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THE TOILET PAPER COLUMNS by Richard Hell cover

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Column #6

This morning I see that the judge in the Michael Jackson trial admitted into evidence two books of photographs of adolescent boys that Jackson had stashed in a locked file cabinet in a closet (!) at Neverland (!!). The report in The New York Times describes how one of them, Boys Will Be Boys, "contains the following note on the flyleaf: 'Look at the true spirit of happiness and joy in these boys' faces, this is the spirit of Boyhood. A life I never had and will always dream of. This is the life I want for my children.' The note is signed 'MJ' in what appears to be Mr. Jackson's hand." Of course the books were introduced contrary to the wishes of the defense, but isn't that note poignant? Doesn't it give you a little sympathy for Michael? This sticky trial with all its strangenesses and implications almost seems like a nocturnal emission of the collective unconscious. I wish there was a "non-fiction novelist" to really cover it the way Norman Mailer did Gary Gilmore, or Truman Capote the Clutter murders. Who could do that now? Dave Chapelle? But he's really a sketch guy. Art Spiegelman? It's not his type of material. I wish someone would pay me enough to do it like they did Peter Guralnik to do Michael's teen-virgin-loving poignant fat ghost-father-in-law who OD'd on the toilet at Graceland.

When someone asks me what I think of the trial all I can say is that I haven't kept up. I don't think it's possible to have any idea what's going on from news reports anyway. Though I'll admit that the righteous fury about child "abuse" creeps me out. It's like patriotism, or the Republicans pouncing on the Schiavo case -- a last refuge for scoundrels. What's wrong with a child being initiated into sex by his favorite celebrity? The people who most violently vilify those who have sex with minors as the scum of scum are protesting too much (witness how prison convicts, being the most patriotic of Americans -- the white ones anyway -- , famously ostracize their pedophiles )... And, come on, any parent who left her child alone with Michael Jackson knew what they were getting into. Imagine him at your door, come to interview for the babysit spot. But I'd propose that Jackson's probably made a lot higher percentage of his child-associates (and their guardians) happy than any of those predatory Catholic priests did. As ironic and weird as it is on the bleached face of it, I reckon there is some racism involved in the way this's played out.

It's all theater and concealed ulterior motives and hypocrisy and pandering anyway. It's impossible to view it in any way but as metaphor, because none of it is actually what it seems. It's all symbolic. But then what isn't? The world is weird. I hope I never get accidentally drawn into reality any deeper than writing a column like this.

issue 7, May 2005

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Column #12: CHRISTMAS ISSUE

My dad was a Jew, but he had no religion. He was a Communist organizer as a very young man, which I suppose is actually a Jewish thing to do, but it's also athiest ("Religion is the opium of the masses.") (Which insight might actually be topped by its counterpart, "Opium is the religion of the masses." ). But when I was a kid we did full-scale Christmas without ever giving a thought to Jesus. You know, we chose a tree, decorated it, put presents under it, hung stockings, last-minute additional gifts provided by Santa -- bingo, Xmas morning... It was great. I never knew my father any better than a seven year old could anyway because that's how old I was when he died. My ma, who came from poor southern Methodists, had no religion either (As a kid I asked her if there was a God, and she said maybe the sun.). She was good for Christmas too though. Other people have mixed feelings about Christmas, but I'm into it.

Now, when I see those street decorations coming out the week before Thanksgiving, I do resent it. But what the hell. You have to love capitalism. It's so eager to please. And it's created such great packaging. I mean, we know it's greed masquerading as cheer, but the cheer is so pretty. Look at Brillo boxes. (As Andy Warhol did.) (For some reason soap has the most beautiful, happy, deathless packaging. There's even a detergent that's named "Cheer.")

My wife and I went to Macy's on Saturday afternoon two weeks before Christmas. We were dreading it, but thought we had to find what we needed. Macy's is eight or nine stories high and a full New York city block of buildings merged into one, making over a million square feet of floor space. The streets outside it were almost impassable with shoppers. Inside the building though, we adjusted. It was festive. There were so many various examples of everything, including people, and the light was cozy, and all the Christmas symbols and signs were glittering and glistening and harmonizing everywhere. (A lot of stuff was on sale too.) There was also a surprising amount of warm old wood in the structure -- many of the escalators' steps and trimmings, for instance, were actually worn wood, looking not deluxe but homey. We passed a door opening onto smiling young hirelings in elf outfits beaming at a line of little kids being admitted to a hidden room for a puppet show. And while all the merchandise was organized and displayed to best sales advantage, that mostly meant "pleasing to the eye," and the place was ramshackle too, with floors rising and dropping as the original buildings required, and different sales departments contributing their separate styles.

When we left, it was dark. Outside, there was a crowd around the display window by the revolving doors. In the window was a giant book lying on its side. In a moment hidden machinery opened the book and, panel by panel, a cartoon stage-set panorama unfolded of cutout wintertime holiday revelers, the colored lights on them shifting in syncopation, backed by music. Everybody was into it, though it appeared that a couple of the pieces failed to move into position. Then we saw someone pointing a digital camera upwards, and we looked. Looming directly way over us, huge but manageable, and lit at the top like fluorescent green and red icing on a birthday cake was the Empire (!) State Building, against the black sky, the moon right beside it -- though half the moon was gone -- magnificent and spooky. We went with the flow.

issue 14, Dec 2005

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