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tearing the rag off the bush again
Seattle: Aimez-vous Pearl Jam? (a tale of Old Seattle) PDF E-mail

From the Diary of Nanette Jenkins


NOVEMBER 1993

Yesterday was my 39th birthday, as depressing a personal milestone as any I’ve experienced, with the possible exception of my wedding day with Stanley. Maybe this one was worse—I’m old, and I’ve still got Stanley. Not that he doesn’t try, poor dear. He’s always trying to understand me—a noble effort, given his limited resources. I guess that’s why I stay with the big lug. That, and the executive vice-presidency he holds at US West.

For the past six months, I’ve been weighed down by a spiritual malaise, aware that each passing second wasted brings one closer to an unfulfilled old age and meaningless death. Or, in my case, a time that I will be able to claim the age of twenty-nine with impunity. This oppression has resulted in a creative impasse that makes it impossible to view the unfinished manuscript of my magnum opus, Shimmering Lard, with anything but revulsion and dread. The failure of my local publisher (that slobbering, pedophilic jailbird Walter) to sell more than sixteen copies of my collection of erotica, The Tongue-Lashing and Other Wet Punishments, had taken more out of me than I realized. For I am not one of those artists content to be discovered in their dotage like some literary Grandma Moses, too senile and decrepit to use their newfound fame and power with authority. No, I had always hoped to be young and vibrant enough when my moment of glory came to use my influence for bending sycophants to my will and breaking my enemies to its fullest, most satisfying advantage.

And this dream seemed to be slipping through my fingers. Even my diary, that repository for my innermost thoughts, flights of fancy, plot ideas, philosophic interludes, and weekend trysts, had lain unused for months in its hiding place in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator. So, imagine my feelings when, over my Dubonnet at my birthday dinner at Gaspari’s, Stanley sheepishly brought out a package from his attaché case.

“I thought you might like these…” he said as he handed me what were obviously a pile of books wrapped in brightly colored paper depicting a bunch of cartoon cats singing “Happy Birthday” , stuck together with scotch tape in such a way as to make one think the job had been done at the Institute of the Criminally Spastic. Stanley has always viewed my writing with the air of one of the apes gazing at the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Opening it, I discovered the collected poems of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, along with a blank diary book bound in Corinthian leather from Medici-Ming.

“Oh, look,” I exclaimed. “Volumes by two women who were famous before they were 25 and committed suicide, and a symbol of my own creative vacuity thrown in to boot. How thoughtful, darling.” As I burst into tears, Stanley took on the look of a steer struck behind the ear with a sledgehammer at the Chicago stockyards.

“But, Nanette, that isn’t all,” he blustered, mistaking my existential despair for the greed of a fishwife. “Look inside the cover of the diary.” Drying my eyes with a napkin, I did so and discovered a key taped there with an address on South Jackson printed underneath.

“It’s for your new studio in Pioneer Square,” Stanley said. “I read in the Sunday paper that all the real artists have their lofts there, and I know how hard it must be for you to work in Ballard, so I thought…”

I would have dropped my jaw in astonishment had I been capable of a gesture so déclassé. Perhaps I had misjudged Stanley’s powers of percipience. “Oh, thank you,” I said, my voice husky and brimming with gratitude. “You really shouldn’t have.” (Parenthetical note: Are there four more hypocritical words in the English language than those preceding?) Of course, Stanley willfully misunderstood my effusion, using it as an excuse to try to ensconce himself in my bedroom that evening after plying me with a couple bottles of Chianti. Although it was against my policy, under the circumstances I thought it best to indulge the poor man, and so there we spent a night of bliss (his.) In a sense, it represented another parallel between our wedding night and my present anniversary, with its promise of a final flowering before the winter of the soul arrives.



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I am sitting at my table in the new studio, looking out the window watching the grey drizzle of a chilly November afternoon pelt the pigeons and winos congregating in Occidental Park, both men and birds flapping their proverbial wings and circling haphazardly about in an effort to maintain warmth and find sustenance. How romantic Seattle is in the autumn! The gloom and squalor are in a strange way rejuvenating to me, for it is my job as a working artist to transform them into their opposites, into metaphors of beauty and courage that will inspire those without my gifts of imagination to find the strength to carry on in an uncaring Void where God is dead and parking is $20 a day.

