Monday, August 31, 2015

Send in the Clowns

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'… ?


Monday, August 10, 2015

Pentimento

I met this medical student in my gym-- speaks Australian English.  He told me he's from Nepal and honed his accent by watching tons of Australian TV.  You can close your eyes and swear he's a native; he's never been there.  What is the meaning of this sort of thing?  Like Madonna when she returned from London?  I lived in London and remained an American.  Sure, when you walk through mud your boots are going to track some dirt in your house, but you leave them at the door.

My friend is dating this guy who just doesn't seem right to me; something 'off', something vaguely dishonest.  Not criminal, but-- like the Nepalese boy-- sort of a forgery.  People who say they went to Harvard when maybe they did go-- to a football game, summer school-- whatever--  but we know what they think we understand.  Things are not what they seem… and in this culture of texting, massive information networks available to us… it baffles me that there is more deception and personal airbrushing than ever.

In my parents' generation… it was name-changing, erasing the edges and accent of your ethnicity, to 'blend'.  The beginning of plastic surgery-- nose jobs to hide your heritage, hair straightening and whitewashing.  Beyonce takes this to a new level-- the Kardashians.  Dye jobs, waxing, lasers… transgender transformations.

Maybe it's my super-Aquarian nature, but I've always been a truth seeker.  In college I studied art history… I obsessed about discovery, attribution.  My degree required a museum colloquium where the final exam was deciphering fakes, comparing signatures.  You had to know.  These days I can't rely on  experts and committees-- too much money to be made by the discovery of an un-catalogued Michelangelo or Rembrandt.  A manuscript-- like the Harper Lee which would never have got past my editorial desk.  The Jean Michel Basquiats.. .the ones he did, the ones he didn't do… as long as they have a certificate, it all seems to be okay.  As though it is 'belief' that is bought and sold.

I've always been obsessed by the story of Jacob and Esau-- how the birthright was switched by a swindle.  How history is changed by deception, by forgeries.  How we sometimes believe what we are handed… because it is too difficult to argue-- and how can we question everything… the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we are served now, the vegetables in the grocery store.. are they organic? Genetically altered?  We must pick our battles.  Jesus as the Messiah would have a terrible time in our culture today-- he'd have to be managed by Jay-Z or marry Kim Kardashian.  We believed in Milli Vanilli.  Jesus would not be able lip-synch or have pitch-control.

My first truly traumatic moment was maybe at the age of 3… I was going up the escalator at Grand Central terminal, with my Dad; it was maybe rush hour-- -there were masses of people-- and I reached up to take his hand, and realized after a few seconds that it wasn't my Dad-- it was a total stranger-- and for a minute or 2, I was lost-- completely up-ended-- like I had to rely on my own instincts, for the very first time… and fortunately, the substitute hand belonged to a kind man who helped me find my Dad and I was probably smacked for who knows what-- my Dad's own fear, his perilous failure to watch out for me because he was always walking too quickly (something I have inherited).

My niece told me a story about how she had a first date with a guy, fell asleep on his bed, and woke up with his cousin.  There are movies about these kinds of things.  I would like to think I can feel the person I love-- blindfolded.  I would know his scent, his touch-- in a nano-second.  But we've all had these moments-- sometimes we reach for the wrong person, we turn to speak and there is a stranger.

When I was maybe 23 I went to the wedding of a classmate's brother.  They were from one of those super-wealthy New Jersey communities with the grand house and horses and grounds and servants… 21 bedrooms.  I'd actually gone on a date with the groom, although his brother was more my type-- the lost tormented poet/hippy who lived with a dog.  They had matching paisley scarves, he and the black lab.  He was shy and silent and would sit near me in the library and smile with some kind of passion but never touched me.  Anyway, his brother was a preppy young banker-- aggressive and obnoxious.  He spent too much, drank too much, played golf and dated debutantes and bragged about it.  He took me to the opera and made no headway afterward.  We scarcely spoke and I was vaguely surprised to have been invited to the wedding but it was great to see his sweet brother who had been traveling with his dog across the Northwest.  We all stayed up late… there was a pre-wedding night of partying and drinking and drugging…

Anyway, I went to bed in my wedding-guest room with the old lace-trimmed linens and piles of fine down monogrammed quilts… and awoke to find the groom in my bed.  Yes, he reeked of whiskey and dope… he was aggressive and it required some adrenaline and self-defense skills to get him off me so I could turn the light on… was I tempted?  He was disgusting.  Did I believe his sheepish explanation that he really thought it was his bride who was way more padded than I am?  Of course not… and in some vague way, did I wish it had been his soft, lovely dreamy brother who never actually touched me?  Yes, I did.

