Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Goodbye Posso

While I've posted several over the years, for friends, neighbors and the odd public figure, let it be known that I don't especially enjoy writing eulogies. There's something highly discomfiting about aestheticizing death. Nevertheless, I wanted to share a few clumsy thoughts on the passing (a stupid euphemism; he shot himself last week, in the middle of the day, in a downtown Minneapolis office building) of my friend Nate, commonly known by his surname Posso and loved by many.

The requisite disclaimer: I didn't "know" Posso very well, nor can I cast much biographical light on his life; but he was my friend. For the last two Octobers, I worked and lived with him at the sugar beet harvest in Wahpeton, North Dakota. Along with six or seven other itinerant punks, Posso and I shared quarters in a cold, spartan outbuilding, built for the annual county fair and known affectionately as the Chateau. This past year Posso and I were next-door neighbors, I in my pathetic little pup-tent, and Posso, tentless, in a sleeping bag just north of my feet; on more than one chilly night he crawled inside my tent and suggested, half-mockingly, that we cuddle

How can I describe Posso without making him a caricature? Especially when he seemed, at times, intent on making a caricature of himself? I confess that I always thought of him as a bit gnomish; small, slightly hunched, with a thick, sculptural beard and manic, soulful eyes. He'd lost much of an arm in a freight-train accident, a disability which he managed somehow to downplay to the extent that I often forgot it completely, though he frequently asked me to roll him cigarettes. To be honest, I'm not sure how he carried out his taretaker duties, which in my experience required two good arms; I can only conjecture that his considerable (if twisted) charms and caustic humor were enough to endear him to his crew. Posso was hands-down one of the funniest people I have ever met. Not just his back-catalog of dark and offensive jokes--none of which, curses on my porous memory, are coming to me at the moment--but his round-the-clock attitude, the scathing way in which he confronted the world. 

I could say, euphemistically, that Posso 'lived on the margins;' more to the point, and I don't mean it disparagingly, he was a fuck-up--that was the basis for his profound sense of humor. Liquor, drugs, stints in jail, perpetual poverty. He was the only punk in Wahpeton without a tent; he never had his own smokes or booze, and was always cajoling lengthy swigs out of my half-gallon of bottom-shelf vodka. I could rarely refuse him; this last year especially, when I was suffering insane toothaches and headaches and was in a black mood throughout the harvest, Posso's humor was one of the few things that kept me afloat, and sharing my stash seemed the least I could do.

He was an avid, obsessive dice-player, a game which I found incredibly stupid, while acknowledging its value as a time-killer; at any rate, Posso somehow made it fun. I suppose I assumed that Posso, too, was having fun--I certainly wouldn't have thought him suicidally unhappy. I still want to assume that he was having fun; that the bullet he put through himself doesn't negate that fun. He did, it's true, jump ship fairly early on in the harvest; things weren't going well, there was a fight about one of the dogs pissing on his sleeping bag or something, and a few hours later he was gone, back to Minneapolis. His abrupt departure depressed the hell out of me, actually. The Chateau seemed more grim than ever after he left; a day or two later I too bailed. 

Why? is the first question suicide often begs. Why--when he had so much to live for? Somehow, I don't feel very troubled by Posso's wherefores. A friend described Posso to the Minneapolis City Pages as "sad, lost and tired." "He lived in his shoes for the past 15 years," added another. Literally, perhaps--at the beet harvest he seemed to always be sleeping with his shoes on. I can't imagine that sort of life being anything but exhausting, and his decision to end it doesn't seem far-fetched or incomprehensible. Nor, despite all the hearts that are broken over his death, does it strike me as a selfish act. He'd had enough; the kid wanted out. On the other hand, I do wonder why he chose the second floor of a shitty skyscraper as his last vista, or a Thursday morning in January as his final hour; it all seems so arbitrary. 

