The Blue Raccoon

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Sinister Shadow of Amusement

During the past few days at the Blue Raccoon there's not been much to do except cry, hug friends, and contemplate the enormity of Richmond, Virginia's week of tragedy. Along the bar, the patrons spin theories and shake their heads and tell stories of hearing Bryan Harvey's music, of the crazy gifts they bought at Kathryn's World of Mirth, seeing the effusive energy of their girls Ruby and Stella at the pool, at First Fridays, at school, and they shake their heads more, and as one person wrote on the sheet of paper taped to the World of Mirth window, where anyone was encouraged to write memories or sentiments, this pleading query: What do we do now?

For myself, all I could do was shamble into the BR with the few other stunned and numbed patrons who were, in their own way, seeking a reply to that open question. All that is left to us is--us, and our ability to discuss what's going on in our heads and contemplate a way out of the dark.

Going into the Blue Raccoon allows you to not sit at home by yourself and try to not think about this thing, or search for glimpses of news online, and it is a partial shield from the shrill clamor of most television. The flat screens here are for art shows, much to the annoyance of tourists, and a point of humor for patrons: "Hey, can you turn that to the Weather Channel?" Whereupon the bar attendant peers out the streetside windows and say, 'It's fair and sunny' or 'It's cool and raining.' Which, if you think about it, is all the Weather Channel you really need. Those who come into the BR aren't there for the distraction of whatever happens to be the national fixation. We go there for each other--and the place's design that makes us feel we're somewhere else.

The favorite bartender here--well, mine, anyway-- is Carlisle Montgomery, a willowy kayaking redhead, who possesses a trait in that she was born without a ring finger. It is a matrilineal inheritance, passed down to every other generation or so of females in her family, and you barely notice it until she's left-handed grasping the draught beer lever, or mixing you a fine dirty martini. Growing up, when she was taller than most of the boys in grade school, and more extroverted than the girls, she was accused of being a witch and told she wouldn't ever fall in love, or get married. Neither of which proved true, nor are they the current case. Nonetheless, this salient distinction, among others, has created in Carlisle (never Carly, God help you), a sense of introspection and reflection. And she's also wicked funny. But not so much in these nascent days of 2006. There's been precious little laughter.

Carlisle told me tonight when I briefly stopped in that the murders have evolved from personal sorrow into public entertainment. Before her shift, she caught a segment on MSNBC where in a square jawed, blondish newscaster using serious anchorman tones queried a Richmond reporter and a retired FBI profiler about the methods of the killings and possible links to Bryan Harvey's songs--which was needless sensationalism. "This is the sinister side of amusement," she said. "It's a helluva thing for somebody who had a store named World of Mirth."

Carlisle was right, as she often is, but we talked more on that subject, and I've contemplated the dichotomy of how the classic carnival sideshow attractions are poised on the edge of humor and horror, shock and silly, or just out-and-out weirdness. Kathryn Harvey understood; that silliness and nonsense is how we conduct our skirmishes against oblivion. And now, how that the store's name has a perverse poetry that nobody ever imagined would ever be associated with it.

One of the characteristics of the World of Mirth is the sidewalk funhouse mirror that invites all passersby to step ever so brief into the realm of the off-kilter and see their forms compressed or stretched. I performed this enjoyable diversion a few times myself while bustling about Carytown around Christmas-time. Children and unchildren alike loved this peculiar touch of the surreal plopped down in the middle of the to-ing and fro-ing of the daily rush. For the past week, the mirror was replaced by flowers and devotional candles.

Visitors have found the mirror an irresistible attraction. Two examples posted here were plucked from cyber aether (which has become the Akashic Library of Now) and were taken by Yun Joo Shin on separate occasions.

From: The Mirror, photo: Yun Joo Shin

Who knows how many such images have been taken by parents and larking friends during the past several years. You could probaby plaster the front of the store with them.

The funhouse mirror is a harmless means of disorientation; of things being somewhat familiar but yet not what they seem.

From: Yun Joo Shin's at

It is in a way a description of this past week in Richmond, and really, the world, as news beyond the Harvey slayings was conveyed, from colossal error with the West Virginia miners, the German ice skating rink deaths, to all manner of deaths and disasters that occurred in the first hours of 2006.

The mission of most popular entertainment is to assuage our frazzled consciousness and ease any slight discomfort and sell stuff. This makes it, too, rather ridiculous. I think of that parody of a situation comedy in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (featuring a damp Rodney Dangerfield as a really bad dad wearing a wife beater T-shirt) where a violent dysfunctional family was represented and a purposeful, sickening laugh track added to off-set the terror going on in this thoroughly awful family. Mirth and Macabre are Siamese twins peforming in their own sideshow attraction.

The image used at the head of this entry comes from the site for Czech-born theater creator Pavel Dobrusky who was involved in a 1988 production of Murphy Guyer 's play The World of Mirth at the Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC). Those strange clowns convey the characteristics of the play, as conveyed in a 2001 review by the Village Voice's Charles McNulty, World of Mirth: suicide and cotton candy --

Protagonists in drama don't need to be likable...

...Perched in the Clown-Dunk with a fifth of scotch, Sweeney (Mark Johannes) serves as both chorus and antihero of Guyer's World of Mirth. A jester with a Nietzschean bent, he shouts into his microphone the cynical truths his fellow circus performers avoid. Though misery is this comedian's shtick, don't expect to find a painted tear running down his cheek. As sentimental as a serial killer on the lam, he'll rip the lungs out of anyone who comes within two feet of his broken heartstrings.

