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Andy Warhol: Famous All Over Town

PITTSBURGH — The best souvenirs at last weekend’s opening of the Andy Warhol Museum might have been the T-shirts that said “ANDY VOLUNTEER.” Smacking of vintage superstar monickers, they also suggested some kind of military deployment. as though half the city of Pittsburgh had suddenly enlisted in the Warhol Reserves. And, if the A-list celebrity onslaught forecast for the three-day extravaganza never really materialized, what of it? The anonymous Warhol militia turned out in force.

For days in advance, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had rumored a glut of boldface people; crisis was even reported in the limousine sector, since the museum opening was scheduled for the same weekend as the Schenley High School prom. Would Diana Ross, said to be jetting in on her own plane, settle for a Pittsburgh Yellow Cab? What about Mick Jagger, Liza Minelli, and Madonna? How were they going to get around? Outside Rosa Villa Dinning (sic) Hall, a Family- (that family) style linguini palace across from the museum on the city’s north side, a couple of fans braced themselves for a Cindy Crawford sighting. “When Cindy comes, I’m going to run in and kneel and beg,” said Greg Bukowski. “She’ll probably just spit on you,” predicted Bukowski’s buddy John Handal. “Then you can take a picture of her spitting, and I’ll save the spit, Bukowski replied.

In the end Cindy Crawford joined most of the big star invitees in sitting out the Warhol party: loyalty in some circles is apparently billable by the hour. Still, the hundreds of folks who lined Sundusky and General Robinson streets to watch guests arrive for Friday’s $300-a-plate benefit dinner seemed ecstatic with even low-level celebrity astronomy.

“If a thousand people come, obviously 900 are not going to be brand names,” observed one paparazzo. In truth there were plenty of heavy hitters from society and the art world: Doris Ammann flew in from Zurich, Anthony d’Offay from London, and entire US Air flights were sardine-tight with dealers and curators from New York. Among the painters on hand for Friday’s black-tie dinner were Roy Lichtenstein, Francisco Clemente, Brice Marden, and Ross Bleckner, who dressed down in blue jeans and spent the evening jockeying to get cute boys moved to his table.

Although Pittsburgh is the nation’s 18th most populous city, its probably closer to the third or fourth in terms of wealth, and the city’s society ladies seemed to use the occasion as an opportunity to crack the vaults for high-wattage gems. “Normally, people would never wear jewelry to go to the North Side,” said an estate lawyer for a Forbes 400 family, as one saurian dowager staggers into the museum under the weight of a diamond-and-ruby parure. “The invitation said valet parking, though, so I guess they thought it was safe.” Better still, the society ladies may have felt it was fitting to honor Warhol by sporting their finest. It isn’t every painter, after all, who dies with 25 Cartier bracelet tucked in a drawer.

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The museum, housed in a renovated 1911 beaux arts building, opened on a cool, lovely evening in the former steel town, now known as a city of bridges and one of America’s most amenable places to live. Things were a bit different in Andy Warhol’s childhood, when the mills along the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers blacked the skies with soot, and furnaces along Second Avenue spewed tongues of fire. Over the course of the weekend, visitors would have a chance to take the Warhol Tour and visit the house-next-to-the-house on 73 Orr Street where Andy and his two brothers were born (asphalt shingles, two floors, single water closet in the basement, wretched poverties that probably looked good to Andrei and Julia Warhola at the time), the neighborhood where he was reared (set in a dreary valley know as “the Rut”), the church where his family worshipped (St. John Chrysostom, Byzantine rite Catholic), the high school where he was a star art student (Schenley High) and the department store (Joseph Horne Co.) where, as a window dresser, he launched himself into the world. What they wouldn’t get is any clear sense of how a talented Ruthenian-American kid with jug ears and a bulbous nose charted a trajectory that could carry him out of his class, out of Pittsburgh (he always claimed it was McKeesport), away from the ghetto of sexual stereotype (let’s do him the favor of remembering he was gay) and onto the face of pop (not Pop) culture, which was always Andy’s natural milieu.

They would see parts of a compendious collection that includes almost 900 paintings, 77 sculptures and collaborative works, 1500 drawings, 400 black-and-white photographs, Poloroids, photobooth strips, illustrations, 608 time capsules, the full run of Interview magazine, 2500 audiotapes and videotapes and scripts, as well as his diaries, datebooks, correspondence, and films. “It’s a relief to have so much of the work in one place so it can be properly preserved,” said Soho dealer Holly Solomon, as project architect David Mayner attempted to explain the difficulties of conserving a collection that includes fragile gold-leaf drawings, 3-D Xography, and Warhol’s nearly animate wigs.

Although many of Warhol’s early films haven’t been out of the vault in years, his Empire and Kiss played continuously throughout the weekend. “When are they going to play my films?” Warhol perennial Taylor Meade bleated, adding slyly that “twelve hours of the Empire State is a bore, my dear: I mean, one bird flies by every two hours.” Meade was one of the few Factory stalwarts to appear in Pittsburgh.

True, Ultra Violet was on hand, as was socialite Jane Holzer (she lopped the superstar prefix Baby from her name some 25 years ago). But some fans were disappointed not to see (and hear; it’s an audiovisual experience) Viva or Joe Dallesandro or Jane Forth or Donna Jordan or Brigid “Polk” Berlin or any of the surviving superstars whose infamous speed rants and pneumatic egos went a long way toward defining Warhol’s skewed worldview.

“They probably thought they’d be turned into puppets,” said Billy Name, the Factory denizen who legendarily spent two years in a closet at Warhol’s loft on Union Square. (Actually, it was a darkroom, Name’s a pho­tographer, and everyone knows how long it can take to develop pictures when you’re shooting methamphetamine.) Name and Ul­tra Violet were the weekend’s stars by de­fault, turning up incessantly on local television, compulsively presenting themselves for interviews. “Any museum is better than no museum,” declared UV, née Isabelle Du­fresne, on opening night. Taking no chances on anonymity, she’d pinned a half-­dozen rhinestone pins spelling ULTRA to her pleated purple dress. “Warhol is the imperialist artist of America,” said Ms. Vio­let. “As long as America will stand, Warhol will stand. If America will fall, Warhol will fall.”

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You could just as smartly invert the for­mulation; either way, both Warhol and the Warhol have the feel of permanence. “Recycling old buildings to show art is very im­portant,” Agnes Gund, chairwoman of the Museum of Modem Art, told the Times, in a near paraphrase of Jane Jacobs’s famous remark that “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings; new ideas must use old buildings.” The single-artist museum, com­mon enough in Europe, is still a novelty here. And any museum of the Warhol’s scope is rare. “Here we are with Andy in his tomb,” said Taylor Mead. “His temple, his heaven.” As a monument to social transformation, the Warhol Museum is an unexpectedly stirring place. For decades, Andy Warhol’s father was a laborer at the Jones & Loughlin steel mill, source of the wealth behind the great Philips Collection in Washington, D.C. Andrei Warhola was so poor that he resoled his children’s shoes with rubber tires during the Depression and left instructions at his death that his $1400 life savings were to buy Andy two years at art school. Now the “bohunk” millworker’s son from “the Rut” has his own museum in the city of Scaifes and Mellons.

“Can you believe all this?” asked George Warhola, a nephew of Andy’s who runs a North Side scrap yard. Warhola had just finished touring the building with Richard Gluckman, the architect charged with con­verting the old Frick & Lindsay building. “It puts chills in my body,” said Warhola. To a large extent the people of Pittsburgh seemed to share the feeling. By late Sunday evening, over 8000 visitors had stood in line for hours to enter the handsome terra­cotta museum. Some may have even stopped at the fourth floor vitrine in which a clipping from an ancient edition of Art Direction magazine presents Andy Warhola as a “young man on his way up.”

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“Rich folks coming through,” quipped a policeman on Friday night as Palm Beach multimillionairess Molly Wilmot teetered past on Betty Page spike heels and a Schia­parelli-pink Chanel. “I love it,” said Wil­mot, fluttering her three-inch nails. “It’s a real fest.”

Close behind Wilmot was Dennis Hop­per, whose arrival elicited almost as much excitement from the curbside crowd as that greeting Pennsylvania governor Robert Ca­sey. Hopper’s film ouevre may have reached a special plateau when he played Taylor Mead’s stand-in during the filming of the Warhol’s 1963 Tarzan and Jane Regained, Sort Of (much of which was set in the “shark infested lagoon” of the Beverly Hills Hotel). In Pittsburgh, Hopper modestly edged his way through the crowd wearing an Armani dinner jacket that set off his mottled parchment complexion. “Isn’t that what’s his name, the guy from Easy Rider?” gasped Karen Huebner. “He looks pretty good,” said her date, “for someone who almost died.”

Hopper was followed into dinner by Pee­wee Herman, Debi Mazar, Ann-Bass, John Richardson, Michael Chow, and John Wa­ters, each receiving a commemorative Andy Warhol Museum watch from a volunteer who murmured, “Here’s your 15 minutes.” Rolling back a cuff to strap on her time­piece, Fran Lebowitz told one pesky report­er that she’d never really liked Warhol, the artist, and hadn’t much cared for Warhol, the man. Aside from professional sour­-pusses, the crowd seemed unusually giddy. “This is a room of 1000 egomaniacs,” shrilled the museum’s director Tom Arm­strong, surveying a huge rectangular tent illuminated by neon centerpieces of War­hol’s profile, each bearing a little card that read: ANDY FOR SALE ($400 plus tax). Sud­denly the Duquesne Club waitresses broke from the wings in flights carrying dessert plates laden with lemon mousse and choco­late cookies, Andy’s name written on each in fudge.

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“Timing, that’s the way to become a great artist,” said Taylor Mead. “Andy didn’t care what he did, as long as it was the right time.”

Chatting merrily, guests at Mead’s table speculated about Warhol’s notorious “Oxi­dation” pictures, painted with urine on treated canvas. “Some are Mick Jagger, I think,” one guest opined. “Some are Bianca. Some are Halston, too.”

“How can you tell whose piss is whose?” asked Barbara Allen de Kwiatkowski, the phenomenally wealthy socialite who started her career as the back-issues clerk at Interview.

“Get up close and sniff,” a tablemate replied.

Just then someone remarked that Mary McFadden had wandered into the men’s room, Fortuny-style tunic, Elizabethan hair­line and all. “She spent quite a bit of time in there,” the man said. “It was accidental, I think.”

At a service bar across the room sat a garish floral centerpiece featuring lilies, some bleary carnations, and a can of Camp­bell’s soup. Hardly anyone remembers that Cambell’s soup is owned by the Dorrance family of … Philadelphia, “Bitter rivals” as the Post-Gazette later put it, “who get the last laugh in the land of Heinz.” Such in­dustrial trivialities didn’t faze Teresa Heinz, the late senator’s wife, though. “Enjoy your evening,” Heinz, a Carnegie Institute trust­ee, instructed a crowd so boisterous that the mayor of Pittsburgh and the governor of the state both failed to silence them. “And remember that tonight we are all works of art.”

“Just don’t tell artists to suffer,” mut­tered Taylor Mead. “Don’t ever suffer for your art.” Suffering was transcended as Andy Warhol was apotheosized in Pitts­burgh to the sound of drunken laughter and the electronic chittering of a register haul­ing in cash. As party defectors drifted to­ward the Andyland exit, many stopped first at the gift shop to stock up on Warhol postcards, Warhol catalogues, Warhol post­ers, Warhol bios, Warhol notepads, and spe­cially boxed $24.95 Warhol T-shirts. While art collector Paul Walter wrote a check for his haul of Warholiana, I asked shop man­ager Jim Spitznagel what was the biggest seller so far. It was a T-shirt, he said, the one with an image of Marilyn Monroe’s lips repeated four times, in four colors, lips part­ed and full of desire. “Love Your Kiss For­ever Forever,” it’s called. ❖

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Banal Retentive: Andy Warhol’s Romance of the Pose

THE ANDY WARHOL DIARIES
Edited by Pat Hackett
Warner Books, $29.95

Like his best art, Andy Warhol’s diaries are full of surface information and tough to figure. They dare you to find them deep. After a life spent hustling for the spotlight with close personal friends like Liza and Liz and Halston and Mick, Warhol thoughtful­ly remembered them all from Beyond. The artist’s bequest to his boldface buddies is a record of his innermost thoughts and theirs. The result is a thick, newsy volume that’s either celebrity wallpaper or a Pop Goncourt Journals. Maybe both. Who else, as Suzy says, would have thought to record the man-keeping secrets of our major thinkers? “If you only have two minutes, drop everything and give him a blow job,” Jerry Hall told Andy. “Keep a diary,” Mae West once advised, “and someday it might keep you.”

Without question The Andy Warhol Dia­ries is this summer’s heavy reading. I weighed the book myself and it’s over four pounds. In fact, the diary is a two-writer effort. Edited (or “redacted,” to use an old Interview term) by Warhol’s phone confi­dante Pat Hackett, it’s a monument to the Blavatsky style — part dictation, part re­creation. Hackett was Warhol’s secretary/stylus, skittering over the board while he telephonically gave her the words. As every People reader knows, the diaries were be­gun as a daily telephone account of the artist’s activities, made to satisfy the IRS. With their constant notations of taxi fares and dinner tabs, they also satisfy Harold Nicolson’s advice to the thorough diarist to remember what everything cost. Warhol re­members it all. The diaries started out as accountings and evolved into reckonings, but nobody expected that at the start.

Hackett met Warhol when she drifted down to the Factory from Barnard looking for part-time work. He hired her, sort of, by pointing to a desk. Warhol employees couldn’t always count on remuneration: “volunteers” was the office word for trust-fund menials with no pressing need for a paycheck. Hackett stumbled into a relation­ship with Warhol the way most of his em­ployees, stars, and friends did. Warhol seemed to have some powerful gravitational pull, a personal force field. One of the many unwholesome delights of The Andy Warhol Diaries is watching cosmic detritus get sucked into his strange orbit.

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Early ads for the book have suggested that behind Warhol’s platinum-wigged va­cancy lay a knuckle-whacking moralist: he only looked as if no one was home. The artist is portrayed as a churchgoing Big Brother, always watching. The creepy im­plication is that the Pop jester never took his world seriously. While his companions snorted and screwed themselves to oblivion, he sneaked off to light votive candles and annihilate everyone on paper. If the mar­keting’s too patly convenient — suggesting that what we secretly desire is a repudiation of the sex-drugs-and-disco decades — it’s also pitched right for the times. The tease on The Andy Warhol Diaries is that the book offers the sin and the penance in one stop. It’s a trendy notion, but Warhol’s Weltanschauung makes things a trifle more complex.

