New York City
Note found on floor of Fulton Street Subway, 2008, pen on paper, 81/2 x 11â€?, Private Collection
New York City Stories, Drawings, and Other Things Fall 2008
Edited by Tassity Johnson
The publication was produced for the Duke in New York Arts and Media Fall 2008 Program in New York City. It was conceived and created by Tassity Johnson.
Cover: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 2006, pen and marker on paper, 4 1/4 x 5 1/2”, Private Collection The drawing was done working a late-night shift at the Coffeehouse my freshman year. It was taken from a film still from the Greg Araki film Mysterious Skin.. The “NYC” was improvised. Though not created for this project, it seemed an appropriate cover.
Introduction I : Some Notes on this Text Introduction II : On the Work Itself
A Brief Walk from 8th and 34th to Central Park, with Views of the Hudson Photographs People
21 Bedford Avenue, marathon Queens, street
Financial District, elevator
Hellâ€™s Kitchen, 10th street
Central Park, shale/schist
Robert on the A-Train Heading Downtown Collages
Cover of Jesus is the Answer, 2006, collage on paper, 41/4 x 5 1/2â€?, Private Collection Jesus is the Answer was a zine I created my freshman year. It was around eight pages long, contained a story, some brief writing on freshman angst, and collage, and had a distribution of around four copies. I mailed the copies to some friends.
Introduction I: Some Notes on This Text
It is difficult to define exactly what this project is. I started out with the idea of creating a personal catalogue raisonné, but in suggesting such a creation, I failed to acknowledge the lifelong effort the catalogue raisonné represents, and my almost laughable dearth of material for such a venture. To categorize this as a true catalogue raisonné would be grossly inaccurate. The catalogue raisonné actually serves a fairly simple purpose, one that does not give way to especially interesting research. Though I was unable to dig up information concerning the first documented publication of one, it is clear from my research that from the beginning the catalogue raisonné has served the sole purpose of acting as a comprehensive catalog, a listing of and accounting for every work produced by a single artist. I have not done such with my own work for this assignment and as such, it cannot be classified in this category. Be that as it may, I have yet to fully abandon the concept. For one, this document is formatted in traditional catalogue raisonné form; each art work is identified by a title, date, materials, dimensions. Also, following art convetions, each piece is also labeled as part of a “Private Collection,” the collector being myself. A small description of each piece’s origins accompanies both the art work and the writing featured here as well. Having decided that this project is not what it strives to be, the quandary becomes determining what it actually is. My first inclination is to type this as a “zine,” or rather, a self-published magazine. Usage of the term “zine” brings with it the ac-
knowledgment of its varied history (with roots in 1930s science fiction fanzines, the counterculture, punk rock and so on) as well as an adherence to certain “informal” guidelines in subject matter and appearance. Having been on the periphery of a zine culture since high school, and having made a few myself, I know that what makes a zine a zine is that it is self-generated, published, and distributed material that focuses on some aspect of the creator’s life. Thus, considering that the basis of this text is largely fictional creation, I hesitate to classify it as a zine. This is not a confessional; this is not about do-it-yourself ethics. The next category is that of the “artist book.” The “artist book” itself is an unwieldy classification, one that encompasses everything from a collection of an artist’s writings to an art piece making use of the book form to a catalogue of art works produced, published, and distributed by the artist. What unifies these disparate forms is a conceptual base, a larger statement meant to be communicated through the book form. To the extent that this project focuses solely on my experience of New York City, it might be accurately classed as an “artist book.” I take issue with this typing only the structuring of this document is in some ways removed from the concept. If it were to be viewed solely as an artist book on New York City, I fear it would not stand up as a very strong example. My commentary on the pieces for a purely informative purpose as well as the limitations of the material collected here stand in the way of this document as a project fully artistically invested in the experience of the City.
Of course, much of this is splitting hairs; it would be easy to simply label this as a collection of writing and art inspired by and reflective of New York City. Such is a prosaic definition that I do not dispute. I reflect on the how to categorize this text not because I do not know what it is on the basic level, but because it represents, beyond an academic project, an emergent trend in my very, very short history of production. I attended an arts-focused high school, and the result of this education, if nothing else, was the tendency, a need even, to conceptualize and contextualize any artistic creation, to justify its relevance in my personal and intellectual history, to understand it as either regression or progression. The process is ridiculous, I know, but it is an indulgence I love. In approaching this assignment, creating a catalogue , a textual and visual history of one personâ€™s lifelong production, was my first idea. This idea was also largely impractical considering my lack of access to the resources necessary to create a catalogue for any legitimate artist. I turned to myself not because I consider myself an artist and not because I consider myself as possessing enough work to necessitate a catalogue, but because I wanted to explore the form. As someone who enjoys publication design, writing, and drawing, designing a catalogue of my own work seemed a unique solution to the problem of my first idea for this assignment. So, to revisit the central question of all of this: What is this project? It is, for me, an exercise in design, fantasy, conceptual production, in short story and essay writing, illustration, in peoplewatching, in experiencing and making sense of an unfamiliar environment. I doubt that it is a largely successful venture but it has been a valuable one.
a link between the three forms mentioned here. The artist book itself can be seen as both predecessor for zines, as well as a vehicle for the type of organization the catalogue raisonnĂŠ provides. Artists books were conceived initially as a means of connecting art with the people through mass, commercial, and inexpensive self-publishing. The effort failed, as artists books remain the stuff of limited editions and museum stores, but it is perhaps that initial goal that may shed some light on my attraction to this, to the cataloging, processing, and production and publishing of the little work I have done. Though the purpose of the catalogue raisonnĂŠ is more or less based in investments, the art market, and artist estates, self-publishing unites zines and artists books and countless forms in between; as much as I love writing and drawing I love organizing said writing and drawing, creating a document that I can look over when I have moved beyond this state. And as someone engaged in a form, specifically writing, that appears to be dying out in its known incarnation (the book, the newspaper, the magazine), in a present where there appears no real need for writing, for new writers (because the field is saturated, everyone wants to be a writer, and people master the press tricks necessary to get to said point, to put a book with their names on the spine on the mantle), it is important to me to be able to collect what I have done myself, to create a book or zine or catalogue or whatever myself, to look upon it and understand it as a piece of me at this time and age, to understand this soon-to-be-lost-self as I might a book. This project, though largely fictional, will remain as a collection of thoughts on and impressions of New York City, as experienced by me at age twenty in the fall of the year 2008. Tassity Johnson
But, what is the impetus for its creation? There is
Introduction II: On the Work Itself
In this book are drawings of people seen once, glanced upon, or never seen at all, but imagined; pictures of small places and words on small moments; collections of these places and words and faces and moments from the City rearranged and reconstructed. The essay, “A Brief Walk from 8th and 34th to Central Park, with Views of the Hudson,” provides a thematic focus for the first section of the project, i.e. a focus on the natural (the manmade nature of Central Park included) landscape of New York City. I have yet to determine just why I was compelled to the types of things that can be seen everywhere (trees, water, and so on), but the essay attempts to work through this question. Following the essay are photos that keep with the theme of the New York City landscape, though they divert somewhat from natural forms. The second section, which begins with the mini-collection of short short stories, People, explores the animated, human city. Stylistically these shorts are mainly stream-of-consciousness accounts; I am unsure if this is to their detriment, but, if so, hopefully there is something that can be taken from each of them. The longer story, “Robert on the A-train Heading Downtown,” expands on this stylistic device, and holds the beginnings of a story much larger than this city. The last section, Collages, is neither about the people of the city nor the landscape, but about the deconstruction of a lived experience when said experience remains physically only in documents, texts, photos, brochures, ticket stubs and other accumulated detritus. The collages are a perfect ending to this, for the work that they do is both a comment on the creation of the text, drawings, and pictures here, and a means of seeing the inspiration for the text and art work from a different, non-narrative perspective. Of course, this conclusion as well as any others proposed in this paragraph are mere speculation on my part; the truly valuable response to this project is that of the reader. So, begin. *A note: the formatting of this document is more for creative exercise than for practicality. Paragraphs are oddly shaped, misaligned, and appear in other ways irregular both for effect and aesthetics.
