TV from 1996: NYPD Blue

I recently re-discovered NYPD Blue, the show that got me started on my unhealthy interest in crime procedurals, thanks to finding it on Hulu (and also, according to the internet, Amazon Prime). I haven’t actually seen that much of the show in its totality, considering how long it ran for—the first episode I ever saw was the season 3 premiere, and I dropped out sometime in the sixth season after the character Bobby Simone died and I didn’t like the detective who replaced him (Danny Sorenson, played by Rick Schraeder). But when I did watch it, I would record episodes off TV on a VHS tape and watch them over and over, and as I’ve come back to these episodes over the past month, it turns out that a lot of this show’s dialogue that still lives in my brain. And I’m re-discovering a lot of cool characters that I’d basically forgotten, like Donna Abandando and John the PA. If anything, the show is better than I remember, or than I was able to appreciate when I was 13.

To be clear, there is a lot of NYPD Blue—which debuted in 1993 and ran for 12 seasons—that is dated. For instance, LGBTQ stuff: there are good moments, but there’s also a lot that is objectifying and not flattering. Even the tolerant detectives seem painfully aware that they’re interviewing one of “those people” whenever they deal with a crime that requires them to talk to queer folks. There’s tolerance, but precious little genuine acceptance, and less celebration. I wouldn’t recommend this show to another queer person without that disclaimer, even though (for me) there’s enough other awesome stuff that I focus on instead. And even though I think the show does a pretty good job with non-white characters (at least within the boundaries of its genre as a crime show, and the fact that everyone the detectives come in contact with is intersecting with the criminal justice system), it’s definitely a show written by a white guy who was writing (perhaps unconsciously) with a white audience in mind. Detective Sipowicz is racist, he’s surrounded by other cops who are racists, and even the presence of the (phenomenal) black Lieutenant Arthur Fancy or the always solid Detective Martinez, does not make up for the snide remarks and sighs and grunts that pepper the show whenever a white cop has to deal with a character with a background different than his.

I started writing this to discuss the season 3 episode “Backboard Jungle,” which directly addresses Sipowicz’s racism and its effects on those around him (and how they navigate it), because I think handles racism in a way that’s nuanced and complicated and still speaks to America today, in 2022 (though by the time I post this, it might be 2023) (update: yep, it’s 2023, happy new year). The way it slowly hems in Sipowicz, traps him in a cage of his own making, is masterful. And I was all set to laud David Milch (who I think is one of the finest writers to ever work in television) for it, and then I learned: he didn’t write it. A black man did, David Mills, who’s also written for Treme, The Wire, Homicide: Life on the Street, ER, and others. Intellectually, I know that network television shows employ many writers (they have a whole room!), and that producers, showrunners, or head writers rarely if ever write an entire season’s worth of episodes, even if they’re credited in every episode. But also, duh. I really should have intuited that this episode is more nuanced than most white writers could manage. But memories are imperfect and credits are easy to misunderstand.

“Backboard Jungle” reminded me of a small-scale Do the Right Thing. Not in plot or in stance, necessarily, but because both pieces have the courage to raise questions about racism in America and then not answer them. At the end of Do The Right Thing, characters circle and snipe and attack each other, and it feels simultaneously futile and inevitable, because the real evil in that movie is something that none of the characters can ever directly address, much less defeat. The racism at evidence in that movie destroys so much, by the end. It also still exists. It hasn’t gone away, even though every character (I think) wishes that it had.

“Backboard Jungle” does a variation of the same thing: It wrestles with these problems, but does not solve them. At the end of the episode, Sipowicz is still a racist. He’s still a cop. Fancy still has to work with him, the people of color who live in his precinct still have to encounter him and tolerate his presence and power in their neighborhood. He has opened wounds with his coworker Bobby Simone and his wife Sylvia that do not close. A murderer is off the street, but the drug dealers who contributed to the initial violence in the story are all still out there. There are no winners.

How do we deal with racists in our immediate vicinity? How do we challenge them, how do we change their views, how do we move forward in spite of them? This episode poses some options, but it doesn’t present any of them as fun, or magical, or even all that helpful at all.

As the episode opens, a local black community organization has organized a basketball game to honor the memory of a young black man who died in police custody (we never know much about this man, but it’s stated several times that the cause of his death is ambiguous: the medical examiner and the police department said he had a seizure; members of the black community suspect he was murdered by police). The community organization—represented by the character Kwasi Olushola, played by Tom Wright—has convinced the police to stay away from the game. Sensing opportunity, drug dealers in the area take it over, forming their own teams. With a high gang presence and no cops, violence breaks out, at least two people are killed, and numerous other innocent bystanders injured.

