Thursday, February 01, 2001

Chitlin’ Circuit

Mix two parts foamy soap opera, one dash crude sitcom, one huge helping of Morality Play, hold it together with pop culture references, R&B love songs, and gospel holy-rollers, and you have the strange hybrid theater experience known as the Chitlin Circuit. The play I saw last Saturday was called DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN. It was the story of an upper class trophy wife, who was left by her attorney husband for her best friend, a ghetto-fabulous tramp. The first act is about her descent into despondency, and the second act is about her revenge and redemption.
It was a very schizophrenic experience. Light-hearted banter and stand-up routine humor competed with melodrama. Characters would break into song at the drop of a hat. The playwright had two roles, a lewd grandfather and an equally lewd great aunt with a penchant for firearms. Both characters served as a kind of secular Greek chorus, to play off the often Biblical underpinnings. The play had its cake and ate it, too. Since at least some of the characters would quote scripture, about standing by your man and so forth, it was able to present the opposite view—a Loreena Bobbit bloodbath with comic panache.
The audience was pure Ricki Lake. Hands waving in the hair, the steady stream of backtalk—it was only a matter of time before someone stood up and made a comment. They were dressed to the nines, hair gelled and lyed into place. They mostly had a wonderful time as each explosive scene unfolded. Many of the jokes were specific to black culture and politics. There was the requisite dig at Jesse Jackson’s current foilibles, an allusion to WHAT’S LOVE GOTTA DO WITH IT, along with numerous others I’m sure I missed.
I was in two frames of mind: anthropological observer, and secret participant. Talk about your guilty pleasures! I felt concerned for my brother’s girlfriend T., the only white girl in the audience. There was some quip made about Brothas leaving Sistahs for white women. But she took it in stride, and seemed to enjoy herself.
As did I: all along, I thought that I hated chitlin’s!


