Is That the November Chill I Feel, or is it the Icy Hand Of Death?
I'm coming to this a little later than I wanted to, but it's my beautiful Christopher's birthday today! Or tomorrow, except sort of yesterday-ish as well -- the time difference between here and Australia still baffles me. Anyway, sometime around this approximate date is Chris' birthday, so happy 39th... wait, is that right?
Holy shit dude, are you really 39? For reals?! Good lord... that means you'll be 40 next year. That's fucking middle-aged... you're going to be my first middle-aged friend. Statistically halfway between cradle and grave. You might even have to start taking your first medications soon -- will it be statins? Maybe arthritis pills? Something for blood pressure? God, this is all going to take some time to digest.
And speaking of needing time to digest, it'll also be my friend Diana's birthday on Thursday, which is why I'm going ahead and getting her in now, since nobody will be bothering with this lame blog on Thanksgiving I hope. Even I have better things to do that day than hang around here.
Anyway, I count both Chris and Diana among my most reliable, steadfast friends, two of those tiny number of people you get during your lifetime who stick around in spite of everything, even though they're not related to you and thus free of obligation. These guys have seen my life change and then change back and then change again, the distances between us (both geographic and temporal) widening and narrowing, and yet they're still here for me, and I'm still here for them.
Happy birthday to both of you, I love you more than you could know.
So, you remember a couple of weeks ago I was talking about the Mandelbrots? Well, I've learned a few new things since then.
I have this friend at work, Jay. Jay's job at Fnorders is basically to stand by the door and keep an eye on people. He's not a security guard as such, since he has no real power to do anything, and as much of his job is greeting people and directing them around as it is preventing theft from the store. He's mostly just there to make note and inform management if something seems fishy. And Jay is singularly well-suited to the job. He's a young guy, 19, quite bright and thoughtful, but happy to stand relatively still and think his own private thoughts most of the time. It's fun to watch him think, because he's so expressive when he's thinking about something -- his interior monologue is being constantly reflected on his face, and you can actually watch his conversation with himself taking place.
He also likes to talk to people -- not to anybody and everybody, but to those people who tend to want to talk to him. We get a fair number of lonely old and/or mentally ill people wandering in, and they love nothing more than to find a receptive audience, a role which Jay will happily fill. He's been known to subtly take the piss out of them if they're not aware enough to catch him at it, but he never means to hurt any feelings. Mostly, though, he just enjoys talking to crazy people, and he's good at listening to them.
He also shares a trait with a couple of other people I've known, in that he'll ask anyone nearly any question, no matter how mortifyingly personal it seems to the rest of us. And he asks so guilelessly that they'll usually answer him. It's something I'm profoundly disinclined to do myself, so I admire it that much more when I see someone else who can do it.
Anyway, Jay got to have a 45-minute conversation with Eunice Mandelbrot not long ago. I wasn't there that night -- god, how I wish I had been -- but Jay listened closely and finally got to tell me the whole story night before last. Here's what he learned:
Eunice lost her eye falling down the stairs, where she landed on her face and her eyeball popped out.
George and Charles' names are, respectively, John and Mark. They're twin brothers. John is significantly mentally disabled, to the point that he can function a bit but can't take care of himself. Mark is the family genius, and has gone a number of interesting places and done some interesting things. He's written a book based on his grandfather's letters and photographs, detailing some historical massacre in Turkey or some such place, which apparently actually stands a chance of being published. However, he's now housebound due to severely swollen legs that cause him constant, excruciating pain, which is why it's only ever Eunice and John that we see in the store or out on the streets.
The Mandelbrots were forced out of their house on the west side a couple of years ago and now live in a shitbag motel room out on 82nd, on the ass end of Portland. They have no money apart from what Eunice brings in by begging, since neither of the brothers can hold down jobs. The family's fortunes, as Eunice figures it, now rest on Mark, and more specifically on the screenplay he's writing, which is their presumed ticket to a new life in the west hills. Hence all the money she's dropping on expensive Criterion Collection discs, for Mark to study.
