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Cockroach Manifesto

Sam McKinniss

June 4, 2019

Jules Bastien-Lepage, <em>Jeanne d'Arc</em>, 1879. Courtesy: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them.
        -Matthew 15:16 NIV

An R&B singer whom we used to see around with some frequency before she blew up; we had all taken note of her recent Instagram post, the one that wonders bemusedly, “who made this flyer lol.” The flyer in question features one of the singer’s press photos, downloaded from the internet for unauthorized use, I take it. She’s wearing silver tearaway bellbottoms and a white sleeveless top in the photograph, squatting suggestively in front of a blank white wall. The flyer is an advertisement for the party held every third Friday at our local gay bar, which is a party called “Jizz.”

We may never know who made the flyer, or why she was put on it. It’s not like she’s ever been to “Jizz.” It seems reasonable to assume, however, that there are particulars unique to the singer’s brand and image that coincided with the context and mission of “Jizz,” as envisioned by “Jizz” party founders.

Keehnan thought naming the party “Jizz” lacked creativity.

“Oh so that’s it, they’re just going to name parties ‘Jizz’ now?”

Anyway we’re at “Jizz,” and drag queens are climbing onto the stage, a nightly reoccurrence, “Jizz” or not. There are several dozen uninterested gay guys milling about the bar, getting tanked on mixed drinks, same as it ever was. Raúl arrives, and I compliment his new hairstyle, a short bob with strict bangs. I tell him he looks exactly like Joan of Arc, Christendom’s most famous transvestite, but in a good way, and I mean it for Raúl, even if the transvestites yelling at us from the stage are very much on my nerves. Gay bars used to have strippers. Now we have unrelenting gender expression, the obnoxious envisagement of crossdressing clowns. The PA system amplifies this stuff right in front of my face when all I ever wanted was a drink and light banter. It’s never occurred to me for some reason to stop coming here. I could very well be doing anything else at night.

“What are they talking about?” I ask.

“Oh don’t worry, they’re only entertaining themselves.”

The top-billed drag queen gets up and lip-syncs that song “You’re Going to Love Me” from Dreamgirls, the musical, but I don’t think I’m going to. She’s dressed in a primary yellow, red, and blue muumuu, a brassy orange wig, her face done in heavy stage makeup, so don't give me grief about calling them clowns.

I know the song, of course, I’ve identified with it before in my own way, on my own terms, in a different time. Under present circumstances, however, tonight’s performance is a tad too hubristic, and not to a level of invective comedy for which I can get behind. This enormous queen grafting Jennifer Hudson’s formidable vocal power onto herself in order that she may inform those assembled of love’s great inclemency, it’s fine but personally I’m not there right now.

A week ago I ran into the same queen at the same bar. One thing I like about this place is that all the lightbulbs are quinacridone red, casting everyone under in dim shades of magenta. It’s like being in Hell. She asked me then, did I find Jordan Peele’s latest horror movie too gruesome to deal with, like is it the kind of thing that will give her nightmares if she sees it. I say no, having seen it myself, I don’t think so; it’s more cerebral than bloody. OK great, she says, she can deal with cerebral. 

We exit “Jizz” and head over to the unadvertised party a few blocks away at the private event space, hosted by a renowned fashion designer of avant-garde streetwear whom we’ve all known for many years. Publicity for this kind of thing is strictly word-of-mouth, so it’s manifest, obviously, packed in shoulder-to-shoulder. Speaking of, our designer friend is in an over-the-shoulder single-strap sparkly leotard and a lovely blonde wig. Gender notwithstanding because it no longer stands, as well as with charity toward this or that, he looks stunning, a stickler for details, where the devil is. I’m in whatever, nice clothes that do not need to matter so much on purpose. We kiss hello. 

“I can model pretty outfits!” this from a longstanding acquaintance whom we bump into near the bar there, but the thing she said to us first was “I’m so glad you’re here, I don’t know anyone else, I hate meeting people.” She can hardly believe this, I think. The reason I know her is because she used to date another acquaintance of ours, an artist whom for years since has stopped making objects in order to create memes, which when viewed and re-shared over time accumulate into some kind of astounding public statement, sarcastic missives decrying various inconsistencies found relatable to a class consciousness concerned with inequity and disseminated via Instagram, post by post, with the effect of extended, time-lapsed release. He has 71,000 followers, to date, and here before us only one of three known ex-girlfriends.

