Oh God, It’s Christmas: Yule Laugh, Yule Cry

A White Christmas

It was a Christmas that only Sid and Nancy could have loved. Two newlyweds — one a British music critic, the other an aspiring model from Detroit — were shacked up in a former welfare hotel indulging a bohemian fantasy of Yuletide spent without any of the traditional trappings (families, gifts, religion), but with plenty of drugs.

The year was 1988. The place was Hotel 17, the Stuyvesant Square boardinghouse for trendy transients. Around the turn of the cen­tury, when the place was originally built as a res­idence for a few wealthy families, Christmas must have been celebrated on a grand scale here. Our Christmas, however, was a far more inti­mate occasion, observed in one dingy, cell-like room lined with designer clothes and books of obscure French theory.

The word room hardly does justice to the eight-by-10 stained brown box we were paying $30 a night for. In keeping with the tan color scheme, the taps coughed up diarrhea-colored water. The whitest thing in the room, including the sheets on the bed, was the neat pile of crys­talline powder glinting on the beat-up dresser. That, and the waxy squares of paper that lay crumpled on the threadbare carpet.

We’d been up for three days taking cocaine and crystal meth, grinding our teeth and talking shit about the true meaning of the season. In our deluded euphoric state, we decided that festive excess was what it was all about. Christmas is an opportunity for the casual drug-user, a time when the discipline of work and the normal restrictions on hedonistic behavior are relaxed. So it was easy to convince ourselves that staying up all night dancing and drugging was more in tune with the pagan roots of Christmas than the homogenized and domesticated rituals taking place in the world around us.

Personally, I loathe family Christmases, so I was, initially at least, more than happy to spend the holiday season snorting my brains out. But as as the drug supply began to run low, an edgy gloom set in, a mood amplified by the melancholic sounds of an old man muttering to himself in the hallway, a leftover from the day before the influx of drag queens and club brats, when Hotel 17 was a place where the elderly, the ill, and the drug-addicted came to die.

1995 collection of Village Voice memoirs by various authors

Like latter-day postmodern Scrooges, my wife and I thought we were immune to the re­lentless commercial propaganda of the season. Who did we think we were kidding? The reli­gious significance of Christmas may be often ob­scured by the gaudy displays of advertisers and shopkeepers, but as a holiday it retains a tremendous power to evoke communal and family feel­ing. It’s a spirit that can rarely be ignored with­out emotional cost, as we began to find out.

It was Christmas day. For the first time in my life, I was feeling homesick. There was no telephone in the room, so neither my wife nor I could call our parents. There was no television set, so we couldn’t watch It’s a Wonderful Life to get us in the requisite mood. We finally decided to venture out into the stinging cold to try and forage for a turkey dinner. All we could find open was a Korean deli with a salad bar, so our Christmas repast that year consisted not of roast beast with all the trimmings, but of a wilted col­lection of freezing vegetables. We weren’t that hungry anyway.

By now it was evening, time to get dressed, take more drugs, and make the nocturnal rounds. The supply of cocaine seemed unlimited that season. Speeding us across town to a friend’s loft, even the taxi driver offered us a hit. Once at our friend’s apartment, we played with his kids under the Christmas tree, then retired to a side room to do yet more lines. Then it was off to the clubs; every time we walked through a new door, someone would whisk us off to the bathroom.

“Next year, we’re gonna have a giving Christmas, not a taking Christmas,” my wife in­formed me before we finally fell asleep that night, our nostrils encrusted with powdery sed­iment. There was no need to elaborate. After all, there are only so many white Christmases a marriage can take.

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Open Season

Whatever sentimental phrase signals authentic Christmasness to you­ — sleigh bells jinglin’, angels heard on high, Jack Frost roasting on an open fire — in the down-and-dirty business of consumerism the only one that matters is the one reading OPEN LATE. And for procrastinators, even brighter is the rare sign that flashes OPEN 365 DAYS A YEAR. The record store where I worked a dozen years ago considered that sign a talisman and a creed. And so, while most people stuffed their faces and watched Rudolph or the 49ers, we per­formed the act of charity that meant the most to the late-running and the lonely. We cranked up the cash register and sold.

Working on Christmas may seem like a nightmare of Dickensian proportions, but the employees of Sell-More Discs actually competed for yule shifts. Record retail de­mands more love than ambi­tion — at just over minimum wage, few of us had savings accounts or truly habitable apartments. But we got to spend all day and night neck­ deep in the records we loved more than money, more than status, more than anything. On my crew, there was Terry, a hip­pie-maned-jazzboe who drove a hack for extra cash and ate macrobiotic; Korean Rastaman Lester; Southern gentleman-goth, Charles; Max, an avant-garde axman who actually had record bins set up in his house; punk speed-freak lovebirds Timmy and Corrine; folkie­-turned-performance artist Jade, a Wyoming transplant living in her van; and my best buddy, Penelope, a Roxy Music fanatic versatile enough to attend the symphony with one coworker and a Run-D.M.C. show with another. Me, I was a new-wave kid studying poetry and the blues, swiping all the records the simpatico security guard would allow, learning fast.

We were freaks; by choice or destiny, no one really knew. But what else are freaks going to do on Christmas but hang out at the shrine to all that makes them freaky? Many of us either had no parent figures or weren’t currently phon­ing home, so we volunteered for double shifts to earn triple overtime, and broke out the brandy and eggnog under the counter. But it was Bill, our night manager, who engineered the Sell-More Discs freak feast.

Bill and his brother Theo were Guamanian muscle-guys loyal to the company but in love with the employees. For the yule, Bill and Theo or­ganized a potluck, but this wasn’t just your usu­al banana bread-and-pretzels affair: Max made a vat of German potato salad, Lester cooked up some Caribbean bean stew, Terry provided soy cheesecake, and Pen baked a raisin-apple pie just like her mom always did. Even the speed kids managed to buy an Entenmenn’s pie. Best of all, Bill and Theo, generous and subversive to the end, set up a barbecue right by the back vent and smoked a  whole salmon, island-style.

We chowed between cash register shifts and blasted A Reggae Christmas as stragglers and lonely hearts wandered the store’s aisles. Some­body put up a poster of Wham! and started a darts game. A friend or two from outside dropped by for a glass of cheer and a shopping spree, receiving an extra-special holiday discount our bosses would never know about. And as always the local TV news crews showed up with their cameras and their question so off-the­-mark. “Isn’t it awful to work on Christmas?” the perky reporter said, scrunching his nose as we frantically hid our bottle of champagne behind the Yanni tapes. We made some joke or nasty comment — “well, you’re doing it, aren’t you?” — ­and got rid of them so we could get back to our party. It would have been too hard to explain what we knew: Ours was a family by choice, each member a misfit struggling to build some kinship that felt not just comfortable, but real. Sell-More Discs had given us a chance to do that. The truth was, we weren’t working this Christ­mas. We were spending the day at home.

Some of the names in this article have been changed.

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Black Santa

My brother and I knew from whence our dirt bikes, Christie dolls (black Barbies), Star Wars action figures, and Easy Bake Ovens came. From our parents, of course. After all, didn’t we give them carefully prepared Christmas lists, show them the pictures of the toys in the Toys “R” Us catalog? Couldn’t we see the rolls of wrapping paper hidden (not very well) in the closet?

Our parents liked ro keep it real. “Me and Daddy buy the toys, Santa just delivers them,” is how Mom explained the whole Saint Nick phenomenon. In 1979, while feeling the spirit a little more than usual, she decided to take our celebration to another level: she would hire a Santa to come to our building, ride up the ele­vator, and march straight to our apartment with a delivery of gifts. She found a Santa through a newspaper ad, and then she gave us details. He would come around 11 p.m. Christmas Eve and stay for dessert, so we might want to rest up. If I remember correctly, the whole deal with San­ta visiting is that you don’t see him, but that was beside the point to her: he was already paid. My brother Kareem and I had no questions or reser­vations about the fantasy-reality mix. We weren’t about to miss this.

So we left a glass of milk and a chunk of Entemann’s chocolate cake on the dining room table and waited at the top of the stairs for Santa to push through the unlocked door. As we crept down the steps we heard him frantically unpacking, knocking collectibles off the coffee table. Then we saw him.

This wasn’t any Santa — this Santa was as black and beautiful as my grandpa, only taller and younger. Back then I was eight, and I didn’t realize how important it was for me to see a black Santa. The thought never crossed my mind that this was probably the last one I’d see. It was my parents’ idea that Santa can be claimed by peo­ple of any color — black, white, Hispanic, Asian — because what he really represents is an extension of your family. She told me the other day that her goal was not to prove there was one real Santa, but to make sure we knew this gift-­giving guy belonged in our home.

When he heard two kids approaching, our guest freaked and ran to hide in the bedroom, emerging only after Kareem and I assured him that he was expected. We sat on the living-room floor with our legs crossed, grinning from ear to ear as our very own black Santa chuckled “Ho, ho, ho!” and laid exactly the presents we’d asked for under the tree.

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A Kwanzaa Carol

“I’m celebrating Kwanzaa this year,” my I nephew announced, a bit self-satisfied, when I asked him a few weeks ago what he wanted for Christmas. I assumed it was just another phase he was going through, like the time I want­ed to be called Balaniké, refusing to answer to anything else. My nephew, Daevon, is seven, and the oldest of my brother’s three children. And in years past, he’s enjoyed the kind of Christmas largesse that comes with being the first and, un­til recently, only child in the family. So for him to disavow Christmas would be a big deal.

“So, does that mean you don’t want any­thing for Christmas?” I asked, hoping I might be off the hook for gifts this year. “No! What are you, crazy?!” (Kids always speak in exclama­tions.) “Well, exactly what are you celebrating, Christmas or Kwanzaa?” I said, trying to force the issue. “Both, of course.”

Of course.

I grew up in the ’60s, before Kwanzaa’s sudden emergence as a major black holiday­ — now more popular than Juneteenth or Black History Month. Beginning the day after Christ­mas, Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration of fam­ily and spirituality. It’s thriving for the same rea­son black parents look for books with black faces or buy Shani dolls — it’s something they can use to build a “positive self-image” for their kids. Given the scarcity of black Santas, Kwanzaa makes the holiday season a bit more culturally correct. To me, the “tradition” sometimes seem a bit forced — but to Daevon, it’s clearly an ex­citing, if confusing, part of a burgeoning cultural identity. “So how do you celebrate Kwanzaa?” “On each day [sigh], you do different things with your family. But you have to read from the Kwanzaa book.”

“The Kwanzaa book?”

“Yeah, the Kwanzaa book. Everyone has the same words.”

“You read something out of a book?”

“No! You read from the book and then you do something with your family. But you don’t have to do exactly what’s in the book.”


“Well, hmmmm … Aunt Muffy, could you hold on just one second?”

There’s a long pause.

At this point, I’m not so sure Daevon really understands what Kwanzaa is all about. He hasn’t mentioned the traditional candle-lighting ceremony or the seven principles (nguzo saba) of Kwanzaa — unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.

“I’m back. I was looking for my Kwanzaa book.”

“Tell me what you do each day to celebrate Kwanzaa.”

“Every day you and your family do some­thing together [another sigh]. Like on one of the days, all the money you save up … no, uh. One of the days, right, you make like a little piggy bank?’


“And you save up money, and put it in that bank. And then, and then the next coming Kwanzaa, that’s when you buy something BIG, for saving up all that money.”

“Okay, so the money you save up, do you buy something the next day or do you buy something the next year?”

“You buy something whenever you have enough money to buy something big.”

“Do you still celebrate Christmas?”

“Yes, you can still celebrate Christmas. But on the seventh day of Kwanzaa, that’s when you’re supposed to open all your gifts. The next Monday [a week from Christmas].”

“Are you having a Christmas play at school.”

“Yeah, I’m in it. It’s all the second graders.”

“And what are you doing in it?”

“Oh, I’m singing a song. It’s not like a play, it’s a presentation. Every second-grade class is singing a song, one song. Like ‘Little Drummer Boy,’ ‘Must See Santa,’ and ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas.’ We’re doing songs like that. And there is a Kwanzaa song.”

“What’s the Kwanzaa song?”

“l really don’t know all the words. Hold on, I have to think this through.” (Barely audi­ble mumbling as my nephew tries to remember the verse.)

“While you’re thinking, tell me what you want for Christmas, I mean Kwanzaa.”

“Oh, I know some of the words — ‘Children learn their history.’ ”

“Children learn their history?”

“Huh-huh. Yeah. I know half of the song.”

“Do you know when Kwanzaa began? Where it came from?”

“It came from Africa.”

“No, it didn’t. In 1966, a guy named Ron Karenga, a black man, decided to create a holiday that was more nationalistic, more Afrocentric. But it’s based on African traditions. There’s a harvest celebration in Africa that’s similar to it, but it’s not the same thing. It actually began here in the U.S. Did you know that?”

“No. I did not know that.”

Well, I’ve done my bit for black history.

“Do you want different gifts for Kwanzaa than you want for Christmas?”

“Yeah, totally different.”

“What do you want for Kwanzaa?”

“Like African American things.”


“I don’t know … like scarves that have …”

“Kente cloth?”

“Yeah, and, like, stuff that has the colors of Kwanzaa and other colors. And in the middle of it, it has ’95. That’s the year I got it.”

