Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Destruction and Redemption of a Wannabe Artist Soul

On a trip to New York in the summer of 2000, I met an art student from Jamaica Queens who told me that I had no ability to evaluate art. What education do you have? she asked. What ability do you have? What experience do you have? You don't know anything. To be honest, that seven-year-old statement from a girl whose name I can't remember and whose face I wouldn't be able to recognize again lodged somewhere in my soul and crippled my abilities both to look at a piece of art and appreciate it or to walk away from it unimpressed. Actually, it was the second great undoing of Susan, artistically speaking. The first came after a bad experience with an elementary school art teacher. In the end, I became a writer. Writing is my terra familiar, my br'er patch. I critique it and praise it with absolute confidence. I like this. I say. I don't like this. I'm not obliged to qualify or explain. It's true that I've been Institutionally Certified to have an opinion about literature, but if some student of literature were to emerge from Queens and ask me to justify my basic right to have an opinion about writing I would say simply: I can read. And then I would step on her face with my supercool Frye Boot.

Fortunately for the crippled artist in me, God is Haggo'el, the Redeemer. I remember walking into the Birmingham Museum of Art for the first time in more than fifteen years and being surprised at my ability to have an opinion. I see Mary Cassatt's sketches and I appreciate them. I see Albert Bierstadt's Looking Down Yosemite Valley and am raptured. I get this. I think to myself. I get this and it's my right. So what qualification do I have to appreciate this painting? I say simply: I can see. Over the subsequent months, I see more redemption. I realize that my house sits amid the houses of an art professor, the metal artists, a photographer, a chef, and an artist in clay. Art invades me. Everything is beauty. I get a street education in high art courtesy of Haggo'el and learn I'm not half as stupid as I allowed myself to believe. This weekend, I got to take a field trip. (It was the second I've had recently, but the first deserves a post of its own.) So assaulted were my senses that I experienced complete overload and neared a visual meltdown. I saw many artists. I want to write about three.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Ol' 55 (Or, have you noticed that I keep naming these posts after Tom Waits songs?)

One of my neighbors is a college professor. I don't know what he teaches, but I tell everyone that it's Rockabilly Ethos. For his final, you have to go to a Brian Setzer concert and learn how to roll a pack of Camels in the sleeve of your plain white t-shirt. For extra credit, you can tattoo a teardrop at the corner of your eye. On Saturdays, he throws a deep cuff in his blue jeans and whacks away at his yard with a scythe. Sometimes, he wears a shirt. I always take that as a sign of a good weekend. I just saw him drive past his own house to look at the collection of motley plants growing accidentally and very much on purpose in his front yard. Intentionally careless, he sweeps his pompadour back into place before he kisses his wife hello. She, incidentally, looks like a cast member from Thirtysomething. The best thing about this neighbor is his English Bulldog. His daughter named it Pickles. He would have named it Daddy-O, I bet.

My father says it was great to be a teenager in the 50's. To me, it sounds like a lot of fighting down by the San Antonio River, finishing concrete, cursing in Spanish and peeing off bridges. He says he went to a bar with a Mexican man he worked with called Blacky Salazar when he was about thirteen. The bartender gave him a Lone Star and he drank it. I guess they both figured that after a man's day at work, he deserved a man's beer. He says that about halfway through that beer, the doors opened and a couple of Texas Rangers strutted in. (Now, I assume they strutted, because that's what Texas Men do. They strut. Think George W. Bush with a few extra pounds and a heap more sense.) Up went that beer, he recalls, and in it's place down went a Big Red. After a few minutes they decided the bandito they were looking for had crept down towards Laredo and back over the border and they left. Up went the Big Red and back down went the beer. I like that story. I asked my dad if people actually called each other "Daddy-O" back then. "Only if they wanted their asses kicked," he said. Three cheers for Dad and three cheers for the asses he kicked down by the San Antonio River back in '55.

