Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Smoke and Mirrors

We approach the end of the year all too quickly, it seems… the downhill of December has its momentum, and try as we may, the new year is waiting like a hungry mouth to swallow things we are maybe not ready to let go.  I no longer shop for Christmas-- it's enough to manage basics, my son will maybe bring me a tree;  this is my holiday-- sitting by the colored lights in the semi-dark, collecting inventory moments.  It's been so unseasonably warm-- but there will be a price to pay.  On the news they spoke of a stagnant air mass-- that is an ugly description.  Photos of people in Beijing wearing cheap masks as though this will protect them from breathing in the terrible smog.  For someone who is sad in China, this blur of oppressive air and being confined inside must be unbearable.  I have such a tiny carbon footprint here-- my friends tease me.  No car, no taxis-- I scarcely use a dishwasher.  Still no cell phone-- I am often in semi-darkness, by the glow of my computer, writing-- sometimes the lights of the city outside are enough.  Gigs are bright and loud-- I love them, but I retreat.

Lately I have a sense of my neighbors' proximity-- as though the walls are getting thinner… like I am being invaded, slightly.  I do not know the new people, I do not really want to know the new people-- my old neighbors were interesting-- they were writers and critics and artists, but many have been forced out by an unkind economic pendulum.  Or they have died.  I am hanging in, imagining some young girl in my future helping me pack boxes for who knows what, the way I have done in my past for one or two of them.  But I hear the unfamiliar habits of new people through the walls-- faintly but clearly-- and I feel just a tiny bit less 'safe'.

One of my friends engaged me last night in a discussion about dating and expectations, and partnerships, and love.  For some reason I remembered an episode I'd not thought about for so long.  It was my first art gallery job in New York.  I was maybe 22-- there was a recession, I was on a break from Graduate school, writing another paper, and I got a lucky job in one of the best modern galleries in New York… I'd gone in and volunteered.  I want to work here, I said.  You don't have to pay me and I will work very hard.  So they sat me at the front desk where people like Andy Warhol stopped in every week, and because I was a little pretty and so eager, they spoke to me.  I loved my job.  Someone relieved me for lunch, and I hated to leave my post.  I sorted photographs and copied prices into auction catalogues (they used to come on an addendum which was difficult for the bidder), wrote invitations and worked their old phone system which at the time seemed massively futuristic.  I took home $92 a week.  I also worked at Bloomingdale's on Saturdays and Thursday nights, and after paying rent had barely enough to manage a pack of chicken legs, enough rice and eggs to get through a week-- and my morning roll and butter and coffee from a cheap deli.  The bus.  Often I walked to save the 35 cents.  It was one of those rare gaps in my life where I'd just left a boyfriend to bravely discover the city on my own, and the struggle to 'make it' was difficult but ecstatic.  New York in the 1970's was shedding a skin and changing-- but the aura of the old films was there, and the punks and musicians were simmering in some creative soup of poverty.  We girls depended also on dates to provide a relief meal or two so we could actually afford to go out and hear a band.

Anyway, all the great collectors came in and out of my gallery uptown-- I learned to recognize them; they very unpretentiously in those days gave me their name-- quietly and respectfully, and I would call one of the directors upstairs-- my bosses.  One night I was called upstairs, and asked if I would go to dinner with one of these clients-- a Greek man-- he was handsome and dark and always well-dressed with beautiful shoes--hats and gloves.  Do this, my boss said.  I had only a few cheap cotton dresses, but I wore one of them with my old pearls.  He took me to one of the great French restaurants in New York, and I was a little baffled by the menu… so he ordered for me, and watched while I ate course after course.  The food was incredible-- I was nearly starving from my spartan diet… I felt almost high during dessert.  My dinner companion ate nothing.  He sat and drank some wine, he vaguely watched me, spoke little.

