Louise Phillips – Keeping Up

December 31, 1900

The New Year was celebrated outside the city hall. An extra force of police had been detailed to prevent a crush. Circulation was difficult, but everyone remained in high spirits. The crowds stretched down Broadway and Park Row. The dailies will report that several women were said to have been frightened, and two or three fainted.

‘The advance of the human race during the past 100 years has not been equalled by the progress of man within any of the preceding ages.’

The President of the Council spoke. [private]The city hall was strung with red, white, and blue electric lights. Music was provided by John Philip Sousa and his military band. The Choral Union sang America, God Bless America, and the Hallelujah Chorus. Men blew on tin horns and passed each other flasks of homemade spirits. Some of them got a bit tight. Women wore blouses with bone-stiffened collars which restricted the movement of their necks; in the finer homes it is still unthinkable to be seen leaving the lavatory by anyone but an intimate relation.

‘We shall soon not only be citizens of a Nation recognised throughout the world as the greatest of a State pre-eminent among States, and of a city not only the metropolis of the Western world, but of the whole world.’

The choir stopped singing and the lights went out just before twelve. The crowds were silent as the denouement of the Gilded Age unfolded in the cold night. The bells in the clock rang out the hour. The lights went back on and fireworks exploded over the city. Ships in the harbour blew their horns. The staff at The New York Times went up to the roof of their Park Row offices to set off Roman candles and write down descriptions of the pyrotechnics.

The crowds had dispersed by one o’clock. The elevated trains going up-town and to Brooklyn were packed. It smelled like sulphur. An illuminated sign across the façade of City Hall read ‘Welcome 20th Century.’


1913

Metz Pap told his grandchildren about Efim the Boy Prophet, who wrote a secret letter warning their people in 1852. He told them about the persecution and the massacres in 1894. He said the instructions in Efim’s letter had been to move to California, where Armenians began immigrating at the end of the 19th century.

Metz Pap was twelve when he crossed over on a steamship, just before WW1 – just in time. They slept in bunks above the engine room, with a cloth divider separating the women and the men. He remembers the noise of the firemen shovelling coals into the furnaces and the dull churn of the engines. They ate bread and sardines every day. It was difficult to think of anything but food. The passengers went up to the deck for air and talked in their groups. A vagrant albatross roamed over the ship then disappeared into the empty sky.  Metz Pap befriended an Irish boy and started learning English. ‘Hello.’ ‘What is that?’ ‘This is the ocean.’ ‘This is a boat.’ His friend handed him a postcard of an actual topless woman in stockings reclining on a divan. ‘She’s French.’  She smiled and held a cigarette in a holder and didn’t seem to mind being photographed naked.

They reached New York City after eighteen days at sea. Everyone came up to the deck with their bundles and trunks. Metz Pap will say to his grandchildren: ‘There is nothing you will experience in your lifetimes which can compare to the sight of the Statue of Liberty from the deck of that ship. Most of us had never left our villages or seen ocean before. There is nothing you will experience in your lifetime which could compare to that sight.’

The aliens debarked at Ellis Island. They lined up outside the main building, clutching valises and clippings from vineyards. Most of the women wore headscarves. The men wore suits and scuffed work boots, everyone was trying to look smart. No pushing or shoving. ‘We were all scared’, he tells his grandchildren. ‘We asked God to keep us safe. Everyone knew somebody who had been sent back.’

The arrivals climbed the stairs to the Great Hall, the first test. Doctors standing at the top marked the entry cards of the people who had trouble climbing. They lined up for another medical exam, row after row of hopeful faces creased with stress.

The doctor flipped back Metz Pap’s eyelids with a hook. He held them for a long time, until tears started streaming down Metz Pap’s cheeks. The doctor marked an “E” on his entry chart. He had failed the medical.

‘I had noticed in large crowds that adults don’t pay as much mind to children,’ Metz Pap will recall with a wink at his grandchildren, ‘So I tucked the entry card under my sweater and hid the results of the test.’

He watched the guards and the people he needed to join filing past him. He waited to join the crowd, like someone looking for the perfect moment to jump between two skipping ropes.