Sipowicz starts out bad, frustrated at “the brass” for going along with the community org’s request for no police, and with no respect for the people who organized the basketball game, and particularly none for Kwasi, who he sees as little more than a drug dealer. He resents that the black community doesn’t just believe the police when they say that the boy in their custody died of a seizure (gee, Sipowicz, wonder why they don’t believe you or your bosses). Sipowicz is both terrible at expressing himself and terrible at hiding how he feels, so the initial interview with Kwasi, well, it devolves.

Kwasi: You people wanted this to happen. The cops resented this game from the outset because it was in memory of a young black man murdered by police.
Simone: All right, Kwasi, calm down.
Sipowicz: That kid died from some kind of seizure.
Kwasi: He was murdered, and the racist NYPD covered it up.
Simone (reaching out to take Kwasi’s arm): Let’s tell it at the station house.
Kwasi (pulling away): Am I charged with a crime?
Sipowicz: Hey. Don’t be flailing your arms.
Kwasi: I don’t have to go anywhere with you. You dealing with that one [n-word redacted] in a thousand who knows what you can and cannot do.
Sipowicz: I’m dealing with a [n-word] whose big mouth is responsible for this massacre.
Simone: Shut up, Andy.
Kwasi: (pushing) Back off!

The conversation ends with both men losing their tempers, Simone needing to separate them, and Kwasi getting arrested for “putting his hands on an officer.” The whole interaction is witnessed by a local reporter and couldn’t be swept away or denied even if Sipowicz wanted it to (spoiler alert: he doesn’t).

Note that this interaction is precisely framed for Sipowicz to give himself an out. It’s not his fault, he didn’t say the n-word first, he only said it after the other guy did. The old “It’s not a slur if I’m just quoting someone else saying it” line.

“I did not call him that. He called himself that, and I threw it back at him,” he says to his boss when recounting the incident later. “You don’t get to ‘throw that back,'” Fancy retorts. Sipowicz knows that he won’t find any sympathy from Fancy, but he doesn’t want or need that; if anything, Fancy’s reaction cements Sipowicz’s feelings that nobody is assessing the situation—or his role in it—fairly or objectively.

Bobby Simone walks a fine line in this episode, having his partner’s back in front of Kwasi and the Lieutenant, while also making clear to Sipowicz that he doesn’t support how Sipowicz is behaving. Simone has the conversation with Sipowicz that we all hope non-racist cops are having with their racist coworkers: “Partner. I was not comfortable with those words. I am not comfortable with the feelings behind them.” They don’t have time to talk about it very in-depth because Simone has to solve the case without help from his partner. The conversation doesn’t do anything to change how Sipowicz is thinking, but it does let him know that the receptive audience for his feelings on this issue is shrinking, has shrunk.

Fancy benches Sipowicz and lets him stew at his desk for most of the day. It is not until they both have their coats on to go home, and the day is done, that they have it out and Sipowicz’s cracks begin to show, that his self-justification begins to wilt. He’s always argued that even if he is racist, he has never let that get in the way of doing his job. He thinks that Fancy is keeping him back because he’s acting as a black man, and not as a lieutenant in a police force who wants to solve crime (“acting his color,” I suppose, another thing that Sipowicz said to Kwasi). Fancy points out that racism did keep Sipowicz from getting his job done, today. That even before Fancy took him off the case—even before he got into it with Kwasi—Sipowicz had not been able to conceal his contempt for the people he was interviewing, or his impatience with the whole situation. (And just, man, look at all the emotional labor Fancy has to do here, putting aside his own feelings about the n-word or the whole situation, and finding a way to approach it that Sipowicz will actually see and accept.)

Sipowicz: I’ve said that word. I’ve thought it plenty. But I never used it on the job till your hump pal put us on that road.
Fancy: This isn’t about a word, Andy. Or your impure thoughts. It’s about you making this case harder to work.
Sipowicz: Not about you being black? Not about giving some back to me?
Fancy: It’s about what I say it’s about.
Sipowicz: Then say it. Part of what it’s about is watching me sweat.
Fancy: Well, a hell of a lot went down today, so I’d have to check my notes, but I thought I spent some of that time trying to save your sorry ass.
Sipowicz: Give me a break.
Fancy: I’m not gonna take you out, Andy. I move you out, my white bosses—they send me a little message. They send me another [racist detective] just like you, but maybe that one can’t do the job like you can.
Sipowicz: Gee, thanks a lot, boss.
Fancy: …I’ve been dealing with white cops like you since the academy. I can manage you with my eyes closed. Now, maybe you can’t handle a black man being your boss.

So we’ve got two strategies going: Simone appealing to his feelings, Fancy appealing to his pragmatic side. In the final scene, Sipowicz goes home and tells his wife about his day. He repeats the same justifications to Sylvia (who is pregnant)—that it wasn’t his fault because he didn’t say the word first, that he’s never used that word on the job before, and surely all that previous good behavior counts for something. The problem is the word, surely, not the attitudes and beliefs and subsequent actions of white people using the word.

