I WAS ASLEEP WHEN HE DIED. I HAD CALLED THE HOSPITAL to say one more good night, but he had gone under, beneath layers of morphine. I held the receiver and listened to his labored breathing through the phone, knowing I would never hear him again.
Later I quietly straightened my things, my notebook and fountain pen. The cobalt inkwell that had been his. My Persian cup, my purple heart, a tray of baby teeth. I slowly ascended the stairs, counting them, fourteen of them, one after another. I drew the blanket over the baby in her crib, kissed my son as he slept, then lay down beside my husband and said my prayers. He is still alive, I remember whispering. Then I slept.
I awoke early, and as I descended the stairs I knew that he was dead. All was still save the sound of the television that had been left on in the night. An arts channel was on. An opera was playing. I was drawn to the screen as Tosca declared, with power and sorrow, her passion for the painter Cavaradossi. It was a cold March morning and I put on my sweater.
I raised the blinds and brightness entered the study. I smoothed the heavy linen draping my chair and chose a book of paintings by Odilon Redon, opening it to the image of the head of a woman floating in a small sea. Les yeux clos. A universe not yet scored contained beneath the pale lids. The phone rang and I rose to answer.
It was Robert’s youngest brother, Edward. He told me that he had given Robert one last kiss for me, as he had promised. I stood motionless, frozen; then slowly, as in a dream, returned to my chair. At that moment, Tosca began the great aria “Vissi d’arte.” I have lived for love, I have lived for Art. I closed my eyes and folded my hands. Providence determined how I would say goodbye.
WHEN I WAS VERY YOUNG, MY MOTHER TOOK ME FOR walks in Humboldt Park, along the edge of the Prairie River. I have vague memories, like impressions on glass plates, of an old boathouse, a circular band shell, an arched stone bridge. The narrows of the river emptied into a wide lagoon and I saw upon its surface a singular miracle. A long curving neck rose from a dress of white plumage.
Swan, my mother said, sensing my excitement. It pattered the bright water, flapping its great wings, and lifted into the sky.
The word alone hardly attested to its magnificence nor conveyed the emotion it produced. The sight of it generated an urge I had no words for, a desire to speak of the swan, to say something of its whiteness, the explosive nature of its movement, and the slow beating of its wings.
The swan became one with the sky. I struggled to find words to describe my own sense of it. Swan, I repeated, not entirely satisfied, and I felt a twinge, a curious yearning, imperceptible to passersby, my mother, the trees, or the clouds.
I was born on a Monday, in the North Side of Chicago during the Great Blizzard of 1946. I came along a day too soon, as babies born on New Year’s Eve left the hospital with a new refrigerator. Despite my mother’s effort to hold me in, she went into heavy labor as the taxi crawled along Lake Michigan through a vortex of snow and wind. By my father’s account, I arrived a long skinny thing with bronchial pneumonia, and he kept me alive by holding me over a steaming washtub.
My sister Linda followed during yet another blizzard in 1948. By necessity I was obliged to measure up quickly. My mother took in ironing as I sat on the stoop of our rooming house waiting for the iceman and the last of the horse-drawn wagons. He gave me slivers of ice wrapped in brown paper. I would slip one in my pocket for my baby sister, but when I later reached for it, I discovered it was gone.
When my mother became pregnant with my brother, Todd, we left our cramped quarters in Logan Square and migrated to Germantown, Pennsylvania. For the next few years we lived in temporary housing set up for servicemen and their children—whitewashed barracks overlooking an abandoned field alive with wildflowers. We called the field The Patch, and in summertime the grown-ups would sit and talk, smoke cigarettes, and pass around jars of dandelion wine while we children played. My mother taught us the games of her childhood: Statues, Red Rover, and Simon Says. We made daisy chains to adorn our necks and crown our heads. In the evenings we collected fireflies in mason jars, extracting their lights and making rings for our fingers.
My mother taught me to pray; she taught me the prayer her mother taught her. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. At nightfall, I knelt before my little bed as she stood, with her ever-present cigarette, listening as I recited after her. I wished nothing more than to say my prayers, yet these words troubled me and I plagued her with questions. What is the soul? What color is it? I suspected my soul, being mischievous, might slip away while I was dreaming and fail to return. I did my best not to fall asleep, to keep it inside of me where it belonged.
Perhaps to satisfy my curiosity, my mother enrolled me in Sunday school. We were taught by rote, Bible verses and the words of Jesus. Afterward we stood in line and were rewarded with a spoonful of comb honey. There was only one spoon in the jar to serve many coughing children. I instinctively shied from the spoon but I swiftly accepted the notion of God. It pleased me to imagine a presence above us, in continual motion, like liquid stars.
Not contented with my child’s prayer, I soon petitioned my mother to let me make my own. I was relieved when I no longer had to repeat the words If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take and could say instead what was in my heart. Thus freed, I would lie in my bed by the coal stove vigorously mouthing long letters to God. I was not much of a sleeper and I must have vexed him with my endless vows, visions, and schemes. But as time passed I came to experience a different kind of prayer, a silent one, requiring more listening than speaking.
My small torrent of words dissipated into an elaborate sense of expanding and receding. It was my entrance into the radiance of imagination. This process was especially magnified within the fevers of influenza, measles, chicken pox, and mumps. I had them all and with each I was privileged with a new level of awareness. Lying deep within myself, the symmetry of a snowflake spinning above me, intensifying through my lids, I seized a most worthy souvenir, a shard of heaven’s kaleidoscope.
My love of prayer was gradually rivaled by my love for the book. I would sit at my mother’s feet watching her drink coffee and smoke cigarettes with a book on her lap. Her absorption intrigued me. Though not yet in nursery school, I liked to look at her books, feel their paper, and lift the tissues from the frontispieces. I wanted to know what was in them, what captured her attention so deeply. When my mother discovered that I had hidden her crimson copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs beneath my pillow, with hopes of absorbing its meaning, she sat me down and began the laborious process of teaching me to read. With great effort we moved through Mother Goose to Dr. Seuss. When I advanced past the need for instruction, I was permitted to join her on our overstuffed sofa, she reading The Shoes of the Fisherman and I The Red Shoes.
I was completely smitten by the book. I longed to read them all, and the things I read of produced new yearnings. Perhaps I might go off to Africa and offer my services to Albert Schweitzer or, decked in my coonskin cap and powder horn, I might defend the people like Davy Crockett. I could scale the Himalayas and live in a cave spinning a prayer wheel, keeping the earth turning. But the urge to express myself was my strongest desire, and my siblings were my first eager coconspirators in the harvesting of my imagination. They listened attentively to my stories, willingly performed in my plays, and fought valiantly in my wars. With them in my corner, anything seemed possible.
In the months of spring, I was often ill and so condemned to my bed, obliged to hear my comrades at play through the open window. In the months of summer, the younger ones reported bedside how much of our wild field had been secured in the face of the enemy. We lost many a battle in my absence and my weary troops would gather around my bed and I would offer a benediction from the child soldier’s bible, A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson.
In the winter, we built snow forts and I led our campaign, serving as general, making maps and drawing out strategies as we attacked and retreated. We fought the wars of our Irish grandfathers, the orange and the green. We wore the orange yet knew nothing of its meaning. They were simply our colors. When attention flagged, I would draw a truce and visit my friend Stephanie. She was convalescing from an illness I didn’t really understand, a form of leukemia. She was older than I, perhaps twelve to my eight. I didn’t have much to say to her and was perhaps little comfort, yet she seemed to delight in my presence. I believe that what really drew me to her was not my good heart, but a fascination with her belongings. Her older sister would hang up my wet garments and bring us cocoa and graham crackers on a tray. Stephanie would lie back on a mound of pillows and I would tell tall tales and read her comics.
I marveled at her comic-book collection, stacks of them earned from a childhood spent in bed, every issue of Superman, Little Lulu, Classic Comics, and House of Mystery. In her old cigar box were all the talismanic charms of 1953: a roulette wheel, a typewriter, an ice skater, the red Mobil winged horse, the Eiffel Tower, a ballet slipper, and charms in the shape of all forty-eight states. I could play with them endlessly and sometimes, if she had doubles, she would give one to me.
I had a secret compartment near my bed, beneath the floorboards. There I kept my stash—winnings from marbles, trading cards, religious artifacts I rescued from Catholic trash bins: old holy cards, worn scapulars, plaster saints with chipped hands and feet. I put my loot from Stephanie there. Something told me I shouldn’t take presents from a sick girl, but I did and hid them away, somewhat ashamed.
I had promised to visit her on Valentine’s Day, but I didn’t. My duties as general to my troop of siblings and neighboring boys were very taxing and there was heavy snow to negotiate. It was a harsh winter that year. The following afternoon, I abandoned my post to sit with her and have cocoa. She was very quiet and begged me to stay even as she drifted off to sleep.
I rummaged through her jewel box. It was pink and when you opened it a ballerina turned like a sugarplum fairy. I was so taken with a particular skating pin that I slipped it in my mitten. I sat frozen next to her for a long time, leaving silently as she slept. I buried the pin amongst my stash. I slept fitfully through the night, feeling great remorse for what I had done. In the morning I was too ill to go to school and stayed in bed, ridden with guilt. I vowed to return the pin and ask her to forgive me.
The following day was my sister Linda’s birthday, but there was to be no party for her. Stephanie had taken a turn for the worse and my father and mother went to a hospital to give blood. When they returned my father was crying and my mother knelt down beside me to tell me Stephanie had died. Her grief was quickly replaced with concern as she felt my forehead. I was burning with fever.
Our apartment was quarantined. I had scarlet fever. In the fifties it was much feared since it often developed into a fatal form of rheumatic fever. The door to our apartment was painted yellow. Confined to bed, I could not attend Stephanie’s funeral. Her mother brought me her stacks of comic books and her cigar box of charms. Now I had everything, all her treasures, but I was far too ill to even look at them. It was then that I experienced the weight of sin, even a sin as small as a stolen skater pin. I reflected on the fact that no matter how good I aspired to be, I was never going to achieve perfection. I also would never receive Stephanie’s forgiveness. But as I lay there night after night, it occurred to me that it might be possible to speak with her by praying to her, or at least ask God to intercede on my behalf.
Robert was very taken with this story, and sometimes on a cold, languorous Sunday he would beg me to recount it. “Tell me the Stephanie story,” he would say. I would spare no details on our long mornings beneath the covers, reciting tales of my childhood, its sorrow and magic, as we tried to pretend we weren’t hungry. And always, when I got to the part where I opened the jewelry box, he would cry, “Patti, no…”
We used to laugh at our small selves, saying that I was a bad girl trying to be good and that he was a good boy trying to be bad. Through the years these roles would reverse, then reverse again, until we came to accept our dual natures. We contained opposing principles, light and dark.
I was a dreamy somnambulant child. I vexed my teachers with my precocious reading ability paired with an inability to apply it to anything they deemed practical. One by one they noted in my reports that I daydreamed far too much, was always somewhere else. Where that somewhere was I cannot say, but it often landed me in the corner sitting on a high stool in full view of all in a conical paper hat.
I would later make large detailed drawings of these humorously humiliating moments for Robert. He delighted in them, seeming to appreciate all the qualities that repelled or alienated me from others. Through this visual dialogue my youthful memories became his.
I was unhappy when we were evicted from The Patch and had to pack up to begin a new life in southern New Jersey. My mother gave birth to a fourth child whom we all pitched in to raise, a sickly though sunny little girl named Kimberly. I felt isolated and disconnected in the surrounding swamps, peach orchards, and pig farms. I immersed myself in books and in the design of an encyclopedia that only got as far as the entry for Simón Bolívar. My father introduced me to science fiction and for a time I joined him in investigating UFO activity in the skies over the local square-dance hall, as he continually questioned the source of our existence.
When I was barely eleven, nothing pleased me more than to take long walks in the outlying woods with my dog. All about were jack-in-the-pulpits, punks, and skunk cabbage, rising from the red clay earth. I would find a good place for some solitude, to stop and rest my head against a fallen log by a stream rushing with tadpoles.
With my brother, Todd, serving as loyal lieutenant, we’d crawl on our bellies over the dusty summer fields near the quarries. My dutiful sister would be stationed to bandage our wounds and provide much-needed water from my father’s army canteen.
