The Manager

The Manager

on game days, my mother would fill paper grocery bags
with popcorn cooked on our kitchen
stove. the pots were lined with a thin layer
of vegetable oil, heated to the point
where kernels popped on contact.
these bags of popcorn kept the kids
distracted during the tedious
company softball games.

my father had achieved the position
of manager for the company team.
it was a desirable position within the
Pfizer Athletic Department;
and he was quite aware of that.

the Pfizer team participated in tournaments
throughout Greater Southeastern Connecticut.
my brother and me
spent many weekends in
Baltic, Norwich, and Stonington;
collecting empty soda and beer
cans in exchange for soda and bubble gum
at the concession stand.

my mother’s first boyfriend
after my father walked out,
loved his Coca-Cola.
he bought it in 40 oz. bottles,
a quarter inch thick, with impeccable
label printing. the deposit value was
clearly marked on the paper banded neck.
“40 cent deposit”

he would give my brother and me
five empty Coke bottles
every Friday night.
that worked out to $1.00 for each of us.

we applied this approach on the
gravel parking lots of various
municipal recreation areas.
maximize the potential.
the tournaments were a temporary
sentence;
we tried to make the best of it.

i kept thinking someone would ask us:
“hey, why are you kids going through the garbage?”

during our search for
returnable
soda
cans

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Meeting Rollie McKenna

Suddenly, in the last week of August of 1995, I needed a new job. I had been raised in the family business in Downtown Mystic, A Stitch In Time Boutique, and had acquired a fledging interest in fine art photography through a young roster of poets and musicians in my hometown.  I was introduced to a new Rock and Roll family now, and I had made significant forays into local exhibitions and publications, and had set up my own darkroom in our rented artist collective in Stonington.  In fact, it was a fellow artist in our homegrown art scene that told me that Rollie McKenna lived in town, and she was an important literary photographer, having photographed the likes of Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, and many others. Albert was always incredulous as he stated, “and she lives right here in Stonington!”  So, on August 31, 1995, I took the phonebook out, paged to the listings for “M”, and found “McKenna, R” in Stonington, Connecticut at 1 Hancox Street, and I dialed her number. She answered the phone, and I introduced myself as a photographer who was looking for a job, “did she need anybody right now?”  She said, “As a matter of fact…I need someone to do some research for me, as I’m working on another book.” I answered promptly that I could help her out, so she suggested that I come to her house the next day so we could meet in person.

We sat on the back patio overlooking Sandy Point, and discussed her new project. She had published her autobiography, A Life in Photography (Knopf 1991), and in 1995, she was looking to complete a visual timeline of the many poets and writers that she had photographed in the 1950s through the 1980s.  The new book would feature each writer with an older photograph, next to a brand new photograph, along with a short biography of each writer that I was being hired to write, and a piece of “new“ work, by each writer, that Rollie called a “gleaning”.   I clearly had the easiest job, as it would prove challenging to get some of the writers to sit for a new photo, and produce new work. The time that had elapsed between each earlier portrait and also their literary output was the overriding factor.  The photographs captured the vanity and vulnerability of her subjects. But she was fearless in her vision, and she parlayed that same enthusiasm to me on the first day in her studio, which was September 5th, 1995 at 145 Water Street.

She handed me a copy of her master list, “People Photographed as of September 1995”, a nine paged single spaced alphabetical listing of the artists in her photography archives.  We fully reviewed the list together, and started updating the dates of her most recent shoots. I immediately began a handwritten studio log, noting the date in the upper right hand corner and “Gemma and McKenna” below it, which I carefully updated each day with all of Rollie’s directions: tasks at hand, current status updates, and reminders for the next day and week.  On my first day, I noted:  “Searched for the folder on Elizabeth Bishop to no avail, which contains the missing third page of a letter from 10 May 1956.  Need for the completion of Bishop in book, need other comments on life, other than the “lonely poet” symbol most publicly known.”  I had no reference for this bullet point listing, yet I wrote it, and it would come in handy during my days doing research at the local libraries. Another note from 20 September 1995:  “Pull negative of Alastair Reid from Master File (1960) and tell L and V (her photo lab in NYC) to lighten up contrast of his suit and into the background. AR8.60B  #25 need two sets 5” x7” with white borders”. I quickly realized her archival system was masterful. AR8.60B was “Alastair Reid August 1960 Second Roll”.

