#7

NON FICTION

December 2020

object lessons

melissa chambers

Mel_Option_1.jpg

In 1964 Joan Didion left New York City. She recorded the event much later in Goodbye to All That, the modern gospel on leaving New York, and also on leaving.
 

It is easy to see the beginnings of things, she writes, and harder to see the ends.


Exactly 50 years after Joan Didion left New York, so did I.


The summer beforehand, itchy, half in and half out, caught in the Didion-ian moment where the heroine was no longer as optimistic as she once was, I took a job with the client of a yoga teacher friend to work as her personal assistant in a penthouse in the West 50s.


I’d done a lot of this kind of work in the City. It was one of the few jobs that you could command $25 an hour for; the other one was catering. Interestingly this was seen as a controversial rate for babysitting though. Carrying a plate of expensive food would routinely earn you 7 dollars more than carrying someone’s toddler.


Personal assistant work encompassed most things not involving food or toddlers. Filling out healthcare forms, searching by phone the country’s Bed Bath and Beyonds (and beyond) for a matching sham cover for a newborn’s crib, waiting to let the art handlers in, and on one occasion helping an Hawaiian ex-body builder sort through her competition outfits in her cat-filled brownstone in Cobble Hill.


You moved things, listened to stories, were offered coffee and, in some cases, takeout.


The first conversation I had with Anthea Baxter was across a square table in a sunlit breakfast room uptown. Inside, the apartments in that part of the city have the muffled sound signature of a cardboard box. They’re near the park but nearer the Time Warner building in spirit. The bodegas are different up there; there are salad bars and sports bars. Inside, the air is manufactured. These homes are suspended in the secondary sound strata above the baseline of traffic. You get to them via cramped elevators or Gilliam-esque stairways traversed by delivery persons.


Anthea was white, in her 50s, large eyes, somewhat bulbous. She was heavy set, though with the air of having been voluptuous once, and with a crown of thin, short, red hair that seemed to have come to rest on her head rather than grown out of it. Over weak coffee she asked me if I knew who she was. I didn’t. I opted to shake my head, but with a cultivated enthusiasm that I hoped would give me the look of an eager ingenue rather than an idiot in case she was in fact famous, and therefore safeguard my likability. In these jobs likability was secret magic. Early in my assistant career I shed the guilt of invoicing for time I fully acknowledge was spent snacking in someone’s kitchen. Most things are billable in New York City, easy company among them.


I’m a famous feminist, she said, cutting to the chase and flapping both hands in front of her. This apartment belongs to my ex-husband, he still lives here. She paused and I wondered if this referenced her famous feminism, but she carried on: technically we’re still married; I’m on his health insurance, that’s why. I have lupus so I need it. She conveyed this information with the plainness that New Yorkers deploy on the topic of health insurance and marriage. He has a nurse; I don’t talk to him. He was an awful brute.


We ate muffins (you were often given muffins) while she delivered a treatise on her ex-husband, detailing the cheating, brutalising newsman he’d once been. Her hatred was complete and entirely mundane. She also had a marvellous ability to talk about her ex-husband as if he was both dead and gone (and good riddance) and alive and breathing in the next room. As it turned out, all of these things were true.
We left the breakfast room and I followed her through a kitchen where a Latina woman in a uniform was preparing something viscous and bland and through a door into a large sitting room.


The walls were covered with books. Sitting in a chair in the corner near a window was an inert man of roughly 70 years. I had mostly combed the room before I noticed him. He had the look of a car, a late model Buick, that had until lately been cruising at comfortable speed only to have swerved for no reason off the road and into a deserted landscape where it had come to a sudden, inexplicable stop, the only sound the click and fleck of retracting metal and, distantly, the wind tormenting something not quite torn from its moorings.


His hair had been seen to; he wore corduroy trousers. A woollen sweater over a collared shirt. His gaze turned on us as we entered but he observed us vacantly. Like a man watching pigeons.


