Monday, July 21, 2008


The true tale of a whole town obsessed with one day.

The dear people of Bristol, Rhode Island are collectively fanatical about the Fourth of July. It’s their claim to fame, their yearly flash of excitement, of bedlam, of public drunkenness, and of community events organized with careful Yankee efficiency. It’s the Bristol way to celebrate it with gusto, even furor, and countless miles of red, white and blue fabric.

Bristol is a small, largely white town on a beautiful bay. It’s got a lot of gorgeous old houses, and the coastline nudges the town gently, producing an air of sleepy wealth. In many ways, it’s a quintessential coastal New England town: a quaint downtown area with shops and town buildings is ringed by well-manicured suburban homes with basketball hoops and SUVs in driveways. But Bristol’s July 4th celebration is its moment of uniqueness, a short but hard-partying break from its usual reticence.

The entire year is spent counting down to The Fourth, as it’s called by residents. Bristol is the home of the oldest and largest Independence Day parade in America, and up around it has sprung a yearly ritual that traps every Bristolian, from infancy to old age, in its drunken grasp. Organizing each year’s celebration begins practically on the fifth of July of the previous year. In March, the local paper begins publishing a countdown of days until The Fourth. The median lines on the road along the parade route are painted red, white, and blue. Property along the parade route is coveted, and people who own houses there are considered worth befriending. People and events in Bristol are evaluated according to their proximity to The Fourth, as in “I haven’t seen Frank for three years; remember, he came down for The Fourth in ‘05 with Joanie and Todd?” Leading up to the big day every year, residents unfurl their American flags, hang up the bunting, dust off lawn chairs, water their lawns, buy outrageous amounts of beer and food, and gather a palpably urgent excitement. Young people living elsewhere fly homeward.

The crush arrives in full America-lovin’ force on July 3. The bars fill up, people drink on sidewalks and yell at passers-by, and dudes mount huge American flags on the backs of their pickup trucks. The party goes on all night, with people staying up long enough to stake out spots for laying out their parade-watching blankets (an action allowed, by town law, only after 5 AM) and crash for a few hours, rising to eat pancakes and rush outside to await the first sign of the parade.

The famous parade itself lasts about four hours—the town must uphold its reputation for largesse, resulting in longer parades year by year—and includes such highlights as slick sportscars, old fire engines, the governor, teen beauty queens, and legions and legions of high school bands, none of whom seem ever to play. Yet it’s safe to say just about everybody in Bristol watches the parade, if for no other reason than the fact that one can’t get out of town as of 7 o’clock the night before.

After the parade, sweaty men in flag t-shirts, along with their tanned, short-shorted ladyfriends, make their way to the hundreds of concurrent barbecues around town, where party-prolonging is the order of the day. Loving America is all well and good, but the focus of the modern Bristol Fourth of July is placed more on food (preferably of the ribs/hot dogs strain), beer (light—gotta keep moving), back-slappin’ (“Ay, buddy, how ‘ah ya?”), sex-seeking (“Lotta good-lookin’ ladies around today”), and a general feel-good, don’t-stress-yourself-out kind of vibe. Then again, that’s our lovable America for you these days. Things change pretty slowly in Bristol—slowly enough that even as our country and our planet hurtle toward vague, unknowable disasters, we can hang out in eighties excess—and it feels like the right thing to do.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


When I was a kid, my grandmother was a flea market vendor. She’d buy cheap crap at wholesale, like playing cards and cosmetics, and mark it up for a small profit. She rounded out her stable of items with crafts she’d make in her spare time—the one I remember most clearly was a granny doll head glued onto a Renuzit air freshener, which she’d then sew a “dress” to fit. We’d get up at five in the morning, pack her Honda with boxes, drink coffee and eat donuts, and sell stuff. I’d walk around the place buying trinkets and talking to people. It all started me down a path whereby no matter where I travel, I seek out a flea market.

I buy things sometimes, although not that often. Mostly, I like to go to look at the stuff each vendor brings, and connect it in my head to the larger world. There are a lot of cheap sunglasses, low-quality housewares, and happenstance items that people get new, for cheap, and try to sell. The people who sell these things are all business—it’s not so much a personal venture as a money-making one. These small-scale entrepreneurs yell out come-ons to those milling around, offer special deals, and hustle cash out of objects with little real value. Wall hangings, lead paint-covered toys, posters of classic rock bands in cheap frames, off-brand toothpaste, flyswatters—the stuff moves somehow. It’s an impressive routine.

