Christopher Tradowsky

Try These Useful Part-Conversations with Your Friends*


		The Useful Part-Conversations were invented by Ambroos Immer sometime in the autumn of 1962, when he was a fledgling artist living in New York. Though unsure of the specific date of their origin, Immer recounts that inspiration sprang from a breakfast-table argument he witnessed between his Uncle Constantijn and Aunt Cornielia, one Saturday morning in their house in Scarsdale. The argument, which Immer later transcribed, was conducted in the Dutch-English patois his Aunt and Uncle had worked out since immigrating some ten years before. Essentially, it was about the difference between poached and shirred eggs, which his Uncle had reversed in his head. Aunt Cornelia had just pulled from her oven a steaming ramekin of Oeufs Huguenots, when Uncle Constantijn exclaimed “Delicious! Poached eggs!” and the controversy ensued. Ambroos ate his eggs, which were very buttery, taking no interest in the argument, finding the distinction nominal at best. Even so, later that day on the train back to New York he jotted it down in his sketchbook. Immer is a compulsive sketcher and note-taker, and at the time this journal was his one constant companion (since lost). 
		Immer thought no more about it, until a couple weeks later, when he was in a diner on 9th Avenue, and he heard a couple having the same dispute. Amazingly, they seemed to be conducting the same argument, in very same words, making the same points and counter-examples. He flipped to the transcription in his sketchbook, and found that this young couple was virtually replicating (in perfect English) the conversation his relatives had had some weeks before; he could follow along in his notes and even predict their next points. As he had related the conversation to no one, and this young couple had certainly no interaction with his aunt and uncle, he could only conclude that the two conversations were cousins, descendants of a common ancestor some generations back. He would remember thinking that, in evolutionary terms, any conversation must have parent and grandparent conversations, which transmit their genetic material: preserving words, phrases, idioms, rhetorical turns, even exclamations of exasperation. Each of these aspects he predicted, as the couple's argument quickly escalated and then became mildly physical, and then amorous.   
		This experience convinced him of two things. First, that certain types of conversations can almost miraculously live on beyond their conversants, that they have their own internal power and autonomy. Second, that these conversations are useful and that, if they could be orchestrated, could have great social and poetic consequences, radical consequences, far beyond the appreciation for egg dishes. The right conversation, rightly conceived and carefully launched, could replicate indefinitely and have immeasurable ramifications. A very powerful conversation, he concluded, could be like a depth-charge, exploding within the fathoms of the collective unconscious and bringing the stinking fish of conformity belly-up on the surface. Thus the series of Useful Part-Conversations was born.    
			
* Second Preface to the first edition of The Complete Catalogue of Conceptual and Performance Works by Ambroos Immer. After having graduated from Academie van Beeldende Kunsten in Rotterdam with high honors, and having gained some recognition in that city, Immer was an unknown when he first traveled to New York in early 1962. He brought very little with him, his sketchbooks, some encaustic paints, and the address of his aunt and uncle in Scarsdale. As it happened, Immer's Aunt Cokkie1 was a grade-school friend of one Willem de Kooning, and was able to provide a letter of introduction to this celebrated member of the New York School. Soon thereafter Immer started going by Bruce, though he did not choose this nickname. As Immer tells it, one night he was introduced to Larry Rivers in the Cedar. Immer patiently repeated "Ambroos" three times, but Rivers was drunk and could not hear him over the crowd and George Jones singing White Lightening. "Bruce it is!" Rivers cried and slapped an arm around him. Try as he might to dislodge it, the name stuck. I had the good fortune to meet Bruce Immer much later, in 2002, when he had lived in L.A. for some fifteen years. He was at a crossroads in his career and was actively looking for collaborators and co-experimenters. While the recent fashion for flash-mobs, viral marketing and relational aesthetics have reignited interest in the career of this early performance art innovator, at the time he felt that, as he put it, "a comforting, even nurturing obscurity had swallowed [him] up again." An unknown in an unknown place could accomplish so much more, in his view, than an artist ever can while squirming his tail under the microscope of success. He imparted such wisdom to me in the parking lot of the Blum and Poe Gallery in Culver City over ironic cans of PBR served from equally ironic galvanized ice buckets. The show opening that night (the name of the artist eludes me) consisted of a single chandelier constructed out of two-by-fours, painted Almodóvar colors and dropping fresh hot bundles of candlewax on the gallery-goers. It seemed designed to provoke resentment rather than conversation. We wandered down the alleyway toward a concrete ravine, into which it seemed someone had thrown several yards of hot pink cellophane (this turned out to be the LA river, catching the sunset). Immer asked if I would be willing to help him test some new performances and re-investigate some of his older pieces. That I had no performance experience whatsoever and was nurtured by an obscurity that, mother-like, had never seen fit to abandon me, were both great assets to the project, he assured me. And besides he said he "liked my face immediately," and I was flattered. I said yes at once. Later, he told me that he had "liked my face immediately" because, in a funny coincidence, we both have moles on our noses. The original compliment sort of faded for me then. We decided to try a collaboration only a few days later, and a few blocks away, at Tomy's (sic) Chili-Cheeseburger and Mexican joint on Washington Ave., which was convenient for both of us, and apparently a favorite of Immer's. What seemed to me a random or even abject choice of site turned out to be very calculated. Immer seeks out locations frequented by widely divergent clientele so as to infiltrate as many separate milieus as possible simultaneously. Tomy's however, seemed to be populated by a cadre of homeless men who treated each other and the dining area with utter familiarity. Yet, as perhaps Immer alone could have anticipated, at a moment just a little late for a normal lunch, there appeared a subtle influx of staff from the galleries just north on La Cienega. So our audience that afternoon was to be inveterate gossipers: art-world drones and people who sleep under bridges. There were no women. This was a restaurant apparently designed for men whose constitutions never got the better of them. Tomy's also provided the added dimension of the intoxicating smell of manteca glazing a hot griddle. Nauseating, and exquisite.
