Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#799)

Saturdays at the Erwin
by David Benjamin

“What is it?/ Hey, why it’s Buttercup/ Popcorn!/ Add sweet cream butter to hot popcorn,/ Mix it up, wrap it up,/ Buttercup is born./ It’s delicious!/ So nutritious!/ It’s a taste delight!/ It’s so munchy , crisp and crunchy!/ You’ll enjoy each bite./ Eat Buttercup, Buttercup,/ Popcorn at its best./ It beats all the rest!”
                       — Movie intermission jingle, ca. 1953

MADISON, Wis. — A kid named Chucky Dutcher was my mentor in the art of moviegoing. A slightly disreputable urchin from a sprawling, unruly family who lived on the wrong side of the Milwaukee Road tracks in Tomah, Chucky was the unlikeliest of cinema mavens, if only because in school he had a hard time sitting still.

Like many of my early friends, Chucky was a street kid who had no curfew, lived by his wits, talked out of both sides of his mouth and knew where the action was. In a small town, the movies represented a reliable source of action, at least ’til we were old enough to drink. So, the movies is where Chucky went — and sat more or less still, even at the risk of refining his tastes and improving his mind.

For most Tomah kids, moviegoing came two ways. One was with your parents, usually in the family Ford to the drive-in out by Routes 12 and 21, always a double feature (one of my fondest memories was a twin-bill of The Thing and The Deadly Mantis). Trouble was, the drive-in closed in September and didn’t re-open ’til almost summertime. In the cold months, you could beg mom and dad for an evening out at the Erwin Theater. But for me, with two working — then separated, then downright divorced — parents, such excursions were damn scarce. And I had no recourse to grandparents. None of them had been to the flicks since the Depression.

Tomah’s only other portal to Hollywood, for kids, was a Saturday matinee program sponsored by the Erwin. In school, for two bucks, you bought a precious ten-week perforated card of movie tickets (Lassie, Doris Day, Tommy Sands, Roy Rogers, Francis the Talking Mule). Parents — even those as hard-up as mine — gladly ponied up the deuce because it promised two or three hours of kid-free tranquility every Saturday afternoon during the diphtheric Wisconsin winter.
 
One blessing of the Erwin matinee was that all ten movies were approved by the Legion of Decency (thus indemnifying me from a Near Occasion of Sin). The worst part was an entire movie house full of other kids, screaming, fighting, running up and down the aisles and smelling like Dubble Bubble wrapped in dirty underwear.

And then, when you piled out of the Erwin in a mad, violent mass evacuation, prodded along by sadistic teenage ushers, the sun was still somewhere up there, sulking behind a leaden overcast. Tomah, in daylight, in the dead of November, projected a bleakness that made the Erwin — with its Technicolor screen and Dmitri Tiomkin scores, its cavalcade of stars, and its walls adorned with Indian-themed art-deco murals — seem like either Shangri-La or a cruel hoax devised to make fragile children hate their lives.

Chucky Dutcher’s solution to the normal kid’s Hollywood hunger was the personal, unauthorized, 25-cent Erwin marathon. On a cold Saturday after matinee season, Chucky and I ventured parentless to the Erwin for the early showing of Journey to the Center of the Earth, starring Pat Boone and James Mason. We watched all five showings. Next day, after church, we went back and watched it five more times.

We skipped four meals and didn’t get home — twice — ’til almost midnight. Nobody commented, or even noticed our absence from the world, because Chucky and I were, by popular local consensus, destined for delinquency. We both had parents too busy, too troubled, too tired to care whether we were in the house or off someplace. They’d just as soon we stayed away as much as possible. As long as the police didn’t bring us home, we were on our own.

I figured out quick that it’s hard to go ten hours in the movies without nourishment. There was food, of course, in abundance, at the Erwin, but you had to buy it. Neither Chucky nor I exactly had a stash of ready cash. We had to husband our nickels and dimes and make prudent meal choices. The most heralded of cinema cuisine, Buttercup popcorn, was usually beyond our means, as were most of the classic candy bars — Snickers, Milky Way, Mr. Goodbar, etc.

Instead, we focused on the proletarian candy choices on the lower shelves behind the glass. You had to know your options and choose fast, because the hostile high-school girl behind the counter hated little kids, there were twelve bigger people behind you and — you could hear him — Lowell Thomas had already begun, in that immortal, mellifluous baritone, the Movietone News. Hurry!

My all-time favorite Erwin entrée was Raisinets. But they ate fast and didn’t last. You’d be digging up your final raisin before the end of the first reel. And you couldn’t go back for more. No self-respecting kid ever left his seat during the film, even to take  a leak or puke. Ever. You were glued to the screen.

Other ill-advised movie victuals were nonpareils, chocolate cigarettes, Spearmint Leaves, Good & Plenty, Junior Mints, M&Ms and malted milk balls. Tasty but ephemeral. If you wanted staying power, you leaned toward the classic filling-pullers — Dots, Jujubes, Jujyfruits — or the little rocks you had to suck. Root beer barrels, Lifesavers (dull but durable), and, especially,  Jawbreakers. A ten-cent box of Jawbreakers once got me through all three hours of Ben-Hur.

