Atlanta Motor Speedway’s – and America’s – Labor Day Pains
“If you divorce capital from labor, capital is hoarded, and labor starves” – Daniel Webster
We finally got some decent rain the other day, clouds in by noon and rains begun soon after and rolling through the afternoon, two or three decent long downpours with all the attendant thunder and wind, causing the bushes and trees to maenad-dance in an earthly equivalent to, well, a good roll in the hay after a long, dry hiatus. After sunset a nearly-full moon broke through the cloudbanks with its distant eye of approval, giving consent to lunacies of any every vein—in beds around suburbia where the unemployed screw and fugetaboutit, in gardens around Central Florida cooing and chirring with such wet receipt, in the darker side of that moon’s smile – three houses in Central Florida burnt by lightning strikes, a woman in Deland killed when a tree toppled onto the truck she was a passenger in, a gibbon on the loose at Miami’s Jungle Island causes a 3-year-old Bengal tiger to jump a 14-foot fence and stalk the monkey for a half hour before park officials were able to catch the hungry cat.
Scientists now say the moon has shrunk over the billion-year dreamtime—imperceptibly, only a couple hundred yards due to cooling in the orb’s core. Cold heart, shrunken head: Such is our moon-madness, too, our crimes of passion slowly grown dispassionate, coolly and cruelly picking off victims with calculation and Craigslist, stealing not your stereo but your identity, hooking up for oral and boob-fuck and anal sex mainly because none of those ejaculate zones produces more babies. Just say No, Not There—But try Here, and Here, and Here …
The moon is shrinking, not so much because it’s getting smaller as that it’s fading away, slowly working itself free of the Earth’s gravitational pull at a rate of about an inch a year. (If you’re an average guy, that’s like taking six years to make that sated, detumescent slide out of your date.) When the moon first became itself all those billion years ago — either hauled up from the Pacific Ocean or the result of a planetary collision, or some measure of both–it completely filled the sky and had a monstrous effect on the tides, causing them to move hundreds of miles in and back every day. And as it was birthed from the ocean (as one theory goes), so still it labors to be free of us, taking with it, eventually, hopefully, our madness. But that ebb will be a long, long time in coming, and we’ll probably have killed off all life as we know it long before then in our one, long, earth-scouring work day, our same shit every different day.
As they say, weather is what happened yesterday, and climate is what results over a century. So it’s never good to tell the world’s fortune(s) from events in one season’s crystal ball. At the last race in Atlanta, back in March, the city was thawing out of the coldest weather in decades. Such cold may have influenced NASCAR in pulling the spring date in its schedule from Atlanta, leaving it with only one summer race next year.
Kurt Busch didn’t mind the cold in Atlanta — he won the past two spring races.
Paying too close attention to the yesterday’s weather and not to the general climate means that we arrive at the Labor Day race at Atlanta where it’s too hot exactly where it was earlier too cold.
Well, credit NASCAR with the panicky reactions of another catastrophically-shrinking industry. All of its moves to lure fans back to the track the double-file, green-white-checker restarts, “have-at-it-boys” attitude toward trackside manners, tweaks in the schedule mining for fans in other pockets of America—all of these moves fall under the fading blue shadow of a obscurity.
NASCAR’s new motto – “Everything else is just a game” – tries to imply that what occurs on NASCAR tracks is a real and exciting danger other sports don’t possess. Ask an NFL running back if football is just a game when he takes one of those career-ending hits. Instead, the motto instead puts NASCAR falls in with the ranks of professional wrestling and roller derby, entertainments engineered to look like sport. The more that NASCAR shows it will change everything about its game to lure fans to the track, the more it confirms the latter impression.
And like other catastrophically-shrinking industry–hell, like our catastrophically-shrinking economy–NASCAR defends its franchise with a vigor that borders on the insane. Brian France has become like Ahab aboard Moby or Mad Max taking on Wezzie in The Road Warrior: Something of a fight to the finish in those eyes.
The blog I edit for a company who once hoped it might produce a desperately-needed revenue stream got a cease-and-desist order this summer from NASCAR’s marketing lawyers for illegal use of the NASCAR eponymous logo—-unless we dropped all advertising from the site. Only NASCAR and its bedmates can make money on racing, it seems, or those it deems profitable for themselves to allow their existence.
That attitude extends to teams, who have been told they are business partners whose revenue stream is based on the graces of NASCAR. Drivers thus are expressions of brand, and the way they have been muzzled recently to be ever and wholly supportive of the sport -– under penalty of secret fines –- has turned them into “Stepford Drivers,” as Monte Dutton recently put called them. Poster boys.
Stepford Wives and / or Drivers.
Is the sport really under siege, the way Atlanta was for months the Troy of the Civil War, a vast rampart to be sieged and then razed by Union soldiers under the direction of one Gen. William T. Sherman?
Troops of General Sherman burn a train station in Atlanta after the fall of the city. Fulsome firebugging followed.
If so, then it can last only so long; the Union forces of changing times will choke off the franchise. But I daresay NASCAR is playing with the matches that will burn itself to the ground.
* * *
Gone With the Wind was written by Atlantan Margaret Mitchell in 1936, and was soon made into a movie which premiered in Atlanta in 1939. The story is about how a way of life –- white existence in the antebellum South –- became “gone with the wind,” carried off by the civil war.
It was written from the vantage of 75 years after that existence, following the occupation and then carpetbaggers giving way to a slow but sure rebuilding (Atlanta’s vast railroad system was intact), the state capital moving there and a home for Confederate soldiers maintained there until 1941, the city growing along a vein independent of agriculture, become a commercial capitol.
Like every major city, Atlanta inherited all the ethnic and racial tensions of the day (notably conflagrating in 1906 with the Atlanta Race Riot which killed 27 and injured more than 70).
A new city arose from the ashes of the former, more potent and promising than the one that fell to General Sherman in his March to the Sea. Yet ennui in the segregated Depression South was strong for the old South as a fabled time in which a chivalric code of manners and gentility were practiced against the backdrop of civilized plantation life (“civilized,” of course, if you were white).
The New South didn’t, or wouldn’t, or couldn’t forget the South of old, and pined for vestiges of it between the cracks of Reconstruction. Scarlett O’Hara is the woman who embodies the Old South’s survival in to the New – certainly Mitchell herself –- and Rhett Butler is the “hell of a good boy” who is a South complete unto himself, a rebel and rake who earns his living outside the pale of the law. Butler is the ur-moonshine-runner, and his smile could be seen in Joe Weatherley and Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson and Fonty Flock.
Yet as goes–-or went—-Atlanta, so NASCAR. Atlanta’s railroad hub made the city perfect for commercial traffic, and many industries set up camp and corporate headquarters around the city: the Georgia-Southern Railroad, Bell Aircraft Industries during the Second World War, later Coca-Cola, Cable News Network, Delta Airlines, UPS, Home Depot and Newell Rubbermaid. The city has the fourth-largest concentration of Fortune 500 companies, has the world’s busiest airport, and now has the nation’s ninth-largest metropolitan area of some 5.5 million inhabitants.
Atlanta has no natural boundaries –- no bodies of water or mountains to limit its sprawl –- so suburban development around Atlanta has gone on unchecked for decades, creating what is now one of the worst suburban gridlocks in the nation. Atlanta’s success is its nightmare, too, for travelers through Hartsfield Airport—the world’s busiest was rated 10th out of the country’s 19 largest in airport satisfaction by J.D. Power in 2008.
Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta.
