You all do realize that Rick Scott, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani are all sleeper agents working on the orders of Al Queda as part of a plot to stir up incidents against Muslims in the US leading to both internal dissent and external condemnation, right? By using highly placed Al Queda “assets” like Palin and Gingrich, they were able to draw out the President, forcing him to make a (mild) statement defending the constitutional right to build a community center in lower-Manhattan. Once Obama went on record about the subject, they moved to step two, distorting his remarks and reframing it as “Obama’s Mosque,” while dropping not so subtle reminders about the President’s “exotic” background. This has further stirred up Red State hate and could lead to their ultimate goal — assassination and suspension of ALL constitutional rights.
This deal with the devil was predicted in the original film version of The Manchurian Candidate when Angela Lansberry finally explains to her son the plot that will lead to her sides’ being “swept into the White House with “such powers that will make martial law seem like anarchy.” That’s one way to prevent socialism and thwart the liberal agenda. (Anyone know if Pam Geller has kids?)
(This post from May 2010 is being reposted to the front page in honor of Mittens Romney’s most recent outrage against America gaffe. As you can see, the first couple of paragraphs explain how my family’s good fortune came about as a direct result of government programs hand-outs which helped them to get stuff like food, shelter, health care, housing, education etc. which made it possible for them to join the growing post WWII middle-class where they contributed to the economy in all kinds of ways including by paying income taxes. Feel free to explain to me why this was a bad thing, and how this “dependence” ruined our lives as I’m obviously to ignorant to “get it.”)
My parents grew up during the Great Depression when even in New York, rents were cheap — though no one could afford anything. My mother was raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on the Southside in cramped apartments –railroad flats mostly, four people in less than 400 square feet. They’d move whenever her mother found a better deal.
Despite coming from poor immigrant families, both my parents were able to get college degrees while living at home and attending city colleges, which at the time had free tuition and great reputations.
They married during World War II, and when my father came home he was able to go to optometry school on the GI Bill which also provided a rent subsidy. Plus the city had introduced its rent control program, so my parents could afford to start a family. At one point, they lived in the Queensbridge housing projectsalong with many other returning veterans and young brides. No one should underestimate how much these safety nets helped grow a middle class.
My father began his career working for another optometrist, but he bought some equipment and saw patients in his living room evenings after work. Eventually, my parents bought a 3-family home on 43rd Street in Sunnyside, Queens, just a few subway stops from midtown. My mother wasn’t thrilled with the house at first. She wanted something on the more fashionable north side of Queens Boulevard, closer to the almost tony, Sunnyside Gardens, but the wide two-way street was more commercial and would work better for my father’s business which they planned to run from the home. Besides, the houses on the south side were less expensive.
Our family’s sleeping quarters were upstairs. My brother’s bedroom had been a kitchen. They left the kitchen sink and cabinets, which he used for storage. The bed was placed where the kitchen table would logically have been. My grandmother had the bedroom next to his. My sister slept in what would have been the dining room had they used the upstairs kitchen. There was no closet, and the only window was off an air-shaft. It was necessary to walk through my sister’s bedroom to reach my parent’s bedroom behind it. My parents slept on a trundle bed, what they called “a high-riser”. There was also a couch and a piano in their room which served as a living room as well.
Downstairs, underneath my brother’s room, there was a working kitchen with an eat-in area. The room directly below my grandmother’s was used during the day as my father’s examination room and at night as a family room. In addition to the examination equipment, it featured a large console black and white television. The freestanding glass-slide projector for exams with its long metal snout became a moving object of terror in my nightmares. The examination chair which moved up and down was an enchanting as an amusement park ride. The office, where the frames were displayed, was under my sister’s walk-through bedroom. Years later, by the time I was old enough to have “sleepovers,” I would sneak down there with my friends to try on frames. There was an arch with a hard plastic room-dividing curtain (usually kept open) that separated the office from the waiting room (which was of course under my parent’s then bedroom). My father would sometimes host his weekly pinochle game in the waiting room, and on those rare occasions when we invited my cousins for holiday dinners, we’d open up a large metal folding table, put a cloth on it and turn the waiting room into a formal dining room.