The following week they asked me again to have dinner with him.  Same scenario, another restaurant.  This time he asked me if I wanted to see his place.  For some reason I was not afraid-- I knew my boss expected something and I was curious.  He owned a huge house in the 50's… his flat was on a couple of floors.  Inside it felt like a hotel-- very few things, some over-sized furniture, etc….  he poured himself a drink… he was extremely polite… and asked me if I'd stay the night, sleep with him--  he didn't want sex, just company.  So I agreed.  His bed was enormous, he had these beautiful books on the night tables-- everything was immaculate and there was this faint smell of old leather.  Most of the night he sat up and smoked.  The only vaguely incongruous curiosity was this mirror over the bed on the ceiling, 12 or 14 feet up.  It suggested a past erotic life that didn't make sense. I got used to it; maybe it was there when he bought the place, and it provided some lighting device.  I never commented; he never touched me, and in the morning I went home to change.

Week after week this went on--- he began to tell me he'd lost his wife, somehow-- she was some opera singer…I saw her photo, and she was beautiful.  There had been a little boy-- small fragments of his story revealed themselves.  These were the days before anti-depressants and he was chronically, oppressively sad.  He slept and ate little, he travelled, I knew--- ran some huge family business… and he bought art.  In his sparsely furnished apartments there were great pieces of sculpture and amazing paintings.  He took risks.  He supported new gallery stars.  It was amazing to sleep with these things-- to sense them in the dark, the way I now feel my own unlit paintings at night.  He treated me with formality and respect, even though I was cheaply dressed and so green in so many ways;  he spoke to me with depth and intelligence.  I began to touch him… just a little, at first.  I felt so empathically helpless… I was so eager to somehow please my gallery which was my lifeline-- I had no idea what they expected, but the Director, on these Thursdays, would give me a little wink when he left-- it was our secret.

Anyway, he left the country for an extended time, gave me a beautiful gift from Tiffany which I returned.  I used the money to buy myself a raincoat and a fantastic sewing machine.  In a way it was the most beautiful bargain of my life-- a kind of short story I never told.  It was chastely sexual, it was some kind of love, it was sort of a black pearl inside the shell of my young student existence.  The Director is now deceased, and I feel permission to share this-- one of the privileged fairy-tales-with-no-closure of my past, one of my anti-Sex-in-the-City episodes that shaped and changed me.  Of course I went out and did my wilding and lived with my musicians, and was summarily adopted by this city, my birthplace.  But I realize it put sort of a dark stamp on the concept of marriage as the storybook institution we perceive at 21 or 22… it was another surprising B-side and it left me with a kind of warning, an insight into full-blown adult disappointment and deep heartbreak like a kind of scar.  I can still see his dark hair, the cloud of smoke by the faint light of dawn, hear the early morning midtown traffic, my own dark hair and young face in the mirror above… like a sort of Julio Larraz painting.

These days I feel things in my past-- the warp and weft of my existence around which this tapestry of my life has woven itself.  What I realize is we can sense this 'fabric', but we can't actually see it-- not until it's too late.  I do feel a bit of the unravelling lately-- maybe the deaths, the fear of enemies in the world in a new way-- what can we believe?  The high-pressure air mass gives us sunshine and hope but it is married to the invisible stagnant air which is maybe toxic and dangerous?  My son's friend has a new tattoo to commemorate his Mom's death.  It is a lovely thing… but what about all the tattoos we don't see?

This bird that has come to Prospect Park-- it is a truly extraordinary thing.  Of course I would like to see it, but I also know I'd be part of the crowd there which is running back and forth, trying to follow its little twittery path while it explores its new environment.  I see this as a sign-- a good sign-- that unexpected tiny things of great beauty can happen in our lives, that this supersedes art as it is today, that
a random moment can take our breath away.  Besides, this bird is a loner-- and a male… it seemed to have a little scar on its beak in one of the photos, and if you look closely, its eye-- it is not a young bird.  It knows something.  Maybe it is running away from some sorrow or tragedy--- just flew on a whim, or the distraction of grief distorted its trajectory.  I am certain it has come out of its way to a strange and dangerous city to tell us something, and some of us are hopefully still listening.


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