In terms of corporate, metropolitan and lover-boy clout, size matters, but only to the Powers which wield it; and as Atlanta, so NASCAR suffers from the itchy reach of its libido, grown too big for its britches, a cumbersome and bullying presence in Psyche’s knickers and betwixt her knockers. A dick. Simply, too much of a good thing is a bad thing, and the historically poor turnout of fans at Atlanta Motor Speedway is a signal to NASCAR that there’s a point beyond which your ambition overreaches itself and you become something unfit for consumption –- in droves.
Atlanta’s size matters — to Atlanta.
China’s learning something about what it means to become bad-boy big. Always the population champ (weighing in at some 1.3 billion citizens), it now has the world’s second largest economy, recently surpassing that of Japan. Yet miasmas are stuffed into the pockets of so fast a-rising colossus. Consider the 60-mile traffic jam in Beijing which began weeks ago and may, according to officials, last well into September. In the main part of the bottleneck, vehicles were inching along at about a third of mile a day. Though triggered by major road construction now underway, the carjam is also due to sizzling sales of new cars. Now the world’s largest market for car sales, Chinese bought some 13 million vehicles in 2009. Villagers along Highway 101 – where the worst congestion is found – are profiteering by selling overpriced food and water to the traffic-bound commuters.
Traffic in Beijing of late. These folks left for work, oh, two or three weeks ago.
It’s just one of the headaches created by such sizzling growth; others include pollution (remember how industries around Beijing were shut down during the 2008 Summer Olympics so athletes could properly breathes?), poor energy, water and food resources, a rapidly aging population (due to the one-child-per-family law instituted several decade back to slow the country’s overpopulation) and the huge income discrepancy between urban and rural workers.
Congestion on I-75 in Atlanta.
You can see shadows of all of this in Atlanta, a city grown too big for its britches, where the commute is among the worst in the country. “I wish they would make a ‘Grand Theft Auto: Atlanta’ so I could blow up the video game version of Interstate 75. It would be good therapy,” a commenter wrote on the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s online rant forum The Vent last November.
Of course, at least these people have jobs, albeit in corporations which are continually downsizing, forcing workers to take furloughs or pay cuts on the threat of elimination of their jobs. Nothing like a dreary commute to a job you don’t know will exist when you finally get there.
The upcoming Atlanta race is on Labor Day weekend, and to celebrate (seduce more fans to a track with a bad rep), AMS is planning a four-day spectacle: Fans who purchase a $30 ticket to the Saturday Nationwide Series race, and a $39 ticket Sunday’s Emory Healthcare 500 Sprint Cup series race will get you free admission to a fan fest event and super late model race on Friday as well as one of those Bruton “Breakfast’s On Me” events on Monday. The number of fan-friendly hotels (charging no more than $120 a night without requiring a multi-night stay) has been increased to 35, campground space has been expanded, and the a brimming roster of entertainments has been planned, ranging from performances by Foreigner, Colt Ford and Drivin’ and Cryin’; the Freestyle MX.com tour; and a Big Green Egg cooking demonstration, woo woo. In sum, AMS is doing everything but bending over and cracking a smile to make a turnaround at the fall event.
Drivin’ and Cryin’: Perfect name for a cry-in-your-beer Mark Martin or Jamie McMurray “outta gas, outta points” fan band.
And who knows? It may work. It may make racin’ at AMS an uncharacteristic success for the track owner and for NASCAR.
The problem with races in Atlanta is that there is so much competition. What else are you going to do in Martinsville? Or in Bristol, which managed to almost sell out its 165,000 ampitheatre seats for its summer night race, an accomplishment which would be impressive at any track this year except that Bristol had a record 54 sellout Sprint Cup races in a row until this year’s spring race, which fell short by some 30,000 empty seats.
In Atlanta, the diversions are as plenty and diverse as devices in a teenager’s room. On Sept. 4, an Atlanta radio station is promoting Celebrate Freedom, all-day free concert in Jim R. Miller Park. Art in the Park, one of the largest juried art shows in the Southeast, will be in nearby Marietta from Sept. 4-6, and in Kingland there is the Annual Labor Day Weekend Catfish Festival, which will offer three days of southern-fried catfish, country music, a parade, arts and crafts booths, collectibles and antiques, a family-friendly amusement area, a classic car and tractor exhibit, 5K run, and an annual pancake breakfast and more. The University of Georgia kicks off its football season on Sept. 4 in Sanford Stadium some 50 miles outside of Atlanta in Athens against Louisiana-Lafayette, sure to be a crowd-pleasing ass-kicker for rabid Bulldog fans. And this Labor Day weekend Atlanta is hosting Dragon Con, the largest multi-media, popular culture convention focusing on science fiction and fantasy, gaming, comics, pop art, designer toys, literature, art, music, and film. On Sept. 4 they will try to break the Guiness World Record for largest gathering of superheroes (the current record of 1,246 was set in Australia).
Roll over, Red Bull girls, the girls of Dragon Con put a whole new meaning on getting some strange.
Labor day diversions all, for sure, until you consider how many people will find it fortunate just to be working those diverse events. If anyone hasn’t noticed, our economy is stuck in doldrums which are undertowing toward a double-dip recession. Spending on durable goods – business investment in big-ticket items – rose only .3 percent in July, and if you subtract out a spike in aircraft orders, the actual number was a 3.8 percent drop in spending. Add to this the news that new-home sales fell some 27 percent in July — a 15-year low-—and indications look like its here we go again.
And there’s always a disconnect between the arid numerals of macroeconomics and the hard, micro-realities of what’s happening in the economy in your town or home. Consider that blazing hot day in mid-August when some 30,000 residents of East Point, a suburb of Atlanta, lined up to pick up applications for some 655 units of available government subsidized housing. Riot police were called out to control the crowd, and 62 people were injured in the chaos. Officials say the waiting list may be as long as ten years.
A crowd of 30,000 hoping to get federal housing assistance swarms the Tri-Cities Plaza in East Point. Thousands of people were lined up at the shopping center, hoping to apply for a voucher from the East Point Housing Authority that would give them a discount on their rent.
Consider that 50 million—-that’s one in six–Americans now struggle with poverty, their ranks swollen from members of the middle class who have been impoverished due to unemployment and foreclosure. (Here in Orlando, three out of four mortgages are underwater, the second worst in the nation. If that number seems watery, consider that in Orlando only one house in four in Orlando has equity of more than one dollar.)
Consider that the top ten percent of the country’s population hog about 74 percent of the country’s wealth, the top one percent about 34 percent of the wealth—a figure equal to the total wealth of the remaining 90 percent of Americans.
Consider all that, and the sweat of my brow isn’t worth the dirt it falls on.
* * *
There is a move afoot, started by philanthropist / billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, to induce billionaires to donate half their wealth to charity, believing that such contributions are really how to address problems in American life which the government alone can’t address (like the spiraling cost of prison and/or health care), as well as providing an example to others to donate as part of our civic duty. So far, some 40 U.S. billionaires have signed on, including T. Boone Pickens, Michael Bloomberg and George Lucas. Presently there are more than 400 billionaires in the U.S.
Charles and David Koch, very rich dudes with a very right-wing bent–not so much to help out those sufferin’ Tea Party activists, but to preserve their own vast wealth.
