It’s hard being a neurotic ecstatic, because while you are dancing wildly in the shower you are bothered by the faint but nagging fear that you could slip, hit your head on the tile and drown in two inches of water. Persuing a state of ecstasy involves striking a fine balance between abandon and self-preservation.

I’m currently coming down from a spectacular high on my favorite drug, caffiene. All my life I’ve been searching for the perfect chemistry, tinkering crudely with this neurotransmitter and that one to achieve a few fleeting moments akin to a state of grace. I make the odd lucky discovery, but repeating my experiments usually introduces too many variables. Doing conscioiusness research on yourself is inconvenient science, with the added insult to scientific intergrity that the observer and the observed are one and the same. Still, I persevere, hoping to make some small discovery of use to humankind before I take some clumsy misstep and am culled from its ranks.

Today’s happy accident yielded some interesting observations. It wasn’t just the caffiene that produced my state of shower ecstasy. It was my empty stomach, which is returning to normal size after the holiday gorging. It was the promise of Monday morning, of a new, clean week, the first one in a long time free of holiday interruptions. It was the unseasonable weather. It was the comedy that unfolded as I drank my espresso at the Mafia-run coffeeshop.

A tall, bald gentleman of about sixty is drinking his espresso when one of the cafe proprietors enters from offstage. “Do you know what your nephew wrote on my bill?” booms the tall man.

“Which newphew?” says the cafe proprietor.

“Biag.” I deduce that he means Biaggo, one of the younger guys who works in the family business. “Look at this.” He takes out a folded invoice for $1653.00, the total re-written in pencil large enough for me to read and circled emphatically. “He says, ‘Take off $600 to get John a hairpiece.’ Do you believe that?” He guffaws loudly. The uncle howls. The girl behind the counter titters. The bald man grabs the uncle mightily and hugs him, slapping his back, their deep laughter echoing in the marble interior of the store. I exit to the smacking noise of a benignly lecherous kiss blown at my back by the man who holds the door. “Let the lady by,” he admonishes his companion, “let the lady by.” The lady is wearing her glasses, askew on her face, a men’s undershirt, a floor-length sheepskin coat and wool clog slippers that she doesn’t so much wear as kick ahead of her with every step. She thanks the man who holds the door, makes a gesture somewhere between a nod and a curtsey.

How did it all come together? Was it the bemusement of seeing something so cinematic and yet real unfold before my eyes? The satisfcation in being an extra in one of the rare moments when life imitates art? Ever since I was a kid made nervous by social gatherings, I told myself I was an observer, and this somehow allowed me to participate. I’d narrate the story of what I saw to myself, and only by writing myself into it could I become an actor. This process has become so seamless that I no longer notice a gap between observation and experience, between living moments and storing them away to try to live a second time in the telling. I’m sometimes perturbed by the inevitable self-absorption of the act of creation, looking outward into the world to record what is there and then inward to see how it’s come out. The phrase “tortured artist” has become quaint, but it is torture to sense that you have witnessed some beautiful truth or told yourself an even more beautiful lie and to try to get it out of you intact and whole to share with others. Everyone from Jesus to Freud has tried to articulate the simoultaneous shame and excitement in the idea that we conceal in our bodies and minds some secret that if we exposed it to the world might be extraordinary, but might also be grotesque.

The secret of what is inside of us has always fascinated me. Things go into our bodies and come out looking very different, but overall, we get so little evidence of what’s really going on within them. I keep an X-ray of my own chest on a light box in a gilt frame on an easel in my bedroom, but this does little to convince me that I am filled with something other than stuffing and tubing that gurgles. So naturally I was very curious to see the exhibit called “Bodies,” where 22 real human bodies have been, “carefully preserved and repectfully displayed.”

It’s somewhat contreversial. Some people say that the bodies weren’t all donated to science, that they are not, as the exhibitors say, unclaimed bodies from fishing accidents. There are rumors that the bodies are in fact those of executed Chinese prisoners. There is debate about whether the way they are displayed is respectful. Respectful to what, I wonder? Respectful to life? To death? To the organic matter we are made of? Showing respect for a dead body is nice, but I think in our society we are showing too little respect for live ones.

The exhibit itself was strangely shady. It seemed to come from nowhere. There was no list of corporate sponsors, no posters for upcoming shows. Upon entry to the exhibit, my brother and I were approached by a fellow in a black shirt with the logo of the exhibition embroidered on it. “Hey hey,” he muttered out of the side of his mouth, as if he were wearing a trench coat full of watches. “Wanna get five dollars off?” He gave us coupons and directed us to the ticket window. “You got these outside, right? You got these outside.”

“We got these outside,” we told the lady in the ticket window. She gave us five dollars off. The man with the coupons reappeared as we boarded the escalator. “Did you get the five dollars off? You did, right? I take care of my people,” he said proudly. Was he with the exhibition? Was he not? Why were his coupons a secret and if they were such a secret, why were they so readily accepted? It made no sense.

Inside the exhibit, the air of mystery intensified. The walls and ceilings were black, and except for the spotlights on the bodies themselves, the lights were dim. It felt a bit like the set of the Charlie Rose show–a small, lit area in the midst of an abyss.

I was contemplating a skinless body poised to shoot a basketball when I felt a faint rustling behind me. A young custodian emerged from the pitch blackness in a nearby corner, and our eyes met. After the glassy eyes of the displayed body, the living gaze of the janitor was a warm relief. He disappeared again to sweep the carpeting in another unlit corner.

There was just so much flesh, so much interiority, it was hard to process. The whole time my brother and I were chatting, ruminating, wondering, like we always do, but it was surreal. There was no way to deal with it. Either you focused on how the bodies were actual humans who had been alive, had walked and talked and were now dead and had been dissected, had been carefully preserved and respectually displayed, and you felt nauseous and terrified that you would one day be dead, you would one day be so dead you wouldn’t feel someone cutting off all your skin and flaying your muscles and putting your digestive system on display, or you didn’t. And if you didn’t then it was all just so much meat, so much matter, so much flesh.

If the bodies truly are the casualties of fishing accidents, it’s most ironic, or appropriate, depending on how you look at it, that they are on display near the former Fulton Fish Market. At the former Fulton Fish Market, a woman named Naima Rauam used to paint the fishmongers. She painted them for years, hauling fish up and down the cobblestoned streets in the dead of night, gutting and washing and selling the fish, sinking their fingers underneath the cold scales, gutting, filleting, flinging. She painted their work clothes, saturated with the stink of stilled aquatic life. She painted the light at a time of day when most people are lying in complete darkness.

The New York Times ran a short piece on how Naima Rauam is negotiating the transfer of the fish market to Hunts Point, in the Bronx. They showed one of her first sketches of the new place, which is huge and sterile and brightly lit, and several of her old paintings, which are dark and dramatic and old. I somewhat wished I could see the paintings of the fish market, smell the stench of so much death, even, instead of these carefully preserved bodies of fishermen. If that’s what they were.

Leave A Comment