While I sometimes find Cenk’s commentary a little much, I will admit to loving his comment on capitalist shill Erin Burnett’s summary of the Occupy Wall Street protests. I suppose I’ve already made the utter disdain I feel for the financial and business “news” operation very clear in this post, but Burnett really is one of the worst of the worst, and she’s now been given an even bigger stage than her usual and ludicrous CEO-fawning nonsense on CNBC. It’s an amusing takedown, including the closing line, “Do your job.” As most people looking at this might note, however, Burnett is doing her job, her job being to shill nonstop for corporate thieves as they rob the treasury and suck every dime they can from any program or person they come across.
One of the funnier moments is, to my mind, the comparison of the supposedly weirdo “hippies” of Occupy Wall Street with the truly bizarre get-ups of the Tea Party nuts. I mean, really. What is weirder: the dreads and bongos and nose-rings, or people donning tri-corner hats and Colonial bonnets and carrying around muzzle-loader muskets while hanging bags of tea from their clothing? That’s not fucking weird? At least the “hippies,” for the most part, actually dress like that in their regular lives, perhaps the zombie drummer and Uncle Samta Claus excluded.
That’s right. Seven Red’s love affair with the films of Joseph Gordon-Levitt continues, but not with the forgettable and cringe inducing adolescent pap (500) Days of Summer, in which Zooey Deschanel plays yet another character that helps a forlorn dude find his proper way in the world. Rather, we like Uncertainty, which strikes me as a kind of response to the decision-mania of all the recent ethical culture industry films I’ve discussed here before. If those films feature an obsession about the “right decision” as their key narrative engine, Uncertainty does the same, and perhaps even more so, but revs the decision engine up so high that it breaks down, turning the Decision Film back on itself.
Gordon-Levitt plays Bobby Thompson, a Canadian emigre and struggling musician who lives in Brooklyn with his girlfriend Kate, a Broadway dancer, played by Lynn Collins. We learn that they’ve only been dating for something like 10 months, which – together with their professions – makes their dilemma all the more pressing. At the beginning of the film, which takes place on July 4 and 5, they walk to the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge and Bobby convinces Kate to just flip a coin on it, and let fate decide. The coin flips, lands, and they run in opposite directions, one to the Manhattan side of the bridge, the other to the Brooklyn side. What follows are two completely different stories, meant to be taking place at the same time, but both involving both characters. Each, in other words, would be a result of the coin flip. If you can get past this major conceit of the plot, you actually get two very engaging stories. (The second conceit you’ll have to get over is the color plotting, so to speak, where the Brooklyn-Queens story is “green” and the Manhattan story is “yellow” – the Manhattan story also features “red” as its secondary motif, completing the traffic light visual metaphor).
In the Brooklyn and Queens story, Bobby and Kate visit Kate’s family for a July 4 barbecue. On their drive over they pick up a stray dog, the owner of which they subsequently seek. But the real story here is the interpersonal relationships – it’s a family character study, really. Kate’s family is Latino, and her mother is a kind of hovering matriarch that increasingly sees her control over Kate and now her younger sister slipping away. She disapproves of Bobby – though she claims to like him – largely because he is a struggling musician with no central prospects for success. Kate’s younger sister also appears to be taking some kind of precarious showbiz route, as she is currently deciding to put off a college scholarship in order to pursue acting, a decision she’s apparently made after a rather mediocre turn as Puck in a high school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Needless to say, the mother is horrified by this choice, and wants Kate to talk her out of it (presumably using her own difficult life as a negative example). The other key character in the Brooklyn-Queens story is Kate’s Uncle Diego (“Tio Dio”), a former boxer who is completely mentally disabled by his fighting days, and presents a condition similar to Alzheimer’s. The point of extreme tension comes when he blurts out “Where’s Hector?” in the middle of the meal.
In the Manhattan story, you get a thriller. Bobby and Kate are going for dim sum and maybe an apartment party for July 4. They end up in a cab, where they find a cell phone (really a Trio). Bobby tries to call around to the owner’s friends, skeptical that the cab driver will seek to return it. But this is no ordinary phone left in a cab. Rather, it holds crucial information to some very bad dudes, all of whom are tracking it down through the streets of Manhattan. We first realize the problem when the first person trying to claim the phone is gunned down right in front of Bobby and Kate on the streets of Chinatown. They are subsequently chased throughout the city, until they come up with their own plan to turn the tables on their pursuers – vaguely the Russian mafia involved in crooked dealings with a disgraced public official.
