My assignment - the end of Garrison Keillor's overlong tenure on Prairie Home Companion - coupled with recent police shootings of unarmed black men, had me riffing on whiteness.
Garrison Keillor, pictured just prior to being unmasked and having his plot foiled by a bunch of meddling kids.
After 42 years, Garrison Keillor is finally retiring as the host of NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion. That’s four decades of delivering home-spun bullshit for 53-year-old white people as they ease their Saab into a spot at the farmer’s market – white people fond of chuckling at feebleminded word play, and old-timey songs sung in an atonal dry-throated murmur, and meandering radio plays that as free of dramatic conflict as they are peppered with agonizing dad jokes.
For over 40 years, each weekend, America has tuned in to form a drowsy paste of warm milk and crushed Saltines, and then spackling their ears with it.
Never mind that even after Garrison goddamn Keillor is leaving, they will CONTINUE to produce this fucking show. Never mind that this Lutheran death march of mandolin-puke will shortly be a HALF A FUCKING CENTURY OLD. And never mind that to lower your brain into this warm bath of nostalgia porn effectively announces to the world that you’re content to garnish your fucking applesauce with a ground-up Tylenol PM and nap till you’re dead.
At first glance, there would seem to be no connection between Prairie Home Companion and the nationwide frenzy of police shooting unarmed black men, but for your edification, I will now attempt to make just such a connection.
Prairie Home Companion, which is white like the guts of a biscuit, is by no means a CULPRIT in the over-long list of slain African Americans, obviously, but I would submit to you that it is a data point in the vast spreadsheet of whiteness that creates and maintains precisely the systems of oppression that make such institutional murder possible, it is a tentacle on the nation-sized beast of collusion and calamity.
Prairie Home Companion, which is white like a Whole Foods in Utah, does not pull the trigger, obviously, but NPR is for sure on the presets of enough Volvo and Acura and Audi car radios as to be a contextual contributor to the kind of complacency that must be present in the beneficiaries of systematized privilege for such systems to persist.
Prairie Home Companion, which is white like a glass of Pinot on the deck of a boat, does not perpetrate the inequities of media coverage that normalize and minimize such brutality, but provides an ongoing propaganda campaign about the supposed virtues of whiteness, and therefore adds to a climate where whiteness continues to dominate.
Prairie Home Companion, which is white like a pair of Crocs at a Klan rally, does not administer the system of justice that permits white cops to kill with impunity, but is at least a brick in the high, wide wall of a white sense of entitlement that permits such a system to run roughshod over any sense of fairness or balance or even hope.
Prairie Home Companion, which is white like a Montana soccer game, does not in any direct sense, obviously, follow this appalling violence with the apology and dissembling and misdirection that too many white people, with their internalized sense of superiority, offer in response, but it is at least a plume in the fanned peacock tail of unearned white pride that causes too goddamn many of us to circle the fucking wagons when anybody calls us on our shit.
Prairie Home Companion, which is white like Cool Whip on a yeti’s dick, obviously did not engage in a decades-long campaign of militarizing our police. But it has always advanced the certainty that the apparatus of the state, and more broadly all forms of a authority, should be obeyed – that uniforms and crosswalks and school bells are all signifiers that our duty is to comply, and that failure to do so makes us aberrant and unwholesome.
Prairie Home Companion, which is white like a golf cart full of cottage cheese, has not insisted – not overtly – that we swaddle ourselves in the flag and remain resolutely uncritical of our nation’s policies or our own complicity in them. But radio, like all dying media, can do nothing but hearken backward, and as it pines for a time that never was, it provides a kind of ambient noise of patriotism – chiding civics lessons and rose-colored revisionism can only happen against a backdrop of implied national greatness. And patriotism, as any limbless veteran can tell you, has a whiff of the graveyard about it.
Prairie Home Companion, which is white like a line of cocaine on a low-flow toilet, did not introduce the profit motive into our nation’s prisons, obviously, thereby incentivizing whole towns and regions to incarcerate black and brown men at rates that are the envy of despots all over the world, but in this fictional town in Minnesota, where are the black people? I’ll tell you were they are. They’re all crammed like animals in the supermax prison just outside of St. Cloud.
Prairie Home Companion, which is white like a handgun with a peanut allergy, obviously did not conspire for generations to deprive young black men of economic opportunity, but Lake Wobegone, populated as it is by thrifty merchants and wise, avuncular tradesmen, does perpetuate that tired bootstrapping bullshit that if you work hard and play by the rules, you will prosper. Such a cheery narrative about your prospects, though, is only possible if you live in a town without food deserts and where you can get through high school without getting shot, and where jobs await you after graduation.
