Chapter 7

San Francisco : 2002

Ben

All of Ben’s pitch ideas looked stupid typed into a Whatmail instant message chat box. His idea for a trend piece on the rise of young, hip, trade arts practices in Sausalito turned into:

Ben, as Bblake80, chates on WhatMail with Lewisnotclark

MBAD (pronounced “em-bad”) was short for Mission Building Arts + Design. MBAD was a monthly architecture and design arts journal based out of a second-floor loft on 6th Street between Mission and Howard. MBAD had a decent subscriber base of West Coast architecture and design firms and design-oriented Bay Area tech startups, and despite the recent downturn advertisers large and small were willing to pay a premium $40 per column inch to reach the peripheries of the eyeballs of tens of thousands of readers who believed that there was such a thing as “a better umbrella” (the subject of a five-hundred-word piece that Ben had written for MBAD last month).

“Lewisnotclark” was Honor Lewis, MBAD’s local news editor, a boom-era transplant from Vermont, via MIT. Honor’s teased brown curls and love of yoga pants belied her Type A personality. If Ben pitched story ideas to Honor live, she shot him down nine out of ten times. However, he’d discovered a few months ago that if he pitched an idea to Honor via instant message, she would play devil’s advocate in the chat, but when he saw her later around the office, she would more often than not ask him when he thought he was going to get her a draft of the article that he had just pitched her. Thus, he suffered the undignified typey-typey and bing-bing sounds of Whatmail chat, its low-stakes editorial prompts, lazy punctuation, and typos.

From Ben’s workspace at one of three long communal tables in the middle of the MBAD loft, he could see inside the editor cubicles lined up against the south wall, mesh shades rolled up at varying intervals along lengths of glass scaled for industrial production. Writers, illustrators, editors, and ad and sales people dressed uniformly in silkscreened T-shirts and jeans or colored cords milled about busily. MBAD maintained an atypically equitable distribution of genders and sexual orientations in its staff, and thus was a veritable hothouse of ill-advised flirtations, assignations, and affairs.

Most recently and disturbingly (to Ben, at least), Billy Earhardt, MBAD’s architecture features editor, had been sliding green tendrils of attention in Honor Lewis’s direction. Billy was a quiescently mordant thirty-year-old (going on sixteen) who played bass in an awful noise pop band on the weekends. He and Ben frequently went out for lunch together, Billy knowing all the secret ethnic holes-in-the-wall to get superior dumplings, noodle soup, and tacos de lengua on the cheap, and Ben had a bit of a man-crush on him.

Last week, Billy had changed Honor’s screensaver slideshow from photos of whales breaching (taken by Honor during her March vacation in Catalina Island) to photos of whale meat kebabs that he had found on the internet. Ben had been amused by the prank at first, as well as Honor’s predictable reaction of horror, offense, and whining. However, then Billy had made a production of confessing outright and begging Honor for forgiveness. At one point, he’d called Honor over to his cubicle and made her look over his shoulder while he placed an online donation of $200 to Greenpeace “in honor of Honor.” When even this had not seemed to appease her, he’d promised to give up meat for a month.

“Oh, please,” Honor had said, rolling her eyes and going back into her own cubicle.

“I’m serious,” Billy had said. He followed Honor into her cubicle. “You don’t think that I could do it? I have, like, insanely good will power.”

“No bacon, burgers, fish tacos, eggs, fried chicken, sushi, chorizo...” she’d said. “No chicken tikka masala, lamb gyros... are you sure?”

“I’m sure about me, but I’m not sure you’re going to make it as a vegetarian,” Billy had said. “That was a very long list of repressed foodlusts.”

Ben had repressed the rest of their conversation himself. It was obvious to everyone at MBAD except Honor that Billy was less interested in Honor’s repressed desire for chicken tikka masala than he was in awakening her desire for all things Billy. Billy was not alone in his affections, either. Ben knew that a couple of their other coworkers (who, however, unlike Billy, had serious girlfriends) found Honor extremely attractive. Ben supposed that it had something to do with Honor’s boobs, which were big.