If we put aside the modernist symbolism of the “found object” (the Trio, the dog) serving as some kind of metaphorical result of the decision, we get an interesting turn. Do the two stories that follow the coin flip leave us with an alternate reality film in the style of a Run, Lola, Run, or, less impressively, a Sliding Doors? No, not really. Because the options don’t derive from the decision that Bobby and Kate have to make. In fact, neither story bears any resemblance to the decision they have to make. It isn’t a question of a decision leading to one or the other of these stories. In Run, Lola, Run, you get a series of possibilities – possible lines of action based on the decision. In films like Sliding Doors, you get a similar series, where reality could go one way or another way based on minute decisions and chance circumstances. While the coin flip opening of Uncertainty wouldseem to point to a similar structure, the film doesn’t work in either of those ways. Neither of the two stories is an actualization of a decision, a consequence of the coin flip, or even a possible sequence of events; they are, instead, as the philosophers might say, real but not actual rather than possible but not real. They’re virtual series. It’s even as if the decision on genre itself at the level of the work was suspended by the filmmakers – a family drama or an adventure film? Which? Let’s hold on to both! Showing Uncertainty next to Run, Lola, Run would in fact be a fantastic way of teaching the difference between the possible and the virtual that runs much of poststructuralist thought (say, the Deleuzeof Bergsonism through Difference and Repetition). Perhaps that’s a heavy-handed way to view the film, but I think the readings are there. In any case, this turn to the virtual character of the stories ends up being even more affirmative than the films that ask us to contemplate the ethical quality of some decision. What you’re left with at the end of Uncertainty is not a past decision to be evaluated, but the future, suspended there. As the film closes – one version of Bobby and Kate on the Brooklyn Bridge, one on the Manhattan Bridge, Kate notes that whatever decision they make, it will be good. Bobby asks Kate, “But will it be the right decision?” Kate pauses, then nods: “Yeah.” This is a more thoroughgoing and radical push on contemporary ethics than all the Gone, Baby, Gone‘s you can conjure up.
What? My peoples if you wit me where the fuck you at? – Method Man, Triumph
Every year, the Brooklyn Famiglia gears up for one of the big events: Hooligan Day. It’s the day when everybody wears their hooligan kit, watches the FA Cup, then gather at The Gate on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope for the big doo. And every year since 2002 I’ve missed it, since I’ve been away. And even though it’s just a little afternoon beer drinking kind of thing, it’s the time that I most miss New York. I think we had such a tight community when we were there that it just stings more now that we’re not there, but especially on those real occasions of off-the-wall solidarity. And this year especially, since we’re missing not just the community, but my two nieces who I haven’t seen yet, and the whole transformation of the event into a far more family friendly sort of affair, which it pretty much had to become, all these years later.
And so you’re in graduate school in my field and you have to sign on to this idea that you can’t be very specific about where you end up. But it’s easier to sign on to that than to live it. And it all seems so temporary, until you’re looking down the pike at tenure and buying a place and thinking – is this it for us now? Are we now from here? Certainly, we’re very lucky to end up in a kind of place that’s like the kind of places that we like. But a place isn’t a people. On a night like this in Brooklyn I would call my brother and just head up to the bar to catch a game. No plans. No planes. And there’d be people, and we’d know them, even from just around. You know that guy? Yeah. How you know him? From around. All the Facebook friends in the world don’t match that, I’m coming to understand, technological evangelism and general distaste for the usual technophobia notwithstanding. So you sign on to this thing, but you only sign on to the concrete social dislocation in a very abstract way. Yes, I know this is griping. Or pitiful. Maybe both. A friend said to me last year: “We have a name for people who get jobs where they grew up: the working class.” Well, yes and no, I guess.
So I just saw these flicks on Facebook, and I wanted to say that I miss my place, and my peoples.
Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas Los Angeles [is] no longer real, but belongs to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation. – Jean Baudrillard
How could we have all been so blind? Keith, one of the FBI agents, summed everything up very simply: “I’ve never seen a place like this,” he told me. “You were all living in Disneyland!” - Eleanor Squillari, Bernard Madoff’s secretary, in June’s Vanity Fair
In my ongoing morbid curiosity about my former employer, Bernard Madoff, I read the recent Vanity Fair article by Marc Seal, “Bernie Madoff’s Private World.” It’s the companion piece to the April article also written by Seal. The June article, however, is essentially co-written by Madoff’s long-time secretary, Eleanor Squillari, so you really get an insider’s look at the operations over there. Now, you may know that I’ve been basing all my Madoff posts since Bernie got arrested on this post, which I wrote long before any of this mess hit the fan. Of course, since then I’ve learned that I worked in the heart of the Madoff fraud, probably sending out fraudulent statements to clients/victims. The Vanity Fair article adds another dimension to that, and some – to me – jaw-dropping updates. The article is written in the first-person from the perspective of Squillari, Bernie’s secretary. Here, then, are the relevant portions:
The 17th floor was a different world from where we worked. Whereas the upper two floors were modern, with everything state-of-the-art, on 17 the corporate image didn’t seem to matter. The desks were close together, the computers were antiquated, and the printers were old ink-jet jobs, not the laser printers we had in our offices [tpspn: it's funny that I remembered the main printer in exactly this way, that it impressed itself so clearly on my memory]. …
The two people who ran the floor, Frank DiPascali and Annette Bongiorno, had once lived next door to each other, in Queens. Annette handled Bernie’s seasoned clients and managed her staff on 17. Short, tough, and overweight, she was rigid and guarded at work. [tpspn: compare my description of her in the original post as "She was a completely round woman, maybe 4 foot 8, implausibly round like a circle drawn perfectly by hand. She was an Italian from Brooklyn who had started off as the founder of the firm’s secretary 25 years before, when it was a very small operation indeed. She’d then made the inevitable ascent to office manager and then operations manager, largely behind her tyrannical personality. Some of the impeccably educated full-timers noted bitterly that she’d never been to college. I saw her make at least three of these people cry in the eight weeks I was there."]…[M]uch of her wealth had to have come from Bernie, whom she had worked for since he started his business, in the 1960′s.
Annette’s staff of six were mostly low-level, clerical women, many of them working mothers, who probably made no more than $40,000 a year. They were young and naive, with no background in finance, so they weren’t able to connect the dots. Annette allegedly instructed them to generate tickets showing trades that had never been made, at least two of them reportedly told prosecutors, and they simply did as they were told (Bongiorno has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
I knew these women. Two of them, Winnie Jackson and Semone Anderson, would come up to 19 every day to deliver figures. Whenever I went downstairs, they were always busy doing paperwork while Annette watched them like a hawk. Once, I remember Annette had the phones removed from her employees’ desks after she became concerned that they were making personal calls. She treated them like children. …
In Annette Bongiorno’s area, located across the floor from Frank, were Winnie and Semone and four other women. Every day I would receive a report with all of the figures from Winnie or Semone and another report of wire transfers from the cage.
This is amazing to me because it’s just as I remember it. But more than that. I closed my other piece with the following:
I never really quit that job. I just called the temp agency one Monday and said I wouldn’t do it anymore. The woman at the agency was really upset, since the firm had apparently started speaking to her about hiring me full time, a revelation so absurd that it simply floored me. They hired Tasha instead.
Now here’s the jaw-dropping part. Temp #1, or “Tasha,” in my previous post is Semone Anderson from the Vanity Fair story. She started the same day I did, and they were set, according to the temp agency, to offer me the position that she eventually took. This is curious to me. I get in there and last about 8 weeks before the mind-numbingness of it all finally kicks in, and I just drop it, the whole job. Here’s how that really happened. I was up in Binghamton for the weekend visiting she, who was still in college at the time. I was supposed to take a bus home on Sunday night, but I just said fuck it. We even got to the actual bus station before I decided to stay another day or two. What about Madoff? she asked me. Fuck ‘em, I said. I’ll find something else. I remember calling the agency early Monday morning and telling the rep, who was notably upset, first because I was bailing on a perfectly good revenue stream for the agency (I believe it was called Cross Temps) for no apparent reason, and second because they get some payoff if you’re hired full time. I turned to she when I got off the phone: “I think she’s pissed,” I laughed. Well, they got the payoff for Tasha/Semone. What’s incredible to me is that she stayed there for the remaining damn near 13 years, and is so inextricably mixed up in this now world famous and historical Ponzi scheme that her name is appearing in Vanity Fair and the Wall Street Journal! For a job that I fairly casually discarded on a whim, and pretty much left behind without ever looking back.
