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45

The Magic Box

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really stunning essay about David Wojnarowicz which made me want to read all of his work and all of hers too

Laing, O. (2014). The Magic Box. Granta, 126, pp. 45-62

47

It never gets dark in Times Square. Sometimes I’d wake at two or three or four and watch waves of neon pass through my room. During these unwanted apertures of the night, I’d get out of bed and yank the useless curtain open. Outside, there was a Jumbotron, a giant electronic screen cycling perpetually through six or seven ads. One had gunfire, and one expelled a cold blue pulse of light, insistent as a metronome. Sometimes I’d count windows and sometimes I’d count buildings, though I never reached the end of either.

intro paragraph. i like

—p.47 by Olivia Laing 4 years, 3 months ago

It never gets dark in Times Square. Sometimes I’d wake at two or three or four and watch waves of neon pass through my room. During these unwanted apertures of the night, I’d get out of bed and yank the useless curtain open. Outside, there was a Jumbotron, a giant electronic screen cycling perpetually through six or seven ads. One had gunfire, and one expelled a cold blue pulse of light, insistent as a metronome. Sometimes I’d count windows and sometimes I’d count buildings, though I never reached the end of either.

intro paragraph. i like

—p.47 by Olivia Laing 4 years, 3 months ago
50

In the mid-1960s all three kids either ran away to or were dumped on their mother, who was living in Manhattan, in a tiny apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. Dolores was emotionally warmer than her former husband, but she was also erratic and struggled with the burden of raising her by now troubled children. At fifteen, David was turning ten-dollar tricks in Times Square, and by seventeen had left home entirely. He almost starved while living on the street. Later he’d remember his gums bleeding each time he smoked a cigarette. He never got enough sleep, either. Sometimes he’d spend the night on the roof of buildings, curled against the heating vents, and in the morning would wake covered in soot, his eyes and mouth and nose filled with a choking black dust.

—p.50 by Olivia Laing 4 years, 3 months ago

In the mid-1960s all three kids either ran away to or were dumped on their mother, who was living in Manhattan, in a tiny apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. Dolores was emotionally warmer than her former husband, but she was also erratic and struggled with the burden of raising her by now troubled children. At fifteen, David was turning ten-dollar tricks in Times Square, and by seventeen had left home entirely. He almost starved while living on the street. Later he’d remember his gums bleeding each time he smoked a cigarette. He never got enough sleep, either. Sometimes he’d spend the night on the roof of buildings, curled against the heating vents, and in the morning would wake covered in soot, his eyes and mouth and nose filled with a choking black dust.

—p.50 by Olivia Laing 4 years, 3 months ago
55

As I worked my way through the archive, I kept thinking about what it means to be the generation that comes after, growing up with the knowledge that there are legions of missing persons, that one’s tribe is full of ghosts. What are our responsibilities? Are we witnesses or voyeurs to someone else’s incalculable losses? I don’t have answers to these questions, but I turn them over all the time.

Towards the end of my stay in the library, I ordered up David’s audio journals. Over the past few years I’d grown accustomed to picking through the most intimate papers of the dead, but nothing prepared me for the intensity of listening to those tapes. Many were recorded on waking, or in the middle stretches of the night. Often you could hear car horns and sirens, people talking on the street outside. Then David’s deep voice, struggling upward out of sleep. He talks about his work and his sexuality and sometimes he walks to the window, opens the curtains and reports on what he sees there. A man in the apartment opposite, combing his hair beneath a bare bulb. A dark-haired stranger standing outside the Chinese laundry, who meets his eyes and doesn’t break the gaze. He talks about what dying will feel like, about whether it will be frightening or painful. He says he hopes it will be like slipping into warm water, and then on the crackling tape he starts to sing: low plaintive notes, rising and falling over the surf of morning traffic.

One night, he wakes after a bad dream and switches on the machine to talk it out. He’s dreamt about a horse being caught in some train tracks, its spine broken, unable to escape. ‘It was very much alive,’ he says, ‘and it was just so fucking upsetting to see this thing.’ He describes how he tried to free it, and how instead it was dragged into a wall and skinned alive. ‘I haven’t the faintest idea what it means for me. And I feel horror and a very deep sadness about something. Whatever the tone of the dream carries it was just so sad and so shocking.’ He says goodbye then, and shuts the machine off.

