Post-Office Arts Journal, Baltimore

He told stories about fighting

Marcus Civin

His aunt owns what was the first gay bar in town. Over the years, it has folded out into four bars. His aunt also rents apartments. He is responsible for keeping up the apartments and managing the bars. He lives in the basement apartment of a house built into a hill. From there, he goes to paint a baseboard, spackle, clean out under a stove or refrigerator, bring a sofa to Goodwill, dump off a pissy mattress or metal filing cabinet, pick up linens, limes, and lemons for the bar.

His Aunt is the heavy, collecting missed payments, dealing with lawsuits, or credit card fraud and music promoters. He has a capacity for quiet, for the pleasure of precise activity, hearing each distinct sound when closing an umbrella somebody left partially open to dry.

There is always something to do.

He knows how many coffee cups a Friday needs, how many napkins for a Sunday. He reports everything to his Aunt, and if she says there can be no new bartenders on Monday, no more napkins, or bandages, or bouncers, or barbacks, or no payroll on Thursday, or no roofer or plumber she can afford, he will make do. He’s had as many nicknames as he’s had friends. He knows everybody.

He knows bar-related tricks. He can hold fifteen glasses in one hand. He can throw and catch cases of wine. He can determine at a glance who he can tease a little, who can help him stop a fight, who is in too much pain, doing what they think is secret. Reading a room comes with ease. He likes the couples that love each other but are afraid and the couples that are like roller coasters and love the ride. He knows who is honest, who is stealing and how much, and he isn’t judgemental about it. He is accepting. He knows how to keep people away from what will get them in trouble. People and their moods and eccentricities exist to him as the weather does.

The bars are full most nights. He knows muralists and punks and historians. He knows all the words to the best dance hits from the last four decades: Boy George, The Cure, Amy Winehouse, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Blondie, Cyndi Lauper, the Temptations, The Sugarhill Gang, David Bowie.

He knows which emergency room to take someone to.

He can’t remember having a problem drinking a whole bottle down—whiskey, ouzo, tequila. When he’s drunk, his big cheeks get red, he asks naive questions that suggest he might know secrets, but, then, no one can really be sure if he does. He keeps a tally in his head of exactly how much chicken is left in the freezer, how many people he hadn’t met who were inside last night when the surf rock band was on, how many jalapenos in the walk-in, which of the summer tents have holes and where. This is his badge, his rush. He doesn’t hold any meetings. Everyone figures out what to do as they are doing it, or by watching him, or hearing his preferences, and stories about him, what he values, where he likes things. When he gives instructions, he only doles out bits, never too much. He smiles a lot, throws in corny jokes even when there are groans or other conflicts to sort out. He doesn’t use a computer except for work, or sometimes he used to forward jokes from a joke list he signed up for online until one of the bartenders told him those kinds of emails from those kinds of lists contain viruses.

One year it rained on and off in torrents at Mardi Gras. He laughed as the streets overflowed, impossible to stop or fix, the rain being so much, the city having neglected the drains and sewers, and everyone drinking too much anyway in soggy shoes. He kept on moving, empty bottles precarious in bags on carts.

When other people are inefficient, lolling this way aimlessly to the trash can, that way towards the door while a customer is exasperated at their table, a hair in their salad, he might ask a server or two: “Why would anyone do it like that?” And then he would show them how he’d do it, quickly taking a salad off a bill, moving the trash cans and straws closer to where the waiters are working, smiling his big-cheeked smile, waving to a customer at the door. People are sometimes inefficient because they just don’t know.

He has served princes, professors, nobel prize winners, brides, detectives, drunks, and rival politicians.

Sometimes he gets angry when people are supposed to be working but won’t. He gets angry at the ones who are smart, the ones who try to take advantage of him. He curses to himself about what must be wrong with these people, how they show up late, conduct personal business in the back or lean against the bar or pretend to polish a glass while the bar is busy.

He likes to look at his collection of fake ID’s, knives, and drug paraphernalia he’s confiscated at the bar and keeps but never uses. Between re-stocking cans of soda and cleaning off grills, one afternoon he gets a target tattooed on his knee.

