The Ninth Circle of Catskill
Adapted from LOSING ART, a memoir
The bell over the front door rang as two armed uniformed officers stepped into our brand-new tilemaking studio. One of the officers rested one hand loosely on the handle of his gun. In his other hand, he held some official-looking documents. Who’s in charge here? he asked.
Art stepped up. What seems to be the trouble, officers?
The officer took his hand off his gun and flashed his ID. We’re from the DEC. You dumped a load of trash into an environmentally protected lake.
I turned around and saw Tommy, one of our workers, bolt into the bathroom and lock the door with an audible click.
There must be some mistake—there is no way we dumped any trash in a lake, Art said confidently.
Are you Art Klein, Direct Response? The other officer pulled a stack of soggy letterhead from a folder. Art Klein, Direct Response, 13 Harbor View Lane, East Hampton NY was printed at the top of every page.
Art audibly blew out the breath he’d been holding. That would be me, he said.
Would you like to tell us how these papers got in the lake?
We had given Tommy some money and our truck to go to the dump for us. Of course, we weren’t about to tell that to the two armed DEC officers.
Umm … Art began with less than his usual eloquence. We gave our truck to a guy to take some trash to the dump.
We’re deeply sorry about this, officers, I said. We’d like to make amends—and go pick up our garbage.
The officer ignored my interruption. You gave your truck to a complete stranger?
We had—but that stranger was hiding in our bathroom and was now our full-time employee.
Art said, Well, yes … I guess that wasn’t too smart.
The officer clearly wasn’t happy with us. How did you meet this guy?
He was walking by and asked us if we needed some help, Art said. We had a truck full of trash. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
The officer looked skeptical. So, you gave him your truck. He paused. Can you give me a description of the guy?
Art thought fast. Tommy was twenty-eight years old, about five nine, weighed about two-twenty-five, was clean shaven and had longish dirty-blonde hair. The guy was about six-two, six-three, he began. He had short dark hair … weighed around one-eighty-five … pencil thin mustache … maybe forty-five, fifty years old.
Was he black or white? the officer asked.
I’m not really sure, Art answered. He wasn’t really black or white.
Do you think he was Hispanic? The officer looked up at Art from his notebook.
Art nodded uncertainly. Yeah, I guess he could have been.
That’s a pretty vague description, the officer said. I thought Art’s description was quite specific—I think it was the neither black or white comment that threw him off.
The officer wrote down an address on a piece of paper and handed it to me. This is where you can pick up your garbage, he said. Be there at two o’clock.
After the officers left, I knocked on the bathroom door. Tommy fell onto the floor clutching his right side. He was covered in sweat and seemed to be in genuine pain. I walked him to the office in the back and left him lying on the couch with the door shut.
A couple of minutes later, the officers from the DEC came back with the Hispanic proprietor of the Bodega next door, which was one of the only other occupied storefronts in this wasteland that was Catskill, Main Street. Is this the guy? the officer asked Art.
No, that’s definitely not him. Our guy was a lot taller, Art assured them.
Once we deemed it safe to check on Tommy, we found him lounging dramatically on the couch in the back room. He was either one of the best actors I had ever met, or he was genuinely sick. Is there some place we can bring you? I asked him.
Yeah, could you bring me to my mother’s house? She’ll know what to do, he said weakly.
Art and I loaded Tommy onto the front bench seat of Big Blue Truck. Okay, Art said, where does your mother live?
Tommy directed us, between moans, to the front of a nice looking, well-tended house by the creek, which had no car in the driveway, and no lights on in the entryway. I got out of the truck and knocked on the door. There’s no one home, I said to Tommy. Do you have a key?
Tommy shook his head sadly. I know, he said. She’s probably at my house. He directed us to a much smaller house with a tiny broken cement front area, littered with crushed beer cans and discarded food wrappers. The front porch was stacked with yellowed newspapers, the windows were streaked with grime and too dirty to see through. We helped Tommy, who seemed unable to walk on his own, to the front door.
Get the fuck out of here! came the rasping voice of an older woman through a front door that was open a crack, secured by a chain lock.
We have your son Tommy, Art said.
Take him away with you!
He’s sick, I said.
Go the fuck away.
