99 Problems

Published on October 19th, 2017 | by Gayle Brandeis


WHAT TIME IS IT: When a Feminist Shakes it for Morris Day

I thought I was hallucinating.

A couple of days before, I had been sitting next to my six year old son’s hospital bed, worried out of my mind. Now I was on stage “twerking” for Morris Day.

I almost didn’t go to this concert. Asher had only been home from the hospital for a day, and couldn’t hold his head upright because of severe swelling in his neck caused by peritonsillar abscess; his sweet face was constantly cocked to one side like he was trying to hear something far away. He had managed to avoid surgery, but we were concerned we might have to rush him back to the hospital again if the antibiotics stopped working (and rushing to the hospital would likely involve a twisty hour long drive down the mountain; we have a small hospital in our little North Lake Tahoe town, but the doctors in the ER there had him sent down the hill by ambulance to a hospital with more extensive facilities.) Michael said he’d stay home with our boy; he encouraged me to invite a friend to use his ticket and join the couple we were going to double date with as planned.

I was a bit slap happy when my friends and I arrived at the casino in South Lake Tahoe; I had slept maybe two hours the entire week and was definitely feeling it. In the hospital, the doctors were concerned the swelling might constrict Asher’s airway, so a nurse had hooked him up to a machine that monitored his blood oxygen level; she told me she couldn’t read the machine remotely, so I was to push the call button if the alarm came on. I didn’t want to sleep through any red lights, so I didn’t sleep at all. I felt like I was floating as my friend June and I found our seats in the large theater while our friends Leta and Dmitri found theirs a bit closer to the stage.

The concert began with a vintage video montage of Morris Day and the Time, including a lot of footage from Purple Rain, where Day played Prince’s arch enemy. That movie is how I came to know and love Morris Day’s music. I’m a rabid Prince fan—it was through Prince’s music that I first connected to my own sexuality, letting my hips move to his raunchy groove. My friends and I had a fantasy that Prince would join The Time on stage—we couldn’t have imagined then that three months later, Prince would be gone—but even without His Purpleness swooping in, we were enthralled as soon as an announcer shouted “What time is it?” and the band took their places.

Prince constantly reinvented himself and his music, but Morris Day is still doing his same shtick from the 80s—he still has “Jerome” (now a guy named Thomas) bring a large mirror onto the stage so he can check himself out, still wears the same self-proclaimed “pimp jacket”, still plays all the same songs, but that’s what we wanted from him. Some artists don’t need to be visionaries; they find their groove and stick with it, and it works. Morris’ groove certainly worked for me that night. I was dancing like a maniac to “Fishnet”—well, as much as a maniac can dance in the small space between tables—when a man in a suit came up and asked if I wanted to “come on stage with some ladies” later in the show. I laughed, amused to think of myself as a “lady,” and said “Sure.”

A few songs later, the guy in the suit started to herd together the dozen or so “ladies” he had invited to the stage. I gave my friend June my phone so she could take pictures and joined the line. I was definitely the oldest of the bunch, in my late 40s, which made me feel both self-conscious and flattered. One very young looking woman in an ivory satin dress and rhinestone headband told us she had just gotten married. We were led backstage, then ushered toward the bright lights. The woman in front of me strutted out, spinning and lifting her hands into the air. I tried to mimic her confidence as I sashayed after her. When I looked behind me, I was happy to see my friend Leta stepping onto the stage. I waved at her, giddy, eyebrows raised to say Can you believe this?!

Morris Day warned us we were going to get nasty. I was game. How nasty could we get on stage? He asked for one volunteer who was willing to get “real nasty. I mean, real nasty,” he emphasized. Okay, maybe I wasn’t quite that game. A young woman with red hair and pale skin stepped up.

“Look into my eyes,” he commanded, and she did. Her eyes, all lit up, seemed to radiate pure love toward him.

“You got that part down,” he chuckled, seemingly unnerved by the adoration she was pouring toward him.

“Now this is what I’m going to give you,” he said, and she looked at him expectantly. “I’m going to give you, I’m going to give you, I’m going to give you….over to my guitar player!” He took her arm and pulled her toward his guitar player, then said to the audience “Don’t ever say I’m not generous with my band.”

I was aghast. How dare he treat this woman who revered him like an object to be passed around?! I’m not entirely sure how I reacted. I probably gave him some serious side-eye. I may have laughed uncomfortably. But I didn’t storm off the stage in protest. I stayed there, moving my hips to the background beat. It’s wild how much we as women put up with, how much we tend to brush off (and when I say we, of course I mean myself. How many times have I, a steadfast feminist, let guys get away with bad behavior? More times than I’d like to admit. The recent flood of women speaking out about their own experiences with harassment and assault makes me hopeful more women will speak out in the future.)

When Asher was in the hospital, Michael couldn’t take much time off work, so there were times I was the only parent in the room. One med student spoke to me as if I was a child, asking “Do you understand?” in a condescending tone at the end of almost every sentence; he would act surprised if I ever had questions of my own. He didn’t know anything about me other than the fact that I was Asher’s mom, and apparently, “Mom” equaled ignorant to him, equaled incurious, uneducated, emotional. When Michael was in the room, the same med student acted as if I wasn’t there; he spoke directly to Michael, respectfully, without ever questioning his ability to understand. It was shocking. I hadn’t experienced such overt sexism in a long time. I didn’t call him on it, though. It stunned me into silence. Plus, I tend to be averse to confrontation. Plus, I was so exhausted—I told myself I needed to save up my fight in case it was truly needed.

