(copyright 2018/Held by Author)
Hump Back – This whale is often seen on the northern American coast. He has been frequently captured there, and towed into harbor… His oil is not very valuable He has baleen. He is the most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales, making more gay foam and white water generally than any other of them.
– Moby Dick/Herman Melville
What do you with that loving feeling when that loving feeling leaves you all alone?
Maybe not when buying eggs and sandwich meat at Fernando’s Bodega, but otherwise I found myself hardly going anywhere without Colleen’s Canon 190. From my short commutes into Manhattan for work or meetings with Mikal at his gallery office to the long walks in mainly the waterfront neighborhoods of Jersey City, I would take pictures.
When Tara and I went to Florida after Colleen’s death, I had the camera with me and I wasn’t sure if I was thinking of taking pictures or just wanted it close to me because of how deeply the camera reminded me of my love for her and then figured that taking pictures would make me feel closer to her, dissolve some loss, erase some distance. I didn’t start actually using the Canon until spring when I was still sad but comfortably settled into life with Tara and Giselle at the compound. The grief manageable enough that I could identify positives and rationalize that taking pictures was both a way to remember her and a way to continue reconciling my grief over losing her.
Colleen said she had become pleasantly obsessed with the world as it is – thus the late-career revival of photography. “I’m documenting moments by turning them into art because every moment belongs to everyone.” After thirty years as an abstract painter, achieving success and a tenured teaching position at the local art college, she switched to photography in the years before her sudden passing. She studied photography as an undergrad – her abstracts are now selling in the tens of thousands – but she was only half-joking when declaring painting abstract art sidetracked her photography career.
Unlike me, shooting only local, she rarely photographed our city. Her serious lens work was away from home – she needed to change her immediate environment in order to have the necessary mental and emotional openness required to find those moments that matched her imagination. She loved exploring and I loved being with her.
We were both workaholics, except her work was creativity and my work was a stock analyst and investment advisor. I’ve worked hard at all my life – I had to, I’ve been on my own since College, held jobs since my first job as Teller Assistant for Chemical Bank in Hawthorne. I never quite understood relaxing – oh I could party – do vacation things like surfing and sleeping off hangovers on tropical beaches – but recharging by shutting life off, forgetting your problems – that’s one ability I lack.
So did Colleen. She only wanted to go, to see, even it was just a street or neighborhood. She noticed everything, no glance wasted. Seeing made her happy and being with her, especially when she was happy, were the happiest times in my life, but relaxing they were anything but. Find somewhere she had heard about– a neighborhood, a block – rarely where the tourists went – and she would be taking pictures – sometimes we would wait in one place for the light or walk up and down the streets chasing the light, finding that perfect spot when all reflections of that light – windows, facades, edges of rooves, streets, sidewalks – or rivers or oceans, puddles and ponds – were aligned to her liking. “Light determines the universality of the moment. You can enhance the light on the Mac, but you cannot create the light. Without the desired light, there is no moment.”
I know how light should look, but I rarely capture exactly what I see. I understand craft without having craft. I’m better at composition, but the artist’s eye is something I can only admire, never possess.
I sometimes wonder if I use the camera only to keep the clicks in my life. I could hear them from across the street – she knelt, lay down on the street, crouched like a catcher, stood stretched on her toes like a ballerina… several clicks, machine gun rapid. Then what seemed a sudden stop, looking at the screen, then at the subject, then back and forth, deciding what to do next – was another angle needed and what did that require: moving her body or going to a different spot or was this click the last and it’s time to find new light and subject or just go to a restaurant or pub, talk about the pictures or the trip we were on or people we knew or were meeting, maybe just look at the night and be silent, hold hands walking back to the hotel to fuck.
When I first started with her camera, I’d tear up just hearing that familiar trigger again… the so aptly named snapshot. Eventually my sobs turned to sighs and the tears no longer formed drops. The vividness of our figments in my memory dissolved.
We essentially spent most of our trips looking for subject matter, whether we were down the shore or driving to New Hope or Woodstock or taking sojourns to the European, Canadian and American cities where galleries and museums exhibited her paintings. The real journey was through her camera. Street corners, boardwalks, pavilions – places that were supposed to be crowded, but when she shot them, the crowds were sparse – I told her once she seems to capture the moment right before or right after the crowds came or left.
“You only need a few, one or two, too many people then it’s about something else. I think I am showing the lack of difference between anticipation and aftermath.”
What was she was looking for, our constant and unanswerable question. Later, when I would see her Tallahassee Greenmarket, or Baby Carriages Outside an Austin Library, I’d gasp. She made the ordinary exotic, not bizarre or odd, but beautiful. Wonder filled beauty. You were discovering something about life you forgot you knew.
When I was thinking clearer, I returned to my previous levels of monitoring markets, researching companies, studying the business news. I didn’t want a social life, my social life had become mainly her art and school stuff – networking – I enjoyed keeping her company and talking about art with people who were involved with the arts. Now when I would meet them we only talked about her, so exhausting. I didn’t want to date or think about other women or start a Colleen conversation then tiptoe through that minefield again. I really had nothing else to do but take photos or hang out with the girls and Cleo, Colleen’s gray and blacked striped, neutered female rescue animal.
Sweetly dispositioned with a loud, unrelenting purr, Cleo made her home between the two floors of the compound and after… Colleen’s passing… confused her, she was searching for her, missing her like me… the lawnmower rumble consoling me but gradually she preferred the downstairs pad. Giselle prepared her special treats, shrimp smeared with liverwurst.
“She’s too fat to get up the stairs,” said Tara one night, again carrying Cleo up to my apartment, ordering her: “you be with him, he needs you.”
Cleo clearly had put on weight, plump as a stripped, gray pillow. She rubbed against my ankle, revving up the motor. I crouched down and scratched behind her ear. “It’s more fun downstairs, I don’t blame you Cleo.”
“But shucks it’s going to be so much more fun without that obese bitch. She yowls like a feverish infant.”
“Those meows are growls because she’s a tiger, aren’t you Cleo.”
Giselle sauntered through the door waving a bottle. “We want to see your pictures anyway, want some wine?”
I brought the laptop to the coffee table, Giselle poured us glasses and we sat on the floor while Cleo napped, queen of the couch.
“We know how hard it is to create,” said Giselle. “We won’t judge, we’re artists.”
“Which means of course we’re totally judging.”
“I’m not a photographer, it just… gives me something to get my mind off my mind.”
“Show us the work, stop pussy footing,” said Tara.
I put the images that I had edited on slide show and each filled the screen for three seconds. I didn’t take people, I take things… closed store fronts, the river, the Statue of Liberty, Lower Manhattan from the Jersey-side, the Jersey Side from the Manhattan side… places all too familiar.
“They’re awesome, I like them,” said Giselle.
“Everything is awesome to you kids.”
“I love how there’s nothing central in the frame,” said Tara. “You draw the eye in with the angles of the building or the light on the river, but there’s nothing grabbing your gaze. I love the lonesome feeling I get from looking at these.”
“Makes sense, I’m lonely.”
“I see mom too.”
“That’s such a great camera, that’s top of the line.”
“It’s not just her camera, Giselle. That’s not what I meant at all. I notice her eye.”
“You mean I absorbed her lessons?”
“Yes, but not only her theories on light. I notice her absence. I see her more by her absence than if she was in these images.”
I knew what she meant. I also noticed Colleen by the lack of her. “Like I said, it gives me something to do.”
“I know, I miss her too,” said Tara, putting her arm on my shoulder.
“Group hug,” said Giselle, her body leaning against my back.
“No group hugs tonight please,” I shook them off, laughing. “I showed you the pictures, leave the cat and go.”
“Keep taking them,” said Tara. “You are finding something.”
“I don’t know what to do with them.”
“But shucks, there’s no place to put pictures on the internet.”
“I can help you start a photo-blog,” said Giselle, standing as she lifted up the purring Cleo, pressing her chin against the cat’s head. “I’ll put fresh food out for her here and that will make her stay. I still say they’re awesome. Everyone wants to see pictures of where they live.”
“Tara has far more innate talent than I ever had and I’m not saying that as her mother.”
I never had much of a personal relationship with Tara before Colleen’s passing. Colleen and I lived in separate homes until we got married and moved into the compound, by then Tara was in college and living in dorms and shared apartments. We barely saw each other when Tara’s father was alive – he died from liver disease her freshman year of high school – it was shared custody, and the last thing Colleen wanted to be reminded of when we were together was motherhood. Tara and I were always cordial. We liked each other and never wanted to cause a problem. She approved of me, happy her mother wasn’t alone. But we mainly saw each other at art openings or extended family gatherings. Rarely did we three do anything together before she moved in with Giselle downstairs.
Mikal was able to get U.S. and European art buyers interested in her paintings. After the Whitney bought two large canvases for their permanent collection and featured both in the New Abstractions show, Colleen’s paintings started selling almost as fast as she could paint them. NJCU promoted Colleen from adjunct to tenured position. She could’ve made a living just being an artist at that point, but a tenured position meant Tara was that rare member of her generation – a college educated individual without the burden of college loans. Children of tenured students attended school tuition free. Being an illustrator also meant Tara never had to take classes with her mother.
She had an expert hand, drew expressive lines, working in black inks with pens of varying widths. She scanned each sketch, than colored in the panel on her mac. When she printed out the finished illustration, it contained a muted palette, earth tones except for flashes of bright pastel of flesh, eyes, blood. The Lost Doll Girl Saga was her college thesis. The main character was Lost Doll Girl. Seams ran along her shoulders, arms and legs, buttons for eyes, she walked through very detailed backgrounds, a wooden forest, but everything was off kilter. They were funny, but not comforting or cute. The rabbits had fangs and held knives and the wolves were docile, with immense paws and drooling grins. The usual prey animals looked mean and ready to kill, where the predators were playful and weak. Doll Girl was often the victim – a rabbit decapitating her while a raccoon chewed on the bloody threads and cotton strands curling like veins out of her neck, rabbits fighting wolves trying to protect her, a robin pecking at her button eyes. She messed with preconceptions by creating a reverse-reality populated by twisted, fable-like characters.
What made them so bizarre – so wonderfully bizarre, truth to be told – was the realistic background. An accurately depicted world we knew set the stage for brutal comedies of a toy victimized by viscous animals that we previously thought of only as cuddly.
After graduating two years ago, Tara had a freelance assignment illustrating for a children’s book and educational materials company, but mainly worked at Chilltown Java, a coffee shop she co-managed with Giselle that was known for gluten free, organic pastries and a rich signature blend made from organic coffee beans from Kenya and Jamaica. Colleen encouraged her to move beyond the thesis and draw more panels.
“School’s out. You have a gift for narrative here, daughter. When you come up with more panels, we’ll talk to Mikal.”
I never felt fatherly to her – or anyone – and don’t so now, but … we’re friends, close friends. That friendship now goes beyond any obligation that I have towards her because of my love for Colleen.
Since her mother died, she’s done no art whatsoever, not a sketch or even a doodle. I understand the not doing anything during the weeks and months after her passing, getting through the holidays, our trip down south during the winter, then getting acclimated to a mom-less life in Jersey City. But the persistence of the dry spell –no do at all, not even wanting to talk about her art when I brought it up – that worried me. That seemed more than just processing grief.
Giselle was mainly painter and she produced work constantly and that work was now often in local art shows – she could barely shut up about her art given even the most minor provocation – Giselle’s creativity and enthusiasm did nothing to inspire Tara to draw. Artists must create, it’s not just compulsive, it’s as much a survival necessity as breathing or needing nutrients.
There’s no forcing away grief, it flows by its own volition and all you can do is wait for it to ebb. Tara wasn’t one for expressing her feelings. Mostly she hid those feelings behind the sarcasm her generation excelled at. I could never measure how much grief she was feeling, or how much still needed to fade. All I knew was that her sketch pads were empty, the pages blank.
The weather turned hot well before the official start of summer. I was sound asleep, I didn’t hear Tara unlock the door. She was beside me on my bed, gently pushed my shoulder. As my eyes opened, Cleo jumped on the bed, loudly purring against my skull. She quickly grabbed the cat and tossed her to the floor. Cleo’s paws landed with a quiet thud. Upset at her displacement, she squeaked out an annoyed meow.
“Are you awake?”
“I am now.”
“Not so loud, you won’t hear him.”
“The whale song…” we waited in silence for almost a minute. “It’s gone now.”
“The humpback whale that’s in Hudson Bay. They’re calling him Humphrey. He was on the news, he’s been all over Facebook. Giselle heard him too, we listened to him sing together.”
The moon glistened through the window. Shadows hid her face, but the way the moonlight glimmered in her eyes reminded me of Coleen. She had her mother’s eyes.
“We both heard Humphrey.”
“Heard what exactly?.”
“The whale song, the humpback whale. There was a picture online but it was real blurry. You only saw a tailfin. But lots of people saw him, they were quoted. It’s all over Facebook, I can’t believe you missed it.”
“I’ve had work, plus everyone’s newsfeed is different, it’s the algorithm. Whales were sighted last year too. I think one washed up dead on Staten Island… or was it Fire Island or Montauk, somewhere way out on Long Island. Some whale carcass on some beach on some New York island last summer.”
“We heard something tonight, just now.”
“What time is it?”
“I’m sorry to wake you.”
“Hey… you can wake me any time for whatever reason… okay. Tara? Tara? We can keep talking only after you say okay.”
“What did the whale song sound like?”
“Like an echoing oboe.”
“We’re so far from the ocean.”
“The river’s a ten minute walk. Humphrey is in Hudson Bay. We heard him singing.”
“Probably some ship’s horn. But who knows, maybe it was a whale.”
“A humpback whale.”
“Songs of the Humpback Whale was a famous record.”
“But shucks, maybe somebody was playing the record loud enough at four in the morning and that’s what we kids heard… We heard Humphrey, I know it. I never heard any sound like that in Jersey City before, never in my life. “
I don’t think of young people as only silly, but silly can be what initially jumps to my mind. Skepticism was an involuntary reaction. I don’t know why I didn’t believe her or why I didn’t want to believe her.
But Tara never came up with wild stories before. Why not believe there was a whale in nearby waters? And if a humpback, why wouldn’t he sing?
“Let’s just be quiet. I’ll listen.”
She lay on her side next to me, her arms folded against her chest and her knees bent. She was softly crying. When Cleo leapt back on the bed, Tara didn’t shove her away and her loud, relentless purr accompanied the first glints of dawn.
Humphrey not being on my Facebook feed was solved by noon that day. Tara shared stories with me, and I began to get lost on Facebook, clicking on links, scanning through comments. Tara and Giselle were far from the only ones who heard the sound of a whale in the wee wee hours. That’s why everyone knew Humphrey was a dude. The sound everyone heard was a mating call, sung only by the male humpback.
A clip from the Big Lebowski became a popular GIF – a shot of a cassette of Songs of the Humpback Whale then panned to Jeff Bridges inhaling a roach-clip held joint—was proliferated. The GIF never failed to crack me up.
The picture of the blurry tailfin was viral – viral, papers, websites and bloggers –from both sides of the Hudson – covered the story and when no subsequent sightings were reported, the internet chatter speculated on why Humphrey, why now.
Two competing theories persisted as to why a lone male humpback might have returned to the Hudson, well, mainly the mouth of the Hudson, the bay around the statue of Liberty. The factories that once populated the banks of the rivers were long shut down. They may have given middleclass paying jobs to American workers, but they also filled the waterway with industrial waste. With those factories closed, and EPA regulations actually being enforced, the river had cleansed itself. Water life flourished. Krill and small fish are the diet of the Humpback, and it was theorized that those increased populations attracted Humpbacks back to these waters.
Then there was the other theory, also pollution-based. Melting ice caps caused higher levels of Ocean and hotter water temperatures. Summer waters are now more tropical further north of the equator than they ever have been, confusing poor Humphrey, who usually mated closer to Cape May or even the Outer Banks this early in the Summer. The song was a mating call – only male humpbacks sang – and they sang to attract mates. This theory was more tragic, so far no evidence of other whales. Humphrey was singing away, but no mate seemed around to hear.
The irony to me was that the lack of Hudson River pollution meant local waters were now more inhabitable for Humphrey while the increase in air pollution and greenhouse gasses created the very climate change that heated the Hudson Bay temperatures to more enticing levels for humpbacks.
Even when Colleen was alive, I hardly watched the vast flat screen television alone. Since the girls didn’t have an actual television, every so often we would take a break from the laptops and phone-screens and watch some movie or show together. It was Tara’s idea to stream Star Trek The Voyage Home, a movie I vaguely remembered seeing in the theater with friends, which must have been high school or earlier. I suppose I liked Star Trek, remembered watching episodes and the movies – seemed everyone did back then – but I was not a Trekkie or even more than mildly interested. I was never really a fan of anything. I liked sports and movies and music, but so much of it just seemed like time-fillers for me. Nothing wrong with that – I had time and it had to be filled – but I never saw the purpose of extensively pondering pop culture after the time it filled was over.
Tara swore she never saw more than five minutes of anything Star Trek. Giselle said her father was a fan, she had seen the movie and the family watched Star Trek together but that was before the brutal divorce. “I haven’t spoken to my father since Junior High School,” she said. “I hate him.”
I couldn’t tell if she was going to laugh or cry, her inscrutable eyes, shiny black balls of coal. Did she want to say more or did she realize she had revealed too much? What exactly did she want to share?
“Did you like Star Trek?”
“Pop culture is bullshit but I suppose anything is fun. The stories are dumb but there’s an artistry to the images, I’ll give you that. I remember liking being with my father before he touched me and let his friend do what he did to me. My father has never given me a dime and never really cared. I was just a kid, what did I do? What could I have done? He’s the one who abandoned me with my mother.”
Her declarations had a way of inducing silence, shock with no awe.
The plot of the movie was bizarre in its simplicity. What looks like a large tube threatens the entire galaxy, and Mr. Spock deduces the sound it is emitting is the song of the Humpback whale, now extinct. The Star Trek crew travels back in time to 1980 San Francisco to abduct two humpback whales – a whale couple – back to the future and when the object hears the whale song, it calls off universal apocalypse and goes back into uncharted space.
We ate Wong Fu– a not excessively greasy take-out place with insanely delicious sesame noodle – and was on a third bottle of wine by the time the movie ended, with the Star Trek crew for no explicable reason were frolicking in the ocean where their space ship had landed so the whales could swim free and repopulate the future with humpbacks.
“So stupid, which says a lot about my father because he loved this Hollywood crap,” slurred Giselle.
“It was pretty stupid,” I said.
Tara was slightly more forgiving. “I could see how it could be fun if you watched it when it was new.”
“These movies were events, like big block busters. They were where you could touch, what is it called, the zeitgeist? There wasn’t as much to do back then, I mean, the news wasn’t so jam-packed and fast flowing like now, not to mention inescapable. There was no internet you carried around with you on your phone. Now everybody only knows about what pop culture they and their friends are into, there’s little to no common pop culture left that isn’t about politics. Everybody not only read that a big new movie came out and then went to the theater to see the new blockbuster, which these Star Trek movies were. I grew up in the suburbs, that’s what you did. There were lines to get into these movies and everybody watched Johnny Carson make monologue jokes and interview the stars and we all had the same thing to talk about at work or school because we all watched the same talk shows and read the same newspapers. There was not much else to do when I was a teenager but work part time jobs, go to school and go to blockbuster movies.”
“Why would the song of a Humpback whale prevent a giant space monster from destroying the earth?” said Tara.
“You accept the concept than go for the ride,” said Giselle. “My father loved the concepts. What a nerd, stupid and heartless. Me, if I don’t get the concept, I don’t care about the story. Why would you? I want to see stories about shit that fucking matters.”
“Only the male sings, to initiate a mating ritual,” said Tara. “That’s what didn’t make sense. George already had a mate.”
“George?” asked Giselle.
“The male whale was named George. George and Gracie.”
“Oh right,” said Giselle, tossing her head back in tipsy laughter.
“Why would the humpback whale sing if he has a partner?”
“Maybe he just answered the call,” said Giselle. “Like he only sings to find a mate, but when he hears the alien sound he instinctually responds. He only sings out of instinct, the instinct to survive. Mating is survival, you pass your genes to the next generation. Oh God, I sound like such a nerd.”
“Humphrey isn’t singing to any space monster,” said Tara.
“Giselle is right that he’s just going on instinct, just being an animal.”
“Whales are intelligent.”
“What Giselle and I heard is some kind of mating song. Do you really think there’s more than one humpback in the Hudson? Humphrey is alone.”
“He’s just waiting for his song to be heard,” said Giselle. “He doesn’t even know he’s alone. That’s the fucked-up tragedy of his life.”
“That he doesn’t even know he’s in strange waters.”
“Strange waters?” I asked.
“He’s not swimming in his home sea.”
“Whales traverse the globe, they have no home waters.”
“They linger in familiar waters at least, before swimming on. Humpbacks haven’t been in these waters, our waters, Jersey City waters, not way down the shore like Cape May, but up here in North Jersey waters, for generations of Humphreys,” said Tara. “All the pollution that used to be here when there were factories on the river has been cleaned up. That’s why he’s here. Humphrey doesn’t know he is a stranger in a strange sea.”
“Do you think he just wandered into our waters, or is returning back to waters he used to know, that he hasn’t swum in for years and years, maybe since he was a baby whale, and he’s here because he is remembering,” said Giselle.
“He came here to sing,” insisted Tara, convinced.
“And he’s alone,” said Giselle, suddenly on the verge of tears. “A mating call is a love song in Humpback culture, and there’s no whale to hear him. Maybe he’s trying to find his Gracie.”
“There were whale sightings this time of year last year too,” said Tara.
“One of the articles I read said they were actually quite common, whales swimming in the Hudson Bay in the summertime,” I said.
“Humphrey isn’t just here, just passing through,” said Tara. “He’s lingering long enough to sing.”
Chinese food containers and paper plates were scattered across the coffee table, along with the plastic utensils, napkins and wine glasses. Giselle ate the last of the sesame noodle – she used chopsticks and sucked the rice noodle into her mouth between her pursed lips. “It’s not enough that we heard him or that other people heard him. If only we could let him know he’s being heard, that way at least he wouldn’t feel alone.”
Tara showed more interest in coffee shop management than anything other than illustration, unusual for artists in the Jersey City scene, especially those her age. Most were jacks of more than one trade, like Giselle, who possessed an eclectic restlessness – painting took up the majority of her artistic energy, but she still seriously dabbled in video, installations and performance art. I have to admit, she was hard to forget in Generation Z: Art Now, when she appeared as the statue of liberty, her skin dyed teal, matching the robe and wig and torch.
A remixed version of The Star Spangled Banner/Jim Hendrix Woodstock version played – the 40 year old recording tricked out with dance beats and lines of rap – Lady Liberty materialized in the bright yellow spotlight, which gradually dimmed as strobes and LEDs bathed the space with lightening-like flashes. Crimson liquid seeped slowly through the robe and when it was completely soaked with blood, now also dripping to the floor, she placed the torch in front of her – it stood up straight – an all too obvious phallus – and then the robe fell to the floor. She was completely teal and nude, but her torso was riddled with bloody scars. The oozing makeup job was genuinely gruesome, but I couldn’t stop staring at her firm body, marveling how larger her breasts seemed now that they were visible.
