I’d like to propose a toast.

These things come back like ghosts, faintly but present, and pull the few little threads of regret that have any purchase in my heart. It’s hard to explain that strange little stretch in the middle of the hateful eighties when people like me were dropping like flies while the everyday people in the rest of the world yawned and turned away in between sharing the hilarious jokes about fruits and vegetables and pointing fingers to say “well, didn’t you all bring this on yourselves” at best, and to share their churchy nonsense at worst. Thing is, being in the midst of it as a little half-formed person trying to figure out where he fit, when the people who could have explained any of it were dying by the thousands, was a shocking, traumatic thing that you couldn’t really see from the ground level, and overview would take literal decades.

Fran Lebowitz says that the real tragedy of AIDS wasn’t so much how many artists and creative people we lost, but that we lost a generation of a kind of audience that the world hadn’t seen before, and hasn’t seen since, with a canny understanding of semiotics, camp, and detail forged by a forbidden identity and a long-closed culture just starting to open to something more than just the way things always were.

I remember, once, in the early years of my inexplicable twenty-year career as a frequent operatic extra with the Washington Opera in DC, sitting next to a handsome older fellow quietly singing Sondheim.

“What are you singing?” I asked. I was fourteen or fifteen, I think, and at a makeup mirror next to the gentleman and just on the other side of the row of makeup tables where my father was combing a color into his mustache and waxing the curled end of each handle of the handlebar with a precision that would have pleased Poirot. The guy looked over, half in his foundation and half still patting on the matte tan for the period and class of his character.

“‘The Ladies Who Lunch’,” he said. “Sondheim.”

“It’s pretty,” I said, inexpertly applying my own foundation and looking forward to the moment of guilty pleasure when I’d sit with the main makeup lady for her to delicately do my eyeliner and lip-liner to make my face register under bright stage lights in the opera house.

“You’ve got good taste,” he said, with a smile that, in retrospect, might have belied an understanding that even I hadn’t yet arrived at for myself. “When you’re ready to do Sondheim justice, you’re ready to sing anything.”

It was inspiring as a lowly supernumerary, the opera term for a barely-paid extra with no lines and an outright ban on singing that I occasionally violated, quietly, in the background of scenes where I got carried away with the joy of being in the magical surge of music that you’ll never fully understand until you’ve been on a stage with a chorus and principals all around, an orchestra thundering in the pit around a gesticulating maestro, with 2800 pairs of eyes glittering in the darkness and focusing on you and what’s happening around you. The chorister beside me went back to dabbing at his face and getting a nice even basecoat.

“Saw Stritch do it twice,” said the next chorister over in the row of makeup mirrors. “Just…oh dear god. Is anything better?”

The two resumed where the one left off, and soon enough, they weren’t the only ones singing. I just sat, rapt, the cool tan-soaked sponge drying in my hand. On perfect cue, the wig techs floated through like courtiers, and the burly bearded dresser wearing a kimono sailed in with the ornate presence of a Spanish galleon laying siege to some continental port, and seamelessly picked up the last lines, belting out “…Everybody rise, everybody RISE, everybody RIIIIIIISE!” in a voice seasoned by a hundred thousand Benson & Hedges Menthol Light 100s.

The whole room paused, then everyone clapped, including my dad.

“Robbie’s not quite Stritch, but you can’t deny he’s got it down,” whispered my neighbors, and I had a cozy feeling like Linus Van Pelt had just explained the meaning of Christmas to me in a soft, but patient, voice.

It reminded me then of that peculiar, magical sense that I had back then, that no matter how ugly the world seemed, and how cruel people were, and how it all just seems like everything was falling, but no one was noticing, I was always different backstage. It was a rare moment for me where I felt entirely in my place in the world in the best sense of that turn of phrase.

I looked out for that friendly gentleman in the first show I was in in the next season, but he never turned up. A couple productions along, I asked Robbie if he’d seen him yet. Robbie just tucked his customary kimono to sit more comfortably around his bearish waist, tipped his head, and said, “Honey, he’s not singing this year,” with a look that broke his usual charming, avuncular friendliness, but just for a moment. “He’ll be back with us soon,” he added, as if he could, by force of will alone, speak that future into being.

Over the decade, more and more of the people I’d chatted with in the make-up chairs and whispered with on the stage while the curtain was down and the overtures were playing weren’t singing that year.

