Robert Mapplethorpe rips out a page from the magazine and cuts around the guy’s torso, leg and dick. He sticks these parts onto paper. He lies in a dark room in Brooklyn. It is 1967. He hears other people moving around the house. He has a feeling that time is passing without him. The feeling is acute and in the pit of his stomach. It is the vibration of the subway that he can feel.
When he walks across the Brooklyn Bridge he feels on top of the world. The subway is filthy and alive. The clatter of the trains is music. The graffiti inside the carriages is art. The ascent from the subway to the sidewalk is an ascent into heaven. In the busy downtown streets he never feels alone.
One night in his dark room in Brooklyn Robert is woken from a dream. Bright light frames a figure standing in the doorway.
I’m looking for someone, she says. Do you know where he is?
She turns her face away from Robert, into the light.
He is awake. His eyes are open. He cannot speak.
Robert sees this girl again in the store where she works. He originally came for just one beautiful thing, the Persian necklace in the window, but now there is also this girl.
The girl is reluctant to let the necklace go. She wants it for herself.
I will only let you buy this if you promise to give it to me, she says.
This girl will claim in later years that they were always destined to meet – it will be one of the things they talk about – how God did it, or the devil – bringing together two sides of the same person.
As Robert walks home to Brooklyn he fingers the necklace in his pocket. He feels its weight. He remembers the rosary beads he used as a child. How many Hail Marys for this, he wonders.
Robert sees the girl again in Tompkins Square Park. The black sky is filled with stars. They don’t seem so far away tonight. The drawings he will make later will be related to space and the afterlife, two things that are magic because they can never be touched.
Suddenly this girl is upon him. He believes her to be a repetition or affirmation of his thoughts. She is talking very fast. He will agree to anything she says – just look at her.
They zig-zag through the city blocks. She is faster than him. She is pulling him on. He is flying, not weighted any more. Her name is Patti. He says his name is Bob.
Oh no. Can I call you Robert? she says.
Robert comes from Floral Park in Queens. Floral Park is a still life study where everything has been neatly arranged. Everyone’s front door is painted the same colour. Everyone’s lawn is cut the same length. Outside each house hangs a star-spangled banner that flips over in the breeze and freezes in winter. Outside there is a swept pathway and an unspoilt lawn.
Eight-year-old Robert Mapplethorpe is sitting on the living-room rug in Floral Park threading beads on a string for his mother. He is making one of his first necklaces. The TV is turned down very low. Robert peers through the fog of cigarette smoke, engrossed in his activity. The rug – soft and warm under him – and his mother close, the flicker of the television in the corner of his eye, this bead then this bead, arranging as he goes. He never makes a mistake. Each bead is placed in the order of his desire: this bead and then this bead then this bead.
Robert’s father takes the one hour and twenty minute commute into the city every morning, and he doesn’t complain.
Here he is sitting in the subway car, reading the morning paper. He stands to let a young woman sit, folding his newspaper into quarters, hanging onto the leather strap, swaying with the movement of the train, the brake and acceleration, reading his newspaper in segmented intervals. He will have read the whole commentary section by the time he gets into New York.
In his spare time Harry Mapplethorpe collects tropical fish and stamps. He is also a keen photographer. He develops the photographic prints himself. It is not the finished product that interests him but more the process of the photograph’s creation.
Robert attends Catholic classes. The devil makes his stomach flip. He is the character that makes things happen. Sin is something to ask forgiveness for but Robert doesn’t believe in God. Robert believes in magic. Robert likes the rituals of the church. He likes the rosary beads and the crucifixes. He likes the way objects are arranged on the altar. He likes to carry the candles and wafers for mass. The incense fumes make him dizzy. The priest tells him that God is always watching. Robert likes the idea of someone watching him.
Robert is sitting in a closet in his Floral Park home amongst the sheets and blankets, flicking through the pages of a nudist magazine. He looks at the bodies on display, women playing volleyball, their heavy figures lunging forward, the sculpted men beside them, muscles taut and flexed. Robert begins to masturbate. He can smell washing detergent and warm towels. He looks at one image then another, one body then another, body to body to body.
Robert Mapplethorpe will learn to say, ‘Floral Park was a good place to come from in that it was a good place to leave’. This is what he will say when he is famous. He will learn to make the distinction between the place where he comes from and the place he lives later.
