Basment Tapes

Tales from the Crypt of the MFA

By: - Jun 16, 2015


Basement Tapes


After college
Tried to get hired as
A welder
My uncle Freddie said
If you want to be an artist
Get a trade
It didn't work
Flunked the test
Not like making sculptures
Got depressed
Went to the museum
Often visited
During high school
A few blocks away
Had to face dad
That night
When will you get a job
Hated living at home
Bright idea
I'll apply here
Director's office
Perry T. Rathbone
May I help you
His secretary said
Looking for a job
Janitors and guards
Apply in the basement
Actually thought of
Something curatorial
That just isn't done
Do you mind if I ask
Wasting your time
Would you object
Well if you insist
Quick decision
What department
Egypt seemed interesting
May I help you
Yes looking for a job
Get out I'll call security
May I speak to a curator
We get nuts like you
Becoming agitated
All the time
What's the problem Mary
William Stevenson Smith
Asked from his office
This young man wants a job
How interesting
Come in
Sit down
Shifting papers to make room
What did you have in mind
I'll do anything
Called in assistant curator
Edward L.B. Terrace
Well Bill
There's the basement
Worked there
Two and a half years
Never got to be
A welder

Dust Bowl

First day of work
Egyptian Department
Sat in the office
Instructed to read
Become familiar
Staff took turns
Taking me to lunch
Tours of the collection
Old Kingdom
Dynasty Four and Five
Giza pyramids
King Mycerinus
Excavated for Boston
George Andrew Reisner
Crafty horse trader
Swapped Ankh Haf
For arduous excavation
Furniture turned to dust
Removed layer by layer
Tomb of Hetep Heres
Mother of Pharoah
Royal tombs all went
To Cairo
Like Tutankhamun's
The cursed Howard Carter
Cushy job it seemed
Listen and learn
Couple of weeks later
Dr. Smith said
Come with me
Gate to the basement
Huge roll of keys
Opened vast wing
Rows of shelves
Walls of vitrines
Piles of crates
Abandoned for decades
You'll work here
Turn straw into gold
Started with sweeping
Eight barrels of dirt
Coal miner
Black lung disease
Before lunch
Washed up
Put on suit
Youngest curator
Before there were interns


Behind huge rack
Enormous stone fragments
My antique desk
Under narrow window
Headless seated sculpture
Obscure early Pharaoh
Primitive inscription
Facing me
Discovered piled up
Organs in canopic jars
Outer layers
Painted plaster
Crossed wings
Sacred incantations
Heart scarabs missing
Shucked like oysters
Harvested by thieves
Wrist bracelets looted
Eternal peace violated
My neighbors
Fellow cave dwellers
Dead silent companions
Ancient restive spirits
Making peace with
Their disturbed Ka
Made paper hearts
Healing the wounds
Restored harmony
Servant of the after life
From museum's library
Borrowed vintage copy of
I Ching
Consulted the oracle
Transcribed daily in a journal
With thoughts and poems
Internship of
Work and meditation
Internal journey
As staycation


Basement swept
Asked for white paint
Buckets delivered
The entire basement
Shelves cleared and washed
Objects dusted
Plastic sheets cut and taped
Preventing further dirt
Massive project
Took months
Given Neal as assistant
Reported tasks completed
Dr. Smith inspected
On to next project
Soaking salt from limestone blocks
Flaking off fragile surfaces
Walls of a mastaba
One small tank
Taking years
Suggested plastic wading pool
Inside beams set on sponges
Stone slabs placed on them
Pump to flush weekly
Hose to nearby sink
Accelerated the job
Mastabas rebuilt
Trained to fix stone vessels
Bill Young's conservation lab
Opened old crates
Shards from Giza
And the more ancient Zawiet El Aryan
Early Dynastic site
Sorted on rows of folding tables
All over the basement
Daunting puzzle
Matched by color and shape
Taped when clicked
Possibilities exhausted
Clay fitted to contour
Shifted to missing areas
Filled with plaster
Sanded to shape
Meticulous craft
Structurally sound
Pots restored
About a hundred
Trompe l'oeil painting
Plate of Ka Ba
Early pharaoh
His cartouche
Only known inscription
After Narmer
Ruler of Upper and Lower Egypt
On display
At the MFA
Those rocks inspired
My book
Shards of a Life


Alone all day
Vast Egyptian basement
Morning coffee
Fresh hot rolls from the kitchen
Lunch breaks
Coming up for air
Exploring galleries
Alone or lonely
Brought in my painting
Bright yellow textured monochrome
Livened up the ancient gloom
Like my friend Jim
In the classical department
Could have had anything from
Museum's storage
For the office
Preferred my own work
Much more cheerful
Asked to remove it
By Edward L. B. Terrace
Uptight curator
Later murdered in Egypt
Brought in a radio
Piercing the funereal silence
Dialed to WILD
Soul station from nearby Roxbury
Music to soothe long days
Months and years
A guard dropped in to say
Mr. Rathbone
Passing by with visitors
Asked if you can
Turn down the radio
Or change the station
To classical music
How old school and

Coptic Pot

Restoring all those stone vessels
Looking for new challenge
Exploring all the shelves
Found fragments
Large, brightly painted vessel
Tall and cylindrical
Bottom missing
Pieced it together
Stunning design patterns
From Coptic Christian era
Evened the base
Balanced imposing
Free standing
When finished
Up the stairs to the office
Busting with pride
Displayed my latest creation
Curators freaked out
Where did you get that
Put it back
Even now
Never seen the light
Of day


The Classical and Egyptian departments
Separated by a door
Left open by tradition
Under quirky and witty curator
Cornelius Vermeule
A charming and delightful eccentric
Over there
They were always laughing
Having fun
Compared to the Gypos
As he called us
So serious and silent
Jim Jacobs popped up one day
Student of Emily's at BU
In elegant suits and
Shoes from Brooks Brothers
Suggested we have lunch
Stuck in traffic on Comm Ave
On the way to Locke Ober's
In the convertible
He singing along poorly
Up on the Boardwalk
Me getting ever more nervous
Watching the time
Demanded we turn back
Grabbed a sub sandwich
Rushed to the basement
That was a bust
Tried again
After work and off the clock
Apartment shared with Phil Bleeth
Friends for life
He lives in Thailand
I the dignified Egyptologist
Watched in horror
As they got into a food fight
Decades later Shango
Came to my book launch
At the Mount
His conversation with
Mark St. Germain
Inspired this suite
Of basement tapes


Jim had curious duties
In the classical department
No heavy lifting
Studying the coins
Walking Cornelius'
Dalmatian named for
Emperor Diocletian
When he and Emily were away
Feeding the dog and
Birds Casper and Polux
Now and then joined him on rounds
Changing the salts in vitrines
Baked in a kiln
From red back to blue
Restored to the cases
Absorbing moisture
Opposite the office
A vitrine with odd objects
Clay figure with outstretched arms
Across them a broken arm
Know what that means
It was the era of the Beatles
I Want to Hold Your Hand
We laughed at the in joke
One day
Hunkered over the Greek pots
Examining a red figure kylix
Naked men humping
Cornelius came up behind me
Do you read Greek Charles
He translated the inscription
Hold still
Looking about the gallery
Told me how to find the
Dirty pots
You can see the grease stains
Sweaty foreheads pressed to the glass
During museums tours
Shared that information
It made the class
Much more fun
Them wild and crazy
Knew how to party