A bonus, up-to-the-minute online supplement to The Lifted Brow No 13 (December 2011). Justin Heazlewood sent us this letter yesterday afternoon, roughly forty minutes before the issue came off the press. The internet! It’s sometimes instant!
OCCUPY WALL ST
A well-organised shanty town, complete with media office, library and kitchen, ran to a jobs roster ensuring that cooking, cleaning and media duties were maintained. A fierce drum circle kept time with whatever they had available—drumkit, bongos and the steel rims of rubbish bins. There were plenty of placards, my favourite being: “Dear Republicans, Obama is not a brown-skinned anti-war socialist who gives away free healthcare. You’re thinking of Jesus.” I was taken with the number of art instillations. Rough and ready sculptures of found objects with signs encouraging you to “add your own art.” A poster of two handprints asked strangers to place their hands and “remove when no longer strangers.” It was like being let inside the house of a friendly cult leader. Therein lies the true brilliance of the Occupy movement. It is simultaneously a political organisation and a freewheeling, open-air house party of ideas. It’s about positivity, caring for your fellow man, and reprimanding the greedy in lieu of no one else. When I saw a naked man in a barrel holding a Macbook, I realised how incredible this really was. It wasn’t trying to push politics onto me, or bug me for cash, it was just a bunch of humans coming together to workshop a playful revolution. John Lennon would have gone bananas.
Some have said New York isn’t the same place post 9/11. You can sense the depression in the air—the grim tension of an increasingly enveloped police state (I’ve felt it in Melbourne). Occupy was the shot of goodwill and adrenaline the city needed—that the world needs. The capitalist strongmen watched the circus from the sides, their cartoon eyes disembodied in the void. Hot dog vans surrounded the perimeter while bling-swingin’ movie villains strutted past, sucking on cigars. Jay-Z landed in hot water for marketing “Occupy the world” t-shirts. What a fabulously inappropriate mutation of the original sentiment. You can’t trademark ideas. Jay-Z is worth 350 million. The nucleus of greed burns intense. Bitter like a coffee bean. Clouding rainbows.
A law had been passed banning the use of megaphones. The Occupy gang found an ingenious solution. They broadcast their messages using People Power. The leader would speak the message to a large group, one line at a time. They would repeat the message as one:
Please join us
PLEASE JOIN US!
Down at the picket line
DOWN AT THE PICKET LINE!
We have buses waiting
WE HAVE BUSES WAITING!
It should have been creepy, but it was exciting. Like school fire drill day crossed with Hair.
To have a revolution all you need to do is do it.
Someone once asked me “is a good poo better than bad sex?” I now ask “is bad yoga worse than a bad poo?” I’ve been doing yoga for two years. It’s a main source of vitamins for my soul. Think high school P.E. stretching made intelligent, with a bit of spirituality thrown in. I went to several classes in NY and found that many of the teachers talked too much and most didn’t hold the poses for long enough. The worst culprit was an overenergised sports jock chick who wandered around the room without demonstrating any of the moves and, most repugnantly, put on background music. The central theme of yoga is concentrating and being in synch with yourself. Music of any kind rips me out of the moment like a fish from the sea. It wasn’t even hippie instrumental but contemporary indie-folk like Iron & Wine. Lyrics! I was downward dogging when Joanna Newsom came on. Her pregnant cat serenade and medieval romps leave me anxious at the best of times. While I stretched my thighs and calves, I could not stretch my imagination to include a world where music during yoga is anything but a monumental faux pas of the most personal kind. Someone had tried to hang their coat on a notch in my spine. At the end of the class, during the lie down, on came Hurt by Johnny Cash. Only the saddest song of all time. As I lay there, internally recovering, allowing my sediments to settle, trying to find some real estate in harmony, I became acutely aware of how dutifully I was failing to ignore the sonic pungency of this out-of-context tune. It was written by a person in great lament, reflecting on how much pain he had caused those around him, and sung by a heavy-hearted balladeer only months from his death.
It’d be like your counsellor playing Party in the USA.
I’M GOING DOWN DOWN DOWN DOWN TO JEWTOWN
In New York there is a large Jewish community. Many of them are Hasidic Jews. They are very orthodox and stand out in their traditional dress. The men wear black coats and hats and sport biblical beards with thick ringlets in their hair. I was staying near a Jewish neighbourhood in Park Slope, Brooklyn. On a number of occasions I witnessed huge groups of identically-dressed men gather to celebrate an event. I found them fascinating. They were cool and intimidating, like rock stars, yet also slightly menacing like principals or Heisenberg in Breaking Bad.
My girl and I were in a deli looking for peanut butter when a Hasidic Jewish elder pulled us up.
