There is a moment, quite incomparable, when someone tilts a pot of hot wax over your naked groin. I fight the urge to recoil: my own biological sensibility to avoid pain, especially the sort that might preclude my ability to propagate the species, or have an orgasm. Patrick peers down at me, my hips propped up on one of his girlfriend’s yoga blocks, and chuckles kindly.
“You’re going, ‘oh no, hot, no, bad, I’m going inside!’”
I smile weakly back up at him, and adjust my digital voice recorder, embarrassed that he can see physical symptoms of my trepidation. I’m doing such a good job of not acting nervous. And I’m not, exactly. As he swirls the pot of liquid wax between my knees, letting it cool slightly, I feel a familiar excitement. Anxiety, yes, but beyond that, a thrill in my own ability to confront the absurd, to fold my pants on the nearby chair and offer my tender parts with clinical dispassion.
To my relief, the sensation when he pours the wax isn’t painful. Despite all my experience pouring wax on other peoples’ privates, I’ve never had the tables turned. It’s kind of nice, actually. Like stepping into a hot bath.
“That’s not too hot, is it?” Patrick asks.
“No, I’m fine,” I assure him.
The process is two pronged: first he takes a mold with a special wax containing plastic. From this mold, he can then produce rubber likenesses of my vagina, as many as I want (stocking stuffers anyone?). On my way into his Queens apartment, Patrick pulled a stack of paintings away from the wall to reveal the “wall of vaginas,” some 20 pieces, many from molds, some sculpted by hand from a quick-drying, moldable material called Friendly Plastic, in varying sizes, colors, and degrees of hairiness.
“You can see the early ones, up there,” he pointed. “They were much uglier, less realistic. See that hideous one there? They’ve gotten better.” He appraised his own work with a discerning but tender gaze. “You see that one in the middle there? That’s my landlord.” He told me he’d hidden them because his new roommate didn’t know about his work. “Yeah,” he said, “I was a little worried she might walk out of her room while we were making the mold today, that it might freak her out.”
This concerned me, too. As a professional dominatrix and sometime submissive, I had plenty of experience assuming compromising positions. But those strangers were paying for it, not stumbling over me naked in the middle of their living room. I had used my body for work, but that was the province of the dungeon, and I was here as a writer. I didn’t have a lot of experience merging these two aspects of my personality.
“Have you thought about telling her?” I asked.
“Yeah, I thought about it.”
Two weeks prior to the mold-making, I received an email from Patrick Bucklew with an address locating “The Mangina Museum” at 28th Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues.
The pristine facades of closed galleries flanked both sides of the street, its pavement shimmering, slick with a post-drizzle sheen under the streetlamps. After a repeated jiggling of the address’s locked entrance, I called Patrick on my cell phone.
“I’m here, but the door seems to be locked. Where are you?”
“I’m across the street, over here!”
I turned around to see him waving enthusiastically, just a little farther down the block. Clad in only a pair of red boxer briefs, with a black hand-printed M emblazoned on his chest, he looked like a misfit superhero. Attached to the groin of his red undies was a lifelike rubber vagina, complete with a fuchsia fringe of pubic hair. Propped up on his forehead was a mask: a pallid, featureless visage, empty but for eyeholes; and a long, slender, clothespin-like nose.
The M stood for “Mangina”: the name of both the genital prosthesis he was wearing, and his alter-identity, who appears mostly during performance. The prosthesis concealed his penis and testicles, and was attached over his hips by transparent plastic thong. I crossed the street to join him.
“Welcome to the Mangina Museum!” Patrick gestured with a flourish at the waist-high wooden box beside him on the sidewalk, the sides of which were hung with large oil paintings. In one, I recognized the eerie face of his mask, perched atop a body seated at a table. One side of the box was propped ajar to accommodate visitors crawling inside to view the interior exhibit.
“Oh look, it’s Don and Bernadette!” He pointed to another couple across the street and grinned, retrieving a bullhorn from atop the “museum.”
“Welcome to The Mangina Museum!” he boomed at them. “Are you guys hungry? Do you want some baby carrots?” He held aloft the bag. “Well, if you don’t want them, you could always shove them up your ass.” He smiled sweetly, and we all giggled.