A Brief Walk from 8th and 34th to Central Park, with Views of the Hudson
This essay traces a short walk I took one Sunday afternoon from the hotel to Central Park. New York City is markedly different from Houston, where I am from, in myriad ways, but perhaps the most engaging difference is in transportation. In Houston, everyone drives everywhere. In New York I am always shocked to see cars, especially since people drive with no consideration of traffic laws and the streets are usually clogged. New York forces a reorientation to the City, a new understanding of necessity and convenience, and a reconsideration of the landscape. The essay deals mostly with the observed environment, especially in terms of the natural landscape. When driving or riding n a car I am used to looking out the window and taking in the highway sights; walking in New York encourages the same desire to observe, but engages the observer far more intensely than does a car ride. Much of that intensity is due to the constant intersection with other people, however, as I address this area later in this project, in this essay I instead chose to dwell on the Cityâ€™s more static personae.
I go for a walk. It is only mildly wintry and the sun is not out though the sky is still clear of gray and there is no hint of rain. I head down a familiar street where there are no sights beyond the common, the small stores that all sell the same thing and the food chains and adult video shops and the steady stream of people to walk around, to avoid, to graze, and the men who stand on corners calling at women they do not know. I walk for a few blocks, but I know this path, I have walked it many times before and it will always be the same, there will never be any beauty or calm to it. It is not a street for walking, strolling; it is no ground for Thoreau’s saunterers, the sainteterrers, the holy-landers. This is no holy place, but instead the quintessential New York City block teeming, the people within the crowd not simply walking but propelling forward themselves and those who surround them. I know this. At the Port Authority I turn off this street into the direction of
the Hudson; water always seems the best place to go, to end a walk, to lose the city. The river is no place for walkers as it will not support the body alone walking, wandering; where land ends the water quivers, smelling blood. This is not completely true but it can be, it is for me a person who cannot swim but goes to water to look upon it and think to fear it. Once turning, the street is already quieter and sparser; there are only two people, myself included, walking up the block. I walk beneath a highway, the first I have seen in a long time, and the area seems another place, a place more like home where there are only cars and always few people out walking along the streets. Going upwards towards tenth, I expect to see the Hudson in the distance but from here I see only an empty stretch, a bus yard or some sort of center parking lot that today is more or less empty. Rather than walk straight into this area where the Hudson should lie along its edge I make
a right and walk towards the Park. Up 10th I step into Hell’s Kitchen which is quieter than 34th and seems more like a place to live, a neighborhood, though it is only two blocks from the hotel. Hell’s Kitchen is not at all what it once was, what someone or something had told me it would be, a sweating place of shadows and fire escapes and heat and knives; but really it could not be what it once was, it is not even Hell’s Kitchen anymore, but Clinton. In Clinton there is a pink and light blue community center called the “Chelsea Clinton.” I consider again walking to the Hudson; when I look to my left I see it peeking between the buildings at the end of the street, a slate gray line nearly lost to the concrete piers; from behind it rises a hillside the color of burning where million dollar homes perch. I do not walk towards it because from here it looks dull, only background for the piers and the houses, a lifeless scribble to fall in with the landscape, the trees and hills.
Now I think of why I have begun this walk, though there never really is a very strong reason. Today I want to be out of my room and have little money for food; there is no reason to take a walk other than that I have no reason not to. But there is another reason for leaving as well, no more important or compelling, but a reason still, one less pragmatic than “nothing else to do.” A week before I had thought to walk to the Hudson. It was raining and I thought on a rainy day the Hudson would be like Lake Erie in one of my favorite movies Stranger than Paradise, a flat gray plane with the sky too gray and the horizon lost. A girl on the subway made me think of this, of Lake Erie in this movie and of the movie in general. She was dressed like Eva, the only girl in the movie; she wore baggy men’s trousers folded up at the ankle and a small black trench and a loose white button down. Her hair was very short and black and she wore black glasses with large round frames.
Looking at her in my stiff green grandmother coat I felt matronly and traitorous to an old self. At fifteen after watching Stranger than Paradise repeatedly I vowed to remake myself into Eva, or at least dress like her. Sometimes I did but I was never much into personal style or consistency, and so I for the most part failed to live up to this vow. The girl got off at 34th with me and I thought I had lost her but coming out of the station she passed in front of me; I walked behind her to the corner of 8th half hoping that she would be headed to the hotel, but she turned where I kept straight. I considered following her but did not as I did not care very much about her or to where she might be going, and have never been the following sort. Instead I went up to my room and ransacked my bureau for baggy trousers, a button down, and something that might resemble a trench. The resulting outfit was close in the way that children’s costumes are to their source: the trousers were baggy but also lined, so
that in folding them I exposed a layer of raw silk; the shirt was a button down, but covered in fat pink stripes and slightly wrinkled; I did not have a trench, but instead used a worn out sweater that sagged at the wrists. Fully dressed I contemplated going for a walk to the Hudson to finish this mild fantasy, to take in the lean Hudson as though it were Lake Erie white with winter, but it soon became too near to dark and I could not leave. Today would be my day to realize this mild fantasy, though I was not dressed like Eva but like Cliff Huxtable. Walking further 10th does not change, it is only neater and quieter and emptier than 8th. I come across the Lincoln Center without anticipating it, and I view it only from the back. In the posterior courtyard of one of the buildings a circus big top rises above the concrete walling. Once I get to 65th I contemplate walking down to the Hudson, and again I peek down the street that rolls into a concrete structure, maybe a highway or
pier. It is not like I imagined. Lake Erie in the film is all white and there are no houses across it; it is all there is, becomes the sky, blanches the horizon. I imagine the grey river sandwiched between islands and it seems insignificant and not at all what I want. Instead I make a right and walk across Columbus to the Park. There is something, some reason for my searching of things that are real in the City, things that do not change. There will always be rivers and trees and dirt and knowing this who can believe in buildings and cars and concrete, things made to be worn down by the patter of feet and all other forms of livingâ€™s erosion, things made to be used and broken and then cleared and crushed. I do not know the reason, only that the land is right, that it will be the last standing after our inevitable destruction, and there before any thing or one that emerges to take our place. Walking into the Park I look to
go deep into it, and I walk quickly past the diversions, the food carts and playgrounds and dogs and people and bikes, and past the inline skating dance group and a metal pavilion in construction and the long avenue of American elms. I walk towards water, towards where I remember it, the area by the fountain where the water is a small round corner and the boats wait at the white boathouse at the far right edge. Someone sings opera beneath the stairs and the echoes upset the birds. I stay here for a minute or so, then leave; there are too many people around and it is difficult to not feel exposed. I walk over the bridge and remember the way the water was the first time I saw it, covered in a thick green film and navigated by row boats. Now it is clear and empty. Once across the bridge I enter the darker, rocky stretch of the Park that extends upwards. Water leaks from a spill of round rocks a father and his son scale. I go up stairs into an area that
overlooks the water but is unpopulated and it is here, not looking on the water but into the brush, an endless run of trees, that one can imagine, in some small way, what an untamed land might have looked like looked like. I have read things on what the island will look like when we are gone but it is never as interesting as we think, the image is always the same. The land when we are gone will eventually look the same before we came, as though we were never there to begin with. But then to look at Central Park as some time capsule of prehistory or even of pre-Colombian American is an exercise in mild delusion, similar to equating the zoo to a safari. The park is as closely tended and tamed as a garden. But though I know this well, can see the edge of townhomes peeking over the trees when I turn my back, looking forward into the trees, seeing nothing but these and shadows and hearing only the rustle of leaves in wind, I feel , if only for a sec-
ond, lost in unchartered land. I feel this way even as I walk down the stairs holding the metal rails and along a feetmade path lined in cyclone fence. I am only jarred from the fantasy when a couple crosses my path. From there I decide it is time to leave, and I think briefly of trying again for the Hudson. But I exit the park at the Natural Museum of History and wanting to see the squid and the whale exhibit (I confuse this museum for that of Natural Science) and, truly, wanting to feel like a child or the parent of a child, I go to the museum instead. By the time I leave it is very dark and cold, and though I consider walking back to the hotel and am not too tired to
not do so, I take the A train home.
I am no photographer, but I wanted to include some visual sense of the City in this project. Much like the essay, I chose to focus on the inanimate and the natural. For what ever reason I could not force myself to take pictures of the true New York landscape—buildings and sidewalks and cabs—but I don’t know, I don’t find these especially interesting to look at, and have no talent for making them interesting in photos. Thus what follows is a very small and reduced view of New York.
Central Park, 2008, Polaroid film, 3 1/4 x 4 1/4â€?, Private Collection Schist rises in Central Park like small craggy mountainsides. I climbed this and felt like an explorer, but I was wearing the wrong shoes for scaling and almost fell. Beneath this a small stream ran making the rock below black.
Seaport, 2008, Polaroid film, 3 1/4 x 4 1/4â€?, Private Collection This is out at the end of the Financial District, at the South Street Seaport. It was mid-morning and a little cold and the waves were gray and slow. The shipyard in the distance seemed right with the low river, not at all like the FiDi coast loaded with high-built stone and glass and brick.
Upper West Side, 2008, Polaroid film, 3 1/4 x 4 1/4â€?, Private Collection I passed this townhouse on the Upper West Side facing the Park; the door was ajar and from the outside the chandelier light bled out the color of gold. The doorman could not be seen from the street and for some reason the building, and the whole block, really, seemed completely uninhabited.
Hell’s Kitchen wall, 2008, Polaroid film, 3 1/4 x 4 1/4”, Private Collection This was written on a white-walled building on the edge of Hell’s Kitchen. It was written in sharpie and near a spray-painted drawing of the Kentucky Fried Chicken colonel. Seeing this I thought of trees with white crosses painted on their trunks, a Southern image I have never seen but imagine I could find if I looked hard enough.
Park lake, 2008, Polaroid film, 3 1/4 x 4 1/4â€?, Private Collection Seeing this I think of hunting and fishing and foraging, of small lives sustained by wilderness, though the experience of being here is more like looking out on resort land from a rented cabin.
This section can be read as a series of portraits, built from overheard conversations, brief sights, and impressions. These shorts are my first attempt at short short stories. I tried to write with James Joyce’s conception of “Epiphanies” in mind. THE YOUNG LADY—(drawling discreetly)...O, yes...I was...at the cha...pel... THE YOUNG GENTLEMAN—(inaudibly)...I...(again inaudibly)...I... THE YOUNG LADY—(softly)...O...but you’re...ve...ry...wick...ed... This triviality made him think of collecting many such moments together in a book of epiphanies. By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.
I think this idea is especially relevant and fruitful in New York City, since so much of the experience of living here is living amongst many, many people. There is also the inveterate loneliness that comes with a highdensity environment, the experience of understanding one’s separateness and insignificance. This is perhaps overcome by voyeurism, an activity the large population makes quite convenient. Listening in on a stranger’s conversation can be, in a small way, a means of connecting, of feeling connected, of feeling less a stranger yourself. These stories are in a way about me as an eavesdropper recording the moments of others, but really they are not about me at all, are instead about the complexity of small moments and words and from these, lives.
Portrait of Lena, 2008, graphite on paper, 11 x 14â€?, Private Collection
Bedford Avenue, marathon
Early one Saturday morning I went down to Williamsburg to shop. It was the day of the New York City marathon. I didn’t watch it but lots of small, young families—made of a couple and their child in a stroller— crowded the sidewalks and cheered. All the young parents, who couldn’t have been more than ten years older than me, made me wonder about holding a family together, especially within a scene that seems to thrive on youth and a certain ethos of freedom and lack for real responsibilities. This is probably just me projecting, though. This short also contains an eavesdropped quote, overheard in a Chinatown Burger King: “A few girls...They were ugly though, like Oh God man.”
Untitled, 2008, graphite on paper, 4 1/2 x 6â€?, Private Collection
Rick stands on Bedford Avenue on a Saturday morning next to his wife Ella and their infant child Henry. They are watching a marathon. He sees the runners, hears the light pound of their feet on concrete and the bodies flowing forward, a sea or river rushing fast. He closes his eyes and is beside them, can feel his feet tense and light and the sweat on him slick so that he is like a fish in air that rushes against his body like thick cool water. He is running, he does not turn to look behind him, though in the corner of his mind he sees Ella with the stroller growing smaller and smaller until they are only a speck on the horizon, and then nothing at all, not even there. Rick opens his eyes and watches the runners; he cannot look at Ella at all. Ella who he cannot even think of anymore it seems; he can say her name and speak to her and see her when he is beside her, with her, talking to her. But when away from her she is a stranger, and “Ella” a word without meaning, so that it does not in his mind conjure the woman standing beside him but instead is lost to him like for-
eign tongue. So that at work and walking alone he cannot even imagine her face. At another time in his life, a few years before, he would have been disturbed by this, would thought his mind slipping, would have tried to fight it with herbal supplements and running, with watching for hours Ella sleep and thinking only “Ella. Ella. This woman sleeping is Ella. Ella my wife.” But now he does none of these things, in bed lies with his back facing her and falls asleep as soon as he hits the pillow. No, Ella is never in his thoughts, not even in his dreams. Except at dinner, which he takes alone, and at the bar afterwards. He usually eats at the Thai restaurant down the street, next to the front window where he can look out on the narrow street and watch people sit on their stoops and smoke. Occasionally a small brunette walks by and his heart jumps before even his mind responds, and still he does not think of Ella, does not think the name, word, “Ella,” but for minutes later he feels drained and shakes slightly, and he is unable to tell if it is the Chicken Basil only that has brought on his watering eyes.
Each night after dinner he goes to the bar. To get to the one he likes he has to pass by his apartment, has to contemplate the steps and what is hidden from the streets behind the door. For the first few months he hesitated but that stage too has passed and now he walks by, glancing only to see if the lights are on inside. At the bar, he falls into the dark of it, sits in the corner with a book or the paper and many drinks and pretends to read until he is too drunk to care if people notice that he is drunk. In the corner his head lolls slightly and his eyes droop as behind them the same scene plays over and over as though somewhere in his mind he pressed “repeat.” His mind fogs like frozen-over glass and his body floats through soft black space, a dark room crowded and smoky and filled with chatter so voluminous that it comes like the crashing of waves, him holding a glass and Dan an old friend, Dan slapping his arm hard and yelling in his ear, he still remembers this, has never forgotten it, yelling “...They were ugly though, like Oh God man.” Half asleep now each night in the back of the bar he feels the slap on his arm like a sting and still Dan’s words echoing, though he did not think he was listening to him when Dan said them. A beat, and suddenly the room quiet, the waves hushed to the patter of soft light rain, and the room not dark anymore but light, or a corner of it light, and him drifting towards the light of the corner until he is at it and staring down at a pale face fringed in dark black hair, the eyes too dark and traced so heavily with liner that they seemed drawn on, with him staring down and imaging the lashes hard like the teeth of a comb and seeing the raw red edge of them. A word, Ella, and it comes to him not as a name but as “girl,” with the ls said like js, and he thinks now of his sister and mother and the large family he left in Texas, the tongue he thought he had cut off upon moving north. Then he is running out in the rain, in his mind no mother or sister or family or anything but the small cold hand in his; a beat; and now he sees the pale body glow iridescent beneath him upon the dark bed like a blue flame.
He has a final shot and pays the man and snuffs the thought out, begins walking home, up the steps and behind the door, into a hot shower and then bed. Some nights if he is drunk enough he leans in and puts a hand on her thigh or her breast bare and cold and smooth, and Ella tosses, swatting at his hand. Most nights he does not do this, but goes over to the crib where Henry sleeps and watches the chest swell and fall and the hands curl and he thinks of nothing but feels too in his body the swell and fall of his chest, and within him the swelling, tightening of his heart and throat, and his eyes soft and wet. Sometimes he puts his hand upon the small chest as if to synch the pump of blood, and looking down on Henry he mouths, whispers over and over again, â€œIâ€™m sorry.â€?
Walking down a street in Queens I noticed two men holding hands through one of those gas station-type night windows. I considered this to a rare sight, and thought that there had to be something beyond such a simple gesture. The reality is that the men were probably shaking hands, but for whatever reason I remembered their hands as still, and the hand-holding as lasting longer than the usual duration of a handshake.
