Image Credit: Touann Gatouillat Vergos
Money is the opposite of magic. Art is magic. The worlds of art and money are constantly intermingling. To survive this mixture the magic in art has to be applied in new ways. Magic must always triumph.
I was working multiple jobs in NYC and scrambling for money, as per usual, when my old client, Brendan, called me out of the blue for a special gig. He hired me to restore a Keith Haring mural. It was in a first-floor private residence he was remodeling to sell in the American Thread Building, a beautiful eleven-story 1894 behemoth that grandly occupied a corner of West Broadway in TriBeCa. Haring had painted the white wall with black shoe polish when he was a twenty-year-old student, at the same art school I had attended, when this space had been a School of Visual Arts studio. Brendan knew I’d appreciate the work. Haring was a NYC legend, an ’80s pop-art icon who drew babies, dogs, UFOs, and dancing figures in the subway stations. He also addressed social issues in his work, such as homosexuality, politics, and AIDS—which he would die from tragically young.
I had always thought Brendan was my friend. A decade before this restoration, I had been his personal trainer. As a trainer in the West Village, I had brushed elbows with plenty of New York City’s rich and successful, many of whom were my clients. I had been in my early twenties and a recent Illustration graduate from SVA. I had trained architects, real estate developers, fashion choreographers, and investors. Brendan and I had a great time in the gym; he took me to nice dinners; I met his teenage children; we talked about art; he had hired me to repaint the walls of his friend’s beautiful apartment overlooking Washington Square Park.
I had been grateful for the kindnesses of my clients who were on a different stratum than I was. I’d move on from this high-end gym after a few years but would keep in touch with some of my new companions. At the time, I thought perhaps someday my success and adulthood would look similar to theirs: a creative job I loved, monthlong trips to Paris. After the restoration, I’d wonder if friendships can bridge the class gap, if favors and generosity always fall under the transactional or charitable—what do the poor give up or owe back when they accept?
No professionals had taken on this project. The Haring Foundation and restorers had inspected the space and declared the piece impossible to restore. It was too broken, too fragile, and there was no way to remove the entire wall intact without it crumbling. It would be safer to do nothing—the foundation recommended covering it with a Plexiglass window. I suppose that’s when Brendan thought of me. I had a background in painting interiors and doing fine detailed work on sculptures for the ultra-famous artist, Jeff Koons: a living pop-culture icon known for depictions of everyday objects, massive metal balloon animals, and equally massive price tags. I wasn’t unskilled, but I wasn’t a trained restoration artist either. I was the last, and cheapest, resort.
To any restorer, taking on a nearly impossible project with a two-week deadline would probably be ludicrous, but I was epitomizing the NYC hustle, barely making rent between answering phones at a tattoo shop and juggling a new second job training people at a midtown gym. I couldn’t pass it up. Brendan wanted the piece to match the polish of the rest of the updated luxurious space before it went on the market. He asked me what I thought the compensation should be, and I asked for $2,000 dollars, somehow underestimating the workload, the undertaking, and the worth of the job. I see it now as a classic power move: leave it to a poor worker who wants to secure a job to set a competitive price and those at the top never have to show all their cards. He didn’t bother to correct me. Let the desperate dig their own graves, I guess.
I was a paycheck-to-paycheck tattooed woman in a white men’s-undershirt and paint-splattered cargo khakis, in a space worth fifteen million dollars being face-lifted and upgraded into an elite playpen for some rich executive or actor. I didn’t quite belong. I studied the spiraling staircase and thick white columns that hoisted up the ceiling with its gilded molding, the spiky modern chandelier drifting high above the spacious living room with its new, shiny, un-played piano. I swallowed the unease of knowing this once was an SVA studio space where a young Keith tangoed the walls, in the city I had escaped to for its purple doors, its rainbow of people, its howling Allen Ginsberg and roaring Patti Smith, its grit, its art. And here I was, preparing its history to be sold to the highest bidder and turned into a condo.
Keith had been a middle-class kid from Pennsylvania who became a street artist, and along with Basquiat, brought highbrow recognition and status to this alternative urban art. Despite wild success at a young age, he never stopped painting murals for the masses, for causes, for children—and he never stopped disdaining the greedy Art World, which he called The Big Lie. In the early stages of his meteoric rise, Keith had noted, The one thing (and in the end it was always the only thing) that I have control of is what comes out of me and into the world. It is hard to control the thing once it has come out and entered the world. But only I can bring it to the world.
The mural was in bad shape. It had Haring’s bold distinct lines and shapes and alive spontaneity, but the mural had been through many incarnations including an Italian restaurant, and was breaking down. There were chunks missing from the wall and a part of it was painted over. Layers of white paint in a large rectangular shape swallowed the bottom left corner of the work. I figured the mural must slip underneath this white block carelessly added later. So I chipped away at the rectangle by hand, with a screwdriver at first, then with a small sharp blade better suited for the delicate job. Tediously, until I exposed the undead black shoe-polish underneath, still vibrating on the fragile firebrick.
