One Night in New York
So one night Kembra and her boyfriend Colin de Land invite me out to dinner with a couple of rich right wing middle aged broads from Texas who are art patrons and who like to hang out with sleazy, low-life artists like me so they can pick their brains about sex and pornography.We end up meeting them at Balthazar in Soho, an expensive restaurant known for its ritzy clientele. While we’re waiting for a table, Kembra and I squeeze in at the bar to order a pint of Guinness for me and an orange juice for her, because she doesn’t drink or do drugs at all. Finally the rich broads arrive, and as we sit down Colin happens to notice that Richard Avedon and Doon Arbus are sitting in an adjacent booth. Dick looks pretty old, but he still has that big shock of white hair and those over-sized glasses. Kembra is turning heads because she’s wearing brown leg warmers that extend from her ankles to the bottom of her micro mini skirt, a New York Fire Department cut-off baby T-shirt, black high heels, and of course her trademark Divine-inspired high-arching eyebrows drawn in with a thin-tipped black magic marker over her shaved-over real ones. Once installed in our booth, we are ready to order, but the females are being neurotic about food so they all just ask for French fries, well-done, which are served in nice shiny metal cups along with globs of ketchup and mayonnaise. I’m the only one who orders real food, like mussel chowder and an amazing shrimp risotto, which all the women have to sample and ooh and ah and wish they’d ordered that. One of the rich broads is named Sunny even though her disposition might indicate the opposite; apparently she’s the daughter of a former Senator and was once married to the son of one of the most famous journalists in America who’s story may have been told in The Insider. Both of the art patrons are very keen to hear all about the world of pornography, wolfing down their fries while they take in every lurid detail. Kembra and I remark about how happy we’ve both been over the past couple of years even though we both just hit forty, and when Sunny asks Kembra’s advice about how to be happy, Kembra suggests that she make an embroidered pillow with a slogan of her own invention written on it.

A Letter from a Fan

Dear Bruce: I had a little situation a couple of days ago that I’d like to hear your opinion on. I went into a Mac’s Milk to pick up that copy of Penthouse you suggested with the photos by Eric Kroll of Kembra Pfahler with her vagina sewn shut. I approached the woman at the counter and she was all smiling and happy until I gave her the magazine. Her transformation was shocking. She suddenly became sullen and snappy. She went to put the magazine into a plastic bag, and I said not to worry about it. I could just take it as it was. “It has to go in a bag!” she growled. I shook my head. It was after midnight, and there were no young children in the store or in the parking lot, but still this woman felt it would be better to fuck up the environment and lose money on unnecessary packaging then let me walk out of the store with an already plastic wrapped copy of Penthouse. I’m sure you’ve experienced shit like this before, but my question is: If buying porn makes people loath you, what the hell happens when you make it? I’ve considered adult films as a possible route to get my career moving, but I’ve heard rumours (I believe you mentioned this in passing in your last letter) that people get literally blacklisted in the mainstream industry if they make porn films. (Mainstream meaning getting funding from companies and institutions to fund films.) Anyway, if you can answer this question I’d be pretty grateful.

A Photo Shoot in L.A.

