Photography Magazine

Gallerina: The Prequel

By Briennewalsh @BrienneWalsh
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Gallerina: The Prequel

Gallerina: The Prequel

Thanks to some encouragement—and a long talk with my brother Stuprendan during which he assured me that even though he thought the novel was junky, he read to page 214—I’ve decided to post excerpts from the book at the beginning of every week, in conjunction with Gallery Girls.

(Seriously, though, thank you for your encouragement. I honestly don’t think I would be brave enough to post this stuff without those of you who reach out to me.)

This excerpt is very long, and very messy. It’s the first pages I wrote, over eight years ago. It’s such a disaster in terms of linear thought and chronology that after editing it for two hours, I’ve developed a terrible, terrible headache, and decided to leave it mostly as it has been, sitting on my computer for so many years.

It sets up how I ended up working at an art gallery in New York instead of doing something useful like saving lives or teaching mentally disabled children. It’s a prequel to the chapters I posted last week. Next week, if I don’t want to kill myself—or if my father doesn’t kill me—I’ll move the story forward.

And as a side note, it is incredibly difficult and embarrassing to post this stuff. I don’t think that it’s good—having it out there literally makes me physically sick. One of the benefits of blogging is that you mostly only get positive feedback. But I’d love some negative feedback, or criticism, or ideas how to clean this mess up, if you have any. Please email me.

Gallerina: The Prequel

Chapter 1

I had never heard of Hoof Gallery before my first interview there. In fact, I hadn’t heard of any galleries in New York. Just graduated from college, I didn’t realize that there was an art world outside of the museums and major auction houses that inhabited fancy neighborhoods in Manhattan and Europe. And these I thought were populated by the same wealthy young things that were in all of my art history classes at Brown University. I was, unfortunately, not a wealthy young thing.

“You don’t have any money,” my father had scoffed, when I told him that I was going to get a job in the art world after graduation.

“But you do,” I responded, my hand gliding over the slick green surface of the Italian marble countertop in my parent’s kitchen. “You have plenty of money.”

My parents were generally unsupportive of any decision I made unless it involved helping disabled children, or being a newscaster, the career that my father thought that I was destined for, given that I’m fluent in English. If you were to take their word, they had grown up eating one meal a day in their 300 square foot apartments in the Bronx, because their families were too poor to afford not only food, but also bedrooms. Their childhood destitution wasn’t a former state of being for my parents—it was the foundation of their entire identity.

I, on the other hand, was raised in the estate my father bought after making it big on Wall Street. Even thought it was a condition predetermined by their own choices, I was considered to be not only spoiled, but also extremely weak. Somehow the connection was never made that my parents, penniless as they had been, had also been living in such extravagance for twenty-two years.

“They should take a group of kids from Chappaqua, and drop them in the middle of the South Bronx,” my dad would joke, confident not only of his own toughness, but also of the lawless climate of a city that was at the time, the 236th most dangerous metropolis in the country. “That would be a great reality show. Survival in the Bronx: Chappaqua edition.”

Chappaqua was the town where I grew up, and the place where my father resided, resplendent in calf-high socks, and stiff souvenir shop T-shirts that said things like “Bahamas” and “Ireland”. We lived with my mother and five siblings, two of them adopted from an agency in South Korea, on an estate surrounded by a nature park. The property had a guesthouse, a poolhouse, a “dollhouse” with it’s own mailbox and address, a perennial flower garden, a pool, and a tree-lined quarter of a mile long driveway. It was everything you could have expected to possess if you lived in the 18th century and made your living off of the slave trade. Rumor had it that when my parents had purchased the estate, there had been a bidding war between them and a player on the NY Giants. My parents had won. According to my mother, we were very middle class.

If my father was the modern version of Scarlett O’Hara’s father, gambling billions of dollars at an investment bank, and never feeling comfortable when he got lucky, then my mother was Eleonor, the matriarch, the queen of our domain, elegant and refined. She was Victorian and outmoded, living in a world that had never existed, but if it were a novel, might have inhabited the middle of the century. The nineteenth century, that is.

She had grown up without any privilege, but she had an innate sense of good taste. She raised my siblings, the boys included, like the Little Women. We were all good Christians—charitable, chaste, judgmental. We put on plays, we dressed up in costumes. She read to us constantly, and encouraged us to do art projects. Before the boys were too old to protest, they were wearing wigs, lipstick and doll’s dresses, and participating in marriage and childbirth games. Holidays were splendid affairs full of decorating Christmas trees and wrapping presents for the poor. Like the children of the Amish, we had almost no outside exposure to the modern world inside our home. We weren’t allowed to watch TV, or play video games, so we learned how to fill the time reading, creating fantasy worlds, and fighting.

My mother gave us the childhood that she would have preferred if her father hadn’t been a bus driver; she brought me to ballet lessons, she took me horseback riding, she read to me before I went to bed at night. She was attracted to classical music, the ballet, the theater, and museums. On weekends, she took us to the Bronx zoo for zoology courses, and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to draw. She bought us children’s books about van Gogh and Michelangelo. We had the entire anthology of Sister Wendy’s book on art history. When I was in fourth grade, I was gifted, from the library swap box, with an abridged copy of the Power and the Glory. While my schoolmates were talking about Saved by the Bell and 90210, I was fantasizing about the woman that Van Gogh chopped his ear off for, and wishing that someone, someday, would love me that much.

Given my mother’s romantic yearnings for simpler times, when contact with other people was inconvenient, if not unnecessary, we were always behind the curve on communication technology. In high school, when every other kid in my class got a computer, and subsequently AOL, I was handwriting my papers, and existing in a social wasteland. When cell phones became the normal mode of keeping in touch, my parents remained mobile-less, cocooned in the vast green fields of their property from the intrusions of convenience.

According to them, we couldn’t afford luxuries like computers or installing the Internet or cell phones. What we could afford, however, were nannies, a gardener, a fleet of Central American housekeepers, and a handy man hired to do things like fix the dilapidated iron gate at the end of the driveway by heating up the rods in the turkey baster he used to cook his bird on Thanksgiving.

It had always been made clear to me, despite our many privileges, that I should not expect anything more than the daughter of a fireman with a disability pension and six children. By this, I mean that I had to pay for everything I wanted with the money I made myself, with my soft, pampered hands, except for dinner every night at home (and even that was not guaranteed, depending on my mother, who was far more interested in meditation than she was in being a housewife). Before I was legally able to work, I was hired by my aunt to clean the toilets of her computer-networking store. I babysat, I drove my siblings around, I trained as a lifeguard. My father paid me to sew the buttons on his dress shirts. My mother paid me to give her foot massages while we watched fuzzy recordings of Russian ballets on PBS. At any given time, I could make $2 walking on my father’s back.

My father claimed that by the time he was 22, he had three jobs, and enough money to buy a house. To be contrary, I spent whatever I earned desperately. I worked to buy things. And in the materialistic town where I grew up, where being someone meant owning many frivolous things, I was a social outcast. I never wore the right things, at the right time. I never drove an Audi A4, the choice car to receive for your 16th birthday. I couldn’t order out sushi, I couldn’t buy CDs, I couldn’t even pay for gas to drive to the mall. Even though we lived, middle class and all, on one of the lushest properties in a town full of McMansions and colonial estates, no one ever knew that I was well-off. On the rare occasion that someone who wasn’t my nanny drove me home from an extra-curricular activity, they were flabbergasted. “Wow,” they would say as their car wove up the driveway, the main house looming white and spectral against the gray evening sky. “You live here?”

“No,” I would think, “I only live here ostensibly.”

During a brief, two-year period of extravagance, when my father truly started to make cash, and the Irish Catholic potato-famine guilt about spending it hadn’t yet caught up to him, he and my mother—Gordon Gecko style—dabbled in buying art. They needed to fill our gigantic house with something, and the furniture and framed posters they had brought with them from our previous house, a manageable Victorian next to the fire station, barely even filled the breakfast room.

One summer in these fat times, my sister and I were allowed to pick out two paintings from a print shop in Nantucket—vacationing there was another extravagance that my parents adopted during the time—for the wall above our beds. I can still remember what it was like to choose mine. I wouldn’t make a decision on our first visit to the gallery. Or the second. Or the third.

Instead, I went back every day, after lunch, for the entirety of two weeks that we were on the island, and flipped through the options. On the final day, I made my decision. The print I chose was called “The Secret Garden,” and it cost $2,500. It was a brightly colored, gaudy composition of a rose garden, bursting with blooms, amongst which was nestled a wrought iron bench. Let’s be honest, it was a rip off of the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which I had just read, and very much identified with. My sister, not giving a shit, picked out something with a sailboat.

