Like This Before”
  37. The Jacksons, “Can You Feel It”
  38. Electric Light Orchestra, “All Over The World”
  39. David Bowie, “Ashes To Ashes”
  40. Paul Simon, “Late In The Evening”

Baby, The Stars Shine Bright

Lake Michigan rocks, mid-afternoon.

Freshman year at Marquette University, I commuted from home (having grown up less than a twenty-minute drive away.) Quickly becoming fed up with that, Sophomore year, I lived in a dorm; Junior year was spent in a residence hall (more like a glorified dorm for four with two bedrooms and a common space.) As for Senior year, I made the coveted but not at all uncommon transition from on-campus to off, having secured (along with three friends from the residence hall) a unit in Renee Row, a modern apartment complex where I’d have my own bedroom, an outdoor deck, and plenty of space for all the curious belongings of four male undergrads (in our case, a neon Zima sign which hung on the wall above the TV; you can’t make this shit up, it was the mid-90s.)

Since our lease at Renee Row began in June, I would also be spending the summer before Senior year in my first apartment—a welcome change from the previous summer, when I had to move back home after nine months of dorm livin’. However, I couldn’t afford to take any additional credits outside the fall and spring semesters, so I had to work. I was already a desk receptionist at another residence hall (this one exclusively housing graduate and non-traditional students), but that was only 10-15 hours a week. Too lazy to have found an internship of any kind, much less one remotely related to my Journalism major (a field I was losing more interest in with each semester), I needed a second job to fill the time, and more crucially, make my rent. I figured another University job was the way to go and hoped to secure a position with the Grounds Crew. During the warmer months of the year, I’d spotted them out in the sun, mowing grass or planting flowers. Planting flowers! I could do that! It’d be an improvement over the crappy, entry-level retail and food service jobs that comprised my work experience to date.

Like the Jewish Theory and Practice course that always filled up instantaneously because it met a required Theology elective (and was also rumored to be a fun, blow-off class at a Jesuit school, of all places), that summer’s Grounds Crew was complete by the time I thought to inquire about it. Fortunately, the General Maintenance department was still looking for seasonal help. With five other students and ten adults, I spent the next three months walking from dorm to dorm, and within each dorm, from room to room fixing desks, bureaus, bunk beds and other cheap, Formica-heavy furnishings. It was almost like an informal assembly line—checking every screw in every handle of every desk to ensure it was sufficiently tightened, doing the same for each bed frame, testing all curtain rods so that they opened and closed properly, etc.

Compared to another summer of dealing with customers and stocking shelves, this appeared to be a pretty sweet gig. My uniform consisted of worn jeans, scuffed tennis shoes and a mint green t-shirt with the words “Marquette University Summer Crew” in purple print on it. This was boring, mundane work for sure. We often got everything done ahead of time, then ambled around the building pretending to look busy but not really doing much of anything. Occasionally, a few of us found a room, closed the door and played card games for an hour or two. I could handle Go Fish or Crazy Eights but could never master the adults’ favorite game, Sheepshead—once becoming so frustrated with it that I simply threw my cards up in the air and walked out of the room.

Such petty emotional injuries paled in comparison to the physical ones. I suffered two accidents that summer. The first involved a long, narrow window spring getting stuck in my near shoulder-length hair as I attempted to tighten it; luckily, it just took out a follicular clump and I had enough extra hair at the time to mostly cover it up. The second injury was more serious: a mere ten days after the window spring incident, the metal bottom of a window screen crashed into my chin as I fumbled to extract it from its frame (a laborious process that required squeezing little doodads in opposite directions to both extract and secure the screen in place.) After I was led over to both the campus infirmary and the HR department (to secure a Worker’s Comp form), I was driven to a nearby hospital (coincidentally, the one I was born in!) and received a few stitches, which I had taken out two weeks later. It was more bloody than painful, and they weren’t even the most stitches I’d ever received (that would’ve been after my forehead collided with a folding table a teacher’s aide carried on a stairwell the first day of Fifth Grade.)

Mishaps aside, as with most jobs, the sheer monotony festered into something toxic in no time at all. One day blurred into the next as my co-workers and I wandered through those immense, uniform buildings, massive living spaces entirely devoid of life for one-quarter of the year. This surrealness carried over to my leisure time: here I was, trudging through all ends of campus every day, (temporarily) no longer a student. Unlike two of my roommates, both enrolled in summer classes (the third was all the way back home in Oregon and would join us in the fall), I was at school exclusively to work, and it felt off.

