All Over The Place
The first thing I broke was a coffee mug. I don’t know why I decided to break it. It was hard in my hands and as I gripped it I could feel that it would break easily. I threw it against a wall. ¶ The mug broke into pieces against the wall and left a mark, not quite a divot. It looked like a scuff. The pieces were mostly larger, and jagged like teeth, but not quite. I thought looking at the pieces that they looked like teeth, and then I realized that teeth are always very naturally shaped. But pieces of something broken look unnatural.
I don’t know what the mug was made of. I thought it was made of porcelain but the only thing I could think of that I know is made of porcelain is a toilet bowl. I associated the mug with a toilet bowl, for some reason.
Since I’d broken a coffee mug I decided to break the coffee maker next. The coffee maker was made up of two main parts, the pot and the machine. The pot was easy to break. I didn’t have to throw it and I knew that I wouldn’t have to throw it. I think I could remember breaking a coffee pot before, by accident. I dropped it on the floor and it broke immediately. The glass pieces were mostly very small, besides a few that were much larger, and the plastic part of the pot was intact after I dropped it, but I felt satisfied having broken the glass.
I decided to put on socks.
The coffee machine was larger and made of hard plastic. I knew it would be harder to break it. I wanted to throw it against the wall but it seemed like it would really damage the wall. I raised it above my head and thrust it into the kitchen tile. It didn’t break the first time. I tried again, harder, and then again. When it broke, it broke in half into two larger pieces that I knew I could break into smaller pieces, but I thought I’d probably have to use another object, and I wanted to move on to something else.
I opened the cabinet and took out about seven dishes. I broke them one by one against the kitchen floor, and then I threw one like a frisbee into the living room, for no real reason. It hit a framed photo I’d hung on the wall and the photo fell when the dish hit it and broke. The glass inside the frame broke and exposed the photo. I felt like I’d done a pretty good job having broken those two things at once.
I wanted to break a window, maybe more than one, but I knew that someone outside would notice. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was destroying things inside my house. I left the kitchen so that no one would see me through the window.
I took a wooden chair and picked it up by two of its legs and slammed it against the floor. The back of the chair was made of dowels attached to a headboard, or what I assumed was called a headboard. The headboard snapped free of the dowels and came off and the dowels broke in different places so that they looked like more teeth of different sizes, the teeth of a horribly deformed mouth that looked nothing like a mouth but reminded me of a mouth. I slammed the chair against the floor again, trying to snap the seat of the chair away from the legs. It wasn’t easy. I tried three or four times and then I finally got it. I was sweating a little bit afterward. I started to feel really good.
I started to worry about the noise I was making, that my neighbors might call the police, etc. I walked around the house in my floppy wool socks, unscrewing light bulbs. I had to stand on a chair to reach the kitchen light. I wrapped the first bulb in my towel and then smashed it quietly with the bottom of my palm. One after another, I crushed bulbs and dropped pieces that looked like glass eggshells on the ragged wood floor of my apartment. There was only one light left, a bedside lamp next to my futon. The sun had been setting. Sitting on my bed I looked through the open door to my kitchen and watched it go from dim to dark.
It was almost noon and I was drinking instant coffee, because of what happened to the coffee maker, and looking from my kitchen out at the street. It must have rained while I was sleeping. I began to break the rest of my plates one by one, knocking them against the sink’s hard metal lip. I destroyed five plates and seven glasses and left the chunks and slivers in the sink. I pulled my posters and pictures off the wall. I dumped my trash on the floor then started decorating my apartment. “This is good,” I said out loud, tacking a used coffee filter to the inside of my bedroom door. “That’s more to the point. That’s what was meant.”
I thought about smashing my cell phone when my friend Marcus called but didn’t. When I explained to him what I had been doing Marcus told me he had a flat screen TV we could break. I told him okay, maybe. His voice sounded disappointed when I told him I had to think about it. “I get it if you just want this to be your thing,” he said.
