‘Before I Begin’ by David McConnell
“Joe nodded us into the loft bashfully, laughing at himself in a soft pant for no reason whatsoever. He immediately removed his glasses after looking at me. He wore jeans and a white shirt open over his grizzled chest. He was slender, curly-haired, homely, and vaguely Italian-looking, like a high-end cobbler, except he wore black Keds.”
June is LGBTQ Pride Month and nothing quite says pride like New York City. With that in mind, this week the Lambda Literary Review is running a second excerpt from the recently released essay collection Love, Christopher Street: Reflections of New York City (Vantage Point Books) edited by Thomas Keith. The collection is composed of:
[...]twenty-eight original essays by lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered writers include personal stories that span forty years of LGBT life in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island, and together create a queer love letter to New York City. Chapters in this volume range from personal anecdote to memoir, reportage, history, herstory, and daydream, as well as tributes to people, places, and events.
In the following excerpt, “Before I Begin”, author David McConnell offers a touching remembrance of poet and artist Joe Brainard and a vivid snapshot of New York City in the 80s.
Before I Begin
Joe Brainard lived in a loft on Greene Street. Long ago, when white Akitas were the fad dog in New York, Chris Cox took me over to meet him. I was going to sublet the place for the summer. As we climbed the usual kilometer-long SoHo flight of stairs, Chris, a writer and editor who’d admitted he was a “talent snob” and all of whose friends, to hear him tell it, were legends (I was starting to think this might be true), quickly narrated Joe’s life with the cheerful coldness I was still young and suburban enough to find amoral, a bit frightening. As if my family’s cooing caveats of niceness when gossiping constituted morality!
“Well, he was Frank O’Hara’s boyfriend. Until Frank got run over by the dune buggy on Fire Island. But he knows everybody, and everybody loves him. He wrote I Remember, but he was mostly famous for his collages. He was a complete speed freak for years, so it sort of made sense that he was always cutting up these tiny pieces of paper and putting them together. And he used to stutter so badly you’d have to write your whole dinner conversation on the nap kins. Then he quit speed and just stopped making art. It’s kind of a mystery. Actually—” Chris stopped me. His balding forehead came toward my chin. “The big mystery is nobody knows how he gets his money. People say his friend Kenward Elmslie gave him all this money—just decided one day that Joe should never have to work.”
Joe nodded us into the loft bashfully, laughing at himself in a soft pant for no reason whatsoever. He immediately removed his glasses after looking at me. He wore jeans and a white shirt open over his grizzled chest. He was slender, curly-haired, homely, and vaguely Italian-looking, like a high-end cobbler, except he wore black Keds.
Repetition—it shouldn’t be surprising in a stutterer—had a magical quality for Joe. Since “the ear likes repetition,” you could say his life was more like music than narrative. Whenever I returned to Greene Street after that first visit he would answer the door with exactly the same soft self-conscious laughter, wearing exactly the same clothes, taking the same stiff waltzing steps of welcome into the loft. The apartment, mostly empty, never changed. It smelled of him. He was there all day. His routines, the magazines, the books, the eye drops, the dinners, the summers in Vermont tanning in a black Speedo, the way he wrote LOVE JOE in block letters at the end of every note, were all unvarying. But you never thought “boring” about Joe. Joe’s routines seemed honed, meticulously aware, and were as delightful to observe as glass-covered clockwork.
Still, the words Chris had used burned my ears: “He just stopped making art. It’s a mystery.” Even before I made it to the top of the stairs, I started to feel disappointment and pity for the man I was about to meet. I was young. I had a plan. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say the only thing I thought about in those days was how not to give up making art. I thought about it so obsessively I wasn’t able to make much art to speak of. A “stopper” was a figure of horror and fascination. (Another great stopper, Rimbaud, probably fascinates ambitious young artists as much for his stopping as for his jerky genius.)