For I am a Rain Dog, Too (Or, Not So Fast Shorty: Neighborhood Part 10)

The rain is a wild thing running off the roof and on the broad and curling tomato leaves and the concrete and the air conditioner and the broken glass lying in the side yard. The dry mint leaves strain from their pot to breathe the mist. They will end their lives floating with ice in sugared bourbon, and I think they can't have higher ambitions. The bus strains up the hill. Black in the back, white in the front. This phenomena bothers my husband tremendously. He averts his eyes when the bus breaks down and the transit authority brings out its vintage replacement. It's too much. he says. I can't bear the sight of it. Rights so hard earned are forgotten upon realization. The rain runs off the hood of my sleek new car and makes me glad I won't have to wash it. I can't see the top of the second television tower through the fog, but I know it's there and it makes me glad. When I was small driving on the 20-59 through the city, I looked at those towers and thought being able to see them from your house to be the epitome of urban chic. I cling to that belief as I crane my neck to make them out, one to the left and one to the right, over the trees. The wind growls across the top of Red Mountain, along the coal-road past the iron ore. A train rumbles past Sloss. My wind chime struggles to escape the fatal embrace of a Confederate Jasmine. God is in His Heaven. All is right with the world. Somewhere. But not here. Not just now.

Last night, I dreamed of being eaten by a giant fallopian tube with a snarling ovary face. I dreamed of stepping on a dirty needle as I padded barefoot through the grass. I dreamed of rifles and pistols waltzing Matilda through the back yard. I startled awake and flew up the well of sleep to see a million white lights flitting about my room haphazardly like schizophrenic Tinkerbells. Well, this is just great. I thought to myself as I reached for my glasses and saw the whirling lights of an ambulance brought into focus. I wrapped myself again in my quilt and brought the hem over my eyes to block out the lights and siren. That's when the rain began.

Yesterday, Jackson interrupted my conversation with Tom Collins as I sat on the porch with a friend. His appearance didn't bring the usual cold shiver of dread. It should have. He looks older to me now. My fuzzy head only permitted a few of his words to sink in. Extradition to Florida blocked. Time elapsed. Released. Somewhere in Birmingham. Tonight.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The End. (Neighborhood, Part 9)

Jackson wanted to talk, so I walked across the street to his car. "Well," he says,"she's gone." Paul, her boyfriend, is in the Hoover jail. No one came to bail him out. Laura's mother picked her up underneath the spreading Chinaberry branches. There's a sheet of plywood nailed over the doorway. Gone, gone. She's long gone. Gone from Alabama, she ain't never coming home.

Two purple finches dart out from under the heavy branches of the Tulip Poplar tree. The doves who made their home on the mine-trailing pillars holding up my front porch teach their babies how to fly. The sky spreads golden over the interstate and fringes itself with pink. A migrating Broad Winged hawk makes a last swoop through the clouds between the television towers on Red Mountain and I see WBRC light up. I'm suddenly tired. Soul and bone tired like I used to be at the end of a day of horse breaking. It starts in my back and envelopes me like a hug. I'm going to sleep well tonight under the spreading Chinaberry branches.

Jackson tells me what they found in her apartment. A half-starved cat, a few rigs, a plugged toilet. Somewhere, evening starts for Laura . If she can, she'll tie up and nod off. If she can't, she'll be cold and junk-sick. Night will fall. Jackson says she had a wedding picture in her apartment and she looked more beautiful than Brigette Nielson. (In the Rocky days, he clarifies, before Flava-Flav.) David comes home and I hug him for a long time. Our metal artist, drives up and his pretty speckled dog jumps around in the front yard. Corduroy makes friends.

I see another junkie walk up the street and hide in a shrub when he spots a patrol car waiting for him. I see another. And another. If this were a screenplay, I'd make the camera draw back and take a panoramic shot of all the junkies all over town working for a fix before darkness overtakes the city. Life and Death stake their identity on the existence of each other.

Good night track marks. Good night hot rigs. Good night all-night brawls. Good night tac. rifles in my back yard. Good night, Laura. Good night, Me. Good night Birmingham, I couldn't love you more.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Best Friend You've Got is a Railroad Track (Neighborhood Part 8)