It seems I’ve outlived all of those men who weren’t going to be singing that season, pushing my way through my fifties, and I can sing a reasonable facsimile of Stritch’s take that’s at least good enough for a neighborhood karaoke night, though I still struggle to get the nicotine richness of how she pins down “Aren’t they a GEM?” with a slightly flat note backed up with a pent-up surge of regrets, but I sometimes wish I’d had a little more time to take in those lessons, to learn to love high camp, low notes, and languid lyrics delivered with the weight of knowing instead of just immersing myself in a desperate struggle to be current with all the popular kids, straight savages, and other people who, like me, wouldn’t leave the house without a few handfuls of hair gel and the perfect factory-made aspirational teen tops in dreary corporate-made paintsplatter pastels and board shorts over unironic checkerboard slip-ons.

I could have learned so much and so much sooner, and reveled in bossa nova, midcentury tabourets and spindly-legged Scandi seats, and a schmaltzy, overwrought torch song, the lamentations of Elaine Stritch’s indelible Joanne, or the slinky wildness of Fosse at his most extreme.

Hell, they could have told me about Liza With A Z, or Rosalind Russell as a nun, or Eartha Kitt. 

Life’s too short for regrets, I suppose, and they become even more meaningless when we’ve arrived somewhere beautiful and satisfying by a rambling navigation through empty hallways and mobs of fad-blinded fools instead of pulling up neatly to the front door and sailing into the place like a Spanish galleon laying siege to a port, but I wonder.

So here's to the girls on the go— 
Everybody tries. 
Look into their eyes and you'll see what they know. 
Everybody dies.

I wonder. How would I look in a kimono?

A toast to that invincible bunch. 
The dinosaur surviving the crunch. 
Let's hear it for the ladies who lunch- 
Everybody rise! 
Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! 

And here we stand, nearly forty years down, when I almost feel like I could take on the hard stuff, scrawling “Sondheim” and “I’m Still Here” on the karaoke DJ’s little request slips, but I’ll content myself for now chasing the impossible dream of capturing even a sliver of Garland’s aching take on “Blues In The Night” and will refrain from even attempting any of Mama Cass’s most glorious performances. Instead of being able to chat with a make-up room full of wise old aunties, I spent decades finding my own way, and arriving, oddly, almost where I’d have been if I’d been lucky enough to come to know that lost generation of the world’s best fans, albeit treading a lot of fruitless by-ways in search of the melody.

Look into their eyes and you’ll see what they know.

I’ll drink to that.

©2023 Joe B. Wall

an excerpt from Scaggsville (work in progress)


The new and as yet unopened interstate was an broad, empty band of fresh pavement that reared up from around a gentle bend and disappeared around another, heading north and south. We followed the freshly-painted lane lines on the family Schwinns, with me buckled into in my child seat on the back of my mother’s bike and my sister marking an invisible wavy line in a continuous slalom through the dashed lines.

“He’s at it again, Cleve,” my mother said, and my father turned back, slowing down just enough to sidle up and reach over to make sure I was still properly strapped in. Their bikes were a matched pair of metallic blue Deluxe Varsity Tourist models with chromed fenders and bulbous headlamps powered by bottle-shaped generators that tipped into the tires a little electricity, and they gleamed in the sun, aromatic with the scent of metal polish and oil.

“I don’t think he can reach, hon,” he said.

“He’s sure trying, though,” she said, and they chuckled at the sight of me hanging off the back of my Mom’s bike, struggling to do myself an injury. I just looked up, furrowing my brow and glaring at my dad, then went back to that irresistible task of self-mutilation.

We breezed southward in close formation, crossing over where the abandoned track of the old Scaggsville Road was cut off by the new pavement, and went as far as the dam before heading for home with the setting sun warm on our backs. The road was raw and perfect, still almost untouched, an empty place that would soon be roaring with traffic.

In the golden light, I grunted and writhed, struggling furiously against the straps on my seat, trying as hard as I could to jam my feet into the spokes.

One day I’ll do it.

I’ll do it.

©2006 Joe Belknap Wall

Unsocial media

The tail end of COVID in my region means my social life can go back to being casual but sophisticated dinner parties, rollicking house concerts, nights at the bijou, and playful country drives in ridiculous old French cars, but even more, it means I can start edging towards the exit of the various manipulative, cynical, and life-diminishing social media platforms we’ve all depended on for the past year.

Here’s to a return to real life—surprisingly, I’ve come to miss it.

[2022 update: Alas, the antivax/antimaskers kept us in it for a while longer, with the Omicron variant heating up and set (supposedly) to peak this month. Still, we have vaccines, quick tests, and smart people to hang out with on small scales while the rest of the crowd gets their act together.]

