Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

Your Culture Shanghaied

May 29, 2013 Leave a comment

Your Culture Shanghaied

Chrome countertops and dark corners, vinyl booths and neon highlights. Chinese delegation across the the Japanese and everyone just keep cool for a minute—Jimmy Carter’s at the bar ordering tequila shots and pitchers of High Life.

Once the yellow ribbon had been tied and the Chevy is in the Levy someone’s going to do Elvis. Everyone’s going to do Elvis. After last call drunk Asian men will be falling over each other in a tangle of laughter and tears and a half-remembered conspiracy involving escorts. No more Diaoyu. No more Senkaku. The islands are now the premiere free port Chinese restaurant and karaoke resort. Let the Taiwanese run the place if it’ll shut them up.

No more Chinese, no more Japanese. The Ambassador embodies the technicolor dreamcoat promise of our melting pot society; your culture Shanghaied and bled dry. While eating at a steakhouse in the backwaters of Kansai I stared at lassos on the walls and sizzling platters of beef at every table. It wasn’t insulting. Every salaryman staring at John Wayne on TV paid a deeply confused reverence to a mythology of the west.

Here in The States we don’t believe in the Pioneer corporation or MSG. We ravish them for cheap pleasure and cannibalize our own idealized past by rigging black lights over a crumbling malt-shop aesthetic and soaking everything in Jägermeister and yesterday’s vomit. John was holding up an entire race of people on his shoulders and my two-bits of Japanese heritage proved more authentic than the ripoff salt and pepper calamari churning in our guts. On stage a white girl bust out Biggie while her friends raised the roof. The staff was a uniform shade of pasty and if there were any Chinese in the kitchen they had been warned about showing their faces. Everyone is welcome, I’m sure, if they’ve got five bucks for the cover. Or if they’re underaged. Teenyboppers get stuck in a segregated juvenile detention center where the lights are brighter and you don’t have to wait for tomorrow’s hangover to feel ashamed. Read more…


Slipping Through the Safety Net

January 6, 2013 1 comment

Slipping Through the Safety Net

Plastic bag in hand, ready for any bilious torrent produced by the next round of respiratory fits. I couldn’t tell if her moaning was due to the racking cough which shook the two chairs she had pushed together to make a bed or to the moonshoe protecting her tibia from trauma. Please don’t puke, please don’t put me in a situation where I’ll have to decide whether it’s more polite to pretend I haven’t noticed or to find some way of fetching water. The self-service malady station offered tissues and barf bags and hygienic hand gel but no cups. I should spray my neighbor down with the provided antiseptic.

I never would have taken the seat, alone against the wall of an examination room, had I know the woman was retching. She waited for the raging drunk falling out of a wheelchair to lurch after a pregnant woman and her young daughter, leaving the sanitation kiosk unguarded. The drunk’s sudden departure alarmed reception and a stray nurse who debated going after him until they became distracted by the viscous black fluid he had left to seep through his former seat and onto the floor. A call to maintenance was interrupted by a girl in pajamas who was angry at having her pathetic groans ignored. Yes, you’ll be seen after the gaping head wound who swears he’s not drunk but can’t remember his name, the guy with chest pains, the woman who can’t walk on her own, the five or six people who sleep here when it’s too cold and wet on the street.

These people aren’t sick, the triage doctor told me after I waved away her apologies for the wait, they just think they are. Her bitterness clashed with the spunky hair and Chuck Taylors, and with her adoration of the little girl who had hit the panic button. A SWAT team burst into the lobby all body armor and light weaponry, peering through windows and signaling each other across the room. Little girls are cuties. I’m tired of telling the staff I’m not a junkie. Read more…

Matters of Faith

December 1, 2012 Leave a comment

Kelley Butte Civil Defense

Concrete hides under an earthen shroud behind the bulldozed clearing. A couple years ago kids were squirming through ventilation shafts and roaming the murk of a by-gone era, but we were late to the party and could only poke sticks at the slab laid over the escape hatch.