Ben was a leg and ass man himself. He remembered meeting Judith for the first time. While working on a story for Honor about an ambitious proposition on the upcoming ballot that had sought to greatly expand Healthy San Francisco medical benefits for certain qualifying freelance artists and designers, Ben had been directed to Judith from his contact at City Hall. Judith had agreed to an interview, and they’d met for coffee at the large Peet’s near Ben’s other employer, Mud23 Gallery.

Ben had been expecting a frizzy-haired discount resale pantsuit type. Instead, his interviewee had been a tall and pretty woman with freckled cheeks whose white blouse and high-waisted red shorts had revealed four graceful, careful long brown limbs. The absence of finger jewelry on the slender hands that had cupped a full mug of chai between expository gestures had genuinely puzzled Ben more and more as he’d listened to the hands’ owner entertainingly tell a human-interest story related to the proposition that also happened to very subtly service her position.

When he’d typed up his story the following day at MBAD, he’d actively tried to put some extra spin or context on Judith’s story to feel less like a manipulated shmuck. However, the less editorializing that he did, the better the story worked. He’d been truly impressed. When the story had run and Judith called him to thank him, Ben had taken a chance and asked her to dinner.

That had been for the August issue. They were wrapping up December and in pre-production for the January issue now.

“Noooooooooooegh...” came the low moan from Billy’s cubicle. Ben’s man-crush stormed into Honor Lewis’s cubicle. “Why on earth is the Women’s Building mural your favorite work of art?” Billy asked Honor. “For the love of god, why?

“I don’t have to explain myself,” said Honor.

“Yes, you have to explain why you think that schlocky piece of kitsch is superior to The Dance Class or Fountain or the Sistine Chapel or about ten thousand other paintings and sculptures and photographs created over the years,” he said.

The Women’s Building mural, Maestrapeace, was a mural project painted by a multicultural collaboration of seven female artists in 1994, to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the beloved community center’s home on 18th Street. In loud crayon colors, the profiles of eight women had been painted onto the corners of the outer shell of the building, their hands reaching out to touch the chins of the women on the opposite corners. At street level, a complex braid of tapestries and fabric patterns swooped beneath them. Above the main Women’s Building entrance stood a three-story portrait of Rigoberta Menchú, the indigenous Guatemalan woman who’d won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, water and nature goddesses springing from her open hands.

In other words, a schlocky piece of kitsch.

Honor picked up her empty water bottle and stood up with a bounce. She bounced out to the water cooler, which was a few feet to Ben’s right, and Billy followed her.

“Aliens are attacking the planet,” Billy said. “You can only save one piece of art in the entire world. You would save the Women’s Building mural over Monet’s haystacks, Seurat’s Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Diane Arbus’s twins?”

Honor held her open bottle under the water spout and pressed the blue button, releasing a thin column of clear liquid into the plastic bottle with a splatty echo.

“I hate Seurat,” she said.

“Ben, come on, back me up here,” said Billy. “The Women’s Building mural scares my dog when we walk past it on the weekend. You can’t have it be your favorite work of art, Honor. I’m sorry, that’s insanity.”

“That this offends your inbred, art school sensibilities this much—that’s insanity,” Honor said. She released her finger from the blue button and took a swig of water from her bottle.

“Billy’s not inbred,” said Ben. “RISD’s student population is only 75% white, right?”

Honor laughed.

“Thanks Ben,” said Billy, “thanks a lot.”

“So that Sausalito piece,” Honor said to Ben, “I was thinking that maybe I should send Ken down to Sausalito with you.” Ken was one of the staff photographers. “Maybe do a shoot—the city kids getting down and dirty in the country type of thing. I’ll ask Mike about it when he gets in this afternoon.”

“Mike” was MBAD’s managing editor, Michael Rancik.

“That would be amazing,” said Ben. The only art on Ben’s pieces so far had been the occasional archive image. “Thanks, Honor.”

