Harry and Winslow in the Gulf Stream

by

12/31/2006

82nd St. & 5th Ave, NY, NY 10028

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

Harry’s back. It’s Wednesday, the middle of the week, and that means Harry is back to visit Winslow Homer. Harry visits his old friend Winslow Homer as if the two old friends were going to play their weekly game of checkers, as if this congenial game has been going on for fifty years with breaks only for the occasional war or a health calamity. Weather can’t interrupt the consistency and routine of this friendship and neither can transportation or garbage strikes.

The comfortable thing about this ongoing meeting, one thing that might explain its longevity, is that it is conducted completely in silence. Winslow Homer never says anything, ever. He communicates only with his eyes and his hands, and yet he is far from mute. Harry could speak, if he wanted to, but he doesn’t. He communicates with Winslow Homer mostly the way Winslow Homer communicates with him, with his eyes and then with a warm nod. It’s far more complicated than the small jolt of excitement you get from recognizing a familiar face on the crosstown bus. What Harry and Winslow have is a legitimately solid friendship, the only important one in Harry’s life. What they have is love.

Winslow, on the other hand, has lots of friends, but the majority of these relationships aren’t nearly so sublime as the one he has with Harry. Children are a bit hesitant about Winslow, for reasons that will shortly become clear, at least in one certain instance. Others can be extremely critical of Winslow, a situation that Harry feels is a clear case of misunderstanding. Harry has defended Winslow and never tires of coming to Winslow’s defense should the occasion arise.

What makes Winslow so special is this quality of immutable comfort Harry finds in his presence. Both Winslow and Harry share the ability to sit in one place for a very long time. Harry has seen other such relationships suffer from a special type of catatonia, especially when new friends are brought into the circle. Occasionally, one friend suffers the stupor of overfamiliarity and must take a break from the friendship or seek out the company of others, but this has never occurred with Harry. No, he and Winslow are in it for the duration.

Harry wears, as is his custom, a brown-checked overcoat that is a size too large for his hunched shoulders, and underneath that the same light-blue collared shirt and green twill trousers that have seen many a bus ride, many a can of soup, many a raise in rent. The grayed thicket of hair near his ears is in need of a trim, but that’s a task for tomorrow. Today, Harry has come to say goodbye.

To this end he has brought a good Shepherd with him, a gentle canine guide who goes by the name of Jupiter. On Saturday, Harry will take Jupiter and move upstate near the Finger Lakes, where his sister has a room reserved especially for him. For years she’s been trying to persuade him to leave the city, more so after his sight started to go and he broke his hip falling in the bathtub. More often that not she calls him stubborn and foolish. A ridiculous old man, is what she said. Harry hasn’t seen his sister in thirty years, but she calls him twice a week, on Sunday afternoons and Thursday evenings, just to remind him that he has a living blood relation, and blood in this case would have to win out over independence and the recalcitrance of a geezer. His sister’s husband had died and there was no real reason in the world that Harry and she shouldn’t share each other’s sunset company.

Harry walks only marginally more steadily with Jupiter by his side. The dog has been something to be learned, yet Harry could find his way to Winslow if he had to walk backwards in a blackout. It’s been that long that Harry knows the exact number of measured steps to take to position himself in front of “The Gulf Stream,” a piece of Winslow Harry can now make out only as a dark, blurry shape. Harry can still construct every detail from memory, though.

“The Gulf Stream” is a particularly violent piece of Winslow Homer’s that depicts a lone sailor in a crippled vessel, lying in a mysteriously complacent pose while the small craft tips towards a sea that rages with angry sharks. His sail is gone, the mast is broken, and the shark nearest his boat has broken from the sea, pectoral fin flipped up. Already, there is blood in the water, fore and aft, with no suggestion of its origin. Had there originally been a companion sailor, one who has fallen overboard and been devoured? Just behind the boat, the light has changed. It’s the special yellow light of peril, like when death arrives before dawn. Or it might just be the calm before a storm, the eye, because behind this scene of ugly and imminent demise is a large waterspout, an oceanic tornado. Any way you look at it, it isn’t a particularly grand death. It’s bloody, all right, and certainly chillingly dramatic, but it isn’t likely to be reported in the newspaper since no bathers were similarly terrorized. There’s more: On the far left horizon, barely visible, is a jaunty three-masted schooner.

The lonely and savage end of the sailor is why small children cover their eyes and ask their mothers if there are sharks in neighborhood swimming pools, and why mothers most often entertain their offspring with the armor collection, which is much more easily related to by a kindergartener. Harry remembers the first time he saw the imperiled sailor. He was in college, far too old to be frightened, although it sent a chill up his spine nonetheless. Occasionally he’d bring a lady friend (he is far too gentlemanly to call any one of them “his woman”) to gauge her reaction, but the lady friends shuddered and were visibly unhappy. They were much more agreeable when planted in front of the avuncular Robert T. Nichol and his owlish pince-nez or the serene Palm Trees at Bordighera. The former made them feel as if they were in the company of a wise and kindly scholar and the latter caused them to silently recall that in their youths they had many an afternoon of gentle Italian dreams.

