The idea was we’d move to New York, apprentice ourselves to painters, and after a while we’d be painters ourselves. This was the way we were told it was done by our art school professors and by an alumnus who’d been a part of a group show at White Columns. So we found a house to rent in Brooklyn. We took jobs we didn’t want and waited for opportunity to present itself.
Our house on Powers Street was located behind a small apartment building and wasn’t visible from the street. As far as anyone walking by on the sidewalk knew, there was no house. We lived there, my friend Tucker and I, passing through the grim entryway of the apartment building with the buckled wood paneling to get to the concrete courtyard, where stood the squat house with brown vinyl siding. On the day we moved in, the landlord blocked the front door with his arms crossed over a high, taut belly. We’d gone through an agency and so hadn’t met him before. We strained to hold on to heavy boxes while he took his time looking us up and down. No parties, he said. No girls. He was like a fortuneteller, that guy.
I found an ad that the artist Peter Halley had placed in the Village Voice , looking for an assistant who could write well. I’d taken a fiction class at NYU’s night school and the professor had complimented a few of my paragraphs. I took this all as a sign. From the bodega on the corner, I faxed my résumé and the first and only short story I’d ever written. There was great portent in the otherworldly whine of the machine as I fed it my credentials. I clipped the pages together, along with the “sent” receipt, and slipped them into a manila folder, which I opened several times that evening to reread, as if something about myself might have changed.
This was in 1992. The Times had recently declared that Williamsburg was “the new SoHo,” but it was hard for us to believe this as we walked from the Lorimer L stop to Powers Street, passing the old men sitting outside of social clubs who scowled from underneath soot-blackened Cinzano umbrellas, or as we walked past the Hispanic kids gathered in an empty lot who threw bottles that shattered just at our feet, threat implicit in their phenomenal aim. If we were bored, we walked a few blocks to watch the Hasidic Jews as they went about the shuffling and somber business of being religious. At night I looked out the streaky window of my attic room. If I stood on a stool I could make out the Twin Towers, but just their antennae.
Sometimes we ate at an Italian restaurant half a block away. In there were some of the old men who sat outside the social clubs. Here, they ignored us, watched whatever game was on the little set above the bar. In front of all the men were neat little glasses filled with straight liquor. There were bowls of pretzels on the bar but these went untouched. At our table, we slurped up the good spaghetti and drank our cokes. Once, Tucker called out to ask the score. Who cares about the score? one of them said. It’s all about the spread.
Peter Halley’s assistant called to tell me Peter was impressed with my writing sample. The assistant had been hoping to find someone who, aside from helping in the studio, could assist Peter with the articles he’d begun to publish. The assistant himself was leaving, with Peter’s blessing, to pursue his own work, which was in video. Later that year, he’d have a one-man show at a gallery on the Lower East Side. Could I come in Monday? Yes, I said. Is there anything I need to bring along for the interview? No, the assistant told me. He said I didn’t understand. I would be starting on Monday. Peter had seen enough to know I was the right fit. Oh, I said. I see. I spoke from some distant, shimmering place, a pinnacle where in the future I would sit with my legs crossed in an elegant chair, regarding the canvases leaning against the high walls of my studio. The chair would be modern and simple but also streaked with paint because this was the kind of life I would be leading, an elegant, paint-streaked one. A studio somewhere, maybe Tribeca, or even Brooklyn, humble Brooklyn, if what the Times said was true. I can’t remember if I asked about, or was offered, the terms of my employment. I only know that I spoke softly into the receiver from this kingdom, in the affirmative—yes, I would be there Monday. Monday. Yes.
On the same day, impossibly, Tucker landed an interview with the painter Jonathan Lasker. The fates had found our hidden house! I made a batch of celebratory chocolate chip cookies from scratch. I’d been baking these since we moved in, tinkering with the proportions. I’d learned that I could make them crispy or chewy, depending on how much sugar or butter I added. Secrets unfurled like blossoms.
On Saturday I went into Manhattan. I had decided to make myself the gift of a new pair of shoes. Up to that point in my life I’d worn sneakers, but I suddenly felt like they weren’t good enough, that to walk into the future I imagined I needed something solid, with hard soles and sturdy laces. I had in my mind a pair of shoes Philip Pearlstein had on when he came to visit my college in Philadelphia, brown and spotted with age and weather, the leather just above the toe creased like the old man’s skin. When he put his feet up on a painter’s stool to tell the classroom a story, I could even see holes, just at the ball of the foot in either sole, as if he’d walked out of the Great Depression wearing them, through the war and the decades that followed, right into the eighties. I don’t remember which shoes I purchased for myself on Eighth Street that day, only their weight in the shopping bag as I swung them like a censer, walking uptown to the L stop.
