The meeting took place at an apartment in Dearborn Heights, Michigan. This guy—I’ll call him Hank Fruscat—had invited six friends, young men in their midtwenties, selected for their prurient sympathies and loose scruples. This criterion was a measure of caution. No prudes should be present, no people of faith. “You need to be there, I have something to show you,” was all Hank told them. Once all six men were gathered in his living room, Hank explained that he’d found a video, that he’d had nothing to do with its creation but felt compelled to share it. He held up a VHS cassette. The men sat on Hank’s couch or on chairs pulled in from the kitchen, sensing unease in the air, in Hank’s nervous laughter as he inserted the cassette into the VCR and pressed play. It’s also my impression, based on what I was told, that by the end of the screening three of Hank’s oldest friends were in serious doubt about his moral fortitude while two were giddy with shock, and one, my best friend Will, was already angling to get ahold of the tape for the purposes of repeat viewing.
This was the summer of 2005.
I didn’t know Hank well. Certainly not well enough to be invited to the screening. He was a bro with a backward baseball cap, but a bro who liked Hüsker Dü and the Pixies. He’d recently graduated from college with a business degree and was applying what he’d learned to his house-painting company while expanding into other ventures, mainly buying up cheap Detroit real estate. A young entrepreneur. That’s the extent of what I knew about Hank Fruscat. The first I learned of the videotape was when Will phoned me the day after Hank’s gathering and told me to prepare to have my psychology rearranged.
“This is no joke,” he said. “I’ve got something you need to see.”
“I don’t want any sick shit,” I told him.
I meant anything profane, like a prostitute pissing into someone’s mouth or nude little people straddling obese and bearded middle-aged women, backwoods performance artists who could prolapse their O-rings at will—the kinds of footage Will had previously assaulted me with. Our tastes overlapped in an appreciation for the absurd, but Will’s curiosities toward sadism and genital acrobatics had, over years and with the advent of the internet, developed beyond what I could tolerate. “Trust me, you’ll want to see this,” was all he’d say about the tape. “It’s undeniable.” I’d known Will since I was six; my experience of him was nuanced and vast. His tone was grave, expressing the rarity, the gravitas, of what he held.
“Hankie wants the tape back tomorrow,” he warned. “He’s real nervous about it. He wasn’t going to let me borrow it but I wasn’t leaving until I got it—for you.” He said Hank was paranoid about having this tape on hand. “Yeah, man, he’s worried about driving with it in his car. He’s like, ‘What if I die and someone finds this in my possession?’” Will hissed in a way that expressed how foolish I’d be to pass up the experience. “You don’t want to miss this,” he said. “That’s all I’ll say. I’ve got it for twenty-four hours.”
Apparently Hank was planning to destroy the cassette after he got it back from Will. Today was my only chance.
Though I wasn’t present at his gathering, I like to think Hank’s deepest motive in sharing the video—in taking the risk of sharing it—was to no longer be alone with what he’d already seen. Will didn’t want to be alone with it either. He wanted me, in particular, to lay eyes on the footage, knowing it would be one of those marvels to which our conversations would return over the years.
“No one gets hurt?” I asked.
“Nooo way,” he said, kindly. “No one gets hurt. Not one bit.”
“But it’s sick?”
“Oh, I’d say it’s as sick as it gets . . . but not like you’re thinking.”
“You’ve gotta see it. Words do no justice here.”
• • •
When I think of the exponential proliferation of recorded media—say, the discrepancy between the hours of home movies filmed in the entirety of the 1980s and the hours of footage captured in 2018 alone—my brain cells ache. There’s a digital wasteland out there, containing more recorded information than any human, let alone culture, could ever wrap his or her head around. In addition to the daily iPhone videos and amateur digital photography cataloged and stored to drives and clouds, this wasteland includes media originally documented on other formats (film, print, tape) that have been digitized after the fact. Audio, visual documentation. But let’s consider only the candid human moments recorded and forgotten (so many hours of youth soccer footage on SIM cards tucked forever into junk drawers). Even then, we’re still dealing with an immeasurably enormous load of content, a phenomenon that raises the question: What are the most incredible moments ever captured on camera that will never be viewed by a human eye?
