Somewhere In-Between: Thoughts from Across the Cultural Divide

January 23, 2012 · Print This Article

Sunday through Wednesday I maintain an art studio and flop with my in-laws in a pastoral town in Central Wisconsin, and teach art at a small Catholic school nearby. I fly back to Brooklyn, NY each Wednesday night on AirTran flight 511. I’ve become one of those guys who knows flight attendants and bartenders by name, and that Milwaukee has a “recombobulation” area to help make what is already a relatively breezy brush with the TSA that much more accommodating.

“You in Milwaukee on business?” the guy in the window seat always asks. It’s a fair question to pose to someone in a pair of semi-professional slacks heading to New York on a weekday evening with a bag full of paperwork. He doesn’t know that the papers are 20 ungraded art history quizzes that he would set the curve on if I gave him five minutes and the textbook. He doesn’t know that my 401(k) is twenty paintings sitting in a storage unit down by the Midtown Tunnel. I think Window-seat inevitably feels misled by these circumstances, expecting we’ll be connected by different nouns, but similar enough verbs to fill up a conversation that will last until the refreshment cart dispenses the Dewar’s. Like, maybe we both have to manage and coordinate, but thrillingly, I might apply those actions to retail distribution and he to digital networks. No such luck. Telling them I’m an artist, part-time professor and freelance art writer catches them off-guard and the conversation grinds down. The nouns and the verbs between us are different; that’s just too much inertia to overcome for the sake of pre-beverage chitchat.

I’m not a martyr for anything as petty as the drape of a pair of jeans, so I conform to the point that the locals in Wisconsin let me around their kids…and maybe just enough to take preemptive action against the Rob Reiner/Carroll O’Connor thing that seems to be brewing between my father-in-law and I. Those travel pants were purchased from the Marc Anthony collection at Kohl’s department store after someone outside a Home Depot took my slightly stained studio jeans for house painting clothes, and the same day my father-in-law (in whose attic I freeload and in whose fridge I store my beer) suggested I borrow some of his clothes before going to a casual restaurant. What I considered fairly unremarkable attire in Bushwick turned out to be downright avant-garde in Wisconsin. Incidentally, an orange hunter’s cap and an unkempt beard meets fashion requirements in both locales for a period of about three weeks during the fall.

On the morning of a recent return to Brooklyn, I slipped into the pile of clothes I left next to the bed, grabbed a coat from the rack by the door and departed for my studio. By the time evening rolled around I made the lazy decision to go straight to art openings without returning home to change. The show was at Allegra LaViola Gallery on the Lower East Side, and featured work riffing on (wouldn’t you know it) the fashion industry, by artist Andrea Mary Marshall. The gallery was packed to suffocating with young, beautiful fashionista-types that emphasized my Steve Carrell-meets-key grip couture. To see the work you had to slither in between the wall and rapt conversationalists…one of those scenes that mature spectators and those who don’t use cocaine tend to feel uncomfortable in. Halfway through a PBR I sought refuge in an old colleague from the Brooklyn Rail. Holding on to the conversation like a piece of driftwood in an angry ocean, we mused about being older and less effervescent than the surrounding bystanders. Maturity, like misery, loves company. When I convinced her I wasn’t lying about commuting between MKE and LGA, we traded art gossip and teaching stories until most of our beer had been jostled from our cans and onto the floor.

“Have a happy New Year,” she yelled breaking for the exit. “And, hey, don’t freeze your ass off in Minnesota either.”

“Minnesota?!” I thought, shocked. “Badgers, Packers, Brewers, Miss America, Muskies and Leinies!!!” Hometown pride??

Alone again, I tried to circulate. An epaulette on my jacket came undone when I pivoted into the crowd and brushed against a sexy transvestite who was pushing past. She spilled a few drops of beer that landed on my sleeve. I threw a frustrated glance at her, and she shrugged coquettishly before knifing into the crowd.

Off in one direction sprawled Minnesota, Wisconsin and all those dark fields of the Republic. In the other America’s incandescent cultural production center sizzled like a lit fuse. I stood flatfooted in a high-heeled crowd with an epaulette flapping like a Brooklyn flag above trousers the color of sand from Lake Winnebago, caught in-between the two.

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