Monday, May 19, 2014

The Life of an Artist


Might as well face it, you're addicted to love
Robert Palmer

1985 East Village

An old cat lady owned the neighboring brownstone and her place was falling apart just like she was. Ken and Julie couldn’t stand her, she wasn’t that bad but her home where she lived alone with her kitties was a dump. One day she died and the once glorious brownstone that had become decrepit, was deserted and boarded up, she was gone and forgotten. Her brownstone on 6th street off of 1st Avenue would remain that way for a year.

Ken told me once that he used to play the piano, was trained had an impressive degree, that he’d accompany Billie Holiday as she sang for drinks in Tin Pan Alley. He stopped playing one day, had a very specific reason that he would never reveal, some vow that he made, that he would never play again, what would happen in life to make an artist stop practicing?

He was effeminate, Julie was butch, they both seemed gay, it worked for them. They had two kids, two boys, both were away at university, we’d see them once in a while during the summer but they preferred the country house. Our upstairs neighbors were a young professional couple, he worked in video production, she worked on Wall Street, they were very quiet, good neighbors, we were never very close.

I would wake every morning with Jason, prepare his coffee while he showered, send him off to work, return to bed, take a short nap then paint later. I’d buy custom built canvases from a Korean woman who had a shop on 9th street, a 6’ x 4’ fully prepared canvas was around eighty bucks. I used four colors, red, yellow, blue and black, a number four flat brush, four coats of paint. In the studio I worked on the floor, crawling around the canvas on my hands and knees with a fluorescent tube shining on the surface.

My social network was nearly non-existent, I began spending a lot of time alone painting, did the grocery shopping, cooked the dinner that would be ready upon Jason’s return, we’d eat, talk, I’d encourage him then he would sleep and I went back to work. Along with the cityscapes the college radio stations, WNYU, WFUV, with their erratic music mixes became my muses.

We would go to the movies, anything, everything, saw plenty of shows on Broadway, off Broadway, way off Broadway. We’d make love Friday night, wake early Saturday, get the middle section of the Sunday Times, then have breakfast at Odessa Diner on Avenue A. It was a scene that was populated by the locals, artists, performers, drag queens, the sick and dying, everyone hung over. Sunday was flea market day, plowing through the piles of cheap things, finding the obscure objects that I would decorate the apartment with, people who visited would say it was like The Addams Family home. It was more a work of installation art inspired by the art in the neighborhood.

We took a trip to Paradise Island, the Bahamas, all-inclusive, the less expensive package deal that we purchased through the travel agent on 7th street. My sister Josie had sent us a sheet of acid, we packed that and a little weed in the suitcase. The beach was phenomenal, the island gorgeous! Our room was a bug-filled bungalow that looked like the servant’s quarters. It wasn’t a very hospitable place, the service was dreadful, the food forgettable, the single-propeller plane that took us to Saint Thomas had threadbare tires. We took so much acid that it began to have no affect on us.

Back in the city the routine, I needed company, there was discussion of a dog, thankfully we didn’t instead we went to the ASPCA and adopted a kitty, named her Gilda after the Rita Hayworth movie. She was a great companion for me but insisted on walking across my work while the paint was still wet. The pet shop sold catnip joints, she we get high along with us. But one day she decided that the real joint was hers, she ate it, became comatose. I took her in a pillowcase to the vet, they had no idea what I was talking about as I was having a meltdown, I think she ate my weed, they took a quick look at the kitty and sent us home.

Jason became good friends with Becky, she was the trimmings buyer at Blass, lived a block away on 7th Street with her boyfriend Patrick. He was getting his Master’s from NYU in printmaking, they were both from New Orleans. We were invited over for dinner, Jason and Becky spoke of the business, Patrick and I spoke of art, he was deep into his second year at school, had plenty to say, was very kind and supportive. I developed a major crush.

I would push Jason, talk to me, tell me everything, let it all out. Having being a subscriber to the magazine Psychology Today as a teen and having read every self-help book published then, I was sure that I could get to the root of his mental block. He would let it all out, stand there after me pressuring him, he shaking, sobbing, making some wild animal guttural noise, I didn’t know what to do. But we figured out that what he really wanted was to design his own line of clothing.

There were a number of young designers with storefronts in the neighborhood, it seemed possible, he had connections, we had some money, go for it. He began sketching and using his contacts that would help him come up with a collection. After work he would go to the sewing contractor’s in Queens, come home late, exhausted and crash. I was spending all of my days alone, me on my hands and knees, Gilda walking across the wet paint, notebooks filling with words, aluminum foil covered dinners waiting.

His designs were very elegant, sophisticated, his fabrics were high end, the construction superior, the industry people loved him, everyone helped except for the ones who could promote him, you see he has a temper and like me has no ability to kiss ass and lacks respect for authority figures, especially ones that are incompetent. Soon he had a small collection and we had a party to show them off.

