Authors: Paul Auster
Maria was an artist, but the work she did had nothing to do with creating objects commonly defined as art. Some people called her a photographer, others referred to her as a conceptualist, still others considered her a writer, but none of these descriptions was accurate, and in the end I don’t think she can be pigeonholed in any
way. Her work was too nutty for that, too idiosyncratic, too personal to be thought of as belonging to any particular medium or discipline. Ideas would take hold of her, she would work on projects, there would be concrete results that could be shown in galleries, but this activity didn’t stem from a desire to make art so much as from a need to indulge her obsessions, to live her life precisely as she wanted to live it. Living always came first, and a number of her most time-consuming projects were done strictly for herself and never shown to anyone.
Since the age of fourteen, she had saved all the birthday presents that had ever been given to her—still wrapped, neatly arranged on shelves according to the year. As an adult, she held an annual birthday dinner in her own honor, always inviting the same number of guests as her age. Some weeks, she would indulge in what she called “the chromatic diet,” restricting herself to foods of a single color on any given day. Monday orange: carrots, cantaloupe, boiled shrimp. Tuesday red: tomatoes, persimmons, steak tartare. Wednesday white: flounder, potatoes, cottage cheese. Thursday green: cucumbers, broccoli, spinach—and so on, all the way through the last meal on Sunday. At other times, she would make similar divisions based on the letters of the alphabet. Whole days would be spent under the spell of
, and then, just as suddenly as she had started it, she would abandon the game and go on to something else. These were no more than whims, I suppose, tiny experiments with the idea of classification and habit, but similar games were just as likely to go on for many years. There was the long-term project of dressing Mr. L., for example, a stranger she had once met at a party. Maria found him to be one of the handsomest men she had ever seen, but his clothes were a disgrace, she thought, and so without announcing her intentions to anyone, she took it upon herself to improve his wardrobe. Every year at Christmas she would send him an anonymous gift—a tie, a
sweater, an elegant shirt—and because Mr. L. moved in roughly the same social circles that she did, she would run into him every now and again, noting with pleasure the dramatic changes in his sartorial appearance. For the fact was that Mr. L. always wore the clothes that Maria sent him. She would even go up to him at these gatherings and compliment him on what he was wearing, but that was as far as it went, and he never caught on that she was the one responsible for those Christmas packages.
She had grown up in Holyoke, Massachusetts, the only child of parents who divorced when she was six. After graduating from high school in 1970, she had gone down to New York with the idea of attending art school and becoming a painter, but she lost interest after one term and dropped out. She bought herself a secondhand Dodge van and took off on a tour of the American continent, staying for exactly two weeks in each state, finding temporary work along the way whenever possible—waitressing jobs, migrant farm jobs, factory jobs, earning just enough to keep her going from one place to the next. It was the first of her mad, compulsive projects, and in some sense it stands as the most extraordinary thing she ever did: a totally meaningless and arbitrary act to which she devoted almost two years of her life. Her only ambition was to spend fourteen days in every state, and beyond that she was free to do whatever she wanted. Doggedly and dispassionately, never questioning the absurdity of her task, Maria stuck it out to the end. She was just nineteen when she started, a young girl entirely on her own, and yet she managed to fend for herself and avoid major catastrophes, living the sort of adventure that boys her age only dream of. At one point in her travels, a co-worker gave her an old thirty-five-millimeter camera, and without any prior training or experience, she began taking photographs. When she saw her father in Chicago a few months after that, she told him that she had finally found something she liked doing. She
showed him some of her photographs, and on the strength of those early attempts, he offered to make a bargain with her. If she went on taking photographs, he said, he would cover her expenses until she was in a position to support herself. It didn’t matter how long it took, but she wasn’t allowed to quit. That was the story she told me in any case, and I never had grounds to disbelieve it. All during the years of our affair, a deposit of one thousand dollars showed up in Maria’s account on the first of every month, wired directly from a bank in Chicago.
