Friday, October 29, 2010

Caroline Jaffe remembered

It's been one year, almost to the day, since my dear friend Caroline Jaffe, better known as CJ, passed away, at the age of 67, after a short and brutal fight with cancer. I haven't, admittedly, given her a great deal of waking thought recently, but she's appeared in my dreams a number of times these last weeks--the subconscious is adept at addressing our lapses. For those that never knew her, Caroline Jaffe was a secret legend, a supremely original singer and songwriter who held court Sunday evening's at Chicago's Gallery Cabaret. In my clumsy eulogy, written the day after CJ died and posted on this blog, I described her as one of the greatest performers of modern times. Her residency at the Gallery was on a par with Hugo Ball at the Cabaret Voltaire, the Marx Brothers in their early vaudeville days, Lenny Bruce at the Hungry i, Bob Dylan at the Gaslight, the Ramones at CBGB's, Chicago's unheralded Nightwatch at the relentlessly seedy Lakeview Lounge. CJ was also, in a thousand ways, a divine comedian, a fountain of light, a cosmic hummingbird, a prophet of the sublime, a staunch naturist, the equine spirit incarnate. This didn't seem overstated then, and it doesn't seem overstated now. CJ was absolutely one of a kind.

A couple of weeks ago, while working the beet harvest in North Dakota, I had occasion to talk to my friend Bill about CJ. Bill and I were having a bit of a heart-to-heart on love and death--his uncle had just passed away the night before. I hadn't discussed CJ in a long time, and I was fairly drunk. A year since her death, the story of my friendship with CJ seemed suddenly surreal. I'd seen her play a number of times at the Gallery, but it wasn't until my birthday, in the summer of 2009, that we properly met. My friend Yony arranged for us to visit CJ at her home in Hammond, Indiana--I'd been dying to interview her. So many of her songs were about riding horses, we'd somehow concluded that she lived on a horse-farm. In fact, she lived in a somewhat squalid basement unit underneath her old friend Texas Fred, with five cats for company. We shared a magical afternoon, drinking wine and smoking weed as she shared her life story, no-holds-barred, with me and my tape recorder. She was in high spirits that day, though she complained of persistent aches and pains and thought it might be time to see a doctor--she was uninsured, and had been putting it off. What I really need is to get into a swimming pool, she speculated. She told me about her family's history of cancer, and seemed to think she'd beaten the odds by means of prodigious pot-smoking--recent research, she said, suggested marijuana's cancer-blocking properties.

Two days later she could barely move, and Texas Fred dragged her to the hospital. She underwent some tests, and was diagnosed with stage four cancer that was already spreading throughout her body. She was given months to live.

The next couple of weeks, miraculously, CJ continued performing at the Gallery. She was frail, and had to be led up to the piano on a walker, but once she sat down there on her lucky stool and began to play she was transcendent. She played the regular Sunday-night open mic, closing out the evening around two with a triumphant set of rarely-played songs and a totally rapt audience. The next night she was back, in her trademark red hat, for her monthly Monday-night showcase, and Yony was on hand to film her. She played beautifully, but there were only about five people in attendance, and she was clearly exhausted. It was one of the most poignant performances I've ever seen. She was back the next couple of Sundays as well, sitting in a chair outside the Gallery and smoking weed with a gaggle of admirers and well-wishers. She smiled and sang and laughed her raspy, raucous laugh, and talked about beating the cancer. Her last night at the Gallery, I signed up for the open-mic and performed several of CJ's songs that I had learned that week. When I finished, CJ was weeping.

Then she was back in the hospital. Yony and I went a couple of times to visit her, bringing along, at her request, trays of pot brownies. She told us, conspiratorially, that she was sharing them with the nurses. She continued to sing songs into my tape recorder--songs from her "vault" that otherwise would never be heard again. CJ had already designated me her official biographer (and introduced me as such to the nursing staff), and now she began charging me with an even more monumental task. You, she said, are going to keep my music alive.

Bill interjected at this point in the story. I know where this is going, he said. You fell in love. He was more or less right, aside from the vague, Harold-and-Maude-type sexual connotations that his tone suggested. My relationship with CJ had progressed with alarming speed. We talked on the phone every few days, and one day she told me, rather out of the blue, I love you. I love you too, I answered, without a moment's thought, realizing as I said it how deeply I meant it.

