A Painting for Her
Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on January 21, 2008
It’s easy to die in The Big Apple. Asphalt flows like taffy under the weight of gridlocked traffic. In winter, the black taffy hardens, ripples, and cracks. Gargantuan trucks and buses rumble along the scarred, warped surface. Taxis buzz around like hornets, cutting in and out of lanes, indifferent to all. A city bus in front of me belched a thick cloud of inky smoke, so I zipped out from behind it to pass. I heard the hiss of an air brake over my left shoulder. As I turned to look, the sun was eclipsed by the biggest trash truck I’d ever seen. It pulled up alongside me and pinned me against the bus. My ten-speed was trapped, wedged between tons of unyielding steel. Traffic was backed up, as usual, so I sat in the semidarkness waiting for something to happen. I didn’t get off — hell, that bike was my livelihood. Fortunately, when the light changed, the trash truck angled left, so I escaped. I was lucky that day. I rode those streets in the winter of 1976.
New York mornings are bitterly cold. Damp ocean winds blow across the island, picking up excess moisture from all the rivers and bays. It felt as though the cold seeped its way through my skin, past muscle, and into bone. I left for work early, one such grey, windy morning. A package in the large red pouch across my shoulders — a late pickup from the previous day — banged against my side. Steam seeped from manhole covers. My breath formed a cloud around my face. Ice formed on my mustache, and I felt the damp cold penetrating my beard.
Traffic was light. I raced along the streets, my feet spinning in smooth, even circles. Man, I felt great! I was sucking up oxygen, pumping it into my brain. My muscles were warming up. It was going to be a great day. Until. Until, without warning, the right side of my handlebars snapped off. I let go of it. With the brake and shifting cables still attached, it just hung there. I stared at it. Disbelief froze my brain. As I watched, the errant handlebar swung into the spokes of my tire. The bike jerked to a stop. I had time to think about how lucky I was to still be on the bike, but momentum caught up with me. I pitched over the handlebar, onto the street. It should have been painful, but I jumped right up — the street was far too cold for me to savor the moment right then — draped the handlebar over the center stem, and finished my delivery. Neither rain, nor hail, nor frozen street would stay this courier from his appointed rounds.
Of course, I didn’t work for the Post Office. I was a lot faster than that. As a bike messenger for Mobile Messenger Service, I delivered anything I could carry, from anywhere in Manhattan, to anywhere in Manhattan, the same day. For ten bucks extra, you got it in thirty minutes, guaranteed, a feat the Post Office couldn’t even touch. It was a popular service. I delivered letters and small packages to office buildings, including skyscrapers like the Empire State Building, and the World Trade Center. Dark-suited men and women swarm those lobbies, frantic and impatient. When an elevator opens, the swarm attacks. It’s a crowded ride, but the express elevators take you fifty floors without stopping! I don’t think those dark swarms enjoyed it, but I had a great time: Beam me up — the life forms are hostile!
Bicycles are indispensable to the advertising folks on Madison Avenue too. They needed their commercials run to and from developing labs all day. I met one of ’em, the director of the Mr. Whipple (“Please Don’t Squeeze the Charmin”) ads. I told him those were the worst commercials on TV, and his chin dropped. Hey, it’s for wiping shit off your ass. Who wants to hug it?
Running around like that, in and out of offices, studios, and film labs, you never knew who you might run into. The dispatcher sent me to an apartment building for a pickup. Guy name of Plimpton invited me in. He was still getting some papers together, stuffing ’em in an envelope. He told me he was a writer; said he wrote about sports. He’d actually played with professional teams: baseball, football, and hockey, just to write about it. What a life a writer has.
One afternoon, after I’d finished delivering a letter to an office in Rockefeller Center, I called the dispatcher to see if there was a job waiting. There was. I had to get to the Met (the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and pick up a package. Funny thing was, there was no deliver-to address. I would get instructions at the museum. I’d never been to the Met, so I enjoyed the experience. It’s a huge place — takes up several city blocks, cutting off a lot of streets. There were hundreds of people clogging the sidewalk; and hot-dog carts, pretzel wagons, and balloon vendors competed for their attention. I u-locked my bike to a pole and ran up one hell of a lot of steps.
Inside, I collected a brown-paper-wrapped painting, and squeezed it into my bag. The delivery address was on 5th avenue, alongside Central Park. Faan-cy. Bunny M. was sending a painting to one J. K. Onassis. Now this was exciting. How many of those could there be? Better yet, she had to sign for it! The building was old, wrinkled with elaborately chiseled cornices. The doorman looked just as old. He made a phone call before he’d let me in that marbled lobby. I was escorted to an elevator by a much younger, dark-haired dude in a starched white jacket. He looked like a cook. He got in, punched a button, and stood by the panel, staring into space. I stood by the door, eager for it to open. I felt like a cab at a traffic light, gunning my motor. We rode up a few floors, and it opened into a kitchen. My leg moved forward, but my foot didn’t touch down. I realized there was something across my chest, holding me back.
