Creative Nonfiction #53 / Fall 2014 / “Mistakes”

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For an art model, time bends, saunters, crawls, or stealthily expands, but it rarely flies. Twenty minutes can feel like infinity if the pose is difficult—and each is difficult in its own way.

Tonight is my first full-figure gig, which means I’m struggling to maintain the position of various body parts as my mind manages time. My left hand slices my chest in a salute. My right arm snakes around my back until its hand rests on the opposite hip. My stance is wide, with my left foot pointed in the direction of the focal point and my right foot forward. My knees are slightly bent; a Nubian dervish suspended in mid-spin. But the real problem is that only moments into this pose, I have realized that the spot I’m staring at—the one I’ve chosen to keep my head aligned—is making my vision blur. The mark on the wall is too tiny, but now it’s too late to move my head or change my gaze; once they tape the position of my feet and the artists start to sketch, the pose is set. Blinking sharpens my focus, but only temporarily; soon the strain of staring has me channeling Bette Davis’s sightless, suffering character in Dark Victory.

The floor is padded, but that doesn’t stop the painful contractions coursing through my arches. I worried the space would be cold, but in this studio nestled high above Chelsea’s gallery district in Manhattan, the radiators clang and spew heat. Sweat runs down my forehead and oozes from every spot where flesh contacts flesh: between my buttocks, under my clenched arms and where my hand abuts my chest. Maybe the artists won’t see. I can only hope they won’t draw me as I see myself: middle-aged and nude, a modestly muscled man streaked with rivulets of sweat puddling at his feet.

It’s only when the instructor responds to a student’s query with a dismissive, “Of course, the model is going to move,” that I feel a hint of embarrassment. This pose is one of three I was asked to bring. Standing still is a big part of the job, and I want to do it well. But I am moving, wobbling, and that can’t be a good sign. This basic failure to achieve repose, combined with the pain radiating from the shoulder supporting my chest salute, is making me want to jump out of the window—not to mention out of my exposed skin. I determine I will stay put. This job pays $100 for two nights, and I need the money.

***

When I was laid off from my job as a database manager for a firm that ran special events—the kind of $2,000-a-plate affairs chronicled in the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times—I received three days’ notice, during which time I trained three people to take over my job. My bosses blamed the economy. “We just need to get through this rough patch,” they purred, offering heartfelt assurances that I’d be back at my desk within a month or so.

Instead, they issued their version of the pink slip: they dropped my insurance coverage and reneged on severance pay. With student loans, credit card payments, and rent due, there was no time to indulge in either anger or self-pity. Into the tilting whirl of joblessness I tumbled: sleepless nights; sympathetic (but oft misplaced) commiseration from friends; checks from the New York State Department of Labor, accompanied by letters that carried a whiff of suspicion, as if my unemployment claims were an attempt to swindle the government; endless resume and cover letter submissions; job counseling; networking disguised as socializing; informational interviews; and countless rounds of targeted volunteering that might help me stay “relevant.” Twelve months of such efforts yielded only two interviews and no employment.

After a year it was time to re-assess. Had I really tapped the limits of my marketable skills? In an attempt to explore every possible option, one night I made a list of every job I’d ever had. In grade school I’d mowed lawns, shoveled snow, and delivered papers. At the age of fourteen, I began an eight-year tenure as a stock clerk/assistant store manager at a Duane-Reade-like chain of stores in my Ohio hometown. In New York City, I took jobs at Bloomingdale’s and BusinessWeek magazine, at reception desks and in mailrooms; I did filing and phone solicitation in interchangeable offices lit by headache-inducing fluorescents; I typed and did data entry and research jobs to support my show business dreams. I had worked in entertainment: as an actor in summer stock, regional, and Off-Off Broadway theaters and national tours, as a voiceover artist, a demo singer, a club singer in casinos and cabarets. A career switch from theater to writing meant post-MFA stints as a dance critic and associate editor for a trade publication, an essayist and ghostwriter, all while working full-time as a database manager.

In my apartment hangs a framed poster of me playing a rabid baseball fan for a New York Yankees ad campaign. As an actor I’d also done modeling work. It had no relation to fashion: one afternoon, dressed in a motorcycle jacket, I held a comb to my head for an eternity as an artist sketched my back, for what would be the key image poster for a Broadway revival of the musical Grease. Another day, I stood in a dusty Brooklyn studio, my body slathered in Vaseline from the neck down, while assistants swathed me in muslin strips dipped in quick-drying plaster. The resulting mold was used to make a Pip—as in Gladys Knight & The Pips—for display at the Hard Rock Cafe in Las Vegas.

It occurred to me that, if no one would hire me for my intellect, maybe they might for my body. I was in good condition and, thanks to intensive movement training (and a regular yoga practice), still maintained what I’d been known for as an actor: my knack for imaginatively demanding physicality. Modeling seemed viable. A quick Google session turned up a list of art schools and private instructors. Two months after sending out a CV and some current photos of myself, I was having my portrait drawn by a classroom of young Michelangelos in a Midtown studio. It was quick money, which isn’t to say it was good money. But it was better than no money.

