Amy Bassin and Mark Blickley‘s collaborative piece: Recyclable Glass

My latest ekphrasis collaboration with fine arts photographer Amy Bassin, “Recyclable Glass,” was created a bit differently than our previous ones Usually, Amy shows me an image and if it speaks to me, I write a text-based on it. I wrote “Recyclable Class” in response to an ugly incident I recently witnessed on a New York City bus. I didn’t tell Amy what I was working on. When I completed it and told her the title, I said I wish she had a powerful image I could use to accompany it. A few weeks ago, we travelled from NYC to Upstate Beacon, New York, where there is a very established arts community. The reason for the trip was my meeting with artist and female Buddhist priest Robyn Ellenbogen to work on an art video collaboration. While we were in Beacon, Amy visited a museum there run by the DIA art foundation. In the course of her museum visit, she took several photographs of an art installation that featured shattered glass. When I lamented there was no image of hers’ I could use for my story, she showed me the beautiful photos she had taken. I was shocked.  I’m not sure if this collaboration falls into the category of fate or coincidence.

The 8:22 a.m. Kennedy Boulevard bus paused at the red light on the corner of Bentley. While staring at the line of idling cars in front of him, and without turning his head, the driver honked his horn and threw a mechanical wave.

This gesture of recognition was directed at an old man making his way down the street. As the light turned green the bus operator glanced in the old man’s direction. The driver smiled and shook his head. For the past six years, at precisely this time, the senior citizen always appeared. It amazed the driver since it was obvious the old man had suffered a stroke. He moved as though his ankles were bound by slave bracelets. 

As the bus zoomed past, the old man halted. By the time he had lifted his head he was waving his walking stick in a cloud of black exhaust fumes. Coughing seized him for a few moments, but he was pleased by the driver’s show of camaraderie. 

A thick blanket of humidity flattened Jersey City. In retaliation, the old man loosened his tie and unbuttoned the vest concealed under the stained sports jacket. He pushed forward. 

After a few minutes, he succeeded in reaching the end of the block. Checking vigilantly before crossing, he decided to make his move. Everything seemed to be in order: the light was still green, but more importantly, the DO NOT WALK sign was not flashing underneath it. He had at least sixty seconds to execute the crossing. 

In the past the old man had this street crossing down to fifty-six seconds. Now the government had decreased his time by making it legal for cars to turn right on red lights. This called for more caution. Since his retirement nineteen years earlier, he learned car horns replace brakes when drivers compete with pedestrians for space. Halfway across the street he panicked. The light clicked amber.

Horns screamed. The old man froze. Directly in front of his outstretched walking stick (a cane was for old geezers), a battered Lexus screeched past. “Get the hell outta the way, ya old fart!”

A young head popped out of the back window. “Why don’t you die?” it shouted before disappearing into traffic. 

Three other cars whizzed by him. A fourth car released him from by stopping long enough for him to arrive at the opposite corner. Smiling at the driver, he did a playful hop over the curb. The old man felt good. At least a half-dozen would pass before permitting him to proceed. It was not unusual for him to be trapped in the street until the light once again turned a comforting green. 

What disturbed the old man most about his daily journey was the block on which Martinez & Sons Glassware Company was located. The store took up nearly half a block with mirrors lining their storefront windows. No matter how hard he fought the temptation, it was impossible not to glance at his image as he crept along. 

His reflection was an obscenity to him

The day was really looking up. The store, which usually opened promptly at 9 a.m., was closed. This pleased the old man because the iron gate was strung across the huge display windows. He looked at his reflection and giggled. His likeness looked as though it had been captured and jailed, peering back at him through thick metal bars. 

The old man threw back his shoulders, disregarding the ache. Picking up his pace, he reminded the reflection that his birth-date fell in the same year as Robert Redford’s. 

“That’s right. 1936. Good Lord, the girls knew it, too.” He pointed an accusing finger at the gated mirror. “Maybe I forget the exact day, but I’ll never forget all those women.” 

The old man and took a seat on a bench; overhead hung a sign, BUS STOP. On the end of the bench sat a young girl dressed in frayed blue jean cutoffs and a tee shirt that read ‘Shit Show Supervisor.’ 

“Mister,” she asked, “can you lend me a dollar so I can catch the bus?” 
 No reply. 
 “Excuse me, sir, do you have a dollar I can borrow?” 

The old man reached into his pocket and produced a fistful of change that he dropped into her hand. The young lady leaped off the bench. 

“Gee, thanks! Wow!” Seconds later she disappeared down the street into a candy store. 
The old man checked his watch. He was fifteen minutes behind schedule. 
“Oh my God, I’m going to be late.”’ After pulling himself up from the bench, he cursed the once strong arms that had made him New York Local 638’s number one steamfitter.