“If ’95 is in the middle, what’s going to be on the outside?

“Around 1995, I want the border to be red, black, and green.”


“I think that’s it for Kwanzaa.”

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The Worst Noel

“Bubbe-meises,” my New York Jewish mother snapped whenever the subject of Christmas came up. Lies and superstitions, all of it: the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth. A lot of nonsense. She’d get cross and impatient. We never had trees; we exchanged modest gifts at Hanukkah; when we got older there were no gifts at all, just her gen­erous check “for your birthday, really,” which followed in January.

Then a guy proposed to me; a sculptor, sweet and shy, a lapsed Lutheran from the out­skirts of Buffalo whose terrific homemaker mom announced, when she first met me, that her best friends were Jewish. It was 1969, and the no­tion of getting married seemed as bizarre as everything else in the zeitgeist, but at the same time made sense; we’d create a safe haven for each other amid the prevailing sexual and political chaos. I became a legal member of his Chris­tian family (albeit in a Jewish ceremony). Dodg­ing his draft board, we’d emigrated to Nova Scotia, miles from everyone we knew, to teach at an art college in an officially Christian country. I embraced Christmas as impetuously as I’d entered marriage. That year, I participated enthusiastically, readying the tree in the picture win­dow, crafting elaborate ornaments and baking spicy German cookies like his mother’s. Hand­ made presents winged toward us; we scrambled to reciprocate on our entry-level paychecks. He made oyster stew on Christmas Eve, as his clan had always done; we spent the holidays cook­ing and welcoming new acquaintances.

1995 collection of Village Voice memoirs by various authors

By the next Christmas we knew he was about to lose his job, but we kept shopping, cooking, entertaining. The Christmas after that, he was unemployed. The one after that, he was, I guess you’d say, self-employed, experimenting in our cellar with prototypes of furniture he hoped to manufacture and sell, filling the air with chem­ical smells and the sound of a ripsaw. I was earn­ing all our money, still cobbling together cele­brations, frightened and anxious and tired.

Something had to change. Never marry anybody you wouldn’t hire, I found myself mut­tering under my breath. The next Christmas we got a tree, but all I felt like hanging on it was food: popcorn, cookies, foil-wrapped chocolates on golden strings from the vast sweets empori­um down the road. That year he gave me a steam iron and a pair of ice skates. I don’t remember what I gave him. But on Boxing Day I began eat­ing the ornaments, one Santa after another, until the boughs were bare. Then I started packing. I walked the mile to work every morning, took a dance class every night. Three months later I quit my job and moved across the country, alone.

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Holiday on Ice Cream

I’m probably the only nondysfunctional Christmas guy in the entire metropolitan area. Home for the holidays to my parents’ kitsch-laden house in Bensonhurst, I return to the awe-inspiring decor that, in its own magi­cally garish way, spells love. Crocheted flowers, stickpin owls, and dolls of many nations blind­ingly adorn the joint, and most eye-catchingly of all, half the fridge door is done as a homage to Jesus Christ, while the other half is covered with pictures of my parents’ other idol, me (their on­ly child, after all). Everything’s equal here — not only am I aligned with the Christ figure, but beautiful clocks equal 99-Cent Store Pierrot heads — and the Christmassy doodads add even more festive layers that further steamroll every­thing to the same lovely level.

But the real celebration is in the food; to quote the well-spoken duck in Babe, Christmas means carnage. A gigantic lasagna or baked ziti could easily serve as the main course in any other home in the world, but in this place it’s a mere hint of a shred of an appetizer. It’s followed by voluminous amounts of meatballs, sausages, and other gravy meats, all covered with blizzards of parmesan cheese and tomato sauce. Then, if you’re still alive, come the entrées: wildly delicious chicken and ham dishes, plus an array of sides — namely sal­ads, candied yams, mushrooms, and a quiche made with artichoke hearts. Just when you’re sure your stomach is about to blow apart, out come the insanely large tubs of sherbet and ice cream, plus the donuts, pastries, cakes, and pies, with Reddi Wip, Cool Whip, and La Creme standing by for good measure. Say no to any of this and you’re driving a knife through my mother’s heart. These loving if artery-clogging offerings say she cares. To accept them means you care back.

The mood is generally warm, the company familiar. But some­how, amid the threat of all that happiness and satiation, semidysfunctions do tend to crop up. In this setting, my attempts at dark humor — so delightful elsewhere — can be misinterpreted as cruel; other family members’ politically incorrect comments drive my friends into the bathroom crying (there, they can enjoy mom’s doll-shaped toilet paper coverings); and, as everyone jockeys for attention, merriment sometimes leads, at the drop of a meatball, to hurt feelings, none of them directed by Jodie Foster. But in the wake of all this, mom has the best response of all: “Come on, have some more ice cream!”

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Manger? Mangia!

My family is extremely Italian. You want proof? We come from a small town called Cansano in the mountain ranges of Abruzzi that had one road in and one road out. We immigrated to the States in 1955 (making the front page of Il Progresso in a “just off the boat” photo) and settled on that most Brooklyn of all Brooklyn street corners, 33rd and Third. We got guys named Mario and Antonio in our family, but thank heaven no one wears gold chains. Like all good Italians (southern Italy, at least; anything north of Milan is Ger­many anyway), we celebrate every Christmas Eve with the biggest seafood dinner this side of Jesus and that loaves-of-bread episode. The funny thing is most Italians don’t know why we party this way; phone calls to organizations such as the Italian Cultural Institute and the Italian Heritage and Cultural Commission were met with the verbal equivalent of shrugged shoul­ders. Words like history and tradition are thrown around, but the only fact that seems to count is that a minimum of dishes must be served (ac­cording to one coworker nine, my sister eight, my mother 12). No one seems to know why we do what we do every year without fail.

But ours is not to question why, ours is just to eat, eat, eat. Not, however, until everyone is ready. My sisters bring out plate after heaping plate, only to yell, “GET YOUR HANDS OFF OF THAT!” with all the love they can muster if anyone moves too soon. It’s friggin’ torture. Picture Red Lobster, except the fish is real and cooked by humans. Homemade pasta with calamari. Baked clams. Salmon steaks. Breaded scallops. Octopus salad. Baccala. Stuffed squid. Shrimp scampi. Shrimp cocktails. And that’s just for starters.

More than once, I’ve fasted before the feast, making penance for my sins and drooling thanks while fantasizing about the greatest meal of the year. Talk about tripping! Some years were classics, like the one when 11 main courses were served (the record!), or the one when we were invaded by non-English speaking Danish students. Everyone is welcome at the table as long as they can endure my family’s penchant for demanding they sing Christmas carols for their supper; even faked lyrics bring a loud roar of approval. It’s an offer guests can’t refuse, because even the feeblest attempt brings a non-stop embarrassment of riches in the form of lobster, breaded shrimp, mussels, seared tuna, raw clams, and more. Christmas day is almost an afterthought, because year after year Christmas Eve kicks its butt hands down.

Recently, a faction of American-born offspring has started a separate “kids’ meal.” A pasta with meatballs dish is served to children who won’t eat fish. Of course, certain family members (including me) grumble that if they aren’ going to eat seafood they should starve. Why? It’s tradition!

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God Bless Us, Every One

It was Christmas 1974 at the Immaculate Conception Children’s Home, and Suprima, Ineeda, and I had already planned all the things we were going to make in our Easy Bake Ovens. We were nine, and the nine-year-old girls always got ovens; it was a tradition. How else would we learn to cook? Certainly not from Sister Mary (their middle names were always Mary) Bougofawa, the home’s head cook, who didn’t make anything if it wasn’t white and boiled beyond recognition. The ovens were handed out at the home’s yearly holiday extravaganza. That day, we set our hair, dug out our good dresses and church shoes, and filed down to the gym in anticipation of an unrecognizable dinner and Christmas presents.

But this year things just didn’t look right. The tree wasn’t as large as I’d remembered it; the head table, reserved for the community sponsors of this shindig, was nearly empty. Where was Mr. Harold? He was town supervi­sor and always the Christmas party organizer. And what about his good friend Mr. Vinny? He took care of all the construction needs around the Children’s Home for free, and in return thee older boys went to work for him. The nuns tried to be tight-lipped about it; only after a good bit of badgering did Sister Mary Josephine (whom I’d recently witnessed executing karate moves on a wayward boy) offer that Mr. Harold was in jail. I don’t remember exactly what for, bribery or embezzlement, but it must have had something to do with Mr. Vinny, because he seemed to be making himself pretty scarce, too.

Everything seemed dimmer. Even the local football ream, whose B-string usually put in a two-minute appearance to have their pictures taken with us orphan children, barely stayed one minute, and in the time it took me to run down the hall to go to the bathroom, they’d all been and gone, leaving behind some sort of apolo­getic team manager. (We once met O.J., but we had to be bused to a location more convenient for him — an awards dinner where we were trot­ted out for a group photo with the man himself. Later, we were each awarded a tiny plastic auto­graphed football for our well-behaved perfor­mance as the grateful needy.)

But the worst was yet to come. The party ended, and we were commanded to say our thank yous, gather up our gifts, and, in an or­derly line, follow the nun in charge of our re­spective groups back to our playrooms. Ineeda and I were already suspicious. All our boxes seemed small — hell, all mine seemed to be the same size. Could they possibly contain an Easy Bake Oven? Maybe they packed it in parts­— how ingenious and surprising! We sat on the in­door/outdoor carpet, our presents arrayed in front of us, waiting impatiently for Sister Mary Luciose to give us the go-ahead. She counted: five, four, three, two, one … We went mad. When all the wrapping was cleared away, I had two crib toys, recommended for children ages 0-3, and seven identical boxes of Shrinky Dink Make-it-Yourself Christmas ornaments, which, to my horror, I needed an oven to make.

As I turned in dismay to Sister Mary Lu­ciose, I saw her wrinkly 60-year-old face flush. Her eyes began to bulge from behind her brown cat-eyed glasses. Uh-oh. I thought her head might explode — I thought she would lose that veil, so I would know once and for all if that shock of hair on her forehead was indeed the imitation hairpiece I had once wagered it was. Sister Mary launched into a lecture on material­ism and the beast it would turn me into, how I would never get to heaven with that attitude, missy. She feared for my soul. I didn’t care. Even as she marched me off for the special emergency confession she had arranged with Father Walter the next morning, all I could think about was … I want an Easy Bake Oven, goddammit.

I wasn’t really an orphan — I had a mother, though she had shed her worldly trappings to live as a hermit in the Genesee River Valley. And I had a father. When he arrived to collect me for my allotted holiday visit on Christmas Eve (appar­ently having passed the Breathalyzer test Sister Mary Rosanne reserved specially for him) I was still hellbent on some decent presents. I had no illusions about who Santa was. As he deposited me with my two retired, never-married school­teacher aunts, I dispatched my guilt-ridden fa­ther to the mall to retrieve an Easy Bake Oven.

As the evening wore on, I began to fear that perhaps he couldn’t find me anything. The aunts were dazed and unsure of what to do with me. My yammering about the Easy Bake Oven sent one aunt running to the kitchen for a bourbon straight up, while the other slipped in and out of the living room to refill her glass with an amber liquid she said was apple cider, but which my watchful eyes knew was beer. When I quieted down, the aunts whispered to each other that he’d probably gone oven shopping at Jo-J’s Bar & Grill. I occupied myself with reruns of Hawaii Five-O and slowly began to surrender my dreams of being a chef I was ready for bed when I heard his familiar staggering steps on the front porch. Aunt Jean flipped on the porch light, and there was Dad — squinting and disheveled in the sud­den illumination, but holding a box. I could tell instantly what the abused wrapping concealed, because I knew the shape by heart — here, at last, was my Easy Bake Oven.

Some of the names in this article have been changed.

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Bah Humdrum

This is going to be a shitty Christmas. John is going upstate. Ditto David. Ditto Bob.

Darrin’s found a lover. Lucky him. They’ll want privacy as they model their new His & His flannel robes.

Devra … Michigan. Jeff … Fresno. Blaine? Maybe — or no, isn’t he going to India?

My roommate is working coatcheck again, regrets, though it will be fun opening gifts at 5 a.m.

Out of everyone, I’ll be missing Liz the most. She’s the woman I’d go straight for if such a thing were possible. A soulmate since the 12th grade (she might peg the date further back, to Mr. Compton’s Exploratory Reading class at Petalunia Junior High, but hopefully that argu­ment’s settled), Liz came east with photos of her handsome fiancé in ’92, and left just before Christmas. In ’93 the pair returned, married, but at Rumbul’s on Christopher Street the first of many heart-to-hearts began. In ’94, she was divorced, depressed, but nowhere near the lump of coal she thinks she was. For ’95 she’s staying put in California. Can I blame her?

If it’s me and my cat sharing a can of tuna on Christmas Day, it’s my fault. Mom and Dad needle me to hop a plane. But the sour taste of predictable yule traditions still lingers and besides, I hate to fly. I have to improvise. One year, it was lasagna and a Georgy Girl video. Another, it was the Monster Bar employee dinner: Miss Shari, the drag queen, presided, and Lady Aaron, the 70-plus bookkeeper, gave us tiaras and white taffeta.

