By: Gaither Stewart
That morning an unexpected snow had fallen feather-light on the streets of East Harlem. But after lunch the wind blowing across the river from Queens and the ocean dissipated the black clouds and the winter sun returned. As the temperature rose, the snow vanished down the drains and despite the eerie illumination still hovering over the Barrio, the streets recovered their habitual animation.
A little earlier, in a warm bar on 102nd Street, the painter Manuel Sanchez Rivera had revealed to his best friend, the journalist Harold Beacon, his audacious plan for painting a political mural on the Brooklyn Bridge, and asked for his help. The mural was on both their minds as they walked toward Manuel’s apartment.
A still chilling north wind blew in the faces of the two men as they walked down a steep block of Lexington Avenue toward 103rd Street. From time to time Manuel nodded to local people huddled in the doorways. Merengue rhythms echoed from an alley. They stopped to watch a bride in white and a man in a black tux emerge from the Catholic Church in a side street and run toward a limousine at the curb. A trio of husky Latinos near a wide window from which exuded odors of cooking corn grinned at them malevolently.
“Christ almighty!” Harold said. “I wouldn’t walk around here alone at night.”
Manuel grinned, glad his friend thought the neighborhood dangerous. “You’ve been here hundreds of times and you still don’t understand it. Like I tell you Harry, you Wasps are so provincial – and you don’t even realize it. With all your Sunday brunches and casual Fridays! People here are truly cosmopolitan. People here have never been provincial, not even in their villages in the Dominican. But if you live in this neighborhood the rest of the city seems like abroad.”
Near the subway station Harold paused over two sidewalk graffiti. “In the theater of life you will always have your moment,” he read aloud. Then, “Tomorrow is the mystery of your destiny.”
“Yours of course! Why do you do it anyway?”
Manuel shrugged and said, “Everybody needs a forum…. Over there’s my newest mural.” He pointed toward a huge painting on the side of a commercial building – four Latinos sitting on a park bench, blank looks on their thick faces.
“Do you see what’s missing in their expressions? It’s that sense of security and expectation that marks you Anglos. All convinced you’re about to get rich – you in your journalism, another in day trading. People here aren’t bothered by all that.”
The skinny, long-legged journalist laughed and read the text underneath the mural, “Why does this feeling of emptiness occupy so much space???”
“You ought’a be the journalist and I the painter,” Harold said. “You might not be provincial … but you still live in loneliness, eh” It was an old story. Every one of the heavy figures in Manuel’s wall paintings was the reflection of his solitude.
“You exist in company,” Manuel said, a sad note in his voice. “But I’m always alone. Alone in the studio, alone on the streets. Even isolated here in East Harlem. It’s an ache. Even my subjects abandon me.”
“Come on, Manny, admit it. You live to shock society. You’ll do anything to create a scandal. The mural on the bridge is the proof. “
At 32, the artist Manuel Sanchez Rivera was a handsome man, six feet tall, slim, and athletic. He had worn a full dark brown beard for as long as anyone could remember. Firm about things like honesty and punctuality, he was eccentric in appearance and behavior.
Despite his name, his rapid fire Dominican Spanish and his olive complexion, Hispanics of East Harlem barrio said Manny only looked Latino and treated him as a Norteamericano. But Anglos invariably thought of him as Dominican or Puerto Rican. His friend of many years, the journalist Harold Beacon, with whom he had once shared an Upper West Side apartment, called him a chameleon.
An important part of Manuel’s character was formed by resolves not to be like his parents – resolves about speaking proper English, boyhood resolves about escaping the East Harlem ghetto, never playing baseball like half the Dominicans, overcoming his complexes toward Anglos, resolves about conquering the swaggering of his Latin pride – the “strutting” he called it – and yet accomplishing some feat to stand out from the crowd.
Not that Manuel was not loyal to his Latin heritage; he was proud to be Hispanic – he said it helped him to appreciate his place as a man. But since he was a boy he had been determined to overcome the limits of his Latinness that afflicted his parents. He used to blush when his Mexican mother and now deceased Dominican father spoke their funny English in front of his “American” friends. Therefore at his East Side high school and later Hunter College he acquired better English than most Americans in New York.
