I sit in the back of the bar that looks like a library, mimicry to the Disney degree. Cigar smoke – still permitted indoors in 90’s New York – curls up past the leather volumes, the leftover anthologies, and dusty hardcovers pulled from a bargain bin. They made their way here, not meant to be read, just serve as background decoration. Creating atmosphere; what the filmmakers call mise en scene.
From behind my dark wood table, I see the young bartender mixing a drink. I sip gin martinis, very dirty, leaving one olive for the last, perfect bite, salting the glass. In the corner, on a makeshift stage, a three-piece plays jazz. Snare drum, scuffling with one of those wire whisks, scratching the skin like a cat’s prickled back. There’s a stand up bass and another instrument – I can’t remember – memory has painted the picture the dim colors of the past. That’s how memory works, or doesn’t work, as the case may be. Now that drum is just an artifact. That martini, too. The cigar smoke, which can no longer be seen in that bar or anywhere on this side of the millennium, is most indicative of this lost time. The drum can be reskinned. The martini, like a song, remixed. But the cigar smoke has – well – gone up in smoke.
Who am I to laugh at artifact? I’m currently working with some kid who collects video rental stickers. Video rental stickers, like the ones that used to denote genre or give gentle commands like, Be kind, rewind. To him, these are artifacts of a forgotten age. To me, they’re commonplace. Things that fell off of me and my time like loose lashes I never saw drop from my eyes. This is how history works. All that live it, forget it. Those that didn’t, fetishize it. Put it in an album or jar. In the end, I expect my body to be the same. I’m as much a relic as those labels. But before you stick me on the shelf, remember: Be kind. Rewind.
* I want to touch them, but they are behind glass.
The inks are faded: a few shelves of posters, pamphlets, flyers labeled Gay is Good - Homophile Activism Before Stonewall. I’m at the doctor’s office waiting to be seen. Apparently I’m the invisible middle-aged woman; it’s clear in the way the receptionist calls me, “Ma’am.” Everyone else is young, and male, and from the looks of them, clearly marked as queer. I am used to being read by strangers as straight; now I am not just mis-marked straight, but sexless.
I wrap my Lands End coat more closely around me, feeling both conspicuous and utterly unworthy of notice at the same time. There is a massive, brightly colored art installation on the wall of the main hallway. It asks a question: what is love? Giant, hollow, clear plastic letters are waiting to be filled. On a shelf nearby is a box of brilliant note papers - yellow, hot pink, acid green, inviting the poetry of the passing stranger. I want to jump up and shout for joy, for the intentional space that’s been created here - a space that says queer people exist, our stories matter - and yet at the same time, I feel like an outsider because of my unremarkable middle-aged blandness.
The Before Stonewall display beckons, but the nurse might call my name at any minute and I don’t want to be distracted. So I gaze at them from my seat. Each item has the weight of history - you can see it in the creeping ochre of the papers. No bright colors here. When I look at the pamphlets, in my mind I can see the people who printed them. The secret meetings, the arguments over wording, over how much is too much, over who is not being bold enough, the crushes and the rivalries and the police.
The history under glass makes me aware of how invisible that history usually is. How invisible I am.
What you can’t tell by looking at my gray-threaded bob and my sensible snow boots, is that somewhere in my basement is a plastic Tupperware box - a tiny archive of my 90s lesbian-feminist self. There are buttons with an eyeball that say WAC IS WATCHING and “Women’s Action Coalition/Patriarchal Demolition;” flyers from rallies and marches, and my personal favorite, a sticker that reads: “Feminist witch working to advance the lesbian agenda.” Despite these labels, I’ve always struggled to be recognized as queer.
What is worthy of preservation? My daughter kept a shoebox full of shiny wrappers. I labeled the box CLEAN WRAPPERS, but I knew, if she didn’t, that it was her box of garbage. But if someone has only been alive for three years, perhaps the memory of the taste of chocolate is rich personal history held by a flattened piece of silver foil.
* Garbage, then, is in the eye of the beholder. One woman’s junk is another woman’s history.
Labels, stickers: where are we going with all these self-determinations? My life, your life, like a VHS sticker, like a handmade poster, like a pin stuck in your collar at a rally or march. We find these ways to declare ourselves, but they don’t stop us from slipping into obscurity.
