Around 1987, during my second stint as editor of Creative Loafing, I decided the paper needed an architecture critic. I’d returned to Atlanta after two years in Houston where I’d become fascinated with the subject. The magazine I edited there regularly ran architecture criticism.
So I put out the word and received a good bit of interest from some really forward-thinking architects. I asked most of the candidates to write the same essay - a critical review of John Portman’s Peachtree Center designs (c. 1967). The number willing to write that? Zero. It wasn’t because they liked Portman’s style. It was because they didn’t want to commit career suicide by hurling Portman’s reputation from the top balcony of the Hanging Gardens of Atlanta Hyatt Regency.
Atlanta generally is cursed with a lot of hideous architecture. The building booms of the ’60s and ’70s here destroyed much of the city’s outward beauty. And that wasn’t uncalculated, especially downtown. More about that in a moment.
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One of the longtime blights upon our landscape - and increasingly around the world - is fast-food architecture. I was thinking about that one night last week when I decided to reward myself after not having what I thought was a heart attack (seriously) the day before. It was about 11 p.m., I think, and I needed a Toffee Coffee Arctic Swirl from Zesto to remind me of life’s sweetness. (Actually, any excuse will do.)
As I approach the Retro Zesto on Ponce (above) I notice how each window frames a view of separate tables. Somehow, that reminds me instantly of Edward Hopper’s painting, “Nighthawks” (1942) (left). I suppose the association is the nighttime view through windows of two diners. Of course, Zesto is actually flashy as hell looked at overall, whereas Hopper’s venue is non-descript.
Fast-food joints are flashy to catch attention, obviously, and we all know beauty doesn’t snare the American imagination as much as flagrant kitsch. Believe me, when those golden arches first appeared - as literal parts of McDonald’s architecture - they stabbed us in the salty gut and the hungry eyes. Obviously, too, the standardization of such design adds to recognition among the competing fast food emporia that snake along America’s highways. (Interestingly, though, Zesto has some seriously deviant designs that go beyond flashy to hilarious kitsch. Check out the Buckhead pagoda, if you haven’t.)
Besides catering to Americans’ low-grade aesthetics, fast-food architecture serves other purposes in my experience. Most fast-food restaurants conform to at least one standard of horror prevalent in Portman’s own architecture: elimination of the nooks and crannies of semi-private space that used to be part of architecture. I’m sure you can deduce why in the riot-plagued mid-’60s, Atlanta’s new downtown architecture was conceived to put everything in public view and provide no full-time residency. Thus we’ve never enjoyed the kind of downtown street life that characterizes larger, older American cities and most of the European continent.
In this context, there’s a little-acknowledged payoff in fast-food restaurants. As I near the door, my gaze meets that of others, each window a vaguely melancholy vignette. But when I get inside the harshly lit restaurant and join the short line, I’m immediately engaged in conversation with the interracial couple from New York in front of me. I’m proselytizing the curative powers of Toffee Coffee Arctic Swirls, which they decide to try and later tell me has changed their lives. “And we love the way the black is swirled with the white right here in Dixie,” the woman tells me, laughing.
I’m wearing my Pink Floyd t-shirt. As I walk to my table, three men with Bibles call me over and we start discussing the band. The shirt is illustrated with the band’s mascot pig and we get into a discussion about whether it’s a relevant image, as seems to happen every time I wear it. We start browsing our phones faster than Sunday School kids doing Bible drills.
Then a woman sitting alone at a nearby table shouts that Pink Floyd is her favorite band ever and that, yes, of course, the pig is the sine qua non of PF imagery. We high-five. The trio laughs and reopens their Bibles. One of them gives me what I assume is a business card.
I finally sit down with my ice cream. I look at the card. It says, “This entitles you to never-ending blessings from Jesus Christ.” Whoa! Bring on the cash, Big Guy.
A man and woman with an infant enter and take seats at a bar across from me. The baby is slapping its carrier and smiling between sips from a bottle. Four teenagers come in. Two are wrapped around one another like Siamese twins attached face-to-face and hip-to-hip. They break loose and walk toward my table. The guy stops.
“So you like that Kindle?” he asks in a deeply country accent. “How come you didn’t get an iPad?”
