Lester Strong and David Waggoner: "XY on XY," 2008, page 3
PROCESS + ELIMINATION
by David Waggoner
I WAS PROCESSING film, infrared. It wouldn’t get me a movie, but it was my hobby for the moment. I chose strange hobbies. I figured that way I wouldn't have to join a club. But now my hobby was dangerous. My mother knew all about it, said she wouldn’t tell dad about it. But I liked it. It was almost as good as watching two guys fucking and sucking and then shooting their loads like two satyrs. I didn’t want to make porno films because that was my sex life, and that was sacred. Infrared photography, however, was an interesting hobby. My Sony doesn't make much sound when I’m shooting, and there are two guys, one balancing himself against the public rest¬room, the other stripping him. They unscrew the light bulb above them so no one can see. But I don't let them have their privacy. I get to capture them for my darkroom at home, where their images hang from lines of rope crisscrossing my living room: I blacked out its windows with spray paint.
The landlord doesn’t know yet.
When I shine my flashlight across the negatives, these great and anonymous fucks take on an afterlife. They continue. It’s wonderful art but no one would know how to light it.
In one of the images is this sharp object coming down from one corner towards the guy getting blown. I thought it was dust particles on the lens until I read about the vivisection the next day in the paper.
I’m having dinner with my parents. There’s no date. I decided I’d rather go to the park after the pasta and capture the killer.
Mom worries about me. “You shouldn’t walk through that park near your apartment.”
Dad orders another drink.
“It isn’t safe, is it?” Mom wants dad to lecture me. I can tell from the way she pushes her plate away from her. She likes to eat and this is her favorite restaurant, halfway between their condo and my apartment. They won’t step foot in my territory, as if it’s an occupied zone.
“Guys wear condoms there.” I shouldn’t have been so wise. Dad’s fist tightens around his drink and I’m afraid he’ll have a heart attack before he finishes his Seven and Seven.
The waiter is listening at the next table. I’ve seen him in my part of town, entering the park, looking both ways and behind him. He doesn’t look like the type who’d do it out in the open, anyway. He looks too nervous, like he spills drinks on customers. Couldn’t possibly swallow a load.
“Guys wear women’s underwear, but that doesn’t mean they have to invite the killer over for French pastries after the cabaret gets out.”
I didn’t know what dad meant by that crack. There were no French dancehalls in my neighborhood. He had been to Las Vegas one too many times wishing it was Paris instead.
“Would you lay off?” I wasn’t going to go to dinner with them anymore. I patted my camera case without looking down. It was still there and with a fresh roll of film, superfast, and able to capture the slightest details of face enmeshed in a pair of opened trousers, a thick white tube the only source of light in the frame. They were becoming less and less difficult to shoot. The white flesh seemed to float in the darkness, the black clothing of the participants almost nonexistent to the naked eye, but gaining presence in my darkroom and joining the rest of the phantoms of the night.
At the parking lot I kissed my mom, and dad smiled.
Turning my back on them, I felt the camera inside my coat like a secret organ that no one was allowed to see. With it I could relentlessly pursue the next beautiful but inconsequential image. I felt like a mortician at times, bringing the images back to life in embalming fluids. This was almost as good as watching Charlie Chaplin.
The soft grass had been walked over recently; the moonlight glistened on the grass still standing, the water not enough to detour the ritual. Every day, at dusk, the parks commissioner ordered the watering to be done. To save money they had installed a computer to manage the newest form of police enforcement. After the sun was beginning to light up other parts of the world, after the middle class had settled down for dinner and then television, the homosexuals, the perverts—as the police still called us—began their nightly pilgrimage across the warm turf. Until one night, when there hadn’t been a cloud in the sky, but everywhere was wet. The homosexuals hadn’t prepared for this: They brought condoms, lubricants, even whistles to alert others of the serial killer, but this was water, and one had to wear boots, preferably army, for the rice paddies of the freshly planted park. For some it was wonderful. It was like Vietnam. But for others, myself included, it was a mess. Once I slipped and barely saved my camera from baptism.
“Let’s tie up the police commissioner and bugger him, for Christ’s sake!”
“Better yet, let’s make him wallow in this damned water of his, giving each of us a great blow-job or else.”
“Or else what?”
“Or else he has to provide every fag a bikini bathing suit.”