In fact, it was the parking thing that inspired me to take the Number 18 bus from Blue Ridge to downtown for my first visit to the studio. Also, I did not want to appear ostentatious to my fellow seekers of Truth and Culture, many of whom subscribed to a vaguely anarchist/nihilist/socialist creed and who may have been a bit offput if I pulled up in my crimson Alfa Romero. As I descended the bus steps for the block-long walk to the studio, I was accosted by waves of humanity, each crying out symbolically for help in their own way: “Spare change?” “Carry your bag for a quarter?” “Hey, lady, can I have a dollar for a beer?” “Nice ass.” “I got ten inches of what you need over here, honey.” “Hey, baby, c’mere and sit on my face.” “Jesus loves you.” “Bitch.”

Anyhow, since then I’ve taken to riding a cab to and fro on my daily visits. True, this actually runs more than $20 a day, but I feel a certain distance is required for a writer in order to maintain an objective integrity.

The studio itself is situated in a dilapidated, three-story brick building dating from the 1890’s. Stanley had rented the entire second floor for me, approximately 2500 square feet of it, including a main space, a smaller area I converted into a bed-sitting room, a kitchenette, and a bathroom. I loved the huge, barren emptiness of it, like a gigantic canvas crying out to be filled, and I made sure that the truckload of furniture I ordered from Nordstrom’s (which the salesgirl assured me was in the latest style, Bleak Gothic Moderne) kept the original flavor of the surroundings. The third floor, by a stroke of luck, was vacant due to a grisly double murder-suicide that was still fresh on the local populace’s minds, so I didn’t have to worry about annoying footfalls disturbing my concentration.

The ground floor is divided between three artists. Starshine is a new-age/hippie girl in her early 20’s, her 250 lb. frame covered by shapeless Guatemalan frocks, whose specialty is angels. You want something in angels, she’s got it—angel paintings, angel batiks, angel statues, angel lamp bases, angel necklaces, angel coffee cups, angel pepper grinders; there’s even a series of angel ashtrays for those that are in a hurry to meet up with them personally. I must admit she certainly has her finger on the pulse of a trend—there’s such a stream of people going in and out of her place that you’d think it was a public restroom, and I’ve never seen her wear the same dress twice.

Max Stifle, tenant of the smallest place, is a 67 year-old abstract expressionist whose self-professed claim to fame is that he once slept with Morris Graves. His last show was at the Francine Cedars Gallery in 1967, where he sold $37.89 worth of work after commission. He spends his social security check each month on two cases of Gallo White Port, a carton of Oriental Top Ramen, and canvas and oils. Although the supplies go in, I’ve never seen a painting go out—God knows what he does with them. Maybe sleeps on a 12-foot high mattress of the things. Nights, he goes to the Baths, perhaps to try to coerce a young artist to use the same orifice that long ago Graves graced in the hope that by such means divine inspiration might be passed through the generations.

Lorenzo Rabinowitz, on the other hand, is a Seattle legend, a sculptor and performance artist known as the Waffle Iron Barbie King. His studio is filled with scores of waffle irons, ranging in sizes and shapes from an antique dating back to the American Revolution to the newest model from Sears. On the traditional first Thursday of the month Artwalk, where all the studios are open to the public, Lorenzo will order a gross of the most recent Barbie fashion designs from Mattel (in October it was Punk Rock Malibu Beach Slut Barbie), place one in each of the irons, leaving on the head and feet exposed, and melt them down in front of a loyal and cheering crowd of aficionados of the avant-garde. When hardened, they are peeled off and sold from $75 to $250 a pop, depending on the aesthetic value of the mutilation, at which point Lorenzo retires to the Rendezvous Room to drink his brains out until the next month’s Thursday rolls along. Needless to say, the stench of burning plastic makes my space quite uninhabitable on that day, so that is the date I pencil in to actually have dinner with Stanley. Still, it’s a small price to pay to be part of the ‘scene.’ I feel that I, too, may do some of my most cutting-edge work here.



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Idea for Shimmering Lard: On the trip to the Black Hills of Dakota, when Francois and Estelle are going to bury the casket containing the body of their beloved ferret, Bertrand Russell, have Estelle and the bus driver making love in the Greyhound restroom during a layover in Albuquerque while Francois has an interior monologue about the advantages of cloth over paper napkins.