He collects guns. He never falls in love. When his Aunt first got sick, he got briefly engaged to a woman who was in a lot of debt.

What will happen when his Aunt dies?

He never goes to the gym or jogs. He likes ice cream. He puts on weight. It could be from eating at off-times, or, as his Aunt says, inherited from his father, her brother, who he never knew.

He likes black. He likes those T-shirts with wolves on them, and he likes walking. He’s tried most drugs, but he prefers alcohol. He is surprised by how much people pay for coffee, but he does it too sometimes. He likes a lot of sugar in his.

Because everyone knows him, he drinks for free at most bars in town and often after they’ve officially closed for the night. He rides bikes around the city drunk with the cooks who give themselves their own tattoos and who never work for more than a few years.

He wonders how other people come into stable work if they aren’t in a family business. He likes stories about people following their dreams. He barely squeaked by in school and did everything he could to make sure the teachers didn’t notice him. At that age, he collected and whittled at sticks that he thought had unusual curves to them.

He has never applied for a job. He knows Spanish and some Italian and some Mandarin. He never takes a taxi, reads novels, or attends a concert he isn’t working. He reads the news but doesn’t discuss it. When other people discuss politics, he generally agrees with everyone without hazarding an opinion. At night, before falling asleep, he takes the copper out of old wires he’s picked up here and there. He sells the copper later where he also sells the recycling from the bars. He reads magazines he subscribes to about horses, gold prospecting, and hunting.

He hasn’t really gone anywhere. He is saving up for a mountain place in Truckee maybe, or Anderson Springs. He collects photographs he buys from a gallery downtown in a suite on the fifth floor looking out over Union Square, and also from another gallery that moves spaces a lot. He goes to these galleries right when they open and keeps to himself. He never talks to any of the staff. His friend, the bartender he calls College Boy, tells him which photographers are important and brings him catalogs and books. He overhears at the bar that this kind of collecting is an investment. He doesn’t know. He sends the barbacks over with checks. He learns to follow his instincts, build on what he has already. He likes photographs that look simple: a glass on a table, a basketball balanced improbably, a woman’s hair, a self-portrait of a man in the Amazon rainforest, a couple alone on the beach, a couple amidst a parade, a photograph of a page of an artist’s mother’s unpublished book, a gruesome gash rendered in extreme detail. He buys the photographs framed and looks at them once or twice before putting them back in the packaging they come in. He builds carpeted shelves for them at College Boy’s advice.

He tells College Boy he could come to his house in the mountains if he ever got into trouble, that he’d protect him, that he would learn how to shoot, that he would have enough money and food and supplies to survive everything. Their friend the bartender Italo retired early to the desert on cash. Their friend the bartender and rug-seller Gloria retired early, also on cash, to a beach in Argentina.

Photograph: Noorann Matties

Every weekend, she arranged her plants for the sun

Marcus Civin

Dear Reader,

I’m reading a character who is slightly alienated from the present. She always sort of floated along and found a way through that; now she finds herself in a late-life situation in which she is respected, semi-successful, ____________, sometimes has to ask for money, sort of is alone. She’s generous and offers herself completely to people, but possibly continues to do that as a surrogate for the absent things.

I’m thinking about a book that a friend recommended, Loft Living, by Sharon Zukin. At one point she explains, “Loft living has played an important role in ‘domesticating’ the industrial aesthetic. The factory origins and the present mixed use of many lofts suggest, in the interest of authenticity, the adoption of an industrial style.” This line was written in 1982, but it shows, really, the quick and noticeable ripple that ‘60s artist activity had. Maybe art was only a side effect. I feel like what I’m reading in Civin’s writing is a sort of a fossilized record of the remains of those ripples, of a warm disappointment that has settled out. It’s something I’m familiar with, too. 


So many of her friends seem to know the history of almost everything and where it was published and who really did the work to publish it. Books and artworks start and end basically nowhere and everywhere in her loft apartment. When she has friends over, she lets them do their own thing. She doesn’t try to entertain. She feels she doesn’t know that much about what to do about housing, or voter redistricting, or the school-to-prison pipeline. She wishes she did, but she hosts conversations on these and other topics anyway, on regular Sunday afternoons and Thursday evenings. She likes the charge of these events. Other people who seem to know what to do seem to meet each other in her apartment. It is always artists waking up, realizing they can’t be neutral, or they’ll be screwed.

