Tag Archives: Evan Gabriel

FLASHBACK: “Parisian Macabre: Inside the Catacombes”

6 July 2017

Underneath the pavements of Paris lies a world that even most Parisians do not know. I’m not talking about the sewers, though that system holds enough fascination in its own right to merit a museum—the Musée des Egouts de Paris—and well worth a visit it is. (Or maybe I’m just biased. It was my ancestor, Jacques Gabriel, who designed the sewer system.)

The hidden world to which I refer is that of the Catacombes. These catacombes are not like those of, say, Rome, where early Christians hid to escape from governmental persecution. These were disused quarries that never housed anybody living at all—and were filled in far more recent times. In 1785, it was decided to solve the problem of overflowing cemeteries by exhuming bones and removing them to the tunnels of the old quarries. The ossuaries thus created did solve the problem, at least temporarily—and during World War II, the Resistance used them as headquarters.

Today visitors enter via a nondescript dark green door set on the southwestern edge of the intersection just outside the Denfert-Rochereau metro stop. Once we’ve purchased our tickets, we descend a series of steps and then follow long, dark tunnels further down, running laterally, until I frankly have no idea what part of Paris lies above my head.

Eventually we are led out into an open chamber with a doorway in the far wall. An inscription above the doorway reads: “Arrêtez. C’est ici l’empire de la Mort.” (“Stop. Here is the Empire of Death.”)

Despite the "stop" sign, the author's son Evan steps fearlessly into the "Empire of Death."

Despite the “stop” sign, the author’s son Evan steps fearlessly into the “Empire of Death.”

It is too late to turn back.

On the far side of the doorway the bones begin. Heaped and stacked in an implausibly precise mounting of skulls and femurs, tibias and rib bones, they stand at a height of 5-6 feet and, in some places, run back into chambers 40-50 feet deep. “Whoever had to fill this place had the worst job in the world,” says my 14-year-old, Alex.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine the poor souls engaged in the process: the gravediggers, emptying the lonely plots (“What if the person had just died?” says ten-year-old Evan. “Would there be bits of skin and hair and stuff?”); the haulers and stackers, working in the near-total darkness, lanterns flickering, and painstakingly arranging the remnants of their fellow citizens.

Perhaps to mitigate the horror, the authorities have interspersed the bone stacks with whitewashed plaster, occasionally in the shape of a cross, but more frequently as a canvas on which to write appropriate sayings about death and the finality of the grave. One example:

“Aussi tout passe sur la terre

          Esprit, beauté, grâces, talent

          Telle est une fleur éphémère

          Que renverse le moindre vent.”

Loosely translated, that reads

“Everything passes on the earth

Spirit, beauty, grace, talent

It is only an ephemeral flower

That is blown away by the slightest wind.”

The philosophical French don't miss a chance to muse on the meaning of all this grotesque preoccupation with death.

The philosophical French don’t miss a chance to muse on the meaning of all this grotesque preoccupation with death.

Many pundits weigh in as one moves from chamber to chamber, though as we go I find myself curiously uninterested in translating their words. Perhaps it is because the writers seem so distant and their sentiments insubstantial, while around us rise the yellow-white bone towers and the grinning skulls. Who needs intermediaries to interpret our own thoughts in the face of it all?

Our pathway bends and twists, at times doubling back on itself. Hundreds of bones. Thousands. Millions—hundreds of millions, in all likelihood. The area of the Catacombes open to the public (somewhat over a mile) represents only a small segment of the total.

The bizarreness of this Parisian ossuary is heightened by the careful patterning of bone and skull.

The bizarreness of this Parisian ossuary is heightened by the careful patterning of bone and skull.

It is said that there are other entrances, unmarked and unlit, that emerge into the open air on the edges of Paris. Shortly before our visit a film crew infiltrated one of these clandestine entrances, in search of the answer to the death of an unknown videographer, who died of no apparent cause—except pure fright?—while illegally exploring a closed section of the Catacombes. His video camera had been found, with final footage that was reminiscent of the fictional Blair Witch Project, but no hint as to what had spooked him so badly. The crew themselves got lost, though they were later rescued. The mystery remains.