Above all, there was one movie meal you could chew ravenously or suck subtly, devour in one reel or nurse through the credits. A caramel-centered chocolate-covered minié ball invented in 1926 by Sean Le Noble, the Milk Dud, for any kid who ever went to the movies, is the pinnacle of 20th-century confectionery.

The magic of a movie marathon was that, once you were settled into your Erwin homestead, with a supply of Milk Duds and Jawbreakers (and nothing to drink lest you need to pee), you were immersed. Sunk into your seat while audience after audience came and went, you uncoupled from reality. You became film, and film became you. You weren’t in Tomah, but in Scotland and underneath Iceland with the Lindenbrook expedition. After I’d seen Journey to the Center of the Earth ten times in 48 hours, I was ready to converse with Pauline Kael on the delicate nuance in Pat Boone’s Thespian style, and the mounting insinuation of Arlene Dahl’s raw sexuality.

By and by, you became, inevitably, irresistibly — for the rest of your life — a line memorizer. You began, innocently, by saying, along with James Mason, “Never interrupt a murderer, madam.” You end up in a gin joint, hollering at perfect strangers, “Goddammit! It’s not ‘Play it again, Sam.’ It’s just ‘Play! It! Sam!’”

Then, one day, without warning, Chucky’s nomadic dad uprooted the whole shebang and disappeared to God-knows-where. Luckily, I didn’t need a sidekick anymore (unless it was Maureen O’Hara). I’d been lured into the Erwin and seduced by Hollywood. I was probably the first kid in my grade to solo at the movies. Alone in the dark, I got my first glimpse of the Final Solution in the scariest film I ever saw, a documentary called Mein Kampf. I fell in love with Jean Seberg in The Mouse That Roared. I watched Steve Reeves in Hercules and Hercules Unchained at least eight times each. I spent one sublime day learning how to dance from Zorba the Greek.

And afterwards…

Coming out the door from the warm Erwin womb into the arctic dark of Tomah at midnight, I beheld the yellow street lights suffusing the bars, diners and storefronts along Superior Avenue with the faint golden glow of a backlot New York.

If I squinted a little, succumbing to the sugar in my bloodstream and the chill of the night, I could just barely see, under a faroff, flickering streetlamp, the silhouettes of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, kissing in desperate haste before fleeing into the darkness from the killer on their trail.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#798)


The geeks who live on the hill
by David Benjamin


“Let's make sure none of our kids have to drive.”
                         — Jen Hsun Huang, CEO, Nvidia

LAS VEGAS -- In the real world, nobody talks about self-driven cars.  We have other stuff on our minds. If we talk about cars at all, it’s usually something about that ominous stain on the garage floor, or the funny noise under the hood, or wanting to strangle the GPS Bitch inside the dashboard who thinks she knows the way and goes into U-turn Panic every time you hang a left she doesn’t agree with.

But here, at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), there are 200,000 people talking about self-driven cars. It’s topic number one. Easily, the most unhinged among these robo-gonzos is a guy named Jen Hsun Huang.

To the non-CES millions, Jen Hsun Huang (pronounced “George Jetson”), is... who?

Never heard of him.

But to the crowd that hailed him with a standing, stomping, whooping ovation at a twilight-in-Sin-City CES keynote address, this guy is Jesus on a hoverboard. To some extent, he deserves a big hand, because he’s the ubergeek who invented the GPU (graphics processing unit) that makes video pastimes like “Mafia II,” “Call of Duty: Black Ops” and “Super Street Fighter” so vivid, kinetic and gory.

Bounding onto the CES stage in his signature black leather jacket (my signature is Duluth Trading compression socks), Huang launches explosively into an “incredible” (he loves this word) harangue — to the throbbing roar of what reminds me of a Trump campaign rally in lynch-mob mode — about his “amazing” (likes this word, too) GPU. He proclaims, with all due immodesty, the “extraordinary,” “unbelievable” spiritual fulfillment it has bestowed on humankind, unleashing the imagination of — by his gradually escalating count — one, two or maybe 50 billion glassy-eyed video-gamers on this planet and beyond.

He did, by the way, rather graciously suggest that there are a few benighted atheists, like me, not yet been born again into gaming. I get the impression that Huang and his believers see us analog holdouts as a sort of sad relict of Bedlam and Titicut, living in our pj’s. confined to bare white rooms, playing with our lips and fingering through tattered copies of Photoplay.

Since the ballroom at the Venetian was equipped, by chance, with a video screen thirty yards wide, Huang treated the faithful to a preview of Nvidia’s newest G-Force (I think this is a brand) video game. In this clip, a person, possibly female, clad in bronze body armor, blasts pop-up monsters with a) an apparent ray gun, b) a machine gun and c) a flame thrower of devastating ferocity. With every simulated explosion, the crowd channels Meg Ryan in Katz’s deli.

I’m loath to digress but, jeez, I wonder. Has anybody noticed that the actual central plotline of almost every video game has barely advanced in 30 years beyond “Space Invaders?” Or, for that matter, the shooting gallery at the Monroe County Fair?

But never mind. Movie’s over. We’re here to talk about self-driven cars.

On that topic, Huang hyperboasted — another echo of our president-elect — that fully functional Level 5 robo-cars are here. Right now. The wait is over. (Yeah, I know. Who was waiting?) Huang said, “What used to be science fiction is going to be reality.” Or is. Right now.

