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The Sideways Sofa

I worked hard and saved all my money to get into Pratt Institute.  Even so, the vast majority of the tuition I had to funnel into that Brooklyn school of art and engineering was paid for by bank loans.  Delayed a full semester by months of paperwork, I was pretty excited to get there in January of ’88.  One cold weekend I settled into my new dorm.

Located in the heart of Clinton Hill, Brooklyn; Pratt Institute had fallen on some hard times (though the administration had taken pains to “gussy up” the corpse, you might say).  For unbeknownst to new students flowing in, the cosmetic improvements that were shown off for parents during move-in week were not a sign of a financially healthy school (indeed, the School of Engineering closed down a year after I arrived).  They had just built a’ temporary’ dorm called Pantas Hall that was slated to be torn down two years hence.

Scratchin’ and survivin,’ good times.

Willoughby dorm, the main student residence, was an 18 story concrete high rise with balconies that sat in a row of two other identical buildings.   To me, at first sight, it looked just like the projects that the Evanses lived in, in “Good Times.”  It had a security desk on the first floor and a barely functioning elevator with the door painted a morbid red color.  In a stroke of luck, I was assigned to the second floor and got to avoid the elevator.  I found out later on I’d missed out on several episodes where the dorm lift  (students called it “The Hellavator”) was stuck for up to half an hour (as well as several potential encounters with a pretentious guitar-strumming fellow who called himself “6” and would ride the elevator up and down, over and over).

I was the 1st of 4 roommates to arrive that day to room #218, a “double” it was called.  Louie from suburban DC, Tom from upstate New York, and Chris from Queens joined me soon enough for what was an awkward meet and greet.  We ranged in age from 19-24, with me the lone 20 year old.  We sat our stuff down on our assigned spots, relaxed a little and had a couple of beers.

Just talking to them for a few minutes, I could tell that, mixed in with their jokes, they were serious about being there.  Me, I wasn’t so sure (but I had gotten used to always feeling that way).  I would have to wait until I got into the course load, called ‘foundation’ (I may have been a Graphic Design major, but I still had to take basic painting, drawing and 3-D object design before I could really get going).   After all, I had kind of fallen into art school only because I could draw, and by the time I arrived I really didn’t know if I my lack of interest would allow me to last there until I’d even started the Graphic Design curriculum, one year later.

Me and James

Pretty soon (after a few classes) I found out I didn’t really belong there.  I could DO it, I just had no drive to do it (and I was the only kid that liked typography, a class all the other Design majors detested).  I decided to just “exist” there awhile and see if anything made me feel any different.  In the meantime, since I wasn’t doing much homework, and to avoid boredom, I needed to find some like minded people (non-belongers) to hang out with.

My friend James was, like me, from Miami.  In fact I went to High School with him.  I didn’t know him all that well back then but I could tell later that he didn’t belong at Pratt either.  He was a photography major who didn’t really want to do photography (though he was good at it).  Several times I had to (usually unsuccessfully) wake him up in the morning so he’d even go to class.  He liked to stay up all night either playing the board game Axis & Allies or playing Gunship (an early video game where it seemed the object was to do nothing but fly around: thwap-thwap-thwap said the rotors), anything but the course work.  We got to be good friends and drinking buddies at Pratt.

On move-in day in the dorms I met a fellow transfer student from New Jersey who, it turned out, was quite special.  He both belonged and didn’t belong in this school.  Stuart was a lanky guy with acid washed jeans and long black hair (he looked, well, ‘80’s) who stuck to his course load and always did his work; but he also seemed to have all the time in the world to engage in the fuckery I found endlessly funny.  He was an artist (and fellow Graphics major) who didn’t consider himself to be one.  Stu, like James, would go far to help me ease my boredom there.

Stuart and I found entertainment just by looking around at all the art posers around us.  Many of these kids apparently felt that, as they had newly arrived to the art capitol of NYC, they now had to make an immediate mark – that they had to distinguish themselves in some way.  Stuart and I of course felt no such impulse (and James certainly didn’t).  It was too easy to make yourself look unusual (though many did anyway); it was considered more challenging to just be weird, as if the weirdness itself legitimized them and lent their art an added gravitas.