Anthea ignored him and turned to the shelves. She started removing volumes and stacked them on the lacquered Chinese long table running the length of the sofa. These can all go, she said. I nodded and said hello to the man, he turned and faced the window. My gaze strayed past him to a nook in the bookshelf where two carved wooden foxes dressed as butlers stood on their hind legs, candle holders in their forepaws. On the wall above them was a framed edition of 50 stamps bearing identical likenesses of Edward R. Murrow.


Later, Anthea showed me the rest of her apartment and indicated with impish cunning how the division had been made. The wall that ran on the South side of the kitchen had been put there to effect two separate apartments. On her side was the kitchen, the breakfast room, a terrace, her bedroom, bathroom and entrance hall. And on the other, the library, another bathroom, his room and another utility exit, a back door of sorts. The Latina woman was her housekeeper, and also his nurse.
 

My task over the next two weeks was to sort and throw away (donate, dispose of, register for auction) objects from the apartment, both sides. This was to coincide with the imminent occupancy one floor down, in a studio apartment used by Anthea as a writing space, of Jack, her agent, also former newsman, stage acting enthusiast and, for many years, her lover.


Looking back, it stands to reason that throwing things away upstairs was to do with making room downstairs. Sometimes reason is a thing of retrospection though. Then, there seemed a rounder, redder, more expanding thing behind it. Like Alice blowing up in a room full of china, it felt urgent. As if certain things, if not conveyed safely out, would instead be pushed. Would jettison untethered through windows, harpooning pedestrians below.


So, that day, I began to carry things out of their lives, and continued for two weeks without stopping. Dispersing them by hand into the city below.


Each morning I arrived to a list of things to be sorted and dispatched, and sometimes to boxes and piles prepared in my absence. On the piles rested brown cardboard gift labels with instructions from Anthea in scrawling cursive.


It would have been one thing if the belongings, objects, books I was dispatching were simply rubbish. Detritus, things outgrown, ill-used, supplementary, worn or dropped in the bath. But in most cases they weren’t; they were vivid and seemingly current articles of a life. In many cases they were beautiful. And as I worked, and the piles of things to be taken away grew, so did the dawning realisation that a great quantity of the things I was discarding, weren’t hers.


The sorting took place south of the wall, a room Anthea treated like a frozen tundra, empty of life, but in which on most days her ex-husband still sat. Each day I would greet him and each day introduce myself. Sometimes he replied. Just as the piles of things would replenish overnight though, like fluid in the heart of a cactus flower, so a nothingness would restore inside the old man between these occasions, and I was reborn a pigeon each time.



The objects flowed without cease. A treasure box made of chestnut, Folio editions of Henry James, the end of a Wedgewood stationary set, plaintive empty sheets huddled with matching envelopes.


One morning I was sent with an original framed snapshot of Gertrude Stein to Swann’s Auction House. There was handwriting on the back of it, her name and the date, but no trace of the photographer. The value goes up with these sorts of things when we know who took it, the registrar told me, if this was taken by Alice Toklas for instance, then that would be one thing… But with this, he said, turning it over in his hands, that person has disappeared. I left it with him and journeyed back uptown, traversing 5th Avenue like the River Styx.



At the end of another day, it was a handful of diamonds. Stones set into tarnished antique rings. Old things, Anthea told me over her shoulder, take them down to 47th street. I don’t care. See what they’ll give you for them. It isn’t a thing one expects to learn, but from that day on, I knew myself to be the kind of person to whom someone would give a handful of diamonds, show them the door, and fully expect them to return with their value the next day. It was a compliment of sorts but an awkward task, and not because it meant being at large in Manhattan with a cat burglar’s booty, but because I had elected that day to carry home an object I’d intercepted for myself on its journey to the underworld: a magnificent carved hippopotamus.


