This piece was submitted by Gabrielle Selz as part of the 2014 PEN World Voices Online Anthology.
Gabrielle Selz’s event: A Literary Safari
(In 1958, soon after I was born, I moved with my parents and sister to New York, where my father, Peter Selz, began his job as the chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. What followed was a unique childhood spent among art and artists in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. Now, it is 1970 and my father has left MoMA, abandoned our family and moved to California to direct his own museum. My mother, having recently taken on the job selecting the first group of artists to live in the utopian artists housing project, Wesbeth, has decided that we should join this pioneering new community.)
Fresh out of architecture school, Richard Meier had been hired to convert the buildings that made up the Westbeth complex into living quarters. In designing the compound, Meier channeled my Dad’s old favorite, the inventor of standardization, Le Corbusier.
To accommodate as many artists as possible, Meier designed interlocking apartment units piled one atop the other, with identical kitchens and bathrooms and a raw “open space.” Tenants were then given four modular closets mounted on rollers to use to partition rooms and turn their blank canvases into homes. Some artists, loath to give up valuable studio space, placed wooden boards between their closets, threw a mattress up on top, and presto, their kid had a bedroom.
We had a “duplex,” a vast overstatement, as a duplex in “Modernist” vocabulary meant just two tiny spaces connected by a steep, raw cement staircase. Because Tanya was a teenager, she needed her own sanctum and was given the lower section of the duplex. She had a swinging red saloon door, à la Bonanza, between her closet and the wall to distinguish her bedroom from our little vestibule, and boy, did I enjoy tormenting her by swinging that door every time I went in and out of the apartment! My mother and I slept upstairs, where there were two main spaces: a kitchen/dining area separated by a thin wall from the living space, with an adjoining bathroom. Mom took the living section and put our couch and Knoll coffee table in one corner, her bureau in the middle and her bed up on a raised platform in front of the huge window—that part of the apartment was now our living room and her bedroom. Because our ceilings were so high, a carpenter was hired to build a sleeping loft for me. It cantilevered out over the dining nook and instead of walls for privacy I had a railing over which my mother draped her old black Spanish shawl with embroidered red roses. This thin membrane separated me from the rest of the house. A solution I found totally acceptable. In my new accommodations, I felt like I was living in a tree house.
A labyrinth of hallways painted in psychedelic colors—neon yellow, electric green and florid pink—snaked through all buildings. Ramps and passageways led to communal spaces that were designed for galleries, theaters, a co-op grocery store and a day-care center. Half-moon-shaped balconies overhung the courtyard and connected neighboring apartments—these were the emergency fire escape routes, my sister and I were told. Not to be used unless absolutely necessary, as in reality they were unstable for anything but potted plants.
And those eighteen-foot ceilings my mother had raved about—made of poured concrete, they waved in ripples and had been inspired by ocean currents and installed as part of an early experiment Bell Labs conducted in surround sound. They carried every creak, whisper, cackle and moan, literally around the block.
Not only did I hear a composer working on his next symphony, but also the family down the hall sitting down to dinner and the drunk father next door yelling at his infant son. We developed our own Morse code, taps along on the walls and pipes to tell some noisy creator, Keep the racket down.
I loved Westbeth. At night, camped out in my loft like a bird in a nest, surrounded by the noises of five-hundred-plus artists busy at work, I drifted easily off to sleep to the humming, buzzing sound of people all around me.
Each day at the end of school, I waved goodbye to my private school friends on Fifth Avenue, and while they went off to ballet practice and piano lessons, I hopped aboard the cross-town bus, dashed through the complicated maze of subways where exhibitionists lurked at the turnstiles ready to expose themselves, tore down Eighth Avenue, book bag flying behind me, scooted through the wedge of Abingdon Square Park and along Bank Street, then up the elevator and into our apartment, banging my sister’s door for good measure. Pulling off my private school clothes, I slipped into my orange plush bell-bottoms and canary yellow T-shirt—because, just like my mother, I now had adopted my own downtown outfit that identified me as a member of our bohemian tribe. Then, taking off at a gallop, I roamed from basement to rooftop of Westbeth with an unruly band of equally unsupervised artists’ children.
And because of the rule that half the units in the building be allocated to families, and most of those families turned out to have more than one child, Westbeth surged with children: crying babies in the arms of tired mothers, toddlers on tricycles zooming up and down the hallways, teenagers loafing in the courtyards, and my clan of overcurious, preteen mischief-makers.
We were as plentiful as the weeds growing between the tracks on the railroad that ran through a tunnel on the third floor of our building. There were at least as many children as there were adults at Westbeth.
