I suppose I could have gone to Boston but I think I just wanted to get away from home. Besides which there was really no home any more for my parents had sold the farm and were living in a trailer. Logically, it was NY that beckoned and I had a possible contact in the artist I had met on the train coming back from Mexico where I had been at an art school. NY in 1950 was where you went to find a job and to continue your studies. The 92nd Street Y provided a list of places to stay. My first room was on the East Side with a mother and her shy, skinny son. I remember mostly how I had to take a shower every night to wash away the grey film the city had deposited on my skin during the day. I also figured out that the mother was mainly interested in finding a girlfriend for her pimply son. But more to my liking was an apartment to share on 31st Street and 3rd avenue where I could hear the el go by all night long.
There were actually just two rooms, plus kitchen and bathroom, but I really didn’t need much more. It was in my one-window room, with barely enough room to sit on the floor, that I started painting and drawing in earnest. New York, with its offering of movies, often foreign like the Japanese Rashomon and Ugetsu, theater with the Indian dancer Uday Shankar, evening classes of various kinds such as one on the history of jazz with old-time musicians reminiscing on the past became home.
As for work, I started out helping the artist, back from his vacation in Mexico, with his textile designs, and I got pretty good at doing repeats. Evenings he and his artist friends would get together and they suggested I contact the art schools for work. The fact that they often had evening classes would also be an advantage when I enrolled in NYU for it meant I could juggle school and working hours.
Sitting still for half an hour at a time pretending I was a statue or a girl drawing water from a spring gave me time to think. I was observed, but I observed as well. Who knows what part of me they were drawing. My nose, my arm, my foot? Should I wiggle my toes just to distract them? I could not see myself and couldn’t help wondering what I looked like. Sometimes I had a curious feeling that my arm was raised and resting on a shelf – but I knew it was resting on the chair back. No amount of thinking my arm down convinced me that it was there and I knew that if the pose did not break soon I would have to turn and look. And even then it would seem to be not my arm there, but just an arm, until by some great power of will I moved it.
The shadows crept slowly across the floor. If I turned away but an instant they were longer, elsewhere, but no amount of watching could catch them in their movement. A fly crawled slowly up my arm – we watched each other – we felt each other and I tried in vain to horse ripple my muscles. He found the taste of salt good, and my pride would not let me move. Sun streamed in, the windows were closed, great burning bulbs surrounded me with vain attempts to dispel the shadows of falsehood.
Mentally, I murmured to the men behind the drawing pads (curiously they were mostly always men) “Do not draw the shadows, draw the roundness, curve each line around the form and draw it from behind the object, lightly lightly crawl over her with the flies of your eyes, stand as she stands, look where her hip falls out over her feet”. Yet I continued to remain captive to the hundred eyes and minds pulling hundreds of little threads tight around me as they drew. And then finally rest!
I often also took over the class, particularly if the artist whose studio it was couldn’t come that evening. I had more experience than most of them since I had gone to art school in Mexico and they listened to me as a teacher. In a sense the artists, or would-be artists, formed a sort of club. You made friends with some of them – both professional and amateur – and they always respected you. Nowadays, reading the headlines full of violence on the part of men to women, makes me wonder whether I was just fortunate, whether times have truly changed.
The best part of the day was after the evening class when three or four of us would gather at the local automat for a cup of coffee and talk. Automats with their little compartments behind glass windows which you could open after having put in your coin, don’t exist any more. It was generally after eleven by the time I walked back to East 31st Street from Washington Square – NY was pretty safe in the early 50s. And only twice in the years I lived there was I followed on my way home at night.
There were of course more permanent jobs. The Museum of Modern Art had a policy of hiring students or artists who would either be at the ticket counter or help out at the bookshop. I remember particularly when a customer, railing against Jews, insulted the boy who was at the bookshop desk. The super praised him for keeping his calm but certainly that customer was no longer welcome at the museum. Later I graduated, one might say, to the exhibition department as secretary or assistant to Munroe Wheeler. But this was after my trip to Europe and I used my lunch hours to work over what I called Parenthesis (which later turned into The Watcher).
One week, a friend who was a bagel baker needed someone to help him. Sure why not. An interesting experience. I had fun working with Johnny – he was Jewish, small and witty. Come to think of it, most of the people I got to know in New York were Jewish but that didn’t mean anything to me. Johnny would pick me up weekends and take me to New Jersey where he had his bakery. There was something dreamlike about those weekends. We came in after the sun had set and we went back to New York so early the sun had not yet risen above the skyscrapers. The dough was mixed in a great whirling barrel, with bags and pails of flour and giant cakes of yeast. It was then set on a wooden table where we cut off strips, rolling it out like serpents, which gradually did seem to come alive as the dough proofed. Next step was the endless shaping, filling box after box and piling them up at one side. The clock hands turned round and round but still there were boxes waiting to be filled, still there was dough to be made. The electric lights themselves seemed to take on a pallor and grow weaker as the night crept on. The narrowing circle of darkness. Soon the bagels were ready to be dropped into the bubbling cauldrons of boiling water. Out onto the paddles once they rose to the surface. With the glow of the fires and the small oven doors, with the rhythm set up by the time they took to cook, to bake. Everything was hungry and had constantly to be filled – the kettle and the fire that gleefully ate the coal or refused it according to its whims, the boards on which one put the unbaked bagels, the ovens waiting for ever more. One could not turn away and rest a minute, for the bagels would be over-cooked or burnt, the ovens get too hot, the fires go out. It governed all our movements, the baker sometimes seemed to be moving in his sleep and a fog seemed to envelop the whole room. Three o’clock and four and five o’clock. Finally all done. They were all baked, lying around the room in baskets and in strings of golden brown rings. Open the doors and let the cold air in to cool them quicker. So sharp it wakes one up and stepping outside the sky is light green and the darkness is withdrawing into the buildings. The air has been cleansed by the night and is pure as at no other time. One pink ragged rose clings to the bush in the garden next door. Still from summertime? Still from the day and sunlight? The delivery truck is loaded, bags are marked – a dozen for the little delicatessen here, two dozen for the one next to the bar, a dozen for the one way out which acts as general grocery. Light snow on the ground and the cold now. And sleep flushes the face and it burns, while feet and hands turn to ice. Thirty dozen here to this big delicatessen – smoked fish, laks, sour cream in return. Once home, there will be steaks – breakfast and supper combined before the rest of the day is lost in sleep. The rest of the day – a couple of hours maybe, and it is time to start again – to put in the flour and drink a glass of beer and whisky while the clock begins to move faster and faster. Another day, another week.
3 thoughts on “New York City”
I love these vignettes. I also was an artist’s model and worked in a bakery (doughnuts, not bagels!). Keep delving and sharing! baci, James (II)
LikeLiked by 1 person
Erika — what an amazing tale of the times!
LikeLiked by 1 person
I loved reading this – I lived on 42nd and 2nd street for 3 years and can relate to this – especially “washing away the grey film of the city” – thank you for these wonderful memoirs-
LikeLiked by 1 person