Not on the list of billionaire sharers: Rupert Murdoch, who owns FOX News; David and Charles Koch (whose combined wealth is exceeded only by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett among Americans), leading contributors to right-wing causes like the Tea Party. Frank Rich wrote about these guys over the weekend in the New York Times:
… Koch-supported lobbyists, foundations and political operatives are at the center of climate-science denial — a cause that forestalls threats to Koch Industries’ vast fossil fuel business. While Koch foundations donate to cancer hospitals like Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York, Koch Industries has been lobbying to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from classifying another product important to its bottom line, formaldehyde, as a “known carcinogen” in humans (which it is).
Tea Partiers may share the Kochs’ detestation of taxes, big government and Obama. But there’s a difference between mainstream conservatism and a fringe agenda that tilts completely toward big business, whether on Wall Street or in the Gulf of Mexico, while dismantling fundamental government safety nets designed to protect the unemployed, public health, workplace safety and the subsistence of the elderly.
Yet inexorably the Koch agenda is morphing into the G.O.P. agenda, as articulated by current Republican members of Congress, including the putative next speaker of the House, John Boehner, and Tea Party Senate candidates like Rand Paul, Sharron Angle, and the new kid on the block, Alaska’s anti-Medicaid, anti-unemployment insurance Palin protégé, Joe Miller. Their program opposes a federal deficit, but has no objection to running up trillions in red ink in tax cuts to corporations and the superrich; apologizes to corporate malefactors like BP and derides money put in escrow for oil spill victims as a “slush fund”; opposes the extension of unemployment benefits; and calls for a freeze on federal regulations in an era when abuses in the oil, financial, mining, pharmaceutical and even egg industries (among others) have been outrageous.
Also not on the list: the France family of NASCAR, which has a net worth of $1.4 billion. Think they’ll sign on with the forty in one of the truly fan-friendliest acts possible? That chance is gone with the wind …
* * *
So it’s more than a little galling that in this political season, the politicians who most fervently represent the interests of the wealthiest Americans – that top one percent – are running on a populist platform which uses wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage and immigration to defeat more moderate and seasoned Democrats and Republicans. (The sticking point on renewing the Bush tax cuts—the one which has Tea Party affiliates up in arms–has been the alleged affect of the rolled-back tax breaks on small business. But the bulk of small-business taxpayers do not pay the top rates which would be affected by renewing the Bush tax cuts. Leonard Burman of Syracuse University testified to the Senate Finance committee, “Less than 3 percent of tax returns with business income are in the top two tax brackets. So the vast majority would be protected from tax rate increases.”)
Rick Scott won the Florida Republican primary on August 24.
Take, for example, Rick Scott (net worth, $210 million dollars) here in Florida, the outsider Tea-Party Republican who ran against Bill McCollum in the Republican Senate primary. Scott was CEO of Columbia Healthcare when it was discovered that the hospital giant had perpetrated a $450 million dollar Medicare fraud, the largest of its type in history, resulting in a $1.7 billion in fines, penalties and damages. (Among the fraudulent practices uncovered: billing Medicare and Medicaid for unnecessary lab tests, creating false diagnoses to claim a higher reimbursement and charging for marketing and advertising costs that were disguised as community education.) Scott was forced out by the board without facing criminal charges – he received a huge severance package and a 10-year consulting fee – and he used that ill-gotten nest egg to amass even greater wealth in venture capital endeavors, including part ownership, with George Bush, of the Texas Rangers. Scott spent some $40 million of his own wealth campaigning against the incumbent McCallum, using all of the typical language of being “an outsider” who could create jobs and prevent abortions and raising up the volume at the last minute on the proposed Ground Zero mosque.
The attack ads against McCallum in the days before the election which flooded every broadcast station were truly ghoulish, sliming his opponent with unfounded charges of collusion with insider badness – chartering a state plane for personal purposes (costing taxpayers $200,000), that his lobbying firm received $100,000 from abortion providers, and that he had close ties with recently-disgraced Florida GOP leader Jim Greer. Basically, everything an incumbent has to deal with became Scott fodder. Anyone who can claim outsider status wins against Washington these days (no wonder the Tea Party’s motto is “Reclaim America”): but what do we get? Here in Florida, we get a crook who’s buying a governorship on wealth he amassed due to his crimes, floating over the competition with the right amount of PR (more than anyone else could possibly afford) and sweet-talk to angry voters.
OK, you can see where my sympathies don’t lie. But it’s galling to me beyond all measure how many people are voting for those very folks whose interests -– and true agendas — are with those One Percenters who want to own everything, no matter how much lip service they pay to populism. The same old drama is playing out with the wealthy just getting wealthier and everyone else getting poorer.
* * *
Ironically, it isn’t the middle class who are setting a record pace for defaulting on mortgages. The New York Times reported in July that the rich have stopped paying on mortgages at a rate which exceeds the general population – some one in seven on mortgages which exceed $1 million (compared to one in 12 for mortgages under $1 million). “The rich are different: they are more ruthless,” said Sam Khater, senior economist for CoreLogic which made public the data. According to the article, the delinquency rate on investment homes where the original mortgage was more than $1 million is now 23 percent. For cheaper investment homes—what you and I can afford–it is about 10 percent.
Along this vein, Atlanta’s most expensive home finally sold after almost two decades on the market. The Larry Dean house—known as “The Dean Dream”—was a 58-acre estate developed on pastureland next to the Chattahoochee River, bought and refurbished for some $25 million by Dean, an Atlanta software developer. On the grounds there’s an 18-hole golf course, wedding chapel and bandshell; the 32,000 square-foot house is larded with just about everything a fatass could covet.
Dean Gardens, for a time known as The Dean Dream. Until love’s bubble burst like the housing market.
Intended for charity use by a foundation when the owner passed on, the Dean Dream fell apart in the early 90s when Mr. and Mrs. Dean separated and the house went on the market for around $40 million. Michael Jackson wanted to buy it in 1994 for his fiancée, Lisa Marie Presley, but when the media found out about the deal and broadcast it, Jackson refused to sign the contract.
Three inside views of Dean Gardens.
(Larry Dean was lucky in business but, alas, unlucky in love. He has divorced a third time and is planning to look for wife No. 4 in Florida, where he plans to move. He’s also announced that he’s going to write a book on Internet dating, which he says has been a letdown. Everyone lies, especially about their age and weight.)
Sixteen years later, the Dean Dream finally sold for a measly $7.6 million to Atlanta entertainment mogul Tyler Perry (“Tyler Perry’s House of Pain” on TBS, box-office hits like “Meet the Browns” and, oddly, the Oscar-winning “Precious”). Apparently it was just for the location, since Perry plans to demolish the house and build a more environmentally-friendly one.
Atlanta millionaire and entertainment mogul Tyler Perry with Madea, one of his onscreen alter egos.
Perry himself is a weird mix of Ten- and Ninety-Percenter, a black man whose roots are in poor New Orleans become a mega-millionaire playwright and producer of TV shows and movies which portray a reality of black life which is alternately funny and ugly.
Perry represents the success of some African-Americans in Atlanta, which was a center for the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. Martin Luther King was pastor, as was his father, at Ebenezer Baptist Church in the Sweet Auburn district of Atlanta. After his assassination in 1968, King was buried on the grounds of the church, and now annual Martin Luther King Day events have their center in services there. Two of the most important civil rights organizations, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, have their national headquarters in Atlanta.
Despite some racial protests during the Civil Rights era, Atlanta’s political and business leaders labored to foster Atlanta’s image as “the city too busy to hate”. In 1961, Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. became one of the few Southern white mayors to support desegregation of his city’s public schools. African-American Atlantans demonstrated growing political influence with election of the first African-American mayor, Maynard Jackson, in 1973. They became a majority in the city during the late 20th century but suburbanization, rising prices, a booming economy and new migrants have decreased their percentage in the city from a high of 69 percent in 1980 to about 54 percent in 2004.