It is on our minds as we complete our visit, stepping carefully along the dim, damp corridors. A set of winding stairs leads up and up . . . Another open chamber, then a final ground-level room where uniformed officials inspect all bags for stolen bones.

Once vetted we emerge, blinking, into the bright streets of Paris, and the damp clutching at my stomach begins at last to go away.

Originally published in Whistling Shade, Fall-Winter 2011.


4 May 2016

OK, this photo is not @ SubText, but rather @ the Eat My Words reading. But you get the idea.

OK, this photo is not @ SubText, but rather @ the Eat My Words reading. But you get the idea.

For all those who missed my Twin Cities readings this past winter, here’s a glimpse of what went down. Many thanks to filmmaker Patrick Risberg for running the original shoot, and further thanks to DJ/producer Evan Gabriel for handling subsequent details.

The scene is SubText Books in downtown St. Paul, on a cold January night. Legendary Twin Cities bookseller Dave Unowsky does introductions and then we’re off and running: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BT-Kfr8kJF8

FLASHBACK: “Little Big League”

2 April 2014

The Dunning Dragons tee off on the pitches of their coach, Daniel Gabriel.

The Dunning Dragons tee off on the pitches of their coach, Daniel Gabriel.

During a preseason scrimmage against the Reds, we came down to the last inning, with my son Alex catching. I was standing a few feet behind the catcher as I typically do when the Dunning Dragons are in the field. Alex was dirty, sweat-streaked, and still hustling on every play: yanking off the heavy helmet mask, getting into position in front of the plate, arms raised, calling for the ball. He’d done this throughout the game, but the team threw so wildly that he rarely had a chance to reach the ball and couldn’t handle it when he did.

On the last play of the game (the Reds had batted around for the inning, which in our league is the limit), they sent their runners home. Alex hollered for the ball, and it came on the fly. “I was sure I wasn’t going to catch that ball,” he said later, but he stepped into foul territory and reached up high to his left, and there it was, stuck in his mitt.

“Tag her! Tag her!” I yelled from behind him.

Alex stepped back to the plate, put on the tag, and as the runner tried to twist past him, they both fell down in a heap. He held the ball for a second and then it rolled free—but the runner still hadn’t touched home. He grabbed the ball and dove back for the tag just as she half-slid onto the corner.

Safe or out?

It was my call, but either way, somebody would be very disappointed. I just grabbed them both up, yelled “Great play!” in two directions, and the game was over.

Alex recounted the play several times, amazed that he’d actually made a tag and catch at the plate. So was I—and I couldn’t have had a better spot to share the moment.

Dunning Dragons gather around their coaching staff during the post-game recap ritual.

Dunning Dragons gather around their coaching staff during the post-game recap ritual.

After our games and practices, my sons and I sometimes watch games at Dunning Fields. On a summer day in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood, baseball’s appeal is passed on to kids running bases, chasing balls, and taking big batting-practice swings on dust-covered diamonds. At one end, a ballpark that features high school and amateur league games lets kids dream of heroics beyond their Little League years. Watching the adults, Alex, my nine year-old, puts on his catcher’s mask and mitt and squats against the backstop screen, imagining that those rocketing fastballs and sharp-bending curves are being called by him. Five year-old Evan, the Dragons’ batboy (and occasional right fielder), climbs the bleacher steps, or chases down foul balls.

As Dragons coach, I often plot out team lineups or rethink my handling of the just-concluded practice. At times, I relax, enjoying the sight of my sons reveling in the game.

We are together, hot and dusty and heavy with a delicious muscle weariness. The moment that joins father and sons is made possible partly by the St. Paul-Midway Little League, which transmits the skills, teamwork, and dedication needed for baseball to boys and girls.

For me, watching continues a lifelong commitment. I pitched and played the outfield in various leagues myself growing up, and never really quit. After high school ball, I went on the softball circuit and there I remain, slower, wiser, yet still dreaming of game-saving catches and hook slides into third.