“For the same reason I’m eating at Zesto,” I say. He laughs. I ask where they’re from.
They are from Macon, up for a concert. I ask him if Len Berg’s, famous for its macaroon pie, is still open there. I used to stop there whenever convenient during the years I dined around the state for Georgia Trend magazine. He looked at me blankly. His girlfriend walked over and said, “Oh, my mama talks about that place! So does my grandma.” Thank you for making me feel decrepit.
One by one, everyone leaves the restaurant as others enter, many laughing as they walk through the doors. Bromides about ships passing in the night and conversations with strangers on airplanes go through my head. Outside, apparently homeless people mill about. One asks me if I have an extra French fry. “I’m out of those,” I say and give him a dollar.
* * *
It seems absurd to think that these overlit palaces of unhealthy, mainly bad-tasting food serve the purpose of public plazas. But they certainly are rooted in the tradition of roadside restaurants, diners and coffee shops where friends’ conversation overflows to strangers’ tables. Indeed, Starbucks — no matter how much you may hate it — serves that purpose big-time, especially with its newish community tables.
I spent two years soon after undergrad as editor of the McDuffie Progress in Thomson, Georgia, and I remember when the McDonald’s opened there, barely a block off the I-20 exit. It was a shock to the town, which had the usual spots where people gathered for morning coffee and cat-head biscuits. McDonald’s is not usually considered a hangout space, but I do remember lots of Thomson people commenting that the restaurant was, essentially, a landing pad for aliens — a good place for people-watching if not actual conversation.
But, if you think McDonald’s never functions as a community plaza, visit the one on Cheshire Bridge. At some hours, it’s full of mainly Mexican kids on laptops, taking advantage of the free WiFi. (And isn’t Facebook itself a public plaza?) The kids are often with their mothers. I got to practice my Spanish the couple times I went there to sample the repulsive McRib. “Como se dice ‘chicken finger’ en Español?”
My longtime socialist conscience has to note, though, that democracy is not at play in high-end restaurants or fast-food venues, for that matter. Most restaurants are vessels of classism. Maybe that’s true of all capitalist businesses, but I’m advocating transgression of social boundaries. That’s one reason I love small ethnic restaurants like those along Buford Highway. Their very alterity and low prices especially create a sense of the public plaza. They are typically as kitschy as fast-food chains, but at their best they are full of soul.
* * *
My parents lived in St. Simon’s and I had occasion once to visit John Portman’s home there, Entelechy 2. It was different from his weirdly hotel-like Atlanta home, Entelechy 1, but grotesquely Disneyesque to my eyes, and not mindful of its location. There’s no doubt the man is a brilliant rebel who has influenced architecture worldwide. But the cinematic scale displaces intimacy, perfect for anyone who wants to avoid the sight of poverty or open the eyes to the heart of diversity.
How utterly weird to think that trashy fast-food joints might constitute a homeopathic antidote to bland grandeur. Well, that’s the crazy way I think at Zesto late at night in the thrall of a Toffee Coffee Arctic Swirl after surviving a faux heart attack, anyway.
Oh, that “heart attack” turned out to be the result of an act of stupidity I committed in the gym.
There’s no question that dealing with insurance companies is a nightmare for most people these days, but the real villains are the hospitals, Big Pharma, medical equipment makers, and greedy doctors that keep raising their prices well ahead of the inflation rate. Read the article.
Everyone has their stories. A few of mine:
I was “lucky” to learn what really motivates the do-no-harmers long ago. When I was 29, I landed in the emergency room at Piedmont Hospital, so sick I literally could not lift my head off the examination table. After an hour, the doctor who first examined me came in the room and announced, “You’re extremely ill. We don’t know what is wrong with you, but you have to leave because you have no insurance.”
Can you imagine? For years afterward, I dreamed that the assholes arrived on my doorstep dying of hunger. “I’m sorry, you’ll have to leave because you cannot pay for the food I have,” I’d tell them. Then, I began to choke as heavy winds blew hail and rain against my windows. The door flew open and the storm ceased. My breathing became easy. I took the doctors in and fed them.