Art held firm. We are leaving your son here with you.
Okay. The door shut and we could hear the sliding of the chain lock and the door opened slightly. But you two get the fuck out of here!
We were happy to oblige.
By that time, it was pouring out, and Art and I set out to collect our garbage in the rain.
That night Art created a new message for our home answering machine. You have reached Dumb and Dumber. Leave us a message. If we can figure it out, we’ll call you back.
Aileen, Main Street’s self-proclaimed mayor, who had also been a Catskill prostitute and madam in her glory days, complained to the village board to try to get them to shut us down.
I read the Cease-and-Desist Order aloud, my hands shaking, as they held the papers: It has come to our attention … blah, blah … wait … here it is … the concern of an asthmatic resident, who is afraid that the toxic fumes from Functional Sculpture’s kilns will waft across the narrow alleyway between the two buildings.
What the fuck! I said. Everything is riding on our making it here. We don’t have the money to move. It’s not like we had to choose this store to rent—more than half of the storefronts on Main Street are vacant.
I know, Art replied. What are the odds that we would rent across the alley from a looney-tunes asthmatic? But Sweetie, calm down—we don’t even have kilns.
Well, right, I know that. But …
We’ve got this. We’re gonna demonstrate before the village board that it’s just like making pancakes without the heat.
Steven Markus, president of the board of the Greene County MicroEnterprise Loan Program, had taken us out to lunch when we expressed interest in moving our business to Catskill.
This restaurant is one of the businesses we brought here, Steven told us proudly, gesturing at the linen tablecloth clad tables and the creek view. Let’s sit in the window.
I sat next to Steven, and Art sat directly across from him. We gazed out the window at the low brick buildings of the housing project, clearly visible across the creek. This project, like so many others all up and down the Hudson River, had been placed there when the river was so badly polluted that the real estate they sat on was all but worthless.
Would you care for a cocktail? Steven leaned back in his chair and opened the buttons of his suit jacket, which was a tad too tight.
No, no thank you, Art said. We don’t drink. Art wore black jeans with a sports jacket, I wore a long skirt and a light leather jacket—neither one of us was dressed quite up to the standard of business casual—we had no idea that there was a restaurant with tablecloths in Catskill. But there were few other diners there, and none of them were dressed quite as formally as Steven.
Main Street isn’t my main focus, Steven assured us. I have some major companies coming to Greene County, due the financial incentives and tax breaks we offer to encourage businesses to relocate here. I can’t tell you their names, of course.
Art and I nodded our heads, trying to appear appropriately impressed by the unnamed businesses.
But Main Street is a particular pet project of mine, Steven continued. We have a lot of new shops coming to Main Street. And, as I mentioned, there are some great financial incentives. The Micro Enterprise Loan, for example, is a low interest loan, and you will find that if you apply for it you will be asked very few questions about your financial history.
We’ve got a pretty bad track record, Art said.
No worries, this loan committee will overlook a lot. In exchange, we will ask you to do some promotional videos, stuff like that.
It was the mountain air that made us want to move to the Catskills, Art said.
Mountain air, Art repeated. It had nothing to do with the fact that we were broke.
Exactly, Steven said, smiling now. He picked up his menu. I recommend the lamb-burgers. They’re quite good here.
Catskill, Main Street, may have been the place of last resort, but it also represented rebirth and opportunity to people like us who didn’t have a prayer of opening a business anywhere else. We were the Main Street pioneers, and we felt like we were a part of something bigger than a handful of merchants on a crumbling Main Street in Smalltown, USA. There was The Main Street Pig Out, a soul food restaurant run by Kenn and Anita—I can still taste Kenn’s smothered pork chops, his collard greens, and his amazing poached catfish in shrimp sauce. And Smart Systems, a computer store run by Gene, who chatted non-stop while he set up our computers for us, Rosemary’s Gifts—everything there was shiny and bright and hand-selected with care by Rosemary herself. There were two cavernous junk shops, Tom’s Treasures and Flossie’s Gold Mine. Ann Stewart’s Kilt Shop featured not only a beautiful tartan window, but an international clientele. There was a jewelry store, a couple of bars, a sandwich shop, a pizza parlor, a comic store and one remarkable long-shot business called Build Your Own Tutu, which disappeared almost as suddenly as it had arrived … you gotta wonder. But all of those businesses were built with their owners’ life blood and dreams. There were some older shops too, that had been passed down from father to son: an accounting firm, a hardware store, a furniture store, a stationary store and an old-style movie theatre. The local pimp, who rode a bicycle, and his very drugged out on crack whore, who could get in and out of a car in five minutes or less, probably did the best out of all the local businesses. Catskill is the county seat, so Main Street also housed the DMV, the County Courthouse, the County Jail, county office buildings, three law firms, and two banks. But, after a particularly scary incident with a hostile drunk, who had lodged himself in our front doorway, Art took to carrying a large knife when we had to work late at night.
