LIFE HARVESTER #6: Sue Johnson and Queer Joy, Burgers in the Goodwill Parking Lot, A Complicated Death, Hot 97

 This month’s issue has been something of a test run in figuring out if I can get the newspaper out when my life has gone off track. Becca’s away and Gus is at her dad’s house so any semblance of normalcy I might have had is gone, and I’ve had to shlep it to New York for a variety of good and bad reasons at very short notice. I’m writing this from my parents’ kitchen. I’m someone who has a tendency to take any slack I’m given and really run with it, so my drive to stay on task feels like a triumph, albeit a small one. The world is terrible, we need to relish our tiny victories! If you’d like to get in touch I think you can just respond to this email, or write to! To send in anything for review my address is P.O. Box 82551 / Pittsburgh, PA 15218.

     As I have made it abundantly clear in previous issues, I don’t know a fucking thing about art. I’m not scared of it, but I have no idea about history and context and who is related to/used to work with who. Unlike the way I could tell you that like, Molly from the Peechees is also Molly from Bratmobile or that Cam’ron, Ma$e, and Big L were in a short-lived rap group called Children of the Corn as teens. But I’ve been adjacent to the art world for basically ever and you also probably know if you’ve read this before, that my girlfriend is an art historian and so besides the ways that she is overtly teaching me about her area of expertise, I’m also just learning stuff by proximity.
     That being said, art film is not really something I know much about. I saw that video of Chris Burden getting shot in a gallery at PS1 one time, standing with my grandmother of all people. I’ve seen some Maya Derren films of people dancing in the stars, cried watching Pope.L crawl around Manhattan. I once stood enthralled for 45 minutes staring at a 3 minute loop of Paul McCarthy jogging in place in a suburban pantry wearing nothing but a pig mask and two boxing gloves which he was dipping into a giant bowl of strawberry jam and then punching himself in the face. I loved it! I couldn’t stop laughing. It was so weird and uncomfortable but brought me so much joy. And in a sense that’s what the 13 Super 8 films by Sue Johnson that I saw the other night did. They made me feel weird and sometimes uncomfortable, but so ecstatic!
     The program ran about an hour and the films fell into what I would describe as a two discrete categories: observational footage of events that would be happening whether Sue was there or not, and more intentional, avant-garde narrative. The highlights of the former category include Big Jody Mufferaw and the Island Rumble, which featured jerky footage of the League of Lady Wrestlers, a scrappy amateur wrestling league in rural Ontario set to a Chicks on Speed song (how do I still remember what they sound like???), a spun out reverie of lights and flesh. There was also Washington Women’s March, a montage focused on signs carried as 2.6 million people rallied in Washington, D.C. This film was set to a pitched-down “Herjazz,” and it was hard not to hear an indictment of mainstream feminist praxis as Niki Elliot’s slowed and deepend voice screamed “YOU LIED TO ME!” over a selection of liberal protest signs.
    Of the second type of Johnson film, it’s hard to pick a favorite. There’s Rat Rod Reversed, a beautiful and tender tribute to Kenneth Anger’s Kustom Kar Kommandos, in which an ambiguously gendered protagonist buffs a hot rod with a mink stole (to the tune of Heart’s “Say Hello” giving it a far more jubilant tone than the Anger original), or LIVE THROUGH THIS, in which Johnson’s college roommate dons a blonde wig and a thrift store slip and vamps for the camera while some unhinged Courtney Love stage banter seques into “Rock Star. But for me, a perv with a sense of humor, the real star of the show was the finale, Buy This Truck, a simultaneous tribute Johnson’s pickup truck, dyke pickup culture in general, and the Hitachi wand.
     Ultimately what was so notable about the near hour of programming was that almost all of Johnson’s films seem to depict unmitigated queer joy, and that felt so great to watch. I had the good fortune of speaking with Sue this month for my podcast Life Harvester Radio and we got to talk about where she comes from and discuss some of her films more in depth. Please give it a listen and also please subscribe and my podcast a five star review in the app of your choice! It’s important!