Some of CJ's longtime friends--Texas Fred and his wife, their daughter, and CJ's old horse-riding companion, a sweet, suburban tranny named Joanie--seemed at first suspicious of me and my intentions. Who was this kid swooping in out of nowhere, doing all these interviews, learning CJ's songs? But as weeks went by, they opened up to Yony and I. CJ was in and out of the hospital, and in September she came back home. While she was glad to be back home with her cats, CJ's house was dangerously dilapidated--one night she slipped and fell on a pile of garbage leading to her bathroom, and had to scream until Texas Fred came and picked her up. Her bed was covered in a mountain of old newspapers and cat shit, and she had been sleeping in a chair in front of the TV. Yony and I paid a couple of excruciating visits, trying to help clean the place up. CJ was in-and-out, at moments eerily lucid and at others lost to some distant realm of pain and death.

The last time I saw CJ she was back in the hospital. Joanie was there as well, feeding her and singing by her bedside. CJ looked better than she had in some time--there was color in her face, and she was cracking jokes. I held her hand and she told me I was like a son to her. CJ had in fact had a son once, at the age of 15, who she put up for adoption and never saw or heard from again. Now she could imagine, on her deathbed, that her son had returned at last.

I got a voicemail from Texas Fred a few days later. He reported the news in his typically blunt fashion. Liam, this is Fred. CJ's dead. Click. I was at work when I got the message. I went and hid in the bathroom--I think I cried, but I don't remember. I'd known for months that CJ was dying, but there was a yawning chasm between dying and dead.

That week, CJ was featured in the Chicago Reader's Secret History of Chicago Music comic. It was as close as she'd ever come to the fame and glory she so longed for, but she wasn't around to see it. Then there was a hastily-planned memorial night at the Gallery. Her portrait was up on stage, and her stool and red hat, but other than that it was almost just a typical night at the Gallery. There was a bit of eulogizing, and a lot of drinking, but I was the only one who played any of CJ's songs. It was pretty depressing, actually, and I left early.

I haven't been back to the Gallery Cabaret since. A few weeks later Texas Fred called me and left a bitter-sounding message. I guess CJ was the only one that you guys cared about, he said, and hung up. It wasn't true--I actually liked Texas Fred a great deal. But going back to the Gallery would have been painful, and pointless.

In the year since CJ died, I've been basically derelict in my duties. I've done little, I admit, to keep the music alive. I did put together a sort of best-of CD, which I mailed off to some record labels along with a little press packet, but only one label showed any interest, and their interest eventually tapered off. Bill told me I should be easy on myself--I couldn't enslave myself to CJ's memory, after all, I had my own life to live. Which I suppose is true. But the fact is that I get pleasure out of sharing CJ's music. It's not as if it's a burden.

So, then, here are a couple of videos of CJ playing at the Gallery Cabaret, filmed by Yony Leyser in August of 2009--if you look at her hands you can see her hospital bracelets. I hope you find as much magic in these performances as I do.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Sugar Mountain: Week Three

The sugar-beet harvest eases into its third week. During our four days of heat-related shutdowns, we lose one of our crew to over-partying; a notorious heavy drinker, he started puking blood and had to be hospitalized. Someone goes into his tent and finds a half-gallon of vodka and a bottle of disturbingly brown piss. It's a sad situation, but there's little time to reflect--Tuesday we're called back into work. Back out on the piler things have mellowed considerably. Tweedledee, with his endless, nonsensical blathering, has been moved to a different piler, leaving only his cousin Tweedledum. Tweedledum proves a bounteous source of comic relief. Waddling around like an overweight child, chainsmoking grape-flavored Swisher Sweets, Tweedledum radiates feeble-mindedness. "Man, I like hot dogs," he'll state, apropos of nothing, and suddenly he's off on a half-hour discourse on hot dogs, half of which I can't make out over the noise of the machine. I stand there and nod, with the feeling that I'm peering into brand new circle of Hell. He has difficulty with the communications system we've set up for cross-piler number-exchanging, which calls for counting out with one's fingers, a talent just beyond his reach.

The workload has lightened--fewer trucks are coming through. Borrowing an idea from my friend Luke, who works on the next piler over, I get a pair of headphones and some books on tape from the local library: audio from the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates and a tape of Merle Haggard reading from his autobiography, My House of Memories. It's good entertainment, makes the time pass. My hours with Merle Haggard are oddly intimate. He comes off as a bit of a smug asshole, as he recounts his numerous divorces and career highlights (with particular attention paid to his encounters with presidents Nixon and Reagan) but his reading-voice is strangely soothing. I'm almost able to fall into the rhythm of the 12-hour shift. We allow ourselves increasingly long lunch-breaks. As the harvest begins to come to a close, a certain mania seems to take hold around Minn-Dak. Our piler-operators sit up in their booth chugging bottle after bottle of 5-hour energy shots and fucking around; they remind us not to work too much, because who gives a fuck? As night falls the factory takes on a psychedelic quality, a nocturnal blurring of reality. Watching trillions of sugar-beets tumble interminably into the pile lends a special warpage to the fabric of time and space. I allot myself a strict one cigarette per hour, in a pointless attempt at time-structuring.