Ay, there’s the rub, George. I admit that I don’t know dick about GPUs or “Grand Theft Auto.” But I was tuned into sci-fi long before Huang fried his first transistor. Hence, when he uttered that “going to be reality” line, the seven most potent words in science-fiction history silently rolled off my lips.

“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave.”

As I’ve noted before, the great sci-fi minds — from Karel Capek to Arthur C. Clarke (author of those seven fateful words) — have depicted robotics as a god with two faces, one benign and helpful (like Robby in Forbidden Planet) the other malevolent to the point of holocaust (Cyberdyne Systems in the Terminator flicks).

The capriciousness of autonomous machines is one of the great unresolved, irresolvable, thrilling and frightening sci-fi themes. It’s a premise as complex as Nvidia’s latest block diagram. For every dream-come-true brought about by fictional cyborgs, there is a Hell on earth that spreads to the moon and engulfs whole solar systems, eventually turning the best-laid plans of mice and men into a heap of smoldering ashes overseen by a robo-demon with a metallic grin.

All because George Jetson went down to the auto mall and bought a self-driving Ford that could think circles around his puny human brain. The robotic rub, from Asimov to Philip K. Dick to Stanley Kubrick, is that, by and by, the machine realizes that George, comparatively, is a moron. In sci-fi, the robot says, “Wait a minute. What am I doing at this lamebrain’s beck and call?”

And the fun begins.

If science fiction, as Jen Hsun Huang enthuses, becomes reality, the robots will sense their superiority and turn on us. They’ll confiscate our houses, cars and bank accounts. We mere mortals will be retained, in reduced numbers, as minstrels, French maids, gardeners, chauffeurs, armor-polishers.

Wax on, wax off.

But don’t panic yet. The prospect (or horror) of robo-motoring isn’t as immediate — for real people — as Huang raved. He exposed the dream’s caste system inadvertently, by describing a scene in his personal near future. In this fastasy, he’s heading home in his autonomous Audi — let’s call it Artoo. He has reached the hill that leads to his house. Artoo says, “Yo, Jen Hsun. How about we activate the gate so we can drive right through when we get there?”

Stop the film here. Let’s look at the freeze-frame.

Huang’s hill is near San Francisco. I know those hills. I also know the scorched salt marshland out by East Palo Alto where the poor folks are cut off from the rest of the world by Route 101. And I know the working-class flats of Redwood City, Fremont, Richmond, Alameda.

People like me — and you — don’t often drive up the forested hills of Woodside or Hillsborough, or above Portola Valley, unless we’re delivery boys. If we tried, we’d eventually spot a private-security cruiser in our rear-view.

With this story, Huang accidentally confessed the truth about autonomous cars for the foreseeable (non-science fiction) future. They’re for guys, like him, whose homes — usually referred to as “compounds — have gates. Guard dogs. Surveillance. Gold faucets and trophy wives.

This is a future I’ve seen, at robo-car trade shows. Self-driven, machine-learning, mind-reading, well-spoken cars with English accents and rich Corinthian leather — these rides are way cool. But they’re out of our league, Steve.

Huang will be invited to the White House and he’ll give one to Trump. Free.

The rest of us, we’ll get one — eventually. But mine will be second-hand, when it’s a little too old to drive by itself, when it’s prone to stains on the garage floor, when the HUD turns fuzzy, the ECU smells like burning plastic, and the “infotainment” system can only find re-runs of “I Love Lucy.”

Friday, December 30, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#797)

A philosophic interlude at Le Fumoir
by David Benjamin

“Homer tells us also that Sisyphus had put Death in chains.”
— Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

PARIS — Something about this joint gets me to over-thinking. Maybe it’s the art on the walls. My favorite is a painting of two gauzy and anorexic art-deco women lunching with an adult male rhinoceros — both girls, of course, blithely oblivious to the monster’s rhinocity.

Partly, it’s the wait staff. They’re equally divided between male and female,  governed by a dress code firmly restricted to black and white. But the waitresses arrest the eye. Invariably brunette and suggestive of Asia, each wears a scoop-neck, skin-tight, long-waisted white leotard top that caresses her every curve and presents a torso, in profile, that would have plunged Rodin into his sketchbook.

They tempt me with the heresy that, perhaps, for a certain period of youth — fast-declining after 30 years — one’s physical self really does outweigh, as the engine of social life and general esteem, the “content of one’s character.” You have a lifetime to be wise and good, but barely a moment to be beautiful.

Naturally, I resist this sort of decline-of-Rome philosophy. But here at Le Fumoir, one of the smartest, trendiest, hippest saloons in all of Paris — where Hotlips and I are at least a decade older than the next most ancient patron — beauteous youth is a prevailing ethos. And, for all their glint, hurrah and effervescence, Jesus! They all seem to be working so hard. I think of Sisyphus.

When I was their age — these brazen young sophisticates in perfect clothes with hair that cost, what?, a hundred euros, or twice that much? — I would’ve been afraid to venture through the doors. I was too rustic, too rumpled, too reserved. I was D’Artagnan without the chutzpah. Even if I understood French (but they all speak English! This is Paris!), I would have been bewildered and intimidated by the intensity of the unspoken rivalry here, the showing off, the forced hilarity, the rubbernecking, the comparing, interjecting, interrupting and the cordial but jugular one-upping.

