Front Seat Freestyle

Down at Portland’s Central Precinct, down three floors, three cops sit slack-jawed staring at the biggest flat screen TV I have ever seen. A deep TV narrator voice says, “Lil’ Rick’s crippin’ had gone too far. The balancing act was torture.”

 

It’s 10 til four, and the cops lounge around a long table, the kind we use at work for important meetings. Lil’ Rick is a man now, but on the History Channel, he’s still a Los Angeles teenager wielding big guns and blue handkerchiefs. Being a Crip, he says, meant hating everything red — even strawberry soda.

 

I’m here for a ride-along with Officer Chad Stensgaard — a cop who spent a day in court last month after parking in a no-parking zone to eat dinner and watch the Blazers game. I’m a newspaper reporter, new to the night cops beat after spending a few years writing about education. Tonight, Chad’s going to take me through the dilapidated part of downtown known as Old Town, show me how the crack addicts have migrated north again. Two years ago, the police chief had declared victory: The big raid had sent 158 dealers or users to jail. Crack was gone.

 

“It just went downtown for a few years,” Chad says, handing over a bullet-proof vest. “Now we’ve been policing downtown, so it’s moved back here.”

 

I put on the vest. It’s extra-large, the only size they have. I just topped 110, and the vest hangs off with arm holes so big I could step through them.

 

Chad is young, studly with a spikey handsome-man haircut. He spends the first hour rolling slowly through the streets, coolly telling me about this or that time he arrested someone. He drives by a hair salon twice, tells me his wife works there. The shop is part of the new, remodeled plaza that city officials had said would turn Old Town around. It’s upscale, but close enough to the downscale area that Chad likes to check in on his wife. The car windows are down, and Chad says a police-like “Hello” to nearly everyone we pass. People are quick to greet him back, as if an officer’s hello mandates a respectful reply. “Good evening, officer.”

 

It’s 5:30, a Thursday night in the middle of June. Nothing is going on yet. I only have a few hours, and I feel impatient for some kind of action, something I can go back to work and write down so my bosses will think I’m a go-getter. I’m the youngest person on staff, and I want to stop feeling like I’ll never catch up to the other reporters.

 

“The commander thought I could use some good publicity,” Chad tells me. “That’s why I agreed to take a reporter with me tonight.”

 

I’m not sure what to say back to him, so I don’t say anything. Chad turns the radio on — the pop station, not the police scanner — and sings softly as he drives. I look out the window, wondering what people think when they see me in the passenger seat. After half an hour, Chad jerks the car into an old Burger King parking lot. Someone burned the insides out long ago. The sign is gone, but its essential Burger Kingness — the drive-through, the mission-tile roof — is intact. I try not to smile. Maybe this will be something.

 

Chad pulls up next to a No Trespassing sign alongside a curb in front of the restaurant. He says some code into his police radio then motions to a group of five people — all black, maybe homeless, maybe in their 40s — a few feet away. They’re standing in a line, leaning against the building. Chad swaggers out of the car. Outside, he looks bigger. His blue, short-sleeved uniform clings to his bicep as he walks toward the group. He doesn’t tell me to get out, so I don’t, but I hold my notebook out the window and write descriptions of the trespassers: over-sized t-shirts, sweat pants, windbreaker. The woman on the end of the line is all teeth chattery and bouncing in white tennis shoes. While Chad checks IDs, she sneaks away, tip-toes through a crosswalk and is gone.

 

“Officer, there may be a discrepancy with my address,” another woman says.

 

She says her name is Angela. She’s wearing the kind of pants suit I’d expect to find at Sunday School. She has a brand new bicycle, a nice voice and a felony warrant out for her arrest. Next in line is Yvonne. Later, Chad shows me Yvonne’s license: She’s 5’4, 260 pounds, it says. In person, her hair is short and wild, natural. Her license shows a woman with smoother, longer hair. Chad tells Yvonne to turn her pockets inside out then he runs a gloved hand over her pocket, holds his hand up to eye-level.

 

“Is this all the crack you have?” he asks Yvonne. “Or am I going to find more?”