* * *
Things have not continued well for blacks in the cities; Atlanta, once a leader in African-American progress–there are more black millionaires in Atlanta than anywhere else in the country–has become a primary example of new urban woe, especially in the Great Recession. It ranks third on the list of 101 cities with more than 50 percent of its population living below the poverty level. Its 48 percent child poverty rate is higher than Detroit’s. Black Atlanta families are three times more likely to be poor than white Atlanta families (in 2008, the median income for white Atlanta families is $86,156; for black Atlanta families it was $29,033). In metro Atlanta, per capita income has shrunk nearly five percent, twice the national average. Only 34 percent of black males in Atlanta graduate from high schools.
Homeless in Atlanta. Not only is poverty high in the metro Atlanta area, it’s spreading fast through the suburbs as well. In 2008, 85 percent of Atlanta’s poor were spread throughout the 28-county area.
Poverty in the inner city is one thing. Urban unemployment is another. Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson in his 1999 book When Work Disappears connected the loss of jobs in the inner city in the 1970s to many of the ills which followed, “The consequences of high neighborhood joblessness,” he writes,
… are more devastating than those of high neighborhood poverty. A neighborhood in which people are poor but unemployed is different from a neighborhood in which many people are poor and jobless. Many of today’s problems in the inner-city ghetto neighborhoods – crime, family dissolution, welfare, low levels of social organization, and so on – are fundadamentally a consequence of the disappearance of work.
Don Peck extrapolates on Wilson’s findings in his magnificent March 2010 Atlantic Magazine article, “How a New Jobless Era will Transform America”:
In the mid-20th century, most urban black men were employed, many of them in manufacturing. But in the beginning of the 1970s, as factories moved out of the cities or closed altogether, male unemployment began rising sharply. Between 1973 and 1987, the percentage of black men in their 20s working in manufacturing fell from roughly 37.5 percent to 20 percent. As inner cities shed manufacturing jobs, men who lived there, particularly those with limited education, had a hard time making the switch to service jobs. Service jobs and office work of course require different interpersonal skills and different standards of self-presentation than those that blue-collar work demands, and movement from one sector to the other can be jarring. What’s more, Wilson’s research shows, downwardly mobile black men often resented the new work they could find, and displayed less flexibility on the job than, for instance, first-generation immigrant workers. As a result, employers began to prefer hiring women and immigrants, and a vicious cycle of resentment, discrimination, and joblessness set in.
It remains to be seen whether larger swaths of the country, as male joblessness persists, will eventually come to resemble the inner cities of the 1970s and ‘80s. In any case, one of the great catastrophes of the past decade, and in particular of this recession, is the slippage of today’s inner cities back toward the depths of those brutal years. Urban minorities tend to be among the first fired in a recession, and the last rehired in a recovery. Overall, black unemployment stood at 15.6 percent in November (2009); among Hispanics, the figure was 12.7 percent.
Not that any of this means jack shit to most of you NASCAR fans, the whitest sport in the land. NASCAR diversity—almost an oxymoron—may extent to the appearance, rarely, of a white female driver like Danica Patrick (the cheesecake pix magazines helped), but it’s been decades since a black man–Wendell Scott–competed in a Sprint Cup-level race.
Ah, diversity in NASCAR.
So if the plight of urban blacks isn’t important to the country (that became quite evident in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, five years ago this month), consider this: job losses to whites, especially white men, have made the nation more intolerant and angry.
In many respects, the U.S. was more socially tolerant entering this recession than at any time of its history, and a variety of national polls on social conflict since then have shown mixed results. Signs of looming class warfare or racial conflagration are not much in evidence. But some seeds of discontent are slowly germinating. The town hall meetings last summer and fall ((in 2009)) were contentious, often uncivil, and at times given over to inchoate outrage. One National Journal poll in October showed that whites (especially white men) were feeling particularly anxious about their future and alienated by the government.
Of course we are. But I’m no fan of the extremist attempt to take America back to a re-written account of American history where the country was founded by fundamentalist preachers and anything good was exclusive of non-white and Democrats (or both). Fox News pro-GOP, now-populist Tea Party narrative of shoving modernity aside for something straight from Margaret Mitchell’s antebellum South is would be laughable if their seriousness weren’t so scary, since the storyline is one so many are adapting without a single question to its validity. FOX and the Tea Party trade on the knowledge that, as P.T. Barnum says, there is no bottom to the gullibility of the American people, and no one profits more from that than rich people who spout populist rhetoric.
As Glenn Beck said on his nationally syndicated radio program on May 26,
We are on the right side of history! We are on the side of individual freedoms and liberties and, dammit, we will reclaim the civil rights moment. We will take that movement — because we were the people who did it in the first place.
And so on August 28 Beck stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the center of his “Restoring Honor” event, supported by the likes of Sarah Palin and the National Rifle Association. His aim: to “reclaim the civil rights movement” from those ugly non-white males who erroneously believe they reside in this country, too – blacks, Hispanics, gays, tree-huggers, women, open-wheel racing fans, Democrats, the mainstream media, academics, fact-checkers, city slickers. Forty seven years to the day that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech, Glenn Beck delivered a speech that turned King’s on its head and resembled a version of the socialism – not the kind demonized by FOX & Company—but rather National Socialism, articulated by a contemporary Goebbels who cynically knows that if you repeat a lie enough times it becomes truth.
Beck and Co. on August 28.
Beck also took a cue from Christian fundamentalism (he proclaims to be of that faith) that a belief requires no truth other than what a person declares is the truth; that’s how Barack Obama’s native status became so questioned, no matter that his Hawaiian birth certificate is public record, or that he’s a Muslim, no matter how many times the President attends church.
The wildfire of Tea Party resentment sweeping this year’s midterm elections is similar to how the novel Gone With the Wind caught on and then became a movie. The book sold a million copies (at the unheard-of price of three dollars) in six months and then won the Pulitzer Prize. The movie which came out three years later was made for about $3.5 million and premiered in Atlanta where, because of the state’s Jim Crow laws, the film’s black actors were barred from attending. It was said to have been the biggest event in Atlanta in decades; the movie was a smashing success and it went on to rake in some $400 million at the box office ($1.5 billion in today’s parlance) and winning ten Academy Awards, the most awards to go to a film by that date.
The burning of Atlanta was avenged at last with a history that reclaimed Tara for the South, conceived and savored when that region’s segregationalist policies were feeling the strain of change.
Gone With The Wind was deep-South, Depression-era snake oil, heady with romance and rakishness and an ennui for better, distant times, selectively penned and filmed for the pleasure of white audiences. (And we were so critical of those Jew-killing Krauts and merciless Japs, standing back fro the murderous fray as long as possible and then fighting our wars mostly from the air.)
Who should be surprised then that a vigorous Tea Party exists today, any more than the populist Huey Long would run a near-dictatorial Democratic machine in Louisiana, spouting an anti-rich, anti-corporation rhetoric which made him the beloved of the rural poor, throwing as many bones their way to consolidate his hold on power. There is much of Huey Long in Glenn Beck and other populist demogogues like Rush Limbaugh, albeit coming from the complete opposite of the political spectrum. Red or blue, all of ‘em rouse the rabble for personal ends which are held, like marionette strings, for the Powers.
Huey and Dewey, I mean, Rush: Oppositites on the political spectrum meet in pure demogoguery.
