You never know..

Lunch

I met a friend for lunch the other day. Well not really a friend, I had only met her once before. So when I arrived at the restaurant I wasn’t sure if she was the one at a table in the far corner.  Reading the menu, her face was down. The hostess smiled at me as I perused the place.  Just then the woman at the table in the corner looked up and waved.  It was her. I smiled and waved as if, of course I recognized her and had just that minute walked in, arranging my scarf from the outside breeze.

We had met the week before at an art gallery; she and her husband were looking at a 19th century landscape and the husband started speaking about the provenance and how much it fetched at auction last year. He owned one by this artist but wasn’t sure of it’s authenticity, tho nonetheless, he liked his painting. We continued talking about the show and the art scene in New York in general  They used to own a gallery and had much of their inventory hanging on the walls of their apartment, they said. Come over for drinks, they said.

I love checking out [judging] people’s apartments so I said I’d love to. The next week on an unusually warm evening, I headed uptown to their apartment, a large and unassuming white brick high-rise. I arrived a tad after 6:30 (arriving on time, apparently, is something only old people do.)  The doorman announced my arrival and sent me up to the apartment in the elevator.  The door opened and they welcomed me into their small living space/art gallery, every wall covered with beautifully framed masterpieces.  We hugged (obligatory these days.)  The apartment was illuminated by a row of windows with early evening views of the city. I had to just stand there and take it all in. Save for the hundreds of thousands of dollars of art on the walls and a New York skyline view, it was quite modest. Aside from the unseen bedroom and bath, the place could be taken in with one glance.  Paintings were everywhere, displayed in rows, one piece on top of another, all with little gold plaques indicating title and artist.  We talked a bit and the husband poured us all a glass of Italian wine (the vineyard which they had visited, of course), and we noshed on cheeses and crackers and other interesting snacks from beautifully arranged plates. The man was excited for me to savor each piece in their collection, as we visited each one and he revealed the cost and current price and how they were acquired.  We all picked our favorites. It was a lovely New York evening and she and I agreed to meet for lunch soon. 

The next week at lunch, splitting a turkey club sandwich, she and I talked as if we’d been friends forever. She and her husband had a solid marriage and enjoyed each other. I envied her status: upper east side apartment, lots of money, traveling all over to buy and sell art, investing in beautiful objects, collecting fine wines. How happy and satisfied she must be, I thought. She has it all.  Over the next hour, tho, I learned her life was far more complicated, far less perfect. It really threw me and I realized I totally (mis)judged her life by her fabulous possessions.  She had tears in her eyes and thanked me for being there and listening. I told her I’d be here if she needed to talk.

I think we all mistakenly think everyone is more successful, has more, makes more.  We walk among the crowds of people, good looking, well dressed, smiling, ..they must be happy, right?  For many, their reality is dark, and sadly, only they live in this darkness. It’s such a harsh world, a lot of hate out there lately. Time to be kind, ask people how they’re feeling and listen fully. That cranky bodega guy may have a lot on his mind, and people rush in and out of his shop without a word.  A few kind words and a smile can’t really change lives but it’s a start. 

Sleeping Around

The noise machine plays static, what they call “Rain” tho it sounds more like a dripping faucet. I used it last night but I don’t really need it much anymore. It’s quiet here, very quiet until the early morning when the neighborhood starts to wake and an occasional car zooms past. Three years ago, I lived in an apartment that had no windows in the bedroom. There was a giant sliding barn door closing it off from the light of the oversized windows in the next room. I’d never seen a bedroom with no windows. But as I got used to the total darkness I really liked it. It was the silence that was foreign to me. The loft was on a cul de sac and even though it was completely urban there were no sounds. It was so quiet I needed a noise machine just to cut through that strange silence. From that silent haven I moved to a lovely neighborhood in Brooklyn, where my bedroom windows were just a short distance from honking and horn blasting and semi downshifting on the expressway. Despite the noise, I liked my little apartment, except for the occasional giant water bug that would come from nowhere and suddenly be at my feet.

I’m in a new place now, with no bugs. The neighborhood is quieter, there is a different kind of of culture. Things are cheaper, I don’t spend $4.00 on an avocado. There are some hipsters here, and people who look like me, but mostly the neighborhood has held onto its identity and it is still eastern European. There are bakeries who’s names have lots of consonants, markets with wooden fruit bins outside, and, like many New York neighborhoods, a non-homogeneous population. I like it. I am a minority here, a native English speaker. I live on a lovely block of 3-story brick Renaissance Revival row houses with bay windows. It is a designated historic district so I guess no one can build some crazy structure on the outside of their home or brick up the windows or anything. They all look pretty similar and sometimes walking back from the train, I can’t tell which one is mine right away.