No such humane stories occur in the real life of hospitals like Piedmont. After my parents gave the vultures $10,000, I was admitted and a doctor was assigned to my case. He couldn’t diagnose me and, after 3 days, I was near death. I’m not exaggerating. Only then, was an infectious-disease specialist called in. It took him about three minutes to diagnose Scarlet Fever. I was far sicker than I needed to be, thanks to the assigned doctor’s hubris.
Interestingly, weeks later, the specialist told me I would have been better off leaving Piedmont and going to Grady, Atlanta’s public hospital. At Grady, he told me, there is always a specialist in every field on duty in the ER. My Scarlet Fever would have been quickly diagnosed.
I was in Piedmont over a week. Maybe a month after I checked out, they turned me over to a collection agency whose lawyer threatened me repeatedly. Apparently, my parents had “underpaid” them $100 for my initial ER visit. I was dirt-poor but embarrassed to tell my father what was happening. So I sold some possessions and drove to the lawyer’s office to give him the cash before he threw me into small claims court.
Seven years ago, I had emergency surgery at Piedmont and they botched it. But here’s my favorite scene: Languishing in monstrous pain in the emergency room, completely unattended for hour after hour. I apparently blacked out after five hours and came-to screaming. At that point a doctor hurried over and I went off. I told her I was in the worst pain imaginable and that I couldn’t believe that they wouldn’t give me even aspirin to help deal with it. Her reaction? She burst into tears. I was mean to her. That’s okay, Doc., you go ahead and torture me by not addressing my pain and I’ll be nice.
And I loved this: Soon after I was admitted, someone thrust a paper in my face that said it was my responsibility to tell nurses to wash their hands (to avoid staph infection?) before touching me. Hello? I was on morphine and I thought my urine bottle was my cat half the time. I was supposed to tell the nurse,”Warsh yer hands, dammit!”
About a year ago, Kaiser referred me to an outside cardiologist on the Piedmont campus. Everyone promised that my tests would be covered under my ($700 monthly) insurance. However, because it turned out that the hospital owned the equipment the doctors used, I was charged $2000. Kaiser, refused to pay (but eventually did). I’m happy to say they no longer refer people to that practice. Meanwhile, I had to have all the tests redone at Kaiser’s own facility. Why? Because we couldn’t get all of the results from the Piedmont-campus doctors. “She just won’t give us the results,” the office manager said to me one day.
That our equally disgusting legislators enable this needlessly bloated and corrupt excuse for “free-market” medical care is particularly galling. (That reminds me, but I won’t get into my gall-bladder removal and the nurse who called me a wimp repeatedly at another, equally awful hospital.) There’s nothing free-market about this system. Congress won’t let Medicare negotiate drug prices, for example, thus raising taxpayers’ cost of the program by billions of dollars. Why? For no reason other than to protect the obscene profits of Big Pharma. Oh, those fiscal conservatives.
Obamacare is going to increase access to the system for lots of people, but it’s not going to do much to stop the increase in costs. In fact, the program is in many respects a huge score for the fat cats in scrubs.
Steven Brill’s article discloses several things new to me. One of them is the existence of something called “the chargemaster.” It’s a list of charges for everything a hospital does. Nobody Brill interviewed could give a coherent explanation of how the shockingly inflated prices are set.
Of course, insurance companies have the privilege of paying costs substantially below those on the chargemaster. But uninsured people or people who have exhausted their benefits are not told they have the freedom to do the same.
The most baffling thing of all is the way so many ordinary consumers do not support a single-payer system. Meanwhile, the national deficit that makes the same people so angry grows and grows and would be substantially reduced by a single-payer system.
Please read Brill’s article and pass it on to friends.
I’ve had a mind-blowing series of synchronicities in the last few days. I’m talking the kind of experiences that remind us that there is a world of “invisibles,” whether literal or imaginal, that can draw us toward the truth we are actively or unconsciously avoiding.
Synchronicities are acausal and nonlinear. I apologize if the telling of my story is equally circular:
I’ve been pretty seriously depressed for some time. There was the death of my mother. There was the death of my father, his disinheritance of me, and my brothers’ refusal to talk to me about it. A couple of longterm friendships crashed.