Introductions ensued, including that of a petite, olive-skinned beauty whom he led by the small of her sequined back and introduced as Simone. Simone sported a fright wig, and a flaccid, rubber penis which hung from her neck like an amulet. We crawled in and out of the box, squinting to make out the figures in his paintings, their shadows sprawling like puddles across the canvas. As the rain picked up, I scribbled directions to his apartment in my notebook and fled, his naked silhouette glowing like a star behind me.
Patrick was a friend of my boyfriend, who’d suggested him as a subject to profile. Despite my ambiguous impression of his work, I immediately asked for his contact information. I was still in my twenties then, in graduate school, but had already adopted the method of choosing subject matter based on how conflicted I felt about it. From my feminist/sex-worker/artist perspective, he was appealingly provocative subject matter, but what if I hated him? I liked pursuing conflict in my work, but not socially.
“Hi Melissa!” When I arrived for our first interview, Patrick was waiting for me on the stoop of his Elmhurst, Queens apartment, coffee mug and cigarette in hand. He led me through a hallway with ceilings lofty enough to accommodate the paintings that lined both walls: colorful, haunted cityscapes; dark sidewalks populated with figures of people, dogs, and cars whose edges wavered gracefully, resisting concrete form, as though they were underwater.
I knew from the first moment that I didn’t hate him. Patrick had a warm, direct disposition; a delicately handsome face; and I immediately trusted him. How I felt about his wardrobe of plastic vaginas remained to be seen.
As we entered his apartment, I caught a glimpse of Simone in a purple slip, padding on bare feet into the bathroom. A rumpled bed (actually gym-mats under a fitted sheet and worn comforter) lay in the center of the main room, stippled with sunlight, amidst a minefield of scattered art-objects: Barbie-dolls with tiny, hirsute vaginas; drawings and photographs; colorful molds of breasts, hands, feet, and other body parts; an apparatus resembling a metal crock-pot with a vacuum hose attachment; Seuss-like masks with genital mouths; sculptures with popsicle-stick and plastic-fork limbs in melancholy, marionette poses; a microphone held to its stand with a disembodied hand fashioned of a marbled red plastic, as though the skin had been torn from it.
I asked if Simone lived there as well (she did), and how they met.
“I was doing a performance at Collective Unconscious,” Patrick explained. “Kind of a sad performance. I had the bubble-head on, and I had a microphone in the bubble-head, and I said that I was, like, the saddest man in town, but that I was proud to wear that crown.”
He paused to take a drag from his cigarette.
“Or something like that. A poem. Because I’m proud of what I’ve been through, but at the same time, I felt like the saddest man in town. So, I had the mangina on, and I invited people to come up and finger it, and she came crawling up and put her fingers in it and said it wasn’t that deep.”
“A shallow Mangina.”
As the Mangina, Patrick wears naught but the vaginal prosthesis, complete with a fingerable cavity through which a realistic tuft of scrotal skin is tucked. This he has christened the “lotum” (labia + scrotum = lotum, clearly preferable to the original “scabia”). He will often stand in a bucket, his mangina accompanied by a prosthetic left leg from his knee down, itself hand-fashioned out of Friendly Plastic. On his head he wears “the bubble-head”: a fishbowlish plastic sphere, complete with a breathing tube that becomes necessary as the bubble-head fills with water. His audience is then encouraged to approach the stage and finger his mangina, while he recites poetry, or just breathes laboriously.
Patrick conceded that, while often perceived politically, alter-personas such as his often have more to do with pathos than politics.
“It’s all that and more. The late puberty of course, which Jonathan [Ames, the writer, and Patrick’s close friend] had too, but I was much later. He was like, ‘Oh my God! You need therapy!’ I was 21 when I got pubic hair. I mean, I was psychotic. I would use mascara; I would design my own merkins [pubic wigs] out of Barbie doll hair.”
“No, just for me.”
There are friends of mine whose noses wrinkled when I mentioned the Mangina, that I was writing this profile. These people had often not witnessed Patrick’s performances, but were reacting to what they assumed must be a puerile mockery of women’s sexuality. I could understand such a reaction. I tended to cringe as I described his work, knowing how bad it sounded. I wondered aloud during our interview if this was a common reaction, if the Mangina—despite his acknowledged emotional and psychological impetus—was often perceived politically by feminists, and anyone concerned with issues of gender and sexuality.
Patrick cited a printed response to a blurb in Jane magazine that equated him to a Hannibal Lectorish figure. Though clearly wounded, he claimed it gave him fodder to work harder to communicate his true intentions.
