I Scream, You Scream
On the opening day of the Edvard Munch exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, visitors who came looking for The Scream had to settle for Melancholy, Angst and Despair. Some learned this only after paying the $20 entrance fee and waiting in a long line. A crowd soon gathered in front of Despair, which, as a brochure explained, Munch himself called “the first Scream.” It depicts three figures on a bridge, trapped between a familiar flaming red sky and a dark fjord.
A man, middle-aged, pointed at the painting and informed his wife, “There’s a restaurant up at the top of that hill.”
She looked back at him.
“We could go there,” he said. “Of course, it’s not laid out the same way anymore.”
An elderly couple approached and stood silently for a minute. The man said, “We never should have given Dan our phone.”
“I know,” the woman said. “Our phone, our car.” She shook her head.
A mother, with her young son, made her way through the crowd. She parked him first in front of Angst. In Angst, ghostly, green-tinged figures with hollow eyes advance menacingly toward the viewer.
“It’s a kind of feeling of anxiety,” she told him. “When it’s really, really deep.”
The boy stared.
“All of the people looking on the bridge are really, really stressed,” she said. “It’s kind of scary.”
The boy stared.
His mother put her arm around him and guided him to Despair. “He’s feeling totally alone,” she said. “Like he has nothing.” Then she spotted Melancholy, farther along, on another wall, and explained that melancholy was not quite as bad as despair.
At times, as many as 30 people gathered in a semicircle around the paintings, most of them pressing audio players tightly to their ears, as if they were talking on very important calls. A man wearing a baseball cap from the 2004 U.S. Open approached with a boy, about 3 years old. The man handed the boy his audio player. The boy, who had curly red hair and enormous eyes, stared up at him, the player to his ear.
“Is it still going?” the man said.
The boy tried to give the player back.
“Keep listening,” the man said. “What are they saying?”
The boy’s eyes filled with tears. He began to whimper. The people standing nearby, listening to audio players, gave the father sharp looks.
“O.K.,” the man said. “Let’s look at something else.”
An elderly man and woman paused briefly before Despair.
“Skeletal,” he said.
“Morbid,” she said.
Two teen-age girls in T-shirts and jeans hovered at the edge of the crowd.
“Is there a Scream?” one said, a bit too loud.
Her friend said, “Well, there’s like a zillion different versions.”
“Well, do they have one?”
A man ushered his family to the front. He showed his son Despair and said, reassuringly, “That’s the same bridge as The Scream.”
But the son, who was about 5, pulled his hand away from his father’s. “I want to find The Scream,” he announced. He put his hands over his ears and made a silent, screaming face, just like the painting that wasn’t there.
I Was Knobbed!
The doorknobs in our apartment fall off on an alarmingly regular basis. They’re fragile, mercurial little bastards. My wife and I don’t even need to be touching them. It seems to be more of a natural-life-cycle type of situation, like icebergs calving or my hairline retreating. Every few days, we’ll be reading in bed, and we’ll hear the telltale clunk, and we’ll know: Another doorknob just succumbed to gravity.
Until recently, this didn’t cause major problems. A minute with a Phillips-head screwdriver and the knob would be back in place for a while—at least long enough for us to get through the average Peter Jackson movie. The downstairs neighbors had yet to complain. My 1-year-old son hadn’t suffered a concussion from waddling underneath at the wrong time. We lived with it.
Then, on a Tuesday morning a couple of weeks ago, I stopped typing my e-mails, shuffled over to the bathroom—and closed the door behind me. I didn’t realize what I had done until I reached for the nonexistent inside doorknob. It had molted sometime during the night. This was 9:30 a.m. At
9:31 a.m., I try escaping. I bang on the door. I shout for help. Nothing. I’ve seen Ocean’s 11, so I know to look for the grill in the ceiling that I can unscrew, climb into, slither through a narrow air chute, drop into my neighbor’s bedroom, make a clever comment like “Just thought I’d drop in,” and then return home. No grill. I am officially trapped. Not metaphorically trapped in a bad job or bad relationship. Actually trapped.
9:40 a.m.: I do a thorough checklist of worst-case scenarios. If I slip and fall and cut my forehead, will they find my body, put me on the front page of the Post and eventually turn my story into a Law & Order episode? What if there’s a fire? I think of Sumner Redstone, who survived a hotel fire by hanging from a window ledge by his fingertips. What was he, 82 when he did that? I’m just 37. I can do that. I feel slightly better.
10:00 a.m.: I think of the outside world. E-mails are being answered. Venti lattes are being sipped. George Bush’s childhood friends are being appointed to high-level positions. America is speeding along without me. It stresses me out.
10:15 a.m.: The phone rings. I hear a muffled voice leaving a message. That’s practically human interaction!
10:35 a.m.: I make a pledge to put more reading material in the bathroom if I ever escape. I’m stuck with an old Levenger’s catalog and a candle with a Kahlil Gibran poem on the side:
“A jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou.”
Kahlil seems to be taunting me. I don’t have a jug of wine, or a loaf of bread, or thou. I have a tube of Neutrogena shaving cream and some towels. That is not paradise enou’.
11:10 a.m.: I try to accomplish something. Maybe that’ll make me feel better. I do a makeover of the medicine cabinet according to the seasons. In the summer section, suntan lotion and extra-strength Off! In the winter, Cold-Eze and echinacea. I also notice that the ingredients in Chlor-trimeton go all the way from A (acacia) to Z (Zein). Impressive.
