Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Bart Plantenga: A Transsexual, a Chainsaw & a Soiled Toilet

I will always be a stranger who never feels at home

  • Eugene O’Neill

.

Let me begin by saying that nothing is as it seems and, in this case that is probably good. Not knowing exactly what or who a person is probably increases the survival rate of anyone approaching outsider status in these parts. Let me explain.

We drove up from Lancaster, PA pulling a U-Haul trailer full of mom’s last remaining artifacts: some display dishes, the kind you see hanging on a wall; clothes; plants yanked from her garden; photo albums; her paintings; some silverware that might not be real silver, and 50 rolls of hamstered toilet paper. The rest, including bed, couch, easy chair, TV, actually 90% of everything else, we left behind for the gutting crew dumpster. An entire life of junk defying memory and value hauled away – gone. As the dumpster floats over the rise at the end of the street, I’m reminded of descriptions of the soul ascending out of the gut of the body and floating away … taataa.

Before departing we snapped some shots of the house where she lived for 30 years. With a few clicks, the photos soon transcend any memorial value of this house of many walls, site of countless fits and arguments over the years. But it’s safe to say that nothing of significance for anyone else ever happened here.

On the way to my brother Paul’s trailer park home up 81, toward Binghamton, plus 21 miles north, we are listening to radio. It is about baseball. I note: “It’s weird, but I cannot name a single NY Yankee player any more.” There is something significant or almost metaphorical about this statement – in hindsight – but I cannot explain what that is.

In any case, something else makes this trip magical. Is it the atrocious 70s rock on the radio; songs you sang along to 30 years ago and now sing along to mockingly to prevent them from sucking out your soul?  Luckily, Paul turns the radio off at Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” and we enter a shared passenger-driver-highway silence – a 3-way circuit where we just stare straight ahead, into the summer air full of dust and haze and effluvia, mosquitos, the scent of pavement and tire rubber, and the noise of hidden bugs rubbing their hind legs together, until you catch yourself holding your breath, unsure whether something other-worldly is indeed happening.

Suddenly the skies open up and, weather being notoriously fickle in the Poconos, we’re crawling at 20 mph, hunched over the dashboard, comparing the size of the hailstones to dollheads, donkey testicles, crab apples … A downpour you only thought you ever saw on the Weather Channel; a talking head yelling “INCREDIBLEINCREDIBLE!”  Or does the magic have to do with the stunning, almost hallucinatory, post-downpour light that swallows the highway and, for a second, if you squint right, it seems like you’re cruising down a warm, metallic, shimmering, shaft of light.

The radio is back on and, even though we’ve switched stations, we’re still hearing Journey, Foreigner, the Eagles … as we crawl down Binghamton’s streets you swear you’ve only ever seen in war-torn areas – on TV. Crumbling buildings, boarded up storefronts, arrows pointing to empty lots littered with bricks and take-out containers, where a convenience store named The Place Time Forgot once sold things nobody wanted to buy anyway. You want to hear Joan Baez’s version of “Children of Darkness”:

Then why have the breezes of summer, dear

Been laced with a grim design?

A song whose timbre captures this forlorn, post-hopeful state – look, smokestacks in empty fields. People already old beyond their few years, eyes hollowed out with an ice cream spoon, in the middle of the day, dressed in ill-fitting ragged shorts and no shirt or in pyjamas with characters on them from outdated video games, waiting on corners for eternities to cross – or maybe not.

I want my brother to stop so I can take a pic of the man with his drawstring pants halfway down his thighs, bending, trying to sit on a park bench missing its wooden slats. You want to laugh because they’re like extras in a choreographed parody of living dead movies. But you don’t because they are partly you. They (it could easily be we) roam through the muggy air, lethargic, lifeless humanoids brutalized by inevitability, migrating from a lounge serving $1 vodka drinks – especially popular at noon is the Sharknado (vodka, grenadine and watermelon-flavored gummy sharks) – and then onto the convenience store to buy energy drinks and Lotto tickets. My brother says there’s meth labs everywhere. “You just don’t see’m.” Meth and such leads to strange urban revitalization schemes that pivot on addiction, which employs healthcare workers in Drug Rehab Centers. There are also tattoo parlors and an entire sub-industry of tattoo laser removal clinics for tattoos commissioned in WTF moments (a skull on the chest with a snake bearing the face of his wife crawling out of an eye socket) – and, of course, there’s the university, with its fenced-in kind of dignity where students mill around on the well-seeded quad.