It’s an odd thing to think about, I guess. But it also goes to two points. First, these finance jobs are the route to some kind of bourgeois life for many working class people in urban areas. Tasha/Semone started at Madoff by stapling and folding on the same slushy January day that I did. Thirteen years. It was her career, and would have gone on in that manner no doubt for as long as they’d pay her. Indeed, Madoff himself and DiPascali and Bongiorno (the latter two haven’t been charged with anything, of course – though this shocks me) all have fairly modest upbringings, like all the fraudsters in the last few financial debacles. (I also sense a pattern that might explain why they were going to offer me that job, even though I openly considered it beneath me, as arrogant as I was: the qualifying characteristics for taking care of business on the 17th floor seem to be 1) Queens, and 2) a distinctly Italianate name. And in finance, a double major in history and English might as well be “no college.”). But the second point sort of derives from the first. Certainly, this Madoff fraud is outrageous and historical in scope. But it’s Disneyland, see? But maybe with a twist: Madoff is presented as real in order to make us believe that the rest of the mess on Wall Street is imaginary. It functions as the displacement for the whole Madoffian financial system, in much the same way that my colleague over there in Japan right now sees the swine flu as a metonymic displacement of globalization anxieties. We’re crazy about Bernie, to put it another way, because we all work for Bernie. And it goes without saying, I should add, that we all have our money with him.
From the Former Crooked Employer files, the trustee appointed to investigate and disburse the remaining Madoff assets reported today that Madoff’s much vaunted fund does not show a record of investing in any securities whatsoever in the past – wait for it now – thirteen years. This revelation is both jaw-droppingly shocking and perversely hilarious. Let me translate: all that money that these people were putting into the Madoff fund? He never bought one single share of stock or one bond unit with it. In the last thirteen years! He was claiming consistent 10% returns on money that he never invested. We knew already, of course, that this fund was a Ponzi scheme, but this revelation really raises it to the level of a pure Ponzi scheme: he didn’t even try to make any legitimate investment returns with the money flowing into the fund. Zero securities. I’m literally giggling. It’s so brazen it’s funny.
More importantly for my narcissistic purposes, the thirteen year number is crucial. That would put the birth of the fraud at precisely the time when I worked in operations at Madoff. Sending out statements. Statements that listed the securities that were purportedly bought and sold with the fund’s money.* In other words, it must have been that all those statements we were sending out for client tax purposes were filled with false information, because they all indicated the revenue generated by a standard set of equity securities. I know this because I stared at them all day long. Here’s more on Madoff’s statement from a Reuters article:
Each month, Madoff sent out elaborate statements of trades conducted by his broker-dealer. Last November, for example, he issued a statement to one investor showing he bought shares of Merck & Co Inc, Microsoft Corp, Exxon Mobil Corp and Amgen Inc among others.
It also showed transactions in Fidelity Investments’ Spartan Fund. But Fidelity, the world’s biggest mutual fund company, has no record of Madoff or his company making any investments in its funds.
That is exactly what I remember of the statements we were sending out; that’s what they looked like. Maybe I really will get a federal subpoena! I’d be happy to speak with them about stapling technique. In any case, the notion that Madoff would be able to pull this fraud off alone becomes increasingly dubious with each new revelation. Are we to believe that Madoff, by himself, stayed up late at night fabricating the statements? I have my own ideas about how this might have worked, but I’ll keep them to myself.
* As a note, Madoff’s business was split into two sections, standard trading and the (Ponzi) fund. It may be that the statements I was sending out were for the standard trading side of the operation rather than the fund.
As an addendum to the last post, the mafia nickname. This is also in honor of today’s headline in the Chicago Sun-Times: “Joey ‘The Clown’ Gets Life.” Don’t worry. I won’t do another subject line analysis on that headline suggesting that the neighborhood joker finally had an epiphany (I get it now, said the Joey the Clown, I really, really get it…). But since we were on the mafia, and names, I’ll add this bit about a friend I had. My uncle once gave me some sage advice. He said never to hang out with somebody who had more than two nicknames. Once you hit three, you’re really dealing with aliases. Now my uncle drove half-tracks in the vicinity of Tay Ninh City during the Tet Offensive, so I usually take his life wisdom as fairly definitive, and it’s been born out in practice. So, this is the story of a guy with (at least) three nicknames, Crazy Joe, a.k.a Joey Bats, a.k.a Joey the Lid.