Sylvia: I haven’t heard you use the word, but I have seen you do this. (She gestures with her hand so it crosses her face, like she’s casting a shadow over it.)
Sipowicz: That’s not the same thing. That’s something cops do so you don’t have to mention race. ‘Hey, did you hear about the shooting at this barber shop?’ (gesture) ‘Yeah.’ So it doesn’t have to be said and nobody gets offended.
Sylvia: Andy, it’s code for the word.
Sipowicz: It’s code so you don’t have to say it.
Sylvia (after a pause): Don’t ever show that to our child.
Sipowicz: Yeah. All right.
Sylvia: Don’t teach him that. Don’t teach him to think that way.
Sipowicz: Yeah.

And Sipowicz has no response to that. And because he loves his wife, because she is one of the only people on this earth that he wants to create happiness for, he says, “Yeah, okay.”

The episode closes with Andy sitting in a chair, looking as small as it’s possible for a burly man to look. Looking angry, and trapped, and like he suspects he’s in the wrong but doesn’t know how. This has gotten through to him. Do not teach our child to think that way. (The question of whether that’s possible, of whether Sylvia is asking for something that Andy is capable of doing, is a whole other question.)

It is rare, even today, that we see racism portrayed with complexity on network television (or anywhere else in mainstream arts/entertainment). Andy Sipowicz is the protagonist, he’s the center of the show’s narrative, we’re definitely supposed to see him as a good guy, and yet he is incredibly flawed. The conversations in this episode carry forward into at least two other episodes in later on in the show—once when Kwasi’s character recurs, and once when Sipowicz is up for promotion. It feels weird to say that I wish there was more of this? (More racist characters, yay! –No wait.) If we’re going to deal with racism in our art and culture, it needs to be dealt with in a way that’s thorny, and hard, and unresolved—the same way that racism itself is thorny and hard and unresolved. I want television to reflect the society that created it. I want it acknowledged that white people are not just racist by accident or innocent participants in a larger, racist system. I want a world in which racists are not only evil, even while racism itself is acknowledged to be evil. Sometimes white people are racists, and they’re also good dads and good husbands. And usually they don’t suffer consequences for being racist in the way that we want them to.

Am I making too many excuses and justifications for a show that I like? Probably! And there’s a lot here that’s not perfect, and dynamics that (as far as I know) go unexplored in the series—Fancy and Sipowicz talk about race, true, and their relationship is explicitly colored along a racial axis. But other characters—like Detective James Martinez, and the PAA Gina Colón, both portrayed by actors of color—don’t ever talk about Sipowicz’s racism at all. The PAA present in this episode, Donna Abandando (who’s a white woman), hears basically everything that happens in the office (especially between Simone and Sipowicz, because her desk is right next to theirs), but we don’t hear what she thinks about any of it. The dynamic between Sipowicz and Fancy is defined by their power dynamic of subordinate/boss, and Fancy’s character has more power and agency to deal with Sipowicz than his coworker or the office receptionist. Do Gina and James like working with him? Is Gina afraid that if she makes a complaint about him, that she’ll be the one to lose her job, not him? The effect of the characters’ silence is to imply that since they’re not direct targets of Sipowicz’s racism, its existence doesn’t bother them; I think most POC would probably say that this is not an accurate reflection of how racism affects them in the workplace. But the show is silent about this, at least from what I can remember.

And yes. There is an argument to be made that the sympathy that we as an audience are expected to feel toward Sipowicz would be better spent at the altar of, say, Lieutenant Fancy. And that we need shows that show black joy and jobs for black actors that aren’t just as murder suspects (I think we do have more of those now, in 2023, but in 1996 when this aired, the pickings were comparatively slim). Agreed! All agreed. We need all those things in our culture too. We also need more shows about white people honestly, actively, *consciously* wrestling with their own racism. Sipowicz “wins” in this episode. He caught the murderer, Kwasi’s not going to sue him, he gets to keep his job. But the last shot of the episode shows just how much he does not feel like a winner.

It is important that this episode was written by a black man, David Mills. I think it took a white man to write Sipowicz’s racism (Milch has said that he used his own experiences when delving into this side of the character), but it takes a person of color to truly play out the consequences and especially the effects of that racism. I also think it’s important that Mills was sixteen years younger than Milch. I truly don’t remember how much Sipowicz examines and re-assesses his own racism over the course of the show and changes thanks to self-examination and personal hard work. I do think it’s crucial that in this episode, we don’t see Sipowicz changing, but we see signs that the world is changing around him. His boss is black, his partner vehemently disagrees with him, his wife will not tolerate it in their household or around their child. He can’t count on the reporter who hears the exchange with Kwasi to be pro-cop and sweep the story under the rug. Kwasi himself has access to resources and a megaphone that he can deploy against this cop if he wants to. Sipowicz hasn’t changed, but he’s realizing that the world around him has, and he can learn to navigate that world, or he can choose not to. And sometimes that’s the best you can expect.

