The Muse of Houston Street
Writing does not come easily for me. I am a painter by trade -- an artist in fact. I respond visually to stimuli in much the way a moth is attracted to a flame, and It's very awkward for me to explain things in literary terms, so perhaps as I go along, you may become bored with my story, but that's your problem -- not mine.
With my tongue in my cheek however, I must admit to a clandestine love of poetry. The sentiment in verse sets me off and I see pictures flash before me -- something like this, for example:
"For oft, when on my couch I lie
in vacant or in pensive mood,"
I can see myself stretched out here on this ratty old mattress, plucking at the ticking and contemplating the cosmos, or more likely, my present low estate. My estate was formerly quite sizable, I assure you, but my ex-wife's lawyers are largely responsible for the condition in which you see me. I am used to better things, believe me.
I live and work on the fourth floor of this run-down loft on Houston Street. A torn bedspread and a blanket hang on a wire stretched across the room and form a separation between where I live and where I work. I share this loft with a man by the name of Chipson, a night shift butcher at Waldbaums, who spends his days here pretending he is a sculptor.
My name is Porter Backhouse. Does that name ring a bell with you? I thought not. But if you had been around forty years ago, I'm sure it would have. You could walk into any penthouse apartment along Fourth Avenue from Fortieth to Eightieth Street and see a Backhouse on the living room wall. Nudes were my game; and let me tell you, I couldn't paint them fast enough. Look at me now! Alas, I would sell my soul to have those days back again. Nudes, by the way, have nothing to do with sex or love, or any of that rubbish -- nudes are an art form, no different than landscapes.
I made a tidy fortune with nudes .... well, with one nude in particular. Her name was Jasmine, Jasmine Goldfarb -- and a more beautiful piece of work you couldn't hope to see. I painted Jasmine for nearly ten years. In every conceivable pose, in every one of her wayward moods, and in every imaginable entourage (that's a French term for 'setting') -- maybe I'm getting too technical. To put it bluntly, she was the loveliest creature I have ever seen.
She was only sixteen when I met her. Her sister was being married in the Village, and I played side guitar in the band at the reception. At the time I was down on my luck, and I squeezed out a living with a three piece band that played at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and stag parties. I had yet to carve my niche in the art world. Well, full circle I guess! Thanks to my wife's lawyers, I am in much the same condition today.
Jasmine was a provocative girl, you might even say promiscuous -- more than willing to pose stitchless, and somehow quite confidant that I would never lay a finger on her. I wouldn't of course! She was my muse, and a proper artist would never stoop to dishonor his muse. Her pride in her body was enormous, and her natural talent to model was miraculous. It was as if a Greek Daphne had come to pose for me. I try to explain this to Chipson, the sculptor, who shares this humble loft with me, and he shakes his head.
"Backhouse, you're mentally ill -- y'know that? You're unnatural, that's what you are!" He continues chipping away at his grotesque "Dying Indian."
"You're a yahoo, Chipson, you have no soul! You will never understand .... " I climb down the kitchen step stool and shake my fist at him, "A true artist would never screw his muse." It goes on like this all day. Chipson is a butcher by trade, working the night shift at Waldbaums. Did I mention that? I have very little income now, and if it wasn't for the money he brings in, and my sign painting, we would be out in the street. Chipson apparently requires no sleep and very little food for that matter. He gets here at eight in the morning after eight hours at Waldbaums, and chips away at his 'Dying Indian" until it's time to go back to Waldbaums again.
"Would you screw your dumb 'Dying Indian'! -- it gets smaller every day, by the way. Mark my words, Chipson! In a week or two you will wear it on your watch fob."
He hunches over his "Dying Indian" and ignores me. He knows I'm right. The damn thing is getting smaller, just like the others. The problem is, he can't let well enough alone. The floor around the little statuette is littered with marble chips and there's very little left to work on. All sculptors are dumb, mind you, but none so dumb as one who doubles as a night shift butcher at Waldbaums. He puts his tools down reluctantly and walks over to my side of the studio to get the broom. That's usually the signal he's finished and whatever is left of the "Dying Indian" will join the other small statuettes on the shelf behind him. The rubble will be shoveled into a garbage can and bounced down four flights of stairs to the street.
