Michael Gottlieb

Two Extracts from WHAT IS TO BE DONE

6. On a Clear Day You Can See Kuala Lumpur

               Moritz Like-Kind, a tiny, ancient man, bald, bespectacled, in a dove gray double-breasted suit, his discreet foulard knotted in an immaculate four-in-hand, came out of his front door and surveyed East Seventy-fifth Street. As he looked to his left he saw the traffic passing up Madison Avenue in an orderly manner. To his right, on the other side of Fifth, the trees beyond the low buttress wall of Central Park waved in the light, late afternoon breeze. The walnuts and the pin oaks and the lindens, the magnolia and the ash, they all nodded with proper deference. At the foot of the stairs his car awaited, but first he took in the air for a moment. His father used to do this too.
               “There’s three cities here, Morrie. New York is made up of three cities, and two of them are not here.”
               Not here? The little Morrie asked himself as he sucked on his malted. Where are they then? Is there a New York in Australia, maybe? In Nebraska?
               “There’s the New York everyone sees,” his father would continue, “The buildings and the businesses and the people. That’s the least important New York because that one will be gone in a thrice. This building or that building, any one of them, can be torn down tomorrow and forgotten in a week. It doesn’t matter how old it is. It doesn’t matter how loved it is. The same for the businesses – the restaurants, the department stores – the customers get old, they stop coming, they start dying. The business dies. Bankruptcy, foreclosure – remember, Morrie, they are your best friends.”
               Like-Kind was driven down Fifth Avenue and then across along Central Park South. His thoughts went back to an old hotel that once faced the park.
               “Then there’s the invisible New York. The one that used to be here. That is the most important New York you must get to know. Why, Morrie? Because whoever owned that city, that block, that lot, that’s who likely owns it still. The Dutch? I hate Dutch. And the British too, the ones that came next. Hate ‘em. It’s still their city, though. When you do your title searches, you’ll keep coming across their names, and their churches and their trusts. Those churches are the biggest landlords.”
               His father had been dead for almost fifty years, but Like-Kind heard his words as if he was sitting beside him. That hotel was the first building he’d ever fallen in love with: its Deco setbacks and balconies seemed like the battlements of some fabulous castle to the young Moritz Like-Kind. Those elegant and craggy ramparts and parapets rising above the property line, vigilant against whatever threat might be lurking by the Heckscher Playground or the Bethesda Terrace.
               “And then there’s the New York that isn’t visible yet.”
               There was a famous Austrian ice cream parlor on the ground floor of that hotel. Many people thought it was German, but it was really Austrian. Generation after generation of little rich New Yorkers were brought there for sundaes after rides on the Central Park carousel. His father would sit him on a pink leatherette banquette and talk to him about real estate.
               “That’s the New York that’s not here yet; that’s not built yet. That’s the New York I want you to live in. And that New York, you are going to have at your feet. The New York that anyone can see, you will be able to make that New York disappear with a wave of your hand, with a stroke of your pen. But remember, the New York that is long gone – that’s the one you must know, know everything about, so you can make the new New York, the one that isn’t here yet – so you can make that one yours.”
               Whenever his father mentioned the Dutch the young Morrie, in his mind’s eye, saw old men with ruffles around their necks. And when he said British, he saw men in powdered wigs. “And as for those trusts, the one thing you can never trust is a trust.”
               The car pulled up in front of a glass tower on Central Park South. It was Like-Kind’s newest condominium tower. He had torn down that hotel so he could erect this building.
               “You have to be there at the close but you don’t want to be there for the closing.” That was another of his father’s sayings, “Closings are for the lawyers. Closes – well, that’s another thing I’m going to teach you.”
               A group of women in black suits escorted him across the lobby and into an elevator. He didn’t need to do many of these anymore but the truth was, he didn’t mind being asked. Sometimes a buyer just needed that extra nudge, and Like-Kind liked feeling that he still had the touch. The youngest woman rehearsed with the old man as they ascended to the top penthouse floor: “Her name is Tommie and his name is Sallie.”
