The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2010

All Issues
OCT 2010 Issue

Famously Reclusive

When I think back on the whole story, I notice with some shock that I can’t clearly visualize my boss’s eyes. She had long black hair—this I can see clearly—brittle hair that whisped about her face as though a photographer had caught her freeze-frame in the midst of a storm. She wore nondescript clothes, black usually, and her body was so rail thin she gave the appearance of not existing at all, except that when in her presence all entities seemed to lean toward her, hovering, as if by kinetic force. Her image in my mind has a blurry quality to it, to be honest. Perhaps her true core was more a collection of atoms and neurons, cells, whirling particles of light and dust—perhaps she could issue commands by voice and if it weren’t for the fact of connecting tissue she needn’t appear in material form at all. Were her eyes blue? Grey? They couldn’t have been brown; they would have clashed with her black outfits, and while she didn’t expend any energy on style, her visage was too smoothly aerodynamic to permit clashing. No, when I focus my memory on her eyes the only thing I see are her eyelids. Small, soft, off-white flaps of skin. When she talked to me, she tended to look down.

The first thing I learned about the gallery before I took the job as Top Notch’s assistant at the Top Notch Gallery, LLC, was that Top Notch was married to the Famously Reclusive Artist (F.R.A.), and that I should absolutely not mention his name in my cover letter or interview. I didn’t find anything odd about this warning except that my job connection felt the need to mention this to me in the first place. Why would I name-drop about one of her own clients in an interview, married or not? I found Top Notch pleasantly dynamic in the interview and took the job happily, only to discover my second odd warning sign: Top Notch’s previous assistant, Fritzy, was leaving because she was in the midst of a mental breakdown. But Top assured me this was new to her; none of her assistants had ever left over mental breakdowns before. I smiled, and nodded. Why would multiple assistants leave over mental breakdowns? I wondered. My single week of training with Fritzy was a whirlwind tour of my office, a second office down the street from my boss’s (a third warning sign?), and Fritzy only gave me one sound piece of advice before she burst off into the unknown, never to be heard from again. “Don’t ever mention to Top that you know she’s married to Famously Reclusive Artist. The previous assistant told me this when she quit, the assistant before her told her when she quit, and now I’m telling you. Simply. Do not. Mention it.”

Top liked to pretend she had a staff of workers swirling around her, but in fact I was the only assistant employed at the Top Notch Gallery. Over the phone she’d say, “Someone in my office will get back to you,” and if I happened to be standing nearby my ears would prick up, taking note. She governed her gallery with a carefully constructed set of miniature lies—there was an office of staff, she worked with us closely, there were various departments (“someone in that department will get back to you”), etc. Her two offices had connected phone lines, and I worked alone in one office while she worked alone, above the gallery, in the other. She never explained her need for two offices, but she must have felt the invisible presence of judgmental eyes because the second office was a secret. I had to act, on the phone, as though Top was sitting right next to me. “She’s on a call right now,” I’d guess to the caller, though of course I had no idea. Sometimes these little lies got sticky, especially on Fridays when she usually stayed home but sometimes popped in and started making phone calls. “She’s not in the office today,” I’d say only to learn she had just called the collector in question a minute ago. “Oh, yes, a minute ago she was here,” I’d recover, quickly. “And she may pop in again, but in case she doesn’t, can I take a message?” Small lies, little ones. To conduct business, Top and I emailed or called one another by phone, and once a day I’d traipse over to her office with a plastic bag in hand so we could trade documents. I gave her documents and she gave me documents. This usually took an hour, and then I’d lug my new stack of documents back to my office where I’d file them, write notes on them, call buyers or email museums about them, and do those things people do with unending stacks of paper in offices. Top wanted me to re-use the plastic bags and had a cast of favorites that she’d request by name. “Come over so I can give you some stuff,” she’d say on the phone. “And bring that fantastic Duane Reade bag with you.”

Documents got mysteriously signed by the F.R.A. over lunch breaks. He’d call on the phone, and introduce himself simply as “Fame” in a sandy voice, and so I’d write down, “Fame, 4:15pm” on the legal pad by the phone and leave it at that. Could this be the same Fame who signed his contracts over Top Notch’s lunch breaks? Was this the same Fame who didn’t have a client file in the filing cabinet, the same Fame whose copies of exhibition catalogues should come in through the gallery, the same Fame whose client checks went in a separate pile with Top Notch’s things? When I referred to the F.R.A. to my boss, I said, “Famously Reclusive Artist,” and when some guy with a dusty voice called asking for Top, I said, “Top, it’s Fame.”