As he passes me he stops and looks at my new painting of Jasmine. "The thing's gettin' bigger every day, Backhouse. When you gonna stop? It's gotta be fourteen feet long."
"Damn right," I say. "Nine by fourteen to be exact."
"But, you've painted it on the wall, you idiot. Suppose somebody wants to buy it -- although I can't see anyone in the world buying such a ridiculous picture -- they couldn't get it out of here."
"It's meant for the future, Chipson -- it's a legacy. Some day this atelier will be preserved as a national treasure." I adjust the lights so that the painting is illuminated from one end to the other. It is a composite of all I remember of Jasmine Goldfarb. From her teenage years until she left me at the age of twenty-six to be the wife of a kitchen detergent manufacturer in Pound Ridge, New Jersey. Her shoulders morph into her knees, which become her thighs, then ankles, then her entire body becomes one marvelous bosom. The exquisite coloration of her back, kaleidoscoping from buff and pink to gray and green. A woman to be worshipped and immortalized in art, not one to be slobbered over by a kitchen detergent manufacturer.
He drags the broom wearily back to his corner of the studio. "The better the light, the worse it looks, Backhouse .... you may be interested to learn my next piece will be a bust of Gertrude Stein, her face was made for stone." He begins sweeping and the dust rises -- it hangs in the air like smoke and makes further argument impossible. I decide to leave and wait in Max's lunch room across the street, besides, I have my signs to deliver -- they're my only source of income these days, my signs I mean. "Shaving Cream & Hot Oil Wrestling, Wednesdays & Fridays," that's for the "Pink Lady Lounge." "Medicaid and Food Checks Cashed -- Low Rates," that's for "Alfonso's Bodega" on fourth Avenue.
I start down the four flights of stairs. Just below the studio lies Kaplan's Work Pants, below them, Laguna's lamp shade factory, then the newly installed Narghesian World Imports. "What a crew! How could I let myself fall so far so fast? I had such promise.
I used to live uptown on Madison and 84th. A nice roomy brownstone with a gallery at street level -- living quarters on the second floor and the studio with a north skylight on the third. I did my best work up there with Jasmine -- the muse was with me then, working overtime. The muse wouldn't be caught dead down here on Houston Street, neither would Jasmine, for that matter.
Kaplan's shop door is open, and the noise of the machines and women's voices inside is deafening. There are thirty or more Latinos working in there. Every hour Kaplan blows his whistle and stops the machines and the women relax for ten minutes. Some head for the John, others light up or do stretching exercises. Kaplan says if he doesn't do this they lose concentration and begin making mistakes. One of them, an emaciated little thing catches my eye -- something familiar about her. What is it? Must be her color. Her skin! That's it -- it's the same color as Jasmine's.
"Mr. Kaplan, may I have a word with you?"
"Ah, the artiste upstairs. You come for pants maybe?"
"I have pants, Mr. Kaplan. That young woman sitting in the second row -- the one flexing her shoulders. Who is she?"
"A good worker, a virgin! Steady. Steady and quiet too. What about her?" He looked at me suspiciously.
"Her name, Mr. Kaplan. What's her name?"
"Meshuggah! You think I know their names? They're all Rosie this, or Conchita that. I never ask. You have not come to take her away -- don't tell me!"
"I'm just wondering if she'd like to model for me."
"It's okay by me, whatever she does after five o'clock. But during the day, that's not so okay. Good workers are hard to find. Go. Talk to her -- you got five minutes."
I put my signs down outside and walk over to her. She's dressed in something very much like a red Italian checkered tablecloth. Her hair is pushed up and out to the back of her head and tied with a bow of the same material. Her hands are clasped behind her neck and she brings her elbows together to stretch her shoulder muscles. She wears a small crucifix but no rings or bracelets. Most of the other women are wearing bracelets from wrist to elbow. As I approach, she brings her hands together defensively.
