* The country of Iceland is smaller (pop. 317,398) than Wichita, Kansas (pop. 382,368), but I can name dozens of Icelanders making avant-garde art and music and can’t name one from the entire state of Kansas (pop. 2,871,238).
I fear the culturati in New York often fetishize strangeness, obscurity and diversity – and any other challenge to homogenized, corporatized, late-capitalist existence – rather than appreciate it. I’ve said too many times in polite Northeastern company that an artist with a few of those Norwegian Ø’s or umlauts in his name has an edge in getting into a summer group show on the Lower East Side than a Molly McEverybody from Peoria.
This is obviously anecdotal analysis, and perhaps slightly cynical, if they do reflect a real trend, one needs to consider both the possibility that Kansans tend to eschew the high-cultural and that Icelanders and Norwegians actively embrace it.
Holland Cotter, one of the foremost champions of multi-everythingism in the art world, holds that the degree of cultural diversity is an indicator of its vitality. I agree, but it’s only an indicator, not necessarily a cause. Like, the number of Mercedes in a neighborhood is a good indicator of privilege, but giving a Mercedes to someone without money doesn’t necessarily make him privileged. Or, many of the best restaurants, drinking establishments and art galleries happen to be located in alternative and edgy areas, but that doesn’t mean you can serve my grandmother’s green bean casserole in a cool guy’s closet in Ridgewood, Queens and have it taste avant-garde.
I love diversity and uniqueness as much as the next guy. Probably more than the next guy. I’m writing these words from a hotel lounge outside of Toledo, Ohio that I chose by sight from I-80 based solely on the chance that it might look something like the Mos Eisley Cantina on the inside. Incidentally, it doesn’t. I’m one of three people here and the other two are a couple with matching Crocs, quietly sharing some super nachos.
On my way to Brooklyn last week in the truck I’m now returning back to Wisconsin, I stopped for an interview with a small Lutheran university. It was my second meeting. The first one was the standard HR routine; this one was for real, with the head of the art department. He had my resume on his desk and from it served up a steady stream of questions.
“Did you live in Providence when you taught, or did you drive to Rhode Island from New York?”
“I commuted. It was actually rather enjoyable. I listened to courses on tape for eight hours each week. If I had gotten credit for all of them I might have a B.A. in history from Yale.”
“Looks like you’ve been showing in New York.”
He read some of the galleries on my resume. It was clear none of them had any significance to him. It seemed only the number mattered.
“Ten shows last year, you were a busy guy.”
Was I? I felt I could’ve given him a list of ten Arena League football teams and it would’ve stood up to his scrutiny. I could’ve given him the name of ten independent coffee shops in Oshkosh and he might have hired me on the spot. Who the hell knows? If I was a Ph.D. in biochemistry we’d be discussing the same journals and publications, but not in the wild west (east) of the art world.
Maybe the milestones on my CV symbolize my migration into obscure territory too devoted to umlauted avant-gardists and, generally, non-Kansans and non-Wisconsinites. Or maybe flyover culture is all too happy to be whitewashed. It is a fact that I graduated from Shawnee Mission South High School in Overland Park, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City packed with Costcos, PetSmarts and lots of white protestants who don’t put anything as strange as contemporary art high on their list of worldly interests. Did I voluntarily leave the reasonable center, or did they?
I was dwelling this quandary when he launched into his dismount.
“How does your faith influence your teaching style?”
I was caught off-guard but gathered myself in time to save an awkward face-off. It seems I had checked a box on the application that indicated I was a Lutheran, which is technically true through marriage.
“I believe art, like faith…like love and like golf is about withdrawal and submission. ANYONE who wants to control their way to God or art or a perfect relationship will ultimately find their own ego and not salvation.”
“I read a book about the spirituality of golf.”
It was clear my answer satisfied him profoundly.
And it disappointed me to the same depths. Not because of any indignation about my professional bona fides nor because of his faith. I’m not spiritual in any supernatural sense, but still the answer I gave him was as pure and true as anything I know. I could relate to his version of art and culture, yet I felt to him mine remained an unintelligible morass of strangely named art spaces, arcane publications, esoteric theory, obscure locations populated by heathens. I can’t decide whether this is my fault or his.