               The elevator doors opened. Moritz Like-Kind strode briskly out, his staff behind him, his hand already outstretched.
               “Sallie, how good to see you. And this must be Tommie. I am charmed, madam. Superlative views, wouldn’t you say?” He continued without a pause, his other hand waving toward the wall of windows across from them. “On a day like today, if you look out towards the west, you can see all the way to San Francisco. I know I can, and my apartment is just next door. Maybe all the way to your house in Kuala Lumpur. Oh, no? Wrong city? I’m so sorry. Ha ha.”
               You know,” he said, now serious, now clasping each of their hands and looking deeply
into their eyes, first the wife’s, then the husband’s, “New York is all about community. And community here is all about neighbors,” Like-Kind paused, “I can’t tell you how much I am looking forward to having you two lovely people as my neighbors.”
               And that was all it took.
               Of course, this was a pack of lies. Like-Kind had no more intention of ever leaving his neo-Georgian townhouse on the Upper East Side, or sharing a party wall with the likes of people like this, than did this couple themselves have of actually moving into this duplex, this sprawling four bedroom pied-a-terre. This cabinet minister’s second cousin and his wife, this pair of strawmen, a slightly overweight dentist and his former hygienist, would never step foot in here again.
               Like-Kind had effected his close and everyone in the living room was nodding enthusiastically and a bottle of Veuve-Clicquot was being popped. The apartment was well on the way, with the aid of a extremely discreet, hoary old Park Avenue white shoe law firm which knew exactly how to dodge the latest, pathetic, Justice Department attempts to crack down on these sorts of transactions, to becoming a quite satisfactory, rather safe, relatively liquid asset gracing the portfolio of a Comoros Islands-registered limited liability company. Said Llc was situated at approximately eleven entirely-opaque-corporate-shells’ worth of arm’s-length-distance from, on the one hand, the aforementioned cabinet minister, his country’s Secretary of Sustainability, National Patrimony and Natural Resources, along with his open palm – figuratively speaking, and on the other hand a certain extractive-industries multi-national, listed on the London Stock Exchange, which could trace its lineage back to a royal charter granted by James II, with vast timber and bauxite holdings in that part of the world, a corporation which from time to time liked showing him what a really, really, really great job they thought he was doing by lining that palm of his with gold – literally speaking.

9. On the Slip, a Slip of a Girl

               Dorothy Her had lived in that room-and-a-half, that apartment on Greenwich Street, not Greenwich Avenue, between Charles and West 10th, on the west side of the street, from the time she’d left Peck Slip near sixty years ago, until the time came for her to make her progression, and what a progress it had been when finally it was the right time, when it was her turn, as many, at the time dubbed it – a royal progress, eastwards to her current redoubt on the Bowery. She’d been ensconced in her current digs on the Bowery, expansive, clean, polished, organized, done just so, for quite some time now. But that old apartment on the Far West Side was her. In her dreams she still lived there. And that was the place the world associated with her. The famous photographs of her standing, black and white, a young woman still, her back to the camera, working on a painting that was leaning against the wall, the window to her right, its panes, four over four, echoing the grid in the brand new work to which she was adding one of the last few vertical strokes.
               Through the window and across the street, over her shoulder, one could make out the very tops of the low buildings across the street, a short run of buildings: a garage, a small warehouse, an old row house, all brick, all tired.
               It was to that apartment she’d fled, or perhaps she rather more been banished, rusticated perhaps, perhaps that was the right word, from Peck Slip when the dealers and the collectors all started showing up, and then critics and the other writers, first the poets and then the magazine writers and then the reporters, and the photographers too. It wasn’t a quiet place anymore. There was money in the air. You could hear it. It made the air pregnant with expectancy – it induced adrenaline. She felt it. It worked itself on her. All these men had descended upon their quiet slip, they’d all come downtown with their talk and yes their money and perhaps it wasn’t so much adrenaline as it was some other chemical. Maybe those new men had different kinds of hormones. All these new people. So much attention was being paid, and money was being paid. The money itself bred a tension in the air. Back then that tension – that barely noticeable but impossible to ignore or dismiss – tingling, it made her slightly ill, somehow somewhat feverish.
