Saturday, August 8, 2020

New Devils Require New Gods

During the Corona spring and summer of 2020, I felt compelled to mask cemetery statues. A flaw in my personality, I suppose. I didn’t leave the masks on and I did no damage in the act. Initially, I don’t know why I did it. I published a few images and received a handful of comments from upset people. 

Comments like “I was saddened by our beautiful Angels with paper masks covering their exquisite faces - the angels should not be weighted down by human error.”

Exquisite faces, indeed. After months of people wearing masks, I miss all your exquisite faces. I meant no disrespect by masking angels. We created them in our own image, after all. Or more accurately, we created them in our idealized, Western world Christian image. Angels – both male and female, are the supermodels, the Barbie and Ken perfect versions of our white selves. Since we must now mask ourselves and hide our beautiful faces, I wanted to see what these icons looked like, masked. If we must mask, why shouldn’t they? But you know, if we all end up wearing masks for the next year, maybe we NEED unmasked, beautiful statues to remind us of the way things were? Of the goal, the way things should be? Are they a sign of hope? Optimism? Maybe I’m taking this away from people by masking them. 

“Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.”― Neil Gaiman, Make Good Art

I suppose I need to be careful, though - blasphemy and heresy are no laughing matter. In past centuries, such an act could get you killed, defacing statues or paintings of the gods, or public figures. But as Louise Erdrich says in her novel, Tracks, (1989, Harper & Row), “new devils require new gods.” I’m not going to define this statement for you right now. Take from it what you will. Perhaps its about our response to the coronavirus pandemic. When I create art, I want the viewer to take what they can from it. Most likely it speaks to them differently than it speaks to me. I have always defined my art as minimally as possible – I want the viewer to find their own meaning in it. I don’t even like to title my photographic images. Even that narrows things down too much.

Erdrich’s novel, Tracks, is about Indian (yes, she uses that proper name) tribes “struggling to keep what remained of their lands” in last century America. Native American land and all other freedoms were slowly taken from them very much like our present freedoms are slowly being taken from us by coronavirus. We are struggling to keep what remains of our world. Big difference, however, is that while the white settlers of this “new” land benefitted greatly from the indigenous peoples’ loss, no one benefits from the loss due to COVID-19. Unless, of course, it is some evil plot hatched by the spotted lanternfly.

Would George Washington Wear a Face Mask in 2020? No!

People thought I would have more respect for angels and other works of art - I might just as well have “purchased a can of spray paint & had [my] way with these historic & immortal figures!” (“Immortal,” let’s come back to that thought later.) One could say the same of the person who doctored up this painting of George Washington, I suppose. But its all about having the freedom to express oneself, to make a point. Here’s an image below that should really rile up the masses. Old folks need to protect them selves from their kids, who may be asymptomatic COVID-carriers. 

One of the problems with freedom is that people are free to believe anything they like. For months, there was no consistent, insistent decree from our nation’s leaders that we should wear face masks to stop the spread of coronavirus. Should we or shouldn’t we? We were free to believe whatever suited us. Now, of course, it is becoming quite clear that face masks should have been worn all this time. (Wait – shouldn’t our guardian angels have appeared in masks to carry us to salvation? Sorry, getting a bit sarky there.) 

Tensions Mount 

The raw emotion that has surfaced over my masked statuary is a good thing. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do? Make you think? Make you emote? Maybe you love it, hate it, or are indifferent. Maybe that’s how you also view the whole face mask thing in general. 

The issues people have with wearing masks are multitudinous. George Hofmann in his Psych Central article, The Fight Over Facemasks, mentions a few of these. “The science behind wearing a mask seems pretty simple, and among scientists and doctors there’s near universal agreement that wearing masks will prevent transmission and greatly reduce the number of people who contract the virus.” If you don’t believe this, go watch movies about hospitals and research labs.

Hofmann adds, “That’s why I think there’s a lot more to the anger over masks than respect for the health of others or individual liberties.” People’s anger and rage is evident by the almost daily reports like this, an incident that occurred on July 31, 2020. A customer of a cigar store in Bethlehem, PA, shot at the clerk with a handgun when the customer got upset over the store’s masking policy (link to story).

In this chaotic time - new devils require new gods. New problems require new solutions (one interpretation of this statement). The masking quarrel reminds me of the story of Dr. Charles Meigs, a nationally recognized Philadelphia obstetrician, who in the 1850s singlehandedly transmitted infectious and sometimes deadly diseases to hundreds of his patients. Why? He didn’t believe in washing his hands! He didn’t believe he needed to clean his surgical instruments. He didn’t believe there were such things as infectious diseases. He felt that God was on his side, and he could do no wrong! God, can you believe that? Meigs inadvertently killed many of his obstetrical patients as a result of his stubbornness and grandstanding. He simply refused to believe what we all now know, that a basic way to prevent the transmission of infectious disease is good hand hygiene.  (Read the whole Meigs story in my blog post, “Infectious Diseases and Charles Meigs, M.D.”)

Dr. Charles Meigs's grave, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia

As I write this in August 2020, we are really still in the discovery phase of this disease, coronavirus. We don’t know how to control it yet, so why argue about face masks? Why not just err on the side of caution? How many of our politicians remind you of Dr. Meigs? How much of our general population reminds you of Dr. Meigs?

