What It Feels Like When Everyone Is Making Art But You
I was in love with a singer on the brink of stardom and surrounded by legends, but I couldn't write a single word.
It makes no difference when you finally get to New York. It could be tomorrow, or next year, or 1977. If you come as a seeker, as a hopeful, as an aspirant — as a painter or a drummer or a filmmaker or a dancer — it will stun you with hard evidence that the people and the places that you've dreamed about since you were 12 exist. Your wildest dreams will find fulfillment here, which is another way of saying that those dreams will be erased. You'll be so dazzled and sated and gratified that you may never paint or sing or dance or write again.
That's how it seemed to me in the fall of 1994, at least. I was 22 years old when I found myself here, fresh off a piss-smelling Greyhound from Texas, with the wrong coat for the weather and the wrong expectations and a completely wrong set of directions to my friends' bathtub-in-the-kitchen walkup on Avenue A. I blush a little, even now, for the wide-eyed and credulous hick that I was then — but I envy him more. All his best mistakes still lie ahead of him.
What I learned in those first weeks was that New York hits all at once.
What I learned in those first weeks was that New York hits all at once. There's no grace period, no testing of the waters. I rolled off my friends' pull-out couch every morning resolved to jump-start my creative life, or at least to master the bewilderment that swamped me whenever I left their apartment, and I returned to that sagging couch each night — or sometimes only a few hours later — a failure on all counts. I'd come to the city to write, besotted with sepia-toned dreams of the bohemian life — a fuzzy mental montage of booze-fueled all-nighters, balls of crumpled paper and dime bags littering the floor, picturesque despair, cocaine, and an Olivetti portable, the kind Leonard Cohen used to write on when he lived on Clinton Street — only to discover a demimonde that made even the boldest of my made-for-cable fantasies look quaint.
Swans at the Mercury Lounge, Elliott Smith at Brownie's, Royal Trux at the Pyramid Club, hardcore matinees at ABC No Rio down on Rivington, after-after-hours dancing at Save the Robots on Avenue B, John Zorn at the old Knitting Factory on Houston, J. Mascis passed out in the closet at my first bona fide hipster party, an amateurish Blonde Redhead opening for basically every band that came through town: The East Village in the '90s was still a zone of enchantment, though there was never any shortage of ever-so-slightly older seekers to inform you that the wonders you were experiencing were no more than an attenuated shadow of the late '80s, to say nothing of the vanished glories of the no wave era, to say nothing of the cultural Big Bang singularity of Year Zero punk. I always imagined this stacking-Russian-doll scenario as something like the unavoidable image decay that happened when photocopying flyers: making a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox, the image of a band or a dog or a face degrading visibly with each new generation. Then again, the washed-out-looking flyers that hung everywhere the Village in those days — advertisements for indie shows, or missing pets, or roommates, or "Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar" — always struck me as works of art in their own right, at their most beautiful when they straddled the line of total illegibility. It makes no difference when you get here, they seemed to say. You've always just missed it.
It was on the sidewalk outside of an East Village copy shop, fittingly enough, when I first met the Singer. She was a slight, bashful girl with short messy hair and too much foundation and a quavering Southern lilt, on the arm of one of exactly three people I knew in the city. She was painfully sweet and delightfully awkward and almost impossible to talk to, a headlong tumble of apology and non sequiturs and manic asides to an imaginary audience, and she made me uncomfortable in a way I couldn't seem to shake. The gold records and couture endorsements and movie star boyfriends lay years in her future — although she was only a few weeks away from the show that would set it all in motion — and there was no sign yet of the kohl-eyed indie idol she'd become.
It was as if she knew that hearing her would alter me forever.
We went to a pay-by-the-hour rehearsal space on Avenue A — it's a vegan health food emporium now — and spent the afternoon playing lackluster covers on ruined equipment. I remember a godawful "American Girl" with the Singer on drums, bobbing her boyish head along with the wobbly beat she was playing, her eyes closed in what looked to be genuine bliss, and at some point my friend whispered that she was amazing, the next thing for sure, the rawest, saddest voice he'd ever heard. I thought he was joking. It hadn't hit me yet, not completely: the fact that in the city in which I now resided, the stranger sitting next to me on the subway might easily be the greatest at whatever they did in front of the mirror at home, be it telling jokes or eating light bulbs or cross-dressing or writing poetry or carrying a tune. I remember that the Singer didn't sing that day, not even oh yeah, all right, not even when I asked her to. It was as if she knew that hearing her would alter me forever.