In a nice, and possibly random, touch the photo section of the book opens with a picture of the Zavackys, the Czechoslova­kian family of Julia Warhola, Andy’s mom. Posed in their kerchiefs, mustaches, and rube finery, the Zavackys appear ready to set off on the great adventure: “Up from Steerage.” They remind the reader what Warhol came from, more accurately than the usual inventions about his “coal miner” father (actually a construction worker) from McKeesport (actually Pittsburgh). In the whopping 807-page volume Warhol cites the Zavackys just once, and not by name, reminded of them by the onion dome churches in The Deer Hunter. But he doesn’t need to dwell on his forebears since they hover like shades, embodied in the moralizing, shrewd, and unforgiving peas­ant who lopped the final vowel from his surname and hit it big.

Warhol’s hardworking, penny-wise (and generous by turns) nature had deep Old Country roots. Even when he became the most famous artist in the world, he re­mained the child of immigrants and a first-­generation working-class American. This helps explain his infatuation with surface and his success in Society: he lent himself as a kooky ornament to people who valued his tactful understanding that he’d never belong.

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One of the enduring Warhol fictions casts him as a mooch. And it’s true he loved a freebie. Like a crazed conventioneer, the diary Warhol swipes silver from the Con­corde — working toward a complete set — ac­cepts ludicrous invitations, even attends the opening of an escalator. With his tape recorder or Polaroid he brings back souve­nirs. But Warhol paid his own way. Even in the druggy days of Max’s Kansas City (not covered by the diary), it was Andy who picked up the check. Which doesn’t mean he expected less than full value. He was a big tipper who got a kick out of handing employees pink slips. He had a solid prole sense of quid pro quo.

The ’60s Warhol recorded in his earlier books — among the most accurate records of the time — starred the gargantuan, drugged personalities of his superstar friends: Viva, Brigid Berlin, Ondine, Jackie Curtis. His novel a and The Philosophy of Andy War­hol (From A to B and Back Again) are all slick finish or amphetamine rant. He left the tape running on a cast of talking heads who played themselves with manic, dam­aged brilliance. But by the time The Andy Warhol Diaries begin, the superstars have faded (most aren’t dead yet), his films are in a vault, and the cast has changed.

From 1976 until his death, Warhol pre­ferred to surround himself with consorts and gold diggers. There are really two dia­ries. One is thronged with celebrities. But beneath that glittering text lies a subsidiary world, populated by Warhol’s steadies, a passel of attractive and ambitious vagrants without portfolio or evident talent — “art­ists” like Victor Hugo, the window dresser who kept Halston company; “models” like Barbara Allen, a beauty whose staggering romantic successes were accomplished de­spite mental limitations impossible to overstate. And Bianca Jagger, of course.

Jagger is one of the few characters who survives all the Diary years: she’s a tena­cious scenemaker. Over time, Jagger devel­ops as something more than a cartoon ce­lebrity in a marathon name-drop. There’s a strange quality about her, pouting with Halston, pouting with Mick, pouting for the cameras, pneumatic mouth on labial cruise control. She’s no Lily Bart, but somehow Bianca seems … better than her fate as a groupie/girlfriend/wife-of-fading-rockstar.

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Warhol has no taste for the pathos of Jagger’s trajectory from Nicaraguan nobody to celebrity nobody. He has no taste for pathos at all. He gets off on showing his friends with their pants around their ankles. He prefers that their embarrassments take place in public, as in this entry from December of 1978: “Marisa [Berenson] looked beautiful in silver, and Paul Jasmin was with her. She’s finally leaving town. She’s mad at Barbara Allen because Barbara was seeing her husband, Jim Randall, out in California, so Barbara wasn’t invited. Steve [Rubell] told us that Warren [Beatty] had fucked Jackie O., that he talked about it. Bianca said that Warren had probably just made it up, that he made it up that he slept with her, Bianca, and that when she saw him in the Beverly Wilshire she screamed, ‘Warren, I hear you say you’re fucking me. How can you say that when it’s not true?’ ”

There’s an anecdote a minute in the dia­ries. They’re thick on the ground. And if they don’t render whole, authentic-sound­ing people, it’s worth remembering that Warhol’s friends were not entirely real. The famous “stars” he cultivated have egos so strained and distended they’re like special-­effects contraptions lurching from page to page. Baryshnikov as the Little Engine That Could. Attack of the Fifty Foot Liza.

Anyway, diaries aren’t under obligation to render whole people. It’s a miniaturist’s skill, made for the slash, the wicked aside, the unflattering silhouette. Warhol becomes seductive the way Pepys or Henry (Chips) Channon or Cecil Beaton do, on the strength of his own greedy curiosity and sanguine optimism. Not to mention his gaga syntax, which becomes a form of ad­dictive baby talk. “Oh, I read a great col­umn in the Times!” he tells the diary in December of 1978. “It was something like ‘Funky, Punky, and Junky,’ and they had been talking about it at Tom Armstrong’s — ­it was about ‘silly people’ and it (laughs) had me in it a lot. No mention of Steve Rubell, no Halston — just me, Marisa, Bianca, Truman, Lorna Luft — the silly peo­ple and the silly places. And later, at Hal­ston’s, Halston said he’s glad he wasn’t mentioned because he said (imitates) ‘I’m! Not! Silly!’ And then everyone started call­ing Bianca ‘silly pussy, silly pussy.’ And Marisa came over and when she heard about the ‘silly’ column she was upset to be ‘silly.’ ” Maybe you had to be there.

Pat Hackett tells us that Warhol “mel­lowed” over the years. He outgrew “a cruel maddening way he had of provoking people to near hysteria.” Still, he kept all the barbed conversational quirks of a ’50s queen. In Warhol’s “camp” lexicon gay men were “fairies,” any “loud” woman could be a dyke, and hyperbole was the rule (especially when describing the male organ: Warhol’s diary is the Home of the Whopper). In the early days of his fame, he trained himself to talk in unintellectual monosyllables because it made for a more “butch” presentation. When he slipped with a five-dollar word (never in public), he inevitably used the occasion to mock himself.

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It was in Warhol’s Pop nature to fetishize movie stars and objects and puppies, then exploit his woozy compulsion in art. He kept a tight rein on sentimentality, or ex­posed it to gamma rays that made it larger than life. Warhol’s modus operandi, his “philosophy” was a stew of aesthetics and Czechoslovakian home truths. He disguised his politics (actively Democratic, although he only voted once in his life) and real opinions as credulous blather. He acted dumb. “Victor [Hugo] came by with his brother who’s so good looking,” he remarks one August Monday in 1983. “And Victor says his brother’s cock is so big he used to hit the table with it at breakfast. I guess they were naked at breakfast, you know these South Americans. It takes years to get nervous and live in an uptight situation like civilization.” How did people ever swallow the supposition that the real Warhol was a white-wigged idiot standing around saying, “Great”?

One of Warhols’s better card tricks was to make it all look easy: he was careful to maintain his cool. And that wasn’t always for the public’s benefit. He worked hard to conceal creepy feelings like hurt and long­ing from himself. “[Producer] Jon [Gould] told me the other night that he liked Pop­ism, but to Chris he said he didn’t think Paramount could do it,” Warhol writes in March of 1981. “But maybe eventually something will happen with it. Maybe it’s too soon. Oh, and Jon said to me that he thought it was ‘badly edited’ so I don’t know if he’s good at reading.”

This unexciting entry captures an essen­tial Warhol. It replays one of his ancient ambitions, to be taken seriously (in Holly­wood, of all places). And it displays his ego at work. Warhol knew the value of his tal­ents, and could spot his own ephemeral gar­bage faster than anyone. Just as surely he knew what would last. Although he was a literary dunce (Joan Crawford’s bio was a heavy tome), Warhol was “good at read­ing.” And writing. With the exception of a, which was written and should be read on amphetamines, his books are skillful, com­posed in his own reedy ruthless voice. By the time he came to write them, his persona had achieved fictional proportions. Having invented Andy, there was little need to manufacture stories about him. Andy could follow Andy around and record Andy’s ad­ventures and Andy’s nutty thoughts.

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One problem with the diaries is their postmortem polish. (Another is the casual proofreading: names are misspelled, luggage comes down a “shoot.”) As the reader slogs through the years with Warhol, it becomes tougher to sustain belief in the method of straight dictation. Hackett has said the book was distilled from 20,000 pages and that she used a light editing hand. But an­ecdotes drift toward the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as sentences start, “This was the day of … ” Dialogue tags (“she groaned”) stand out from the page. Hackett intrudes.

Still the book is great social history, with its lip-smacking tales of loveless, sexless marriages, its gimlet-eyed view of other people’s success, and its rampant uncloset­ings (when he mentions how Tony Perkins once hired hustlers to come through his window and pretend to rob him, you can see the libel lawyers twist and squirm). And it’s studded with gems of pure Warhol: “She was the nurse and he was Kaiser alumi­num,” he remarks. Or, “It was a Paloma Picasso day. Went to breakfast at Tiffany’s for her.” Or: “Ran into Rene Ricard who’s the George Sanders of the Lower East Side, the Rex Reed of the art world — he was with some Puerto Rican boyfriend with a name like a cigarette.”

The mellow Warhol was, if anything, even sharper in his ability to skewer with few words. “Decided to go to Peter Beard’s party at Heartbreak,” he writes of the so­cialite cocksman/photographer. “Peter was at the door showing slides. The usual. Afri­ca. Cheryl [Tiegs] on a turkey. Barbara Al­len on a turkey. Bloodstains. (Laughs.) You know.”

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By the mid-’80s, the diary Warhol has absorbed many of his rich friends’ daffy eccentricities. He becomes an unwitting caricature, extravagant and yet convinced he’s being taken (often true), obsessed with his pets, with unreturned favors, social gaffes and horrors. (When his wig is snatched during a book-signing at Rizzoli, he can’t even say the words; his editor does it for him.) He’s increasingly snookered by crystal healers, acupuncturists, and pimple experts. And, as always, he pines for affec­tion and sex — even after Jon Gould has moved into his 66th Street townhouse. New art stars have begun to upstage him, and Pop colleagues are selling higher at auction, a fact that obsesses a man whose lifelong fear was “going broke.” Scarier still, he oc­casionally goes unrecognized on the street.

The drug scene dries up as his adventur­ess friends revert to type and scramble for the altar. And the “fairies” mysteriously begin to die off. Betrayal, disappointment, and the banality of aging erode the fun quotient. Always phobic about hospitals and illness, Warhol is nastily remote when friends contract “the gay cancer.” These entries — almost any entry involving the physical difficulties of a friend — have a bald, ugly texture. Warhol was more sympa­thetic to animal distress than human. In one early entry he rails against his assistant Ronnie Cutrone for assassinating an ex­-girlfriend’s cats. Yet, later, when friends contract AIDS, Warhol refuses to sit near them at parties or share seats in a car. He begins to avoid restaurants where “fairies” prepare the food.

After 1983, the peppy atmosphere of Warhol World darkens. His long relation­ship with the decorator Jed Johnson fizzles out and his emotional shortcomings begin to redound nastily on himself. Johnson’s desertion begins a string of “divorces.” Bob Colacello (né Colaciello, as Warhol né War­hola likes to point out) quits the editorship of Interview to pursue moneyed Republi­cans. Halston sells his name to J.C. Penney. Steve Rubell is imprisoned for tax evasion. And with each cast change Warhol’s life and the book become more banal. His schedule is still frenetic but the diary rhythm flattens. There’s more time to kill.

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Part of the problem is Warhol’s new com­panions. Where he used to attract the most outlandish and beautiful people, he now settled for salaried companions and Social Register dregs like Cornelia Guest. These (sometimes titled) dullards had none of the crackling edge of his old drag queens or even his high-level hustlers. Warhol’s “stu­pid” pose was no help with this crowd, who couldn’t tell the difference. And the diary is forced to work harder on their behalf. Ca­pering from party to party with the newly anointed “celebutantes” and “millionettes,” Warhol found himself mentally slumming. It’s in these sections that you begin to notice what’s left out.

There are few entries about shopping or collecting, two of his major obsessions. And scant mention of work. Throughout the 11 years the book covers, Warhol was con­stantly turning out portraits, portfolios, new projects. But when “inspiration” crops up, the word seems like a sop tossed to the tax man, a joke.

The aging Warhol was still in demand, but he was less fun, more inward and cranky. “Cabbed up to 63rd Street ($8) … And Halston handed me a piece of pa­per in the shape of a boat and I was so thrilled. I knew it was the rent check for $40,000 [for Warhol’s Montauk house]. So that made my evening. And since it was so rainy I didn’t have any gifts with me so I wrote an I.O.U. to Halston and Victor and the niece: ‘I.O.U. One Art.’ … So anyway I went home and I opened up the paper boat and instead of a check, it was just noth­ing — like ‘Happy Birthday’ or something. It wasn’t a check and it should have been a check. All done up like a boat. It should have been a check.” The reader cringes.

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Like most people’s, Warhol’s holidays were anything but celebrations. For years, he celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas at Halston’s East 63rd Street house. The attempts at recreating family are land­marks amid seasonless loops of fun. They arrest the narrative in a way that few other events seem to do. Perhaps it’s because the touching gifts (often a dress for Andy), the Christmas trees, the roast turkey are the last thing you’d expect from a group of drugged publicity junkies. And somehow this makes them dear. The book doesn’t end until Warhol’s death in February of 1987, and the giddy pace never slackens. But for this reader, the diary hit an inad­vertent conclusion when Halston called off all tomorrow’s parties, leaving Andy with­out his little band. “Got up and it was Sun­day,” Warhol tells the diary on December 25, 1983. “Tried to dye my eyebrows and hair. I wasn’t in the mood. Went to church. Got not too many phone calls. Actually none, I guess.” ■

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From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES

Central Park Sellout

Central Park Sellout
October 14, 1997

It was always a paradox — a populist Arcadia built at a time when western expansion had begun the century-long desecration of the American frontier, a “wilderness” in the middle of an increasingly mechanized city, a utopian sanctuary no less artificial in its conception than the later rodent kingdoms of Disney would be. Anticipating Mickey and Goofy, Central Park was built with fake grass and man-made hills and artificial waterfalls. At one time, it even had a salaried shepherd tending to an ornamental flock.