Sources:

“The Backboard Jungle.” NYPD Blue. Written by David Mills and William L. Morris. Directed by Mark Tinker. 20th Century Fox Television, 1996.

Britt, Donna. “Giving Voice on TV to Things Unsaid.” The Washington Post, 6 September, 1996. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Accessed 22 April 2022.

Elber, Lynn. “Irked Black Writer Breaks ‘Blue’ Line.” Sun Sentinel, 16 January 1996. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Accessed 22 April 2022.

Millman, Joyce. “Racist — or realistic?” Salon, 27 September 1997. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20070703061913/http://www.salon.com/sept97/media/media970922.html. Accessed 6 October 2022.

After the Music is Over

It starts in Kenmore Square, which the song says is deserted, but you’ve never been here when the college kids are here, so you don’t really know what that’s like (or not like). When you get off the T and exit the station, you always have stop and do a full 360 spin and make sure you’re pointed the right direction, because Boston has a way of spinning your inner compass.

In one acutely-angled corner, where Comm Ave, Brookline, Beacon, and Deerfield all come together, there is a two-toned, roughly triangular building. This is your hotel. The floors in the lobby are stone, murderously slippery when wet. There’s a restaurant/sushi bar/karaoke bar just off the lobby. The elevators are small, and old, and take forever. The stairwells (one on each side of the building) wrap around the elevator shafts, and it’s often faster to use them—but they’re also slippery, also murderous when wet.

The hotel was built in 1897, and god knows when it was last renovated. The windows don’t have screens, so if you open one to get some extra air, you have to mind how close you sit to the edge. From one side of the hotel, you can see the Citgo sign. From the other, you can see the backside of Fenway Park. If you can’t see either of these, well, there’s always the roof, which a careless employee has left unlocked. Just climb the rickety-ass iron steps and push on the door that says AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. There’s never any stars to speak of—it’s Boston, it’s December, it’s generally overcast; even if it’s not overcast the city lights drown out the sky—but you can see all of Kenmore Square from up there, watch people crossing the street below you to get to 7-11 or Dunkins.

The carpet is maroon with little pale spots on it, and it’s the same carpet regardless of what floor you’re on, or whether you’re in a room or a hallway. In spite of the hotel’s general triangular shape, the inside is a warren, with dead ends and side hallways. No matter which direction you turn when you come out of the elevator, it is the wrong direction. Some of the rooms are freezing, some roasting.

It was one of the first hotels built in Boston, and when it was built, it was one of the largest buildings in the city. One has to think that there was splendor here, once. The lobby tries to call back to it, with its fancy ceiling and the aforementioned stone floors. The wooden staircase railings that swoop down black and gold metal balusters (are they supposed to be wrought iron? Cast iron? Colonial something-or-other?). But that was awhile ago, and Kenmore Square is no longer upper class (if it ever was), no longer the “it place” in town. It has shops and offices and restaurants, it’s like 3 blocks away from Fenway Park, and it has the Citgo sign. That’s it.

According to Wikipedia, the hotel was used to house Italian prisoners of war in World War II. It’s where the fixers of the 1919 World Series met to iron out their conspiracy. There used to be a radio station in the basement (man, now I wish I’d found my way to the basement, I bet there’s still equipment down there). There used to be a nightclub in the space that later became a pizza restaurant, with performers like Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong.

So that’s the actual history. The history that matters to the rest of the world.

The important thing is, there’s no cops at this hotel, no noise complaints, and the rooms are big enough to cram in a truly criminal number of people. She is old and shabby (like me, like so many of us), but so many things happened here, the kind of history that only matters to a few people, here and there, who passed through her hallways.

Here’s the punx room, stinking of beer and sweat and sweaty beer after three days, floor covered in sleeping bags and duffels and lanky, hungry humans who either didn’t want to or couldn’t pay for their own hotel room.

Here’s where we—grown-ass adults with steady jobs and retirement savings accounts—almost got in a fight with teenage girls who wanted to party for a weekend and mouth off.

Here’s where that guy kissed you, that one time.

Here’s the room where somebody—not saying who—hid action figures in the ceiling, to see if they’d stay up there until the next year, or if someone would find them and take them.

Here’s people making sure everyone they know has tickets to the show, has food, has beer. You know, all the important stuff.

Here’s where W built a whole-ass bar out of plywood and ingenuity, and that one actually did cause a noise complaint, because he was using power tools, but when the security guy came to see what the fuck was happening, W was so charming and competent that the guy just made him promise to take it down at the end of the week (he did).

