Writer and artist Jane Freeman, who has lived in Tribeca since 1976, shared some of her recollections and art with us last year—and now she’s letting us take a peek at a handful of her journal entries. The 1980s are here; this post is about the 1990s, when you could still make art—such as Freeman’s dioramas, interspersed throughout the text—from materials found at odd-lot stores and discarded on the street. (The above photo is by Harold Appel.)
April 23 / The sun is blazing with spring fever. It’s the stroke of six: martini hour uptown, cocktail hour midtown, Night Train hour downtown. Along Canal Street, Nancy Whisky Pub and Four Roses are in full happy-hour bloom—have been all day, actually.
I’ve been working on a miniature subway platform, whose grates, tracks, stairs, tollbooth, turnstiles, and tunnels all came from the streets—any interesting rusted thing I might find along the truck routes. Other than the filth of this practice of collecting, it is very much like beachcombing. Every day the waves from construction or traffic throw up new treasures to contemplate for a miniature scene. Also the job-lot stores along Canal Street, which sell just about anything, no two days the same: one day, overstock garden hoses and car alarms; another day, Taiwanese espadrilles and Mandarin-length press-on nails; yet another day, brass decanters and toilet seats. Foraging among my own junk at home, I made a carousel from a laundry detergent top, a sculptural book from Chinese mourning paper, and miniature books from bits of strapping tape.
June 27 / I’m typing some guy’s second, understandably unpublished, novel, with sentences like “The corporal reconsidered, and upholstered his gun.” (That upstages Danielle Steel’s unfortunate sentence, which I also typed verbatim: “Her eyes filled with tears and ran down her face.”) Disgusted with this debilitating expenditure of time, I said to my cat “Fur-Face, I am brain-dead. I’m going out for some quick, cheap, nearby culture.” In the shapeless, morgue-green T-shirt I’d slept in the night before, I staggered over to the World Financial Center. It was elegant old rush hour at the glass-domed, palm-filled Winter Garden, where young Brooks Brothers and Sisters with leather briefcases, precision haircuts, and bodies designed by Nautilus zoomed about. I eased into a chintz-and-rattan seat at the Palm Court with a companionable $3.50 glass of rosé and a soft Bach triple harpsichord concerto (soon seeing double, hearing triple), watching, till the sun sank, the yachts dock. Or watching, till the sun docked, the yachts sink. Then I went to Rizzoli, which had French pop playing, conducive to surfing varietal art books, and the new biography on Coleridge, which contains many portraits of same, his mouth always catching flies: S.T.C. astounded, probably, by bloody suns at noon.
I finished the miniature subway. There are rats in the tracks, and a spilled container of soup. The lights and speakers are faucet filters. I had a difficult moment determining what to do about the turnstiles; but just as I was wondering what on earth I could use, I looked down. At my feet was a Bic lighter. Perfect. The clock is my Swatch.
January 1 / One afternoon on Astor Place, my friend Gordon and I were invited to be extras in a vampire movie starring Nicolas Cage and Jennifer Beals. We were singled out because Gordon was carrying a sack of laundry on his shoulder, which provided local color. We had to walk back and forth innumerable times in the chill, after signing away any rights to remuneration. On cue we were directed to look nonplussed for about fifteen takes, as a ragged, berserk Cage knocked his head against a brick wall.
I’ve been visiting the museums, which is both inspiration to paint and a reason not to. The Ryder show comes down at the Brooklyn Museum next Monday. I thought the Met’s Mexican show had too few Frida self-portraits. A small, stage-like Dalí diorama built into a MoMA wall was cool, now that I was building dioramas. I wondered again, as I have done for 18 years, about that mysterious misplaced right nipple on the Cézanne nude.
January 29 / It’s so cold that it would not be extravagant to hibernate under an electric blanket or turn on the space heater. Since it wasn’t any colder outside, I ventured into the wind and ice and made my way to Soho, to an art opening for the late, great printmaker Sam Glankoff. In the gallery were so many big fur coats I could scarcely see the large prints on the wall. In hands were drinks; on each cheek, European-style, were kisses; and the prices of the prints were in the tens of thousands. There were catered platters of netsuke-like crudités. The classic recluse, Sam lived in a beat-up walk-up in Murray Hill and spent all his time making art. He looked like Robert Frost—straight hank of white hair, philosophic gaze, stooped mien. I’d met him when I was hired to transcribe interviews with the curator. Over frequent visits, we became good friends. We’d talk about art and, in between our weekly visits, he wrote me remarkable letters in a crabbed blue hand.
