Photo by Robin
I don’t recall the exact wording of the note. It was tacked on a corkboard, obscured by notices and fliers, in a basement corridor of Otis Art School, when Otis was in the Wilshire District. Sheree Rose and Bob Flanagan, who took performance art to a place where it really hurt, had just given a seminar, in the course of which Sheree nailed Bob’s penis to a block of wood. Someone in the audience fainted. I had been to many Bob and Sheree events, and at least one person fainted every time. We were leaving the building when I saw the note, jotted on pale yellow stationery in spidery pencil strokes: When I die, I want to come back with a smaller dick. This struck me as the funniest thing I’d ever read, for some reason. The college context, probably. I couldn’t stop laughing. I said, “You have to see this.” Sheree and Bob had already seen it. It had been there for a week. The boy who’d written it had hanged himself right after placing it there for the world to read.
“He had a huge cock,” Sheree said. “It was the only thing about him that anyone cared about. It made him completely miserable.”
Many men, I think, would consider a huge cock an easy cross to bear, but obviously that kid hadn’t.
He had a glancing connection to Louise Nevelson, the sculptor. He couldn’t resist talking about her. His mind was so full of Louise Nevelson that it seemed to contain nothing else. I don’t remember what his paintings looked like. He made frequent visits to Louise Nevelson’s studio, where her several acolytes gathered stray pearls of wisdom, in hopes, I suppose, of threading them into a career necklace. It seemed innocuous at first, to ask someone’s opinion about something and get, instead, something not quite on point, something vaguely like something Louise Nevelson must have said. In photographs, she looked like a ridiculous person. The kind of florid grande dame who relishes being a fag magnet, frankly. I didn’t care for her sculptures, either. Whenever he quoted this oracle goddess of art, I imagined her voice issuing from her false eyelashes instead of her mouth. One morning I realised that I’d been listening for weeks to the secondhand table talk of Louise Nevelson. While I supposed my boyfriend had been seated at the far end of a very long table from her, which was lowering enough to consider, I also felt she was right there in bed with us, so I left him. I had to. He was turning into her.
That reminds me: an American youth in Paris attended a dinner where Gertrude Stein happened to be a guest. He was seated at least a dozen place settings away from the great lady, whose presence so unnerved him that he knocked over his wine glass. Mortified, he frantically mopped up the spill with his napkin, while Gertrude’s voice carried from way down the table: “Don’t worry, you didn’t get any on me.”
Another person “wired to admire” was a Park Avenue socialite Becky Johnston thought might invest in a film we were writing, an adaptation of the James M. Cain novel Serenade. Mrs. Lypnick was married to a button manufacturer. She had once put money into something on Broadway. She was small and nervous and rich and unmemorable, except for an obsession she had with the Swiss novelist Max Frisch. She carried Max Frisch’s name into every conversation as if offering a platter of delicious hors d’oeuvres. But Max Frisch was more than an appetiser. Max Frisch was also the main course. In no time at all, it would not have surprised me to see Max Frisch step into the room from behind Mrs. Lypnick’s curtains, holding a champagne glass and an elegant cigarette holder. Our movie intrigued Mrs. Lypnick because, for reasons she never specified, it reminded her of him. But then, everything did.
Max Frisch was the vibrant center of a festive realm Mrs. Lypnick could only approximate in his absence by mentioning him as often as possible. As she paraphrased various aphorisms and witty ripostes the distinguished author had reeled off in her presence (“I could never put this as well as Max did, but…”), her Park Avenue maisonette brightened with a luminescence imperceptible to others, but keenly tangible and pleasing to her.
After a few meetings with Mrs. Lypnick, I understood that she had never met Max Frisch. His was hardly a household name. It was by purest chance that I or anyone else Mrs. Lypnick encountered had ever heard of him. It would not have been especially incongruous if she had met him, had even known him well, but I was certain she had conjured him from nothing, or almost nothing. Perhaps she had glimpsed him across the lobby of an opera house or leaving a reception – a fleeting non-encounter that irrevocably scrambled the juices in her brainpan. Imaginary Montauk weekends and yachting holidays with her special friend were more important than anything that happened to her in real life.
