The Far Side of Here

I’m spending the next few weeks trying to find a place to hide. The city of Atlanta will soon be hosting the Super Bowl, and in honor of the biggest sports event of the year the city has unveiled a public service campaign warning residents about the child sex trade that may be taking place that weekend. 

What the hell? 

So much for an honorable celebration of a great American pastime. I’m no simpleton. I fully understand that a huge party will be descending on the city for the NFL’s grand finale, replete with the usual bustling strip clubs and crowded penthouse shindigs. But to glance at the dizzying array of billboards around town, with their neon warnings about illegal sex trafficking, one would think that we are preparing not for a sports competition, but for a convention of well-heeled pedophiles. Time to lock up the kids, load up the guns, and keep both eyes peeled for anybody acting even remotely suspicious. 

Turning now, toward the cosmos…

One of the absurdities I used to like to flaunt, when people asked what I did for a living, was that I was a consultant for the CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.  It usually started out with a simple remark from a person that I looked a little tired, and instead of admitting that I’d been up late drinking, I would set about weaving the emperor’s new clothes. 

“Yes,” I would say. “I was up all night analyzing data from Europe’s CERN, the giant laboratory that studies particle physics. Because of the time difference in Switzerland, you know, my sleep is sporadic.” 

“You were doing what?”  

I would give a reluctant head shake, like I didn’t want to make a big deal about it. But yes, I was a remote correspondent for the giant CERN laboratory, helping to process the mountain of data from the particle accelerator. There are around 40 million subatomic collisions a second within the 17-mile circular machine, and with that kind of output, the CERN’s physicists must outsource their number-crunching to analysts all over the world. Namely people like me; insomniacs with a mind for theoretical science.  

So I was disappointed to read the other day that the CERN’s giant reactor has been shut down for a couple of years for updates and maintenance, which takes the fun out of saying that I work for the place. It’s also, though, caused my lies to come back to haunt me. Now most of my friends and acquaintances suspect that I broke the damn thing which, had I been affiliated with it, I most certainly would have. CERN is short for the European Organization for Nuclear Research, a fact that is a bit disheartening. How are these people going to unlock the secrets of the universe if they can’t even get a simple acronym right? They spent $5 billion so a bunch of dyslexic mathematical geniuses could race quarks and gluons around a vast racetrack. No wonder the thing shut down. 

The reason I found out about the CERN’s closure in the first place was because a vaguely familiar stranger, gaunt and pale like he had been designed by Edward Gorey, walked up to me at Dupin’s, my local watering hole, and asked what I thought about China landing on the far side of the moon. At first I thought it was just some random ridiculous question because, after all, one of the major rules of quantum physics and barroom chatter is that anything that can happen eventually will happen. It took me a minute to realize I had told this fellow last year that I was some kind of astrophysicist, and suddenly the question made sense, or at least his reason for asking me made sense. 

I shrugged it off, even as I imagined China’s lunar module crash landing in some alien family’s backyard on the far side of the moon. Any life form with the technology to live outside of our planet would at least have the good sense to stay hidden from us, monsters that we are. So I imagined the part of the moon perpetually shielded from us would be full of beings living carefree lives of peace and harmony, yukking it up and relishing the quiet. That is until some cloddish Chinese rocket drops into the deep end of some extraterrestrial’s swimming pool, as the dad stomps around and yells at his wife, “Shit honey, they found us. I knew we should’ve moved to Ganymede. But no, you wanted to be closer to the sun!”  

I often wonder if the reason we fail to discover alien life forms is that they are really good at hiding from us. After all, any species that has to warn its citizens about the underbelly of child sex trafficking during the biggest sports event in the universe should probably be left alone. We’ve got enough problems. It’s kind of embarrassing, really. If some alien explorers actually make it to Earth I’d rather them land in the desolate Sahara desert, convinced there is no intelligent life here, rather than crashing down in the middle of some flea market peddling human sex slaves, and coming to the exact same conclusion.  

