Image

When my sister was in high school, she went on an Urban Experience. As a lesson about homelessness, she and her classmates were challenged to spend the night in downtown Denver with only five dollars in their pockets. They would have to sleep on heat vents or in homeless shelters; they’d have to know what it’s like to be hungry; they’d emerge from it chastened and humbled and wiser for the experience.

It was fun, my sister told me.

I suppose this was the drawback: there was nothing at stake. They only had to make it for a few hours, and by morning, they’d be back in bed, well-fed and warm. In other words, it was an early opportunity for my sister to spend an entire night out. As it was, by the time I got to high school, I had already planned how I would have spent my night, but the program didn’t exist anymore.

Years of city living has inured me to the homeless. I mistrust the men—and it’s almost always men, Caucasian—who linger on the devil’s strip near busy stoplights, where the traffic can back up a block’s length. Their clothes are dirty and sufficiently worn, though still serviceable, and they bear stubble on their face as proof of hardship. They hold cardboard squares with their lives’ misery condensed in black Magic Marker: got laid-off, Vietnam vet, foreclosed home, hungry family, God bless. They rarely speak. But they strike me the way William Powell strikes me in My Man Godfrey: There’s no way he could be homeless.

I wasn’t always so cynical. One evening when I was still in college, I was with my friend C___ and his boyfriend J___, hanging out in the gay neighborhood of Baltimore, Mount Vernon. We were all too young to go to the bars and clubs, but we were there to steep in the general atmosphere, reveling, as we were, in the then-new excitement of our community. We were at the base of the hill the rises towards the George Washington Monument, outside of The Buttery, a diner that would have been more aptly named “The Greasery.”

An African-American woman came up to us. She spun out her story—she needed milk for her baby at home, stuck in the city without bus fare. C___ and I, both still new to Baltimore, looked at each other, unsure of what to do. We could deal with homelessness when it was huddled in a corner, but never had it come up to confront us. As college students, we hardly had any money ourselves, though we must have had a few bucks between the two of us. We sputtered out our excuses, but she pressed on. My baby’s hungry, she insisted.

J____, from nearby Ellicott City, was getting more upset at us for engaging with her than with her for coming to us.

Finally, fed up, he gave her a few dollars. “Here,” he said. “Take it.”

When she left, she seemed to skip, with what might have been glee. “She seems happy,” I said.

“Why wouldn’t she be?” J___ replied. “She got her money.”

Advertisements

ImageBig Deal on Wheeling Street

The scene:

July 1985. Morris Heights. The field at the end of the street is overgrown with beige scrub, with a small copse of trees at its center. The copse hides an abandoned mattress, an object of mystery and excitement to bored adolescents. Around it, bike paths have been carved out of the dry ground with teeth-chipping hills and gullies for intrepid bikers. Midsummer flattens everything, a heat that stretches across the neighborhood like mohair. The sun opens the mischief in our pores, and it’s too far to walk to Circle-K to shoplift candy.

The soundtrack:

Instead of Piero Umiliani: cicadas. Cars speeding up and down Baranmore Parkway. Duran Duran, Phil Collins, Paul Young and Whitney Houston on the radio. My father snoring on the couch as we wait to have dinner with my cousins.

The crew:

Me, as the semi-innocent Mario; my best friend Daddy from across the street as Peppe, the instigator; Floyd, the Native-American, the sad-sack Capannelle; Brent, whose glasses always seemed smeared, as can’t-catch-a-break Cosimo; and Rae, the chubby-faced moll, who lived two doors down from me.

The plan:

Three blocks away, I-225 connects the major interstates I-70 and I-25, cutting through our neighborhood like a pocketknife. The highway is the terminus of our world: anything past Xanadu St. seems as distant as the moon, and the kids there, aliens. Although there’s an underpass right along 30th, the 31st St. gang decides on a shortcut: a kid-sized opening in the chain-link fence walling off the highway. There must be a similar gap on the other side.

The job:

The cars don’t seem to be going that fast, even though they’re barreling along at 65 miles an hour, minimum. We wait until we spy a gap in traffic, then, one at a time, hop over the guardrail and run across the pavement to the grassy median. That’s just northbound; we still have southbound to contend with, though it’s pretty much the same. Floyd, with his short, spindly legs, can’t sprint as fast, and the rest of us watch as cars slow and swerve to avoid him. We also discover that there’s no gap on the other side of the highway.

