in conversation with
and Mark McCawley
John Wisniewski: When did you begin writing, bart? When did you publish your first writings?
bart plantenga: On any conscious level? It was probably in high school. A kind of prosaic awakening. First in 9th grade, for an assignment where we had to “travel” through South America and keep a diary I did one – times 10. Mine was over 100 pages long, about 3x longer than anyone else’s – I didn’t know I liked writing about places I had [never] been to. I wouldn’t know for another 2 years that that could be a talent – and what I’ve come to realize many years later an extremely underpaid talent at that.
For instance: Did you ever get into a discussion with friends or coworkers about being underpaid, earning a shit wage and such. Well, I have only done this once or twice: tried to estimate how much per hour I earned for an article or book I was paid for. You don’t want to know. THEY don’t want to know. It is like 10 American cents per hour. You point that out and nobody wants to hear it or believe.
The Geographical Rewriting of Memory
Listen to Wreck Travel Memory as you read
It all begins with some lit fuse, an old jingle for Palisades Amusement Park you’re still able to sing along with ["shows & dancing are free"], or the snap of a finger, the way she used to from the edge of the bed with a smirk, some glance of exposed warm skin holding the aroma of sun tan lotion, the sea lions in Central Park Zoo that remind you of Salinger – & reading Salinger on the 1979 F-Train & meeting Sylvina. I used to be a foot messenger & would pass through the zoo when it was rundown but free & I would talk to the animals between deliveries. [The old zoo serves as the final destination in BEER MYSTIC.] Or maybe its some vintage news report from the 1968 Chicago Riots, or an email from an old flame you came to NYC with from Ann Arbor who is wondering how you’re doing, or a sound – in my case, the sound bites here included, plus a few elusive bars from “Funk #49” by James Gang. Or is it Paloma taking photos of turtles in Central Park because she remembers my touching stories about my turtle “Spotty” when I was 10 & how the neighbors released him & I was heartbroken. “Was that what Spotty looked like?” she kept asking.
Purple Manta Ray: Death of a Playboy
The other night I heard Paul Mauriat’s 1968 hit “Love Is Blue.” It’s forever associated with my childhood bedroom where I’d notate the weekly Top 40 while building model cars like this one, the purple Manta Ray, the only one I ever photographed.
My friend Paul’s father, who worked at the Ford plant just down US 1, always wore neatly ironed, striped linen shirts & combed his hair after his shower like he was in a rockabilly band, & maybe he had been. Like a young Frank Gorshin, with a smile sharp as a blade & stinking of a brisk splash of Aqua Velva, exhaling onto the couch after his shift, feet up on the coffee table, a bottle of Country Club – it’s called malt liquor because it’s a totally different kind of drink – in his right hand.
He was cool – or at least as much as a constellation of product choices & a few borrowed affectations can hint at – he had over 50 LPs (a lot back then – for a father) from Dave Brubeck to Martin Denny, through to Gene Vincent & always had a stack of Motor Trend, Playboy & cheesier magazines piled neatly on the lacquered coffee table, although it was probably Paul’s mother who piled them up so neatly – & chronologically.
From Captain Yossarian to Captain Stanley & Back
Yossarian was so well known by his pseudonym and he had so seamlessly tailored his being to being Yossarian that the name & man seemed inseparable; so much so that many people – even friends – didn’t know that Yossarian wasn’t his real name.
I don’t think this was totally by chance or some hasty decision on his part. He had indeed – in his own way – embraced the glorious absurdity embodied by the probably not-so-fictional main character in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 or at least the way this book allowed us to understand our contemporary cognitively dissonant reality.
Having just read other people’s moving memories and accounts of knowing Yossarian [here pictured with under-regarded artist Valerie Haller] at “Remembering Yossarian, ‘Original Hipster and Legendary Cartoonist’” on the Local East Village annex to the online New York Times, where a truncated version of this appears, makes you/me/one realize what a dodgy, game-playing muscle the brain is: from a hyper-realistic, in-medias-res, up-too-close now we get lazy-sloppy or just plain overloaded with sensory details & so your later memories of times & events begin to fade only to be filled in with our brain’s own version of Photoshop – things get tweaked & pimped. When you’re in the middle of the tumult your memory-visualization of an event will be quite different from that of an outsider who may detail it with all the verve of a tourist in Times Square for the first time. That is the exciting but lamentable side of living in the all-immersive present; the present makes cuckolds of us all with its persistent dominance & greedy need to suck all attention into its vortex & then leave you stranded, disillusioned, looking down at your untied shoelaces. I say this because some of the details others noticed in their contributions to “Remembering Yossarian” are sides of him that had gotten misplaced on my hard drive.
Raised Fist Salute
“The greatest problem is we are afraid to offend our oppressors. I had a moral obligation to step up. Morality was a far greater force than the rules and regulations they had.”
• John Carlos
“If I do something good then I am American, but if I do something bad then I am a Negro!”
• Tommie Smith
I got together with filmmaker-friend Mark Boswell in his clammy Greenpoint, New York kitchen shortly after the Olympics. While we tapped multiple Polish Zywiec and Tyskie beers, we somehow got onto the subject of iconic images and – maybe not so coincidentally – both of us came up with John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s raised fist salute at the 1968 Olympics as one of the mind-blowing images that remains indelibly engraved on our subconscious. Then we opened up the laptop to watch Youtubes documenting the events surrounding the 1968 Olympics. It brought tears to our eyes – no really – I mean real heavy tears welling up.
The image of bronze medalist Carlos and gold medalist Smith’s black-gloved salute on the podium during the medals ceremony after Smith’s record-breaking performance in the 200m dash, provoked a global scandal that led to disgrace, vilification, and ostracism for the participants, including silver medalist, Australia’s Peter Norman who showed his support by wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge (OPHR) along with Carlos and Smith.