Robert Smithson Does Some Impressive Talking to an Idiot Who Just Trailed a Beam of Light
Living in this apartment which Brigit has gotten me for the summer, only a few doors over from Park Avenue South on 22nd Street, it’s become a nightly routine to walk down to Max’s to meet Brigit, hear the Velvet Underground (who are playing upstairs twice a night, six nights a week), or just hang out in the back room. On my way there tonight I realized just how clever this unknown conceptual artist is—the one who designed the laser beam that runs seven blocks, in every odd direction, winding up, finally, on the wall in the back room of Max’s itself. I’ve always picked up its path as I turned the corner onto Park South at Twenty deuce, but tonight, feeling quick and energetic, I resolved to trace it to its source, something which no one has been able to do—leaving its creator anonymous, which I assume is the way he wants it. The night was perfect for my enterprise, the darkness clear with a blue sharpness. I picked up the beam, red and beautiful as a tube of liquid roses, in the usual spot and began to backtrack from there. On 23rd Street I noticed that it turned, heading off a mirror five flights up a building facade on the southwest corner, in the direction of Lexington Avenue. With my eyes glued to its steady flow, I got all the way down the Third Avenue before it turned again, this time broken by a more complex mirror which split the beam into two equal parts, one going uptown, the other going downtown. I guessed that the downtown beam was the herring, so I traced the uptown one two more blocks, where it split off the side of a warehouse wall (right out of the mouth of a gargoyle there … it was genuinely eerie) into four other directions, including one that, with the aid of another mirror across the street sent one of the lines into two more parts, one of which went back in the direction I had come, this time on the other side of the street. I was ready, however, to match my determination with its creator’s considerable wit, and I ran back down to 23rd to follow the downtown light from where it had originally split in two. That was of no use either; it simply went down two blocks, shot off the angle of a mirror pointing back west, and, passing Gramercy Park, went right back over to Park Avenue South at 21st Street, reuniting with the original beam … one block from where I started this glamour-filled quest.
Staring up at it with a slumped posture which read dejection, I heard a voice whisper, “Forget it. I’ll buy you a drink at Max’s … at least you’ll see where it ends.” It was Robert Smithson, the earthwork artist—one person who frequented Max’s for whom I had total respect in every sense: intellect, taste, heart. We invariably loved the same movies, and that was usually the source of our conversations. His reputation was growing lately by leaps and bounds, and he was in the process of knocking off his culmination piece—a spiral configuration of variegated stones in the shallows of the Great Salt Lake. I greeted him, still a bit dazed from being led around by the nose by a beam of red light.
“It’s just a labyrinth,” he spoke in his subtle, likeably erudite voice, “and like those in medieval cloistered abbeys, it is a labyrinth which is not supposed to be penetrated. So give it up.” I noticed a kind of serious tone to his voice, almost one of warning.
I explained that those libraries were constructed, with great genius, as labyrinths because the abbots in those times were in genuine fear of the wrong kind of knowledge reaching the novices, or, for that matter, reaching anyone beside the abbot himself and his appointed librarian. What, then, was the analogy he was making? After all, all one would find at the other end of the laser was some artist’s studio with a contraption filled with various gases, most likely, since it was a red beam, krypton.
“That’s it,” he picked up on the cheap pun, “krypton … why it must lead to Superman and his fortress of solitude.”
“I see we have the same tastes in literature as we do in cinema,” I said. “But, no shit, do you know anything about where it leads? And why are you so serious?”
“Because,” he answered, getting a bit weary of all this I noticed, “like those superstitious monks, this artist, whoever he is, is harboring secrets as well … maybe great secrets or, perhaps, just the fears inside his own head, not so different from those abbots and their fears. He might fear fame, though I don’t see, clever as this thing is, what he has to sweat about.”
“You smug prick,” he laughed.
“The point is, we don’t all of us want fame. And, the way things are going in my life lately, I can understand his point. It’s as much of a trap as following around this fucking beam of condensed light.” He pointed up. We stared a minute, then followed it down to its end where we sat down and had a drink of pernod and beer. You heard me right.
I walked into the back room of Max’s tonight, a little more loaded than I had thought I was when I left the house. I was holding my hand up to the laser beam, letting the light pass through, and considering the possibility that I had, perhaps, missed the vein on the last shot, and, thus, it was just coming on, slowly and with a vengeance. Lost in this rumination, hand still poised in the beam passing red through my palm and onto the white wall, where it simply hung like a stigmata, Andrea comes up to me and leans into my ear, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could pass through the light, instead of the opposite, such as you are now experiencing?” That’s quite a non sequitor, I thought to myself, not thinking Andrea had it in her. She is the newest of Andy’s stable of whacked-out superstars, a Jewish princess from Queens who has adopted the name of her mentor, i.e. Andrea Warhol. I looked down at her, she was only about four-ten. “Then we would have to move at the speed of light, and the first rule of the law of relativity is that, although one can move at 99.9 percent of that speed, it is impossible to equal the speed itself, since that is the point of relativity itself.” I was quite pleased with myself for spitting this out with such alacrity, as ripped-out-of-my-brain as I was, and slyly peered around, hoping someone at a nearby table had picked up on the drift and was as impressed as I with myself. Nothing happening there—they were all busy impressing someone else themselves. The real world is hard on the ego and the back room of Max’s is out of the question altogether.
“I know a faster speed,” Andrea spoke up. I had forgotten about her, although she was amazingly sexy with a body that would fit balanced in your hands like a boxed edition of Proust.
“What would that be?” I asked. I was switching gears—forget about being a conceited asshole … I was now trying to get over on her.