In junior high school he was Crazy Joe. This is a fairly typical nickname arrived at through unconventional means. Joe was off the wall, for sure, and was best known for lobbing M-80′s and blockbusters into crowds of kids hanging out after school. But I think he really got the nickname Crazy Joe when he was fourteen, and got arrested for train robbery. You heard me right. Joe was arrested for train robbery in New York City in the late 1980′s. Joe’s dad owned a truck parts business in Long Island City, which was then a very industrial area. So Joe used to hang out there after school, and he made friends with some other kids from the (hip hop infamous) Queensbridge Projects. So Joe and these kids would break into the freight yards near the Queensborough Plaza stop on the Seven, and they had a field day, boosting sneakers, beepers, and other items right off the trains. One day, Joe and these kids are back at it, and they crack open a freight car looking for some electronics. Instead, they find a car full of cereal. I’m talking General Mills, all brands, loaded on pallets and the whole bit. Now, the savvy criminal would realize that this car was not particularly fruitful, and move on, but Crazy Joe and his boys decided that they were hungry (munchies, most likely), so they parked their asses on the car and started eating straight out of boxes of Fruit Loops. Needless to say, this was the day their scheme was up, and about twenty cops jump out of everywhere, guns drawn and ready for action. Joe and his buddies get trucked down to the 107th Precinct, where the cops all call him Fruit Loops. Train robbery.
Later, when we were in high school, Joe was known as Joey Bats. Now, you might think that he got a name like that because he was proficient with a baseball bat, but Joe wasn’t really a fighter so much as he was a stoner. So “Bats” derives from the giant joints he used to roll, which looked a bit like baseball bats. No, really. They were fucking big. Back then, New York used to have a “pot parade,” which was really just a NORML rally in Washington Square Park, but it was a kind of get-out-of-a-ticket free day, or rather, Washington Square Park became a forgiveness zone for drug possession. Seriously, there would be thousands of people in the park, all smoking pot and drinking openly, and there’d be a lot of cops there, but the cops were just there for crowd control: they didn’t bust you even if you were smoking a blunt right in front of them. This had to be well before Giuliani, because this is precisely the sort of shit that Giuliani couldn’t stand. So one year we were at the pot parade, and we ended up standing near a group of Puerto Rican guys from the Bronx. Joe asked another one of my friends for some rolling paper, and these Bronx guys were all like “Oh, check out white boys with the joints!” They were unimpressed. “White boys,” they said, “You can’t get high on no joints; you gotta smoke the blunts, son” and they pulled out some big blunt, and generally thought they’d stumbled on to some Long Island know-nothings or some such. We all looked at Joey Bats. He just smiled. “Gimme the whole pack of papers,” he said, “and gimme the ounce.” We knew it was definitely on. Joey Bats proceeded to roll the biggest joint any of us had ever seen – giant, otherworldly, and definitely fitting for the occasion. “Mira,” he said to the Bronx guys, holding it up, and their eyes just about bugged out of their heads. Of course, we shared with them, and we knew their prejudice against joints was definitely relieved when they said “These white boys a’ight.” It didn’t hurt that we brought the good shit, and not their Gun Hill Road swag. Spread love, son.
It’s my belief that you don’t really have a nickname unless you have a “the” in it. The definite article lends the nickname a certain grandeur, as if you are the only person that can lay claim to that title. There may be many clowns who understand life, but the readers of the Chicago Sun-Times are expected to know precisely who is being referred to when the headline writer invokes the name of Joey the Clown. And so it was for us. Probably my first year of college, while I was away, Joey Bats became Joey the Lid. Now, this nickname eventually morphed into just plain Lid, as in “Hey Lid, shut the fuck up and roll us a joint.” But I was always partial to the full version, as in “The fuckin’ guy was launchin’ blockbusters at us up on 154th street.” “Who?” “Fuckin’ Joe.” “Joe Mastaciola?” “No, dickhead. Joey the Lid.” You’d think that a movie-script perfect mafioso nickname like Joey the Lid would have come about through some fantastic incident. Sadly, no. Lid and his buddy Tommy were driving around doing whippets (Nitrous Oxide), which – and this is life advice – is not a particularly smart thing to do. Joe’s specialty was a four whippet balloon, which means you crack four nitrous canisters into one balloon: it’s not conducive to staying conscious, much less alert, while driving. So Joe – in his infinite wisdom – loads up four whippets into a balloon and hands it over to Tommy, who’s driving, and Tommy sucks it all in and predictably passes out and crashes into a light poll. Joe gets a nice chunk of windshield glass right in the eyelid (which strikes me as lucky, all things considered). Thus Joe Bats ends up with a scarred eyelid that hangs down a little, and fairly instantly becomes Joey the Lid. It could be worse, I guess.
Now I should admit my own nicknames. I’ll do that if I hear others. Confession is a two way street.