This year? Glenn might be down from Provincetown, and Michael will surely throw a pre-Christmas shindig, although nude Polaroids are usually involved, and I vowed never to end up in that scandal shoebox. Then there’s Nesha, Liz’s and my friend, who, bless her heart, has ex­tended an invitation to dinner “if you don’t have anything else to do.”

Will I? The 11th hour is the moment great things happen in this town. Like Christmas Eve ’92, when Hunter, Scott, and I drifted into the chapel of the Theological Seminary in Chelsea, where the burnt-out Church of the Holy Cross congregation was holding services. “I’m an athe­ist,” Hunter protested in the cold, reluctant to go inside. “Do you know what this means?” So? I was a lapsed Lutheran, and Scott was Jewish. Inside we shared a pew with another group of spectator-worshipers dressed more like they prayed at the altar of Barneys.

But then the Episcopalian pastor delivered a message of antidiscrimination, which he ex­tended to sexuality and health. And the female chorus members sang She in place of He during the Nicene Creed. That stole any grinch left in­side me; even my atheist friend smiled. Sud­denly I was terrifically glad to be there, and nowhere else.

Here’s hoping.

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Window Pain

I’m Jewish. This wasn’t my idea ro begin with, so imagine how I felt at the age of three when I discovered that there was an upcoming holiday full of twinkly lights, candy canes, and piles of presents, the centerpiece of which was a tiny doll lying in a toy cradle sur­rounded by its mommy and daddy (well, he cer­tainly seemed like the daddy … ) and a lot of cute little animals. Oh yes, my mother conced­ed. She knew all about this holiday, she rold me brightly. But it’s not for us! We don’t have it!

Quite frankly, I have never gotten over this revelation. I have spent the last three decades trying to effect a working compromise: Do I send out cards but draw the line at lights? Go for the lights but eschew the tree? Once I actually did drag a tree up six flights of stairs (did I know you need a tree stand? Did I know there would still be pine needles sticking out of the carpet on the fourth of July?). I even tried to avoid the festivities altogether by fleeing to Eu­rope, but like death in Samarra, Christmas was waiting for me when I got off the plane.

I burst into tears a lot at Christmas time. Mr. Magoo induces spasms of sobbing. I can’t watch Meet Me in St. Louis without practically having to call an ambulance. So why do I undertake my methodical investigation of each and every store’s holiday windows each and every year? Same rea­son some people hang out at the Vault, I guess.

My first srop is usually Bloomingdale’s, a store I always think of as Jewish anyway. (Saks and Bloomingdalc’s are Jewish. Lord & Taylor and Bergdorf’s are not.) This year’s display con­sists of 12 trees decorated by Robert Isabell, the hot society florist recently employed for the gar­ish wedding of one of the so-called fabulous Miller sisters. The trees are hung variously with grocery produce (strawberries and zucchinis­ — or maybe they’re cucumbers?), glitzy jewelry (the contents of a morning sweep at the 26th Street flea market?), candy, roses, crystals, Vic­torian toys, and sheaves of wheat. They’re beautiful, but not particularly snivel-inducing. Far more enticing is the small mannequin in a side window: she’s bright red, holds a green garland wound with black and white Chanel ribbons, and she’s sprouting a little tree where her head should be.

Two blocks over, the witty, vaguely cyni­cal windows at Barneys make no reference to the imminent festivities at all. They’re like the senior project of a prestigious graduate school design seminar: Dada-esque tableaux, in beige and pewter (Barneys’s version of red and green), illustrating proverbs like “many hands make light work” (disembodied digits holding lightbulbs). I can see they’re clever, but instead of inducing yuletide longing they make me feel like I’m standing outside a nightclub while the doorperson is telling me I’m not on the list.

My next stop is positively homey by com­parison: Tiffany & Co., where the tiny jewel­box windows reflect the tasteful treasures with­in. The conceit here is ornithologic: faintly Disney-esque penguins with party hats (hey, this is 57th Street) celebrate New Year’s Eve; the P. Johns family (get it?), a nuclear unit dressed in 1940s outfits, nestle in a tree house; Santa rides in a sled pulled by green parakeets, etc. The on­ly jewelry in evidence is around the neck of a woodpecker — he’s wearing a stunning cabo­chon ruby and diamond cross. (A woodpecker gets to wear a cross and I don’t?)

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I’m still dry-eyed, though I have a weak moment when the Salvation Army girl lets loose with a heartbreaking rendition of “Hark the Her­ald Angels Sing.” I have to grit my teeth and think about the plot of Guys and Dolls (I hum the Fugue for Tinhorns to distract myself) as I march down Fifth Avenue to Saks. On the way I pass Henri Bendel, where the vitrines show leering, huge­-eared automata-elves done up like doormen brandishing merchandise from their out-stretched palms. (Do Bendel’s shoppers really need this unsubtle reminder that it’s tipping time again?)

At Saks, I’m confronted with my first real­ly traditional windows of the season — a series of mechanical tableaux depicting the story of Margie and Nick and the little snowman they befriend. I won’t bore you with the details, but Nick and Margie make friends with Santa, who takes everyone to the Rainbow Room for “mu­sic, dancing, cakes and cookies. It was swell.” Suddenly I’m all choked up: I’m dying to go to the Rainbow Room on Christmas Eve too, and I ain’t ordering cookies either. After a few min­utes wallowing in my sad fate, it dawns on me: isn’t it a little fishy that Marge and Nick and even the snowman are spending Christmas Eve at the Rainbow Room instead of midnight mass?

Thus cheered, I proceed to that bastion of Christian gentility, Lord & Taylor. This is year the windows feature an old-fashioned version of Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas. There are mechanical pyrotechnics here as well — Santa’s big tummy heaves as if he’s about to have a heart attack, reindeer jog in place, and there are winsome little mice scuttling over the rafters — very charming unless you have lived on the Lower East Side where little mice still scut­tle across the rafters. (Once a mouse got trapped in my toaster oven. You don’t want to know.) The scenes are sentimental and touching and perfectly serviceable, if not terribly original.

In the corner window, there’s a poignant display of one of those Dickens Christmas vil­lages full of miniature 19th-century houses, skating ponds, dwarf trees, and surgical-cotton snow. For some reason, this little town gets to me far more than the main display. I’m starting to feel really sorry for myself (it’s easy! try it!) when I see a bunch of bedraggled second graders on a field trip being whipped along by a sullen teacher’s aide. They’ve been forced to wear big cardboard signs with their names and addresses, and although a few are facing their fate with false hilarity, many others are sunk in the pro­found existential misery I remember so well.

Nothing lifts the spirit quicker than the agony of others, and suddenly I’m so light­hearted that I fairly skip to Macy’s, a store over­loaded with Christmas mirth. I try to affect a stance as hard-bitten as the six-year-old Natalie Wood’s in Miracle on 34th Street, but it’s not really necessary: these circus-themed dioramas (a plate twirler, a clumsy acrobat) leave me al­most entirely unmoved. The coup de grace is a couple of clowns cavorting around a Volkswa­gen piled high with presents like TV sets and CD players. (A Volkswagen is supposed to make me feel nostalgic about Christmas? In my fam­ily, you re not even allowed to buy a comb that’s stamped Germany.)

The last window I look at holds two huge elephants flanking a slinky brunette mannequin in an evening gown. It’s an uncanny homage to Dovima, and I have a funny feeling that the fel­las in the display department snuck it right over the heads of Macy’s executives. But maybe they didn’t! Maybe the bureaucrats at Macy’s simply worship Avedon! Strangely buoyant, I descend the steps to the BMT, ready to go home, string up my dalmatian-and-fire-hydrant lights, and face the difficult days ahead. ❖


Lenny Bruce Tagged on Obscenity, Run Extended at Cafe Here 

Comedian Lenny Bruce and Howard Solomon, manager of the Cafe Au Go Go, 152 Bleecker Street, where Bruce is heading the bill, were arrested and taken to Sixth Precinct headquarters on Charles Street last Friday night. They were booked on charges of giving an “indecent performance.” On arriving at the police station, Solomon was served with a summons from the License Department.

The arrests were made at about 10 p.m. as Bruce was preparing to go on for his only show of the night. When he failed to appear most of the audience asked for their money back and left. Comedian Irwin Corey, who was in the audience, went on in Bruce’s place.

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Bruce and Solomon spent the night in jail and were released after arraignment the next day. Solomon was released in the rec­ognizance of his lawyer. Bruce, who has been arrested on obscenity charges in several cities and has one conviction on ap­peal in Chicago, had to post $1000 bail.

The two were told that the police had taped two of Bruce’s shows, his second show last Wednesday night (which actually began at 12:01 a.m. Thursday) and his first show last Thursday night. They were also told that the tapes had been played for a grand jury, which found that there was sufficient on which to charge them.

Solomon says the police told him that the original complaint about Bruce’s performances had come from the License Department. Acting License Commissioner William Barlow refused to comment on this. Instead he issued the following statement: “In view of the fact that a hearing is scheduled before this office on Thursday, there will be no comment on any phase until a determination has been made. We do not want to prejudice the case in any way by making any comment.”

Solomon had originally planned to operate the Cafe Au Go Go as a cabaret (which would permit dancing as well as entertainment) without liquor. He told The Voice that the License Department had indicated that he would receive a cabaret license and that he had proceeded with the renovation of the basement premises on the assumption that the license would be granted. He said his application had been filed last May, and that in December the License Department told him it would only grant him a coffee house license, which does not permit dancing.

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Bernard O’Connell, then License Commissioner, refused the license on the grounds that if dancing were permitted and no liquor were served, minors could be admitted and that they would go there to dance and then hang around until all hours of the night. Solomon told The Voice, however, that he had made it clear to the License Commissioner that he would “Abide by the letter of the law” governing cabarets and would not allow minors into his cafe unless they were accompanied by adults. He finally opened Cafe Au Go Go as a coffee house on February 7.

Vanguard Okay?

Solomon also pointed out that Bruce had appeared at the Village Vanguard last January and February and that he had given one-night performances to sell-out audiences at the Village Theatre, Second Avenue and Sixth Street, on Thanksgiving Night and the night of March 28. Neither of these establishments received complaints from either the police or the License Department.

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Bruce and Solomon will be tried on April 23 in Criminal Court. Ironically, Bruce’s arrest will serve to extend his run at Cafe Au Go Go, which was originally scheduled for one week and would have ended Sunday night. Since he has to be in town for his trial on the 23rd, he will go on performing at the Au Go Go until that date.

An Emergency Committee Againt Harassment of Lenny Bruce was formed over the weekend as a result of the arrest. The committee is circulating petitions addressed to Mayor Wagner. The petitions charge “that ‘obscenity’ has become a cudgel against free speech and only encourages intimidation of performers and their public.”


‘In Defense of Neil Simon’: Revisit a Voice Critic’s Appreciation of the Late New York Playwright

On Sunday, Neil Simon, the Bronx-born playwright and screenwriter who helped define twentieth-century American humor, passed away at the age of 91. Although Simon, during his decades atop the Broadway hierarchy, received seemingly every badge of recognition under the sun — seventeen Tony, four Oscar, and four Emmy nominations, respectively, plus a 1991 Pulitzer Prize, to boot — his work was frequently met, in the pages of the Village Voice, with less-than-glowing reception. In 2003, Voice theater critic Michael Feingold wrote of Rose’s Dilemma, Simon’s last produced play, that it “doesn’t mean anything to anybody and doesn’t reveal any understanding, on its author’s part, of how plays are written.” Feingold continued: “This was always Neil Simon’s weak point: Once a successful constructor of gag routines that could be crammed together to make evenings of theater, he’s never really bothered much about character and action — that is, about human beings and what they do.”

This reaction toward Simon’s work was not uncommon in the Voice — a strain of vitriol that Julius Novick directly addresses in “In Defense of Neil Simon,” an article from the December 31, 1970, issue, which opens with the question, “Why do people pick on poor Neil Simon?” (In a follow-up parenthetical, Novick clarifies what he means by “people”: “us radical liberals, us avant-gardists, us ‘Village Voice’ writers and readers, us enlightened ones.”) Novick, who contributed criticism to the Voice for decades, was writing on the occasion of The Gingerbread Lady, Simon’s 1970 play that lasted on Broadway for a mere handful of months, but nonetheless earned a Best Actress Tony for its star, Maureen Stapleton. At the time, Simon was still riding his first great wave of fame, just a few years removed from the mid-Sixties smashes — Barefoot in the Park (1963), The Odd Couple (1965) — that established his celebrity. “Simon,” Novick writes, “has become the ultimate contemporary symbol of Broadway success.”

Novick goes on to acknowledge certain shortcomings in Simon’s work, observing that his plays can be “so relevant to his own audience that it can seem very remote to anyone outside this audience.” But “if Mom and Dad from Great Neck really like this stuff,” Novick adds, “why should we try to make them feel uncomfortable about it? They are entitled to a little of the same tolerance from us that we demand from them.” And then, in a sentence that rings particularly true amid today’s opinion-mad social-media landscape, Novick states: “We ought to avoid trying to pass off our personal preferences as moral imperatives.”

Novick’s full “In Defense of Neil Simon” article is reprinted below. Return to the Voice throughout the rest of the week for additional coverage regarding Simon’s passing.


