Tobacco & Firearms

Back in the Briar Patch

June 06, 2008

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Like a catfish slipping off deck into cool, polluted waters, I’m back in NYC tonight—staying in an Orchard Street apartment rented off Craig’s List, taking a much needed vacation from hazardous trees, menacing highway entrance ramps, dour Yankees, and undergraduates. At long last, I can hear not a single cricket, bird, or bee—but instead the buzz of the street, and a night scene which I’m 10 years too old to enjoy. Still, it’s nice to know it’s there. (It’s all fine and dandy to live outside NYC when you’re single, but once you settle down and start a family, it’s really time to move back, I firmly believe. We’ll see if my Texas Kappa agrees.)

The Lower East Side was dank and dull as a soggy bagel back in the 80s, so I never came here. Instead, as a young idiot, I would haunt the pre-Giuliani East Village, for the three years or so when I was a “punk rock poser.” Which means I rather liked some of the fashions—but mostly the girls who wore them—while the music left me cold. (Of course I had the requisite Clash albums, and loved the Ramones, but that was pretty much it. I drew the line at the Buzzcocks, for instance.) Up and down Avenue B I used to troll, with my baffled friends from the local Latin Mass, in search of some vaguely defined “adventure,” convincing myself that I was somehow carrying on the tradition of Catholic “decadents” such as J.K. Huysmans and Ernest Dowson—except for the part, you know, about creating great works of art. Nothing came of it—at least nothing worth confessing, and that’s just as well. At last I had to face the fact that I was less like a bookish Joey Ramone than Woody Allen in a scapular. (Minus the creepy underaged thing.) And the punk girls could see right past my Doc Marten’s and Meatmen t-shirt, to the Mauriac novel in my back pocket. Poser….

This trip is very much tamer, despite the urban grit that wafts in through the window of this tiny, tiny apartment. I’d forgotten just how small an urban sink could be. You can barely brush your teeth in the kitchen sink here—another good argument for sobriety. Still, I’m having my share of fun which might be worth a mention. For one thing, I’m getting together with some of my favorite writers for this site. Last night, I joined Richard Cowden and Frank Purcell at a sushi restaurant that features some of the best bellydancers I’ve ever seen. (No they’re not called “fishbelly dancers,” in case you were curious.) The spot on St. Mark’s Place that features these talented girls is called Je’Bon, and I highly commend it to anyone who visits the city. Every Wednesday, a variety of women of every race—and let me warn you, body type—goes on stage to strut her stuff. Amateurs take lessons, videos are made, and all the proceedings are accompanied by a hurdy-gurdy and, get this—a Theremin. That’s the primitive electronic instrument which makes those “woop-woop” sounds in 50s sci-fi movies, invented by the offbeat Russian electronics genius Léon Theremin—one of Stalin’s victims in the 30s. There’s nothing quite so offbeat and non-New Hampshire as watching a Ukrainian girl do an Arab dance to sounds from The Day the Earth Stood Still, while you attempt to eat a sea-urchin. Try it some time.

The great thing about belly dancing is that it’s erotic without being obscene. (A hard concept for an Irish-American Catholic like me to accept, but I’m gradually learning.) The women have fun. They look terrific. They express their sensual power, and flaunt their charms, but not in a way that degrades them. The women in the room don’t roll their eyes or watch their watches—as they might do at a strip club. Instead, they imitate the moves, and wonder about trying them for their husbands at home. The effect of the evening is to introduce a truce between the sexes. It’s an oddly unfallen moment.

Today was less exotic: Dinner at a Burmese bistro, and a quick prayer at an Ukrainian cathedral that I love. Ironic how they sit across the street from each other, these two reminders of nations starved and tormented by their own governments. The historically minded person, in New York City, always has some reason to be rueful.

Some of my best time in town so far has been spent with my good friend Marty Browne, the most thoughtful police officer perhaps… in history. At any rate, the best read. His collection of conservative classics puts my own to shame, and he’s plowed through every one of them, from Russell Kirk to Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. We spent a good four hours over Belgian beers at the marvelously stocked Waterfront Ale House unpacking the bizarre grudge many libertarians hold against local police. We agreed that “private enforcement agencies” such as anarcho-capitalists claim to want would do very well for people like… well, Taki. Maybe not so well for mailmen and waitresses. In fact, we realized, the whole private enforcement thing has been tried once: It was called “feudalism,” and beside it, most of us would consider even the LAPD an improvement. A slight improvement.

This morning I had good fun stopping by The New Criterion, Roger Kimball’s first-rate cultural magazine, to visit with James Panero and go to lunch with Taki blogger Andrew Cusack. His learning, wit, and piety—and sophisticated critique of the Almanach de Gotha—left me a little humbled, I have to admit. Would that I’d had half his polish, back when I was half my current age! I left him and Panero with copies of my new graphic novel—which I’d been promoting the night before on Sirius Radio. I made my way down to Geek Central, the comic-book mecca Forbidden Planet, and pumped the book to its manager too. It’s encouraging to think that I’ve come out with a book I could with a straight face promote at such wildly disparate venues. Not that this means anyone will bite.

You see, the book’s a trifle odd: A graphic novel richly illustrated by the brilliant Carla Millar, it’s named The Grand Inquisitor after a famous section of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. It’s set in the near future at the Vatican. It involves an African pope. And it’s written in Miltonic blank verse. Have I sold you yet?

Hold on, let me run down the plot, for those of you who haven’t yet clicked over to read Andrew Cusack’s coherent comments instead: The new African pope is a theological conservative, whose election upsets an elderly, powerful cardinal. This old cardinal, it turns out, has been pulling strings behind the scenes since before Vatican II, trying (quite effectively, you must agree) to cloud and obfuscate the Church’s moral teachings. On sex, of course, but also a host of other issues. This cardinal, you see, is a pessimist; he’s obsessed with visions of Hell, and is sure that most humans are headed there. But he has conceived a plan: to render all of mankind confused about what God expects of them, so that on the day of judgment they can plausibly plead ignorance, and be saved without all that bother about “virtue” or “repentance.” In other words, he’s the chaplain of the modern nanny state.

Since he knows that with the election of an angry sub-Saharan Carmelite the jig is up, the cardinal kidnaps the new pope at the airport, and holds him hostage at a mental asylum for days, trying to win him over to his new plan of “salvation.” He threatens him with electro-shock, lobotomy, even Italian television. Does the stern young African give in? Will the Antichrist control the papal throne? These and other provocative questions are raised in this deeply unusual book—which was savaged by Publisher’s Weekly as “fundamentalist.” But at least we were praised by the worldwide Zenit News, and featured on Vatican Radio. Our creepy flash ads premiere in a week or so, and may well inhabit this site.

Have I finally written my best-seller, so I can go sit on a sand-dune and read The New Criterion all day? Probably not, although stranger books have sold—for instance that tissue of nonsense Dan Brown wove into currency. Now, blank verse doesn’t work as well as quickly typed drivel when you’re reading on the beach. Then again, I agree with Larry David about the beach, that it’s “a tedious purgatory of heat and schlepping.” Anyway, until I follow my doctor’s advice, and enter a concentration camp, I’ll be in no condition to parade myself before the public eye. Except my literary outrages—which I hope you’ll rush out and buy.

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