The fallout:

After lying low for a bit and consulting, we decide to haul ass back across the highway, but not before we see police lights coming down to road. Most of the gang scampers across and down the hill, but Danny, who’s been ushering Floyd, gets nabbed. We know as soon as we see this that he’ll sell us down the river, and we scatter home to await the knock on our doors. But as it turns out, Dad has woken from his nap, and it’s time for dinner. As we drive up Baranmore Parkway, away from the crime scene, I see a cop car coming from the opposite direction, and as we pass, there’s Danny’s red hair in the back. For one of us, at least, a successful getaway.

112_box_348x490In one of the visual gags in Playtime, Tati puts the viewer in a voyeuristic role, framing the scene from the outside of an apartment building.  Inside, two families face each other, ostensibly watching a boxing match on the in-set televisions mounted on their respective side of the shared wall.  But from the outside, the families seemingly react as if they are observing each other.  For instance, as the father on one side begins to disrobe, the father on the other side shoos his daughter away, as if he does not want her to look upon the other man’s nakedness.

I visited Bác Thu Dang’s apartment once, with my parents.  We were on our way someplace else, I think, because I can’t think of any reason why I should have been there.  I was eight or nine at the time.  His apartment was a one-bedroom, and the whole place was cluttered, as if there was no way a whole life could have fit into that space.  We sat around a kitchen table, and, on the chair next to me, was a stack of newspapers that was almost as tall as I was,  The appliances were lumbering, 70s avocado-green beasts, covered in a thin, opaque film of grease.  My parents and Bác Thu Dang spoke in animated tones, but I couldn’t understand what they said.  Bored to distraction, I began looking through the stack:  newspapers in English, newspapers in Vietnamese, unopened mail.

But then, near the bottom, there it was.  A porno mag.  It wasn’t the first I’d ever seen, of course; I knew the location of every dirty magazine at home.  I had also become quite adept at sniffing them out at the houses of other relatives too:  underneath mattresses, at the back of closets, in child-accessible storage spaces.  It was as if, by discovering where others had hidden their sexual secrets, I could learn how to hide my own better.

But this magazine was different.  Up to then, everything I’d seen, despite promises of SHOCKING and UNCENSORED, was pretty much softcore.  What the couple (white man, Asian woman) did in this magazine, the others had only suggested.  I was enthralled, even as I tried to appear nonchalant.  The thrill of the forbidden, of discovery—but when I reached its end, I was confused.  All that white foamy stuff?  That’s a lot of spit, I thought, and it wasn’t until years later that I realized that I had seen my first cumshot.

I thought differently about Bác Thu Dang after that. Afterwards, whenever I encountered him, I thought I could detect, underneath his unflagging joviality, sadness, loneliness. As he moved, I thought I could see him carrying squalor and poverty and pornography around like a phantom limb. I didn’t suspect that these would one day be as much a part of my life as they were of his. The voyeur never considers his own position.  He presses his nose up against the glass of another person’s life. He pretends to know what’s going on inside. He pretends that what he sees is a joke. He never considers that he is also being watched.

111_box_348x490Bác Thu Dang was not a blood relative as far as I know. Vietnamese family trees are notoriously convoluted, with the farther branches of second uncles and cousins twisted and labyrinthine. But I suspect that his bác was an honorific, the way that some Vietnamese refer to Ho Chi Minh as Bác Hồ — Uncle Ho. (My parents refuse to speak Ho Chi Minh’s name in any incarnations — their version of the 614th mitzvah.)

I knew nothing of Bác Thu Dang’s life. My father told me, at one point, that he worked as a janitor. He spoke very little English, but in Vietnamese, he had a knack for puns: slight tonal shifts, switched consonants. When he came over for visits — once a week, it seemed – he and my parents played cắt tê for nickels and took sips of Remy Martin V.S.O.P. until they were red-faced from laughter and alcohol. My mother let me taste her drink (Remy and 7-Up) and sporadically explained what was so funny. I suspect that most of Bác Thu Dang’s jokes were dirty.