Sunday around five Roy begins to close up the corner store. He sweeps a little, has DJ make sure nothing’s fallen off the counters and has him turn the freezers on for the night. Then he hands him a couple of twenties and lets him take home a box of donuts and a bottle of Coke for his mother, and Roy says, “Good night, DJ, don’t loose your god damn head on the way home boy, and tell your mother God bless her, I’ll see you tomorrow,” and DJ says good bye, thanks, is quick out of the door, is running somewhere, probably not home. Roy follows DJ’s red jersey as it flutters down the sidewalk like a flag until his eyes go weak. He locks the door, then opens the register and takes the money out to count. Frank knows that it is too late to go out now, that everything will be closed, it’s Sunday night almost, and he tells Ellen this but she insists, says he has to go, her hands feel like they are on fire and she needs something for them or else she won’t be able to make supper tonight, and though Frank knows that he could cook
instead, that that might be an option, he puts on his coat and hat. The hat is a gray hat he keeps in good condition, he brushes it daily and in it he feels like Sinatra; now he hums “Strangers in the Night” as he walks out the door and wishes that his eyes were blue. He passes the pink go-go bar on the corner where he used to go a couple of years ago until Freddy Dimascio from down the block’s daughter started taking her top off there, Jenny, and he couldn’t go in anymore because he used to take her and Angie his own daughter over to Hal’s for softserve and Italian ice when they were eight or nine, or maybe ten, and so he couldn’t go in there and watch her take off her clothes knowing that she only liked the chocolate and vanilla mixed cones and lemon ices. They called him Sinatra there, or at least the older one did, the redhead, she wasn’t that old but he knew she was at least thirty; she had a son who played T-ball, he saw them at the park now and again. Seeing her with her son Frank felt a strange stir of longing and closeness and shame. But
Untitled, 2008, graphite on paper, 5 1/2 x 8 1/2â€?, Private Collection This was a doodle made during class; initially these were meant to be drawings of Sam Cho but I think they work with this story, even though they donâ€™t look like the men as I remembered them.
the bar is closed, anyway, it’s Sunday, though it’ll probably be open later tonight, he can’t remember if it was open on Sundays, he never went there on the Sabbath. Roy counts the bills quicker than usual today. His wife called an hour ago frantic, and he would’ve closed up then but she kept telling him, don’t close up early, stay until it’s time, we need the money Roy, so he stayed though he wished throughout that last hour that he hadn’t. His daughter is in the hospital having the baby; it has come very early and he does not want to think about it, does not even want to know, just wants to count the bills and count them and count them until the family’s all at home and safe and he knows this, that they are. His hands shake and he keeps losing count and he thinks to curse at himself for it because he needs to get out of here, God, but he doesn’t, he won’t, it’s the Sabbath and he needs all the grace of God he can get, and though he has cursed all day long now he hopes that this can be forgotten, hopes that God can just sweep this under the rug for today at least, for his
daughter Becky who never does anything other than good, and even if that is not true and he knows it is not true right now it should not matter, God, right now those little things, they just shouldn’t matter. Frank rounds Astoria, walks down the block past the Shawarma carts and the Cost Save, and all the kids running around on a Sunday evening with their parents nowhere in sight, what kind of crap is this, I tell you, he thinks, when my kids were young all the kids played in their damn yards, these kids. He’s heading over to Roy’s shop, hopes it’s not too late though it’s getting dark out. When he gets there he sees that the door is closed but through the window he can see Roy standing at the counter, and Roy’s his friend, maybe he’ll cut him some slack, help a good friend out. He taps on the window. Roy has almost finished counting the last stack of tens when he hears a knock. He thinks for a second to ignore it as he has no time to stop but in the corner of his eye he catches the sight of a gray fedora and he knows it’s Frank, and figures that he
would not be here, out at night on Sunday if it were not for something important. He opens the little window by the counter for late night purchases. “Hey Frank.” “Hey Roy, how are you, you sonnofagun!” They talk a little, Frank asks him for the cream and Roy goes off and brings it to the window, and then Frank says, “Hey, Angie was asking about Becky, how’s she doing now? I heard she’s pregnant?” Frank smiles wide but then sees Roy’s eyes red and still and low and he is not smiling. “Well,” Frank says, and clears his throat, then, “Thanks for this Roy, I appreciate it. I won’t hold ya up any longer.” He takes the bill out, holds it between his fingers, and when Roy reaches out for it he grasps Roy’s palm tight and warm and holds it there for a second, their hands suspended between the glass partition and Frank looking at Roy and nodding, lightly. And then he takes his hand away, goes, “Take care of yourself, pal, okay? And your family, too, God bless them,” and he puts the cream in his pocket and walks away, with Roy calling after him, “Take care of yourself. I’ll see ya.”
Financial District, elevator
I was going to my internship one morning when a guy stepped on the elevator talking in the thickest New York tough guy accent I had heard all semester. This would not have been especially striking or compelling had he not, in the course of a twenty-second elevator ride, uttered the phrase, â€œIâ€™ll jam a fuckin pencil in his fuckin eye,â€? among other things of that nature. The moment became even more interesting to me when, stepping out, I looked back at him. Expecting a white guy, maybe a beefed-up Italian with a deep tan and a earring, I saw a chubby Asian man with too long hair and glasses. This short is not like anything that I normally write, and because of this I am unsure of its success; but I wanted to try something outside of my comfort zone, and felt I had a character to do this with.
Sam Cho would have killed him if he had showed up that day. He told Maury he would; he told him, “Yeah, well I’ll fuckin kill that guy. I’ll kill him. If I see him, he’s fuckin dead, Maury, you know that, fuckin dead.” He said this and he meant it.
a gun. He didn’t need a fuckin gun, he was a man, and men killed men without guns all the time. Guns were for pussies anyway; the guy would probably have a gun because he was a fuckin pussy, but Sam Cho didn’t need one .
He said it on an elevator, walked onto the elevator with four other people, with him talking about how he was going to kill the fuckin guy, he was, he was going to put a fuckin pencil through the guy’s fuckin eye, he would, he’d go to fuckin jail today just so he’d know the guy wouldn't be fuckin breathing no more, yeah he would. He said it on the elevator to Maury on the other side of the phone and also to the four people staring at the elevator door waiting to go up. He was telling them, too, strangers even, so they’d know that he was going to do it. He was. He would.
No, he would figure out a way to kill that guy with his bare fuckin hands. He looked down at them; they were fat and pale with short thick brown nails and his black hair ran down the backs of them and looking at them he felt like an animal, like a gorilla or something, or maybe a short-haired dog. He balled them into fists to feel the hardness of them, the hardness of the bones in his hands, and they were hard and good and he trusted them, they were all he fuckin needed, all any man needed anyways, all any man should need, any real man, who needs a fuckin gun when they’ve got fists as hard as steel? Fists like the butts of guns? Who needs a fuckin gun? Pussies, that’s who. Pussies with hands all limp like something dead. Yeah.
He didn’t have a gun or anything, there really wasn’t an easy way for Sam Cho to do it, but if the guy showed up at his job he could figure out a way to kill him without
Sam Cho, 2008, graphite, Vaseline and gouache on paper, 4 1/2 x 6â€?, Private Collection This was an improvised portrait. The only thing I remembered about the man on the elevator was his haircut, his glasses, and that he was Asian. I like to draw people baring teeth.
Sam Cho wanted blood on these hands, his hands, his hard animal hands, hot red blood. He’d fuckin finger-paint with the guy’s blood, he had nothing to fuckin lose. Nothing. His apartment was a piece of shit, he didn’t care about losing that, and he had no kids, at least not that he knew about, and he had no girl to worry about, to whine to him not to do it, so no problem there. Kristia his last girlfriend would’ve whined about it, she was always fuckin telling him what he could and couldn't do and should and shouldn't do like a fuckin mother or something but she was gone now and so was her bullshit whining. She had run out on him a month ago, had just stopped answering his calls, and when he went down to her apartment she wouldn’t come to the door, couldn’t look him in the fuckin face, and then when he went down to her job just to talk to her a little, to ask her what the fuck happened, she saw him coming in the door, Sam Cho remembered catching her eye, seeing her head jump a little like something in it or in her neck had snapped, and he watched her run behind the counter to the boss, telling him something that Sam Cho couldn’t hear but knew was
bad because the boss came over to him, he was a big guy, and he asked him to leave, and when Sam Cho said why the fuck should I, it was a restaurant, public property, and what if he had just come in for something to eat, what if he didn’t even want to talk to Kristia the fuckin slut, the guy didn’t have an answer to that, no, he didn’t know what to say, other than “leave” and at some point the cops were called and now Sam Cho couldn’t get within 200 feet of Kristia so fuck her, he didn’t need to worry about her anymore, she didn't matter. He’d kill him right at work, Sam Cho would, he’d take the fuckin keyboard and bash his head in if he showed up at the door looking for him. Sam Cho didn’t give a shit about what would happen then, if he would lose his job, who the fuck cares he would be in prison anyway. This job, this job was just busy work, it was nothing to be worried about, he didn’t need it, he only stayed for his mother anyway, to keep an eye on her, that’s all. And now he thought of his mother in the office, he’d have to take her outside before he killed the guy, how could he let her see her son with blood on his hands?