Along with “6,” there were 3 other students I knew of who referred to themselves as numbers (making a perhaps trenchant but, by then, trite observation about depersonalization).  There was a witch; a guy who called himself “Killer,” and identical twin brothers who went around handing out free breast exam flyers.  There were several who wore black and pouted all the time (like retired Cure fans), as if in great physical pain, a couple of them even (unnecessarily) limping around with walking canes (maybe making a statement about the elderly).  Several other kids made a point of sitting down in circles, in the middle of busy hallways, chatting noisily.  Everybody seemed interested in performance art.

The Witch and “Killer” befriended one another and started a radio show (which broadcast from our dorm building) called “The Cat and The Killer.”  Now, Stuart and I (thought we) never begrudged anybody’s attempts to be different or to make a statement.  But nobody likes obnoxiousness.  These two, when they got together, annoyed everybody on my floor with their attempts to attract an audience.  The fact is, we just didn’t like them.

“Killer” always kept his front door open when he was there (he lived right across the hall from me), blaring loud music (The Smiths, I hated them back then).   He was a guy who espoused an open-door policy (“hey, anyone can come in anytime and hang out!”) but who contradictorily had a demeanor and name that made him unapproachable.  The result was that every time I passed by and peeked in, he was just sitting there by himself, having a one-man party.

Several times when he was not home and had the door closed, Stu and I would get an unused condom, fill it to about one third with Ivory Dish Soap, and carefully drape it over his doorknob.  Watching his reaction (through the peephole in my door) as he slowly approached (with curiosity) and then picked it off (like a gen-u-wine germaphobe) was just very rewarding.  I was amazed he couldn’t hear us laughing through the door.

Stuart and I realized we loved watching people’s reactions to different things we would do.  But like duck hunters, we had to have a good “blind” to hide behind, because not being seen made it so much funnier.  We found out one day that my very own dorm room made an awesome blind.  Through the window was Willoughby Avenue, with the school itself right behind.  On the sidewalk on Willoughby sat a functional (miraculous for 1988 Brooklyn) pay phone.  Stuart, in a flash of inspiration, ran out there one day and jotted the phone number down on a little piece of paper.

He came back inside and dialed the number.  After a few rings a passerby answered it; Stu hung up, laughing.

Stuart

We decided to take advantage of the fact that we were attending an art school (definitely a magnet for esoteric and wimpy art types) which was located in a bad part of Brooklyn in the middle of a never-before-seen spike in crime.  One new student (from Ohio) had been murdered already, right in front of the school entrance!  Several others had been mugged at gunpoint one Saturday night getting off the G train at the Clinton-Washington subway stop.  Five kids lined right up against the tiled wall and robbed (instead of increasing security, school administrators officially suggested that the already wary students carry around some extra cash, what they called “mugging money”).

Stu and I knew that, with the fear level of the student body ratcheted up to an all-time high, we’d get some great reactions from anyone who answered THAT phone.

Because we could see them.

We could describe them.

At first we did just that, we’d call, someone would answer (the person never looked like a New Yorker, no native would ever answer a randomly ringing pay phone) and we’d describe them in a serious, low voice.  They’d startle, hang up and walk away.  Amusing, but not great.  Then one day:

“Hello?”

“I’m watching you, I see you right now.”

“Hello?!  What?  This is a pay phone.” (They always told us it was a pay phone)

“I see you right now with your yellow jacket and blue backpack.”

“What?!”

“I have you trained in the sights of my rifle, if you make one move, you’re fucking dead!”

The kid straightened up (like a meerkat); looked left then right, dropped the receiver and ran as quickly away from there as we had ever seen.

I had never laughed so hard before or since, we were just dying.  It was like our own “Candid Camera.”

We didn’t think about it at the time but it was also our own performance art.  And having reached what we knew to be our own “high water mark” with that phone, we never called it again.

Later we pulled part of an ad out of the Sunday NY Times.  It was a look down shot at a baby in crib, lying on his back with his arms outstretched and in his little onesie.  I fashioned a cross out of cardboard and we stuck him on it.  We added a little sign that said “INRI” and thumbtacks for the hands and feet (we called the crucified youngster “Baby on Boards” or Bob).  We put it on Killer’s door and headed to the other end of the hallway and out the door to watch through the porthole window.