One Christmas, Bác Thu Dang gave me a bag of Hershey’s Kisses, and I ate them all, except for three — one of each color: green, red, silver. I had a habit of hording candy — in a Sucrets tin, one of each flavor out from a bag of Jelly Bellys kept in a Sucrets tin; in a lidded jar, the accumulated cherry pieces from a Halloween’s-worth of SweeTarts. A few years ago, when I was cleaning out my childhood desk, I found those three Kisses, still in their bag, crammed in the back of a drawer. They’d dissolved into dust by then, eaten by something larval, their foil pocked with holes. This was my last physical reminder with Bác Thu Dang, but still, I threw the bag away.

I’m struck by how M. Hulot reminds me of Bác Thu Dang: the tall frame, the long face, the air of calm bufuddlement. I don’t recall ever seeing Bác Thu Dang without a hat, most often a droopy fishing hat that sat low on his head, much like the one M. Hulot wears on his holiday. The similarities end there: Bác Thu Dang also wore large glasses, and his front two incisors were nicotine-stained and slightly twisted, giving him the appearance of an overbite. But he was a familiar sight in our house, a constant presence in our lives.

Until he wasn’t. At some point, the visits stopped, I’m not sure why. There hadn’t been a quarrel that I was aware of, and when my parents encountered him, they were still convivial. But the level of closeness wasn’t there anymore. Maybe the friendship had simply run its course. The young boy in Mon Oncle never questions why his uncle is suddenly no longer a part of his life; he instead forms a stronger bond with his father.

For me, I know there’s must be another secret stash of chocolate somewhere.

110_box_348x490For a number of years, Matthew and I had a New Year’s Eve tradition: we would go to bed early—well before midnight—and when the new year came, we’d rouse to the noisemakers and the fireworks, and turn to each other, and mumble ‘happy new year,’ and kiss, and then go back to sleep.

*

This year, we went to a friend’s house for an evening of board games. Foil hats, hors d’oeuvres, plastic leis. Ball drop, champagne toast, kiss, Auld Lang Syne. Then it was time to go.

The highways were empty. No tractor trailers, only a few other cars. Everyone, I suppose, was enjoying their night off, except for those bartenders, policemen, taxi drivers, and hospital workers who kept the world in working order for us to return to the next day. On the drive, Matthew said that he could see fireworks from between the buildings of Wilmington, but by the time I looked, they had dissipated.

Matthew went to bed soon after we got home. I watched M. Hulot’s Holiday. On New Year’s Day, Southerners eat black-eyed peas and collard greens to represent prosperity. The Irish eat ham and cabbage. Maybe watching M. Hulot’s Holiday signifies gentle humility. Or having gimlet humor towards the world. Or maybe I, myself, need a vacation on the Brittany coast. As I watched, the movie was punctuated, from outside, with occasional bursts. Fireworks—or perhaps gunfire, both wholly American traditions.

*

Towards the end of the film, M. Hulot accidentally sets off a shed full of fireworks. Some of them hit the pension where he’s staying in what director Terry Jones describes as an “artillery barrage.”

“It’s almost as if,” Jones says, “Tati was mounting a military assault against the stuffy old world of the past.”

The racket wakes the other vacationers, the lights in their rooms turning on one by one. And as they leave their rooms and gather downstairs, where raucous jazz plays, they begin—begrudgingly—to have fun.

*

New Year’s Eve, 1999. We weren’t afraid of the Y2K bug—not really. But, just in case, two hours before the catastrophe hit, Matthew drove me in his green Jetta (named Clio, for the muse of history) north from Denver. We had planned it so that when midnight struck, we’d be over the Wyoming border, but still far enough away from Cheyenne to miss the cataclysm. At midnight, we pulled into a scenic overlook on the side of the highway. We got out of the car—after all, it, too, had an internal computer and may have been susceptible to spontaneous combustion. It was cold, I remember, though there was no snow, and we huddled beneath the light overhanging the highway, the orange glow almost nuclear in its brightness. At midnight, to the north we could see fireworks, and to the south, another set of fireworks. The wind, with sharp teeth, brought the sound of distant explosions. And we stood there, holding each other, until we were sure that the world hadn’t ended after all, and then drove home.