    There’s a burger chain in Austin, TX called P. Terry’s that has the best fast food I’ve ever had in my life. It’s better than In-N-Out, better than Shake Shack. The double cheeseburger with fries and a coke was a very reasonable price, if I remember correct. 
    Me and Becca keep a mostly vegetarian household. She’s been vegan for 20 years. I eat like a monster but I’m a good sport. We’ve settled on a nice compromise where I keep yogurt and some cheddar cheese in the fridge, occasional lox and cream cheese. But no meat in the house. The only exceptions being when Becca’s out of town at a conference and I have cold cut Rumspringa, and when Mati is staying and Marc Grillo brings the second half of his footlong hot Italian from Rudy Martino’s House of Submarines and leaves it on top of our fridge to eat it after the show.
     When we lived in Austin, I loved going to the P. Terry’s drivethru. But obviously I wasn’t going to take my burger home. The problem was that P. Terry’s was only like two blocks from our house. So I would park behind the Goodwill and eat my burger in the car facing one of those tiny office parks that are one step up from a storage facility—long rows of low, identical, square storefronts. I remember one was an accountant. Another was a hairstylists private studio. There was an orthopedist, a wheelchair store, the offices of home care and maid services. A lot of them just had tinted windows. Maybe they were just vacant, but parked behind the Goodwill eating a double cheeseburger and listening to murder podcasts I assumed all kinds of nefarious activities took place inside them all.  It made me feel like a detective! And like, I know I know ACAB or whatever, but pretending you’re on a stakeout is fun.

     The person who showed me my first Playboy died. I don’t know why that’s the first thing that comes to mind every time I think of him, but it is. My mom called me one morning last month to tell me he was dead. He was her best friend’s son. He was in the hospital waiting room when I was born. He showed me my first Playboy. He played me Iron Maiden and Dead Milkmen, Cypress Hill and the Geto Boys. I watched my first R rated movies with him—a double feature of Juice and the Exorcist. He showed me my first bag of weed in the wayback of my mom's Mercury Sable station wagon when I was 9 or 10 years old. 
     He was so wild and free. Always pushing hair out of his face. Road a skateboard, wrote graffiti. Treated me like a younger sibling even though we weren't related. I could tell even when we were young that he felt a sense of responsibility towards me that he took very seriously. He showed me my first violence too. Once when I was around 10 he brought me to hang out with his friends. He was 13, they were all older. When we got there this teen asked him why he brought a baby along and he straight up beat the shit out of the dude and said "cuz that's my friend."
     Once he was way too high and tried to sell me his leather jacket for $100 at a show, with the intention of stealing it back later. I'd dyed my hair and he didn't recognize me and then when he figured out it was me he apologized and went to scam some other little kid for money. Even though he was shooting heroin he always lectured me about smoking. "That shit will kill you."He got hit by a car and almost died when he was 16. He was in a coma for months. I remember going to the hospital with my dad to bring him packages of clean underwear, the doctors and nurses saying he would never wake up. I remember visiting him after he woke up, the doctors and nurses saying he would never walk again. I remember him walking again.
      When was 16, high on dust and half a liter of Gordon's vodka, I ran into him at ABC No Rio. He was sober and he told me I'd better get sober or I'd die. When I got home my dad knew I was drunk and I lied about it. My dad found out a few days later that I’d run into my friend that afternoon and assumed he was the one that had gotten me drunk. I didn’t try to disabuse my dad of that notion, but my friend was sober back then. For a while at least. I didn't quit drinking for another 13 years but I always remembered that conversation.
     We drifted apart because I hated the way he talked about and treated women. I stopped talking to him, muted him on social media. I learned so much about how I wanted to be and so much more about how I never want to be from him. He was charismatic and confident, self-assured in a way I could never imagine embodying myself. He could also be vicious and cruel. Selfish and unforgiving.
     But even when I couldn’t stand him I knew he always had my back and his death is making me wonder if I had his in the same unconditional way. What does it mean to love bad men? How can we do so in a way that validates the hurt they so obviously carry without enabling the hurt they so callously cause? Would he still be alive if we’d all done a better job of loving him and of holding him accountable, not letting him slide by on mischievous smiles and easy jokes, not assuming he’d be okay because he’d always been a fighter?