It’s funny how easy it is to roll with another person’s punches. Before I moved to New York City, I graduated from a small, women’s liberal arts college in New England. There, I happily immersed myself in the radical political trends of the moment; when it became trendy to buzz-cut my hair, I buzz-cut it, and when I became aware of the treacheries of eating meat, I started eating vegetables. My senior year, when “transgendered” became a newly visible undercurrent on campus, I found it easy to stop calling my friend, “Sally,” and to start calling her, “Sal.” The transition from “her” to “him” is merely a slight ripple in discourse, an imperceptible bump. When someone says to me, I want you to refer to me this way instead of that way, I do it without question, because it makes that person happy and it doesn’t harm me at all. And so I found it fairly easy to call the same person Fame or Famously Reclusive Artist to the same woman depending on the context of the conversation. Top Notch had a husband named Fame, and a client called Famously Reclusive Artist. Perhaps, theoretically speaking, they were two people. Why not?

When I started at the gallery, F.R.A hadn’t produced any new art in ten years, and his fans were bursting into hives waiting for the contemporary master to release his highly-rumored-about new opus. I should explain another thing at this point, which you’ve probably already guessed: while we usually promoted our other client’s works with publicity, interviews, postcard mailers, and the like, Top Notch didn’t want a single word breathed about Fame’s new work. She never told me this, directly, it’s more something I intuited, kind of like how you can sniff in the air when a host wants to end their dinner party about an hour before they actually throw you out. The phone lines flooded with pesky nosy phone calls six months before Fame’s first major exhibition, and it was my job to divert them without making it seem as though I was diverting them. Two issues were at stake here: the privacy of the artist, and keeping private the fact that the artist is private. Newspapers all over the world wanted publicity catalogs (sorry, we had none). Small, squeaky-voiced men claimed to know the F.R.A. from way back when, and could I get a message through? (Well, I could take the message down.) Dozens of query letters from young men claiming to be the next F.R.A. sat in a floppy pile on my desk. Time Out online leaked a four-paragraph description of his exhibit, which was under wraps, and then pulled the description, which resulted in a flurry of newly ravenous phone calls. “Is it true that F.R.A. forced Time Out to pull their press release?” Divert! Divert! Then I got a call from a reporter writing up a story based on a leak about Famously Reclusive Artist’s birthday party. “I need to speak to Mr. Recluse,” said the urgent voice on the other line.

“You’ve reached his gallery, how can I help you?”

“Yes, I need to clear certain facts for my article. It’s come to my attention that a group of artists had a party in Red Hook for Mr. Recluse’s birthday and faxed a letter over to the gallery’s fax line. Can you confirm?”

I couldn’t be sure what he wanted me to confirm, exactly. That this was his gallery? That we have a fax machine? That friends of his go out in Red Hook? That someone, at some point in time, gave birth to the F.R.A.? I told him I had no comment, and got off the phone, feeling weird and a little sad. It became clear to me that when you harness a mystique as an F.R.A., anything could be a news story.

The exhibition catalogue of his new work arrived by express delivery three weeks before its release. The catalogues were coffee-table style: the shape and size of my torso, and about five pounds in weight. I didn’t find this out for myself until I had one in my hands, but Top wrote an introduction, the five artists most famously in F.R.A.’s circle wrote commentary, and the catalogue included every image in his newest collection alongside reproductions of the twenty most famous pieces of his career. Top Notch called and asked me to bring the pushcart to pick them up. Usually when she handed me catalogues or publicity to mail, she’d wave her arm at a pile on the floor and say, “Send those out, thanks.” For this occasion she seemed ring-your-hands giddy and chattered at me while pacing her office, looking down, her eyelids fluttering. “Why don’t you put those in a bag? Maybe the Duane Reade bag? You know, and put the bag inside the cart so they don’t get mangled.” I realized she didn’t want anyone to catch a glimpse of the catalogue during my walk from her office to mine, three blocks away. I tried to imagine hoards of gushing fans ripping at my clothes as I walked, trying to wrestle my catalogues away from me. I was amazed, suddenly, that she was allowing me to see the catalogue. I dutifully packed the books inside the bag inside the cart and turned to leave. Top followed me out the door and offered to ring the elevator for me. She paced the hallway as we waited for the elevator to chug its way upwards. I joked, to break the tension, “I am going to feel like an Upper East Side mom with this cart to push around.” The doors sprung open and the chime sounded. “Yes,” she said, as she guided me into the elevator, practically waving goodbye to the books as I left, “but your baby is a lot more interesting than theirs.”

