Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

umbraphilia revisited

Driving in traffic is driving in traffic. It's the same wherever I've lived in the country, with only a few exceptions. Some of the best traffic I've ever been stuck in has been in California. Getting stuck in foggy morning rush hour traffic on the Golden Gate bridge is a traffic jam more tolerable than any other, even exhilarating in a top-down convertible. I'm admittedly biased toward the bridge. From the very first time I've driven under its art deco styling, I've never ceased to feel a twinge of surreal excitement moving across the bayscape. When you're stalled in traffic on its span, you have the chance to absorb its strangeness. When it's fogbanked, the bridge looks downright otherworldly, as if you've passed through time and space in Dune.

Pittsburgh doesn't offer a structure similar to GGB that lends itself to appreciating being stuck in a traffic jam. Rather it offers a traffic behavior that I will claim is Pittsburgh in nature because I've seen it happen here often and can't recall noticing it anywhere else.

While stuck in traffic, Pittsburgh drivers have a tendency to crack open their driver-side doors and spit on the road.

It's one of those occurrences that, once you become conscious of it, you see it happening all the time in Pittsburgh traffic. I can't recall having lived anywhere else where I've seen this happen, or if I did, it happened so infrequently that I can't. It's not like every other Pittsburgh driver is hocking loogies as soon as traffic stops, but it happens often enough that you do notice the next time and say, "Damn, there's another guy spitting out his door."

Why open the door? Why not spit out the window, especially since you're stopped in traffic and don't have to worry about the wind pulling your hocker along the side of your face?

These questions led me to believe it was tobacco chew. Guys chewing and spitting their chew spit out the door. And maybe a few of the roadspitters are chewers, but I've actually opened my door to examine the spittle in question on occasion, and each time I have, it's been plain ol' regular spit.

I'd like it if it were some quirky Pittsburgh commuter superstition. Open your door, spit on the road and then traffic will start moving. Or if it had some ceremonial quality to it-- spitting outside your car door before going into work-- like how Maximus rubbed a little dirt between his fingers before he'd fight in Gladiator.

I'm more inclined to believe it's nothing more than an unfortunate regional habit that's developed over generations, like Pittsburghese or voting for the guy who the union supports.

Being stuck on the Brooklyn Bridge at night is also one of those exceptional traffic stop places. I'd go so far to say that, when I think of the archetypal New York moment, I think of sitting buzzed in the back of a taxi being driving across the Brooklyn Bridge at night.

Perhaps that's cliche New York-- you watch any movie in which New York City figures prominently, and its makers will find a way to get a scene of the BB in there somewhere--but one of my most memorable experiences, after moving to New York for my first time, involved being stuck in traffic at night on that bridge. So, cliche or not, that's epitome NYC for me.

My mid-20s, I had been living in Greenpoint (on the couch chez Oakes, Wickersham & Rasmussen) and was out at a bar in Manhattan (with at least two of those three slobs) when I met the acquaintance of a woman. An older woman. Late 30s.

I recall lying to her. I said I was a visitor to the city--not a recent transplant from San Francisco--and that I was considering getting a hotel room because I couldn't bear the thought of returning to Greenpoint to stay in my friends' dump of an apartment another night.

That's all the lying I did, though. Everything else I told her was absolutely (and unfortunately) true. Abutting the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, our apartment building did shake every time a tractor-trailer drove by. It was a sixteen-block walk from the subway, featuring one block with a White Tower parking lot that was covered with the broken glass of so many empty crack vials that it glittered beneath a full moon. There was a Vietnam vet in one of the apartments who, when feeling patriotic, would climb out onto the building's roof and discharge his firearm into the air. On the ground floor, there was a bar called Mike's where I made the mistake of asking for a Corona. I was promptly asked where exactly I thought I was and, before I could reply, told to go fuck my faggot self.

When you bring up the Greenpoint days with Oakes, Wickersham & Rasmussen, each will wax nostalgic. Those days are up there with their Skidmore college remembrances. It was a time in each of their lives before things fell into place--the job, the girlfriend-then-the-wife, the kids. Those days were the bohemian pioneer time of their lives before they settled into the responsibility of family. They were silly and slapdash and depraved and unglamorous--how disgustingly pleasurable it was to sit on that couch, in that dilapidated building, unemployed, smoking cigarettes, drinking Bud in cans, eating cold KFC out of the bucket and watching reruns of 21 Jumpstreet with Bill on weekday afternoons.

