Warm Poop, an Elegy, by Thomas Phan


It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians. And there I found it that morning, burning anew among the old stones.
Evelyn Waugh

First, a few personal notes:

I emigrated from Saigon in 1970, two years after the My Lai Massacre. I fled from the war and from communist puritans in the North. In New York the World Trade Center was rising downtown, John Lindsey was mayor, and the city was in the throes of a great recession. I didn't realize it because my life, up until that point, had been a recession.

I lived for a summer on a sailboat docked off City Island, then found an apartment in the flower district of Chelsea. After collecting a thousand dollars for the "key," the previous tenant departed abruptly, leaving me with ten cats. I drove nine of them to Gettysburg-I don't know why I chose the site of Lincoln's address except that I was happy to be in America, and I was sure Abraham Lincoln was not a communist or a puritan. I stopped my Volkswagen bug on a back county road, in front of what looked like a friendly farmhouse, pulled open the cardboard cat boxes in the backseat, and opened the car door. It was the middle of the night, and the city cats were scared shitless. Eventually they accepted their fate and slunk into the darkness. I kept Sebastian back in the apartment. I named him after a character in Evelyn Waugh's' Brideshead Revisited.

In the early seventies the idea of commercially canned cat food was still evolving. There was no Wellness, Science Diet, Iams for urinary tract infections, or Ultra. I couldn't have afforded Ultra anyway.
I scrounged around for scraps wherever I could find them, but there was never enough for both of us, so Sebastian, in the autumn months of 1971, grew thin. Eventually he wandered out on the fire escape and, like Sebastian in Brideshead, disappeared.

The idea of conceptual art was evolving too; Joseph Kosuth appropriated definitions, chairs, and snow shovels and always dressed in black. Larry Weiner wrote short sentences on the walls, all with fewer than 140 characters, such as, "Bits and pieces put together to present a semblance of a whole"-something like an early Twitter. Carl Andre, not really a conceptualist, wore working man's overalls. Still does. My friend Vito masturbated as art, and often as not, and Dennis Oppenheim shoveled snow in concentric circles across a frozen river. Many of these works were obviously references, even homages, to Marcel Duchamp, the grand dame of conceptual art, who first appropriated a snow shovel in 1917.

We were becoming more aware of the environment, both globally and locally. In fact, the law requiring that dog feces be picked up on sidewalks in New York went into effect in 1973. Don't get me wrong, I do not wish to denigrate conceptualism by mentioning it in the same paragraph with dog excrement, and I don't want to denigrate dogs either. In fact, one of the artists I liked best was William Wegman. He was both a conceptualist and a dog owner.

Conceptualism was notably the last in a long line of "isms": impressionism, post-impressionism, cubism, fauvism, suprematism, expressionism, surrealism, minimalism, abstract expressionism, and, in Andy's terms, popism. Have I missed any? Conceptualism expanded the horizon of what could be called art through the introduction of various materials theretofore alien to it. At the same time it entertained distaste for what was referred to as "the object." I suppose it is good to get away from the object temporarily. One can only take so much of fetishes. But objects are ultimately unavoidable-like tofu squares, tealeaves, crisp apples, broccoli rabe, and kernels of brown rice. They are essential for a good diet and long life.

The idea of actually embracing feces in public was also radical for its time. Like good art, it crossed social status and gender and made you think about all sorts of transgressions. It didn't matter if it was on Park Avenue or the Lower East Side, whether you were a man or a woman. You picked it up. This law was in fact a social leveler, except for those people who got out of it by hiring a dog walker. The ritual contributed to the activism that was so important to the sixties and the seventies. No longer would odorous minefields of mush mess wingtips, stilettos, cowboy boots, or, for that matter, sneakers, clogs, or flip-flops. Like radical art, people eventually got used to it. Actually the proto-conceptual work of the Italian Piero Manzoni-his edition of ninety cans of shit called Merda d'artista, circa 1961-predated both the New York conceptual movement and the Clean Sidewalks Act by several years. His feces had petrified by the time I got hold of a can. I discovered it on the mantelpiece of an apartment I cleaned on Sixty-seventh Street in the same building as the Cafe des Artistes. It rattled like a marimba.

Perhaps Merda d'artista was meant to be an accompaniment to Duchamp's urinal. I also loved the work of his friend Yves. Later I actually got to know an Yves Klein painting up close, actually-very close. Its one thing to see a Klein in a museum, with a rope around it keeping you at bay; it's another thing to be near enough to sniff. The particular Klein I am referring to lay horizontal on top of two sawhorses in my apartment for some six months, because one of its sponges was wobbly and ready to fall off. An art dealer asked me to glue it back on, and I told him I thought that was a bit over my pay grade, but he pleaded. It took me six months of research to work up enough courage to begin.