She wailed as loud as she could, eardrum piercing screeches and groans, and she, knelt then bowed, touching the floor with her palms. Then the room went completely dark, the sound of bells and a church organ and “fight the patriarchy” was sung in a Gregorian like chant by four women dressed in long, thin, luminescent white robes holding battery-powered candles. They put the candles down in nearby holders, forming a rectangular perimeter with the four candles as the axis points. A woman in a body suit in the same brightly shaded white color as the priestess’s robes, brought a bucket with hot water and white clothes and the women washed the teal paint and fake blood off Giselle, then draped a white robe over one shoulder. The body suit garbed character covered Giselle’s eyes with a blindfold. In one hand she held a sword, blade pointed towards the floor and in the other hand, the scales of justice. The room went dark and the crowd – mainly other students – applauded and hollered.
Liberty had become justice and all it took was a young woman standing naked in front of friends and strangers.
At home, I asked Colleen what she thought. “Giselle’s fearless and clever.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen performance art before. They never had it at the Bergen County Museum when I was members with Jeanette.”
“Did you like it?”
“I’m not sure if like is the word I would use. I couldn’t take my eyes off… her performance. What did you think … as her adviser?”
“It was good performance art. Funny, weird, thoughtful. Giselle is talented but her talent is more in how she conceptualizes than any specific skill.”
“Justice over Freedom, I guess the idea makes sense.”
“Her statement was more about those icons as women as it was about the ideas those icons represent.”
“Speaking of women, she’s hot. Her sexuality made me uncomfortable because it seemed out of context.”
“There may have been nudity, but the work was not particularly sexual.”
“Her body is. So was it actually meant to be erotic or was that just my dirty mind going there. That’s what made me uncomfortable, not knowing how to react. Seeing a naked woman is always erotic to me. I do not believe she’s unaware what kind of affect her naked body can have.”
“You miss the young bodies?”
“You’re the only body I desire. Besides, why do I need a young body when I now have performance art?”
Tara explained the plan when the krill was delivered to the compound. They were going to hire a boat to crisscross the bay and dump krill into the water while playing songs of the humpback whale. The project would be filmed and posted on Facebook.
“But we don’t want any shitty phone film, we want you to be our cameraman.”
“I don’t have a video camera.”
“The Canon takes video.”
“We’ll show you how, it’s easy.”
The UPS man brought a dozen 50 gallon plastic containers of the dried shrimp like creatures into the ground floor apartment. We unsealed one, a dank, strong stench – rancid seafood – filled the air. Cleo reacted with frantic bliss, purring and hopping, but when we offered her a bite-size morsel of dried krill, she sniffed then refused to eat.
Captain Billy – 24/7 Private Hudson Cruises – was docked at the Liberty State Park Marina – a rather modest cabin cruiser, especially next to the larger and some massive yachts and other boats owned by the wealthy. On the side of the bow was the name of the boat: Ariel. When she was confident I was filming – she had somehow acquired a light that I attached to side of the camera – she and Tara took their position.
“Tara and I are artists and this is the Humphrey project. Humphrey is a Humpback whale that is swimming off the shore of Jersey City this summer and singing his whale song. We are going to feed him krill and play songs of the humpback whale to make him feel welcome.”
Tara suddenly blurted. “We want you here Humphrey. There may not be another whale to hear your song of love but we are hoping we can show that the song is being heard.”
Captain Billy was well into his 60s, his red face leathered from exposure, his nose veiny due to manageable alcoholism – he poured coffee from a thermos into a cup, followed by a few slugs of something from a flask into his coffee. His thin white beard was yellowed around his lips from smoking. A narrow cigar was stuck into the corner of his mouth, which he would let go out but rarely removed. He untied the boat from the mooring and puttered forth into the dark bay. In the cobalt sky above, a crescent moon cast a glimmering beam across the water.
“I’ve heard him.”
“Have you seen him,” Tara asked excitedly.
“Not this year, not yet.”
“We’re artists,” said Giselle.
“Yes you, said. You look the part.”
“Can we film you for our project?”
“An art project?” he snickered, but was genuinely interested. I don’t think he could talk for long without snickering. He had seen it all and there was nothing left in life to surprise him and found most of life now only a source of amusement.
Giselle asked him to start by saying something about his life and who he is. He kept driving as he talked. “I was in the Merchant Marines for 20 years, and on this river another 30 or so. Whales come up here every summer, for the past 10 years at least. You used to never see any evidence, now you see them every summer. I think it’s because it’s hotter.”
“Global warming?” Tara asked.
“News can call it anything they want, I’m long past caring about what’s on TV or in newspapers. The only news I care about is the weather these days, and it’s just hotter now than it used to be and Humpbacks like hot weather. Since the river got cleaned up, you see whales every summer, you can hear the Humpbacks every night almost some years, well into August, you go out far enough into the bay.”
“Did you see Humphrey,” asked Tara.
“I haven’t seen a whale this season, but I have heard a humpback, a couple of nights in a row. Nothing moans like a humpback. I’ll take you to a good spot where I’ve seen them before, it’s a quiet night. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
I captured Tara’s beaming smile. The calmness of the river was eerie, you just never hear such an utter lack of noise. Manhattan — with Brooklyn and Staten Island on one side and Bayonne and Jersey City on the other – ascending in man-made glory, but the vast majority of the millions asleep – and no other crafts visible on the river and bay – and way out of earshot of bridge and highway traffic – it was an out-of-place quietude, a hush you might expect on a mountain or rural beach, not in the waters surrounding the capital of the world.
Captain Billy drove slow, the soft hum of the outboard and gurgle of the water the only sound. Giselle turned on her phone and a large blue tooth speaker. The humpback’s song echoed in the night. Tara and Giselle had to hold each canister together, tilting it over the side of the boat, dumping the krill into the water. He steered the boat in ever-widening circles.
“Humphrey comes here because there’s a food source so we are feeding him this krill to increase that source, so he has more to eat and more reason to stay,” Giselle narrated.
“You an artist too,” he asked when I was taking a break from filming.
“No, I’m a financial consultant and stock analyst.”
“Wall street guy.”
“I used to captain boats for Corporate Hudson Cruises, they specialized in company parties for bankers and Wall Street.”
“I know those river parties very well.”
“Wall Street guys can drink, there was always a lot of vomiting,” he said laughing to himself. “Aging frat boys boozing it up and doing coke and having selfish pleasure with those hookers and strippers because they had no genuine love in their lives, would probably not even recognize it because it cannot be quantified by dollars. Not all of the cruises, many were family oriented, on the bigger ships. But the smaller ones were pretty decadent, people took it as an excuse to unleash their inner asshole, the company specialized in catering to Wall Street.”
“I’ve been on both types, the best parties happen in the hotel suites, finance guys letting off steam or trying to ingratiate themselves to a client.”
“You can have it. I never liked seeing shallow rich people showing off their arrogance.”
“The parties haven’t been so garish since the recession.”
“There was no light in the eyes of either the frat boys or their hookers.”
“Expense accounts have been slashed. Stock Holders don’t stand for it anymore. ”
“Tell me about it, Corporate Hudson went out of business years ago. I had enough of those big yachts, I’m happier now with my Ariel and that I’m still on the river.”
Parties with the strippers and the hookers and the cocaine… there was only one I went to on a boat as far I can recall, but those types of parties – more on land than sea of course – were every quarter during the boom years. The wealthy and those like me who cater to the wealthy so they can maximize the cultivation of that wealth. What we had in common was money – not a love of money so much but the love of the reality of money – and when I paid an extra $500 for Raven to blow me without her wearing clothes or me wearing a condom – the transaction was a tribute to money, the respect of being a have and making Raven now less of a have not. A price could be put on pleasure and the fact I could pay that price of a quick thrill with colleagues who could also afford to pay for sex and pretend that was equivalent to being desired meant I was successful. Raven sucking me off wasn’t about respect for me, it was about respect for the love of money, a love that enslaves most of the world. When I had the Ridgewood house with Jeanette, I justified behaviors like that with the usual mental litany: it’s just one night, I work hard and deserve fun, it was just the nature of business… it means nothing.
After falling in love with Colleen, I realized the ramifications of activity that meant nothing.
It took nearly an hour to empty all the canisters. Captain Billy shut off the engine and as we drifted, the bay seemingly all to ourselves, recordings of whale song echoed. “We love you Humphrey,” shouted Tara. Giselle immediately joined her, “We love you Humphrey.”
Then they cut off the sound, hoping to hear his song again. Like a dim lamp, dawn illuminated the sky slowly, turning it a red-streaked cobalt. The statue of liberty reflected the light, and fog dissipated around the distant Bayonne Bridge. The brackish smell of the water in the breeze hit us in the face. Dawn became morning and Captain Billy said it was time to return to port. The first ferries from Staten Island and Jersey City floated towards lower Manhattan.
Tara screamed, “stop you bastards!”
Hundreds of seagulls hovered over the water where we had been, skimming the surface, eating the krill meant for our whale. The Humpback whale songs had been shut off when we started back to the marina and now all we could hear where the caws of the gulls.
“Mother fuckers, get the fuck out of there,” cried Tara.
“A lot of creatures eat krill, I tried to tell you,” said the captain, lighting a new cigar.
“Can’t we do something,” said Tara. “The krill is meant for the whale, can’t we shoo those damn birds away.”
“Seagulls are everywhere,’’ he snickered with an exhale of gray smoke. “We would have to make some real loud noises to keep them away and do it all day and night.”
“We would probably scare the whale away too,” sighed Tara.
“Maybe the whale might see the sea gulls and be curious about what they’re making a fuss about,” said Captain Billy. “It was a good try, girls. I admire your project.”
Tara’s face brightened a little – she was still dejected by the swarm of seagulls, but at least she now smiled. Everyone on that boat now believed what the girls knew was true – Humphrey swam and sung in our waters.
Giselle ordered me to keep filming as she shouted at the top of her lungs. “Fuck you sea gulls! Fuck all parasites! You can eat our krill but you will never take away our love for Humphrey!”
“Quick and sudden, just like dad, but she was so much younger,” said Joey with his usual lack of sentimentality. “Better than mom, that was so tough on her, all that time in the hospital, dying sick and alone like that. Quick is worse on you, but better on them. I know you don’t want to hear that sort of thing, but… I don’t know what else to say. I’m just so sorry, bro.”
“It’s all right. I’m glad you’re here.”
“I just wanted you to know that I am here for you. I liked Colleen, I wish I knew her better… I don’t know…”
He’s like Dad, stoic and strong; understates truths, avoids expressing genuine emotion. I know I share those traits, but mine were no longer as ingrained. Colleen encouraged feeling, she improved in me what I can only now describe as humanity. Jeanette did not, or at least I could never be certain what was affection, another figment of her anxiety or another one of her maneuvers of connivance. With Colleen, I knew love, I showed love and when she died I had no aversion to expressing the deepness of my sorrow. I found myself openly weeping and never cared who was around to see.
I didn’t expect much in the way of consolation but more importantly to me, I wanted my brother to know that that he was off the hook. He did not have to say anything he was uncomfortable verbalizing. I felt as vulnerable as a child and my big brother – he was six foot tall by the time he was fifteen – always made me feel protected. He was there to help me through the memorial service and burial. That was all I needed from him.
He and two of his men installed a full bath in the downstairs and other complete fixtures in the upstairs. I know he gave me a deal, but I also suspected he really needed any work. I was happy to oblige – and it made me glad – but we never talk personally. He’s five years older, unlike me, an expert tool user, hated school or any kind of work not involving his hands – the last year of his high school he spent in the first year of a two year plumbing program at vocational school – and followed in dad’s blue collar, construction trade footsteps, always had good paying jobs and was living in his own apartment during my high school years. My nephew, Ricky, moved with his mother to Colorado after the divorce. He enlisted in the armed services but I’m not sure what branch or even warzone he’s stationed near. Joey came to the funeral alone. I don’t remember receiving an update on his personal life, probably because I didn’t ask. Not that I don’t care, I just didn’t care then when I saw him at the wake. We mostly reverted to form and followed the family tradition of isolation and talking about everything except what mattered most in our lives.
Besides, I was in shock and that daze helped me navigate the wake and funeral. It cushioned me from the hordes of family, neighbors, friends, colleagues who kindly made me the center of attention, the proud but wounded recipient of tears, sincere wishes and heartfelt reminiscences.
Colleen so changed my life that loving her was my life. I never thought love could take precedence over career, I never felt near that kind of love with Jeanette. To wake up and have that joy and meaning suddenly and without warning disappear was viscerally incomprehensible. To cope in this new reality, I had to relearn just about everything.
Starting the day after she was buried near her parents in Holy Name Cemetery in Gutenberg, I wallowed in an even grimmer daze, time passing like shampoo instructions: rinse, repeat.
I couldn’t stop seeing her die, couldn’t get those final glimpses of her out of my mind. Her gasping for air grew harsher – louder than her voice – that’s what woke me. I heard her say my name. I immediately took the phone from her hand, an operator was already on the line and I gave her our address. I remained calm, the look in her eye of being under attack, utterly helpless as she understood the inevitable fact: there’s no defense against your own body. I wanted to be sensible in the emergency, pack a bag for the hospital, but I had never seen a look like that in her eyes and instinctively recognized death.
I cradled her in my arms and said I love you, try to breath, try to breath. She could not complete more than the first syllable of my name, her face wincing in pain and fear and an eternity later when I heard the sirens, I ran down the stairs and opened the door, hurry, hurry. She can’t breathe.
An oxygen mask was strapped over her face as they rolled the stretcher down the stairs. I grabbed my phone and locked the doors, Fernando in his apron – I rarely saw him when he wasn’t behind his counter – shouting from the small crowd spectating on the sidewalk, “we will watch the house. You need anything, call the bodega.”
The paramedics worked on her, shouting questions at her but hearing no responses, siren outside blaring, bouncing with the gurney as the speeding vehicle violently clattered over every pothole on Grand Street.
Heart attack, brought on by her chronic high blood pressure. She was doing everything she was supposed to as far as I can tell, we ate healthy, drank moderately. She could put away a pot of coffee before noon, even on a weekend morning when we were just lazing about on our laptops. My first impulse was to demand a more comprehensive explanation from the doctor who admitted her, then pronounced her dead less than an hour later. Before the words even came out of my mouth I knew better than to ask what could not be answered. She died. Knowing all physiological details could not alter that fact, only make me regret something I could have done but did not – as if death wasn’t ultimately unpreventable.
Gina, an actress, painter and adjunct professor was one of Colleen’s closest friends, confessed to me Collen sneaked cigarettes.
I knew of course, but it’s not that I care about her smoking. Except for the occasional cigars – still a somewhat acceptable as a vice at the appropriate corporate setting, though far from the prevalence of twenty years ago – I never smoked. Collen was an ex-smoker but not a fascist about people smoking around her. She told me she was a pack a day and one of her pregnancy jokes was the hardest thing about giving birth was nine months without a single cigarette. She had become an art scene bummer – can I bum a smoke?—accepting cigarettes given to her because smokers welcomed company.
Gina’s voice was grave, trembling. “As far as I know, she only smoked with me.”
“I never cared about her smoking,” I said.
“If I knew her blood pressure was so bad… I would never have… smoked with her.” She wrapped her arms around me. The swoop startled me, then she dampened my shirt with her tears.
I wanted to say why are you stealing my attention away from my grief with your need to confess your prefabricated guilt?
“You were a good friend to her and I will always love you for that.”
I used Colleen’s phone, the call went straight to voice mail.
“Tara, I am at Liberty Medical, with your mother. You should get here right now.”
My eyes burned laser beams at the swinging metal doors they had wheeled her through. The other people in the waiting room floated like shadows in my peripheral vision. Tara’s baby picture appeared on Colleen’s phone. Chatter and beats from a NYC club clattered in the background. She could not mistake my serious tone. “I don’t know anything but it’s serious.”
“Giselle already called Uber,” suppressed hysteria in her voice.
The tall nurse, blue scrubs and leopard spot tattoos on her forearm, holding a clipboard – She was part of the team that huddled over her body as they wheeled her through – came through the doors with unmistakable purpose. I was out of the chair before she could point at me, and she graciously ordered me to follow her to the doctor who said, she was unconscious and they were admitting her to intensive care and needed to perform bypass surgery as soon as possible. I consented, there were no other options. When would they operate. We don’t know yet.
Then I followed a different nurse to another desk and dealt with the insurance and other practicalities. I went outside, chilly fall night and sobbed and prayed to the starless sky. This can’t be. Please God. By the time the girls arrived, I was inside and they brought Tara and I into the room where she lay newly deceased and Tara practically leapt on her, refusing any consolation or request to calm down, eventually convulsing so severely that two attendants finally pulled her away and injected her with valium. The ferocity of her sobs shocked enough grief out of me that I was able to play the role of widow, guardian of the deceased – a long and tedious series of decisions and paperwork.
Make wound, add salt.
The holidays went by in a blur – I didn’t care – Thanksgiving I spent alone – Tara as usual spent the day with her father’s side, like she always had done, some kind of joint-custody custom. Colleen and I actually had a romantic thanksgiving dinner, a splendid counter argument to the traditional, much like our love and life together. I spent this Christmas with Joey and his girlfriend, eating at some boring Bergen County restaurant. I’ve always liked holiday celebrations, reviving childhood nostalgia for magic, giving and receiving presents, the lights and garland and winter imagery, but this year I only wanted nothing. I accepted no party invitations. I bought no tree for the first time in my adult life and stayed away from the box of decorations buried deep in the closet. Joey and I hadn’t spent a Christmas day together in ages – not since the house was sold after Mom died – but at least he gave me an excuse when turning down invitations. I never had so many invites, I had the sense after word got out that I was a hermit on thanksgiving, well-intentioned friends felt that solitude was unhealthy. I was sick of being worried about. What they didn’t understand and what I couldn’t explain to them is that my sorrow could not be ignored or interrupted.
To get on with life, I had to wait for the despair to lift, like a dust storm or tear gas.
In early January, Colleen and I were going to Florida. Her abstracts had a following among Tallahassee Art College faculty, and she was invited every other semester to conduct annual workshops with students, which were well-attended and well-received. Mikal insisted I go, then lisped about how it would be good for her legacy, the department head connected to some network of art buyers and esteemed critics – I knew the woman from last year, she was fair haired and southern but loved what she called northeastern abstracts – we need something other than life form drawing – abstract art was a popular tract at her art school. I agreed entirely with Mikal’s logic. I appreciated his appeal to my business sense – repeating how the archive is an investment. He suggested taking Tara – the tickets and accommodations were already paid for, and there was a hefty honorarium fee as well – Colleen wanted to drive to New Orleans then Pecos, where galleries had sold her work and a contemporary art museum had a painting in their permanent collection, the itinerary plans a subject we were discussing not two days before she died.
“But shucks, just because I love talking in front of people so much.”
“Your mom was good on those panels and workshops. “
“She knew how to play the game.”
“She loved attention. The canvas is a lonely realm, she told me. People drain individually, replenish collectively. She had a lot of theories.”
“Tell me about it. Creativity is only one part of art.”
“Art is community.”
“She was Yoda to these kids.”
“Talking about Art. Thinking about art. She loved it, saw it all as parts of a whole. She told me that most artists as well as gallery owners, museum buyers and serious collectors only want to talk about themselves, which I think we can both verify is true.”
“You got that right.”
“She loved to listen, whether it was some city academic about the new show at MOMA or an ESL student using crayons.”
“Tito! I know him, the crayons were for sculpture. It was conceptual.”
“She made an impression by listening, not everybody can do that. I’ve been around sales my whole life, finance could not exist without selling that service, only the best had that same ability. Their annual salaries are in the millions.”
She had come upstairs with Cleo to watch HBO on my screen. We had ordered Wong Fu and she held up a dumpling between her chopsticks. “Mom loved these dumplings.”
“She said the sesame noodle was so good here she refused to eat them anywhere else.”
“You know, all these new restaurants and takeout joints opening up for us millennials in Jersey City, you still can’t beat the pre-gentrified Wong Fu.”
“You want to order delivery so you don’t have to look at them though.”
“Greasy ghetto,” she said. “I think what scares me more than the talking in front of people is the responsibility of mom.”
“She made important work.”
“Everyone loved her.”
“At least she had some success while alive, but important work is important for another reason, as Mikal relishes to remind me every other day, its value. You own the rights to all her work. The responsibility is not just to her legacy, but the value of her work. Mikal is waiting for the price to reach a certain level before he shows all of her paintings. Things like this Tallahassee show increases that value. We also own the rights to all the paintings, and Mikal says that directors want to place her work in films, like in the background of sets, but close-ups and even to roll the credits over. There’s even a gift card company interested he says. That money is yours. You now have a responsibility whether you like it or not.”
She did her baby pout. “Whah….”
“You’re not alone, but Tara, I don’t want to do it alone either, we have to share this responsibility, but the estate is all yours. You have the ultimate ownership and as it pays off, it will be even a bigger responsibility. You’re making it out to be much worse than it is, but I will do this whether you go or not, I owe it to my wife.”
“It’s working out the shifts at work.”
“Can’t Giselle help you?”
“Duh… she will do anything in the name of mom.”
“Just look at it as a free trip to Florida, an excuse to look at something other than Jersey City winter for a few days. That alone will do us both some good.”
She put her food down, leaned her elbows on her knees, covered her eyes with her fingers. “I’m thinking about mom anyway, all the time. I can’t stop, even if I wanted to. Might as well talk about her with strangers while I’m thinking about her.”
Following a panel discussion with a local arts reporter and five artists, all of whom were in the same exhibit, Tara and I were introduced, we sat down in chairs on the stage of a nearly filled auditorium and the fluorescent overheads slowly went dark. About a half dozen projections of her work, ending with an ultra-close up head shot – all the vogue she told me when she had it taken last year for this show – the very top of her skull and the tip of her tip were cut off, and the angle was tilted – the idea was to create a professional aesthetic by mimicking what once was the very definition of a bad photo. I gulped when I saw her playful smile, and only when the lights went on did my eyes clear.
Tara seemed similarly stunned. “I want to thank everybody,” she said, voice cracking.
I was surprised she spoke first, the plan was to endure, get through it with a smile. If talking before crowds made you uncomfortable, just don’t talk. She acted shy during the reception, but more aloofness than mourning. She dressed in black and white colors, her hair long, intentionally unkempt and wild, nerdy over-sized black octagonal glasses. “My mother believed in the community of artists, and loved when artists young and old, from different parts of the world, came together in their love of art.”
Her nervousness evaporated. I mumbled something, nodded. She didn’t need any backup from me. The crowed liked her best, artists sensing another artist. Youth possesses innate charisma, especially when the audience is either young or adults employed to educate and encourage the young.
The moderator suggested a few questions, and one of the artists from the panel spoke first. “Your mother introduced me a to a New York gallery owner because she liked my work. Most artists only help themselves, but she gave me my first break up north. I still cry thinking about her death, she was so young. Thank you for being here with us.”
