For a short moment I thought it would make sense to use a pseudonym, to call her Sarah or Jody, but those immediately felt laughable, yet at the same time it is not OK to use her real name, mainly out of courtesy but partly and perhaps more truthfully, tentative thoughts of self-protection. It was a nonsensical strategy as anyone who has been a participant in that malignant, third rate theater called the New York Art world during the last thirty years, whether as a lead actor or lowly box office attendant, might recognize my dinner companion last week, on a gloriously sultry dark evening tempered by a gentle breeze in that ant hill of mass humanity known as Mexico City. Arrangements had been made and communicated in multiple forms, texts, e-mails, and instant messages during the preceding days and hours: the restaurant had been confirmed along with the address several times, the precise time repeated, the reservation assured. In my usual manner the cab was prearranged so there would be fifteen minutes to spare as everyone knows what the traffic is like in Mexico City at that time of day.
It was predictably a stop and start journey, which offered mixed blessings; street scenes which are never less than enthralling, at one point I rolled down the taxi window to be greeted with dense fumes and a scene that would have made Pieter Bruegel happy; a group of children playing within a burnt out car, somewhere nearby the blue tongue of a naked flame from a solitary street vendor, an overweight restaurant greeter barely wearing a slight black dress but when we moved on the neighborhoods close in upon you suddenly and unexpectedly, one minute a cramped highway staring at the beaten up trucks and brand new Range Rovers sandwiched between cars which were literally held together by tape, then the next inside the cocoon of a gorgeously wealthy enclave, with lovely stone turn of the century buildings, softened by lush tropical tree’s and sweet homes with flattering lighting, shadows slide across the walls and the smell of coriander and chilies rose from the food stalls and a feeling of warmth in every sense. A city of surprises, some beautiful, others alarming.
I arrived at the small local restaurant and could see immediately why it was selected. Young hip couples and families, torn jeans and expensive looking sweaters spread languidly across shoulders in the Latin style. On arrival I gave the name of my companion and of course there was no reservation but I was given a seat by the door in any event. Eight o’clock came round and the texts began again, stuck in traffic (of course), I said I was enjoying the view, “what view?” “the people” I replied with distraction, it’s the amateur anthropologist in all of us; it is enough sometimes just to sit and watch them pass by absorbed in their own thoughts and lives and to drink a glass of white wine and consider our great fortune. She was characteristically late stepping out of the Uber and walking across the street, instantly recognizable in a trade mark look of black leather jacket and jeans, her back absolutely straight and proud, as if she had a plank or steel rod on her spine, or was wearing a Victorian corset (which would be the most unlikely garment I could ever imagine her to wear) and this thought meandered strangely to the Artist Freda Kahlo who had lived in considerable pain not so far from where I was sitting.
We talked mostly about her writing and a little about the new book she was in Mexico City to finish. But there was also a series of anecdotes and I stressed the need for her to put these down also, with some urgency I thought to myself, we had the good manners not to say her age but the “big” birthday she just had must have been a hint that there is not quite so much time for indecision or procrastination anymore. But she is a Pineapple and that’s why I like her. I first encountered the prickly surface on cold night in Chelsea several years ago, one of those evenings where you are more likely than not to bump into a friend or an enemy, which then leads to a dinner, preferably but not always, paid for by a gallery and end the evening sitting next to a complete stranger or an artist whose name is familiar but the work less so. I was strolling with the artist and writer Walter Robinson across a wide wind swept road and was more concerned with my friend’s indifference to the cars barking angrily around us than the taut, slim woman approaching us. It’s rare, but not totally uncommon, for a new acquaintance in the art world to make it completely obvious that you are not worth their time, that you have no name recognition. And so expect to be snubbed from time to time, but she did this with an expertise and hauteur that I found remarkable to the extent that when Walter saw me comically open mouthed and wide eyed, he laughed out loud in joy (and it should be said with slight edge of cruelty) as she immediately moved on without a word of acknowledgement to me. Over the years we met a few times by chance and exchanged careful strategic words, and then I was taken by surprise on one encounter to discover for the first time the soft, tender, vulnerable inner side of this prickly fruit, still slightly acidic but succulent and dare I say, even sweet.