Sometimes, when I tore through the building, I wore my colored paper 3-D glasses. The 3-D glasses, with red and blue lenses, had been handed out to all the tenants at the grand christening in May when New York’s matinee-idol-handsome Mayor Lindsay came and gave a speech about how we were pioneers revitalizing the area. Afterward he put his arm around me as he stepped off the podium. “I’ll never wash again,” I told my mother. Then we’d all trooped into one of the theaters to watch a 3-D experimental movie and roll around on the floor because as yet the theater seats hadn’t been installed. Even when not viewing a 3-D movie I still liked how the glasses made the world look as if it had been dipped in different colors of paint.
My gang included between ten and twelve kids thundering through the buildings, up one elevator and down another. In Westbeth, it was common to be accosted by a poet quoting haiku, or a puppeteer on the roof prancing around with a dancer in tights. Our band of ragamuffins in colorful clothing and unwashed hair hardly stuck out. Impromptu performances and readings took place in the courtyard or gallery. Movie stars like Warren Beatty and Julie Christie lounged on beanbag chairs in the film center.
After we’d moved in, when my father came for his first visit to Westbeth, he walked through the building shaking hands as if he were the mayor. If Westbeth was the place to be, suddenly Dad wanted to be part of the mix. “This is an example of how great architecture can reshape the world. All this free-flowing space, people able to intermingle. Why, there must be two thousand people here, all against the Vietnam War. In Berkeley we’d be mobilized by now!” He immediately asked my mother if she could find him a space for his next sabbatical.
“I’ll try,” Mom replied coolly. Westbeth was her turf and she didn’t want Dad to overshadow her. Though she no longer officially worked for the building—a board of tenants was forming to evaluate future residents—my mother still had influence. Even my self-absorbed father could tell who was steering this ship. The residents had christened her with a new name. “Mrs. Westbeth.”
“Mrs. Westbeth,” my sister and I teased. “If you’re Mrs. Westbeth, then who’s Mr. Westbeth?”
She scowled and pretended she didn’t like the name, but she couldn’t hide her secret pleasure.
* * *
With the building still under construction, every nook and cranny was open and available for exploration. On the thirteenth floor my gang discovered a majestic theater with a wall of mirrors at one end and rows of windows on the other. This was to be Merce Cunningham’s dance studio, my mother explained. But since he hadn’t moved in yet, it was okay to play there on its stage. Like most of the “penthouses,” it had roof access. Forget the stage, out onto the roof we tumbled.
Some of the more earth-mother types planted a cooperative garden up on the roof, growing lettuce, tomatoes and herbs in milk cartons and soup cans. When they saw us scampering over the asphalt they tried to chase us off, but we knew our way around the roofs of Westbeth like a band of chimney sweeps.
On rainy days we moved inside. On the second floor sat a mystifying piece of equipment that turned out to be a huge printing press. And far below, in the basement, there was rumored to be a giant magnet that could control an airplane’s flight pattern. And to this great kingdom my mother, Mrs. Westbeth, possessed the master key.
I discovered the key by accident about three months after we’d moved in. I was going through my mother’s jewelry box, which sat atop her dresser. My mother was perched across the room on her high platform bed—her notebook open beside her, a black and white African coverlet thrown about her shoulders. She held her ivory-handled opera glasses up to her eyes and gazed out the windows. In the distance the World Trade Center towers were rising. Mom wasn’t as interested in the towers, which she thought looked like two huge erections, as she was in identifying the boats that sailed up and down the Hudson River. Surveying the comings and goings on the estuary through her opera glasses was now a favorite pastime. That and waltzing up and down the halls of Westbeth in a flowing black velvet maxi dress with Juliet sleeves.
Underneath an amber necklace that had once belonged to my great-great-grandmother—the New England pioneer woman who had driven her wagon alone, from the Cape to Illinois—I saw the key. There it sat, with its special tag that read master in bright red marker. I dropped the necklace and picked it up.
“What’s this to?” I held the key out to my mother.
Turning from her investigation out the window, she focused her opera glasses on the key in my hand. It must have looked gigantic. “It’s to Westbeth,” Mom said. “I used it to show apartments.”
A breath of an idea formed in my head. This was the magic key to the entire castle. “Do you still need it?”
“If there’s an emergency.”
“Can I have it? I won’t lose it.”
“Gaby, don’t be silly. Put it back.” She pivoted her glasses to the window again.
Outside, the sky was nearly white and a green barge with a red stripe running around its middle sailed up the river. She jotted a sentence down: Like a great big piece of peppermint candy floating up the Hudson.
My mother used the key once or twice when some distracted artist got locked out of their apartment. When anyone needed a favor, advice or just an explanation, it was on our door they knocked. Could my mother help them get an apartment with a view? How about a communal darkroom in the building? And security? And someone had received a poison-pen letter because someone else was jealous of their space, their light, their extra rolling closet. And what about Diane Arbus, why did she deserve a duplex when neither of her daughters, Amy or Doon, lived with her?
And why did Diane get to hold her photography class in a vacant space, shouldn’t someone get to live or at least work there?