Before Roblox: An Online Rape When Cyberspace Was New

With the Roblox rape case in the news, we took a quarter-century leap into the Voice archives to look at a virtual attack from the early days of cyberspace. Julian Dibbell writes, “I found myself tripping now and then down the well-traveled information lane that leads to LambdaMOO, a very large and very busy rustic mansion built entirely of words.” Dibbell’s piece is a glimpse into the fresh promise — “the surreality and magic” — of the internet, when early adopters were seeing “possibilities for building, in the on-line spaces of this world, societies more decent and free than those mapped onto dirt and concrete and capital.” Published the same year the first issue of Wired magazine hit the stands, the article takes care to explain abbreviations such as “VR” in parenthetical asides. And then it tells a story we’ve become too familiar with today: Trolls, cyberbullies, and worse did not have names yet — but they were already on the scene.


A Rape in Cyberspace
By Julian Dibbell, from the December 21, 1993, issue

They say he raped them that night. They say he did it with a cunning little doll, fashioned in their image and imbued with the power to make them do whatever he desired. They say that by manipulating the doll he forced them to have sex with him, and with each other, and to do horrible, brutal things to their own bodies. And though I wasn’t there that night, I think I can assure you that what they say is true, because it all happened right in the living room — right there amid the well-stocked bookcases and the sofas and the fireplace — of a house I came for a time to think of as my second home.

Call me Dr. Bombay. Some months ago — let’s say about halfway between the first time you heard the words information superhighway and the first time you wished you never had — I found myself tripping now and then down the well-traveled information lane that leads to LambdaMOO, a very large and very busy rustic mansion built entirely of words. In the odd free moment I would type the commands that called those words onto my computer screen, dropping me with what seemed a warm electric thud inside the house’s darkened coat closet, where I checked my quotidian identity, stepped into the persona and appearance of a minor character from a long-gone television sitcom, and stepped out into the glaring chatter of the crowded living room. Sometimes, when the mood struck me, I emerged as a dolphin instead.

I won’t say why I chose to masquerade as Samantha Stevens’s outlandish cousin, or as the dolphin, or what exactly led to my mild addiction to the semifictional digital otherworlds known around the Internet as multi-user dimensions, or MUDs. This isn’t my story, after all. It’s the story of a man named Mr. Bungle, and of the ghostly sexual violence he committed in the halls of LambdaMOO, and most importantly of the ways his violence and his victims challenged the 1000 and more residents of that surreal, magic-infested mansion to become, finally, the community so many of them already believed they were.

That I was myself one of those residents has little direct bearing on the story’s events. I mention it only as a warning that my own perspective is perhaps too steeped in the surreality and magic of the place to serve as an entirely appropriate guide. For the Bungle Affair raises questions that — here on the brink of a future in which human life may find itself as tightly enveloped in digital environments as it is today in the architectural kind — demand a clear-eyed, sober, and unmystified consideration. It asks us to shut our ears momentarily to the techno-utopian ecstasies of West Coast cyberhippies and look without illusion upon the present possibilities for building, in the on-line spaces of this world, societies more decent and free than those mapped onto dirt and concrete and capital. It asks us to behold the new bodies awaiting us in virtual space undazzled by their phantom powers, and to get to the crucial work of sorting out the socially meaningful differences between those bodies and our physical ones. And most forthrightly it asks us to wrap our late-modern ontologies, epistemologies, sexual ethics, and common sense around the curious notion of rape by voodoo doll — and to try not to warp them beyond recognition in the process.

In short, the Bungle Affair dares me to explain it to you without resort to dime-store mysticisms, and I fear I may have shape-shifted by the digital moonlight one too many times to be quite up to the task. But I will do what I can, and can do no better I suppose than to lead with the facts. For if nothing else about Mr. Bungle’s case is unambiguous, the facts at least are crystal clear.

The facts begin (as they often do) with a time and a place. The time was a Monday night in March, and the place, as I’ve said, was the living room — which, due to the inviting warmth of its decor, is so invariably packed with chitchatters as to be roughly synonymous among LambdaMOOers with a party. So strong, indeed, is the sense of convivial common ground invested in the living room that a cruel mind could hardly imagine a better place in which to stage a violation of LambdaMOO’s communal spirit. And there was cruelty enough lurking in the appearance Mr. Bungle presented to the virtual world — he was at the time a fat, oleaginous, Bisquick-faced clown dressed in cum-stained harlequin garb and girdled with a mistletoe-and-hemlock belt whose buckle bore the quaint inscription “KISS ME UNDER THIS, BITCH!” But whether cruelty motivated his choice of crime scene is not among the established facts of the case. It is a fact only that he did choose the living room.

The remaining facts tell us a bit more about the inner world of Mr. Bungle, though only perhaps that it couldn’t have been a very comfortable place. They tell us that he commenced his assault entirely unprovoked, at or about 10 p.m. Pacific Standard Time. That he began by using his voodoo doll to force one of the room’s occupants to sexually service him in a variety of more or less conventional ways. That this victim was legba, a Haitian trickster spirit of indeterminate gender, brown-skinned and wearing an expensive pearl gray suit, top hat, and dark glasses. That legba heaped vicious imprecations on him all the while and that he was soon ejected bodily from the room. That he hid himself away then in his private chambers somewhere on the mansion grounds and continued the attacks without interruption, since the voodoo doll worked just as well at a distance as in proximity. That he turned his attentions now to Starsinger, a rather pointedly nondescript female character, tall, stout, and brown-haired, forcing her into unwanted liaisons with other individuals present in the room, among them legba, Bakunin (the well-known radical), and Juniper (the squirrel). That his actions grew progressively violent. That he made legba eat his/her own pubic hair. That he caused Starsinger to violate herself with a piece of kitchen cutlery. That his distant laughter echoed evilly in the living room with every successive outrage. That he could not be stopped until at last someone summoned Zippy, a wise and trusted old-timer who brought with him a gun of near wizardly powers, a gun that didn’t kill but enveloped its targets in a cage impermeable even to a voodoo doll’s powers. That Zippy fired this gun at Mr. Bungle, thwarting the doll at last and silencing the evil, distant laughter.

These particulars, as I said, are unambiguous. But they are far from simple, for the simple reason that every set of facts in virtual reality (or VR, as the locals abbreviate it) is shadowed by a second, complicating set: the “real-life” facts. And while a certain tension invariably buzzes in the gap between the hard, prosaic RL facts and their more fluid, dreamy VR counterparts, the dissonance in the Bungle case is striking. No hideous clowns or trickster spirits appear in the RL version of the incident, no voodoo dolls or wizard guns, indeed no rape at all as any RL court of law has yet defined it. The actors in the drama were university students for the most part, and they sat rather undramatically before computer screens the entire time, their only actions a spidery flitting of fingers across standard QWERTY keyboards. No bodies touched. Whatever physical interaction occurred consisted of a mingling of electronic signals sent from sites spread out between New York City and Sydney, Australia. Those signals met in LambdaMOO, certainly, just as the hideous clown and the living room party did, but what was LambdaMOO after all? Not an enchanted mansion or anything of the sort — just a middlingly complex database, maintained for experimental purposes inside a Xerox Corporation research computer in Palo Alto and open to public access via the Internet.

To be more precise about it, LambdaMOO was a MUD. Or to be yet more precise, it was a subspecies of MUD known as a MOO, which is short for “MUD, Object-Oriented.” All of which means that it was a kind of database especially designed to give users the vivid impression of moving through a physical space that in reality exists only as descriptive data filed away on a hard drive. When users dial into LambdaMOO, for instance, the program immediately presents them with a brief textual description of one of the rooms of the database’s fictional mansion (the coat closet, say). If the user wants to leave this room, she can enter a command to move in a particular direction and the database will replace the original description with a new one corresponding to the room located in the direction she chose. When the new description scrolls across the user’s screen it lists not only the fixed features of the room but all its contents at that moment — including things (tools, toys, weapons) and other users (each represented as a “character” over which he or she has sole control).

As far as the database program is concerned, all of these entities — rooms, things, characters — are just different subprograms that the program allows to interact according to rules very roughly mimicking the laws of the physical world. Characters may not leave a room in a given direction, for instance, unless the room subprogram contains an “exit” at that compass point. And if a character “says” or “does” something (as directed by its user-owner), then only the users whose characters are also located in that room will see the output describing the statement or action. Aside from such basic constraints, however, LambdaMOOers are allowed a broad freedom to create — they can describe their characters any way they like, they can make rooms of their own and decorate them to taste, and they can build new objects almost at will. The combination of all this busy user activity with the hard physics of the database can certainly induce a lucid illusion of presence — but when all is said and done the only thing you really see when you visit LambdaMOO is a kind of slow-crawling script, lines of dialogue and stage direction creeping steadily up your computer screen.

Which is all just to say that, to the extent that Mr. Bungle’s assault happened in real life at all, it happened as a sort of Punch-and-Judy show, in which the puppets and the scenery were made of nothing more substantial than digital code and snippets of creative writing. The puppeteer behind Bungle, as it happened, was a young man logging in to the MOO from a New York University computer. He could have been Al Gore for all any of the others knew, however, and he could have written Bungle’s script that night any way he chose. He could have sent a command to print the message “Mr. Bungle, smiling a saintly smile, floats angelic near the ceiling of the living room, showering joy and candy kisses down upon the heads of all below” — and everyone then receiving output from the database’s subprogram 17 (a/k/a the “living room”) would have seen that sentence on their screens.

Instead, he entered sadistic fantasies into the “voodoo doll,” a subprogram that served the not-exactly kosher purpose of attributing actions to other characters that their users did not actually write. And thus a woman in Haverford, Pennsylvania, whose account on the ’MOO attached her to a character she called Starsinger, was given the unasked-for opportunity to read the words “As if against her will, Starsinger jabs a steak knife up her ass, causing immense joy. You hear Mr. Bungle laughing evilly in the distance.” And thus the woman in Seattle who had written herself the character called legba, with a view perhaps to tasting in imagination a deity’s freedom from the burdens of the gendered flesh, got to read similarly constructed sentences in which legba, messenger of the gods, lord of crossroads and communications, suffered a brand of degradation all-too-customarily reserved for the embodied female.

“Mostly voodoo dolls are amusing,” wrote legba on the evening after Bungle’s rampage, posting a public statement to the widely read in-MOO mailing list called*social-issues, a forum for debate on matters of import to the entire populace. “And mostly I tend to think that restrictive measures around here cause more trouble than they prevent. But I also think that Mr. Bungle was being a vicious, vile fuckhead, and I…want his sorry ass scattered from #17 to the Cinder Pile. I’m not calling for policies, trials, or better jails. I’m not sure what I’m calling for. Virtual castration, if I could manage it. Mostly, [this type of thing] doesn’t happen here. Mostly, perhaps I thought it wouldn’t happen to me. Mostly, I trust people to conduct themselves with some veneer of civility. Mostly, I want his ass.”

Months later, the woman in Seattle would confide to me that as she wrote those words posttraumatic tears were streaming down her face — a real-life fact that should suffice to prove that the words’ emotional content was no mere playacting. The precise tenor of that content, however, its mingling of murderous rage and eyeball-rolling annoyance, was a curious amalgam that neither the RL nor the VR facts alone can quite account for. Where virtual reality and its conventions would have us believe that legba and Starsinger were brutally raped in their own living room, here was the victim legba scolding Mr. Bungle for a breach of “civility.” Where real life, on the other hand, insists the incident was only an episode in a free-form version of Dungeons and Dragons, confined to the realm of the symbolic and at no point threatening any player’s life, limb, or material well-being, here now was the player legba issuing aggrieved and heartfelt calls for Mr. Bungle’s dismemberment. Ludicrously excessive by RL’s lights, woefully understated by VR’s, the tone of legba’s response made sense only in the buzzing, dissonant gap between them.

Which is to say it made the only kind of sense that can be made of MUDly phenomena. For while the facts attached to any event born of a MUD’s strange, ethereal universe may march in straight, tandem lines separated neatly into the virtual and the real, its meaning lies always in that gap. You learn this axiom early in your life as a player, and it’s of no small relevance to the Bungle case that you usually learn it between the sheets, so to speak. Netsex, tinysex, virtual sex — however you name it, in real-life reality it’s nothing more than a 900-line encounter stripped of even the vestigial physicality of the voice. And yet as any but the most inhibited of newbies can tell you, it’s possibly the headiest experience the very heady world of MUDs has to offer. Amid flurries of even the most cursorily described caresses, sighs, and penetrations, the glands do engage, and often as throbbingly as they would in a real-life assignation — sometimes even more so, given the combined power of anonymity and textual suggestiveness to unshackle deep-seated fantasies. And if the virtual setting and the interplayer vibe are right, who knows? The heart may engage as well, stirring up passions as strong as many that bind lovers who observe the formality of trysting in the flesh.

To participate, therefore, in this disembodied enactment of life’s most body-centered activity is to risk the realization that when it comes to sex, perhaps the body in question is not the physical one at all, but its psychic double, the bodylike self-representation we carry around in our heads. I know, I know, you’ve read Foucault and your mind is not quite blown by the notion that sex is never so much an exchange of fluids as as it is an exchange of signs. But trust your friend Dr. Bombay, it’s one thing to grasp the notion intellectually and quite another to feel it coursing through your veins amid the virtual steam of hot netnookie. And it’s a whole other mind-blowing trip altogether to encounter it thus as a college frosh, new to the net and still in the grip of hormonal hurricanes and high-school sexual mythologies. The shock can easily reverberate throughout an entire young worldview. Small wonder, then, that a newbie’s first taste of MUD sex is often also the first time she or he surrenders wholly to the slippery terms of MUDish ontology, recognizing in a full-bodied way that what happens inside a MUD-made world is neither exactly real nor exactly make-believe, but profoundly, compellingly, and emotionally meaningful.

