Morning rounds, chasing phantom art alarms, poltergeist startled smoke detectors, hand radio crackling. “Cleopatra Clear.” I call Control. “Asian Art Another Ghengis Con.” Byzantine Banshees … Gothic Ghosts … Spectral Sanctum Phantasmagoria …
I slip through light and shadow, down the corridors of dream, past the doorways of delirium, along the labyrinths of time, amidst the spoils of raided tombs, sacked cities, pilfered churches, ravaged kingdoms, robbed graves, plundered castles — the grab bag of Kings and Queens and Robber Barons. (And the howls of slaves, serfs, exploited workers).
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan,” I muse, as I shift down the haunted hallways, through the spotlit galleries ablaze with visions: Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse, Dali, Beckman, Turner, Tiepolo, Richter, Rembrandt, “a stately pleasure dome decree.”
“Code Red” my radio crackles, “South Wall LLK Do You Copy First Aid?”
Kitchen fire … someone burned … I drop a freight to the castle’s crypts, cut through the night-crawler catacombs, boiler rooms, power plants, mazes, tunnels.
Smoke fogs the food service entrance. Black robed demons, dance above a flaming oven. Two techs from operations are foaming down the fire. First aid tends a cook’s burns in the corner. A mob of dark men and women, dressed in ghost white uniforms, huddle in groups around the stoves, sinks, pots and pans.
“Que Pasa?” I drift into the throngs of food service workers. “Fuego muy malo.” I shake my head. “Is anyone burned?”
The Mexicans eye me warily, back away. “Policia.” “La Chota.” They think.
“Ustedes OK?” I try the shadowy figures again, but they fidget, make fists, turn away.
“Kitchen Clear.” I radio Control. “Call An Ambulance … Send Down A Suit” (if you can find one).
“Been there amigos,” I brood as I zig zag back through the belly of the beast. “Been in between nowhere and no way out.” My mind flashing back to the fearful faces, afraid of the thug in a uniform, afraid of losing what little they have — their hand to mouth jobs, claptrap shelters.
“Anyone who has an advantage,” my old man used to say, “will take advantage of anyone who is at a disadvantage to them.”
I guess I’ve drunk to that one in my day.
Gallery 220 … oil on canvas … 2 small areas paint crushed from impact …
Gallery 220 … oil on board … large white drips lower right …
Gallery 216 … tempers panel … scratches …
Gallery 217 … oil on canvas … swipe mark from hand …
The morning after Free Day’s invasion of the barbarian hordes. Ever since my favorite painting, “Night Hawks,” was slashed, I approach each work with dread.
“Hey Security, where’s that ear guy?”
“That ear guy.”
“You mean Van Gogh?”
“Art Handlers Gallery 201.” I alert Control. “Installation Impressionism.”
The floor sweepers are out in force. Custidians are cleaning the cases. Physical plant is checking climate control. Docents, conservation techs, carpenters, painters, electricians — the sleeping citadel is awakening from its night sweats slumber in … Paradise Lost? Dante’s Inferno? — whatever purgatory God condemns it to toss. (That other Chicago story by Upton Sinclair, The Jungle)?
I check my watch, make one more note about the damaged painting in Gallery 272, move through the connecting door from the Old Masters section into the Executive Suites.
Publications, Promotions, Memberships, Fundraising, Education, Finance, Curatorial, Registration — I check for waste basket fires, hazardous coffee pots, dead archivists slumped on their library shelves, Yale, Harvard, Princeton diplomas hand on every ivory castle inner santum wall. Brown, Vassar, Radcliff …
“You Have Just Entered Civilization.” Someone from publications wants you to know.
“Art Tells Us The Truth About Being Human.” Another office posting quotes. And my favorite, in the Director’s office, straight from the horse’s mouth, an ode to artists for their concern for the poor, tired and huddled masses and some rigmaole about how the museum values this.
I sit in the Swastika lobby at the plush information and membership kiosk beneath the giant vase of fresh cut flowers. I know the gilded Nazi swirls which trim the ceiling of the grand marble entrance are really ancient Asian symbols for peace, hope love. But after Hitler, they are forever swastikas and somehow odly appropriate. “Food Service Setting Up Trustee’s Meeting.” I radio Control as a caravan of breakfast carts rattle through the lobby, pushed by the Mexican ghosts. “Shopkeepers Entering Store … Cashiers, Coat Checks, Entering Visitor’s Service.”
