SUBTEXTS: Creativity, Criminality and the
Secret Lives of Paintings
Every bit as much as popular songs, which seem to have a similar affect on other people, paintings have always evoked memories for me. Of course, every sophisticated person knows that painting is not literature. ("If you have a message," someone once said, "send a telegram.") Yet to some of us who have been entranced by them since childhood, as I was when I'd cut school to pore over the few tattered art books at Seward Park Library on the Lower East Side, paintings still speak volumes often about subjects the artist never intended:
Paul Cadmus, "PLAYGROUND," 1948, Egg yolk tempera on Masonite, 23 1/2 x 17 1/2, collection Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia.
I know that playground well. It's still there at the tail-end of Henry Street, arena of epic stickball games and gladiatorial gangwars when I was a kid in the 1950s. In the few years since Cadmus immortalized it, nothing had changed. The same women in hair-rollers and housedresses still leaned out their windows, minding everybody's business but their own. The stately stone facade of Saint Augustine's Church still lent a touch of gravity to a row of rotten-tooth tenements beyond the playground's chainlink fence. The whole neighborhood's underwear still flapped from clotheslines, and cliques of nose-picking, crotch-scratching dead-end kids still hung out in the playground, acting cool and making nasty jokes about each others' mothers.
Lincoln Kirstein thought Cadmus' painting depicted "the urban disinherited," according to Edward Lucie-Smith, who added, "It is also possible to read 'Playground' as a work whose theme is the social
isolation of the homosexual." And while it is true that an undertone of homoeroticism is present here, as it is in many of Cadmus' paintings, for me "Playground" even more easily evokes the social
isolation of the artist.
I am thinking of how people reacted when a kid named Louie Falco started studying modern dance at the Henry Street Settlement the same neighborhood social agency where I first got hooked on painting as a possible alternative to becoming a comic book artist when I grew up.
Because they both carried themselves with a certain swagger that stood out even among all the other posturing hardguys on Henry Street, a lot of us expected Louie to follow in the footsteps of his older brother Frankie, who was notorious in the neighborhood even before 1963, when he murdered two police officers execution style, after making them strip naked in a bar in Lodi, New Jersey.
While Falco chose to shoot it out and died in a blaze of "MAD DOG COP KILLER" tabloid headlines, his accomplice Tommy Trantino surrendered and did 38 years in Rahway State Prison before being paroled in 2001, much to the dismay of every cop in Jersey. Trantino, who took up writing in prison and became a cause celebre among literary types like Howard Zinn and Henry Miller, paints a harrowing word-portrait of Frankie in his prison memoir "Lock the Lock," published by Knopf in 1974. In the unpunctuated lowercase stream of consciousness often favored by such raw talents, Trantino describes his partner in crime showing up at his apartment on the lam from an earlier murder:
"falco is all agitated and nervous and he's blowing his broken nose and he's running his hands through his wavy black hair and his jaw is on a twitch and his teeth are clenched tight as he tells all about how last night in the vivere lounge downtown on the lower east side he shot some dude dead over some bullshit this dude had been running there were all kinds of people around who saw him take this dude in the back room so they knew he killed him but he warned them with death and destruction if they said anything to anyone ever falco said he carried this dead dude out into his car then drove down to the east river and dumped the dude in the water"
Although Trantino admits to helping Falco disarm the two cops that night in Lodi, he has always denied participating in the actual murders. His description of Falco leaping up onto the bar with a gun in each hand literally demonizes his partner in crime like something out of a horror movie:
"frank is ticking on the bar two rumbling tanks in his claws and his horns are whistling twisting out and his fangs are blistered and bubbling with phlegm screaming out of a dark tunnel GET UNDRESSED GET UNDRESSED"
If not a hero, Frankie Falco lived on as a neighborhood legend after being gunned down by a vengeful police posse in a fleabag hotel in Times Square. But his kid brother, who founded the world renowned Louis Falco Dance Company, danced opposite Rudolph Nureyev in the "Moors Pavane," influenced later enfant terribles of highfalutin terpsichore like Mark Morris, and choreographed the MGM film "Fame," before dying of complications from AIDS in 1993, was all but forgotten on Henry Street.
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In the early 1980s, when Louis Falco was flying high, having recently wowed them at the La Scala Opera Ballet in Italy, I pitched the saga of the Falco brothers to an editor at the Daily News Magazine as "a real life John Garfield movie," and when she said it sounded "fabulous," called to set up a meeting with Louis.