Me, trying to get roomies to go to the bar.

We left it up there the whole afternoon and evening and sometimes took shifts watching. Invariably, male students would pass by and look at it with a grimace or a little giggle.  But women, in every single instance, either gave the door a wide berth or turned back the way they’d come.  True, we were being entertained BUT we were also learning a little about the psychology of parental instincts.

Back to my classes I had come to the end of my first year of attendance, and I just wasn’t into it.  With the drama that only a teen (or maybe a 22 year old) could conjure; I sat on the floor in the middle of my apartment muttering “What am I going to do?” while roommates passed by.  I knew I didn’t fit in there and the time was running out to do something about it.  I was out of money and excuses.  After the Counseling Office tried and failed to talk me into changing my major to Library Sciences (they still wanted my money, after all, even if it was all loans), I planned my exit and transfer to another school.  In the meantime, I had one semester left of classes and I decided (with Stuart’s help) to go out with a bang.

One day I was at the Pratt Library (proud filming locale for the X-Rated movie “Debbie Does Dallas”) “checking out” (with a black hefty bag, some tape and an open upstairs window) an architectural graphics standards book for a friend and I noticed a desk phone sitting in the middle of the “quiet room,” where engineering students studied in peace.

It had a phone number written under the buttons.  I stepped over to the payphone by the stairway and dialed it.  “Ring ring!”  It turned out that though Stu and I had felt a little badly about threatening students out on Willoughby Avenue; we sure didn’t mind annoying the hell out of them!  Stuart created an alter ego, a mousy, whiny, unnamed middle aged New Yorker who was looking for a “Eunice” and wouldn’t take no for an answer.  This was definitely his baby; his M.O. was to see how long he could keep people on the phone.

Pratt Library.

Stu would call and wait for a ring, the callee would always answer in a whisper, Stu’d counter by being REALLY loud.

“hello?”

“I WANNA TALK TA EUNICE!”

“i-think-you-have-the-wrong-number, thisss-isss-a – library…”

“CAN YA GET HER A MESSAGE?!”

“i-don’t-think-she’s-here, thisss-isss-a-quiet-room…”

“SHE’S WEARING A…….”

I think you get the idea.

We did this one off and on for weeks, and it really kept me entertained while I fretted over my scholastic future.  I drank a lot, making frequent trips to the beer distributors out on Myrtle (we called it Murder) Avenue.  And we (James, Stu, and whoever else) had giggly little parties in my cramped dorm room while my increasingly pissed off roommates tried to do their work, which by Year 2 was getting pretty intense.  They’d ask variations of, “What are you doing here anyway?!”

Like Andy Kaufman but without the irony, I had morphed into this annoying character, and my roommates couldn’t wait to see me gone.

Chris tries to work while I sleep it off.

My last month (before I transferred to NYU for a year) there was a big rotating art show up on the 18th floor of my dorm building (which was usually used as a kind of skuzzy lounge).  One apartment from each floor had to pick a student to do an install up there.  That week the 18’s were up (418, 518 etc) and as the most idle resident of 218, I was (naturally) nominated.

For some reason I actually cared about this task, I guess because it was my last thing at Pratt and I wanted something to be proud of.  One night Stu, James and I were sitting in my apartment downing a few 40’s and laughing about our recent defacing of some hallway graffiti. We had changed the ubiquitously scrawled “Yuppicide,”(which was kind of the in-house Pratt-Brooklyn band-they were older guys who hung out there all the time) to “Puppicide” or “Yuppi-cider” (it turned out later, to the band’s great consternation).  There was a knock at the door.  My R.A. peeked her head inside the door and asked me when I was going to bring my “artistic creation” up to the 18th Floor, as the art opening was about to get underway.

