Martha and Megaliths

We eat that fish, and the fish is delicious. Then she discusses the fish with the chef, its preparation, its presentation. We are at a Michelin one star restaurant in Quimper, Brittany. It was the sea bass or dace, flesh soft and delicate. She praises the chef for his insight, presenting this fish of delicate flesh on a complementary bed of crisp romaine and frisée. The greens support and contrast the soft white flesh. She compliments him for the discrete touches of herbs and butter. She is Martha Rose Shulman, a young woman but an already legendary cookbook author of The Vegetarian Feast, a groundbreaking gourmet vegetarian cookbook. She subsequently authors many other popular cookbooks, mostly vegetarian. She wrote The Vegetarian Feast when she lived in Austin, Texas. She moved to Paris then and sublet the apartment of Paolo Picasso, Pablo’s son. She supports herself as a food writer, and by making a popular dinner once a week for a small crowd, as a rent party. The walls are heavy with signed Picasso posters. She has befriended my son, Nikolai, who works off the books for Andrée Putman, the trend-setting designer. I am teaching on exchange in the Languedoc, at the University in Montpellier, and take frequent TGV jaunts to Paris.

Ms. Shulman has a hankering to investigate the cuisine of oats in Celtic Bretagne. She invites me to come with her in her sturdy, comfortable Peugeot 403. It’s a privilege to do a food trip anywhere in France, and with a well known food writer it’s doubly rich. We head out for Brittany. I note that Jack Kerouac’s family comes from Brittany, “Ker” meaning the farm or land and “ouac” being the designation of the landholder or farmer—Ker’ouac. This, I realize, is similar to Welsh Celtic designations, like Caer’philly, the provenance of my favorite Welsh cheese.

Our first stop is in Tours on the way North. Martha’s fifteen year old nephew has been exported to France to spend the year of his potential delinquency with a French family in Tours. They are generous and hospitable. The kid seems nicely tamed. He is into bike racing in a big way. They put us up for a night so we can see him compete in one of the many junior bike races staged all over France. We drive to some point on the route and watch him wheel by in the pack. It is a thrilling few seconds. Equally thrilling is the breakfast conversation. The master of the house is a psychiatrist. On the door of his office he flaunts a poster, a portrait of Freud assembled from drawings of nude female bodies deftly drawn so their pubic bushes serve as Freud’s beard and coif. The talk over an American style breakfast of bacon and eggs is about life in France since World War Two. The psychiatrist whines about the situation. “I don’t know what has happened. It’s all the Russians have moved in. The Poles, the Jews, the Africans.” He must know that the boy comes from a Jewish family, as do Martha and myself. The boy tells us about going with this family to a beach in Normandy, renting a cabaña, setting out blankets, umbrella, but after looking around the shrink’s mother said, “We can’t stay here, Marcel.” “Why, mamma?” The shrink was slightly annoyed. “Look around. There are Jews on this beach.” Anti-Semitism is a strange affliction. How did she know? Could she smell the lack of foreskins? She couldn’t have been looking at noses. The French themselves are celebrated for their prominent noses. Cyrano de Bergerac is the world’s greatest play featuring the nose. Luckily the boy had enough equanimity to let these moments wash off him.

We first went to Normandy, to see Mt. St. Michel, which like much beauty is best viewed in the middle distance, reflected in the tidal flat. From this distance it is all serenity. It sits across the skim of water like a gothic apparition, as if its beauty unscathed has settled there from a more perfect, more gorgeous planet. Then you get close and are assaulted by the souvenir stands with their models of the abbey in all sizes, banners that you would take to a football game, t-shirts, postcards, posters. The tschottske buying pressure is on, so many merchants trying to survive out there in the tidal flat, pressuring the tourist to buy a thing that he can throw into the closet and whip out for the next yard sale.