“You don’t look like you’re from around here!” He was friendly but firm, his face an explosion of hair and decades. He peered at us with deep, blunt eyes.
“Ah, we believe in heaven and eternal life, but what do we know? Hollywood knows best. Marriage is between a man and a woman. We’ve been around for thousands of years, but what do we know? We know nothing. The Germans tried to wipe us out, now here we are, celebrating. But I’m crazy, right. I’m the crazy one.” He ranted at us for a few minutes in a cryptically self-aware, playfully bitter, self-flagellating yet ominously preachy display. A teenager came up the aisle, pushing a trolley. He expected the old man to move.
“You should go up and round the other aisle. If your mother had raised you right you wouldn’t try and squeeze past.”
The teenager withered.
“I’ve been on since this morning.”
The borough of Williamsburg is a tragically hilarious culture clash of ultra-conservative Jews and hedonistic hipsters. The Jews nail signs to trees in Hebrew that translate: “Precious Jewish Daughter: Please move to the side when a man approaches!” They recently had a bike lane removed as they were sick of young girls riding their bikes in skirts through Jewish neighbourhoods. They painted over the lanes themselves. Mayor Bloomberg is relatively powerless to step in as he needs the votes. Under Jewish tradition, they are not allowed to operate electrical devices on Fridays (Shabbat). It is not uncommon to be asked to push an elevator button for them. A friend retold a story where she was approached by a young man asking if she could come to his house and do “a few jobs.”
There are strong customs for Hasidic women as well. Once married, they must shave off their hair and wear a wig. From then on their sole purpose is to bear and raise children. On the street I passed world-weary girls with long, plain skirts and toddlers in tow. On my flight over, a Hasidic couple had eight children with them. During my three weeks, I was approached four times by young men in black hats and asked, in the same tone you ask someone for the time:
“Excuse me, are you Jewish?”
Each time I wanted to hold my hand out flat and tip it back and forth.
GOD BLESS AMERICA (AND OTHERS IF HE HAS TIME)
After a week, I started getting cross at New York. It was triggered by an advertisement with a bearded hipster saying “We have the best arts scene in the universe.”
“Get over yourselves,” I thought. A tension was growing within me, like a young child jealous of his older, tougher, artier, vastly more popular sibling. I passed down another garbage bag-lined street, observing that every bus, every subway car, every third shopfront or household bore the American flag. A deli sign boasted “best burgers in new York (therefore the world).” The hype machine was clashing badly with my tall poppy syndrome. Here I was in the centre of the world’s most puffed up poppy, preening its red, white and blue petals in my face. My American Apparel bag had the names of thirty cities from around the world, excluding Australia. The Village Voice had a food issue suggesting you could “Taste the world via NY.” Inside, they listed the best restaurants from each country, including New Zealand. Australia did not feature. My fuse ignited when our housemate remarked that she thought Cate Blanchett was English.
Australia knows too much about America, but America doesn’t know anything about us. (Paul Hogan and Croc Hunter if you’re lucky.) Meanwhile, the Valley twang filters into our accents, Yankee chains inject our kids with fat, while shows like The Office are remade for US audiences. (Many Americans didn’t like David Brent because he was too mean.)
Foreign creativity being airbrushed to suit American aesthetics is cultural manslaughter. My cardboard sign frustrations are trampled in a subway foot-storm; ego-bruises soaking in a cold-sauce of disempowerment. An inflated, blimpish beast, furiously devouring its own lab-farmed content, deaf to ideas that aren’t bellowed in its overstated dialect.
Henry Wagons recently spoke about his obsession with America: “It’s the best and the worst the world has to offer, living side by side.” He spoke of anomalies such as bacon-infused whiskey and the “so bad it’s good” loophole. It’s this highbrow/lowbrow clash powered by the undiluted extroversion of a self-celebrating society that makes the place a Petri dish of entertainment. I first heard New York described as “a movie scene on every corner.” I’d cruise past a chicken shop to see an old African-American step out, bellowing with a sing-song of disagreeance, waving his arms like the world had no mirrors.
I remembered how at school the cool kids were always the most insecure. It’s lonely at the top, but also busy. You’ve got to constantly pump yourself up, while watching out for haters. New York has to keep up appearances. It needs to run campaigns saying it’s the best in the universe like Dirk Diggler needs to psych himself in the mirror before a shoot. It’s the precise mathematical opposite of Australia; the houseproud loner trying to find more to talk about than mining and sport. American comedian Colin Quinn summed us up by saying “Whenever there’s a war, Australia’s right behind us. We’re like ‘Australia, yeah, I was going to call you— (do I even have their number?)’” If I were employed to write an overseas ad campaign it would be something like “Australia – Google it.” Or, “Australia – so bad it’s good.” Or, “The other Austria.” Or, “Australia, it’s next to New Zealand (where Flight of the Conchords are from).” I think it would work. Assuming everyone got the irony.
Towards the end of the three weeks my rage subsided. I visited the Jim Henson exhibition in Queens. As I lay my eyes into the rich chocolate felt of Ralph, my heart melted in gratitude for those that had created my colourful introduction to art. Bert and Ernie delivered my first punchlines. Kermit’s Rainbow Connection was my first sad song. Cookie Monster had the seeds of madness oscillating in his eyes. I watched Jim Henson’s experimental short film Timepiece and was reminded of his intellect and originality of vision, and also of his wild, wonderful heart.
On the subway we encountered a plucky looking dealer-type. He had a trolley with two white postal tubs with holes cut into them. A red-eyed albino mouse poked its nose through. Sensing the stares, the guy went on the offensive, explaining that he bred rats for the FDA. A mouse wriggled its head and shoulders through a hole and scrambled out. I clutched my seat. The woman sitting opposite wasn’t fased. She picked up the mouse and slipped it back into its box. I secretly hoped one of the boxes would upend. The carnage that would ensue.
Sensing judgment from the pallid onlookers, the guy starting dishing out the claims.
“I make more money that you make in one week.”
“How much you got in your pocket? I’ll triple that shit.”
His partner was none too happy with the expression on one woman’s face and screamed “HUSSY!”
“Ssssh,” said the guy.
“I’m sorry, I had to say that.”
His parting words were:
“I live in a Condo. That’s how much money me and my rats make.”
Here is a video I took of Rat Man on my phone:
WHY WOULD YOU NEED TO TAKE THE LID FROM MY WATER (?x100)
I saw Weird Al Yankovic at the Beacon Theater. It was good seeing Smells Like Nirvana live. It was so accurately represented that I blurred my eyes and pretended I was watching Kurt Cobain. There were confetti cannons and thirteen costume changes, including the fat suit from Fat. Amish Paradise was a highlight.
In the foyer I bought a bottle of Dasani water “enhanced with minerals for added flavor.” The girl handed it to me sans lid.
“Can I have the lid?”
She placed a plastic cup over the bottle.
“That’s the best I can do.”
I left the cup and walked away.
“Why?” I thought. “Why? Why? Why?”
WHY WHY WHY
WHY does the Beacon Theater need to keep the lid to a water bottle? I understand why venues do it with alcohol— it stops people from carrying the alcohol out. But why the restrictions on water? WHY? oh WHY? I’ll never understand. I’ve thought about it long and hard. I’m more likely to spill the water on your precious carpet now. WHY not just give me the lid? I paid $4 for that bottle. WHY would you treat me like that? I’m an adult. WHY do you need to keep the lid?? My lid!! WHY? Oh WHY would that ever be a policy?
I tell you what—I’ll boil it all down to a pass / fail grading system. Stupendously pedantic power tripping venue protocols such as this will count for 50% of the exam. Oh boy my friend, how you will FAIL! Yes you will FAIL so hard your big failure head will make you fall down and you’ll smack your FAIL brain on the grimy FAIL floor! I will tear your page out of the Lonely Planet guide in my mind and mail it to my personal demons to incinerate on their wickedly cylindrical cigars, the flames splitting into sixties on hexagonal mirrorballs. Ashes like black snow. The torn stockings of your depleted fairies. You lid keeping FAILTOWN of a FAILSVILLE FAILBLOG EPIC FAILING DR FAIL AND THE ALL FAIL ALLBLAHS you.
An African-American kid was chilling by the subway gates in Atlantic Avenue. My girl slid her card along the slot. It said DENIED. Out of credit.
“Just jump,” said the kid.
“But the guy’s in the booth. I don’t want to get in trouble.”
“You’re not a black man. You’ll be okay.”
I gave her my ticket and went off to get my own. All the while the kid enthusiastically offered “just jump, you’re white, you’ll get away with it,” as if letting me in on a big secret.
I passed through the gates self-consciously.
My girl had gone up ahead, but I couldn’t see her.
“She’s over there man,” said the kid, still at his post.
“No, over that way.”
I saw the newsagent she was in.
“Thanks man,” I said, nervous to face him. He was so calm and chipper. I was so bumbly. The black knight of Atlantic Avenue. The streetwise sage, offering up advice on his own dime. Connecting the nerds and the squares and the bohemes. Picking up the pale, squeaky pups and placing them back on their grids.
I liked that kid.
Justin Heazlewood performs as The Bedroom Philosopher. His new book, The Bedroom Philosopher Diaries, has been released by A Small Press in Melbourne. It’s available to buy at selected book stores and here. He’ll be launching it at Trades Hall Feb 17 from 7:30pm.