On one such day, limping back to the home front beneath the anvil of the sun, I was accosted by my mother.
“Patricia,” my mother scolded, “put a shirt on!”
“It’s too hot,” I moaned. “No one else has one on.”
“Hot or not, it’s time you started wearing a shirt. You’re about to become a young lady.” I protested vehemently and announced that I was never going to become anything but myself, that I was of the clan of Peter Pan and we did not grow up.
My mother won the argument and I put on a shirt, but I cannot exaggerate the betrayal I felt at that moment. I ruefully watched my mother performing her female tasks, noting her well-endowed female body. It all seemed against my nature. The heavy scent of perfume and the red slashes of lipstick, so strong in the fifties, revolted me. For a time I resented her. She was the messenger and also the message. Stunned and defiant, with my dog at my feet, I dreamed of travel. Of running away and joining the Foreign Legion, climbing the ranks and trekking the desert with my men.
I drew comfort from my books. Oddly enough, it was Louisa May Alcott who provided me with a positive view of my female destiny. Jo, the tomboy of the four March sisters in Little Women, writes to help support her family, struggling to make ends meet during the Civil War. She fills page after page with her rebellious scrawl, later published in the literary pages of the local newspaper. She gave me the courage of a new goal, and soon I was crafting little stories and spinning long yarns for my brother and sister. From that time on, I cherished the idea that one day I would write a book.
In the following year my father took us on a rare excursion to the Museum of Art in Philadelphia. My parents worked very hard, and taking four children on a bus to Philadelphia was exhausting and expensive. It was the only such outing we made as a family, marking the first time I came face-to-face with art. I felt a sense of physical identification with the long, languorous Modiglianis; was moved by the elegantly still subjects of Sargent and Thomas Eakins; dazzled by the light that emanated from the Impressionists. But it was the work in a hall devoted to Picasso, from his harlequins to Cubism, that pierced me the most. His brutal confidence took my breath away.
My father admired the draftsmanship and symbolism in the work of Salvador Dalí, yet he found no merit in Picasso, which led to our first serious disagreement. My mother busied herself rounding up my siblings, who were sliding the slick surfaces of the marble floors. I’m certain, as we filed down the great staircase, that I appeared the same as ever, a moping twelve-year-old, all arms and legs. But secretly I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.
I had no proof that I had the stuff to be an artist, though I hungered to be one. I imagined that I felt the calling and prayed that it be so. But one night, while watching The Song of Bernadette with Jennifer Jones, I was struck that the young saint did not ask to be called. It was the mother superior who desired sanctity, even as Bernadette, a humble peasant girl, became the chosen one. This worried me. I wondered if I had really been called as an artist. I didn’t mind the misery of a vocation but I dreaded not being called.
I shot up several inches. I was nearly five eight and barely a hundred pounds. At fourteen, I was no longer the commander of a small yet loyal army but a skinny loser, the subject of much ridicule as I perched on the lowest rung of high school’s social ladder. I immersed myself in books and rock ’n’ roll, the adolescent salvation of 1961. My parents worked at night. After doing our chores and homework, Toddy, Linda, and I would dance to the likes of James Brown, the Shirelles, and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. With all modesty I can say we were as good on the dance floor as we were in battle.
I drew, I danced, and I wrote poems. I was not gifted but I was imaginative and my teachers encouraged me. When I won a competition sponsored by the local Sherwin-Williams paint store, my work was displayed in the shopwindow and I had enough money to buy a wooden art box and a set of oils. I raided libraries and church bazaars for art books. It was possible then to find beautiful volumes for next to nothing and I happily dwelt in the world of Modigliani, Dubuffet, Picasso, Fra Angelico, and Albert Ryder.
My mother gave me The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera for my sixteenth birthday. I was transported by the scope of his murals, descriptions of his travels and tribulations, his loves and labor. That summer I got a job in a nonunion factory, inspecting handlebars for tricycles. It was a wretched place to work. I escaped into daydreams as I did my piecework. I longed to enter the fraternity of the artist: the hunger, their manner of dress, their process and prayers. I’d brag that I was going to be an artist’s mistress one day. Nothing seemed more romantic to my young mind. I imagined myself as Frida to Diego, both muse and maker. I dreamed of meeting an artist to love and support and work with side by side.
Robert Michael Mapplethorpe was born on Monday, November 4, 1946. Raised in Floral Park, Long Island, the third of six children, he was a mischievous little boy whose carefree youth was delicately tinged with a fascination with beauty. His young eyes stored away each play of light, the sparkle of a jewel, the rich dressing of an altar, the burnish of a gold-toned saxophone or a field of blue stars. He was gracious and shy with a precise nature. He contained, even at an early age, a stirring and the desire to stir.
The light fell upon the pages of his coloring book, across his child’s hands. Coloring excited him, not the act of filling in space, but choosing colors that no one else would select. In the green of the hills he saw red. Purple snow, green skin, silver sun. He liked the effect it had on others, that it disturbed his siblings. He discovered he had a talent for sketching. He was a natural draftsman and secretly he twisted and abstracted his images, feeling his growing powers. He was an artist, and he knew it. It was not a childish notion. He merely acknowledged what was his.
The light fell upon the components of Robert’s beloved jewelry kit, upon the bottles of enamel and tiny brushes. His fingers were nimble. He delighted in his ability to piece together and decorate brooches for his mother. He wasn’t concerned that this was a girl’s pursuit, that a jewelry-making kit was a traditional Christmas gift for a girl. His older brother, a whiz at sports, would snicker at him as he worked. His mother, Joan, chain-smoked, and admired the sight of her son sitting at the table, dutifully stringing yet another necklace of tiny Indian beads for her. They were precursors of the necklaces he would later adorn himself with, having broken from his father, leaving his Catholic, commercial, and military options behind in the wake of LSD and a commitment to live for art alone.
It was not easy for Robert to make this break. Something within him could not be denied, yet he also wanted to please his parents. Robert rarely spoke of his youth or his family. He always said he had a good upbringing, that he was safe and well provided for in practical terms. But he always suppressed his real feelings, mimicking the stoic nature of his father.
His mother dreamed of him entering the priesthood. He liked being an altar boy, but enjoyed it more for his entrance into secret places, the sacristy, forbidden chambers, the robes and the rituals. He didn’t have a religious or pious relationship with the church; it was aesthetic. The thrill of the battle between good and evil attracted him, perhaps because it mirrored his interior conflict, and revealed a line that he might yet need to cross. Still, at his first holy communion, he stood proud to have accomplished this sacred task, reveling in being the center of attention. He wore a huge Baudelairean bow and an armband identical to the one worn by a very defiant Arthur Rimbaud.
There was no sense of culture or bohemian disorder in his parents’ house. It was neat and clean and a model of postwar middle-class sensibilities, the magazines in the magazine rack, jewelry in the jewelry box. His father, Harry, could be stern and judgmental and Robert inherited these qualities from him, as well as his strong, sensitive fingers. His mother gave him her sense of order and her crooked smile that always made it seem as if he had a secret.
A few of Robert’s drawings were hung on the wall in the hallway. While he lived at home he did his best to be a dutiful son, even choosing the curriculum his father demanded—commercial art. If he discovered anything on his own, he kept it to himself.
Robert loved to hear of my childhood adventures, but when I asked about his, he would have little to say. He said that his family never talked much, read, or shared intimate feelings. They had no communal mythology; no tales of treason, treasure, and snow forts. It was a safe existence but not a fairy-tale one.
“You’re my family,” he would say.
When I was a young girl, I fell into trouble.
In 1966, at summer’s end, I slept with a boy even more callow than I and we conceived instantaneously. I consulted a doctor who doubted my concern, waving me off with a somewhat bemused lecture on the female cycle. But as the weeks passed, I knew that I was carrying a child.
I was raised at a time when sex and marriage were absolutely synonymous. There was no available birth control and at nineteen I was still naïve about sex. Our union was so fleeting; so tender that I was not altogether certain we consummated our affection. But nature with all her force would have the final word. The irony that I, who never wanted to be a girl nor grow up, would be faced with this trial did not escape me. I was humbled by nature.
The boy, who was only seventeen, was so inexperienced that he could hardly be held accountable. I would have to take care of things on my own. On Thanksgiving morning I sat on the cot in the laundry room of my parents’ house. This was where I slept when I worked summers in a factory, and the rest of the year while I attended Glassboro State Teachers College. I could hear my mother and father making coffee and the laughter of my siblings as they sat around the table. I was the eldest and the pride of the family, working my way through college. My father was concerned that I was not attractive enough to find a husband and thought that the teaching profession would afford me security. It would be a great blow to him if I did not complete my studies.
I sat for a long time looking at my hands resting on my stomach. I had relieved the boy of responsibility. He was like a moth struggling within a cocoon and I couldn’t bring myself to disturb his unwieldy emergence into the world. I knew there was nothing he could do. I also knew I was incapable of tending to an infant. I had sought the assistance of a benevolent professor who had found an educated couple longing for a child.
I surveyed my quarters: a washer and dryer, a large wicker basket overflowing with unwashed linens, my father’s shirts folded on the ironing board. There was a small table where I had arranged my drawing pencils, sketchbook, and copy of Illuminations. I sat readying myself to face my parents, praying beneath my breath. For a brief moment I felt as if I might die; and just as quickly I knew everything would be all right.
It is impossible to exaggerate the sudden calm I felt. An overwhelming sense of mission eclipsed my fears. I attributed this to the baby, imagining it empathized with my situation. I felt in full possession of myself. I would do my duty and stay strong and healthy. I would never look back. I would not return to the factory or to teachers college. I would be an artist. I would prove my worth, and with my new resolve I rose and approached the kitchen.
I was dismissed from college, but I no longer cared. I knew I was not destined to be a schoolteacher, though I believed it to be an admirable occupation. I continued to live in my laundry room.
My compatriot from college, Janet Hamill, bolstered my morale. She had lost her mother and came to stay with my family. I shared my little quarters with her. Both of us harbored lofty dreams but also a common love of rock and roll, spending long evenings discoursing on the Beatles versus the Rolling Stones. We had stood in line for hours at Sam Goody’s to purchase Blonde on Blonde, combing Philadelphia in search of a scarf like the one Bob Dylan wore on the cover. We lit candles for him when he had his motorcycle accident. We lay in the high grass listening to “Light My Fire” wafting from the radio of Janet’s battered car parked by the side of the road with the doors open. We cut our long skirts to the mini-lengths of Vanessa Redgrave’s in Blow-Up and searched for greatcoats in thrift stores like those worn by Oscar Wilde and Baudelaire.
Janet remained my trusted friend through my term, but as my pregnancy progressed, I had to find refuge elsewhere. Judgmental neighbors made it impossible for my family, treating them as if they were harboring a criminal. I found a surrogate family, also called Smith, farther south by the sea. A painter and his wife, a potter, kindly took me in. They had a little boy and theirs was a disciplined but loving environment of macrobiotic food, classical music, and art. I was lonely but Janet visited me when she could. I had a small amount of pocket money. Every Sunday I would take a long walk to a deserted beach café to have a coffee and a jelly doughnut, two things forbidden in a home regimented by healthy food. I savored these small indulgences, slipping a quarter in the jukebox and listening to “Strawberry Fields” three times in a row. It was my private ritual and the words and voice of John Lennon provided me with strength when I faltered.
After the Easter holidays my parents came for me. My labor coincided with the full moon. They drove me to the hospital in Camden. Due to my unwed status, the nurses were very cruel and uncaring, and left me on a table for several hours before informing the doctor that I had gone into labor. They ridiculed me for my beatnik appearance and immoral behavior, calling me “Dracula’s daughter” and threatening to cut my long black hair. When my doctor arrived, he was very angry. I could hear him yelling at the nurses that I was having a breech birth and I should not have been left alone. Through an open window, while I lay in labor, I could hear boys singing a cappella songs through the night. Four-part harmony on the street corners of Camden, New Jersey. As the anesthesia took effect, the last thing I remember was the doctor’s concerned face and the whispers of attendants.
My child was born on the anniversary of the bombing of Guernica. I remember thinking of the painting, a weeping mother holding her dead child. Although my arms would be empty and I wept, my child would live, was healthy, and would be well cared for. I trusted and believed that with all my heart.