One day, about six weeks into this routine, I was walking back to Renee Row in the early evening, the sun still blazing, the air deeply humid (I wasn’t regretting not getting an outdoor job at that point.) With the old Jesuit Residence coming up to the sidewalk at my right, I spotted a throng of people to my left, filing out of the library across Wisconsin Avenue. Like a thundering mob or perhaps a heard of cattle, they ran in my direction, twenty or thirty of them, all my age or younger, possibly teens present for some sort of conference or summer program.

Not only did they come directly at me, they didn’t seem to register that I was an object in their path. They smiled and laughed while also seeming vacant and oblivious. Approaching from both my left and straight ahead, I couldn’t avoid the onslaught. I slid up against the brick wall of the Jesuit Residence, my hands grasping it as one tall boy of about seventeen or eighteen crashed right into me, his eyes lifeless and glazed as if I didn’t exist. My two left knuckles bled a bit from the force of this collision as they scraped against the brick. And just like that, it was over—the boy and his mob moved on, as if an uncommonly violent breeze just passed through.

I wasn’t physically hurt (as with the stitches, I had suffered worse scrapes), but the incident left me utterly bewildered. How to explain this out-of-nowhere teen mob in such a euphoric state, decimating anything (namely, me) in its path? Had I just turned invisible, all of a sudden? Slightly dizzy and also exhausted by the heat, I made my way past the Alumni Memorial Union, over to Wells Street, around the Campus Town Apartments and up another block before arriving safe and sound at Renee Row. I heated up a frozen dinner, popped open a wine cooler and gradually put the surreal incident behind me as another day of tightening screws and card games awaited.

***

I call in sick the next day; I often do with this job. It’s never a big deal, it just means I won’t get paid for the day. At $5.50/hour, my funds won’t deplete that much, and I still have a few shifts of desk receptionist work to fall back on every week. I feel a bit guilty about forgoing employment for idleness every once in a while; looking back, I’m thankful I exercised that rare freedom a 21-year-old with a low stakes job retains.

One Friday, the day after the Fourth of July, I blow off work and spend the afternoon hanging out with my mom (whom often has Fridays off from her retail job.) We drive out to Southridge Mall, eat lunch at the food court and then go over to Half Price Books where I pick up a handful of used vinyl records from the dollar bin. By that summer, I’ve amassed a minor collection of the stuff, ranging from such staples as the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack and peak early ’70s Elton John to somewhat forgotten ‘80s works from the likes of Yaz, Missing Persons and New Order. That day, I purchase Everything But The Girl’s 1986 LP Baby, The Stars Shine Bright, a title that would soon prove prophetic.

That evening, my friend Jen calls, wanting to go out. I’ve just spent the previous day with her—the entirety of it, in fact, attending Summerfest and the Violent Femmes concert. After all that, I’m kind of tired of hanging out with her, dealing with her mood swings and her intensity, but she’s still my friend. Besides, I have nothing better to do than sit around with my roommates and watch a cable-TV documentary about the History of the Bikini. I’m still some distance from coming out, but confident that I have no interest in this particular subject.

Within an hour, Jen picks me up. We are to meet Diana, another friend from high school at Sunset Blvd., a newly opened coffeehouse on the East Side. We ramble along the misty streets, windows rolled down all the way because the A/C’s broken. We listen to Jen’s Stabbing Westward CD. Like a lesser Nine Inch Nails, the music’s all minor key arpeggios and industrial dead-beats. Track three, their big alternative radio hit, keeps skipping. Jen pounds the steering wheel with her right fist in time to its insistent stomp. She’s mostly lost in the music, at one point even flooring her burgundy Toyota Camry and running a red light at a deserted intersection. The mist is so light Jen rarely has to use the wipers, though still concrete enough to feel as my right hand dangles outside the passenger seat window.

I could go for a hot fudge sundae with double the fudge and triple the whipped topping, but The Chocolate Factory closed at 10, it’s now almost 11, and we have to pick up Diana. Jen wears a pink XXXL Budweiser shirt and a denim blouse, while I’m in my black Snoopy World War I Flying Ace tee and olive cargo shorts. The mist prevails but the temps have dropped a few degrees since we left my place. Jen goes on about her three-month-old pet rabbit which she acquired at a rural roadside stand that was giving the damn things away for free.