Here’s Bill, outside smoking, Bill who got you drunk when you were 17 and has never asked you to be anyone other than your own sweet self. Bill, who’s seen enough fucked up shit in his life, that when he tells you, “That was fucked up, what happened to you,” you know to believe him.

Here’s someone in a tiger suit, opening beer bottles with her teeth.

Here’s Skippy, carrying a shrub through the lobby. As you do.

Here’s a guy bringing a dozen people out into the city on a Pizza Tour of Boston.

Here’s another, showing everyone the route over the bridge, past the college campus, down to the Harvard Square post office.

Here’s half a dozen people sitting on the floor in the hallway, beers next to their ankles, wrists hooked over their knees. There’s like 40 people in the hotel room and no room for more.

Here we are, every December. Slightly different cast, maybe, but same general, hospitable, welcoming insanity.

The hotel is closed now, killed by the pandemic (and maybe other factors? I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been unprofitable for awhile). The lobby is dark, the elevators still. Did the owners sell the hotel furniture, try to even out their losses? Are the tourist pamphlets about the duck boats and Freedom Trail still in the empty lobby? Did a homeless guy jimmy his way into the basement? Did they remember to lock the door to the roof before they left, or is it swinging open?

I’ve been listening to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones since I was 14 years old. I went to my first Throwdown (and met Bill) when I was 18. That whole time, I felt lucky: To like this band, who didn’t force me to wrestle with the idea of problematic faves. To find these friends. To explore this city. To find new bands that I loved because the Bosstones took them on tour or talked them up in interviews. To love a band that played this many shows for this many years.

The Bosstones broke up in January, and my streak of having non-problematic faves is officially broken (thanks, Dicky, and fuck you). As I wrestle with my anger, I realize that this is what I will miss: all these people, all these friends. I hope I see you all again. I hope you’re all doing okay, keeping safe, all that.

I had plenty of time with the Bosstones. With their songs, with their shows, with them as people. I didn’t have enough time with my friends.

After the music is over
When what needs to be’s been said
After the tears have all been shed
When it’s over, what is after that?

….After the music’s over, we will hear the music again.

Three Memories

A minifigurine shaped like a panda, and several D&D dice, including a D20 and two D10s.
I don’t have a good picture of Comic Con, so here is my panda minifig from my D&D game.

July, 2017. I’m at Denver Comic Con, in a room full of rows of chairs, and a projector on a cart set at an angle to find the screen in the corner. I find a seat on the aisle (I always find a seat on the aisle), as near to the front as I can get. We’re in a mid-sized breakout room for this panel, which is called “Marvel: Then and Now,” and it’s crowded enough that people are filling the seats, standing along the back wall, shuffling bags and cosplay weapons to try to make space for someone next to them.

The panel has three generations of Marvel writers and artists: Two old guys (like, in their late 80s, they rolled into the panel on mobility scooters) who were at Marvel in the 1950s, a white English man who started at Marvel in the late 80s, and a black woman who works there now and whose titles include Black Panther, Iron Man, and World of Wakanda.

The first question that the moderator asks is about how Marvel has changed since each panelist got into the business. One of the old guys said (and in spite of the quotation marks, I’m paraphrasing), “I don’t want to get political” (so don’t then) “but” (uh oh) “I started at Marvel during World War II, and the nation was one. And I think we need to make America great again.” (please be being ironic right now) “We need to just give him a chance” (oh dear) “He’s going to take down the Mexican mafias just like he made it safe for a black woman and her kid safe to walk down the street in New York” (stop talking) “and why can’t we be as one” (seriously though stop talking). He goes on citing “fake news” and random crime stories for several minutes. I’m not sure why the moderator didn’t interrupt or redirect; he certainly should have. The few people of color who were in the audience get up and walk out. I noticed some white people too. After a weirdly agonizing minute, as my ingrained training about being “civil” (or at least “not rude”) battles with my desire to not look like I was endorsing this shit by continuing to sit here and listen to it, I get up and walk out too. I feel like everyone is staring at me, even though I’m sure nobody was. Someone sitting on the floor probably crept into my seat and that was that.

Of course, the minute I got out into the hallway, I realized, well shit, now I don’t get to hear Alitha Martinez talk about her career, the things she’s done and what she enjoys about drawing for Marvel. Ain’t that always the way: old white dude takes up too much space, too much oxygen, pushing out other voices or making them impossible to hear. I find her booth later in Artist Alley, and buy whatever I can. She’s really nice, there with her teenage son, who’s helping her sell art and books when he isn’t off doing his teenage son thing.

Artist Alley. Remember Artist Alley? And how close everybody had to stand to each other in order to move around at all?


Laura Jane Grace from the band Against Me! sings at Riot Fest. The picture is of the large screens so Laura can be seen from far away.
Big Laura Jane Grace is big.

