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All the Great Men of Literature and Me

The first book to turn me on was a Nancy Drew book: The Mystery of the Fire Dragon. As a preteen, without any coherent understanding of my own motivations, I began to seek out those volumes of the series in which the heroine was kidnapped, bound, and gagged, as happened with considerable frequency. When she swooned under the influence of chloroform, a little part of me swooned too. Her helplessness, the great danger she was in, intrigued me in ways I wasn’t close to having a name for.

By the time I was a teenager, I had more of a vocabulary for what that feeling meant, although I was better acquainted with theory than practice. I had a cloistered, deeply religious childhood, with highly restricted access to television and movies, but parents who were always indulgent about the library, and who rarely examined more than the first few in my weekly stack of books. I had already begun to find the more libidinal titles in the adult section and was shocked at how much depravity was contained in the Bergenfield Library. Carrie and The Shining and Greek mythology dropped tantalizing hints at a vast encoded world. Then I moved on to the Great Men: Roth and Bellow and Hemingway, Kerouac and Cheever.

Sex ed in my middle school was limited to a one-day class in which the boys and girls were separated and shown slides of the reproductive organs. I recall one of the boys saying later that ovaries looked sort of like a menorah. In eighth grade a boy on the bus used to read out the dirty bits of Leon Uris novels; after all, in our ultra-Zionist milieu, anything by the author of Exodus was kosher. I hadn’t seen an R-rated movie yet. So my sexual education was limited to imagination, Google, the great novels of the mid-twentieth century, and the horny men who wrote them.

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What they taught me was that women were to be seen and admired and, above all, to be fucked. I still remember reading On the Road — I was scribbling poems frantically in my notebooks by then, desperate to be an artist, included in the fellowship of great artists — and reading his description of a girl he saw at a bus stop: “Her breasts stuck out straight and true; her little flanks looked delicious.” As if she were a steak. Philip Roth loved breasts so much he wrote a whole novella about them, a pastiche of Gogol, and in The Dying Animal he wrote of a new lover: “And she did something rather pornographic for a first time, and this, again to my surprise, on her own initiative — played with her breasts around my prick…. She knew how much this vision aroused me, the skin of the one on the skin of the other.” (Later, the lover gets breast cancer, and the protagonist is repulsed by the thought of sleeping with her: “I knew that hers was no longer a sexual life.”)

I trudged my way through the entirety of Saul Bellow’s lovely and unwieldy The Adventures of Augie March, in which Esther Fenchel is introduced as follows: “I had heavy dreams about her lips, hands, breasts, legs, between legs. She could not stoop for a ball on the tennis court…. I couldn’t witness this, I say, without a push of love and worship in my bowels at the curve of her hips, and triumphant maiden shape behind, and soft, protected secret.”

Even Hemingway — terse, curt, profoundly goyish, less prone to runaway punctuation and introspection — had attention to lavish on the feminine figure. “Maria lay close against him and he felt the long smoothness of her thighs against his and her breasts like two small hills that rise out of the long plain where there is a well, and the far country beyond the hills was the valley of her throat where his lips were,” he wrote, in For Whom the Bell Tolls. (The bell tolled, as ever, for the protagonist’s swollen dick.)

There were no guides in these novels for what loving a man ought to feel like: how to desire a man, how to seek his love. No one presented me with the great novels women had written and I did not know enough to find them. I wanted to write a great novel. In the pursuit of doing so I wanted to sink my teeth into the canon, but the canon was aiming its erection straight at me.

For a long time in my teens I wanted to die — a romantic and persistent death wish that pursued me for years. I was encumbered with a body that seemed so gross and alien to me that I wanted to flee it. The second-best thing, it seemed to me, was to fall in love. I wanted to fall into love as if it were an active volcano, and annihilate myself. My first kiss was in a synagogue basement at fourteen with a much older boy. I loved him as only a fourteen-year-old can love. And he used me like a rag doll. Before I turned sixteen I learned there was profound danger in loving men.

You never learn about those dangers in the great novels. You never learn what the well-breasted women think about their own breasts, or how they feel about the men who gaze at their breasts with such ardor. You never learn what it’s like to grow enormous breasts by the age of thirteen and carry them through a world that wants them as much as it doesn’t want you. You never read about bleeding profusely from your “soft, protected secret.”

