Forty-Seven Years Ago Today…

apollo-11_armstrong-on-the-moonSomebody tell me again why this isn’t a national holiday?

Oh yeah, because nobody cares about history, or because it’s too depressing to think about how we haven’t gone back in nearly half a century, or because too many people don’t believe we went at all and think it was all a lie perpetrated by Stanley Kubrick and the CIA. (Bullshit. Anyone who honestly thinks that… well, let’s just say I find your cynicism utterly baffling.)

And so it goes…

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

spacer

“The Mindless Menace of Violence in America”

On April 5, 1968, the day after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by an assassin’s bullet, Senator Robert Kennedy, the younger brother of the late John F. Kennedy and a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in that year’s election, delivered a speech at the City Club of Cleveland. The night before, he’d given a beautiful, heartfelt, improvised statement about Dr. King’s death that is sometimes credited with helping to keep the peace in Indiananopolis, even as some 60 other American cities were wracked by riots. With his Cleveland speech, he expanded on the themes he’d spoken of the night before.

How sad that every single word he said is still perfectly applicable on this day, July 8, 2016… the morning after five police officers were killed by snipers at a peaceful protest against the police killings of two black men earlier this week… only a month after the 48th anniversary of RFK’s own death by an assassin’s bullet.

I remain stubbornly convinced that humanity will evolve — is evolving — beyond our savage nature, just as I learned from all those musty old Star Trek re-runs when I was a kid. But goddamn, the road is long. And it’s so very hard to be patient.

The words of Robert F. Kennedy:

[This is a time of shame] and a time of sorrow. It is not a day for politics. I have saved this one opportunity — my only event of today — to speak briefly to you about the mindless menace of violence in America which again stains our land and every one of our lives.

It’s not the concern of any one race. The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one — no matter where he lives or what he does — can be certain whom next will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed And yet it goes on and on and on in this country of ours.

Why? What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr’s cause has ever been stilled by an assassin’s bullet. No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders. A sniper is only a coward, not a hero; and an uncontrolled or uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of the people.

Whenever any American’s life is taken by another American unnecessarily — whether it is done in the name of the law or in defiance of the law, by one man or by a gang, in cold blood or in passion, in an attack of violence or in response to violence — whenever we tear at the fabric of our lives which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children — whenever we do this, then the whole nation is degraded. “Among free men,” said Abraham Lincoln, “there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and those who take such appeal are sure to lose their case and pay the cost.”

Yet we seemingly tolerate a rising level of violence that ignores our common humanity and our claims to civilization alike. We calmly accept newspaper reports of civilian slaughter in far off lands. We glorify killing on movie and television screens and we call it entertainment. We make it easier for men of all shades of sanity to acquire weapons and ammunition that they desire.

Too often we honor swagger and bluster and the wielders of force. Too often we excuse those who are willing to build their own lives on the shattered dreams of other human beings. Some Americans who preach nonviolence abroad fail to practice it here at home. Some who accuse others of rioting, and inciting riots, have by their own conduct invited them. Some look for scapegoats; others look for conspiracies. But this much is clear: violence breeds violence; repression breeds retaliation; and only a cleaning of our whole society can remove this sickness from our souls.

For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions — indifference, inaction, and decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books, and homes without heat in the winter. This is the breaking of a man’s spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man amongst other men.

And this too afflicts us all. For when you teach a man to hate and to fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies that he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your home or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies — to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and to be mastered.

We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as alien, alien men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in a common effort. We learn to share only a common fear — only a common desire to retreat from each other — only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force.

For all this there are no final answers for those of us who are American citizens. Yet we know what we must do, and that is to achieve true justice among all of our fellow citizens. The question is not what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of humane purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.

We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions, the false distinctions among men, and learn to find our own advancement in search for the advancement of all. We must admit to ourselves that our children’s future cannot be built on the misfortune of another’s. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or by revenge.

Our lives on this planet are too short, the work to be done is too great, to let this spirit flourish any longer in this land of ours. Of course we cannot banish it with a program, nor with a resolution.

But we can perhaps remember — if only for a time — that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life, that they seek — as do we — nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment that they can.

Surely this bond of common fate, surely this bond of common goals, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at the least, to look around at those of us, of our fellow men, and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.