     I don’t remember when I first heard Hot 97, but growing up it felt like one of my lifelines to the world at large. I didn’t have cable when I was a kid because of some borderline hippie bullshit my parents half-believed about TV rotting my young brain, so I couldn’t watch Yo! MTV Raps, but I could listen Dré and Ed Lover on the way to school in the mornings.
     When I got sober I got a car as a means of accountability. I drove places so I couldn’t get drunk when I was there, I parked in places I has to move early in the morning for street cleaning so I wouldn’t get drunk when I got home. I was living in Queens at the time and I know that cars are ultimately bad and having one in the city is even worse but what are you gonna do? When I started driving I started listening to Hot 97 all the time again.
     It’s not that good. It’s an algorithm- and profit-driven mainstream radio station owned by I HEART RADIO or one of those big national conglomerates. It’s contributing to the death of local culture. But four years ago I moved to Austin where there are ZERO dedicated rap radio stations in the whole city and I realized what I had been taking for granted all along. Two years ago I moved to Pittsburgh and into the arms of the tepid WAMO 100, a radio station that is an honest reflection of the city it’s in: mediocre at best, and at least 10 months behind the coasts, but it’s there. If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.
     I drive back to New York a lot. It’s a six and a half hour shlep that’s not too bad at all, especially because about a third of the way into Jersey my car radio starts picking up Hot Nine and I get a little extra pep in my step because I know I’m almost home.
     I briefly nurtured a theory that the venn diagram of the Hot 97 broadcast radius and “where you can get good pizza” was a perfect circle (the bottom half of Westchester, most but not all of Jersey, none of Upstate NY or Pennsylvania), but then Francesca told me you can’t pick it up in New Haven, so c’est las vie, woulda been great if it were true.

Dear Shabby,
     If you are dating someone and both tend to be shy, who makes the first move? It gets awkward.
-Nervous In Newark

Dear NIN,
     I have a history of taking “way too long” to ask someone to kiss me. Me and Becca’s first date was like 10 hours long before we kissed. It was obvious that we both wanted to but neither of us asked (until one of us did and we’ve been kissing ever since). On my end it was a mixture of being super conscientious about consent due to years of work with the accountability collective, being somewhat recently sober and not knowing how to initiate kissing without being wasted, and genuine cowardice. Before dating Becca I’ve had so many nights like that. Hanging out for hours and hours with someone who I explicitly asked out on a date and not making a move until like the last possible second, or relying on them to do it. At the end of the day, aside from the excruciating/exquisite torment of waiting to kiss, I’ve never like, lost a date over being slow on the take. Also my being anxious around sex is completely tied to my overall anxiety around gender and my history of sexual trauma. Those are two good, valid reasons to take a long time to kiss someone, and they’re far from the only ones. And those reasons are almost never transparent!
     I think it’s fine to take things at whatever pace is comfortable for you. In my experience, talking a lot is a good way to ease tension. Asking a lot of permission can be fun and kinda hot. I also really like the system Cindy Crabb outlined in Learning Good Consent where her and a partner found talking about sex explicitly triggering in a way that made sex seem impossible, so they developed a number scale for their boundaries where like, 1 was simple physical proximity, 2 was nonsexual massage, 3 was kissing, 4 was sexual massage, etc. I have practiced this at times and when it hasn’t been helpful it hasn’t been harmful, but when it has been helpful it’s been like, really helpful.
    All that said my answer to your actual question applies to both you and your date, NIN. Who makes the first move? You do.