Prairie Home Companion, which is white like a meth lab on a Jet Ski, does not, obviously, destroy and dismantle the educational infrastructure that would once have permitted black men to claw their way out of their generations-long cycle of deprivation and hopelessness, but it does portray schools without lockdown drills and where all the students have had breakfast and regular medical care; where there are fewer than 40 kids to a classroom, and where there are no behavioral issues or trauma; where their teachers are not ground down and burnt out, where their parents are not jailed and addicted, and where the streets on the way to school are not paved with the bones their fallen classmates.
Prairie Home Companion, which is white like a yoga mat in a vat of Greek yogurt, obviously does not in itself constitute any of the depravities of privilege and discrimination, of bloody capitalism and bloody hatred – to suggest as much would be an irresponsible overreach. And I am nothing if not measured and responsible.
But dopey radio shows, and chatty podcasts, and laugh track sitcoms, and race-baiting newscasts can all serve to render us all a little whiter. And history, coupled with recent events, must cause us to conclude that whiteness, as we have been practicing it, is broken. And it is long past time – centuries past time – that we abandon the present model of whiteness in favor of something less oblivious and harmful, less volatile and aggrieved, less joyless and mean, less greedy and grasping. Because to fail in this is watch the world burn.
So a while back, Clickhole put out the call for new writers/content monkeys. You were required to create 10 headlines in their multiple categories (Video, List, Article, Quiz). I obviously did not get the gig (which bums me out, since this would have been a fun-ass place to work), but I was pretty pleased with my submissions/thought thy was mostly pretty funny. So I'll set them here, in this wayward and disregarded corner of internet posterity.
While I met with failure, I regard it as a worthy failure.
Please to enjoy, Tiny Handful of Readers.
17 Ways My Ex Is An Ungrateful Dragon Hooker
Watch Harrison Ford Plow His Small Plane Into This Family Cookout. Last Thrill For a 9-Year-Old Star Wars Fan!
11 Vermin Elizabeth Banks Would Eat Raw Before Laying Her Alabaster Hands Upon Any Part of Your Sad Carcass
Test Your Knowledge – Track From Cast Recording of “On Your Feet!” or Thimble Brimming With Tepid Spit?
4 Senses That Are Heightened For Matt Murdoch (Editor's note: Non-Daredevil fans may struggle with this one)
Find Out Why the Rest of the Color Wheel Calls Pantone 719B a “Scabrous Little Dick Hole”
12 Tricks For Preventing Your Next Brunch From Becoming Another Pointless and Harrowing Ordeal
Hapless Stumblebum Jeb Bush Has Actually Been Israeli Spy For Past Three Decades. “This is some ‘Mr. Bean’-level shit,” Reports NSA’s Gen. Alexander
Estate Planning: 18 Reasons You’ll Be Dumped Unceremoniously Into a Pauper’s Grave
Which Is Sadder: This Jar of Store Brand Gravy, or This Toll Booth Operator’s Partial Erection?
This is cool - the WRITE CLUB podcast, which Lindsay Muscato, Josh Zagoren, and Annie Costakis and I have been putting out for a year just got a nice write up in the AV Club's Podmass
Check it out - give a listen. Subscribe. It's the goodness for your ear holes.
You find out all you need at the WRITE CLUB site - HERE.
Thornton sloshed awake, his face sliding through the grit of a metal floor. The drool at the corner of his mouth split like a young scab when he lifted his head.
He winced as the floor lurched, creaking, under him. There was a throbbing egg-sized knot just behind his right ear. The thick idiot meat of his tongue probed at the stubby horn of snapped-off tooth in the pulpy socket where his incisor had been.
He could smell diesel and dust. His gut had curdled into an acid slurry. He heard the toneless hum of tires on a road. A truck. He was inside a truck.
He tried to focus. Parcels. Dozens of them. He squinted toward the stripe of daylight at the front. He caught sight of a pair of hazel eyes in the rearview as the truck leaned around a turn.
“THERE he is,” said Hazel Eyes. “How’s the head?”
“Nf. Not good.” He tried to sit up. His wrist was pinned.
“I bet,” said Hazel. “You should have stayed down the first I hit you.”
Thornton groaned, looked down the length of his arm. He was handcuffed to a steel rail low on the wall of the truck. He felt more alert.
“Um. Listen,” he said. “You can take my—“
“Got it,” broke in Hazel, holding up Thornton’s wallet. “And, no. This is not about money.” Hazel grabbed the thick sheaf of bills from inside the wallet – unblinking eyes on Thornton in the shuddering mirror – and hurled them out his window. A twenty got blown back inside and twirled to rest by Thornton’s shackled hand.