Last month in Edinburgh I went to the zoo to visit the penguins. The day was so blowy the treetops thrashed in the wind with a shirring sound like crashing surf. Rain as fine as needles started, and speakers in the trees announced the closing of the park. I only had time to see the giant sloths and pink flamingos and a leathery aquatic mammal I don’t know the name of moving swiftly back and forth under the inky water of its pond. The penguins were diving and feeding, feeding and diving. The zookeepers, in yellow smocks and blue galoshes, hand-fed the penguins whole, dead fish. The penguins snapped the fish up as if pulling them from a vending machine. We love penguins, but that is one-sided. No penguins will talk to you. No penguins will even look at you unless you are close enough to be a threat. Why should they? Unless you are holding a dead fish, no penguins have any reason to go near you. That is the way of penguins, and it always will be.
In the Philippines, almost every week someone in a karaoke bar is killed for singing “My Way” by someone else who doesn’t like his singing. “My Way” is, of course, a hubristic and self-congratulating song, as many Frank Sinatra standards are. But “My Way” is a particularly abrasive song for people who have to listen to someone else singing it. A person who thinks he did it his way is often mistaken, but even if he really did, it’s sometimes prudent not to sing about it.
I was upset when Veruschka told a journalist the story about the rat. I thought of it as my story. Although I had heard it from somebody else, I wanted to use it before everybody in the world heard it too. “I’ll tell you a better story,” Veruschka said. “A famous soccer player became very depressed and one day he threw himself in front of a bus. The driver of the bus was a big fan of the soccer player. When he found out he’d accidentally killed his idol, he went into a depression and jumped off a building. Then the bus driver’s wife became despondent. She went to a psychiatrist, but her life was ruined, so she swallowed an overdose of sleeping pills. The psychiatrist felt like a total failure when he heard about it and hung himself in his office.”
“How much of this is true?”
“Maybe none of it is true. It’s a better story, isn’t it?”
Enzensberger writes of a train passenger who feels lucky to have a whole compartment to himself. A second passenger enters. The first one resents him for ruining his luck. When a third passenger arrives, the first two bond in silent hostility against the intruder. The third passenger mentally aligns himself with the other three in resentment against a fourth passenger who shows up, and so on.
The opposite happens at a roulette table. The gamblers welcome the arrival of new players. As the wheel spins they form an excited family. They buy each other extra drinks, tell stories, joke. They’re thrilled when anybody at the table wins. They share gambling systems and superstitions, talk about their jobs, even exchange business cards, though it’s understood that what starts in a casino ends in a casino. When they lose, they don’t care. When players leave the table, they’re sad.
One night I had won $6,000 by two in the morning. Everybody thought it was hilarious that I kept winning. Until four, the table was crowded. Then one player left. Then another. By five, I sat alone with ten thousand dollars in chips stacked in front of me. I felt abandoned and horrible. I put the whole pile on double zero, which absolutely never comes up. The croupier understood my relief when I lost everything.
A man in my neighborhood used to wish me dead whenever he saw me in the street, as he walked two enormous, snarling, unfixed male dogs. “I’ll be happy when you’re dead,” he would say, or “Anyone can see you’re shrinking with age,” or “You’ll be dead soon,” and he would say this with a big goofy grin on his deranged face, not only on the sidewalk but also in the corner deli, the local bookstore, if he saw me there, never loudly enough to be overheard but very distinctly, implacably, with obvious sadistic pleasure, in the matter-of-fact way that someone might remark on the weather, and this man, who was tall and bald and unpleasant looking in every detail, with eyes that twinkled with insanity behind his thick glasses, had written a novel once, a neighbour told me, and felt that his brilliance had not been sufficiently recognised, and not only wished me dead but wished many others in the neighborhood dead in the course of his dog walks, perhaps everyone he saw. These maledictions went on for two years, and eventually had their intimidating effect. After a time, whenever I left my building, I feared having to confront this person’s madness. Life is difficult enough without this kind of thing. In Regla, finally, I paid a Santeria priest 20 pesos to make this person stop bothering me. When I got back to New York, a woman who worked in the bookstore told me the man with the dogs had died, suddenly, a week before, from a cerebral hemorrhage. I don’t really believe the Santeria priest had anything to do with it, but for a moment it was nice to think so. I wonder what happened to the dogs, she said. Maybe he took them to hell with him, I said. But look here, I said. I can’t help thinking there is a lesson in this. He wished me dead. He told other people he wanted them to die. And then his brain exploded.
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