My first encounter with Red, a witty and charismatic grifter type whom I knew in the late Nineties, was in the form of smoke issuing from the electrical sockets in my tiny apartment on New York’s Lower East Side. I had just moved in. On my first night sleeping in the place, I woke up with the feeling that someone was in the room with me, actively smoking. I turned on the light and could see that smoke was drifting from an outlet near the floor. I heard low male voices and a radio playing softly through the wall. I opened the windows and tried to fall back asleep. The next day, as I came home from my job—I was working, at the time, at the now-defunct art and literary magazine Grand Street—I saw that the door of the next-door apartment was open. It was gutted. So that was the reason. There was nothing on their side to block the smoke, no walls, no insulation, no sockets, everything had been ripped down to the studs. Two men were inside working. They saw me and one stopped what he was doing and came out. This was Red. When I told him the smoke had come through the sockets and woken me up, he apologized profusely. He had a charmingly formal manner, despite being covered with drywall dust. He spoke in long sentences, using elevated references. He had sores on his face and his hands shook. He seemed to inhabit a vast world. He was also homeless.
That night, no smoke woke me, but I did hear Red and his buddy, whose name was Pete, arguing. I left early for work, while they were still sleeping, I guessed—they stayed up late, doing whatever they did in there and then crashed on newspapers spread on the floor. The owner of the apartment seemed unaware that they were living in the place he had hired them to remodel, but perhaps he didn’t care because he was paying them so little. When I got home that day, Red and Pete were out, but Red had left me a very long note, literally it was six feet long, as it had been written on drywall tape, which he had fed underneath my door. It began as a verbatim reproduction of the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues,” and then morphed into something like a love letter, and then back into the Dylan, which he claimed as his own poem that he had written thinking of our encounter and his new friendship as his “flaming feet burned down the sidewalk.” He signed it, “Le Rouse, Redhead.” I think he meant Le Roux, but perhaps he meant Larousse, as in “your new dictionary,” in the sense that each person one meets is a new field of definitions, an index of idiosyncrasy, predicament, wit, and wits.
I had never had an office job before. I’d been a bartender in San Francisco, so making copies and being fastidious and organized was not exactly my strong suit. Characters, maybe, were my strong suit, if such a thing, a talent for encouraging flamboyant weirdos, can count as expertise. Anyhow, I began to look forward to returning from work, cracking a beer, and reading that day’s long note from Red, which he would have surely slid under the door. The notes were always on drywall tape, and sometimes he’d say, “Soon I’ll get some real writing paper, but temporarily this is all I can afford.” Or, “I guess I didn’t get that writing paper yet.” Many of his notes were fanciful come-ons.
Dear Rachel, I would love to take you out to dinner. Obviously you can call the shots since my schedule is a lot more flexible than yours—or what about lunch—I do want to let you know that Pete is my brother—literally—so I’m not bi, nor have I turned gay—he really is my brother—Anyway I would love to know a lot about you. —Red
Dear Rachel, I hope you had a fine 4th of July holiday—I wanted to write you to let you know that I think my asking you out for dinner was misunderstood by you. Yes, I do think you are real knockout but (I know this is gonna sound terribly arrogant but every woman I ever dated, lived with and/or married were knockouts.) You seem like a very interesting and complex intelligent woman and I simply wanted to get to know you a bit better. Also, there has gotta be a law against you looking as good as you did leaving your apartment this morning. You short-circuited every electrode in my brain. —Red
Some of the letters had elaborate explanations of his current situation. He’d had a fire in his loft; he lost another loft in a divorce settlement; he was embroiled in a legal battle with several ex-wives and a couple of art dealers. I did and didn’t pay much attention to his explanations. He and Pete, for instance, were definitely not brothers. Pete looked South Asian. Red was fair-skinned and a true carrot-top. I didn’t need him to be truthful, in any case. I liked him for his audacious manner, his comical swagger. Like when he told me, while changing his clothes at the top of the stairs, reaching into a black garbage bag for some soiled blue jeans, that soon he might “cash out of the stock market and start living for real.” I didn’t think it was my business to hold him to his facts. I regarded him as a dignified performer who deserved his privacy.
And yet I knew I wasn’t dealing with someone exactly typical. One day I came home to find him nodded off outside our building on Norfolk Street, wearing a Marsden Hartley T-shirt. What homeless junkie wears a Marsden Hartley T-shirt? Later I mentioned the shirt and he started going on about the paintings of Hartley and which era of that artist’s work he preferred. I had just helped to edit a portfolio for Grand Street on Hartley’s Maltese Cross paintings. Everything was coalescing in some weird way, in this city life I was living, and I later put that T-shirt in my second novel, which was partly about the New York art world. A character named Ronnie Fontaine wears it, and he isn’t down on his luck the way Red was. He’s a well-known and successful artist. A smart-ass and a trickster. Red had been all that, too; I just didn’t realize it.
Something I remember quite strongly about Red is his smell. I have smelled that same smell on other people but I associate it deeply with him. It’s the smell of someone who lives on cigarettes and alcohol. I think that when I first met Red he was only drinking, not doing heroin, but quickly, over the several months that he and Pete were working in that apartment, they fell into what Red explained were old habits. One day I came home and Pete and Red were outside the building, Pete in a head bandage, one eye covered by a huge gauze patch. Red explained that Pete had gotten construction debris in his eye and the tissue had turned necrotic or something, so “they took out his peeper.” Things were going downhill for both of them, but Red continued to write notes to me and feed them under my door.
