Kenny Shopsin died earlier this week.
New Yorkers would know him; I don't know if his legend spread much beyond that burg. He ran a grocery store that eventually turned into a restaurant, and both places (from what I've gleaned of the way people talked about them) were direct reflections of the man who ran them. Not easy to like, not always palatable. He tossed people out for violating rules that changed often, like the use of cellphones in the place, or saying things like "I'll have what s/he's having."
You didn't go there for the food or the service. You went there because Kenny was an original and the number of truly original experiences in the world is minute by definition, and originals are always a pain in the butt.
The truly weird and original thing is not something you can synthesize. I've long been skeptical of the "bizarro" lit movement for this reason; the truly weird authors out there (Burroughs comes to mind) couldn't help it. They didn't label themselves as weirdoes. They saw all the rest of us as the weirdoes and acted appropriately. And it wasn't a pose, something supported by an audience, since they couldn't care less whether or not they had one in the first place.
When I was younger, I had the impulse to try and cultivate weirdness, and to capitalize on that. I'm grateful I never got very far with it, because it would have been a royal embarrassment for everyone involved. I quickly realized I was waaay too fundamentally un-weird for such a thing.
I've been over this ground before, but something new comes back up from that soil each time I till it. The easy insight is that weird is organic — it comes up through the cracks in the sidewalk, as Andrei Codrescu once said about music in New Orleans.
The harder insight is that you have to get out of the way to let it grow. Not just as an individual, but as a society. A society needs fringes, corners, unpainted rooms where nobody bothers to look. A person needs to have happy accidents in their life, and a society needs places for happy accidents to happen, without that coming at the cost of other kinds of happiness.
I know what I'm saying here is easy to make into a manifesto: Get off our backs! But I also worry that a manifesto for happy accidents can kill the impulse for them just as effectively as a program of relentless (if not always intentional) cultural sterility. A world where we mandate weirdness is just as unproductive as a world where we mandate its removal. You can't make someone like Kenny Shopsin. You just have to stand back and let someone like that walk out of the alley, put on his chef's hat and apron, and get to work slathering mayonnaise on everything.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind