She’s the girl who insisted I buy a giant metal rooster, and who named it Beyonce. She’s the girl who helped me dig up my dead dog, and who once took me on a porn barge. She keeps me sane, is my best friend, and has absolutely no idea how amazing she is. This is the same girl who is certain she’s normal and boring, and then offhandedly mentions that her family owns several giant barns filled with old parade floats her great-uncle (P.J.) made decades ago (after he returned from a broadway run, performing with Ethel Mermen). Barns filled with 10-foot George Washington heads, and life-sized matadors, and dozens of elephants and seals and half-naked women and golden dragon-heads, and so many other things that have been packed into the rafters for so long that no one alive has any idea what exactly is in there.
Laura has lived with this treasure trove in her family for as long as she’s been alive, so for her it’s old-hat, and she can’t understand my fascination and excitement every time I force her to take me through P.J.’s barns “just one more time”.
me: HOLY SHIT, THERE’S A 10 FOOT GUN IN HERE.
Laura: It’s not loaded.
me: THERE ARE LIFE-SIZE FAIRIES HANGING FROM THE CEILING.
Laura: Huh. So there are.
me: There’s a box here that says “Monkey hands” on the outside.
Laura: It probably has monkey hands in it.
me: MOTHER OF GOD, THIS IS A BOX FULL OF MONKEY HANDS.
Laura: Do you want them?
me: Do I want a box of monkey hands? Is this a trick question? Of course I want a box of monkey hands. But I’m not going to take all your monkey hands. I’ll just take two.
Laura: OMG, take the box of monkey hands. What am I going to do with monkey hands?
me: What couldn’t you do with monkey hands?
Laura: I…have no response for that.
me: Okay, I’m taking these monkey hands on loan, but they’re yours when you need them.
Laura: I’ve almost never had the need for monkey hands.
me: It’s weird that we’re friends.
Laura: Good weird, or bad wierd?
me: Well, good weird for me. I just got an unexpected box of monkey hands.
Laura: Well then, it’s working out for everyone.
I’ve spent many long hours poring through her great-uncles bizarre art work, his faded ribbons, his boxes of sketches, his enormous paper-machete statues still waiting for a parade that passed by decades ago. It’s magical, but to Laura it’s commonplace. She probably wouldn’t agree, but it’s often struck me how much these barns are a reflection of her. Fascinating and beautiful. Sometimes forgotten. Sometimes celebrated. Always magical, with the right set of eyes. Weird…but good weird. The best kind of weird. And that’s why, several months ago – when I asked her to pose for me in the famous, traveling red dress – I could think of no better backdrop than the brightly cheerful porch of the home her family has lived in for generations, and the dark but magnificent barns of P.J’s parade floats. It remains, to this day, one of my favorite red dress shoots.
In a few weeks, the barns and all their dusty treasures will be sold at auction. When I first heard about it I was heartbroken, already missing a place that seemed full of dark magic and a lifetime of work, but I know that P.J. would probably love to see his pieces find the light of day once more, rather than crumble back into the dust. And I’ll always be grateful that I was able to spend so many long hours wandering through the dusty, magical corners of the mind of a man who never stopped dreaming, even if it was a dream that few people ever completely understood.
And every time I look at my vase of monkey hands, I’ll be reminded of that amazing place, and of the always-underestimated value of being “the good kind of weird”.
Thank you for those memories, Laura and P.J.
And for the monkey hands. Those things are awesome.
PS. Want to go to the auction? Details here.