Now, I’m way too old for this scene. I’m invisible to them. A non-betting observer at a genteel cockfight, I wouldn’t, couldn’t compete. I enjoy the tableau, its noise and colors, the Christmas lights, the friendly ferocity of tipsy hipsters, the flash of spurs and the sylphlike waitresses shimmering from able to bar and back again.

But I’m on the outside of this, looking in — cool in my uncoolness. I think, ah, life is easy when you don’t give a shit anymore.

Okay, a cynical reverie — shattered suddenly by a clash of voices, feminine both. They’re arguing, or maybe just sharing a common grievance. It’s all French and fast, and I’m glad I catch only the odd English cognate — “weekend,” “fou!,” “futbol”. “Football?” They must be talking about men. But with such conviction that I’m a little envious, even at the futile circularity of the conversation. Camus said, “… the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth…”

Pointless though their dialog probably is, I feel, in my chill dismissal of all this agita, intimations of my own mortality. It would be nice to have such glimmer in my eye, bounce in my step, lead in my pencil. Nice if I could clench an unblemished fist and pound the table, toppling my glass and spilling, in my pique over the iniquity of the other gender, five dollars of cote du rhone village.

But I also think, my God, what a crap shoot it was (I remember) to be that young and so absolutely promising. How easy for one mishap, misstep, misjudgment to queer it all. So many small things can trigger a spiral that can’t be unwound — a dead parent, a family battle, a failed test, a forgotten interview after a drunken night, a crazy girlfriend or a violent, vindictive boyfriend, a sudden decision to join the army, or not to join the army, a bar fight, an insidious addiction, an auto-immune disease, the wrong turn up a dark road, a few ill-chosen words to a thug, or to a cop, an intemperate sentence written and sent that can’t be brought back. A flash of impulse that limns a lifetime.

Youth seems impregnable here, but — watching it crow its defiance and strut its hour — I ponder how easy to cut it short, or how tragic to prolong it beyond its time, with paint and chemistry, with denial and delusion. I think of Norma Desmond.

Le Fumoir is two minutes from the Seine. With a view of the Louvre, it’s situated scenically beside the ancient church of St. Germain l’Auxerrois, first built in the 7th century, rebuilt for good 800 years later. The delicately Gothic steeple is bathed in a flattering electric glow unimaginable by the long-dead workmen who stacked its stones in God’s direction. All these sublime structures of Paris limestone are older than anyone in this saloon — or the saloon itself — will ever be. I’ve gone from vaguely envying my fellow drinkers here, their vitality and noise, their insouciance and promise, to feeling their fleetingness and pathos. I see in them my own disappointments and in the still unfulfilled hungers that stretch all the way back to childhood. I see in them my dogged struggle to yet prevail in this dubious career of scrawling words on paper (or, more pathetically, projecting them into the cybervoid) while hoping to Christ that someone — anyone — will pause a moment to read me, read me please…

… just as I, a moment ago, re-read Camus.

Life, I revise myself, is over when you don’t give a shit anymore.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#795)

It’s happening here
by David Benjamin

PARIS — While visiting from Brussels, my 14-year-old godson, Benjamin, grew exasperated with the alarmism at the dinner table. He said, “All grownups do now is sit around, eating, drinking and talking about Trump.”

Hey, music to Donald Trump’s ears. And Benjamin is right. No political figure in my lifetime, in any country, has similarly dominated civic discourse, everywhere around the world. The prevailing mood of this endless, circular discussion of the president-elect is doleful pessimism until, inevitably, it spirals down into outright fear and loathing.

I’ve tried to compare all this attention, speculation and paranoia to the surprise of Barack Obama eight years ago. For a fraction of the American electorate, Obama caused as much “collective trauma” as does Trump today, because that minority saw the White House falling into the hands of a foreign usurper from a degenerate race. However, aside from the sour-grapes hysteria of bigots and denialists, the nation treated Obama’s ascension as a normal presidential transition. There were concerns about his inexperience in public office, but he was hardly much greener than such forebears as John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

In every respect, Obama took charge as a conventional politician, widely regarded as qualified for the job and gifted with the intellect and temperament to do it conscientiously. No such confidence applies to Donald Trump. There’s no comparison.

It’s not unusual to see political upstarts who are as transgressive, incompetent, vulgar and mentally disturbed as Donald Trump climb suddenly to the pinnacle of power in one nation or another. But the countries in question are typically Third World backwaters where the demagogue’s route to dominion tends to be a coup d’etat, after which all his political foes are machine-gunned ceremonially in the plaza of the national cathedral.

This sort of “political revolution” — to borrow Bernie Sanders’ locution— is almost unheard of in Western democracies. We need to scroll back more than 80 years to find a genuine parallel, to a weird time warp when a diminutive, delusional corporal who had failed as a landscape artist muscled his unlikely way into the chancellorship of the Weimar republic and established a “thousand-year reich” that was gonna be really, really great, believe me!

After the initial shock of that bizarre putsch, conversations around the world were fraught with dark portents. Nonetheless, in the midst of this angst, there was a trend among elder statesmen to counsel cautious optimism. Yes. they said, crazy Adolf seems to be our worst nightmare. But he can’t be all that bad. The gravity of his great office and the advice of other world leaders will calm his ferocity and forestall his fanatic plans.

