Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Littlest Mermaid (part 2)

A few months later Eddie and I were sitting at a cafe table. It was a Saturday morning and the broad avenue by the beach was full of tourists. We were hungover but nothing sunglasses and thick coffee couldn't cure. We had celebrated last night. I had a job!

If you had asked me, though of course you didn't, I would have told you why my pockets were empty. Beauty. Light. Color. Art. It was my camera that led me here, to this city by the ocean. The way the sky was changed by the expanse of water; the way the light reflected off of both changed the faces of the people and the buildings, how sun bleached truth out of makeup and color-washed plaster.

I had shown my photos to someone in the clubs who had a friend downtown. The next time I saw him he handed me a name and address scratched on a scrap of paper. "Darling go see him! I told him about your photos!"

I found the address. "Studio Som Novo" read the sign. At the front desk I asked for the name on the paper. "Gustavo... I am here to see Gustavo." The girl looked at me dubiously over the rims of her glasses, but nevertheless got up from her seat. As she walked away I was sure the little extra shake of her behind was for my benefit. When she returned from an inner office she gave me the up and down. "Senhor Gustavo will see you." I smiled at her, despite the upturn of her nose.

Gustavo wore an ill-fitting suit. But he was friendly. He rose from his desk to shake my hand. "Gigi said you were an excellent photographer."

I was surprised that he called my friend Gigi. Apparently Gilberto and Gustavo knew each other somewhat better than I had assumed. It was a long time before he let go of my hand.

I had come with a folder of photos, and I spread them out on his desk. Faces of people. Bright colors from the market. Children playing on the beach. Musicians. Dancers.

"Nice. Very nice. I need someone with your..." he looked me up and down, a lecher's gleam in his eyes "...talents!"

"We try to put out records every week. Some sell. Some don't. You will take pictures. You get paid if they sell. I will introduce you to our creative director."

And so it began, my humble career. I stopped by where Eddie worked, that salon in the big hotel downtown. I fanned the bills out Gustavo had given me as a small advance. "Baby we are going out to celebrate!"

That was last night. The rest of the evening I remembered dimly. So many drinks. Much laughter. There was that fight at one bar, a drunken tourist laid low across a table, drinks and plates smashing onto the tiled floor, when he refused to stop talking to some tough guy's girl. At some point Roberto found us, he was high as a kite, asking if we had seen Zizi and her American boy. No, we said, and he shuffled off, eyes fixed on a young tourist sitting alone at the bar.

I sipped from my cup and squinted behind my dark glasses, glad for the coffee, which was hot and sweet. Eddie was reading the paper. "Hey look at this." He spread the paper down in front of me, pointing to the full-page advertisement.

Sr. Henry Gilson and His Orchestra
featuring A Pequenina Sereia and Her Guitar"

And there in the picture below the gaudily laid out headline was that girl. She looked small and out of place photographed on some bandstand between a row of violinists and three flautists. She gazed at the camera with the look of a deer caught in headlights. The concert was not at some bar or club, but a regular hall. And it was that very week.

I brought the ad to Gustavo that Monday. "Oh yes. Henry's little mermaid. Not much of a nymph, is she? Still a lot of baby fat on that one," he said.

I asked him if he had heard her sing. "There is something about her."

Gustavo pursed his lips. "Henry has been after me to put him on a record. You go to this show. Take pictures. See if you can coax a smile out of your little sea nymph. Everybody needs a pretty girl on their record cover, otherwise it doesn't sell. If you can make her look good maybe I will give Henry what he wants. Iemanja eh? Henry's soul must be blacker than I know."

Feeling dismissed I turned and left his office. I walked around the offices and met my new coworkers. At the front desk the girl with the glasses handed me an envelope with a few bills and two tickets. "Senhor Gustavo says make sure you get a nice photo. No pretty pictures no sales. And no money means this shithole closes down and I am not going back to that typing pool."

I raised my eyebrows. I had no idea our little desk girl had the mouth of a sailor. I assured her I was up for the challenge. I pocketed the envelope.

"So do you have a girlfriend?" she asked not quite coquettishly as I turned to leave. Surely I waited too long to answer. "Pahh," she spat, "another faggot. Just like the rest." She turned back to her desk and waved me out the door.

