Talk Hole: The Karen Kolumn

By and
Photography Julia Burlingham

Published July 10, 2020

Talk Hole is the bi-weekly spoken column of New York’s alt-comedy darlings Eric Schwartau and Steven Phillips-Horst, offering their oracular powers of cultural analysis on all corners of the zeitgeist (high, low, top, bottom). From the admittedly cancelable location of a parental vacation home in Nantucket, Schwartau and P-H (as Steven is lovingly referred) prove talk is chic and drop references to hot trends, hotter temperatures, and scalding political debates. This time around, Talk Hole discusses the viability of a Karen Homeland Security department, the fallen era of China Chalet’s skater-smokers, and their newfound stanship of Tammy Duckworth. 

———

ERIC SCHWARTAU: Wow. It took, like, an hour to get this call up and running.

STEVEN P-H: In many ways, it’s taken a month to get this call up and running. 

SCHWARTAU: What’s a month in the grand scheme of things? Patience is a virtue.

P-H: Patience is a virtue, and it’s not something you can merely signal.  

SCHWARTAU: Well, we used to be able to show impatience by standing really close to someone in line. Those days are over.

P-H: It is a little bit harder behind a mask to show how annoyed you are with someone else.    

SCHWARTAU: I don’t know—body language, crossing arms. 

P-H: Well, okay. Are we Zooming from separate rooms at my parents’ vacation home? Yes.

SCHWARTAU: But we spent months in New York with the people.   

P-H: We didn’t run away. We got arrested. We got pepper sprayed by police, although it mostly just got on my arm. We got tested for corona. We got tested for antibodies. We did not sleep with anyone outside of our relationships. We got death threats from Hungarian bisexuals! You know, we’ve done every single thing that you’re supposed to do. So we’ve earned the right to get canceled.        

SCHWARTAU: I love the “we” here. If you go down, I go down. If you sleep with your partner, I’ve slept with your partner. We the People of this column.

P-H: It’s totally legitimate for you to say that you were arrested at the protests.

SCHWARTAU: Well, your altercation is our altercation. 

P-H: The biggest shift since our last column is that I read now. I’m slowly trying to wean myself off my brand of hating books.

SCHWARTAU: Structural change is possible! And it starts with reading. I’ve noticed reading has been key to a lot of white attempts to defeat structural racism. 

P-H: Yes, how could we forget that beautiful image of all the white people holding up their copies of White Fragility on Zoom?   

SCHWARTAU: Why was White Fragility canceled again? 

P-H: Well, A) it was written by a white person. But B), obviously White Fragility was going to rocket to the top of the bestsellers list because what white woman—including myself—doesn’t want to be fragile? Who doesn’t want to be a little Fabergé egg, teetering like Joan Didion after 3 cups of espresso, ready to shatter into a thousand pieces?     

SCHWARTAU: Yeah, it’s a little too close to home saying that white people are fragile. Like, be careful with them! 

P-H: We all have avian bone syndrome. Our bones are hollow.      

SCHWARTAU: Just having “white” in the title is a dog whistle to white people: “We hear you, and we see you.”

P-H: We’re listening and we’ll do better. So much saying, not a lot of doing!      

SCHWARTAU: Because ultimately, most White Fragility readers are trapped in a second home, and there’s not much to do there. 

P-H: I also think it’s because of—wait for it—social media, which is almost all text these days. We forget there is a world outside of language.         

SCHWARTAU: Which is why we went on vacation.          

P-H: As Dua Lipa once said, “Let’s get physical.”    

SCHWARTAU: That song feels like it came out 100 years ago.

P-H:  Speaking of, Chromatica. Thank you, god.

SCHWARTAU: Chromatica has really been through it. It came out at possibly the worst time—well, maybe it was also a good time?—for a dance album. Watching gays list their favorite tracks next to tweets about black people being murdered by police. 

P-H: The cognitive dissonance of media is intense. I’m sure someone could write about that. 

SCHWARTAU: Absolutely. Call your editors.       

P-H: I think Chromatica was lucky because it was really good. If it had been more like Dua Lipa’s album, I don’t know if it would have survived.       