In the company of Saul and Philip and Jack and Ernest and the rest — Tolkien, Apollinaire, Breton, Rimbaud, Tzara, the coterie of male geniuses I read in those lonely and tormented years — I did not want to be a woman. I did not want to be a fuck-thing to be admired and mentioned in passing one hundred pages later, if at all, or simply not allowed in any story of brotherly adventure. I did not want to get cancer and drop off the sexual map, or be left at home to reward Samwise Gamgee for his faithfulness. I wanted to be a man. I felt myself to be as complicated as Augie March or Rabbit Angstrom or the Wapshot brothers or Ishmael; as ardent, as verbose, as pressing in my desire to love and be loved and do great deeds or die. In the novels I loved, men acted; women were enigmas. How could I be a woman and be great? And yet I was never anything but a woman. How to solve this conundrum? I would be a woman who was “mannish,” unfeminine, too loud, too fat, too smart, too assertive. I predicated my entire identity on being too much to be a real woman — and so I could exist. And so I could be great if only I loathed myself enough.

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They taught me this, the great male authors. Between my reading I fumbled with boys a little. Throughout those experiences, sexual things were things done to me — not done at my behest and with little relation to my own desire. The first penis I ever saw was put into my hand while we watched To Have and Have Not in my basement. Not having read lavish descriptions of penises, I was afraid of the alien pulsing thing in my hand, but too polite to push it away. I felt grateful to be desired at all (I was too much; I was captain of the debate team; I weighed so much more than my mother or my sisters).

And yet I did desire. I was horny all the time. That horniness bore so little relation to whatever genital-adjacent fumbling did occur that it might as well be a feeling from another planet. Saul and Philip and Jack and Ernest had betrayed me. To desire men was something else, a map I didn’t have. No one laid it out for me in shining prose, the kind your parents have on their bookshelves. Whatever desiring men meant, it wasn’t great art. Women were like Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque or Manet’s Olympia: They can show you their breasts, or their bottoms, not their souls; their smiles have secrets; they are still and silent, not animate and hungry and desperate and sad and angry all the time.

By the time I got to college I caught a bit of a clue. I read Lorrie Moore. I read Alice Munro. I learned to fuck. I read Jamaica Kincaid and Alice Walker…and Anaïs Nin. She wrote: “He leaves the imprint of his flesh-visit on my skin, in my womb, and for days all I know is my legs. No world in the head…world between the legs…the dark, moist, live world.” I was cured of my desire to revere the canon by literary theory classes and the rightful derision of my classmates for that august collection of white men. But I loved them, still.

Now, I read the journalism and essays and fiction and poems of women who are geniuses. I read the dark reported narratives of Pamela Colloff and the trenchant insights of Rebecca Traister; the social analysis of Doreen St. Félix and Ijeoma Oluo. I read the game-changing daily reportage of Yamiche Alcindor, Rachana Pradhan, Jodi Kantor, and Danielle Tcholakian. I am no longer religious. I watch women run for office and paint protest signs for DSA. I read their books. I am writing one. Now I am swimming in women’s genius, a pebble borne along a great torrent along which runs pleasure and pride and joy and wrath and need. I am not demure, but I am not a man. I do not need to be. I wouldn’t want to be. The great men of literature taught me how deep desire runs, but I pull myself onward on the strength of my own desires, which are many, and all my own.

The Village Voice is celebrating the summer’s literary scene throughout the week. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Summer Books page.

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Signs of St. Vincent’s Success

Annie Clark is too perfect a rock star, but she will do. She has the china doll features of a pop star. She is put-together and glamorous. For all her effort, she looks effortless. She’s delicate and refined. She’s beautiful, and you can tell she is used to being looked at and watched, as if she has been famous long before now.

Looking at her offstage, you imagine she should be doing something else, not staying up late with a guitar slung round her back and commanding a band into loud swells of her own design. It seems like the wrong job for her hands. She seems more coquettish than rock and roll as she’s curled up on the couch backstage before her show in her emerald dress.

