Most of the time when buses going in opposite directions along the same route pass each other the drivers will wave and maybe even honk the horns, sharing a few seconds with someone else who does what they do. It’s something one of my coworkers would call a “collegial moment”, although I work in an office with a lot of other people and if I didn’t pass by someone every few minutes I’d start to wonder if there was a meeting I was supposed to be in or maybe worry that I was like Earl Holliman in that Twilight Zone episode, but that’s another story.
Then there are those times when the bus I’m on comes up behind another bus and starts following it and I wonder who’s fouled up the schedule and, more importantly, why I couldn’t be on the bus that’s in front so I could get home a few seconds earlier.
Anyway last week the buses were either running extremely early or extremely late; either way it doesn’t matter. All I know is I was having to wait a really long time and every bus that came along was packed with people. And then late in the week I had to work late and caught a later bus that was completely empty except for me and the driver.
“Not a lot of people riding at this hour,” I said.
“Nobody knows when the buses are coming or going right now,” she said. “They’ve got us on a whole different schedule.”
“Why is that?”
“They won’t tell us. Maybe it’s because they’re renovating the downtown terminal, maybe there’s construction somewhere on the route they’re not telling us about.”
I thought about saying that every business has at least one group of workers who are treated like mushrooms–kept in the dark and fed shit–but decided not to. Then we stopped at an intersection and another bus turned in front of us and went ahead.
“See,” she said, “he’s all confused. I know who that is. He forgot he’s supposed to be on the alternate route and he’s only doing what he’s supposed to now because he saw me.”
There was a lot to think about there, including the fact that, for once, I was glad to be on the slightly slower bus. I wouldn’t want to be on a bus driven by someone who couldn’t follow directions.
When I was ten my friend John lent me a book called The Tattooed Potato & Other Clues. John’s a very smart guy—he’s now an attorney in Atlanta—and I think he liked the book because one of the major players, an eccentric portrait painter named Garson, has a side hustle helping the police solve bizarre crimes. I liked it because the main character is a young art student named Dickory Dock who works as Garson’s assistant and plays Watson to his Sherlock and there was a lot of stuff about art in it. The book is written by Ellen Raskin who also wrote the Newbery Award-winning novel The Westing Game. She only wrote a few novels but they’re all funny and cleverly combine the real and surreal with a style similar to Lemony Snicket. They’re full of odd characters and I think I would have enjoyed The Westing Game a lot more if I hadn’t had to do a book report on it for school, but that’s another story. A memorable detail of The Tattooed Potato is that one of Dock’s art professors rages against the terrible aesthetics of street signs, saying,
Why should I expect anyone to appreciate good design today, what with the eye so consistently bombarded by bad examples, atrocious examples of incompetent graphic art, everywhere, at home, in the streets—those awful signs in the streets.
That tickled me because when I was very young I thought there was something weird, even a bit creepy, about street signs, but I also get why they’re designed the way they are. They’re made for quick and easy comprehension without a lot of extra detail. They could still use little touches to reflect the local culture, though, hence the example above of the surfer crossing sign, spotted on Dauphin Island, Alabama.
And on a weird tangent Lucy Liu, who plays Watson on the TV series Elementary, is also an accomplished artist. It’s a case of art sort of imitating art or life or something. It’s difficult to untangle, but not really a mystery.
I was out on my lunch break and saw a scary looking swarm of dark bugs buzzing around a patch of grass, so of course I headed right for it. I’d seen swarms like this before, starting when I was a kid and staying at my grandparents’ house one summer day, and there was a dark cloud of buzzing bugs around the bushes of one of their neighbor’s houses. My grandmother was terrified and told me to stay away from them because there was no way we could tell what they were, so of course when she wasn’t looking I went over for a closer look. My grandmother saw lurking death in everything: grass that was too tall could hide spiders and snakes, grass that was too short could make the ground dangerously hard, being outside too long on a summer day I could get pneumonia, being inside too long I could get rickets from vitamin D deficiency, and she carefully went through every piece of watermelon out of a fear that the seeds might sprout in my stomach and grow out of my nose. And the bugs in that scary looking swarm turned out to be June bugs which I still love because they’re completely harmless and just big goofy bumblers. As a kid who studied bugs of all types I knew most beetles to be, in spite of their heavily armored backs, kind of timid. Most preferred to hide under logs and rocks or in basements; they’d retract their antennae and back away from any movement, any light. Not June bugs. You find June bugs right out in the open, happily buzzing or bumbling around with their antennae up and spread wide like radar dishes, broadcasting to the world HEY, WHAT’S UP? I’M GONNA CLIMB UP YOUR LEG AND FALL OVER AND THEN FLY INTO A BRICK WALL FOR NO REASON. They’re big and really attractive beetles, with mottled green and yellow backs and their undersides are metallic green or gold. I caught some and took them to my grandfather who showed me how you can tie a string to a June bug’s leg and it will buzz around like a tiny weird balloon or maybe yank really hard and leave you with a string with a prickly beetle leg tied to it.