When my print, signed and numbered, arrived at our house in Chappaqua a few weeks later, packaged in bubble wrap, I demanded that it be hung in my room immediately. Then, I sat on my back on my four-layered Ralph Lauren bedding, and stared at it for hours, imagining myself in the scene. It was my first experience owning a piece of art. To this day, I could draw every inch of the image from memory.

Not long after, my parents, having sufficiently aroused the jealousy of my mother’s family, went undercover with their money, and abruptly stopped making purchases. They had decided that being humble was closer to God, and in many ways, they were right. However, it horrified me. Within a month, I went from Eloise to the Little Princess during her miserable years in the fucking attic. The art buying stopped. There were no more trips with personal shoppers to Bloomingdales. I went from the girl wearing the latest Benetton to the girl wearing Lands End turtlenecks and jeans from Caldor’s, praying to God every night that he would take me on a shopping trip to get bedazzled baby tee’s.

My father retired from Wall Street, set up an office in a bedroom on the third floor of the house, and began writing a novel about his childhood. The nannies became local. The mansion frayed. The handyman made a fortunate repairing it. If I had ever had a chance of becoming a member of the elite upper class, it was lost during that period. For the rest of my childhood, I was always an outsider, looking from outside the window at a gilded world, even in my own home.

This socio-economic confusion contributed to, but hardly explained, my middling social status. I wasn’t a loser, but I wasn’t the prom queen, or anywhere close to the prom queen. I probably wouldn’t have even been allowed to audition for her entourage, in my baggy jeans and cotton shirts from Old Navy. I was pretty, but not beautiful. But, like all teenage girls, I wanted to be the prom queen so badly.

In my school, popularity was associated less with beauty than it was with fashion and money. And the kids who had the most amount of money had parents who collected art. If you were a successful investment banker, and you had a daughter who went to school with me in Chappaqua, chances are she drove a Range Rover, wore Juicy Couture, and went to the Christies master’s program after graduating from Duke University. Art was impossibly out of reach for someone like me. I remember reading that Gwyneth Paltrow would have loved to work in an art gallery if she hadn’t become a movie star.

Then, I went to Rome my senior year of high school. Every year, the youth group at my Catholic church made a trip to some European country, and toured the remnants of the Papal empire. My parents always abstained from such trips, both because they were expensive, and because my dad found out that the youth minister jacked up the price to pay for a few drunk priests to tag along. But for whatever mysterious reason, my parents decided that they would take us, that year, to Italy.

As soon as I could see straight from jet lag, I fell in love with the city. I couldn’t believe that the things that I had studied in Latin class actually existed in real life. The city was so beautiful. At night, when the rest of the kids on the trip wanted to go to nightclubs, I just wanted to wander around the streets and go into churches. I wanted to hide in St. Peter’s, and when all the lights went out, go cuddle on top of Jesus in Michelangelo’s Pieta. I wanted to lie on the dirty floor in the Sistine Chapel, and gaze up at the ceiling. No street, no building was without some kind of visual value. I was overwhelmed.

In Rome, art wasn’t something that it was inaccessible. It was something that was everywhere. It wasn’t the privilege of the elite. It was life. It was the way that human beings understood themselves and their history. It was the study of sadness, and death, and love, and ritual. It was a way that I, as an outsider, could look at other people’s lives, and try to understand my own.

On the plane ride home, after our weeklong trip, I cried inconsolably. I decided, sniffling, that when I went to college, no matter what my parents told me, I would study art history at Brown, where I was matriculating in the fall. I had to have a reason to go back to Italy.

I tell you all of this, reader, to set up how I came to pursue my frivolous path in life, full of hollow endeavors. 

Chapter 2

When I entered Brown the following fall, I had the experience and attitude of a home-schooled child from a strictly Christian upbringing. I didn’t drink; I had never tried a cigarette. I was a virgin. I had never eaten out in a restaurant by myself, used a credit card, or been to a real party. I didn’t know anything about drugs, sex, food, travel, or society. My parents dropped me off at 7am the day the dorms opened, with every piece of clothing that I owned, and left me alone. The first night, I was drunk with freedom (but not with alcohol), reckless in my behavior. For the first time, I left my room a mess, slept until noon, gorged myself on unhealthy foods (like sugar cereals), and accepted every invitation, including those to unit building activities and sexual health seminars.