We walk into Sunset Blvd. It looks thrown together with kitschy 1950s-style tables, walls done up in bright green paint and exposed brick and amateur artwork. PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love echoes through the brightly lit café. I order a Lime Italian Soda, Jen gets a Chocolate Malt. Diana sits in the right corner with ten other girls and guys on chairs and a couch arranged in a sloppy circle surrounding a table littered with Friends-style oversized coffee mugs and cobalt blue highball glasses. A cloud of sweet clove cigarette smoke wafts above them; within a few years, the place will close, unable to survive a citywide indoor café smoking ban.

Diana’s group is deep into Vampires, a D-and-D style role-playing game, with cards spread out everywhere. Most of them consult strategy-filled notebooks and scan as “Goth”, decked out primarily in black and dark red clothing, Manic Panic’d hair and a panoply of Doc Martens, chain mail jewelry and unusual piercings. So intense is their discussion that Diana doesn’t even register our arrival at first. Waiting for our drinks, we walk over to them. Upon our presence, Diana, tiny with her long brown hair put into a ponytail, suddenly jumps up, hugs us and yells, “Hey guys! I missed you so much!!!,” interrupting the pudgy bespectacled guy with the jet black hair going on and on about how Lollapalooza in its sixth year had lost its sting.

Allowing our friend to finish the game, Jen and I grab the only vacant table and proceed to play five games of Connect Four. By the third one, I’m getting tired of dropping red checkers into plastic slots, but Jen remains oblivious to this. I think her meds are taking hold; she seems preoccupied, her face lost in some faraway state of “Jen-dom”. As we finish our fifth game, the gathering of Vampires begins to disintegrate. When closing time arrives at Midnight, Jen and I head out with Diana and fellow Vampire player Alice, whom she knows from Dance Camp. Alice has the requisite blood-red lipstick with matching hair, but also a breezy, floral-print blouse, cutoff jeans and a giddy, almost wide-eyed demeanor. Up and down Murray Avenue, the streetlamps glisten with moisture from the mist and everyone wonders what to do next. No one’s ready to go home or walk two blocks over to Ma Fischer’s, a diner that’s the only place guaranteed to be open this late apart from bars that all card (I’m the only one of legal drinking age in our quartet.)

We leave the café and drive a few blocks to Lake Park, where we park illegally on the street. The park and the adjacent golf course closed hours ago, but everyone goes there after dark anyway. I take in a clearing sky peeking out through the cityscape and the suddenly sweet summer air. We stroll past Bartolotta’s Bistro, down the ravine, across Lincoln Memorial Drive and over to Lake Michigan. We arrive at the beach’s northern end where the sand’s overtaken by rocks.

Jen and I are a bit paranoid—no one’s allowed here this late at night and we keep looking over our shoulders for cops; however, Diana and Alice do not seem to share our concern. The four of us wander onto the rocks, which extend North along the shore for what seems like miles. We aren’t entirely alone, hearing other voices in the dark and the occasional car zipping along Lincoln Memorial Drive. The vastness and stillness of the Great Lake ahead of us and the increasingly starry sky holds our attention.

We sit on those rocks for at least an hour. In time, we impulsively begin singing Tori Amos songs, mostly from Little Earthquakes: “Silent All These Years”, “Winter” and “China”; Diana admits she once thought the latter was corny, but now, she likes it. Actually, what we were doing was pretty corny in itself, the four of us warbling, “Why do we / cru-ci-fy ourselves /ev-er-ry day” under the stars, waves gently crashing against the rocks, Lake Michigan before us devoid of any perceptible boats or ships. Still, for one hour, my frustration with my job, with Jen, with feeling like I was in a continual state of limbo just dissipates. Such things suddenly feel petty and unimportant. Although I have another six weeks of working in the dorms ahead of me (including the two injuries I mentioned above), this night somewhat cleanses my soul. It reminds me what magic (or perhaps a better word would be beauty) one can discover when one’s not even seeking it.

Sunday At The Cranberry Bog

Looking for a new COVID-safe activity (preferably one outdoors), we checked out a cranberry bog last week.

The Ocean Spray Cranberry Bog, as a matter of fact–located at Patriot Place in Foxboro, of all places, directly behind the Bass Pro Shop.

It consists of a half-mile trail that takes one through some woods…

…and voilà! A cranberry bog. Though mid-July is decidedly not cranberry season.

