Tuesday, July 13, 2021

I Miss Elaine's

Just Came across this Diary entry from August, 10 years ago:

Elaine was not a particularly nice woman, but her bar was a good place to hang out if you liked looking at people. Beautiful people. Rich people. Famous people. I once stood beside Al Pacino at the urinals. Then a toilet flushed, and Alec Baldwin stepped out of the cramped cubicle. The two men nodded at one other. I nodded at them; they nodded at me. We offered each other first use of the washbasin. Alec went first. 

Elaine Kaufman looked like a haystack squeezed into a body bag.  She died recently, and now the bar is gone. I was the guy that Alex the bartender (yes, another Al) used to call 'Irish.' I was the construction worker with the notebook who appeared to be writing about the writers. The guy who always paid for his martinis with hundred dollar bills. It started out as a jest and ended up, when the recession started to bite, as a routine that was hard to sustain.

I took my last drink in Elaines, at least it was one of my last drinks because I don't really remember a whole lot about what happened in the early morning hours of new years day, 2003.  I hopped around a few different places that night, rolling like a pinball between bouncers. I said farewell in Dorrians on the upper East side and Dublin House on the West. Revival in Harlem and The Scratcher in the East Village. I was done. I wasn't coming back, but there wasn't a bartender in the city who believed me.

I miss the red wine with steak in the Four Seasons, I miss the frosty mugs of Becks in the Aztec on 9th street. I miss the blue martinis in Revival. Twenty-five dollar cocktails in the Rainbow Room.  Pabst beer with pastrami on rye in Katz's...

For more than thirty years, booze was everywhere, and now it is nowhere at all. 

Friday, July 2, 2021

Black Summer

Naturally, at the peak of an infectious disease, everybody wants to watch zombies. I tried a couple of episodes of Black Summer on Netflix, but the pace was all wrong

And it's not the speed at which the zombies move--in this show, they can run pretty quickly--it's the pace of transition.  One minute, she's a loving mother of three, next minute, dead-eyed creature with foaming mouth. 

Another problem with this genre, the hero can never be infected.  It's not like the old Westerns where the sheriff could sustain a 'flesh wound' and make it through to the final reel.  There is no such thing as a 'little bit zombie.'  

What we need is a movie where the hero/heroine gets infected on page 7 and finally succumbs on page 90.  A disease is only scary if you can actually catch it.  If we had a zombie vaccine, there would be no zombie movies.  Unless the action was set in Mississippi or Alabama where Zom-Vac rates would remain obstinately low.

Here's my movie:

Late evening. A walled compound.  It's not a terribly high wall, maybe ten or twelve feet.  A line of electrified wire on top.

Outdoor tables laden with food.  A celebration. A birthday?  Balloons.  Champagne. People laughing, enjoying themselves.

CLOSE-IN.  A small dog is digging at the base of the fence. It's probably a little white fluffy dog,  shooting out soil between its paws. 

TOM and MARIANNE sit at the head of the table.  It her 30th birthday. Loving glances pass between this happy couple.  Anecdotes.  Raised glasses. Cheers.

And meanwhile the dog digs deeper, until it is almost halfway out underneath this fence. 

Eventually, Marianne says "Where is Jessie? And everybody looks around until we zoom in very slowly on Jessie, who is now two thirds of the way underneath the fence.

Alarmed, Tom rushes to retrieve the dog. He grabs the dog, but the animal appears to be stuck. Whimpering. Is it being pulled from the other side? 

A tug-of-war between a frantic Tom and whatever it is on the other side of the fence. And the next thing we see are TWO FILTHY, BLOODY HUMAN FINGERS with long jagged fingernails coming under the fence. One of these sharp fingernails scratches Tom's hand. Just a tiny little scratch. And he immediately leaps backwards, with the dog. 

Nobody else has seen the fingers. The scratch.  The dog is the centre of attention.  Everybody is concerned about the dog.  JACOB, a tall, stern creature who was glancing at Marianne during the meal, snatches the animal and carries out a full examination.  The dog is declared unharmed--and nobody notices the speck of blood on the back of Tom's hand. 

Somebody fills in the hole under the fence and tamps it down. Order is restored.  The group returns to the table, but nobody has an appetite.  Under the table, we see Tom's hand, and the speck of blood.  It could be that he doesn't even notice it himself.

But NO!

Tom excuses himself from the table, goes to the bathroom and opens a cabinet where he finds a straight razor which he sharpens and strops.  He looks into his own eyes in the mirror, touches his neck, and the next thing we see is BLOOD filling up the sink.

No.  Tom hasn't cut his own throat, but he has slashed open his hand and is now bleeding himself into the sink. He KNOWS.  We KNOW.

The rest of the movie is about concealment and dread. What do you do when you know that you have 83 minutes left to live?  You can't tell Marianne.  You can't tell anyone. You have to tidy things up, make amends, put things right. 

And how does it end?  What's the image?