But how could he make her stay outside? She was always wandering in and out of things, and anyway, he couldn’t tell her what to do, she was his fuckin mother, so maybe he’d have to do it on a day when his mother wasn’t at work, but when was that, she was always there. She never missed a day even though she should have, especially since she was losing it, always waving to people she didn’t know in the halls and on the street, and eventually she’d lose this job and he could do it then, but that wasn’t necessarily any time soon and plus where would she be if he went to jail, they’d put her in one of those homes and no, what the fuck kind of son would he be if he just let that happen over this fuckin asshole, this piece of shit? But Maury was on the line and he knew this guy, and Sam Cho didn’t need Maury going back and telling this guy he was off the hook, he didn’t need people thinking that they could do whatever the fuck they wanted without a response, Sam Cho, he didn’t live that way with people doing whatever the fuck they wanted to him when they wanted, if you let people do that they’d walk all over you and you’d deserve it, this he
knew. He got off of the elevator still talking about what he was going to do to the guy though now he only half believed in it, knew he wouldn’t, he couldn’t, not even if he really wanted to, but it was fun to talk about. He had probably freaked the shit out of those people on the elevator and Sam Cho smiled when he thought of this, how they left thinking he would do all of this, had done it, and maybe they’d tell the guys in the office about it, and then go home and turn on the six o’clock news waiting to hear about it, wishing they’d listened more closely if there was a reward for his capture or something, all weird and giddy with excitement. Sam Cho got to the front door of his office and told Maury he had to go, “but remember what I fuckin told you, Maury, remember. You tell that piece of shit and any of his piece of shit friends that I mean it, I’m not fuckin kidding,” then he hung up the phone and went inside where his mother was standing at the copier with a coffee pot, he went over and gave her a peck and took the pot and put it in the kitchen then went to his desk, ran his hands brusquely across his face and sat down.
Hell’s Kitchen, 10th street
The idea for this came while I was taking the walk I wrote about earlier. I passed by a couple holding hands and I could hear the man talking to the woman about food. I don’t remember exactly what he was saying to her but I liked the idea of him telling her about things they didn’t have, as though she could imagine them and suddenly not feel without. I had not eaten all day, either, so had they been discussing food as they are in this short, I could have fit right into the conversation. There are multiple versions of this short; it began as a script-type dialogue, but I felt that it went to long in this form, that the point of it could be summed up more succinctly in a traditional story. There are two versions of the script format; I was trying to write in a specific dialect, but was uncomfortable with providing such a specific racial identifier in this piece when I had not in any of the other shorts. Of the two versions, one is written in a poor black vernacular and the other is written in a poor white vernacular. Rewriting the script as a story resolved this issue somewhat, and I also mixed the dialects to an extent, but ultimately I decided that this issue didn’t really matter.
A man and woman walk hand in hand down 10th in Hell’s Kitchen. It is a little cold and they are wearing matching outfits, thin black jackets and black pants and shirts. As they walk they swing their arms out wildly so that the arms resemble an extra pair of walking legs. They walk fast. The man squeezes the woman’s hand. He is talking to her without looking at her, is looking ahead and speaking outwards, loudly. He says, “Yeah, we’re baby, gonna eatin, that?”
baby, when we get there gonna eat real good, you know that? We’re have a feast, baby, just eatin, baby, you know
She says yeah, and he tells her all about it, about the cornbread and the color of it, and meat, and a big, big turkey. He say’s it’s the biggest he’s ever seen. He talks about the food, tells her about the smell of it, he can smell it, and he closes his eyes from time to time to look at it, to gaze upon the large spread, the biggest turkey shiny and redbrown and thick, and the smell, the steam, the heat of it he feels brush against the bottom of his nose. She glances up at him
and sees that his eyes are closed, that he only opens them from time to time. He asks her if she sees the big spread and she says yes, but she cannot. When she closes her eyes she becomes afraid of what will happen if they walk with both of their eyes closed, and so she opens them and steers him forward. He tells her about the smell, how he can smell the warm meat and the sweet cornbread smell and the butter and gravy and all that, and she sniffs the air but cannot smell any of this, only the autumn smell of leaves burning and the cold wind. And now he says he can taste it, it’s all hot and salty and a little sweet, he tastes it and smacks his lips and she can hear his teeth slap together. “I’m just eatin, eatin, can’t nobody tell me to stop,” he shouts, slaps his free hand on his thigh. Then he puffs his stomach out, makes it hard and lets out of sigh of satisfaction. He’s full, he tells her, he’s full, and he has her touch his stomach, the roundness of it. She puts her hand on it and laughs, “It’s like you pregnant!” Now he tells her about the bed,
the big soft bed that he is laying in, he feels the cool sheets on his back and the comforter heavy on him, and he turns his head sideways and lays it on her shoulder like he is snuggling into a pillow. “I’m so full, I want to take a nap, baby,” he tells her, and he tells her to climb in the bed with him. “You in, baby?” he asks, and again she says yes although she can feel no softness, only the hard wind that is now pushing them down the block like a large pair of hands, and she stumbles to keep upright, stumbles under the weight of the wind and he who leans on her heavy with his eyes closed and his long body wandering. He tells her he’s going to watch TV first while he lays in bed; he tells her about the big screen and the football game and the Steelers who win and he shouts “Lewis makes a left, he’s runnin, he’s runnin, he’s too fast,” but she cannot see this either because she does not know who Lewis is and knows nothing about football and has never seen a big screen TV up close. He sighs again and tells her he is going to sleep, tells her he is dreaming of the meal they just
Untitled, 2008, 4 1/2 x 6, Private Collection
ate, asks her what she dreams of . “Nothing,” she says. “Nothing? How you gonna dream of nothing? You crazy. I aint dreaming of nothing, I’m dreamin of something baby, I’m always dreamin of something. I don’t ever dream of nothing.” As he says this he opens his eyes and stares at her, and she looks up at him, into his eyes and they worry for a second. But then he turns away, looking out, and he closes his eyes again. He tells her about the food again, the table, and she begins to tune him out, begins to listen to the street, the cars honking and the birds and the windsounds and the slap of their feet on concrete. “....all fancy and stuff with a cloth on it, and you with me around that table, and the baby” And she is back, listening, though hearing only, “the baby,” the words which leap out from all time and space so that her world seems still now, the wind not blowing and the birds and cars gone and even their footsteps lost. Her mind feels emptied. “The baby with you?” This she whispers, though the words fall sharp and metal in her skull
like coins in a jar. “Yeah.” He says this slowly, and now opens his eyes again, briefly, to glance down at her and nod. He closes them again and then tells her of the baby. “He real big and all fat! He so fat and cute, you see him?” And now she is stumbling, her eyes shut tight and she stutters, “Yeah, uh yeah, uh, no I don’t know, I don’t know baby,” she sees only black and does not know why. “I wanna see him, baby, but I can’t! What he look like? Tell me, what he look like now?” He smiles a little, then tells her of the hair he sees and the flash of small teeth, the baby all in white, “like an angel,” he whispers. “My baby!” she shrieks. “He an angel!”
tight and she shakes, her hand in his tightening and her body loose. She begins to jump, to leap forward, as though to break through something that no one, not even the man, can see. He holds her, keeps her from falling, asks again, this time softly, “You there?” She becomes still, does not move or walk forward even, her eyes still closed though no longer tightly, and she begins to whisper, “I see it, I see it.” They stand together in the middle of the sidewalk. “It’s so nice, baby. It’s so much nicer than this. I jus wanna go baby, I jus wanna go there with the baby, and I don’t want this no more, baby, baby I don’t . Oh it’s so much nicer than this.”
He tells her of what else he sees, of his mother and her father and her brother and a close friend and a cousin and an aunt, “everyone we done lost,” he says, he sees them all sitting around the table, sitting around them in a room bright and warm and good, this is all he sees, feels, hears. She is crying now, a low wail. “You see it, baby?” he asks. “You there?” Still she whimpers and holds her eyes
Central Park, shale/schist
Walking through Central Park, I saw within a gated area a man and what looked to be a child sitting beside him on a large piece of the Park rock, overlooking the grass and the tangle of trees in the distance. I tried to get closer, I think to sneak a picture of them, but I could not. However, as I moved closer what appeared to be a child seemed larger, like a woman. I liked my initial perception over this, though; the image of a man and his small child sitting quietly on a bit of rock in the park was very strong to me and I wanted to figure out why they might have been there. Thinking about this short and all the others makes me realize my strange obsession for couples and babies; I am not sure what the basis of this is, why the City brought this focus out, but it is certainly something to note and try to avoid in the future.