There’s a song on the new Lisa Gerrard/ Pieter Bourke album Duality whose title reflects a period in my life. It’s called “The Circulation of Shadows.” It makes me think of one pushing aside one dark veil, only to reveal another one. It’s a beautiful piece of music, with Gerrard’s serpentine voice soaring through the spare, clean architecture of the synthesized strings. It’s like the pure white stucco boxes of Mediterranean villas against the clear, startling blue of the sky and sea. Her vocals entwine and bind things like a zephyr.
I was looking forward to this working vacation, to San Francisco, with the idea that I would find some solace in the steepness of hills and the balmy-chilly weather. I got on the plane, fingering the pewter rune necklace a friend had given me. In the small dusky-silver circle, the Nordic symbol for Artistic Creativity was engraved, thin less-than sign. This small gift meant a lot to me, on a variety of levels. First, that even in the howling, endless winter, a people used to war and treachery could recognized the spiritual power of art. And secondly, as a gift, it could not have come at a better time. November 1997 had bought on a terrible cloud of unknowing, where I had a crisis of faith, when I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do with my life. I recovered from that time, only to emerge into another crisis: my father suffered a stroke that left him unable to talk, breathe, or swallow. Just the circulation of shadows. So you see, I was sorely in need of some healing.
San Francisco also meant that I would get to see my good friend Mike, whom I hadn’t seen in over 3 years. He’s a very important person in my life, a kind of spiritual brother. I met him 5 years ago, when he was a refugee from California. I answered a weird personal ad he’d put in the paper. We hit it off immediately, with a telepathic bond forming from the get-go. He stands about 6’2, towering over my piddly 5’1. He had that “avant” graduate student look that I find so irresistible. Close-cropped brown hair, the glasses of a 1968 Parisian radical, and outfits carefully created from thrift-stores, that reference a variety of counter-cultures. For instance, his earrings might be ruby-eyed skulls of a Goth-come-lately; a Celtic bracelet of a Wyrm Ouroborous is reminiscent of the urban primitive movement; his hair had the faintest tint of a long-forgotten hair dye in it; a T-shirt would have the logo of an underground band, or maybe a Japanimation character, like Racer X from the “Speedracer” show. He went to the California Institute of the Arts, studied music and the Post-Marxist theories of Foucault, Deleuze, Guttari and Baudrillard. Right now he’s in two bands: his own band Jack’s Loss, which is queer synth-pop with overtones of the Cure overlaid with his dark, quizzical observations, and he plays keyboards and writes music for the ambient-neoclassical band Amber Asylum. He speaks in fragments, struggling with abstractions, fighting to mold them into easier to understand concepts. Back in DC we had many long-dark-night-of-the-soul conversations. I was anxious to see him, to relive that time together. I’d compared our relationship to the one described in Hesse’s novel Demian, with Mike being the eponymous lead, and me being the narrator, Emil Sinclair. The post-modern world was our landscape.
I stayed at Bruce and John’s house in the Castro; they were friends of my brothers’. Their house is fabulous, truly. It sits near the top of one of the hills in a neighborhood of the flashy, ornate Victorian houses known as Painted Ladies. The backyard was a vegetable paradise, a riot of layered, vibrant flora and, at far boundary, a twisted, gnarled witch of a tree. The fauna is provided in the shape of a Balinese cat (imagine a long-haired Siamese, with the same cream-colored fur and chocolate markings).
I met up with Mike on Thursday morning at his apartment, a single-room affair, dominated by CDs, books, and a massage table (his vocation). He explained to me—as gingerly as possible—that his work sometimes crossing the line of legitimacy. I was unclear as to what he meant. He then described the ad that he put in the Bay Area Reporter: Cute White Male provides Swedish, Therapeutic, and Erotic Massage. No more needed to be said.
Then we headed for the circus that was the Haight. Young kids—amalgams of hippie, punk, and goth—pretended to be homeless, as we wove our way through the carnival. The weather was clear and beautifully cool, the first week of really good weather that San Francisco had experienced, since it was under El Ninõ’s dark spell. We ate gourmet crepes, as we discussed capitalism, music and sex. After that I wandered the Haight alone, armed with my portable CD player.
SF is cool, and the area I was in exemplifies this. One store was the giant Amoeba records, which is basically a converted ice-rink. It’s the size of a supermarket, and you can find every CD that you’ve ever dreamed about! I ended up blowing $ 50. The next store I visited was an Anarcho-Syndicalist bookstore. It was zine-heaven. Vegan, Queer, Punk, Leftist, Surrealist, Black, Straight-Edge; you name it, they had it. There was something very ‘70s about the store as well. The clerks were in ratty jeans and South American parkas, with their long hair webbed with grey and receding hairlines. The decor of the store was red carpet, the kind you see in the psychedelic movies of the ‘60s, and walls painted black that was more grey from years of chalk and dust. I expected any moment, for some chick with a mile-high Afro to come walking in, talking about “kill Whitey!” The next store I went to was a Gothic store. It sold velvet dresses, scented candles, and verdigrised gargoyles. The store clerk was dressed in black (of course) and was listening to the soft strains of the Seattle band Faith & Disease. A woman with the elongated face of an El Greco portrait, shuffled a Rider-Waite deck of tarot cards. I ended up at Buena Vista park, overlooking the city. The sky was clear. The healing began.
Over the next few days, I had many adventures with Mike. One night, we went to see a Drag Queen, named Musty Chiffon, perform. “She” sang, in a husky baritone, various songs from the 60s. It was hilarious, seeing her attired in nightmares of Day-Glo polyester, her hair a reddish-purple flip. The show, Paisley for Brains, was liberally spiked with pokes at Yoko Ono and the hippy-dippy love scene. Another night, we went on a tour of bars of the SoMa (South of Market [Street]) region. One of the bars, Hole in the Wall, was a gay bar the likes of which I have not seen on the East Coast. The decor was a cross between a biker bar and an alternative Rock club. The music was good; not the usual faggy dance fluff. I think I heard everything from Patti Smith to Lou Reed to Jim Morrison grinding out of the speakers. The crowd was very diverse, suits mingling with mowhawks. Scattered amongst those were gentlemen who wore walking around au naturiel. Cockrings glitter in light the color of a bad Bloody Mary. Furthermore, guys were having sex, quite openly.
This was really not my scene, per se, but I was having a good time being an, uh, anthropological observer. I mean, San Francisco is notorious for stuff like this; it’d be great to write about, if nothing else! But the last thing I expected was to become an actually player.
Mike had abandoned me, having run into a musician friend of his. Standing alone among the cruising satyrs, I spotted a severe-looking bald man, his pale skin ghostly against the slaughtered animal hide he was wearing. He was not unattractive. He spotted me, and slithered on over.
“How’re doing?” he started, “You’re standin’ there all alone, lookin’ cute.”
I smiled and blushed a thank you. Then, to keep the conversation going, I said, “Oh, you have an Ankh, the Egyptian symbol of fertility and life. It looks nice.” It was dull silver against his bare chest, sleeping with power.
“Yeah,” he said, “too bad I can’t use it to cut your neck and suck your blood. What’s this?” He reached down and grabbed hold of my own necklace, on which dangled a silver sun with human features. I was still reeling from that weird statement he’d given about sucking my blood. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not. On one hand, it was a kinda neat reference to the vampire movie The Hunger, one of the most stylish horror films ever. On the other hand, it smacked of a contrived danger, the theatrical hint of violence.
We exchanged a few pleasantries, jobs and all that. Then he began to get sexual.
“So, what are you into?” he asked me, pinching my nipple through my shirt, an unpleasant feeling.
“I’m…versatile,” I stuttered. I felt stupid immediately afterwards. I was sort of turned on, but I was much more disgusted. Besides, I had no intention of sleeping with him. It was my last night in the city, for one thing.
“I bet you liked getting fucked,” he said. At this point, I don’t think what I said mattered at all to him. He turned me into his little fetish.
I forget what I said in response to that. I must’ve stuttered.
Then he said the thing that turned me off: “I bet you have a nice, hairy black butt.”
Now, whether or not my posterior is hirsute aside, of course it’s ‘black!’ I wonder if you, as a Native Canadian, have had this problem of racial fetishization, where one’s race seems to take precedence in people’s minds. A bevy of sexual stereotypes was brewing in his mind. I was taken aback.
My dream-warrior self, however, rose to the task at hand.
“Not at all. I have the ass of an 80-year old white woman.”
That seemed to do the trick. He left me alone.
There is one other scene of significance that I wish to relay to you. I spent a long Sunday in Golden Gate Park, wandering among the Arboretum and gardens. The sunlight scintillated against objects, the sky was a washed-out blue. I saw redwood trees rising out of the black loam of a nascent swamp. I was listening to Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 on my portable CD player. I spent most of that day walking and listening, drowning in the antiseptic beauty. I walked to where I could see the Pacific. A fog rolled in, obscuring the sun in tones of pearl and mother-of-pearl. There, among the curls of the waves, I saw a surfer, in a black wet-suit, pitting himself against the waves and the fog. I thought of my father, adrift on an ocean pain and confusion. I thought of myself, and why I’d come on this trip. Then a veil of fog descended, and poof! The surfer vanished from sight.