A few figures closer to the action, notably Munich journalist Fritz Gerlich, saw no reason for such hope. Gerlich had been ruthlessly mocking Herr Schickelgruber for more than five years before the fateful “election” of 1932. Gerlich intensified his attacks thereafter, placing himself directly in Hitler’s crosshairs. He became the poster boy for a free press that, as the Feuhrer suggested, had to be either gelded or gagged.

Hitler’s preferred pejorative for the media was lugenpresse, “the lying press.” This Nazi slur, thankfully dormant for generations, has been revived by the rabid fans of our president-elect.

Early in the Thirties, author Sinclair Lewis perceived the dire possibilities posed by the Reich. In 1935, he dashed off an extraordinary novel, It Can’t Happen Here, about a Hitlerlike archetype named Berzelius Windrip who blends cynical religiosity, corporatism and jingoist patriotism into a populist formula that turns the U.S. into the Fascist States of America.

In another instructive book, Explaining Hitler, historian Ron Rosenbaum examines why Hitler’s “strange outlandishness” appealed viscerally to vast swathes of a restive and frightened public. A Fritz Gerlich contemporary, Will Schaber, told Rosenbaum that “the very things that led conventional politicians and statesmen to underestimate and dismiss Hitler as outlandish and unsuitable, a hopeless outsider — that nicht natürlich strangeness, that alienness — were the very things that constituted the subterranean power of his appeal.”

Sound familiar?

Despite a few brave exceptions — notably Gerlich and Schaber — German journalists treated Hitler the way the American media have kid-gloved Donald Trump. In response to Trump’s direct threats to the autonomy of the press, reporters have striven to humor the bully. They’ve operated with the expectation — the hope, really — that by gently chiding Trump about his tantrums, vulgarities, slanders and lies, they might eventually bring him around to behaving like an adult.

It’s not working. What we, the actual adults, the press, the Democratic Party and the few Republicans who’ve retained a shred of integrity, must confront is what Europe’s leaders were loath to acknowledge in ’32.

The issue is not whether Trump, in a political context, is — like Hitler — a raving madman. He is.

Nor is the issue whether Trump’s intemperate, inflammatory style of “leadership” will pose a clear and present danger to American democracy and to the security of the international community. It will.

The real issue is whether the American people, like Germans in the Third Reich — jealous of their petty privileges and fearful of the caprices of an unhinged commander-in-chief — will hunker down and acquiesce to his serial assaults on decency, truth and the Constitution. Or, unlike the supine Germans of the Thirties, will we open our eyes, stand our ground, put aside the selfish grievances that carried Trump forth on his wave of hatred and — yes — take our country back from the brink on which it teeters? And how soon?

As Rosenbaum recalls in his book, among Adolf Hitler’s first executive orders was to build a concentration camp, in the lovely Munich suburb of Dachau. One of the charter occupants in that gulag —from which he never emerged — was Fritz Gerlich.

Donald Trump has a head start on the concentration camp. We built one for him, at Guantánamo Bay.

When he sends his first reporter there, it will be, already, too late.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#794)

“Believe (in) me!”
by David Benjamin

He said, “Picture this: the Oval Office. A dozen news cameras are rolling. The new president ushers in an eight-year-old girl named, let’s say, Jenny. He sets her up on his desk. He proceeds to strip her down and molest her sickeningly for ten minutes. Within an hour, a billion people everywhere have watched the famous “Jenny video.” The world is appalled. But 60 million Americans — the Trump Faithful — shriek in protest at the atrocity exposed to their lying eyes. It’s a fake, they cry. But this claim is debunked. True or not, it doesn’t matter, they all agree, because the little bitch seduced the president. She led him on. She was asking for it — the faithful roar unanimously — and the slut got what she deserved.”

I replied, “Well, yeah, for this so-called president, this sounds like a normal day at the office. So what?”

Dr. Wilhelm “Reverend Bill” Bienfang, the author of this scenario and America’s foremost “idea man,” said, “Oh, but, dude! The implications.”

I said I’ve been pretty much overwhelmed by implications since Election Day. “They scare the bejesus out of me.”

“An interesting word choice,” said Bienfang, “because this guy doesn’t function in any sense as a politician. He’s immune to his own transgressions, no matter how vile and selfish. Nor is he a policymaker, administrator or even a businessman. He is — well, look! Mass rallies in coliseums, prodding his believers into a hysterical exercise of call and response. ‘Build the wall!’ he bellows and they cry, ‘Build the wall!’ ‘Lock her up!’ he goes. And they scream the words back. His very name, as they shout it, scrawl it on placards and and spray it on walls is an icon, a symbol as emotional as the cross and the swastika. What we’ve wrought is neither political, governmental, democratic, nor even particularly American.”

“It’s… it’s religious,” I suggested.

“Correct. But this spellbinder is no garden-variety evangelist, laden with Scripture and scripted by liturgy. He’s not even a prophet in the normal sense. He has no dogma, no catechism or missal, no creed, no tablets brought down from the mountain. He’s a virgin reborn daily, empty, impulsive and infantile. He is the crucifixion of the Establishment, the wordless become Flesh, the resurrection of the damned. His presidency is past and done. He ascends not to a mere way station in the White House but beyond! Into the firmament of mortal godhead, where he will sit at the Right Hand of his own tremendous Self, judge the living and the dead really, really well and tweet his verdicts every five minutes, every day — forever.”