When I was young my dad used to school me at Trivial Pursuit every time we played. I went on thinking he was a singular genius for a couple of decades.
My reverence flagged only when I realized all the questions in the game were written by baby boomers; the answer was always Jefferson Airplane, G. Gordon Liddy or Robert McNamara. At some point, probably when I started teaching college, I came to realize that his McNamara is my Condoleezza Rice; his Liddy is my Linda Tripp; his Syd Barret is my Jeff Mangum, etc., etc. Generations are structurally parallel to each other.
My students don’t know this yet, and as a result they treat me like I’m Doris Kearns Goodwin when I reveal what is a fairly superficial knowledge of George W. Bush’s cabinet, or the cast of various John Hughes films.
And that’s one of the best aspects of aging: ordinary, trivial information gleaned by osmosis eventually passes for legitimate historical knowledge.
I’m more aware of this osmotic knowledge when in New York. I don’t watch any scripted television or queue up for summer blockbuster movies, but I still know about shows like Psych and Burn Notice only because I wait for subway trains. A fragmented and superficial education in contemporary pop culture comes with one’s New York address.
In Wisconsin I’m blind to pop culture. There are no subway posters and where I live, no billboards. If I stumble into a Gap for some socks I may be forced to learn a new song by the Shins or Snow Patrol, but otherwise I have no connection to what others in the world are up to if I don’t turn on a television or open a magazine.
This topic came up with some friends in New York. It turned out that we had all heard of the show Breaking Bad but couldn’t say anything about its nature other than the guy in it was also in the movie, Drive. It occurred to us that we didn’t even know people who knew people in New York who watched Pscyh or Corazon Caliente, yet everyone at the table knew both shows to the depth that I do Condoleeza Rice, which is to say, not very.
The question of who was watching shows like Burn Notice and Breaking Bad simmered in my head for a few weeks when some acquaintances in Wisconsin urged me, without my provocation, to watch Breaking Bad.
“It’s amazing, you gotta check it out. It’s totally unique.”
After the recommendation, all five of them dove into a conversation about Breaking Bad’s merits and left me in the dust. I contemplated the elegance and ease of five individuals sharing consciousness through a television show. I was momentarily jealous that they had a conversational topic to share, so sat out the round sifting for pumpernickel chips in the bar snack mix. The mix had been removed of all the good stuff leaving mostly pretzels and some goldfish crumbs. This forced the revelation that in a place like Cedarburg, Wisconsin, where the culture is relatively homogenous, sharing consciousness is easier than it is in New York.
I interjected having seen a poster of Burn Notice on the Nassau subway stop where someone had scratched a vagina in ball-point pen between the legs of its star…whose name I didn’t know.I didn’t realize for several beers that I had my shows confused.
Writing this from a subway platform at Nassau and Manhattan Avenues, under a poster for Rock Star beverage and a superhero movie set to explode, an eclectic crowd mills on the platform. Asians carry Asian-language newspapers under their arms; Polish women tote the Polish daily Nowy Dziennik, and kids of a million backgrounds are drinking various energy drinks.
I’m about to shoehorn onto a train with the most diverse cross section of individuals on any train in the world, who themselves live within most Byzantine network of pop-media advertising anywhere else. I wonder how elegantly all this diversity interfaces. Does anyone know who watches Burn Notice? How much consciousness do we share in New York versus a one-bar town in Iowa? How much of this NYC multitude ends up inside of me superficially through osmosis, and how much through engaged scholarship?
I have no idea what “Nowy Dziennik” translates to, nor will I ever know what Burn Notice is about.
They always say that New York is a melting pot, but I think sometimes it’s more like the lava lamp on Grace Slick’s nightstand.
I should probably ask the woman to my left how to say “hello” in Polish.