The cloudless twilight sky over Golden Gate Park was cotton candy pink when Ben locked his bike and stashed it in the small alcove under the stairs of the porch of Judith’s building on Lincoln Way. He came around, climbed the stairs two at a time, and pressed the second floor buzzer. A few seconds later the front door unlocked with a familiar scratchy ring. Ben’s backpack was heavy with jalapeños, ground beef, grated cheddar, and chicken stock, the missing ingredients for their dinner that evening of homemade chili and cornbread. Ben slipped his sandals off onto the colorful braided rug outside the apartment door, which he then opened without knocking.

Judith was mixing yellow and white powder in a metal bowl. She’d changed to an oversized sweatshirt and gym shorts, and her hair was pulled up onto the top of her head in a loose bun. She could have passed undercover at any college dorm in America.

Ben kissed her hello, put his backpack on the kitchen table, and unpacked the groceries.

“Thanks for going to the store, babe,” Judith said. “We still have that beer that Phyl and Dave brought over Friday. It’s in the fridge.”

That meant she wanted one. Ben opened the refrigerator. Cold air wafted out. Judith was an equal opportunity employer of condiments: half-empty bottles and jars of ketchup, dijon mustard, Sriracha, oyster sauce, salsa verde, cocktail sauce, and chimichurri and wrinkled foil tubes of anchovy paste, pesto, and wasabi littered the shelves on the inside of the door. Ben found the beer—a local organic microbrew—and pulled two bottles out by their necks.

“So I sent our new interns out to get signatures on the pharm reform petition today,” said Judith. “They came back with about a dozen signatures each—after six hours on the street. I couldn’t believe it. So I had to cancel my meetings for tomorrow so that I can take them out and show them how to collect. They’re your age, but they seem ten years younger.”

“Interns always seem young,” Ben said, finding Judith’s bottle opener in her utensil drawer and peeling the metal lids off the beer bottles with two small wops. Tiny cirrus clouds of condensing air floated from their tops. “I think it’s the word ‘intern.’ It strips away all dignity and maturity on contact. Revives long-dormant acne problems.” He set one of the beers down on Judith’s right-hand side and drank two long draughts from his own.

“How was the magazine?” Judith asked. She called Mud23 “the gallery” and MBAD “the magazine.”

“Good,” he said. “I’m going to Sausalito this weekend to do some interviews for a story. And they’re sending a photographer with me.”

“Oh my god, that’s fantastic!” said Judith. “Right?”

“Yeah, the photographer was actually Honor’s idea,” said Ben, finding a cutting board and knife. He began to peel and dice the two yellow onions on the counter.

“I guess she’s not a complete space cadet after all,” said Judith, drinking from her beer and checking the text of her printed cornbread recipe.

“Oh god,” said Ben. “Billy and Honor got into this crazy argument this morning.”

Judith rolled her eyes and smirked. “Why don’t they just do it already?” she said.

“Apparently Honor told him that her favorite work of art is the mural on the Women’s Building. Which I think she said just because she knew it would piss him off.”

“Why would that piss Billy off?” asked Judith.

“The Women’s Building mural is a little bit over the top, don’t you think?” said Ben.

“Well, its influences are really over the top,” said Judith. “Religious art, folk art, tribal art. Great traditions which use bright colors and hyperreal images to tell origin stories and myths which create the foundation for a community’s social structure. Of course, it won’t be cool to tell stories with painting again until some pasty white guy does it ironically.”

“Fair enough,” said Ben. “We like ironic painting from pasty Asian women too, though.”

“Not Asian women with tans?” asked Judith.

“Oh no, as soon as the melanin hits critical mass...” said Ben, “philistines, all of you.”

“That’s it, I’m calling the ACLU,” said Judith.

They laughed.

After another hour and a half, dinner was ready. They ate at the kitchen table, washing down the warm sweet yellow bread and red stew with two more beers.

They were slowly making their way through the DVDs of the first seasons of the premium cable television drama about the Italian-American mob boss living in a New Jersey suburb with his wife and two kids. Judith loved it, but Ben thought that it neither equaled nor surpassed The Godfather and didn’t see what all the fuss was about.

They watched two episodes of this.