Posso's numerous friends in Minneapolis have been raising money in his honor--more than $10,000, most of which is being donated to a homeless youth center. Which is wonderful, though I can't help but wonder what Posso might have done with that kind of money while he was alive--some serious partying, at the very least. And while donating money feels like a slightly tacky way to grieve for a friend, the many heartfelt comments on the memorial fund's website do attest to the impact of his life in Minneapolis and beyond. I'm lucky to have met you, Posso. You owe me a drink on the flipside. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Weirder Homes and Gardens

I wanted to share a bit of this delightful and curious book on flower arranging, published in 1942, which I got for a song at the always-overwhelming Newberry Library book sale. I was attracted initially to the often-striking, occasionally gorgeous photographs--heavily-saturated compositions that are almost painterly in their effect--

--and I planned to plunder it for collage material. But a closer look has revealed some surprising dimensions to this otherwise-unassuming volume. The book, to begin with, beautiful as it is, turns out to be an 80-page advertisement for Coca-Cola. Bottles of ice-cold Coke are featured prominently in many of the arrangements, and the reader is frequently reminded of the soft drink's many virtues. Not only is Coca-Cola the perfect centerpiece for a Wistaria-covered balcony-for-two--
 --it's also the refreshment of choice, the author notes, for everyone from defense workers to badminton players. Her 'Coke Party for the Teen-age,' complete with ice-sculptures and shrimp cocktail--
 --promises 'social success' for the young hostess. At any rate, the product placement is anything but subtle. Then came the real surprise. The author's name was eerily familiar, and something about her expression in this frontispiece portrait also nagged at me:
 An internet search confirmed my creeping suspicion: this Coke-shilling society dame was none other than William S. Burroughs' mother! And hang me if there's not a remarkable resemblance:

Now, I'd gathered that Laura Lee Burroughs was something of a square, but this is on a whole 'nuther level. 'There has never been a time when our homes were as dear to us as they are now,' she writes in her sappy introduction. We have become sentimental about them! Later, she presents an elaborate 'Sweet Land of Liberty' display ('For the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Washington's Birthday, or just any day when you feel particularly patriotic, which is practically all the time...') Still, despite the book's inherent WASPishness, and the ickiness of its corporate sponsorship, it's clear that Burroughs' mother had a creative streak, as well as some moxie. William Burroughs was, in 1942, a decade away from completing his first novel, Junky, but he was already a 'troubled young man,' as must have been evident to his mother Laura Lee; he'd severed half a finger over a gay hustler named Jack Anderson, been discharged from the Army due to mental instability, and was working as an exterminator in Chicago. With what grace, then, she is able to pull off this performance of normalcy, standing, as she does in the book, for those great American pillars of Home and Family (not to mention our national beverage, Coca-Cola.) There are so few cracks in her facade. For years, she admits at one point, my flower decorations were a source of annoyance to my family. One can only imagine! But it's there in her photograph, clear as day--that taunting, Burroughs sneer. 

This, volume three, was to be the last; the series had sold in the millions, apparently (it went for a paltry ten cents; one wonders what Burroughs made of his mother's literary success), but wartime concerns and impending modernity were pushing such quaint pastimes as floral arranging aside. I still want to cut the book to pieces, but I'm torn; it's such an odd and loaded artifact that I hesitate to destroy it. 

Note: there's a lengthy article on Laura Lee Burroughs and her 'Homes and Flowers' series here, for the curious.  

