Harold Jaffe's docufiction

The Death of Jeans
by Harold Jaffe

cover image of Beyond the Techno-Cavefrom Beyond the Techno-Cave:
A Guerrilla Writer's Guide to Post-Millennial Culture

(Starcherone Books, 2006)

That's me in the mirror shades and salt and pepper beard.
     American by birth, I can pass for Italian -- until I blunder out those Italian vowels.
     And those are pigeons on every side of me.
     I'm sitting at a patio table in the fabled Café Florian in the fabled Piazza San Marco in the fabled sinking city of Venice nursing my Campari, while watching teenagers -- lots of them -- playfully chase the San Marco pigeons.
     It's hormonal; they're actually chasing each other.
     Ten past two on a Tuesday, early Spring, 2002.
     Why aren't those hormones in school?
     German tourists have dutifully mounted the tall campanile; they are waving to other Germans below and snapping photos.
     Meanwhile a phalanx of Japanese tourists are snapping photos and waving from the balconies of the Basilica.
     The Germans wave with their arms erect whereas the Japanese bend their arms.
     The German tourists are talking loudly to each other while the Japanese tourists gazing down from the Basilica are grinning and shouting.
     I can't hear them from where I sit but I think I know what they're shouting: "Hello down there. We're Japanese tourists from Osaka [or Tokyo or Yokohama]. Hello down there."
     They're shouting in Japanese, of course.
     Occasionally, against my better judgment, I glance at the International Herald Tribune spread out like a chest wound on the table next to my Campari.
     The news is unalterably bleak.
     Except in the moneyed sectors.
     More than half of the slim newspaper is now given over to the moneyed sectors, to global capital, which is not what the quixotic McLuhan had in mind when he coined the fateful oxymoron global village.
     Well, the twentieth century is mercifully over.
     But if these first few years are any indication, the twenty-first century will out-bleed its predecessor.
     Those teens I mentioned are mostly Italian, with a smattering of Germans and French and here and there a Brit or Slav.
     You can tell the Italians by the way they move.
     The girls toss their hair and swing their hips; the boys stride aggressively with their heads thrust forward while swinging their arms.
     Girls and boys gesticulate with their hands while talking, though perhaps not so much as their southerly cousins.
     Unlike American hip-hoppers in their outsize duds, these teens wear tight blue jeans, fashionably ripped, frayed, bleached, tasseled.
     Though I didn't spot any "authentic" American Levis, many have Levis-style pockets in the back, or, in the instance of some of the girls, are pocketless.
     You can see by the unbroken line of the buttocks that a fair number of the pocketless girls are pantyless beneath their jeans.
     So far as I can tell, none of the Germans are pantyless.
     (Please don't read geopolitics into that; it's merely an observation).
     I said I was nursing a Campari, which isn't strictly accurate.
     I am nursing a "Spriz," a Venetian cocktail of dry white wine, Campari, Aperol, and mineral water.
     Aperol is a reddish aperitif with an orange-like taste.
     Typically, the waiter asks whether you want your Spriz sweet or bitter, dolce o amaro.
     Bitter for me, thank you.
     For shade to shade will come too drowsily, / And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
     That's Keats; he would have chosen dolce.
     Of course Keats was gazing at his own soulful reflection in the ever-receding tide, not peering at our devastated remade world.
     Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, Israel, Palestine, 9/11, balkanized Russia, suicide bombers, tribal strife in Africa, Colombia under siege, CIA-infected Central America, global capital, EU countries rejecting immigrants, looted weapons-grade uranium . . .
     Bush the younger reads the 9/11 attacks as a mandate for the wounded giant to conduct wars worldwide against his version of terrorism.
     Yes, he smoked pot while at Yale, but he never exhaled, and hasn't to this day.
     Such are the bitter, banal beginnings of our twenty-first century, to which we're fastened as to a dead animal.
     Except our millennial dead animal has been cloned, digitalized . . .

     Uh, can we get back to the Italian teens in their skintight jeans?