Tennyson wrote in Ulysses:

…that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Thank you, very much.

 

spacer

Friday Evening Videos: “Turning Japanese” (Kisten Dunst edition)

I wasn’t going to post a music video this week because… well, what would be the point, you know? It’s been a hell of a week, with the tragic Pulse nightclub shootings followed by the same damn gun-control debate we have every time there’s a mass shooting — and isn’t that a pathetic horror story in itself, that these things are so bloody commonplace the after-argument has become boring? — and that poor little kid getting hauled off by an alligator, and all the political bullshit and the generally toxic atmosphere that prevails on social media these days. I’ve been struggling lately anyhow with that recurring feeling of ennui I get every so often, like I’m running in place, constantly active but never really getting anywhere. I’m tired, in a way that’s difficult to explain. Not just physical fatigue, but something inside… emotional, spiritual, I don’t know. And then you add in all that other stuff… Under those conditions, why bother with my stupid little music-video thing? It’s not like anyone really cares, right?

But then a friend posted something today on my Facebook wall, and it’s so silly and charming and sexy and dorky and just plain weird that I couldn’t help but smile, in spite of all the gunge I’ve been feeling. And I think I really need to pass it along, because maybe it’ll do the same for someone else out there who also needs a little sexy silly weirdness after this long, long week…

Yes, that is the actress Kirsten Dunst in a blue wig flouncing around Tokyo’s famously nerdy Akihabara district while singing a an old chestnut from the Awesome ’80s. If this clip seems familiar to my three Loyal Readers, it’s likely because I’ve posted it before, about six years ago. Here’s what I wrote about it back then:

I’ve found in my online wanderings that Kirsten is something of a binary proposition: people seem to either really like her or they really do not. Her detractors tend to become especially fixated on her uneven teeth, for some reason. Personally, I think she’s adorable, teeth and all. Not conventionally pretty, perhaps, but she’s got something that works for me. I especially like that sultry eyebrow-lifting thing she does sometimes — you can see it in this video at about the 2:37 mark. Is that TMI? Probably… [The video I posted six years ago — which is now dead — must’ve had slightly different timing, because there is no eyebrow thing at 2:37 in this version. Alas.]

Anyhow, as you saw in the opening title card, this video was directed by McG, the guy responsible for [Terminator: Salvation] as well as those two Charlie’s Angels movies a few years ago; the producer, Takashi Murakami, is a Japanese artist who works in a variety of media. My understanding is that the video was played on an endless loop at the entrance to Murakami’s recent “Pop Life” exhibition at the Tate Modern in London. [My understanding was correct. Details about this project and the art exhibition here.]

Now, you may wonder what the heck a mid-list starlet in a blue wig singing a 30-year-old one-hit-wonder has to do with an art exhibition. I’ve read that it supposedly articulates the cliche’d Japan of Western imagination, i.e., Murakami’s notion of Anglo-American stereotypes about his native country’s pop culture. Or some damn thing. The really important point is that it gives us an excuse to see Kirsten Dunst in a blue wig and a really short skirt singing one of the most terminally catchy tunes of the ’80s, The Vapors’ “Turning Japanese.” Which is really not about masturbation, as the old urban legend we all heard in middle school claimed. At least, The Vapors say it’s not about that, and they oughta know, right?

Damn, she’s got long legs… and there’s that eyebrow thing again…

I still think she’s adorable. And I’d like to go to Japan. For whatever those two factoids are worth…

 

 

spacer

Friday Evening Videos: “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.”

I have a love/hate kind of thing with John Mellencamp.

When he was young, and I was too, he struck me as a cocky punk of the particular sort who could always (and honestly, still can) send me into an irrational fury with nothing but an oily smirk. The kind who love to push people’s buttons just to see what happens, and who always seem to get away with things that other people — people like me — inevitably get busted for. Now, maybe all of that was just part of the manufactured “John Cougar” persona that was forced on him by his early managers, the ones who tried to sell him as a pretty-boy rebel in the James Dean/young Brando “what do you got” mold. But maybe it wasn’t. Either way, the guy bugged me.

Later, when we both grew up, he expunged the “Cougar” part of his identity and rebranded himself as a midwestern Springsteen and defender of the struggling small-farm owner. And I found I still didn’t like him much, because now he came across as a humorless and sanctimonious scold. (See also Henley, Don.) And that’s more or less where my opinion of him has remained for something like 25 years.