 

“No, sir, I just had a little something this morning,” she answers. Two officers show up on bicycles. One, a female, is wearing shorts. Chad asks her to frisk Yvonne.

 

Something – Was that a tooth? I think — falls out of Yvonne’s mouth. The officer ignores it.

 

“I’m going to frisk the front of you, make sure you don’t have anything, OK?” she tells Yvonne.

 

Yvonne pulls up her shirt and her bra, revealing no drugs, only large, dark breasts. A studious-looking man walks by the scene and hollers to the cops, “Don’t be startled; I’m just a black man walking behind you.”

 

I scribble his quote down in my notebook. Oh that’s good, I think.

 

Half a decade ago, when I was 20 and working in Mississippi, I spent my nights hanging out with black men who hated cops. I was on their side, I told them. I wanted to tell their stories. I was white and never had any run-ins with cops, but I felt more comfortable with black people in the South. My family was poor, just like theirs. I was against privilege and the establishment. I idolized the Freedom Riders.

 

When I first moved to Portland, every black person reminded me of home. I’d tell black grocery store check-out workers that I’m from the South, hoping they’d understand how similar we are.

 

“Never been there,” they’d say.

 

Outside the old Burger King, the female cop handcuffs Yvonne then guides her to the curb, right outside my window. Yvonne tells the cops that her tongue ring fell out. Can an officer screw it back on for her?

 

Not a tooth, I write in my notebook.

 

The female cop picks a little knob off the asphalt and bends down to tighten it onto Yvonne’s tongue. She jumps back when she realizes she’s stepped in human shit. The other bike cop cackles. “Those are your new shoes, right?” He’s eating a granola bar.

 

“Yvonne,” Chad says sweetly. “What’s moving around in your purse?”

 

“A dildo vibrator,” she says, glowering.

 

Chad helps Yvonne into the backseat of the police car. He leaves her alone with me. I hide the notebook. I don’t want her to know I’ve been writing. I don’t want her to think I’ve been judging her.

 

“It’s just crumbs,” she says — to me? I’m not sure. “Ain’t a whole lotta dope. Just three crumbs. Shit.”

 

The granola-eating cop tells one of Yvonne’s friends, the only guy in the group, to break a crack pipe found in Yvonne’s purse.

 

“Man, shit,” Yvonne says. “There isn’t nothing wrong with that pipe. Wasn’t even used.”

 

“They told me I hafta,” the guy says, then places the pipe on the curb a foot away from me. He steps on the pipe. Parts of it fly through the window and land on my button-down shirt. I’m not sure if I should wipe it off.

 

Chad guides Angela to the back of the car, too. She’s handcuffed, but after Chad leaves, she wiggles around until she’s holding a cell phone up. She doesn’t seem to notice that I’m sitting in the front seat.

 

“Hey, I’m going to jail,” she says into the phone.

 

A few minutes later, Chad slides in the driver’s seat. Yvonne asks, “Why are you wasting your time on me? There a lotta dope out there.”

 

“There is a lot of dope out there,” Chad says. He emphasizes the is, but doesn’t turn to look at Yvonne. “You’re part of the problem. If you didn’t buy it, dealers wouldn’t be able to sell it.”

 

“I didn’t buy it,” Yvonne says. “Somebody bought it for me.”

 

“Anyway,” she adds, “if there wasn’t dealers, there wouldn’t be anyone to buy from. “

 

“New dealers would just come around,” Chad says, looking down at arrest forms. “Alright, I’m going to read you your rights.”

 

I’m mad at Chad. He’s putting on a show for me, I think. This arrest won’t solve anything. I look back at my notebook. This isn’t a story. I had wanted a story, and there isn’t one, and I am mad at Chad for arresting people so that I can have a story. So that he can have some good publicity. So that I can look good for my bosses.

 

A few minutes later, Angela clears her throat. Her phone is hidden again. She has been crying. “I’ve lost everything I’ve ever worked for,” she says.

 

“What’s that?” Chad asks. He’s filling out paperwork and hasn’t really been listening.

 

“Nothing,” she mutters.

 

“She said she’s lost everything she’s worked for,” I tell Chad. My voice is stern but quiet. “She’s sad about the bike.”