Recent Collages

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Season in (Gay) Hell

--"Gay Hell" being a coinage of famous gay-person Rufus Wainright, used to describe his one-time descent into substance abuse and sexual profligacy. Now, my misadventures have got to be pretty damn tame in the grand schema, but after several consecutive nights of Going Out, drinking and dancing and kissing and heavy petting with some very pretty boys, I wake up with an ominously sore throat that can only turn into something worse, and indeed by late in the afternoon I'm curled up in my bed at the Hotel Princess (so gay!) with a very high temperature, boiling sweat and freezing clammily by turns, drifting in + out of a succession of maximum-strength fever dreams--in short, very sick. In my delirium, I am at first convinced that the only explanation can be mononucleosis: the dreaded Kissing Disease! I kissed one too many boys and now I am being severely punished! And how desperate and odious does my filthy little pink-whitewashed hotel room begin to feel: mosquitoes lunging mockingly at any inch of exposed skin, the sickly stupor of the air, and the ambient hotel-sounds which vary from grating to inexplicable--one tenant has some DJ mix on repeat which plays only the two-or-three-second hooks from today's Top Songs, like an insta-vomit version of being at the Gay Club; some other lost soul is standing out in the hallway for over an hour, piteously repeating Lucia... Lucia... Lucia, until Lucia miraculously opens her door and tells him to get bent. Wait, mononucleosis lasts for like a month, right? I can barely muster the strength to walk the five feet over to the toilet. Am I going to be bedridden here in this awful Hotel Princess for weeks on end, paying for my piddling little sins? The only thing that's able to cool my overheated mind is watching the movie Mall Cop, dubbed into spanish on local TV. Even in my dilapidated state, I'm able to comprehend nearly all of the dialogue.

The next day I'm able to consider my situation a bit more lucidly. Who says it has to be mononucleosis--could be anything! I leaf through the Health section of my Mexico guidebook, probably a bad idea; with a painful sore throat and spiking fever, I'm just as easily a candidate for malaria, or the exotic-sounding dengue fever, which is transmitted through mosquito bites--yes, those fuckers have been chomping on me for weeks now, leaving monstrous welts all up my arms and neck. Or, it comes on like a lightbulb, maybe just yr. everyday flu! With the help of some horsepills of aspirin I'm able to sleep through most of the day and night, still too weak to change habitations though the cruelly-named Hotel Princess is becoming ever-more repugnant to me. And then today, the third full day of my mystery illness, I still feel awful but find the strength to pack my bag and change hotels--a few blocks eastward to the Hotel Tuxpan. And just as I get to my new fourth-story room and begin killing bugs, the room about me begins to slide about like a madman. For the first minute I think my fever hallucinations have returned; then the screaming of people out in the street suddenly wakes me up to EARTHQUAKE! The second minute or so I'm just spacing out, like, whoa, dude, an earthquake; and finally I have the presence of mind to evacuate the premises, as everyone else is doing. Out on the street, earth no longer trembling, it's a great chance to meet my new neighbors--this guy named Cholo introduces himself, says he lives in the same hotel, moved down here from SoCal ten years ago to avoid life imprisonment. Says if I need anything, weed, whatever, just holler Cholo. Normally I would, I say. Really. But I'm pretty sick right now. I think I just need to get some more rest. Hopefully I'll be feeling better soon.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Mexico City, Second Impressions

Which, I wonder as I wander, might be considered the Worst Job in Mexico City? Oh, there are miserable occupations anywhere you go, but there seem to be some true bummers here. Pity, por ejemplo, the poor organ-grinder in the streets of El Centro--not just the grinding, which must be hell on the arm, but to have to listen to the same insipid jingle day-in-and-day-out, like driving an ice cream truck but without even any ice cream to sell. Nor, it seems, do they exactly rake it in. Perhaps more profitable is the position of bathroom attendant--some of the busier WCs probably make out quite well at four or five pesos a head--but then there's the fact of having to work in a bathroom all day, not that easy on the soul, I imagine. Or, the young mothers selling marzipan candies in the Metro, so profoundly zoned-out from intoning marzipan-marzipan-marzipan for hours on end that they don't notice their little children playing in rivers of subway-filth? Or maybe, the dozens of poor sacks passing out leaflets for eye exams in the optical sector of downtown, whose leaflets no one wants and whose voices are run-ragged from repeating Examen Gratis to the point of total meaninglessness? I understand feeding your family or putting yourself through school, but I can't imagine there aren't days when these unsung martyrs of the megalopolis wake up and just can't possibly face another ten hours of organ-grinding or marzipan-hawking.
It turns out that the Teatro Coliseo, across the street from my rat's-ass hotel, is not a derelict porno theater as I had assumed, but is in fact one of D.F.'s two lucha libre arenas, with fights every Sunday at five, and with balcony seats going at a mere thirty pesos apiece, attending was a no-thinker. And how excited was I? Very! But the truth is, friends, from my balcony-vantage at least, that lucha libre is a teensy bit boring--just regular "wrestling," with predictable good guys-bad guys scenarios, laboriously-choreographed fight sequences and marginally-sillier costumes than the American breed. Really, the most interesting part was the crowd commentary--I doubt I'll ever hear such colorful variations on the word puta as long as I live, and the fat, shoeless man down the row from me who kept up a persistent chinga-tu-madre whistle throughout the show was the very model of obstinate, brainless raunch. Not even the female wrestlers were spared--in fact the heckling intensified during their segment. But, for all that, I'll probably be back next weekend.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Mexico City, First Impressions