There was botched emergency surgery on my knees, leaving me broke and unable to run, bike or even walk downstairs comfortably. There was — there is — the loss of significant income from Creative Loafing’s cutback of my nearly 30-year-old dining column.
There’s my brother’s serious illness and my estrangement from him. (Estrangement and the refusal to discuss its causes drenches my family like a marinade of 500-proof liquor. And, yes, I most certainly include myself among the marinated.)
So, I’ve been pretty depressed and crazy at times. So much so that I decided to go to an AA meeting today, for the first time in 20 years. I thought picking up some of the program’s tools again might be helpful. Still, I sat in my car outside the AA clubhouse, Galano, for a bit, making excuses not to go in. Then I looked at my iPhone and noticed the date: April 9. I suddenly realized that this was the date I got sober 30 years ago. I seriously had no memory of this until that moment. Synchronicity. I didn’t dare not attend the meeting.
And there’s more…
I found the meeting quite soothing and a welcome reminder that I have dealt successfully with some major challenges over the years. I heard exactly what I needed to. But the small meeting at noon also made me anxious. Why had I quit going to meetings in the first place?
My memory — the start of another synchronicity — startled me again. At the time I originally arrived at AA, I was under contract to HarperCollins to write a book about what remained of the strange, Southern Gothic world of Flannery O’Connor. I was also cranking out cover stories about eccentric personalities for the Sunday magazine supplement of the AJC. I was living in a very strange world. And I loved it.
But getting sober rudely lifted me out of that world and in fact seemed to initiate writer’s block. I was frequently questioned by a “sponsor” — AA’ese for “mentor” — about my preoccupation with the weird. Who but a drunk would want to spend a month with a touring freak show? If I wanted to stay sober, my sponsor told me frequently, I might want to consider joining the “normal world.”
It sounds ridiculous, but, without questioning, I took this message so to heart that I walked to the Zesto near my house and, in a black depression, threw what I’d written of the book into the dumpster. This was the years of typewritten manuscripts. I had no copy. When I told my AA sponsor about this a few hours later, he raced over with a flashlight to retrieve the pages, but the dumpster had been emptied. He was horrified. I was actually relieved. And I do mean that.
When I have told this story over the years, I’ve always blamed the “shadow” side of AA, its supposedly normalizing dogma. But at the meeting I went to today, I realized that my action had very little to do with the imposition of any severe notion of normality that AA tries to foist on members. The group was reading from the foundational text, “The Big Book,” and much of it actually concerned the value of “crazy wisdom,” not a term AA uses, but one from the Dharmic traditions that certainly applies.
This was an embarrassing revelation but another awakening synchronicity: I happen to be (finally) writing a book about the virtue of being different, odd, eccentric, abnormal, whatever. In writing it, I’ve been reviewing my history with my mother. She was obsessed with making me normal throughout my childhood and adolescence. While she didn’t manage to achieve that, I did end up feeling guilty and afraid every time I’ve “stuck out in a crowd,” even if for flattering reasons. And I’ve usually run out of sight as quickly as possible.
That’s the real reason I abandoned my book project of 30 years ago. I did not want to appear crazy to my mother and the residents of her world. So, blaming a minor subtext of AA — and I seriously only got this today — was a convenient way of copping out of my book contract. The new, sober, normal me would not be embarrassing anyone, not even myself, no matter if it derailed my career. I do wish someone had intervened in this process, but I doubt I would have listened.
Now, I do believe AA promotes some behaviors that are superficially normalizing, like belief in a “higher power.” It doesn’t prescribe a certain concept of a higher power, but there’s a lot of pressure to believe. I understand that the idea is a strategic way of giving up a narcissistic perspective, but I’ve had many clients over the years bail for other support groups because of the “higher power thing.”
I also think my role as a writer preoccupied with the bizarre did make quite a few people uncomfortable in the early days of my sobriety. But, my God, that was equally true — more true — of the world at large. Above all, though, was my own discomfort with myself.