 

“I don’t care about my bike,” she snaps. “I’m going to lose my job, my house, my fiancee, over something I did 10 years ago. I tried to get it taken care of in court, but I couldn’t get a document from Florida.”

 

Chad turns to me. “The warrant is over a dangerous drug possession.”

 

She doesn’t look like the threat he is implying. I feel uncomfortable, witnessing the ruining of Angela’s life. The day Angela lost everything won’t warrant even a brief in my newspaper. I feel, suddenly, like a different person than I used to be. When did I switch teams?

 

“Am I going to get a bail?” Angela asks Chad.

 

“Uhh, no,” he says, eyeing a processing paper. “Hey, Yvonne, what’s your address?”

 

She’s silent. “You not talking to me anymore?” he asks.

 

I look back at Yvonne, but she’s staring out the window, biting her lower lip. I’m due back at work. There’s crack pipe on my shirt.

 

Chad’s headed to the jail, but he drops me off first. I’m not ready to go into the newsroom yet, so I walk to the grocery store, buy a sandwich, read The New Yorker. Two weeks later, I see Yvonne again. I’m biking home from work, late at night, and she’s sitting on a bench with a new group of friends. I stop at a red light and she looks up. We stare at each other. I’m not scared, but the light turns green, and I pedal — quickly — north. The next night, and every night after, I take a different route.

Casey Parks is a reporter at The Oregonian Newspaper. She grew up in Louisiana with library fines in four cities. She is directing a documentary, The Diary of a Misfit, that traces the mysterious beginnings and endings of a woman who lived as a man in Delhi, Louisana. 

When Matt Met Sally

I’m always hesitant to go to one-person shows. With only one actor, there’s no possibility of the chaos that comes from strong characters knocking heads with one another. A two-person play seems barely better. With just two actors, I find myself wondering, how will they pass the time?

This concern is largely negated in the Roundabout Theater production of “Talley’s Folly” now on stage at the Laura Pels Theatre. The story concerns 42-year-old Matt Friedman (Danny Burstein) from St. Louis, dark and witty, but a mensch. Matt has returned to Lebanon, Missouri in 1944, a year after mysteriously abandoning his summer girlfriend, Sally Talley (Sarah Paulson), to win her back. Sally is 31-years-old, strong-willed, wry, and erudite.

“Talley’s Folly” is a feat of story-telling, especially considering how little happens onstage. The action is confined to a single set, the Talleys’ aging boathouse, and it happens in real time over 97 minutes. The only striking moment of stage choreography is when Matt whimsically tries on a pair of ice skates and walks precariously across the boathouse’s wooden deck.

Otherwise it is mere talk, a quippy back and forth between two former lovers, as Matt tries to erase Sally’s apprehensions. There is real magic here between these two. As Matt, Burstein is gentle and funny, at once adhering to the stereotype of a humorous and wise Jewish man and transcending it (Judd Hirsch originated the role in 1979, and he too fits the type. Both the role and Burstein’s performance are reminiscent of Richard Dreyfuss’s part in the 1979 film “The Goodbye Girl,” which came out the same year that “Talley’s Folly” was first produced.)
Paulson, as Sally, is magnificent. She is wounded and guarded, but she conveys so clearly her strength, charm, and intelligence.
Though the play may not fully have the chaos I long for in a drama, Matt’s arduous and seemingly impossible mission to win back the beloved Sally Talley is dramatic, engaging and as emotionally affecting as anything else currently on stage.

Presented by the Roundabout Theater Company, at the Laura Pels Theater, Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, 111 West 46th Street, (212) 719-1300. Through May 5th. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured (l-r) Danny Burstein, Sarah Paulson

Jolene

A heart fell open
With a name like Jolene
it was only meant to be a matter of time
before her flame not only caused the trouble
But ended the show.

A sorry state of repercussion,
set in a site fit for interrupted stars.
Mirrors flashed around like beams,
holding on to the window pane, a glittery seam.

Jolene came across as a red daredevil,
of what ever was stirring in the air.
She latched on for unintentional reasons.
They would call her baby doll,
the dots of sunlight, trusted in her sight.