The bee hive starts to buzz, as the drones swarm to work. These are mostly temp types, day labor style slugs you never get to know, as they’re shuffled in and out before benefits kick in: health care, sick days, raises, what they pass for pensions, vacations, personnel acess. (or they just up and leave, even if they manage to get these benefits, becuase the pay’s no good). I need a smoke. Time is pressing. The schedular called off and I’m stuck with the gigsaw puzzle of gallery guard postings: Ancient, Old Master, Contempoary, Expressionist, Impressionist, Asian, American, Rennaissance, Medival, every nook and cranny. “Escort Guards Opening Mich Entrance.” I inform Control.
The daily round of Limos is pulling up outside. Curators crowd the lobby as tycoons sweep through the high arched doors. Grand Dames, Financiers, big money donors to be led on private tours through the museum’s lavish holdings: majestic Monet’s, priceless Picassos, passionate Van Gogh’s, nightmare Dali’s saintly Ruben’s, El Greco martyrs, benevolent Buddha’s, crucified Christ’s, weeping Mary’s, Holocaust horrors.
I look at my watch again. The museum’s “Ghetto brigade” will be dragging in soon — the army of poverty-wage contract guards the museum harvests from the city’s slums. Many won’t show. (Low pay, no sick days, no benefits, why would they?) Those that do aren’t very effective. (I guess it’s hard to give your all on an empty stomach.) I try to place them where they’ll function best, scattered amidst the shrinking seasoned in house force, sheltered from the maddening crowds.
“Out of the black mouth of the big king salmon.” I recall a line from a Carver poem, “Comes pouring the severed heads of herring.”
I post myself in the museum rafters where I can listen to humanity groan.
“Nothing offers what is encouraged when the inundations of ambiguity shape all the aspects of the variant possible. Documented, displayed, discussed, these evocations of disparate assumptions challenge our conception of the correlative conjectural. In ‘Parenthetical Contingencies,’ Focku’s latest piece, the synthesis of synergy and entropy become as iconic as the Mona Lisa, as you can see. However,” the GQ guru lifts a manicured fingertip, “you ain’t seen nothing yet folks! Follow me.”
“Everything cool with Focku?”
Degan, the Modern Art security manager, is suddenly beside me. We watch the gala gathering of museum Trustees follow the curator and the artist Focku through the private showing.
“Cool as the chilled wine and cheese cubes.” I muse. “Kierkegaard cooked up his usual concoction of salami, pastrami, baloney, and fed it to the culturnoti who primly wiped their mouths with money.”
“Now, now, don’t dis our trusty Trustees. They all live hard lots with their mansions and yachts. You keeping the riff raff out?’
“Anyone who looks embalmed is in. All those flush with the blood, sweat, tears of life are out.”
“Good man, you’re a credit to your guard uniform. What’s that one called? ‘Erectile Dysfunction.'”
“Don’t fool with Focku. He’s a genius.”
“I don’t doubt it! So, how’s your shit doing? Showing? Selling? Cutting off your ears?”
“OK, I’ve got two big works in an upcoming anti-war exhibit at the Edge Gallery.”
“Splendid! Horror! Pathos! Inhumanity! Insanity! No clutter of Republican collectors! Your name on an FBI list! You should ask Focku if he wants in.”
“I think I know what he’s say.”
A lone wolf in Poodleville is about the only way I can describe this museum-guard deal. I took it when my grunt gig at a South Side Chicago factory got shipped overseas. I was lucky to get it. It helped that I served in the army. Now, a hardscrabble job which paid pretty well, had decent benefits, treated you OK, is a smie-slave slog for some poor soul in labor hell. (This ain’t heaven, let me tell you.)
In the room the curators come and go talking of Michaelangelo and designer hairdo’s and designer cloths and vintage wines and Lake Front condos. I’ve been stuck monitoring the back entrance lobby since the conclusion of Focku’s private little party, arms folded, face grim, factory muscles buldging through my polyester uniform — directing traffic, keeping the derelicts out, watching for known pickpockets and general ne’er-do-wells. In between my steely eyes sweeps of the bustling crowds, I’ve been scribbling out a poem about an Irag was veteran on a spiral security guard notepad. Writing or sketching is about all I do on post all day — makes up for the lousy pay.
