Worlds spin. Reflected images in space hold the past, present, and future in a visible way. Time is held, as well, invisibly, in the heart and brain.Within me, in chambers of dream, in the heart of my mind, the voices, the sounds, the scenes, of my time in the town of my birth are still turning:In the fifties, riding through Reading with my grandfather in his green panel truck, delivering mushrooms to market, listening to his story of life;In the sixties, returning from Gettysburg, running an endless circuit to and from the old war field, battling the family for love or peace;In the seventies, living high and laying low in California, staying away, trying to forget, then returning as if I never left this place;In the eighties, driving from Reading to New York with Keith, before he became a famous artist, sharing our visions of the future;In the nineties, rafting and fishing with my sons and Dawn, beside the railroad bridges and the rusting tracks where I walked in my childhood;In these moments of clarity, the city, the railroad, the factories, the toil of the people, the beautiful river, the dreams of my youth, the farm, the truth and the lies of life and art, seem to me to be heaven, hell, and purgatory — all in one place and time.*Chapter 1It was an earth-hewn heaven, a dream assembled stone by stone by a half-literate immigrant — a family man. He shouldered it through his years and he came to believe it was stolen from him by his sons. They grasped it and held it. But they could not bear it.At last, still thinking he could somehow pass it on to me, he died. I sat with him on his final bed and just listened as he whispered to me that his sons had betrayed him. I watched his death and I saw the farm in his eyes, dying with him. Being human, I screamed.They were sending the farm to hell. It was to be my purgatory. I loved the wet wooden walkways, the billowing steam, the old cold cinder blocks. I loved the white mushrooms as if they were the truth of the universe, the secret reality of life: sweat, steam, stone, steel, and manure, mortared with muscles pumping red familial blood, spawned with sweet fungus, staffed by crews of men on their way from Mexico to nowhere at all.At the end, I held the responsibilities of the watch. So that when it was all over, I would share in the guilt. I embodied the loss. I could not save myself.I lived there alone, managing the dissolution of Francesco’s dream. He believed it would nourish his family for centuries. Instead it crumbled within the decade of his death. I sent the workers away one by one, thanking them for their loyalty. The last ones — Victor, Humberto, Fidel — stayed till the last day. I had nothing to give them.It was my home. I was too bitter ever to return, even to retrieve my belongings. The journey — miles up mountain roads, through the beautiful bushes of laurel and sumac, by the thinning stands of branching maples and broad trunks of stubborn-leaved oak; approaching the rough-hewn fence embraced by thorny red and yellow roses, to catch the scent of wine spilled out in sticky stains on the concrete cellar floor — this joyful pilgrimage became unbearable. I did leave but I never moved out.After his death, they sold his dream, his earthen heaven. Flooded with rage, agitated by betrayal, and stifled by sadness, I strained to rid my mind of any memory of the place. My birthright was no more.But I could not stop the dreams. Perpetually I would succumb, reluctant, to sleep. I knew I would be transported there, condemned to haunt the musky miles of cedar walkways. The gray edifice of the perimeter loomed like an impenetrable stonework mountain shrouded in perpetual fog. I dreamed of existing within the three-story mushroom-studded mausoleum, yet envisioning it complete — as if from a great distance.Barefoot and naked, I would be overcome with the urge to run across an infinite valley, swamped by inky mud and black cat-tails. I had to reach it — to touch it — to scale the wet walls of concrete and cracked cinder-block. Then, with the irrational momentum of the slumbering mind, I would be instantly transported inside it, charged with some ponderous responsibility. And, again in an instant, I would feel the compulsion to escape. For too many nights, I dreamed repeatedly of a silent ritual in which Francesco, my grandfather, and his wife, Maria, hovered archangelic above the curving rooflines. Their three loyal sons deposited gigantic votive objects from the wide-open back doors of a white refrigerated truck: One held a huge, blood-gorged beating heart. Another heaved a crusty burlap sack, stuffed to overflowing