Downtown 01.12.01
01.15.01
I have been sleeping on sofas since September - first the sofa in the living room, then the sofa in the dark dank basement. Gnat had taken over the bed; she required a certain set of circumstances to fall asleep, and as the evening habits evolved, I found myself not only irrelevant but an impedance: there are some situations where the best thing a dad can do is simply get - out - of - the - way. This was one. But since we wanted to break her of these bad evening habits, we started new ones - the warm bath! The lavender rubdown. Soothing songs sung soothingly by soothing voices. Friday night was the test: combine new rituals, and see what happened.

Ten minutes of crying, each minute more exhausted than the last . . . unconsciousness.

This has never happened before.

I had the first shift, and since nothing was required of me I just played computer games, edited some movies, answered mail, etc. Read a review of Ken Burns’ “Jazz.” I’ve read many reviews. Saves me from watching the series. I have all the records; I’d rather listen to them than watch TV. (I am at the moment listening to the finest version of “I’ll be Glad You’re Dead, You Rascal You” ever recorded - Jack Teagarden et al. I have a version from some British band of the same era, and it’s hilarious - you almost expect the singer to say “Tally Ho Pip Pip, you Rascal You.” It’s the absolute OPPOSITE of black music. Put the records together and it’s like antimatter and matter. You could power starships with these records.)

At 2 AM she still wasn’t up. Amazing. I went downstairs to finish watching “The Lost World,” which I’d seen before. But this was the widescreen anamorphic version, the sort of DVD for which I bought the widescreen TV, and it’s one of those obligatory home-theater experiences you have to have. (Just as “Top Gun” was the OHTE in the early 90s.) I was surprised to recall how much I actually enjoyed the movie - more than the first, actually. The DVD had two top-notch “deleted scenes” which added a good deal to the characters and the plot, and had no doubt been removed because people wanted to see the dinos, NOW.

Dominant cultural motifs of the middle 90s: dinos and UFOs. It really was an pre-adolescent boy’s world for a while.

Anyway. By four AM she was still asleep. This was amazing. I hit the hay, and just as I dozed off I heard Gnat start to wail. But she went down again without a fuss and slept until nine, which is when I was pressed back into duty. I have a hazy indistinct memory of this morning - I was so exhausted that coffee could not help me, and that’s frightening. When you finish the second cup and realize that it’s just not working, not working at all, you doubt God Himself.

Sara relieved me at 11, and I slept for a while again. That was Friday night. Saturday night: we put her down at a quarter to; she was asleep in 37 seconds. A wail, a peep, a sigh: zzzzzzz. Sunday night: put her down at the same time. A wail, a wail, a little warbly protest, a peep, a gurgle: zzzzz.

To reiterate and clarify: I have been sleeping on sofas since September FOR NO FARGIN’ REASON AT ALL.

While downstairs last night, listening for wails, I watched “Blazing Saddles.” Haven’t seen it since, oh, the early 80s of VCRs, when everyone celebrated this new entertainment paradigm by renting all the movies they’d seen before. (Something I am now repeating with DVDs, of course.) I don’t think they could make the movie today. It’s bracing to hear the N word used so blatantly - Richard Prior’s contribution to the script, I think; no one could employ that word like he did. Bracing, and sad; the fact that the word is used is not proof of Ineradicable Systemic Racism. On the contrary: it’s an indication that the audience was expected to know that the word was used only by cretins and fools - unless it was used by Blacks for ironic effect, a nuance we grasped instantaneously in Fargo in 1974. (Really.) It’s hard to describe how it felt to watch that silly little movie back then; from the very start, when Western Icon Slim Pickens rides up and accuses his workmen of “dancin’ around like a buncha Kansas City faggots” in that famous voice, you know that everything is going to be dynamited down to the foundation, and we’re all going to be the better for it. The high-minded guardians of the culture thought it was low and crude, and I suppose it is, but it’s cheerful and good-natured. It’s also funny as hell. Two points I missed when I first saw it:

1. When Madelaine Kahn’s Dietrich-esque singer is introduced, the soundtrack plays a few bars from “Springtime for Hitler.” Very nice.