I consulted the foremost expert on Klein. Klaus lived in a little village just outside Neuss, Germany. He had quiet a reputation and really didn't do much else but restore Kleins. He'd go about his life, tend his garden, until another sponge dropped off somewhere in the world. Inevitably his telephone would ring.

Klein first would build a wooden support made of a stretcher frame covered by plywood. He glued the sponges to the support and covered the whole shebang with plaster of Paris. This plaster sealed the sponge so the blue paint glowed. He blasted it with a spray gun filled with what he called Klein Blue. The sponges emerged from the painting like huge phosphorescent chocolate chips. The problem was that the plaster made the sponges brittle and heavy. All that held them to the support was a splash of white glue and a wooden peg. Any small knock or bump and the sponges would detach from the surface and crack.

Since the painting could not be moved, and Klaus had just had knee surgery, he sent me a Klein repair kit and wished me luck. The kit came complete with archival glue and a formula for matching various shades of blue. It was always the same ultramarine dry pigment. Adding latex binder made it darker and subtracting it made it brighter.

One January evening there was a party going on, and I'd had a little too much pinot. I leaned over the painting, propped up with a hand on a sawhorse on either side, and my nose pressed into the so-called Great Sponge, the largest one Klein ever used. It smelled of Old Spice. Why, I don't know. It definitely was not me. Soft wet snowflakes fell on dark flat Soho roofs, on nineteenth-century water towers and the fire escape that led down to the avenue. Houston Street was mum for once and white. It was late at night or early in the morning, and no one had yet bothered to shovel a sidewalk. Me, I was bent over, stoned-nose into sponge-surrounded by Yves Klein blue.

This was before I met Mel. Mel had worked for Radio Free Europe before he got a job at the Post. If you can believe it, the Post was once a liberal publication. Mel had a car and a press pass that allowed for ticket-free parking in designated areas throughout the city. One of those areas was a half block away from Max's Kansas City, at 213 Park Avenue South; another was in front of the Carlyle Hotel at Seventy-sixth and Madison. He told me he was in the lobby of the Carlyle in the early sixties when Marilyn came to visit Jack in a white taffeta gown. When she came back down to the lobby, hours later, the zipper in the back was in a different position than when she first arrived. But that could have been for many reasons. He never wrote about the gossipy stuff, just visits of foreign dignitaries and the like who came to speak to the president-things the Post at that time called "news." Can you imagine Lady Gaga spotted in a sirloin gown, riding the elevator, headed for the presidential suite where Barack resides, then reemerging hours later, disheveled and flushed? You don't need a Graflex any more to bring down a government, just a cell phone and Twitter.

Mel kept working at the Post even after Rupert Murdoch got hold of the paper. He was getting older and didn't have an alternative. Then one day he was fired without benefit of pension. Right out of the blue. Lucky for him he had that black and red painting dangling from a wire under the skylight in his kitchen. There was no frame, just a Masonite square covered, on one side, with red squiggles over a black background, or perhaps black squiggles over a red background. As far as I can remember, it had always been there, swaying to and fro even though the air in the apartment was stagnant with cigarette smoke.

Both rooms had beautiful fireplaces with gas flames burning in front of brass Moroccan plates

Mel was also an admirer of Evelyn Waugh. His favorite book, for obvious reasons, was Scoop. Scoop, as you may know, is a novel about a young Englishman named William Boot. He lives in the country and writes a column on nature for a national publication. The editors of the Daily Beast mistake him for a writer of the same name and convince him to go to Ishmaelia (not a real place) in Africa, where civil war is breaking out. Amazingly he gets the scoop he needs, but the other Boot is credited, so he returns to his country house, with his cat, and much relieved.

Mel had a cat too; that's why we couldn't understand his rodent problem. His bedroom looked out over the gardens between the townhouses on Ninth Street and Tenth. A whole family of mice invaded his apartment: the mom and dad probably crawled up the fire escape. We discovered too late that they'd made a nursery in the back corner of one of the closets. He had not actually seen them, at first, but found evidence of their presence in the kitchen: little bites of baguettes and Brie, and tiny footprints all over the hummus.