On Memorial Day I took a bus to Philadelphia to visit the Joan of Arc statue near the Museum of Art. It had not been there when I first went with my family as a young girl. How beautiful she looked astride her horse, raising her banner toward the sun, a teenage girl who delivered her imprisoned king to his throne in Rouen, only to be betrayed and burned at the stake on this day. Young Joan whom I had known through books and the child whom I would never know. I vowed to both of them that I would make something of myself, then headed back home, stopping in Camden at the Goodwill store to buy a long gray raincoat.
On that same day, in Brooklyn, Robert dropped acid. He cleared his work area, arranging his drawing pad and pencils on a low table with a pillow to sit on. He placed a fresh sheet of clay coat on the table. He knew he might not be able to draw once the acid peaked, but he wanted his tools by him in case he needed them. He had tried working on acid before, but it drew him toward the negative spaces, areas he would normally have the self-control to avoid. Often the beauty he beheld was a deception, the results aggressive and unpleasing. He didn’t contemplate the meaning of this. It was just so.
At first the LSD seemed benign and he was disappointed, as he had ingested more than usual. He had passed through the phase of anticipation and nervous agitation. He loved that feeling. He traced the thrill and fear blossoming in his stomach. He used to experience it as an altar boy as he stood behind the velvet curtains in his small robe holding the processional cross, readying to march.
It occurred to him that nothing was going to happen.
He adjusted a gilded frame above the mantel. He noticed the blood coursing through the veins crossing his wrist and the bright edges of his cuff. He noticed the room in planes, sirens and dogs, the walls in their pulse. He became aware that he was clenching his teeth. He noticed his own breath like the breath of a collapsing god. A terrible lucidity came over him; a stop-motion force dropping him to his knees. A string of remembrances stretched like taffy—accusing faces of fellow cadets, holy water flooding the latrine, classmates passing like indifferent dogs, his father’s disapproval, expulsion from ROTC, and his mother’s tears, bleeding with his own loneliness the apocalypse of his world.
He tried to rise. His legs were completely asleep. He managed to stand and rubbed his legs. The veins of his hands were unusually prominent. He took off his shirt soaked in light and damp, sloughing away the prison of skins.
He looked down at the piece of paper on his table. He could see the work there, though it was not yet drawn. He crouched down again and worked confidently in the last rays of afternoon light. He completed two drawings, spidery and amorphous. He wrote the words he had seen and felt the gravity of what he had written: Destruction of the universe. May 30 ’67.
It’s good, he thought, somewhat ruefully. For no one would see what he had seen, no one would understand. He was accustomed to this feeling. He’d had it all his life, but in the past he tried to make up for it, as if it were his fault. He compensated for this with a sweet nature, seeking approval from his father, from his teachers, from his peers.
He wasn’t certain whether he was a good or bad person. Whether he was altruistic. Whether he was demonic. But he was certain of one thing. He was an artist. And for that he would never apologize. He leaned against a wall and smoked a cigarette. He felt swathed in clarity, a little shaken, but he knew it was merely physical. There was another sensation brewing he had no name for. He felt in control. He would no longer be a slave.
As night fell, he noticed he was thirsty. He craved chocolate milk. One place would be open. He felt for his change, turned the corner, and headed toward Myrtle Avenue, grinning in the dark.
In the spring of 1967 I assessed my life. I had brought the child healthy into the world and placed her under the protection of a loving and educated family. I had dropped out of teachers’ college, having not the discipline, the focus, nor the money I needed to continue. I was holding a temporary minimum-wage job in a textbook factory in Philadelphia.
My immediate concern was where to go next, and what to do when I got there. I held to the hope that I was an artist, though I knew I would never be able to afford art school and had to make a living. There was nothing to keep me home, no prospects and no sense of community. My parents had raised us in an atmosphere of religious dialogue, of compassion, of civil rights, but the general feel of rural South Jersey was hardly pro-artist. My few comrades had moved to New York to write poetry and study art and I felt very much alone.
I had found solace in Arthur Rimbaud, whom I had come upon in a bookstall across from the bus depot in Philadelphia when I was sixteen. His haughty gaze reached mine from the cover of Illuminations. He possessed an irreverent intelligence that ignited me, and I embraced him as compatriot, kin, and even secret love. Not having the ninety-nine cents to buy the book, I pocketed it.
Rimbaud held the keys to a mystical language that I devoured even as I could not fully decipher it. My unrequited love for him was as real to me as anything I had experienced. At the factory where I had labored with a hard-edged, illiterate group of women, I was harassed in his name. Suspecting me of being a Communist for reading a book in a foreign language, they threatened me in the john, prodding me to denounce him. It was within this atmosphere that I seethed. It was for him that I wrote and dreamed. He became my archangel, delivering me from the mundane horrors of factory life. His hands had chiseled a manual of heaven and I held them fast. The knowledge of him added swagger to my step and this could not be stripped away. I tossed my copy of Illuminations in a plaid suitcase. We would escape together.
I had my plan. I would seek out friends who were studying at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I figured if I placed myself in their environment I could learn from them. When I was laid off in late June from my job in the textbook factory, I took this as a sign to head out. Employment in South Jersey was hard to come by. I was on a waiting list at the Columbia Records pressing plant in Pitman and the Campbell Soup Company in Camden, but the thought of either job made me nauseous. I had enough money for a one-way ticket. I planned to hit all the bookstores in the city. This seemed ideal work to me. My mother, who was a waitress, gave me white wedgies and a fresh uniform in a plain wrapper.
“You’ll never make it as a waitress,” she said, “but I’ll stake you anyway.” It was her way of showing her support.
It was a Monday morning on July 3. I maneuvered the tearful goodbyes and walked the mile to Woodbury and caught the Broadway bus to Philadelphia, passing through my beloved Camden and nodding respectfully to the sad exterior of the once-prosperous Walt Whitman Hotel. I felt a pang abandoning this struggling city, but there was no work for me there. They were closing the great shipyard and soon everyone would be looking for jobs.
I got off at Market Street and stopped in Nedick’s. I slipped a quarter in the jukebox, played two sides by Nina Simone, and had a farewell doughnut and coffee. I crossed over to Filbert Street to the bus terminal across from the bookstall that I had haunted for the last few years. I paused before the spot where I had pocketed my Rimbaud. In its place was a battered copy of Love on the Left Bank with grainy black-and-white shots of Paris nightlife in the late fifties. The photographs of the beautiful Vali Myers, with her wild hair and kohl-rimmed eyes, dancing on the streets of the Latin Quarter deeply impressed me. I did not swipe the book, but kept her image in mind.
It was a big blow that the fare to New York had nearly doubled since last I’d traveled. I was unable to buy my ticket. I went into a phone booth to think. It was a real Clark Kent moment. I thought of calling my sister although I was too ashamed to return home. But there, on the shelf beneath the telephone, lying on thick yellow pages, was a white patent purse. It contained a locket and thirty-two dollars, almost a week’s paycheck at my last job.
Against my better judgment, I took the money but I left the purse on the ticket counter in the hopes that the owner would at least retrieve the locket. There was nothing in it that revealed her identity. I can only thank, as I have within myself many times through the years, this unknown benefactor. She was the one who gave me the last piece of encouragement, a thief’s good-luck sign. I accepted the grant of the small white purse as the hand of fate pushing me on.
At twenty years old, I boarded the bus. I wore my dungarees, black turtleneck, and the old gray raincoat I had bought in Camden. My small suitcase, yellow-and-red plaid, held some drawing pencils, a notebook, Illuminations, a few pieces of clothing, and pictures of my siblings. I was superstitious. Today was a Monday; I was born on Monday. It was a good day to arrive in New York City. No one expected me. Everything awaited me.
I immediately took the subway from Port Authority to Jay Street and Borough Hall, then to Hoyt-Schermerhorn and DeKalb Avenue. It was a sunny afternoon. I was hoping my friends might put me up until I could find a place of my own. I went to the brownstone at the address I had, but they had moved. The new tenant was polite. He motioned toward a room at the rear of the flat and suggested that his roommate might know the new address.
I walked into the room. On a simple iron bed, a boy was sleeping. He was pale and slim with masses of dark curls, lying bare-chested with strands of beads around his neck. I stood there. He opened his eyes and smiled.
When I told him of my plight, he rose in one motion, put on his huaraches and a white T-shirt, and beckoned me to follow him.
I watched him as he walked ahead, leading the way with a light-footed gait, slightly bowlegged. I noticed his hands as he tapped his fingers against his thigh. I had never seen anyone like him. He delivered me to another brownstone on Clinton Avenue, gave a little farewell salute, smiled, and was on his way.
The day wore on. I waited for my friends. As fortune would have it, they did not return. That night, having nowhere to go, I fell asleep on their red stoop. When I awoke, it was Independence Day, my first away from home with the familiar parade, veterans’ picnic, and fireworks display. I felt a restless agitation in the air. Packs of children threw firecrackers that exploded at my feet. I would spend that day much as I spent the next few weeks, looking for kindred souls, shelter, and, most urgently, a job. Summer seemed the wrong time to find a sympathetic student. Everyone was less than eager to provide me with a helping hand. Everyone was struggling, and I, the country mouse, was just an awkward presence. Eventually I went back to the city and slept in Central Park, not far from the statue of the Mad Hatter.
Along Fifth Avenue, I left applications at shops and bookstores. I would often stop before a grand hotel, an alien observer to the Proustian lifestyle of the privileged class, exiting sleek black cars with exquisite brown-and-gold-patterned trunks. It was another side of life. Horse-drawn carriages were stationed between the Paris Theatre and the Plaza Hotel. In discarded newspapers I would search out the evening’s entertainment. Across from the Metropolitan Opera I watched the people enter, sensing their anticipation.
The city was a real city, shifty and sexual. I was lightly jostled by small herds of flushed young sailors looking for action on Forty-second Street, with its rows of X-rated movie houses, brassy women, glittering souvenir shops, and hot-dog vendors. I wandered through Kino parlors and peered through the windows of the magnificent sprawling Grant’s Raw Bar filled with men in black coats scooping up piles of fresh oysters.
The skyscrapers were beautiful. They did not seem like mere corporate shells. They were monuments to the arrogant yet philanthropic spirit of America. The character of each quadrant was invigorating and one felt the flux of its history. The old world and the emerging one served up in the brick and mortar of the artisan and the architects.
I walked for hours from park to park. In Washington Square, one could still feel the characters of Henry James and the presence of the author himself. Entering the perimeters of the white arch, one was greeted by the sounds of bongos and acoustic guitars, protest singers, political arguments, activists leafleting, older chess players challenged by the young. This open atmosphere was something I had not experienced, simple freedom that did not seem to be oppressive to anyone.
I was beat and hungry, roaming with a few belongings wrapped in a cloth, hobo style, a sack without a stick—my suitcase stashed in Brooklyn. It was a Sunday and I took a day off from searching for work. Through the night I had gone back and forth to the end of the line at Coney Island, snatching bits of sleep when I could. I got off the F train at the Washington Square station and walked down Sixth Avenue. I stopped to watch the boys shooting hoops near Houston Street. It was there I met Saint, my guide, a black Cherokee with one foot in the street and the other in the Milky Way. He suddenly appeared, as vagabonds will sometimes find one another.
I swiftly clocked him, inside and out, and perceived he was okay. It seemed natural talking with him, though I didn’t normally talk to strangers.
“Hey, sister. What’s your situation?”
“On earth or in the universe?”
He laughed and said, “All right!”
I sized him up while he was looking at the sky. He had a Jimi Hendrix look, tall, slim, and soft-spoken, though a bit ragged. He posed no threat, uttered no sexual innuendos, no mention of the physical plane, except the most basic.
The street of cafés was just waking up. He stopped at a few places on MacDougal Street. He greeted the fellows setting up for the new day. “Hey, Saint,” they would say, and he’d shoot the shit while I stood a few feet away. “Got anything for me?” he asked.
The cooks knew him well and gave him offerings in brown paper bags. He returned the favor with anecdotes of his travels from the heartland to Venus. We walked to the park, sat on a bench, and divided his take: loaves of day-old bread and a head of lettuce. He had me remove the top layers of the lettuce as he broke the bread in half. Some of the lettuce was still crisp inside.
“There’s water in the lettuce leaves,” he said. “The bread will satisfy your hunger.”
