One day last week I walked downtown to meet two friends for lunch on Bedford Street. On Carmine Street, even though it was not yet one o’clock, the light was that of late afternoon and very pretty, so that the tops of all the old buildings were made rosy and golden. I saw a nun locking a gate enclosing the parking lot near Our Lady of Pompeii, while another lady stood watching as she turned the key. When the lock clicked, the nun said, “Amen!” The other lady laughed and then so did the nun, and I could hear them laughing all the way to Bedford Street. I was meeting Steve and Yuko, Steve Dalachinsky and Yuko Otomo, a pair I’ve known for a very long time.
In the middle of the ‘80s they hosted a regular poetry reading at the Knitting Factory, back when it was a little old place on Houston Street down a few steps below the sidewalk. Back then, Steve reminded me of a prizefighter with his accent and stance like an old-school Jewish featherweight in an old movie. Yuko had long black hair then. Now it is long and silver and she’s just as beautiful. Steve still reminds me of a prizefighter and I love them both very much. It’s funny how that works. At one of our lunches together a year or so ago, Steve said, “Remember when we used to have arguments on the sidewalk?” And I did remember, it’s true that we did, because sometimes I found Steve Dalachinksy very maddening. Sometimes I still do, but now the maddening parts are what I love most and I can’t imagine life in New York without him or without Yuko.
At lunch we talked about lots of things: About Steve Ben Israel and Taylor Mead and how much they are missed; how all the laundromats in that part of the Village have either disappeared or become drop-off only; Steve told a joke about how flying an airplane upside down would surely mean a crack up, and somehow we ended up talking about Chairman Mao and painters. I forget how we got onto that, but it made me think of a story that a Chinese lady I once worked with relayed to me that had to do with the mole on the Chairman’s face. One day she said she’d been a member of the Little Red Guard as a child, and I remembered a copy of the Little Red Book on my mother’s bookshelf. As a kid I would sometimes look at that book and be transfixed by the photograph of the Chairman. I was transfixed by his smooth hair, his placid expression and by the mole on his chin. The Chinese lady and I both worked at a publishing house up in Times Square in the early 1990s, and when I told her about my fixation with the Chairman’s mole, she said she wanted to take me somewhere at lunchtime. When the hour came, I followed her down Broadway to 42nd Street, which had begun its transformation from X-rated into something else. Various art-related people were using the X-rated movie marquees for artistic slogans, and for a time, painters had studios on the floors above the porn theaters. One of them was a Chinese man who this lady knew, and on that day she took me to visit him.
He was a painter who had gone through all kinds of terrible things during the Cultural Revolution before somehow vanishing into Tibet. He didn’t speak any English but he was very welcoming and he made tea for us there in his studio, which was full of big oil paintings of people laboring in fields. My co-worker spoke to him at length, pointing at me, and he laughed. Then he spoke to her at length, ending by making a big sweeping gesture with both arms, and she laughed. Then she told me what he’d said. After she had told him about my interest in the Chairman’s mole, he told about how he had been assigned the job of painting giant portraits of the Chairman’s face all over buildings and billboards, using ladders and scaffolds. The portraits were so enormous that the mole on the Chairman’s face all by itself was this big—and she made the big sweeping gesture he had made—it was tremendous, the biggest mole ever painted in the history of the world, and he had painted it over and over and over. I told Steve and Yuko the story and they laughed too. They both thought it would be good to write it down. I’d be glad to hear the story in a poem by either one of them. I wish I could remember the painter’s name, but I can’t.
In my bag I had my copy of Yuko’s new book, a book of poems she wrote all about art called STUDY. I bought it at a reading she gave in Downtown Brooklyn not long ago, where Steve made a wonderful little speech to the audience about Yuko; saying in essence how, despite the fact that they’ve lived together forever and fight all the time, he can think of no other artist more truthful and real than Yuko, and how she wrote those poems over years just for the sake of writing them, without ever imagining them in a book. I’ve been carrying it around in case I have to wait on a line or take the bus, so I can open it at random and read one of Yuko’s marvelous little pictures, like one called 7000 Oaks that she wrote for Joseph Beuys:
I reflected my lips
on Beuys’ corroded mirror
. . .
Did it really take
one third of a second?
After saying goodbye to both of them in front of the café, I walked home in a very roundabout way, because everything was covered in shadows and beautiful to look at. Suddenly it’s December. How did this happen?
8 December 2013
8 December 2013