Summer came late to New York this year; it was cool right through May.
The last Friday of May was about the first hot, muggy day of the summer, and it was a day when I felt especially New Yorkish.
I am not from New York originally, and there have been many days I was more a New Yorker than I was on the last Friday of May. Being a New Yorker is an active process. The point of New York -- one of them, anyway; mine -- is the making of things. And I have made many things here, and witnessed many things made. This is not a matter of symbols, but of solid things made. It is an unconscious New Yorkishness, a New Yorkishness by nature. It is not a self-aware New Yorkishness. For that, you need to wander into a zone of symbols of New York. And that was the kind of magical day I had on Friday, May 25th.
You may remember, a while back, I told you about these Inanna paintings I was going to paint -- paintings of the Sumerian myth of the goddess Inanna, who wanted to gain the power of life and death, and went down into the underworld, and was dead and hanged on a hook three days, and then brought back to life, and light, and the world.
On the last Friday of May, I was heading to meet Cassandra Rosebeetle, a dancer and my model for Inanna, to shoot the first reference pictures for the paintings. Because of the technique I'm using, these paintings can't be done live -- they've got to be from photographs.
Inanna, as you can see in the picture, wears a dress with vertical folds in it. Cassandra didn't own any such clothing. So it was off to the fashion district for me. At the turn of the 20th century, clothing manufacture made New York's fortune. It was the city's largest industry. The fashion district is the shriveled remainder of a world capital of industrialized clothing production. The district sprawls up the midwest side of Manhattan between the bland curve of Penn Station/Madison Square Garden at 34th St., and the ugly hulk of the Port Authority Bus Terminal which looms above 42nd:
The avenues, running north-south, are crowded with tourists; the narrower streets, running east-west, with garment professionals and lunatics. All phases of clothing occur on the streets, from the finished products:
Back to the buttons and accessories:
And down to the raw fabrics:
I was there for the raw fabrics, which are sold from a nucleus of two streets, the locations of which I can never remember; and I didn't know the name of the distinctive folded cloth I was looking for either. So I meandered, walking north from 34th St., back and forth between 7th and 8th Avenues.
I found the stores, and I found the name of the cloth. The stores are between 7th and 8th, on 39th and 40th. The cloth is pleated. Shoot me; I don't know mauve from purple either. When I need cloth, I tell my wife Charlotte, "I have to go to the fashion district," and Charlotte says, "You say you have to, but you like to." And this is true - I like to have a reason to go there.
I ducked in and out of many places. This is a view of the place where I found what I needed.
Here the guy cuts a yard and a half of it for me.
I came back out onto the dense, nested sub-universe of 39th St. between 7th and 8th. I walked past a heavy man whose face had been burned off, several young designers, and miscellaneous crazies. New York crazies. I did not feel at home, but I did not feel apart either. I remembered a couple panels in a comic book. In these panels, the heroine, Maggie, is asking herself what she thinks she's doing, after having spent several days hiding away from her friends to have lots of sex with a random man she just met. The comic book is called Love and Rockets, and it was written by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, and it changed my life. Here are the panels:
artwork © 2012 Jaime Hernandez (see detailed credits below)
In these panels, we have all of the synecdoche of great literature: the tiny thing that stands for all. The text is about teeth, but the meaning is about vanity, about recognizing that what makes you special does not make you better. I took this lesson to heart when I first read it in 1995, and I remembered it again on West 39th St., hefting a 45-inch clear plastic bag with a roll of pleated white cloth in it onto my shoulder in the muggy afternoon.
I am just another New York crazy.
Everybody gets harder with time, don't they? Or most everybody. All you can hope to choose is the force that hardens you. I have been hardened by my ambition. I thought I chased my dreams, but they chased me. I am one in a vast crowd of hard, fast people, consumed by ambition and chased by dreams. Most will fail. That's terribly painful, but it does not make them worse. Some will not, but this does not make them better. My own story is still only half-written. I am not from here, but I am here now, because the character of my life places me here. This is true of many, perhaps most, of the New Yorkers.
From the fashion district, I walked south on 8th Ave. to meet Cassandra. She had work at 6 (burlesque) and asked if we could do the shoot at her boyfriend's place, closer to her gig. I said sure - why not?
Her boyfriend is a photographer, and he has lived at his place for 17 years. He lives at the Chelsea Hotel.
What is the Chelsea Hotel? It is a flop-house with a staggering role in the history of American culture. Mark Twain, O. Henry, Tennessee Williams, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Willem de Kooning, William S. Burroughs, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, and Iggy Pop lived there. Dylan Thomas slipped into his fatal whiskey coma there. Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001 there. Sid Vicious probably stabbed Nancy Spungen to death in room 100. Leonard Cohen kept a limo waiting for him in the street for a reason of debatable validity.