I never told on him.  He danced with me at the wedding, and with all the other women, with  irreproachable manners.  After all, he was a banker and was to become a hedge fund master.   Did I feel a tiny loss of innocence because I believed somewhat in the magic of weddings?  Do I disbelieve the facade of these power couples of New York?  I did.  I do.  I was the single bohemian Mom at a prep school where once or twice a very married father tried to test the waters after a school function.  They confessed and complained and one of them even sobbed his misery.  Those days are so over for me… all of these advances always threw me; I never expected attention… I am not the conventional bait, but I had more big fish than I deserved.  And I generally threw them all back for canned tuna.  More my style.

Last month I looked over a collection of art; one painting stood out-- I'd known the artist from my first gallery job.  The signature was completely wrong, and so was the painting-- I told them.  Last week I saw it come up for sale at one of the major auction houses.  Do they care?  No.  In the larger picture (pun intended), it matters little… it is a painting.. at face value.. does it matter that it isn't as attributed?  To me it does.  It's sort of a lie-- an insult to the artist who was from the generation where truth mattered, where art was a kind of truth or it mocked itself.  The truth is important.  It is important that we can decipher facade from structure, even though 90% of reality is part of a virtual cloud-- a digital, non-palpable image.

Tonight I walked down Malcolm X Boulevard, or Lenox Ave, where I can still feel the oppressive Sunday vibe of James Baldwin's Go Tell It On The Mountain.  Many of the storefront churches and stoops have been replaced by the Harlem Shake Shop and other upscale enterprises-- but a few old barbershops and liquor stores remain.  I try to listen to these buildings, wonder if the gentrification has disguised their voice.  Some of these Harlem buildings were originally the grand homes of rich Jewish businessmen; the church at 120th Street was a former temple.  The 'I' that came here to find James in the 1960's is no longer recognizable… my facade has changed.  No one is chasing me down any streets to get my phone number.  I remember in school how they showed us an original Picasso composition, visible with a black light beneath the surface painting.  I wonder now which one is more real…for that matter, which one is me and which the ghost of myself?  Truth is that time will  bury us all.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Never the Twain Shall Meet

When I was maybe 28, I ducked into an upper east side bar to avoid some creep who was following me home.  It was about 2 AM; I think I'd been at JP's-- one of those late-night rockstar hangouts where occasionally you'd see a seriously magical gig-- people like Robert Plant or Bowie doing a jump-up.  Things like that-- the near-perfect synchronicity of low-profile and high-profile-- happened then; today instagram and twitter ensure a mob-scene within moments.

Anyway, way back on that night, I talked to the bartender for an hour or two, and left when the coast was clear.  I worked in an art gallery in those days; his brother-in-law had had a gallery at some point.  We must have exchanged first names and some nominal details because weeks later a colleague told me some guy was calling up every gallery in town looking for someone with my first name.  Inevitably he showed up, and yes, it was flattering that he'd embarked on this journey to find me, and yes, I had a boyfriend but he was always on the road, etc.  He had a new job, downtown… one night I gave in to impulse and went in --alone; he remembered my drink.  I had plenty of time to watch his hands, his mixing grace, his profile with the perfect hair falling just-so over his eyes… his body.  He was tall, like an athlete.  We left in a taxi, hardly spoke, ended up in his west-side apartment-- one of those perfect spontaneous anonymous encounters where you confide everything you are, without words, because he is a stranger, and that was safe in some way, and he'd passed some kind of test of desire making all those phone calls.

It went on this way for maybe a year-- my guilty pleasure.  I'd show up, late; sometimes he'd whisper something to another bartender, fold up his apron and we'd be in a taxi within minutes.  Other nights I'd sit-- listen to music, watch the ice melt in my drink, indulge in the indescribable calm of these hours where I'd abandon everything in my life for something unfamiliar and undemanding that just felt so safe.  We were intimate in ways only strangers can be.  Sometimes we'd watch TV and eat… we'd laugh and lie there, like husband and wife… and then I'd have to leave.  Sometimes my boyfriend would be home and fail to ask me where I'd been, fail to recognize the scent of passion.  I began to resent him for this-- a sign of his apathy-- failure.  I'd shower and dare him to interrogate me; he never did.