Martha inquires wherever we stop about the preparation of oats, and it seems wherever we stop we are in the presence of megaliths, of menhir, of dolmen tombs, stones placed on the land with mysterious intention. These echoes of the Stone Age have a mystifying hold on me. Maybe I’m a stone age guy. I stand awash in the pearly light of Bretagne, in the midst of lines of these thousands of great stones that once in prehistory were hauled here from far away. They have been standing at Carnac, tipped up vertically in parallel lines maybe since 4500 B.C. From the back of my skull I feel as if I’m regressing into the past while through the eyeholes the parallel lines draw me forward into whatever sessions are coming. The people who placed these megaliths knew what they were doing. They set them so carefully by the thousands to monitor the horizons. Why would people haul massive stones with nothing but manpower over great distances to make the Stonehenge? Was this a response to the night, to the power and sweep of the Milky Way? To the processes of sunlight? How do they measure solar, celestial phenomena? One story local people tell is that the stones were once a Roman legion now ossified, frozen in place. These processionals of mass have an urgency for me. Their force transcends their weight, as if they have a potential incandescence that translates weight into light and lightness. Now a residue of stone consciousness persists at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the Black Stone of the Kaabah in Mecca, the kissable Blarney Stone in Cork. The Israelites tipped up stones all over the Negev, faced them East, and called them the house of the Lord. These Brittany megaliths sponge the light during the day, and measure out the moon and stars at night. You don’t have to see them. The blind surely take in their presence. They comb the danger out of storms. They count the wind. Yipes! I wax metaphorical here. Could be stoned. Long before I came to Brittany, or saw Stonehenge, when I lived in Italy, in Puglia, I remember coming on a megalith in the center of a tiny town called Uggiano La Chiesa. So far South, I thought. I’d been looking at plenty of sophisticated, complicated Italian art and architecture, but this grabbed me equally. I don’t know why. Like I said, maybe I’m a stone-age guy. I squatted in the dust of the small roundabout and stared at this anonymous monument against oblivion. I watched it in the grinding midday heat and sun. People had erected the megalith here millennia before Rome. Was this the spike that held the heel of the boot, The Salento, in place in the Adriatic? It rested here indifferent to worship. It took a while to pull myself away from it, and this simple stone stays in my mind imprinted as strongly as any painting by Piero or Antonello or Raffaello. The Michelangelo slaves emerging from their stones are powerful partly because they echo the megalith. These pieces manifest an intelligence, a megalithic knowledge to which we no longer have access. What trace will the current technology leave? Will these inundating terabytes of information leave even a residue?

Every time Martha inquires about the preparation of the oats the people with great patience and geniality explain that they boil this cereal. “We boil the oats, Madame. Sometimes in water and sometimes in cider (the preferred local beverage, hard or sweet). We eat this with cream and sugar.” Everywhere we go in Brittany, to restaurant or farm, the people boil the oats.

Steve Katz has taught at Cornell, Brooklyn, and Queens Colleges, The University of Notre Dame, and at the University of Colorado in Boulder, but he has also tended bar, worked construction, waited tables and mined for mercury. He is known for such classics as Creamy & Delicious, Wier & Pouce, Florry Of Washington Heights, Swanny’s Ways, Saw, Moving Parts, and Stolen Stories, plus a screenplay and some books of poetry. His most recent book is Time’s Wallet (Counterpath Press, 2011), the first volume of a memoir written in 137 discrete pieces, or “memoirrhoids.” The above memoirrhoid is taken from a later volume.

How Bilbao

As at London’s Tate modern where you descend a wide ramp to enter and then look up at the art galleries, you enter the Bilbao Guggenheim down a wide arced staircase with shallow risers and look up into the atrium. That’s the access from Calle Iparraguire. The museum looks gorgeous from the middle distance, as most beauty does, better than from close in. From the river side it’s like an unkempt titanium lid formed to contain anarchy. This cover sits on two stories of a conventional building, where Guggenheim probably has its business offices. To enter from the street you pass the topiary puppy, Jeff Koons’ edgy eternal kitschy-cute. I think it could have been an act of self-parodic genius to commission Claes Oldenburg to build a hulking can opener to loom as an arc over the entrance.

It’s just four months after my quad bypass and I’m traveling for the novel I’m writing, Antonello’s Lion. My ambition is to see all of the works I can by Antonello da Messina. They are widely dispersed—Roma, Palermo, Siracusa, Pavia, Torino, Genova, Venezia, Paris, London, Vienna, Dresden, Berlin, Madrid. I am taking on the obsession with the works of Antonello of one of my characters. I can argue that Antonello is the greatest artist of the Italian Quattrocento. Outside the entrance to the museum in Genova I am approached by an African hooker. She asks me in English what I am looking for. I explain that I need to see a portrait in the museum by Antonello. “I will show you something very nice,” says she. Her smile is charming and coy. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I just had open heart surgery. I can’t.” She looks down to the pavement, appearing almost shy. “I will be very gentle.” On the way back to my hotel I snarl at a beautiful grey-eyed gypsy woman with a baby on her hip, hand out for coins, breasts offered like a tray of hors d’oeuvres out of the folds of her tattered smock. She looks confused and frightened by my reaction, my anger out of proportion. She peers into my eyes as if to look for the source of this snarl. Surgery I guess can leave you angry. Despite anesthesia that is supposed to block the experience, somehow your body knows that someone has cleaved your breastbone and snatched your heart, and resentment of that violence lingers in the psyche.

