Friday, April 9, 2010

And Everybody Says Amen


The seventeen year old rises from the sofa every afternoon to hike to the mailbox and retrieve his Netflix. His plan to clean out the garage and sell off the contents on Craigslist to buy a Coachella ticket has not come to fruition. Other objectives like registering for an SAT preparation course, searching for a summer job and memorizing his lead role in a play, as of this last week day of a two week vacation, are yet to be ticked off the to-do list. At his age I was motivated to get myself out of the house so I did the SAT and college application thing but if there’d been a genial home, a comfortable couch, a grilled cheese machine and frozen treats in the freezer I would probably still be sprawled on the davenport at Fulton Avenue watching movies.

Spuds comes to work with me during vacation. He keeps up on Facebook and fantasy baseball and orders himself a good lunch but most of the nine hour work day is spent on schoolwork. Once in a while I do a crossword puzzle or cruise Chowhound while on the clock but when I hear Spuds footsteps in the hall my screen is minimized. He has the same teachers as his brother but I do not ask him why he seems to have so much work to complete while his brother appears to have none. Nor am I comfortable asking the 17 year old why his brother’s workload seems so disproportionate to his own. I suspect there will be frantic flurry of homework completion on the Sunday evening preceding the Monday return to school.

One of Spud’s assignments is to write a report about an ethnic restaurant. I do not know why he chooses Ethiopian, which requires a trip to Fairfax, when there are dozens of different cuisines represented much closer to home. He pours over restaurant reviews and settles on a vegan place in the heart of Little Ethiopia. He is superior to me in work ethic but he proves that he is the flesh of my loins by noticing that the place serves an all you can eat lunch.

My only other foray into Ethiopian food was about thirty years ago and I distinctly remember the taste of dirt. Fortunately, the vegan place is quite good and the authenticity is enhanced by the staff’s distinctive lean, delicate facial features. Spuds, per his research, recognizes and tells me the name and ingredients of everything we eat. We are the only diners except for two artsy looking women in their seventies, kind of Joan Didion and Ruby Dee. A handsome black traffic cop arrives and makes herself so at home that we immediately recognize her as a regular. Spuds is at the buffet and she asks him why he’s not in school. He explains that he’s still on vacation and she asks from where. He tells her he goes to school in Altadena and she asks him how he likes going to school with all those black kids. I would have been discombobulated by such a question but Spuds, ever politic and poised, responds that he enjoys the diversity.

She comes over to our table and asks me if I am Spud’s mother and when I respond affirmatively she says, “You must have started late.” “I’m not that old,” I squeal. “I guess it’s the gray hair,” she muses. I tell her that I’m fifty three and she says, “Oh, my mom is fifty three.” She continues to chat. She draws us and also the two older diners into a conversation that extends for about an hour after we finish eating. The ladies are long time vegetarians and we reminisce about LA vegetarian restaurants of yore like the Source and the SRF place on Sunset wistfully.

The cop is of Nigerian descent but I refrain from bitching to her about scam e-mails addressed to “Beloved” or Himself’s nincompoop supervisor whose degree is from some specious online diploma mill. She says she’s a credentialed teacher and still paying on her student loans. She hates being a cop but says there are no teaching jobs. She is on her second marriage and pregnant. She describes her husband as “one of those black men who is so gentle and refined, you’d think he’d be married to a white woman.” She knows I know exactly what she means and I laugh. Perhaps this reflects badly on both of us but even though she rubs in what was stamped on my medical records: “ADVANCED MATERNAL AGE,” Spuds and I are both captivated by her.

I swore off Queer Eye for the Straight Guy ostensibly because it reinforced stereotypes about gay men but there was also the excess of product placement. I am conflicted about my fascination with RuPaul’s Drag Race which also hawks a lot of crap plus contains oodles of ratcheted up reality show style cat fighting. I went to a couple of drag shows in the 1980s. At a particularly memorable one on San Francisco’s Mission St., after the de rigeur fruit braed Carmen Miranda imitator, the emcee announced that there was an unusual act that night, Bobby, a new boy in town. A young man in street clothes took the stage and to some disco ditty, performed a clumsy striptease until the unimaginable was not left to the imagination. A pre-nose-job Barbra Streisand came out and attempted, and failed, to resuscitate the audience. Drag queens lip synced in funny parodies of iconic performers but there was a grotesque and tawdry quality (even if rough trade Bobby hadn’t bared all) and some feminists claim, perhaps correctly, a palpable misogyny.

