Delphine's 21st Birthday 048

The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Van Halen and the Butcher’s Apron

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Wait – it’s this week?  This many damn Tuesdays and a million primaries that began way back in January, where we had to hear vicious and clown-like debates wherein Cain and Perry and Bachmann and Gingrich and Paul and Santorum and Huntsman kept trying to beat the man – wait, was Donald Trump ever on stage?  No.  Chris Christie?  How many faces – can I remember?  — they were trying to beat Mitt Romney, way back then when he put his hand on Rick Perry who looked like he wanted to deck that smiling fellow governor who mentioned a $10,000 bet and then condescended to him, and when the stage was so crowded we made a big deal of who was leading in the polls and got to stand close to the center (the Center – Ha!) and they were criss-crossing the country in planes and buses like insanely migrating flocks of strange circus animals – remember back when it was all about New Hampshire and Iowa had caucuses and we all got to make fun of the word caucus?

I’m glad that in my house and car, we instituted a dual survival system way back in January, when the primaries made me actually hate Tuesdays so much I had to turn the radio off, until I discovered the solution.

We do Two-for-Tuesdays on KLOS.  And we read poetry.

Two-fers.  Yes.  Southern California’s Classic Rock radio station.  The one that makes my three daughters roll their eyes, because as they are fond of saying, “You’re just gonna hear the same songs over and over.”  (They also say this with the exact incredulity and disdain about my other favorite radio show, Art Laboe’s Killer Oldies, which I listen to every Sunday evening.)

They’re right.  I know that every Tuesday, as I drive to work, I’m going to hear two songs by each band.  Classic rock reminds me of my years of growing up right here in southern California in what could have been a more multi-racial version of “Dazed and Confused.”  In 1976, when that movie is set, during our nation’s Bicentennial, my high school was full of people wearing bell-bottom cords, Qiana shirts, platform shoes, and – visual from the back — unisex hair.  By that, I mean that my brother and I both had long blonde hair down to the middle of our backs; my future husband and most of the basketball team, as well as half of our cheerleaders, had Afros so full and round that they filled classroom doorways.  (His cousin actually had to turn sideways to get inside, his natural was so huge.)  Almost everyone I knew was selling weed, drinking Coors and Boone’s Farm, and we used to race Chevy Super Sports, Novas, and Mustangs.  (“Your cars had names,” my daughters say, bemused.  “Not numbers.”)

So here – inland Southern California, where we started our recession back in 2007, where the unemployment rate has been among the highest in the nation since 2009, where the foreclosure rate kept the same pace and was often in the national news, where we used to work at Kaiser Steel and Toro Lawnmowers and Boeing and Rockwell and Alcan Aluminum and Lilly Cup, but where we now have warehouses and my nephews are lucky to load trucks for 20-30 hours a week (no benefits, layoffs every four months or so, rehiring at minimum wage), this is what I hear on Tuesdays, because I drive a lot for work:

The Who singing, “Out here in the fields, I fought for my meals, I get my back into my livin…”

David Bowie singing,

“I watch the ripples change their size

But never leave the stream

Of warm impermanence and

So the days float through my eyes

But still the days seem the same

And these children that you spit on

As they try to change their worlds

Are immune to your consultations

They’re quite aware of what they’re going through…”

Last week, my 23-year-old (who lives in Texas) and my 17-year-old both reported to me separately that President Obama had lamented the lack of current popular music with overtly political messages.  Like Springsteen.  I opened my mouth and the younger one gave me the pre-emptive death stare and said, “I know – you listen to Two-fer Tuesdays. You get plenty of politics.  And Uncle Jeff.”

It was my brother, three years younger than me, who got us to listen to KLOS.  He was a house painter and farmer (he grew his first crop of cannabis at 16, was locally famous, and farmed oranges until he died in 2002 at 38) and for his entire life, he listened to hard rock.  The kind people make fun of now.  But when he and his best friend, who was the cause of his death, listened to AC/DC sing “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap,” they had actually done some of those things.  And of course, that song doesn’t work because there is nothing cheap about politics.

With my friends and my future husband, I listened to great political songs from Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone, War, Tower of Power, and the Staples Singers.  James Brown and Parliament/Funkadelic.  In fact, it was George Clinton who made me see so clearly one day the blurred line between song and poem.

Writing my first book during graduate school, I had James Baldwin for a mentor, and he came to dinner at our tiny apartment in married student housing.  He wandered around the room, bare cinderblock walls, three card tables we’d borrowed from neighbors and spread with a cloth, and on the windowsill the small blue Smith-Corona typewriter my mother had given to me when I graduated from high school.  He leaned to the window, where I’d taped a tiny piece of paper on which I’d copied three lines:

With the rhythm it takes to dance to what

we have to live through,

you can dance underwater and not get wet…”

He turned to me and said, “That’s one of the most profound pieces of poetry I’ve ever read.  Where is it from?”