It was a “natural” place intended to evoke what Freud would later refer to as the “old condition of things” — specifically the agrarian activities that gave shape to human life before “traffic and industry” deformed the planet. Central Park provided rolling meadows, scenic vistas, rustic overlooks, bridges with grottoes to shelter fictitious trolls. It gives the appearance of being a naturally occurring fragment of some imaginary countryside.

To create this distinctly New World fantasia it was necessary for Old World la­borers to hump in 10 million cartloads of soil. Designed to be many things, Central Park was foremost a kind of Rousseauesque frame for man’s encounters with his “true” self. Crossing its threshold, visitors entered into the spirit of what the landscape architect Frederic Law Olm­sted rhapsodically called a “wildness so hard to capture once put to flight.”

But the park may soon become as perma­nently tame as a golf course if the mayor ap­proves an eight-year exclusive management contract with the Central Park Conservancy. Giuliani’s signature would permit custody of the city’s most important public space quietly to pass into the hands of a private philanthropic elite. And then, with cottage garden plantings, proliferating signage, sweeps of Lawnmaster greens — and helped along by a special new pro­motional team — Central Park, the place, could soon become Central Park, the theme.

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A SATURDAY TIMES news report blandly summa­rized the future: “Formalizing a relationship that has been growing steadily for 17 years, the Giu­liani administration has decided to officially turn over responsibility for maintaining Central Park, the pastoral soul of the city, to a private group.”

Under the terms of the new agreement, the Central Park Conservancy will receive as much as $4 million a year from the city, half from the general fund and half in concessions revenues. This is in addition to Central Park’s share of the city’s overall parks budget, currently $2.9 mil­lion a year. (Of the park’s current $15.9 million budget, the Conservancy privately raises and funds about two-thirds.)

In the first year of the proposal, the city will pay the Conservancy $1 million, provided it raises and spends $5 million; the payments es­calate to as much as $2 million a year over the course of the contract’s term. The deal also calls for the conservancy to keep 50 per cent of any concession revenues above the current level, up to a maximum of $2 million a year.

Claiming that the city will retain control over all important decisions, Parks Commissioner Henry Stern insists, “This represents an ideal public-private partnership. They’re going to whitewash our fences and they’re going to pay to do it. There’s no surrender here.”

Yet the plan Stern negotiated with Conser­vancy head Karen Putnam this past summer — a time when most local community boards were on hiatus — bypassed city charter-mandated processes for establishing public policy and cir­cumvented standard competitive contracting rules to place the day-to-day maintenance of the city’s most heavily utilized public park under pri­vate control. The commissioner argued success­fully with City Hall that the conservancy’s record meritcd giving it a sole-source, no-bid contract.

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Since a partial management contract be­tween the Conservancy and the city was signed in 1993, there has not been a single public audit or review. Those agency operations not covered in its annual report are not publicly reported. If the mayor approves the long-term contract, it be­comes impossible to monitor Conservancy per­formance by means of state freedom of informa­tion statutes or open-meetings laws. And, while IRS statutes require not-for-profits to make tax returns publicly available, a visitor’s initial request placed at the Conservancy’s Arsenal office was re­cently turned away — until the visitor identified himself as a reporter. Furthermore, although the Conservancy chief — who also serves as the Cen­tral Park administrator — reports to the parks commissioner, she is privately paid, a fact that places her office another step away from accountability.

Where is the public in all this? After Con­servancy officials declined an appearance to an­swer contract questions at a City Council hearing, Council-member Ronnie Eldridge complained that “There used to be public scrutiny when we had a Board of &timatc. It’s very hard now for there to be any public oversight.”

For her part, Putnam counters that “the Conservancy has the most exhaustive review system of its own design. We do not move forward without approval front the Landmarks and the Municipal Art commissions.” Conser­vancy chairman Ira M. Millstein adds, “Never once have we tried to ‘take over the park.’ All we want to do is to keep it nice. We pay for the right to keep that park beautiful.”

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It’s Millstein’s sweeping assumption of no­blesse oblige that should sound an alarm, since the Central Park Conservancy board currently includes among its members the multimillionaires Richard Gilder, Michael Bloomberg, and Henry Kravis —  group not unaccustomed to having its collective way. “The Conservancy is increasingly alone in en­suring that the premier property in the city’s park system does not again become a humiliating ruin,” Gilder wrote in last winter’s City Journal, the pub­lication of the Manhattan Institute. Gilder went on to blame the park’s disastrous past not on dra­conian budget cuts but on shiftless, work-to-book unions. That particular problem will be tidily dis­pensed with under the new contract, which, among other conclusions, gives the private non­profit the right to fire city employees.

“As a principle, it’s a terrible mistake,” one former Parks Department official says of the contract, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Thee director of the Conservancy isn’t selected by the mayor. It’s too public a place to have a private entity in charge.”

In a 1995 interview, the then Central Park administrator and Conservancy chief Elizabeth Barlow Rogers remarked that “we must avoid the privatization of public space.” Even Gilder himself — $17 million benefactor of the Great Lawn restoration — has paid lip service to this high-minded ideal. “New York’s parks arc in­valuable public amenities and must remain under close public supervision.”

However, according to Carolyn Kent, a member of Manhattan’s Community Board 9, which opposed the long-term contract, “We’re very deep into parks issues at this board, and we weren’t consulted. We were shocked. This is not a parochial issue where only the people who live in adjacent aparnncnt houses set the debate. Are only the wealthiest supposed to call the shots?”

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WHERE RUMINANTS ONCE cropped the Sheep Meadow, the 843-acre park is now dominated by a bureaucratic sacred cow. And it must be said that the Conservancy — brought in to save the ailing park in 1980 by Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis, after Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan suggested turning the place over to the National Parks Service — can legitimately claim responsibility for good works. The restoration of the Harlem Meer, the Dairy, the Bethesda Fountain, and the general reversal of decades-long Parks Department misfeasance were unforeseeable feats at a time when both the elms along Poet’s Walk and the city itself were afflicted with creeping rot.

Since then the economy has rebounded, and Central Park can once again merit the ap­pellation of “crown jewel of the nation’s urban parks.” With the conservancy’s successes came increasing pressure from the board to expand its powers beyond fundraising and general main­tenance to full-scale management. “What’s hap­pened,” says Moisha Blechman, of the New York City Sierra Club, “is that, ultimately, the people who gave the money said, ‘We want to control how the money is spent.’ It makes no sense in a wealthy city to have the takeover of a public entity by a private organization.”

Many things that now occur in the park make little sense, and few of them are held up for public scrutiny. The alienating effect of shutting off areas of the park for promotional events, for example, has some significant prece­dent (Simon and Garfunkel, Diana Ross, etc). But when a Garth Brooks fan complained to The New York Times of the 10 a.m. opening and 6 p.m. closing of the park on concert day, her let­ter cast a chill. “In the future,” wrote Darlene Geller, “perhaps passes can be given out at dif­ferent times and places beforehand.”

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Or perhaps in the future, Team Cheerios will be the order of a Central Park day. On a steamy afternoon in mid August, a giant yellow inflatable cereal box loomed above Bethesda Terrace, a sort of bloated corporate affront to the fountain’s famous Angel of the Waters. Idling on the nearby transverse, several Rollerblade vans advertised the brand’s newly purchased ($1.6 million to the Parks Depart­ment) slogan as “THE OFFICIAL SKATE OF NEW YORK CITY PARKS.” A New York Rangers slap-shot booth parked beneath some elms bore a huge Coca-Cola logo. The displays are here to celebrate a national youth-sports conclave. Oddly enough, it’s the one fact not ex­plained with any signs. A visitor who didn’t know better could easily imagine having wan­dered into a soccer-league fundraiser at the mall.

On another summer morning a beach vol­leyball tournament is underway near the Naum­burg Bandshell. There are bleachers and announcers and cancerously sunbaked people spiking balls into the imported sand. The event is underwritten by the hair-care magnate Paul Mitchell, whose workers have erected canvas tents in which they offer free trims and comb-outs. “One of Mayor Giuliani’s top priorities is to de­velop and nurture public-private partnerships that result in sustained improvements in the condition of our parks,” is how Parks Commissioner Stem reasons away this usurpation of public space.

Events like these are officially sanctioned by the Parks Department, and not the privately funded Central Park Conservancy, but the de­marcation between the two has increasingly be­come blurred. The $750,000 fee HBO paid for Garth Brooks’s concert, for instance was split by the parks department and a Conservancy trust. So was the $55,000 BMW paid to publicize a new sports-car test-drive through the park, the $100,000 Sony and Toys “R” Us paid to hold game exhibitions along the park’s Fifth Avenue entrances, and the $50,000 Breakstone paid to stage an annual Easter egg roll on park lawns.

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Editorializing on the need for creation of a “central park,” the influential 19th-century land-scape achitect Andrew Jackson Browning wrote that “deluded New York has, until lately, content­ed itself with … mere grassplats of verdure … in the mistaken idea that they are parks.” Deluded New York still contents itself with mere grassplats, or anyway settles for being herded from one pre­cious grassplat to the next, as the city’s greatest public space is segmented with fencing and sold off to, say, Anheuser Busch and Evian, two firms that jointly paid $100,000 to hold a beach vol­leyball tournament in a place without a beach.

“The commercialization of the park,” be­comes that much easier when planning and op­erations are conducted out of public view, says the Sierra Club’s Blechman. “An adventure play­ground goes through without community input. A power station just appears at 86th Street and Central Park West. You begin to get increased signage all over the park, done without commu­nity input. Central Park was not designed to have maps and directions everywhere. The Conser­vancy wants to obscure the natural wonder with huge signs telling you where you are.”

Where exactly are you? Are you feeling warm and fuzzy seated on the Christine Hearst and Stephen Schwarzman memorial bench at 76th Street? Are you stopping on your official skates of NYC parks for a sip of water from the Sidney and Arthur Diamond fountain? Are you memorizing the sentimental hokum of an anony­mous donor’s plaque — affixed to a bench near In­ventors Gate — informing parkgoers that “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin”?

What if you’ve had enough of “kinship” with 8 million fellow individuals — not to men­tion their products, their philosophies, the oppressive din of their names? “Donor naming has become commonplace in hospitals and synagogues, why not the park?” says commissioner Stern. “Commercialize forever if you want to,” responds attorney Robert Makla, founder of the historicist Greensward Foundation. “Name everything. Give money and ask for a plaque. The point of Central Park is to cross the street and leave the commercialization behind. Stop identifying with Time Warner and Garth Brooks and Disney. Evoke nature, not an indi­vidual. Take a look. Do Frederic Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux have their names anywhere?

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They do not. As Carolyn Kent of Commu­nity Board 5 notes, “The problem is there’s no landscape historical staff at the Conservancy to keep the park from becoming a graveyard of memorial plaques.”

Central Park, as biographer Lee Hall writes in Olmsted’s America, was not “created in a social vacuum, or under ideal protection by governing authorities.” It was created on “an undercurrent of political pork barreling, vote trading, and power brokerage.” Lacking the grotesque bra­vado of the Tweed clubhouse, the current power brokers assert a subtle aesthetic hegemony over a piece of Manhattan larger than Monaco.

For “safety,” they seal the park perimeter dur­ing ethnic parade days. They install “temporary” snow fencing that becomes a de facto fixture of the landscape. They festoon fences with self-­celebrating signs and install English-style cottage gardens where the park’s designers mandated na­tive plantings. Increasingly, perhaps in imitation of the 19th-century parks “sparrow cops,” they exhort parkgoers to indulge only in proper forms of public behavior. Sports or unleashed dogs are sternly discouraged, while “relaxing, sunbathing, daydreaming?” are deemed okay.

“The Conservancy is not, must never be al­lowed to be, and should not be seen as, an elitist organization of East Side snobs acting like Lord and Lady Bountiful,” warned William Beinecke, the founding chairman of the conservancy. Yet, as one Upper East Side activist remarks, “the Con­servancy’s history of communicating with groups and individuals is very poor. There are many unanswered questions about how park money will be allocated, how they’re going to spend concession revenues, who decides which of these big public events are held in the park. No one has seen this contract and yet the people from the Conservancy refuse to discuss it. Once the contract is signed, they say, they’ll talk.”

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BEFORE THERE WAS a Central Park Conservan­cy, there were the volunteer Friends of Central Park, and before them there was an activist-­historian named M. M. Graff. Although you’ll find no citation on Graff in the Encyclopedia of New York City, she remains a figure of some rev­erence among people who love the city.

It was Graff who conducted crucial surveys of Central and Prospect parks, compiled defin­itive guides to the bridges, trees, and trails, and also wrote pithy biographies of the park’s cre­ators, pronouncing them “visionaries endowed with highest order of and dedication” and then promptly cutting artistry them down to size. Calvert Vaux, claims Graff, saw the park as an opportunity to advance the art of landscape architecture. Frederic Law Olmsted was moved by democratic ideals.

For decades Graff fought to preserve the balance of these differing visions as realized in a park that is part aesthetic conception, part ex­perimental proving ground.

“The Conservancy is bad and Parks is worse,” Graff says now. “The trees are in terri­ble danger from automobile emissions, but no­body says a word. I hear they’re going to put up signs for traffic, how to get here and there. Ob­viously, once that happens, that’s a place you can put advertising, too. They consistently cheapen and vulgarize the park experience, but Land­marks and the Municipal Art Society do noth­ing to stop them. Only Robert Makla speaks up and everyone hates his guts. I’d like to get out and help, but I’m brushing 89. Frankly, I don’t feel Central Park has much future anymore.” ♦

1997 Village Voice article by Guy Trebay about privatizing public parks

1997 Village Voice article by Guy Trebay about privatizing public parks

1997 Village Voice article by Guy Trebay about privatizing public parks

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Big Bang Boom

The Big Bang Boom
September 11, 1990

WEEDSPORT, NEW YORK — I’m here at the Weedsport Speedway waiting for something to blow. Who knows where it’ll come from? Who knows what it’ll be. There are guys behind concrete Georgia barriers darting around with lit flares. There are women at the far end of the track wiring rocket fuses. There’s a motorized digger drilling holes in the hardpack for mortar emplacements. It’s griddle hot, and shadeless as Arabia, out on the big tan oval of jigsawed dirt. Across the street is the Rainbow Lanes. Down the road is a True Gospel Church of Christ tent. Six miles west of the cornfields around the raceway is the century-old maximum-secu­rity prison where the electric chair made its debut.