A few nights later I put a few rolls of film in the pocket of my only suit and slung my cameracase over my shoulder. I was meeting Zizi for a cocktail before the show. I had called her up from a payphone and asked her if she would like to come along.

"It's an assignment for my new job. But it's quite an event. And all very voodoo."

"Oh how exciting! Shall I wear some flouncy white skirt and wrap myself in beads?"

I assured her that was not necessary. This was a society event not some wild ceremony out in the slums. Zizi showed up in one of her usual outfits, a trendy Parisian cocktail dress. A smart little hat with white lace. A madly huge crucifix was pinned with flowers to her breast. "I told Daddy and Grandmama where I was going and Grandmama cried that I was going to be carried off by white slavers. She insisted that I wear this."

The crowd at the hall was huge. But it was not a crowd of the mothers and fathers of the saints but the usual ladies and gentlemen of nighttime society. A few trendy concert goers, women with beautiful skin the color of coffee mellowed with cream had chosen to wrap their hair with intricately folded scarves.

(to be continued)

Friday, August 22, 2008

Orchestra of Morning (part 1)

My name is Hermes and I am tired now and ready to go home. Though I did not come to this shore, this beach to tell you that, nor did you come here to listen to me talk about myself. You came with me to hear about Sereia.

It's finally quiet here, as dawn laps at the shore, the air wet and salty. The air is heavy as my eyelids now, heavy as the cuffs of my pants rolled above my ankles, wet and stained with water and sand.

Flowers lie crushed in the sand behind us as we gaze now out in the water. Did I say quiet? The breeze brings a laugh, a note from a guitar, a crash of a wave. the call of a bird. If the drums of the night are silent now the concert of the new day has begun. I crouch in the shallow water, and rinse my hands of sand and nicotine. I look up again, trying to guess which small paper boat, now flotsam on the waves, sprinkled with petals and fine ash, its precious cargo of candle stub and bits of bone surrendering to the immensity of the ocean. Good-bye Sereia.

"I remember when I first saw her," I tell you. And I am brought back to that night, so many years before. That old club, right on the beach. Quite the scene. It was before I met Ze, too, that old crowd I ran with. Eddie, Zizi, Roberto, and that American boy, what was his name? He was so easy to tease. So serious until he started to drink. Then the object of everyone's attentions, all of us trying to sound so sophisticated, so serious, so grown up.

We were at a table near the stage, hanging lights and clinking glasses and laughing women and the breeze from the sea. Very chic these club patrons, for the night, though who went the next day to their fancy office jobs and who went out looking for the next hustle and who was there drinking off the tabs of friends was anybody's guess. And the subject of much gossip. Zizi always had money but then her father was rich rich rich and though he didn't love it when his only daughter spent his money buying drinks for faggots and negroes he loved to see her beautiful and admired and never told her no. So now you know two of my secrets, the only one that embarrassed me being the one that my pockets were empty.

Musicians filled the stage, and the din of the club narrowed with expectation and polite applause. Oh now we think we are so sophisticated in our tastes with so much to choose from. Very liberated. But then it was all the season of the bossa nova. It made our drinks more delicious, and it caused our bodies to move involuntarily, charging the air around us with cool erotic tension.

This band was like any band that played at this club by the sea and it made us delirious with each other. Zizi kissed that American boy and Eddie rested his hand on my thigh beneath the tablecloth and we were very happy. Zizi stood up to dance, the American boy oh so drunk and clumsy smiled awkwardly and did not follow. Eddie, whose ass was made for the bossa nova, saved the day and rose to carry Zizi off to the dance floor. Roberto, who it must be said spent most of our evenings together gazing longingly at the American boy's blonde hair, slid over to Zizi's chair to engage in subtle flirting with that poor sodden soul, oblivious I used to think, to Roberto's intentions.

Which left me to gaze upon the band and the most remarkable creature I had ever seen. She was playing the guitar. This was no statuesque beauty. Short, with mysterious dark eyes, skin much whiter in color than her bandmates, she couldn't have been thirteen years old, and I realized she could really play. Thick auburn locks fell over her face as she played; bangs heavy on her forehead; a small birthmark on her left cheek. Concentration framed her face as she strummed her guitar. When she started singing it was with the voice of a girl, yes, but a girl who felt things she couldn't have understood, could she? It was haunting, sad, this first song she sang, oh yes lilting in our tropical way, but full of the pain of life beyond thirteen girlish years.