‘Did you get past the guards Metz Pap?’

‘What a question! Where are you sitting right now?’

The officials at Ellis Island did not baptise immigrants with American names. They used the names from the manifests the employees of Holland America, Cunard, and White Star Line had compiled at the other end of the Atlantic. Metz Pap’s surname does not appear in the Port of New York Passenger Records. There is a ‘Kardachian,’ and a ‘Cardashian,’ but there are no names with the Latin alphabet spelling that Metz Pap and his descendants will use: ‘Kardashian.’


1994

‘What is your name?’

‘Orenthal James Simpson.’

‘What is your address?’

‘360 North Rockingham Avenue.’

‘Did you drive to 875 South Bundy Drive on the evening of June 13, 1994?’

‘No.’

The retired football player and broadcaster O.J. Simpson takes a polygraph test two days after the murder of his ex-wife Nicole. She was stabbed to death alongside her friend Ronald Goldman at the entrance of her Brentwood condominium while her children slept inside.

The attorneys Robert Shapiro, Robert Kardashian, and Leroy ‘Skip’ Taft wait for their client in a reception room with fluorescent light panels and chairs which hiss when they shift their weight. Robert Kardashian has his elbows on his knees and he’s holding his head in his hands.

‘There are degrees of guilt,’ Shapiro says. ‘If Nicole was seeing this kid. If OJ was pushed to the edge …’

The discordant notes intensify the silence. A source close to the investigation has told the Los Angeles Times that an arrest of their client is imminent. There are rumours the police have found a ski mask and a bloody glove. Taft is Simpson’s business manager and Kardashian has been O.J.’s friend for twenty-five years. O.J. is the godfather of Robert’s daughter Kimberly. Yesterday Nicole was supposed to have lunch with Robert’s ex-wife Kris.

Shapiro has asked Kardashian to reactivate his expired law licence. He only went into law to avoid the family business. The Kardashians owned the largest meat-packing firm in Southern California. His father Arthur can tell what colour the beef will be when he looks at a calf. When Robert was little his dad took him on to the floor of the production line in rubber boots and a mesh apron to watch the workers hacking at the sides hanging from a trolley. They stood outside and watched the cows entering the building in single file, then drove home in Arthur’s Rolls Royce.

‘Your grandfather came here with nothing,’ Arthur told him. ‘This is the greatest country in the world.’

Nicole’s American father met her mother in West Germany when he was the circulation manager for Stars and Stripes. Lou and Juditha. Robert’s met them many times. Nicole appears to Robert in a constant stream of unbidden memories. The LAPD source told the Los Angeles Times that an arrest was being delayed until forensic tests are completed. Robert rakes his fingers through his hair.

The polygraph takes half an hour. Simpson joins them in the waiting room while the examiner grades the test. He sits beside Kardashian.

‘That was tough. I hope those things are true blue. Every time he said Nicole’s name my heart started pounding and I could see the dial bouncing.’

‘O.J. this test is for our own purposes. Nothing will leave this room,’ Shapiro says.

Kardashian turns to face his friend.  Years ago, the two men had opened a frozen yoghurt store in Westwood and lost money in a business called Concert Cinema. It hadn’t affected their friendship. Robert has always thought you really get to know someone when you lose money together.

‘There were two Nicoles. When she was beefing with me I was like a battered husband.’

Simpson’s legs, tucked into rhombic angles, bounce wildly. He perforates the electric hum of the room with avowals of innocence and a stream of consciousness monologue directed at his ex-wife.

‘What were you trying to prove? I understand, you were going through that thirties thing. But I was worried about the people you had around the kids! I always tried to do the right thing, Bobby.’

‘I know you did Juice.’

The examiner calls the lawyers into his office to tell them their client has failed with a minus 22.

‘That is an extremely poor result. However … Mr. Simpson’s test was administered at a time of great stress. Changes in heartbeat and blood pressure can have multiple causes.’

