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Photograph by Eric "ug" Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

Tautologist Hires Cat Photog

By Eric "ug" Carlson


"I need a temporary dog
For a temporary job
On a temporary place
Like Earth!"
Cordwainer Smith

UNDERBELLY is defined in The American Heritage Dictionary as "the vulnerable or weak part of something." More often than not, underbelly is interesting and beautiful, as exemplified by the town of Alviso. But it can be grotesque and frightening, such as the Quetzalcoatl statue in San Jose or Dave Hickey's Chevrolet Cavalier. My initial foray into Bay Area underbelly took place in Palo Alto in November 1987, when I was hired by Dr. James Barrett III, a tautologist, to take studio photographs of his cat, Marmoset. James told me that the cat was not named after a monkey but after the Roman Emperor Claudius, whose nickname was Marmoset. As payment for the photos of the cat not named after a monkey, Dr. James gave me a tour he dubbed "The Underbelly Tour of Palo Alto."

I can understand a man who puts a lot of thought into his cat. The final lines of Cordwainer Smith's story "The Game of Rat and Dragon" shed light on the subject: "'She is a cat,' he thought. 'That's all she is--a cat!' But that was not how his mind saw her--quick beyond all dreams of speed, sharp, clever, unbelievably graceful, beautiful, wordless and undemanding. Where would he ever find a woman who could compare with her?"

Once upon a time, Palo Alto had real underbelly. In 1987, James led me to alleys full of the most amazing graffiti, obviously the work of highly talented misfits and miscreants. Those canvases are long gone. Today, there is a handsome owl painted on a brick wall on Homer Avenue, and of course, the tarted-up train cars of the Southern Pacific Railroad paralleling Alma Avenue--a moveable feast in spray paint. Palo Alto is a bustling college community, with the requisite coffee shops and the inestimable Stanford Theater on University Avenue, which was playing Casablanca last I looked.

Sadly, the world's ugliest statue is missing from the lawn in front of the Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University. Willem de Kooning's Standing Figure, which was on loan, has been returned. This statue was so butt ugly that birds dropped dead out of the sky when flying over. A plaque at the base of the statue proclaimed, "Stanford is fortunate to have bronze editions of all three sizes of Standing Figure." I called Cantor Center to find out where the grotesquerie had been scuttled, but none of the nine phone-tree options directed me to a human. Perhaps it was melted down for the war effort. Search for this wretched abomination on Google, and you will see I am not blowing smoke. This statue was cutting-edge underbelly. Quetzalcoatl and Benny Bufano's Universal Child in Santa Clara must now take up the slack.

In 1997, I applied the name "underbelly" to a gadfly website, Soft Underbelly of San Jose--a going concern, and in 2000 applied the name to this column, when an offer was made by mercurial Metro editor Dan Pulcrano. Credit for the name "underbelly," however, goes to Dr. James Barrett III and his Palo Alto tour. James now lives in San Jose with his significant other, Karin Nakamura--a real woman, not a cat. Not that Karin doesn't have all the good qualities of a perfect cat. Karin is a weekend DJ for Classic Rock 98.5 KFOX--Saturdays, 5-10am, and Sundays 6-9pm. A word to the wise: If Karin smiles and suggests a game of chess, puff up to look bigger than you are, and back away slowly. Try not to show fear.

Poking around looking for underbelly can be perilous. I have been attacked by dogs in Alviso, bitten by yellow jackets in Almaden, broken a crystal glass at the Sainte Claire Club in San Jose, been gnawed on by a malamute in Los Angeles, snarled at by denizens of the Coyote Inn--when it was a gringo concern--and berated by an old man in the Gaslight Theatre in Campbell. I have offended the town of Bolinas for revealing its whereabouts to others. (Bolinas is the only town with court permission to remove signs leading to it--to shoo away tourists.) And then there is Frisco, which is easily annoyed.


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From the January 29-February 4, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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