Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Zombie

You’d think that after all these years I’d be better at predicting my own reactions. Not the case. I keep getting surprised. When they got dad, I was all business. I took the chainsaw to him, neatly severing his head from his body, soaked him in gasoline and lit him up. A half hour later I was back inside the perimeter, drinking a beer, toasting him with some of the other hunters just back from patrols. Of course dad was damn near seventy years old and had no business still going hunting outside the perimeter. I could say he’d led a good life and died a good death and believe it.
Moses was a whole different story. He hadn’t check in for more than a day and a night so I pretty much knew he was gone. I should have been prepared. Then I spotted him. He was part of a group of four who were tearing apart a fresh kill. I just fell apart. Well not really. I got the job done. I sprayed them and lit them up, I kept the spot light on their flaming corpses until I was sure their brains had boiled out, but the whole time I was shaking and I felt like I couldn’t suck in enough air.
After they opened the gate for me, I drove up the road a hundred yards, pulled into a field, and turned off the headlights. I took my Smith and Weston out of the waistband of my jeans and put the barrel in my mouth. This was my way of posing a question to myself, “Live or die, motherfucker?” The question had more urgency than usual because Moses was the last of my family and because he was only twenty-one years old. Some girl once referred to him as the Peter-Pan of the Scranton stockade. More than once, I had said to him, “When you going to grow up, asshole?”
He’d respond, “You ever notice how when people say that, they mean they want you to stop doing something you’re having fun doing? So John, I’d say maybe never.”
Sitting in the pick-up with the gun barrel clattering against my teeth, I thought, “That’s sure as shit true now, you little prick.” Then I started to cry. Really squirting them. It’d been years. I wet my cheeks, the barrel of the gun, my shirt. Then I started to laugh at myself and I had to take the gun out of my mouth because I was gagging on it.
“I’m alive,” I thought. I bet twenty years ago, people thought alive was the opposite of dead, but of course I knew that alive was the opposite of un-dead. So I stuck the gun back in my pants and drove on toward the barracks.
It was only then that I thought, “Who in the hell were they eating? Who was out there? Were there survivors?”

For the last two years Moses Leonard-Fritzmeier has been assisting me with the art program I run at the East Bay Met School. He graduated from the school just about the time I started, but has extended his involvement with the school by taking on a part time job there. When I first met Moses I thought I would talk him into going to art school. These days I’m less convinced I know what is best for him.
Late in the school year, on a quiet day, we worked on a portrait swap. I drew him and he drew me. Earlier in the year, Moses had done a large poster of a zombie pizza boy delivering to a cemetery, where a fist clenching dollar bills to pay for the pizza stuck out of a fresh grave. I much admired this piece of artwork. We decided to portray each other as zombies. As we worked, I asked Moses questions and tried to develop more of a sense of who he was as a young artist. I hoped to learn more so I could write about our similarities and differences and compare him as a young artist to me as an old artist.
Zombies were also on my mind. I found myself starting conversation with friends with questions like, “Will zombies eat any body part or do they feed exclusively on brains?” “How do you kill a zombie?” “Do zombies reproduce?” I found a surprising number of men, even men my age, have very strong opinions on zombies. Women tended to roll their eyes.
One day, Lily Quinn, an art student, joined us and said, “Moses, you are the Peter Pan of The Met School.”
I asked, “So, Moses, what would it mean to you to grow up?”
He said, “That’s a good question. I always want to have a child like attitude. When you are little and people tell you to grow up, they usually mean to stop doing something you’re having fun doing. I don’t want to grow up in that way. Of course there is a part of growing up that is about physical maturity and taking responsibility for your own actions.”
Mose is twenty-one. As he spoke I thought about myself as a twenty-one year old. I was married. I had an apartment that I paid the rent on. I took a full load of classes at Queens College. I worked in a community center in a Black and Puerto Rican section of the borough. I protested the war in Vietnam. On weekends, I went into The Village to attend Jefferson Airplane concerts at the Fillmore East. In the summer, I heard Nina Simone sing at the Wolman Skating Rink in Central Park. I took myself very seriously. Too seriously. I wanted to be an artist, but decided it would be a socially irresponsible choice. I thought my work should contribute to the community. I studied sociology and later education. I became a teacher.
When I was twenty-one, if someone had referred to me as Peter Pan or in some other way indicated I needed to grow up, I would have been incredulous and hurt. Forty-four years later, I’m going around initiating conversations about zombies.

