This time the invitation came by telegram. Yes, telegram. I too thought Western Union sent the last one in 2006. But there he was, some Freddie Bartholomew-looking guy with ridiculously correct posture, standing before me in his faux-military uniform: high top shoes, puttees, pants tucked in shoes, standard issue Michael Jackson coat, and a pencil tucked into a holder in his hat. “Western Union,” he said in a voice that sounded both cheerful and homicidal, “telegram for Mr. Scarborough.” Against the palm tree in the courtyard leaned a bicycle. It could have been a retro hipster jobber you see in the Arts District but I’ll be damned if it didn’t look like the two-wheeled equivalent of a Model T (“you can have it painted any color as long as it’s black.”).
The cat kept a wary ten paces back (curiosity, killing) when I opened the screen door. He handed me the telegram and stood there with his hand out, as if I had pocketed his decoder ring from a box of Cracker Jacks and he wanted it back. Oh yeah, that. I reached into the Aladdin’s Cave that is my pocket. The only thing that had any remunerative value was a Starbuck’s gift card with, I think, $1.75 on it. He took the card as if he’d never seen one before, giving me a look like I had just handed him a flaming bag of dog crap. He flung the bike over his shoulder in a wide arc, pointed it in the direction of the street, and tootled out of the courtyard and out of my life.
A telegram. Did someone die? Did someone get married? Was I being summoned to a deathbed confession telling me where treasure was buried? It seemed there should be a ceremony here. I grabbed my black Sinatra fedora, the one with the tear-shaped indentation on top, from the bayonet that one evening appeared (and thus remained), pointed sharp end first, through the wall (my neighbor, an edgy actress: long story). I spun the brim between my thumb and index finger and bounced it off the crook of my elbow where it landed on my head. I was impressed; the cat was flabbergasted.
Since I was suddenly so aware of the otherwise innocuous bayonet, I used it to open the telegram. Take that, 1940s romantic comedy! “Mr. Scarborough stop. It gives me great pleasure to request your presence at a most remarkable event stop.” Remarkable to me was how they used to use stop instead of punctuation because, while you had to pay for punctuation, you didn’t have to pay for stop. Jesus, another art show.
It did occur to me that this was a repeat of the prior show to which my attendance had been finagled (Modjeska Canyon, Impressionist paintings, no record of it ever occurring). This one also took place on a Saturday, at 8pm, with a line that said, Thank God, drinks at 7:30. I was told to meet at the pier at the Pike. There’s a pier at the Pike? Maybe 75 years ago. As with the last show, I went because the invitation was so unusual; also because, despite whatever art I’d see or not see, it would be an adventure and then a story. Perhaps this time there would be people. Besides, if it were another time warp, I would ask Myrna Loy to spend the next day with me on Catalina Island.
Saturday, perfect crisp fall weather. But already it turned odd. Usually by 7pm, the Pike was filled with expense account conventioneers and Inland Empire rabble. This time it was nearly empty. The men didn’t look Midwestern or skivvy. They all wore hats, while I cursed that my black Sinatra fedora rested at home on the bayonet blade. The women looked like something out of a Greer Garson movie. If they had tattoos, piercings, or pink hair, they were concealed beneath hats (hats!) and stylish dresses that extended from the neck to the ankles. Everyone was strolling, laughing, talking, as if they didn’t have a care in the world. No iPhones, no Google glasses. It looked like the end credits of “Cheers” when the real life image of the bar becomes a hand-tinted lithograph.
I wish I could say I was nonplussed, but I wasn’t. I was assailed by heebie-jeebies at not knowing what the hell was going on as well as not having an escape plan. If I had thought that the Pike didn’t have a pier, then I was mistaken. There it was, just beyond what I later realized too late was a brothel. The pier was lit up by streetlights, like those in Chris Burden’s Urban Light installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Standing halfway down the pier wearing, I kid you not, a tuxedo, was, if not the genuine article then at least a clone of Ralph Bellamy. “Mr. Scarborough, so nice to see you. If you’ll just step right this way please.” Beyond being shocked anymore, I got onto a motorboat for an incidentless excursion, piloted by terse and chummy Ralph Bellamy. I later learned we had motored three miles offshore shore so to elude a law that prevented gambling in Long Beach. The Johanna Smith was a huge gambling ship. It looked a lot like the Queen Mary that, to horror, wasn’t in its usual berth as we went out to sea. The ship was lit up like a thousand menorahs on scaffolding. Even from a mile or so out, I could hear a band playing swing music and the drunken chortles and giggles that, on land or on sea, accompany any assembly of men, women, alcohol, and live music.
I was helped up the plank by I swear to God someone who looked like Red Grange, the Galloping Ghost who played football for the University of Illinois in the Twenties. I was met at the rail by – Jesus H. Christ! – Fiorello La Guardia, New York mayor from 1934-1945. He’s a lot taller than he seems in photos. I was about to say something but he gave me a cigar, lit it, and told me to follow him.
Through throngs of people, dressed with class but doing what we do on a regular basis in the V-Room after open nights: slumming, but dressed up slumming. I felt joyously at home but still not a little chagrined I left my black Sinatra fedora at home. I was devastated when, turning to see who tapped me on the shoulder, I realized it was Myrna Loy and – I’ll never forget this until my dying day – she asked me all squeaky voiced, “Would you like to dance?” No sooner were the words out of her mouth that Fiorello – oh yeah, him – grabbed me by the sleeve and said, “Now, now, Mr. Scarborough, we don’t have time for that. We have work to do.” Work to do?
