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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

I Am Officially an Adult

These events apparently didn't count:

  • Paying for my own car insurance
  • Getting a discount on car insurance just for being 25 years old
  • When I started earning Real Money
  • Earning my bachelor's degree
  • Getting married
  • Buying a house
  • Having a child
  • Saying to said child, "What did I just tell you??!!" (that only officially made me a parent, not an adult)
  • Having a second child
What was the event, that final straw that made me into a full-fledged adult? Short answer is the picture below, now hanging in my bedroom. Long answer is below that...

Za Maestra, Claud Labes

I'm walking around the Montmartre area of Paris, fighting jetlag and enjoying my little stopover, when I see her in this gallery.

It feels as though sharp rocks are not just in my shoes, but under the skin of my in-step, like the ground is striking the soles of my feet with a ball-peen hammer. I'm not walking; the cobblestones are being thrown at my feet, propelling me along in directions I'm only barely choosing.

As soon as I see her I stop. My feet thank me. I stare at her for about half a minute, then take one, five, eight tortuous steps into the gallery. An older gentleman is on the phone, complaining about a slow day. He gestures me to a little blue chair near his desk.

I'm sitting there, trying to see how much of his conversation I can make out (not much), hoping he'll stay on the phone another ten minutes. I'm looking at the painting, and my feet are screaming at me.

"How can I help you, Monsieur?" he asks me in English.

"I wanted to see about this lady," I answer in French.

"French or English," he says, with as little interest as if I had started reading the phone book.

"Comme vous voulez," I answer. We switch back and forth throughout the conversation.

"I wanted to see about this lady with the cello," I repeat.

"Are you a serious buyer?" he asks.

"I don't know. I won't know until I find out what the price is, because I don't know if I'm even in the right league."

He takes another look at me. I'm carrying a $4 umbrella, purchased at a souvenir shop. I'm wearing a tattered and pilled sweatshirt that I intend to leave in Paris when I depart, and my hair is a complete mess. Think about a blonde Einstein with a bushy pony tail, minus sufficient IQ points.

"I can't let it go for less than 350 Euros."

I reach into my pockets. I have about 60 Euros. And credit cards.

"Do you take credit cards?"

"Yes, but I don't like to."

We look at each other for a few more minutes. I'm looking him in the eyes, not fidgeting, not shifting my weight, consciously suppressing all instincts of bodily motion, like I try to do when, say, playing poker.

"If you have cash I can let it go for 300 Euros."

"I don't have that much cash," I say.

"If you go to the Champs Elysées, you won't find this quality for under a thousand. It's exquisite. Claud Labes, you know, from Montmartre."

"Is he still alive?" I ask.

He laughs. "Yes, very much so?"

"Are you Mr. Labes?"

"No, but he is a good friend of mine. No, I am a painter, but my art is different." He gestures around. The small room is decorated floor-to-ceiling with the kinds of, what, post-impressionist? paintings that I can appreciate, but am ultimately not interested in.

There are at least eight more Labes paintings, mostly of young women playing instruments, and I try to see if I can get as excited about the smaller, no doubt less expensive ones. I can't. Something about the lady's hand holding the bow... well, I found it intoxicating.

"Monsieur? What shall it be? This painting is exquisite. You won't find quality like this for such a price anywhere else in Paris."

Oh how I would come to know this combination of words over the next month in India...

"I can't get that much cash today. My bank has a maximum amount it will allow, and I've already withdrawn some."

Now, this is a true statement, but it's meant to put the ball in his court. If I want to incur deadly transaction and finance charges, I can always to a cash advance on a credit card, but that's a very last resort. I already know I'm going to buy it, one way or the other.

"Two hundred in cash, one hundred on credit card," he says. "Shall I wrap it up?"

"I don't have that much cash on me."

He shrugs. "I paid 250 for it. I can't sell it for less."

I nod. "Is there an ATM around here?"

"No," he says. "Nowhere in Montmartre. Nowhere on the hill. You can go to one, right down here, to the left, then down the stairs, then by a little bistro. An old man like me, I couldn't do it in two hours, but you're a young man. You can do it in fifteen minutes."

My feet look up and me and threaten me with curses and shaking fists.

I ask again how to get to this ATM, but the directions are useless. I don't know how to get directions in this country. I'm an American, and therefore need street names and distances. It's a severe limitation, this need for such specificity.

I tell him I'll be back, then I leave, clearly walking in the opposite direction from what he told me. I'm not even sure I'll be back at this point. I go up the street and see Sacre Coeur, then walk around it, trying to get to the apocryphal Funiculaire de Montmartre. What are the odds that the same thing can happen?

Well, it's out of order. So I look at the stairs. My left foot has changed its name to Fidel Castro and my right foot is now Fletcher Christian. I put down the uprising and begin to walk down the stairs. If you've ever seen Amélie, you've seen the stairs in the elaborate path down which she leads her amant to retrieve his notebook. They're daunting. They're painful. They're not easy even if you're in perfect health.