Having been a general overachieving nerd, I had won not only the National Latin exam in high school, but also had received the highest award in my senior class for being, in general, an excellent Latin scholar. To receive this distinction, I had trampled a far superior intellect named William, who read Pliny as he walked from class to class, and could translate the Aeneid without the help of a dictionary, and Laura, who had written two novels by junior year in high school. It was a coup beyond words.

After being recruited by the department—and also feigning interest on my application, knowing that the university was looking for Latin credentials—I entered Brown as a classics major.

My freshman advisor was the head of the department, and my student advisor was an expert in Greek. A few days before classes started, we met for lunch to discuss my class schedule. I was completely confused about what to take, but I knew that I wanted to try a Renaissance art history class.

I walked into the meeting wild-eyed, wearing pajama pants. The night before I had made out with a boy from Kansas, which I thought was very unique and exciting. Choosing classes was the last thing on my mind.

“I’m thinking about taking an art history class,” I offered as we reviewed my schedule.

“Don’t do that,” the advisor advised. “I took an art history class freshman year, and I spent the entire time dead asleep. Slide lectures are extremely boring.

“Oh, but I love Renaissance art.”

“Just trust me. Let’s sign you up for a beginning Greek class instead.”

Brown offered a completely unstructured education, one that I would later discover was completely useless. Before you started classes each semester, you were allowed a two-week “shopping” period to test out professors and subjects. Shopping for classes was great, unless you were completely misguided, like an 18-year-old. I was 18. I had no idea what I was interested in. I just knew that I got good grades, ran track, liked boys, and could play the flute. 

I started my first real day of classes with a fellow classics-major-to-be, a guy who I had become friends with in the cafeteria. We were both enrolled in beginner Greek, which began at 9am. Despite my best intentions to be on time, it was proving difficult for me to keep a schedule, as I was running around my dorm until all hours of the night, getting into pillow fights and inventing sexual intrigue with half of the guys in my unit. Everything at Brown seemed so easy. No one was doing any work, and no one woke up early. If you walked around the campus before 11am, it was like a ghost town. On the way to ancient Greek class, already five minutes late, I decided that we had the time to stop for an donut.

When we arrived, fifteen minutes late, the class had already begun. I walked in, and the professor immediately asked me to recite the Greek alphabet. Sugar encrusted around my mouth, I looked at him blankly.

“Seriously?” I said. The class turned to me.

“I assume you read the syllabus?” he asked.

“Um…” Read the syllabus? What the fuck was that? I hadn’t even unpacked my suitcase yet.

“Well, I suppose that we’ll have to move on to the next person,” the professor said, dripping condescension.

I was humiliated. “Forget this,” I thought, turning to my new guy friend, and nodding my head that I was leaving. The Renaissance art history class was during the same period, and if I had time, I could stop in to shop it for a few minutes.

I fell in love with art history for a second time that day. The lecture room was already dark when I arrived, the slide show under way. I took a seat at the back of the crowded room. At the front, an attractive woman with a soothing voice was reading from a dimly lit podium. Behind her was a screen with images that moved with her lecture, changing to illustrate points. I was a passionate reader, and most of the slides were related to stories that I had loved from an early age—biblical romances, Shakespearian tragedies, the metamorphoses and myths of the Greek gods. The room was almost entirely silent, except for the sound of the professor speaking, and the whirring and humming of the slide machine, which clicked every time the image changed.

When the lights came on at the end of class, and the students stood up, I realized that I had found my university home. Standing up all around me were beautiful, immaculately well dressed girls. I immediately coveted their bearing, their clothing, their manner of speech. I could tell without even hearing them that they came from foreign places, from England and Los Angeles, and Hong Kong. They were dressed in the latest fashions, but subtly, in a way that was neither garish nor crude. They wore almost no make-up, but their skin was pure and shining. They were long limbed and limber, elegant in gesture and manner. They carried expensive bags and nice notebooks, the kind that cost $10 and came with graph paper instead of college-ruled. Gathering each other by the arms, they moved quickly out of the room. I wanted to be part of their society, to move among their ranks, to have the same friendships with Slick-Haired Euro-trash and Kids Who Went To Boarding School.