Harry hasn’t brought a lady friend here in at least a decade. His attempt to introduce any one of them to his steady passion and sheltered redoubt led him to see that he was made of a different energy than most, and when he got too old to be dragged to the dances—the hip!—he was happy that he had nothing to try to explain to another human. The socials, with the senior set creaking arthritically to fifty-year-old tunes, made him feel deteriorated and possibly terrorized. Winslow made him feel alive and safe. “The Gulf Stream” made him feel, for as long as he stood in front of it, just the same way he had felt when he was 22. In Winslow’s company, nothing changed. Even that special smell to a museum, the dampness of history, remained precisely as it always had been. Harry always felt it was a particularly welcoming mold.

It was Harry’s custom to mentally relive the details of the painting before resting his legs at a bench in the Atrium. Depending on the weather, he might enjoy the artwork for an hour or more, in the winter sometimes less due to the ache in the bones. And he’d always time it so that he could take another few moments at the painting just before closing. Here and there he’d bring a sandwich and a Thermos of black coffee and enjoy these in the cafeteria, but now with the dog it was a small burden in need of another free hand.

I wondered if Harry knew that he was sharing Winslow Homer with someone else. My favorite Homer, “Undertow,” was kept in Massachusetts and only made rare appearances elsewhere. “The Gulf Stream” ran a close second to “Undertow,” for thematic reasons. They both concerned the undeniable hazard of the sea, but in “Undertow” there was a definite statement about strong men and weak, Camille-like women that I found both appealing and upsetting. Plus, there was no rescue in the more southerly waters of “The Gulf Stream.” “Undertow” also offered some vaguely comic respite from near-tragedy in the muscleman pose of the savior, while “Gulf Stream” was most of the time just pleasurably hopeless.

No doubt Harry had overheard and witnessed people’s visceral reactions to the shark-infested waters: “Horrible!” “Well, that’s certainly depressing,” “Isn’t the blood a bit of overkill?” and “Where’s Water Lilies?” These types of people would never be able to recall the specific interplay of innocent sun upon water and of shadow upon blood and would be unknowingly all the poorer for it. All they’d remember was the primitive incivility of the marine life.

>”Most people,” Harry suddenly said, “prefer the Egyptians.”

“I don’t.” I came to the Met on Wednesdays myself, probably for precisely the same reason: One didn’t need to talk if one didn’t want to. It was a place, like a library, where silence was respected and perhaps honored as a form of higher communication. In a café, at a bookstore, on the bus, you could end up in a sudden unwanted dialogue about anything under the sun, but not here. Here, you didn’t have to explain yourself, the weather, or whether you knew how to get to the Central Park zoo. No one would interrupt you unless you looked as if you wanted to be interrupted.

“You’ve been visiting the Homers for quite some time now,” Harry observed. “I can tell your perfume, and you’re wearing heels today.”

He motioned for me to stand closer to him, and he looked up, eyes opaque with cataracts. “Why this Homer and not ‘Snap the Whip?’ Everyone likes ‘Snap the Whip,’ don’t they?”

” ‘Snap the Whip’ is too safe,” I answered. “I hate to say it, but sometimes I like an attitude of catastrophe. ‘Snap the Whip’ could only result in a dislocated shoulder at the most.”

“Nothing at risk,” he agreed. “It has a lot of emotion, but no exposure. There’s no interference.”

The way I see it, the sailor in the Gulf is poised between rescue and a second chance at vainglorious death by being sucked up into the waterspout, as if the oceanic cannibals weren’t quite enough on their own. The waterspout is a double-gotcha moment, and the nearly invisible schooner sails along well behind it, almost beyond perception, like it is really just a figment, a threadbare sketched hope. To me, it says that there is always a vague and infinitely abbreviated chance that things will turn out all right. Some people say the schooner was added as an afterthought, for an unlikely happy ending amid all that carnage.

Harry says that the schooner was deliberately added as faintly as it could possibly be; notice how it sits well in back of the funnel of water where it is barely visible to the naked eye. You could pass the painting without ever noticing it. The addition of the boat, he reasons, is nothing short of torture, and makes the painting a whole lot worse than had it never appeared in the first place. That, he says, happily tells you quite a bit about Winslow’s attitude to his buying public. He smiled and held out his thumb and forefinger, yellowed both, to show just how tiny the tiny vessel was.

“Like that.”

Harry says that today he will try to find something new in the painting, because this will be the last time before the work is permanently consigned to memory alone. What is new is not in the deepening shades of bluish-green or the way the water sprays off the flick of a shark’s tail. In Canandaigua, the only water will be fresh and the only fish will be frozen blocks from the supermarket freezer. It’s not in the strangely casual posture of the sailor or the fact that this shark’s dinner has his head turned away from the boiling waters as if the sharks were as dangerous as a pack of yapping teacup poodles or a flock of budgies. Instead, what Harry takes away upstate is that there is quite possibly something else going on here, some reason to be shrug and be nonchalant, if you would only turn your head towards the possibility.

Or, as he said in parting, if you take the sailor’s expression to be a dark scowl, “it very well may be that there is an even better Waterloo off to his left.”

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