Fuck. I needed some money. Three days prior I paid rent with the last of my crumpled bills and was now down to zip. Nada. A few nickels, dimes and pennies in a change jar; that was it. I had already gone through the quarters.
My stomach growled. “Fuck you, stomach,” I said.
I went to the kitchen. There was the end of a piece of Italian bread on the counter. The cockroaches and mice did not even want it. It was as hard as a rock. It was the only thing to eat. I drank three glasses of brownish tap water and ate the bread. My stomach growled again. I pulled up my t-shirt and looked at it. The hair on my indented white belly looked like a mass of spider legs.
I had not worked for a blissful month and had not been worried because I was scheduled to have a good paying gig on a movie shoot as a production assistant. I had timed my pauperism to the millisecond, knowing I’d be completely penniless the day the new job started. But then one of the lead actors dropped out and filming had been put on hold indefinitely. That was over two weeks ago.
Now I needed work badly, but was caught in one of those downward, gasping spirals of slow-death cause and effect. I had no money because I was not working. I had no food because I had no money. I had no energy because I had been eating almost nothing for days. I did not look for work because I had no energy. I could not call anyone and inquire about work because the phone had been cut off. Add to that I had no real skills that the workplace was screaming for. A real Horatio Alger success story.
My mama would have been proud.
I needed Divine Intervention. It came. The buzzer to the apartment buzzed.
“Come on up,” I said.
I opened the door for him.
“You look like shit,” he said.
“Nice to see you, too,” I said.
Karim always looked perfect. He was a young Swiss artist with a Persian father. He lived off a stipend provided by the Swiss Government and supplemented his income with random part-time jobs that miraculously flowed to him through the art world. He was dashingly handsome in a casual, threadbare European way. He had blue black hair and olive skin. He was Byronesque in his brooding and as deep as a dime. He loved chocolate, croissants, and cigarettes. Women swooned for him at first blush.
He was also a terribly dull conversationalist, and loathed work. That was the quality I admired most in him.
His art project, which the Swiss government was paying for, consisted of gray pencil lines on a note pad. Every day Karim would make geometric drawings of straight lines on a little 3 x 5 note pad. He’d usually draw them while in bed. He’d make 3 or 4 of them a day and tear them from the pad.
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He was to have an exhibition of his work at the Swiss Embassy in NY in a few months where his entire little note pad opus would be taped to a wall. TAPED! This was art. He called them Meditations in #2 Pencil. The Swiss Government was paying him to do this shit. God, I wished I was an artist.
What a gorgeous con.
“I just quit a job,” Karim said.
“Really,” I said. The longest I ever knew him to hold a job was six days.
“Yes, it was interfering with my art,” he said.
He reached in his shoulder bag and took out a piece of chocolate. He broke me off a piece. I put it in my mouth. It was dark, expensive, divine. It tasted like Persian jewels in a Swiss bank account. The spider-leg hairs on my belly danced. My toes tingled
“I told the owner you could take over for me. He seemed relieved because he had no one else.”
“What is it? When does it start? I’ll do it.”
“Today,” he said. “You’ll be moving paintings from museums to restorers, from galleries to art warehouses, from private collectors to auction houses. Yesterday I moved a DeKooning and a Klimt.”
“Really? Wow. A Klimt, cool,” I said. “What’s it pay?”
“$110 in cash per day, off the books,” he said. “The owner’s name is Tim DeLong.”
Karim continued to give me the background. Tim apparently was getting his Ph.D. in Art History at Columbia. He had been getting it for the last 12 years. He had a nervous breakdown writing his thesis and did not entirely recover. He lacked in social skills and was prone to violent outbursts. He was obsessive. He was a perfectionist who worshiped art, artists, and the snobbier end of its social milieu. This little niche he had created for himself: the transportation and temporary storage of fine art, got him close to his Gods.
Karim handed me a folded piece of paper with directions. “You should be there now,” he said.
He gave me another piece of chocolate. He had to get back to his artwork, he said. I thanked him and raced upstairs, showered, shaved and put on an almost clean white button-down shirt. I dashed out the door to the street. The heat hit me like the wet tongue of a giant, rabid dog.