They were my first introduction into Brown society, which I quickly learned was vast and layered. The more I became aware of such kids, the more my sense of socio-economic dislocation grew and flourished. The rich kids I had grown up around in Chappaqua seemed poor in comparison to the European royalty, Trustafarians, and Hollywood brats at Brown. Of course, some had more than others, but while I drove the Brown shuttle on the graveyard shift—a job I had taken to pay for my books—my peers all seemed to be having dinner together at Paragon, the pseudo-European restaurant located in the center of campus. They laughed, and ordered shots and appetizers and salads. They had down comforters and cashmere blankets on their beds. They parked their BMWs off campus. Their ways were so extravagant. At dinner with my parents, who spent their childhoods only eating out once a year, there was no excess ordering. We could have an entrée, pre-approved for price, and that was all.

During the summers, my friends, even those seemingly without excess cash, would depart on fabulous adventures. At the end of the school year, they would be off to China, to teach the youth in small, undereducated townships how to speak English. Or, they would travel Turkey, on an archaeological dig, to sleep with uncircumcised Hungarian men and tour Greece for the month of August. Some would even stay in Providence to do research with professors, renting out rooms in dilapidated houses. The glamour of a summer rental was almost beyond my comprehension, given that by the time the freshman year finished, my bank account balance had dwindled to $20. I would have to go home and work to make enough money to pretend to be rich the following year.

“What are you doing this summer?” I asked a girl in my Latin-American Jewish female writer’s class before our first summer break.

“Oh, I’m living in Providence, and studying with Professor Henry.”

“Wow, that’s great.” (Lucky bitch, I thought secretly.) “What are you doing for her?”

“We’ll be working on curating the English textile collection at the RISD museum, for an exhibition in the fall. Everyone says that being a research fellow for Professor Henry is the surest path to a job at the MET. It doesn’t pay anything, of course, but my rent is only 500 a month. It’s so cheap!”

Knowing that my father would fund exactly none of such activities, I would return home to start a paid internship. All of my bright summer days were spent in an office in Manhattan, commuting two hours on Metro North, subsisting on stolen money from my father’s wallet. The days would drag on endlessly, and the nights were dull and short. By August, when the internship ended, I was usually so depressed that I wouldn’t want to spend any of my saved money. Instead, I spent my final weeks before returning to school lying out by our pool, reading historical fiction, and secretly watching our gardener Roberto taking naps in the rhododendrons.

Despite my horrible jealousy, I learned how to be nice to those who were so much more fortunate than I was. Slowly, I was accepted into their society, and I learned how to feign wealth and influence without having any. By working two jobs at the university, and saving my money all summer, I could almost buy enough faux designer clothing to last me an entire year. Most importantly, I learned the language of indifference.

“Did you hear that Hosni Mubarak’s grandson goes to Brown?” Someone would drop over dinner.

“Yeah, he sits next to me in my Presidents of the United States class,” I would answer, nonchalantly, not having any idea who that was. “He’s so fucking weird.”

“Totally,” the girls would purr over their petite Greek salads. “Do you want to come to stay with my parents in Cape Cod this weekend?”

By the time that I graduated from Brown, I had a Pavlovian fear of returning home for the summer. In the five restless weeks that I had between my finals and graduation, I made a pact with my best male friend Cage that we would move together to New York, and find an apartment. We enlisted his friend, Paola, a vacant Mexican beauty, to live with us.

After four years of hard work and dissemblance, I had found an uneasy place in the social fabric at Brown. Instead of focusing my intelligence on excelling at school, I had channeled on becoming friends with the right people, and boosting my self-esteem in terms of looks, clothing, and men. I was extremely intimidated by the idea of moving to New York, where there was literally a much larger pool of people to imitate and envy, but I couldn’t go anywhere else. It was close to home, and I had enough family connections to get me some kind of a job, even if it wasn’t in the art world.

Chapter 3

The guy I chose to live with after graduation was named Cage, and he was not my boyfriend. We had become friends when we both went off the meal plan together sophomore year. We equally detested the food at the cafeteria. My mother had been a big fan of the cook-in-advance-freeze-reheat method of preparing dinner, so the thought of something microwaved or reheated made me gag.

I convinced my dad to give me $10 less than he paid for the meal plan, which he deposited every month in my personal bank account. Almost no one went off the meal plan with me, because not going to the dining hall was antisocial. Cage and I found each other in our content loneliness, bonding over our love of Indian food and the Sopranos. The relationship worked perfectly. I was bitchy and insecure, and talked non-stop, easing any social obligation on his part to participate in conversation. He listened, detached, as I talked about people behind their backs, and didn’t judge me in return. He had a car, and could take us to restaurants outside of the boundaries of campus. He might have been gay. He never hit on me. For these shallow reasons, his friendship was one of the strongest that I developed in my four years.

