It’s the evening of October 22, 1962 and President Kennedy has just announced in a televised address “that it shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” A 23-year-old painter from Bessemer, Alabama, who has been in New York for a couple of years is convinced that this may be the last day of his life. He heads straight for Stanley’s, a bar on the corner of Avenue B and East 12th Street that has become like a second home to him. The owner, Stanley Tolkin, lets him pay for hot meals on credit, cashes his checks (the young artist doesn’t have a bank account) and even gives him his first show. More importantly, on any given night of the week he can talk about art, poetry and politics with one or more of the brilliant young black writers who have also gravitated to Stanley’s.
But tonight is not the occasion for interesting conversations. It’s a moment to get drunk, high, fucked-up, to ingest anything that will blot out the sense of powerlessness and panic that has settled over the city, over the country, over the world. So the young painter finds himself at Stanley’s, drunk among drunken friends, commiserating, crying, bellowing out dramatic pronouncements. “We will all be dead by morning,” a woman wails.
Just then another artist walks into the bar, a sculptor about 15 years older than the young painter. Since experiencing an artistic breakthrough the year before, the sculptor has been making plaster casts of human figures engaged in everyday activities: driving a bus, sitting at a table, embracing in bed. His work is on fire; the world has become indescribably rich with artistic possibilities. From the doorway of Stanley’s he surveys the scene before him, this bar crowded with artists and writers and musicians wallowing in booze and despair at the prospect of imminent annihilation. He decides not to stay but before leaving he shares a few words with the young painter and a small group clustered around him: “You are artists, I am an artist. Tonight I am going to the studio and make another sculpture and I advise you to do the same.”
The conviction in the sculptor’s voice is something the young painter never forgets. In the following days as the emergency recedes he finds himself asking: Who are you? What kind of person do you want to be? What sort of world do you want to live in?
[Jack Whitten, George Segal]