I like these hypotheticals. I especially like the idea of the most beautiful or strangest thing ever caught on camera going unseen, the film erased or the memory chip unknowingly tossed into the trash twenty years from now when someone cleaning their file cabinet or hard drive decides against the task of screening hours of presumably mundane footage of quotidian life. I’d suspect that the best or strangest things would probably have been unintentionally captured, rather than performed, or that they were never intended for a public audience in the first place.
But then there’s all the stuff that’s been acted out in front of a camera: Sex tapes (the consensual ones). Basement skits. Pranks. Band rehearsals. Skateboard tricks. Dance moves. There’s also the life event footage: first Communions and weddings and birthday parties. There’s live entertainment footage—all those iPhones raised in the air at concerts and commercial sporting matches. This material really fascinates me only when something goes wrong, when the unexpected occurs, when reality deviates from the script. Most of this footage is recorded with the intention of one day being viewed and possibly shared, though in truth little of it will ever be seen. (Does anyone watch those soccer videos twenty years later?) Yet there’s a communal aspect, a communal intention, to most filmed footage—even, or especially, to sex videos. The person filming is either documenting a communal event, or documenting a private event with the intention of sharing said event with another human.
The footage Hank Fruscat found was in a category of its own.
• • •
I’m being coy here, withholding the central curiosity—the footage—but let me string this along another moment. I want to consider Hank Fruscat—finder of the footage—as he was at the time of this discovery, in 2005: a hardworking twenty-three-year-old running his own business. He’s good with Detroit real estate, at a time when you could pick up a house for as little as a few thousand dollars. He rehabs the properties and flips them or rents them. He and his crew have done a few at this point. I know several people who work for Hank, including my best friend Will.
One summer day, Hank shows up to a house just off Mound Road (the name of which will become ironic) and Eight Mile (a road made internationally famous by the Eminem movie of the same name). Hank’s interested in the place, a Cape Cod two-bedroom. Like a fair portion of Detroit in ’05, the neighborhood is fucked-up, but this is livable fucked-up. There are vacancies on the block, but none are boarded or burned. The home is “for sale by owner.” The catch is that the owner, a line worker at Ford Motor, was recently paralyzed from the neck down in a workplace accident. The owner’s brother meets Hank in the driveway and explains the gist of the arrangement: He, the owner’s brother, is, regretfully, brokering the sale. His brother, the owner, is in assisted living and therefore can’t be present. Also, he—the brother standing before Hank Fruscat—wants nothing to do with the place, wants to sell “immediately” and “as is.” He’s not going inside.
“My brother was into some weird shit. You want the house, you deal with it.”
• • •
I’ve never talked to Hank directly about the purchase. What I know, I’ve pieced together from Will and from other people on Hank’s crew—and from the footage itself—yet many times I’ve imagined Hank’s first glimpse inside the Mound Road house: In the front room are a single chair and an entertainment center featuring multiple televisions. Several full-length mirrors stand at various angles. Laminate flooring. In the kitchen, the appliances are outdated but serviceable. Every other ground-floor room is completely filled with women’s clothes: skirts, blouses, furs, wigs, shoes, necklaces, glasses, coats, scarves, bras, garters, panties. It’s a display of hoarding on a level Hank’s never witnessed. Major work. Disposing of it all will require the rental of an industrial dumpster. Hank is uncomfortable making his way through the rooms; paths have been cleared according to the owner’s logic, yet the trails are tight and require physical contact with masses of lacy things.
Hank gets to the basement, which has a few rooms. The first is chock-full of dresses on mobile racks. More shoes—hundreds of shoes—many pairs organized as if on permanent display. There are also enormous piles of shoes and garments that are bound together by fishing line and garters. In the center of the room is a plastic kiddie pool filled with a murky liquid Hank will determine to be dirty baby oil. In the second basement room: another lone chair. More women’s clothes heaped and tied into bundles the size of large beanbag seats. This room is covered on all sides with mirrors.
The house, though, is a deal. It’s brick, in fine structural shape. New roof. About five grand less than one might expect to pay for a non-foreclosure in a still-inhabitable neighborhood on the outskirts of Detroit. Hank’s tenacious. He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. He buys the place.
