In Defense Of Shtick


So I’m walking in my old neighborhood the other day — San Francisco’s Mission — and I pop in my old haunt, Aquarius Records, to say hi to Andee. He’s talking to a couple at the counter who are my age, give or take. I saunter in, offer my greetings and hesitations to interrupt, proffer a little banter here and there, and then the guy in the couple turns to me and says, Is this part of your routine?

Oy. Needless to say, this had the effect of amplifying my will to shtick and off I went on the nature of shticks, the theatricality of the self, and these woebegone times in San Francisco. And, perhaps needless to say, the woman looked at me with what I would call cautious disdain but may very well have been condemnatory disgust.

San Francisco, alas, is not a shticky town. People here are so sincere, so earnest. They take their yogavery seriously. The new wave is as serious about developing apps as the old wave was about writing graphic novels. And they all assume, quite seriously, that certain things are bad (Republicans, guns, cops) and other things good (travel, Fernet Branca, new restaurants). This to me is the worst thing about being serious: it effaces shtick and the ebullience of self by casting a pall over the whole affair.

And this city has a whiff of the college campus where everyone wants to be cool and no one wants to stand out. Everyone’s a little nervous they’ll be outed for not being cool, not knowing the new band, the new bar, the new coffee. So they avoid too much eye contact or calling too much attention to themselves lest they be called out and somehow humiliated. This gives the city a vague sense of community but only in the sense of policing anyone who might stand out from the crowd — unless your standing out involves a silly mustache or unicycle. It most certainly cannotinvolve a different social rhythm, set of beliefs, or a pronounced holding forth. Shtick is verboten here.

I grew up in New York and from my family dinner table to the subway to my Gramps’ apartment, shtick abounded. That city once reveled in the ebullience of self, in the theatricality of being.Watch me break dance! Hear me sing! This is how I strut! This is my opinion on everything and anything!Man, dinner at my house was like a variety show, a series of numbers, including the screaming and throwing. Such, I learned, was the goal of life: to perform myself.

When I got to San Francisco in 1991, it was a real wake up call. Of course, it took me a while to realize what was happening. I was just doing what I always did — shtick — while they were doing what they always did — sullen community — and before long, I’d become “a character.”Ah, there’s that Coffeen! He’s gonna say something inappropriate! Some enjoyed, some mocked, most rejected. And so, 23 years later, I’m still in San Francisco, living alone, with a couple of old friends I see once or twice a year. The exile of my shtick, if you will.

Yes, I know, it could have nothing to do with the shtickiness of my shtick but with its performance — it ain’t the shtick, it’s that I’m an asshole. And I’m cool with that. Why? Because I’d rather be a shticky asshole than a sanctimonious self-serious boring ass douchebag. Ahem.

Now, I’ve always been suspicious of communities. Whenever my neighborhood here or there sought to organize in the name of collective safety, all I could imagine was being arrested for the pervert I am. So I avoided such gatherings. And it’s why I avoid sporting events, even though I enjoy sports: that mass community freaks my shit. I know that if I don’t give the right high-five, I’m gonna get punched in my leering shnoz.

But communities don’t need to be built on sameness. In fact, the best communities to me are those that celebrate and maximize the oddity of its members, that protect and foment its freaks. The best neighbor is not the one with whom you do everything — that’s a friend. The best neighbor is the one who does his own thing and lets you do your own thing and you have each other’s backs the whole time. William Burroughs called this being a Johnson — neither sticking your nose in someone else’s affairs nor ignoring when they need help. You don’t have to dig your neighbor’s shtick; you have to dig that he has a shtick at all.

Hannah Arendt says freedom is not what you do alone in your apartment with the shades drawn; it’s dancing cartwheels down the street. The Manhattan of my childhood fantasy was just such a place, where characters abound and are not only not quieted, they’re given ample room to strut their stuff wherever and whenever. Cabbies, winos, suits, all creeds and colors: Manhattan was where shtick resounded.

Today’s San Francisco is utterly bereft of shtick. I fear the same is true now of Manhattan. This digital so-called network culture of ours is safe, atomized, everyone in their place. The music, while often beautiful, is safe. Or, better, it’s authentic, striving for emotional realness. Which is beautiful. But I miss the put on of Zappa, Ween, the Beatles, Pixies, Bowie, Iggy Pop. The punk and rock & roll ethos that sought to stand out amidst the teem is gone. The kids today love authentic music, hence the alt-R&B crossovers that abound (Frank Ocean, James Blake, the Weeknd, Blood Orange) which, as an aside, I happen to love.

But I don’t see edgy music, challenging music (not emerging nationally). I don’t see writers or stars that pop. In fact, when they do pop — Tom Cruise, Joaquin Phoenix, Crispin Glover — we dismiss them as “weirdoes.” We want our stars to be “normal,” all Jennifer Lawrences, everyone well adjusted and well spoken and properly modest. That is what the talk show is all about: being normal, stars domesticated by the Hollywood/Network/Letterman complex.

Not me. I want my stars to be stars, freaks, visitors from another planet, oozing life and risking saying and doing the wrong thing, vomiting, cursing, mumbling, speaking a language we don’t understand. I want the world of John Cassavetes. I want the world of shtick.

Shtick is the expression of one’s radical individuality. As its best, it’s particular and peculiar, keeping you off balance and engaged — Sid Vicious, Andy Warhol and the entire Factory, Truman Capote, Bowie in drag, Burroughs’ drawl. It is a performance of the self that doesn’t seek to fit into any category and doesn’t necessarily want to get along with everyone. Shtick prefers its own performance to the smothering of community. Shtick is the glorious, unabashed putting on of oneself in the world, a pronounced hello to the cosmos and everyone, and everything, in it.

image – Flickr / mdalmuld