Rollie left for Key West that October 1995 through April 1996, and we talked on the phone daily and faxed furiously.  Also, letters were sent, and sometimes copies of faxes and letters that she received in Key West, like when she mailed me a copy of the letter she received from Tom Wolfe, expressing dismay at his tardiness in response to Rollie’s request for a gleaning. Every day I was working on the research for the biographies for the book. I collected magazine articles: The Sewanee Review Autumn 1972 to garner literary reviews on Rollie’s subjects, John Malcolm Brinnin, Lucille Clifton, Philip Caputo, and James Dickey. The Saturday Review 17 November 1955 for an article on a review of Dylan Thomas in America: An Intimate Journal, by John Malcolm Brinnin , by Louis Untermeyer. Mind you, this was all before the Internet. I could not Google ”Philip Caputo”. I also dove into Rollie’s sizeable and extremely well organized photo archives. To this day, 23 years later, I have enacted many of Rollie’s organizational techniques. It was of utmost importance to be able to manually retrieve any photo at a moment’s notice. Judith Bachmann handled the affairs at Rollie’s house, each day fielding phone calls from literary agents looking to gain clearance for publishing one of Rollie’s photographs.

At first, requests for a new print would go to Rollie’s photography darkroom of choice, L and V Photo Lab in NYC. We would carefully pack up rolls of film, and negatives and overnight them to the urban studio. But then I suggested that I could get Rollie’s darkroom at the  Water Street Studio back up and running, and that I could handle all of the darkroom printing. By early summer of 1996,  Rollie  got a call from the Muskegon Museum of Art, in Michigan. We had sent them a copy of her autobiography on my second day of work back in September of 1995, and the Museum had finished selecting the 61 images from the book that they wanted for a Rollie McKenna solo exhibition. I inventoried all of Rollie’s framed photographs boxed up in the studio, and made a list on 31 May 1996, that we had 37 framed photos, ready to go, and 7 to be framed, and 17 to be printed and framed. I got busy right away printing up those 17 photographs, as Rollie was due back from Key West on 10 June 1996, and the moving company was booked to transport the exhibit to Muskegon on 26 July 1996. I finished printing the photographs, then sent the photos to Studio 33 in the Boro, to be matted. In the interim, I ordered all of the framing hardware, and a small party of us assembled and framed the remaining photographs at Rollie’s studio. Then everything had to be carefully labelled and packed up.

Rollie announced to me that the Museum wanted her to give a speech along with a slide show. She said that she wasn’t up to organizing the slide show, and writing a speech;  remember that in 1996, she was already 78 years old: an extremely hardworking and passionate artist, but still, she had to contend with some heart issues from time to time and a milder case of forgetfulness.  So I jumped on it. I culled the 36 images for the slide show, and found that over half of them needed to be produced into slide form, my first experience shooting slide film with a light set-up. My notes from Rollie said that “a blue tint suggests the wrong filter, and that I should use TMAX 100 film with a ASA of 50, and to make sure that the image on the copystand was equidistant to the lights”. These tips would come into play for me when I later worked for the Stonington Historical Society after Rollie moved to Northampton in 1998.

After the slide production, I settled into writing the speech from Rollie’s perspective, so that she could read my text, transposed onto index cards for easy reference. On the Denise Levertov slide from 1969, I wrote, “I approached Denise for this photograph again to join the legions contained within the Modern Poets, Second Edition (McGraw Hill 1963). She made the peculiar demand in her response,  ‘She wanted the right to have destroyed the negatives of any photographs I wouldn’t like to have in circulation….’ I said I would have to ask Elizabeth Bishop first……”   Rollie said the speech and slide show was a huge success and that she was very thankful for all of my hard work.

That Winter of 1996 saw more research for the book, and completing any studio and darkroom requests.  When Rollie returned from Key West in the Spring of 1997, she had a new companion who favored seclusion and privacy , and her work crew would soon find Rollie cut off from the familiar foundations. Soon everything was for sale, and we had to pack up the house and studio, as Rollie was moving to Northampton, Massachusetts. I remember her telling me that she wanted her life’s work to go to the New York Public Library, because that’s where her friend, James Merrill’s work was archived.  One day when I was packing up at the studio, Mary Thacher, the then Director of the Stonington Historical Society came by, as a friend of Rollie’s to inquire what was going on, and she hired me for the Stonington Historical Society to be a photo archivist.

