J.P. Morgan, Frick and me. We belong. If they’d lived in my time we’d be friends. The three of us, we collect. We like things, and things we like, we buy. They bought at auctions, world-famous art galleries, museums. I buy my things at thrift shops and yard sales. What’s the difference?
Twice in my life I ventured into the high-pressure business of auctions. No, not Christie’s, not Sotheby’s. Too difficult to park around those places. It was at Markel’s, once, in their old barn in Southold. Without my permission my right arm raised itself and attracted the attention of the eager auctioneer, Dave Markel, I think. I left that night with an old cast-iron park bench — like they don’t make them anymore, I was told. I can see why. That bench is so heavy that even a ferocious wind in Orient will not budge it an inch. I still have the bench in the same spot where I dropped it 20 years ago.
My other win at Markel’s was a primitive or naïf oil painting of children and cows with a menacing cloud that looks like the profile of an angry mother. It’s on a pale green wall in my study, the room where not much is done but where things collect; yes, those things that make me a spiritual brother of J.P. and Frick. There’s a word in French slang that sounds like Frick but is spelled “fric.” It means money. Too bad Henry Clay Frick didn’t live in France. The 99 percent would have loved it.
My other auction action was at B. Altman and Company on Fifth Avenue. They were closing down the store. Everything was to go. I wanted a piece of it, a part of New York’s history. I walked up and down the store. There was a down sofa and a set of bistro tables and chairs that came from their tea room. Must have it, I thought, perfect for my restoration of the Bay House facing Orient harbor. This time my arm didn’t move quickly enough and when it finally made a waving motion in the air a stranger had gotten the whole bistro set and the sofa with a ridiculous low bid. I instantly hated that guy and felt he had somehow unfairly won the stuff. The bistro set haunted me for weeks. I never went to another auction except a silent one at Poquatuck Hall in Orient.
Let me not feel sorry for myself. I actually have a museum of my own. Strictly for friends and the plumber once in a while. My house in Orient. A museum of books, dust, toys and stuffed animals. A few cups and saucers and, for someone who drinks little and rarely has guests, a surprising number of glasses. Why so many? I have no explanation. I forgot to mention: on the walls, paintings by our late friend Rodman Pell. He painted where he used to run his fresh fish market in Greenport. He knew well how to charm the ladies. My sister was a fan and introduced him to UNICEF, where she helped him become one of their Christmas card artists.
In New York I keep a collection of paperweights. A lot of papers here. A good match. Stuffed animals take over couches and chairs. Certain days there are fewer of them than the day before. It seems they move on their own. My sister reminds me they are not alive. I tend to forget. We put a few in a comfortable closet like children in a crib. Of course I’ll take them out of the closet on happy days. They need to breathe, I say. Some, the lucky ones, have migrated to Orient, where they spend their retirement on couches, where else?
Books, like stuffed animals, have a life of their own. You can’t throw books away. Although I have seen plenty left at the dump with the recyclables. I have brought a few back home. Some were from people I knew. They had died. That’s what happens when you die. A six-volume history of the Presbyterian church was there. I rescued it and donated it to the Southold library book sale. Then I took it back. It had belonged to a friend. The collector collects other people’s stuff. It becomes our stuff. We get attached. Once an object enters our home, it stays. We’re caught.
There are two rows of books on each shelf. First row you can see. Second row you don’t even know is there until you pull out a book from first row. Don’t think second row is second rank. Here’s T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” retrieved from second row with a couple of years of dust. Let’s get the Swiffer dusters out of the box. Whoever invented this deserves an honorary library card. Try them if you don’t know what I’m talking about.
Don’t ask me about New Year’s resolutions. Don’t yell at me on the street, “Hey, hoarder, how’s it going?” I am a collector. But I have changed my mind. J.P. Morgan, Henry Clay Frick, we wouldn’t be friends at all. They are not in my league. They don’t belong. I never saw them at the Opportunity Shop in Greenport. They lived in palaces in Manhattan that became their museums. That’s easy. My house is already too small for my books and stuffed animals. That’s tough. They would never have been able to deal with my space problem. I don’t have butlers like they did. I’m the butler to my dog, I am a poet, a monthly columnist, and I have written short plays, especially for the singer and actress Yvonne Constant, who played on Broadway in “La Plume de ma Tante” and was a frequent guest on the Johnny Carson show.
Another hundred years: I’ll still be checking what’s in the second row. The Frick and the Morgan, they’ll be around forever. My museum, that’s another story. It will go when I go. That’s the pity of it. Unless there is a wife to keep the house open and the fire going. I’m working on that. I’ll let the wife move in and let go of a few Teddy Bears. Hear that, Nancy? Why not dream?
Pierre Gazarian is a poet and a writer of one-act plays.