(A Far Cry from Standing in a Swamp!)
One day I went to work and it took me to a rich lady’s apartment. Arriving at the address emailed to me I found out my shoot that day was in the lavish Upper East Side residence of an old-money New York socialite, who’s name I will not say. I was early, as usual, and it was seven something in the morning. I got a coffee at the only place open on the block— a fancy French patisserie called Maison Kayser that had mediocre cappuccinos and croissants that looked very fresh in the window which I did not buy, and took the antique mirrored elevator in the left back corner of the building courtyard up to the sixth floor.
There was only one door in the small alcove of a hall outside the elevator up there, and I thought I was in the wrong building. Usually if I have a shoot in someone’s apartment it’s a photographer’s, and not to generalize photographers but that turns out a lot to be a sparse living space doubling as photo studio in an idiosyncratic walk up with funny people on the stairs. This place was not usual. I knocked on the only door, and a short young woman with short platinum hair opened it. She only had an oversize t-shirt on, she must have just gotten out of bed. I was convinced I had made a mistake, it was a Saturday morning and I felt bad that I had woken some nice girl up early when she had maybe been planning to sleep in till ten, but she assured me I was in the right place and showed me in.
I was awed as soon as I entered: with a secret thrill of disbelief I found myself standing in a white paneled hexagonal room with a marble table and a gargantuan ceramic chandelier above it, a chandelier that looked to be even taller than me from cross bar to finial. Three doors led to three different halls with even larger chandeliers and even heavier furniture: the living room had chairs made of sculpted mineral, melted metal or granite, it could have been either. The coffee table books in there were huge too. They were all about fashion and art and practically could have served as coffee tables themselves, and I wanted to look at them.
The woman disappeared to brush her teeth and I sat uncomfortably drinking my coffee in the vast spotlessness of the living room sofa, which luckily was not granite but velvet and functional for sitting, I think. The woman reemerged only when the stylist of the photoshoot arrived, he seemed to be her friend and they made mimosas in the kitchen with Cuvee Cartier brut she had in her fridge, the only thing she had in her fridge, it was unopened and over the course of the morning they finished it between the two of them and at lunch sent out for some Veuve.
The woman was very chill, she did not hover or overprotect or worry about her expensive stuff, just had mimosas. I was surprised that the only time she cautioned the photo assistants was when they were moving the solid stone chairs and she said Be careful not to scratch the floor. I thought she seemed incredibly bored. The shoot itself was pretty hands-off too, except for doing my hair, which always takes stylists longer than they expect, and we shot simple pictures focused on “elevating denim.” The photographer was earnest and young, probably only two years older than me, and we worked well together. When twelve hours later we wrapped, I had done a lot of sitting on the floor, slouching on tables and beds and looking chicly listless, eaten half the bowl of M and M’s that was on the kitchen counter, and made good use of the spigot in the kitchen wall that was really fancier than the word spigot does justice to that brewed cappuccinos on demand. Considering it was a day of work, it felt a lot like day of vacation, a day of a life I see in movies and don’t often imagine regular people living.
I wondered the whole time what it would be like to be the woman, to live there in that grand quiet neighborhood by the 6 train with trees down the avenue centers and be able to walk to Central Park in the mornings and get fresh croissants from the place on the corner and have enough money to not know what else to spend it on but solid stone chairs and a room exclusively for high heels. I wondered whether that was something you planned in advance, a room full of heels, or a habit you grew with your growing income? I wondered why you feel a teeny bit of disdain for people who have tons of money, and who live like it? Maybe it’s just the people you grew up among, or the places you’ve been that lead you to think this way. Is it that you assume you could make better use of the tons of money if it were you who had it; do something more meaningful with it, because you're a meaningful person because you grew up without tons of money and had more material challenges to be creative about… But being middle class doesn't always mean you have more contact with the strapping-ness of humanhood, does it?
Not always, I’m sure: how cushy your life is depends on how you use your wealth. And if you or I had the wealth wouldn’t we like to use it just the way this woman uses it? I think so. I think I’d like to have a cappuccino on demand spigot in my wall. I’d like to have circular blue screens in the doorway in each room that control the air temperature in that room alone so you can chill the kitchen while you have the oven going to bake potatoes and heat the bathroom before your bath at the same time. That’s something I would do, no question. But, at the same time, I want a life that engulfs the grittiness of humanity. Can an extremely wealthy life and a life of raw world experience not cohabit one person’s existence— does it have to be one or the other?
The shoot will come out in November, and the anticipation of it’s coming is the most annoying and fun part. By now I’ve forgotten what the pictures looked like. But I don’t forget what the woman’s platinum hair looked like, or what the modern artworks on her cathedralled white walls looked like. I don’t forget how staggering it was to walk into such a luxurious place and feel like I lived there for a day, or after ride the $10 van with no air conditioning back out to Spring Valley with the Jamaican immigrants shrieking in Patois the whole way and the sporadic English insertion of baseball stuff they must have been debating. Grittiness, after all, adds dynamic and texture to a life. I can always brew my own coffee. And I have no alternative at the moment.
When I went to the bathroom before leaving the apartment on my almost two-hour commute home, the hand towel hung over the sink made me smile. Black embroidery on it said “If I keel over in Walmart, prop my body up at Neimans.” It suited that day in my life very well.