Top Notch kept a lot from me in my 3 years with the gallery that I learned to somehow work around. She went on vacation fairly often, but never told me she was leaving until the Thursday before her trip. Then we’d meet in her office so she could give me “some stuff” and she’d look down at her desk and talk about how she’d be back in a few weeks and to tell the callers she wasn’t reachable by cell phone. I could never figure out why she kept her assistant and only employee guessing about her whereabouts; was she worried I’d plan ahead and order a keg while she was gone? Invite a flock of reporters into her office for a photo shoot? But no, that would have been impossible; we didn’t share an office. Over time, I noticed patterns in her unpredictable behavior: she’d call me at 8:48 in the morning just before I got in at 9:00 to leave a set of instructions for me on the voicemail. Why would she call specifically when she knew I wasn’t there? Often these messages were thinly disguised complaints. For instance, once, after I called out sick with a feverish flu on a Friday, I came in on Monday to a voicemail left on Sunday, saying, “I don’t mean to make you feel bad for being sick, but I couldn’t get in on Friday because I already had plans and collectors expect someone to be in the office every day. When no one is there they get nervous, and we need to be professional. You really need to think more about what’s good for the gallery.” Then she went on to talk about other things completely: contracts, the mail, etc. All morning I felt livid with anger—how dare she! When I saw her later that day, I characteristically said nothing about the voicemail and neither did she. We could communicate, it seemed, on multiple levels of non-communication. She could be angry in a voicemail, then kind in person. I could spend the morning frothing with anger and fantasizing quitting in a fit, and then sweetly hand her the morning’s documents and discuss them as though the morning’s voicemail had never happened. And so it went. Perhaps she had multiple selves stored up for separate purposes. Perhaps I did, too.

It may seem this way from the story I’m telling, but I didn’t spend my whole life cooped up in my office, alone. These years were social ones for me; I met and married a partner. We went out for drinks on rooftop bars, saw plays and operas, visited swanky apartment galleries, went to the MET. One night at a party I met a girl who told me she’s met dozens of gallery owners for drinks, and that all of them are crazy. I laughed, took a long sip of my drink, and said, “But how can you tell?”

“What do you mean, how can I tell?” she squealed. “I can tell a person is insane in an instant. Can’t you?”

Apparently I couldn’t; I did wholeheartedly accept the assistant position for Top Notch after meeting her, after all. “Yes, but what did those gallery owners do that indicated their insanity?” I peppered her again. I really did want to know.

“They radiate insanity—all of them!—radiating insanity like personal vortexes of madness. I’ve never met a gallery owner who wasn’t insane,” she declared, and wandered off to find a less dense conversant.

So, fine: I guess I should have known long before I saw the second office, long before I met Fritzy, and long before the 8:48 voicemails that the storm that whisped her hair about was her own. But let’s imagine, for a minute, an alternate universe where you angle for your vacation time as though it were a newly acquired canvas requiring a high stakes bidding war to negotiate its sale and contractual terms. What if in this strange new world, you worked in an office your boss never visited, but where she dictated from afar exactly where on the windowsill your potted zebra plant sat? In that world, you might feel a twinge of fear whenever you left your office at night, checking to make sure each item was in its right place, in case your boss might come in after hours, poke around, and leave you a nasty voicemail about the dust on your countertop the next morning at 8:48am. Imagine a parallel landscape where the job itself felt akin to a twenty five year marriage, and that quitting this job out of the blue, without first going to couple’s counseling, would be like breaking off the marriage over a cute waitress at your local cafe. What if the pull of this alternate world was so strong, that despite whatever your outside friends told you was “normal” office behavior, you felt drawn in to this new world, the one where you had an open and spacious office all to yourself, and the one with your paranoid boss in it, whom you had grown protective of, despite her antics? When you are the keeper of another person’s bizarre secrets, you’re also a co-conspirator in those secrets, which isn’t the same as knowing someone deeply or well, but it might come to feel that way, after a time.