Those days weren't meant to last, and what always marvelled me about OW&R was that you got the sense they knew this, that they had already caught a fast-forward glimpse of how settled their lives would become, and they were appreciating the here-and-now, hyperconscious of its temporality . A similar spirit must govern the umbraphiles who travel the globe to snatch those fleeting moments of totality. Just like the solar eclipse geeks, OW&R behaved as if they knew they were experiencing something wondrous and fleeting in their lives, and they were going to appreciate those moments to the fullest.

Unlike them, I never possessed such wisdom or foresight. I woke up one too many mornings with my face pressed against one of their stained sofa cushions. I couldn't look beyond that immediacy. I just blew in whatever direction the wind bent me.

The night I met the older woman in the bar, the wind was my friend. It wanted to see me get laid. After telling this woman all the foul details about the apartment I was staying in, and how I didn't want to spend the money but just had to sleep somewhere else so I was planning on getting a hotel room, she said no. Save your money. I have a place for you to stay the night.

She insisted that I come home with her to Cobble Hill in Brooklyn.

We took a cab to her place, and we made out in its backseat like we had been thrown into a particle accelerator. Our faces were mashed together, all teeth lip and tongue, our booze breath holding them together like a grilled cheese sandwich.

Nowhere else in the world is such behavior more appropriate than the backseat of a New York City taxi cab.

We pulled our sandwich halves apart for a breath of fresh air, just as the cab started its way through a nighttime traffic snarl on Brooklyn Bridge. Though I'd been living in Greenpoint for a few weeks by then, I realized it was the first time I'd ever been on the BB. I remember how expansive and unforgiving the skyline of Manhattan looked on its side of the river, the pale glow of the pearl lights slung across the bridge and the graffito-ravaged rooftops that came into view on the Brooklyn side.

I could see my reflection in the window, projected out upon this scene and the dark river, and my thoughts were being pulled existentially from the cab. I was experiencing one of those moments of naked solitude before the uncaring city when I felt her hand find mine on the cab seat. I turned back to her and sought more than simply a drunken hook-up, more than companionship, more than even love-- I sought desperately just to embrace warmth. My need was necessity, animal. I would have crawled under her skin if I could've.

When we got close to her block, she began adjusting her hair and clothes, and I followed suit. The cab driver was completely unfazed by our behavior. We could have been lighting firecrackers in each other's pants the whole time, and I doubt it would have even twitched-- let alone lifted-- one of his dark, hairy eyebrows in the rearview mirror.

Once behind the door of her brownstone, where I had been anticipating another impassioned collision, the woman was surprisingly subdued. She put a finger to her lips, pointing upstairs, and initially I thought she was concerned about making noise and the neighbors. Then she showed me to what was obviously a guest bedroom and said, "Here you are. I'll be right back."

Then I began to wonder if she might be a single mother, and she had shushed me coming in the door because there was a babysitter, because she didn't want the kid(s) woken up. I had myself convinced this was the case when she re-appeared in my doorway moments later.

She handed me a clean towel from behind her back, pointed down the hall to where the bathroom was, and wished me a goodnight. When I asked if she was joining me, she said she couldn't. She had to sleep upstairs. "Please, understand," she said.

And that was it until morning.

She woke me up early, panicked, not even bothering to knock on my door before she came in.

"You're my cousin, okay? My cousin,...was it Todd?"

"Yes, Todd. What the hell are you talking about?"

Only then did I find out it was not neighbors or kids she had upstairs, but a husband, who was going to be down any minute for breakfast, and it would look suspicious if I left now.

So I had to sit there, pretend I was the wife's 2nd cousin visiting from out-of-town and eat breakfast with the married couple.

I think we had waffles.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

the one great elegance

This last weekend I picked up a book I had put aside for a while-- MacNeice's biography by John Stallworthy-- yes, I'm still reading it since I started mid-summer. It's unconscionable how little reading I've done lately, especially having my master's days still within grasp of memory. I was reading in excess of 200 pages a day then, and now I've finished only 200 pages of this autobiography in the span of a summer. Pathetic.

It happens during football season. My brain likes to curl up around football statistics, injury reports, player gossip, etc. and it's difficult to nudge in a more constructive direction. It's no coincidence that my brief return to reading the written word coincides with the Pittsburgh Steelers' bye weekend.