The entrepreneurs, who seem to make the most money, are not nearly as spellbinding as the woolies, who likely make the least. This shifty group is comprised of dudes who have procured a bunch of junk, through what may be questionable means, and are now attempting to sell it to a less-than-enthusiastic crowd. They’re just trying out this whole flea market thing, seeing how it goes, hanging out and hoping to swindle somebody out of a buck or two. I once ran into an exemplary pair of woolies that typified the group so well that I thought they might have been an apparition. These two had a single card table heavy with crappy old books—the kind of table I approach excitedly, and quickly realize the books are useless, unattractive, and devoid even of kitsch value—and they sat, slightly bored, just beyond it. The first guy I saw was heavy and hairy, sitting on an old couch, drinking a beer and perusing the crowd. He wore jeans and an 80’s-style concert t-shirt which was really more of a bib, because he had cut off the sleeves and back, leaving only the neck and front. Then I spotted the other guy. Lanky, dirty blond, and with a similarly distressed look, he sat in the cab of their Ryder truck, looking at a porno magazine and draining a Bud Light. Flustered, I made a move to pick up a book but dropped it as the first guy chuckled “100% prime meat,” clearly regarding a scantily-clad woman passing by.

The spectacle of the wooly is a major draw. I know people like these guys exist, but it really takes a flea market or a county fair to get them out of the woodwork. They’re sleazy, and their stuff sucks, but they’re in it for the party, and I just kind of admire that.

Then, though, there are the lifers. For me, the lifers are the jackpot. I can spot a lifer a mile away. There is usually an old station wagon or van involved, on the hood of which a blanket or tablecloth holds an array of older items that are gorgeous in their faded, roughened utility. One or more sometimes grizzled people sit with the items, chatting up passers-by, wheeling and dealing, and talking up stuff they appear not to want to part with.

There’s that whole thing about some visual artists getting so attached to their work that they don’t want to sell it, even if there’s a buyer standing in front of them, checkbook open. I think it’s the same with the really devoted flea market vendors. One guy I met, at the now-defunct Rocky Hill Flea Market in Warwick, Rhode Island, had the coolest variety of stuff from the 50s, all of it a bit haggard and lovelorn, but stunning in its maudlin grime. I stood there for an hour, looking through rusty I LIKE IKE buttons and cracked old watchbands.

The guy said he sometimes screens buyers. He just doesn’t like to sell stuff to people who won’t really appreciate it, who won’t continue to use it and prize it like he does. I thought, how in the hell does this guy make any money? and then I realized he probably doesn’t care much about profit. This guy would hunt down cool items, hoard them, and sell them only when he was damn well ready. I guess I passed the test, because I bought a slightly rusty Dutch Modern lamp that still leans a little to the right, and a psychedelic screenprint on glass that has since cracked right down the middle. I think about that guy sometimes, and wonder where he’s showing his stuff now.

That’s the thing—the lifers show their collections. They curate. They’re the proprietors of tiny roving museums filled with imperfect objects that show age, and wear, and dirt. When you go to a “real” museum, things are laid out just so—they’re beautiful, and usually gleaming with disuse. They’re extraordinarily valuable. And they’re set apart from the viewer so they stay that way. But the objects set out by flea market curators have a popular history. Someone I’ll never know used them somewhere, sometime in the past. There’s a haunting emotional past for every item—it lived in someone’s home, through winters and summers, and probably through births and deaths. The lifers have an appreciation for that fact.

They’re not going to tell me that, though. It’s sort of a subtext of the whole transaction. It’s not evident in a quick glance at somebody’s table, but when I get talking to some vendors, I start to get glimmers of it. They’ll rattle off a bunch of facts, a short history of this particular model, that particular glaze, which factory it rolled out of, and that’s when I get psyched, because I have a lifer on my hands.

I love dedication, and I love permanence. The lifer is my friend.

Friday, April 11, 2008


This is a piece I wrote way back in 2002. It's always been close to my heart. I wonder where dear old Belinda is these days? The band's long since broken up, but I hope she's soldiering on, tearing shit up and positing theories on the universe.


Belinda Davenport knows all about the aliens. She says, "This civilization can't go on forever. All these flying saucers buzzing us? They're not buzzing us to take over the government, because any alien could take over the government, the planet, like that. An interstellar traveler has the technology to manipulate mass into anything they want. They want more of themselves? They can turn a tree, a rock, a person into themselves like that. Why I think they're buzzing us, they're waiting to find out between good and evil. If evil wins, I think they'll take the planet out. If good wins, then someday they'll make contact. I hope good wins out. I don't want to see the world destroyed."

