Photo by Ted Soqui
We were running low on milk. We reached for it the next morning, and then it was gone. The litter box needed to be changed. The kitchen faucet was still dripping. “We need more milk,” we both said, one after the other, not hearing the one who said it first. We were muttering so many things to ourselves that we’d stopped listening to each other. Our words in those days immediately after the attacks drifted from our mouths like feathers, with about as much weight, a molting of the thoughts that had become trivial, unnecessary, inconsequential.
We had been planning to leave on vacation, so when we returned home that Tuesday about noon, after a long walk across the Queensboro bridge, dazed, with a feeling like we’d misplaced something very important, we returned to a living room of packed suitcases, to a life that was already anticipating the next morning.
Everything looked clear, almost painfully so, and this effect was perpetuated by the day itself, a cloudless sky, early-autumn blue, the sort of light that gives everything the cleanest demarcation. This was before the words started, before we turned on the television and before the next day’s newspapers, before the telephone calls and our assurances and our relaying of our stories, of where we’d been and what we’d seen, as repetitious finally as the footage of that United flight slamming into tower two, before we sank ourselves desperately into the torrents of improper grammar, half-finished sentences, aborted thoughts, the chatter of news anchors, mixed metaphors, speculations on the structural integrity of steel when it is subjected to thousand-plus-degree temperatures, the fuel loads of airplanes, the exclamatory curses of unseen spectators on unedited videotapes, talk of “cells” and of flight schools in Florida, the first mention of the word “war.” We felt we needed some sort of washing, a splash of cold water on the face, but once we grew accustomed to the buoyancy of total immersion, we let ourselves be carried on the great swelling tide of other people’s voices.
We woke up the next morning hungry for news, like a smoker wakes up wanting a cigarette, stepped over our suitcases, turned on the television. But we didn’t wake up together. Ralph woke up early, mumbling that he couldn’t sleep, and I spread out in the bed after I opened my eyes and gave him a narrow, irritated look, for waking me up, for leaving, for breaking the unspoken pact we had to stay together indefinitely, now that we couldn’t be certain we’d see each other again if we separated. The disaster had married us in a way. He went to get the paper, but he forgot to get milk or apples or bananas. We had hardly anything to eat in the house, so we reached blindly for whatever food was there, and left the dishes in the sink to be washed at some other, unimaginable time. He would hug me unexpectedly, and then he would pace, flop down on the couch, open the paper.
“I hate the way she does that,” he said.
“That, there. That anchor. The way she keeps puckering her lips and shaking her head.”
The next day he asked, “Why does she get to help?” We were watching Kathleen Turner making an appeal for work boots, underwear and socks. She had no makeup on and looked admirably tired.
“She probably lives around there,” I said.
“Should we go down?”
“They keep saying there’s too many people,” I said. “We’d probably be in the way.”
We found out on the first day that the Red Cross discourages gay men from donating blood. We stopped by a Catholic church in our neighborhood, but there were only two women in the back praying. We were on our way home the next morning, after picking up some doughnuts, passing the cheap sidewalk clutter of brooms, mops, electric fans, and brass-and-enamel decorative items of our local bargain store, when Ralph said, “I want to go in here and get a flag.”
“Oh . . . ” I said. I looked at him and made a face.
We argued for a minute, not saying what we meant. He wanted to do something. I imagined a flag hanging off our fire escape, and thought how every time I saw it I’d think it was a clumsy expression, somehow inadequate, that we didn’t have a flag before, so why should we now? I didn’t want to be any different than we had been. Ten minutes after I got home, he came in.
“What a cynical country we live in,” he said, “when you go to three stores and can’t find a single American flag.”
We watched people on television sitting cross-legged in Union Square at a makeshift memorial, writing things on paper laid out on the ground. Some people were crying, but most milled about, looking down with appraising expressions like visitors to a flea market.
“I feel trapped here,” Ralph said. I looked on our itinerary and found a number for the airline. “Your call will be answered in . . . 48 minutes,” said a woman’s automated voice, cheerful but laced with authority. I thought of footage I’d seen of a hotel lobby, its windows blown in, debris everywhere and everything covered in a thick layer of gray ash. In the background, an elevator alarm was pinging insistently. There was a whole automated subtext to our lives, designed to support the complexity of life in modern America, which was now rendered ironic. I hung up the phone.
