An Imperfect Time

During the last part of 1998, I did a contract gig in Brisbane, CA. It’s located just south of San Francisco and east of Daly City. BART doesn’t go there and Caltrain only sort of does, but there was a shuttle so my commute was not too painful.

My job was to take FAA regulations from an ASCIII dump of some propriety desktop-publishing software and convert it into XML. I did the scripting in perl, which is suited for parsing text and also the only programming language I was any good at back then.

The office building had a lot of pictures of airplanes both old and new. Among these were a fair number of military aircraft dating from World War I up to the present day. While I’m no expert on the subject, I’d seen enough war movies to recognize a lot of the planes. A notable exception was those manufactured during the 1920s. There weren’t many war movies set in that decade because the United States was not involved in many wars.

Still, it stands to reason that new aircraft were coming out during that time. There are big differences between the Sopwith Camel and the Corsair, and it’s highly unlikely that all the changes happened at once. Most of the ones pictured were biplanes soaring high above forests and meadows, on patrol in case a world war came out of hibernation and started raising a ruckus. Meanwhile, the ground down below looked no more menacing than a Grandma Moses painting.

That was one depiction of the 1920s I had not imagined before. From what I had seen or read, the military was largely viewed in relation to the war that raged in the decade prior. This could take the form of anything from horrific memories of trench warfare to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “overseas cap never worn overseas.”

Fitzgerald, more than anyone, was responsible for my fascination with the Roaring Twenties. I’d like to say it was his writing that swayed me. That was true eventually, but at first it was his mystique for lack of better word. He embodied what I saw as the good life: drinking heavily, dancing the Charleston, and never doing a hard day’s work.

When I actually got around to reading his work, the admiration was tempered with reservations. Some of his writing, like the story “May Day” and his later essays, were great. However, I did find him a little small-minded and whiny. To get my shitfaced-during-prohibition fix from someone who did not make my skin crawl, I turned my attention to Dorothy Parker. She was a train wreck as well, but a lot more fun.

My unhealthy love for that decade became more international during the early months of 2003 when a friend dragged me to a slideshow of Weimar-era erotica being shown at Vesuvio in North Beach. I knew a little about that scene from the movie Cabaret and the art of George Grosz, who was kind of the Ralph Steadman of that time and place.

The erotica exhibited, as you can imagine, had a lot of fucking. There was also a lot of drug taking going on. A monkey smoking a hookah in the corner of the room was a recurring theme in many of the paintings, drawings, and woodcuts. I found myself drawn to the willful debauchery, never mind that I knew full well that things were pretty bad in Germany and would soon get a whole lot worse.

Not that the 1920s America was perfect either. We had red scares, an explosion of organized crime, KKK membership was at an all-time high, and the economy was on a collision course with the Great Depression. So what do you do when the world around you is a complete dumpster fire? You destroy reality by getting completely wasted.

I get that, but a lot of people don’t. They understand injustice better than they do human nature. They see a past full of dysfunction and call it problematic. Those alive back then who were not part of the solution were part of the problem and deserve no place in the cultural landscape going forward.

If they were around in the 1920,. they are sure they would have made a difference. Social injustices would be addressed and remedied. Hitler would be stopped, either with a bullet to the head or given an art grant so he’d never be tempted to go into politics. Maybe they would do just that. I can’t argue otherwise. All I know is myself and all I’d want to do is share a hookah with a monkey.

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