The weekends were for painting and for talking about art. We’d sacrificed our comfort to put our studios in the house’s two bedrooms, sleeping instead in the barely finished attic. I could only stand in the center of the attic due to the sloping ceiling. Tucker couldn’t stand at all. More and more, I watched Tucker work instead of doing my own. I busied myself with the preparations for art-making—stretching canvas, gessoing and sanding, gessoing again.
Tucker cut the figure of a painter, tall and lanky, a brush the natural extension of his arm. He would stand as I watched, squinting and reflecting. After many suspenseful moments he would approach the canvas. With a wide brush and an oily wash of white, he could scumble the effect of the light cast by a fluorescent ceiling lamp on the surface of water in a toilet. Each of the works in Tucker’s bathroom series was a technical gem, but not without poetry. I seethed, somewhat, to see them arrayed neatly about his studio. It was easy to transpose them onto a gallery wall.
A few weeks before graduation, one of the painting faculty at the art school had summoned me to his office. Professor K was a stocky old man with a sculpted white beard and a devotion to the tenets of abstract expressionism, like a peasant’s love for his master’s land. I hadn’t been to his office before, or even realized he had one. It was lined with bookshelves, one of which bore multiple copies of the professor’s own book, a treatise on aesthetics he’d written in the sixties and which had been published by a prestigious academic press. I’d only taken one class with the man, figure painting, during which he’d roam from easel to easel, sucking on a pipe, taking a brush from a student now and then to suggest what he called a moment . This moment , he would say, isn’t quite the thing. You are merely relating the thing. You are not inhabiting the thing. Now, in his office, he regarded me from underneath his heavy brow with sympathetic eyes. You aren’t very good, he told me. I think it’s only right to tell a student so. I’ve been to your studio. I’ve seen your recent work. A painter needs a hand and an eye, just like a surgeon does. You don’t possess these things. You haven’t progressed, only learned to hide behind a bit of quaint conceptualism. This may serve you well, he said, but it won’t fool everyone. It does not fool me.
Afterwards, we pronounced Professor K irrelevant, an academician. A relic. But it was easy for Tucker to say so. He had a hand and an eye.
The morning my apprenticeship to Peter Halley was to begin, I was so alive with excitement that I felt every texture of my clothes, as I sometimes do when I’m sick with fever—the scratch of denim on the backs of my knees, the constriction of elastic on my hips and calves. I buzzed about the kitchen, sipping carefully from a mug of coffee. I already had a subway token in my hand, and I can remember its tiny click as I placed it on the counter next to the ringing phone. I expected to hear my father’s voice, calling to wish me luck on my first day. But it was Peter Halley’s assistant who responded curtly to my hello. We don’t need to see you today after all, he said. In those days, in the silences between speaking one could hear the great analog buzz in the phone lines. When should I come in, then? I asked. Well that’s the thing, said the assistant. Peter’s decided to go in another direction. Sorry for any inconvenience.
I marveled at the word, as if it were only some overdue dry cleaning. Is there something Peter needs to see that I didn’t provide? I asked. But there wasn’t anything. I placed the receiver back into its cradle with aching care, as if by performing this soundlessly I might bring about a reversal.
Tucker’s interview with Jonathan Lasker didn’t amount to anything, either. We lived that autumn like fairy-tale siblings under a witch’s curse. Halfheartedly, I’d begun some freelance illustration for a novelties manufacturer in New Jersey. I drove to Carlstadt once a week to deliver my work, piloting my Honda hatchback through the bleak landscape of the Meadowlands. Tucker got a new job with Julian Schnabel but not as an assistant. He worked on the construction crew at the artist’s new West 11th Street studio/home. In the month or so he’d been there, Tucker had only met Schnabel once. He was up on a ladder applying plaster to a ceiling when he noticed his employer down below. Schnabel didn’t approve of the way Tucker was plastering and corrected the work from below by example, swinging his arm in great arcs, working my friend like a puppet.