“The younger feminists really like what I am doing,” he assured me. “They perceive it as somebody trying to understand. Anyone that deals with issues of sexuality in their art, the pain always comes out, and we don’t always talk about the pain. You can feel an undercurrent of frustration through them, unless they are talking about the pain, like Eve Ensler.”
This rings more true to me now, writing this, than it did at the time of our interview. My own work, and that of my friends, has always dealt with issues of sexuality, and I know what that undercurrent of frustration both looks and feels like. When I met Patrick, I had a lifestyle that orbited my own sexuality, and my work dealt plenty with sex. But I wasn’t talking about pain. There was definitely a current of frustration in my life, and I remember feeling it during our interview. Patrick’s manginas intrigued, but also disgusted me. I fought bristling at what appeared to me less their implicit mockery, than their entitlement. But I also knew that artists talk about pain in different voices, so I nodded.
He went on. “Women are so susceptible to environment, just through the fact that they’re a hole, they’re open, they’re the negative they take in, they are extremely susceptible to disease, and to everything. I think the pain that men have is more on the surface. But we both have pain. That’s something I’ve come to realize through this project, that we are so, so similar.”
I cringed at his description of female vulnerability. Not in disagreement necessarily, but out of sheer discomfort. Talking about rubber vaginas didn’t make me uncomfortable, but this did. I squinted, feeling the grate of my reaction to his claims of similarity — both resistant and attracted to the idea. It seemed so much easier for men to make this claim than women.
“Do you identify with feeling like a hole?” I asked.
“Oh yeah. After so many years of being fingered by people, it’s gotten to the point that I don’t even find it titillating anymore, it’s like, oh no, not this again.”
I laughed. Having worked in the sex industry, I could relate to that feeling exactly. At first, trading in erotic fantasy had been profoundly titillating. After a few years of spending my afternoons indulging in cliché fantasies of female sexuality (sexy nurse, sexy secretary, sexy teacher, sexy student, sexy cheerleader), being groped myself, and probing the orifices of others, all novelty had worn from the experience. Amused as I was by this parallel, my identification with that kind of estrangement from one’s own body went further back than my experience as a sex worker. I stopped laughing as I remembered.
I had had a woman’s body at the age of twelve, and developed a similarly precocious knowledge of the power that came with it. Being desired by men intoxicated and terrified me. I cowered when men in passing cars whistled at me, but I also courted that attention elsewhere, pursuing the friendship of girls with older brothers and unsupervised homes, removing my bra when I left my home for the movie theater on Friday nights and tucking it into my backpack. But seduction led to sex (at least, the ancillary forms of it), which left me cold, confused, waiting for it to end. I had literally spent my adolescent years being fingered by people and thinking exactly the same thought: “oh no, not this again.”
I didn’t share this second point of identification with Patrick. Instead, I considered his seeming comparison of the experience of female vulnerability, to his elective experience of donning a rubber vagina and inviting people to penetrate it. To this, I was skeptical. I understood identifying with vulnerability, perhaps even envying the public nature of it—as a man whose vulnerability is less acknowledged. But standing on a stage and exposing your balls has little to do with the everyday involuntary experience of being a woman, I thought, the objectification one is subjected to by simply having breasts and a vagina and appearing publicly. Women don’t get to choose this, and don’t enjoy the specific luxury of growing weary of it the way one does with chosen burdens. Women can’t take that vulnerability off and hang it on their walls when they feel like going back to being the most privileged class of people in the world. Was he really “trying to understand,” or simply entertaining a grandiose sense of his own vulnerability?
Patrick’s website referred to “the six points of the Mangina,” which included his retarded puberty, his friendship with Ames, the strippers he painted at The Blue Angel strip club, his exhibitionism, and the loss of his foot.
At the age of 29, after downing two bottles of tequila with a friend before a party in North Carolina, Patrick decided that the prohibition of nude bathing at the nearby beach was absurd, and promptly disrobed, running naked toward the ocean. Before reaching the water, he stepped into hole, dislocating his knee so violently that it severed the artery, severed everything securing the bottom half of his leg to the top. He would be dead if not for the man strolling by just near enough to hear his plea for help.
“I’m still yelling help,” he said, while rolling up his pant-leg to reveal the homemade prosthesis. “Hee-elp! Get me out of this restaurant!” It was fashioned out of Friendly Plastic, a vivid blue and white marble, with a blunt, toeless foot.
