I try to take a picture of a sign on the FDR Bridge that says, “Money is not god,” but my phone is out of storage so I can’t do it in time as the car passes it. I infer it as, well, a sign. Yeah, money probably is a god, though the poverty-stricken–the ones who want it most of all–try to tell themselves that it is not. The car I’m in happens to be the van of a female art handler of mine. I iterate that she’s female because it’s a rare gender to come across in the art handling world, and I doubt that she would have asked me, vagina that I have, to help her today were she not 1) desperate and 2) aware of my financial situation. There was a paucity of art handlers at this time of year, that in-between point right before Thanksgiving and Christmas, when museums weren’t yet changing their exhibits, so you found that more of the workers in “the industry” were using their skills for other manual labor-oriented jobs on film sets. But Sofia (she was, naturally, from Bulgaria) managed to capitalize on the crumbs of jobs provided by rich collectors who wanted their art moved, either to a different residence, to loan to some other, “hyper-local” (meaning not New York) type of museum–some middling fare in Boston, Philadelphia, that sort of thing–or simply to take to the private jet awaiting at the airport so that they could transfer it to their summer residence in Sydney or some such bullshit.
Sofia seemed to be aware that she was hiring me more for my company (as opposed to my lack of arm strength) on our journey across the bridge as we did, in fact, make our way toward Philly, where Eustace Constance Greene was loaning her John Singer Sargent painting–“Gassed”–to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for some upcoming exhibit themed around World War I, you know the war no one is glamorized by because apparently there weren’t enough Jews killed during it.
Seeming to want to take advantage of having someone to talk to, Sofia timed her distant gaze out at the now landmark status Pepsi-Cola sign to say, “I’m glad I never visited any monuments with any of my exes, you know? Then I can always have positive associations with whatever I see.”
“Yeah,” I concurred, still tinkering with my phone in an attempt to get it to be able to take a fucking photo. Her statement immediately made me think of the Eiffel Tower, how I’d seemed to visit it with every romantic interest turned source of contempt in my life. I guess that’s why I kept returning to New York. It was oversaturated with landmarks that couldn’t affect you because of how many times you were forced to see them with different people, in different phases of your New York existence. Wanting to keep the conversation going so as to prove myself somewhat useful to this endeavor, I mentioned a particular ex of hers, the proverbial “one,” remarking, “Thank god Jeff was such a mongoloid, he never wanted to go anywhere ‘cultural’ anyway.” When she glared at me instead of agreeing, I began to titter nervously. I was always tittering nervously, waiting to be smacked for saying or doing the wrong thing. It was conditioning from my childhood. But this time, I was right to be nervous.
“Why the fuck would you bring him up? Did I say anything about him? I was making a general fucking comment and then you go and say that name to me, dredge up the goddamn memory of a person I’m trying to forget. Have forgotten.”
“You’re right, I’m sorry. I was just–”
“Yeah, you’re always ‘just.’ I knew it was gonna be a mistake to bring you. I ask for the simple task of some light conversation, and you have to go and make everything fucking heavy. I carry enough physical burdens every day–I don’t need emotional ones.”
Before I could attempt to defend myself, to explain that I was merely trying to fill the silence so as not to cause offense by staying silent (one of life’s many catch-22s), she was driving like a madwoman, weaving in and out of traffic to get to the nearest gas station. “I’m leaving you at the next bus stop in Hackensack, then picking up this fucking painting myself,” she announced, slamming the door as she went inside to buy herself some snacks. The thought of being sent home (of which I had none, really) for bad behavior was more than I could bear. And before she could come back to “do me the favor” of dropping me off, I got out of the car and walked. Even though Missing Persons said, “Nobody walks in L.A.,” it’s more accurate to say, “Nobody walks in New Jersey”–at any point, least of all near the highway. But that’s just what I did until I found the nearest dive. A cash only place beneath an underpass that offered $2 beer-shot combos. Of which I partook of liberally until suddenly I found myself freezing cold outside of a convenience store eating a turkey sandwich that got me invited into a burly black woman’s car. She commented on how my whiteness was intensified by the fact that I was eating a turkey sandwich.
“I couldn’t just leave ya out there though. You looked like a popsicle.”
“Thanks,” I said, my teeth slightly chattering. If she had been a man, I obviously would have been much more hesitant to accept her offer to finish my white lady’s food in her car. As she watched me hurriedly consume so that I could sober up and be on my way, she laughed to herself and asked, “You smoke weed?”
“Seems like you do.”
“Sorry to say I don’t. It’s been the great scandal of my life.”
“That’s cool, you on that wavelength anyway. That’s why I knew I could roll witchu.”
I shrugged. “The only green object that people never seem to offer me is money.”
She chortled. “The more you want money, the less within reach it becomes.”
“I guess that’s why the world is a broke ass.”
Right at that moment, a police office pulled into the gas station. She bristled and asked, “What’s your name?”
“Yeah, I don’t know. My dad was a professor of classics.”
“Whateva, that’s a bad fucking omen, your name being Siren right now. Can you step outta my car when that cop goes in? I gotta get outta here.”
I inhaled the last bite of my sandwich, feeling launched back into sobriety. Being in New Jersey was a place you didn’t want to experience such alertness, but if I was going to get back to the sign, the one that commenced the ill portent of this entire damn day, I had to be “sharp”–or as sharp as someone who had consumed about ten beer-shots could be.
But when I returned to it (via an Uber, of course)–or where I thought it had been–it wasn’t there anymore. Maybe it had been blown away, as effortlessly as money itself. Maybe the meaning of the sign–in its absence–had changed. Was trying to tell me something different from before. Money is not god, god is money. He is in everything we do. And everything we do, alas, involves money changing hands. Whether tangibly or intangibly. My hands were clean now though, I thought, sinking into the water of the East River without using them to attempt to grasp to the surface. Which is so much of what life consisted of.