"You speak English, Miss?"
"What have I done, Senor?" Her eyes dart from side to side, and if she had some place to go, I'm sure she would run.
"Don't be frightened, Miss. My name is Porter, Porter Backhouse. I paint in the studio upstairs. What's your name?"
"Bianca, Senor -- is there something wrong with my work? Senor Kaplan says I do a good job."
At this point the woman who works at the machine next to her comes back from her break and stares at the two of us. She secretes a symphony of smells. I catch the scent of Bay Rum, cigarettes, garlic and the pungent odor of mouse shit. It is a combination that betrays close quarters, an absence of sunshine and the forfeiture of self respect. I try to keep my eyes on Bianca.
"Have you done any modeling, Bianca?"
The other woman springs into action. "What you want with Bianca? She too young for you -- too skinny." She smoothes her bright red hair and leans toward me, her flabby upper arms quivering like jello, then she smiles like a Cheshire cat. "Take me, mister. I'm Maria -- Maria knows how to give a man a good time."
I feel myself redden and I back away awkwardly just as Kaplan blows his whistle signaling another fifty minutes of non-stop sewing.
"So howd'ja make out?" He asks me.
"A slight misunderstanding -- it wasn't important anyway."
I pick up my signs outside and, flustered beyond words, I start down the stairs for the street again. Things do not come as easily as they used to, I seem to be out of step with the rest of the world. No one listens to me -- I don't even listen to myself, in spite of the fact that I talk to myself all the time.
The weather is fine, the weather has been the best part of my day. It should lift my spirits. With the sunshine on my shoulders I should be able to cast off this melancholy and make plans for the future. But I see myself in the window of Max's diner! The sight of me is sobering. I am bent now -- my face is unrecognizable, it is a face of a madman. I don't own a mirror, I shave by the feel of it and I harbor the notion that I appear as I used to. Slender. Erect, and alert as a squirrel. "When was the last time you slept between sheets, Backhouse? When did you last ride in a taxicab, or find a letter at you door?" A panhandler working the street ahead of me, looks the other way as I approach, I am of no use to him. When beggars ignore you, you can go no lower.
However, the signs bring me $87, in cash of course -- no tax when you pay cash. The rent will be paid this month, but nothing will be put away. It is good to have nothing left over, my former wife would get every penny of it. Yes, I am under the thumb of her extraordinary lawyers, and the only way to get even is to be penniless. If I should suddenly find myself in favor with the critics again, if the name "Porter Backhouse" somehow regains its former luster, I will be put through the ringer. Far better to be a beggar -- the little I have is mine to keep.
I ask myself what will happen to my painting on the wall back on Houston Street? I think it is better than anything I've done lately, almost as good as the old days when the force was with me. The muse, (bless her heart) would be proud of me. Will it be painted over some day -- papered perhaps -- or, in the nick of time will some discriminating critic recognize the hand of Porter Backhouse? "Stop! Stop!" he will say. "A miracle! This must be an undiscovered Backhouse. Do you not see the texture, the coloration, the
breast outlined against the silken camellias -- a woman among women?" Chipson
knows nothing of painting, he is a sculptor. How can an artist destroy a beautiful block of marble by making it look like Gertrude Stein? Gertrude Stein, my ass! It will look more like Gertrude Stein before he starts chipping at it than when he's finished -- I predict it will end up a shrunken head .... I wonder if he's done sweeping up.
Back at Houston Street I notice our windows are open and Chipson's bearded figure can be seen brooding over a block of stone. Even from here I can see the angst within him. The stone is a dirty yellow -- the color of laundry soap. I know what he's going through; the first step, the first chip off the old block, so to speak. "What can I do to make it look like Gertrude Stein?" I don't have a watch, but the clock in Max's lunch room window tells me that Chipson will soon be off to Waldbaums, and the loft we call a studio will be mine for the evening.
