Basquiat Drawing

On a July evening in 1988 I exited from my apartment to get beer from the bodega. Young people hurried to 10th Street bars in expectation of romance or a phone number to call. The men wore khakis and blue button down shirts and the women wore clothes worth a week’s salary. They shouted out a language of the young and I turned to walk to 1st Avenue.

A familiar face loomed from the night. It was Jean-Michel. His skin was tobacco ash grey and blood stained his shirtsleeves.

“You can’t walk around like that!” I pulled him out of the gutter.

“Why not?” He was as listless as a Voodoo puppet. “I’m famous. I have money. I can do what I want.”

“Not anymore. The cops target blacks for anything. You know that.”

“Yeah, to make it all safe for these newcomers.”

“C’mon, upstairs, I’ll give you a new shirt.”

“Thanks, maybe I could use a clean-up.”

His struggle up the stairs was pitiful. Inside my apartment I sat him on a kitchen chair.

“I remember coming here,” he slurred with a thick tongue. “I painted your refrigerator. I once painted a door and the girl got a half-million from a dealer. You were lucky too, right?”

“Something like that.”

He took off his shirt. I stared at his needle-tortured arms. “What the fuck are you doing to yourself?”

“You don’t understand what it’s like to be famous. And even worse is being me. Journalists write about me as if I were a Rosetta Stone to creativity. Dealers acclaim my work like I was the Second Coming of Surrealism, but I was just some kid whose craziness people can understand, only now I’m not a kid anymore.” He cleaned his arms with a paper towel and then gazed at my books. “You write any more?”

“Not really.” I handed him a white tee-short, which he tugged over his head. “That’s too bad, I really liked your stories.”

“You told me that before.” Plot schemes floated around my skull like airplanes waiting out a snowstorm’s end before a landing, but I explained, “Woody Allen said everyone has a book in them and it’s a good idea to keep it in them too.”

“Woody Allen never painted an IRA poem on the British embassy in Paris.”

“It was a love poem to my girlfriend.” I was surprised that anyone in New York had heard about this episode. “She worked across the street.”

“I’ve met Woody Allen. He isn’t so funny in person.”

“My girlfriend left me.”

“Not the first time and not the last. For me either.”

“I guess not.” I wondered if he had ever met Candia. Paris was only a six- hour flight from New York. He was famous. She was beautiful.

“You mind if I shoot up in the bathroom?” He pulled a wad of cash, a pencil, a needle, and two crystalline packets from his pocket.

“Go right ahead.”

“You want some?”

I shook my head and drank a glass of water, while he fixed up in the water closet.

Four minutes later Jean-Michel emerged from the WC off the living room. He gazed at the Polaroids on my kitchen wall. Many of the faces dated back to the Seventies.

“You should come to my next opening. There are people to meet. Maybe even a literary agent and I’ll tout you as the next great literary gift to the world.”

“It’s too late to say that.” I lifted my camera and pointed to the wall of Polaroids. “Can I add you to my collection?”

“Sure, as long as it’s not for Art.” He had long ago forgiven our confrontation at the Kiev.

“No, only my wall.” I wished I had known him better. It wasn’t too late. “No one else will see it.”

“Then no one can steal my soul.” He posed with his arms behind his back. His face was an aged mirror of that young boy in the Kiev.

I pressed the button and the Polaroid popped out.

“I left you something in the bathroom.” Jean-Michel wasn’t interested in the result.

“Thanks.” As soon as the door shut, I searched the bathroom without finding any dope, but didn’t care, because he had left me something better.

Two weeks later he died of an overdose. His passing was mourned as a great loss to the art world, though as the years passed his style was dismissed as common. I always defended him, since legend can only protect a dead man so far.

PS the drawing from the photo was what he left me


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