Apocalypse seems a fitting theme for an evening with Belinda. She is the singer and concept-creator of the Boston band Maggotzoid, a punk-metal hybrid that plays loud and rough. The band advocates immediate, complete reform of all the corruption, hate, and bigotry in the world. Onstage, Belinda wears a black leather bikini, a puffy, curly wig, and stiletto-heeled black leather boots. She paints her face black and white, complete with widow's peak and black-ringed eyes, for shows. Crouched and bouncing slightly, one hand on the grimy floor, legs spread, she chants angrily into the microphone. Her voice is anything but melodic; in fact, it is gratingly Horshack-like, out of tune, and soaked liberally in the most intense of Boston accents.

And yet, Belinda is something of a cacophonous visionary. She is a 43-year-old transgendered philosopher who brings up aliens, galactic revolution, and Eminem in the same breath. She lives with her mother in the projects of Revere, a blue-collar suburb of Boston. The idea that would eventually be the basis for her band has existed since 1974, when at 14 years of age she began conceptualizing the Maggotzoid, a gigantic ship that weighs 600 million mega-tons and is piloted by super-intelligent aliens. When Dan Boucher and John Manson of the art-rock band Neptune approached Belinda about starting a band, she immediately brought up the Maggotzoid concept. The band was formed on the spot.

After Maggotzoid finish their set, I decide to approach Belinda. I'm intimidated by the leather bikini and the way she pushes blindly through the crowd. But later I spot her emerging from the bathroom in a polo shirt, jeans, and a gray military jacket. I pick myself up, walk over, and ask her for an interview. To my surprise, she's very social and very responsive. She agrees enthusiastically.

It's loud in the bar, so I have to lean in very close to Belinda, my little tape recorder whirring between us. I ask her to give a synopsis of her philosophy, which I heard partially when she was onstage, but couldn't quite absorb fully. She moves closer, undeterred by my proximity, and starts right in, her eyes shifting between my face and the recorder constantly.

Many of Belinda's hypotheses come down to good versus evil, and the eventual showdown between them that will either result in the end of the world or the validation of compassion and kindness. It's part of evolution, she says: "You had Neanderthal Man and you've got Cro-Magnon Man. Evolution is gonna create something better. And that something better is going to be Galactic Man or something like that. And Galactic Man wants to build an intergalactic civilization. He ain't gonna be able to do that with Cro-Magnon Man shovin' airplanes through skyscrapers, the whole goddamn bit, snipers, crime, bigots. Galactic Man will wipe out Cro-Magnon Man just like that."

Belinda's rants may sound juvenile, bizarre, or both, but in person she is serious, impassioned, and genuine. She has thought long and hard about her role in the world. In conversation, she is thoughtful and earnest; she adds a confrontational element to the mix onstage. Though admittedly powerless in the world at large, she influences her surroundings through performance. Maggotzoid's actual music seems less the point than the message she transmits; she uses music as her medium because it's immediate, it's accessible, and it draws rapt crowds. She uses it above all to discourage evil and encourage good. "It ain't gonna be the cops or the government or whatever that's gonna make your life better. It's up to you or me. It's how you act," she says.

Belinda tells me she's built to last. I believe it: she biked 20 miles to the show that night, played a set, and was about to get on her bike to head another 20 miles home to Revere. She hopes that Maggotzoid will be able to play more frequently; their previous show was in May, six months ago. She's ready to take on all of the depravity in the world. She just needs a venue.

"I wish I could have done this 25 years ago, but I was emaciated with health problems. Were you around in 1974?," she asks.

"No," I say, sheepishly.

"Well, so you're lucky. Instead of missing me in 1974, you're seeing me in 2002."

Lucky indeed. Safe travels, Belinda.

Sunday, April 6, 2008


I'm a little bit of a misanthrope. And yet, this blog is (going to be) about people. Because although people on the whole are a rather distasteful bunch, I love people who make stuff, "art" or otherwise; who obsess and tinker on unlikely projects; who dedicate themselves to learning; who have a vision, large or small, and MAKE IT HAPPEN, no matter how wonky.

I meet a lot of people who fit this description. I write about them sometimes. I guess I'll post them here, and see what happens.

Here's to those who live what they love.