There were little drops and lines of blood on my floor, from the thin cuts on my hands and feet. I feared a more reflective period was coming. I reflected that a more fearful period... It was mid-afternoon and I was bored. Boredom can hurt all over but mostly twists the head. I realized I’d forgotten to shower and that the showerhead had been ripped from the tiled bathroom wall hours earlier.
I spent the night online. I researched the Frankfurt School, played a game called Angry Birds, and created a kickstarter.
I called my kickstarter “Cry for Help” and described what I was doing as performance art. My kickstarter did better than expected. My kickstarter was a dainty little mouse with a lot of fight. My kickstarter was a little embarrassing, but in this economy... My kickstarter made enough so that I could buy the printer I immediately smashed in the bathtub.
I had been breaking things in my apartment for close to a week when my sister Zoe stopped by unexpectedly. We are very close, I really like her a lot. She’s older than I am and I have never been able to lie to her. I let her in but made her promise not to freak out when she saw my apartment. “What the fuck Tie,” she said after she got inside and looked around. I made us mac & cheese in a banged up metal pot.
Zoe wanted my advice. She didn’t know if she should enter an MFA program, even if she got in. It seemed like a pyramid scheme. Zoe wanted to know if she should quit her restaurant job, and how to avoid arguing with our parents. When our parents visited every little thing they did and said was like nails on a chalkboard. Sometimes when Zoe saw our parents they seemed lovely and vulnerable, and that came with its own difficulties, also.
“No, you give me advice,” I said, “you’re older.”
“I always have to be older,” she said.
“But look at my apartment, doesn’t it look like a cry for help.”
“Whatever,” she said smiling, “you said on your kickstarter it was a biting critique of neoliberalism and the concept of creative destruction.”
I love that look that’s between mischievous and smug. Zoe is very funny, I really like her a lot. “No Tie, listen, remember you said that by degrading your apartment, by turning it into a lair, you were etching out a place for yourself as the archetypal monster or creature, a shadowy figure able to judge society anew because of his radical artistic distance.”
“My kickstarter is called ‘Cry for Help’,” I said, affecting an exasperated tone.
“Artists aren’t to be trusted, they rarely understand their own work,” she said.
I brought my lamp out from my bedroom and we ate pasta and drank gin and juice in the kitchen.
I asked Zoe what we were about. “You know, cool stuff. Being really cool,” she said.
“Elliston-Lanes get drunk and overshare in vague philosophical terms” I said, trying to prompt her to tell me about our tribe, the way she used to.
“Sure,” she said. “It’s true that Elliston-Lanes are a proud, neurotic and occasionally talkative people. We don’t cry in public. We try to make ourselves cry at funerals but can’t. Sometimes we cry when we are alone, if we are alone and very overtired and that one song is playing.”
“We are very fond of pasta. If there was no pasta in the fridge and an Ellison-Lane was very tired...”
“We like drinking. We stuff our cheeks with cookies when no one is looking. We don’t like job interviews.”
It was getting late. Zoe said she had to go home and look for jobs on Craigslist. She had applied for at least one job every day for the past four months. She said every application was unique, like snow flakes.
On Facebook I found that Marcus had sent me an article about a Texas man who had broken fifteen thousand dollars worth of his personal belongings in the past two years. Marcus said he was going to go ahead and break his flat screen TV. He invited me to help but he said he’d understand if I didn’t want to. Either way.
Over the next few weeks it came slowly to my attention that there was a backlash on the internet directed at my work. People called it that, my “work.” People were angry at me, because I was, I guess, operating outside of any recognized art economy, or any economy at all. A long diatribe described my internet presence as the foremost proponent of a new “anti-Etsy” culture of internet marketing and craft, or non-craft. The point was that I was making a mockery of the egalitarian online artisan class. Which I thought was funny, because I felt like I was just kind of making a mockery of everything.
