Bart Plantenga, 1/15/2018
Current Occupation: writer / proofer / translator / editor / volunteer refugee advocate / yodel expert / periodic journalist
Former Occupation: foot messenger / house painter / cab driver / factory worker / forestry – tree trimmer / mailman / house renovation
Contact Information: web; radio; Youtube; b/art pretentious movies
The Kingdom Of Busby Berkley
I saw right away that I was the only “guy” in the Dorian Gray Bar, in The Riefenstahl, landmark-status-hotel-turned-condo. I was posed so that one and all knew I was not just some shiny bauble in a fop’s generic dream, nor some cut of chop sculpted by hankering eyes, but a man, a boy, an alien – more and less – inhabiting an uninhabitable land – and now this portion of bar. I was drinking a La Trappe Dubbel (6.5%), from Holland, reading the label as I peeled it off. OK, I’m nervous. I looked in the mirror behind the bar, perturbed that my haircut, asymmetrical [kindest description] or fucked-up [brutally honest], continues to mock me day and night.
As I wiped the brew’s glisten from my chin with my shirt sleeve, I reminded myself to add La Trappe to my list of favorite brews. I – as immigrant, uitlander, naive and knowing – had learned in the short while I had been in New York that everyone had lists of best bands, pizza, movies, desserts, Italian ice, knishes, sex positions, beers, and clubs. They were willing to defend them, even if it meant losing a friend in the argument. Especially clubs because I was going out so much that out actually became in and nowhere and everywhere were easily confused concepts of place: Top 7: Tertiary Synthetics, Big Rock Candy Mountain, Hobo King, the Boot Leg, Earwig, T-Birds, the Cocteau Club (where I kept a toothbrush in a glass behind the bar).
A beguiled or beguiling man of a prior splendor was drinking and staring into a dank concoction (a Cummerbund?), a gelatinous drink that looked like it had been siphoned from the Kill van Kull. Other cravated men gazed forlornly into the carpet, some managing sly deadpan smirks that somewhat managed to disguise their spiritual qualms.
Busby Berkley pushed through the heavy revolving door. There he stood in the lobby, rubbing his lapel with his thumb and forefinger, dapper as a skipper in search of his yacht. The wait staff scurried through the plush, post-Marienbad lobby, nodding their heads with an obeisance – or was it condescension? – in any case, I felt awkward, out of place.
“Re-ahh-lly hope you can forgive me,” Busby apologized profusely – something about a dear friend in dire need – which gave him leeway to place his chummy hand directly upon my thigh with the weight and feel of a spilled octopus salad.
Berkley’s mind was sharp like a branch snapped in two. Like the knife thrower’s knife. Every hair left on Berkley’s skull was individually trained to daily affect its delightful symmetry. I thought: James Mason’s shorter brother.
Berkley had suggested this rendezvous only three days earlier when he had befriended me at the corner of 8th Ave. and 46th St., turning to me to say: “I know you. You’re someone.” And that he couldn’t place me in his “memory Rolodex” irked his sense of – omniscience (is that the word I’m looking for)?
“No, I’m just a no one.” It’s true – despite a few “free” drinks at the Cocteau, some lines of coke, a few poems, and a casual errant swipe at my midsection, I was barely someone. I may have entertained the notion of being a catch, a young fling-thing, sultry and svelte youth to some art gallery dame or fop, but, really, I was a nobody. These kinds of daydream delusions sustain you when you’re running around Mid-Manhattan on your rounds as a foot messenger, sneakers sloshing with a day’s rain, earning minimum wage at a job even most homeless people turn down as too degrading. To earn extra pocket clink I’d run between pickups and deliveries – sometimes $15 a day – pocketing the subway fare that the Cosmo Geographical Messenger Service, would reimburse me for.
“A lifestyle overhaul is called for here.”
Berkley ordered two kirs with a hint of a nod and flutter of a forefinger – William Powell I thought.
“A kir is a Mediterranean sunset, as sweet and glorious as a teen’s aspirations … But what’s that smell – like a sour Insure.”
“Adult Pampers. But for you Furman, incontinence is still just a distant, ill-defined piece of flotsam.”