“She knew how hard it was to create, her support for fellow artists was genuine and sincere,” said Tara, warming up to the moment, voice steady and assured. I beamed with pride. She was her mother’s daughter after all.
Another artist echoed the same sentiment about Colleen, then the department head told a story of Colleen’s personal guided tour of Chelsea art galleries for a group of Tallahassee students, which ended with barhopping from Chelsea to the East Village. She also arranged a show of their work at Grove Collective, a Jersey City gallery. I remembered those kids. I met them their last night up north, a reception at the college and by then, Colleen was their messiah. Her ability to inspire young artists came effortlessly.
A girl in a long, formless white dress and draped in bracelets and necklaces asked about every artist’s constant preoccupation: process. “What was her day like in her studio?”
I guess I was tired of house plant status and spoke. “She worked every day when she was painting, whether she was inspired or not, but she rarely wanted me to visit her in her old studio.”
“Really,” said Tara, elongating the word with sarcasm. “I was with her all the time there.”
The crowd laughed heartily as did I.
“Don’t wait for your muse to show up. That was one of her favorite sayings. We didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up, so she took me everywhere, especially to her studio. I didn’t mind, I liked being with her, and I don’t know, I wasn’t as antsy as other kids. Give me a coloring book I was fine, then it was a sketch pad. She always had Sunny-D for me in the tiny refrigerator in the studio. I can still smell the paint and turpentine. She kept a high chair in the studio, she had the same studio for years and when I was too big for the high chair, she used it as a shelf for her paints.”
I folded my arms. “That high chair is in our storage unit. She insisted on keeping it when we moved.”
The audience erupted with delight. “My first memories of my mother are her working on a canvas, elbow flailing, stepping towards it, stepping back, then leaning into it again. Her whole body went into each stroke. I don’t remember being breastfed, but I know I was still in diapers when I see her painting in my memory. She said the hardest part was starting, but she never let a lack of inspiration stop her. Abstract art is not improvised, she would make sketches and designs of pieces, especially the larger work and her murals. She really believed in the just do it ethos.”
“Craft will find the art,” I added.
“Craft will find the art,” she repeated. “That was another one of her sayings. Her process was work. Put the blinders on, forget any doubt or discouragement, don’t think about where you’re going, just keep going.”
The kids whooped. Tara made their conference day. Everyone here was kindred – artists, art students and art educators – they loved art enough to commit their lives to it, develop inbred talents and go into lifelong debt for training – and Tara was smiling and comfortable, well-spoken and engaging. She for this moment personified their love of art, thus validating their lives.
Where was that morose sarcastic hipster who lived in Jersey City?
If only her mother could see this Tara now.
The New Orleans gallery owner was of creole descent, warm and flamboyant, slightly effeminate but straight, happily married, his wife also Colleen’s friend. We had platters of oysters, rounds of pitchers of sangria and listened to their Colleen stories. Eventually Tara decided being called Cheri wasn’t sufficiently sexist enough to resist his charm.
When Andre got me alone, he asked, “why won’t Mikal return my phone calls?”
“I don’t know, he arranged for us to meet.”
“Not back then, before Colleen…” he paused, too southern to say died. “She’s the one who set up this visit.”
“She loved your gallery, as do I.”
“Now… why won’t Mikal return my calls now. How much unsold work does he have?”
“He handles all that.” I glanced away, swigged my espresso.
“That Art News story is still viral.”
“It was a good article.”
“It’s gotten thousands of shares, that’s huge for the community. Mikal is yanking the chains of the gallery owners who first believed in Colleen with these coy samples of her work and blind bids. Do you know if he’s returning other people’s calls?”
“I have no idea.”
“She told me she did a series of miniatures that were all in storage. She’s hot and people down here like to spend on what’s hot when it comes to contemporary art.”
“Colleen’s death has made her a celebrity.”
“I mean no disrespect, but I didn’t make the world. Interior decorators beg me for her miniatures all the time, they are not blinking at the price points. I could probably sell as many miniatures as you can get me.”
“Mikal handles all that. We’re really only archiving all her work now. I don’t know the status of the miniatures. You know… she spent the last two years with photography, wasn’t painting at all.”
“You just can’t get the price points for photography that you can for original art, so you need to make that up in volume. My shop sells abstract art, abstract art is what I know.” He slid his hand from his skinny eyebrows to the back of his shaved head, then looked straight at me with astonishing gravitas. “She was the best abstract painter in America. The entire field will feel her loss for at least a decade.”
The president of the Pecos Museum of Contemporary Art gave us a guided tour. He had never met Colleen and the person who acquired the work was laid off due to cutbacks. He asked if somebody could interview us for the website, over the phone, after we were back. Tara friended him on Facebook
I liked driving, seeing the gulf of Mexico, feeling the southern breeze through the window, nothing on my mind but acceleration, steering and when to stop, start or slow down. The satellite radio played rock music I’ve heard since childhood and the GPS gave me directions I gladly followed.
“I am not the together one,” I said, nudging Tara, who removed her earbuds. “I am certainly not together enough to handle this.”
“I don’t know if I’m coming or going half the time.”
“Aren’t we going home?”
“Cute. Yes, Jersey fucking City. Like life will ever be the same there now. I hate she’s gone. Did you have a good time?”
“Me neither. Collen loved going, and I loved being with her, but it can be draining, even if it’s your passion as she liked to say.”
“I mean it was interesting. The students were friendly. They had good weed and didn’t let me pay for my drinks and some of the boys were cute. But shucks, the oldsters are a drag. I think the younger generation isn’t as obsessed as you old people with fame or making as much money as you can.”
“It’s just another business.”
“You know business.”
“I do. Andre was pestering me for work.”
“So was his wife, like hinting at what she had heard rumors about. I can’t believe there are rumors about her art. When the hell did mom paint a miniature series called from orgasm to birth?”
“She painted that series years ago, probably when you were in high school. I don’t think she exhibited more than one or two and that was only once or twice, and never as a series. None of them ever sold.”
“It’s like her death has made her more famous.”
“They want to make money on her while they can, I can’t blame them. Even the popularity of dead artists rises and falls, a painting is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it at any given time. I know your mother liked to sell her work, but now there’s only a finite supply. I can’t handle this alone, I can barely handle it with you.”
“I tried my best.”
“Tara, that’s not what I meant. You are great and I love that you went on this trip. It would have been hell without you, so thanks. You were great in front of the crowds.”
“Being up there, when it was happening, well, that was fine, especially compared to anticipating going. The anticipation was far worse than the moment, but afterwards I was tense and exhausted. Partying helped.”
“I just, miss her… I miss her a lot, like I miss her more and more every day. I realize she left a legacy and that’s not making me miss her any less. It’s not what I want to think about when I think about her. I’ve spent my life with figures, reports, data and using those skills on… Colleen… it’s just hard, okay. I feel so unmoored. She had some money, not a lot, but her inventory that is being archived, sales from that, that is all yours too. “
“Ours. You’re her widower.”
“No, her will is clear. It’s all yours. I manage the estate, which is basically her work. I’m fine financially, I don’t need her sales.”
“You made her money. I don’t want to know everything. It’s so… final.”
“The money is what is worrying me.”
“But shucks, you made millions on Wall Street!”
“What worries me is my expertise is limited to money. Colleen’s legacy is more than the monetary value of her art. Her work will last, it has to be seen. She was all about integrity when it came to art. Even when she was doing those grungy art shows in those unfinished condo projects or that shithole in Greenville, she was all about that quality. She rented good lighting on her own dime, she painted the damn walls every show herself. We want to make money, but we need to make sure those paintings get into museums, that the right collectors exhibit her work. Mikal is looking at the long game and I trust him, but not only are you responsible because you’re her daughter, but you being an artist, I need that input. It’s no joke. Decisions on how the work is sold and who it is sold to now that we have people clamoring for it, I can’t make those decisions without somebody I trust giving me opinion and the fact is, you are the one who will be making final decisions.”
“You have my proxy.”
“Proxy? I’ll give you information and opinion, but those decisions will be yours.”
“I don’t want decisions to make. I don’t know anything about anything. I can barely balance my checkbook or pay my bills.”
“You’re responsible enough to co-manage a coffee shop.”
“I’m cheaper than a robot and a chimpanzee would shit on the floor.”
“You have your art, you are going to have to manage that.”
“But shucks I’m doing such an excellent job at that.”
“You’re just starting out.”
“I know, and now I’m getting hundreds of new Facebook friends and Instagram followers because I’m her daughter. Oh, everybody means well, but it’s a little creepy. I haven’t drawn in months, even before Mom died at Liberty Medical.”
“Do you want to give up art all together?”
“I still see in ink on paper… Everybody thinks I do illustration as the daughter rebelling against my mother’s art. But I’m not good enough for abstracts, that’s the truth. I can never be as good an artist as she.”
“You can only get—“
“—good by doing. I know that one too.”
“It wasn’t just her talent, it was her perseverance. Her love… for you, for me… that was as much a responsibility for her as making art. The act of creation should make us better humans, that was one she was really adamant about. Creativity led to art, and when her art led to managing galleries and curating shows and planning receptions, that’s what she did and if that meant taking a teaching job teaching art, she saw it as links in the same chain. She made sure creating art was uplifting, and empowering.”
“That Tallahassee crowd wanted to be with me only because of her. I was the only way they can still touch that greatness they see in her art. She defined me, she still defines me.”
“Do you resent her?”
“She did the best she could and she did pretty good all things considered. I love her because I never doubted her love for me.”
“That’s the problem with love. We have no control over how we feel, nothing to be done about the human heart. But that doesn’t mean we are only our hearts, you live your own life, not hers. It doesn’t make her less a part of it, she’s always in that heart, and not just the memories, but the person you are now. But defining you? There’s more to you than her.”
We were on some highway, strip malls, fast food restaurants, convenience store gas stations, billboards brightly advertising national brands of soda and jeans or nearby casinos. The highway could be anywhere. I see the same highway scenery in New Jersey. I haven’t done a business trip in more than year but there were times it was two, three times a month. Driving around those cities – Chicago, Tampa, Memphis, St. Paul, Milwaukee, Fort Worth – clusters of investors, meetings and conventions, power point presentations – going from airports to office parks and hotel conference centers – I would see the same, ugly and garish highways, cluttered with the identical commerce. Every highway in America looks just like the one you are driving on now.
“The work itself is never enough in the present stage of capitalism as we liked to say. I can do some of the heavy lifting, people like Mikal are already dealing with me anyway. Colleen asked me to handle the business affairs, that’s my forte. I handled our finances. I just want you to be part of it because her art will be around after I’m gone and you’re still here.”
“I don’t want to think about death! Why do you have to say that?”
“It’s the truth. Her work will live on and you will be responsible for it.”
“You dying though. I would rather that not happen.”
“That makes two of us.”
“Why did you bring it up?”
“Mortality is much on my mind. In all likelihood you will outlive me because you are much younger and I’m getting as old as the hills.”
“You made her money, so you keep doing it. I don’t want the responsibility.”
“You don’t really have a choice.”
“You make all the decisions.”
“I’ll advise you.”
“I’ll do whatever you say. I don’t need to hear it.”
“That would not be my advice. That would be the opposite of my advice.”
“It’s overwhelming, everything is… without her.”
“I know that. I promise not to make it overwhelming. You were the creation she loved the most and you have your own work, your own vision and talent. Your own life and I do feel responsible, you know, to make sure I do what I can because I loved her so…” I continued when the tears passed and my voice stopped cracking. “Her estate is now part of your life, we’re going to work it out together, but you have to accept it. We should hold regular meetings, where we only discuss the Colleen collection.”
“Yes, that’s it because that’s what it is, a business. We will have regular meetings where we only discuss her and her art.”
“Can we get Wong Fu?
“That’s a good idea, it will help us channel her.”
“Dim Sum and sesame noodle meetings, that’s the only time I will have to think about estate responsibilities, until you die of course.”
“Yes, until I die. We can order pizza when we talk about your art.”
“I have nothing to say about my art.”
On the plane back, bored with the book I was reading, I jostled her arm again. “She was so proud of you, you never got into trouble.”
She pulled out her earbuds. “What happened?”
“You never shoplifted, never got into drugs or even stayed out late without you telling her where you were. She was worried you were withdrawn.”
“My mother worried I didn’t get into trouble?”
“Yes, she wanted you to take drugs and get into prostitution. You know what I’m saying.”
“I wasn’t rebellious?”
“Art was rebellion in her working class family. She expected some form of rebellion from you.”
“How can I rebel? Drugs killed my father, they said it was liver disease, but either the drugs killed the liver or it was an outright lie. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite, ever. But I did stuff I never told her about, she never found out about.”
“I don’t want to hear.”
“I never wanted crazy. Everything is crazy. I like steadiness.”
“Steady is good.”
“I have friends who are like, reckless… but why invite trouble. I knew this kid, when I was a kid, she killed herself. We were in County Prep. She drew so much better than me, than anybody… she cut her wrists and bled to death in her father’s bathtub. Her mother was a great artist who committed suicide. Art and suicide they ran in her family.”
“She loved ecstasy, acid and coke. Did slutty shit with guys and girls. She had no boundaries, never cared what she said or how she acted. I remember staying quiet, and that meant ice cream. I did what my parents said and I got rewarded for it. They were having so many problems, one time we moved twice in the same year, one shitty apartment to another. I came home from school and the electricity had been shut off. They argued all the time. I sensed they had problems and I didn’t want to be one of them.”
“You do your art.”
“Until Mom’s heart attack.”
“Your mother always did art…. you know, maybe I might try refraining from your mother always did such and such comments when we talk.”
“I don’t mind. I loved her too.”
“Well, if you do mind, let me know… gently, okay… and if you want to start doing drugs, please keep them hid from me and never invite your dealer over to the compound.”
“Very funny. Mushrooms made me throw up. My father was a chain smoker and I just remember not liking it, that sour, stale stench on everything in his house, and I associate that with him, the bad memories. They’re not all bad. I like pot sometimes and sometimes the smoke reminds me of daddy and the sense memory feels good these days.”
“Colleen always said he was a good guy.”
“His parents and sisters never got over his death, they’re still broken. Drugs ruined his family by killing him. That’s why I never got into trouble. Drugs are trouble, besides I hated cliques and there were cliques all through high school and college. So many artists, they thought art had to be a certain lifestyle, no rules except your own appetite. Order keeps me calm and I like calm.”
“Any stimulation to creativity drugs might inspire is short term. But in the long term, it’s about talent and luck.”
“I can’t do anything about luck, but I can work at the talent. That’s what I care about, not hanging around high and acting cool.”
“You are your mother’s daughter. “
“I feel her spirit in the compound.”
“Me too, I’m glad you two are there.”
“You sure you don’t mind, it’s your house.”
“My life was with your mother, it was always our house. Your rent pays the mortgage. I’m not planning on moving or selling and somebody has to rent that floor.”
“We like hanging out with you. We’re a post nuclear family on a dystopian planet.”
“We’re far less dysfunctional than America at the moment. I didn’t mind when you moved in after you graduated and now you’re part of my life.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be permanent.”
“You’ve already decided your whole life already then. It’s your home as long as you want it to be.”
“That’s the weird thing, I feel more at home in the compound since mom is gone.”
Tears briefly passed through my eyes and hampered my voice. “You being there makes me feel I haven’t lost her all together.”
After a while, she asked about me. “You were an investor shark, made a shit load of money and bought a Jersey City building.”
“I can be persistent, but I was never a shark. You can make as much if not more money by being honest and that way the feds leave you alone. I just could read the reports, dissect the figures and was patient. It was just a conceptual puzzle, finding what companies to invest in. Dependable, reliable. The venture guys, those are the real sharks, they have the killer instinct, purely amoral. When they hit they hit it huge, they own in Manhattan, London, Tokyo, Moscow and Dubai.”
“They don’t buy in Bergen Lafayette.”
I chuckled. “I wasn’t one of those guys. I was interested in the companies just after the first stock opening. Most always take a dip after the glow of going public no longer shines. I would study those quarterlies, read every news story and press release I could.”
“It’s all about research and data.”
“How you analyze the data, that’s the key. Reading between the lines of the reports, identifying exactly what the figures imply. Connecting the dots that no one else has.”
“I took one business class and failed the quiz on the Dow Jones and I must’ve read that chapter three times.”
“The Dow is the last thing to look at. The economy is not a monolith, it’s a galaxy, different solar systems, different planets within each solar system and the planets orbit different suns and there’s several continents on each planet. Hundreds of markets make the stock market. Every industry is different, and every industry has public companies and private companies and companies waiting to go public or going back to being private. It’s when those industries overlap that clues reveal themselves. Zang Components was this small company, based in Silicon Valley with one factory in Malaysia. They made this encoded washer, like a circle with a hole in it that you would use in a toilet or sink, but this had computer circuitry and was the best one to connect the sections of robotic arms. They had been public for a year, the stock was devalued since the first offering, couldn’t give it away. Some Australian business newswire story said Zang was renovating two more factories, converting them from making shoes to making not robots, but encoded washers. At the same time, Toyota announced a deal with United Robotics International to expand their robotic manufacturing, cutting the assembly line workforce by forty percent because the production technology could now be counted on. United Robotics had introduced a new production unit and after Toyota tested it in one plant, now was retrofitting the entire company’s factory portfolio with it, around the world. Few knew of Zang, or that United Robotics had made the deal with Zang for their encoded washer when they were developing the new production line. Within a year, Zang stock more than quadrupled.”
“You made a killing.”
“A common myth. Most profits are steady, this was the rare big jump. Zang soared, but I also bought Toyota stock, which was going up at a healthy if not blinding pace because their labor costs dropped. Lower labor costs mean fewer workers. They were being replaced by robots, cheaper by far in the long run than human beings.”
“So invest in robotics?”
“It’s never as simple as one category if you want a robust ROI.”
“Return on Investment. You have to find the company and part of being that right company is what opportunities are presenting themselves. You read all the other tea leaves, not just the stock market, That’s what my clients pay me for. Find companies shedding costs in vital industries, those were the lean and profitable companies. Follow the numbers. What the numbers never show are the lives of the people involved. The companies worth investing in were those not making jobs, except for robotic engineers when it came to Zang.”
“You did what you needed to do, made what you made straight up. We are all part of the same system, everyone hustles. My mother played the teacher game, she said it was a hustle.”
“Getting tenure was the hustle, teaching was just part of the art.”
“If I could figure out a way to sell out, I would probably jump at the chance and make a mess of it.”
“You’ve had some illustration gigs. Your portfolio is online.”
“Everyone’s portfolio is online. Corporations want graphic designers, there’s very little demand for illustration and I’m just a competent graphic designer. I need to find somebody to sell out to, somebody who wants to pay me for what I am best at. Illustration. I would love to work somewhere that when I walk home I don’t stink of Kenyan and Jamaican Roasted Blend.”
“What about the Lost Girl Doll? Those are some amazing panels.”
“Doll Girl. I cannot even think of her at all now.”
The seat belt sign chimed on and the Stewardess came by to put back trays and seats and check on passengers. The plane descended below the clouds. Through the scratched, plastic oval window, the oppressively drab grayness of an overcast winter sky illuminated our familiar homeland: line of cars crawling on the Turnpike, grimy refinery hulls, rows of stark, skeletal metal towers, hills of blackened snow in parking lot corners.
Giselle’s eyes bulged, huge and round. Her gaze had intensity, always made you wonder not what she was looking at, but what she was thinking. I liked her, she was funny but I always felt vaguely unsettled because I had to ignore the compulsion to wonder what could be going on in that mind. You could never be sure.
Tara and Colleen spoke of her problems – I didn’t know everything, I never cared to – possibly bipolar, sexual abuse by a father or stepfather – Colleen said she reminded her of her. The compulsion to create was the most powerful force driving their lives. For them, art was the only salvation.
“But you never had sexual abuse.”
“No, not as a child but the world these kids grew up in is rougher, one mistake or bad luck streak can destroy you these days. I feel for these kids, they have it so much worse.”
At first, Giselle was in the background, one in the gaggle of young artists and students that seem to follow Colleen everywhere, to all the openings in Jersey City, as well as Hoboken, Brooklyn and even New York. Rarely to Chelsea, those tended to be more exclusive – we went as a couple to those – they were mainly collectors and museum officials and they were all wealthy and I knew how to be liked by the wealthy. I had been making the wealthy wealthier my entire career. Chelsea – and the out-of-town and overseas trips – those were for Colleen’s art. The local shows – the ones in art bars and pop-up galleries or at the college – were where her loyal followers congregated to be with her. And, it seemed one day Giselle was no longer in the background. She had become best friends with Tara around the same time Colleen had become her advisor on the senior thesis project.
Colleen and I were married by then. I bought the compound and started the restoration. There were two floors, we lived on the second because that was already constructed as a living space. The ground floor was an office space of some kind, but fallow for a decade, water damaged and serious mold. The only way to clean and eliminate the hazard – the building department demanded – was to remove walls – which he had to do immediately, before restoring the rest of the building.
Upstairs had a large bedroom and living room and new kitchen, and about 500 square feet of studio space for Colleen, which she eventually turned into an office when she took the hiatus from abstract painting and concentrated on photography. She painted constantly at first, the new space inspired her. She was painting at night even as the workers replaced the rest of the kitchen. The sound of work inspires me to work, she said. We would eat Wong Fu take out in our soon to be bedroom, only a mattress and our laptops. It was the only finished space – even then it was barely inhabitable – we camped there like refuges as the compound took shape around us. Jersey City had become such a hot real estate market that I got twice what I had paid for the condo, but the hipster trust fund couple wanted to move in so quickly that meant moving out months before the new space was completely ready. Our ‘housing project’ months together were one of the most romantic times of my life. We had embarked on a great adventure and all we had to rely on was each other.
The plan was always to rent out the ground floor, but we had burned through the revenue left over from the sale of my condo that the first floor had only a kitchen and bathroom finished – the rest of the space was vast and empty – some pillars and a brick wall. An extra kitchen and bath, the space could be two large apartments, the very ones in demand in this rapidly gentrifying city. Why not rent it to Tara and Giselle, it was Colleen’s idea. They had to finish a semester, they both worked in the same coffee shop and were in crummy roommate situations and wanted to live together. They would move in as is, pay rent, which immediately softened the cash flow problem. Two separate bedroom and studio areas were portioned off through dressing screen panels and mobile curtain systems – basically a curtain rod on wheels – like you would see in a hospital room. The space was funky to say the least, a bit like a maze but they were happy – it was a place they could afford, it had room for Giselle to paint and Tara to draw undisturbed – and Colleen the mother couldn’t be happier knowing her daughter was safe under the same roof.
Colleen possessed what Jeanette never seemed able to learn: the personal capability to be happy. A happy wife means a happy life.
I really didn’t see Tara or Giselle more often than before. Oh, we had a few dinner parties upstairs – Colleen loved making her grandmother’s lasagna every few weeks – sometimes friends came over too, like Gina and Justin – but mainly the girls had their own lives. The floor was thick enough that I never heard their music or noise – I hung out with the downstairs tenants more often at the art events in town than I did at the compound.