The next summer I was old enough to stay at home by myself and there was a time when my friends in the neighborhood had either moved away or were away so I had a lot of time to myself. I found a swarm of June bugs and it was fun at first just watching them, catching one and examining its shiny underside before letting it go, but then I started to perform what I called experiments but which even then I knew were really sadistic tortures.
Anyone who knows me know this story has a happy ending, for me, anyway, although not for some of the June bugs. I didn’t grow up to be a serial killer or for that matter a criminal of any kind. I’m not a vegan but I probably would be if I couldn’t get meat so neatly sliced and packaged it no longer looks like any animal and while I will hurt a fly I only do it if the fly is in the house and I feel guilty about it and I occasionally cause my wife some consternation when I catch a spider so I can release it outside even though I try to explain to her that it’s a member of the Lycosa genus and therefore completely harmless. So this story is not as dark as it could be, or rather it’s not a prequel to something much grimmer, but it still makes me uncomfortable that I put June bugs in glass jars with cotton balls soaked in alcohol and then pinned them to a piece of styrofoam, and then I started to put them in plastic bags and put them in the freezer then revive them in the hot air that blew from the air conditioner in the back of the house. The stove in the kitchen had those black spiral burners and I’d turn one on, crank it up until it glowed orange, and press a June bug’s back against the metal. At worst I was risking a burned finger but for the June bug this was always fatal.
As I consider this heavily loaded words like “normal” and “healthy” come to mind. I wonder how many others have done the same sorts of things, but most who did, understandably, don’t want to talk about it. Even then I felt guilty about what I was doing, wondered why I was doing it to such inoffensive creatures that don’t bite or sting or even get served up neatly sliced and packaged. And I’d already stopped when I went out one morning and walked around feeling like my head was wrapped in invisible cotton, and aching in my arms and legs. I went back inside and went to bed and woke up with a fever of a hundred degrees, and the only thing more miserable than missing precious summer days because of illness is having a body temperature that matches what’s outside. And I was too weak to cross the room and get rid of the styrofoam board of neatly mounted June bugs.
I’m resisting the temptation to try and draw some bigger conclusions from this, or to turn the June bugs into a metaphor. Some people might say, hey, they’re just bugs, and maybe this is a common, or at least not rare, phase kids go through, but I also don’t want to offer up any excuses. What I really want when I walk through a swarm of June bugs, when they crawl up my leg and fall off or fly away and bumble into things is to be like them, oblivious to any threats, or maybe they’re really the smart ones who know there is no lurking death.
Once upon a time lazy summer mornings meant sleeping late and lingering over a bowl of cold cereal, oblivious to the problems of the wider world. Maybe there’d be a toy in the bottom of the box of cereal. Back in 1947 a national brand of cereal gave away a million spinthariscope rings so kids could put a sample of radioactive polonium right up their eye, but that’s another story. After breakfast there’d be time for a barefoot walk through the tall grass, far away from the urgent ringing of a phone. Then back home for a tuna fish sandwich and my boss yelling, “WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN? THE SHAREHOLDERS ARE EXPECTING THE QUARTERLY EARNINGS REPORT!”
In memory of those bygone halcyon days of last week when summer mornings were long and leisurely here’s a pop quiz:
Breakfast Cereal Or Subatomic Particle?
13-15: You’ve used the CERN Large Hadron Collider to make oatmeal.
10-12: Neutrons are part of your complete breakfast.
7-9: You’ve used a spinthariscope to make toast.
3-5: You know you can’t put too much water in a nuclear reactor.
1-2: You should be kept away from smoke alarms and sharp objects like spoons.
Cities around the country are decorating their crosswalks with the rainbow colors of the LGBTQ Pride Flag for the month of June. Crosswalks in Britain are called “zebra crossings”, but that’s a horse of another color, or colour if your dictionary is Oxford instead of Webster. Anyway this is a very groovy public art project and an important one right now since the advances in LGBTQ rights could so easily be rolled back, but that becomes more difficult when cities show support for the whole spectrum of their citizens. The example above is from Maplewood, New Jersey, the first in its state, but it joins others from around the United States and around the world that have put permanent rainbow stripes on their crosswalks.
