Things To Do In Flushing When You’re Dead

I’m in Chengdu Heaven.

There’s a plate of pig ear chopped in thin chunks, absolutely drenched in chili oil and Sichuan peppercorn and covered with something green that tastes like scallion, and I’m stuffing my face. The chopsticks won’t stop careening from styrofoam plate to mouth; I want to stop and my tongue buzzes but my hands involuntary swipe at more ear, rubbery and crunchy like giant pale rubber bands. “This is some pretty good pig ear,” I say, in between bites, and Chef (who’s worked at all sorts of Michelin starred and otherwise applauded restaurants) just nods, his mouth full of dan dan noodles or tripe slathered in more of that ma la concoction, I can’t really tell because he’s really shoveling it in vigorously and enjoying it. Frankie From Seattle is taking a break from the tripe (which also comes with tongue) and is capable of agreeing with me in no uncertain terms: “The best ear I’ve ever eaten.”

In Flushing, it is not difficult for someone white to find something special. I arrive at that conclusion not out of some blithe racism or even a self-deprecating nod; it seems safe to assume that few Americans have tasted anything like what can be found in any shopping mall food court a mere half-mile from the Flushing-Main Street/Roosevelt Avenue Station. Growing up in St. Louis, I enjoyed better Chinese food than a snooty New Yorker might automatically assume. Admittedly, the probability of finding an excellent representation of a given ethnic cuisine somewhere in Middle America is lower than on the coasts. Nevertheless, it remains possible, if not hugely probable, to encounter a superb Chinese cook in the Heartland. Chinese restaurants in St. Louis enjoy a gentle ecology; it is less competitive; natural selection operates with a kinder touch, a less discriminating eye. Only the very worst restaurants wither away; mediocrity abounds. In New York (and especially in Flushing) the net quality of Chinese restaurant is higher than in St. Louis, but it is naive and snobbish to declare St. Louis a Chinese food wasteland. We eat good char siu and fish stomach soup and the occasional Peking duck.

We do not, however, eat $1 Peking Duck sandwiches, bought out an open window on the corner of Main and 40th Street and chased with greasy hot scallion pancakes. And we do not eat pig ear inside Golden Mall, an uncomfortable and subterranean collection of stalls selling lamb noodles, sausages long as Star Warsian sand worms or horse penises, piles of Paleolithic crustaceans, and four golden pig trotters freshly chopped off a wriggling sow. “Flushing is like what China was like in the ’80s,” I am informed by an expert in women’s cosmetics. Walking out from the Main Street Station, the average (white) American cannot help but stare, slack-jawed and captivated by the absolute surfeit of stimulation: congested lines of stinking buses, bicyclists clutching shopping bags filled with cucumbers, persimmons, and jackfruit, grandmothers pushing forward to finger imported fabric, close-knit cliques of pimply teenagers munching red bean buns, bubble tea shops out the wazoo (Ten Ren, Vivi, Quickly), queer looks from old men loitering by parked cars, a Citibank, glass-walled malls complete with smooth stepping escalators—and the inevitable collision with a white-jacketed, mustachioed, fat faced cook smoking and flexing his right hand, stiff from chopping pig ears and slinging and slapping and pulling noodles.

I recommend drifting past the Main Street traffic to Prince Street. Tian Jin is a quiet shop that sells roasted meats, most flavor-potted—cooked in a sweet and tangy and red sauce. Beware, the staff speaks little English. We asked for pork tongue and were met with blank stares. Fortunately, a fellow customer negotiated for us. A 50-year-old Chinese woman wielding an Armani bag saved us from sign language. Blessed with a whole tongue (cut into bite-sized pieces), we headed to Bland Playground (real name, I swear). The tongue comes cold. It is addictive, like the best lunchmeat imaginable, rich with fat and livery. Already stuffed from three lunches prior, we killed a pound of pork tongue in a matter of minutes. Along with a carton of chocolate milk enjoyed after the Fargo Marathon and a rare hamburger I ate following two weeks of GI distress, it numbers among the best things I’ve ever tasted. Bland Playground is a hangout for despondent salarymen and the odd kid swinging with pursed-mouthed mother in tow. We lingered after lunch number four, taking in a fragment of stillness wedged into so much chaos.