We piled the best leaves on the bread and happily ate.
“A real prison breakfast,” I said.
“Yeah, but we are free.”
And that summed it up. He slept for a while in the grass and I just sat quietly with no fear. When he awoke, we searched around until he found a patch of earth without grass. He got a stick and drew a celestial map. He gave me some lessons on man’s place in the universe, then the inner universe.
“You follow this?”
“It’s normal stuff,” I said.
He laughed for a long time.
Our unspoken routine filled my next few days. At night we’d go our separate ways. I would watch him stroll away. He would often be barefoot, his sandals slung over his shoulder. I marveled how anyone, even in summer, would have the courage and stealth to roam barefoot in the city.
We would go find our own sleep outposts. We never spoke about where we slept. In the morning I would find him in the park and we’d make the rounds, “getting vitals,” as he said. We’d eat pita bread and celery stalks. On the third day I found two quarters embedded in the grass in the park. We had coffee, toast and jam, and split an egg at the Waverly Diner. Fifty cents was real money in 1967.
That afternoon, he gave me a long recap of man and the universe. He seemed content with me as a pupil, though he was more distracted than usual. Venus, he had told me, was more than a star. “I’m waiting to go home,” he said.
It was a beautiful day and we sat in the grass. I guess I dozed off. He wasn’t there when I awoke. There was a piece of red chalk he used for drawing on the sidewalk. I pocketed it and went my way. The next day I half-waited for him to return. But he didn’t. He had given me what I needed to keep going.
I wasn’t sad, because every time I thought of him I’d smile. I imagined him jumping on a boxcar on a celestial course to the planet he embraced, appropriately named for the goddess of love. I wondered why he devoted so much time to me. I reasoned it was because we were both wearing long coats in July, the brotherhood of La Bohème.
I grew more desperate to find a job and started a second-level search in boutiques and department stores. I was quick to comprehend I wasn’t dressed right for this line of work. Even Capezio’s, a store for classic dance attire, wouldn’t take me, though I had cultivated a good beatnik ballet look. I canvassed Sixtieth and Lexington and as a last resort left an application at Alexander’s, knowing I would never really work there. Then I began to walk downtown, absorbed in my own condition.
It was Friday, July 21, and unexpectedly I collided with the sorrow of an age. John Coltrane, the man who gave us A Love Supreme, had died. Scores of people were gathering across from St. Peter’s Church to say goodbye. Hours passed. People were sobbing as the love cry of Albert Ayler spirited the atmosphere. It was if a saint had died, one who had offered up healing music yet was not permitted to heal himself. Along with many strangers, I experienced a deep sense of loss for a man I had not known save through his music.
Later I walked down Second Avenue, Frank O’Hara territory. Pink light washed over rows of boarded buildings. New York light, the light of the abstract expressionists. I thought Frank would have loved the color of the fading day. Had he lived, he might have written an elegy for John Coltrane like he did for Billie Holiday.
I spent the evening checking out the action on St. Mark’s Place. Long-haired boys scatting around in striped bell-bottoms and used military jackets flanked with girls wrapped in tie-dye. There were flyers papering the streets announcing the coming of Paul Butterfield and Country Joe and the Fish. “White Rabbit” was blaring from the open doors of the Electric Circus. The air was heavy with unstable chemicals, mold, and the earthy stench of hashish. The fat of candles burned, great tears of wax spilling onto the sidewalk.
I can’t say I fit in, but I felt safe. No one noticed me. I could move freely. There was a roving community of young people, sleeping in the parks, in makeshift tents, the new immigrants invading the East Village. I wasn’t kin to these people, but because of the free-floating atmosphere, I could roam within it. I had faith. I sensed no danger in the city, and I never encountered any. I had nothing to offer a thief and didn’t fear men on the prowl. I wasn’t of interest to anyone, and that worked in my favor for the first few weeks of July when I bummed around, free to explore by day, sleeping where I could at night. I sought door wells, subway cars, even a graveyard. Startled to awake beneath the city sky or being shaken by a strange hand. Time to move along. Time to move along.
When it got really rough, I would go back to Pratt, occasionally bumping into someone I knew who would let me shower and sleep a night. Or else I would sleep in the hall near a familiar door. That wasn’t much fun, but I had my mantra, “I’m free, I’m free.” Although after several days, my other mantra, “I’m hungry, I’m hungry,” seemed to be in the forefront. I wasn’t worried, though. I just needed a break and I wasn’t going to give up. I dragged my plaid suitcase from stoop to stoop, trying not to wear out my unwelcome.
It was the summer Coltrane died. The summer of “Crystal Ship.” Flower children raised their empty arms and China exploded the H-bomb. Jimi Hendrix set his guitar in flames in Monterey. AM radio played “Ode to Billie Joe.” There were riots in Newark, Milwaukee, and Detroit. It was the summer of Elvira Madigan, the summer of love. And in this shifting, inhospitable atmosphere, a chance encounter changed the course of my life.
It was the summer I met Robert Mapplethorpe.
IT WAS HOT IN THE CITY, BUT I STILL WORE MY RAINCOAT. It gave me confidence as I hit the streets looking for work, my only résumé a stint in a factory, vestiges of an incomplete education, and an immaculately starched waitress uniform. I landed a job in a little Italian restaurant called Joe’s on Times Square. Three hours into my first shift, after spilling a tray of veal Parmigiana on a customer’s tweed suit, I was relieved of my duties. Knowing I would never make it as a waitress, I left my uniform—only slightly soiled—with the matching wedgies in a public bathroom. My mother had given them to me, a white uniform with white shoes, investing in them her own hopes for my well-being. Now they were like wilted lilies, left in a white sink.
Negotiating the thick psychedelic atmosphere of St. Mark’s Place, I was not prepared for the revolution under way. There was an air of vague and unsettling paranoia, an undercurrent of rumors, snatched fragments of conversation anticipating future revolution. I just sat there trying to figure it all out, the air thick with pot smoke, which may account for my dreamy recollections. I clawed through a thick web of the culture’s consciousness that I hadn’t known existed.
I had lived in the world of my books, most of them written in the nineteenth century. Though I was prepared to sleep on benches, in subways and graveyards, until I got work, I was not ready for the constant hunger that gnawed at me. I was a skinny thing with a high metabolism and a strong appetite. Romanticism could not quench my need for food. Even Baudelaire had to eat. His letters contained many a desperate cry for want of meat and porter.
I needed a job. I was relieved when I was hired as a cashier in the uptown branch of Brentano’s bookstore. I would have preferred manning the poetry section over ringing up sales of ethnic jewelry and crafts, but I liked looking at trinkets from far-away countries: Berber bracelets, shell collars from Afghanistan, and a jewel-encrusted Buddha. My favorite object was a modest necklace from Persia. It was made of two enameled metal plaques bound together with heavy black and silver threads, like a very old and exotic scapular. It cost eighteen dollars, which seemed like a lot of money. When things were quiet I would take it out of the case and trace the calligraphy etched upon its violet surface, and dream up tales of its origins.
Shortly after I started working there, the boy I had briefly met in Brooklyn came into the store. He looked quite different in his white shirt and tie, like a Catholic schoolboy. He explained that he worked at Brentano’s downtown branch and had a credit slip he wanted to use. He spent a long time looking at everything, the beads, the small figurines, the turquoise rings.
Finally he said, “I want this.” It was the Persian necklace.
“Oh, it’s my favorite too,” I answered. “It reminds me of a scapular.”
“Are you a Catholic?” he asked me.
“No, I just like Catholic things.”
“I was an altar boy.” He grinned at me. “I loved to swing the frankincense censer.”
I was happy because he had selected the piece I singled out, yet sad to see it go. When I wrapped it and handed it to him, I said impulsively, “Don’t give it to any girl but me.”
I was immediately embarrassed, but he just smiled and said, “I won’t.”
After he left I looked at the empty place where it had lain on a piece of black velvet. By the next morning a more elaborate piece had taken its place, but it lacked the simple mystery of the Persian necklace.
By the end of my first week I was very hungry and still had nowhere to go. I took to sleeping in the store. I would hide in the bathroom while the others left, and after the night watchman locked up I would sleep on my coat. In the morning it would appear I had gotten to work early. I hadn’t a dime and rummaged through employees’ pockets for change to buy peanut butter crackers in the vending machine. Demoralized by hunger, I was shocked when there was no envelope for me on payday. I had not understood that the first week’s pay was withheld, and I went back to the cloakroom in tears.
When I returned to my counter, I noticed a guy lurking around, watching me. He had a beard and was wearing a pinstripe shirt and one of those jackets with suede patches on the elbows. The supervisor introduced us. He was a science-fiction writer and he wanted to take me out to dinner. Even though I was twenty, my mother’s warning not to go anywhere with a stranger reverberated in my consciousness. But the prospect of dinner weakened me, and I accepted. I hoped the guy, being a writer, would be okay, though he seemed more like an actor playing a writer.
We walked down to a restaurant at the base of the Empire State Building. I had never eaten at a nice place in New York City. I tried to order something that wasn’t too expensive and chose swordfish, $5.95, the cheapest thing on the menu. I can still see the waiter setting the plate before me with a big wad of mashed potatoes and a slab of overdone swordfish. Even though I was starving, I could hardly enjoy it. I felt uncomfortable and had no idea how to handle the situation, or why he wanted to eat with me. It seemed like he was spending a lot of money on me and I got to worrying what he would expect in return.
After the meal we walked all the way downtown. We went east to Tompkins Square Park and sat on a bench. I was conjuring lines of escape when he suggested we go up to his apartment for a drink. This was it, I thought, the pivotal moment my mother had warned me about. I was looking around desperately, unable to answer him, when I saw a young man approaching. It was as if a small portal of future opened, and out stepped the boy from Brooklyn who had chosen the Persian necklace, like an answer to a teenage prayer. I immediately recognized his slightly bowlegged gait and his tousled curls. He was dressed in dungarees and a sheepskin vest. Around his neck hung strands of beaded necklaces, a hippie shepherd boy. I ran up to him and grabbed his arm.
“Hello, do you remember me?”
“Of course,” he smiled.
“I need help.” I blurted, “Will you pretend you’re my boyfriend?”
“Sure,” he said, as if he wasn’t surprised by my sudden appearance.
I dragged him over to the science-fiction guy. “This is my boyfriend,” I said breathlessly. “He’s been looking for me. He’s really mad. He wants me to come home now.” The guy looked at us both quizzically.
“Run,” I cried, and the boy grabbed my hand and we took off, through the park across to the other side.
Out of breath, we collapsed on someone’s stoop. “Thank you, you saved my life,” I said. He accepted this news with a bemused expression.
“I never told you my name, it’s Patti.”
“My name is Bob.”
“Bob,” I said, really looking at him for the first time. “Somehow you don’t seem like a Bob to me. Is it okay if I call you Robert?”
The sun had set over Avenue B. He took my hand and we wandered the East Village. He bought me an egg cream at Gem Spa, on the corner of St. Mark’s Place and Second Avenue. I did most of the talking. He just smiled and listened. I told him childhood stories, the first of many: of Stephanie, the Patch, and the square-dance hall across the road. I was surprised at how comfortable and open I felt with him. He told me later that he was tripping on acid.
I had only read about LSD in a small book called Collages by Anaïs Nin. I wasn’t aware of the drug culture that was blooming in the summer of ’67. I had a romantic view of drugs and considered them sacred, reserved for poets, jazz musicians, and Indian rituals. Robert didn’t seem altered or strange in any way I might have imagined. He radiated a charm that was sweet and mischievous, shy and protective. We walked around until two in the morning and finally, almost simultaneously, revealed that neither one of us had a place to go. We laughed about that. But it was late and we were both tired.
“I think I know somewhere we can stay,” he said. His last roommate was out of town. “I know where he hides his key; I don’t think he would mind.”
We got the subway out to Brooklyn. His friend lived in a little place on Waverly, near the Pratt campus. We went through an alleyway where he found the key hidden beneath a loose brick, and let ourselves into the apartment.
We both fell shy when we entered, not so much because we were alone together as that it was someone else’s place. Robert busied himself making me comfortable and then, in spite of the late hour, asked if I would like to see his work that was stored in a back room.