Senior year of Brown, Cage lived with Paola. They got along very well, spending most nights at home in front of the television. I sometimes joined them. Paola was probably the most beautiful girl in our class, but she was not wealthy. This, along with the fact that her intellectual prowess was such that it was difficult for her to follow the Bachelor, made her mostly unintimidating. She also was going into investment banking, so I knew that she would be out of the apartment 90% of the time. She seemed like she would be the perfect third roommate.

In the dead time between finals and graduation, Cage, Paola and I took a trip to New York to look for apartments. Completely clueless about how the process worked, we made an appointment with a few real estate brokers. 

It became the first in a series of missteps that would make for the worst year of my life.

The first apartment that we visited was in Murray Hill, the place to be if you were young, lacking in taste, from suburbia, and being supported by your parents. As neither Cage nor I had a job, we were looking for a place that was exceedingly cheap. This left us with very few options, as the real estate broker pointed out. He was a fairly young guy, curt, and extremely dishonest.

We had no idea that Murray Hill was the center of uncool, the place where advertising girls and beginner consultants came to breed and disappear. It was just another unfamiliar neighborhood in New York City. At the top of the real estate boom in New York, which we entered right as we graduated, we knew that we couldn’t be picky about where we lived. At the time, a 250 square foot studio on the Lower East Side, with a shower in the kitchen, cost $1600 a month, and that was cheap.

We almost took the apartment in Murray Hill. It was relatively big, and fairly clean, at least in comparison to my house in Providence, which had sagging walls, and had, one time, during a party, caught on fire. In comparison, the apartment seemed sterile, the walls white. The kitchen was a fruit-fly free zone, and the floors were parquet wood. There was an exposed brick wall. It was located on the second floor, above a very popular bar called “Joshua Tree.” Being a person to whom visual beauty was a thing of great importance, the entire neighborhood was shockingly ugly. It was all concrete, full of Dunkin’ Donuts, nail salons, Tasti-Delights, and dry cleaning stores. Darkness filled my heart whenever I thought about walking onto the street from the apartment in the morning, but moving home was even bleaker.

The broker was ready to lead us back to his lair, to sign the lease, when we ran into one of the current tenants.

“Hey,” I said. “We’re thinking about renting your apartment. Do you like living here?”

The guy was Indian and clean cut. He looked at us, fresh-faced and bespectacled. “Yeah, it’s ok.”

“It’s really cheap in comparison to other places.”

“Yeah,” said the Indian guy.

“Why are you leaving, then?” Cage asked.

“Honestly?” The Indian guy looked over at the broker, who was chatting on his cell phone. “There’s mice all over this place, dude. It’s disgusting. It’s right over the bar, so they just crawl around the walls at night. We get like 4 or 5 in the traps every morning.”

“EW!” Paola and I shouted in unison.

“What?” the broker said, startled by the noise.

“Um,” I paused. “We’ve actually decided that we want look at a few other places before we sign the lease. Can you take us to a few places, like, downtown?”

The broker looked at us wearily. “Fine,” he said. “How do you feel about Avenue D?”

“Great!” None of us knew where that was, but we were willing to try anything.  

“Good luck,” the Indian guy whispered as we filed past him. “It’s a rough market out there.”

The next few places we looked at where horrifying. One was so far from the subway that the broker hailed a cab to get us there. The entrance to the building was next to a homeless shelter. It smelled very strongly of urine. Instead of three bedrooms there was one bedroom, and two windowless, partitioned spaces in the basement. The next apartment we looked at didn’t have any windows at all, except for one in the back closet, looking out into the gray, silty wall of the building next door. The broker explained that this was in fact a bedroom, so one person would be lucky enough to have occasional bursts of natural light. As we continued, we realized that there were a few general rules to the apartment in our price range. Not a single one was a true three bedroom. They were all conversions. Not a single one had air conditioning, a doorman, working locks, kitchens, living rooms, laundry in the building, or dishwashers.

After a day-long tour of former tenement housing on the Lower East Side, we were all disheartened. But I still hadn’t given up hope.

“I have one last place,” the broker said.

“Great,” we said, dragging our feet, heads hanging low.