“You’re saying?”

“Think,” said Bienfang, “Messiah.”

My mind began to reel, because — it hit me! — Bienfang was right again.

“And what an opportunity!” Bienfang exclaimed.

Bienfang has a nose for profit that can sniff a buck beneath fifty tons of rotting offal. He noted that the infrastructure of an endless “mission” to keep the “faithful” in a constant state of charismatic frenzy is almost complete.

“These huge rallies are wondrously devoid of content. It’s really a tent meeting. Same sermon over and over. The chanting mob, grown men weeping, women rending their garments and — most important — the collection! Thousands of poor people — indigent, unemployed, desperate — joyously donating their dollars, their dimes, their last miserable nickel to a man so obscenely profligate that the flush-handle on his toilet is 24-carat gold.”

Bienfang went on. “The only missing ingredient is the megachurch — which, as you know, is the greatest profit center ever conceived in the name of God!”

“But how? Who would build it?”

“His churches are already built!” said Bienfang. “In Manhattan — St. Patrick’s. In Washington — the National Cathedral. In Utah — the Mormon Tabernacle. Every stadium in the National Football League. His church is wherever he says it is, because he is — now — the Government. He’s the body and soul of Eminent Domain. What he wants, he gets — for all of us, in his name, for his glory. Praise the Lord!”

I knew Bienfang had already schemed a thousand ways to cash in on the deification of the presidency. But I finally spotted an implication.

“You’re talking about a state religion,” I said. “In America?”

“Yes! Because here, at last, is a faith that’s simpleton simple. No doctrine. No commandments. No prayers. No rules. No sins to confess. Just pure, google-eyed, talking-in-tongues, holy-roller, dear-and-glorious leader worship. And ponying up for the collection. In a church where you can wear a t-shirt printed with the word ‘fuck’.”

“No elections, either?”

Bienfang laughed. “Where is it written that we get to vote on the Second Coming?”

“You’re comparing Trump to Jesus?” I said.

“Let’s not name names, shall we? Why not just be glad we’re getting a Messiah who’s a lot easier to take? Forget about loving your neighbor, keeping your brother, turning the other cheek. We have ourselves a savior, finally, who’s happy if we all just sing his praises, guard our goodies, cover our asses and stay white ’til we die.”

“And pay,” I added.

“There is a hitch, though,” whispered Bienfang. “This is our first Messiah in 2,000 years who’s walking, literally, amongst us. He’s a little too exposed.”

“Right,” I said, catching on. “It’s not good for the bottom line if your Holy of Holies is running around loose, hugging dictators, lying his ass off, trashing beauty queens and Gold Star mothers, eating all the loaves and fishes, and grabbing every pussy that slips into his range.”

“Exactly. You can only grope so many Jennies before the shtick gets old and the apostles get jaded.”

“You have a solution?”

Bienfang smiled. “According to age-old custom, the best Messiah is a heavenly Messiah.”

“You mean, literally?” I said. “Like, a martyr?”

“Ideally. Eventually.”

“Crucifixion?” I mused. “Burning at the stake? The guillotine?”

“No no no. This is America. And it’s not the Middle Ages,” said Bienfang. “We’ll just shoot him.”

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#793)

He’s ba-a-a-ack!
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — Sirens screaming, lights throbbing, Car 54 jumped the curb, dodged several trees, skidded violently and spun in a circle before lurching to a sudden stop in a snowbank just shy of the playground. By several inches, it missed flattening a little boy in a purple snowsuit.

Officer Muldoon burst from the cruiser, slipped on a patch of ice and performed a pratfall. Officer Toody exited more cautiously, found his footing and roared, “All right, people! What’s goin’ on here?”

A gigantic white figure separated himself from the throng in the park and loomed above Toody.

“Everything is fine here, Officer,” he said. “Isn’t that right, kids?”

The two policemen saw, arrayed behind the huge white thing, dozens of children, their faces glowing with joy. On the fringes of this happy bunch, however, a ring of grownups looked angry and riot-prone.

“Oh no!” shouted one. “Nothing’s fine about this, you pedophile son of a bitch!”

“Mrs. Abernathy,” the great white thing chided cheerfully, “language! Their are children present.”

Mrs. Abernathy responded with an oath unfit for prime-time family viewing.

Officer Muldoon was on his feet. “All right, everybody, settle down.” He looked into the eerie black eyes of the ivory apparition. “Who are you? What’s your name? What the hell are ya, anyhow?”

“I said I’d be back again someday,” was the reply. “And voila! Here I am.”

“Get away from my daughter, you filthy sicko!” came a voice from the crowd.

An angry rumble rose from the cluster of adults, interrupted by a childish voice that shouted, “We love you, Frosty!”

And the children began to cheer, dancing in circles around the immense creature, who seemed to be wearing a puffy outer covering of pure white material. It reached to the ground in three orblike sections. His feet were not visible.

“Weirdest damn thing I ever saw,” Toody muttered to Muldoon. “What is he, some kind of team mascot?”

Overhearing him, the thing called “Frosty” said, “Oh no. You see, I’m a — ”

“He’s a pervert!” came anther voice from the crowd. “What’s he doing in the park, with our little babies?”