He puts his best guys (not Will) on the job. It takes them a week of eight-hour days to clear the place out. An estimation of the number of wigs or skirts or extra-large G-string panties is impossible. In the hundreds, thousands. The crew—guys who dip Kodiak and watch college ball, who lift weights, who patronize strip clubs—wear rubber gloves and sanitary masks. They’re handling strings of beads and rubberized doodads. They’re tossing garbage bags filled with wigs and pantyhose, getting it over with, but they’re noticing something strange about the skirts. All the skirts have round holes cut in the crotch region. They laugh. They try not to think too much about it. Eventually, it’s like clearing out any old house and then, as they’re getting through it, Hank comes upon a locked cabinet. He breaks the lock to reveal a carefully arranged collection of videotapes, each with a white label on which a number is printed. The sequence goes from one to sixteen.
• • •
Will and I were collectors of strange media before blogs or YouTube, before websites like Sick Chirpse or imageboards like 4chan, gateways to viewing (unauthenticated) cannibalism videos, “quicksand porn,” footage of a woman dying after inserting a snake into her vagina, antic outtakes from the ill-fated shooting of a commercial for luxury RVs, or the worst band ever filmed (they’re called Complete and I recommend their live performance of “Hoogie-Boogie Land”). Whatever your tastes, your fetish, you can now gain easy access with a few strokes of the keyboard. Back in the late ’90s, we had fewer options, but our guilty favorites were no less compelling; were, perhaps, more compelling for their uniqueness and scarcity and our sense of proprietorship over such exotic documents. I’m thinking in particular of a VHS tape that accompanied mail-order penis pumps back when a guy could order those by way of ads placed in porn magazines, circa the mid-’90s. While I never partook in the “pump scene,” as I came to know it, Will certainly did. The deal was that for something like $19.99 you were mailed a contraption that was essentially a cheap bicycle pump with a hose running to a plastic cylinder, into which a fellow could insert his penis. Get a little suction going, and one’s fleshy appendage would swell inside the vacuum and acquire a sort of purplish, vein-bursting girth.
For legal reasons, I assume, these gadgets came with a piece of paper explaining they were “for novelty only.” Will’s practice was both ironic and devoted, and apparently it worked. Soon he was able to upgrade his cylinder size, and eventually he progressed to a fancier pump with an air pressure gauge. His mom worked long hours, providing him time to experiment. And though he was known for public exhibition of his talents with the pump (he liked to use the contraption while watching television and sometimes chose to do so at just about the time he expected friends might be stopping by after school), I never witnessed it. I saw the pump in action only via the instructional video, a remarkably explicit program that was quickly added to our collection of “crazy shit,” joining a short catalog of documents including our classmate Ronny Wooten’s parents’ sex tape, camcorder footage of local maniac Zach Nobel popping out his glass eye while vomiting Schlitz, select scenes from films like Pink Flamingos and the Faces of Death series, and things we’d shot guerilla-style in late-night 7-Eleven parking lots. The penis pump video starred a creep named Scott Taylor, who wore a snakeskin cap and black T-shirt. The camera panned out to reveal his nether region, where a bruised, glistening appendage the color of badly cooked hanger steak hung to just above his kneecap.
Shocking stuff for sixteen-year-olds in Southeastern Michigan.
My tastes at that age tended toward the zany and destructive, artistic freak-outs, bloodletting, punk rock, dark psychedelia, outsider poetry. Sexual extremes and perversions were never my thing (I’d never enjoyed the Wootens’ sex tape—two overweight Midwestern parents humping awkwardly—which Ronny Wooten himself brought over to show us), and I’m certain that my first viewing of Scott Taylor’s penis pump sleaze was accompanied by residual Catholic guilt and low-grade spiritual doom, but Taylor’s ability to spin a phrase made it difficult to turn away.
“One thing you’ll need is lube—I go for Vaseline, the stuff you can trust. And the trick is to get it down in this region, the pubes, ’cause that’s where the suction begins.”