Made of solid walnut wood and roughly the size of a daschund, this object had stood on the periphery of my labour near the utility exit for days. Arriving one morning, I discovered Anthea had moved it to a table in her bedroom and was looking at it strangely. By this time I could intuit the tides governing the expulsion of objects from her life, but on this object she was eerily becalmed. We talked about its provenance, she wondered if it was worth anything. Uncharacteristically, this object confused her. She seemed unable to prescribe its exit from the apartment. So in the end, it was left up to me, and consequently was carried underarm that evening into the diamond district downtown.


New York’s diamond district is between 5th and 6th Avenues along 47th street. Its exterior is a line of window displays. Beyond, through small doors, is an unimaginable glistening warren that sprawls a city block. Here, approximately 400 million dollars of precious stones are bought and sold every day. The merchants are mostly Orthodox Jews and Russians perched in dusty booths passed down through generations from as far back as the 1920s, when the stones trade moved north from the ports.


One after another, these men assessed my haul. First they eyed my diamonds, and then my hippo. The value of the diamonds differed wildly between dealers (flawed); their attitude to the hippo though was the same.


How much do you want for it.


One after the other, they all asked me this.


Back in the West 50s I continued my toil, on most days under the gaze of Anthea’s ex-husband. Good morning. My name is Melissa.



Having moved on to clothing by this point, a cache of silk business ties struck me as particularly poignant. By this time it was plain that what I was packing and dispatching were pieces of his life. Pieces that he did not remember, and that did not remember him. Unlike Anthea, for whom every flung object was sent on its way with a triumphant anecdote, her ex-husband watched without tremor or purchase the departure of the things he had collected in his life and, with only passing curiosity, the woman in the corner who was taking them.


In Jainism, the ancient Indian religion, possessions are thought to insult the gods. Their most devout monks own no possessions, and also wear no clothes. I saw one once, in the street in New Delhi. Tall and completely naked, he was followed by a novice in a long white robe. He held a fan made of peacock feathers which he used to brush the street in front of him, wisping creatures from underfoot in order to harm no living thing. They call them the Digambara, these Jains, the ‘sky clad.’


*


My relationship with Anthea ended unceremoniously. One morning there was simply nothing else to do and so I, like the countless objects flung from East 57th street, was dispensed into the city below.


From the following August onwards I started giving away my own things. For weeks there was a pile of objects on the hallway landing in my home in Brooklyn Heights. This time my own ferryman, I carried them in bags through Brooklyn to the Housing Works; friends looted the landing like a sunken galleon.


Joan is right - it’s hard to see the end of things. In life, ends of some threads blend into the pattern, ungraspable. There is a last time when you lift your child up, before they become too big. A last person did tell someone exactly what Stonehenge was for, but that person forgot, or died before they told someone else. The last Great Auk feasted on by sailors was, in and of itself, an unremarkable bird.


But things – objects – do end. And tangibly so. We fill them with our histories, then we lose them or give them away. In the letting go, memory is logged for a moment. It's possible to see the end of things if you look for it, you can see it in the things themselves.


I left New York City with barely more than I’d come with, hurtling sky clad through the airlock between two lives. Six months later some things caught up with me. In the possessions of a friend I had lived with, whose company had moved him from New York to London (and thus paid for his cargo) were a few heavy things of mine he generously shipped. Among them, two foxes dressed as butlers with candle holders in their forepaws, some stamps with identical likenesses of Edward R Murrow, and a carved wooden hippo the breadth of whose histories I will never fully know, and who today as I work at my desk in the corner, still stands quietly near the window, like a parked wooden car. Watching.

 

MELISSA CHAMBERS is an Australian theatre artist who lives in South East London. She is co-founder of The Signal House and The Signal House Edition. She has created shows for companies in Melbourne, New York (where she lived from 2008–2014), and for The Signal House in London. She teaches theatre-making at conservatories around London, and her original work has toured to festivals in New York, Amsterdam, Norway and Australia. She has been published in Freerange, and her essay 'Fishing with Hemingway' is in Issue #1. Website.

Note: All names in this story have been changed.