I should, however, give myself credit that during the 20-some years I wrote my weekly “Headcase” (nee “Paradigms”) column for CL, I did celebrate the beauty of the wacky. And I urged gay men to revel in their outlaw status for seven years in a biweekly column elsewhere. But with the end of those columns (and the onset of aging), I think I began retreating back to my wish to stay hidden. And that in turn reminds me that soul must have expression in order to flourish.
What do I make of this cluster of synchronicities? I think they ask me to move both backward, to what I learned of value 30 years ago, and forward, to appreciate and share the crazy wisdom I’ve accrued in my life as a paradoxically visible outsider.
I’ve long been fascinated with circuses and carnivals. I doubt that I’m related to the Frank Bostock who founded this turn-of-the-century menagerie circus, but it pleases me to think so. (My grandfather’s name was Frank and both men were Brits.)
Bostock’s Circus wasn’t limited entirely to animal acts, but also apparently featured sideshows with figures like this tattooed man. (The marketing for the picture refers to “gay interest.” I have no idea.)
Here’s a shot of the Coney Island arena where the circus was apparently headquartered for a time.
A popular criticism of psychotherapy is that “just talking” is of little value. To some extent, I share that belief. But it’s often a shock of great value to clients to learn they are “not the only one” who grew up feeling different.
When that feeling of difference is accompanied by shame, it can alienate a person for a lifetime. Historically, an obvious example is the situation of young gay people. That, mercifully, is changing.
I like this video for depicting the best response to the recognition of difference. Its implied message is that parents should support and encourage their kids in this regard, encourage them to associate with the like-minded. Yes, the video is idealistic, because it assumes the kid’s difference is positive or at least benign. You don’t want to encourage your young kleptomaniac to organize a kiddy crime syndicate.
The video very much expresses my own experience as far back as I can remember. There was the murky sense of a taboo gay orientation, of course, but I felt different in just about every other respect, too. This drove my mother crazy. She valued normality above all else and she oscillated dramatically between encouragement and its opposite.
A good example was her habit of writing me long letters that she pinned to my pillow when I was a teenager. I remember one that succinctly summarizes their tone. It began with (I’m paraphrasing), “I’m proud that you march to the beat of a different drummer…but.” And then it went on for pages and pages to tell me why I should ignore the drummer.
Another example I’ve written about before was when I won second and third place in a state poetry competition for high school students. I had no inkling of the award, but I came home one afternoon and my mother handed me the competition’s booklet of best poems. The poems were illustrated. One of mine was entitled (oy), “Love Song to a Mechanical Goddess.” It was an angry poem about the girlfriend who had jilted me.
The poem was illustrated with a picture of a jalopy on a trash heap. Yes, the judges presumed it was about my car. My mother handed the book to me, making a comment something like, “This is what life is about. If you choose to be different, you will not be understood.”
The effect of such parenting was to leave me more confused and suspicious than anything else, something I have struggled with my entire life, no matter how much therapy I’ve done. I developed a not-so-helpful defense: I became often oblivious to the effect of my behavior on others, as well as my talents and my liabilities. It doesn’t make aging pleasant.
At one point — after I did a three-week intensive 20 years ago — I asked my mother directly, “Why didn’t you just support me and encourage me, instead of trying to change me all the time? What was so bad about me?” She began crying and said, predictably, that she didn’t want me to be unhappy. But the degree to which she tried to change me suggested something more.
Soon after that encounter, I learned the sentiment was deeply rooted in her own fear of being different — a fear explicitly described in some of her own adolescent writing I discovered after her stroke. I can’t say this changed everything, but it did prompt the beginning of a process of forgiveness. As I often tell clients, forgiveness of others makes us more forgiving — accepting — of ourselves too. But it does not forever erase our conditioned impulses.
So, a video like this moves me. I do remember making exactly the kid’s decision: “I’m not even going to try to become something I’m not.” But I faltered because I really did not feel supported except by a few teachers and sometimes by my grandmother, whose memory still nourishes me. And, in the case of my sexuality, the entire culture informed me I was a sinner, a criminal and a mental case.
I know a significant difficulty in trying to support an eccentric kid is that the parents are often challenged to suspend their own values. But, surely, love merits the effort.