When Annie Clark gets onstage as St. Vincent, her image is mere collateral. What fixes your gaze to her is the confidence, the ease, and the naturalness she exudes. You cannot imagine she was meant for anything else but stomping around the stage, coaxing new noise from her guitar, her eyes surveying the sold-out crowd. She solos; they scream.

“I’m not qualified to do anything else,” she says, sounding a little concerned—as if she had been browsing Craigslist ads for admin positions while casting about for a post-Berklee-dropout Plan B. “I didn’t think I needed it. Which sounds insane now, when I say it aloud.”

It’s not. It’s only reasonable. Clark’s third record, Strange Mercy, is her best and most pop album. The signs of her success are ample. For one thing, Mercy sold 20,000 copies in its first week of release. Still, she is modest, or at least presents as the earnest anti-diva—”It would be interesting to know exactly how many people have heard my songs,” she says. Her guess: “Like, 100,000?” Perhaps that would be the case if everyone who’d bought a copy of her last few albums had kept them entirely for themselves, she’d never toured, filesharing didn’t exist, and her songs weren’t presently all over radio and the blogosphere.

With Strange Mercy, Clark moves closer to her audience, lowers the transom a bit. On her previous two albums, Marry Me (2007) and Actor (2009), it was hard to tell what, if anything, was personal. Her debut seems to be made up of vignettes and stories. She cited “Pirate Jenny” and Nick Cave as her inspirations for its theatricality. It seemed the work of someone eager to impress—to show off, even. Actor, purportedly a tribute to Clark’s favorite films, resulted in Clark rhapsodizing over Woody Allen’s work as much as explaining her own. She says of her progress as a songwriter since: “I care less about impressing. Well . . . maybe. It’s no longer about trying impress people with my wit.”

Audiences want confessional bits from rock icons and expect them from female singer-songwriters. Clark doesn’t give them up easily, but Strange Mercy is being called “candid.” The singer is still cagey, though there is discernibly more of her on here. Was it intentional?

“Was I trying to be candid? Hmm.” She munches an apple and considers what to say. “I want to give you answers, but I am also aware this is to be printed in a magazine, so I’m at a bit of an impasse. But I don’t want to give you a rote answer, though that rote answer is quite true. There are songs here that are very, actually, candid. But I won’t say which those are.”

Although she hemmed over making her art more personal, the candor came naturally, which she characterizes as scary. She didn’t have as much time or ability to dress up or intellectualize what was coming out of her, so some songs remained as visceral as they were when initially written. “2010 was a rough year. Tough stuff. Rough time. When life was actually hard, I had less time to wring my hands about music. It got to be what it should be, a great thing—a replenishing thing.” She adds, apologetically, “Not to use a spa word.”

Much has been made of the album closer “Chloe In The Afternoon,” which is somewhere between “Afternoon Delight” and Anaïs Nin, lyrically; it depicts soft sadism with a girl in a hotel room. Is Clark put off by how this one song has resulted in people calling Strange Mercy “sexual”? “It’s not like I should have called the record ‘Get Down to Fuckin,'” she laughs. “I think people focus on something like that because it’s titillating.” Given that female performers often have their work sexualized, regardless of whether their work is sexual or not, was she hesitant to make a song so blatantly erotic? “I was more reluctant to write a song about that power/sex/domination trifecta, that murky water where it all swims around together,” she says. “That felt more complicated than it being about something sexual.”

If there is a theme to be found on Strange Mercy, it involves dissolving an identity, or another person’s idea of that identity. Clark’s modesty is belied by her awareness of and use of her own image—as a beautiful woman, as a gossamer shredder of skill and confidence, as a woman in charge of her career, as popular singer of pop songs. She knows what she is working with. She understands the machinations of fame, of why her audience likes (and loves) her; she is careful but solicitous enough with the press that pokes at her. “I have one answer for you if the tape record is on, and another if it’s off,” she says when asked about her awareness of her own image. “That’s my answer there.”

Still, Clark says she feels like a fraud much of the time. “It’s complicated to exist in the world—everyone feels that, whether or not you have a modest amount of notoriety,” she says. “I was reading this Miranda July piece in The New Yorker, and it ends with a line about how feeling like an adult also means feeling like a fraud. I think if anyone has any kind of self-awareness, they’ve felt like a fraud—with other people or in relationships. I feel that way. And maybe it’s more powerful to put that out there. To just own that, then to keep being, like, ‘Watch me sing and dance, I’ve got all the bases covered, don’t worry.'”