In the 1994 movie Forrest Gump, the mentally-challenged yet divinely-gifted hero sits on a bench waiting for a bus to Savannah, Georgia, telling his story to whomever is sitting next to him. To one he says, “Mama always told me ‘stupid is as stupid does.’” Meaning, it isn’t what you’re born with but what you do with what you have that makes the difference.
Somehow that mantra got reversed in the cauldron of the Great Depression: people are induced into incredibly stupid actions because they have become convinced that intelligence is a suspect thing, knowledge being mostly in the hands receipt of morally-suspect folks. Or so they’ve been told, from pew to couch where preacher and FOX commentator gives them the news straight from Truth’s mouth. And now stupid does as stupid is.
And so the burning of Atlanta is now being taken back, timber by timber, erasing the true event from the history books by suggesting that blacks funded by Muslim extremists decided to burn their own city to defy their massuhs.
Well, two can play. Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone is an unauthorized remake of the original book, surviving litigation by being passed off as parody. In it, the heroine is not Scarlett O’Hara – portrayed as a pampered white girl -– but her half-sister, the mulatto Cynara, and picks up where the original leaves off, with Mitchell’s vision deconstructed through black eyes in spoken in Southern black vernacular. No one thought The Wind Done Gone was as good as Mitchell’s original, it does show how history can be turned on itself, like a dime.
As George Orwell wrote in his then-futuristic 1984, “he who controls the past, controls the future.” The battle-line wasn’t the ballot-boxes on August 24 or the Lincoln Memorial on August 28–it was in September 1787 in Philadelphia when the Constitution was being re-written by Glenn Beck.
Glenn Beck makes an appearance — in Scarlett O’Hara drag — at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. FOX said he was there, so it must be true.
* * *
Similarly, the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on this Sept. 4 depends on what actually occurred at Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway on November 11, 1938 (20 years since the formal end of hostilities in First World War and about the time that Vivien Leigh was cast as Scarlett O’Hara for the filming of Gone With the Wind).
A stock car race at Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway.
That was when stock car racing was formally introduced to the Georgia region and the soul of NASCAR arrived in the form of moonshine-runners lured down from the Piedmont region of the South. Planned as a 150-mile “world championship stock car race,” and sanctioned by the International Stock Car Racing Association, the event drew many of the celebrities from the “big car” (open wheel) circuit (Lakewood was originally billed as “The Indianapolis of the South,” but Northern-style, “big-car” racing never quite caught on) – Chief “Ride the Storm” Joie Chitwood, Harley Taylor, Bert Hellmuller, and Daytona winner Bill France.
But the purse attracted those stock-car moonshine runners as well, notably Georgians Roy Hall and Lloyd Seay, who burnt the competition in the hugely-attended Nov. 11 race and established stock car racing as a regional working-class entertainment staple.
Local boy Lloyd Seay after winning the first stock car race at Lakewood.
Echo, too, the first AMS race on July 30, 1960, on a superspeedway built for speed and won by the sport’s fastest, Fireball Roberts. Stock car racing was growing out of its Piedmont region roots, just as Atlanta was emerging as a city representative of the commercial power of the new South. But such growth in the sport was showing its pains.
Fireball Roberts is determined to get him some sugar after winning the 1960 Dixie 500, the first NASCAR race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Track owners were making plenty of money, especially at the huge tracks built at Daytona and Atlanta and Charlotte, but drivers were still getting purses smaller than the replacement cots of their cars.
With speed came danger-always popular with fans—but back then without much safety, either on the track or for when drivers suffered the worst consequences of their sport. In the 1957 Darlington 500, Bobby Myers died after a head-on collision with the stalled car of Fonty Flock. There were no death benefits except for the contents of a passed-around tin pail.
So a year after winning the inaugural race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Roberts became the first president of the fledgling Federation of Professional Athletes, a union for racers which promised to address all of these concerns where NASCAR’s ruling body would not.
But Big Bill France was having none of that, and he launched a vigorous union-busting campaign. He argued that drivers should be considered independent contractors responsible for their own benefits. He wrote articles which appeared in papers where races were to be held saying was upholding the Constitution and the nation by fighting the union.
Within a year the union had been defeated, and two years later Fireball Roberts would be dead from a crash at Charlotte in the World 600. Joe Weatherly also died that year in a crash at Riverside. Attempts to revive the union at that time were crushed again by France, resulting in a lifetime ban of popular driver and organizer Curtis Turner.
Fireball Roberts died in a fireball crash at the 1964 World 600. His death led to the development of a leak-proof, rubberized fuel tank (which wouldn’t explode) and fire-retardant suits, but NASCAR didn’t owe his family a dime for his death. Back then, you ate if you won, and Fireball had earned some $350,000, winning 33 of the 206 races he participated in at the Grand National level.
NASCAR’s omnipotence over its drivers today—keeping them muzzled, on penalty of fines, for saying anything detrimental to the sport-—has roots in the anti-labor practices of Big Bill France. What we have now is a league of “independent contractors” who get to hot-rod due to the good graces of NASCAR. For those men who want their chance to race in the big time, their mission is simple: suit up, shut up, and race like hell.
So now AMS has its one Labor Day weekend race in a sport whose ruling elders have vigorously opposed any union presence at race tracks and have made a good buck for it. Corporate sponsorships and ballooning ticket prices have enriched the big players (including drivers) beyond measure, but in this recession, the income gulf between fan and driver and sport make it impossible to identify with them the way they used to.
NASCAR’s hell-raising, good-ole-boy, Southern rebel moonshine-running roots–personified by Rhett Butler in “Gone With the Wind” (Mitchell apparently based the Butler character on her first husband, a moonshine runner)—is part of the history which NASCAR is desperate to write itself back into. The NASCAR Hall of Fame even has a replica of the sort of still Junior Johnson used to operate.
Maybe with the success of the Tea Party revolt against the taxations of modernity—-at least, the illusion of that success through landslide mid-term elections—-NASCAR too will be able to show the past tense works in the future. Or create enough of the illusion of that. Because it’s all for show, isn’t it? Racin’ is more than a sport, the way the Tea Party is more than about politics and race, and “Gone With The Wind” is more than a wistful paean to the Old South. It’s about believing whatever you damn well want to believe—that racecar drivers are ordinary folks like you and me even if they have net worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars; that the Constitution was penned by God-fearing men who never meant to take the Christ out of Christmas; that Tara could be re-built over the ashes of Atlanta.
One of the most bizarre disconnects between Glenn Beck’s high-minded (or grifter’s) attempt to usurp the civil rights movement for disenfranchised white people by organizing a rally at the same location and on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech is that King repeatedly spoke of the need for the country to acknowledge its “debt to the poor” and calling for an “economic bill of rights” that would “guarantee a job to all people who want to work and are able to work.” In Beck’s taxonomy such statements are Marxist – pure Democratic drivel. The TEA Party – Taxed Enough Already – aims not to spread the wealth evenly, redressing the enormous imbalance between wealthy and poor, but rather allow more ambitious (white) individuals to join the ranks of the rich, reclaiming their proper place in God’s world.
Oh well – believe what you want to, because no one is going to be able to convince you otherwise, in this age of knowledge-proof truths.
(By the way, Beck says that the coincidence of dates was wholly accidental, but that doesn’t add up for a self-professed student of history. Or maybe it just means that the history of the civil rights movement as it actually happened isn’t on his radar.)