1. So they called his beloved Aunt Cornelia. For our first outing, Immer thought it would be easier for me learn the process by remounting a performance that had been battle-tested. Don't Blame the Tool is unusual among the Part-Conversations2 in that it was Immer's direct (and naturally absurdist) response to an extant political debate. It was composed in 1999 shortly after the Columbine massacre, when reactionary gun fanciers were scrambling for slogans. Unlike most of the Part-Conversations, which put a high premium on novelty, it is a take on a discussion that many Americans were already having. Yet Immer's goal here was to force a detour of this common conversation into alien territory. For our first foray, Immer took the role of the protagonist "A," and I played the antagonist "B"3: Useful Part Conversation: Don't Blame the Tool (1999) A: …because it's true what they say, that guns don't kill people, people do. B: Uh-huh? A: It's indisputably true. B: In every case? A: Yes, of course. B: Okay, suppose you're playing with your hand gun one day, just spinning it around your finger, or a pencil, let's say, and Blam! It goes off and shoots you in the heart, killing you instantly. In that case, were you killed by a person, or a gun? A: You were killed by a very careless person. B: But the gun killed you. The whole scenario would have gone very differently if you had been spinning something else, like a commuter mug. A: How does that work? B: It's empty. Never mind, I chose it randomly. A: The crux of the matter is this: a gun is a tool. Just a tool. The tool doesn't do anything by itself. You can't blame the tool if someone misuses it. If you're spinning a commuter mug full of hot coffee around your finger, you can't blame the commuter mug if you get coffee all down your front. B: I told you it was empty.
2. For the sake of space, I will refer to the Useful Part-Conversations in this text as the Part-Conversations, and implore the reader to keep in mind that, for Immer, it is absolutely vital that the Part-Conversations be recognized as Useful in just the way we think of any other practical tool of social communication and engagement. 3. A brief word on the protocol of the Part-Conversations. From very early on Immer chose to standardize the scripts by composing all dialogues between performers designated "A" and "B." This is was not the result of some unthinking abecedarianism; Immer literally conceives the Part-Conversations as dialogues between emergent aspects of the self, and therefore, his self being the primary laboratory, between the naïve and idealistic "Ambroos" and the more reflexive and empirical "Bruce." A: It's another illustration. Don't blame the tool when you misuse it. B: I suppose that makes sense. But guns are designed to kill people, so killing people is definitely not a misuse of that tool. A: Guns are designed to defend people. B: Yes, guns are designed to defend some people, by killing others. A: The essential function is the threat of injury… B: No, the essential function is the penetration of flesh, skin, muscle tissue. Shattering bones. Killing. The point is killing. A: Either way, the gun doesn't do anything by itself. B: So the saying should go: Guns don't kill people, people kill people, with guns, which were designed to kill people. A: And cats! B: Huh? A: Big cats. B: Right. People kill people, with guns, which were designed by people to kill people. A: And big cats, and pheasants and other game, large and small. Look, the gun is almost beside the point. People kill people with all sorts of implements which are seemingly innocent: steak knives, chop-sticks, plastic grocery bags, marble busts, mind control, ice-picks…. B: Mind control? A: People just kill people. It's just what they do, sometimes. Ugly, but a fact of life. None of the tools they use are responsible for this. B: Aren't they? A: I propose a thought experiment. Let's say there is a government that wants to ban all use of scare quotes. Even though we might admit that they are useful in some instances. B: Okay, I guess. A: Now, obviously one shouldn't accept this unilateral ban of a sometimes-useful tool, just because its misuse can kill someone! B: You're going to have to explain that one. A: Imagine there's a dictator. He commands a prisoner to take a note to his head executioner. The note says, Immediately kill the bearer of this note. But the dictator is being facetious, and doesn't mean it, so he puts the whole sentence in scare quotes: "Immediately kill the bearer of this note." The executioner doesn't get the irony, and kills the prisoner at once. A man is dead, an untried and probably innocent man, and all because of a misunderstanding of the laws of punctuation. B: Wait. Why does the dictator send a note with a command that he doesn't actually mean? A: I told you, he's being facetious. He's winking. He's poking fun. B: Is this the same country that wants to ban the use of scare quotes? The dictator wants to ban the use of scare quotes, because he just flagrantly misused them? A: Don't get all nit-picky on me. It's a thought experiment! B: And how do you ban all the scare quotes, without banning all quotation marks? How can you ensure that quotations are being used sincerely, always, and in every instance? A: You have proven my point exactly! You can never fully control the use of the tool, and the answer can never be to ban the tool entirely, because it's still useful in some instances. B: Ugh. You are right, but I hate you! I wish I had a gun right now! A: Further proving my point. Check. B: Or a plastic bag, or a nice, big, fat marble bust! A: Check…mate. As with all the performances, we remained in the site and "looped" the conversation, performing it at least three times, each time whenever the clientele/audience had turned over sufficiently. One of the biggest challenges in this process is to slip into the conversation as naturally as possible, so the dialogue appears to arise naturally, and is not "framed" by obvious gearing-up or ahem-hemming on the part of the performers. My own experience of the performance was rather emotional—I was not nervous, so much as steeped in chagrin from the first moment to the last. Between the first and second performances I consumed a "Classic Chili Olé" cheeseburger (what a mistake! And the chili was canned!) Whether it was my nerves or an irreproachable gastrointestinal revolt, I can't say, but by the end of the three performances I was ready for a marble bust to the head myself. The performances appeared to go unnoticed by the men waiting for their numbers to be called, but one man, who was seated nearby, closely observed each of the three performances. From his dress and manner I could not tell if he was a gallerist or a hobo, he wore an exquisite grey wool suit, but it was a few sizes too small, and puckered all over so that it appeared as if he had worn it through a carwash, without his car. He also wore those heavy, unimpressed lids you always see in caricatures of Edgar Allan Poe, and he chewed on his taquitos judgingly, licking guacamole from his fingers. To me, the performance had been a failure. But Immer was greatly energized, and declared it an unqualified success. It didn't matter, he said, if nobody appeared to be paying attention. The best thing one could hope for was a reception completely under the radar: why even try to engage the conscious mind if you have a chance to plug directly into the id? He guaranteed me that at least half the men within earshot that day would repeat some portion of the Part-Conversation before the day was done. "You were sensational!" he declared, and my chagrin immediately puffed up into pride. His enthusiasm was incendiary, and I was reminded of my art-school cohort, so enamored of Immer and his early work. Walking down Washington avenue with this unassuming art guru, past the yellow bursts of Seussian date-palms, I thought that the cult of personality that had sporadically risen around him was well-justified. Despite my apprehensions about performing, I committed to the project then and there. Immer seems to have always had a talent for effortless prepossession. The literature about his New York years is, perhaps unfairly, rouged over with innuendo about two love affairs in particular: a very brief love affair (Immer doesn't think it lasted so long as a week) with the poet Frank O'Hara, who was many years his senior, and a far more substantial relationship with his sometime collaborator, the painter Hank Herron4. Among O'Hara's friends, the twenty-two year old Immer was deemed "an absolute, ninety-five-cent-blue-plate-special-dish" and Joe LeSueur admits to having been resentful of "…this little Tab Hunter clone with his blond swoop of hair and smile for days. When Frank first saw him, his eyes nearly popped out into his Negroni." Grace Hartigan was characteristically brassy: "Darling boy. And Frank was smitten, but what Bruce was going to do with Frank was beyond me. To start with, he'd have had to replace both his legs with hollow flasks to keep up with Frank O'Hara."