As the credits rolled at the end of the second episode, Judith moved the hand that had been resting on Ben’s knee slowly up his thigh and kissed him once on the mouth. In what seemed to Ben in his post-beer/post-comfort-food/post-premium-entertainment haze a single gesture, Judith pulled off her sweatshirt and let down her hair. Their second kiss was longer, an extended exchange of data designed to crack the system open. The credits finished, the DVD player audibly switched modes several times in a row and then went silent. The TV screen went blue.

Judith was on her back on the couch in just her underwear now. After a few more minutes of teasing, those last pieces of bourgeois detritus would be on the floor.

In just five months of dating, Judith and Ben had eliminated the need for word-based communication during foreplay and sex. Through touch and half-finished syllables alone, they could tell each other what they wanted, thus sustaining the incredibly exciting illusion that each could anticipate the other's needs. This, Ben had learned, was the key to great sex on a regular basis.

They lingered for a minute on the couch together afterward, but soon Judith was up and away into the bathroom. Ben heard her brushing her teeth when he finally sat up and put his briefs back on. He placed his right palm on the middle of his chest. Under a small, thin patch of hair, there was a bright, hard surface that felt powerful and young.

Judith was the first woman that Ben had ever been with who didn’t need him to assuage some interminable existential well of something or other that opened up after sex. He was free to linger after their liaisons in blithe nothingness before returning, guilt-free, to a world of independent inclination and endeavor. At first, Ben hadn’t been sure that Judith’s mien of post-coital autonomy was not some savvy adaptation to the harsher realities of urban dating. However, Judith’s repeated assurances that this was the way that she had always been, along with her consistency in the ensuing months, had convinced him.

Judith was in her bedroom opening and snapping shut her glasses case now. Ben folded his shirt and jeans and placed them on the middle seat of the couch. He went into the bedroom. Judith, in her pajama shorts and shirt and glasses, was slipping under the covers of her queen bed with the Leslie Marmon Silko novel that she was reading.

Ben went to the other side of the bed, propped a pillow up next to Judith, and picked up that week’s issue of The New Yorker from the bedside table where he’d left it two nights ago. He climbed into bed and began reading a three-page The Art World article. The article was about an installation artist and the artist’s recent piece, which consisted entirely of dark, empty rooms that visitors walked around carrying blue pen flashlights.

Ben reconsidered the Women’s Building mural’s aesthetics in the light of Judith’s comments earlier that evening. Was it really not a terrible piece of work? Ben tended to question the motivations of apologists for bad taste, but there was something persuasive and prophetic about Judith’s “pasty white guy” crack.

Late the next morning at the gallery, Ben had a free hour or so waiting for his coworker Angela to finish with the laser printer before he could print his address labels for the pre-show mailer. Still thinking about the Women’s Building, he went into the workroom, closed the door, and pulled a bunch of slides from the archives of the original Mud23 Gallery, which had been located at 2300 Alabama Street during the tail end of the eighties and the early nineties. Ben plugged in the lightbox and lined the slides up on the glowing white surface. Six of these had “FLINT #-” 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 7 written on the bottom in black permanent marker.

FLINT was Rocco Morris’s graffiti name and tag. It was also the tongue-in-cheek name of a cartoon match man that Rocco had been spray-painting all over the city for years. The wooden stick-body of the match man was painted in three-dimensional perspective, curving and twisting out of the plane of the wall, and the flaming head bore big cartoon eyes and a wicked cartoon smile.

Most of the labeled FLINT slides showed original pieces, “thrown up” (as per street art lingo) by the artist directly onto Mud23 walls just for that show, but “FLINT #-7” showed a garage door that had been removed from whatever garage it had secured and transplanted to the gallery for the show. It was spray-painted over with a black-and-white FLINT tag and (in color) a version of Rocco’s match character holding a taco and breathing fire. Looking at it made Ben crave hard shell tacos—he was already six dollars over-budget for the week and had skipped breakfast.