Art charmed the village board with his heatless pancake-making demonstration, and they voted unanimously to give us a ninety-nine-year exception to the no manufacturing in a retail zone law.
I think you should make friends with Madam Aileen, I said to Art after the meeting. Just in case … you know.
I’d be happy to, Art said, and after that he could often be found chatting amiably with Aileen and her cohorts in front of the H&R Block building.
I hope you appreciate her—she is steak, Aileen said to Art. She was talking about me.
Art assured her that he did.
If I had her in my stable, she would be my number one girl. This was high praise. Aileen was too old and too sick by then to work at her chosen profession, and she had also become quite obese, with breasts that sat on her knees while she sat holding court from her folding chair which now sported a Good Fathers are Good Men bumper sticker. Aileen could talk nonstop without taking a breath in spite of her asthma, and she wore a fine mustache.
I’ll be out of touch the next few days, Aileen said. Tony will be in town.
Tony is the last of my clients who still comes to see me.
Well, have a good weekend, Art said with a smile.
That Friday night a black limousine pulled up in front of Aileen’s building, and both Tony and the limo driver disappeared into Aileen’s apartment. The limousine remained parked on Main Street until late Sunday night. This was an occurrence that was repeated every two or three months.
They’re better men than I, Art said to me.
Lenny the plumber came up the stairs. It looks like someone has been pouring cement down the drain, he said. Everything is blocked up. Lenny was covered in shit.
All of our workers looked at their shoes.
The tilemaking studio reeked of shit. The insulated ceiling tiles, broken into soggy shit-encrusted pieces, covered the massive worktable. All of the molds that were currently in use, stacked up around the perimeter of the table, as well as a large pile of unfinished tiles, were coated in a layer of liquified shit and congealed toilet paper.
Has it gotten to the main drains outside the building? Art asked Lenny.
Lenny shrugged his shoulders and started back down the steps to the basement. I’ll let you know.
Nothing could have prepared us for running a business in a town where we knew no one, with workers we had no real understanding of how to motivate. We thought that if we treated the workers like family, that they would be loyal to us and do their best.
So, we slept late, and got to the studio at eleven a.m., after the tilemakers had theoretically been at work for two hours. Had it not been for our tall blonde Company Snitch Debby, we would have had no idea that Dana—wearing her low-cut halter top and tight jeans, fat rolls bulging between—spent half that time leisurely popping her gum and brushing her hair; that Paul got the not-so-bright idea to use the dry mixing blade attachment to mix wet cement, which put a layer of setting concrete on everything within range; or that John—who had politely offered to work as much overtime as we needed him to, and then threatened to take us to court for the time-and-a-half we’d had no idea he was entitled to (we were paying all of our workers close to double what everyone else was paying locally for unskilled labor)—tried to convince everyone that concrete should be made with hot water not cold, which would have weakened the cement if anyone could have figured out how to get the hot water to stay hot long enough to be introduced into the mixture.
Not family, okay, Art said. That’s not working.
Let’s institute a quota system, I said. Before we leave each night, I’ll leave each worker a stack of molds and a list of tiles they need to produce the next day.
It was a great idea, but without anyone watching, our workers could find workarounds for just about any system. Tommy, for example, buried half of his stack of molds behind the garbage each day instead of filling them, which was a trick I discovered purely by accident when I tripped over them on my way to throw something out. All of the molds had an impenetrable layer of cement scum on the inside from consistently being lightly rinsed instead of thoroughly scrubbed. And then, of course, there was the issue of the cement being flushed down the drain. We had invested in a filtration system that would have worked—if the cement had been wiped out of the mixing bowls and into the trash—instead of being emptied directly into the sink and washed down the drain.
