Many years ago, before cellphones, in an age when ordinary people walked the streets of the big city in silence, lost in their own thoughts– or for those like me, hopelessly lost in dreams, there was a company called Marvel Comics on Madison Avenue.
I worked there.
There was a man at that company who was about 25 years older than I was. He was of Japanese ancestry. His name was Morrie, but everyone affectionately called him “Mush”–or “Jap“–or “The Old Fool”.
I got to know that man quite well.
He was born in California in 1920, but by age 21, his country was at war with the homeland of his ancestors, so he and thousands of others like him, were rounded up by the government and then locked away in a makeshift POW Camp, “for their own good”, some would say.
Morrie escaped that barbed wire enclosure, not by crawling over it, or digging under it, but by volunteering for the United States Army during WW II. For his trouble, he was sent to one of the most dangerous and highly-decorated combat units but somehow managed to come home in one piece after the war ended.
Morrie had seen and been through a lot by the time he reached his majority…and maybe some of what he had experienced soured him on life.
He was a quiet man. He was also, as I came to realize, an intelligent and cultured man, although you might not have known that by looking at him.
I remember one day at work he brought in the tail of a very large striped bass he had caught surf- fishing over the weekend. We all marveled at it. It was the topic of conversation all week. Morrie seemed to bask in the attention.
After a few weeks, however, it started to stink so badly, I asked if I could take it home and mount it for him. I got an old cake pan and a bag of plaster. Then I set the severed fish tail in the plaster and worked the wet plaster with an old spoon so as to give the impression that the fish had just dived into the water– and when the plaster had set, I painted the water blue. I couldn’t wait for Monday morning to give it to him.
Having made a number of three-dimensional artworks in my lifetime and having displayed my work in my own art museum and not a few New York galleries, I was expecting some kind of excitement or at least a thankyou.
I got to work early on Monday and showed what I had made to my co-workers, who all thought it was fantastic. Then I carefully set down the artwork on Morrie’s taboret table next to his famous rubber cement can and giant rubber cement pickup.
I couldn’t wait for him to come in.
At about ten after 9, in shuffles Morrie. He walks through the Marvel Bullpen, hangs up his old black raincoat in the closet, that same one he wore 365 days a year . Then he sits down, lights up a cigarette and then looks down at my creation. Perhaps it was the smell that got his attention.
He took another drag on his cigarette and picked up the newspaper he had brought to work with him and opened it to the racing results at Belmont and Aqueduct.
I said, “Ahem!! …..Hey, Mush–SO–!! Whattaya think….?”
He kind of grunted in an slightly grudging way to at least acknowledge to me that he had seen the thing.
He never said thanks or anything, but he kept that damned stinking artwork next to his desk for years, next to an ever- increasing stack of losing OTB tickets and an empty can of V8 juice–and there it remained until that afternoon when he died on the subway going home from work– on his way back to his small apartment in Queens.
A few days later, his daughter arrived from California to claim whatever meagre possessions of his that remained at the office. Morrie was a pretty good watercolor artist and she took a few of those– and even gave one of his paintings to my friend, Philip Felix , who has it on the wall in his home to this very day.
She left the”sculpture” I made, and so I took that home along with his giant dildo of a rubber cement pickup and a little red conical can of rubber cement thinner that had the name “Morrie” hand-lettered on a little piece of paper attached to it with scotch tape.
Legend has it that his old black raincoat hung in the office closet at work for years after he died. No one wanted to touch it–or dared throw it out–or perhaps they left it there out of love for Morrie.
I don’t know whatever became of that fish tail.
I suppose I threw it out or my ex threw it out becaused it smelled so bad.
I still have that little red can, though.