I came across this lovely image by Diane Arbus a few days ago. I was obsessed with her work back in the ’80s. I discovered her while working on a chapter about sideshow freaks for my ill-fated book, “Good Country People.” She had photographed some of the freaks associated with the same crew I visited in Gibsonton, Fla.
Why is everything in this room shoved against the wall? The Christmas tree reminds me of the expression “backed into a corner with no escape.” Even the gifts seem to be exerting pressure on the tree — not that gift-giving exerts any pressure on us, right? And what’s that behind the top of the tree? A shadow? A burned spot? Does Christmas have a dark side? Surely not!
Overall, the picture feels suffocating to me. But what’s with the large empty space? Maybe an elephant — the Christmas weightiness that we’re not supposed to talk about — just exited the living room. (That would be an elephant dressed as the Grinch.)
Yes, like most of my clients and many friends, I’ve often found Christmas suffocating. I’m glad it’s behind us again.
I’ve just been through the nightmare of “migrating” my website and a few posts here disappeared. This was the latest. Sorry for the repetition it causes on Twitter and Facebook.
Hey, y’all. I have received a ton of mail, especially on Facebook, about Creative Loafing’s cutback of my “Grazing” column. I haven’t been able to answer all of it, but please know that I appreciate it.
After 30 years’ affiliation with the paper, they cut my income by 2/3rds with literally a week’s notice. It’s been my intention to write a post on my personal blog about the experience, but I’m waiting until my head cools.
As I reported before, I’ll still be contributing to the paper’s Omnivore blog and writing “Grazing” once a month, for now. The next column will appear in January. I’m also writing some of the “First Look” pieces.
Meanwhile, please feel free to send me money or notice of work available. Remember, most of my writing career has been editing publications and writing about much more than food.
I also continue to see clients in my psychology practice, specializing in creativity-related matters.
(This was written for the Omnivore blog at Creative Loafing’s website.)
Trouble with my Mac laptop required that I make a trip to the Apple store at Lenox Square last night. I grew up shopping at Lenox — I think my mother had her own parking space — but I’ve avoided the place like the plague for years. I’d rather wear ill-fitting, out-of-fashion clothes purchased online than throw myself into the black hole of frantic consumerism called Lenox Square.
But I did feel a major wave of nostalgia as I passed the Godiva Chocolatier shop last night. My mother was a fanatical lover of the stuff and it was often stacked on the sideboard of the dining room at Christmas. At that time of the year, she bought mainly pieces filled with liqueurs.
Godiva was then (and still is) instantly recognizable by its gold box. I recall that during my freshman year of college, Mama sent me a big box as the holidays descended. I doubt she would have approved that it became the centerpiece of a psychedelic session with a few friends. We ate the whole box in a few hours, each piece producing synesthetic waves of pleasure.
At that time, Godiva was considered the best chocolate available. But it was also during my freshman year that the candy began to lose its eclat for me. After my friends and I tripped on it, my roommate noticed the empty box.
“You like that stuff?” he asked me.
“Yeah, of course,” I said.
“I can get you all you want,” he said, as if he were a drug dealer.
“How much?” I asked.
“Free,” he said.
I asked him how he would manage that.
“My father is an executive at Campbell Soups,” he said.
“Yeah? And? What’s that got to do with Godiva?” I asked.
“Campbell owns Godiva,” he explained.
I was shocked. The same people who make the watery, weakly flavored soups made the world’s best chocolate! They bought it from the Belgian company that had been selling it since 1926. (And Campbell sold it to a Turkish company a few years ago.)
I have no idea if Campbell changed anything other than the marketing of Godiva. But after learning of the change, every time I bit into a piece of Godiva, I tasted notes of pink tomato soup. It was similar to the way I came to smell Jungle Gardenia perfume every time I smell Downy Fabric Softener. I used to make out with a high school girl friend in her parents’ laundry room. The two smells are forever associated.
I decided not to tell my mother about the Campbellization of Godiva. For all I know she already knew. In any case, it became a Thing You Just Don’t Discuss and I always tried to give her the gold boxes on special occasions. A few times, I gave her much better artisan chocolates like those made here by Maison Robert, but they clearly never excited her as much as Godiva. So, I stuck to it. It was a lesson in the way taste depends on memory.