We walked through Tompkin Square Park to get to the final apartment. After blocks and blocks of Puerto Rican music, dollar stores, and staggered bodegas, we entered the green, leafy park. It was a beautiful day, and the grass was covered with interesting looking people lounging around in skimpy outfits, taking in the sun. It looked like the main green at Brown, only more crowded. Granted, there were a few drug addicts by a set of chess tables at the entrance, twitching and drinking from brown paper bags, but I felt that I had found at least a semblance of what I was familiar with. I could see myself in the park, wearing something really fabulous like a leather jacket, hanging out with Dustin Hoffman’s offspring, who, of course, I knew at Brown.

“Is the apartment close to here?”

“Yeah, a block away.”

“Great,” I thought to myself, feeling a little bit better about the apartment search. “I could live here.”

We left the park, and walked up a busy street filled with shops and restaurants. There were women’s clothing boutiques with adorable dresses, bookstores, record shops. The signs over the entrances were catchy, hand painted. There was food from every corner of the world- a dumpling place, a Thai place, a Moroccan teashop, an entire restaurant devoted to hummus. Even better, there were trees, offering shade from the hot sun and concrete. There were people milling about, looking fabulous and easygoing. We arrived at an intersection with bars at all four corners.

“What is this place?” I said breathlessly, savoring the city experience. It was so cute and alive here!

“Here we are,” the broker said, pointing to a red brick building on what I would later discover was 1st avenue and St. Mark’s. It was located above it bar. There was a bar next door. Two doors down from that bar, was another bar. They all seemed very quiet in the daytime. “This is the place,” the broker told us.

The apartment we walked into was completely bare. There was the ubiquitous exposed brick wall on one corner. It was small, but it looked new, recently renovated. The kitchen blended into the living room, but there were two bathrooms. And most importantly, there were three coffin-sized bedrooms facing the street, each with it’s own closet and window. Light streamed into the windowless back rooms from the front of the apartment.

“Amazing!” I proclaimed. The apartment itself wasn’t amazing; the fact that it wasn’t a shithole was. 

“Yeah,” said Cage.

“Where are we?” Paola asked.

The broker knew he had made the sale.

Cage, with a serious trust fund, arranged for the broker’s fee and the movers from Providence. My father, with his very serious salary, was forced to act as a guarantor for the three of us. In the process of manipulating him to sign the lease, a friend of his set me up on an appointment to meet an art world headhunter. Two weeks before we were set to move in, I went in to see her.

Chapter 4

I walked into Batty The Headhunter’s office wearing my best new outfit. Purchased the night before at Loehmann’s, with the help of my sister, my grandmother, my mother, and my sister’s best friend, Caitlin. I had done my best to look contemporary and stylish. In my mind, anything cashmere was high class, so I chose a stretchy white skirt, with a cream ribbon tied around the waist, a black button down blouse, and a lavender cashmere sweater.

“You look so scharrrp!” My grandmother said when I tried on the outfit in the open dressing room at Lohemann’s. Nana was a big believer in bold statements. She never left the house without wearing all four primary colors. “I wish that you would wear more lipstick, though,” she added.

The headhunter’s office was one of those depressing midtown spaces, consisting of brown, stained carpets, beige cubicles, and soot-stained windows that look out into an air space. The building had a doorman, but not the kind with a dapper cap who opens the door with a flourish, and crosses his hand across his torso to point you towards the elevator. Instead, the person who greeted me in the lobby barely looked up at me, despite the fact that the elevator, the door, and his narrow desk were all within a five square foot area.  On the wall behind him was one of those old boards with the removable white lettering, denoting organization, and floor number. I didn’t take the whole set-up as a good sign of the legitimacy of Batty The Headhunter’s organization.

When I arrived, I was directed to the back of the room by a down-trodden looking receptionist, who pointed me to a glassed-in office. Sitting at the desk was a woman who looked exactly like the kind of Muppet who did back-up dancing for Elmo on Seasame Street. She had a mop of curly blond hair, and a gap between her teeth. As I approached her, she looked up at me with the same kind of blank, frozen expression that Zoe made when her number was over, and she were waiting for the strings to pull them off the stage. Her head was tilted to one side, and her mouth, slightly open, looked like a wide, black cave. Without taking the phone away from her ear, Batty The Headhunter said to me: “You’ve got a great smile. I am sending you on an interview tomorrow.”She quickly scanned my resume. “Brown University, Art History, very impressive. We just need to fix the outfit situation.”