She gets a telemarketing phone call saying she’s won a cruise. She hangs up on the chipper recorded voice and looks at the canvases and framed photographs, birthday gifts, retirement gifts, and the work of former students kitchen-hung, willy-nilly in cohabitation with the old odd dangling wooden spoon and singed pots she still uses. Where she lives, there are gifts, photographs, and canvases stacked four and five behind doors, propped below windows, and in the guest room with a table from Luxembourg, with the folded and piled quilts from South Carolina and open magazines on the bed. Where would all of this go later, when she died? Her sister and her family wouldn’t do anything with it.

Like many of the books in her apartment, her magazines come in the mail with personal notes and thank yous from friends. Perhaps the US mail is being kept alive for her and her friends. She saved and re-used envelopes. Long after everyone was submitting grants online, by mail she applied for grants and sometimes won them, by mail. When she didn’t win once, there was a long uncomfortable apology at a party in Baltimore from a man in a vest and a blue blazer. She said, “Alright!” probably too sharply and went for more Champagne.

Even when she taught for a stint in California, driving around parking lots in that red thing, before they didn’t ask her to come back, even when she was there, she was still a New Yorker. Her friends seemed to read the rest of everything she didn’t read, they always knew what was happening and what time to walk up. Her lovers talked about their CV’s, about what was missing from them, why they wouldn’t get the jobs they were finalists for. They told her this from the shower, from the toilet, in bed, at the folding TV table she used for a dining room table. In her bathroom, any of them could touch three walls from most spots. This is a game she liked to play with her lovers, seeing who could touch what walls from where in her bathroom, and how they would do it: who would reach out their foot, who would use their nose.

She hadn’t spent more than a few days in college and was always an annoyance to her teachers in high school—not showing up, being a know-it-all when she did, kissing in the hallways. She doesn’t remember ever making a CV or a resume.

She eats crackers and nuts. She doesn’t mind them stale. She attends artist talks and housing rights rallies. She attended a whistling concert once and, every year or so, she attends the opera. She knows how to make some vegan dishes that she thinks are pretty good, but she isn’t vegan. She avoids her landlord, who is still rent-controlled and so did not fix the elevator. For money, she sometimes calls on her cousin or on James Rosenquist, then on her nephew. She almost always asked a question during question-and-answer and people at events and talks usually thought she sounded frustrated or talked too long. She could draw anything just as it was with seemingly few marks—a leaf, a hat, a crumpled notebook paper, an elbow, an asshole, an ankle. Her dentist is older than she is, and frail, and because she was worried about him, she tried to remember to floss.

Every weekend, she arranged her plants for the sun. She’d never used fertilizer.

She moved to New York with a lover, with a duffel bag, without her sister after everything. She sometimes gave away honoraria to the still cash-strapped non-profits that had earlier produced her performances even when she couldn’t really afford to. She had so much stuff, she had been so many places, when she was home she sometimes felt she was in someone else’s apartment, visiting, riding on the whiff of a memory of a different her.

What if she had gone blind, bought a house in Jamaica Queens, got dementia, and had to pay for kids to go to college?

She had always been a supporter of other artists, a publisher and re-publisher when she could be. She spent time on the phone convincing people or their friends to pay her dancers, her rehearsal pianist, her set designer, and a young painter she liked who made black-and-white cartoons that looked sort of like they were doing yoga, but somehow commented on stereotypes, she thought. She always gave permission to publish images of her portraits, no matter the context. She usually wanted to write something new if someone asked to anthologize her writing.

She had an expired driver’s license and a cracked saltshaker. When she didn’t want to leave the house, her friends would tell her she just had to show up and show her face and she would be adored. After all, her works were well collected. There were the portraits; they were known. And, there was her writing and the reputation of the performances—biting and at times whimsical. But, she was nervous anyway. She always felt unprepared.

