Pigment and Plaster in the Dying Years

David and the Lion’s Den, chapter 6

Pearl Paint, Canal Street, Manhattan

That’s what Howie calls them. The plague hit him harder than me, because he’s a few years older. He lived it all from the beginning — from the ‘not seeing’ part right through to the full horror.

It’s easy to forget what it was really like. When I landed in New York, AIDS was already as bad as it was going to get. It’s weird how life kept marching right along, anyway. If you squinted just right, it faded out of view.

Jill told me once that Howie went to so many funerals that he had to keep a date book to keep track of them. It took about 10 to 15 years for HIV to kill you back then. All these guys who’d picked up the virus before they even knew there was a risk, they were all dying. It seemed like all at once.

Everybody knew somebody who had either just died or was about to.

People my age had a fighting chance. We’d known about safer sex when we were first coming out of the closet. For Howie and people his age, staying alive was a numbers game, and the odds were about as good as winning a game of Three Card Monty on Canal Street.

“How does he do that?” I asked Richard as we watched the dealer flip the cards up on the milk crate he’d set up in front of Pearl Paint. It was a quiet Sunday morning, and my elderly neighbor was doing me a big favor.

“Who knows.” he answered, chuckling without humor. “You won’t have any trouble keeping track of the right card if nobody’s put money down. He only cheats when a sucker comes along. Oldest scam in the book.”

I nodded as we passed the card sharp and made our way inside the cramped brick store. “Thanks again, by the way. I had to pay for a cab last time just to lug everything back.”

“As long as we get you home by 2:00.”

“Oh, yeah. Right. Um…” I hadn’t exactly forgotten, but the appointment made me anxious, so I was working hard not to think about it.

I’d much rather enjoy Pearl Paint! The smells! Like my old college studio. Six cramped floors, serpentine aisles so narrow you had to squeeze through sideways sometimes. Dust everywhere!

They carried (still carry) absolutely everything any serious artist would ever need. Modeling clay, plaster, paint. Every pencil, paper, marker in existence, all heaped up on shelves and mixed together in old bins.

I loved the people there best, though. My “vintage” clothing, scraggly hair, and paint-encrusted fingernails — you never can get them clean when you work in oil — fit right in. I was at home at Pearl Paint, with my tribe.

I did most of my supply shopping on Sunday mornings, and evidently half the other working artists in the City liked to do the same. Among them, I was ordinary. My scruffiness was a badge of membership, and it felt good to belong.

Maybe this is why people go to church, I remember thinking.

Richard had picked up a red shopping basket, and I started sweeping tubes of pigment into it. I hesitated when I reached the Flake White. They seemed to be about out.

“Excuse me?” I asked a girl in a red smock down the aisle.

“Ah, you must be a portraitist,” she commented after I’d explained my problem. “I’ve got more right here. About to restock.” She bent down to grab some boxes from a carton.

“Oh, hey,” she added, turning back around to frown at my hands. “Be careful. You need to clean up better if you keep using that stuff.”

I explained to Richard. “It’s lead based. It’s like the only kind of paint you can buy that still is. Serious artists use it as a base for skin tones. The lead makes it super flat, like matte. I gotta have that.”

“You also gotta have this,” the girl growled at me, pressing a bottle of thinner into my hand. “Use it more,” she ordered.

“I spotted the canvases on the ground floor,” Richard mentioned after I mumbled my thanks. The girl threw me a crooked grin and raised an eyebrow, like maybe she wanted to see if I was for real.

“Oh, hell, no,” I answered. We have to go to the basement. What you saw is pre-stretched. For old ladies painting geraniums. It’s cheap and too expensive at the same time.”

The stock girl nodded her approval as I took Richard’s arm. “Lead on Matisse,” he teased as we left her to her tubes.

The basement at Pearl is a musty cave, bare stone walls lit up by bare bulbs. The light is harsh and the air is earthworms and mold. As a clerk unrolled yards of canvas from an ancient spindle and snipped it off with giant shears, I dug out a series of stretcher bars.

“I guess that’s it,” I told Richard.

$126.39. No wonder I was always broke. And Pearl was cheap compared to most places. I’ll tell you something, though. Lugging those bags of supplies made me happy. I could almost smell the pigment inside the sealed tubes. My heart wanted to beat faster for it. Imagining stretching and priming the canvas made my fingers tingle. I couldn’t wait to get started in the morning with a new subject.

