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The Muse of Houston Street
not come easily for me. I am a painter by trade --
an artist in fact. I respond visually to stimuli in
much the way a moth is attracted to a flame. It's
very awkward for me to explain things in literary
terms, and perhaps as I go along, you may find
yourself bored with my story, but that's your
problem -- not mine.
With my tongue in my cheek however, I must admit to
a clandestine love of poetry. The sentiment in
verse sets me off and I see pictures flash before
me -- something like this, for example:
when on my couch I lie
in vacant or in pensive mood,"
I can see myself stretched out here on this ratty
old mattress, plucking at the ticking and
contemplating the cosmos, or more likely, my
present low estate. My estate was formerly quite
sizable, I assure you, but my ex-wife's lawyers are
largely responsible for the condition in which you
see me. I am used to better things, believe me.
I live and work on the fourth floor of this
run-down loft on Houston Street. A torn
bedspread and a blanket hang on a wire stretched
across the room and form a separation between where
I live and where I work. I share this loft with a
man by the name of Chipson, a night shift butcher
at Waldbaums supermarket, who spends his days here
pretending to be a sculptor.
My name is Porter Backhouse. Does that name ring a
bell with you? I thought not. But if you had been
around forty years ago, I'm sure it would have. You
could walk into any penthouse apartment along
Fourth Avenue from Fortieth to Eightieth Street and
see a Backhouse on the living room wall. Nudes were
my game; and let me tell you, I couldn't paint them
fast enough. Look at me now! Alas, I would sell my
soul to have those days back again. Nudes, by the
way, have nothing to do with sex or love, or any of
that rubbish -- nudes are an art form, no different
I made a tidy fortune with nudes .... well, with
one nude in particular. Her name was Jasmine,
Jasmine Goldfarb -- and a more beautiful piece of
work you couldn't hope to see. I painted Jasmine
for nearly ten years. In every conceivable pose, in
every one of her wayward moods, and in every
imaginable entourage (that's a French term for
'setting') -- maybe I'm getting too technical. To
put it bluntly, she was the loveliest creature I've
ever laid eyes on.
She was only sixteen when I met her. Her sister was
being married in the Village, and I played side
guitar in the band at the reception. At the time I
was down on my luck, and I squeezed out a living
with a three piece band that played at weddings,
bar mitzvahs, and stag parties. I had yet to carve
my niche in the art world. Well, here I am full
circle I guess! Thanks to my wife's lawyers, I am
in much the same condition today.
Jasmine was a provocative girl, you might even say
promiscuous -- more than willing to pose
stitchless, and somehow quite confidant that I
would never lay a finger on her. I wouldn't of
course! She was my muse, and a proper artist would
never stoop to dishonor his muse. Her pride in her
body was enormous, and her natural talent to model
was miraculous. It was as if a Greek Daphne had
come to pose for me. I try to explain this to
Chipson, the sculptor, who shares this humble loft
with me, and he shakes his head.
"Backhouse, you're mentally ill -- y'know that?
You're unnatural, that's what you are!" He
continues chipping away at his grotesque "Dying
"You're a yahoo, Chipson, you have no soul! You
will never understand .... " I climb down the
kitchen step stool and shake my fist at him, "A
true artist would never screw his muse." It goes on
like this all day. Chipson is a butcher by trade,
working the night shift at Waldbaums. Did I mention
that? I have very little income now, and if it
wasn't for the money he brings in, and my sign
painting, we would be out in the street. Chipson
apparently requires no sleep and very little food
for that matter. He gets here at eight in the
morning after eight hours at the market, and chips
away at his "Dying Indian" until it's time to go
back to work again.
"Would you screw your dumb 'Dying Indian!' -- it
gets smaller every day, by the way. Mark my words,
Chipson! In a week or two you will wear it on your
He hunches over his "Dying Indian" and ignores me.
He knows I'm right. The damn thing is getting
smaller, just like the others on the shelf behind
him. The problem is, he can't let well enough
alone. The floor around the little statuette is
littered with marble chips and there's very little
left to work on. All sculptors are dumb, mind you,
but none so dumb as one who doubles as a night
shift butcher at Waldbaums. He puts his tools down
reluctantly and walks over to my side of the studio
to get the broom. That's usually the signal he's
finished and whatever is left of the "Dying Indian"
will join the other small statuettes behind him.