After Colleen died, Tara and I went through boxes and clothes, discussed and decided, told each other stories, reminisced. Those weeks were exhausting. We wept a lot, often becoming silent, zombified by grief. Giselle was there for us, making sure Cleo was fed and played with and making sure we ate. She cooked for us, made a lot of these semi-vegan stews – she cheated with chicken stock, she said – but she used tofu, rice noodles and unfamiliar vegetables she bought at the new Asian supermarket. She would also make sandwiches, cheese and turkey, simple but on this wonderful puffy bread, covered in poppy and sesame seeds, the perfect hint of mayonnaise.
I was grateful. I had fallen into unhealthy eating habits, consecutive nights of fried take out, now there were salads and soup and sandwiches, comfort food with organic frills. I wasn’t thinking of making food and neither was Tara. Giselle sensed when to keep her distance during these early weeks of intense grief, intuiting when Colleen’s husband and Colleen’s daughter needed to be alone with their loss. She covered for Tara at work. We probably couldn’t have gotten through that ordeal as well as we did without her. Nobody asked her either, nobody told her what needed to be done. She was just there, she was just who she was.
Colleen called me good luck, her work started selling more after we met. We were dating when Mikal bought her painting at Theorem and gave her the first Chelsea contract. That was the break that lifted her out of the Jersey City and Hoboken galleries and into New York, then eventually overseas galleries and museum shows – the New York Times review of the Whitney show singled her out – two years later, Colleen won the Tate Museum Award for Abstract Painter of the year.
I met Jeannette at Princeton, we married the year after we graduated.
I thought then the only worthwhile life was to marry to someone like her, beautiful and smart and already upper-class. I like doing physical work, like my brother and father, but I never wanted that blue collar life. I wanted the house and the kids, the wall street job. Stock analysis was a natural for me. I knew numbers understood compiled data. I could afford a house in Ridgewood New Jersey by the time I was 30, Jeanette had finished law school. We were going to be that couple, with the pool and the well-behaved children, a summer house in Seaside or Belmar. We were even members of the Bergen County art museum. She knew what went on at some of the parties, but she accepted the behavior as part of the job. She wanted children and I did too or so I thought.
We had sex on a regular basis, but she wasn’t getting pregnant after more than a year of no birth control fornication, so we went to the fertility doctors and clinics. I drank soy milk, took prescription vitamins. No ovulation went by without fucking, when she would order me to fill her. When that proved ineffective, I jerked off into sample containers and hoped a miracle would occur in the petri dishes. Tens of thousands of dollars later, Jeanette was declared infertile and a counselor promised we were the ideal couple to adopt.
Except by then, Jeannette was putting Remy Martin in her morning coffee and I was working 14 hours a day, taking later and later trains home to Ridgewood. Jeannette was usually passed out on the couch, she was buying Absolut by the case. We couldn’t stand to be in each other’s company. She accused me of having affairs, which technically I wasn’t at the time of the accusation – although every couple of weeks some clients and salesmen would go to Penny’s – a brothel – actually a private afterhours bar in somebody’s vast New York apartment house, there was a bar downstairs, coke was often snorted and the men went upstairs with the woman or women of their choice. We would book the place for three hours. The hedge funds were doing so well these parties were easily expensed. I never quite realized until after the divorce that I had paid for sex more often that year then I had made love to my wife, the woman I swore in front of God, our families and all our friends to love and be faithful to forever.
Jeannette and I eventually felt twice as much resentment for each other as we ever did affection. All those possessions, those trips to Ethan Allen Furniture, Ikea, Target, chairs and blankets and carpeting, an ice maker, full bar for the parties we long stopped hosting, air mattresses, inflatable pool toys, lounge chairs, – years of suburban stuff, a failed attempt to recreate and improve upon what I thought the ideal life would be, what my parents had. It would be like Christmas morning every day, but better because I made so much more money and lived in the town were upper middle class people lived.
I rented an apartment in New York during the final stages of the divorce, when we sold all the mutual stuff on yard sales and e-bay and unloaded the house – the value appreciated 35 percent by the time of the sale – I was still angry, but when whatever I had with Jeannette was gone, I felt relieved, free. I only wanted what I thought I wanted because that was what I was supposed to want – career, wife, children, suburban ideal. I liked my work, delving into the reports and numbers, watching markets and making the right decision – buy, sell, hold – at the right time – but at home, mutual resentment reigned. How long can two adults avoid the disappointment of their new memories by reminiscing about their youth?
Turned out, I liked living alone. I felt unburdened. I wasn’t making anyone else unhappy. Jeannette was miserable, and while how much blame I had for her misery may be questioned, not having that unhappiness in my life liberated me. I even hoped it freed Jeannette, but we never stayed in contact. Being 20 and in love, talking about our future. Those memories are worth cherishing. Convinced we would be great parents, and maybe if it happened at that time in our lives we could have proven ourselves to be better people than we turned out to be. The reality of life undid those ideals until that love we had only left us disappointed. Now we both felt the same way, we could not live up to the ideal of our young love because of what life lacked. The difference between us, what we never agreed on, was who was at fault. Somebody first fell short of that love we experienced so deeply it seemed to demand eternal fealty. I blamed her, she blamed me.
Our love was once true, but the life we attained together was the lie and by the time we were no longer able to live that lie, our love was dead.
My accountant said I should own property for tax purposes and a trusted colleague said the best condominium deals were in Jersey City. I bought the condo, but my life was mainly in New York and after a while I got sick of going there on weekends, I started to explore my new town. I pictured myself finding a woman, a few years younger, and maybe still try the kid thing and return to the suburbs, even though I couldn’t think of anything I actually missed about life in Ridgewood. I even got bored with the pool after the second summer.
Industrial Windows was the name of the new gallery, the first in this particular neighborhood, one I had not yet been to. I read about it at a weekly newspaper; it was delivered in a stack each week to the condominium lobby. The name intrigued me, a nod to the manufacturing and ware house roots of Jersey City, a once thriving industrial city. I can still see the large warehouse, with loading dock, the windows all blackened. One corner of the building – finished and inhabited – glowed. Gentrification starts humbly, the developer installed sheet rock walls and a glass door. Art hung on the walls, Industrial Windows written on the glass door.
The entire block was dark, the buildings alongside fallow. The street was actually gray cobblestone embedded with rusted railroad tracks unused for half a century or more. There was a dive looking tavern nearby, down the street a greasy spoon diner. Of course, the entire building is now a mixed-use condo project, the diner renamed something California sounding and had ferns and seven different salads to choose from. The other buildings that were fallow then are either now residential or undergoing reconstruction to become residential, and there is another gallery and two new bars that also exhibit art in the same neighborhood.
But back then, though, isolated, weeds sprouted out from the cracks in the sidewalk panels and potholes in the asphalt. That gallery gleamed like a preternatural oasis of light, a luminous clarion of hope amongst a grim desolation. Inside were half a dozen people, three of whom were the other artists.
And Colleen, curly brown hair, shiny hazel eyes. I see her body now, how I loved her body. She wore nice jeans, metal, wood and beaded bracelets and amethyst earrings, and a long sleeved Hole t-shirt. She was standing there alone, disappointed at the turnout. She greeted me graciously, and right away because there was nothing else to do and everyone else was busy talking.
Found art – spray painted trash glued to a canvas making some political statement, a lot of photographs, landscapes, cityscapes, black and whites of nude women in faux vintage boudoir garb. Then Colleen’s wall – those early miniature abstracts. I loitered longer in front of the paintings than I had in the rest of the gallery. Her work wasn’t boring. Her colors always pulsated.
“I’m the artist,” she said.
“Abstracts,” I said. Jeannette and I had bought art together, mainly on vacations but all that was lost in the divorce too. None appreciated in value. The only art I had in my condo were pictures of my parents and brother. “I like abstracts.”
“I don’t know anything about art. I just like looking and wondering why what I am seeing is making me feel what I am feeling.”
“I don’t think there’s anything more than that to know about art. But you didn’t answer my question.”
“Oh, abstract art.”
“Yes, why do you like abstract art?”
“Too much art makes you think you know, like these photographs or that collage with spray painted toy soldiers glued to old record album covers. I have nothing against thinking or knowing for that matter. But art should do more than provoke thought. Art should inspire feelings. Abstract art, it’s almost all about feeling. There’s an honesty in your colors, an honesty about your feelings.”
We chatted some, I told her I had just moved to Jersey City and I bought a painting. I paid with a credit card and she told me that I would have to come pick it up in two weeks, after the show closed. She put a red dot on the label on the wall – Reverie IV, oil on canvas – and I gave her my card and asked her to call me to remind me to pick up the painting.
I talked about her to a friend at work, who encouraged me to ask her on a date when I picked up the painting. I neurotically went over what to say for days, figured the best course of action was to suggest a drink at the nearby dive. She had my painting wrapped up in brown paper. She and the artists were taking down the work. “There’s going to be another show here.”
“Are you going to be in it?”
“Not that one but I know the curator.”
“You said this gallery is new. It’s great there’s going to be another show here.”
“There’s so many talented artists who live in Jersey City, but there’s no place to show their work. Maybe this is the beginning of a change.”
I nervously said, “I really enjoyed talking to you. Would you like to get a drink sometime,”
“I would like that but I have to pack up my paintings and call a cab to bring it back home.”
“If I helped you and drove you home maybe we could get a drink on the way.”
I remember the way she smiled before she said yes.
I saw that same smile thousands, millions of times.
I think I remember most of them, but that one, her first smile like that, I remember best.
I still read the New York Times business section then the Wall Street Journal on my laptop with the coffee. Then I check my email and then Facebook. But that order has been steadily upturned, and now I’ve been checking Facebook even before the coffee is ready.
The stock market was having a better summer than last year, more highs than lows and the highs are higher. There’s almost nothing I can’t do at home that I can on the street and especially after moving into the compound, my market monitoring was more efficient. I didn’t need to put in the same amount of hours in to generate the same revenue flow. I’m finally getting better at it, and I could spend more time with Colleen. I’m spending even more time with her now in a sense, outside of both offices. Work is an inadequate escape from my memories and feelings of loss, but a little getaway goes a long way.
My main Hedge Fun client wants me in the office at least three times a week, but the hours are more like ten to four than eight to seven. Before, I always threw myself into work to divert from depressing episodes in my life, like the deaths of my parents or Robert, one of my first mentors on The Street, or the fallout from the constant arguments with Jeannette, which got worse as we divorced. The brutal pettiness we were capable of – alone or when meeting with the lawyers – shocked us both. We were good people, we once loved each other. But we said horrible things and fought over every penny. I always turned the work throttle on high and dived in without looking back. Not this time though, swamping myself no longer held appeal, the intense rush of market immersion I found particularly undesirable. Why would I want to escape grief, why would I want to escape thinking about such a woman?
Colleen insisted I join Facebook. I was a small, silent cog in her network and mostly ignored social media. Now it’s my favorite diversion, not that I post anything of substance or comment frequently. Few more pleasant ways of killing time than scrolling and every so often, clicking Like. Aside from news, seeing posts – by Tara and Giselle and their circle, with their art shows and other activities – or the handful of work and/or suburb friends my age posting pictures of their adult children, caps and gowns then wedding clothes, restaurant dinners – made me happy.
Facebook provides me steady doses of amusement and surprise. There’s a satisfaction because you’re involved, making your thoughts known to others – making them public – yet that involvement is merely clicking your mouse in acknowledgement and moving on.
I immediately accepted the invite to the We Love You Humphrey Facebook page.
Giselle edited the krill feeding footage into a compelling clip. The river was ink-black, but somehow the clash of the light from the lighting attachment Giselle had put on the 190 and the spotlight on the bow of the Ariel caused splotches of crimson to streak the water where the girls were scooping in globs of freeze-dried shrimp. The black water that had touched krill glowed a magical scarlet. I have to say I captured the Statue of Liberty against the pre-dawn with exceptional vividness. The last shot of seagulls diving at the krill floating on the surface of Hudson Bay felt somber, a not unwelcomed tragic note. Then the girls were pure punk, cursing the seagulls. The clip lasted three minutes. I laughed harder when I watched it again.
I made the mistake of posting an innocuous ‘Great Film’ in the comment section. The next day, I had more than 100 notifications in my inbox, which I deleted without reading then turned off all notifications for the krill post.
A local blogger wrote a recap of our late night adventure with Captain Billy, using stills Giselle captured from the video. Followers of The We Love You Humphrey Facebook went from the hundreds into the thousands. Later the same week, a Brooklyn website ran a story about a group of Williamsburg artists seeding the Hudson bay with krill, but they used three rowing teams, a mix of preppy looking yuppies and chubby, lumberjack-bearded hipsters, wearing multicolored, dayglow spandex: lime, pink and amber. Each boat blared the moaning song of the male humpback as they rowed cross-current across the river, then back again to Brooklyn. The rowers chanted Humphrey as pulled on the oars, as someone at the stern tilted a bucket, pouring krill into the water.
The footage was awesome, as professional as any reality show. Close-ups, long shots, I wondered how many other cameras and vessels were used. The narrator informed us Humphrey hadn’t been seen or heard from in more than a week. A swarm of seagulls descending on the water where the boats just crossed preceded the fade to black.
Giselle shared their clip on the We Love You Humphrey, but she private messaged both me and Tara: Never trust anyone from Brooklyn.
Giselle insisted she already planned to release a Captain Billy clip, but the retaliatory feel to both the timing and content seemed undeniable. The Captain – with his permanently sun-scalded face and white thistle beard – looked great in a crusty old nonconformist man-of-the-sea kind of way. “I see a Humpback whale here every summer, more than one, and more than once.” Captain Billy, Jersey City was the clip’s final shot.
One of the first several harsh heat waves that summer hit the area, sweltering temps, rising over the 100 mark a few afternoons. The humidity seemed only to intensify as the week wore on, air quality alerts shared on Facebook, no drop in sight. Each day hotter than the one before, some nights were worse than the preceding afternoon, The Air Conditioner had its limits, sleeping well was impossible.
A 3:00am Humphrey flash mob serenade was announced the day before it happened. Giselle brokered a deal with her Brooklyn counterparts to have simultaneous participation. Almost three hundred came down to the waterfront, gathering around the iconic Colgate Clock – the only remnant of detergent and toothpaste factory that employed generations with a solid middle class paycheck – and spreading south towards the Ferry docks. I was enlisted as the cameraman again.
Everyone tuned into the same streaming service and played Humpback Whale song. People brought speakers small and large, especially large – concert-sized amplifiers in fact – we live in a Bluetooth world. People brought refreshments, but there was more paper coffee cups than flasks or beer cans in paper bags and the plumes of marijuana smoke were infrequent. A drum circle started, neo hippies – not all Caucasian either – as well as Black, Spanish, Asian – men and women. They may have been diverse, but most wore similar tie-dyed t-shirts and beaded necklaces and bracelets and multiple earrings. No matter the color of their skin –or if they knew it or not – they were living memorials to the Summer of Love.
The Jersey City art scene crowd clustered near the music, entirely acoustic – guitars, maracas, harmonicas, tambourines – soon accompanied the thumping bongos and congas – Giselle was dancing alone – there were plenty of people dancing or at least swaying in time, but only two or three obvious couples. Giselle was in her own world, Tara said she was high, then adjusted the light attachment and Giselle went at it for a good 15 minutes. Her movements seemed intentionally cartoonish, whirling with arms waving, swaying her shoulders, squatting with a jerk, hands praying. She took dance lessons as child, or so she said and half a semester of Modern Dance at Rutgers before transferring to Colleen’s workshop. She wore a pale blue, flowing summer dress that came below the knee but was so sheer that the exertion of dancing and the persistent humidity soaked the fabric, now clinging to her nipples and ass like wallpaper. I turned off the camera when the fact she shaved her public hair became too obvious.
We sat on a blanket, drinking coffee and eating cherries and watermelon. A We Love You Humphrey chant started, but that faded, as did the drumming and people just listened to the mournful gurgling howl coming out of hundreds of phones and speakers, echoing across the river. Cops arrived, but this was not 1968 and nobody had issued a sound complaint. They mostly joked with the crowd. Some people from the Jersey City government, I think they were council people or from some community affairs department, came by. They greeted their constituents and handed out bottles of water. People took pictures for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram then looked at them together on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We all witnessed the sunrise and thought about Humphrey together.
The crowd started to dwindle away. Giselle pointed at seagulls amassing upon the surface of the river. “Those boats that were there, they were feeding him krill.”
“There’s so many more boats on the other side of the river,” said Tara.
“That’s Brooklyn,” I piped.
“They’re only feeding the seagulls. We probably scared the whale away anyway with our little Burning Man Rave,” said Tara. “All we needed was more techno and some E.”
“It was fun, people had fun, I had fun,” I said. “I’m kind of amazed how many people came out.”
“People love a flash mob,” said Giselle.
“You and me, Giselle, like other people did really hear the whale once, but most of the people there didn’t care about Humphrey, they just want to be part of a scene or happening,” sighed Tara, dejected and tired.
“Regardless of the motivation, they’re here and you guys got them here. They care about the whale and you gave them focus for that caring with your Facebook page.”
“We did good,” said Giselle. “Look at how many people are sharing the dawn, they all believe in Humphrey, they all know the whale is here, these are positive vibrations we’re sending. Humphrey has to feel the vibrations.”
“He sings his song and a mate finds him,” said Tara. “That’s how he knows his song was heard. Now all he hears are males who don’t exist. He’s isolated from his pod and we just made him feel more isolated. But shucks, at least we have fun selfies with our friends to post on Instagram.”
“What are we going to do with her!” Her 13-year-old girl-scout tone failed at its attempt at levity.
“Facebook isn’t art, Giselle.” Tara rubbed tears out of her eyes then waved for us to stay away as she walked ahead.
I shrugged. “She’s just tired, we all are.”
Giselle exhaled through her nose and squinted into the young morning.
Other stories dominated the news, not the least of which were the annual what do for July 4th features, but Facebook newsfeeds constantly remind you of your own interests, what you liked before. Humphrey-Pre-morning fest from both sides of the bay posts came one after another. I liked looking at my footage and I liked sharing posts and I liked how my friends in the suburbs clicked like or love or one of the smiley spheres, but they’re comments usually were or at least included a how are young doing or let’s get together or give me a call. I liked their comments, but ignored their invites. I didn’t want to see anybody in real time. They were mainly from Wall Street anyway. I preferred being alone with her camera than any sort of reunion with people I knew through business or my time in Ridgewood with Jeanette. I get enough work talk and financial industry comradery going to the office a few days a week. What happens on Facebook stays on Facebook.
The secret is not is to not take it seriously enough to ruin your morning coffee.
Humpback Hullaballoo Scares Away Moby Dick was the snarky headline of some Long Island publication ridiculing the Humphrey Cult. The antagonistic article had complaints about the noise by people who live on the houseboats, tug boat captain quotes how he never saw a whale of any kind but the most damming were from an Oceanographer specializing in Cetology, “if there was a whale, the sound of another male competitor would only drive him away to find other waters to mate in.”
Giselle posted an angry retort that the krill and the good vibrations showed a humpback positive community. Then the trolls came. Dumb millennial skank! Imaginary whales are not a replacement for the love of you didn’t get from your daddy!
Where do these people come from, I wondered, why do they bother. No one was being hurt by the We Love You Humphrey Facebook page, yet people wanted to hate Giselle and Tara for even making the page.
“Most of them are bots,” said Giselle. “They aren’t real people.”
I knew what the concept of bots meant, but somebody had to create a bot. They had to go out of their way to be so offended they wrote a program that generated nasty comments. People posted back, thread comments numbered in the hundreds. Giselle deleted as many comments as she could but completely eradicating the onslaught was impossible. No one created a pro-Humphrey bot, but there were enough followers on the We Love You Humphrey page to outnumber both the real and automated haters.
The anxious urgency of Facebook turned any molehill into an anxiety mountain, even something as positive as a whale returning to New York inspired ridicule from the justified belligerency sect of Americans – the same crowd who voted for Donald Trump or opposed Universal Healthcare or never read the Sermon on the Mount but believed Sarah Palin embodied the teachings of Christ. Discussion they didn’t invite, encourage or further. They dealt in insult and anger, had no need for any defense other than their own self-righteousness.
Some Chilltown Java incident arose involving Giselle, a customer and a co-worker, causing the co-worker to quit. As co-manager, Tara became involved. The owner drove his Porsche from his summer home in Seaside to hold a meeting. Giselle said it was totally blown of proportion, but Tara told me privately that Giselle’s big mouth started the problem. The customer was an elderly woman who never tipped and the co-worker, a meek young man just out of high school. Apparently tears were involved, his and the customer’s, Giselle may have made the kid cry, but what was undetermined was if the nebbish shed his tears before or after the customer shed hers. I started zoning out sometime after the part about how Giselle prepared a latté with low-fat milk instead of the ordered soy then insisted that it wasn’t her but that the order was given to her incorrectly. Tara was upstairs because my air conditioned was better and she had to get away from her roommate. She lay down on my couch to tell me the saga, getting so agitated at one point Cleo leapt from her chest and hid in my bedroom.
The fight between them was not about the incident, but that the boss dressing down Tara because of three negative Yelp reviews, each about the incident and each criticizing how rudely the hipster staff treated this kindly senior citizen who grew up in the neighborhood. Tara was pissed at Giselle for getting her reprimanded by the boss, then for Giselle defending herself by saying that she was not responsible for how the boss reacts to what people post on Yelp. “She won’t take responsibility,” she said. Colleen used to talk about the high level of drama among the 20 somethings she was always around and now that it was just me and the girls at the compound I experienced first-hand what she was saying.
Then a sighting – actually a hearing – of Humphrey lit up Facebook again. Just when the public seemed to completely have lost interest, a dozen separate posts on the We Love You Humphrey flickered on the phones and computer screens. Trolls returned with claims that people were being duped, that it was only pranksters using broadcastings of Songs of the Humpback Whale. The controversy was investigated by a local cable news affiliate, a story highlighted by a crimson-cheeked Captain Billy
“I hear and see Humphreys every summer. Them whales love these waters this time of year. I definitely heard that whale last night. I’ve been taking people out nearly every other night for weeks now, just before dawn. Last night, we heard Humphrey, we were in the middle of the bay, there was no mistaking what we listened to, that was no recording, that was a live whale singing live.” He took the cigar from his lips. “The seagulls ain’t eating all the krill, I’ll tell you that.”
Another snarky blogger insisted Humphrey was gay – a spinoff argument ensued about whether this was homophobic statement or not – the main argument was if a mating call would work as an invitation for whale male-on-whale male sex. Is animal mating the same as desire for sex? A slightly saner argument was that the whale hearing other males ruckus could make him fell welcomed enough to resume his mournful search for a mate. If they can get lucky, why not Humphrey?”
Giselle posted: “Maybe we attracted a female Humphrey with our krill and Bluetooth speakers and good vibrations that Humphrey returned to these Jersey waters to call to her again.”
Back in April was when Tara and I held our first Wong Fu Dim-Sum and Sesame Noodle meeting, after we received the email from Mikal and the archive documentation. Some cartons of work were stored in a cousin’s attic in North Arlington and an Uncle somewhere in Hunterdon County, but most were in our storage unit, renting an additional unit when she cleared out the studio at the Compound to focus on photography. Mikal gathered them all, transported them to a single warehouse in the Catskills specializing in professional art storage.