If I did work at the CERN I think I’d want to study the part of the collider known as ALICE, which recreates the gooey plasma that resulted just after the Big Bang. In theory, that primordial soup may hold the blueprint for all life as we know it, like a stem cell before it starts to branch out. Then we could get to work editing out all the nasty parts, like fear, bloodshed, terror, famine, oppression, and peddling the young for dirty cash and dirtier motives. 

Alright, all you Swiss eggheads. Fire up that big machine! We’ve got work to do. 

More Alembics…

Ring Them Bells

Although I love the city of Atlanta, the holiday season is not its finest display of the year. The weather is usually more dreary than festive. It’s too warm to snow, the rain muddies the streets, and the skies are a dismal gray. There is a vicious surge in holiday traffic, so the pollution increases, and the potential for violence is only a horn-honk away. It’s Christmas time, after all, and nobody is in any mood to fuck around. 

Atlanta is a far cry from the sleepy towns of the woodsy Northeast, where the untrodden snow lies dreamlike through the hills. The roads are winding and unobtrusive, almost designed for sightseeing. The houses are tucked away like hermits. The air is heavy with the smell of woodsmoke wafting out of their ancient stone chimneys, and there’s a candle in every window and a wreath on every door. And if a weary traveler is patient enough to stop by a snowy field, they may thrill at the sight of an elusive reindeer bounding through the forest, or at least some horned beast that looks like a reindeer bounding through the forest. 

Down here in the city it’s nothing but famished coyotes and tomcats in heat, which all have their place in the urban food chain, I suppose, and it was one of these mangy animals I had to swerve to avoid hitting while I finished a few last-minute errands before heading north for the holidays. The rain was relentless, the traffic was as clogged as the storm drains, and this wet creature darted into the road, forcing me to veer onto an industrial side street, where I chanced to pass a nondescript Salvation Army building. There was a sign out front that read, “WANTED: SEASONAL BELL-RINGER.” 

What a lucky accident, I thought. Intrigued, I jammed on my brakes and hydroplaned into a parking spot right up front. I walked into the processing facility, straight into a crowded waiting room with every manner of aspiring bell ringer hunched over the application forms. A sordid bunch, they were; a collection of nervous tics, neck tattoos, scars, blood-shot eyes, and piercings. 

“May I help you?” said a woman to me from behind the front desk. 

“I’d like to apply for the bell ringer job,” I said. 

“Any qualifications?” she sighed, turning to look at the collection of misfits already seated in the waiting area and not wanting to add to it.  

“I played percussion in high school,” I said. She frowned, handed me an application, and told me to fill it out. I took a seat. The others eyed me warily. I was the competition, and not to be treated with any type of courtesy. 

A tense, perspiring man in a button-down shirt two sizes too small for him was bringing the applicants, one-by-one, behind a screen to be interviewed. It was about fifteen feet away from the waiting area, which meant the exchanges were clearly audible. What follows is a cobbled together transcript from the pool of applicants. 

Interviewer: “Understand this isn’t a year-round position.”  

Applicant: “That’s fine. I’m actually an aircraft marshaller in the off-season.” 

Interviewer: “What’s that?” 

Applicant: “I’m part of the airport ground crew that waves the planes to the gates with those lighted batons.” 

Interviewer: “Impressive. I mean, you have experience with gesturing.” 

Applicant: “Yes, thank you.” 

Interviewer: “You need to understand, though, you can’t get all wild with the bell. You can’t go all this-a-way and that-a-way with it. A simple up and down technique—gentle, friendly, festive.” 

Applicant: “Can you put me in front of a store that gets a lot of big juicy?” 

Interviewer: “A lot of what?” 

Applicant: “You know. Lenox. Phipps. Lotta big juicy mamas around there. Ba-donk-a-donk and whatnot.”  

Interviewer: “We’re a charitable organization.” 

Applicant: “Fuck dat.” 

Interviewer: “Can you perform, for extended periods of time, a simple up and down motion with one arm while the rest of your body stays relatively still, and do it with a smile on your face?” 

Applicant: “Yes, in fact I’ve got a serious porn addiction.” 

Interviewer: “In one way that increases your eligibility, and in another way it destroys it. We’ll be in touch.” 

Applicant: “So will I. Right when I get home!” 

Interviewer: “Tell me a bit about yourself.” 