I clawed my way across town toward the address on the paper: 7th Street, East Village, between B and C, only blue door. I found it. The paint was peeling from the door. There was no buzzer. I knocked. The door opened and a large head with greasy hair appeared. “I’m a friend of Karim,” I said.
He lurched around the doorjamb and stooped over to look at me. “You’re late,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said, and he grudgingly invited me in.
I was standing in a dingy room made very narrow by racks for paintings of all sizes. Some were wrapped in bubble wrap. Others had zippered sleeves around them. Others were uncovered. A fluorescent light gave everything a sallow hue.
“Do you have a valid driver’s license?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you know anything about art?”
“A little. I go to museums a lot.”
“Who is your favorite artist?”
“Quick, tell me!!!”
“Ah, Egon Schiele,” I said.
“Your second favorite!”
“Ahh, I like Francis Bacon.”
“Interesting,” he said.
“Tell me who you think is a complete phony.”
“I hate Jasper Johns,” I said.
“At least you’re not a complete idiot,” he said.
I was close to telling him to fuck off, but I needed the money. I bit my tongue.
“Read this,” he handed me a legal pad with a bulleted list of do’s and don’ts.
Before I could finish, he handed me a clipboard.
“Here is the route,” he said. All the paintings you have to move can be handled by one person. I’m going to demonstrate how you pick up a painting.” He showed me. Then he demonstrated how you put a painting down. He inhaled as he picked up the painting and exhaled as he put it down. I wondered if that was part of the process, if I should inhale and exhale. He showed me the papers each client was to sign.
“Here’s your walkie-talkie. Check in after each pick-up. Keep it on at all times in case there is a change of plans.”
“Ok,” I said.
“Come with me.”We went out the door to the street. I almost had to jog to keep up with him. We stopped at an orange GMC box truck. It was nondescript except for a few large rust spots. One of the side-view mirrors was missing.
“Here’s $20 for gas. And this is a parking pass to be put in the window. Use it.” It was a special permit issued by the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs.
I got in the truck and turned the key. The engine sputtered and then turned over. I rolled down the window.
“One more thing.”
“Yes,” I said.
“What painter could make solitude bearable?”
He was stooped over me again and his big creased face hung there framed by the truck window. His eyes were red. At first I thought this must be a joke, but I could see this was s serious question, serious to him in this very moment.
“Ah, hmm, maybe Vermeer,” I said.
“Thank you,” he said and walked off.
I pulled out and headed to the first pickup. It was in Soho on Greene Street. Driving cross town I thought about what I was doing. It was insane. Tim did not even know my name. He had not asked for a copy of my driver’s license or any identification. I also wondered would collectors and museums really allow someone to move their artwork in such a truck. It all seemed too bizarre.
I found a parking space in front of the building. I hit the buzzer.
“Yes,” a voice said.
“I work with Tim DeLong,” I said, “I’m here to pick up the paintings.” I looked down at my clipboard. It said 3 paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Catalogue numbers 2742, 2747, 2751.
“5th floor,” the voice said. I was buzzed in and went to the elevator. I rode it up. The door opened into what looked like a giant nursery of tropical plants. Exotic birds flew about, green parrots, gray cockatiels, blue-gold macaws.
“Hello,” I called. A little white poodle came running up to me. I walked further. “Hello.” I walked through an opening of palm fronds. I saw easels scattered with half finished paintings. The place was huge, the entire floor.
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A fat, shirtless man appeared. He had black curly hair, and wore big framed eyeglasses and red high-top sneakers. He held a paintbrush in his hand. “We’ll be with you in a second,” he said. “There is some mineral water and fruit on the table if you like. Make yourself at home.” He gestured to his left.
I went to the table and grabbed an apple and ate it quickly, then a banana. I looked around and then put a tangerine in my pocket. A red bird flew low over my head and landed on a perch in front of me. I drank a glass of mineral water, and decided to pocket a second banana.
On the wall to my right hung a very large painting by Basquiat. I had never seen his work up close and now I was standing next to the angry colors of comic genius. The painting was like graffiti from a Haitian graveyard combined with a portrait of Frankenstein done by a homicidal 3-year-old who loved Sesame Street.
The distorted head and torso were black, the teeth a lopsided caricature of a skeleton smile in yellow and white. Red machine paint outlined the eyes.