Later that year, in November, Tucker got me a job with Schnabel, driving a U-Haul filled with claw-foot bathtubs to New York from Texas. I’d be flown out to Dallas where I was to rent a truck, drive to a junkyard in Waco, get the bathtubs, and drive back to deliver them to Schnabel’s studio.
A nor’easter had blown in the day I went to pick up plane tickets, and Greenwich Village was like a fishing village under the ocean’s siege, its inhabitants bent under tattered two-dollar umbrellas. I remember a trash can rolling across Sixth Avenue, spewing its contents in a wide arc. A woman in cat-eye glasses opened the door to the studio when I buzzed and handed me an envelope with the tickets and a few hundred in spending cash. I wasn’t invited in. By the next morning the storm had let up enough for my flight to take off.
I’d never heard of Waco—this was a year before the Branch Davidians—but just the sound of it was Texan. The lowing of a ruminant spiked through the middle with a hard C. I’d never been to Texas. My only experience of the South was trips to Miami to visit my grandparents. That wasn’t the real South, people told me. Texas was the real South, or it was something else altogether. It was Texas.
The men at the junkyard gave me the same look as the elderly Italian guys and the kids on the street in Brooklyn. What are you doing here? The wiry man who drove a forklift to load the tubs into the back of the U-Haul wore a frayed straw cowboy hat patched on the crown with Band-Aids. The junkyard bore the patina of manhood and authenticity that mocked me. In the office, a sandy wind rattled the corrugated roof and the raspy window air conditioner could do little to keep out the gigantic heat, though it was only mid morning. They don’t have bathtubs in New York City? the man asked as I signed the receipt. A dust-colored dog on the floor yawned, its jaw crackling. I shrugged.
The twenty-four-foot U-Haul was the biggest thing I’d ever driven. I wasn’t used to steering such bulk on the highway, the way the wind buffeted the truck from one side of the lane to the other. I’d never driven anything without a rearview mirror on the windshield and I didn’t trust the tall mirrors that hung out of either side.
After an hour or two, I worked out a system for passing. I’d check the mirrors for a car behind me, wait for it to pass, and if there was a sufficient gap between that car and the next—I wanted about ten car lengths—I’d make my move. Once, I underestimated the speed of an approaching eighteen-wheeler and cut it off. I remember a regal red lion emblazoned on the trailer. The driver swung around me and then into my lane, forcing me onto the shoulder where gravel pinged against the chassis as I drove along at a crawl, waiting for my chance to reenter.
After a few hundred miles on Interstate 30, I found I could ease my grip on the wheel and allow my mind to wander. The flat Texas plains unspooled on either side of the highway, studded here and there with prayerful oil derricks. The truck didn’t have a radio. I surprised myself by knowing all the lyrics to Elvis’s “Blue Christmas.” I sang it over and over. As I’d been doing for months, I thought about the dream job I’d somehow lost, wondering what it was between two phone calls that had allowed it to slip away. I regretted not having a day or two in Halley’s studio, at least, an interaction with the painter, some obvious misstep on my part that I could pin my failure to. Instead I was left with the suspicion that it was something about me I’d never recognize that had been tasted and spit out.
I pulled over at a cheap motel somewhere near Hot Springs, Arkansas. I’d been told I could keep any of the incidental cash I didn’t spend, in addition to the three hundred I was being paid for the job, so I was trying to use as little as possible. There was a café next door, complete with a winking neon sign. As I took the menu from the waitress, I tried to assume the air of someone who was used to eating in roadside restaurants. I ordered the most Southern sounding thing on the menu, chicken n dumplings, and was pleased when she winked and said good choice. You should get sweet tea, she said. Bet you never had sweet tea before. I nodded, wondering how she knew this. Up near the ceiling, a model train went around and around the dining room on a mounted track, tooting little puffs of smoke. When a big rig passed on the interstate, the whole place shivered.
You moving somewhere? the waitress asked, setting a steaming bowl in front of me. She nodded toward the dusty window at the U-Haul. I guess it had something to do with being on the road all day, without even a radio for company, or maybe I was desperate for the less skeptical scrutiny of a woman after the men at the junkyard: I talked. I told her about the job I was doing, the famous artist back in New York who was waiting for the bathtubs. What’s he going to do with them? she asked. I told her how Schnabel repurposed things—I used the word appropriation. I told her about the paintings encrusted with shattered plates, how Schnabel’s work had become sculptural in recent years, tending toward monument. I told her how Tucker and I laughed at him, the bombast of his art, the Italian suits, all that corrupting money. The waitress tucked her pad into her apron, leaned down so that her elbows rested on the Formica table. She nodded and chuckled as I spoke. I want to remember her as middle-aged, graying hair done up in a bun, with pretty eyes. After a while, the bells on the front door tinkled and some customers came in. You’ll want to eat that before it gets cold, she said, wagging her chin at the bowl of chicken.