Jay, realizing how much of the family's funds Eunice is spending on DVDs, suggested maybe trying the library instead? But Eunice seemed too addled to understand the suggestion, and probably wouldn't remember it long enough to pass it along anyway. Jay, being the sort of person he is, asked if he could come visit them at home sometime -- a request which Eunice politely but flatly refused. "Mark can't cope with visitors," she told him. And yet Jay says he'll continue to ask whenever she comes in, because he's become as fascinated with the family as I am. I told him if he ever gets to the point that he's visiting the Mandelbrots at home, we'll start thinking about interviewing on camera. However long it takes, however slowly we have to tread, if we can get there, I'm on board. If anybody could establish a friendship with them, Jay could. And if I can help, I will.
I'm a little torn. I say this is Grey Gardens-quality material, but that's not quite true. The Edies had fallen a long way from their society perch, but they were still proud, if eccentric, people. But the Mandelbrots are not proud; their life is a humilation. They're not without hope, but even that seems a little humiliating when you consider the way it's likely to end. They pin their hopes on a screenplay built around the aesthetic ideals of Mizoguchi and Truffaut, which they expect to sell in Hollywood for millions of dollars. And even if Mark could pull off the former, how can that ever translate into the latter?
And as Jay anxiously points out, once Eunice is dead -- which will be soon -- what's going to happen to the brothers?
It's an engrossing little family drama, one of the most compelling I've ever come across in real life. I want to document these people if only to acknowledge that they were here, and that there was, after all, a kind of dignity in the way they struggled gamely against their own bizarre fates. I could never have made up a better story. At the same time, I'm acutely aware that documenting them would be dangerously close to holding them up for ridicule, which I emphatically would never want to do. But I don't know quite how to avoid it without forcing a single perspective onto the subject, which would defeat the purpose entirely.
I don't know what will ever come of it -- probably nothing. The Maysles brothers got the Edies because the Edies loved attention and wanted to be filmed. If the Mandelbrots don't, there's nothing I can do about that, and I wouldn't want to invade their privacy anyway. I also know that even if there's no film in it, the Mandelbrots will probably appear in my work in some form or other, because the story is too good not to tell. I hope, if nothing else, that I get to find out how it progresses; if not, I can probably fill in the blanks for myself.
Off-subject, but it's made my whole week: do you remember James Burke?
Back in the 80s, I used to love this old-ish BBC series that they played on the Houston PBS station during every pledge drive: Connections, and later The Day the Universe Changed. It made enough of an impact that I've remembered it ever since, even though I was just a kid when it was being aired. Anyway, the whole series is available on YouTube. It's a lot of time spent watching video in a little square, but it's more than worth it -- even thirty years later, even accounting for the immense technological development since it aired, this series is still amazing. A surprising amount of what he discusses has since come to fruition, not always as he thought it might. But the core concepts are still totally valid and immediately applicable, and if anything more obvious now than ever. Burke was damn near up there with Sagan, even if he wasn't as widely known.
Just go and watch it. It's a fine way to spend a weekend.
I expect to have laptop and WiFi access tonight, so I'm starting a running post for whatever election day miscellanea seems worth documenting.
For the record, my prediction for the night is Obama 364, McCain 174.
(11/5, replaced prediction map with current EV map)
Update: Well, the comfy corner in a friendly bar thing worked out great -- some friends came to hang out and watch, we were surrounded by Obama supporters, it was an amazing night. Unfortunately, the WiFi thing didn't work out as well, but I guess you can't have everything unless you plan farther ahead than I did.
Still, this was a fucking beautiful day. In the bar, when the election was called, when McCain conceded, when Obama gave his speech -- people were laughing, cheering, crying, dancing, hugging each other. To see that much emotion at what was a relatively self-possessed election party should tell you something about how much this meant to all of us. Even going home, people were cheering on the train, cheering all up and down the street, laughing and singing and calling to each other.
Just keep saying it: President Obama, President Obama, President Obama. Those are some sweet words. Happy, happy night.
Four years ago, give or take, I was hanging out with my friend Diana in Memphis. And I asked her if she'd seen the amazing speech given at the 2004 Democratic Convention by this guy named Obama. She hadn't, so I dragged her down to the Co-op to watch it online. "This guy is going to be the first black president," I told her.