“Uh, OK.” And then I realized it was probably my sopping, sour socks.
“Your writing, your poetry, your DElusions – or do I mean ALlusions? – took my precious breath away. The way only great cognac – and writing – can. Mmm … It was nice of you to send them to me so … promptly … What a set of lovely limbs you are attached to by the way.”
I am standing there dazed by his clever, quicksilver repertoire.
“Am I giving you a headache? I know I’m giving myself one. Come on back to my place. 27F.”
He paid for the drinks with a big bill withdrawn from his portefeuille with the hand that still held the kir glass and, like in movies, not a drop was spilled. A quick backhanded “shoo” indicated no change would be necessary, ensuring that his generosity (and his latest catch?) would be duly noted.
In “his” elevator of chrome and mirror (to daily taunt one’s reflection) I saw my head from an angle I’d never seen it from before. I felt like a stranger inside myself.
“Lucrative … People are lonely. The ones who have everything have nothing.”
27F was actually 27A through 27F – spacious like a department store floor.
“Et voila! I’m a Gemini, so beware! As you will soon note – Baroque and modern, Deco and Gothic, Danish and Florentine, 50s and 20s, Shaker and African, erotic and sacred. It’s all me.” He knew just what to do with a vase of calla lilies (or, perhaps, he knew exactly who of his minions would.)
“A maladroitly placed vase makes me nauseous … Perhaps, being a writer, you could write about my … little shoebox chateau for Home & Garden. I know the editor.” (As a function of the verifiable phenomenon known as Creative and Impressionable Hearing Loss, CIHL – I thought I heard “Homo Garden.”)
If I lived Berkley’s life, I thought, I’d also concern myself with aesthetic assaults on good taste. Isn’t that what sophistication is all about?
“‘Sensitive as a barometer,’ my mother, may she rest in Hell, er, I mean peace, used to say. I make things happen,” he continued. “This is where the real business of theatre happens. Anyway, it’s all about denying realities – theatre is just a vestigial organ of the soul.” The more he elaborated on what he could do for me, the more it seemed my glass just wouldn’t get empty.
“Look out here; it’s not a pretty view. But a not-pretty-view is an interesting view. My past. Ye olde silk mills of Paterson. And so here I sit, past, present, future all in full view.” His arm swept vaguely across the west, toward New Jersey or Ohio.
This gesture led to more opportune movements: his hand strumming my collarbone, then my neck, while the other ever-so-lightly (in my mind?) brushed my emergent nipple. His arm heavy like the arm of an uncomfortable chair. I would later write: The dead weight of an injured officer dragged across a minefield.
He smelled like a barber shop on Saturday at noon – a crisp cleave of the air.
“Paterson is where I discovered I was not like other boys … You are standing on real estate that goes for $1200 per square foot. To know I bought it when it was $78. You can buy a thousand acres of prairie in Montana for that. We’re talking the compression of desire here, the telescoping of human endeavor. And I own this – all 3275 square feet of it – and possession, as you will someday learn, is 99% of happiness.”
The tour continued room by room, heirloom by heirloom, with him issuing his grand, sweeping gestures as if his early theatrical influence was Moses or Monty Hall.
“The work I will offer you will get you off the street. Messengering is an occupation of necessary humiliation for all to experience. My dear friend, William Saroyan and his son did it. Henry Miller, Mercury, there are others. From the stone of humility do we chisel the sculpture of pride, self-esteem, character. To wander is to dream. But you mustn’t wander too long. Especially someone like you, a writer, a poet, a sensitive soul. You need to be reeled in periodically.”
Anything of value, lacquered end table, gilt frame – everything, actually – he felt compelled to describe, place in its proper milieu, appraise it to within a few pennies (how would I know) of its current Christie’s value.
“Everything here is real – marble, teakwood – I insist because the real grounds us, Furman. Christie’s and Sotheby’s both have fat dossier’s full of photos of every detail of this place. They’re just waiting for me to croak.” His voice tapered off into a haze of reverie. “I learned this in Sub-Saharan Africa – not Palm Springs. Keeps one in touch with the elemental, because tromp l’oeil soon leads to tromp de coeur, and how easily the eye then tricks the heart.”