Like a wizard waving the sleeve of his houppelande, Joe dissipated my pity the instant he opened the door. Almost the first thing I thought was, Oh my god! This guy really is an artist! I don’t know what made me think it (quite possibly Chris’s legend-spinning), but I was certain I was right and that my rightness in using that particular word, “artist,” mattered. It didn’t and doesn’t, of course, but I’m describing a youthful state of mind as characteristic as love and not so different. I seemed to recognize Joe as soon as I met him.
The lives of many interesting people in New York appear pretty uninteresting. Joe wasn’t alone. There’s chat, drinking, smoking (not quite so much anymore), going to restaurants, and either actually attending shows, exhibitions, and performances or just boning up on what’s out there. Even Truman Capote erred by introducing an absurd bit of action—a runaway horse—into his portrait of New York in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Because there is no real action here, only talk in restaurants, bars, offices, and apartments. Manhattanites consider it their privilege to exist at a slight critical remove from the world. Apart from the brutal shock of the event itself, the destruction of the World Trade Center caused a lingering overtone of mild shock that such an eventful event could occur at all in the metropolis of talk and thought.
Of course, there was a Joe before I knew him, a Joe before this stopped—but not pitiable—version. By the time I came along, that Joe existed in dozens of boxes, a slightly obsessive auto-archive stacked on floor-to-ceiling metal shelves along the wall opposite the door. Inside were all sorts of treasures. A playful “target painting” collaboration with Jasper Johns, the brush they used glued onto it. A beautiful note of apology to Keith McDermott. A cherished pair of torn and embroidered bell bottoms—very ’60s!—maybe from when Joe was begging on the streets. You’re not supposed to go through other people’s stuff, but as I told Joe, “You almost have the right when you’re subletting—” I caught my breath in alarm, “Not that I ever did that when I was here!”
Joe couldn’t figure out why I was interested in him. “I would get it with John Ashbery or somebody. But I keep thinking, ‘Why me?’”
Gentle as he was, everything had to be his way. With hesitant murmurs he ran everything according to his routines while I talked and talked, sometimes nervous flights of nonsense, sometimes scathing contempt for, for example, the unoriginality of Akita owners: what was going to happen to all those big wintry dogs?
We were often the only ones in the restaurant, because it was Joe’s habit to eat at six-thirty.
“Boring,” he allowed.
“No!” I said devotedly.
Every so often he became self-conscious of the sameness of our evenings and, very deliberately, decided he would teach me some thing or that we’d do something different. One night he taught me how to fry bread in butter, the only thing he knew how to cook (besides peanut butter and jelly sandwiches). One afternoon we went out to buy the biggest TV possible. Once he decided he would come to visit me in Hudson—very surprising, since it was difficult to get him to travel. He loved the laundry that fluttered on lines zigzagging across backyards everywhere. The laundry made Hudson at that time look like a Hiroshige ukiyo-e of Edo on a festival day. Plum, gray, brick, pale yellow, and blue were the colors.
“Want to see something bad I did?” he asked back in New York. He showed me a German reprint of a ’60s poem of his. “It’s really awful. But sometimes you just have to publish whatever,” he said meaningfully. “I don’t know why these Germans like it, but they do. Here, I’ll show you something I think is good…” He opened an art magazine and sat me down, completely unlike himself.
Though everyone loved him, he was solitary. Like a tightrope bicyclist he balanced two particular loves on a long beam: Kenward, the rich older one, and Keith, the beautiful young one. Both of them saw other people, but you had a feeling maybe they pined for Joe. Joe always lived alone. He ran into a friend of mine in a bookstore, and though they hardly knew each other, Joe kissed him hello and goodbye—Joe was a big kisser. My friend later told me with a grin, “Him kissing me was so—I mean, he’s really the only person like that: he lives alone, but you don’t feel at all sorry for him.” (Like art for me, my friend’s agonizing fixation was love. In Joe he thought he recognized someone free of the rules.)
I read Sentimental Education while I was staying at Joe’s, and its willfully intense bleakness made me throw myself on Joe’s bed, crying. What was the point in going on? I wasn’t at all happy in those days. That whole summer I wrote Joe endless letters and lived for his unpretentious responses, “Why me?” always between the lines. But there was a limit to the consolation Joe gave, if only because there’s a limit to the consolation possible in life, especially when it comes to the vast and painful unhappiness of someone young. As a matter of fact, Joe’s limits gleamed very bright and you felt as if his clockwork and the clockwork of the universe, of the possible, were identical: “I don’t think I feel like it,” he’d Bartlebyze as easily as he said “Hello.”
