Day 470, June 30, 2021

A Love Bazaar

Tonight's rippin' soundtrack: Prince, Montreux Jazz Fest, 2013 

The last few days of heat has broken and a howling wind came in and twisted trees into violent contortions, the skies opened up. Earlier, when I walked Franklin at lunch, the grass on the lawn cracked and snapped under my feet. The rain is a welcome reprieve from my lawn and garden negligence.

Franklin doesn't like the thunder and each rumble sets him off barking at the sky as if there is someone there to receive his complaints.

I've been looking back at the photos from my father's archives, and interspersed with his photos from the late 1970s that I've imported into my digital album, are photos from the last few weeks. It is a startling contrast. My seven or eight year old self at the Epcot Center and then my 49 year old self wearing a mask looking out of an isolation cell window at Mass MoCA. What a strange photographic record will exist of this time.

We have become so acclimated to wearing masks it feels like we are naked when out in public without one. And at the same time, it is electrically freeing, like one is naked, to be out in public without one. This weekend I vacillated about whether I should wear a mask at the grocery store. I started out wearing one (one of the spares I have in my car because I forgot my cloth one), but I was hot and thirsty and I picked a soda out of the cooler and stowed the mask in my pocket while I perused the vegetables and sipped my drink. But in the next aisle, everyone I passed wore a mask and I could perceive their side glances at my nakedness, and I replaced my mask.

Similarly, the other day, I rode my bike to the Lady Killigrew, and was so immediately accustomed to not wearing a mask that I didn't even think about it as I crossed the threshold into the establishment until an employee called me a friend and pointed at his masked face. Luckily, I had a spare mask in my bike bag. 

It is going to be interesting navigating these next few weeks and months as we all adjust to what feels comfortable and safe. 

I was trying to remember a time that I felt as uncertain about the ground I stood on. The only thing that comes to mind was when I was in Shanghai. 

I was visiting the city as part of a tour of China after attending a conference on community colleges in Beijing. After the conference we crisscrossed across the country sight seeing with our final destination in Shanghai, before I hopped on a jet to Korea. I had a marvelous time and loved China, but I also habitually strayed from the prescribed tours and tour guides. On this particular day I was exploring the city and finding places to sit and write in my notebook. A young man approached me and introduced himself in English, which was a surprise. He said he knew a cool place to grab a drink and wanted to know if I'd join him so he could practice his English. I agreed and he led me a long distance though winding side streets until we finally came to an establishment with an entrance shaped like a giant gold King Tut death mask. The door was King Tut's mouth. We walked in to a nearly empty dimly lit bar where he led us to a table. 

We ordered a round of cool drinks that I remember were icy blue. He asked a few questions, and then suddenly he noticed two women sitting in a far corner and asked if he could invite his friends over to practice English too. You have to understand that I was a full-time English faculty member, of course I was going to say yes. The two women joined us, and at my friend's goading, we ordered drinks for them as well. After a brief introduction, my new friend suggested we go to the karaoke rooms. I'm not much of a singer so I was wary about the invitation, but I went along.

It was in the karaoke rooms that the women started to become a little more friendly, touching our arms and leaning close. The girls each sang a song, then my friend leaned close to me and said he was taking his friend into another room and gave me a knowing nod. I got up to also leave, but he said, no you need to stay with her. My new friend had a runny nose, but spoke English better than her friend. She pulled me back down on the couch beside her and asked if I wanted her to sing another song. I nodded and she picked out a Chinese song to sing.

After the song she asked if I wanted a massage and I declined, but asked if I could ask about her life. She told me that her goal was to save up enough money to go to the US. She knew she couldn't do this kind of work for much longer, so once she saved up enough that's what she was going to do. She had an American friend who always came to her when he visited. She was going to go live with him. That is why she learned English so well, and that is why she worked the singing rooms. She asked if I wanted anything else and I refused. She grabbed the matchbook I had on the side table, I still smoked at the time, and asked if that was my hotel and if she could meet me there later. I again refused and thought about the wealthy American who stopped in Shanghai and called for her whenever he wanted. I touched her shoulder gently and gave her a hug, thanked her for her songs and story, and stepped out of the karaoke room.

