Wednesday, January 13, 2010
SPELUNKING 5 MAYNARD
People might call it installation art, something like Christo wrapping the Reichstag in cloth.
Making the piece would first involve creating a colossal detrital mountain of newspaper, mail, plastic, shoes, forks, car parts, and then letting it sit and settle for thirty years. Maybe you would have to compress it somehow, water it, and turn it into a solid sedimentary mass. Then you would tunnel through it like a West Virginia coal miner, creating tiny caverns as you went, connecting them with a maze of narrow arteries. Your shoulders would brush the walls as you wandered through, and as you looked right and left, the stratified walls would tell a story, like growth rings of a downed oak, or the walls of the Grand Canyon.
Or you could visit Ralph Bennett at 5 Maynard Street. Lucky for me, I had official business. You’d need official business. I’ll bet not too many people except Ralph have been in here for thirty years. No one else could fit.
When the door opened, there was Ralph, bent sharply from the waist, dressed in layers of frayed sweatshirts and sweatpants. In his right hand he held a rough walking stick. His left hand was held out to steady himself against the wall.
My eyes were drawn past Ralph down into a hallway, a tunnel really, that ended in darkness not to far away. All I could see behind Ralph see were layers of “junk” (debatable) piled from floor to ceiling. A narrow footpath cut neatly through it all, as if the walls had been sliced with a huge knife. I thought of lasagna.
“Come on in,” Ralph said, as he executed a shuffling turn within the confines of the tunnel. He walked toward the darkness and called back to me.
“Just close the door behind you,” he said, his both palms were held out now, brushing the walls, the cane hung from his wrist.
Then after a second he added, “Not much room in here.”
This he added, not apologetically, but more like a Park Ranger at Carlsbad Caverns. In retrospect I wonder if he was letting me know that my visit should be brief and to the point.
There was one anemic bulb hanging above us. It shed a buttery light, enough to make a cursory inspection of the strata. It was an amazing layering of newspaper, scrap metal, books, radios, mail, paint cans, boxes. They all fit together with a kind of precision, the rounded car alternator tucked perfectly against the concave shape of copper flashing, the cigar boxes of various shapes, all knit together like mosaics. When the tunnel turned to the left, and Ralph turned with it, the walls did not make hard angles, but rather bent softy like they might in a natural cave.
The only open space was the path through which we walked. Ever other literal cubic inch was filled with Ralph’s collected world. A trash compactor could not have done a better job
Ralph’s bed had been carved into a wall somewhere along the way. I say “along the way” because I had quickly lost any sense of being in a standard square roomed apartment. I could not say that Ralph’s bed was in a bedroom, or that it was next to the kitchen or across the hall from the bathroom, or that the walls were yellow or the floor was tiled. I now felt as if I was in a Grecian cave, and Ralph was some monk who had stumbled upon it and had taken refuge.
It was Ralph’s nest, however, with its few but eccentric touches, that put me entirely over the edge. The gently curving walls and their content might be dismissed as a display of some sort of pathology. But Ralph’s walls were not just flat expanses of sheetrock, they were three-dimensional masses of depth and character. The walls, however, are but a mere peek into Ralph Bennett’s mind.
A dozen or more guitars hung down from the ceiling, above and around the recessed niche that held Ralph’s narrow mattress. Some were half shattered. Some were fairly exploded, pounded into the floorboards by some deranged rocker. Most had the varnish worn off. More than a few were painted red and orange. The entire guitar curtain somehow made me think of those plastic beaded ones. But Ralph is not the beaded curtain type of guy.
“I used to repair ‘em,” Ralph told me, “but I can’t get to it like I used to do. It was the only thing I really enjoyed doin’ back then.” He became very quiet.
I never did find out much more about Ralph. I wanted to know about the things Ralph did “back then,” what makes him tick now, how did this masterpiece come to happen. But that wasn’t to be.
I had no sooner put the last piece of tape on Ralph’s stomach than he swung his feet down from the mattress and grabbed his cane.
“You go ahead,” he told me, pointing with the tip of his cane.
On my way out I noticed a few more alternators, a number of computer keyboards, an eight-track player, phonebooks and a George Foreman grill. The thousands of pieces of paper, the mail, the odd piece of cloth, wove through it all, binding it like mortar.
When I opened the door onto Maynard Street the light struck me like some sort of atomic flash. The visual expanse seemed incredibly open and endless compared to Ralph’s tight cavern.
When I turned back, Ralph was folded over in that arthritic jackknifed posture, looking at the ground. He had one hand on the doorknob and the other on his stick.
“Thank you,” he said, and then he closed the door.