It was like an African wood carving smashed into a canvas, then run over with tar and outlined by a lunatic with his mother’s lipstick. It was Brooklyn, dead bodies, garbage, ghosts, laughter, blood, voodoo, Ethiopia. It was a queer joke inside a grenade.
This is the real deal, I thought. You did not want to look at it for too long for fear it could bestow a curse or drive you insane.
A fully dressed and younger man appeared. He wore paint-splattered khakis and a white t-shirt. “The paintings are ready; I’ll help you with them,” he said. We took three paintings wrapped in a thick plastic down to the truck and placed them carefully in the slots allotted for them. I passed him the clipboard to sign and he passed me a piece of paper to sign.
“I hope we see you again,” he said. “I bet you are an artist.”
“Not yet,” I said.
“Modest, aren’t we,” he said. “Bye, bye.”
I was to drop off these paintings on Central Park South. I decided to take the Westside Highway north so that I could drive along the river for a ways. I swung the truck down to Canal Street and then west to the highway. I looked at the clipboard again; after the drop on Central Park I was to pick up paintings by Mark Rothko, Kandinsky and Paul Klee at Deutsche Bank on the East Side. Was I dreaming this stuff? How was this possible?
What was each painting worth? Surely several hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe much, much more. I had heard that after Basquiat’s death some of his paintings were selling for millions of dollars. How many years of rent could each painting pay for? I made some calculations. I would need to live longer or get a more expensive apartment.
I gave Tim a call on the walkie-talkie. “First pickup taken care of,” I said.
“Did you have any difficulty?” he asked
“No. It’s all good,” I said. “They were very nice, but they kept me waiting for a bit.” I had just passed the exit for 34th street. The traffic was light.
“No, you made them wait. Everything is canceled for the rest of the day. We are too behind schedule.”
“Ok,” I said.
“Come back to 7th Street and put the paintings you have in the racks and then lock the place up. There is money for you in an envelope on the desk. The key on the blue ring gets you in the door.”
“Ok,” I said. “So you won’t be there?”
“No, I won’t be,” he said. “Be back here tomorrow at 9 o’clock.”
He sounded like he was crying.
“Is everything all right?”
“No, things are not all right.” The walkie-talkie scratched off.
I was passing 42nd Street. The truck seemed to cut through the thin traffic all by itself.
Suddenly the Basquiat I’d seen on the wall came to mind in a mayhem of broken teeth and a flood of scarred and bleeding yellow. I started to laugh. I was sweating.
There were at least a half a million dollars worth of Basquiats in the back of this truck. For all I knew they were worth several million dollars. No one knew my name. Sure they could find it out quickly, but by then I could be long out of New York. The George Washington Bridge was only minutes away.
I felt compelled to steal them, not just for the money, but because it seemed like something that should be done NOW.
I saw the headlines: THIEF MAKES OFF WITH THREE BASQUIATS. I liked the sound of it. I could be that guy.
Traffic opened and I passed the exit for 72nd Street. It flew by, and then 96th Street, and 125th. Before I knew it I was nearing the approach for the George Washington Bridge.
Was I really about to steal the paintings? How would I fence them? What would my family think? Would I have to live abroad and send them coded letters? It was like one of those crazy fantasies you have after you buy the lottery ticket: who you will tell, who you will share the winnings with and who you will not . . . I was giddy, afraid of myself, high, my heart beating erratically, I had an erection. At what point was I actually stealing? Was there a fine line between theft and a wrong turn off an exit ramp?
I floored it just to see how fast the clunker could go. I heard the paintings slide in their racks and thought, “Fuck, what if I crash?” Was there some Haitian curse on these paintings? Had Basquiat sold his soul?
I slowed and then swung up the exit ramp. The bridge to Jersey and beyond veered to the left.
I hit a hard right. And I kept turning right until I was facing south again. The buildings up there all had blown out windows. I stopped at a red light and a woman crossing the street spit on the windshield of the truck. I turned on the wiper. The sweat on my neck turned cold.
I pulled over at the corner, in front of a pay phone. I got out and called Karim. He picked up the phone.
“How are you,” I said.
“Sleeping,” he said.
“Did you do any of your drawings today?”
“Yes, four. And I am very tired now.”
“Good,” I said. “Very good. Good, good.”
I hung up the phone.