My neighbor is an artist and I’ve been walking my dog Vera past her door daily looking for evidence of how she lives. I’m new here now but no longer young.
When I was, I lived in the same neighborhood but it was different, so even though my first address in this city was only a few blocks from my current sublet situation, things feel foreign. I find comfort in still being able to hear Ukrainian spoken at newsstands, in the exchanges of landlords who greet the day by stepping out to sweep their portion of sidewalk clean, and on church steps that are crowded each Sunday, despite the growing population of atheists who sleep into the late afternoon and then emerge to observe their ritual of brunch.
The prevailing street style is Ramones meets vintage, just as it was when Joey could be seen skulking around, though there was no street named for him and if there had been, I would not have explored it because even though this neighborhood is now full of bars and boutiques and salons manned by young Japanese hairstylists, I first knew it as a place safe only for drug dealers. Like so many others, I’d come from a different culture, in my case, via Long Island Railroad. I was a recent college graduate, numb over the death of my father. Though he often told me that I had common sense, I had no idea how to care for myself. I loved my father but I often wished that I had been born into a family of artists like that of my neighbor.
In the time that she has resided at her present address, I’ve had seven— excluding an all expenses-paid summer-long residency at a five-star Italian hotel courtesy of a client whom I despised, nine months in a corporate flat in London that caught fire twice, and the six months I spent sleeping on a friend’s living room couch while I gave Los Angeles a go.
In order to create an inventory significant enough to get a mention in the conversation that becomes art history, artists must cultivate lives free from distraction. I learned this through a series of short-term cohabitations with a sculptor, a painter and a performance/installation/videographer. I wonder if, under the confusing guise of love, I participated in these failed experiments so that through proximity, I might find my own focus.
Someone productive enough to be museum-worthy must be impervious to the seduction of puttering, a potentially full-time activity in which we delude ourselves that we are engaging in something worthwhile. She must be willing to forgo the pursuit of leisure, which is the luxury of having time to squander. Time passes regardless of what we do— but if an artist doesn’t come up with anything substantial to show for how she spends her days, she’ll be known only as unemployed.
I read about a famous person who is so possessed by the urgency to work that he takes time out only for spoonfuls of powdered protein. I have been nourished by thick brushwork, thin washes, simple palettes and compositions that looked crazed and I am grateful to all the artists—but I am also jealous because it is in the process of making this work that they live while the rest of us must either follow the advice of those who came before, or try things out one after another and risk lives of regret and disappointment. I know from stories like Van Gogh’s that making art is no guarantee for happiness but its demands do seem to both exalt and simplify things. I am glad to have two ears but I waste time each day trying to decide which earrings to wear.
My neighbor does not take time to shop for the fashions of the season. Her wardrobe is elegantly functional, she wears sturdy shoes and has a beauty that requires no cosmetic enhancement —I know because last week I watched her ride off on her beat-up old bicycle. She smiled at Vera, to whom I am never a distraction but always the main event.
One morning a homeless man sat on my neighbor’s stoop and rolled himself a cigarette. He told me that the woman who lived behind the red door was currently the subject of a show at a major museum.
I pretended that I hadn’t known. In the months since my return, I have walked past location shoots for several television series; perhaps through a kind of pedestrian osmosis, I have learned how to act. I like to think that my deceit was a gesture of generosity that allowed him to maintain his stance as an authority on neighbors in the news. But maybe I preferred that he think of me as an ill-informed dog-walking passer-by because in the hierarchy of the streets, homeless person trumps stalker.
I am propelled by curiosity. What is it like over there— in the yard where the tree blooms two weeks early, in the living room across town where the murders took place, on the road with the band? These kinds of questions were enough to get Gauguin all the way to Tahiti where he created his masterpieces. I’ve had to conclude that conversely, if I had been able to stay put, it’s still unlikely that I would have become a famous artist.
When I measure my achievements, I have little to show beyond the list of addresses and situations I tried on for size before moving elsewhere. Perhaps this impulse to remain a body in motion is the outcome of my ability to imagine other lives and landscapes, or maybe I am merely allergic to the familiar. It is possible that my nomadic disposition is genetic. While my family can be traced back only as far as three generations—to a tribe who roamed between the provinces of Eastern Europe and Russia— the woman who had a lifetime’s worth of work on view shares the family name of a colonial settler. Perhaps her DNA is encoded with the tenacity to put down roots.
When my grandfather left what we think was Lithuania, he carried with him a genetic mutation potent enough to fell our women but precision-timed not to decimate before they’d given birth— until I put my foot down. Despite the hard-wired imperatives of human biology, I believe in free will; I invoked it when I thwarted the manifest destiny of my gene pool by not passing it on. Maybe that’s what my father meant by common sense. I evolved into a moving target, one that leaves behind no trace of a genetic footprint. Or perhaps he had a premonition that he wouldn’t be around to see me make my way in the world and he found solace in thinking that, despite the lack of hybrid vigor in our family tree, I would survive.
Recently, while I was not making museum-worthy work, I learned that a toy poodle died from overheating in the dog-run, that the milliner’s mutt yaps each morning between nine and eleven because her mistress is out at the gym, and that the wisteria that clings to a fire escape two blocks over blooms in the first week of May—the same time that our parks seem to green while we watch. That’s when Vera and I stumbled upon a small private garden and I discovered that my noteworthy neighbor had made a generous gift to those of us with time to spend on aimless strolls.
There, on display behind bars, captured nude, cloaked in a cover of wolf and cast in bronze for our gaze, she stood forever still.
Now the terms of my sublet are coming to a close and I am considering moving dozens of blocks uptown, where my other grandfather was born—the one who had the gene for longevity.