The song ended and she bowed her head into darkness and a smattering of applause and couples changing on the dancefloor. And then the drummer began a fast song, and she looked up, darkness wiped from her face, and she sang exuberantly joined by other members of the band. Freed for a moment from something this girl's eyes twinkled and her compact, androgynous body swung to a different sort of life with this new rhythm.

The song ended and I swear before she left the stage Sereia's dark eyes met mine. Such old old eyes. The deepest saddest gaze I have ever seen. And then the drummer, a very big and very black man very much older than thirteen wrapped his arm around her neck and led her backstage, laughing and gesturing to the other players as they disappeared from sight.

Zizi and Eddie returned and shortly after the waitress brought us more drinks. Surely eventually Zizi handed one of us a wad of paper to settle our bill and we walked out upon the nighttime street to push Zizi into a taxi. Roberto--of course--offered to walk the weaving near senseless American boy off to his pension, leaving Eddie and me to walk down to the dark sands to lie for a while in the invisibility of a moonless night.

"That girl...that singer," I said. "She was something special." Eddie laughed and smiled and kissed me. Here, on the beach, in the sand. And for a moment I forgot about Sereia. For a moment.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Congratulations, Condi!

Let's hear it for Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice! This so-called "expert" on the former Soviet Union has just single-handedly restarted the cold war, with only slight assistance from her boss, the imbecile warmonger George W. Bush.

First they try to strong-arm the foolishly pro-American governments in Poland and the Czech Republic to adopt some "missile defenses" to defend against Al-Qaeda's ICBM launches (!?) in Russia's front yard. And thank goodness Bush already abrogated every arms-control treaty ever signed with Russia and its predecessors, because now that "democratic" and capitalist Russia has a new prime-minister for life, they can just send some missiles back to Cuba and hey, it's 1963 all over again.

Then they support an ass-kissing pro-Israel regime in Georgia, then tell them, "hey we'll back you up" in private all the while urging moderation in public in their dealings with their neighbor whose landmass and army is only like 300 times the size.

Having provoked Russian aggression by backing independence for one European micro-state but not another... and the Russian tanks are rolling. But hey, gas prices are coming down!

So yes, see you in a local fallout shelter. Hope those 1959 biscuits and watercans are still tasty. Go Condi!!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Thou Shalt Not Study War

Surprisingly there are no thick and musty Bibles documenting my family's past printed in English or any other of the family tongues, at least, not that I have seen. While I am not sure in which German plain or valley my father's paternal line had endured the centuries, it's clear that when the Empress Catherine of All The Russias sent out word that fields of brambles and black earth in the southern part of her realm would be opened to development by peasants less barbarous than those currently calling themselves her subjects, my ancestors packed their belongings into wagons and fled the scene of their medieval serfdom for parts eastward.

I'm sure they had family Bibles, since the Horsts were, if nothing else, deeply committed to their obscure rebelliously ultra-Protestant ways. They were all about the swords into plowshares and the not killing and venerating no kingdom but the kingdom of heaven. These were difficult beliefs to hold in central Europe in the centuries when crosses were battle standards and religious sermons were exhortations to go out and kill people who believed differently. These Horsts were not princes nor barons nor generals but simple people who wanted to stay close to God and close to their own.

So they left all that behind, seduced by this German-speaking Empress in a far-off realm who promised them something that sounded an awfully lot like what passed in the eighteenth century for freedom. They would not have to speak Russian. They could build communities around churches of their own choosing, and hold plots of rich land with moderate taxation as long as they promised to plow and till and harvest. And most attractively they would not have to serve in the Empress's army.

But as the years passed Catherine's heirs were definitely not of a mind to emulate that great empress. The Russian people were wondering who the hell these foreigners were in their midst to be given such special rights. The Tsars cried out for allegiance. The Horsts had dodged marching to serve or fight Napoleon. They had dodged the Franco Prussian war. They had dodged being cannonfodder in Crimea. They had dodged a dozen conflicts great and small. But by decree of the Tsar, they would not dodge the next one, and oh yes it was near.