The first thing I learned when I walked into the rehearsal loft in midtown is that, no matter how pretty they may look, a studio full of hardworking dancers smells like a huge hamper full of dirty laundry. The second thing was that Clive Barnes of the New York Times was right on the money when he called Falco "a choreographer of energy rather than grace." While rock music blared and the boy and girl dancers all longhaired, and decked out in ragamuffin chic flung themselves about like tough, streetsmart kids jiving and shucking in a schoolyard, Falco and I renewed old acquaintances.
Even with a shoulder length mane of bleached blond ringlets that would put Shirley Temple to shame, Louis Falco still carried himself the way you had to if you wanted to survive on Henry Street, and he seemed pleased enough to reminisce with someone from the old neighborhood. The more we talked, the more I was sure he would be amenable to the kind of story I intended to write, even though he'd never been quoted saying anything more specific about his past than, "Everything I am, everything I create, comes from what my family was and where I was born. I don't think there's any getting away from your heritage."
Yet, the minute I casually introduced the name of his brother Frankie into the conversation, Falco's whole attitude changed. And when I explained that I wanted the angle of my story to be the dramatically different directions their lives had taken, his jaw actually went "on a twitch," the way Trantino described his brother's under stress.
"Look, I'll talk about almost anything else you want me to talk about," he said. "But I definitely don't want to say anything at all about my brother in print. Anyway, didn't you say when you called that you wanted to write an article about my work ?"
The last one to call my bluff like that had been David Dinkins, when he was still Manhattan Borough President. After I infiltrated his office with a delegation of embattled bike messengers who'd requested a meeting, hoping to blend in with their motley company, he suggested that everyone around the table introduce themselves and, when my turn came, blew up: "Nobody told me a writer for the Daily News was going to be present at this meeting. Oh, I know, you're just doing your job. You guys will stick a tape recorder in somebody's face and say, 'How does it feel to see your whole family wiped out in a fire?' But what I don't like is that you misrepresented yourself. You got in here on false pretenses."
Trying to save face, I got up to go, but Dinkins insisted that I stay, saying, "I have nothing to hide."
And because I believed him, and thought it was about time we had a black man in office anyway, when he ran for Mayor a couple of years later, I voted for the first time in my politically disaffected life.
I had not expected Louis Falco to have anything to hide either, since he'd said of his "gutsy" approach to dance, "It comes from growing up on the Lower East Side. I don't have the same taboos as other people. I don't censor. I have a certain freedom that others don't."
If he didn't believe in censorship, why, I wondered now, was he trying to stifle me? My own vanity compelled me to always think of myself as an artist, even when I was whoring the mass media, and to consider every supposed taboo fair game; so it annoyed me to be treated like some snoop of a mere reporter. Since the story of him and his brother was part of our neighborhood lore, I felt it belonged as much to me as to him. Surely the guy who once said "safe, non-threatening dance turns me off... I explore identity, confusion, manipulation, whatever defines our character" should agree that an artist must be something of a sociopath, almost a criminal himself, in his willingness to exploit, even betray, any confidence, any trust, anything or anyone, in the service of his art.
Hadn't I written at length about my two criminal younger cousins, Dennis and Richie; how they once shot a biker who burned them in a drug deal in the ass with the kind of powerful crossbow used for deer hunting; how they once robbed and gratuitously pistol-whipped a kindly old pharmacist who frequently filled their ailing mother's prescriptions on credit? At risk of being tarred, so to speak, with the brush of racism myself, didn't I even tell the story of how, when Richie was doing time at Attica, he'd sent my mother who, having raised me, believed up until then that there was no such thing as a bad boy, only misunderstood ones a card put out by the Aryan Brotherhood ? (It had a cartoon on the front of hooded figures gathered around a burning cross, and inside was the message, "Dear Aunt Mabel, here's wishing you A VERY WHITE CHRISTMAS!")
Didn't I tell it like it was? You bet your ass I did! I held nothing back... Yet even as others praised me for my honesty, and even for my "courage," in telling such sordid tales on my own family, in all honesty I had to admit that I was nagged by a squeamish suspicion that my candor was at least slightly self serving. Wasn't I the guy who'd pointed out in print (more than once, I'm afraid) that we're living in a time when simple notoriety has come to have the same cash-value as honest fame?
