Amidst the summer thunderstorms and aural chaos of New York City, I am missing Grace Hartigan today who was still with us last summer. I am glad to have a copy of the poem Frank O’Hara wrote for her because even though she left behind all those paintings which landmarked the various episodes of a life that was larger than art, it is always comforting to have someone else acknowledge this. Just one year ago I took for granted the fact that I could go down to Baltimore and find her, still outspoken and truthful, still following her tough Anne Sextonesque heart even though her star had shone brighter when she was young and feisty and haunting the streets and bars of downtown New York with her entourage.
Last night I spent the highest quality time available in my small bigcity world with a 90 year old artist whom I will not take for granted this summer. To sit and hear her recount tales of her past, her blunt assessments of the world as it is, of me, of herself, to leaf through her new work…was worth the price of admission anywhere. She had an audience of 1, while the guy who put his United Airlines Smashed My Guitar song on youtube has now logged 4 million hits.
On the crosstown bus last night I met a young Mom and her 13-year old who had come to New York for a revolutionary back surgery. His spine was deformed and as he stood up I saw he looked like he was a shirt stretched on some cruel skeletal coat-hanger. He was handsome and funny and they were coming from the movies… and it pained me that I’m sure this woman gets welfare and Medicaid and all that and still she had the wisdom I lacked --to Discover-Card some entertainment for her son that would stay in his brain and heart for the estimated 90 days of recovery they say he will need to spend in the hospital. For a young teenage boy with a wild heart, this is a life sentence. My son could not wait 90 seconds for a pancake. I forgot to ask his name. But at 7 this morning, scheduled surgery time, as I went to bed in my twisted world, this boy was in my Grace Hartigan room.
I keep getting these emails about the Obama health plan. Nothing is changing in my life except the bills rise, my doctors fail not just me but all of us. They have some stories I wrote on their website where no one will read them. Tim Geithner gets great health care. Give, they instruct me... Give. President Sarkozy collapses and it is world news. There is a 92-year-old Jewish man in my neighborhood who made women’s hats for many years… enough to pay his bills and take a few vacations. Now he is near-crippled not just by arthritis but by bad medicine. He is a veteran and gets care through the VA. I met the guy working out. That’s right.. using machines and bravely walking upright through the weight room, offering suggestions to me who uses these machines incorrectly. His foot is so painful and deformed, he told me he begged for an amputation 2 years ago. He’s received injections, pills… and last week he was sent to a young specialist who turned and twisted his foot to a point where he was unable to walk for 2 weeks. This man who endured wounds and shrapnel and 65 years in the garment district-- all of them with worsening congenital arthritis-- as a one-man show. Whose product graced the heads of fashionistas and church and synagogue-goers through their joy and grief. Where is his medal of honor? He asked me to have a coffee. He comes to the 92nd Street Y and exercises to distract him from his pain. He says he has a coffee in the lounge downstairs and sometimes falls asleep. Then he manages the 10 block walk home which can take him 90 minutes. 90. A magic number for me today. He smiles and his great old face is lit up. He is near-deaf and no one listens to him. Thank you, he said to me…thank you for talking to me. I can scarcely type these words.
‘Behind a door a boy is listening…’ This line, the origin of which I cannot place, keeps repeating in my head like a mantra today..along with the skeletons of words from Grace, from Frank O’Hara, from the boy with the hanger-spine who is being dismantled as we speak... from the old hatmaker who is maybe struggling to place the oversized converse sneaker on his foot so he can walk to another insulting medical appointment... from my Madeleine, who is drawing careful lines on old book pages and pasting and cutting things, alone. Of all the souls who don’t have cellphones and email and broadband and maybe not even cable or any television at this point.
How amazing to have had this name spoken over and over... when you are scolded, called, beckoned, awakened... whispered and longed-for during one of those nights of passionate bedlam which was the internet-less but connected New York art world in her more innocent time. Grace.
‘Find me, find me… I’m here in this room’ someone is singing in my head. Perhaps I am mad. Surely there will be some cure for this which is not in my health plan. Or God’s own.