The singer’s measured control seems to keep her from truly letting it all (or, even, some of it) hang out. She credits her politeness to her mother, whom she describes as a saint, and to her cultural inheritance as a Texan. She says she learned the value of professionalism from her aunt and uncle, the folk duo Tuck & Patti, whom she toured with as a teen. “It’s not the ’80s or the ’90s anymore; it’s not a gravy train,” she says of the music business. “If you want to have a career for a long time, you need to act right. I know it’s counterintuitive to the whole rock ‘n’ roll thing, but I have never acted like I was a person who was so great and unimpeachably great that I could afford to be an asshole to people, nor would I want to be. I take it seriously.”

To be a rock star, a real rock star achieved and bona fide, involves more than just charisma, or good songs, or talent (talent usually least of all). One must be a capable player and have an appealing image—and, perhaps, most of all, a clear confidence that one deserves to be in front of an audience. In that regard, Annie Clark is a natural-born rock star; she just happens to be working below the arena radar. She doesn’t disagree. “There are plenty of things I am not confident about, but this I can do.”

St. Vincent plays Webster Hall on November 3

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Free Will Astrology: January 7 through 13

ARIES [March 21–April 19] During his time in the Senate, former U.S. presidential candidate John McCain has been a strong advocate for Native Americans. As chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, he co-sponsored seven bills in support of Indian rights. And yet Native Americans voted overwhelmingly for Obama, who has no such track record. When asked why, Native American author Sherman Alexie said that unlike most other groups, Indians don’t vote merely for their own narrow self-interest, but rather for the benefit of all. They felt Obama would be the best president for America. That’s the standard I urge you to use in the coming weeks, Aries. Stretch yourself as you work hard for the greater good—not just your own.

TAURUS [April 20–May 20] Hope “is not the conviction that something will turn out well,” wrote Czech writer and politician Václav Havel, “but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” That’s the kind of hope I suggest you invoke during your current adventures, Taurus. Be hungrier for meaning than for any specific outcome. If you do that, ironically, the outcome is more likely to be one you feel pretty good about.

GEMINI [May 21–June 20] Describing my writing, one critic said that I was “like a mutant love-child of Anaïs Nin and Jack Kerouac.” This is also an apt description of the spirit you should bring to life in the coming weeks. So be like the memoirist Anaïs Nin: a collector of secrets, a connoisseur of intimacy, a fiercely sensitive alchemist who knows her own inner terrain better than anyone else knows their own. And also be like the novelist Jack Kerouac: a freewheeling, fast-talking, wide-open traveler in quest of the spirit as it makes its wild plunge into matter.

CANCER [June 21–July 22] In giving the Nobel Prize for literature to French writer Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, the award committee praised him as an “explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization.” I suggest you consider doing some of that kind of exploring yourself in 2009, Cancerian. According to my reading of the astrological omens, you will generate rich benefits for yourself by learning from people and influences that are beneath the notice of the mainstream, whether they’re outside the box, off the grid, under the radar, or immune to the taint of the collective delusions.

LEO [July 23–August 22] “Obstacles are a natural part of life, just as boulders are a natural part of the course of a river,” notes the book I Ching. “The river does not complain because there are boulders in its path.” I’d go so far as to say that the river gets a sensual thrill as it glides over the irregular shapes and hard skin of the rocks. It looks forward to the friction, exults in the intimate touch, loves the drama of the interaction. Sound like a pleasure you’d like to cultivate, Leo? It’s an excellent time to try it.

VIRGO [August 23–September 22] Until last August, Nigerian religious leader Mohammed Bello Abubakar had 86 wives. Then an Islamic council ordered him to divorce all but four of them. He was reluctant at first—many of his 170 children were from the wives he’d have to separate from—but since the alternative was punishment by death, he ultimately agreed. From the standpoint of your own evolution, Virgo, 2009 will be an excellent time to cull the excess and chaos from your love life. If you’re single, narrow your focus to a couple of fantasies rather than a wide variety. If you’re in a committed relationship that’s worth working on, swear off any possibility of cheating or escaping. In either case, perform an exorcism of all the ghosts that might threaten to distort your long-term romantic future.

