Cracking the Whip
This was originally published in Lumpen 90: Friendly Fire (2003)
Leslie Stella recalls her days as lady of Lumpen
This is how it starts: a woman barrels past me, clutching her stomach. In her wake, a ferocious gust of wind scatters bookmarks to the floor. “I got to get to the bathroom!” she groans. “I just ate a whole package of Oeros and drank a carton of milk.” Sighing, Joe gestures to the bathroom behind the counter and she dives in, small triangles of plaster falling on her head as she slams the door. There is silence, but we know something horrible is happening in there.
We are in Myopic Books, the old one (not the old, old one on Damen underneath the El, or the other old one within the old Earwax, but the old one on Damen and Evergreen, kitty-corner from the old Quimby’s). It’s 1993, and I have been introduced to a guy in Jim Jones eyeglasses and a bowl haircut, an indistinctly Asian proto-neonerd who wants to start a magazine. “So are you in, man?” he asks.
“Well, okay,” I say doubtfully. “What should I write about?”
“Whatever you want. I don’t care. There’s a music section, however it sucks, and there’s all the political hoo-ha articles, satire, local shit. You know what I’m talking about.”
It’s going to be called The Lumpen Times, and though it will eventually publish for a decade under the name Lumpen, few people will make the transition, forever calling it by the old name I am not one of those people.
Ed has not given me much direction about my piece, but I tie up the ends of the conversation because he is already losing interest and scanning the store over the top of my head, looking for new Lumpens.
“How long should it be?” I ask.
As he moves away, he flutters his hand in front of him, a dismissive gesture. “It doesn’t matter, man. We have different font sizes.”
The woman in the bathroom screeches, “Toilet paper!”
Joe rubs his temples and closes his eyes. Then he scotts a box of coffee filters under the bathroom door. He bellows, “Anyone else need to use the goddamn bathroom?” Worried patrons disappear into the stacks.
This magazine of Ed’s… I am not sure what it will be. I don’t know any of the men who are involved with it — nor the women, though they seem to be peripheral participants at best (an ad salesperson, an occasional writer of record reviews). It’s a boys’ club. I watch Ed outside Myopic; he is playing Hackey-Sack with other Lumpen boys, a cigarette in one hand, a Daily Worker in the other. I know none of these people well at all, but I feel that I will fit in because it is a boys’ club, and I’m a man’s woman. Other women are not too interested in me, my sense of humor is crude and juvenile, I get along with boys better. This is the reason women don’t like me. Isn’t it?
Someone fat and bald gets the old beanbag right in the eye and he lets fly a freight train of profanity. Ed smiles calmly and kicks out again. He is the worst Hackey-Sack player I have ever seen.
I think we are having a benefit at the old Hot House (not the old one in Pilsen, the old one on Milwaukee Avenue). At least, that is what I’ve been told, though I can’t see how we are to make any money, how we are to benefit from this. I watch Math play onstage. They switch keys and stop songs abruptly in the middle, or what should be the middle, sometimes they sing, sometimes they keen like bats. Lyrics double back on themselves, then end, clarinets take over the stage. I try to understand this music, these songs. I try to get some kind of meaning from it all, but I give up; Eraserhead made more sense.
The woman next to me has written a political article for the current issue. She looks at me and says, “You and I are the least engendered women here.” I feel vaguely threatened, but realize this is supposed to be a compliment, so I nod as though I know what she’s talking about, and then run away when her back is turned. Beth, who writes reviews of gothic-type music, is in the corner doing Tarot card readings for three dollars, so I book over there. She gives me a free reading because I am a Lumpen.
She studies the cards and announces that my father is going to die and that I should go home to see him.
I say, “If I pay the three dollars, can I have a better reading?”
Perhaps, though, this is just a ruse to get me to quit Lumpen and vacate the coveted “editrix” position bestowed upon me after just one issue. I have the best grasp on grammar in the whole bunch and I put it to good use while editing articles on a master race of aliens living in the center of the earth. I help Valiant Thor shape his words about the hollow earth people; it is a humble task, but one I approach with all the quiet dignity I can stand. On the masthead, it now says Editing Nodes: Ed Marszewski, Chris Molnar, Leslie Stella™. Somewhere along the line, my name has been trademarked.
“It makes you special, different from the rest of us,” says Ed.
It’s not the only thing that makes me different, I think as I listen to the boys’ every bodily function through the thin veneer of the bathroom “door,” or bed sheet.
I think I am expected to bring a feminist, or female, perspective to the editorial branch of the magazine, but in all honesty, I don’t know what that means. Everything I like has nothing to do with femininity, nothing to do with women’s rights; it’s just humor, and immature bawdy stuff at that.
“Well, that’s your perspective,” explains Ed.