The room in the motel smelled like stale cigarettes and carpet deodorizer. A painting of a stag in a glade hung above the bed. On my knees on the springy mattress, I traced a brush stroke, ochre highlighting a patch of foliage. Somebody had painted this. When the waitress cleared my plates, she’d said, Maybe I’ll see one of your bathtubs in a museum someday. They’re not mine, I wanted to say, but she’d already walked away, with no thanks for the ten-dollar tip I’d tucked under the sweet tea glass.
In the morning, I used a stick to clear away a crust of insects clotting the truck’s front grill. A breeze swirled the dead things around my ankles. I unlatched the back door to the trailer and peered inside at the cargo. In the dim light, there was something funerary about the white tubs lined up side by side, standing on their rusty lion feet. Through the window of the café I saw the same waitress serving breakfast. I imagined biscuits and gravy, buttered grits, country ham. I climbed into the cab and drove away on an empty stomach.
I drove all day and through the night to make it back to New York, stopping only for gas and to pee. I’d been given three days, but I was compelled by a strange energy, a desire for completion. I met the nor’easter on 95 and fought rain and gusty wind all the way up the New Jersey Turnpike, when things finally calmed and I could see the lights of the city I’d live in for two more years before surrendering to New Jersey and then the Midwest. It was after midnight somewhere on the road when a school bus whipped past me like a streaking yellow ghost. I blinked and rubbed my eyes, wondering if I was experiencing a hallucination brought on by the miles and miles of blacktop. There were kids at the windows, maybe on the way back from a field trip to Philadelphia or Washington DC, or maybe they were being taken to a juvenile detention center. The kids were all gesturing, pulling their fists up and down as if yanking an invisible cord. At first I thought it was something obscene, but then I realized: They want me to blow the horn! It was the same gesture my brother and I used to make as kids from the back of my father’s car when we passed an eighteen-wheeler. I blew the horn. I honked until the taillights of the bus were just waning red flecks.
It was probably three or four in the morning when I pulled in front of Schnabel’s studio on West 4th. When I cut the engine, the silence was overwhelming. All at once I realized how foolish it had been not to stop somewhere. Now I had no choice but to spend the rest of the night double-parked in the truck, or else ring the buzzer. It must have been pure exhaustion and the desire to crawl into my own futon that led me to do the latter. Nobody else was on the street. The yeasty smell of a nearby bakery stirred my appetite. I’d eaten nothing all day except a bag of barbecue corn nuts I’d purchased at a truck stop near Memphis. I was about to press the buzzer again when a third story window yawned open. Are you crazy? a voice asked. I peered up, but nobody leaned out. I’m here with the tubs, I said. Whoever it was—I’ve always imagined it was Schnabel himself but can’t really be sure—muttered something and closed the window. I stood uncertainly on the stoop, listening as the cooling engine of the U-Haul ticked like a clock. After what seemed like ten minutes, the garage door screeched and rattled open.
There was already a truck parked inside, a Ryder. Maybe I hadn’t been the only one dispatched to a faraway junkyard to fetch treasure. There were other vehicles—a car covered under a paint-splattered tarp, a Harley Davidson that looked as if it had never seen the road. And other, massive things covered in thick sheet plastic, sleeping robots. The place was as big as the auto supply warehouse where I’d worked one college summer, but even so there was very little room for the U-Haul. Whoever had opened the door was nowhere to be seen.
The turn off the street and into the garage was the tightest corner I’d had to maneuver in the big truck. I wound up scraping a car parked near the entrance, but not badly enough to leave a note. This was New York, after all. I pulled the U-Haul nose to nose with the Ryder, getting out to check until the trailer was just inside the garage, which left only about an inch between the two grilles. They were the same size and, aside from their respective logos, looked like reflections of each other. The job was finished.
