Gedney Goes Bohemian

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For the first time in weeks, Gedney felt in complete control of his image. He let out another twenty yards, and then tied off. His eyes followed the deep grade of the twine as it arced into the azure Carpathian sky, disappearing some two hundred feet below the orange smudge that laid against the clouds. The kite’s outline was barely visible at this distance. He checked the electronic readout from the anemometer on his North Face Extreme jacket sleeve and calculated that soon conditions might be right to make his move. If he was successful, this would be the highest single-string flight on the European continent since the fall of communism. Gedney grinned as he thought of all the free publicity. He had certainly come a long way from that day in Central Park, six months ago.

Towards the end Gedney’s lifestyle in New York had lost its special sheen. He had only just acquired his New Urban Hipster look when there appeared a myriad of Gedneys, each outfitted almost identically in the rebel image that he had so carefully mapped out (see “Gedney Gets the Girl”, Baffler #3). Gedney had meant to establish his individuality and nonconformity with a strategic series of purchases. But as things developed, all the planning and the considerable expense had been for nought. Just a few weeks after Gedney first appeared in his ripped Razzys and scarred leather jacket, the streets of Greenwich Village fairly teemed with like-fitted radicals.

But then Gedney had read an article in Men’s Journal on the kite craze in Europe, and he knew he wanted to be a part of it. He had grown tired of his rollerblades and his mountain bike; he hungered for a new lifestyle, a new set of accessories. After reading the article, though, Gedney had made a terrible mistake: he dusted off the old single piece bat-wing kite he had flown on the beach as a youth and headed for Sheep’s Meadow. There he was astonished to see a vast number of kite practitioners, most of them proudly and skillfully flying double-tails, box kites, even a few difficult Chinese dragons. “How did I get so far behind so quickly?” Gedney thought as he somewhat shamefully unfurled his childish kite. Gedney’s embarrassment multiplied as his modest contraption veered haplessly into a stand of trees lining the south end of the field no more than two minutes into its voyage. But as he climbed blushing into the tree, he saw that he had been joined by an agile dark-haired girl who laughed gently as she helped him untangle the kite from the trees. “Didn’t you see Strung Out’s article on tails?” she said, gently admonishing our hero. “Twice the length and half the width is the general rule—that is, of course, unless you want to go higher… ” As they climbed he caught a glimpse of her “Air Flights” shoes (specially designed for kiting) and lingered on her form-fitting kite shorts. He admired the knowing way she handled even his simple batwing. He burned with jealousy.

“Why, no, I didn’t see the article,” he finally managed. “I don’t … subscribe. Say, maybe we could talk about this over a Canfield’s in the boathouse.” Sensing something in his manner that suggested an ability to adapt to new trends, she agreed to join him for a can of the unusual soda.

Later she invited him back to her apartment in the Upper East Side. Prominently displayed on her coffee table were four or five of the latest mags covering the kite scene: Australia’s Strung Out, the British Cloud-9, and the French Cerf-Volante!. While she watched, Gedney examined them greedily. Here were the secrets of the trend, laid bare for him. As he fondled the glossy pages, the new product’s possibilities opened in his mind. He began to conceive a look, an amalgam of Hemingway and Norman MacLean: he would be a Rugged Kitesman, a soloist, the guy who always edged a little further out than the other models in the photo-spreads. He also quickly saw the sport’s fashion potential—he could special order kite fabric from his favorite designer, Thierry Mügler.

Over the next few weeks Gedney honed his kiting skills with dozens of new purchases and, via his literary connections, began to attach himself to the underground kite scene that thrived on the fringes of the trend. This elite of the elite called themselves the Radical Franklins, part of the sport/protest movement that had sprung up after a faction of Team Rollerblade martyred themselves by skating down the side of the St. Louis Arch. The entire nation had been transfixed by the televised images of that horrible moment: the flashing orange of their lycra shorts and the cans of Sunkist clutched defiantly in the Team’s hands as they plunged screaming into the Mississippi. Gedney knew the image was marketable, and he resolved to stay close to the Franklins in preparation for the ultimate media moment he was sure would come.