     Panties or no panties, the jeans are funky.
     Healthy bodies, young funk.
     I can almost smell it from where I sit.

     Smells nice, right?

     It smells like the newsprint of this International Herald Tribune spread out on the table.

     The International Herald Tribune?
     All those Euro-American moral imperatives cheek by jowl with airbrushed global industry.
     Doesn't smell like sex to me.
     Is there such a thing anymore as authentic sex?
     Passionate bodies in an unpolitical embrace?

     Possibly there is; you'd have to ferret it out.
     What we mostly have are versions of the erotic, a category that thrives in adverse settings.


     The Sixties were sexy but for the most part not erotic.
     Sodomy in Treblinka was erotic but not sexy.

     Clinton and Lewinsky? Sexy or erotic?
     Pam and Tommy Lee?
     Rodman / Madonna?

     Madonna has given up the Kabala and purchased an estate in the English countryside near Dorset.
     She is, she says pridefully, a mom and a huntress.
     She rides to hounds.
     What if I were to command those unconsciously self-conscious teens to shimmy out of their funky tight jeans and toss them into the center of the fabled piazza opposite the Basilica?

     What would be the point??

     Remember that Fluxus performance artist Nam June Paik piling up his TV sets?

     Commentary on representations, wasn't it?

     I'd pile the hundreds, thousands of jeans onto a giant pyre, have the naked, bereft teens dance around the flames.

     Speed your tired blood?

     Awaken the seventeen-year-olds.

     To what? Mutiny? Revolution?
     They're children, let them sleep.

     Revolution is the province of children.

     So your Italian teens dance naked around the mountainous pyre of funky jeans.
     What do the smattering of German teens do?

     Arms akimbo, they tighten their assholes and scoff.

     French teens?

     The French teens discourse but do not discuss.
     In French n'est-ce-pas. Always in French.
     Maybe I'll toss a privy full of global capitalists onto the pile, add some fat to the fire.
     Scratch that.
     Like Zeus, global capitalists emerge only in the most private capacity, though not for the purposes of seduction in its customary sense.
     Power, virtual power, is the preferred seduction; you are too far above the cloud line to see your victims on the desert floor.
     You gaze at the monitor as your aircraft releases its Dioxin and depleted uranium.
     Hence we are all guiltless.

     I haven't left.
     I'm still here sitting at a patio table in Café Florian, in this sinking city of the mind, multitudes of pigeons and teens, the International Herald Tribune spread on the table, my mirror shades, salt and pepper beard.
     Did I say I was wearing cargo pants? In camo?
     Which is not so much a midlife assertion as a deconstruction.
     Non-aggressive camo, designed by Versace, who is dead of course, murdered by a Southern California serial killer.
     Had to do with debauched homosexuality, according to the news reports.
     I've just noticed something about the fabled San Marco pigeons -- they don't poop.
     Verily, there's precious little visible pigeon poop in the Piazza San Marco.
     I see now what Yeats valued in his golden bird.
     I've ordered another Spriz.
     Dolce o amaro?
     Bitter, please.
     McDonald's has parasitized Venice, but the old-school host restaurants are more than holding their own.
     Italians still appreciate good food.
     And good coffee, which like Italian men (so the saying goes), must be strong, hot, and sweet.
     Mussolini was strong and hot.
     Our current killers profess to be strong but are cold.
     If they're moronic or corrupt, no problem.
     People are suddenly saying that worldwide.
     I said grazie to the passport official in Marco Polo Airport expecting him to respond with prego.
     He said no problem.
     Rapidly -- instantly -- vapidities metastasize.
     One contagion, acute patriotism, has not yet spread to Italy.
     Who was it that said wars in the new millennium would no longer be west vs east but north vs south?
     Because of post-colonization and diaspora the south will also be embedded in the north, as the Ivory Coast, Algeria and Morocco are in France; Pakistan in England; Indonesia in the Netherlands.
     Race and religion rather than politics and ideology.
     We have the Palestinian suicide bombers and fanatical beheaders that so outrage the "developed" nations.
     And, less commented on, we have Israeli soldiers rounding up Palestinian males, whom they blindfold and mark with numbers on their arms and forehead.
     Sound familiar, Herr Reader?
     About Muslim vs Hebrew in the Middle East, one is finally rendered speechless.
     Still, the International Herald Tribune fellates us with its ideological newspeak on behalf of global capital.
     Memo to the International Herald Tribune: Anti-Semiticism does not refer solely to Jews; their mortal enemies, the Arabs, are also Semites.
     While the teens in their jeans who are not playfully chasing the pigeons are talking on their cell phones or playing video games, fascism has made a comeback in real time.
     Media-mogul/prime minister Berlusconi, even with his cosmetic makeover, recalls Mussolini: large assertive head, thickened neck.
     Musso knew his way around a woman's groin and buttocks.
     Berlu knows his way around the corridors of power, virtual and real.
     What did Marx say about history repeating itself as farce?
     The pattern's degraded; now farcical, murderous Berlusconi succeeds farcical, murderous Mussolini.
     Bush succeeds Bush.
     In France naturally, but throughout Europe, Jews are still distrusted, even despised, though usually not officially.
     It is the outlandish, impoverished Muslim, who now enacts the role of the foredoomed Jew.
     The waiter delivers my Spriz, accompanied by mixed nuts.
     At once I am assaulted by pigeons, on the chair, on the table.

