A Princess as Big as the Ritz (Sep. 10, 1997)

Try as I may to sit like a dandelion on my own stem, to enjoy the humid Connecticut night while sipping a cold martini and considering the crime of no fireflies to decorate the darkling evening quiet, an arctic blast envelopes me in a swirling blizzard of murderous chill. “Did you hear?” “Hear what?” “Jerry Rice is out for the season, tore his ACL. Young’s out at least two weeks with a concussion, and Kevin Greene broke a toe.” The messenger is a fellow 49er fan, an ignorant savage with a pagan passion for fortifying the spirits with slow-motion replays of bone-splintering hits, fingertips scratching leather for the ultimately futile first down — the pleasure we take in someone else’s violence, blood on their chins means smiles on our lips means self-contented lapses into happiness means something to talk about with so-called friends and obvious strangers during those countless awkward moments when you’re not drunk enough to tell them to piss off but oh well nevermind because of course it could rain and what a relief to more than your parched tongue, for somewhere the cracked earth must dream of flowers, of mobs of pale violets rioting with clubs of stark beauty and throwing broken amulets of morbid perfumes through the panes of brittle silence that separates us from the truth and all those other schoolboy crushes, while from the grander terraces nearest to heaven little girls lost in the moment throw sweet plums and rice paper hearts onto the cobblestones below, a magic confetti that coronates and sanctifies, that obliges and obeys — but what object and at what price?

All this turgid, tortured hyperbole merely punctuates the obvious: Jerry Rice, football god, deliverer of heroic touchdowns, receiver of blessed pigskins, redeemer of empty San Francisco lives, prover of miracles, saver of last-second victories, destroyer of both man-to-man and zone coverages, is, if not dead, then comatose. His uniformed body lies in virtual state in the eternal end zone which is his gridiron coffin. A torn anterior cruciate ligament is a serious injury for players of any age, much less 12-year veterans whose brilliance depends on gravity-defying cuts and leaps. The shock of Rice’s sudden departure is followed by pained resignation, like when you awake in a foreign country to the slow, slightly ominous, slightly comforting clanging of a church bell from somewhere behind. You roll over and try to fall back to sleep but then the sheets are damp from the climate and the residue of the lingering sickness which sent you abroad in the first place, and so your mind contemplates unseen architecture, perhaps Moorish with ornate brightly colored tiles depicting quasi-religious scenes of forgotten implications, or maybe a squat concrete sports oval built just five years previous to herald a fish monger’s ascension to the lesser nobility by virtue of a hefty payment to a politician with royalist aspirations and the brownshirts to prove it. Soon your imagination cannot be contained, the spirit demanding actualization through flesh, and within the hour you are trudging dutifully through cramped alleyways or beside imperial aqueducts, tour book in hand, hoping not to hear the gunshot that foretells your assassination by a bullet to the back — but at least you’d have that in common with Lorca, that brief candle in the wind (or don’t you agree, Elton John?).

Which is to say that due to being wrapped in a festive cocoon of liquor and sleep, then trying to shrug off the damning news about Rice, I still could not avoid the frantic whisper that said Diana, princess of meat pies and cozy London men’s clubs choked with the smoke of Macanudos and the acrid silent stacks of the derelict factories from Newcastle to Manchester, had been killed in a car accident, like James dean, Thomas Wolfe and Nathaniel West before her.

Five days later I pretended to avoid the paparazzi by holing up in a New York hotel room and watching TV until the percodan took effect and I could have another gin and tonic. In an unsuspended state of disbelief I watched millions of mourners lining the path of Diana’s funeral procession, the somber almost elegant throng lobbing flowers onto the shiny black hearse and offering loud sobs and halting gasps offered up like bleating lambs for the stewing pots of the hundreds of cameras and microphones. The effect was more maudlin than sad; finally degrading into trite nonsense as the various announcers delivered sensationalist soundbites in hushed tones of feigned emotion: “Diana was such a bright star, her incredible aura was almost too much to put int words, but starlight and the season’s first snowfall come to mind”; “It’s a beautiful London day not unlike the fairytale wedding day when the young Diana Spencer took Prince Charles’s hand.” But this fairytale ended with neither a retracing of breadcrumbs back to safety, nor Goldilocks escaping angry bears, but in something decidedly more modern and real. It was the kind of end that, when revealed, you realize was inevitable. When they heard the news I’m sure Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dos Passos and even Faulkner smiled tightly or even laughed, pleased and astonished at the perfection of the ending. How else should an English princess in 1997 die if not young and still beautiful in a crashed-up Mercedes beside her Arab prince lover while racing from the Paris Ritz? There is simply no other option.

And as Julius Caesar made godhead the superman’s privilege, Diana (and aided by every corporate media machine) now climbs the golden ladder into legend. As the small screen continued to vomit more melodrama from slick vapid professionals in white teeth and teleprompter wit, I consider that words spoken are empty air, and drift windily into oblivion. Then the camera cuts from the slowly rolling, flower-strewn hearse to an advertisement for a new medication for genital herpes. The effect is truly appalling, like a fat lady with a black eye, or a Presbyterian smiling. However funny and ironic, it has nothing to do with Jerry Rice and deep slants and opening up the field for the running game. But cheap entertainment nonetheless, and therein lies the rub.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.