Mary T. Miller
Stories From the End
The first time I saw D he was yelling at a woman in the checkout line next to him. He was going on about how the East Village had declined in cultural fecundity because of vapid, consumerist, rich people like her. His hair was thin, gray, and long, his glasses bulky and unfashionable, his mannerisms harsh—he sniffed and snorted like a congested, intelligent hog. His voice recalled a Muppet's throaty appeal. He approached my register and blood rushed to my head.
Right away, D identified me as an NYU kid. "It's been awhile since one of you worked here, not since those super acidy, hippy girls." I didn't ask him how he knew, as I was stoned and having trouble processing my role in the interaction. He asked what kinds of things I was interested in and I told him music and writing. "Ahhh," he said. He asked me to name a few bands I liked, then a few writers. He seemed pleased at my answers. He remarked I had a Southern accent, which surprised me. I was from Atlanta, but considered myself far too metropolitan to have an accent. D noticed things. As the youngest kid from a big family, I wasn't used to being noticed. In fact, I'd say I had a nearly pathological ambivalence to it.
The second time I saw D, he invited me to a Phosphorescent show. "I know them," he said. "They love me." At the time, I didn't know of the band Phosphorescent and I didn't like the idea of a sixty-something-year-old man asking me to go to a concert with him. So I said no. He couldn't believe it. Throughout the day he kept coming back into the health food store, asking, "Are you sure you don't want to come? I thought you'd be interested in this."
Eventually, through interactions just like that—in which D assumed we were already friends and acted appalled when I seemed to not have gotten the memo—an actual friendship developed. He was around the store all the time and, though I was new to the job, I quickly realized he had been coming in forever.
This was obvious from the way management treated him. The owner, an overweight, former metal-band guitarist with a grumpy-yet-benevolent disposition, could be downright combative toward D. As soon as D would start to be the least bit disruptive, Joe'd come lumbering up the skinny staircase from his basement office, yelling all the way, "Get out, D! Get out!"
"Okay, okay, asshole!" D would say, stealing an orange or something as he headed for the exit. Cassie, the manager, was kinder. She was in her early thirties maybe, tall with a large frame and black hair, black clothes. In the same situation, Cassie would simply walk upstairs and position herself in D's vicinity. She'd look at him and he'd say, "Okay, okay, I know you want me to leave. I wish you a wonderful night, Cassie, thank you." Almost as if he had a bit of shame in him.
D began cornering me during my smoke breaks. He'd talk and talk, coughing the whole time, as if I were forcing him to inhale my secondhand smoke. Sometimes he'd come by the store to purchase a single item, making sure to wait in my line. Long after the end of the transaction he'd still be going on about some event he thought I should attend, a book I should read, or an album I ought to listen to. My coworkers would glare if I didn't shoo him along quickly enough, but it wasn't easy to get him to wrap up—pointing out the long line he was holding up barely seemed to phase him.
At first, D made me nervous, but I was also fascinated by his strange way of being.
At first, D made me nervous, but I was also fascinated by his strange way of being. I thought it must take a certain amount of courage to behave in a way that made people uncomfortable. I later learned that a lot of his behavior—his loud, stilted way of talking, his tics, his rants about human nature, his open confrontation of anything phony, stupid, or wasteful—could be at least partly explained by his many mental health diagnoses, including Asperger's.
After recognizing D and I were getting friendly, Cassie revealed to me that D was a famous photographer, in some circles at least. He'd personally known and taken pictures of a bunch of the 70s-era East Village rock stars: Patti Smith, the Velvet Underground, Television. Even more famously, he'd taken photos of Bob Marley that are now on t-shirts and posters in hordes of white college kids' dorm rooms. She said he did some drawings and paintings too.
I honestly don't think I was surprised to hear this. As a brand-new New Yorker, I had the impression that almost everyone I met had some claim to fame, especially anyone who'd stuck around the Village for as long as D had. But I shied away from asking D directly about the Bob Marley images—I didn't want to seem like a fame hound. He would bring them up occasionally, in a tone of bitterness and embarrassment, "because you know if I hadn't sold those photos…" I got the impression he'd sold them for a pittance, hungry for a buck.