If you're an innocent, a hayseed, a hick from the sticks when you get to New York — and you will be, no matter who you are or where you come from, as soon as you arrive — the city will present you with evidence that the possibilities are endless (to quote the Velvet Underground, who summed it up best) but that your personal contribution will be negligible, if you're fortunate enough to contribute at all. That's always been the bargain, the only transaction on offer, the last deal in town. You'll never make your mark on New York City, hayseed. The best you can hope for is that New York will condescend to leave its mark on you.
I'd been in the city just under a year when I stumbled, more or less by dumb luck, onto the most gloriously senseless job I've ever had. A prestigious Soho gallery had a bookstore attached to it, right on the street, as a kind of afterthought — a terrarium-like space lined with limited-edition artist's books and catalogs and monographs that seemed written in code, with just enough room for a Le Courbusier armchair and a Danish modern desk — and by some perverse kink of fate I was hired as its lone employee. I knew next to nothing about contemporary art, and nothing whatsoever about the artists represented by the gallery — but this turned out not to matter, to me or anyone else, because weeks would sometimes pass without a customer.
Each day at noon (more or less) I'd shuffle through the airy white gallery, cotton-mouthed and hungover, make my way to a hobbit-sized door at the front of the private dealer's area, and duck through it into my Fabergé-egg-sized kingdom. I could almost touch the bookshelves from the desk I sat behind; the door to the gallery behind me was perfectly hidden in a wallpaper moonscape by the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, so that I appeared, to anyone looking in from the street, to be emerging from the darkness of a crater. The bookstore was a sentimental folly of the gallery's owlish, mercurial owner, whom I'll hereafter refer to as The Gallerist; rumor had it that she'd created it for her son, a onetime manager of the Beastie Boys and current hopeless junkie. No one ever checked on me or asked to see the ledger — they didn't seem to care how much I sold, or how I spent the hours from noon to 6 each day.
Finally, I said to myself, I'll be able to get some writing done.
Finally, I said to myself, I'll be able to get some writing done.
The Singer and I began to hang out from time to time, then a few times a week, then suddenly as often as we could. Something about her still made me uneasy, especially when I couldn't seem to follow what she was saying — but what drew me to her was more powerful by far. We'd meet as if by chance, on the street or in a record store or at some dingy café, and at some point toward morning we'd end up in her room on Third Street. It was at the very back of an enormous and gloomy apartment, just up the block from the three-story-high tower of stuffed animals that used to be the totem of Alphabet City but has long since been dismantled and forgotten. Her roommates were organizers of Spartacus Youth, three bug-eyed Trotskyists in their thirties who looked closer to 50 and always seemed to be sitting cross-legged in their living room in a huddle of their jittery comrades, waiting tight-lipped in their patched black hoodies for us to move out of earshot.
It made no sense to me that the Singer was living in that place, even after she'd admitted to me, gleefully, that she paid only a hundred bucks a month; but nothing about her made sense to me in those early days. Most of the time I didn't want to understand her. I only wanted to lie down in her bedroom with its blood-colored walls, a Technicolor bordello red I've never seen elsewhere, and let her put on 45s and murmur to me in ellipses and run her chipped, nail-bitten fingers through my hair. Lying on her Victorian sofa in the red half-light, I finally felt that I'd found the city I'd come in search of — the hidden city, the bohemian city, the city that was both all around and somehow closed to me — and that it might be even possible that I belonged there. I didn't want to kiss her; she was too otherworldly to kiss. What I mean is that I was afraid to kiss her. What I mean is that I wanted nothing else in all the world.
People will always tell you that you've arrived too late, that the present is elsewhere, that you've missed the conflagration by a day, or by a decade, or by a generation. It's your duty, as a seeker, to ignore them.
My job at the gallery might as well have been designed expressly to furnish a struggling young author with the money, space, and leisure to pursue his chosen calling — and still I did my best, in those first precious months, to squander the chance I'd been given. Customers to the shop were few and far between, as I've said, but an outrageous percentage were downtown legends: John Waters, Yoko Ono, David Byrne, Kim Gordon, Robert Wilson, Susan Sontag, Robert Gober, Bill Murray, Thurston Moore. The space was so cramped that it felt as though we were chatting in the backseat of a cab, or in a therapist's waiting area, or in the studio I'd recently moved into. I was proud of myself for taking this mind-numbing pageant in stride — I cracked jokes to friends about how closely my day job matched every provincial art geek's fantasy — but eventually this cavalcade of genius took its toll on my morale. Who did I think I was, with my childish, provincial, self-indulgent scribblings?
