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New York: Ira Cohen & The Night A Fried Egg Went to the Whitney PDF E-mail

“…I’m very glad to see you,” Bissinger said, turning to a sweaty, hulking man in a “Poetry at Gunpoint” T-shirt who had flecks of fried egg in his wiry white beard. Bissinger and the man, Ira Cohen…”— The New Yorker, March 13, 2006

When I initially read this account of my friend, the poet and photographer, Ira Cohen, I was dismayed to think that this was how he was mentioned. I thought, “Oh, how degrading, makes him sound so messy,” and “here Ira finally gets mentioned in some mainstream magazine and this is how. What a shame.” I also thought that it was amusing and entirely possible.

I had been speaking to Ira on the phone a few days before and we had to hang up because the fact checker from The New Yorker was on the other line.

I received my copy of the magazine on Monday. Thinking that something about Ira would be in it, I leafed through the pages and caught his name in a Talk of the Town article entitled “The Last Bohemians.” He had gone to a photo exhibit and publication party for Edward Field’s memoir at the Westbeth gallery where The New Yorker writer interviewed him.

I immediately phoned Ira and asked if he had seen the article. He hadn’t. “Do you want me to read it to you,” I asked. When I got to the part about the fried egg, Ira said, “They thought it was white paint. Why would I have white paint in my beard? I told them, ‘no, it was fried egg. I had just eaten one.” Ira went on to express dismay about journalism, the media, and so forth and I didn’t read the rest of the reminiscences in the article to him.

Though he is quite well known amongst a certain coterie of artists, poets, intellectuals, collectors, and performers, the general public does not know him. He has alternately lamented and joked that he has never been asked to publish a big book of either his poetry or photographs, and has received very little to no attention. However, Ira is a major artist: poet and storyteller, jokester, maximalist, self-proclaimed shaman, filmmaker, and photographer with a large and daunting body of work - published and unpublished. He can be amusing, annoying, irritating, refreshing, charming, well-read, infuriating, tedious, over-bearing, endearing, unconventional, fun-loving, frustrating, boring, loving, miserable, heartfelt, stubborn, discursive, intelligent, delightful, memorable and more.

Even though we have been friends for over 35 years, there have been years that we haven’t spoken, gestured or remarked. Sometimes speaking with Ira on the phone can be a one-way conversation and I have been known to say that, ‘once I put the phone down and took a shower and when I came back he was still talking and didn’t know I’d been gone.’ This may not be true, but it gets the point across.

This year, 2006, Ira has some work, two photographs, from his phantasmagorical Mylar series done in the sixties, in the Whitney Biennial. I think I can speak for a lot of his friends in saying that we are very happy that this has happened; that he has some exposure in a major art museum. Though, in many ways, this inclusion is no big deal and so what. Too little, too late? Maybe so. But still…

As part of the Whitney exhibit, Ira gave a poetry reading on Friday night, March 17th. A film, from the same period, ‘Inauguration of Thunderbolt Pagoda,” was also shown. He likes to give readings and does so as often as his current health allows. A group of his friends often use his readings as an excuse to get together. The reading this night was especially crisp, amusing and charming. I think the audience was savoring the moment - so much so that at one point he was asked to ‘slow down’. Penny Arcade shouted out for him to use the microphone. Ira even got in a little kvetching at the end.

When I heard about the reading, I immediately thought I’d bring a fried egg! I didn’t know exactly what I meant. Was this just a metaphor? No, I frequently work as a chef so a fried egg is an egg that’s fried.

At my home along the Hudson, I got dressed to drive in to the City and attend the reading. Then I took out a dozen fresh eggs and my cast iron skillet. I poured some olive oil into the skillet to warm it up then broke a fresh egg into the center, sprinkled some salt and pepper on it, and then covered it with a lid to cook slowly. Since I had to transport it, the egg needed to be cooked through. After a few minutes I flipped it over. It got wrapped up in that new stuff that seals itself—makes a sort of vacuum package. Then I put it in a plastic bag and put it in my coat pocket still warm. I actually had two packages, as the first two eggs got broken yolks, so I fried them anyway and cut them into strips and made an additional package—for everyone else.

Once at the Whitney, I immediately asked people I knew, starting with Ira, “guess what I have in my pocket?” When I took it out to show them, everyone, except Ira, grimaced.

If you don’t get it yet, just about everyone was thinking what was written in The New Yorker was pretty awful and made Ira sound, well, you know, sloppy and slovenly, to say he had fried egg in his beard. Just the mention of a fried egg made them bristle in sympathy. But this was real Iraism: he loved that it said that; he told them to say it!

So, sure enough, a few people whispered to me, things like, ‘you didn’t say anything to Ira about the article with the fried egg, did you?’ In other words, they thought it was awful and something not to be mentioned. The reality was the opposite.

The ‘after party’ was a couple of blocks away at a very noisy bistro. It seemed to be filled with corporate working people exploding on Friday night, albeit quite handsome ones. We more than filled the double banquette set aside. Service was practically non-existent. I did see the poet, Alan Graubard with a steak frites platter. And comedic raconteur, Steve Ben Israel and his wife and my friend, Pamela Mayo, their hip-hop poet son Baba with his wife, Dawn, having some green beans and what turned out to be an ‘overly salted and peppered green salad.’ But, Living Theatre’s Hanon Reznikoff and Judith Malina, who were sitting next to Ira, seemed to be drinking water, and Ira was consuming the nice warm rolls that were on the table.

Ira’s sister, Janice, was also on hand. Over these many years with his health and financial problems she has always been there for him. Maybe sometimes she wonders what he is all about because they are so different, but she still dotes on him. Standing and sipping a glass of white wine, she smoothed out his jacket and gave him a “tatala-style” pat on the head. Before leaving, she bent over to whisper to Marina, Ira’s lady, that “he was looking so much better because of her TLC.”

I too was standing, sipping a Cote-de-Rhone I’d gotten at the bar. The fried eggs were at the ready and it was time to offer them. I plunked down the package of the single fried egg in front of Ira. “Okay, here is your fried egg,” I announced. Without a pause, Ira opened the package, pulled open a roll and placed the egg inside, making a nice sandwich. He then ate it. I handed the other fried egg package to Marina, who lives in Amsterdam but visits often. She carefully rolled up the package. I asked, “What are you doing?” “He can have it for breakfast tomorrow,” she said. But wait. It looked like Ira was going for the package. Yes! He opened it and did the same thing. He ate all of them! All of the fried eggs! Marina shuddered and mumbled something about the cholesterol.

Wrinkled up on the table, like two miniature Chamberlain sculptures, were the two blue packages that once contained the fried eggs. I asked a man named Rio, who had a camera and said he was the Director of The Explorers Club, to take a photograph. He graciously complied.

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