Applicant: “I’m a big Anita Ward fan.” 

Interviewer: “Good. You take your bell-ringing seriously. Fine. Like a comprehensive embrace of the bell-ringing concept. Can you keep a steady bell rhythm?” 

Applicant: “Yeah, but if I see an attractive woman I may slowly and steadily increase the frequency of my ringing until it builds to an unendurable clanging, after which I might kind of collapse in satisfied exhaustion.” 

Interviewer: “…” 

Applicant: “What if I put the bell in my pants, and with a hip-thrusting motion, ring the bell in that fashion?” 

Interviewer: “Next!” 

Applicant: “What’s my cut?” 

Interviewer: “Your cut?” 

Applicant: “Yeah. I’m collectin’ money for you. I want my cut, or when you come to pick up the collection bowl you won’t find nothin’ but an empty chain danglin’ from a tripod stand and a broke-up fuckin’ bell layin’ on the sidewalk.” 

I heard the interviewer let out a quaking sigh of despair, and I understood. The spirit of the holidays seemed to be collapsing amid the weight of every debased notion, instead of the other way around. Just when all seemed hopeless, the door to the Salvation Army blasted open, and a figure shuffled in, some kind of radiant nimbus surrounding him. Everybody stopped and stared, and nobody said a word. He seemed to float on by us, straight up to the interviewer, and in a calm, dusky delivery he declared: 

“Ring them bells ye heathen from the city that dreams, 

Ring them bells from the sanctuaries cross the valleys and streams,

For they’re deep and they’re wide,

and the world’s on its side,

And time is running backwards

And so is the bride. Ring them bells… Ring them bells…” 

“You’re hired!” shouted the interviewer, and with that, the rest of us shuffled out into the afternoon, that was suddenly not so gray. 

Merry Everything, Everyone. 

More Alembics…

The Worst and The Best

When the time finally arrives for the Great Reckoning, and the spirit takes leave of the body for horizons everlasting, and a person’s life can be measured as a bracketed and finite test of a certain character, behavior and achievement, there are definitely better and worse ways to be remembered. In short when descriptions like “necrophile” “psychopath” “serial killer” “rapist” “knife-wielding maniac” and “evil bag of shit” make their way into a person’s obituary, that person has earned a big fat “F” in the standardized test of Life.

So it goes with old Winston Moseley, the infamous attacker, rapist, and murderer of Kitty Genovese in 1964, who died last week in Dannemora prison. Not only did he destroy an innocent young woman all those years ago, he also engendered the overblown social phenomenon termed “Bystander Effect” that has plagued New Yorkers for half a century. For those who don’t know Kitty Genovese was a bar manager who lived in an apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens. On her way home from work late one night Mr. Moseley stalked her and set upon her with a knife, slashing her numerous times. Because of her screams some confused neighbors awoke and, thinking it a lovers’ quarrel, turned on their lights, came to the windows and told them to shut up, which caused Mr. Moseley to run off, only to return when the coast was clear to finish the job. After details of the assault were uncovered, a story came out in The Times that made it seem like the residents of Kew Gardens had filed out of their rooms and circled around the slaying to shout and place bets like they were at a rooster fight, when in fact it was a late night mix of confusion and fragmented complaints from a somnolent apartment house.

While imprisoned for rape and murder Mr. Moseley earned a sociology degree, which is an ironic area of study. With an advanced degree he could really get to the bottom of just how fucked up and heinous his behavior had been. Winston Moseley with a sociology degree is like Ted Bundy earning a degree in women’s studies, with a focus on the writings of Camille Paglia, underscoring the indignities and imbalances of a patriarchal society on women’s rights and freedoms while trying to lure them into his Volkswagen Bug in order to strangle them. I sure was looking forward to Mr. Moseley’s book, “Bystander Effect: How callous apathy lets freaks like me do whatever the hell they want. What’s wrong with people? An investigative study.”  It will remain unfinished. Mr. Moseley is gone. Good riddance to Mr. Moseley.