Having no interest in reviewing the tape all these years later, I quote Mr. Taylor from memory, confident I’m doing so with considerable accuracy. I’ll spare you a detailed description of the accompanying visuals, other than to say that once Taylor finally slides his blistery organ from the tube, he holds it in both hands and brings the enormous, surprisingly flaccid thing as close as he can to his lips, licking at it. And that the second tape that arrived, accompanying Will’s upgraded pump, featured bonus footage of Taylor having intercourse with a haggard blonde woman, the act proving impossible for him to consummate without using both hands to sort of heave his cock inside her the way you might wrangle an elephant trunk into a mail slot—erections were not, apparently, Taylor’s forte.
Scott Taylor died before we’d ever seen his video.
I know this because, late one night, we called the toll-free number on the video’s label and were told so by the guy manning the phone, who referred to him as “the king of the pump scene.”
Sometime around 2009, after having mentioned Scott Taylor at a New York dinner party, I searched online and found that the Scott Taylor PENIS PUMP INSTRUCTION VIDEO had been digitized and was showcased on a blog designed specifically to host this odd bit of recorded life. The blogger’s note felt familiar: “I’m not vouching for this, but my buddies and I got ahold of this tape when we were younger and it became a token thing for us that we’d watch when we got drunk. It’s pretty fucked-up, but also amazing.”
The blog also transcribed a few Scott Taylor sound bites.
“The pump will make your cock longer, but the real gains are in thickness. It’s like the difference between a hot dog and a salami.”
“Yeah, man, once I’ve had this pump on, I get so hot I just want to fuck. Or touch it. Or let someone else touch it. It just really feels good in my hand—like someone else’s cock.”
“Now there is some pain involved, and it’s not for everyone. But a lot of guys in the pump scene come to love—they really come to love—the burn.”
To find the video online in 2009 was a little spooky. The footage had, in 1995, seemed so unusual, so profane and exotically sleazy, that no one but Will and I and a very small clan of Californian penis pump enthusiasts could have possibly witnessed it. Yet there it was, posted by what seemed a relatively sane human who was apologizing while saying, also, “But you gotta see this.”
That’s when it occurred to me: we live in the you-gotta-see-this age.
• • •
For years, Will has lived in what he calls “a retirement home.” The description is not inapt. It’s an older brick apartment complex featuring units real estate agents probably list as “condominiums.” Will’s the youngest resident by a couple of decades, and also probably the one for whom the medics are most often called. (I’ve personally called 911 no fewer than three times while visiting.) He lives a hard life. There are emergencies. He spends a lot of time cooped up in his second-floor unit, sometimes researching the most extreme media known to the internet.
It was to this apartment that I arrived on a summer afternoon in 2005, in order to get a gander at this video I just had to see. I recall a wonderfully sunny day. Will was in a fine mood. He’d pulled closed the blinds, yet the outside light turned the fabric a relaxing magenta.
I asked again, “No one gets hurt? No rape shit? No bestiality?”
“I told you, man: no one’s getting hurt.”
I sat down on his leather couch. Will stood with the remote. He wasn’t ready to sit. “Hang on, I’ve got to get the lights,” he said. They snapped off. His television was ample, twenty-some inches wide, hooked up to a behemoth sound system. He stabbed at it with the remote control. The first image to appear was a sea of static, fuzz, a green bar materializing on the screen as Will adjusted the audio. “Let’s give this some volume.” We were ready.
Here’s how the video begins:
Fifty or so sequenced, close-up shots of large, robust feet crammed into women’s shoes. Heels. Stilettos. Red shoes, gold shoes, buckles, no buckles. Fifteen minutes of shoe footage, edited with the two-VCR dub/pause technique familiar to amateur filmmakers of the ’80s and ’90s (see Harmony Korine’s film Trash Humpers, an homage to the method). By the precision of the tape’s editing, I knew I was in the presence of a serious endeavor,many hours of crude but focused labor. The feet step graciously, a light prance, showing off the ankles. Cut. The shot widens. Cut. Now we’re getting some calf, thick flesh bulging in fishnet. Cut. Rock-solid, manly thighs housed in all manner of pantyhose and tights. Twenty, thirty different cuts, each one airing just long enough to savor.
“Oooh,” says a voice off camera. “Oh, ooooh.”
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“Be patient. He’s just getting started.”