I’m going to take a minute here to discuss Weezer. It took the rock band Weezer remaking a 1982 pop song to become relevant again in 2018. As of this week, February 23, 2019, Weezer’s Teal album, which includes Toto’s “Africa” and ten other remakes mostly from the 80’s, is currently number 27 on the Billboard chart. Suddenly, Rivers Cuomo is staring at me, stunned, from the back of the New York TimesMagazine, behind the puzzle. Listening to the album, I try to unlock a puzzle of my own: why? Why do we want to relisten to the songs we can hear on any Muzak station, the gentle hits of the 70s, 80s, and 90s? It’s as if somebody made a mixtape of all the songs we longed to hear again - just not by the original artists - but by an alternative band we’d all but forgotten existed.
I place this squarely in the range of nostalgia, remade. The album skips a beat. The needle moves. Toto sings Africa, and it’s trash. Weezer remakes it, and it’s born anew. This is one of the powers of art, but also of memory. We remake and reuse. Everything old is new again.
When I think about it though, Weezer has always been a band built on redouxing. One of their earliest songs played upon the myth of Buddy Holly. Said we were a cool couple because, I was “just like Mary Tyler Moore”. In another song, Cuomo romanticized his garage, covered with posters of Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley, and Peter Criss. Cuomo and I, we’re from the rerun generation. We are from the first self-aware age, Generation X. But of course, all generations are self-aware. We were perhaps self-aware that we were nothing but a remake. We had no Buddy Hollys or Mary Tyler Moores, but we remembered them from TV. From the beginning, we were just a replication. We were Tron, stuck in the machine, and we knew it.
An artifact is an object you can hold to know a time, a place, and a person. But the artifact itself is slipping. No time is ever just itself, but is happening simultaneously. Is referring to more than just one thing at once.
Take the movie Somewhere in Time; it’s a great example. Christopher Reeve travels back to the turn-of-the-century from the 1970’s by wearing a period suit and hat (artifact 1) and indulging in self-hypnosis. But he’s quickly swept back to the future by finding a 1979 penny (artifact #2) in his pocket. Time is not stable. Artifacts are not objects, they’re doors. Where you end up, depends on how and when you gripped the handle. In a minute, I’ll tell you a story about Sylvia Plath. You’ll see what I mean.
Pick up the small clear plastic shoebox full of feminist ephemera. Put your hand on the handle. Open the door. Find yourself walking down Foster Avenue in Chicago on a cold March in 1994, bleached blonde buzz cut, heavy Doc Martens shit-kickers, black motorcycle jacket. A small, frail elderly woman is struggling with her car – the memory here gets fuzzy – was it bags? A flat tire? Stuck in the ice?
Let’s make it bags. “Oh young man!” she cries. “Sir! Can you help me?”
A tingle filled my body. “Of course,” I said, hurrying to her side. When I got there, she saw that I was not a boy at all. She was disquieted and apologetic. “I don’t mind,” I told her. Secretly I was a little thrilled. I had cut my hair, donned the requisite Docs and motorcycle jacket because I wanted to be seen and known by my tribe. When I marched with Queer Nation we would shout, “We’re Here! We’re Queer! We’re Fabulous! Get used to it!” I wanted to be visible to the people who I felt the most kinship with. I wanted them to look at me and think, “She’s here. She’s queer. She’s fabulous.” I wanted to cover my body with those political stickers so I could be read accurately.
Last week my daughters were discussing Doc Martens. I decided to educate them on the various types. I owned the ankle boots, the oxfords, and even a pair of T-strap Mary Janes for getting fancy. “And where are all these boots NOW?” begged my thirteen-year old, member of the nineties fetishizing club. They are gone. I donated them all about six months before nineties retro footwear became all the rage. She has a pair of contemporary knock-offs, but she will never set foot in my original Docs and march in my shoes. If she could, would they walk her right into my past, where she would find an angsty twenty-something trying to become herself?
Tonight she’s wearing a political t-shirt and refuses to wear a coat over it, even though it’s freezing rain out. It is neon yellow with bold black letters announcing, “Why be racist, homophobic, or transphobic when you can just be quiet?” Her friends all have the same shirt. I admire the ally spirit, but I don’t quite get the “be quiet.” I spend an unreasonable amount of time parsing it in my mind, putting in new, more powerful phrases (you can be decent…be human…not be an asshole) but I completely understand why she doesn’t want to wear a coat. She wants to be seen, and known. She doesn’t want to be mistaken for someone she’s not. She’s wearing her sticker.
Her sister is absolutely wearing a coat. She owns so many – most of them vintage knockoffs. Her newest acquisition is a long emerald green trench coat swiped straight from the pages of Virginia Woolf. She spends hours online looking at old makeup and fashions. Her eyes go dreamy when she dons one of her dresses – nipped waist, pleated skirt, crinoline. She stands in front of the hall mirror and twirls. In her mind she is traveling backwards in time, a time she imagines as more refined than this one. She wears antique cotton gloves, as if perhaps they can transform everything she touches to a place she longs for, a place she’s never been.
