Clip-On Tie

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I

Relentlessly the minutes, some of them golden, touched.

—John Ashbery

I had a real problem with time during my first few weeks of guarding. I sought a way to compress it, to make the six hour shift go faster. I tried meditation but I’ve never been quite sure if I’m doing it right. It always feels like I’m just being quiet.

Now I try not to do any waiting while on post. I use the time to build the useless or impossible things that populate the only intellectual frontier that interests me anymore. Today I started working on an opera about the Ohio state legislature, to be sung in German. After six hours on post it’s starting to come together.

Where the guards lean against the walls, the blue polyester jackets leave stains. Every few months the curators notice these blurry marks and for a few days we are warned not to lean. The older guards get together and moan about their feet. “In Philadelphia,” one always says, “the guards sit in chairs.”

I’m surprised at how many of the museum’s visitors are upset by the distortion of the human form in modern art. Is it the violence? It’s classical structure that always gives me the creeps. The blank eyes, whether stone or metal, always look murdered.

Mr. Demario is the most romantic of the guards. In the middle of a discussion about hat sizes he turns to me and says “I have a very big head … it’s so full of dreams.”

“I want to write unfinished christmas plays” because everyone’s present happiness depends on their image and predictions of the future. “I want to write obscure Danish plays” because everyone’s present happiness depends on the idea that there is a lot out there that we haven’t seen yet.

All the guards know the lady with Tourette’s syndrome. She comes to every new show and, despite her shaking and strange cussing, never gets near the painting or causes any trouble. Its the other museumgoers that look over at us as if to say “why don’t you do something?” when she stands before the priceless Pollock, grunting “nigger … nigger … nigger.”

I painted the back of a nickel and quietly placed it of the gallery’s stone floor. A blue sky and clouds over Monticello. An hour has gone by without anyone noticing it. Finally a little girl picks it up and puts it in her pocket.

I asked Ondre, a Mormon guard, if he looks forward to the Judgement Day. He said, “sometimes, when the city and the job get to be too much. That’s when I say, ‘I don’t care if the Lord comes today,’ even if I’m not ready.”

Over the course of a play, the audience fades and fades until the moment of applause when they take the room back, feeling their presence and power. “We have not been erased.” Clap, clap, clap.

Octavio Torres is the oldest guard of all. He is in his seventies and his body is completely rigid from arthritis. An ex-boxer with a thick Puerto Rican accent, he is barely five feet tall. On his days off he watches Popeye in his South Bronx Apartment. “I like him. He takes punishment. He remind me of Jake LaMotta.”

Torres loves to joke around. In the locker room after work he tells everyone that Mohammed lived in a tree and ate bananas back home in Africa. Mohammed laughs and calls Torres “little Spanish faggot.” Everyone is so happy, so glad to be going home or out into the city. Torres and I look at each other, smiling, and he says “we are men. we must joke.”

II

A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth.

—John Singer Sargent

I was operating the elevator when the repairman came aboard. After a lot of small talk he let me in on an industry secret: the “door close” button is not wired to anything. “It’s just a pacifier,” he said.

On a normal day I think in questions: “Should I quit my job? Why can’t I relate to people? Where am I going?” I can never answer them conclusively and only wear myself out. When I’m high in the back of a club listening to Son Seals play I only think in answers: “I’ll move to El Paso this fall. These solos are wandering into every unused space. My girlfriend is pretty good looking after all. I should see about buying a mausoleum.”

A municipal concession to human psychology: The insides of buses are lit at night because people will not sit in dark rooms with strangers.

I bought some greeting cards in a Nungessers junk shop last night. They’re not much more than twenty years old but the sentiments are already foreign. Fluff from other eras always turns my stomach. What if no one feels these feelings anymore. Do they go down in history like famous clothes?

I wonder if Jackson Pollock unconsciously designed so many of these canvases to have the same dimensions as U.S. paper currency, accidentally imbuing them with some concrete power.

Working at the museum is changing the way I look at everyday objects. Eating at an Italian restaurant, I look at the red and white gridded tablecloth and wonder that all the dishes have their owned unnamed coordinates.

All the guards are freaks. That is a fact. Wouldn’t standing alone in a corner six hours a day over many years change you?

After work I head back home to Brooklyn, where the nights smell like burnt hair. I see a mother yelling at her kid for working the candy machine wrong. She takes all the fun out of candy.

Susan’s blind date was a real mess. At the end of the night he walked her home. She was locked out of her own apartment. Frustrated, she asked him to break the door in. He grunted and bucked against it until she was completely repulsed. The sight of him brutally breaking into her apartment frightened her. She screamed for him to get out.

I overhear two tourists walking by my post in the museum: “The Orientals have to invade Paris by 1998.”

