“I was a styrofoam tar baby. We laughed together about my appearance. My brother told me it was a thankless job and that I had done well. We made a link.”
Once I had a brother, Donald. He was oldest; I was youngest. Fifteen years my senior, he was of another generation. In my earliest memories he had already left our house for college and communes and Greenwich Village, so I never really knew him. In the summer of 1975, I would get to know him. I would get to know New York. I would get to know myself.
In 1975, I was a college freshman dripping wet behind the ears. Don was working as a cabinet maker and contractor in Manhattan. When I was growing up, New York was always the ancestral homeland, the place we had moved away from and the source of all that was great. In my first college summer, I was going to take it on, and maybe I would never come back. I signed on with Don as an all-around helper. In a family of carpenters, I was the one who had no skills whatsoever.
Don was highly intelligent but brooding and sphinx-like, the sort of person who gives you the impression he feels you’re clueless and ought to have caught on by now. He was an imposing presence. On my first day in the shop, he bellowed at me about how the machines were animals, like tigers or lions, who would sooner rip my arm off than look at me. Naturally, this put me at ease.
My first task was to build a frame; as Don put it, an essential carpentry skill. After nervously futzing with wood and various implements of joinery for more than a morning, I produced a wriggly, trapezoidal sort of thing. Disappointed and bemused, Don demoted me to sanding square table legs with a belt sander. My esteem was plunging. The day was not out and I had been demoted, and I was surrounded by a menagerie of roaring machines out to rip me apart. The “little” part of “little brother” could not have been littler.
At the blessed end of that first day, I dragged myself down MacDougall Street to the walk-up tenement that Don had set me up in. It was to have been his apartment, but through one circumstance and another, he ended up not using it and was stuck with the lease. It had three rooms and a kitchen and absolutely no furniture. I slept on a slender futon and read Zen literature under a bare bulb.
At the end of Day Two, Don came over to inspect the sanding I had been doing. He held the legs in his hand. Incredulous, his eyes bulged into saucers. “JEEESUS CHAAARIST, Barry. As carpenters, we take trees and we make them into furniture. You’re taking furniture and making it into trees.” Indeed, the legs I had been sanding had deep swells where I had let the belt sander linger too long. Their surface had a wavy, riverine look.
By the end of the first week, I knew that there would be no carpentry apprenticeship for me. I would be a Boy Friday. I retreated within, content to enjoy the city, walking sometimes fifty or more blocks and back in an evening, just drinking it all in.
Don had no wage plans for me. I simply had to let him know if I was running out of money and he would hand me a small wad. Even with this meager allotment, I felt independent. After all, I had my own apartment in the village. There wasn’t much in the fridge, though. In fact, one night I noticed something black sticking out from behind the seal on the refrigerator door, which I had had trouble shutting. I peeled back the rubber to reveal hundreds and hundreds of cockroaches. I shut the door. From then on, I mostly ate out.
I also had a few possessions, but whatever I did have was stolen from me in a series of break-ins, and all that remained was some clothes and a pair of shoes. With no more to lose, I felt secure. In defiance, I suppose, some thief shit in my sink. You don’t know humility until you have cleaned some strange intruder’s shit from your kitchen sink. I stopped hanging out there. It was a place to go to bed.
In mid-summer, Don discovered a job he thought suited to my skills. As part of a renovation of a very high class apartment on the Upper West Side, he was installing a wine closet. To do so, you first slather the walls, floor and ceiling with a water-resistant, very sticky black gunk. You then cut pieces of styrofoam to fit and paste them on all the surfaces. This was to be my job.
Don described the job to me, left me with the materials, and dashed off. I began to slather the gunk on the walls and ceilings. It quickly stuck to my hands. My hands touched my face, my hair, my clothes. The gunk was irritating. As I began to cut the styrofoam sheets, they became crumbly. Bits of styrofoam clung to all my surfaces. I was a styrofoam tar baby. When I misjudged sizes, there was no turning back. You can’t remove styrofoam once it has been gunked to a wall. I created a patchwork.
I became quite hungry, but I had neglected to tell Don that I was very low on money, and in any case I couldn’t venture out in my current condition. I decided to raid the larder. Gunk- and styrofoam-covered, I gingerly navigated my way through the apartment to the kitchen. Using Kleenex, I managed to pry open a cabinet and get to a box of Wheat Thins.
Somehow, by the time Don showed up, I had completed the job. We laughed together about my appearance. He told me it was a thankless job and that I had done well. We made a link.
Toward the end of the summer, we stayed in an apartment one night as we were doing an installation in the Thirties. We looked out a skylight together at the spire of the Empire State Building. For the first time, I told my brother that we didn’t know each other. We cried.
Many years later, I took my wife and daughters to visit Don and his wife at their townhouse in Brooklyn. The night before we were to leave, he came to say good night. We talked sitting on the stairs. He said he didn’t know how much longer he would be around and that he wanted me to know that he loved me. I told him that I always felt I had to earn his approval. He very pointedly and sweetly told me, “You have nothing to prove to me. That’s not what I’m really about. I love you and I am proud of you.” He died before we would speak again.
I performed his funeral. We are joined at the hip, with gunk and Styrofoam.