In the morning I woke up bereaved, the last of the Buckinghams. I also woke up pretty suicidal-slash-murderous due to the fact I had to get up and had to do something about the slim possibility that there might be living people outside the perimeter. Let me be clear, I don’t mind getting up and I don’t mind running patrols, as long as I’m doing it of my own free will. However, to be compelled to do it because some idiot was out there offering himself up as a brain sandwich really pissed me off. Maybe I’d like to mourn my brother, maybe I’d like to get drunk, maybe I’d like to go into town and look for some company. In lieu of these options I went out to the courtyard of the barracks where there was a swimming pool, a basketball court, and an old neon sign that said Top of the 80’s Motel, which is what the barracks was before the perimeter was expanded and my group of hunters started using it as our headquarters. I turned the volume of the sound system way up and started dancing. The first tune was Volunteers by The Jefferson Airplane:

Look what's happening out in the streets

Got a revolution got to revolution

Hey I'm dancing down the streets

Got a revolution got to revolution

One generation got old

One generation got soul

This generation got no destination to hold

Got a revolution, got to revolution

Who will take it from you?

We will and who are we?

We are volunteers of America

I danced all over the basketball court, strutting and high kicking from one end to the other. I did leaps and spins. Dropped to my knees. Did splits. Walked on my hands. Clapped along. Played air guitar.

Next up was Nina Simone singing Sinnerman.
Oh sinnerman, where you gonna run to
Sinnerman, where you gonna run to
Where you gunna run to
All on that day
So I run to the lord
Please help me, lord
Dont you see me prayin'
Dont you see me down here prayin'
But the lord said
Go to the devil, the lord said
Go to the devil
He said go to the devil
All on that day
So I ran to the devil
He was waiting
I ran to the devil, he was waiting
I ran to the devil, he was waiting
All on that day

By the end, I was drenched in sweat and panting. However, I was motivated, energized, and ready for what lie ahead. There is no better way to get ready to do what needs to be done.
While Nina was singing and shaking the tambourines, Cary, Graham, and Julian had come out of their rooms. Like me, they had woken up early, put on a pair of gym shorts and sneakers, and were ready to start the day dancing. Without discussion, we stood in a two by two formation, leaving Moses place in the center empty, and waited for the first notes. Without missing a beat we started the routine. We knew every move; every glide, every twitch, every thrust of the hips. We’d done it hundreds of times.

It's close to midnight and something evil's lurking in the dark

Under the moonlight, you see a sight that almost stops your heart

You try to scream but terror takes the sound before you make it

You start to freeze as horror looks you right between the eyes

You're paralyzed

'Cause this is thriller, thriller night

Darkness falls across the land

The midnight hour is close at hand

Creatures crawl in search of blood

To terrorize y'alls neighborhood

I'm gonna thrill ya tonight, ooh baby

I'm gonna thrill ya tonight, oh darlin'

Thriller night, baby, ooh!

The foulest stench is in the air

The funk of forty thousand years

And grizzly ghouls from every tomb

Are closing in to seal your doom

Moses said, “In the morning, I’m pretty suicidal-slash-murderous due to the fact I have to get up.
In general, I have a pretty weak work ethic. I’m lazy. Sometimes I try and make myself do something, but usually I just wait until I want to do it.”
I asked him how often he draws.
He said, “Sometimes everyday. At least every week.”
He added, “Sometimes I get stuck and do the same thing over and over again. That’s pretty good because it becomes second nature.”
I have been drawing continuously, at times obsessively, for more than fifty years. My choice of materials comes and goes and comes back again: pencils, charcoal, conte, ink, crayons, china markers, pastels, chalk. Over the years, I have drawn anything and everything (with the human figure as a constant) : portraits, self portraits, apples on reflective surfaces, Chinese take out cartons, Wonder Woman’s glass airplane, rubber animals, nuns, swimming goggles, copies of Caravaggio, Velasquez, Homer, Hopper and Diego Rivera. Through all the changes in materials and subject matter, what has always been true is that I love making marks and seeing them accumulate to reveal an image.
I asked Moses to tell me three events that had affected him.
He said, “Some bad things have happened to me like my sister dying and my parents getting divorced. Some people can turn that negativity into art, but I need positive energy. If I think about the negative stuff, I don’t want to do anything.” He says one place that he gets positive energy is from music. “Just listening to it or playing it helps me get going.”

