In Posse Review, Winter 2001
Watchword, Autumn 2003
April. The weather is getting warmer. The other day I was walking home after my stop-off, and I looked through the window of the old office building on West 52nd they’ve gutted and are turning into a Sure-Guard Storage. They finally installed the shiny corrugated lockers. I looked through the window and just happened to be right in front of number 1354, which is also the last four digits of my Social Security number. This may mean something. Or not. Sometimes these coincidences mean things. Omens. Sometimes I just think they do. Then one of three things happens. Either I am disappointed when nothing happens, or I unconsciously make something happen so as not to be disappointed, or something actually just happens. But if that’s the case then how can I tell the difference between an actual significant coincidence and a falsely significant one?
First day of the Chuck Close show. Giant paintings of people’s heads. I’m stationed under one of the ugliest. It’s of a really old lady. Black and white. It’s my own fault. I always ask for Gallery Two. It has a view of the lobby, and people’s kids usually aren’t cranky enough to want to touch the paintings yet. Little did I know. The painting’s a good 10 feet by 10 feet. She has a million wrinkles, just stares blankly. But the kicker is that there’s a fucking hole in the middle of her neck. The wrinkles go right up to it, like a volcano. Scary. It looks like a photo, but the guy painted it with his fingers.
The show was packed as any opening I’ve worked. I tell twenty-seven people where the bathrooms are. “Across the main hall to the right.” Sometimes they say “Thanks” or “Thank you.” I never say “You’re welcome.” There’s something presumptuous about “You’re welcome,” especially, in my position. Like, “No. Thank you.” I try to be above all that.
I heard Mr. Close was even here in his wheelchair. He’s paralyzed pretty seriously and that makes people like his art more. Inspirational. A youngish woman came and stared at the old lady for about an hour. The painting is called “Fanny.” Kids giggle. At one point the young woman looked at me, self-conscious for having stayed so long. I looked away. It happens every now and then. From time to time she’d sit on the bench and write in a notebook. She was old to be doing that, maybe thirty-five. Too old to be hanging out in a museum writing in a notebook. She wore corduroys and a button down shirt, white, with a sweater. She was thin, very thin, too thin even, and tallish, maybe 5’8” or 9” with big frizzy hair, but she slouched, hunched her shoulders in like she was embarrassed to have tits. You have to be able to describe people, in case something happens.
After work I stop at Babeland. Babeland is one of those peep show places where you put tokens in like a video game slot and a window (a 15” x 15” hole where a window used to be, actually) lifts slowly up and you talk to the to the naked woman you want to touch and she says “up or down” or “high or low” and you give them a few bucks and they let you touch.
I ignore the token guy even though he knows me. I just say five dollars please and he gives me the tokens. I go in the room that Nadja usually works and hope for the best. The rooms are like phone booths and they all surround a stage. There are four stages, loud music and bad lights. Nadja is usually on stage three. I take booth three to stage three. I put a token in and the window grinds up. Booth three has a noisy window but it’s a lucky number so I take it anyway. Today Nadja is there. I feed the machine extra and give her five bucks through the window. I tell her “high” and she kneels down so I can reach her. I hold one breast gently with my left hand and jerk-off with my right. I like how heavy it is. The breast. I like that she kneels so we’re at eye level. I like to feel the weight, the warmth. Nadja’s a big blond who always looks me in the eye. She says she’s Slovenian and I like the sound of it. She has some kind of accent. I know they don’t give their real names, and they really shouldn’t. Sometimes she holds my face in her hands and calls me “baby.” I know it’s an act but still it feels good. Baby, she says, my sweet baby. I always forget to bring tissues.
Sunny today. Brisk. It occurs to me just recently that I really like living in the West Forties. There’s still kind of a neighborhood feel, if a seedy one, and some Italians, Irish, Polish are mixed in with Blacks and the PRs. I blend in. Nobody bothers me. It’s near the peeps and the subways and walking distance from work. I go home, make a TV dinner, sleep, get up, go to work, Babeland, home. That’s pretty much it. Not so bad, really. I’ve got health insurance and a retirement plan with a 401K. I even like wearing the silly uniform: “blue blazer, white shirt, dark tie of your choice, grey slacks [khakis optional, 6/15-Labor Day], black nondescript shoes.” I like having a visible position in the world.
Day 5 with Fanny. She looks at everyone. (Note: find out how artists do that — make the painting look at you no matter where you stand.) I have to admit, I’m getting to like her face. A gentle grandma kind of face. The lines around her eyes, around her mouth. She is very calm. I’m never that calm. I look forward to seeing it in the morning. That girl, that youngish woman who was there the first day, was back, and it was much less crowded. She stayed for maybe half-an-hour this time. She’s actually a little cute. Skinny though. No Nadja. As if I could ever get a Nadja, let alone a freaky skinny girl who looks at paintings for hours at a time.