2. Mel Brooks’ character, the governor, is named Le Petomane, and I don’t remember anyone ever wondering why. Between now and then I’ve learned: That was the name of a 19th century French vaudevillian whose act consisted entirely of clever flatulation. Singing songs, blowing out candles, imitations of cannon fire, etc.

Tonight I’m going to finish watching “Barton Fink,” one of my least favorite favorite films. As a movie, I can’t stand it; as a series of individual scenes, I love it. Go figure. It’s the Coens at their most Coeny, and while the entire movie feels like an ice cube jammed against a sore gum, nothing I can possibly find on TV tonight compares to John Goodman’s work in this movie. But before I work: back to the Permanent Collection of Impermanent Art. It’ll be finished this week. I’ve been saying that for a year and half, but I mean it. I’ll also release it with little fanfare, because I hate it completely. (See also, “year and a half.”)

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I was shoving the snow off the roof of the car yesterday. An inch and a half of wet heavy snow. It slides off easily, and actually cleans the car as you remove it, so usually this is a good thing. A fine thing. Helpful, multi-purpose snow. It was warm; didn't need gloves. Then - for no reason at all - I suddenly thought of a small bar in the San Diego area, three, four blocks from the ocean. I saw myself sitting by the open window, smelling the sea, reading a newspaper, content to bask in the mild perfection of another sunny day

Why am I not there? I thought. Why don’t I live there?

Couldn’t come up with an answer. It was a frightening moment. And an instructive one. You need to do that, periodically; look down, around, strip away the day and think: what is it about this place that holds me here? History, of course, is a big part of it, which is why recent dilution of local commercial history has seemed so depressing. In the last year a variety of local companies have left or changed their name - Northern States Power to Reliant, Minneapolis Gas Company (lately Minnegasco) to Xcel, Northwestern National Bank (lately Norwest) to Wells Fargin’ Fargo; Northwestern Bell (lately USWest) became Qwest. The Vikings will leave in a few years; perhaps the Twins, too. Honeywell was bought and left. Sturdy local names replaced by vapid sterile pod-companies. And last week Dayton’s, a venerable local chain - the parent company of Target - announced they were dropping the Dayton’s name and changing the stores to Marshall Field.

This is no small thing. All the local downtown department stores are gone, replaced by national chains. The stores that replaced them are, for the most part, better. More selection, better quality, but that’s not the point. I applaud & encourage the creative destruction of capitalism; this is not that. This is the triumph of the consultants, the brand-caretakers, the logo makers, the people who think that a breathy name and a swooshy logo can bind a consumer to a commercial entity. When I wrote out a check to Minnesgasco, I wrote out a word that it was a link to a particular building downtown (their HQ 50 years ago, long since renovated) and a manhole cover by the Armory that still bears the imprint of their old mascot, Minnie the Indian Maiden. I know, it’s tenuous, and it really doesn’t mean anything - but it does. It does.

History fades; people forget, things change; that’s the way it works, and the trick is to keep yourself from falling into grumpy sullen resentment: why, when I was young . . . well, when I was young there were people my age who were still pissed about the Leader Store closing in '56. But this is different . All this is intentional. Local identity is being dismantled at an extraordinary rate. On purpose. This is ten years' worth of change in a day.

Walking around downtown today I passed the second Federal Reserve; it’s being renovated. It’s gutted. You can see right through it. Just a pile of bones right now. Across the street, the old depot has been renovated, and the skating rink is open: great. Very nice. They’re not going to replace the cupola, though, and whenever I see the tower, I try to imagine the cupola.

That’s my problem, right there. (Hushed childlike whisper:) I see dead buildings. I see dead companies. For all the new construction downtown, I’m starting to see the place not as it is, but what it was. I know every corner of downtown so well that I see the buildings that once occupied the parking lots, the fine old department stores, the marquees and awnings of the nightclubs and hash houses and chow mein joints.

Sometimes I’d rather be there, then, than here, now.

That’s not good. Or maybe it’s the best thought I’ve had in a long time.

We'll see.