Ah, but that’s Mellencamp the person.

Mellencamp’s music, on the other hand… I’ve dearly loved and related to a lot of his music over the years. The four albums that comprised the peak of his popularity in the 1980s — American Fool, Uh-Huh, Scarecrow, and The Lonesome Jubilee — still enjoy frequent play on my iPod, while familiar singles like “Pink Houses,” “Small Town,” and “Cherry Bomb” have only grown more meaningful to me as I’ve gotten older. Even “Jack and Diane,” Mellencamp’s lone number-one hit to date and a song that I got very sick of hearing back in the day, has gained a somewhat unexpected poignancy since I hit middle age. (The line about “hold onto sixteen as long as you can” speaks volumes to me personally, especially when I’m feeling overwhelmed by life and ancient as the proverbial hills; as always, your mileage may vary.)

This week’s video selection isn’t as bittersweet as those other songs, but like much of Mellencamp’s oeuvre, it delineates and celebrates something that’s distinctly American, nothing less than rock and roll itself… specifically the rock and roll of the 1960s, which Mellencamp and I both grew up on, even though our childhoods were separated by a good 20 years. It’s a song that sounds like summer to me, that makes me want to drop the top (and the hammer) on my car and crank the volume on the radio, a song I always sing along with and just makes me feel good. The dramatic urgency of the bridge (“Voices from nowhere, voices from the larger towns…”) fires me up like few other recordings; that is rock and roll in my book:

“R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” was the third single from Mellencamp’s eighth album, Scarecrow, and it almost didn’t make it onto the album because Mellencamp thought it was too upbeat compared to the rest of the tracks on that fairly dour collection. Fortunately, though, John’s manager talked him into including it. It appears as the final track on the original LP — remember, this came out in the ’80s, kids! — and I’ve always viewed it as a sort of necessary palate cleanser in that context. (On the cassette and CD versions, it was followed by another upbeat tune, “The Kind of Fella I Am.”) Released in February 1986, “R.O.C.K.” became one of John Mellencamp’s biggest hits, finally peaking at number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, bested by Falco’s “Rock Me, Amadeus” (a song whose popularity I’ve never understood, frankly)

I remember doing a lip synch of this tune in my senior-year drama class and having a lot of fun with it. I’ll bet I was the only one in the room (besides my teacher) who knew who the artists mentioned in the bridge section actually were. If you want to educate yourself on the classics, “R.O.C.K.” provides you with a pretty decent beginning syllabus…

spacer

Quick Take: Sing Street

sing-street_cast-hero-walkI feel like I’m late for the party on Sing Street, as it’s been making its way around the U.S. since April, but if you haven’t heard of it yet, take my word for it: you will. And if you haven’t seen it yet, you should.

An Irish import filmed in Dublin, Sing Street is a rare cinematic treasure: a movie that is both joyous and poignant, fanciful and authentic, with an ending that is exactly what you need it to be without it feeling predictable. In a nutshell, it’s the story of a fourteen-year-old boy who forms a band to impress a girl and escape from the grim realities of his daily existence, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a love letter to the mid 1980s and the synth-pop music videos that dominated MTV at the time. It’s also a slice-of-life picture about a gritty urban school milieu that is no more. It’s a comedy-drama about brothers and brothers in arms, as well as the struggle to find yourself in spite of the petty bullies who want to squash your spirit. And it’s a clear-eyed depiction of young romance. Mostly it’s about that time in everyone’s life when you feel both hope and disappointment more keenly than you ever have before and ever will again.

This is the kind of movie I sometimes see and think “I wish I’d written this,” while secretly fearing that I don’t have enough talent to pull it off, at least not this well. The music is great and the evocation of 1985 is spot-on, as is the casting. It’s refreshing to see a movie about teenagers in which the actors actually look like teenagers. And I’ve got to say that Lucy Boynton, who plays the mysterious older girl who claims to be a model and catalyzes the entire plot, is some kind of amazing. When I was a teenager, I’d have become a musician for her myself.

Sing Street is charming on every level. Don’t miss it.