She returned to New York, sold her van, and moved into the loft on Duane Street, a large empty room located on the floor above a wholesale egg-and-butter business. The first months were lonely and disorienting for her. She had no friends, no life to speak of, and the city seemed menacing and unfamiliar, as if she had never been there before. Without any conscious motives, she began following strangers around the streets, choosing someone at random when she left her house in the morning and allowing that choice to determine where she went for the rest of the day. It became a method of acquiring new thoughts, of filling up the emptiness that seemed to have engulfed her. Eventually, she began going out with her camera and taking pictures of the people she followed. When she returned home in the evening, she would sit down and write about where she had been and what she had done, using the strangers’ itineraries to speculate about their lives and, in some cases, to compose brief, imaginary biographies. That was more or less how Maria stumbled into her career as an artist. Other works followed, all of them driven by the same spirit of investigation, the same passion for taking risks. Her subject was the eye, the drama of watching and being watched, and her pieces exhibited the same qualities one found in Maria herself: meticulous attention to detail, a reliance on arbitrary structures, patience bordering on the unendurable. In one work, she hired a
private detective to follow her around the city. For several days, this man took pictures of her as she went about her rounds, recording her movements in a small notebook, omitting nothing from the account, not even the most banal and transitory events: crossing the street, buying a newspaper, stopping for a cup of coffee. It was a completely artificial exercise, and yet Maria found it thrilling that anyone should take such an active interest in her. Microscopic actions became fraught with new meaning, the driest routines were charged with uncommon emotion. After several hours, she grew so attached to the detective that she almost forgot she was paying him. When he handed in his report at the end of the week and she studied the photographs of herself and read the exhaustive chronologies of her movements, she felt as if she had become a stranger, as if she had been turned into an imaginary being.
For her next project, Maria took a temporary job as a chambermaid in a large midtown hotel. The point was to gather information about the guests, but not in any intrusive or compromising way. She intentionally avoided them in fact, restricting herself to what could be learned from the objects scattered about their rooms. Again she took photographs; again she invented life stories for them based on the evidence that was available to her. It was an archeology of the present, so to speak, an attempt to reconstitute the essence of something from only the barest fragments: a ticket stub, a torn stocking, a blood stain on the collar of a shirt. Some time after that, a man tried to pick up Maria on the street. She found him distinctly unattractive and rebuffed him. That same evening, by pure coincidence, she ran into him at a gallery opening in SoHo. They talked once again, and this time she learned from the man that he was leaving the next morning on a trip to New Orleans with his girlfriend. Maria would go there as well, she decided, and follow him around with her camera for the entire length of his visit. She had absolutely
no interest in him, and the last thing she was looking for was an amorous adventure. Her intention was to keep herself hidden, to resist all contact with him, to explore his outward behavior and make no effort to interpret what she saw. The next morning, she caught a flight from LaGuardia to New Orleans, checked into a hotel, and bought herself a black wig. For three days she made inquiries at dozens of hotels, trying to track down the man’s whereabouts. She discovered him at last, and for the rest of the week she walked behind him like a shadow, taking hundreds of photographs, documenting every place he went to. She kept a written diary as well, and when the time came for him to go back to New York, she returned on an earlier flight—in order to be waiting at the airport for a last sequence of pictures as he stepped off the plane. It was a complex and disturbing experience for her, and it left her feeling that she had abandoned her life for a kind of nothingness, as though she had been taking pictures of things that weren’t there. The camera was no longer an instrument that recorded presences, it was a way of making the world disappear, a technique for encountering the invisible. Desperate to undo the process she had set in motion, Maria launched into a new project just days after returning to New York. Walking through Times Square with her camera one afternoon, she got into a conversation with the doorman of a topless go-go bar. The weather was warm, and Maria was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, an unusually skimpy outfit for her. But she had gone out that day in order to be noticed. She wanted to affirm the reality of her body, to make heads turn, to prove to herself that she still existed in the eyes of others. Maria was well put together, with long legs and attractive breasts, and the whistles and lewd remarks she received that day helped to revive her spirits. The doorman told her that she was a pretty girl, just as pretty as the girls inside, and as their conversation continued, she suddenly found herself being offered a job. One of the dancers had called in