We invited a couple of dozen people, his women friends would wear the clothes, I would take pictures, he’d get noticed, get his portfolio together and become a great designer. One of the models was his old friend Mary-Ellen, she was one of the first people that he met in NYC. Jason was looking for work when he first moved to the city, applied at a flower shop, very uptown, the owner loved him. Mary-Ellen was young, just getting started, she came from Queens, will always be from Queens, worked in the flower shop alongside a bunch of gay men. She and Jason always had that weird agreement, if we are fifty and single we’ll get married, she always said this in front of me as if I weren’t in the room. Oh and she would tell the story that Jason taught her how to give the best blowjob ever.

She did not trust me, didn’t like the idea that he was supporting me, that I was a man and should carry my own weight. She would say that I was a gigolo, that he had made a huge mistake. At that time Mary-Ellen was married to a mysterious guy that we never met, when the Feds knocked on her door implicating her in a car-theft ring, which she had no idea of, she was soon divorced while her husband was in jail, she moved from her condo to a rent-controlled studio on the Upper Eastside.

The fashion shoot was a success the designs were fabulous. Eddie was there with his new boyfriend Ray, all of our friends, mostly Jason’s, everyone high on cheap champagne. While there was plenty of support there was no press, no publicity, nothing that would get him noticed, only the photos that I took that would be put in his portfolio and like the dresses never be seen again. After showing his work to some fashion people, he eventually gave the clothes away, stopped sketching, he needed a backer willing to invest money, a lot, that never happened. He focused on his job.

He had one of the best eyes and feels for fabric in the business, could run a swatch through his fingers, tell you the content, where it was made, how much it cost, was a couturier’s dream come true, but he had a mouth and sensibility that would always get him into trouble. Like when Blass was dressing Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush, the wall of his fabric room lined with rolls of the most expensive fabrics in the world and then a growing collage of any disparaging content about the clients that he could find. When Barbara Bush came for her fitting Blass made Jason take down his wall of ridicule.

When we went out to upscale places, theater openings, the Met Costume Gala when Vreeland was still being carted out, the best restaurants in town, he would wear Blass’ clothes. It was that period when the look was masculine, being that he was super thin and could fit into the sample suits that went unsold, that was how he dressed, that is until Blass called him into the office one day and said, Jason, Pat Buckley saw you last night and you were wearing the same outfit. It was time to go shopping and buy some suits designed for men.

While he was at work I would paint, spend an hour getting ready to go grocery shopping, it was my Rock Hudson period. 1940s clothes, gabardine shirts, broad shoulders, pompadour, brilliant smile, the check-out lady had some crazy infatuation, I shopped elsewhere after the checkout guys were whispering in my ear that she wanted to be my girlfriend. I’d play with the cat, throw her off my painting, move the furniture, drape fabric remnants around the apartment, cook and wait.

That summer I would go out to Washington Square Park, sit in the sun and work on my tan. The park filled with every type of character imaginable. I became a magnet for the flasher, no not the raincoat clad type, these were guys that wore loose shorts, no underwear, sweaty hairy balls and dick peeking out. They would follow me into the men’s restroom which was vile, stand next to me at the urinal and pull out their big dick, I would stand there getting an erection, people would go into the stalls, tourists would walk in then run out. I never had sex, would stuff my boner back in my shorts then walk to Tower Records and buy cheap cassettes on sale.

There was a gay adult cinema not far from the apartment, it was on 1st Avenue. I went once, paid the five dollar admission, sat in the dark theater, just a handful of men, all pulling on their dicks, staring at me as some ridiculous porn movie played on the screen, they made motions, urging me near, then several surrounded me, oh oh, time to leave. I wandered to that little close-out store up the street, buying presents for Jason that I would hide till Hanukah or his birthday, shop along 14th Street, the junk shops, go through the stores that sold old Vinyl records, nothing costing more than a dollar, things that I would play on the 1950s Bakelite record player that we bought for $40.

Emile was still working for Alice, was designing his jewelry, outrageous Victorian inspired things that he would adorn himself with that they would sell along with the vintage jewelry and accessories. The business was doing well, he was happy being single and always on the prowl. His finances were still shaky after Hamlet, but his rent was cheap and so was the city. He got a pass for me to join him at a trade show held at the Jacob Javits, I bought plaster busts and pedestals, would paint them over and over depending on which holiday was approaching.

I met Jason’s mother, Ruth, she and her sister Shirley visited the city, stayed at the Plaza, came to our place, they were frightened by the neighborhood, condescending about the décor and then took us out for an expensive dinner and a show. Ruth had married again, her second husband Mort was definitely not gay, a little on the homophobic side, he had made money from a design that was used in the Space Shuttle.