Kyle takes Kelly, his daughter, to Central Park. They walk past the playground and pretzel carts and the inline skaters and beneath the tall American elms to a part of the Park removed from the open expanse. They enter a small gated area; inside there is a bench and rock mounds. He climbs up a large cut of shale that rises from the grass and leaves like the upper hump of a whale breaking the sea for air, holding Kelly’s hand as she scales. She is only four and dressed in pink and glitter. Kyle has come to the Park to get away from the lean buildings and streets and the crowds that teem between them. He sits on the rock and watches the wall of trees far along the park edge and the low rolling ground; behind the trees high-rises loom and all around him people and dogs and horses and bikes mill. Kelly squirms, then tries to stand. Kyle grabs her hand, tells her “No,” but she is restless. He holds her legs as she balances and keeps her hand while she stands; she feels like a dragging kite. She dances a little, and her arm jerks. His heart seems to dip with each jolt; he fears he is tugging at the bones of her arm and in his mind he sees the small white of the humerus like a thin metal pipe turning in its socket. He tries to slacken his grip but she holds him tightly. The imagined sound of the scrape of her bones rolls in his skull. People pass beneath them and the grass shivers and in the distance the trees waver; above them the buildings too seem to quiver. The wind grazes his bare skin, the bulb of his shaven head; everything seems moving, and he is sad at this, wishes for things to be still so that his mind might too become so. The walk from the hospital to the Park has emptied his mind and he hopes that the Park will maintain this, will not reveal in its soft shade and ground new ghosts. He tries to pull Kelly down but she keeps standing, walking in small circles, talking to herself. “Kelly. Kelly, get down.” There is nothing in Kyle’s voice and Kelly ignores him. “Kelly.” He says it with force this time and she turns to him now; but as she tries to sit, she slips a little and falls and begins to cry. “Kelly,” softly. He takes her, holds her in his
Anatomical heart, 2007, graphite, Vaseline, gouache, and string on paper, 11 x 14”, Private Collection This is from a small series of drawings I did based on drawings found in Gray’s Anatomy. Attached to this drawing is an encyclopedic text on love sickness. The mention of the body’s physical interior in this short made this drawing seem an appropriate accompaniment.
wide arms that fold and cradle and he rocks a little. He watches the face knotted and raging, and now from it comes something more as he sees in it a smaller blue face and the black hole of the mouth and the cord beneath it, tight around the neck like a slimed noose, the body squealing and no larger than two palms held so that the tips touch. Kelly clutches her leg; Kyle takes her hand from it, runs a finger across the smooth surface and tells her, “Kelly. Kelly, stop. Look.” She sits up, whimpering, and looks at the plain leg, runs her finger beside his. “But it hurts.” “It will go away.” He lifts her out of his lap and places her beside him, keeping her hand but closing his eyes. He tries not to think, tries to slow his mind and the beating in his body. Again he sees the blue face and then the body, it lain behind glass like a young plant. He opens his eyes, turns to Kelly, scratching into the rock with a stick. “Kelly. Kelly, up.” He lifts her again, pulls the arm and the small body that seems like glass. He stands and faces the deeper section of the park, the trees clustered and dark and in the distance more shale rising. He can see no one
in the thicket and from here it hides the buildings so that above it there is only gray sky that rests in the ridges of the tree tops like cloudy water. Kyle kneels, pulls Kelly with him. “On your knees.” He folds them under, then takes her hands and presses them together. He does the same with his own. “Bow your head, Kelly.” This too, he does. “Close your eyes.” He watches her do this; she shuts them tight, scrunches her nose. She wavers. “Be still.” With his palms pressed he turns from her, closes his eyes. He sees the glass box again, and now the mouth, a soft hole black like dirt, and hears the high wail and then a low moaning, like the howl of some animal hurt, the low moan and the high wail stirring and he feels his skin, the skin of his arms and neck and back as they graze his shirt. He shudders, sees again the black mouth, and now another, this one larger and edged with white, sharp teeth, and now a wall of them, quaking. The mouths join into black, the teeth swallowed into darkness and the quivering now the slow pulse of soil freshly upturned. The baby is dead now, perhaps has died at this very moment.
Rebecca, his wife, too is gone, not dead but gone at least for now, for the next few weeks, months, years. He knows the low moan is of her body. He turns to Kelly, opening his eyes. Her eyes are still closed and her palms together, her face neat and calm and her body small but full and he thinks only that she is all there is, all he has for now, Kelly the first and the last.
Robert on the A-train heading Downtown This is a longer story than the others, and was not inspired by an observation. The image of a older man asking a stranger, a young woman, to kiss beneath each of his eyes came to me in a dream, and from that I tried to make a story. This story will probably change as I continue to work on it and expand it; there is a lot to the main character that can be developed beyond what follows. The New York element of the story is its being set in the subway. The subway, in some ways, can be viewed as a perfect microcosmic statement for those dualities of the public and private, closeness and isolation, that are so common in this city. In the subway people cram into a small space close enough to see far more of a stranger’s face or body than most people who know the person well ever have. It is on the subway taking surreptitious glances at people inches away from me that I have come to the conclusion, on multiple occasions, that all people are attractive, even beautiful, though I would find such a statement patently false and saccharine if suggested in nearly any other context. Staring at someone is an incredibly invasive act, and one which holds the potential for the Joycean “epiphanies” much in the same way that eavesdropping does. This story explores that possibility. The story also tries to do something with that unique subway phenomenon of people going to car by car, telling their life stories in loud speeches and asking for money. A man missing one hand came onto the subway once and told his story, and then told us all to smile if we had no donations. I was smiling wildly because I found his story somewhat touching and because I was embarrassed of this, and because I had no money. At some point I stopped smiling and he pointed me out, said, “She was smiling, I don’t know what happened though, she stopped.” It is also a story where my obsession with writing through character interiority is perhaps at its most extreme. The shorts are written from the same perspective; I am not sure as to why, and do not view it as a positive, per say, but instead as a predilection that I will hopefully overcome with time. It has worked to some purpose, though, within this collection, if only as a means of trying to understand something about a stranger in the most intimate way possible.
Robert walked onto the A train and sat down. He was headed home and not looking forward to it; he would have to cook and eat alone, both things he hated to do. He saw the stack of paper plates and plastic cups waiting in the cabinet; he wished they were china, glass, so that he might smash them. He saw white plates explode like bombs, cups shatter water-clear. He sat beside a large woman whose dress fabric whispered each time she shuffled in her seat. He studied the side of her head, the hair yellow and long. It looked heavy. Robert liked women’s hair; it was the first thing he noticed on a woman. Had he a wife he imagined he would like that feature of her best. Robert leaned his head back, closed his eyes, let the train rock him. He had a long way to go. He tried to get perfectly still; he could only fall asleep at home if he were lying solid. On his bed he had to lay flat like something dead. He stiffened his arms and legs, made them like wood, bared down on his seat; he grit his teeth slightly. But it did not work. The train lunged forward at Chambers and wavered side-to-side on the track. His body went with it. He opened his eyes. Across from him he saw a familiar face, Clive from the office. He did not speak to Clive often, did not see him much; but each time he did Robert held his breath and averted his eyes. Clive looked much like what Robert imagined, or feared he might look like, and he did not want to have to confront the thought of himself head on. Clive, not a large man but lumpy, had a face gaunt and wanting. Robert studied his nose, hanging like an onion bulb. It looked soft; Robert thought of
squeezing it, what would Clive do? What could he do? Robert brought his index finger and thumb up to pantomime its squeezing but people rushed onto the train and stood and crowded, and Clive and his onion nose were lost to it. Robert again closed his eyes, felt his body shake with the train like a large wobbling top. He saw this, saw his body turning slowly, always tipping, and he longed to be home where the ground did not move and he could sit still, could sit in the chair by the door and eat a quick dinner and watch two hours of television, always just two, and read for two hours afterwards, one hour in the chair and the next after showering and getting into bed, and after the hour of reading, clicking off the light and laying flat on his back, watching the ceiling fan turn and turn above him, each night imagining it like wings and then like blades, each night tensing his body ten times so that at the end of this he could go limp and then sleep. Imagining this he again tried to make himself solid, tensing up and releasing just three times before his body left from the rhythm of it, jarred. “I used to be a real loser.” Robert’s ears twitched. The words came into his body like a coin on a track, derailing it. The voice of an unseen man rose above the whispering dress of the woman beside him and the dull patter of the crowd surrounding him and the scream of the train so that all these sounds became like soft empty wind, with the voice rising so that Robert could see it spreading above him like a cloud. “Overweight, no money, no education. I wasn’t a success story, I was an excess story.”