“What is it you—“
“What I want, Mr. Thornton, you’ll see soon enough.” The hazel eyes found Thornton in the jostling mirror. “Now shut up.” Hazel was in a brown uniform.
Thornton shut his mouth, mind ricocheting, breathing ragged.
They drove on. For a while. The stripe of daylight at the front turned golden and crawled up the truck wall. Then it turned red. The headlights flickering in through the windshield grew less frequent. City sounds dropped away. It sounded really open outside. It sounded far.
Thornton started awake, snorting a little. The truck wasn’t moving. Hazel was not up front. The engine ticked.
He heard footsteps outside. The latch on the back door was thrown. The double doors swung wide. A dry herb smell rushed in, like the ghost of soup. Sage, Thornton recognized sage.
“Come on out,” said Hazel, tossing something. A single short-bladed key dinged onto the deck of the truck, near Thornton’s free hand. “Let’s go. Chop, chop.”
Thornton unlocked the handcuff. He sat up warily. If felt like his jaw had come unhooked and was hanging to one side.
“Why are you—“
“We’ll get to that. Come on.”
Thornton slid his sore body along the nubbled metal. He set his feet in sand. He was missing a shoe, his left. He looked around. He knew this place, he thought. He had been here. Long time ago. Before it was run down this way. The white paint was abraded off the stucco walls. The paths were sand-blown and buckling. But he had been here. This had been a spa. He had come here to this pampering place with one of his wives. Or a mistress, maybe. He couldn’t recall – which woman it had been, or the name of this place.
“How did…” Thornton trailed off, struck dumb by the riot of stars, paisleyed and arabesquing across a vast sky. He had sat in a long-ago Jacuzzi, marveling at this confounding and luminous carpet above. Any sense of the woman was erased by time and indifference. The residue of these stars persisted.
“You remember this place. I can see it,” said Hazel.
“A little,” said Thornton. “The sky, mostly.”
“Yeah,” said Hazel, taking it in. “It’s something, isn’t it?”
For a weird minute, it felt to Thornton like they were friendly. Which couldn’t be. That’s not what this was. You don’t wake up cuffed in the back of a truck and then get all, what? collegial with the guy who put you there. A sky like this, though. Made you feel so small. Like you wanted to huddle in caves with other humans, eating meat with your fingers and reasserting your existence.
But, no. This guy with hazel eyes had hauled him away. Had beaten and cuffed him.
He caught his first good look at the guy’s face. Craggy, worn. The face of a guy who’d worked outside for a long time. Downturned mouth, pursed by many disappointments. His close-cut hair was like silvered sand. Bit of an underbite – his creased top lip sat on the yellowing chisels of his bottom teeth. Color of his teeth matched the flecks of gold in his hazel eyes.
Thornton got a flash of memory, now. He’d been leaving the office, checking his phone.
Car service was late again. This guy – Hazel – had approached, in his brown uniform with the short pants. He’d extended that tablet thing and said: “Mr. Thornton. May I get your signature, please, sir?” And while Thornton had looked the guy over, taking dim note that he had no parcel, parting his lips to ask the guy to leave the package – wherever it might be, in the truck, still, Thornton guessed – with Angela on Monday, a burst of light had detonated in his head. The guy had struck him. Hard. Thornton had tried to form some mush-mouthed protest, the guy had smashed him on the jaw. With a long-handled silver something. Wrench, maybe.
This had been… when? Earlier today, Thornton guessed.
“Your shoe’s in there,” said Hazel, jerking a thumb toward the truck. “Might want to grab it. You’ve got walking to do.” Thornton looked dumbly in the direction of Hazel’s thumb.
“Dark,” said Thornton. His mouth was swollen and loose-toothed. Hurt to talk. “Can’t see.”
Hazel clicked on a long-barreled flashlight, like cops carry. Thornton stepped unsteadily inside the truck.
“Grab that jug of water. And the pouch of jerky. I’m not interested in killing you.” This came as no small relief to Thornton. But he grew wary. Long walk. Gallon jug of water. Thing of jerky. Provisions. Hazel was going to cut him loose out here. Wherever the hell here was. Thornton grabbed the stuff. Pulled on his shoe, laced it up. He should be ready, he figured.
“Now,” began Hazel. “I could cat-and-mouse you all goddamn night, but I’ve got to get back. So. Here it is. You know this place. Because you were here. Eight years ago. Getting mud baths and hot stone massages and whatever the hell else people like you fill your days with when you come to places like this. You recognize her?”