Needless to say, it's not a happy time for the World of Mirth circus. Not only has the Frogman drowned himself, but a hurricane has left the place flooded and without electricity. The backstage freak show—replete with booze, four-letter words, and suicide—has begun to surpass even the Wild Woman of Borneo's gross-out act.

With the operation indefinitely suspended, pink slips are flying. First to get the ax is Emmett (George Bartenieff), an old heroin addict whose whimpering for mercy falls on deaf ears until a temp job and bag of "medicine" are offered as a stopgap. Augie (Kieran Campion), a young carny in love with a mute, wants to rescue the ill-fated Clown-Dunk, which he co-owns with Sweeney. His sappy entreaties to his partner to straighten up his foul-mouth act, however, are met with eviscerating disdain.

Now, that's entertainment for only a few certain members of the family.

T.S. Eliot remarked that "humankind cannot bear much reality. " In recent months and years we've certainly been overwhelmed by the actions of "purblind doomsters," as Thomas Hardy described them. From 9/11, to the South Pacific tsunami and Katrina/Rita, to the unending misery and death in the Middle East and Africa, earthquakes in Pakistan and China, rumblings of war and death from North Korea and Iran, and now, here, in our own Richmond, a vicious assault on everything we've thought worthwhile during a week of killings.

But, needs to be said, while so much awfulness has been visited upon the region and the world, what it has meant is seeing friends and hugging them and crying with them and sensing that we're all feeling this; and we're all asking: What do we do now?

The artists know how to respond even if they can't fathom the crime or the grief. I attended today the memorial event at the Byrd Theater for the Harveys. And there, through the words of John Donne and George Santayana and Lao Tzu, Bryan Harvey's own songs presented on recording to a photography show on the huge screen, and performed lived by a group of musicians who knew him well, the 1,500-some people who filled the place came to some kind of terms. We went in from a bright, splendid day, into the dark plush interior and came out with a shred of hope given to us by the eloquent speakers and the music.

Bryan Harvey remarked in an interview a few years ago that he wasn't religious but,

... I think I'm a pretty spiritual person. I have a lot of faith in humans. I believe we're capable of incredibly beautiful things (as well as incredibly evil). "I Want Answers" basically summed up how I was feeling at the time (cynical). "Man does the work but god gets the credit" is one of my favorite lines from that record because I was in a pretty pissed off mood. Now that I have a daughter, I've softened up a bit....

The incredibly beautiful and the incredibly evil reside side by side, distorted images in a funhouse mirror. A few years ago, I interviewed Kathryn for a history piece I wrote about the World of Mirth and the circus for which it was named. She told me that at one point a name change for the store was considered. I couldn't believe that and Kathryn explained that out-of-towners for some reason couldn't remember the three words exactly, and still others--even regulars--would miscall it as, "The House of Mirth," which is a bleak Edith Wharton novel that became a film in 2000, and Kathryn says, "That says something about our clientele that at least they know what the House of Mirth is." Then I asked her, what could possibly be a better name for her shop than World of Mirth.

She paused, put her hands on her hips, blew some hair out of her face, and squinted across the aisles and chuckled. She said, "Well, it sure ain't Toys R' Us."

What do we do now? We somehow continue on. We get out Tantilla and listen to lyrics that are now painful and poignant and splendid. One day, and I hope one day soon, we'll be able to walk past that shop and see ourselves in that mirror, transformed.


At 9:59 AM, Blogger Elle said...

Did you ever work at Williamsburg? If so, I knew you then. I used to be Ellen from New Jersey

At 5:02 PM, Blogger HEK said...


I did indeed work for Colonial Williamsburg back in the day, performing at the Playbooth Theatre. Ellen..Ellen...were you a butter churner or an animal person? --HEK

At 8:08 PM, Blogger Ellamama said...

I can still hear your voice. I discovered your blog via the sad circumstances, but I just wanted to say hello. It's Sally. I used to be a waitress at Bogarts, lets call it back in the day. Then New York Deli. The blogosphere is a very small world. Still, the writing is wonderful.

At 1:32 AM, Blogger ELLE said...

I didn't work there, just visited. I met you with my then boyfriend, now husband Rob. We were thinking of moving to the area and asked you out one evening to talk about living in Virginia. I saw you on a few future visits.

At 1:33 AM, Blogger ELLE said...

I meant other visits, sorry it's 4:30 am.

At 10:12 AM, Blogger HEK said...


Sally! Yes, I remember you. Wow! That was back in the day when I was always developing crushes on waitresses. (Actually, I still do, and Amie puts up with it with great tolerance and forebearance. If you Google me you can see what I've been up to.
I hope other folks find their way to my slice of the cyberaether, otherwise its just self-indulgent bilge.--HEK

At 12:55 PM, Blogger ELLE said...

Ellen and Sally are two different people. Elle is Ellen and ellamama is Sally.

At 1:27 PM, Blogger HEK said...

OK--Let's get this straight...

"Ellen and Sally are two different people. Elle is Ellen and ellamama is Sally."

...Ellen, I have a vague memory of talking to a handsome couple about moving to Virginia-at Chewning's maybe? Am I mixing this up? Anyway, it was a long while ago, but this sounds familiar.

And, yes, Sally you used to work at the New York Deli--which is in the throes of renovation. It's been sold to new owners and I there's been bruiting that they'll have a stage for music, a full bar; Carytown's getting so cosmo it's just amazing. Glad we bought here when we did.--HEK


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