Jessie the dog wakes in the middle of the night. He sees Tom coming towards him, pants, no shirt. Body covered in blotches. Eyes glazed. The dog whimpers and backs under a chair.  Tom gets down on one knee and strokes the dog, then rises, leaves the house and climbs the wall.  He stands atop and looks down. Marianne turns in her sleep, not realising the bed beside her is empty. 

We don't see the horror on the other side of the wall, but we hear the chattering and the clucking of tongues.  A mob preparing to welcome one of its own. Tom launches himself over the wall. FREEZE: The image of a man in flight. Into the unknown where a new, terrible life awaits.

Remind me again. Why am I wasting my life thinking about zombies?

Visiting in the Time of Covid


Covid-19 and dementia: ‘My father studies me, as if trying to put together a difficult jigsaw’

Writer Barry McKinley visits his father in a nursing home and reflects on time passing

When I arrive at the nursing home, I’m fitted out with a visor, latex gloves and a surgical apron. Sitting in a wing-backed chair in the lobby, my father tilts his head and studies me, as if trying to put together a difficult jigsaw.

“Norman?” He says, mistaking me for his older brother who died in 2006.

“The very same,” I reply. It’s easier this way.

These visits are awkward: The paraphernalia, the social distancing and the time limit of 45 minutes, but at least we get to see each other. For several months, there was no visiting at all.

“I don’t see your car. Did you bring it?”

“It’s right outside,” I say.

He turns to follow my gaze, past the shrubbery blown flat in the stiff October breeze. His eyes alight on a 2018 Mercedes SUV.

“That’s a fine car,” he says.

I agree, and when he asks if it’s nice to drive, I say, “you can’t beat German engineering.” This means I’m only telling half-a-lie because my car, the 2006 VW Golf, is parked just on the other side of the fancy Mercedes.

He still has an eye for a good car. As a travelling salesman in the 1960s and ’70s, he roared around the countryside in a series of big British automobiles that looked like Edwardian furniture on wheels. Along the way, a thousand hitchhikers jumped into the passenger seat: ruffians and scallywags, old women with heavy shopping bags, young girls on the run from men who were too fond of the bottle and too liberal with the belt.

Father and son in 1966

At 14 years of age, I learned to drive his Riley Riviera. “Keep her above 80 miles per hour,” he would say, “if you go any slower, I’ll get out and walk.” The countryside became a blur of green hedges, white lines and petrified pedestrians. When asked about his need for speed, the reply was always the same. “You have to make time.”

Now, at 94 years of age, in this bright, fresh lobby, it looks as if he has made more time than a man can possibly spend.

“How are they all keeping?” he asks, referring to the seven siblings who are long gone. I tell him that everybody is fine, “Mary, Betty, the twins, all great,” but then he catches me off guard. “And my father?” he asks.

His father fought at the battle of the Somme, survived German phosgene gas attacks, the Spanish flu and, later, a caretaking job in a TB sanatorium. He probably never owned any PPE. My hands are getting sticky inside the latex gloves and the visor is steaming up.

“He’s fine,” I say, “but his legs aren’t in great shape.”

“The war – shrapnel.”

I nod and echo his words. Outside, a heavy cloud sits like a sack of coal on the hump of the Blackstairs Mountains. The sky dumps rain on the car park, and I’m wondering if I wound up the windows. Meanwhile, the Mercedes sparkles in the downpour.

A woman in a blue uniform brings my father a cup of tea and a biscuit. She pats his shoulder and teases him. “Are you behaving yourself, John?” He laughs, and a powerful gust of wind pushes open the inner doors to the lobby. The outer doors remain steadfast; they can only be released with a four-digit number, and to a dementia sufferer, this might as well be the DaVinci Code.

In any case, my father expresses no desire to leave the nursing home. As far as he’s aware, it’s a very plush hotel. “This is a great place,” he says, “you should check in for a few nights, there’s plenty of room.” I tell him I will give it some thought, but secretly, I examine my memories to make sure they’re intact. No blank spots in the middle nor hazy spaces at the edges. I’m almost certain I wound up the windows.

When our 45 minutes is up, the nurse comes to relieve me of the visor, gloves and apron. “Say goodbye to Norman,” she says, and I’m unsure if she’s playing along with the name game, or if she actually thinks I am my father’s elder brother – I see a mirror but decide not to look in it.

My father gives me a wave and heads for a room where somebody sings Michael Row the Boat Ashore, and I know if I stick around I’ll hear his rendition of Lili Marlene, but I must go. Hit the road. Make time.

With the recent increase in the R-number and the rise in community transmission, there is a very real possibility that visiting will once again be curtailed*. We may be allowed to come and wave through the windows, but even that is not guaranteed. And it might prove unsettling for the residents.

In the car park, the rain continues, but I’m happy to see my windows are firmly shut. I look at the large, glistening vehicle parked beside me, and I’m reminded of that old screenwriter’s joke: “In Hollywood, nobody ever asks, ‘does that Mercedes belong to the writer?’”