Other than Mr. Moseley’s passing there was a shocking news story last week that was really about as shocking as a dead eel.  Apparently rich people hide their money to avoid paying taxes. I know, I know, I’m as surprised as everybody else. Before last week Panama papers were used to roll up and smoke cocaine and marijuana. Now they highlight the fact that people with vast sums of dubiously earned currency are cheats and crooks working in an entirely legal system of their own creation. We can’t claim to be entirely unaware, though. The evidence of this perfidy was right there all along, uncovered by the greatest muckraker since Upton Sinclair. I’m talking about David Lee Roth. I need look no further than the 1984 Van Halen song Panama to know that rich people will do whatever it takes to stay rich. “Model Citizen, Zero Discipline.” You spelled it out, Mr. Roth. We thank you.

From the Shitsville of human behavior all the way across the spectrum to unsung greatness, comes the story of Joe Patten. I was legitimately saddened when I happened upon his obituary last week. Joe was 89 years old. He was a very important person in Atlanta culture for saving one of the city’s greatest historical treasures. The Fox Theatre.

I had met Joe some years back while I was on a tour of The Fox. A friend of mine was the beverage director and she offered, during one of the rare lulls in the place’s busy schedule, to give me a behind-the-scenes look at the grand theatre. The Rolling Stones, Prince, David Copperfield, Tom Waits and Yul Brynner have all graced its stage. The place was built at the turn of the twentieth century as a Shriner’s temple, a congregating place for the ancient Arabic order of the noble mystic shrine. During the film industry boom of the thirties, forties and fifties it offered Atlantans a place to watch Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart and Mae West on the silver screen. It is difficult to describe how stunning the interior of the theatre is. It is a somewhat magical Arabesque motif with a star-lit sky on the ceiling, castle turrets around the stage, and a mandala art design along the walls and floors. It transcends time and location. To walk into the Fox Theatre is to leave Atlanta and the modern world and walk into something out of a Persian dreamscape. And the whole place would be gone if it hadn’t been for Joe. 

While I was getting my tour I noticed, up in the back balcony section, past the Egyptian Ballroom, there was an open door that led to what looked like an apartment.

“That’s Joe’s place,” said my friend.

“You mean someone lives here,” I said.

And there emerged Joe. Apple-cheeked and elfin with amusing red shoes on, I had a quick introduction with the man and I got the backstory. The theatre had begun to deteriorate from neglect in the sixties. The theatre’s pipe organ, known as the “Mighty Moe,” had fallen into disrepair. There are seven rooms worth of pipes for the organ, the pipe sizes ranging from a pencil to a telephone pole, which means the whole theatre itself is almost one huge musical instrument. Joe showed up to the theatre to ask whether he might try to get the pipe organ working again. At first he was dismissed, and then when the managers realized he wasn’t some loony but a technical genius they let him do his thing. He put down close to seven miles of wiring to get the pipe organ working, taking him the better part of a year, after which the prodigious instrument was brought back to life. Then, in the mid seventies, when the theatre was sold off to Southern Pacific to be demolished to make way for a parking lot, Joe led the charge, standing in the streets to block the wrecking crew, and won in his efforts to have the building declared an historical landmark. If you are ever in Atlanta and find yourself standing spellbound in the middle of the Fox Theatre, thank Joe. 

They called him the Phantom of the Fox, Joe, as he could get anywhere in the building in about thirty seconds. He knew all the secret passageways. He took us high up above the stage to the castle turrets where I sat soaking in the grandeur from a hundred feet up. At that moment, amid the Byzantine and ornamental gold, the brocaded tapestries and scrolled etchings, I really appreciated the fact that I wasn’t staring at a bunch of pollen-covered cars lumped together on a concrete slab in a crappy parking lot, which, had it not been for Joe, was probably what I would’ve been looking at.

Like a phantom, Joe vanished, and I never ran into him again. I do go to the Fox still, from time to time, and my friend will whisk me out of the lobby through an invisible door in the wall to walk through the little seen recesses where the spirits are alive, and well, and working for the good of the good. A little magic is tonic for the soul, and whenever I am nauseated by the Winston Moseleys of the world, thankfully there are the Joe Pattens, and the possibility of achievement far beyond the expected norm.

More Alembics to come.