Antonello is my single-minded quest, but on the way by train from Paris to Madrid I decide to divert to Bilbao to check out Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim. It has recently opened, to much fanfare, as perhaps the greatest building of the twentieth century. It does have that sheen of greatness, a powerful contemporary building. The visual impact of the titanium cladding degrades as you get closer, as when you approach someone with too much make-up and botox. The detail becomes smudges and dents. Some find that interesting. I find it less interesting than the detail up close of the 19th and early 20th century buildings on the local streets. The same quality pertains in the radical, angular, titanium clad new art museum in Denver designed by Daniel Libeskind. It immediately ages, has some leakage early on. I hope someone gets me up so I can see what this titanium looks like after fifty years.

Most revolting to me on my first and only visit is the amount of space given to the story of Giorgio Armani designs. The guy’s a haberdasher, an Italian tailor. I’ve long been comfortable in the watershed that Andy Warhol created when he punked over the gap between fine art and popular culture. Warhol is a great artist, his life tragic even prophetic at the end. I’ve liked Jeff Koons work that descends from the Andy lineage. Even Damien Hirsch owes something to Andy. All this work has a reorienting weirdness, a sense of parody and satire, some social torque worthy of art. To make art is to respond to a high calling, to stick your neck out, commercial considerations put aside. Some artists, like the three above, are happily smart and lucky as businessmen as well, though they create the art through risk, not market analysis. No doubt Armani is a talented and enormously successful fashion designer, and probably a big donation of pesetas leveraged him into a position to sucker the opening of the museum into a boutiquish Armani showroom. I find it nauseating. Maybe my attitude is what they call “elitist” these days, but how much more elitist is Armani haberdashery? I wouldn’t mind owning an Armani suit, though I can’t afford one and don’t know when I’d wear it. I’d have to be doing business, certainly not making art. He’s obviously a great Italian tailor and clothing designer, a brand name, but I would never mistake what he does for art. Having his boutique splayed across the museum feels like a hostile takeover.

The scale of the soaring atrium diminishes the scale of Serra’s curved core-ten walls installed there. Serra’s work derives much of its power from scale that seems diminished by the vast amorphousness of the space. There was great sturm und drang in the early 80’s over the installation of his Tilted Arc in Federal Plaza in Manhattan, and a wide spray of arguments about “site specificity”, connected obliquely to removing the load of sculpture from the pedestal, and coincidentally letting painting escape the frame. Richard threatened to remove his name from the piece if they tried to install it somewhere else. The urgency of the site specific arguments has been blunted by the development of so many sites, even museum sites, designed specifically to accommodate works that are site specific. Storm King sculpture park is one, and DIA Beacon is another, and Bilbao another as a permanent site for Richard’s site specific work. Donald Judd’s goofy art outpost in Marfa, Texas, a remote air force base he bought to exhibit his friends’ works in site specific glee, has provided the art market an outback arm for wealthy collectors and curators. You turn a corner in a dusty West Texas town, and suddenly it’s the art world. They can gather at a newly refurbished hotel without interference from riff-raff off the streets. It makes me perversely prefer site antagonistic works at random locations, that clash with the sites of their installations, that conflict with their situations. Richard’s powerful, stately Promenade at the Grand Palais in Paris is a site-specific work that derives emotional tension from the fact that it is antagonistic to the space, architecture, and materials of the site. This parade of monoliths would be powerful installed in the Gobi Desert, or on West Broadway, or on the flooding shallows near Dacca in Bangla Desh. The specific site is so often most specific in the mind.

I like to watch a Henry Moore recline on a pedestal, or a Noguchi block a skyscraper entrance, or the Louise Bourgeois giant spider spook a pedestrian intersection. I’d never heard of the great sculpture park that Pepsico has installed at its corporate headquarters in Purchase, New York until Yuriy Tarnawsky, who lives in White Plains, took me there. It is one of the great collections of modern sculpture anywhere in the world. There installed across many acres of well kept lawn and flower garden are monumental pieces by Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi, Louise Nevelson, Alberto Giacometti, Tony Smith, George Segal, Barbara Hepworth, Paul Klee, Arnoldo Pomodoro, Alexander Calder, Auguste Rodin, and many others. Some of them sit comfortably on pedestals, some directly on the ground. We wandered happily in the drizzle from Dubuffet to Oldenburg. In this generalized expanse each sculpture creates its own aura, its own specific presence.

