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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel

Making Faces

Things were slow at the Guggenheim for a Saturday, but it was still fairly early. The fact that it was a warm spring day outside meant that pretty much the only people who'd be coming through that day would be the tourists. That was never good news. The more locals, the more a guard can relax.

I was posted up in Gallery 2a (I think that's what they called it). That wasn't so awful. It was part of the original building, and there were plenty of windows. The only thing that made it tricky was the fact that, being small and circular with an emergency stairwell drilled through the middle of it, it had a perpetual blind spot. If things got busy, it meant moving from one side of the stairwell to the other and back again, non stop, for the duration of the shift.

Multiplying the tricky factor was the current exhibit itself--a bunch of low-lying sculptures arranged randomly throughout the semi-circle. A Giacometti or two, a few others by artists I no longer remember. There were no velvet ropes or anything to keep people at a distance, so as a result the sculptures got kicked a lot. My job was to try and keep the kicking to a minimum.

Over at one corner, right before you turned to re-enter the main rotunda, was a tiny, delicate Calder mobile. It was a wire construction, 18 inches tall, and precisely balanced. It stood on a four foot-tall pedestal and was protected by a clear Plexiglas box. The Guggenheim honchos, for some reason, really had a thing about making sure the Calder mobiles never, ever moved. In this case I could almost understand why. Blow on it too hard, and the damn thing would collapse.

It was about 10:30 a.m., and not too many people had come through yet. It was one of the out of the way galleries people tended to miss. Those customers who had come through had been fine. They'd come in one end, I'd size them up, try and determine if they were French or not, and not worry about them if they weren't. Just let them be.

A new one walked in, and I let him pass without a moment's thought. Clean cut guy, probably in his early 30s, comfortably dressed, moving slowly and watching where he was going. Nothing to worry about there, so I turned to wait for the next one. That's when I heard the Thump.

It wasn't a loud thump--more like his foot simply bumped the corner of something as he passed. I turned and found him staring at me from the other side of the gallery. Then my eyes moved a few inches to the left, to the Plexiglas box. Inside it, the tiny, delicate Calder mobile lay in a heap. It took a moment to comprehend what I was seeing. Once it hit me, all I could see was the pink slip I'd be receiving within the next half hour.

It took the visitor about the same amount of time to comprehend what he had just done.

"I'm…sorry--" he said quietly, shrugging. "It was…an accident." Then he turned and vanished.

"'Sorry' doesn't fix sculptures!" I shouted after him, but he was already gone. I walked over and took a look at the pile of wires and plastic thingamabobs, knowing full well that I would be blamed, and then I would be canned. With a heavy heart, I called a supervisor over and pointed.

Well, he panicked. He didn't yell and didn't fire me--didn't seem to blame me at all--but still, he panicked. He ran to the next gallery, snatched up an emergency phone and began stammering.


Within five minutes, the gallery had been completely blocked off with velvet ropes, and a crew of four art conservationists in jumpsuits and white gloves were pondering the dilemma.

I, meanwhile, was joined by two other guards. Our job was to make sure that nobody tried to duck under the velvet rope. I wasn't exactly sure why it took three guards to do that, when it only took one to guard the whole damn gallery--but then I remembered.

It was simple. Every time someone came up to the rope, one of us would explain that the gallery was temporarily closed. (We'd been instructed not to tell anyone what had happened.) Most everyone, upon hearing the news, said nothing, took in what they could see from behind the rope, then turned around and left.

As we took care of that, the conservationists puzzled and puzzled over what to do with the Calder.

About two hours in to what was turning out to be a remarkably easy and quiet job, an Irish woman in her 50s came around the corner with her two daughters and approached the rope. I headed towards them in order to break the bad news. Before I could open my mouth, though, she reached over, unhooked the rope, and let herself through.

"Uhhhh, ma'am?" I said, a bit astonished at the move, "I'm afraid this section of the museum is closed temporarily." I tried to be nice.

"Oh, nunsense," she said with a heavy accent. "Y'got art back here, and I intend to see it."

"Well, um, ma'am, " I said, slowly herding her and her daughters back to the other side of the rope (which I then re-hitched), "I'm sorry, but you'll have to try later. We're closed right now."

"That's ridiculous," she snapped. "Why would you be closed?"

"There are people working back here."

"Workin', eh? I doan hear nothing."

"Well, ma'am, you see, it's very…delicate work."

"We're not gonna bother anybody."

You're already bothering me, I thought.

"I'm sorry."

"Oh, I canna believe this," she said, her voice growing louder. "We come all the way over here from Ireland to see this museum, and you're telling me that I canna see part of it? That's unbelievable."

"It'll be open again later today." I was by now speaking through a slightly clenched jaw. Part of me could certainly understand her frustration, but most of me was just wishing she'd fucking accept it and go away.

"When later today?"

"I…I don't really know for sure, ma'am." I was starting to get pretty fed up. "It depends on how long it takes them to finish their, uh, work."

"Well, let me talk to them. You obviously have no idea what's going on."

"I'm afraid I can't do that."

That was true. The thing is, by the time the old woman had shown up, the conservationists had left for lunch, having yet to actually lay a hand on the mobile.

She began yelling and screeching at me, calling me all sorts of names, growing more incoherent, but I held my tongue.

Finally exhausted, she turned and said, "C'mon girls--this is pointless."

That's when I should've just let them go, relieved that the whole scene was over with. Instead, I made my mistake. The moment she turned around, I couldn't help it, my face screwed up, my tongue shot out, and I crossed my eyes at the back of her head. I knew I dare not actually say anything aloud, so I took what I could get.

"Oh, that wasn't very nice," I heard a voice say. I relaxed my face and uncrossed my eyes to find one of the daughters staring at me. "What you're doin' with you're face there. It's just not very nice atall."


"Mother," the girl tattled freely, "y'shouldda seem what he did there, the moment you turned yer back. It was just nasty."

"Well, it's no surprise," the mother said, shooting me a look, "these people over here are just plain rude."

I crossed my arms and rolled my eyes at her, trying to hide the fact that I was blushing from the embarrassment of being caught. Worse--of being caught doing something so childish. Not helping matters were the giggles coming from the two other guards who had fled around the corner to hide the minute the old bat started screaming.

The woman finally grabbed her daughters and stomped out of the gallery, just as the conservationists got back from their extended lunch. They reapproached the stricken Calder, re-donned their gloves and set to work. In the end, it took them all of two minutes to lift the Plexiglas box and set the damn thing up again.