109_box_348x490When I got a Mohawk over the summer, my parents reacted with horror:  you look like a punk, my father said.  A no-goodnik.  A Mexican.  I had once joked, as a teenager, about getting a Mohawk, and my parents said that if I did, they’d hold me down and shave my head all the way.  My mother pleaded with Matthew to convince me to revert to my old haircut.  “I can understand him wanting to cut his hair that was if he were young,” my mother told him.  “But he’s almost forty.”

I thought, There’s no way they would have let me have one while I was growing up.  I waged my follicular rebellions in secret.  One evening, when they had gone to dinner with friends, my sister and I mixed up a bowl of sticky blue dye, a color that could only been seen directly under light.  We smeared a protective layer of conditioner along our hairlines—Direct contact with skin may result in a burning sensation, the package read— and tried not to touch anything with our heads for two hours.  When we rinsed, we were disappointed to see the color:  most of it streaked the bottom of the bathtub, and none of it had stayed in our hair.  Our rebellion washed down the drain.

So, at the start of the summer, as Tomacina took the clippers to the side of my head, the revolutionary spirit rekindled.  The grey hairs fell away, a clearcutting of old-growth lumber.  My head felt lighter.  And when she had finished, the black nylon haircut cape was speckled with years of my life, shaved off.

Early in The Scarlet Countess, there’s a scene of Marlene Dietrich on a swing, playing the young Catherine the Great.  When the camera focuses on her face, it’s unmistakably her, though something seems off.  Let’s face it:  Marlene Dietrich is one of the screen’s greatest sexual icons, but she can’t pull off a teenager too well.  Her hair, a mass of blonde ringlets, can’t disguise the sensuousness of her eyes, and despite her attempts to play the ingénue, her sexual persona shines through.

Over the summer, I paid careful attention to other Mohawk-bearers.  We were a secret brotherhood, I thought, until I realized that my brothers were, on the whole, much younger than I was.  The Mohawk was a bit of play-acting on my part, something I could pull off for a short time, but not convincingly.  Maybe it’s better to let Marlene be Marlene and for Viet to be Viet.

My hair grows quickly, so it only too about a month for it to reach sufficient shagginess.  The new school semester was about to start.  I returned to Tomacina, and she asked what I wanted.  I repeated what I’ve said to her at least a hundred times now:  one-and-a-half on the sides, longer on top, kill the sideburns.  She ran her fingers through my hair.  “You’re a mess,” she said.

For a while, I only trusted gay men with my hair. As a child, my mother cut my hair: every two months or so, I sat on a chair set upon spread-out newspaper on the basement storeroom, and my mother worked my head with a trimmer set that nicked my ears and spewed out hot ozone. In middle-school, she started taking me to haircut franchises: Great Clips, the Hair Cuttery—but after one too many fucked-up cuts, we settled on a Vietnamese woman who had shop in the Far East Shopping Plaza. While I got my hair cut, she shopped for groceries.

Patrick, though, was my first stylist. He worked first out of Cherry Creek, but when he opened his own salon in Englewood, I followed. We hung out for  coffee and occasionally hit the bars together. He introduced me to having my hair slightly askew and tousled, as if I’d just woken up. (How can anyone tell the difference? asks Matthew.)

When I returned to Denver after grad school, Patrick had closed his salon and had moved to San Diego. I tried other gay men, but results were spotty, depending mostly on the mood of the stylist that day. But Matthew introduced me to Meechie, who worked at the Supercuts not far from our apartment, and from that day on, only sassy black women have cut my hair.

I have great respect for hair stylists. When I told Tomacina, my current stylist, that I’d like a Mohawk for the summer, she didn’t bat an eye, but worked the clippers until all the white hairs at my temples were on the floor. “Not too bad,” she said.

In The Rock, the gay barber (“stylist,” he insists) is played for laughs. He’s a hideous stereotype: prancing, mincing, and prone to the vapors. His complaint that he’s not allowed to use scissors is played off as evidence of frivolity. What’s a pair of thinning shears when compared to the fate of San Francisco, a city under threat of being poison gassed? He’s on-hand to give Sean Connery, a wrongfully-imprisoned British intelligence officer, a haircut. They sit, guarded by FBI officers, on a high hotel balcony, with the San Francisco hills roll behind them.

Michael Bay admits that Connery essentially reprise his most famous role: “a rusty James Bond,” he describes the character. A friend recently explained why she doesn’t like James Bond movies. “Whenever I see Bond driving through a crowded marketplace, overturning the stalls and sending everything flying, I don’t care that Bond is trying to save the world,” she said. “All I can think about are all the poor merchants who’ve just had their lives upended.”

