by JIM KNIPFEL
August 16, 2020
After the move from Philly to Brooklyn, when I traded my high-profile job as a bill collector for nothing at all, during that year-long stretch with no work, and quickly realizing the $35 a week I was getting from The Welcomat for this column wasn’t going to cover my half of the rent, I did some uncredited writing for a couple of second and third-tier skin mags. The work wasn’t great or fulfilling, but it paid a few bills. I generally don’t include that on my resume, but I’m not ashamed of it and never denied it. In fact, when I finally did get a real job as a security guard at the newly-reopened Guggenheim Museum, it was fairly common knowledge among the security staff that along with the column, the features, and the music, art, movie and book reviews, I’d written some dollar-a-word porn.
Nearly all the new guards at the Gugg were young struggling artists of one stripe or another. There were painters and sculptors, filmmakers, actors and musicians. I guess it’s not that surprising, then, that a couple of the guards—all of them males in their twenties with dreams of becoming professional writers—approached and asked if I could get them into those same skin mags. I couldn’t, of course, and even if I could I wouldn’t. I didn’t need these pipsqueaks horning in on my racket. Let them get their own goddamn bylines in the slam-bang world of fantasy flesh peddling. I never told them as much outright, and maybe I should have, because they kept hitting me up.
One day not long before I gave my notice, a guard named Jeff, a slim, good-looking Italian kid from Queens who never struck me as the type to have any kind of literary aspirations (I thought he was a painter), cornered me in the break room when no one else was around.
“Hey,” he said. “Could I give you something?”
“Sure,” I shrugged. I liked Jeff. I got along with him same as I got along with all the other guards, but it’s not like we ever hung out together or anything like that. He seemed a little nervous. The whole scene felt a little strange, but most everything at the Gugg felt a little strange.
He clandestinely slipped four typewritten pages from the inside pocket of his uniform jacket and handed them to me.
“Do you think you might be able to read this over and see if you think it’s good enough?” he asked. “And if it is, do you think you might be able to send it in for me?”
I knew immediately he wasn’t handing me a submission to The Paris Review.
“It’s for Juggs,” he clarified.
(Juggs, for those unfamiliar, was one of the aforementioned second-tier porn mags, this one specializing—as the name implies—in women with absurdly large breasts.)
I wanted to tell him no, absolutely not, the same way I learned to respond to anyone who asks me to read something they wrote. But I was already holding the fucking thing, and he seemed so nervous and hopeful. I wondered how long he’d been carrying this around in his pocket, waiting for the perfect moment to corner me.
“Okay, sure,” I said. “But I’m not making any promises. I haven’t dealt with them in months, and have no sway there. If they want it they’ll tell you. If not you’ll never hear a thing.”
He seemed to understand this, and quickly headed back out to his post in the museum.
Even as he was leaving I knew I would never submit it anywhere, but at least I’d covered my ass with that disclaimer. Still, I confess to being a little morbidly curious. The writing I’d done for these mags had just been a paycheck to me. I had nothing invested in the stories. I knew what these places wanted, and gave it to them. Jeff was a non-professional who just wanted to write a dirty story, meaning the end product would likely be an honest reflection of which way his kink twisted. Still, when I got home that night about ten, opened my first beer, sat down at the kitchen table and began reading his little story, I wasn’t prepared for what I encountered.
I need to back up here a minute. There were, I’d guess, about thirty or forty guards on the Guggenheim’s security staff. Most of us were in our twenties, most were struggling artists as I said, and most had unique and memorable personalities. Lots of funny, crazy, and just plain weird types all thrown together in that Frank Lloyd Wright gem of a building. Overseeing us, or trying to anyway, were four supervisors. The supervisors could be described in exactly the same way the guards were—struggling artists in their twenties—except they carried walkie-talkies and didn’t have to stand on post. The supervisors had become supervisors merely by virtue of being the first to apply when the Gugg initially put out the call for a new security team just prior to the 1991 reopening.
That’s mostly irrelevant, just establishing the layout.
One of the supervisors was, yes, an artist in her mid-twenties named Karen. Karen was eternally cheerful, charming, smart and funny. Her roommate, Daria, another artist in her mid-20s, was another security guard at the museum. Over time both Karen and Daria became good friends of mine. They hung out at my place a few times, I went over to theirs, we all went out to dinner on occasion. They were fun.