SCHWARTAU: Lady Gaga is an institution that we hold dear. Dua Lipa’s budget was slashed. She’s down to Una Lipa.

P-H: We are writing open letters in support of Chromatica. What’s your favorite track? 

SCHWARTAU: I like the transitional instrumentals—”Chromatica I,” “II,” and “III.”

P-H: Speaking of transitions, who should Biden pick as his running mate? 

SCHWARTAU: Can we talk about your mom wanting Tammy Duckworth, or do we not want to bring family into this?     

P-H: We can.       

SCHWARTAU: She kind of got us excited about Tammy.     

P-H: I got excited about Tammy because I read a really long article about her and it brought me to tears—there’s me reading again! Her journey is just so beautiful: she always wanted her dad to be proud of her, but he was super stoic. Right before he died, they did reconnect. She had just lost her legs in Iraq, and she just got these new legs and he was like, I’m so proud of you and your legs look good.    

SCHWARTAU: This article—you’re talking about the one on arlingtoncemetery.net?   

P-H: It was very detailed and it may have been fanfiction. But either way, I’m sold. Because, as we know, there’s no such thing as truth anymore. The truth of that article was about a daughter wanting to be seen by her father. And I think that speaks to every American. Plus, did you know she’s like a grand order of the Dame in Thailand? That’s so fab.    

P-H:  Since we’re Tammy stans now, what should the Tammy Duckworth hive be called?

SCHWARTAU: The Mighty Ducks.   

P-H: I was thinking The Quack Pack. 

SCHWARTAU: What about The Tammy Tomahawks? Didn’t she crash a Tomahawk helicopter? 

P-H:  Yeah, it’s a little military fetishist vibes. But it begs the q: will there be a push to rename all the helicopters that are called like “the Apache” and “the Tomahawk”?

SCHWARTAU: The Angela Davis F-11 Raptor?       

P-H: The Black Lives Matter Stealth Bomber.

SCHWARTAU: They’ll put BLM on a plane you can’t even see. Well, not detectable on radar, at least.

P-H: Maybe it is invisible? Who knows what they’re cooking up over there at DARPA. 

SCHWARTAU: That’s why we should be cutting their budget.       

P-H: My fear about “Defund” as a rallying cry is that you can technically defund something while not getting rid of it. You could defund the police and just like pay the same amount of people half as much, which will probably make them even more bloodthirsty.  

SCHWARTAU: You know what people love in America? Refunds. Refund the Police. We want our money back and we’ve got the receipt. You can put it back on my Amazon Prime Visa Signature, thank you very much.      

P-H: That’s how you call in the Karens. 

SCHWARTAU: We’d like a refund please, Mr. Police! I just saw a Karen bike by. Where do your parents keep the gun?       

P-H: In the wine fridge. 

SCHWARTAU: I love bonding with your mom over the wine fridge.       

P-H: She completely suspends disbelief when she’s talking with you and acts like she’s in conversation with another 70-year-old homeowner. 

SCHWARTAU: I really do identify with your mother.  

P-H: You identify as one of the strong women in my life who is annoyed by me. 

SCHWARTAU: But supportive. 

P-H: I was followed recently by an account called Karens for Justice, and their bio was: “Reclaiming Karen, calling the manager on racism.” But it begs the question: Can you fight Karen with Karen? Ultimately, I think you can’t. Like, with the Tale of Two Coopers—Christian Cooper, the birder, his solution was more police in Central Park to make sure that Karens have their dogs on leashes.  

SCHWARTAU: So he was Karen-ing her by asking her to keep her dog on a leash? But he was not saying he was going to call the police—which I think is key to being Antika (Anti-Karen).                

P-H: I want to speak to the concept of “Karen strongholds”—a phrase my friend Sam concocted—which are these largely white enclaves packed with Karens, and they’re often liberal. In these enclaves, Karens are constantly at war with each other—over parking lot abatements, noise pollution, hedge height. My mom is currently out for the blood of a woman named Linda who’s trying to build a sea wall.     

SCHWARTAU: War rages within the gates of Karen.       

P-H: Karen warfare at all times.

SCHWARTAU: My mom just won a battle in her HOA against someone who had an above ground pool. If that person had just offered the above ground pool to everyone to use, I’m sure everything would have been fine. 