Even more toxic to my starry-eyed notions of the artist in society were the transactions I witnessed in the private dealer's area at the back of the gallery. The Gallerist represented some of the biggest names of the late-'80s art world, a meager handful of whom still made interesting work — I can remember one Yayoi Kusama show, for example, down to slightest detail — but the crassness of the backroom hustle never failed to turn my stomach. Standing in front of a coral-pink painting by Rudolf Stingel, a middle-aged collector said to his whippet-faced wife, "Isn't this just what we were after, bunny? Doesn't this take you back to that scuba tour we took of the Seychelles?" "Bunny!" she'd croaked back, apparently unaware of the part she was playing in the most clichéd art-world satire imaginable. "Wouldn't it look sweet above our Phillipe Starck settee!"
I repaid this steady erosion of my ideals by doing the worst job in the history of commerce.
I repaid this steady erosion of my ideals, I cringe to admit, by doing the worst job in the history of commerce. At times it was as though I were slipping into the role of the Gallerist's son too perfectly, substance abuse and all, like Roman Polanski's character in The Tenant. I can think of one anecdote in particular that sums up my time there perfectly. I staggered into work one morning, late and hungover as usual, with a grumbling stomach and nothing to eat. Everyone was busy in the exhibition space, installing a group show with the dubious theme of "corners," so the staff room was empty. But I found nothing edible in there, either, aside from a pile of 1-pound bags of fortune cookies stacked next to the fridge. I ate almost an entire bag of those cookies — I was surprised at how tasty they were, especially with coffee — and congratulated myself on my abilities as an urban scavenger as I threw the bag away.
The lid had barely swung closed on the trash can when the gallery director, second only to the Gallerist herself, materialized at my elbow and began gingerly loading the cookie bags — holding his breath as he did so, as if they were archaeological artifacts from some vanished culture — into a specially modified dolly. When he'd finished stacking, he counted the bags, then laid a hand over his eyes, then took in a breath and counted them again.
"Hey, John. Can I ask you a favor?"
"Sure thing, Jean-Luc."
"How many bags do you see?"
I made a deliberate show of counting them, then told him I saw 12.
"That's how many I get." He said nothing for a very long time. "There are supposed to be 13. Have you seen one around?"
I shook my head blankly. "Is this for the party?"
"It's for the show. It is the show. It's a Felix Gonzalez-Torres installation." He cleared his throat. "The cookies get poured into the corner. All of them. Brilliant concept."
"Brilliant," I agreed hoarsely.
I learned later that the piece, missing cookies notwithstanding, sold for just under $200,000.
My daily life was an embarrassment of riches in those days — in the sense that I'm embarrassed, even now, at how egregiously I took my luck for granted. I tended bar (read: opened bottles of wine) at the monthly gallery openings, and Kurt Vonnegut was there every time. He would materialize at the drinks table, quietly and apparently all on his own, and wait politely while I opened another bottle of Chablis. He barely seemed to notice the art on the walls. He always waited for a fresh bottle, and he always seemed to be content to wait. Sometimes we exchanged pleasantries; sometimes he said nothing. I never saw him talking to anyone else. This went on for two years. To this day I'll still catch myself imagining the things I might have said to him.
For months now the Singer had been talking, in a self-deprecating mumble, about some guys out in Hoboken whom she'd been playing with, and a show they had coming up, maybe, at an underground club in the Meatpacking District called the Cooler. Things were going sort of badly, she said, but they'd probably play the show anyway. Might as well. I'd been thinking of asking her to be in a band I was starting myself — she could play drums, I figured, and maybe sing harmony — and I might have been jealous if she hadn't made her ambivalence so clear. She told me not to bother coming out if I didn't feel like it, but she put me on the guest list, so I went.
The club was packed when I got there, even though I got there early, which confused me a little; what confused me even more was that half of Pavement were slouched in a booth next to the bar. I can't for the life of me remember any of the other bands that played that night — Guv'ner? the Frogs? the Linnfield Pioneers? — but I convinced myself that most of the crowd was there for anyone but her. That's how well she'd concealed her talent from me, for reasons I'm still trying to figure out; that's how callow and young and self-absorbed I was. What I do know is that when she finally took the stage, and Steve Shelley from Sonic Youth took a seat at the kit behind her, I felt a dizziness that quickly grew to full-fledged vertigo as she strapped on her Silvertone guitar — the same one I'd noodled around on amateurishly just a few days before — and stepped up to the microphone to sing. I'm not sure that sense of vertigo has ever passed.
I decided I loved the Singer that night.