I edged her on to talk about her memoir, when will I be able to read it? and she immediately said “God no!….too self-serving”. Our conversation was a dance, she took the lead and I was happy to yield. There was the usual push and pull and I was careful not to stand on her toes or pull in the wrong direction as it was clear much was on her mind, there were topics that she needed to explore, to throw towards me to see if any would stick, and others which she just wanted to get a sympathetic ear, a listener who could absorb the horror of an apartment break in, a torn rotator cuff, the shared disbelief of a life passing quickly now and the shock of waking up each morning to find yourself with this many years behind you. I am familiar with art world conversations, which frequently take great care to avoid talking about art at all, as if it is a vulgarity, or more likely that it encroaches too much on work topics rather than pleasurable ones. On one occasion I was talking briefly with one of the top contemporary collectors in the USA and our conversation descended to the relative benefits of Crispy Crème versus Donkin donuts.
But mainly she wanted to tell me the story of her life. For this purpose we went back to her early twenties and to the young slightly aimless young gay women, who I can only imagine was striking in appearance in her tight tee shirts, jeans and anarchic attitude. She told the story of applying for her first job as an editor which she did by writing a play rather than presenting a regular CV. Her most significant contribution was the editing of a book about the wrongly imprisoned boxer Rubin (Hurricane) Carter. I knew very little about the case, except the well-known protest song by Bob Dylan from the mid-seventies, and was happy to hear this part in it, albeit in brief, from someone who had spent many hours in his company. He was imprisoned for the murder of three white people in New Jersey on the night of June 17, 1966 and as a ferocious looking black man had little justice at the trial. The story has been told many times, including a film, auto biography and that famous song, so it’s not worth going back over the details, nor is it the interesting part now as he died on 20 April 2014 of prostate cancer. The story being told that evening was hers alone now and as we tucked into ceviche, beetroot salad, taco’s, what I saw clearly in my imagination was this punkish writer/editor, the version of a person almost fifty years earlier to the one across from me and this famously fierce boxer from New Jersey. She reminisced freely now about the intense nature of the exchanges and the depth of relationship which had built up over that racially charged period of time but for a large part of her adult life put these feelings into a deep chamber of her memory until she came across a box containing all of the letters that had been exchanged between them and the emotions had returned explosively. She said it was hard for her to recognize the young idealistic person from back then and the tenderness and even love between two outsiders, both harshly and unfairly judged I would speculate, and for wildly different socio-political reasons struggled daily with their own demons. Correctly she deduced that this is the story that needs to be told, and she was already dipping her toes in this pond by reading one of these letters at her recent birthday gathering an occasion that left few dry eyes. Our conversion was also peppered with anecdotes about the seventies in New York, the fact that I came in the early 1990’s was slightly sneered at as if we arrived at the tail end of a party, but the comments about Studio 54, the Mudd Club, the famous singer who sang happy birthday, the Tavern, Jean-Michel were simply lost on me because I never had an interest in New York in the seventies or eighties, never saw that apparent creative vortex which was talked so fondly about by many of our friends. In part it was the music that I disliked most, the Velvet Underground, the Ramones who were just downtown posers in my mind and the authentic risk takers were the bored ones; the Smiths and Joy Division from the bleak outskirts of Manchester, the suburban teenagers who created a home grown English punk movement, Bowie in a floral dress, pushing a pram with Angie looking bemused and uncomfortable in London’s commuter belt.
I had my own agenda that I wanted to talk about with her in my oblique, coy, circuitous way. On my mind was the subject of writing a memoir and we did agree indirectly that if it is to be written, it must have a parallel journey; after all we could both concur on this at least, you are what you learn from others. We talked about the books I gravitate towards which are part memoir, part biography and part travelogue. I provided as examples Robert McFarlane and Olivia Laing, W G Sebald and Helen McDonald’s book “H is for Hawk”; “H is for Hawk” she repeated with her scoffing tone of incredulity, “obviously I’ve never heard of that!” laughing sardonically at me while at the same time giving me a cold Goshawk stare.