Richard helped me after he drove me home. Him holding the edges made stapling the canvas a lot easier. The bell rang just as I finished brushing on the first layer of acrylic primer.

“Right on time,” Richard nodded.

“Oh, my God, it’s him. I forgot again!” I glanced around, all nerves and sour stomach. The room was a mess. I had one primed canvas leaning against a wall all ready for morning, and the one I was working one sat atop old newspapers, waiting to be sanded down after it dried.

To be honest, neither Jill nor I had ever been meticulous about cleaning up our priming dust. She needed another painter as a roomie for a reason. No “civilian” would ever tolerate the mess.

“Relax, kid,” Richard said, patting my shoulder. “I’m sure he knows what to expect.”

He was right, of course. Renaud strutted in like he owned the place, dressed down in clothes that could hold up to dust and pigment. “Not an unpleasant little atelier,” he sniffed as he pumped my hand twice. At least he didn’t try to kiss my cheeks.

“Ah, yes, Richard,” he deadpanned , catching sight of my neighbor. “I was looking for you last night at the …”

I caught a fleeting negation, an almost imperceptible shake of Richard’s head. Odd.

“… at the, hein, party,” stuttered Renaud. “You were missed, Richard.”

“I was entertaining the grandchildren, but it’s kind of you to say so.” Richard sounded more formal than I was used to. An odd note rang in the air between the two of them. Renaud’s eyes glinted — playfully? — as he turned his attention back to me.

En tout cas, young man, what will you say? Shall we have a look?”

I was only satisfied with two or maybe three pieces, so I dragged them out of the utility room first. The afternoon sun stabbed in harshly when I opened the drapes.

I half closed my eyes and held my breath while Renaud stared and hummed to himself. I told myself I didn’t care what he thought. I’d painted for me — for seeing, for understanding. Renaud’s opinion was the least of my worries.

“Oui,” he breathed, one hand tugging on his wiry goatee. “Oui, c’est vrai. Richard, you were not entirely exaggerating.”

“But what about Hilda? David, you’ve got to show him that one.”

My heart was pounding. It was one thing for my friends to see my work. That was scary enough, but it wasn’t ultimately important. Richard didn’t know know shit about art — about narrative, composition, theme. He couldn’t analyze brushstrokes, and he didn’t know the first thing about the battles raging between representationalists and conceptualists.

I did. Renaud surely did.

I was terrified he was going to see me, know me as faker, and laugh in my face.

“Bring the painting of the woman, David,” he ordered me. Then his voice softened. “Please, I want to see it.”

When I brought it out into the light and unwrapped it, Richard smiled.

Renaud spoke directly to him, bypassing me entirely. “Would she let us use her story? How do you think?”

“She doesn’t keep her life a secret.”

I didn’t know what they were talking about.

“You will ask of her for me, please, mon ami?

When Richard smiled, Renaud turned his attention back to me. “Very well, young man. I am prepared to display four, possibly five of your paintings in my fall show — on the condition you include this one.” He nodded toward Hilda’s portrait. “We open Labor Day weekend. Do we have the agreement?”

My heart beat even faster. I may have stuttered out some kind of response, but I honestly don’t remember. The art dealer sounded exactly like a used car salesman with a French accent. He seemed so casual, so entrepreneurial. So crass.

Yet, he’d just asked me if I would agree to hang my paintings in the same show as Keith Haring’s. I couldn’t breathe.

Richard poked my shoulder. “David? would you like that? Is it OK?”

Obviously, there was only one possible answer. Fate rolls like that.

You just read chapter 6 of a character-driven mystery set in Greenwich Village during the worst of the HIV Plague Years. David, Jill, Hilda, Richard, and Howie are walking a path that leads to intense friendship and love, to the creation of gorgeous but wrenching art, and to the unraveling of a series of horrific events that nobody sees, not even as they happen. Because sometimes what you’re looking at isn’t what you see.



Collected Writings. Stories and ramblings from a long-time LGBTQ thinker and activist.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
James Finn

James Finn is an LGBTQ columnist, a former Air Force intelligence analyst, an alumnus of Act Up NY, and an agented but unpublished novelist.