My reaction to DIA Beacon surprised me when I visited a second time. The first time it struck me as one of the most beautiful museums, full of profound expanses of art. I was grateful for its space that accommodates comfortably the work of artists of the last third of the Twentieth Century. Many of them I’d met, had conversations with them, watched their work develop. Sol Lewitt has plenty of wall space. Michael Heizer has loads of room, and Fred Sandback has rooms for his taut strings to intersect the volumes, and Dan Flavin, Joseph Beuys, Robert Smithson, so many of them are expansive here. Warhol has almost too much room, for the kind of intimacy I like to feel with his work. Seeing this the first time was thrilling, making me feel as expansive as the work. The second time a kind of melancholy threatened me. It felt to me like a lock down of post world war two post industrial American imperialist expansiveness. This art was so American in its assumption of endless horizons, spaciousness, expansion beyond any vanishing point. It paralleled American imperialist ambitions. The artists sense of entitlement to unlimited space, physical space to grow and spread their creations seemed suddenly stuck in its own period, like Russian ikons, or Byzantine mosaics, or Fayum coffin portraits. Those times were over. I still love many of the works, but the conditions that allowed the mindset have vanished. Perhaps it is the situation now of the planet—endless Iraq and Afghan wars, ruined oceans, desertification, oil spills, helpless politics, poisoned land and water, the whole litany—that makes these works seem like a part of a brief past, post World War II triumphalism and the subsequent imperialism that need never be repeated. This museum has become an archive rather than a home of living art. The change in my perception of the museum was powerful, daunting, but undeniable.

So I leave the Bilbao Guggenheim, and visit the impressive collection at Bilbao’s own Museum of Fine Arts, and the Basque Museum. I take the train then for Madrid and head for the Prado. Its Velasquezes, Goyas, Murillos, its Hieronymous Bosch, its Breughels. What a line-up. This is one of the most intense collections of masterpieces in the world. I head downstairs to look at the small painting by Antonello da Messina I have crossed the U.S. and all of Europe to see. A grieving angel lowers Christ from the cross, the grief on its face is the paradigm for all grief. It is worth the trip. That tiny work opens all the emotional potential of grief, spreads a total moral panoply, extends the enormous reach in time and space of great art.

Steve Katz has taught at Cornell, Brooklyn, and Queens Colleges, The University of Notre Dame, and at the University of Colorado in Boulder, but he has also tended bar, worked construction, waited tables and mined for mercury. He is known for such classics as Creamy & Delicious, Wier & Pouce, Florry Of Washington Heights, Swanny’s Ways, Saw, Moving Parts, and Stolen Stories, plus a screenplay and some books of poetry. His most recent book is Time’s Wallet (Counterpath Press, 2011), the first volume of a memoir written in 137 discrete pieces, or “memoirrhoids.” The above memoirrhoid is taken from a later volume.

Rabbit Wind

The compressor is too noisy so they shut it off before you read. These twelve foot high pink and white inflatable bunnies slowly flatten. When inflated they are some terrifying bunnies. Once deflated they are easy to stomp on. They belong to the Dikeou collection of contemporary art in Denver, Colorado, occupy two corners of the room in which the readings happen. The wind of their deflation carries no words, but once they are deflated, at the podium the writers read their works between two flat bunnies. If I am ever on the road again I would like to take these two inflatables as companions and release my words into the rabbit wind as they wilt.

At the University of Oklahoma once I was paid $2000 to read to an audience of six people, nice people who told me how their anti-war movement had been betrayed by a faux hippy agitator who instigated riots in 1968. On the night following my reading Czeslaw Milosz received the $20,000 Lannan prize at a large auditorium before an audience of eight besides myself and three of the six from my crowd. Two of the aged Lannan dedicators slept as the Polish poet read. The wind of their snoring was rabbit wind.

In Halifax once I read at a benefit for the Buddhist community many of whom had recently moved to Nova Scotia from Colorado. I was performing with Phil Glass. We both came down to Halifax from Inverness in Cape Breton. The large auditorium was packed with Haligonians, Buddhists, and tourists, most of them there to hear Phil. I read my story called “One Pinch Plut,” which was a much longer read than I had anticipated. When you read prose, it tends to go on until the end. I carried much of the audience through the whole piece, but could sense that many of them wanted me to give way to Phil. For that part of the audience I was all rabbit wind, and the rabbit was deflating too slowly. On the other hand, I thought it would be great to follow Phil everywhere and read to his big audiences, laying a pavement of rabbit wind for his serial music.