I turned my head. It was the guy in white. His arm felt like the steel bar of a subway turnstile when you forgot to put a coin in. I began to suspect he was neither a bellhop, nor a cook. His eyes were cold, with a steady glare. “I will take the package,” he said. His voice reinforced the threat in his eyes. “It has to be signed for,” I said, hopefully, and with as much authority as I could muster. “I will take care of it,” he insisted, in a tone that most people wouldn’t disobey, and “You stay here.” I wasn’t going to move from that spot.
He took my package, and my clipboard, and disappeared through a doorway on the right. I was disappointed, of course. I’d never meet the apartment’s famous occupant. I stuck my head out — there was no one around. I had let my excitement build up as the elevator crawled to this place. Now, I was reduced to standing in a little steel box. I saw through the kitchen doorway to a polished hardwood hall, hoping to see a figure there, hoping to see Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
I heard footsteps. They were too heavy for her. It was the chef/bellboy dude. But, behind him, she came. She looked heavier than I’d imagined, but it may have been the bulky sweater obscuring her figure. When she saw me, she stopped. “Oh!” she cried out. There was fear in her eyes. Perhaps it had always been there, ever since Dallas in ’63. She seemed to collect herself, and said, “I didn’t know he was right here.” “Sorry, ma’am. I shouldn’t have brought him up.” She smiled at me then, and the look of fear was obscured by the beauty of those eyes. “Thank you,” she said to me. “It’s my job, Ms. Onassis,” I said. “Nevertheless, I appreciate your promptness, and the care you took.” “You’re welcome,” I stammered, “You’re very welcome, of course, anyway.”
“Please come in,” she said.
I stepped off the elevator. The door didn’t close behind me. “I just made some coffee. It’s so cold today. Would you like some? Oh, that’s silly of me. You probably must go on with your deliveries?” “No ma’am. I, I didn’t know where I was going when I was sent to the museum, so I don’t have any other stops to make until I call in.”
“Well, then, sit,” she insisted, with a smile I couldn’t have refused. “You too, Alex,” she directed at her protector? It was a command, and I enjoyed the worried look on his face. I suppose Secret Service agents are like that. I’d decided that’s who he had to be. The way his arm shot across my chest; that look in his eyes — no, this was no servant.
Jackie set out a plate of brownies. I was nervous. I stuffed half a brownie in my mouth. This was the woman married to President Kennedy. This was the woman in the car with him when his head was blown apart. This was the woman who scooped up some of his brain, and carried it in her cupped hands to the doctor. This was also the same woman who’d married a Greek millionaire. He was dead now too. Jackie was one of the rich and famous, and she was sitting right there across a table from me, talking to me. I gulped at my coffee to wash the brownie down, and burned my tongue.
“I do appreciate the care you took with my delivery. Did you know it was a painting?” “Well, it sure looked like one, ma’am,” I blurted out, slurring the “looked” into something like booked. “You mean it traveled like one?” she asked. “Uh, I don’t, Oh! I see. Yes, well, no, I mean, it looked like it could be from the shape of the package.” “Yes, it was from my friend Bunny. She knows I like Egyptian art, and she found a wonderful painting for me.”
“I’m sure glad it was me who got to bring it to you really am glad to meet you,” I rushed out. Pause. Silence. I finished my coffee, and two more brownies. Jackie looked kind of embarrassed by the combination of hero worship and sweat oozing from me. I needed to say something, anything. “Do you collect art, Ms. Onassis?” “Well, yes. I suppose I do. Would you like to see some?” “Sure! I mean, yes! of course, thank you, yes, I would.”
I followed her to another room off of that hallway I’d seen through the kitchen, Mr. Secret Service somehow always between us. There were small Egyptian statues, and paintings, as I expected, but also shelves full of books, books about Egypt. Egypt? Books always impressed me, more than anything else. “I see you admire my books.” “Yes ma’am. Are they all about Egypt?” “Well, no, but I am fascinated by Egyptian literature, you know.” “No, I didn’t know that. I don’t really know what it is you do at all.”
“Are you a writer?”, she asked me. I laughed. “Um, no. Can’t say I am.” “Oh, OK,” she said, smiling, “I thought you might be a reporter or something.” “Oh, no. No ma’am”, I said. “I’m just a messenger.” “I suppose you think I take lazy cruises, sunning myself on exotic beaches, and living an easy life?” she asked. I imagined her in a bikini. I imagined her without a bikini. “Well, uh, the thought had crossed my mind,” I said. She laughed. Jackie had laughed at my little joke. I liked her. “Actually,” she said, still smiling, “I’m working right here in New York, just like you are. I work for a publishing house, Viking. Do you know it?” I didn’t know who published anything, so I had to say, “No.” “Well, no matter,” she replied, “It’s real work, something I’ve always wanted to get back to someday.”
It was hard to imagine her working. It was also hard to imagine leaving her. I wanted to spend the rest of the day just in her presence. I watched her lips moving. Her lips were temptingly moist. I felt warm. She was looking at me. I thought I saw a question in her stare. Suddenly I realized I’d lost track of what she was saying. “I do have work to get back to,” she said. “Me too,” I said, in a higher pitched voice than I expected. She slipped me a George, and thanked me again for being punctual and careful with her package. Alex took me back down on the elevator. I called in to Mobile Messenger from the lobby. “Where’ve you been, dude?” the dispatcher asked. “I’ll tell you when I get back — you won’t believe it,” I said. “Have you got anything for me?”