Plaza Garibaldi (not my photo)
My guidebook says that Andre Breton said that Mexico is the Surrealist country par excellence; now, I know zilch about Andre Breton, and even less about Surrealism, but check this: Plaza Garabaldi late on a Friday night, some fifty mariachi bands playing all at the same time, creating such an absurd din as I've never heard in my short life, and a raucous, wasted crowd to match, drinking beer out of what appear to be half-gallon cups, alcohol literally flowing between the flagstones; this young man with a bit of an unholy look in his eye takes off his shirt and starts smashing empty bottles, creating a little mountain of broken glass which he proceeds to lay upon. As I'm the only person paying him the least bit of attention, he waves me over and insists that I stand on his chest, hissing todo, todo when I'm not giving him my full weight. After which he stands up, brushes himself off and walks away. And around two in the morning, when I'm plenty lacquered and thinking of heading back to my dirty hovel of a hotel room, I notice this kid wandering through the crowd electrocuting people. I mean, he's got this device hooked around his neck, with two handgrips attached by wires, and he's giving people what looks like some pretty heavy voltage. Of course, I have to give it a shot, so I sidle over and he kind of grins as he hands me the handgrips. He cranks the thing up pretty damn good, almost to where I can't handle it but not quite, and afterward I think he's going to ask for money but he just smiles and walks away. Then I notice there are actually a bunch of kids walking around with similar devices. So I track down another one, and come on pretty macho as he gives me the reins and starts revving it up. Mas, mas, I keep saying as he cranks it higher and higher--and then it's at the point (past the point!) where I really can't handle it, but the thing is that at that high voltage it's impossible to let go the grips--I'm totally at this kid's mercy, and he just keeps staring at me as I beg him to please cut the juice, and for some reason I'm being seriously electrocuted in the middle of Plaza Garibaldi while fifty mariachi bands play at two in the morning. For this heavy session he charges me ten pesos, but settles for seven.

Or, check this: this afternoon, actually just an hour or two ago, I head over by the Insurgentes metro stop, where there seems to always be something interesting happening, and in fact there's a little blues festival going on, this band of pretty frazzled old Mexican dudes with an incredible woman singer is playing, and of course, what should they dive into as I approach but Sweet Home Chicago. "Esta cancion is sobre mi ciudad," I beam to the blissed-out alcoholic next to me, who gives me a big hi-five. But actually the band is totally righteous, way better than any blues band I've ever seen in Chicago. And then this other band starts playing, and I head across the plaza to dash off a blog post at the internet cafe, and as I'm typing it starts raining, and then it really starts raining, monsoon-strength, and the music cuts out and I peek outside and the tent above the stage has collapsed, and the whole crowd is trapped inside, and then so help me god it starts hailing, hailing like a stone-cold motherfucker, and the whole plaza is covered in a thick blanket of hailstones, right now. I gather this does not happen often here. Actually, I really don't know what does and doesn't happen here but it seems like some rather Surreal things tend to happen here.