This Rust Bowl dilemma does not spawn Woody Guthrie socialists, rather, the downtrodden who’ve given up on gainful employment or even a place to kill the 9 to 5 seem more taken by the “sexy” dictator type who’s as flamboyantly boorish as they picture themselves to be. Trump signs out-number Clinton’s 4 to 1. Guns outsell books (excluding books on guns) and there’s more bullets than TicTacs around here.

Some of them have heard the buzz: Make good money holding a sign at a rally on a podium. Even more if you’re willing to get angry. But they’re never the ones called back. So they end up out $100 and, instead, are reenacting scenes from an unfinished Porky’s movie in Walmart at midnight, squashing disillusionment with the only therapy left – shopping (preferrably way beyond their means) …

When we sing along to the radio, my teenage daughter, Paloma, embraces the freak flag flying, sees the album covers, psychedelic art, men with long hair – a sigh of approval – women with bangs, flowery patterns and peace signs – music and hair as resistance. It’s as if she is nostalgically recalling a time she imagines having (wanted to) lived through.

Heading north out of Binghamton the radio – in cars, on TV, in big stores – all seem synchronized so that every place is playing “my” soundtrack, as if to welcome me. We agree, there is something weird about her listening to the same songs I listened to at the same age, right near where we are driving right now. Some remained good (CCR, Sly); others seemed good then but sound less so now (Grand Funk, Chicago), while most sucked then and still suck now (Styx, Boston).

Something you need to know about Upstate: There’s an odd East-Coast-meets-Deep-South vibe – think opiates injected into ice cream cones. Think deep-fried ANYthing. Cross a boundary, you cross them; misinterpret some vague semaphore, you’ve dissed them to their core. Any calm you feel has nothing to do with tolerance or a chaise-lounge kind of satisfaction and everything to do with the exhaustionassociated with perpetual despondency – tired, sleepless, on painkillers, suffering from an inability to adequately articulate what ails them, which only deepens their despair. Paloma asks: “Why do people around here have a southern accent.” Good question. “People feel shunned, ignored and that’s why they feel a comraderie with Southerners.” Plus, I forgot: Southerners moved from poverty to industrial employment in the factories of the Northeast and Midwest.

We’re “home” and we fill my brother’s hallway and spare room with boxes full of mom’s stuff, much of it already festering in its utter worthlessness. We then head up the road to drop off the U-Haul trailer at Johnson’s Gunshop, an unassuming, gray, corrugated aluminum building off Highway 11.

We walk across the potholed, dirt lot to the front desk and see a man in the shade, squatting over, staring at a chainsaw splayed open. Inside, no sign of anyone and the cash register is just sitting there. A sign: We understand the needs of REAL SHOOTERS!There’s a contented-fixated guy shopping for what looks like a shotgun. He picks up one after another, sizing up their weight, taking aim with the stock pressed into his shoulder, turning quickly ever so slightly to aim at us or just over our heads just to throw us off balance. He snickers. We laugh meekly because men around here laugh at things like that. Faggots, on the other hand, don’t.

We walk to the side of the building, approach the slender, tanned guy still hunched over the chainsaw.

“Looks like a problem.”

I got a hand full of those.” At first I thought maybe he meant wife or money problems, but then his brown eyes guided ours to a stretch of ground littered with a broad array of power tools and chainsaws in various states of grimy disrepair and disassemblage.

“We wanna return a U-Haul trailer, but nobody’s up front.” He stood up to respond, gazing out beyond us to the horizon in one of those clichéd American Indian poses – one hand shading his eyes as he peers into the western distance. You glance his way, unsure, because you never know, some unlikely people are very capable of appropriating a slur or cliché to make it their own. The village People.

I note: tan, long-hair, pony-tailed, Native American, metal freak – but dyed strawberry blond hair!? He turned to face us and I notice I’ve been wrong about him – or her – and this area. He’s wearing a mud-thick layer of pancake makeup like those Hollywood Indians played by Italians in the 40s.

“There should be somebody up front; go back through the front door.” He turns and … thrusts his obvious breasts (no, notman tits) poking against the inside of his tee shirt into our perplexed midst.

He calmly points to the front door, smiles uneasily; his arm pointing, hanging in the humid air like he’s mocking the old wooden Indian that once stood outside giftshops. You know, take the piss out of how others view you. To mock mockers use parody …

“‘Kaw-Liga, that wooden indian with a heart made of knotty pine.’”

“A catchy tune with racist lyrics.” Paul was pretty sure.

“Dodgy, yepper. Bu’ singin’ ’em don’ make yuh no racist.”

