Intr. Dodie Bellamy’s Pink Steam: The Column
I met London-based artist Tariq Alvi midway through his spring residency at California College of the Arts, here in San Francisco, where he came to us fresh from the Shanghai Biennial. For weeks he and I saw each other at parties, openings, dinners. We went to movies with clumps of other artists. When Tariq suggested that we do something just the two of us, I came up with the idea of a New Age date—yoga followed by dinner at a raw foods restaurant. Tariq’s done yoga for years, but he’d never been to a yoga class before. He usually practices from one of the dozens of yoga videos he owns. An avid collector of workout videos, he even bought a multi-region DVD player to watch the exercise treasures he finds in the States. “Which is the most glamorous of all the yoga instruction tapes?” “Oh, Dodie, Ali MacGraw is brilliant.”
Tariq and I meet in a coffeehouse across from Dolores Park and trudge up the hill amid lush puffs of non-native palm trees. At the top we stand panting in front of the Integral Yoga Center. Tariq stares up at the golden-yellow mansion, suitably impressed. Once inside we climb three flights of stairs to the “temple,” a large attic room with dark beamed ceilings. We spread our towels on the blue carpeted floor and lie down beside one another. This feels weirder than I’d anticipated. The intimacy of lying next to friends is something I miss as I’ve grown older. When I was in my 20s everybody sprawled on the floor or on one another’s bed. When friends crashed at my place they always shared my bed. There’s an eroticism to being horizontal with a friend that’s comforting yet disconcerting—it foregrounds the eroticism inherent in all forms of caring. I look over at Tariq. He’s lying on his back beside me with his eyes closed. I think of the other time we hung out on the floor, the evening I helped him prepare for his show at CCA. I sat on the concrete floor of the empty gallery with a pair of scissors and cut out naked men from gay porn magazines—no heads, just the bodies. It felt very kindergarten, in a good way. I remember laughing a lot. Tariq ripped the pictures into shreds, which he glued to a wheelchair—an actual wheelchair, with big spoke-y wheels—eventually collaging the entire chair with porn picture strips. When you look at the finished chair you don’t confront individual images as much as the shock of unmediated flesh, especially because the chair hangs, upside down, from the gallery’s ceiling. Tariq put another wheelchair in his show—decorated in frosting like a cake. At the opening, with lit birthday candles dotting its seat and handles, the chair looked so spindly and vulnerable—and a bit pathetic, like an ancient lady with too much make-up.
A gong sounds, and our teacher enters, lights some incense, bows, and takes his place at the front of the “temple.” “Hi, I’m Oscar,” he says vigorously. “Let’s begin!” Other teachers at Integral Yoga tend to be more floaty serene. “My name is Sakti,” or “My name is Rama,” they say in their soft, personality-free yoga voices. Oscar is masculine and fit, with a compact muscular body and chiseled face, his dark hair pulled into a pony tail. Handsome enough to make money off of it. His high energy alarms me. Oh no, I think, this is going to be some kind of Jean Claude van Damme pump-you-up type yoga. I hate straight-guy yoga teachers. Spreading my thighs, hanging upside-down, wringing my spine out like a washcloth—this is the last place I want to deal with the male gaze—no matter how woo woo spiritual it claims to be. Tariq wears a look of awe. Cartoon hearts spouting from his eyes—that’s the way Tariq’s looking at Oscar. We sit cross legged, chant hari om, roll our eyes around in their sockets, bend our bodies into a couple dozen poses—Tariq does an excellent shoulder stand—we relax into yogic sleep, snap in our abdomens, breathe through alternate nostrils, chant om shanti, bow to our inner teacher. Oscar never stops being energetic, but it’s good energy. He turns out to be an excellent teacher, gentle and clear in his directions, confident enough to be human. He even cracks some yoga jokes and ends the class with a poem by Rumi. I’ve never heard a poem in a yoga class before.