I told him the long name of the song where I’d taken those lyrics.  Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop.  I told him the shortened name was Aquaboogie.  I told him George Clinton had written those lines.  We danced to them at house parties, crowded into hot back yards and bumping knees into thighs.

*

I listen every Tuesday because I miss my brother, I miss house parties, I miss the years when political campaigns meant my Swiss-born mother sat us in front of the television to watch the few events and then she told us what voting meant to her, because women in one canton in Switzerland couldn’t vote until I was a teenager, and then my Mississippi-born future mother-in-law would proudly talk about filling out her ballot.

I hear the more obvious songs – U2 and Lou Reed and The Doors and Neil Young. The Stones “Sympathy for the Devil” and Guns N Roses “Welcome to the Jungle” (“you can have anything you want but you better not take it from me”) and lots of Springsteen, who remains my eldest daughter’s sentimental favorite.

But some are less obvious.  “I been to the edge, and there I stood and looked down, you know I lost a lot of friends there, baby, I got no time to mess around.”  That’s also Van Halen, “Ain’t Talkin Bout Love.”  And that’s why we’re so hard in my family.  Because we don’t have the luxury of spending an entire year and billions of dollars fighting each other while our relatives and friends are dangling.  My closest neighbor made $3000 last year.  She has an autistic son.  She has no TV, no newspaper, no hope left.  She is a funeral and wedding singer for the nearby Catholic church.  And last week I got my address painted on the curb by a guy I knew in high school, who does that for a living, from a backpack and a bicycle.  When I take sandwiches or tacos to homeless people in the local park, I recognize friends I danced with at the prom.

*

The word caucus seems like last year.  Birthers?  47% feels like a math problem from 2010.  Where is Occupy Anywhere?  The Tea Party has disappeared.  No demonstrations where anyone can get their fair share of abuse, no protests, no Million Man March or Moms Against Anything.  In fact, no Soccer Mom vote or Hockey Mom or Single Moms.  Yeah, seriously, no Single Mom vote.  Men talk about rape as dispassionately as if it were a sprained ankle or other temporary medical condition.  Men talk about guns for a moment and then pretend the bullets have magically turned into paintballs – where are the Open Carry guys at Starbucks?

All that seems like last year.  Though if you only listened to Two-Fer Tuesday, maybe not.  And if you read poetry in the evenings, when the dusk turned purple and the trees black, even long into the night when the crickets stopped, since it is November now and at midnight the mockingbirds here have begun to fight over their backyard territories so they sing elaborate and aggressive songs until 2 am, the same melodies over and over, warning the other birds to stay out of their palm tree or eucalyptus, you would be more calm.

Poetry in defiance of the tiresome slog. (Why do we not limit the months of campaigning, as in other countries, so that we could actually focus on the parts of the American economy in desperate need of attention?  Why can’t the commercials be like Super Bowl classics?)

January was messed up.  But in February, I heard Diane Wakoski. Before she read “The Butcher’s Apron,” she told a few anecdotes:  Wakoski grew up in Whittier, home of President Richard Nixon.  On East Whittier Avenue, when she was a child, she bought popsicles from the corner store run by Mr. and Mrs. Nixon – the future president’s parents.  His brother became the butcher.

“Red stain on the clean white bib,

the butcher’s apron hanging like an abstract expressionist painting

on the museum wall of my

childhood…

–the most we ever ordered—

a pound of hamburger

to be fried in the black iron skillet

till the edges formed an ugly crust

like a scab on a skinned knee/

The art of the grill

was not found in our manless house.”

Wakoski’s mother, an immigrant from Germany, a single mother who became a bookkeeper, in her later years loved Campbell’s soup.

“My mother who voted for Nixon and hates foreigners

dreams of those red and white cans…”

I remembered in February that poetry can rescue us from the sad  dilapidation of our Tuesdays.  Yes, the oft-read Stephen Crane, Robert Frost, Emily Dickenson, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes.  Elizabeth Bishop and several times Elizabeth Alexander’s Inaugural Poem, read on an icy January while Barack Obama was installed as President and I cried for my father-in-law.

But also the poems that stride or chill so comfortably with the songs of my brother.  Jack Gilbert’s “Refusing Heaven.”  Philip Levine’s “The Mercy,” in which lives an orange like the ones my brother grew.  I get another orange out of the brown bag my neighbor delivers every year to my porch – another native of my city, he is 66 and still picks his own oranges, and brings them to us.

In the kitchen, I pile oranges in a blue-and-white bowl made in Vietnam.  The pottery of Vietnam, bombed by President Nixon, whose parents had a small store. And on the old-fashioned little purple boom box in the kitchen, while I’m cooking or paying bills, the radio my girls and their countless friends have all made fun of while they’re at the old wooden table my mother bought at a furniture store a mile away, an old family-run store much like the Nixons’, a song plays.  I read BH Fairchild.