After conquering four more blocks he arrived at his destination. It made him feel good to watch the busy activity associated with the morning opening of the Post Office. He looked up at the flag dangling limply from the mast, as if suffocated from a lack of breeze

Inside the building were the usual hoard of people in lines, mostly immigrants and mothers with young children. The passport section was mobbed. Twenty minutes late, he feared the worst. Gradually he inched towards the wall lined with post office boxes. 
“Why, Mr. Goldshlager, I was worried. I thought something terrible happened.” 
“No, Ma’am. I guess this humidity took more from me than I had anticipated giving. Kind of you to wait, though.” The aged woman who reminded him so much of Colleen, the wife he buried shortly after his retirement. 
“Well, after all, Mr. Goldschlager, today’s my turn to buy the coffee…” 
“And I the donuts.” 
“Have you received your check yet, Mildred?” 
“Yes. I saw them put yours in, too.” 

The old man went over to his mailbox and withdrew the envelope. 
“Life sure plays some strange games on us, Mildred. Funny how we both decided, on the very same day, mind you, to put an end to all those stolen checks every month. Scary how accustomed we had become to missing them.” 

Mildred nodded. “And you can’t trust direct deposit because the banks are all so corrupt.” 
“You know something? Losing those checks is the best thing that’s happened to me in six years.” 

Mildred pretended to dismiss the flattery, but the added wrinkles at the corner of her lips gave her away. “Colleen always thought I was too angry with banks. I can hear her now, saying, ‘Horace, you shouldn’t resent what happened in the past. It’s dangerous.’ She was some woman, my Colleen.” “She certainly must have been, Mr. Goldschlager.” 

Strolling around the corner to the diner gave the old man a thrill, as it had most mornings. It felt good, it felt natural, to be with a woman. The few times Mildred hadn’t shown up it always made the rest of the day melancholic. The small table to the left of the grill was reserved for the elderly couple. Josh, the proprietor, issued strict orders not to seat anyone there until after nine-thirty. 

As they were led to their seats Horace contemplated Mildred’s appearance. She wore bright red lipstick which showed telltale signs of extended colouring past the outline of her lips. In fact, it reminded the old man of the happy smiles painted around the mouths of circus clowns. The red lipstick made a striking contrast to the black hat pinned to a thin crop of platinum curls. Her eyes were a sparkling grey. 

Those eyes reminded the old man of something his father had once told him about his great-Aunt Kathleen:

“Horace, whenever you meet an old woman, say like your Aunt, never forget that despite the years she’s still got a young girl’s vanity. I know it’s hard and I brought you up not to lie, but listen, the one safe thing you can compliment them on is their eyes. Leave the wrinkled skin around them alone. Just tell them how beautiful, or lively, or even better, how sparkling their optics are.” 

There was no need to falsely charm Mildred, or her eyes. What an attractive woman she must have been, mused the old man. Her face, now caked with powder, was probably as smooth and clear as Colleen’s. 

During their coffee and donuts each spent about a half-hour bringing her husband Ted and his Colleen back to life. Neither one would pay much attention to the other; after six years of repetition, it didn’t matter. Yet missing these weekday interludes was unthinkable. The old man loved the chance to relive his youth. While talking (or listening), a vivid portrait of himself and his wife materialised.

Horace had to think seriously about settling down and raising a family. This was a tougher decision than most fellows were faced with since young Horace was engaged to two girls at the same time. One of his fiancées lived in Hoboken, and the other was a burlesque dancer in Union City. While mulling over the choices before him at his favourite Brooklyn bar, in walked the bartender for the upcoming shift with his handsome daughter. It was lust, later love, at first sight. 

Colleen’s nut-brown hair offset a cute turned up nose. Her pale green eyes sent an inviting message over to his stool. Such a petite figure who filled a sweater rather nicely. “And Ted would pick me up and throw me into the pool right in front of all the children. I pretended to be angry but I loved it!” 

The old man took his last gulp of chilled coffee and signalled for the check. “Would you like anything else, Mildred?” “No thank you, Horace.” She watched his eyes following the progress of the waiter. “I really enjoyed myself this morning, dear.” The old man nodded. “Yes, but it’s so hard to keep track of time these days. So much to be done. Isn’t that so?” 

Mildred smiled. “Don’t I know, Mr. Goldschlager! I detest all the running around I’m forced to do in order to keep up with this crazy world. I get exhausted just thinking about it.” With this last remark they concluded their visit and returned to their respective schedules: she to a park bench in nearby Bayonne, he to the bus stop across the street. 

When the bus arrived, the old man was visibly upset. Hector was not driving. The doors flung open and the old man was shoved aside by boarding passengers. After everyone had paid their fare and secured a seat, the driver waited impatiently for the old man to complete his attack of the high steps leading to the fare box. As the old man strained to maintain his balance via the walking stick, two thoughts flashed. One was to fall forward should his legs fail him. The second was how differently he was treated when Hector was behind the wheel. Hector made sure no one pushed him around and always helped him up the steep steps. 

