I’m so mega-successful I don’t even blow the foam off my own beer. Servants, assistants, entourage — call them what you want but once they took over the little chores, spare time started stretching out before me like a big yawn. Eventually, I found ways to fill it. Nowadays, between late-night massages, morning tennis lessons and afternoons at the yacht club, I barely have time to be a creative genius. But it wasn’t always this way.
Believe it or not, I once did my own laundry, at a place called a laundromat. If you’ve never been in one, it’s a creepy room filled with machines that wash clothes. You put the clothes in and add this powdery soap stuff, and money — coins — and push a button and after a while they come out clean, but wet. Then you have to pick them up and carry them — even though they’re wet! — over to these other machines. You stick them in, push a button and they get dry. Not folded though. They come out all jumbled. If you ever try this, I recommend you dress casual. It’s kinda messy!
So there I was waiting for fucking ever in this bizarre place and I decide to look around. The walls were covered with wood paneling. It looks like woodgrain but I’m not sure it is. It does have all the woodgrain patterning. That stuff is fun to look at when you’re on hallucinogenic drugs but only if you feel pretty good about yourself.
I noticed there was a knothole that looked like a donkey’s head. It was obvious once you saw it. I thought it would be cool to draw in the donkey body too, with a magic marker, so everybody would notice the amazing resemblance. The more I thought about it the more excited I got. The idea was solid gold! The piece was gonna be breakthrough work for me! This could be the turning point in my stillborn career! Suddenly I saw that everything has a purpose and there are no coincidences. GOD had sent me and my reeking laundry to this wretched hellhole for a reason. To find a knothole that looked like a donkey’s head!
I started to feel like Indiana Jones. I had found the treasure, but now I had to get it out, against all odds. There was no way I was gonna brilliantly add the donkey’s body and then leave my masterwork behind to be ignored by generation after generation of drooling zombies who did their own laundry. I called my friend Dean. He came by with a crowbar.
When my clothes were done, Dean pried the piece of paneling off the wall. There was only one customer left, a fat old hemorrhoid on legs. He had been too snooty to notice me before, but now he got real interested. He became a vigilante and said he was gonna call the police! Needless to say, his mushy brain would never have comprehended the ruthless necessities sometimes entailed in creating great art. He thought we were stealing all the paneling in the place for some dank redecorating job of our own, or perhaps for the thriving black market in hideous wood paneling. The guy started getting really glazed and I think maybe, in his head, he heard the voices of all the frustrated wives nagging all the broke husbands to score some snazzy paneling, in an endless, echoing maze of crummy wall treatments. I wanted to beat the guy with the crowbar but Dean held on to it. He was always such a pussy about taking human life, especially for other people’s art projects.
We were tying the panel on top of my truck when there was a bad wreck right outside the parking lot. This was on Richmond Avenue and, as we all know, Richmond is one of the special “boondoggle streets” created by Houston’s charter. That means that every 3-5 years, however functional or necessary the road may be, it gets scraped away, right down to the earth’s core, and is then slowly, but carelessly, brought back into being by a tremendous expenditure of labor, resources and taxpayers’ dollars. Sometimes they widen it a little, take out a kink there, add one here, but it’s really what I would call “process art.” It’s about the process of making sure the right people and the right companies make lots of money.
Anyway, that’s why Richmond Avenue was, on that fateful day, more like a dirt cattle trail than a paved road. And this drunk guy and his kid were foolishly racing down it and they ran smack into a massive bulldozer the worker ants had thoughtfully parked there, to signify to the observant that this route was “under destruction” and you should try another, Bozo. Suddenly, their wrecked and soon-to-be-burning vehicle blocked the only exit from the parking lot of Hell’s laundromat. I became annoyed.
There was a lot of screaming and yelling and the drunk came out of the wreck carrying his bloody kid. He ran up to us. The kid wiggled out of his Dad’s arm and, although he was blood-soaked, seemed only to have a broken nose. Dad meanwhile was having a full-blown psychotic breakdown from the guilt and shame of nearly killing them while drunk driving. He kept screaming Call an Ambulance! Over and over. The kid took off his shirt and was mopping blood from his face. He kept yelling at his dad Shut UP! I was probably saying something similar with my eyes. I don’t like being told what to do, especially when no one says Please. But, being by nature a kind, gentle, soft-hearted Good Samaritan type, I made the 911 call. The guy saw me do it but he didn’t seem to get it. He just kept screaming Call an Ambulance! I think he was afraid to get out of his rut. Suddenly, he picked up a newspaper vending machine and threw it through the huge front window of the laundromat. Wow! I thought. Next time, I’ll wear my jeans an extra day. The bloody kid rolled his eyes and yelled Stop it! But Papa liked it and pretty soon he was breaking all the windows in the whole strip mall. I noticed that Dean and the Vigilante had disappeared and I decided maybe I should do the same. I hated leaving the knothole panel behind.