“That’s also a reason for doing the mural on the Brooklyn Bridge!” he answered. He hated to admit it. He’d had a vision of fame and renown. Newspaper articles about the East Harlem artist. TV interviews. The New York muralist on the lips of public opinion. The escape from his solitude. Escape from his displacement. He would become part of the city.
“I once wrote on a sidewalk on Third Avenue that in the theater of life you will have your moment,” he said. For a moment he could see it, the chimera of celebrity, the promise of the final treasure.
Harold laughed. “Yes, but you also wrote that the pressure of survival in the big city will make you lose sight of your dream.”
“Hombre, they’ll destroy it, I know,” the painter whispered conspiratorially, “but not before we photograph it – and you get into every newspaper in New York!”
“It has to be on the Brooklyn Bridge, eh?” Harold said loudly. They were waiting for the light to change at 105th Street. Several shoppers looked at them curiously.
“Will you keep quiet!” the artist whispered, looking around furtively, pulling Harold across the street. “This is top secret. Not on the bridge, genius. On the wall of one of the arches.”
“So what’s the big deal, man?” Harold was used to the excesses of his eccentric friend whose wall paintings marked buildings all over East Harlem. Why not one on the Brooklyn Bridge?
“Not just any mural, Harry. This will be the mother of my wall paintings – my political statement. And besides, since they say the bridge can stand for another 5000 years, my name will live forever – part of its history!”
“Eternal life, eh! And Diego Rivera!” Harold wagged his finger. Manuel was always talking about the Mexican muralists. His masters he called them. “Maybe you just want to transplant his destroyed mural to the Brooklyn Bridge!”
“No, nothing like that. The only thing I have in common with Rivera anymore is my mother’s name. I mean he did real frescoes. I’m just a wall painter. Not even a radical. I’m not going to put Lenin in it! But we’ve got to stand up and condemn the police shooting down people on the streets.”
“I thought the muralist movement was dead. Why do you keep doing them? Why don’t you just paint paintings? Why your Diego Rivera fever now?”
“Well, I suppose I do want to celebrate him. Today, loyal friend, is the anniversary – they destroyed his Rockefeller Center mural with the Lenin portrait on the night of February 10, 1934.”
“But Manny, why not paint whatever it is you (wanna) want to paint where it can last more than a day? What’s wrong with another building here in the Barrio? And why not do more of your own art?”
It was true. His portraits of East Side wives and West Side children was lucrative work. And he’d sold well in his Soho exhibits the scenes with the neighborhood characters. “But that’s not enough – this time. This is special. It’ll be Sanchez Rivera realism. A mural of contrasts! Not Diego Rivera’s toiling masses – but black subway workers and super-rich basketballers, Dominican baseball players and Puerto Rican doormen, and Senegalese supermarket cashiers. The Puerto Rican Parade.”
“That’s what you already do here in the Barrio, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but this time there’ll also be repression. The Mayor’s cops. That’s the real story – cops gone berserk. The ones on TV every day. The things you write about.”
“I get the picture, Manny. Well, the mural won’t last long but you’ll become a celebrity. You’ll be in demand…. You got a name for it yet?”
“Yeah, I’ll call it ‘A Hymn to New York City.’”
They turned into 106th Street and stopped in front of a four-story red brick building where Manuel occupied the ground floor. A west wind was blowing, smelling of drains. At one end of the wide street, the railroad. At the other, the Triborough Bridge. East Harlem was wide-open compared to the high-rise, encapsulating West Side Apartments where they’d lived on the 20th floor. Where he couldn’t hear the rain and never knew what the temperature was outside. Where he had to turn on the TV to find out what was happening around him.
“It’s a comfortable feeling,” he said. “This neighborhood’s a world. My world here is a floating one. That’s why I came back – and the idea that I can easily leave.”
“And never do!” Harry said.
“We’ll see about that…. My only problem is that crazy Roger. A bad traveler.”