The crosswalks on two sides of the building where I work are sticking with the usual white stripes, but I thought this would be a good chance to review the rules of crosswalks because it’s a weekly, sometimes even daily problem for me that the crosswalk brings out many shades of stupid. Here’s a helpful diagram using a picture of the building where I work:
In this diagram if I (M) am standing on the sidewalk and a car (A) is coming then that car has the right of way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been waiting for cars to pass so I can cross the street only to have them come to a screeching halt right in front of me. Then the drivers give me a condescending little “go ahead” wave. And it’s even more annoying when there are cars in the other two lanes speeding by. Not that the drivers are the only ones with the problem. I’ve seen other pedestrians step right out into the street without looking, forcing oncoming cars to come to a screeching halt.
On the other side of the street there’s also a bus stop (B) and sometimes when I’m standing there and cars come to a screeching halt in front of me I want to ask, How do you know I’m not waiting for the bus? And if you know I’m not waiting for the bus can you read my mind? And if you can why are you here and not in Vegas?
And (A) can also represent where delivery trucks–FedEx, UPS, USPS, food deliveries–often park, right in front of the front door of the building. Did I mention that the street in front of the building has three lanes? When a delivery truck is parked in one of those lanes that makes it even harder for pedestrians and drivers because those trucks block the view of oncoming traffic. That brings me to (1) because I arbitrarily switched to numbers and which is on the much less busy side street which is where the smarter delivery truck drivers park.
Knowing how to deal with a crosswalk is another thing we could all take pride in.
Have you ever wondered why Harpo Marx never talked? There’s a story a friend told me, although I’ve never heard it anywhere else, that when the Marx Brothers were just getting their start in show business their first manager took their money and lost it at the racetrack. Harpo said, “I hope you go down in flames!” The next day the manager’s house burned and the other brothers decided it would be for the best if Harpo kept his mouth shut.
Years later when Groucho, Chico, and Harpo got together one last time to make A Night In Casablanca the studio wanted the silent partner to yell one word so they could put “Harpo speaks!” in the ad copy, but Harpo refused and they dropped the scene where he was supposed to yell “Fire!”
That’s what I thought about when I read that the opening of an exhibit by the South Korean artist Lee Bul at London’s Hayward Gallery was delayed because the art burst into flames.
The work called Majestic Splendour consists of fish—real fish—covered with sequins and plastic beads and because the smell of rotting fish made visitors sick at previous exhibitions the gallery added potassium permanganate to the fish.
Potassium permanganate, which, by the way, you can buy at hardware stores, is sometimes used to hide odors. I didn’t know this when I was a kid and added it to glycerin which, by the way, you can buy at hardware stores, and it would burst into flames which, by the way, is really cool to watch and you should do it with your kids, but that’s another story.
Apparently potassium permanganate can also burst into flames when added to rotting fish.
I know this is the sort of thing that prompts a lot of cheap jokes about modern art but making art and putting out there to the public, trying to make a statement, is a risky thing. It takes guts and sometimes those guts burst into flames and I’m not sure where I’m going with that, but I like Lee Bul’s work. One of her others, a silver zeppelin called Willing To Be Vulnerable is oddly eerie, suspended over a silver floor that blurrily reflects it.
I like the fish too. Suspended in mylar bags and decorated with beads they speak to me of the environment, the contrast between the rapidly rotting fish and the staying power of plastic. They’re also beautiful to me, and I never really noticed before how much a fish’s eye looks like a bead. Even the fire seems like a statement: heat can turn fish into food and plastic into toxic fumes.
So be careful about making cheap jokes about avant garde art because you just might go up in flames and, by the way, did you know Harpo Marx was a painter and an art collector?
A man stood at a large window overlooking London’s Kew Gardens. He was stout and bald, except for a thatch of hair on top and a little around the sides. Once copper-colored his hair and neatly trimmed beard had gone salt and pepper. As he turned and walked across the room he was joined by a thin white-haired man with glasses and a moustache.
“Well,” said the second man, his voice a deep melodious bass, “did you have a holly, jolly Christmas last year, Mr. Ives?”
Mr. Ives chuckled. “I did, and my children greatly enjoyed your singing ‘You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch’.”
As they approached an elegantly carved bar at the far end of the room they were joined by a third man with a deeply lined face and a rough, grizzled beard. He wore a black Stetson.