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Conglomerate failure is one of my favorite subjects. I relish tales of large, arrogant companies wasting millions of dollars to reinvent the wheel. Why, I don’t know; there’s just something fascinating about a really grotesque corporate screw up. New Coke. IBM’s PCjr. The Arch Deluxe. The Edsel. And now: Burger King’s fries. I wish one could link to the Wall Street Journal; Tuesday’s front page had a big story on the failure of Burger King to dethrone McD’s fries. I now know new terminology: “marriage” is when “two full fry units bond together by one-third of their surface.” Fry units! I’ll never look at them the same way. Garcon? These fry units are having a menage a trois. “Toothpack” is the amount of fry - sorry, fry unit - that remains on the tooth after chewing. The specs for the new fries ran 19 pages, and included the deadly Audible Crunch dictum: there must be a crunching sound for seven chews of each fry unit, or the fry unit isn’t correctly cooked. Seven chews? For God’s sake, you’d have to make them out of Fiestaware.

I wonder how most people arrange their MP3s. Album? Artist? Title? I always use shuffle play, so I never know what’s coming, but it’s interesting to scroll through the collection in alphabetical order. I find I have five versions of the instrumental “Caravan.” Nearly all are bad, but the Brian Setzer version is great; he plays like he’s using a woodburning tool for his pick. (Whoa: there’s something I’ve not thought about in a few decades: woodburning. It was quite the rage for a while; you’d get a chunk of wood, plug in your woodburner, and . . . draw on the wood, I guess. Everyone was doing it for a while. Then we all moved on to embossing leather. I’m not kidding. These were the entertainment options before computers, and each was pushed by the same store: a chain of craft shops called “Tandy’s.” Wonder whatever became of them.) One version of “Moon River,” not my favorite song, but this version is from an Ultra-Lounge collection and is one of the most horrifying arrangements I’ve heard - Herb Alpert trumpets with that Dating-Game / Pepsi-Generation beat they used in commercials in the late 60s. I keep it around to put me in the mood when I’m working with material from that era.

Anyway - alphabetical listings give you a revealing take on the nature of your collection. I have:

The Darktown Strutter’s Ball (Benny Goodman)
The Deportees Club (Elvis Costello)
The Dirty Boogie (Brian Setzer)
The Donkey Serenade (Radio Days soundtrack)
The Donna Reed Show (TV soundtracks)

When the Costello tune came out, I was living at 718 4th street, across from Ralph & Jerry’s; I played the album on a Technics turntable which sat on collegiate furniture: particle boards on cement bricks. It was spring. The album sucked. The Donkey Serenade I listened to at 2880 Irving in Uptown; I got the album free - review copy - and listened to it while I wrote my first novel. The windows were down. It was summer; the trains came through at eleven PM. Smoking & writing & jazz & cold beer, with a day at the beach ahead: it would have been heaven if I hadn’t been so lonely. But it was heaven nevertheless, and I knew it.

Most of the songs on my playlist (1938 at last count) have this sort of connection. The last song I added to the list - a Shonen Knife tune - has a link that’s woodburned into my brain: watching Cartoon Network at 3 AM with my new baby asleep on my chest.

Since some people enter the site via the Bleat, you might be completely unaware there’s a new useful daily menu page right to the left of this one. (I still think of the site as a fairly linear project - chapters, pages, covers. So the index page is to the left, towards the front of the book. Odd. I wonder how much this sort of thinking limits the site, keeps it from being as Modern as it could Possibly Be.

Anyway: the index2.html page has the full menu for the site, including a little bar on the right that I’m experimenting with - it has update news, useless comments, links off the site (gasp.) and other krep. Use it, pls. For example - today there’s a link to two new old ads. Go there! I command you!

That’s where you’ll find the email link so you can tell me that Tandy’s turned into Radio Shack.

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Baby’s got a cold. Or so we think. As with every other aspect of this adventure, this is a new one. Naturally I want to check on her every ten seconds, but there’s never any consolation in that - okay, well, she’s breathing now, but what happens when I leave the room? I’ll check in a minute. . .but I don’t hear any noise . . . I’d better check now. She’s fine. Okay, relax . . . how long since I last checked?

