Jonas and friends decide to paint an artwork on the adjacent roof not five hands from the shared open-air deck. The proposal suggests a group project; a single image in muted colors applied with paint-filled balloons. The canted roof that could serve as the canvas is covered with green tarpaper, and there’s a cement block chimney. That house is empty and condemned by city code, owned by our same landlords.
The shared deck that we value so highly is really the 24-square-foot roof over the street level art gallery. A wood fence banks the south edge, and the north railing is wrought iron. Three artist studios on the second floor have a view of the deck and three on the third floor, including mine. I rent the flagship studio: best layout, most space, and a view of the deck from a bank of west windows. When I object to the idea of adding an artwork to my west view, Jack shrugs. “They’re tearing down the building in a couple weeks anyhow.”
“You’ll be married and living in the suburbs before they get that done,” I say, but he disregards me. Jack disregards me a lot.
Jonas calls himself Danger, enough said, and wants to act on everything. I mean, whatever impulse the artist group shares, he wants to include himself and act, not just talk. He proposed the artwork idea to Candish and Paul, the on-site property manager. Candish teaches art a Columbia College, so she serves as the resident de facto adjudicator of artworks.
These things ebb and flow. Comparisons are counter-productive. Last summer was cool and wet. This summer has a record number of days over ninety degrees. Last year we were getting acquainted. You know, maybe it would be nice to meet the neighbors. This summer I can remember thinking, “That effort didn’t work out as well as I thought it might.”
Last year Paul and Jack spent the plant-decorating allowance from the landlord on coleus and micky-spillaines and vining violets and whatever exotic plants they could find at Gina’s, the local landscaping store. Neighbors set out house plants for the warm months and everybody spent time with watering chores.
One personable tenant named Art works as a paramedic. We tend to excuse that he’s not really an artist, his name notwithstanding. Art hung strings of icicle Christmas lights around the deck for a street festival appeal. Robert and Karya started a tub display with papyrus and reeds and water lilies. The general design was augmented with buckets of prairie grass and pots of ever-blooming zinnias. We even laid-in tulips and crocus bulbs in October. I hose the deck regularly and claim that chore is recreational. “Keeps the bugs down,” I claim.
The tulip bed was befouled by Candish’s cats over the winter months, so in May I decide to not participate in group deck activities except to impose some cursory hygiene. That’s the best decision I made all year.
Candish lays in geraniums and pansies and petunias and more flowering plants all in a jumble. Jack trains walls of morning glories climbing two-stories high, so oppressive. Comfort plants, Paul calls them disparagingly.
So I awake one fine July day and survey the view for which I pay a premium. On the adjacent roof I spy spray-painted graffiti; words and figures and unstructured patterns with no internal order. This is not art. This is not an installation. I go seeking Paul.
He starts right away when he sees my face. “This isn’t what we approved. Jonas said the others weren’t available, so he got impatient.”
“Who is we?” I ask. “No plan was submitted to me.”
Such times we had last summer. Endless parties extended into the week hours when Michael produced yet another bottle of wine from his job at Sam’s Liquors. “Here’s a nice Bore-doe,” we’d say in a rosy giggle. Roger assembled the big screen and CD player, and we watched The Lord of the Rings trilogy or Dogs and Cats. We had standards last year, and common vocabulary. A party wasn’t a success unless one person came out of his shell. Like the time Eddie revealed his sci-fi addiction and bonded with Roger. Such times. You had to drag us indoors.
Anyhow… I go back to my studio to cool down, feeling insulted that Paul green-lighted an artwork that devalues my studio. Mario, who lives below me and also has a bank of windows that view the deck, comes-by to commiserate. My arguments were already in place. “What if I move out, and Paul shows the place, and prospective tenants look out and see graffiti? Would they rent a studio with this view?”
Later I see Paul painting over the words and figures on the tarpaper roof. Anne catches him and loudly complains that he cannot censor the artistic impulse. Paul stops immediately and follows her inside to make amends. Anne’s artist sensibilities are bruised, because he attempted to censor only those parts of Jonas’s artwork that Paul doesn’t like.
A culture-war flashpoint erupts within hours. Candish posts a one-page statement lauding Jonas’s enthusiasm, and how we mustn’t squelch his creativity, and can’t we be civil. That tired old call for civility that comes only when a certain party knows she would lose a face-to-face talk. I post something terse about how Jonas wasn’t civil to me when he soiled my city view for which I pay a premium.
Within days the graffiti is replaced by, you guessed it, an American flag rendered in muted colors by painted-filled balloons and fifty-one brassy stars. “One for Iraq,” Paul offers with humor, trying to make peace.
“How original.” I roll my eyes. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the stars-and-stripes rendered in an artwork.”
I don’t care what Paul thinks. He’s been painting with the enemy.
I actually like the flag, even the too-bright stars, but for all other reasons than their reasons.