We wouldn’t hear anything more about Rollie until we saw the obituary in the New York Times in June 2003. Alas, her third book, to be called Poets and Writers of an Age would never get published.

—Michelle Gemma
Mystic, Connecticut
2 August 2018

Inscription by Rollie McKenna inside her autobiography “A Life In Photography” (Knopf 1991), given to me on my birthday 10 October 1995.

—-This memoir was written 2 August 2018 for inclusion in a book about Rollie McKenna, published by the Stonington Historical Society on 1 November 2018.

Rollie McKenna

Book cover design by Chip Kidd.

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Our Final Phone Call

my mother had her first date
with the man who would become my step-father
on a sweltering July night.
i was playing basketball in our driveway, the aging hoop
dangling above the garage door
by rusty nails we kept banging back in that would one day
be rebuilt by him.

“he is going to be here in five minutes!”
yelled my mother from the front porch.
“you better watch out so he
doesn’t hit you in the driveway!”

on our quiet street, we could hear a vehicle
lumbering toward the house.
the collected kids from the neighborhood
scrambled into the garage
and quickly closed the overhead door.

a sleek, silver van slowly rolled
to a halt on the oily pavement.
a rather large man with curly brown hair
and a working man’s belly exited
from the driver side door.

“he’s three times bigger than your mom…..”

we shuffled to our right
to catch more than a glimpse of him as he walked
across the lawn, torn up
as a result of my mother letting us use it
as a football field following the divorce.

i was in my second floor bedroom
when he arrived for their second date.
one of the windows faced the driveway,
and this time he had another car, not the silver van,
but an enormous four door sedan.
i thought that was a good sign, as none of the other men
in my mother’s life
owned two vehicles.

at their wedding, a year later,
my nine year old brother was plied
with canned beer by the uncles and cousins
in attendance. they found it fascinating
that a little kid could drink beer
like a teenager.
i drank cola over ice, a habit i picked up
from my mother.

my step-father introduced us
into a world we could hardly imagine.
his family owned a ski cabin in the Maine woods,
as well as a lake front cottage
closer to home.
having secondary property
up to that point
was my mother allowing us to bring
dirty, old couches into our basement
during neighborhood bulky waste disposal.

the diagnosis left little room for error.

“it is an incredibly aggressive, invasive form
of melanoma. we might have to get your permission
for clinical trials.”

he granted his permission.

my visits to the house
of my childhood, during his rehabilitation
dovetailed
with the presidential election of 1992.

“you both need to vote for Clinton!
the last twelve years have been
a disaster!”

“Clinton is a phony. we are voting for Perot.”

“do you seriously
think a billionaire
has the best interests of the people
at the forefront of his policies?”

“yes. we need a businessman
to run the country like a business;
with responsibility, with accountability.”

i was arguing Presidential Politics
with my step-father,
as he endured radical radiation
treatments.

when our friends arrived at my parents house
to hang out as my high school rock band practiced,
they were greeted by my mother,
taking off the headphones i had purchased for
two of them,
as well as a small chalkboard
they could write messages to each other,
in an effort to not completely
interrupt
their lives.

“i just think they are adorable! i hope i end up
watching TV with my partner and a chalkboard.”

the band checked in to the motel
in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

before i left town, my mother
called me and asked
that i call my step-father
on the Friday night
we were due to arrive in Lancaster.
the band had two shows that weekend.

she had her doubts about him being
alive by the time i returned.

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Destroy The Negatives

“Hi Michelle,
Although I have not run into you around Mystic in a very long time, I am sure you remember me since in the past you took photographs of Maria.

 

I have been meaning to call you, but usually do not remember until it is too late at night to do it.

 

As you know, Maria’s father was not at all pleased with the pictures of Maria.

Since the art festival is quickly approaching, I am emailing to ask that you absolutely do not use any photos of her in your booth this year or in any future years

– or show them at any other local events.

We have a friend who seems to go out of his way to check your booth each year and report back to her father, which always sends him into a tirade about how it was never the right thing to do.

 

I truly think it would be best if you destroyed all negatives of her pictures.  I know some were exhibited at the Wayne Richard Barbershop when it first opened, because someone else mentioned that at the time also.

 

Sorry this did not work out well.

Thank you for your consideration.”

—-Maria’s Mother

note: the photographer’s father was protective, also.