The T-shirt was uninspired. This remark from Borna, my best friend, about the shirt he’s wearing. He tells me this as it’s occurred to him, just now, the sudden sense of inadequacy befallen him, specifically the lack of inspiration, I mean but we’re talking about his T-shirt, white cotton with the head of a large black dog barking across his belly, merch from that grindcore band Daughters out of Providence, Rhode Island. Be that as it may, I try to reassure him. He orders us another round. 

Jesus is the reason for the season, whereas men go to Jupiter to get more stupider. It’s a fine line, although it is what it is. At the end of the day it is what it is at the end of the day. All my life, it seems, I’ve been trying so hard to get the Christ back in Christmas.

I get in line for the restroom, if I may. Three years ago having dinner at Lucien, I excused myself from the table, announcing my intention to visit the men’s room, and was roundly criticized. We were, it seems I had failed to acknowledge, enjoying mixed company. A single occupancy restroom is not a men’s room, I was reminded, and neither, for that matter, is it the ladies’ room. The casual, affable banner under which we had comported ourselves prior to this had vanished into a no-longer accessible realm of the past, replaced by a reprobate form of rhetorical, verbal self-governance, and this was my bad. What was I? Some sort of pig. Hardly can a room containing a toilet but lacking a bathtub or shower be classified as a bathroom, now can it, so long as we were already on the topic of plumbing, someone piped in. What I was looking for was the water closet, the closet wherein they store all the water.

Well, neither here nor there, after all, three years later. What I needed then and need now is to relieve myself of the piss in my bladder. It is possible to feel good. It must be possible to feel good. I tell this to myself while standing in line for the plumbing.

I take my phone from my pocket and open Instagram to pass the time while I wait. The first thing I see is a selfie posted by a curator/spokesmodel I kind of know. She looks well rested, I think. The geotag indicates she’s in a hotel room in Paris, France. I look at the caption, an excruciating behemoth of text, which reads, in part, “What do I want? I want privacy. I want stillness…I want some of y’all to mind your business.” She’s not wearing anything, just lying there in her bra, staring into the self-facing camera phone to snap a pic that will be surveilled by 235,000 followers. At what point did it stop being possible, I wonder.

I scroll through a dozen or so more pics before landing on another post by the same R&B singer from “Jizz” in a smoking hot Dion Lee crop blazer and skirt hung low on her hips, tastefully revealing much of her flawless abdomen. The caption: “One of the most healing things I’ve done is expose the parts of my body I’m most insecure about.” Duly noted, in a manner similar to what was discussed previously in paragraph one of this manifesto. I have taken note of this new information about a person I barely met once, that one of the most healing things she’s ever done is to publicly show body parts that make her feel insecure, and I will store this knowledge within my limited brain space for the rest of my life.

*

Fairfield Porter, <em>Laurence at the Piano</em>, 1953. Courtesy: New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut.

I was sixteen years old doing nothing, just hanging around waiting to go home, really, immediately after the benediction concluding Sunday morning worship services at the church I was raised in. I must have been sitting in a chair in the narthex, watching as the nicely dressed congregants enjoyed a little fellowship on their way out the door. My father, the gifted public speaker, was pastor. And here was his sociable flock, ambling fluffily in the way of respectable decorum. I was his son, as well as the church pianist. I remember absentmindedly wearing a long-sleeve jersey knit tee with a Chinese dragon silkscreened on its front, as was the fashion then, and a parishioner commenting to my father, “your boy has the devil on him.”

I was in love with the beautiful assistant youth pastor, a directionless twenty-year-old scenester with rosacea on his ass and a goatee on his chin, with whom I preferred to spend all my free time, driving for miles around New England in his Honda blasting burned Saves the Day CDs, pulling off the road to discuss holy topics or kiss under shady woodland piles. Noticing that the assistant youth pastor had already split, perhaps to go join the Navy, which is where he eventually ended up after it was found out that he had been stealing from the collection plate, I remember that morning feeling anxious to leave as well.

