Three Structural Definitions of Race [from CITY OF AMATEURS)]

photo by SG

A. George Walton was born in 1809, child of a black father and white mother, and died in prison about twenty eight years later, having lived as a man who was good-looking in a manner that predated all hope of appreciation, as if a painting by Yves Tanguy had found its way back to the dawn of the 19th century only to inspire baffled glares and lots of kicks in the pants, as though a kick in the pants was the only persuasive critique his critics could improvise to respond to the singularity of his appearance: the loopy curls of broth-colored hair, the tawny skin, the full lips and a high-bridged nose sporting freckles…this, remember, during an era when leaded-white faces and lips like livid incisions were considered the very essence of beauty.

B. Von Ziegeldorff drove into town every Friday night to patronize a low club called The Chicken Shack which was famous for appealing to blacks. The drive in from his villa in a wooded, nearly rustic suburb of Potsdam through the throb of weekend traffic often took ninety minutes, during which he either had time to nurture his grievances against society in general and women specifically or listen to an instructional cassette of Advanced English for Germans. Somewhere in the lonely vastness of his car there was also a misplaced cassette of Callas he was suddenly in the mood to hear again after a year-long estrangement from that exquisitely bullying voice, the voice of high culture, because he’d been listening to far too much soul music recently.

C. Ramses sneeks a peek at the graying blonde as she steers gravely home. Or so he assumes. She reaches over and switches on the sound system. The fantasy, obviously, is that they will do the dirty without exchanging so much as a single word and she’s afraid that Ramses will ruin it now by saying a word. She doesn’t know that Ramses Gordon knows the rules of this game so well that he might have invented it; that he can play it blindfolded and has on more than one occasion and that he is thinking, also, against the background of the anti-erotic aria from Lucia Lammermoor, how differently blacks and whites absorb the behavioural proscriptions of Christianity. How this difference has a measurable impact on the respective copulatory styles of the races. How they fuck and how we live. Their guilt and our shrugs and the sacrificial sacrament of chicken.

A. Across the broad map of his short life, having been abandoned at an early age by parents driven chiefly by sexual logic through a low-walled maze of poverty, George Walton served almost a third of his earthly existence in prison. Born James, alias George, alias Jonas, alias James, alias Burley, alias Chick or Chicken John.

B. There was one black in particular. Von Ziegeldorff had made the mistake, early on, of running after all of them at once, like a kitten in a fishpond, therefore catching none, but being observant and far from stupid he soon took note of the fact that the old hands were patiently bedding one after another of the finest specimens the club had to offer, merely by chosing one and bringing to bear a convincing ersatz of passion until the goal was achieved (or quota met) and thereafter moving on. Every black girl in the club, of course, thinks of herself as The One who will prove to be so irresistible that the game will stop with her, therefore perpetuating the game.

C. Look at this respectable middle-aged German lady, for example. The grimly determined look on her face (this is supposed to be fun, lady); the way she clutches that steering wheel as though it’s hot with current: she feels Christ’s eyes on her, his disappointment in her, his weary sneer of disgust. Her husband has no problem with her little Liebesaffären…he encourages her because it absolves him of guilt for his substantial porno expenses. Christ is not so easygoing about it. Christ is not quite so cool. He plagues her with subliminal remonstrations (in which his lips never move, spookily, but his sad eyes pierce her). She wasn’t even raised in an overtly Christian family because Germans are traditionally pagan and she believes that she believes in fucking as a kind of physical therapy…a higher form of jogging…all the more therapeutic if she fucks an Asian, a Native American, or a Black. That’s what she thinks she thinks a liberal West German should believe they feel about it. But a stern (and vaguely oriental) Christ has the last word on all that and she has to hide the physical act itself behind all kinds of masks and filters to smuggle the pleasure out of Hell like a red hot trinket between her legs without fainting.

A. As a boy the tragic mulatto was the object of lazy sport among the poor whites of his acquaintance, though when he was kicked in the seat of his dusty breeches it was as a kind of running gag or after-thought, rarely with enough force to mean tears. As a manchild George fed himself by doing odd jobs for neighbors and once spent a summer doing back-breakingly honest labor for a farmer who paid him with two counterfeit five-dollar bills. “Well nigh half of what was owing me,” as handsome James alias George alias Chicken John put it. A philosophical turning point.

B. Earletta Goins was a would-be disco singer with her own little cassette out called The Story of My Life, released by a local label, an independent based in East Berlin and on this particular Friday night Von Ziegeldorff tipped the DJ a substantial amount to play both sides of Earletta’s cassette, as well as subsidizing free beers for all the patrons in the club (about two hundred people) for the duration of the cassette’s play, making for a good mood and plenty of people on the dance floor to dance beside VZ and Earletta while they danced with attention-getting self-consciousness to her disco music, which was neither truly bad nor truly good but fell within the range of most things.

C. The bedroom smells like…what? A kitchen. It smells vaguely of chicken not fried but stewed. Disgusting. On the walls flanking the massive bed, one on each, are two large wood-framed photos meant to resemble very old oil paintings. There is one of the lady in question and the other of her husband, or what looks like her husband or could be an Ex, and they are dressed up to look like an Iroquois chief and his squaw…the weak-chinned fellow sports an enormous feathered head dress. His lady, in real life the gray-haired blonde on her back on the bed with her eyes closed and her legs up like an as-yet-unstuffed Christmas goose, is black-haired and light-eyed in her sepiatone photo and neither reveal the subtlest shade of mirth, self-mockery, defensive irony or even decent embarrassment in the portraits.