In his journal, Haring had written, I am making things in the world that won’t go away when I do. If this “success” had not happened, then maybe the world would not know these things after I go away. But now I know, as I am making these things, that they are “real” things, maybe more “real” than me, because they will stay here when I go. Keith had been thirty-one when he died. I was thirty-one when halfway through the project, the faulty ladder I was on skydived and I was midair, then laid out on the paint-splattered tarp, on way to being reborn.
On a Sunday in October 2013, I was patching small holes near the ceiling. A split-second later, I was on the ground on top of the ladder. It happened too quickly for my life to flash before my eyes. At first, I wasn’t too worried. I also didn’t know my left heel was broken. Yes, I lay in shock unable to move for either ten minutes or sixty minutes. Time stood still. Or sped up. Despite not having discernible pain, I could not walk. I tried but my body wouldn’t let me. I eventually hopped on one leg out of the first-floor unit to the doorman in the lobby. He sat me in a chair in the cleaning closet and brought me ice. Out of my stupor and here among the mops and Windex’s, I took to social media to joke and posted a Facebook update cursing mercury retrograde. What a week, huh? The replies seemed a lot more concerned than I was at the time.
I hopped to a taxi after icing my foot for forty minutes and went home to Brooklyn. Going to the hospital seemed like an unnecessary hassle. A number of yoga friends, who were at my apartment visiting with my roommate, insisted I was white as a ghost and they were taking me to a hospital. One had a car and one did research to see who took my Medicaid insurance.
X-rays were taken at the hospital, but the doctor diagnosed it a sprain and sent me on my way, with a snugly bandaged foot and a new pair of crutches. Daily, I’d gingerly work a sneaker onto my wrapped foot and try to take a few steps without crutches. After five days, I hadn’t made it to any of my three jobs. I’d made no progress. I couldn’t take one single step. I went to a follow-up appointment with a podiatrist who informed me my foot wasn’t sprained.
The slides were beautiful in their dramatic contrast, backlit and showing the tributaries of cracks breaking up the low vertical boulder of my heel. My calcaneus was shattered. The doctor told me I could put absolutely no weight onto the foot, that I’d be casted and use crutches for six to eight weeks. Surgery requiring plates and screws was a possibility.
I hadn’t cried when I’d fallen from the air, or when in a heap on the ground, frozen in place, ladder edge dug into my left thigh. Even the pain when the shock wore off, earthquake-deep, hard to pinpoint, and seemingly made worse by a tingling ice-and-heat salve, only elicited moans and rocking. Finally, I lost it and wept in his office, unable to hold onto the Everything’s Fine I’d mastered, unable to remember what made me unbreakable. Broke, I didn’t have the luxury of focusing solely on physical pain or time for healing. My mind galloped ahead to unpaid bills and expenses. My unloosed grief was partly about being significantly broken for the first time, but mostly about the financial ramifications I knew would come from it. A fallout would follow a fall.
In my early twenties, I had been an eloquent, fit, graceful blonde who was occasionally courted like she possessed the potential to be a trophy wife. But I had never become a part of the big-city elite. My clients were generous at holidays. They got me side gigs like dressing models backstage for a VH1 show, in which a model who dropped out last minute due to an anxiety attack, was replaced by me. The size-four Rockabilly dress fit me. I wore bobby socks and impossibly high-heeled Mary Janes and a long sleek ponytail. I said to one of the models, If I knew I’d be wearing a dress tonight, I would have shaved! Minutes later, leg hair and all, I was on stage with Elton John and The Pussycat Dolls.
I had briefly dated one of my clients, a charming Mexican millionaire, and was floored by the amount of money he had. I didn’t realize he had so much until I saw the multiple Porsches and motorcycles in his underground garage. His was the first SUV I rode in that had a rear video monitor. His motorcycle was the first one I sat on the back of, learning to lean and navigate the turns of the West Village. His lovely and sterile apartment held no remnants of living; no old photos, no dirty mugs, no full closets. I was in the wrong building, or the wrong skin.
Shortly after we had started dating, we drove to the Hamptons to spend the 4th of July weekend in a house he shared with friends. I met his friend and fellow investor, who also had a young, eloquent, stunning woman with him. The friend and I dove into a discussion about politics and the upcoming election. I was making the case for universal healthcare and he was a wealthy Republican. I woke up feeling dirty the next morning in a snow-white, immaculate house in this upscale getaway town for New Yorkers unlike me. I slipped out of the luxurious bedroom into the unoccupied living room, curled into a seated fetal position by the reader’s-dream bay window facing the backyard with the pool and sea and rain streaming down the glass, and sobbed. I didn’t belong there and deeply knew it.
I dated him for a few more months. He was always polite and listened to what I had to say. We sat in local cafes reading The Economist and discussing the state of the world. He’d pay chivalrously for dinners despite my unease and need for independence, he in his jeans and sweater, me in combat boots and a plaid jacket with skull patches.