The act of performing my works, of reading them aloud, has always added another layer of insecurity to the bright garment of self doubt that makes acts of writing unnerving and vital. When I was a student editor of Epoch magazine the faculty editors wouldn’t let me me read the works I advocated aloud because my readings were too convincing and somehow unfair. I have long grappled with my talent for hamming up a poem. It always confuses me when I read my own work aloud, and grab the attention of the audience by moving them or making them laugh. Is it the quality of the work or the seduction of the performance? This is part of the imponderable quandariness of a life committed to art. People tell me that they are glad to hear me read, that it makes them appreciate the work more. I enjoy the attention and approbation, but always wonder if the work plays as well on the page without the wind of the rabbit. I know that many people take pleasure in reading aloud to themselves. Perhaps my reading helps their process. I enjoy my “dramatic” skills, but I always have the fear that the real attraction may be in the performance, not in the work where I want it to perform by itself, as language alive on the page. Thinking about this is like trying to watch yourself dance. Any glance in the mirror changes the moves. It feels to me a weak diversionary tactic to call my readings “performance”, that great academic whoops of contemporary art.

When Antonello’s Lion was released, Rafael, my son, booked some readings around Portland, Oregon. I read to a nice crowd at Clackamas Community College, then at the very precious Reed College. An old friend from Eugene and Northwest Review, whom I hadn’t seen for years, who taught philosophy there, Robert Paul, the most soft-spoken philosopher in the universe, whispered an introduction. His was a quietly snide introduction, correctly measuring the hubris and pretensions he drew from my lame entry in the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series. I don’t think anyone heard him. The last reading was at a small resort and vineyard called McMenamin’s Edgefield, a popular watering hole outside Portland, a retreat for people with family or lover. They offer a panoply of activities and games. They had never before presented the attraction of a living author reading from his work, and probably never will again. They brought in fifty copies of the book for me to sign, and them to sell. Obviously they were novices in the book business. For my troubles they gave me a small honorarium and treated myself and Rafael to dinner at their popular roast beef restaurant. It was the time of vendemmia, the grape harvest. They had set me up in a room in their cellar, near the barrels they were filling from fresh pressings of grapes. Guests passed and peeked in to see me at the podium, then moved on to badminton or tango lessons. A few people sat down. Fruit flies ruled the air of the room. Every time I opened my mouth they flew in, checking out anything moist. I was a slave of the flies. The people, some of them perhaps at their first reading ever, witnessed an author who when he opened his mouth to read off the page, immediately breathed in squadrons of flies. I tried to keep my teeth clenched to sift them out, but they wandered across my incisors and did their stunts on the moisture of my lips. So the McMenamin’s guests who stayed witnessed the author of Antonello’s Lion as a swallower and sputterer of fruit flies. Even now, as my bones deteriorate into old age, I occasionally feel the release of a tardy McMenamin fruit fly into the remnants of a rabbit wind.

Steve Katz has taught at Cornell, Brooklyn, and Queens Colleges, The University of Notre Dame, and at the University of Colorado in Boulder, but he has also tended bar, worked construction, waited tables and mined for mercury. He is known for such classics as Creamy & Delicious, Wier & Pouce, Florry Of Washington Heights, Swanny’s Ways, Saw, Moving Parts, and Stolen Stories, plus a screenplay and some books of poetry. His most recent book is Time’s Wallet (Counterpath Press, 2011), the first volume of a memoir written in 137 discrete pieces, or “memoirrhoids.” The above memoirrhoid is taken from a later volume.

Clarence Schmidt

I thought of this as a pilgrimage, in the late sixties, early seventies, to visit Clarence Schmidt and the tumult of his demesne in Woodstock, New York. He was the chief “outsider” artist, famous all over the country, his life and work a living spectacle of barely organized debris. The house and his assemblages festooned four acres on a hill outside of the town. Going there was to visit a chaos that was bearable in contrast with the unbearable chaos, violence, and deceit perpetrated by our government throughout the Vietnam War.

Clarence’s welcome was always huge and physical. The great Kodiak guy of Woodstock engulfed you in big arms, pulled you into his heat and smell. Anything that moved, he hugged. He pulled your face into the thickness of his yellowing beard. You carried the reek home, pleasant as Liederkranz. His story, as I knew it, was that he was a stonemason in Queens, though some say he was also an architect. In his early thirties he inherited four acres of land on Ohayo mountain outside of Woodstock, and soon moved there with his wife. After he worked on several houses around Woodstock as a stonemason, his brain shifted into a different modality. He started laying stone walls in abstract patterns against the hillside on his acreage, and he started to build a house. Soon his wife left him and moved into a trailer on a lot above his place and rained down her garbage down off the cliff onto him. I don’t know what his emotional response was, but physically he received the stuff with grace and enthusiasm, and began to incorporate it into his project. That was how the place he called Journey’s End began.