Two old queens, like two town criers at the edge of civilization, throwing down their witticisms and stamping on them, no, splashing around, slipping because they hadn’t worn their army boots but insisted on going to the park before dancing, and disco boots or nothing, baby!
I continued past them as if they were standing still and my generation, hip and wearing jogging shoes, could outrun them on the slick surfaces that were now on the side of the law. Slick with blood. The killer was obviously thrilled with help from the mayor’s office. It made him that much more difficult to track down; there wasn’t an unconfused clue in the park grass, what with the three dozen queens in any particular location falling on their asses and ruining the evidence for the dawn patrol.
It was already twelve o’clock. Seven hours till enough light would fill the sky that only the next group to use the park were out: the joggers. A few of them had discovered the last victim. Always a different way each time. Always a different instrument. Always the same enticement: a mouth full of cum. The two lady joggers were sickened at the sight of a white fluid dribbling out of his mouth and the sight of a red fluid coming from the head. There were jokes in the park that night about only giving blow-jobs while standing on your head or at the very least having the other guy standing on his. But then none of the guys involved in this curious discussion knew whether that sort of posture would hamper the free flow of the very fluid that drew them there in the first place. Blood for blood, as one queen had put it so well.
The park at twelve was a romantic spot. The tennis court lights went off at their usual time—no doubt because they too were operated by computer—and the sprinklers. The gravel sounded different underfoot. The tread of army boots across the paths behind the boathouse reminded me of some horror film I had seen as a kid. Every cruiser was a potential murderer. And as they passed out of range of my camera their status as victim grew more distinct in the hazy lens. I must have looked odd with camera to face, occasionally jerking it away to ascertain the character of my next subject: Was he or wasn’t he interested?
Then suddenly the warm night grew chill and my bones felt brittle and dry. There were two ghosts, two swans, floating across the park across the lake, their tandem behavior almost a mimicry of the short life spans of love in the park. I realized how hopeless these guys were. Willing to give a blow-job, willing to give their lives to a hooded executioner, his moans the beginnings of their screams. The swans were making love, their screams distinctive and catching everyone’s brief attention span. Like a burst, an audible orgasm, a call to safety. It was some sort of public address as if to say that the mayor’s water guns, only sprinklers during the day, were not enough to thwart the love, however brief, of two men or two swans.
I walked on, over the bridge that connected the two sides of the city, for the park was like some sort of canyon between the haves and the have nots. A common meeting ground of lawyer and laborer, thug and thief, professor and prostitute. The anonymity of the place was perhaps the most startling thing about the park. For it didn’t advertise itself; the movement of shadows was difficult to make out from the outside roads; the sounds of lovemaking blended in with the gurgle of unfired water. Even the lonely cruiser (police) didn’t make it look garish. That was another part of town, where the hookers parked their asses on hoods of cars, gathered at the Dunkin’ Donuts, traded condoms for some cheap dope, or slipped into unlit doorways for a night’s pay. Here it was different. It was an idyll. A frolic. A hustle and a handshake. And a murder.
I lowered my camera, afraid that the group ahead of me might scatter. A lot of guys weren’t too happy about my shutterbugging. One night a respectable-looking man in a tie and rolled-up sleeves, obviously getting a little fresh air, happened upon two other guys engaged in the act. Well, it didn’t take much for his wedding ring to loosen and his tie as well. Then flash! My camera went off like an alarm clock and the guy in the white business shirt turned into a professional football player, nailing me to the spot. He was tackling me and my film. Don’t know what happened to the pictures or the camera. They’re probably buried or thrown into the Pacific, whatever. Now I have my infrared camera and I don’t need a flash of light to uncover the night.
It was a slow circle jerk. They used to be a lot faster, sometimes both hands being used. But now you have to keep one hand free to defend yourself. It’s altered the way you have sex in a public place. They’ve gotten more adventuresome. They want to see your face now before they’re willing to go down. It’s as if you can read a guy that way. One guy insisted on so much light that he could have read a book. Another guy told me to stand five feet away and then we could do it. Do what?
Of course the newspapers have their angle on the story. In fact, one night, a team of them, newshounds they were, assembled like school children on the edge of the park, and escorted by five police officers (undercover), they went up and down every path, road, every turned-down blade of grass, looking for men. They wanted to cover their side of the story, as they called it in the following Sunday edition.