By the third baby, people tell me, you just smear Vicks on the wall and let ‘em snortle, but this isn’t the third.

I’d better go check.

Just stepped into the room - she moved her head, and I backed out: dang. Woke her up. Good! She’s breathing! Bad! She’s awake!

Awful day, really. Just . . .annoying. The house was full of workmen all morning, busily impoverishing me at the usual rates. First, the Tub Reglazers, come to restore a lustrous porcelain finish to our scratched & battered tub. They came first thing in the morning. I don’t believe in the very concept of “first thing in the morning.” I’m a “third thing in the afternoon” fellow. So I got up early, went to take a shower - and confronted the new plumbing that had been installed the previous day. In my decaf state, I had no idea how to work it. Couldn’t find the way to activate the shower. Knelt down in the tub as though submitting to the headsman’s axe, took a spout-shower. Discovered how to turn the shower on; pulled the nozzle - felt a few cold drops from above, heard a death-rattle from the pipes, and instantly pushed the nozzle back in. I knew what was coming: frigid Niagara on the back. No thanks.

The tub reglazers worked all morning, made a horrible stench of the place - the fans are still running - and while they labored, another plumber in the kitchen did some drain repair. I sat in my room, barely awake, sipping useless coffee, scanning and staring at the screen. Too tired to write. I’d worked late and had a bad night sleeping; kept waking up for no reason, and found myself staring at the wall having nice dank bouts of existential dread. The entire day was a wash until I took a nap. Then the day began. Everything else had just been a bright annoyance.

Out of bed, off to the pub. It was quiz bowl night at Kieran’s Pub; we were the defending team. Seventeen teams tonight; the place was packed. My proudest moment: identifying the Speed Racer theme in three notes. Most humiliating moment: mistranslating the Latin for “ours” as “north.” (The subject matter ranges far and wide.) We came in second, which earned us each a bottle of wine. I drank coffee all night - except for the half-time Guinness; mmmmm mmm. Back home. Take out trash. Consult with wife about snortly Gnat. Played one bout of Q3, pausing every frag to check on Gnat; I could just see the headlines: BABY SNEEZES HERSELF INTO COMA WHILE DAD PLAYS GAME. Now I have to scan some art for a story Yahoo Internet Life mag is doing on the site. Yes, another site. Yahoo has been very nice to me.

Much more Bleatage tomorrow. Now I’m beat. Bed - with one ear open, of course. All night long.

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Notes from the last week of free unlimited movie channels:

Watched “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” the other night; I was babysitting Gnat for a while, flipping through the cable stations, and came across the movie just as it began. I’ve heard all these marvelous things about it for all these many years - ah, Audrey Hepburn at her most beguiling! A delightful piece of froth and wit, romantic, sophisticated, and oh-so-droll!

I hated it. Well, no. Not all of it. You can’t hate Audrey Hepburn in any role; she’s just adorable, although she has that Callista-Flockhart fragility I don’t find appealing; you’re always afraid you’re going to break something. But the movie isn’t funny; it isn’t particularly well-directed, it contains an alarmingly racist performance by Mickey Rooney as an ah-so-velly-good buck-tooth thickly-bespectacled Oriental (the pre-show presenter described the performance, charitably, as “outrageous.”) But most of all it’s dishonest. It pretends that Holly isn’t a hooker, which she obviously is - unless she’s one of those curious movie hookers who get paid for sitting with men while they get drunk. (See also “Butterfield 8.”) George Peppard spends the entire movie standing around, or, for variety, leaning against something, and he's photographed through gauzy filters I haven’t seen since I snuck a look at Penthouse in junior high. Holly, it should be noted, regards George Peppard as a brother-figure throughout the movie, which should warn him that he’s never getting to first base with this one.) Peppard’s character is a kept man who has sex with a woman, yes, but it’s the exceptionally mannish Patricia O’Neal. (To confuse matters even more, she’s an interior decorator.

f you reverse the sex of all the main characters and take away the happy ending, the story makes sense. You can’t say that about many things. All I know is that Truman Capote wrote it, and the whole notion of a Sensitive Southern Soul running away to New York ought to tip everyone off: this is him. He's Holly. At least as filmed. The book is another matter entirely, as I later learned; I bought it after I saw the movie and read the short story, and after three or four pages I'd forgotten Audrey Hepburn's portrayal completely. The original story is much harsher, much more compelling. It's always a surprise to recall how good a writer he was - when I grew up he was just this alcoholic helium-voiced troll on the Johnny Carson show; the first time I read "In Cold Blood" I was astonished. Huge talent, largely squandered.