Crap.  I’d forgotten.  Though I cared and had given it some thought, I didn’t actually DO anything, and now it was opening night and I was sodding drunk with nothing to show for it.  Stuart and I decided to head up there anyway.  One of us (I wish I could remember which one) got an idea which saved us.  We turned an old rust colored sofa on its side while other people were milling around, distracted, looking at what was some pretty nice art that had been brought by the other 15 apartments.  I grabbed a blank piece of paper from the “comments” memo pad (that had been left to gather student feedback) and wrote this:

Bill Hardesty, “Sideways Sofa” – Room 218.

I taped it to the sofa and we went back downstairs to resume our night of petty debauchery.

Two days later I was informed my “piece” had won the first prize (probably a cheesecake from Junior’s) for all second floor entries.  Hearing that brought to me a certain amount of insight. As I thought about the win and then mentally recapped all of my activities at this place I’d never really belonged in, I thought, “Hey, wasn’t it ALL art?”

If I could pull off a stunt like that, one that the other students “got,” then maybe all the phone calls, the graffiti, the thievery of office supplies and library books, the aimless drunken nights spent waiting for something to happen; were also a kind of performance art.  In a room full of furniture, I had considered myself to be the sideways sofa, the piece that didn’t fit.

Maybe this whole time I was doing a kind of art that even I didn’t get.  That meant that maybe I’d belonged all along, maybe I’d pulled one over on all the weird Goth-y “old people” kids who were so annoyed by my slackitude.  Maybe I had self-actualized the very thing that Stuart and I spent so much time making fun of.

May-be.

I wonder what old Stuey would make of THAT?

3 replies
  1. pillowfighter
    pillowfighter says:

    a little known fact:pillowfighter’s “grow slow with me” was recorded in a garret of a brownstone just off the corner of st. james on gates ave. another synchronicity: our greatest artistic achievements were realized within a couple blocks of each other! i got off the clinton-washington G stop (never once got mugged) every recording session, wondering what the fuck transpired in those ghetto-ass high rises on lafayette and laughing to myself at all the “smoker” artistes out in front of pratt. i loved that neighborhood, decidedly different, i imagine in 2012 than it was in 1988. i referred to it as the home of “blaffluence”. portmanteau kinda-racism, bitch!

    Reply
  2. Sal
    Sal says:

    I remember pretty much everything in this post! lol, I have to thank you for that as it opened a torrent of old memories I haven’t accessed in nearly 20 years.
    One prank I remember from Pratt was to prank call the KumKau chinese place while your friends were there picking up. It was sort of based on the old Tube Bar tapes that were going around. The place had a wooden bench where you would wait with maybe ten other random customers for your food and the lady behind the counter hardly spoke english and she was VERY loud. So, the deal was to call and tell her that your friend was there and you want to add something to the order. Then you give a name and she would just scream the name out at the puzzled group of waiting customers. Mike Hunt was a favorite to ask for but also Sal Lami, etc… I remember sitting on the wooden bench and my friends back at the dorm called up….she was screaming it out and a black guy next to me looked at me with an expression of disbelief and he said ” She saying what?” and he just shakes his head.
    Of course its all different there now – it is the most desirable neighborhood in NYC. Rich people flocking there. I have some friends who’s kids moved there – they are rich. I told them about Luigis pizza, which is still there and srtill excellent. .
    I went back to Pratt in 2010 when my son ( who was born in 1992) was looking at colleges. Thankfully he chose the University of Buffalo but what a trip it was to go back to Pratt and take the tour and even see my old dorm and classrooms, with my kid. Talk about time travel what a weird feeling that was. To make the time travel experience even more disconcerting we walked down to the old steam generator room and then across the street to the classroom that my grandfather had used when he went to Pratt 50 years before me. So there I am taking a tour with my kid telling him how I was right here in the same spot with my grandpa 25 years earlier and he must have had the same dejavu I was feeling. .
    Thanks for the memories.

    Reply
    • Bill Hardesty
      Bill Hardesty says:

      I ate at KumKau about ten years ago and the same lady I remembered was there – but gray. I would love to get into the dorms the next time I’m in NY, to see if the Hellavator is still torturing students. I found out recently that Terrence Howard went there the same time we did. Crazy huh? ” Mike Hunt, I have an add order, Mike Hunt!” haha

      Reply

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