One night-- and it was inevitable-- the bartender was magazine-beautiful-- he walked into a club with two gorgeous blonde women.  I tried to run out, but he'd seen me; I took refuge in the bathroom…. he was banging on the door, the blondes were drunk and laughing, and I exited through the window, ran home feeling humiliated and scolding myself-- really, what did I expect?  That I could prolong some  temporary moment in my life indefinitely?   I'd already stretched it way thinner than any version of reality.  But I was hurt.  My own boyfriend provided little consolation.   Still, it felt like the magic of New York had been zapped into dullness… the glitter had washed away; here I was, on the curb beside my smashed pumpkin fantasy.

Of course, a year later I'd met my husband, and these New York adventures began to recede into some archived anthology of dreams-- something to take out and look at on a night when I begin to doubt that this version of me really existed.  Love is enchanting-- in all its forms; it transforms us, and the dream of it-- the strange dream of unqualified desire-- floats somewhere above us and behind us.

Today I walked through the park with my son-- the son I could never have imagined in those old magical New York days.  I listened to his struggles and angst, his relationship doubts and anxiety, his career concerns.  His style is so different from mine-- he's kind of a millennial hipster-- well-dressed and confident, with an army of accessories that seem to constitute success at his age.  His context is so foreign-- his needs, his ambitions-- and I love him with a love I could never have imagined.  He is of an age where I am now able to see him as a man-- anti-maternally.  And I began to realize-- here he is, making his own New York tales-- with cell phones and texts and workplace flirtations-- but unable to bring any of them to any kind of emotional closure.  We stopped by my favorite uptown church-- St. John the Divine, where the Poet's Corner always provides an appropriate message… something he can send his girlfriend.  The one he usually picks is Mark Twain-- 'There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth'.   He has always been a bit of a truth-evader; his first girlfriend put a poster of Pinocchio on his door.

What I do realize is that my tales and experience are a little dated and useless for him.  I no longer bother to offer these; after all, I can't keep him from his mistakes and bad decisions, from his penchant, like so many young men, of mistaking his dick for his heart, which I suppose is preferable to the reverse.  But there we were, in this sacred Church, with the soaring Gothic space and the passion of truth and the spirit of God and the heart wrenching sadness of Mary and her tragic beautiful son… people praying, an organ practicing hymns… and here is my son…. losing his religion--  his religion of trust that love will come and it will be happy and good and fulfilling, and he will be saved and safe in its clarity.  And this is not the version of life as we know it.

As for me, I will never again feel that total abandon and passion and paradoxical safety of a strange lover's bed.  I have learned what I have learned, I have felt what I have felt.  Love is sacred, love is painful, love is searing and ripping and confusing and wrecking and is maybe never safe, except the love in our hearts that we hold for our sons and daughters and even our lovers, even though there is no guarantee they will return or honor this.  Love--like a heart-- can be bloody, and dark.   Love is Gangster.  Guns and Roses.  No one punishes and goes unpunished like love lost.  The death of love is like no other.

My son swore he'd never get hurt again, or hurt anyone else.  But that is impossible, I don't say.  Every single hurt is at least as bad as the one before, and unfortunately, if we are honest, we will hurt our loved ones.  He will revise his wisdom, time and again.  Hopefully, his path will be straighter than mine, less cluttered with mistakes and detours and regressions.  Because I loved all these mistakes and heartaches and diversions.   Everyone who loves must be hurt…but they will go on… they will mourn, they will create and redeem memories, they will leave little souvenirs like stones in a pathway so they will not forget, or for some of them-- they will forget.

On the way home, we passed a huge bag of basketball trophies outside a tenement building.  For me it felt sad; I kept shelves of these in my son's room.  He was relatively unsentimental, like the person who'd discarded these: after all, it wasn't about the trophy-- it was about the man.  So our Sunday afternoon walk, like all things happy and sad, came to an end.  A little maternal advice, a tiny gift for his girlfriend, and he went home with his truths, and I with mine, stretched or not.