 

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the Night my Father was Robbed

my father’s first relationship,
following his divorce from
my mother,
was with a gentle soul.
she had no idea what she was
getting herself into.
i was too young to articulate
my inherent reservation.

when she finally called it off,
my father parlayed a manipulative
relationship with her parents.
they agreed to let him house sit
during a cross country excursion
that was their initial realization of retirement.

my younger brother and me
visited our father due to a court order,
every other weekend. our routine was perfected
in short shrift.
he would pick us up at our mother’s house,
and we would hear the sigh of relief
from the back of her throat
as i opened the door of his faux sports car.
he couldn’t afford his desired Corvette, so he settled for a Capri.

the car parked at the apex
of the horseshoe driveway.
we carried the snacks
our mother would never have allowed us to purchase,
over the threshold of the outdoor patio,
into the elegant kitchen.

we began to unload the groceries.

my father asks us to listen to him, for a moment.

the two of us are taken aback at his
deference to something
seemingly serious.

“someone broke into the house this week….”

he then regaled us with a tale of
educated thieves;
who knew the owner of the house
was a very successful businessman,
selling TV sets
during the golden age of television.

the thieves came to steal the
vintage sets he had accumulated
while owning a retail store.

i believed him. i believed my father.

i convinced myself
that he was telling me the truth. surely,
this was an isolated incident.
and yet, every time i was at that house for a
weekend with my father,
i was petrified.

he went to the grocery store
early, one saturday morning-
to get cereal he had neglected to account for
the previous night.

a few minutes after he left, the house lost all power.
my only thought was to find my brother
and get somewhere safe.
the thieves were back.

we crouched behind a stone wall;
half covered in a pristine green moss,
gazing toward any proof of
entrance, shivering in the damp
March morning. my father drove up
to the property
and witnessed us
crouched behind a farmer’s boundary, where the driveway
met the street.

“what are you guys doing out here?!?!?!?!?”

“there was a sound in the basement, and then the power went out.
i thought the thieves were back….” i replied, in a defiant tone.

“c’mon guys, get in the car….”

we did.
and my father drove the twenty yards
to the back door of the house.

he lied to me.

someone was owed money.
he was targeted for a reason beyond
a vintage television market volatility.

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Getting Above My Raising

Do you remember the Dukes of Hazzard? The television show about a moonshining, carjumping, redneck family (white trash if you are unkind)? Most people my age do remember it – the Dukes was huge in the late 70s and early 80s, and has been in reruns ever since. It went on the air in 1979, and for years was the #2 show in America, in part because of its slot right before #1, Dallas. Kids in my generation (Gen X) grew up with Dukes of Hazzard matchbox cars, action figures, lunchboxes, underroos, etc.

What made the show and its huge success surreal, and fateful, for me was that my father, Ben Jones – a stage actor based in Atlanta, Georgia – had somehow landed a co-starring role. There he was on television, every Friday night, playing Cooter, sidekick to the Duke Boys. He had a lot of lines. It never ceases to amaze me how many people know exactly who he is, from my generation and the ones before and after. He may be the most famous tow-truck driver ever.

I saw the show much more than I saw my father. I had custody visits with him at Christmas and for several weeks each summer. He and my mom split up when I was two and both remarried (in his case, several more times). She married a much older man who relocated us up North. I did not like either the man or the move. The rest of my family was in Georgia and North Carolina, but I grew up in Delaware and then Connecticut, losing my accent and close family ties.

For much of my childhood, my father was in Hollywood, earning more money than he knew what to do with. He spent quite a lot of it on going home regularly to Georgia, because he hated Hollywood and he missed his dogs. And he also spent some on flying me out to wherever he was. We would stay in Burbank while he was shooting at the Warner Brothers studios, or we would drive around the U.S. from one autograph signing to another, or we would lay low at his place in Georgia. The Georgia house was way “out in the country” – his favorite place to be. To get there, we would drive down highways, then eventually back roads, then a dirt road that went deep into piney woods. I still miss that front porch, especially its rocking chairs, perfect for reading on rainy afternoons.

My father is a large man, built like a football player, blessed with a lot of charisma and a sharp intelligence. Gregarious and opinionated, he usually dominates whatever room he is in, and charms whatever crowd he is playing for. He thrives on the attention of others and he wants to be where the action is. And he usually is; after the Dukes went off the air, he parlayed his celebrity and savvy into two terms as a U.S. Congressman from Georgia. (Not bad for a boy who grew up without electricity or indoor plumbing.) After his political career ended, he started a chain of stores throughout the South. He and his current wife make a comfortable living selling Dukes of Hazzard memorabilia.