Hazel extended a photo of a determined-looking green-eyed blonde. Mid-thirties, maybe. Thick hair in an unruly knot on top of her head. Collar of a denim shirt and chunky turquoise necklace visible at the bottom of the frame. Thornton regarded her for a moment. She meant nothing to him. Which made him afraid. Right now, this face mattered, a lot. A crucial face. Most important goddamn face in this whole desert, and Thornton couldn’t place it.
“No,” said Hazel, after a moment of letting Thornton scour his memory. “I don’t expect you would.” He gazed at her briefly before returning the photo to the cargo pocket of his uniform shorts.
“Her name was Daphne. Daphne Benson.”
Thornton waited for more, mind revving. “Was… name was.” This woman was dead. And Hazel thought Thornton had something to do with it.
Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
Thornton’s eyes darted at the arched entryway to the drained pool, the busted terra cotta on the Spanish-tiled cabana visible over the crumbling stucco wall. He tried like hell to shuffle together that anonymous face with this desiccated place, but came up with nothing.
“OK,” replied Thornton at last. “Sorry to say I don’t know any Daphne Benson.”
“No, I know,” said Hazel. “I did, though. I loved her. Still do, I guess.” He looked up at the shocking excess of stars. “Daphne’s been dead four years, almost,” he told the sky sadly.
“Sorry to hear it,” offered Thornton at last. “But. Like I say. I didn’t know her.”
“Right,” said Hazel. “You didn’t. You just wrecked her. Pulled her life down. Like it was a dead tree. And you moved on.”
“I don’t… I’m not…”
“Eight years ago. Like I told you. You were here. Daphne worked here. She was a maid. You complained about her. Complained enough over a long weekend to get her fired. Fired cause you were throwing your weight around.”
Thornton remembered a little, now. Not this maid. But this tactic. He’d have been here with a mistress, then. Made sense. Even looking past the decay, this had never been a top-notch place. It was the kind of place with faux Navajo rugs that catered to strivers. Exactly the kind of place he’d bring somebody young who didn’t know better. Somebody who responded to displays of power, however empty. So he’d bitch about his turn-down service, or the chatter of his caddy, and the Rebecca or Chloe he’d bring to these places would be suitably impressed. And would make known how impressed she was between the sheets. Or in the shower. Or at a rest stop on the drive home.
It felt less clever to him, now.
“It wasn’t the only thing that befell her,” continued Hazel. “But it was what her counselors at the rehab place called a ‘precipitating event.’” He kicked at the sand. “She’d been off the Oxy for maybe four months when they fired her from here. She could never seem to kick it after that. Didn’t want it enough, I guess. Brutal stuff, Oxy.”
“Took me some while to find you. I’d given up, actually. After Daphne’s funeral, I tried maybe a year to hunt you down. Couldn’t do it. All I had was a last name and a city. ‘Thornton, Phoenix A-Z.’”
A coyote yipped off in the brush.
“Figured it would never happen. Then they gave me a new route at work. And I was in the reception area at your office. And I heard you on the phone. How you were. On the phone. Mean. Arrogant and mean. And I saw your name in metal on the wall behind the reception desk. And knew that a man that puts his name on things in gold-toned metal – he likes to feel important.”
Well, shit, thought Thornton.
“So I observed you for a while. Few months, actually. Had to be sure. Then. When I was. It was just a question of picking a holiday weekend. When I could take you back here. Let you walk it off.” He looked at Thornton for a minute. “So,” he said at last. “Get going.”
“Wait,” said Thornton. “Who are—“
Hazel gave a barking laugh. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’ve accepted a transfer. To far away. I leave tomorrow. It would surprise me greatly if you ever found me.”
Hazel pointed East. Or easterly, Thornton guessed, since it was the opposite direction of where the last coppery light painted the final sliver of horizon.
“Plenty of starlight. And you’ve got a half moon. You can see OK.” As he spoke, he set Thornton’s phone on a rock and shattered it with the butt of the flashlight. “Your wallet’s out that way,” he said, hurling it far, toward the East. It landed with a barely audible Fuff! as it hit the sand off that way.
“Get going,” said Hazel.
Thornton thought for a second about trying to overpower the guy, knew he couldn’t. Thought about pleading, could tell it wouldn’t work. Thought about apologizing, knew it was a lie.
So he started walking, resolving to follow the road.
“Get some good thinking done,” Hazel called after him. “You think about Daphne.”
And there was the sound of a gunshot. It sounded small in the desert.