On a night late in April, Gedney looked for rain as he awaited a call from the Franklins’ leader. Finally the phone rang, and a muffled voice told Gedney to rendezvous at the entrance of the Woolworth building, that mysteriously gothic skyscraper. The Franklins showed up at midnight, after the wind had picked up and a heavy rain had begun to fall. Armed with a professional-model video camera, Gedney followed them to the 60th floor balcony of the building, where they produced elaborate box kites out of backpacks and began to assemble them. As the Franklins worked the electrical storm intensified, lightning struck close nearby, and, soaked to the skin, Gedney began to feel twinges of fear. Nonetheless, he held his ground, filming the group and asking the questions he was sure the fans who weren’t there wanted to ask. “What material is that kite made of? Who built it for you? Aren’t you afraid?” And, “how much did Sky-High pay to get their logo printed on the vertical stabilizer?” Shouting answers to Gedney’s questions, the Franklins’ leader let his assembled kite out nearly two hundred yards, seemingly unfazed by the potential for damage to his expensive apparatus. Then with a full-throated howl he began to dip the kite between buildings, coming dangerously close to lightning rods in the storm.

Afterwards, Gedney was able to sell the footage to MTV Sports, as well as an article about the event to Cerf-Volante! His suspicions had been justified: the kite-publicity business paid well. With the money he made, Gedney special-ordered twenty-five double tetrahedron box kites from Weatherman in Taos and took off for Prague.

Within two weeks, Gedney had situated himself in the new capital of cool. Despite the language barriers, he had managed to score an apartment, an Indian motorbike, and a small store front off the Old Town Square. The store was, of course, an upper-bracket kite boutique, catering to only the trend’s innermost cognoscenti. Gedney had raised extra capital for the venture by selling a bunch of his Razzy jeans and a green sweater he said he had stolen from Kurt Cobain at Nirvana’s last show in N.Y.C. The sweater had been a particularly useful item, netting him over 30,000 crowns at a club called Bunkr, where the patrons were encouraged to take monoxide hits off the tailpipes of old Ladas. Gedney had indulged in this peculiar practice, although he found the aftertaste a bit much.

Afterwards, Gedney was able to sell the footage to MTV Sports. His suspicions had been justified: the kite-publicity business paid well.

Shorn of his Razzys, Gedney was able to create a new look that blended an environmental activist style with elements of bondage as seen in the works of Versace. He wore a vest covered with buckles that was made from a coarse weave of palm tree bark. His trousers tended towards a baggy, light-colored campesino look. Now that he was an expatriate he began to favor the bulky, practical shoes of the American working class, and on certain days he wore a real hardhat, cocked whimsically to one side.

Gedney had painted his kite shop entirely blue with a few clouds here and there, giving the overall effect of having entered the store at about 500 feet up. The complicated and expensive models he had brought from the States hung proudly from the ceiling, joined now by some European makes. A profusion of high-tech spinners and the latest twines were on display in a glass case. Near the cash register Gedney kept a cooler filled with genuine Green River soda. For radicals, Gedney stocked copies of the Franklins’ manifesto. He also carried a full array of wearable accessories: shoes, shorts, hats, sunglasses, and jackets, which as often as not were bought by non-kiters seeking to approximate the look. The rear of the shop was filled with books on weather patterns and gauges for predicting conditions. Most serious kiters no longer trusted the official weather bureaucracy, especially since it had falsely predicted hail during last fall’s peaceful kite demonstration along the Vlatva.

Gedney’s canny lifestyle moves since he had left New York had paid off handsomely, bringing him to his present state of exaltation. Prague was certainly Gedney’s type of town. The beer was plentiful and the literary scene lived up to the enthusiastic articles back home. The preponderance of expatriates made knowledge of Czech unnecessary, and prices for everyday necessities were so low Gedney could easily save up for larger purchases special ordered from home. But still there was something missing for him: he had not really been able to gain the type of respect he needed with the right elements of the American artist colony. To this much admired but ever-so-exclusive group there was only one magazine that had any real credibility, and that was prognosis, the arbiter of the expat lifestyle. Gedney turned his attention to the kite contest being sponsored by this, the hippest of journals.

Tying on a fifth reel of twine, Gedney knew the post-Communist record was within his grasp. He adjusted his sunglasses and grimaced for the cameras. After twenty more yards, he called for measurements. A tripod was brought over, and Gedney was declared the winner on the spot. There was much gnashing of teeth among the other competitors. The prizes weren’t much: some accessories which Gedney already had and entry into the all-Europe competition in Tirana the next spring. But victory also automatically made our hero the guest of honor at a party being thrown that night by prognosis. Gedney had finally exploded into the big time.