Oh, one final note: the makers of this movie must’ve cleaned out every vintage clothing store in the UK to find all that acid-wash. Wow…

 

Save

spacer

Friday Evening Videos: “Rockin’ at Midnight”

Last weekend found me and my friend Geoff indulging in an activity I haven’t done for a very long time: browsing the used CD section at FYE. (Yes, I still buy most of my music on physical media. Did you really expect otherwise, given my motto over there in the sidebar?) I managed to find several items from my wishlist, but my real score that night was a copy of an old favorite I had on cassette back in the Awesome ’80s, but haven’t heard in 20 years or more: The Honeydrippers, Volume One.

I’ll forgive you if that name doesn’t ring a bell, although my fellow Gen-Xers will probably at least remember the album’s big single, “Sea of Love.”

The Honeydrippers was a project created by singer Robert Plant in the aftermath of Led Zeppelin’s breakup in 1980. Plant had long been an admirer of early American R&B music, the stuff that hadn’t quite evolved into rock and roll yet, but definitely prefigured the genre, and working with Zeppelin hadn’t given him much opportunity to explore that sound. So in 1981, while the remains of the mighty Zep still smoldered, Plant pulled together his bandmate Jimmy Page, along with Jeff Beck — who was Page’s old bandmate from the Yardbirds, the group that also launched Eric Clapton — and various session musicians to have a little fun. Soon, though, he began working on original material that would lead to his first solo albums in ’82 and ’83, and the Honeydrippers got shelved

Enter Ahmet Ertegun, the legendary co-founder of Atlantic Records who’d signed Led Zeppelin to Atlantic way back in 1968, effectively giving them their big break. Ertegun wanted to record some of his favorite songs from the early rock era, and he remembered what Plant had been doing with The Honeydrippers a couple years before. A few phone calls later, and a reformed Honeydrippers — now including Nile Rodgers of the disco band Chic, and Paul Shaffer, best known as David Letterman’s sidekick but actually an accomplished keyboardist — were in the studio laying down the tracks that became The Honeydrippers, Volume One. Released in 1984, Volume One was a five-song EP that sounded like it had tumbled through a wormhole from three decades earlier. I loved it, myself… but then, I’d  cut my musical teeth listening to my mom’s scratchy old Elvis Presley 45s, so this was like comfort food to me.

“Sea of Love” became the highest-charting cut from the album, reaching number three on the Billboard Hot 100 — one notch higher than Zeppelin’s biggest seller, by the way — but oddly enough, that song hadn’t originally been intended as a single at all. It was the B-side to tonight’s video selection, “Rockin’ at Midnight.” In one of those weird quirks that used to happen when there were real-live DJs spinning actual records on the air, “Sea of Love” started getting more radio play than “Rockin’,” and the single was eventually reissued with the two songs flipped. My understanding is that Robert Plant wasn’t too happy about that; he feared the success of the crooning ballad “Sea” might derail his persona as a rocker, and that evidently was a big part of why there was never a Honeydrippers, Volume Two. A real shame, in my book, as I played the hell out of Volume One when I was a teen, and I certainly have enjoyed revisiting it this week. There’s just something about the roots of rock, an authenticity and a joyful swing that slowly bled out of the genre over time… see if you don’t agree:

The original “Rockin’ at Midnight” was a 1949 “jump blues” tune by a man named Roy Brown. It was a so-called “answer record” — a sequel, to use the more familiar terminology of cinema — to an earlier Brown song called “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” which was later recorded by — guess who? — Elvis Presley during his early days on the Sun label.  And I’m pretty certain that version was among those old 45s of my mother’s that The Honeydrippers always reminded me of. Wheels within wheels, man.

Also, I have to say it’s been a little weird to assemble the chronology of these events in my mind, really for the first time. I started finding my own music (as opposed to whatever Mom was listening to) in 1981, more or less. Led Zeppelin had broken up only one year before, but they’d already taken on the mystique of timeless legend. This was a time when it seemed like you couldn’t go 10 minutes without hearing “Black Dog” or “Rock and Roll” on the radio, and every fifth kid at Oquirrh Hills Middle School was wearing a “Swan Song” t-shirt. And yet the band itself was no more, and in fact its heyday had been a good decade earlier. It was almost as if their music had always existed, simultaneously old and current, while the band itself never had. So looking at the actual dates, figuring out that I barely missed Zeppelin’s period as an active band, and that their breakup and The Honeydrippers, Volume One happened within a scant four years of each other — really, it was only four years — has been kind of surreal for me. The Zeppelin era and Plant’s solo era always seemed geological ages apart to me, but it was merely the span of time I spent in middle school. More or less.