     I watch them eat the mixed nuts out of the filigreed tray.
     Not actually eat, but, with a wild, unpigeon look in the eye, swallow one nut after the other, letting the craw do the masticating.
     Thousands of ravenous, mad-eyed pigeons in the Piazza San Marco.
     And, ladies and gents, they do not poop.
     It's a miracle!
     Thus the ploughshares are turned back into swords.
     Into heavy artillery.
     Helicopter gunships.
     Anti-missile missiles.
     Weapons-grade uranium.
     The smooth white genocidal hand massages the mouse.
     Sacred deserts transformed into graveyards.

     But shouldn't Venezia be separated from all that?
     Slowly sinking into the Adriatic.
     Canals, textures, play of light, winding streets, narrow alleys branching to other alleys and suddenly, fifty feet into the bisecting alley, an ancient wooden door leading up a narrow stair.
     Or the primary alley stopping bluntly at the water itself.
     From somewhere, faintly: a Rossini aria.

     Regrets, there is no escaping from Kultur short of a very strong drug or death.
     Sex used to be such a drug, especially for the young: sovereign passion instinctively sidestepping calculations.
     Now sex is itself colonized, on the way to being virtualized.
     It is then mildly reassuring to contemplate that portion of ltalian youth who go pantyless under their tight, tight jeans: a fashion "statement" that is in very small ways incalculable.
     So it seems to me, in my Versace-inspired camo cargo pants, polishing off my second Spriz.
     A social not a solitary drink, modeled on the Parisian aperitif, designed to prick, not pollute the drinker.
     I have a high threshold for intoxicants.
      Now, though, with the sun, crowds, multitude of pigeons; with my delirious cross-cultural theorizing, it's as if the gentle cocktail has gone to my head.
     Which means it's time to order another.
     They're not cheap; ten Euros-fifty a drink.
     I flag the waiter, who has just snapped a photo of an unlikely couple.
     All the waiters at Florian are adroit at snapping photos with any camera.
     The unlikely couple is fiftyish and prosperous, the woman: frosty blond perm, eyes close together, thin sharp nose; the man large and pink, his dyed hair the color of apricot jam.
     They're on honeymoon: his second, her third marriage.
     They speak what sounds like Swiss French. The groom has handed the waiter the expensive camera while the bride is manipulating the waiter with the fingers of her slender, veinous left hand:
     "Farther back. Too far, move closer. Now back a bit. To the right. More. Stop."
     The prosperous pair lean briefly toward each other, her razor, his distracted, smile. Click.
     The waiter returns the camera; the snap will be factored into the tip. But don't expect too much; they're Calvinists.
     I order another Spriz.
     Doppio, I say.
     The waiter, mildly surprised. Doppio?
     Si. Certo.
     The multiple cocktails in the spring afternoon have contributed to my formulation.
     Here then is how I envision the death of jeans:
     The pyre in the center of the Piazza is wooden, pyramidal.
     It is set ablaze.
     Each Italian teen pulls off her/his jeans, tosses them onto the pyre then dancingly circles the flames.
     Caught up in the spirit, soon all of the circling teens are naked.
     The circle gets wider and wider and now each teen is holding the hips of the teen in front, such that the hundreds, thousands, of naked enthralled teens are dancing and skipping in and out of the Doge's Palace, campanile, Basilica.
     And when they shout their joy, the naked collective voice rises through the vaulted ceiling, up and up . . .
     The tourists and resident clergy are flung back against the walls.
     The ravenous, sanctified pigeons on the pavement, tables and perched overhead, chatter and coo at the joyous, mindless blasphemy.