LIBRA [September 23–October 22] “It takes a lot of time to be a genius,” said author Gertrude Stein. “You have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.” I agree with her, which is why I have high hopes that you’re going to tap into more of your dormant genius soon. The cosmic rhythms are nudging you to enjoy a time of slack, and I think there’s a good chance you’ll agree to that.

SCORPIO [October 23–November 21] Willa Cather said that if you’re an artist and want to steadily get better at your craft, you need to continually refine your approach to telling the truth. I’m here to invite you to adopt that strategy in 2009, whether you’re an artist or simply a person who wants to live your life artfully. The coming months will be one of the best times ever for you to penetrate to the heart of the truths you aspire to live by and become highly skilled at expressing them in every little thing you do.

SAGITTARIUS [November 22–December 21] When gasoline prices soared last year, a Christian group called Pray at the Pump organized vigils at gas stations, where they prayed for God’s intervention. Inspired by their work, I have asked my team of non-denominational Prayer Warriors to gather in your behalf. Every evening for the next 10 days, they will be calling on their connections with the Divine Wow to help you Sagittarians come up with smart and practical long-term plans for your financial well-being. On your end, you can supercharge their efforts by doing the appropriate research and meditation.

CAPRICORN [December 22–January 19] Please don’t wear a T-shirt that says what I saw on the canary-yellow T-shirt of a Japanese tourist at JFK airport: “Sorry, I’m a loser.” I also beg you not to read Ethan Trex’s book Faking It: How to Seem Like a Better Person Without Actually Improving Yourself. It’s very important, in my astrological opinion, that you not demean or underestimate yourself in the coming days. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that you have a sacred duty to exalt your beauty and exult in your talents. Now go read Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” and periodically murmur the first line all week long: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.”

AQUARIUS [January 20–February 18] While loitering on a sidewalk outside a nightclub in San Francisco on a September night back in 1994, I found the cover of a booklet lying in the gutter. Written by Marilena Silbey and Paul Ramana Das, it was called How to Survive Passionate Intimacy With a Dreamy Partner While Making a Fortune on the Path to Enlightenment. Unfortunately, the rest of the text was missing. Over the years, I’ve tried to hunt down a copy of the whole thing, hungry for its wisdom, but have never had any success. I’m hoping that maybe you will consider writing your own version of the subject in the coming year, Aquarius. With the luck I expect you to have, you might actually be up to the task.

PISCES [February 19–March 20] Now and then, you may be able to whip up a wonderful breakthrough in the blink of an eye. But more often, it’s the case that beauty and truth and love and justice emerge in their full glory only over the course of a painstaking, step-by-step, trial-and-error process. “All that I made before the age of 65 is not worth counting,” wrote renowned Japanese painter Hokusai. “At 73, I began to understand the true construction of animals, plants, trees, birds, fishes, and insects. At 90, I will enter into the secret of things. At 110, everything—every dot, every dash—will live.” At this juncture in your personal evolution, Pisces, it’s a perfect time to re-commit yourself to your lifelong work.

Homework: Send me a list of your top five New Year’s resolutions. Go to RealAstrology.com, and click on “E-mail Rob.”

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Having a Riot at Tompkins Square

In 1986, when the photographer Q. Sakamaki moved to the East Village from Japan, his street could get very noisy—guys acting as lookouts for drug dealers would yell when the cops were approaching, not to mention the occasional barrage of gunfire to interrupt a sound sleep. Two decades later, it’s still noisy, “but now it’s people hanging out at bars,” Sakamaki tells me. “My street now, East 4th Street, is a super-hot place—there are even traffic jams.”

It’s the 20th anniversary of the Tompkins Square Park riots, and I’m sitting at the Pick Me Up Café on East 9th and Avenue A with Sakamaki, who has just published Tompkins Square Park, a book of his stunning photographs of the neighborhood from those days of revolutionary mayhem. It’s a beautiful afternoon, and the café, though artfully time-worn and downmarket, is full of fresh faces, a far cry from the louche denizens of these streets in the years when Sakamaki first lived here.