Preparing for the party that night, Gedney strapped into his bondage gear and his “X” cap and headed out the door. His Indian sputtered primitively as he raced along the Národní trída, the wind rushing through his hair. On the way Gedney tried to take a fax from his accountant, but it blew out of his hands, bringing him brief misgivings as he rethought his decision to buy a motorcycle rather than a Range Rover. But then he slipped into one of his favorite reveries, imagining he was Brando in “The Wild One,” forever frightening respectable small-town people with his defiance and fashion sense. It put him in perfect form for the evening.

When Gedney arrived at the designated address, he gawked in disbelief at the filthy fifteenth century sconces and ornament. “How can they party in this?” he thought to himself, but as he passed through the doorway he was relieved to see the interior of the structure had been stripped of all traces of its medieval roots. The space was wide open, modified to appear very much like a Manhattan loft. This was familiar terrain; Gedney’s confidence swelled. The walls, ceilings, and floor were painted gray. Two musicians occupied the performance space, rubbing empty Shasta cans together in a strange but enticing cacophony. To avoid offending citizens of the former communist nation, the party was without a wait staff, so Gedney helped himself to a can of Penguin from the fridge.

As Gedney drank the overly syrupy off-brand of American soda, he struck up a conversation with a girl whose enigmatic appearance suggested immediate lifestyle possibilities. Her unwashed brown hair straggled down shoulders draped with a filthy Czech service station jacket. She wore practical, black, thick-soled shoes. Her English was halting and accented, suggesting an artist’s reluctance to verbalize her angst. Gedney sensed at once that she had the Seattle Attitude; his head filled with visions of coffee, art, grunge rock, and cigarettes. After a while he ventured a direct question, even though he knew what the answer would be. “So, are you a radical?” he asked.

“I am, yes, a radical,” she responded, unsmiling. “I struggle to cleanse our nation of impure elements.”

Gedney was thrilled by her environmental seriousness, and was tempted to ask her where she had gone to school (Reed College? University of Washington?) and if she knew any of his acquaintances from there. But feeling that such lines were considered hackneyed by this cognizant crowd, he spoke instead of his kiting triumph that afternoon. She seemed impressed, although her reticence made it difficult to fully gauge the depth of her admiration.

Later she adjusted the carburetor on Gedney’s motorcycle and he took her for a spin up to the Castle. As he flashed through the Prague night with this exotic girl clinging behind him, Gedney knew he had taken his rightful place at the vanguard of his generation. He was a true Bohemian at last.

(to be continued)

INTERCEPTION!

A lifestyle is born!

Or fabricated, that is. Just before press time The Baffler was delighted to receive from a publicist for the Quaker Oats company a packet of “information” detailing “a new segment of Americans called ‘Granolas’—laid-back, outdoorsy, environmentally-conscious achievers of the ’90s.” Using the demographic tricks favored by Faith Popcorn and admen everywhere, the expensive-looking mailing purports to clue “journalists” in to a hot new lifestyle trend, an environmentally-aware look and attitude that brings with it a whole array of product ensembles. It seems a “lifestyle survey” was recently commissioned by Quaker in order to discover just how well-heeled consumers were living these days, and—guess what?—the study found they’re turning en masse to a way of life which entails All New Products, including a sort of chewy granola bar manufactured by our kind patrons. After all our high-minded protestations, this poorly-written little packet says more than we could ever hope to about the collusion of business interests with the the institution known as lifestyle. Here all is made clear: lifestyle is preeminently a collection of conspicuous consumer decisions; lifestyle is something invented for us by big-money publicists; lifestyle is something we pick up one year and discard the next like so many worn-out clothes.

Thus the business of defining the public mind in our unhappy land: if this lifestyle didn’t exist already, it will soon, complete with all the accessories Quaker has designated for it. The expensive-looking mailing we received undoubtedly cost a thousand times what The Baffler will run, and its words will undoubtedly have a thousand times the effectiveness. Bob Greene-style columnists and “Lifestyles” sections nationwide will soon be praising the vision of the Quaker company to the skies, running the included “Are You a Granola? Official Test” (by which almost anyone would find themselves a representative specimen of the new way) and the cutrescent cartoon the publicist thoughtfully included. When we called the company for more information, they even offered to pay us for running the illustration.

But maybe, just maybe, you won’t fall for it. —TCF

granola

Thomas Frank is a political analyst, historian, journalist and columnist for Salon. He is a former columnist for the Wall Street Journal, authoring “The Tilting Yard” from 2008 to 2010, and a founding editor of The Baffler. He is the author of a number of books, most notably What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004). His newest book is Listen, Liberal.

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