“No, but …”

Once inside, we see a short man with a mustache and a dirty tee shirt filing bills behind the counter. My brother takes out the forms for the trailer return as I browse around. I see the configuration of roto-tillers, leafblowers, and weedwhackers as an abstract piece of art to savor for its elegance of form. My aesthetic reverie lasts about 30 seconds when I spot a sequence of 3 surveillance photos taped to the wall: The first grainy photo shows a couple getting out of their pick-up in the lot – she’s obese and wearing spandex tights; the second shows them – he’s unshaven, wearing a warped-brim baseball cap, her roots are showing and her face makes you think of a pastry left out in the sun too long – standing at the counter approximately where my brother is standing; the third shows her returning from the back of the store; she appears to be fixing her THIS GIRL LOVES TACOS & BEER tee shirt.

“So, what’s the story with these photos?”

“Well, couple o’ days ago this couple enter my store here; he’s buying a box o’ shells and his lady partner, she asks to use the bathroom. I point it out here over my shoulder, right back there. She needs to use the toilet. I’m OK with that. Well, he buys the shells and she comes out and they leave. After they leave I see the bathroom door open and the light on and so I go back there to turn it off, when I see shit, and god almighty, I see she’s shit all over the toilet, the walls, on the floor, every-fuckin’-where. It’s like she was full of shit and just exploded in there. So, I wanna know who they are. Man, I want ’em!”

“You couldn’t make out the plates?”

“No, too blurry. So I’m hopin’ somebody recognize’m cuz who duh hell does shit like that.”

“A tsunami of shit.”

“Maybe people in the city do shit like that, but we don’t do that up here. We’s civilized.”

He instructed us to leave the trailer in a designated spot. Maybe it was dyslexia or a lack of eye-hand coordination, but we just couldn’t seem to park it where he’d pointed. And just as we’re leaving it at an odd angle in the grass, the guy steps outside, stares out at us as he takes a breath and, with a smile somewhere between bemusement and scorn, yells out: “You guys ain’t gay are yuh?!” We smile to show we appreciate his joke, thus proving that we were indeed not gay.

Did I feel like going out back and talking to Mr. Chainsaw? Maybe mention Max’s Kansas City or Ru Paul or recite lines from “Walk on the Wild Side”? Display a raised fist, fist across the heart, a pat on the shoulder, or tell him about myseveral adventures in cross-dressing? Sure. Or when I performed as a woman for the “Venus in Latex” benefit reading for a home for women with HIV in New York. But that’s all meaningless, a century ago. Those were days, the days.

But maybe, to him, crossdressers compared to transsexuals are like dog food to steak or Kia to Cadillac …

The tanned mechanic – maybe he was(part) Native American, after all – stared at us silently as we climbed back into the car. As we passed, I said “Thanks” and offered a smile that hopefully he interprets as “you’re OK with us” and not as a condescending smile that works the way the little rake works for Tioga Downs Casino croupiers who rake in the losers’ chips on the roulette table. I wanted to say “keep on” or “Be Free to Be You and Me,” without breaking out into that corny song. But maybe he liked corny-kitschy. Or despised those who assumed so.

We are in the dirt lot, the windows are down. Paul fiddles with the radio: “[tschrst] …. no surprise that ……

[whrshskr]…………… played the race card.

He executed a retarded black man in 1992. …………….In efforts to win back white votes

…….hold the line, love isn’t ………….. he raced to Arkansas to

oversee the execution by lethal injection of Ricky …………………………………. an IQ of 70,

who never understood the charges and saved his dessert, a slice of pecan pie, ‘for later’.” …………………

“Quit flippin’ ray-dee-o stations.”

“Everything sucks anyway.”

[whrshskr] ………………… “am Joseph Alda and you’re listening to ‘Life & Death’

on……..people livin’ in competisssshhh [tschrst]………….

………with ………………… journalist, George Seldes Jr., [tschrst] …………………

exposing hypocrisies in the ………. Somebody’s gonna hurt someone ………..”

…………. forgiven by credulous Democrats, when, after the execution,

he announced: ‘My dear friends, African-Americans and ALL Americans should no longer feel guilty about protecting the innocent’ …………………

……………. Dems were sure they had their New Messiah, robustly pro-death penalty, but sensitive to the dignity of minorities, always tagging them correctly because what better [tschrst]

………………… to distract from betraying your voter base  ……………………

his book Lies of Identity………..you’ve got everything, but nothing’s cool ……….

confuse absurd excesses of political correctness

…………….with race and gender empowerment strategies ………………… slip into the rhetoric of diversity and inclusivity to distract ………

had enough / Feel like giving up………… struggling over what to call people rather than actual substantive …….. The jig is up, the news is out…………. [tschrst]

“it’s all anti-Bill-Clinton bullshit.” He liked Bill.

“I dunno – on public radio?”

He flicks the radio off. On the dusty shoulder we look both ways, we are quiet, look into each other’s eyes. “What was all thatabout?” Paul asks. We pull out onto Route 11 South.

“A transgender …”

“Or transsexual …” Paul adds.

“Or transvestite … Indian …”

“Or Native American or deeply tanned guy …” Paul suggesting not much is self-evident.

We get back to his trailerhome. I google around and fall upon: “Mock mockers after that …” How strangely handy to discover the famous poet Yeats voicing the precise arrangement of words I had in my head to intone a similar sentiment. “That would not lift a hand maybe / To help good …” Was I using Yeats to explain our mechanic’s gestures, imagined or otherwise, and, ultimately justifying my own?

“I jus’ wanna be clear: I was riffin’ – however friggin’ half-assedly – I’m clear of any kinda wrongdoing. I was riffin’ on pre-existing cultural prejudice by usin’ a good ole boy Southern drawl to pin it on somebody else, some more ‘blame-full’ socioeconomic sub-group.”

“The TV calls it ‘bro bonding’.”

“It’s an old ventriloquist trick – saying something offensive through your dummy. Who happens to be named Zeitgeist.”

“Yea, OK, let sleepin’ dogs sleep.”

“Yea, but what the FUGdid we just witness up there on Route 11?”

Paul sensed we were just stirring the ashes. I took a deep breath, the kind a diver takes from the high dive, the kind a stranger takes threading through a gauntlet of locals.

“Let’s move on!” Shutting me down as he reached into the fridge for two cans of 0% alcohol beer. “It’s just poking a fresh scab …”

“… It’s like a dropped scene from Twin Peaks … a guy maybe on the way to becoming a womanfixin’ a chainsaw; a guns & ammO store with a guy takin’ aim at us and the owner puttin’ out his own APB on the mad shitter … I never ever ever expected anything like this in two billion years. My imagination isn’t powerful enough to’ve everimagined anything like it.”

“… But you keep poking it, it ain’t gonna heal nothin …”

——–

We are in the dirt lot, the windows are down. Paul fiddles with the radio: “[tschrst] …. no surprise that ……

[whrshskr]…………… played the race card.

He executed a retarded black man in 1992. …………….In efforts to win back white votes

…….hold the line, love isn’t ………….. he raced to Arkansas to

oversee the execution by lethal injection of Ricky …………………………………. an IQ of 70,

who never understood the charges and saved his dessert, a slice of pecan pie, ‘for later’.” …………………

“Quit flippin’ ray-dee-o stations.”

“Everything sucks anyway.”

[whrshskr] ………………… “am Joseph Alda and you’re listening to ‘Life & Death’

on……..people livin’ in competisssshhh [tschrst]………….

………with ………………… journalist, George Seldes Jr., [tschrst] …………………

exposing hypocrisies in the ………. Somebody’s gonna hurt someone ………..”

…………. forgiven by credulous Democrats, when, after the execution,

he announced: ‘My dear friends, African-Americans and ALL Americans should no longer feel guilty about protecting the innocent’ …………………

……………. Dems were sure they had their New Messiah, robustly pro-death penalty, but sensitive to the dignity of minorities, always tagging them correctly because what better [tschrst]

………………… to distract from betraying your voter base  ……………………

his book Lies of Identity………..you’ve got everything, but nothing’s cool ……….

confuse absurd excesses of political correctness

…………….with race and gender empowerment strategies ………………… slip into the rhetoric of diversity and inclusivity to distract ………

had enough / Feel like giving up………… struggling over what to call people rather than actual substantive …….. The jig is up, the news is out…………. [tschrst]

“it’s all anti-Bill-Clinton bullshit.” He liked Bill.


 

Copyright 2018 Bart Plantenga

.

Abandoned farm equipment: scenes like this one are common throughout rural America.

2 comments on “Bart Plantenga: A Transsexual, a Chainsaw & a Soiled Toilet

  1. Camille Feinberg
    July 14, 2018

    I felt like I was watching a scary movie where the tension is taunt, or a very strange trip into a foreign land., I’ve worked my way across the country but I do not think this is a good time to do that. Great writing that makes me feel the writing, the experience, and this piece made me feel like I was along for the trip. Whew!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. writehandpy
    July 12, 2018

    phew! today’s two posts (esp. the first) are eulogies for the upstate hometown to which I will never return, except for a couple of inevitable funerals

    Liked by 1 person

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