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Nowhere Is Still Somewhere.

Source: Streetsblog USA

Back when I finally got around to getting my driver’s license I first had to get a new learner’s permit—I’d originally gotten a learner’s permit when I was sixteen, but it expired in the intervening twenty years or so, but that’s another story—and I took the bus to the Department of Motor Vehicles. There was only one bus that ran kinda sorta close to the DMV and it only went there once every three hours. The bus actually ran every hour and a half, but on one of those trips it stopped in a completely different spot where you could still get to the DMV if you were willing to walk three miles and cross a couple of interstates. The bus stopped in the middle of nowhere, in a spot where no one got off and there was really no place for anyone to get on. The driver was surprised I had ridden that far and I thought the driver had made a mistake until I checked the route map and found that, yeah, this really was where every other bus stopped. Why the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere when it could just as easily have stopped about a mile back on the edge of somewhere is still a mystery to me, and fortunately I had the good sense to stay on the bus and ride back to the main station. Instead of having to sit out there in the middle of nowhere for an hour and a half I got to sit somewhere for an hour and a half.

It’s been several years but I wonder if the bus still stops at that same place. If so it could be a contender for America’s Sorriest Bus Stop which currently has stops in Seattle, Washington and Fremont, California going head to head. And those are some pretty sorry bus stops, but they look to me like they’re close to somewhere.

Look Back.

There’s a relatively new idea among art historians, and if you’re rolling your eyes and thinking this is some dry, abstract, wordy theorizing that has no connection with the way non-academics think about art, bear with me. It’s some dry, abstract, wordy theorizing that has kind of a cool connection with how non-academics think about art. It’s called paradoxical history, although as some critics have pointed out there’s nothing paradoxical about it. Paradoxical history essentially considers art history backwards, going from newest to oldest, kind of like when I search my email for something and most of the time I start with the most recent messages first because they’re probably where the problem is, unlike the older messages which are problems that have already been swept under the rug, but that’s another story.

The idea got me thinking about the first art appreciation class I ever took in high school, the one that really got me interested in art history in the first place. The class started with Impressionism which was an okay place to start although Impressionism didn’t just happen, and neither did any other art movement in history. Anyway it then went through Post-Impressionism and Fauvism and took kind of a leap to Cubism and a quick detour into Expressionism, then things kind of fall apart with Dadaism and Surrealism which were also literary movements, and, oh yeah, there were also a couple of wars in there, and then things kind of settled back down into Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art and that’s where the class ended.

These movements were treated as links in a chain but the reality is that art history—like regular history—is messy and complicated with a lot of overlapping events.

Paradoxical history reflects one of the benefits and problems with studying art history, or even just art, in the here and now. Do you remember the first work of art you ever saw? Probably not. You probably don’t even remember most of the works of art you’ve seen throughout your lifetime and yet you’ve probably seen a lot of art. You may even have some pretty strong opinions about some of it not really being art, but whether you think it’s art or not it’s still influenced how you look at and think about art. It hasn’t exactly been in a straight line—almost everyone gets a mix of old and new and various art movements—but paradoxical history is a way of understanding how we got from here to there, and how, whenever you look at any work of art now, what you see is layered with the influence of every other work of art you’ve ever seen, as well as the whole collection of your own experiences, your own perspectives.

Man Of Intrigue.

Source: Wikipedia

Back in 2013 when Doctor Who was celebrating its 50th anniversary the BBC ran a series of retrospectives with various stars and actors sharing their remembrances about the show. One dapper gentleman kept popping up. He intrigued me and everything he said made me laugh. That was my introduction to Paul F. Thompkins, who was, at the time, already a successful comedian, but I’m always behind the times myself.

It’s his birthday today and he still makes me laugh and still intrigues me with his strangely varied career: he entered the world of stand-up just as the ‘80’s comedy bubble collapsed but managed to find success anyway. He had a small role in the film Magnolia, which was cut, he worked on the VH1 show Best Week Ever, where he met Weird Al Yankovic (whom he thought he already knew), he’s cut several comedy albums, and he talked to fellow comedians and performers in 68 episodes of the long-running YouTube series, Speakeasy. And those are just a few of the things he’s done. The guy seems to be ubiquitous, which is one of the things that makes him so intriguing.