Well, there was no denying that Louis Falco had come by his fame honestly, in the perfection of an art form that allowed him to release his angst through the pure physical medium of movement, rather than in shameless confession. And once I got past my own pique and looked at it objectively, I had to admit that there was no compelling reason for him to trade in personal notoriety at this late date, neither to enhance his mystique nor to accommodate the lurid slumgullion narrative I had plotted out for my own gain. Granted, Falco had to know that, as E.M. Cioran once put it, "Every form of talent involves a certain shamelessness." Yet he could at least take comfort that his talent, unlike mine, did not require that he become, in the words of the same cynical scribe, "an indiscreet man who devaluates his miseries, divulges them, tells them like so many beads...."
As he turned his attention back to his dancers, increasingly ignoring me, it was clear Louis Falco would concur with Cioran that "to keep one's secret is the most fruitful of activities." And while his sudden sphinx-like silence told me I could forget about the story I had come to get, how could I really blame him for not wanting his private pain aired out in public like the underwear on the clothesline in Paul Cadmus' painting of our old neighborhood?
Jackson Pollock, "White Light," 1954, oil, enamel, aluminum paint on canvas, 481/4 x 38 1/4 in, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection.
The Muse must have been looking over the shoulder of the art director at Atlantic Records who chose to put Jackson Pollock's painting "White Light" on the cover of "Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation by The Ornette Coleman Double Quintet," an album I listened to incessantly in 1961, the year Jeannie and I got married. Together, Pollock's rhythmically layered drips and Coleman's atonal saxophone honks evoked all the excitement and atmosphere of the carefree bohemian life I imagined we were going to live as soon as we could afford to move to Greenwich Village.
In the meantime, we were both unemployed and living, more like incestuous siblings than proper spouses, in the attic of my parents' house on Staten Island. Every morning my mother would hand us carfare and lunch money and we'd take the ferry over to Manhattan, where instead of looking for jobs, we'd hang out in the Village. Then, we'd light candles at night, put "Free Jazz" on the turntable, and turn our attic in an Archie Bunker house in the prole borough of Staten Island into an atmospheric bohemian garret.
Ornette's album was one among a whole stack of jazz records I bought from a local lowlife named Donnie Whitman. I knew that if he was selling them they had to belong to somebody else. But nobody on the Lower East Side, where I was raised, turned their noses up at goods that "fell off a truck." And every longshoreman's kid takes "swag"silverware, towels, and other household items pilfered off the shipsfor granted. So I never wondered where those records had come from until one Saturday night when my mother's youngest brother, Charlie, came over and insisted on taking us out to a local ginmill Jack's Dog House for a few beers.
When I was still in grammar school in Manhattan, my uncle Charlie, a furniture mover who looked like the toughguy actor Mickey Rourke, blew his big toe off with his rifle in order to get sent home early from Korea and marry his high school sweetheart. But after the marriage ended (there were snapshots of my uncle cavorting in lipstick and my mother's underwear at a drunken family party, but I doubt that sort of thing, regarded as good clean fun among our wild tribe, had anything to do with it), Charlie came to live with us on Henry Street.
To Irish workingclass families like ours, Freudian psychology was as foreign as dentistry: tough titty if you lost all your teeth, went crazy. So nobody thought twice, given our cramped tenement conditions, about assigning a grown man to share the bed of his ten year old nephew. Luckily for me, Charlie was no child molester; just an overgrown kid who kept me in stitches with his drunken antics. He seemed able to fart at will, and one of his favorite tricks was to pull the covers over my head and amuse himself by nearly asphyxiating me with the stink a regular wit!
With the loving cruelty of the older brother he was more like than an uncle, he also teased me mercilessly about my skinny arms and legs, calling me "Eddie Spaghetti" or "Mahatma Gandhi." (That he pronounced Gandhi like "bandy," as in bandy-legged, made the nickname even more devastating, since from our unworldly perspective, the great Indian leader and holy man seemed nothing more than a scrawny cartoon snake charmer.)
But even though he gave me a complex that lasted at least until the mid sixties (when the invasion of ectomorphic British rock musicians suddenly made my wasted look fashionable), Charlie was not only my favorite uncle but my best buddy. Unlike my father, who took no interest at all in me, he at least took the trouble to tease me. It was Charlie who taught me to box, took me to John Wayne movies at the Leow's Delancey, and when a bully of a teacher named Mr.Bash humiliated me in front of the class by wisecracking that my cough sounded like TB, it was Charlie who stormed into P.S. 147, backed him up against the blackboard, and promised to throw him right out the window "if you ever get smart with my nephew again."
By the time Jeannie and I were living in the attic on Staten Island, my uncle, who never got over the breakup of his marriage, was drinking himself right into an early grave. But he was laughing all the way, and we always looked forward to his visits, since his nutty, goodnatured personality seemed to ease the growing tension with my parents.