My mother had a stroke that left her unable to read, write, talk or walk. She lived about 15 years in this condition. I took her a box of Godiva near the end of her life and her eyes lit up. My mother and I had a difficult relationship throughout my life, to say the least. I was literally afraid of her, but we had finally come to talk regularly a few years before her stroke.
When I handed her this last box of Godiva, she loosened the gold cord and removed the lid. Instead of taking the first piece for herself, she held the box out to me. I took a piece, as did she. Our gaze locked as the sweet chocolate melted and countless good memories rolled over me.
I find this video amazing in all it encapsulates. It is a demonstration by Occupy Wall Street at Lincoln Center that began during the third act of Satygraha, Philip Glass’ opera about Ghandi.
As Alex Ross, the New Yorker music critic, explains: The protest “was directed not at the opera itself but at a certain disparity between its lofty moral message and the machinery of corporate arts funding.” That’s code for “elitism.” More about that in a moment.
Most striking, Glass came out to address the Occupiers. Police had herded them down the center’s steps, effectively creating a barricade between what looks like the peasants and the exiting royals. But many of those alleged royals ended up jumping the barricade to join the protestors.
Glass, always elegant, limited himself to simply repeating the opera’s last three lines, from the Bhagavad Gita:
When righteousness withers away and evil rules the land, we come into being, age after age, and take visible shape, and move, a man among men, for the protection of good, thrusting back evil and setting virtue on her seat again.
Talk about appropriate for our time. And those words are thousands of years old.
What is amazing here, besides Glass’ chilling quotation of an ancient text so relevant today, is the drama of presumably elitist opera goers — the royals — interacting with demonstrators. (I stopped myself from using the words “counter-cultural demonstrators.”) Glass’ appearance was of course in support of the Occupiers and, I assume, was meant to demonstrate that “fine art” itself does not necessarily represent elitist values.
At the Met, the most expensive opera tickets are indeed expensive, but you can stand behind the orchestra section—or even sit at the upper reaches of the house—for less than the cost of an IMAX showing at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13 multiplex up the road. This persistent fiction of “elitism,” and contemporary classical music’s supposed inaccessibility, is one of the strongest propagandistic tools ever devised by the titans of corporate pop culture. They would prefer you not ever cost-compare a Family Circle seat to Satyagraha alongisde a 3D screening of Transformers 3.
I found myself cringing at the claim that letting the rest of us stand behind the orchestra section disproves elitist characterizations. (Let them eat cake in the rear of the palace?) But Walls does construct a good argument that, in the absence of a public-arts infrastructure, the opera’s continued existence necessarily depends upon donations from 1-percenters, like the Koch brothers. And nobody, he writes, is making big bucks at the opera.
I remain conflicted about such responses. It’s more than a little noticeable that every time an Occupy event impinges upon progressives’ comfort, they issue kind-hearted, paternalistic advice.
I was shocked to see Frank Bruni and Charles Blow of the New York Times do that a few weeks ago. I wonder if they are even aware that their privileged occupancy of the Times offices unavoidably distorts their vision. It’s not just conservative journalists who lose touch with the commoners.
Since I’ve reviewed restaurants for so long, I’m painfully aware of the absurdity of dining like Marie Antoinette while millions of American children don’t get enough to eat. But issuing guilty statements in that respect — Bruni has done plenty of that — isn’t enough. Philip Glass made a poignant statement before the Occupiers and then disappeared. Does that reduce his protest to rhetoric? I certainly wouldn’t advocate not staging his operas, anymore than I’d shackle brilliant chefs and force them to work in dungeon kitchens.
Obviously, I’m conflicted.
The Awl link also includes an audio clip from the third act of Satyagraha. Maury D’Annato of Parterre, who was also on the scene and is an Occupy supporter, described his experience of emerging from the opera:
Inside, we had seen messages of, alas, hope and change, alongside political imagery bearing little resemblance to anything in the last three decades. The mood at the end of the opera is one of nostalgia, of optimism beaten almost out of existence.
Thus they jumped the barricade. The scene is virtually a parable. If you don’t do anything else, please listen to Glass in the video above. He appears around 3:00.