From out on the speedway comes the madhouse whine of fuse ignition and a guy cackling, “We’re going to be shooting a lot of shit today!” I hear a boom and turn. Then the rockets began to fly.

It sounds like war, but these are just rec­reational missiles that seem to be skimming my scalp — fun rockets, the very best kind! That big boom? A beautiful shell going off. And this is the Pyrotechnics Guild Interna­tional, Inc.’s 18th Annual Convention, a gathering of 1000 people who’re never hap­pier than when they’re putting match to fuse.

It’s a strange place to find oneself on a hot summer afternoon, given the current state of the world, watching strangers play with gunpowder and ornamental warheads. Let’s just say I came with a friend, a ratio­nal urban professional whose life reaches a pitch of ecstatic unreason every Fourth of July. He’s a pyro, to use the lingua franca. At the moment he’s off buying fast-acting fuse called quickmatch to blast some rock­ets he’s got stockpiled at home.

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It’s important you know that this is not a group of George Meteskys. Not at all the sort of folks who smithereen cats with M-80s. This is not your Soldier of Fortune target group, either. Put them in fezzes, and you’d have a lot of Shriners: peaceable bourgeois folks in their comfortable middle years. They’ve come from all over the coun­try, even Europe, driving vans and semis and flying on commercial carriers with con­traband stowed in their bags. They don’t look like outlaw types. And in their own minds they’re not. Fireworks may be illegal in 37 states, but to a pyro the right to blow things up is as inalienable as an NEA grant.

“You here to write about us?” asks a plump sunburned woman from Colorado. “That’s fine. But just don’t use the B word. That’s very bad press.”

The B word, of course, is … Well, as I said these are hobbyists we’re talking about — rational, fun loving, pacific. As hobbyists go they’ve got an edge on, say, stamp collectors because the stuff they trade is dangerous and highly controlled. Some of it’s toxic enough to rot the brain. Some of it, when used in certain combina­tions, has what you might call volatile po­tential. Some of it, injudiciously used, could take your average Joe and send him jetting through space without benefit of a capsule.

These facts are not incidental to the gov­ernment’s fascination with pyros as a group. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms hovers over a pyro gathering like a grim shadow — worse yet, like rain. The feds know that most of the attendees are on hand for five perfectly legal days of seminars, a banquet, and schmoozing, five nights of the newest innovations, the latest “flitter” and stroboscopic effects, and a grand finale that includes ignition of the world’s longest string of firecrackers. They’re also aware that an awful lot of pyros have the chemical know-how to build rockets and shells in basement workshops, and ready access to controlled items like blasting caps, quickmatch, and black­powder. It’s perfectly obvious, even to me, that if you know how to build a rocket you also know how to make a B word.

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The blue bucket seats clamped to the bleachers have bolts in the center that come at you like a rectal thermometer. In the parking lot I pass a couple walking to the grandstand with their daughter. “Imo put her lady’s Smith & Wesson away until she’s old enough and gets out of college,” the wife says. The kid, a junior pyro, shoots her a Squeaky Fromme glare.

There’s one other spectator on hand for this afternoon’s session of “free shooting,” an hour when interested pyros can shoot off the stuff they’ve brought. Behind the grand­stand there’s a fenced area for Class C ex­plosives, light shells, and noisy backyard stuff. Out on the track is a separate area for Class B, the ballistics-level fireworks grad­ed, on a hazard scale, just below army mu­nitions and dynamite. “It’s gonna be a fine day,” says the man holding a Camel in a three-fingered hand. He lights up, drags hard, and exhales luxuriantly as someone shoots off a smoke bomb in the distance. Acid-yellow clouds waft our way and blend with the hot-dog aroma from the weenie shack. The man reads my creepy fascina­tion with his missing digits and nonchalant­ly says, “Lawnmower.”

Within an hour of my arrival, several people have delivered elaborate spiels on safety. From what I can gather, shooting off fireworks is no more treacherous than knit­ting socks, possibly less so since you can get a nasty rope bum skeining yam. Fireworks just get worse press. The all-time downer was a New York Times front page that tor­tured logic with the claim that fireworks killed more people between one January and December than botulism had. They never said how many people died as a re­sult of eating fireworks, but they did men­tion that there’d been two food poisoning fatalities that year and three firecracker deaths. “Lousy journalism, is what I say,” is the opinion of the woman who recounts the tale. “The worst that usually happens is a finger, at most an eye.”

As I sit in the bleachers on Wednesday afternoon reading from the Pyrotechnic Guild, Inc., rule book, which came with every conventioneer’s impressive registra­tion kit, I happen on article 6, part 20 of the Official Fireworks Safety Guidelines. This section, covering rules on Public Dis­play, is especially interesting. “At no time shall any person place any part of his or her body over the mouth of a mortar,” it says. I really have to give that one thought.

A white flash comes from the direction of the tree line at the north end of the speed­way, followed by a molar-jangling report. “Must have been a four-incher,” says the Camel man. Lighting his second butt, he blows out the match, then touches the tip to his tongue. “Can’t be too careful,” he grins.

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At this point I should declare my preju­dices and mention that, when I was 10, a man in a fast-moving Buick tossed a half-­mat of lit Black Cats at my feet. It didn’t seem like karma and it didn’t hurt me a bit, but the effect was nerve-racking — like be­ing machine-gunned, without the holes. Since then I’ve tended to prefer fireworks at a nice distance: the Macy’s display did me fine until the year I went to the East River and found the upper deck of the FDR Drive reserved for “special” depart­ment store guests. What are fireworks, I ask you, if not populist?

My buddy, however, is fanatic. He be­longs to that choice company that charts its Independence Day activities to coincide with the best displays. He whiles away the idle hours sussing out catalogue bargains, charting trips to scuzzy New Hampshire towns where the border is marked by ply­wood fireworks shacks. He can dilate on the differences in quality between shells called Overlord in Sky, and Double Drag­ons, and Autumn Drizzle. He’s on a first nickname basis with some of the finest Ma­fia steerers on Elizabeth Street, and has visited tenement apartments with enough fireworks inside to take out a city block.

He never thinks one Roman candle when he can think 10, fused together on an arma­ture to spurt in goofy orgasmic sequence. So for him, and folks like him, this conven­tion represents not just a once-yearly hud­dle of seminars on “energetics,” on new developments in “spin-stabilized rockets,” or “parlong stars,” or “go-getters,” but the rare, legalized chance to blow shit up.

The salesroom helps in that regard. Set up in an old, gray-painted Quonset hut be­hind the bleachers, the heavily guarded Class C shed opens each night at six. You can’t get in without your official badge, the one with tiny firecrackers imprinted on it fuse to tail. And there’s good reason. Inside the shed are folding tables thick with fire­works — both the finished products import­ed from Japan, China, South Carolina, and Macao, and the hard-to-get component parts. At a roped-off discount area, stacks of shopping baskets are provided for your “popping convenience.”

“The possibilities for mayhem are out­standing,” says one shopper amiably, mull­ing the purchase of several smoke bombs, each capable of releasing 40,000 cubic feet of smoke in 60 seconds. His hat reads “Support Fireworks, a Glorious American Freedom” and his arms are crammed with Twinkling Stars, Colorful Birds, Happiness Fountains, and Space Warrior Wheels. Checking out a 16-inch bazooka called Ae­rial Crossfire that looks impressive to me, he speaks like a highly discerning shopper. “Piece of shit,” he says. “Probably just Au­tumn Drizzle in a tube.”

Near the wall by the exit are several ta­bles covered with Ziploc bags. For pyros who roll their own, these ready stocks of zinc powder, aluminum, antimony, and sul­phur are reason enough to come. Frame wire and potassium perchlorate may not be hard to buy on the open market, but you don’t find good quickmatch at K Mart or Ames. And it isn’t every hardware store that carries smoke dye at just $8 a pound. “It makes a kind of muffled boomf” the saleswoman explains.

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In chemical terms, a fireworks explosion is a “highly exothermic redox reaction,” a phrase somehow inadequate to the beauty of smoke and flame in motion. I learn this during a crash course in the poetics of pyro­technica over three days in Weedsport, a snoozy, rundown farm town just west of Syracuse.

I learn many things, among them the fact that the aerial fireworks you see at public displays are called exploding bombshells; and that these are cylindrical or spherical containers made of paper and filled with pyrotechnic compositions propelled in a manner identical to a cannon ball being fired from a cannon. I learn that the typical bombshell casings are made of paper, that they are launched with an exploding charge of black powder called the “lift charge,” and that the cannon from which they are propelled is called a mortar.

Fireworks mortars were once commonly made of metal before the development of PVC tubing, the preferred tubing at the convention being “Pyro Pipe” from Mighty Mite. “Feel how smooth the inside is,” says a Connecticut man with Harpo hair, as he slips an arm elbow-deep into an eight-inch diameter tube. He encourages me to caress the tube, too. “Suitable for launching major rockets,” he says.

With nothing to impede a rocket as it exits the mortar, the launch goes smoothly and beautiful shapes soon appear in the sky. If burrs or other obstructions snag a rocket, a launch aborts, shells blow on the ground. This, in fact, happens one night during the three days I spend in Weedsport, when a six-inch shell blows up prematurely. Watching from the grandstand, I note sil­houetted shapes darting around in the dis­tance, see the red beacon of the flares they use in place of Bic lighters, and suddenly hear a gut-punch boom. The concrete barri­ers at the perimeter buck in place. The little flare figures scurry about. The announcer makes some clucking noises on the loud­speaker and people in the grandstand tense, waiting to hear an ambulance wail. But there is none. And seemingly no one is dead. Next morning when I wander out to check the blast site, I find a crater measur­ing fully six feet across.

“The term bombshell is used less fre­quently today amongst professionals be­cause of the negative connotations in the term bomb as an infernal machine or item of destruction,” reads a pamphlet written by Roger L. Schneider, Ph.D. From Schneider, a fireworks consultant with an admirably deadpan prose style, I glean much information: the devices called flash bombs are correctly termed “salutes,” for instance. Salutes explode in the air produc­ing a brilliant white flash and a deafening boom. The bursting of a single container to produce a colored pattern is called a break. Fireworks that explode and then shatter again to form new stars are the result of successive breaks.

Once airborne, timing fuses on each of the consecutively layered shells insure that they burst in rapid, distinct succession. According to Schneider, these multibreak shells are known as “sausages” but at the PGI convention people seem to call them multibreak shells.

Some shells have two breaks. Some have six. Some baroque numbers have as many as 10. Aerial shells at big public displays will often be packed in a larger shell whose diameter ranges from two to 12 inches or even larger. At the PGI convention there is a Japanese 24-incher, and another mam­moth, perhaps of world record size, that is 28 inches across.

The Japanese shell never lifts very far off the ground when they light it. And the second goes altogether unlit. An insurance company sent to check the situation de­cides at the last minute that Weedsport is too close to the New York State Thruway to permit detonation of an explosive device that huge: it might jerk a tractor-trailer full of Purdue chickens off the road.

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Arriving on Wednesday we have, by Thurs­day morning, already experienced more fireworks than most people see in a year. And I’m not talking sparklers and Bang Snaps.

After checking out a midday auction of fireworks paraphernalia in the Skaneateles Room of the Auburn Holiday Inn, I stop for a Coke at Sundaes ‘N’ Such in unscenic Weedsport. The college-aged waitress leans on the counter and mentions that she can see the nightly fireworks displays, not open to the public, from her bedroom window.

“You’re lucky,” I remark, adding, with newfound expertise, that the 100 cases of exhibition fireworks Hop Kee Pyrotech­nics, Ltd., is blasting were imported from mainland China especially for this show. “Not everyone gets to see this quality stuff,” I tell her.

“Not everyone gets five days of explo­sions all night long, either,” is her level reply.

Thursday evening begins with several hours of open firing, then a display by the amateurs of the Connecticut Pyrotechnic Association. There are two governing bod­ies in the fireworks trade. The American Pyrotechnical Association represents the industry and the big names like Grucci. The Pyrotechnic Guild International counts Grucci among its members but is mostly a guild of hobbyists.

“This will show you what you can do with $700 in fireworks, or a half a million retail,” says the announcer before Allan Klumac Jr. puts his flare to the fuse of a 15-minute display that starts with a “fountain” of spark rockets on an armature turned upside down. The idea of using fire to cre­ate the impression of falling water is an­cient. The Chinese did it first. Yet, as visu­al alchemy, this effect is perennially refreshing and extreme. There are other fantastic illusions, among them a line of sparking horizontal wheels, a grid of whis­tling rockets, an armada of helicopters linked with an umbilicus of quickmatch to lift off at once. Steven Spielberg himself couldn’t top it.

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Afterward, there is an hour and a half of competition — a critical nightly feature of the convention — when individuals who’ve constructed their own fireworks face each other down. “The enjoyment of fire­works … ought to be an education in the enjoyment of all worldly splendor. You pay your money … and you get an absolutely momentary pleasure with no nonsense about it,” wrote Iris Murdoch, with perfect accuracy, in Under the Net, going on to gasp that a good shell is “a spurt of absolute beauty.”

There’s little doubt in the mind of any­one here that fireworks, which the Japanese call “burning flowers,” is art, and that great fireworks artists are alchemical gods. I say this confidently after meeting a 43-year-old machinist from Whitman, Massachusetts. This man, who asks to remain nameless (“If you print anything about me, I could go to jail,” he says) makes a specialty of multibreak missiles. With his own chemical formulas, and miniature tools customized for the purpose, he constructs rockets in a basement workshop. The rockets are craft­ed with the kind of meticulous care you associate with crazy obsessives: packed and taped in casings he makes himself and binds with Christmas paper. The crossette pellets themselves are immaculate. And more elegant still is the way they explode with something close to absolute symmetry, a tough feat when you’re dealing with pel­lets of chemical fire exploding midair.