I just heard another New York peer round up to the decade when asked how long he’d been in New York. His first response was an efficient, “Ten years,” and then went on to say he moved to New York City in the middle of the Kerry/Bush election. It was probably an innocent fib, perhaps even a mathematical oversight, but it marked the bazillionth time I’d heard someone padding their New York tenure, and I’ve taken to recognize the move.
Moved NYC in April ’05: ”Been here about a decade.”
Moved in June of ‘04: ”Been living on the Lower East for the better part of the century.”
Implants in New York are like kids dying to have a double-digit age, or one too eager to become a teenager: “I’m almost 13”
“I’m starting big boy school next year.”
When I mentioned this to my wife, she told me that it was just as petty of me to scorekeep as it was for someone to embellish. Perhaps, but I can’t be punished for merely noticing a trend, can I? It’s hard to tell when one is over-vigilant because it feels exactly the same as observation. I would say I keep an objective mental inventory of all food in our house and she would say I focus more heavily on the number of squares on the chocolate bars that come and go. And to the contrary, I would say that it is she who notices me noticing the chocolate because she’s the one with the issue.
The point is that it’s hard to distinguish between impartial observation and vigilantism..and also that what one is looking for often says something about who he or she is.
I understand the impulse to compete in NYC though. New York is the only city I’ve ever spent any significant amount of time in that has a learning curve steeper than acquiring a language that has a totally different alphabet. There is a genuine satisfaction in finding a suitable apartment and to memorizing the neighborhood’s alternate side parking rules. Knowing how to negotiate the Brooklyn Bridge from the tangle of D.U.M.B.O. sidestreets will give a humble man a full-chest. And knowing how to get navigate Flushing, Queens to get good dumplings makes many an implanted New Yorker feel like Maro Polo.
No one has ever one-upped me in Wisconsin by claiming they’ve been in Fond du Lac for longer than I, nor has anyone bragged that they found an “undiscovered” neighborhood that was yet-to-be gentrified. People don’t chronicle time spent in a particular place in Wisconsin because time isn’t in itself a measure of valor.
If aliens came from a galaxy far far away and were looking for a place to live in the U.S., they might choose to lay anchor in Cedarburg, Wisconsin: the roads are paved smooth, grass grows green in open fields everywhere, food is (too) plentiful, the people are kind, and the living is comfortable even for the marginal citizen. And being from so far away, our aliens would probably be on the margins. But as long as said aliens didn’t exoticize or flaunt the culture on their old planet, no one would question when their ship landed in Cedarburg, just that it chose it willfully and respectfully. And that it didn’t try to stand out too much – Wisconsinites prefer formal over temporal continuity. They’re György Lukács to New Yorkers’ Bertolt Brecht.
Living in Cedarburg part-time for 7 months and 5 days, to the hour, I thought I’d left the tenure pretense behind. A student asked me today how long I’ve lived in New York and I reflexively said “a decade,” even though I only moved there in August of ’02.
In the moment I couldn’t tell whether the slip was due to efficiency or overdetermination. I thought about correcting the technical error, but he was looking at me like I was a painted warrior from the East.
“Really, why’d you come all the way out to Fond du Lac for?”
I avoided quicksand by asking him how long he’d been in Fond du Lac.
“Since I was born..but my family’s been here for almost 200 years.”
After a decade in New York City, I saw my first undomesticated roadkill yesterday. That is, unless it was a pet raccoon. I tried to take a picture of it as I passed it and nearly caused a pileup on the BQE, so just take my word for it.
I spent the entire traffic jam from the Kent/Wythe exit to downtown Brooklyn wondering where a raccoon could hide out in Brooklyn. Did it flop in McGolrick Park, chainsmoking brown cigarettes, drinking Spirytus by day with the clochards? Did someone throw it out of the back of a van rolled up in a carpet, mafia-style? The raccoon equivalent of Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy..got sick of the Catskill woods and moved to the Big City only to have his plan unravel?
