Purportedly, a “weeping Buddha”

submitted November 6, 2010, for Records & Evidence class at University of Glasgow

Purportedly, a “weeping Buddha”

This object is significant to me more for its form, for what it is, than for its uniqueness; I have acquired and encountered (and in one case given away) a “weeping Buddha” in specific kinds of places and circumstances, all bearing in some way on exile, or being far from home.

I first saw a weeping Buddha like this one in the window of a “Third World”-themed shop in New York’s West Village (the sort of a place in which the only people from the developing world are bussing tables, reading palms, or caring for other people’s children).

The ones you get in the West Village are perhaps made better and in a wider variety of sizes than the one I have brought in, but they are certainly more expensive.

In truth, I know almost nothing about these figures; what country they are from, what culture within that country, what faith if any within that culture, the figure’s identity or symbolic value, or much of any of its origins or associations. I think my father first informed me of the name weeping Buddha, but I can’t recall where he said he learned this.

Some very rudimentary internet searches (searching by image seems to be something web-based database cataloguing systems haven’t quite worked out) turned up little more than an exchange on a message board. Posts there offered theories that the figure is indeed of Buddha, weeping for the horrors of the world so we don’t have to, or weeping for a son he accidentally killed in battle (battling—an unlikely activity for the Buddha to partake of?), that it is called a “yoga man,” that it is a kind of training exercise for novice wood carvers in Indonesia to practice rendering limbs and muscle definition before attempting complicated aspects such as facial likenesses, fingers, and proportion. One post author claimed he had heard from an Indonesian acquaintance that the figure has no name or significance, that thousands are made all the time, and only for the tourist market. The figure’s significance to its creator, and the culture from which it issued, is a cipher to me.

This frees me to attach almost any significance I wish to my little statue. Of course, my ignorance also makes me vulnerable; uninformed semiotic activity can be quite dangerous. As with swastikas, Christmas trees, and the Confederate flag [footnote 1: Which I watched latter-day Scottish cowboys reverently folding, serenaded by the strains of “The American Trilogy,” just before last call at Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry this past Saturday night.], recklessly assigning values to cultural icons you don’t have a solid grasp on can be a very foolish act, and even a mortal one [footnote 2. Even rendering them, as certain Danish cartoonists are now keenly aware, can be a profoundly volatile act.].

If such misunderstandings and malicious appropriations [footnote 3. As we have seen recently with the British National Party enlisting Winston Churchill as a posthumous ally for their racist political agenda, and the keffiyeh’s worldwide vogue among fashionable, and blissfully apolitical, infidels.] are inevitable, the result of opportunistic ideologies fashioning legitimacy out of invented histories and reinterpreting what they cannot reconcile to their dogma, or a failure on the part of historians and archivists to broadcast the truth about the past, I can’t say.

The West Village is not the neighborhood where Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw lived (in the script, it’s the Upper East Side), but the apartment she lives in on the show is there, and it’s made the area, like the Waverly Diner from Seinfeld and the Tiffany store windows, a pop culture coach-tour stop. And it’s obvious why. The West Village is very pretty, and in certain sections it is unlike any other part of New York in that it could almost be mistaken for Paris. It looks and sometimes feels like “the nice part” of any affluent European city.

This is part of the neighborhood that resident Jane Jacobs cited as a paragon of high-density-population harmony in her landmark work on urban planning, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, published in 1961. Here the skyscrapers vanish, the sidewalks narrow, chain stores thin out, and the numbered grid of streets defers to a disorientating (but still, charming) crosshatch of short, tree-lined, and usually one-way roads which taxi cabs are loathe, but financially compelled, to navigate owing to the number of fares to be won from its subway-averse residents.

Greenwich Village has long been associated with east coast American bohemia and artists of course, and since the 1960s has been a gay male neighborhood both demographically and culturally, eventually assuming the mantle of the gay city neighborhood on the east coast (with the possible exception of Provincetown, but I don’t know that the residents of “P-Town,” with its seasonal timeshares and seaside resort-town appeal, would want it called a proper city).

Just a few blocks from the store where I saw my first weeping Buddha, on Christopher Street, sits the Stonewall Inn, site of the police raid that spurred days of demonstrations, and eventually the US’s gay liberation movement, in the summer of 1969. The Stonewall is still in business, and the musical theatre production Naked Boys Singing! played at an Off-Broadway theatre in Sheridan Square, the crossroads of the neighborhood, for almost 10 consecutive years.