I didn't see my friend and his partner anywhere, but the cashier was there, and as I tried to settle my bill, a very large bouncer emerged from the back. Even in my addled state of mind, I could tell the bill was an outrageous amount, something like $300 US dollars. I tried to protest, but the cashier and bouncer didn't speak English, and eventually the fellow that lured me to the bar came out of the back room and played a naive interpreter. I put it all on a credit card and stumbled out into the alley. The sun had gone down, and the bright exciting city had become a city of shadows and warrens.

This was before cellphones with GPS maps, and thankfully, before the utter atrophy of one's sense of direction, so I just set off in the way that seemed right. As my head cleared of the alcohol, I started to come across more populated streets with vendors hawking counterfeit DVDs and street food. I walked for hours making concentric arcs across the city until I found my hotel guided only by my matchbook cover and a small photocopied map I carried folded up in my shoulder bag. 

All night I wondered if the woman would show up in the lobby asking for me. I noticed that the bathroom had condoms in a cup along with a plastic wrapped toothbrush and comb. I was reliving my stupidity, questioning my savvy traveler skills, sweating under the sniffling gaze of woman in a tight dress. I couldn't sleep and went out to walk the streets again basking in the anonymity of darkness, eventually buying a Kill Bill DVD to watch on my laptop. I don't think I slept at all that night. 

It was so disorienting to be in a foreign city with very little capacity for language and feeling like danger, ruin, or temptation lay around every corner. Of course, that was all perspective. I probably wasn't in any real danger, at least once I paid my tab and got away from the bouncer, but the anxiety of existing in such uncertainty, it feels a little like this past year. And now, as we see what seems to be the waning days, weeks, months of the pandemic (hopefully), it is like the days after leaving Shanghai where I had to train myself to trust strangers again. 

A few days later I found myself hiking up Mt. Namsan in Korea and I tried to rebuff an overly friendly park ranger (he didn't know the English word for it, so that was my guess), but eventually I relented, almost giving up and submitting myself to whatever might come. But instead of something sordid, he took me off the main path and showed me the ancient Buddhas carved into the mountainside. It was a marvelous quiet moment of discovery. After a few more similar relics, he returned me to the main path and pointed me up the mountain and explained there was a Buddhist nunnery at the top of the mountain. That day was like an oasis, a mirage one sees in a desert devoid of anything else, but it is a story perhaps for another day as it is already time to start cooking dinner.

Take care and be well,

Leo

From Our Friends:

From the It Gets Better Project:

  • QWOCMAP (Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project) uses film to shatter stereotypes and bias, reveal the lived truth of inequality, address the vital, intersecting issues that concern multiple populations, and build understanding and community around art and social justice. 

  • BTFA Collective (Black Trans Femmes in the Arts) creates spaces for the production and preservation of Black trans art and culture by building community with Black trans femme artists and providing them with the resources and support necessary to thrive.

  • Southerners on New Ground (SONG) is a home for LGBTQ liberation across all lines of race, class, abilities, age, culture, gender, and sexuality in the South. 

  • Waves Ahead offers support to the marginalized and vulnerable sectors of society by giving them the necessary help to strengthen their community and family environment.

  • United We Dream creates welcoming spaces for young people - regardless of immigration status - to support, engage, and empower them to make their voice heard and win!

  • Trans Tech Social Enterprises is an incubator for LGBTQ Talent with a focus on economically empowering the T, transgender people, in our community. 

  • BreakOUT! seeks to end the criminalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth to build a safer and more just New Orleans.

  • TRUTH (TRANS YOUTH) is a youth-led program for trans and gender-nonconforming young people to build public understanding, empathy, and a movement for liberation through storytelling and media organizing.

  • The Okra Project is a collective that seeks to address the global crisis faced by Black Trans people by bringing home-cooked, healthy, and culturally specific meals and resources to Black Trans People wherever we can reach them.     

  • From the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation:

    Rep. Bush's vision is more than just words on a paper -- it's something we all need to work proactively to accomplish. Because in a world where public safety is actually public safety, Black people will be liberated. Black people will thrive. Black people will matter -- plus so much beyond that. 

    That's why we need you to raise your voice and take action, fam. Today we want to flood social media with messages of our new visions of public safety. Will you post with the hashtag #SafetyIs and share your personal thoughts? 





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