The phone rings and it’s my dear friend Kembra Pfahler, underground superstar extraordinaire, who has a proposition for me. She wonders if I might consider photographing her and her minions performing her infamous “Wall of Vagina” routine, to document it for posterity as she soon plans to retire the act. I’m still pretty creatively spent from the weekend, and I’m flying back to Toronto on Wednesday so I’d have to pull it together by tomorrow, but I can’t pass up the opportunity to work with Kembra. The next day I’m picked up around noon by a new camera assistant whom I’ve virtually picked out of the yellow pages, and after renting the lighting equipment we head over to the Highland Gardens Hotel on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood, formerly the Landmark Motor Hotel, the very spot where Janis Joplin o.d.’d at the age of 27 some thirty-one years ago. Considering its wild history, I figure it must be a rock’n’roll flop house where I can conduct a photo shoot with four girls with shaved pussies wearing nothing but body paint laying face down one on top of the other to form a wall of vagina while a fifth pours a watery oatmeal-like substance in the top vagina until it trickles down from one vagina to the other without anyone taking any notice. Kembra has assured me that she’s already cleared it with the management, who love her, that we can shoot it in the courtyard flower garden and it won’t be a problem at all.
I love Kembra. When my Muslim boyfriend, who is very spiritual, met her, he told me that she’s a goddess from another dimension, and I couldn’t agree with him more. When I arrive at the hotel at the appointed time, I realize that there seems to be a lot of little kids splashing around in the courtyard swimming pool, and the guests all look frighteningly normal. I enter Kembra’s room to find her and three other half-naked women dutifully applying their body make-up, each one a different colour, while Kembra teases up their big black fright wigs. She informs me that they’re running a little behind schedule, and one of the vaginas hasn’t even shown up yet. A couple of Kembra’s old New York avant-garde film buddies are there helping out, as is Rick Owens, the famous fashion designer, who is having Kembra model one of his creations in the latest Vogue. My assistant and I start to set up the lights in the flower garden, which is situated about ten feet from a row of ground floor rooms with double sliding glass doors, each opening onto a small patio. We’ve already begun to attract attention, with small children gathering to see what we’re up to.
Several patrons of the hotel start to complain to us that we’re blocking the path to the pool with our equipment, and finally the manager, a stern Eastern European woman, comes striding over. At that moment, two of the girls in full body paint with tiny white towels wrapped around them come down to sit in for a Polaroid. “Those girls aren’t naked under those towels, are they?” she asks me suspiciously. Apparently Kembra has neglected to mention there may be nudity involved in the shoot. “No,” I assure her, “They’re wearing full body paint.” “But they’re not naked under there, are they?” she persists. “No,” I repeat. “They’re wearing full body paint.” A third time she asks, “But they’re not naked, are they?” A third time I assure her, “No, they’re wearing full body paint.” Having outdistanced her, she gives up, but warns me that she’s leaving now, and she better not get any phone calls complaining about what we’re doing. Somehow she’s failed to notice that we’ve already knocked the flowers off half the plants in the garden, and that the girls are buck naked under those towels.
Almost two hours after the appointed time, Kembra and the girls and their vaginas are ready for their close-ups. By this time the sun is going down, and my assistant has only brought one battery pack so our power is running out. He is also getting very nervous when the girls take off their towels and sit on the platform we’ve built, particularly when he notices a couple of teenage boys sitting in lawn chairs outside their room watching the action with big smiles on their faces. He whispers in my ear that he’s not about to get slapped with a child endangerment rap, and threatens to pull the plug. I’m playing it cool, and ask Kembra to see if the boys will take a hike. Kembra, in shocking blue body paint, big black fright wig, and a little white terry cloth towel, ambles over to the boys and says sweetly, “You boys are eighteen, aren’t you?” They nod their heads vigorously. This is way better than the Playboy channel. Finally their big sister comes out and promises they won’t tell their parents. Long story short, the girls mount each other, the wall of vagina is shot just before the sun drops below the roof of the hotel, and although it’s rushed, we end up successfully documenting this woman-made wonder. It’s been a tense, exhausting day, and although I didn’t have time to shoot as much material as I wanted, the results are pretty spectacular, if I do say so myself. But with Kembra, how could they not be?

Visions of Excess in Birmingham

I try to take my mind off my petty problems by throwing myself into the décor of my room, which Kembra tells me is quite reminiscent of the work of her good friend the famous New York artist/photographer Jack Pierson, who photographed me long, long ago giving head to a hot Atlanta muscle boy in his studio above a seedy storefront on 42nd Street. Kembra has pulled it together beautifully, adorning herself with her trademark blue body-paint and black fright wig. Her booth consists of plain white walls and white paper on an easel in front of which she will stand wearing a white lab coat, explaining her theory of Allism and Availabism. I love minimalists. They came in with nothing, they have nothing, and they’re going out with nothing, just like the rest of us.