Once I go down these stairs, that's it. No painting for me.

So I go down. I stop in a few bookstores and a bakery. I make it back to the hotel and sit down for a few minutes. I turn on the TV. I grab a snack from the bar area. I walk back outside, up Pigalle, to Clichy, and consider returning to the Cimetière to see her. Again.

None of this is taking my mind off of the painting.

I go to a hair salon, thinking that if I go in, I can officially say that, for a three year period in my life, I would only get my hair cut in Paris.

They're full, and can't take anyone at the moment. As I walk out, I see like a shining beacon, an ATM. I walk over and withdraw 140 Euros. I now have 200.

I look toward the hotel and realize that it's a bit downhill. I look the other way, and it's uphill. Sacre Coeur is in that direction. I begin to walk. I walk slowly, lecturing my feet the whole time on the need for discipline and the rewards of hard labor. I reach a very steep staircase and just stare at it for half a minute.

I start up the stairs, letting several (much) older people go ahead of me.

I turn up one street, then another, then I recognize the youth hostel I always wanted to stay at, but which is always always full. Then I turn up another street, and somehow my feet have stopped hurting. I think their spirit has been broken. Or they've fallen off and my shins haven't started to complain yet.

Once I make it to the galarie I see the proprietor leaning back in a chair, hands clasped behind his head, just watching the people walk by. For a moment the thought occurs to me: forget the painting, just buy the whole damn gallery and change your life!

When he sees me he stands up. "I didn't think you were going to come back," he says.

It's been over two hours.

"Can I offer you 180 in cash and 120 on credit card?"

He doesn't hesitate for a moment. "Yes, yes. I can, yes sure yes."

I give him the money. He compliments my French. I give him the credit card. He compliments the design on the card (it's the Wells Fargo wagon). He is all smiles and friendliness, and says he's going to close early after this. I feel good about myself, and I also hope I did a good enough job of talking down the price. From what he said, he's not making much margin, but it's starting to sound like... like I need to forget about it and start appreciating what I've purchased.

He invites me to sit at the cafe next door and have coffee while I wait for him to take it off the frame and roll it up.

I have a strong Cafe Crème and a lovely apple tart while I wait. When the old man gestures me back in, I see what I've obligated myself to. The painting is 30 inches wide, 3 inches in diameter when rolled up, wrapped in a double-thickness of paper and a big plastic shopping bag. I'm going to carry this tube, which won't fit into any suitcase, all around Paris, then onto the plane to India, then all around Bangalore, then all the way back home. I'm going to be asked questions about it at security checkpoints. I'm going to have to fit it into the overhead bins of the airplanes, hoping nobody sets anything on it or insists on seeing it.

But so far none of this bothers me. I search deep within my core for traces of buyer's remorse. None.

Let's skip ahead. It's May 16th. It's nearly 8 weeks since I bought the painting. My father is a professional framer, and even after my 45% discount it cost more to have the picture framed than I paid for it.

It's oil on canvas, framed with three different kinds of moulding, including one which is upholstered with a suede which matches one of the shades of olive green taken from the painting.

With the blessing of my wife, I hung it on my wall last night. I'm working from my home office today, and every time I turn around I catch a glimpse of it, I feel like it might be the best purchase of my adult life. My wife and I stood looking at it last night, arms around each other, and we both arrived at this thought at the same time: Adults buy fine art. We are living adult lives now.

But enough about us. What do y'all think about the painting? I didn't intend this post to be an actual narrative; I intended only to get Claud Labes into a better Google position than he has now. Searching for him seems to yield nothing, and I want it to yield the image I posted above. I want to share my great find with the billions of people who will never see my bedroom.


Blogger Jess said...

I think that painting is of the type that is particularly hard to appreciate in a small photograph. The thing that made you fall in love with it is something indescribable in the brush strokes, which are too small to see.

It makes for a great story, though. I'm always seeing paintings in coffee shops and art fairs that I wish I could afford. One of these days I'll be a grown-up too. But I won't have a cool story about how I haggled for it partly in French.

Wed May 16, 01:26:00 PM  
Blogger Marcus said...

It may be too little too late, but I redid the picture so that it's a link you can zoom in on and pan around, etc.

It still may be that it's impossible to capture in this setting, or that the angle is wrong because I couldn't take it straight on without massive glare.

It also may be that this painting was created just for me, and that nobody else has a chance of seeing what I see in it....

Wed May 16, 01:38:00 PM  
Blogger Marta said...

She is beautiful and her motion is captured perfectly--even from oil painting to digital photograph. My mother was an artist and I had "real" art on my walls even in my dorm room, but I'll never forget the first time my husband and I stood side by side staring at a work of art that we'd chosen and paid for ourselves.

She's perfect.

Wed May 16, 07:39:00 PM  

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