The Huggy Molly [2020]

The full video of my live stream of an improvised score and off-the-cuff telling of several stories about the anxieties of youth, as originally broadcast on 4 December 2020 via Nick’s International Virtual Garage 2020, an excellent Twitch channel for the work of electronic and electro-acoustic musicians.

If you’re interested in an audio recording of the performance, it’s available on Bandcamp on a choose-your-own-price basis [and I’m content with zero as the price as long as you let people know about it].

Circumstances: The Mallet

I was once “mangled” (by my recounting) whilst unwisely exploring the underside of a push-carousel at a nearby playground, and used that largely imaginary injury to affect a rakish manner with a cane for roughly a year, to my family’s extreme irritation. Of course, it was not so much a proper cane as it was a croquet mallet that I inexplicably carried at all times while struggling to pose with it in a nonchalant manner whenever the potential for glamorous disability arose.


On my shelf, I have a book.

It is a handmade book that I made myself in a workshop hosted by a friend, and it is not a great book, by any means, though, of the two handmade books I have made in my life, it is far better than one I attempted in a class thirty-five or so years prior, when patience and attention to detail were less important for me.

It looks like a book, and feels, in the hand, like a book.

It sits on a table more like a wedge than the lovely foursquare block of materials that a better book would be; the edge binding being a little wider than the number of bound sections of papers, called “signatures,” would justify, but it looks and feels like it has some of the portent of a book, and carries some of the magical feeling a book carries for those who have a visceral sense of the old Arabic proverb that “a book is like a garden carried in the pocket.”

I made it and it sat and rested and waited for what I thought would be the perfect first idea to add to it.

The trouble with portent is that it creates doubt.

But one day, I decided, when I was in one of those cloudy moods where I felt like something was wrong, but I couldn’t identify either what the something or the wrong was, to start writing.

On the first morning, I woke up, rubbed the night out of my eyes, and carefully copied the first chapter of the Taoist book, the Tao Te Ching, onto the fifth page of my book using a fountain pen that I felt conveyed a sense of import to the process. Then, I made a cup of tea and enjoyed a sense of beginning, and of accomplishment.

On the next morning, I woke up, rubbed the night out of my eyes, and felt like my previous penmanship was poor and that I hadn’t properly incorporated the sense of the moment with my handwriting, and I pondered cutting out that first page with a razor blade to start over, but didn’t, for reasons of discipline or some understanding of history that was more clear to me at the age I was when starting out.

I carefully copied the second chapter of the Tao Te Ching into my book with the same pen with a sense of import, after which I made a cup of tea and enjoyed a sense of continuation and contentment.

I did the same the next day, and the next after that, eventually completing the task of transcribing one of the eighty-one chapters of the book on the morning of the eighty-first day, after which I made a cup of tea, fanned through the book, and enjoyed a sense of having started a project, persevered, and reached the inevitable ending.

My handwriting varies throughout. Some days, it’s tight and meticulous, as regular and uniform as I could make it, and others, it’s loose and rangy and rushed, because I’d almost forgotten my task until later in the morning, or because I wasn’t feeling it that day and just wanted to be done.

I’d stopped using only the fountain pen, sometimes because I’d misplaced it and sometimes as rebellion against my need for repetition and the surety of following the same paths over and over. When I made a mistake, I sat with a moment of insecurity and a razor blade, knowing how easily I could excise that day from the record and start over, but I resisted my temptation to do so. Sometimes, I would artfully correct errors with added ink, and sometimes I would just cross things out.

I shelved the book and there it was, hand-stitched binding on display like a museum exhibit of my history.

At some point, I was reminded of a quote by Colin Chapman, the architect of Lotus sports cars, who held the maxim “simplify, then add lightness,” and it was a fitting notion, so I added it to my book. I added quotes by Fred Rogers and Ursula Le Guin and bits from the Bible and Rumi. It occurred to me, too, that if I pasted in things here and there along the way, it would eventually level out the book so that it would lie flat on a table like the lovely foursquare block of materials that a better book would be, and that thought made me feel curiously settled and comfortable, even though I have yet to paste anything in there.

When I die, the book may be found in my things and recognized by someone as a sacred object once loved by a person, and taken up for the residual energy left when someone who’s no longer around leaves behind things that were rare and valuable to them for reasons other than the intrinsic value of the thing as a material object in the world. For a time, it will carry that energy, the slight sense of fizzy carbonation in the air like the happy aftermath of a beloved song that’s just ended, but eventually someone will be picking through a stack of books, sorting out what’s worth keeping and what isn’t, and it’ll just be a notebook full of scrawled notes important to someone they never knew.

