Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Dressmaker's Dummies in the Parking Lot

About six months ago, Hockeyman and I began hearing a strange voice. Female, it loudly issued a disturbing stream of curses, mixed with accusations and incomprehensible babblings. The voice came and went. We had difficulty determining precisely where it came from. Somewhere upstairs. But who? Where?

Half laughing, half distressed, we dubbed her Bertha Rochester.

Bertha rapidly worsened. The babbling came early in the morning, during the day, again around eleven p.m. Sufficiently annoyed, I crept upstairs, where the voice was more than loud: her yells echoed along the building's hallways.

Bertha turned out to be the woman living above us, one apartment over. I telephoned our upstairs neighbors, two elderly ladies. The older one--she's close to 100--answered the phone. I asked what was going on. My neighbor was sanguine. Maybe this comes with great age, or the accompanying hearing loss I know she suffers from.

"She's all alone in there. Nobody hurting her."

"She needs help," I said.

My neighbor demurred. Best left alone. What if something happened and the woman ended up on the street?

This seemed a leap to me; the woman has lived here a few years. Her apartment, my neighbor informed me, is immaculate. "She loves Pine-Sol," my neighbor laughed. "Sometimes we think we'll choke from it!" Her car is nicely kept (we all park in a lot under the building), a recent model. Bertha either holds a job or has some regular source of income. Homelessness wasn't the issue.

The yelling continued. The weather warmed, and people began opening windows. Bertha's screams now volleyed between our building and the one next door, which is about fifteen feet away, separated by a sound-enhancing alley.

I alternated between compassion for her distress and the increasing urge to strangle her. Yes, she was ill, and obviously suffering. But so was my quality of life. Listening to an insane person is not just noise pollution. It's upsetting noise pollution.

I contacted the condo board and very nicely asked for help. My request was hastened by Bertha's decision to put a dressmaker's mannequin in her parking space. This headless object was decked out in a brightly patterned dress and clashing scarf. Once again, we laughed. We also shuddered.


Bertha came to mind as I read this week's JT Leroy coverage. I felt a little smarmy, as if I had picked up the National Enquirer. But there I was, reading along with everybody else about Laura Albert's "respirator."

I have never read the JT books. I remember when Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above all Things were prominently displayed on the new fiction rack, right beside the too-cool-for-school MacSweeney's. One of the covers--Sarah?--showed a Keanean waif looking mournfully out at the viewer. Oh, please. I remember thinking. Not more whining about bad childhoods.

There were more rumblings about this JT Leroy person, how he or she had blown off Dave Eggers or Daniel Handler. JT lived in the Bay Area, so I heard this stuff and didn't really care, except to wonder why people were tolerating Leroy's bullshit. I put my response down to my notorious impatience and read other books.

Then the story broke. One day, for the hell of it, I checked out JT's website. It was what you might expect from a teenager trying hard to be ironically hip, save for one site link: "Laura Ingalls Gets Wilder." (I just searched, and alas, cannot find it.)

What teenaged male (transgender, whatever) truck-stop prostitute knows a damned thing about Laura Ingalls Wilder? Wilder's books, while filled with wonderful things, are also nastily racist about Native Americans. I doubt they are taught in today's schools. But they were wildly popular amongst the young girls attending elementary school in the early seventies. Girls like Laura Albert. Girls like me.

Truck stop reading for a boy in Appalachia? Hell, no!

And then there were the "appearances" of a clearly female personage whose penchant for black top hats invariably reminded me of Slash (who is totally honest about being a bi-racial male named Saul Hudson). The celebrities, the hoopla.

Then came James Frey and Kaavya Viswanathan.

None of these people behaved honorably. But what interests me is why they lied: to get published. In today's market, writing well takes a backseat to a great publicity hook. Drug addled, abused, or too young, really, to write more than an Econ 1A paper? Do you look like Marisha Pessl? Writing yet another biography about a princess who died a decade ago? Well, come in here, dear boy. Have a cigar. You're gonna go far.

Granted, blaming "the publishing industry" is a broad stroke. Good writing still sneaks through the conventional publishing model's cracks. And let us not forget the smaller publishers, who bring out new work whilst struggling for survival.

Increasingly, though, "big" publishing is less about cultivating talent over the long haul than making a pile of money from a JT Leroy, a James Frey, a Kaavya Viswanathan. How is it that nobody--not the agents, the editors, the PR people, the editorial assistants--noticed something amiss until these books went to press?

Maybe they were so happy they could hardly count.


Last week a memo went 'round our building, asking residents to clear any debris from their parking spaces. Bertha was not the only person using her spot for storage; shelving, boxes, and garbage cans were cleared away. The dressmaker's dummy vanished.

Bertha is quiet for the moment. A few days ago we met at the mailboxes. She's a shy young woman, always neatly dressed, her hair covered with a bandana. It's amazing that such a voice--another personailty, when you think of it--issues from this tiny, seemingly harmless creature. As we collected our mail and went out separate ways, I felt a rush of pity.

Whatever will become of her?

"Come in here dear boy, have a cigar, you're gonna go far" and being "so happy they (originally "we") can hardly count" come from Pink Floyd's "Have A Cigar," which appears on the album "Wish You Were Here."


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