4. Little will be said here about the relationship with Herron, which is well documented elsewhere, obsessively and most imaginatively by his chief biographer. See: Carlos Kinbote, Do It Again: The Life and Art of Hank Herron, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987). While Bruce now admits to having been swept along (as so many were) by the poet's attentions, he at least feigns annoyance that this "louche bit of tabloidana" seems to have overshadowed his entire early career in New York. I say feigns, (and I don't think Bruce will mind my saying) because of the deep pleasure he took in sparring with me about the question of the unpublished poem Frank had written for him, which for forty years existed only in Immer's memory. Yet according to Bruce it was perfectly preserved there. One day, between two loops of a new performance, he recited it for me. He raised both hands and assumed orotund tones, as if he were auditioning for a Shakespeare festival, then and there, in the middle of a California Pizza Kitchen: Song (Amsterdam) Welcome, Amsterdam! And do meet New Amsterdam falling steeply from grace the party started early, before noon and without any word from the Commandant, ça promet! Have you noticed? Taxis throw childish tantrums but limos never do! and then beneath the Corinthian sunbursts and the marquee of the Loew's Ash's arm around you like a marabou boa the laws of physics changed again for the better this time! So pleased to have placed to your lip your first sip of rye If I could bring one person back from death it would be Lady Day so she could sing "Violets for Your Furs" while we walk hand-in-hand-in-hand through Washington Square Come back from Elysium now, beseechingly hear our toi, toi, toi! There's a Vermeer in the Frick and the light in it is just the light in your face The controversy is that this is a poem without provenance; or rather, that its only archive has been the brain of a notorious prankster. The single hand-written version of the poem, which O'Hara handed to Bruce sometime in 1963, was almost immediately destroyed. As a kind of spontaneous performance, Bruce committed the poem to memory, shredded the paper over toast with braunschweiger, and ate it, all in front of Frank. I asked why he did this. He said: "Don't be an idiot. It was a Lunch Poem." Yet Bruce's tenuous association with Frank, however outwardly annoying to him, has certainly been strengthened over the years by Bruce's willingness to recite the poem, virtually unprompted, to anyone who asks about the connection. Still, Bruce has a strong point: his obsessive mind is as good an archive as any, for a poet who would famously toss off poems on the backs of sandwich bags and playbills, and leave them in friends' humidors, or strangers' sock drawers, or on cinema seats. By the time I met Immer, the matinee idol looks that had made the New York School swoon were still discernable, though filled-out and softened by age. He has a remarkably gentle appearance; his "blond swoop" still full but now silver, worn eccentrically long, to his shoulders, under a beautifully hand-woven straw porkpie (something of a trademark). In fact, his appearance is very assiduously maintained. Usually swathed in earth-tone linens, a mutual friend once described his look as that of "the world's most over-dressed gardener." His fastidiousness about his person does not, however, extend to his condo in West LA. The numerous times I met him there before an excursion I was amazed that this rumpled Zen-center dandy, with his hemp trousers and silk Ted Baker scarves, could emerge out of a beaver dam of half-finished take-out containers, assemblages of patinated junk, unshelved books, and cabinets gutted of forty years of sumi-ink drawings and diagrams5. There is no place to sit, except on stools piled with books like endless columns, and nowhere to stand, except on papers, and I was distressed to learn that among all this he keeps cats, who observe all, aloof upon the bookshelves. Akhenaten and Hatshepsut. The walls themselves are bare except for a single painting, We Two Boys Together Clinging, which I had thought was a Hockney but turned out to be a Hank Herron, a lover's gift of many years before. One always worries about friends (young or old) who live alone and in such squalor, thinking it might be a sign of depression or dementia. Here I think it is appropriate to employ the rusty saw that true artists must be oddballs, and that any oeuvre with any ambition or dimension is first born out of aesthetic and organizational chaos. That said, if Bruce Immer ever invites you to dinner at his place, decline. The catalogue that follows makes a very strong case for the Part-Conversations as the most significant of Immer's contributions to postwar art. Even among the art world knowitallcracy Immer's work has been pigeonholed, and a few of his early works have overshadowed the enormously dynamic range of performances in the decades to follow. Critique of Aesthetic Judgment (1961) is probably Immer's most famous single work, produced when he was twenty years old and still in art school. It consisted of two telephones, one of which, by special arrangement, was placed in the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, in a plush salon, squarely placed some five-feet in front of Rembrandt's admired portrait of Aletta Adriaensdochter (1639). The second telephone was a payphone strategically installed on an embankment looking over an enormous garbage dump on the outskirts of Rotterdam. There was a closed circuit between the telephones, so that whenever the receiver was lifted in one location, the phone would ring in the other. Though supposed to be installed for three months, the piece was dismantled after just three weeks. The museum deemed the work too disruptive, after a pre-adolescent boy who lived near the landfill discovered the magic phone booth that instantly connected him with confused and upset adults. Little wonder, however, that the playful irreverence of this work would immediately endear Bruce to the emerging, inchoate realm of Fluxus artists.6 After settling down in New York, dozens of collaborations ensued, the most notorious of which was Black Market (1965-73), a sale/performance remounted dozens of times, in which Immer and Hank Herron would sell lithographs of their own production, but through a duplicitous scheme, each print was deliberately falsified. This is how it went: the lithographs were sold in pairs.