Being distracted by football is more easily done when others give you intellectual reasons for doing so. MacNeice does this for football. In The Strings Are False, he talks about "the one great elegance" in American football that sets it apart from English rugby-- the forward pass.

He writes, "To see a man feint and then throw a long impertinent pass out of the palm of his hand into a space where no one is but suddenly someone appears and ball and man are wedded at the run, is exhilarating, almost a sacrament."

Unlike TSAF, Stallworthy's biography of MacNeice's life is too exacting, to the point of over-reporting. He acknowledges this, his intent being to keep to MacNeice's writings and letters as closely as possible. You have to want to stay with him, or else the book is prone to fall upon the nightstand and not be picked up again anytime soon. Fortunately, Mac's character draws me back into Stallworthy's book, even if only for a few pages before falling asleep.

One part of the biography that I particularly enjoy is the recounting of Mac's days at Oxford. I suppose I enjoy this as much as I do because I've been to Oxford so I can more easily place myself in the scene as I'm reading. I would have liked to attend Oxford, too, and there is a bit of envy that also plays into my interest of this part of his life. Here's a photo of Christ Church I took while there in '05.

At one point, while strolling around, I was convinced I must have side-stepped a rope barrier somewhere and mistakenly wandered into a museum on campus. There were signs warning you to keep off the grass, and no one else was around. The courtyard was lined with grotesques and the place had the feel of being steeped long in history. Dumbstruck by the antique beauty of the place, I thought I had managed to walk right into a restricted area. Then a student kicked open a staircase door, talking on a cell phone on his way to class. He walked past with a backpack over one shoulder and a mountain bike over the other. And I realized that it was not a museum I had walked into, but rather, the courtyard of this kid's dorm.

Another connection I have to the passages regarding Mac's days at college is the similar approach we seem to have had to our collegiate environments. We both found ourselves out of place at college in our own, different ways. I touch upon this in my Aug. 2 entry where I first mention reading the biography.

Mac had it tough at Oxford finding his clique on campus. Not only was he an Irishman at an Englishman's university, but he was also a man among nancies. In The Strings Are False, MacNeice wrote, "In Oxford homosexuality and 'intelligence,' heterosexuality and brawn, were almost inexorably paired." This discovery "left me out in the cold and I took to drink."

Reading this about MacNeice illuminates something about his poetry Stallworthy doesn't touch upon. He's all over the mother-father relationships in Mac's poetry and the garden-tunnel imagery, etc., etc. What he doesn't address is the masculine tone of Mac's poetry and how its origin can be traced to is his being his own man (literally) at Oxford.

Left in the cold at Oxford, Mac wrote poetry that's its own. There is an independence, an authenticity, an edge to his work that I appreciate more now knowing that these traits also characterized his life. I'm reminded of a passage of his in a letter he writes to Eleanor Clark, explaining why he refuses to espouse socialism at a time when it was vogue to do so among those he associated with:

"I am damned if I am going to swallow Marx or Trotsky or anyone else lock stock & barrel unless it squares with my experience, or perhaps I should say, my feelings of internal reality."

Stallworthy quotes the following poem of MacNeice's in its entirity in his biography, and I think it's as good a representation of Mac's work as any. (Tell me, does anything sound less gay than bagpipe music?)

"Bagpipe Music"

It's no go the merrygoround, it's no go the rickshaw,
All we want is a limousine and a ticket for the peepshow.
Their knickers are made of crepe-de-chine, their shoes are made of python,
Their halls are lined with tiger rugs and their walls with heads of bison.

John McDonald found a corpse, put it under the sofa,
Waited till it came to life and hit it with a poker,
Sold its eyes for souvenirs, sold its blood for whiskey
Kept its bones for dumb-bells to use when he was fifty.

It's no go the Yogi-Man, it's no go Blavatsky
All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.

Annie McDougall went to milk, caught her foot in the heather,
Woke to hear a dance record playing of Old Vienna.
It's no go your maidenheads, it no go your culture,
All we want is a Dunlop tyre and the devil mend the puncture.

The Laird o' Phelps spent Hogmanay declaring he was sober,
Counted his feet to prove the fact and found he had one foot over.
Mrs. Charmichael had her fifth, looked at the job with repulsion,
Said to the midwife 'Take it away; I'm through with over-production'.

It's no go the gossip column, it's no go the ceilidh,
All we want is a mother's help and a sugar-stick for the baby.