Walking over to Café Gratitude Tariq and I giggle about Oscar. “Oscar is brilliant,” says Tariq. We both were skeptics when the class started, we say. What fools we were. He seems more LA than San Francisco, we say, but we like him anyway. He was a great teacher we say. He’s so charismatic and focused, we’re sure he’ll have a cult following, that he’ll end up on one of those exercise videos Tariq collects. Tariq feels high, utterly blissed out. “I’ve never felt so relaxed in my entire life,” he says. And it’s all because of Oscar. “Too bad he’s straight, do you think he’s straight, Dodie?” “Yeah, I think he’s straight.” “But maybe he was putting out clues to let us know he was really gay.” “Clues? What kind of clues?” Tariq shrugs then offers, “The black polish on his fingernails.” “I don’t know, Tariq, he seems pretty straight to me.” “Did you see how he took my hand when he said goodbye? I think he’s a tart. Do you use that word here, ‘tart’?” I can tell Tariq’s not going to give up on this one, he’s going lay awake at night milking this puppy for clues. I think back to my gay friends in college, how a guy would walk by and they’d whisper, “Too cute to be straight.” Maybe Tariq’s right, but I don’t think so. We make a pact to go to Oscar’s class every week until the end of July, when Tariq returns to England.
“There it is on the corner, “ I say as we approach Café Gratitude. The Mission neighborhood we’re walking through is transitional, with spanking new boxy condos abutting gang hangouts. Inside, the raw food restaurant has the atmosphere of a New Age greeting card come to life, one of those cards illustrated in surreally bright pastels with a rainbow and unicorn on the front. When you eat at Café Gratitude and get to the bottom of your Fiestaware bowl or plate, you’ll see “What are you grateful for?” printed across it. A middle aged guy leads us to the bar, seats we feel lucky to have, given the line out the door. Perched on stools, we face an abstract blue and gold painting with MY LIFE IS A PICTURE OF MY THOUGHTS written at the bottom. I point to the menu board on the wall to its right. “Look, see how everything starts with ‘I Am.’” “‘I Am Opulent,’ ‘I Am Elated,’” Tariq reads from the board. “They’re into abundance,” I explain. From the counter I pick up a copy of Abounding River Logbook, an oversized paperback with daily exercises for “awakening from the scarcity dream we have inherited.” “The owners wrote this,” I say. The café also sells an abundance board game. A copy of the dayglo game board embosses each tabletop. Across it peaceful loving people of all colors move through paradise.
It’s hard to choose from Café Gratitude’s extensive menu, but finally I settle for “I Am Fulfilled,” a jumbo salad with hemp seed ranch dressing. Tariq gets “I Am Big Hearted,” a flaxseed shell filled with guacamole, cashew ricotta, brazil nut parmesan, salsa and mixed greens. To drink, he orders “I Am Wonderful,” a combination of watermelon juice, lemon and mint. “I really liked the yoga,” he says, “but I couldn’t do the chanting.” “I enjoy the chanting,” I say. “It’s like singing.” Tariq makes a face. “I stay clear of anything religious.” He tells me his parents were Muslims who were forced out of India into Pakistan. I want to stay cool, to act like I know all about Indians forced into Pakistan, but I can’t help myself. “So, these Pakistani/Indian restaurants—does that mean there’s some Pakistani food that’s not Indian?” “No, Dodie, it’s all Indian. India and Pakistan were originally one country, and the non-Muslims were forced into India and the Muslims into Pakistan.” “When did this happen?” “1947, but I’d check that.” When I get home I do check it—I google INDIA PAKISTAN SPLIT and I learn that in 1947 when India gained independence from British rule its division into two nations was a violent one, with a million people massacred. Hindus and Sikhs fled from Pakistani territory, Muslims from Indian territory. By a conservative estimate 10 million were displaced.
