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Out of State

The Beautiful and Damned
 Tombstone, Arizona.
 Tombstone, Arizona.
 The Friends Experience. Manhattan, New York.
 The Hudson River. All photos: Natasha Stagg.

With an uptick in breakthrough cases and breakups, what’s left in New York? The shambles of the Astor Place Kmart, some piecemeal conspiracy theories about who controls it all – models, probably – and the Friends Experience (not to be confused with having friends).

“My sexuality is all contextual, it’s postmodern, it’s like Rashomon, told from all sides”, J says after describing a day I cannot fathom. Otherwise, everyone agrees that this summer has been a bust compared to our expectations for it, or a collective expectation, not our own, since we all knew that there was no way 2021 would be some quote-unquote summer of love. “Everyone is gonna get pregnant”, said B when he was in town to shoot a TV show at the start of the season. I have heard about far more breakups than babies, though, and they are disproportionately continuing to occur. I should be keeping a tally, like C’s breakthrough Covid case tally (35 of his friends have gotten sick after getting vaccinated, he tells me). Mine would include long term friendships ending, too, which are the saddest breakups.

In an Airbnb in Aptos, California I find a copy of The Beautiful and Damned and get halfway through before I have to leave. Then I hear that people are reading F. Scott Fitzgerald again, coincidentally, or maybe it was left there on the nightstand because the owner of this house on a cliff knows that the 2020s are about reading quintessential 1920s literature. I go to a haunted house ride, a gunfight reenactment, another drag show, a beer run with a sober person. In Tucson, I go to the Tanque Verde Swap Meet with my family and it is emptier than any of us have ever seen it. We buy 24-ounce micheladas, mango and chamoy walking tacos, and elote covered in Takis dust and sit on the railing of a koi pond staring at the deflated jumping castle and abandoned Dragon Wagon.

 

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Every bar I used to frequent here is closed forever other than, I guess, The Buffet and The Golden Nugget, although we don’t end up at either. I’m told the latter got a new granite countertop and I’m worried the dives have gone the way of the local chain drive-throughs, getting updated branding from a local agency that sets goals for these sandwich shops and Sonoran hot dog stands that include expanding to other cities and getting mentioned in memes. The video store is still there, but it’s also a bar that isn’t allowed to show R-rated movies on the TVs. It’s way better than no video stores. I wish that the popular beverages here were available in New York – Pepino Limón Gatorade, canned tepache, watermelon Eegee with Tajín – but more than that, I hope they never leave Tucson. 

My nephew now lives in the apartment complex where I lived, where my older brothers lived before me. I didn’t know they had lived there when I moved in, and he didn’t know I had lived there when he moved in. Our last name doesn’t do us any favours there, he says, and it doesn’t get us hired anywhere non-union. It’s a strike against us, actually, in most places. My novel is marked at a bookstore as by a “local author” even though it’s been a decade since I left. The summer being a wash, my friends say, is not only because of anticipatory buildup, or even the letdown of rising case rates. There are obligations to be kept. Delayed reunions and funerals and weddings to attend. There are back rents to be paid. There are jobs to be found. It is a return to bureaucracy. I get a professional email that starts, “I hope everyone is surviving the heat wave, the pandemic and a system that will never meet our needs.”

 

In an alternate history devoid of popular culture, our individual eyes would have continued to individualise, forever.

 

I walk around Manhattan with my boyfriend for an entire day. If people were upset that the Astor Place Kmart closed, imagine what will happen when McDonald’s locations start closing, if they ever do. L says she goes to the library and reads old issues of Seventeen. We have always had the same problems, she reports, which means we have not solved them with the advice offered by magazines. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the beholder’s eye is another algorithm, imprinted with rules that later determine what it sees. Without the tracks of mass media to follow, human eyes may have continued to behold the beauty of our own personal worlds unhindered. In an alternate history devoid of popular culture, our individual eyes would have continued to individualise, forever. “Beauty” would carry a meaning more like “satisfaction” or “struggle”, words more often associated with the personal than the universal. The diversification of beauty standards is being pushed, today, by people onto corporations, but also by corporations onto people. One hopes to be seen as beautiful and the other hopes to be able to project beauty ideals to a diversified consumer base. If everyone gets what they want, no one does. McDonald’s is a sponsor of body-positivity panels and sports events.