Cold War paranoia gave birth to the Kelley Butte Civil Defense Center, first installation of its kind on these shores. At any moment Russian planes could cross the arctic and unleash a holocaust, so the people pitched in to build a subterranean city hall stocked with rations, generators and showers safe from the blast winds of a nuclear attack. Portland organized and conducted Operation Green Light, a mass evacuation exercise which cleared downtown of a hundred thousand souls within an hour. The citizenry believed that if the mayor, city council, the police and emergency services continued functioning behind 26 inches of concrete then they could survive anything.

As the arms race raged on faith was lost. Russia and America amassed enough armaments to ensure that the human race would be eradicated a hundred times over if either side reached for the button. In 1963 the city council suspended funding for local Civil Defense and slowly the Kelley Butte facility was dismantled. Police used the site for training and an emergency communication center until Kelley Butte closed in the early 90’s when a new downtown 911 office opened. No one had any use for the 18,000 square foot relic. The radio antenna is gone. One hundred years worth of public records imprinted on microfilm is gone. The threat of annihilation is gone. All that remains is the frustrated graffiti of kids and walls leading nowhere.

The mayor will never run to Kelley Butte for cover, but others seek the sanctity of its trees and isolation. The couple sitting at the top of a terraced wall were either stoned or residents of one of the encampments scattered throughout the park. Pete employed his foreign accent and natural charisma while I slipped and tumbled down a hillside following drainage ditches and trash. In a joint where man and nature had called a truce someone had carefully cleared the land and transplanted shrubs. Stones were laid to define paths and a hedge of weeds had been sculpted to distinguish a garden from its surrounding wilderness. Domesticity pried from the clutches of someone’s lost dreams. In its own way Kelley Butte remains a refuge for people who have lost faith in the surrounding world.

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Read more…

Engaging Open Engagement

October 29, 2012 1 comment

Engaging Open Engagement 1

Soup lay at the end of the unwashed masses. Organizers cold only guarantee food for two hundred and fifty, a decent headcount of the social activists, liberal arts college professors, provocateurs and assorted art damaged scum standing between the stragglers and a free meal. We’d already sorted out where they kept the kegs.

Conversation hung overhead. It had all been over my head anyway, the presentations on theory choked with references to unknowns. Slide shows, tales of past glory, rotating panels swam circles around me and it was going to take a second beer to quiet them all down. For two afternoons I’d haunted lecture halls and classrooms with an eye on the audience to know when good points were being made. The audience was too busy checking their e-mail to pay attention, so I remained confused.

Registration to Open Engagement had been free and I didn’t have anything better to do over the course of a rainy weekend. Perfect conditions for an infestation of lowlifes and cell phone compulsives.

Soup and beer for the taking but the Yale Union seemed empty. Keynotes and panels had overflown with devotees of all stripes. Patrons wearing brooches sat on the floor next to androgynous radical knitters. Rooms had been so crowded were indie rock yuppies in scarves that the pack of women in wheelchairs would turn at the door to leave. The after party was stacks of needless chairs and half empty tables.

Pete dragged me from my beertime reverie to meet an arts professor from Gainesville, where foxes eat your chickens and the Christians hate everything except alligators in the canals. I said that it was impressive such a regressive backwater would shell out the cash to send her west where agitators contemplate the public perception of monuments. It wasn’t surprising to learn that she had snagged a ticket from a stewardess friend and was crashing on couches. This wasn’t a work trip, this was a place to network. Her contract was up in a year and Gainesville was not a good place to die, whatever statues might litter the town. Read more…

Loud and Feverish Dialogue

October 13, 2012 Leave a comment

Loud and Feverish Dialogue

A man and a woman lean across the window table. Their voices hover just above the ambient soundscape of shifting chairs and espresso machines. Ed’s beginning to ask questions. He’s getting suspicious. The man vocalizes shrugged shoulders. I told you how it was going to be from the start. A jacket rustles, someone checking their phone, a period of silence. I’m trapped at the neighboring table thinking about jamming a pen through my eye.

Do I escape this dime store conspiracy? Throw everything in my backpack, send the chair screeching across the floor, excuse me, pardon me, carefully step over a purse and weave around elbows, find a table on the other side of the room. Spare my reddening ears this badly scripted torment but subject the back of my neck to suspicion.