On Thursday, when the flags started to appear whipping in the wind on car antennas, draped over fire escapes, peeking out of women’s purses and soft-sided men’s briefcases, we heard on the news that Roosevelt Hospital needed volunteers. When we got there, a woman at a folding table told us the announcement had been an error; she had just called the station to request a correction.
“Is there anyplace you know of where they’re looking for help?” I asked. She crimped her mouth, shrugged, shook her head. “Sorry.”
We stopped in front of a window full of homemade missing-persons signs and read them, along with an ever-changing knot of passers-by. People flowed in, swirled silently in the eddy, and then drifted on.
“I wonder how you become an EMT,” Ralph said as we walked away.
When we returned home, he dug a deck of cards out from the desk drawer and began dealing himself a hand of solitaire.
Neighbors: O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Hello. My name is Van Freeman . . .
I first noticed Van in April or May of 1999, shortly after I had moved out of Hollywood rock & roll hell and into homier — if not exactly quieter — digs overlooking Silver Lake’s Tropical Café. Just back from a walk around the block with my aged boxer, Caesar, I was distracted from a glance through the day’s bills and supermarket circulars by the approach of a singing voice deep and resonant as any Boris Gudonov’s, a voice that sliced clean through the whoosh of the late-afternoon traffic, the asthmatic wheeze of bus hydraulics, the obscene keening of Guitar Joe as he panhandled northbound commuters at the intersection of Sunset and Parkman. In the wake of that basso profundo, its source: caramel-colored in green fatigues, erect military bearing, tall as a lamppost, bald as a basketball, counterforce to the relentless tugging of a basset hound. As canines craned necks toward each other’s nether parts, leashes taut, hindquarters trembling, I broke the silence. “Wonderful voice.” “Thank you, sir,” said Van, a little warily, trapped in the headlights of my approbation. Then a parting of the dogs, a figurative tipping of figurative hats, and the resumption of — a hymn no less, I forget which one.
. . . and I’m the artist behind Free’manArt. I must say that I ask God step by step about each piece He allows me to do, so I really can’t take any of the credit for the work that you see. Each piece is done with the hope that you will keep your focus on God no matter what the circumstances may bring.
A few days (or weeks or months) later, I observed how one little red-and-white bungalow on the first leg of my morning dog ramble — the hundred-yard stretch of Reservoir that links Silver Lake and Occidental — belonged to the big man with the big voice. There were subsequent exchanges of hellos and good-mornings, and Van at some point formally introduced me to the basset hound: Linda. And though I hadn’t yet managed to identify the frequent transformations of the bungalow’s façade as art, precisely, I certainly caught their drift: “Jesus Saves” etc., 3 feet high and pieced together with varying scraps and lengths of wood. At Christmas, a bed of pine needles covering porch, steps and sidewalk; lights strung from the eaves, threaded through the bushes and over tree branches; inside the house, all blazing lights and blaring music. At Easter, a thick forest of crosses, hymn after hymn to the Risen One. And year-round, an ever-thickening â curbside strip of cactus — a sign, it seemed to me then and seems to me now, of cruel days in the desert, long nights on the Mount of Olives.
And as you and I both know, this life can bring some pretty tough situations to deal with. It can get pretty rough sometimes.
Other times, the house stood silent and dark, naked as the day it was slapped together, stripped of its Pentecostal glory. There’d be weeks on end when nothing got built, no Good News proclaimed. One evening toward dusk, during one such dry spell, I spotted Van on the porch. “How’s Linda?” “Who?” “The dog. The basset hound.” “Oh yes. She’s gone. I couldn’t keep her.” End of story.
The Rugged Cross is a piece that symbolizes some of the pain we experience in life. You will notice that there is nothing smooth in the making of the cross. There are many rough edges . . . But here’s the hope. Just as Jesus went through all of the disappointments and hurts we too can make it through with his help. And just as God raised him up from the dead so will God raise us up out of some pretty tough situations.