One morning commute last fall I counted 16 expired deer along highway 41 in Wisconsin. Most of them were painted with large fluorescent “X’s” meaning they were tagged for pickup by the DOT. Imagine: there’s so much road kill, the state of Wisconsin has dedicated a bureaucracy to its removal. I brought up my road kill observations in class and it turned out a good fourth of my students were chomping at the bit that very moment to go hunting. They mentioned that the number of dead deer on the highway wasn’t a sign of deer depletion but proof of their overabundance; a problem they would shortly take on with rifles as their fellow SUV footsoldiers fought them on a second front with fenders.
The episode forced me to recall a Red -tailed Hawk that became a cause célèbre when it took up residence on Central Park West a few years ago. There was even a PBS special about “Pale Male,” as he was called, in which local Upper West Siders were interviewed about their relationship with him. One resident glorified Pale as a sublime natural wonder; another regretted its habit of eating pigeons in front of children too young to process life’s cruel lessons. Most spoke about it as if they were taking cues from Hakuna Matata in the Lion King, as if The Upper West was a natural ecosystem only with Grey’s Papayas instead of watering holes. After showing my class a clip from the show, their overwhelming response was, “Why are they treating it like a unicorn?!”
Apparently Red-tailed hawks are everywhere in Northern Wisconsin. No one would bat an eyelash if one swooped down and took a muskrat right in front of them. Someone suggested that if a Bald Eagle swooped down for a housecat it might be worth a double take. I said if a Bald Eagle came to Central Park they’d suspend alternate side parking for the week and change the colors on the Empire State Building for a day or two.
I recounted traveling to the Aldrich museum with two art collectors and a dealer a few years back. Along the way we saw some Canada Geese congregating off the road. One of the collectors excitedly referred to them “wildlife.” At the time the remark smacked as the kind of gross generalization that would start wars if said about a subgroup of humans. When I told the kids about the story, they guffawed and asked why rats don’t get the same reverence.
It was a good question. I said geese have a better PR firm, and you don’t see them dragging slices of pizza down the street backwards.
Later in class, I was going through slides I had taken at New York art galleries. One of my more observant students noted the vogue for forest dwelling creatures, antlers and rural rustica. That’s why I love teaching: naïve eyes are often the most objective. Eureka! When you live in an environment paved in asphalt and skyscapers block the sun, it skews one’s perception of what might be considered threatened wilderness.
I went on to note some of the dozens of artists I know who are engaged in mini-crusades to stem development along the New York waterfront or to expand green space in the city. This is usually in the form of portentous post-apocalyptic paintings or photos of unusual trash in the East River. All of it was anathema to my students, many of whom actually tend livestock in addition to going to school. Whatever the actual state of environmental degradation in the world today, it is safe to say that in Central Wisconsin there’s a justifiably lesser compulsion to announce the falling of the sky.
I told the students that I occasionally see a Red-tailed Hawk in my local park, too, but Greenpoint Brooklyn isn’t as glamorous as Central Park and doesn’t fetch the same press. I did mention that they film movies in McGolrick Park all time and it makes parking a bitch because they line the street with Haddad movie star trailers that take up ten parking spaces each.
“Movie Star trailers!!!! Wow, do they really have those? Do you ever see real celebrities just walking around?”
“Well if a Bruce Willis swooped down and grabbed a falafel from a halal food cart, it might be worth a double take.”
I was dying for some Thai food that would make my eyes swell and my forehead sweat. The kind that lets you know three hours later how often you pick your nose. I wanted SriPraPhai, or any of five neighborhood places that make me cough from the ambient chili in the air when I walk inside to pick up my order.
But I was in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, where my ethnic choices are limited to nachos at a bar and grille, fried cheese curds and pretzel nibs (if those count as German,) or gelatinous Chinese from a restaurant that recently moved into a space occupied by a furniture store. Funny, there’s a jewelry store in town that inexplicably occupies a gaudily ornate and out-of-place Chinese Pagoda. I’ve always thought the two businesses should trade digs.
On my way to a lonely complex of box stores that rise like ominous commercial silos from the pastures along Highway 43, I spotted a promising option: “Noodles and Company.” I fantasized that it was a Phở restaurant as I drove past. Sure it was in a sanitized strip mall with a loopy corporate looking sign, but in Cedarburg one would put up a sign if they were selling weed out of their basement. It’s standard issue.