“He’s our friend!” cried a child. Another cheer from the kids.

Toody poked Frosty. He said, “This outfit. What’s it made of? Gore-Tex? Goose down? Styrofoam?”

“It’s snow.”

“It’s no what?” asked Muldoon.

“It’s snow,” repeated Frosty.

“What?”

Frosty smiled mischievously. He said, “No, he’s on second.”

“Who’s on second?”

“He’s on first.”

“First what?” asked Toody.

“Second base!” roared all the kids.

Muldoon pulled his gun. “All, right, I’m serious here.” He pointed the gun at Frosty. “Now, who the hell are you, fella?”

“I’m Frosty. The Snowman.”

“Snow? I know what ‘snow’ means!” came the anguished voice of Mrs. Abernathy. “He’s selling cocaine! Heroin! To my little Abraham!”

“Mom,” yelled Abraham, “don’t be an idiot.”

“Don’t you backtalk me, you little — ”

“Everybody! Quiet!” shouted Toody.

“It’s all in the song, Officer,” said Frosty to Muldoon.

“Song? What song?”

“You know.” Frosty sang a few verses, about being a “jolly happy soul,” his corncob pipe (he flashed the pipe), his “button nose,”“two eyes made out of coal.” Etcetera.

“He’s got dead eyes!” cried a mother. “Like a shark!”

“Take the pipe!” shouted another. “This is a smoke-free park!”

“Snowmen don’t smoke,” replied one canny kid. “Their faces would melt.”

Muldoon broke in.

“You say you’re Frosty? The Snowman? In that stupid song?”

Frosty took offense. “Stupid? Au contraire, Officer. It’s accurate. It’s detailed. It’s good journalism. Notice the old silk hat? Here, watch me dance around.”

As Frosty did just that, a parent pushed forward. “What’s he doing with that broomstick, huh?” he demanded. ‘Do you know what pedophiles do with long, rigid, cylindrical objects?”

Frosty intervened, “The broom’s part of the outfit, dad. Standard snowman issue. Straight out of the manual,” he said. “Just like all this laughing, playing and dancing around. It’s what snowmen do.”

“No, they don’t!” shouted Mrs. Abernathy. “They never move. They just stand there with carrots in their face. And then they melt, thank God. You’re no snowman. You’re… you’re… well, I don’t know what you are. But I want you thrown in jail.”

“But I’d melt in jail.”

“Make America cold again!” cried the canny kid. The others cheered.

“Look, big guy,” said Toody. “These parents are worried. You wanna tell us what you’re doing in the park with all these little children? It ain’t normal. man.”

“I agree,” said Frosty. “Normally, snowmen don’t get around much. But me? I can. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the hat. But the kids love it. They’d follow me anywhere.”

The kids roared in affirmation.

Mrs. Abernathy cried. “You won’t take my little Abie, you monster!”

“Lock her up!” cried the kids.

“Shoot him!” cried the parents.

“What happens,” Muldoon asked Toody, “if you shoot a snowman?”

Frosty decided not to find out the answer. “Well,” he said, “I think my work is done here. Sorry, kids. The heat’s on!”

With that, Frosty doffed his hat and popped his great white head right off his body. He tossed it to Abie Abernathy. Frosty’s bodiless head winked at the kids and they burst into joyous laughter.

“Now what?” said Officer Muldoon as Frosty sprouted legs and took off, with remarkable speed and agility, toward the streets of town.

“Catch me if you can!” said Frosty’s head.

“Stop!” shouted Toody, not sure whether to address Frosty’s head or body.

“Abie! My man!” cried Frosty. “Hit me!”

Little Abie reared back. He threw Frosty’s head, in a long, arcing spiral. Frosty caught it neatly, jammed it back on his neckless torso and galloped to the top of a hill, trailing several children. He paused there. “I’ll be back again someday!” he exclaimed in a clear and jolly tone. “Meanwhile, for God’s sake, folks, try to lighten up!”

Muldoon and Toody were tempted to slog after Frosty in hot pursuit, but a radio call came in. Muldoon dove into Car 54 and stuck his head out a moment later.

“We gotta get to the mall!” he said, panic-stricken. “There’s a fat, hairy geezer in a red suit luring little girls onto his lap — with candy canes and promises!”

And away the the cops flew like the down of a thistle.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Weekly Screed (#792)

Papa’s thumbnail
by David Benjamin

MADISON, Wis. — My grandfather’s hands fascinated me.

Papa, as we called him, put in fifty years at the Milwaukee Road frog shops in Tomah. He was a machinist, repairing switches and the huge steel “frogs” that intersected rail lines. When he arrived home after his eight hours, I would often follow him to the basement, where he labored at the deep double sink to scrub black grit out of the deep cracks in his hands. He used gobs of pasty soap speckled with grains of abrasive pumice. He ground away at his leathery flesh ‘til it glowed pink, but he never entirely purged the steel dust that had sunk roots into his creases and cracks.

The biggest attraction for me was his thumbnail, which had split some long time before, when a chunk of truant steel crashed onto his hand. The nail was broken lengthwise, extending inside his cuticle. It never mended together again. The fine ridge of skin that had grown into the crack in Papa’s thumbnail was as permanently dark as the metallic soot that filled the air around him at the frog shops and — eventually — his lungs, seeding the cancer that finally killed him.