August 1 / The other day I walked 2.5 miles and back to get a certain kind of glue, picking up a lot of interesting debris along the way. The best spots are the abandoned loading docks whose strangely cozy, derelict bays are full of fascinating trash. There’s usually no one around, not even derelicts. But I make sure, before taking anything, not to disturb what might be someone’s moldy box-and-rag bed.
January 12 / Everybody in New York is down with the flu. Down like computers. Down, but not necessarily in bed, for the queues I wait in for this and that are fraught with wan people popping throat drops, and leaving damp popcorn balls of tissue in the trash cans. I, too, am full of phlegm, rumbling like a cat, thinking of buying stock in the Kleenex, Nyquil, and Robitussin corporations. I darkened my little bedroom, hardly more than a sleeping slot, with a beach towel against the window, but at the bottom margin a band of lights stabs through like the shine on a pan.
April 14 / Well past midnight; a tented, cochlear quiet and a diffident air of spring. A light rain makes halos on the otter-bodied roads. Not one square of window light tonight. After dark, I left my apartment to shop for art supplies in the dumpsters, which sometimes contain the extraordinary contents of a building that’s being renovated or razed—maybe 40 years of office furniture, curling ledgers, a lifetime of ciphers. One refuse bin in Soho leans in front of a shoji and tatami shop. Peering under its weighty lid, I was excited to find quality lacquered sticks. I filled my arms with them, planning to come back the next night for more. But when I arrived, someone else was at the furtive browse, rummaging under the lid! Hoping he was a minimalist, and would take minimally, he turned to face me. A crazed Dickensian bum, scratch-bearded, wall-eyed, and filthy. “Any good wood?” I ventured timidly. “Wood?” he roared, steadily unfurling odors. “Well, what is it you’re looking for?” I asked. He squinted scornfully at me and growled, “Gold, sweetheart, gold!”
May 8 / An overcast Friday with no demands, no phones, no interruptions. Fed a friend’s cat (the only woman I know with black hair and blonde roots). Then I went happily on errands. Like many desultory downtowners in kneeless jeans, I carried a container of coffee with a hole chewed in the lid, the better to sip-and-stroll. I needed some wire for my next miniature, a vacant lot, so I went to Reliable Hardware on Canal. I wonder if Graffiti Remover is peculiar to New York: The store had several brands to choose from. The long-haired old guy who cut the wire wore heavy neck chains that had probably caused the curvature of his spine. He also wore skull-and-cross ear lavaliers, and was long on tattoos but short on teeth. While brittle and crotchety, he was mechanically polite. He spoke in a surprisingly callow, tenor timbre. I imagined him living in the Bond Hotel on Chambers [now the Cosmopolitan], in a tiny SRO (single-room occupancy and standing-room only).
August 4 / Walking along the Holland Tunnel access road during rush hour, I stopped on the narrow median when the light changed. Traffic hurtled in five new directions, and the cops sorted themselves into new ranks, waving at the gridlock like windmills or semaphores. As I clung to the alarmingly narrow median, eye level with lanes of angry commuters, a guy wafted by selling dollar roses out of a bucket. He engaged in brief chats with some of the cars. “How was your birthday?” he asked a resigned blonde in a red convertible, whom he seemed to know. “Yesterday was my birthday!” I shrieked, irrepressibly. The rube-faced rose-seller held out a long-stemmed flower and said, “Have my last pink rose, for your birthday.”
On my birthday, with a storm brewing, I went to a yoga class led by an emaciated yogi in orange with snake tattoos circling his forearms, who could twist his body into Celtic knots. On the walk home, I dipped into a few bookstores and a couple of flea markets. A typical New York Sunday, with everything open and people sharing a contagious isolated languidness. Eventually I came to the new esplanade-park by the river. Hudson River Park is landscaped with some big minimalist sculpture (the sort cited as site-specific, though these works all seem to be on loan from somewhere else). There are grassy berms and playing fields, even a boisterous hemispheric waterfall on a pond of water lilies and papyrus. A Ned Smyth pergola with brick columns and colossal beams looks to be in a snit. I can’t imagine what it’s for, except perhaps to weather in. The powerful wind made everything flap. The celadon river was rumpled like an unmade bed, and littered with billowing sails like linen on a line. In the grassy fields, a smattering of jouncing kites were being managed by serious children.
