All Hail the Guilty Pleasures: On Ali Liebegott’s “Rooms and Other Feelings”
By Michelle TeaJanuary 13, 2023
My trans husband does this too — no shirt, a pair of underwear snug on his butt, tattoos akimbo, a candy bar in one hand as his other pulls up a true-crime show on Investigation Discovery. I costume my own queer leisure time in vintage nighties too sheer to wear around company, and with my own candy bar I join my partner before a screen that flashes with the real-life horrors some humans inflict upon others. There is an overall true-crime zeitgeist among us, and maybe queers aren’t any different — maybe this is just a human condition issue — but so many queers I know are especially obsessed with the genre. Do we have sympathy for these devils, knowing that we’re all monsters too?
For dykes, it could be something else — confirmation of the evil of cis men and the diabolical heart of so many straight marriages. But for Liebegott, a student of the absurd whose eye lends an almost forensic scope to the humor and poignancy of any scene, it’s laced with a grim humor, a dark-sided camp, born of the world-weary psyche of middle-aged queers who came of age back when everyone hated us. A Dateline episode can hit the same register as any John Waters film, or any of the over-the-top slasher flicks of the 1970s and ’80s, where the amount of blood just makes you guffaw. It’s not the proper way to consume these stories; we’ve been made to atone for our prurient fascination with a cloying devotion to “the lives of the victims” that can seem like so much self-laudatory bullshit (see Ryan Murphy’s 2022 Netflix series Dahmer). We’re not supposed to want to tune into humanity’s worst moments with a gaze of outraged glee. But what can I say? Ever since we knew we were queer, we knew we were in danger. Observing the “normie” world for proof of all its disgusting, abject, hateful, criminal ways is a paradoxical means of self-soothing. We know we’re not monsters, so it must be you, and oh! Look, it’s true! Liebegott’s Dateline is more than just a portrait of repose: it’s a deep queer release.
Rooms have feeling, vibes, energy, we know this; we get triggered by the fluorescent lighting in a dental office, and we buy bundles of herbs to smoke our bedrooms into softer moods. We collaborate with the rooms we move in and out of, toting our own moods, the ones that pass through and the ones that are here to stay, and through these gels the spaces of our lives are colored. Rooms are ordinary, and Liebegott has always had a love of the deeply mundane. I can’t pretend I don’t know her, that I haven’t traveled with her extensively across the United States, that I haven’t made a joke of her constant rejection of finer, trendier, healthier dining options in favor of what I call “a solid three-star diner.” It’s beyond actual taste buds; it’s a solidarity with “dumpiness” and the ordinary folks who navigate through it. Beyond that, it’s an identity with loserdom, which is a special province of queer art and thinking (see Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure from 2011 and Eileen Myles’s 2022 anthology Pathetic Literature).
When Liebegott and I both lived in San Francisco, we had a special food spot designated for celebrating our failures — grants that we didn’t get, grants that someone we felt inferior did get, opportunities that disappeared or went awry. That place was called Pete’s Bar-B-Que, and it still occupies its corner of Mission Street, the windows layered with epic grease from the spectacle of rotisserie chicken in its spinning, dripping public display. We were those chickens, weren’t we? The spectacle of our lives and ambitions as queer artists, seeking approval and getting rejections, meant feeling, to some extent, like a greasy chicken either way, for the manner in which “making it” forces you to get eaten. I loved our failure dinners at Pete’s, and the soft little rolls they would give you with foil-wrapped pats of butter, and the damp warmth that would settle into our clothes from the food we would take home with us in to-go bags.
It’s risky to want things. It can be a good strategy to have humble wants, to fetishize the unassuming, to celebrate it. Liebegott’s Bacon and Eggs (2021) has plain and simple vibes — the speckled, faux-marble tabletop, the meat and potatoes and eggs and toast, a fat bottle of ketchup, a bottle of tabasco; all that’s missing is a crappy cup of joe. There’s more food in Liebegott’s work — Fruit Salad (2021) and a series of shrimp cocktails feel ominous, foreshadowing food poisoning; Renaissance Cranberry (2021) summons an antique gleam to a wobbly plate of canned cranberry sauce. There are entire rooms dedicated to food in Entenmann’s Factory Outlet (2022) and Machos Tacos (2022). This food is most certainly not good for you, but Liebegott is a devotee of such pleasures, coming of age in a time when queerness itself was deemed toxic. All hail the guilty pleasures.