Barnet Newman on an Arizona road painting crew. Richard Serra paperweights for sale in the museum gift shop. Did the first impressionists have glaucoma?

Older lady and friend in museum today: “This is my first chinese companion. I am going through a nervous period right now. Thank you … This is my chinese companion.”

I walked into the locker room and catch Tony Pasciucco cleaning earwax off his hearing aid, “Christmas carolers shot dead in Brooklyn last night.”

“What’s that?”

III

I guess you’re a bore, but in that you’re not charmless, because a bore is a straight line that finds a wealth in division.

—Lou Reed

An autograph hound: “I get them and lose them or throw them away. I only enjoy the asking. Or I concentrate on one star and get hundreds from him.”

The tired Indian counterman at the coffeeshop saddens me like the Bhopal accident never could. It’s the nearness, of course. As I’m leaving I call out to the manager, “you have shit coffee. Fuck you.”

A woman walks onto the gallery floor. All the guards look over. She appears to be a star, a celebrity of some sort. Finally the word comes around: she’s just rich.

New York is never more beautiful than it is right after work.

Waiting for the subway, I noticed a bit of neatly written graffiti on a movie poster. “Keep a clear head” printed on Rocky’s forehead. Free advice to the city. I’m positive that it’s the same hand that wrote “concentrate” above that urinal in Hoboken.

Burgoyne Diller’s paintings reflect nicely on the glossy floors. These reflections should be the actual works, the paintings could function as the projection devices.

I wonder if Donald Judd got his idea for the wall boxes from the rows of air conditioning units jutting out of apartment building windows.

The Queen of Sweden came into the museum with her entourage today. Across the gallery Mr. Demario’s elaborate hand gestures told me that a “knockout” was at large. She stood in front of the Jeff Koons sculpture as the guide intoned “these two vacuum cleaners, which are hermaphrodites …”

One of the worst things about guarding is having to stand next to tourists that have doused themselves in perfume. Shouldn’t they be subject to ticketing by the police? How is this different from walking around with a loud radio on your shoulder, or reaching out and touching a stranger’s face?

The sense of humor of other ages has always seemed bad.

I kill time on post by studying coins. The detail on the back of the penny is incredible (you can see tourists walking up the memorial steps, and the statue through the columns) but it’s a shame that Lincoln has to be on the front. Why not Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire?

Mohammed has threatened to use African magic to get our supervisor fired. I spend all day encouraging him to go ahead with his plan.

“If I have sex with Kelly while she’s under the impression that I’m rich, it will certainly teach her a lesson, but am I right in teaching it?”

The ceilings of the museum are packed with asbestos that occasionally drops to the gallery floor in small clumps. Museum policy states that the entire building must be shut down and the workers be sent home with pay when this happens. The fact that the asbestos had been regularly falling next to Eric’s guard post has the administration suspicious. Rumor has it that he brings samples to work in a jar.

In the 1940s men often traced the shape of a curvy woman in the air with their hands. Women were known to throw their drinks into men’s faces when angry.

I stepped outside the museum on my lunch break and smelled burning leaves. “Ah fall,” I thought for a second, and then realized my mistake: a building was burning down the block. I wonder how long the mind can be suspended between these two answers, the wrong cause and the right cause, because I like hanging in that split second.

I was surprised to find out that Wittgenstein was gay.

IV

Move a fin and the world turns

—Throbbing Gristle

There is a beggar across the street from the museum. Every time he is given change he looks away and says “thank you, God” just above a whisper. People walk away slightly hurt and angry. Steve hates him.

When I was six, I saw my father nonchalantly rip a dollar bill in half. I could not believe my eyes.

Three people walked into the museum restaurant today. All three wore white turbans. At first I thought they had head wounds, then realized they were members of an eastern religion that I could not quite place. They stood and gazed over the salad bar, considering their strict dietary laws.

Lou giving advice on how to dress: “Now you go get yourself a pair of black shoes and a pair of brown shoes … ”

Kenneth Noland and Brian Marden’s color field paintings are intended to be non-referential but they cause me to imagine strange high school football team uniforms anyway.

Sometimes, out of the blue, I’ll speak in a rigid monotone: “Hello Joan” that really unnerves Joan, whoever the hell she is.

Waiting for a friend at the 33rd street subway station, we look at the map, covered in stops. Steve looks at me angrily and says “what makes you think she’ll be here and not here, or here, or at any of these?”

Two men on TV point guns at each other: “Drop it.” “No, you drop it.” “No, you drop it.” I’m interested in how the director will resolve this loop.

His paintings were like speculations on the future published in the full knowledge that they would one day become obsolete collector’s items.

Mr. Demario has a real talent for writing jokes about great opening lines: “I was at this parade in India … ” or “I was at a roller rink when it began to storm and I missed the last bus home … ” When he finishes he laughs nervously, his lips rolling back like carpets to reveal how wrecked his teeth are.

