The year was 1989. The car was a Volkswagen, its right front windshield smashed and cracked in an incident on I-95 involving the daughter of a professor at the University of Rhode Island and the owner of the car, a Mr. Willoughby Sharp. The destination on this crisp fall day was the tiny waterfalls at the center of Paterson, N.J., where Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and William Carlos Williams had purportedly picnicked 75 years before. The mission: to recreate that picnic.
Even at my louchest, I still felt a tingle of risk as an animated Willoughby sucked on a reefer and passed a bottle of wine to his current girlfriend in the backseat, which also contained two other woman and a balding New Jersey painter, while I, riding shotgun behind the blasted windshield, parried Willoughby’s sharp insults ("we’re making history, Finch, and you’re lucky to be a part of it") while balancing a picnic basket full of contraband and goodies on my lap.
Paterson was, and is, a rough industrial town with 25 percent unemployment, a large criminal element and the cops to match. Toking up in an effort to relax only increased the overall paranoia in the rocking VW bug. Just as Sharp was making a point about his favorite painter, Nicholas de Stael, the sirens blared; the cops would have been visible in the rearview mirror if Willoughby had one, and the other passengers were too stoned to care.
Willoughby pulled over, I tried hard not to blow my cookies, the police officer got out of the car and damnation loomed, not to mention dark moments in the Paterson pokey.
Tipping his ever-present bowler hat and adjusting his front false tooth, Mr. Sharp, standing like a giant, looked down at the cop and addressed him, "I am Professor Sharp of the University of Rhode Island and these are my students and colleagues. I am an authority on contemporary art, and we are on our way to be feted at the Paterson Museum, and to have a picnic at your historic waterfalls. How can I help you, officer?"
So impressed was the cop by this intimidating flimflam that he excused himself and let us go! Willoughby got behind the wheel and turned to me, "Charlie, where’s that joint?" "I swallowed it!" "Well, then hurry up and roll another one, damn it!!" His roar is still ringing in my ears, above the silence which awaits us all.
Willoughby Sharp died on Dec. 17, 2008, at St. Rose's Home on the Lower East Side, after a long battle with throat cancer. He was 72. For more info on Willoughby Sharp, see "Sharpshooter," Oct. 3, 2007, and visit Sharpville.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).