As usual, we were all having a grand old time that night at Jack's Dog House, drinking and playing the jukebox, until Donnie Whitman staggered over to our table from the bar and, leaning down with his greasy blond hair almost hanging in my beer, said, "How did you like them albums I copped from The Beatnik?"
Donnie didn't have to say more: Almost from the minute he arrived from Manhattan that Summer with his wife Sheila and their two toddlers, renting a storefront apartment on Cedar Grove Avenue, not far from Jack's Dog House, and setting up a painting studio in an abandoned hospital on New Dorp Beach, the locals had nicknamed Jay Milder "The Beatnik."
But to me, Jay, who looked like a young Marc Chagall, was something of a celebrity. There was a picture of him in "The Artist's World," a paperback book of photographs by Fred W. McDarrah that I pored over as though it were pornography, fantasizing about being part of all those lively openings and parties in the downtown art scene. Even before my younger sister, Maureen, who sometimes babysat for the Milders, introduced Jeannie and me to Jay and Sheila one day on the beach, I knew that Jay was a friend of Bob Thompson and Red Grooms. And even though Jay was considerably older than me, and I probably struck him as a crazy kid, a frantic workingclass wannabe, I was hoping we could be friends as well. (In fact, I would get to know Jay well enough, years later, when I showed my paintings at the Brata Gallery on Tenth Street, to comfortably regale him with how I'd come to own his record collection, long lost by then in the general carelessness of my hipster life-style.)
But soon after she introduced us on the beach that day, my sister told me she had stopped by Jay and Sheila's place to see if they needed a baby-sitter and learned from a neighbor that they'd been burglarized and moved back to the city.
"Hey, I ast you a question: how do you like The Beatnik's records?" Donnie was saying now, raising his voice to be heard above the jukebox.
"Get lost," I told him, shoving his hand off my shoulder. "Fuck off."
Hearing this, my uncle Charlie, who was sitting nearby probably teasing Jeannie, like he always did, about being such a teetotaler looked at me quizzically. Then at Donnie, and said, "Excuse me, pal, do we know you?"
Donnie grinned and, with a flourish like a stage magician, appeared to snatch an egg out of thin air, and held it over my uncle's head as if he was about to crack it open. As Charlie started to get out of his chair, I jumped up faster, rushed in front of him, grabbed Donnie's egg-arm with one hand, and started to throw a punch with the other. But Charlie blocked it, stepped between us, and glared at Donnie in a way that made him back off, muttering, "Jeez, fellas, I was only foolin'...Can't anybody take a joke?"
Shaking his head, Donnie retreated across the room more, I knew, from my uncle than from me. Yet, as Charlie held me back, I kept acting as though I had won, rather than lost, miserably, my first and only amateur boxing bout in the Police Athletic League, at age twelve, against a black kid, whose emaciated appearance and deceptively mild demeanor emboldened me to insist on being announced from the ring as "Eddie 'Hurricane' McCormack."
Now, similarly emboldened by several beers (and maybe by the certainty that Charlie would back me up), forgetting how I'd had to sneak back to the P.A.L gym on Houston Street early the next morning, when I knew no one would be there to witness my shame, to empty my locker, here I was waxing ridiculously pugnacious again. While my powerful uncle restrained me as effortlessly as a mother cat dangles its kittens, I cursed across the room at Whitman and threw Eddie Spaghetti punches in the air, flailing about in the grip of a grotesque contradiction. For even as I shamelessly shadow-boxed, showing off to the whole goddamn blue-collar bar room that I, the artsy fartsy Mahatma Ghandi kid, was as tough as the next guy, deep down I was properly appalled to be putting myself in a league with Donnie Whitman and all the posturing punks I had grown up among, rather than the bohemian artists like Jay Milder, to whose hip, enlightened company I wanted more than anything to belong.
Andy's painting of a tearful, grieving Jackie, appropriated from a famous news photo of JFK's funeral, reminds me that, in the Zelig-like way I have of repeatedly being swept up in the zeitgeist, I happened to be working as a copy boy at Women's Wear Daily on the day the brief, starcrossed period called Camelot ended.