Wanting to share those joys with my own kids, I find myself back on the pitcher’s mound after a thirty year absence (ours is a “coach-pitch” league), only this time I’m rooting for the batters to hit the ball. For some, it’s daunting. I’ve had kids who spent most of the season getting up the nerve to swing the bat hard. On the other hand, two years of Brian McIntosh’s line shots up the middle have taught me to stay nimble. Brian is built like Kirby Puckett, though his lethal hitch-swing calls to mind hometown boy Dave Winfield, who played at Dunning while growing up.

Players’ concentration varies as widely as their skills, and, at times, my attempts to balance discipline and fun feel as precarious as a high-wire act. For every Jimmy Shoemaker or Sam Palosaari who bounces in place in his eagerness to hit the field, there are kids who need to run to the bench for a drink every five minutes or who show up wearing slip-on shoes and skip along the base paths.

As a coach, I emphasize thinking and attitude, so after every game we give out awards not only for the traditional PLAY OF THE GAME, but also for HUSTLE and FOCUS. Even the most inept player can win these, and the sudden lift of shoulders or brightness in the eyes rewards me too.

My greatest joy in coaching, of course, is working with my sons. While Evan is still so young that he tends to wear down early (“Dad, can I go to the playground now? Please, Dad?”), Alex obsesses with catching and all other aspects of the game. Some nights he comes home from practice and sits at the kitchen table, laboriously devising lineups and defensive rotations for the following game. He’s learned that it’s the catcher’s job to keep the team alert, so he’ll lead “Let’s go!” chants on the bench and, from his position behind the plate, regularly yells out situations: “Two down! Get the easy one!”

Future All-Star Alex Gabriel learns his chops behind the plate.

Future All-Star Alex Gabriel learns his chops behind the plate.

Last summer, after our final game, we had a team party under the trees beyond the left field fence. Alex instigated a sandlot game. One of the players was line-shot-up-the-middle Brian, so I suggested they make him bat left-handed; the pitching mound was barely 20-30 feet from home. My caution was laughed off.

A minute later came a shout and I turned to see Alex, the pitcher, bent over and holding his face. Brian had hit a line drive straight at him; Alex had gotten his glove on it, only to deflect it into his nose. There was blood everywhere—on his face, shirt, glove—but Alex never even cried.

The next day, as I was coming home from work, my son greeted me at the door wearing a big grin beneath his puffed-up nose and carrying an armload of gloves and bats. “Well, who’s up first?” he said. Our season hadn’t ended at all.

Originally published in MPLS ST.PAUL magazine, March 1997.

Refl-fl-fl-flections on SCRATCH Tour 03

12 February 2014

DJ X-plore battles on stage at First Ave, 2004.

DJ X-plore battles on stage at First Avenue, Minneapolis, 2004.

Ten years on I still remember getting blown away at Minneapolis’ Fine Line by the turntablists on this tour celebrating the release of Scratch, a retrospective documentary on hip-hop DJs. 

I never would have been there except for my son, Evan (AKA DJ X-plore), a dedicated Battle DJ who’d already self-released his first CD, Genesis of X-plore. Thing was, Evan had barely turned 13. Only way into the club was going to be backdoor, which was why I came along. Evan had met Rob Swift, leader of the X-ecutioners, at a Walker Art Center event the previous year—had even gotten to play with him—and our strategy was to slide in through the performers’ entrance and see if Rob would get us into the show.

Rob Swift performs on the  roof of Walker Art Center, 2003. DJ X-plore joined him for an impromptu lesson and joint performance.

Rob Swift performs on the roof of Walker Art Center, 2003. DJ X-plore joined him for an impromptu lesson and joint performance.


He was happy to oblige, although it took a bit of fiddle and dance to convince the Fine Line staff that this would be cool. I promised to watch over my charge, and melted into the side wall where I could keep an eye on young Evan working his way up to the edge of the stage. I expected to be entertained sure enough, but I hadn’t anticipated how much I would dig being force fed huge slices of hip-hop history.