5. When I asked once if Edward Kienholz was his decorator, he pretended not to get my joke. 6. Note that Immer's Critique of Aesthetic Judgment precedes Yoko Ono's Telephone Piece by some three years. One lithograph in each pair would be signed by the artist, and the second would be signed by the purchaser. In each case, and taking some time to practice on butcher paper, artist and purchaser would attempt to forge the other's signature as inscrutably as possible. They called the lithograph signed by the purchaser in the artist's name the "forged original," and to keep matters symmetrical (and convoluted), called the lithograph signed by the artist in the purchaser's name the "original forgery." Editions were not numbered; each lithograph was labeled A/P ("Artist's Print"). This ritual, performed at the sale of virtually every lithograph, etching, and woodcut produced by the pair over eight years, has achieved its intended effect: it is an archivist's worst nightmare. Several aspects compound the confusion. Most of Immer and Herron's friends who bought works are artists who have achieved some name and notoriety, so collector interest in their authentic works is high. Naturally, many of these noteworthy artists turned out to be excellent handwriting mimics. Immer's etchings have caused less consternation: a strong motif of Dutch Japonisme runs through them, and I believe Immer's hand to be more distinctive than Herron's. Complications ramped up when Herron began imitating the works of his artist friends, and then selling them to those friends. And what confusion when the pairs became separated! (There are some dubious Herronesque Rauschenberg prints that, by the time of his recent death, even Rauschenberg couldn't be sure of.) Bruce doesn't like to dwell on the years he was with Hank Herron, but he did confide in me that the entire idea for the Black Market performances came to them when Hank got in a legal scuffle with the Charles Demuth estate, after exhibiting a painting he had copied painstakingly, down to the very signature. A lawyer friend advised Herron to paint out the signature and sign it with his own name, for it is only the forged signature which is illicit, not the stolen image. This struck the couple as so curious that they thought they might see how far they could stretch the boundaries of the illicit.7 Thus they risked legal repercussions with their two series of lithographs entitled "Money Order" (1971) and "Cashier's Check" (1972). These works have proven scandalous (to some, mostly auctioneers) but relatively low-profile, in comparison with other of Immer's performance collaborations.8 Though not among his best known works, Bruce considers the Part Conversation: No Year Zero to be without question his most successful work. It is not a piece that Bruce and I re-mounted, as it had lost direct pertinence by the time we met. Indisputably, it articulates the core of an argument that was had in many an American household, indeed in households the world over. Furthermore, (I assert this after drudging up painful memories of having succumbed to its logic myself, and after careful canvassing of all my friends online and off) the dispute within No Year Zero ranks as one of the most annoying conversations the human generations have ever propagated. Bruce relishes this knowledge. His authorship over this strain of discourse tends to go unchallenged because of the remarkably early date of the piece, it was first written and performed in 1989, well before anyone cared about its conceits. But Bruce performed the piece diligently over the following decade with numerous friends in New York and Los Angeles, including Hank Herron, Allison Knowles, Welles de Hory (son of the painter Elmyr), Ann Magnuson,
7. This is to say nothing of Bruce's recent legal entanglement. Friends of both men always insist that it was Hank who had the proto-punk attitude toward any form of authority whatsoever. Bruce, by contrast, has long maintained that some boundaries are best left unskirted. 8. A photograph exists of the young Immer in the altogether, looking svelte, white as paperwhites and in fact rather gorgeous, being painted by Yayoi Kusama before her "Homesexual Orgy" happening of 1968. He told me that having Yayoi paint a polka-dot on his penis with tempera paint was "sublimely erotic, like dissolving into sable." and even (Immer claims) Patty Smith. With over 170 performances over a decade, No Year Zero is also Bruce's most performed work. It is the quintessential Part-Conversation. Useful Part Conversation: No Year Zero (1989) A:…The song is about a kind of millennial panic, a kind of Armageddon. If you listen to the lyrics, the sky is falling, it's pandemonium, and people are partying their last. And why? Obviously because the world is ending, because it's turning into the year 2000! B: This is a non-issue. Obviously, the song is a great work of art, an eternal monument, and therefore it will always be pertinent. A much bigger and more pressing issue is this: When exactly will the third millennium begin? A: When the second one ends? B: Precisely, but when is a larger question than people realize. A: It's actually very easily answered: the clock will tick over at midnight on December 31st of 1999, first in Kiribati, and thereafter every hour on the hour (or the half-hour, and even the quarter hour in some obstinate climes) for a full twenty-four hours encompassing twenty-four time zones, until we all wind up in the new millennium. B: Ah-ah-ah, but therein lies the question! Will the year 2000 be the first year of the new millennium, or will it not be, more properly, the last year of this one? A: I don't follow. B: It's very simple. We've established that the third millennium can only begin once the second one has ended completely, yes? A: Granted. A blind simpleton could see that. B: But we have to count off two-thousand years in their entirety before that can happen, which means counting the two-thousandth year as the last year in the second millennium. A: Something's fishy about your logic… B: Therefore, the only way we could count the year two thousand as the first year of the next millennium rather than the final year of this, is if there were a year zero, between the common era and before, with which the count begins. A: There was no year zero. B: Oh yeah, according to who? A: Well, the venerable Fra Dionysius Exiguus, of course! You know, the fellow in the 6th century, who determined the date of Christ's conception, and re-wrote the calendar? Every schoolboy knows that! He decreed there to be no year zero. B: Wonderful. You have proven my point. A: Let me see if I understand you. You are arguing that people should not celebrate the new millennium until 2001. B: Yes, for that's when it will arrive. A: Let's try a different approach. I propose that, since when the millennium begins is arbitrary, when people choose to celebrate it will also be arbitrary. B: Well, when the millennium begins is certainly not arbitrary! A: Isn't it? Brother Dionysius was just guessing at the date of the annunciation, after all, and he thought it was probably about March 25th. So if we follow him to the letter, we should celebrate the new millennium on March 26th, 2001. B: That's not arbitrary, that's arbitrated. A: Which amounts to the same thing. In any case, he needed to read his scriptures more carefully, he also got the year wrong. He was off by somewhere between four and seven years. So, accordingly we should celebrate the new millennium in late March of 2005, or 2008… B: This is all high equivocation! A: It is not. It's a serious matter of whether or not we trust the source…if we buy Brother Dionysius's count. When in fact, for most of the two thousand years we're talking about, most people the world over were busy counting years on the heads of their kings. Generations lived and died with no idea that the clock had been reset by some egg-headed virgin in a dress! B: The virgin Mary? A: No, fool, Brother Dionysus! Try to keep up. B: Okay, but for many centuries we've all been very comfortable with the Gregorian calendar. A: Not at all! For a few years we've relied on the Gregorian calendar. It took centuries to surpass the Julian