When looking at Donald Judd’s sculpture, it helps to keep in mind that the polio virus is a perfectly symmetrical twenty-sided solid.

The restaurant next to the museum stopped putting toothpicks out for the customers. One month later they closed down. I had warned them to put the toothpicks back out.

I spend a lot of my day in front of Rockwell Kent’s “The Trapper.” The painting always engages me because I’m torn on whether it depicts a sunrise or a sunset. They seem equally possible and there are no clues in the shape of the snowbanks or in the position of the sun to let me know. The docent tries to convince me that it doesn’t matter, that there can be two paintings. But that kind of lazy permissiveness obscures the third “true” painting.

Lawren shows me her distorted “wanted poster” woodcuts. “But you could never catch anybody with these things.” “That’s the point,” she says. “Your point is that people shouldn’t get caught?”

These pictures were titled “Jackson’s Body” or “Jackson’s Head” but never “Jackson.”

Mr. Demario is having more problems. His wife, a nun who left the convent at age 34 to marry him, has developed a spastic colon. He has invited me out to dinner so that we can discuss his problems in greater detail than we can on the gallery floors. He knows a place where they make a great “sweet and pungent pork.”

With Frederic Church’s paintings, looking one hundred miles into the distance, over mountain ranges and beyond, it’s always difficult to remember that the paint is only a millimeter thick.

Why did jazz turn up its nose at the tuba?

Last night at the Biennial opening, I overheard Frank Stella whispering some wisecracks about the new Rauschenberg piece to his wife. She gently punched him in the ribs as if to say “behave!” and they walked on. After seeing Rauschenberg through the eyes of a peer, I feel more confident about calling his late work “flimsy.”

V

If there’s ever a problem, I film it and it’s no longer a problem. It’s a film.

—Andy Warhol

It would be a tragedy to spend your whole life desperately wanting to be something that you already were, all along.

On Fridays the guards are given ten minutes to take their paychecks to the bank. The beautiful tellers have become arrogant from handling money all day. If they have time, they flirt with the big accounts.

European tourists move about the museum half-interested, exactly fifty percent interested. Do they ever spill a drink or piss on their shoes?

Sometimes, when a beautiful Italian girl wanders into an empty gallery I fantasize about walking over and kissing her on the neck. When she turned around and saw that I was a guard, I would straighten up and whisper “no kissing allowed.”

The classicist’s theme is the recovery of the subjective mind, the healing of the subjective mind. Well, our courts are clogged with these minds.

The nineteen year old Cusies are the only twins on the guard force. The girls insist that their spooked grandmother tried to murder them twice during their infancy. First, she gave them diet gum in an attempt to dehydrate them. Second, she sent them new blankets in the mail—the blankets had been soaked in insecticide.

Christ’s message twisted: Only love your enemies.

If the fable of “The grasshopper and the ants” was amended so that the world ended before the turn of winter, then the grasshopper would have been wiser and the moral would have vindicated him. In a story, the location of the ending is very deliberate.

I’ve been photographing the imprints that deck chairs leave on the back of people’s legs.

A lady comes into the museum: “I am a woman on TV. You have never had a TV … now get off my show!” It only took a few minutes of this kind of talk to make me feel like the intruder.

“He” was a sensitive reader, almost too delicate to withstand the commands and admonitions of punctuation.

Two drunks outside the Greenpoint subway: “You better leave an hour early to get there on time.” They are lying, they never go anywhere, I thought to myself. For whose benefit would they be acting? Why am I so suspicious?

John Baldessari burned all his pre-1967 paintings. “I think that’s odd behaviour but I would like to get in touch with him anyway, to see about using the ashes as makeup for this play I’m writing about British coal miners.”

After guarding masterpieces for weeks, it feels good to stand in my dentist’s office before this cheap painting of a ship.

If the world was a bit smaller, just three neighborhoods smaller, maybe things would work out. I’ve heard that there’s a scarcity of luxury. In the movie theatres each person has to share an armrest with a stranger.

What Duchamp did with the urinal no longer surprises me, what surprises me is the idea that they had urinals back then.

I am waiting for the bus when I smell something burning. I turn to the man standing next to me and ask if he smells it too. In preparing to speak he lets a cloud of condensed breath out into the freezing air. For a half second my mind plays a trick on me. “Oh no, he’s burning,” I think.

No one gets hungry at the sight of a lush cornfield or a herd of cattle. It’s enough to tell you that we’re full of education, not awareness.

The painter eyes his subject. It’s a single piece of fruit, yellow and shaped like a lightbulb, split open to show the cavity where the pit would normally be, if the pit were not swirling around inside the painter’s mouth.

David Berman is an American poet, cartoonist, and singer-songwriter best known for his work with indie-rock band the Silver Jews.

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