Total: 275 paintings unsold that Mikal never displayed.
More than two dozen were large canvases – Mikal called those Sixers – high six figures for each of those was his goal.
Primo were the medium-size canvases – more than one hundred were these, it was the size she most excelled and had sold the most of – the semester sabbatical, where she worked in a secluded studio in the woods of Norway – I rarely saw her as productive, one painting after another. It was right after the Tate Museum named Colleen as Abstract Painter of the Year. After twenty five years of a struggling artist, she was suddenly a celebrity in circles she by then was a part of and those she was not a part of, she was now welcomed to join.
Achievers was the small category – varying sizes, but less than a foot high and/or across –the miniatures were part of this group. Most were early work. She bought small canvases in bulk and painted these small-scaled pieces because they sold. You could pack enough for two cartons, clumsy but easy enough to manage on subways and buses by tying then with bungee cords to a carrier and renting a table at flea markets, or just a blanket at a park or wide enough sidewalk and sell as many as you could before the cops asked to see your permit.
More Achievers were sold than any of her previous work, they were less expensive, made excellent gifts and were ideally sized for the walls of apartments. Even after a few early sales of larger works at galleries in Chelsea and Tribeca, she created the miniatures and sold them everywhere she could.
The last category he called “Odds and Sods” were the paintings that weren’t canvas, various pieces of plywood or even furniture parts – chair backs, door sections, bureau drawers, Formica tiles – a little more than fooling around, usually because she wanted to paint and happened to be out canvases.
Mikal had an additional 40 or so paintings, three Sixes and the rest Primo, that he had been showing online or in his Chelsea or London gallery that were selling so quickly that he took them all off-market. He emailed his suggestion of staging a large show from the archive that would travel from Oslo, London, to New York before putting any other pieces for sale. Any Achiever or Odds & Sods sales will be postponed one year, creating anticipation and increasing their value. Smaller pieces always have higher demand and lower price points, delaying extensive public viewing will optimize the price points. The same theory he applied to the photography, with the archiving scheduled to start by year’s end.
Cold white wine, that’s what Colleen drank with her dumplings and we did likewise. She loved chilled Chablis with her Wong Fu.
“It’s more money than I thought… a lot more.”
Tara studied the pages I printed out. The attachment had thumbnail pictures of each painting alongside title and other pertinent details. Mikal would send us high-resolution jpegs of any we wanted to see, but did not want to post any online, we must control what they see and when.
“All this work … Who knows what else is in circulation, she dragged me to some Flea Market or Fair every weekend from April to November… right up until Christmas, I can remember snow on the ground some years and vendors selling trees and candles and baked goods and she’d be cutting deals just to have some extra cash and one less painting to schlep home.”
“Early investors always win the biggest, they took the first risk.”
“Do you really think they thought they were making an investment?”
“People loved Colleen’s work, and the people now paying top dollar feel the same way about it, but it’s an investment now and as more people sell her work, whether through gallery or eBay, the values will rise. The more minor transactions in the short term the higher the value of the major transactions in the long term.”
“So much work, where did she find the time?”
“Her lifetime is where.”
“Who else but a great artist could have produced this much art. Do you think this is what she wanted?”
“For her work to be seen, that was always the goal. The money was affirmation, it could make things easier. Mikal is in the business, he isn’t greedy.”
“You can tell.”
“Yes, I can smell it,” tapping my nose. “It’s in his interest to be honest, he works hard for his 40 percent. Besides, they had a contract outlining his representation and sales parameters. That worked well and now that demand is higher, we have a structure to sustain those sales in place. Mikal’s a professional, he believed in her and her work for years. I have not seen any reason to doubt his figures and his ideas make sense.”
“I never like, understood… she was just my mom and art was something we did. We talked about it and I guess we thought about it all the time, but it was just the way it was. Seeing this list, I not only see that her legacy is a responsibility, but I understand what legacy means.”
“Mikal wants, as he likes to say, value to be enhanced. I trust the logic of his proposal, but value with art is mainly subjective, how much someone is willing to pay for it at any given moment. Mikal wants to be selective with sales – the better known collections and quality museums. There’s no way of projecting how much more the art will appreciate and by what rate, but in the short time, those prices can triple, quadruple. Mikal insists that no one is not buying her art right now.”
“Everybody wants her.”
“She’s now part of art history and will be as long as there is art. She’s one of the most important abstract artists of this century.”
“There’s no doubt she’s the most important abstract painter right now.”
“She’s so far removed from Jersey City now.”
“We met at that that Industrial Window show in that hole in the wall place near the Bayonne border.”
“I was only allowed in that neighborhood during the day.”
“Now she’s too big for her own gallery.”
“That was true before she died. The neighborhoods are safer, the galleries here may be better, even if their sales suck and nobody else but people here care about them. She would always donate pieces to fundraisers for local organizations, when was the last time she actively sold here? It has to be years.”
“More than five years, at least. Those silent auctions never hit near these kind of figures.”
“Let’s do it. You think it’s a good idea.”
“I trust Mikal.”
“That’s good enough for me. This way we only deal with one dealer, that’s good too.”
“You do see those figures, we, I mean, you will get 60 percent of all that. Maybe by next year, you could even quit Chilltown Java.”
“You really think he can sell a painting of my mother’s for one hundred thousand dollars.”
“He already has he says, but the transaction isn’t completed. He said at least fifty thousand. Look, Tara, people make a living handling art collections, this will be an ongoing income source for you. You could cut back some hours at the coffee shop and spend it working on your art.”
“I don’t have the urge to waste my time.”
“You really had something going in those Lost Doll Girl panels.”
“Have you been talking to Giselle again?”
“Good God, no! I’m just asking about your art.”
“I’m thinking of all the money we can make off mom’s art. He hasn’t talked prints or things like T-shirt and Museum Tote Bags. That’s just more free advertising that we can make money from.”
“That’s another revenue stream that has to be managed. I’m glad at least you’re accepting all this.”
“I’ve been seeing her art all my life. I don’t remember not seeing it. Her creating her art and the art itself, they’re what I saw first and always after. I can’t erase those memories.”
“Why would you?”
“Art is the source from which all my memories flow; it’s how I learned to remember in the first place.”
“They’ll be interviewing you, you know. You will be the spokesperson for your mother.”
“Oslo and whatever else place the exhibit goes to, there’s always a reception and press and whatnot You can talk about your mother great, way better than I ever could. You just speak from your heart.”
We met Theodore, tall and Norwegian, a thick thatch of flopping yellow hair, at Mikal’s Chelsea gallery office. He wore his hair in the style popular among young people, one side of his head shorn down to fuzz, while the rest went nearly as long as can be. But he wasn’t as young as the trendy young people who favored this hairstyle in what seemed like droves and he wore a light black cotton jacket even though the weather was very sticky, high 90s and everybody else wore short sleeves. He was Assistant Administrator for the Oslo Museum of Contemporary Art who was sponsoring the museum tour of Interior Windows, the title that been given the collection of Collen’s work that would go on the two year tour of museums.
Colleen and I had knew his boss, who happened to be his aunt Enid. We stayed overnight in a guest house on her palatial estate, secluded within a massive national forest that required a day-long train ride from Oslo. Enid loved to wear red pant suits, yet oddly the color red seemed absent from the drab but intricate main castle. She was witty and cordial, completely enamored with the Jersey Girl who painted such beautiful abstracts. She displayed a large Colleen canvas above a fireplace in a sitting room.
The walls and furniture was oaken, the wood itself timber from the Middle Ages. “When our family relaxes together, to just talk, this is the room where we come,” she explained, a British intonation in her accent. “I love the non-focus, I keep seeing new things because I never fully recognize anything, because when I am just about to know what I am seeing, it becomes something else.”
Nothing compares to old European money, especially as displayed on the continent. When wealth is centuries old, you cannot help but succumb to a reverence. New wealth demands respect, Old Wealth inspires it. Old wealth was here before and will be here after New Wealth is made and spent. Both new and old wealth created our shinning city on the hill – both control our lives – the undeniable difference is those uber-rich European bloodlines are also the hill.
The aristocratic family – when Mikal said an offshoot of the royal Norwegian line he whispered –had controlling interests in Statoil and sat on boards of a handful of European-based, multinational corporations. Their taste in contemporary art was known worldwide. Their vast collection of contemporary art – made vaster when oil was discovered in Norway about a half century ago – was the basis on which the Oslo Museum of Contemporary Art was founded.
That’s one power of Old Wealth. When Old Wealth runs out of palaces to show the art they’ve acquired Old Wealth convinces their nation to build a museum for their collection. The family also owned one of the most important galleries in Europe, actually several as well as a company specializing in placing art in lobbies and other spaces in international offices and hotels.
When it came to abstracts, Enid had one of the most respected eyes in the world. She authored no articles on artists or art, but her opinion – dispersed through selected sources like Mikal – influenced – more often than not, determined – sales. The Colleen piece was purchased for her personal collection, a fact Mikal always reiterated with wide eyes and toothy grin. Enid and Collen got into such an in-depth conversation in front of an original Jackson Pollack – he had stayed in the same guest house as a guest of her grandfather and apparently had a tryst with her great aunt and a maid – that I wandered off outside to a grand porch and watched white spotted deer emerge from the forest. Colleen broke down in tears when we were alone that night, with the only explanation being “everything here, every detail, is exquisite.”
“I’ve seen wealth, but never quite like this. Why are you crying?”
She couldn’t say, but I knew. Old Wealth. No matter your achievements or bank account or how satisfied with your life you may be, royal lineage makes you feel not just unworthy, but biologically incapable of ever being worthy. Even when they are complimenting you or hiring you or just being polite and interesting at a cocktail party, you instinctively know you will never be as evolved a human as they. New rich, they just got lucky. Old Wealth, that’s the history of civilization and that’s more than luck, that’s destiny, born into holy bloodlines, blessed if not by God, at least by some king who was given the divine right to control millions of lives by God.
Colleen’s father worked in a factory then drove a garbage truck after the factory closed. As a teenager, Colleen ran away from police when she was caught tagging an overpass with spray paint and also in College when she and a group of activist artists plastered anti-war posters, part of the occupy movement. She was from a working class family and royal families you only read about in books or magazines or saw them on television. The actual reality of Enid nearly devastated her. Aone with me, she was finally able to release the agony of her conflicted emotions. Her art was being glorified by someone in an unimaginable world. Art was the driving passion of Colleen’s entire life, an evening with Enid from Oslo was a huge accomplishment, leaving little doubt about how talented you really are. The problem with being anointed was the anointed one had to acknowledge her inherent failings of not being as fully human as the one qualified to anoint.
My consoling her led to passion – the bed was vast and the room smelled of lilacs and salt – she was even more uninhibited than usual. She needed physical pleasure. Sex reassured her that she was still that person in her body, not a figment of the overwhelming dream she had yet to awake from.
Theodore was not at the estate the night we were Enid’s guests, but interviewed Colleen for a Norwegian Art Publication during the actual Oslo part of our Norway trip. I could not recall meeting him, but I was sent an English translation of the article, mainly about how she was the “new darling” of the art set. A gallery owner from Dubai that I never heard of prognosticated that Colleen’s Oslo exhibit likely augured an abstract upward sales trend for the upcoming season.
Theodore coming to Jersey City the weekend Disparate Hearts opened at Theorem, one of the more respected art bars that had popped up in town, mimicking similar pubs that originated in the East Village decades ago – a bar that had new art shows every few weeks, and the art was exhibited as bar decoration, a very effective business model for a bar in a gentrifying city neighborhood where most residents were interested in art, friends of artists, and more than likely an artist themselves. Artists need space and were always the first to flock to those about to be urban renewed neighborhoods because they could rent affordable space to work and store unsold work. Real Estate Developers looking for investment capital always explain in detail the art scenes in their project neighborhoods.
As the neighborhood improves, a scene coalesces, enough artists with work to show soon figure how to create places to show and sell that work. Theorem was in downtown Jersey City, the first section of the city to gentrify. Colleen used to show work here years before Mikal represented her. As far as I could tell every art show at Theorem she came to – we went together, I liked their burgers – either one of her students or one of her artist friends were usually in the show and she rarely failed to show her support in person, one on one. Support is key to both them and you.
She also was friends and occasional dinner partners with the manager, also a curator. “She respects the work,” she said. “She invested in museum quality lighting when she opened. Even though there were no fulltime galleries in Jersey City, she knew she was competing not against bars but galleries. She didn’t care about Hoboken standards, she cared about Chelsea standards. Without good lighting, you don’t really see. The need to see must be a higher priority than the need to sell.”
Tiger Fish was Giselle’s Desperate Hearts piece: an image capture of a fish with an amazingly large jaw and protruding pointy teeth. The fish suspended in wispy water, where angels – voluptuous, barely clad women with wings – floated above this pathetic and mean looking, creature. The collage effect between the photo-shopped monstrosity and the hand-drawn, sexualized sprites certainly grabbed attention. Giselle said all her art was about healing her inner self, and Tiger Fish was part of an unfinished series imbued with watery imagery and theme called Healing Waters. Her work was interesting but you were never sure why and I wondered how interesting her work would be if I did not know her or even if we never met. Was I just being gracious? What impressed me most about Giselle’s work was how often she actually creates memorable imagery. That was honest, so honest it is the only opinion I usually gave her when she wanted to know what I thought.
Theodore interviewed us in Mikal’s office – Mikal, Tara and I sat with him around a conference table with a recording device in the middle. He was charming and affable, but I’m not a good interview, I like talking but then I think about being quoted, how it will sound to others and I gradually say only what is needed to answer. Seeing my name in print first seemed like a validation, but then every quote I had to talk about with people afterwards was wasted time. The business press was a small circle of writers and readers, everyone believing only they knew economic predictability while everyone else increased instead of reduced unpredictability, even made unpredictability appear inherent. I went on background. When an investment reporter called about this or that company, I gave them a straight answer but was only a source. I couldn’t shake that mode. My answers were flat dead ends and I barely acknowledged his frustration. I didn’t mean to, but I was giving him nothing to go on.
“Did art run in her family,” Theodore asked Tara.
“Her family was working class.”
“They never understood her work you mean.”
“I don’t think you understand, her family wasn’t against art at all, her mother painted watercolors and they went to museums in New York. They also read books. It is a very nice family, not white trash or I guess what you think of as peasants. They had to work for a living, but that didn’t mean they didn’t have inner lives.”
“I didn’t mean to imply…”
“She loved her parents, she was sorry about some of the heartache she gave them.”
“She was a difficult child?”
“Being a teenager in America, especially when she grew up, was hard. The only problem in her family was the lack of money. Maybe that is something you may not understand.”
“Her art came out of the pain of poverty.”
“My family wasn’t ghetto, they were just lower middle class, I loved my grandparents. How can one not feel the beauty and warmth in her art?”
“That’s why they love the abstracts. I see the love, I feel the warmth. I’m actually not trying to understand your mother beyond the facts about her life. What I am trying to understand is the art. We know that they radiate something our soul needs to see. If her story adds value to the experience of seeing her art, then that’s what we emphasize.”
“Lead with perhaps as they say here in America. We touch on several notes, like her process, where she worked.”
“Except for the residencies, She mainly painted in Jersey City.”
“That’s like Brooklyn?”
“If you mean that it is also a city that is near Manhattan but not Manhattan then you are correct but Tara is right, you don’t understand,” said Mikal. “New Jersey is much closer to America than Brooklyn. Artists come from all over America and even the world to New York and rent studio space. Great art is created because there is a community, encouraging and competitive and of course petty and all the foibles of humanity. Commerce and the possibility of commerce helps fuel the energy. Colleen was the rare great who didn’t come here to create art, she’s from here, actually from there, way across the river. And, she isn’t doing the graffiti or street art or any of that pop stuff, which is great, and great for art, but speaking as a gallery owner and artist rep, that doesn’t put food on the table. Abstracts are a whole different realm, a higher realm really than other paintings.”
“Only well…when done well…” Theodore gesticulated as he spoke. “All art is equal. Few abstracts rise above that equality.”
“We agree that abstracts can only rise above equality. Colleen rises above, she’s in that few, I assume we also agree on that point because if not you wouldn’t be here in the first place.” Theodore relaxed back in his chair and Mikal continued. “But that isn’t really what makes her different. No, it’s that she is one of the greatest and that she came from a situation that should have persuaded her otherwise, like going in an office or even just doing something like graphic design where she could’ve made more money. She had a lot of skills. She found a way to make a living with teaching and she dabbled in photography, but to avoid all that post-Warhol shallow sensibility for an urban artist is remarkable. Jersey City was a shithole, ghetto and a few artists got studios there, because those spaces were affordable and old factories, warehouses and tenements are great places for painters to paint. Some big small fry, not abstract painters of course, but they sold. They were all from someplace else, had a genteel Midwestern thing or an international flair or something other than Colleen’s urban Garden State, chip on her shoulder defensiveness, but stubborn about her vision.”
He paused to shift gears. “Why do we love abstracts so, Theodore?”
“Aunt Enid says it is the most primordial art form, where our humanity meets the essence of life, the protoplasm from which human beings evolved, the meshing of the material and immaterial world. Before cavemen were painting wooly mammoths and saber tooth tigers on their cave walls, they were painting abstract images. Colleen found the interior of the soul, a place where all is one. That is abstract art, and that is why we love abstract art because abstract art is the only place where you can see the primordial interior of our collective soul.”
“You’re talking about a place that can’t be expressed any other way but abstract art, not just in other paintings, but poetry or even music. Nothing comes even close to expressing those feelings like abstract art. But that interior may be universally possessed, Colleen was unique, that essence she tapped was mostly her, not just some ineffable collective consciousness Jung might espouse. How rare that is, working class, mother, a real American. She’s the Bruce Springsteen or even Allen Ginsberg of abstract art.”
“Patti Smith,” said Theodore. “Aunt Enid calls her the Patti Smith of abstract art. She has the originality and commitment, and the accent.”
“Well I remember Enid calling her my Jersey Girl,” I said.
“New Jersey artists are known for originality and commitment, but in other genres. Most of the painting out there is terrible.”
“To be fair, 90 percent of art being made anywhere is utter crap,” said Theodore. “Why should New Jersey be any different?”
“True, but Chelsea galleries rarely went to the Jersey Side. Look, Philadelphia is the place where most of the art made in New Jersey gets sold, and there are other specialty galleries in really rich towns like Short Hills or Livingston and they can do well with what is regional art. It’s not taken seriously, rarely reviewed anywhere. I had been to some shows and galleries, but in Hoboken or down in Princeton, the very idea of a Jersey City show was ludicrous, beyond the pale. I even stopped going to any Jersey shows, one or two was enough. Oh, there’s talent, and everything can have its niche, but even the collages and mixed media stuff was derivative and often amateur hour. I was meeting this guy, a first date, and he suggested this art bar in his neighborhood. I had heard about people moving out of Manhattan to New Jersey, but I never knew them well enough to actually go visit and spend time with them. I tell you, I thought it was a joke when he said Jersey City art bar, but he had sexy hair and thick arms. What the hell, the train was near the gallery bar. What was it, serums?”
“A surprisingly classy art bar, with a respectable by the glass wine selection. It was like Williamsburg or a dozen other urban renewal centers, wanna be artists, young people, but you know, the typical crap. Often the skills were not even there, but lack of talent is never the biggest problem. It is the lack of new ideas. It’s never just about form. I can still remember when I first saw Colleen’s work. The guy was cute but boring, I killed lulls by keeping my mouth shut as I looked at the art, one eyesore after another, believe me you. But then, there was this two by three foot glow and I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was like those stories my grandmother told me about the kids at Fatima seeing an incarnation of the blessed mother, amongst all this tripe and clatter, a shiny apparition in the form of a beautiful, perfect abstract, multiple yellow shades, woven so seamlessly it caused vertigo. I bought it on the spot, and left my business card. She delivered it in person, although she said she knew I was real because my credit card cleared. I fell in love with her eye. I asked her to let me try selling her art and when I did, we made a contract for exclusivity and I told her to stop showing her work in Jersey City – anything not related to that college of hers, but those works were usually already sold. Her Theorem days were over, the price points were too low. She hasn’t shown work there in years, but now she is making Jersey City better known than it ever was. When I got to know her more, and we became friends, I realized what I was seeing. I was always an outlier in the art world, I came in through the backdoor, I had a good education and learned art history, but it was a state college that I barely graduated. I knew a lot of rich men and they all had pretty houses, my first job was a secretary for Kristof Lajian, then it was sales and manager for his Tribeca shop, then back to Chelsea when I started my own shop. My mother was an art teacher, and my father, God bless him, worked for the DPW in Paterson.”
“What is that?”
“Department of Public Works. I’m trying to convey what a phenomenon Colleen is. I came from the same working class place, my whole drive in life was to move into Manhattan and make money because I never had any and if I didn’t make money I would starve. I just have an eye for beauty that other people want to own. Recognizing beauty is a hell of a lot easier, and much less of a sacrifice than creating beauty. To have an abstract artist working at her level come out of the morass that is Blue Collar America, that doesn’t even happen once in a generation. We are never going to see an abstract artist like Colleen in our lifetimes again. That world she came out of has changed so much, there may never even again be those kinds of conditions that formed her. That is what you have to know, Theodore. “
“She has a good story, it’s the American myth, Rags to Riches, but in this case abstract art came in the middle.”
“A lot more to it than that,” said Tara. “My mother encouraged me, but no one encouraged her until she got to art school, which she had to apply for in secret. Do you want to understand her, my mother? Do you care about that, Theodore!”
“Abstract art speaks for itself, biographical context is not as pertinent.”
I cleared my throat. “If this show is going to be as big as Mikal says it will be, the art world worldwide will be talking about it.”
“Art world talk means art sales,” said Mikal.
“Articles, art students writing papers,” I said. “We want books written about her. Her art is forever and the real money will be in licensing the rights to her abstract images. This exhibit is just a start, and you already say she has a good story. I just want that story to be a complete picture.”
“Everyone sees something in my mother’s art,” said Tara. “Maybe knowing her story won’t help people understand the actual abstracts any better, but knowing where they came from, that just adds… you know—“
“Credibility,” I said.
“But shucks you always know what to say,” said Tara.
“It will enhance value in the long run,” said Mikal.
Gina’s frayed-edged denim shorts were cut high on her thigh and a faded Rolling Stones tongue flecked off her vintage, distressed sleeveless t-shirt, soggy with perspiration. She exhaled a tremendous cloud of white smoke, then wrapped her lips around the stem of the vape which gleamed like a silver derringer in the street light. With her next nimbus she called to me from across the pedestrian plaza.
Theorem used to be the only bar on a neighborhood block with discount stores, Korean Grocers, dry cleaner – but as gentrification gained momentum those neighborhood amenities slipped away until the city council decided to make the Grove Street PATH station an official destination and prohibited vehicular traffic. A once thriving retail district went downscale for decades, now mimicked the Village and Williamsburg, with Sports Bars, Hand-crafted beer taverns, Ramen, Hand Made Pasta, Dayglow Pizza. The developers wanted a new district, the change was gradual, an apartment building that anchored a Starbucks and a Walgreens probably came first, Theorem came soon thereafter and now had become a holdover from a previous era. Many of the restaurants and coffee shops hung work by local artists on their walls. But Theorem was the only Art Bar and kept alive the DIY art ethos just by the fact a lot of artists and friends of artists drank and ate here.