He lives in a spectacularly beautiful place, a 50 acre “compound” (I call it) nestled in a hollow below the Blue Ridge Mountains. Once I moved to Brooklyn, I began visiting him every few months, always happy to exchange the dirty city for a weekend in the country. His favorite thing to do when I visit is to drive me around. So we spend a lot of time touring the backroads of the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Parkway, windows all the way down and radio all the way up. My father has always been full of energy, maybe a little manic to be honest, and he enjoys the hell out of being alive. I love that about him.

But my trips to the compound were fun before Trump, when we could talk about politics and the state of the world, and agree on many, if not all, things. My father has been a Democrat his entire life, and mine, until now. His politics are about the working class, and he disdains the elites of either party. I am far more to the left and I often disagree with his take on things. Sometimes I tell him so, but not always. Disagreement provokes him and then I have to dig in for battle. He loves to debate, and at times he can get very aggressive – a trait that works well for him with fellow politicians, but not so much with me. Fighting with him over anything exhausts and depresses me. I would usually much rather just change the subject.

But there is one subject that I can’t get my father away from, and now he brings it up in almost every conversation we have: the Confederate flag. The recent controversies over that flag and Confederate monuments have resulted in fights and estrangements in many Southern families, including my own. The past few years have changed my father into a different person politically. He once took part in the Civil Rights Movement when he was a student at Chapel Hill, but now he rails against the UNC students who toppled Silent Sam.

That flag is all over the products sold in his stores. He is defiant against those who want it and other symbols of the Confederacy removed from public view. He is angry about what he sees as an erasing of Southern history and culture. He feels that he is fighting a battle against political correctness and class snobbery. His loyalty is to the people he grew up with, and who have been his audience and customers – white working class people in the South.

These people are also my people, or were until my mother moved us North and sent me to prep school and then college. She was determined that I would get a decent education – something my working class grandmother had wanted for her  – and she made sure I traveled too. In part because of this, I become more aware of nonwhite, nonSouthern perspectives. I also came to the conclusion that I don’t like the flag and don’t approve of flying it. My reasons are simple, and based on my sense of fairness. When descendants of people who were enslaved by my ancestors ask, in the name of reparations, for a change to be made, for example a flag or a monument to be taken down, I believe that I should listen to them and respect their wishes. I also don’t want to display anything connected to the multi-generational traumas (slavery, lynchings, the Charleston shooting, and other horrors) of my African American neighbors. It feels cruel, and it certainly does not symbolize the elements of Southern culture that I am proud of.

Part of what makes my conversations about the flag with my father so difficult is the tension between us about social class. Class, and moving between classes, has been a huge theme in our lives. He grew up dirt poor, an experience that continues to shape how he sees the world. Everything he has, he earned. I grew up in middle class comfort, for the most part, and I enjoyed many more opportunities than he did growing up. Of course that experience shapes my worldview too.

He paid for my college education with earnings from the Dukes. He also never fails to tell me that he is proud of my educational accomplishments (and doesn’t seem to mind that I’ve never done much with my graduate degrees). But my education also gets in between us. For my father, my lefty politics, which he thinks I picked up from my Northern elitist professors, mean that I am a traitor. By rejecting the flag, I’ve committed the ultimate sins: I’ve “gotten above my raising”, “forgotten where I’m from”, and betrayed my working class family and culture. But for me, by rejecting the flag, I am only being true to my beliefs. He always taught me to be independent, to think for myself, and to fight for what I think is right.

I don’t know where our relationship is going from here. Because I reject the flag, he feels rejected, and then he rejects me in turn. I do know my father will never give an inch on the issue. And because I am his daughter, a rebel girl through and through, neither will I.

12/12/1989 to 12/17/1989

12/12/1989

A knock on the door at 10AM but not heard until 12:30. Then and up and alone in a warm house full of food and telly, with Young Ones on tape, so while eating Frosted Flakes I watched for 2 hours and then walked down into Havant Hants, a small town with too many shops. Into an old book store searching for “Naked Lunch” or Jack or something but came away with nothing but the knowledge that small town England is scared of small town US.