We went down two flights of spiraling stairs and turned right. Below the water line. Great, if this is the era I think it is, we’re a sitting target for a German U-Boat. Fiorello didn’t seem to mind. He stopped short in front of a door, an ornate, cream bordered with gold leaf door that suggests a richly appointed boudoir. Well now. “We’re here. Take as long as you want,” he said. “A little context, though I know you don’t give a rat’s ass about context. What you’re going to see was conceived on conjugal visits.” Huh?,” I said. “I don’t know,” he continued, “if you know about these things – probably not – but there are only a few places in the world that allow conjugal visits. Fucking frigid Canada does, merrie olde England doesn’t, Australia and France do, Spain doesn’t. You get me?” I shook my head no and muttered yes. “Well, what you going to see was created during these conjugal visits. I’ve gone to great effort and even greater expense to make this happen so please don’t fuck this up. I’ll come back for you in a while.”
I was about to ask him to repeat himself when he said, “Oh, you might need this.” Out of the pockets of his dinner jacket, which were apparently bigger than they seemed, this blessed, enigmatic man produced a condensation-sparkling martini shaker (the ice tinkled I’m here!) and, miraculously, a martini glass. That was the least surprising thing he did all night and, though he didn’t reach into yet another pocket for a jar of olives, I was set, though, oh, would that I could inveigle Myrna Loy to descend, nude or otherwise, those staircases to join me.
I couldn’t hear the music or voices above me but I could feel the vibrations echo through the ship. Fine, I thought, downstairs first, upstairs second, work and then play. I gave the shaker a well-practiced jounce. Some people like the comforting counterpoint of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Me, I’m more an ice jiggling randomly and chaotically in a martini shaker guy. A healthy Bertie Wooster draught of the revivifying elixir and off to work, whatever the hell the work would turn out to be.
I parted the doors and, yowza, a grand ballroom. I thought of the RMS Titanic and then I thought of U-Boats, both of which I quickly dismissed with another conclusive gulp of gin. The ceiling was higher than seemed possible. The center of the room was empty, save for the kind of leather armchair I call the Sherlock Holmes chair. It sat on the biggest Persian carpet I’ve even seen. From the doorway, the room seemed to go on forever. Later I checked to see if mirrors had created the illusion of space. Nope, as solipsists are fond of saying, it was what it was.
And then the walls. Paintings crammed, frame to frame. Dozens and dozens. The lighting was perfect though I don’t see how the four huge chandeliers could have produced such an effect. I walked into the room. Make that, I listed into the room, for somehow another martini seems to have quickly evaporated from my glass. I was gasping for olives until I got to the Sherlock Holmes chair and paid attention to the paintings. Wait a second. That’s Leger, in his Cubo-Futurist phase. In graduate school, Leger was my hero, but I had never seen, in reproduction or in person, any of his work that showed a bank teller in a green visor counting out money to a customer. Next to that, a Gris, a Synthetic Cubist Gris. I had seen countless kaleidoscopic Gris’s but never one that showed, from the sides, from above, from below, of a woman - his wife - taking off her clothes while, on the bed sat an equally fractured and disjointed swain - a priapic swain - who I knew to be Picasso. Gris, as I recall, was more of a nature morte guy. Well then. Next to that, a Delaunay, good old Orphist Delaunay. But no, quivering through syncopated time that wasn’t the Eiffel Tower that was – damn, could it be? – Guillaume Apollinaire with a monocle and a tennis racket. Well I’ll be damned.
The peculiarity of everything vanished for the next ninety minutes. Prison cells, conjugal visits, unsigned paintings that looked too much like stuff I had studied in London – hell, who cares? I was less amazed by…by…what had Fiorello said?, by the context than by things like aura and authority and craft.
After ninety minutes my visual endurance, as always, began to fade. I sidled toward the door, realizing I had just made some new friends on the wall, when I noticed, next to the first one at the foot of the Sherlock Holmes chair, that there was a second martini pitcher, empty. Who brought it in, Fiorello, Red Grange, Hank Bellamy, Myrna Loy? To this day I don’t know and, frankly, I don’t care.
I walked through the doors. There was Fiorello, smoking another cigar. “Well,” he said, “well?” “Stupefyingly brilliant,” I said and proceeded down the hall, up the stairs. The damn place was empty. Less than two hours ago there had been a raging party on a gambling ship three miles off the coast of Long Beach and now nothing? Out on the deck I saw two people. As I got closer I noticed than one was Myrna Loy. Standing next to her - Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! - was William Powell. In her purse sat her dog Asta. Paying no heed to William Powell or even that damn dog, I walked, mostly one foot in front of the other, to where they stood. If Fiorello Laguardia looks bigger than he seems in photographs, then William Powell looks gargantuan. I didn’t care. I tapped her on her shoulder. Her body still pointed toward William Powell but her face, her angelic, marmoreal face, was angled over to me. My big chance. “Excuse me, Miss Loy,” I said in my most swashbuckling Errol Flynn voice, “it’s probably too late to dance but I was wondering if I could text you some time. Maybe we could hang out.” As she turned to face me, her shoulders slumped, her radiant face eclipsed in sadness. A tear ran down her cheek. And then slowly, she, William Powell, and goddamn Asta vanished like Claude Rains the Invisible Man taking off his tape. That’s when I realized – crap! – where was Ralph Bellamy and how the hell was I going to get back to shore?