STONEYO was picked up on some outstanding warrants last week. Jackson said he admitted being a loyal customer of Laura. I couldn't resist a toldyouso, so I didn't. I imagine he struck out on his tiny motorcycle for parts unknown and less hot with the wind in his hair and a needle between his toes. Laura doesn't have many clients anymore. I think she must be on the last legs of a desperate downward spiral courtesy of her friend, China White or more probably at this point, plain old black tar. She's not a day-tripper now. She's a gutter junkie with some experience. Laura's boyfriend was last night's collar. He, too, had some outstanding warrants. When the cops finally got inside her apartment, they found Laura's boyfriend and his girlfriend. Laura, they said, was hidden under some dirty clothes in the closet. The word is that she's officially been evicted, but apparently, it takes three months to evict someone Hallelujah, Amen. One of the artist neighbors beat it back to Michigan last week. I've just had enough of this, he said. So have I, but I'm invested. On the heels of a quick pleasedtomeetyou, his girlfriend said I'm spending the night in Memphis with or without you. I can't dig this anymore. I was sorry to see him go.

Jackson patted the boyfriend down and put one hand over his head before shoving him in the back of the car. It was a learned gesture. I know in my heart that Jackson doesn't really care if he bashes his head on the roof of the car or not. He just doesn't want to get stuck with a hot rig. The girlfriend lit a cigarette in the darkness and tried to make her battered car start. When it wouldn't go, Jackson fired up his bullhorn and said Ma'am, you're gonna have to release that emergency brake. She was so flustered that he had to help her find it with the bright beam of his Maglite. She beat it down the street, ashes glowing. I imagine I won't be seeing her again. When she arrived that afternoon, she had smiled at me as she slid over to the passenger side of her car to let Laura's boyfriend drive. She seemed to think she was some kind of teenager on a date, and I guess she might have been. Tough luck is a hard lesson. I never smiled back. After the arrest, Laura tottered down the street on four-inch high heels, her face hidden in her sleeves. I watched this scene from my front porch while eating a hamburger with spinach and tomato. Cops inside, Cops outside but with better reception.

The day before, I met Laura's uncle as I hugged the artist and his girlfriend goodbye. He's an attorney and he told us how worried he was about her. Her son hasn't heard from her in weeks. He's apparently so upset that he's dropped out of school and moved in with his grandmother. They don't know where she is. They don't know how she got there. They don't know how to get her back. He tried to give us his phone number but we didn't want it. I don't know what he expected from us. I'm sorry, he said. I'm sorry for all of this. After he had gone, the remaining artist observed the contrast. I'm the neighbor who can't sleep. He's the family who can't sleep. I hope they get her soon. For all of our sakes.

A Fragment of My Childhood: The Story of the Days When Carole King Sang Children's Songs Instead of Four Poofy Australians in a Big Red Car

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Hit the Dirt! (Neighborhood Part 7)

I think I should put Jackson on our Christmas card list. He's become a regular feature in the small circle of my life. Yesterday afternoon he pulled to a stop at the curb, and when I started to speak to him, he shook his head and went back to scrutinizing his notebook. After a few minutes, he flipped it closed and drove further up the street where he parked. My New Friend the Cast Iron Sculptor looked quizzically at me when I took him some lemon chess pie a few minutes later. I dunno. I said before he asked. I guess it's just that time of day. Seeing the police, talking to the police, questioning the police, and being questioned ourselves is something that happens almost every day now. Laura hasn't been seen in a week or more, but when I saw him at the Southern Conference on Cast Iron Art on Saturday, my neighbor told me he heard her moving around in the dark and waterless apartment at night. I imagine she's become some sort of Kafka-esque beetle creature thriving on heroin and waking up at night. I wouldn't be surprised to see she'd grown a few hairy and segmented legs if I met her on the street. I don't know how you can live up there without water, he said, but he cut the hose she was running from his faucet to her window anyway. I don't blame him. I hate her, he says, and I agree, much to my own chagrin. I told my neighbor about my conflicting emotions. A body can only take so much before compassion wears thin, he said. This is true. For all of us who aren't Christ.

I came inside to make supper and I walked into our bedroom to get my white apron from the end of our bed. For some reason, I had left the curtain open. I almost never do that, but so hungry for the sun and the green Chinaberry leaves was I that I broke with tradition and let the sunshine in. As I went to close it, I found myself eye to eye with one of three cops standing in my back and side yard with drawn rifles. Get away from the window. Get away from the window now, one of them said. I flattened myself on the floor and pressed my face into the heartwood boards in my bedroom. I crawled into the kitchen on my belly to avoid being caught in the crossfire that might have ricocheted through the window and all around the bedroom where I sleep. From this vantage point, I found my missing slipper hidden under the bed and realized how far I have traveled from where I first began.