September, 2019. I’ve been awake since 2:30am, and only had four hours of sleep total anyway. Showered and walked to the train. Didn’t manage to fall asleep on the train. Got to the airline gate with enough time to spare to buy a bagel and cream cheese at a Smashburger, the only food place that’s open on the concourse. They don’t spread the cream cheese on the bagel even though they have a full kitchen. Just drop a couple of individual servings in the bag.

I doze on the plane, at least for a little while. I was the sort of tired where everything around you and inside you starts to feel fuzzy and unreal. Being locked in a dark tube as it hurtles through the air doesn’t help with this impression. After we land, I take the train into town and and find the hostel I’m staying in. Check in time isn’t until like 4pm, but they let me store my stuff in the luggage room so I can head right back out and take the train to Douglas Park, where Riot Fest is happening.

I have almost always gone to concerts, music festivals, things like that, by myself. It’s not weird to me. And I like being able to choose my own schedule, decide which acts I want to see, and not have to discuss it with anyone else. I like being able to pull up a patch of grass and read a book when I need some downtime. Chicago in September is sunny, and warm, but not unbearably hot. The Sears Tower (or whatever it’s called now) looms in the distance like a giant, hibernating Transformer. Riot Fest rents out lockers so I don’t even need to keep my backpack with me most of the time. The lines to the port-a-potties, though on the long side, move quickly. Same for the water bottle refilling stations. People are handing out free individual packets of Pedialyte to keep everyone moving and hydrated. I am not filled with the amplified excitement that I used to get when I was younger and looking at the lineup for Warped Tour, and I’m not interested in getting myself clobbered in the mosh pit anymore, but I am perfectly content, standing in the shade to see H2O over here, dancing in the sun to The Selecter over there, buying ice cream that is way too expensive, checking the Riot Fest subreddit and meeting up with a random guy who happily gives me a pair of foam ear plugs. There are a whole lot more Latinx people here than I remember seeing in the scene in Denver, and I remember how multiracial punk is, or could be, or should be, or has been.

I see Anti-Flag, who are still singing about how dying for your government is shit after all these years, calling for a circle pit “everywhere” (please no). I randomly see a band named the Thin Lips, they were good. Wander around the merch tents, the usual collection of tie dye and Bob Marley posters and skate decks and anarchist bookstore tents. I sit under a tree and watch Hot Water Music from a distance. I have a locker that I can lock and unlock, so every now and then I take out my homework and work on it in the grass while I wait for Andrew WK or the Village People to take the stage. .

There’s old punks, with grey hairs and battered Vans. Young punks, with shellacked hair and pristine Docs. It’s like Warped Tour, but more low-key, and with more older punks. There’s a breeze, trying to clear out the humidity and the smoke from various types of stimulating leafs. The grounds crew tried to fill in the soft spots in the ground with wood chips to prevent mud pits, and it’s…slightly effectual.

The last day, Sunday afternoon/evening, is the reason why I really came to Chicago for this. Against Me!, Patti Smith, and Bikini Kill play one after the other on the same stage. Sometime over the summer, I jokingly tweeted at Laura Jane Grace that I needed her to make sure that her and Smith’s and BK’s sets didn’t overlap because I needed to see all three of them. I know that LJG doesn’t have any control over stage order at a huge fest like Riot Fest, but I got my wish, and I decide it’s because of her. I head over to the stage almost an hour early, and get as close as I can. In the manner of fests, there are two big stages next to each other and they alternate which one is in set up mode and which one has a band playing on it, so even though I’m only seeing three more bands, I’m going to be in this spot for about six hours. I have already peed and also monitored my fluid intake so I won’t have to go to the bathroom. I have clif bars in my backpack. I have a book to read. I am not front and center, but I’m close enough to see the band members’ faces, far enough away to not have to worry about the pit, and near to the big screens on either side of the stage that I can look at those if I need to (and when I take pictures on my phone, I mostly take pictures of the screen, because as dusk falls my already-crappy phone camera gets even crappier). I’m surrounded by other women, and we are all so so ready.

The bands are great. How do I describe how great they are? What are the words I can use to convey how happy I am? Laura Jane Grace laughs her way through her set and Patti Smith rules the fucking stage. Bikini Kill is still making their own clothing and digging through thrift store discount bins for stuff to wear on stage. And to see Bikini Kill, who (along with their friends and the rest of the riot grrrl community) started their own revolution, who stand for so much and who put their voices in the mouths of so many girls and queer kids, to see them play for thousands and thousand of punks, to see them close out Riot Fest, to hear Kathleen Hanna talk on stage about the same things I’ve heard her talk about in 500-capacity theater venues…that was something. That was great.