Facing hard times, at one point Mel considered selling his Morley. The painting hung in the room facing Ninth Street. It was totally abstract. Most artists went from realism to abstraction, but Malcolm, who lived in a church in Bellport, where I confess I orgied on several occasions, went from abstraction to super realism. Malcolm actually invented super realism. Mel wasn't sure that his Morley was valuable, because it was so uncharacteristic of Malcolm's mature style. And although it was predominantly white with some lyrical pencil lines defining an elliptical-shaped object that may have been a submarine, it was sooty from all the cigarette smoke that wafted through Mel's apartment. In any case, Mel decided not to sell it.

He did solve his mice problem. He bought some paper plates and poured contact cement in them. This glue remains sticky for quite some time. It was actually my idea. He prepared bits of cheese-Brie, Muenster, goat's cheese, etcetera-and arranged the pieces quite aesthetically on top of the plate. I thought this was a bit extravagant, because all he needed was a couple of slices of American. But he said, "Not in my house."

It only took one night. The next morning the mom, dad, and three siblings were stuck, wide-eyed, to the sticky plates. He called me at the time he usually got up-around noon, because he did the night shift at the Post. "So what do I do now?" he asked poignantly. I didn't have a clue, so I improvised, "During the French occupation, my grandmother told me she used to sail them out the window." "Why then?" he asked. "I don't know if the custom began then. But there were many rodents at the time of the French occupartion." Mel's apartment was on the fourth floor of the brownstone, quite a sail to the garden.

Then one day I walked past the Paula Cooper Gallery, at its former location on 155 Wooster Street, and I saw something familiar: the funny little squiggles that dangled and swayed in Mel's kitchen filled the gallery. They were not the same color but certainly the same style. They turned out to be Yayoi Kusama's paintings (a Japanese artist who hung out with Andy in the sixties). Mel told me she was a friend, but he lost track of her because at some point she committed herself to an asylum back in Japan. He had met her where he met me, through the circle of friends hanging around the Factory, a place I regularly tidied. That stuff they use to clean silk screens-deadly. I fainted on several occasions, and not from the sight of Lou or Mick.

The paintings at Paula's had price tags of fifty, sixty, seventy thousand dollars on them. Not enough for full retirement, but at least not destitution. It turned out Mel wouldn't need full retirement.

We did have one unfortunate fight. It concerned the film by Elia Kazan, Baby Doll, written by Tennessee Williams. The Catholic Church banned it because of what was not in the film. Baby Doll married Karl Malden, or at least the character played by him. But the marriage was not to be consummated until her twenty-first birthday. He was a farmer, and his neighbor, played by Eli Wallach, was in competition for cotton production. One day Karl was out of town, picking up a belt for his cotton gin, and Eli dropped by the house. Of course Baby Doll was alone. Eli and Baby Doll romped though the house in a cat-and-mouse game and wound up in the would-be nursery, with Baby Doll clothed only in her negligee and sitting by the chaise lounge whereupon Eli, or his character, reclined.
Fade to black.

The actors presumably take a ten-minute break, maybe longer, maybe till the next day. When the camera fades in again, they are in the same position.

So what happened during the fade-out? That was the question. The Catholic Church surmised quite a lot. Mel certainly did too. He was sure they did it. I argued that it didn't matter if they did it during the fade-out. Seduction = Eros = Seduction. I went so far as to recite Roland Barthes' A Lovers Discourse, wherein, on page 40, Barthes tells a story of a mandarin and a courtesan. The courtesan says to the mandarin, "I will be yours if you sit under my window for one hundred nights." The mandarin grabs a stool and sits under her window for ninety-nine nights. Then he packs up the stool and leaves. He accomplished what he set out to do. After he'd waited, the mandarin had nothing else to do but depart. Mel said, "You don't know what real sex is."

We did not speak for a year. Easter, Passover, Visakah Puja, his birthday, mine, Loy Krathong, Christmas, Ramadan, Hanukkah, Ullambana, New Years, Thanksgiving all passed, and not necessarily in that order. Nary a word from Mel.

Then out of the blue he called me one night and asked me to debate the issue in the presence of a referee. "Should we bring gloves or pistols?" I asked. We met at Cafe Loup, an old haunt in the West Village, and we debated the point of what happened during the fade-out in Baby Doll. The appointed referee, a guy named Deedes, thought we were nuts. Of course Mel appointed him. I didn't think that fair, but I wanted to get it over with. I don't remember who "won." It all got kind of jumbled. The steak was terrific, the background music was great, and we drank several bottles of wine. Mel and I started hanging out again at One University Place, Mickey's new dive, where Julian Schnabel was the chef.