Dear Rachel, I really do hope you did not take my poem to you nor the bottled water I left for you the wrong way. I swear to you there was not any loaded hidden meaning in any of it—no innuendo—nothing. Also, as for the bread, I figured that you would make better use of it than Pete and I, the way we’re living until we finish this job doesn’t give us much room for being able to cook or anything—even toast bread. By the way I’m an exceptional cook. —Red
Dear Rachel, Boy am I sorry that I let the cat out of the bag by being honest and letting you know that I thought you are a very attractive woman—My God! Since then I can hardly get the time of day from you. I feel as if I’m a leper (I’m not sure of the spellin’ but the concept is there). I’m not assuming you feel the same way—which I do not think you do—which is ok by me—I’m in love with another woman named Ina and it does not prevent me from appreciating other wonderful women, without wanting to screw them. You could be gay for all I know. —Red
Eventually they finished their work on the place, or maybe they had an argument with the owner and he kicked them out and hired someone else. My memory on that is vague. They left. I didn’t see Red for a long time. I hired someone to work on my own place, which needed painting and shelves, a friend of my cousin’s, a character almost as outrageous as Red, a guy my cousin and his friends called Huey Lewis on Crack, for his chin-clefted resemblance to the singer and his inability to ever stop talking. Huey Lewis on Crack was preparing for the millennium. Remember the millennium? Doing everything he could to be ready for the apocalypse sure to come on January 1, 2000, when the fabric of society would instantly break down and everyone would be crying and hungry and lost and fighting and desperate while he, Huey Lewis on Crack, would be traveling the unusable byways on his titanium motorcross bike, light enough so that he could lift it over the piles of debris that would block the roads on account of the civil war that would have ensued after the Y2K bug scrambled everything. Although Huey Lewis on Crack drove me nuts with his waves of excited end-times jabber, he didn’t charge me much and he did good work. I paid him in cash, as he requested, and he took that cash and went up to Harlem where he purchased gold coins and then buried those gold coins, he told me, in a secret spot under the George Washington Bridge, for retrieval after the breakdown of society and the plunge of the dollar to nothing.
One day, I was with Huey on Crack, going to Home Depot to buy supplies for my apartment, and we ran into Red on our way down Rivington. Red barely recognized me. I hadn’t changed at all. He had. Or maybe not really changed, but gone downhill. He was disheveled and out of it, high. He said Petey had died.
After Red walked away, Huey on Crack told me that he had been a big-time artist.
“That’s what he told me,” I said, assuming that we were talking about the same thing—people who almost made it but somehow became casualties of the propulsive art market of the Eighties. A lot of my cousin’s friends, Huey included, were refugees from that world, down-and-outers who drank package liquor and partied on abandoned lots. There was Cowboy Ray Kelly, who had worked for Rothko long before, as a young apprentice. My cousin had worked for Richard Serra. They started their own Lower East Side scene, centered around a squatted lot called the Gas Station and other nearby lots they squatted later, after the Gas Station was replaced by a high-rise. Sometimes these guys, hobo squatters and artist drunks, would hit on me, and some of them were even cute. One guy who was handsome and spoke intelligently said he wanted to cook me dinner. It turned out that he was hoping to cook it at my place, because he was temporarily without shelter. So I was accustomed to a certain type and just assumed Red was one more of them. But when a few months ago I read the large and prominent obituary in the New York Times of an artist named Richard Hambleton, which described the ups and downs of his dramatic career, I realized I’d been wrong. Red was Richard Hambleton, whom people called Shadow Man on account of the loose, street-style graffiti silhouettes he painted large-scale on the sides of buildings in many major cities but most prominently in New York. Two of his paintings (on canvas) sold recently for a total of almost a million dollars at a fund-raiser at the Cannes Film Festival. In the Eighties he’d been profiled in every magazine and grouped alongside Basquiat and Keith Haring, and twice had work in the Venice Biennale. He’d collaborated with Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood.
As I learned from the obituary, in the era after I’d known him he’d soared back upward. Giorgio Armani declared Hambleton his favorite artist and launched a traveling retrospective, whose opening events were written about in Vanity Fair and British Vogue.
I had always considered his notes to me artworks and treated them that way. I packed the notes very carefully every time I moved, had them in a specially designated drawer where they were protected. But seeing photos of Red with models and celebrities, that was a shock, except I’m sure he remained exactly who he was, whether he was sleeping on a park bench or posing in an Armani suit with gorgeous women who towered over him in their stiletto heels.
I miss Red’s sense of humor, and even, frankly, the way he smelled. It was the smell of a living person. By which I mean: There are many different ways to live.
Rachel Kushner’s most recent novel, The Mars Room, will be published in the U.K. by Jonathan Cape in June. She lives in Los Angeles.
What memory, asks Valeria Luiselli in her essay on Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes, can be held within a slab of stone? What is washed away when the flood comes, and how can rubble make an architect?
"Make everything more flexible in every way, so that the building becomes more like a palm tree and less like a completely rigid structure, because that’s the one that will fall down. Rigid things collapse."