I had never been inside. Then, suddenly, I had been. So - it's just a place. It's got nice staircase bannisters:
All places are just places; but what a place.
Cassandra's boyfriend's apartment used to belong to an Australian artist who painted stylized flowers on the walls and left framed prints hanging. She was covered, this Australian, every inch, with tattoos. The apartment has become encrusted as only the long-term residence of a packrat-aesthete can be, as covered with eccentric doodads as the Australian was with tattoos.
Cassandra Rosebeetle at the Chelsea Hotel
I caught up with Cassandra a bit; we had not seen one another in a while. I gave her the pleated cloth - after years of elaborate costume management, she can safety-pin cloth into shape like nobody's business. When she had the cloth done up, we got down to shooting the reference pictures for the first two Inanna paintings. In Sumerian mythology, there are symbol-objects called mes which are some sort of divine decrees relating to the fundaments of civilization. There are mes of kingship, priestdom, weapons, prostitution, libel, truth, music, and so forth. In the first two Inanna paintings, I am depicting Inanna discovering the me of life and the me of death. She wants these mes for herself, which motivates her journey into the underworld.
These are my design sketches for Inanna #1, where she discovers the me of life, represented by a very pregnant woman, and for Inanna #2, where she discovers the me of death, represented by a dead soldier:
In each, Inanna clutches her belly, but the clutching has opposite meanings in the two compositions.
My plan was to paint these on large chunks of canvas - large enough that to paint them, I'd have to simply nail canvas, unstretched, to my studio wall. Since then, I am well underway with Inanna #1:
there is more progress since this - I just like this picture
This was my last view of the door of Cassandra's boyfriend's apartment at the Chelsea Hotel:
I don't often think about coolness. But sometimes I do, and when I do, I think about it intensely. I have never been so interested in coming off well as I am in recounting candidly what my progress as an artist is like. So here is an impulse which I think makes me look very bad indeed: heading out, I felt plagued by an awful feeling of inadequacy which sneaks up on me when I have confronted the utterly cool. Once the electrified contact breaks, I feel hollowed out, and weak, and futile.
In the past, I have wallowed in this species of self-pity.
This time, I decided it simply would not do; that it was beneath me, and beneath the situation, and reeked of ingratitude. I reflected on the matter, and thought these things over:
Cassandra is a good friend and a dazzling performer and model. She is full of generosity and kindness. Her loan of her sense of the expressive gesture, and of her unique beauty, makes the Inanna paintings conceivable in the first place.
Who else could plausibly play a Sumerian goddess?
Furthermore, because she had a gig to get to, she invited me to stumble into beginning a major project of my own at an iconic locale for American creativity. It fed me, and I fed it.
Weighing all these factors in my mind, I came to the conclusion that cool is transactional. It does not exist in isolation; it exists as a perception in the minds of the cool and uncool alike. It arises in response to people and events. I did not walk into a room of coolness when I showed up at Cassandra's boyfriend's apartment -- at least not the coolness that I perceived when I was there. Rather, I became part of a series circuit, consisting in me, Cassandra, the Inanna project, and the Chelsea Hotel. The flow of current in this circuit was a unique instance of cool, and when the circuit broke, it was not that I was banished; rather, that precise coolness dissolved. There are other coolnesses, but this one did not exist without me.
Right there, among the pedestrians and afternoon shadows on West 23rd St., I experienced a sharp little click of revelation: yes, Maidman, this means you are cool.
Can you even call yourself cool? I dunno. Maybe it's like giving yourself a cool nickname -- it's just not done. My friend Kelly has this friend Hank, and one time we joked about how Hank, who is trouble prone, should really be called "Hank, Destroyer of Worlds":
Lo, I am become Hank, Destroyer of Worlds.
Now, if Hank came up to you and suggested you call him that, you would say, "In no wise, Hank, will I consent to call you that." But if you, not Hank, thought of it, then by god, that's his nickname. Maybe cool is like that. The cool fairy just has to tap you on the head with her glam rock wand. If that's true, and I cannot assign coolness to myself, then let me pass along whatever cool wattage I've got, and testify that however cool or uncool grim-faced History may judge me, Cassandra is way cool. And Inanna, who went down into hell, and hanged dead on a hook three days, and still came back tougher. She's way cool too.
You know what, now that we're talking about it, I don't even need to be cool. It's like outrunning a bear. I don't need to be faster than the bear, I just need to be faster than you. I don't need to be cool. I just need to be cool enough to go on hanging out with cool women.
Thus did I leave the Chelsea Hotel, taking a last look back at its shambling mass.
There was no one day when I felt more like a New Yorker.
The panels from Love and Rockets appear by permission of the publisher, Fantagraphics, and come from Volume 1 (Maggie the Mechanic): 100 Rooms. This and many more volumes of Love and Rockets can be found here.
The Australian artist with the tattoos was Vali Myers.