Then suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a wall was really a sliding Japanese screen, which opened upon an office filled with muted bustle, everything chic and simple, grey and rosé, matching and soft, artificial and ergonomic.
Five groomed, gloomy lads, trim as letter openers, puttered away, hunched over obese files and computer terminals in an air of maybe forced and numbed détente. Like one had to pinch gratitude from its fruit.
He swept me (hand on small of back) into his brood, “John Dean, Wilbur Mills, Julio Iglesias, Horst Wessl and Rudolf Hesse – Furman Pivo, my new houseboy.” His pronunciation of “boy” made me feel he truly did mean possession was 99% of happiness. They glared at me the way slaves might who were suddenly faced with the prospect of having to share their already meager rations with another. Oh, how they coveted my gold handcuffs.
As he poured his 4th White Horse Scotch straight up, Busby,with a certain circumscribed glee, spilled that his 5 boys – “really can be coerced into a jolly time.”
“In honor of my 61st birthday, the boys stuck candles up their flosculi – that’s Latin for ‘little flower’ derived from the Greek for anus, the culus being a rosebud. Now that’s poetry – hehe.” A small nudge of elbow to the giddy part of my ribcage. He was very self-amused by his own bawdy imagination and proud: “Punch me in the gut,” he showed me how by punching himself, “solid, no flab – a sharp knife is a good knife …”
My job: tidy up, dusting, cleaning, and more. Twenty hours a week and he expected punctuality and said so. Eye for detail; no fingerprints on the crystal, no watermarks on the silverware. His lads (the human candelabra?) never so much as uttered a word, unless all those sighs and clucks of tongue were truncated niceties. And, as is the wont of a self-styled benevolent monarch, he rather enjoyed the notion of rivalry (a secret of power) among his glum brood.
He inspected for dust and prints and made me wear pink rubber gloves. He checked the dishwater – “Prevention is protection” – with a forefinger to be sure it was scalding. Sterilization was his philosophy, his insurance policy, in an age of mysterious diseases.
When I dusted he watched. Or rather, he admired the way his smart choice of uniform (ballet tights and a sleeveless, ribbed tee shirt) highlighted the special features of my physique. He held his breath when I handled the Louis Quatorze (“pronounced cat oars”) porcelain bookends. He could not prevent himself from saying, “Careful! Those are worth a montaigne de centimes in sentimental value alone, not to mention current market value, more than your worth with all your exquisite limbs …”
Berkley knew very well that flattery (no matter how hackneyed) and benevolence (no matter how petty) were the keys to the jailhouse gate. A staff kept perpetually hungry for approval and remuneration was a staff kept bitter, obedient, anxious, and eager to please. Gratitude and servitude were strange bedfellows.
I also did some filing, hand laundering, vacuuming, made his bed. He always seemed to be there, like a shiny beetle in the corner of your eye, offering advice or autobiographical tidbits.
“This – have a look – I purchased on holiday in Firenze. A steal in ’73. ‘The Holy Family,’ circa 1525. Sodoma. Well, perhaps it is a copy, but, notice – the Christ child touching his own penis.”
“INteresting?! More than that, Furman. It’s the very cross-pollination of onanism and faith, prurience and purity.”
Saturday I again arrived promptly at 9. He was still lolling around in bed after 11. Rifled through the Times, his mail, fidgeted with gadgets. Ate half a grapefruit, topped with a maraschino cherry (which he tried and failed to pop into my mouth from the pinch of his meticulous fingers), a toasted dry English muffin and a bedside vintage Bakelite pot of chamomile tea.
While dusting under his bed I discovered a glossy autographed photo.
“Oh, I should frame that. I know just the darling frame for it. It’s from my dear friend, Nureyev. Rudolf Nureyev.” He held the photo, stared at it. “Ah, Rudolf, a coil of tensed surreptitiousness crammed into a shiny tinkered codpiece. His sex is so … Jack-in-the-box.” He flung it onto the bed and impatiently plowed through a blur of television channels with the remote.