I enter the studio in a somewhat better frame of mind than when I left. Chipson has done a good job of cleaning up. He sits before the block of marble with a photograph of Gertrude Stein in his lap.
"Chipson, would you care for a word of advice?" I ask him.
"From you? You can't be serious, you know nothing about sculpture. Did you get the money for the signs?"
"Yes. You owe me forty dollars for the rent, Chipson."
"You will have it in the morning. They pay us tonight. What's your word of advice?"
"I thought you didn't want it."
"I don't intend to take it." He holds the picture of Gertrude Stein in front of the block of stone. It is only slightly smaller and quite similar in shape.
"It's a perfect likeness now, Chipson. If I were you I would put a hat on it and call it done. You will only go downhill from here." He puts the picture down and slides off the stool. Looking at me sideways, he shrugs himself into his coat and walks slowly to the door. I can tell he's trying to think of something clever to say as he leaves. He pauses at the door and says, "Up Yours, Backhouse!"
"Now I am alone." The very words of the melancholy Dane. No one in the building, the Latino girls are gone, so is Mr. Kaplan, Mr. Laguna and Mr. Narghesian. Nothing can be as still as this. I can actually hear the water trickling in the John. It is not possible for such quiet in the noisiest city in the world.
Well, first I will have something to eat, then I will continue to work on the wall painting. Even though it's finished I will not stop working on it. I turn on the television set and wait for the black and white image to emerge. The picture is nebulous and the news studio seems to be under water -- I jiggle the wire coat hanger and although the picture does not improve, the sound does. What shall I eat? That is the question -- all too easily answered -- whatever is left from yesterday. I grope around in the tiny refrigerator (the light bulb burned out months ago). There, I find two half eaten TV dinners, one halibut, one chipped beef .... an interesting blend of protein. There is an open can of Sprite, undoubtedly flat by now -- but all the better that way. I put the half eaten TV dinners in the black hole of the oven and wait for dinner to be served.
As my dinner is warming, I hear that crime is down but murders are up -- guns will soon be sold that can only be fired by the people who own them -- it is not reassuring. I am so far behind the tempo of the modern world, the little blue ball of the earth grows smaller in my sight and before the morning comes I will be left like an empty six-pack in the cosmic void. The likelihood of improvement is dim as these days grind slowly by -- it occurs to me that the game is not worth the playing.
But I know I'll feel better after eating something. I find a soiled dishcloth and gingerly remove my TV dinners, they have a tinny smell, like soup from a can. I think back to the dinners at Lutesce and the Rainbow Room; Jockey Club lunches and brunch at the Waldorf. Then my eyes drift around this dark hovel in which I have chosen to spend the rest of my life -- "What am I waiting for?" .... I see something in the darkest corner -- something like a long gray coat and a hat hanging on a clothes tree. Strange! I never noticed that before. Wait, I don't own a clothes tree! Must be something of Chipson's. I
put my fork down nervously, it clatters as I lay it on the table -- there! It moved didn't it? I swear it moved!
It did move! It's edging its way along the wall! "Hold it there, you! This place is bugged you know .... we've got cameras, surveillance cameras! Infrared cameras -- latest thing -- see in the dark. Cops are on their way now!" It stops and turns, there is a face -- a pale face. Jesus! What am I supposed to do?
"I'm sorry, Porter. Sorry. Thought you'd be glad to see me." A man's voice -- not a street voice. I'd put it uptown, east side. Graduated Fordham, Columbia -- something like that. Certainly not Brooklyn College.
"You looking for me, or Chipson?"
"You're Porter Backhouse, right?"
He carefully removes his hat and shakes his head so that his long blond hair falls about his shoulders. "Oh my God, I think -- not one of them!"
"It's a rather complicated story, Porter. Wouldn't it be simpler if you just came with me?"
"I ain't goin' anywhere with you, buddy. You gotta drag me outta here."
