With an air of bemusement and wonder the first thing Alfredo Martinez said was, "You know, right when I think things are going to calm down, it's like it starts in all over again." That's taking understatement to new heights, considering he'd just been deported from China. It was September 2010 and Martinez had been back in New York for a couple of weeks, and though he didn't really look that worse for wear he did appear authentically shaken. The last time I had seen him was a year before in Beijing when we'd gone to an unnerving and bizarre Chinese Army shooting range where we were ushered into a large room with practically every type of gun and rifle in the world arranged on shelves behind glass. After being handed a "menu" of all the guns we checked off a few before heading over to the range where a completely normal Chinese family watched their daughter blast away. There's something disconcerting about a mousy teenage girl wearing a purple "KING" trucker hat wantonly firing a semi-automatic weapon. With a pistol and our battered AK-47 bolted to a school desk facing the range ("This one's a beater," according to Alfredo) we did a bunch of shooting. It was a really loud, kind of exciting, and somewhat nerve-wracking touristic diversion.
During the following year we had some intermittent contact, but in the summer of 2010 Alfredo seemed to drop off the map. In late August someone in Beijing who only knew Alfredo peripherally wrote asking if I'd heard anything, because it appeared Alfredo was missing and some people were worried. Up until then the lack of communication hadn't seemed like a reason to worry, but since this person wasn't a close confidante of Alfredo's his query suggested there was actually cause for concern. Then, three weeks later, guess who showed up in New York after being detained and exiled from his adopted homeland? On our second meeting (more on the first later), as is not out of the ordinary with Alfredo, before we got to the story of what went down there were a few digressions, like about that time he got shot in Guatemala.
"You know, in third world countries there are a lot of power outages, and I was in this big supermarket with off-duty soldiers as security. The power went out, and they made everyone come to the front of the store. We heard a car backfire and one of the soldiers freaked out a little bit and pulled the trigger on his rifle, it was a German G3. They were .308 rounds, like Full Metal Jacket--a bullet hit the wall, ricocheted, and a fragment went into my leg, right into my thigh, that far from my artery. It fucking hurt like a motherfucker. And I was cursing, 'Puta, Stupido!' I just cursed a stream at him, you don't curse at guys with guns, you know? And back then I weighed 190, I was pretty fit, I dressed in khaki army pants, combat boots, and an oxford shirt tucked in. That was the uniform of Americans down there who had business to do. And I adopted that because no one will stop you if you look like that. People will get out of the way. That's what they look like down there, militarized Mormons. So Gary heard from the neighborhood that something happened at the supermarket."
"Who's Gary?" I asked. "He was a bush pilot I worked with down there in 1986. He rode up on his motorcycle, a really fucked up Harley Davidson (it was a beautiful bike at one point, but he stopped caring about it), and it was belching smoke and he was like 'What the fuck happened?' The soldiers were saying they were going to take me to the hospital. Gary started yelling at them, 'What the fuck are you guys doing, you know who this guy is? You don't want to know who this guy is.' I was like 'what is Gary doing?' Because he's not like that, he's mellow. And he said 'Drive us to the airport.' And they all said no, but Gary picked out the youngest soldier to come with us, and we drove off. And Gary explained to me, 'Those guys were going to take you and fucking shoot you.' We got to the airport, got in the plane, and flew straight to Panama and went right to the US Military hospital in Panama City."
That was an entertaining and very Alfredo-esque story, but I wanted to steer the conversation back to China so I asked about the article that appeared in the New York Times in January 2010, in which Alfredo was quoted as calling the Chinese police "idiots."
"So do you think that didn't help our situation over there? Saying in the Times that the police were stupid?" This was after an incident around the time of the Olympics, when a maid at the hotel he was staying at called the cops on him. "I was making drawings in my hotel room, it was like Ted Kaczynski goes on vacation. And the cops showed up and said 'standard police check.' I was like, 'nothing is standard about a police check.' I asked them what they wanted, and they wanted to check my room. They looked at my passport and then asked me if I was a terrorist. I said, 'You stupid motherfucker, if I was a terrorist I would have shot you through the door!' I blew up at them. I do have a slight thing towards authority, I hate to admit this, usually I can keep my shit together, but if it goes on too long I get agitated. These guys were plain-clothes cops. They were asking me 'Why do you have all these gun magazines?' I was making gun drawings. So I called Micah (a Finnish filmmaker) and Stacey (Duff, the art critic for Time Out Beijing), they were close by and both came at same time. Micah had this gigantic TV camera with a light on it, and the cops were like, who are these people? Stacey started asking them questions in Chinese and they left really quickly. Stacey talked to the manager and he apologized. The presence of the camera saved my ass."