On reaching the top step the old man fumbled for the Senior’s discount pass inside his sports jacket. As he turned to find a seat a swarm of indignant glances greeted him. He gave pleading looks to the men seated directly behind the driver. They in turn, almost as if on cue, rotated their heads and fixed their eyes on some object outside the window. The bus lurched forward before the old man could get a firm grip on the overhead strap. He was flung to the other side of the bus. His back smashed into the knees and packages of a pair of horrified women shoppers. 

Unable to control himself, the old man let out a cry. It was a soft cry, but it lingered. 
Upon the scolding of the women shoppers, two men raised up the old man. One sacrificed his seat. Laughter broke out from the rear of the bus. 

Perspiration beaded on the old man’s bald spot. It dripped onto his sports jacket as he tucked his chin into his chest. Once again, he drifted off to that first encounter with Colleen. 

Outside his apartment building children were jumping rope and an impromptu soccer game was in progress. 
“Hi ya, Mr. Goldschlager! Wanna play with us?” 
“Sorry, kids. I’ve had a rough day. I think I’ll go rest these tired old bones, if you don’t mind?” 
The children giggled. 
The old man enjoyed children and children liked him. But he knew how defensive most parents were these days, and he was embarrassed by their reactions whenever he stopped to speak to their kids. 
The old man was appalled by the fear he generated whenever he spoke with kids at the playground. Or stopped a young couple to congratulate them on producing the beautiful child they were wheeling in their stroller. His attempts to shake an infant’s hand or stroke underneath a baby’s chin with his finger usually made the parents irritable, and they would quicken their pace. Being around children began to make him feel dangerous and dirty and he hated that feeling. He comforted himself by imagining that one day these parents would understand the desire of the elderly to once again feel the smooth flesh of youth. 

Touch was a superior memory to any childhood photograph. The old man refused to stop his attempts at making contact with fresh life. Yet despite the humiliation of parental disgust and annoyance, he would always mouth a silent pray that none of these parents would ever experience his horror of outliving his child.

The elevator ride to his eleventh-floor apartment was noisy, slow and as frightening as always. It took him a few minutes of fumbling with his keys, but eventually he gained entrance to his home of forty-seven years. The odour of stale air escaped into the hallway as the door closed behind him. The first thing he did was throw off his sports jacket and switch on the television. He surveyed the apartment. It was filthy. 
“I will give you a good going over this weekend,” he promised the living room. 
The old man hobbled into the kitchen to prepare his daily staple of cornflakes and milk with fresh fruit. After eating, he left the dishes on the table next to yesterday’s plates and lunged for the bottle of cognac propped up on the kitchen counter. He shook it and was upset. 
“Did I drink that much last night?” 
The old man phoned the liquor store around the corner to order another. The shopkeeper refused to send it until the previous bills were paid in full. Horace apologised and promised to pay when his overdue pension checks arrived. The ploy did not work. 
Clutching the cognac, he passed from the kitchen through the living room to his bedroom. He paused to raise the volume of his television set. Although he disliked watching it, it’s voices replaced the music that once echoed through his apartment before the radio shorted out. The babble was comforting. 

The old man balanced the bottle of cognac on a dusty night table and walked over to a closet. He pulled out a large cardboard box and dragged it over to the bed. The old man was surprised at how light the box was becoming. 

He dipped his hands inside the cardboard box. The clinking of glass accompanied his search. When his fingers locked around a heavy piece of crystal he smiled and pulled up a large, ornate goblet. The old man carefully poured cognac into the crystal goblet. He swallowed it and poured another. And then another until he drained the cognac. He dropped the empty bottle on the floor and it rolled under the bed. 

Horace stared at the fancy goblet and fingered its engraved designs. When he realised he had no more cognac to pour into it he tried to soothe himself by pressing the cool crystal against his cheek. Sorrow gave way to anger and he heaved the heirloom with all his strength. It crashed into the wall, splintering into pieces of jagged, dangerous glass. 

About forty minutes ahead of schedule, the old man passed out.

New York interdisciplinary artist Amy Bassin and writer Mark Blickley work together on text-based art collaborations and experimental videos. Their work has appeared in many national and international publications as well as two books, Weathered Reports: Trump Surrogate Quotes from the Underground’ (Moria Books, Chicago) and Dream Streams (Clare Songbird Publishing House, New York). Their videos, Speaking In Bootongue and Widow’s Peek: The Kiss of Death represented the United States in the 2020 year-long world tour of Time Is Love: Universal Feelings: Myths & Conjunctions, organised by the esteemed Togolese-French curator, Kisito Assangni.

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