The Smell.

As soon as I got off the bus the smell hit me. It was musky, heavy, foul; the sort of dense smell that seems like it weighs down the air. There’s a small wooded area I pass by on my walk home. It was there, near the out-of-control bamboo stand, that I previously found an egg–what turned out to be a real chicken egg, as strange as that seemed–and it was the first thing I thought of, but rotten eggs have a distinct smell that’s sharp, prickly. This smell was more earthy, more like rotten meat, which is what it turned out to be. I recognized the scaly, metallic shell: it was a possum on the half shell, a Texas speedbump, an armadillo, flattened by a car and shoved onto the side of the road.

Not far from where I live there’s a place that used to be overgrown farmland. It was a buffer between the interstate and the neighborhood, and it was also home to all sorts of flora and fauna. The whole thing was sold and turned into a big shopping center and now the fauna has found its way into the neighborhood: mostly deer but also skunks, coyotes, and foxen. But armadillos are a relatively new arrival to Tennessee. So far we haven’t had enough that they’ve become a problem since they carry leprosy and dig up the foundations of houses . They’ve been pushed northward by climate change, which reminded me that they used to have a much larger cousin, the glyptodon, that was probably wiped out by a combination of overhunting by prehistoric humans and climate change. It could be as big as a Volkswagen Beetle, which is why whichever prehistoric kid spotted one first got to punch his friend on the arm and say “Glyptodon brown!” although the game got kind of boring because that’s the only color they came in, but that’s another story. Prehistoric people may have even used the glyptodon shell as a shelter, but I can’t begin to imagine what the smell was like.


You Gotta See This.

What defines a place, a city, a region? Nashville has a long history as a home of country music, something I first realized when I was a kid and at some family gathering up north and a man asked me where I was from. When I told him he said, “You got a lot of country music down there, doncha?” and I imagined my typical suburban neighborhood, completely devoid of banjo pickers and fiddlers, and yelled “No!” and he and I were both equally confused. Not long after that we took one of our summer trips to Opryland and my parents dragged me away from the rides and made me sit through one of the shows. It started with a woman who came out and said, “When folks think of Nashville they think of country music” and I felt like a schmuck.

Nashville has also become a food destination with innovative restaurants like The Catbird Seat where a chef will create food right in front of you and twenty-one other diners creating a custom meal based on your personal tastes, although I can create a custom meal based on my personal tastes at home for a lot cheaper.

Globalization and global communication mean that foods that were once strictly regional can be found far from their original destinations. Nashville now has three Ethiopian restaurants which I think is a really cool thing. It means we can get a taste of Ethiopia for much less than the cost of the trip, not the mention all the associated risks. And yet what is it that makes it Ethiopian food? It may have originated halfway around the world but now it’s part of the mosaic of this community, which makes it a little more beautiful. Also while KFC has stopped serving “Nashville hot chicken” now Red Lobster is advertising “Nashville hot shrimp” which makes me yell “THAT’S NOT A THING!” every time the commercial comes on, but that’s another story.

There’s also the time, shortly after my parents were first married, that my mother cooked okra for the first time. She’d made broccoli with cheese sauce and my father said, “This would be good on okra” and she took him seriously and the result was a slimy, cheesy mess. I told that story to an African American co-worker who laughed and said, “Your mother must be white!” Yeah, although there were other clues to that.

Anyway another thing that defines a place is public art, and while you won’t necessarily taste the food in a place you might see the art as you’re passing through, and that can be pretty sweet.


Swing And A Miss.