One final thought: At the time he recorded “Rockin’ at Midnight,” Robert Plant seemed very old to me. Not ready-for-a-rest-home-and-walker old, just very… adult. It turns out he was 36 in 1984. Ten years younger than I am now.

Makes you think about what the hell you’ve done with your life, doesn’t it?

spacer

Friday Evening Videos: “Feel Like Makin’ Love”

I’m a bit late posting this, and the selection I’ve got for you this week isn’t exactly a music video, but I’ve been mildly obsessed with it since I stumbled across it a few days ago and I want to share.

I’ve posted videos before from The Bangles, the all-girl group that had several big hits back in the Awesome ’80s, including “Manic Monday,” “Walk Like an Egyptian,” and “Eternal Flame,” their number-one smash from 1989 and their last charting single. I liked them a lot back in the day. I still like them. As a band, they were a near-perfect combination of tight musical skills, killer pop sensibilities, and — hey, I’m not gonna lie — physical good looks, which made them pretty much irresistible to a red-blooded, music-loving teenage male like myself.

Well, the video clip I unearthed this week is a live performance by lead singer Susanna Hoffs from 1991, a couple years after The Bangles went their separate ways. Her entire set from this concert is good, but this particular song — a cover of Bad Company’s 1975 hit “Feel Like Makin’ Love” — really stands out. Everything about it, from her shy and halting introductory banter to the guitar work to the way she sways her hips and tosses her hair, is sheer calculated sex appeal. And let’s not forget her distinctive, unforgettable voice, which shifts from a little-girl whisper to a wanton growl in the space of a heartbeat.

Yeah, in case you couldn’t guess, this performance really presses my buttons. It’s the perfect thing for a balmy springtime night like this, when your thoughts drift so easily and naturally to those nights when you were young and the rhythm of a certain song, the tone of a girl’s voice, a glint in her eye, could set off electrical discharges in nerve endings you didn’t realize were even there. So open your windows, take a deep breath of that blooming lilac and a sip of that smoky whiskey, and then turn up the speakers and just let it happen. Rock and roll in its purest form is all about sex, and baby, this one rocks.

(Technical note: the video quality isn’t so hot, but it’s not terrible; the sound at least is good. Enjoy!)

spacer

Come In, Echo Base…

Just a little housekeeping note to let my three Loyal Readers know that, starting today, I am a contributing writer for a group blog called Echo Base. The short version is that a friend and colleague from my day job is one of the chief editors there; he recently read something I wrote here on Simple Tricks and was impressed enough to ask me if I’d like to contribute. And just like that, my sphere of influence has expanded! Soon, the entire Internet will be mine! Mine, I say!  Bwa ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Seriously, this could be a fun opportunity, or at least a kick in the pants to get me back to blogging more frequently. The plan, at least at first, is just to syndicate (i.e., repost) some of the content from this blog — my first piece for them is a slightly tweaked version of my Prince obituary from a couple weeks back — but I may also produce some original work for them as time and inspiration allows. We’ll see how that works out.

But even though you won’t be seeing anything new from me at Echo Base that you haven’t already read here, at least not right away, you should definitely check out the other stuff on the site. Its focus is the entertainment industry — “Movies, Music, Games, and More,” as the masthead reads — and it features a wide range of voices discussing (arguing) about all sorts of geeky things. It’s a lively place run by a lot of passionate people. Good times…

spacer

Speak Up

I keep thinking I should’ve been the one to speak up…

I was immersed in my book, an eighteenth-century world of pirates and slaves and ladies in need of rescuing (if they don’t figure out how to rescue themselves first), savoring my last few minutes of escapism before the train reached my stop and another day of mundane labors began. I’d just been interrupted by a friendly guy across the aisle, who’d simply had to say he’d read those books too and how did I like them and wasn’t there supposed to be a TV miniseries (actually a regular ongoing cable series) made from them? We’d shared a moment of small talk, but now he’d returned to his own thoughts and I was sinking back into the seductive textures of that richly imagined other place —

“Towelhead.”

