scriabin at pride
i accidentally did something lgbtq
Yesterday, I went to meet a friend so that I could give her a camera to replace the one she had been using. When I got off the train at Union Square, there was a line to go up the stairs from the platform. I thought it might be residual foot traffic from Friday evening when protests took to the streets to speak out against the overturning of Roe v. Wade. But as I stood in line waiting for the slow progress, I realized that there were quite a number of people with blue hair and Pride memorabilia. Still, I thought, “Well. What is more queer than protesting the erosion of our personal sovereignty. That checks out to me.”
It wasn’t until I had gone around the line to take another set of stairs at the back of the platform that it occurred to me that it might in fact not be residual foot traffic from the protests and that there might be something else going on. I found another long line to climb out of the station itself, and it was here that it really dawned me that I was in the presence of a bunch of homosexuals. And that I had somehow gotten myself right in the middle of a Pride event. This, to be clear, was not my plan.
The walk to Washington Square to meet my friend took longer than I would have liked it to take because I was stuck in the flow of people moving in that direction. There was body glitter, wings, cat ears, harnesses, flags, and an abundance of body odor. People seemed to be in good spirits. They were laughing and talking, casting mean, judgmental looks at people’s bodies, the usual homosexual activities. Still, I found it very tiresome. Someone shouted, “Happy Pride” at me and I said, “Oh, no I’m not here for that. I’m actually straight, but congrats to your people.” I didn’t want people thinking that I had shown up to Pride. How embarrassing. I mean, I was there in sensible pants and a chambray shirt that I had folded down to my elbows. I was wearing Campers and had a camera looped around my neck. For God’s sake, I was wearing a leather backpack. In short, I looked like a cross between an architecture student and a tourist. I didn’t want people thinking that I thought my outfit was suitable to whatever debauched revelry they had in mind. How mortifying.
I got to Washington Square Park early, so I walked around and took pictures with my Leica M4-P. I was listening to Pletnev’s album of the Scriabin preludes. I love Scriabin for all the normal reasons a person loves Scriabin. The discordances, the playful inversions of melody, a kind of impish delight. Usually, his work feels modern to me in its distrust of beauty, but the preludes start in this very lyrical, beautiful way. Then the theme loops over itself until it seems to lose all meaning and then you arrive at Scriabin’s furious chaos. The preludes are jaunty little flashes, sometimes melancholy, sometimes joyful, sometimes a little mean. I also like the idea of the prelude as a form. It reminds of me what Chopin did with the nocturne, how the form can lend a little poignancy or vigor to the expression. A prelude always has this anticipatory feeling to it. And in Scriabin’s hands, as a genre, that anticipation is also filled with foreboding and surprise.
Scriabin is less popular than other composers, I think. And this must have to do with his hostility to the usual tonality. It’s not that he is anti-Romantic. You can hear the Romantic impulses in his work. The way his pieces break out in moments of beautiful melody, their lyrical flights of fancy. But such moments of sweetness are hidden into the disorienting dissonance of the larger work. It’s as if he’s capturing something of the scattering cacophony of industrial life. His music feels ideally suited for this moment.
I was enjoying shooting with the Leica. I never thought I would enjoy a rangefinder. I’d had a very bad experience with the Mamiya 6. But the M4-P is a lovely camera. It moves so smoothly and feels so solid in my hands. It is a purely mechanical camera, so no batters or electronics. Just dials, springs, and cranks. I like seeing an image come into focus as I slide the dial around, overlaying the image with itself. That moment of sudden sharpness, a little pop of Oh, there you are. I took it with me to Iowa last week to take pictures since I would be moving out of my apartment for good there. Some of the shots came back lovely. The people in Washington Square were living, honey. I did a couple laps, and took pictures of people’s picnics and cuddle puddles. Their group hugs and their twerking. Their smiles and their frowns and their very serious discussions of Kant.Shirtless men were reading books, which, incredible. Also not unusual in Washington Square Park. There were goths and emos and scene kids. People with dyed hair and piercings. So many tattoos. I don’t normally enjoy the presence of other people. But it was one of the better moments of anonymity I’ve ever experienced. Just out there, everyone complimenting each other, boosting each other people, as though they all knew each other though that could not have been the case. It was something to see, all these fellow travelers.
Anyway, I found my friend and gave her a quick demo on the camera. Then we walked around Washington Square taking pictures. People were happy to be out. They were carrying signs. They were making out. They were taking pictures and video. They were performing themselves and living out their fantasies. It was hot—in terms of the temperature. I felt zero sexual frisson. I can’t really experience eros in the company of others. It’s like shy bladder, but for desire, I guess. And so I just felt a muted, distant happiness that these people had found moments to experience pleasure and joy and whatever it was that they seemed to feel. For myself, I mostly was just happy I had subjects for pictures. I was very much there as a voyeur. Which, I mean, what is more queer than turning others into objects for your own artistic expression. I guess, like, radical politics and liberation, but, like, you know, use what’s at hand.