P-H: This is so true. You defeat Karen with the commons. But what are they going to do?       

SCHWARTAU: I don’t know, I need to follow up. Maybe they have to camouflage it. 

P-H: Or they can rename it. The Eric Schwartau LGBTQ Memorial Pool & Grill.

SCHWARTAU: I’m not dead yet.

P-H: What about a statue of me then?

SCHWARTAU: Tammy Duckworth also has a statue made of her. That’s so goals—to have your own statue.

P-H: Statues have been canceled in general. Same with Aunt Jemima. What about Mrs. Butterworth? Did she survive? 

SCHWARTAU: Her past is unclear. I don’t actually know if she’s white or Black.       

P-H: Well, the bottle is clear, so she’s the color of syrup. But while we’re still on the subject of Karen—       

SCHWARTAU: This Karen column…        

P-H:—a Kolumn with a K. I think our impulse to Karen is connected to racism and carceral capitalism. In this oppressive society, there’s an instinct to police everyone else’s behavior.   

SCHWARTAU: I’m currently ready to pounce on your every word.

P-H: Black people, gay people, young people, and especially young gay black people are the most targeted by Karens because they represent too much life for Karen’s idea of this by-the-book, white, straight propriety. So we really need less Karening at the local level, and I’m including police at the local level. However, we may need more Karening at the federal level. We have a government that has completely abdicated its responsibility to Karen, particularly with the virus.       

SCHWARTAU: What about a Department of Homeland Karen, and they’re unarmed?

P-H: Yes, and change Karen to Marianne.

SCHWARTAU: It’s like with the fireworks—instead of calling the police, people need to get to know their neighbors better, and just join in the fun. 

P-H: The pandemic has accelerated our inability to connect with our neighbors. Contactless delivery, contactless phoning the police, the Nextdoor app—it’s accelerated being a busybody yet being afraid of confrontation.

SCHWARTAU: Ultimately, it’s cowardly. If you’re having a party, you should be inviting your neighbor. I’m not calling out my own neighbor per se, but one time during late quar, he had maybe three or four people over. I was about to call in the National Guard, but I just, you know, took a deep breath and a shower and—  

P-H: —masturbated. 

SCHWARTAU: That’s how most sentences end in quarantine. Ultimately, Karen is mad she’s not invited.        

P-H: Exactly. Karen wants to be invited to the party and she’s left out.

SCHWARTAU: Oh my god. Speaking of parties, your parents are back.     

P-H: Fuck.   

SCHWARTAU: I’m terrified. They’re walking in. 

P-H: Let’s move on to the next topic. Bon Appétit. This feels like six years ago.    

SCHWARTAU: Quarantine cooking? That feels like decades ago. How insane, all the domestic labor that was going on!

P-H: Your mind is really on food today. 

SCHWARTAU: Food is really about community. It’s about bringing people together. Pizza is a circle divided equally and shared amongst friends or sometimes just the concept of friends. Do you ever think about that?

P-H: How food is shared? Yeah, it’s crossed my mind. Okay, next topic: activism.  

SCHWARTAU: When I was at the Trump protests back in 2016, all the stores were open. I just went to the Dollar Store and got so many poster making supplies. And now I feel like everyone’s signs are so much more scraggly. Just the back of an Amazon box with a little sharpie, which I think is more authentic. 

P-H: Boxes are very of the moment. I like your take. There was a lot of Chewy Dot Com boxes at the Queer Liberation March which I was at. For my first time going to a pride march in NYC in over a decade, it was incredible to see that there was no Google float. There was no Just Salad float. It was, as you say, scraggly.

SCHWARTAU: Actually, that march has existed as an antidote to corporate Pride for a while now. But yes, there was no corporate parade this year.  

P-H: But it used to pale in comparison to the corporate parade. I think it was quite a shift. The Chelsea circuit gays were there but they were hanging back—the stars of the show were black and trans, arty, dangly earring, tenderqueer Bushnik techno gays.  

SCHWARTAU: Did you just say Bushnik?         

P-H: Yes.       

SCHWARTAU: Bushnik is the new beatnik. This is the Pride us Bushniks have all been asking for.

