Black Men Can't Swim

And other words to the whites about b-ball, side musicians, and racism

It's Sunday night and I'm sitting at the bar in the Cactina trying to immerse myself in enough beer and conviviality to cleanse the pain of Ohio State's heartbreaking overtime loss to Michigan in the NCAA men's basketball tournament earlier that afternoon. Michigan's Fab Frosh have robbed me of a legitimate shot at the hypothetical office pool, which, if I were a betting person (and of course I'm not because, as we all know, sports gambling is illegal), and if I had picked Ohio State to go all the way, might have cost me a decent payoff in terms of both greenbacks and bragging rights around the offices of a certain news-and-arts weekly.

So there I sit, listening to Homer Wills and Ben Peeler, who regularly host this Sunday-night gig known affectionately as "Sideman's Revenge." Magda Hiller, a witty singer-songwriter with a fine set of pipes, best known for her solo acoustic performances at Key East, is the featured guest performer and is gamely keeping the restless crowd's mind off the jukebox while I try to find someone who knows anything about a) sports and b) basketball to commiserate with (or beat up, as the case may be).

I bump into Mr. Raul Malo, who I hereby dub THE GREATEST SINGER IN THE HISTORY OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION, and not just because he promised to buy me a pink Caddy when the Mavericks get their fist royalty check if I wrote that. Raul meets the first criterion, as he knows something about sports, but he's more of a football guy than a pill freak. (For readers who live in Kendall, "pill" is street-lingo for "basketball.") We take turns dissing the 'Fins, but when I bring up the subject of Laettner's miracle shot to catapult Duke into the Final Four, I am met with the blankest stare since I asked Malo, in the course of a conversation about a year ago, which Maverick the band was named after, Bret or Bart. (For the record, it was neither. The band was named for the classic automobile.) Thankfully, at about that exact moment, an attractive woman walks up and says howdy to the country-rock crooner, which, of course, is my cue to shut up and go bother someone else.

Unfortunately, the joint is crawling with musicians, and, assuming I were willing to curtail my alcohol consumption at that point, which I most emphatically was not, it would be at least an hour or two before I would be in any kind of condition to drive to another bar where the subject at hand might be roundball. My chances of bumping into anyone who knows that Duke is the name of more than just a hate-mongering presidential K-K-Kandidate are dwindling as quickly as my office-pool dreams. I am like a coach going into the fourth quarter of a game with all five of my starters in foul trouble.

I get sucked into an animated debate by one of your generic South Beach weekend bohemians over whether the movie Basic Instinct merits all the fuss. He insists that BI is homophobic, while I contend that if somebody wants to waste time protesting a movie, and is naive enough not to realize that one of the oldest but truest adages in the entertainment biz is "pickets sell tickets," then they ought to save their bitching for racist cinematic compost like White Men Can't Jump.

I am a white man, especially at this time of year when I haven't had a chance to hit the beach and play melanoma roulette. I have dunked a regulation-size basketball on a regulation-height basket without benefit of a mini-tramp. I even had witnesses, some of whom are still living. Of course, that was a long time ago. Nowadays I occasionally awaken from naps to find paleontologists studying me. Rusty hinges gauge each other's creakiness by their approximation to the sound my knees make when I when I get out of bed in the morning. Late morning.

The point is that if a middle-class, suburban, northeastern Ohio-bred, Wonder Bread-and-processed cheese, hopelessly white guy like me can work at it half-heartedly and eventually improve my jumping ability to the point where I can hurl an orange rubber sphere through a cylindrical metal rim with a great deal of velocity, then maybe the problem isn't so much one of race as one of willingness to work at something so completely pointless. Maybe too many white boys give up too easily, rationalizing that they would automatically jump higher, sing better, and have bigger penises if they had been born black. White Men, with its racist title and hackneyed, one-dimensional, stereotypical characters, reinforces that view.

What if the movie had been titled Black Men Can't Swim? Then you'd have seen some placards, brother. Nobody seems to realize (or care) that the implied corollary to "white men can't jump" is that black men don't have to work as hard to achieve athletic success. If I were Michael Jordan, I'd be pissed.

But this poor sap at the bar wants to talk about Basic Instinct. Okay, let's talk. What I want to know is how anyone can get all worked up over a film so far removed from reality that it asks viewers to believe Michael Douglas as a macho cop. If anyone has a right to protest this movie, it's cops. They are portrayed as slobbering, repressed, latent-homosexual boors with the exception of Douglas, who, in addition to these qualities, is also trigger-happy and stupid. Which is not to say I didn't enjoy the movie, just that I found it hard to take too seriously. How can one not enjoy a film that displays Sharon Stone's nude body so frequently and to such advantage?

Speaking of sex and Basic Instinct, I have a really embarrassing question to ask. Did somebody change the rules and not tell me? I mean, everybody's buzzing about the lightweight bondage and the bisexuality angle, but what shocked me the most was how easily this woman achieved orgasm. The first time she makes love to Douglas, they thrash around for roughly ten seconds, suck one another's fingers awhile, take turns getting on top and tying each other up for a few more seconds, and then BAM! She collapses on him in a heap. The whole thing takes less than a minute. I've got no problem believing that's how long it took him, but unless I've been doing something seriously wrong all these years, she's going to require a little more attention, if you catch my drift.

Never try to start a conversation with me after one of my favorite teams has just blown a big game, especially not at 1:00 a.m. in a Tex-Mex bar full of horny musicians. Judging by the glazed look in his eyes, I sense that my politically correct debater has abandoned hope of getting sympathy from me and would like to move on. In the absence of a timely interruption from an attractive woman, I exit the conversation with the next-best excuse - a trip to the men's room.

I catch a few more Magda Hiller tunes. She's not only a pretty fair vocalist, but her lyrics are a treat as well, humorous, earthy, and wise. Wills and Peeler are their usual consummate-sideman selves, although Hiller's unpredictably idiosyncratic arrangements of relatively basic chord progressions are throwing them occasional curves. That's actually one of the advantages of sideman's revenge night - it's spontaneous, unrehearsed. Good music with all the rough edges intact.

I shoot some eight-ball before returning to the bar and striking up a conversation with a musician I have seen around town but have never spoken with before. He's not much of a hoops fan, although he does his best to muster some nearly genuine-sounding sympathy when I describe Ohio State's follies. We start talking about Basic Instinct. I launch into my anti-White Men Can't Jump spiel. He agrees in principle, although he hasn't seen the movie, nor does he know much about basketball.

I feel a little better. So what if Ohio State lost? I can still go out on a Sunday night and be thoroughly entertained by local musicians without wasting valuable beer money on overpriced tickets. I can still hang with the likes of the soon-to-be-rich-and-famous Mavs, even if they don't know Diddley about The Game. I can still find parking on South Beach. I can still meet intelligent people who don't find Basic Instinct offensive.

"But I'll tell you one thing," my new amigo adds.
"What's that?" I ask.
"White people can't dance.

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