He also had a valid visa at this point. I remembered that in the dead of winter earlier that year Alfredo had gone to Mongolia to renew it. Most people went to Hong Kong or Thailand to do that, Alfredo went to Ulan Bator. "I think I was the first Puerto Rican who'd ever set foot in Mongolia. I should have planted a flag. Everyone was going south, it was a madhouse, and so I did the reverse commute, to Mongolia. No lines at the airport. I was there for two days."
That visa ran out six months later and then there was the Times article with Alfredo's less-than complimentary assessment of the police force. "So yeah, I was poking the panda bear with a short stick." For a while we swerved off to discuss just how strange it was to be back in the United States after three years in the Middle Kingdom. "It feels so familiar, but alien. It's weird being able to understand people when you come back. That's one of the great things there in China, not understanding people's conversation. It's like white noise. The culture shock is harder coming back to New York than it is going there. All the stuff that you were used to, you realize how bizarre it is." John Dillinger, Joseph Beuys (a big influence), and Blinky Palermo came up in the conversation, as did Alfredo's adventures during the just-ended Fashion Week. He'd been going to some parties. "I went to a party for new in-house fashion line, Joseph Conteras, I got to the club dressed, you know, not exactly fashion forward, and there were all these fashionistas, it was like 28 Days Later, they were desperately trying to get in. I went to the pay phone, called the guy inside, and he said to go to the door and ask for Sasha, then say I need to see Tyrone. I asked at the door, did the secret handshake, and we got in. My God, were those girls waiting in line pissed!"
Then a subject was broached that never ceased to figure prominently in our general palavering back in Beijing--women. Specifically the Chinese variety. "It's nice to come here and talk to girls. I became like a hermit over there, which is kind of unhealthy. I was like, why take a shower? There are no girls over there that you can be interested in in that way. That's why guys take showers, to get laid. My whole game is in my language, and that didn't work over there. I realized that having a girlfriend there is like having a pet. Their outfits, the pink, it's like Halloween. I was at this party there and my friend told this girl I have work in MOMA, and they loved that, the branding. The girls were suddenly more interested in me. They were asking me what my Chinese name is, and I would play this joke where I tell them my name is "Shabi" (cow pussy, or just plain stupid) and they would have this horrified look on their faces. They'd call a guy over and he would have to embarrassingly explain, and then burst out laughing. And I realized nobody had ever done a joke like that in China. There's no irony or sarcasm. Have you ever met a sarcastic ant, or bee? It just doesn't exist. I like sarcastic girls. They don't know what the word is. They have to look that up in their little electronic dictionaries."
And then on to another favorite topic, especially if you actually have to experience it, which is that week of totally explosive insanity that is Chinese New Year. "It's like being under shelling in Beirut. People buy fireworks at the corner store that here you would need a professional permit for and a fire marshal. One of the funniest things I saw was one of those Jingbei vans stuffed to the gills with fireworks and the guy smoking in the front seat. I just imagined that if it all lit up and the back doors were open the little JIngbei van would fly down the street like a bottle rocket."
Since Alfredo had gotten back he'd been able to decompress a bit at a friend's parents' house in Pennsylvania, though that proved to be too relaxing. "They're old bohemians. Great old ramshackle house, full of books and paintings. I was relaxing there for a week, making work. I got athlete's foot from Chinese prison and I cured that there, walking around barefoot on the lawn. Near Allentown. But I felt out of place, it was like being in an Abercrombie & Fitch photo shoot, these young, beautiful people and this utopian environment. It's nice but I needed to make money and get back to the city. I needed to get back on the horse."
Related to that was the case of all Alfredo's drawings he'd brought back from China. The only possessions he'd wanted to rescue, they had been brought to the airport by his friend Byron right before his involuntary departure. It's a bit convoluted, but this should get the concept across of how Alfredo lost the majority of the work he'd made in the last year. "I was freaked out because I'd just talked to Homeland Security at the airport. I was nervous, the adrenalin started pumping, and the entire flight back I couldn't sleep, so I was not in my right mind and I was yelling at those guys. But they were cool and I got out after half an hour and I had my drawings. But I had no money. This Dominican livery cab driver gave me a ride to the gallery (The Proposition, which represents Alfredo) but it wasn't open. I gave him my passport and the drawings as collateral since I didn't have any money, and he promised to drop them off at Morris King, the advertising agency. They're nice there; I've known them for a long time. On the way there the driver had thrown out my drawings, though I didn't know that. Why did the guy throw out the drawings? Because he's a stupid Dominican. He thought I was some crazy homeless guy. The guy got paid at Morris King and gave back my passport, but he threw out the drawings. If I'd seen him I would have murdered him. Then I went to Morris King and I got hassled immediately at the door by security. I was like 'I'm here to get my passport.' Anyway, I got past them and freaked out on the people at Morris King. "You paid him but you didn't get my drawings?'"