I ended up in the Winter Garden, among the giraffe-like palms. I felt sorry for them, coddled as they seemed to be; they had an air of melancholy, as confined things often do. Their fronds, while not exactly crestfallen, didn’t look chlorophyllic enough. I got an iced coffee and watched the people. You can tell New Yorkers from tourists by their summer pallor and by the tentative quality of their perching, as if they’re loath to relax, even on Sunday. They seemed wound to spring to work, twelve hours hence.
September 27 / Being close to the river, we were supposed to get Hurricane Danielle, but she skirted Manhattan altogether, leaving only a grizzled old cloud-beard to sire merely a spate of spittle. It’s calm, this late afternoon, the city in a rare lull. The postage-stamp windows across the street have gone charcoal-dark, except for one in the third row down, two across. A light switches on revealing a woman swinging between fridge and stove, making dinner in the nude.
December 17 / One of my greatest resources for acquiring junk is Alexander’s, an antiques/hardware/odd-lot store on Chambers Street, but it’s closing after 90 years. The third-generation owner, Mr. Alexander, let me explore all four dark upper stories, each filled floor to ceiling with paraphernalia, and hairline margins between the stacks to walk through. I used a flashlight and got filthy, but found promising objects for new miniatures: mechanical gizmos for a miniature boiler room/elevator shaft where no one but rats would like to be.
May 31 / Wondrous to be alone at the river’s edge just past sunrise, the city hushed in holiday emptiness. I was perched on a marble bulwark at the yacht docks, at North Cove near Battery Park City, drinking coffee, relishing the solitude. The river and skyscrapers seemed as much mine as if I’d created them. There was some elusive, ringing sensation of departure in the air, the way one’s skin faintly prickles immediately after music ends. Several luxury craft were bobbing weightily: the Elan from Oregon; the Majestic from Florida; the Simpatico from Maine. Prow to prow they framed the minuscule Hoboken landscape in a wash of distance and dawn tints. The Impromptu from Santa Barbara arrived, its white eminence belittled rather humorously as it backed car-like into a berth. When a shipshape crew surfaced, my sole proprietorship of Lower Manhattan ended. The khaki-and-white-clad sailors tossed duffels below decks. One expertly hurled a thick line to the pier in a gesture of frolic and dignity.
June 26 / On a small parking lot at N. Moore and W. Broadway, Hollywood is constructing fake loft buildings and a coffee shop for the movie It Could Happen to You. There are 400 coffee shops in Lower Manhattan, but none of them satisfied TriStar Pictures, so they’re building the set on this lot, which I always have used as a short cut despite the ubiquity of rats. The diner they’re building—the Ideal Coffee Shop—looks like it’s been there for a century; it has the right sinking-in-the-pavement look; and how well they fake weathered wood and old grime. The “brick” is just painted fiberglass; the walls are plywood; the “stone” sills are made of wood. Bogus tin ceilings. Everything fake, yet realer than real. The fact that it’s make-believe is what’s so interesting—a really giant miniature, and I’m already mourning the day the set will be struck, its existence sacrificed to celluloid.
August 19 / Just returned from Greenwich Village, where I sold some of my postcards to Paris Images. Then I went to a musty bookstore on Mercer Street that arranges its wares horizontally on the collapsing shelves. In this common grave of forsaken volumes languishes a wealth of hilarious titles: I Denounce Soka Gakkai by Dr. Hirotatsu Fujiwara, Hair Length in the Bible by Daniel L. Segraves, Beyond Patching by S.M. Schneider. I walked across Houston and down Hudson, choosing it for its barrenness, the noxious printing inks, and the eerie robotic clacking of grinding machinery. My aim was to induce a measure of melancholia, to get in a writing mood. Desolate walks usually do the trick. But the mood was broken by traffic jams. At each intersection cars breached the crosswalks. Rush hour certainly makes one feel trifling and mortal. I detoured to the movie lot again, to watch the filming. I managed to secure a bit of melancholy from the queasy “day for night” glower of strobes, and I saved a leaf shed from a fake tree.
Stretch limos were double-parked in front of Chanterelle. That reminded me: It was almost dinner time, but what to eat? I’m avoiding fat, sugar, dairy, meat, and anything fermented, which probably includes beer. That aroused melancholia, but not the creative kind. I went to the Delphi and had a hummus-and-grape-leaf sandwich.