The rubble will be shoveled into a garbage can and
bounced down four flights of stairs to the street.
As he passes me he stops and looks at my new
painting of Jasmine. "The thing's gettin' bigger
every day, Backhouse. When you gonna stop? It's
gotta be fourteen feet long."
"Damn right," I say. "Nine by fourteen to be
"But, you've painted it on the wall, you idiot.
Suppose somebody wants to buy it -- although I
can't see anyone in the world buying such a
ridiculous picture -- they couldn't get it out of
"It's meant for the future, Chipson -- it's my
legacy. Some day this atelier will be preserved as
a national shrine." I adjust the lights so that the
painting is illuminated from one end to the other.
It is a composite of all I remember of Jasmine
Goldfarb. From her teenage years until she left me
at the age of twenty-six to be the wife of a
kitchen detergent manufacturer in Pound Ridge, New
Jersey. Her shoulders morph into her knees, which
become her thighs, then her ankles, then her entire
body becomes one marvelous bosom. The exquisite
coloration of her back, kaleidoscoping from buff
and pink to gray and green. A woman to be
worshipped and immortalized in art, not one to be
slobbered over by a kitchen detergent manufacturer.
He drags the broom wearily back to his corner of
the studio. "The better the light, the worse it
looks, Backhouse .... by the way you may be
interested to learn my next piece will be a bust of
Gertrude Stein. Her face was made for stone." He
begins sweeping and the dust rises -- it hangs in
the air like smoke and makes further argument
impossible. I decide to leave and wait in Max's
lunch room across the street. Besides, I have my
signs to deliver -- they're my only source of
income these days, my signs I mean. "Shaving Cream
& Hot Oil Wrestling, Wednesdays & Fridays," that's
for the "Pink Lady Lounge." "Medicaid and Food
Checks Cashed -- Low Rates," that's for "Alfonso's
Bodega" on fourth Avenue.
I start down the four flights of stairs. Just below
the studio lies Kaplan's Work Pants, below them,
Laguna's lamp shade factory, then, on the ground
floor, the newly installed Narghesian World
Imports. "What a crew! How could I let myself fall
so far so fast? I had such promise."
I used to live uptown on Madison and 84th. A
beautiful roomy brownstone with a gallery at street
level -- living quarters on the second floor and my
studio with a north skylight on the third. I did my
best work up there with Jasmine -- the muse was
with me then, working overtime. The muse wouldn't
be caught dead down here on Houston Street;
neither would Jasmine, for that matter.
Kaplan's shop door is open, and the noise of the
machines and women's voices inside is
deafening. There are thirty or more Latinos working
in there. Every hour Kaplan blows his whistle and
stops the machines and the women relax for ten
minutes. Some head for the John, others light up or
do stretching exercises. Kaplan says if he doesn't
do this they lose concentration and begin making
mistakes. One of them, an emaciated little thing
catches my eye -- something familiar about her.
What is it? Must be her color. Her skin! That's it
-- it's the same color as Jasmine's.
"Mr. Kaplan, may I have a word with you?"
"Ah, the artiste upstairs. You come for pants
"I have pants, Mr. Kaplan. That young woman sitting
in the second row -- the one flexing her shoulders.
Who is she?"
"A good worker, a virgin! Steady. Steady and quiet
too. What about her?" He looked at me
"Her name, Mr.
Kaplan. What's her name?"
"Meshuggah! You think I know their names? They're
all Rosie this, or Conchita that. I never ask. You
have not come to take her away -- don't tell me!"
"I'm just wondering if she'd like to model for me."
"It's okay by me, whatever she does after five
o'clock. But during the day, that's not so okay.
Good workers are hard to find. Go. Talk to her --
you got five minutes."
I put my signs down outside and walk over to her.