Walking, learning town, and finding McDonald’s under construction and think of Gales Ferry. Back to the Burn family hostel house and soon out to pub with Alex’s mates. Only three pints each, as they all work, but I don’t get it.

Back home and start reading “1984” and even after four chapters it affected my dreams, but I don’t remember exactly how.

12/13/1989

8:30AM woken by, holy shit, Graham! Back and basically penniless after his adventure month on the continent. He had a blast. We ate breakfast and lunch and watched Young Ones and bullshat and listened to Mike’s pot tape and bullshat some more until I, now at 10 of 4, head into town to meet Alex in Portsmouth and we wander in and out of shops and he answering my history questions of Portsmouth/Havant Hants, which is an old Roman crossroad and also bombed out in WWII. Into a nice old pub for half glasses before diner and walk/run back home from bus stop as the rain started again.

Huge dinner with fish and true to my “if it is free, eat it” rule I did and along with half the rest of all the food! After dinner, two of Alex’s mates came by and I just busted up laughing because I finally figured out English humor.

Alex’s dad came home as I entered the back door after having a smoke and a fart, and I, with dirty dreads, shook his hand and that was that. Sitting in Alex’s room listening to Graham and others sing and play CSN as I write this now.

Sleep after more “1984”.

{Historical note: on this day, in Reading, PA, USA, Taylor Swift is born.)

12/14/1989

10:30am and up. Mrs. Cleaning 80-Year-Old Woman is downstairs and was probably up at 5, so I am marked a lazy bastard before she even sees me, after which she judges that I am actually a nut.

Day spent with Tom and Graham drinking coffee and watching video tapes. The Burn Hostel had another visitor with pack, but for Alex’s sister at school in London, so she went away.

Second large home-cooked meal in as many days and I gorged again.

Night at college type “cool” pub with two pints and then on to some dance pub in Portsmouth with cool DJs and Go-Go’s and beers and Joy Division, Cure, New Order, Smiths and all kinds of other shit. Almost in two fights. That’s right. Two. First with a bastard who was obviously elbowing my “pals”, as they are all hippyish and small, so I circled around them obviously to block him. He tagged me twice and my gleaming mad eyes reached out and sucked the piss right out of his head. He got the message and was not seen again. The second was while I was upstairs talking to a guy who could maybe handle a beer drinking challenge with your humble author. Alex came up and said “Some wanker’s giving Graham a hard time downstairs”, so down my throat goes a bit more than half a pint and down the stairs let’s go! It was over by the time I got there, but I met the stare of the fucker Nazi wannabe and gave it right back. I was warned by his bigger buddy not to stare, fuck off, and man this little bastard was nuts but would not have been a problem. (Graham: May 2, Kaplan’s, 6:30PM, pack of smokes.)

Back to the house and toast with Graham and talk of fights past, now listening to Megen’s death tape and Waterboys “Whole of the Moon” was played and I went crazy dancing, thinking of her. Good night at 3:30AM

12/15/1989

Graham and I walk down to corner store to buy Cokes and smokes to escape the house as Mrs. Burn is having an Xmas party with her fellow social workers. I get hired for £5 to do the dishes, but the money never comes and I don’t really mind as she’s fed me several meals and given me a nice bed to sleep in.

Off into the night to some club that we had to get to by train. The Hole in the Wall. And to get back we had to take a taxi (£9.50), but the train was free, as was much of the beer!

Back home with a tired Alex and his mate Dom breaks out his hash and rolls two joints. Me, Dom, and Graham go to the back yard and smoke. Dom has a mild epileptic fit and I went to The Beyond as a million intertwined “T”s in yellow and black stripes were all that I could see. Dom eventually was OK, but he’d never had a seizure before. Man, I was really out of it.

Back inside to watch Young Ones (again) until 3:30AM.

{It is now one month since I set out from the US.}

12/16/1989

Back again to the India Pub in Portsmouth with £10 that Graham and I borrowed from Alex. Graham and I are so broke that we combined our change, too, and have been living on human kindness. I drank two ports, which is served as a shot in a half-pint glass. The first was so small that I had to have another. This is not how we drink it back home!

Nothing earth-shattering happened today.

12/17/1989

Tomorrow I will leave The Burn Hostel. Graham’s birthday bash with alcohol-free wine and all kinds of food and bunches of these knuckleheads.