Any Tulsa-boy luxury Joe indulged in, the Armani suit or the cashmere blanket or the TV, would stand out like a sore thumb in that barren, undecorated loft. Each thing was its own complete idea, and he had no need of the well-knit, false background of a “lifestyle.”
“Where do you get your money, Joe? Everybody says Kenward gave you millions of dollars or something.”
He laughed, “No. I just sell pictures. You gotta live, right?”
“So you think of yourself more as a painter than a writer?”
As I mentioned, recognizing Joe as an artist was a kid thing, a feeling. It now occurs to me—and my remembering all this is surprisingly uncertain, finely layered with strange old emotion—that I also felt like he recognized me, even though, no matter what I may have wanted to call myself, I wasn’t really an artist yet in that I hadn’t done much. Maybe either stopping or starting caused me an identical horror. Art’s eternity and my childish, idle, personal sense of eternity must have seemed the same thing, too precious to disturb. As if I knew that from the moment I chose to do something I couldn’t enjoy being aware of it anymore. As if I knew you can’t live forever at a critical remove. As if when you start to live, you die.
Joe didn’t think less of me for being a rich kid, possibly spoiled. He also never scolded me for my sweeping judgments about every thing or for my mirthful bitterness. Rather, he seemed to enjoy the wit of a good insult, though he was incapable of any himself. You would never have noticed how snarky I was—I seemed meek, coltish, obsequious. I made Joe write a letter of introduction to an author I longed to meet, and he summed me up as follows: “He’s goofy. You’ll like him.”
In the same way Joe was tolerant of rich people, he also enjoyed the absurd culture of gay people, which surrounded him without swamping him in “lifestyle.” He loved dumb gay cards and gay magazines, and gay parades—especially if someone reached out to stroke his furry chest. He also liked a restaurant called Christopher’s on Christopher Street. This was probably the only “gay restaurant” at the time, and it harked back to an era long before the age of Akitas. Joe even felt the need to warn me that it was “really gay.” No windows and a heavy portière gave the place an air of ’50s secrecy and subversion. And the way the almost all-male clientele looked with dainty, yet subtly leering, expressions of ennui when we entered had a carnivalesque note of 1920s or eighteenth-century depravity. I’d certainly never seen anything like it. At the time I liked to pretend that everything gay was already the oldest of old hat and had nothing to do with me, but Christopher’s was so exotic I really did feel completely alien, though I imagine the place wasn’t that different from the awful gay restaurants on Eighth Avenue today.
Christopher’s, as I remember it, was all black with small black tables. Pencil-thin spotlights shone down on tiny glass vases holding a single flower. There was probably a large black and white art photograph of a Calla lily on the wall. The nearly sexually dimorphic but same-sex couples and the queeny waiters drawling, “Joooe! Jooooe, you darling man! Still not answering your phone because you don’t feel like it?” and the background of tittering and exclamation caused me a frisson of snobbery. WASPy politesse or love for Joe was enough for me to tough it out, though. I remember I was pretty frosty with the waiter that first time, which earned me a series of special, amused leers. My lofty manners must have looked immensely “gay,” a perfect fit for the place.
On that occasion, endless chatter abandoned me and we fell into one of the relaxed silences that Joe believed were the true sign of companionability. He claimed he rarely spoke with Kenward all summer long in Vermont. Did I mind if he ate salad with his fingers? Of course not. Delicately, he ate a leaf of butter lettuce like a French fry. He wiped his fingers and, after a polite physical stutter, pulled my hand into the three- or four-inch wide pool of light. He placed his hand next to mine for comparison. I asked, “What do you see?” With the usual laughing half-murmur of hesitation, he said, “It’s so interesting. You’re hand is obviously really young. Mine isn’t.” As if drawing attention to a section of a painting he moved his index finger over the ridges of tendons on the back of his hand. “See, this part is actually covered with tiny lines, though you don’t really notice them.” He studied our hands for a long time, and it was wonderful to watch him look, really look, at something. He didn’t like it so much the other way around, though. He almost got cross one morning when I stood next to him and announced I was going to watch him shave, because everybody did it in a different way and made strange, comical expressions. “No, don’t. I don’t really like that.”