The Africa of Toto’s song isn’t a real place. You can’t see Kilimanjaro from the Serengeti. Toto was a band of Los Angeles musicians writing about the idea of Africa. They had never been. Africa in the song is magical, untouched, “waiting there for you.” The real continent has of course been touched by many colonial hands. The chorus swells, ignores real history, sings longing for a time and place better than the present, where you can reinvent yourself, washed clean. It’s the perfect tune for a cover album. Listen to the song and perhaps you’ll find me, in a pair of holeriddled Keds, walking towards the nineties and my first pair of Docs. Or perhaps you’ll find whatever you want to be there. It’s your door handle. I bless the rains.
In a literature class I took my last year of school, the professor taught stories as historical insight. He taught artifact: the novel itself is an artifact, he said, of the time it was published, and any references throughout could be investigated to understand that time. Perhaps it was less a literature class than history, but no matter. I like a good investigation. I like donning my floppy hat and khaki pants and being an archeologist like Indiana Jones, rather than just a reader.
I chose the book The Bell Jar as insight into post-World War II America. (See how I said I would eventually discuss Sylvia Plath; here, just now, you’ve slid backwards and forwards in time, in this essay.) But rather than chew on the traditional interpretations and deconstructions, the professor asked us to grab on to one artifact and understand it, as a way of illuminating the book.
For me, that artifact was ECT, what at the time was called electroshock therapy. By studying it, I learned that ECT wasn’t just an artifact, but a gendered artifact; it told the truth of gender throughout the ages. It is fact that women have received ECT two to three times as often as men, and continue to do so, regardless of diagnosis. This is still true today, although as of the mid-90s, 95 per cent of doctors who prescribed ECT were men.
Keep in mind that during WWII, women were needed to work outside the home in physically demanding factory jobs while men fought overseas. Labors that, in the past, they’d been told they were too weak to perform. During the war, government advertisement recruited women with slogans such as, “Can you work a mixer? You can use a power drill!” As a result, 19 million women held demanding jobs during the war; but once soldiers returned, women were expected to return home. It turned out you couldn’t put baby back in the bell jar. Returning to the boredom and numbing and yes insanity of the domestic sphere made her go a bit mad. A method of subjugation was required.
Electroshock therapy was also a shadow story for the electric chair. Do you remember how the novel opens, with the Rosenberg execution? Plath writes, “The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers.. I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to be burned alive all along your nerves.” By the end of the book she has experienced just that, electroshock, the burn along her nerves. Like the Rosenbergs, she has transgressed, and must be punished.
This is all very interesting interpretation of the book, you might say. It is a notable insight into history, feminism, the horrors experienced by women. It’s perhaps not what you learned in high school, that Sylvia Plath was mad, that the book is just a giant prologue to the time in England when – left alone all day with her children while her poet husband enjoyed success -- she stuck her head in an oven, finally ending her torment. Of course, it is well known that husband later burned a great deal of her poems, so that the paper’s ash – like the ash of her body – is also an artifact.
Now you can never read the book in the same way again, and that, after all, is the point. The artifact of the book is slipping. The artifacts mentioned in the book are similarly unreal. Sylvia Plath herself can no longer be said to be one thing, but like an unstable electron shaking inside a cell, she’s shedding, she’s molting, she’s changing history, right now, with us, as we are, but will never again be once we have reached.
I want to know what objects will be used to define me.
I want to know the artifacts.
I want to know what words will finally be sung in my honor.
I want to accept I won’t be there to hear them. That they will mean little. That no one will understand.
I want to know that the coat, and the shoes, of my daughters and ancestors, will not be mine. They will also discard them. History will take place. And continue to be – always – lost.
-- Anne-Marie Akin is a Jubilation Foundation Fellow and a songwriter for the National Lullaby Project. Her work has been published in various journals including The Bitter Southerner, About Place, and the anthologies The Buddha Next Door and THEY SAID: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing. She teaches at the Old Town School of Folk Music, and creates music and literature experiences for very young children on Chicago’s South Side. Laura Jones is the editorial consultant for Mondo / Alamo Drafthouse, and a journalist currently writing for The Austin Chronicle. Her nonfiction essays have appeared in two anthologies and literary magazines like Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, The Drum, The Gay and Lesbian Review, and Foglifter, to name a few. A book she edited for Mondo, A Field Guide to Evil, comes out nationally in October 2019. Her newest project is an anthology devoted to the 1987 CBS series, Beauty and the Beast. She lives in Austin, TX.