Was he at the notorious police riot of August 6, 1988, when the city moved to close the park at 1 a.m., and a group of anarchists, squatters, homeless people, and other East Villagers fought back? “No, I came home late that night. I was hanging out with fashion people, clients from Japan. I heard the helicopters, but I thought it was just some criminal activity, or maybe a homicide. Back then, every weekend there were shootings. I saw bodies in the street.”

Sounds delightful, Q.! So, why did you want to live here, anyway? “In the middle ’80s, it was so hip! The underground subculture—that’s why I came! More art, more music—it attracted lots of people. So many things in the ’80s were so free. Freedom—we were in control of our dreams! Now it looks like a materialistic area, very similar to Japan. We lost something. For me, it’s very sad.”

When he wasn’t shooting his disarming portraits of the community, Sakamaki was hanging out in nightclubs. “The Pyramid on Avenue A, underground clubs in the meat market—black, fashion, gay scenes. But the clubs weren’t mixed—it was total segregation, not a melting pot. But as a Japanese, I could go anywhere! “

While Sakamaki, like any other sane person, is happy that there isn’t blood running in the streets anymore, he admits a bit wistfully that “I prefer the old days—maybe I’ve lived too long here. I used to love to wake up, and be so happy to bring my camera out with me and think, ‘I want to shoot more landscapes of the Lower East Side,’ even though it was easy to be mugged—even killed. Now it’s no problem, but it’s a different feeling. On the other hand, people who have been here longer than me say, ‘Oh, the ’60s! It was much better then!’ “

Does he think the neighborhood still holds any power over the imaginations of young people? “Oh yes, they still want to have adventures! It still represents a cool place. In their minds, it’s a romantic place, like Paris in the ’20s and ’30s.” As someone who wanders the Boul’ Mich looking for Anaïs Nin and Gerald Murphy, I know just what he’s talking about.

We finish our coffee and walk out onto Avenue A, where Sakamaki points out the site of the Pakistani deli that was torched by demonstrators during the Memorial Day riot of 1991, a hideous act that coincided with the closing of the park for over a year. “The police would shut the street between 6th Street and 9th Street, and everyone would hang out, drinking beer—almost like a party,” Sakamaki remembers. “They would arrest people even for just drumming on a garbage can.”

We go our separate ways, and I decide to walk around the perimeter of the park to see if any traces of the old days exist—or whether there’s anything new that’s even a little captivating. I pass Blue, which despite its shabby appearance I happen to know sells expensive wedding dresses, because a friend made me go with her once when she tried these things on—a harrowing experience. (What’s with all these bridal shops popping up in the East Village anyway? By what weird calculus have these formerly bohemian byways become Wedding Gown Central?) I’m happy to see that at 113 Avenue A, the strikingly fetid candy store is still open for business. And here is Vazac’s on the corner of East 7th and Avenue B (a/k/a Horseshoe Bar and 7B), which the producers of the Rent movie pretended was the Life Café because the real Life Café, a few blocks north, was deemed insufficiently squalid.

Across the street, a fancy store named Amaran has a stone statue of the Buddha marked down from $889 to $689 (though, to be fair, silk pillows are only $39). At East 8th Street, the former home of the 1926 Talmud Torah Darche Noam (it’s carved over the door) now houses, among other tenants, Ashtanga Yoga Shala—a testament to the varieties of religious experience. On the corner of East 9th—also called Armando Perez Place for the late Puerto Rican community activist who was murdered in 1999—the infamous co-op Christadora House, a detested symbol of gentrification, stands its ground. (I went to a party in an apartment here once, and I must say it had a lovely view.) Up the street, not one but two plaques honor the home of 1950s bebop icon Charlie Parker, a hipster who no doubt would have been appalled by the neighborhood in the 1960s.

I round the corner and pass the Life Café, where the gratingly cheerful awning reads: “More than good food, enjoy life every day,” and a sign invites Rentheads to explain why they love Rent to a video camera. East 10th is mostly residential, and the locals certainly have strong views: In one window, a tenant has placed a picture of the president with the word “Thug” (like 90 percent of Americans—who live far from the East Village—don’t agree with this by now?). Further down the block, a sign says: “Farm animals have feelings too!” (Maybe they do, but so what?)