Despite what Zoe had told me, (sarcastic as it may have been), and despite what I’d posted online about my work (I guess I’ll call it that), my statements and all, I didn’t take any of what I was doing seriously. The point was not to show anyone anything, although I could frame it that way, when I wanted to. The impulse was savage and selfish. It was about what I felt before and after I broke something. The financial angle was just there to help me keep it up as long as I could.
An article popped up that demonized me as a practitioner and celebrator of a kind of hypermasculine violence. Breaking things was my way of releasing a male energy that I couldn’t repress. I had some kind of problem, according to this person, a perversion. It wasn’t necessarily my fault, and it wasn’t any kind of violation as long as I was doing it in my own home, but to publicize it, to force it on everyone else, to ask for validation, was degenerate. I was sensationalizing and presenting as nutritive an activity that was dangerous to society.
Comments proliferated in response to the article. A vocal dissenter insisted that I was destroying in opposition to the masculine and capitalist ideal of activity. The man who destroys is not the enemy, but the man who builds and is rewarded for his building. Work and the virtue of work for work’s sake were more dangerous ideals than destruction for pleasure or release, or art, whether or not what I was doing was art. A lot of people wanted to stay away from that question.
Another commenter posited that the destruction was just another form of work, and a form of work that was negatively impacting society without any of the use value of the products of work. Mine was the ultimate work for work’s sake, work that accumulated while its products did not, work that was for me and no one else.
I didn’t know what to think. Everyone seemed to be right in a certain way. Everyone seemed to know me better than I knew myself.
I started getting requests: emails and blog comments. People wanted to send me things to destroy. One guy in Utah wanted to send me a grand piano. He told me I should have at it with a hammer and a baseball bat and put up a video of the whole thing.
Things started showing up in the mail. Somebody sent me a minifridge. Somebody sent me a blender. People sent tons of knickknacks, vases and fishbowls and hatracks and wooden figurines. One guy sent me his entire record collection and his record shelves and his turntable. He wanted me to play each record on the turntable and then destroy it when I put on the next one, and to record it and podcast it, the records playing and then being broken as the following records played. Then he wanted me to destroy the shelves and the turntable.
I was getting famous and the fame scared me. I thought people were objectifying me, turning me into the deliverer of their wishes. Or worse, they were worshipping me. They thought I really had the power to satisfy other people’s desires and needs. I felt like I was turning into a public spectacle of the order either of a village idiot or a cult leader. Or both.
I talked to Zoe infrequently for a time. This happened now and then. During a particularly brutal period of unemployment two years prior we had stopped talking almost completely. Zoe did not burden me with problems I had no hope of addressing. I once told her that I thought we tended to isolate ourselves when our lives became hard or strange. “That’s okay, the native Americans of yore used to wander into the woods to die when they were no longer of any use to the tribe. Cool, right?” She did not explain the connection.
I started to feel like people were creating an identity for me that I would inevitably accept and assume. People had the power to make me in an image that wasn’t my own.
Finally, an email came that changed the way I thought about everything. Everything I was doing and a lot of things in general. There was a kid in Canada, a nineteen-year-old from Edmonton, Alberta, who wanted me to drive up to meet him and help him blow up a building. Not an occupied building, an abandoned building near where he lived, a factory or something, maybe a mental institution. He said he knew how to build bombs. He didn’t want to film it or anything, and he didn’t want anyone to know we were behind it. He just wanted me to come up there and help him because everyone he knew thought he was crazy.
He said he would pay me $12,500 USD.
“Why me, you must have friends who want to see something explode/need the money?” I asked.
“For twelve five I am sure you could find someone closer,” I said.
“Why do you need another person, why not blow up the building yourself?”
The kid said: “I don’t have that many friends. I need someone to help me carry the charges, I have neurological damage that makes my upper body very weak. I am afraid to ask just anyone. Shared adventure and shared secrets bind humans together more than anything else. Above all this is about human connection. I can pay you $14,000 but please come soon.”
