by Brian Kerstetter
HAMBURGER, QUARTER POUNDER, BIC MAC
Last Friday, O. and I met for a drink at The Bowery Hotel, beneath the taxidermied snout of a wild boar (Sus Scrofa Scrofa). O. showed up, as he has for a decade, in his “evening wear”: jeans, gray Varvatos T-shirt, paws sneakered by Adidas, and a Rolex Submariner catching the light just so. He plopped himself at the bar and, positioning the tray of nuts at arm’s length, immediately started squeezing the tip of his nose, as though testing the ripeness of a plum.
“Got this monster-thing growing in there,” he said by way of greeting. “Could go at any time.”
“Aw, that’s nice,” I replied.
Sometimes I find myself talking to O. as though he might be mildly retarded. I ordered two Hendrick’s & Tonics from Walter, our bartender. The tumblers hadn’t hit the bar when O. plunged three fingers into one and fished out the wedge of lime. He squeezed it dramatically over his drink, like the host in a cooking show, shooting a stream across my left ear.
“Thank you,” I said, swabbing my ear canal with my shirttail.
“Do I look fat?” he asked, grabbing hold of the inner tube of flesh around his middle.
I closed my eyes and took a moment to savor the gin’s juniper berries before allowing my vision to settle on his gut.
“Yes, yes you do,” I replied.
“Whatever’s in there—kinda feels like a blueberry,” he said, recommitting his attention to his proboscis, which he poked from various angles. “Or a button mushroom.” In a hushed voice, he added “Can you tell I’m wearing make-up?”
I glanced at his cheeks.
“You mean, like, blush?” I said.
“What the Hell – keep your voice down. Why would I wear blush ON MY NOSE?” he said, indignantly.
If blush was out of the question, his wife’s Clé De Peau Teint Naturel Fluide Cream Foundation was not – O. had smeared a layer laterally across both nostrils and over the tip in the hopes of disguising the protuberance. Say CHEEESE, he said, pulling out his iPhone and mimicking the ear-to-ear smile of a televangelist. I neatened my hair and displayed two rows of pearly horse teeth for the camera, only the flash had already gone off.
O. fills his down time, especially in my company, fiddling with photo apps. Like last month he ran me through You Fat Teenage F*ck ($1.99), from which I emerged looking like a Krispy Kreme doughnut, riddled with zits and draped in rolls of oily dough. This time, when he handed me the phone, a grizzled flap of skin returned my gaze. I had the crispiness of one of those Speedo-wearing geezers who’s spent half a century baking himself into a potato chip on Miami Beach. “You Old Fart! Ha, ha, ha! You Old Fart!” he chimed, bobbing up and down like Koko the chimp. “Walter,” he called, flailing his arm. “Over here!”
Walter held the phone away from his face, as though it were yesterday’s turd. “Ouch,” he said, with a mixture of pity and revulsion. He offered me a shot of Patrón, on the house.
“Walter, I don’t want–,” I began. “They EX-AGG-ER-ATE to make money!”
“Not really,” O. said. “This one’s free.” He grabbed the phone and back swiped in rapid succession. “Look, here’s Makiko.”
O. had first tested the app on his wife, who is 30, only to have her come out looking, well, 30. So he upgraded to the Premium Edition, You Old Fart Turbo, hoping to get a preview of what he’d be married to in 50 years. But that only made her look like Yoko Ono, in 1964, when she was 31. “Poor Steve Jobs,” O. muttered. “Against Japanese genes he can nothing do.”
In the taxi to the Wolfgang Plaf Gallery, O. told me the story of how he’d bribed the infamous Chinese mobster, Mr. Dong, to secure a coveted space in one of his Lower East Side parking garages. “I slipped him an envelope,” he whispered, looking left and right like Peter Lorre in Casablanca. Seeing the dumb look on my face, he added, “An envelope full of Benjamins, Numbnuts.”
“How much, your ass,” he said testily, as though I’d asked him for a foot massage.
“More than a thousand?”