Some random thoughts on the Super Bowl. First, I should say that I haven’t watched football seriously in more than ten years. It’s getting to be like Easter for the semi-Catholic: I watch the Super Bowl, and maybe a playoff game or two. I have better things to do with my Sundays. OK, I don’t have better things to do, but the game bores me, which is strange, since I used to be really into it until just after college. In any case, watching the very exciting closing minutes of this year’s Super Bowl, it occurred to me – as it no doubt did to many others – that I’d seen this game before, like, last year. So I wondered, Descartes-style, whether there might be an evil genius who scripts these things, and, if so, how the script works. Because there does seem to be a formula. So, first, what are the problems that have to be overcome by the Super Bowl script. The obvious first problem is the blow-out. Nobody but the fans of the winning team keep watching a game that looks like a blow-out, and many of the Super Bowls of my youth were just that. If the advertisers are paying so much money, the second half slots have to pay off. So, you need a close game, or at least one in which the possibility of a come back remains very real until well into the fouth quarter. Second, you want to promote football itself, while also including the sports channels and shows, which would have to be in on the con. So, it should be exciting, with numerous back and forths and big plays, and it should have two or three really serious highlights for the sports shows, preferably dazzling catches or impossible runs. Not only can these be run on a loop as a “signifier” for the game, but they are also sought after by fans and others trying to relive the experience of having seen the event live. So the David Tyree helmet catch from the 2008 game or this year’s toe-tap game winner by Santonio Holmes will serve as little snippets of marketable code. The script, given this set of problems, becomes clear. The teams battle back and forth, but stay within two touchdowns for the first three quarters. Everything then loosens up in the fourth quarter. The then trailing team springs to life, just as we always knew they would, and suddenly takes the lead, preferably with a magnificent drive led by their legendary quarterback. The team that had been leading, that had sensed victory just minutes before, is crushed. They get the ball back with two to three minutes remaining. It all comes down to this! Everything seems doomed, but they claw back and push and push. The final drive – which ends in a dramatic touchdown with under a minute remaining – is either capped by or includes an amazing play that will be the pre-packaged “memory” for the viewer…I saw that catch live, sonny, etc. The team that had come back, but now trails again, gets the ball back with 30-50 seconds left, just enough to keep viewers watching and anxious until the final play of the game, and transitioning them into the post-game show. The last two Super Bowls followed this general script exactly. Diagnosis: sound stage in Burbank! (The innovation in this year’s script was the miraculous interception and run back to close the first half: why waste even a second of ad time, and why not give the viewers a treat to remember?)
Of course, I don’t really believe this. On average, if you watch a lot of football, I suspect many of the games play out in this way owing to the various forces at work through the rules, within the coaching tradition, and on the field itself. (Example: I’d still argue that a “prevent defense” is a terrible idea, though I’d bet that coaches have clear statitistics on how it works more than it fails.) But it is odd that the last two Super Bowls have operated according to what would seem a strict formula for maximizing viewership at all levels (current, future, and auxiliary programming such as ESPN and DVD sales).
On the commercials: meh. The first half featured the usual “Women are better naked” misogynistic crap. The Bob Dylan/will.i.am commercial was somewhat memorable (the graffiti evolution bit helped). But two struck a chord with me. First, the Denny’s “Serious Breakfast” commercial. The premise is that three mafiosi are sitting in a diner discussing a future hit on an informant. But just as the mob boss tries to order the hit, a waitress comes over and starts spraying a whipped cream happy face on his pancakes. The noise of the whipped cream container interrupts the serious discussion a few times, and then we cut to the catch phrase: Isn’t it time for a serious breakfast? Cue bacon close-up, etc. The commercial is funny in its own right, but it reminded of of a phenomenon I’ve been noticing on Facebook. Specifically, when I compare the friends I had growing up with the friends I’ve made since college, I notice the glaring imbalance of Italian names. When I was growing up in Queens, I just assumed that a prevalence of Italian names was common across the country. You had your Massimo’s and Vito’s and Angelo’s and Rocco’s, your Francesca’s and Concetta’s and Rosanna’s, and even where the first names were anglicized, they were anglicized in a certain way (no Dave’s or Gary’s, but all Mike’s and Joey’s and John’s), and you had the last names to get you through: the Mastaciola’s and DiPietro’s and Pallazzolo’s and Capparella’s. And when I look at my friends list, I see it, all those Italian names, and then I look at their friends and it’s even more so, with something like half of all names being Italian in origin. But not so much the friends from college and afterward. The names have all changed since I hung around, so to speak. And when I think about the people I grew up with, I notice that most – including me – had at least one parent who wasn’t born in the United States, who had an accent (Irish, Italian, Greek, Croatian), who arrived here in the late-1960′s or early 1970′s, or later. I thought this was normal. But, of course, it’s not. What I realized only later is that I grew up in what was essentially an “ethnic enclave,” a strange thing when you think on it, but not uncommon for big east coast cities. I’ve never really considered myself “Italian” or “Irish,” though my father is to this day an Italian national, and my grandmother emigrated from Ireland in the 1920′s, and kept her brogue until the day she died. I’m American, and I think I’ve always been a little embarrassed of the whole “claiming your cultural heritage” bit. I still am. I certainly don’t get all worked up about “images of Italians in the media” and other such issues, because I’ve never really thought of myself as Italian, and I always assumed that anti-Italian discrimination – in terms of actual life effects – was really an early-to-mid 20th century thing. But two incidents.