I didn’t want to do it. I emailed him back and told him maybe we could burn down a house instead. Or contract with a wrecking crew and do it that way, with some kind of public funding and real equipment, maybe do it as some kind of state project. But no, he said, it had to be bombs, it had to be covert, it had to be anonymous. It had to be a happening that would excite conversation, that no one would be able to trace or explain.
I started to think really scary thoughts. The money was good. The money would go a long way. I could make a down payment and set myself up with a studio somewhere, work during the day and go home to a comfortable home at night, a livable space rather than some kind of ground zero. Or maybe I’d get a house, work on one floor, sleep and eat and relax on another, maybe a basement or an attic. The idea was attractive, so attractive almost that it made the proposed project seem attractive. After I thought about it for a few days I couldn’t decide anymore whether or not I really wanted to blow up a building for the sake of doing so. With the promise of reward came the promise of pleasure in the action undertaken.
Here is one kind of misanthropy: If you stand on the waterfront in Brooklyn Heights and look across the river at Manhattan you get a sense of its incredible, impenetrable size. Think of the number of people through the ages and the much larger number of combined man hours it took to build that city. And if you want something altogether different you still could not build it in a million lifetimes. This is the weight of history. What we inherit is giant and unyielding, even in dreams.
I wanted to call Zoe and ask her, but I knew I couldn’t. I knew that if I chose to do it I would have to live with the choice alone. Zoe and I were close. She trusted me. But she knew me, and she only trusted me so far. That’s the catch of closeness: when there is some of you in another person, you can see inside that person, and once you can see all the way inside them, you can see where you stop and they continue alone. Zoe would know that this part of me had chosen to act with or without her complicity.
I could hear what she would say to me: “Intentions and identities are not clear online. It could be a prank, it could be cops, it could be a mentally ill person who will try to pay you in monopoly money and blow up a building with bottle rockets.” I realized that 1) I could not hear her tell me that the offer might not be real 2) I had begun to think as if I had already gotten the money 3) I desperately wanted to believe 4) Wanting desperately to believe produced a heady mixture of pleasure and ache that reminded me of my childhood and adolescence. I came to want this offer to be real so badly it made my hands shake.
The kid clearly felt some kind of connection to me. I didn’t know him, but he’d chosen to contact me, and I’d made a lot of my activity, and therefore myself, available to him. He’d clearly watched me, observed as I thought and decided and moved. If he thought I would do this (and whether or not I wanted to admit it, whether it was the money or the proposition itself that had done it, he’d started me thinking) he thought that there was a part of me that agreed with a part of him. All of the people that responded to my work and chose in one way or another to engage with or participate in it had done so because some kind of recognition had taken place. Those who had chosen to become party to my destructive practice had done so out of a kind of love.
I kicked away the hinge at the bottom of my closet door and then bent it up from the bottom until it sprang free. I set it at an angle against the wall and jumped on it until it split in half. Then I collapsed into the closet sweating until I felt the resolve I needed.
I emailed the kid back. I made no promises, but I told him I would meet him. I would talk to him. I told him that I wanted to hammer out the details, but what I really wanted was to look him in the eye and see if I could see him looking back. Either the kid was a freak who saw a way out of his own head and wanted to use me to get there, or he knew better than I did that I’d started reaching out in the first place because I needed to make a connection. If it turned out he was right, about me, and about his ability to connect with me, then I would do what he wanted me to do. And I would want to do it. Because it would be worth it. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to prove it to anyone else, but I’d know for sure that when I’d started, I’d started for a reason. I’d know for sure that even if only at an incredible cost, it was still possible in the real world for one person to find another.
I have begun to imagine the first time we meet, in a cafe in Montreal. He is tall and slightly overweight with floppy brown hair. He apologizes self-consciously for his weak grip when we shake hands. Later, I will notice how he lifts his coffee with two shaking hands, bends his head in and sips off the top of the cup. “Since the accident I have spent my life online, scanning, not knowing what I was looking for, six, eight, ten hours a day every day for the last four years. But now I have found you. “I will look away from his face out the window to the friendly Canadian street. “I have been found,” I’ll say.