May 18, 2013
Posted on Jun 28, 2012
By Mr. Fish
“We also have a party at the Beverly Hills Hotel when the issue is published,” I was told by the Journal’s editor when the job was pitched to me. “We’re going to have all the original drawings put in frames and give them to the lawyers as little presents,” he said, “and you can be at the party. I’m sure they’ll all want to shake your hand!” The whole time he was talking I was trying to figure out how I was going to get the words “fucking” and “asshole” into the Starr portrait with the same deft hand that Hirschfeld used to get in his “Nina.”
Taking the ticket stub from the valet and throwing on my jacket, I straightened my tie and walked through the hotel lobby in search of the concierge to help me find the room where I imagined Starr was eating enough cocktail weenies to verge on some infringement of Megan’s Law. Moments later I walked into the Sunset Room and, having had the point of my HB Staedtler pencil up the nose and inside the pupils and along the lips of every lawyer’s face I saw, suddenly had the uneasy feeling that I was a voyeuristic pervert who had been watching these people through a two-way mirror for the last six weeks. After all, these were the facial features I’d caressed into being with all the slow and deliberate attention to detail that a cannibal might use to eviscerate his victims into a delectable dish, only I had done it in reverse.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around. “The portraits look great!” said the editor, having appeared out of nowhere to shake my hand. “Did you see them?”
“Yeah, on the way in,” I said, referring to the table just outside the entrance where all 100 framed drawings that I’d done sat near a large sign requesting that each lawyer wait until the end of the evening before retrieving his or her portrait to take home. “By the way,” I said, “I never asked, how did you guys determine who belonged on the list of top 100? Given the fact that the average person finds lawyers, as a group, somewhat despicable—individually, they find them repulsive—I’m guessing that it wasn’t a contest that had been put to a public vote.”
“It was very unscientific,” he said, appearing uncertain as to whether he should be offended by my characterization of his bread and butter as repulsive. “Me and the other editors got together every morning for a couple months and talked about who should be on the list and who shouldn’t.”
Then he excused himself, leaving me to realize for the first time that rather than being hired merely as a portrait artist, I’d been appointed as a court painter whose responsibility was to glorify the members of some royal family, or, in this case, to exalt the equivalent of the football team for a high school newspaper, the primary purpose of which was to publish insular stories that celebrated the victories of all the prom kings, prom queens and star athletes toiling in the time-honored profession of high class hoity-toitiness. And as it was with every high school dance that I’d ever attended, the cool kids spoke gregariously with one another. The effluvium of their charm and the gracefulness of their dancing turned my blood cold. I eventually found myself standing all alone against the wall with my hands in my pockets, waiting for the room to empty.
To suddenly realize at age 7 that balls and testicles referred to the same thing was a real eye-opener for me. It meant that the obscenity of the word balls was not intrinsic to the thing that it referred to, but rather to the word itself—to the physicality of the word, to how it looked and sounded. How else to explain the acceptability of the word testicles, which referred to the same thing that the word balls did and was not obscene? To believe in obscenity, I figured, was to set up a scenario where it was OK to harbor a severe prejudice against the sight and sound of a word, which would be nothing less abhorrent than reinforcing the bogus idea that a thing—anything!—could be obscene merely by being seen or heard.
The debate about the obscenity of words seemed no different to me from the civil rights era debates about what freedom and justice and equality should look like. I was inspired. African-Americans were perceived as obscene by white society for occupying bus seats and lunch counters and schools. Likewise, I decided that it was time to demand a new emancipation for persecuted words. It was time to demand equal rights for all speech because all speech was connected to all ideas, which were connected to all deeds, which were connected to all acts, which were connected to all hopes and dreams, both realized and not.
It was time to reconfigure the law and to become a hero whose portrait I imagined would grace the halls of justice one day and inspire all whose eyes fell upon it.
Standing to leave at around midnight, having thrown back my last swig of red wine, I stumbled through the foyer of the Sunset Room just as the cleanup staff began to bunch up the soiled tablecloths and remove the chairs and scratch their heads and wonder what they were going to do with all the framed portraits sitting untouched in front of them. Thinking back 33 years, I approached the table to help them, remembering how I had been tasked by my mother with the chore of picking up the trash of my idealism, wondering the whole time if some things fly only because they exist in a vacuum and aren’t really flying at all.
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