* * *
Not that I’m down on the Labor Day race at AMS. Not at all. NASCAR is one of my guilty pleasures, wrong like a greasy sausage sandwich and a hoot for it. This blog is a thought bathed in those guilty pleasures, a whim, an indulgence, with license to thrill and swill, if only on paper. For all of its segregationist-era boneheadedness, Gone With the Wind is a guilty pleasure—a darn entertaining book and movie—and it manages to also carry a good message, that of the survival of sterling values through good times and bad. A primer for raising something good from the ashes. And for all of the suspect reasons I rant over above, Glenn Beck’s “I Have A Dream” Tea Party rally on August 28 had an upbeat message of hope for attendees, especially in these difficult times.
But I would prefer to reclaim America (the one in which I work and make my being in) from, rather than for, those entities. All of those entities – NASCAR, Gone With the Wind and Glenn Beck’s God-ridden taxonomy – have great difficulty with present truths: all would get rid of what we are in exchange for what we once were, in the childhood of our days. Shrinks call that regression, a flight from our present estate: sounds great, ain’t got shit to do with reality. Hope lies in things to come, not in a wish-fulfillment of things long lost. The longer we sit in the ashes of Atlanta crying over the ghosts of glory, the harder and more complicated it becomes to get on with the work of building something better.
The problem with the world’s truth is that it keeps changing. The moon is not only getting farther from the earth, it’s shrinking. Huge oil plumes from the Deepwater Horizon spill float about the deep reaches of the Gulf of Mexico, but scientists have discovered several previously-unknown microorganisms who are quickly devouring them. No one knows yet what an oil-enriched profusion of such bacteria will have on the Gulf ecology. A woman is last seen at a dinner in New York City and some of her belongings show up in Celebration near Disney World (that story is still evolving). A Harvard professor who had published a book about the evolutionary basis of morality was found to have committed many grievous errors in scientific conduct in documenting his research (ergo, morality may not be in our million-year dreamtime). The surge in Afghanistan is going well; it’s foundering, it’s failing. Jimmy Johnson and Denny Hamlin couldn’t beat in the early and middle stages of the season, now they can’t win. A leg is found in woods in Volusia County, and then more human remains were founds a few days later, a few miles from where the girlfriend of a sex offender disappeared about a week before the offender committed suicide.
On August 28 –- nine days after the last combat battalion left Iraq, and three days before the official end of all U.S. combat presence in Iraq –- Sgt. Brandon E. Maggart of died of wounds suffered from a rocket attack in Basra. The Kirksville, Missouri resident leaves behind his wife Teresa and their 3-year-old son Blake. He was completing his second tour of Iraq.
The world’s truth keeps changing, updating itself by the minute in our 24-7 online existence. It’s hard to stay current when the tide of change is so massive: it’s like trying to surf a tsunami. It’s changing so fast we may already be in Oz, or 1984, or the Matrix. We are horribly myopic when it comes to the big picture. Is the economy is recovering, or are we diving into a double-dip recession? Have newspapers—or rather, fourth-estate, civic-minded, fact-finding (rather than fact-trumpet of what you already know or want to hear) journalism already become extinct? Has global warming already overwhelmed us, with those floods Pakistan rising to lap the tops of the Hindu Kush and Pamirs mountain ranges? Has Jesus already taken His children home in a rapture whose brilliance was occluded by a sudden ripper of solar flare? (A Solar Max flare – the sun’s Big One – caused havoc on Earth in 1859 and 1921, wiping out telegraph wires around the world. The next one-forecast, it’s said, as early as 2012, could cause several trillion dollars of damage to the current technology infrastructure.)
Solar Max, inside and out.
Well, the times, they keep a-changing. We can’t know the earthly truths—what will happen when I hit the road to drive off to my work day–and that’s a pisser. Even the Bible says no one knows the exact date of Endtime (which makes is puzzling to me that so many Biblical literalists work endlessly at exhuming the scriptures which point to this day as The Day, the Times).
Its especially galling because human truths—what in the heart–have remained virtually unchanged as far back as the misty times when we hunted wooly mammoth for dinner. That truth—our limited circle of human virtues and sins—holds forth in singularity while the polymorphose world perversely unscrolls before our eyes. Human truths are eternal, as impermeable as the God some say fashioned them. No wonder we shake our head at events and mutter, “go oy, oy, vat’s to come of things …”
There are visible human truths – like justice and charity, love and devotion – and there are shadowy ones, just as real and perhaps more motivating–love of mayhem, godlike ambition, racial hatred, coal-hot lust. Our invisible truths are the product of the hidden mind, unconscious attitudes which stay in the murk because we can’t admit them to ourselves (repression), and because in groups our primordial herd mentality has taken over. Something makes us do things we shouldn’t – possession by the Devil or the psychological shadow; the Other brain at work.
The Other brain loves bias, ancient and politically incorrect attitudes with are impervious to truth. It loves inversion—my will, not Thine. It loves old-school attitudes which ruled simian treetop society—dominance and submission, a love of war and blood, insemination of every female that moved as a form of pissing on the borders, claiming right to all. The Other brain rules consumer choices which don’t make sense (like shopping at Wal-Mart, which is filled with goods which have destroyed all local competition), create the vicious divide in politics, exacerbate race relations and pit us onto the brink of war (spare the mamby-pamby diplomacy, roll out the bombs.)
Surely the Other brain was at work in ancient when Marsyas -– a mortal — was so sure he was the best flautist on earth and in the heavens that he challenged the god Apollo to a contest. For his presumption he was bested AND flayed of his skin, hung like a red sheet for all to see. “Know thyself,” as it is written on the lintel of Apollo’s oracle at Delphi; but the troubling and less-publicized second half of that oracle goes thus: “And know you aren’t God.”
Apollo flays Marsyas for flaunting his flute, (Jose de Ribera)
OK, we’re not God, and this isn’t God’s world, no matter how fundamentalists like Beck would like to legislate that, motivated as they are by high-mindedness (a return to Godly virtue) as well as Other-mindedness (churches filled with white people). The separation of church and state, of Augustine’s City of God and Rome, occurs not in the history books but in the distance between a person’s mind and h/her heart, between a rapidly-evolving consciousness and a stubbornly pre-modern, belief-ridden, wilderness heart. And like the moon, the distance is growing – that’s modernity – as our species evolves. This was God’s world some 3 million years ago, or it so seemed to our simian brains newly awakened to the presence of greatness (anything you couldn’t beat was divine); today this is humanity’s world, for better and worse, or we think it is. Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am, and I can damn well prove it to you, by the sweat of my brow and the prowess of my mind.
* * *
In James Dickey’s Deliverance – a novel published 40 years ago in August — Four suburban white-collar Atlantans forego the usual rounds of golf for a weekend’s canoe trip in the hick reaches of the Georgia wilderness, snaking down the rapids of the fictional Cahulawasee River that winds through an river valley area about to be flooded by the upcoming construction of a dam. In those woods they encounter monsters – deep wilderness men nurse a vicious hatred of city folks (carpetbaggers, Revenuers, foreclosure stooges from the bank, uppity city folk) and mean to show it with humiliation and murder. A group-lynching without need of darkies.
And so “Dueling Banjos” becomes a fight to the finish between Old (or Deep) South and New (or Suburban). Faced with such extraordinary danger, the boys from Atlanta become, in Dickey’s words, “countermonsters”: men who will do anything to survive, showing that there are times the Other brain’s brass-knuckle shadow comes in very handy.