I decided I loved the Singer that night — how predictable, how craven that seems to me now! — and she must have decided, at virtually the same moment, that I'd blown my last chance. I'd seen her now in all her glory, after all; I'd seen her and heard her and understood that she was bound for fame, and my motives could no longer be pure. I waited for her after the show but she never came out, and I was too stunned and intimidated, suddenly, to look for her backstage. I called her early the next morning — I couldn't wait longer — and lost no time in telling her exactly how I felt.
"I didn't see you last night," she said sleepily when I'd finished. "Were you there?"
"I was there."
She didn't say anything for a while. I heard the sound of something being poured into a glass. "You see a lot of sides of a person, spending as much time together as we did these last few months." She spoke in a whisper, I remember, as though she were speaking only to herself. "I gave you all kinds of chances, John. I saw all sorts of sides. But all I really remember is the back of your head."
"What the hell does that mean?" I asked her. But by then she'd already hung up.
My most improbable celebrity encounter at the gallery happened less than a month before my run there ended. I'd stayed at work late, trying and failing to make sense of the receipts, and I expected the dealer's area to be empty when I slipped out through my crater. Instead I emerged to find myself surrounded — literally surrounded — by a ring of middle-aged men in distressed black jeans and shiny leather blazers, staring thoughtfully at an enormous glossy photograph of frozen blood and sperm. Their hair was short and gelled-looking, I remember — they looked less like Metallica, really, than a quartet of highly paid graphic designers — but I recognized them right away. They were almost as startled to see me as I was to see them: Their wives were there too, blonde and skittish as ponies, and one of them let out a little gasp. This was a top-secret meeting, I learned later: The band were looking at artwork to put on the cover of their new album, Load. The incongruousness of finding Metallica in one of Soho's most highbrow galleries would have flabbergasted me when I'd first been hired, but by that point it seemed more or less par for the course. This should have registered as a warning sign — I understand that now. At the time, however, it barely gave me pause. I could have met Mahatma Gandhi in that preposterous place and passed him with a shrug.
It was the best thing that could have happened to me, therefore, when I was finally given the boot. I wasn't so much fired, actually, as abandoned: I showed up for work on the first Monday after the art world's obligatory summer break to discover that the whole operation — the gallery, the dealer's area, the bookstore, the works — had moved to Chelsea while I'd been busy playing Frisbee on the beach. A photocopied notice in the window (distinctly reminiscent of a flyer for an indie rock show, or a roommate, or a missing pet) informed me that the space formerly occupied by the most unlikely bookshop on earth was soon to become a high-end carpet outlet. Somehow even then, in that first stupefied instant, what I felt most powerfully was relief.
I was a world removed from the beautiful, spangled, over-rewarded life I'd been mired in.
There's a life lesson in this somewhere: Losing the best sinecure I'd ever have turned out to be precisely the thing that enabled me — forced me, I should say — to get down to true, creative work at last. I moved out of my sublet within a month of getting fired, strapped for cash and with zero marketable skills, and wound up living in a tent in a rehearsal space in a basement under the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn, with no telephone, no shower, and no heat — but no rent to pay, either. I was a world removed from the beautiful, spangled, over-rewarded life I'd been mired in, and almost immediately, to my utter astonishment, I started to get productive writing done. It came to me easily now, almost matter-of-factly, the way it had when I'd lived far from the klieg-lit cavalcade of cultural relevance. My day-to-day life was boring again — if a tad rat-infested — and I gave thanks to the Gallerist every night for sacking me, right before crawling into my sleeping bag and zipping myself in.
I saw the Singer one last time before she went off to conquer the world. She actually
braved the 12-minute commute from the East Village — it was the first and
last time I saw her outside of Manhattan — and even ventured down into my bunker.
We played cover songs, just as we'd done on that long-ago afternoon (she still refused
to sing lead, no matter how much I begged), then snuck up to the roof and sat
looking back across the river, toward the part of town where we'd been aspirants together. She was going to Memphis to make a record, and she surprised me one final time by inviting me along; but we both knew I was staying where I was.
The Singer was headed for stardom — by then it was obvious, even to me — and I was living in a tent in a windowless room, adrift and unemployed, brushing my teeth in public bathrooms; by any sane standard I should have felt like a failure beside her, but I felt nothing of the sort. Greatness of some kind was possible, even for us flawed and fallible strivers: I knew that much for sure, because of her. But I must have been feeling more discouraged than I can recollect, and I must have told her so, because she took my hand, I remember, just before she left to go back to her red-walled room. "I'm glad you made it to town when you did, John," she said. "But it really makes no difference when you got here. You're here now."
John Wray is the author of The Lost Time Accidents, out today from FSG. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and the Berlin Prize from the American Academy in Berlin, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists in 2007.
To learn more about The Lost Time Accidents, click here.