Something alive, something alive and lovely caught and damaged in the mechanisms, the gears and rails of society. When I think about Aids, when I think about the people who have died, and the conditions they experienced, when I think about those who have survived and who carry inside themselves a decade of mourning, a decade of missing people, I think of David’s dream. When I cried while listening to the tapes, which I did periodically, surreptitiously wiping my eyes on my sleeve, it wasn’t just out of sadness, or pity. It was out of rage, that I lived in a world in which this kind of mass death had been permitted, in which nobody in a position of power had stopped the train and freed the horse in time.

on AIDS

—p.55 by Olivia Laing 4 years, 3 months ago

As I worked my way through the archive, I kept thinking about what it means to be the generation that comes after, growing up with the knowledge that there are legions of missing persons, that one’s tribe is full of ghosts. What are our responsibilities? Are we witnesses or voyeurs to someone else’s incalculable losses? I don’t have answers to these questions, but I turn them over all the time.

Towards the end of my stay in the library, I ordered up David’s audio journals. Over the past few years I’d grown accustomed to picking through the most intimate papers of the dead, but nothing prepared me for the intensity of listening to those tapes. Many were recorded on waking, or in the middle stretches of the night. Often you could hear car horns and sirens, people talking on the street outside. Then David’s deep voice, struggling upward out of sleep. He talks about his work and his sexuality and sometimes he walks to the window, opens the curtains and reports on what he sees there. A man in the apartment opposite, combing his hair beneath a bare bulb. A dark-haired stranger standing outside the Chinese laundry, who meets his eyes and doesn’t break the gaze. He talks about what dying will feel like, about whether it will be frightening or painful. He says he hopes it will be like slipping into warm water, and then on the crackling tape he starts to sing: low plaintive notes, rising and falling over the surf of morning traffic.

One night, he wakes after a bad dream and switches on the machine to talk it out. He’s dreamt about a horse being caught in some train tracks, its spine broken, unable to escape. ‘It was very much alive,’ he says, ‘and it was just so fucking upsetting to see this thing.’ He describes how he tried to free it, and how instead it was dragged into a wall and skinned alive. ‘I haven’t the faintest idea what it means for me. And I feel horror and a very deep sadness about something. Whatever the tone of the dream carries it was just so sad and so shocking.’ He says goodbye then, and shuts the machine off.

Something alive, something alive and lovely caught and damaged in the mechanisms, the gears and rails of society. When I think about Aids, when I think about the people who have died, and the conditions they experienced, when I think about those who have survived and who carry inside themselves a decade of mourning, a decade of missing people, I think of David’s dream. When I cried while listening to the tapes, which I did periodically, surreptitiously wiping my eyes on my sleeve, it wasn’t just out of sadness, or pity. It was out of rage, that I lived in a world in which this kind of mass death had been permitted, in which nobody in a position of power had stopped the train and freed the horse in time.

on AIDS

—p.55 by Olivia Laing 4 years, 3 months ago
59

At Broadway and 39th I passed a man sitting in a doorway, crying. He must have been in his forties, with cropped hair and big cracked hands. I went over to ask if he was OK. He said that he’d been sitting there three days and not a single person had stopped to speak to him. He told me about his kids – I got three beautiful babies on Long Island – and then a confusing story about work boots. He showed me a wound on his arm and said I got stabbed yesterday. I’m like a piece of shit here. People throw pennies at me. It was snowing hard, the flakes whirling down. My hair was soaked already. After a while, I gave him five bucks and walked on. That night I watched the snow falling for a long time. The air was full of wet neon, sliding and smearing in the streets. What is it about the pain of others? It’s not like it’s infectious, is it?

—p.59 by Olivia Laing 4 years, 3 months ago

At Broadway and 39th I passed a man sitting in a doorway, crying. He must have been in his forties, with cropped hair and big cracked hands. I went over to ask if he was OK. He said that he’d been sitting there three days and not a single person had stopped to speak to him. He told me about his kids – I got three beautiful babies on Long Island – and then a confusing story about work boots. He showed me a wound on his arm and said I got stabbed yesterday. I’m like a piece of shit here. People throw pennies at me. It was snowing hard, the flakes whirling down. My hair was soaked already. After a while, I gave him five bucks and walked on. That night I watched the snow falling for a long time. The air was full of wet neon, sliding and smearing in the streets. What is it about the pain of others? It’s not like it’s infectious, is it?

—p.59 by Olivia Laing 4 years, 3 months ago