“Held down by a parrot?” Harold grinned malevolently. For years he’d kidded his friend about his attachment to his Dominican parrot.
“Roger hates it when I leave him at Mother’s because she keeps him in a cage. He says, ‘can’t talk, can’t talk’. And it’s true, he seems to forget everything he knows.”
“Knows? You mean you ask him why he doesn’t like it at your mother’s – and he tells you?”
“That bird knows many things. He’s always asking, ‘Where’s Harold? Where’s Harold?’ Come on in an ask him something.”
The white sun shone like a spotlight through the patio doors illuminating the spacious apartment behind the street-front studio. Manuel had rebuilt it, removing doors and walls and cutting out odd-shaped windows and converting the ground floor into a loft. It was furnished eclectically with antiques and modern furniture, overflowing bookshelves, Persian carpets, stacks of newspapers and art magazines in the corners, art nouveau lamps, and walls lined with paintings. A large print of a Diego Rivera mural hung on the wall over a long Tuscan table. The room was warm and the smell of incense strong although a triangular window on a sidewall was wide open. A Manuel Sanchez Rivera maxim written in black letters hung on a rear wall – “YOU CAN SELL YOUR SOUL AND NOT EVEN KNOW IT.”
Posed placidly on a perch erected on an upright piano facing the patio, Roger’s red, green and yellow colors were resplendent in a shard of sunlight.
“Hola, Roger, how ya doin’ old friend?” Manuel called.
“I’m Roger Dodger. Hi, Yankee Doodle. Hi, Harold,” Roger answered in his high, clear voice. The parrot cocked his head to one side, seemed to think a moment, and added, “About time!”
“You see what I mean?” Manuel said. “He’s mad if I stay away too long. Mad if I don’t respect his privacy. It’s hard to know what he wants.”
“I want water,” Roger said, nodding in the direction of an empty bowl on the piano. As if in a sudden pique, he abruptly turned his back on the two men, muttering unintelligibly to himself and intermittently throwing glances at them over his fluttering left wing.
“He’s pissed,” Harold said.
“Careful!” Manuel whispered. “He’s sensitive too.”
“Pissed!” Roger screeched. “I want water.”
“He’s as bad as your mother,” Harold said.
“I hate mother, I hate mother.”
“What? Why?” Harold asked. “Why do you hate mother?”
“Mother ignorant,” Roger growled.
“Incredible! Why this is conversation. I thought you lived alone, Manny!”
“Alone,” Roger yelled, and cocked his head in contemplation. “Yankee Doodle, Roger Dodger Diego Rivera. All together.” Then, after a pause, while Harold stared at him, the bird added, “I hate murals.”
“What!” yelled Harold. “Do you teach him all this stuff, Manny.”?
“I don’t think so. But he’s got a memory like an elephant.”
“He doesn’t even sound like a parrot.”
“He’s an art critic in disguise.”
Manuel sat a bowl of water on the piano. Ignoring the bird as if put out himself, he prodded Harry into his country-style kitchen-living room-study and closed the door. “I don’t want him to hear us talk. He hates to hear me say the word ‘mural.’”
“Why does he hate murals so much? You sure you didn’t teach him that?”
“Of course not! I taught him ‘I hate’ and he adds the rest. One day I took him up on a scaffold where I was painting a mural – so he could get some fresh air. I had him in a cage. He squawked and yelled for a while and then didn’t speak for days. Since then he says he hates murals.”
“Crazy! Do you think he hates your murals – or just the cage?”
“I think he hates my murals as he hates Diego Rivera. The point is, he thinks I should be a real painter. Oils on canvas! But we don’t agree on anything. I love black and rose colors. He turns his back on black and loves yellow and green. I hate the wind and love the rain. He listens to the wind like music and goes into black depression when it rains.”
Manuel sat down at the kitchen table. Suddenly he felt very tired. That familiar weakness was creeping up his legs. It would soon hit his stomach and the nausea would arrive. He knew it was his fears. Fears of doing the wrong thing – fears of appearing contrived, fears of plagiarism, of insincerity, of provincialism.