“It looks hideous but it’s a really good one. It’s comfortable; the gait is good. I mean, they charge $7,000 for these things, and this one cost me about $25.”
“There was definitely a lot of pain in losing a body part,” he explained. “A child will look at you and say, ‘oh, you’re broken.’ Even though, once you go through it, you’re like, ‘oh, it’s no big deal, I can walk again, I can get around again,’ I think something subconscious is truly off. A handwriting analysis said that it has a lot to do with the Mangina.”
Privately, I conceded that he did know something of public vulnerability. Looking at his marbled foot, I remembered being 18, living on my own in Boston, and working in a tattoo shop. My friends and I had pierced every flap of skin we could grab with two fingers, and all had earlobes stretched wide enough to slide our thumbs through. For these, we used to bake crude jewelry out of Fimo—a polymer clay similar to Friendly Plastic—in the toaster oven. It was a style, then, but also a way of communicating to the world the impenetrability of my emotions vis-à-vis my willingness to penetrate my own body. By the time I met the Mangina, I knew that it had been a form of protection. I still loved my tattoos, but knew that their plumage guarded the actual tenderness of my emotions. Like the plastic parts of his body, mine had functioned as something to lean on, too. In fact, they still did.
In 2006, at the time of our interview, the manginas made from life-molds sold for about $500 each, those of his own design for $200 or $300. The paintings went from anywhere between $100 and $3000. He’d been working so much in order to save up enough to take a load of paintings down to North Carolina, where his former plastic-surgeon had introduced him to group of patrons whom he visited periodically, setting up his mobile gallery in their living-rooms. While the wax for my mold warmed, I asked if the Mangina conflicted with the image these people have of him.
“Yeah, it throws a curveball to my patrons,” he said. “But it’s simply a side of me that needs to be exposed. I was sick of being overlooked. I was going to all these art shows, and no matter how good they were technique-wise, I would forget them. I didn’t want that to happen to me. I wanted to do something that people won’t forget. I know I’ve done that.”
As three o’clock approached, Patrick prepared for his NoHo restaurant job. He has held more than 30 of these through the years, and at that time, spent six nights a week there. At its mention, I was reminded of his mask, and asked him about the figure that wore it in his painting, seated at the restaurant table.
“I think it has to do with being a waiter and a bartender for so many years,” he said, “I paint these scenes, these psychotic restaurant scenes. He is a character who doesn’t really like anything. So you puree spinach, and feed it to his tube, but whatever it is, he doesn’t like it. He’s an iconic customer. He has very specific needs.” I snorted lightly at this description, thinking of my dungeon clients, whom I accommodated to a degree that conflicted with most people’s assumptions of dominatrices. Having worked in restaurants for most of my previous employment, the similarity had already occurred to me.
“So that mask, the eerie non-face and long, discerning nose…”
“It’s a mouth actually. A sucking beak.”
He wished me luck with the subway. “Now off to this hideous job. If I’m not too suicidal.” He smiled mischievously and waved.
A few days later, as we waited for the wax coating my groin to cool, I continued our interview.
“So, when you say you were exposing yourself to people long before the Mangina,” I asked him. “Do you mean in performances?”
He shook his head. “No, not in performance, just in normal places, to women I didn’t know. I’d be on the train—”
“On the train? Like a flasher?”
“Kind of. I’d sort of let my balls hang out of my shorts. A lot of times I got away with it. I felt it was kind of healthy, or not unhealthy but fun, kinky, erotic, and wild. But then, as I got older, it began to feel like it was the wrong thing to do.” He grimaced. “A hideous thing to do. I was forty years old, in Dunkin’ Donuts, letting my balls hang out, and I just thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’ve got to find a way to show the balls in a healthy manner.’”
I sputtered with laughter, nervously trying to conceal how much this horrified me. He sounded like one of my clients. As much as he claimed to sympathize with women’s vulnerability in our culture, he had exploited it by exposing himself to them. Silently, I agreed that it was a hideous act, sexualizing public spaces—passively imposing on women his need to be seen. In the end, little differentiated such entitled behavior from that of men I knew he’d rather die than compare himself to. I changed the subject, asking if he had any video of his performances. He nodded, and dug out a VHS tape, popping it into the VCR.