And small wonder indeed that the sexual nature of Mr. Bungle’s crime provoked such powerful feelings, and not just in legba (who, be it noted, was in real life a theory-savvy doctoral candidate and a longtime MOOer, but just as baffled and overwhelmed by the force of her own reaction, she later would attest, as any panting undergrad might have been). Even players who had never experienced MUD rape (the vast majority of male-presenting characters, but not as large a majority of the female-presenting as might be hoped) immediately appreciated its gravity and were moved to condemnation of the perp. legba’s missive to *social-issues followed a strongly worded one from Zippy (“Well, well,” it began, “no matter what else happens on Lambda, I can always be sure that some jerk is going to reinforce my low opinion of humanity”) and was itself followed by others from Moriah, Raccoon, Crawfish, and evangeline. Starsinger also let her feelings (“pissed”) be known. And even Jander, the Clueless Samaritan who had responded to Bungle’s cries for help and uncaged him shortly after the incident, expressed his regret once apprised of Bungle’s deeds, which he allowed to be “despicable.”

A sense was brewing that something needed to be done — done soon and in something like an organized fashion — about Mr. Bungle, in particular, and about MUD rape, in general. Regarding the general problem, evangeline, who identified herself as a survivor of both virtual rape (“many times over”) and real-life sexual assault, floated a cautious proposal for a MOO-wide powwow on the subject of virtual sex offenses and what mechanisms if any might be put in place to deal with their future occurrence. As for the specific problem, the answer no doubt seemed obvious to many. But it wasn’t until the evening of the second day after the incident that legba, finally and rather solemnly, gave it voice:

“I am requesting that Mr. Bungle be toaded for raping Starsinger and I. I have never done this before, and have thought about it for days. He hurt us both.”

That was all. Three simple sentences posted to *social. Reading them, an outsider might never guess that they were an application for a death warrant. Even an outsider familiar with other MUDs might not guess it, since in many of them “toading” still refers to a command that, true to the gameworlds’ sword-and-sorcery origins, simply turns a player into a toad, wiping the player’s description and attributes and replacing them with those of the slimy amphibian. Bad luck for sure, but not quite as bad as what happens when the same command is invoked in the MOOish strains of MUD: not only are the description and attributes of the toaded player erased, but the account itself goes too. The annihilation of the character, thus, is total.

And nothing less than total annihilation, it seemed, would do to settle LambdaMOO’s accounts with Mr. Bungle. Within minutes of the posting of legba’s appeal, SamIAm, the Australian Deleuzean, who had witnessed much of the attack from the back room of his suburban Sydney home, seconded the motion with a brief message crisply entitled “Toad the fukr.” SamIAm’s posting was seconded almost as quickly by that of Bakunin, covictim of Mr. Bungle and well-known radical, who in real life happened also to be married to the real-life legba. And over the course of the next 24 hours as many as 50 players made it known, on *social and in a variety of other forms and forums, that they would be pleased to see Mr. Bungle erased from the face of the MOO. And with dissent so far confined to a dozen or so antitoading hardliners, the numbers suggested that the citizenry was indeed moving towards a resolve to have Bungle’s virtual head.

There was one small but stubborn obstacle in the way of this resolve, however, and that was a curious state of social affairs known in some quarters of the MOO as the New Direction. It was all very fine, you see, for the LambdaMOO rabble to get it in their heads to liquidate one of their peers, but when the time came to actually do the deed it would require the services of a nobler class of character. It would require a wizard. Master-programmers of the MOO, spelunkers of the database’s deepest code-structures and custodians of its day-to-day administrative trivia, wizards are also the only players empowered to issue the toad command, a feature maintained on nearly all MUDs as a quick-and-dirty means of social control. But the wizards of LambdaMOO, after years of adjudicating all manner of interplayer disputes with little to show for it but their own weariness and the smoldering resentment of the general populace, had decided they’d had enough of the social sphere. And so, four months before the Bungle incident, the archwizard Haakon (known in RL as Pavel Curtis, Xerox researcher and LambdaMOO’s principal architect) formalized this decision in a document called “LambdaMOO Takes a New Direction,” which he placed in the living room for all to see. In it, Haakon announced that the wizards from that day forth were pure technicians. From then on, they would make no decisions affecting the social life of the MOO, but only implement whatever decisions the community as a whole directed them to. From then on, it was decreed, LambdaMOO would just have to grow up and solve its problems on its own.

Faced with the task of inventing its own self-governance from scratch, the LambdaMOO population had so far done what any other loose, amorphous agglomeration of individuals would have done: they’d let it slide. But now the task took on new urgency. Since getting the wizards to toad Mr. Bungle (or to toad the likes of him in the future) required a convincing case that the cry for his head came from the community at large, then the community itself would have to be defined; and if the community was to be convincingly defined, then some form of social organization, no matter how rudimentary, would have to be settled on. And thus, as if against its will, the question of what to do about Mr. Bungle began to shape itself into a sort of referendum on the political future of the MOO. Arguments broke out on *social and elsewhere that had only superficially to do with Bungle (since everyone agreed he was a cad) and everything to do with where the participants stood on LambdaMOO’s crazy-quilty political map. Parliamentarian legalist types argued that unfortunately Bungle could not legitimately be toaded at all, since there were no explicit MOO rules against rape, or against just about anything else — and the sooner such rules were established, they added, and maybe even a full-blown judiciary system complete with elected officials and prisons to enforce those rules, the better. Others, with a royalist streak in them, seemed to feel that Bungle’s as-yet-unpunished outrage only proved this New Direction silliness had gone on long enough, and that it was high time the wizardocracy returned to the position of swift and decisive leadership their player class was born to.

And then there were what I’ll call the technolibertarians. For them, MUD rapists were of course assholes, but the presence of assholes on the system was a technical inevitability, like noise on a phone line, and best dealt with not through repressive social disciplinary mechanisms but through the timely deployment of defensive software tools. Some asshole blasting violent, graphic language at you? Don’t whine to the authorities about it — hit the @gag command and the asshole’s statements will be blocked from your screen (and only yours). It’s simple, it’s effective, and it censors no one.

But the Bungle case was rather hard on such arguments. For one thing, the extremely public nature of the living room meant that gagging would spare the victims only from witnessing their own violation, but not from having others witness it. You might want to argue that what those victims didn’t directly experience couldn’t hurt them, but consider how that wisdom would sound to a woman who’d been, say, fondled by strangers while passed out drunk and you have a rough idea how it might go over with a crowd of hard-core MOOers. Consider, for another thing, that many of the biologically female participants in the Bungle debate had been around long enough to grow lethally weary of the gag-and-get-over-it school of virtual-rape counseling, with its fine line between empowering victims and holding them responsible for their own suffering, and its shrugging indifference to the window of pain between the moment the rape-text starts flowing and the moment a gag shuts it off. From the outset it was clear that the technolibertarians were going to have to tiptoe through this issue with care, and for the most part they did.

Yet no position was trickier to maintain than that of the MOO’s resident anarchists. Like the technolibbers, the anarchists didn’t care much for punishments or policies or power elites. Like them, they hoped the MOO could be a place where people interacted fulfillingly without the need for such things. But their high hopes were complicated, in general, by a somewhat less thoroughgoing faith in technology (“Even if you can’t tear down the master’s house with the master’s tools” — read a slogan written into one anarchist player’s self-description — “it is a damned good place to start”). And at present they were additionally complicated by the fact that the most vocal anarchists in the discussion were none other than legba, Bakunin, and SamIAm, who wanted to see Mr. Bungle toaded as badly as anyone did.

Needless to say, a pro-death penalty platform is not an especially comfortable one for an anarchist to sit on, so these particular anarchists were now at great pains to sever the conceptual ties between toading and capital punishment. Toading, they insisted (almost convincingly), was much more closely analogous to banishment; it was a kind of turning of the communal back on the offending party, a collective action which, if carried out properly, was entirely consistent with anarchist models of community. And carrying it out properly meant first and foremost building a consensus around it — a messy process for which there were no easy technocratic substitutes. It was going to take plenty of good old-fashioned, jawbone-intensive grassroots organizing.

So that when the time came, at 7 p.m. PST on the evening of the third day after the occurrence in the living room, to gather in evangeline’s room for her proposed real-time open conclave, Bakunin and legba were among the first to arrive. But this was hardly to be an anarchist-dominated affair, for the room was crowding rapidly with representatives of all the MOO’s political stripes, and even a few wizards. Hagbard showed up, and Autumn and Quastro, Puff, JoeFeedback, L-dopa and Bloaf, HerkieCosmo, Silver Rocket, Karl Porcupine, Matchstick — the names piled up and the discussion gathered momentum under their weight. Arguments multiplied and mingled, players talked past and through each other, the textual clutter of utterances and gestures filled up the screen like thick cigar smoke. Peaking in number at around 30, this was one of the largest crowds that ever gathered in a single LambdaMOO chamber, and while evangeline had given her place a description that made it “infinite in expanse and fluid in form,” it now seemed anything but roomy. You could almost feel the claustrophobic air of the place, dank and overheated by virtual bodies, pressing against your skin.

I know you could because I too was there, making my lone and insignificant appearance in this story. Completely ignorant of any of the goings-on that had led to the meeting, I wandered in purely to see what the crowd was about, and though I observed the proceedings for a good while, I confess I found it hard to grasp what was going on. I was still the rankest of newbies then, my MOO legs still too unsteady to make the leaps of faith, logic, and empathy required to meet the spectacle on its own terms. I was fascinated by the concept of virtual rape, but I couldn’t quite take it seriously.

In this, though, I was in a small and mostly silent minority, for the discussion that raged around me was of an almost unrelieved earnestness, bent it seemed on examining every last aspect and implication of Mr. Bungle’s crime. There were the central questions, of course: thumbs up or down on Bungle’s virtual existence? And if down, how then to insure that his toading was not just some isolated lynching but a first step toward shaping LambdaMOO into a legitimate community? Surrounding these, however, a tangle of weighty side issues proliferated. What, some wondered, was the real-life legal status of the offense? Could Bungle’s university administrators punish him for sexual harassment? Could he be prosecuted under California state laws against obscene phone calls? Little enthusiasm was shown for pursuing either of these lines of action, which testifies both to the uniqueness of the crime and to the nimbleness with which the discussants were negotiating its idiosyncracies. Many were the casual references to Bungle’s deed as simply “rape,” but these in no way implied that the players had lost sight of all distinctions between the virtual and physical versions, or that they believed Bungle should be dealt with in the same way a real-life criminal would. He had committed a MOO crime, and his punishment, if any, would be meted out via the MOO.

On the other hand, little patience was shown toward any attempts to downplay the seriousness of what Mr. Bungle had done. When the affable HerkieCosmo proposed, more in the way of an hypothesis than an assertion, that “perhaps it’s better to release…violent tendencies in a virtual environment rather than in real life,” he was tut-tutted so swiftly and relentlessly that he withdrew the hypothesis altogether, apologizing humbly as he did so. Not that the assembly was averse to putting matters into a more philosophical perspective. “Where does the body end and the mind begin?” young Quastro asked, amid recurring attempts to fine-tune the differences between real and virtual violence. “Is not the mind a part of the body?” “In MOO, the body IS the mind,” offered HerkieCosmo gamely, and not at all implausibly, demonstrating the ease with which very knotty metaphysical conundrums come undone in VR. The not-so-aptly named Obvious seemed to agree, arriving after deep consideration of the nature of Bungle’s crime at the hardly novel yet now somehow newly resonant conjecture “all reality might consist of ideas, who knows.”

On these and other matters the anarchists, the libertarians, the legalists, the wizardists — and the wizards — all had their thoughtful say. But as the evening wore on and the talk grew more heated and more heady, it seemed increasingly clear that the vigorous intelligence being brought to bear on this swarm of issues wasn’t going to result in anything remotely like resolution. The perspectives were just too varied, the meme-scape just too slippery. Again and again, arguments that looked at first to be heading in a decisive direction ended up chasing their own tails; and slowly, depressingly, a dusty haze of irrelevance gathered over the proceedings.

It was almost a relief, therefore, when midway through the evening Mr. Bungle himself, the living, breathing cause of all this talk, teleported into the room. Not that it was much of a surprise. Oddly enough, in the three days since his release from Zippy’s cage, Bungle had returned more than once to wander the public spaces of LambdaMOO, walking willingly into one of the fiercest storms of ill will and invective ever to rain down on a player. He’d been taking it all with a curious and mostly silent passivity, and when challenged face to virtual face by both legba and the genderless elder statescharacter PatGently to defend himself on *social, he’d demurred, mumbling something about Christ and expiation. He was equally quiet now, and his reception was still uniformly cool. legba fixed an arctic stare on him — “no hate, no anger, no interest at all. Just…watching.” Others were more actively unfriendly. “Asshole,” spat Karl Porcupine, “creep.” But the harshest of the MOO’s hostility toward him had already been vented, and the attention he drew now was motivated more, it seemed, by the opportunity to probe the rapist’s mind, to find out what made it tick and if possible how to get it to tick differently. In short, they wanted to know why he’d done it. So they asked him.