George Hofmann offers that the real source of anger is usually hidden behind what we’re fighting over. He opines that “people have felt disaffected and forgotten by the society they see portrayed in the media for a long time.” Sound familiar? As average citizens, we just don’t measure up to the media ideal of ourselves. We are not, nor ever will be, Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. Hofmann feels that people generally feel ignored, mere background noise. Proles. He says that putting a mask over their faces, “making them anonymous and unheard [literally], can be a source of great anger.”

We created angels in our ideal image – maybe that’s one reason its so hard to see them masked. The goals of purity, perfection, and escape (perhaps only attainable in the afterlife?) all of a sudden may not seem possible. “Immortality,” as mentioned earlier, may now seem impossible. By masking angels, am I symbolically closing the Heavenly Gates on the viewer? Am I suggesting, as John Cale does in his song, Fear, that “we’re already dead, just not yet in the ground…?” 

But I want to end this missive on a high note, something optimistic. How about this: new devils require new gods. Think about that. 

Further Reading:

George Hofmann’s book Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis (2020, Changemakers Books), is available here.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

The Irishman’s Grave – “I Heard You Paint Houses”

My wife and I watched the 2019 movie, “The Irishman,” a few months ago. We watched it during our local coronavirus lockdown in April 2020, when most Philadelphians were binge-watching television. Quite intriguing, this film. About Jimmy Hoffa’s mob bodyguard, Philadelphian Frank Sheeran (aka The Irishman) and his life of crime (he was mainly a hitman for the Bufalino organized crime Family in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s). Its historical fiction in that it suggests how Hoffa disappeared – a mystery that has never been solved. The movie is adapted from the book, “I Heard You Paint Houses,” by Charles Brandt. In Brandt’s book, Sheeran, interviewed in an old age home, supposedly confessed to killing Hoffa. Robert DeNiro does an astounding job in the lead role of the Irishman.

Friendly Lounge today in South Philly
I felt a closeness to this movie, for odd reasons. My Dad was a union man in the 1960s and 70s, when Hoffa was president of the Teamsters. My friend Ted tends bar at the Friendly Lounge, the South Philly bar where some of the movie was filmed, which is the actual bar where a lot of the real action took place when Sheeran was just getting his start in the 1960s. Ted told me about the movie before it was released. I live about six blocks from the bar. 

Another reason I felt some attraction for the film is because of crime family mob boss Russell Bufalino. As a kid growing up in the sixties, in northeast Pennsylvania, his name was always in the papers. He controlled northeast PA for the Mafia. I never paid much attention, but I remember my parents talking about him frequently. Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci in “The Irishman,” seems to have been the mob boss who got the Irishman, whose name was actually Frank Sheeran, into Bufalino's crime “Family.” Up to that point,  Sheeran was just a small town crook. 

Robert DeNiro as "The Irishman" choosing a final resting place in the movie (ref.)

At the end of the movie, Sheeran goes coffin and crypt hunting. He’s living in an old age home and wants to choose his final resting place. As Brett McCracken says in The Gospel Coalition article, “How ‘The Irishman’ Prepares for Death,” (Nov. 20, 2019) “He wants to be buried above ground in a mausoleum because it feels “less final” than burial in the ground or cremation—like maybe his body could be resurrected more easily that way.” This article shows a photo of him, a still from the movie, in a simple community mausoleum choosing a spot.

At some point after seeing the film, it occurred to me that Frank Sheeran might in fact be buried for real somewhere near my home in Philadelphia. Fairly easy to find with the Internet at my disposal. Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, PA, is a suburb of Philadelphia on the southwest side. The website tells me he’s buried in a mausoleum there and someone even uploaded a photo of the crypt cover you see at the beginning of my essay, with Frank and wife Mary’s names engraved on it. Not tremendously helpful, this information, as I had no idea whether he was buried in a community mausoleum like in the movie or in one of the many private mausoleums at Holy Cross. 

“Are you family?”

So one spring afternoon in April I drove out to Holy Cross in search of The Irishman. The cemetery is only about ten miles from where I live so in the early weeks of the pandemic, I donned my mask and took a Saturday drive.
Holy Cross is a cemetery I’ve written about a number of times. One of my blog posts, “Graves of the Mob Bosses,” details several underworld characters who are buried here. They’ve all got elegant headstones or mausoleums, surrounded by Christian statuary – Jesus, angels, saints. Some Catholic cemeteries have a problem burying criminals within their gates. Holy Cross apparently does not. Gangsters like Philip Testa and Angelo Bruno, serial killers like H.H. Holmes, are but a few who reside on or in these consecrated grounds.

Masked myself, I asked the masked office worker if he could tell me where Frank Sheeran is buried. He seemed a little nervous and a bit hurried. He told me specifically which community mausoleum Sheeran was in (he pointed out the window to the large modern structure up on the hill), and he described to me on which side Sheeran’s crypt was. I thanked him and as I turned to leave, he asked, “Are you family?” I took this to mean a blood relative, so I simply responded, “No.” It wasn’t until much later that I thought, maybe he meant “Family…..” That was a bit sobering.

I had little trouble finding The Irishman’s crypt in the mausoleum. It was all rather peaceful and quiet. So unlike his life, as it is depicted in the movie. According to Charles Brandt’s book, Sheeran supposedly admitted that he painted between twenty-five and thirty houses. That is, he killed that many people, many of whom were Hoffa’s enemies and rivals. Many secrets are buried with Frank Sheeran. His mausoleum is not the one shown in the movie; they filmed that scene with DeNiro elsewhere. 

Community mausoleum where Sheeran is buried (rear at right)

References and Further Reading:
Link to Ed Snyder's blog post  “Graves of the Mob Bosses”