Across the back patio there is a 6-story apartment building about 50 yards beyond, mushroom color painted over the brick. The fire escapes have some peeling paint and little trails of rust stains on the bricks make it look a little seedy. At night some of the windows have a warm, yellow glow. There are no window coverings at this time of the evening, twilight. That will come later. But for now we all enjoy a furtive glimpse of one another, yet there is no voyeurism. We feel connected, safe in our own space yet present to the daily rituals of our neighbors. There is the woman and her husband on the floor above mine, every night cooking dinner and having animated conversation. Her blonde hair reminds me of one of those cigarette ads in the old Life magazines. I imagine she is wearing pedal pushers. Her waist is tiny and she always wears a little belt. She frequently looks out the window at me, with a cocktail in her hand. I’m having a cocktail too, and glance up briefly. Above their apartment, there is harsh light from an old, round florescent ceiling fixture and the windows have sheer polka dot curtains. A kitty lives here and likes to sit on the sill in the sunshine. In the early evenings, the building has the look of an Edward Hopper painting. His dark underpainting and flat colors illuminate the stark beauty and highlight urban loneliness. Someone once said about Hopper’s work that ‘even a buzzing city doesn’t remedy isolation, but heightens it.’

We moved to this house only a month ago. There will soon be a grandchild here. I’m curious about the sex, but the parents don’t seem concerned. So we will just have to wait. Never dreaming of being a grandmother, I’ve arrived at this place with unexpected delight. I’ve already checked out the toddler activities at the library 2 blocks away. There will be challenges for the parents, raising a child in New York. Carrying a stroller down the subway stairs, for one thing. E.B. White wrote in his book Here is New York, “the city is uncomfortable and inconvenient; but New Yorkers temperamentally do not crave comfort and convenience – if they did they would live elsewhere.” A New York childhood –less grass, the constant chaos of traffic. but growing up in one of the most diverse cities on earth, she will learn to be inclusive and tenacious. She will learn to live closely with others who come from very different backgrounds. I’m looking forward to all the good things. And I won’t wake when the baby cries in the middle of the night. I will be two floors away with my noise machine.

friends across the way

 

Just Off Madison

A Sotheby's Auction

I came across these two well-dressed gentlemen several times during an evening of gallery hopping called “Just off Madison” (billed as an Open House of American Art at Private Art Dealers) on the Upper East Side.

 

Schmoozing at Sotheby’s

The New York art world is a far-reaching network of secrets and sham, buying and selling, and of course, schmoozing. As a New York artist who schmoozes once in awhile on a small scale, I decided it was time for me to schmooze at the high end of the art world and attend an American Art auction at the world-famous Sotheby’s. I was escorted on first visit by a very informed collector of American Art.

Located on the Upper East Side, the 490,000-square-foot Sotheby’s has a good looking, but not overly grand facade. Walking through the revolving doors and into the large foyer, a guard greets you warmly. The space is clean and minimal and feels elegant.  There is a sleek and polished Ferrari, regally displayed on a round pedestal (for an international Ferrari auction to be held soon.) Sotheby’s Wine store is also in the lobby. It has the look of a walk in wine cellar, its neat rows of wine are displayed elegantly. According to Decanter magazine (seems like a reliable source) Sotheby’s full-service store offers “a range of fine wines at competitive prices, from $13.95 to $40,000 per bottle.”  Yikes.

Potential art collectors are offered “the resources of Sotheby’s Financial Services” because, frankly, you’ll have to refinance your house to pay for this art. It’s fair to guess that when bidding starts at $80,000 it’s not coming home with me. But I didn’t come to bid. I came to behold. We had prepared by stopping by the day before to check out the collection for today’s auction. This morning, we arrived a half hour before the start of the auction and even got a bid number. We headed up to the seventh floor, where a pretty diverse, but sparse group was seated in the auction room. Apparently, I thought, there’s not a lot of interest in American Art right now. But then I learned that you can decide which art you want to bid on and come later, so you don’t have to sit through the whole thing. We picked up some free coffee and a scone from the food cart outside the auction hall. Seated next to some new friends we had met the day before, we browsed the catalog. There must be a lot of people with money to burn. Earlier this year, a Basquiat painting sold here at auction for 110 MILLION DOLLARS.