Below the kitchen and examination room, there was a garage, barely wide enough for two cars. We rented out one of the spaces and tried not to scratch the tenant’s car when we got in or out of our own. There was a basement studio apartment more or less below the waiting room and office which we rented out to a single man with a cat.
After my grandmother was institutionalized, my sister moved into her bedroom. enjoying a brief period of privacy before I was born. My parents then tore down the wall between her old room and the living room creating a large space separated by only by an arch that made it seem even larger. They moved their trundle bed over to where my sister’s had been, added a hutch that served as their dresser but could pass as living room furniture. This room had huge casement windows as well as parquet hard wood floors. Like the waiting room below it and the studio below that, there was a nonworking brick fireplace decorated with faux-fireplace implements and electric logs that glowed and crackled.
In need of more lebensraum, my parents evicted the basement renter.and the studio became a laundry room/play room/family room. At one point in the early 1970’s, my then teenaged sister, painted the walls brown with royal blue doorways and ceiling. It served the same function for her and her friends as the Foreman’s basement did for that group on That Seventies Show.
Years later, after my mother was sure that my brother was gone for good, his room was renovated back into a kitchen and the downstairs kitchen became storage space. This meant that my mother had to sacrifice her beloved Chambers stove which initially had been brought in with a crane and had required taking out the kitchen window. Given that the upstairs kitchen window had a fire escape, there was simply no way to bring the Chambers up. The Chambers sat unused and ignored. Here’s a picture of the “new” (circa 1973) kitchen as it looked shortly before the house was sold in 2006.
After I moved out, my parent’s bought a proper bed and a bedroom set and moved their things into the bedroom my sister and I had shared. Now that they didn’t need to pull out the trundle bed every night, they bought a dining room set and placed it in the front part of the living room.
During the mid to late seventies, my brother moved into the basement while he finished a degree and looked for a job. A couple of years after he vacated, I moved into the studio while “between apartments” for a few years. Despite the Too Close for Comfort vibe, it wasn’t bad, close to Manhattan, and walking distance from my job. On very sunny days, at just the right time in the afternoon, if I opened the curtains and sat under the window, I could even read without a lamp. I used the private entrance by the garage, and was mostly left alone. At one point, nursing a slightly broken heart, I painted the fridge yellow with black and white checks, something I might not have dared to do if I hadn’t been close to the landlord.
As my parents grew older, they didn’t maintain the place as they should have. . The waiting room furniture, mostly purchased in the early 1960’s including a sun-faded beige couch with clear plastic cover that was a hand-me down from the residence, remained long after my father retired.
During the final weeks of my father’s life, when he was bedridden, strange things began to occur. All of the air conditioners, except the one in his bedroom, stopped working. When it rained, water would come through the skylight. The downstairs bathroom light shorted out and the electrician discovered a potentially hazardous leak coming from the upstairs shower. Circuit breakers popped constantly and windows refused to open or slammed themselves shut.
My father whose cognition was by then bit muddled became agitated and kept muttering something about the house and the “clockwork running down.” He tried to give me instructions, but none of it was comprehensible. I’d rub his bony shoulder and ask him if he wanted more morphine.
My sister and I joked about the whole place imploding once he was gone.
As many of the relatives were elderly and could barely make it up the front steps, we sat shiva downstairs in the waiting room/parlor. My sister scurried my mother to her Albany home within a week of the funeral.
A couple of months later, I was in the living room supervising two men helping me load a truck with the furniture that would go to my mother’s new apartment in an assisted living facility near my sister’s. As they were bubble wrapping a glass tabletop, my father’s trumpet, which was sitting on a TV snack table in a far corner of the room, crashed to the floor. There was no vibration or anything that could have accounted for its sudden movement. I immediately apologized to my father and explained why we were taking the furniture and for whom. The men, from a culture where talking to the deceased is not considered odd, waited patiently.