I smiled feebly. I thought that I looked kind of fashionable, in my discount outfit. Everyone was always commenting at Brown about my style. And it couldn’t be denied that I had a knack for putting together classy yet cheap get-ups. After all, I had been one of the original pioneers of Forever 21.

“Listen, go buy yourself a simple black dress, nothing fancy. Cap sleeves, conservative. The shoes you’re wearing now will do. Have you ever heard of Hoof Gallery?”

“No,” I racked my brain for galleries that had been mentioned in my contemporary art class. “Actually, I might have heard of it…”

“Do yourself a favor, and read up on it tonight. Very famous gallery, best in the city.”

“Yeah right,” I thought. Weren’t the elite of the art world, even the headhunters, supposed to be filled with rich Ivy League graduates working on the top floors of Upper East Side townhouses, behind glided Louis XIV desks? This Muppet look-alike could not possibly know any prestigious galleries in Manhattan. My expectations for any interview she sent me on were low from the moment I entered the building. The cocktail waitress job seemed more high class than anything she could possibly find for me. “Fuck you,” I silently cursed my father’s employee. “I should have known better than to trust an investment banker.”

“Do you know anything about contemporary art?”

“I took a class at Brown.”

“Good, just make sure you’re ready to talk about the artists tomorrow. Pick up ArtForum, ArtNews, the New York Sun, Blackbook. Catch up on what’s going on. The gallery is on 57th, ask for Esther Worthington. You can’t miss the building, the gallery takes up all 15 floors. Goodbye.”

She smiled, picked up her phone, and waved with one hand goodbye. “Hit it out of the park, kiddo. Show them those teeth.”

I was confused. Was the interview over? “Wait, I have question?”

“Shoot.” Batty the Headhunter looked at me, seemingly enchanted, her head tilted to one side, her black mouth curved upwards in a smile.

“I heard that these art gallery jobs don’t pay very well. I need to support myself.”

“What do you think that I’m here for!” Batty The Headhunter exclaimed. “Don’t worry about it, kiddo. You’ll be able to find a nice place in Brooklyn.”

“But I already found a place in the East Village.”

“Oh.” Batty’s face fell slightly, her expression slightly menacing.

The overweight guy at the desk next to her interjected, “Well then you better like Ramen noodles!”

They both laughed indulgently. “Just go on the interview, kiddo. We’ll work it out, don’t worry.”

That seemed like pretty decent salary negotiation to me. I stood up, shook Batty’s hand, flashed a smile, and hurried out of the grimy office.

As soon as I got to Grand Central, I headed straight to Hudson News, and picked up all three art magazines that they had to offer.

“That will be $30, please,” said the cashier, holding out her hand.

“Excuse me?” I said, fumbling for my change purse. I had only managed to get $20 from my father’s wallet that morning, and my bank account was in double digits after my shopping spree at Loehmann’s the night before. Hesitating slightly, I put down the assorted snacks, the Diet Coke, the US Weekly and the pack of gum that I had intended on buying with my bounty. The man behind me sighed audibly. “Sorry, sorry,” I mumbled, offering over the 20, and the assorted change in my wallet.

Safely on the train, I opened up the first magazine. On the inside cover page, was an advertisement for a Rauschenberg exhibition at Hoof Gallery. “Wow,” I thought, “I know Rauschenberg. I like that bed thing.”

There wasn’t much more in the magazines about the gallery, or the artists that they represented. In fact, most of the articles in the magazines didn’t make a lick of sense. I had never had a particular interest in contemporary art. At Brown, the class I had taken on it had been taught by a first semester professor newly imported from France. It was at 8:30 in the morning, which was inhumane for a lecture, especially one in complete darkness. Not to mention that it was impossible to understand a word that the professor said. “Ze, Ze blah blah blah” he expressed while he worked an undergraduate student in the front row, with whom he was rumored to be sleeping. I wrote my term paper for the class on how DeKooning was raping the “Women” in his paintings by making them grotesque and crude.

“You better fucking brush up,” I said to myself, my legs folded up against the seat in front of me. I spent the rest of the train ride in heavy preparation for the interview, by which I mean that I at least attempted to read a few of the articles. The rest of the night, used to most things in life coming fairly easily, I obsessed about my ex-boyfriend and my small tits, or other sorts of weaknesses. 

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