P-H: I think there’s been a broader tension since the start of the protests between what I would classify as actually revolutionary activity—like looting, the burning of Wendy’s, calls to abolish police and this widespread and brave resistance to state violence—and shall we say, non-revolutionary activity, like Nike putting a black square on their Instagram. But the fact that The New Museum and Urban Outfitters boarded up their windows means they’re scared, and that’s good. There’s also something quite hopeful in you might call the Berlinification of New York—you have drinking in the streets, you have smoking weed in the street, you have fireworks going off everywhere, you have a slightly more 1960s vibe.       

SCHWARTAU: I think we should be taking over sites of stalled construction projects. Turn them into parks. We don’t need a 50 million dollar Barry Diller-funded Diane Von Furstenberg Wrap Dress Memorial Park and Helipad accessible only by drawbridge. This is a huge opportunity to reclaim the city from Bank of America and TD Bank, Santander and HSBC.        

P-H: Well, out of those, which is your favorite?

SCHWARTAU: I didn’t even mention my own bank, Wells Fargo, which I am CEO of.        

P-H: You do love to raise billions to send a pipeline through indigenous land. Speaking of banks, Deutsche Bank apologized yesterday for their deep relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, and said that they will do better.       

SCHWARTAU: Oh, great. Does Ghislaine have an account there?    

P-H: I actually think she’s Wells Fargo.

SCHWARTAU: Yeah, she’s very “Western woman.” Salomé of the saloon. Madam of the Gin Mill. You know, the Wells Fargo logo is that carriage holding money.        

P-H: Did you say a “Karen” holding money?  

SCHWARTAU: No, I said “carriage.”

STEVEN’S MOTHER: It’s a stagecoach.       

SCHWARTAU: Thank you so much. I’m glad we have our fact-checker! Maureen, do you bank with Wells Fargo or— 

P-H: She keeps her money in crypto. KarenKoin. Do we want to talk about fireworks and whether or not you thought they were a hoax?

SCHWARTAU: I heard them at night, but I didn’t see them at night because my eyes were closed. People were saying that the police handed out the fireworks?

P-H: That was the theory—to sow discord and give themselves a reason to police people. 

SCHWARTAU: It’s really just this exposé of how so many white people with dogs have moved into black neighborhoods. 

P-H:  Yeah, dogs are absolutely the key differentiator here.        

SCHWARTAU: I get not wanting your dog to be scared, but there are larger structural issues at play here.   

P-H: Yeah, if you’ve got a terrified little bichon who pisses your Deusen Deusen area rug at the sound of an ice cream truck, maybe don’t move to an urban area?        

SCHWARTAU: Get these pups a copy of Dog Fragility.      

P-H:  You don’t like fireworks? I don’t like stepping in your dogshit on the sidewalk, so it’s sort of tit-for-tat.  

SCHWARTAU:  What else do we need to talk about?     

P-H: China Chalet, Ben Affleck, CHAZ, CHOP, Lady A, the Chicks. 

SCHWARTAU: Jesus, it’s been a long month. What was the tea on why China Chalet closed? 

P-H: I think a lot of businesses are struggling right now. Or so I’ve heard. 

SCHWARTAU: They didn’t get the PPP loan or something?            

P-H: What really struck me out of the farewell messages I saw on social media was how old we are. Half the people eulogizing China Chalet were folks of 2010 experience like myself. The other half were 22-year-old NYU juniors being like, ugh RIP the time I TikTok’d a skateboard at China Chalet. But it also made me realize that people who come to New York come because they just wanted to do the stuff that people seven years older than them did.

SCHWARTAU: That’s how the world works. I feel that I have been silent on China Chalet and I want to address my silence.  

P-H: Maybe you actually just have never been?

SCHWARTAU: I went back in the 2010s. I have the receipts. In your twenties, you just bounce right back up from whatever, but then, as I aged, I just started to not enjoy nightlife as much anymore. 

P-H:  I suppose I will admit now that I never got into Beatrice. 

SCHWARTAU: I did. I saw Marisa Tomei there once.