As we prepared to enter the restaurant with his mother, the maître d would not let us sit unless we had dinner jackets, they provided Jason and I with ill-fitting ones. Later we had drinks at the Oak Room, laughing talking, me feeling fine with Jason’s mom, her sister eyeing me up and down, being a complete bitch, I never let her see me sweat, used all of my available charms. As Jason was hailing our cab I smoked a cigarette with Ruth on the Plaza steps, she turned to me and said, if you ever turn my son into an alcoholic I will find you and get my revenge. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, her tone so pitched. But she was happy that he had gained some weight and appreciated that I was at least making him eat. She was kept unaware of the fact that I was not working.

Mort died unexpectedly, Jason couldn’t deal with flying out for the funeral, his mother was taken care of, got the big condo at the foot of Beverly Hills, some money, stocks, she was sad and widowed, but wouldn’t have to worry.

Jason and I decided to do the family tour that year, it was in between Hanukah and Christmas, a few days with mine, a few with his. First stop California. Jason’s sister JoAnne knew a gallerist and insisted that I bring a painting to put in the opening of a new space. I took one of my small pieces, was thrilled and anxious, we would not be there for the opening, I never met the guy or went to the gallery. It didn’t last, the business tanked, but it was a show and my resume would be born.

I was not versed in Jewish culture, was fascinated though, but I was not prepared for his family. We stayed in one of the guest rooms that his mom’s condo provided, we’d have our own space and privacy. Ruth’s apartment was high up, wonderful views, the paintings that Jason grew up with lined the walls, the one’s that each child would proclaim, when mom dies I get that one. There were expensive trinkets everywhere, crystal, precious jewel encrusted metals, it wasn’t super deluxe but it was very impressive. It was somewhere in the middle of Hanukah, the days where the kids would get socks and underwear for presents.

Then there was his sister Judy, what should I call her, caustic? Every chance she had she reminded me that I was not Jewish, that I didn’t belong there, was out of place, she was relentless. Judy was there with her second husband, her two kids, one from the first marriage, the other from the second, a sweet boy and a tiring girl, when I asked the girl if she had a Christmas tree she abruptly said no, but why not, she looked confused, but I’m Jewish. Shirley’s grown son came, he was very nice, his wife was ready to leave. Then there was that cousin, some easily agitated guy who smoked out in the hallway, I joined him, neither of us belong here, he said.

Dinner was had then we watched Seinfeld on TV, I wasn’t into Seinfeld, Jason wasn’t. I wouldn’t watch the show till years later when it was in reruns. Jason’s family tore each other apart, jabs and barbs, drinks and more jabs. The dissected their father,  were counting the days till he died in a fiery heap. Judy just kept going after me, Jason did nothing but participate in the blood fest. I began feeling horrible, I was stuck there, trying to be nice, impress his family, probably could have slapped Judy and no one would have said a word. I feigned a headache and travel fatigue, went down to the room where Jason and I were staying, took off my clothes, got under the blankets and wept. Much later when Jason came into the room, all I could say is, your family is mean.

Then it was time to hit Las Vegas where my mom was living with my sister Charlotte and her young son Alan. We would spend a night with my sister Gaudalupe, she gave me a stash of those heart-shaped speed pills, let us stay in her master bedroom. The pills made me even hornier than I was normally, Jason and I fucked liked rabid dogs. Then we spent a couple of nights at mom’s place. My sister Charlotte was working at the Dunkin’ Donuts, had somehow become a Jehovah’s Witness, insisted that she knew spiritual enlightenment, was as bad as Judy in her air of superiority. In private she told Jason, so you’re a Jew, wow but you don’t have horns.

Jason and I slept in her room, she would sleep in the adjoining bedroom with her son, mom in her bedroom across the hall. I wasn’t going to let it go, I had grown up watching my sisters and brothers date the opposite sex, sat and watched as they made out, made their moves, the times when they turned against me, when they broke up, found another love of their life, didn’t consider that I was a lonely gay kid who also needed affection. They had never really seen me with anyone, the only exceptions to their intermittent homophobia were my younger brother and my sister Guadalupe, and mom, she just wanted me to be happy. I popped some more of those heart shaped pills and through the thin walls I was certain sister heard me getting fucked by a man, a kind generous Jewish man that loved me.

Thank god that that trip ended. We would visit again, would take trips to see our family, alone or as a couple, but we would never combine our family trips together. I left with the bible that my sister insisted I take, she would alienate everyone with her certainty, I was humoring her.

That was the weird thing about being gay and growing up in NYC then, you rarely if ever met friend’s or lover’s family, the relations were never invited together to come to weddings, which were illegal in our case, births, baptisms, Bar Mitzvahs. In a way it was a relief, in another it is kind of sad that Jason’s mom and mine were never to meet. They probably would have gotten along famously. Would you like a drink Juanita, why Ruth I thought you’d never ask, do you like to play cards. They would have sat there smoking cigarettes, drinking, sharing stories about all of the trouble their gay sons caused them, then played till the winner had all.