with currency. My father, emptyhanded, would beckon toward me, as if to hasten my lumbering somnabulent approach.Characteristically, I the dreamer, would be struck with a heavy paralysis, an inability to acquiesce in the acceptance of this morose genetic drama. My stubbornness would slow the pace of the dream until it hung in the emptyness of space, suspended like a blackened fossil in dark amber. Numbed now, and dumbfounded, I would contemplate the scene until it evaporated in the waning of the night.For months, years, after the farm vanished from the days of my life, I would refashion it obsessively each night. It became my oneric icon, an inner continent, a landscape of loss, replacing my dreamworld, looming, consuming my sleep. Emotionally transfixed. I felt sentenced, condemned, ill-fated to revisit it and regret it for the rest of my life.During this period, the outermost shells of my existence were being worn away. By dint of my insistent academic agnosticism, I lost my position on the faculty of a Catholic college. A separation and impending divorce separated me, as well, from my sons. The farm, which had always been right there, as a source of meaning and a source of money, was now nowhere — a source of pain and endless memory. I was spinning myself into a stolid state of depression. My thoughts were meticulous preparations for suicide.As a diversion perhaps, from all this dreariness, I ceased work on my unfinished canvases and began instead to construct a series of surreal miniature landscapes from floor to ceiling. I diverted funds for living expenses toward the purchase of dozens of electric trains. These, I disassembled and rebuilt as fantastic improbable railroads. At the flip of a switch, they coursed throughout the crazy universe which was contained womblike, within the confines of what had been my workshop, my studio, my home.
I made worlds within worlds, from infinitesimal to infinite. Each was carefully constructed of fragments of experience, bits of memory, dreams, fantasy, desire. I reconstructed the mushroom farm in miniature, modeled my New York studio, made tiny effigies of individuals — my grandfather dressed in pauper’s clothes stepping from the boat on to American soil for the first time. I built a tiny working model of his dull green panel truck, and sent it coursing through a scale-model city — Reading, Pennsylvania, city of my birth.
I introduced aspects of memory and imagination into historical reconstructions, concatenating time and space into a continuously unfolding miniature diorama.
My sons were replicated in miniature, fishing along the verdant banks of the Schuylkill River, waiting for me to board their rubber raft. Elsewhere, my girlfriend, Dawn, stood by tracks near a heart-shaped tree, while a miniature me made a roadside repair on a little copper-colored Mustang.
In the center, I built a golden shrine to my dead friend Keith, adding mementos of our time together — photos, notes, correspondence, and works of art. I had written about him and his work for a decade. I placed these stories — from newspapers, magazines, gallery brochures — in a mirrored casket-shaped box. I added his obituary — which I had written for our hometown paper and an international journal of art. I enclosed evidence of the ongoing collaborative project we had begun with high hopes in the early eighties — I had not touched the unfinished manuscript since the day of his death.
I fashioned a day-glow altar, drew a glow-in-the-dark pentagram around its perimeter. I placed, near the altar, a small white hand-lettered sign bearing the words, “The Avatar of Art”. Before closing the mirrored sarcophagus and placing it on the altar, I included the last words I would, could, write about him:
He was the Avatar of Art. he believed the heiroglyphic images he created were supernatural — – encoded transmissions from conscious cosmic entities or Entity — entering him, and through his work, the mind of man was refashioned. He was a religious fanatic, describing himself in an earlier time as a “Jesus freak”. Feeling he was born too late to be a hippie, his admiration for the psychedelic edge of Pop culture impelled him to re-create it. At 21, he declared his hero-worship of John Lennon. He considered the moment of Lennon’s death as the most significant in his life.
The evolution of his personal philosophy began in the late 1970s, through the turn of the next decade when he drifted away from the world of professional art and hit the street with the young graffiti artists, or “tag writers”, whose work and world he unabashedly romanticised, heroised, adored.
