An extended remix of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” blared out of a pair of computer speakers as we walked through the front door of Gabrielle’s co-op in Clinton Hill, her two kids dancing and watching their reflection in a mirrored wall. Her aging dog Basil instantly took to M; in previous visits he focused his energy on nipping at my heels for the entirety of my stay, creating a persistent drag on the back of my feet as I made my way around the apartment. Gabrielle had hired a babysitter for the evening and took us to Habana Outpost, a solar-powered restaurant that uses compostable cutlery, and features a bicycle powered smoothie machine.
I knew Gabrielle in junior high school at I.S.88, and we recently reconnected through facebook. I visited her last December to see her for the first time since 1985, and apart from the trappings of our adult lives it was as if no time had passed - she had the same mannerisms and feisty energy that she had when we were preteens, only now she has a three year old and a six year old who match her in spirit, and she runs her own kids clothing and toy resale boutique called Still Hip. I was thrilled to finally introduce her to M, and the two of them hit it off, discussing art and politics like old friends and laughing at each other’s jokes.
When we got back, she asked the babysitter how things had gone.
“Did they go to bed okay?”
“Yeah, we watched a movie and then they went to bed,” the babysitter said.
“Anything exciting happen?” Gabrielle asked as she emptied the contents of her purse onto the kitchen table.
“D told me that his penis was hot, and that it was probably because of the bone inside it.”
I removed the yellow vinyl covered cushions from the 1970’s era Castro Convertible in the living room, and pulled it out into its bed form. Gabrielle got some sheets and pillows for us, and we settled in for the night.
In the morning we woke to the sounds of Gabrielle and her children readying themselves for the day, and then headed out to the American Folk Art Museum on 53rd street. In the ladies room a grey-haired woman wearing hand tooled silver jewelry watched as I tried to pull a paper towel from the dispenser.
“He always packs them so tight,” she said as I pulled off bits and corners, “and you end up with twelve.” She watched me dry my hands, and when I opened the bathroom door said “you realize what you just did, don’t you?”
“No,” I said.
“You just washed your hands, and then touched the doorknob.” She paused for effect, looking me in the eye and waiting for me to recognize the unspoken horror of public bathroom germs. “I always take an extra paper towel to open the bathroom door,” she said as we parted ways. On the first floor as I was taking in the exhibit of Paula Nadelstern’s kaleidoscope inspired quilts, I saw her again. She smiled and said: “You won’t soon forget me.”
Our main reason for going to the museum was to see the work of Henry Darger, a self-taught Chicago artist who worked as a janitor and was a recluse; his copious works were discovered only after his death in 1973. We’d seen his work in Chicago and Switzerland, but his work is so extensive that we’ve still only seen a small portion of it. He created a fantasy world where little girls are at war with evil men, their struggle depicted in words and illustrations on reams of paper, whatever kind he could get his hands on.
Then we saw the work of Ulysses Davis, including busts of every single President of the United States from George Washington to George H.W. Bush, who was in office at the time of his death in 1990. His bust of Jimmy Carter had peanuts carved into the base; he used the 39th President as a subject five times over the course of his life. A security guard who resembled a Davis sculpture stood in a corner in his blue uniform watching me, and I couldn’t help looking back at him as if he were part of the exhibit.
Back in Brooklyn, our friends Anne and Harold picked us up in Clinton Hill and drove us to our next overnight locale in Red Hook. Harold took us on a tour of the neighborhood, driving through cobbled streets, and passing shipping containers and old buildings with nautical stars affixed to their sides. H.P. Lovecraft's "The Horror at Red Hook" was set here, and the neighborhood has a long history of longshoremen and mafia activity - Chicago's own Al Capone was born in the area. In recent years it has become a quiet outpost for those who long for affordable housing and a more relaxed neighborhood; it has also become home to a Fairway food store and an Ikea, and both bus lines that serve the neighborhood have altered their routes to stop in front of the Swedish megastore. Most city views of the Statue of Liberty are from behind, but she proudly faces Red Hook, which boasts the best city view of the statue that can be found. We stopped at a park and walked out onto a pier to get a good look at her, and watched a tugboat pass by.
Then we went to Alma, a Mexican rooftop restaurant that had a breathtaking view of the Manhattan skyline, and headed to the two floor brick house that Anne and Harold share with an aging Weimaraner named Nikon. They showed us the garden they’ve been cultivating in their back yard, and the box manufacturing factory across the street from them. It was so quiet it felt like we were in a small town, one with no subway and a local economy based on fishing.
The next morning we slept in, and spent a leisurely hour drinking Harold’s own roast of coffee in the kitchen with Anne. M was heading back to Chicago later that afternoon and we had plans to see the Brooklyn Museum before he got back on the LIRR to Ronkonkoma. We called a car service - Red Hook is a ways from the closest subway stop, and a van with a missing side view mirror pulled up to the house driven by a grey-haired man wearing plastic framed glasses. The heat was blasting in the backseat, although it was 85 degrees outside. M asked him to turn it off, and we rode for fifteen minutes from Red Hook to Eastern Parkway. As we pulled into the driveway of the Brooklyn Museum M put his hand in his pants pocket, turned and looked at me with a childlike blankness on his face, and said quietly:
"My wallet…" I froze, anxiety dripping from the crown of my head over my face like a cracked egg. I said nothing and opened my wallet, hoping I had enough cash to pay the driver.
Suddenly a lazy 85 degree afternoon in Prospect Park and a museum visit became a horrible game show in which we had three hours to figure out where M’s wallet was, retrieve it, and get him on the LIRR to MacArthur Airport in time to catch his flight back to Chicago.
"What should we do?" M asked.
"I just have to take a piss," I snapped, "and then I’ll figure it out". We walked through the entrance of the Brooklyn Museum and I found the ladies room, and considered the options as a raging torrent of urine exited my body. I found M waiting on a bench in the atrium, sitting across from a man who was making strange barking sounds. Two workers dressed in blue coveralls looked in the direction the barking man, then at each other, their bodies rocking in silent laughter.
"First, we’ll call Anne and see if you left your wallet at her house," I said, "then we’ll call Southwest and see if we can switch your flight to tomorrow." Anne was home and M’s wallet and phone were sitting on a chair in her house, but the only flight the next day left at 7:30 in the morning, connected through Baltimore, and would cost an extra $180. The next hour and a half was spent largely in taxis and car services, one of them driven by a young man wearing a New York Yankees cap that still had the sticker on it. The word “grandma” was tattooed in script on his left arm and he was eating McDonald’s when he picked us up. On the back seat a receipt for a $35 moving violation with his name and date of birth printed on it was in plain view, and two pungent air fresheners shaped like trees hung from the rear view mirror. I mouth breathed the whole time we were in the car.