“‘The male and female culus surely do not differ in their capacities to stimulate a penis to orgasm’ – or so it says here, I’m merely quoting, Furman, just quoting.” Everything that emerged from his maw of pearl and gold seemed wedged between quotation marks, ensconced in 3rd-person sarcasm, quote-inside-quote. This alleviated him of any responsibility for the increasingly emboldened nature of his utterances.
He often wore nothing in bed and alluded to this state, even affording me a casual flap-of-the-sheets.
“You looked, you rascal.”
He liked his home warm, hot even, and I worked up a sweat and he saw me sweat. “Feel at home. Don’t be shy. Work in your skivvies because, you know, it’s just us boys. And boys needn’t be shy amongst boys.”
He had purchased some pantoufles, darling French slippers, for me. Upon which he heaped endless praise; the way my “exquisite ankles” arose out of them, how my feet completed their exquisite design.
“I do not relish your tennies …”
“They’re Converse hi-tops.”
“Whatever … with their treads tromping dog doodoo around my lamb’s wool rugs and … you understand. Let me see you.”
I stood before him, still, very still, stiff as a riding crop, heart beating inside my thoughts. “‘How strange he stands there. So big! And so … cocksure.’”
He tied a French maid’s apron around my waist. And when I polished his Victorian porcelain figurines he could not suppress an ill-defined smirk. I made lunch and we ate together. He liked a glass of Bordeaux or two, with his bacon, lettuce and tomato on toasted cracked wheat.
“Bacon’s just one of very few little vices. Man is interesting only in the depth of how he incorporates his vices. I’m being honest. And in this jungle it’s so rare that honesty too, has become a sort of vice.”
He idly (or perhaps strategically) leafed through an art book he had splayed open between our respective lunch plates.
“Here ‘Saint Anne, Joseph, Mary & Child’, 1511, Hans Baldung Grien. It reveals by far the most blatant example of a foreign hand – in this case Anne’s – touching the Lord’s glorious dick.”
And from the back of the art book slipped a glossy magazine, Sport Naturisme. He leafed through the spreads of young boys naked in nature.
“Sometimes I see them as nude and other times as naked.”
Features: “Jeunes Gens Nus Dans L’Intimité De Leur Chambres” and “On The Banks Of The Ganges – Young Boys Bathing.”
“Is it art?”
“I wouldn’t know.” I did, actually.
“Or just stroke material?” He took another bite of his sandwich. “I love meat.”
“That’s a shame, but I guess it’s ‘healthy’. And isn’t it a marvel how vegetables are converted into flesh and how lovely the way your flesh fits about your frame. You rival Donatello’s ‘Dying Slave.’” He flipped to a page so that I could see what he meant; that it was a compliment.
“See, maybe you’re an athlete of a sort. Do you do sports?”
“Not as much as I used to.”
“What do you like?”
“Well, I ran track and cross-country in high school.”
“You must’ve been a natural. And now you’re a messenger. Perhaps it’s predestination. Genetic.”
“I dunno. I was pretty good …”
“Did you have satin running shorts?”
“Wore a … JOCKstrap?”
“Was it a COMfortable feeling?”
“Any other sports … ‘WATER’ sports perhaps?”
“I did Tai Kwan Do.”
“Oh, how utterly thrilling – and so marvelous for ‘discipline’ … Care to show me some of your kicks?” Mind you, I was wearing only an apron and my bikini undies – no shirt, nothing else. right here is the human dilemma: how does one accommodate the predilections of a boss and still maintain one’s dignity? The equation is the more unequal the social status between partners, the less attention will be paid to the pleasure of the lower status partner.
I performed some vestiges of various kicks. And I don’t remember whether he was sighing and marveling at my technique or whether he was just afraid for his fragile baubles.
“Marvelous. Bravo! Priceless! That’s why you’re so marvelously … lean.” He clapped and offered a certain leer that could only have otherwise come from behind Joseph von Sternberg’s monocle in a 20s Berlin cabaret. “Now, does the jockstrap ever … lose its FUNCtionality, how do I … and release your …”
“Uh, I’m not …” But I was; his ellipses (another tactic in his destabilization repertoire) became easier and easier to fill in.
