This of course: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vVjpoKEwjU Actually I wanted the Bessie Smith version because she’s a famous gay american (communist, one of us, one of us!*) but couldn’t find it on youtube. All the lyrics are worth making good note of, its such a brilliant song. And yes, although not directly about intra-US migration, you can definitely infer. “I get full of good liquor, walk the streets all night”- she’s definitely not one to stick around.
I walked left out of the door this morning, and left again down Columbus Avenue and within less than five minutes had fallen at least a third in love with this beautiful black woman walking along in front of me. She was incredibly well-dressed: high waisted 3/4 lengths, a knotted top and pumps with all her hair tied up in this turbanesque thing. She looked like a 1950s advert. As she walked along she let out this incredible stream of words, projecting her voice so you could’ve heard across the road what she was saying and not obviously directing them at anyone. (I did check for earphones.)
“Yes,well for sure the Black Panthers are my brothers and sisters” was where she was at in her speech when I turned in behind her “and I’m them and they’re me, and you know we’re all really just them because well, because its obvious, but see the thing is they call me the Pink Panther these days. Yeah, that’s right, because I got style. I’m not saying the Black Panthers didn’t have style, I mean everything got style, it was just the wrong style. I mean I can swing, that’s why I’m the Pink Panther, you see. See its all about the look of a thing, right, and not just look as in like a book cover or something, but look as in all the pages and all the words and the way they sound when they come from your mouth. That kind of look. That’s style, that’s look, that’s what I got. And that’s why borders aren’t ever going to work. I mean, that’s why they’re all going to crumble. Soon, yes.” She pointed at a piece of railing for emphasis.”They all just got look like in the covers, and not look like words. You know I’m right.”
We passed two policemen and at this point she stopped and said good morning to them. “There’s a broken lift in those flats back there.” She paused but they didn’t respond.”Didn’t you hear me?” she continued “there’s an old lady at the bottom who can’t get to the top. She might have been waiting there for hours, hmpph, and you don’t even want to give me the time of day.”
At this point she turned into a side-street, and I decided it would be really creepy to follow her so carried on to the subway.
I’ve tried to transcribe as best as possible, but given the velocity at which she was speaking, and the fact that I could only write them down afterwards, you’ll just have to trust me that the effect was incredible. Despite everything I believe so strongly in about mental health and all that goes with it, I couldn’t help wondering, is she a crazy person or not? I’m not sure what would count as evidence either way. Her speech at some points made brilliant sense, but the context was all wrong (like the person who comes up to you at a bus stop and says Histrionicus Histrionicus Histrionicus.) Or maybe I just didn’t understand the context. Maybe this is the socially acceptable way of relating to the world in the States.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to go into a Foucauldian rant about the socially constructed nature of mental illness. Instead I’m going to tell you about my day.
I wandered around the bit of Manhattan below central park for most of the morning.Here are my conlusions: The Empire state building is ugly, the Rockefeller centre is ugly, broadway looks like it is a set for a budget movie (made even worse by the fact there was a market there, so you had the soaring skyscraper backdrop painted on, with a few stalls on the actual stage), The Chrysler building is ugly, Times Square is ugly, Grand Central Station is alright in a kitsch kind of way. I took a train to Scarsdale, 45 minutes north of Manhattan, because someone said it was the perfect example of American Suburbia. I know its a slightly odd way to spend an afternoon in one of the greatest capital cities in the world, but (in case you haven’t met me- this is for you, guy reading in Brazil) most of the fiction I love is of the bleak American suburbia type. I could give you a reading list, but you’ve probably all been subject to it already. I particularly wanted to go and see some New York suburbs because, wait, did I mention that I’m really into Richard Yates?
And this is where the Wild Women thing comes in. If I’m honest probably part of the reason why I love all those novelists is that the women have a lousy time. Alright, so Betty Friedan is probably a bit of a homophobe, but the “Feminine Mystique” is still a brilliant book. It describes at length the impossibility of living a fulfilling, flourishing even noticeably human life as a 1950s housewife. “The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning [that is, a longing] that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban [house]wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries … she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — ‘Is this all?”
If these women, like their dissatisfied male counterparts, did take to the road, it is undocumented. Mostly in literature they stay put. Or- like April- try and fail to escape. In fact the only one I can think of who manages to get away from suburban hell, Laura Brown from the Hours, pays for it by badly screwing up her son.
Unlike the A-train which jolts, but stays straight on the track, and thus doesn’t make you queasy, the Metro-North rolled its hips all the way there, but Scarsdale was as terrifying as promised. Loads of beautiful big detached houses set back into front lawns cut in stripes. It was completely deserted. My skill with words is not sufficient to describe just how awful it is, but walking through it felt like what I imagine purgatory would be like- everything had this strange dreamlike quality, and I could see myself running and running through streets, screaming and screaming for ever, and never seeing anyone, just more and more identical, gently turning roads. Not escaping from something chasing me, or anything dealable-with like that, just trying to get out. Maybe I only feel like this in retrospect because I managed to get lost, and couldn’t find anyone to ask the way back to the Station. By this point I felt like all colour had been soaked out of my skin, and I was just wandering round as a shell of a human being, who’d somehow lost everything behind my skin (which had set hard) and that all my innards had been replaced with excruciatingly heavy air.
Before I got lost, I wandered into this graveyard. (Maybe that’s what I should have done my project on- I really love graveyards, and I wouldn’t have had to talk to anyone. Obviously.) This also felt like something out of a bad film set- I just couldn’t emotionally get behind the idea that there was actual dead people buried under that perfect grass, and the gravestones were laid way too far apart to be credible.
(In fact, forget Pathfinders, I could definitely have a job designing Graveyards for films. Its probably pretty hard, you both want them to fulfil the narrative purpose- have things jump out from them, provide a comic moment, give an occasion for character development as the protagonist confronts the enormity of his loss, be a great way to engineer a meet-cute (Harold and Maude, I’m looking at you)- but also look like a real graveyard. This one was good at the first- brooding young character sees afresh the futility of the American dream- but not so good at the second.
Also, half the graves had American flags. Max, your country is just wrong about things.
I left the Graveyard by the main entrance (I’d come in through a side door). The sign by the gate said:
St James the Less.
When I got back into Harlem (and out of the air-conditioned train- god I HATE air-conditioning, its so vampiric) things immediately got better. It was as noisy as ever, and walked around the Harlem Meer in Central Park and people-watched.