Dozens of mainly generation Y and X, sweltering in the sticky humidity, meandered about, mostly orbiting Theorem. Tattoos infested the hordes of sweating skin. Lines of what looked like Sanskrit ran down Gina’s shoulder forming what appeared to be a tablet. I had never noticed her ink before, I wondered if it was new. We hugged hello. A strong twinge of sorrow swept over me when I saw the closed window gates on the Korean grocer, a black masking tape held up the real estate sign with phone number. The latest victim of the neighborhood transition, Colleen loved this little store, always making a point to buy their mangos and a rice farina imported from Cambodia whenever she drank at Theorem.
“Are you okay?”
“When did this place close?”
“I know, right. I used to stop here with Colleen whenever we were downtown. It would have broken her heart. I heard it might become one of the Trader Joes Artisanal Boutique concepts.”
“I haven’t seen any mention specifically but I know their new retail concept and it would make sense the way this neighborhood is going. How many bars can one block have, you know.”
“We’re the next Williamsburg. Can you believe this heat?”
Heat wave talk dominated all chit chat. The weather had to be addressed and acknowledged. The dress code on the street had become less rigorous, daily suits no longer mandatory. The office I worked out of went all Silicon Valley years ago, I was wearing a light polo shirt and khakis the night of the art opening. Fresh in memory are the endless summers of schlepping back and forth from Wall Street to New Jersey, sweating through a long sleeve white shirt and thin wool but nevertheless mildly itchy suit. I’m not in the least bit sorry to have seen that era of a suit all day every day pass.
“My sweat is perspiring. How are you, Gina.”
“I’m acting again and I’m waiting for the divorce to be finalized.”
“I guess I should be happy about the acting, but I didn’t know about the other. I’m sorry, I like Justin.”
“So did I, but he is living with his boyfriend on Fire Island.”
“As if you or anybody we know is surprised…. oh, I don’t care about the sex, really. We’re both bi, so it wasn’t like a shock. I knew about his past. I’m relieved, really… and free of course, which is the best part. Free to act, I’m going on tour with Hamlet.”
“How wonderful. Ophelia?”
“No, Gertrude. I’ve aged out of Ophelia.”
“Where are you touring?”
“Up and down the Jersey Shore and part of Delaware. It’s called Shakespeare For Shore.”
“Beach, not certainty.”
“That shore, yes. The one with an ‘H’. But it’s a really good company with a British director who staged a well-reviewed Pericles in the Bahamas and the theaters are all in these Beach towns. I know the play so well I can work on my tan in whatever Jersey Shore Town we’re playing.”
“Sounds like a lot of fun.”
“I have to drive down to Absecon tomorrow, but I couldn’t miss this opening. I love Giselle’s piece, I saw her inside. Where’s Tara.”
“She said she’d be here, I haven’t texted her.”
“Did she have a piece in the last Theorem show, or was that at one of the galleries.”
“I’m not sure the last time she showed.”
“At least you have work here.”
“Giselle said you filmed her dancing and of she and Tara dropping thrill into the river.”
“Whatever, it looks disgusting.”
“Cleo loved their stink.”
“Oh… I miss that cat. They showed your Humphrey footage on the TV screens. I was out of town, but it seems the whole town went to the docks for the predawn Humphrey love fest.”
“There hasn’t been any sign of him for a while, I think the fervor died down somewhat. He probably left if he was ever here at all.”
“I believe he was here, and is here. I believe he has returned to where he you know, he found love and wants to find love before he dies.”
“You have been talking to Giselle and Tara.”
“Nobody has to talk to them. Everything I know about Humphrey comes from Facebook. I follow all the Humphrey Theories as I see you do as well. I get your notifications.”
“I’m hooked, I admit it. I am having fun.”
“Everybody is. I believe that he is attracted to warm water. The water around Jersey City and New York haven’t been this warm and clean since he first fell in love.”
“You don’t believe whales fall in love.”
“Animals fall in love, or do you think Cleo is using purrs to deceive you into feeding her.”
“She purrs at whoever has the food. I am sure if I die alone in the compound she’ll eat my flesh to survive.”
“Please, don’t talk about your death.” Her hissing inhale of electronic tobacco consumed our moment of awkward silence “You have to admit whales are smarter than cats. The say they’re smarter than dolphins and dolphins are smarter than primates. I know his emotions may not be evolved as a person’s, but even if it’s just instinct, feel how hot this weather is, this is great whale fucking weather. He got lucky here once.”
“Whales traverse, that’s my guess. They swim the seven seas. He was here, now he’s somewhere else. The ocean is the size of the planet.”
“I hope he’s still in our sea. We could use a humpback whale around here, something positive. All this negative shit on the news all the time, protests in the south and shootings in Greenville, it’s constant. Oh, I know there’s lots of other more interesting stuff in the news, but that’s what I remember the most, what most people do. But now, Tara and Giselle discovered Humphrey.”
“I don’t think they claim to have discovered him.”
“They’ve done the best Humphrey social media.”
Our conversation petered out. Three or four groups of two or three were smoking in the storefront area on the sidewalk. The bar’s façade was glass and the sidewalk had chairs and table and was part of the restaurant. You could reasonably smoke at these tables, but it was too humid to sit outside and drink or eat the above average pub food at the plastic, portable tables. Unless for their own smoke breaks, the waitresses just refused to venture outside. Inside was a standing room only crowd, humming with chatter and DJ music and an air conditioner staying in the fight and even almost winning.
I wanted a beer, I had already waved at Giselle. I knew people inside. Most I had not seen since Colleen died. Come to think of it, I had not been to any art show or party in town without her until tonight. Just as I was to finally enter the bar, a young blonde came out the doors. Gina beamed at me. “Let me introduce you to the new Ophelia.”
She was gracious and lovely, spoke with a very British accent. “This heat is ghastly. I hope it’s nicer down the shore as Gina keeps telling me is the way you Joisey people call your seashore.”
“The north Jersey people at least.”
Her hair screamed yellow, shorn to a luminescent crew cut. She paused and wrinkled her forehead. “You’re Colleen’s husband.”
“I love her painting. I’m staying at Gina’s flat and I can’t stop looking at that abstract. I meditated to the painting just this morning. I looked her up on google, I can’t believe I know somebody who knows somebody who won a Tate. I was looking at her website and what’s been written about her. I told Gina that painting will be worth a fortune.”
“Maybe not a fortune, but her price is rising. There’s a big show planned.” Hearing good news about Colleen made her smile. I avoided telling people about the plans for Colleen’s art, so I lowered my voice. “….the Whitney is part of the project.”
Gina’s grin faded. I hadn’t detected her voice slurring before now. “I would never sell it… never. Colleen was my best friend. To be around an artist of her caliber is my proudest memory.”
The young brit gave the suddenly sobbing Gina a full-body hug. “I didn’t mean to…”
Gina kissed her on the lips, then let herself be consoled. Gina regained composure with a quick laugh, fluttering an apology for being so silly, then she hugged me goodbye. “We should get together, you should come over, wouldn’t that be great if he came over some night when the tour breaks.”
“That would be lovely, I’ll do anything you want,” she said shimmering with charm. We did the European kissy one cheek than the other cheek. Walking away Gina wrapped her arm around her back and her palm cupped the young woman’s ass. I walked into the bar wondering if that squeeze was for my benefit, supporting evidence for the innuendo I sensed in her voice. I wasn’t ready to have sex or a relationship or anything with anybody, but if I was, I wondered how high on the list would my wife’s best friend be.
Then I felt like an idiot that I was even considering a list or imagining Gina’s naked body. I ordered an Amstel, offered to buy Giselle a drink, she ordered another apple martini. The bartender recognized me and shook my hand. An artist, though I blanked on her medium, she may have been a former student of Colleen’s.
The chrome-trimmed white bar counter gleamed. The bar area was dim and the actual bar seemed to be the only light. The adjacent dining room was well lit, as was the wall behind the bar where above the shiny chrome shelves of booze bottles an immense flat screen television flickered with an animation by one of the artists in the show. Paintings – well, some collages tonight too – works of art – hung on the wall opposite the bar, and the three walls of the dining area – and museum quality lights illuminated the art in the show. Theorem was actually very brightly lit, but the brightness was centered on the walls so one could see the art and seemed to thicken the shadowy ambiance hovering like a force field solely around the bar area and within that haze only the bar glowed.
Giselle gestured towards a wall and explained that the animation was based on that piece. She remained focused on the animation, layers and layers of the same image cascading like a whirlpool and disappearing into the center of the screen. I asked where her piece was and she gestured toward another wall.
“People said nice things.”
“It’s a good piece. At least you’re keeping yourself out there.”
“I guess, nobody has bought it yet.”
“That’s always the hard part.”
“I don’t care, it’s a series and I think if I ever get a solo show, then I will be understood. Maybe I’ll understand. My first memories were of my mother giving me a bath, before the divorce I had swimming lessons, went down the shore every summer. I felt safe in the ocean, my family was together. I’ve been feeling good about my life. All my dreams that I remember take place in water, and water has always meant healing to me. I don’t want to be selfish, I want to be giving, I want to heal the world.”
I had heard the rap before but I liked hearing it again. She’s fun when she’s enthusiastic. Our drinks came and we clinked.
“Is that so bad… wanting to heal the world?”
“The world needs healing, now more than ever.”
“Right!” she exclaimed, stretching the syllables before normalizing her voice. “I’m just seeing water more right now in my head, an aquatic world so that’s what I am painting. There’s so much negative energy in the world. I just want to feel positive energy, give out only positive energy, and only show positive energy in my art.”
“How many pieces will be in the series?”
“You can’t plan these things. I am painting one right after another.”
“That’s good, nothing better for an artist than productivity. Creating is the key, Colleen always said that. I wish Tara could get back into the swing.”
“She doesn’t like to talk about her art anymore… at least not to me.”
Erin walked up to us and Giselle hugged her. I remembered her name, she was familiar, but that was true about nearly everybody in the bar. They all are familiar, friends and neighbors or at least fellow residents of the same city. They were the scene, the artist community. During the summer few art shows opened anywhere in town, most of the galleries went dark until after Labor Day. Anybody not on vacation in the local art world was at this bar tonight. Except for Colleen, she happened to be dead. I missed her in a way not entirely unpleasant because she instilled in me an appreciation of art, artists, and the desire to support the ideal of creating something beautiful that did not exist until it was created. Art is hope, the possibility of the now. I learned how to live life anew from her, a lesson I’ll never forget. Being here let Colleen at least hover in the back of my mind. She wouldn’t always stay there though.
“The piece that got accepted for this show came out of a workshop I took with Colleen two years ago. I was with my father’s family in the DR when she died, so I wasn’t able to…” Her voice started to crack.
More than six months had gone by since the funeral but I was back there again, suddenly expected to commiserate. Her tears unleashed, she needed a hug. She took off her Buddy Holly glasses, calmed down as she wiped her eyes dry with a cocktail napkin. Then her tears burst forth again. “I would not be the artist I am today if it wasn’t for Colleen, she taught me how to find the art in me.”
“I am sure she is proud of you,” I said, patting her shoulder.
Giselle roared with laughter. “Let this man enjoy his beer Erin.”
“I know, I’m sorry, but I’ve been feeling this way ever since Giselle told me you were coming tonight.”
“Oh would you get it together!”
“Come on, Giselle. Hold my seat, Erin please show me your art.”
She grabbed my hand and nudged our way through the crowd. Her acrylics were near globs, almost gooey, the palette flat, and muted – dank brown and dark greens, a color scheme invaded by harshly glaring threads of black and crimson, which spread like a strangling spider web. She had a genuine eye for composition, balancing a mossy, peaceful feel with the neon LED of our contemporary culture. I could see the hand of Colleen – several degrees of separation to be sure – but a certain quality of the composition reminded me of her and I believe that is because of her influence on Erin as a teacher. Another remnant she left for us, another piece of her life after death.
The art was positioned high on the walls, above the heads of the diners. You could stand in the middle of the space, look at the paintings on the wall and not impose on the people at the tables. I wondered what Colleen would have thought. She is as present by her absence as she was when she was alive, just present in a different way. I said hello to people I knew, Erin became in engaged in another conversation. Eventually, I went back to the bar, talked to Giselle about a fight between two old men rumored to have taken place in front of Fernando’s bodega, then finished my beer, and ordered another. I wanted to eat soon. Tara texted they were on their way.
In the corner far corner of the dining area a microphone had been set up. The curator/bar manager welcomed everybody and thanked the artists, and introduced Melba Owens, she looked fourteen, wore a blue denim Stetson, matching her blue, solid body Fender, which she plugged into the amplifier the size of a briefcase near the microphone stand.
Melba performed around town, often at art openings. We had seen her many times. She sang with a drawl, accompanied only by her very twangy guitar. She sang what I think I was a Hank Williams song then Papa Don’t Preach by Madonna which she made sound like a Hank Williams song. She was nearly thirty, born and raised in Edison, but she’d immersed herself in southern culture and now reimagined herself as a cornpone spouting, redneck troubadour. Her real name was Meagan. Melba was not the real her, but she no longer was herself. She was entirely persona. Her earnestness persuaded you that persona was the genuine self . Was it the power of commitment that overcame inauthenticity, or was it the ironic fact of the inauthenticity that empowered her commitment? Ironic or not, Melba followed in the great American tradition of reinvention.
She introduced her next song. “I want to sing a song I wrote about someone we all love but I am going to need some help from one of the biggest supporters of who this song is about. In fact, I think she may have a picture here tonight. Please give it up, for the amazing Giselle.”
Giselle walked with a bounce towards Melba. Someone handed her a tambourine. “Now, I wrote this song after being inspired by Giselle and her Facebook page, We Love You Humphrey.”
Tara came in with Theodore and Mikal just as the crowd clapped wildly and hooted. The duo counted one, two three… then Melba strummed a waltzing country melody.
“We love you Humphrey, we love you Humphrey,” sang Melba.
Giselle swayed her hips as the heel of her palm hit the tambourine.
Melba leaned into the microphone. “Welcome to our river, welcome our shore. We long to hear you sing again, just like so many summers before… We love you Humphrey, we love you Humphrey.”
All chatter ceased as the crowd began to clap along, repeating the chorus line as Giselle rattled the tambourine and gyrated her abdomen.
“Let us be your pod, please eat our krill. Let our waters be your summer home. Please don’t leave, but if you will.”
She and Giselle froze for a few beats before wailing into the microphone. “Sing us one more love song.”
The crowd sang again, many at the top of their lungs. “We love you Humphrey, We love you Humphrey.”
Melba sped up the tempo, the We Love You Humphrey becoming faster and faster until nobody was singing but clapping, stamping their feet and otherwise making noise. Two, then, three other friends of Giselle danced behind her, quickly followed by several others and they formed a conga line that shimmied in a circuitous route to the front of the bar then back to the guitarist shredding away. Tara left the two men who seemed startled by the spectacle and joined in the dancing.
Melba bowed after her last strum. As the other dancers went back to their drinks, Giselle shouted into the microphone. “Humphrey is here, Humphrey is here.”
The chant was taken up by a smattering but quickly died away. Tara hugged Giselle, an emotional, long lasting embrace. Whatever tension between them that I either noticed or imagined was now instantly gone.
The manager showed us to a table for all five of us. Theodore ordered a craft beer, explaining that he could never drink American lager before the craft beer movement. I felt elated when Sandra’s spider web tattooed hands gave out menus.
Mikal insisted on ending the day at Theorem so Theodore could see the place where he discovered Colleen.
“It was in a show just like this,” said Mikal.
“There are many bars like this in Oslo, New York, everywhere and they all have local art shows,” said Theodore. “There used to just be one in every city, now every neighborhood in every city has at least one and also cities no one used to care about. I don’t know how much of it sells.”
“I get invitations from art shows in cities that never had a scene before all the time,” agreed Mikal. “Good contemporary art is rare.”
“This scene is ours though,” said Giselle. “That has to count for something.”
“I liked your dancing,” said Theodore. “Who is Humphrey?”
Tara and Giselle glanced at their drinks.
“I saw that on Facebook, some kind of Whale cult in Brooklyn,” said Mikal.
“It’s not a cult and it’s not in Brooklyn,” said Giselle.
“Humphrey is a humpback whale that’s been in the Hudson River,” I said.
“Whales don’t swim in rivers,” said Theodore. He sounded annoyed. I wondered if his trip to Jersey City hadn’t gone well.
“He’s in the bay,” said Giselle. “The Hudson River flows into Hudson Bay and that is the sea.”
“The girls heard him sing,” I said.
Mikal chuckled, “sing? I did see something about Brooklyn whale songs, some kind of midnight rave. That has something to do with that whale somebody saw from a Ferry a month ago.”
“We heard him,” said Tara. “He comes here every summer, and the Hudson Bay is not in Brooklyn, those are New Jersey waters.”
“A whale comes to Jersey City every summer just to sing?” said Theodore.
“It’s about love,” said Giselle. “He comes to Hudson Bay to mate.”
“The song is a mating call,” said Tara. “We know this sailor guy – ”
“Captain Billy, he has his own boat,” said Giselle.
“He told us he hears Humpback whales every year and he’s been on the bay for like a half century,” said Tara. “We did hear him and so did a lot of other people. Can’t you appreciate the fact people want to celebrate a whale making our waters his summer home?”
Sandra was back, ready with pen and pad. “You know, we wanted to have a Humphrey related drink at the bar tonight, but the curator said it would take attention away from the art show. I love your piece Giselle.”
“Oh thank you, you’re so nice,” said Giselle. “I think a Humphrey drink would be great.”
“Something summery, with vodka and fruit,” she said. “I better get this order in, the cook wants to leave. The specials are mussels and shrimp but we ran out of krill.”
“Thank God,” I laughed and ordered a cheese burger with avocado instead of bacon and salad instead of fries. I used to always order that when I came here with Colleen. She insisted I ordered fries, so she didn’t have to and could share mine. No extra carbs tonight, I wanted to eat lite in this heat.
“You made that film of the Humphrey fest, I loved it,” said Sandra,
“I wasn’t here when you showed it.”
“You’re an auteur now,” said Mikal.
“It was of the Humphrey Fest, which wasn’t in Brooklyn, but here in Jersey City too,” said Giselle.
“I’ll see if they can run it again, it was funny,” she said, then took the other orders. “I liked it when you guys posted it on the page.”
When she left, I asked Theodore what he thought of Jersey City.
He shrugged. “Another gentrifying city…your compound is a nice home.”
“We probably have more pictures of the studio she set up when we first moved there, it looked totally different. She really wasn’t painting for at least 18 months, it was all digital photography.”
“There’s a Whole Foods in the same block where she grew up, I didn’t exactly see much hardship.”
“That used to be a warehouse, and the apartment building was a window factory. She used to have some stories.”
“She saw somebody get stabbed across the street when she was walking home from school,” said Tara.
“She even told me that story,” said Mikal
“Now it’s a regular SoHo and the house is worth a fortune but back then it was one of the worst blocks you could live on, you really had to be a poor dirt-bag to live there she would say.”
“Well, if she grew up as one of those, what do you call them here, Yuppies, you know, with a trust fund, I have to admit that wouldn’t be as great a story as her being a poor street urchin in a bygone industrial city,” said Theodore. “The problem with too much biography is that things change too fast and things can get dated, very old very fast. Few people care about history, and if the only way you can understand her story is to understand history and the way things were, you can lose audience. Let me process what I’ve seen, there’s a lot of moving parts to Interior Windows.”
“It’s very complicated,” said Mikal. “But we are going to do it and it’s going to be fabulous.”
“It just sounds so exciting,” said Giselle to no one.
“At least you came out here,” said Tara. “You made time for that, even if you think it was a waste of time to. I appreciate that you were good on your word.”
“My time is never wasted when it comes to Colleen.” Theodore pushed his yellow mop over one side of his head and raised his glass. “Our family loves your mother’s art.”
Casual attire offices on the street still frowned on t-shirts no matter how well printed the graphic design or how lush the cotton. Some form of collar was still required for men. I purchased summer shirts, muted tones with patterns –flowers, stems and leaves; sand and waves, seashells and starfish. Hot and humid persisted every day and every night. Relentless sweating. I seemed to be soaking through shirts I wanted to wear to work too quickly. I was bored of polos and I didn’t want something that could be worn with a tie. No need to wear a tie, but I didn’t want the tie I wasn’t wearing to be merely missing. I wanted a tie not to be an option, nonexistent. Tara said I looked like a tourist from Omaha visiting Atlantic City.
Loneliness is not without solace. Summer mornings fulfilled me with their daily rhythms. I went to the gym, ate healthy, cereal, fruit, yogurt. I went into work earlier and earlier, not to be an over-achiever or the onsite financial consultant of the month, but to catch the early sun through the 190. Half the year, every day has a minute more darkness, the other half, a minute more light. The summer solstice, June 21st, is the longest day of the year and in July, even though the days are still long and it’s never dark before 9, that minute of light can be noticed. Dawn comes a little bit later, and if I was on the Ferry by 7, I could catch that ideal sunlight, spreading across the surface of the Hudson like concentric rings of amber. I would take pictures of the entire ferry voyage in the morning, just for this light. I could see the slight variance in light of the one minute less sun per day period of the year. I was chasing the light wearing my new shirt, refreshed by the only cool breeze of the day while leaning on the ferry’s railing, aiming Colleen’s Canon.
One early morning, I was clicking away in a new shirt and feeling the hot but not yet unpleasant brackish air against my face and forearms. With the statue of liberty still in the frame, less than one hundred feet from the ferry, a stream of water suddenly shot up like a geyser. The eruption of water came from a blowhole of a whale now emerging from the bay. It was Humphrey! Facebook had too many pictures that nobody was unable to instantly recognize a humpback whale. I held tight to the camera, fought through the shock of what I was seeing and kept clicking.
He was larger than an elephant, big as a railroad car, a shattering veil of water fell off his body as he leapt towards the sky, flapping his side fins, rotating in the air. Easily the largest living thing I’ve ever seen, just massive tonnage yet he seemed to glide above the water before falling back into the bay with a splash so explosive collateral liquid almost hit the ferry. His tailfin slapped the surface of the water. The massive creature submerged, except for his dorsal fin disappearing into the horizon.
I heard passengers gasp, some shouted in shock. None of them were quick enough with their phones to get anything close to the shots that I got. I took a few slow, deep breaths. My hands shook as I reviewed the images on the camera screen. Humphrey looked beautiful breaching next to the Statue of Liberty. I called a New York Times reporter I was friends with; he was a business reporter and used me as a source.
“I have a picture of Humphrey,” I told him.