Robert spread it out over the floor for me to see. There were drawings, etchings, and he unrolled some paintings that reminded me of Richard Poussette-Dart and Henri Michaux. Multifarious energies radiated through interweaving words and calligraphic line. Energy fields built with layers of word. Paintings and drawings that seemed to emerge from the subconscious.
There were a set of discs intertwining the words EGO LOVE GOD, merging them with his own name; they seemed to recede and expand over his flat surfaces. As I stared at them, I was compelled to tell him of my nights as a child seeing circular patterns radiating on the ceiling.
He opened a book on Tantric art.
“Like this?” he asked.
I recognized with amazement the celestial circles of my childhood. A mandala.
I was particularly moved by the drawing he had done on Memorial Day. I had never seen anything like it. What also struck me was the date: Joan of Arc’s feast day. The same day I had promised to make something of myself before her statue.
I told him this, and he responded that the drawing was symbolic of his own commitment to art, made on the same day. He gave it to me without hesitation and I understood that in this small space of time we had mutually surrendered our loneliness and replaced it with trust.
We looked at books on Dada and Surrealism and ended the night immersed in the slaves of Michelangelo. Wordlessly we absorbed the thoughts of one another and just as dawn broke fell asleep in each other’s arms. When we awoke he greeted me with his crooked smile, and I knew he was my knight.
As if it was the most natural thing in the world we stayed together, not leaving each other’s side save to go to work. Nothing was spoken; it was just mutually understood.
For the following weeks we relied on the generosity of Robert’s friends for shelter, notably Patrick and Margaret Kennedy, in whose apartment on Waverly Avenue we had spent our first night. Ours was an attic room with a mattress, Robert’s drawings tacked on the wall and his paintings rolled in a corner and I with only my plaid suitcase. I’m certain it was no small burden for this couple to harbor us, for we had meager resources, and I was awkward socially. In the evenings we were lucky to share the Kennedys’ table. We pooled our money, every cent going toward our own place. I worked long hours at Brentano’s and skipped lunches. I befriended another employee, named Frances Finley. She was delightfully eccentric and discreet. Discerning my plight, she would leave me Tupperware containers of homemade soup on the table of the employee cloakroom. This small gesture fortified me and sealed a lasting friendship.
Perhaps it was the relief of having a safe haven at last, for I seemed to crash, exhausted and emotionally overwrought. Though I never questioned my decision to give my child up for adoption, I learned that to give life and walk away was not so easy. I became for a time moody and despondent. I cried so much that Robert affectionately called me Soakie.
Robert was infinitely patient with my seemingly inexplicable melancholy. I had a loving family and could have returned home. They would have understood, but I didn’t want to go back with my head bowed. They had their own struggles and I now had a companion I could rely on. I had told Robert everything about my experience, though there was no possible way of hiding it. I was so small-hipped that carrying a child had literally opened the skin of my belly. Our first intimacy revealed the fresh red scars crisscrossing my abdomen. Slowly, through his support, I was able to conquer my deep self-consciousness.
When we had finally saved enough money, Robert looked for a place for us to live. He found an apartment in a three-story brick building on a tree-lined street around the corner from the Myrtle el and within walking distance of Pratt. We had the entire second floor, with windows facing east and west, but its aggressively seedy condition was out of my range of experience. The walls were smeared with blood and psychotic scribbling, the oven crammed with discarded syringes, and the refrigerator overrun with mold. Robert cut a deal with the landlord, agreeing to clean and paint it himself provided we pay only one month’s deposit, instead of the required two. The rent was eighty dollars a month. We paid one hundred and sixty dollars to move into 160 Hall Street. We regarded the symmetry as favorable.
Ours was a small street with low ivy-covered brick garages converted from former stables. It was just a short walk to the diner, the phone booth, and Jake’s art supply store, where St. James Place began.
The staircase up to our floor was dark and narrow, with an arched niche carved into the wall, but our door opened onto a small, sunny kitchen. From the windows above the sink you could see a huge white mulberry tree. The bedroom faced the front with ornate medallions on the ceiling that boasted the original turn-of-the-century plasterwork.
Robert had assured me he would make it a good home and, true to his word, he labored to make it ours. The first thing he did was to wash and scrub the crusted stove with steel wool. He waxed the floors, cleaned the windows, and whitewashed the walls.
Our few possessions were heaped in the center of our future bedroom. We slept on our coats. On trash night we scavenged the streets and magically found all we needed. A discarded mattress in the lamplight, a small bookcase, repairable lamps, earthenware bowls, images of Jesus and the Madonna in ornate crumbling frames, and a threadbare Persian rug for my corner of our world.
I scrubbed the mattress with baking soda. Robert rewired the lamps, adding vellum shades tattooed with his own designs. He was good with his hands, still the boy who had made jewelry for his mother. He worked for some days restringing a beaded curtain, and hung it at the entrance of our bedroom. At first I was a little skeptical about the curtain. I had never seen such a thing but it eventually harmonized with my own gypsy elements.
I went back to South Jersey and retrieved my books and clothing. While I was gone Robert hung his drawings and draped the walls with Indian cloth. He dressed the mantel with religious artifacts, candles, and souvenirs from the Day of the Dead, arranging them as if sacred objects on an altar. Finally he prepared a study area for me with a little worktable and the frayed magic carpet.
We combined our belongings. My few records were filed in the orange crate with his. My winter coat hung next to his sheepskin vest.
My brother gave us a new needle for our record player, and my mother made us meatball sandwiches wrapped in tinfoil. We ate them and happily listened to Tim Hardin, his songs becoming our songs, the expression of our young love. My mother also sent along a parcel of sheets and pillowcases. They were soft and familiar, possessing the sheen of years of wear. They reminded me of her as she stood in the yard assessing with satisfaction the wash on the line as it fluttered in the sun.
My treasured objects were mingled with the laundry. My work area was a jumble of manuscript pages, musty classics, broken toys, and talismans. I tacked pictures of Rimbaud, Bob Dylan, Lotte Lenya, Piaf, Genet, and John Lennon over a makeshift desk where I arranged my quills, my inkwell, and my notebooks—my monastic mess.
When I came to New York I had brought a few colored pencils and a wood slate to draw on. I had drawn a girl at a table before a spread of cards, a girl divining her fate. It was the only drawing I had to show Robert, which he liked very much. He wanted me to experience working with fine paper and pencils, and shared his materials with me. We would work side by side for hours, in a state of mutual concentration.
We hadn’t much money but we were happy. Robert worked part-time and took care of the apartment. I did the laundry and made our meals, which were very limited. There was an Italian bakery we frequented, off Waverly. We would choose a nice loaf of day-old bread or a quarter pound of their stale cookies offered at half-price. Robert had a sweet tooth, so the cookies often won out. Sometimes the woman behind the counter would give us extra and fill the small brown paper sack to the brim with yellow and brown pinwheels, shaking her head and murmuring friendly disapproval. Most likely she could tell it was our dinner. We would add take-out coffee and a carton of milk. Robert loved chocolate milk but it was more expensive and we would deliberate whether to spend the extra dime.
We had our work and one other. We didn’t have the money to go to concerts or movies or to buy new records, but we played the ones we had over and over. We listened to my Madame Butterfly as sung by Eleanor Steber. A Love Supreme. Between the Buttons. Joan Baez and Blonde on Blonde. Robert introduced me to his favorites—Vanilla Fudge, Tim Buckley, Tim Hardin—and his History of Motown provided the backdrop for our nights of communal joy.
One Indian summer day we dressed in our favorite things, me in my beatnik sandals and ragged scarves, and Robert with his love beads and sheepskin vest. We took the subway to West Fourth Street and spent the afternoon in Washington Square. We shared coffee from a thermos, watching the stream of tourists, stoners, and folksingers. Agitated revolutionaries distributed antiwar leaflets. Chess players drew a crowd of their own. Everyone coexisted within the continuous drone of verbal diatribes, bongos, and barking dogs.
We were walking toward the fountain, the epicenter of activity, when an older couple stopped and openly observed us. Robert enjoyed being noticed, and he affectionately squeezed my hand.
“Oh, take their picture,” said the woman to her bemused husband, “I think they’re artists.”
“Oh, go on,” he shrugged. “They’re just kids.”
The leaves were turning burgundy and gold. There were carved pumpkins on the stoops of the brownstones on Clinton Avenue.
We took walks at night. Sometimes we could see Venus above us. It was the shepherd’s star and the star of love. Robert called it our blue star. He practiced forming the t of Robert into a star, signing in blue so that I would remember.
I was getting to know him. He had absolute confidence in his work and in me, yet he worried incessantly about our future, how we would survive, about money. I felt we were too young to have such cares. I was happy just being free. The uncertainty of the practical side of our life haunted him, though I did my best to stay his worries.
He was searching, consciously or unconsciously, for himself. He was in a fresh state of transformation. He had shed the skin of his ROTC uniform, and in its wake his scholarship, his commercial path, and his father’s expectations of him. At seventeen he had been infatuated with the prestige of the Pershing Rifles, their brass buttons, highly polished boots, braids and ribbons. It was the uniform that attracted him, just as the robes of an altar boy had drawn him to the altar. But his service was to art, not to church or country. His beads, dungarees, and sheepskin vest represented not a costume but an expression of freedom.
After work, I would meet him downtown and we would walk through the yellow filtered light of the East Village, past the Fillmore East and the Electric Circus, the places we had passed on our first walk together.
It was exciting just to stand in front of the hallowed ground of Birdland that had been blessed by John Coltrane, or the Five Spot on St. Mark’s Place where Billie Holiday used to sing, where Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman opened the field of jazz like human can openers.
We couldn’t afford to go inside. On other days, we would visit art museums. There was only enough money for one ticket, so one of us would go in, look at the exhibits, and report back to the other.
On one such occasion, we went to the relatively new Whitney Museum on the Upper East Side. It was my turn to go in, and I reluctantly entered without him. I no longer remember the exhibit, but I do recall peering through one of the museum’s unique trapezoidal windows, seeing Robert across the street, leaning against a parking meter, smoking a cigarette.
He waited for me, and as we headed toward the subway he said, “One day we’ll go in together, and the work will be ours.”
Some evenings later Robert surprised me and took me to our first movie. Someone at work had given him two tickets to a preview of How I Won the War, directed by Richard Lester. John Lennon had an important role as a soldier called Gripweed. I was excited to see John Lennon but Robert slept with his head on my shoulder throughout the movie.
Robert was not especially drawn to film. His favorite movie was Splendor in the Grass. The only other movie we saw that year was Bonnie and Clyde. He liked the tagline on the poster: “They’re young. They’re in love. They rob banks.” He didn’t fall asleep during that movie. Instead, he wept. And when we went home he was unnaturally quiet and looked at me as if he wanted to convey all he was feeling without words. There was something of us that he saw in the movie but I wasn’t certain what. I thought to myself that he contained a whole universe that I had yet to know.
On November fourth, Robert turned twenty-one. I gave him a heavy silver ID bracelet I found in a pawnshop on Forty-second Street. I had it engraved with the words Robert Patti blue star. The blue star of our destiny.
We spent a quiet night looking at our art books. My collection included de Kooning, Dubuffet, Diego Rivera, a Pollock monograph, and a small pile of Art International magazines. Robert had large coffee table books he had acquired from Brentano’s on Tantric art, Michelangelo, Surrealism, and erotic art. We added used catalogs on John Graham, Gorky, Cornell, and Kitaj that we acquired for less than a dollar.
Our most prized books were on William Blake. I had a very pretty facsimile of Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and I often read it to Robert before we went to sleep. I also had a vellum edition of Blake’s collected writings, and he had the Trianon Press edition of Blake’s Milton. We both admired the likeness of Blake’s brother Robert, who died young, pictured with a star at his foot. We adopted Blake’s palette as our own, shades of rose, cadmium, and moss, colors that seemed to generate light.
One evening in late November Robert came home a bit shaken. There were some etchings for sale at Brentano’s. Among them was a print pulled from an original plate from America: A Prophecy, water-marked with Blake’s monogram. He had taken it from its portfolio, sliding it down his pant leg. Robert was not one to steal; he hadn’t the nervous system for theft. He did it on impulse because of our mutual love of Blake. But toward the end of the day he lost courage. He imagined they were on to him and ducked into the bathroom, slid it out of his trousers, shredded it, and flushed it down the toilet.