     Sounds like Blake.

     According to Bataille, Blake was a man who never pursed his lips.

     He must not have spoken French.
     Even Belmondo purses his lips when he speaks French.

     Well, I'm done here.
     I get to my feet, perform a brief inventory: fly zipped on my Versace camos, mirror shades in place, salt and pepper beard . . .
     I take my leave of Café Florian.
     Four-forty-five, with the light mellowing into a translucent pastel blue, I move a little unsteadily away from the San Marco crush.
     Walking over the ancient Bridge of Sighs, I nearly stumble onto a squatting man manipulating three shells and a pea.
     What's this? The immemorial shell game?
     Maybe it's all that Spriz, but it is not hard to follow the pea from shell to shell.
     I watch a bystander toss a 50 Euro note onto the cobblestone.
     When the manipulator stops, the bystander selects the shell that holds the pea and is awarded a 50 Euro note.
     Another bystander is watching and he drops a 100 Euro note on to the cobblestone.
     He too follows the pea, selects the right shell, collects 100 Euros.
     Before I know it, my wallet is out of my pocket and one of the bystanders is encouraging me to bet.
     I separate a 50 and drop it onto the stone, but the bystander has his hand around my wrist, nodding his head, smiling, as if to say, "It's a cinch. Go for it."
     So I drop another 50, then a third.
     A hundred and fifty Euros on the cobblestone as the shellman is manipulating his shells.
     Only this time the shells seem to be moving faster and when they stop I select the shell the pea is not under.
     A hundred and fifty gone just like that and now the other bystander is motioning to my wallet, encouraging me to make a second bet . . .
     Instantly two facts have become clear: they are not bystanders, but collaborators; and the entire transaction was enacted in silence.
     I shake my head no, put my wallet in my back pocket, shuffle away. When I get to the east end of the bridge, I pause, then turn around, and -- head somewhat steadier now -- walk back briskly.
     The shell game collaborators are gone.
     They're probably having a well-deserved Campari.
     They duped a dopey American and I compliment them on the precision, even elegance, of the deception.
     May Berlusconi bless them.
     I've stopped walking.
     From either side people are streaming past me over the bridge.
     The air is rich, vaguely I smell the decay in the canals, the light now modulating to a translucent purple.
     I see the streaming people, feel them brush past me, hear them chatter in multiple tongues; but none of it seems to register.
     They are figures on the Internet, or print face in the International Herald Tribune.
     Spring 2002.
     How different is it from Spring 1935?
     Mussolini has just invaded Ethiopia, World War Two is about to vomit blood all over us.
     Since then we've split the atom; rooted out the reds; cloned a mammal; colonized the rain forests unleashing deadly microbes; spread ass-up for Technology; committed multiple genocides on multiple continents . . .
     The light is changing, humans are streaming over the bridge, laughing and chattering in a babel of tongues, yet nothing moves, I hear nothing, except, faintly, the lapping of the turbid canal water in this fabled, sinking city of the mind.


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