Then — about five weeks ago — Van’s house opened up in a way it never had before. “Art For Sale. Come Inside,” blood-red letters on a field of ochre. The doors flung open, front and back. The volume way, way up. And the walls! Plastered with stuff — glittering, colorful, strangely textured stuff, or so it seemed from a distance, all lined up and ready to sell. The next day, checkbook in hand, I ventured over the threshold. “Wait,” said Van, emerging from what had once — perhaps recently — been a kitchen. “Let me turn on the lights.” The rest beggars description. Grandma Prisbrey meets Robert Rauschenberg at Watts Towers . . . maybe. Suffice it to say, it covered the house from floor to ceiling, in acrylic and wood and brick and clay and glass and porcelain and china and cement — and yes, much of it framed, and titled, and price-tagged. Most of it featuring crosses (rugged ones at that), free-standing and in various groupings. All of it pushing farther and farther toward the rear of that tiny bungalow, into the bathroom that was no longer a bathroom, the bedroom that was no longer a bedroom, the kitchen that was no longer a kitchen, with Van working away in what could still be construed as “the back,” the part that hadn’t yet been devoured by art. “Yes sir, it’s taking over,” he told me. “Soon I’ll be out in the garage. Take your time. Look around.” And so I did, eventually pulling off the wall one of 20 or so small pieces titled “For Me” — this one, a gold cross on a field of white, framed in gold, with a red trapezoid of smashed crockery at its foot. For me. I wrote a check. Van wrote out a receipt and handed me a shopping bag, and a business card, and with them the artist’s statement from which I’ve been excerpting. I owned as how I’d be saving up for another, larger piece.
Of course, this is just my interpretation . . .
A couple of days later — on August 30, and ever since — the house is dark again, the porch unswept, the mailbox stuffed with bills and supermarket circulars, and this time there’s an eviction notice taped to the door. A peer through the windows confirms that most of the paintings — I mean, the stuff you don’t actually need a hammer, a chisel or a crowbar to pry from the walls — are still inside. When I jiggle the door handle, the deadbolt lock just above it, fresh-picked or so it would seem, comes loose from its socket, the components clattering onto the porch. When a neighbor passes by, I ask whether she knows the occupant. “Oh no no no,” she says, waving her hand in front of her face, avoiding eye contact. I leave a note for Van, an offer of garage space in which to store the work he’s left behind.
Today, September 19, walking Caesar — and the new one, Egbert, a beagle mix — I come upon several such notes, from other fans and neighbors, stuffed forlornly, like mine, twixt door and jamb.
I hope you enjoy what you see and that it continues to keep your focus where it belongs.
I did, Van. I hope so too.
Bar Notes: Back to Reality
It was difficult to know when to start going out again. But all things must come to an end, even shock, fear and grief, which is how I found myself in the Belly bar in West Hollywood, watching the latest Survivor faux-reality progeny, The Amazing Race, with two of the show’s contestants.
Hollywood pundits have talked of the terrorist attacks as the death knell for the pseudo-celebrity culture that Survivor epitomized. Not to worry, Race contestants Paul and Amie got 50 of their closest friends, plus assorted onlookers, to cheer along as they navigated the Jerry Bruckheimer–produced global scavenger hunt.
“We thought tonight we’d get away from the reality of life,” Amie, a vivacious redhead, explained after the show ended. “It’s the second episode; we beat Lost and Fear Factor [in the ratings], so we’re very excited.”
Paul, a personal trainer, and Amie, a dancer-choreographer, live in Brentwood and are identified on the Race Web site as “Engaged” (other teams are categorized as “Working Moms & Friends,” “Separated Parents” and “Fraternity Brothers”). The show focused on the couple’s head-to-head competition with the team of Kim and Leslie (“Single Teachers and Best Friends”; extremely sexy-looking ones too), battling to make it from Zambia to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The highlight (or low point, depending on how you view these things) might have been when Amie, angry at her competitors for stealing a taxi, yelled to Leslie: “You’re a fat bitch.”
I didn’t actually hear much of this sparkling repartee, just the whoops of the 20-somethings around the big-screen TV when, at the show’s conclusion, Kim and Leslie were eliminated. Also, I was distracted by a conversation with David J. Kuff, a marketing and “brand development” executive, who explained that, due to the current economic crisis, he was getting into a new line: a female-orgasm lotion called “Viacrème.” Apparently, rubbing the clitoral area with this ointment will result in “orgasmic response,” according to testimonials.
“It’s awful what happens to women at menopause,” the bespectacled Kuff explained. “They dry up, can’t enjoy sex anymore.” When I begged to differ, Kuff temporarily withdrew his offer of a product sample. “You’re a crummy lead,” he muttered, as we fought over a dish of Belly’s smoked almonds. But he finally relented, then told me to get in touch if I wanted to join his multilevel marketing team.
The next morning I found the little sample of Viacrème in my purse. I was going to toss it, but thought better of it. In these strange days, you just never know.