Midwest Midnight Checkout Queen

A little after 8 on a Wednesday morning. My teeth hurt from a night spent clenching them. My body hasn’t yet registered that it’s well-rested. This black tea with cream and sugar tastes oddly of nori.

In a back-issue of the New Yorker, in the “Talk of the Town” section, in a short piece about the wigs of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” on Broadway, a fragment that disrupts my cozy morning and brings a painful spasm of inspiration: “Midwest Midnight Checkout Queen.” It’s the descriptive moniker of one of the wigs in the show, and its evocative power stops me dead.

Why?

I read with envious hunger, glimpsing in everything from editorials in the Economist to the fiction of Alice Munro the ways in which I have failed to live up to the promise of my youth. I have not made my mark in a particular academic discipline or artistic field. I have not published anything of note. Each day I feel this incredible tension, between the pleasurable absorption in everyday tasks that also feels like laziness, and my longing for the kind of recognizable achievement that takes work and discipline.

Midwest Midnight Checkout Queen exists outside of this tension. Her being stirs up an inchoate yearning, parallel to, and in some cases at odds with, the other longing.

Midwest: real America, bland and cheerful, expansive fields and unspeakable winters.

Midnight: solitude, the eerie confluence of waking and dreaming.

Checkout: sickly fluorescent light, tabloid covers’ aggressive banality.

Queen: haughty pride, beauty both a product of her milieu and a rejection of it.

Of course, the heart of “Hedwig” is this particular strain of pathos: the desire to rise above ordinariness and obscurity to become someone else, anyone else. The transcendence represented by Hedwig’s shape-shifting obviates the mundane and makes the Midwest Midnight Checkout Queen a symbol of the authentic self’s triumph over daily struggle.

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