The next cut flashes very briefly to a scene showing a large, powerfully built man sitting in a chair surrounded by mirrors. He’s in a blonde wig, dressed in what we, at that age and at that time, would have described as “hooker wear.” A gaudy, sequined blouse. Cheap jewelry. A skintight skirt. The man’s entire hulking shape vibrates as he yanks at his penis, which protrudes through a hole cut in his skirt and appears to be wrapped in pantyhose. The rattling and jangling accompanying his moans is the sound of the many gold bracelets clacking together on his wrist.
“Jesus!” I said.
But the footage, only a tease, cuts quickly to his face—faces—a sequence of extremely up-close shots of the man’s grim countenance, a new wig and application of makeup in each picture—cut—blowing kisses to the camera—cut—his mascaraed eyes staring deeply and desperately into the lens, as if into someone’s reciprocal gaze. Cut. One face after the next. Cut. The puckering and smacking of his ruby-red or pink or purple lips is audible.
“I love myself,” he says, huskily, as if copulation has already commenced. “Oh, I looove myself.”
For everything that was to come, these headshots were what I’d come to remember most vividly because I knew instantly—almost primordially—that I was watching a man stare into his own soul, expressing what I took to be his deepest, purest feeling. Perhaps one has to view the footage to understand, but I believed he was truly seeing himself: that was who he was looking at. Through the camera’s lens, he was meeting the version of himself who would shortly view this recorded version of himself. He was professing love, desire, for that person, for that other self, the one awaiting in the near future. This was his stare, blinking occasionally—batting fake eyelashes—mascara smeared. “I looove myself.” You didn’t need to hear him say it to know that it was, in some way, true. He blew several kisses, each one coming from a slightly different face framed by a different wig, one cut after the next. “Oh, I love myself.”
• • •
Without yet succumbing to the easy conclusion that this performance epitomizes the selfie—perfectly anticipates the craze despite having occurred years before that term was coined—I’m compelled to pause the frame here to consider the relationship between modern self-documenting humans and their recorded likenesses. Most of us have at some moment wondered about how many hours of life humans have abandoned to taking pictures of themselves, adjusting the angles and the lighting, and then assessing the resulting image. We’ve thought of the many hours spent editing these photos and videos—producing them—using the filters and apps companies develop for never-ending self-improvements. We’ve asked ourselves: How many hours in the last decade have humans spent adoring (or despising) themselves, studying themselves, on a screen?
Though I’m hesitant to admit it, I’ve taken probably five to seven pictures of this type over the years and have been repulsed each time to see myself, captured instantly by my own hand, staring back at myself, trying to look good, or real. It’s uncanny. Mostly because I look nothing like what I imagined I’d look like in that moment, or because I feel the shock of my own vanity in having indulged the act. It’s somehow different from staring into the mirror, as though, as suspicious Luddites of yore are said to have believed about photography, some part of the soul can be stolen by the documentation of one’s likeness. But I’m an outlier, I know, and a cynic. Surely there are millions among us who review instantaneously their self-taken photos and, when the image is right, experience to some degree the thought: “I love you. You’re beautiful. You’re me.”
The man in the video I was watching had entered a self-designed closed circuit, a solipsistic void, one in which the self-recorded image encapsulated all emotion, all thinking and desire, one that transformed identity and gender, almost completely. He was man and woman, each part of him in love (or lust) with the other. He was all. I realized, also, while gazing into his desiring eyes, that his selfie—his footage—was intended for no one else. I knew this as surely as if I’d caught a friend in conversation with the bathroom mirror. It was not meant to be seen, except by him alone, which made me feel all the more that I was there with him, witnessing a forbidden part of him, some kind of truth.
• • •
There’s more, much more, to the tape.