sick, he said, and if she wanted to fill in for her, he’d introduce her to the boss and see if something couldn’t be worked out. Scarcely pausing to think about it, Maria accepted. That was how her next work came into being, a piece that eventually came to be known as “The Naked Lady.” Maria asked a friend to come along that night and take pictures of her as she performed—not to show anyone, but for herself, in order to satisfy her own curiosity about what she looked like. She was consciously turning herself into an object, a nameless figure of desire, and it was crucial to her that she understand precisely what that object was. She only did it that once, working in twenty-minute shifts from eight o’clock in the evening until two in the morning, but she didn’t hold back, and the whole time she was onstage, perched behind the bar with colored strobe lights bouncing off her bare skin, she danced her heart out. Dressed in a rhinestone G-string and a pair of two-inch heels, she shook her body to loud rock and roll and watched the men stare at her. She wiggled her ass at them, she ran her tongue over her lips, she winked seductively as they slipped her dollar bills and urged her on. As with everything else she tried, Maria was good at it. Once she got herself going, there was hardly any stopping her.
As far as I know, she went too far only once. That was in the spring of 1976, and the ultimate effects of her miscalculation proved to be catastrophic. At least two lives were lost, and even though it took years for that to happen, the connection between the past and the present is inescapable. Maria was the link between Sachs and Lillian Stern, and if not for Maria’s habit of courting trouble in whatever form she could find it, Lillian Stern never would have entered the picture. After Maria turned up at Sachs’s apartment in 1979, a meeting between Sachs and Lillian Stern became possible. It took several more unlikely twists before that possibility was realized, but each of them can be traced directly back to Maria. Long before any
of us knew her, she went out one morning to buy film for her camera, saw a little black address book lying on the ground, and picked it up. That was the event that started the whole miserable story. Maria opened the book, and out flew the devil, out flew a scourge of violence, mayhem, and death.
It was one of those standard little address books manufactured by the Schaeffer Eaton Company, about six inches tall and four inches across, with a flexible imitation leather cover, spiral binding, and thumb tabs for each letter of the alphabet. It was a well-worn object, filled with over two hundred names, addresses, and telephone numbers. The fact that many of the entries had been crossed out and rewritten, that a variety of writing instruments had been used on almost every page (blue ballpoints, black felt tips, green pencils) suggested that it had belonged to the owner for a long time. Maria’s first thought was to return it, but as is often the case with personal property, the owner had neglected to write his name in the book. She searched in all the logical places—the inside front cover, the first page, the back—but no name was to be found. Not knowing what to do with it after that, she dropped the book into her bag and carried it home.
Most people would have forgotten about it, I think, but Maria wasn’t one to shy away from unexpected opportunities, to ignore the promptings of chance. By the time she went to bed that night, she had already come up with a plan for her next project. It would be an elaborate piece, much more difficult and complicated than anything she had attempted before, but the sheer scope of it threw her into a state of intense excitement. She was almost certain that the owner of the address book was a man. The handwriting had a masculine look to it; there were more listings for men than for women; the book was in ragged condition, as if it had been treated roughly. In one of those sudden, ridiculous flashes that everyone is prey to,
she imagined that she was destined to fall in love with the owner of the book. It lasted only a second or two, but in that time she saw him as the man of her dreams: beautiful, intelligent, warm; a better man than she had ever loved before. The vision dispersed, but by then it was already too late. The book had been transformed into a magical object for her, a storehouse of obscure passions and unarticulated desires. Chance had led her to it, but now that it was hers, she saw it as an instrument of fate.