The word struck my ears like a knitting needle shoved into my auditory canal, and I realized that the atmosphere in the train car was changing. People were sneaking furtive glances over books and phones, cocking their heads to listen, shifting in their seats as if trying to gain whatever distance they could between themselves and the ugly word.

“Towelhead bitch is killing us, you know…”

I took a quick glance around. There was a man one row behind me, on the opposite side. He wore a bright blue blanket wrapped around himself like a cloak, his face had a raw, weatherburned appearance, and his hair stood up in windblown twists. Homeless, I immediately assessed, but not harmless like my friend David, who panhandles near my office and always has a friendly grin and a fist-bump ready when he spots me. This guy was the other kind of homeless person, the one who radiates unfocused, unpredictable hostility and makes you think about crossing the street in mid-block before you reach his corner. Another refrain boiled out of him, erupting as if he just couldn’t contain it. His voice was louder this time, not quite a shout yet, but definitely raised above a normal speaking level. Too loud to ignore.

“Don’t you people care that this bitch has killed hundreds of people in the time between stops? From Ninth South to Courthouse, how many of our countrymen have died?! Towelhead bitch!”

It isn’t unusual to encounter people like this on the train, people who’ve had way too much to drink or inhale or inject, or people who haven’t had enough. Often, their tirades aren’t aimed at anyone in particular, at least no one that anyone else can see. This guy, though, was glaring at someone across from him, never moving his gaze as he continued to rail in his almost-shout about Americans dying while people like this were coming here and taking jobs and getting ready to start their killing ways on our soil.

I craned my head around to see who had gotten him riled up. Given the nature of the slurs he was throwing around, I expected to see someone in hijab or perhaps the turbaned Sikh gentleman I occasionally share my commute with, about whom I’ve heard nasty (and ignorant, since Sikhs are not Muslim) comments. But it was neither. Directly behind me was a young woman dressed in jeans and a buttondown shirt, as anonymously Western-style as anyone else on the train. She had dark brown skin and thick black hair, and a tiny bit of gold flashed from the side of her nose. Rather pretty, I thought, although, if anything, she looked Indian to me, not Muslim. Mostly, though, she looked like she wanted to shrink herself into a dot and disappear like Lee Meriweather on the old Star Trek series. She visibly cringed as the loudmouth launched another “Towelheaded BITCH!” her way.

I shifted my attention back to the crazy guy and felt my own mouth opening to say something, anything, to try and make him shut the hell up, but I hesitated. How unhinged was he, exactly? What if he had a knife or a gun? I don’t like to think of myself as a coward, but I am cautious, and this guy was getting more agitated by the second. His knees were jumping with nervous energy, like someone who’s downed six espressos in a row. The air in the train car was static-charged and beginning to stink of adrenaline. Somebody had to do something before this guy hurled himself out of his seat like a boulder from a trebuchet.

He was just beginning to direct another volley of verbal abuse at the poor woman when the guy who’d asked me about my book shouted, “Hey, sir? Who are you talking to?”

The crazy guy’s snapped around and his black stare settled on a new target. “What business is it of yours, chief?”

“You’re kind of making it everybody’s business, as loudly as you’re speaking. What’s the problem?”

“The problem is that camel-fucking towelheaded bitch sitting over there plotting to KILL US ALL! The problem is my American brothers spilling their blood…”

“It looks to me like that woman is just on her way to work, sir. She’s not plotting anything or hurting anyone.”

And at that, as I’d feared, the crazy guy was on his feet and moving toward the man who shared my taste in reading. I don’t remember what he was shouting at this point; my own fight-or-flight reflex was taking over. I do recall setting my book down on the seat next to me and preparing to stand up myself. I might not have been the first to act, but I was ready to help my comrade across the aisle if the lunatic attacked him.

He was holding his ground pretty well on his own, though. In a calm voice, he informed the nut that he’d been in the Army and seen people die, too, but the woman two rows back didn’t have anything to do with it. The crazy guy wasn’t having any of that, though; he wanted to fight and was trying to egg the man on. The vulgar language escalated. The train was nearing the next station, and Crazy Dude wanted to “take it outside,” so to speak. But the heroic man remained in his seat, saying he didn’t need to prove anything and Crazy Dude just needed to chill. He made eye contact with me at one point and a nervous smile tugged at his lips. I knew then he wasn’t as cool as he appeared, but damn, he was putting on a good front.

