By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
I know it's only my two-bits worth, but I loved the Erykah Badu video in which she stripped naked on the X-marks-the-spot, where Kennedy got shot in Dealey Plaza 37 years ago. I'm thinking seriously about going down there and taking off my own clothes.
But I want everybody else in Dallas to do it with me. I think the whole city should go down there and get naked. Maybe annually.
What should we call it? Naked on the X? X City? X Day? That X! It's such a powerful talisman, marking the scar in the city's beating heart.
By the way, you can see the X painted on the street if you Google Map 411 Elm St. (the former Texas School Book Depository) and then switch to Street View and use the directional arrows to move the view down Elm toward the Triple Underpass. It's about a third of the way down the hill.
I went down to Dealey Plaza last week to chat with my old buddies, the grainy-autopsy-photo vendors. I seem to hit up those folks every five years or so for a story. Kind of people I appreciate—always give good quotes. Something about being outdoors in all kinds of weather trying to talk foreign tourists out of 10 bucks for a grainy autopsy photo. It just seems to engender snappy one-liners.
Dealey Plaza was dead when I went. I didn't see the typical crowds of conspiracy-wonk tourists hand-tugging each other across rivers of traffic to view the supposed sniper's perch from which the guy supposedly named Lee Harvey Oswald supposedly shot Kennedy supposedly on November 22, 1963. I asked Robert Rodriguez, a 41-year-old grainy-autopsy-photo vendor with a beatifically unlined face, why things were so slow.
"It's Monday, man," he said. "Mondays are quiet. You know, down here, we're just half-starved spiders serving on half-starved flies."
"A famous man said that," he added.
I looked the quote up later at the office. It's line 327, in point of fact, from "The Prophecy of Famine: A Scots Pastoral," a poem published in 1763 by English satirist Charles Churchill (1731-64):
"There webs were spread of more than common size,
And half-starved spiders prey'd on half-starved flies."
Lesson of my life: Never underestimate a grainy-autopsy-photo vendor.
Rodriguez and I spoke standing next to the reflecting pond at Dealey Plaza. It amuses me that this park, named for the late George Bannerman Dealey, an early publisher of The Dallas Morning News, was a Works Progress Administration project—an FDR pinko monument to make-work, memorializing the great American flirtation with socialism. Completed in 1940, it could just as easily have been named Woody Guthrie Plaza. And if it had, would we be a different city today?
I asked Rodriguez if he was down here the day Erykah Badu took her clothes off on the X.
"I was there when she was naked," he said. "I grabbed her ass."
I regarded him silently with my now-now look.
"I wasn't there then," he admitted. "I'm not going to lie to you. I'll give you my opinion though."
"She was trying to make that money," he said. "It was just a scheme to try to boost her sales in records. That's not a right thing to do."
But not all of the grainy-autopsy-photo salespeople I spoke with were reproachful. Sherman Hopkins, 53, a slim drink of water with a weatherproof face, told me he's been working Dealey Plaza for years, and he's seen worse.
"I've seen everything you can imagine seeing in 19 years," Hopkins said. "I have seen a band come here and stack a stack of pizzas on the X down there and laid around it and eat the pizza.
"That's the most morbid thing I ever seen in my life. Heavy metal band from New York City. Can't remember their name."
It occurred to me as he spoke that I had never really seen the whole video. Just snippets. Back at the office I went to her Web page, Erykahbadu.com, and watched. It's called "Window Seat."
She parks her car and walks toward a backwards-walking handheld camera, downhill on Elm Street from the Dealey Memorial, stripping off articles of clothing as she moves through a crowd of tourists. Several things strike me.
One. You can take off your clothes in the midst of a crowd of tourists in this life and attract remarkably little attention. Some of them turn away dismissively, as if to say, "Sorry, I don't have any change."
Two: Most of them don't even see her. They look right through her. Here is this striking woman walking next to them, taking off all of her clothes, and they're craning around staring at the sky like gun-startled chickens, probably searching for the picket fence where the supposed second or third gunman was supposedly hiding. Or supposedly not.
And third: The powerfully graceful movement of her body separates her from the physical space of the crowd. She glides among them as if in a channel apart, a separate dimension. She is a spiritual visitor, seen but unseen.