calendar. Time used to shift all over Europe depending on the local concentration of Catholics. People used to date letters with a range of possible dates. In the early 18th century you could set sail for England from France and arrive sometime in the previous year. The Russians only actually began using the Gregorian calendar in 1940. B: You are very vexing…you're trying to flush away my argument with your relativist hogwash. A: Well, why should we celebrate a new millennium at all, when according to the Muslim calendar, which is still used, it will only be 1420? B: Right. Right. And by that logic, we might just as well stay home on that millennial New Years' Eve, because according to the Babylonian calendar the year will actually be…hold on a minute, I'm doing the math in my head now…the year will be 2749! Not an auspicious year, I'm sure! A: Now you're thinking! And if we adopt the calendar of the French Revolution, the year will be a meager…208! Hardly worth changing out of your sweatpants for that one. B: You are so annoying! And frivolous. You are worse than an egg-headed virgin in a dress. A: No need to be brutish. We could celebrate the dawning of the year—um, let me see, will it be 6,236 in the Jewish calendar? Or would you prefer the Persian or Mayan calendars? B: You are merely trying to flummox me, and what's so annoying is that you not only follow my original point, but you know I am right. Which makes you a charlatan! A: You are claiming technical correctness about a relative system that has only held dominance for a few years, which makes you a pedant. Would you have a massive celebration because you're exactly two yards tall, when in fact it's just as accurate to say you're 1,828 millimeters tall, or one one-thousandth of a mile? Neither of which are very illustrious measurements. B: Come now, if it's all so terribly relative, why shouldn't we all design our own tape-measures on which we are 100 feet tall, and celebrate that? I regret that your senility is fogging your once fine instrument. A: You may decide you're 100 feet tall, but how seriously you're taken is all a matter of agreement. You're going to have trouble finding people to corroborate your viewpoint if they all agree that you're five-foot six. The Mayans would have laughed at our little pair of millennia. B: Thank you for taking my beautiful, perfectly logical argument, and mocking and degrading it with your numbskullery. A: And thank you for being an insufferable, boring pedant about something that no thinking person could possibly care about. B: Boy, when I saw your head off with a hacksaw, you definitely won't be 100 feet tall. I'm a bit sorry that, by the time we met, Immer had retired this piece and refused to perform it with me. I maintained that performing it could not make us look any crazier than any of his more absurdist pieces already did. After all, it was a piece essentially about anachronism, and that largest anachronism of all, history.9 I include it in full here because, being the quintessential Part-Conversation, it is the natural illustration of the quintessence or five essential qualities of the Useful Part-Conversations, as Immer conceives them. These are methodological principles he worked out over four decades of unannounced public performances. As such, the five qualities as they are listed below are roughly chronological: each was determined as a necessary response to the previous methodological constraint. The Five Essential Qualities Balanced Imbalance or Concealed Imbalance: The first absolute quality of the Useful Part-Conversation is that it should be imbalanced in nearly every way, yet it should appear to be well-balanced. The notion is derived from Immer's observation about every provocative conversation: that imbalances of power and information inhabit, skew and propel all such dialogues, even and perhaps especially those that appear to be fully democratic. One person holds all the cards, and provides all the gambits, and even "wins" the conversation. Yet this imbalance must be so well concealed that the second interlocutor may even appear to have prevailed. Later performance artists have balked against the predestination implied by the Part-Conversations. (Ben Vautier once called them "Calvinistic Happenings.") Be that as it may, there can be no extemporaneity in the Part-Conversation, as Immer does not believe in the extemporaneous. As he says: "I am Dutch. We laugh at the notion of free will." Fragmentariness: Fragmentariness does not mean that the Part-Conversations should be fractured or disjointed, but that they should only provide half or less of the stock of ideas necessary for a fully-rounded, philosophical argument. Following Immer's notion of the genetics of a conversation, the Part-Conversation is designed to be just one fragment of one strand of a double-helix, which can readily travel and replicate itself in kind. We should speak, Immer says, like politicians speak, willfully, but with only a modicum of the logic and information necessary. Part-conversations must be partial in every sense of the word. It is the bias of fragmentariness that makes them so contagiously repeatable. Why would you share a solved puzzle? Infelicity: A term derived from semiotics, infelicity is precisely as described by the linguist J.L. Austin. If you consider the normal workings of the performative mode, it is only powerful when
9. "All history is belated; all history is revisionist." - Herodotus the context is felicitous, or receptive.10 ("Supple like memory foam," Immer once described felicity.) Yet for Immer it is terribly important that the Part-Conversations display a near hostility to context. Immer believes that the Part-Conversations become infinitely more powerful when the context is unreceptive, so that the strangeness of the conversation is not lost, but is magnified, and travels just as sound travels by bouncing from a hard surface. Conversely, as you can imagine, he loves (and is always going on about) misplaced performative rituals: weddings held in shark-tanks, for example.11 Escalation: Escalation is the most misunderstood of the five essential qualities of the Part-Conversation. It does not mean, as some have proposed, a mounting dramatic arc equivalent to that of a short play. It does mean an inflation of different properties of the conversation: a subtle levitation and dispersal of technical terms and emotional stakes, as well as an almost imperceptible swelling of the dialogue into abstraction. The Part-Conversation, he told me once, "Must inflate like a bowl of marshmallows in the microwave."12 Escalation is greatly enhanced by the more elusive fifth property, aroma. Aroma: Immer never fully defined the quality of aroma for me, I believe purposefully. But he did provide some clues. Aroma is the one quality that he felt the Part-Conversations should share with the classical formulation of Japanese Haiku. Aside from that, as far as I can tell, the aroma of the Part-Conversation is imparted not by the conversation itself, but by the context in which it is played out. This is probably why he chose to perform in so many fast-food establishments: hamburger joints, doughnut shops, and a particular favorite, the combination Chinese food/hamburger stand/doughnut shop. Immer believed that a seductive aroma, sweet or savory or both at once, could carry the conversation a good deal further into the social world, as some of the mystery of that aroma (say, the melding of doughnut glaze with American cheese) would adhere to the conversation in later contexts, and, in a more than metaphorical sense, nurture it. Dig a little bit, and behind the five essential qualities is a complete philosophy of life. Balanced Imbalance has less to do with predestination than a recognition that power structures inhabit and condition our lives at every moment, perhaps especially when we open our big mouths to cry "I'm free!" (To Vautier's quip, Immer responded: "Look at Calvin from three feet to the left and you get Foucault.") Fragmentariness, put simply, has everything to do with where we palpate the proverbial elephant, if you can imagine the exponential complexities involved in realizing that the elephant is just that: a proverb, and that a proverb is infinitely more complex than a pachyderm, if only because it has no body to palpate. Infelicity describes how we talk past one another constantly and as an inevitable function of context. The wisest sensei in the world, speaking words of tectonic wisdom, will never change the world if he never leaves the cushions of his living room. He'd be literally more effective preaching to disciples in the mini-mart