The erotic magnetism of these Black, Hispanic, Oriental young men made him risk his life in obvious, subtle, invisible ways: avoiding barbed fences, guard dogs, and the electric third rail to “tag” subway cars in a street-as-studio world of spray-cans, chalk, and marker art; going everywhere mindless of a hint of the fear that a skinny white kid would doubtless experience in the dangerous city; sharing sex and drugs with the fallen angels who would die so young from overdose and AIDS.
He loved their courage. He saw their youth, ethnicity, raw nerve, wild intellect, and sheer talent creating a coursing network of vast and beautiful public painting — the city infused with brilliance, intelligence, even magical incantation. His favorite, “SAMO”, tagged his messages citywide. He imagined him god-like or perhaps actually God.
Keith’s exegesis of “SAMO” was a complex cosmological interpretation of the precise locations and exact encryptions of the messages, and their place in cosmology.
Keith Haring chalked his first image on a subway wall and knew his life would undergo rapid, self-directed, sub/or/super-consciously willed change. And that this change would be in history, as history, as he was in this moment — innocent and perfect.
He did not claim to know the source of the pyramidal, saucer-shaped and humanoid pictographs he was compelled to compose, but he sensed from the start their metaphysical significance.
He was a singular genius, uncanny not simply in his execution, but in his grasp and visual elucidation of complex, totally contemporary ideas, philosophies, world-views, and in his assimilation of them into his personal creative vision. Increasingly as the eighties progressed, he believed he pictorialized perfect supernatural truth.
He had to work hard though, putting it into words. He was often confounded by the meaning of his evolving imagery. He needed dialog with others in order to comprehend his own messages. He cultivated global multi-media relationships with writers, artists, thinkers. He was, as well, a collaborative presence in the work of his friends. Consciousness and creativity were, to him, connective, communicative, manifold, and paradoxically both isolate and relational.
He was never still and his beliefs were not static. He lived the truth. He died knowing the secret of life. He knew life is short, nothing is real, existence is a dream, living is dying, desire is suffering, fame and fortune are meaningless, religion, politics, and economics are mind-control, conventional thought is mental slavery, and the so-called “real world” is an illusion. He knew in the end nothing matters, yet he knew also love, peace, freedom, the human heart, the mind of the child, and the evolution of consciousness toward conscience, matter more than the history of art.
I know these things and I knew him. In the days before his last day, we renewed our pledge to carry on our collaboration. I gave him my copy of the “Book of the Dead”. Then he died.
I remember writing these words with the pen Dawn smuggled to me in the suicide ward of the Reading Hospital. Things like pens — things which could draw blood, or things which could be used for hanging oneself — belts, clothing, or most anything at all — were off-limits on the ” ‘cide ward”.
At the time, Dawn was my best friend, not my lover. She knew of my love for Keith, which she believed was sexual. I was not aware of her assumption. She admitted it to me months later — after she and I had become lovers. She said she had never experienced such waves of emotion as would overcome me when I would try to speak about Keith. She said only, “You must have loved him a great deal”.
I didn’t understand it either. I knew I could not deal with the fact that Keith had died. But at the time, I wasn’t dealing with anything very well. Dr. Berg, who was in charge of the psychological unit, had taken me under his wing. My group assessments were opportunities for Berg to announce to the staff that I was an “especially gifted and unique patient who was experiencing an extraordinarily synchronous combination of stressors”.
I lost my teaching position in September and by November, the farm, where I lived since leaving my marriage, had been sold — two jobs and my home out the window in a matter of months. My girlfriend at the time, the poet Hannah Roland, was reacting with understandable panic to my increasingly expressed rage, threatening to keep me out of her home by court order if necessary. With no income, I was unable to make child-support payments. I had walked into the emergency room on orders from my lifelong friend and family doctor, Irv Filmore, who had called Berg with warnings of my “suicidal ideations”.
Dawn was Hannah’s best friend. When the farm was sold, she offered to let me move my work — the trains and landscape installations — into her basement. At the time, Dawn lived with her husband and two daughters, down the road from the farm. I always liked her paintings, and had favorably reviewed her exhibitions. Besides, she was beautiful, athletic, and philosophical. She was the first person I called from the hospital.