Every fall when school starts again I remember my time with high school golf team. When I started high school my parents informed me I would play a sport. They didn’t specify which one, but it wasn’t an option, so I looked through the school teams for something that would match my complete lack of any athletic ability and settled on golf. I’d played golf some and thought I was pretty good at it. Sure, it was played outside and there was plenty of walking required, but it was a game of slow, steady concentration. And I could usually get the ball through the lighthouse into the clown’s mouth sometimes in as little as five strokes. I also thought, given its Scottish origins, that maybe the team uniform would be a kilt, or at least a tam-o-shanter and some culottes. My parents also occasionally played golf and gave me a set of old clubs that I was able to get most of the rust off of. They signed me up for some lessons at a local golf club with an old guy whose face was so weathered it looked like it had been stretched out and then scrunched up back onto his skull. It was the middle of summer and yet every lesson we had together it was cool and overcast and after the lesson when I was riding home and it was suddenly warm and sunny I realized he created a miserable environment around him. He was a very hands-off kind of instructor, especially after the first time he saw me swing, when he backed up about ten feet and then, after staring at me for several minutes he said, “Walp, the first thing you need to know is the idea is to hit the ball with your club.” So I took another swing and felt the club skim the grass and then, after staring at me for several minutes, he said, “Walp, the next thing you need to know is the idea is to hit the ball with your club.”

I wish I could say the lessons went downhill from there but there was no downhill. If there were the ball might at least have had a chance of going somewhere.

I did a little better by myself hitting the ball around the backyard, maybe because I wasn’t standing around under a cloud of misery and we had a terrible neighbor whose windows gave me something to aim for, but that’s another story.

When school started I found the golf coach who told me practice would be on Wednesday afternoons and I should come to the lobby after school. I lugged my ratty golf bag and only slightly rusted clubs to school that day and when I went to the lobby after school I thought it was strange I was the only one there, but I waited and walked out to the parking lot to see if there was anyone out there. After half an hour I called my mother to ask her to pick me up. The next day the coach told me he’d forgotten I was coming. I wish I could say things went downhill from there but really they just rolled along. The next week practice was cancelled and the coach forgot to tell me. After half an hour I called my mother to ask her to pick me up. The week after that he said he was sure they’d just missed me. After half an hour I called my mother to ask her to pick me up. Finally I got permission to leave my last class early and caught the coach and the rest of the team just as they were leaving. The other four players let me squeeze into the back seat. When we got to the course the other players set up, teed off, and were off and running which surprised me. Who runs in golf? I stepped up to the tee, put my head down, focused, and made an absolutely perfect swing, managing to graze the top of the ball which rolled three feet, and only got that far because it rolled downhill. The coach came up behind me. “You’ve got to play fast! Come on, let’s go, we’re not going to wait for you.” All my ideas of golf as a game of slow, steady concentration were dashed. This was speed golf. We were expected to hit and run, and the coach didn’t want to hear that my handicap was twenty-seven even if it did mean I hit par on every hole.

Panting and sweating at the nineteenth hole I said, “Coach, thank you for the chance. Maybe I’ll try out again next year.” And then I went to the clubhouse and called my mother to ask her to pick me up.

That was the end of my strange and baffling golf career and my parents seemed satisfied with me joining the Latin club, although I never told them I got thrown out for wearing a tam-o-shanter with my toga.

The Confessor.


“My whole act is confession.”

-Shelley Berman, February 3, 1925 – September 1, 2017

Maybe the name Shelley Berman doesn’t sound familiar to you even though his first comedy album, Inside Shelley Berman, sold over a million copies and he was the first comedian to perform at Carnegie Hall, but even if you think you haven’t heard of him you have heard his influence in every whining, complaining comedian who turns anthills into Everests. He turned confession into comedy at a time when most other comedians were doing character monologues. He was obsessed with himself, but in a good way, because he portrayed himself as deeply insecure, worried about everything, so you felt sorry for him. He played, and could have even inspired, a ludicrously misanthropic character in the Twilight Zone episode “The Mind And The Matter” as a man who discovers he hates all of humanity but discovers he hates himself even more. As historian Gerald Nachmann says, “Something about Shelley Berman made you want to throw your arm around the guy and tell him that everything was going to be all right.” He was described as “everymanic”, and when Time did its infamous piece on the new generation of “sick comics” it’s surprising he wasn’t singled out as the sickest. Maybe it all started at the Chicago improv group The Compass Players, where Berman brought plenty of neurotic baggage and doing improv learned to unpack it. The Compass produced several other notable comics—in fact at one point Berman almost formed a trio with his fellow players Nichols & May, but they realized they worked better as a duo and he was too much of an individual to share the stage. And yet he also credits others for his success. Night after night he worked on a bit that came from an audience suggestion: a man waking up with a hangover from a party the night before. He kept repeating a line about throwing the host’s lamp out the window until one night a fellow cast member offstage whispered “Make it his cat”. “The Morning After The Night Before” became one of his funniest and most successful pieces and has a hilarious opening line: “My tongue is asleep and my teeth itch.” There’s also a prologue in which he assures the audience no cats were harmed, long before such disclaimers became standard.