After my friend and I did a couple laps and then waited for an hour for lemonade and iced coffee at a café, we went to drop off film at my photo lab. As we approached, we saw like ten or so cops standing outside the shop. They had a man in cuffs. He seemed a little out of it. It was kind wild. They were just standing around like a flock of crows. We approached two women who were standing off to the side.
“You can still go in,” one of them said, referring to the store.
“Thanks,” I said. “Do you know…what’s happening here?”
She said that the man seemed to have been going through some sort of episode of mental illness and that he’d gone into the store and caused a disturbance, resulting in the police getting called. That made sense. But then she said that there were just so many cops that they didn’t want to leave without making sure that the guy was okay, or mostly okay. They were nervous about the number of police and what they might do to someone in a vulnerable position. I agreed. It did seem far out of scale. Like, why on Earth would there be so many police officers just like, standing around.
I went into the store to drop off my film as usual. I had been there just the day before to drop off five rolls from a recent trip to Iowa. The clerk behind the counter was handling orders from two other people. Business was going on as usual. Meanwhile, some medics came through the door and went downstairs. They had a folding chair and supplies. Soon after, some cops came in. The cashier rung up my purchases. I kept thinking, there is a person down there hurt somewhere. There are police outside on the sidewalk like, in a ratio of ten to one on a guy already cuffed and probably not very lucid. Meanwhile, I am pressing my debit card to a machine. So that this lab can process the photos I have taken with my friend of a Pride celebration. The night before, there were protests across the street from where I was giving a reading at a bookstore. A protest against the erosion of personal sovereignty and a shrinking of access to basic healthcare for millions of Americans. The whole world was on fire, and here I was just doing the tidy business of capitalism.
There was a moment when my card didn’t process. I had removed it too quickly after the tap. So we had to wait a few seconds for her to reset the transaction. And it occurred to me that that moment, when she was waiting for the transaction to reset, constituted a greater interruption in the flow of capital than the psychiatric emergency that had occurred in that very store. And that it also constituted as greater interruption than the flow of capital than the overturning of Roe v. Wade and also probably 9/11. And also probably the shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde. Of course, I remembered back in 2001, when the message was not to let the terrorists win and that we needed to show that America could get back on its feet right away. That we were not going to let fear win. It reminded me of course also of the pandemic. This idea that we need to get back on track and get things going even better and faster than they were before. That what we prize as a nation is the reconstitution of networks of capital. The economy, they used to say in 2001 as if it were a slumbering deity who reigned over us all.
The other day, my friend who works at a mental health resource center, told me they were swamped with work.
“Honestly, it’s a lot of suicide lifeline calls,” they said.
“That makes sense,” I said.
“How do you mean?”
“They overturned Roe yesterday. It doesn’t surprise me that the lines flooded.”
“Yeah, it’s bad.”
The work is constant. The taking of calls, the logging of calls, the making sure that people get what they need. That aspect to the job has not changed very much. But now my friend has a new position where they review how the other technicians handle the calls and they make sure that nothing gets missed in terms of critical resources in critical periods. So instead of being in the line of direct fire, in the trenches themselves, they have a bit of a vantage point to see out over the whole, cracked surface of people needing psychiatric intervention. And because of the nature of the job—they are a contractor that receives contracts from various companies and mental health authorities in a couple states across the Midwest—what my friend sees is the manifestation from all the headlines we’ve all seen the last couple years. People are burned out. They are tired. They are afraid. They are desperate. They are stripped out by this business of getting back to normal. Getting everything up and running again. The cost is staggering already and only mounting.
My friend and I talked late last night about the state of things. They are nonbinary and femme-presenting, which, in Alabama, can be a tricky business. We talked about the anti-trans laws, the conservative backlash to the idea of progress, the messiness of trying to figure out who you want to be. Sometimes, I send my friend cute blouses and cute pants that they can’t get in Alabama. Because they deserve to dress in a way that suits them and makes them happy. My friend said, “I was planning to wear more blouses to work. I was planning to dress even more femme. But now, I mean.” It made me sad. More than that, it made me furious and fearful for my friend. Because even though they are an adjunct on a college campus, that college campus is in Alabama. And Alabama is at the moment one of the more hostile places within a hostile country for trans and gender nonconforming people.
My friend made a joke like, “I feel like I either need to transition tomorrow or when I’m eighty. No in-between.”
That struck me as a painful truth. That the erosion of your liberty and your autonomy—even the implication of the erosion of your autonomy—is really the erosion of your entitlement to a leisurely middle-ground. The ability to take your time. That you get forced into either having to rush or forestall your self-expression until some dreamy, distant often forever-receding horizon of the future. My friend laughed. I laughed.
To be clear, Alabama is not uniquely evil. I talk about Alabama because I am from Alabama. My family is from Alabama. My closest friend in the world still lives in Alabama. I know Alabama. I love Alabama. I hate Alabama. It is the place that I dream of most. Alabama is not unique in its sins. Just as no red state is unique in its sins or entirely red. But I talk about what I know and what I feel. I talk about my home. And that is my home. I am sure that many of the same things my friend feels are things felt by trans and nonbinary people in New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Boston, Philadelphia, Portland, Seattle, Denver, and—on. In all of these places, people are losing their rights or have already lost them or never got them even as promised. So don’t let my talking about Alabama mislead you.