“I guess I’m not the right audience,” she concluded.

Connery uses the haircut as a pretext to escape, of course, flinging his captor off the balcony. The stylist flees into the elevator, where he cowers from Mason. But he knows that his work is no less important than Mason’s work to save the world. “All I care about is,” he says, “Are you happy with your haircut?”

Bob Hoskins walks into the Ritz wearing a Naugahyde jacket the color and texture of an orange fruit roll-up, and beneath that, a Hawaiian shirt which even retired Floridians would decry as too loud. Later, he shows off a gold medallion. At the bar, smoking a cigarette and drinking a Bloody Mary, he thinks nothing of his clothes: they’re new, after all. He’s comfortable in them, proud of them, until the call girl he’s been driving around she sees him and sums up her feelings in a word: Christ.

The camera shows the dining room: white arches, chairs with red velvet cushions, and crystal chandeliers. Rose marble columns, potted palms, Oriental rugs. Everything is gilded—the statues in the recesses, the harp on which the harpist plays—and when the light reflects on your skin, you yourself become golden.

Matthew and I were there on Christmas Day. My cousin, who lived in London at the time, made the reservations, her treat. Tea at the Ritz!: the only hotel to have its name adjectivized. On the long escalator rides in the Tube, adverts framed on the walls spoke of the tradition of spending the holidays at the Ritz, only £50 a person.

But once we arrived, I felt under-dressed. Some men wore tailored tuxedoes. I wore a suit I had owned since college, when it fit a slightly skinner version of myself. It pinched, and the material seemed scratchy. When I reached for my teacup, too much of my cuff showed. Even the waiters’ uniforms seemed custom-fit. For the next hour and a half—before we had to make way for the next seating—I tried to convince myself that I belonged there.

But my clothes gave me away, I thought. The call girl who paid for Bob Hoskins clothes tells him: Being cheap is one thing. Looking cheap is another. That really takes talent.

Afterwards, sated with cucumber sandwiches and lapsang souchang, as we gathered our coats, an older woman emerged from the downstairs casino. She was tall and elegant, Parisian, I imagined.  But:  she wore the most astonishing hat. It teetered upon her head, a swirl of purple, as if Gaudi had built a beehive out of felt. I couldn’t help but gawp as she passed by. I turned to Matthew in order to confirm that what I had seen was real, but instead, I caught the eye of an older British woman. With a wry smile, she said, “I see you looking,” in a tone of voice that humored as much as it chastened.

Chances are that hat cost more than my suit. But she seemed so at ease in it that it didn’t matter that I found it slightly ridiculous, much in the same way that I found myself slightly ridiculous. She wanted to call attention to herself, so if she was there, then Bob Hoskins could be there, and so could I. I put on my overcoat (second-hand, bought at a Washington D.C. garage sale) and headed out into the London winter.

Bertrand Tavernier’s Coup de Torchon has no moral center. The main character, the lone police officer of a small, colonial Senegalese town, is craven, prone to childish pranks, from salting someone’s tea to weakening the floorboards of an outhouse so that the unlucky occupant falls through. He endures humiliations with a wan smile, and when he’s finally had his fill, he metes out capricious punishment, killing the guilty and innocent alike. He draws others into his depravity, making his superior officer a patsy and inducing a schoolteacher to tell her class that his chalk-written confession on the blackboard is Le Marseillaise. Characters twice proclaim—once during an eclipse and again during a sandstorm—the arrival of Judgment Day, but no such judgment comes. Instead, life continues unabated in the town, the painted walls of houses both sun-baked and blinding.  Tavernier’s camerawork itself resists implying a moral center. He avoids, as he describes, “the principle of symmetry, with the hero in the center.” Instead, he creates, with his steadicam shots, “an image that [has] no center, that [keeps] shifting… It’s the physical equivalent of earth that isn’t solid.”

This is the creation of colonialism, Tavernier suggests—this lawless land. “The atmosphere of violence, horror, hypocrisy doesn’t leave you anything to hold on to,” he says. “But it’s not exactly a desperate vision of the world. Nor is it the opposite. You simply don’t know.”