The West Village is a peculiar enclave in that it is very gay but also, in large swaths, very wealthy and also generationally older than New York similar neighborhoods (the well-used gyms and “activewear” boutiques hover just above the Village, in more-fashionable Chelsea; the Village on the other hand supports two world-class bookshops, a Marc Jacobs store, and cupcake boutiques that draw long weekend lines)—it’s a kind of gay Old Quarter, and an exclusive one. It’s a doubly-rarified community, this village within a city, maintaining such an unusual lattice of populations in equilibrium that it feels fragile, as most all timeless places do, because we know that time, above all other forces, is irresistible.

However, this enclave must be stronger than it might seem—this was the community AIDS ravaged when that plague first darkened this city’s door [footnote 4. It also darkened its theatres, among many, many other cultural institutions and communities.], and the neighborhood survived with its identity intact. For an ashen decade and more, a beautiful, tensed, grief-struck man like the one I bought in the shop near the Stonewall Inn may have felt like an apt totem for the Village as a haven, a dream of liberation, and an adopted home for men who came here to claim their identity as gay and proud.

Long-time residents must surely feel like survivors. But they must also feel to some degree a little like exiles as well. In remaining and bearing witness within a community transformed by tragedy, now bracingly unlike the one they knew in the 15 years between the Stonewall uprising and the arrival of what was initially called GRID (“Gay-Related Immune Deficiency”), and the 15 years of funerals, grief, rage, activism, and soul-searching which followed, one can easily imagine that gay men of a certain age might feel somewhat exiled in their own territory. They have lived to see gay marriage legalized (recognized officially in some places, intermittently in others), to see AIDS transformed from a death sentence to, according to the federal government, a “manageable illness,” and to see Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Brokeback Mountain, and Will & Grace. As well as a generation that has never known any other America.

And now those aspiring to the Carrie Bradshaw lifestyle, and many other conspicuously affluent heterosexuals, are neighbors [footnote 5. The West Village has also been served as the setting for, in an irony so broad it’s beyond camp, a great many (heterosexual) romantic comedies.].

But so, at least on summer weekends, are large numbers of boisterous and flamboyantly gay Black and Latin youth. It’s easy to imagine that traveling all the way to the West Side Piers, a legendary gay pick-up spot in the not-so-distant 1970s and now a vibrantly active social space for queer youth of color, is made necessary by how few safe places queer kids can find near their homes. And so these young men and women, largely from what Manhattan-ites paternalistically call “the outer boroughs” of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, use the Village’s arcadian boulevards on their pilgrimage to and from this far westerly sliver of the city, between the highway and the Hudson.

This fact is something the more buttoned-down population, straight and gay, has tried to address with the City, petitioning to institute a curfew at the Piers and to increase police presence in the area. It might seem that bringing in the police to “straighten out” the situation would strike some of the Village’s older residents as ironic, but to date appreciation for that contradiction seems to have been lost.

I bought the weeping Buddha in the West Village for my uncle Rich who had just moved to Mendocino, California. The McCafferys [footnote 6. Speculation has it that the unorthodox spelling originates with a US immigration clerk.] are from Connecticut and New York mostly, Wisconsin before that, and Ireland not very long before that. We’re Yankees, pretty much through and through.

So moving out to the most dubious state in the west, California, was seen within the family as a kind of startling shift [footnote 7. Rich was not the first of the family’s four brothers to heed the siren of the west’s call however. First to list to the left coast was Sean, Rich and my Dad’s younger brother. A preternaturally gifted athlete, handsome as the devil and as cool too, he fled the east coast’s uptight vibes, his family, and major league baseball scouts for the nightclubs of Los Angeles. He ran two of the biggest, the Troubadour and the Roxy, during the mid-70s, when the music business was moving artistically and physically to California’s ostensibly peaceful, easy feeling; the singer-songwriters to Laurel Canyon, the golden gods and black-magic men of arena rock to the Chateau Marmont, the groupies to Hollywood Boulevard, and sidemen benevolent and parasitic to Hollywood proper. Labels like Asylum and Casablanca flourished, even Motown relocated to LA’s beaming, cruise-through sprawl. Soft rock abounded there but so, increasingly, did the hard drugs which had smoldered at the edge of the 1960s, and eventually scorched them. Long-haired, beautiful, and connected to all manner of influence, Sean blossomed naturally in LA, lived high and fast, and barely escaped that city of angels alive.]. He’d married a woman from there and had a business set up so it wasn’t an angry gesture, but it felt like he had exiled himself a bit all the same. Maybe I wanted the weeping Buddha to express in some way, so obvious in his crestfallen posture that it might seem implausible to infer my grief directly, how much I was going to miss him.