And Mr. Bungle thought about it. And as eddies of discussion and debate continued to swirl around him, he thought about it some more. And then he said this:

“I engaged in a bit of a psychological device that is called thought-polarization, the fact that this is not RL simply added to heighten the affect of the device. It was purely a sequence of events with no consequence on my RL existence.”

They might have known. Stilted though its diction was, the gist of the answer was simple, and something many in the room had probably already surmised: Mr. Bungle was a psycho. Not, perhaps, in real life — but then in real life it’s possible for reasonable people to assume, as Bungle clearly did, that what transpires between word-costumed characters within the boundaries of a make-believe world is, if not mere play, then at most some kind of emotional laboratory experiment. Inside the MOO, however, such thinking marked a person as one of two basically subcompetent types. The first was the newbie, in which case the confusion was understandable, since there were few MOOers who had not, upon their first visits as anonymous “guest” characters, mistaken the place for a vast playpen in which they might act out their wildest fantasies without fear of censure. Only with time and the acquisition of a fixed character do players tend to make the critical passage from anonymity to pseudonymity, developing the concern for their character’s reputation that marks the attainment of virtual adulthood. But while Mr. Bungle hadn’t been around as long as most MOOers, he’d been around long enough to leave his newbie status behind, and his delusional statement therefore placed him among the second type: the sociopath.

And as there is but small percentage in arguing with a head case, the room’s attention gradually abandoned Mr. Bungle and returned to the discussions that had previously occupied it. But if the debate had been edging toward ineffectuality before, Bungle’s anticlimactic appearance had evidently robbed it of any forward motion whatsoever. What’s more, from his lonely corner of the room Mr. Bungle kept issuing periodic expressions of a prickly sort of remorse, interlaced with sarcasm and belligerence, and though it was hard to tell if he wasn’t still just conducting his experiments, some people thought his regret genuine enough that maybe he didn’t deserve to be toaded after all. Logically, of course, discussion of the principal issues at hand didn’t require unanimous belief that Bungle was an irredeemable bastard, but now that cracks were showing in that unanimity, the last of the meeting’s fervor seemed to be draining out through them.

People started drifting away. Mr. Bungle left first, then others followed — one by one, in twos and threes, hugging friends and waving goodnight. By 9:45 only a handful remained, and the great debate had wound down into casual conversation, the melancholy remains of another fruitless good idea. The arguments had been well-honed, certainly, and perhaps might prove useful in some as-yet-unclear long run. But at this point what seemed clear was that evangeline’s meeting had died, at last, and without any practical results to mark its passing.

It was also at this point, most likely, that JoeFeedback reached his decision. JoeFeedback was a wizard, a taciturn sort of fellow who’d sat brooding on the sidelines all evening. He hadn’t said a lot, but what he had said indicated that he took the crime committed against legba and Starsinger very seriously, and that he felt no particular compassion toward the character who had committed it. But on the other hand he had made it equally plain that he took the elimination of a fellow player just as seriously, and moreover that he had no desire to return to the days of wizardly fiat. It must have been difficult, therefore, to reconcile the conflicting impulses churning within him at that moment. In fact, it was probably impossible, for as much as he would have liked to make himself an instrument of LambdaMOO’s collective will, he surely realized that under the present order of things he must in the final analysis either act alone or not act at all.

So JoeFeedback acted alone.

He told the lingering few players in the room that he had to go, and then he went. It was a minute or two before ten. He did it quietly and he did it privately, but all anyone had to do to know he’d done it was to type the @who command, which was normally what you typed if you wanted to know a player’s present location and the time he last logged in. But if you had run a @who on Mr. Bungle not too long after JoeFeedback left evangeline’s room, the database would have told you something different.

“Mr. Bungle,” it would have said, “is not the name of any player.”

The date, as it happened, was April Fool’s Day, and it would still be April Fool’s Day for another two hours. But this was no joke: Mr. Bungle was truly dead and truly gone.

They say that LambdaMOO has never been the same since Mr. Bungle’s toading. They say as well that nothing’s really changed. And though it skirts the fuzziest of dream-logics to say that both these statements are true, the MOO is just the sort of fuzzy, dreamlike place in which such contradictions thrive.

Certainly whatever civil society now informs LambdaMOO owes its existence to the Bungle Affair. The archwizard Haakon made sure of that. Away on business for the duration of the episode, Haakon returned to find its wreckage strewn across the tiny universe he’d set in motion. The death of a player, the trauma of several others, and the angst-ridden conscience of his colleague JoeFeedback presented themselves to his concerned and astonished attention, and he resolved to see if he couldn’t learn some lesson from it all. For the better part of a day he brooded over the record of events and arguments left in *social, then he sat pondering the chaotically evolving shape of his creation, and at the day’s end he descended once again into the social arena of the MOO with another history-altering proclamation.

It was probably his last, for what he now decreed was the final, missing piece of the New Direction. In a few days, Haakon announced, he would build into the database a system of petitions and ballots whereby anyone could put to popular vote any social scheme requiring wizardly powers for its implementation, with the results of the vote to be binding on the wizards. At last and for good, the awkward gap between the will of the players and the efficacy of the technicians would be closed. And though some anarchists grumbled about the irony of Haakon’s dictatorially imposing universal suffrage on an unconsulted populace, in general the citizens of LambdaMOO seemed to find it hard to fault a system more purely democratic than any that could ever exist in real life. Eight months and a dozen ballot measures later, widespread participation in the new regime has produced a small arsenal of mechanisms for dealing with the types of violence that called the system into being. MOO residents now have access to a @boot command, for instance, with which to summarily eject berserker “guest” characters. And players can bring suit against one another through an ad hoc arbitration system in which mutually agreed-upon judges have at their disposition the full range of wizardly punishments — up to and including the capital.

Yet the continued dependence on death as the ultimate keeper of the peace suggests that this new MOO order may not be built on the most solid of foundations. For if life on LambdaMOO began to acquire more coherence in the wake of the toading, death retained all the fuzziness of pre-Bungle days. This truth was rather dramatically borne out, not too many days after Bungle departed, by the arrival of a strange new character named Dr. Jest. There was a forceful eccentricity to the newcomer’s manner, but the oddest thing about his style was its striking yet unnameable familiarity. And when he developed the annoying habit of stuffing fellow players into a jar containing a tiny simulacrum of a certain deceased rapist, the source of this familiarity became obvious:

Mr. Bungle had risen from the grave.

In itself, Bungle’s reincarnation as Dr. Jest was a remarkable turn of events, but perhaps even more remarkable was the utter lack of amazement with which the LambdaMOO public took note of it. To be sure, many residents were appalled by the brazenness of Bungle’s return. In fact, one of the first petitions circulated under the new voting system was a request for Dr. Jest’s toading that almost immediately gathered 52 signatures (but has failed so far to reach ballot status). Yet few were unaware of the ease with which the toad proscription could be circumvented — all the toadee had to do (all the ur-Bungle at NYU presumably had done) was to go to the minor hassle of acquiring a new Internet account, and LambdaMOO’s character registration program would then simply treat the known felon as an entirely new and innocent person. Nor was this ease generally understood to represent a failure of toading’s social disciplinary function. On the contrary, it only underlined the truism (repeated many times throughout the debate over Mr. Bungle’s fate) that his punishment, ultimately, had been no more or less symbolic than his crime.

What was surprising, however, was that Mr. Bungle/Dr. Jest seemed to have taken the symbolism to heart. Dark themes still obsessed him — the objects he created gave off wafts of Nazi imagery and medical torture — but he no longer radiated the aggressively antisocial vibes he had before. He was a lot less unpleasant to look at (the outrageously seedy clown description had been replaced by that of a mildly creepy but actually rather natty young man, with “blue eyes…suggestive of conspiracy, untamed eroticism and perhaps a sense of understanding of the future”), and aside from the occasional jar-stuffing incident, he was also a lot less dangerous to be around. It was obvious he’d undergone some sort of personal transformation in the days since I’d first glimpsed him back in evangeline’s crowded room — nothing radical maybe, but powerful nonetheless, and resonant enough with my own experience, I felt, that it might be more than professionally interesting to talk with him, and perhaps compare notes.

For I too was undergoing a transformation in the aftermath of that night in evangeline’s, and I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it. As I pursued my runaway fascination with the discussion I had heard there, as I pored over the *social debate and got to know legba and some of the other victims and witnesses, I could feel my newbie consciousness falling away from me. Where before I’d found it hard to take virtual rape seriously, I now was finding it difficult to remember how I could ever not have taken it seriously. I was proud to have arrived at this perspective — it felt like an exotic sort of achievement, and it definitely made my ongoing experience of the MOO a richer one.

But it was also having some unsettling effects on the way I looked at the rest of the world. Sometimes, for instance, it was hard for me to understand why RL society classifies RL rape alongside crimes against person or property. Since rape can occur without any physical pain or damage, I found myself reasoning, then it must be classed as a crime against the mind — more intimately and deeply hurtful, to be sure, than cross burnings, wolf whistles, and virtual rape, but undeniably located on the same conceptual continuum. I did not, however, conclude as a result that rapists were protected in any fashion by the First Amendment. Quite the opposite, in fact: the more seriously I took the notion of virtual rape, the less seriously I was able to take the notion of freedom of speech, with its tidy division of the world into the symbolic and the real.

Let me assure you, though, that I am not presenting these thoughts as arguments. I offer them, rather, as a picture of the sort of mind-set that deep immersion in a virtual world has inspired in me. I offer them also, therefore, as a kind of prophecy. For whatever else these thoughts tell me, I have come to believe that they announce the final stages of our decades-long passage into the Information Age, a paradigm shift that the classic liberal firewall between word and deed (itself a product of an earlier paradigm shift commonly known as the Enlightenment) is not likely to survive intact. After all, anyone the least bit familiar with the workings of the new era’s definitive technology, the computer, knows that it operates on a principle impracticably difficult to distinguish from the pre-Enlightenment principle of the magic word: the commands you type into a computer are a kind of speech that doesn’t so much communicate as make things happen, directly and ineluctably, the same way pulling a trigger does. They are incantations, in other words, and anyone at all attuned to the technosocial megatrends of the moment — from the growing dependence of economies on the global flow of intensely fetishized words and numbers to the burgeoning ability of bioengineers to speak the spells written in the four-letter text of DNA — knows that the logic of the incantation is rapidly permeating the fabric of our lives.

And it’s precisely this logic that provides the real magic in a place like LambdaMOO — not the fictive trappings of voodoo and shapeshifting and wizardry, but the conflation of speech and act that’s inevitable in any computer-mediated world, be it Lambda or the increasingly wired world at large. This is dangerous magic, to be sure, a potential threat — if misconstrued or misapplied — to our always precarious freedoms of expression, and as someone who lives by his words I do not take the threat lightly. And yet, on the other hand, I can no longer convince myself that our wishful insulation of language from the realm of action has ever been anything but a valuable kludge, a philosophically damaged stopgap against oppression that would just have to do till something truer and more elegant came along.

Am I wrong to think this truer, more elegant thing can be found on LambdaMOO? Perhaps, but I continue to seek it there, sensing its presence just beneath the surface of every interaction. I have even thought, as I said, that discussing with Dr. Jest our shared experience of the workings of the MOO might help me in my search. But when that notion first occurred to me, I still felt somewhat intimidated by his lingering criminal aura, and I hemmed and hawed a good long time before finally resolving to drop him MOO-mail requesting an interview. By then it was too late. For reasons known only to himself, Dr. Jest had stopped logging in. Maybe he’d grown bored with the MOO. Maybe the loneliness of ostracism had gotten to him. Maybe a psycho whim had carried him far away or maybe he’d quietly acquired a third character and started life over with a cleaner slate.

Wherever he’d gone, though, he left behind the room he’d created for himself — a treehouse “tastefully decorated” with rare-book shelves, an operating table, and a life-size William S. Burroughs doll — and he left it unlocked. So I took to checking in there occasionally, and I still do from time to time. I head out of my own cozy nook (inside a TV set inside the little red hotel inside the Monopoly board inside the dining room of LambdaMOO), and I teleport on over to the treehouse, where the room description always tells me Dr. Jest is present but asleep, in the conventional depiction for disconnected characters. The not-quite-emptiness of the abandoned room invariably instills in me an uncomfortable mix of melancholy and the creeps, and I stick around only on the off chance that Dr. Jest will wake up, say hello, and share his understanding of the future with me.

He won’t, of course, but this is no great loss. Increasingly, the complex magic of the MOO interests me more as a way to live the present than to understand the future. And it’s usually not long before I leave Dr. Jest’s lonely treehouse and head back to the mansion, to see some friends.


Which City Beach Are We? A Village Voice Investigation

Did you know that the New York City Parks Department, in its dedication to helping inform you about the glory that is the city’s nine public beaches, offers a web quiz called “What Beach Are You?” You do now! Also we do now, and the Village Voice staff, plus several regular contributors, decided to take it for a spin and see how accurate it is, if “accuracy” is even a word that applies here. The results may surprise you!