“Of course, of course.” With the completion of his 4th, my 2nd, glass of Bordeaux he’d become distinctly more “honest.” Effusively so.
“I’m looking right now to … replace my French boy – half Algerian – from Marseilles. Lovely lad. He’s not really legal, which is somewhat thrilling. You must understand that a man such as me, still ‘needs’ things, things money can’t always ‘buy’ outright. But it’s worth a foray … You have such an underdeveloped sense of … you’re naive, charming, exquisitely put together.” Held breath. Wink wink. “Glory in your fleeting charms, Furman. While you can.”
“We’ll go shopping. I expect BIG things from you. And I’m going to make those BIG things happen. Take a cab to Barney’s. Purchase you some nice things … Versace, Armani … So I can take you places to meet people, be seen. Circulate you. I know editors, critics, I know everyone who’s anyone. People who trust my … impulses … and so must you.” The more he seemed to offer ME the more he seemed to expect I was going to offer HIM.
I dusted a frame, straightened another; one held a print: “The Penis From Sir Charles Bell, Letters Concerning The Diseases Of The Urethra.”
He opened another bottle. It was assumed I would match him glass for glass. “And you must know that drinking, with me, well, it’s part of your ‘johhhb description.’”
At one point, while cleaning the window of his antique bookcase, he poked his wormy forefinger in through a hole in my underwear. “You’ve got quite a…‘hole’ there.” Framing the “hole” with a set of 2 fingers curved around each side of his head to emphasize that the allusion to hole was not meant to be attributed to him. Irony, you know.
By 7 p.m. that Saturday, we were having yet one more “last drink.” But when I asked him about a paycheck for the past two weeks and said my rent couldn’t wait, he glared at me squalid-eyed, as if I’d just betrayed him. Pissed on his Persian camel-hair rug.
“Fetch my slacks.” I grabbed them from the back of a chair. From his portefeuille he counted out $400 in $5 and $10 bills.
“I hope you don’t spend it all on something stupid – like women or drugs.” He pronounced “women” like others might “mercenary” or “scorpion.”
“Or, even stupider – like rent,” I added as I stood up to introduce the idea of departure. Had he hidden my clothes, the ‘rags’ he’d come to despise? No, they’d been rolled up and stuffed into a plastic bag, shoved into a utility cabinet. But I found them because in desperation one finds secret determination.
“You’ll be back Tuesday?”
“I’m not …”
“Excuse me …?
“9:30, Tuesday.” I lied. But I never returned. Even avoided the corner we’d met on, the block he lived on, the kingdom he ruled. For years, up to this very day, actually.
“Maybe avoiding temptation, the sight of a repressed version of yourself,” as Bernice was to suggest, referring to some article she’d read.
When I stepped outside on that Saturday evening, the rain echoed – tiKtiK – on the hollow sidewalks. The earth was paved over. The sky leeched of glory. A gloomy cocktail in a bleary aquarium. I looked up; there’s Busby, pressing his face, pouting against the slimy glass. Kidding! But maybe in the movie version.
I ducked out of the rain inside a parking garage along 10th Avenue. Despite the fact that these concrete miasmas are described as makeshift hunting grounds; despite warnings that once in, you lose your way. It’s not paranoia; it’s been on the news. Who is it that said: “paranoia is spirituality inside-out, awareness with a broken compass”?
The girl standing out of the rain next to me smiled and then stared straight back out into the rain. Her wet tee shirt said: STUPID NASTY MYTH ☹ WORK AS SELF-ESTEEM. I smiled at her, but stopped short of asking: “Is synchronicity meaningful coincidence that leads to magical communication? Like what they used to call destiny?” Maybe my smile said: “loneliness sucks” but I did not mean anything else with it. She smiled back and stopped short too.
Gangs of swirling, dreamless youths in like-colored shirts and hats roamed up the Ave. They’ve been rooting for losing football teams forever. They were looking for purgation. I stepped out into the rain to follow their migrations. They may have been onto something. Or the something of nothing. I am 24 and heading in a direction that I hope will tell me where I am going.