The house was sold in early 2006, when the market was still good. With fancy luxary condos coming up in adjacent Long Island City, Sunnyside’s fortunes were rising.
I never stepped into the house after the sale, but passed by occasionally while they were renovating. I knew the buyers were planning to fix it up, and rent out each unit. From the outside I could see new walls and doors. The plan was for both the first and second floor to be functional two bedrooms. They fixed up the patio even adding lawn furniture and built a front entrance for the basement. I managed to find pictures of the renovated apartments in the rental listings on Craigslist. The asking price for the wider upstairs apartment was $2,400 which seemed absurdly high, and who knows what they got in the end. The bathrooms were redone, eliminating the distinctive stall showers with the glass doors which featured both sideways and overhead sprinklers. The kitchens were completely updated and of course the Chambers was gone. They kept the original parquet floor upstairs, and found the one downstairs buried below the ugly carpet. They left the fireplaces. There were no pictures of the renovated “ground floor” studio ($950 a month). I wonder if the radiator still sits oddly on the ceiling, and hope they didn’t get rid of the original concrete floor tiles.
I still stop by the house from time to time though I neither live nor work anywhere nearby. One day, when I can no longer stand it, I will knock on the apartment doors and ask to go inside. I will avoid the temptation to tell them I may have left something behind.
Larry Harrison’s dark and dazzling first novel, Glimpses of a Floating World takes its title from the phrase used to describe the red-light district of 18th century Edo, now known as Tokyo. The Japanese term alludes to the Buddhist concept for “the transient nature and suffering that defines our earthly existence.” Edo’s floating world was a haven of pleasure and illusion, filled with kabuki actors, geishas and courtesans. Harrison’s work is set in London’s Soho, 1963, its denizens — anarchists, mods, rockers, beats, and others, among them our protagonist, seventeen year-old Ronnie “Fizz” Jarvis who loves feeling that he is part of “the scene.”
The novel opens with two heroin addicts on their way to a fix. The griminess of the dialogue is pitch perfect in its rhythm and authenticity. Ronnie, one of the fortunate few with a prescription for heroin and cocaine is eighteen minutes away from his chemist’s and would gladly die sooner to make up the time.
Our “hero”, the son of an abusive, alcoholic, upwardly mobile Scotland Yard officer, survives by staying in squats and selling small amounts of his excess stock on the black market.
Harrison skillfully makes it easy for the reader to identify with Ronnie despite the character’s being vain, selfish and occasionally cowardly. He is, after all, an adolescent trying to understand the world and his place in it. Ronnie, fiercely intelligent, tells himself that he is not constricted by his addiction but enhanced by it. He is a self-proclaimed rationalist and anarchist, identifying with the beats. Since age twelve, he has “collected extreme experiences in a conscious attempt to destroy childishness.”
Ronnie reminds us of other young, unreliable characters on the precipice of manhood in an imperfect world. The reader is immediately aware that no matter what else happens, Ronnie will either grow and change, or he will not. We root for Ronnie’s potential, hoping he will live to tell the tale.
Harrison’s Soho is not a land of flower children and love beads. There’s still a sense of post-war deprivation. Ruth Ellis has recently been executed. Political scandals involving naughty politicians and call girls are in the news, while on the streets police corruption is endemic and gangsters have celebrity status. Heroin addiction, however, is relatively rare. While addicts like Ronnie scam the system, which allows him to walk away drugs in hand for easy resale, the black market in illegal drugs is small.
Early in our story, Ronnie is caught shooting up in a restroom. While his heroin and cocaine are legal, he has a small amount of opium that isn’t. In jail, he is interviewed by an elderly (at least to his adolescent eyes) prison doctor. When she tells him that he’ll be dead soon if he keeps going, he replies, “We’re all going to die… You’re going to die a lot sooner than I am.”