Everyone had a friend who wanted to get into Westbeth. “It’s just petty jealousies,” Mom said, sounding like my father when he complained about her need to control his dating. “Diane has all that equipment to lug around.” Diane, who lived catty-corner across the hall, was a tiny woman who wore a safari coat with a large leather satchel slung over her shoulder, and a big black box camera strapped around her neck. Mom called Diane a nocturnal flower because she came alive at night. She could be spotted most evenings darting across the courtyard, sometimes with her tripod, but more often than not it was just Diane, with that camera the size of her chest, going off alone into the gathering dusk.
“What do they all want me to do? I’m just a resident now like everyone else.” Still, my mother felt protective of Diane, whom she thought very gifted. When the first tenant meeting was held, Mom and Diane went together. At the meeting my mother immediately signed on as the secretary. Mrs. Westbeth was not ready to retire.
* * *
Five months after we moved to Westbeth, the first suicide occurred. A woman from “outside” came into the building, took the elevator up to the roof, set her shoes on the ledge and jumped. She landed in the courtyard and lay there for a full day. My mother was asked to identify the body, but since the woman didn’t live at Westbeth, nobody, not even my mother, knew who she was. Then someone in our building was mugged in the lobby. A girl was raped a few blocks away. “Greenwich Village is lawless,” one of the muscular sculptors on our floor said. Discussions started about moving the building’s entrance, which was through the courtyard, to a safer, more secure location.
It was the first winter at Westbeth and the snow and ice made the cobblestones slippery so that my walk home from the subway was slower and more circumspect. After the summer holidays my gang had disbanded. I was twelve now and going to dance parties in the posh apartments of my uptown friends. They had extra rooms for their maids and color TV sets, not Day-Glo walls. My schoolmates wore cardigan sets with pleated skirts, not silly 3-D glasses. Who cared if the two lenses brought the world together to form one solid picture, everyone knew they only did that when you looked at a 3-D movie. Tanya enrolled in an acting class for teenagers at HB Theatre. “She needs to learn to channel her emotions,” my mother said. This of course backfired. At fourteen, expressing herself became my sister’s great excuse for drama. With her long brown hair parted down the middle framing her heart-shaped face, she looked positively angelic as she practiced the lamentations of high-strung characters like Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire. Her friends from the Upper West Side now came downtown to score the plentiful drugs available at Westbeth. In the courtyard, when she wasn’t acting, Tanya and her friends sat in a huddle on cement planters smoking joints.
The building was changing, too. The first few months we’d kept our doors open, people coming in and out of each other’s spaces with coffee and wine, but after a slew of robberies, dead bolts went up. Paint began to chip from the walls and there was no budget for repairs. Everyone had begun to complain about all the noise at Westbeth. A noise abatement notice was posted in the lobby. My mother shook her head in disbelief. Those eighteen-foot-high waved ceilings we all loved had been specifically designed by Bell Laboratories to transport sound. The musicians turned down the volume of their instruments. Rock music no longer floated along the hallways day and night. Kids were forbidden to ride bikes and use roller skates inside the building.
After the New Year, four months after the unknown woman had jumped to her death, Sheldon Brody, a struggling photographer, leapt out a hallway window. Sheldon belonged to the building and had a child. His wife, Anne, came to my mother weeping, “Now the knot that he carried around all those years is in my stomach.” I was up in my loft bed, right over the dining room table where they sat. Maybe they didn’t know I was there behind my curtain listening.
As soon as Anne left, I climbed down my ladder and asked what Anne’s comment had meant.
“Her financial situation. She’s worried about how she’ll pay the bills now.”
Later that evening, when my mother’s friend Sonia Gechtoff stopped by, they hunched over cups of tea. “I carry their files around in my head,” Mom said.
“Whose files?” Sonia asked. Sonia was an abstract artist who lived on our floor with her two kids. She was sharp, kind and levelheaded, and her pictures were full of bright-colored jagged shapes.
“All your files,” my mother sobbed. “I know your lists of exhibitions, your publications and the names of your references. Christ, I even know your tax returns and statement of need. I’m your Mrs. Westbeth. The files I read when everyone applied are now in my head. Half the relationships in this building are lies told in order to garner more space. Some of the women who are now pregnant—I’m the one that told them if they had a baby they’d get additional room! I feel so responsible.”
“Oh, no, Thalia,” Sonia scolded. “If Sheldon lost his sense of possibility, that’s not your fault. We’re all struggling for our toehold here. This building has given us a chance.”
A toehold? Was that all we had? Even though Sonia said the word reassuringly, I didn’t like the sound of it, so precarious and unstable. That night when I fell asleep I dreamed of a great wind coming off the Hudson sweeping us all out to sea.
This excerpt is from Chapter 11 of Unstill Life: A Daughter’s Memoir of Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction (2014), published by W.W. Norton.