Someone had dated the garage door slide on its corner in ballpoint pen: “8-2-91.” In 1991, Rocco had been only a few years older than Ben was now, and yet Rocco’s voice and vision had already been so clear. Maybe it took years of hindsight and the imprimatur of Venice to see the authenticity in the work of Rocco Morris and his cohort, but Ben felt strongly that that wasn’t all. Rocco, Mud23’s owner Phillip Mudke, Judith: all from the generation before Ben’s; none with a typical career path. However, each of them had still laid the groundwork for their current vocations very early on. Ben just didn't see that kind of focus and determination in even the most brilliant and promising members of his own generation.

There was a knock on the door.

“Come in!” said Ben.

The door opened a crack, and Ben’s boss Phillip peeked his head into the room.

“Benjamin, we’re ordering from that Cuban place on 3rd—do you want anything?” he asked. “My treat.”

“Yes, sure... a Cuban sandwich and café con leche would be great,” said Ben. “Thanks Phillip!”

“What are you looking at on the lightbox?” Phillip asked. He walked into the room, bent over the lightbox, and squinted at the slides. “Oof, those are all pretty old.”

“FLINT was one of the street artists that exhibited at the Venice Biennale Arsenale last year, right?” asked Ben.

Phillip picked up the slide labeled “FLINT #-6” and held it up to the faint yellow light of the naked bulb on the ceiling. “FLINT, a.k.a. Rocco Morris, and I go way back. He has some pieces at the Yerba Buena show right now.” Phillip put “FLINT #-6” back on the lightbox.

He recognized one of the other slides on the box and laughed. He picked up the offending slide—a stencil painting of Oliver North (modeled after North’s mug shot photo) over the caption:

A WRONG CON TRA(GEDY)

“Is that an old friend too?” asked Ben.

“A very embarrassing old friend who went legit a long time ago,” said Phillip. “Boy, I loved my stencils in those days. I thought there was something very poetic, very post-industrial about mass-producing an image over and over again with a can of spray paint and a stencil.”

“Ah, my naïve younger days as an itinerant vandal,” said Ben.

“I know you’re being sarcastic, but you’re right, there was some innocence to what we did in those days. In the nineties, you had spray can artists working with muralistas on Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley; art school stars painting side-by-side with high school dropouts. There were always little kids running around helping with the murals. We got small grants every so often for materials, but no one did it for money. Secretly, we all were just hungry to be part of something big and beautiful, even the taggers, sneaking around in their hoodies in the middle of the night.”

Ben’s stomach grumbled. “So why is Rocco at DAEMON Gallery now?” he asked, referring to the bigshot New York gallery that Rocco Morris had left Mud23 for one year ago.

“The thing about Rocco is that he has a lot of authenticity anxiety,” said Phillip. “It’s very important to him to continue making art on the streets that involves a certain level of difficulty and personal endangerment. And he wants to keep that separate from what he sees as the necessary evil of gallery work. If Rocco was still at Mud23, I wouldn’t be able to give him the same amount of space that DAEMON gives him. I, as his friend, want him to stop taking certain risks on the street, and that gets tainted and confused if we have this other, business, relationship. DAEMON Gallery, on the other hand, just loves that FLINT’s still tagging abandoned parking garages in West Oakland. Rocco can do one big show at DAEMON Gallery, take home a decent living, and spend the rest of the year pretending he’s still the same old punk kid poking fun at The Man.”

Ben noticed the note of self-righteousness in Phillip’s voice—the kind that comes from knowing someone famous before they’ve become famous. In the art world, being on the right side of history—before history became history—was everything. Only now, Ben thought, the window of opportunity for discovering new talent is smaller than it’s ever been. These days, anything remotely underground and alternative seemed to turn into a cliché overnight. But only someone involved in the business side of art could mourn the increased ease for artists to find their way into the mainstream.

“Good for him,” Ben said instead, and meant it. “Somewhere out there is some teenager spray-painting his skateboard... who needs FLINT to still be FLINT.”

“You should meet Rocco sometime,” said Phillip, turning to leave. He paused at the door. “He has his own perspective on these things. Although he’s always been much more excited about success when it’s not his own,” Phillip said. “Cuban sandwich and café con leche, right?”

Ben nodded. “And I could split an order of fries, too,” he said. He didn’t want to take advantage, but he really was very hungry.