I have a goal. I want to be as calm and peaceful as Fanny with her wrinkles and her wide face and her neck hole. That’s my goal. Thought of it just today and practiced all day. Ideal job for it. I mean, if I was, say, a check-out guy in a pet store, no way. So I stood there and I breathed. After work I stopped at BDalton and bought a book-on-tape about relaxation. It pretty much says to sit there and breathe. $15.95 I paid for that. “Repeat until calm like old lady in Chuck Close painting.”
Chuck Close (abridged) Chronology (from catalog):
1940 Born in Monroe, Wash. Only child.
1946 Parents give him oil paints from Sears-Roebuck Catalog.1952 Father dies.
1953 Mother takes him to Seattle Art Museum, where he sees a drip painting by Jackson Pollack. “At first I was outraged. It didn’t look like anything . . . but later I was dribbling paint
all over my canvas — probably even later the
1958 Graduates from Everett High School. Enters Everett Junior College as an Art Major.
1960 Transfers to Washington State.
1961 Visits NYC for first time. Goes to Yale Summer School of Music and Art.
1962–64 Attends Yale U. School of Art and
1965 BFA with highest honors from Yale.
1966 Starts working from photographs.
1967 Marries Leslie Rose. First sale to Museum: Walker Art Center.
1970 Referred to as “Chuck” in an interview. Name sticks.
1973 Birth of first daughter, Georgia Molly.
1975 Purchases house in Southampton, Long Island.
1980 Mother dies.
1984 Birth of second daughter, Maggie Sarah.
1988 Stricken with convulsion that leaves him in a state of “incomplete quadriplegia.”
Begins painting with brushes strapped to wrists.
1991 Exhibits new paintings at Whitney Biennial.
1998 Retrospective at MOMA.
Overheard by me and Skinny:
“That isn’t the issue, Arlene.”
“Fine. But then why’d he have to make her look so awful? I’m telling you, he’s an anti-Semite.”
“How the hell can you say that. You think everything’s about that. How do you know she’s even Jewish, because she looks Jewish? Who’s the anti-Semite, now, Arlene? And how do you know this Chuck Close isn’t Jewish? Didn’t think of that, did you? Maybe Close used to be Closeman or Closeberg.”
“I know he’s not Jewish, Melvin, because I take an interest in these things, that’s how. And I know anti-Semitism when I see it.”
“You know, Arlene, she doesn’t even look that bad. Just a very wrinkly nice old lady.”
“With a hole in her Goddamn neck, Mel. With a hole.”
During above conversation, Skinny smiled at me and I smiled back and rolled my eyes. Henry, you devil, you.
Henry David Schenk: Chronology:
1959 Born in Reading, PA to George and Marian Schenk.
1964 Parents die in car crash after movies. Goes to live with Grandmother in Parsippany, NJ.
1964–66 Attends Parsippany PS 3. Kids call him Hank, in mocking reference to baseball player. Is no athlete. Hates the name Hank forever.
1969 Grandmother dies. Goes to live with Mean Aunt Gretchen in Wilmington, DE
1976 Graduates Monroe High School in Wilmington. Starts attending Wilmington Area Community College as English major.
1977 Drops out of WACC. Moves to NYC without telling Aunt or anyone else. No-one else to tell anyway.
1978 Gets job at Museum of Modern Art. Finds rent controlled apartment on W. 46th.
1977–98 Stops talking to most people. Discovers peep shows. Works.
Day off. I went to the museum and went through the entire exhibit. I don’t say hi to staff and they ignore me back. Up close the paintings really are abstract, squiggles, fingerprints, dots, all in little boxes. Grids. That saying about “the forest for the trees” comes to mind. I take the audio tour. Mr. Chuck Close himself narrates it. I always take the tour. I want to be able to answer questions — occasionally I am asked. I like the paintings he’s made since his seizure the best. Huge grids filled with little squiggles of color that from a distance make up the big faces. Fucking incredible.
On the audio, Close seemed pretty happy for a guy who’s lost nearly all use of his limbs. Not bitter at all. He seems like a nice guy, too. Not a snob. Loves his family, his work, his friends that he paints. I wonder if his dick works.
I stayed as long as I could, but it was a lot of people to move through. Too many people thinking things. Probably not about me especially, but some do. They look at my clothes, my balding head, the greasy long hair down my neck. I wonder if I smell bad even though there’s no reason that I should. At work it’s easy; I’m invisible, and even to people I’m not invisible to, they can’t judge. I didn’t pick the clothes, so they can’t.