Nonetheless, by my third fall at the gallery, I decided that assisting the artists of the world was no longer in my list of long-term goals, and so I applied for and got into early acceptance law school, which would start the following fall. I got my acceptance mid-December, and had prepared my tentative “I’m leaving next fall speech” when Top announced that we’d be moving my office to an undisclosed location a few blocks north, which was going to be a major move, and very stressful for her. She paced back and forth, her heels hitting sharp notes on the hardwood floor, her eyelids fluttering. I didn’t tell her. She handed me a stack of empty boxes, a roll of tape, and a box cutter, saying, “You’d better be good at packing. I’m counting on you.” When I got back from Christmas vacation I packed up my entire office by myself while she stayed out of town, and two weeks later I was astonished when the movers came and carried my things into a three-room loft office on the fourth floor of a fancy building with an elevator. The movers assumed that one room was for me and another for my boss, and made light-hearted suggestions about where we’d each put our things. Top laughed along with the movers’ suggestions, like we might do such a thing, and I laughed too, to ensure my boss that I knew I should be laughing. But: was I going to have co-workers? Why were there three rooms? True to my own character I didn’t ask, and true to hers she never told me.

Things went on like this. A zany friend of hers, a computer programmer, rigged up the new office with a wireless router, for multiple computer lines. Were there going to be multiple computers? The landlord showed up and asked a bunch of questions about the gallery, which I was to divert, because he fancied himself an artist, and Top Notch couldn’t stomach dealing with his painterly ambitions. Meanwhile, I set up my room in the office with my things to make it homey, knowing it wouldn’t be home for me much longer; when was the right time to tell her I was leaving? I couldn’t find one. I had always been open and honest about my life’s activities, but I was starting to feel unfamously reclusive. And anyway, why would I give her six month’s notice when she couldn’t give me two days notice on her three week vacations? Or tell me why I worked in a three room office? My office situation unsettled me, the way a morning after a bad dream feels vaguely undermined. I was arranging the books in the hallway just outside my room one afternoon, pondering that very concept, when I turned my head to the right and noticed the door to the back office, one out of the three, was shut. I felt certain the door had always been open, just like the other doors were all open—it was an open, spacious, lofty office. Hadn’t the door been open? Who would shut it?

About a month later, the landlord dropped by to say that the super, a Russian fellow named Boris, was stopping by to fix the window ledge in the third room, the one with the shut door. He wanted to talk to Top Notch and motioned his body forward as though he expected to walk in the office and speak with her. I understood instinctively with that one subtle movement of his that Top was keeping her separate office a secret from her landlord. Realizing I needed to protect my boss from this pesky intruder, I wedged my body into the doorframe so he couldn’t peer inside, and lied. “Top is out at a meeting at the moment, but can I help you?” He sighed. “Yeah, fine. The problem is the pigeons. There are pigeons building a nest in the window ledge in that third room and Boris is going to clean them out. The folks across the way keep complaining about it. They say the pigeons are making babies and shitting on their stoop. Tell her we’re going to clean them out.”

Of course I knew that the pigeons were a problem. Top Notch was ballistically displeased, and wanted to know exactly what I had said to the landlord. “Nothing,” I swore. I hadn’t told him anything. I really hadn’t. I hadn’t told him a thing. But what was there to tell?

A few days later, I finally found out what lurked behind Door Number 3. Fame knocked on my door unannounced, and I let in a shaggy, white-haired man with stooped shoulders who introduced himself simply by his nickname, and asked if he could come in. “Of course,” I answered. “My office is your office.” Indeed, it was.

Fame pulled a key out of his pocket and opened the locked door to the third room. I withdrew to my own room and sat there, quietly, thinking, “The Famously Reclusive Artist is in my office. Or, he’s in his office. Is this the kind of thing I could put on my resume? No, I think it specifically is not.” Then I went back to drafting a contract and answering the phone, when it rang. “Sorry, Top Notch is on a call right now, but can I take a message?”

F.R.A. emerged from his office later, his shoulders sagging, and said, in his dusty voice, “I have a lot of boxes.” I went over and looked; it was true. His office was all set up with a desk, some bookshelves, an easel and a bunch of canvases, and then a stack of boxes in the middle of the room from his own unpacking. “Top gets kind of paranoid about having my name on my boxes,” he said, looking hopeless.