Willie Murray cut his thumb, couldn't count the damage,
Took the hide on an Ayrshire cow and used it for a bandage.
His brother caught three hundred cran when the seas were lavish.
Threw the bleeders back in the sea and went upon the parish.

It's no go the Herring Board, it's no go the Bible,
All we want is a packet of fags when our hands are idle.

It's no go the picture palace, it's no go the stadium,
It's no go the country cot with a pot of pink geraniums,
It's no go the Government grants, it's no go the elections,
Sit on your arse for fifty years and hang your hat on a pension.

It's no go my honey love, it's no go my poppet;
Work your hands from day to day, the winds will blow the profit.
The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall for ever,
But if you break the bloody glass you won't hold up the weather.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

wx ax

In my short time as a writer for a news station, I've come to understand that the type of writing I'm doing is the literary equivalent of working in a morgue. The subject matter is primarily death. There is always a shooting to report. A stabbing. A fire. A car accident. Accidents are so frequently reported that they are tracked under the abbreviation, "Ax."

Oddly enough, weather is referred to as "Wx" so when you have an accident involving the weather, e.g. last week with the remains of Hurricane Whatsitsfuck - the oak tree that fell and trapped a convalescent woman upstairs in her bedroom without power, such an incident is referred to as a "Wx Ax."

The writing itself is as thankless as the work done by a mortician. With web writing, quantity is favored over quality. Strongly favored. Research tells us that most people don't read most online articles past the headline, so the primary goal of the news web page is to get as many new and fresh headlines up as possible. The story behind it need not be anything more than a few slapdash lines thrown together. If it is more, then great, just as long as you didn't take too much time writing it that the headlines on the page began to stagnate.

Like the mortician's work, the news writer's only stands out if you've noticeably fucked up. If you report the auto ax on the right street - Maple Ave. - but in Peters instead of South Fayette township, or get the number of pit bulls taken by the police from the foreclosed home wrong, or misspell the names of the two Sheraden boys who died to a house fire due to no batteries in the smoke alarms. That's when you're recognized.

But even so, mistakes such as these aren't a big deal. Just like it is with blog writing, all you have to do is edit and re-post. The big deal, as I said, is refresh, refresh, refresh the headlines.

There are only so many death and destruction headlines to write locally in a given day, though. This unavoidable fact of news life is circumnavigated by updating existing headlines on a regular basis, often when there is absolutely nothing new to report. For example, the headline "Man With Gun Arrested At Beaver Co. Obama Rally" written in the morning may well appear in the afternoon as "Beaver Man Packs Heat At Obama Rally, Faces Charges" in the afternoon. Same story, but freshened up for the news page.

This quest for freshness of headlines leads to headlines being written for events that are barely newsworthy. Fluff pieces. The fountain at a local park was dyed pink during breast cancer awareness month so the headline, "Point Park Fountain Goes Pink For Breast Cancer Awareness" is a result. That sort of thing.

Often only another web news writer can appreciate a well-written headline or story for what it is, and even then, it's not the same kind of appreciation say, a literary writer has for an other's work. News writing doesn't endure. It's gone and forgotten once the next headline has replaced it. And you don't have web news writers pausing in the middle of the day to reflect back upon an other's work and say, "Damn, I wish I had written that!" No more than I can imagine one mortician watching another work upon a cadaver and saying, "I wish I could open a chest cavity with that same effortless grace!"

I've found I deal with the death and destruction and fluff by bringing a poetic mentality to the writing of my headlines. So far it has gone unacknowledged, and I hope it continues to be overlooked by the powers that be. I take a few extra moments to exercise this mentality solely for my own amusement. It's how I get through the day. A few recent examples:

I enjoyed using rhyme in "Attempted Calf Snatch In Masontown After Three Slashed," a headline I wrote for a story about a serial animal skinner who's been sneaking onto a man's cattle ranch at night to skin his animals alive.

I could not resist the temptation (albeit in poor taste) to employ irony in writing the headline to a story in which a woman was accidentally run over by a teenager who offered to help her parallel park her car. It read simply, "Elderly Woman Run Over By Good Samaritan."

My favorite was this little bit of innuendo for a fluff piece. Two women affiliated with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals demonstrated in Market Square recently; they showered naked in public, making an argument for vegetarianism by pointing out that some large amount of water is wasted in producing a single pound of consumable meat.

My headline read, "PETA Gets Naked In Shower To Beat Meat."