Later: Babeland, the token guy says, “Off duty, today, officer?” in his Arab accent, but I ignore him. Asshole. I wonder what he says to his buddies about my street clothes. Nadja doesn’t care what I wear. That’s what’s important. Today she was especially gentle with me. I told her I was all keyed-up from being around lots of people at the exhibit. Calmed me right down, Nadja did.
Home. The News, then Jeopardy and the Wheel, then whatever crap is on. (NOTE: Look into cable! It’s cheaper now.) A Hungry Man Turkey Dinner. The turkey’s the best part. I’d love to get turkey in every compartment just once, like a factory slip-up. Turkey in the potatoes section, Turkey in the apple sauce section. . .
This beer commercial on TV really pisses me off. It shows this yuppie guy in a peep show booth but instead of just a naked woman he’s watching a sexy woman in a bikini peel the label off a Bud Lite bottle. His mouth hangs open and just when she’s about to rip it completely off, the window starts to shut and he panics. Then it switches to a picture of the logo and a stupid announcer voice says “Feeling a little hot under the collar?” Then they cut back to the window and his fingers reaching under trying to pull it back up. The following are my objections:
1. It’s just stupid.
2. Women don’t strip in the rooms. They’re already naked, or sometimes wearing some little piece of underwear.
3. Real peep show women are no way as good looking as the woman peeling the label in the commercial.
4. The exciting part of the beer is not the label coming off, it’s drinking it. And isn’t that supposed to be cool and refreshing not sexy and hot?
5. If you ever tried to pull open the window they’d have security on you in a flash.
6. Handsome young yuppies don’t go to peep shows. They have girlfriends or go to a fancy strip club (which I’ve never understood what’s so great about because everything’s out in public so you can’t get off. It’s just a big tease, as I see it.) No, peep shows are full of slobs like me, and a lot of really short immigrants who want to see big blond American women, which the women usually aren’t. American, that is.
I put some postcards of the faces from the exhibit in my room, over the bed, to help me practice my relaxation technique. I only bought the really calm ones. He takes their picture, then makes it into a big grid, then he makes the painting. But how does he get them so calm?
Skinny came again today. She kind of looked over, to acknowledge we know each other, maybe. Probably not. After work, Nadja wasn’t at B’land, called in sick, they said. I could tell the token guy was laughing at me, but I had to ask. So I just went home. I’m kind of stuck on Nadja right now. Crap on TV tonight.
Nightmare: God, it was awful. I was on a date with Nadja. We were in a fancy restaurant, only it wasn’t really fancy at all, everything was fake and falling apart and the waiter was rude. I chose the place, of course. I was wearing my uniform and some kind of a cap like Ralph Kramden wore to drive his bus on The Honeymooners. This didn’t bother me because it hid my shiny head. Nadja said nothing. I said nothing. The food was terrible. The restaurant was bitter cold. Cold steak, cold baked potato, cold coffee. Then I realized I had no money. Searching pockets. Total panic. It went on like this forever.
“Have you ever been in a car wreck with the car spinning out of control? You know that strange eerie calmness that takes over as you almost go into slow motion? You turn the wheel this way, that way. Only when it’s all over you fall apart and go into shock. This was an attenuated, drawn-out case of that, where many days I experienced a profound calmness, eerie even to me.”
-Chuck Close, after his “disabling event”
The above almost perfectly describes my entire life to date, especially the “slow motion” part . I have always known this. In JC I wrote a poem:
ber that time
through the park
after a winter storm
and suddenly spinning
but out of control
a wide arc
five six seconds
before finally thumping
gently into a snowbank
laughing at safety.
One of my only memories of my mom. I think it happened right before the real accident.
I thought of telling Nadja about my nightmare today but then I figured she’d probably think I was obsessed, so I just said, “Up, please” and gave her a five and held her soft, heavy breast, felt its weight in my hand, and my own weight in my other hand. Warm. (NOTE: Tissues!)
Skinny came today. Smiled and said hello! I said hello back. I think she’s actually not afraid of me. Likes me? Easy there, boy. I don’t know why most women act so scared. Maybe they’re not, maybe unattracted or repulsed would be a better way of putting it.
1. get haircut
2. buy some new clothes
2. buy deodorant
3. shower daily
No. This is so stupid. Skinny wants to be left alone, too. Just like me. But if she wants to be left alone and I want to be left alone, why do I want to get my hair cut, etc.? And why did she go out of her way to say hello?
No Skinny for the past four days, but Fanny’s very kind. Watches me, comforts me (not really, but still). I am approaching her calm, her resolve. Breathing. To be so calm at the end of your life, with a hole in your neck no less.
Cut my hair in the back this morning, and bought some deodorant.
