“Across the lines, who would dare to go? Under the bridge, over the tracks,
that separates whites from blacks.” --Tracy Chapman
“If you don’t know me by now
You will never never know me, oh…”
—Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff
In July 2017, a month into our friendship, Simone and I boarded the PATH train at Newark Penn Station and set out for Manhattan. We both had lived there: she for ten years, I for forty, and now we lived in Section 8 exile in a women’s rooming house in Newark. Simone is resentful about this; I am relieved. I wanted to take her to the New Museum, to show her an exhibition of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s portraits of black people whom the British artist had invented rather than painted from life. My wish, with a touch of pedantry though not condescension, was that Simone, who had never been to a museum, would find Boakye’s subjects exalted and regal, beings to identify with and aspire to.
I have spent all my adult life in museums, often without understanding what I saw but reveling always in the atmosphere. Real people--the visitors-- look better in the light of galleries, at once prettier and more intelligent. The presence of antiquity, or for that matter, the spanking new, seems to summon unlikely spirit and style from spectators one would scarcely notice on the street. I seldom take the long, serious look at anything that is expected. I don’t contemplate; I dart, my attention caught between object and subject.
We had free passes, obtained from the New Museum’s press department on the promise that I would write an essay, which only now am I sitting down to do. It doesn’t matter. The Museum has become all the more vivid because it comprises a memory Simone and I share, a small shining plaque in the record of our friendship. If anything, as I glance through the catalogue, I now understand that part of the meaning for me of Boakye’s extraordinary paintings was that they had catalyzed a relationship marked by constant contentment and strife, a mixture which has empowered me to write the way I used to live: with abandon.
The day was a bit rainy with sun breaking through, the weather that so glamorizes Lower Manhattan, deepening the grey of its cracked pavements and dark corridors of scaffolding, which somehow seem more dignified when wet. Outside the Bowery Mission, Simone asked a man whether he knew her old boyfriend, Vern, who often sits there in his wheelchair. He thought maybe so. The Bowery did not disappoint her, or me.
Nor did the exhibition. The fourth floor of the New Museum’s clean white spaces was painted a deep red, somewhere between Chinese and Roman, the color of drying blood I particularly love. There were seventeen paintings in all, the show mysteriously entitled “Under-Song For A Cipher.” Boakye writes as well as paints, but her make-believe portraits spoke for themselves, and for centuries of painting. She has few predecessors of her own sex: Artemisia Gentileschi, Alice Neel. The figures in them, mostly lone although there were one or two triads, seemed all to be poised and captured in a particular instantaneous act, from thinking to dancing, reclining or laughing. One believes in them as in live presences, their faces and expressions, like Caravaggio’s only much darker, emerging from the darkness, deeper still, of walls, rooms, and the occasional landscape.
The most powerful picture, “The Matters,” was chosen for the catalogue cover; a young man in a black tank top stands with an owl perched on his right hand: Athena with a sea-change. His mouth is ever so slightly defiant; then again, he may just be amused. It’s hard to tell. All Boakye’s faces emanate such ambiguities of mood and demeanor, familiarity and distance, melancholy or charisma. Simone found the paintings beautiful, asking me the unmentionable: are people paid to paint these? “Probably several hundred thousand each,” I told her to her disbelief.
I was satisfied with the museum and the few moments of immersion in paintings my pretensions can tolerate. I had looked long enough. But Simone wanted to explore the other floors, a thought which had not occurred to me. I tend to do or take in one thing at a time; Simone is omnivorous. So we ventured to another floor where something strange was going on. Long tables had been set up with Luddite-looking machinery, with museum attendants sitting across from visitors. The attendants were very busy xeroxing, cutting and pasting things; laminating them; stamping them. My usual reaction would have been simply to watch, but Simone said, “Let’s do what they’re doing.” We approached the first table, behind which the wall was covered with what seemed to be ID cards far more colorful and disorganized than the usual thing. A young lady explained to us, “We are making new ID cards for visitors out of things they have in their purse or wallet that they think represent themselves. Pick the things you like, that you want to show the world about yourselves.” Simone and I began shuffling through our IDs and various business cards, of which we both had many. We threw our lives down on the table as if we were playing 52 pickup.
I still had my New York State Benefit Card which I got in 2007, my only surviving official form of picture ID. Then, ironically, there was my Columbia Libraries alumnae card. I also had one of my own business cards, though I was barely still in business. Then there was my new Newark Public Library card, entree to the treasure house that is the NPL, where the dense stacks, stocked by exceptionally smart librarians, are open to the public, who don’t visit them much. Instead they sleep at tables in the second floor reading room, or use the computers on the third floor. NPL is a place not only to read but to retrench, to charge cell phones and receive backpacks full of toiletries before reentry into the more competitive terrain of Newark’s streets, shelters and soup kitchens. I proffered, too, a card from the wonderful Hana Mission Thrift Shop in Belleville, New Jersey, with clasped hands and a cross, in blue. (Later that year, in October, I would find there a navy Dior swing coat, of Loro Piana lambswool, for twenty dollars.) And I had a pink Newark light rail ticket, expired.
The young woman xeroxed all these items. I assumed she would cut them up and reassemble them into a pleasing Schwitters-like collage. But there was a twist. She did nothing with the small pieces of my life until she had copied, clipped and processed Simone’s impedimenta: a proper New Jersey Non-Driver’s License; a McDonald’s coupon; and a friendly orange bubble I can no longer identify, emblazoned with the word “Share,” in yellow and blue.
The museum attendant switched our identities. Simone became me; I became her, each of us newly christened with the other’s name, though still encumbered with our own histories and habits. My card, with Simone’s full name at the top, has my smiling Columbia picture rather than the hectic Benefit portrait; flanked by Alma Mater in profile and the Hana Mission emblem, which I just now noticed is heart-shaped. Simone’s card bears my name, along with her penchant for French fries, and our common love for the Newark Public Library, all embedded in the “Share” halo.
Thus we came away from the New Museum with something more than a memory. The cards, I learned only afterwards, were an interactive part of Paul Ramirez Jonas’ exhibition, “Half-Truths.” They remain with us as reminders of a halcyon day that involved a number of initiations for both of us.
I hold both these keepsakes in my top drawer in my room in Newark, and sometimes Simone and I take them out and look at them, laughing hysterically over how different we are, and yet how connected. The Museum had done its work. Simone and I did not become partners that day. Instead, our day made plain to us—each girded in her own skin—that we were partners already.
We are Platonic in both senses, the upper-case ideal ruptured and sealed over and over again because we are alive. Together or apart, we are a notorious piece of work.
Simone’s voice, from a whisper to a scream, is the soundtrack of my unlikely, happy life.