For this year’s competitions the man brought along a series of single-break shells. Before the evening show, he shoots off some multibreak rockets just for kicks. From the rear of the track he fires them in the general direction of a gibbous moon, and we stand around watching them arch and explode, perfect, white glittering trails in their wake. The breaks are crisp. The shells blow and hold their incandescence in ways that seem to contradict Newton’s law. There’s no mistaking a shell made by this man for anything as banal as a highly exo­thermic redox reaction. It’s clear to anyone watching that these rockets are his signa­ture inscribed on the sky.

“The Fourth of July was always my Christmas,” he tells me later in the Owasco Room of the Holiday Inn. As waitresses break down a party, he gives me his history in brief. “I used to drive all over the place to see shows,” he says. “I’d go anywhere. I said to myself, ‘Someday I’m going to see what it’s like to light a rocket myself.’ Start­ing in 1980, I began following this guy who was in the business around obsessively, do­ing his scutwork just to be around fire­works. I dug mortar holes, lugged equip­ment. But he never let me even touch a fuse.

“After two years I gave up. I thought, ‘I’ve given it my best shot and I failed.’ By coincidence I met someone then who opened doors, helped me learn to load shells, taught me what flash powder was, and showed me the Pyrotechnica series of magazines, which is the Bible of the craft. I began to shoot some small shells in compe­tition. I entered them and when it was time for the awards part of the banquet, my name kept coming up.

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“As I got more experienced, I began to make small stars, then crossettes and tour­billions and colored stars with whistles. I’ve been doing machining since I was seven years old and it’s always been my nature to watch and work meticulously. If there’s anything different about my rockets, it’s that I pay exquisite attention to detail.

“I’ve thought about trying to do it for a living, but very few people can make it that way. The fact is I’m a toolmaker who makes rockets on the side. At night when I’m trying to go to sleep, I lie there and I dream about fireworks. I think up different effects, time sequences, and trajectories. It’s a crazy person’s hobby because of the ephemeral quality and all the hard work. To give you an idea, I had a shell entered in competition several years ago that I clocked at every minute of 40 hours to build. I went full-tilt on that one. I brought it to the show and it was beautiful. But the shell lasted 15 seconds in the air.”

On the evening that we talk, this man wins another competition for best individ­ual rocket in a field of five contenders. Then he heads for the stands with the other pyros to watch the show. By 9:10, the bleachers are filled with spectators for a demonstration of Hop Kee fireworks. The bleachers are also wreathed in rocket ex­haust, a pale gray smoke.

Hop Kee is a father-and-son outfit run by Wilson and Alex Mao. They’ve brought some hefty artillery from factories through­out China: six-to-10-inch shells, huge rock­ets, big ground cakes, things with brand names that suggest nothing so much as the Tet offensive. Conventioneers are given ratings sheets to score the effects of Thun­der Bird, White Horse, Red Lantern, and Linked Triad shells.

For 20 minutes or so, Hop Kee fills the sky with Dragon Eggs, Giant Red Peonies, Malachite Peonies, Blue Peonies, Yellow Peonies, and Clustered Camellias. Shells break into retina-shattering plumes, then quickly give way to the first report of an­other lift-charge. A bunch of Red Lanterns go up on huge concussions, burst and eject parachutes which rock hellish red embers to earth. A Silvery Swallow Shuttle blasts off and breaks into dozens of smaller shells of different colors. A group of Fairy Maidens zooms up with a fizzy, nattering sound. A Flying Willow shell scatters glittering motes above the track like crazed hatchery spawn. Host of Dragon covers the speedway with frenzied incandescent sperm.

By the time Prosperous Spring Over Grassland explodes I’m in a state of deliri­ous surfeit. Also slightly blind and near deaf. But the show isn’t over. There’s still a 4000-shot Swarm of Charging Wasps, a Bumper Harvest, a Spring Thunder, some Green Meteors, and Hundred Birds. A 200-shot laser shell whose name I miss shoots magnesium plumes that resolve in icicles of smoke. Against the black of the sky, the ghostly afterimages have an evocative effect that is clearly a result of watching too many bad Vietnam movies. “Well, the colors were wonderful,” says a nearby pyro, in patently underwhelmed tones. “But, you know, the breaks really weren’t that great.”

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For three days I’ve been hearing people whisper about the Super String. Now the day is here. “There’s nothing like it,” says a woman named Bonnie Kosanke. “I don’t really want to say it’s like an atomic bomb, but there’s this amazing quantity of energy consumed in one explosion. It makes this rolling sound you won’t believe, just like roaring flame.”

In a shed near the raceway gate, they’ve been gathering firecrackers for the big mo­ment. Vendors and conventioneers are hus­tled for crackers throughout the week. “It’s July 3 all over again,” says Ken Lupoli of Dapkus Fireworks in Durham, Connecti­cut, when he lays eyes on the 40-foot strings stretched on the smooth concrete floor. Un­raveled from the fat wheels that string crackers come in, the explosives are being aligned and stacked.

“These firecrackers really go like mad,” says a man in a T-shirt that gives a tele­phone number for “A Good Bang.”

“They’ve got that nasty, nasty fuse,” says a woman talking to no one.

Kids and women lay out and neaten the long strings, then cinch them in layers with twine. A sexy brunette in a pink polka-dot minidress scooches along with the Super String between her legs, patting the crackers straight. It is, in fact, a scene of pure Americana.

In a far corner are thumb-thick Celebra­tion crackers heaped in messy stacks. They’ll be piled on last. So far there are 340,000 crackers. By nightfall a world rec­ord is achieved: 1,500,000. “Stand behind a jet engine and you’ll get some idea,” says a bearded pyro named Richard Owlett.

“Unless the heat gets to all of them at once, and then bloof, mass destruction,” says the man overseeing the Super String. Kneeling nearby, Norman Cornellier of Cornellier Fireworks cuts even lengths of wire to bind the long strings into mats two crackers wide and five deep. Cornellier, I notice, is missing the ring finger and part of the pinkie on his left hand.

By evening the wind’s tracking from the northeast and the sky has a sinister gray cast. Sheet lightning cracks in what one hopes is the distance. And the bleachers are jammed. At 8:15, five thousand locals stream in for the only public exhibition of the week. The announcer heralds the Super String and someone blasts the Triumphal March from Aida over the speakers. With a Vanna White look-alike conducting, three separate lines of bearers troop into the are­na heaving the massive snake segments of Super String in a scene that’s demented Cecil B. DeMille. I spot my reasonable friend at the head.

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There’s a cherry picker waiting to hoist and join the three strings to a scaffold con­structed for the purpose. There’s a hook-­and-ladder from the Town of Brutus fire­-house standing by to put the fire out.

Earlier in the day someone had slipped into the shed and dropped off a cluster of firecracker wrappers, arranged prayer­-wheel fashion, with blessings and messages written on each. “Pray for all the souls of those who were killed by fireworks and that we learn from their unhappy end,” read one, “including Orville Carlisle, a wonder­ful old snort.” Another asked the fire gods to “Bless the Big Bang Boom.”

And I’ve come to feel the big bang boom could use the help. To hear pyros talk about it, fireworks stand every chance of going out of business, permanently, as part of the merry legislative trend to protect Ameri­cans from themselves and keep us available for Middle Eastern outings and Uzi target practice. “We don’t have the lobbying background like the NRA,” is how one PGI member explains it. “It’s cheap for the feds to win a big victory by wiping out fire­works, because it’s easy to do and it looks good.”

It wouldn’t look good to five-year-old Amy Powers and her four-year-old brother, Greg. Amy and Greg and their mom, Janet, snuck in from the public area and they’re sitting in a roped-off PGI section with a perfect view of the Super String. Amy and Greg and Janet are levitating with excite­ment. And their excitement is catching. Somehow the thought of this small family and the thousands around them riveted by the instinct to witness a big talking fire­-snake pumps my adrenaline to some state of atavistic thrill. The ghouls on Skull Is­land couldn’t have felt more primitive than I do.

A clutch of pyros who’ve paid for the privilege head for the fuses. They light the quickmatch bundles and run like hell. Then the Super String does something stupid. It refuses to start. It sputters, teases, jerks around. It’s an awkward situation, that ach­ing moment when you know the foreplay’s gone on too long.

At last a brave, foolhardy soul nips to­ward the fuse with a torch, and gives the thing a light. What happens next is simple enough. The Weedsport Speedway becomes a creditable imitation of a nuclear holo­caust, brain-searing noise and a wall of white flame so truly horrific that when it ends you are convinced that you have also. Then the last crackers sputter to silence. Firemen hose the ground. You pat yourself. It’s a wonderful feeling. You’re alive. ♦

 

Categories
CRIME ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Death of John/Diane

Talking Heads

Resting their minds from the Palestin­ian slaughter and the killing of the economy, some New Yorkers turned their at­tention last week to a diverting little crime, the murder of Diane Delia.

A dark pouting model, Diane Delia was the apex of a love triangle at whose base were her accused killers Robert Ferrara and Robyn Arnold. The murder itself, which took place in a Yonkers wood last October, was accomplished with four straightforward shots to the head, two, the prosecutor alleges, fired by each of the accused. The cause of death is one of the few details of the Delia case that is a certainty, that and the obsession the ac­cused killers had for the victim. Both Rob­ert Ferrara and Robyn Arnold were emotionally entangled with Diane Delia — Ferrara married her, Arnold was in love with her — and both date their involvement to the days before her operation, when Diane Delia was still John Delia, a man.

The Transsexual Love Triangle, as the tabloids call it, was being played out in high colors against the grim backdrop of the criminal court building on Centre Street. In a ninth-floor courtroom the dev­otees gathered, toothless trial junkies, a woman who follows the trials in police costume, the Super-8 filmmaker Eric Mitchell, reporters, parents of the accused, and friends of the deceased. Pastel chalk squeaked as the television news artist sketched the witnesses, while they, in turn, painted a picture for the jury of John/Diane, as the victim, for convenience, was called.

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A medium-height man from a middle-­class family, John Delia was dark-skinned and slight. His body and face were so smooth that, when at 16 he first began dressing in women’s clothes, there was never any stubble to betray him. His drag impersonations, lip synching to Diana Ross records, were so convincing he made an act of them, performing first at local clubs, later in Manhattan, billed as an impersonator of women even after this was no longer the case. Miss D., as his friends called him, had small hands, a naturally feminine voice, beautiful legs, and a reck­less humor. He was compulsive, rude, and funny. He was casually immoral, and loyal. He had big feet and a taste for cheap clothes. The boaty pumps that are pivotal evidence in the prosecutor’s case rested on the courtroom table — weird icons. Like ev­erything else in the John/Diane story, they’re purple.

Robyn Arnold, the surgeon’s daughter and accused murderess, met John Delia at the Playroom bar in the late ’70s. They became lovers. She offered him money and her complete attention. Friends say that as many as 40 framed snapshots of John De­lia litter Robyn Arnold’s bookshelves. Sev­eral large blowups of Diane Delia decorate her wall. It was Arnold who paid for Delia’s sex change, when, several years into their relationship, he met and fell in love with Robert Ferrara, a bartender from New Hope, Pennsylvania. It was Arnold who paid for surgery to prettify Delia’s nose and heighten his cheekbones. Hard but not unpretty, Robyn Arnold hid behind a fringe of hair in court, as witnesses de­scribed for Judge Rothwax, the press, and the jury, her aggressive, manipulative sex­uality and her emotional enslavement to Delia. Sitting beside her, Robert Ferrara listened as the prosecutor mounted his case.

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When Delia became enamored of Fer­rara they began to live together. Arnold continued to pay the bills. Claiming that Ferrara could not accept himself living in a homosexual relationship, Delia planned and Arnold engineered the sex change: the two were married. Delia was as proud of his new anatomy as a child with a toy and made a party trick of showing the altered parts. Neither Diane Delia nor Robert Ferrara saw marriage as a binding proposition, though, and both had affairs. In 1980 Delia left Yonkers for Montreal, where she was hired by a modeling agency for her “Latin look” and shot an Avon ad for a Foxfire robe (“Wrap yourself in luxury.”). She took a lover there. In her absence Robyn Arnold and Robert Ferrara cemented their friendship. Piqued by this, Delia returned to New York and the three were reunited, after a fashion. Delia’s nature was com­pulsive, sexually and emotionally. Her extramarital affairs with men were expected, but when she started to sleep with women, the climate changed — this betrayal was the final straw.

In the prosecutor’s scenario, Delia’s husband and friend arranged on the night of Wednesday, October 7, to pick her up in Arnold’s Cadillac Seville to go dancing. They drove her instead to a wood and shot her, leaving the body for some days before returning to dispose of it in the Hudson River. It washed up three weeks later. The prosecutor’s case is circumstantial and tri­angular: it hangs on the motives of the accused, on Diane Delia’s shoes, which were later found by a friend in Robyn Arnold’s possession, and on the yellow acrylic blanket in which the body was un­luxuriously wrapped. Witnesses claim the blanket came from Miss Arnold’s bed. At presstime, none of this had been proven.

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The courtroom has been tickled when suited men take the stand to identify evidence: “Of course, I know those pumps,” said one. “I used to wear them.” It has been shocked by the excessive violence of the shooting. The first bullet killed Delia; the others blew out her eyes. It has been chilled by the sight of Delia’s death outfit, once lavender, now mottled river-green. It has been amused by the courtroom antics of Arnold’s lawyer, a silver-haired ham given to improvised outbursts. And it has been bemused by the image of the two accused killers. Silent, drab, impassive at their table, they are diminished even after her death by the late John/Diane, whose flamboyance was seductive and whose seductions proved fatal. The received wis­dom about transsexuals suggest they are born imprisoned in bodies of the wrong sex. For John/Diane Delia this seems inac­curate. In her desire to please and be ac­cepted, she treated all sex as the right sex. As a man and as a woman she accom­modated both men and women lustily, equally. It may be that her democratic nature was the end of her. ❖

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES show-old-images THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Voice Writers Wrangle Over Michael Jackson in 1987

I’m White!

