Behind The Seen

"There's a gorilla in the parking lot! There's a gorilla in the parking lot!," my friends came storming into the cocktail hour. My reception was at The Manor - with its classic elegance and four-star cuisine - for the lavish celebration that was my Bar Mitzvah. Moments later, a 190-lb. chimpanzee wearing a tuxedo came roller skating into my party and began to mingle. Acting more like a human, Mr. Jiggs drank guests' cocktails, smoked their cigarettes and posed for pictures. My parents had hired this gorilla of a TV personality purely as entertainment, but Jiggs quickly stole the show. He became the life of the party, and all anybody could talk about. As cute and funny as a chimpanzee riding a mini-bike on the dance floor can be, for me he was a welcome distraction. This took all eyes off me and redirected them to the other Cirkus chimp in the room. From that day on I knew on one thing for sure, I would never be caught not knowing again. If I was ever going to be the man of the hour, there could be no more monkeying around. It was time to get down to business.

Every eighth grade boy had a crush on Mrs. Benjamin. She was a petite brunette with a great smile and wardrobe that only further enhanced her assets. Our class was seated alphabetically so I was right up front on the right side of the room and directly behind me sat Broc Coates - the coolest kid I knew. The hometown newspaper ran a small human interest story on how I designed the sign for my father’s real estate business. The little headline for the article read, “That’s My Boy,” with a staged photo of dad and I standing in front of it. I thought for sure nobody except family gave it much attention. The next morning, and every morning thereafter, Broc would greet me with a pat on the back and a faint “that’s my boy.” We weren’t in the same group of friends, having migrated to our junior high from elementary schools on different sides of town, but we found a common bond in our quiet demeanor and passion for doodling.

Broc had his own style that wouldn’t be referred to as grunge for at least another five years. He was tall with long golden hair, Timberlands, denim overalls, and always a flannel shirt. It wasn’t hick, it just fit his easy-going personality. Broc could draw really well, but he was always shy about it. He shared his art with me, but didn’t want his tougher friends, to know. I would encourage him to do more with it, but he had convinced himself he could never be like me – and yet, all I wanted was to be cool - like him. I begged my parents for overalls, finally convincing mom to buy me a pair that I only ever wore once. My father hated them with a discriminatory passion and, as soon as I put them in the laundry, they vanished. I never saw them or Broc again.

Seeing him in a suit and tie seemed so completely out of character. The room was full of friends and family, the only sound was Neil Young playing on cassette over near the sign-in book. It was my first open-casket wake. I’d never seen a dead body - or had a dead friend. Broc blew his brains out on Mother’s Day, grief-stricken over his mother’s death a year prior. It was the day after we had all gone to the movies to see “The Deer Hunter.” Nick, played by Christopher Walken, takes that one shot and kills himself. Broc told us on the way home that night, if he had a gun, he’d shoot himself. He didn’t have one – but his father did. Broc went up to his room, put on ‘Comes A Time’, and committed suicide. Seeing him plastered in make-up under the bright lights, I went up to the casket and tried not to stare at the way they hid the back of his head in a big pink satin pillow. It all made no sense. Nobody wanted to see him that way, and he never would’ve wanted anybody to see him that way.

As a teenager I had terrible cystic acne that was more humiliating than debilitating. Every night at dinner my father would call me ‘pizza face.’ It was painful to live with –the boil and the mockery – and took everything I had to keep from sobbing. I spent countless hours behind the bathroom door, half-sitting on the ledge of the sink, balancing myself closer to the mirror to squeeze what felt like a tumor on my cheek, forehead, or shoulder until it burst and bled with all the satisfaction of dermatological masochism. I knew I was only making it worse, but it felt so much better. Looking at myself in the mirror, a trickle of blood running down my face from the eruption, I could see right through my reflection to the person I would become. Whispering out loud to myself, I’d tell future me that someday this will heal and I will be stronger for it. I will be something bigger and better, wait and see. It may take years, but I see you and others will too. Hang in there. Be patient. Be confident. Had I known it would take close to another thirty-years, I’m not so sure I’d have hung in there, but every time it reared its ugly head I held mine up and soldiered on. It was my own private hell and I spent weeks at a time embarrassed and reclusive to the verge of depression. The perfect storm for hiding in the little art studio that I’d made for myself in the old maid’s room behind the garage.

The movie “The Rose,” starring Bette Midler in the role of a pseudo-Janis Joplin, was released about six months after Broc’s suicide. In the opening scene they open up the garage door of a little suburban home and inside they discover a poignant wall completely covered in pictures, magazine clippings, and postcards to create a giant scrapbook collage of influence and sentiment that captured her entire life. Her private wall of self-expression, hidden in plain sight, gave me the idea that the walls of my little cave-of-a-studio would become an homage to that scene and my first piece of autobiographic visual poetry. I created a similar wall in every studio I ever studied in. Every inch of wall space covered in meaningful inspiration. Like a kaleidoscopic altar to get lost in in order to find my true self - the wall was my mirror.

By graduation there was a tight race in the superlative voting. Johnny Ehrlich had written and composed a school play, and could play piano and tennis like the good doctor’s son he was. Super talented, he made his way to Hollywood with another great talent from our class, actor Michael Ornstein. In the Martin Scorsese movie “The King of Comedy,” Robert De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a delusional and aspiring stand-up comedian trying to launch his career. During Rupert’s ‘Tonight Show’ debut monologue, he admits that he too graduated from Clifton High. Johnny ended up taking home the “Most Likely to Succeed” title, while I was awarded “Most Talented.” The toss-up was really which one did Johnny deserve the most, and then I got the other. No shame in either, and ‘Most Talented’ always has the chance to be successful, while being successful doesn’t necessarily imply you’re also talented, although it no doubt takes some level of skill to rise above. I had that for sure, but what I really needed was a beard. At ArtCenter, Dr. Serrano would regularly tell his class,“All men with beards are great.” One of the design instructors told us, “None of you will make any real money until you have some gray hair.” I’m not sure if it was an age-thing or a wisdom-thing – the gray or the beard - but it seemed like an easy enough challenge. Not sure how the women in either class felt, but for me it was a necessary evil. The beard growing was two-fold: preventing the reoccurring breakouts, and making me feel that much more confident about myself.

Today, the beard is gone, but the gray hairs have come in its place.

1 comment

  • Michael Katz

    Well that went all over the place but did lend some insight into the creative adolescent mind of a talented teenager.

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