Sixteen-year-old Robert heads straight to 42nd Street. He dodges the bums, the pimps, the businessmen, weaves in and out of traffic held up at lights. He tries to duck into a movie house but he doesn’t have any money – the clerk waves him away, letting others through. He feels sick. He figures this is the Catholic Church trying to take a bite out of him so he tells Christ to go fuck himself and runs down the street. He needs to see something. He stops outside a magazine store he knows well. When two men walk in, he ducks in behind them. He creeps along the magazine rack, scanning the covers as he goes. The magazines are sealed in cellophane and the cocks are covered over with tape. He stares at the magazines. He realizes that this moment is the one he wants to fix down – this moment, this feeling in his stomach. He wants to cut out the photographs and make his own art from the guys and their dicks. He grabs what he can and he runs.
But the storeowner and a man standing at the counter have been watching him the whole time. They knew all along what he would do because, had there been stores like this when they were young, they would have done the same goddamn thing.
Stop him, Joe!
The man blocks Robert’s way.
What you got there, kid? Some weekend reading? What do you want me to do with him?
He’s got a sweet face; leave him be. You don’t mean any harm, do you, boy? What’s wrong with you, kid? Can’t you speak?
Robert kicks the man in the nuts and runs.
There’s nothing like New York for a kid who wants to get lost in the crowd.
In 1963 Robert attends Pratt Institute and joins the Pershing Rifles fraternity. He wears a dark military uniform and stands in line. He is stripped, blindfolded, and made to perform a drill. The end of a rifle is pushed into his anus. A brick is tied to his penis and he is ordered to throw the brick across the room. These activities do not penetrate his exterior. He does whatever he is told. He wants to be pushed to an outer limit and thereby be changed. He is developing a hard shell. He is transforming. He wants to belong. He wants to be someone.
In the summer vacation of 1964, when Robert is seventeen, he operates the games of chance in the Belgian Pavilion at the World’s Fair in Queens. On his lunch break he eats waffles from the waffle stand. Sugar grains stick to his fingers. Today is a clear day. Families, kids in baby carriages, holding balloons and balloons tied to the handles of baby carriages; they pause at the church entrance, looking up at the high tower. There is music playing at the carousel. The skirts and jackets of the children are a blur as it spins. The children are laughing.
Robert sucks the sugar from his fingers and crosses the square. He looks along the open concourse towards where he knows Manhattan is, but all he sees is an impenetrable mass, twin sets, grubby T-shirts, candy-coloured summer jackets, thickened, roller-set hair, kids on roller skates, yanked back by the scruff of their necks by their mothers, the suited men, hats – they spill through the entrance and swarm the walkways, hot dogs in their hands; they are coming straight for him, heading towards the monorail. They have their money ready.
The high lines of the monorail and cable cars score the sky. He sees high-rise pavilions and viewing platforms from where people are watching the fair. He sees the swinging legs of the public. They arch and lean to see below.
He pushes his way through the mass and walks back towards the Belgian arch. He must get to Manhattan where he can be himself. He hears babies crying and sees kids running through the arch towards the fountain and the central lakes lined with international flags. Tourists spill in from Manhattan with ice creams, the sticky grip of babies’ hands. He is not one of them.
Robert cuts around the picture of a weightlifting man and fixes a red transparent circle over his crotch. He is making collages out of the things that he finds. These subjects are the things he wants to look at most. But the teachers at Pratt don’t like Robert’s work. They don’t understand what he is doing. They ask him to explain himself, but he cannot explain. He leaves Pratt because it’s dangerous to know too much about something. There are too many teachers in this place. He is not a student anyway, never was, never will be; he is an artist.
You don’t understand who I am! I am an artist! I am somebody! But Robert’s father won’t look him in the eye. His father won’t look at him at all. He doesn’t like the way Robert dresses. He doesn’t like the way Robert talks. Get out of here, his father says. Robert packs his bags. Robert takes the subway to Manhattan. The pace of the train is the pace of his pulse. This is what happens when you are the centre, the focal point of everything. There is nothing to see – a black hole – you turn to look but find nothing there. Here is Robert Mapplethorpe moving from the outside in, heading right into the centre of Manhattan.