Word starts to come down that the harvest is wrapping up, but there are only wildly speculative rumors as to when exactly we'll be finished--some say definitely Sunday, while others swear Wednesday. Our boss, an alarmingly-upbeat workhorse named Paul, comes around to Luke's piler with a cryptic message. "No matter what, you'll get paid for Sunday," he promises, before picking up a beet and accidentally (?)lobbing it through the operator's-booth window, effectively opening up the harvest's final, hedonistic chapter. After-hours revelry is jacked up considerably back at the camp. Heavy metal blares continuously. Everybody is talking about what they're going to do with their beet money. The punks are scattering once again across the map, some to Minneapolis and Pittsburgh, some to Kansas City or Virginia. After our last, short shift at Minn-Dak we rush to the liquor store and buy up massive quantities of strong stuff. Then there's a bit of blur--some games of pool at the Sportsman's Lounge, someone stomping through the park around sunrise, blasting away on a clarinet...

The last night in camp I'm able to pin down Luke for an interview, which we conduct down by the river. I've been meaning to interview a bunch of the punks, make some sort of Human Interest story out of it, but it never quite feels right. It feels too artificial, as if my time at beets was some exercise in immersion journalism. Still, I'm curious what people have to say about the harvest. Luke has been working beets longer than just about anyone here--this is his seventh year. He's a quiet young man with a mischievous grin. He doesn't really partake in any of the camp infighting (as in any group there are meaningless divisions, and my camp under the pavilion has a punk reputation, whereas the camp inside the Chateau is dismissed as a bunch of PC artfags), preferring to lay low and practice his tuba. I'll try to get to the interview in a later post--as a seven-year veteran, Luke has some insightful things to say about the beet harvest and its unusual workforce. And then in the morning, we strike camp, rich men and rich women.

Some pictures--
Welles Memorial Park:

Wahpeton's main drag:
Our island home:

On the piler:

In the tare shack:
Tare shack graffiti:
Ian in the bobcat:
Piler abstraction:
Ian in the tare shack:
View from sugar mountain: 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sugar Mountain, Week Two

Twelve days in, the sugar-beet campaign drags on. Today is our third consecutive day off, due to heat shutdowns--the super-sensitive beets can't be pulled above 65 degrees, and the weather here has been in the absurdly unseasonable mid-80s. So we've been lounging around Welles Memorial Park, working on our October suntans, drinking heavily, entertaining visitors. As Wahpeton's resident freaks, we play host to a variety of gawking locals. Some just blow through in their pickup trucks, kicking up clouds of vaguely insulting dust. Others come to hang out. There's Clyde, who comes by with bottles of home-brewed apple cider; Terry, a self-professed "wild woman" who works at one of Minn-Dak's weigh stations--she comes by and sits around the fire, packing bowls and bragging of her days as a lot-lizard ("Back then, they called us commercial beavers," she confides, to everyone's amusement); there are a couple of 13 year-old kids who roll through on their dirt-bikes, trying to hang tough--they claim to know where to get K2, a synthetic cannabinoid made illegal just this year in North Dakota, but betray their innocence in a thousand little ways. "You guys sure have used a lot of beer," one of the boys comments, taking in the spread of empties. Indeed we have, and the beer usage shows no signs of abating.

Then there are our latest visitors, a gaggle of punks who are working the sugar-beet harvest at Renville, in southern Minnesota. I wouldn't go so far as to call them rival beet-harvesters, but they are definitely a different brand. Renville is known for being uber-punk; they enjoy none of the bourgeois luxuries (shelter, electricity, running  water) that we have here in Wahpeton. In Renville, they just camp out in the middle of a cornfield, in a small copse of trees, amid their own piss and shit. Stories of their drug-fueled exploits abound. Their visit to Wahpeton is a purportedly peaceful one, but they do roll up kind of hard. "So," one of their guys says to one of our guys, with a slight sneer; "I heard there were some punks around here." Another guy kicks over a garbage can. Despite the patent absurdity of an inter-campaign rivalry, it's hard to hold it against them--they're having the same heat shutdowns over in Renville, and are just as bored; might as well come over to Wahpeton and stir up some shit. 

