overhaul / undertow

Thursday, October 24, 2002

dumb, crazy love, kung fu, pop tarts.

About three years ago I completed a two-year project at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which I began about a month or two after I graduated from UCLA's art history department with an absolutely irrelevant degree.

Irrelevant, that is, to just about anything except the highly rarefied and navel-gazing world of museum work.

I sat at a computer for two years, the recipent of a dedicated grant, and catalogued and entered into a mammoth database every item in the Islamic art collection (year two was dedicated to pre-Islamic items and other Ancient Near Eastern artifacts). I wrote object descriptions, dialectic panels, and teeter-tottered around on the padded seats of creaky wheeled office chairs, standing on the toes of one foot while I stretched up to the topmost shelves in the storage rooms that are hidden off stairwells and behind camouflaged doors throughout the upper galleries, trying to reach a 2,000-year-old piece of ceramic so I could write its description, while at the same time trying to exert enough force on the chair below me so that its wheels would not go skidding out from underneath, leaving me to fall and not be found for days, not to mention dropping and shattering said artifact. I still can't get over the fact they didn't have ladders. Morons.

Every day I parked in the two-tiered parking lot across the street, walked through the crosswalk to the museum's employee gate, said hi to the guards who I always knew, and shuffled in to work. In those days I was doing kung fu every night of the week until ten at night and sometimes later, then hanging out with friends afterwards. I was often exhausted and/or hungover. But damn if I wasn't in great shape. I still self-aggrandizingly brag about the six-pack I had at the time. Ha. These days I'd be happy for a two-pack. Or maybe a 40-ouncer.

I came to know the gate guards, and the other guards whose job it was to prowl through the parking lot, moderately well--at least enough to know them by sight. I wasn't thrilled about this though. I was such a wreck those days--up working out 'til ten, staying out partying 'til three, slogging in bleary-eyed to work at ten, living off of pop-tarts, diet coke, and california rolls (ah, youth)--that I had NO interest in chatting it up with anybody standing inbetween me and the door to my veal-fattening pen of an office. I was pleasant, but always relieved to escape their attention. A few seemed to like me a bit too much.

One summer evening I was leaving work. It was still sunny out. As usual, one or another of the guards was manning the little booth by the gate to the parking lot, and he said Hi as I walked by. He came out and walked towards me (damn, I thought, now I have to make small talk) and stretched out his hand: he was holding a manila envelope.

It was so long ago I don't really remember the exchange, but it was something to the extent of that since I'd mentioned to him in the past, when he asked me what I did at LACMA, that I was a writer, he'd taken the time to write up some of his own poetry and would be flattered if I'd read over it. I thanked him profusely and nervously fled. I didn't want to be the recipient of such an intimate gift from someone I didn't really know and never really wanted to talk to.

I thought about throwing it away, absolving myself of the responsibility for reading it, but it seemed an unkind thing to do: this man had trusted me. I pulled the pages out halfway, didn't read any of it, noticed a large post-it stuck to the front of the small sheaf, and stuck it back in. I decided I would read it later. It got lost in my car over the next few weeks (for those of you who know my car, you can understand how this could easily happen), and I sighted it from time to time but never opened it. I figured the contents would be unimpressive as far as writing quality goes and i didn't want to think poorly of this person; I already felt guilty enough about not reading them immediately.

I don't remember seeing him much after that, and if I did, it never registered; I left LACMA shortly after, and began teaching full-time. After about a year and a half of teaching full-time, I got posted to my current position, and now I once again sit in an office and write all day. This time I don't mind it. My life is much more stable and balanced than it was back during my time at LACMA. Honestly, I'm surprised they never fired me over there, given the bizarre hours I kept and my constant state of not-quite-all-there-ness. These days it's much better, and as a bonus I don't have to summon all my bodily musculature to stand tiptoe on tall rollerskating chairs and grab at bits of pottery that predate Christianity.

I was frantically looking for some papers in my room yesterday, and when i came upon a manila envelope I hoped it was what I was searching for. It was not. It was this man's letter. I immediately felt nervous; I didn't want to read it. But I felt I owed it to him; he had trusted me, after all. So I opened it.

The poetry had been printed on four or five pages of decorative paper, the kind you buy at Kinko's. At first glance it seemed like crappy love poetry. I felt embarrassed. I didn't want to read about this young Cassanova's conquests.

Then I read the post-it note affixed to the front. It was handwritten in a florid cursive and signed by one Mohammed. Without it here I can't quote it, and even if it were here, I do not think I would, as it seems to violate some sort of trust or minimize something that was, obviously, very important to someone.

Regardless, I am glad I never read it, or I would have parked in another parking lot for the rest of my time at the museum.

It apologized for "being so bold," and went on to state that he had adored me from the minute he first "set eyes upon my face" (as I got out of my car? yikes), and that I "haunted his dreams," and he wanted only to behold my face etcetera etcetera (yeah, sure, dude). It made me feel horribly uncomfortable, squirmingly flattered, and quite spooked. How could it be that someone could feel this way about...me? I'm no luscious beauty, certainly nothing to inspire the kind of slavish devotion he was going on and on about.

I couldn't read the rest of the poetry. It made me feel as though I'd been under surreptitious surveillance ever since I got to LACMA. I stuffed it all back in the envelope and kept looking for the other papers I'd lost. (I found them soon after, in plain view on my desk.)

I've loved men in my life. Some of them I've loved with the kind of blind and meaningless adoration that this man seemed to be under the spell of. He and I never spoke. I walked past him a few times a week--that was all. It is bizarre and fascinating and sad and, I guess, lovely in a way, to think that such heights of ecstatic passion, such brilliant intensity, obsession even, can be reached on so tenuous a tightrope as just seeing someone once in a while--and that someone not even be much to write home about, at that.

And yet.

I'd wager that a fair amount of my most passionate love affairs were conducted on as unstable a basis, an untenable a foundation. Many will say, "that's not really love, that's obsession," but naw--it's love. Love is rarely all it's cracked up to be, kids. Love paces a long line from obsession to appreciative interest. When it's in a healthy range of its spectrum and is accompanied by commonalities such as friendship, shared interests and ideals, and complementary personalities, it can last a lifetime. But love by itself is never enough. That poor man--I must have seen him several more times before I left. Did he stay up nights wondering if I'd call (he left four different phone numbers on the back)? Did it leave him nonplussed or hurt when I continued to pass by, day after day, not noticing him or waving gaily as though he hadn't just bared his soul to me (and really, he hadn't--the letters were still in my trunk, unread)?

Love, thou art abysmally dumb.


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