Visit to a Small Porn Set

On my last night in New York I’m invited out to some bizarre location in the middle of Queens to a pornesque fetish studio, appropriately called Gotham, to visit my friend the underground sex goddess Kembra Phahler. Kembra has worked for this particular company for years, performing in such classics as “Bent to her Will”, “Boxing Bitches”, and “P.L.O.W (Punk Ladies of Wrestling)”. She tells me that they’re currently working on a little number entitled “Wanted: Osama Ass-A-Hola”, featuring a bearded fellow dressed up like Osama Bin Laden who is being sexually tortured by a couple of dominatrixes, including Kembra in a black burqa. It’s pretty hot stuff, considering it’s only three months after 9/11, but that’s what makes it so cathartic. She says I should come out and snap some pics. I eagerly call the Lower East Side car service and head for the armpit of America. I should have known this was going to be more difficult than I thought, because the last time I took a car service to Queens, to visit the set of Harmony Korine’s movie “Julien Donkey-boy”, the driver got hopelessly lost, forcing me to sit in the back seat for a good hour and half while he figured it out and I almost shat in my pants (I happened to have diarrhea). And that was during broad daylight. This time it’s pissing rain and pitch black, blacker than the blackest bowels of hell. To reinforce this image, we pass by a horrible accident on the freeway going in the other direction, a jack- knifed tractor-trailer that has squashed a tiny little VW bug. It’s exactly like the scene in “The Shining” in which Scatman Crothers encounters a similar sight on his way up north to see what evil is going down at the Overlook Hotel. Once we get to Corona, Queen’s, the driver, who’s a young, extremely cute Puerto Rican guy with a ponytail, follows the street I’ve requested but runs into a dead-end before we get to the correct address. This means the street must continue somewhere else, but unfortunately it literally takes him two hours to find out precisely where. As we drive around in circles, passing the same squalid buildings draped carelessly in depressing, half burnt-out Christmas lights, I try to talk to him, but as it turns out he doesn’t speak a word of English. Fortunately I have my cell phone with me, so I call Kembra to get directions.
Unfortunately, the borough is planned so haphazardly that there’s no way to describe where we are, or for her to describe how to get to where she is. It’s a truly Kafkaesque nightmare, which only ends when I finally communicate to the driver through a combination of sign language and telepathy that he must pull over and ask for directions. After several stops at convenience stores and gas stations, he finally finds someone who speaks Spanish, and somehow, miraculously, I arrive at the studio only two hours late. Unfortunately it’s now close to midnight; they’ve already shaved off Bin Laden’s beard, and he’s lying strapped face down in the middle of a studio floor covered in chains and hot wax and god knows what else. The owner of the studio, his cameraman and several other employees are standing around, barking out directions. They all seem to be over sixty. The still photographer looks like a member of the Hell’s Angels, and the transvestite who is being lashed and tortured turns out to be a production assistant who just got promoted to star earlier in the day because one of the performers neglected to show up. The blond dominatrix is an old pro who really knows how to flail and whip. Amidst all the activity stands Kembra, who is quite deliberately phoning in her performance, speaking like an automaton and looking distractedly over at me and giggling. Apparently she’s doing the video mostly because she owes the owner of the company a couple of favours, so she doesn’t want to have to over-exert herself, and who could blame her?
Between floggings, I get a chance to chat with the transvestite, who looks like she’s in her late thirties. She’s out of shape, and a bit out of sorts, her wig slightly askew, hobbling around in her size 13 pumps. She complains to me that when she was a man, other men treated her quite respectfully, but now that she’s a woman, they’re always trying to beat the hell out of her. But she doesn’t seem to mind that much. Her back is covered in huge ugly welts and long bleeding lines from the whip. I snap a few photos of the carnage.
Unfortunately Kembra has already retired her burqa for the evening. She’s also neglected to mention that the studio owner would go Al Qaeda on my ass if he caught me taking pictures. Fortunately, she sneaks the burqa, which she has created herself, into a bathroom stall and invites me in for a little impromptu photo shoot. Her face veiled, she pulls up the long black garment to reveal her black stockings and garters, and then her shaved pussy. It’s very political. Fortunately, Kembra has an SUV, so she drives me back to Manhattan. Unfortunately, she doesn’t really seem to know how to drive. But that’s okay, because we have a great conversation on the way home. Despite my ordeals when working with Kembra, the pleasure of her company always makes it worthwhile.

At Jack Pierson’s Birthday Party

Also attending the dinner of about a dozen people are my dear friend Kembra Pfahler and her dear friend Tatum O’Neal. I don’t usually get excited about celebrities, but for Tatum O’Neal I make an exception. Her performances in such great movies as Paper Moon, The Bad News Bears, and Little Darlings haunt me still. Since her tenure as a precocious child star ended, she has survived drug addiction, John McEnroe, and motherhood, not necessarily in that order, so she really has been through the ringer, but despite all that she still manages to look beautiful and glamorous and behave graciously. I’m almost too star struck to talk to her, but at one point Kembra makes me go over and sit next to her and we strike up a nice conversation about serial killers, a kind of hobby that we both share. She knows all the minutiae of the lives of serial killers both famous and obscure, the lurid details of which she recounts with much gusto. It’s almost too glamorous for me to comprehend.