Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

A Stairwell and a Secret Closet

Eccentric relatives are a plague. Whether it is Uncle Wilbur the Klansman or Friedrich Liechtenstein the ornamental hermit.

I’m only related, tangentially, to one, and not the ornamental hermit, who has adopted the life view that his existence is a form of high art, not low drama.

friedrich_liechtenstein_imgsize_buehneSally McGrane of The New York Times wrote a feature story about Liechenstein (his real name is Hans-Holger Friedrich), spurred by his recent success as an online video sensation. Before that, he lived in a Berlin stairwell.

Many eccentric people lack style. Not Liechtenstein. He exudes style. When he lived in the stairwell, he wandered down to the adjoitning optometry store in his pajamas and yakked up employees over coffee. Basking in his new fame, Liechtenstein sports tailored suits, dark glasses and a striking white beard.

Before Liechenstein went off the grid and into the stairwell, he lived what some might call an ordinary life. Okay, it may not be “ordinary” to have a degree in puppetry and make your living manipulating marionettes. In his case, it earned him a nice home with an attic, a big car, a wife, three kids and a Schnauzer. He said he was happy.

Events conspired to ruin the dream. His mother died. The puppet theater gig dissolved. His marriage broke up. However, if you think of yourself as a piece of art-in-progress, these aren’t setbacks, just plot triggers.

Liechtenstein moved from puppets to existential drama. In one of his one-man shows, he used tin foil to re-enact his birth. In a more adventuresome theatrical experience, Liechtenstein invited his audience to come onstage and take a nap. He tucked everyone in.

Despite some initial enthusiasm, his show business career faltered. Like many struggling artists, he found himself scraping bottom on surfaces that were unsavory. This led to his life in the stairwell.

Liechtenstein told reporters he found he could exist and even thrive on bare necessities – a table, a crate, heat, a few friends and scraps of food. The stairwell was intended as a short-term stop-off. He lingered for two years.

Then fortune began to turn his way. A German architect conceived one of those starkly black buildings that Germans are known for. His plan contained a glass parapet. Liecthenstein’s pals at the glasses store thought it would be a perfect step up from the stairwell. A little exposed, perhaps, but full of light with a great view of the street and pedestrians below. A great place to display an art object.

The-Truman-Show-jim-carrey-141871_400_300Normally, you would think a distinguished architect would have planned another use for this space. As it happened, he agreed it was perfect place for an ornamental hermit.

Notwithstanding some of the obvious limitations of living in a glass case, Liechenstein moved in and says he enjoyed himself. Unlike Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, Liechtenstein knew he was dwelling in a 24/7 studio.

Then came his big break when a low-budget music video shot in a supermarket went viral. With 11 million YouTube views and counting, Liechtenstein now can’t walk down the street without being asked for his autograph.

His children, who somehow reappeared in his life, are assisting him make a 10-part television series about gas stations. Liechtenstein has moved into his own apartment, but it may be too soon to proclaim a happy ending to his story. After all, he is art imitating life.

If you were related to this guy, it would be hard to know whether to cheer, jeer or get a tire jack to lift your jaw off the ground.

kkk-rally-1I can relate to jaw-dropping. My cousin and I were scrambling through Uncle Wilbur’s closet to reach an upstairs play area when we accidentally nudged a button that sprung open a secret closet within the closet. It was brimming with white robes, pointy white masks and other Klan paraphernalia. We were just kids, but we knew these weren’t Halloween costumes. They belonged to a far worse nightmare.

I rarely mention Uncle Wilbur. I suspect the nieces and nephews do the same with Uncle Liechenstein.



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