I felt I owed Rich, certainly—he had paid to send me back to the land of our forebears right after I graduated college, and I had tooled around Ireland for a month on his dime—but I was also dismayed at the logistics which seeing him would now entail. The Buddha, a bigger one than the one I brought in today, held an esteemed spot in his Japanese-themed home by the ocean. When I returned from Ireland, my father had one of the photographs I had taken there framed, and sent it to Rich; the seaside cliffs of our family’s home county, Donegal, so much like the ones at his new home in northern California, and similarly distant.

I had been on the lookout in a casual way for another Buddha for years but hadn’t found one. I felt like they must be pretty magical somehow, possibly unique, or even imaginary.

Then many years later, in the summer of 2009, I left Brooklyn and came here to Glasgow. On one of my first weekends here my partner and I discovered my favorite place in the city; the Barras market. I have never been to any place like it before or since.

The Barras is located—and I am speaking out of turn here, so Glaswegians I invite you to set me straight on these assertions—in the Irish Catholic-affiliated section of Glasgow’s east end, a community proudly and quite outwardly Hibernian in its character, emblems, and sympathies. It’s not exactly a community of exiles, but one that clearly takes inspiration from Ireland and claims it as heartland and touchstone, while living in a place which they feel has not always been welcoming to them.

In a mind-bogglingly unfortunate confluence of irrational enthusiasms, Glasgow’s internal football rivalry, between the Celtic Football Club and their rivals Rangers FC, incorporates both nationality and religion into its matrix of partisan passions. Celtic, in their green-and-white striped, shamrock-emblazoned uniforms, are forthrightly aligned with the team’s Irish (and by extension Catholic) heritage and constituency. They play Rangers, staunchly aligned with native Scots and the Protestant faith, whose red-and-blue uniforms echo the Union Jack, three or four times a year. That supporters from both sides live in the same city creates a perfect storm of internecine tension and occasional violence.

The neighborhood around the Barras is, of course, a bastion of Celtic fanaticism, home to bars named Timland (“Tim” being a mock-pejorative term for Celtic supporter—ths would be like naming your bar the Cheesehead Lounge), or for the last year Celtic took the Scottish Premier League Cup—that one being Bar ‘67. The Celtic and Rangers football teams themselves were formed in the 1800s. But the fact that Rangers supporters still proudly invoke William of Orange on their football scarves speaks to the conflict’s bafflingly deep roots. After all, the last time the issues nominally at issue really qualified as anything to get beaten up over was in the 16th century.

And while the far-flung Irish at the Barras were technically my brethren and sistren (despite my being mixed, but who isn’t?), and despite the somewhat ragged, lived-in character of the place, I don’t quite feel at home at the Barras. The market is a vital, bustling place but not an overtly warm one. Indeed, the Barras felt deeply wary, as if awaiting a blow from some hovering authority (with the amount of contraband and pirated material available there, I can imagine that this is a reasonably accurate perception).

But I’m from just outside Boston—“Greater Boston” we like to call it—where the Irish came as low-caste refugees and worked their way into the establishment, and then rioted when the Federal courts ordered their neighborhood public schools integrated with African-American and Caribbean children. As a salutary son of a town whose basketball team calls itself the Celtics, that clannish closed-ness feels acridly Irish to me. A different village within a different city, but there too exiles don’t loosen hard-won handholds gladly, and memories can be as short as they are very, very long.

Bizarrely, in the Barras I found this weeping Buddha on a table set with other carved wooden figures, mostly animals—giraffes and lions as I recall, not the kind of thing I’d yet seen elsewhere in town. The stall was overseen by a Black woman, and I also hadn’t seen many Black folk here yet either. After 18 years in New York City, seeing people of color around now makes me miss home (that is, Brooklyn, the home I adopted after leaving my hometown home, and before adopting Glasgow), so I stopped to look.

All of her wares looked like the most hackneyed, ersatz “African” stuff I’d seen for sale in market stalls in every major city I’ve been to, and for some reason—because the mass-market aesthetic intended to convey “African” seems to have come to also mean “crude” in manufacture, “natural” in materials, literal in subject matter and depiction, and handmade?—these weeping Buddhas were included in her wares. The woman’s look was partly approximate-African and partly not-all-there, and despite clearly being her last sale of the day she didn’t suffer me a smile when telling me the price; £1.

She was another exile perhaps, or just long-day weary, and I thought maybe I could understand. So I bought this thing. I’d decided to take a weeping Buddha—if that’s what the thing is really, properly called in whatever place they originated—where I could find it.

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About Mienda

Somerville, Brooklyn/Manhattan, Chicago, Glasgow, Cambridge, Philadelphia, here right now.
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