*Since the date of writing, the nursing homes have been closed to visitors, except on compassionate grounds.
Barry McKinley is the author of A Ton of Malice and Almost Home

Love is a Battlefield -- Down the Rabbit Hole #1

Sometimes, when a song gets stuck in your head, there's only one way to exorcise it.  Turn it into a research project:

The opening shot depicts a runaway  -- OK, Pat Benatar is thirty years old, but nevermind --  A cop siren followed by a snare drum.  90 bpm.  A bus coming in from Jersey.  Pat's on the back of the bus, eyes closed, and she's talking her way through the intro:

We are young
Heartache to heartache
We stand
No promises
No demands
Love is a battlefield

Flashback.  Her Dad chasing her out of the house shouting, "you leave this house now...you can just forget about coming back."  This is the first time that dialogue is used in a music video.  Her Mom looks shocked, clasping her hands together, covering her wedding ring.  Nice touch.

Pat waves goodbye to her younger brother at an upstairs window.  She hits the road.  Cut to:  New York City.  She's walking the Mean Streets. Probably 7th or 8th Ave.  At exactly 1:06, as she strides past a peep show, a hustler spots the camera and turns his back.  

A series of shots.  Port Authority/8th Ave Subway station/Her Dad's grocery store in Jersey

 ...And then BOOM!  Union Square.  A cluster of genuine New York 1980's freaks.

Cut.  Night.  She's walking up the stairs to the Satin Ballroom.  This used to be a topless "dime-a-dance" joint, but everybody is fully clothed and the dancers look more like something from a Weimar burlesque.

2:06.  We're introduced to the bad guy, choreographer and dancer, Gary Chryst.   This is how pimps ought to look and dress.  Black shirt, white waistcoat and a tan coloured jacket.  Don't forget the gold tooth.

At 2:42, she writes home and we see her brother reading the letter.  He falls back on his bed and dreams of the city.

3:03.  The second burst of dialogue when one of the dancers shakes off Chryst and screams, "Leave me alone!!"  --  This initiates the confrontation between Benatar and Chryst.

3:20.   The Michael Peters Choreography kicks in.  An Amazonian war dance.   You can see the resemblance between this and the work he did in Thriller, also 1983.  Eleven years later he will die from an AIDS related illness.

3:43.  That great choppy rhythm guitar kicks in and sits on top of the snare.

4:08.  Chryst and Benatar face-off in dance.  She throws a glass of water in his face and leads the other women out into the street where they dance towards a new day and a sunrise.  Except that's the West side/Hudson River.   So it's sunset, but let's not quibble.

Alright.  That's out of the system.  Time to get back and finish writing this goddamn book.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Death Threat or Poetry?



At first you think, maybe it's an emotional outburst from a young woman who is frightened of entrapment--perhaps a deep fear or romantic entanglement.

Yes.  To be caught is to die.  Profound--Even if it is written on a door.  It's a poetry jamb.  Or maybe a door slam.

But then, you think, no, it's more likely a veiled prediction.  A promise.  A passive-aggressive curse from a spotty teen directed at the object of his unrequited desire.  He knows he can't say "I will kill her when I catch her" because if he does, and her father happens to see it, he might have his tiny arms torn off.  The end of a promising graffiti career.

It's very much an Irish thing.  The idea of justice delivered--by somebody else, a powerful entity, a Deus ex machina, as the chap with the Magic Marker might say, swooping down and smiting the faithless lover. 

But why is the 'g' in 'caught' almost invisible?  It's possible he wrote C-A-U... and then paused, tongue stuck out the side of his mouth.   The ink drying on the felt tip.  Was he thinking of Tom Wolf's quote about writer's block in the Paris Review?

"the fear you cannot do what you’ve announced... or else the fear that it isn’t worth doing." 

Monday, April 20, 2020

Lost and Found

This is the sort of stuff you find when you're spring cleaning...

A childhood game of snakes and ladders.  And it took you fifty-odd years to discover the message hidden in plain sight:  Every action has a consequence.  The industrious boy at No. 37 zooms up to No. 86 whilst the sociopathic girl torturing the cat at No. 94 is rewarded with a slide all the way down to 53.

The boy who plays with matches ends up with bandages the size of boxing gloves and the little girl who washes the dishes gets to see the one-trick pony at the circus.  And yes, it's true that boys get rewarded for being heroic and the girls get kudos for domestic chores.  And for sure, no surprise, the boys get the longest ladders, but they also have to deal with the most treacherous snakes.

Growing up, I couldn't say how many times we played this game, but I never noticed any of it.  It probably explains the complete lack of morality and human decency, plus the urge to drive over chickens and smash glasshouse windows.      

Saturday, April 11, 2020

A Caring Nation

It's great to know that helping disadvantaged kids in Africa is a priority on this little island of ours...

A special thanks to the dude who dropped off the clapped-out exercise bike at the Rotary School Bikes Africa collection point in Dunmore.