I didn't want to move here. I wanted to stay in Vestavia Hills in a safe little ranch house near the supermarket. But moved here we did with the encouragement of friends who no longer speak to us to be close to a church that no longer wants us. It was a foolish move. And I suppose I'm a fool, but as I watch my tomatoes grow on the front stoop and laugh at my brother-in-law's story of having been reprimanded by his neighborhood association for having let too many sticks fall in his yard, as I see the sparks fly from my neighbor's furnace at Sloss, as I laugh too loudly over too much Southern Comfort on my front porch, as I smell barbecue cooking at the neighborhood rib joint at six in the morning, as I see plants first introduced to my flowerbeds fifty years ago start to sprout again, I realize that I'm home. I'm home. I'm home sandwiched between a wannabe rock band and and a motley crew of iron artists who always have dirty hands. I'm home in a yard with a garden unplanned and a freedom to sit on my front porch and swig straight from the bottle. I'm free to laugh too loudly. I'm free to not be nice. I'm free. Sometimes, I'm on my face on the floor, but then again, sometimes I'm not. I was mislead into this Egypt, but what Evil meant for evil, God meant for good. No church or person will ever help this city, but by the grace of God, maybe this city will help us.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Lodged--Robert Frost

The rain to the wind said,
"You push and I'll pelt."
They so smote the garden bed
That the flowers actually knelt,
And lay lodged -- though not dead.
I know how the flowers felt

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Why People Do The Things They Do

She did things differently from the rest of the Melanies and Scarletts. She didn't wait for the husband to have the baby. She had angels tattooed on her arms and shoulders. She was always different from the rest of us, but nobody every told her that so she didn't know.

I joked with her in Sunday School. One time, I hurt her feelings and she cried. In high school, she gave me a book about seals. She was reaching out. I didn't hear. Years later, I saw her with her beautiful baby and I didn't bother to write her number down. I should have. I should have. She was my friend. She was reaching out. But I didn't hear.

I don't know what goes through your head to make you do something like that. I would have tried to help. But I didn't hear. I heard the news this afternoon in a casual way. I won't be seeing her again. I should have done what I could have done to share the burden then. I will always be sorry for that.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Dood Looks Like a Lady (Neighborhood Part 6)

I believe spring finally bested the tenacious tentacles of winter this weekend, but not before the cold rolled over the city like a lion bent on picking off the fresh shoots and tender buds of our roses, hollyhocks, tomatoes, and trees. Of all my plants, the Don Juan roses on either side of my front steps faired the worst. Their red blossoms bent dejectedly underneath the rain and cold almost touching the grass. Gardeners have a rule of thumb about how things should grow after they are first planted. It's first year no, second year slow, third year go. Unfortunately, my roses were going. I hope they recover. I tied them up and said a prayer before I went to get the hose to water the tomatoes. As I rounded the house, I heard Laura and her boyfriend fighting through the upstairs window next door. This isn't about you! he said. Of course it's about me! she answered. I imagine they were fighting about his mother. She was the one to set the police swarming around the house on Sunday night with guns and flashlights and curses. Apparently, she doesn't fancy the idea of her 24-year-old son shacking-up with a 44-year-old I.V. drug user. There isn't anything she can do, though, but watch his life uncoil before her eyes. The police told her not to come back. I started talking to Corduroy as loudly as I possibly could. I think she's tired of them. She just looked up and went back to worrying her lamb shank bone. A very tall man on a tiny red motorcycle pulled up the street and meeped "shave and a haircut" on his feeble horn before shooting around the corner and disappearing. A few minutes later, he was back in a familiar white Chevrolet. His license plate says "STONEYO." He's come to deliver the wake-up shot just like he does every evening at the same time. He pulled over just before Jackson pulled up.