He started building his first “House of Glass,” seven stories of stone and tar and old windows and doors, around a large beech tree, against the side of Ohayo Mountain. Spreading out from the “mansion” he developed shrines and totems out of tin plates, empty jugs, plastic flowers, product wrappers, broken dolls, discarded prostheses (a nearby prosthetic factory delivered their discards to him). The dolls limbs and heads made certain nooks in the scrap-scape downright spooky. Ranks of broken dolls, some of them dressed, some cracked, burned, pierced, distorted, some with hair of straw attached with tar, looked like a three dimensional, even wackier version of a drawing by that other outsider, Henry Darger, though Clarence’s inventions seemed more sinister than Darger’s playful, erotic fantasy wars. One time when I was there someone delivered two large broken demijohns, useless to everyone but Clarence. Clarence was amazing with his pleasure at the gift of these waste objects. The next time I came the cracks were healed with tar, embellished with limbs of dolls and plastic flowers, placed as if at the entrance to a cave. “What Egypt took centuries to build—” he spread his arms from his tar stained blue coveralls, his eyes spiraling with apotheosis, “—I have made this in less than a lifetime.” He swung his arm as if he were perched on a camel swaying across the plain of Giza.

I tagged along with Greg Blaisdell and Bill Lipke, who went frequently from Ithaca, New York. They were trying to document the accomplishment, and eventually published a book about Clarence. The place resisted photography, and the shots in the book are much less coherent than the experience of being there, though coherence was never as pertinent a value as energy and invention. Kathy Porter, a brilliant painter, and revolutionary spirit, often came with us. She was related by marriage to Stephen Porter to the family of the photographer Elliot and the painter Fairfield Porter. Clarence loved to hug her generous body. One of the great elements of her abstract paintings and drawings, is the power of her impatience. Her work barely contains her expansive energy. Perhaps Clarence’s work reinforced in her that feeling of momentum in stasis. His place threatened to bust loose if you turned your back on it. This intimidated most people. Clarence was their boogy man, and they feared his effect on their property values.

His preference for highly flammable tar as a binding material caused his “mansion” to burn down in 1968 and then again after he rebuilt it. Sometimes when I visited he wasn’t there. I’d smoke a joint and relax. Without his intervention and guidance I felt submerged, swimming through a strangely breathable liquid realm. It was like entering a Blakean world, a visionary other place. All around the discarded world of detritus, of garbage, floated in an immeasurable equilibrium. Sifted through his mind all this was made possible and gorgeous. My own relatively bourgeois attempts at writing were shocked into a lesson in artistic freedom, although I also understood that free as his art seemed, Clarence was not a free man, but tightly wound in tentacles of his own neuroses.

Clarence once offered to let me stay overnight in one of the “rooms” of his mansion. This was a cubbyhole, a tubelike space similar to what I’ve seen advertised as accommodations in cheap Japanese hotels, but his was slathered with tar. He had embedded a TV tube in tar at the foot, and another on the ceiling at the head so lying on your back you might watch it. I doubted they were hooked up but didn’t stay to find out. It felt cowardly to refuse the hospitality, though I don’t think Clarence even noticed me gone.

Clarence’s fans wanted his place preserved, turned into a national treasure, but we were in a minority. Many of his neighbors despised him as they looked to their property values. Despite Woodstock’s reputation as an open liberal place, it had a persistently bourgeois heart. Clarence’s wild looks and recycling survival strategy was too extreme for the town’s population. Vandals often attacked his place. He was tossed into the hoosegow in Kingston once for defending his art from three men who were tearing down the “junk” in his backyard. He whacked at them with the butt of a rifle. “This fateful day is a day of infamy,” he wrote in his Bible while in jail, “shrouded within a dark cloud of bereavement and deeply rooted in the regretful act of vandalism thrust upon my hopeless art. Art is the only clean thing on the face of this earth except venerable holiness. Art may err but nature cannot miss its everlasting beauty, and dust is for a time only.” Bill Lipke said that Clarence didn’t think of what he did as art until several people introduced the idea, then he locked onto it like a barnacle onto an oyster.

