The Touch Artist

by Jill Sand D'Angelo

02/02/2006

Madison Ave. & 79th St., NY 10021

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

It took me a while to realize that Kenny was missing. I had been out of town for the holidays, visiting family in California. After almost a week without seeing him since my return, I began to grow concerned.

I live on the Upper East Side in an area that used to be, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a thriving art community, but is now home to sedate families and their privileged children. Kenny fit in about as well as I did, which is to say not at all. Kenny was an African-American, over fifty years old, with a slight build and a neat, unremarkable wardrobe. Kenny was our neighborhood beggar.

When I first moved to the area with my boyfriend, apartments were cheap, at least by today’s standards. We previewed endless prospects all over New York City but much to the surprise of our bohemian friends, we settled on the Upper East Side.

“Imagine being able to visit the Metropolitan Museum whenever we want,” said my boyfriend, a sculptor. I had some hesitation about the reputedly staid locals but was eventually won over by the idea of taking leisurely strolls in Central Park after a long day at the typewriter. Besides, I keep to myself much of the time. The reputation of the area as “boring,” “conservative,” “dead” (this was how our Brooklyn pals put it) was not going to deter me.

I first met Kenny on Madison Avenue. He was standing with a paper cup in hand, soliciting donations. Of average height, Kenny’s standout feature was his easy, gap-toothed smile. I’d seen him regularly during our first few weeks as I rushed past, carrying cleaning supplies or groceries or hardware or whatever we needed to finish moving in. Rather than giving him money, I handed him an apple from my shopping bag and dashed off. “Thank you,” he called out, “God bless you, Miss.”

After my boyfriend and I had settled in, one day I stopped to chat with Kenny. I told him that I’d recently moved to the neighborhood and that – I put it nicely – he shouldn’t ask me for money because I’d be saving it up for his birthday. Wouldn’t it be better to get a windfall once a year rather than being nickled-and-dimed on a regular basis? He looked wary of my proposition. I asked when his birthday was.

“November twelfth.”

“Good. I won’t forget.”

“Sure you will.”

“No I won’t; mine is just a few days earlier.”

Kenny was our only neighborhood beggar, with seemingly exclusive rights to the territory spanning approximately from 72th Street to 86th Street along Madison Avenue. It was hard to believe that even one beggar managed to survive in this well-patrolled precinct, where, according to government surveys, 99% of the sidewalks and 100% of the playgrounds were acceptably clean, where there were few or no murders, and where less than 3% of the city’s major felonies occurred. The nearby deli owner, with whom I’d made friends despite his weak espressos, said Kenny knew how to evade the local beat cops. On many occasions I’d seen the deli owner chatting with Kenny on the street only to invite him inside to sit at the counter and enjoy something cool on a warm day, or the other way around.

It took Kenny a while to remember not to ask me for money. But eventually he broke the habit. When time allowed, we’d chat. We talked about the neighborhood, the weather, current events. Whenever I had groceries in hand, I’d share something with him – some fruit, a cookie, a package of nuts, whatever. He always thanked me the same way: “God bless you, Miss.” That’s what he called me – “Miss” – as we never exchanged names. At first, the idea of exchanging names felt inappropriate since I was little more than a passing stranger, then before long our friendship had progressed beyond introductions and it felt like backtracking. I had even begun talking to him about my writing.

I began to search for a word other than “beggar” since the longer I knew Kenny, the less the term fit. To me, a beggar signified someone scruffy and undisciplined, yet there were many times when Kenny was already at work when I got my morning coffee and still plying his trade when I went out for my evening walk. In fact, it began to occur to me that he kept more diligent hours than I did. Asker: too politically correct. Hobo: hobos rode traincars and had patches on their pants. Vagabond: same thing as hobos but without the traincars. Lazzaroni: this word was derived from the beggars of Naples, who used the Hospital of St. Lazarus as their refuge, and while it wasn’t an unlikable term, I couldn’t picture Kenny in Italy. Pauper: too old-fashioned. Street person: too bureaucratic. Panhandler: sounded like a synonym for “dishwasher.” Sponge: same thing. Mendicant: not only were mendicants usually connected with religious sects, there was something too medicinal-sounding about the name. Indigent: with its associative whiff of “indignation,” it wouldn’t do at all. Then, finally, I came across Touch Artist. Something about this term felt right; derived from the expression “putting the touch” on someone, I liked it, and from then on, this was how I came to think of Kenny’s job.