Oh! Yesterday, after pubbing, we went back to Adam’s flat for coffee, which I never got but did smoke off of three joints and felt fine. Other than the port, we did drink some Guinness.
Back to today, I read “1984” during the birthday party and retired to bed to finish reading, but was interrupted for dinner, which was left over party food. Back up to bed to read and they plan on going out later, so I plan on staying in with all of 11p in my pocket! I finished the book just as Graham convinced me to go out. So I go out and get pretty pissed on five pints of Guinness and HSB bitter, free, and again could not piss inside, so I went out.

Home to Alex’s, but the outside night goes on. Down to the bridge over the railway tracks to throw 1p and make a wish. Then talks and then to bed. Tomorrow I head back north, early.

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Panama Diaries, Part III

I take a bus alone from Panama City into the jungle. One one-way ticket. My friend Guadalupe, a retired Spanish journalist who has been my tropical partner-in-crime for three months has returned to Spain, leaving me with a kiss on each cheek and a warning to stay safe.

The crowded bus terminal across from Albrook, a famous mall on the outskirts of Panama City is a disorganized Port Authority on acid. The old bus I board looks like something out of a Bollywood movie meets a Grateful Dead tour van from the 1960’s revamped for everyday travelers. All brocaded curtains, paisley patterned seats, gold, red, and psychedelic purple swirling over the interior.

We drive five hours through small towns nestled in palm trees, a trek that oddly reminds me of when I was in love with a girl in Toronto and would regularly take the endless bus ride from NYC through Upstate New York and across the Canadian border to see her. Youthful amor knows no geographical boundaries.

Now, waiting for me is a cheerful older ex-pat named Kippy, with short cut blonde hair and a gap-toothed grin in her beat up old truck blasting jangling Motown.

“We’re going to a party.” She announces, as I climb in.

When Guadalupe was here, I was able to hang out with Panamanians, the feisty ninety-four year-old matriarch of the small town Pedasi, an owner of a hostel who called me “Mi Rei,” my king, a guy from Chile who strummed guitar while I belted live karaoke in his cantina, American songs like House of the Rising Sun, Proud Mary and Mack The Knife. It seems now that Guadalupe is gone, that world is inaccessible to me. So I fall in with the expats.

After the concrete condos of Panama City, rising by the Pacific like some Miami Vice throwback, the cracked sidewalks and salt stung air, window washers rushing out at streetlights with homemade squeegees and buckets of sudsy water like the crackheads on Houston Street did when I was a kid, the countryside feels even more surreal and tranquil. Kippy and I stop at a roadside stand to buy giant bunches of pinkly stained lychees, and semilla de coco a new delicacy for me, a round white orb of coconut seed with a spongy texture and pure subtly sweet flavor.

On the beach, under the portico of a local cantina, a group of expats have gathered to party, throwing back rum and $1 beers. I haven’t been around this many white people in months and it feels overwhelming and a bit embarrassing. They form their own cohort and even though many have lived in the country for years, they don’t speak Spanish. I wonder how they go grocery shopping.

All the expats in the jungle by the sea seem to have ended up here for some shady reason. So have I, I suppose. No one leaves everything they know behind unless they want to escape something.

At her seventy-first birthday party on the beach, I meet Corey, a “California girl” and old school lesbian who tells me she used to have a gambling problem.

“What made you stop?” I ask.

“I lost my job and my house.” She says frankly, in her nicotine growl, going off to chain smoke another menthol.

There is Sammy, who arrives at the beach and immediately announces he has just gotten a blood test for HIV and herpes.

“I met someone.” He says giddily. “I’m doing it for her.”

After our third round of cervezas, I find out he is a New York Jew, like me, though originally from Israel and three decades older.

He and his parents emigrated to the Bronx of the 1950’s when he was a kid, then moved to Canada when he turned eighteen, so he wouldn’t be drafted in Vietnam.

“When I was eight years-old I got held up by knifepoint for milk and eggs I was bringing home to my mom.” He says.

He notices me noticing his tattoos, numbers across his inner arm and a semi-colon at his hairy wrist.

“The numbers were my father’s when he was in a camp. The semi-colon you should know as a writer.” He says.

“I do.” I say. “But what does it mean to you?”

“My son committed suicide two years ago. It means continuation. Life continues.” He says.

The sun sets over the sea and the green hills of Isla Iguana in the distance. The island looks so close under the bronze, violet and blood red rays it seems you could swim there, though you would die trying.