Warren Zevon’s song “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead” is frequently and tragically misunderstood. Frequently because it is difficult and abstract, tragically because it invites depressive interpretations. The song involves a dialogue between Zevon and his co-writers, LeRoy Marinell and Waddy Wachtel. Zevon calls LeRoy and says, “Buddy, I’m afraid to be alone / ‘Cause I got some weird ideas in my head / About things to do in Denver when you’re dead.” The difficult and abstract quality of this song centers around its poetic conceit. What does it mean to do things in Denver when you’re dead? Is this a literal or metaphoric deadness, a literal or metaphoric Denver? In fact, the song never segregates the literal and the metaphoric. Instead, the two zones of meaning blend, making any effort to navigate between literal and metaphoric registers futile. The literal and the metaphoric form a continuous body that resists discrete analysis.

In its ambiguity, “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead” induces Zevon’s essential anxiety in the listener.  How can you do anything in Denver when you’re dead, unless either Denver or the state of death is metaphorical? Either Denver is an otherworldly space—Heaven, Hell, Limbo—or Denver is real and the death is a death of the soul, not the body.

If the song never selects a true interpretation, it does suggest a strong and parsimonious reading. In the second verse, Zevon sees Waddy “in the Rattlesnake Cafe / Dressed in black, tossing back a shot of rye / Finding things to do in Denver when you die.” Waddy is drinking, apparently dead, apparently in Denver.  The transformation of tense indicates that drinking is both something to do and a way to something do in Denver when you’re dead. The other important verse to complete our incomplete analysis is the fourth. LeRoy says, “there’s something you should know / Not everybody has a place to go / And home is just a place to hang your head / And dream up things to do in Denver when you’re dead.” Here, the tense of ‘to be’ signals the futurity of death and Denver. ‘When you’re dead, and in Denver, there will be these things to do.’ Denver loses its intermediate, liminal quality; it becomes the terminus of movement. All roads lead to Denver, and all life serves as a stop on the way to the Rattlesnake Cafe. The song articulates an intense hopelessness—we spend life meditating on the spiritual activity of death, and in death we finally find numbness, meaninglessness, apathy, and more aimless, static motion. “You won’t need a cab to find a priest,” LeRoy says in the chorus. “Maybe you should find a place to stay / Some place where they never change the sheets / And you just roll around Denver all day.” The desperate truth of the song is that there is nothing to do in Denver when you’re dead. Thus, Zevon annunciates a furious, helpless indictment of commonplace spiritualities that assign a mythological value to “life after death.” As an alternative, he advocates for life in the present.

At the beginning of the song, Zevon’s fear of solitude derives from his fear of death. His weird ideas about things to do in Denver when you’re dead are that there is nothing to do in Denver when you’re dead; fear of death follows from a fear of the unknown, the vacuous wide and spaceless and unknowable territory of the afterlife. Obsession with an afterlife, at least in the Judeo-Christian sense, has for Zevon a terrible tendency towards soulless ambivalence, insofar as 1) it privileges the afterlife over life itself and 2) it produces all sorts of pernicious psychic effects, moral complexes, and neuroticisms. It is better to live in the present than to dwell on the epistemic impossibilities of life after death. Zevon deals with this resolution in Zevonian terms: laughter. “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead” is black and comic and in a major key; however, in its horrifying and humorous ambivalence towards death there is a terrifying rejoinder to always return to the present moment.

To distill this reductive analysis into an actionable motto, “live the present like Chengdu Heaven.” So we’re licking that chili oil, crunching that pig ear, slurping spicy noodles and sweating and jabbering and clumsy with chopsticks and unafraid and fleshy and belching smoke rings of pork fat and occupying a single moment devoid of pro-retro-and-all-other-spections. Unlike Denver, there really are things to do in Flushing when you die, so long as you are willing to consider life and death as coterminous.

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Filed under Columbia University, Essays, New York City, Theory and Criticism

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