I began to wonder about the circumstances that had landed Kenny on the streets. Or was he really on the streets? Did the fact that he was consistently clean-shaven hint at some kind of home base? Where did he sleep at night? Did he have parents? Siblings? Or a family of his own? In my mind I rehearsed different phrasings of these questions, hoping to find a means of inquiry that didn’t appear either prying or condescending. Yet every time I bumped into him, something held me back. What if he were truly homeless? Would that somehow oblige me to provide for him beyond my shared groceries and chitchat? How would my boyfriend feel if I brought Kenny home for a home-cooked meal and a shower? And because Kenny was a man and I a woman, would he likely read something else into the invitation?

It was at 1014 Madison Avenue that I first learned of Kenny’s artistic interests. In the middle of a conversation about the changing leaves of Central Park, Kenny pointed to the sidewalk and asked if I knew anything about it. The abstract lines caught the light of the afternoon sun, and perhaps for the first time I noticed the sidewalk’s beauty. The black-and-light design (there is no such thing as white on the streets of New York) – like a runway of giant commas, dashes, and hyphens – provided a complex background for autumn’s sharp shadows.

When I confessed my ignorance, Kenny explained that the sidewalk had been commissioned by some local galleries in 1970. The work was by Alexander Calder, who had generously donated it to the neighborhood – “and look here, you can see his initials.” Sure enough, near the curb was “CA” with the number “70” below. I’d walked by it on a daily basis yet had never noticed. Kenny told me that the terrazzo itself wasn’t meant to be permanent – it had been replaced three times that he knew of – but it was the zinc framework that corralled the terrazzo that was important, what he called “the essence of the thing.” I found this remarkable: not only had I been treading atop a great piece of public art without realizing it, but Kenny was surprisingly erudite. “Didn’t you know I was an artist?” he asked, his “s’s” softened by his incomplete set of teeth. “I have drawings in lots of these places,” he said, sweeping his hand up and down Madison Avenue in a gesture that resembled a land-owner’s prideful claim. And although this appeared to be an ideal moment to ask Kenny about his background, I found myself handing him the protein bar that I’d put in my purse specifically with him in mind.

“Here,” I said laughing uncomfortably as I turned to go, “it’s for you.”

Kenny smiled. “God bless you, Miss.”

On the morning of November 12th, I entered the William Greenberg bakery on Madison Avenue and bought a bag of cookies. I’d purposely not mentioned anything to Kenny about his upcoming birthday in order to surprise him. Inside the bag I hid two twenty-dollar bills. When I left the store, I was certain that I was about to commit the most magnanimous gesture on the planet earth…yet as I walked south on Madison Avenue, I found my mood wilting: Kenny was nowhere to be seen. What if I didn’t bump into him today? This sometimes happened; recently there had several two- or three-day stretches when he wasn’t around. What would he think if I failed to keep my word? That I was a heartless U.E.S. woman, no different from the types that my Brooklyn friends initially warned me about?

But there he was, on the east side of the street, soliciting donations, paper cup in hand.

I approached him and gave him the bag. “Here you go,” I said with rehearsed nonchalance intended to heighten the surprise.

Kenny put the bag into his satchel without glancing inside. He thanked me a bit less heartfully than usual – “God bless you, Miss” – then turned to the next passerby.

I didn’t want to make an ass of myself by pointing out my magnanimity, so I walked on, figuring he’d eventually discover the gift.

Two days later, Kenny rushed up to me like a puppy. The first serious rainstorm of autumn had recently passed, and awnings were still dripping with remnants. More than anything, he said, it was just so nice that someone remembered his birthday, and he turned away to hide the emotion that was beginning to overtake his expression. I saw him wipe his dark eyes with their enviably thick lashes. He cleared his throat and asked if I’d be around later, then changed his mind.

“I want you to see my latest drawings,” he said, digging in his satchel and finding his composure. He took out a stack of thick white paper and shuffled through the selection of line drawings as if they were a deck of cards. “You pick your favorite.”

This was how I learned his full name – from his signature.

I chose a portrait of an African woman that I knew my brother in California would like, two views of a voluptuous beauty with bird in hand. While naïve, the work was rendered with a graceful touch, and I recognized the increasing dimensionality of the term “Touch Artist.”

