Subversive Love Notes

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By:  Grainne Rhuad, A.B. Thomas and Karla Fetrow

It’s that time of year again!  We love February at Subversify and not just because it’s the shortest month of the year, we love LOVE Day.  Mostly because of it’s bloody origins, like Lupercalia in which young naked men get splattered with blood and good olde St. Valentine himself who lost his life for it. Yeah, we love a good blood soaked love story. 

But we also love to show our appreciation for those who have sparked perhaps the greatest light in our own humble lives-yeah, subversiveness itself! So go grab a big box of chocolate, a cupcake or bowl of conversation hearts and get to know some of our staff’s subversive heroes.

Harvey Pekar-

Nearly everything about Comics is subversive, from the Superhero’s down to the artwork.  There is something about living out our fantasies in sereal form that calls to a lot of us.  From their very inception they have been troublesome.  Distain was shown even for Superman by teachers who would have their student read “real” literature and not “daydreams”; as if any literature was ever created without any daydreaming.  In the 1950’s and 60’s on American University campus’ everywhere Spiderman was listed as high as other emerging American subversive heroes like Bob Dylan and Dr. King.

More modern subversive shenanigans from the comic world are easy to point the finger at like the anti-heroes in The Watchmen.  Then there’s Neil Gaiman’s Sandman which won a World Fantasy Fiction award in 1991 and effectively closed the option of a “comic” ever winning again. 

However this year I want to sing my subversive love song for the underground comic hero, Harvey Pekar who unfortunately for us left this earthly veil on July 12, 2010.  Harvey is an unlikely hero and that is why I love him. 

Harvey’s comics began in the late 1960’s when he began to see how popular this medium was for storytelling.  Harvey felt he had a lot of stories in him.  Being himself, he ruminated about the project for some time, showing pictures to friends in the business and having characters based on himself appeared as “Crazy Ed” in Robert Crumb’s The People’s Comics.  Harvey’s own serial American Splendor released its first issue in 1976. 

He chronicled himself, his real life and interactions and something which seemingly never should have worked, telling tales of the outsiders people too often overlooked by artists;  bums, janitors,  Vietnam vets, waitresses, jazz freaks, grad students,  all the most  mundane encounters became something magickal.  He became an underground hero and remains so to this day. It could also be said that he was the pre-cursor to blogging.   His desire to show real daily life the way he experienced it is what so many of us have at our fingertips.  Harvey cut the trail.

 Harvey also realized what most writers fail to, at least at first; you have to live a life to have stories.  To that end, he never gave up his minimum wage job as a file clerk Cleveland’s Veteran’s Administration Hospital, he didn’t retire until 2001.  Also serving him well was his early years as a jazz review writer, hanging out in clubs and soaking up jazz so much so that it flowed through his veins.  In a way his writing was very jazz-like, not following rules or lines but just expressing each moment, what came to him. 

He was a break out writer who made it possible for more grown-up comics and graphic novelists to make it.  He is the person most pointed to as touchstone for writers of adult serial fiction today.

 He continued to work up until his death and in fact had several projects in the works at that time which we may see at a later date.  He will be missed.   But maybe most importantly, he will be emulated.

Studs Turkel-

“We can’t make any choices unless we connect the past with the present. The thing that horrifies me is the forgetfulness.”-Studs Turkel

If you ask anyone under 30 today who Studs Turkel was I’d either be surprised or figure they are in journalism if they know.  However it wasn’t very long ago that Studs was a cherished Interviewer, right up there with Walter Cronkite and soaring the heavens above Barbara Walters to my estimation.  Even died in the wool Republicans would tune in to listen to and watch Studs’ interviews with politicians, writers and activists. 

Without Studs Turkel there would be no Jon Stewarts.  He set the stage for both realism and entertainment in interviewing, but also for getting to the heart of a matter, peeling away the bullshit.   

Studs had an early career in acting and radio. In 1949-50, he even starred in his own television show, Studs’ Place, an informal series set in a Chicago restaurant. It was a short-lived role before NBC kicked him out. Studs had signed petitions believed to be Communist in origin, for price control, rent control and anti-Jim Crow. NBC offered salvation-”all I had to do was say I was duped”-but Studs refused, not out of morality but out of ego. “What do you mean I am dumb?  I wasn’t duped; you bet I signed those things!”

But this was this Hoover Era and it landed him squarely on the side of subversives.  Did Studs consider himself subversive?  Decidedly.  However his brand of subversion was to work within a system to bring real issues to real people in a way they could digest. 

This understanding was probably fostered early as he grew up in a boarding house, his parents owned in the Chicago area.  He spend his early days listening to the concerns or laborers, filing clerks, business men and it shaped  him, he was not sheltered from the concerns of adults. 