But if you’re asking whether or not it’s available for online viewing, perhaps we should first ask ourselves what is fair game—what should be treated as public domain—when it comes to repurposing found footage. Did Scott Taylor consent to having his image reproduced into digital perpetuity when, in the VHS age, he allowed his penis-pumping mastery to be filmed and used to market those vein-bursting gadgets? I once filmed an aged, Speedo-clad Russian man at Coney Island, picking his nose and ass crack simultaneously, and, without much deliberation, set it to the music of a band I was in. Was it immoral to upload that footage to YouTube so that strangers might have a forgettable laugh at that man’s unknowing expense? Is there a spiritual cost to doing so? What about the Star Wars Kid—remember him?—that bygone internet sensation of the early aughts made famous for his self-recorded lightsaber moves? He only wanted to videotape his Skywalker fantasy while wielding a very long rod (imagined as a lightsaber)—but a classmate got ahold of it and put it online. Once digital effects artists began reappropriating it with green screen technology to show the kid with a blazing CGI saber, fighting Darth Vader himself, the footage became the butt of a million jokes. I recall the kid’s parents having intervened with a lawsuit. Was our laughter worth the trauma that kid—who’s a young man now—must endure trying to live down his recorded past as the Star Wars Kid? (To date the video has thirty-three million views on YouTube, yet it went viral before YouTube existed.) Would any of us want our bathroom mirror lip-synch antics or bedroom dance moves—or worse—available for all to see? If you found a selfie of your worst enemy masturbating over a plate of angel hair, would there be a personal cost to uploading it anonymously to the web? What if the footage were of a stranger? What if the stranger never knew we were laughing, or marveling, at their unfortunately documented likeness? What if the stranger were paralyzed and living in assisted living—would you still like to see the footage?
Some might say the moral of any sex tape scandal is never to allow yourself to be recorded unless you’re damn sure you’ll be okay with all the world viewing it—and surely that’s good advice—yet what about those of us who come into possession of private documents, things locked in cabinets? What moral duty, if any, do the unsuspecting finders of such material have? And what if the document is, truly, amazing? A you-have-to-see-this. Something anyone, like Hank Fruscat, would feel the need to share.
• • •
The man-dressed-as-a-woman was a hulk, like a linebacker. The cliché of what you’d imagine a guy who worked the line at Ford Motor would look like. This became more and more apparent as the camera angles widened to show his profile in total, his broad shoulders and his meaty hands, the right one often stroking his cock.
“Look at that brute go,” Will said. “He’s got a mean stroke.”
The tape had advanced to a sequence of shots featuring the guy in full drag, his Viagra-hard penis rocketing out through the holes cut in his skirts. And his stroke was mean, like he was pounding one of those rubberized Stretch Armstrong toys, trying to squeeze the syrupy gel from its innards. Each shot lingered for possibly forty seconds, then cut: he’s sitting in the same chair, wearing a different outfit. Blonde wigs, curly brown wigs, jet black, bangs, no bangs. In some shots he wears a blouse, in others only a stuffed bra. He’s jacking off so hard his entire body shudders, jerky, gracelessly, like an electrocution; his stiletto heels kick the floor, clacking. Bracelets jangle on his wrist. The only other sound is heavy, labored breathing—a sort of constant, rhythmic eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh. With his free hand he feels up his stuffed bras.
If his recitation of “I love myself” didn’t convince that this footage had been recorded and edited for the man’s own solipsistic purposes, perhaps that conclusion is further supported by the fact that now, as the tape progresses, you can see in the full-body mirrors surrounding him reflections of a television playing footage of him doing exactly what he’s doing before the camera: jacking off while dressed as a woman. So, yes, he’s recording himself jacking off to self-recorded (and meticulously edited) footage of himself jacking off. He’s recording himself feeling up his stuffed bra while watching recordings of himself feeling up his stuffed bra. The television reflects in the mirrors, which cover the walls. There are three of him, four, six. He’s moaning to audio of himself moaning, yet he’s looking at his present-tense self in the mirrors as his hand clutches his fake breast. It is a room of mirrors, a mind of mirrors.
By this point I was—I recall very clearly—cringing on Will’s couch, my knees pulled up to my chin in a pose of childish defense.
All I could say was, “No!”
I meant that I couldn’t believe my eyes and, also, “Please make it stop,” but Will wasn’t about to let that happen.
Will was calm, nodding his head, taking it all in.
Maybe years later I’d attempt to contextualize all this in terms of gender fluidity (which I’m not sure applies to the man on the tape) and sexual repression (which probably does); I’d try to strip from the experience my shock and amazement in order to make a sympathetic conclusion about the document. I’m still not sure how one might best categorize this man or his video in terms that are appropriately sensitive or politically sound; the imprint of his footage on my mind is too profound. And, regardless, it’s an unforgettably chilling sensation that moment you realize you’ve passed through a porthole and into another person’s psyche, into their twisted mirror-mind. After all, I’d entered the basement of this man’s private perversion, his self-love, a place unaware of others and not meant for others.