No Skinny again. I’m such a moron. Why complicate it. I’ll miss the painting when the show ends. Why make it worse by pining for her. Shit. At least Nadja was at work. I spent a lot of money, didn’t try to just come quick and get out like usual. Ten bucks in tokens, and ten in tip, but it was worth it. She’s the only woman who’s held me in my life. Held my face, anyway. If you don’t count my mom, which you shouldn’t, she’s my mom, after all, plus I hardly remember her. Nadja is good to me. Our arrangement is so simple, so clear. Skinny’s too skinny, anyway, that’s why I named her that, RIGHT?
Last week of the exhibit. Friday is the closing. Tomorrow’s Tuesday. Skinny’s been here nearly every Tuesday. If she comes, if she gives me a hello smile, a look, anything, I’m going to talk to her. I am going to talk to Skinny. I am going to. . . . “Hello. Isn’t this painting wonderful?” I’ll say, and talk about Fanny. Maybe I’ll say something about Mr. Close, how Fanny was his mother-in-law he was especially fond of, or talk about his accident or about how much I like getting close-up the way he does when he paints them especially with the recent color ones or how I have a goal to be calm like Fanny and another goal — NONONONONO! If I’m really going to do this, got to slow down, one step at a time, one step at a time. Like a cooking show. PrepStep One, Step Two, Step Three: Quiche. Am I really going to do this? She probably won’t come anyway. End of issue.
She came. Skinny came and she smiled, plain as day. I went over, said something, I was so nervous I don’t even know. I know I didn’t say that much, and that’s good. Anyway, then we actually had a little conversation. She said, “I wish I had your job and could look at the paintings all day.” Then I said, “It gets kind of old after a while, but I will miss ‘Fanny’ here.” She said “I’m coming on Friday, will you be here?” I said, “It’s my day off but I’m going to the reception. Maybe get a look at Mr. Close.” She said, “Maybe we can walk through the whole show together,” and laughed. I laughed and said absolutely nothing. Froze completely. “Noonish?” she finally said, her face all red. “Uh, noonish,” I kind of nodded, then went back to my post without falling down or anything. Unbelievable! She stayed for a few minutes and looked at Fanny, then left in a hurry. Hope I didn’t scare her.
Bought some clothes. NEW clothes. Plain stuff. Levi’s cords, navy blue. Some tee-shirts, yellow, brown, red. Cardigan, grey. Plaid button down shirt. Sneakers. Casual wear. I’m wearing the cords, the plaid shirt, the cardigan. I’m breathing.
Today Sarah (not “Skinny”) and I walked through the exhibit. The first thing she said was “What’s your name, by the way?” and we both laughed. Nadja calls me ‘Baby’ flashed through my brain, but then I said “Henry”. Her name is “Sarah, with an h” which I took at first to mean Shara or Hsara (I was a little nervous) but then I got it.
We looked at the paintings. Breathing. We didn’t talk much for a while, beyond saying “I like this one” or “He’s kinda creepy” about another. Then we sat on a bench in Gallery Eight and looked at a painting called “Roy.” The “lozenges” (Close calls them) of color that make up the big face. Rippled like through water. After a while, Sarah whispered in my ear “He looks like a bird.” and I said “Roy the bird-man.” We looked at the painting for a while more. Finally, I said “Ready?” and she nodded. We went back out into the lobby where they had set up a cordoned-off area for Mr. Close and his friends and the press and rich people whose names are on the wall. I went up to Jerome who was working the cordon and he just opened it up and let us in like we were invited, didn’t say a word. (Note: Thank Jerome!!!) We stayed at the edge of the party by the food and watched. I concentrated on my breathing. Finally, there was Chuck Close wheeling his way down the hall. He looked like the later self-portraits. Balding, bearded, glasses, slightly chubby, friendly looking guy in an electric wheelchair with wife, kids, and museum big-wigs in tow. They came into the party and people tried not to swamp him but did anyway and I lost sight of him for a while. We watched the hubbub across the room. After about forty minutes, the crowd started to thin. I could see Mr. Close was getting ready to go. I said, “Let’s follow him out,” and Sarah said, “Let’s do.” We hurried down the hall caught up to the right side of his chair. He had his younger girl in his lap and the rest of his family were on his left. As we passed I leaned in and said, “Thank you.” I think I startled him, because he stopped. Everyone did. Then he looked me right in the eye. He said “You’re welcome.”
I, Jamie Berger (tired of writing third-person autobios) can be found on Facebook, or on Twitter/Instagram @15minsjamieb. I am the host and creator of 15 minutes: a podcast about fame, which can be found on iTunes and Soundcloud and pretty much everywhere you listen to podcasts. I would love to hear of any opportunities to find sponsorship or join a podcast network. I also wrote the essay “Peep Show” which refers to this story and places it took/led me.