Art and life


Wandering around the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., I nearly broke into tears. So many old friends, so much moving, meaningful art. There the Panini, there a Canaletto, over there the Rembrandt and there the Assumption by the Master of the St. Lucy Legend.

This is why I love art. In one spot, so much of the best and even when not the best, then the best known. Each room contains two or three of my oldest, dearest friends, and oh, how they have changed over the years since I last saw them. It has been at least a dozen years since I visited them and they have altered greatly. Some that I loved passionately when I was a college student have now become garish, cheap, obvious and unsubtle.

It isn’t just us that change as we age: It seems the very paintings do, too.

So now, others that I knew as one knows a distant aunt or uncle, not too well but by reputation, now seem as deep and wide as oceans.

I have left TerBrorch and Hals, but they have been replaced by Corot.

At noon, my brother, Craig, showed up in the rotunda and we wandered the galleries trading enthusiasms. Mostly, we walked through the 19th Century French galleries where the Cezannes are as serious as Bach and the Renoirs as cheap as a wine cooler. Through the American galleries and then to the East Wing. We stayed there until we were thrown out by guards at 5 p.m.

When we got to Craig’s car, the battery was dead. He called AAA and we waited an hour for them to show up, much of that time listening to the sorry tale of a homeless ex-drug addict, now relapsed (making him, I guess, a former ex-drug addict). He seemed bright and alert and he originally showed up in an attempt to help us start the car. He offered to call the police, saying they usually have jumper cables and help out.

“Don’t ask a cabbie,” he said. “They always want money for it. It ain’t their business. They shouldn’t be asking money for helping people. But they always want $10.”

Craig let on that $10 might be a bargain to get the car started without waiting the hour to 90 minutes the AAA had promised.

But he began telling us his life story, kneeling on the asphalt so his head was at car-window level so he could see both of us inside.

“I’m going to a program in West Virginia Tuesday. It will help. I was in a 12-step program and I kept clean for 11 months and seven days, but two weeks ago, I relapsed. You know I never did none of that crack cocaine, but it’s a depressing high. It’s a nice high, you know. But it’s depressing. I makes you, if you have a conscience, you know, makes you do things you wouldn’t. You’d sell your own mother. Well, I’m lucky cuz I never had to steal nothing to pay for it. I had a job with the government, but they found out I didn’t finish high school. I had only two credits to go, they told me, and I could finish it in summer school. I had scholarships, had …” here he held up fingers like he was counting them in his mind … “seven scholarships. I was in track and field and in football. One was for Notre Dame, and the rest were for schools here.”

But drugs intervened.

“You know, one thing I learned: You should always marry into the same religion. My wife and I are different. She’s into Yaweh and Yeshua — Is that what it is? I never understood. Yeshua and Yaweh, that’s Jesus and God. I don’t know why she calls them different. But my Mama always went to church. I’m not much of a churchgoer, really, but if you don’t have religion, you can’t kick the drugs. I really believe that. This retreat in West Virginia is religious.

“My Mama showed what you can do, how you can overcome your adversities. She didn’t have no education, really, and my Dad, well, he was paralyzed from the neck when I was two. I never seen him after that. I told everybody he was dead. He came back from that war, what was that war, in 1968? Vietnam? Was that Vietnam? And he married my Mama when I was 2 then. But later he got real, he drank too much at a party one night and when he drove home he ran into that building there, what’s that building? The FBI building. He ran into it and got thrown out of his car and layed out in the street all busted up. He weren’t ever around when I grew up.

“Mama took some courses in typing and secretary things and got a part-time job with the Government Accounting Office. It was a good job and she took courses and after about six months, she left there and got another job and went to college. She studied accounting and became a CPA and now she works for the Internal Revenue.

“I don’t wanna disappoint Mama, which why I’m out here on the street today. I don’t wanna be out here tonight, cuz if I am and I do the drugs, I’ll miss the trip to West Virginia. If I do the drugs, I won’t be here.

“Drugs is bad, and that crack cocaine is the worst. I mean, the man who invented it … I mean the man who invented any drug should be in jail, but the man who invented crack cocaine, they should shoot him.”

He never sounded inarticulate, but he lapsed from King’s English into street patois and back, sounding sometimes like a home-boy, and sometimes like a middle-class stray. He was well-groomed and with a beard.

“I have never gotten so bad, you know, that I had to eat out of the garbage or pick up some food someone dropped. But I ain’t saying that couldn’t happen, but it hasn’t yet. But if I don’t stay clean till Tuesday, it wouldn’t surprise me. You know, they say that when you relapse for the first time, it’s the worst, that things are much worse than when you’re hooked the first time. And they’re right. If I don’t get out of this now, I’ll keep going back and it’s just gonna get worse and worse.

“But I never broke with my family or nothing, so they’re there for me, my Mama is, anyway. I’m an only child and I think she tries to take better care for me for that. She always tried to buy me the best clothes, not just ordinary clothes, but the best.”

And although he had mentioned panhandling early in the conversation, he never did hit us up for money.

“It’s good to talk about it,” he said as he rose from the pavement. “It’s good to talk with someone and tell them, so thanks for listening, you hear? I can go and get the police. They’re right over here in this building,” he said, pointing to a large, characterless, bureaucratic building of poured concrete and glass. “The police here will help you; they’re good about that. Don’t stop no cabbie.”

And he walked off. About 15 minutes later, AAA showed up and jumped us.

So, after a foot-numbing day of museum-going, I hobble back to the hotel and just as I get my socks off and begin rubbing my toes, it begins raining in downtown Washington, slickering the streets and streaking my window. Lightning flashes benignly in the clouds. And though I can barely walk, I slip my shoes back on and limp down the hall to the elevator and out into the weather.

“I’m from Arizona,” I tell the doorman. “What do you call this funny stuff falling out of the sky?”

He laughs. “Rain. It rains here most every afternoon in the summer.”

“Where I come from, it hasn’t rained since last year,” I tell him. And I don’t remember any rain since before January, so it’s true.

I walk out in it, get my hair wet and my clothes dampened. A low roll of thunder and the car tires sizzle on the wet pavement.

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