As an avowed bohemian, I had no interest in fashion or the "BP" as the publication regularly abbreviated "Beautiful People." Coined by John Fairchild, the foppish publishing heir who had transformed the paper from a grimy rag-trade tabloid to a must-read for the society set, the term was always being bandied about by people like Carol Bjorkman, a Holly Golightly of a gossip columnist who sashayed around the office with her toy poodle, Sheba, clutched to her nonexistent bosom. Bjorkman was the queen bee who set the style for the all the lesser lady fashion writers and editors in their corporate uniform of little black dress and pearls. Whenever these snooty fashionistas made any work-related request of me they were invariably greeted with the supercilious smile of the morally superior underling. (While the lips signify "Very well, Madame," the eyes say, "Comes the revolution...")
Since WWD was in the Village, most its lower-level hirelings tended to be hipsters, rebels, and slackers of all stripes, much like myself or the clerks at the nearby Strand Book Store, who'd act put-upon whenever a customer interrupted their laconic conversations to ask for help. Even among the "lifers," as we copy kids called the higher ups, there were a few secret hipsters like Chauncey Howell, later to become become one of the more jocularly amusing talking heads on TV's Eyewitness News team. Chauncey wrote a rave review of an art exhibition I was having in a gallery on Tenth Street for his arts column in WWD while I worked there. And in a subsequent issue, my beautiful bride, the former Jeannie Sanders Eaton, of Warrenton, Virginia, even turned up unexpectedly in a spread by one of the paper's roving paparazzi, featuring candid shots of chic-looking young women spotted on the street. (It pleased me immensely that, even though we didn't have the proverbial pot to pee in, Jeannie had made it on sheer style and good looks into the ranks of the BP!)
Along with such serendipities, the job was agreeably mindless, leaving me plenty of energy to paint at night. That it didn't pay much was another plus, since it was still respectable, in those decades before the advent of the trust fund genius and the instant art star, for struggling artists to have day jobs as long as they didn't take them seriously or make enough money to be branded as dilettantes.
So while I would have preferred not to work at all, I didn't have any serious misgivings about the gig, until the day of JFK's assassination, when the office suddenly went into high gear, and it dawned on me that the fashion world has its own bizarre angle on reality.
Sporting one of his Edwardian-looking suits with the nipped-in waist, his sandy forelock flopping, John Fairchild went sailing around the city room like a figure skater on steroids, stopping here and there to issue high-pitched shrieks that scattered the knots of fashion ladies like starlings, sending them into spasms of highstrung activity. Then he came sailing across the room, stopped right in front of the copy staff station, and did a pirouette to face Al Elkin, the aged teletype operator, ordering him to take a message for the Washington correspondent.
Years earlier, just before Kennedy was elected, I had been the personal office boy of William Randolph Hearst Jr. (an inauspicious position, I admit, for an aspiring beatnik, but what can I say?) in the Hearst Magazine Building, on West 57th Street. It was there, in fact, on the romantic cusp of Camelot, that I met Jeannie, who had grown up in the same small town in the horse country as Mrs. Hearst, and under her fortuitously (for me) lax supervision, was spending Summer vacation from Fairfax Hall, her Southern belle boarding school, in wicked New York City, from whence we eventually eloped.
I was that kid, always running, who snatched dispatches from the chattering teletypes and sprinted them into the beefy paws of power. I was the eager beaver who dashed down to Riker's coffee shop in the lobby to fetch coffee for the blond bombshell actress Zsa Zsa Gabor, with whom my boss appeared to be having an affair ("Tell dem I vant it in a real cup, dollink. Zsa Zsa does not drink from paper!") And it was heady beyond belief for a still credulous longshoreman's son to be privy to such inside gossip as the fact that JFK was known to his Washington cronies as "Jack The Zipper" long before his penchant for presidential cocksmanship became, posthumously, a matter of public record.
But nothing that I learned during my tenure with the Hearst Corporation the very firm that had given yellow journalism its name! was nearly as instructive, concerning the priorities of high powered publishing, as what John Fairchild told the tremulous teletype operator to tell the Washington correspondent just minutes after learning that the President of the United States had been gunned down in Dallas:
"Tell her I don't care who she has to fuck, I want an exclusive on what Jackie is wearing to the funeral!"
Jim Dine, "DOUBLE SELF PORTRAIT (SERAPE) 1964, collection The Whitney Museum of American Art
(picture unavailable for publication)
Around the same time that Dine's painting of two empty robes became an icon of the Pop movement, my father started living full-time in his bathrobe. He had always been an elusive character anyway, the quintessential absent father, even when he was physically present. But by the time he retired early from the docks due to memory loss that the doctors at the I.L.A. (International Longshoreman's Association) Medical Center attributed to alcoholic brain damage, he had become absolutely spectral.