“Harry, right now I need something unifying, something to justify my mural idea. Maybe I should just forget it. Forget all my wall paintings and concentrate on real art – as Roger advises. But the truth is, Harry, I’m afraid I’m just a neighborhood portrait painter. Political statement sounds so pretentious.”
“But what will I have risked if I do the mural? Nothing. Not even pride.”
“You still have to risk, eh! Manny, what do you expect? Life’s just not dangerous where we live. We’re not threatened. We’re not risking anything – we don’t have to.”
“You Anglos just don’t understand! I need risk like you need security.” Harry was so certain of the answers. Because he knew who he was. But he, Manuel Sanchez Rivera, neither American nor Hispanic, needed danger and risk to be himself. Danger existed chiefly in his dreams – those dark bullies whose threat is their physical force, who menace his destruction if he disobeys. His wild nocturnal flights. And flight from what? From meaningless commitments? Commitment was once fraught with real dangers – once. Those were perilous times in Mexico when they assassinated leftists. Theirs was commitment, the desaparecidos in Chile, in Argentina, in Santo Domingo, dumped in the ocean to the sharks. In his daydreams he was one of them. But in his secure reality it was hard to imagine himself under fire for his origins, for his art, for his actions, for his beliefs, for his words written on the sidewalks of New York – for this mural.
An old image now isolated in his painting called “Great Sadness” – hanging on the wall near Roger’s perch – passed before him. A blind black man, a Dominican, tapping the sidewalk with a yellow cane in one long thin hand adorned with pink nails, with the other hand guiding a pale white man hunched over a metal walker. He was that black man. He was the stroke victim – he was his own father. It was the sadness.
“Harry, you know who you are. You’re lucky. When I was a boy, my Dad always said that we can’t live among the poor at home and we don’t want to live among the super rich either. I can’t live in the Latin world and I’m still a stranger here. My mirage is America. But a fairer America.”
The image of one of those mixed couples that peopled his paintings filled Manuel with hope – a tall thin white boy and a squat black girl staring at each other with love in their eyes. And there he is, Manuel Sanchez Rivera, the outsider, in the security of the arms of the North American Republic. Where the masses are less than masses. Where fashion rules. Where only faintly faintly the past struggles to exist. Where the present obliterates everything else.
“No, Harry, Diego’s mural isn’t for me. Really!”
Silence reigned in the house on 106th Street. Facing the wall with his tail feathers pointed toward Manuel’s worktable, the pissed bird refused to eat or drink and bitched again and again, “I hate mural,” and from time to time muttering like an anathema, “sell your soul, sell your soul, sell your soul.”
“Silencio!” Manuel yelled just to irritate the bird who abhorred all foreign languages. “You’re only a parrot,” he added, while Roger screeched, “shut up, shut up.”
That bird, he thought, believes he’s my conscience!
“I’ll paint murals if I like! It’s not strutting. Hombre, I’m telling stories. Just because you hate Diego Rivera! I should give you to Mother!”
Hispanics are right. Parrots are supernatural. Maybe he’s Satan. He looks at me with those crazy crossed eyes and seems to see right into me.
“Only a parrot, only a parrot,” the bird said in a voice filled with venom and sarcasm. “I hate Mother. I hate mural.”
“Come on, Roger, let’s make peace.” Manuel used the word “peace” on purpose, a linguistic trick that always stumped the bird.
“Piece! I want a piece of cake. A piece of cake,” Roger said craftily, shifting around on his ugly oversized feet to face him.
“I’m sorry I taught you that word! You just parrot it – want, want, want.”
“Roger Dodger!” The bird altered his voice in imitation of a parrot.
Spellbound by those beady eyes, Manuel stared at him and had the crazy thought that he didn’t know Roger at all. They looked at each other as if they shared secrets that neither wanted to bring out into the open. He suspected that the parrot provoked him on purpose.
“You know, Roger, you’re just an extension of me. My alter ego. You’re not autonomous, that’s your problem.”