Seriously, ask her. I'm sure I've got the details slightly wrong, but the story is true. The point being, it was obvious that the man had some intangible force already pushing him towards today. I wouldn't care to indulge in much conjecture about what that force might be. If pressed, I might settle on a definition like, "the force of millions of people collectively wanting the same thing, and then finding the wherewithal to make it happen." But there's also the quiet sense that this was something that wanted to happen on its own, and we were all simply facilitating its arrival.
I know, I'm writing like we've already won, and we haven't yet. But jacta ilea est, the die is cast, whatever is going to happen is already mostly beyond our control. We've done what we can on an individual basis, and today is just the day when we wait to see it was enough. And maybe I should be worried -- I know a lot of people who are worried -- but I'm not. I'm just smiling and waiting. Because I've known for four years that this was coming, and today's the day when it finally arrives.
Everything's going to be cool.
I voted weeks ago, so there's nothing for me to do today but hang out until the polls around the rest of the country start to close and send in their results. I'm off work, so I'm going to call my mom, run a few errands, and then go stake out a spot at a bar downtown with friends to spend the evening watching the returns. In 2004, I spent election night alone in my grandfather's guest room, watching Kerry slowly lose. It was miserable. I wanted tonight to be the opposite of that.
But mostly, if Obama wins tonight -- and I'm almost certain that he will, as much by the inexorable force of history passing as by electoral mechanics -- then tonight will be one of those era-ending/era-beginning moments you might get to see a handful of in your lifetime if you're lucky. Not just because he's black, not just because he's a democrat, not just because he's the first of what I consider my generation to get to the presidency, although those are all important things. But this is something a bit more than that. This might just turn out to be the day the 21st century finally arrives in the United States.
Here's how I see it: back in 1998, I got on a plane in the America I'd always known and left for England, where I spent most of the next three years. While I was away, something went terribly wrong, and when I came home in 2002 it was like returning to a version of America that existed in a parallel dimension that was almost exactly like the one I'd grown up in, but slightly... sinister. Some of it was just the reverse-culture-shock talking, the way the flags seemed a bit unnecessarily garish, the stars and eagles on the money a little bombastic, the people talking a little too loud, the rhetoric a little more inflamed than I'd remembered it. But years later, I still feel as though I never quite made it back to the country I'd left. I've never felt entirely comfortable here since then.
But today, maybe the parallels will begin to re-converge and I'll find America again, settling back under my feet right where I'd left it. Or maybe it could be better still -- maybe I'll even get the America I've always wanted. The one where when I'm in pain, I can go see a doctor even though I'm poor. The one where we make education a bigger priority than wealth. The one where people who speak with unfamiliar accents are interesting rather than scary. The one that's more interested in using science to propel us forward than in using religion to drag us backward. The one where a family with multiple dads or moms, or just one of either, gets the same respect as one that looks like a 50s sitcom. The one where soldiers get to come home and stay home, leaving people in Iraq to re-build their country with international support rather than American interference. I might get an America that knows it's a rather important part of the world, but not the sum total of it.
After today, we're still going to have an intractable mess on our hands. Lots of things will still be bad, there will still be impossible problems to deal with, and the parts of life that are painful today will still be painful tomorrow, and probably getting worse in the immediate future. The hardest part of getting Obama elected is over, but Obama himself, exhausted as he must be, is faced with the beginning of some of the most difficult work any President has ever done. At least, I hope he is -- if he's the President I'm hoping for, he will be. But maybe today we get an America that's tired of indulging all its worst instincts, and ready to start dealing with its problems with optimism rather than fear. More than the fact of Obama himself, it's this collective decision that I find so promising, as if we've finally decided to stop running in frantic circles, to pick a direction, and start walking.
Kicking and screaming will some of us be dragged into the 21st century. Those people have delayed the rest of us by almost a decade already, and I know they'll be working to make it longer still. But sooner or later there'll be more of us than them, sooner or later they're coming whether they like it or not. We're heading towards a queer-friendly bilingual blue-collar agnostic immigrant book-reading mixed-race future, powered by carbon-efficient fuels, Higgs Bosons and stem cells, WiFi, pad thai and student grants.