She believes she’s been threatened, classifies him as a psychopath, and Ronnie is sent to a mental hospital that reminded this reader of a cross between a Dickensian workhouse and a Ken Kesey nightmare. Ronnie overhears the nurses discussing how easy psychosurgery will make their jobs and soon escapes.
Several chapters are told from different points of view. We see both the war and early post-war years through the eyes of Ronnie’s parents. Freddy’s drinking, jealousy and violence eventually drive Flo to leave and return to her hometown of Swindon — a place Ronnie will always deny being from. Freddy has managed to rise to become a senior officer, but his son has been out of his life for years.
While the atmosphere and depth of characterization is strong, so is the pacing and plot development. Ronnie’s initial arrest, psychiatric diagnosis, escapes and recaptures all lead to a situation where he is forced to turn informant even though he knows nothing about any large scale narcotics dealers and does not believe that any exist. The shifting points of view allow the reader to know more than the characters, and the last quarter of the novel is a compulsively addictive page-turner in which Ronnie’s fate is anything but certain.
Harrison who has written nonfiction books on alcohol and drug issues, seamlessly weaves in the growing panic over narcotics. While the world was on the brink of nuclear Armageddon and scandal reigned, Britain — influenced by the US — was changing its policies, moving from treating addiction as a public health issue to criminalizing addicts. Ronnie is as much a victim of these changes as he is of his abusive father and his own self-destructiveness.
Glimpses of a Floating World is described on its back cover as “a lyrical and triumphant elegy to a seedy, vice-ridden London of the 1960’s. ” It is that, but also a tale of familial tragedy, a history lesson, a novel that offers much more than simple glimpses.
Glimpses may not be easy to find in your local bookstore though you can order it online as a paperback or download FOR FREE as an ebook through the link provided. It’s from Year Zero, a writers’ collective dedicated to creating a new relationship between readers and writers without the filter of the publishing industry. Agreed, there are many skeptics who still won’t touch books not given the imprimatur of even a small publishing house. This novel puts lie to the myth that important literature can only be found on store shelves. In addition to reading like a lost classic, it’s polished, proofed and edited. If you’re a serious reader, skeptical about anything that sounds like self-publishing, I urge you to rise to the challenge and sample it online for free. Believe me, it’ll be a more rewarding experience than a trip to Border’s to browse through the latest Jane Austen with zombies tome.
While sometimes compared to American soap operas, telenovelas are superior as a storytelling form in that they are conceived for limited runs usually between 60-100 hours of episodes with occasional shorter-run sequels to very successful shows. The clear beginning, middle and ending saves them from the American phenomena of running long after they’ve run out of steam.
Clearly, the class system in Latin America is more obvious than in the US, and often telenovelas are all about the class difference. One can argue, however, that they are no more than “opium for the masses” offering fairy tales of imps from the slums marrying up a la Maria la del Barrio which starred Thalia as a winsome waif. They can also be criticized for almost never talking about race except for ground breakers like Brazil’s Xica, or Mexico’s Ramona – which dealt with the US persecution of indigenous and not Mexico’s. Worse still, the darker and more indigenous looking actors inevitably play servants and are often used for comic effect while the lightest skinned are the stars. In fact, two of Mexico’s most popular stars are a pair of Krakow born sisters whose family moved to Mexico when they were small children.
Nevertheless, they often deal with social issues and sometimes in ways that are subtle and imaginative. In La Usurpadora for instance, everyone marvels how much the capricious Paola Bracho has changed. She’s suddenly interested in saving the family factory and pushes the family members to actually show up and work, even accept cutbacks while she convinces the workers that they must all come together for the benefit of everyone. She even manages to secure a big fat loan to help keep things going. Of course, Paola has been replaced by her long lost sister, Paulina – a former lady’s room attendant. While it’s a fantasy, it’s a fantasy that emphasizes the stupidity, laziness and casual cruelty of the upper class while celebrating the common sense wisdom of the masses.