“I hate mother,” Roger hissed, his unwavering eyes fixed in Manuel’s. “I hate mural.”
“What’s Mother got to do with it – this is between you and me. You don’t even know who you are. And you’re a nuisance.”
“Nuisance, nuisance,” echoed through the room, while Manuel wondered if he did teach Roger all that and why he stooped to quarreling with a cross-eyed, pigeon-toed beast – even if he was godlike.
“Yankee Doodle paint mural,” Roger said. “Strutting, strutting,” he sang and, flapping his multicolored wings, turned back toward the wall.
On a late morning in March, after having made another inspection of arch no. 6, Manuel addressed a cop controlling traffic on City Hall Square.
“How ya doin’!” he said in his best New York accent. “Can you give me some information?” “How can I help you?” the cop said diffidently. He was a big man, a red face and blue eyes. “I’m writing a story about New York murals. I was wondering if an artist could get away with painting a mural on the walls under the bridge? Would he be caught, do you think? Would it be destroyed?” “Do you mean with or without permission?” “Without!” “Na, he could probably get it on the wall – during the night. Hardly anybody goes under the bridge after dark but someone would notice it soon. It might last a day or two. Of course, depends on what it is!”
On an early April afternoon Manuel began final preparations for the night’s work. He would have about four hours of work time – from about 1 to 5 a.m. Harry would drive him in his Cherokee, manage the materials and serve as lookout. And at dawn they would photograph the finished mural. Harry had rallied friends on the city and art desks of the newspapers and TV stations for coverage of the story.
The clou would be the calculated destruction of his mural by the Mayor’s men. That was the moment to record – the death of art. Manuel Sanchez’ mural would get more play than did Diego Rivera’s.
Under the watchful eye of Roger who, Manuel knew, feared he was packing for a trip and from time to time reiterated his undying hate for Mother and murals, he distributed according to color 64 cans of spray paints in six canvas bags. He laughed (toward) at the parrot as he stashed in the wide pockets of a fishing jacket two flashlights and extra batteries, two tape measures, turpentine and cloths for cleaning, spatulas and putty knives, and boxes of white and yellow crayons for tracing onto the wall the sketch he’d drawn on four thick sheets of cardboard representing the four surfaces of the 15’ x 10’ mural.
That night the parking space on the northeast side of the bridge was deserted and only dimly lit by scattered street lamps. They were dressed in black – black pants and sweaters, black New York Yankee baseball caps and black sneakers. They deposited their stuff at the fence around the arch, under a big No Trespassing sign. Manuel placed the ladder against the fence, ran up agilely, and jumped down inside. Once propped against the center of the eastern wall, he took his measurements. Harold held the mock-up and illuminated the wall. Manuel traced in long fast strokes the quadrangles of the Manuel Sanchez Rivera “A Hymn to New York City.”
As his narrative unfolded he began to feel that old sense of possessiveness. It was still his. Whatever the mural’s artistic value and despite Roger’s criticism, it came from him. It was his personal statement. This was his city. He hummed to himself as his desire grew, both delighting and confusing him. His fears were passing. He would have liked to sing. He was on horseback. He was riding a girder high over the city. Here it was, here it all was, and the treasure seemed to be emerging there under arch no. 6. He didn’t care about effect, results, critique, resonance. Yet this mural was no different from all his East Harlem wall paintings – it was to be his only for a short while. All his art was centered here. Mesmerized within the circle of darkness under the arch, he hardly noticed the shadow of Harry handing him cans of spray or the thermos of hot coffee. He wasn’t aware of the city lights, of the muffled sounds of traffic on the ramps above them or the occasional police sirens.
He smiled and waited when Harold said, “wait!” and turned off the flashlight. There were footsteps. A shadow passed on the street, stopped at the opening of the arch, and seemed to listen, lit a cigarette, and moved slowly back up the hill toward City Hall.