“Bathroom jokes and photos of nude marathons? That’s my perspective?”
“Yes. You’re showing that women can be as stupid as men.”
Hmm. He may have something there.
I drink a lot at the benefit. The Lumpens are loose by nature, and alcohol loosens us up exponentially. I try to get one of the writers, Jim McNeill, to kiss me, but he isn’t having it.
I complain to Ed and Chris, “What good is being a Lumpen editor and having all this…this power, if I can’t intimidate and pressure the writers into getting it on with me?” They nod. They know just what I’m talking about.
The minimally engendered woman from earlier overhears me and is disgusted. She says, “I never realized how completely stupid you are.”
Goody for me; score one for the women.
One of my duties as an editor is filing hate mail. Today I file the first piece I’ve ever received into my own empty accordion folder.
“It’s all right,” says Chris. You were being sarcastic to a completely idiotic complaint, and you got hate mail. You’ll get used to it.”
Someone protested in a letter to the editor that our advertisers used cute, scantily-clad women in their ads, and felt that we, as megaphones for all that is unjust in the world, should refuse the ads. I replied in the column that I would try to turn down the ad money myself (after all, who needs it?), but that I was too busy doing housework and cooking for the Lumpen boys at the moment. I got hate mail for being snotty and insensitive to the plight of women.
“No one likes me,” I said.
Chris pats me kindly on the back. “It was a ridiculous complaint! If we turn down the money, there’s no more mag. Anyway, your response was funny, even if it didn’t make any sense.”
“It’s women who don’t like me,” I clarify.
“Not true. Remember that letter we got the other week, complaining about how lousy the editorial you write is? That was from a man.”
Oh. I guess I feel better.
So maybe it’s me who doesn’t like them.
Gothic Beth comes in then. She throws down her bag and immediately begins screaming at Chris for dumping her last record review. There is a besotted rage in her eyes and it’s possible, at one point, that she may attack him. Chris takes a step back to safety, partially hiding behind Ed. Beth pounds her fist on the desk and then lunges at the guys. Chris allows himself a quick, uncertain laugh while Ed tries to make a break for it, but she continues her fury. I watch Beth flail and threaten, watch the boys blink nervously in the face of her anger and I think, Now her I like.
They say, “You’re the only Lady Lumpen.” It makes me feel like I should be on a girls’ volleyball team, or any girls’ sport that is differentiated from the boys’ teams at school. I am not the only female to contribute to the mag, but the only female in the group of Nodes who runs things. I am good at bossing the boys around. Girls, I would not be so good at bossing. See, underneath it all, I think girls won’t like me if I am too aggressive, while the boys like me no matter what I yell at them. I think it would be nice to have girlfriends, but I don’t know how to go about it.
On my birthday, the boys take me out to dinner. They pass me a crudely wrapped package, and inside it is a riding crop.
“So you can whip us into shape!” explains one guy, whose eyes are shining a little too brightly and whose forehead sparkles with sweat in anticipation of his beating.
“I get it,” I say.
“Keep us in line!” shouts another. Don’t let us get away with dangling modifiers and unchecked facts and confusing it’s with its. Do whatever it takes.”
Someone offers a rear end; it is wide and cushioned from sedentary years at the Lumpen computers. I try out my whip on the flabby rump, and it leaves a mark on his micro-wale cords like a burn.
This is how it ends: the last benefit I attend is at this warehouse in the midst of the urban blight on the west side. We Nodes are wearing nametags because it adds to the friendly feeling so evident in our family magazine. Mine says: Hello, my name is Stella™. A girl comes up to me, she is probably not legal, but it is not my job to check IDs. She says, “Are you Leslie Stella?” I say I am. She says, “Can I shake your hand? I love your writing.” We shake hands and then she gets into the elevator that will take her up to the party on the second floor.
I turn to Chris and Ed. “That girl said she liked my writing.”
Ed leans back in his chair, his hands clasped behind his head. “Happens to me all the time.”
Chris says, “Yeah, but that girl wasn’t trying to get Stella in the sack.”
The boys then degrade into whether or not girls want to get me in the sack and how can they talk me into it and will I let them watch?
“Pigs,” I say affectionately.
It seems like a small moment, but it remains with me. There are others out there, other girls on my impossibly adolescent wavelength, I have proof. Amazed that I am not alone in my penchant for the stupid, the vulgar, I suddenly feel there is a future for me: if we have this in common, we may have other things as well. I go upstairs to the bar for a beer, and to find some girls to drink it with.
Leslie Stella is the author of four novels, Fat Bald Jeff (Grove/Atlantic, 2001), The Easy Hour (Three Rivers Press, 2003), Unimaginable Zero Summer (Three Rivers Press, 2005), and Permanent Record (Skyscape, 2013). She was a founding editor of Lumpen.