However, it was the kind of pastoral, sparsely-attended space we were looking for, along with less than a dozen other mostly socially distanced attendees (including multiple dog-walkers.)

Someone even left behind a rosary.

A river runs through this hidden, lovely space.

I enjoyed the numerous textures on display. Particularly all the lily pads:

We’ll be back to the bog in Autumn for the foliage and presumably, some cranberries.

Film Journal: June 2020

“Think Pink!” from The Garden

This month, I decided I’d tackle all five of the Martin Scorsese shorts just made available for streaming on The Criterion Channel; viewing one per week, “Marty Mondays” became one of my few constants in this uncertain time. Italianamerican is far and away the standout of the five, thanks primarily to the charisma and moxie of Marty’s mother (a given if you’ve ever seen Goodfellas), with American Boy (an extended interview with a real character) and The Big Shave (brief, experimental Vietnam protest) also worth a look.

In fact, 2/3 of the titles below are from Criterion Channel, which certainly makes streaming more fun in the time of COVID. I can only imagine what I could’ve gotten out of it had it existed 22 years ago when I was a film student and renting 4-6 tapes a week from the Allston Videosmith. Why, I wouldn’t have had to wait decades to see that one Gregg Araki feature that didn’t seem to be available anywhere (maybe due to that title?) or The United States of America, which finally proved to me that Structuralist Cinema need not always be boring but is occasionally breathtaking.

On Criterion, I also checked out two works by previously-unknown-to-me Khalik Allah, whom, while not always as riveting as you wish he could be, is doing something unlike any other filmmaker right now. I was less taken with Chloe Zhao’s first feature and recent European arthouse flicks such as Synonyms and Zombi Child than I was by Mark Cousins’ sweet coda to his epic The Story of Film series, one of two decent Orson Welles docs I took in. Also, I’m beginning to think Luis Bunuel just isn’t my thing (apart from loving Belle Du Jour when I saw it decades ago.)

Not too many new films: I was annoyed while watching Josephine Decker’s Shirley, which initially felt stilted and precocious until I got to the end and understood the full scope of what she was doing, subverting the biopic in a way I hadn’t seen before; it might end up on my year-end top ten list. Tommaso certainly won’t, despite another intricate Willem Dafoe performance (Ferrara destroys most of the goodwill Dafoe accumulates with a batshit insane last ten minutes.) Leslie Woodhead’s Ella Fitzgerald doc won’t make a best-of list either, but any fan of its subject will find a lot to love in it.

This month’s re-watches provided my highest ratings: what remains my favorite Fassbinder film, what could end up my favorite Soderbergh film, and The Garden, one of three Jarman features I wrote my master’s thesis on. Unavailable digitally in the US until last year, I hadn’t seen it in nearly twenty. It’s challenging and imperfect but also wildly inventive and aesthetically pure—rarely has a filmmaker ever put so much of himself onscreen without censorship or pretense. So happy my fellow Americans can now see it without having to seek out a VHS copy.

Films viewed in June in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10)

What’s A Nice Girl Like You Doing In A Place Like This? (Martin Scorsese, 1963) 6
The United States of America (Bette Gordon and James Benning, 1975) 9
Songs My Brothers Taught Me (Chloe Zhao, 2015) 6
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (Morgan Neville, 2018) 7
Totally Fucked Up (Gregg Araki, 1993) 8
Shirley (Josephine Decker, 2020) 8
Tommaso (Abel Ferrara, 2019) 5
The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunne, 1996) 7
It’s Not Just You, Murray! (Scorsese, 1964) 5
Urban Rashomon (Khalik Allah, 2013) 8
Tristana (Luis Bunuel, 1970) 6
Synonyms (Nadav Lapid, 2019) 6
Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)* 10
The Garden (Derek Jarman, 1990)* 10
Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger, 1958) 7
The Big Shave (Scorsese, 1967) 7
Field Niggas (Allah, 2015) 7
Phase IV (Saul Bass, 1974) 5
Ninja III: The Domination (Sam Firstenberg, 1984) 6
Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello, 2019) 5
Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee, 2020) 7
Italianamerican (Scorsese, 1974) 8
L’Age d’Or (Bunuel, 1930) 6
The Eyes Of Orson Welles (Mark Cousins, 2018) 8
The Land Of Steady Habits (Nicole Holofcener, 2018) 6
Blow The Man Down (Daniel Krudy and Bridget Savage Cole, 2019) 6
Ella Fitzgerald: Just One Of Those Things (Leslie Woodhead, 2019) 7
The Limey (Steven Soderbergh, 1999)* 9
American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince (Scorsese, 1978) 7
Valley of The Dolls (Mark Robson, 1967)* 5

Short Sands Sunrise

Fourteen years ago today, I watched the sunrise in York Beach, Maine.