BODY AND SOUL 
Half-numb, guzzling bourbon and Coke from coffee mugs,
our fathers fall in love with their own stories, nuzzling
the facts but mauling the truth, and my friend’s father begins
to lay out with the slow ease of a blues ballad a story
about sandlot baseball in Commerce, Oklahoma decades ago.
These were men’s teams, grown men, some in their thirties
and forties who worked together in zinc mines or on oil rigs,
sweat and khaki and long beers after work, steel guitar music
whanging in their ears, little white rent houses to return to
where their wives complained about money and broken Kenmores
and then said the hell with it and sang Body and Soul
in the bathtub and later that evening with the kids asleep
lay in bed stroking their husband’s wrist tattoo and smoking
Chesterfields from a fresh pack until everything was O.K.

My father-in-law, General Roscoe Conklin Sims II, died on October 19, 2008, just days before he would have voted for Barack Obama, the first time he would have cast a ballot for a black man for President.  For his funeral program, I typed his favorite poem, by Langston Hughes.  Yes, I know that this poem is not obscure or a badge of erudition.  But when I re-read it this year, it reminds me of him – born in Tulsa, ancestors African and Irish and Cherokee and English, and the hours we spent talking about books and history, and how he and all his brothers had to memorize long classic poems by Wordsworth and Longfellow when they were students at Booker T. Washington High School.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

I’ve known rivers:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

 

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

 

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

 

I’ve known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

 

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

*

Last Tuesday, I heard John Fogarty, “Run Through the Jungle” and “Fortunate Son.”  And a lot of Van Halen.  “Everybody Wants Some.  I want some, too.  Everybody needs some – how bout you?”  I was driving past foreclosed houses with for-sale signs rocking in the wind, and yard sales now permanent, and tent cities of homeless people gathered under freeway bridges and along the banks of three rivers I crossed.  I drove past the National Cemetery, where a line of cars was forming at one of the funerals for someone sent home from Afghanistan or Iraq – hundreds of soldiers buried there, near my-in-laws, fresh flowers and flags trembling in the breeze.

I’m fine with predictability.  I turned 52 on the anniversary of my father-in-law’s death, and I have over 50 relatives and friends already dead.  I know for damn sure this Tuesday I will walk three blocks down the street to Eden Lutheran Church, where I have voted for 25 years.  I will see people from my childhood.  My ex-husband will call, having voted at the church already, and I know he will say he called our older daughters to tell the story (again! they always say to me) of how his father was so vehement about voting that when his eldest son, General Roscoe Conklin Sims III once said jauntily and dismissively during the 1980s, “Man, I’m tired, and I don’t feel like going down there and waiting in that line,” his father said, “I will kick your ass if you don’t do it.  People died so you could vote.  Now get up.”

Then I will drive.  The Stones will sing, as they do every Tuesday, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.”  I know exactly what each candidate – in every race – needs.  A few hours of Philip Levine.  Go on.  Read “The Mercy.”  Just read it, and go for a drive.

The ship that took my mother to Ellis Island 
Eighty-three years ago was named “The Mercy.” 
She remembers trying to eat a banana 
without first peeling it and seeing her first orange
in the hands of a young Scot, a seaman 
who gave her a bite and wiped her mouth for her 
with a red bandana and taught her the word,
”orange,” saying it patiently over and over. 
A long autumn voyage, the days darkening 
with the black waters calming as night came on, 
then nothing as far as her eyes could see and space
without limit rushing off to the corners 
of creation. She prayed in Russian and Yiddish 
to find her family in New York, prayers 
unheard or misunderstood or perhaps ignored 
by all the powers that swept the waves of darkness 
before she woke, that kept “The Mercy” afloat 
while smallpox raged among the passengers 
and crew until the dead were buried at sea 
with strange prayers in a tongue she could not fathom.
”The Mercy,” I read on the yellowing pages of a book 
I located in a windowless room of the library 
on 42nd Street, sat thirty-one days 
offshore in quarantine before the passengers
disembarked. There a story ends. Other ships 
arrived, “Tancred” out of Glasgow, “The Neptune”
registered as Danish, “Umberto IV,” 
the list goes on for pages, November gives 
way to winter, the sea pounds this alien shore. 
Italian miners from Piemonte dig 
under towns in western Pennsylvania 
only to rediscover the same nightmare 
they left at home. A nine-year-old girl travels 
all night by train with one suitcase and an orange. 
She learns that mercy is something you can eat 
again and again while the juice spills over 
your chin, you can wipe it away with the back 
of your hands and you can never get enough.


Susan Straight's new novel "Between Heaven and Here" was just published by McSweeney's. It's the final book in The Rio Seco Trilogy, which includes "A Million Nightingales" and "Take One Candle Light a Room." She was born in Riverside, California, where she still lives. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Believer, McSweeney's, Harpers, and elsewhere. She writes about inland Southern California for KCET. www.susanstraight.com More from this author →