Eventually, my fascination with D's eccentricities wore off. I kept putting up with him though, even hanging out with him sometimes after work in nearby parks or cafes. I was starting to realize that what he had to say was even more fascinating than the way he said it.
I loved hearing about the 60s and 70s-era East Village. D would talk about going to the Factory, what assholes Andy Warhol and Lou Reed were. "Pretentious, empty, consumerist," he said of Andy. Lou he criticized for "touting heroin usage when it was fucking killing people around him." He said that Patti Smith had "her issues" with him, even though he liked her. Whatever conflicts he might have had with the famous people he knew didn't matter to me. I felt sure that if I ever got to meet Patti Smith through D, she wouldn't have beef with me.
D's connections to the Velvet Underground, as loose as they were, warranted my respect. I had spent the entire summer before coming to NYU with one CD in my '98 Honda Accord—Volume I of the recently-released Velvet Underground box set—the one that contained all the demo versions of their most famous songs. I listened daily to that demo version of "Heroin," blasting it with the windows and sunroof rolled down, chain-smoking cigarettes and driving down the highway that skirts Atlanta's sparse skyline of shiny glass buildings.
"Ah when the heroin is in my blood and that blood is in my head. Then thank God that I'm as good as dead. And I thank your God that I'm not aware. And thank God that I just don't care." I can't tell you how often I felt exactly like this song. Ready to give it all up just for one all-encompassing feeling. It describes youth to me, or at least my youth. Both starving and full to the brim.
On top of his general struggle with getting along in the world, D had leukemia and had had it for around nine years when I met him. It was in remission, but he expected it to come back. Indeed, that winter it returned like a mildly-destructive guest, not too aggressive, just steadily aggravating. This partly explained his always being in the health food store—he and the vitamin lady had long discussions about homeopathic methods for healing his disease and alleviating his symptoms. He hardly ever bought any of those vitamins, but when he did, we gave him a huge discount. Somehow, we got the understanding that he barely made enough to survive on, even outside of the medical bills.
D would ask me to buy him a meal pretty regularly. He'd ask in this very casual way, "So I was thinking maybe you could get me something to eat," an aside, almost. I'm not sure which of us suggested Mamoun's, the cheap falafel place on St. Mark's, but that became our spot. Buying him falafel felt like something one friend would do for another. Giving him straight-up money was reminiscent of another kind of relationship, one I wanted to avoid. It had only been a couple years since I'd renounced Catholicism and the idea of charity disgusted me. It reminded me of those patronizing church ladies who consider themselves morally superior to the needy they serve. Plus, there was the danger that those feelings of superiority, guilt, and indebtedness would be hard to contain. D was already good at manipulating me—I often found myself hanging out with him even when I'd decided not to. How much money would I bleed once I allowed myself to be open to the act?
If he ever pressed the issue of needing cash, I would do something that's slightly shameful to me now. Because of D's illness he would get codeine pills, but he didn't like the way they made him feel, so I'd buy them off of him at around a dollar a pop. This act had the concomitant benefit of supporting my sincere mission of being an explorer in Drug Land. It was a mission borne in part out of a rebellion against a conservative upbringing, but also from an intellectual desire—what I considered to be a very writerly hunger for experience. I didn't realize then that not all fruitful experience needs to overload the pleasure, then pain receptors.
The pills didn't do much as far as getting me high, honestly. Despite my bravado, I was terrified of overdosing on them. I will say that if I took a couple and then smoked a bunch of pot, the effect was interesting. I distinctly remember doing this and lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling and letting my thoughts begin to lose their weight. Like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory after drinking the fizzy lifting drink—delightfully free, yet nearing ever closer to the sharp fan at the top.
Years later, I found out that D wasn't quite the poor, struggling artist that I'd perceived him to be. It wasn't that he didn't have access to money, he just had money management issues. He'd inherited almost half a million dollars in his late twenties when his mother died and then had spent it all within a year or two. He used it to travel, including a trip to the North Pole where he took striking photos of glaciers that manifested on film as gigantic, ancient brains. Even without that money, he probably would have been fine subsisting on his art income. He'd occasionally sell paintings for several grand a piece, but he squandered that money, too.
Another young friend of D's had made a documentary about him several years back. He brought it up frequently, usually to talk about how much he hated it. He also insisted on giving me several copies of the film and asked me repeatedly to hand it out to all my NYU friends, offering to supply more copies if needed. I resisted watching it, partly because D warned me that there is a moment in which he makes a scene in an art gallery.
