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Detritus

Something substantial fell into place for me yesterday at the main
branch of the New York Library. I was supposed to be there digging up
curricula on day-care related issues and having little luck when I came
across a book about Tibor Kalman on one of the reshelving hand-trucks. I
don’t know much about Kalman, but they did a fervent dedication to him in
Adbusters a while ago… I gather he was some advertising and art
muckittymuck. I’m surprised the book even caught my attention; somehow I
recognized that the portrait on the cover was ol’ Tibor, even though I’ve
seen the guy’s face maybe once before. How’s that for the power of images.

Anyway, one of the first things I turn to when I open the book is the
cover of a Talking Heads album. It felt like fate. I shouldn’t have been
in the library, shouldn’t have been browsing through art books, and here
was some John Cage spear of fated resonance pushing through the daily
noise to underscore what I always suspect: there is a conspiracy out there
of truths and people doing good work.

David Byrne was an important figure in my childhood. True Stories and
Strange Ritual and The Forest are the question mark in my inquiries about
culture. The only reason I might have doubted there was a link between him
and the culture jammers is that what I know of his work isn’t openly
political.

So I’m listening to Stop Making Sense now. I have the dictaphone from
my mother’s days at USC plugged into my computer speakers. The sound only
channels through one, but it is clear.

* * * * *

A stupid haiku:

You think: nothing can

redeem New York City from

its dirt people heat,

then out come the fireflies.

* * * * *

Interesting incident at work: Today in the lunch room there was a
larger group of clients than usual, having a more spirited conversation
than usual. (The usual: something on the order of “I can’t take it no
more,” pronounced in a heartbreaking monotone, followed by an agreeing
silence.) As I went through to nuke my lunch, one of them was proclaiming,
“And everybody think they got to pluck and shave and all this like the
white people.”

The outrage with which this statement was delivered caught my
attention, and made me smile inadvertently. I spend many days watching the
parade of black women coming through with amazing hairdos, spirals and
fans, edifices to rival anything in Rome… I start to wonder how much it
cost these women who need food stamps (I don’t begrudge them
self-expression, but for me food comes before social signifiers), and also
what a lifetime of hair chemicals will do to you.

And I remember what I read in– I think it was– the Autobiography of
Malcolm X, where he talked about how the black men would “conk” their
hair, straighten it out to make it look like white folks’, and how he
thought that was a shame. I do too, coming from a family where I was
encouraged not to worry about the ways my body was deviating from the
norm. It made me happy to hear one of these often dispirited women saying
that. I looked around the bunch to see who was saying this, and identified
the source: a brightly-dressed Jamaican woman in the center of them all.

I left; and came back; and the same woman was saying something, even
louder, on the order of “The white folks came to this country and stole
everything”… again bringing out my perverse smile. I hung around for a
second to see how the group reacted, feeling they must think me strange
for taking this slander with a big dopey grin on my face. (well, here’s
their introduction to Liberal White Guilt–)

Later, I ran into them in the hall. The Jamaican woman started to
apologize. “Honey, we didn’t mean all white people,” she began,
putting her arm around me. I tried to explain to her why I’d been smiling,
but a large blunt woman to my left cut me off.

“What’s it like to be white?” she asked.

Before I could tackle the question seriously, the women exploded into
discussion.

“Don’t ask her that! That’s not something you can answer in a few minutes.”

“Where you from?” (Meaning where were my ancestors from.)

“Can you do an Irish accent for me? I love that accent!”

“Well,” I said, pulling myself from the wreck of my explanation,
“what’s it like to be black?”

All this in open earnest– no challenge that I could see, just a lot of
interest. I’ve never been through anything like it. In less than five
minutes we talked about cosmetics and piercings (which the blunt woman had
in abundance, apparently the fuse for the Jamaican woman’s tirade),
accents, and the very root of it: what it meant to be black and to be
white. A few minutes wasn’t enough. I suggested I’d join them for lunch
tomorrow.

Further bulletins as events warrant :)

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