I noticed his hands were shaking as he told me. It had been raining and droplets trickled down from his thick curls. He had on a white shirt, damp and sodden against his skin. Like Jean Genet, Robert was a terrible thief. Genet was caught and imprisoned for stealing rare volumes of Proust and rolls of silk from a shirt maker. Aesthetic thieves. I imagined his sense of horror and triumph as bits of Blake swirled into the sewers of New York City.
We looked down at our hands, each holding on to the other. We took a deep breath, accepting our complicity, not in theft, but in the destruction of a work of art.
“At least they’ll never get it,” he said.
“Who are they?” I asked.
“Anyone who isn’t us,” he answered.
Robert got laid off from Brentano’s. He spent his unemployed days in the continual transformation of our living space. When he painted the kitchen, I was so happy that I prepared us a special meal. I made couscous with anchovies and raisins, and my specialty: lettuce soup. This delicacy consisted of chicken bouillon garnished with lettuce leaves.
But soon after Robert was laid off, I also got fired. I had failed to charge a Chinese customer any tax on a very expensive Buddha.
“Why should I pay the tax?” he said. “I am not an American.”
I had no answer to this, so I didn’t charge him. My judgment cost me my job, but I was not sorry to leave. The best thing about the place had been the Persian necklace and meeting Robert, who, true to his word, had not given the necklace to another girl. On our first night together at Hall Street he gave me the cherished necklace, wrapped in violet tissue and tied with black satin ribbon.
The necklace was passed back and forth through the years. Ownership was based on who needed it the most. Our mutual sense of code manifested in many little games. The most unshakable was called One Day–Two Day. The premise was simply that one of us always had to be vigilant, the designated protector. If Robert took a drug, I needed to be present and conscious. If I was down, he needed to stay up. If one was sick, the other healthy. It was important that we were never self-indulgent on the same day.
In the beginning I faltered, and he was always there with an embrace or words of encouragement, coercing me to get out of myself and into my work. Yet he also knew that I would not fail if he needed me to be the strong one.
Robert got a full-time job as a window trimmer at FAO Schwarz. They were hiring for the holidays and I got a temporary position at the cash register. It was Christmastime but it was less than magical behind the scenes at the famous toy store. The pay was very low, the hours were long, and the atmosphere was dispiriting. The employees were not allowed to talk to one another, nor share coffee breaks. We found a few moments, secretly meeting by the Nativity scene spread on a platform of hay. It was there I rescued a tiny Nativity lamb from a waste bin. Robert promised to do something with it.
He liked the boxes of Joseph Cornell and often transformed insignificant bits of jetsam, colored string, paper lace, discarded rosaries, scrap, and pearls into a visual poem. He would stay awake late into the night, sewing, cutting, gluing, and then adding touches of gouache. When I awoke there would be a finished box for me, like a valentine. Robert made a wooden manger for the little lamb. He painted it white with a bleeding heart and we added sacred numbers entwining like vines. Spiritually beautiful, it served as our Christmas tree. We placed our gifts for one another around it.
We worked quite late Christmas Eve, then got a bus at Port Authority to South Jersey. Robert was extremely nervous about meeting my family, because he was so estranged from his own. My father picked us up at the bus station. Robert gave my brother, Todd, one of his drawings, a bird rising from a flower. We had made handmade cards and brought books for my youngest sibling, Kimberly.
To stay his nerves, Robert decided to take acid. I would never have considered taking any drug in the presence of my parents, but it seemed more natural for Robert. My whole family took a liking to him and noticed nothing unusual except his continuous smile. In the course of the evening, Robert was examining my mother’s expansive knickknack collection, dominated by cows of every description. He was particularly attracted to a marbleized candy dish with a purple cow lid. Perhaps it was the swirl of the glaze in his LSD-induced state, but he couldn’t stop staring at it.
On Christmas evening we said goodbye, and my mother gave Robert a shopping bag filled with her traditional gift to me: art books and biographies. “There’s something in there for you.” She winked at Robert. When we got in the bus on the way back to Port Authority, Robert looked in the bag and found the purple cow candy dish wrapped in a gingham kitchen towel. He was delighted with it, so much so that years later, after he died, it was found displayed among his most valuable Italian vases.
For my twenty-first birthday, Robert made me a tambourine, tattooing the goatskin with astrological signs and tying multicolored ribbons to its base. He put on Tim Buckley singing “Phantasmagoria in Two,” then he knelt down and handed me a small book on the tarot that he had rebound in black silk. Inside it he inscribed a few lines of poetry, portraying us as the gypsy and the fool, one creating silence; one listening closely to the silence. In the clanging swirl of our lives, these roles would reverse many times.
The following night was New Year’s Eve, our first together. We made new vows. Robert decided he would apply for a student loan and return to Pratt, not to study commercial art as his father wished, but to devote his energies to art alone. He wrote me a note to say we would create art together and we would make it, with or without the rest of the world.
For my part, I made a silent promise to help him achieve his goal by providing for his practical needs. I had quit the toy store after the holidays and was out of work for a short while. This set us back a little but I refused to be confined to a cashier’s booth. I was determined to find a better-paying and more satisfying job and felt lucky to be hired at the Argosy Book Store on Fifty-ninth Street. They dealt in old and rare books, prints, and maps. There were no salesgirl openings, but the old man in charge, perhaps beguiled by my enthusiasm, took me on as an apprentice restorer. I sat at my dark heavy table, cluttered with eighteenth-century Bibles, linen strips, archival tape, rabbit glue, beeswax, and binder’s needles, completely overwhelmed. Unfortunately I had no aptitude for such a task, and most reluctantly he had to let me go.
I returned home rather sad. It was going to be a hard winter. Robert was depressed working full-time at FAO Schwarz. Working as a window trimmer sparked his imagination and he made installation sketches. But he did less and less drawing. We lived on day-old bread and Dinty Moore beef stew. We hadn’t the money to go anywhere, had no television, telephone, or radio. We had our record player, though, and drew back the arm so a chosen record would play over and over as we slept.
I needed to get another job. My friend Janet Hamill had been hired at Scribner’s Bookstore, and once again, as she had done in college, she found a way of giving me a helping hand by sharing her good fortune. She spoke to her superiors, and they offered me a position. It seemed like a dream job, working in the retail store of the prestigious publisher, home to writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and their editor, the great Maxwell Perkins. Where the Rothschilds bought their books, where paintings by Maxfield Parrish hung in the stairwell.
Scribner’s was housed in a beautiful landmark building at 597 Fifth Avenue. The glass-fronted Beaux Arts–style exterior had been designed by Ernest Flagg in 1913. There was a two-and-a-half-story space behind a lavish expanse of glass and iron, under a vaulted ceiling lined with clerestory windows. Each day I rose, dutifully dressed, and made the three subway changes to Rockefeller Center. My uniform for Scribner’s was taken from Anna Karina in Bande à part: dark sweater, plaid skirt, black tights, and flats. I was positioned at the phone desk, which was manned by the kindhearted and supportive Faith Cross.
I felt lucky to be associated with such a historic bookstore. My salary was higher, and I had Janet as a confidante. I was rarely bored, and when I got restless, I wrote on the back of Scribner’s stationery, like Tom in The Glass Menagerie, scribbling poems on the inside of cardboard boxes.
Robert was increasingly despondent. The hours were long and the pay was less than his part-time job at Brentano’s had been. When he came home he was exhausted and dispirited and for a time stopped creating.
I implored him to quit. His job and scant paycheck were not worth the sacrifice. After nights of discussion, he reluctantly agreed. In return, he worked diligently, always anxious to show me what he had accomplished while I was at Scribner’s. I had no regrets taking on the job as breadwinner. My temperament was sturdier. I could still create at night and I was proud to provide a situation allowing him to do his work without compromise.
At night, after trudging through the snow, I found him waiting for me in our apartment, ready to rub my hands to make them warm. He seemed always in motion, heating water on the stove, unlacing my boots, hanging up my coat, always with one eye on the drawing he was working on. He would stop for a moment if he noticed something. Most of the time, it seemed as if the piece was fully formed in his mind. He was not one for improvising. It was more a question of executing something he saw in a flash.
Existing in silence all day, he was eager to hear my stories of the bookstore’s eccentric customers, of Edward Gorey with his big tennis shoes or Katharine Hepburn wearing Spencer Tracy’s cap covered with a green silk head scarf or the Rothschilds with their long black coats. Afterward, we would sit on the floor and eat spaghetti while examining his new work. I was attracted to Robert’s work because his visual vocabulary was akin to my poetic one, even if we seemed to be moving toward different destinations. Robert always would tell me, “Nothing is finished until you see it.”
Our first winter together was a harsh one. Even with my better salary from Scribner’s, we had very little money. Often we’d stand in the cold on the corner of St. James Place in eyeshot of the Greek diner and Jake’s art supply store, debating how to spend our few dollars—a toss-up between grilled cheese sandwiches and art supplies. Sometimes, unable to distinguish the greater hunger, Robert would keep nervous watch in the diner while I, filled with the spirit of Genet, pocketed the much-needed brass sharpener or colored pencils. I had a more romantic view of the artist’s life and sacrifices. I had once read that Lee Krasner had lifted art supplies for Jackson Pollock. I don’t know if it was true, but it served as inspiration. Robert fretted over not being able to provide for us. I told him not to worry, that committing to great art is its own reward.
At night we played the records we liked to draw to on our battered player. Sometimes we played a game called Record of the Night. The album cover of the chosen record would be prominently displayed on the mantel. We played the disc over and over, the music informing the trajectory of the evening.
It did not bother me to work in obscurity. I was hardly more than a student. Yet Robert, though shy, nonverbal, and seemingly out of step with those around him, was very ambitious. He held Duchamp and Warhol as models. High art and high society; he aspired to them both. We were a curious mix of Funny Face and Faust.
One cannot imagine the mutual happiness we felt when we sat and drew together. We would get lost for hours. His ability to concentrate for long periods infected me, and I learned by his example, working side by side. When we would take a break, I would boil water and make some Nescafé.
After a particularly good stretch of work, we would stroll along Myrtle Avenue, searching for Mallomars, splurging on Robert’s favorite treat, a marshmallow cookie covered in dark chocolate.
Although we spent most of our time together, we weren’t isolated. Our friends would come to visit. Harvey Parks and Louis Delsarte were painters; sometimes they worked on the floor next to us. Louis did portraits of us both, Robert with an Indian necklace and one of me with closed eyes. Ed Hansen shared his wisdom and collages and Janet Hamill read us her poems. I would show my drawings and tell stories about them, like Wendy entertaining the lost children of Neverland. We were a crew of misfits, even within the liberal terrain of an art school. We often joked that we were a “losers’ salon.”
On special nights, Harvey, Louis, and Robert would share a joint and play hand drums. Robert had his own set of tablas. And they accompanied themselves by reciting from Timothy Leary’s Psychedelic Prayers, one of the few books Robert actually read. Occasionally I would read their cards, deriving meanings from a mix of Papus and my own intuition. These were nights like none I had experienced in South Jersey, whimsical and filled with love.
A new friend entered my life. Robert introduced me to Judy Linn, a fellow graphics student, and we liked each other right away. Judy lived around the corner, on Myrtle Avenue, over the Laundromat where I washed our clothes. She was pretty and intelligent with an offbeat sense of humor, like a young Ida Lupino. She eventually pursued photography, spending years perfecting her darkroom techniques. In time I became her subject and she produced some of the earliest images of Robert and me.
On Valentine’s Day, Robert gave me an amethyst geode. It was pale violet and nearly the size of a half grapefruit. He submerged it in water and we looked at the glowing crystals. When I was a kid I had dreamed of being a geologist. I recounted how I spent hours looking for rock specimens, wearing an old hammer tied around my waist. “No, Patti, no,” he laughed.
My gift to him was an ivory heart with a cross carved in the center. Something in this object provoked a rare childhood tale from him, and he told me how he and the other altar boys would secretly rummage through the priests’ private closet and drink the vestment wine. The wine didn’t interest him; it was the funny feeling in his stomach that excited him, the thrill of doing something forbidden.
In the beginning of March, Robert got a temporary job as an usher for the newly opened Fillmore East. He reported for duty in an orange jumpsuit. He was looking forward to seeing Tim Buckley. But when he came home he was more excited by someone else. “I saw someone who’s going to be really big,” he said. It was Janis Joplin.