My parents had flown out from Iowa and we had driven up from Boston for a few days to celebrate the 4th of July.

It was my mother’s idea to awaken so painfully early to witness a sunrise. The previous morning was our first attempt, where we ended up at the Long Sands Beach. Unfortunately, we faced the wrong direction.

Thus, the next day, with great strain (I’m not much of a “morning person”), we tried it again, this time at the Short Sands Beach near the center of town. Bingo.

If you ever have the chance and gumption to watch a sunrise, I recommend it. I haven’t seen such brilliant hues in the sky before or since.

I’ll attempt another sunrise someday, when I’m in the right place and frame of mind. For now, I’ll always remember and treasure this one.

Halfway Through 2020

Given theatre closures and festival cancellations, I feel unqualified to present a list of favorite movies of the year so far, although I caught one contender pre-quarantine (First Cow) and have streamed a few others since then (Driveways, Shirley, Straight Up).

Fortunately, albums are a different story. For every release pushed back (Rufus Wainwright, The (Dixie) Chicks), surprise releases make up nearly a third of my top-ten-so-far. Even more surprising is that as much as I like and respect Fiona Apple’s long-gestating fifth album (which may end up her best since When The Pawn…), I find myself returning to Owen Pallett’s gorgeous, acoustic/orchestral song-cycle far more often.

The Perfume Genius album is easily Mike Hadreas’ best effort yet, the Destroyer Dan Bejar’s most complete since Kaputt, and the Nicole Atkins is a worthy follow-up to Goodnight Rhonda Lee that wisely moves beyond its predecessor’s sound. I had not heard of Russian avant-pop artist Kate NV until a few weeks ago, and her just-released third album scratches that Kate Bush/Jane Siberry/early Suzanne Vega itch nicely.

Still, the improbable return of A Girl Called Eddy, sixteen years after her debut with a second album very much its equal, most heavily informs this crazy year-to-date; its closest match is Jessie Ware’s fourth LP, which just came out two days ago but secured its place here after one encouraging play.

Top ten albums of 2020 so far, in alphabetical order by artist:

A Girl Called Eddy, Been Around
Ben Watt, Storm Damage
Destroyer, Have We Met
Fiona Apple, Fetch The Bolt Cutters
Jessie Ware, What’s Your Pleasure?
Kate NV, Room For The Moon
Laura Marling, Song For Our Daughter
Nicole Atkins, Italian Ice
Owen Pallett, Island
Perfume Genius, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately

P-Town Scenes

Normally, I’d be in Provincetown this weekend for their annual film festival; I’ve missed it only twice in the last fifteen years. I’ve gone to P-Town in Winter, Autumn and Spring, but Father’s Day weekend (falling near the Summer Solstice) always means PIFF.

As with my New York essay, I thought in these crazy times it’d be therapeutic to look back at some P-Town pix I’ve taken over the years. Above is a 2010 view of the town (the tall building is the Library) and MacMillan Pier from the ferry dock. Traveling there by sea from Boston is highly preferable to doing so by land (and shorter!)

From the same year: a banner for the 12th PIFF (with the Library in the background.)

The heart of Commercial Street, P-Town’s main thoroughfare. Lined with restaurants, gift shops, bars and other tourist attractions, you can drive (one-way) along it, but IMO it would be so much better if you couldn’t.

Town Hall, 2018. At the 20th PIFF, nature provided a serendipitous backdrop for the unveiling of an AIDS memorial.

Town Hall at New Year’s Eve, 2016. P-Town does not entirely shut down for the off-season.

A restored Library, sometime after 2010. I used to joke that the restoration dragged on forever, but I now admit it was worth the wait.

Arch Street, one of dozens of narrow, mostly residential roads that link Commercial Street to its adjacent neighbor, Bradford Street/Route 6A.

P-Town has its share of colorful signage, first and foremost being the vintage red neon of The Lobster Pot.

With signage less flashy but still distinct, Utilities is a kitchen/bathroom store where one can find everything from a teakettle to a shot glass. With its densely but neatly packed shelves and show tunes playing overhead, it’s the type of local gem you wish would stay open forever.

