the portrait I never painted
Almost every morning, Margaret asks me whether I am going to make coffee. And almost every morning, I respond with “nah, I feel like going and getting a coffee today.” We’ve done the numbers, we both know how much of my annual paycheck goes to Starbucks… and yet, I keep going.
One chilly morning, about two years ago, Henry wandered into Starbucks. He had wiry grey hair, a white beard that tumbled down to his stomach, and deep wrinkles that buried his otherwise clear eyes. He was pushing a cart of some sort, which identified him as being homeless. Otherwise, you would never know he was homeless, as he was very cleanly dressed. As I leafed through the New York Times, he wandered over to the table next to me. He brought his own teabag and cup, and had bought boiling water from Starbucks for twelve cents.
As I read, he made a comment on the article I was reading. I don’t remember the article or the specific comment, but he was obviously well informed on recent international events. As we continued to talk, he asked me what I did for a living. Naturally, it led to me showing him my portrait brochure. He replied “Oh, you’ve obviously been trained in the visual, naturalistic tradition. You are an artist in the vein of Velazquez, the Spanish baroque tradition of painting.” I was absolutely stunned. In all the time I have been home in New York, absolutely nobody has ever figured this out- it was entirely accurate! Our friendship was instantly made. We spent most of our time talking about Thoreau and Wendell Berry.
Naturally, the next thing I asked him was whether I could paint his portrait. He was a perfect sitter- he was a wonderful cross between a grizzled hobo and Moses, as he descended Mount Sinai radiating with shekinah glory. He smiled, quickly declined my request, then proceeded to exhibit signs of the illness that had perhaps made him homeless. He believed he was being followed by the U.S. government, he believed they been tapping all of his past phone lines, that he had top secret information, etc. His bout of ranting only lasted a few minutes, and other than that he was very clearheaded. He never brought it up again.
Every morning, I got coffee and Henry got tea. Sometimes we would talk for a half hour or so, sometimes only for a minute, but always long enough to see how the other was getting along. About a year later, Henry came into Starbucks, wheezing and coughing. It was getting cold again, and at the age of seventy one years old, he was sleeping alone in a makeshift hut in the woods of Islip. I was so upset to see him suffer. I set out trying to find him some low income housing, though I couldn’t find him anything at all.
At night, I would stare at the ceiling and wonder how Henry was doing, how it was for him sleeping alone in the woods. I thought of him as the frost built up on the window panes, I thought of him as I chopped wood in my yard. I was so worried that he was going to die, alone, in the woods somewhere in Islip. I just couldn’t bear the thought of him dying alone. I thought of hiking through the many hundreds of acres, trying to find his hut. I wondered if Margaret and I could bring him dinner, something.
One morning, Henry didn’t come into Starbucks. I had a hard time painting that day.
He didn’t come the next day either.
I drove around Islip, hoping I would see him pushing his cart.
One day, a friend of mine came to me. “Kevin, did you hear about your friend Henry?” My stomach turned. I told him I hadn’t heard anything. “Well, he was at a charity dinner, with a bunch of his friends at a Lutheran church in Sayville. He was in mid sentence, and he had a brain aneurysm. He died instantly. But, his friends said he was in very high spirits that night, that he was laughing and talking as usual.”
Strangely, I was okay with the news. He had died, happy, laughing, talking with friends. It wasn’t alone, in a shack in the woods, coughing- he was with his friends.
My only regret was that Henry had not let me paint his portrait. I wish that I had been able to retain his spirit in a portrait, in a sense giving him immortality. Reflecting on Henry’s death, I have never been more convinced of the power of painting, of art. Keats is the only one that can sum up my thoughts on portraiture, on this “flowery band that… bind(s) us to the earth.”
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits.
John Keats, Endymion