So those drawings are gone for good. It was time to get around to what really happened in China. Alfredo was living at his secret lair (a brand new but already falling apart pseudo-Bauhaus gallery building with incongruous round windows commonly known as "That porthole place") but was mostly hanging out at an internet café with air conditioning down by Wangfujing. Before we went ahead I asked if he really wanted to talk about his experience in jail there or if it would be too unpleasant. He said he would, and compared it to the 21 months he spent in federal prison in the United States on a wire fraud charge connected to forging Basquiat paintings.
"As far as jail, it freaked me out because it was the first time I felt like I was really not in control," he said. I asked him if he felt in control while jailed in the US. "I was completely working the system. I had an angle. I was a kind of hero there because I was getting one over on them. The only residue of that experience is that now when I smell Insure, it smells like baby formula, and now when I smell baby formula--because that's what they force fed me with--the smell makes me want to retch. That's the only real psychological tick I have from all that."
"OK, but what happened in Beijing?"
"A friend of mine there wanted to make a sculpture, like a portable nuclear launcher, it's about the size of a bazooka. It's called the Davy Crocket. When I got arrested at the internet cafe I was downloading theses Davy Crocket plans. There were three guys--they looked like they were in Iraq. Black army uniforms, and one guy had a sub-machine gun. Military police. Luckily when I saw them I was able to reboot the computer so all the files got erased, but that made them angry. The main guy made me nervous with his smile. It was like when I suck in my stomach when I see a pretty girl--it's so not genuine. They took me outside, put a black hood over my head and put me in a black van. When we got to the place--the prison--it got so heavy I didn't want to tell them shit. I was in Brooklyn mode: don't be a rat. I was alone in the cell and the temperature was really cold and the bed was a concrete block with a straw mat. The cold made me always uncomfortable, and I got a really bad cough and then really sick."
"They kept asking me to confess but I wouldn't. I said I'm an artist. Anyway, the sicker I got, the more worried they got. I couldn't bathe and I was sure they were putting drugs in my food, so I stopped eating. It might have been ten days, it might have been longer. Then one day they had me look at a computer and they asked, 'Is that you?' They had Googled my name. They told me 'You have many friends looking for you.' I think they were like, 'He's American, we fucked up.' So they took me to another prison, a medical one. I was really sick. When we got there a big fight erupted between the two commanders." Basically, the commander of the new prison didn't want him, which in retrospect is totally understandable.
"I know they were thinking, 'Look at this nigger; we don't want him dying on our watch!' The guys who dropped me off didn't want to sign anything. A doctor looked at me and took my blood pressure every day. I started feeling better and they were treating me better. They tried to give me special food but I wanted to eat the same food everybody else was getting, so I made them give the other prisoners that food too. The Chinese authorities told me they would deport me and waive the fine for overstaying my visa, but I would have to tell the embassy they treated me well. 'We can have you on a plane tomorrow,' they said. Eventually a girl from the embassy came. She was cute, wearing a little Prada outfit. I didn't complain and I feel kind of shitty about that."
A day later he was driven straight to the airport where Byron gave him the drawings, a pair of size 14 sneakers, and some clothes. He was put on a flight through Dubai to New York. "I got back to New York and I was like, 'I need a teaching job, no more adventuring!'"
So a near death experience (or so it certainly must have seemed at the time), or at the very least a harrowing and no fun at all experience. That had been made crystal clear to me the first time I'd seen Alfredo upon his return, a week and a half prior to the conversation recorded here. That day his much more vivid and jangled version of events gave an unmistakable air of veracity to his report, as did his overall countenance--that of a genuinely rattled (and completely justifiable) basket case telling his story in disjointed bits and pieces. While he was relating what had happened in a much less measured manner than how he did ten days later I bought him two burritos at a taco truck parked at North 7th and Bedford. How weird is that? North 7th and Bedford after three years in China and three weeks in Chinese prison. When he got to the part about the hood being put over his head a nondescript concerned citizen sitting on a bench munching his tacos next to us piped in with, "Excuse me, why did they put a hood over your head?" As he recalled later, "I bit that poor guy's head off. He was some white marketing executive. Why didn't he mind his own business? He thought we were all friends or something. The rule of New York is if you hear something, you don't interject. I was about to punch him." I can definitively say he appeared to be very ready to do that. It was a tense, uncomfortable moment. And as I guided and sort of ushered Alfredo away the guy looked like he was about to have a heart attack. Which he would have deserved. But now things seem mellower. Those drawings might be lost for good and Alfredo can never ever go back to China, but he's making new work, he's busy, he's hustling, and maybe now things will calm down. Or maybe they'll start all over again.