He wrote in his Bible from the rest home he was put in after could no longer maintain his life at Journey’s End, and was found sleeping in doorways, “…lost in a deep sea of bewilderment, quandary, hoping upon hope of my successful pulling myself up and out of this travail maelstrom of dire circumstance that has so vilely engulfed me somewhere out of this impenetrable darkness of suspense and untold anxiety that completely surrounds me, holds me captive, and so subject to the emanation of the gods of fortune and judgment sentenced upon me, inconceivably powerful forces, of my mind, carries & graciously transports me along, a flower strewn path of hope, fortified by the blissful sphere of righteousness to guide me in my desperate pursuit of happiness, via my creative art…” These notebooks have pages of this overblown rhetoric of despair, always redeemed by his luminous visions of art.

As Clarence succumbed to diabetes and other health problems his place quickly deteriorated, reduced to rubble by 1974, nothing left there anymore. It would have taken a devoted establishment to preserve his accomplishment. Everyone was too willing to forget about him. No one wanted to do the work. Perhaps it was fitting. Garbage back to garbage. Rubble to rubble. Thirty years after his death someone found his ashes, forgotten in a corner of a Woodstock mortuary, no one to mourn for him, no one to celebrate his passing.

What is left for me is worrying the idea of what he meant for me at that time. Whatever miseries I conjure and embrace for myself, I expect to be redeemed by art. The artist and the pursuit of art seem some of the few elements of sanity available now in our society so grotesque with greed, ignorance, selfishness. Clarence was outside all controlling establishments, including the art establishments. Including the comforts of family. From that I took enormous reassurance and inspiration, struggling against each tentacle of the establishments that squeezed myself. We live on our planet both overwhelmed and undermined by our own garbage. Clarence seemed to provide an antidote to that. He was the septic superman. It wasn’t absolute freedom. He was perhaps more trapped than the rest of us by his own mind, but he dealt deliriously with whatever was thrown at him, with his own visionary panache.

Steve Katz has taught at Cornell, Brooklyn, and Queens Colleges, The University of Notre Dame, and at the University of Colorado in Boulder, but he has also tended bar, worked construction, waited tables and mined for mercury. He is known for such classics as Creamy & Delicious, Wier & Pouce, Florry Of Washington Heights, Swanny’s Ways, Saw, Moving Parts, and Stolen Stories, plus a screenplay and some books of poetry. His most recent book is Time’s Wallet (Counterpath Press, 2011), the first volume of a memoir written in 137 discrete pieces, or “memoirrhoids.” The above memoirrhoid is taken from a later volume.

Eating Dog/ Talking Turkey


The billboards stun me as we enter Communist China. Years before when I crossed into East Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie, before the wall went down, the sudden lack of commercial advertising I found relaxing though the absence of color was a little dreary. A few propaganda posters created only the slightest visual static. Wide, colorful ads on the billboards across from the Guangzhou train station, my entry city to The People’s Republic, hit me flush in my preconceptions. Here are big splashes for Sony, Nike, Mitsubishi, Motorola. This is a different twist of Commie, thinks I.

Beyond the panoply of ads a small market, half covered, half exposed, offers a spread of lively hot-pot restaurants. This is 1986, one of new China’s first forays into private entrepreneurship. The perfume rising in the steam from hot-pots simmering at each of the tables is sweet and enticing. The market displays an abundance of dog sold as meat. You can get it freshly slaughtered and skinned. You can buy thighs, shoulders, quarters, half a dog. Dog carcasses hang on meat hooks across the butcher blocks. You can get a live one and have it butchered, or take it home alive in a wicker basket to prepare yourself. The dog they prefer to eat is the black chow. They lie in rows across tables, dark tongues hanging out. After I am in Guangzhou for a few days I realize the pressure of population and scarcity of living space make it impossible to think of dog as pet. The favored pet is the songbird. On weekends people stroll through the parks carrying their birds in cages, and they relax in the balmy weather with conversation and birdsong.

We settle at one of the outdoor hot-pot restaurants. They serve a savory broth bubbling at your table in a chafing dish over the blue flame of a Sterno can. The server brings a platter of veggies and instructs on the sequence of cooking them. She then brings some meats and offers similar instructions. Then she asks a question that Rafael translates for me as, “Would you like some fragrant meat?” “Of course,” I quip in my wise-ass way. “We sure don’t want putrid meat.” She brings a portion of fragrant meat and drops it into our broth. After this specialty simmers a while a perfume, lightly floral, engulfs the broth. Not until I’ve eaten a bit of it does Rafael explain that “fragrant meat” is the euphemism for dog. It tastes quite nice, like nice dog, and the bouquet it adds to the soup is the direct opposite of the smell of wet dog. The experience expands my appreciation for man’s best friend. I can hardly look at a well coifed poodle, for instance, without thinking, “yum yum.”


