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Wednesday, August 13, 2003
By Paul Ford
The cost of war is very high.
After the Condiment War I went home to look at my photos, and a depression overtook me. I was reminded of photos of protests in Israel, in particular of my friend Bryan being kicked through the air by an angry soldier. I thought: what sort of people elevate a food fight to the status of a war, as a joke? Even if they do stay after to clean up? Are we lost, unredeemable? These thoughts swam like eels through the shallows of my soul.
I decided to track down one of the members of the organization that sponsored the event, a woman a friend of mine had once met. It took some phone calls, but I eventually uncovered her email address, and in the ensuing emailed exchange she agreed to meet me at her apartment, if I promised to bring no notepad.
I knocked in trepidation, and was met by an attractive and intelligent-looking young woman who smelled lightly of mustard. At her request, I will not describe her physical appearance, save that her glasses were new and studden with shiny stones. She motioned me in without a word.
“Hello,” I said. She still said nothing. “I'm Paul Ford,” I said.
“My ears are filled with mustard,” she said. “You'll have to speak up.”
“The Condiment War depressed the hell out of me,” I said.
“I'm having coffee,” she said. “You want some coffee?”
It was then that I learned that she was from California, and that Californians take their coffee stronger than what she called “East Coast pussy coffee.” “Drink up,” she said. For a few moments we sipped in silence, until I reached the base of my cup. I reached it sooner than I expected, for there was a full inch of caffeinated sediment at the base of the mug. I became concerned, because I become very agitated if I consume too much caffeine.
“I think we should go ahead and get started,” I said.
“Well, what do you want to know?”
“Why hold a war in Brooklyn?”
“Your hand is fluttering like a bird,” she said. At least I think she said that, because I was rubbing my face vigorously, because the scratchiness of my evening beard made a soothing noise in my twitching ears, which drowned out the sound of my heartbeat.
“You make a strong cup of coffee,” I said. “I think you do.”
“I like it pretty strong—”
“Remarkable. Outstanding. Impractical. Pump a horse biscuit!”
She stared at me, concerned. “So the war aspect—”
“Oh my GOD,” I said, “I can move my lips with extraordinary speed. Watch!” I mouthed the entire Lord's Prayer in 8 seconds, sticking out my tongue at the end of each line.
“You don't drink a lot of coffee, do you?” she asked.
“Sound the round a bounder, with glue lifters, Nelson Mandela!” I said.
It was very kind of her to give me the use of her bath, and afterward, wrapped in one of her large green towels, with an ice cube in my mouth to calm my nerves, I spoke with her at length. I have been forced to reconstruct our conversation from caffeinated memory, so what follows may not be verbatim, but I believe it is in the spirit of what was said.
“We didn't want to call it a war,” she said, sipping her second cup of vile oily fluid as if it was nectar, “And we tried to keep people from using battle tactics. We tried to call it a food fight. But people didn't understand that they should make weapons, take it over the limit.”
“But isn't it self-indulgent to have a big food fight? The cliche, you know, to think of the starving children in Africa?”
“Most of the food was actually out of the dumpster. The rest of it was, you know, relish. And none of it was bound for Africa, ever. It just doesn't work that way. I don't think anyone paid more than they would for a night out on their costumes and weapons combined.”
“Well, probably not—but why do something destructive instead of constructive?”
“It was just messy. We were just throwing mayonnaise. We cleaned up the cars after the cops got there. I doubt that the entirety of 200 people throwing condiments did anywhere near the damage of a single car to the environment over the course of a year. Maybe we made some extra trash.”
“It is self indulgent. Just not any more self-indulgent than most things we do. Throwing catsup around isn't dramatically more evil than driving a car, or sitting in a room with air conditioning watching a big TV. It just looks more self-indulgent, because it was so much fun.”
“Then what about all the wars out there right now?”
“As I said, we didn't want to make it a war. But we didn't use any battle tactics. No flanks, for instance.”
“But you had catapults.”
“For throwing catsup.”
“And I noticed the demographic—”
“Yet at least half women. There were some people of color, but very few.”
“My instinct is that about 80% of the people there were middle-class or upper middle-class GOSPLACs.”
“Hmm?” she asked.
“Graduates of small private liberal arts colleges.”
“Does that bother you?”
“We invited everyone we could,” she said. “Anyone who wanted to fight could fight.”
“But mostly white GOSPLACs showed up to throw food. What does that mean?”
She shrugged. I didn't have an answer, either. It was something we just understood about being Americans. “The photos I took, it looks like a real war, or like a protest, really. The boundary between the two is really thin. But then I was thinking about Civil War reenactments.”
“And this is more or less like that, but sillier.”
“Did anyone get hurt?”
“One girl had to go to the hospital for a tetanus shot after the catapult banged hell out of her arm. That was it. We had medics.”
“People who lived in the neighborhood were very upset about the smell.”
“Yes, they were. But it rained all night, and it's all gone.”
I began to speak at her: “See, I was looking at those photos, and thinking about all the war zones in the world. And here we are playing, and at war. And it seems somehow disrespectful. But—maybe that's my problem. See, I have this fantasy of being someplace violent and helping. I think what happened is that I was in Israel for September 11th, and when I came back on the 18th I thought I might be able to put everything back together. After all I knew all about terrorism, I'd been over to Israel for months. There were bombs going off all the time. Anyway I would come back and somehow things would get better. And absolutely nothing has gotten better,” I said. “There's no work for anyone, and the president scares the hell out of me. And New York is so long in healing. So I have this fantasy of going somewhere—Liberia, the Occupied Territories, and doing something useful.”
“They may not make you feel welcome where you're going.”
“No, I'll never go,” I said. “The last thing they need in Liberia is a fat white man with a messiah complex. See, I know this is not even a healthy fantasy. But I just feel this need to go somewhere and do something, to serve food or change diapers or pile bodies. It's utilitarianism off the deep end. My friends in Israel didn't let me protest at the Orient House because they were worried that something might go off; it was like a firecracker over there, all that excitement. And men would talk about the excitement of war, the clarity it brought. That intensity, the intensity after September 11. Everything was absolutely new. And I had a cancer scare a few weeks ago. I had this moment when I decided, I really want to live. It's all knotted up together, and I have to tell you I was almost crying looking at my pictures of the condiment war. There's one of a woman's hips that just is awful. Here we were making a joke of it.”
“Not exactly a joke,” she said.
“Look,” I said, realizing what I had just done. “I'm sorry. I came over here to find out about your art project and here I am dumping my life all over you.”
“It's okay as long as you don't drink any more coffee.”
“It was really only when I saw the photos that it sank in.”
“And I think I just had a conservative reaction to the condiments, it hit my buttons. It's no more ridiculous than a touch football game. A little more ridiculous.”
“A fucking whole lot more ridiculous,” she said.
“Well, sure.” I looked around the apartment, hundreds of books and a large silver stereo. “I appreciate you letting me bathe in cold water,” I said.
I wanted to talk more, but felt I'd talked enough already. She unlatched the three locks on her door.
She shook my hand, trying to remember my name, the air around her redolent with mustard vapor, and latched the door behind me.
1. (as an atheist my the waters of my soul do not run deep) [Back]