I suppose I should have expected Morris Day’s devaluation of women on stage—in his most famous song, he says he wants to lock a woman up in a cage—but it still felt like a slap. I kept dancing, anyway, and—once I got past the shock—smiling and truly having a fantastic time. I danced as “Jerome” paced back and forth across the stage, “like a eunuch at a harem” my friend Leta later joked, sizing us up and choosing women two at a time to go up and dance next to Morris. When we were instructed to turn and shake our booties for the audience, I had a blast, twerking and shimmying and tossing my head around. I danced out all the anxiety of the last few days, all the sleepless nights, all the fear. I wasn’t dancing for Morris anymore, if I ever had been. I was dancing for myself. It felt like a party and an exorcism all at once. I danced until Morris Day kicked us off the stage like we were garbage, and even then, I was giddy.

Backstage, the man in the suit asked if any of us wanted to go back on to do “The Bird.” A handful of men from the audience were waiting in the wings to do the iconic dance, too. I was so tired, I could barely stand, so thirsty, I could barely breathe, but Leta and I looked at each other and nodded enthusiastically, amazed to find ourselves there.

A few days before, Asher had a bad reaction to an intravenous antibiotic and started transforming before our eyes. His face broke out into a rash and grew puffy, and, suddenly, he looked like a stranger. I could feel my sweet boy moving away from me; I could easily imagine him as a corpse, a body without life, and it shook me to the core. Life can change, can end, so quickly. To my immense relief, he was back home and getting healthy, and now, if I wasn’t actually hallucinating, I was standing backstage in a casino theater, about to dance again with an artist I had been grooving to for 30 years, an artist who may have been treating us as disposable on stage, but I knew we weren’t. I knew we were so much more.

I couldn’t help but think about my silences later, my ability to overlook. My silence with the med student. My staying on stage even when we were being disrespected. My not saying anything directly to Morris Day about his persona’s treatment of women when Leta was able to get us into the green room after the show (where he was actually very nice and respectful). As a feminist, I wondered, shouldn’t I be speaking up more, walking my talk? Is exhaustion enough of an excuse? Fear of confrontation? Simply getting swept into the moment? The women I tend to most admire are the women who wield their voices fiercely, who don’t ever hesitate to speak truth to power. On my 30th birthday, I passed out name tags and asked everyone to write who they wanted to be: I wrote “Loud Bossy Chick.” Since then, I’d definitely gotten louder, maybe even a bit bossier, but my default is still quiet and shy; I told myself maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s okay sometimes to give myself time to process and speak up in the way that’s always been most comfortable for me: on the page. I could write a letter to the hospital to raise my concern about the med student’s behavior. I could write this essay to let Morris Day know that even if he wants to keep his act rooted in the 80s, it’s beyond time for his on-stage attitude toward women to evolve (and I wouldn’t have to stop there—so much music is so steeped in misogyny; if I wanted to, I could write letters daily and still not reach every sexist artist.)

My letter writing energy is focused elsewhere now, though. I had no idea when I was on stage with Morris Day that later in the year, we’d elect a man who bragged about grabbing women’s pussies, a man who would sign orders to take away women’s healthcare. I had no idea I would become a much bossier, louder chick than I had ever imagined possible, calling my reps nearly every day, doing whatever I could to speak up. Shocked out of shyness into more and more vocal action. But I wasn’t there, not quite yet.

For the time being, I was waiting in the wings, ready to do “The Bird.” I still felt like I might be dreaming, like I might have nodded off in the chair next to my son’s hospital bed and conjured up this whole wild scenario, but my friend June would later provide photographic evidence to the contrary. Dream or no, exhaustion or no, I was going to dance my middle aged ass off again. If Morris Day tried to turn us into objects, I would dig deep into my own body and have the most subjectively satisfying experience possible. A different form of protest. One of the guys in line gave everyone a quick tutorial on flapping our arms and shuffling our feet, and, hooting, we flew onto the stage.

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About the Author

Gayle Brandeis grew up in the Chicago area and has been writing poems and stories since she was four years old. She is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), Dictionary Poems (Pudding House Publications), the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine) and Delta Girls (Ballantine), and her first novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns (Holt), which won a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. She released The Book of Live Wires, the sequel to The Book of Dead Birds, as an e-book in 2011. 2017 brings the release of two new books: in June, a collection of poetry, The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Press) and in November, a memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press.)

Winner of several other awards for writing, Gayle currently teaches in the low residency MFA programs at Antioch University Los Angeles and Sierra Nevada College, where she was named Distinguished Visiting Professor/Writer in Residence 2014-2015. She served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012-2014, acting as literary ambassador to and for the Inland Empire region of Southern California. During her tenure, she worked extensively with the community, including at-risk youth, and edited the anthology ORANGELANDIA: The Literature of Inland Citrus. Gayle is currently editor in chief of Tiferet Journal and founding editor of Lady/Liberty/Lit. She is also mom to kids born in 1990, 1993 and 2009.

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