In the most recent episode of Drag Race some older gay men are trotted out and the twenty something participants are assigned to transform them into “drag mamas.” One of the old guys is a teacher I taught with many years ago. He was the first person I ever saw use a cell phone, which was the size of a shoebox. The drag mamas are incredulous that the contestants don’t know who Oscar Wilde is. Nevertheless, the drag daughters are self assured and regale the drag mamas with tales about coming out while still in high school. The guy I knew from teaching shows off his pierced navel replete with a dozen shimmery objects threaded through it. Another one of the old gents sports a red white and blue bikini. One has an excruciatingly mincing affect. The younguns are taught a lesson about the gay liberation movement and proffer thanks to their drag mamas for their courage to have stood at the forefront, but in some ways they are also deeply embarrassed by the product of a very different time.

I am captivated by the extraordinary quality of some of the performances. These creations are sui generis, more than diva imitations, and refreshing as so many diva personas are just imitations of old school drag queens. One of the contestants addresses the evolution of drag, and how now drag is drag, not female impersonation, “What women do you know actually wear 6” heels?”

The teacher’s drag name, in a nod to his Jewish background, is Golda LamĂ© and he’s paired with Raven, a front runner but also the Alexislike bitch of the season. The contestants use “she” and “her” with each other and because their drag personas are so fully realized I suppose this helps them keep in character. It is icky to hear this though when they are not made up but I guess it would be confusing to switch back to “he” and “him.” When one of the women judges compares herself to Raven, he bristles and observes, “Look, you’re a woman. I’m a man in a dress.”

Golda and Raven win the competition, which is judged by Debbie Reynolds and Cloris Leachman. My favorite, Pandora Boxx, a brilliant comedian is selected, quite unfairly, to “sashay away” and I am shocked and deeply disappointed. I run down the stairs to inform my sons that Pandora is eliminated only to meet callous indifference. Himself however is very partial to Drag Race and applies the same critical eye to legs and posteriors as he does to the Western Canon. He is very upset when two Los Angeles teachers are disciplined for including RuPaul and O.J. on a poster celebrating Black History month. He gets it about OJ but takes great umbrage on behalf of RuPaul.

I really don’t remember, but I doubt if I ever spent most of a vacation completing school work. I watched a lot of movies and I think probably more than I should about how my life might have been better if I’d been more ambitious. We worry about the seventeen year old but when I glance at his Netflix queue, I see it is filled with difficult and challenging films like the Decalogue and L’avventura and it shuts me up when I’m tempted to inflict the “Why don’t you study more like your brother?” inquisition. When I do get on his case he just throws RuPaul in my face anyway. I will probably break down and enroll him in a SAT preparation course by myself because ultimately, no matter how nice it is at home, he’ll want to watch movies somewhere else eventually. I hope.

I like the black cop I meet in the Ethiopian restaurant and although a sociologist might label her self hating, she seemed to like herself just fine. I like watching RuPaul but I bet some folks probably find it disgusting and think that drag is as offensive as blackface but I see a liberated joyfulness in this new incarnation of the art form. Maybe I should make the seventeen year old cold turkey his Netflix and make something of his life but Days of Heaven is on his queue and I’m dying to watch it with him. Maybe I really did watch too many movies and should have been more focused but when I watch a film I love with my boy, I see in his face the same spark I felt a lifetime ago. Who needs ambition when there’s cable television and NetFlix? At the end of each show RuPaul says "If you don't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?"
Shabbat Shalom

1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

Should I be glad I didn't have to eat Ethiopian food? I probably would have asked about Eritrea and made everyone mad. Indeed, early on you once told me the cuisine tasted like dirt and that one (not you perhaps, ever mindful of etiquettal daintiness) ate it with one's hands.

But I was able in history class to defend myself against Afrocentric curricula-taught (as in KC's Afrikan-Centered Teaching that has helped reduce the student body even further by white and now black flight) students by showing them how the mountain kingdom was both protected and isolated from spreading its culture and power over what the students erroneously thought was all of Afrika, itself as Greek a name as Cleopatra, who descended more from what is now Macedonia than, say, Mauritania, bore. The square churches ingeniously dug into the ground as fortresses, the strikingly featured inhabitants, the Amharic and art, the sheer remoteness: a strange land we still know little about, it seems. Or at least me.

Furthering my consciousness-raising recently, I even defended RuPaul on the blog formerly known as "Liberal Rapture," although the "out" webhost of it did not take up my appeal to make the LAUSD case a du jour cri-de-coeur for drag liberation or even common decency. I agree with RuPaul's closing admonition and feel that would instruct young'uns better than some pedadogical bromide mandated by bureaucrats and approved by a committee of supposedly open-minded role models. Speaking of models! xxx me