Ling Gao

The Yale University Art Gallery’s newest exhibition is on the fourth floor in several rectangular sanitorium-white rooms naturally lit by slivers of clerestory windows studded with penitentiary spikes to impale wayfaring pigeons; it’s a fine exhibition, very intellectual and very visual and very conceptual, if you’re into that kind of thing; my favorite part, really, was the security guard. Because I arrived five minutes after the museum opened, I found myself the lone Samaritan perusing the exhibition. I could hear one security guard relating to another the war story of that time he guarded a Van Gogh. This security guard turned out to be my favorite security guard. He must’ve noticed me narrowing my eyes in scrutiny before each piece, or scribbling copious notes in my according-to-everyone-effeminate-and-vaguely-cursive handwriting, or maybe I carry the clenched and constipated countenance of a natural born critic. In any case, he thought I was important and special — or, he made me feel important and special — because he directed me to an upper room I missed, and he inquired as to whether I was writing an essay or an article, and he commanded me to have a great day. He was my favorite security guard, and I wish I had gotten his name.

I have a phobia when it comes to interacting with professionals. By professional, I mean anyone doing their job. Usually they work in the service industry, and I require their service. I am aware that there is such a thing as an incompetent customer. I imagine purgatory as me standing in line at Chipotle, forever trying to decide which type of beans I want, while the goth-metalhead-vampire burrito maker glares at me from behind the sneeze guard. If I were a psychoanalyst, I would attribute this phobia to a certain traumatic childhood incident that took place in a suburban San Antonio Blockbuster. My mom and I were waiting in line to rent movies. I twirled and pirouetted around on one of those line-up-here-cord-stanchion things when, maybe due to my tomfoolery, one cord snapped away from the other, and no one knew where to line up. I don’t remember what the balding boogeyman of a Blockbuster employee said to me. Afterward, my face felt like a burning temple.

This phobia also applies to more passive professionals, such as security guards, who are merely waiting to tase me when I cough on the Mona Lisa. My mom is a grand travel companion, since she pays for everything, but in art museums she becomes a liability. She likes to point so precisely at Monet’s plein air impasto that her untrimmed-unpainted-uncontrolled nails threaten to scrape off a few brushstrokes. I have to yell at her before the security guards do, because I guess it’s less embarrassing for me, her son, to loudly call her an art-endangering psycho, than for a security guard to request politely she back away from the painting. But I also think I’m saving the security guards some trouble. I imagine most of them simply want to smile, smell that suspiciously clean art museum smell, and assist hapless-but-let’s-be-honest-pretty-handsome-and-hey-you-know-what-actually-really-funny-would-be art critics.

I trace another lineage of my phobia from my own experience as a professional, or the minimum-wage-earning dude staffing the box office at a discount movie theater during the summer after I graduated from high school. The theater was located outside the San Antonio city limits, in that wasteland between towns also filled by car dealerships and Best Westerns and weird incestuous overpriced private Christian schools. The clientele was usually older and countrier and grouchier, men with handlebar moustaches who reprimanded me for not letting their Dr. Pepper’s fizz recede so that I could properly fill their cup to the brim, women who probably slept in hairnets and demanded I speak up when I asked them, “How are you?” I remember one redneck in particular. He hauled his wife and his probably 10 kids into the lobby, and he was wearing a certain red hat along with a gray Hillary For Prison 2016 shirt, and he bought a dozen tickets for a Hillary-is-the-Antichrist pseudo-documentary that had competed with “The Secret Life of Pets” for the weekend’s bestseller status. He counted out pennies in his hand and paid in exact change. When I handed him a yardlong strip of tickets, he told me, “I appreciate you.” To thank someone is to recognize they did something for you they did not have to do. I did nothing gratuitous for this redneck. But he appreciated me, and I remember him along with a handful of despicable prediabetic customers who made me feel like – and might as well have called me – a fuckface.

That’s why I wanted to get the name of my favorite security guard, and that’s why, when I failed to do so (because I am, as my mom often tells me, a “mealy mouth”), I thought about my failure for the rest of the day, including in my English seminar in which I remained silent during our discussion about whether or not we could ever truly know another person, even someone fictional. I thought, Don’t we, you know, all feel, like, the same things? My internal monologue spiraled from here. Though he is paid to be nice to people, my favorite security guard was much nicer to me than his job performance evaluations required, and I wanted to thank him, but I didn’t know how to thank him, hence why I failed to ask him for his name, and I really don’t even know how to have engaged with him in an authentic interaction, considering if I began slobbering gratitude at his feet for him doing his job of being nice, he would think I was coming on a little strong, and if I didn’t thank him at all, he would think I was rude, and if I just offered him a normal thank you I’d spend the rest of the day fretting that I didn’t properly communicate how exceptional it was that he chose to be extra nice to me, and how I know in every way the anguish of trying to be nice to people as a professional, and how he really made me feel like I was important and special. But now I’m beginning to think that our mutual relief at our unspoken agreement not to be dicks to each other was itself sufficient appreciation.

Joshua Baize | joshua.baize@yale.edu .