*

I was raised Vietnamese Buddhist, which carries syncretic traces of Confucian ancestor worship. My parents themselves were light Buddhists, which meant that I went to temple only on major holidays:  New Year’s, smoky with sulfurous firecrackers and jangled with Dragon Dances; the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, with paper lanterns and me trading my salty yolked slice of mooncake to my father for his yolk-free one; and the Veneration of the Ancestors, for which one pinned a red rose to his lapel if his parents were alive and a white one if the parents had passed on. At temple, black-and-white portraits of the deceased were lined up on either side of the altar; each time I attended, I looked for my grandparents there. At the center of the altar was a large gilt Buddha, seated in the heroic position, hands in the ‘calling earth to witness’ mudra. The Buddha had radiant, neon halo. Buddhism doesn’t have strict tenets, such as the Ten Commandments, but instead suggests the Eightfold Path. I would have learned these paths, but the service was conducted in Vietnamese, which I understood only fleetingly, and I mouthed my way through sutras transliterated from Sanskrit into monosyllabic Vietnamese and read to the rhythm of a tapped woodblock. At the gong, I knew to bow, though I never figured out which gongs meant bow once and which meant three times.

Thus, my moral education consisted primarily of ‘Goofus and Gallant’ cartoons in Highlights for Children, read once every six months while waiting in the dentist’s office. I like to think I didn’t turn out too badly.

I first saw Laurence Olivier’s ‘oysters and snails’ speech to Tony Curtis, not in Spartacus itself, but rather in The Celluloid Closet. In that scene, Olivier argues to his slave that sexuality is a matter of taste, rather than of appetite, and being a matter of taste, is not a moral consideration. “It could be argued so, Master” says Curtis. The Celluloid Closet was part of a queer studies class I took as a junior in college, at which time my own preferences had already ossified. ‘Skinny Jewish intellectuals’ was my taste, rather than a moral judgment on chubby Gentile fools.

***

Years later, I was in New Orleans with my skinny Jewish intellectual, for a conference. He had never eaten raw oysters before, his father having instilled in him the fear of Vibrio vulnificus, rather than Leviticus. We sat at open-air bar at Felix’s, and, around us, was the sultry autumn air, the sound of granular ice, and quick-fingered men with shucking knives and chain mail gloves.  “OK,” he said, “I’ll try one,” and several dozens later, the area was around us a denuded shoal, a mother-of-pearl graveyard.  “Oh, I’ve missed out on so much,” he bemoaned. “I lived in Boston and never had any oysters.”

***

Censors suggested replacing ‘oysters’ and ‘snails’ with ‘artichokes’ and ‘truffles,’ but even after Kubrick reshot the scene, they cut it, leaving audiences, presumably, to wonder why Curtis’ slave has a sudden attack of drapetomania. And while could be argued that the scene dealt with sexuality in a progressive way, for 1960, it might be that the screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, conceived of the scene much differently.  According to Howard Fast, the author of the novel, the more abstract decadences of starvation or slavery were inconceivable to Hollywood types.  But sexuality—this was a decadence that Hollywood could understand.  Most people in Hollywood either knew someone who indulged in it, Fast says, or indulged in it themselves.

***

Matthew and I know oysters. We know the different types: the briny ones from Maine, the mineral tang of those from Prince Edward Island, the creamy flesh of Puget Sound breeds. We don’t slather them in cocktail sauce, but opt instead for a shallot-champagne mignonette or, if that’s not available, a squeeze of lemon and a dab of horseradish. Escargot is fussy: handling the little forks, and maneuvering the shells out of that specialized divoted pan. No, when we feel decadent, it’s much easier to slide an oyster whole into your mouth, liquid and all, even if ‘decadence’ is relative, and, of course, a matter of taste.

***

I learned recently that the ‘oysters and snails’ scene is a reconstruction—the audio long since lost. Tony Curtis, almost 30 years later, re-recorded his lines, and Anthony Hopkins was brought in to dub Olivier’s. Kubrick supervised via his fax machine from England. But even in its cobbled-together state, it still has a delicious charge to it: filmed from behind a gauzy curtain, the two men half-naked and oiling each other up.  “It is all a matter of taste, isn’t it?” Olivier says, before concluding: “My taste includes both snails and oysters.”

Archives