11:30 a.m.: Outside my bathroom door, the world goes on. PowerPoints are being presented. Subways are being taken. Heartwarming Drew Barrymore vehicles are being developed.
11:45 a.m.: I am the world’s expert on these 32 square feet. The fake marble tiles with their varicose-vein patterns. The power outlet that is rakishly diagonal. I figure this is what solitary is like, except with fewer Aryan gang members in the next room.
11:55 a.m.: I am getting to know this bathroom disturbingly well.
12:02 p.m.: I’m a writer, so maybe I could do some work. I fish out my wife’s L’Oreal onyx eyeliner and try to write on white spaces in the Levenger catalog. But I’m not one of those writers who can just create prose out of their head. I need stimulation—magazines, books, radio, something more than fake marble tiles.
12:15 p.m.: I sit on the floor, my back against the shower door.
12:35 p.m.: I sit. And sit some more.
12:46 p.m.: Something odd is happening. Outside my door, blogs are being read. Wild salmon is being grilled. Crunk is being explained to middle-aged white marketing executives. And I’m O.K. with that. It doesn’t cause my shoulders to tighten. Nothing I can do about it. I’ve reached an unexpected level of acceptance of my situation. I’ve never been a religious person, so I’ve never observed the Sabbath, but with this doorknob-enforced Sabbath, I can almost see the ritual’s allure—a mandatory pause, some rare silence, a time to reflect and marvel at things like the rakishly skewed power outlet. It’s not so terrible.
An hour or so later, I hear my wife come home from her meetings, and I shout for help. Being the more mature half of our team, she doesn’t make me promise to wear an ankle bracelet. She just opens the door and releases me. I have e-mails to answer and venti lattes to drink. I’m free. It’s kind of a shame.
Ivy League Logs
Until recently, the temptations to procrastinate at Columbia’s Nicholas Murray Butler Library had been roughly on par with those of its peer institutions: a well-stocked café, wireless Internet, and dark and eerie stacks in which trysts are rumored to occur regularly. But thanks to a Columbia senior named Jonathan Pappas, students attempting to study in the august library have had another distraction since January. The 22-year-old Mr. Pappas—a bushy-browed Sigma Phi Epsilon brother from West Virginia—started a Web site, Bored at Butler, which has proven immensely popular. Anyone accessing the site from a Columbia I.P. address can post comments anonymously; at last count, it had nearly 13,000 posts, on everything from musings on the relative attractiveness of Barnard vs. Columbia women to exhortations for the Butler “geeks who have been here for 12 hours straight, please go eat dinner so I can find a decent spot in the library. Thank you.” Those attempting to post from outside Columbia are told: “Sorry—you’re not on Columbia’s network. Now scram!”
“I came up with a short punch line for the Web site,” Mr. Pappas said the other day, sitting in a Starbucks across from campus. “Boredatbutler.com illustrates what many college students would say if they weren’t culturally pressured to be socially acceptable. That was the idea to it. Take a college student, strip them of their identity and see what they have to say.”
To wit, an exchange around 3 in the morning the other day:
“I wish calculus would burn in hell.”
“Fuck you, calculus is the best!”
“Well, of course it can be a pain in the ass when you’re getting it placed up your ass.”
“Calculus will be good when it will be able to differentiate zero. Up until then I love poetry and wine.”
“Umm d0/dx=0. Now stop being a whiny English major and go do something with your life.”
“Take that integral and shove it up your ass! Or rather, from the calculus of residues, that integral is not zero.”
“I will road kill you in math considering I got an A+ in modern analysis as a high schooler.”
Take that, core curriculum.
The first day the site was up, Mr. Pappas said, it got over 2,000 posts, largely thanks to the 30 fliers he had put up around the library. When he realized, a month later, that people continued to post to the site—“I thought it would just flop,” he admitted—he started adding more features, like a function where readers can agree or disagree with posts, and a “monthly word trend” feature that calculates the words mentioned the most times on the site. Not surprisingly, “sex” topped the list.
“You know what, maybe sex being at the top of the list is accurate. People are sexually frustrated!” he said. “There’s a lot of gay talk, too. There just seems to be a lot of talk about gays. And lesbians talk all the time! I saw a post the other day where a girl said, ‘I’m straight, but I think I’m in love with a lesbian.’ She actually got feedback—people were like, ‘You need to explore that.’”
Often, the posts reveal the random, scattered phrenology of the undergraduate brain:
“I want to drink a bottle of champagne to celebrate my mediocrity.”
“Anyone want to go for a cigarette break?”
“Only if you’ll stick the lit cigarette in my eye. I don’t smoke.”
“How long should a girl wait to have sex w/a guy so he won’t think she’s easy but won’t think she’s uninterested or that it’s not going anywhere either?”
“Wait until marriage!”
“(assuming neither person is very religious)”
“Good point, then I’d say in the 1 month–3 month range.”
“Depends on how often you’re seeing each other …. I’d say about the 4th time you make out.”
“What if it’s the girl’s first time?”
“She must be sure she wants to give it to him.”
“He has to make it special. Rose petals and candles and shit.”
“Rose petals and candles are secondary if it ends up being bad sex.”
Mr. Pappas’ endeavors have turned him into something of a legend on campus. When he posted about needing money to continue hosting and programming the site (“I’m from West Virginia. I’m very poor,” he said), posters rallied behind him. “Just get money from the school—I’m sure there are ways to find funding for this site which has become part of Columbia’s culture—rivaling Facebook!” one wrote. Another was excited by the idea of meeting the man behind the Web site: “Meeting JP for a cig break—awesome!”