A. After another period of backbreaking in the Charlestown shipyards and then aboard a fishing smack with the olfactory bloom of an African cathouse’s toilet, Walton fell in with a hook-nosed ex-convict named Symmes who mentored him in the trade of bank robbing, the craft of which George failed fully to master, being neither self-righteous nor brutal enough with his pistol, landing in prison in 1824 for a six month sentence after which he dabbled unchastened in the lighter art of the highwayman…with just as little talent. When Walton wasn’t busy being apprehended (being a mulatto in early 19th century America was a liability in the incognito game), it was easy if unremunerative work, as most of his victims chose to toss him their wallets and flee rather than tussle or risk injury at the hands of a thieving diabolical coon with freckles.

B. “I must confess,” shouted VZ, “I have never before seen a lady of your race with these green eyes of such beauty,” and he mimed his own astonishment, hands on his heart as though it might burst, for also her skin was the color of the pancakes he’d been mad for on his legendary trip across America, during which being a slave to this crude delicacy had given him an insight into the American psyche he was sure he could apply to the swift achievement of his goal.

C. Ramses imagines, quite vividly, the chin-free husband answering the telephone on one of those interminable Sundays of petty household chores choreographed to the pandering drone of television, the day on which long-married Germans speak less than a sentence to each other and he envisions the man of the household putting a hand over the receiver and lifting an eyebrow and invoking, yet again, the worn-out magic of his wife’s name as though it were a mild rebuke, tonally, or the long-suffering request to please stop something.

A. It was only when Walton came upon intended victim John Fenno, returning one evening from a dance across the old Chelsea bridge, that he met resistance and his fate. Fenno was a beefy man and sprang from his cart to wrestle Walton rather than part with his coins or jewelry, invigorated as he was by sexual frustration; had the dance been successful things may well have turned out differently; as it was, the robbery was thwarted though Walton escaped, but not before trying and failing to punish Fenno with a bullet. A suspender buckle saved Fenno’s life and doomed George as he was soon captured.

B. Driving on the fast black road towards his villa before dawn with gems of sparse precipitation fixed like glass moths to his glittering windshield, VZ found himself bedevilled by a sickening internal debate as to whether he dare risk slipping into the stereo his rediscovered cassette dub of a valuable reel-to-reel bootleg of the one-time-only performance of Callas doing Lammermoor with the notorious unscored E-flats included…punishingly high notes Callas tries for with laudable brio but misses, grazing the first E-flat with such a strained shading of the pitch that it’s almost a blue note and chipping the second with a Levantine fraction redolent of the bazaar. In every subsequent performance she eschewed the dreaded E-flats entirely. Wisely. As far as VZ knew, he was the only one on Earth in possession of this wounded version of Donizetti’s lugubrious masterpiece, a discarded run-through of Callas’s premier performance of the piece in Mexico City, 1953, and he felt a craving just then to hear it. Despite the fact that there in the white leather seat beside him was his prize, Earletta Goins, slouched with drowsy pliance, a half smile playing on her chewable lips, lips he fully envisioned in contact with the freckled red glans of his penis and VZ had to think long and hard before changing the sexual weather in his Porsche just then. He could only imagine the anti-aphrodisiacal effect an opera would have on this colored American sex machine. He could only imagine his future grief at never knowing the warm weight of those lips and the breathlessness of those strong brown unshaved legs crushing the breath out of him.

C. Wifey’s on her stomach, moaning and kicking, both hands locked under her thrashing pelvis making an extravagant display of humping alone. Some guy must have told her, thirty years ago, as an excuse for not touching her, that it turns him on. She’s waistless, veiny and pale as an old frog. Ramses very quietly puts his fat dangle of dick away and hitches his pants back up and sneaks out of the bedroom as the gnadige frau whips her egg into its cold-lathered glory. Down the hall and to the left the second floor bathroom door is open and sizzling with the sound of a midday shower and Ramses’s interest is piqued. Is it hubby, home early from work? A nubile daughter, out of school for the day with a chest cold? An impertinent maid, a poltergeist or a poor relation? Ramses eases up towards the invitingly open bathroom door on the plush white carpet, carrying his shoes, boldly curious, holding his breath, with little or no backup plan in place if anyone should catch him.

A. Faced with the gravity of his final punishment, Walton directed that a copy of his memoirs be bound in his own tawny skin and presented to the very Mr. Fenno whom George was sent to the gallows for trying to shoot. White historians take George Walton’s avowal that the gesture was one of esteem for Fenno’s bravery at face value, unfamiliar with the bitter nuances of colored irony. His skin, stripped in a supple parallelogram from his still-warm back after the hanging, was treated to look like a gray deer skin by the tanner, who delivered the stuff without comment to Peter Low the book binder, the latter of perhaps a less pragmatic disposition and therefore much disturbed by the job and suffering increasingly vivid nightmares the rest of his life.

B. I’ve spent so much time and money on this one dream of making sweet love with an Afro-American and on the very threshold of all that and more I decide to risk ruining the sexy mood that all of my efforts have managed by some miracle to put her into with a blast of my so-called high culture? Am I crazy?

C. What Ramses witnesses through the fogged, beaded, soap-scummed shower door is a jug-eared middle-aged black man with love handles and a sagging ass, the cheeks of which are matte and blacker than the rest of him, his large head crowned with a cap of webby, water-matted hair. Who is this man? Where does he fit in the cosmology? Was the guy in the Iroquois photo the Ex or is this the Ex and are things much kinkier around the homestead than Ramses first imagined? This avuncular apparition of a black man with the posture of an utterly defeated specimen. His left armpit foams as he scrubs at it with an eerie lack of energy more suitable to a nursing home sitz bath than a home owner’s shower; it’s like he’s preparing for his own execution. It is a joyless, prosaic, song-free ablution so full of truth that Ramses backs away from the threshold in waves of nausea and a paradoxically simultaneous joy in being alive, the details of which he can claim as wholly his own, his uniqueness in time, the song of his soul in his skin.