“You on tonight Blake?” Crawly (Creepy Crawly) the special event manager is suddenly slouching toward me, buzz haircut, buck teeth, hook nose, beady eyes. Where do they find these guys?
“I’m short.” Crowley pokes me in the chest with his clipboard. “Let me put that up front. Volunteers get on my good side. You know how it goes for the rest.”
The Million Dollar Donor wingding — the big annual ass kisser that goes on past midnight.
The rich they are not like you and I.” Someone once said to someone. I think it was Fitzgerald to Hemingway. Trucks have been pulling up since noon. Which is the main reason they stuck me on this post — to direct the musicians, jugglers, dancers, caterers, florists, even organizers, contract waiters, waitresses, and extra hired hands of every description, as well as the befuddled museum staff (curators, lecturers, toadies, executives) who never seem to get the ins and outs as to the way these big affairs function.)
“I didn’t sign up.”
Crawley’s beady eyes bore through me like lazar beams. His breath hisses like a radiator (in the dead of winter) past his smoke stained buck teeth.
“What are you writing, Blake?” Crawley looks down at my hands. “Something happen in the lobby today, Blake? Are you writing an incident report> Let me see it.”
He sticks out his hand.
“I was just jotting down some notes about the cash changing job.” I tuck my poem into my blazer pocket and give Crawley a lazy shrug. “I’ve got to train Johnson on the detail tomorrow — safe combinations, pick ups, drop off. The usual stuff.”
“You do that stuff on your own time!” Crawley goes ballistic on me. “You’re supposed to be monitoring this lobby, not scribbling in a book! That stuff constitutes a write up! Three of those and you’re out! Ever here of OT Blake? You come in early for things like that! Got a problem with putting a little extra time in for the museum?”
“Actually I was wondering if I could get on the roster for tonight? I was hoping you weren’t filled up.”
“You’re on. Crawley chortles as he walks away.
What did Creepy Crawley want?”
Romeo Ramero is suddenly beside me, looking grim.
“He signed me up for tonight. It was that or a write up.”
“Me too.” Ramero’s eyes flare. “And I met this chick in Photo and hour ago. I’m supposed to meet her after work.”
“I wanted to get home and finish this painting.” I grumble. “There’s a deadline. I was lucky to be asked to submit something.”
“Tell you what.” Ramero’s eyes narrow. “Heere’s what we do. At euight o’clock I call Control from a pay phone. I tell them I’m your brother. There’s a family emegency and you got to be there. Crawly has to let you go. He’s got no choice about that. We both know he’s too lazy to follow up on the paperwork. Everything will be forgotten before you know it.”
“What about you?”
“Next time, amigo.”
Out of the black, star-domed unknown, nothingness rushes in with a scream — a shrieking circular, no more which mangles the jungle night with flames. Afghanistan, worse now than its ever been, death, agony, destruction … and all for what — nothing? Slanting forward, I slash the canvas with colliding colors, fractured planes, splintered perspectives,tortured rythms, writing, twisting, figures …
Soaked with sweat and splattered with paint I ponder the huge, crazy conflagration of shapes. It looks like nothing so much as a Hieronymus Bosch (on hash) or maybe some asylum inmates “art therapy piece. But I guess that’s war. “Art tells us the truth about being human.” So does a bullet.
Fate, I ruminate. What you elect? What you reject? Seems always to be something you don’t expect. Unless you’re rich. I look around the blue-collar bar, nurse my drink, contemplate my painting. Having cleaned up the apartment, I’m out for a nightcap, giving the day a recap. Half the guys in here have been laid off with the recession. More will be, or forced to take jobs that suck like me. Maybe join the army? War, politicians, poverty, Wall Street, corporate greed, exploited labor, lavish parties, Creepy Crawley —
fate is in the hands of whose dealing the cards and we all know who they are.
Cubical people live in corporate cells.” I toast life’s wishing wells. “Artists live in fairy tales. We all die in lullabies. Pleasant dreams and goodnight.”