 

Terrible news filters in from the States. There is a certain anarchy among the ex-pats, escapees who have given up their country for another. Some try their best to ignore all American news, some rage against it. But all seem to live in a sort of tropical Brigadoon, a valley the outside world can’t penetrate.

It reminds me of an ill-timed trip my grandparents took me and my brother on my senior year of high school in 2003. We ended up in the Galapagos Islands on a small nature cruise touring islands desolate except for teeming wildlife.

On one of the few inhabited spots in the archipelago in a small internet café, I found out through an email from my dad that the United States had declared war in Afghanistan. Only two years after 9/11 had changed my New York childhood and teenage world forever, I cried in a roughly paved town square thousands of miles from home feeling angry and helpless all over again. War was the last thing I wanted, but how could I stop it?

Fifteen years later, on a different beach, someone makes a crack about sexual assault on the darkened porch. An older gay man talking about the priests of his youth molesting fellow choir boys.

“The whole time, I was like pick me! Pick me! Is something wrong with me that they don’t want to fuck me?” He says and everyone laughs uproariously.

I don’t and get sideways glances like I’m being a party pooper.

“I think it’s normal for kids to feel chosen or made special by abusers.” I say. “That’s part of the abuser’s power over their victims. I’m sorry you felt that way.” I tell him.

And as the chuckles around us fade, he nods quietly and says, “Thank you.”

“When I was a teenager we fooled around, but we were just figuring out what we liked and what we didn’t.” Protests a grandmother from Colorado. “If a boy and I were heavy petting and he did something I didn’t like, I always told him ‘no,’”

Though unstated, it is clear we are now talking about the recent hearings around the latest Supreme Court nominee.

“There’s a difference between normal exploration and being forced into a situation.” I tell her. “Some people don’t have the ability to say no while it’s happening, that doesn’t make it okay.”

“What about innocent until proven guilty?” She jabs.

“What about believing victims?” I ask.

“I was never a victim.” She says so vehemently it makes me wonder, if like the joke about the priests, there is some pain behind her bluster.

“Bet you didn’t think hanging around with a bunch of old people, you’d be having conversations like this.” Kippy takes me aside to order us more drinks.

“I spoke to my dad on the phone the other day about his artwork and how he used to correspond with a guy who was into phallic piercings to do a portrait.” I shrug. “He’s older than all of you.”

But as the party dies down, I think about generational ideas of sex. How this older crew who grew up with so much normalized repression and sexism have all been touched by abuse in some way and see it as a hard knock reality rather than something that needs to change.

Kippy drives me back in the dark, past swooping bats and the crooning melodic croaking of frogs. Guadalupe always sang back to them “Sapo cancionero, de la noche cantas tu melancholia.” Singing frog, in the night you sing your melancholy.

 

I think of being five and forced into a bathroom by a girl in my class who demanded to see my penis, being ten at a Mets game at Shea Stadium and a fat old man saying to me, “Hey kid, cute ass.” when other adults were out of earshot, being twelve and the odd pitch of my babysitter’s panting as she pinned me down in a game of wrestling, being thirteen and a homeless guy following me down the street offering “I’ll suck your dick for a quarter.”, being eighteen and an older gay friend pawing me whenever he got drunk, being twenty-seven and doing a reading in Philadelphia where the hostess promised me I had a room for the night, which turned out to be her bedroom she wouldn’t let me leave when I tried. How through all of these experiences and more, I felt like I was the fucked up one because I was a guy and shouldn’t I just enjoy it?

We reach the rusted black metal gate of Guadalupe’s property and Kippy keeps her brights on me as I trip up the path lined with palmeras, their fronds glowing poison green in her headlamps. I am alone in Guadalupe’s small house now.

That first night in my friend’s borrowed casita on her vast stretch of land I have nightmares I am being robbed, like I was when I lived in Bushwick, Brooklyn in my early 20’s.

Maybe it is Guadalupe’s paranoia infecting me. Before she left me on my own she warned “Pueblo chico, infierno grande.” Small town, big fire. Her house has been knocked over three times before, so maybe I am just being realistic.

I wake up to glaring sunlight, safe for the moment in my sweaty nightmare tossed sheets. I wonder how many other of the revelers from last night went home and dreamt of a world where we were violated. And if the lush beauty of the tropics will ever be enough to quell those visions.

 

 

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