Dawn appeared in the visiting room within the hour. Under her skirt, she had secreted two packs of True Blue 100s, a lighter, rapidograph drawing pens, and one dozen spiked brownies. Shortly thereafter, I was high flying, drawing cartoons of my predicament. Later, I wrote “The Avatar of Art”. That night, I dreamed of Dawn. The next morning, after her husband left for work, she called to tell me that, by using auto-suggestion before falling asleep, she had succeeded in intentionally dreaming about me.
Three months of hospitalization, followed by nine months at the YMCA gave me time alone to begin sorting out the “extraordinarily synchronous combination of stressors” which had nearly obliterated my will to survive. It was also sufficient time for Dawn to leave her husband and rent a live-in studio in Reading — six blocks from the YMCA.
Now, little more than a year later, Dawn and I have bought back her home from her husband; her daughters are renting apartments and attending college; and my trains are three flights upstairs — here in the attic, beneath a domed skylight.
Reflecting upon the mystifying and ironic circularities of fate, I throw a switch and watch the space around me spring alive in a clockwork cosmology of clattering engines and chattering cars, orbiting endlessly, careening in a multicolor carnival of figure-eights, elipses, circles. Above, a prism catches sunbeams passing through the skylight, scattering rainbows. Flashes of brilliant illumination shatter shadows cast by a succession of worlds within worlds in eclipse. Fragments of real things collide in make-believe moments. Memories, fantasies, wishes, and fears are mixed-up here. Nothing dies. Each train comes back. Trips end and start again. Night rises. Dreams descend.
Last night, six mountains of hot compost oozed greasy black water, staining the concrete platform for the thousandth time. Today, bucket by bucket, ton by ton, the putrid piles were broken up and moved indoors. A contracted crew of Puerto-Rican strongmen slaved all day with shovels and pitchforks, stuffing the reeking mass of horse manure, cobs, green hay, straw and henhouse droppings into two adjacent cinder-block bunkers on the family mushroom farm, Francesco and Maria, Inc.
Within the giant structures, long rows of old wood trays, stacked six-high from floor to ceiling, are filled. Now, at the start of a new crop cycle, the two-week-long composting process known as “cook out” begins. The acrid stench of ammonia and the hundred-plus degree heat of organic decomposition engulfs my Chicano helper, Fidel, as he makes his way through the cavernous building. In his hand is the last of ten steel probes connected by a tangle of black wires leading to my makeshift control panel.
From within the smokey atmosphere, Fidel calls out, “Ja ‘sta — el numero diez, arriba. El ultimo!”
Out in the hallway, monitoring the dials and gauges hanging between the double doors, I can barely hear him over the scream of high-speed fans. The red LED on the control box — the one labeled “#10 – Upstairs, Left-side” — jumps from 90 degrees to 135 — a hot spot.
“No es bueno, Fidel. Es muy caliente.” , I call back to him. Of course, he doesn’t hear me until he’s almost reached the door. I give him a moment to catch his breath and to wipe beads of sweat from his brow. Then I tell him again it’s too hot. He glances at the red number glowing in the dented metal box on the table.
“Aiee! Cien’ treinta y cinco! No bueno.” he says, shaking his head. He knows he must go back inside the steamroom to readjust the probe.
The average temperature of the uncooked compost is about 120 degrees. It shoudn’t reach 135 for another two days. Fidel must have shoved the probe into a pocket of chicken manure — or else — the piles were not thoroughly mixed. Grimacing, he takes a deep breath, lifts a drenched and tattered bandana over his nostrils and plunges back into the hellish atmosphere of the cookout, searching for another spot with his bare hands, seeking a more representative temperature for placing the probe.
“Cuidado, los avanicos.” I remind him to watch out for the dozen floor fans we installed this morning, whirling somewhere down each steam-shrouded walkway, to increase the circulation of air throughout the damp chamber.