August 22 / Spent the afternoon at the Hudson River esplanade ogling the yachts: Seahawk. Precious Moments. Majestic. Elegante. This Is It. A pleasant petroleum smell. Something vaguely crustacean about the gangplanks. Trim glimpses of velvet liquor bars through sashed curtains and blinds. Then a stroll to the landscaped lawns, each bearing a “no dogs” sign. This is as slow-motion as New York gets. Babies in tiny sunhats lolling on parental bellies. An actor practicing monologues. The elderly on benches working crosswords, while a few others venture out on rented Rollerblades, complete with knee and elbow pads. To the east, beyond a foreground of weeds, Woolworth Building looms. To the north, the Empire State Building, a decal on a smudged sky. To the south, the Verrazano arcs, a scrimshaw wisp built of mosquito stingers. The Statue of Liberty, like any other tourist but with more flair, points out a biplane buzzing overhead, as a demure little sailboat adjusts its white triangle against the protective hulk of Ellis Island. Quadraphonic sound. The green scribble of tall grass whips and crackles like plastic streamers on a bike. Crickets nest in imported pines. Feathery weeds rock bleakly colored birds. On a brown flower a Monarch butterfly rides. Its vellum underwings are meticulously inked pathways on a made-up map.
November 13 / I decided to do something new: see a movie mid-morning, Midtown, midweek. So I left the cat, the computer, and my construction mess, skipped breakfast, and went with guilty pleasure to see The Remains of the Day.
What happened in the remains of that day: A giant beggar, handsome as Othello, steps through the E train singing “Lean on Me” in a rich baritone, shaking a cup of coins like a tambourine. A necklace of yellow beads like a curly phone cord hangs from his neck. When I drop a quarter in his cup, he meets my eye and holds my gaze. “Thank you, sister,” he says, then slides back the heavy steel door and moves to the next car, a one-man caravan of grace.
Later I go to LeRoy’s Coffee Shop, which offers sublime anonymity. (The movie people considered it for It Could Happen To You, but according to The New Yorker, it was too narrow.) There I have yellow linguini with gray clams in a parsley-flecked soup. The waiter, at once absent and intimate, leers condescendingly. I want to ask the Indian boy with the beautiful face who sweeps up what he wants to do with his life. He’s been sweeping for four years now, the time it takes to get an undergrad education.
August 28 / Dusk. The sky is a powdered peruke. The landscape-face beneath it is swarthy. In this end-of-summer downtown evening I spent an hour in a tiny Tribeca bar on White Street. Traces of signage from its former life as a liquor store are ghost-written in the transoms: CORDIALS—IMPORTED AND DOMESTIC—COGNAC. I’m in khakis and a brick-colored T-shirt, thinking how I used to appraise the cost of a glass by how many pages I’d have to type to pay for it. My $4 glass of Burgundy celebrates the end of three days indoors, building a miniature of Gramercy Park’s National Arts Club, as well as several assemblages the size of hood ornaments. One can’t be too precious in an age of minimalism, conceptualism, gargantuanism, and the return of the massive gestural stroke. I also wrote a magazine article. Now I’m appreciating the sconces with bare actual candles at the low ceiling, and the crooked old floors. A muted TV relays a horse stampede, silent explosions, and the soiled chaps of dusty cowboys. The Doors are pounding out “Break on Through” and “Back Door Man,” the lyrical intimations of sex and mortality becoming clearer with each sip. The young waitress wears a frock with a bow at her back. She serves the drinkers inside and out. On the sidewalk is a single coltish tree that likely will outgrow its planter, if it isn’t backed into by a parking car. I watch the small crowd of the young and sleek. One exception is a middle-aged guy in overalls who looks slightly derelict, though he owns half a dozen buildings around here. Small herds of Rollerbladers whirl by. The sky fades to black.
October 22 / During breakfast at Leroy’s Coffee Shop, the usually taciturn, elderly waiter, Arthur, revealed something of his provenance. He’s a towering old coot, at least 6’4”, maybe 130 lbs., with an Elvis pompadour and oversize rodent teeth. He told me that at birth he weighed 3 pounds. His dad took him and his twin brother home in a shoebox lined with cotton. Each time he buys shoes he keeps the box to commemorate the oddity of his beginnings.
April 12 / Winter was mild, practically snowless; yet spring is as welcome as if there’d been blizzards. There are small signs of spring all about. Dim green things poke up from the cracks of rat-infested loading docks, not far from lavish restaurants with artful thickets of flowering quince, plum branches, and forsythia. Impromptu daffodils glare in coffee cans behind the smudged windows of working studios and rent-stabilized walk-ups, in contrast to gentrified lofts, where precious varietals like peonies are arranged in Steuben or Lalique globes.