No, I will sit and I will play deaf. I will wonder why sordid details of two strangers churn my stomach and pound in my chest. It’s going to get easier, the man says. A spoon hits porcelain, a glass slides over the tabletop. My pen hovers over paper in pursuit of a single thought while lips meet behind me. Look up and I will be exposed, a voyeur pretending to be hard at work while hanging on your every word. It’s not a choice I’m making. Your delicate plotting, the lies neither of you believe, an ability to blame others for your own actions, the next round of perfunctory kisses have all destroyed my ability to carry on. Life really is this terrible.

The woman collects her things and brushes past. The man waits for a minute, pokes at his phone, finishes his coffee and heads for the door. Read more…

Down & Out On Craigslist

August 3, 2012 2 comments

Down & Out On Craigslist 1

Faded stereotypes unpacked their egos and painted the walls with personality. Overgrown toddlers laid down their bongs to price rooms at $420 a month. Peace and love burnouts crafted treatises on ecological superiority banning people who don’t recycle toilet paper. These unpaid extras from a failed reality series had me over a barrel. I needed a new place to call home. They had open rooms. Normal people had nice houses and the budgets to match– it was the grubby little hovels for me. I trolled through Craigslist seeking character over caricature.

Should be a cakewalk. Weed out the whackjobs, write a polite inquiry, show up on time. Don’t reek of cigarettes. Try not to need the bathroom. Watch the language. I’ve interviewed directors of UN programs and engineers from multinational corporations. I’ve argued my way past security in foreign languages and conned indigent photographers into donating images for my articles. I can convince a couple of nice, reasonable people that I would make a nice, reasonable roommate.

We are POLYAMOROUS QUEERS. We live in a POLYAMOROUS QUEER household. Seeking a fifth roommate to join our POLYAMOROUS QUEER household. Must be POLYAMOROUS QUEER friendly. Not sure what a POLYAMOROUS QUEER is? We are experts at being POLYAMOROUS QUEERS and will tell you.

Poor Little Boy Lost, tossed to the wolves while thinking he’s in a petting zoo. House hunting isn’t like conducting an interview, it’s not even like applying for a job. The process may seem similar: shake hands, answer questions, ask questions, glorify your experience. Emotionally it’s a series of blind dates with a shotgun wedding chaser. No one wants to dance. No one’s courting me because I’m cute or cool or funny or nice. We were all thrown into the world’s most depressing mixer by desperation, eyes fixed on the calendar.

At first I felt in complete control. Cheap rent? Check. Big room? Check. Decent part of town? Check. I chose to write them. I chose to make an appointment. I held the cards. But the rules of the game changed as soon as I was in someone else’s space. Chase the frog from my throat and keep the butterflies from flying out all over the carpet. Don’t fidget, make eye contact but not too much, act interested but not desperate. Stay loose, stay comfortable, not too comfortable, no shoes on the coffee table. Compliment the garden, compliment the house, compliment the furniture, go home, write a thank-you note, mention their dog.

One date a day. Two dates a day. Three dates a day. Read more…

The Price of Convenience

July 12, 2012 Leave a comment

Food Villa

Engaged in the exchange of the almighty dollar for the almighty product, so immersed was I in the honorable tradition of trade, his words found no purchase within my ears. Excuse me?

“I like your little hat,” indicating the fedora which, out of reverence, I’d placed on the counter.
“Thanks. My mom gave it to me.”
“I like it.”
“She’s got good taste.” And I was out the door.

My hasty departure may have ruined an earth-shattering meeting of the minds, the greatest gift commerce bestowed upon us. Ancient bazaars, collecting travelers from the four corners of the world, once served as centers of ideas and inspiration. Tales from from away lands, the blending of tongues, the aroma of foreign spices, arts of another place all mingled along the edges of the money exchange. And from these dusty trading posts grew markets, the community center where farmers would chat about weather and yields and gossip would flow like wine. The heart and soul of humanity was born as people haggled for a better price, but now it’s all Twinkies. And compliments about my hat.

Why is it a little hat? My head is not small, the hat fits fine. And why the hell am I being complimented by some guy wearing a do-rag at J’s corner convenience store? Are there no girls who patronize the place, who would clutch at the magazine rack and fan themselves when they see how awesome my damn hat it? Read more…