I explained what happened. He said come right to the office. They paid me $10,000, I did a video interview in their offices, a reporter interviewed both me and the ferry captain, and the story was online by lunchtime – both the written story and my video interview. I called Tara was on a shift at the coffee shop but that did not restrain the volume of scream of joy. I got two bottles of the most expensive Champaign the corner liquor store sold and ordered from Wong Fu and the compound had a blowout. I bought steamed scallops for Cleo. After dinner, we drank cognac and even smoked weed Giselle claimed a friend had given her. A miracle happened; our happiness at this fact could not go uncelebrated.
We were giddy and energized, soaking up any and all Humphrey updates. The television was on, we took turns switching between news stations. Two laptops glowed on the coffee table, and we each kept tapping our smartphones. The New York Times article was going viral – more than 100,000 likes and 50,000 shares by midnights, and of course it was excerpted by other news sites and those stories were likewise being shared. We were transfixed by the going viral process, my whale picture bouncing across websites, text and video stories, comments and notifications multiplying rapidly. I was swimming but with – instead of against – an accelerating current.
CNN interviewed the ferry captain, people from the boat were calling into a late night podcast. Captain Billy’s “customized and personal whale watching cruises” popped up as sponsored post in our newsfeed. This made us laugh the hardest, Captain Billy on Facebook! “Now everybody in the world is on Facebook,” I declared.
“I don’t know if that is such a good thing, couldn’t a guy that antiquated using Facebook be like a sign of the Apocalypse,” wondered Tara, in a tone at least half seriously.
“Apocalypse! Don’t be so western!” said Giselle “It’s not an end sign, Captain Billy feeling the healing vibrations of Humphrey is the beginning. A whale jumping this close to Jersey City validates what we’ve been doing on Facebook. He’s here to heal us, he’s giving us back the love that we are giving to him. I’m going to do a Humphrey series. No. Maybe the Water Healing series is going to have a Humphrey chapter, a series within a series. Humphrey is a sign to us all.”
“But of what, climate change.”
“Of love, he’s always here for love.”
“That’s why he sings, you’re right… Giselle… I don’t mean to be contrary…”
I wandered into my bedroom. I was full and wasted and needed to be comfortably horizontal. Cleo loudly vibrated against my bicep. I listened to their voices as I dozed off. A few hours later, Tara shook me awake, “there’s going to be a flash mob at their pier for dawn. You can take more pictures.”
My eyes went wide immediately. The energy from yesterday had barely dissipated. I was sober but restless. With camera and bottles of water, we headed to the docks as dawn brightened the cloud-streaked, cobalt sky high above the indifferent Statue of Liberty. The recorded song of the Humpback whale echoed across the bay and up the river, I heard it more than two blocks away from the docks. Hundreds of people gathered on the piers that jutted into the bay and the walkway along the banks. Giselle spotted Melba by her straw cowboy hat. The art crowd had congregated around her. Strangers and some passing acquaintances clapped as I passed them, some shook my hands. By the time I reach the more familiar cohorts, everyone wanted a hug. I was a celebrity, not just because my pictures had been seen by millions – I am now proof Humphrey is real. I captured visual evidence of the breach that fulfilled their hope. At first I wasn’t sure how to interpret what their show of recognition or approval meant, then I realized that acknowledgement was not what they wanted to express. It was gratitude.
I filmed Melba leading the crowd into an exuberant version of We Love You Humphrey. Giselle danced and played the tambourine, and she was not alone. Women and men – mostly women – waving tambourines as well as maracas and castanets. The bongo and conga players sat in folding chairs next to Melba, who was likewise accompanied by a young man on banjo, a young woman on fiddle and two other guitar players . Dozens of dancers moved with the music.
After the music faded, people asked me about the Humphrey sighting, marveling how I kept calm and perfectly framed the whale moment. “Do you, like some say, think he was old, that he came back to familiar waters just to die,” asked Tara.
“No way is this whale sickly, with a leap like that. Humphrey is fearless. That’s why he’s come back to these waters, so close to civilization.”
People lingered to nearly eight o’clock. On a lark, I texted the editor I had met yesterday morning if he was interested in pictures of the early morning Humphrey Fest – I was more than half joking – I only wanted to touch base and get any idea just how viral the story had gone and how long their experts expected it would stay viral – but barely a minute later he called me. I told him what I had. He asked me how many people were there, then asked me to describe the pictures I had taken. He wanted to see the video too. He was emailing me a link to a drop box and asked how soon I could transfer the images. The girls listened bugged eyed.
Later that day, the editor called me with an assignment – I had to ask him what he meant by that – a press conference at the marina at Liberty State Park – a new whale watching yacht opened for business. “I’m short-staffed, it’s the summer,” he said. “You live there and I liked the photographs you took. Do you think you can shoot people, or only sea mammals?”
I parked, went up the crowd at the docks. Outside of the lot right next to the crowd was a local New Jersey television van, it’s thick antenna protruding like a palm tree from its roof. A police officer stopped me, glanced at my camera bag and asked dryly, “are you with the press?”
A woman in her thirties wearing a denim Yankee cap walked pass the police officer towards me. “I’m Cindy Lee with the times. You the freelancer? ”
“I guess I am,” I said, we shook hands. The cop now talking to someone else.
Her tea-saucer round glasses were black, but not as absent of light as her hair, pulled back and tied in a ponytail. Cindy Lee handed me the shiny press badge, an embossed card on a lanyard that identified me as press photographer New York Times. “I love your picture. I think it’s great you caught this assignment.”
“You tell me what to do because that Humphrey picture was a total fluke. That was the first I ever had published. I’m not a photographer.”
“We all start somewhere. Your picture really started this whale story. Friends of mine went to the first Whale-Fest, I wanted to do a story then but my editors weren’t interested. You’ll do fine.”
I followed her into the crowd of reporters and media people. I felt like a dork in the blossoms and leaves print shirt. I had been around press, but more often than not, I was talking one on one. I never saw so many press in one place before, much less be led straight through the hive. I sensed suspicion in their glances, a mild hostility when they realized I was not one of them. I was not a photojournalist, or even an artist. I was a total amateur who got lucky.
About 20 reporters stood next to the Gloria, a ferry sized vessel. The skipper – dark skinned, with bead-studded dreadlocks mostly textured with hair other than his – I couldn’t place his Caribbean accent – he claimed to be an oceanographer and would be running whale watching private trips, with sonar and radar, multiple cameras as well as a drone-cam. “This whale won’t stay much past July,” he explained. He sounded credible, and amiable. Passengers were limited to two dozen, $300 per person/$500 per couple per for a four hour Humphrey search. Inside dozens of flat screens showing views from the multiple camera, a large screen for the drone and one each for the sonar and radar. The screens were positioned throughout an air conditioned lounge, comfy couches and chairs and tables, with a full bar service and a limited menu. We took a maiden spin around the statue of liberty, with the boat pausing far in the bay where the Skipper demonstrated the krill canons – 50 gallons of the dried shrimp per blast spreading far enough away from the Gloria so the engines wouldn’t scare her. There were two krill cannons, one on each side of the boat, next to gigantic speakers. As the humpback song echoed from the speakers, the cannons shot out the dried shrimp, spreading like a swarm of gray confetti. Passengers could lean on the rails or sit in one of the deck chairs. An additional bar was outside near the stern. He was a great salesman, affable with a friendly accent, but authoritative. I was ready to believe he could detect a whale, at least generate whale-related data.
“Humphrey keeps on giving,” said Cindy. “It’s a fun summer story.”
“I can’t believe people are willing to pay that much to not see a whale But, I can see the appeal of partying on that boat.”
“He said it was sold out through the weekend,” she said. “People love the trendy. When it was just that one guy in Jersey City it wasn’t a story.”
“Captain Billy has nothing on this.”
The story and my photographs went up in a matter of hours, thousands of shares. Nowhere as near as viral as my original Humphrey photo of course, no surprise there. But the next day another announcement from the Brooklyn marina. The times covered it with another photographer. Dr. Jerod – an Australian Marine Biologist with a Ph.D. in cetology, hence the doctor – was part of a whale watching cruise ship that usually worked off the Florida coast, but had sailed up north and rented space in the marina just to try catch the last few weeks of what he said was the mid-Atlantic humpback mating season. His ship – Water Lily – not only had the sonar, radar, cameras and drone like the Jersey City oceanography vessel, but a female Humpback whale song.
Well, not a song so much as a chirp. Females don’t sing, but Dr. Jerod explained that whales make many different noises. They’re not all songs, and female humpbacks have their own sounds. Humpbacks definitely communicate with sound except nobody is sure what they are actually communicating. Dr. Jerod – who studied Humpbacks in all four hemispheres he claimed – theorized that the female chirps were actually their response to the male mating call, signaling readiness or availability or acting as a tracking beacon so the male could find her. “We’ve had success down south in attracting humpbacks for observation with our genuine whale chirps,” said the Aussie. “There hasn’t been a whale that I know of spotted so close to an industrialized area. If your Hudson Humphrey is still here, and I believe he is, our chirp will make him feel more comfortable.”
I was in the easy chair with Cleo on my lap, and the girls were on the couch leaning into their laptops. Tara sighed, “These artificial noises may be the wrong thing to make him feel more welcomed.”
“He is more than welcomed, we know he’s here!” said Giselle.
“But we’re faking him out, now we have a sex-bot sound. First the climate change brings him back to these shores then there’s more krill than ever before and sounds of whales that aren’t here either. It’s one charade after another.”
“I don’t trust Brooklyn,” said Giselle. “That chirp doesn’t sound anything like a whale.”
“But shucks, I guess since you’re trying to paint a whale you know what all whale sounds sound like.”
Giselle was taken back by the harshness in her sarcasm. “I admit, it’s an aquatic chirp.”
“The chirp has been authenticated as a humpback whale sound,” I said.
“It’s sexist,” said Giselle. “Do you hear how it’s a higher pitch, like a stereotypical female whale?”
“The controversy is if it is a mating response or not, it is a sound humpbacks make… that’s what the article I saw said.”
“But shucks, it’s on the internet it must be true.”
“You’re on everybody’s case tonight.” Cleo, now awake peered at Giselle, puzzled at her change in volume. “Do you think it is a whale chirp or not a whale chirp, Tara?”
“That’s not the point, not the point at all,” she sulked. “Whale song, whale chirp… it’s not a whale, a real living, breathing leviathan. Humphrey is a being. Humphrey is not a digital recording, not electronic sound. We’re duping him.”
“I thought we were welcoming him.”
“You have to admit,” I said. “It’s gone way beyond welcoming.”
“I’m against the chirp, it’s bogus,” said Giselle.
“That chirp is already on the internet, other boats are already playing it.”
Tara tapped her phone, showed us the latest Captain Billy sponsored Facebook ad, which read: “Now with both authentic humpback chirp and song.”
“That is a sign of the apocalypse,” I deadpanned. The shock may not linger near as long but I can still marvel at myself for being surprised by the world I now live in. One soft stroke down the nape of Cleo’s neck revived her purr. “There’s no proof that he can even hear what they’re playing, it probably sounds just like another boat to dear old Humphrey.”
“But you took the picture…” Giselle put her hands on my knees. I wondered how many PBR’s she had. “…you saw Humphrey.”
“That I did.”
“You turned this into a circus.” Tara got up, scooped Cleo off my lap and lifted her over her head. Cleo dangled her legs, stretched her paws, yelped a meow but continued to purr. Tara spoke at the cat. “It’s all his fault, isn’t it Cleo? His picture has pushed the whole Humphrey phenomenon way beyond the waterfront Burning Man with all these would be Jacque Cousteau cabin cruisers.”
She plopped him back on me, but Cleo immediately leapt to the floor and scampered away. “I gave Humphrey a face.”
Tara quoted Colleen: “Art has consequences.”
Giselle looked from the laptop screen to the television, switched to a channel that showed a helicopter view of Hudson Bay, ship lights glowing like a swarm of bees on the dark water below. The new whale watching cruisers, yachts, sailboats, motorboats – watercraft of all size –surrounded the statue of liberty. She turned off mute. The reporter said coast guard officials verified that there were almost as many ships in the bay as they are when viewing fireworks on the night of July 4… then the voiceover paused and the only sound was a chorus of whale song and chirps, humming like a cricket infestation of a midsummer’s night swamp.
She turned off the television when the commercial came on. What we saw left us dumbstruck, but as Tara started speaking, Giselle shushed her. The murmur of whale sounds transmitted via hundreds of Bluetooth speakers swelled in the distant night.
“It’s not even midnight yet,” I said. “When I saw Humphrey, it was almost seven.”
“Maybe it will scare him away for the summer,” said Tara. “We can be proud that We Love You Humphrey campaign resulted in the exact opposite of what we intended.”
“To save him you have to let him go,” I laughed.
Giselle rolled her eyes, stood. “I am going to work this out with art, don’t worry about turning on your AC.”
Tara laughed her off. “Don’t worry I won’t.”
After she left, I asked what was that all about.
“Her Humphrey water healer painting, she started a canvas. She’s doing hot painting, like hot Yoga.”
“Where people do poses in 90 degree humidity?”
“Like it is tonight, but sometimes she turns on this humidifier that spews steam. Our air conditioner is already limp-dick cooling. I worry about her sanity. Any normal person would choke to death in that space.”
“I meant between you two. You guys getting along?”
“She told me something that she did that I am mad about.”
“She blew Theodore.”
“We went to a club after we left you and Mikal at Theorem. She sucked him off in the bathroom.”
“I didn’t think she even liked him. Plus I thought you guys were…”
“Oh God, no.”
“I don’t care nor do I care to be reminded of the fact that young people have sex.”
“She didn’t tell me until a night ago because she said they were no longer texting and I said he only texts me about the exhibit. I thought it was a conniving act by her, she wasn’t respecting the business relationship we have with him. She apologized, but said it was no big deal.”
“You think it is… a big deal.”
“It was disrespectful, to mom and the art. There’s so much money at stake, more money than she ever knew about.”
“Money insists on responsibility, but you’ve been dealing with Mikal and the Oslo people. Have you noticed any fallout from her fellatio?”
“So it’s no big deal after all. Life goes on, the exhibit will happen.”
“She has a way of dragging everything to some kind of banal world that’s always just about her. I know she had shitty parents, she’s the first one in her family to actually graduate college and do well in school and she’s like all of us, mind-numbing service industry work and shitty paying freelance gigs.”
“You’ve been left a fucked up economy, the rich get richer and kids just get student loan debt.”
“Just because her wages are being garnished isn’t an excuse for how she behaves. She thinks she’s so wild and free, but she doesn’t have any boundaries is the real truth. She was never taught to respect herself. She used to be bulimic.”
“I’d rather not know all this drama.”
“That I did. You’re around each other a lot so it’s natural to get on each other’s nerves sometimes.”
“But shucks we’re just like sisters.”
“Let there be peace in the compound, we don’t want to upset Cleo. Where is that cat?”
She was in the other room, lying on my bed which I decided was a good idea and when I lay down, she rolled next to me. As her purr faded I could hear the whale recordings like some faraway out of tune orchestra. The television went on in the living room. Tara settled on some talk show about celebrities and how whose blockbusters underperformed the most, DC or Marvel?
Tara fell asleep on the couch. We had coffee together before I left for the office. I couldn’t tell if she was more tired than depressed or more depressed than tired. Far fewer boats on the water in those hours just after dawn, the Humphrey revelers had to either drag themselves to their jobs or went home to sleep it off. A cloud of seagulls hovered over the water feasting on new krill. Whale watching tours were over until dark. The dawn was here in full and no Humphrey was spotted. Fools, I thought, all gone at the very time I captured the breach. Humphrey was now only about the party, not about the whale. The girls were right.
The ferry’s mildly air-conditioned, enclosed passenger deck section was empty. Everyone attentively stood on the open deck in the glaring morning sun, gathered on the south-side of the ferry – from aft to bow – watching, hoping for a glimpse. Some held binoculars or cameras with lenses as long as shotguns. These gawkers – whale spotters, nature paparazzi – they exploited Humphrey as sure as the revelers and the cruising business promising evidence of the whale. The majority of course could barely care less, something else in the news. Millions of folks lived in the metro-market marketing area, but still the Humphrey likes were only in the tens of thousands. We were in the minority in the grand scheme of the universe – even the New York area, much less the American universe – which had a lot more to really care about than one whale and its media followers. We pray to a silent God. We can accept and be quiet about the injustice of it all or rail against the infinite indifference until a blood vessel burst, but neither changes the circumstances. The river, bay or sea is oblivious to whether we think we know their secrets or not. Tara just loved the idea that there might be a whale and Giselle behaved like she seemed to want to do with everything she encounters, turn the experience into art.
Tara was uninterested in creating any art on her own, whenever I was downstairs in her studio area the two sketchpads remained on her drawing desk, as untouched as a bell-jar. The only art she now involved herself with was Colleen’s, communicating constantly with Mikal, booking our itinerary for the Norway kickoff, discussing all the various segments of the estate. She had my full confidence, she’s smart and responsible. But I worried if she was somehow sublimating her own creativity. The way we she went about talking exploitation, I sensed an emotional undercurrent of depression and anxiety just below the surface. She was genuinely upset about something less specific than the moral cost of exploitation.
Everything is exploited these days, why should Humphrey be exempt? Just by appearing now – this summer of this age, this period of 21st century history that’s not yet history – Humphrey must be exploited. Even the girls didn’t first learn about Humphrey from hanging out at the waterfront and talking to tugboat crews, they saw the story on their phone, shared by friends, then they shared to more friends… how far truly is the moral distance between boosting a Facebook post to creating whale watching cruises? Nothing exists these days without somebody finding a way to try and make a buck – America admires a hustle. What it is more worthy of aspirational glorification in our late stage capitalism era than entrepreneurship?
I guess I’m a little more respectful of how difficult it is to come up with an idea that actually makes money than Tara, or Giselle for that matter. Besides, those businesses were born out of how Humphrey made people feel – curious about why he was here – what the meaning of his presence was – and an unavoidable – and inexplicable – need to experience or acknowledge the presence of a whale. They shared the same motivation as my dear, downstairs tenants. Just because a fee willingly paid was charged, were these flyby night whale spotting cruises genuinely worse than the whale fests on the docks they helped organize, before my money-shot so drastically supposedly changed the humpback paradigm?
A few days later, the Gloria sonar controversy swept through the Facebook feeds of Humphrey followers. A clip of the wavy lines – every cruise was thoroughly videoed the captain assured us – blinking in a circle with a soft beep – then the outer vicinity suddenly rippled and the beeps accelerated as the curves continued along the perimeter then gradually vanished. The ripples lasted nearly ten seconds. Nothing smaller than 25 tons said another crewmate, younger, bearded, serious, identified as a Navy-trained marine biologist associated with Princeton… then a representative of the company that manufactured the sonar equipment swore footage was accurately recorded at three AM in the morning. There’s no way to lie about our record keeping he promised. Next a twentysomething woman, wearing sunglasses and a soft, safari hat, rawhide strings tied in a bow beneath her chin. “We saw it bleep, we watched it bleep,” she said. “That’s as good as seeing him. We might of well have visibly spotted Humphrey. I know it was him, but this is scientific proof.”
Tara brought Cleo to the upstairs apartment, complaining the apartment was too humid for a beast with fur. I opened a bottle of the Chablis. “At least she’s working, I don’t want to impede the creative flow. She’s doing what mom said. Own your process.”
I asked her if she was doing any drawing. She laughed at the notion. I changed the subject, asked what she thought about the sonar Humphrey.
“Even if it is real it’s a gimmick. He just wants to sell tickets to his cruises. I miss hearing Humphrey, now you only hear clatter. It just isn’t the real thing. I can’t think of anything to post, it is what it is.”
Giselle wasn’t quite as ready to give up. The next day posted a Facebook live bit – glistening with perspiration in a bikini top and cotton short-short, her damp hair drooping behind her ears. I want art not sonar she shrieked, turning the selfie – she was filming herself in the full length mirror she nailed to the wall of her painting area – towards what looked like a canvas, blurred and in a shadow. Nothing of what she painted was visible. Art not sonar, art not sonar, she kept repeating, in shouts that gradually became a murmured shudder. Fade to black. I hoped she wouldn’t get trolled as bad this time.
The Brooklyn marina cruises were not to be outdone. Dr. Jerod’s new video, a clip showing his new underwater drone cam – radio controlled submersible — could venture nearly 200 feet from his ship. “Sonar can be unreliable,” assured the Australian accent of reason. “We are going to bring what’s undersea alive on every cruise, and it’s there we will find our whale.”
Other Humphrey articles appeared – top ten whale watching cruises – Dr. Jerod was number one, Captain Billy number nine – the top cruises were judged by food and drink service, Captain Billy was billed as a more “intimate” experience and the cruise that “started it all.” A flurry of other posts on what parents should tell their children about Humphrey appeared. Families who lived near the water could hear the hum of whale songs throughout the night, which scared the children, some believing the river was filled with humpbacks. Liberty Science Center and the Natural Museum of History both held learning events about humpback whales, summer schools and day camps bused their children for talk with marine biologists about the Humpback, with educational whale films being shown the facility’s Imax theaters.
With no Humphrey sightings – not even a sonar impression – passengers eventually dropped off. A perennial favorite – shark attack – this time off the shores of South Carolina – suddenly got the summer story attention. Soon sponsored Facebook ads for the whale cruises now advertised half-price tickets and happy hour specials.
Tara was working a full shift, closing the coffee shop. I went to the grocery store after a day on Wall Street, I wanted to feed Cleo but she was nowhere to be found upstairs. I knocked on their door. Muffled music or some kind of electronic noise of noise at least… I had the keys, opened the door and called out. It was hot. Giselle’s response came the glow of her cordoned off studio space – the only lights on – at the far end of the floor. Cleo suddenly appeared, anxiously nudging against my shin as I walked towards where Giselle’s voice came from.
The music was booming. Good thing we had thick walks and an abandoned building next door, neighbors never complained. The dominant sound was a techno beat jam and synthesizer samples – a Euro accent through a voice modulator repeated the only lyric, Let me love you, let me love you… but below that sound, like a whisper, was mixed the mournful drone of a looped male humpback whale song.
Incense thickened the already stifling air. No air conditioner, fan or even opened window. Only one light was on, a hardware store spotlight shining on the large canvas propped up on an easel, next to a table of paints, brushes and pallets. I bumped into the corner of her mattress when I entered her area. Perfumed smoke swirled in and around the beam of light. She sat on a wooden barstool in front of her painting, staring at work. Levels of blue shades, but white tipped, curling flames which I gradually realized were actually waves. A large almond floated somewhere but then I noticed the impressions around the weird oval formed a whale head and what I thought was an almond was really a whale’s eye.
“Humphrey,” I said. The repetitious music seemed hypnotic. Let me love you…
She stood, picked up a tiny brush, dabbed the tip into an acrylic glob on the palette and made a few marks on the canvas. Her t-shirt was long and ragged, clinging to her moist flesh so tightly her lack of panties and bra was immediately apparent. A humidifier percolated in the far corner, the air was steam and smoke. A bong was on another table, next to a bottle of tequila and her phone plugged into the charger. The whale song came from the smart phone, the pounding Let me love you beats blasted out of speakers on a shelf above her bed. “I have beer but I am drinking them at room temperature.”