By Greg Tate
September 22, 1987

There are other ways to read Michael Jackson’s blanched skin and disfigured African features than as signs of black self-hatred become self-mutilation. Waxing fanciful, we can imagine the-boy-who-would-be-white a William Gibson-ish work of science fiction: harbinger of a transracial tomorrow where genetic deconstruction has become the norm and Narcissism wears the face of all human Desire. Musing empathetic, we may put the question, whom does Mikey want to be today? The Pied Piper, Peter Pan, Christopher Reeve, Skeletor, or Miss Diana Ross? Our Howard Hughes? Digging into our black nationalist bag, Jackson emerges a casualty of America’s ongoing race war–another Negro gone mad because his mirror reports that his face does not conform to the Nordic ideal.

To fully appreciate the sickness of Jackson’s savaging of his African physiognomy you have to recall that back when he wore the face he was born with, black folk thought he was the prettiest thing since sliced sushi. (My own mother called Michael pretty so many time s I almost got a complex.) Jackson and I are the same age, damn near 30, and I’ve always had a love-hate thing going with the brother. When we were both moppets I envied him, the better dancer, for being able to arouse the virginal desires of my female schoolmates, shameless oglers of his (and Jermaine’s) tenderoni beefcake in 16 magazine. Even so, no way in those say-it-loud-I’m-black-and-I’m-proud days could you not dig Jackson heir to the James Brown dance throne. At age 10, Jackson’s footwork and vocal machismo seemed to scream volumes about the role of genetics in the cult of soul and the black sexuality of myth. The older folk might laugh when he sang shake it, shake it baby, ooh, ooh or teacher’s gonna show you, all about loving. Yet part of the tyke’s appeal was being able to simulate being lost in the hot sauce way before he was supposed to know what the hot sauce even smelt like. No denying he sounded like he knew the real deal.

In this respect, Jackson was the under-weaned creating of two black working-class traditions: That of boys being forced to bypass childhood along the fast track to manhood, and that of rhythm and blues auctioning off the race’s passion for song, dance, sex, and spectacle. Accelerated development became a life-imperative after slavery, and r&b remains the redemption of minstrelsy–at least it was until Jackson made crossover mean lightening your skin and whitening your nose.

Slavery, minstrelsy, and black bourgeoisie aspirations are responsible for three of the more pejorative notions about blacks in this country–blacks as property, as ethnographic commodities, and as imitation rich white people. Given this history, there’s a fine line between a black entertainer who appeals to white people and one who sells out the race in pursuit of white appeal. Berry Gordy, burghermeister of crossover’s Bauhaus, walked that line with such finesse that some black folk were shocked to discover via The Big Chill that many whites considered Motown their music. Needless to say, Michael Jackson has crossed so way far over the line that there ain’t no coming back–assuming through surgical transmutation of his face a singular infamy in the annals of tomming.

The difference between Gordy’s crossover dream world and Jackson’s is that Gordy’s didn’t preclude the notion that black is beautiful. For him the problem was his pupils not being ready for prime time. Motown has raised brows for its grooming of Detroit ghetto kids in colored genteel manners, so maybe there were people who thought Gordy was trying to make his charges over into pseudo-Caucasoids. Certainly this insinuation isn’t foreign to the work of rhythm and blues historians Charles Keil and Peter Guralnick, both of whom write of Motown as if it weren’t hot and black enough to suit their blood, or at least their conception of bloods. But the inter-mingling of working-class origins and middle-class acculturation are too mixed up in black music’s evolution to allow for simpleminded purist demands for a black music free of European influence, or of the black desire for a higher standard of living and more cultural mobility. As an expression of ’60s black consciousness, Motown symbolized the desire of blacks to get their foot in the bank door of the American dream. In the history of affirmative action Motown warrants more than a footnote beneath the riot accounts and NAACP legal maneuvers.

As a black American success story the Michael Jackson of Thriller is an extension of the Motown integrationist legacy. But the Michael Jackson as skin job represents the carpetbagging side of black advancement in the affirmative action era. The fact that we are not producing young black men and women who conceive of their African inheritance as little more than a means to cold-crash mainstream American and then cold-dis–if not merely put considerable distance between–the brothers and sisters left behind. In this sense Jackson’s decolorized flesh reads as a buppy version of Dorian Gray, a blaxploitation nightmare that offers this moral: Stop, the face you save may be your own.

Three years ago black people cherished Thriller’s breakthrough as if it were their own battering ram apartheid. Never mind how many of those kerzillion LPs were bought, forget how much Jackson product we had bought all those years before that–even with his deconstructed head, we wanted this cat to tear the roof off the all -time-greatest-sales sucker bad as he did. It’s like Thriller was this generation’s answer to the Louis-Schmeling fight or something. Oh, the Pyrrhic victories of the disenfranchised. Who would’ve thought this culture hero would be cut down to just the times. To those living in a New York City and currently witnessing a rebirth of black consciousness in protest politics, advocacy journalism (read The City Sun! read The City Sun! and the arts, Jackson seems dangerously absurd.

Proof that God don’t like ugly, the title of Michael’s new LP, Bad (Epic) accurately describes the contents in standard English. (Jackson apparently believes that bad can apply to both him and L.L. Cool J.) No need to get stuck on making comparison’s with Thriller, Bad sounds like home demos Michael cut over a long weekend. There’s not one song here that any urban contemporary hack couldn’t have laid out in a week, let alone two years. Several of the up-tempo numbers wobble in with hokey bass lines out of the Lalo Schifrin fakebook, and an inordinate number begin with ominous science fiction synthnoise–invariably preceding an anticlimax. Bad has hooks, sure, and most are searching for a song, none more pitifully than the fly-weight title track, which throws its chorus around like a three-year-old brat.

The only thing Bad has going for it is that it was made by the same artist who made Thriller. No amount of disgust for Jackson’s even newer face (cleft in the chin) takes anything away from Thriller Everything on that record manages a savvy balance between machine language and human intervention, between palpitating heart and precision tuning. Thriller is a record that doesn’t even know how to stop giving pleasure. Every note on the mutha sings and breathes masterful pop instincts: the drumbeats, the bass lines, the guitar chicken scratches, the aleatoric elements. The weaving of discrete details into fine polyphonic mesh reminds me of those African field records where simultaneity and participatory democracy, not European harmony, serve as the ordering principle.

Bad, as songless as Thriller is songful, finds Jackson performing material that he has absolutely no emotion commitment to–with the exception of spitefully named “Dirty Diana,” a groupie fantasy. The passion and compassion of “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” and “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” seemed genuine, generated by Jackson’s perverse attraction to the ills of teen violence and teen pregnancy. There was something frightful and compelling about this mollycoddled mama’s boy delivering lapidary pronouncements from his Xanadu like “If you can’t feed your baby, then don’t have a baby.” While the world will hold its breath and turn blue in the face awaiting the first successful Michael Jackson paternity suit, he had the nerve to sing “The kid is not my son.” Not even David Bowie could create a subtext that coy and rakish on the surface and grotesque at its depths.

Only in the twisted aspects does Bad, mostly via the “Bad” video, outdo Thriller. After becoming an artificial white man, now he wants to trade on his ethnicity. Here’s Jackson’s sickest fantasy yet: playing the role of a black preppie returning to the ghetto, he now only offers himself as a role model he literally screams at the brothers “You ain’t nothin’!” Translation: Niggers ain’t shit. In Jackson’s loathsome conception of the black experience, you’re either a criminal stereotype or one of the Beautiful People. Having sold the world pure pop pleasure on Thriller, Jackson returns on Bad to sell his own race hatred. If there’s 35 million sales in that, be ready for the hills ya’ll.

 

The Boy Can’t Help It

Guy Trebay
September 22, 1987

There’s no longer any question that Michael Jackson is America’s preeminent geek. Even New Yorkers, who traditionally give a lot of latitude to the strange, can’t seem to get over the inscrutable and surgically airbrushed creature Jackson’s become. It appeared that, in the weeks following release of Bad and his primetime video, all you heard people talking about on radio, on the subways, and the streets was the sad gnome with the Porcelana complexion, the dated dance steps, and a terminal case of Jheri curl.

“I think Michael went too far in the white direction,” said John Hightower, portaging his Peugeot to work last week on the subway. Hightower and some fellow bike messengers were wedged into the last car of the IRT #6.

“Jackson had some kind of face peel,” Hightower added. “They had it in the News.”
“You mean,” asked a dark-skinned companion, “I’m that color inside?”

“To get that, man,” Hightower replied. “They’d have to peel you to the bone.”

The damn-with-faint-praise consensus on the subway that morning was that Jackson’s video was dramatic but too Hollywood, despite the New York locations, and that the song was okay though not remotely bad.

“And another thing,” said Hightower, “it should have been starring another person. Michael just looked too much like a woman to strut around like a homeboy in chains.”

As the Def Jam rap groups promoted the Madison Square Garden finale of their nationwide tour, Whodini’s Jalil Hutchins had one message for Michael Jackson fans. “We just want to say,” Hutchins admonished the WBLS audience one Tuesday afternoon, “you got to stop wearing those gloves and those leg wraps and those greasy looking curls because YOU LOOK LIKE A BUNCH OF JERKS.”

Hutchins and the members of Stetsasonic were in the studio giving a chaotic interview, when Jackson’s album came up. “We really don’t like to dis another artist,” said a member of Stetsasonic, before the rappers launched into a capella version of Jackson’s song in lisping falsetto. When DJ Bugsy dropped the needle on Whodini’s new tune, “Be Yourself.”

“You know the part I couldn’t look at was when Michael kept grabbing at his nonexistent crotch.” Jackson’s gender and virility were the topics during a break in rehearsal of Travis Preston’s Paradise Bound, Part II, a boom-box-and-chorus piece created for the Bandshell in Central Park. Sitting in the hot sunshine on Wednesday, some cast members couldn’t keep their minds on the performance. They were debating whether Michael and his sister Janet Jackson had ever been seen together at one time.

“I don’t think he exists,” said a singer. “I think he’s her. Or she’s him in drag.”

“Oh, no,” said Christine Satchell, a young actress from the Bronx. “That’s Michael. He just wears a lot of makeup.”

“That’s the problem, said another actor, “he’s jumping around singing, ‘I’m Bad,’ and then they breaks and Michael asks, ‘Can I borrow your mascara?'”
Everyone agreed director Martin Scorsese should have hired an actor for Jackson’s part.
“Like who?” a bystander asked.

“Oh, anybody,” said the singer, “just so he looked like a man.”

On television, Jackson provided comics with a weeklong gift of nasty riffs. Mining the limitless trove of Jackson’s peccadilloes, the funnyman cracked wise about the singer’s pet chimpanzee, the special language he invented to talk to his menagerie, and the life-sized mannequin of Elizabeth Taylor that he reputedly dresses every day. Jackson has become a monologist’s dream. Jay Leno scored the capper with a joke involving Jackson’s unsuccessful bid to purchase the Elephant Man’s remains. During his nightly stint, Leno broke up the Tonight Show millions with news that the Elephant Man’s descendants had made a counteroffer for the purchase of Jackson’s original nose.

Jackson hysteria attained a memorable plateau with the People and Rolling Stone covers, but a more lasting contribution to schlock journalism was the Daily News’s takeout entitled “Wizard of Odd.” On the second day of that three-part series, the newspaper included now notorious before and after pictures of Jackson’s transformations under the knife. With arrowed captions readers got to follow the surgical reduction of Michael’s upper lip, his nose, his lower eyelid, the addition of cheekbone implants, and the artfully cleft chin.

“People think he’s a big mystery,” said midtown news vendor Dalaedeet Singh. “Like Howard Hughes. When he’s on the cover of a magazine, we sell out very quickly.”

Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the new album, at least not in Thriller terms. Bad’s initial sales surge leveled off swiftly after its August 31 release. “Under three million,” said one spokesman for Epic Records. “In excess of three million,” another claimed.

“Eh,” said Phil McGowan, soul music salesclerk at Tower’s flagship store on lower Broadway. As Bad blared from speakers mounted beneath a stupendous cutout of Jackson, McGowan said, “It’s selling okay, but a funny thing happened. The Michael came in and we got a new shipment of Prince at the same time.” He motioned to eight boxes of unsold Jackson. “Prince sold out in a couple hours. Michael’s still kind of sitting in the stacks.”

 

Man in the Mirror

By Stanley Crouch
November 17, 1987

Because Afro-Americans have presented challenges to one order or another almost as long as they have been here, fear and contempt have frequently influenced the way black behavior is assessed. The controversy over Michael Jackson is the most recent example, resulting in a good number of jokes, articles in this periodical and others, and even the barely articulate letter by the singer himself that was published in People. Jackson has inspired debate over his cosmetic decisions because the residue of the ’60s black nationalism and the condescension of those who would pity or mock black Americans have met over the issue of his face, his skin tone, his hair.

Since the ’60s, there has been a tendency among a substantial number of Afro-Americans to promulgate a recipe for the model black person. That model has taken many forms, but all of them are based on presumptions of cultural segregation between black and white Americans. The symbols of that purported segregation were supposed to permeate the ways in which black people lived, dressed, wore their hair, ate, thought voted, walked, talked and addressed their African heritage. And though the grip of such nationalism weakened over the years, it continues to influence even those who were lucky enough not to have been adolescents during its period of dominance.

Greg Tate is clearly one who has been taken in, and his recent article on Jackson illustrates the provincialism inherent in such thinking. Jackson alarms Tate, who sees the singer’s experience under the scalpel as proof of self-hatred. The trouble with Tate’s vision is that it ignores the substance of the American dream and the inevitabilities of a free society. Though no one other than Jackson could know what he seeks, to automatically assume that the pop star’s cosmetic surgery was solely intended to eradicate Negroid features in order to “look white” seems far too simple, ignoring both African and American cultural elements.

Présence Africaine published some 20 years ago a compendium of papers delivered in Senegal at the World Festival of Negro Arts. One of the lecturers made note of the fact that a number of African tribes considered the lighter-skinned the more attractive. This vision of beauty was free of colonial influence and probably had more to do with the quality of exoticism that is as central to magnetism as to repulsion. Further, Jackson could just as easily be opting for the mulatto look–if not that of the Latin lover and dandy–that has resulted from the collusion of gene pools whenever light and dark folk have coupled on the Basin Streets of history. Or he could be taken by the keen noses and “refined” features of Ethiopians?