Studs in one interview used a poem by Bertold Brecht to illustrate his point: “When the Chinese Wall was built, where’d the masons go for lunch? When Caesar conquered Gaul, was there not even a cook in the army? When the Armada sank, King Philip wept. Were there no other tears?”
Like many of us here at Subversify it is the small stories that mattered to him “What’s it like to be that goofy little soldier, scared stiff, with his bayonet aimed at Christ? What’s it like to have been a woman in a defense-plant job during World War II? What’s it like to be a kid at the front lines? It’s all funny and tragic at the same time,” says Terkel.

Studs did this both on his radio show which enjoyed a 45 year run and in several books including Hardtimes (1970) Working (1974) –Which interestingly enough, Harvey Pekar authored a graphic adaptation of ,and  American Dreams: Lost and Found (1980) .

Studs the consummate commentator summed himself up best a year before his death at 95 years of age in November of 2008 by saying this:

“If I did one thing I’m proud of, it’s to make people feel that together, they count,”

Mojo Nixon-

It was the mid 80’s when the Alberta of University beckoned to me – for the glory of 25 cent hi-ball night. As I braced myself against one of the rows of cheap wooden tables waiting for the psychology majors luv call, “damn, am I ever shit faced”, a duo took to the stage to provide the night’s drunken debauchery’s musical accompaniment. The first four songs driven by slick guitar and washboard playing was good but then, as if the Virgin Mary herself had mooned me, the tall wild haired guitar player/singer pulled out a big plastic milk jug. He proceeded to bash the milk jug over his head to provide the beat for a little ditty called, “Mushroom Maniac”; my journey into transmojoification began.
Since that fateful night, the Mighty Mojo Nixon has provided many a nights of music, humour and dead on social commentary. Over the years he has taught that it is not evolution, but “Elvislution”, because Elvis was a perfect being; he taught that there was the evil opposite of Elvis, the anti-Elvis: Michael J. Fox. He has sung songs that tug on the heart strings to make the strongest of men cry, such as “Vibrator Dependent”. Mojo has even solved one of the mysteries of today’s society, why are there so many UFO sightings? It’s because we’re the interstellar truck stop and you just can’t get no “Beanie Weenies” in outer space.
Mojo Nixon has taken the art of humour in order to make profound social commentary. Songs like “Get outta my way” rebelling against the rat race and dirty concert promoters, to “Ain’t gonna piss in no jar” about mandatory drug testing (though he did say he would do it – as long as Nancy Reagan was going to drink it up), legalizing marijuana, artists selling out (Don Henley must die) to 2009’s “Dr. Laura who made you god”, Mojo has written and sung against the grain of the tired masses subjugated to inane legislation and societal formalities that have made little sense yet are continued to be practiced. When the stars were pillowing their pockets with doing tributes to Lady Diana upon her death (who can forget Elton John singing “Candle in the Wind” – and of course the repackaging of the tune? I know I can’t – no matter how many brain cells I attempt to kill off, Mojo came out with a song that expressed the inner feelings of so many –“drunk divorced Floozie”.
Mojo Nixon, the redneck Plato, has proven that you can make a person think through the sneakiest entrance, a smile. Nixon can be heard on Sirius Radio’s “Outlaw Country” from 4 to 8 Eastern Time daily.

The Shopper Cache Tapes-Vern Foster-

Vern Foster runs a busy convenience store in a small, primarily residential town.  In this rural community, convenience doesn’t just mean stopping by to pick up a soda and snack on the way home from work.  Nor is it confined to the closest place to buy your cigarettes and alcohol.  Convenience means gas, video rentals, showers and laundry, as well as those essential, last minute items you forgot to buy in town.  It’s a home away from home.  In one corner of the laundry mat is a television and benches.  Even if they don’t have something to wash, the locals come in on Sundays to watch the football games on the cable channels.  Nearby the cashier’s counter is a coffee station where free coffee is cheerfully dispensed in Styrofoam cups.  People huddle around the station on winter days, stamping the snow from their feet and catching up on the gossip. 

The customers develop the idea this is their store.  They tell Vern what they’d like to see on the shelves; a new energy drink, their favorite salsa, baking items they unfailingly need.  If Vern thinks other customers will buy it as well, he’ll stock it.  An entire row is devoted to all those various candy bars you can rarely find in the chain stores anymore, yet that still strike fond childhood memories; Idaho Spuds, Rocky Road’s, Chicklets, U-No bars and a host of others.  If customers think his store needs to be used to drum up funds for a family in crisis, he’ll willingly put out a donations can with a photo of the family and explanation of their needs.  If they are looking for a kid to do yard work, a handyman to fix their furnace, a plow to clear their driveway, they go to Vern for his list of local workers. 

Recently, Vern Foster won a certificate of appreciation from the Peace Officer’s Association.  To those who know Vern well, and even those who have simply observed the way he runs his store, this might seem a bit ironic.  Vern is possibly the most politically incorrect businessman in the entire community.  He follows the city code and rules of conduct only as far as is necessary to run a legitimate business.  He won’t repetitiously check the ID of customers who are obviously of age or have been returning to the store so often, he knows them on a personal basis.  He won’t establish a dress code.  Often an early morning cashier has stumbled in to open the store in pajama bottoms and slippers.  Once he made a remark about the low cleavage some of the girls were showing, but when I asked if the customers had complained, he answered, “not at all.  Keep up the good work.” 