So now let’s back up and I’ll tell you about Walky-Talky. He was a schizo nut that I first encountered when he was living with a big pile of crap in a Montrose garage next door to a friend. I think he had been exiled to his own garage, because every once in a while a woman popped out of the house in front and walked back to Walky-Talky’s lair. She would stand there shouting at him You lousy bum! You’re no better than all the goddamn fairies around here! And other tender, enlightened, love thoughts typical of soon-to-be-ex wives. Shortly thereafter, apparently divorced, he was out of the garage, pushing his crap around in a stolen shopping cart, quirkily reinventing that classic street person style. Everyone got to know him better. He would pull out a vile, vintage black pocket comb, hold it under his nose and do comic impersonations of Hitler. He was a time capsule of tedious WW2 trivia. He loved nothing better than to perform it nonstop and, like all compulsive talkers, he was utterly unresponsive to even the most blunt cues that his audience might wish the monologue was over.
His antics endeared him to some, but not to me. I had my fill of repetitive old people when my senile Uncle Zach came to live with our family, when I was about 13. He was a fun fella, with his Brylcreme comb-over and his plastic suspenders. His vintage high-waisted pants had zippers at least 18 inches long and they were never, ever zipped up. Every 15 seconds he would say The water in the toilet looks high to me. Our plumbing was his obsession and, whenever possible, he escaped to what he thought was 1928, wandering the neighborhood trying to buy a plunger for a nickel. Failing that, he would entertain the local bullies, shuffling ridiculously through some tapdancing routines while singing My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean. I got to go collect him. I got the emotional scars. I think abusing the elderly should be an Olympic sport.
So the eyes I cast on the likes of Walky-Talky were rather cold. He eventually ended up sitting on top of the Greensheets at the Quik-Snack convenience store, unconscious beneficiary of the tolerant religious beliefs of the foreigners who ran that joint. Walky-Talky would sit there waiting for some fool to make eye contact with him. Then he would come to life andregale his new buddy with the latest gags from 1942.
His cart of crap was parked outside. He still pushed it around sometimes, adding to his disgusting collection. Since we’re all Art People here, interested in the magical pull of objects, let me say a few words about Walky-Talky’s crap. He specialized in useless, filthy, unrecognizable fragments of nightmarishly worthless crap. A blind magpie would’ve curated a better collection of crap; made it more interesting, more human. Have you ever slowed down to check out a garage sale only to suddenly realize that there’s nothing there but godforsaken junk which should’ve been burned, or buried out in the country, instead of piled on a suburban driveway where decent people might mistake it for something anyone could conceivably want? Did just a glimpse of that grotesque display give you a horrible feeling, a whiff of some moron’s sad delusion about the value of his or her scuzzy castoffs? Did you jerk your eyes away, afraid you might accidentally make social contact with those losers? Did you accelerate and drive off, promising yourself never again? Do you think you’ve seen some pitiful garbage, human and otherwise? Well, let me tell you, the wildest, Star Is Born fantasy that Walky-Talky’s crap ever had was that someday, with a lot of hard work, and dedication, and the right breaks, it might get a chance to be the worst crud in the worst garage sale ever.
So I sauntered back to the laundromat maybe a half hour later. I didn’t want any trouble about my appropriated knothole panel. The burned car has been towed away, an ambulance was leaving, a crowd was milling around but there was no sign of police, the vigilante, the drunk or the kid. I saw Walky-Talky pushing his ornamental shopping cart down the sidewalk, through the crowd, over the broken glass. Suddenly his attention was arrested by the kid’s bloody shirt, lying there, discarded. His face froze into a mask of desperate desire, like a lonely guy in a strip club who has just fallen in love-at-first-sight with some unattainable pole dancer. Mad with calculation, his eyes darted right and left, sizing up any potential competition. Then he dove, grabbed the bloody rag, plopped it in his cart, and rolled away, a happy honeymooner. He’s came toward me and mistook my disgusted attention for some WW2 camaraderie. He grinned at me triumphantly, pointed to the shirt and said Still good! Still good!
Ugh. What makes this story slightly interesting is where we all ended up. Me, of course, I got so big that Glasstire publishes my Post-its. MOMA in NYC quietly de-accessioned some of its Jasper Johns overflow to purchase my masterpiece, Donkey Head Knothole. Walky-Talky took some night classes at HCC and became a big deal international curator. I don’t wanna say which Whitney Biennial he put together, but it was incredibly unpopular. He’s never lost his interest in unsightly stains. The drunk who wanted the ambulance is now, as you’ve no doubt guessed, an extremely self-impressed local collector, a regular under-bidder at fund-raising auctions for non-profit art orgs. These days, when he hurls objects through windows, we all look the other way, rolling our eyes at each other. If you want our attention, bra, try actually buying somebody’s art!
Dean’s dead and the kid’s dead too. Dean choked on an egg roll and the kid got into drugs and OD’d. At least for them, the suffering is over.
Clark Flood is a freelance writer living in Houston.