Wounded in the Arts
It was the time of the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston. In the “Peoples’ Republic of Cambridge” George Bush and Dick Cheney impersonators were going to field questions from the audience at the Zeitgeist Gallery in Inman Square.
Nick Wyneken and I decided that the sidewalk in front of the gallery would be a perfect place for our “Wounded in the War” Skraeling Totem (see photo on facing page) to make its first public appearance. A few hours before the event we hoisted the ten-foot monster onto the top of my old station wagon, drove a few uneventful minutes to the gallery, and found a parking space right in front. With help from bystanders the colorful giant was untied and propped against a thirty-foot tree at the curb. The Skraeling faced the door and large windows of the gallery, as if waiting for the show to begin. People were impressed with the mere presence of such a large personification with a message.
A dog on a leash stopped in its tracks and barked at the unusual sight, growling as its owner forcibly dragged him past by the leash.
Fearing that the being might fall and kill someone, we decided to tie it to the tree.
As the evening and event wore on, Nick and I thought it would be “great” to leave the “Wounded in the War” guy in place, semi-permanent. It was then that we chained and locked him to the tree, technically breaking a city ordinance or two.
Late the next day I got a call from our friend Alan Nidle, owner of the Zeitgeist. He said he heard a rumor that the city took the totem away in the early morning. I called one of my favorite politicians, City Councilwoman Henrietta Davis, to find out what the chain of command is in such circumstances. She called back saying that I should call John Trant at “the Works,” the official name of Cambridge’s department of public works.
Before she could move on to more important Democratic business, I asked her about the efficiency of “the Works” picking up unsolicited public art off a sidewalk in less than twelve hours. I said that if I had put a washing machine or refrigerator on the sidewalk I’d need to purchase a permit from the city to haul it away, but a piece of political art gets rounded up in a matter of hours. She refused to comment.
I thanked her for her time, as she was hurrying to the convention.
It was late Friday afternoon when I called Mr. Trant. A receptionist told me I could leave a message, which I did: “Mr. Trant, This is Robert Smith. I was told by Councilwoman Henrietta Davis that you might have picked up a large piece of art from in front of the Zeitgeist Gallery; if so, please call me as soon as possible.”
The weekend passed without any word, but Monday morning at eight sharp my phone woke me up. “Hello, Robert Smith?”
“This is John Trant at “the Cambridge Works”; we have your totem pole, but if you want it you’ve got to show up with positive identification because there is a citation for it.”
“A citation, for how much?”
“One hundred dollars.”
“A hundred dollars?! That’s a lot for a first offense.”
“I have a discretionary between 25 and 300 dollars. You wanna make it 300?”
Instantaneously and with conviction I answered, “No. Make it 25 and I’ll come and get it right now.”
There was a momentary silence, then a pleasant, “OK.”
After a few minutes wait at “the Works” office, John Trant came to meet me. He was holding a neatly folded American flag that had been the “Wounded in the War” guy’s cape. He had me pay the agreed upon $25 ransom and gave me a receipt. He made some derogatory remark about the “Zeitgeist Gallery” and how you think you can go around town and put anything you want up in public. I interrupted him and said, “This has nothing to do with the Zeitgeist. A friend and I decided to put this up without their knowledge.” He answered, “Yes, but if the Zeitgeist wasn’t there you would not have done it.” He had me there, so I gave up the argument. Then he led me out to the back lot holding cell.
By the looks of the Skraeling he had obviously been tortured and mutilated. His neck was broken and he had a dislocated shoulder. Mr. Trant read my mind and said that it was hard to remove it from the tree and it did not fit into the truck. I said nothing.
John Trant treated me with respect and politeness. He told me I could get my car and drive into the lot. “You can pull right up to it and I’ll help you lift it onto your roof.”
I got the feeling that John was curious to meet the person who would pay to get something like this back. His demeanor changed over the few minutes we had spent talking about the Zeitgeist Gallery and unsolicited public art. He seemed apologetic that the guy had been so mistreated and impressed that I took it all in stride, just happy to have gotten him back.
As I was about to leave John said to wait, that there was something missing.
Nearby on the ground was a box. He picked it up and brought it over to me. It was all the small items, buttons, medallions, ribbons, ad hoc skraeling necessities that had fallen off during removal and in transit. For that and my interesting visit to the Cambridge “works,” I was sublimely surprised.