“What! Are you–” O. seemed genuinely outraged by the sum. A few moments later, he shrunk his neck down into his shoulders, like a tortoise, and asked, “Is that too much?”
From watching Eliot Ness in The Untouchables, I knew that pay-offs by envelope occurred in hundred dollar bills, so by determining the thickness of the envelope, the thinking went, I could gage the amount.
“Just tell me this,” I said, cupping my hand around three ever-larger, imaginary burgers. “Was the envelope the size of a hamburger, a Quarter Pounder or a Big Mac?”
O. studied the options, like a witness going through a police lineup. He chewed his lower lip, finally cupping his fingers around a fictional Big Mac, one with a healthy portion of shredded lettuce.
The past few months have seen a modification in our Friday night ritual. Instead of ducking in for a Chinatown massage on our way to Pulino’s for dinner, we now pay a visit to the Wolfgang Plaf Gallery. That’s right, an art gallery. Anyone who’s done more than shake hands with O. knows he’d rather lop off his own foot than set one in a gallery. “Pablos,” he calls them, as in Picasso, referring to anyone who has ever produced, purchased, commented on, gazed upon, or brushed up against an object purporting to be A-R-T. By his own admission, his daily interaction with “culture” occurs when he sits on the toilet and flips through the Celebrities Without Makeup issue of Star Magazine.
After briefly “collaborating” with the gallery, O. discovered, by chance, that the key to his Tribeca walk-up and the front door of the gallery were one and the same. Now we stop by, “after hours,” on our way to dinner. We’ve taken to publicizing our newfound patronage of the arts, too. Instead of slithering out of the bar unnoticed, O. slaps me on the back and announces, “To the gallery, fellow art lover?” to which I reply, “And why not, Sir. The Wolfgang Plaf awaits us!”
To those who sing art’s transformative powers, I stand behind them full-throatedly. Walter, and his fellow barmen, has come to treat us differently since our conversion from rubdowns to Rothko’s – they raise their eyebrows when we arrive and raise them even higher when we leave. As an old acquaintance put it, on hearing of our sudden about-face, “O., in a gallery? And I painted the Sistine Chapel!”
“You don’t know me,” O. responds with a shrug. “I love a good gallery.” Adding, when he is out of earshot, “When it’s closed, ha, ha, ha!”
We don’t “break into” the gallery after hours to sketch handlebar mustaches on the portraits and urinate in the ficus plants. (Granted, O. once returned from the bathroom somewhat lighter on his feet to announce “Just left the Pablos a few chunks of abstract realism.”) No, we simply drop by to leave a few words of encouragement, always the same, for the artist in the Guest Registry: “Quality hues!” O. signs his name Percival C. Butt III.
The moment we arrived, on this particular night, I knew O. would go ballistic. The gallery was brightly lit and overrun with 30-somethings in beards and Blahniks. Inside, the space was stripped entirely bare except for a cedar chair upon which rested a solitary goose egg.
“An egg? You’re kidding, right?” O. said, smacking his forehead repeatedly. “Why do they do it, why, why, why?” He synchronized his forehead slapping with the whys.
When it comes to complaining, O. trains like an Olympian. Pound for pound he may be the fittest complainer in all New York City, a town renowned for world-class belly-achers. He routinely out-complains whingers twice his size. It is safe to say that no athlete in the tri-state area has done more to attract attention to his sport in recent years than O. In a display of incredible grit, I once saw him complain himself hoarse when a waiter wouldn’t take back a bottle of suspect Saint-Émilion. Unlike Americans, who lack discipline and grouse whenever they damn well please, O. has instituted the European idea of complaining – five or six days a week, multiple times a day. “We need to be more like them,” a friend from Poughkeepsie opined. “They’re breaking it down, videotaping and analyzing every single complaint–” I cut him off. Analyze all you want, I told him, O.’s superhuman ability to complain for no good reason stems from a one-in-a-million quirk of nature at birth, a chromosomal prank, one with no basis in science.
“Ah, the timeless egg,” I said, stroking my chin, gazing into the gallery. “Doesn’t it possess a powerful sedimentary thickness?”
