Part 3: Time’s a Goon
December 27, 2011 | by Clancy Martin
We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2011 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
The final installment of a three-part saga. Martin is hitchhiking from Kansas City, Missouri, to New York City in order to catch the last day of Christian Marclay's The Clock at the Paula Cooper Gallery. Read Part 1 and Part 2 here.
“You got a way of making a man get to talking, friend,” Sam told me. We had slowly worked our way into his life story, which involved him being adopted by Tennesseans who were somehow heirs or related to heirs of the Pepsi-Cola fortune, dropping out of Emory University, working part-time as an industrial air-conditioning chemical cleaning salesman, and then opening his own air-conditioning cleaning company, which in less than five years and with several hospital, university, and prison contracts across the Southeastern and now Midwestern states had turned him into an independent multimillionaire. But he was having “woman troubles”—I had gotten lucky with that lie—“because, to tell you the honest God’s truth, Clancy, and I ain’t proud to say it, I’ve got wives in four different states. Kids with two of them, and the third one’s pregnant. Even with my income it’s spreading it a bit thin. Thank the good Lord for my trust fund.” I knew if I kept Sam talking we’d sail right past Newark, and sure enough, when we got to his turn he was in the middle of the sad love story of Sam and Sally, and the fight they’d had in Bali last year when she realized all of the international calls he’d been making late at night “for business”—I shook my head with the great sympathy and genuine feeling of brotherly love one married man has for another in such situations—and as we approached the truck stop where he planned on leaving me (I was close enough now that I figured I would just call a cab, it couldn’t cost more than a hundred dollars), he said, “Where’d you say you’re headed again? Hell, we made it in half the time we figured.” Sam does not believe in letting the speedometer drop below “a C note.” Most of the way he was swooping between cars on the highway as though they were parked and we were a very low flying F-16. Time slows drunkenly at that speed, especially in an opulent, muscular truck, with a charismatic Korean chatting amiably beside you while you cling with sore fingers to the handle of the door, the soft tones of the iPod switching randomly from Gun Club to Elvis to Gyptian to Chopin’s Nocturnes.
“Far as we’ve come I guess I can take you right into Brooklyn.” The truck stop is already a mile behind us. “I sure as hell hope we don’t get snarled up in some Friday traffic. Course it’s not even rush hour yet, and we’re headed into the city, not the other way ’round. But I’m gonna be cursing your name when I’m driving back the other way. Hell, you look like you could use a favor. You’re in a bigger hurry than I am.” And back to Sally, who morphs seamlessly into Joanne, who I’m trying to keep straight from Christine, and wondering how many times Sam has said the wrong name in bed.
His GPS takes us effortlessly to a fried-chicken place in downtown Brooklyn and announces, “You have reached your destination.”
“I ain’t much on museums, but seriously, son, only in New York.” He is looking at me with a mixture of extreme skepticism and the kind of generosity with which a mother regards her confused, much beloved three-year-old.
I want to explain to Sam that there’s no way that I can possibly thank him and that this is not the installation, it’s my bed-and-breakfast—the peerless 3B bed-and-breakfast on Lawrence Street, as far as I am concerned the finest hotel in New York, and that I can’t recommend with enough enthusiasm (as much as I’d like to keep the secret for myself)—but before I can say anything Sam tucks two hundred dollars (how did he decide on that amount?) and his card into the pocket of my topcoat.
“Not one word,” he says, as he reaches over to push my door open. “Just stay in touch. And whatever you’re running from, just remember, there ain’t nothing so fast a really determined man can’t outrace. Don’t look over your shoulder, that’s my advice to you.”
I check in to my enormous, airy, high-ceilinged room at the 3B, chandeliers dangling from above ($150 a night), and without looking at the time—but it’s still light out, I can’t believe I’ve made it—I head for the stairs to walk to Manhattan. One of the owners of the B&B (there are eight of them, a mix of artists and writers) is standing at the bar reading Heidegger. Another gentle wave of solipsism pushes me forward, and I decide to stop resisting it. “Siamo contenti?” Nietzsche wrote to Burckhardt after he collapsed into madness. “Son dio ho fatto questa caricatura” (roughly: “Is everybody happy? I am the God who created this cartoon”).