“Mr. Ravenscroft,” Mr. Ives said to the man he’d just been speaking to, “have you by any chance met Mr. Haggard?”
“I haven’t had the pleasure,” said Mr. Ravenscroft and he and Mr. Haggard shook hands then turned to order drinks.
The loud voice from across the room made all three men turn. The woman who’d just shouted a greeting wore a bright flowered dress. Her hair was pulled back in a bun, and a paper price tag dangled from the straw hat perched atop her head.
“Gentlemen,” said Mr. Haggard as the woman joined them at the bar, “allow me to introduce Mrs. Cannon.”
She took a playful swipe at him and said, “Now you know me well enough to call me Minnie.” She then addressed the bartender. “Could we get some ice cream please? Vanilla with a fudge—“
“None for me,” Mr. Ravenscroft interrupted politely. “I’m afraid I’m lactose intolerant and that will make me—“
“Another whiskey, please,” said Mr. Haggard. “Very fine stuff, not like the moonshine my granddaddy used to brew that would make your hair—“
“Imagine,” said Mr. Ives, “all of us being here at once.”
Mrs. Cannon said, “Indeed! It makes me feel like a young—“
She did a pirouette on one foot and added, “It’s not every day a body gets to attend the elevation of a former viscount to the next level of English peerage just below a marquis.”
All those assembled nodded thoughtfully.
The bus was late and it was crowded. Maybe it was late because it was crowded, because there were so many people getting on. Or maybe it was crowded because it was late, all these people having missed a different bus. It’s one of those chicken-and-egg questions although chickens and eggs aren’t allowed on the bus. The bus stopped and a woman sitting opposite me got off. She’d been sitting right on the aisle even though the window seat next to her was, I thought, empty. After she got off I looked over and there was a purse, gold with maroon polka dots, in the window seat. And I hesitated, which I still regret. The thought Hey, she went off and left her purse, went through my head, but I didn’t jump up and yell “Stop the bus!” and maybe that’s a good thing because the bus wasn’t moving. When I looked out I saw the woman walking away with a big purse slung over her shoulder. So it wasn’t her purse, but it was someone’s purse.
I watched a man get on and take her seat, next to the purse, leaving it its own seat as though it were another passenger.
Then he got off and the purse stayed behind. I wondered if I should pick it up. Men don’t usually carry purses although I’ve noticed more and more guys with messenger bags or shoulder bags. I have one with a raven on it composed of words from Poe’s poem and it’s sparked a few conversations, but that’s another story. Anyway I wasn’t going to take the purse off the bus—it clashed with my outfit—but I did think about going through it to see if I could find any identification, some way to get it back to its owner. There were still a lot of people on the bus. Would they get what I was doing? And I even wondered if we were on camera, if this was a test to see what people would do. And what should I do?
In the end I moved the purse up to the spot next to the door where people often leave bags of groceries, umbrellas, and other things and told the driver someone left it behind. She said she’d keep an eye on it. I left and yet even now I wonder if there was something more I could have done.
When I first started studying art I was taught that paintings have specific meanings. Often this “meaning”, whatever it was, would be the artist’s intent, or at least what critics or historians thought the artist’s intent was. This whole idea of “meaning” was treated as though it was something specific and objectively knowable and fixed, and it doesn’t take much thought to realize that’s pretty goofy. What a work of art “means” is in the eye of the beholder even if, when talking about art, it’s generally convenient to have some idea most of us can agree on. Or not. I’m not really sure what specific meaning I’m trying to get across here and if you think, hey, he’s making kind of a meta-comment on the nature of meaning and how flexible it is I’m just going to say, yeah, let’s all agree that I really am that smart.
Anyway that brings me to this:
I’m just amazed by how this artist has turned a postal delivery label into a work of art, into something that sends out their message. Every artist, whether they think about it or not, works within certain limitations: limitations of time, materials, space. For graffiti this is usually true in spades. Artists who tag buildings or spots on the street have to work fast, although they often have large spaces to work with. Here the work is confined to a small space, so small you might miss it, but it’s so vivid and so well done. That’s probably in part because the artist wasn’t as limited by time—whoever made this didn’t have to worry about getting busted by the cops.
Here’s another one that may be by the same artist.
I liked these so much I was tempted to pull them off and take them home with me but then I realized that whatever the message is it was meant for everyone. If I removed these pieces I’d change and limit the meaning, and I don’t think that was the artist’s intent.