Without going into too much detail, let’s just say Karen was an outrageously gorgeous woman, with dark hair, bedroom eyes, and a throaty voice. It can honestly be said every straight male guard in the place had a wild, lustful crush on her. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t, but being married at the time, I kept it in check. She was just a good friend.
Anyway, back to Jeff’s bit of amateur porn. The prose, as expected, was hardly sparkling, the dialogue stiff and clunky, a style that was clearly the result of Jeff trying his darnedest to mimic what he’d read in other skin mags. But no one reads Penthouse letters expecting to encounter Faulkner.
The story concerned a security guard at a major art museum in New York who, while on break one day, buys an ice cream cone for his supervisor—the one with the black hair, the throaty voice, the bedroom eyes and the big tits. Before you know it they’re fucking in a toilet stall in the employee bathroom.
“You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me,” I said aloud before I finished the second page. I mean, I knew Jeff wasn’t the brightest bulb. Nice guy, but not the brightest bulb. Could he really be this goddamn stupid? I read the story again, thinking maybe I’d read too much into it.
Nope, it seems he really was that stupid. As I folded the story up again, I felt a little itchy and nauseous.
Still thinking that maybe I was interpreting it a bit too deeply, the next night I asked Jack, a friend of mine who knew Karen, knew Jeff, and knew how to keep his mouth shut, if he could read the story. I didn’t tell him anything about it beforehand. “I just want to see if you see the same thing going on here.”
He agreed, and next time I saw him, he was holding the four pages by one corner between two fingers, as if it was a dirty diaper he wanted as far away from him as possible. “Yeah,” he said simply. “Jeff just wrote a porn story about Karen.”
This raised all sorts of questions and put me in several awkward positions (though not as many, apparently, as can be undertaken in a bathroom stall).
Why the hell did he give this to me when he knew damn well Karen was a friend of mine? Did he really expect me to get this published for him? He was friends with Karen and Daria himself, which only made the whole thing creepier.
Do I return the story to him, counseling him first off to burn it, then suggesting he make more of an effort in the future to disguise his characters if he wanted to write about real people in a pornographic context? Do I remind him it’s not exactly good form to be writing porn about one’s supervisor at a job one presently holds? Do I just haul off and punch him? And do I let Karen know a supposed friend of hers was writing porn about her and sharing it with other guards?
Instead I threw the story away and never said another word about it to Jeff or anyone. I mean, Jack knew, but again Jack knew how to keep his mouth shut. Two weeks later, I left the Guggenheim to become Editor at Large for The Welcomat, and began commuting to Philly two days a week.
A day or two after I left the museum, however, my phone started to ring. I had no idea how some of these people had gotten my number. They were all very angry and a little frantic.
It seems somehow, and to this day I’m still not sure how, word of the story, and maybe a copy of the story itself, began to circulate around the museum. (And before you think anything, no, I had nothing to do with it.)
Karen was frightened and humiliated, Daria was furious, and everyone wanted to know what I knew about it. Worse, it was generally assumed that I’d written it, given my background. I wanted to remind them that I wasn’t that stupid, that even if I was I wouldn’t have gone public with it, and most important of all, if I’d written it, it would have been a much better story.
However tempted I was, and in retrospect maybe I should have, I never ratted out Jeff. I don’t know why—Karen was my friend and Jeff was a pervy little moron, but I kept my mouth closed.
About a week after that initial flurry of calls, my phone rang again. This time it was Jeff, the first time I’d spoken with him since he’d handed me the story in the break room. I could hear him sweating bad.
“Look,” he said, his voice a little shaky. “I gotta beg you to please, please, please not tell anyone I wrote that story. Please!”
This went on for a long time. I told him I wouldn’t, but the general assumption was that I was the responsible creep. This didn’t seem to concern him at all, so long as he remained in the clear. It all left me thinking I should rat the little weasel out, but I still didn’t. I figured instead that if he was that frantic and twitchy and sweaty with terror at the prospect of being found out, it was only a matter of time before he revealed himself with no help from me.
I have no idea if that ever happened, but neither Karen nor Daria spoke to me for the next twenty years.
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