At the end of that long shitful day, Art and I, along with our crew, Tommy, John, Debby, Dana, and Paul had saved as many of the tiles and molds that we could, thrown away everything that had been lying in shit, disinfected the floor and worktable, and replaced the ceiling tiles. The damage stopped at the drains in our building. We considered ourselves lucky that we hadn’t bound up the town.
Before she went home for the night, Snitch Debby knocked on the door to Art’s office. Can I talk to you guys? she asked.
Art was working at his computer, trying to catch up on some direct mail advertising that was due the next morning. We had hoped he would be able to stop doing that soon, but for now we needed the money.
Sure, I said. Pull up a couch.
Debby sat down and lit up a cigarette. She pulled the rubber band off her long bleached blonde ponytail and shook her head. I told him not to do it, she said smugly, but he wouldn’t listen to me.
Told who? I asked.
Tommy. She said.
Of course, Tommy. What else was new. Tommy was like a ballet dancer in the studio, all economy of motion, beauty and speed when he worked. But we knew, from Debby, that Tommy sometimes slept in the color mixing room when he was too drunk to get home. I had found his stash of reefer myself, hidden in the ceiling tiles.
Right, Tommy, I said to Debby. What did you tell him?
Not to pour cement down the drain, Debby answered. It’s not like you haven’t shown us how to wipe out our mixing bowls. I always wipe out mine.
I’m sure you do, I said. Thank you, Debby. I appreciate that it was a tough thing for you to come to us. It wasn’t—it was routine—Debby enjoyed getting other people in trouble. Not that we ever did anything about it directly, in order to protect our source.
Yeah, well, you guys treat us really well. This is a good job. Debby looked a bit flustered. I guess I’ll be heading home now, she said.
Thanks for everything you did today Debby. It was really above and beyond, I said.
After Debby left, Art got up and walked toward the door.
Where are you going?
Art shook his head. I don’t know.
Until now, in New York City and the Hamptons, Art and I had led sheltered lives, and we were completely out of our league. In East Hampton, even though things had fallen apart—our tilemakers were friends, people I knew from AA, people with second jobs, housewives working for us in their basements. In Catskill, we were suddenly other—rich Jews from elsewhere—the bosses. And as broke as we thought we were, it wasn’t even close to the real poverty we found on Main Street, Catskill—we had something to lose. Many of our workers were second and third generation welfare-recipients—they weren’t even receiving welfare themselves—they were living off their welfare-recipient mothers.
Art was still out walking. It was a hot night in late June; I could hear the drum corps practicing for the fourth of July parade. As I waited for Art to come back, I let my thoughts run wild. The sound of the drums, as it filtered into the dark recesses of my mind, had a nightmarish booming quality. I felt disembodied—like I was in a movie about people who left their kids and moved to Catskill to start over.
I missed my kids with a palpable ache … my mind was full of questions and second guesses. Did I regret my decision to leave my children? Was Art experiencing the same guilt and shame and sense of loss that I was? Is there a Hell that Art and I would be consigned to for leaving our children? If there is no guy with a beard in the clouds judging us—and if there is no Heaven—is Hell what we experience while we’re here on earth? It had, after all, just rained shit on our heads.
I started to cry, and that is the way Art found me when he came back from his walk to nowhere.
Are we going to Hell for leaving our children? I asked him.
Is that what you think?
I nodded, tearfully.
Oh Sweetheart, I’m so sorry you feel that way.
No, Love, I think we did what we had to.
Well yeah, I know that. It’s just fucking hard sometimes.
Patricia Feinman is a writer and visual artist. Her sculpture explores the play between the use of universal symbols culled from Greek and Christian mythology and the archetypes of her own unconscious; expressing such themes as: birth, love, sex and death. To see more of Patricia’s work, please visit patriciafeinman.com She lives in the Catskill Mountains with two large dogs.
These excerpts from LOSING ART, a memoir, SMOKING WITH ART, THE STICK-UP ARTIST and LOSING ART, an excerpt, have been published in Mayday Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review and Minerva Rising, respectively.