10. J.L. Austin, How To Do Things with Words, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978) p. 19. 11. However, for Immer, these displacements never go far enough. He would be much happier with shark-tank weddings if the shark was the officiate, or two sharks were being married by a priest, or two loan-sharks were married in a shark tank and then eaten by real sharks, or some other appropriate form of infelicity. 12. Immer loves Rice-Krispie Treats. of a Texaco off of I-5. Escalation is another word for entropy, the recognition that, left to themselves, all things eventually implode, explode, atomize, or in some other way precipitate into other forms entirely. Hit the fast-forward button, and the world is precisely as Ovid described it. And finally Aroma insists that memory is sensation; smell being the most mnemonic of all the senses (as everyone with a whiff of sense senses) it demonstrates how sensation binds thought within memory. And so it was that, armed and fomented with this philosophy of determinism, benightedness, incomprehension, entropy, and nostalgia, Bruce and I launched an extended performance art blitzkrieg upon the six suburbs said to be in search of Los Angeles. While complete details are included in individual catalogue entries, I will gloss some highlights here. In the fall of 2003, we performed two works, Volition Involution (2003) and The Ontology of Very Bad Behavior (2001) at several locations, including: Tomy's on Washington, the resplendent Pann's Diner on La Cienega, Cubby Broccoli's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the Trader Joe's on LaBrea (where Neil Patrick Harris walked right between our conversation, racooning through the freezer for mini cheesecakes). Thereafter, in 2004 we added three more performances to our repertoire, including Critique of Practical Reason (1963), Harry Hamlin Fan Club (1980), and Interpretosis (2004), and expanded our performance venues to include Sky Tacos on Pico, various Kinko's in West L.A. and Hollywood, the shade of some sycamores in Hombly Park (in earshot of the Spelling Mansion) and the Cinerama Dome, just before a screening of The Bourne Supremacy (to our all-time most annoyed audience). We added five more performances before the end of 2005, most notably It's Not Me, It's You (1975), in a shattering (if I may say so) performance on the peak of Runyan Canyon, and Ode to Merce Cunningham (2005), at the Hollywood Zankou Chicken, where I saw Tilda Swinton and was so stricken I almost did a face-plant in my mutabbal. 2006 entailed a major remounting of the 1984 performance Commodity Fetishism, which we performed at very charged locations, including the Kitson on Robertson, the terrace café at Barneys, a rather exclusive reception at the Kabbalah Center, on stationary bikes at the L.A. Fitness in West Hollywood, in the Crate and Barrel at The Grove, and riding up and down the escalators at the Beverly Center (my favorite performance location of all time, although Bruce vowed "never again," declaring the aroma "beyond antiseptic.") Imminent Nostalgia for The Sandwich (1998, revised and remounted 2007) is, as far as I know, the only truly site-specific of the Part-Conversations, having been written specifically to be performed in Langer's Delicatessen, home of the greatest and most irresistible pastrami sandwich in the country, possibly the best sandwich in the world, but if you don't believe me and you don't believe Bruce, feel free to ask Nora Ephron, who has gone on record in this important issue.13 The final new performance from 2007 was one I am especially proud of, because Bruce said he wrote it for me, and he presented me with a page of his preliminary notes, with dashing pen-and-ink caricatures of the two of us performing it, and not looking like us at all, but looking for all the world like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. He selected the venues for Egg-Corn Casserole very particularly, including the Polo Lounge at the Beverley Hills Hotel (for the pyramid-scheme-and-planked-salmon set), the Hammer Museum (for the name) and an exhausting three-hour stint riding back and forth on the tram to the Getty Center, attempting but often failing to alarm the tourists. (Don't let the media fool you: middle Americans are unflappable!)
13. Nora Ephron, "First Tastes: A Sandwich," The New Yorker, August 19th , 2002: p. 139 While Egg-Corn Casserole still adheres to the five essential qualities, it represents a slight departure in method. Bruce was newly captured by the idea that malapropisms are very powerful things: they have the ability (he insists) to break apart fossilized language, like pick-axes busting apart idiomatic macadam. And further: they create new mutations, new fossils, monstrous oxymoronic creatures, like invertebrate sea-horses, or headless cabbages, or tineless forks. You know: Monsters! Useful Part Conversation: Egg-Corn Casserole (2007) A: …I'm glad you brought up Armand Hammer. Last week we had a painful parting of waves. B: You seem very dissolutioned. A: Well, he and I had brandied about some investment schemes, you know it's been such a bowl market… B: Indeed! It's Jar-dropping! A: So I thought that even though I disagree with many of his political tenants, I can relate to his physical conservatism. B: Me too, by enlarge… A: But it seems he was chalk-full of alterior motives. B: And I heard he was beyond approach! A: So, we chose one project and went at it hammer and thongs. As the project gained all this centipedal force, we determined to cease the day! B: You've certainly peaked my interest….What next? I'm on tenderhooks! A: Well, in lame-man's terms, the whole thing went off half-hazard… B: Say, what was the project? A: He wanted to branch out into wind turbans. B: Wind turbans? A: I know, stark raven mad! B: Is this Armand Hammer, the oil typhoon? A: No, no, no! Of course this is Armand Hammer IV, great-grandson of the baking-soda magnet! B: Ha-ha! A: Ha-ha! The oil typhoon gave up the goat years ago! B: I was worried that the whole thing was a pigment of your imagination… A: Well, turns out the baking soda magnet has gone bust-up. B: He's tony broke? A: Another words, he's inner ears! B: In her rears? A: …For all intensive purposes. B: That really gets my gander! That is such buttkiss! A: Don't mix words or anything! B: Well, that just doesn't pass mustard. A: True, I'm boggled down and he's off sewing his wild oaks. But that's no reason to get my nipples in a twist. I'm very yen about it. I figure, the chickens always come home to roast. B: Don't you mean: "The leper cannot change his spots?" A: Same differents. B: A poor pose of nothing, have you ever seen a whorefrost? A: Sure, up on Fairfax! She sells exotic cakes! This is the only of the dialogues that ends with a joke, and each time we performed it, in my head I couldn't help but hear a drummer's bu-doom-ch! buttoning up the bit. But who was I to quibble? My idol had written a performance piece, apparently for me, and how many people can say that? And yet, it wound up a bittersweet testament for me, because it sparked a conversation that, wholly unexpectedly, caused a rift between Bruce and me. We had been performing that day in Nick's Diner on Pico, which, if there can be said to be an "authentic" site in West L.A., Nick's is it. (This in spite of the fact that the east wall is a comprehensive who's who of 70s and 80s television smiling stridently from their headshots.) I remember I was enjoying the taco platter. (The beef tacos are a delectable wonder of lowbrow fusion cuisine, made with salsa roja and last night's pot-roast!) It was one of many times that we had brought a small tape recorder with us to document the performance, and kept it running on the table between our looped performances. The