“How could you fuck a zombie even if you were a zombie?” This was a question Julian frequently posed ever since it became clear about ten years ago that they were reproducing. It was triggered this time because our rescue mission involved extracting a group of the living from an attack by a group of second generation undead.
In deference to my state of mourning, it had been decided that I should have company while looking for anyone else who might have been with the guy Moses and his buddies were eating. I went out in one Hummer with Julian. Cary and Graham were in the other. At the gate, a couple of regulars decided to come along in their army SUV.
We were traveling north toward the New York border on what used to be route 84 when we came upon a ravaged caravan of four armored school buses. One was on its side, one was on fire, and flat tires immobilized the other two. All the vehicles were being swarmed by a group of about fifty second geners.
The second geners were about fifteen years old, but sleek and muscular like good high school athletes. They were also faster and better coordinated than their parents. They were less exclusively nocturnal and maybe a little smarter. While the virus had totally scrambled the upper brain of everyone it originally infected, leaving them with only lower brain functions, the second geners actually seemed to be able to think. It scared the shit out of me to think what the third generation would be like.
Laying waste to the undead is my art form. I do it so well that it transcends all the individual moves and becomes performance on the level of the best athletes, dancers, or musicians. I get into a zone where I am pure action, unmitigated by thought.
The first step was to shoot their legs out from under them. Standing up through the hatch of the Hummer, I aimed my machine gun for their knees and watched them go over like bowling pins. We had one team circling clockwise, one going in the opposite direction, and one on an over pass firing down. It looked like total mayhem, but we were being careful not to shoot each other or fire into the school buses. Soon the ground was covered with crawling, clawing undead. I jumped out with a chainsaw in one hand and a flamethrower in the other and went about assuring that no head was left attached and no brain matter was intact. Julian did his part by driving back and forth over any who had crawled into the road, popping their skulls like cantaloupe. Between the three teams it took us about a half hour to reduce the attackers to a six-inch thick blanket of glistening gore spread across the width of the highway.
We had to do away with about half the travelers as well. The teenage brain munchers had gotten at them through the windows and they were as good as undead. Finally, we divided the fifteen shaking, weeping survivors among our three vehicles, packed them in, and drove them back to Scranton, fifteen of the living who would go on living in safety, well relative safety.

“Sometimes I think of myself as an artist. Not necessarily when I’m drawing. It could be when I’m doing anything. If I’m doing a really good job, really concentrating, I feel like an artist. Anybody can be an artist at what they do if they bring the right attitude to it.”

I have thought of myself as an artist since third grade when my classmates started asking me to draw things for them. For awhile, maybe it was only a week, I spent every recess drawing pages of airplanes, aircraft carriers, and battleships. My friends would then play war by covering the drawings all over with arcing lines that indicated a shot had been fired and scribbles that showed a hit. I missed getting to fight the battles myself, especially making the sound effects, but I loved being recognized for drawing the best armaments.

“I do the best stuff if I’m not trying. I’ll just be drawing and not thinking if it is good or not and I’ll be surprised at how good it comes out. If I try, nothing happens. Athletes say the same thing. After you’ve done it enough, you just get in the zone and let it happen.”

“When I was a kid, I was into fantasy; Star Wars, stuff like that. I used to wish magic was real. It was a natural progression to read philosophy, quantum physics and it turned out magic was real.”

“I try to get in a zen mode where you are always seeing something for the first time. I try not to get in a rut. I look at the world differently

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