I had wondered earlier if I should dress up. Heels? Maybe nylons? (except I didn’t have any.) This is Sotheby’s. It’s the Upper East Side. Deciding that anything I picked wouldn’t measure up, anyway, I dismissed the idea in favor of my usual ‘Arty’ Look – black jeans (because that’s all I really own.) It ended up being a good call, as this crowd was definitely casual. Except for a couple guys in suits, it could have been a movie theater crowd. A few baseball caps, a construction worker type guy, a row of neatly dressed Korean students with notepads and pens, and a guy who I was pretty sure I had seen outside earlier asking for spare change. People you wouldn’t suspect may have deep pockets – or the ability to re-finance. The hall was not particularly large. On either side of the podium were phone banks, like the Jerry Lewis Telethon. The phones were landlines with curly cords. People were already on the phones, preparing, ready to place bids for their customers on the other end. Exciting!

The auction began precisely at 10 a.m. The young auctioneer (in a suit and bow tie) took his place behind the podium. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.” A painting was displayed on screens above and to his left. The less expensive watercolors went first, taking up an hour or so, before moving on to the more desirable oils. The good stuff comes out. “Lot number 108. Bidding will start at $80,000,” he announces casually. Now the phone bank begins to heat up, all in communication with their buyers. “Bid!” says one, raising her hand. She was outbid, raises her hand again. An internet bidder from who-knows-where was outbidding her. Taking a cue from her buyer, she demurs from further bidding.  $95,000… $125,000… $155,000. At this point, the bidding begins to slow down. The auctioneer surveys the room. “I can sell at one hundred and fifty-five thousand.” He says dragging the words out slowly, firmly, looking from one side of the room to the other. “Last chance.” Glancing toward one of the telephone bidders from whom he senses interest, he asks gently, “Terry, can we make it a round number?” Terry smiles, curly cord phone to her ear and her hand covering the mouthpiece, listening intently. Then she raises her hand, pointing upwards. “160,000!” he says with delight. “Do I hear $165? $165……fair warning…” and with aplomb, he raises his arm, gavel in hand, and with the distinctive crack of the wood he pronounces it “SOLD for $160,000! Thank you, Terry. Our next item for bid..”

sothebys

You’ll Never Walk Alone (ok, maybe sometimes..)

The year my dad moved out, my mom gave me one pair of wool pants for Christmas. Of course, being a kid, I was utterly disappointed, but I figured we didn’t have much money. I didn’t want to be ungrateful. We lived in a small, old house on a block with other old houses.  There were only a couple other kids who lived in the neighborhood and since I was too shy to join their games, I played by myself. I had my own bedroom and the bathroom was in the basement, which always seemed very chilly. It had a little square shower. I found it too creepy though, because I saw centipedes there once.  

Being an only child was unusual in the small catholic school I had to attend. I was pretty sure the nuns hated me because I came from a single parent home. Divorce was a sin and my mother the sinner. Thus, I was also.  I admired kids who had two parents. Mary lived on the other side of the tracks, where the professors at the university rented big, beautiful homes. She was one of 7 children and her dad was a successful owner of a foundry. He seemed to be home a lot, reading his paper and actually laughing and conversing with his kids. There were cookies and milk in the kitchen after school and her mom wore one of those crispy aprons with bright red apple designs on it. She was like June Cleever.  I loved going over after school, even though it meant a couple mile walk back home.  My mom wasn’t waiting with cookies when I got home. She left for work at 6 in the morning and got back around 4 and was very tired.  I was alone most of the time. I would pretend I had lots of brothers. We all watched tv and talked and laughed.

Some people avoid being alone, but I’m used to my own company.  I play well with others but I’ve convinced myself that I like being alone just fine, thanks. The art of aloneness is well played here in New York and is normal. Some days, though, I’m convinced everyone in the city is paired up. I saw two rats meandering down the F train rails together yesterday…even the rats here have significant others.  A great irony about living in New York is feeling so distant when there are six million people all around you, like a Hopper painting where lonely, isolated souls seem to search for a sense of connection. Earlier this summer I was walking through Washington Square Park, an urban oasis with street musicians, jugglers, mimes, people spray painted to look like statues.  A saxaphone player and a guy with a small set of drums set up on the edge of a wide sidewalk and started playing. Heads turned. People stopped. Some sat on one of the many benches that line the walk, some talked with each other, with strangers. For a brief time, none of us was alone, we had a community and a connection. After awhile, people wandered off for some other places, new people drawn to the music became a part of the little tribe.

New York has many monikers: Big Apple, The City That Never Sleeps, The City So Nice They Named It Twice. It’s also been called The Lonely City. It can be. But it can also challenge you to look for and accept the many possibilities for connecting with strangers. I’ve been doing this alone thing for a long time.  I’ve discovered this is the perfect city for it.