I stood looking at what I’d done. My eyes burned with fatigue. I went out into the street and called up to the open window. After a long pause, the garage door trundled down, landing delicately where its rubber lip met the concrete. It was warm for November. A mist fell luxuriously on the city, lit gold by the streetlamps. On the avenue, several cabs turned down my request for a ride to Brooklyn. Finally a driver took pity. My friend, the cabbie said, steering eastward, You bring me into the belly of the beast.
A year or so after my trip to Waco, I attended Julian Schnabel’s opening at the Pace Gallery in SoHo. Tucker and I had moved out of the house in Williamsburg—him to live with his girlfriend on the Upper East Side, me to a tiny apartment in the West Village. I roomed with a woman who was little more than an acquaintance, though I pined for her through the wall between our rooms. The place was an old tenement and had a claw-foot bathtub in the middle of the kitchen, with flaking enamel and a bright orange ring around the drain. Once a mouse had somehow gotten trapped inside the tub. I’d watched as it attempted to scale the sides and kept sliding down until I finally worked up the courage to kill it with a rolled up Art in America . Sometimes my roommate showered while I ate my lo mein from the takeout place around the corner, hidden only by the curtain that hung from a ring the size of a hula-hoop suspended from the ceiling. A column of steam rose from the opening up top. She’d warn me when she was getting out and I’d go into my room for a bit, returning to finish my dinner and watch the footprints leading to her closed bedroom door drying on the mottled hardwood. My room was too small to stretch canvas or set up an easel, or so I told myself. I kept a small desk beneath my loft bed where I made gouache illustrations of butterflies and fairies for the novelty company. In a few more months, I’d be employed there full time.
As soon as I turned onto Greene Street I faced a crowd swelling out the doors of the Pace. I recognized a few supermodels, teetering in stilettos. Iggy Pop stood off on his own near the alleyway, wearing tight silver pants and pensively smoking. I squeezed inside, peering around elegantly coifed heads and padded shoulders for Tucker. He worked for Pace now, as a registrar, and when I finally found him he was too busy to talk. Bowie’s here, he whispered. Then he pushed open a seamless door in the wall between paintings and disappeared. I wished I’d brought someone along with me. If I’d known about all the celebrities, I might have enticed my roommate.
The paintings were massive, tarry things. Finding an angle to get a view was impossible in the milling crowd. I wasn’t interested in the paintings, anyway. Lou Reed was there, and Laurie Anderson. Chuck Close in his wheelchair, wearing a patterned kufi and bright blue eyeglasses. I never saw Bowie.
I did spot someone I knew. Julian Schnabel’s nephew was from my town, was my age. He stood by himself, as I did, and though it had been years, and we hadn’t been friendly, I was desperate to appear connected to someone there. He was tall and looked down at me. A mole on the tip of his nose made an awkward focal point. We went to Hebrew school together, I said, conscious of the lameness of the words as I spoke them. I could see that he didn’t recognize me, or didn’t care.
I mentioned the job I’d done for his uncle, the bathtubs, how I wondered if they’d show up someday in the work. Oh those, the nephew said. Those weren’t for Julian, they were for my dad. He was going to refurbish them, you know, for the upscale market. Tribeca lofts, condos, that sort of thing.
All around us, luminaries drank wine out of stemmed glasses. The nephew dissolved into the richly textured crowd, leaving me as alone as I’d ever been. I felt like a timid animal, squirming its way through the crowd, begging pardon. At the front door I looked back, hoping for someone or something to catch my eye, for an entreaty to stay, an invitation to belong. But there was only the cursory nod of a staffer at the desk from behind a pile of catalogs. I went out onto the street and walked toward Houston, where I would turn left, headed west toward the river, toward New Jersey, where I’d been born, where I’d soon return. In Jersey, I’d sit inside a windowless office in an industrial park, making things nobody would ever call art. But there, also, I’d meet a woman who would tell me, If you want to write, write. With her I would continue west, to the middle of the country to study, to work at a university, to buy a pretty little brick house, to raise a daughter.
Back on Greene Street, I didn’t know any of this. Every step I took away from the opening that night seemed to resound with what would turn out to be true—I wasn’t a painter. I would never be one. A supermodel, one I’d recognized, burst from the gallery and ran past me up the sidewalk, her heels hitting the cement with a mineral tick, a rose between her teeth muffling her laughter. A short bald man hastened in pursuit, his beautiful shoes never meant for running, calling out a name everyone knew.