Last: Real Life. Her physical act of nakedness is somehow profoundly and touchingly modest. There isn't an ounce of ego or provocation. She is vulnerable, and her nudity is moving.
She does it way better than I did. I don't even want to say how long ago. We're talking late '70s. Barely 15 years after the assassination, I was newly arrived in town, a Yankee carpetbagger. Young. Some Yankee friends were in town for some kind of newspaper convention. I believe drink may have been involved.
They wanted to see where it happened. We all went down to Dealey Plaza some time after midnight. The sleazy assassination "museum" across the street, a tourist trap, was closed. There was no marker, no mention anywhere in the plaza itself. No X yet.
Tourists came during the day, stolidly ignored by the locals. They had to guess where the X was. The grainy-autopsy-photo vendors hadn't even discovered Dealey Plaza yet.
We decided to reenact it. We arranged ourselves out in the lanes of Elm Street. The streets were silent as a tomb. My friend, Ladd Neuman, was Kennedy. Others were Jackie, the Connallys, the driver, the Secret Service agents. Someone was Oswald, hiding behind a sapling. We moved slowly in unison with our knees and waists bent so our heads were at convertible-seat level, bent-walking down Elm until we got to about where the X is now.
Oswald shouted, "Bang! Bang! Bang!"
Neuman threw his head back.
I think if Sherman Hopkins had seen it, he would tell a different story today about the most morbid thing he ever saw in Dealey Plaza. We thought we were funny. For a minute.
A glistening black car, the size of Kennedy's limo, purred slowly down Elm and rolled to a stop right next to us. A tinted rear window rolled down, and an old man with white hair leaned forward. In the musically genteel accent of old upper-class Texas, he said, "Do you boys not have anything better to do with yourselves tonight?"
We froze. I was ashamed of myself. Standing there like an oaf in the street, I felt naked. But it was not a good naked. That was the first time I heard even a whisper of the pain of this place for Dallas. The man in the car shrugged. The window rolled up, and the big black car rolled off into the night.
I'm not sure people elsewhere knew, or remembered, or really understood that Dallas was blamed. And no one else would have a way of knowing what it felt like.
William Manchester, in his 1967 book, Death of a President, pointed the bony finger of blame not just at Dallas in general but specifically at the Morning News, using the George Bannerman Dealey Memorial at Dealey Plaza as his metaphor:
"But if you really want a proper perspective of the Dealey Memorial," Manchester wrote, "the northeast window on the sixth floor of the warehouse is incomparable."
For Manchester, the George Bannerman Dealey Memorial was a monument to extremism and the people who fanned its flames in Dallas. It would be comforting now to dismiss all of that as passion of the times. But when I interviewed the late Stanley Marcus in 1985, he was not willing to let his beloved hometown off the hook quite that softly.
Marcus said to me: "I remember also that, following the assassination, there was a great desire on the part of the leadership to cope with the situation. The word 'cope' was the way to describe it. And everyone was saying, 'Well, it could have happened anywhere.'
"Of course that was true. But it did happen here, and it happened partially because of the atmosphere that attracted that kind of fanatic nut. And when a community doesn't do anything to express disapprobation, it is logical that it will attract more and more of them."
In the atmosphere in this country since the election of Barack Obama, Marcus' words about the climate in Dallas before November 22, 1963, should be especially chilling. The real conspiracies of history are not overt. They're much more about permission. We give permission for horrors by withholding our disapprobation.
In a joint appearance on national television in 1984 former Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry and the late cosmetics titan Mary Kay Ash proposed that the School Book Depository Building be demolished and all memory of the Kennedy assassination scrubbed from Dealey Plaza.
Instead, Dallas devoted a decade of difficult effort to creating the award-winning Sixth Floor Museum in the Book Depository Building. Today Dallas suffers the presence of the grainy-autopsy-photo vendors outside the building as if they were stigmata. The price we pay.
By singing her way back down into the beating heart of Dealey Plaza and making herself naked on the X, Erykah Badu brought life and vulnerability back to all of this. This X. This scar tissue. It was an important worthwhile act.
I love it. Next year on the X, OK? We all get naked. You first.