His instructions to his employees are that they should never say they are working.  They come to the store to play.  This means mock fisticuffs with the construction crew that comes in, drum rolls and cheerleader calls over a winning pull-tab, and tag games with the store owner’s grand-daughters.  Sometimes, customers will come in to see the cashier standing on the counter, putting away cigarettes. Most are no longer astonished.  Many are disappointed if the cashier doesn’t do a little dance, crack a joke or in some other way justify the “grand staging”. 

 Joking and playing are a serious part of Shopper’s Cache life.  Whether talking to a five year old or an eighty year old man, the important thing is to have the customer leave smiling.  To the little boy, whose eyes are like saucers barely swimming above the counter, “oh, you’re five cents short.  Let’s see if Mr. Frog has something to say about this”, while shaking out five cents from the penny catcher.  To the grave military man, spanked out in full uniform, who pauses and asks, “Are we good?”  A cheerful wink and reply, “I’ve been assured that we are.”

Vern became furious when gas prices starting hitting the roof, deciding the oil producers had become too greedy.  He quit buying gas from the big companies, looking around until he found a couple of independent producers who were willing to fill his station at a cheaper rate.  He then began selling his gas at just five cents per gallon over what he had paid for it, making his prices ten cents a gallon cheaper than his closest competitor.  It wasn’t long before he’d seized all the gas contracts for the local truck drivers and had developed a reputation for having the cheapest gas in the state. 

How did this very uncharacteristic man manage to receive appreciation from the Peace Officer’s Association?  Quite a few years ago, Vern decided in order to protect his family, his employees and the property, the best solution was to barricade his business with cameras.  From the leisure of his bedroom, he could then watch everything that went on in the store and the parking lot, and have twenty-four hour recordings. 

This saved him a great deal of fuss.  There was no longer any chance of someone wrongfully suing the store, claiming an infraction or targeting the clientele through a staged accident.  The cameras told the whole story.  It also helped him pick out the shop-lifters, the stolen check writers and vandals.  He kept a wall of shame with photos of the miscreants in action.  Stealing alcohol was an absolute no-no.  Even if the infraction involved nothing more than a $1.50 “shooter”, the photo went up.  He’d turn his back however, and pretend he didn’t notice the mom who stole a loaf of bread and a can of beans to feed her family.   

Over the last three years, his cameras caught an identity thief who had already rung up a hundred thousand dollar spree in a sixty mile radius.  He froze on tape, three young people who together had a collection of check books with which they wrote out thirty-five thousand dollars in stolen checks before his photo shots apprehended them.  He also managed a clip of what could have been used as one of America’s dumbest criminals.  A man with a pick-up truck, winch and chain, tried after-hours to remove the ATM machine standing just inside the doors.  Smashing the glass panel, he wrapped a chain around its concrete post and tried to pull it loose from where it was cemented to the floor.  Failing in this, the culprit then decided to try his luck at a store a little further down the road, leaving the ATM machine sagging over like it had been on an all night binge. 

It’s possible the police would not have been able to connect the two crimes, leaving the perpetrator with nothing more than vandalism charges, except the truck driver forgot something.  Having successfully pulled out the safe from the neighboring store with his chain and winch, he zoomed back up the road past Shopper’s Cache, the safe tumbling on its chain behind him.  The truck was caught on tape with its stolen loot and the driver was charged with burglary and attempted burglary. 

Most of those hours of tape, to be sure, are solely for Vern’s entertainment.  Knowing full well where some of the cameras are located, customers make a point of waving into them, blowing kisses, making monkey faces or other silly antics.  Occasionally, Vern will call up and advice the cashier to kick so and so out of the store.  Being kicked out of the store was a badge of honor.  It meant you were brazen enough in your performance to command Vern’s attention.  When it’s important, however; when the tapes undeniably betray a person’s wrong doing to another, that segment of the tape is copied, the disk turned over to the police for investigation.  This past winter, his tapes apprehended a child molester who had tried to accost a child in the Shopper’s Cache parking lot. 

Vern deserves the appreciation of all peace keepers.  He runs his store with kindness, compassion and riotous humor.  He concerns himself with the well-being of his community, but does not concern himself with adults personal vices, gossip or bedroom scandals.  He rebels against the establishment, but quietly, subversively.  He protects the victims of lies.  Can we truly, individually, make a difference in our communities?  Vern proves we can. 

Editor’s Note: We wanted to pay homage to our most valued interim Publisher Tashi, a cocker spaniel of deceptive beauty and great pride. However, having come to know Tashi over the last month we know he would distain and also probably pee on our accolades.  So, please do get to know him through his story, Raining Cats and Dogs which we have been running here in parts and will soon be available only through Subversify.   It should be noted that Tashi is THE most Subversive dog we have yet come across.

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