While I was in graduate school I worked for a few art galleries. One of them was an upper-crust private art business in a gorgeous townhouse--- the kind with the spiral staircase and the grand entry hall that in those days only seriously monied people had. I was still in my early 20's but had to greet and show paintings to wealthy Japanese business men who were building corporate-sponsored museums back in the 1970's when so much art was being exported to the far East. For this purpose, the gallery bought me a fancy silk dress and beautiful leather shoes, even though I was living in a cheap cramped studio apartment with a poor guitar player and a scruffy dog. They often left me alone for days to run things while they travelled the world, visiting collectors.
Toward Christmas of my first year there, I had to show a very special Renoir painting to one of these men. I sat behind a large desk with my hands folded, as I'd been instructed, trying to look older. He spoke no English but handed me a beautiful leather briefcase filled with new bills and told me to count out $1.5 million, the price of the painting. I'm pretty sure there were mostly $1,000 bills in there… and even those took some time to sort. While I counted, he took out a cigarette from a solid gold case; I noticed his teeth were yellow and crooked. He didn't watch me. When I was done, I handed him the briefcase and he gave me a card with presumably a shipping address. He bowed, said thank you, and I led him down the grand stairs to the door where his limo was waiting. I stuffed the bills into a bag, stuffed the bag into my huge sack-purse and went to hail a cab.
Anyone who has been in Manhattan at Christmastime knows there is stiff competition for a taxi, especially in mid-afternoon on 5th Ave headed for 59th Street; after 15 freezing minutes, I got on a downtown bus. I was well aware of the irony of me, the young grad-student with a frumpy worn-out Fred Braun leather bag in a recession, carrying what today would amount to $6-7,000,000… hopefully an unlikely target for a pickpocket or mugger… clinging anxiously to my purse. At the bank, I went directly to one of the desk-officers where I announced I had a large cash deposit… More than $5,000, the woman asked, looking me up and down? Considerably more, I blurted out. So they secreted me in a room where I worried that I'd have miscounted and would be responsible for a bill or two. In those times, $4/hr. was good pay. Oddly, the gallery owners never seemed nervous or vigilant; it was like they trusted me with keys, their checkbooks, their homes and personal business.
I left the bank with a huge sigh of relief, a notarized deposit slip and some Morgan Guaranty chocolates they reserved for special clients… and went back to my Cinderella nights hanging out at village bars where my boyfriend played and I knew the bartenders because otherwise very few of us could afford to buy a beer. Years later I realized that I'd kind of lost my art virginity that day when the impact of the money eclipsed the experience of the painting. I'd seen these Japanese men often with their beautiful handmade suits, their young well-dressed concubines getting their hair cut by Vidal Sassoon and wearing little Tiffany diamond necklaces. They were buyers, they were cultured and elegant, and American luxury items were commodities they prized. I didn't 'get' that I was facilitating this 'drain' of art that I might never see again, but the level of collecting in those pre-billionaire times was beyond my comprehension, as was the competitive greed factor which would eventually turn the art business into a hedge-fund-like market of manipulation and insider trading-- of fakes, forgeries and deals.
I once related this story to some rock and roller who was mystified that I hadn't considered getting on a plane to somewhere with more money than I could ever spend-- living the life of a criminal emigre on some exotic island. But I hadn't. In fact I was even happier to hang out in dive bars where hamburgers were $1 and a taxi home was out of the question.
My second financial loss of innocence happened when I had a crush on some lame guy who worked for television. I'd had 100 boyfriends and suitors but this guy seemed untouchable and mysterious. It was his birthday; I took the day off, cooked for 15 hours-- his favorite fried chicken, potatoes, baked a triple chocolate cake, wrapped everything in a basket, told him to meet me in Central Park where I'd reserved a row boat and rowed him out on the lake where we ate, and I played Happy Birthday on a little wooden music box and lit candles, gave him presents and fortune cookies, balloons. I rowed him back to shore so he could get back to his job, I was ready to surprise him that evening outside his apartment only to find he was returning home with some tall dark tart from work who hadn't even bought him a doughnut. I was devastated. Lesson 2: there's money, and there's love. Or there's sex and nothing else matters, at least for the moment. And acting mysterious and unapproachable doesn't make you any more valuable or rare.
Somehow even the discussion of money when you are falling in love seems inappropriate and a little obscene. You don't leave a sales ticket on a gift, but these days everything in this culture seems to have a digital price tag and we know the value. Billionaires are everywhere in this city and it all seems a bit cheap, the way that Japanese businessman bought the painting without even looking, without feeling the pain of the cost. We know the price of cars, and iPhones, botox and a new set of expensive white teeth. I know personally the price of my first engagement ring took a toll on my heart and I preferred a cheap silver band from the poor songwriter who made my heart sing when we lay down.
But I am in the minority here, and as we get older, ripped jeans and old clothes aren't quite as appealing and we all wait in line in banks and in stores. Rich or poor, our loves abandon us, and the ability to drown our sorrows in material goods seems less and less therapeutic. That Renoir painting might be worth $100,000,000 today, but most young collectors would rather have a Basquiat or a Warhol Elizabeth Taylor. Today that bag of money might buy a 1-bedroom apartment in Harlem. Time moves on; few of us even see $1,000 bills these days-- these transactions are electronic and swift. Girls work in fancy galleries today because they want to be part of the world of money, not because art is magical and access to the huge libraries is worth an amount of overtime. People buy art and often rarely look at it; it is a commodity, it has lost the sense of precious rarity that things used to have when you had to travel many miles to see them in person, when only a few select individuals could own the things that belonged in museums, and they pursued these things with a collector's passion and love.
And how many of us fail to acknowledge the modest treasures of our lives--- our special things, our old dolls and toys which dance in our memory-- our loved ones who may not be our dream fantasy husband or wife but the person who gives with their heart, who greets us on our birthday with a black coffee/no room and a street pretzel, who doesn't forget who we once were, who we still may be, and who we will no longer be, when the relentless calendar has passed a few more milestones? We can create our dreams, but we can also acknowledge that person next to us on the bus--- rich or poor, Prada or Target; we walk the same streets and sleep beneath that same close full moon that seemed to whisper in my ear as it walked alongside me last night-- 'Isn't it rich'… ?