In sci-fi future narratives, the casting of hot people doesn’t typically attempt to predict future ideals, for obvious reasons: movie and comic and video game characters sell a product, and that product is for sale today, not in a hypothetical near-future. And so, the idea of a timelessly sexy humanoid is created in plot after plot, evolving, paradoxically, with the physical trends of their day, from Daryl Hannah’s legs to Mila Jovovich’s abs to Scarlett Johansson’s tits. This frisson of intentions – to sell a franchise and to simultaneously interpret an approaching history – is an easy one to understand, as these types of frissons go. Still, attempting to understand what these android character castings have done to desires and goals feels galaxy brained, in the time of AI. I am comforted by the fact that in a Santa Cruz arcade, there are plenty of newer games, but the most popular one still appears to be Mortal Kombat, even if one of the toggles is broken from continuous slamming.

D and I walk past The Friends Experience in Flatiron. He asks a docent standing outside what the cost of a ticket is, out of curiosity. “Hi friends. A ticket is sixty-five dollars day-of. The Friends Experience gift shop is free for the public.” In the storefront window is a Friends cast doll-crocheting kit (a box of yarn), some inside jokes I don’t understand, like a tote that says, “crap bag”, and a puzzle depicting the fountain from the Friends intro segment, which, like everything in the show, was not shot in New York. This fountain, in fact, was created for the series as a phony New York landmark, and now it has become a real New York landmark because it exists in this “experience”. D’s cousin came to New York for one day just for this attraction, not even staying the night. So, we figured, the round-trip train ticket, which is about the same cost as the experience ticket, should be factored into the total. As we discuss, a group of friends walked out holding bags of souvenirs, including a crap bag tote.

 

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In 2020, I reread Glamorama, a book I must have read the summer before 11 September, 2001. I can still remember holding the plastic-jacketed hardcover in both hands as at the Grand Rapids, Michigan public library. I devoured the book’s breathless lists of names that take up many pages, names of real people invited to fictional events. Other parts of the book felt, at the time, tedious and far-fetched, all social satire. Models are mostly terrorists. The detailed descriptions of bodies being mangled by shrapnel unloosed by suicide bombs and ingested acid quickly eating away a living person’s insides were enjoyable to read but felt like pure fantasy: it was hard to imagine that the same people being invited to these parties for their clout were involved in real snuff rings and warfare, or that infiltrating the dwellings of celebrities would ever register as particularly important to anyone other than social climbers, like, maybe, Bret Easton Ellis himself.

This was way before, of course, I knew that Satan-worshipping sex trafficker conspiracies implicating the American government, Hollywood, and the fashion industry were bubbling beneath my radar, only to enter my peripheral view once the Epstein trials started. “I can’t watch anything anymore without decoding and looking at all the symbolism in everything, and it’s everywhere, and it’s constant”, says a random Q believer on his podcast. “In a certain way, I wish I didn’t know about it because then I could just enjoy movies like a regular person”. He is doing the hard work of getting his system shocked with research, he says, for the good of the country. It strikes me as a deeply innocent emotion. Who is to blame for such evils of the world as pedophilic cults, if they exist (and they must)? Hollywood, the pop music industry, modeling agencies, news organisations, blue check reporters, leftists, elites, and eventually, everyone who didn’t join the Q movement, its own behaviour becoming quite cult-like? According to this guy, models are manipulated and then made into manipulators themselves (like in Glamorama) as part of a larger plan of keeping the elites in power. Of course, the tradition of action thrillers casting models as secret agents makes this less difficult to picture. The horseshoe shape of certain arguments might be better explained as “we’re all saying the same thing here”.

An ex-cop sitting next to me on the plane said he wouldn’t have booked American Airlines himself, that it was his wife’s fault. “This is the kind of plane that got hitchhiked on 9/11”, he said before describing that day twenty years ago, when he could see the second plane hit the tower from his apartment in the Bronx (about thirteen miles of skyscrapers away, I figured). When I told him I was headed to Manhattan he made a face and said, “Good luck.” People all around us were watching Friends on their phones. Back in the city, my friends tell me about the massive, celebrity-backed gay club that just opened in Hell’s Kitchen. It’s called Q.

 

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In 1980, the French newspaper Libération asked Marguerite Duras to write a chronicle for them over one year. The pieces could be as long or short as she liked, so long as she wrote every day. Duras said a year was far too long and proposed three months instead. “Why three months?” her editor asked. “Three months is one summer long,” she replied. “Agreed, three months, but every day!” the editor insisted. Duras didn’t have anything planned for the summer and almost gave in. But then she suddenly became terrified that she couldn’t plan her days as she wished. So she said: “No, once a week, about whatever I want.” The editor agreed.

Since 2017, Spike has invited Natasha Stagg to do the same: one text a week, of any length, on whatever she likes. A new installment of Out of State will be published online every Tuesday for ten weeks – one summer long. Last week, she wrote about rooftop poetry readings, FBoy island, and acting your age.

NATASHA STAGG is a writer based in New York. She is the author of Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011–2019 (2019) and the novel Surveys (2016) both published with Semiotext(e).