Dare you to do what you want
Dare you to be who you will
Dare you to cry right out loud
“You get so emotional, baby”

Double dare ya,
double dare ya,
double dare ya

Girl-fuckin-friend yeah
-Bikini Kill, “Double Dare Ya”


A medium-sized brown dog, standing on a gravel path, stares across green grass to the ocean beyond. Her back is to the camera and she's wearing a green harness.
Hazel Dog checks out the ocean (sound? bay? big thing of water).

February 2020. Some friends of mine, who I used to dogsit for until they moved to California, ask if I want to dogsit for them in California. Instead of giving me money, they’re giving me a free trip to California, and use of their car. They live outside of San Francisco, at the tail end of one of the BART lines, in what seems to be a working class neighborhood that can’t decide if it’s sliding downward or sliding upward. Hazel (the dog) and I go to a different park every day, this one a big off-leash park on the coast where she can sniff at and play with other dogs, that one a walk through some redwoods up a big hill (though never quite high enough for a big vista). The air is sunny and crisp, and I find a little park on the coast a mile from their house, where I can go running every morning and appreciate doing a cardio workout at low altitude. I carry a jacket with me but hardly ever wear it. I go see Hamilton (yes, again) in San Francisco. I know the soundtrack by heart but every time I go to see it live, there’s too much to see and it’s overwhelming and my brain forgets to remember what happened. So, I go see it whenever I’m in a city that’s not NYC with tickets that are vaguely affordable and buy a beer in the lobby that costs like $15 fucking dollars holy shit. I’ve never seen Hamilton in the city where I live–just when I’m traveling. I find Chinatown by accident while I’m trying to find the City Lights Bookstore. I think to myself, I could live here, I just need to figure out how to quadruple my income. I understand why people want to live here. The air is just fucking fantastic, and since I barely need to leave the house once a day, I don’t care about the traffic. I write. I go on walks with the dog. I sleep as late as she’ll let me in the mornings. I cook messy things in the kitchen (everything I cook is messy to some degree). I have takeout burgers and takeout Korean food and a random gyro because that’s all I can find right before Hamilton. I see the ocean. I watch classic movies like Silence of the Lambs and Swing Time, and have a long conversation with a friend about genderqueerness and -phobia and Silence of the Lambs. It’s like a staycation, but since it’s not my own house I’m not distracted by all the projects and cleaning that I’m not doing. It’s just me, and my brain, and the dog. I’ve been casting my mind back to it the last six months, those last feelings of freedom, before I knew what was coming. Appreciating the sun and the sky with no impending sense that it might be gone soon.

Who Lives, Who Dies

(Note: This was mostly written in early November 2018, after the White Privilege Symposium that took place in Denver November 2-3.)

“Words make worlds.” This from poet Dominique Christina, in a YouTube video that I’m watching because I’m hoping to find a piece she performed this weekend, one about the social coercion that the mere threat of violence has on a community. Her talk on Friday was not about words at all, but about the mute spectacle that is Emmett Till in an open coffin, Michael Brown uncovered on a Ferguson street, David Jones hung from a lamp post in a town square in 1872. Darren Wilson didn’t plan to kill Mike Brown that day, but leaving his body out on the street for his neighbors to see? What message was that? What do we hear from Emmett Till, who lives still, a ghostly reminder of What Could Happen To You? Broken black bodies follow Dominique and her son through the world. Another speaker this weekend, Theo Wilson, spoke of the anger and powerlessness that threatens to eat you when you realize how quickly a police officer having a bad day (or, let’s face it, having any kind of day) can ruin your life. He spoke of how many friends he’s had to bury.

If you’re a white person learning to talk about race, maybe you’ve noticed that it’s really hard to get white people to talk about race? But you can play Telephone. When black people talk to me about what it’s like to be black, in the background–especially if you’re listening to a black person talk about racism–there is a white person, talking about race to a black person. Those are the messages I listen for, because that is the behavior I’m trying to undo in myself. It’s easy to have compassion for Emmett Till’s mom. She’s central in the story that’s told about him. But I’m a white woman. I will always be on the other side of this interaction. Emmett Till was not my son. Emmett Till is not my phantom.

My phantom is Carolyn Bryant Donham, who looked at Emmett Till and said, “That boy put his hands on me.” Who shaped whole worlds with those words. She said those words (or something like them) in August 1955, said them again at a murder trial to get two white murderers acquitted, and then said nothing more for sixty years, when she admitted that it wasn’t true, that the boy hadn’t done what she said. In the meantime, Emmett’s mother had died. She never had another son.

My phantom is white women who call the police on black children for doing things like selling bottled water or mowing lawns or playing with a pellet gun in a park. On black adults for doing things like using a barbecue pit, or shopping in Target, or sitting in Starbucks.