Bilge Ebiri, staff writer: Midland Beach

I have never heard of Midland Beach. I said I liked the beach, fish fry, mysteries, and watermelon. Also I chose Bryan Adams, I’m so sorry. I’m also confused why “I love a good mystery” and “Gone Girl” are two separate choices. Isn’t that a mystery? Kind of?

Coco McPherson, contributing writer: Midland Beach

Not even choosing the Ramones to sway the results in favor of my beach, Beach 116th Street, did anything.

D.J. Cashmere, contributing writer: South Beach

While I’ve never been, this quiz has successfully added an item to my Summer 2018 To-Do-List. The journalism nerd in me might even bring Gay Talese’s The Bridge to read in the shadows of the Verrazano.

Lara Zarum, staff writer: South Beach

Not only have I never been to South Beach, but I wasn’t entirely sure what borough it was in until I Googled it. Apparently it’s on Staten Island. I’m not sure what that says about me but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the NYC Parks Department is throwing some serious shade my way.

Joshunda Sanders, contributing writer: South Beach

I thought South Beach was only a diet or a locale in Florida, so imagine this Bronx girl’s shock, getting trolled by the New York City Parks quiz — probably because I like a good book and Whitney Houston in combination.

Jake Bittle, contributing writer: South Beach

I’ve actually been here, and it sucks.

Donna Delmas, senior director, digital media: Cedar Grove Beach

So I’m looking up photos of Cedar Beach. I guess that makes sense that I, the resident goth girl who hates the sun and chose sunblock as a necessity, got this as a result. The creepy vibe of the abandoned buildings is the perfect backdrop for reading good mysteries.

Nina Pearlman, copy chief: Cedar Grove Beach

I picked sunscreen for my essential item (because they didn’t list “beach umbrella” as an option) so I’m wondering if this beach is really shady. Or if it’s not particularly exciting, since I chose “cold water” as the thing I like to drink. Also, I prefer the mountains to the beach.

Ashley Smestad-Velez, art director: Rockaway Beach

I hate all the beaches here, no palm trees. But I like having taco and arepa stands at walking distance from the sand. You can’t get it all!

Neil deMause, senior editor (news): Rockaway Beach

I am 100 percent convinced this is solely because of my selection for music. If I change my choice to “Under the Sea by the Beatles,” I get Manhattan Beach, which is in fact my preferred beach, since it’s quiet and has nice surf to play in and (sometimes) popsicles. Unfortunately, I can’t in good conscience do that, because that is not actually a Beatles song.

Steven Wishnia, contributing writer: Rockaway Beach

A rock-solid pick musically — sun is out and I want some! — but wrong. Brighton Beach is my ancestral home, five generations of my family have cooled themselves in its waters, and it’s better for actually swimming. The clueless sorts who put together online quizzes about NYC left out knishes as a snack, whether they be mustard-doused squares on the boardwalk, the kasha orbs from the late, lamented Mrs. Stahl’s, or the stromboli-shaped split pea ones Russian women sell for $1.50 under the Brighton Beach Avenue El.

Aviva Stahl, contributing writer: Rockaway Beach

For a beach-loving queer New Yorker like me, the gay part of Riis feels like a summer home. The fashion! The music! The cliques! Those inevitable awkward run-ins! I feel so grateful for the temporary community the Rockaways bring into my life when the days get hot and long. I’d take Riis over Pride any day.

Ted Kerr, contributing writer: Orchard Beach

I finally feel seen by this city.


Spending Pride Week in New York? Here’s a Start on Where to Go

New York’s Pride Week is a ridiculous smorgasbord of cultural and political events, official and unofficial, and no listing could ever hope to be complete. That said, here are some of the biggest can’t-miss occasions over the next week-plus, with special attention to those that Voice staffers are gearing up for.

Saturday, June 16, 7:30 p.m.: Big Queer Pod Fest
Bell House, 149 7th Street, Brooklyn

The Bell House in Gowanus will host a showcase of four major New York–based queer podcasts, including WNYC’s frequently touching Nancy, which explores the nuances of queer identity, and Food 4 Thot, a hilarious four-man podcast that focuses on sex, relationships, and “Marxist rants.” Each of the hosts will lead a performance or conversation, so get there early, as seating at the bar is limited. — Jake Bittle

Sunday, June 17, 11 a.m.: 1 Bronx Pride Festival
East 149th Street and Third Avenue, the Bronx

The 1 Bronx Pride Festival kicks off with a march down 161st Street to 149th Street and Third Avenue — after Times Square, maybe the city’s busiest intersection. This year’s hosts include Dominique Jackson and Ryan Jamaal Swain from Pose, the hit FX series that celebrates the Eighties ball scene. Steve Canals, the show’s Bronx-born co-creator, calls it “a love letter…to the miraculous queer and trans, black and brown souls who managed to create community in the face of a plague, violence, and familial rejection.” 1 Bronx Pride’s tagline sends much the same message: Resist. Be heard. Be Valiant. Indeed. — Coco McPherson

Monday, June 18, 6–10 p.m.: Garden Party, a Benefit for the LGBT Community Center
Pier 84, Hudson River Park, West Side Highway at 44th Street

Monday, June 18, 7:30 p.m: OutCinema, Ideal Home
SVA Theatre, 333 West 23rd Street

Tuesday, June 19, 7:30 p.m: OutCinema, Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco
SVA Theatre, 333 West 23rd Street

Tuesday, June 19, 7:30 p.m.: Pride Week at the Joyce, Madboots Dance
The Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue

Tuesday, June 19, 8:30 p.m.: Family Movie Night, Beauty and the Beast
Pier 45, Hudson River Park

Families looking to celebrate Pride Week together need look no further than the outdoor Family Movie Night, which this year is screening Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, at Hudson River Park’s Pier 45. Miss Richfield 1981, the drag alter-ego of Minnesota’s Russ King, will be making a repeat appearance as host. While the event is free, movie passes, which offer reserved seating (and goodie bags!), are also available for a fee; all proceeds will go to Heritage of Pride / NYC Pride and other LGBTQ organizations.  — Nina Pearlman

Wednesday, June 20, 6 p.m.: Big Gay Roller Skate
LeFrak Center at Lakeside, Prospect Park, Brooklyn 

LeFrak Center, the skating rink on the east side of Prospect Park, will host a come-one-come-all roller-skating bash featuring hours of music and drag performances on skates. If that doesn’t sound impressive to you, or if you’re too scared to step out on the rink, get boozed up at the pre-skate cocktail hour (skating starts at 7 p.m.) and then give it a try. Skates will be available for rental. — Jake Bittle

Wednesday, June 20, 7:30 p.m.: Pride Week at the Joyce, Sean Dorsey Dance, “The Missing Generation”
The Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue

Wednesday, June 20, 8 p.m: OutCinema, From Selma to Stonewall: Are We There Yet?
SVA Theatre, 333 West 23rd Street

Wednesday, June 20–Saturday, June 30: Hannah Gadsby: Nanette
Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street

After a successful run of shows earlier this spring, Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby is back with her explosive stand-up special Nanette — the winner of the Edinburgh Comedy Award at that city’s famous Fringe Festival in 2017 — just in time for Pride Week. Nanette finds Gadsby, who is gay, reorienting our view of who gets to be angry onstage and make people uncomfortable; who gets to dish it, and who has to sit there and take it. The special is very funny, but it almost feels inaccurate to call it a comedy show. It’s more like a humorous treatise on comedy and how it can normalize the status quo. Nanette will be released on Netflix on June 19, but don’t miss your chance to see this powerfully compelling show live. — Lara Zarum

Thursday, June 21, 5 p.m.–Sunday, June 24, 4:30 p.m.: Outsports Pride
Various Locations

For the third straight year, the sports news website SB Nation is hosting a conference for queer athletes and allies of all ages and levels, from high school junior varsity to major-league professionals. Workshops and panels led by speakers including former NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan and the NFL’s only out assistant coach, Katie Sowers, will promote a message of empowerment and give LGBTQ athletes space to build community. — Jake Bittle

Thursday, June 21, 6–10 p.m.: Savor Pride, a New LGBTQ Culinary Experience
God’s Love We Deliver, 166 Sixth Avenue

Thursday, June 21, 8 p.m.: Pride Week at the Joyce, Madboots Dance
The Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue

Friday, June 22, 5–7 p.m.: The Rally
Stonewall National Monument, West 4th Street

Friday, June 22, 7–10 p.m.: Cosplay & Pride
Pier 40, Hudson River Park, West Houston Street and Clarkson Street

Friday, June 22, 8 p.m.: Pride Week at the Joyce, Sean Dorsey Dance, “The Missing Generation”
The Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue

Friday, June 22, 10 p.m.: Fantasy: Leather Edition
Slate, 54 West 21st Street

Get those boots and harnesses ready: The fourth annual Pride megaparty will be leather-themed this year, a significant improvement over last year’s theme of “Men at Work.” The bash will be hosted at Slate, a massive bar in the Flatiron district usually known for its billiards, and will feature multiple DJs plus “secret acts,” as well as VIP seating and bottle service for the big spenders. Must be 21 or older. — Jake Bittle

Saturday, June 23, 12–6 p.m.: Youth Pride
14th Street Park, 14th Street between Tenth Avenue and West Side Highway

Saturday, June 23, 2 p.m.: Pride Island
Pier 97, Hudson River Park, 57th Street and West Side Highway

Pier 97 in Hell’s Kitchen will transform into a “central hub” for the city’s Pride Week festivities, including a two-day music festival, “Pride Island,” featuring artists from various genres. The Sunday concert, headlined by Kylie Minogue, has already sold out, but tickets are still available for Saturday’s show, which will feature Swedish pop artist Tove Lo (of “Habits” fame) and the fantastic Minnesota alt-hip-hop artist Lizzo, known for her sex-positive jams. — Jake Bittle

Saturday, June 23, 2 p.m.: Pride Week at the Joyce, Sean Dorsey Dance, “The Missing Generation”
The Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue

Saturday, June 23, 2–10 p.m.: VIP Rooftop Party
Hudson Terrace, 621 West 46th Street

Saturday, June 23, 5 p.m.–midnight: Teaze HER
The D.L., 95 Delancey Street

Saturday, June 23, 8 p.m.: Pride Week at the Joyce, Madboots Dance
The Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue

Saturday, June 23, 10 p.m.–6 a.m.: Masterbeat Masterbuilt
Hammerstein Ballroom, 311 West 34th Street

Sunday, June 24, 11 a.m.–6 p.m.: PrideFest
University Place between 13th Street and Waverly Place

Sunday, June 24, noon: The March
Seventh Avenue and 16th Street

Sunday, June 24, 4–10 p.m.: Femme Fatale
Hudson Terrace, 621 West 46th Street

Sunday, June 24, 7 p.m.; Tuesday, June 26, 9:30 p.m.: Becca Blackwell: They, Themself and Schmerm
Joe’s Pub, 425 Lafayette Street

Back in February, the trans writer and performer Becca Blackwell brought their one-person show They, Themself and Schmerm to Joe’s Pub, where it promptly sold out and earned enthusiastic notices for its melding of forms (memoir-ish stand-up, audience-participation segments) and its frank unpacking of gender fluidity. In a 2012 interview with the Voice, Blackwell remarked, of their experience of being a performance artist in New York, “As someone who doesn’t fit into a binary of male or female it can be very frustrating because most work is based in those two categories only.” Six years on, Blackwell’s wrestlings with these matters are still just as politically urgent and comedically lively. (“I’m trans,” they say in one segment posted to YouTube, “but I’ll let you figure out which one.”) So after a week of outdoor-heavy Pride events, cozy up in the confines of Joe’s Pub, where two encore performances of They, Themself and Schmerm await audiences. —Danny King

Sunday, June 24, 7 p.m.: Pride Week Satanic Bingo
Bizarre, 12 Jefferson Street, Brooklyn

If you’ve never heard of Satanic Bingo, you’re welcome: It’s a regular event in Bushwick that combines bingo, typically seen as a more sedate activity, with raucous sideshows, burlesque performances, and tarot readings. The organizers are upping the ante in honor of Pride Week with an especially eccentric show; a bevy of prizes including paddles and wax will be on offer for bingo winners. — Jake Bittle


Here Are the Celebrate Brooklyn! Shows We’re Most Excited For

The BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival, the annual summer concert-and-other-things series at the Prospect Park bandshell, kicks off with a free concert by Common, then continues through mid August with its usual assortment of celebrated performers and hidden gems. (And yes, we would say that even if the Voice weren’t a media partner of the festival; it really is our favorite summer music series.) The full calendar is below, annotated by the Voice staff with the shows we’re frantically rearranging our vacation schedules to make sure we’re in town to see:

Tuesday, June 5, 8 p.m.: Common

Sunday, June 10, 3 p.m.: Los Lobos

One of my favorite things about Celebrate Brooklyn! has been watching parents my age dance with their young kids to the music they grew up with. Now that I’m the parent of a young kid myself, I can’t wait to get out and dance with my child at this year’s family concert, headlined by Los Lobos. I’m also looking forward to introducing him to the wide range of styles Los Lobos cover, from early rock ’n’ roll to r&b to zydeco to blues. And of course shimmying with my kid to “La Bamba”! — Nina Pearlman