               They all had pitched in to help her move, all of the boys. That was sweet. They’d all fallen silent though, struck dumb in the way that only very newly rich people do when they are faced with stark evidence of what could have been their fate, if fate had worked itself just a little bit differently, as they stood at the front door of this apartment and realized that when she was asking them to help her move into her new studio – and as they joked as they carried what seemed to all, and even to her as she heard them tease her about how few dresses she owned, how few shoes – what woman ever owned fewer pairs of shoes, they fell silent – as they realized that the studio she’d told them she was moving to was in fact a studio apartment, not a painting studio of the kind they were now all acquiring, like full factory floors, whole buildings. In fact, it was a terribly small, and not particularly clean, studio apartment. While several of them had, all on their own, independently, started thinking about buying entire islands, she was moving into the kind of place you’d find a retired seamstress, widowed, on a pathetic pension.
               She had been the only woman in that building by the slip. The conditions they lived in: for anyone else, anyone who wasn’t an artist, would have been deemed abject penury. The lofts had wood stoves, wood stoves, not even coal, much less steam, in New York City, in the second half of the twentieth century, and gaping holes in the walls, and the floors, and the ceilings. It was quiet though, down there in that nearly forgotten curve of the East River. And, they had in a way adopted her. She was the only woman, and younger than them, and so quiet. They joked about it – she was the little sister. She laughed along, and answered to Sis, or Little Sis, or answered with an affect of annoyance which she knew they saw right through – that was part of their banter.
               The streets were deserted down there. In the winter, they were supposed to take turns, she and the boys: when they ran out of firewood one of them would steal a pallet from a warehouse alley in the neighborhood and, using the communal hammer, break it down in the hallway downstairs, and then leave everyone’s share, including kindling, on the floor outside their front door, loft by loft, floor by floor, up to the top floor, to Liebfraumilchs’s place. A few months after moving in she realized that they had dropped her from the rotation. At first she grew angry, though of course back then she would never show an emotion like that. Never, why would she? She’d just started to feel like one of them, one of the boys. She could haul fire wood, she could draw water, just like any of them, if needed. It made her feel needed and accepted. But then she came to realize that they all wanted to feel like big brothers, and so she let them. She wasn’t one of the boys, and she never would be, but she started to think of them as her boys, and that’s what she became to call them.
               Back in the beginning, that first year, the first few years, they were in and out of each other’s lofts. She’d often walk in with rolls and coffee, danish sometimes. Of any given morning there would be two of them waking up in the same bed, and then the next morning a different pair of them, tousled and merry; at least that’s how she remembered them. And as often or not she would find a new boy, some still-asleep, loose-locked, tow-headed kid, rosy, downy cheeked, drowsily stirring, from the New School or maybe Newark or somewhere yet further afar, like New Canaan or Cologne. All kinds. Boy poets and party boys. They were all so young and sweet.
               What did they talk about, those frigid January nights drawn up in front of someone’s stove, or those August afternoons on the roof, laying the towel carefully between the seams of tar, the air liquid with the heat, passing a Kool back and forth? They talked about the people they were sleeping with, at least they did – she, never. They talked about the art they were making and the art they were looking at, each other’s and the famous guys, the old dogs, the ones they were about to do down, to elbow off the stage, faster than anyone could have dreamed possible. And they talked about music, about jazz and rock and roll, and about baseball and boxing too. Just being around each other, those few many kindred souls, and being able to spend however much time as they could painting in their lofts, at work – some of them all the time, others had jobs, part time jobs, sign painting, commercial illustrating – however much time they had to paint...well, that seemed like recompense enough. This was life was supposed to be like, for a painter. How much more could one really ask for? Having this was so much more than so many had, so many people she knew, almost everyone she knew. No one who lived on the slip ever talked about wanting more, wanting any more than they had then, back then. And, that ‘much’ – that much money or lack thereof, and the way one had to live to live a life to put up with that, to do without very much – that was precisely as much as she ended up with when she moved into that tiny apartment. This was as much as she lived with, and how she lived for years, for years and years. For decades: she lived with no more. She came to live – she had no choice – on no more than she had then, as much as each of them had then, back then on the slip.