The fact that Michael Jackson is not only a person of African descent, but is also an American should never be excluded from a discussion of his behavior. The American dream is actually the idea that an identity can be improvised and can function socially if it doesn’t intrude upon the freedom of anyone else. With that freedom comes eccentric behavior as well as the upward mobility resulting from talent, discipline, and good fortune- the downward mobility observed in some of those who inhabit the skid rows of this country because they prefer the world f poverty and alcoholism to the middle-upper-middle-, or upper-class backgrounds they grew up in. As one bum who had obviously seen better days said to a waiter as he was being ushered out of the now defunct Tin Palace for panhandling, “People come from all over the world to be bums on the Bowery. Why should I deny myself the right?”

Tate should easily understand this since he is from a well-to-do black family in Washington, D.C., but has chose, to wear dreadlocks in a hairdo that crosses the Rasta world with that of the Mohawk and, eschewing the conservative dress of his background, looks as often as not like a borderline homeless person. That Tate is a bohemian by choice rather than birth means that he has plotted out an identity he prefers to that of his social origins and has found the costumes that he feels most appropriate for his personal theater piece. Though it is much easier for Tate to get another haircut and change his dress than it would be for Jackson to return to his “African physiognomy,” each reflects the willingness to opt for imagery that repudiates some aspect of the past.

That sense of improvising an identity shouldn’t be thought of as separate from the American–and universal–love of masks. Nor should it be seen as at all separate from the “African retentions” Afro-American cultural nationalists and social anthropologists refer to so frequently. The love of masks, of makeup, and of costumes is often much more than the pursuit of high fashion or the adherence to ritual convention; it is also the expression of that freedom to invent the self and of the literal fun Americans have often gotten from scandalizing expectations.

As Constance Rourke observed and as Albert Murray reminds us in his invaluable The Omni-Americans, those colonial rebels dressed up as Indians for the Boston Tea Party might have enjoyed the masquerade itself as much as they did dumping the cargo in the ocean. Considered within the spectrum of the happy to hostile masquerade that has since evolved, Michael Jackson’s affection for his mirror image veering off from what nature intended places him right in the center of one of the whirlpools of national sensibility. One needs only to look at any book or photographs from the ’60s to see how the connection between protest, politics and the love of masks was most broadly played out–SNCC workers donned overalls; hippies took to long hair and tie-dyed outfits; black nationalists wore Figi haircuts and robes; and self-styled Afro-American revolutionaries put on black berets, black leather jackets, black shirts, pants, and shoes, or appropriated the combat dress of Third World military men. And no one who looks at the various costumes worn today, from dotted, yellow “power ties” to gargoyle pun fashions, should have any problem seeing their connection to the masking inclinations rooted in the joy of assumed identities. That love is still so embedded in the national personality that the people of New Orleans are admired as much for the costumes and false faces of Mardi Gras as for their cuisine and their music. And those of us in New York know how much pleasure the grease paint, sequins, feathers, and satins of the Labor Day parade in Brooklyn bring to spectators and participants.

As far as further African retentions are concerned, it could easily be argued that Michael Jackson is much more in line with the well-documented argument many primitive African cultures have had with the dictates of nature. Have the people of any other culture so perfectly prefigured plastic surgery or been more willing to accept the pain of traditionally approved mutilation? It is doubtful. In photograph after photograph, Africans are shown wearing plates in their lips to extend them, rings around their necks to lengthen them, plopping red mud in their hair for homemade conks that emulate the manes of lions, filing their teeth, and suffering through the slashes and the rubbed-in ashes that result in spectacular scarification. Whatever one wants to say about “different standards of beauty” and so forth, to conclude that such cultures are at all concerned with “being natural” is to actually reveal one’s refusal to see things as they are.

That willingness to suffer under the tribal knife is obviously addressed with much greater technical sophistication in the world of plastic surgery. In fact, the so-called self-hatred of black Americans, whenever it does exist, is perhaps no more than a racial variation on the national attitude that has made the beauty industry so successful. In those offices and in those operating rooms where plans are made and carried out that result in millions of dollars in profit, the supposed self-hatred of black Americans has little to do with the wealth earned by plastic surgeons. Far and away, the bulk of their clients are Caucasians in flight from the evidence of age, Caucasians dissatisfied with their profiles, their eyes, their ears, their chins, their necks, their breasts, the fat around their knees, their waists, their thighs, and so forth. Nipped, tucked, carrying implants and vacuumed free of fat, they face their mirrors with glee.

Where there is so much talk about Afro-Americans fawning over the lighter-skinned among them, what is one to make of all the bottle blondes this country contains and all of those who make themselves sometimes look orange by using lotions for counterfeit tans? It is a certainty that if some Negro American genius were to invent a marketable procedure that would result in harmlessly emitting the desired levels of melanin for those Caucasians enthralled by tans so that they could remain as dark as they wished throughout the year, his or her riches would surpass those off Bill Cosby. Would this imaginary genius be exploiting Caucasian self-hatred?

Then there is the problem some have with Jackson’s apparent softness, his supposed effeminacy. That, too, has a precedent with Afro-American culture itself. The late writer Lionel Mitchell once pointed out that certain black me were bothered about the black church because they were made uncomfortable by those choir directors and pretty-boy lead singers who wore glistening marcelled hair and were obviously homosexual. A friend of Mitchell’s extended the writer’s position by observing that those very gospel songs were just as often masks through which homosexual romance was crooned. “What do you think is going through their minds when the songs talk about being held close to His?” (What a variation on the ways slaves secretly signaled each other through spirituals, planning flight or rebellion!) This is not to say that ever homosexual gospel singer thought of things more secular than spiritual when chirping those songs in which love is felt for and from an almighty He or Him, but it is to say that those who feel Jackson has somehow sold out his masculine duties have not looked as closely at their own tradition as perhaps they should.

There is also the fact that Jackson, both as an androgynous performer and surgical veteran purportedly seeking to look like Diana Ross, has precursors in the minstrel shows of the middle 19th century. It is there that the tradition of the romantic balladeer actually begins, at least as a phenomenon of mass entertainment. As Robert C. Toll observes in Blackening Up, white minstrels became very popular with women because they were able to publicly express tender emotion through the convention of burnt cork and were sometimes able to become national stars for their performances as giddy mulatto beauties. “Female impersonators excited more interest than any other minstrel specialist,” writes Toll. “Men in the audience probably were titillated by the alluring stage characters whom they were momentarily drawn to, and they probably got equal pleasure from mocking and laughing at them….At a time when anxiety about social roles was intense, the female impersonator, who actually changed roles, fascinated the public. As a mode of properly ‘giddy’ femininity, he could reassure men that women were in their places while at the same time showing women how to behave without competing with them. Thus, in some ways, he functioned like the blackface ‘fool’ who educated audiences while also reassuring them that he was their inferior. Neither man nor woman, the female impersonator threatened no one.”

Jackson quite clearly bothers more than a few, from Eddie Murphy to the rappers interviewed by Guy Trebay in the article that accompanied Greg Tate’s. The pit bull of Murphy’s paranoia over pansies has often been unleashed on Jackson and the fact that the rappers were disturbed by Jackson’s persona suggests something other than what it seems. Perhaps what bothers them most is that the singer’s roots in minstrelsy are so different from their own. As Harry Allen revealed not so long ago, more than a few rappers are actually middle-class Negroes acting out their version of a “gangster aesthetic.” Instead of a minstrel mugging, you have counterfeit thugging, more than a tad in line with the faddish cracker sensibility of acting bad to bust the ass of the middle class on the rack of rock and roll.

Yet the actual sorrow and the pity of the Michael Jackson story is that he has had to carry the cross of an imposed significance far beyond what his music merits. Jackson comes from rhythm and blues, which is itself a dilution of blues, a descent from the profound emotion of America’s first truly adult, secular music. As a pop star, Jackson’s fame and riches have come from the expression of adolescent passion, but he is also the product of an era in which profundity has been forced on music actually intended to function as no more than the soundtrack for teenage romance and the backbeat for the bouts of self-pity young people suffer while assaulted by their hormones. Rock criticism changed all of that, bootlegging the rhetoric of aesthetic evaluation to elevate the symbols of adolescent frenzy and influencing the way pop stars viewed themselves. So when a man’s power is found in an adolescent form, time impinges upon his vitality. If he is sufficiently spooked, he might be moved to invent a world for himself in which all evidence that he was ever born a particular person at a particular time is removed. That removal might itself become the strongest comment upon the inevitable gloom that comes not of having been given too much too soon but of having been convinced that one is important only so long as he or she is not too old.

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Happy Trails

It is a little-appreciated fact about New York that, regardless of how wild a spot you manage to find here, no matter how untrammeled a path or trail, independent of which adaptable fellow creature (fox, raccoon, whitetail deer) you may encounter on your wanderings, sooner or later you’re going to trip over a container of Vienna sausage.



Urban walker Cornelius Curry minds the city’s beeswax.

Ask any urban hiker. Vienna sausage is the substance that knows no boundaries. Gateway National Recreation Area, the scrubs of Staten Island, the uncharted backwaters of the Bronx, the far side of the moon: Wherever you go, you’re bound to find a pop-top can with the lid peeled back, contents devoured. You may have been conjuring Washington’s troops in retreat, Wiechquaeskeck Indians in moccasins padding along a trail, or . . . well, the point is someone has been here before you, and recently. Not only that, they’ve probably been slugging 40s as they ate livid precooked weenies from a can.

This occurred to me the other day on a walk with my friend Cornelius Curry. An inveterate urban walker, Conny is Bronx born, priest-schooled, a self-taught urbanist who makes up in passion what he sometimes misses in a linear narrative grasp. Data crops up helter-skelter in conversation with Conny, a bearlike former city bus mechanic who “got sick of the grease bucket” after 21 years, retired, and now works the night elevator at a posh Upper East Side co-op.

If Conny’s facts cannot always be sourced, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re either incorrect or without an essential truth. The granite setts used to pave city streets, Conny asserts, were known as Irish confetti in the 19th century, for the immigrant workers who hoisted them into place. The Roosevelt family, he remarks, for all its fancy airs, got started in this country as humble hardware merchants. The word fireplug refers to the wooden bungs that Revolutionary-era bucket brigades used to plug the locust water pipes they’d tap to put out one of the city’s then incessant fires. F.W. Woolworth is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, in a “big Egyptian-style mausoleum,” pronounced muzzuleeum. And the quaintly anachronistic phrase “mind your beeswax” originates in a beauty tip from the 18th century, when a woman’s wax-based makeup was prone to melt if she sat too close to a hearth.

“It’s a turn-on for me, city history,” says Conny. And clearly it is. His conversation is a welter of New York lore, spouted almost at random, and usually followed by eruptions of a laugh best described as the sound a duck might make if you dragged it feet first across gravel. On a beautiful spring morning last week, Conny conducted this reporter, also Bronx born, through a part of the city he’d never seen, peppering him with local arcana along the way.

We started at the Van Cortlandt Mansion, home in the 17th century to the richest man in New York; made our way past Vault Hill, where Washington lit bonfires to deceive the British as he marched on Yorktown; stopped at the city’s oldest public golf course and clubhouse; passed beneath a disused railroad overpass that once served “people who would travel up the Hudson River to Tarrytown and all that,” and which now seems to serve as a gay cruising ground; crossed from the golf course silence to the din of the Major Deegan Expressway; reentered the woods somehow and wound up following the route of the city’s first great water tunnel, the Old Croton Aqueduct.

There’s little that New Yorkers more readily take for granted than the purity and plenitude of our water. Water comes from taps, from hydrants, from the hoses building supers use to sluice dog shit off sidewalks. Lost on most of us is the engineering elegance of the complex hydrological system, remarkably unaltered in more than 150 years, that conveys abundant clean water to New York from Westchester and the Catskills. Just as easily overlooked are the changes effected on the invention of a modern city by something as basic as plumbing. “The tunnel took seven years to build,” said Conny, as we made our way along a straight path, humped slightly in the middle, with sides that sloped downward to banks covered with dogwood, violets, and Japanese knotweed.

It was some time before it became clear that the path ran directly above the tunnel: Conny pointed this out in a spot where the soil had eroded and the old masonry could be seen. “This is where you went down into the aqueduct itself,” Conny said, pointing to a boulder wedged into a square manhole. The waterway, he went on, “was built from 1835 to 1842. This was the first pressurized water brought into the city. It was the first dependable source of drinking water. You’ve got to realize what a big deal that was. Before then they got their water in the city from wells. Now people were using privies. Suddenly, they had fountains in Union Square and City Hall Park. The city was abuzz. They couldn’t believe it.”

The aqueduct follows a 41-mile downhill course from the Croton Reservoir; it once terminated at a reservoir where the New York Public Library main branch now sits and still feeds the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis reservoir in Central Park. Our walk was not nearly that long, but it did take us pretty close to the city’s northern limit and through some dappled woodlands, where we never saw another soul. Shy of the Yonkers border we decided to turn south again, and that was when I spotted the Vienna Sausage can, a little trash totem on the side of the path. I didn’t mention it to Conny, who was expounding on Tammany Hall. “The aqueduct was a Tammany deal,” said Conny. “They saw the need for it after the great fire of 1835. They knew the city needed pressurized water. The bucket brigades couldn’t put fires out using the old method and the city couldn’t grow without being able to fight fires. All these neighborhoods in the North Bronx and the West Bronx were settled by Irish immigrants they got to build the waterway and the reservoir.” Masonry was cheaper than iron. Labor was the cheapest thing of all. “It was always cheap labor with the Irish,” said Conny, who is Irish himself. “There was big anti-Irish feeling at the time, so the isolationists tried to turn the public against the reservoir project. You know what they said? They said, ‘Don’t drink the water because those Irish workers are peeing in it!’ They said, ‘You never know what those Irish vagabonds are going to do next.’ ” Then he let out an enormous laugh.




No italicized note can adequately convey the gratitude, affection, and respect I feel for the many people whose professionalism and generosity have gone into the making of this column over the past 20 years, nor for its equally supportive readers. Still, as I leave the Voice for The New York Times, I would like to express thanks for their encouragement and friendship to David Schneiderman, president of Village Voice Media; to Don Forst, as canny an editor in chief as I ever expect to meet; to Brian Parks for his tact and deftly wielded blue pencil; to Vince Aletti for his companionship and incomparably camp e-mails; to editorial colleagues Bill Bastone, C.Carr, Michael Feingold, Richard Goldstein, Jennifer Gonnerman, Lauren Drandoff, Meg Handler, J. Hoberman, J.A. Lobbia, Mark Schoofs, James Ridgeway, and Doug Simmons for, among other things, keeping the spirit of the Voice vital; and most especially to my beloved friend and colleague Sylvia Plachy, who has clambered down subway tunnels behind me, driven into burning oil fields, trekked to Carpathian bolt-holes, and kept her good spirits throughout.