But despite the enforced idleness, it's hard to complain. It's Indian Summer here, we've got a great, diverse crew--punks, metalheads, skaters, potheads, a couple of tuba players, a former youtube sensation, and some very sweet and friendly dogs--and everybody just got paid. The life of a migrant agricultural worker needn't be all dust, privation and Grapes-of-Wrath-style suffering; morale here remains high--there was even a dance party last night, though I confess to having slept through it. And the weather is looking good for this next week, beet-wise; soon enough we'll be back on the pilers, earning those good Minn-Dak wages.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Sugar Mountain

It's been a little while since I posted--I am off in scenic Wahpeton, North Dakota, working the sugar-beet harvest and keeping quite busy. It's been fascinating, if a bit grueling, and I'll tell you all about it, but first a bit of background. The humble sugar beet is grown on several continents, and accounts for 30% of the world's sugar production. The US is a major producer of these bulbous, ugly things, and the Upper Midwest is one of three regions where sugar beets are grown--last year, North Dakota alone generated 4.8 million tons. At some point in the last decade (the actual origin seems shrouded in mystery) word started spreading through the punk subculture of high-paying, temporary harvest jobs at sugar-beet plants like Crystal Sugar in Grand Forks, MN and Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton--even the orneriest, most unemployable punk kid could show up, work his ass off for a couple of weeks, and walk away with as much as $5,000, at least enough dough to get through the winter. Wahpeton now hosts some thirty or so punks every October, who come from as far as Portland, OR and Miami, FL to work 12-hour shifts at the Minn-Dak factory, for as long as the weather holds out and the beets keep coming in.

Wahpeton is a small enough town that 30 punks and their half-dozen dogs don't exactly acculturate--we stick out like a sore thumb, truth be told, but we're here helping the local economy and the town accomodates us the best it can, letting us camp at the municipal campgrounds just across the Red River in Breckenridge for a nominal $100/week fee. Wahpeton does possess a certain Great Plains charm, with a broad main drag running through town, a VFW Hall advertising Deep Fried Turkey Breast, some old-school barbershops and a vintage fire truck which is brought out for special occasions like the annual Homecoming Parade. A small technical college almost lends the town a slight cosmopolitan air, but this is fundamentally farm-country, and Wahpeton would shrivel up and die if not for the sugar-beets.

Over at Minn-Dak, the harvest campaign runs full-throttle, 24 hours a day, trucks lined up on the access road waiting to dump their beets at one of several pilers, some outdoors and some inside of football-stadium-sized hangars. I'm assigned to piler #6, an indoor piler. There are six guys on my piler crew; two piler operators, who run the hulking machine with its monstrous boom crane, and four tare-takers, of which I am one. Our chief task is to mark off the trucks as they come in, taking randomized samples from their loads which are then tested for sucrose content. Twenty-five pounds of beets come tumbling down a chute and we bag them up and throw them on a trailer. It's a job that an ape could perform, and in fact two of my co-workers are essentially simian in their manner and appearance. We'll call them Tweedledum and Tweedledee, as I don't recall their christian names, and they are a pair of enormously plump buffoons who spend the bulk of their twelve-hour shifts slurping Mountain Dew and bumping pot-bellies. They're basically harmless but plenty obnoxious, and twelve hours with these guys in the close quarters of the tare shack can take a real spiritual toll. The other tare-taker is one of ours, a punk kid named Ian from Minneapolis--he's a stand-up kid, good-natured and hardworking, who gets his kicks zooming around on the Bobcat, and his easygoing presence is almost a spiritual counterweight to the overwhelming crassness of the Mountain Dew twins, who are forever pissing and hocking loogies around the piler, tainting what will become your breakfast cereal with their toxic sputum.  

Easy enough work, but twelve hours is one hell of a stretch in the piler environment, where it's loud, dark, dirty, and rank with diesel fumes. I manage to keep myself passably amused until about eight in the evening, making up songs and playing kick-the-beet, but then true boredom starts to come down and I'm reduced to chain-smoking to make the time pass. At about midnight, the mind is lulled by the eternal tumbling of beets into a state of total idleness, and I can almost just coast until two, when the day-shift comes to relieve us. And then it's back to Welles Memorial Park, where I have a beer around the fire and stumble off to my tent, trying to banish the beets from my mind as I drift into a deep and dreamless slumber. Another week of this, maybe two or three! And then I return to Chicago, where drinks are on me.