First, I went to the Michael’s hobby store, the only place within 20 miles to buy art supplies, salivating in anticipation of peppery noodles. In the aisles, kind ladies politely smiled and I charged past them machine-gunning head nods back, crazed by a jones for hot chilies and a fear of the dopamine-sapping low that overcomes me when I stay inside a large craft store for more than five minutes. Taylor Dayne’s 1987 hit “Tell it to my Heart” was playing, giving me even less time before I cratered. I overpaid for some matte medium and exploded out the building in under three minutes like a ten year old coming up for air after grabbing thrown pocket change from the bottom of a pool. I aimed my mother-in-law’s SUV, with its personalized plates announcing her by name, D-O-R-E-E-N, and headed for “Noodles and Company.”
Surprisingly there was a line. And there were siracha bottles on each of the well-spaced tables. Two promising signs. A teenager who would be played by Paul Dano in the movie about his life gave me a lukewarm smile with his fingers poised over a keypad to enter my order. Not a promising sign.
The menu featured “Bacon, Mac & Cheeseburger,” “Wisconsin Mac and Cheese,” “Beef Stroganoff,” and a couple of perfunctory pan-Asian style dishes, “Bangkok Curry” and “Japanese Pan Noodles.” I honestly thought Beef Stroganoff was something only my grandmother on my dad’s side made. I thought it was her own recipe. I grudgingly ordered some pan noodles, took a number and sat down at a clean table by a window looking out on a mattress superstore, recognizing that in the greater scheme of foody pretense, offering a beef stroganoff dish was a fairly advanced move.
Paul Dano’s girlfriend arrived with a disappointing stir-fry of bland noodles and sautéed vegetables, a pack of soy sauce and a fork and knife set. The plate was sprinkled with black sesame seeds, the cheap signifier for Asian food of any sort. Put sesame seeds on a bratwurst and it’s an “Asian Dog.” I had to go back to the counter to ask for chopsticks. Udon noodles with a fork? Really? When I did, Paul Dano looked at me like a dog does when you hide food behind your back.
“Do you have chopsticks?”
“Maybe…I’ll check in the back.”
Dano came back a few minutes later with a pair of basswood sticks in a paper sheath. The girl who brought out my tray was looking at me now, and so were two people waiting in line to be served. I felt like an alien troublemaker.
I ate my noodles alone without reading material. And my table was too far away from the others to see what others were reading, to look into purses, or to overhear conversations; all favorite New York pastimes that almost make up for having to dine like chickens in a Perdue plant. I thought of Ray Liotta’s line at the end of Goodfellas, “Right after I got here I ordered spaghetti with marinara sauce and I got egg noodles with ketchup.”
Four days later, I got my chance to eat like a penned chicken, when my wife and I tried a popular restaurant in Long Island City. It was really dark..either that or my cones had reset to Milwaukee dining light levels. I started talking to my wife in my loud voice, not realizing the lack of a 12-foot buffer between tables that I’m used to at my local fine dining establishment in Wisco. I ramped up into a magnificent polemic about a writer who wrote a lazy review of a recent exhibition. My wife moved my glass of water toward her in anticipation wild hand motions. Before I could reach my Al Pacino-scent-of-a-woman finale, a head appeared from my blind spot.
I couldn’t make him out in the dark, but my stomach jumped into my throat. I felt as found out as Rumpelstiltskin. My rant was wine-fuelled, ad-hominem and not meant for anyone who didn’t know me well enough to know why I hate riding in the back of pickup trucks.
“I overheard your, uh, conversation.”
I took my candle and brought it up to his face sheepishly. “JOHN! How much of that did you hear…and how much hush money do you want?”
“It happened 14 inches from my head, I couldn’t help it. I could taste your hostility in my root vegetable gratin. I’m kidding..Don’t’ worry, I’m on your side, but you have to know everyone’s reading over your shoulder on a New York subway in rush hour and hearing your conversation at dinner. That’s part of the fun of living like sardines.”
“..I always say penned chickens.”