I went to the Metropolitan Opera to see Don Giovanni. Afterward I followed droves of opera lovers into the subway. Sitting across from me was a handsome guy in an Indiana Jones hat reading the opera’s playbill. I was reading Don Giovanni: Myths of Seduction and Betrayal. Our eyes met and when a great surge disembarked at Penn Station, Indiana Jones patted the empty seat beside him. I trotted over, saying, “You’re not some kind of Don Juan, are you?” His name is Philip; he’s from Poland and he speaks five languages. He’s a mathematician here on some government grant doing research at NYU. We talked opera, of course, both of us rapturous about Mozart in particular. As we approached his stop in Chelsea, he asked if I’d like to go for coffee. I said okay but only in Tribeca, where I live, because of the late hour. So we went to the Tribeca Grill. And that was that, the end.
A couple of weeks later I had an encounter at the other Met. I wanted to get a drink on the cocktail balcony that runs parallel to the ancient Oriental pottery vitrines, but the loggia was packed. I moved along, looking for a place to sit. I spotted a handsome guy who looked European, sitting alone and writing. How absorbed he was, definitely a plus. I assumed he was writing a poem or a chapter in a novel, but maybe he was itemizing a grocery list or worse, I thought, still reverberating from Don Giovanni. Maybe he was updating a catalog of amorous conquests. Clearly, we wouldn’t be compatible, I thought with a degree of cognitive dissonance: I was in a T-shirt and jeans, in contrast to his sophisticated attire. Then a table opened up and I sat down and when a waiter came around, ordered a martini.
The string quartet sounded echoey and attenuated in the vast inner architecture. I pulled out my journal, jotting impressions, including a description of the man. I wrote: “I wonder if he’s writing about me writing about him.” Disgusted with myself, I swallowed the last of the martini and pulled on my beret to leave. To my astonishment, he suddenly was looming over me, asking if I’d join him for a drink. I felt like Zerlina enticed by Don G., and I thought: I would, yet I would not. But of course I said okay. In a series of rather comical backs-and-forths, I hauled over my knapsack with its drawing and writing stuff, Walkman, slip-cased Mozart operas complete with librettos, and the day’s unread mail.
Turned out the guy’s name was Philip, too. While Philip II was perfectly agreeable, and what young women would call a “hunk,” he didn’t have Philip I’s flair and brilliance, which I could tell in two minutes flat. And he didn’t come from Europe, though he was on his way to Italy. He came from Miami Beach and knew all of my Miami Beach cousins! And so that was that, the end of this story, too.
July 28 / Have you noticed that rain, especially the sudden heavy kind, sounds like applause? It actually sounds like lots of things as it batters down: the splitting of Velcro, the ripping of satin into rags. But mostly applause, and one half expects to hear “Bravo!” shouted into the acoustics of the night. Mosquitoes sweep in freely. Bitten, I switch on the bedside lamp and swat at invisibilities.
September 21 / Is today the autumn equinox? The weather has taken a curt turn. Yesterday the heat shimmered off the plaid of glass-and-steel façades, but this morning, I went to the river in shorts and a T-shirt and nearly froze. Water that was soft and languorous, mercurial as Mylar, is now jumpy and noisy under a bitter wind.
Around brunch-time here in Tribeca, I was coming out of Commodities, the organic grocery, with a gallon of water and a bag of turnip greens, in time to see a commotion in front of Bubby’s. In addition to those in a long queue who were drinking coffee while waiting for tables, there were dozens of people in a pitch of excitement. I heard cries and gasps and assumed, because of the stretch limo, that a celebrity was at large. I went across the street and asked a tall blonde what was up. With a French accent she exclaimed, “There is a rat! It ran down the block and straight into Bubby’s!” Ha, I thought. Three minutes later, when I got home, I shrieked to see a little Beatrix Potteresque mouse peeping from a burner on the stove.
September 4 / As an urbanite, I am a lover of rubble, at home with glass and steel. I used to think of nature as an embellishment, like garnish on a plate. But with summer comes a craving for nature, and every chance green tuft is a wonder. I went to Washington Market Park and found a spot on a wood-slat bench near the garden plots tended by neighbors. While the wind dueted with the sound of the traffic, I sat among the prolix little rectangles of blooming miscellany: hollyhocks, peonies like wads of tissue, day lilies and tiger lilies, marigolds, daisies, and rows of indeterminate green filaments trussed to bamboo spindles. Also, baleful furry blooms in browns and violets with petals downcast like eyelashes; and sunflowers whose leaves are so big you could wrap one around your middle and wear it as a skort.
All around new buildings are going up. The sky is gored with trusses, skeletal elevators, and red cranes that look like dinosaurs. But no matter how much construction there is, and how many towers go up, they can never fill the sky.