First, I was visiting a (midwestern) school while I was deciding on PhD programs, and one of the graduate students who was showing me around kept introducing me to people as “[insert stereotypical Italian first name here] from Brooklyn,” and he kept saying it with a really obnoxious Vinny Barbarino accent. He was thoroughly amused by this, and the fake New Yawkah accent grew thicker and more insulting as the day went on. He was a Southerner, from Alabama if I remember correctly, and he didn’t pull off the Barbarino bit particularly well, but the message was clear enough. I remember being annoyed, thinking it was disrespectful, though I just smiled along wanly, fuming. I was careful to eliminate any hint of a New York accent from my diction when I said “Hi, it’s nice to meet you” after his little performances. I bumped into the guy again at a conference in New Orleans last year, and one of my friends introduced me to him. He knew perfectly well who I was, but I used my full name, decidedly unanglicized, emphasizing its vowels. It was all I could do to keep from tagging the guy with a right hook on the fucking spot. Spread love: it’s the Brooklyn way. Second, I was at a job interview at another midwestern school, and I was on my last event, having breakfast with some graduate students. I don’t remember how the question came up, but one of the students asked, and I do remember it was out of the blue, whether my father was in the mafia. In the fucking mafia! In 2007! Needless to say, I replied “that’s right,” and kind of laughed it off. But on the plane back home, I grew increasingly agitated (I had da agita ovah dis fuckin’ bagiagaloop!) by the question. Like, what the fuck? In the mafia? Really? As an innocent question – playful or not – at a graduate student breakfast with the prospective professor? Ey, ya fuckin’ skootch, isn’t it time for a serious fuckin’ breakfast?
The second memorable ad was for Career Builder dot com. It starts with classical music playing in a lush office, obviously the well-appointed digs for some hotshot CEO. The camera then zooms in to the magnificent moosehead on the wall, an impressive trophy. Then, in a continuous shot, the viewer is led out of the executive’s office and around to another office directly adjacent, and here’s where we see the joke. The classical music transitions into the repetitive sound of a printer, and we find in the second office a man at work on the computer, trying valiantly to type away. It turns out the the stuffed moose’s head was not removed from the body, but merely stuck through the wall with the rest of the mooses body – to wit, the ass-end – residing in the poor man’s office, and, indeed, standing directly on his desk with the ass just above his head. He has to work with a moose ass in his face all day. He looks unpleased. The catch line is something like “Time for a new job?” Conceptually and technically brilliant ad, in my view. But, really, what a metaphor for class consciousness! The apparent splendor of the boss’ office mirrored on the back end by the misery of the working conditions, with the two intimately connected through the same device: the body of the moose. When you look “beneath” the luxury of moosehead (and a traditional signifier here), you get the cost of that luxury on the worker. If I wanted to start a propaganda outfit, I’d want the writer of this ad on my team. Just great.
I’m still amazed by the transportation infrastructure. I hate to say this, knowing that so many experience problems traveling this time of year, but our trip was very smooth. We did the usual bus-train-plane exit from Chicago, and this time the plane actually left right on time, and actually got into LaGuardia early. Then, miraculously, there was no traffic at all on the BQE (not even at the Kozciusko Bridge!), and we were in Cobble Hill in about 15 minutes. Pretty remarkable, all things considered. It may just be the humantities background, but this whole thing continues to amaze and mystify me. I think of all the back-end behind the surface appearance of the transportation system – all the many people and blueprints and schedules and logistics that contribute to getting me from a corner in Chicago to the exact address in Brooklyn all in about 6 hours. It’s the proverbial system that seems so total that one can only begin to contemplate it. The old fascist justification of the “trains running on time” is of course reduced to a joke, but it’s when you’re traveling during the holidays that you start to see the fundamental attractiveness of the fascist trade-off. Some people worry about trading liberty for security, but the much better argument – as Mussolini seems to have understood – is trading liberty for a predictable ETA. The struggle between chaos and order is fought in the Gates of O’Hare.