I’m painting the history, past, present – and future – of the city. From clouds and nocturnal mists emerged outlines of arriving ships – they were the English and the Dutch. Ghostly silhouettes of Indians with their faces painted white. Out of dark ocean mists waves of blacks, round faces and white frightened eyes. New houses creeping up the island of Manahatta like waves of the sea. Blue and gray uniforms and cannons and flags and luxurious mansions rising from the ground. Boatloads of dark foreigners with cardboard suitcases and packed ships departing with soldiers. Railroads like spokes of a wheel and subway tracks in tunnels. Parks with mansions on one side, slums on the other. Dandies and rag pickers. The colors were speaking, screaming, brilliant under powerful searchlights from above, the colors of the skins, white, yellow, red, brown, black. Palaces, cinemas and vaudeville halls, beer parlors, art galleries, train stations and stadiums, ships on white rivers turning black, smoke and steam, pale women and silent girls seated in long lines of the old factories. In the night his story was exploding onto the walls of arch no. 6. The banks, the Stock Exchange façade shrouded in ticker tape and bands of strikers whose ranks are gradually transformed into homeless sleeping in doorways, in parks, in subway stations. And in the lower right corner, now illuminated by Harry’s flashlight, ranks of policemen in blue, face to face with legions of homeless.
Manuel was tiring. He let his hands fall. He felt the creeping weakness in his legs. He leaned backward and reviewed the last scene. Again he examined his mock-up, and frowned.
“And the portraits?” Harold asked.
“That won’t work,” he said, crawling down from the ladder. “I’ve got another idea. Watch this!” He moved the ladder back to the center, gathered up his sprays and crawled back up.
With the natural dexterity of the dreamer he transferred to the wall a new scene, impromptu and unplanned, – the Mayor himself surrounded by a phalange of policemen and, crouched in front, four bulky, hard-faced men with blazing guns in each of their hands, over the caption in white letters – “Killer cops.”
Across the bottom, the artist spayed in big red letters his signature – Manuel Sanchez Rivera.
Waiting for the dawn they drank draft beers in a café opposite City Hall in a room full of tired-faced cops in uniform. They readied their cameras and giggled constantly.
“We should do this more often,” Manuel said and laughed loud, regarding the policemen benevolently. His strength had returned.
“Do what?” Harold roared.
“Come downtown and stay out all night,” Manuel shouted, and they both laughed and slapped the white plastic table.
“Roger’s gonna be real pissed – at your abandoning him,” Harold said.
“Fuck Roger … you know!” Manuel paused, then suddenly frowned. Fucking conscience. His hilarity passed as quickly as it had arrived. He fiddled with his fingers and cracked his knuckles nervously. “But maybe he’s right about me – this mural stuff is only strutting, you know.”
When the spring sunshine began rising from the oceans beyond Brooklyn they made the photos – Harold with great enthusiasm, Manuel now disinterested. The journalists, photographers and TV crews arrived and interviewed the now blasé artist on the spot. New York 1 carried the story all morning. ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox reported the events in noon news programs. For days CNN would analyze the mural as a symptom of “winds of change in New York.” THE NEW YORK TIMES, NEW YORK POST, DAILY NEWS, THE NEW YORK OBSERVER, VILLAGE VOICE, WALL STREET JOURNAL and USA TODAY all carried photographs of the mural and stories about “A Hymn to New York City.”
More than one journalist compared it to Diego Rivera’s ill-fated Rockefeller Center mural.
Only Harold and a CNN cameraman were on hand for the destruction of Manuel’s mural. Only Harold published a photo of city sprayers at work. But miraculously, on the wall of arch no. 6, the faded figure of the Mayor and the four cops and the word “compassion” remained visible for the entire summer.
Gaither Stewart grew up in the USA but has lived most of his life in Europe, chiefly in Germany and Italy. For many years he was the Italian correspondent of the Dutch daily Algemeen Dagblad and has written for various newspapers and magazines in Europe. His fiction has appeared in literary reviews in various countries. His novels available on Amazon include The Fifth Sun, Lily Pad Roll, The Trojan Spy and Asheville. His short story collections are: Once In Berlin, To Be A Stranger and Icy Current Compulsive Current. He lives in Rome.
E-mail – email@example.com
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