Wednesday, June 13, 7 p.m.: The Decemberists / M. Ward (benefit concert, $45)

Thursday, June 14, 7:30 p.m.: Vance Joy (benefit concert, $54.50)

I don’t remember exactly when I first heard Vance Joy. I only know that somehow the singer-songwriter’s plaintive voice and harmony-rich songs stayed with me, worming their way into my thoughts and my heart. I could listen to his 2014 indie-folk album, Dream Your Life Away, over and over, its melodies wrapping themselves around me like a warm, comforting blanket. I can already picture myself swaying and clapping along. — Nina Pearlman

Saturday, June 16, 7 p.m.: The Jayhawks / Mandolin Orange / Parsonsfield

Wednesday, June 20, 6:30 p.m.: Grizzly Bear & Spoon with Special Guest Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith (benefit concert, $46)

I caught Grizzly Bear back in 2010, when they were making indie-rock waves with their album Veckatimest, from the previous year. At that time, I remember listening to the band with mere passing interest, my ears only really perking up when the group finally played its ubiquitous-at-the-time single “Two Weeks.” But in the intervening years, their music — complex, intricate, and emotionally intense — has quietly grown on me, and the band itself has become one of my favorites. The bandshell’s open-air setting should prove the perfect venue in which to let Grizzly Bear’s interwoven melodies waft over you. I know they’ll be getting my full attention this time around. Nina Pearlman

Thursday, June 21, 7 p.m.: Aimee Mann / Superchunk / Jonathan Coulton

I am ashamed to say I’ve never seen Aimee Mann live, since she’s performed so many iterations of offbeat indie singer-songwriteriness that you’d think we’d have crossed paths in RL by now. (Personal off-the-offbeat favorite: Her rendition of Paul McCartney’s “Too Many People” on a RAM covers album that WFMU released a few years back, which performed the impressive trick of making Sir Paul’s version seem comparatively unschooled in art-pop perfection.) Getting to see her on a bill with Superchunk is a must-see, as their new album, What a Time to Be Alive, is a masterpiece of punk anti-Trump rage, and they’re one of indie rock’s most unbeatable live bands to boot. — Neil deMause

Friday, June 22, 7:30 p.m.: R+R=NOW ft. Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Derrick Hodge, Justin Tyson, and Taylor McFerrin / Paul Beaubrun

Saturday, June 23, 7:30 p.m.: Fischerspooner / Xeno & Oaklander / Juliana Huxtable

Thursday, June 28, 8 p.m.: The Blues Project featuring Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon & BIGLovely

Toshi Reagon & BIGLovely are a goddamn Brooklyn treasure. I marked off June 28 on my calendar before even checking to see what The Blues Project is about — it’s a collaboration with Dorrance Dance that drew raves during a run at the Joyce a few years back — solely on the strength of their prior works. If it’s even half as good as the rock-opera version of science-fiction writer Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower that Toshi and her band premiered at the Public last winter, you will leave with your mind racing and your heart aflame. — Neil deMause

Friday, June 29, 7:30 p.m.: Branford Marsalis / Roger Guenveur Smith: Frederick Douglass Now

It’s a Marsalis sandwich: Two sets from that stalwart, funky sax man Branford Marsalis and his working quartet (Joey Calderazzo, Eric Revis, and Justin Faulkner), with Roger Guenveur Smith’s spoken-word, rap-inflected Frederick Douglass Now show in between. Expect truth-telling as ferocious as the band’s virtuosity. — Alan Scherstuhl

Saturday, June 30, 7 p.m.: Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder / Sierra Hull and Justin Moses / Mamie Minch

Friday, July 6, 8 p.m.: Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal: Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me

Saturday, July 7, 7 p.m.: Rhye / Natalie Prass / Overcoats

Thursday, July 12, 7:30 p.m.: Antibalas / Combo Chimbita / DJ Nickodemus

Friday, July 13, 7 p.m.: Mala Rodriguez / Ana Tijoux’s Roja y Negro / Girl Ultra

Saturday, July 14, 7:30 p.m.: Kronos Quartet / Trio Da Kali

In an alternate universe, I long ago dropped everything I was doing and committed myself to following the Kronos Quartet around the world. Unfortunately, I don’t live in that universe, so I just try to see them any opportunity I can. Last year, the Malian griot supergroup Trio Da Kali collaborated with them on the transportingly sublime album Ladilikan, which brought together grand classical gestures with folk, blues, and gospel stylings. (The music of Mahalia Jackson was a key influence on the record.) This joint concert will have the two ensembles performing “separately and together,” which means it should run a gamut of styles, genres, and periods. And something tells me that hearing the powerful voice of Trio Da Kali vocalist Hawa Diabaté rise above the Brooklyn night will bring shivers to thousands. — Bilge Ebiri

Thursday, July 19, 7 p.m.: Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (benefit concert, $45)

Friday, July 20, 7:30 p.m.: Anoushka Shankar — Land of Gold / My Brightest Diamond

Saturday, July 21, 7:30 p.m.: Brimstone & Glory w/ Live Score by Wordless Music Orchestra / Sonido Gallo Negro

Wednesday, July 25, 7 p.m.: Courtney Barnett / Julien Baker / Vagabon (benefit concert, $39.50)

Thursday, July 26, 7:30 p.m.: Brandi Carlile / Ruthie Foster

Friday, July 27, 7:30 p.m.: Tinariwen / Cheick Hamala Diabate

Some forty years since their founding, the transcendent West African desert blues collective Tinariwen stir, in their LPs and concert performances, the heat and haze and sweeping expansiveness of the Sahara. Driven by traditional Tuareg melodies and percussion, and the barbed lead guitar lines of Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the band is entrancing, meditative even, as it rocks, and while the lyrics (on 2017’s Elwan) bemoan a world gone mad. Don’t miss this if you still love guitars but haven’t been turned on in a while by what’s coming out of them stateside. — Alan Scherstuhl

Saturday, July 28, 7:30 p.m.: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind / Kaki King featuring Treya Lam

Nausicaä is not my absolute favorite Hayao Miyazaki film — the plot is a bit of a jumble, and there’s a lot of swordplay if you’re expecting the sweet sadness of a My Neighbor Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service — but that doesn’t mean it’s not glorious in its own right. There are heroes and antiheroes and flying machines and the most memorable giant insects you’ll ever see on film, and it will all look amazing on a big screen. As will Kaki King, no doubt, who doubles as the city’s most inventive guitarist and the city’s most inventive projection screen (see YouTube). — Neil deMause

Thursday, August 2, 7:30 p.m.: BADBADNOTGOOD / Charlotte Day Wilson

Friday, August 3, 7:30 p.m.: Noname / Topaz Jones / Jazze Belle

Saturday, August 4, 7:30 p.m.: Tarrus Riley with Dean Fraser and the Blak Soil Band / Mwenso & the Shakes

Tuesday, August 7, 7:30 p.m.: GOOD VIBES with Jason Mraz & Brett Dennen (benefit concert, $55)

Thursday, August 9, 7:30 p.m.: Gary Clark Jr. / Fiona Silver

Friday, August 10, 7:30 p.m.: Godspeed You! Black Emperor / Emel Mathlouthi

Droning with a vengeance — and melodic purpose — the experimental musicians of the Montreal-based GY!BE will no doubt deliver their patented wall of mesmerizing reverberation rock. With composition titles such as “Bosses Hang” (from their most recent studio album, Luciferian Towers), audience members can count on plenty of transcendent dissonance and dark harmonies literally shot through with illumination from old-school projectors playing grainy film footage. It’s the Exploding Plastic Inevitable for our still-new millennium. — R.C. Baker

Saturday, August 11, 7:30 p.m.: The Breeders / Speedy Ortiz

I recently described the Breeders’ live shows to a fellow fan as “like a cover band trying to learn their own songs,” and while he readily agreed, neither of us meant it as an insult. There’s something about the Deal sisters’ disarmingly unpolished performance style (accompanied here by classic Last Splash lineup bandmates Josephine Wiggs and Jim Macpherson) that meshes with their perfectly polished songcraft to make for an evening that is an ideal amalgam of indie-rock earworms and raucous fun. — Neil deMause



The Obie Awards: Glimpses From the Red Carpet

The 63rd edition of the Obie awards, hosted by John Leguizamo, were held last night at Terminal 5. Amy Herzog’s healthcare-themed drama Mary Jane and Aleshea Harris’s revenge story Is God Is were among the big winners, taking home three awards apiece. Before the ceremony, which kicked off shortly after 7 p.m., the evening’s presenters, organizers, and eventual winners strolled across the red carpet, where the Voice was stationed. Here are some of our best photographs from the pre-show display.


“Mary Jane” and “Is God Is” Achieve a Glorious Trifecta at the 63rd Obie Awards

The 63rd edition of the Obie awards, hosted by John Leguizamo, just concluded at Terminal 5. Two works by female playwrights achieved a remarkable trifecta, winning awards for playwriting, directing, and performance; those were Amy Herzog’s healthcare-themed drama Mary Jane, directed by Anne Kauffman and starring Carrie Coon, and Aleshea Harris’s Is God Is, a revenge plot involving twin sisters, directed by Taibi Magar and starring Alfie Fuller and Dame-Jasmine Hughes. Jerry Springer — The Opera also garnered multiple victories, including for one of its lead performers, Will Swenson; Rajiv Joseph’s Describe the Night triumphed in the evening’s only category with an outright “best” in the name (New American Play); and the great Kathleen Chalfant accepted her Lifetime Achievement award.

The complete list of winners can be found below, along with links to related coverage. The Voice will be publishing more Obies recap stories throughout the week — in addition to red-carpet and backstage photography from the event  so check back often.


Kathleen Chalfant [Miriam Felton-Dansky’s interview]


Rajiv Joseph
Describe the Night (Atlantic Theater Company)


Aleshea Harris
Is God Is (Soho Rep) [Michael Feingold’s review]

Amy Herzog
Mary Jane (New York Theatre Workshop) [David Cote’s review]

Abe Koogler
Fulfillment Center (Manhattan Theatre Club) [Michael Feingold’s review]

Dominique Morisseau
Pipeline (Lincoln Center Theater) [Michael Feingold’s review]


Jesse Berger
The Government Inspector (Red Bull Theater) [Joseph Cermatori’s review]

Anne Kauffman
Mary Jane (New York Theatre Workshop) [David Cote’s review]

Taibi Magar
Is God Is (Soho Rep) [Michael Feingold’s review]


Sean Carvajal and Edi Gathegi
Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train (Signature Theatre Company)

Carrie Coon
Mary Jane (New York Theatre Workshop) [David Cote’s review]

Alfie Fuller and Dame-Jasmine Hughes
Is God Is (Soho Rep) [Michael Feingold’s review]

Denise Gough
People, Places & Things (National Theatre/Headlong/St.Ann’s Warehouse) [David Cote’s review]

Will Swenson
Jerry Springer — The Opera (The New Group) [Michael Feingold’s review]

Chukwudi Iwuji
The Low Road (Public Theater) [Michael Feingold’s review]

Robert Sean Leonard
At Home at the Zoo (Signature Theatre Company) [Laura Collins-Hughes’s review]

Jessica Hecht
Admissions (Lincoln Center Theater) [Michael Feingold’s review]

Ben Edelman
Admissions (Lincoln Center Theater) [Michael Feingold’s review]

Billy Crudup
Harry Clarke (Vineyard Theatre)


Lap Chi Chu
Sustained excellence of lighting design

Sarah Laux
Costume design, Jerry Springer — The Opera (The New Group) [Michael Feingold’s review]

The design team, He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box (Theatre for a New Audience):
Christopher Barreca (set design), Justin Ellington (sound design), Donald Holder (lighting design), Montana Levi Blanco (costume design), Austin Switser (video design) [Michael Feingold’s review]


Ariane Mnouchkine and Théâtre du Soleil
A Room in India (Park Avenue Armory) [Michael Feingold’s review]

The cast and creative team of Yerma (Park Avenue Armory):
Simon Stone (director), Lizzie Clachan (set design), Alice Babidge (costume design), James Farncombe (lighting design), Stefan Gregory (sound design), Maureen Beattie, Brendan Cowell, John MacMillan, Billie Piper, Charlotte Randle, Thalissa Teixeira (cast) [Elisabeth Vincentelli’s review]

David Greenspan, Jack Cummings III, and Transport Group
Strange Interlude (Transport Group)


Ma-Yi Theater Company


Pan-Asian Repertory Theatre

York Theatre Company for its “Musicals in Mufti” series


Michael Feingold, chairman; Melissa Rose Bernardo, Wendall K. Harrington, Charles Isherwood, Toni-Leslie James, Sondra Lee, Arian Moayed, Ching Valdes-Aran


Watch the 2018 Obie Awards Online

This year’s 63rd Obie awards ceremony will kick off at 7 p.m. tonight at Terminal 5. Hosted by John Leguizamo, the event will include presentations from Andrew Garfield, Lucy Liu, Matthew Broderick, Oliver Platt, and several additional illustrious performers. Peter Barbey, president and CEO of the Village Voice, and Michael Feingold, Voice theater critic and the chairman of the 2018 Obie judges, will also present.

The ceremony will be streaming live from the Obie awards twitter account (@obieawards). See an embedded version below.