Soon after my father took to sitting all day in his robe in the darkened bedroom of their little house on Staten Island, my mother noticed two men sitting in a car parked across the street. Day after day, whenever she peeked out through the venetian blinds, there they would be, sitting in the front seat, staring over at the house. Something about them reminded her of all those times over the years when she had to take loans from Household Finance to keep the bookies and the shylocks down on the docks from breaking my father's kneecaps over his gambling debts, and she began to wonder if maybe my father's memory might be better than he let on.
After all, my father had always been resourceful in his way, as he demonstrated during a long dock strike in the early 1950s, when we were behind in the rent and facing eviction from our apartment on the top floor of a tenement on Henry Street.
One morning, my father and my uncle Georgie, who lived downstairs on the fourth floor, were sitting at our kitchen table drinking their breakfast beers. I remember it vividly, since I was still young and naive enough at the time to enjoy eavesdropping on what I took to be their worldly wisdom.
"Believe it or not, Georgie, there's people up in Harlem who smoke marijuana cigarettes just as casually as we're drinking these cans of Rheingold," my father was remarking with the self righteousness of the solid citizen, when a resounding crash out in the hall sent them
scrambling from their chairs.
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," said my father, surveying the rubble and the clouds of plaster dust where a good part of the hall ceiling had fallen. Then, without a moment's hesitation, he lay down on the hall floor, covered himself with big chunks of the stuff, and started bellowing at the top of his lungs.
"Talk to me, Big Eddie, where does it hurt? Lord have mercy, the man's back could be broke!" my uncle Georgie chimed in, playing Ed Norton to my father's Ralph Kramden, as potential witnesses from the lower floors came scrambling up the stairs.
To make a long story short, the landlord settled out of court, and there was more than enough money to see us through until the dock strike was settled and my father and uncle went back to work.
Now, knowing what my father was capable of, my mother was almost certain he was no more out of it than Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, who famously walked the streets of Little Italy in his bathrobe for years, muttering to himself, to convince the feds that he couldn't possibly be the brains behind the Genovese crime family.
But my father, who had admitted to envying our Welsh terrier, Duffy, for being able to snooze near a warm radiator while he trudged off to the "those godforsaken docks" on cold winter mornings, continued living in his bathrobe, years after my mother peeked through the blinds one morning and saw that the men in the car were gone.
John Singer Sargent, "MRS. ADRIAN ISELIN," oil on canvas, 1888,
60 x 36, collection the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
When someone asked Sargent, long after he painted her portrait, if this stately and imperious society matron had made much of an impression upon him, he reportedly said, "Of course! I cannot forget that dominating little finger."
Even more striking, however, than the subject's pinky, poised tellingly on the edge of an elegant end table (as though testing it for dust missed by an inept maid) is her haughty expression. Mrs. Iselin regards the artist with an icy condescension that summons the memory of my own chilling encounter, as a young man, with a similarly imperious older woman who, by a single act of wanton destruction, may have helped to alter the course of my life.
Admittedly, there were other mitigating factors, not the least of them being that while painting was my first love, the art with which I had hoped to make my mark, I almost immediately got more attention for writing than painting had ever afforded my needy ego. But in any case, this woman, the shrewish wife of a wellknown Broadway actor, might have affected my future even more profoundly had she not been standing out of reach behind the iron gate around the entrance to her brownstone just off Central Park West. For I swear I might have strangled her when she told me that, just a few days earlier, she had put all of my paintings my entire life's work up to that pointout on the sidewalk to be carted off by the Sanitation Department.
True, I had misled her, representing myself as an all-around handyman, when I could hardly hammer a nail into a wall without risking bodily injury, having always shirked manual labor in my eagerness to escape my workingclass roots. And after she agreed to let me use the top floor of her house as a studio, in return for helping her renovate the rest of it, I have to admit I made a fine mess of her beautiful wooden staircase, leaving the Zip-Strip on overnight instead of scraping it off as soon as the layers of old vanish and paint bubbled up. Nor could I deny that I had taken my own sweet time, after she dismissed me in the wake of several other mishaps, in arranging to come back and remove all of my belongings from her premises, as she had requested that I do without delay.
Still, standing safe behind her iron gate, she showed not the slightest sign of remorse for her rash act. In fact, haughty head thrown back, icy eyes glittering with malice, she appeared to gloat openly about the affect her deed was having on me, as I stood out on the sidewalk, trembling with rage, utterly speechless...
All these years later, I still see her face, so like the face of the lady in Sargent's portrait, in nightmares, and often revisit the long lost masterpieces of my youth in the Museum of My Dreams.
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