At 147 Avenue A, the former headquarters of the East Village Other—a salty underground newspaper of the hippie era—is now occupied by a store where you can purchase “Respect Your Mother” tote bags (Earth, get it?), 100 percent unbleached coffee filters from a company called If You Care, and even an indoor-composting worm bin for $65. (I mean, I’ll buy anything, but really. . . .)

I’m happy to report that—carbon footprint be damned—on this steamy day, the shop has the A/C going full-blast.

I decide to take a peek in the park itself before heading home. Lucky for me, it’s early, since a sign on the gates lists a raft of forbidden activities, including rummaging through trash bins—like anyone does this by choice?—along with the news that the park closes at midnight, or a whole hour sooner than the 1 a.m. curfew the community so bitterly resisted 20 years ago this week.

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FRINGE BENEFITS

Now 12 years old, our very own Fringe Festival is an awfully big boy, likely shopping in the department store’s “husky” section. A sizable production, the Fringe is one of the largest multi-arts festivals in North America. This summer’s incarnation, produced by Elena K. Holy and the Present Company, features 201 shows staged in 19 venues, mainly clustered in the West Village. This year’s offerings concern feminist icons, serpent kings, Alexis de Tocqueville, Amish gunmen, Anaïs Nin, Sylvia Plath, Southern slaves—and that’s just the plays beginning with “A.” (The only play beginning with “Z” is about a murderer intent on fashioning a zombie. Sounds brainy.) As ever, volunteering opportunities abound, and tickets sell for a trim $15.

Aug. 8-24, 2008

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Shirley Manson Progresses From Foreplay to Banging Full-On

In 1998, when Shirley Manson sang, “I think I’m paranoid and complicated,” she wasn’t kidding. She’s got a voice that feels like a nocturnal emission, her haughtiness could make Hell’s Angels pee their chaps, and she’s got it goin’ on like rowwwr. But she can’t see that last bit due to body dysmorphic disorder—a distressing condition whereby people obsess over some aspect of their physical appearance. There’s a likely connection between this strife and the merciless bullying Manson endured during her adolescence and her subsequent history with self-mutilation. The vicious resentment that has become the eau du Garbage is ripe on Bleed Like Me. In the first single, the uncomfortably frenetic “Why Do You Love Me,” she suggests, “I’m not as pretty as those girls in magazines. I am rotten to the core if they’re to be believed.”

Yet the flip side of Manson’s self-contempt is her infamous love of sex, evident in the opener “Bad Boyfriend.” The foreplay that defined Garbage’s early material has been substituted by aggressive, flashy guitars and rock drumming power-pounding the G-spot. So how can a woman who can’t stand herself be so at home body-banging? Sex for Shirley isn’t merely physical; in “Sex Is Not the Enemy,” fucking becomes a psychological playground where she disassociates from the ugly and boldly turns empowered minx. In April at the Hammerstein Ballroom, Manson was all body: hips and legs comfortable in a tight miniskirt that offered copious crotch shots. Go, baby, go, go.

But for a woman who loves pleasures of the flesh, Manson prays to be less human (read: less paranoid and complicated) in “Metal Heart.” By contrast, “Run Baby Run” and “Right Between the Eyes” urges ugly ducklings to bloom and flourish—on Bleed Like Me, it isn’t their poignant pain that sticks out, it’s Manson’s bravery in the face of it all. In a huge display of balls, “Hurt” by Johnny Cash was Garbage’s entry song at their show. It mirrored the confrontational title track about people dealing with anorexia, cutting, and gender crises. A glacial, angelic chorus of “you should see my scars” offers an exclusive invitation to these sacred hells. We’re asked, “Hey, baby, can you bleed like me?” but we obviously can’t. However distorted such perceptions of the self are, they are absolute realities nonetheless. As Manson’s fellow sexual provocateur Anaïs Nin explained: “We see things not as they are, but as we are.”