Of course, not everything in P-Town endures. This long-standing, curiously-named restaurant bit the dust sometime in the last decade, although the space lives on as Liz’s Cafe/Anybody’s Bar.

Other businesses pop up for a few summers before quietly disappearing, like Blue Light, which later became Blondie’s Burgers; it has now housed The Canteen for over five years.

Over on the West End: who doesn’t appreciate signage so straight to the point?

Back near the center of town: this whimsical warning also lets people know they’re just around the corner from Napi’s Restaurant, a year-round P-Town institution.

One of Napi’s restrooms; the other one is marked “Or.”

Some signage is fleeting, as seen days after a certain, infamous tweet in June 2017.

The town part of P-Town provides only half of its allure. Located on the tip of Cape Cod, water surrounds it on three of four sides. Above, a beach right in town (if not an ideal one for swimming.)

Another beach a little further along the coast: have you ever seen such a schizoid sky?

If you walk far West enough, this is what you’ll find: Bradford Street’s end, with the dunes, Herring Cove and the Atlantic Ocean just beyond.

Coastal land far more suitable for beaching and swimming.

North of town, the Province Lands contain miles of biking trails running around the dunes.

Wood End Lighthouse, often the first sight of P-Town from an incoming ferry.

We return to MacMillan Pier at what is undoubtedly the “golden hour” for photography.

MacMillan Pier is lined with these cute little shacks. Founded centuries ago as a fishing village by Portuguese immigrants, you can spot their flag proudly flown all over town.

That tall, narrow building is the Pilgrim Monument, the most iconic feature of the town’s skyline.

The Provincetown Causeway in the West End, October 2012. Until we meet again, P-Town…

The Pantry

The ornament that once hung in our pantry.

Our family had no cabinets in our kitchen. The room where we ate breakfast and lunch (but usually not dinner; we had a dining room for that) did have a perfectly round wooden table with four chairs, a white upright refrigerator with the freezer on top, a 1970s harvest gold four-burner gas stove (it stuck around well into the ‘90s) and an old-fashioned exposed white sink with a short, rectangular radiator underneath. Eventually, we’d also acquire a wooden cart with wheels upon which our first, relatively massive microwave sat.

Mom decorated the cabinet-less walls with various copper and metal molds; apart from those for making curiously bland Bundt cakes, we rarely if ever used them (one was in the shape of a fat fish.) A row of painted ducks later joined the molds during a stenciling phase Mom went through in the late ‘80s which nearly extended to my bedroom: “Chris, I could draw something more masculine like bicycles on your walls,” she offered before I put my foot down and respectfully declined her services.

We didn’t need cabinets in our kitchen for we had them in our narrow, walk-in pantry off to the right of the sink. They sat along one of the longer walls, down to the floor beneath deep built-in shelves. The opposite wall was bare; between them at the end of the room, a skinny window overlooked the backyard, our garage and the alley. When visiting the homes of friends or relatives or watching TV sitcoms such as Who’s The Boss? or The Golden Girls, I couldn’t help but notice how seemingly everyone else had kitchen cabinets instead of a walk-in pantry.

These days, I often think about that pantry fondly. Despite its window facing east, I remember it as a predominantly dark space chockablock with hidden treasures. Upon entering it was a long, vertical cabinet spanning from the lowest shelf to the ceiling: it housed spices and baking supplies, but also decorations such as a rainbow assortment of sprinkles and sugars used exclusively for Christmas Cookies. On another shelf sat a variety of condiments, some of them ubiquitous like the Open Pit BBQ sauce that accompanied nearly every meat and vegetable my dad cooked on our red circular Weber charcoal grill; others were more obscure like the A-1 Steak Sauce whose ingredients listed in miniscule print forever intrigued me (it had raisins in it!) A higher, barely reachable shelf held items I don’t remember my parents ever touching, like the dusty bottle of Blackberry Brandy that was apparently purchased for (or given to us as a gift from) an elderly relative.

Our pantry, however, was more than a repository for dry goods, flatware, pots and pans and daisy-patterned china; it was a singular space, as much of an individual room to us as any other in the house. As a toddler, it was an ideal place to play Hide and Seek; as a pre-teen, when both my parents were at work and I had the house to myself, I reclaimed the room as one of exploration, browsing deep into the less-used cabinets to see just what I could find (often boring items such as a rusting muffin pan or a forgotten box of Saltines.) The pantry even had its own myths and legends, such as the time (often recounted by my mother) that a portly adult friend of my folks supposedly wedged his bulbous frame on the shelf above the bottom cabinets, scarfing down Hostess Ding Dongs during a party I’d been far too young to remember myself.