I am sad and fearful these days. I am sad and tired. Perhaps you are too.
Yesterday, after I parted ways with my friend in New York, I walked to the Canal Street station. I forgot that the train I needed wouldn’t be stopping there, so it would eventually be a doomed errand. But for the five minutes it took to get there, I was enjoyed the breeze. It was a warm evening, but the wind was good. Not cool or even particularly cooling, but it was soft and seemed to contain some of the very dusk in it. It swirled around me and I looked up into the sky and it was so clear. The light fell upon everything like a translucent satin sheen, giving the buildings and the people a dark fullness, as though they were ever so slightly more themselves. I spent ten minutes lost in the cavern of the Canal Street station trying to figure out where the “upper platform” was and why the N didn’t seem to have a dedicated space despite being told by the signage that such a space existed. It all seemed very nebulous and theoretical. I climbed back out of the subway and walked to Houston. The wind was back. It was, again, not cool, but some of the heat of the day had gone out of it. And that was enough.
I kept thinking how nice it was to be walking alone on a street on a day that seemed to have exhausted itself. There were people eating dinner on the sidewalk, people in white pants and cropped tops, smiling behind sunglasses. The sun had begun its descent, but the sky had not yet gone tacky and copper. It was still a rich, deep blue. My train came and I found a seat in a mostly empty car. No one was talking on the train. You could hear the rocking of the car as it moved over the tracks. You could see the car sway as it moved around curves. It really did seem like the day had worked itself up and then split open into something quiet and still.
At my stop, I looked up the avenue as people were crossing. Families. Children on scooters. I felt a real fondness for them though of course they were strangers. I liked a friend’s Instagram post. I liked another friend’s post. I waited for the light to change. When it changed, my friend called me again to talk about something that had hurt their feelings. They had just dropped a guy off and he’d refused to kiss them in front of the security cameras at his halfway house. My friend felt that this implied shame. Secrecy.
“I don’t want to be hidden. I want to be out there. I deserve someone who will love me for me.”
I was browsing chips and ginger ale for dinner.
“Totally,” I said. “It’s hurtful.”
“I just feel like he’s not taking my feelings seriously.”
I ordered delivery on my way out of the store. I carried the bags to my fifth-floor walk-up and peeled off my sweaty clothes. I lay down under a fan and listened to the long sexual odyssey of my friend’s relationship to this man. I stared at the ceiling and thought about how I’d have to move soon and how I should look into that. My friend kept talking. And I made assuring sounds that dumping a man who you do not like is perfectly acceptable. I answered a couple emails. My friend was on speaker, talking about this other guy they’d been sort of seeing who was now trying to get back in their life.
“Well, you can do what you want,” I said. “It’s your life. But this doesn’t sound like slutty hot girl problems. These sound like boyfriend problems. You are trying to turn your fuckboy into a boyfriend.”
And my friend said, “You know what. You are right.” But then a moment later, more quietly, “I think it’s okay if I want a boyfriend. I don’t have to punish myself for that.”
“Of course not,” I said. “You should have a boyfriend if you want a boyfriend, but also, this man cannot be your boyfriend. He would love to, I am sure, but he is not, like, going to ever give you what you want. You guys fuck. He’s not going to talk to you about Proust.”
“We don’t talk about Proust.”
“No, dear, but I love you unconditionally just the same.”
“He’s not really boyfriend material.”
“No, but he’s hung and nice and has abs, enjoy that for what it is.”
“I want a boyfriend.”
“Yes you do.”
When my friend got off the phone, I put on my record of Horowitz playing Scriabin. I wanted to compare it to Pletnev. I lay on my couch and watched the blue hour in the high window. The other day, I had been rather astonished to see the sun burnishing the tops of the tree on the sidewalk with a hazy gold. But today, it was all blue and gray. There was rain coming. The record started, and Horowitz played Sonata no. 3. That’s the one with the dramatic opening that seems, at first, to be in fragments until it comes, suddenly, all together. And it has those lovely little lyrical passages holding the dramatic bits together. I love it because it seems like a total mess and the first time I heard it, I thought, “This is NOT Phillip Glass. I want the sad gay poet music.” But then I heard it again and thought, no, this is so beautiful. The way the thunderous notes fall at intervals, seemingly interrupting the melody. It reminds me of the Longfellow quote:
Into each life, some rain must fall
Anyway, that’s all for now.
A couple things:
If you feel like rage donating:
The Yellowhammer Fund is a non-profit that supports access to reproductive health resources in Alabama. I think they are doing good work.
AbortionFunds.Org is a good place to seek out funds in your community and surrounding area.
assorted other stuff:
Garth Greenwell is offering a masterclass on Andrew Holleran’s novel Dancer from the Dance through the Shipman agency. I think it will be special. Plus, Garth is a wonderful reader and teacher of literature. I’ve learned a lot from getting to talk to him about books and about queer art and queer life.
Two new editions of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country and The Writing of Fiction with beautiful covers from Scribner. I did the intros for them. They are now available everywhere books are sold.