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Play Ball

‘I saw this show,’ the man with the devil horns is saying, ‘by this French guy, Olivier Rebufa. He makes these, like, self-portraits playing with Barbie.’

‘Barbie the doll?’ asks the woman wearing plastic angel wings on her back.

‘Yeah, her.’

‘And what are the pictures of?’ asks the woman, plucking a cherry tomato from a cheese table cornucopia.

‘He makes a photo of himself and then he sets up a tableau. He mounts his picture on cardboard and puts it inside. Then he rephotographs it.”

“Oh.”

“There’s, like, one where he and Barbie are naked and holding hands in the surf. It’s surreal, but the technology’s quite simple.”

“That’s very Chien Andalou.

“I mean, there’s no electronic or computer manipulation.”

“No.”

“Just him and the doll.”

It is Saturday night at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and the Architectural League is holding its Beaux Arts Ball. As Bill Cunningham recently pointed out in the Times, Beaux Arts balls once were occasions for people to get into outlandish boho fancy dress, shepherdess drag, or else wear cardboard Chrysler Buildings on their heads. Nowadays that sort of thing only happens at John Galliano runways in Paris. This ball, partly sponsored by Prada, continues the tradition—sort of—with the Dantesque theme of Paradiso/Inferno. It’s being held in the cathedral’s 1913 Synod House—a ponderous neo-Gothic building alongside the cathedral and allegedly inspired by the Papal Palace at Avignon. The Synod House has a great hall, a vaulted undercroft, and a spooky stone stairway that puts one in mind of medieval oubliettes. It was originally built as a meeting place for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church. Tonight in place of skirted clerics, the place is crammed with hundreds of architects and interior and industrial designers; and with the semilegendary Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra; and with a group of hardworking performers from the House of Domination, an on-call “Method go-go” troupe at the Jackie Factory, a/k/a Mother.

“We were hired to play the Seven Deadly Sins,” explains Michelangelo Domination, a tall, mascaraed man whose whiskey baritone results, he explains, from vocal nodes. “I’m Pride.”

We’re in a makeshift curtained dressing area alongside the bathrooms. Michelangelo’s being costumed by designer Kitty Boots in the laces and satins of an 18th-century court dandy. The other sins are slouching around on folding chairs. There’s Sloth, impersonated by Betty Domination as Sleeping Beauty; Greed, drag performer Lavinia Coop Domination got up as a jester; and Lust, portrayed by Jessica Rabbit Domination wearing a stretch-vinyl jumpsuit, devil horns made from dental gutta-percha, and Marilyn Manson contacts she gets from an F/X shop called Sabertooth.

There’s also Wrath and Envy, of course, not to mention Gluttony, played by a superthin woman called Genocide Domination—”a 2000 version of gluttony: I’m bulimic”—carrying a giant strawberry on a fork.

If a “high or overweening opinion of one’s own qualities, attainments or estate, which gives rise to a feeling and attitude of superiority over others,” or Pride, is a vice, then it’s obviously one that comes with a built-in dispensation for locals. Practically anyone who succeeds here has their “How to Be a Successful New Yorker” instruction booklet open to that page. Well, anyone but Michelangelo. “Do I have any association with the sin of Pride?” he replies to a visitor’s question. “Uh, no.”

 



In the 100 or so years since the League was formed, with the purpose of “helping artists, architects and the public enrich their understanding of the purpose and importance of the art of architecture, with a constant focus on the aesthetic, cultural, and social concerns,” the city has erected a total of two tough, world-class buildings (Seagrams, Guggenheim). At the same time, it has trashed any number of monuments to Industrial Age elegance, replacing them with neosuburban kitsch that increasingly threatens to make Manhattan a high-end strip mall. Still, the League has done its part over the years to inform the public, keep the important discussions alive, hold a line between the urban Paradiso and Inferno, even if at times the balance gets skewed. “I almost don’t want to get into the 21st century, if things keep going the way they are now,” says one partygoer, an architect and scholar whose fancy-dress contribution is a rumpled red cape. “It’s not a matter of retrenched classicism, it’s a matter of remembering some of the profound lessons of buildings and cities.” What are those lessons, again? “Wonder, enchantment, silence, awe. This is why I don’t want to have a telephone and beeper with me at every moment. I want to be by myself every once in a while.”

“He still thinks it’s smoke signals,” says the architect’s companion, dressed as a naughty nun.

Aside from clusters of garden gnome tables designed by Phillippe Starck (the same ones Ian Schrager deemed too kitsch for the lobby of his latest hotel), the principal enchantment at the Beaux Arts Ball takes the form of Chico O’Farrill, a superannuated figure with a pencil mustache, striped turtleneck, and Hush Puppy shoes. A throwback to the heyday of Goodman and Basie, O’Farrill shuffles splayfooted to the bandstand and opens a sheaf of ancient sheet music labeled Igor’s Suite. In a period where standard party entertainment is a turntable and mic, there is something awe-inspiring about a septuagenarian bandleader standing before a 20-piece band. As O’Farrill floats his hands to conduct, the ambient sound in the old church house reaches a din: chatter, floating laughter, clinking ice, a kind of swirl that, if you could capture it concretely, might resemble a fractal. O’Farrill prompts the horns. There is a blast of music. By some atavistic instinct, the entire crowd falls into line. “Check that out,” says the red-devil formalist. “Structure. It’ll get you every time.”

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Cruel and Usual Punishment

A 15-year-old is duct-taped and thrown against a school locker, then held down while his teammates insert a plastic knife into his rectum. A Staten Island teenager is ritually paddled at football camp until he bleeds. A group of freshmen soccer players are dragged across the muddy field of a suburban Baltimore high school. A South Carolina wrestling coach resigns after a student claims he was sexually assaulted with a broomstick during an initiation rite. A Texas football player is treated for fluid in his lungs after being severely beaten by veterans on the team.

Recent reports on hazing, centered on Trumbull High School in Connecticut—where a sophomore was brutalized by members of the wrestling team, who have since been arrested—have spurred a torrent of editorial ink, a televised town meeting, calls for federal legislation, and the usual finger-pointing and shock. Traditionally, hazing has been passed off as a harmless ritual of male bonding and group identity formation, a detour on the way to manhood. Lately, however, more people have noticed what C. Taylor Crothers’s pictures, seen here, make plain: Hazing is an elaborately institutionalized form of abuse and, perversely, a community-sanctioned crime.

“The question isn’t how much hazing is acceptable,” says Mark Peters, an attorney who has litigated federal class-action suits on child welfare. “The question is how much abuse is acceptable” to society. What happened in Connecticut, suggest many legal experts, is analagous to the horror stories in which courts end up removing children from parents who snuff out cigarettes on their arms. Forcing the newest squirt to carry the team equipment is obviously not the same as hog-tying him and pinning him in a gym locker. Or is it? According to Frederick D. Paoletti Jr., the lawyer representing Daniel Scinto, the Trumbull High School wrestling team co-captain now facing assault charges, the sophomore’s injuries were the “result of a tradition to which team members willingly submitted.” Although the hazing may have “gotten out of hand,” there wasn’t “any intention for anyone to be harmed physically or to do anything against anybody’s will.” It was all, said Paoletti, “done in jest and fun.”

“It’s easy,” says Peters, “to pull a kid out of a home if the mom is throwing him against the wall.” Establishing the culpability of guardians who stand by while someone else harms a kid is a more difficult process. Yet “we know now that schools have a real obligation to be watching what kids are doing during schooltime,” he says. “It’s not only abuse affirmatively to hurt a child—it’s abuse to allow someone else to abuse a child when you know that’s going on.”

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City on a Hill

MEXICO CITY—Tiberio didn’t used to buy roast pork. Suddenly Tiberio’s buying roast pork. Where’s the money coming from? That’s what people in his barrio on the outskirts of this massive city were whispering lately, and their insinuations—ordinary gossip in one sense—were carried along seemingly harmlessly until they reached the ears of a local crime boss. This man runs a small string of street whores and a confederacy of street boys. The whores—short-legged, small-breasted, narrow-hipped, and with lavish black manes—work an area near the Buena Vista market, not far from the central train station and a plaza where Mexico City’s neo-punk rockers gather on Saturday afternoons. The boys run his errands and keep tabs on the neighborhood in return for pocket change and glue to sniff.

When the boss heard about the apparent windfall, he sent some guys to Tiberio’s house to shake him down. They didn’t get much by U.S. standards. The net was about $50, sent from northern California by Tiberio’s brother, a housekeeper in the Napa Valley. But, in a country where the average worker’s daily wage is approximately three U.S. dollars, $50 is a lot of cash. Tiberio considers himself lucky, however. The boss just squeezed him and left it at that. Tiberio returned to his former, more modest diet. His brother no longer sends money home. “It’s too dangerous,” Tiberio’s brother says by phone, asking that his name not appear in print. “I’m keeping it in the bank here for my family, you know, until such time as the situation will change.”

It’s hard to imagine when that might be. With over 20 million people, Mexico City more than merits the appellation of the first “postcity,” a ragged megalopolis whose constant metastasis swallows countryside and neighborhoods whole. Comparing it, not inappropriately, to L.A., the writer José Emilio Pacheco once dubbed Mexico City the first “post-apocalyptic” metropolis, a roiling Lazarus that shakes off the many declarations of its demise.

It survived the devastating earthquakes of 1985, whose official fatality toll of 10,000 was widely considered a government delusion that unaccountably overlooked perhaps 30,000 dead. The city continues to withstand, as Pacheco notes, “overpopulation and pollution beyond the assumed threshold of human tolerance,” attempting at the same time to “enter the twenty-first century without yet having solved the problems of the sixteenth.” As the six years of Ernesto Zedillo’s term wind down, Mexico City is proffered by the country’s president as evidence of a fantasia he terms “macroeconomic stability.”

As usual, the real story is contained in the microeconomies. The carping realists Zedillo calls “globaphobes” are not the only ones to notice that Mexico City has become a tenuously stabilized fortress, its privileged rich increasingly barricaded from the rest of the population using methods imported from north of the border. In Gringolandia, as the satirist Lorenzo Wilson Milam once wrote of the U.S., “rich people live in houses that have guards, high walls, barred gates and windows, alarm systems and machine-gun towers. They don’t mind living like this because the guards let them out once or twice a week to visit their lawyers or have their hair done.”

In Mexico City, the rich also get day passes to visit their lawyers or have their hair done, or else to play doubles at the clay courts on the roof of the Camino Real hotel, or to tuck into rare sirloins at the popular Rincon Argentino—where the ceilings are painted to resemble a placid blue sky and where the individual steaks come in Bible-sized slabs. But they do so in armored SUVs, with bodyguards riding shotgun and follow-cars glued to the bumper.

“Mostly they’re too frightened to go out,” says a woman I’ll call Marie-Pierre, a saleswoman at a boutique off Avenida Presidente Masaryk, Mexico City’s Madison Avenue. They are afraid, in this order, of muggers, kidnappers, and crooked policemen. They’re afraid to use automatic teller machines. They’d be afraid of cabbies, too, if anyone took taxis. But taking cheap rides in one of the city’s roughly 80,000 Volkswagen Beetles sort of tailed off when gang-connected drivers began hijacking passengers—and not just gringos—at knifepoint and riding them around town to max out their credit cards.

Virtually every shiny shop and shopping mall and restaurant in the city’s fancier sections is now lavishly protected by private security forces. Armed men wearing earpieces stand at shopping mall thresholds. Guards with Dobermans are posted at restaurant doors. To enter the luxury goods stores in posh Polanco, it’s usually necessary first to pass through a bulletproof door overseen by a guard with a machine gun; a second door, operated by a separate man in a glass booth, is buzzed open only after the first is sealed. And yet the usual carpeted hush of, say, an Hermès or Gucci becomes a deafening silence in places where nowadays customers are pretty scarce.

“It’s bad,” explains Marie-Pierre. “The very rich aren’t buying. There are a couple of reasons. One, the peso is devalued, so prices have been set at ridiculous levels to ‘normalize’ things. If they do buy, they go to Paris or New York. Secondly, they don’t want to be seen consuming because, if you shop at these stores, you can be followed. Your name might turn up on a mailing list and your home can be found.” There is an additional problem, claims Marie-Pierre. “A certain number of these stores aren’t in the business of selling clothes, or what have you, in the first place. They’re a front for drugs.”

It’s been almost two years since Mexico’s secretary of the interior, Diódoro Carrasco, unveiled a $500 million government antidrug effort focused on counternarcotics equipment, increased law enforcement, and a newly created Federal Preventive Police force with 11,000 “thoroughly screened” agents to combat organized crime. Since then, the government has seized over 25 tons of cocaine and close to 1500 tons of marijuana, eradicated a combined total of more than 121,000 acres of marijuana and opium poppy fields, and made, as everyone knows, barely a dent in the trade. “It’s a joke,” says Marie-Pierre. “It’s thejoke. Except that it’s not so funny.”

The high drama of crop burning and border interdiction works surprisingly well to deflect attention from inner rot, not only that of big-time government hoodlums (“You’ve got six years to make your money as president,” a friend in Mexico says. “You want to cash out with at least 100 million bucks”) but also that of barrio crooks on the lookout for someone with enough money for meat. Anyway, these government antics are staged not so much to trump the globaphobes as to secure the business interests of the country’s internationalized super-rich.

It may be redundant in Mexico to speak of government corruption. It may be inappropriate—over-obvious, even—for an outsider to note conditions so tenuously stabilized that the center cannot possibly hold. One commonplace of writing about this city is to make metaphor of its seismic reality, although Mexico City has a long history of defying the odds. The fact remains, however, that it sprawls across an active fault, is ringed by two large quiescent and one innocuous-looking but lively volcano, and is built on a prehistoric lake bed. Even under the bright skies of a cool February afternoon, a visitor carries around a subliminal fatalistic understanding that the mountains may someday explode and consume the city, the earth could crack and bring it down, or the whole delirious enterprise might—literally or figuratively—abruptly slump into the mud.