When I was ten, I stood in that pantry one September evening, searching for a metal ice cream scooper in the utensil drawer beneath the window. My fingers brushed over an apple corer, assorted teaspoons, a steak knife with a dulled blade. The distracted clinking of flatware filled the air. Glancing up at the window, adorned with a bejeweled hanging ornament (framed by popsicle sticks!) I’d made in Second Grade, I spotted an unusual, almost inviting glow beyond our garage in the dark of night flanked only by a fluorescent white alley light. Within seconds, I could make out flames. Was that our garage… on FIRE??!!

Before I could even think to call out to my parents, a figure whizzed by so rapidly across the alley, I initially couldn’t discern whether it was human, animal or even of this earth. I then caught a flash of nylon jacket, a skinny frame and thinning hair. It screamed “FIRE! FIRE!” as it ran left to right, not doing anything constructive except making the entire block aware of the developing inferno yards ahead of me. Somewhere between confused and delusional, I plainly thought, “This isn’t real; our garage is NOT on fire.”

I was half-right, for it was the garage directly across from ours in the alley that was ablaze. By that time, my mother noticed it too: “OHMYGOD!,” she shouted, running up to me in the back of the pantry. Putting her hand on my shoulder and gazing out the window, she saw what was actually going on. We were then silent, almost awestruck—we could feel the force of the blaze from there, if not the warmth.

A crowd began to form, mostly in ours and the neighbors’ backyards. Mom walked away from the pantry, calm as I’ve ever seen her, not worried about our proximity to the fire. She returned with my denim jacket and her pink windbreaker, leaving Dad in the living room on his tan corduroy La-Z-Boy recliner, obliviously snoring away as St. Elsewhere blared from our 19-inch Zenith.

We stepped out onto our back porch; not one of the twenty or so assembled onlookers noticed us at first. Not everyone was as intently focused on the blaze as we were in the pantry: an trio of old men held longneck bottles of Miller’s Best in their calloused hands, while a quartet of kids ran through ours and the adjoining yards, deep into a game of tag, their mothers barking at them not to get too close to the fire. The blaze didn’t frighten me, exactly, but its sheer force reminded me of what destruction was possible. Still, its cackling insistence almost had a soothing effect.

There’s nothing like a fire to bring a neighborhood and its inhabitants together (no block parties for us, thank you.) A year or two before, there was a small one at the house on the corner of the next block; my parents and I heard the sirens and walked over, becoming part the considerable mob lined up and down our street. Now, it was our turn to partially “host” the Gathering. People eventually came up to us and said hello. Millie, an older woman who lived two doors down, engaged in a bit of neighborhood gossip with Mom of the kind that didn’t require any special occasion—the fire raged on across the alley almost as if it was an everyday occurrence, although it most definitely was not.

It felt like hours standing there on the back porch, although the fire truck arrived and completely doused the blaze within minutes. The neighbor’s garage was a lost cause, a smoldering hunk of concrete and debris. It belonged to an elderly woman living alone, which seemed to account for at least one-third of the residents on our block. I can’t remember the exact cause of the fire—something to do with leakage of gas or some other chemical, perhaps. Anyway, the only damage to our own garage were black marks across its wooden door, which would be replaced with an off-white and rather ugly (but more durable) aluminum one. Our neighbor across the alley, meanwhile, would have an entirely new garage built within weeks.

I’d often think of that fire whenever I stood in our pantry, looking out that window. Nothing so exciting ever happened in that alley again, apart from the pig roast (!) our upstairs neighbors had next to the garage over a decade later as part of their backyard wedding reception that I refused to have anything to do with. In all the apartments I shared with roommates in my twenties and thirties, two actually had walk-in pantries, but they just weren’t the same—they held no intrigue, no crevices where hidden treasures lurked perhaps because I was an adult and therefore directly responsible for all the items I kept in them. The closest thing to a discovery I ever made in these later pantries was a forgotten banana placed on a high shelf. When I next spotted it after a couple of months, it had not only turned entirely black, but had somehow shrunken to the size of a large jalapeno pepper—a far less profound pantry experience for sure.