Now it seemed that the car had become quiet, the wind sounds too now lost to a vacuum in Robert’s mind. All that filled him was the man’s voice, the warm loud depth of it, delivered with a slight lilt that made Robert’s ears stand on end, a voice that for some reason seemed smoothed over, as though beneath the surface Robert could hear it broken and rough. It was as though he had heard it before, as though his body, his mind had absorbed the sound of it, had made it apart of Robert, engraved in his skin and heart and bones, so that upon rehearing the sound fit into him and perhaps made him whole. He opened his eyes, tried to find the mouth of the voice; but the train was too crowded. Listening he saw it, the mouth long and gray
and with it one eye and around it skin, both the color of mud. The man’s voice came louder now. “I sat at home all day, watching successful people do what I wanted to do, wondering why I couldn’t be like them. Why couldn’t that be me? What did they have that I didn’t?” Robert shifted, thought of standing. He thought of walking the ends of the car to find it; it would not take long he knew. The train screeched and halted. Bodies shuffled; a potbelly and legs came to hover before Robert, the owner clutching an overhead pole. The door shut and the train began to move again, the car filled so that Robert could not possibly navigate the crowd to find the voice’s source. He
leaned forward to see if the speaker had come closer, but he could see nothing other than the crowd swaying awkwardly like young saplings. And now he could not hear the voice; it was perhaps gone. It left an unease within him, a crawl in his skin, but he tried to ignore it, to push the voice out of him. He settled back into his seat and stared forward at the potbelly. It was wide, collapsing, clad in a white button down with thin blue and green stripes running into the pant edge like small rivers. Robert saw it falling forward, pressing into his body and its own deposits of fat, the chest hot and soft and Robert buried in it. He turned from it to the far corner of the train. In this corner a young woman
sat alone. Her hair shaped into an awkward bob, broom dry. He imagined it would feel like tumbleweed. The harshness of it seemed strange against her face, her skin dark but not dull, skin that held the soft glow he tried not to notice when girls passed him on the street. He stared. She was very still, did not shuffle or check her watch; her eyes were not closed. Instead, she watched something, someone, deep in the subway crowd, who or what Robert could not tell. Her body seemed hard, solid; it did not yield even to the wriggle of the train. He shifted slightly to see her better. He saw a brow rumpled and her mouth open, full, red. He could not see her eyes full on but imagined them very dark.
“Believe me, I know. I’ve been around.” The voice returned, filling the train around him like a viscous gel, pouring into Robert, his ears and eyes and mouth, now filling him so that his body quivered in synch with the rhythm of it, the lilt of each word. Turning again to find its source he still found nothing, only the swaying-treebodies and their wind sounds, with the voice between them not breezing but flowing like water. There nothing there, no source of it. “No, the key, the secret to success, is realizing that there’s no secret at all. There never has been.“ Robert felt heavy, tired. He could not look for the mouth, he would not find it, it was not
there. He rested his head on the pole beside him and let his eyes wander again to the young woman, the side of her face still to him and the eyes still dark and hard and he wondered why they were so hard, why the eyes of a woman so young might have hardened. He had seen an exhibit once, about rocks, how rocks were formed; he remembered only one part of it, what he had read about it, and looking now at the hard eyes he saw a bed of sand and from the sky more sand and dead things falling onto the bed and now two hands, one above the bed and one below, pressing together like hands in prayer until from them rocks fell like hard rain. “If you go up to the most suc-
cessful person you know and ask, ‘Hey, what’s your secret,’ do you know what they would say to you? Do you know?” At this, the woman shuddered. Robert leaned forward. “What would they say? What would they say?” The voice came now very fast, the tongue stumbling and the words collapsed into sound only, the lilt that now tied itself within Robert’s body, the thin hairs on his neck and the tubes that ran into his heart, the lilt that made the beats of this, the heart, uneven and irregular. “They would tell you what I just did. That there is no secret. There are no secrets to this universe. Only plans.” Robert watched the young woman begin to cry.
She did not shudder again; her body remained still but he was sure that she was crying. As he leaned in further he could see a wet streak glint on her check. It was not just one tear; they came from her as though they spilled, her eyes titled cups. Why is she crying? Robert thought. Why? Maybe she just got bad news. But when? Before she got on the train, maybe. Maybe she’s in pain; but why stay on the train? Why not ask for help? There’s a sign above her that says to ask for help. Now his mind was busy. “It’s a plan. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. And it’s only three parts - three easy to remember, simple parts.” Maybe someone has died. A mother, or sister, or child maybe. Or her father or grandmother or a very close uncle. Or her boyfriend. The only man she ever loved, maybe even.
Maybe her husband is dead. Maybe it could be that he is dead now, maybe he died years ago, or a few months, and she is crying because he is dead now, and she is alone, and she is crying, and thinking of him why? Maybe it is that the man sitting beside her, or the man across from her, or a man somewhere in the subway crowd looks like her husband. Maybe the man across from her. But no, probably not him, he’s white. Though she could have been married to a white man; but not to one that looks like that guy. Maybe it is not that he looks like him but something else. Maybe it is his voice; maybe the man across from her asked the time or about a stop and in it she heard her dead husband speak and in her she felt her heart in her throat, or maybe a man near her, a man she can’t even see but is talking somewhere on the train, maybe the voice sounds like him, her dead husband. Maybe it is that she is hearing a man’s voice somewhere on the train and in it she can imagine her dead husband sitting beside her, or swaying back and forth in the body of some man standing. “Action,” came the train voice. “Action, Reaction, Attraction. It’s three parts, it’s easy to remember, it all works. It all works together.” Action, thought Robert. She is hearing her dead husband talk for the first time in months, or years maybe, and he is talking to her about action, about three part plans. No “I love you, I’m okay.” Maybe she is crying because her dead husband has finally come back to her but all he can talk about is nothing. Maybe she is crying because her dead husband never had anything more to say beyond what he’s saying now to her, through the man speaking somewhere on this train..
Woman on train, 2008, graphite and Vaseline on paper, 5 1/2 x 11â€?, Private Collection This was based on the woman in this story. This is actually the second version, redrawn from the first on different paper.
The train stopped and cleared. The young woman stood, with Robert following her, watching, thinking to stand and follow her though his knees felt locked. She did not leave, but walked over to the seat facing him; still, he could not see her full as she sat behind the potbellied man. He saw only a sliver, an eye, full, and dark as he had imagined with deep-set lines above and beneath it. The curve of the line beneath her eye cut into her round cheeks, black in the fluorescent light as though it had been drawn. Robert thought of tracing it with his finger; he felt the line sharp, as it would be if her face were made of broken glass. He thought of the space beneath her eye, the line a boundary, and imagined it filling with the tears that spilled now, though her eyes, head, was not titled and her back and
shoulders stood straight and flat. His fingers twitched, felt the memory of things sharp, imagined her skin and bone beneath them like a blade. Maybe I killed her husband. This comes to him as softly as all the other thoughts, no chill runs in him. Robert does not stir. He watches the eye and thinks with all the calm of someone c onsi dering the weather.
There had been the one man he had killed, many many years ago in a small town whose name he would not remember now had he not killed a man in it. Monroe. The bar was a hole-int he-wall, raggedy. Mostly blacks inside, though it was late and near empty. Men with
short-cropped afros and gold chains played pool and smoked and drank. Robert did not remember much about it. He could not remember where he was going or whyâ€™d heâ€™d set out or why he came in to this bar. Maybe to warm up. It had been snowing that day, this he remembered. And his truck at the time had no heater. He was tired of driving, maybe. He went in for a drink, had a lot of drinks. All of something that burned going down. That he remembered, and this. Down he went, wrapped in the warm soft arms and beer breath of a man twice his size, wrapped in murderous embrace, tussling. His body slipped and skid along the floor. He managed to get a hand into his pocket as the rest of him pushed, quivering like a hard, violent fish. Out came a knife. It thrust hard in the air,
scraped the hard floor and the top of the bar. Maybe they knocked over chairs as they tumbled; maybe they broke glasses. In his mind now, he sees only deep red light - the room the color of it, and the soft of the bigger manâ€™s chest, and in his face, of which he remembers only an eye, a mud brown, and the skin turning deep red so that it seemed painted. The deep red light and his head feeling like something ready to burst and the knife thrusting in futility, of a hand separate of him. The floor was very hard even through his heavy jacket and he remembered feeling as though he were falling, hitting the sides of some long tunnel, and the bigger man on him, pressing and pulling though he could not see him, only felt the weight of the bigger man and the softness of his body through his shirt and jeans.