Officer Jackson calls his beat "the party L," because it's roughly comprised of the area between 20th Street and the 5-points bars, to the part of Magnolia Avenue abutting Brother Bryan Park. On any given night, Jackson is called upon by the city to confine the homeless, keep the drunk fraternity boys from fighting, and keep the rich people dining at Frank Stitt's Highlands Bar and Grill from being so afraid of the homeless and the drunk frat boys that they drive back over Red Mountain before they let go of any more of their money. He laughs about it. I imagine he laughs because he knows that as soon as he gets some experience on Birmingham's mean streets, he'll accept a position with Mountain Brook, Vestavia or Hoover for twice as much money and 75-percent fewer crack houses. In my opinion, he's a government cat-hearder with a gun. He isn't really allowed to fight crime, but he does his best to harrass it away. In so doing, he often takes some time away from the L to drive up 20th Street and make good on his threat to make it a miserable month for Laura
. She's never happy to see him coming. As much as I like him, I'm not always happy to see him, either. It always means drama; the kind of drama that takes five hours and means no sleep.

I tell him what I've been seeing. He tells me what he's been seeing. STONEYO overhears and bails out on Laura and her wake-up shot. She's going to be sick and cross within an hour. He never comes back. I tell Jackson that one of the artists found a pile of used rigs next to the trash can the week before. So, she's shooting, I say, thinking she was a meth-head. She must be far-gone. Jackson says she's always been shooting and that her drug of choice is heroin. He sees other known junkies in and out of her apartment all night long and into the morning. This must be why the artists have taken to sleeping in their studio at Sloss Furnace. I can't imagine what would be bad enough to make them sleep at Sloss with the ghouls and ghosts of unfortunately-smelted iron workers, but apparently, it's Laura. I live next door to Sid and Nancy and it isn't as cool as I would have thought when I was embroiled in my Sex Pistols obsession. A tall blond woman comes down the steps and climbs into a red Chevy Blazer. See that woman? Jackson asks. She used to be a dude.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Ballad of A Junkie, Neighborhood Part 5

Lately, when I return to the city, or even back from the Old Library where I go to hear the friendly murals whisper to me under the pendulous lights that always seem eager to illuminate my way, I inevitably come back to the whirling blue lights that mean things aren't well next door. I hear the cops shouting in the darkness, their voices traveling up the beams of their half-mile lights to her bedroom window. This is a hot house, Laura. And if you don't come outside right now, things are going to be a hell of a lot hotter. This is going to be the most miserable month of your whole miserable life. I hear her stumble in the darkness and curse. Sunday night, she dropped like a cat off her back porch and landed on the neighbor's porch below. These neighbors represent a treasured faction of the Old Guard. They're artists in cast iron and steel, a remainder of the vibrant artistic community Southside used to be before we were here and before those who were here before us were here. I imagine Southside in the seventies. It's the Southside that existed for Jim Reed before he had to pack his Fond Memories and Old Books and move them down to a space on 3rd Avenue. I imagine that back then, the whole world between 20th and 14th Streets was Jim's Museum of the Weird South, home to writers and painters and bangers-on-pipes. I recently learned that Dennis Covington once lived here in a rundown Tudor on Green Springs Avenue. I drive by that house on my way to buy Fresh Mozzarella at the fancy Publix and I think oh house, if only you could tell a tale of the artists who lived here and what they did to pass their time. I imagine that the stories it could tell about Dennis Covington would be acceptably pornographic, if such a thing is possible. Acceptably pornographic and redemptive like the story of when his wife fell down before the Lord after having aborted a miracle baby because it's parentage was disputed. I knew at that moment, she writes, that I was forgiven. And to her, forgiven means no consequences. I wish that's what forgiven meant to me.

I know that Laura found no forgiveness from the Birmingham Cops who wasted their flashlight batteries looking for her feather-thin frame between the Chinaberry trees on Sunday night.

Little Known Facts About Me

For a brief time, I worked at Village Photographers in Auburn taking Zaps. The second or third time David and I visited RMC, I saw a guy that looked familiar. Finally, it dawned on me that I had seen him, not at church, but at a frat party in Auburn saying, Hey Zap Girl, take a picture of my butt! I guess he started to take his pants off, but I didn't stay around there long enough to make sure. There are two, no three, things you can count on when you are in this line of work:

1. Many of your co-workers will know something about Dungeons and Dragons.
2. There will always be a picture of someone naked or partially naked somwhere in the rolls you shoot on any given night.