P-H: Okay, well, I’ve seen Marisa Tomei at other locations. I saw her at Jacqueline Novak’s show! Which, like Beatrice, was also in the West Village. I think she just is in the West Village a lot. 

SCHWARTAU: So, I had more clout than you in 2008, but you had more clout than me in 2012?

P-H: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Speaking of, Claudia Conway—do we stan? She’s defining herself as rebelling against her mom, so people are kind of living for it.        

SCHWARTAU: How much data is she using on the family plan, I wonder? I used to completely use all the data from the family plan and it was probably like 100% from Grindr. And I was just imagining my mom paying for my bad “dates.”

P-H: For your hole to be distributed.      

SCHWARTAU: Which ultimately did build community and was good for society. 

P-H: Even though your mom didn’t know it, she was “killing the Karen within” by supporting you turning your body into a commons.        

SCHWARTAU: Stop, I’m embarrassed!        

P-H: Okay. Lady A/The Chicks. 

SCHWARTAU: Also embarrassing.

P-H: Should we change our name to just The Hole? I must admit it’s a little awkward to say “I love the new The Chicks song.” 

SCHWARTAU: Well, The Hole is already a gallery and now we’re being sued.

P-H: The Chicks were actually the first people to get canceled. Southern Republicans canceled them for saying they were ashamed to be from Texas because of George W. in, like, 2003. Margaret Cho used to have a great bit in her standup set about how the media always used the same pic of this one redneck smashing his jewel case of a Dixie Chicks CD. 

SCHWARTAU: Yeah, I still don’t love The Chicks. 

P-H:  Well, this is the problem with the renaming debate. Whether it’s the Robert E. Lee cafeteria at Pace University or the Dixie Chicks, if you really care about holding to a name, you’re racist, tbh! But if you’re up in arms about needing to change a name instead of abolishing carceral capitalism, it’s like, get a life. Then again, maybe all of this liberal cringe creates a kind of rift that supports more intense activity, including but not limited to me leveraging my personal relationship with the Mayor of New York to get him to defund the police, which he did because of me. For our readers who don’t know, I used to work for Bill, and I texted him a video I’d taken of the police getting violent at a protest I was in. He responded saying it looked really bad and he’d look into it. The very next day, the Mayor agreed to $1 billion in cuts to NYPD.

SCHWARTAU: My theory was that when you texted him, he was about to abolish the police, but then after he got your text, he was like, “actually, I think we need to keep them. Let’s just cut a billion off.”

P-H: He saw my video and was just like, oh, finally!    

SCHWARTAU: Someone’s getting pepper sprayed who deserves it.            

P-H: Fair point.        

SCHWARTAU: But I do think rewriting history is such an important process in reparative practices, because it helps you realize that history is fictional in that it’s written by the winners. It allows the oppressed to create a better future by empowering them to reimagine the past. So I’m pro-renaming The Chicks, I guess? 

P-H: I’m definitely pro-reimagining. But what about adding to this neverending list of things that people are offended by?    

SCHWARTAU: The list does feel a bit long at the moment.

P-H: I think this comes back to that article your ex wrote— that you can only be canceled from within your own group. You can’t deny that people denounce Trump quite a bit, but it hasn’t removed him from power. He’s canceled, but he’s not CANCELED. In many ways, it’s strengthened the support of his base.

SCHWARTAU: That’s a good point. Maybe the people who are getting thrown out of power weren’t even that powerful to begin with. I would say, check in with yourself about what your authentic desires are when posting. Do you want change or do you just want people to know that you’re a good person? Because maybe that isn’t going to actually make you feel good or even be useful. 

P-H: Guilt can be good if it leads to action. But guilt can be exhausting if it’s just endlessly performed for no one’s benefit.       

SCHWARTAU: I think your parents’ internet connection is exhausted. We need to stop. 

P-H: Okay, okay. All the best to you. I’ll see you in a few minutes since we are in the same house in different rooms.

SCHWARTAU: I’ll see you on the deck for mimosas. Bye, Karen!

P-H: The Karen Kouncil Meeting has come to a klose. Best regards.

LAST TIME: ALISON ROMAN, NANCY PELOSI, AND EVERYONE BUT JAMES CHARLES GET CANCELED