Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
What I Learned Last Night
By Jeanette Beal
I saw the touring cast version of Rent at the Colonial in Boston last night. It was a birthday gift to me from my lovely partner. We were 3rd row, center and I swear I felt some Anthony Rapp spit hit my forehead. He was hamming it up for the audience, while Adam Pascal was kind of droopy.
As I sat in the third row, attired in work clothes and fiddling with my hesitant pup, I couldn't help but reflect on the 19 year old girl who sat in a velvet dress in the Neiderlander with friends on either side, freshly inundated into her first semester of college and besotted with New York City.
Years later I would return to NYC to visit another young and fresh-faced undergraduate trying to scrape by and make it in a world unkind and cruel. I would walk down similar streets and smile as my eyes no longer roamed the billboards for catchphrases but rather my ears took in the staccato of plastic pickle tub masters in the park. No longer cowering behind old books and twenty bucks, I joined in, beating a rhythm on even my dog's stomach if it worked and relishing the feel of concrete on my bare feet. I drank in the city so very much like my own and yet so different; the night life booming while mine fell asleep at 10pm.
It was in hearing Rapp sing about living and dying in America at the millennia that I felt the ache and tug of an entire world of possibilities just beyond my now calmer grasp. No longer the idealistic and newly awakened feminist, queer scholar, I lost the belief that I could live on pennies and be an artist shaking the cobwebs of American consciousness with a flick of my pen or the clicking of my keys. But how I long even now to run away from corporate shrouds labeling my entire existence, from the fears of losing my footing in a so-familiar place, from all of the carefully laid plans of dogs and girls. I wanted to shed my patent leather shoes and slip back in to steel-toed boots, knot my hair around my scalp and sit in the park with the muse of so many a pickle-tub musician. I wanted to be the girl me at 19 thought I would become.
My high wore off as the musical came to an end. What was it again about the lure of Bohemia that kept me fastened to my seat? Why did I feel like a drone for collecting a paycheck every two weeks for typing away in some office somewhere? Why did I feel like I was denying myself for watching television and listening to mainstream music? Was it all a ruse to be cool, to be hip in an age when anarchy was purchased at Hot Topic for a mere $4 and some change? I wanted to hold my ideals. I wanted to remain legitimate in a culture that said I was a passing fad, that liberal arts molded my brain into something I'd eventually grow out of. But why did that legitimacy have to come in the form of cold fingers, thin jackets and squatting in over-crowded apartments?
I can't say I feel the same love of the protest that I did at 19. I can't say standing on a table to recite La Vie Boheme makes a lot of sense to me anymore, but I can say that I am not a notion. Rapp and I share the same values. We ache to create, to breathe life into the dead places we as minorities and invisible peoples are forced to squat in. We long to bring beauty and substance to the spaces we know are dull and dry. My methods may evolve or devolve over time, but I still feel that same desire to see change that I did at 19. Perhaps not with fists raised or middle finger flaring anymore....but it's still there. Perhaps now with squinting, fading eyes and a giant furry lab marching alongside changing my gate and stride.....but it's still there. Neither I, nor you need to be able-bodied and 19 in NYC to create and be different. We simply need a table and perhaps a means by which to communicate.
Jeanette is an unrepentantly fat, blind, first-generation American. A poor, hyper-educated, queer cyborg--and not unpleased about it. Her works can be found at fatshionista.org, wordgathering.com and here at Breath and Shadow! She is a co-editor at Breath and Shadow and co/moderates several disability-related communities on livejournal. She also published Restricted Zine: Voices On Sexuality and Disability in 2005.