And my brother did love it, just as he loved the subsequent drawings Kenny gave me, some of which I shared, some of which I kept for myself. At first Kenny gave them in response to his birthday presents, but then he beat me at my own game and one year surprised me by remembering my birthday. This was the year that I put a card inside the bag of birthday cookies – a signed card. I told myself that if Kenny called me by my first name the next time he saw me, that was the signal that I should ask about his background.

The following day, I chatted with him for a bit longer than usual, probably in the effort to provide ample opportunity for him to speak my name. I even quoted a friend talking to me, thinking that if I said my name aloud, it would pave the way for him to follow. We talked about the crazy old woman who lived a few doors down – a retired socialite who could be seen at the crack of dawn wearing all her finery as if going out for a cocktail party. I told him I was thinking of compiling a book of interviews with neighborhood characters. “Maybe,” I said cautiously, “I could even interview you.”

Kenny ran his hand over his close-cropped hair. “Aw, you don’t need to do that.” He smiled broadly. “You already know me.”

I laughed uncomfortably, as I’m prone to do, and took a sandwich from my grocery bag. “I guess you’re right about that.”

As I walked away, I heard him call out, “God bless you, Miss.”

It was after a trip to see my brother that I realized Kenny hadn’t been around for a while. When I mentioned his name at the neighborhood bookstore, the store’s owner came downstairs and quietly took me aside. He explained that Kenny had died. His demise had been rapid. One of the bookstore’s employees had visited him in the hospital every day.

I was stunned. I wanted to ask a lot of questions – What happened to Kenny’s drawings? Who paid the hospital bill? Did any family surface at the end? – but, like Kenny the day he first presented me with a drawing, I was too overcome with emotion to continue. Unlike Kenny, my composure wasn’t quickly regained. I walked home by way of the Calder Sidewalk, contemplating the permanence of the zinc framework as compared to the ephemeral terrazzo. I had hoped to find something comforting in the metaphor, but came up empty-handed.

The neighborhood wasn’t the same without Kenny. By now I’d become friendly not only with the local shopkeepers but also with most of my neighbors, thus dashing any remaining prejudices against staid locals. Yet even with this fuller sense of the neighborhood, Kenny’s absence left a gap. My grocery bags were heavier and I experienced a strange sense of anonymity now that he was gone. It’s funny how one person had given me such a feeling of belonging. Had I done the same for him?

I didn’t bring up Kenny’s name after he died. I didn’t mention him to the deli owner who made the weak espressos. I didn’t mention him to the bookstore employee who had visited him in the hospital every day. I didn’t mention him to the street vendor who slipped him hot pretzels or coffees every now and then. Or to my neighbors, who must have known him if only by sight. I didn’t even say anything to my boyfriend. Although my relationship with Kenny had taken place out in the open, there was something unmistakably private about it. To whom else had I unselfconsciously confided my writerly frustrations? To whom else had he openly discussed his art? True, I didn’t know his background, but did that matter?

One day I went to the bookstore to purchase a literary magazine. It wasn’t just any literary magazine, but one that contained my first published short story. I had hoped Kenny would be around to see this moment, and often enough I’d rehearsed how I would put the periodical inside a paper bag as if it were groceries. In retrospect the idea sounds sappy, but when you’re a struggling fiction writer, you’ll grasp at just about anything to get yourself through the rough patches.

When the bookstore’s owner was ringing up my purchase, I asked if the drawing on the wall was one of Kenny’s. I knew it was. But I wanted to give him the opportunity to talk, which was especially likely after his lunchtime libations. “Yes, it is,” he said, then went on to tell me all about Kenny’s funeral – how the mortuary on the corner had underwritten the whole affair and how the entire neighborhood had attended. It really was something, he added, and an anonymous person had donated the flowers, and people told stories afterwards about their experiences with Kenny, and the funeral director had even hung Kenny’s artwork on the walls.

I took the literary magazine home and sat it on my desk. The first tangible proof of my labors. An innocuous little book, from a distance like so many others. I walked to the far wall where I’d hung one of Kenny’s drawings. It was of a man standing on a city street. Certainly I was proud of my small smidgeon of literary success, but threatening to usurp this pride was another pride: my staid little neighborhood had given Kenny a fitting farewell. I pictured the coffeeshop owner, the Madison Avenue doormen, the vendors, store employees, friends and neighbors – even the crazy socialite who dressed for imagined cocktail parties at dawn – all standing in the chapel, all paying their last respects to Kenny, The Touch Artist.

I returned to my desk, picked up the magazine and looked inside.

kenny
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