Back then, I lived on 16th Street and Third Ave, near Union Square. Big Joe Turner and Mrs. Big Joe lived there. So did a dominatrix with steely eyes and a bulldog jaw. And a South African art dealer who specialized in interracial pornography. There was a club kid who lived in the apartment next to mine. He had a beautiful German shepherd named Echo that he kept in a cage inside his apartment. The kid would go out to clubs and not come home for days at a time. The dog would whimper and bark, then whimper some more, sometimes all night.
I approached the kid in the hallway once. I like dogs, I told him. I often work at home. If you gave me the keys to your place, I could walk him at night sometimes when he’s barking.
The kid leaned back against the wall. He folded his arms and shook his head.
“Yeah,” he snorted. It was a laugh, but not much of a laugh. "Like I’m really going to give you keys to my place!”
I didn’t know that he dealt Ecstasy. Among other things.
I lived on the 13th floor. The woman in this story lived on the 8th. I’d see her in the lobby and in the elevator, maybe by the mailboxes, and we probably nodded to each other, though we’d never spoken. She had hair the color of wet sand.
When I came back that day, she was in the lobby weeping hysterically and there were five or six people standing around her, all shaking their heads, trying to comfort her, talk to her. She kept crying.
Someone had broken into her apartment. She hadn’t been gone long, a few hours at most, the time it took to go up to Macy’s and come back, and in that time someone had broken into her apartment and taken all her paintings, all her artwork. Nothing else. But they’d taken all the drawings and paintings and lithographs from her walls, artwork she’d been collecting all her life, some inherited from family, some she'd bought in London or Paris. Her beautiful artwork.
We had to see, she said. We had to see.
She herded us into the elevator, seven of us, maybe eight by that point.
We had to see, she said.
The apartment looked freshly cleaned. It smelled of pine cones and lavender and lemon flowers, as if, not being able to choose the right fragrance, she’d decided on all of them at once, and the chairs and piano and piano bench were freshly waxed.
Paintings and drawings, most of them carefully framed by the same hand, were hung on every wall and were propped up on the tables and sideboard. There were the sorts of pictures of horses and dressage you’d see in Connecticut drawing rooms, in Greenwich or Darien, sunsets and landscapes and cloudscapes, Victorian portraits, still lifes, and nature and 19th century ballerinas at rest.
The South African dealer had taken off his glasses and was looking at a pencil sketch of a West Indian girl with bare breasts.
“Boom boom,” he said. “Boom boom.”
The paintings, someone said.
Nothing’s gone. You’re alright.
The woman shook her head. She was crying, but softly, no longer hysterical.
“No,” she said. “No. No. No.”
She pointed to a canvas of a young woman at a loom, something Vermeer might have thrown away.
“No. These aren’t my paintings. They’re not. They look like them. They’re almost them. They look like them. But when you look, you can see. My paintings, my real paintings are gone.”
People nodded in sympathy. Someone tried to correct her, but stopped mid-sentence and cleared their throat and backed away. The South African dealer had put his glasses back on and was looking at his watch. One by one, we all left and went on with our lives.
The next day and for many days after, I’d see her outside the building, standing beneath the awning. She was waiting for the thieves to return. She’d stand there in an old woolen coat, out of the sun and out of the rain, waiting.
Around 9:30 or 10 at night, her father would show up, sometimes with chicken soup or minestrone from a diner nearby, maybe Joe Junior’s, and would take her upstairs and put her to bed. The next day, bright and early, she’d be back, standing guard. The thieves, she knew, would be back. They couldn’t help themselves. They’d be back. And she’d be there.
Time went by. I moved to 9th Street, but I still had friends in the old building. I’d stop by from time to time, and sometimes I’d see her outside the building in the same woolen coat. Once, last year, I was passing by, and I thought I saw her there under the awning, though it might have been someone looking for a cab.
That was a year ago, though it seems so much longer than that.
For more than six months, we’ve all been in seclusion. And now, people are stepping out their doors. There are restaurants that are open, and you can sit outside. Not inside. But outside. And you can get your hair cut or your nails done. You can go to the dentist or see your lawyer.
I went into a local bookstore a few hours ago and bought a Brazilian book about the West Village. Afterwards, I sat in the shade outside a small cafe and had an iced coffee. The waitress who brought it was wearing a mask, and when she got within a few feet of my table, I pulled my mask back up. I nodded. She smiled. Or I think she smiled. It’s hard to know.
The city is opening up.
But it’s not my city.
These are not my paintings.
When you look, you can see. They’re no longer mine.
Brian Cullman is Journal of the Plague Year's West Village Editor.