On my first day as an art handler, in the very first hour, I was told, "You'll be bagging fish."
I said OK.
Instructed to wait for Tom the Fish Guy, I bided my time while swarms of industry formed and dissolved around me. Crates were assembled and ejected from the premises. Forklifts cruised by, transporting inscrutable loads. Tom the Fish Guy finally arrived at the civilized hour of 11:30, large, jolly and bearded, booming, "Excellent! Let's get lunch!"
Not a bad beginning for a career. The fish turned out to be of the live variety, and there was a special trick to slipping the rubber band on, which I'm sure I didn't master. Then again, how many times is a man called upon to bag fish?
If you're an art handler, the answer is, probably at least once -- along with everything else. In the three or four years I've been at it, I've had to do more odd things than I ever expected would be my lot. Find a neon transformer in an hour, somewhere in Westchester County? No problem. Install a painting without touching the wall? I'm you're man. Figure out how to ship 100 square feet of cast plastic, or a piece of rice paper as thin as your breath? Someone try to make me nervous.
What makes the job most surreal, though, are the contrasts. On any given day in New York, an art handler sees the full pageant of human pathologies. He argues with the sullen traffic cop, chews the cud with the fey gallerist, pauses for a respectful silence with the service elevator guy and, inevitably, stands contrite before the fickle client in his 40 gazillion dollar penthouse.
He drives a truck, which turns his collar blue if it wasn't already, but his partner is also likely to have an MFA and to talk Derrida with the best of them. You never get bored handling art. You just get beat.
And you can get spooked. Every art handler has a fear of damaging his cargo, which, after all, can hover up in the 10 million dollar range. It's something you learn to live with, or at least displace into colorful neurosis. Almost everyone I know has had a near miss -- and a few have had worse.
One guy I knew a few years back found himself in an elevator once, stuck with a metal sculpture that was too long to get through the door and too fragile to be turned sideways. While putting together a makeshift platform for the piece to rest on, he went a little too fast and drove a screw clean through the base of the sculpture. This, just as the appraisers were expected to show. As the story goes, he was able to claim that the piece was unsafe for delivery and whisk it away for an expert restoration, with no one the wiser.
Except for him, of course. That screw still was still there, glowing metaphor-red in his mind long after the real one was rolling in the gutter. A few months later, in fact, he left art handling for a job on Wall Street. Where, presumably, the risks are measurably lower.
A more famous case gave the imp of the perverse something to really brag about. Back in the 80s, a man we'll call Frank Farrell was filming two of his employees carrying an insanely expensive work into a building. Some say it was a Still, others a Rothko. In any event, just as the handlers started into the elevator, the doors shut unexpectedly onto the piece. And there was Frank, documenting the debacle himself, like a cheating husband leaving a message on his home phone by mistake.
The minor disaster stories are legion, of course. I've had some bad scrapes myself, none of them fatal and most of them defensible. But truth to tell, the damage done doesn't bother me as much as the news to come. News, say, about a heavy mirror.
Not long ago, I was in an Upper East Side apartment, installing just such a mirror into a wall of fresh plaster, under the watchful eye of a husband and wife. The thing probably weighed 50 pounds and couldn't be rested on its bottom edge because of its complex frame. Instead, my partner and I had to take turns holding it off the ground while the other did the smart work. The existing wiring looked like something from the Reign of Terror -- and could well have been, for all I knew. The mistress of the house gave me a little of its history, which seemed to trace back at least that far.
My partner doubled and coiled the wire. I measured and re-measured my marks. The piece went up and stayed up. It was centered on the wall. It was level. It was fine. It wasn't going anywhere. We breathed. And only then were we told that the woman would be putting her bed beneath it.
"Her" bed? An image like that raises lots of questions. Why were these two sleeping separately? Were they not together, in fact? More to the point -- what motivates anyone, single or hitched, to put their dreaming head beneath a 50-pound mirror?
I haven't heard anything back about that installation yet, but it doesn't really matter. I can well imagine that woman going to sleep nights, forgetting all the complicated worries of the day, just as I do far across town The things that don't fall but could, and arguably really should
You could make a painting out of that.