“If they’re at the temperature of this room they’re probably boiling.”
“You are funny, seriously. You always make me smile.”
“What you are doing on that canvas looks great so far, Giselle. “
With a new brush, she slashed teal streaks near what looked like a blowhole. Her shoulders flexed with the music, her waist moved side to side and she waved her arms above her head. “I feel great, the paint is becoming what I am seeing in my head, the problem is what I am seeing is not clear yet. I have some tequila somewhere.”
“I love the colors.”
“Thank you, I really feel it coming… tonight.”
Smears of paint splotched her t-shirt, a diagonal tear starting below her navel ended beneath her right breast. Her dark eyes bloodshot, shadows on her neck and shoulders. She smiled, seeing that I was now watching her “I need to feel the sweat, the hotness of the summer, I paint water because water is healing and I’m not in the dark place anymore. The process heals me… painting, water, Humphrey… you… it’s all healing.”
She turned around again. Her body kept undulating. She went back to the smaller brush. I said something about Cleo and looked around for her. But I didn’t move and Giselle knew it. She stepped away from the canvas, seemingly assessing her recent addition then danced with a deliberate wiggle, moving backwards until she bumped into me. For just a moment, she nestled her butt on my loins. Sweat covered my face, stinging my eyes. She pressed into my growing erection with a giggle then immediately danced back towards the canvas. The contact lasted less than seconds, long enough for her to let me know she knew I was aroused but quick enough that it could still be considered an accidental brushing incident.
Damn the male body. Damn the male mind. She’s always been flirty, but that playfulness never crossed this line. No mistaking that body for anything but ripened readiness, but I’m not like that… anymore… when I was like that, it wasn’t compulsive, but I rarely said no to causal sex, the occasional romp with a female colleague or the more frequent client excursions to a brothel or massage parlor or indulging in the hookers hired for certain parties. I was married, everybody was, but meaningless sex was sometimes part of the hard partying that came with the job. We had a professional right and even obligation to let off steam. My career depended on it. We deserved what we could afford. The affair with Karen, a sales assistant fascinated by Pharma stock, she was married too – happened under optimum affair circumstances, both having something to lose, kept emotions in check and pleasure paramount.
I knew with Colleen, I wanted the authenticity of love protected. Jeannette was the ideal wife – the suburban house, the children that never came – fulfilling my parent’s ideal of financial security and nuclear family. When I met Colleen – and truly fell in love – unlike my relationship with Jeannette, life was no longer about fulfilling the expectations of my parents or the upward mobility I was supposed to want so badly that my entire life had to be devoted to achieving that success. Along the way, the physical pleasure of getting ejaculated by bodies of different women sufficiently distracted me from the toll that intimacy only for gratification took. Was I now to abandon those gains in meaningful living just because Colleen was gone and I was horny and Giselle had great tits?
Cleo meowed from the other room.
Giselle’s chortle was sultry. She knew she owned my gaze. She gripped the frayed edge where the t-shirt was torn and pulled, ripping the cloth completely apart and tossing it to the floor. She moved towards me, singing the lyric and sliding her hands up her body to her breasts. Her bare feet were grimy, toes and ankles spotted with paint. She knelt and opened her mouth wide and slowly licked her lower lip. It was no longer a question of not reverting. I didn’t see a woman or opportunity for sexual pleasure, I saw a kid I felt responsible for behaving inappropriately. I saw Colleen’s student, best friend of her daughter. I backed up, shaking my head no, no, no and soon was on the other side of the hanging cloth.
“I will leave you to your creativity.”
“I’m sorry to have done this.” She cried. I peeked back in, she was heaving with sobs, sprawled on the floor. “I just wanted to… give you thanks for all you’ve done for me.”
“That wouldn’t be thanks even if it felt that way to you.”
“I fuck up everything.”
“You didn’t fuck up anything, you’re just drunk and high… and caught up in your painting frenzy.”
I walked back in, turned off the music, unplugged the humidifier, then helped her to the bed and wrapped a sheet around her damp body. I hugged her shoulders until she calmed down, but I could still hear her tears as I walked out of the apartment. Cleo scooted between my ankles, her paws softly thumping up the stairs.
The incident with Giselle bothered me for days. I didn’t see either of them, just traded ordinary texts with Tara. I was worried about her. Sex may begin and end with the sensation of orgasm, but before, during and after, sex involves your entire being. Giselle has always wondered why her parents didn’t love her as much as she needed. She lives with this pain every day and she was far from alone. Her generation – the one now new to adulthood – have noticeable whiffs of trauma about them – oh personal tragedy, broken homes and bad parenting isn’t new – but this trauma and tragedy never seemed so generationally widespread before.
Anxiety saturated the society they grew up in and anxiety got worse each year of the final decade of the last century and the first decades of the 21st , so how can we expect their adjustment to adulthood to be smooth and completely normal.
There’s less hope than when I was younger. Nationally and globally, there’s no reason to believe hopefulness will ever increase again. The country’s gotten worse if you’re not rich, the culture Giselle and her generation grew up in encouraged shorter and shorter attention spans. They can switch faster from one subject to another with little to no point of reference required, however sustained thinking about anything has become a useless, outdated chore. I admit I was flattered a much younger woman found me still desirable, but the fact as I saw it is that her behavior was a manifestation related to her family situation. This mix of childhood incidents and disappointments haunted her. Giselle’s response with me and what I might represent to her – using sex to suppress the need to confront what actually needed to be healed – only proved the depth of her anguish. To sort through that pain, locate its roots and understand it enough to truly heal, that takes a sustained and consistent concentration – working through memories – the very skill our internet-based culture now erodes. What caused her problem also impedes the healing she desires and has dedicated so much of her artistic efforts expressing.
Ever since my Humphrey photograph windfall, I hadn’t been taking pictures, a fact that occurred to me while staring out at the river from the ferry, the second morning in a row I hadn’t bothered to lug the 190 across the Hudson. No new whale posts anywhere on Facebook, no more throngs perched along the deck.
Tara informed me Giselle was spending time with her mother down the shore. She had a bungalow in Cape May, the possibility of this trip seemed to have been mentioned as I recalled, but was dependent on how well the mother and daughter were getting along and the last update was that the two were not talking on any level. But that was well before the incident. I took the reunion as a good sign, sometimes you have to get away to figure things out. Tara said that the bosses are pissed and Giselle’s job is not guaranteed when – a date Tara hadn’t been told – she returned. My impression was Giselle had left town on a whim, which seemed confirmed by her unusual, absolute social media silence. The only communication she had with Tara had been sporadic texts.
Tara camped out on the couch consecutive nights. She used the air conditioning excuse but I knew she missed her roommate. I said nothing about it and I didn’t bring up the subject of what her plans were if Giselle decide to not return, I just told her it was okay if she just wanted to pay only her portion of the rent and we could settle up with Giselle later on. I turned on NPR in the morning, I brought her coffee – she usually stirred awake and we spent time together each morning at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and eating whole grain cereal with blueberries and bananas, hearing news, talking about this and that. I especially enjoyed her company in the morning, a welcomed start to the day, more fulfilling than just watching morning television or checking the overnight activity of foreign markets.
Colleen and I started most of our days together, drinking coffee and chatting about how we slept, the weather, occasionally reporting on a dream, the day so young nothing was at stake, everything still easy. One of the most purely pleasant moments in life is someone dear sharing your space to start the day.
One morning, as I placed her coffee mug on a coaster on the coffee table, I noticed with delight a sketch pad. I flipped through the pages, people sitting at tables along the waterfront, a young couple – together but instead of looking at each other they’re gazing at their smart phones – at a corner table in Chilltown Java – and one of Humphrey. She wasn’t imagining the humpback whale. Her rendition was precise. She duplicated my photograph to such an extent it was practically a tracing. The same attention to precisely reproducing reality was evident in the waterfront and café scenes. This level of realism was new for her. Other drawings were close-ups – a street lamp, chair, espresso machine, then some nudes – life drawings of a woman – stretching, sitting, lying down, her elbows changing angles – Tara had taken a class. This revelation stunned me with joy.
She sat up and said wearily, “but shucks I didn’t say you could look at those.”
“They look new.”
“I just got bored at work one day and one thing led to another.” She deeply sipped, savored the quenching of her dry morning mouth. “It’s not serious illustration.”
“I like the picture of my Humphrey photo. I’ll commission you to paint a reproduction.”
“I don’t think anyone could afford my price to actually paint,” she stretched her arms up, meowed at Cleo. “I’m sketching, pencil and ink, mostly ink. Somebody randomly gave me the pads I liked and I messed around at work, it was slow and the air conditioner was out. It felt so good and that feeling was unexpected. I wanted to get it again, that feeling. I bought new pens. It still feels good. Do don’t question, right?”
I sniffled back a tear, transfixed by her work. “They look great.”
“It stops the voices in my head.” Cleo jumped to her lap, purring as she rubbed her mouth against Tara’s cheek. She scrunched her nose, pushed her away. “No drooling on me before eight o’clock and ick, Cleo your spittle smells like dead fish… hey are you okay. I don’t have voices in my head, I was jesting… what’s the matter.”
“Nothing.” I walked back to the kitchen unable to camouflage my cracking voice. “I’m just getting my coffee.”
“I knew you might get weird.”
“I’m not getting weird, I’m happy.”
“That is weird, I knew it.” She went to the bathroom and I dried my eyes, went back to the living room, placed the sketch pad down and turned on my laptop.
“This coffee is great by the way,” she said on her way to back to the kitchen. “I felt like you should know.”
“That you like my coffee?”
“That I’ve been drawing.”
“I appreciate that.”
“And… I value your opinion.”
“You’re a highly talented illustrator.”
“You new in town too?”
“I like the… realism.”
“They’re just sketches, quick. I don’t want to dawdle. Get in, get out.”
“I’m afraid if I say too much you might take what I say the wrong way and use it as an excuse not to continue sketching.”
“You can say whatever. Have no fear. It’s back. I have some free time today and I know I will draw. I am clearing the space in my head enabling me to envision the blankness of the page that I will turn into whatever makes me want to look. If drawing is art than so be it but it’s nothing more than drawing. But even sputtering feels good.”
“I for one knew you were going to draw again.”
She worked her away around the kitchen, finding a bowl and spoon and granola. “I didn’t want to draw anything but Lost Doll Girl but I just couldn’t go there again. I was stuck. I don’t know, maybe it was because I always showed them to you and mom and I haven’t wanted to make one that I couldn’t show mom but anything not the doll seemed like I was doing something that wasn’t going to be good as what I was showing mom.”
“Nothing wrong with taking a break, you can always return to her.”
“I wasn’t seeing the girl or her world, I was only thinking of guilt and frustration. I wasn’t seeing any wilderness landscapes or the other creatures. At least I am seeing the sketches when I sketch them, the world suddenly looks worth drawing again to me, go figure.” She chopped up a banana, poured in soy milk. “I need some new images of any kind to be in my mind. Summer ends in August, Humphrey’s left. Maybe a real female humpback will hear his song down south and bear his whale baby. I don’t want to be bored and drawing seems like the only thing right now that won’t bore me.”
A street artist stenciled images of Humphrey – a replication of my photograph, but no background, just the outline of the breaching leviathan and whatever background the stencil adhered to became the color of the whale. Cement, brick, windows, street signs, advertisements – seemed they all got stenciled over the course of a few days, but a thunderstorm that included hail seemed to wipe most of them away. When I noticed that, I figured the Humphrey fad had run its course.
Dr. Jerod made a video saying goodbye to New York and declaring that Humphrey has left the Hudson Bay. It had less than five hundred views. Captain Billy’s new sponsored ad didn’t even mention whale watching … romantic moonlight private cruises.
Humphrey seemed to just evaporate, like how the green leaves start sagging after July. The reporters moved on. Nothing to update, nothing new to speculate. Was his song ever heard by another whale? Nobody cared about yesterday’s news. Tara and I had so many things to talk about other than a lonely humpback whale wailing for a lost love. Giselle posted a sunset taken on her phone –“loving Cape May & Mom” – that was liked by fifty three of her friends. Life had moved on.
But Humphrey never left and maybe when all is said and done, he stayed too long.
Not for us, for him.
Cindy Lee called at 2:05am. “I’ll meet you at the waterfront, it’s Humphrey.”
The cop looked at my embossed press-pass and waved us both of behind the yellow caution tape stuck on the orange cones. A dead humpback whale washed ashore in Jersey City, rolling in with the tide upon the rocky bank of the Jersey City river bank. The rank stench was noticeable more than a block away, the closer you got, the more you gagged. Generators ran large spotlights that bathed Humphrey and two marine biologists were inspecting the corpse when we got there, taking samples. A woman aimed a video camera at them, light tech holding a spotlight on the autopsy in progress. The press were kept near the walkway, several feet from Humphrey. We could take pictures, but for the time being had to stay far from the deceased. I did what I could with my lenses, but the lighting was awful, the whale corpse was simply too far away for a flash not to be a joke.
The massive creature lay on its side, belly facing the water, fins, tail, torso, lifeless and limp. His mouth reminded me of a pelican, the skin of most his body was a dark black, but his gullet was a dank, speckled gray. “It’s the same whale I shot,” I told Cindy and Tara.
Taking that picture was one of the most exciting events of my entire life and I felt I let Humphrey down. The largest manifestation of nature I’ve ever witnessed, Humphrey had grandeur. His ancestors swam alongside dinosaurs, eons before our mammals sufficiently evolved to even walk the land. Now he was a glob, ability to inspire awe all but erased. To see the mighty so vanquished shocked and saddened.
Tara, her pads in a tote bag, walked up to the officer standing between us and the whale corpse. She told him she needed to get closer, she was a sketch artist and promised to not get in anyone’s way. The officer looked back towards the marine biology crew for guidance, but the assistant to the videographer had heard Tara’s request, talked to her for a moment and told the officer it was okay. A few minutes later someone brought her a folding chair and a large flashlight so she wouldn’t run down her phone battery. Someone gave her a medical mask to cover her nose and mouth. A few television reporters complained why they were not letting them close enough to do their jobs.
“They’re running the show,” shrugged the cop. “Just be patient, they said they will hold a news conference and let you get as up close to that fish as you want. Tell you what, any other sketch artists can get as close as her. Oh, what, nobody sent a sketch artist, then I guess you’re plumb out of luck. You’re media isn’t old enough.”
Eventually, after the sun had risen, and the scientists conferred with one another, the marine biologist from Rutgers who headed the team was handed a microphone and spoke to the gathered journalists.
“This is a male Humpback whale,” he said. “He is 53.7 feet length and at the center of his torso, he is 10.7 feet high. He was a magnificent animal. We know by his size that he is not a young whale, but I can’t tell you his exact age. We do know humpback whales can live for more than 50 years. His body was scarred, so that also indicates a whale that has been around. Half of the animal’s skull area had several fractures, but we cannot be sure at this time if that was the cause of death. He also had bite marks on his torso, indicating shark activity but those probably occurred after death. A humpback has to be really bad off for a shark to mess with him. I do not know the cause of death. I will now take questions.”
“Did the fractures indicate trauma as a possible cause of death?”
“We are dealing with a cadaver almost two days old. He’s been floating in the bay for at least that long. We just don’t know when those breaks occurred.”
“Do you think he could’ve been killed by a vessel of some kind?”
“Like I said, I cannot speculate on the cause of death until we have more test results, so that means we don’t know where in the bay he died. He came in with the tide, but how far out he was before the tide picked him up is impossible to say.”
“Why do you think Humphrey came to these waters?”
“I can’t speak for the specific whale, but Humpbacks are common to the mid-Atlantic, they’ve always been here. He probably has come here every summer of his. Why this summer he wound up so close to Jersey City, why he got confused to stray away into the bay and river, no one can tell.”
We were led to the carcass. Blackened eyes, jaws locked open, blowhole parched in the morning sun. I remember reading in one of Colleen’s photography books how photographs steal a moment from real life by turning that moment into art. How much actual gravitas versus the amount of pretension when the word art is bandied can never be fully known, but isolating a moment that can be viewed objectively made sense to me as one possible explanation of the essence of art. If the artist can make you recognize that moment, something is shared from heart to heart.
A culmination of moments make the one moment that is art, Colleen would tell her students. That culmination, the sequence of creativity, is process. Artists love to talk to each other about process, but Colleen wasn’t afraid to answer the question what is art either. That sort of talk would come up later in the evening, when the circle had tightened and everyone had a few more drinks than usual. No stopping her when she wanted to theorize, but I never knew anyone who wanted to try. Everyone listened when Colleen spoke, they wanted to know what she thought. “All art is different, but if there’s a universal essence that makes a photograph a good photograph, or a painting worth seeing or even a great poem or film, is that you’ve found that light in a singular moment every human has not just seen, but felt. “
Someone asked, “how do you know when you capture that light?”
“Art enables us to understand that we sometimes all feel the same way about our common mortality. Through skill, vision and luck, the artist has stolen a moment that compels you to look – to feel, think possibly even dream. But the best the artist can know is really what other people in her lifetime say they feel about the work. We can never know if we’ve really captured that revelatory instance because we’re dead. True art lasts, but the artist never knows – even her friends and family and everyone who thinks they know her don’t really know – because for art to last it has to touch someone in another time and that time is when the artist and everyone who knows her and or her art is gone, long gone. The artist can never know, can only hope what she feels when she creates is real, that the light she found has meaning. We can never know if the art we create will last because by the time something is proven to last, we and everyone we know are dead.”
I didn’t have any intention of art, I just was lucky enough to be ready with the camera when that moment in Humphrey’s life he jumped through the surface of the Hudson Bay.
Now I stole another moment of his life, the decaying corpse phase, a sad and longer moment. The soul of Humphrey – if an immortal individuality exists, anything so majestic must also possess one – was not in the humongous cadaver – the light of life extinguished. But the shell that contained that light was so glorious you could easily imagine when what was now dead was like when alive, then effortlessly envision yourself joyfully wondering how something that large could move and eat, breathe and mate. Just as you felt awe, you felt despair; this miracle of creation no longer would be.
Whatever came through my lens both vanished and became eternal. Art might have potential to be appreciated by future human beings, but to exist outside of time you must find, capture and then transform that moment so it ceases being just a moment. Time becomes light, thought and emotion one and knowing you were responsible for that transubstantiation feels more fulfilling than anything.
Tara had moved position – finding a new angle of the whale, chasing the best light – you could feel her concentration. She clutched the pen, and moving her hand with a deliberate grace. She would look at Humphrey with an intense focus, oblivious to anything peripheral to her gaze. That same intensity watched the pad, guided the marks into lines… a glance at Humphrey, then back to the pad.
The trickle of people quickly became a throng, more police arrived. The story was almost done by the time the crowd of onlookers needed to be seriously managed anyway so letting people in an orderly fashion walk around the whale was permitted. By 9:00 am, the mayor and some councilmen came by wearing Make Jersey City Yours t-shirts and handed out free bottles of water. The art scene crowd, the whale fest crowd, they were there, gawking and talking and even singing along when Melba Owens in her denim cowboy hat and blue hollow body Gibson tried a I Love You Humphrey rendition. Summer was still here yet we yearned for an earlier, more innocent era just a few weeks ago – Humphrey Fests were now a funeral – the impromptu gathering was bound to be a wake, where indulging nostalgia to soften the sorrow is essential to the ritual.
Gina said hello when she saw me, grinned at the press card hanging by the lanyard on my chest. “I had to see for myself, I just had to know and the only way to know was to be here. I’m paying respects.”
“Are you still on tour down the shore?”
“Summer theater is already over, I’m in rehearsals for an October opening. Chekov. Seagull. It’s a local theatre company, it’s going to be staged in a raw space, near your neighborhood in fact.”
“There’s already an art gallery in one of those old warehouses, so why not a theatre. The road to gentrification is paved with well-intentioned art projects, but I like any art I can walk to. That way, I don’t have to find another parking space.”
“I know, right.” She waved at Tara, who barely nodded in our direction.
“She’s been there four hours at least now. She’s the only one making sketches.”
“Colleen always said she had the best eye she had ever seen, that’s why her lines can express so much with so little deviation.”
She laughed at my Colleen imitation: “And I’m not saying that as her mother.”
Gina didn’t go up to Tara, in fact, there were dozens of her friends here but nobody interrupted her with even a polite hello. Some merely took a respectful glance at the sketch and went away, most simply let her be. The crew of scientists, technicians, students and others involved in the dissection operation were protective of her, shooing people away, bringing her water and donuts, admiring what they saw on her pad. Hundreds more arrived – people who had bought a whale watching cruise ticket and hoped, those who came for the party and accepting the fact the party was over wanted to remember Humphrey by making this the best goodbye humpback whale party ever!
By noon the dump truck and crane came. A local fire crew helped with the literal carving of the whale. Four men and two women in yellow hazmat suits carved up Humphrey piece by piece. It was hard, vicious work, blood, blubber and whale intestines splattered in all directions. They formed grotesque sections that fit in a large canvas harness attached by chains to crane which hoisted the section into the dump truck. The operator released the chains on side of the bags, the slabs of whale dripping with dark bile and bloody goo, fell with a disturbing splat into the truck bed. There was chatter about the carcass becoming a health hazard thus speeding up the removal. A backhoe was called in, which made for more efficient removal, more slabs of whale could be put in the truck at one time than in the harness.
Humphrey’s remains would be transported to a university for study. Whatever dignity the scientists had treated the corpse with was now obliterated by a calculated plan of action. Nothing left but the stench of death and the drudgery of cleaning up, Humphrey reduced to debris to be removed like a flooded shack or burned-out meth lab.
No more viral, no more you.
That’s life in the modern world – one day you’re on the screens of the entire planet and everyone loves you – then you’re dead and that love finds nowhere to go and your body is cut into pieces and carted off for study. You can never truly know all your connections with other lives.
The workers dug their saws into the carcass, tearing off squishy shards. One gush from the saws flung whale guts the size of a grapefruit onto Tara’s face, and some of the scientists who welcomed her as a kind of resident sketch artist cleaned Tara and wiped her glasses with antiseptic sponges as they gently reprimanded her to keep further away from the spray field. The interruption annoyed Tara, but she moved back a few feet and kept drawing. She wanted to get it all, every scene, the disposing of the remains as crucial as the actual corpse.
I saw Giselle in the distance, screamed hey and waved my arms. She ran from the spectators and hugged me. “I can’t believe he died in Jersey City. We came as fast as we could, but the traffic on the parkway was bumper to bumper to Perth Amboy and the Turnpike was even worse.”
Then she introduced me to her mother. An attractive middle-age woman – a floral print shirt, white summer slacks, leather flip flops and well-pedicured toenails painted with bright red polish. She took off her Jackie-O sunglasses.
“I’ve heard so much about you and Tara and poor Humphrey.”
“Giselle, you have a knack for surprise.” I was flabbergasted of course, stammering. They were comfortable with each other, no tension, just a mom and her grown kid. They both had the same eyes and nose and smile and the same tan, the incandescent kind you get only after the seventh consecutive day down the shore. “I hope you can stay overnight at least, there’s plenty of room. Have you met Tara?”
“That can wait,” said Giselle. “Let her draw.”