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Falling Ceilings

LOCATION West Village

RENT $1,625 [market]

SQUARE FEET 420 [one-bedroom in pre-war walkup]

OCCUPANTS Wendy Lau [lawyer]

Fascinating the way your dog leans over. Now his mouth is around my arm. He’s 16 months. The only thing he humps is other dogs.

Then I can lean back and relax. Other male dogs. We think Jack is gay.

Everyone thinks their pets are gay lately. I think my cat’s asexual. She’s old and cranky. Her name’s Anaïs. I wanted to name a dog Henry so they would get along but Jack didn’t look like a Henry.

Were you reading Anaïs Nin when you were growing up in Australia? Maybe. I was born in Hong Kong. My parents moved to Sydney when I was eight. My father is a semi-retired surgeon. I went to law school in Sydney. I’ve always wanted to come to New York. I saw an ad—one of the larger firms was recruiting, 2001.

The prescient foreshadowing . . . March 2001. I lived at the Hudson Hotel for six weeks. They gave me an allowance. Then I moved to a beautiful loft on Fourth Avenue. I was laid off after September 11. I’m in real estate and construction law. I moved in with a friend on 9th. It was kind of a throw-caution-to-the-wind situation—someone I was kind of dating. September 2002, I joined another big firm and moved to a huge loft sublease in Chinatown. Then another on 8th—two NYU professors, one German and one Austrian.

Hmmm. She taught Japanese art. He taught Chinese history. She was going on sabbatical. It was faculty housing, 1,200 square feet, skylight, beautiful modern furniture, floor-to-ceiling books.

Were they happy? Yes. [Then she tells me about a brownstone and the landlords, who were really cheap and used sand, not salt, when it snowed and their Dobermans were banned from the dog run and then they sold the building.]

Do you get sad when you have to move? That one I did; the others, not so much. Except for the Hudson Hotel, every place I’ve lived, the ceiling has fallen down.

Really. The dog and cat are going at it. He wants to play and she’s not interested. He used to drag all his toys and put them in front of her.

How hopeful. You know I was thinking about all your moving about. Lately all these people keep asking, Where can I buy an apartment, where can I buy an apartment? Over and over and over. They won’t shut up, like marionettes with their mouths going up and down. First of all, I’m not a real estate agent and second, what is all this? There was a time when people wanted to see the world and eat olives in the Mediterranean and have romantic experiences in Gabalaba or wherever. And even later, when they had to take day jobs, they still longed for that other life. Today all people long for is to buy some dopey beige apartment in Brooklyn. Nobody can afford anything anyway. No more journeys. It’s a sodden world at a standstill. So many are becoming like parents in the 1950s, little Eisenhower people thinking about kitchens all the time. They still have the politics of the bohemian left—like they’ll protest Bush a few days a year—but not the passions. When I was living in Sydney, I lived with someone for a very long time. We were the corporate couple. The minute we closed on this beautiful townhouse, I knew it was the biggest mistake of my life. It didn’t feel like the great achievement everyone said it should be. I still wanted to travel. For the last four years, people have been telling me, You’re a big corporate lawyer—buy. I’ve gotten to a stage where I don’t want to move again. I don’t feel like I’m wasting money by renting because I don’t pin my success on whether I own a one-bedroom or not.

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Girl Gone Wild: The Unique Life and Lineage of Anaïs Nin

“To be lost in a woman’s sexuality is to be truly lost,” wrote Anaïs Nin, the ’40s feminist, sex diarist, and long-limbed lover of Henry Miller, Edmund Wilson, and Gore Vidal. In 250,000 pages of handwritten diaries, Nin penned what she called an “emotional algebra,” full of starry, hormonal love affairs (“Beware just a little of your hypersexuality!” she wrote). It’s possible that only a fraction of the details in the journals are true, but as novelist Erica Jong puts it, no writer has told the “story of female sexuality more honestly.” In time for Women’s History Month, the Foundation for Iberian Music hosts a concert and panel discussion to celebrate one of the most heartfelt (and profuse) works of 20th-century erotica. Scholar Suzanne Nalbantian (Memory in Literature), musicologist Antoni Piza (El Doble Silenci), and pianist Adam Kent talk about Nin, as well as her remarkable family—a long line of composers, activists, theorists, poets, and painters.