Then the train stopped. The doors opened. And the belligerent, bigoted, crazy man, still spouting a steady stream of angry slurs, got off. The train started moving again, and just like that, it was all over. The collective exhale from those of us who remained sounded like the whoosh of air brakes.

I turned in my seat and asked the woman who’d innocently provoked all that ugliness if she was okay. She nodded, and smoothed her hair back with a trembling hand.

“The guy was off his meds or something,” I offered. She smiled and nodded. Then another man leaned down to her, holding his cellphone. “I called the cops,” he said. “They’ll be looking for him back there.” She nodded again. At the train’s next stop, she got up and went to the doors. Everyone who’d witnessed the incident was watching her, and she knew it. She looked around, gave a little wave, and said, “Thanks, everyone.” Then she was gone too.

The next stop was mine, and as it happened, the other guy’s as well, the one who’d asked about my book and then stood up to the crazy man. We stepped down to the platform together, and I said to him, “Thanks for saying something back there.”

He grinned and said, “Thanks for backing me up.” I nodded, even though I really hadn’t done anything. Then I walked to my office building and went to work hunting for errant commas.

All this happened Friday morning. I’m still thinking about it now, Sunday night. Thinking about the sickening sensation that always competes with relief after something like that is over, when the tide of unused adrenaline begins to subside and you can’t help but imagine all the ways the incident could have gone, just how bad it might’ve become. I am troubled by the things that man with the wild eyes and the blue blanket-cloak said, how they mirror a lot of the nasty memes, comments and “humor” I encounter almost daily on social media. Surely this guy was off his meds, or he needed to be on some to start with, but his cultural and racial hostility, his paranoia about people who look or believe differently than himself, is not uncommon. We may be living in the 21st century, surrounded by glittering technological wonders, but there is still a core of unevolved, brutish tribalism slithering around just beneath our veneer of sophistication. And it seems to me that it’s getting worse, not better, in this election year… and yeah, that bothers the hell out of me.

And I’m troubled as well by my own actions — or rather, inactions — during the whole incident. We all like to think that when we’re confronted with injustice or bigotry or just plain danger, we’d have the strength of character to stand up for what’s right. That we’d be the hero. I keep wondering what Jamie Fraser, the hero of that big fat historical adventure I’m reading, would have done in the same situation. But of course, he’s fictional and I’m not.

I keep thinking I should’ve been the one to speak up, instead of waiting for another man to do it. Because what might have happened if he hadn’t?

spacer

May the Fourth!

Today is the unofficial nerd holiday known as Star Wars Day, owing to the unfortunate pun formed by a certain pronunciation of the date (“May the Fourth be with you!” Get it? Yeah, I know… it makes me groan as well.) Now, it’s not as if people need an excuse to chatter about Star Wars on social media any more than they already do on any other day of the year, but I must confess that I rather enjoy the whole silly thing. I’ve seen a lot of memes, artwork, and jokes today that have made me smile…  and with that swaggering blowhard Donald Trump all but claiming the Iron Throne last night, a few smiles have been absolutely vital to my psychological well-being.

Of all the Star Wars-related stuff I’ve seen today, my favorite piece has been a promo video produced by the British TV network Sky Movies to advertise their marathon of the first six SW movies (or, as I think they ought to be called, the Lucasian Sextet).  This one is just plain neato:

And then there’s the news that Greedo himself — or at least the actor who was inside the green-snouted costume, Paul Blake — has weighed in on the undying question of “Who shot first?” In an interview with the New York Daily News, Blake says the scene he remembers acting all those years ago ended with the words, “Han shoots the alien.” Period. In other words, not only did Greedo not shoot first, he didn’t shoot at all. Blake goes on: “It would be lovely to see them go back to the original version, I much preferred it, I must say.”

Amen, sir. There are a lot of, ahem, unofficial options these days for seeing the pre-1997 editions of the original trilogy, but I still hold out hope there will one day be a sanctioned, respectful, official BluRay release. I’d even buy a box set of all the variations that now exist, so long as the pre-97s are given a decent presentation. Hey, we all need our obsessions, right?

In the meantime, I think I’m going to watch that Sky Movies ad again. I really adore that…

spacer