We didn’t have the money to go to concerts, but before Robert left the Fillmore he got me a pass to see the Doors. Janet and I had devoured their first album and I felt almost guilty seeing them without her. But I had a strange reaction watching Jim Morrison. Everyone around me seemed transfixed, but I observed his every move in a state of cold hyperawareness. I remember this feeling much more clearly than the concert. I felt, watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that. I can’t say why I thought this. I had nothing in my experience to make me think that would ever be possible, yet I harbored that conceit. I felt both kinship and contempt for him. I could feel his self-consciousness as well as his supreme confidence. He exuded a mixture of beauty and self-loathing, and mystic pain, like a West Coast Saint Sebastian. When anyone asked how the Doors were, I just said they were great. I was somewhat ashamed of how I had responded to their concert.
In Poems a Penny Each, James Joyce wrote a line that dogged me—the signs that mock me as I go. It came in my mind some weeks after the Doors concert, and I mentioned it to Ed Hansen. I always liked Ed. He was small though sturdy, and with his brown overcoat, light brown hair, elfin eyes, and wide mouth, he reminded me of the painter Soutine. He was shot in the lung on DeKalb Avenue by a pack of wild children yet maintained a childlike quality himself.
He said nothing of the Joyce quote but one night brought me a record by the Byrds. “This song is going to be important to you,” he said as he touched the needle to “So You Want to Be a Rock ’N’ Roll Star.” Something in the song excited and unnerved me but I couldn’t divine his intention.
On a wintry night in 1968 someone came to our door and told us Ed was in trouble. Robert and I went out to find him. I grabbed my black lamb toy that Robert had given to me. It was his black sheep boy to black sheep girl present. Ed was something of a black sheep himself, so I took it along as a comforting talisman.
Ed was perched high up on a crane; he wouldn’t come down. It was a cold, clear night, and as Robert talked to him, I climbed up the crane and gave him the lamb. He was shivering. We were the rebels without a cause and he was our sad Sal Mineo. Griffith Park in Brooklyn.
Ed followed me down, and Robert took him home.
“Don’t worry about the lamb,” he said when he returned. “I’ll find you another.”
We lost contact with Ed but a decade later he was with me in an unexpected way. As I approached the microphone with my electric guitar to sing the opening line “So you want to be a rock ’n’ roll star,” I remembered his words. Small prophecies.
There were days, rainy gray days, when the streets of Brooklyn were worthy of a photograph, every window the lens of a Leica, the view grainy and immobile. We gathered our colored pencils and sheets of paper and drew like wild, feral children into the night, until, exhausted, we fell into bed. We lay in each other’s arms, still awkward but happy, exchanging breathless kisses into sleep.
The boy I had met was shy and inarticulate. He liked to be led, to be taken by the hand and enter wholeheartedly another world. He was masculine and protective, even as he was feminine and submissive. Meticulous in his dress and demeanor, he was also capable of a frightening disorder within his work. His own worlds were solitary and dangerous, anticipating freedom, ecstasy, and release.
Sometimes I would awaken and find him working in the dim light of votive candles. Adding touches to a drawing, turning the work this way and that, he would examine it from every angle. Pensive, preoccupied, he’d look up and see me watching him and he’d smile. That smile broke through anything else he was feeling or experiencing—even later, when he was dying, in mortal pain.
In the war of magic and religion, is magic ultimately the victor? Perhaps priest and magician were once one, but the priest, learning humility in the face of God, discarded the spell for prayer.
Robert trusted in the law of empathy, by which he could, by his will, transfer himself into an object or a work of art, and thus influence the outer world. He did not feel redeemed by the work he did. He did not seek redemption. He sought to see what others did not, the projection of his imagination.
He thought his own process drudgery because he saw the finished outcome so quickly. He was drawn to sculpture but felt the medium to be obsolete. Still, he spent hours studying the Slaves of Michelangelo, wishing to access the feeling of working with the human form without the labor of the hammer and chisel.
He sketched out an idea for an animation depicting us in a Tantric Garden of Eden. He needed nude pictures of us to make cutouts for the geometric garden that bloomed in his mind. He asked a classmate, Lloyd Ziff, to take the nude photographs, but I wasn’t happy about it. I didn’t particularly relish posing as I was still somewhat self-conscious about the scars on my stomach.
The images were rigid and not as Robert had envisioned. I had an old 35mm camera and I suggested he take the photographs, but he didn’t have the patience for developing and printing. He used so many photographic images from other sources I thought he could get the results he sought shooting them himself. “I wish I could just project everything on the paper,” he said. “By the time I’m halfway through I’m already on to something else.” The Garden was abandoned.
Robert’s early work was clearly drawn from his experiences with LSD. His drawings and small constructions had the dated charm of the Surrealists and the geometric purity of Tantric art. Slowly his work took a turn toward the Catholic: the lamb, the Virgin, and the Christ.
He took down the Indian cloths from the walls and dyed our old sheets black and violet. He stapled them to the wall and hung crucifixes and religious prints upon them. We had no difficulty finding framed portraits of saints in junk heaps or in Salvation Army stores. Robert would remove the lithographs and hand-color or work them into a large drawing, collage, or construction.
But Robert, wishing to shed his Catholic yoke, delved into another side of the spirit, reigned over by the Angel of Light. The image of Lucifer, the fallen angel, came to eclipse the saints he used in his collages and varnished onto boxes. On one small wooden box, he applied the face of Christ; inside, a Mother and Child with a tiny white rose; and in the inner lid, I was surprised to find the face of the Devil, with his extended tongue.
I would return home to find Robert in brown monk’s cloth, a Jesuit robe he had found in a thrift store, poring over pamphlets on alchemy and magic. He asked me to bring him books slanted toward the occult. At first he didn’t read these books so much as utilize their pentagrams and satanic images, deconstructing and refiguring them. He was not evil, though as darker elements infused his work, he became more silent.
He grew interested in creating visual spells, which might serve to call up Satan, like one would a genie. He imagined if he could make a pact that accessed Satan’s purest self, the self of the light, he would recognize a kindred soul, and that Satan would grant him fame and fortune. He did not have to ask for greatness, for the ability to be an artist, because he believed he already had that.
“You’re looking for shortcuts,” I said.
“Why should I take the long road?” he answered.
Sometimes, during lunch break at Scribner’s, I would go to St. Patrick’s to visit the young Saint Stanislaus. I would pray for the dead, whom I seemed to love as much as the living: Rimbaud, Seurat, Camille Claudel, and the mistress of Jules Laforgue. And I would pray for us.
Robert’s prayers were like wishes. He was ambitious for secret knowledge. We were both praying for Robert’s soul, he to sell it and I to save it.
Later he would say that the Church led him to God, and LSD led him to the universe. He also said that art led him to the devil, and sex kept him with the devil.
Some of the signs and portents were too painful to acknowledge. One night at Hall Street I stood at the entrance of our bedroom while Robert slept and had a vision of him stretched on a rack, his white shirt crumbling as he turned to dust before my eyes. He woke up and felt my horror. “What did you see?” he cried.
“Nothing,” I answered, turning away, choosing not to accept what I had seen. Though I would someday hold his ashes in my hand.
Robert and I hardly fought, but we would bicker like children—usually over managing our small income. My salary was sixty-five dollars a week and Robert would find the occasional odd job. With rent at eighty dollars a month, plus utilities, every penny had to be accounted for. Subway tokens were twenty cents apiece and I needed ten a week. Robert smoked cigarettes and they were thirty-five cents a pack. My weakness for using the phone booth in the diner was the most problematic. He couldn’t comprehend my deep attachment to my siblings. A handful of coins on the telephone could mean one less meal. My mother sometimes slipped a dollar bill in her cards or letters. This seemingly small gesture represented many coins from her waitress tip jar and it was always appreciated.
We liked to go to the Bowery, examining tattered silk dresses, frayed cashmere overcoats, and used motorcycle jackets. On Orchard Street we would hunt out inexpensive but interesting materials for a new work: sheets of Mylar, wolf skins, obscure hardware. We spent hours at Pearl Paint on Canal Street and then took a subway to Coney Island to walk along the boardwalk and share a Nathan’s hot dog.
My table manners appalled Robert. I could see it in the cast of his eyes, the turn of his head. When I ate with my hands, he thought it drew too much attention, even while he’d be sitting in the booth bare-chested, wearing several beaded necklaces and an embroidered sheepskin vest. Our nitpicking usually evolved into laughter, especially when I’d point out such discrepancies. We continued these diner arguments throughout our long friendship. My manners never got any better but his attire went through some extremely flamboyant changes.
In those days, Brooklyn was very much an outer borough, and seemed far removed from the action in “The City.” Robert loved to go to Manhattan. He felt alive when he crossed the East River, and it was there he later went through rapid transformations, personally and artistically.
I lived in my own world, dreaming about the dead and their vanished centuries. As a young girl I had spent hours copying the elegant script forming the words of the Declaration of Independence. Handwriting had always fascinated me. Now I was able to integrate this obscure skill into my own drawings. I became fascinated with Islamic calligraphy, and sometimes I would take the Persian necklace out of its tissue wrapping and set it before me when I was drawing.
I was promoted at Scribner’s from the phone desk to sales. That year, the big sellers were Adam Smith’s The Money Game and Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, summing up the polarization of everything that was rampant in our country. I identified with neither. I felt disconnected from all that was outside the world that Robert and I had created between us.
In my low periods, I wondered what was the point of creating art. For whom? Are we animating God? Are we talking to ourselves? And what was the ultimate goal? To have one’s work caged in art’s great zoos—the Modern, the Met, the Louvre?
I craved honesty, yet found dishonesty in myself. Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.
Often I’d sit and try to write or draw, but all of the manic activity in the streets, coupled with the Vietnam War, made my efforts seem meaningless. I could not identify with political movements. In trying to join them I felt overwhelmed by yet another form of bureaucracy. I wondered if anything I did mattered.
Robert had little patience with these introspective bouts of mine. He never seemed to question his artistic drives, and by his example, I understood that what matters is the work: the string of words propelled by God becoming a poem, the weave of color and graphite scrawled upon the sheet that magnifies His motion. To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution. From this state of mind comes a light, life-charged.
Picasso didn’t crawl in a shell when his beloved Basque country was bombed. He reacted by creating a masterpiece in Guernica to remind us of the injustices committed against his people. When I had extra money I’d go to the Museum of Modern Art and sit before Guernica, spending long hours considering the fallen horse and the eye of the bulb shining over the sad spoils of war. Then I’d get back to work.
That spring, only days before Palm Sunday, Martin Luther King was gunned down at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis. There was a picture in the paper of Coretta Scott King comforting her young daughter, her face wet with tears behind her widow’s veil. I felt sick at heart, just as I did as a teenage girl watching Jacqueline Kennedy in her flowing black veil, standing with her children as her husband’s body passed in a horse-drawn caisson. I tried to speak of my feelings in a drawing or poem but I couldn’t. It seemed whenever I wanted to express injustice I never had the right lines.
Robert had bought me a white dress for Easter, but he gave it to me on Palm Sunday to assuage my sadness. It was a tattered Victorian tea dress of handkerchief linen. I adored it and wore it in our apartment, a fragile armor against the ominous portents of 1968.
My Easter dress was not suited to wear to the Mapplethorpe family dinner, nor was anything else we had amongst our few pieces of clothing.
I was fairly independent of my parents. I loved them but was not concerned about how they may have felt about my and Robert’s life together. But Robert was not so free. He was still their Catholic son, unable to tell them we were living together out of wedlock. He had been warmly welcomed in my parents’ house but worried I would not be welcome in his.
At first Robert thought it would be best if he slowly introduced me in phone calls to his parents. Then he decided to tell them we had eloped to Aruba and had gotten married. A friend of his was traveling in the Caribbean and Robert wrote his mother a letter, his friend postmarking it from Aruba.
I felt this elaborate deception unnecessary. I thought he should just tell them the truth, really believing they would eventually accept us as we were. “No,” he would say desperately. “They’re strict Catholics.”
It wasn’t until we visited his parents that I understood his concern. His father greeted us with icy silence. I couldn’t comprehend a man not embracing his son.