We hire a pedal cab to take us from the train station to our hotel on West Lake in Hangzhou. The hotel boom around West Lake hasn’t yet begun, and ours is probably the most upscale in Hangzhou at the time. It is called, I think, West Lake Shangri-la. It takes more than an hour for the pedal cab driver to struggle up the hills for two miles over rough pavement, pulling the weight of Rafael, myself, and our luggage. A tough way to earn your renminbi. The hotel is a sturdy, rambling brick and stone building of some twelve stories, built as a luxury hotel by the British, probably in the twenties, and run down since the revolution. Its spaciousness and the worn grandeur of its furnishings offer a taste of faded luxury. Our room doesn’t cost much, and comes with an invitation to their New Year’s dinner. The accommodation is large and comfortable. Some of the lamps, the telephone, and other amenities, don’t work, but the beds and towels are clean, and there is hot water occasionally. They have hired a Swiss hotelier to get the place back into shape, and their goal is obviously five stars.

Large stone tablets incised with calligraphy are set in the ground all around the perimeter of West Lake. We walk among the people through the mysteries of this storied lake. Pagodas, temples, pavilions come in and pass out of view as the mists wander through. When Rafael stops to read an inscription on one of the steles—a passage of Lao-Tzu, a poem of Li-Po or Tu-Fu, a Confucian aphorism—people gather to ask that he read it to them. The people are literate, but have been taught only the simplified characters, and the ones on the tablets are traditional and more elaborate. The people can’t read them, so most of their written heritage is hidden from them. He tires of this after an official cadre member, who has been trailing us, interrupts him to lecture everyone on the greatness of The People’s Republic. We leave her standing tall in her Mao suit as she continues her propaganda lecture to the people who had been interested in the poem Rafael was reading for them off the stone. On the way back to the hotel we stop at a friendly dumpling house and eat a couple of dozen dumplings, to the great amusement of the clientele who have never seen white ghosts suck down dumplings at their restaurant before.


We have only the most casual clothes, but are welcomed anyway into the formal dining room for the New Year’s dinner. It’s in a large ballroom, the dance floor surrounded by tables. On one end a stage and bandstand presents a dance band, playing American swing music from the thirties and forties. You might expect them to roll out Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to entertain the befuddled Western tourists sitting at the tables. The ambiance is derived from some Busby Berkeley film, a dinner club look from a depression era Hollywood frippery. Five waitresses tend each table, in our case five of them against two of us. Rafael overhears them discussing every slight detail of our behavior, every move we make with knife and fork to attack the dinner of turkey, stuffing, broccoli, sweet potato, and finally plum pudding. They watch us closely. They make careful notes.

After dinner they encourage us to go downstairs for a New Year’s bash, to a bar and lounge in the basement, where more contemporary rock music is being piped in. There are only a dozen or so round-eyes, but suddenly the room fills with young Chinese, dressed in suits and ties, the girls in dark blue pinafores. When Sly and the Family Stone comes on, Rafael gets up to dance, and proceeds to get his freak on. I get up too and do my appreciation of rock and roll. The Chinese kids start to dance too, and seem to be enjoying themselves. Rafael couples tentatively at some distance with one of the girls. This begins to feel almost like a party, when suddenly, as mysteriously as they appeared, the Chinese crowd turns like a school of fish on some inaudible, invisible signal, and swoops back out the door. We round-eyes are alone. The music fades. The evening is over. Xmas dinner at the Shangri-La in Hangzhou has been accomplished.

It becomes obvious, finally, that they set this up as a laboratory for the great tourist rush they expect to attract as the doors of Chinese commerce swing open to the world. They anticipate that it’s coming, and will encourage it, and use us to prepare themselves. The turkey, by the way, was dry and tasteless, the gravy gummy, the cranberry sauce too sweet, the sweet potatoes like cement. The broccoli wasn’t bad.

Steve Katz has taught at Cornell, Brooklyn, and Queens Colleges, The University of Notre Dame, and at the University of Colorado in Boulder, but he has also tended bar, worked construction, waited tables and mined for mercury. He is known for such classics as Creamy & Delicious, Wier & Pouce, Florry Of Washington Heights, Swanny’s Ways, Saw, Moving Parts, and Stolen Stories, plus a screenplay and some books of poetry. His most recent book is Time’s Wallet (Counterpath Press, 2011), the first volume of a memoir written in 137 discrete pieces, or “memoirrhoids.” The above memoirrhoid is taken from a later volume.