"I throw stuff at some of the artwork," he said. "People got pretty mad at me about that. You'll see. It makes me look crazy, the movie. But you know sometimes I can be sort of hyper-sane and that's what's it's really about, this thing that happened."
In the back of my mind, I was slightly afraid that D was in fact just another mentally-ill, destitute New Yorker, screaming threateningly in the subways.
In the back of my mind, I was slightly afraid that D was in fact just another mentally-ill, destitute New Yorker, screaming threateningly in the subways. He'd never been that way in my presence, but I felt that perhaps he could be, given the right circumstances. And so I really didn't want to watch a documentary in which he appeared to be a screaming, wild man.
I figured that if I came to see him that way, I might stop hanging out with him. And for the time being, I wanted to keep on with our friendship. Not long after meeting, we began hanging out about once a week. We'd meet in Thompkins Square Park and then would go on a walk, usually to the Strand Bookstore. We'd spend an hour or so in the Strand basement, where the bargains are. As we browsed, D would lecture and I'd listen. Sometimes we'd argue about the work of some author I liked and he didn't. I'd come home from those trips with my pockets empty and weighed down with books that D had berated me into buying—my weekly reading list.
By early winter, a few months into our friendship, I got curious enough to put the documentary on. The film began with famous artists and critics talking about D. Even Kiki Smith, probably my favorite visual artist then and now, had something to say. All the speakers had a similar message—D is a genius and he'd probably be wealthy, famous, a darling of the art world, if only he had a different personality.
More than the idea that D once had a tantrum in an art museum, the prospect that he was truly famous scared the shit out of me. I could deal with him having taken some well-known photos forty years ago, but the fact that his drawings and paintings were considered high art was something else. D was already overwhelming enough as a friend—I didn't want to also become intimidated by him. I shut the movie off.
I'd understand D's place in the art world soon enough, in a more organic way. On an icy day in early winter, D asked me to accompany him to a show opening in SoHo. He told me a lot of art people were going to be there and he wanted the emotional support. I was excited to go to a New York City art gallery opening, especially accompanied by a real artist. I must've seemed totally out-of-place. An eighteen-year-old kid who probably looked sixteen, a dyed, dirty-blonde pixie cut with a barrette in my hair, a vintage black dress I got for maybe seven bucks from a thrift shop—there with D, the resident maniac.
The vibe I got from the fancy SoHo people was that they obviously knew D and were interested in the fact that he had shown up, but were also quite wary of him. Some people kept their distance, while others would talk to us for a minute, but then would walk away, maybe circling back a while later, never getting too deep into conversation. I remember us chasing after a Japanese art dealer a lot of the night. The guy had a talent for avoiding looking at D directly. He offered a few vague promises about selling some of D's work before slipping away for good.
By this time I was quite loyal to D and so I left the opening that night with a feeling of outrage toward the whole 'art world.' If they could treat someone with that amount of overflowing talent that poorly, then they were no different from the Wall Streeters I'd see on the train—pure, heartless capitalists, plain and simple.
In late winter, shortly after the cancer came back, D finally convinced me to go to Coney Island with him. He'd been begging me to go for months. "It's a ghost town," he said. He particularly wanted to photograph an abandoned crack den he'd discovered on a previous trip. We met up at Thompkins Square Park as usual. When I arrived, D was lying on top of a pile of woodchips with his head thrown back, strumming a guitar with broken strings. He told me the woodchips were cut from all the Christmas trees that people left on the sidewalk after the holidays were over. He was full of facts like this, miscellaneous knowledge about New York City subsystems.
First, we had to go to his apartment to drop off the guitar, which he'd acquired from a friend earlier that morning. This was the first and only time I saw D's apartment. He'd warned me the apartment was "not clean," but I was trying to clear my mind of expectations. After four or five flights of stairs, D opened the door and the smell of garbage flooded my nostrils. Inside, there were several large, gnat-infested piles of books, kitchenware, clothes, food, and broken instruments all mingled together. It was strange to notice normality among the clutter; a nice leather sofa in one area, for example, alerted me to that being the living room. In the kitchen area, I recognized a stove, hidden under books, pots, pans, and cereal boxes.