She's dressed in something very much like a red
Italian checkered tablecloth. Her hair is pushed up
and out to the back of her head and tied with a bow
of the same material. Her hands are clasped behind
her neck and she brings her elbows together to
stretch her shoulder muscles. She wears a small
crucifix but no rings or bracelets. Most of the
other women are wearing bracelets from wrist to
elbow. As I approach, she brings her hands together
"You speak English, Miss?"
"What have I done, Senor?" Her eyes dart from side
to side, and if she had some place to go, I'm sure
she would run.
"Don't be frightened, Miss. My name is Porter,
Porter Backhouse. I paint in the studio upstairs.
What's your name?"
"Bianca, Senor -- is there something wrong with my
work? Senor Kaplan says I do a good job."
At this point the woman who works at the machine
next to her comes back from her break and stares at
the two of us. She secretes a symphony of smells. I
catch the scent of Bay Rum, cigarettes, garlic and
the pungent odor of mouse s**t. It is a combination
that betrays close quarters, an absence of sunshine
and the forfeiture of self respect. I try to keep
my eyes on Bianca.
"Have you done any modeling, Bianca?"
The other woman springs into action. "What you want
with Bianca? She too young for you -- too skinny."
She smoothes her bright red hair and leans toward
me, her flabby upper arms quivering like jello,
then she smiles like a Cheshire cat. "Take me,
mister. I'm Maria -- Maria knows how to give a man
a good time."
I feel myself redden and I back away awkwardly just
as Kaplan blows his whistle signaling another fifty
minutes of non-stop sewing.
"So howd'ja make out?" he asks me.
"A slight misunderstanding -- it wasn't important
I pick up my signs outside and, flustered beyond
words, I start down the stairs for the street
again. Things do not come as easily as they used
to, I seem to be out of step with the rest of the
world. No one listens to me -- I don't even listen
to myself, in spite of the fact that I talk to
myself all the time.
The weather is fine, the weather has been the best
part of my day. It should lift my spirits. With the
sunshine on my shoulders I should be able to cast
off this melancholy and make plans for the future.
But I see myself in the window of Max's diner! The
sight of me is sobering. I am bent now -- my face
is unrecognizable, it is a face of a madman. I
don't own a mirror, I shave by the feel of it and I
harbor the notion that I appear as I used to.
Slender. Erect, and alert as a squirrel. "When was
the last time you slept between sheets, Backhouse?
When did you last ride in a taxicab, or find a
letter at you door?" A panhandler working the
street ahead of me looks the other way as I
approach; he sees I am of no use to him. When
beggars ignore you, you can go no lower.
However, the signs bring me $87, in cash of course
-- no tax when you pay cash. The rent will be paid
this month, but nothing will be put away. It is
good to have nothing left over, my former wife
would get every penny of it. Yes, I am under the
thumb of her extraordinary lawyers, and the only
way to get even is to be penniless. If I should
suddenly find myself in favor with the critics
again, if the name "Porter Backhouse" somehow
regains its former luster, I will be put through
the wringer. Far better to be a beggar -- the
little I have is mine to keep.
I ask myself what will happen to my painting on the
wall back on Houston Street? I think it is better
than anything I've done lately, almost as good as
the old days when the force was with me. The muse,
(bless her heart) would be proud of me. Will it be
painted over some day -- papered perhaps -- or, in
the nick of time will some discriminating critic
recognize the hand of Porter Backhouse? "Stop!
Stop!" he will say. "A miracle! This must be an
undiscovered Backhouse. Do you not see the texture,
the coloration, the breast outlined against the
silken camellias -- a woman among women?"
Chipson knows nothing of painting, he is a
sculptor. How can an artist destroy a beautiful
block of marble by making it look like Gertrude
Stein? Gertrude Stein, my behind! It will look more
like Gertrude Stein before he starts chipping at it
than when he's finished -- I predict it will end up
a shrunken head .... I wonder if he's done sweeping
Back at Houston Street I notice our windows are
open and Chipson's bearded figure can be seen
brooding over a block of stone. Even from here I
can see the angst within him. The stone is a dirty
yellow -- the color of laundry soap. I know what
he's going through; the first step, the first chip
off the old block, so to speak. "What can I do to
make it look like Gertrude Stein?" I don't have a
watch, but the clock in Max's lunch room window
tells me that Chipson will soon be off to
Waldbaums, and the loft we call a studio will be
mine for the evening.
I enter the studio in a somewhat better frame of
mind than when I left. Chipson has done a good job
of cleaning up. He sits before the block of marble
with a photograph of Gertrude Stein in his lap.
"Chipson, would you appreciate a word of advice?" I
"From you? You can't be serious, you know nothing
of sculpture. Did you get the money for the signs?"
"Yes. You owe me forty dollars for the rent,
"You will have it in the morning. They pay us
tonight. What's your word of advice?"
"I thought you didn't want it."
"I don't intend to take it." He holds the picture
of Gertrude Stein in front of the block of stone.
It is only slightly smaller and quite similar in
"It's a perfect likeness now, Chipson. If I were
you I would put a hat on it and call it done. You
will only go downhill from here." He puts the
picture down and slides off the stool. Looking at
me sideways, he shrugs himself into his coat and
walks slowly to the door. I can tell he's trying to
think of something clever to say as he leaves. He
pauses at the door and says, "F**k you Backhouse!"
"Now I am alone." Such were the words of the
melancholy Dane. The building is as empty as a
tomb, the Latino girls are gone, so is Mr. Kaplan,
Mr. Laguna and Mr. Narghesian. Nothing can be as
still as this. I can actually hear the water
trickling in the John. Is it possible for such
quiet in the noisiest city in the world?
Well, first I will have something to eat, then I
will continue to work on the wall painting. Even
though it's finished I will not stop working on it.
I turn on the television set and wait for the black
and white image to emerge. The picture is nebulous
and the news studio seems to be under water -- I
jiggle the wire coat hanger and although the
picture does not improve, the sound does. What
shall I eat? That is the question -- all too easily
answered -- whatever is left from yesterday. I
grope around in the tiny refrigerator (the light
bulb burned out months ago). There, I find two half
eaten TV dinners, one halibut, one chipped beef
.... an interesting blend of protein. There is an
open can of Sprite, undoubtedly flat by now -- but
all the better that way. I put the half eaten TV
dinners in the black hole of the oven and wait for
dinner to be served.
As my dinner is warming, the television tells me
that crime is down but murders are up -- guns will
soon be sold that can only be fired by the people
who own them -- it is not reassuring. I am so far
behind the tempo of the modern world, the little
blue ball of the earth grows smaller in my sight
and before the morning comes I will be left like an
empty six-pack in the cosmic void. The likelihood
of improvement is dim as these days grind slowly
by. It occurs to me that the game is not worth the
But I know I'll feel better after eating something.
I find a soiled dishcloth and gingerly remove my TV
dinners, they have a tinny smell, like soup from a
can. I think back to the dinners at Lutesce and the
Rainbow Room; Jockey Club lunches and brunch at the
Waldorf, and my eyes drift around this dark hovel
in which I have chosen to spend the rest of my life
-- "What am I waiting for?" .... I see something in
the darkest corner -- something like a long gray
coat and a hat hanging on a clothes tree. Strange!
I never noticed that before. Wait, I don't own a
clothes tree! Must be something of Chipson's. I put
my fork down nervously, it clatters as I lay it on
the table -- there! It moved didn't it? I swear it
It did move! It's edging its way along the wall!
"Hold it there, you! This place is bugged you know
.... we've got cameras, surveillance cameras!
Infrared -- latest thing -- see in the dark. Cops
are on their way now!" It stops and turns, there is
a face -- a pale face. Jesus! What am I supposed to
"I'm sorry, Porter. Sorry. Thought you'd be glad to
see me." A man's voice -- not a street voice. I'd
put it uptown, east side. Graduated Fordham,
Columbia --something like that. Certainly not
"You looking for me, or Chipson?"
"You're Porter Backhouse, right?"
He carefully removes his hat and shakes his head
and his long blond hair falls about his shoulders.
"Oh my God," I think -- "not one of them!"
"It's a rather complicated story, Porter. Wouldn't
it be simpler if you just came along with me?"
I think, maybe if I put up a bold front -- "I'm not
going anywhere with you, buddy. You'll have to drag
me outta here."
He walks over to the table and finds another chair.
He looks at it with distaste and sits down. "You
don't have two matching chairs, you're eating
yesterday's Heaven knows what out of a tin tray
with a bent fork -- you're drinking from a can, and
you would be dragged out of here. I am Hymenaeus,
Porter! The agony is over. Finished! Time to come
home -- three squares -- wine at every meal."
"What do you mean finished, I'm not finished!"
"You may not be through, Porter -- but you're
finished. Nobody's ever through. If you think I'm
going to stand in the wings forever waiting for you
to call me whenever you've got the urge to paint,
"You're my muse?"
"That's right -- Hymenaeus, God of marriage -- we
met at the Goldfarb wedding, remember? There's no
such thing as a muse of painting, Porter, you
should know that. They gave me the job by default.
But I've had it with you! I'm calling in my
"I don't believe you! Prove it!"
"You mean like a miracle?"
"Yes, show me a miracle." I move quickly to the
light switch, I don't want him pulling any fast
ones in the dark. He looks about him and points to
Chipson's block of yellow stone on the stand.
"The man who shares this place with me is a
sculptor, he's going to make a head of Gertrude
"Stein. Yes, I know her well. Sneaks around with
that ratty little Alice B. Toklas. Can't stand
either of them myself." Before my eyes, there is a
shower of rubble on the floor around the stand, and
the head of Gertrude Stein suddenly appears where
the block of stone stood only a second before. I
don't mean a stone replica such as a sculptor might
create, but the living breathing head of Gertrude
"Okay! Okay! That's enough! Put it back the way it
was, I believe you!" I suddenly realize this guy's
for real. This Hymenaeus fella is gonna take me
with him and there isn't much I can do about it.
"What's it like," I ask him .... "I mean what's it
going to be like where you want me to go?"
"One helluva damn sight better than what you've
got, Porter; and probably a lot better than you
deserve." He stood up and looked at his watch. "We
should really be getting along. What time does it
get light around here?"
"It'll be a lot like being dead, won't it?"
"It'll be exactly like being dead, Porter. But
remember, it won't all be gravy." He looks at my
painting of Jasmine on the wall and shivers with
revulsion. Are you familiar with the ten
commandments, Porter? -- "THOU SHALT NOT MAKE UNTO
THEE ANY GRAVEN IMAGE OR ANY LIKENESS OF ANYTHING
THAT IS IN HEAVEN ABOVE OR THAT IS ON THE EARTH, OR
IN THE WATERS UNDER THE EARTH."
to have a lot of explaining to do, Porter ....
you're no Monet you know -- you won't be sitting at
the table with the big boys. Think along the lines
of Grandma Moses or Andy Warhol."
"Look Hymen-whatever, I'm a lot better than you
think I am. I've changed. Look at that
painting on the wall -- over there across the room.
I've got plenty left in me -- I'm having what we
call a renaissance. I want to stay here, really I
do .... please."
With that he shakes his head at me and stands up.
He picks up his hat and and slowly brushes it with
his sleeve. He seems to be talking to himself. He
looks across the room at the head of Gertrude Stein
and, as if by magic, it is suddenly a yellowish
block of marble again. He looks at my painting on
the wall and shivers slightly as though he had seen
something that turned his stomach.
"Well, I tried Porter. It was a great offer. You
should have jumped at the chance. Now, you're on
your own. When the time comes -- it'll be in a year
or two, by the way -- you'll be standing in the
chow line without a mess kit." He paused and looked
around him, then he muttered more to himself than
me, "I'll never understand these people -- living
like this .... why is his life so precious to him?
His art! Why does it mean so much to him?" He
turned on his heel and walked out. I could hear his
footsteps on the stair.
That was last night. For a moment or two after he
left, I thought I had won a great victory over the
unknown, a chance at a new beginning. But now,
here, in the cold light of morning I hear the sound
of Kaplan's sewing machines again -- starting up
for the day. I look at my painting on the wall, and
maybe it's not as good as I think it is after all
.... maybe there's nothing left in me. Maybe I
missed my one big chance .... Chipson will soon be
here and it will start all over again.
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