As with any art form there are certain conventions. Exceptions are almost statistical anomalies. Inevitably, someone will turn out to be someone’s long lost sister, mother, father wife, daughter, etc. (Even the rightfully celebrated and much imitated, Yo Soy Betty La Fea managed to put in a pregnancy-scare subplot and the return of a husband who’d long ago abandoned his family.) Other conventions are rarely breached. The heroine will eventually wind up with the handsome galán (male lead). Often the galán is less bright than the heroine, immature and flawed, but he’s grown under her influence and is a better man by the end than when we started.
Yet to say that all telenovelas are alike would be like saying that all US situation comedies are alike. While there are sit/com conventions– a living room must have a couch, some mix-up or misunderstanding will move that week’s plot – there is a vast world of difference between the bleakness of The Honeymooners and the sublime silliness of The Beverly Hillbillies. There’s the urban sophistication of Seinfeld versus the redneck wisdom of The Jeff Foxworthy Show.
Telenovelas like cuisine tend to have regional differences that extend beyond accents. Colombia came up with the clever workplace comedy/drama Yo Soy Betty La Fea. Despite a successful run on Mexican television, it was remade with more Mexican flavor – as La Fea Mas Bella. Just as one expected a certain type of film in the Hollywood studio system to from a particular studio – Warner Brothers—gangsters, MGM musical extravaganza etc., telenovela producers are known for their specific specialites — historical melodrama, contemporary issues, etc.
My journey into fandom started with Mexico’s historical telenovela, Ramona. The show, based on the “classic” American novel by Helen Hunt Jackson, completely subverted the message of the original. Jackson’s novel was meant as a protest against American treatment of Native Americans, but the TV version was nothing less than Santa Anna’s revenge as telenovela, a retelling of the US conquest of California and its aftermath from the Mexican point of view with not so subtle allusions to other US imperial adventures and manifest destiny.
Exchanges of dialogue made it quite obvious and included the following:
The American bad guys are taking an Indian youth back to his village in order to hang him as a horse thief. They all know that he’s innocent and is being framed. At one point a henchman asks, “Why can’t we just hang him here?” The strategist for the villains replies that he must be hanged publicaly, “In order to sow terror in the hearts of the people.”
Ramona interested me as a film-fan in its use and subversion of certain movie genres – in particular the western. In Ramona, the sheriff is not a hero trying to maintain order in a rough frontier, but a petty, corrupt dictator trying to drive our Mexicans and Indians and take their land. A wild frontier outpost – Spurtown, which had formerly been the peaceful Mexican village of Todos Santos had the inevitable saloon in which could be found a bargirl with a heart of gold, a heroic hired-gun, a town drunk and other characters who could have been lifted from any western. It alluded as well to films in which the protagonists “go native” such as Dances with Wolves and Little Big Man – films which celebrate and romanticize native culture.
Since Ramona, I haven’t found any telenovela that was so blatant in its underlying agenda, but I have found other interesting and unexpected elements. Nods to Douglas Sirk-style “women’s pictures” in the design and background music of La Usurpadora, almost surreal moments of post-modernism like when Betty Pinzon, the ugly duckling heroine of Yo Soy Betty La Fea runs into the Brazilian bombshell Taís Araújo who starred in the telenovela Xica in which she portrayed a slave who uses her beauty and guile to rise to power. Araújo playing herself, advises Betty on self-acceptance and discovering her inner beauty.
I recently discovered that most telenovelas are available free on YouTube. I have been revisiting some of my favorites and watching new ones. In the coming weeks, I will be blogging on them.
I’m no expert on Latin American history or culture. Spanish is my second language, and I’m probably missing at least 15% of the dialogue and many of the specific cultural references. The blogs are subjective – interpretation through my gringa eyes and brain. I’m sure I’ll miss a lot and get stuff wrong, so comments and feedback will be most welcome.