The Staircase 

Wednesday, Jul 7 1999
Art by Mike Lee
TOWARD THE END OF THE NIXON ERA, a dramatic war of ideologies took place in the convenient arena of my family's red-brick ranch house in Champaign, Illinois. The experience left me with an occasional craving to hear punk rock and Muzakat the same time, a phalanx of six or eight neck hairs that bristle hard at the mention of the word bro and, for the past week or so, the desire to render a sort of re-creation of the thing by mixing found Internet media.

The battlefront is a staircase dividing ground from underground. At either end of the staircase is a party. Two separate, sovereign parties. Up top, my older sister, at the peak of rebellion against her socialistic upbringing, holds something called a "pre-party" -- a small party given to celebrate, usually with mixed drinks, the promise of a larger party to attend thereafter. In our family's expedition of the leftist lands, my older sister has made a pit stop on the road more traveled -- something called Kappa Alpha Theta -- and 10 or 12 members of her cult and their dates mill about our humble living room in tuxedoes and gowns, spilling out into the back yard to create Kodak moments with the Polaroid, cocktails erect.

At the bottom of the staircase, my older brother and 20 or so commie pinko hippie mad-scientist friends listen to Fred Astaire, Spike Jones and Thelonious Monk in the red-brick firelight, smoking the devil's weed and the Lord's tobacco in sprawled beanbag chairs, playing pool and Ping-Pong on cheap warped tables. Drinking beer, Fresca and IGA grape juice. Later they'll make popcorn, rev up the 16mm projector and watch old Fleischer, Iwerks and Tex Avery cartoons.

It is early spring, and the only thing separating the parties is the staircase. My dog, Boots, has camped out across one of the middle stairs with a clear view of the whole basement. He wags hello when people step over him -- a difficult maneuver on the way down, actually. He follows me upstairs to mingle with the Cape Cods and cummerbunds.

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"Hey! How you doin'?" "How's it goin'?" "What's up, little man?" "Little man! Keepin' 'em in line down there, are ya? Hah!"

We head back down. Boots reclaims his stair and wags goodbye; I continue down into the smoky, shuffling silhouettes, the crackling Chinese-elm fire and jazz, not too loud. Someone named Joshua asks if I'm old enough to drink, if he can see some ID. He pours me a grape juice and we talk about Jeff Beck. A girl technically not much older than me sits at my drum set and quietly brushes the cymbals, then pounds a tom-tom three times and laughs. Someone hands her a lit cigar. I go back up and over my dog to the formal upstairs. A tuxedoed boy with a Chicago accent asks if I'm old enough to drink, if he can see some ID, but doesn't wait for me to answer. You are a pre-party accessory, he seems to say. You play the little-brother character. In seven years, you'll be one of us, because you are here, now, doing this, little man.

A few of the downstairs people invade the upstairs to use the bathroom or get a snack; they pause to observe the upstairs people and to take in the image of me standing there among them. I return to the underground with my dog. Dusk falls. The upstairs pre-partiers disband, none having once visited the basement. Beneath them.


TO RE-CREATE THE DUEL OF THE parties, you'll need a registered QuickTime player, which allows you to play several sound and video files simultaneously. For your sorority pre-party-style music, why not visit the actual University of Illinois Kappa Alpha Thetas (www.soltec.net/~aqcgraph/aimee/home_frames.htm)? If your browser is so configured, upon entering their home page you'll hear two simultaneous MIDI files, neither of which will stop no matter how hard you try. Snag 'em both: www.soltec.net/~aqcgraph/aimee/titanic.mid and www.soltec.net/~aqcgraph/aimee/nikita.mid.

For the downstairs party, snag an animated GIF of an animated animation -- a few frames from Tex Avery's 1946 "Northwest Hounded Police" (www.texavery.com/video/freakout.gif) should do. Add a Spike Jones audio clip -- "You Always Hurt the One You Love" (www.hah.net/spike/music/hurt.au) works nicely. And a fine young fireplace can be found at That Guy's Virtual Fireplace Insert (www.thatguy.com/fireplace/fire5.mov). Now all you need is the stairs themselves. Some sort of corporation has produced a lovely QuickTime VR movie (www.ameritech.com/corporate/testtown/amerbldg/tour/qtvr/
) that's performed well at our advance screenings.

Serving suggestion: Open all six files in your QuickTime player. Set the fireplace movie, the Tex Avery GIF and the Spike Jones audio to LOOP. (No looping necessary with the sorority songs -- they go on forever.) Place the staircase VR movie in the middle, select PLAY ALL MOVIES, crank up the audio and mouse around with the staircase until duality merges into unity. Repeat.

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