The Fantastic Baggies by William Pym


The truck was 27 feet long. It looked like the sort of vehicle you needed a special license for. It was the largest vehicle on the U-Haul fleet in a city of 300,000 people, it was the only one in town. We were out by the river, on the Kentucky line. We did some paperwork and the guy, the only employee, gave B the keys. He didn’t even watch us go. The rig was 15 years old but seemed older, its thick poured-plastic interior resembling aged hide, split like sausage skin or sycamore at various important seams. B crawled the perimeter of town to Brighton, on the west side, minimum speed. He beeped back up into the loading dock of the ice cream factory and we loaded that truck to the brim with art. Everyone hugged, and we were on our way. We were on our own. “This thing feels very heavy,” B whispered as he pulled away.

Cincinnati was named after Cincinnatus, who became leader of Rome in 460 BC, resigned immediately, and went back to being a farmer. We had spent five days there as guests of Mister Fred and Miss Fran, who lived in a long loft of waxed wood. We ate chilli over spaghetti. There was a Harley-Davidson parked in the middle of the main space. Mister Fred was something like a hippy landlord. One night he took us to the bar he owned, the Tiki Hut. The music was great there. He owned the ice cream factory containing the complete archive of the 1980s art collective TODT, and that’s the reason we were there.

B warmed up his brain, cornering methodically through downtown, threading narrow corners and using his mirrors to get around parked cars. He settled his ass in the seat, got familiar. We felt like we were in charge. B pulled out strong on to the highway, the first of four huge roads we were going to be on for the next 600 miles. Immediately, the suspension started bouncing on its springs. The chassis beneath us flexed like bone. We feared for our lives within five miles of the city limits. We had just begun a two-day journey.

The guy at the U-Haul had suggested to B that he try and drive 50 the whole way, explaining that this was the sort of unit that didn’t have much holding it together. He had known the deal. The engine began having a fit at 55, in protest that promised to lead to a conniption. B trundled into a giant parking lot. Six lanes of traffic raced beside us. We didn’t know what to do with this truck, which was both loaded with impossibly heavy things and immovable on an Ohio highway roadside. Did we have insurance with U-Haul. Did we have credit cards that could cover whatever cost was around the corner. Who were we to call. Where were we. 

We could see our breath inside the cab, and the engine smoked softly in solidarity. Our lives stood still. On the side of the road in America, a man eventually came to fix the engine. He left. The truck perked up and seemed to suggest it had pulled itself together. Further memories of these hours with no options are long gone. Our journey began in earnest. 

It was late winter, a mean March frost. Cold air rushed through the various bits where the plastic pod of the cab was busted. We both had on heavy coats, scarves and hats. Warm air came through the vents at full blast at all times as we loped along at 55 in the slow lane for hours. The road was hard and brittle. We were jolly. We didn’t talk about how I couldn’t drive. I rolled us joints every half hour or so, cigarettes every fifteen minutes. With gas station coffee and a transmitter broadcasting the iPod to the radio, B kept on. We danced in the cab to a whole record by the Fantastic Baggies, a synthetic surf band from LA. Sometimes I would ride the FM dial for a classic rock station.

TODT were three siblings — Joseph, Jennifer and Jerome Jaffe — who had collaborated on art for more than 40 years. They primarily made assemblage, American junkyard cyberpunk, a style that came out of the vibrant, techno-hippie experimental scene in 1970s upstate New York. For a moment, TODT had been in the trenches of the so-called culture wars of the 1980s. In 1985, sponsored by Creative Time, they installed a 30-foot-tall missile-defense system sculpture in the undeveloped shoals of Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan, pointed at the World Trade Center. If a trace of TODT existed anywhere in recent art history, this work would be remembered as one of the most arresting art images of the second half of the 20th century. Their 1991 installation Womb Wars, exhibited in 1993 at the MCA in Chicago, was described by Roberta Smith in the New York Times as “inane and garish”. No one had heard from them in about a decade; we’d met Jennifer at her home in the Philadelphia suburbs a year or two earlier. We were there on a tip from the curator Alex Baker, who’d had a tip from the curator Bennett Simpson. We lusted for intel of this sort. We walked down to Jennifer’s basement, knowing we had to do a show as soon as she tugged the chain to turn on the lightbulb down there. They were people who lived by their own rules. We were very excited to show their work.

The oldest of the three, Joe, a tiny, chainsmoking former jockey in his 70s, had disappeared after lunch one day while we were all supposed to be working on the excavation of the TODT’s archive. His absence was a cause of some consternation; two of the Jaffes were usually grumbling about the third, or there was a three-way bicker going on. It is delightful to watch adult siblings fight like children. In the late afternoon Joe came back with a bottle of serious pain pills and got back to work. He had given us a grab of these pills as parting gifts, and in the motel room 300 miles later, maybe on the western rim of Pennsylvania, in the middle of the night, we chased the meds with beer from the packy down the highway strip. We bullshitted and laughed through three beers each, at the kind of tempo where you don’t even take the paper bag off the six-pack, you just roll it down. We collapsed into dreamless sleep. 

After eggs we spent the long ride across our home state watching signs go by, thinking about tomorrow and our daily lives as we neared our destination. The trip was ending. The hours passed this way.

We wondered if we were art dealers. It was 2007. We thought about the art world, the sleaze of it. It felt to us like an elite hustle and parlor game — antiseptic, strategic, and not really punk or creative in any way. We felt, most of all, that the terms of art culture were controlled from the top. And that the art world got away with it by being fabulous. The dazzle of distraction. The art world was a grand performance, not a way to live, and we were bored of it. Who’d want to become an art dealer? We wanted to live our lives. We wanted to live art, like the contents of our truck, like the Jaffes, like this ride. Who’d want to become an art dealer?

Night came and rain fell on the highway outside Philadelphia, a bleak and soggy energy, but Center City was still. Streetlamps and silence dried out our minds. We unloaded the truck outside the skyscraper off Rittenhouse Square. We locked up the gallery and B drove an empty truck for the first time in two days. In the U-Haul night lot on Washington Ave B took the keys out of the ignition and laid them on his knee, a symbolic goodbye to this truck and to this experience. It was dawn. We sat for a minute, then said goodbye to each other. I would eventually become an art dealer.

Text taken from That Way by William Pym. Published 2018.