As for Will, I have no idea what he was thinking as he viewed the footage and don’t like to try imagining what he experienced later that night, after I left, when he watched the entire tape again while high on psilocybin.
“I wanted to go deeper,” is how he explained it.
That this tape fell into his, of all people’s, hands might have been an act of divinity. Few living souls might have appreciated the content as much as Will or done so with the same absence of moral judgment, and fewer still would have braved the footage under the hallucinatory precariousness of magic mushrooms.
Was this video art?
Not intentionally. And its purpose, I believe, was greater than art.
Anyway, my viewing of the tape had not yet reached its own zenith of weirdness. I was about to be taken to the level of “all I could handle,” the mind-explosion part of the story.
I assumed the sequence of orgasms, about an hour and a half into the tape and obviously edited for climactic effect, was the climax. But after the fortieth or so shot of the guy ejaculating into his pantyhose (his penis was at all times wrapped in pantyhose, sometimes cuffed by a bejeweled cock ring), the footage cuts to another scene, another room. Here the man sits sans wig, in pantyhose and heels, no skirt, a brassiere. We see that his real hair is styled in a militaristic flattop. After a few vicious strokes of his appendage he grumbles, “I want my shoes,” and pulls toward
s himself a pile of high-heeled shoes fastened together by fishing line. He takes a few more strokes. He drags over another pile. Piles of clothes, more piles of shoes. He strokes. He begins slowly burying himself.
“I need . . . more . . . shoes,” he growls.
“Dig in, dig out,” he says, as he yanks another pile onto himself.
The pile of piles grows until only his head can be seen bobbing above the surface of the multicolored mound. His free hand holds it in place while with the other he jacks away. The mound trembles. It looks like a giant, deranged beast from Sesame Street in Hell, some demented ’70s children’s show back when there were psychedelic puppets, Snuffleupagus-type things. Amazingly, he piles on more shoes. He’s buried in a Snuffleupagus of blouses and shoes and skirts, and there is clearly a method, a process: the pre-tied bundles of shoes and clothes, the expert stacking of these piles, the instinctual jerking of his free hand. He’s done this many times. Over several minutes he builds the mound so high and wide that he is completely submerged, and then the screen shows only a giant, pulsing mountain of women’s garments and footwear. His grunts are muffled but grow louder as the mound shakes with kinetic passion.
This was the part that unraveled me.
I was actually screaming, digging nails into my palms, tears of confused emotion streaming down my face.
Because it is one thing to view a performance, however absurd, that’s meant for the public eye—or even a single eye other than the performer’s own—and another thing altogether to view a man in his basement buried in a mound of women’s clothes and to do so with the understanding that he—this Ford Motor line worker, who is now incapacitated in assisted living—never invited you to look. Because you understand that the document is, in some way, the truest him: a near total manifestation of his secret madness, and possibly also the truest expression of whatever love he was capable of giving or receiving in this life. There are no cuts in the mound scene. It’s one long shot. He cannot stare into the mirrors because he cannot see. He is the mound. For a good minute or so the mound shakes, and garters and lacy things tumble to the linoleum floor. When he finally comes, you hear it. A sort of “Ur-aaaaaag-unnnn,” an orgasm five times as powerful as the forty that preceded it.
And the mound goes still.
Then he knocks it down and with his pinky fingers wipes sweat and mascara from his eyes.
“God,” he tells himself. “That was great.”
• • •
I drove away from Will’s apartment that afternoon feeling something I never had before. I was at once extrasensory, acutely more attuned to the physical world as one is after exploring an abandoned building in the dark, and wary, knowing I’d seen something I couldn’t unsee. Though it wasn’t the seeing so much as the knowing. The indelible knowledge gleaned from having entered a man’s private obsession and perhaps, also, the knowing that he was now sitting somewhere, paralyzed from neck to toe, probably thinking not so much about his tapes but about the fact that he’d never again bury himself in a mound of women’s wear, never again achieve one of those explosive self-loving orgasms. His collection of clothes and shoes and his carefully edited films (one might only imagine what the other fifteen VHS tapes, already destroyed by Hank, held) evidenced a kind of life’s work. His videos might be a conversation between id and ego, animus and anima, an attempt at the consummation of two cleaved parts of himself. At the very least, they were evidence of the closest one might come to actually fucking oneself in a monogamous, heterosexual, and romantic fashion (the old masturbation joke taken literally: at least you’re doing it with the one who loves you best).