I can’t remember if it was one lady or two whom had deemed it remarkable enough to point out to the rest of us near the exit, the interaction unfolding right there before our eyes. Anybody could have missed it, had somebody not been paying attention. What I remember are women in Sunday appropriate dresses, not pointing, no, for that would have been rude, but gesturing, certainly, a whisper to guide my awareness in the direction of a friendship taking form.

The K’s little girl Katie was legally blind, and they had been attending services together at our church for years at that point. Every one of us felt for them, raising their daughter in the faith with reverence for God. We, the community of believers surrounding them with love and trembling, always ready, willing, and able to lend a hand of support for their special needs child in whatever way necessary. Katie was just as sweet and occasionally as bratty as any other child at that very young age. Mrs. K had reportedly been possessed by demons, if I remember correctly. She often interrupted prayer with shrieks of impossible volume, engaging in prolonged bouts of supernatural conflict on the spiritual plane, but Mr. K was a capable breadwinner, some kind of plumber.

What happened in the narthex that day was even more unbelievable, however, and so constituting no less than a miracle.

What happened is that the K’s were introduced to another young family that morning, and we all saw it. I cannot remember their name, but here were the new people, recently on a search for an evangelical Christian church to attend and belong to, perhaps they had just relocated to the area, which is why they happened upon us, in the redbrick colonial revival style meetinghouse down Lincoln Street, ornamented on one side by blossoming dogwood and the rhododendron out front, them with a little blind girl of their own, clacking around inside after services, striking the pale gray linoleum with her cane, a cane exactly similar in design and function to little Katie K’s.

A framed inspirational poster hung there on the wall near the coatroom from as far back as I can remember, and always on my mind, a sunny explosion of yellow, lilac, and baby blue butterflies aflutter in the conduct of religious ecstasy encouraged and welcomed at all times on the premises, butterflies and sunbeams in a spiral surrounding a declarative statement for the zealous and faithful to utter unto their God, “Your Presence Fills Me with Joy.” Idling there by herself in the midst of His presence and underneath the framed art bearing witness, Katie K was then suddenly made aware of the presence of another girl just like her, born without sight, and so she took her hand. And then the blind led the blind. 

They could hardly believe themselves. Katie K took initiative and playfully started showing her new friend around the building, perhaps off to the nursery down a perilous flight of stairs, into the church basement, where the rocking horse and toys were kept, their canes tapping excitedly in tandem upon the cold, hard floor out in front and off to the side, in aid of navigation down steps, their free hands clasping each other’s in trust, understanding and friendship. It remains to this day the unlikeliest, most wonderful thing I have ever seen. 

*

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, <em>De parabel der blinden</em>, 1568. Courtesy: Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy.

A woman I do not know holds the door for me as she’s leaving the restroom, a measure of politeness I was not expecting. I put my phone away and notice the slogan typeset across the front of her T-shirt: MEN HAVE MADE A LOT OF BAD ART. Well haven’t we all, I think to myself, and thank her for holding the door.

Once inside, I unzip, take aim, and let the toilet bowl have it. A remarkable quantity of cheap sauvignon blanc tonight. White wine, piss of Christ. Just when did I get into wine? I cannot recall, but here I am, in an instant edging closer and closer toward absurdity. What an asshole. I should really go back to my friends but I’m enjoying this too much, bathroom privileges and the demoralized moment alone. The sound system slaps on the other side of the door, reverberating through derelict architecture.

One naked low-wattage lightbulb hangs on a wire from the ceiling, black tile walls covered in hilarious graffiti. I like when people scratch addendums into the tile below items of psychotic gossip concerning specific members of the bar scene. So-and-so is a whore, so is your mom; so-and-so is a cocksucker, so is your dad; “for a good time call 9-1-1,” et cetera. This kind of reading material always makes me laugh like a mental patient.

I check myself out in the mirror. Boy, do you look tired. A roach scuttles diagonal down the grimy glass, its little steps meandering rapidly, bisecting my wasted kisser reflected in the mirror, before disappearing into a crack through the wall. And just like that it is gone, out of my life and for good.

This manifesto was originally presented at The Drawing Center as part of the series Bellwethers: The Culture of Controversy, a series of talks co-curated by Alison Gingeras and the editors of Affidavit, Kaitlin Phillips and Hunter Braithwaite. 

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Written by Sam McKinniss Published on June 4, 2019

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