3. There will always be a shot of white chicks making gang signs.

The Ballad of Junkie( Neighborhood Drama Part 4)

Officer G. is as round and dark as a plum. On his belt he carries a tazer equipped with a small camera used to record the spastic gyrations of everyone he subdues. I suppose the camera was added after Mayor Kincaid got bent out of shape when a few people died after having been tazed. The police called that Collateral Damage, the City Council called it Unacceptable. (If Representative John Rogers called it something, it would probably have been "Mushhumphaloa Acrakcadoah," or something like that. None of his constituents would have any idea what he had said, but he would have said it with such conviction they would have rubbed their chins and said "That's right. He sure is right about that." and gone on with their business.) The new camera protects the citizens and gives the officers at the South Precinct some pretty funny home movies to watch between their shifts. I can only imagine the knee-slapping good time they have watching some cracked-out kid involuntarily invoking the aid of Saint Vitus as he "flops like a fish" on the pavement. G.--officers refer to each other and themselves only by their last names--explains the tazer to the small group of neighbors between the pansies and tomatoes on my front stoop. "It goes pop pop pop pop!" he says. "And that's when you know to get the hell out of the way." Without having to be asked, he Pop! Pop! Pops! the tazer at a nearby cat. The cat escapes startled, but un-tazed. I think Officer G. would like to have the footage of a tazed cat, poofed out like a cotton ball, to show back at the South Precinct at the end of his shift.

G. was just starting his second shift, 11-to-7, after having finished the 3-to-11 shift thirty minutes before. "I need some MO-NAY!" he says. I wish I had some to share. He shows us the other crime-fighting tools he has on his belt, and explains that most of them were purchased with his own money. Flashlights, night-sticks, handcuffs, guns. His police cruiser is ten years old and showing its age. As he talks, I realize that when his car was new, G. was still a sixteen-year-old offensive lineman at Jackson-Olin High School. When he finished his 30-minute interview with my neighbor's much younger boyfriend, he comes to ask us "What did he do now? I can't figure it out." I have the strange suspicion that Officer G. talks just a little too much.

Some three hours earlier, David and I followed 18th Street over the hump that is Red Mountain back into the belly of the city. One of my favorite views is a panoramic vista of the Jones Valley along that route just below the statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge. Birmingham creeps through the valley and up both sides as if it sprouted from a seed dropped by the need for iron just after the Civil War. I used to have a pastor with a small son who greeted the buildings and the rusted-out furnaces by saying "Hello City! I'm back." I understand. Although it is the world of my youth and experience, I always feel the world outside the city is the place I go to thoroughly embarrass myself. The way I dress, the way I talk, the way I think, the way I walk are just a little different. I've always subscribed to the theory that architecture and environment contribute to human identity. Now I know that if theories can somehow be substantiated by empirical evidence, that one has been. Two years in, I'm different.

The change started as imperceptibly as a morning glory vine creeping up the window. As odd as it sounds, I think it happened over time as I was forced to deal with the homeless. As I was forced to deal with the poor. As I was forced to deal with the drug-addled, the HIV positive, the neglected, the mentally ill. In and of themselves, it isn't so very hard to address issues such as poverty, disease, and destitution. But I'm always flummoxed when I start to wonder how Christ marries these issues. How is Christ manifest in the homeless? How is Christ manifest in the life of a beat-cop who doesn't make enough money to pay the rent after he's purchased his own equipment? When you live in the World Beyond the City, you drive away after a night's boozing and stop thinking about Roosevelt who lives under a bench at Brother Bryan Park. You stop thinking about Fred up the street who sells cocaine out of his apartment. You stop thinking. Here, though, they are always with you. You cannot escape. And as much as you want to change them, as much as you want to help them, they turn around and change you. They hand you a dubious gift wrapped in a dirty newspaper and all that is left is a humble acceptance of something you can't give back. Finally you learn, maybe years later, how much you owe them for that. Thank you city. Thank you neighborhood. Thank you Christ, Healer of the World, who causes the morning glory to grow across my broken window. Hello City! I'm back. I'm back to be embraced by those who don't know how much of a stranger I really am.

(Of course, to be continued....)

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

One More Silly Post

Am I a terrible person for thinking this is hella funny?