               One and all, over the last number of months leading up to that afternoon they moved house for her across town, the boys had all quit their day jobs: the gig with the billboard company, the spring coat sketches for the department store. They had all been discovered.
               They stood there in her room. Her recalled to herself what it was they were taking in, the sights...the door to the bathroom, the pair of divided windows, the drab kitchen appliances leaning against each other by the front door. It was as if all they had run out of things to say at once.
               Everyone looked around, but not really at each other. It shouldn’t have felt cramped or cluttered – it might have been tiny but she’d brought – they’d carried over – hardly any furniture. She traveled light, as Liebfraumilch put it politely There was her bed, leaning against the wall, and her dresser, against the other wall. Despite that, somehow, the tiny place seemed intolerably crowded. They looked about the minute room: this is where she was going. They looked at her belongings: her supplies and clothes and books, some pictures. How could she have so little? There were two daytime dresses from Korvette’s. There was a cloth coat for winter from Magnin, from before she came to New York. A couple of pairs of jeans, a handful of blouses and T shirts. She had two pairs of shoes: a pair of low black heels and some ballet slippers from Capezio. Actually, those along with the tennis shoes she was wearing now, made three pair. What woman possessed only three pairs of shoes?
               Half of the books piled on the floor were presents from them. Small runs of collaborations with poets, lettered and numbered, and catalogs. More and more catalogs of their work, from galleries in New York and Zurich and Los Angeles, and museums in Minnesota and Munich. They were lovely, all in their white covers, wonderfully bound. And mixed in with them were her books, the books she’d come to New York with, a paltry few: some Blake in a battered red paperback, a Methodist hymnal, its spine embossed with the arms and motto of the Indiana college chapel she’d swiped it from.
               They stood around her apartment, the pole lamp leaning, moping, in the corner. Each of the boys, one after the other, coming to the realization that this place was so small that they wouldn’t be able to fit into it even half of the painting they working on this week, they wouldn’t be able to get it in from the hall. For the next thirty years, more, that’s where she lived and, that’s where she painted.
               As the years went by she came to believe that the grids had always been there.
               Always, even when she was just putting down lines, rows of lines, back at the slip when she was resolutely refusing to work with anything other than unprimed canvas and No.3 Eberhard & Farbers. By the time she was in her thirties the grids were there. Now the canvases were primed. Sometimes there were two rows across and two from top to bottom, sometimes twenty. Some times there were four boxes, sometimes four hundred. Boxes that she tried to keep as empty as possible. Actually, keeping the boxes empty came to be easy. But what she never could control, control for, predict – and that was what came to be so pleasurable about it all – as hard as she found associating herself to a term like that: how the addition of one column or one row always had such a profound, sometimes terribly and terrifying effect, sometimes serving up a surpassing serenity – coming from where?
               Actually, Her had long distrusted the frank pleasure of those surprises. And then, not that many years ago, those surprises had died out. Now she knew what would be the effect of any shaping or pulling or stretching, as she put it to herself. She knew exactly what she was about. She knew the impact of every gesture, as she snapped the leaded string, or, as the years passed, had someone else do it for her, day in and day out. Just as predictable was the disappointment she felt in every work, one after the other, every single one, as she finished them and turned them over and signed them.