He walks over to the table and finds another chair. He looks at it with distaste and sits down. "You don't have two matching chairs, you're eating yesterday's, Heaven knows what out of a tin tray with a bent fork -- you're drinking from a can, and you would be dragged out of here. I am Hymenaeus, Porter! The agony is over. Finished! Time to come home -- three squares -- wine at every meal."
"What do you mean finished, I ain't finished!"
"You may not be through, Porter -- but you're finished. Nobody's ever through. If you think I'm going to stand in the wings forever waiting for you to call me whenever you've got the urge to paint, forget it."
"You're my muse?"
"That's right -- Hymenaeus, God of marriage -- we met at the Goldfarb wedding, remember? There's no such thing as a muse of painting, Porter -- you should know that. They gave me the job by default. But I've had it with you! I'm calling in my marker."
"I don't believe you! Prove it!"
"You mean like a miracle?"
"Yeah, show me a miracle." I move quickly to the light switch, I don't want him pulling any fast ones in the dark. He looks about him and points to Chipson's block of yellow stone on the stand.
"The guy who shares this place with me is a sculptor, he's going to make a head of Gertrude Stein."
"Stein. Yes, I know her well. Sneaks around with that ratty little Alice B.Toklas. Can't stand either of them myself." Before my eyes, there is a shower of rubble on the floor around the stand, and the head of Gertrude Stein suddenly appears where the block of stone stood only a second before. I don't mean a stone effigy such as a sculptor might create, but the living breathing head of Gertrude Stein!
"Okay! Okay! That's enough! Put it back the way it was, I believe you!" I suddenly realize this guy's for real. This Hymenaeus fella is gonna take me with him and there isn't much I can do about it. "What's it like," I ask him .... "I mean what's it gonna be like where you want me to go?"
"One helluva damn sight better than what you've got, Porter; and probably a lot better than you deserve." He stood up and looked at his watch. "We should really be getting along. What time does it get light around here?"
"It'll be a lot like being dead, won't it?"
"It'll be exactly like being dead, Porter. But remember, it won't all be gravy. He looks at my painting of Jasmine on the wall and shivers with revulsion. Are you familiar with the ten commandments, Porter? -- "THOU SHALT NOT MAKE UNTO THEE ANY GRAVEN IMAGE OR ANY LIKENESS OF ANYTHING THAT IS IN HEAVEN ABOVE OR THAT IS ON THE EARTH, OR IN THE WATERS UNDER THE EARTH." "You're going to have a lot of explaining to do, Porter .... you're no Monet you know -- you won't be sitting at the table with the big boys. Think along the lines of Grandma Moses or Andy Warhol."
"Look Hymen-whatever, I'm a lot better than you think I am. I've changed. Look at that painting on the wall -- over there across the room. I've got plenty left in me -- I'm having what we call a renaissance. I wanna stay here, really I do .... please."
With that he shakes his head at me and stands up. He picks up his hat and and slowly brushes it with his sleeve. He seems to be talking to himself. He looks across the room at the head of Gertrude Stein and, as if by magic, it is suddenly a yellowish block of marble again. He looks at my painting on the wall and shivers slightly as though he had seen something that turned his stomach.
"Well, I tried Porter. It was a great offer. You should have jumped at the chance. Now, you're on your own. When the time comes -- it'll be in a year or two, by the way -- you'll be standing in the chow line without a mess kit." He paused and looked around him, then he muttered more to himself than me, "I'll never understand these people -- living like this .... why is his life so precious to him? His art! Why does it mean so much to him?" He turned on his heel and walked out. I could hear his footsteps on the stair.
That was last night. For a moment or two after he left, I thought I had won a great victory over the unknown, a chance at a new beginning. But now, here, in the cold light of morning I hear the sound of Kaplan's sewing machines again -- starting up for the day. I look at my painting on the wall, and maybe it's not as good as I think it is after all .... maybe there's nothing left in me. Maybe I missed my one big chance .... Chipson will soon be here and it will start all over again
©Harry Buschman 2000