I worked in a bookstore in Reading, Pennsylvania, when I was in college. It was quite different from a New York City bookstore; we sold furniture, school supplies and an interesting assortment of snacks. I did my best to make the stock we carried respectable; I ordered Joyce, Beckett and Updike, who had lived in Shillington, a suburb of Reading, in his youth. Most of our customers just wanted a fast read. I sympathized, but pushed my favorite authors on them anyway. The owner would take me aside and tell me to cut it out. I’d shrug my shoulders and he’d hiss: “Only bums do that.”
I didn’t like him very much.
There was a lot of dead time; Reading was not a reading city; so I would flip through the art books and look at the color plates to get through the long afternoons. I discovered the Surrealists, and that’s when my life changed. I made up my mind that someday I would be part of a circle of writers and artists just like them. And then, by logical extension, I stumbled upon the Dadaists. Marcel Duchamp became my idol—I devoured his works: The Bride Stripped Bare, Nude Descending a Staircase and the Chocolate Grinder. I read that a number of his pieces were in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in the Arensberg Collection, and that his final work, a mixed media assemblage consisting of a wooden door surrounded by bricks concealing something, was there, too. But I couldn’t find an illustration or description of what was behind it anywhere, so I knew I would have to go to the City of Brotherly Love and check it out in person.
My parents still lived outside of Philly in the house I’d grown up in. I went down to see them and made plans to visit the Museum.
Unfortunately, when I did manage to get there the wing of the Museum with the Arensberg Collection in it was closed to the public due to budget cuts. A fiscal crisis had swept across the nation, and it hit Philadelphia hard. The Museum of Art is like a large C; basically two wings jutting out from the main building, and they only had enough money to guard one wing at a time. I’d have to return when the side of the Museum I wanted to see was open. Deeply disappointed, I took the commuter train back up to Chestnut Hill and hitched a ride—you could do that back then—to where I was staying with my parents.
On a day I knew the wing of the Museum I wanted to see should be open, I headed back into center city. It was raining lightly when I left home, and I took an umbrella figuring that everything would work out okay. I’d take the train in, make my way over to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway; and then walk along the six lane highway a half mile or so to where it ends; at the ‘Rocky’ steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. No problem.
But there was a problem. By the time I got into the city, the rain had picked up, and turned into a gale. I could see the Parkway about half a block in front of me, but my umbrella blew inside out, and the rain was now gusting at me in horizontal torrents. I literally couldn’t move forward. So I stood in the lee of a large tree, totally deflated. My clothes were soaked, my shoes were covered with mud, and I couldn’t imagine how I was going to get home. I’d probably still be there but for a minor miracle.
From out of nowhere, a bus pulled up next to my tree, the doors swooshed open, and the driver waved me inside. I gratefully complied. Once I got in, I exhaled deeply, and examined my surroundings. Every seat on the bus was occupied by an elderly white haired lady.
“We told him to stop and pick you up,” a woman sitting in the front explained, giggling a little. “You seemed to be stuck!”
“Man,” I said, “I was! I am so grateful. Thank you, all of you!”
“Where were you going?” another Lady asked.
“Well, I was hoping to make it to the Art Museum, but that seems to be out of the question now…”
“No, it’s ok,” a third chimed in. “Driver, take him to the Museum, please. We have lots of time before we have to return to our residence.”
And he did.
He let me off at the rear entrance and I ducked inside. It was still raining, but not as hard. The Museum halls were deserted; the weather had taken its toll. I made my way to the nearest men’s room where I chucked my broken umbrella. This particular rest room had one of those old fashioned cloth towel dispensers to dry your hands on: the kind that seem to be an endless loop of clean white material. I simply kept pulling out portions of towel to dry my hair on, my shirt, my pants and my muddy shoes. I guess I felt kind of guilty when I got to the shoes, but no one came in to use the facilities, so I continued until I had used up the entire roll.
After I’d dried out a bit, I exited into the Museum, aiming towards the right wing, which was to my left, and which was, as I had hoped, open. I walked through the Arensberg Collection where Duchamp’s paintings and constructs were displayed, checking them out in a cursory fashion as my eyes were focused on the prize. The building was still empty; I passed only one or two guards, and finally reached a dead end. In this room there was a large wooden farm door, though in truth it was more like a castle gate. It was made of thick planks surrounded by a stone archway. When I walked up to it I noticed two tiny holes had been drilled in the middle. I looked through them. And saw the most wonderful sight.
It was a naked female mannequin, her face obscured by the broken bricks framing the scene, reclining in a field of fake grass, holding aloft a tiny gaslight, which was lit. Behind this tableau was a painted landscape depicting a waterfall.
It was obviously an appropriation of the Statue of Liberty—Duchamp’s cry for real freedom in the land of the not so free. It was not only a tremendous work of art; what he had done was truly funny! I cracked up: laughing out loud.
A guard rounded the corner with a stern look on his face and wondered what was up.
“I’ve just seen God,” I told him, and left the room.
RON KOLM is one of the founding members of the Unbearables literary collective, and an editor of several of their anthologies; Crimes of the Beats, Help Yourself!, The Worst Book I Ever Read and The Unbearables Big Book of Sex. He is also the co-author, with Jim Feast, of Neo Phobe, and the author of The Plastic Factory.