Last Saturday I woke up too early with a sudden desire to walk in North Beach and go sit in the poetry room in City Lights and read Eavan Boland's poem "Outside History." I love Eavan Boland. I saw her read her poems in the Herbst Theatre in downtown San Francisco three years ago. She had such a strong presence; she would finish a poem and the room would gasp.
But I didn't remember what "Outside History" was about, and I didn't understand why I wanted to read it. But I walked to the BART and walked to North Beach and bought the shittiest coffee ever at Cafe Grecco. DO NOT ever go to Cafe Grecco. Their coffee tastes like Sanka made with old Sanka water. I gave it to a homeless guy who said, "Sure! Why not?" like he was on vacation and somebody had offered him a bay cruise.
I still don't completely understand the poem, but here it is and I welcome all interpretations (which I will judge and dismiss heartily):
There are outsiders, always. These stars--
these iron inklings of an Irish January,
whose light happened
thousands of years before
our pain did: they are, they have always been
They keep their distance. Under them remains
a place where you found
you were human, and
a landscape in which you know you are mortal,
And a time to choose between them.
I have chosen:
Out of myth into history I move to be
part of that ordeal
whose darkness is
only now reaching me from those fields,
those rivers, those roads clotted as
firmaments with the dead.
How slowly they die
as we kneel beside them, whisper in their ear.
And we are too late. We are always too late.
Looking at it again, I believe that this poem is about the tension between associating herself with timelessness or with time, with myths or with history. Myths are timeless like stars, but History is "clotted as firmaments with the dead." And I'm pretty sure she's suggesting that "fields, . . .rivers, [and] roads" emanate darkness the way that stars emanate light, and that both reach us years after they happen.
[Which reminds me that a friend of mine cracked me up recently when he fake-justified not wearing sunscreen by saying that he didn't need to worry about it because "the light is all 8 years old and used up and shit."]
And I guess the darkness from history is reaching her now, and she's choosing to be "part of that ordeal." And she's watching things (is it just the "fields" etc.?) die slowly, knowing that because there is a lag between when things really happen and when they reach you. Thus, that's why "we are always too late."
So after I bought the book and I was walking down Columbus I saw a mural on the side of a building. Imagine a woman with a ponytail at the top of her forehead, and a waterfall of permed hair down the side of her head. Imagine her mid-80's purple blazer (shoulder pads) and an Italian guy in suspenders checkin' her out. I was shocked that this mural was not faded and old, but had been either recently painted or at least maintained, which meant that someone thought it still looked good.
Rosalie's New Looks is a wig shop/full salon that has been open since 1957. When I walked in, it was dusty and a large Italian woman was sitting in a barber chair reading a magazine. There was an enormously fat, long-haired, gray cat in the other barber's chair next to her. And an old skinny Italian guy with a cross around his neck. The shop was full of mannequin heads and wigs, sticky costume jewelry, and stuff. Rosalie told me about the $5 earring deals.
"How much is a haircut?" I said
I'm a sucker for getting my haircut in a weird, fucked-up place. I hate the hegemony/guilt/corporate feeling of most salons, and they cost too damn much. It reminds me of going to the dentist. For years I had my friends cut my hair, until my elder friend Billie (who got me half my wardrobe out of the Mercy Family Plaza dumpster) just went chop-chop randomly to the back of my head. I had my haircut at an Asian place that just sliced at it with a razor blade. My favorite hairdresser until now was the bad-ass, brave tranny lady who wore ocean-animal collage t-shirts with the sleeves cuffed just-so.
Rosalie charges $30, which is totally reasonable to me. I was ready right then, so she pointed at the old guy and said "Leo, can you wash her?" Leo took me into a crowded, dark room with a hair washing chair. I think Leo didn't talk, like, in general, because when he dropped a lid and it made a really loud crashing sound, he just like held his hand out and shook it, like "oops!". Right before I leaned back, I realized I didn't have any cash on me, and thank god I asked Rosalie, cause they don't take credit cards.
But I went back yesterday and Rosalie's daughter, who I thought was a drag queen at first, cut my hair. Maria was wearing a black leather cabbie hat and her eyeliner was shaped like two tildes that almost converged in a v in the center of her nose. Her skin was all leathery and she was wearing dark, heavy foundation and matte coral lipstick. And she was really nice and cut my hair excellently.
Maria worked quickly and she was not the least bit tender. She jerked my head around, pulled my scalp away from the skull when she brushed my hair, and clamped the hot iron so close to my face I'd flinch. At one point I yanked away when it touched my ear. She didn't apologize, and I admired her. I only had an hour on my parking meter.
The best part of the whole thing were the different photographs of Rosalie and her family throughout her life that were pasted on the mirror and in frames everywhere. There were pictures of Rosalie's grandchildren with her in the background, heavy and sporting a high, pyramid-esque ponytail. There was a memorial photo of her son who had died in 2002 at 31 "after a long illness" according to the obituary. There were photos of Rosalie before then, thinner and happier looking. An awkwardly written newspaper article ("So come to Rosalie's New Looks for your Saturday night party") from probably ten years ago with a photograph of Rosalie in a Marie Antoinette wig. A 40s-ish Rosalie with her husband, her sitting on a diving board in shorts with thick, great legs and, of course, perfectly styled short hair-sprayed hair. Rosalie in the early 70s, busty and shapely in an immaculate white pantsuit with a black-and-white polka-dotted collar, with long, thick, smooth hair. And then there was a thin, cute girl in a fur wrap and short heat-set curls with an older man's wrinkled hands wrapped over hers. And finally, baby Rosalie sitting still and expressionless in her mama's lap.
A friend of mine lived in Italy and told me that the sickest thing he heard about was "Sicilian Divorce." This is where a man, living in an uber-Catholic society that doesn't condone divorce, pays to have his wife murdered so that he may remarry. He explained that old Italian men spend their time sitting out on the street corner playing games and ogling ladies, but that he felt sorry for old Italian women. He said old Italian women turn into trolls. I told him that was mean.
But then I saw how baby Rosalie changed from a sweet little sharp-elbowed girl in pin curls to the the mother of a dead son and the matron of a dusty drag queen supply store.
And I guess now when I think about sitting amidst all the mannequin heads from different decades, and seeing how something like a woman's bone structure, i.e. her bones, can be trendy, I see why Boland would say:
Out of myth into history I move to be