In those days, the best place to drink for free in Brooklyn was in Red Hook at one very specific little art gallery on the night of an opening. It was (and still is) a little shack located at the end of the Van Brunt Street right off the water in the shadow of those big cranes that loom like prehistoric monsters in the mist. Called WORK Gallery, it was painted a deep red either as a reference to its neighborhood, or the result of mild insanity on the part of its owner. In any case, the party was always there.
Nobody calls him Projector Head to his face anymore, but on the night we met it was on everyone’s wine-stained lips. Projector Head is amazing! Projector Head did a show on my birthday! I waited on Projector Head last week! Projector Head is coming here tonight! This all sounded like bad news to me, as I assumed Projector Head was a hip local band. My perfect little drinking niche – free of pretentious music snobs and groupies – was about to be crashed by the “latest thing.” I wasn’t happy about it, so I drank twice as much as usual.
Being anti-social doesn’t mean I was always observant of my surroundings. Rarely could I describe to you the actual art featured in the gallery. But on that particular night, I noticed. Because there wasn’t anything. The walls were bare and dirty and there were no sculptures on the floor. Not even little snatches of text scribbled in the corners. Nothing. Beyond the usual amount of beautiful people drinking out of plastic cups and laughing loudly, the gallery was empty. And then it hit me. This Projector Head business was the main attraction. My free-booze art gallery had sold out. They’d become a music venue. I was enraged now and drinking three times as much as before.
It was in this state that I decided to accost the owner of the gallery. He was an amiable guy by the name of Parker. Or was it Spence? Franklin? Honestly, I can’t remember, I was always too hammered. Good looking son-of-a-bitch though. We’ll call him Byron.
“What kind of shit are you pulling here?” Byron blinked quickly, likely taken aback because I was actually speaking.
“Excuse me?” he said.
“Why have you sold out! I hear some stupid band is playing here tonight!” At this, Byron smiled broadly. He had one of those million dollar smiles. Like a game show host. He wasn’t a bad guy, but you know what I mean.
“Oh no no no no! There’s no band playing tonight!”
“Then what’s going on?”
“You’ve never heard of Projector Head?”
“Well, you’re in for a treat.” At that, Byron patted me on the shoulder and walked briskly through the crowd towards a thin man who’d just arrived. The newcomer was pale, with sunken eyes that made him look like Ichabod Crane’s cracked-out twin brother. Saying he was simply tall doesn’t really do the guy justice. It was like he’d folded himself in half just to fit under the ceiling. I’m not short, and neither was Byron, so this guy seemed like a giraffe; competition for the metal monstrosities outside. Byron gave the guy a big hug, which made the pale thin man flinch a bit. But he smiled back. Barely.
The crowd had instinctively quieted and suddenly gathered itself into a cohesive unit like those flocks of birds that undulate in the sky as one single wave. Soon, a large empty space was cleared at the center of the gallery. The new guy found himself standing in this spot alone with Byron. What had I missed? What was going on?
“Ladies and Gentlemen!” Byron said, like an old-time radio announcer, “It is my great pleasure to introduce to you my good friend Sean Claiborne. We’ve all heard of his work and now, it’s time to see it. I am very humbled to be hosting his first official New York Show here at Work Gallery. Everyone, I give you… PROJECTOR HEAD!” Then Byron clapped twice and the lights of the gallery went black. In spite of myself I let out a little high-pitched yelp. It’s amazing how alcohol turns us into children. But the darkness didn’t last long, because in an instant, there were twin beams of light shooting out from the center of the gallery, impacting on the largest empty wall. In another second, I heard abrasive, jangly 90s music. I wasn’t sure but it sounded like “The Kids in America.” Drunk and balancing myself between a sweaty girl and the bar, I squinted to be sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing.
Projected on the wall in front of me was a movie, and that movie was “Clueless,” circa 1995, starring Alicia Silverstone. Despite the fact that I sort of liked “Clueless” and considered it to be the best film adaption of Austen’s “Emma” one can find, I was totally confused. Why the hell had everyone shown up for this? What? To ironically watch a movie that had come out when most of us were still in middle school?
And then my eyes adjusted, and I saw it. The movie was pouring out of the thin, pale man’s eyes. The movie was being projected right out of his face. His lips moved along to all the dialogue, because all the dialogue was coming out of his mouth. It wasn’t his voice, but the voices of Silverstone, and Stacy Dash, and Brittany Murphy. The music and sound effects were coming out of his ears, like they were high-tech speakers.
His fingers were all splayed out straight, and he hovered in a pseudo-crotch position motionless. I could tell right then and there that the phenomenon was involuntary. His body was rigid and motionless, like he was a sculpture or a piece of machinery. We all stood and watched the entire movie. A few people laughed in the right parts, but I didn’t. The guy’s fingers twitched creepily during the “rolling with the hommies” bit. I just stood there sobering up and thinking what I was going to say to him when it was over. It didn’t take a genius to figure out Projector Head didn’t have a lot of friends.
Sure enough, as the movie ended, and the man’s eyes darkened, the crowd began to disperse. Sean Claiborne practically sprinted to the door of the gallery and was handed a handle of Maker’s Mark by Byron on his way out. As I followed him I noted the few people who smiled and the others who nodded awkwardly. The crowd’s reaction couldn’t have been clearer. It was embarrassment. We’d all just seen a freak show, and like all freak shows, people don’t talk to the freak afterwards.
“Hey,” I said to Projector Head as he leaned on the side of the gallery tapping his fingers on the un-opened bottle of whiskey.
“Hmmm?” he said with his head turned away, staring at the big cranes.
“That was some show.”
“Can you pick them?” I said, “The movies?” He turned to look at me now.
“No,” he said, “I can’t. What movie did I play tonight?”
“That’s too bad.”
“No, it’s all right.” I said, “Everybody loved it.”
“Good for them. I hope it helped Byron’s gallery.”
And we talked like that for an hour. He said it had happened when he was a teenager, after he’d quit some job cleaning floors for a big TV studio. He had no idea how it worked and he never remembered it afterwards. Sometimes he dreamed about the movies, but even that was a little fuzzy. He said one of his old roommates thought the whole thing was some kind of big conspiracy; like guerilla marketing from the studios. “I’m a pop culture bomb waiting to go off” he said.
As everyone left to go home, we stayed, leaning on the red wall of the gallery. Back then, Projector Head had no idea what was ahead of him. His famous and tragic life had just started. But on that night we talked while he fiddled with the bottle of whiskey absent-mindedly like a gunslinger keeping his hand on the handle of his six-shooter. Eventually I decided to ask him about it.
“Are we going to drink that thing or what?”
“I’m afraid to.” He said.
“When I’m drunk, it seems like my face will only project soap operas, or really, really sappy movies.”
“I could sit through a sappy movie right now.” I said. And then I thought about quoting that line from “Casablanca” about the start of a beautiful friendship, but stopped myself. He’d probably never seen it.
And now, with films always projecting out of his eyes, and actor’s voices coming out of his mouth, I decided it was unlikely Sean Claiborne enjoyed hearing about bits of movie trivia.
Image by Gabriela Vainsencher
Read more of Ryan’s stories here. Ryan’s writing has also been published with Nerve, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Opium and Clarkesworld. He has performed stories on stage with The Liar Show, The Moth, Stripped Stories and Heeb. Ryan’s plays have enjoyed staged readings and full productions in New York City with Collective Unconscious, The Longest Lunch Theatre Company and The Tank. From 2008-2009 he wrote a short story every day and posted them to his blog called “Side Affects.”