My friend Dan Asher arrived back in New York City in early 1978. He'd been living for some time in Paris, taking photographs of bums and rock stars and Bejart ballerinas, sometimes staying in friends' apartments, sometimes sleeping by the Seine. I don't remember where we met - maybe a coffeeshop, maybe the Gem Spa - the word "homeless" hadn't been invented yet, but he didn't have a place to live and I thought he was a genius, i.e., we hated many of the same people, so I invited him to stay with me. Dan Asher on the art world: "I'd rather be with the bums, the clochards, they're more interesting than the jerk-offs who run the culture industry!"
Dan wore a baggy overcoat and was always getting into fights with people. It was only later that he defined his condition as 'autistic,' a condition that he's since talked and written about incisively. I just accepted he was crazy, I was crazy too and so we got along. I'd fallen in with this group of people who'd gone to school at Swarthmore, Harvard and Grinnell. Dan and I were part of their transitional urban landscape, a demimonde that they'd eventually outgrow. Already in their mid-20s they were having tortured conversations about their futures. They were ridiculous, like the assholes in that book by Jean-Paul Sartre The Age of Reason. It was obvious to us there was no future. Punk suited us very well.
Dan was taking photos for some people at a magazine he hated. I was acting in a play. Often the director would look at me and say, I want you to be more vulnerable, which was a total joke. I had no money and no prospects for ever getting money. The only way I knew of paying rent was giving blowjobs in the backs of topless bars; whereas the director was receiving an allowance from his parents and had just graduated from Grinnell. Dan didn't mind it that I played the Poly Styrene record, Oh Bondage Up Yours about thirty times a day.
My roommate Tom, who was studying philosophy at the New School, slept in the bedroom, I slept in the storeroom, Dan slept on the couch. We got up around 11 after Tom had gone to school and spent hours laughing up our sleeves at everyone we knew. the apartment was completely aboriginal. It was our cave. Sometimes our conversations got so intense that I'd get up and buy a set of poster paints to write aphorisms of our thoughts inside the cupboards, on the walls.
Mostly we talked about how everything was so transparent. All that motivated anybody on the bullshit New York punk scene was their careers or fucking. The girls were worst, because mostly all they had was fucking. Stuffed into black leather fishnet outfits, leaning back against club walls they were pro bono whores, wanting all the coolest boys to love them. When I wasn't topless dancing I wore an army surplus uniform. It was beyond me why anyone would want to show their tits for free. Dan, in his baggy overcoat, was immune to anything to do with sex, found it basically disgusting. It cracked us up, how all these people were pretending to be in a state of permanent rebellion but all they really cared about was validation. Dan hated all the straight-boy rock stars. What moved us most were symbolic acts of violence and destruction. We were a two-person Junior Anti-Sex League.
Dan was broke but he wanted to go back to France. Some guy he'd met had offered to cut him in on a business proposition, but he needed 500 bucks to front it. I worked some extra shifts but then the product disappeared. When his mother finally bought his ticket, Dan felt guilty leaving without paying me back the money so he left behind a cardboard box of stuff he'd been carting around the world.
"Here Chris you can keep this box," he rasped, the morning that the plane was leaving and then I didn't see him for another twenty years.
Long ago and far away in a country something like Japan there lived a peasant man who kept a swallow as a pet. His wife was a mean and jealous woman. She thought her husband was a fool to feed the bird on scraps of his own scanty meals. One day when she was ironing, the swallow flew in through the window and knocked over a bottle of starch. The wife grabbed her broom and hit the bird and told it never to come back again.
When the man heard this he put on his boots and coat and set off into woods to find the swallow. And after he had trudged long and weary through the forest, he stopped for a moment to catch his breath. And a messenger swallow alighted on his shoulder from a tree and beckoned him to into a clearing. The man hesitated for a moment, but then he went. And when he got into the clearing he saw a house - a straw house, flecked with silver and gold. It was the finest house the man had ever seen. A woman stepped out of the straw house. She was tall, with long black hair and softly solemn eyes. She told her cooks to prepare a banquet, she told her ladies-in-waiting to dance before the man. She said, The swallow is but one of my many forms.
You were very kind to me. Your kindness shall be repaid.
I missed him. Weeks passed before I got around to opening the box. And when I did, there was a set of photographs he took of Patti Smith, Keith Richards, Tom Verlaine. Some beads and feathers. And then a pile of books: the writings of the Dadaist Hugo Ball, some books in French by Antonin Artuad. Plon's first edition of Simone Weil's Gravity and Grace, in French, La Pesanteur et la grace. The writings of Ulrike Meinhof, including Meinhof's screenplay translated into French as Le Foyer. I bought a dictionary, started reading.
Though it hadn't occured to me to be an artist, Dan's box contained everything I'd work on. And this took 15 years.
Page 35, Aliens & Anorexia by Chris Kraus