Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Random Encounters

As usual, the New Yorker cover on their Nov. 8 issue nailed a complicated issue with a great drawing, "Missed Connections," by Adrian Tomine. A young woman sits on the subway, looking up from a book with a distinctive cover, glances into the adjacent subway car (which, of course, we immediately know is headed the other direction) straight into the eyes of a young man, who's also just looked up and seems a bit surprised, reading the same book.

Just about all of us have had this experience, I'd bet, and it's an intense one. Also a futile one: what's the chance these two will ever see each other again? And, if they do, by some miracle, that they'll turn out to have anything at all in common? One thing I've always wanted to do is answer about 25 of the ads one sees in the personals -- most personals sections have given them their own section by now -- that say, for instance "ORNETTE COLEMAN show. You were outside after show and dropped your hair clip. Guy in suit (me) picked it up for you. How about a drink and more Jazz?" (an actual ad appearing in this week's Austin Chronicle in their "Shot In The Dark" section). I'd offer anonymity in exchange for a continuing, confidential, narrative of how the situation turned out, if, indeed, an answer was ever received. Gay, straight, intellectual curiosity, drunken misadventure...the whole spectrum of these situations, which I've been seeing ever since I started noticing them in the Village Voice decades ago, when I was a teenager.

The reason this is on my mind is twofold. The first is that someone on the Casa Grande East Yahoo! group my friend Stewart Wise runs came upon a cache of photos from the punk days in Austin, which we were all a part of. They were among the effects of a guy named Robbie Jacks, a big, gentle, gay guy much addicted to the theater who died suddenly in August, 2001, at the age of 41. Robbie was a man of many talents, and many acquaintances, who portrayed Leatherface in the fourth Texas Chainsaw Massacre film (and recorded its "love theme," a song called "Der Einziger Weg," with Debby Harry), and wrote a punk musical called Boy Problems which later evolved into a band. Someone on the Casa Grande list posted a photograph of a party, and over in the corner there's me, drinking a beer, and my girlfriend of the time. Somehow, the person who posted the photo managed to post its whole webpage, which, like all the others, bears the caption "Can you identify these people? Do you know the date this photo was taken? Do you know the photographer?" and bore a link to e-mail the people who are curating the photos.

Well, naturally, I got curious and went to the website and started clicking on the thumbnails, and my past started roaring back at me. Everything is posted pretty much just as it must have come out of the shoeboxes or whatever storage Jacks used, so there's no order to any of it, but, as the guy who was the local daily's music columnist/reviewer/reporter from 1979 to 1984, and who moved in most of the circles Jacks did, I figured I should poke around and see who I could identify, and contact the curators with any info I could come up with.

As it turned out, it wasn't so much the people I could identify as the ones I couldn't but who looked disturbingly familiar who began to haunt me. The women, in particular; this was a period of my life when I was incredibly screwed up about relations with the opposite sex, as a major subset of being screwed up about just about everything in general, and my life was a series of obsessions and fears, crushes that I was afraid to act on, and all of a sudden, here were a bunch of them, in poorly-lit Polaroids, all hanging out, drinking, smoking dope, doing silly things, all caught by the unsparing camera of Mr. Robert Jacks. I found I could only take a page or two of thumbnails at a time, and given that there are forty pages of thumbnails, it looks like I'm in for a long memory trip if I continue to check this project out. And, given that I feel a little responsibility as someone who documented the scene in words as Robbie was documenting it in his pictures, I think I will. But the psychic turmoil of seeing faces I couldn't identify, but with whom I'd had some sort of emotional or social connection twenty or more years ago, definitely stirred something up. It's still stirring, too: I'm having odd, but not unpleasant dreams, the result, I think, of finally laying some ghosts to rest. Thank you, Robbie, from beyond the grave.

I think.

The second reason is, I had exactly such an encounter yesterday, and, with all the stuff Robbie's photos have returned to me, it's just a bit eerie. I was at the supermarket, vainly trying to put a meal together (folks, you've been out of butter for five days now: don't you think you can do better than that?), and, walking away from one empty shelf towards the next thing on my list, I realized I'd forgotten something back where I'd just come from, so I turned around and almost collided with a woman who had been just behind me. She was quite interesting-looking, not exactly pretty, but with an air of self-assurance that's rare enough in this society, and she smiled at my quick choreography when I stepped out of her way.

When I finally had as much as I was going to find, which is not to say when I had gotten what I wanted, I walked over to find the shortest checkout line. Germans love standing in lines, apparently, but I just wanted to get back home. The woman in front of me looked familiar, and I noted her purchases: a package of generic spaghetti, a package of generic ravioli, a can of tomatoes, and a small bunch of bananas. As I laid my stuff down on the conveyor belt, she turned around and sort of gazed over my shoulder, but obviously she saw me, too, and recognized me. She turned back to the stuff she'd put down and pulled out her change purse, then checked the price on the sticker on the bananas. Boy, I knew this scenario; I've been living it long enough, although things have gotten enough better that I'm not walking around keeping a running total and feeling the coins in my pocket.

It was a sort of uncomfortable situation. There was something going on, I'm fairly certain, but my language skills aren't up to banter, and my innate reticence held me back. At any rate, with that little, it didn't take her long to pay for her food, pack it into her rucksack, and leave. I'll never see her again, I'm fairly sure, but for some reason the whole thing shook me slightly, and remained in my head this morning.

Guess I should head over to Robbie's photos and see what else comes out of the twenty-year-old murk.

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