***

At art schools like Grand Central Academy, the Art Students League, and the National Academy Museum School, twenty minutes is the length of time a model holds what’s called “a long pose” before a break is called. Sometimes it’s one pose for an afternoon or two nights, but it might last anywhere from a week to a month. “Action” poses last from one to five to ten minutes, and are done in sets: twenty one-minutes, four five-minutes, two ten-minutes, each set followed by a five-minute break. Depending on the school and type of class (drawing, painting, sculpture, anatomy), a model may do a combination of poses in a single session.

Whatever the gig, it’s best not to try to count the time. Estimations of whether five, ten, or fifteen minutes have passed always turn out to be wrong. If, like tonight, there’s an element of pain in the pose, anticipating its end only intensifies the discomfort. I find it’s better to concentrate on a slow inhalation, or the itch alongside my nose. It’s a happy surprise when the break sounds, though I discover I can barely move—instead of a joy whoop, all my energy goes into re-composing my body parts so I can sit down. Then, the timer signals the end of my break, the fastest five minutes on earth.

Back on the stand, the task of settling down begins again. Master your panic, I coax. Tense your toes; spread them wide. Drop your shoulders. Blink. Straighten your spine. Breathe into your biceps. Expand your chest. Blink. Breathe. As physical sensations pulse from head to toe, I take refuge in sounds. On the radio, some NPR commentator blurts a stat that draws light laughter from the students in the studio. Scratches of pencil, chalk and Conté crayon on paper pop from my left, or sneak up from behind like a balletic thief; this eerie noise crawls along my skin as if they’re drawing on me, shading and shadowing me into existence. For a moment I’m confused by a low chuckle, and then I realize it’s not laughter I hear—just someone furiously erasing.

Men and women stare down from paintings on the charcoal gray walls, their flesh tones aglow in hues of blush and peach, sienna and umber, yellow and pearl. They were models too, I muse; I imagine their long-ago sessions, how they wrestled with blurry or non-existent focal points, perhaps, or warred with stillness while they calculated their rent, phone, and grocery bills, cutting vacations, restaurant meals, and Christmas gifts from their budgets.

Maybe they felt as off-course as I do now. Unlike an MFA or office skills, “well versed in the art of taking pain” isn’t something I can put on my resume. Nor is an “articulated clavicle” or a face that, as one instructor observed, “contains nothing extra.” Except to get more work like it, this isn’t a night I can advertise for any foreseeable benefit. When I share this experience with friends I will spin it, make a burlesque of the moment when my hip aches so much I want to scream. Our conversations will ignore how modeling pays a fraction of what I earned at my office gig. If pressed on the nudity, I’ll ignore their arched eyebrows and make a joke about selling my body for art.

For me—for most people—work is armor. Tonight, I have earned a reprieve from adding my documents to the resumes and cover letters flooding the email inboxes of hirers with the power to bestow what feels like the equivalent of a lottery win. As a muse for hire, at least here I’m good on paper—perhaps my likeness will play out in strokes reminiscent of Larry Rivers’s portrait of Frank O’Hara, minus the jackboots. My biceps and torso will mimic Bernini’s David,,one of Thomas Eakins’ sinewed athletes, or an onyx deity by Rodin.

My brain crackles with enough buzz to animate a thousand sleepless nights. I notice everything; for instance, how, during this twenty, the bicep of my saluting arm doesn’t throb the way it did during the twenty before, a development that makes me fret over the twenties to come. This inability to read one moment or anticipate the next echoes a year during which I’ve swung violently from confidence to insecurity, contentment to perpetual agitation. Both in life and up here on the stand, I feel I’m back at the beginning, though without the safety net of youth. There is no luxury of time, no room for error.

I weigh the weekly hours I’ll log at my targeted volunteer gig against the time it’ll take to churn out resumes and covers for this week’s job leads. I worry whether I’ll have the energy to write tomorrow. My specific hunger for a whole-wheat fig bar sends my attention out into the Chelsea night, wondering which nearby deli holds such a prize. When my thoughts drift to sex—I am naked; how could they not?—I do multiplication tables, mantras of math to beat back arousal: 9 x 2 = 18, 9 x 3 = 27, 9 x 4 = 36 . . .

Someone’s tools crash to the floor. One student’s moan prompts the instructor to comment, “Yep, there’s a lot of information on him.” Unemployment means I have time for the gym, long walks, swimming, and morning yoga. To save money, I bike to appointments rather than taking the subway. All this physical activity, along with stress and insomnia, have made my “information” clearer, though in figure modeling such attributes make me neither better nor worse. The subjects on this studio’s walls range from Rubenesque to Giacometti-thin. Figure modeling is democratic in that way; every body has equal value.

The monitor calls the last pose. Foolishly, I begin to count the minutes, calculate how long it’ll take to get dressed, grab a snack—on 23rd Street, perhaps—before I reach Eighth Avenue. Future projections cloud the remaining present: the wait for the C train; my reading for the ride home; what I’ll have for dinner and whether I’ll sleep. The next night, the same pose, the same struggles.

The timer rings, followed by a chorus of murmured thanks. They pay me in cash. On the way out I look at some of the work. An ancient talent belies the youth of these students; my best selves surround me in shades of black and white, mirrors of grace and muscle minus the earthly concerns of job hunts or peevish hunger. As I head out into the night, they follow—new armor against a cold New York filled with able bodies, which hopefully crowd business seminars, career fairs, and job sites. Alive with soreness and hunger, I head east, wondering if, in time, my army of selves will be enough to keep the wobbling at bay.

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