WEDNESDAY: Escape from the Urban Legion


Copyright is held by the author.

Dakota faced two equally bleak alternatives: return home with his hopes in shambles or kill himself. Both seemed equally unhappy choices.

Painting had been his only way to nail the existential truths that lay compositing in his soul.  But his art wasn’t selling. His life was not being validated.  He was humiliated by New York City’s Urban Legion.

The Urban Legion was a self-styled gaggle of survivalist artists, New Yorkers by adoption. Its components — his friends and critics — wore the invisible badges of The Cooper Union, Art Students League, Studio School, Pratt Institute, and School of Visual Arts. Their world was circumscribed by the perimeter of SoHo: Stanton, Rivington, Houston, Grand, Mercer, and Greene.  These streets were the bars of his cell, except when he ventured north into the rarefied world of the Whitney Museum or the Met or MOMA.

His friend Rona from the Art Students League was shouting now. “This crap isn’t going to get you into a gallery!  Dakota, if this amateurish drivel was hamburger a dog would puke!”

He bit his lip and looked at the dozen or so paintings he’d just finished.  He had selected commercial schlock art from a Duane Reade drugstore, and in a week of wild painting he daubed and splashed and limned the cheap prints with black circles and wild swashes. This was his statement to the world, his protest against society’s impossible expectations.

Now, Rona decreed that they sucked. He valued her comments and always thought she cared — for his art if not for his affection. She must be correct because she showed her paintings. Gallery owners signalled interest behind their raised eyebrows and prospective buyers often visited her loft to make a purchase.

Everyone, he thought, has a fatal flaw.  Othello did.  Macbeth.  Little George Bush — well, you could go on and on.  The flaw can be narcissism, hubris, greed, and revenge, whatever. It calls for the hero to blindly pursue the flaw until life ends in tragedy . . . or in supreme comedy that makes the gods laugh till snot shoots out of their noses.

His flaw, Dakota realized, was in believing he had something to say. Now Rona spelled out the truth. “Dakota Truscott, listen to me. You’re a nice guy, but your art is crap.”

After she left, he trudged downstairs to Mercer Street with the stillborn paintings, woeful pieces of cardboard in dime-store frames, and he parked them by the metal trash cans. Time was up after a year of painting.  Time to return to his eponymous state of North Dakota and design brochures at Dad’s printing company.

The paintings looked confused as he gave them a half-hearted wave. “So long, guys,” he said.

Back in his loft, he took stock of the few items that articulated his life. Some paints, some clothes, some books and photos.

And he began shucking the detritus that he wouldn’t need as an hourly-paid designer. What remained barely filled a knapsack and a suitcase. He ducked out to the fire escape to fetch his laundry, shocked to discover his shirts had disappeared. Everyone dries their clothes on fire escapes, don’t they? The way they press their pants under a mattress. No one was going to steal blue chambray shirts that still had the name tags his mom had sewn in before leaving North Dakota. Shrugging away this final insult, he packed the rest of his gear.

The phone rang as he thought about buying a pint of Wild Turkey for the Greyhound ride home.

“Dakota Truscott?  What a great name.” The woman’s voice tinkled through the syllables like a pigeon wading in puddles.

“Only one I have.” His response summed up the disappointing year. “What do you want?”

“Well, it’s up to you. I think I have your windblown shirts. They have your name. Might need them if you’re going to summer camp.” The pigeon continued to step lightly.

He walked down to Mercer Street and over to Grand to the address this Marcia Mellon — she had already become “Miss M&M” — had given him. How embarrassing to pick up your laundry from a total stranger who sounded like a piece of chocolate.

“I’m Truscott,” he said after banging on her door. “My shirts?”

Marcia appeared pleasant-looking, articulate in inviting him into her apartment, and sympathetic in appraising his shirtless plight.  He wasn’t prepared to see his paintings hanging on her walls, decorating table tops, and leaning against furniture. His shirts had flown the coop and now his paintings had also waltzed up to her apartment.

“What’re you doing with my art?” he asked, rather too loudly.

“Your art? You did these?”

“If you want to pick a fight, Miss M&M, put up your dukes. Those pictures were meant for destruction, not cohabitation with you.”

“Finders keepers. It’s the law of salvage. I asked everyone who the painter was.”

“Go on, rub it in. I can’t fight a regiment of gallery owners and critics too.”

“I own a gallery,” she said, “and when I saw your paintings I had a moment of Stendhal Syndrome.”

His eyes narrowed to squint out her meaning. “Stendhal?”

“Exposure to a super abundance of art, the way that French writer fainted, overwhelmed by too many paintings in Florence, Italy. I show art and I sell art,” and she named some of the most happening painters on the scene. “I want your paintings. I want you, Dakota Truscott, to get out of this pissy mood you seem to be in. I have studio space. Take it for a month. Paint your heart out. But you have to give me first rights to show and have an opening. Oh, Dakota, you’re going to be the hottest thing in town.”

Like reading fiery Old Testament letters on the wall, he saw how he could escape from Rona’s Urban Legion and remain in the city. His flaw of believing too much in himself wasn’t tragedy.  It was comedy flavored with a soupçon of irony.

“Did you know,” he said to Miss M&M, “art is both a prison and the last refuge of freedom?”

In his case, the cell door had just swung open.

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  1. A fine read! Good style and good humour throughout. Loved the opening and the conclusion. And everything in between.

  2. I don’t believe in fate and I am suspicious of coincidence. But without at least one of these ingredients where would literature be? I don’t think you nailed it with this one, Walt, but still an enjoyable read with your usual motley collection of oddball characters.

  3. You’re a fine writer Walter. Loved the story.

  4. Thank you all. This is based on a true story, an urban legend of Brooklyn, NY.

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