He was such an intense individual he even did standup his own way—sitting down.

The tragedy of Berman is that the nervous, irritable, insecure character on stage was a nervous, irritable, insecure man in real life. He was an obsessive worker for whom every detail had to be just right, which earned him a bad reputation and cost him work. A 1963 documentary that showed him screaming backstage because a phone had rung during one of his routines almost destroyed his career, forcing him to take smaller and lower paying gigs. In fact it was the second time a phone had interrupted him that night, but the documentary was edited to show him melting down after just one. Some think the producers also had the phone ring deliberately to set him off, making him an early victim of “reality” television. Such obsessiveness might have been forgiven from a well-known actor interrupted in the middle of Hamlet’s soliloquy, but audiences and critics were surprised and turned off by a nightclub comic who took being funny so seriously. Maybe success—which, no matter how hard he worked, some who knew him said he didn’t feel he deserved—magnified his own personality, but it also magnified how others perceived him. Years later he’d say, “people are still surprised when I say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and that I don’t have saber teeth.”

Yet he never entirely dropped out of the limelight. He would also turn his attention to writing books and teaching, and while he’d still do some comedy performances he focused on acting, which is what drew him to The Compass Players in the first place. A quick glance at his IMDB page shows him working steadily, and in his influence he may never be forgotten.

Hail and farewell Shelley Berman.




Riding The Route: Number 50.

One of my goals has been to ride every one of Nashville’s bus routes from end to end. Well, it’s been more of a vague idea than something I’ve actively pursued, but anyway it’s something I’ll try to do. The route numbers go up to 96, but some of the routes have been eliminated, like unlucky number 13, and rather than recycle them they’ve just been left blank, but that’s another story. Recently I took a trip on the number 50 route because I thought I’d start more or less halfway and it was also convenient.

After a couple of turns out of the downtown station the number 50 bus drives a straight east-west line down Charlotte Avenue all the way to a Wal Mart. When I got on it was crowded and I figured almost everyone would be riding all the way to the end of the line, and yet there’s quite a bit along the way. The first thing I noticed as we were just barely out of downtown was a Krystal on one side of the street and the Fattoush Cafe on the other side. Then there’s a long stretch of not much, and then a Red Cross Blood Donation Center and, on the opposite side of the street, where there’s been an abandoned school building for decades, there’s now a Starbucks, which is kind of weird. I’m not used to seeing a Starbucks standing alone in the middle of an otherwise empty block.

Past where Charlotte passes under I-440 there’s Bro’s Cajun Cuisine and then things start to pick up a little closer to Murphy Road, where the ill-fated number 13 bus used to run. A few years ago someone on an internet message board where I hung out asked, “What’s fun to do in Nashville?” and I was surprised to realize several things I recommended were in clustered together on or near Charlotte Avenue. There’s a funky little consignment store called Cool Stuff, Weird Things, right next to Headquarters, my personal favorite coffee shop, and across the street is the Richland Park Library where there’s a small farmer’s market every Saturday. Since the person who asked was into comic books there’s The Great Escape. And also Bobbie’s Dairy Dip if you want an authentic ’50’s burger and milkshake–authentic because it’s been around that long.

A few more people disembarked after we crossed White Bridge Road, and that’s when a variety of restaurants pop up: Middle Eastern, Indian, Mexican, Vietnamese, a Chinese place that offers dim sum on Sundays, and a little place that promises Peruvian cuisine–I made a note of that for later.

Because the number 50 is an express bus it only stops at selected points, unlike the regular buses that’ll stop pretty much anywhere. Maybe that’s why most of the people on the bus, even the ones getting off at points in between, slept. One of the two guys who rode all the way to the end with me was snoring when we pulled into the Wal Mart parking lot. I guess he’s a regular rider.

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