Fear and onions

There is something terribly wrong here. It’s not something that I can wrap words around or poke at with poetic insights or adorn with rhetorical ribbon. It’s under the skin, like the first few hours of influenza, a nervous, sweaty panic.

Something is going to happen here. It’s going on behind my back and in the chrome that shines with fish-eye distortion. Cowboy Man keeps looking at us. He chokes every time he laughs. A woman’s eyelids droop with a Thorazine laziness, and she tells me I had better quit biting my fingernails or something real bad is going to happen to me. Something god-awful bad.

The Telway Hamburger System (that’s what it’s called in the Yellow Pages) sits on the corner of 11 Mile and John R in Madison Heights. You’ve been to places like this before, where soft little gutbombs of meat steamed with onions go for less than a buck. Where old men and drunken teenage girls come to get their medicine, talking loud and sloppy and pissing off the red-shirted ladies bagging up their slop. You know the place ... the dirty little 3 a.m. secret.

Most come here wounded. Smashed upside the head by booze or loneliness or madness. The lights go right through you. The waitresses swim in a soup of anger and boredom and “There ya go, hon.” The onion-air settles onto the skin like a big fat grandma hug. People are looking at each other, trying not to cry, holding in their screams until they get home.

Graem Whyte is nodding and squinting at the menu board. “OK ... let’s see ... maybe we should get one of everything? ... Hmmmm.” Whyte is a sculptor who lives in Detroit. He’s a bartender as well. Two occupations perfectly suited for pain and fear and loneliness. He points out a tank-topped man with bandages under his arms. I look, and fear belches once again from the netherworld.

Whyte makes big things with cloth and leather and vinyl and plastic. He makes small things with metal and paper and pipe. He’s had a handful of arty shows at arty places with arty names: detroit contemporary, Detroit Artists Market. He’s gone to arty schools: Lawrence Tech and CCS. He hangs with the arty set. He drinks French beer and probably owns a turtleneck. But he escapes the stereotype when he opens his mouth. He never talks about art, never infuses the description of his work with haughty meaning, unnecessary relevance. I think he just likes to get shit under his fingernails.

So, what do you think about art, Graem? Why are you an artist, Graem? What is it that drives you to create such whimsy as God’s Teat or Jackson’s Ass and ask people to buy them?

“I like it.”

He likes it.

The Cowboy Man yells my way. “Why you taking pictures in here?” He wants a piece of us — I can feel it. He’s gonna wait outside, gonna wait for the faggots who are taking pictures in here ... fear... onions. ...

The food comes on 10 little white plates. Couple of bombs on this plate, a fish thing on that plate, a glop of chili fries quivering under the burning light. We don’t talk for a while. If we were drunk they would go down a lot faster. So we study them, the way the meat seems to melt into the bun, rendering it indiscernible from the soft, warm bread. The droopy-eyed lady says the steam kills all the bad stuff in the meat. “Lotta bad stuff in meat, ya know. The steam kills the carcinogens. You got a computer?”

I want to know the bad stuff, the stuff that’s wrong and grotesque. I ask him who was overrated in the art world. I asked him who smelled bad.

1) “... anyone who goes by a one-word name.”

There’s no pumpkin pie, no chocolate cream. If we want pie, it’s apple or nothing.

2) “Ed Syke’s feet. Ed’s feet got pretty bad there for a while. They’re better now. Chris Turner can get a little ripe.”

There’s a fella at the register who’s talking to whoever will listen: “Can’t beat the Telway shake, man! No fucking way, man! Fucking Telway shake, man! You cannot beat the Telway shake, man!” wounded ... afraid ... screaming. ...

Whyte finishes his apple pie and we leave.

Dan Demaggio eats with interesting people for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]
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