Together, we watched a performance at the University of Texas in Austin: sturdy young women with short haircuts in sports-bras gleefully fingering his makeshift hole. Watching his forlorn smile behind the bubble-head; his petite, chiseled form shivering behind his mangina, it suddenly seemed ridiculous to think that anyone could see him as a threat. I felt dramatic for thinking of his exhibitionism as a form of aggression, though I still figured it’d have been different if I were the woman sitting across from him in that Dunkin’ Donuts.
After the wax cooled and hardened, it came off with little prying. The white shell was delicate, points where the wax spilled down over my hips curving around like the horns on a steer’s skull. It’s an odd feeling, to look at empty space carved in the shape of your body.
“It’s a beautiful mold,” he said.
I nodded, having no basis for comparison. I went into the bathroom and washed off the remaining bits of wax. I noted the remarkable lack of awkwardness contained in the experience. It was nothing like the feeling I had when showering after a session with a client—the murky film of shame and pride that I scrubbed at along with the dried lube along my forearms.
Just before I left, Patrick told me how two summers ago he had secured a gig teaching art classes to the children of wealthy families in the only gated community on Fire Island. Midway through, he had had a minor personal conflict with a man at his rooming house. The man conducted a search on Google, and Patrick subsequently lost his job. I could easily imagine how well the sense of ease he fosters might translate into teaching, and the story made my heart ache for him.
Pants back on, I hugged him goodbye, promising to be at “The Jonathan Ames Show” at Mo Pitken’s the following Tuesday, to see his cameo.
On the long subway ride home, I tried to reconcile my conflicting thoughts and feelings about him. After three train transfers, I decided that Patrick did empathize with women. Perhaps the manginas were less an imitation of female vulnerability than a symbol of human vulnerability—the strongest symbol he could devise. Perhaps the Mangina was the most honest expression of Patrick’s experience as a human that he could create.
Not long after his introduction to the new monthly performance, Jonathan Ames introduced Patrick, who emerged from backstage wearing a thong with long sculpted vines reaching out of the place where his mangina would be. Instead, the vines were topped with intricate flowers: little manginas resting cozily in delicate green leaf beds, wavering like cautious antennae. He said not a word throughout his own introduction, and the music was cued for their dance. “Mambo Italiano” burst from the speakers, and the two friends joined hands and circled the stage, raising their arms and kicking their legs out, their movements both awkward and deeply earnest. The audience laughed and applause scattered throughout the room. Patrick’s small, sinewy body was luminous under the spotlights, his prosthesis flailing up and out like a chorus girl as he accidentally kicked Ames in the shin, causing the writer to grimace and limp through the remaining minute of their dance. Patrick’s elfin features remained serene and intent, the sweet smile of a child in a pageant fixed proudly on his face.
“It’s a dance,” he had told me in our first interview, in reference to making successful art. “But you can do it. It’s part confidence, part honesty.”
He paused. “It’s such a hard thing. If you reflect weakness, you just get eaten in the meal; you just trip over yourself. I mean, I’ve done that for years.”
He paused to light a cigarette, and squinted out the window. “All the artists that I respect, their work is extremely honest, full of pathos and pain, but honest, and that’s the bottom line.”
I nodded emphatically. This was the kind of work I loved. What I didn’t know yet was how it felt to create it. In the next few years I would learn exactly how closely honesty and pain were related, and how closely to freedom.
Not long after that interview, I quit working at the dungeon, and started writing a book about it. I could never have imagined what that process would show me about my own desire to eschew vulnerability. I had judged Patrick harshly for his desire to be seen largely because my own neediness so disgusted me. Despite all my attention to sex, I had become estranged from my own body, my own desires. It makes sense that I was drawn to him.
Patrick used female sexuality to express his vulnerability, and I had used it to conceal my own. I may not have been able to untie my sex and hang it on the wall, I but I possessed just as vast a wardrobe with which to present different aspects of myself, not all of them authentic. At the time of our paths crossing, I think his intentions were more honest than mine. I was still running away from my own loneliness and wanting to annihilate my innocence, while he was running toward his. I can’t say that I loved his method, but I understand it better now.
Anyway, in the end, what does the memoirist ask more than to be seen? Writing my experience was the only way I could see it clearly (this is always the case), and when I did, I could see that, as Patrick had promised, “we are so, so similar.” We just want to feel less alone in the world, and to make honest work. All of us. I have spent my life running towards all that was strange and scary and intoxicating, trying to prove my invincibility and finding my humanity instead.