“I’m disappointed in my watermelon juice,” Tariq says. I taste it. It’s kind of sour. “They shouldn’t have put in the lemon,” he says. “So were you raised Muslim?” “Yes, but my parents sent me to a Catholic convent school.” “Convent school?” “It was in a convent, with nuns.” “Were your parents religious?” “Yes.” “Yet they sent you to Catholic school?” “In Newcastle the Catholic schools were better.” “But didn’t it bother them, you being exposed to, like, the Catholic stuff?” It’s quite loud in Café Gratitude so I’m shouting on and on about the Catholic/Muslim thing. I realize I’ve never talked to a Muslim before—that I knew of. I may rail, to anybody who will listen, about the fake images fed to us by the U.S. media, but those are the only images I have of Muslims. According to these images, Muslims oppress women and build suicide bombs. Muslims are rabidly zealous with one-track minds. Muslimism (“Islam,” Tariq corrects me) and Catholicism—that’s two tracks—a Muslim could never handle such ambiguity. “Are we going to have dessert?” he asks. “Sure, dessert, of course dessert.” “The strawberry cheesecake sounds fabulous.” “So what did your parents do, like for a living?” “My father owns a head shop. Or should I have the coconut cream pie—‘I Am Adoring’?” “I had it before, it was kind of bland, but I liked it. You mean like a hippie head shop?” Tariq nods. “Have you heard of magic mushrooms, Dodie?” I don’t know any more about magic mushrooms than I do about Islam. I guess that they’re hallucinogenic and I’m right. Dried mushrooms are still against the law in England, but through some loophole, fresh ones are legal. Magic mushrooms are his father’s biggest seller. Tariq’s never tried them.
Tariq points to a waiter and then a waitress. “Look at their skin. It’s incredible.” Both of them are dewy with lots of tattoos. “And even that guy that seated us—the older guy—did you see his skin?” Tariq’s convinced of the power of raw foods. “Did you read about the earthworms in the paper today?” He tells me about this woman scientist who turned off the aging gene in some earthworms and they lived six times their usual lifespan. “That’s the equivalent of 400 years for people! Some day we may be able to live forever.” When I eventually look up the article, I learn it wasn’t earthworms but teeny translucent roundworms. They make good experimental subjects because you can see their guts right through their skin. With their aging gene suppressed, the worms not only lived six times longer, they stayed youthful. “The 125-day worms did not show any of the telltale signs of decrepitude and frailty until the very end of their extended life. They remained vigorous, wiggling happily in their gel.” But I wonder, what happens at “the very end of their extended life,” do they die like regular roundworms, do they turn red and convulse, do they melt, do they fast-forward shrivel and explode to dust like you see in every horror film when someone steals youth?
Tariq says the worm woman looks fantastic—she’s 50 but looks 35. She eats peanuts, drinks red wine and green tea, and avoids sugar. “Sugar makes you old,” says Tariq, who’s planning to follow all the earthworm woman’s health tips. Tariq himself seems much younger than the 40 he just turned. His shaved head makes his eyes look large, expressive. Suddenly the lights dim. “You say it’s your birthday,” Paul McCartney shouts. “It’s my birthday too, yeah.” The sound system has been turned up full blast. Drums thump on and on leadenly, electric guitars screech. All eyes turn to a white, middle-aged woman sitting at a table behind us. “Must be her birthday,” Tariq says. A Chinese woman sitting beside her gets up and starts jigging around wildly. She’s scrunching up her nose to keep her black glasses on her face. She raises her arms and jabs the air with her forefingers as she rocks to and fro. The wait staff with their beautiful skins join her, wriggling in the aisles joyfully like the longevity-induced worms. This place is so fucking cornball I think, but I can’t help myself, I’m laughing hysterically. I remember Marianne Faithfull’s show at the Fillmore in March, racing to the stage for her encore. Standing at Marianne’s feet, we hopped around like fools, throwing fists in the air and screaming, “What are we fighting for” over and over, until our throats were raw. Afterwards, as we buzzed with cathartic rage, Marianne said one of the reasons she went on tour while war reigned in Iraq was to sing “Broken English” in the States. She leaned down from the stage and took my hand with her age-ravaged hand, spotted with sores. There was another sore on her cheek you could only see close up. Tonight I scan the restaurant and everybody looks radiant—laughing and clapping and swaying and gyrating. Some are imitating the Chinese woman’s bopping dance, poking fingers in the air from side to side. Normal life has been suspended and we’ve entered into giddy birthdayland. Even though the lights are dimmed, colors look more vivid, and even though the music’s fast and movements are quick, time feels slowed down, as if for one moment, all over the world, it is everybody’s birthday. Then the lights go up and it’s raw foods business as usual. Tariq beams me a big smile. “This place is brilliant. But, Dodie, do you really think Oscar’s straight?”
Duncan, David Ewing. “Finding the Fountain of Youth: Where will UCSF biochemist Cynthia Kenyon’s age-bending experiments with worms lead us?” San Francisco Chronicle, May 29, 2005.