Review of “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

They came in through the left entrance of the theater some time after the opening logos: two kids no older than six; a pale bald man in bulky clothes; a second man, the father, with sandals and the largest tub of popcorn on offer with meal boxes, hotdogs, soda buckets, and outside candy balanced on top; a third child loping behind in light-up Velcro shoes; and a mother with an infant in a stroller. They sat along the bottom row of the stadium seating section, the stroller parked in one of the handicap spaces. I never got another look at their faces — for the next three hours this family (with a friend or uncle) were inky rückenfigurs. As the movie unspooled there ensued the typical white noise of wrappers, coughs, and whispers, reminding me why I usually avoid first-run screenings — and this was a midnight premier, no less. I could tolerate the ambiance, but it was clear that the youngsters were not going to settle down. They were running laps around their guardians, clambering over empty chairs, and gracefully threading themselves through the railing which guarded the final stadium row. All throughout they made piercing hoots and squeals. Felix sat on my right and we exchanged a look: this was really happening. The third kid’s light-up shoes sparked blues and reds all around my lower periphs — Jesus, they were bright. “Souped up with illegal modifications,” as Felix said of them afterward. Our two other friends, Alex and Josh, had lost the film and kept their gazes purely on the little mosquitoes making their orbits around the father, mother, stroller, and uncle/friend. But I was still coasting on a hit of pot done in the men’s john during the previews, so it was easier for me to stay on the screen and allow the corner family only an occasional intrusion, breaking up the imagery. It was when Natasha Romanoff asks Tony Stark and Thor why their girlfriends aren’t in this picture when I looked again at the family: their humongous tub of popcorn had found itself on the floor, its contents barely tapped and now spilled out in a disaster zone three or four feet in diameter. The popcorn was lit bright red by the LED lights in the stairs, which also turned the kernel centers into bold black dots, so that the spillage resembled a huge amphibious egg clutch. I saw no concern in the postures of the grownups. Dad’s crew cut head and mom with her frizzled long hair were fixed on the movie. At the moment when Ultron dismembers Ulysses Klaue, to peals of laughter from the audience, the baby in the stroller started to whimper. Shortly after, Tony Stark in his heavy-duty Iron Man suit is containing an angry Dr. Bruce Banner with rapid piston punches. The baby’s whimpering became a fricative wailing. Meanwhile the brood played their tag or duck duck goose or whatever the hell it was while also re-upping their sugar high with boxes of Skittles and Sour Patch Kids, and they launched most of their pieces through the air as they ran and gesticulated. The candy landed amongst the squandered popcorn on the floor. The mother tried to pacify her baby by moving the stroller back and forth with her right arm, so that the double wheels which held the stroller’s bulky frame crunched thunderously on the food. Here was a drama of sound and color unfolding before us. For my friends it eclipsed the 279.9 million USD production. Joss Whedon’s quip-tastic film was the cinema of space and motion: the alleged story flitting from the fictional Eastern European nation of Sokovia to a shipyard in South Africa minus “South,” before changing the backdrop of the foreground carnage to Seoul. But the popcorn spill and all that accompanied it was the theatre of duration: a steady accretion of shifts and changes, a body of moments dismembered by my own attention span. I shuttled between one and the other. My eyes went up and saw Thor consulting Dr. Erik Selvig and then entering a mystical pool (the follow through of which apparently didn’t make it out of first assembly), then went down to see the uncle/friend producing a phone with a screen brightness of indecent magnitude. And what did he do next but take out another phone from his brown windbreaker — in May! — dialing a number in one, and answering the call on the other which had started to ring. He held the second phone to his ear and said “Hello?” By now the spectacle was the main attraction, and the tent pole from the Marvel Movie Machine was relegated to the interstices. We remained in our seats long after the house lights had come up. Marvel fans in prefaded T-shirts of Captain America’s mighty shield gawped at the installation piece left behind on the bottom row as they filed out.

“There’s gonna be a picture on Reddit from whoever has to clean that up,” Alex said.

We had almost reached the parking lot when Josh stopped and said we couldn’t count on someone else to document this moment. So we doubled back to ground zero. Josh’s phone lacked a panorama function and he settled for a triptych of images.

“I have to stand back for this one, boys,” he said. “Just one more of the outer rim.”

Balled wrappers of outside food in piles under the chairs, hotdogs with no more than two bites out of them dissolving in half-empty soda cups. We could make out the tread marks left by the stroller: the wheels had crunched and ground the popcorn and candy into a primordial sugar-starch paste, thoroughly worked into the berber carpeting.

Who were those people we had to thank for the evening’s entertainment? Under what circumstances were they compelled to bring three kids and a baby to a midnight show? Was their work an aberration or routine? When they left the mall theater and climbed into the family car, which way did they go on 82nd avenue? north to East Portland, or south to the suburbs? I tried to fill in the lives of these souls, to find some picture of before and after. But no image prevailed.


New York, March 2016.

Incident in the Tenderloin, 1966

To Susan Stryker

(This essay has a constraint. Five word sentences or fewer.)

It was a hot night. A hot night in August. The specific date is unknown. It belongs to history now. Gene Compton’s cafe was full. Meaning fifty to sixty people. The food was cheap. It was open all night. It was in the Tenderloin. Every big city has one. Where queens, hustlers, pimps gathered. Actually they were contained. The police kept the arrangement. For a cut of business. (“The fleshly needs of men.”) The queens needed cheap housing. The hotels lined Turk street. Many were disowned homeless girls. They were Chicanas. They were Chinese. They were black. All were dirt poor. Some looked for johns. Others were maids. Their purses were heavy. (Empty bottles of Southern Comfort. Should the need arise.) They went to Compton’s nightly. They could sober up there. (Coffee, eggs and toast, $2.) They checked on each other. That they were still breathing. The police were vigilant. No queen left the tenderloin. But there was mutual understanding. Until the war that is. Lots of boys came through the bay. The queens liked the business. But America needed clean boys. So the pigs got meaner. “Female impersonation” was a crime. The cops came in nightly. They’d point and say, “You.” Queens thrown in paddy wagons. Nickel rides through San Francisco. A long drive to jail. Taken to men’s prisons, naturally. They were stripped naked, paraded. The cops shaved their heads. Any resisters were given solitary. (“At least it’s not Chicago.” A common sentiment.) Such was the climate tonight. Compton’s called them this time. Some screaming queens making trouble. Talking too much, buying little. Two officers came in. The nightsticks came out. (“Clubs are trump.” A popular police slogan.) One jabbed a queen’s shoulder. “Let’s go.” She blew him off. The cop grabbed her forearm. Tonight she wasn’t having it. She had some coffee left. The cup flew across. Liquid flung on his face. He staggered into his partner. A sissy boy threw his. Volleys of plates struck them. They ducked and crouched. They retreated backward. Cream and syrup-spotted uniforms. A sugar bowl went flying. It smashed the plate-glass windows. The cops were dumbfounded. This was certainly not SOP. The trannies never fought back. They called for backup. The patrons flooded out. Girls took off their stilettos. Heels sank into backsides. Heavy purses found their targets. Bottles cracked over skulls. The corner newsstand caught fire. Another cop car arrived. It was smashed up. Many queens went to jail. But the community tasted freedom. Compton’s started closing at midnight. They replaced their plate-glass windows. They got smashed again. Rioting can get the goods. Police harassment subsided. Queens could walk in daylight. One notable pig took initiative. He served as a liaison. (He lost his job. Narcotics were planted on him.) It benefited all queer people. Or “homophiles,” as they said.

Well, folks, that’s the story. A trans riot before Stonewall. There were many of them.

New York, February 2016.