Although it was unsaid and perhaps because she dreaded, or sensed, a confession coming the narrative I wanted to aim for (and already a germ is growing) was to replicate some of these books I enjoyed so much, but she diverted my amateur literary advances skillfully and talked a little more about herself, while I drifted a into my own private world. I thought about some of my own ideas that were slowly beginning to form; my companion on this journey has been selected for me from the dead recently; I had an irrational unkind thought about the architect’s most famous building, the Sydney Opera House, and was overcome for a moment with a powerful emotion entwined with slight half memories, something frustratingly just out of my grasp about the underlying story of that building. Several hours of internet research later and the idea began to take shape in my imagination, a journey for part of the way with the spirit of Jorn Utzon, revisiting places we both knew, favorite buildings and countries searching for meaningful understandings, connections and I liked very much that I knew little to nothing about the man, but the two main things I did know was that he won the Sydney Opera commission with a hand sketch and no idea how to execute it, and that when the building was about to be erected, it was found there was not bedrock, its foundations were completely unsecure. This is someone who I can identify with. Yet severe doubts emerged also, was it just self-serving to take this genius along as an unwitting hostage on my trip? Was this a kidnapping, or an excuse to give me license to do what I really wanted which was to enjoy the elation and freedom of travel? This strange desire; the expectations and the disappointments, the loneliness, that bittersweet craving to be alone while at the same time longing for home.
Of all the ways to prepare for a long trip the hardest, and perhaps most revealing, is to reconcile the private cinematic dream, that ghost of an idea that has been relentlessly following you, against the practical chores and bureaucracy; the timing, the schedules, the costs. In this case the tableaux is a deck of a ship travelling across the North Sea, a body of grey water as cold and dangerous as steel and a solitary figure resting against the rails. Despite a lack of certainty over the origin or destination, I am sure that figure is myself, evidenced by the fact that he is wearing what has become a uniform of jeans, sneakers and duffle coat and, despite the spray of salt water and the rocking of the boat, he is taking photographs of the bland empty horizon much to the mystification of the figures looking down from the large window high above. The duffle coat, made up of boiled wool, leather and tongs is particularly appropriate, as it was a garment designed specifically for these inhospitable seascapes, although for an earlier time, but for me it is about nostalgia and connections to my past as these garments were massively over produced during the second world war and so children of the fifties and sixties, of which I am one, had no alternative but to wear them and for that reason it exists less to protect me from the wild outside elements and more to the retain the interior ones.
The scene I have in my mind is not particularly imaginative, to be alone with the wide horizon to stare into is almost the most over used cliché, and one cannot help thinking of the German romantic artist, Casper David Friedrich and his painting “Wanderer above the sea of fog”. This portrays a slim young man in a wild mountainous surrounding, he is looking outwards, resting on a walking stick and his hair is disheveled from the wind, an individual both within and against nature. He is standing on the top of a mountain and there is a sense of achievement and completion, but also a feeling that this loaded metaphor; how to have control of the future, both the immediate one (how to descend the mountain?) and in the long uncertain future (The critical decisions to be made). The other reference that appears from the back of my mind is Jeremy Irons playing Charles Ryder in Downton Revisited. He too stands on a deck of a vessel but crossing the Atlantic, a man adrift physically, spiritually and emotionally and one whose future is assured randomly, by the unexpected appearance on board of his ex-lovers sister; the romantic proposition of chance. But unfortunately for me I don’t have a poets physique, lean and tall, I am heavy shouldered and broad chested occasionally a stomach can be seen in an unflattering light all of which is held up by overly slender legs….reluctantly I have to recognize in myself that I am less Wordsworth and more Frankie Howard, but in my own defense I can’t help thinking that I might have been handy in a long boat headed in the opposite direction over a thousand years ago, which one of my direct ancestor’s surely did.
Perhaps that self-image is all that is required, a mental selfie as an end in itself and wondered now if this should simply be relegated to a journey purely in my imagination and is there any harm to this? Traveling emotionally rather than physically across time and space….I recognized in myself a change in disposition towards nihilism and laziness as the volume and the clatter of the restaurant increased indicating closing time. Is a written outcome really that important for this journey? Do words need to be placed on paper or typed furiously into a laptop, or is that simply an egotist’s last mortal joke, to leave something behind. Everyone has a story, perhaps at the end of the day it’s only the fools who commit them to words and paper, to film, to musical scores, to paint and brush, I looked up again abruptly at my companion who was now also a little weary from all the talking and had turned at last to food, silently picking at the soft shelled crabs, and wondered about those who leave themselves open to ridicule and scorn and those who have the dignity to leave nothing of themselves behind.