by Deedee Agee
© Deedee Agee 2004 All Rights Reserved
The summer I was seventeen, I cleaned Bills loft, did his laundry, shopped in the Village, and dragged my shopping cart up five flights after five and on weekends when the elevator didnt run. I cooked small breaded fish I bought on Bleecker Street called chicken of the sea, made salads with avocado, raisins and chopped apples, brewed peppermint tea leaves by the handful, loose in a yellow teapot I got in Chinatown. Bill had the only Artist in Residence sign on Crosby Street. You had to apply to the city for the AIR permit, which made living in a loft legal. If there was a fire during non-working hours, the AIR sign would tell the fire department there could be someone inside. There were a limited number of permits, and to get one you had to prove you were a real artist. Bills hung like a mezzuzah on the doorframe.
Most nights, we walked up the dark empty street, past the lit windows of two other illegally occupied lofts, and on uptown past Union Square to the heavy glass doors of Maxs Kansas City. Wed wait at the bar for a table unless people we knew were already at one that still had room, and then wed crowd in with them. Bill started out with beer and moved on to shots of Jack Daniels. The back room was where Andy Warhol held court, sweeping in late with his large entourage. The front room was the territory of the minimalist and conceptual artistsCarl Andre, Dan Flavin, Marc DeSuvero, Brice Marden, Larry Poonswho mostly thought Warhol was a flake, though they respected the Campbells soup cans and the 24-hour-long film of the Empire State building. Nancy Graves with her life-size camels was the only woman artist I remember. Most had recently been signed by one or another of the 57th street galleries and were just beginning to be known as a school. They drank and talked art all night while the wives and girlfriends sat and smiled and listened, or pretended to, and I hoped my being ten years younger wouldnt be noticed, or wouldnt matter. Sometimes the group was large enough that a critical mass of mutual interest and admiration took over amongst the men, and then the women were freed up, and wed congregate at one end of the table and swap cooking-for-a-crowd type recipes or tips on loft living: where to buy mosquito net cheap, how best to rig it up around a bed, the particulars of how each man had turned one of the two toilet stalls most lofts came with into a shower, how to stay warm at night and on weekends when the factories were closed and the heat was turned off, the virtues of wall mounted vs. floor model gas heaters, our various solutions to the shopping problem that went with living in an industrial neighborhood with no super markets, the latest on new thrift shops and temp jobs. Our bond was our unspoken understanding that we were called to be the women behind extraordinary men, that this was a hallowed responsibility, and that the men would be hopelessly lost without our practical support and love, our unflagging belief in them, in the future greatness of their work. I felt welcomed into the generations-long fold of women sacrificing for the cause of genius, the glory of art, women who were strong of hand and heart, who scorned conventional views and the trappings of middle class life, who would learn to live under whatever circumstances presented themselves on the road to truth the men strode down, and do so with humor, humility and grace. And if some of us had our own artistic aspirations, those would of course be put off until the men had their work-booted feet solidly planted in the luminary circle, no longer dependent on the light we shed. I wonder now that we never thought to question what shoes of our own would be waiting, polished and tidy by the door step, for us to slip back into.
I worked that summer in a dress shop on Bleecker Street, and dreaded going off to Bennington College in the fall. All I wanted was to have a baby, and marry Bill, though I knew this was a bourgeois notion and was willing to forgo it.
One night wed hung out at Maxs til closing, and when we burst through the doors out onto Park Avenue South, Bill was blind drunk. We headed west on 17th street because he wanted to find an all night drugstore for some reason and thought he remembered one somewhere in that direction. All I wanted was to head south and home. None of the women had been there that night. The men had talked about art as object vs. art as idea, form as meaning, the reactionary nature of representational art, the irrelevance of beauty. Theyd talked about winches and acetylene torches, about the advantages of one gallery space over another, gossiped about agents, gallery owners, curators and critics. My face felt frozen sore from trying to look interested.
Outside, Bill staggered to a garage doorway to take a leak. I knew hed pass out the second we hit the mattress. I threw my head back, breathing in the cool night air, held out my arms dancing circles in the deserted street, trying to will into my body that sense of life Id been missing lately.
Thats when I notice theres something crunchy underfoot, like someone has strewn handfuls of gravel on the asphalt. I look down and see little white stones covering the street. I walk on, and the covering of stones becomes denser, and I bend down and scoop up a handful, carry them over to a streetlight. They are mostly small, irregularly shaped rocks, but theres something peculiar about them. Suddenly it hits me. Theyre not rocks at all; theyre teeth, theyre human teeth, thousands of them strewn about the street like chicken feed in a barnyard. Bill has finished peeing and almost loses his footing sliding over the teeth.
I hold out my hand to show him. Look, theyre teeth!
He peers at my hand, picks one up, holds it to his eye.
I think theyre human, I say.
Couldnt be, he says, and drops the tooth.
You think theyre animal?
I just know theyre not teeth.
Theyre teeth, I say. Human teeth. Look. Some of them have fillings. I point to metallic spots on a molar Im holding.
Theyre not teeth, he says.
Well what are they then?
all I know? Theyre not teeth.
How do you know theyre not?
Because, how could there be thousands of teeth rolling around on East Seventeenth Street? he yells. How would they get here?
I dont know how they got here, I insist. I just know what I see. Right here. In front of my eyes
Im warming to my subject, he belches and spits,
and thats teeth, thousands of them, human teeth that used to be in the heads of people, held firmly by bone and gums in human jaws, teeth that chewed and formed words and were brushed to shine, lying now on the black surface of this city street on which our own feet are walking, yours and mine, crunching over teeth as we go
Bullshit, Bill hiccups.
I scream at him. You wanna know how they could get here? Maybe a medical waste truck had an accident. Maybe, for all we know, some truck goes around the city at night picking up sacks of pulled teeth from dentists offices. Maybe theres some secret concentration camp for communists they never got rid of after McCarthy, and this is a decades worth of inmates teeth. Maybe theyre from regular prisons all over the State of New York, teeth that got pulled or knocked out in prison riots, and they save them up and collect them twice a century. Maybe this was that night, and the truck got held up cause it looked like an armored car, and when the robbers went for the loot all they found were bags of teeth, and they were so enraged they threw them all over the street. What do we know about how the world works to be so sure these teeth couldnt be here?
Right, Bill mumbles. Maybe the tooth fairy had a mid-air collision.
I want to kill him. I scoop up some teeth and put them in my pocket. I feel like Im stealing something.
Lets get a cab, says Bill. Fuck the drugstore.
In the cab, at a stoplight he opens the door and pukes into the street. The cabby says please to get my friend out of his cab, no charge. We stumble the few blocks back to the loft, stagger up the stairs, fall into bed, sleep.
In the morning I search my pocket, but theres a tiny hole in the seam, and not a single tooth to be found. I trudge up to 17th street. Its a quiet Sunday, late-morning, deserted, nothing unusual. No teeth. I wonder if a sweeper has come by, but some paper and cigarette butts quash that theory. Maybe I got the wrong street. I go to 18th street, 16th street. Nothing.
I lean against a parked car, taking in the scenethe crescendo of a bus pulling away from the curb, at my feet, a tiny tree poking up through a seam in the sidewalk. I realize Ill never be able to prove the teeth to anyone. Still, I go home happy. I walk the streets in my own shoes. I know what I saw, what I held in my hand. I will never again doubt the evidence of my own senses. I know there are mysteries in life that I will never solve, mysteries that may never be solved by a living soul, and still I believe in the living, breathing, wondrous mystery of a world without explanation or rationale.