               The lines: so much depended on the lines, back then, she leaded them. She hung the weights around her studio. She always had. She had come to be known for them. There were some famous portraits with her sitting there, next to the window, the studio’s sole window, with a row of weights, hanging on their leads, casting shadows on the wall beside her. It wasn’t so much about how you snapped them. Anyone could do that. That was something that came to be for the assistant. It was where they went, where those lines went. That was her job. That was what once had been her joy, then her duty and now, increasingly, more than she could summon herself to. For so many reasons, for those same old reasons, the ones that had turned her into the old lady she’d become. She hadn’t always been old. Not always.
               Then there were her drawings. Those had been always in her hand, first on loose leaf binder paper, like from a school notebook, now handmade, from some nuns in the Bas Pyrenees, similarly-sized. And these were prized too, like her paintings, nay – treasured, not only because they showed the way directly to the paintings for which they served as studies, as drafts, but even more because of the contrast they provided. Her instructions for the great commissioned works, the murals, they too were now being collected. As for the drawings, she sketched them out in a quick spate of rows, from top to bottom, and in columns, from left to right – as if there was something she’d just seen, a combination that suddenly made sense, something caught out of the corner of her eye, some pigeons on a cornice across the street. That’s how she described it to herself: it was a grid that made sense.
               For those who wrote and spoke of her work, and those who taught her work, and in the last number of years, there were so many more and more of them – they came to describe it differently. To them it just didn’t ‘make sense,’ it did so much more. Those drawings, with their loose-limbed, dashed-off drabs and splotches and scratches, their lines beguiled viewers in a way that her paintings, in all their dignity, and her commissions, in all their vastnesses, frankly had no time for whatsoever. The paintings, the commissions – it seemed – had more important things to do. But now she had to worry about this too: too many people wanted even her doodles.
               But back then Her would head over to United Cigar, in Sheridan Square, and for fortynine cents she’d take back to her studio a thin tablet of three-hole loose-leaf college-lined foolscap. That was all she could afford for a good number of years. These were now prized so. She told herself, and not for the first time, and not for the first time that day, if only there’d been a fireplace in that apartment or a pot bellied stove, she could have spared herself, spared the world too, so much foolishness. She could have kept warm more than one winter. But, alas, there was no fireplace. She’d never burned any of her work, more the pity. And so that work lived on. And she made more of it. She had to, this had been her method then, it had been so since she a child. Her drew and she drew. She couldn’t make paintings without drawing first.
               She could have people there, visitors: the occasional men, some of them spent a night or two, and then the occasional woman along with the men and then only women and now, and for some time now, at first in suffering, then with gradually acceptance and now entirely contentedly: no one at all. She’d made a life in that apartment. She drew every day, facing that wall, year after at her tiny table. And year after year she painted, beside that window.
               While her boys had gone off and conquered the world she’d worked in silence there, until finally, they started dying off, her boys, sooner than they should have by and large, in no small part as a result of the kind of lives they and their livers and their cardiovascular systems and a number of their major organs had been able to live, the kind of life wherein you could live just as you wish, in every possible material way. And that was just about when people started paying attention to her.
               Not only was she still alive, just about the last one alive, and not only was she a corrective to the party line that the men, all the men who’d descended upon the slip, constructed for the boys, for themselves, but she was so powerful – what she produced was so crushingly powerful. Everyone ‘got it.’ They understood how to look at her, finally. There were scenes at her shows; the galleries in New York and Shanghai always laid on extra uniformed security for her shows.
               Now she lay in her bed, her single bed, up on the top floor of her building, on the quiet side, facing the courtyard, away from the Bowery. The curtains had been drawn at dusk, hours ago. Her room was dark. Now it was time to get a bit of sleep. She had kept the lease on that studio apartment across town on Greenwich Street – of course she had, who wouldn’t, given the opportunity – the apartment to which she’d dispatched Howard.

Michael Gottlieb's What We Do: Essays for Poets was recently published by Chax Press.

The two pieces above are extracts from a novel in progress.
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