The entire family was grouped around the dining room table—his older sister and brother and their spouses and his four younger siblings. The table was set, everything in place for a perfect meal. His father barely looked at me, and said nothing to Robert except, “You should cut your hair. You look like a girl.”
Robert’s mother, Joan, did her best to offer some sense of warmth. After dinner, she slipped Robert some money from her apron pocket and took me into her room, where she opened her jewelry box. Looking at my hand, she took out a gold ring. “We didn’t have enough money for a ring,” I said.
“You should wear one on your left ring finger,” she told me, pressing it into my hand.
Robert was very tender toward Joan when Harry wasn’t around. Joan had spirit. She laughed easily, chain-smoked, and obsessively cleaned house. I realized Robert got his sense of order not entirely from the Catholic Church. Joan favored Robert and seemed to have a secret pride in Robert’s chosen path. Robert’s father had wanted him to be a commercial artist, but he refused. He was driven to prove his father wrong.
The family hugged and congratulated us as we left. Harry stood in the background. “I don’t believe they’re married at all,” he was heard to say.
Robert was cutting out sideshow freaks from an oversized paperback on Tod Browning. Hermaphrodites, pinheads, and Siamese twins were scattered everywhere. It threw me, for I couldn’t see a connection between these images and Robert’s recent preoccupation with magic and religion.
As always, I found ways to keep in step with him through my own drawings and poems. I drew circus characters and told stories about them, of Hagen Waker the nocturnal tightrope walker, Balthazar the Donkey-Faced Boy, and Aratha Kelly with his moon-shaped head. Robert had no more explanation of why he was drawn to freaks than I had in creating them.
It was in that spirit that we would go to Coney Island to visit the sideshows. We had looked for Hubert’s on Forty-second Street, which had featured Snake Princess Wago and a flea circus, but it had closed in 1965. We did find a small museum that had body parts and human embryos in specimen jars, and Robert got fixated on the idea to use something of that sort in an assemblage. He asked around where he might find something of that sort, and a friend told him about the ruins of the old City Hospital on Welfare (later Roosevelt) Island.
On a Sunday we traveled there with our friends from Pratt. There were two points on the island that we visited. The first was a sprawling nineteenth-century building that had the aura of a madhouse; it was the Smallpox Hospital, the first place in America to receive victims of contagion. Separated only by barbed wire and broken glass, we imagined dying of leprosy and the plague.
The other ruins were what were left of the old City Hospital, with its forbidding institutional architecture, finally to be demolished in 1994. When we entered it, we were struck by the silence and an odd medicinal smell. We went from room to room and saw shelves of medical specimens in their glass jars. Many were broken, vandalized by visiting rodents. Robert combed each room until he found what he was looking for, an embryo swimming in formaldehyde within a womb of glass.
We all had to agree that Robert would most likely make great use of it. He clutched the precious find on the journey home. Even in his silence, I could feel his excitement and anticipation, imagining how he could make it work as art. We left our friends on Myrtle Avenue. Just as we turned the corner to Hall Street, the glass jar slipped inexplicably from his hands and shattered on the sidewalk, just steps from our door.
I saw his face. He was so deflated that neither of us could say anything. The purloined jar had sat on a shelf for decades, undisturbed. It was almost as if he had taken its life. “Go upstairs,” he said. “I’ll clean it up.” We never mentioned it again. There was something about that jar. The shards of heavy glass seemed to foreshadow the deepening of our days; we didn’t speak of it but each of us seemed inflicted with a vague internal restlessness.
In early June, Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol. Although Robert tended not to be romantic about artists, he was very upset about it. He loved Andy Warhol and considered him our most important living artist. It was as close to hero worship as he ever got. He respected artists like Cocteau and Pasolini, who merged life and art, but for Robert, the most interesting of them was Andy Warhol, documenting the human mise-en-scène in his silver-lined Factory.
I didn’t feel for Warhol the way Robert did. His work reflected a culture I wanted to avoid. I hated the soup and felt little for the can. I preferred an artist who transformed his time, not mirrored it.
Soon after, one of my customers and I fell into a discussion about our political responsibilities. It was an election year and he represented Robert Kennedy. The California primary was pending and we agreed to meet again afterward. I was excited about the prospect of working for someone with the ideals I cherished and who promised to end the war in Vietnam. I saw Kennedy’s candidacy as a way in which idealism could be converted into meaningful political action, that something might be achieved to truly help those in need.
Still shaken by the Warhol shooting, Robert stayed home to do a tribute drawing for Andy. I went home to see my father. He was a wise and fair man and I wanted his opinion about Robert Kennedy. We sat together on the couch watching the primary returns. I was filled with pride as RFK delivered his victory speech. We watched him leave the podium, and my father winked at me, taking pleasure in the promise of our young candidate and my own enthusiasm. For a few innocent moments, I truly believed that everything would be all right. We watched him file through the jubilant crowd, shaking hands and emanating hope with that classic Kennedy smile. Then he fell. We saw his wife kneeling by his side.
Senator Kennedy was dead.
“Daddy, Daddy,” I sobbed, burying my face in his shoulder.
My father put his arm around me. He didn’t say a thing. I guess he had already seen it all. But it seemed to me that the world outside was unraveling, and, increasingly, my own world as well.
I came home and there were cutouts of statues, the torsos and buttocks of the Greeks, the Slaves of Michelangelo, images of sailors, tattoos, and stars. To keep up with him, I read Robert passages from Miracle of the Rose, but he was always a step ahead. While I was reading Genet, it was as if he was becoming Genet.
He discarded his sheepskin vest and beads and found a sailor’s uniform. He had no love of the sea. In his sailor dress and cap, he resonated a Cocteau drawing or the world of Genet’s Robert Querelle. He had no interest in war, but the relics and rituals of war attracted him. He admired the stoic beauty of the Japanese kamikaze pilots who laid out their clothing—meticulously folded shirt, a white silk scarf—to be donned before battle.
I liked to participate in his fascinations. I found him a peacoat and a pilot’s silk scarf, though for me, my perception of World War II was filtered through the Bomb and The Diary of Anne Frank. I acknowledged his world as he willingly entered mine. At times, however, I felt mystified and even upset by a sudden transformation. When he covered the walls and medallion ceiling of our bedroom with Mylar, I felt shut out because it seemed more for him than me. He had hopes it would be stimulating but in my eyes it had the distorted effect of a funhouse mirror. I mourned the dismantling of the romantic chapel in which we slept.
He was disappointed I didn’t like it. “What were you thinking?” I asked him.
“I don’t think,” he insisted. “I feel.”
Robert was good to me, yet I could tell he was somewhere else. I was accustomed to him being quiet, but not silently brooding. Something was bothering him, something that was not about money. He never ceased to be affectionate to me, but he just seemed troubled.
He slept through the day and worked through the night. I would awake to find him staring at the bodies chiseled by Michelangelo tacked in a row on the wall. I would have preferred an argument to silence but it wasn’t his way. I could no longer decipher his moods.
I noticed that at night there was no music. He withdrew from me and paced about, unfocused, not fully realizing his work. Half-finished montages of freaks, saints, and sailors littered the floor. It was unlike him to leave his work in that state. It was something that he had always admonished me for. I felt powerless to penetrate the stoic darkness surrounding him.
His agitation mounted as he became increasingly unsatisfied with his work. “The old imagery doesn’t work for me,” he would say. One Sunday afternoon he took a soldering iron to the groin of a Madonna. After he was done, he just shrugged it off. “It was a moment of insanity,” he said.
There came a time when Robert’s aesthetic became so consuming that I felt it was no longer our world, but his. I believed in him, but he had transformed our home into a theater of his own design. The velvet backdrop of our fable had been replaced with metallic shades and black satin. The white mulberry tree was draped in heavy net. I paced while he slept, ricocheting like a dove skidding the lonely confines of a Joseph Cornell box.
Our wordless nights made me restless. Something in the change of the weather marked a change in myself as well. I felt a longing, a curiosity, and a vibrancy that seemed to stifle as I walked in the evenings after work from the subway to Hall Street. I began to stop at Janet’s on Clinton more often, but if I stayed too long, Robert would get uncharacteristically annoyed, and increasingly possessive. “I waited all day for you,” he would say.
Slowly I began to spend more time with old friends in the Pratt area, especially the painter Howard Michaels. He was the boy I was looking for on the day I met Robert. He had moved to Clinton with the artist Kenny Tisa, but at that time he was on his own. His huge paintings resonated the physical power of the Hans Hofmann School and his drawings, though unique, were reminiscent of those of Pollock and de Kooning.
In my hunger for communication I turned to him. I began to visit him frequently on the way home from work. Howie, as he was known, was articulate, passionate, well read, and politically active. It was a relief to converse with someone about everything from Nietzsche to Godard. I admired his work and looked forward to the kinship we shared in these visits. But as time passed I was less than candid with Robert about the nature of our growing intimacy.
In retrospect, the summer of 1968 marked a time of physical awakening for both Robert and me. I had not yet comprehended that Robert’s conflicted behavior related to his sexuality. I knew he deeply cared for me, but it occurred to me that he had tired of me physically. In some ways I felt betrayed, but in reality it was I who betrayed him.
I fled our little home on Hall Street. Robert was devastated, yet still could not offer any explanation for the silence that engulfed us.
I could not easily cast off the world Robert and I shared. I wasn’t certain where to go next, so when Janet offered to share a sixth-floor walk-up on the Lower East Side, I accepted. This arrangement, though painful for Robert, was much preferred to my living alone or moving in with Howie.
As distraught as Robert was over my leave-taking, he helped me move my things into the new apartment. For the first time, I had my own room, to arrange as I pleased, and I began a new series of drawings. Leaving my circus animals behind, I became my own subject, producing self-portraits that emphasized a more feminine, earthy side of myself. I took to wearing dresses and waving my hair. I waited for my painter to come, but most often he didn’t.
Robert and I, unable to break our bonds, continued to see one another. Even as my relationship with Howie waxed and waned, he implored me to return. He wanted us to get back together as if nothing had happened. He was ready to forgive me, yet I wasn’t repentant. I wasn’t willing to go backward, especially since Robert still seemed to be harboring an inner turmoil that he refused to voice.
In early September, Robert appeared out of the blue at Scribner’s. Dressed in a long oxblood leather trench coat, belted at the waist, he looked both handsome and lost. He had returned to Pratt and applied for a student loan, buying the coat and a ticket to San Francisco with some of the money.
He said he wanted to talk to me. We went outside and stood on the corner of Forty-eighth and Fifth Avenue. “Please come back,” he said, “or I’m leaving for San Francisco.”
I couldn’t imagine why he would go there. His explanation was disjointed, vague. Liberty Street, there was someone who knew the ropes, a place on Castro.
He grabbed my hand. “Come with me. There’s freedom there. I have to find out who I am.”
The only thing I knew about San Francisco was the great earthquake and Haight-Ashbury. “I’m already free,” I said.
He stared at me with a desperate intensity. “If you don’t come, I’ll be with a guy. I’ll turn homosexual,” he threatened.
I just looked at him, not understanding at all. There was nothing in our relationship that had prepared me for such a revelation. All of the signs that he had obliquely imparted I had interpreted as the evolution of his art. Not of his self.
I was less than compassionate, a fact I came to regret. His eyes looked as if he had been working all night on speed. Wordlessly he handed me an envelope.
I watched him walk away and disappear into the crowd.
The first thing that struck me was that he had written his letter on Scribner’s stationery. His handwriting, usually so deliberate, was fraught with contradiction; it went from neat and precise to a childlike scrawl. But even before I read the words, the thing that deeply moved me was the simple heading: “Patti—What I think—Robert.” I had asked, even begged him so many times before I left to tell me what he was thinking about, what was on his mind. He had no words for me.
I realized, looking at these sheets of paper, that he had gone deep within himself on my account and had attempted to express the inexpressible. Imagining the anguish that drew him to write this letter brought me to tears.
“I open doors, I close doors,” he wrote. He loved no one, he loved everyone. He loved sex, he hated sex. Life is a lie, truth is a lie. His thoughts ended with a healing wound. “I stand naked when I draw. God holds my hand and we sing together.” His manifesto as an artist.
I let the confessional aspects fall away, and I accepted those words as a communion wafer. He had cast the line that would seduce me, ultimately bind us together. I folded the letter and put it back in the envelope, not knowing what would happen next.