I remember Papa now because he was a subtly complicated man, although outwardly he was just a manual worker with barely an 8th-grade education. He read the Milwaukee paper every day from cover to cover, as well as his exceptionally newsy International Brotherhood of Machinists newsletter every week and Benjamin’s Franklin’s Saturday Evening Post. Beyond these quotidian autodidactics, Papa was two things that lent him a bewildering complexity. He was a storyteller and a natural-born historian.

On Saturday, often with me in tow, he would climb into his Ford (he bought a new one every other year, in cash, from Norris Vernier) and proceeded to buy Grandma’s groceries. He could’ve gotten everything at the new Cram’s Supermarket across from Bernie Schappe’s genial real estate office. But if he did that, he wouldn’t’ve had a chance to swap tales over the meat counter with Mose, and flirt with his wife, at Woodliff’s, our neighborhood market. Nor could he have traded his weekly quota of lies and jibes with another meatcutter, his brother-in-law Bob Meinecke, down at Shutter’s, next-door to the Carlton Supper Club, run by a guy called Schnozz, where my Dad was the head bartender and my Mom — and her vivacious kid sister, Marce — waited on tables.

Papa would eventually reach Cram’s, where he didn’t know anyone in particular but still managed a five- or ten-minute shmooze with the cashier, or the produce manager, while I listened and learned the fine art of spinning a yarn and hitting a punchline. Before Cram’s, of course, Papa usually drove all the way up to Burnstad’s on Highway 16 by a motel and the Mobilgas station, where he knew a few folks and bought a few items for Grandma. On a good Saturday, he’d also hit the Cash Store and a hardware store, buy a few auto parts and pick up something warm and fragrant at one of the two bakeries downtown. He’d be talking all along. I’d be listening, not believing all of it, but drinking in every exaggeration.

When he talked to me, which he liked to do, he opened up the past like a great book of huge crinkled pages illuminated by innocents. He’d been born (he told me) before anyone in Tomah had laid eyes on a horseless carriage and no one could imagine an airplane. He revealed to me the swift and dazzling power of change that had swept through his life, from pioneer days at the turn of the 20th century, through a war that almost sucked him in (he was in uniform and on his way to Europe on 11 November 1918), through Twenties that roared and Thirties that wept — terrifying every working man and woman — and another war that brought captive Nazis to Camp McCoy (for Papa to talk to), and outer space and a thousand other wonders that had unfolded as he trudged day-by-day to the frog shops.

Papa described it all with a sense of awe and a warm humility, some of which clung to me. As a boy, he told me, he loved this new art form called motion pictures, whose funniest stars — Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy — were his soulmates. But the film that fired his imagination was D.W. Griffith’s eight-reel epic, Birth of a Nation. In Papa’s telling, I heard nothing about Griffith’s naked racism, his depiction of Reconstruction black men as rapine savages and the Ku Klux Klan as an avenging army of Christian rectitude. Papa talked, rather, about the vast scope and kinetic spectacle of Birth of a Nation, and about the sheer audacity of Griffith’s cinematic vision. Papa, a machinist with a grammar-school education, cut to the essence of Griffith’s masterpiece, a film whose extravagance inspired the breadth and grandiosity of Hollywood disciples like David O. Selznick, Cecil B. DeMille and the incomparable John Ford. Papa instinctively saw Griffith the way a film critic saw him, and he planted in me, I think, the seeds of analysis and skepticism that made me, eventually, the long-winded pain in the ass that I am today.

My Dad didn’t fall far from Papa’s tree. Although he wasn’t the same compulsive storyteller, he had a quiet, intricate and — I think — frustrated intellect. He absorbed, he remembered and, when pressed, he unspooled. Like Papa, he knew Tomah as a tightly spun fabric of personalities. His mind contained the chronicle of his community as expressed in the lives, quirks, conflicts and careers of its many people, scrolling back through all the 87 years that Dad lived. His death took from the town a trove of memory more dense, complex and dramatic than all the Roman volumes of Edward Gibbon.

Papa and Dad never went to college nor even dared consider the notion. Both revered the few townsmen in Tomah who had higher educations. They conversed easily among both the ignorant and erudite in Tomah, and they were respected — listened to — because their minds were busy and their wits were sharp. They never stopped learning. They encouraged their kids to study and grow, to learn all their lives, to see the humor that comes from pain, to watch the movies and peer beneath their surface.

I grew up with these two difficult, ironic, sometimes tormented forebears, as well as a host of aunts and uncles whose humble but tireless intellect intrigued and challenged me. Prowling the town, I harked to blacksmiths, paperhangers, scarred veterans and shopkeepers whose knowledge was not available in school.

No one among these white Midwesterners from whom I spring ever had an office job. But they saw a future without steel dust, dirty hands and brute labor. They encouraged their kids to learn more than they’d been able to, to start their careers later in life, to grow beyond Tomah and to aspire to those office jobs, to academia, to management and even government.

Dad and Papa, in the dictionary sense, were ignorant men. But they were articulate, literate and worldly in a tiny corner of an ever-changing world. They never deemed ignorance a badge of honor. They defied it every day of their lives and took pride in offspring — like me — who not only knew more than they, but flaunted it.

Question is, why am I thinking about this now?