It was hard for me not to feel bemused and just a tad sorry for the guy. Something in his posture roused in me a boldness that I would never feel around his wife, my boss. “Well, when Top gets paranoid about names on boxes in her office she crosses them out with a big black marker. You want one?” I asked. I felt almost as though he and I were living through a similar plight—Top’s assistant hiding in a second office, and Top’s husband hiding in my broom closet—though of course we weren’t. He was famous, after all, whereas I was just reclusive.

“Oh, no. Don’t worry about it. Please don’t worry for even a minute. But where should I put them, do you think?”

The Famously Reclusive Artist couldn’t figure out what to do with his boxes, and was asking me for help. Suddenly feeling haphazard and swelling a bit in stature, I told him, “You know what? I’ll take your boxes and start a bonfire, and I’ll direct the smoke out your window, which will scare off the pigeons. It’s all about killing multiple birds with one stone.”

“Ha ha,” said the Famously Reclusive Artist.

 I quit in the afternoon, five weeks before school started, during our typical one-hour meeting to trade documents. I told her I had found a new job; that I was going to law school; that I would leave in five week’s time. Her eyes snapped up, instantly, from their resting spot on her wide wooden desk and latched onto mine. “No, no, mmm-mmm. This isn’t the way this works. You have to tell me before you apply to something like this, so we can decide together what’s best for the gallery. You were supposed to tell me this months ago, not now. And how could you do this to me during my busy fall, when all my biggest clients’ exhibits are already booked? No, this won’t work.” Her voice gathered momentum as she argued, exactly the way it did on the phone when she negotiated the terms of a sale. She told me once that people respect you in this field if you argue well; she never said anything about getting people to like you. Now, she said to me, “What could you possibly hope to gain from law school? You’d make a terrible lawyer. You have a good job here, a job you like, and why don’t you appreciate your nice new office?” She paused, still glaring directly into my eyes, and snapped her fingers. “No, this is what you’re going to do. You’re going to defer school for a year, and call the new job and tell them you’ll start after January. Yes, that could work okay. It’s July now, and I need at least until January to train someone new. Yes, that’s what you’ll do.” She leaned back into her chair, her eyes heating the side of my head like sun through a magnifying glass, while I gazed wordlessly into the distance. I sighed. “I’m not going to defer, Top.” She shifted slightly in her seat. “This is a nasty, sneaky, backhanded thing to do. You’re a sneak! We talked about this in your interview. You clearly told me you would quit on good terms; I remember your saying it, and anyway I record all my conversations. You said it!” I coughed, and choked out a quick, “But I am quitting well. I asked around about this. No one I know gives more than three week’s notice. I’m giving you five.” I said this in a meek and wavering voice that I found astonishing to hear; who was I, and why couldn’t I argue my case? Isn’t this what I had been getting paid to do all this time: argue? Perhaps I would make a bad lawyer, I worried, momentarily, but her shouting interrupted my thoughts. She was standing up now, pacing, shouting to the room at large. “You don’t work for your friends! You work here! I don’t care what those other people say. You don’t work for them, you work for me. This is how we do things here.” She ended the conversation by telling me to go home and think about what I wanted to do, but that I had better tell her soon, since time was of the essence. I shrugged and shuffled out of her office, feeling confused and quietly enraged. I quit for the second time the next day.

Why did she attack me so incisively, so meanly? Did I truly quit badly, after all? Was it because, as rumor would have it, all gallery owners were crazy? Was her anger magnified because I had not only known about the F.R.A., but had met him? Or was it the fact that I introduced terms outside her own, that I had broken the perfect seal of her alternate universe?

I’m not convinced, even now, that Top Notch considered me anything other than Invisible Assistant #12. She knew nothing about me except my name and social security number, and whatever I had put on my resume three years earlier. I showed up, ghost-like, in an office where she couldn’t see me, and if it weren’t for our daily document-trading sessions, I may as well have worked from home. The longer I worked at the gallery, the greater my sense of my own invisibility. Was that my voice, answering the phone, or hers in a disembodied form? And what about my own form? Would she recognize my shape among the others on a subway platform, if we crossed paths later, or do I seem hazy in her mind’s eye, hard to focus on? When she thinks about this later, will she be able to clearly describe the color of my eyes? It seems surprising that she was so surprised by my resignation, though it’s true that I snuck my interviews in around my work schedule so that she would never notice my absence. I flew out to California for my acceptance interview, too, though for that I had to call in sick. Yes, I faked it.

Her eyes were blue.


Invisible Assistant

Invisible Assistant lives in Brooklyn with her invisible wife, cat, and dog.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2010

All Issues