A tweet went viral awhile back that goes something like, “I have a new game, especially for other white people. It’s the ‘don’t call the cops’ challenge, and basically you start by not calling the cops, and then continue to not call the cops for the rest of your life.” These days we don’t call up a lynch mob. The police have taken the place of the lynch mob. They pass immediate, deadly judgment every time they roll up on a call. We don’t have to call the local Citizens Council; we call the local police non-emergency number. Who called the police on Tamir Rice? Was he white or black? I have a guess.

It’s not that simple, but also it is. As a woman I have to be able to name threats to my safety. Carolyn Bryant Donham, who named Emmett Till a threat, was physically abused by her husband, who killed Emmett. But it was Emmett, not her husband, who she targeted with her words. It was Emmett, not her husband, who she had power over. It was Emmett, not her husband, that she could name as a threat, and have that statement be believed, and acted upon.

One of the oft-stated reasons for lynching was to protect white women from black men, but it generally wasn’t black men that we needed protecting from. And yet, the power of a white woman to call a white man (whether her local police officer or her local Citizens Council) and say, “This black person is bothering me,” and bring the oppressive machinations of society crashing down on that person’s head, has remained unchanged for the last hundred years.

Words can make worlds. Silence can send messages. But I want to, hope to, need to skip the 1955 words. Skip the sixty silent years. Start, in 2018, with truth that is not imbrued with fear, with words that will not destroy anyone else’s world.

A Random Cycling Entry

t1lbwd7I bought a car last year (a 1993 Volvo that cost 700 whole dollars), and as a result, I haven’t been riding my bike hardly at all. Turns out I am really really lazy. I still think like a cyclist, though, and am always checking bike lanes and crosswalks for errant cyclists. I hope that I’m the driver that I wanted drivers to be, back when I was biking everywhere and trying to co-exist with car traffic. Anyway, I was going through a folder in which I had a whole bunch of half-written blog entries, and came across this, and figured I’d throw it out there:

As a cyclist, I hope that drivers can keep in mind that whatever their frustration with me—going slower than them, taking the lane, needing to cross three lanes of traffic in the span of one block so I can turn from 18th onto Larimer—I’m causing you perhaps 10 seconds of inconvenience. You have the power to KILL ME. Some people seem to think that cyclists think we’re invincible daredevils, and maybe some are (I can’t speak for all cyclists, obviously), but I am hyper-aware of the fragility of my meat suit whenever I’m biking in traffic. On the contrary, it seems like car drivers are the ones who are apt to forget their potential to injure and maim. I’m not saying that there’s not badly behaved, unpredictable cyclists out there—there’s about as many irresponsible cyclists as their are irresponsible pedestrians and irresponsible drivers—but when you, Mr/Mrs Driver Person, catch yourself about to lose your shit at some poor schmuck on a bicycle, please take a breath and remember you’ll be past them in ten seconds, it’ll all be over, and you can go about your day.

Some days it just feels like there’s no way for a person on a bicycle to win. And not just in a collision, where I am obviously going to be the loser. If I run a red light, I get yelled at for running it. If I don’t run it, I get honked at for holding up traffic. If I take the lane, I get honked at, never mind that the reason I moved left was to not get doored by someone lurking in a parked car, or because there’s gravel on the road, or because cars were blowing past me with barely a foot to spare and I wanted to force them to give me more space. If I stick to bike paths, I unintentionally goose pedestrians who are walking there; if I stick to the roads, I get yelled at and run the risk of getting plastered. It can be both dangerous and frustrating when all you want is to get home from work in one piece.

That said, it seems a shame that cyclists and cars so often let the bad incidents define the discussion. I ride my bike just about every day, and I have to say, my close calls and angry incidents are few and far between. So:

THANK YOU for pausing and letting me ride by when you’re trying to back out of your driveway.

THANK YOU for waiting to take your right turn and letting me go by in front of you, even though I was going slower than you thought I was.

THANK YOU for pulling a little to the left when you’re passing me to give me space.

THANK YOU for waiting patiently behind me at a light while I start from a standstill.

THANK YOU for stopping last week when I wiped out in the rain, and checking to see if I was okay.

THANK YOU for seeing me signal that I wanted to take a left and letting me cross the lane in front of you.

THANK YOU for when you who lift up your hand and let me know that you’ve seen me.

THANK YOU for pulling your dogs closer to you when you see me coming so I don’t have to worry about getting clotheslined (and I did slow down as much as I could so as to not scare your dogs, I hope that was okay).

THANK YOU to the kids who were waiting for the bus, saw me pushing my way up a steep hill, and started clapping and cheering–that was hilarious.

Thank you all for, so far, not killing me. Thanks to everyone who hasn’t thrown bottles at me, honked their horn for no reason, or yelled at me out a window. I do very much appreciate it.

Thanks. And let’s, when on the road, all just try to be patient with each other. Me included.