In the final tally, three of the four Atlantans survive but neither of their wilderness tormentors do. The dead are weighted down with rocks and sunk in the river, in the knowledge that the coming flood will keep the dead—and the crimes of men–forever hidden. The three return to their suburban lives (eluding the suspicions of local authorities). In the novel, the narrator Ed (played in the John Boorman movie by John Voight)–the one who transformed the most from suburban commuter into wilderness mad man—ends up buying a cabin on another dammed lake. He finds that his connection with the drowned river in that lake makes his suburban life tolerable, though he dreams of the dead surfacing some day, a wet white hands pointing an inescapable finger of guilt his way. Ed thrives on that fear, as men of the wilderness do, where men of the suburbs build bigger houses with securer doors against the threat that comes knocking in the night. He has found his deliverance, albeit of a savage god’s–the Other mind’s–grace.
* * *
God has been leaving us behind since Eve first offered her apples to Adam; or rather, we have been leaving God behind, kicked out of paradise by our own lust for more. Their son Cain distanced us further from our sweet spot when he murdered his brother Abel, jealous that God had accepted Abel’s sacrifice of the firstborn of his flock while refusing his own offering of a portion of his land’s produce. God curses Cain with the mark of sin—a tattoo, if you will—which forever identifies Cain with his crime. God also banishes Cain from the good life, saying he (and, by extension, the rest of us) must wander the earth and live by the sweat of our brow.
Thus the workday was born, too long and too wearying and ever insufficient of pay for our labors, billowing our Visa card bills. Thus the sense of fruitlessness and dislocation, working dead-end jobs, banned to perpetual underemployment or joblessness. Thus the saying, “same shit, different day” was born.
Blame Cain too for our envy of other folks’s good fortune. Blame our Other brain for our schadenfreude over Cain’s plight, our delight in watching the spectacle of another’s misfortune, glutting our shadowy desire for watching others go down in the daily Coliseum.
An old timer I know once said, “If you’re wondering what happened to you God, ask yourself, ‘Who moved’’? We did. We moved on, toiling a thousand centuries, innovating tools which made us that less dependent upon the graces of God. Eventually the virgin sacrifices stopped, then the casting of wheat on the wave. The last Sibyl was freed when Delphi was closed by the Christian Emperor Theodosis in 390 AD. We kept on keepin’ on, and the distance from Eden grew.
God continues to fade from the heavens; it was so in the twelfth century when, out of spiritual desperation, thousands of cathedrals were built across Europe in an attempt to anchor back down the presence of Heaven. The moon is getting farther away from us, and stars are being pulled from the night sky by dark matter, or matters. Such are our facts, and not all the megachurches preaching salvation over social justice, not all Texas school boards re-writing biblical Creation into textbooks, and not all the Glenn Becks of the world – and there are plenty – can bring back our deep animal’s prelapsairan state, delivering us back to Edenic harmony, where heaven on earth was possible because consciousness had not yet evolved to make the distinction.
History – and God’s grace, if you believe in such a thing -– is what happened. Atlanta was burned and the Cahulawassee River was flooded and the spring race at Atlanta Motor Speedway was canceled. But that doesn’t keep us from trying re-write history in the form we prefer it, so that all wrongs be overwritten with mama-nerp goodness. The danger inherent in re-writing history is that hidden bones are unrestful. Our sleep stirs with the troubled ghosts of the Civil War and the Holocaust and the blast-victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
So go back there, Glenn Reb, hell-raising the South from its ashes: But keep a wary eye for the hand of Judgment to surface from the smooth, dark waters, lit so faintly by a fading, shrinking moon. What is gone with the wind is a bone in the mind.
* * *
Today Hurricane Earl passes 350 miles east of Florida’s Atlantic coast, but the sucker is so big the satellite photos of the moment give the impression that the bastard is about to saw the Florida peninsula right off. It’s headed elsewhere—possibly to graze on the protruding bosom of North Carolina’s Outer Banks (drama for tomorrow night, aftermath, perhaps for the final race of the regular season at Richmond). And though Earl is far off the Florida coast, it’s still whipping up the surf with waves that will top out today around 12 feet. Cowabunga! Local surfers just don’t get to see that sort of action, and they’re all waiting for the riptides to subside (a surfer drowned last weekend in one) before paddling out. Here, it’s still and somewhat cooler at 4:19 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 2, fronds of the palm tree in the front yard trembling a bit in a breeze from afar.
Surf was up on Thursday, Sept. 2, thanks to passing Earl.
It’s strange to have such magnitude pass by with so small a flutter. I’d love to be on the beach right now listening to the roar of whipped-up surf. It’s said that Saint Columba, sixth-century AD abbott of Iona (off the coast of Scotland), would spend the final third of every night in the sands down by the wild night tide, singing the Three Fifties (the Psalms) in his clear, loud voice, almost above the roar of the surf. But we don’t know whether he was fighting off demons or welcoming in kind the greatness of the sea, we’ll never know. Me, the latter stands on the shoulders of the former, or vice versa. Would my poems stand up to such great foment?
She’s whispering to me with her
Mouth pursed in a sideways lilt,
Breaking, like waves, into a smile.
Hey you lover, she murmurs from a
Surflike larynx, come fuck me NOW.
The seduction is pure floating sigh,
A susurration of warm curved waves,
Labials no sailor can resist or survive.
See: Even now I’m heaving hooves,
Hard to plunge ceruleans. She’s
Calling me down to her blue bed
In that sidewinding strange voice,
Conched by God on my ear’s shore:
Urging this pen to kiss her mouth
And poutier labials further south.
Well, for whatever reasons that wind done gone: poetry has moved on for more fertile mouths, I get. What remains is this reconstructing South, hollowed if not quite hallowed enough for the storms which ravened through my mind, making of inexpressibles these villages of contemporary sense. I keep on keepin’ on, even though I doubt anyone bothers to read the entire whale from tooth to tail.
But I’m like a dog misnamed Stay or a lover who can’t live with or without it or a drunk who knows that its death to drink: I do this thing without invoking all the ghosts of the Other. See: I open my mouth and a bone pops out, or a fin, or spiraling foment named Earl.
Another work day, soon to head off to earn not enough for this piddly homestead my wife and I so love. A migraine is back full force (this summer’s migraine season has been salty and savage), Category 4 – bad enough to bitch but not enough to send me back to bed. Like Sisyphus, I struggle uphill with an boulder, not in front of me but landed on my head. Oh well. My wife has other ills to scotch her day – stress fracture in her foot and a bad cold. Head or gut? She get both.
And all the Sprint Cup drivers are in Atlanta now, readying for their qualifying runs, their cars festooned, for Sunday’s race, with new paint schemes submitted by fans. (Jeff Gordon’s was “designed” by his 3-year old daughter Ella and the scheme is called “My Papa’s Car.” Awww.) Most look like re-hashed flags, thought Tony Stewart’s “Back To School” #14 Stewart-Hass Office Depot Chevrolet does look like a lode of office supplies stolen from work.
* * *
Let me formally enter this belated and obvious (though that’s open to debate) caveat: I’m one of you. I’m a homo sapiens of the Caucasian, male gender. I grew up on the same planet, in many of the same decades as you. Your biases are obvious to me, but I’m fairly oblivious to my own. My Other brain prefers me blinkered that way. I hate GOP TV—I mean, FOX News—seeing its as grandfathered by a rich guy who wants to get richer and staffed by a bunch of duplicitous populists who seem to have studied more with Goebbels than at the Columbia School of Journalism. Though I’m registered Independent, I almost always vote for Democrats. I don’t’ see their failings very well, so focused I am on the wrongs of their opponents.