There are meals with friends, where any grimness becomes lightened by the pleasures of community and affection. Tricia Got Her Nails Done (2021) features a friendly-looking someone, presumably Tricia, sucking a beverage from one of those red plastic cups you get in the classic sort of pizza joint that sports red-checkered tablecloths, as this one does. There are Tricia’s acrylics, her NY baseball cap and Hawaiian shirt, a whole pizza before her, and nothing else but the steamy, luscious sustenance of queer kiking over a cheese slice. Liebegott distrusts, deeply, promises of something newer, better, healthier, as if it’s not the same old greasy spoon we’ve always eaten at, only behind a fresher, shinier façade. She would not join me for a Scotch egg at Craftsman and Wolves, the hipster bakery on Valencia Street, which had once been for dykes before tech bros and the overall passage of time fucked everything up. She will stick with bacon and eggs, thank you very much. Bacon and eggs don’t discriminate. You know what you’re getting. They’re time-proven. They didn’t get anyone evicted (though I can’t forget the bacon and eggs of Compton’s Cafeteria, the Tenderloin diner of yore where trans women rioted in 1966, and knowing her concerns and loyalties, Liebegott’s Bacon and Eggs could in fact be a radical plate of breakfast, the eater of which has run outside to smash the window of a cop car). Not to get too-too, but Bacon and Eggs hits me like an altar offering of food to the ancestors, both queer and working-class — like a common denominator, a site of coming together, something we can all agree upon.
Don’t let me leave without talking about animals. There’s a joke about lesbians and their cats, dykes and their dogs, females and their animal hoarding, and it’s funny ’cause it’s true. Being queer can be depressing, and animals bring dopamine. Liebegott has rescued multiple animals, from Mexico as well as within the United States, bringing them over on airplanes or scooping them up from a neighborhood shelter. We meet a little dog named Sammy (2021), asleep on a lone tube sock; a gorgeous orange cat named Swanny (2022), who also seems to be Self-Quarantining (2020); and deep gray feline glaring from a lap in Emily and Lionel (2022).
I like All the Pet Ashes (2022) best. It’s a chill domestic scene with a vibe of dreams-do-come-true and hard work paying off. After toiling in obscurity and clocking in for years at a grocery store, Liebegott was plucked from wage slavery into the writers’ room for a red-hot streaming show. She landed in Hollywood and has since stayed there. It’s a grind of its own, to be sure, rife with blisters and wounds unique to the industry, but she’s in a totally different material bracket than the days she wrote about in her debut novel, The Beautifully Worthless, where the narrator hides her waitressing tips in a hole she punched into the wall of her Tenderloin apartment. All the Pet Ashes foregrounds a wide white sofa, empty, waiting for your ass, decorative throw pillows nestled in the corners. A mid-century modern side table hoists a charming mid-century lamp, and in the background, just off into another room … is that a fireplace I see, a fucking hearth? Another sofa, a cozy throw blanket, a cute little rug? Look closer. The HGTV vibes are shattered not only by Liebegott’s style (the self-taught aesthetic she flaunts never lets such a bougie scene fully lift off) but also by the bookshelf to the right and its brown and white blocks that almost look like little hunks of cake. These are the ashes of dozens of dead pets, and yes, there are some books on the bottom shelf, but let’s just call it a pet cemetery.
Liebegott, I happen to know, has some dead pets hanging about her home, but not this many. Why the exaggeration? People often turn to fiction to get more neatly, or powerfully, at a truth that eludes memoir. Think of people who lie about being hate-crimed. A lifetime of daily microaggressions will never sound as big an alarm as it should. PTSD is for the big events, getting kicked in the face or raped or shat upon, and you’re meant to move on. But what if a lifetime of wading through the shitty muck of this world, and internalizing it, needs to be aggrandized so that a person can finally get some justice around here? Whatever that is. Liebegott may have only lost a few of the animals that she drew into her work, sustained by their purity and the dopamine they brought her, but it feels like she lost a lot more. It feels like she’s hoarded a lot more, that the fine line between rescuing and compulsively acquiring animals, between pets and mental illness, is real, and it weighs on her, emerging in her humor and in her art.
Most important, a dyke can — if they are lucky and talented and hard-working, if they stay humble and never forget their roots — maybe crawl out of the low-income landscape of decreased expectations and opportunities, the queer scenery of three-star diners and Tenderloin apartments and furniture scavenged from the streets. They can find themselves as baffled as David Byrne having a meltdown in “Once in a Lifetime” (“This is not my beautiful house!”) — adrift in the feeling of such a new place, safe and stable, abundant and beautiful, but haunted, always, by the unpredictability of our habits and tendencies, our traumas and histories, and a growing sense that this whole, vast room we call life is really a foyer of something even weirder, sadder, infinitely more absurd.
Michelle Tea is an American author, poet, and literary arts organizer. Knocking Myself Up is her latest memoir.
Featured image: Ali Liebegott. Machos Tacos, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and OCHI.
Michelle Tea is the author of over a dozen books, including the cult classic Valencia, the essay collection Against Memoir, and the speculative memoir Black Wave. She is the recipient of awards from the Guggenheim, Lambda Literary, Rona Jaffe Foundation, PEN/America, and other institutions. She is the co-founder of a literary arts nonprofit organization, RADAR, and co-creator of Sister Spit, the former lesbian-feminist spoken-word collective based in San Francisco. Knocking Myself Up is her latest memoir.
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