Against the advice of my high school guidance counselor, who wants me to study something “worthwhile,” I move to Boston in September of 1996 to attend art school.
3. Perfect Day
I elect to live on a substance-free floor. It’s filled with kids like myself, who don’t do drugs, and with addicts trying to stay clean. In my room, I add a photo of my girlfriend, Jen, to the desktop. I splash one cinderblock wall with magazine cutouts of female musicians I crush over—Shirley Manson, Juliana Hatfield, Justine Frischmann—and a second with a poster for the film Trainspotting.
With every move, I hum Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” from his 1972 album, Transformer. The song, featured in Trainspotting, is one of my new favorites, and I keep on purring its tune as I settle into my new home.
8. Wagon Wheel
My roommate Andrew gets to know our neighbors. I tag along to become their friend by proxy. To say I’m typically shy is an understatement.
Most of the action takes place at the ping pong table in the dorm’s rec room. I’m horrible; so is everyone else. Enrique, the guard who sits at the front desk, shakes his head at our lack of finesse and fitness. Our group consists of:
awkward nerds like myself, and
stoners who fell off the wagon immediately after their parents waved goodbye.
Volleys are hard to come by; our effort is spent chasing balls as they bounce down hallways. We don’t care. The game is fun enough, and we’re all at the same skill level, regardless of artistic ability.
4. Hangin’ ‘Round
Some nights, I act as designated scribe, writing out every stupid idea a couple of my recent acquaintances fire off after they smoke massive amounts of marijuana. Other nights, I can’t process their altered states correctly and wander on my own. It’s around this time that I befriend X and her roommate, Y, and we hang out in the lounge and watch television. They’re both drug free; sometimes that’s enough to make a friend.
5. Walk on the Wild Side
Not only do I taste freedom in Boston, but I imbibe it in an environment that encourages radical experimentation: intro classes screen films by Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Shirley Clarke, and Phil Solomon; early design drops Joseph Cornell into my life; I walk to the Nickelodeon movie theater and buy a ticket to David Cronenberg’s Crash, rated NC-17, without the box office clerk giving a second look.
Lou Reed once said, “I know my obituary has already been written. And it starts out, ‘Doot, di-doot, di-doot…’” My hometown inspires no art, no sophistication. It is a dead end. Its obituary has already been written, I decide. The city is my home. Then, at a party where I am sober and just about everyone else is high, someone offers the following advice: “Whatever you do, don’t ever try heroin.” I nod and say OK, yet my head spins at the thought. What have I gotten myself into? Who are these people? My conclusion: I am a square peg, a sheltered kid who needs to start living.
10. I’m So Free
Eventually, I force myself to call the dorm home and it doesn’t sound strange. I look forward to ping pong matches, midnight movies, and gallery openings. I talk with Jen every other day (killer long distance fees) and visit her at Mount Holyoke once a month. Still, I’m not sure if this is where I’m meant to exist.
9. New York Telephone Conversation
Hi, Ben, it’s X.
(Long Pause) I was wondering if I could sleep over your place tonight?
Y’s boyfriend is visiting, and I want to give them our room. It’s awkward for me to stay, you know?
Andrew’s away for the weekend, right?
It’s just you over there?
You must be bored.
I’ve got work to keep me busy.
You probably want someone to talk to, right?
You can’t work all night.
No, I can’t.
We can keep each other company.
7. Satellite of Love
X arrives after eleven, carrying her pillow and a blanket. She’s in pajamas, but her face is radiant. We sit on my bed and talk for a while. Her voice is raspy. It gets late. The city outside is so very quiet.
When the time comes, though, I don’t make room for X. I don’t give X my bed, or Andrew’s bed. I ask her to sleep alone on the floor. I am incredibly naïve. This is the last night X stops by my room.
6. Make Up
In his review of Transformer for Rolling Stone in early 1973, journalist Nick Tosches filleted the song “Make Up,” writing, “It isn't decadent, it isn't perverse, it isn't rock & roll.” The critiques I receive in class sometimes rival Tosches’s assessment. Their words are harsher than I expect. My ideas seem so simple. Nothing breaks through, regardless of my persistence. Who defines rock & roll, I wonder?
I spend so much time carefully navigating the line of acceptability at art school, both in my work and my developing persona. Because of this, the desire to be surrounded by other artists in the big city, which sounded so lovely back in high school, weighs on my shoulders.
2. Andy’s Chest
Andrew resolves to shoot a short film near the end of the semester. I help out and set up lights. In one scene, he convinces the guy across the hall, a total live wire, to stick his dick in a jar of peanut butter. The whole ordeal is unnecessarily complicated. The “actor” makes us look away while he strips naked and prepares for his big break; I try my best to keep a straight face. I adjust lights without seeing what I’m doing, and by the end of the day, the room is hot and smells of sweat and warm sandwich spread.
It doesn’t take long before everyone on the substance-free floor is talking about the penis movie. The guy across the hall is famous for about five minutes. Andrew refuses to show the footage to anyone outside his film class, but the notoriety is enough to make him feel proud.
For the first time, I feel pretty good about being part of something, too.
“The glitter people know where I'm at. The gay people know where I'm at. Straight people may not know where I'm at, but they find it kind of interesting when they show up and see what is sitting around them. It's interesting to have a conglomeration of people that covers the strata from A to Z….There's a certain element of the audience that's intellectually oriented, into the lyrics….then there's another element of the audience that's into a sex trip. I'm into both of them.”
– Lou Reed, Interview Magazine, 1973.
Though he’s talking about his audience here, Lou Reed also does a bang-up job in summing up art school. So much of the experience, I begin to understand, is showing up and seeing what is happening around you. There are occasions when you “know where it’s at,” and there are moments you’re last week’s big deal. The highs and lows are powerful and devastating, and they never stop. Art is fickle. Art cares little about the artist.
However, since you’re part of the audience either way, you might as well enjoy the performance.
11. Goodnight Ladies
December: I strip my bed. My clothes fit in one big bag. Final grades weren’t so bad, after all. That the school works on a pass/fail system probably benefits me.
Friends drop by on their way out. There are some sad goodbyes as parents linger in the shadows, like the band is breaking up, if only for a few weeks. It’s time to say goodbye, bye-bye.
I head home to spend most of my time with Jen. Nothing is perfect. One semester will not transform a person. If anything, I’m more confused than ever. But I hope that when I return to school at the end of January, everything is the same.
And, generally, everything will be the same. I will still wonder if I belong. I will still be impossibly unhip and naïve. Yet within this, I will also find solid footing in filmmaking. I will accept who I am and put in the work. I will remind myself, again and again, “I am different. I am becoming an artist.” I will hum Lou Reed and inch toward adulthood. I will be worthwhile.