Sandwiched between lingerie and cosmetics ads:
Seven Murders: The Stories of Those That Were There
It made it sound like this killing thing was a group activity, a kind of sinister circle jerk, and if you were unfortunate enough to join the circle just before it was closed you were the lucky/unlucky queen of the fairy tale. They had an able ringleader, too. I had seen this one before in the park. He was a bit of a tease. But he had gone up to the bandstand a couple of times for a threesome. Perhaps because it was on a Sunday, or perhaps because it touched a nerve, but the whole city, in a chorale of unison and universality, condemned the victims as suicides. I wrote a letter but I didn’t sign it. It didn’t get printed: But here it is, for you.
Having been one of the men who was interviewed in last week’s midnight meet the press in Washington Park, I would like to first congratulate you on your excellent expansion of First Amendment freedoms. Fully realizing that I shouldn’t have been there in the first place, I cannot actually criticize your paper’s reporting techniques, but would ask you this: Aren’t you sensationalizing these murders, turning gay men into freaks (if they aren’t already considered that), and aiding and abetting police entrapment?
Instead of my letter, scores of condemnations were heaped upon the subjects. The press, fully impressed by its newfound capabilities of reporting from the combat zone, decided to start a new feature. Weekly. A list of the victims to date and their identities. What possessed these men into endangering their lives and destroying their families, and sometimes their wives’ and children’s lives? It was truly truly a new way to invade the bedroom, of course, helped out a little by those of us who have taken the bedroom out-of-doors.
But tonight, left alone to perhaps a murderer, without hope of finding ourselves in tomorrow’s column, misquoted if quoted at all, we make nervous love as swans finish theirs. I join in for a jerk, allowing my camera to fall to my stomach, hanging by a cord. Everything is automatic; I have only to press a button to get what I want. If it were only so easy with my father.
There was a story, two column inches, very long and narrow, pinned against the side of the page by a large, fancy ad for a woman’s designer. It was a charcoal drawing of a luxurious evening gown, drawn from head down to the pointed toes of the woman’s jewel-encrusted pumps. The article next to her was hardly elegant. It was the gristly facts, black and white enough, brought to colorful horror for the uninitiated reader. I thought that perhaps the writer of the piece had done a master’s in Baudelaire or Poe in college. She was so clinical, so seamy in her descriptions, and of course it was about us. As if the whole world that was gay had ever seen this park while driving by, let alone by walking in.
"I can’t say that I enjoyed myself, standing knee-deep in wet grass as I waited like a hunter for geese. But my patience was rewarded, and there was a sudden, almost magical movement in the grass. Voices carried over: I could sense the quickness of the conversations. Cigarette smoke floated over the small clearing. It made me cough and my ruse was discovered. Conversations ended and you could hear a chorus of heavy breathing. Not from sex. But out of fear. Were they wondering about the darkened figure? I wanted to tell them who I was, but I couldn’t blow my cover. So for ten minutes we maintained an eerie silence."
I cut out the article and taped it to the refrigerator to remind myself to call up the reporter. Sure, she used a false name, and the newspaper wouldn’t tell me who she was, but I would track her down; I would know her movements from the style of her writing. What she chose to tell her readers was no act of camouflage. Like any good reporter she interrogated herself in the process.
My living room was a mess. The images were drying; the fumes had clogged up my nose. Although it was early—only afternoon—I wanted to risk going out. I wanted to see the park during the daytime and look for clues. I could only capture so much on film: the last image I had taken was the picture of my father and mother leaving the restaurant, holding hands in the dim light of the street.
I saw the red light of the answering machine flashing in the red darkness of my drying room, where the images dripped their chemicals into the carpeting. The shag carpet had long ago gone to hell. The apartment manager had promised new stuff for over six months. I was helping him remove it. The chemicals ate odd-shaped holes in the pile. If I walked barefoot I could catch a toenail in one of the threads and pull the whole nail off the toe. It had happened three times. The nails were just growing back; I wore socks when I was processing. But they were getting holes too.