When Simpson finds out he failed he wants to schedule a re-test. Shapiro is unruffled and unsurprised. He takes the envelope with the results. The examiner walks them to the elevator lobby. The six-story Harbor Building went up in the late 1950s and the walls are marble. It was built on the site of the old Getty mansion, which appeared in the movies Rebel Without a Cause and Sunset Boulevard; it’s where William Holden was found in the pool.

The elevator arrives. Simpson says he wants to take another polygraph. Skip Taft holds the door open while the examiner shakes everyone’s hand. The examiner noticed several gashes on Simpson’s left knuckles during the examination.  Simpson’s palm is moist and Kardashian’s is frigid.

Simpson is staying with Kardashian and his fiancée Denice at their rented house in the San Fernando Valley. It is the first time O.J. has visited. The men drifted apart after their divorces but when Robert heard about Nicole he’d driven straight to Rockingham.

‘I’m a close friend of Mr. Simpson’s,’ he’d told the police. ‘I’m one of Mr. Simpson’s oldest friends.’

In April, Robert felt hurt when he heard that O.J. and Nicole were in Los Cabos with Kris, her new husband Bruce Jenner and the kids. Jenner was nicknamed ‘the World’s Greatest Athlete’ after the 1976 Olympics when he reclaimed the decathlon from the Soviets. Kris stars with him in infomercials for a line of portable stair-climbing machines, ‘Superfit with Bruce Jenner.’  The Jenners were on the cover of American Fitness magazine in January and Kris said their dream is to co-host a show.

The sun is setting when Robert pulls out of the lot. Every time he drives past the white art moderne building on Wilshire Boulevard he will remember what happened inside. Simpson pulls a visor over his eyes. They pass billboards for the movies Speed, The Mask, and Clear and Present Danger.

‘Why wasn’t I there to protect her Bobby? Oh Nicole! Nicole!’

The highway lights pop on along the 101. A sound like the roar of a crowd just inside Robert’s ears blocks out most of Simpson’s dirge for his late ex-wife. They do not listen to the radio. Robert avoids looking at his friend.

‘We met these pure, innocent girls and we gave them furs and showed them Hollywood. And look what happened,’ Simpson laments.

‘God is in charge, O.J.’ Robert says.

One hundred million people will watch Robert Kardashian standing beside his friend when the verdict in his televised murder trial is delivered. Simpson is one head taller, so initially only Robert’s nose, wire glasses, and white streaked pompadour will be visible in the left-hand corner of the screen. Robert will blink hard when the first verdict is read. He will turn three times to face his famous friend, but Simpson will not notice him. The camera will pull back and Simpson will grin and mouth, Thank you, to the jury, but Robert will not smile.


2010

Proctor & Gamble Co.’s Charmin brand name toilet paper operates public restrooms in Times Square during the holidays. Photographers begin arriving an hour before the 5th Annual Charmin Restrooms Ribbon Cutting Ceremony. Metal barricades and a velvet rope are set up on the pavement adjacent to the Gap. The Naked Cowboy wanders over to have his picture taken wearing Charmin underwear. People come up to the gates to ask what’s going on, then say, ‘Only in New York.’ Private security guards with radio earpieces wait on the red carpet by the doors. They can see the news ticker crawling around One Times Square: North and South Korea Have Exchanged Artillery Fire. Pakistan Has Stopped an Al-Qaeda Offensive. U.S. Corporate Profits Rose in Third Quarter.

In a hotel suite in Lower Manhattan, a personal assistant uses a hairdryer to warm the hooks on a pair of earrings. A makeup artist tells Kimberly Kardashian to hold her breath. He uses an airbrush gun to spray foundation on her nose. Her beautiful face is swollen from the wrinkle plumping injections which restrict the movement of her features. She is in Manhattan with her sister Kourtney shooting a spin-off of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, the reality show which turned their blended family into America’s pre-eminent professional celebrities. One hundred hushed courtiers watched Louis XIV breakfasting on broth during his Grand Levée at Versailles; three million Americans will watch the sisters eat room service sausages and trade vulgar quips in jaded fructose upspeak. The shows are a marketing platform for their products and endorsements. The sisters promote fast food, diet pills, athletic wear, cupcakes, prepaid debit cards and jewellery inspired by their Armenian heritage. Kim is partnered with Robert Shapiro in an online shoe club; Kris Jenner funds a church in Calabasas.

The makeup artist glues lashes onto Kim’s eyelids. He accidentally pokes her in the corner of her eye but she doesn’t flinch. He steps out of the way so she can examine herself in the mirror. She extends her right arm, snaps a self-portrait, checks the image, and hands the phone to her assistant

‘Can you post this?’ she asks. Her website receives 6.7 million page views a month.

‘Look at the hustle!’ the makeup artist says.

‘Work is like an addiction for me,’ Kim explains.

At the Charmin Restrooms twenty themed stalls represent iconic U.S. locations. The Arizona stall is covered in a photo mural of the Grand Canyon. A stock ticker scrolls through Charmin slogans in the Wall Street stall. There is a social media kiosk next to the restrooms and an over-sized toilet photo-op. A souvenir stand sells mugs and sweatshirts with the Charmin Bears mascots and pricey Charmin letterman jackets. There is a ‘Potty Dance Stage’ where employees with pom-poms will inveigle patrons to dance. A song about Charmin products and human waste plays on a loop. A manager outlines employee conduct guidelines to the uniformed attendants who will cheer and clean the stalls after every use.

A half dozen paparazzi are waiting for Kim outside the hotel. They scream ‘Looking good!’ when she steps into their strobe-lit hive. It’s a warm day in late November and she isn’t wearing a coat. Her fitted grey dress attracts yelps of admiration.  They ask her if she’s enjoying being thirty. The paparazzi have a comprehensive knowledge of her personal life. They compliment Kim’s outfits and notice when she’s done something different with her hair. Sometimes they mock her, and when they’re cross they mention her bestselling homemade pornographic tape Kim Kardashian Superstar Featuring Ray J.

Kim travels to the ceremony in an SUV with tinted windows, scrolling through images on her phone. Taciturn, she favours declarative sentences and contradictory statements in the present continuous tense.

‘We’re like, totally stuck in traffic,’ she says. ‘I am so mad at my mom for booking this, I like, can’t even describe what I’m feeling.’

The first subway line opened in 1904, the year The New York Times relocated to 1475 Broadway and its proprietor convinced the city to rename Longacre Square. The paper hosted a fireworks display in Times Square on New Year’s Eve to celebrate the new headquarters. The news ticker went up near the base of the building in 1928. It used 14,800 light bulbs and the first bulletin was ‘Herbert Hoover Defeats Al Smith.’  The ticker had constant updates when O.J. Simpson sped away from Robert Kardashian’s house in a Bronco: Cup-Winning N.Y. Rangers Parade Through Financial District. Friend Reads Simpson Suicide Note. World Cup Opens in Chicago. LAPD Pursue Simpson Bronco for 5 Hours. The news of Robert’s passing probably zipped around One Times Square in 2003: Air France and KLM Complete Merger. Justice Department to Investigate CIA Leak. Former O.J. Simpson Lawyer Kardashian Dies at 59.

Two Charmin bear mascots lead a marching band through Times Square. The guest of honour disembarks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. She signs autographs for the people waiting by the gates. She adopts a contrapposto stance on the red carpet. One of the Charmin bears marches up and presents her with an oversize key on a red velvet pillow. Kim commands a personal appearance fee of $100,000 to $250,000 per event, and Proctor & Gamble Co. will have its pound of flesh. Kim poses with the key. She poses in between the Charmin bears, who are wearing signs which say ‘Charmin Nation Enjoy the Go.’ She gives interviews. She uses giant scissors to cut the ribbon in front of the Empire State Building-themed restroom. Her half-smile is unyielding.[/private]

Louise Phillips

Louise Phillips lives in Toronto. Her work has appeared in Dream Catcher, 3AM Magazine, The Copperfield Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Delinquent, The Dirty Napkin, 34th Parallel, and Monkeybicycle. She can be reached at [email protected]

 

 

 

 

 

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