Here’s this, written on Day 1,000 of this fucking war:
In the heady days of January 1991, we used to cut out of our senior year of high school early and go smoke joints at R.L.’s apartment. We’d often have beer as well. From about 2 pm to 6 pm, a large group of us would chill there, maybe with CNN or MTV or cartoons on the television in the background. It was the line in the sand day, or thereabouts, and CNN was on. The war had not yet started, but we were waiting for it, full of bravado. We were sure that if the war started, it would lead to a general Mideast conflagration, and we would all be called to service. We were all 17 years old, and in good health, if often high.
I left R.L.’s at about 6, heading home to dinner. I walked back to my apartment with Sulli and Steve. We were pretty lit by this time, and the electricity in the air said it all: the war is imminent. Steve started belting out the lines as we walked down the Queens street: All we are say-ing/ Is give war a chance! I remember laughing. When I got home I found my mother standing in front of the television, her hand over her mouth. “What’s going…” but she shushed me, and I looked at the television. The eerie green light, the tracers going up over the minarets, the stentorian intonations of some spokesman or other. War. I went into the bedroom I shared with my brother, my heart filled with joy…
Why doncha come on back to the War. – Leonard Cohen
September 10, 2001. I have dinner with an old friend at an Italian restaurant in the East Village. Then we go to DBA, a bar. Jay-Z’s “Hova” comes on the bar’s sound system: H to the Izzo, V to the Izzay, what else can I say, dude, I gets bizzay. We talk about how great it is. I’m drunk at this point, and I have to get back to Brooklyn. I have to be up early tomorrow to do campaign work in Lower Manhattan before I head to work at my building near the Ferry terminal. I take a cab back over the Manhattan Bridge, with a final glance at the lights flickering in the Manhattan skyline just as we hit the center of the Bridge. Goddamn is it beautiful.
One…we are the people
Two…a little bit louder
Three…we’re gonna stop this fucking war, now
March, 2003. The first Saturday of the War. I am at a conference in New York, but I stay at my brother’s place in Brooklyn rather than in the conference hotel. I don’t live here anymore. On Friday I got food poisoning. My brother, his wife, and my wife went to a French restaurant in Fort Green, but I stayed at his place, sick as a dog, watching the lead-up to the War on television. On Saturday I go to Midtown to see a friend’s panel, but the war is on television there, too, real now, green-lit tracers over the minarets, Shock and Awe booming through the hotel lobby. I leave after the panel, and wander into the anti-war march that is just beginning. The crowds are tremendous. I walk downtown with the march, but on the sidewalk. Hard for me to be a joiner that way, I guess. Earnestness irritates me, but I’m with them. When I get down to 10th street I encounter the drummers – a group of Latinos and Latinas leading the chant: One…we are the people, Two…a little bit louder, Three…we’re gonna stop this fucking war, now. Everyone on the march and on the sidewalks is cheering. On a third floor balcony above the march, a woman comes out with a little boy and a conch shell. She starts blowing it in beat with the drum. Everyone’s eyes seem to move from the drummers to the balcony and back. The drummers acknowledge her, and the little boy dances. There he is dancing on the first Saturday of the War.
And we looked at each other and gazed on the green meadow over which the cool evening was running just then, and we wept together. But then life was dearer to me than all my wisdom ever was. –Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Other Dancing Song”
One Thousand Days. I should have waited another one, and led with One Thousand One Arabian Nights. Too clever by far. And no history or stories will save me, like Scheherazade. It is the one thousandth day of the War. I often wondered when I was a child how people could live normally on the home front when a war was going on. How do they face it everyday, I wondered, knowing what must be happening, knowing that everything is at stake? How do they go out to dinner, play sports, make love, gesture to each other on the street? It bothered me. I’d think of the swing clubs during World War II – everyone dressed up and dancing. A sip from a bottle of beer, or a Tom Collins. How? It is the one thousandth day of the war. No stories will save me. In March, if all goes well, my first child will be born. Perhaps on the first Saturday of the fourth year of the War. I want her to dance to something else. I want some other occasion for her joy and even for her heartbreaks, something other than what Langston Hughes once called “the same old stupid game, of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.” I want for her some other dancing song. But it is the one thousandth day of the war and no stories will save me.
Now back to the present, today, election day, 2008. And another one on the way. Another child, another dancing song. For the first one, now our dear babygirl (life is dearer than all that wisdom ever was), and for this second one, whoever he or she will be, and whatever he or she will dance to: VOTE. Vote some other dancing song. Vote OBAMA.