Then came “Everyone Says I Love You,” by Woody Allen, which I watched for 7 minutes before developing a dense, hot, intense & unslakable loathing for the entire movie. Was it the conceit of having “Regular” people sing off key? Was it Alan Alda? Was it Allen’s facile politics, his dialogue that sounds as melodious as trash-can lids banging together in 7/4 time? All that - and so much more.

Then I watched “Car Wash.” It’s ten times the movie “Breakfast” is. I’m serious.I remember seeing it when it came out - everyone did; it was the movie to see, because all the serious critics ridiculed it. And you can see why - it’s a mess. It trades on cheap sentiment, favors the pat conclusion, employs broad stereotypes instead of developing characters. But I absolutely enjoyed every minute. Granted, it was the middle of the afternoon, I was babysitting, and half the time I was looking at the big nifty classic LA coffee shop sign in the background. It’s schlock, yes, but it’s generous schlock. It's loose, silly, and - this is important - it loves each and every one one of its characters. It was also a mass-market picture aimed at both black and white audiences - while the cast & culture was predominately black, it had characters of all races; it represented the notions of “Diversity” and “Tolerance” before those words became marching orders handed down from on high and drained the fun out of everything. The demographic hadn’t completely fractured yet. It played in Fargo. Everyone laughed.

Not at Franklin Ajaye, though: that Fly bit is as stupid now as then.

Then - not on the same night, of course - I watched “Them!” The finest 50s B&W giant mutated insect movie of them all, and no, that’s not a particularly small category. I see the movie every other year; whenever I stumble across it, I sit down for the duration. But thanks to the Wisdom of TiVo, it was cued up & ready from frame one, so I could enjoy it in simulated widescreen goodness. (I’m so used to simulated widescreen pictures that regular TV, to say nothing of actual reality, is starting to look abnormally thin.)This time I caught a few things I’d never noticed before, such as Leonard Nimoy’s small role. Or so I thought. I see this guy walks up to a teletype machine, and I think instantly: Spock. Even though he’s about 16, and we only see him in one-quarter profile. Could it be? I wondered. And if so, why have I never put this together before? When I was a kid, this was my favorite scary movie, and Star Trek was my favorite show. How did I never make the connection?

Simple: the scene was always cut for commercials. I checked the imdb today, and sure enough: it’s him.

Finally: Zardoz
. I watched it over several nights, studying it from all angles. It’s quite a lovely movie, and perhaps one of the most tiresome & pretentious movies of the genre and era. Which is saying a lot. Every damn sci-fi movie of the time was determined to show how Important and Deep it was, and this was accomplished in true 70s style: by beinga windy, incomprehensible chunk of emotional depressant. If the audience went away happy, the director had failed. As it stands, the only thing I really learned from the movie was that Sean Connery, at one time, believed that running around in day-glo diaper would be good for his career, and that the director, John Boorman, liked women with small breasts. Perhaps they thought that would get them a milder rating with the censors. Well, yes, all the women are nude, but it’s not as if they’re large breasts.

I will give Mr. Boorman high marks for the floating stone-head that vomits guns, though. “Zardoz” just makes you realize that there aren’t enough gun-vomiting stone heads in movies nowadays.

Finally: Wing Commander. Plot: Freddie Prinze rescues a car battery from hairy Cyclons. Review: no.

Enough movies: back to The Book. Let’s all struggle with your Bleater as he moves one page at a time through “From Dawn to Decadence” by Jacques Barzun. Today: page 15. Tomorrow: page 20, or bust!