“You’re still here.”
The security guard must have watched me cross back and forth many times between the Fragonard Room and the Living Hall, my two favorite areas of The Frick Collection that could not be more different. With its Louis XVI style of wall panels in soft pinks, greens and blues and everything framed in gold, the Fragonard Room is soft, pure dreamy, feminine opulence. One foot into the adjacent Living Hall makes me trade my cup of tea for a cigar. It’s Italian Renaissance, dark and furnished in olive green velvet over a red Persian rug with oak-paneled walls holding portraits of men who lived in solitude or in power, as writers, as saints, as servants to the King with beheadings in their future.
I don’t know why, but I could spend forever in those two rooms. For almost five hours, I’d kept my notebook open and pencil moving as I moved through the Frick. It was 5:00pm, near closing time, when the guard had surprised me with his big friendly smile and his kind Island accent. No appearance of a long day’s work, no annoyance or visible worry.
“I am,” I smiled back.
I’d been thinking over that past week how oddly nice – or maybe responsive is more accurate – New Yorkers had been. After living there for years in the early 2000s, I didn’t need or expect small talk from anyone, not from cabbies, waitresses, cashiers, retail workers, or the man who made my “plain bagel toasted with extra butter, please” every morning. When we made eye contact and he pointed at me, that was his signal for “what can I get you?”
The security guard hummed to himself standing by the Living Hall windows off the Fifth Avenue Garden. We were alone, so I knew I wouldn’t distract him.
“This museum is like my home,” I said to him while I kept my eyes on Sir Thomas More. “It was my favorite place when I lived here years ago. I live in Houston now.”
“It’s my home, too.”
We looked at each other like we’d found our lost sibling in the house of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Clay Frick.
Something moves me every time I am in the Frick. I’ll find myself in a space with no one around, alone to hear messages and epiphanies, feel emotions I can’t explain. Every visit to the Fragonard, tears fall as I stand and admire Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Progress of Love. The four panels swallow me, each over ten feet tall and seven feet wide, the progression of love from playful proposal to tranquil union. I look back at notes from my visits and read my continual question what happens to me in this room??? My last note still has me seeking who am I in this room – a progress of love for myself?
I broke our silent stare. “How long have you worked here?”
“Nineteen years,” he said.
“Wow, it is your home. What’s your favorite?”
He looked around the room, then up at the ceiling.
“There’s a lot of great pieces upstairs that’ll soon be open” he said.
“Yes, I read about that. I can’t wait to come back for the reopening.”
There was a hint of sadness as he talked about the Frick’s upcoming closure for renovations and the temporary moving of some of the collection. His home would be closed for a while, and I tempered my curiosity to ask about the future of his job.
“The West Gallery,” he said. “Goya, Rembrandt, everything in there I like.”
“I love this one,” I said.
“I see that.”
I had been standing for maybe twenty minutes in front of Hans Holbein’s masterpiece Sir Thomas More, and maybe for the third time that day. Over and over I’d listened to the audio device recording. The word choice, the inflections, and the polished English accent of the man’s voice all bordered on sexy. I was almost as mesmerized by recording number 125 as I was by the painting –
“The image before you is so familiar that it’s hard to believe this is the real thing. But it is, and it’s amazing. . . . As an evocation of one man’s mind and character, this portrait has few equals. As a demonstration of Holbein’s bravura illusionism, look at the stubble of the beard or the irresistible feel of the velvet sleeves. It makes your knees go weak. The gold S-S chain, by the way, was an emblem of service to the King. The letters stand for the motto ‘Souvent me souvien,’ or ‘Think of me often’.”
“What about El Greco?” The guard pointed to St. Jerome centered above the fireplace, caught in the middle of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell facing each other in a cleverly hung stare down.
“Or Titian? The Bellini is beautiful. Look at the detail, the light.”
I moved closer to St. Francis in the Desert. I had never been drawn to this painting before.
“It’s my favorite,” he said. “See St. Francis’ eyes? And the bird, you can barely make it out in the dark water. You see something new every time.”
He moved away from me as someone entered the room. I wish I had said goodbye. I wish I had asked his name.
That visit was March 10.
I shouldn’t have been there.
In hindsight I can look at a transcript from a February 28 interview that New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo gave on Long Island News Radio. “… in a relatively short period of time, we’re going to have people who test positive. And don’t be surprised, and don’t be shocked and don’t get nervous – that’s what’s going to happen.”
Back in Houston and before I traveled to New York City four days later, I wasn’t listening to Long Island News Radio. Planes were still flying. Shows were still scheduled. Everything open. I kept hearing “low risk.” And so life moved forward. I couldn’t wait to see five dance performances in ten days, to see friends I hadn’t seen in years. They had all been my family in my home away from home.
“Are you sure you should go on this trip?” my dad said. He asked the same thing when I went to Mexico in 2007. He handed me a box of masks at the time of a bird flu outbreak, and I thought he was being silly. I wish I still had them. His Cherokee blood must give him the instinct to look over his shoulder. It’s certain that we never learn to listen to our parents.
Tuesday, March 3, the cabbie drove me from Newark Airport to the Warwick hotel in Midtown Manhattan, where I stayed for the first five days of my trip – restaurants with friends, walks in Central Park, visits to grocery stores, coffee shops, bagel shops, dance performances at NY City Center, The Joyce, 92nd St Y, and of course riding the subway. The next five days I moved south to Third Avenue and 25th Street to a friend’s apartment who graciously let me stay for the week while she was in Colorado. More subway rides, more restaurants with friends, more visits to grocery stores, coffee shops, Hudson Yards, Union Square Park, the Frick on March 10, The Joyce again on March 11, where the Scottish Ballet performed to a full audience.
After The Joyce performance, I skipped the subway and walked back east to my friend’s apartment. A nice long walk from Eighth Avenue by myself on a brisk night, feeling full, feeling at home, like I’d never left ten years ago. Every time I return, the City just opens its arms again and I fall right back in love.
I tune out the news and television on vacations, but I plugged in after a friend texted the NBA had suspended play. The next day, March 12, was like the ground shaking before the water along the coast recedes before the wave forms. Museums closed, theaters closed, Broadway closed. The air felt thick with unease as I walked to the bank, to Morton Williams for probably one of the last remaining paper towel rolls in the City, to the old-school hardware store to make duplicate keys to my friend’s apartment if domestic travel was halted on my way to the airport. I wasn’t getting stuck in Newark.
I flew back to Houston March 13. That day in New York City there were 137 cases. A week later there were 5,600 cases. By March 27, two weeks after I left, almost 27,000.
I’ll simply never know if I brought the virus back home to Houston with me. No one I’ve been around has become sick, yet I still tense up when I think what could have happened. How dangerous it was to be there, how much I didn’t know, how full the flight was leaving from Newark. I simply was lucky.
As of this writing, there are over 140,000 cases in New York City. My heart is so heavy for my friends there, their friends and families and co-workers who have gotten sick or died, for New Yorkers who can’t pay their rent or have lost their jobs or have run out of patience or food or money or hope or have died alone and didn’t get to say goodbye, for so many working in hospitals to keep the City alive and who will suffer trauma as the 9/11 first responders did.
Souvent me souvien. Think of me often.
I think of that security guard often. Where is he now? Does he still have his job or was he laid off? Does he have a family? Are they okay? Is he okay? Is he still alive?
I think of New York City often. I read through the New York Times daily. Cities can do that, wind themselves into your heart and never leave. I think of you often, my home away from home, my moveable feast.
For more from our Houston at Home series