Ordinarily it was hard to get him to say he didn’t like things or people. He didn’t know how to hate. I considered this a challenge and asked him to think as hard as he could and tell me the name of someone he hated.
“Well, I don’t like Van Gogh very much.”
“No, come on! A real person.”
He finally came up with a name, but cautioned me, “It’s not that I actually hate him. But everybody says he lies all the time, and I guess I don’t really like that.”
He did start to work a bit. He hired some models and drew. For a long time, at a big oaken block of a desk, he practiced painting with a Japanese brush and ink. He shrugged that he didn’t have that much ambition but said it felt great to work. I’d moved to Paris where I was just as unhappy as ever. When I visited New York I stayed with Joe. I got out of bed in the middle of the night and lay on the floorboards in a wash of streetlight. The place smelled of Joe, which was comforting, but I was feeling tragic because you can never get as close to people as you want. He would’ve hated me watching him in his sleep. Disliked. Before arriving I’d spoken to a friend on the phone. He said, “I talked about you with Joe last night. I got the feel ing all you’d have to do is say the word and you could be with him.” Looking at Joe in his sleep, I realized this could never happen and was probably not true anyway. That friend was speaking for himself and didn’t know it: the two of us were a little bit in love but clueless about it or at a slight critical remove from the fact.
One painful thing was that no one knew Joe and I were friends. Joe operated like that. You got put in one of his autobiographical boxes. After he died I wrote a rather pathetic note to Kenward say ing I wanted to talk about Joe. I’d never really met Kenward except to say hello a few times. But I felt like every link to Joe had snapped. So I mentioned the odd minutiae that Kenward’s sister was married to the obstetrician who’d delivered me in Cleveland and had been friends with my Aunt Mary. It was a desperate, fly-casting sort of connection and Kenward never wrote me back, which was disappointing, though he was probably upset at the time. Luckily, I later became friends with Keith.
One of the last things I remember Joe saying to me was, “I’m not really here.” On a summer day I was walking along Bleecker Street near Hudson and ran into Joe. It didn’t occur to me how strange it was that he wasn’t in Vermont. He knew it. He was acting guilty. Maybe his soft, panting laughter lasted a little longer than usual. He said, “I’m not really here.” He sat me on one of the park benches by 11th Street and we talked. It was all very strange. Not routine. He said “a business thing” had brought him into the city. I told him everything was fine with me but I must have looked a little forlorn, because at some point he warned, “You know, it can always get worse.” He made that gloomy thought sound friendly and gentle.
I realize I’ve made this essay a kind of butterfly. I’m still not sure why, but I haven’t dared more that touch lightly here and there on flowers of the past. I do remember that when Joe’s ink paintings were published along with some of Kenward’s poems, I was immensely proud of the copy Joe gave me, though Joe was always giving little gifts. I usually never cared for the memorabilia of art, but in this case, the token from Joe—his work—meant the world to me. I even asked him to sign it, though ordinarily I find the fetish of the signed copy meaningless. He took the book and a pen and stalled, “I never know what to say in these things.”
“Well,” I said, “You could try, ‘For David. I think you’re a great guy and I love you. Joe.’”
Joe happily printed my dictation in his block hand. I couldn’t help feeling a ghost of real disappointment, which I tried to make comical by pouting, “But now I’ll never know if you really meant it. You would’ve just written whatever I said.”
“Not whatever,” he answered mysteriously. His lingering smile made fond fun of me, but also somehow acknowledged the notion that I had a real worry, because, of course, you can’t ever really know what people mean.
David McConnell is the author of The Silver Hearted (February 2010). His novel The Firebrat came out in 2003. His short fiction and journalism have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies. He lives in New York City.