Jazzy Jeff kicked things off with an avowedly Old School approach, while flickering videos of 80s era Wild Style flashed on the walls behind him. He was slick and sure, but my main focus was on trying to identify the back-in-the-day samples he was dropping. Plenty of early Soul, R&B stuff, and always the hardest working man in show business, Mr. James Brown.

Then we were on to the X-ecutioners, a trio of New Yorkers who could cut and spin on a dime, and managed to create a full dance atmosphere just by the table-changes they kept running. With six turntables rolling, Rob Swift would pop up here, now there, now back again, but the beat never stopped flowing. Little Rock Raida (RIP) kept bouncing in between and moving the pace. Mesmerizing showmanship . . . and I was beginning to get my head fully inside the sounds.

By the time the announcer was calling in the third act, Evan had established a spot dead center and right up against the stage. He knew what was coming next. This time it was a white guy from Phoenix—Z-Trip—and when he dropped the first needle it came straight out of left field: “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz . . .” Janis Joplin’s signature a cappella piece! No sooner was it familiar than Z-Trip’s fingers went whoo-whoo-whoo and we were riding some whole other kind of rhythm. “Mercedes Benz” bled into an Otis Redding piece, and then into heavy metal, and then some strange church choir. This guy was running deep crates for real.

As the mosh pit swelled and churned at his feet I watched Evan buffeted by the bodies, but still holding his spot, and somewhere in my head I heard the opening to the early 80s English soul hit “Geno,” by Dexys Midnight Runners:

“Back in ’68 in a sweaty club.
Before Jimmy’s machine and the rocksteady rub . . .
. . . the lowest head in the crowd that night,
Just practicing steps and keeping out of the fights”

When Z-Trip’s last screech went silent on his tables, I was sure we’d had the evening’s climax. But then out came a little Filipino guy with a single turntable, who just sat down at the edge of the stage, set up between his legs and started to riff. How, I thought, was he going to compete with the double-barreled full-coffin gear everybody else had been working?

Ah, but this was the mighty Q-Bert, the slickest DJ I’ve ever seen, before or since. The man spent 40 minutes working one single record, on that one single turntable, and taking us all over the map. He could sound like drums, like trumpets, like violins—or, somehow, all three at once. He could run hard and loud, or soft and surprising. Best of all, he seemed to sense the crowd mood and build it through his cuts and stabs. Flat out amazing stuff.

At the end of the show, as sweat-drenched revelers poured out the door, Z-Trip ran out from backstage and grabbed Evan. I could see them talking, and then a moment later, watched Evan reach into his pocket and pull out a copy of his CD. Z-Trip looked stunned.

I figured I’d best make an appearance, so I wandered over. Z-Trip was gushing—“Man, this is so cool—I can’t wait to put this on, see what a thirteen year-old’s been listening to—you did this yourself?” Evan was nodding and smiling.

“Hey, Rob!” Z-trip called Rob Swift over. “You got to meet this amazing kid.”

Rob grinned. “Hey, I already met the dude last year.”

Z-Trip pulled Evan out the door to the tour bus, now idling at the curb. “Hold on,” he said. He climbed aboard, then reappeared, arms loaded with promo copies of his latest CD, a matching set of his battle vinyl LPs, Z-Trip slip mats, tour stickers—“Here, man. Enjoy. I’ll catch you next time I come through town.”

Back inside, adrenalin still running high but starting to bleed, we spotted Q-Bert holding court in a secluded corner. His handlers kept the masses at bay, but at a word from Q-Bert we were ushered into his presence. “I saw you on the stage there, youngblood. Way to hold your corner.” Evan pulled out another copy of his CD and offered it up to Q-Bert. He held it up to his forehead, like tipping his cap, and then set it off to the side. Nothing further was said. But when we finally left the club, loping along the street with the sound echoes still ringing in our ears, it felt as if a torch had been passed.

Note: The DJ X-plore moniker has since been retired. Check out EGdoesit or Mandatory Bounce for the latest sounds from Evan Gabriel.


DJ X-plore slaps down the end of his battle performance at the annual Twin Cities Celebration of Hip Hop, 2003.

DJ X-plore slaps down the end of his battle performance at the annual Twin Cities Celebration of Hip Hop, 2003.