Then the knife tugged, tore. Robert remembered only deep red, a pool he slipped in slightly as he stood. And the eye, a clear brown in the face that seemed to drain itself of its hot red, the blood pooling outside of the bigger man, leaving his skin cool and now the color of pale brown chalk. And then Robert was out, in the cold snow his feet plowing through the ground hard and swift, so much so that he feared he might break through the ground, the sound of his feet plodding in his ears though he ran very quickly and lightly across the field to his truck, plodding all the way along the highway he drove though the radio was turned up very, very loud. He was not sure if the man had died but he assumed that he had; he did not think of this story often, only sometimes as he could not
remember very much from it. He was just 21, and rough; sitting on the train he tried to remember the boy as himself, as of his body, but he could not; he saw the sinewy body and the hair like brusque red autumn leaves and the face and eyes still youngsoft, the body running, running first from home a small cottage on the outskirts of nothing, running with only a small sack filled with coins and a fold of money, some worked for and saved, some stolen from his mother and father and older brother, though none taken from his younger sister whose face he saw in the window as he turned last to look upon the small cottage, the face he for years had seen as he lay in bed waiting to sleep, before he had leaned a method for falling asleep, the clear eyes now caught in the hard glass of the window so
that they too in his memories became glass hard. Running upwards, and then driving upwards in a cheap truck and now this life blurred to days in small jobs and nights in small bars and hotel rooms with one night being the right night and many nights and days afterwards lost to that night, from running to from that night, until he had figured out the right way to run that did not involve running, leaving, even moving at all. The killing had happened during the first running, had been lost to it. He was never caught, maybe because the man did not die, maybe because all others in the bar understood that he had been defending himself, it was not his fault, maybe because he, Robert, was white and the man he had stabbed was not. He had not thought of this
night for a while now; a man who settles into an office job of white collars and occasional ties, dress pants, Hawaiian shirts on Fridays and water coolers and cubicles, numbers on computer screens - a man who settles into such a life finds it quite easy to forget all that cannot fit into his present, all that does not make sense with it. The bar, the drinking, the knife, did not make sense with this life now he lived. He had a small apartment he rented, and a cat. This, and the ten years he had lived this life, were all he thought of, all he could remember most of the time. That night he had thought buried, and it had been because there had never been a reason to unearth it, to think of it beyond the years afterwards he had spent trying to forget it. But now on the train the night came to him
Woman on train, first portrait, 2008, graphite, gouache and watercolor on paper, 4 1/2 x 6â€?, Private Collection 56
like the ghost touch of a lost limb or lover. The red light and the soft collapse, the snow out and the cold air and his throat on fire and his body filled with low pulsing rage so that he felt filled with something flammable, and now he saw eyes, not the dead man eyes or the sister eyes or the woman eyes either but others, dark ones too but not hard, soft like something he could put his hands, his fingers into and wipe them away, and all around him he remembered that faint smell, the purple smell of women, he could smell it now on the train. And hair he remembered, hair in his hands, in between his fingers he felt the strands of it, they bristled on his skin and he thought, he remembered the thought “so this is what it feels like” as he moved his fingers through it as though he were combing through a pile of dark hay. Now the voice of the train came murmuring, action, reaction action action and now it spoke not of attraction but these words “yeah I saw action in Viet I did, I blew a couple of heads off, shol did” and the voice was not telling it to him, not to Robert, but he heard it, could hear it somewhere in some far corner first, and now again
hushed “my husband saw action in Vietnam he’ll kill you if he sees us,” he’ll kill you, but spoken not in the voice of the train, not of a voice that Robert could remember the sound of at all though he remembered the mouth the long soft red mouth speaking it beneath the soft eyes that laughed as the mouth spoke hushed but not really warning and too laughing, too wanting “he’ll kill you” Then the train voice again coming like a train too, like the whistle of a train far off first but now steady bleating at the back of Robert yelling, the train voice broken and rough as he knew, the voice loud at him so that he felt each and every part of his body on end, and now a claw at him pulling and the long soft red mouth open as if to scream though Robert did not remember a scream, only recalled the long soft mouth that seemed turned up at the corners and the soft eyes too sliding upwards and very very dark, now receding into a far corner and lost. The train voice muffled though Robert could feel it, the breaths and howls as they thumped in the large soft chest, him down and feeling the large body on top as though it were the weight of sand
upon him, until he was up and the voice had ceased, and as he stood he looked into the far corner to see only the eyes still very dark and he could not tell if they were hard or soft in the shadows. Then the running, the plodding, the driving, and in his head as he drove the plodding and the eyes and Vietnam, widows. Sitting on the train Robert no longer thought of the voice or the woman or her tears and as he stared at her he began to see rather than think; to see himself beside her, watching her up close, though still he could only imagine the one eye and the black line like a ragged fault in the soft sea floor.
And then he was taking her, his arms about her elbows and back, and her face at his neck, her breath on him warm, and her dry hair brushing at his chin, bristle on stubble. He would kiss her, beneath her eye at the long curve on her soft cheeks, and the bone, the apple of it. He would pat her back. Comforting her like a woman with a lover lost to war, he would hold her as though she were the wife of his closest friend, Pat or Benny maybe, those were good names for wartime buddies; as though she were the wife of his closest friend Benny killed in battle. The ground exploding, splattering hot and thick mud and the air a soft cloud of smoke drifting along, enveloping him in the smell of burning, acrid, and the faint iron hint of blood, and Robert crouched on the ground, his hands wet and his body fire hot, his heart like a hard-ringing bell. The clang of it so loud that it would take what would seem like days before he noticed the quiet of the field, the drifting smoke, and his body hot and sweating but no pain, no feeling other than his shaking hands, his pulse. Slowly he would rise, and turn, turning to Pat, no Benny, Benny, to where Benny had stood behind him just seconds before (though it seemed like days); he would turn to where Benny had been and shout triumphant, â€œHa! They thought they had us, Olâ€™ Ben,â€? and he would grin like the men did in movies, grinning until the sight of Benny came into the frame, Benny not standing or kneeling but a pile of tattered fatigues, pieces. Benny my closest friend Benny killed in war; he would hold her in his arms like the war-torn wife of Benny, like in the movies, her body collapsed in sobs and his chest wet and sticky with tears. He saw this, though he had never been to war, had been in high school during Vietnam.
The dark eye shined. The young woman leaned forward towards her purse, pulled out a Kleenex. She dabbed at her eyes and blew her nose faintly. She then balled up the tissue, put it in her purse, and took out her cell phone to check the time. Robert could feel now her hair on his chin, faintly scraping and her body heavy in his arms. He smelt the purple, faint. It lingered behind her ears. And then she was turning, shifting in his arms, turning to look upon him, the pale sagging skin, the dry stubble, the nose round and ruddy. And his eyes, he knew his eyes; a cool water blue, looking down on her faintly red and very, very soft. She kissed beneath his eyes, first the left and then the right, at the line he knew ran sharply into the hard line of his high cheekbones, and from these to his eyebrows, encircling his faded eyes like a mask traced in bone. The voice had ceased, perhaps too dead now, swallowed up in the spaces carved within Robert and again buried, though he remembered still the car ride, beyond the plodding the thought of widows came, had come while he still stood in the bar in the small puddle of blood looking towards the dark corner where the soft eyes hid, and he had thought to walk over to it, this corner, to take the body that held the eyes and the bristle hair and to say, “now what?” or “will you come with me,” and he thought of this now on the train, thought of saying this to the woman across from him, walking over to her and telling her this in soft murmurs, “will you come with me.” He expected no answer for it, had not mapped one out as that night he had not walked over to the corner but instead had run and run with these words left behind him. Now the train stopped. He sat forward, watching her and waiting. She shuffled, gripping the pole beside her; Robert rose.
The following collages were created from materials generated and received during my semester in New York. They contain pieces of the New York Film Festival and Natural Museum of History brochures, paper comments, photographs of the city, ticket stubs, playbooks, and countless other bits of refuse amassed over a few months. As discussed in the introduction, the collages fall into the structure of this project as an alternative means of construction, a reassembling of my experience of New York when it is boiled down to physical remnantsâ€”ultimately, papers and pictures. This is all that any time spent anywhere becomes, for the most part (not including objects purchased or acquired that are not so easily cut up and taped and glued). The label for all collages is as follows: Untitled, 2008, 11 x 14â€?, Private Collection.
Thomas More’s mouth, 2008, 11 x 14”, Private Collection. 63
Mickey Rourke, 2008, 11 x 14â€?, Private Collection. 64
Deer back, 2008, 11 x 14â€?, Private Collection. 67
Leaves, 2008, 11 x 14â€?, Private Collection. 68
Philippines, 2008, 11 x 14â€?, Private Collection. 71
1988 1990 2002-06 20062008
Born in Beaumont, Texas Move to Houston, Texas High School for Performing and Visual Arts Duke University Fall in New York City New York University
Published on Dec 11, 2008