Among the crowds and still mostly unfamiliar streets of New York, as it gets colder and colder and night falls, I start watching for clocks and time pieces. I see a pocket watch in the display window at A La Vieille Russie. I am looking for the backward clock that a friend has told me is in Union Square. I notice how many New Yorkers actually check their watches, while back in Kansas City, I only see people check their cell phones: at the bank, on campus, at my bus stop. At last, I’m in Chelsea, and it’s time to see the show. My celebrity host whisks me deftly, comfortably past the line of about a hundred people standing outside and gathered in the entryway. It feels a bit like a church and a bit like a circus. In we go.
It’s black, I am seated on the floor, and the film plays on the screen. Each minute in real time is repeated over and over as the film clips on the screen flash from scene to scene, and the expansion of time I’d suffered with Sam at a hundred and thirty miles an hour grows overwhelming. I get claustrophobic and panicky with the excess of time; it’s as though every minute takes seven or eight minutes to pass. How am I going to stay in here for more than fifteen? I am desperately trying to keep up with the references—Welles and Hitchcock dominate as midnight approaches, but the range of familiar and famous clips shocks you as you realize the wealth of immediately recognizable art the cinema has produced in the last hundred years—while following the images of death: the consumption of drugs and alcohol accelerate on the screen, candles are being snuffed out, the midnight hour approaches. It’s like the opening and closing scenes of Gravity’s Rainbow: you feel yourself being knotted into something shadowier and darker while the V bomb is about to drop on the very top of your skull, and the last poor one is singing along to the bouncing ball on the screen. And then it hits me—I’m scribbling page after page into my Moleskine in the dark; I can’t even read the words I’m writing and I know they’ll be indecipherable later. The work isn’t about the passage of time at all, it’s about how time determines meaning and reference. I understand why my Jungian feeling of uncanny correspondences and synchronicities were inevitably building toward Marclay: in a world of perfect meaning, everything would happen at the same time, we would see all of the connections at once. But the fact is there are too many connections for us ever to puzzle the pieces together, and no matter how desperately we try to shuffle them, time continues to pass. In any minute even the minute itself can be repeated on different clocks, watch dials, digital screens, LEDs, all of which are happening at almost exactly the same time but in sequence, and the only constant is change and the expansion of reference. The coherentist must go mad. The picture she is trying to see is too large. And then I start to spin like the wheel of a truck, I close my eyes, press my hands on the gallery floor, and when I open my eyes it’s too much to believe, there’s the falling man from vertigo, spinning down into infinity, trapped in a mystery that he has accepted, in terror, he will never decipher.
But time isn’t like that at all. Time strides behind you and time rises to meet you. The “active power of forgetting” (to quote a saner Nietzsche) is very functional in us, unlike in Borges’s poor “Funes the Memorious”: we get to move forward easily into the future while riding just as much of the wave of the past as we need and discarding the rest. Marclay and the Eleatics are wrong, and that’s how they produce their paradoxes, their cognitive overloads: time is not discrete. Even a thousand clock faces stuffed into ten seconds will not change the fact that five crank-fueled hours can pass like three days or a nine-hour drive can take place in less than five and feel like a long afternoon chat over coffee. When midnight strikes and life doesn’t end—
—when I finally emotionally arrive in New York City, whole and safe with a bed waiting for me after I watch a few more hours of the show, and clean sheets—and Marclay mixes images of immortality with the ordinariness of early morning, when he forces us to accept that one day leads to the next—and maybe, the piece asks, one life to the next?—I am as disoriented as Jimmy Stewart confronting his mystery double ladies. Because of course we are making up time as we go. There isn’t any time out there except as I experience it. The stuff is fiction, cinema, imagination. Try to pin it down with a clock or a watch and see how well it works out. And since you’re aging, no matter how many mad hitchhiking escapades you conceive, you won’t outrace it. “Time’s a goon,” Jennifer Egan recently insisted, “and the goon won.” The nine daughters and the crystal meth pipe and the slippery-seated Korean were all doubles in the swirling vertigo of my desperation and impatience. I wonder if one is allowed to sleep in the film. What would it be like to dream in here? Sitting with the crowd on the floor of the cinema, I decide I’ll take a flight home.
Clancy Martin is the author of How to Sell and a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine.