Wagner Bites the Big Apfel


Copyright 1992, 1995 by Kathy Biehl. All rights reserved. Permission is granted for electronic replication of this article only if you include the copyright notice.

Seventeen days, six cities, five residences, three states, two people

and a bust

I used to say that traipsing all over Houston in 100-degree peak humidity in the summer of 1992 with a beat-up bust of Richard Wagner was the stupidest thing I'd ever done. I didn't know then how I would end up spending half of October.

It started when my sister Karen sent a smart-ass postcard to Doc, Compendium pen pal and caretaker of the far-roaming, well-worn star of booklet and video. (She'd received a set of his Wagner booklets, which I'd ordered as her birthday present.) Almost as a throwaway, she'd scribbled the postscript that sealed our fate: "This is Wagner's first invitation to New York."

We showed her: We showed up.

Elevating the endeavor to official Society expedition by her very participation, Brooklyn-based Lady Elaine graciously supplied weekend accommodations, rain gear, directions, advice and, when her schedule allowed, companionship both entertaining and bemused. We invaded her home for a few days, cleared out when her roommates returned from their double life as rural antique purveyors (an occupation that has strewn their architecturally quirky city digs with weird old signs, such as "Danger: High Voltage" on the front door) and came back shamelessly once they left. It was the 180-degree-turn tour from the start. Turn right; turn left; look at a map; turn around. "Someone sucked out our brains when we landed," Doc explained near the end of the first week, "and would they please give them back???" I specialized in misreading maps of the subway line, while Doc researched combinations and permutations of wrong turns on the route between the subway station and Elaine's apartment. For which we had written directions. Wagner was no help. (As usual, he just went along for the ride.) In fact, in tandem with Doc's PXL camera, he became quite a pain in the lower back.

The indigenous population, on the other hand, was quick to offer assistance, sometimes before we consciously sent out signs of needing it. The first time we strayed from Elaine's prescribed path from the subway, a Brooklyn resident gave us a whole new route and the wish "good luck." He'd routed us alongside a mammoth, menacing housing project, which we had to cut back through, well after one in the morning, to get to home-away-from-home; we made it without incident, beyond comments about white people. Caught in a rainstorm unprepared, Doc and I took shelter under a shop canopy while Elaine walked around Fifth Avenue in search of umbrellas for sale. Within minutes, two men approached us, one in a suit and one holding a cardboard box. "Wanna buy an umbrella?" the suited one asked, while his assistant handed over the goods for a mere $3 each. When she rounded the corner empty-handed, she was amused to see that the mountain had come to Mohammed. On a bus, a well-dressed man told Elaine which line runs up to St. John the Divine, asked where we were all from, and launched into late-80s-vintage Houston jokes (Doc and Wagner's Arizona hometown being a less attractive target for potshots), which he was still telling when we made our way up to the front of the bus and disembarked.

Elaine led us on foot from Brooklyn across the Brooklyn Bridge to the base of the World Trade Center, where Wagner met the person who had instigated this endeavor, and Doc interviewed anyone who'd ask him about his camera. (It looks like a sleek, high tech device but is really a discontinued Fisher-Price toy. It records audio and visuals at phenomenally high speed on metal cassette tape and produces grainy, b&w images with the clarity of surveillance footage.) We didn't attract much attention; the ongoing street theater routinely upstaged anything we were up to. Wandering through the financial district we crossed paths with an extremely politically correct Columbus Day parade (complete with sloganned caskets) protesting no end of Old World evils perpetrated on New World soil. A few blocks up at Trinity Church, one of the parade onlookers was a middle-aged woman in a silver lam‚ tea length dress and tennis shoes. In the East Village we came across a man in a foam refrigerator, who was promoting a film about a household appliance gone demonic. In the West Village, a pair of Pakistani capitalists treated Doc's request for a photo ID for Wagner with dead earnestness. They described the available formats in ludicrous detail, and kept trying to guide us to one requiring a social security number, which we would have had to make up a fact they pointed out nonjudgmentally. I made up a year of birth and forged his signature; Doc held the subject still for his photo.

We escorted Wagner to the tops of the World Trade Center and the crown of the Statue of Liberty (where a few French tourists seemed moderately puzzled.) (We left him behind for the late-night jaunt up the Empire State Building.) For the price of two damned good Broadway tickets we took him up in a helicopter ride that circled Lady Liberty and the roofs of Manhattan. We made a pilgrimage to the Algonquin Hotel, where the doorman's fascination for the camera prompted him to spill stream-of-consciousness gossip about the celebrities (now mostly actors) he has encountered and how much they tipped him.

With Elaine again in tow, we stumbled upon a Chinese-American Buddhist shrine with a multi- shelved tray stacked with bottles of cooking oil; ferreted out an industrial plastic store with petroleum byproducts in every imaginable craft size and shape (including that ubiquitous gal about town, Ms. Liberty); and walked into our own shaggy dog story. Elaine had heard about the Earth Room installation at the Dia Foundation in Soho, this from a friend whose taste and opinion she trusts and values. She thought it was around the corner from the plastic shop, but we walked up to Houston St. without seeing it. (Any further would have been Noho, you see, and no longer the correct neighborhood.) She went into a shop (which sold Hawaiian decorating items) for directions. The saleswoman didn't know, but ran outside to ask an artist who was working in the street. He directed us to the same block a few streets over. We combed that block without locating our destination. We ducked into a gallery and, stepping carefully over and around an installation scattered across the floor, asked a receptionist for directions. She didn't know the address, but described what she thought the building looked like. The one that matched her description had, at the side of the doorway, a small engraved address plate that said something like "EARTH ROOM INSTALLATION DIA FOUNDATION (1977) RING BUZZER." We rang, waited for the lock to buzz open, climbed a flight of stairs, and walked into a suite with three rooms filled a couple of feet high with black dirt. We looked at each other and burst out laughing. Doc later wished he'd tossed Wagner onto the middle of the dirt.

In the Museum of the Moving Image (next to the Paramount Astoria studios where early Marx Bros. and W.C. Fields films were shot), our inspection of an exhibit on the history and development of movie makeup (including special effect) was disrupted by the cacophonous clamoring of visitors in the room behind ours. The throng, which turned out to be a gang of highly vocal retarded adults, quickly entered our midst, and one of them appointed Doc his personal answer man.

Our midweek home was the cushy midtown apartment of an opera singer chum who was off working in Europe. Wagner met a somewhat more diminutive bust of Mozart, and we met the mesmerizing wonders of Manhattan cable, from insurance experts with the sartorial flair of tax accountants to psychics, psychics and more psychics. The first was the Psycho Psychic, who told obnoxiously unfunny jokes and insisted on wearing a penis-nosed set of glasses before "answering" questions from viewers calling in. I got through to one, an adenoidal woman named Dr. D, who advised me, as she did all the other callers, that we were moving into sensitive matters that should be discussed in private, such as on her private line for free the next night. (I did call, but a machine answered. Instead of leaving a message, I tied up the phone line trying to get through to the blues-loving psychic then on the air, for the entire duration of his show.) About the time of night that the psychic shows wound down, Channel J kicked in, filled with commercials for 976 numbers with suffixes like TWAT and PISS (the promo for which actually simulated golden showers from an off-screen source) and interrupted by the occasional stripping segment. "They can't do that on tv, can they?" Doc would repeatedly cry out, whereupon the unbelievable would proceed to take place on screen.

These things have a way of mushrooming, especially when this particular trio converges, and the itinerary expanded well beyond its original parameters. Doc and Wagner met quite a parade of my friends and relations. On the East Coast alone, there were sister Karen (who serenaded Wagner with "Why Don't We Get Drunk and Screw" in an ultimate dive called the Village Idiot, whose beautiful young bartendress pitched ice at customers as a behavior control technique); my favorite aunt (who pointed out a New Jersey butcher shop whose owner refused to clear out his regular customers in advance of a shopping trip by one Mr. Nixon); my pal since grade school Hugh (who was in the States on holiday from investment-advising a London-based Saudi Arabian sheik) and Hugh's and my mutual friends Dena and Houston (who conducted a Jack-terrier-enhanced tour of the New York hamlet that gave the tuxedo its name).

And that was just in the first week. We moved our party to Dallas, where every other member of my immediate family would sooner or later come within Wagner's ambit. The first main stop was Dealey Plaza, one of the primary reasons for Wagner & Co.'s return to Texas, the other being free entry into the Houston Grand Opera's dress rehearsal of Lohengin. We couldn't find a convertible, so I drove my trusty Corolla (gunning at 40 mph despite being trapped in 1st gear I had no third hand to shift gears with a load of traffic on its tail) down Elm Street holding Wagner out the open passenger window, while Doc recorded the event from the vantage point of the grassy knoll. He made the acquaintance of a pair of conspiracy freaks, who seemed not the slightest bit perplexed by our little tableau.

From there it was on to the State Fair, escorted by my sister-in-law and adored nephew, where we waited in vain for Big Tex to speak (he dwarfs Wagner in size, but hardly in stature; certainly not in ego), searched without success for any remnant of the freak shows of yesteryear, and recorded Wagner's fortune being intoned by the magical mechanical Zoltan. I also paid a visit on the Daughters of the American Revolution to seek out information that Left-Brained Lady Susan has been needing to gain membership, for which she is genealogically qualified. The membership director not only answered Susan's question (thereby easing the entry into the DAR of an outspoken, sexual-aid-designing dyke), but gushed a wish that she could help me obtain membership as well. Maturity and politeness controlled my facade. If she only knew, on both counts.

Before heading south, we stopped outside the home of the president of the Dallas Wagner Society. Doc has been sending her Wagner booklets anonymously, one at a time, and we thought a photo of the bust at her own home might finally get a response.

She was indirectly connected with the highlight of the Houston leg of the trip a lecture at the Goethe-Institute about Wagner's relationship with animals. When we entered the sparsely attended auditorium, I was startled by the sight of a mailing tube addressed to the speaker with a return address of our last Dallas stop. I alerted one of the Institute employees that Wagner was present, and she suggested telling the speaker. "Wagner's here," I shouted out to a well-dressed woman who appeared to be in her sixties. She looked at Doc and seemed to be focusing on his ponytail. "Not him," I said, "he's here," and pointed at the black canvas bag in which the bust travels. The woman lit up and exclaimed, "Are you the people who've been videotaping that bust all over town?" She knew who we were. She'd read the Wagner Houston diary I'd written for the Houston Press. ("I could have kicked myself! I wish I had done that!") So had other people in the audience. My Institute pal fashioned a pedestal (a stool draped with fabric), and Wagner served as visual aid for the speech, as well as the punchline for the Docent's joke about how far she'd fallen since speaking in Chicago alongside a multi-thousand dollar likeness of the composer. "Do you call this performance art?" she asked us breathlessly at the evening's end, after holding forth, wine glass in hand, on camera next to the guest of honor.

Not everyone reacted so smoothly to the Master's unannounced return. At a party for the Orange Show, the folk art environment at which Wagner had made his Houston debut last June, the assistant director was unnerved when she spotted us. A university student friend of hers had been asking how to get in touch with Doc, and there he was. Seeker and sought spoke later that evening. The student had been assigned to choose a photographer whose work she admired and emulate it. She'd chosen Doc (who, it should be pointed out, uses a thrift-store instamatic). The focus of her pictures, which she would present before her classmates at the University of Houston, was a loaf of bread from an upscale health food store. Each battered in its own way (the loaf had its innards partially kicked out), bust and bread met in broad daylight.

To fill some of the time before the return gig of Herman the German, a hell of a guitarist who dresses in a fake W.W.I outfit and plays heavily reverbed rockabilly twang/full tilt surf polka, not to mention strangely accented Gene Vincent covers, we headed down to Galveston. There Doc became obsessed with portraits of the Three Stooges and Dan Quayle, composed entirely, and frighteningly accurately, of naturally colored slivers of rice straw. They hang in the Straw Art Museum, in the upper gallery of an ancient drug store on 23rd St., along with an array of celebrity portraits (Tony Danza??) and scads of letters from well-known people all across the country whom the Indian-born proprietor had been pestering with his handiwork.

That evening, after three guys in a truck pushed us out of the sand bank I'd driven into, subscribers Elizabeth and Paolo Nelson staged a zilch in Wagner's honor. In an unlit room, they set fire to a braided dry-cleaning bag, which dripped audibly (hence the name) into steaming dry ice.

En route to the airport, we returned to the scene of the perceived crime, the barbecue joint that had accused us last summer of shoplifting Wagner. Doc signed the register "Richard Wagner" and wrote under comments, "Thanks for not arresting me this time." Just as all good things must come to an end, so must stupid ones. Besides, we had to go back to work to pay off the freshly minted credit card charges. Or rather, two of us did. As did his flesh-and-blood predecessor, Wagner has a way of dodging the bill.

Excerpted from Ladies' Fetish & Taboo Society Compendium of Urban Anthropology
Winter of Our Discontent '92, Vol. V, No. 4.

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