In the fourteenth part of Soul Music, Death finds friends, and Susan tries to be a friend again. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of homelessness.
I definitely have complicated take on Pratchett’s depiction of the homeless/beggars in Ankh-Morpork because, on the one hand, he’s right on the nose. They are often the most hypervisible people and the most invisible people in a city. When someone is eager to decry their existence, we get shit like this, which coincidentally popped up on my Facebook feed right after I read this chapter. Fitting, no? And this is how many people speak of the homeless, even if they’re “trying” to do something good to benefit them. Trust me, I’ve heard some shit over the years, especially when jerks think that you’ll actually agree with them.
Story time: years ago, when I still lived in the Bay, I was on my way to the gym with my partner. It was early in the morning, just after 5am, and we’d picked up a friend on our way there. (Not long after this incident and another jaw-dropping moment of clueless bigotry, we stopped socializing with him.) I never liked this guy because he was the epitome of a self-centered white gay man. Nothing political in the world mattered to him unless it was homophobia against white men. Then? It was the worst crime imaginable. On this particular morning, we were driving down a street that sat below the 101 freeway. Unsurprisingly, this is where a great deal of homeless people had set up tents, since it blocked them from any possible rainfall, which was still common at the time before the massive draught hit California.
In the middle of a conversation I was having with my ex, he interrupted to whine about how there were too many homeless people around these days. He said – I kid you not – that “the city should just light them all on fire and get rid of them.”
There was a deafening silence after he said this. I was busy trying to parse whether or not to even begin addressing it. My ex knew that I’d been homeless twice, so he diplomatically spoke up first, saying that this sounded like an extreme solution to a problem that didn’t affect this guy all that much. “Well, I have to see them every day,” he said, “so that counts.” He kept digging his hole, telling us how they were all worthless, how no self-respecting person would ever let themselves be homeless, and you know, I don’t even need to continue quoting him or reference him. You get the point. He couldn’t fathom the multitude of reasons why someone ends up being homeless. And while there are those people who do choose to be homeless, for most of us, it just happened to us. I certainly didn’t choose it.
I guess that’s one of the reasons I feel sensitive about this. Pratchett makes it seem like this is a profession, something these men “chose” to do because… it’s lucrative? Entertaining? I don’t know. And yet, he recognizes their invisibility! He understands that for most people, the homeless don’t exist as actual people. They’re background props to be ignored or walked around, as if they’re obstacles and nothing else. I think that’s commendable. And while addiction and mental illness are also a reality for the homeless, Pratchett doesn’t portray these quite nearly as respectfully. Instead, it comes across as quirkiness, you know? I see that in the way that Ron speaks, or the way that these men earned their names. It all goes back to that idea that at times, the text appears to be directing humor or scorn in the wrong direction. At times, I say, because I went from feeling uncomfortable to feeling vindicated when Death spoke of invisibility. It’s a powerful metaphor! So, the whole reason for the little story and the large block of text was to explain myself here. It’s not black and white for me, and I don’t own the narrative on homelessness either. I can only speak to my experience and hope to give some context, and through it all, WE CAN ENJOY PRATCHETT MORE.
Anyway, THERE’S MORE TO TALK ABOUT. Oh, so much to talk about! There’s start with touring, because I can discuss it ENDLESSLY. This is not the first time I’ve done so for this book’s reviews, nor is it a first for Mark Reads either. However, I have been to a one-horse town on tour, and let me tell you: IT IS A DANGEROUS PLACE FOR PEOPLE LIKE ME. Now, I’m certainly the kind of person who adores traveling because I saw so little of the world when I was younger. I don’t just mean that we took few vacations outside of some to Hawaii and a trip to Arizona/Mexico once. I grew up sheltered, so I longed to explore. I keep an open mind when I travel, and I find myself entertained and satisfied by subtlety and simplicity. While I crave the excitement and grandeur of large cities, I can also find solace in tiny roadside attractions, or in villages and townships, or in niche museums that don’t even get a thousand visitors a year.
Unfortunately, being ambiguously brown and fairly easily-identified as gay, that doesn’t always bode well for me. There’s a stereotype that the South and the Midwest are hostile to folks like me, and I’m happy to report that most of the time, I have a lovely time in these parts of the United States. Hell, I adore traveling to the South! So much history and SO MUCH DELICIOUS FOOD. But one of the strangest experiences of my life was smack in the middle of the midwest, and the band’s experience in the one-horse town reminded me of a very similar experience.
This was nearly seven years ago (to the day!) while I was on tour with Thursday for the Taste of Chaos tour. The bands had a day off between Denver and Milwaukee, so the trip was split up with a stop in Omaha, Nebraska. However, I remember a stop along the way at some place in Nebraska where I got off the bus, desperate to find some food. I was a vegan at the time, so this was much more challenging than I had expected. I’d been touring as a vegan for years, but not in that part of the country.
I walked into a convenience store attached to a gas station, hoping they had a Subway or some sort of restaurant where I could wheedle something vegan out of some underpaid cook or cashier. Unfortunately, there were only roadtrip snacks in sight, so I wandered back up to the counter and pointed to a pile of soon-to-be-ripe bananas behind the clerk, asking if I could have one.
He was in his mid-forties, white, balding, and in many ways, a spitting image of the stereotype of Midwestern America. He looked me up and down while chewing gum before drawling out, “You not from here, are you?”
“Ah, no,” I replied. “I’m not.”
He tsked me, then looked back at the bananas, then looked to me. “We don’t get too many banana eaters here,” he said slowly.
I couldn’t tell if this was an insult about my desire to eat fresh food or some weird homophobic guilt trip, so I just left without buying anything. NOT TAKING ANY CHANCES, MY FRIEND.
I’d say that for the most part, I’ve had some pleasant times traveling. Alabama is a little terrifying. I did not have a good time interacting with the general populace of the Scandinavian/Nordic countries. But I love touring so much, and it thrills me to get to talk about it in the context of Soul Music. I know it may not have been intended as such, but I thought it was really cool to get that scene where the band was exhilarated from their performance to the local townspeople. Granted, it has a much different context here, since the Music flowed through these characters and left them nearly impossible to stay upright or coherent. But hey, even in a non-malicious sense, that’s what music can do for you.
However, the Music in Soul Music is alive and terrifying, and Susan is still doing her best to stop it. And to her credit, she saves Buddy’s life AGAIN, only to have him refuse to stop playing AGAIN. I wonder if he’s simply too far gone. Is the Music not allowing himself a critical look at what he’s doing? I can believe that; if Music is alive, then it probably has a sense of self-preservation, which is most likely working through Buddy. Yet Buddy can’t keep going like this. He’s becoming… I don’t know. A shell of a human? It’s undeniable that he’s changed a great deal since we were first introduced to him, but he’s still unaware of that except in some detached, general sense. What cost is he ultimately going to have to pay? His life, right??? There’s no out for him other than death because that’s what was supposed to happen the first time. And this time. And the universe seems like it’s trying to course-correct and send him packing, but the Music?
Well, it has other ideas for Buddy. WHAT ARE THEY???
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