Charlie Birger

I finally finished the book I’d been reading, a biography of Charlie Birger. It was great, except that, unlike in the movies, just when it gets really good–the Sheltons crossed, Birger double-crossed, Newman gambling with his life–Birger is caught and hung. The climax comes too soon and too abruptly and then everyone who isn’t executed goes to jail.

Ah, but what can you do? Life doesn’t always have the same aesthetic sense good fiction does. And this book, for being “true” is pretty fantastic. You know it’s going to be interesting when the author chooses to summarize the Klan wars so that we can skip ahead to the good stuff. Birger is a Russian Jewish immigrant who settles in Southern Illinois–Little Egypt–and proceeds to make a name for himself as a gangster. He corrupts various officials, befriends and then wars with the Shelton boys, who launch the only aerial bombing ever to take place on the U.S. mainland (knock on wood) against his barbecue stand. His downfall comes indirectly from his killing of police officer Lory Price and his wife.

The indirect result of all of this is that, once the Birger and Shelton gangs were destroyed, it opened up all of the illegal activities in downstate Illinois for the Mob out of Chicago. For those of you aware of the ties between the riverboat casinos and organized crime now, it’s interesting to see that the seeds were planted back in the teens and twenties.

But what’s really interesting, at least for me, is that Birger and the Sheltons ran roughshod, not just over Little Egypt, but from Bloomington south. There were bootleggers galor, brothels, shootings–all this stuff that old Republican farmers love to claim is a corrupting force coming out of the City (and by the City, I mean, of course, Chicago. Bad things happen in St. Louis, but Illinois is protected from them by the magical power of the river. East St. Louis is just a terrible mirage, a curse the evil citizens of St. Louis placed on our pristine state to make it seem as if we have poverty and crime and problems just like everyone else. Don’t even bother to go there, you’ll find it recedes into the distance the closer you get, like a vision in the desert). But here it is, all along, in among the cornfields and the small towns.

One thing I love about living in the South is that you cannot escape history. The whole culture is set up to have a long memory. That seems to me to be in almost direct opposition to the Midwest, where we rose out of the corn and beans related to one another, but devoid of history any farther back than our great-grandparents.

I think the reason Birger fascinates DeNeal is that he was something of a modern day Robin Hood. As much of a murderous criminal as he was, he charmed the ladies and made the men want to be his buddy. But the reason Birger fascinates me is that, though he was a legend in his own time, he’s now forgotten. Deliberately forgotten, I’d assume.

One wonders what kind of a line the Ohio River makes. On the one hand, if you look at the last names of people living in near it Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee, you’d see that it’s not much of a barrier at all. Families crossed back and forth, settling on either side.

On the other hand, it seems to mark a change in philosophy. On one side, you have the folks who will pay any price to remember. And on the other side, you have the folks who want to forget at any cost.

Hmm. Must everything turn into some existential musing with me? I guess so. Still, if you’re looking for something to read and a way to support university press publishing (could there be a more noble goal?), I’d recommend A Knight of Another Sort.


My Day with Annie Sprinkle

Yesterday, thanks in large part to the efforts of the Professor to convert me from my life of hermitry, I spent most of the day with Annie Sprinkle. First, we had a long, leisurely lunch and then, that evening, she gave a talk to a packed house at the artsy-fartsy theater.

There are two things that I’m still mulling over from the experience. One is just how positive she is, not just about sex, as you’d expect, but about everything. At lunch, there were maybe seven of us and she was just as interested in us as we were in her. And she was very respectful of everyone in the room and where they were in their lives. I expected her to be kind of brassy, but she was open and calm and good. Not that those are opposite traits to brassy, but I was expecting someone who was like, “This is who I am and if you don’t like it you can kiss my ass,” but she was like, “This is who I am and I’m curious about you, whether or not you’re comfortable with me.”

The other is how holy she is. Watching video of her sacred prostitute ritual was incredible. More incredible was watching her on stage lighting a little candle and indicating that even on film, the ritual reverberated into the audience.

I’ve spent my fair share of time in churches. In face, if retirement were just based on the years one lived in a parsonage, I’d have been able to retire from the Methodist church shortly after college. So, I know a great deal about how that kind of sacredness feels.

This was very different. Still that same feeling of something holy and good and that intangible presence like something very old has filled up the room. But different, too.

It’s hard to talk about things like this, because even though they make perfect sense to me and are important to me, I know it’s that intensely personal for everyone else–their understanding of the supernatural–and that people go to war over it, personally and nationally. And, though I’m woo-woo, I don’t want you guys to think that that’s all I am.

But still, indulge me for a minute and imagine growing up in a household where all that is sacred is gendered male. Everyone in charge of accessing the sacred is male. And imagine being certain–having experiences that reaffirm it regularly–that there really is something there, that the atheists are wrong and there really is some thing greater than you, who rules the world, and that this thing is male–father, son, and holy ghost.

Even if you, as a girl, feel holy, nothing in your culture reinforces that. The one pure woman the world spit out has already done her part by giving birth and dying, so all that is left for you is to try very hard to not be too dirty, too tainted by your gender. You can support sacred endeavors, but you can’t be sacred as you are, because you are corrupted by virtue of your body.

You might, like some folks, women in my family, for instance, just ignore the stuff in church, in the Bible, and in the doctrine that devalues you. Or you might find that you can’t ignore things, can’t not take the Bible at face-value, and, hence, can’t be well-adjusted and happy and continue to be Christian.

I’ve met a lot of people–men and women–who have seemed to me to be holy in a way that is outside the Christian paradigm. And I’ve spent some time trying to convince myself that I could appease my parents and satisfy my own desire for ritual by becoming a Unitarian. (That didn’t work out because I don’t believe people are inherently good; and I think all religions have something to teach us, but once you get past the level of curious seeker, the differences between them make honoring them all resemble too closely honoring none of them.) But this was the first time that I ever saw a woman know she was sacred, and know that what she was doing brought close to her something that resembled her, but greater.

It was tremendous.

Also, I realized that I’ve been a jack-ass in my advocating for the legalization of prostitution. My mental image of a prostitute is some drug-addled street walker who hates what she does but has no other choice. So, I’ve been arguing from a very paternalistic view point: we should legalize prostitution so that someone can keep an eye on them, make sure that they’re healthy and not being exploited and not being picked off by serial killers.

But we should legalize prostitution because a woman’s body is her own, as is a man’s, and what they choose to do with it, as long as it’s with consenting adults and not hurting anyone, is not the business of the law.