At the bottom of everything,
desire kept me running.
Directions from the cities that lit up,
every time I stroke a match.
I never burned the building
but the people inside felt a heat;
that rose up in a stutter.
And the people that wouldn’t let her go,
fell under the engines drenched in oil.

She knew it couldn’t be enough,
tracing steps, state to state.
Bringing her lips to the steering wheel,
taking that deep breath that caused frustration.
Older in the sense of time,
you can only bite your lip so many times;
until the bruises last a little bit longer each time.

The Apple Girl

Over the backyard fire, the girl’s marshmallow sagged at the end of the stick like a runaway’s bindle.  She let the flames have their way with it, devouring it in a quick hush of inky black rot. Her father arrived from somewhere beyond the fire’s halo. He sat beside her, his breath and sweat cidery. He called her Red Delicious. He bared his teeth, white like a promise that he’d bite. He said it was time to press. Tomorrow, he said, and sat too close.

Everyone knew windfall apples were untrustworthy, but he sent her after them nonetheless.

Her fingers found their way around the fallen fruit. The skins yielded, and her fingertips sunk into mealy innards.  There was, too, the arhythmic thudding of the vulnerable things against rough barrel wood, rambling around like a broken carnival ride. It was a music of unkind hearts applauding a girl’s guts into something soft and easy to digest. She could not stomach it, but she did.

At dinner her skin loosened and crawled, and her father noticed. “Aren’t you American?” He put the plate down for her. Sour steam of hot fruit kissed her face wetly. Across the table his mouth was stuffed with the hot mash. He swallowed it with a splash of sharp stinking “daddy cider.”

 

The first spring she was a woman, her stomach swelled. People in town assumed things. Women droopy with make-up hauled their eyes up from their shoes when she passed.  The cashier rang up the blooming woman’s milk and eggs. “When’re you due?”  Everyone knew her father. The cashier snapped her gum in answer to her own question. The sound was like a branch snapping and the round woman hurried out on swollen ankles.

 

The apple blossoms swooned from the branches to the dirt and rotted. By cider season, the woman’s belly bulged in the familiar way. Crouching for windfalls got to be too cumbersome, so she stuck to the press, soaking in the perfume of old sugar, swatting bees.

She polished the tight skin of her firm belly until it squeaked beneath her thumb. Through the dusty window, she watched a neighbor woman, stumbling the dirt road to the house, nervous as a hungry chicken. Through the screen door the neighbor woman squinted at her own hands, and then at the round woman’s roundness, and said her father should take her to see someone.

A ruddy-faced nurse stuck a needle into the young woman unapologetically. She squirted the golden liquid into her hand and, without a word, she licked it and frowned. She squirted some into the open palms of the father and the daughter. No one in the room was a doctor, so no one could say who was to blame. The tests would come. Everyone agreed that it was best not to name any names, but the nurse thought someone should really do something. She wiped her hand on her cotton pants, leaving a sticky golden stain on the bleached and starched cotton.

 

Polly Duff Bresnick is the author of two chapbooks: Old Gus Eats and most recently Mirror Poems. Her writing has appeared in the The Fiddleback, The Brooklyn Rail, elimae, and elsewhere.  She is also the founder and curator of a monthly writing series: Writers Reading to Writers Listening to Writers Reading to Writers. Find her at www.pollybresnick.com

Artwork courtesy of Kayelen

Remarkable Products

“You think women respect honesty? Man, they respect integrity. Honesty ain’t got a thing to do with it.”

Pilot’s explaining how he got out of another jam, again. Something about separating the two, picking one over the other—for the time being—and then damage control.

“Tell a woman what she wants to hear and deal with the consequences of your words, that’s handling your business, that’s integrity.”

I try to picture the exchange. Pilot can talk. His demeanor is beautiful combination of confident and unassuming. And the girls, strong and sassy types, with mouths and bodies that battle against one another for top billing. But it’s hard to really imagine.

“Do you remember what it used to be like when we had no money?” Pilot says to me, quickly changing the topic. Across the street, three brothers in tank tops pass a basketball between the three of them. The shortest brother, also the fattest, drinks something out of a quart-sized wax paper cup.

I still remember it, I think to myself. I taste the pulsating summer heat of my morning, afternoon, and late afternoon bananas: thirty-five cent wonders with tiny strings that always seem to wedge themselves between my teeth for the entire day—remnants of a meal deferred. All it takes is the slightest feeling of hunger for my thoughts to turn to bananas.
“Those were the days, weren’t they?” I tell Pilot.

“A day on the courts didn’t cost a thing, water fountains nearby, shoot, it was all there.” Pilot responds, reminiscing a childhood I didn’t have.

We met because we wanted to be writers. Decided to go the school route to do so. Spend enough time around professors and they can convince you there’s a degree for everything. His west coast, Portland, Oregon to my east coast, Flushing, Queens. We met in an MFA classroom in New York City. I remember the first words he said to me as we inadvertently sat next to each other in workshop, black and brown in one corner of the communal writing space: “I’m glad to finally meet a real New Yorker, finally someone’s going to show me the underground stuff going on in this city.”

“I’m from Queens.” I said then, the way I would say now. “And if you know Queens the way I know it, you know there isn’t shit happening there except for immigrants killing themselves to make their dreams come true, a whole lot of homophobia, and people who ride buses for hours to get to work.” I left out my favorite taco trucks, the Louis Armstrong House—places dear to me in Queens.

“What do you think of that one?” Pilot asks me. We might as well be construction workers on these afternoons. Quiet ones.

“She’s everything I could ever want.”

“Man, how do you know right now she’s all you could ever want?”

“I just know.”

“You see, that’s the problem with you, selling your tomorrow right now for below market value.”

“But she’s beautiful.”

“Yeah, but you looking between the lines? It’s what, like 90 degrees out right now. And what’s she wearing?”

“Jeans.”

“Exactly. You know what that means?”

“She likes jeans?”

And Pilot begins to tell me about his theory of summer-jean-wearing women. How a woman who can deal with pants, jeans no less, in 90 degree weather, especially in the 90 degree, humid New York City summer has got two problems no man should ever have to deal with.

“Either she thinks she’s this ugly thing with the ugliest legs in the world, or worse, she’s the kind of woman who would rather sweat to death than shave her legs. Trust me man. You want no part of it.”

We both turn our heads, following her walk more closely, trying to listen to the sashay of her hips. Then she reaches the periphery of our line-of-sight and disappears.

“Not even for a little?”

“I know these things, man. Trust me on this one.”

Lunch is over. And we’re now just waiting to walk into our respective classes.

“So you still working on that story?” Pilot asks. “The one about that friend of yours getting married in Rome?”

“Yeah. Researching the Caravaggios in Rome, and trying to find a way to make them central to the story.”

“Why?”
“Because.”
“Because why?”

If you were to line up every single one of the words we’ve typed out over the past eight years, the pages would span the distance from Pioneer Square to Flushing Meadow Park.

“Trying to get published, man. Feel like everything I read is about that “sort” of life.”
I like to think of words as the organic and the inorganic matter found in soil. Necessary elements and bits of biomass that mean nothing alone but together contribute to the medium responsible for moving humanity forward. Even the most countryside-deficient-New-York-City-building-dweller can tell the difference between a burnt out patch of light brown, bleached soil that can’t even give birth to a dandelion, and a patch of dark brown dirt that gives rise to a strong elm. Across the street, an old poodle slowly makes its way to a tree where it relieves itself. On our best days, when something on the page works, aren’t we moving humanity forward?

“Ain’t no one in the world think like you, man. Idea man. I wish I could come up with that kind of stuff,” Pilot says to me as we watch our college students make their way back to class. “You need to do more of that.”

We’ve come to the conclusion that we can’t get away from writing: it’s like a sun that rises every morning in our lives. A cliche, but a present one. We used to think images like that were passable, that we could hide them somewhere within the “voice” of our writing. Now we know better. It takes myths.

“You still trying to beat them at their game, aren’t you?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Why?”

We always talk about girls we’re in love with and the books we’re writing. Commonalities. Pilot says that what he’s working on will change the way people think. I’m hoping for a steady job after this is one is over with.

It’s who we are. Which is why we’re boys. We’ve both had to learn from writing, and love, that at some point you have to learn to do on your own, depend on your abilities, and hope that what life demands of you is who you really are.

“Man, they so far in front of you. You’ll never catch them. Just be you.”

“And knowing is half the battle, right?”

“You can’t care about what someone wants. All you can do is push a remarkable product and watch them come. Watch.”

 

Marco Fernando Navarro is a graduate of New York University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. His fiction has appeared in Word River. He is currently working on a novel titled “flushing Queens.”

Ice Loves Coco

The artist Margaret Haines works in a multitude of mediums all closely related to each other in subject matter and form. Currently, Haines has both an upcoming film, Coco and a book, Coco X Love With Stranger releasing within the next year. The book is a part of a series of metaphorical and hypothetical trailers (or teasers) for the film. Past ‘trailers’ have been performed as live performance art and through the medium of sculpture. Loosely based on the narrative structure of Don Quixote, the book revolves around three female protagonists: Coco, the protagonist in Haines’ forthcoming film; Los Angeles artist and cult figure, Cameron and Haines’s herself. Through these three women, Haines explores different ideas of female identity – mixing personas at will. The book includes a selection of photographs, stills and other artworks from or relating to the film. Coco is the story of a tween girl, played by four different actresses ranging in age (from three to forty-five) drifting strangely through life and relationships. The book shows the life of this manic young girl through every day detritus and paraphernalia, such as gossip magazines, dolls or a tampon in a purse. The end result is printed on news print in both color and black and white, referencing girlhood items like 80′s pulp novels.

The book further develops the relationship between female artists and film by offering an alternative to girlhood hysteria with its essay Love With Stranger, a diary-like essay on the artist Cameron, who appeared in Kenneth Anger’s film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. The essay covers both Haines’s discovery of and experience with Cameron’s work, as well as recounting her experiences learning more about Cameron and meeting Beat poet Aya Tarlow, a close friend of Cameron’s.

The book is published in a soft-cover edition of 500 available through New Byzantium. The film itself as well as its soundtrack will be released in spring 2013 on a USB silicone necklace made in collaboration with jewelry designer Arielle de Pinto.

An official release for the book will be held at Ooga Booga in Los Angeles December 19th. All Images courtesy of Margaret Haines.

Joy of a Suburban Brothel

They disappear into shadow,
hollowed knocks, drowning out.
I feel like I lost a little piece of myself,
a key somewhere was dropped,
and the K-hole I fell through erupted ans spewed.
The raw contains of mangled life,
how to dispose forceful words like me.
Time of a collection, combined stories,
never to understand or to have ever understood.
Stiff realization liberates liquid truth,
dotting figures along the lines to sound.
Hooks, hooks, hooks…self-reliant.

Baby dolls have their fingers, but who cut off the toes.
Its brutal, I know,
is it these days I sit around,
endlessly staring out second story windows;
eye catching crimson neighbors,
Drapping themselves in harsh velvet.

23rd and 5th street led the direction,
towards divisions and brothel highways.
Mercifully it begins like it always has,
while I wait,
the roof tops along the identical way;
crave out customers.
While the girls appearance changes into the structure of an elegant Nico.

A baby shouts
Curled into the ball that bounces
About in a short amount of time
Ah time that elegant matter
So soft to the touch
But a deal I’d rather
leave behind in a dumpster
that was too close to the call
of a former employee that caught hold of my scent
a bastard of sorts that left a trail
not to far from my bed
But oh how that ‘hang loose’ attitude
Had taught me to better
Rise to the sun
Than to be found with the boys and girls
that had the scrapped bleeding knees
towards the lost generation of kids
that lived on a turnpike
forwarded to a season in hell
that snow-capped a mountain, atop of the waste land
where teenagers felt the soft skin of beautiful losers
Towards the tunnel of a hazardous fall
And it was into that turn, that turn of confessions
That led a venus in her furs
To an artificial land created in paradise.

Photo and Song by Kristen Fisher.