I indulge in my darker nature like those suburban Atlantans who drive far into the wilderness for a little wild strange. Sometimes I fantasize in gruesome detail of killing off all the talking heads at Fox, in payment for my dislike of them. I respect women (hate, hate, hate seeing films where they are preyed upon or abused) but I sure fantasize about their bodies, darkly convinced that their boobs are staring at me from beneath all that daily clothing, not vice versa. I hate people who are like me too much, like assholes who go on and on and on in conversation or posts when that’s exactly what I do. I think the road is mine when I commute to work and I think my blinkered perspective is the only correct one. I try not to think how my insufficient and failing middle-class income and standard of living exceeds ninety percent of the world’s if not this country’s. Cain lives on in my seething, small-minded, envious, lustful Other brain, much as I try to conceal its rude boners. I sit next to a pretty woman, shift my weight and fart escapes, much to my chagrin. And my Other brain is tittering away, whispering Fool in my ear. I blame the chair I’m sitting in, the company who made my day’s sandwich, my lousy life and job and naggingly real wife for the lot I’ve been dealt, Cain’s lot, dealt by God against the surly rebel within.
Cain raise some, uh, Cain against his bro Abel.
All of that happens in my head, somewhere between my conscious and Other brains. Rarely does any of come out except sideways – slips of the tongue, boneheaded moves on the road, hardons at inappropriate times. Only when I used to drink too much and wandered too far into the wilderness of blackout did my actual monster come out in full force, Jekyll standing at the bar become Hyde on the dance floor of the bottle club at 4 a.m., gnashing my teeth beneath the swirling disco ball. Or enacting things I can’t remember in the next apartment in the next anonymous apartment building in the necropolis of dead-of-night Orlando. It’s one reason why I don’t drink any more. (I also have learned to love sobriety, but that’s another tale …)
The Other Man has an Other brain and he’s happy to come out (especially when you pour down enough booze.
Point being: I’m one of you. You get to do it your way, I do get to do it mine. My politics. My South. My country. My cyberspace. My sexuality. And it’s my racetrack, my way of writing about racin’. What difference between me and Big Bill France, who had an embroidered pillow in his office that said, “I did it my way”? Between any of us? Our self-important differences are simply what we have most in common, striated and inflected in various ways, the way that peckers have the same function yet vary greatly in size, or that breasts all sprout to milk our infancies yet range, AA to FFF, through the entire pantry of cups.
It’s all good.
It’s my Atlanta Motor Speedway. I’ve worked hard to find my way there, through a wilderness of events and thought about those events. I emerge on that track brighter and darker – harrowed, if you will, as always, by the woods I have walked through. Ready to rock, to watch the boys roll. Second to last race before the Chase! Hotlanta Speedway will be charged up like a sailor on shore leave, all that expectation and desperation like too much testosterone in the marbles, making things almost drippy-dizzy with something only speed and sound, lots and lots of both, can surfeit. Let’s go racin’!
* * *
James Dickey, damn good poet and not a bad git-picker.
Postscript: Though most people know James Dickey for his first novel Deliverance, he was actually a poet and a damn good one. Born in Atlanta, he played football in college, fought in World War II and the Korean War as a pilot, and between wars got degrees in English and Philosophy from Vanderbilt. He taught for a while, and, short of bucks, had a 6-year advertising career, writing ad copy for Coca Cola and Frito Lays. After his work day, he’d try writing poetry. “I was selling my soul to the devil all day,” he said, “and trying to buy it back at night.” He began publishing books in the ‘60s, winning the National Book Award for The Buckdancer’s Choice. Deliverance came out in 1970 and got rave reviews. Dickey’s prominence—or, let’s say, the part of his visibililty he could cash in with the ladies—grew outsized when John Boorman made Deliverance into a box-office hit. Dickey kept writing poems for the next 25 years, though his best work was in the early years, as it is with most poets, as the outer life – careering, womanizing, drinking (“I like it like Patton liked war,” Dickey once said). A dick in real life, perhaps because his creative candles had extinguished – by the bad living, by the dogs of time, by God.
But at one time he was a damn good poet. “Cherrylog Road” is one of his most anthologized. It describes the archetypal scene of every pure racin’ enthusiast – not at that track, but in the back seat of an abandoned car in the deep countryside, off the main road in a junkyard, that boneyard of every fast dream. I include it here as evidence that good work does get done in spite of ourselves, celebrating our jones for everything that goes fast and faster, more and more. Collaboration between working and Other brain is possible – and fruitful – as you shall see. Enjoy …
by James L. Dickey
Off Highway 106
At Cherrylog Road I entered
The ’34 Ford without wheels,
Smothered in kudzu,
With a seat pulled out to run
Corn whiskey down from the hills,
And then from the other side
Crept into an Essex
With a rumble seat of red leather
And then out again, aboard
A blue Chevrolet, releasing
The rust from its other color,
Reared up on three building blocks.
None had the same body heat;
I changed with them inward, toward
The weedy heart of the junkyard,
For I knew that Doris Holbrook
Would escape from her father at noon
And would come from the farm
To seek parts owned by the sun
Among the abandoned chassis,
Sitting in each in turn
As I did, leaning forward
As in a wild stock-car race
In the parking lot of the dead.
Time after time, I climbed in
And out the other side, like
An envoy or movie star
Met at the station by crickets.
A radiator cap raised its head,
Become a real toad or a kingsnake
As I neared the hub of the yard,
Passing through many states,
Many lives, to reach
Some grandmother’s long Pierce-Arrow
Sending platters of blindness forth
From its nickel hubcaps
And spilling its tender upholstery
On sleepy roaches,
The glass panel in between
Lady and colored driver
Not all the way broken out,
The back-seat phone
Still on its hook.
I got in as though to exclaim,
“Let us go to the orphan asylum,
John; I have some old toys
For children who say their prayers.”
I popped with sweat as I thought
I heard Doris Holbrook scrape
Like a mouse in the southern-state sun
That was eating the paint in blisters
From a hundred car tops and hoods.
She was tapping like code,
Loosening the screws,
Carrying off headlights,
Cracked mirrors and gear-knobs,
Getting ready, already,
To go back with something to show
Other than her lips’ new trembling
I would hold to me soon, soon,
Where I sat in the ripped back seat
Talking over the interphone,
Praying for Doris Holbrook
To come from her father’s farm
And to get back there
With no trace of me on her face
To be seen by her red-haired father
Who would change, in the squalling barn,
Her back’s pale skin with a strop,
Then lay for me
In a bootlegger’s roasting car
With a string-triggered I2-gauge shotgun
To blast the breath from the air.
Not cut by the jagged windshields,
Through the acres of wrecks she came
With a wrench in her hand,
Through dust where the blacksnake dies
Of boredom, and the beetle knows
The compost has no more life.
Someone outside would have seen
The oldest car’s door inexplicably
Close from within:
I held her and held her and held her,
Convoyed at terrific speed
By the stalled, dreaming traffic around us,
So the blacksnake, stiff
With inaction, curved back
Into life, and hunted the mouse
With deadly overexcitement,
The beetles reclaimed their field
As we clung, glued together,
With the hooks of the seat springs
Working through to catch us red-handed
Amidst the gray breathless batting
That burst from the seat at our backs.
We left by separate doors
Into the changed, other bodies
Of cars, she down Cherrylog Road
And I to my motorcycle
Parked like the soul of the junkyard
Restored, a bicycle fleshed
With power, and tore off
Up Highway 106, continually
Drunk on the wind in my mouth,
Wringing the handlebar for speed,
Wild to be wreckage forever.