Like most writers, or maybe preachers… there's a running sort of monologue in my head… I walk, I ride subways… and this undervoice, this commentary… usurps my ear, and occasionally escapes in a snide remark that I swear I am not responsible for… my 'writerless' companion, my simultaneously better and evil twin. I am a collector-- of voices, of snapshots I will never take-- and she is the critic, the mouth--even when I look down at the sidewalk, she reminds me, she spooks and taunts me…
I still pick up change… tiny treasures on the street intrigue me-- someone else's accident that intersects with my random existence-- the cosmic coincidence thing. Something I've noticed: people in Harlem don't pick up coins. Like that woman on the train that brushed herself off when she realized some silver had leaked out… and yet, these Fifth Ave. eccentrics in my hood-- with doormen and drivers--- they will stoop for a dime….maybe not a penny, but a dime. That's their boundary. Me? I'll investigate a worthless earring, an old book, a penny.
For some reason on my walk today I thought about the story of some artist in Chicago-- a Henry Darger type--- or maybe it actually was Henry himself who was a hoarder of great renown, and the quintessential undiscovered artist. Anyway, he saved up bits of string, and wound them into a ball which eventually, like some Magritte fantasy, dwarfed everything else in the room, made it impossible to enter or leave-- essentially 'ate' his world.
Henry died of stomach cancer; among the thousands of items in his apartment-- including the incredible, magical artwork and writings-- were hundreds of empty Pepto Bismol bottles. He was a collector. Most artists, I have noticed, are collectors. We find treasures where others do not; we create art out of people's leftovers and leavings. We see heaven in an empty bottle, Jesus in a synchronicitous song lyric, relief and comfort in an old poem. For some of us, there are levels of discretion-- a bit of filtering that maybe true geniuses like Henry lacked.
On the other side of the field there are those who give things up-- those for whom loss is simply a non-notable occurrence--- like a meal. In fact, these people probably couldn't tell you what they had for lunch. I admire their lack of sentimentality-- their efficiency. They are like a cup with a hole--- everything passes through, they acquire and delete in equal measure, they do not mourn or notice the things that keep me awake nights. They try not to feel; some of them are extremely successful and clever. Maybe they have figured out how loss is the end product of this life, in a way, and have learned how to manage this. Waste management. They are like dogs, in a way. They wag their tale when they are being acknowledged, but they don't worry about their death-- or yours.
So I am a collector-- an intellectual hoarder, in a way. I am obsessed with people like Henry Darger who died in abject hoarder-poverty while art collectors today fight over his fragile artwork, because he had the passion and imagination to create a bizarre and unique world in which he apparently 'fit'. I pick up coins because I am intrigued by the cycle of life and possessions and the fact that maybe my dead ex-boyfriend might have once held this 1959 penny and used it to buy cigarettes he smoked in bed with me while we laughed and lived in our series of strange tableaus which have become now like an old photo-album that never existed but I am able to browse without technology at any moment. These thoughts inform my life and my beliefs.
Last week I was offered a job. Not a gig or a session, or even a writing assignment-- but a curatorial job, from the old life for which I was highly trained. This corporate collector-- with maybe a billion dollar stockade of contemporary art--- had decided in a crisis that nothing he acquired over the last twenty years had any value for him. He had decided to turn back the clock and sense his art the way he used to, when paintings were important, and not valued as investment-- when he used my guidance to buy younger under-acknowledged artists (like Henry Darger, at the beginning). Of course I refused--- me, the starving musician/poet, the poster child for under-consumption, the author of the virtual and incredible guide to NYC on $4 a day.
So the guy calls me back, asks me to meet him for dinner, which I turn down, because I am so inappropriately clothed for the kind of places he frequents. A coffee, maybe, I agree to-- -and he wants to come to my apartment next-- to see my 'stuff'… and he is now offering me what any normal person could not refuse-- I could fix my teeth, and buy a new apartment with this kind of money. The job description: to sort through and find the true gems, to disperse the hundreds of useless overvalued works of art, to start clean with a Disneyland budget and buy whatever I valued. And for all the women I ever advise-- if you want a guy to fall in love with you, just ignore him-- he'll go nuts if he's a narcissistic egomaniac-- the guy is now laying out offers of seven figures…. and I swear, it not only doesn't tempt me--- it makes me kind of sick. I am terrible at Waste Management, I explain…. and the very reason I am a commodity for him is also the explanation for why I can never do this.
Okay. I admit it was a little flattering. It was a little tiny bit affirmative and really who can I confide in except my writerless companion who was making all kinds of obscene dissing remarks about the guy none of which made it past my throat, but maybe made the vision of that cash a little more suffocating. Having to walk into galleries and watching the calculating Directors of Art Madness suck up to me in my used jeans. Having a kind of power. Having desperate artists with eviction notices beg me… but most of all, the fear of losing my voice, of losing my Dargeresque ambition. Having been baptized into the religion of poverty-- and it is a kind of religion-- it requires faith and strength and compassion and charity and resistance… I just couldn't sell out. Not for sushi, not for my teeth, not for whatever costume or bejeweled truffle soup the art world has become. I can look, I can think and feel and listen and collect what wanders irresistibly into my world where I am King and slave and secretary and CEO and have just enough discipline to know when my emotional ball of string is beginning to block the view. Amen.