Then Mel fell in love with Juliet. She had a lot of things going for her. She was beautiful, intelligent, and a judge on the New York State Supreme Court. A very young violinist played Old Man River at the wedding I assume because he didn't know anything else.

Naturally we saw each other less frequently. Then one night he called and said he felt queasy. He thought it might be his heart. But soon enough he learned it was his lungs. Some months later he died a painful death. Juliet told me that he stumbled into the bathroom-nary a last word. Just a flush of the toilet then silence.

She prepared a proper Jewish funeral for Mel, with a simple wooden casket and a garland of white roses on top. I was deeply moved by her aesthetics. The casket was closed, and I knew there was something dead and cold inside, but that box could not contain the magnanimity of Mel's spirit, at least not for me.

I was too shy to give a eulogy. I am, after all these years, still self-conscious about my lingering accent. Juliet turned her head and looked back at me, hoping I'd say something. I didn't. Instead I simply recalled the vast expanse of the 1971 Pontiac hood as we cruised, searching in vain for pinups and pickups along an avenue of the Americas.

Decades later I was walking on Lexington Avenue, near Seventy-seventh Street, on the way to see my therapist, Dr. Christopher Johannet. Therapy works. Being able to pay three hundred bucks an hour, four times a month, elevates one's self-esteem. On top of that, I usually arrive uptown early so I can have a glass of white wine at the Carlyle, which is just a block away from the doctor's office. Since I stop by regularly, the bartender knows my name. His name is Tommy. He'd been to Woodstock. At first I thought that fact a bit incongruous, knowing the music they play at the Bemelmans Bar. Bobby Short was certainly no Jimi Hendrix. But being recognized at the Carlyle at this time in my life somehow justified my coming to America so many years before-the boat ride across the Pacific, hitchhiking through California, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey to Max's Kansas City.

Before one of my sessions, I happened to walk past a storefront window filled with shredded newspapers. A puppy frolicked amongst the disjointed sentences of that week's headlines-whatever they were-advertisements, discombobulated crossword puzzles, and fluctuating stock reports.

The puppy happened to be royalty: a Cavalier King Charles spaniel with a lineage that led directly to the puppies King Charles II slept with until his death on February 11, 1665. Paintings pinned up on the pet shop wall proved these puppies to be pals of the king. "They are great snugglers," Fred, the shop owner, said. "Smugglers?" I responded, mishearing. "No, nothing like that. They just like to cuddle."

Smitten, I bought the pup and named him Scoop. Of course, I walked him. I would never hire another man or woman to pick up my dog's poop. Whatever I am, I am not a capitalist. Dog walking raises you above your malaise. It's a guiltless break. Soon I discovered that attractive people are attracted to attractive dogs. Why else would they speak to an aging, pudgy, Southeast Asian Hooper?

I found that you do not have social responsibilities with respect to dog urination. The urine simply flows from the dog's penis into a crack in the sidewalk, then into the gutter, down drains, and into sewers. It eventually makes its way to the Hudson River, and then, one would assume, to the Atlantic Ocean. Purified, it rises to the sky and revisits us as rain.

Poop (I would never say "shit" around Scoop) is, of course, a different matter. You must be anal attentive and remember to carry plastic. I often forget and have to scrounge around outside for some alternative. At a low point, one mid-winter, I used a Coca-Cola cap. The defecation stance of a King Charles is spectacular: he arches his back and shuffles his hind legs like a Yankee umpire anticipating a curve. Meanwhile his feather-plumed tail forms a treble clef deserving of the Adagio for Strings. The furry ensemble climaxes in a crescendo of auburn feathers, a plume that would do Cyrano proud. Then he looks up at me philosophically, as if to say, "We do this often in our lives, you and me, sometimes a couple of times a day. It means, amongst other things, that we are alive here on this earth."

If you don't pick up all the poop, citizens of the city-all classes, races, sexes, Democrats and Republicans alike (in this, at least, we are united)-will shower scorn upon you, and you will, after death, find yourself in a lower ring of the Inferno, between the betrayers of kin and country.

I prefer Ziploc sandwich bags. They are tough and transparent, but the plastic is thin enough that you feel the warmth-still simmering, soft, and even comforting. Sometimes you don't want to throw it away.

New York, November 7, 2010


Mel Juffe worked for Radio Free Europe, wrote for Eye magazine and the New York Post, and is the author of The Recently Deflowered Girl and a novel called Flash. He died in 2005