What did I do for money? I sold my images to a local gallery. Monica, the dealer, said they were sexy and menacing. She had red hair half-way down her back, curly; it matched her freckles, which started just below her hairline and extended down to her long fingers. There were too many dots to connect on her face, although I often stared at them to see if there were designs to be made. She called my images “The Snuff” pictures. She thought they were possibly stills from old snuff movies that I had cropped. I was insulted. I told her they were all originals. One day I was in the gallery while she was on the phone trying to sell my work to a client. I stood there staring at her freckles. Yes, he would pay one thousand dollars for a suite of six pictures. But he wanted to commission them: He had the perfect place for the portrait sitting. I whispered to her that I didn’t do fucking portraits, queen mother or queen. And who was this guy? I could hear his squeaky voice. Was he some big land developer who was disguising his voice as Mickey Mouse? Monica was a very good dealer and was able to convince her client that my art was a secretive process and couldn’t be staged for the price he was willing to pay.
Monica should have managed money, not artists.
“I could have gotten him to go as high as twenty-five hundred, you fool,” she smiled, putting the cell phone back into its “holster” that she wore instead of a belt around her crepe pants. They were the color of Welch’s grape juice. She needed Titian red eye shadow and she would have looked right at home in my red-lit living room.
“You don’t ask questions and I don’t ask for more money,” is what I told her.
“Okay, okay,” she said as she turned around to stare through the glare of her own reflection into one of my images. It was strange how her face, with its wreath of red hair, was superimposed onto my image of a hand caught in extension, just before reaching its goal: a swollen cock head that looked like a lunging cobra in a pool of fog. It was all so easy to take. These pictures, with their immediate mystery. It was as if the threat of murder gave the props a sense of mastery over space, and the dancing puppets of blow-job and hand-job were all I needed to make the image work. The men, my sitters, were always anonymous. It was only their cocks, their balls, their anuses, and their lips that glistened like wet petals in a pool of the night. Monica, so white, although marred, looked like a marble statue in front of the black and white, crisply cut images of an unknown but certainly deadly form of sexuality. I couldn’t see her wearing a trench coat in the park, scribbling notes, and changing her name in order to write an eyewitness account. For Monica, this was as far as she could go into my darkness. She appreciated the way the whites of my photographs, like the whites of someone’s eyes, seemed to stare out at her, even though these weren’t organs of sight she was admiring but the head of a penis or the half-moon of a scrotum in shadow.
“God knows you’re a sick one,” she laughed as she made out my weekly check. I felt like an employee at times, not the favorite artist. Her others sold occasionally. But there was always a client for my work. One week, a little old lady. No doubt she admired Georgia O’Keeffe at some point in her life, but had gotten brave now that her husband had passed away. She said something about the “beauty of the body, in all its parts.”
“But you’re not looking to cure me,” I said as I was handed the check. “The sick always pay their bills.”
Monica’s phone beeped in its holster and she put a finger up in the air. It was another client. I would continue our conversation at a later time. I smiled at Monica. She was leading the customer around the room, although he wasn’t in the room. She was stopping in front of each of my images, her great curls of red hair catching the track lighting as she and the collector talked about the wonderful composition of what had simply been a badly lit blow-job.
Dialogue: High Art in Low Places
Lester Strong: “Process + Elimination” is a very funny story, very tongue-in-cheek, so to speak. It starts with the narrator photographing sex between men in a public park and ends with his images being sold in a high-end art gallery.
David Waggoner: It’s an ironic humor. The narrator is a voyeur who participates in the sex he photographs through his camera; the gallery owner Monica turns pornography into high art.
LS: “Ironic” is the perfect word to describe the humor. The story ends with the gallery owner and a collector describing one image as a “wonderful composition of what had simply been a badly lit blow job.” That’s a great comment about the romanticizing of sex we all do anyway. I mean a lot of sex involves fumbling, being out of sync with your partner’s mood, likes, and dislikes, in essence badly lit blow-jobs. And yet somehow we feel sex is an important center of human intimacy and existence.
DW: Isn’t that the Warholian aesthetic? A lot of Warhol’s art was just snapping shots with a camera, taking them back to the studio, resizing them, colorizing them, and then marketing them as art.
LS: Was that romanticizing something?
DW: No, but I think it was ironic. In “Process + Elimination,” the artist—the narrator—romanticizes the sex he’s photographing to some extent. It’s Monica the gallery owner who markets the work as art. In that act, the romantic becomes ironic.
LS: So in the story you’re making an ironic comment about our society?