One night, in his small but clean New York-style kitchen, we had discussed healthcare. Despite being smart and well-read, it never occurred to him what it might be like on the ground for the people in my sphere: for people who do work but don’t earn much, who have debt that keeps them grinding to meet credit card minimums or student loan payments, who care for elderly or mentally ill relatives, who didn’t receive a college education. We were just in different worlds. He graciously offered me a loan but I would never have accepted it. I liked him, but the class chasm was one I couldn’t hurdle, and I slipped away.
After the doctor confirmed my fracture, I called Brendan. He was in Texas, many miles away from TriBeCa. I conveyed to him my deep concern about being able to cover my bills and work in this condition. He told me I needed to learn to not be so financially vulnerable. I didn’t know what to say in the moment and don’t think I said much. As if I elected to live like this at thirty-one, without savings, after twelve years of juggling multiple jobs, often six days a week, for ten- to fifteen-hour days. The contrast between his Dallas real-estate and oil money, his children’s Ivy League educations, and my upbringing in New Jersey with a father who managed fast-food restaurants and delivered newspapers, was stark. How my mother battled to keep me in college, financial aid assistance the only thing that allowed me to remain a student when my parents separated. Me, the only one in my immediate family with a four-year degree.
Somehow, the accident felt like a personal failure. I know this was a trauma response, a symptom of the systemic gaslighting of the poor. Maybe if I were more competent…maybe if I could manage to bootstrap better than I did…. Maybe Keith Haring was cursing me from the grave…maybe he was saving me. Either way, Brendan wanted the restoration finished very close to the original deadline and I thought I’d be in my integrity to try and do so.
So I hired a fellow former Jeff Koons-employee with top-notch painting skills to help me. We rented proper sturdy scaffolding from Home Depot. She tackled the higher parts of the wall and I worked on the lower parts, standing on one leg with the crutches propped under me or sitting on the lower rung of the scaffolding, my heavy plaster foot dangling. Six days after the fall and one day after being casted, I posted a grainy photo online of my hand painting, with the caption: Fractured heel, whole heart. Without adding anything Keith didn’t originally, we refreshed the existing lines with a soft black to match the shoe polish and brightened the white background which had become dingy. We finished the work on time.
Brendan told me I was smart and I’d figure out a way to make money from home. My efforts to sell artwork and garner painting commissions generated less than $300 dollars in sales. When I asked if he had workers’ comp insurance, he said, The short answer is no. I believed him.
The Wall Street personal injury lawyer I finally saw at my mom’s frantic urging laughed at me. A 15 million dollar apartment and no liability insurance? Yeah right! He stressed the seriousness of the injury, the case for not settling for pennies, the fact I might never walk the same again. Sitting on the other side of the desk signing papers, with crutches propped at my side in this tall-building-borough of business transactions, I knew I was naïve and duped.
My friend Alexis, who had gone to SVA with me, struggled with money too but insisted I come stay with her in her rent-controlled apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She was horrified to hear I was sleeping on the living room couch in my Brooklyn apartment—with no door to hide my pain behind—since my roommate and I had rented out my room for a full month for extra cash, right before I broke my foot. I took Alexis up on her offer. Her place was closer to the gym I worked at which was a huge relief. Even though the gym was up four flights of stairs and I had to train people sitting on a box, I needed to work. As it was, I had to give up the tattoo-shop job—I couldn’t set up or break down artists’ stations on crutches. Alexis’s small Boston Terrier, Una, slept next to my casted foot. One bed, two jaded ladies, and a little protector who curled up next to the unforgiving plaster, a healer in a runt’s disguise.
After a long eight weeks, I moved into a boot, and then a brace. I had decided against surgery and implanted metal hardware. I could walk. I was simultaneously ecstatic and nervous. It was winter by then and I was conscious of ice and snow and I limped along carefully. I’d get short random bouts of vertigo where I felt like I was falling. I started going to physical therapy; I was endlessly grateful for Medicaid and it being a rare year I actually had health insurance. I spent the last available $40 dollars on my credit card on a Groupon deal: three months of unlimited classes at a yoga studio in Union Square. I’d heal my heel—and everything else.
Unfortunately, the income from the gym where I was still building a clientele, income from only one job, didn’t prove to be enough in NYC. I had to leave my own apartment in Brooklyn for good. Ninety percent of what I owned went into a New Jersey storage shed. I stayed with Alexis and little Una. Mercy alliance. I thought of one of Keith’s journal entries: Usually the people who are the most generous are people who have the least to give. I learned this first-hand as a newspaper carrier when I was 12 years old. The biggest tips came from the poorest people. I was surprised by this, but I learned it as a lesson.
Both familiar with the struggle, Alexis and I made art and made mixed drinks in her grandma’s old familiar kitchen. We found reasons to laugh ourselves ugly. Screech-breathing and wet-eyed, we’d sip the refreshing creations we deemed FMLs (Fuck My Life’s). I couldn’t pay rent, but I could buy a bottle of Beefeater gin and a fancy lime seltzer. I could garnish our glasses with raspberries. And I knew who my friends were.
Kimberly Sheridan is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Eastern Washington University where she is the managing editor of Willow Springs magazine. She holds a BFA in Illustration and has been a Jeff Koons sculpture technician and interior painter. Kimberly’s currently writing a book on tattoo culture.