It's still not "coming home" to the America I left ten years ago, but that's fine -- that America wasn't exactly living up to its potential, either. But I might now be able to wake up some morning in the America I began to imagine while I was in Europe, a better America than we've ever known. Better than we've even really dared to imagine. Barack Obama doesn't make that happen; we make that happen. But the fact that we're electing Barack Obama today might be the first concrete sign that we've begun to imagine that future, and have decided to pick that direction and start walking.
As I've said before, one of the "benefits," if you will, of my current job is that I meet a lot of people. The meetings are superficial, but frequent enough that I can now walk through downtown Portland and recognize a respectable percentage of the people around me. Sometimes I even know their names, where they work, what kind of stuff they're into, whether they have kids, that sort of thing. Occasionally one will even recognize me outside of work, though they tend to be confused when they do, unable to place exactly where or how they know me. Point is, I have a passing acquaintance with hundreds of Portlanders. And most of 'em are nothing very interesting. Don't get me wrong -- they're fine people, I'm sure possessing many admirable qualities and virtues, and I'm sure if I took the time to really get to know them, I'd find something interesting in most of them. Not many people are really that boring. But for all the would-be personalities in this town, there aren't all that many real characters.
I have become fascinated, however, with one family in particular. There are three of them, as far as I can tell, of whom I've met two in person, and one only over the phone. The one I see most frequently is a stooped, hunchbacked, one-eyed crone we'll call Eunice Mandelbrot, which is similar to her real name, but isn't. She can usually be found begging for spare change up and down the bus mall and in other high-traffic areas downtown, around Pioneer Courthouse Square and along Burnside. She walks like one of the UrRu from the Dark Crystal, hanging her warped frame over a walking stick, looking up at everyone from a thirty-degree angle through her one good eye.
(this is not Eunice Mandelbrot)
Half of downtown seems to know her; she's a standard figure on the streets out here. She has a surprisingly genteel manner, asking politely for any spare change you might have in your pockets. She seems to dress in rags, but I expect any clothes you draped over her would look ragged. Her hair is long and grey and stringy, but she never smells bad.
I've also met her son, George -- I've never heard his real first name, but he seems sort of George-ish to me. I see him much less frequently than Eunice, but when I do it's memorable: the guy is, to be blunt, fucked-up. It's hard to gauge whether he's intrinsically fucked-up through disability or mental illness, or whether he has somehow had his fucked-up-ness foisted upon him by vice or circumstance. His speech is barely coherent, and his voice is low and strained. He's tall, thin in that way that still carries a pot belly, he has his mother's long, stringy hair, and a full beard and mustache which I always notice because he invariably has a long strand of snot hanging in it. I mean a big, nasty gob of yellow snot, hanging out of his nose and pooling in his mustache. It's hard to miss, especially the second and third time. He tends to lurch around, unable to keep his physical coordination together, and his snot-string will often swing perilously away from his nose as he sways, which keeps the eye riveted on it in case it launches and one has to duck.
I saw George a couple of months ago, and he looked a lot better for a change. His hair had been cut short and his bear trimmed, with no visible snot string therein, and instead of his usual black jeans and stained black t-shirt, he was in chinos, dress shirt and corduroy sport jacket -- they weren't in the best repair, but it was still a big step up from his normal state. He still swayed when vertical, and he was still uncommunicative, but I was unexpectedly heartened by his improvement.
Obviously everyone in the store who's been there for longer than a few months knows about the Mandelbrots. We tend to give each other a heads-up when one of them comes in; they have a bad reputation among the management in spite of never having really caused much trouble as far as I know. Eunice is a bit of a coupon-scrounger, but that's true of the elderly in general. Apparently a few years back the Portland Mercury wrote a story on them, something about their being evicted from their home because they couldn't pay rent, and Eunice out begging on the street, and something or other along those lines. I've looked for the article in their online archives, but so far I haven't found it. And if this was all I knew about them, I'd probably just write them off as a pair of tragic figures, two more of the lost causes that cluster inside our store when the weather gets colder and wetter. But there's one other thing.
They have fucking impeccable taste in film.
The only thing they ever buy from us is DVDs. And it's never run-of-the-mill crap, it's never the newly-released shit that makes up 95% of our inventory. It's always the most sublime, avant-garde, artful foreign films, usually Criterion Collection sets that cost $40 or more, films to make a former film student weep. Mizoguchi. Bresson. Eisenstein. Rossellini. These people are not fucking around when it comes to movies.