I'd been telling D that I wrote songs and he decided he wanted to hear me sing one right then, since we had a guitar and all. I didn't want to linger long, but I was always game to sing for people when they were interested. I don't recall what song I sang, but I do remember that D was attentive and didn't fidget as much as he normally did. When it was over, he said he didn't really like it—it was a little cheesy.
"I wanna read your poetry," he said. "Maybe it's better." I think I disassociated, and only allowed myself to be crushed by this later on.
On the subway ride out to Coney Island, D was visibly uncomfortable. His throat-clearing tic was in full force and he'd do it loudly and twitch his whole body when someone got close to him. I was embarrassed to be seen with him, worried that people would be worried about me and what I was doing with this man. As the crowd thinned out, he calmed. He struck up a conversation with a tall woman who had black, chin-length hair and sharp bangs. She was German, introduced herself as Sierra Ox, and said she was a musician whose work was "of a cinematic nature." She mentioned the name of her most recent album—it was something about the underworld.
D told her about our photography mission and she seemed interested. I could see her looking at me, considering what was going on here, and being ultimately pleased at our odd pairing. Outside of her cool intelligence, she also appeared kind. Her approval of my and D's adventure reassured me.
We said goodbye to Sierra and got off the train. It was a bright, brisk day. D was right, Coney Island in the winter was desolate, absurdly so when one considered the warmth and chaos of the summer. There was a strong wind and it whistled down the vacant alleys, stirring up bits of sand and trash. Soon, we came across a bloody rat in the middle of the empty street.
"Wow," D said. "How barely dead it is." We stood there watching the rat for a moment. I couldn't decide whether the rat was barely dead or almost dead. D lifted his camera and took a picture.
The crack den was a short concrete structure, about the width and depth of the suburban house I grew up in, but only half a story high. I guessed it was an old warehouse, a place to store extra supplies for the concession stands nearby. The 'front yard' of the structure was littered with debris: needles, pipes, paperback books, grocery carts, comics. The place didn't fit in at all—we were almost right in the middle of the amusement park, behind a large fence on an otherwise empty alley. It felt as if we stood in an invisible place, as if the average person's eyes would just skip over the structure.
We had to bend down a little to enter the building, but inside we could stand. In the entryway, a layer of trash covered the floor and a small, dirty window allowed in only a little light. There were light fixtures, but the bulbs were broken. I noticed a lot of art on the walls—graffiti and some drawings scrawled on scraps of paper, stuck to the walls with gum. As we drifted through the rooms, I stepped as quietly as I could, fearful of bumping into someone, but it soon became clear to me that, as D had promised, the place was abandoned. D began snapping away, occasionally using flash. The bright light would make the place feel absurdly miniature, like a disgusting doll house. I began to involuntarily envision stepping on an infected syringe, feeling it go through my shoe and into my foot. I kept thinking about what it would take for me to live in a place like this—a few extra-depressed days, a couple very wrong decisions. I could imagine it.
After a few minutes, I felt I'd gotten my fill. I told D I would wait outside. He grunted. I stood in the yard nursing a cigarette and staring at the Wonder Wheel. About fifteen minutes passed and D emerged. I looked at him to see how he felt, but his face was blank.
Next, D wanted to go to the beach to take candid portraits of a guy who spent his afternoons feeding the seagulls. He wasn't hard to find. As soon as we stepped off the boardwalk, we saw an enormous cloud of birds in the distance.
"They know him," D said, smiling.
As we got closer, D raised his camera and the man grew agitated, yelling "Leave me alone!" and "Go away!"
"He hates having his picture taken," D said.
"Maybe you shouldn't take his picture then," I said. He ignored me.
I thought D looked cool—his long, stringy hair flapping in the wind, his several layers of jackets messily arrayed, seagulls filling up the sky behind him. I asked if I could borrow his digital camera and began taking my own photos.
Later, on the ride back, D scrolled through the images. "You took a really good photo of me here," he said, showing it to me. He was in the left of the frame, turned toward me and smiling, with the sand and ocean to his right. "That's probably the best picture anyone has ever taken of me." I doubt this is true, but I do know that he looked happy—alive and not lonely. This is my memory, though I never saw the photo again.