The readout settles back to 118. I check the temperature of the other probes, compute the average — 124.4 — and record it along with the inside air reading of 95 degrees. I make an additional note that the temperature outside is 43 degrees. With a 50-degree differential, I’ll have to control the intake vents, so as not to chill the tons of slow-curing compost.
My work is done for now. On the way out, I call down the hall for Ramon to give Fidel a hand with the clean-up. I peel off my stinking sweatshirt and head for the shower.
Stepping out into the cool autumnal dusk, I take the first breath of ammonia-free air I’ve sniffed all day. A few more steps and Fidel is behind me, running to catch up.
“Un hombre, quiri ablar con tigo,” he calls out that someone has come, wanting to talk to me. Assuming it’s a salesman, I tell him I don’t want to be bothered. He should know that.
“Si senor sabio, pero es un hombre especial — un amigo”, he insists.
Right, every salesman that comes by says he’s my amigo. I give my Mexican companion a shrug and turn away.
Fidel continues tagging along. He tugs at my soaked undershirt. His eyes are big, black-and-white, and wide. He’s gesturing back to the houses we have filled. Thick steamclouds venting from the rooftops remind me of my responsibilities. I’ll be running back and forth hourly, checking the temperatures and setting the controls.
Fidel is not giving up. He insists, “A dendro, el hombre, esta a dendro, aja — con el nombre, Keith”.
The only Keith I know died two years ago. I’m irritated now. Who is this guy? How could he be inside the plant? And why? Maybe it’s another grower snooping around, asking questions. Perhaps it’s an immigration agent, checking for illegals.
“Si. OK. Esta bien. Gracias, Fidel.”
He seems relieved that I’m taking him at his word and goes back to sweeping up the stray corn cobs and manure scattered about.
I might as well get used to retracing my steps. I’ll be doing it all night anyway. On my way back inside, I pass handsome red-skinned Ramon.
“Muy bien amigo, Keith,” he says, with his wide gap toothed grin.
Right. My good friend, Keith. Right. The evening is cool but I’m sweating. I look down at my palms. Something fires in my brain. For an instant, I feel faint. Just then, when I held my hands outstretched before my eyes, I had the uncanny sensation I was dreaming. I feel my heart beating in my chest. I can almost hear it. I am walking faster now, through the heavy wood doors leading down the hallway toward the murky darkness.
Near the end of the long chamber, a cloud of condensation has seeped into the hall from the nearby cookout rooms and is suspended beneath the ceiling. There by a burned-out light bulb, I can just make out the thin angular shape of a man. Each step brings us closer, until I am sure. There before me, in a clean white tee-shirt…
His short blond hair is as bright as his young eyes. His glasses aren’t fogged. He is perfect — as beautiful as he ever was. He’s just standing there, glowing in the darkness. As always, he’s smiling at me.
“Keith, what are you doing here, man? You’re dead, Keith. You died, right? What’s going on, man? What are you doing here?”
“Nothing dies,” he says softly, still smiling.
I remember the moment I first heard him say that. I have it on tape. I’ve listened to it a hundred times. He’s telling me about his life, saying no matter what was happening, he’s always been happy. All of existence, for him, was a joyful thing. Except when he said that, he knew he was dying. But I didn’t. I could never figure it out. On the tape, after he tells me of his joy, I say, “But what about death, Keith?”
The question, from my standard repertoire of responses, was prescient, although I did not comprehend it at the time.
“What about death?”, I ask. And he says, “Nothing dies. It all just goes in circles.”
So it does. Years have passed. The sun has set. The moon is rising. I’m back at the mushroom farm. My dead friend Keith is standing before me, smiling at me. He’s saying things I’ve heard him say before. I know now I’m dreaming but the dream doesn’t end. It feels very real. I’m getting dizzy again. I want it to stop. I don’t want to hear what he’s going to say. I know what he wants. I don’t want to hear him say it. Moments pass. Now, it seems, the dream is ending — but not before he speaks again. He does say it. I do hear it. For the next two years I will deny I heard him say it. But he does say it. And I do hear it. Just before it all fades, he says it.
“What about the project, man?”
(to be continued…)