Diamond Cabaret. Photos taken from a moving bus. That is a caption for the photos above; so is this:
It seems so obvious, now, after fifty years. But I once thought that my life was a continuum, you know. That its choices had been grouped tight, one out of another and came from a house on Haralson Avenue in Gadsden, Alabama, as a line. I thought of that line as who I was, good little Alabama boy who went to military school and always said thank you and yes ma’am and sir, could have gone on to join the family dentistry had something else not been working.
The antipodal had been working. My life has not been from the breakfront with the family china and jewels recovered from the larcenous; my life I insist did not derive from such shiny diamonds, a line.
The blacks in Gadsden lived politely in Nigra Town and the blacks in Gadsden were given food from our back door every Thanksgiving and Christmas because we treated the blacks from Nigra Town so very very well.
But my life has not extended unbroken from that place or I’d still be living there in a version of that two-story brick that might look like a two-story white with woods all around. There was a break in my life early on first with military school and then a time in Chicago and the army and Okinawa, all the time getting out of Dixie even though Ralph Stanley still makes me weep and I can well sing “Tempted and tried we’re oft’ made to wonder why it should be thus all the day long… Farther Along we’ll understand why.”
This, too, is a caption for a photo from Vegas. How does that work and how could that be?
An abradant white blouse with a brooch against a boy’s face and the scent of lavender in a handkerchief used to wipe a smudge. You hold still now. That breakfront and a photo of the first mayor of Gadsden, my great grandfather, The Captain, who walked all the way back from some place in North Carolina after the Civil War. Some of my kin have lived that way, with family photos all around, out of moments that came just before, all the way back to that breakfront, lived the line.
But for me there was tailored Artell C. Powell in Chicago after I quit school there, who took me to the south-side and told me about not leaving my drink glass on the bar while going to the men’s. Don’t do that boy; somebody will put something in that glass and steal your money. God how did I a white southern boy at nineteen find Artell C. Powell, a forty-year-old black man in Chicago? If I believed in, how you say, guides, guides, I would say that Artell was my guide, my angel. All that. But Artell. So finely dressed and Artell would have never shown up at my parents’ back door. And Artell would have laughed at Nigra Town and then wept.
Vegas is not-the-breakfront. That’s close to what I mean. Vegas for all its shiny diamonds is not the breakfront. And showbiz wasn’t, acting wasn’t. How to be rid of thinking of blacks at the back door? And of the country club? My family insulting my friends from the wrong side of town, not welcome in my home?
We don’t know their parents and doesn’t his father work in a filling station, the steel plant, Goodyear Tire and Rubber? We don’t want them in our home.
It was fear. Of poor whites. Identity in my family was so fragile, like the breakfront—my father was one generation off the farm. Orderliness, rules about who could visit, all the ideas about class, caged the fear, pushed it back down where a little Black Jack could have its way. Everything kept in a line.
And the line is what’s usually not broken when speaking of my family and the south, of that two-story brick on Haralson Avenue, except for this boy. I've been working to fracture the line, see who I am at sixty-eight without the breakfront or any of that, the china, the family diamonds, retaining just a few family photos that allow manipulation, an adjustment in opacity toward faint grayness. But I still stand up at a table, open the door. But I still say yes, sir and yes, ma’am to anybody who’ll listen.
I’m glad I’m out, believe I’m out, hope that I'm out. I still stand up and open doors and so loathe rude behavior. Wonder if all my life—and this is a caption, remember—wonder if all my life has been my work against all that, the china, the breakfront, the abradant blouse, the brooch, the lavender handkerchief and you hold still now.
Porn works for that. Does nicely. Pornography I mean. A different standing. Vegas works for that. Has that been Vegas for me, this boy, whose line did not extend in continuity from my southern family? But still; but still. I tend to a certain strictness of arrangement, even conservatism at times, and when I have gone home, gone home, I have sat there and looked out into the woods that surround a brother’s two-story white and something atavistic has obtained, and I wonder where the black servants are. Can I get something else for you, Mr. Britt? God, get me out of here.
Antipodal. I have needed something against all that. I have needed a massive fixity. Something strong, even gross in its fixity. To confirm the breaking of that line—the abradant blouse and The Captain all the way back from one of the Carolinas after the Civil War and what my childhood wanted of me.
That boy who was in our kitchen. Where’s he from? Don’t they live in East Gadsden? Father work at steel plant, Goodyear? Don’t see him again; don't bring him here again. Understand? Understand? Time for a little Black Jack. Get me some ice, son.
It has taken driving a cab, and the army, managing an apartment building, and Venice, California. Showbiz and Vegas. And Vegas. Such an ugly greenless place. Not-the-south. And all the years that I have gone to Vegas I haven’t understood until now. I have tried to explain my going there by a fragmenting. It’s the cool vodka, I’ve said; the sweet porn, I’ve said; the corrosive noise, I’ve said; the amnesic smoke. But gross Vegas disallows fragmentation and my figuring. A fixity. That’s all. That’s the caption. Diamond Cabaret.
25 May 2007
Please also see Vegas Journey.