Just as spring was starting to reach its long skinny fingers into lower Manhattan, I met D at the Asian grocery store next to my dorm. I'd brought him a gift—some fragrant cannabis tea. He received it with suspicion. He was generally grossed out by pot and did not like feeling stoned, but had read that when infused, it could cure one's chemotherapy-related nausea without causing too much of a head high. So he had mentioned I might make this for him and I had of course obliged. He took a sip and grimaced, then took another.
Primarily, we were meeting to catch up and to talk about the poem I'd sent him, on his request. It was a loose sonnet, an assignment for a creative writing class:
Met up with D today in Tompkins Square Park in the city.
Found him all washed up on a pile of woodchips
Cut from last year's Christmas trees.
A hill in the middle of the New York sea.
Ready for Coney Island? He said to me.
Set out to take pictures in canyons of sandswept streets.
Stale winter wind whipped through Cathedral at the crack den.
The creak of the Wonder Wheel, stories from the end
Of an artist. Convinced that man, New York's dying
Or it's already dead. I don't know which.
All these rich little kids movin in.
And the only talk I overheard was the rat's last croak,
An oomph in the caws and the fretful sleep of the waves.
And then twilight crept in and the sky erupted
And it lit up that rat 'til, shit, I swear it was reborn.
D could've torn into the poem as far as I'm concerned. It's pretty cutesy and, while the best poetry distills life, this one over-simplifies and obliterates. But he had only one question for me.
"That line, 'stories from the end of an artist,' did you mean 'stories from the end' or 'the end of an artist?'"
"I guess you could read it either way," I said. "I'm not sure. Maybe both."
"Hmm, well, it's pretty good, better than your song," he said, but I could tell the poem had made him sad. I didn't know what to say. I just looked around at the store.
He saw himself through me and saw a dying man.
Thinking about this now I am reminded of the sociopathy of the young. It was true, what I said about reading it either way. And it was necessary to speak the truth with D. He could see through bullshit easily—that's part of what I enjoyed about him. But this answer affected him. He saw himself through me and saw a dying man.And I hadn't realized before, that in spite of all of D's complaining and depressive talk, he ultimately was a person who was vibrantly alive and whose every fiber wanted to stay that way.
I saw D only a handful of times after that. That fall, of 2009, I went to Paris to study abroad for the year. We corresponded by email for several months, although he sent probably three times as many emails as I did. The last time I saw him was in New York, at Mamoun's during a snowstorm, when I'd come back to the States for a holiday visit. His frame had shrunk. He was bald, shivering, pale—didn't look good at all.
In January, I went back to Paris and apparently didn't communicate with him for the entire spring semester. I've searched my email many times looking for correspondence between us in 2010. A couple emails from him, nothing from me. I guess I was too into my own shit—school, traveling, and a French romance that ended in a dramatic early miscarriage. At a certain point, I think I was too afraid to email him and not receive a reply back.
Looking back, I sometimes judge myself in the harsh light of a moral system of my own devising. In this system, art—specifically, honest, true art, which avoids the fallacies and pettiness of its own era, is of the highest good. It's a salve for our humanity. It keeps alive our empathy, helps us to recognize our deepest selves in each other. D, in my mind, created and lived this kind of art at the highest level. And yet, it caused me so much anxiety to be in relationship with him. I only answered maybe every other call or email from him. I went months at a time without speaking to him. I didn't even give anyone the documentary—I still have six or so copies. It's not as if I agonize about this on a daily basis, but it's something I think about occasionally. Lately, maybe because it's coming up on ten years since I met him, I can't seem to stop wondering if I treated him unjustly. I wonder if I have sinned.
In April of 2010, toward the end of my time in Paris, some friends and I decided to go see Phosphorescent in a little club in the 10th arrondissement. All during the concert, my mind was on D, wondering if he was still alive. I thought of trying to get the band's attention after the show—it was a pretty small venue—but I was too shy. That night I Googled D's name. The first thing that came up was an article in the Village Voice announcing his death and musician-packed memorial service at St. Mark's Church, just a few days before. "In lieu of flowers," the obituary said, "please support a working artist."
Mary T. Miller attends Boston University’s MFA program in Creative Writing (Fiction Track). She lives in Cambridge, MA with her husband, Albert, and their dog, Brooklyn.