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DECEMBER. Stagnation is the enemy of the creative soul, so I am constanly on the lookout for new venues in which to expand the parameters of my artistry. Also, the old, familiar venues tend to take one for granted after a while, “get sick of you” as it were, “blackball,” “86,” “tell the bouncer to throw your ass in the street”—I’ve heard them all. Whether pettiness, outmoded bourgeois morality, or jealousy is the motive for these outbursts I couldn’t say, but they do keep me constantly on search for the fresh and untried, an essential trait for a writer who wants to be truly modern.

In this spirit of adventure, I learned through the grapevine that the Blue Moon Tavern was a veritable hub of intellectual activity—I immediately decided to make that establishment my new conquest. Perusing the cultural listings in Point No Point, I found that Sunday was “Grateful Dead Night.” How quaint, I thought—an evening given over to lively discussion of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Being myself no stranger to the symbology of the classic text (I had used it in my story “Himalayan Ecstasies,” an imaginary account of my weekend orgy with the Dalai Lama), I looked forward to a forum where I would have ample opportunity to shine. Choosing an appropriate wardrobe was initially difficult, but I soon decided on the facsimile of the gown worn by priestesses of the Temple of Isis that I had bought last week at the Bon Marche and I was on my way.

Entering the portals of the legendary hellhole, I was gripped by a feeling of giddiness that I first thought was excitement until I realized with revulsion that the concentrated stench of stale beer, sweat, and urine can simulate the effect of an amyl nitrate popper on the uninitiated. Once my eyes had grown accustomed to the cigarette smoke that enveloped the lenses like a thick gauze, I was struck by a second horrific revelation. Why, the entire place was filled with nothing but old hippies and drunks. (In fact, in most cases these two types were embodied in the form of a single person.) Nonetheless, I refused to let my spirit of adventure be put off by these obstacles. Besides, I had already told Stanley I would be spending the night with a friend’s sick Dalmatian, so I determined to make the most of the evening. I’ve always advocated that any environment, no matter how odious, can be redefined by the power of romanticism (a trick I picked up from Genet), so I again surveyed the filthy concrete bunker situated by a freeway offramp. Perhaps at one of these very wooden booths, I thought, Theodore Roethke had puked all over the shoes of Richard Hugo at the conclusion of midterm week. Instantly, the place was transformed.

Sitting at the bar, I was somewhat disgruntled to discover that there was nary a Tibetan in sight, much less one discoursing on the ancient myths and secrets. In fact, it was difficult to hear anything over the atonal folk-rock blaring over the speakers, but I did manage to catch snippets of a conversation from two pony-tailed guys next to me.

“Bill Clinton is sure turning into an asshole.”

“Everything is gonna go straight down the crapper, man. Anyone with a brain should hightail it to the woods and not come out ‘til the rubble clears. Want another Rainier?”

I later learned that this is a typical example of the pungent socio-political commentary that denizens of the Blue Moon are renowned for, but my attention was diverted by the appearance of six pints of microbrews that suddenly materialized at my elbow. Each glass, apparently, had a swain attached to it, and the group stood around my stool like silverfish around an old paperback binding. Having perceived my artistic nature, every one of them had the same opening line.

“Hi, I’m Tom Robbins. Do you wanna go back to my van and get high?”

I was terribly torn. On one hand, it was an impossibility for them all to be Tom Robbins. But, what if one of them actually was? Could I miss such an opportunity and live with myself? I felt like a contestant on “I’ve Got a Secret.” Thinking quickly, I posed a question I felt would unravel the Gordian knot.

“All right, if you’re Tom Robbins, what’s the title of your next book?”

Surprisingly, six replies came rolling off six tongues with an almost rehearsed glibness.

Roadkill Buffet at the Day-Glo Gazebo.”

Estrogen Flashback Brainfry and Other Perplexities.”

Even Paralegals Get the Crabs.”

Beer Shit Frame in an All-Night Bowling Alley.”

Drywalling Hitler’s Bunker with Van Gogh and Murray the K.”

Hot Foots in Liederhosen.”

I discerned immediately that five of these losers were pathetic phonies. Number Four, however, seemed to be vaguely familiar. Then, it struck me—that syntax, the disgusting, yet powerful, imagery—the man must be Charles Bukowski, traveling incognito. Abruptly dismissing the competition, I took Charles’ arm on our way out the door to the parking lot. Poor man—with my wiles, it would only be a matter of time before my novel Shimmering Lard came out with the imprint of Black Sparrow Press…

Browsing through Eliott Bay Bookstore today, I came on a clipping stating that Charles Bukoski has been dead for two months. Oh my God—I feel so horribly used. Again. I can only hope Tom will forgive me this infidelity.



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I have always been an advocate for writing in cafes, the breeding grounds for so much of the work of Hemingway, De Beauvoir, Sartre, Breton, and Danielle Steele, so occasionally I take a stroll around the neighborhood to find one my intuition tells me would be conducive to the flow of creative energy, secure in the knowledge that the can of mace I bought at Butch’s Guns is within easy reach on top of my black velvet handbag. After all, who the hell can tell you’re a writer if you spend all your time doing it in an isolated cubbyhole away from the eyes of potential admirers. True, Emily Dickinson did the hermit routine. And look what happened to her.

Anyhow, today I was sitting quietly and unobtrusively in a back booth of the O.K. Hotel, wearing a Spanish mantilla, black lace veil, 11” stiletto heels, writing in my fiction notebook while a copy of Waiting for Godot sat nonchalantly by my glass of white zinfandel. The O.K. Hotel, situated along the waterfront under a freeway overpass, is a long, narrow greasy spoon indelibly begrimed by generations of fishermen tracking motor oil and salmon guts on the floor that some entrepreneurial hipsters bought in the hope of making it into an art bar. Only a moron would actually eat here—the grill, clearly visible to the dining public, obviously hasn’t been cleaned since 1927—but it has the reputation for a place to see and be seen.

And what I see depresses me immeasurably. For the past couple of weeks, I have been preoccupied with the problem of finding a niche in my new surrounding and discovering a group of kindred spirits whom I could both respect and who would be willing to hear of my own aspirations and tribulations with a degree of understanding that is all I ask as balm for my tortured psyche. Unfortunately, I have yet to discover anyone capable of possessing these two qualities concurrently; maybe they’re like oil and water. The point is, I’m certainly not going to find it here—everyone is so young.

All they seem to be able to talk about is being in a band. (Except the women, who talk about the benefits of bisexuality in addition to being in a band.) Some give-away rag called The Rocket is their Bible, and they pour through its pages like linguists trying to unlock the secrets of the Rosetta Stone.

“Like, dude, I do like Motley Crue, Black Sabbath, David Bowie, and Kiss, but I hate Black Oak Arkansas, Yes, and Blue Oyster Cult. Do you think my artistic differences automatically disqualify me from trying out as bassist for this band in the classified?”

“Here’s one, Jacob. ‘Drummer wanted. Must have own kit, van, rehearsal space, 8-track recording studio, and crashpad for group on verge of recording contract. Call Ben for details.’ That sounds promising, don’t you think?”

“Hey, Steve,” one shouts over to the owner of the café. “How about giving our band, Prostate, a gig for next weekend’s Sunday brunch? We specialize in ambient music.”

There is no place for me in this world—I’ve been working too long to suddenly shift gear and, say, try to form a cover band whose repertoire consists of speed-metal versions of old Joni Mitchell tunes. (Although, on reflection, something like “Blue” would definitely benefit from such a treatment.) Roundly ignored, I weave my way through the flannel throng to the publication rack, where I pick up a copy of this Rocket-thing and return to my table muttering “When in Rome…” and feeling like an anachronism. Leafing through the listings, I discover a category for literary events. “These little bastards read?” I wondered aloud (as if it mattered, covered as I was by a cloak of invisibility.) Looking farther, I saw an item:

“Poetry Slam. Every Wed. at Emerald Diner. Cash prizes. Sign-up at 7.”

It sounded vaguely violent, but I have always prided myself on the emotional violence of my prose. Feeling a bolt of inspiration, I seized my cardboard wine coaster and dashed off my very first poem.



SEATTLE

The mildew creeps in
On little slug’s suckers
Encroaching on the urine-soaked
Gutters and alleys under the
Skyline of the New Liverpool,

Only to move on with
The Rolling Stone
To the next damp, hip place
Trenton, maybe, or Columbus
Leaving only the subliminal
Trace of an old
Hummed Beatles tune.


Armed with this, I hoped, I would be ready to join the vanguard in a spectacular fashion.

 
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