But all good things come to an end and as they sat in that train, crossing in reverse all the frontiers their own forbears had passed not a hundred and fifty years before, travelling from Saratow to Hamburg to board a ship for an ocean voyage they knew, surely as the prophets in their Bible, that it was time to go.

On that train ride they dodged two world wars. The cousins who might have stood in the fields, waving goodbye as they passed, were not seeing that prophecy clearly enough. The wrath of dictators of left and right, the brutal caldron of the first world war and its revolutions, the apocalyptic tide of the second world war, these the cousins would suffer until the world remembered them no more. If the fields and cities of America swallowed the memories of the old world among the generations begat by the travellers, the fire of war and the ice of Siberia would erase the cousins completely leaving neither ruins nor orphans behind.

And so the train reached the docks. If the Babel of Saratow had intimidated them, the crowds in this ancient city girt against the sea must have been beyond the imagination of those Horstsl. Up the gangplank they trudged into the iron belly of a ship far larger than anything they had seen before. From that moment on there would be no looking back. My grandfather's family put their faith in the waves, the children screaming against the bellow of the ship's horns and the clank of chains and thuds of cargo and sweat of their shipmates.

Amen, they must have muttered, Amen.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Norka Farewell

There were a lot of children. And a lot of bags. What went through the minds of my father's grandparents as they bundled those children and bags into what, a wagon? Sweeping out hay and manure to make room for a brood of ginger children, for carefully picked belongings and the house, the furniture, the fields, the church, the life to be left behind there on the banks of the mighty Volga.

The wagon, full with thirteen of them, which uncle or neighbor chosen to stay behind and drive the wagon back to the land, the land not ancestrally theirs, this foreign steppe, but now, decisively, not to belong to their heirs either.

My grandfather, a toddler at best, but not the youngest, so carried by a sister no doubt. In clean sturdy clothes to last for the long journey. Red cheeks wiped of black Russian dirt, tear-stained? The hope of the journey, the pain of the friends and lives and families left behind. Wrinkled stained letters from distant uncles read and re-read, parsed for signs of hope and divined for clues to a hidden future.

Did the cart's wheels creak and strain as it passed the wooden church buildings that was everything to these simple people, strangers always in the land of their birth. Nine children, loud no doubt. Well-behaved, certainly, but the sounds of high children's voices teasing and playing in German as the Tsar's grim agents checked papers, and documents, and poked, and prodded, and vaguely disapproving of this alien entourage, yet glad to be rid of yet another cartload of privileged strangers, wondering what buonty was to be gained from the space left empty behind them.

Was it to a train station in Saratow, this cartload of German farmchildren from the little village called Norka, past the farms and villages and churches of their cousins, past the factories and the brick buildings of the big city, through the throngs of actual Russians and Jews and Tatars staring at them with curiosity, or disdain, my great-grandparents knowing enough Russian, surely, to interpret the sneers of good-riddance or the wistful glances of I wish that was me. Papers checked again by the young soldiers at the station.

The children, literate enough to read their German bibles and sing their German hymns, staring now at the proliferation of signs in Russian, the signs denoting arrivals and departures, that much was surely clear, warnings surrounding the crowded black train spitting steam. Uniformed workers scurried about seeming to placate this monstrous black machine lest it storm ahead on its iron and stone path. The smell of the fields was gone now, replaced with smoke and soot and coal and tar and sweaty bodies and fear and hope.

Children and bags carefully counted, thrown together now and none missing, not into the cheapest boxcar but not into the car with the plush red velvet either. Much shouting in frightening now foreign tongues, and the reassuring cluck of my great grandmother, and the doors were closed and the whistles blew and the faces of the people stilled and the train came to life and then, right then, my grandfather--was he drooling on a piece of sugar to keep him silent--ceased to be a little Volga German farm boy and became someone else, as did I, not yet a glint in anyone's eye.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Tap Tap!

My drag queen friend Candy Samples tells it like it is about the DL Republican hypocrite set. And it's one damn catchy tune. Go Candy!!

Yours truly is in the cast.