I’m a reluctant decorator. Maybe it’s because I’m really a poet, or maybe because I’m a slob. Either way, despite a life long fascination with my own personal mise en scenes I’ve tried never to let the professional impulse sink its fangs too deep.
Accidents happen though and I found myself in a family kind of kooky and creative. In the late eighties, while I was busy head banging to the scrotal yelps of Bad Brains and Black Sabbath, my older brother Vincent was getting his design degree at Parsons. Unaware I was even doing so, I tutored at his elbow. His bedroom in the basement of our humble Brooklyn house was the first laboratory for his glam-wacky aesthetic. Blue faux fur lined the walls. A retooled waterbed was rigged to look like it floated on a cushion of light. That good dresser from my parents’ trousseau repainted with black and white cow spots. He trekked out at night in a gold-embroidered unicorn blazer by Gaultier (yes, that one from the Madonna video) and hosted “surrealist balls” in a friend’s Tribeca loft, the bartender a stunning African model, topless but for strategically placed butterfly appliqués.
Who knew what any of it meant? “Design” seemed too flighty for my angsty, anti-establishment ambitions. At Vassar my long-haired self could be found enjoying high tea of all sorts in buildings designed by Saarinen, Breuer and Stanford White, completely ignorant of who these geniuses were. (Also escaping me: why did some girls wear jodhpurs to the dining hall without a stitch of irony?) Besides, I was reading Literature. I worshipped at the altar of High Art.
Life after school was defined instead by downtown tenement apartments and the pressing need for employment. I lived with Vincent for a couple of years in a cramped Chelsea flat – anything, we thought, was better than our crowded bridge and tunnel beginnings – and I found myself under his tutelage once more. This time he installed dramatic floor to ceiling Austrian drapes in our tiny living room to cover the exposed brick that he loathed – long before we ever had a stick of furniture and were forced to eat dinner on the floor. A window dresser by trade, he also employed me as his grunt. I was pretty good with a staple gun though and was able to play the starving artist while helping to push Madison Avenue handbags that cost half a year’s rent. It all still struck me as absurd, especially when it reached a fever pitch around the holidays. Saks, Bergdorfs, Barneys were our new temples of worship. Still, I felt a begrudging pride to be part of it, and lucky to do it with my brother.
Growing up, it had been Vincent who first took me shopping. After school we’d take the subway to the Village, to cavernous clothing stores in Soho like Parachute and Commes des Garcon, to places where striking, New Wave people hung out with wildly colored hair and outrageous clothing, where it was hard to tell sometimes who was a man and who was a woman, where it occurred to me that it might not matter. These people were more than just beautiful, or crazy, they had made art objects of themselves and the city their playground, as much as doing that kind of thing seemed silly to me.
Now that kind of thing was my job, and maybe even more begrudgingly I even came to see that it was important, especially considering that Vincent was living with HIV, and even more so when he started to get sick. He never stopped working though, or playing for that matter, and rarely ever separated the two. It was a good lesson for a younger brother who sometimes took himself too seriously.
One night, very late, for example, we were hanging a big round mirror in our apartment, suspending it not on the wall but up in the corner of the hallway, on an angle by the ceiling almost like a security mirror. The apartment was already filled with mirrors, one in the kitchen, two in the living room, two more in his bedroom. Vincent knew how good looking he was, plus, he told me, they made the apartment feel bigger. This new one went up surprisingly easily and looked great. Our reflection sort of zoomed in towards us and then away, disappearing into the ceiling and the narrow hallway hanging above our heads.
I walked back and forth beneath the mirror a few times to admire our handiwork. Full disclosure: I was also completely naked. Vincent had long gotten used to my habit and barely gave it a second thought, or look. No, I’m not now nor have I ever been a naturist. I just never saw good reason to wear clothes at home, especially for my brother’s benefit alone. We had bathed together. Grown up in bunk beds. What was there really to hide?
I had just walked under the mirror one last time when the wire on back of the mirror failed and it came crashing to the ground. The noise was incredible. Shattered glass flew everywhere. Vincent and I stared at one another in disbelief, mouths dropped open, our hearts pounding as time stood terrifyingly still for that moment. I was unscathed but for a tiny cut on my arm. Had I been a second or two slower it would have come crashing down on my head and exposed body.
Vincent had me shower off just in case there was any glass dust on me or in my hair. Then he carefully bandaged my arm while I stood there, still naked, in the tub. We were both still in a bit of shock. What if it had been Vincent, and not me?
Still shaking a bit, I offered him my arm. He approached it, a few different times, trying his best to be careful, then he just said it.
“Oh, it’s not like I’m going to give you AIDS from a Band-Aid.”
I never felt that piece of glass hit me, and it was a few minutes later that Vincent pointed it out, the tiny rivulet of blood making its way down my arm. We were brothers, we shared the same blood but now that prospect was a terrifying one.
It’s almost the holidays again but they are always a little bittersweet. Vincent died of AIDS around this time nearly two decades ago, on the eve of his last window display for his big client at the time, Hermes. It was to be a crystal winter wonderland. We had spent hours hot gluing “ice” in the form of shattered windshield glass to tree branches and experimenting with the perfect combination of artificial snows. Winner: Shredded plastic bags topped with shredded styrofoam topped with pearlescent white glitter.
The president of Hermes suggested we add Vincent’s signature Agnes B porkpie hat to that final display. Vincent had bought it on a trip to Paris the two of us took the year before. Graduating from a good school had provided me with plenty of credit card offers – even if it didn’t necessarily help me to pay them off. We ran off to the City of Light and ran them up with zest. We strolled the boulevards window shopping, and maybe doing a little real shopping too, the hat just one of a number of impulsive but oh so important purchases. Vincent wore the hat too when his chemotherapy began, to cover his baldness like those drapes and that awful brick wall. I figured that this admittedly poetic gesture, even if it was only in a shop window, was a fitting end of both our careers in display, but it was really the end of so much more. My heart was broken.
Not long after however, needing work once more, I answered an ad in the Village Voice and found myself the in-house window dresser for Housing Works, the AIDS/homelessness charity and their chain of upscale thrift shops. I was at NYU then, getting a masters in creative writing and imagining a completely different life. I guess though I had been paying more attention to Vincent’s work than I thought, or maybe he had shown me that the real source of inspiration was something that transcended category: design, fashion, literature, art. It was really all about the heart. My first holiday window included an artificial silver christmas tree planted inside a giant high top sneaker with a toy train set running around it in reverse. There was a David Bailey portrait of Mick Jagger in a parka hung upside down and, naturally, the perfect recipe for fake snow. Vincent’s spirit was at work with me that day no doubt, and through the five hundred other windows I did for Housing Works, as it was a few years later when I got recruited as a creative executive for a major fashion brand. I felt his surprise and his pride too. But still I was reluctant.
Sometimes I look at the tiny scar on my bicep and wonder if it isn’t the only proof I have of those frightening if wonderful years. They seem like a dream — but if Vincent taught me anything it was to follow my own, and accidents do happen, especially the happy ones, and after a bumpy ride in the corporate world I find myself a starving artist again, trying to write books in between freelance jobs decorating underwear showrooms all the while trying to keep my internet turned on. Vincent would be horrified at my return to bohemia twenty years past the usual sell-by date, but he’d probably be more disturbed by the Barneys that’s opened on Atlantic Avenue near my apartment in our native Brooklyn. Maybe though he’d look at my cluttered apartment, books and papers and all the wrong furniture and say, begrudgingly, “What a mess, what a crazy, beautiful mess.”