I wondered if any of his colleagues working the automotive line had any inkling of the man’s wild fancy, if they perceived anything odd or “off” about him, and what they’d think if they glimpsed but a few seconds of the tape. I knew also, with new clarity, that there probably were many others like him, people who behind closed doors carried out all manner of transgression and perversion, ritualistically, obsessively, that they were among us always, and that this man’s ritual—this business of what Will and I would begin to call “mounding”—was, based on what could be seen on the tape, essentially harmless, benign.
He wasn’t, after all, hurting anyone.
• • •
Will returned the tape to Hank Fruscat the following day, after which it was destroyed. But not, I confess, before I returned to Will’s place with my laptop and an analog-to-digital converter I bought for the purpose of capturing some of the footage. At the time it felt important, as though I needed to share with someone else—someone besides Will—what I’d seen; so that another witness might make it seem less a figment, so that it might not become distorted by memory, and so that the man’s work might not be for naught. I worried I’d kick myself, for years, if I let that footage disappear forever into a nameless landfill on the outskirts of Detroit.
My few attempts to share it did not go well.
Once, without disclaimer, I played mere seconds of the footage for an unsuspecting friend while sitting beside him with my laptop in the back of a van. “Check this out,” I said. We were on a long road trip. Having nowhere to run, he went silent as the film began and then brought a hand to his forehead before pleading, “Dude, dude, dude, dude,” as though I were branding him with a hot poker.
“I’m so glad you told me,” he said, once I explained the origin of the footage. “All I could think of was how I needed to get the fuck away from you the next time we pulled over—I was ready to hitchhike.”
He didn’t opt to see more.
But, like the other three or four people I played it for, he referenced the film The Ring.
“It’s like you watch it and you’re cursed forever.”
This footage now sits on a hard drive (file name: Mounding), and feels somehow less amazing as years pass and the internet overflows with self-documented weirdness and repurposed “crazy shit.” Were I to post the footage, on an imageboard or dedicated blog, it would, at best, get passed around as a link among a few voyeurs, people who’d fail to see what was, in fact, profound about the man’s endeavor; it would not be savored for the psychological diamonds that alchemize when one thinks deeply about it. But maybe that’s my duty, my place in all this: to contemplate this man—this human being—and what it meant for him to devote his life to the ceaseless project of a bizarre self-love.
• • •
Thousands, possibly millions, of people are at this moment taking pictures of themselves, taking twenty. And when the moment’s right, a few—if only a few—blow themselves a kiss. They might as well say it: “I looove myself.”
Is it true?
Do they feel something true?
Is that what the selfie obsessive is really after, never able to fully achieve?
What if we, like the man on the tape, became the only admirers of our selfies and self-documentation, if we kept it all to ourselves? Spare your fellow humans another replication of your image and savor it alone. It’s what’s most important about a selfie, anyway, isn’t it: how you feel—or want to feel—about yourself?
What if we did the same for all those home videos, all the consumer-recorded content: kept it to ourselves and shared the most impressive moments only sparingly, stingily, behind closed doors? Might we enhance our capacity to learn from these images?
Just don’t leave them behind for someone else to discover.
Like the twenty minutes of mounding footage that remain in my possession, on a drive, presently safe from the potential “sharing” that could ensue should they wind up in the wrong hands. Mr. Mound will never go viral. Hank Fruscat doesn’t know I have the footage, though surely he stopped worrying about it long ago. I’ve considered erasing the file, but can’t quite bring myself to do it. Maybe there’s someone out there who needs to see it, who’ll make more sense of it than I can. I picture you dropping by, having a seat on the couch as I cue the video: the expression on your face as you prepare to view the most amazing shit the world was never invited to see.
I promise that no one gets hurt.