“Cut the B.S. I’ll make omelet out of it, chop-chop,” he mumbled, pressing his forehead against the glass. “Anyway, they just want to get laid.”
“Who? The egg? Of course it wants to get—”
“Huh? Listen, those hair-dos dance around an egg, an egg for Chrissake, probably free-range!, cuz they want…” Here he gyrated his hips back and forth while thrusting his arms from front to back, like rowing a boat.
I contemplated the household egg in the service of getting laid. Was this something I could do? I bounced the idea off O.
“Do you have a beard?” he asked.
“Do you wear Japanese denim?”
“There’s your answer. Twice.”
Here’s the thing about O.—mostly he avoids offending people. Even though he loves the feel of something vaguely offensive on his tongue.
Then he did a peculiar thing. Digging into his pocket, he flashed his hand over the door and scuttled across the street. I found him catnapping against a lemon-colored Vespa with two flat tires, his phone propped on the seat filming the gallery entrance. Turns out he’d used his matching key to lock the door, from the outside.
“What’s going on?” I said, poking him.
“Deine Mutter schwitzt–!” he blurted, jerking awake with a pair of heavy snorts.
“They want art…” he grumbled, his face holding the imprint of the Vespa logo. “I make some right now—a little movie called I’m So Goddamn Boring I Think an Egg is A-R-T.”
A passerby with a cereal-box-shaped head and Edwardian unicycles on his T-shirt paused to watch the filming. After a few seconds, he closed his eyes, generated a snoring sound and strode off.
“No shit, Sherlock,” O. called after him. “It’s art!” And eyeing me with an almost Victorian melancholy, he sighed “He thinks I’m here for my jollies? It gets old, it really does.”
A spark plug of a woman with blue eyes and curly dark hair appeared on-screen. She blew a kiss behind her and, after a few lady-like tugs, anchored her right foot behind her, Tug-of-War style, and executed a full-body jerk on the door. A crowd encircled her, as she wedged her Fendi clutch under her arm and torpedoed herself against the glass in a series of staccato thrusts that echoed across the street.
Overcome by a feeling of stupid happy, O. sprang to his feet and doubled back along the sidewalk in front of the gallery, his phone still filming from his breast pocket. He stared in at the crowd, innocent bystander style.
“’Scuse me,” he said through the glass, raising his eyebrows with the sincerity of a Mormon. “Is it hard-boiled?” Not one but a chorus of mouth-breathers returned his gaze. The owner, an exquisite Lord Foppington with a Francois I hairstyle, peeked back at the egg, then swished his hand through the air, as though shooing a common housefly (musca domestica). With no answer forthcoming, O. folded his hands behind his back, like a professor, and applied the tip of his swollen nose to the glass and slid it East to West, depositing what looked like a streak of Hershey’s chocolate across the pane.
Had he squatted and pinched off a loaf right there on East 2nd Street, the mortification could not have been greater. Long story short, the owner went mental. He interrogated the Heavens, blew out his cheeks once, twice, and butted his forehead against the glass like a Billy goat (Capra aegagrus hircus). Sweat collected in the wrinkles beneath his eyes, as he shoved one key after the other into the lock, desperate to get at O’s throat.
Satisfied with this ending, O. reached into his breast pocket and turned off the video. Consulting his watch, he muttered something about cured meats, scrounged the key from his pants and calmly unlocked the door.
To this day, I can’t vouch for what took place in the quarter of an hour that followed. We made it onto two barstools at Pulino’s, suffice to say, sweaty and short of breath, where our loyal bartender, Lorenzo, laid out two prosciutto pizzas and a bottle of Primitivo as we settled in to watch our “art film.” Turns out, O. hadn’t pressed the Record button. He pressed it, that is, but only at the end. The result being a two minute video of the inside of his pocket, accompanied by a soundtrack of my muffled curses. Nevermind, I told him as we clinked glasses, fifty years from now, a movie this mind-numbingly boring can only assume the ranks of a cult classic.