diner was almost empty that day, and in a highly unorthodox move, we started, or I suppose I started, to talk about the piece that we were right then performing. Bruce was annoyed, I sensed that I was breaking an unspoken rule of comportment, but I wanted to pursue a theory about why this piece seemed so different from the others. But as I should have known, coming to an artist with a theory is almost always a regrettable proposition. As the tape was rolling, the conversation went just like this: Bruce: …I think your point of view is much more Brechtian than I'd like. Christopher: You mean George or Bertolt? B: Either way, I'm not interested. C: All I mean to say is, that looking at Egg-Corn Casserole, the role of absurdity in that work seems, well, it plays a much more vital role. It got me thinking about how to frame the Part-Conversations in the preface I'm writing. B: Go on… C: Also, all the performing we've been doing has made me look back upon all your performance scripts in a different light. It's as though, well, the form of the Part-Conversation is what it's about. The two performers, in these settings that are both hostile and receptive…and the dialogue gets sent out into the world as a kind of porous time capsule, with the ability to grow, like a seed, like a vulnerable bean-sprout…protected by these fat-little cotyledons of nonsense… B: Alarming! C: But it's not the content of the dialogue that's important at all, it's just the fact of the dialogue, the shape that it retains, or doesn't, as it naturally evolves… B: I see. So, this whole time, I might just as well have written only a single conversation, since the content matters so little. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble! C: No, it's not that the content doesn't matter, it's that the content only matters insofar as the conversation is contagious, in the terms that you chose, the fragmentariness, the imbalance, so the unfinished strand of thought fumbles its way into new territories. B: I must stop you there. The content absolutely matters. What people say is of vital importance; that they say it, as opposed to finding some other outlet, is always secondary to this. C: But Bruce, to me, this is what's so amazing about the Part-Conversations. They show how, as human beings, we're always talking: talk, talk, talk! When in fact what we say is absolutely unimportant compared to the necessity to keep talking, to keep dialogues alive. Talk is one of the greatest signs of our human vitality… B: This is all very disturbing… C: But think about it, Bruce, throughout all our lives we are accompanied by this buzz of conversation, and this flurry of communicative activity, which, when you boil it down, the content of it…is virtually nothing. B: I am shocked that you've got this completely backwards. Are you stoned? C: No, and I resent the implication! B: This is like the wisdom of the wake-n-bake set! And after all the work we've done together, I am deeply dismayed to learn that you're such a formalist! C: A formalist? I don't think so… B: A pure formalist is the worst sort of nihilist. C: Uh-huh. I should say I'm surprised to find that you are so deeply attached to meaning… B: Meaning? What planet are you from? Where are you getting all this? C: If you are so enamored of content… B: Listen, dimmest of bulbs, this is important: In our lives we will have certain conversations, a handful of conversations, that are absolutely vital, that feed and nurture us, that teach us to think, by force maybe, but even so. They come infrequently, once or twice a decade if that often, and they're like life vests, they keep us afloat, they keep us alive. The content of these conversations is absolutely vital. This is the territory I trade in: the stuff that matters, the big issues, the imponderables… C: You're kidding, certainly. I'm sorry to break it to you old man, but if that was your goal, you've blown it. Your work is completely rife with absurdity! B: So? C: So you can't spew all this nonsense into the world and then claim to interested in the big issues… B: I'm not interested in nonsense because it's nonsense! C: Oh no? B: I'm interested in nonsense because it's the beginning of sense. C: That seriously makes no sense. You understand, the entire rest of the world believes the opposite: that nonsense is the opposite of sense. B: They are wrong. Nonsense is the basic building material—the building blocks of sense. A child knows that, intuitively. C: Okay, now I see you are demented. B: Without nonsense, language would not be a living organism. Without nonsense, language would be a dead contraption! A pistonless pump! A flowchart! C: Whatever, but the issue is worth addressing, because this has been a major criticism of your work, over the decades, that it is too enamored of an outdated avant-gardist mode of absurdism. B: I am not an absurdist— C: Aren't you? Maybe a little? B: Listen you little twerp, I am not an absurdist, I am a realist— C: I understand the avant-garde conceit that the only real response to an insane world is absurdity— B: You have really got it wrong! Miserably wrong. What disturbs people so much about my work, when it does, and it does, is its scrupulous and unshakable realism. Nothing disturbs like realism, and it is the only thing that disturbs. I confess that I never understood what he meant by this, but I did not press any further, as he was visibly angry with me, and not play-acting, for a change. He had just finished spreading jam on the remains of his Monte Cristo, but he pushed it away, threw down his napkin and left for the bathroom in a huff. I was astonished. I had thought we were being facetious. I honestly thought that, for the first time, we had slipped into an extemporaneous performance, and were playing versions of ourselves expressing versions of things we might say. We were performing partiality. Fragmentariness. In a million millennia I would never have called him demented! I was escalating the performance after he called me "dimmest of bulbs," which I wasn't too thrilled about. And so I was left to think about what I'd done with my taco platter and a signed picture of Rip Torn staring at me insanely. When Bruce returned, he made some excuse to leave, so patent that it was barely even a gesture, and left abruptly, leaving half his meal and a pathetic origami of bills on the table. I felt stung, and responsible, and both of these feelings ripened and then festered as weeks passed, and I didn't hear from Bruce. He would not return my calls, but my understanding was that he had gone into his shell. None of our mutual friends had heard from him, and I was told not to worry, this happened periodically, and he would return to the world as aggressively as ever. About a month later, having left dozens of impassioned apologies on his machine, I stood at the gate of his condo until a neighbor let me in. I supplicated myself (so to speak) in the carpeted hall, yet he wouldn't even come to his door. Two months passed before I ran into an old friend of Bruce's, whose connection to him I couldn't quite recall, in the Mandrake bar (a hipster slum, a sort of end-of-days version of the Cedar in New York). When I expressed my dismay at our mysterious falling out, this gentleman pursed his lips like Quentin Crisp, laughed sagely and said: "Oh, we have a name for that. He's giving you the chilled grapefruit treatment." In another context I might have thought this was a kind of face mask, but getting roughly his meaning, I probed further and told him about the fight Bruce and I had had, a fight I had thought was no more than an improv sketch. Quentin was ready with the gimlet wisdom: "Oh that. From experience, it's probably less to do with anything you said to his face, and much more about what he thinks you said about him, to whom, behind his back. He's always looking for someone to blame for all his sore luck. I know he comes off like a loveable old bitty, but face it, sooner or later every queen gets back on her throne and calls for her ax." I realized then that I had just knocked over a highball of resentment that had probably been stirring in the Mandrake for a decade or so. And I was confident that this bitter tale described the teller much more cogently than my friend. And the reference to all Bruce's sore luck made no sense to me whatsoever until, disturbingly, it did make sense in a way, some days later. So at last, I find it necessary to confront the issue that has no doubt been in the forefront of the reader's mind all along. Of course I mean by this the accusations that have been brought against Bruce in the Los Angeles courts. Of course, being a witness for the defense, there is very little I am allowed to say on the subject, so I refer the reader to the same article from which I learned of the great misfortune that had hounded and encircled my estranged friend:
Los Angeles. Dutch-born performance artist and resident of West Los Angeles, Ambroos Immer (66) was arrested in his condominium on Tuesday, and is charged with 26 felony counts of forgery. Once recognized for his innovative performance works in New York in the 1960s and 70s, Immer has allegedly been running a cottage industry selling forged lithographs by modernist greats such as Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, and Ernst Kirchner. Police investigator Ross Kinkade led the operation and raid in which 12 officers confiscated an entire van's worth of lithographs, books, canvases and a printer's press. Kinkade remarked, "I think we have a strong case against Immer, and the fiscal evidence is overwhelming." If found guilty, Immer faces up to eight years in prison. One curious feature of this case is that Immer does not seem to have been doing it for the money. "The guy dresses well, but he basically lives in a hole," says Kinkade. […] Having been arrested and arraigned, Immer posted bail and was released to await trial, sometime next year. Asserting his innocence, Immer claims that every single lithograph he sold he believed to be authentic. Immer insists that most of the prints were from portfolios given to him decades ago by his former partner Hank Herron, who died in 1996. But not everything Immer has said about the investigation appears to be helping his case, as he recently told reporters: "There is no such thing as a forgery."14
What can I do, but shake my head in wonder? This last statement, seemingly defiant, I am convinced that Bruce believes in his very soul. One must think of this statement in terms of Bruce's medium, the conversation. It must be approached from the point of view of a man who has been trying, for four decades, to forge conversations, and finally realized that a conversation simply cannot be falsified (or, for that matter, authenticated). Discourse is discourse, talk is talk, nothing we say, or say again, can be gainsaid. There is no such thing as fraud in the realm of ideas: they come from ether and return there soon enough, and belong to no one in the meantime, and we are all infinitely richer for this truth. At this point, the reader will probably know a good deal more about Bruce's fate than I can relate here. At time of this writing, the trial is two months away, and through a Mobius-twist that even a publicity wizard could not have wangled, the exhibition High Equivocation: The Complete Conceptual and Performance Works of Ambroos Immer is set to open the same week he goes to trial.15 With the publication date panting down my neck, Bruce still will not talk with me. Whether he's still angry about our form and content debate, or whether he finally recognized me as more of a critic (and adversary) than a collaborator, I cannot say. I did, however, manage to get him on the phone once, one day when I happened to be at Nick's Diner, near his house and the very place we had had our unforeseen bust-up. I called from the counter,
14. "Immer's Innovations: Intentionally Illicit?" The Los Angeles Times, December 7th, 2008: A4. 15. I suppose I should not be surprised that some in the art world have accused Bruce of concocting the whole scandal as a sensational (not to say foolhardy, expensive, and personally deleterious) publicity stunt. I have nothing to say to such craven accusations. Except this: while I believe my friend to be innocent, I also know and admire Bruce as a man of highest principle (unique in these bleakly empirical times), who would rather go to prison for eight years than admit there is a difference between truth and fiction. and he answered on a whim, or perhaps by accident. I tried to get him to meet me, but he would not. This was before his lawyer had contacted me and secured me as a defense witness, and something he said delivered the distinct shock that he did not know which side I was on. I had already made a fraught moment tenser by trying to explain something I had said in our penultimate conversation. I said I was sorry if I had implied that the Part-Conversations were meaningless, that was the furthest thing from my mind. And I said that, thinking about it, I didn't mean that, if you distill the content of most conversations you arrive at nothing, or virtually nothing, but that, as he certainly could agree, you arrive at a set of potent, but extremely simple truths. What he said then was deeply disheartening. I am paraphrasing here: Christopher: What I mean is, we become surrounded by this flurry of empty talk, but at heart we mean to say something very simple, such as, I am your ally, or I admire you very much, or more simply, I miss your company. Bruce: Do you know the one immutable truth I have learned about all relationships? C: What's that? B: They end. C: Um, that's not true…my grandparents were together for sixty-four years before… B: So, they end in death, or they end in dispute, or they end in a philosophical cul-de-sac, but sooner or later, they all end. I suggest you get over it. C: You know, this particular prophesy seems awfully self-fulfilling… B: I want you to know that I don't blame you at all. C: Blame me? For what? B: For betraying me, of course. C: [stunned silence, reeling] B: Sometimes the best thing you can do for a friend is betray him. C: Pardon me? What's that now? B: I say I don't blame you. After all, in the end, there's very little difference between a critic's appraisal and a sting operation, now is there? He hung up abruptly then, not to answer again. And I was left there, seated at the counter, totally mystified, numb, dazedly taking in the bustle of the lunchtime rush, the short-order chefs pressing patty-melts and pouring clarified butter from a small kettle over the fluff of hash-browns, now butterscotch yellow, as it slowly dawned on me what he had meant. I was too astonished to be hurt, in fact I was almost giddy, like someone who's just cut off their finger and cannot stop laughing. I had lost my appetite for my lunch, but not for the irrepressible energy around me, the strangers seated beside me, relishing their meals and griping at the local news on the small boob-tube hung over the bussing station. They play their Motown loud at Nicks, bless them, and ascending in the air with Marvin Gaye was a hefty steam of brunch-aromas, and a caffeinated cloud of talk. People say, believe half of what you see, son, and none of what you hear. A dispute broke out between the short-order cook and a regular seated beside me. "Can't do shirred eggs," the cook said. "What are you talking about? You make Eggs Benedict all the time." "Those are poached eggs, Brainiac." "Tito always made me shirred eggs. What're they too hard for you?" "Look, can't you read? On the menu, right here, it says: 'No damn shirred eggs!'" "Yeah, but on the menu, that's in quotes. It means you're quoting someone, but not saying it. It means you don't mean it." "I'm saying what I mean right now—and you're gettin' fried eggs." I tipped generously and left at once.

Christopher Tradowsky lives in Saint Paul, where he writes stories and makes visual art. He has a PhD in Art History from UCLA, and teaches at St Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. His story “The Mountain Cousins” was selected by Scott Heim as the winner of the 2013 Bloom Chapbook Prize for fiction. His stories have appeared previously in Harrington Gay Men's Fiction Quarterly, The Battered Suitcase, and Spontaneous Combustion. See more of his visual work and read more at his website.

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