She kept soap slivers and seemed to never finish a bottle of shampoo; there were so many bottles of shampoo in her bathroom, you could hardly see the edges of the tub. She knew Michael Asher, Paul McCarthy, Yoko Ono, Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Colescott, Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Foreman, Hal Foster, Nam June Paik, Piri Thomas, Trisha Brown, Anne Waldman, Lewis Warsh, Gregg Bordowitz, Holland Carter, Maren Hassinger, Sylvia Sleigh, and bell hooks. She knew all the words to a number of folk songs she’d sing at Thanksgiving, Russian and Irish songs. She knew some Yiddish.

She knew the streets; she knew their lights and their traffic. She could feel in her body when they were about to get busy. She knew where Lead Belly had lived in New York with his wife, Martha. She knew where Susan Sontag had lived in Chelsea and where Alan Sonfist built his park and where Gordon Matta-Clark arranged railroad ties into a small park trellis and amphitheater.

She liked to cook, and if she didn’t want to cook, she knew all the diners in New York and the older waiters and waitresses recognized her, knew what she liked (soup, turkey clubs, lite beer), how she sweated from below her sideburns in droplets that seemed to spring up there, and how she wisped her hair back and walked like she’d been walking all day, and she was the one who had made that toast, from atop the counter when all those museum-y types were there looking uncertain but cheering.

She dated a rug-collector. She liked orange, and she liked frogs. She’d never seen Star Wars. She preferred pot to alcohol. She traveled only on invitation and only on someone else’s dime. She was alone again now and without a lover but probably not for long. She was surprised by how many people wore sneakers now, but she did too. Hers were bright orange. She went to a place called the Performance Garage in Philadelphia to see one of her students win an award. She said: “We used to wear ties and dresses to performances.”

She wasn’t on Facebook but responded to all of her emails graciously within a few days, or apologized about being grumpy which no one perceived because they loved her so much and valued her critique of their play, their salad, or their boyfriend’s comments about Obama.

She said, “Come on over.”

She wondered why you had to do projects all the time, why you couldn’t just be, but she did a lot of projects. She would get up from her chair and hardly ever perseverate over a line, but she would lose herself for days worried about a lost child she did not know, a hurricane, or a shooting. She liked to listen to Thurston Moore as much as Stravinsky and Otis Redding, and she habitually watched news talk shows. She read auction results, Claudia Rankine, Martha Nussbaum, Anne Carson. She read a book, she said, by “that guy who started Pixar.” She read a book about slavery, a book about Rwanda, a book about North Korea, a second edition of a book she’d read before on race and sociology. The young people who came to visit her showed her their films, haircuts, and thesis drafts with their ‘zines and their hand-sewn verses. She read them too. She told these young people she was a dinosaur and that her knuckles and knees were stiff. They said that after her, there’d be none like her. She read Wayne Koestenbaum and Kwame Appiah, science fiction, histories of colonization, travel guides, and about rare plants and where fruit grew best. Her bedroom walls and ceilings were long-past peeling. She liked Cannoli. Her neighborhood smelled like garbage in summer.

When she painted, there couldn’t be too much texture, but the paint had to be thick still, coming off the canvas by inches, or, conversely, it had to be all texture, like a swamp with sticks.

In her apartment, in every closet and under every bed, there were pillows or some kind of a floor mat, or mattress, or a sleeping bag, or a raincoat or boots. She knew about Judaism though she wasn’t Jewish. She knew about the tarot. She spoke some Spanish. She had puppets, the now folded-up floor of a defunct boxing ring, loads of hats, a few drums, a bugle she could play, conference badges, sheaves of drafts and underlined articles she liked or that pissed her off. She had had to memorize in school. She could do a pretty good Richard Nixon imitation. There were political stickers on all of her doors and appliances and chairs. When she wrote, it always sounded like her. She could talk about the latest Anime, or popular monuments, or announce an innovation in cakes.

The landlord probably didn’t mean to be a prick, she thought; his son could get more for her apartment, and for the building.

She liked leftovers in her fridge. She made tea first and then ate them.

Marcus Civin
August, 2016