They may see that, of all the notes and quotes and copied wisdom in the book, only one sentence is written in pencil, erasable and subject to being worn away just from the process of opening and closing the book over decades, and smile at the bit of ironic humor I enjoyed as I changed my writing implement for that line and considered, just as a joke told to myself, writing it and then erasing it incompletely, but they probably will miss that in the chaos of clearing out an estate or sorting through boxes of unwanted books donated to somewhere that might take them.

It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.

—Thich Nhat Hanh

I think, often enough, of lines I mean to add to my book, and because it is not near, they come into my head, make a tracery of blue-grey lines in the air the way my grandmother’s menthol cigarettes would fill the room with atmospheric handwriting as she’d tell me stories in her Baltimore rowhouse kitchen, before they’d slowly drift and merge into strata and fade.

Like most books that we look to for deeper meaning, my book is full of contradictions, momentary fixations, and ideas that I breezed past at first, then circled back to revisit, adding little footnotes and ornamentation. 

I haven’t added anything to the book in a while, and I look at it on the shelf and have a little pang of guilt, as though I’m neglecting a living thing, which it, of course, isn’t…not really. It is a handmade book I made myself in a workshop hosted by a friend, filling up with things I’ve read or heard somewhere, bound into a volume that is like everything around me—finite and enclosed by constraints that have been defined largely by what’s happened after its construction, as resistant to a satisfying or informative summation as real stories are, and it’s no different from anything else in that it, too, might just s t o p

©2021 Joe Belknap Wall

The Gerbil Will Bite You

My storytelling life was started by a territorial gerbil and a panicked need to explain why I emerged bloodied from the kindergarten bathroom to hide my shame about surrendering to temptation and ignoring the “DO NOT TOUCH THE GERBIL” sign in large and well-articulated handwriting on the gerbil’s enclosure which, for whatever reason, was stationed there. I stepped out of the tiled bathroom, hoping for anonymity even as my hand left a trail of red punctuation marks on the harvest gold carpet, and was immediately intercepted by the classroom aide, Mrs. Hecker, who asked the fearful question.  

Continue reading The Gerbil Will Bite You

The Wrong Hand


Yesterday, after shopping at Ikea, as I carried a big blue tote bag containing ten LED Par-20 floodlight bulbs for my lighting instruments in the lobby of the little theater I run and one small black picture frame for artist bios for our gallery exhibition away from the cash register, I paused, taking in the scent of cinnamon rolls, then remembered that they seldom live up their their promise, and continued on my way.

A young couple blockaded my escape route, but I was too tired to dart, so I bided my time behind them. As we passed into the gauntlet of sliding doors, the young man slipped back to let me pass, and as I was about to step through the last sliding door, the young lady, on a monologue to her mate, assumed, by position, that I was that gentleman, reached out, and grabbed my hand.

I looked down at my big clumsy meathook inexplicably in the control of a more slender and elegant hand than I am accustomed to holding, then looked up at her with a furrowed brow as she continued her soliloquy, her sharp eyes scanning the large parking lot for their car, then looked back at her mate, whose face was a wry and twisted concentration of I MUST NOT LAUGH.

Continue reading The Wrong Hand

The Red Pen

So I wrote this book, and then I had a lot of unexpected life changes and I got way off track editing the draft, and I ended up expanding it in unproductive directions and vandalizing myself with a million edits and replacing the light touch of stream-of-consciousness narrative with ponderous literary pomp and then I had a bunch of additional life changes and then I got real busy and it just sat while I focused on my storytelling work on stage.

I’d revived it briefly a while back when my friend Keith Sinzinger badgered me into working on it with the very, very generous offer (since he was a master editor with faith in my stories) of being my editor, but he left us before we could roll up our sleeves to get down to it and I just left it alone, feeling sort of wrung out and sad.

Now that it’s going to be a while before I can do much stage work during the pandemic lockdown, I thought hey, I have a book manuscript—maybe I should finish that.

Continue reading The Red Pen

Charging Batteries

I have a modern car for my commute, and it’s a perfectly nice car, but for the last month, whenever I’ve needed to get out for food or essentials, it’s always been in my old Citroën 2CV, Sister Joanne. My routes, for which I should be making quick, point-A-to-point-B runs in accordance with my civic responsibility, have been growing longer and more intricate in their explorations as a way of being out of the house, out of the neighborhood, and in my element again as the kind of person who needs a little private. meditative time each day to get my bearings, bobbing gently through the side streets and swaying around the bends.

Continue reading Charging Batteries