“The speed of death,” she replied. I had a stupid smile on my face, which I lost clumsily on hearing her answer.
“You know, you hear about these people that have accidents and their heart stops beating for a time and they’re pronounced clinically dead. Then some hot-shit doctor runs in and revives them. It’s like … those people always describe the same sensation … of entering a long tunnel and passing into the purest light, and becoming almost one with that light … and just then they’re brought back … but they did really pass through that light, and would have become one totally, if the doctor didn’t fuck things up, that is.”
“How would you like to continue this later, come home with me. I mean …”
I was realizing as I said this that I was seriously stoned, as seriously as one could get without being unconscious under a toilet sink somewhere strange.
“Not tonight,” she went on, as if she didn’t even hear what I had said, but I knew I was going to say it because everybody did, sooner or later, every night of her life, “Why don’t you come see me tomorrow night … I live right on Park South, right up the street, about eight … no, five to eight … PM, natch, you’ll see something special.”
“I will certainly be there.” I needed to sit, or fall.
“Don’t kid around about such things. You’re not as smart as you think … none of these fuckers are,” she raised her voice, pointing around the room, “That’s another rule of relativity.”
I was impressed by that … almost as impressed as by the way she looked walking away.
Meeting Andrea Again
In the two weeks I’ve been here, this apartment that Brigit got me for the summer has turned into one vast closet. If I let go of my tendency toward excessive neatness for a single day, it snowballs into complete disregard on its way to total disarray. So I’m frantically overturning piles of clothing, trying to find something worthy of a subtle pose as I enter Andrea’s place tonight for our coming hours of good times, lust, defiance, high hi-jinx, sex-approaching-a-new-decade. Sweetness and possibilities unparalleled. And I’m late and … shit, the only thing reasonably unfilthy is this semi-fucking-cowboy shirt. I’ll have to go with it, in lieu of smelling like Lou (that’s Lou Bova—a guy I grew up with whose “body language” had a one word vocabulary). I might be in luck. She might have a fetish somewhere. When your wardrobe consists of nothing but a phony cowboy shirt and denims, you have to hope for fixations.
I inject and speed out the door. It’s another one of those steel blue nights on Park Avenue South, and the laser I have grown obsessed with is sharp as a beacon. It’s menacing looking, as if someone drilled a hole in the side of a canister of plutonium and it spit out this seriously harmful light. I want to stick my hand in its path like I do in the back room of Max’s, where its intricate journey ends. But it’s five flights up and I am irritated by not being able to prove it’s still harmless. I notice it passes right by the address which Andrea gave me. And now, looking down on pavement level for the first time since I turned onto the street, I notice something else. It’s not reassuring. I stab my pockets for the vial of valium … frayed edges … nauseum incipious.
The red twirling lights of five police cars and an ambulance are clashing into each other and bouncing off the hoods of passing cars, carrying the whole mess right up the block to me. I break into a dead run. I know without looking that the building they’re in front of is the address she gave me and I think I know something more—more than I want. I get there … oh God … it’s her. She’s dead. She jumped and she’s lying there naked and dead and covered with a blanket that had been leaning a few minutes before against a spare tire in some cop car. She’s holding a can of diet cola in one hand and a pair of rosary beads in the other. Her head is smashed on one side. Her hair, her fine, blonde hair, is like a tangled net with small shining red fish, trapped and lifeless. I lay back my body on the hood of a car and hug the hood ornament until I’m almost twisting it off and a cop moves me away. I notice this guy Emilio, a Factory sycophant and quasi-aristocrat-utility-man, heading toward me. I’m about to tell him to piss off, but he gets out enough words to bite. He asks me if I had a date with her and I tell him I did. Then he goes on that he too was supposed to meet her at 8:00, and he points out seven or nine other Max’s habitués who are hovering around and explains that she had made dates with all of them for the same time.
“I guess she wanted an audience, you know?”
“No, I wouldn’t know. Why don’t you not continue with what you’re saying and just tell me if anyone saw her jump.”
“But I saw her,” he replied, breaking his English with finesse. “I always arrive early. It was strange, you know?”
“No, I don’t. What do you mean?”
“It was like she was jumping on to the laser beam … as if she were trying to grab it … but with her mouth, not her hands. Like she wanted to swallow it.”
“Or be swallowed by it,” I mumbled, remembering her talk last night.
“Never mind … You mean she passed right through the beam as she fell?”
“… Yes … and, well, it was really very strange. I know I was shocked and all, seeing this, but she yelled out something very strange before she jumped. I don’t know what, but I was in a state, very strange. You see, it seemed from down here like some illusion of optics, yes? But it seemed that for a moment, like a whole second of time, that she actually hung onto the beam from the laser as if it were a line for clothes. And the can of soda and the rosary? She was a Jew, no?”
I walked away, without any acknowledgement to Emilio, though I was in debt to him for what he had said. She was a Jew. And last night she asked me, the last thing almost, if I were Catholic. And why did she ask me to come five minutes before the others? I imagine that she thought I was such an asshole with my absolute and overwhelming love of my own bullshit rap that she wanted to show me, before the others got there, something about a genuine absolute—the absolute in action. I could talk all night about relativity and the speed of light, but she was going to prove her point, in complete and enduring terms, about her notion—that crazed, yet beautiful phrase, “the speed of death.” And why did she decide to jump before I, or the rest of the boys (aside from the punctually-at-ease Emilio), had arrived? Was it charity for me … sparing me the sight? More likely it was just disregard. Why should she think of me at all in the face of her trip into the passing of light? Why did she ask me at all? A laugh? I’m laughing so hard it’s becoming very difficult to breathe. I go home now and stare in the big mirror … I see too much of myself there.