DW: Yes. I’m saying that our society often romanticizes things that are essentially pornographic, which considering our society’s moralistic official attitudes about sex is very ironic.
LS: There’s another element besides pornography, high art, and irony in the story. At one point the narrator’s images are described as “sexy and menacing.” Sex here is related to a sense of danger.
DW: There’s an element of danger throughout the story. After all, it alludes to HIV several times. That’s a menacing aspect of sex—sex itself has become a murderer, or is an act of murder.
LS: There are other kinds of murders going on in the story too. There’s a murderer on the loose in the park, killing the men who have sex there.
DW: There’s a serial killer on the loose. But there’s also the fact that the fluids being exchanged in the park are deadly, murderous, if you will. So people are murdering through the act of sex as well as getting murdered. The murderers are getting murdered.
LS: I understand how HIV brings menace into sex. But aside from HIV, is there some other kind of menace related to sex, especially sex between men in pubic places? Is that why there’s a serial killer on the loose? Is that why there’s the threat of the police sweeping though the park and arresting people or why the police bring reporters into the park at night to view the sex going on?
DW: I think HIV in the last 25 years has become an excuse for a lot of policing of public parks where men used to have sex with each other. The police say they’re positioning police cars in parks because of murderers or bad elements that hang out there. But I think they’re actually doing it because they view gay men with HIV as the real menace to our society.
LS: But wasn’t there a sense of menace attached to male-male sex in public locations even before HIV? The danger could even be part of the thrill of doing it somehow—having sex outside the privacy of one’s own home, with anonymous partners, maybe being caught and arrested, maybe meeting someone who would treat you roughly. I doubt anyone fantasized about being murdered, but they certainly could fantasize about being humiliated by the police or some trick they met in a park, on a pier, or in a public restroom.
DW: I think what makes gay sex exciting for some gay men is that society finds it and homosexuality in general menacing. That sense of menace has increased because of HIV. And HIV is here forever unless someone finds a cure for it. So all of a sudden we have a new element in gay men’s lives. It’s not just that we’re menacing to society or that police are cracking down on public sex. It’s like HIV has become another partner in gay men’s lives. These days it’s a threesome between gay men, society, and HIV. Does HIV create a new acceptance or increase the nonacceptance of gay sex in our society? I think gay men have to figure out how to live with this situation.
LS: You’re saying a large undercurrent in “Process + Elimination” is the effects of HIV?
DW: Yes. It’s definitely alluded to in the story.
LS: Turning to another topic: At a certain point in the story, the narrator’s in the park and the flash of his camera alarms someone, who grabs the camera and film and makes off with them. The narrator then starts using an infrared camera, saying, “Now . . . I don’t need a flash of light to uncover the night.” It’s his infrared images that eventually end up being sold in the art gallery. Does this use of infrared allude to a deeper way of seeing? To being able to see something that isn’t visible to the naked eye, which sees only by visible light?
DW: At the beginning of the story, the narrator describes his photography as a hobby. His images are pornographic, and pornography is never shot in infrared. It’s the use of infrared that allows his images to be seen as high art. His hobby has become a profession, and pornography has become art. It’s saying there’s something behind what we normally think of as visible.
LS: I’m wondering if that isn’t true of male-on-male sexuality in general. Does it need a different kind of light shed on it? Could it represent a form of social interaction that’s terribly important to our society, a cohesive and necessary social bond, even though huge segments of our society denounce it, pretend it isn’t important, pretend, in fact, that it’s antisocial?
DW: I think there’s a sense of that. We’re seeing more and more members of the Christian Right or right-wing Republicans whose homosexual behavior is now coming to light, from heads of multimillion member churches to people in the U.S. Congress. They claim they’re antigay, and yet their homosexuality is being made visible. This is part of the confrontation between the lack of acceptance of homosexuality in our society and the male bonding that goes on through homosexual sex all the time despite that lack of acceptance. Even if men aren’t gay, they might be bisexual, or they might have homoerotic feelings. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think a lot of men who go to places like public parks for sex are not necessarily totally gay, but they’re still interested in bonding with other men on a level deeper than just shaking a hand.
LS: It’s sad, really.
DW: Sad, yes. But also ironic—and not in a humorous way.
Copyright © 2008 Lester Strong and David Waggoner. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any other information retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the authors.