But this -- these people, these films -- it makes no sense. Eunice doesn't know a thing about them; she's generally the one to come buy them, but she only pays, she doesn't choose. They're often special orders or reserves, and she just buys whatever's on the hold shelf under her name. Does that mean George is the cineaste? I mean, maybe -- but George doesn't even seem to know where he is most of the time. So for months now, I've been sitting at the special order desk watching these beautiful editions of high-brow titles come in, trying to riddle out how the two people I've met relate to the films that they're buying. And nobody else buys them -- almost all of our best stuff is bought by the Mandelbrots.
It was only a couple of weeks ago that I got the third piece of the puzzle. A man called while I was working in the multimedia department. He was soft-spoken and articulate, and he asked about several similar titles -- I don't recall exactly what, but they were all foreign films, and all films that would appeal to an unusually sophisticated cinematic palate. I ended up putting a Criterion disc on hold for him, and when I asked him his name, he said "Mandelbrot." So this is the guy!
I took the DVD up to the registers and asked the girl working there to make note of what sort of person came in to pick it up. The voice on the phone didn't sound much like George, but if he'd really improved lately it might be possible... and if it was him, I wanted to know. It was Eunice who eventually showed up to make the purchase, so I was left intrigued but unsatisfied. Who was this new Mandelbrot, the one apparently actually buying the films?
I still don't know, but tonight I got a bit more information. The new Mandelbrot -- let's call him Charles -- has taken to calling on nights when I'm there, so I've talked to him a few times now. Each time I stifle the urge to say, "you know, I can't help but notice that you have amazing taste in film," just to see if I can squeeze a little more information out. He had a bunch of titles he wanted to check on tonight, The Last Chrysanthimum, The Red Balloon, Battleship Potemkin, a couple of others. I had some, not others, and I suggested that if we're not carrying them, he might try Facets, since they carry a lot of hard-to-find stuff. At the end, he said, "I'm sorry, and I don't mean to disparage the other people on staff there, but I just wanted to tell you that you're the only person I've spoken to there who's helped me in a professional manner. You're the only one who seems to know anything about film." And I laughed and thanked him and said, "yeah, well, that's what two degrees in film is good for, I guess." And suddenly he got very interested. "Really? I'd love to know; I used to work in the European film industry years and years ago... I worked with Antonioni and lots of others..."
Two things at this point: one, I've got another call waiting on another line; and two, whoever this guy is, his family is seriously messed up, and I don't know if I want this guy to know too much about me. So I sort of wave the question away and say, "oh, it's a long story. If you come in sometime, maybe. Can I help with anything else?" And he let it go, thanked me, and said he'd ask for me specifically the next time he needed help with a film. I dealt with the other call, and got back to work. An hour or so later, Eunice Mandelbrot comes in to pick up the films Charles had on hold. Except one was missing, one I'd put up for him days ago, and it was nowhere to be found. So she asked, "may I call my husband?"
Her husband! Charles is her husband. Except there's no way, unless she's much older than him or much younger than she appears. Eunice isn't a day if she's not 75, and Charles is doubtful much more than 60 from the sound of his voice. I mean, it's possible, but it still leaves me confused. Who the hell is Charles, then, with his rag-picker of a wife begging on the streets and his son performing aerial acrobatics with his excess mucus, while he stays home and watches post-war Ozu?
Having this new information only makes my curiosity burn hotter. Whatever is going on in this family, it's capital-fucking-I Interesting. It's Tennessee Williams interesting, it's Grey Gardens interesting. My co-workers tease me about my fascination with the Mandelbrots, but I feel both repelled by them and protective of them. I want to ingratiate myself, go to their house, find out what the fuck is going on, interview them all extensively. I want to know how they got where they are. I want to cut them down until I have a perfect faceted jewel of a story. I want to keep looking at them until I can really see them.
But I also worry that if I did, I'd want to show others. And if I showed others, they might laugh, and I don't want anyone to laugh at the Mandelbrots.
PS: this is the most heartbreaking, tragic, bittersweet thing I've ever, ever heard.