© Jo Hewitt THE TEAL MANGO, 2012
There are a number of art galleries around Jewel Square and a few on the way to Artisan Hill. There is a tradition of art appreciation around the Heights, the Hill, and the Square, displaying works representing a wide variety of styles, genres, and artists. Opal Bauer was the first patroness d’artes of the Square. She sponsored an annual paint-about in late spring -early summer. It was a day of easels, water colors, of picnic baskets with cheeses, fruits, and little tea sandwiches, of smocks and wide brim hats, and chit chat and of displays of light, shadow, and splashes of color. The festivities continued into the evening with a ball with brightly colored gowns ballooning out as the dancers twirled under and around the flickering candles and gas lanterns and judging of the days’s masterpieces, with the best works auctioned off for charitable causes.
The paint-about continued during Opal’s lifetime. The final strokes of Opal’s life came at a time of economic downward spiral. Business around the square and in the city had changed, some totally swept away with the economic upheaval. Economic change and social change go hand in hand. The paint-about hung around for another year. But it was the end of an era. After one last tribute to the grand patroness, the paint-about followed in Opal’s wake; it was no more. In the 1940′s after the war, the soldiers returned and the economy began a great boom. Art sneaked in quietly behind them, returning to the square, peeking out from a few obscure galleries hidden from the general city.
A few decades ago, the art and art gallery appreciation was kicked up a notch. It all started with Letti Jacobsen. Letti was hired as art teacher at school number 95, Pasquale Vintner High School. She had some new ideas, which wasn’t surprising. She had a history of ideas. One of them occurred her senior year at college, a strangely conservative liberal arts institution. She had instigated wrapping up a protest, literally, against the cuts in funding for the art department at her college. She and some fellow students had wrapped the entire Administration building in sheets and sheets of wide yellow ribbon (yellow just happened to be one of the school colors) a la Christo. They also managed to wrap the Chancellor to a tree with the same yellow ribbon. When he was found, the yellow ribbon was pretty much all he was wearing. His dignity along with his usual and customary garments had disappeared during that long night he was tied to the tree and never totally came back .
No one knew who did it. No one knew how they did it. Maybe the Chancellor knew, but was too embarrassed to let it be known who his captors had been. There had been rumors. Letti had let her art professor, Prof. Deloro, for her interactive and public art class know. She needed the grade. They made some sort of deal such that he was sworn to secrecy. The only thing people knew was that the funding for the arts was not cut, that the Chancellor, who had been fond of wining, dining, and loud public appearances and extensive travel in general at the college’s expense, now went to and from his work at times and along routes such that he would encounter the fewest people as possible, and that Professor Deloro always walked around with a smile on his face and received a yearly package of some of his favorite wines and cheeses around the anniversary of the event.
One of the ideas Letti had for the budding artists and art aficionados at Pasquale High was a gallery crawl around the Square. At first it only took a little over half the school day. Letti set it for around the winter holidays to make it more festive, more fun, more memorable. Little by little there were more and more galleries and it took longer and longer. But, still, it was a special treat reserved for the students around the Square and the Hill. But word got out in this competitive city. Other high schools were not to be out done. Another high school started sending its art students on a gallery crawl around the square. And then another, and another and, you get the picture. Letti is no longer teaching, but the gallery crawl is alive and quite robust. (Sometimes she makes a guest appearance to a rousing round of cheers from Pasquale art students, current and former.) And this, one of the last weekends before Christmas, it was in full swing!
There were a record number of schools represented at the Jewel Square Gallery Crawl this year. The buses, besides taking up multiple parking spaces around the Square had spilled into the residential areas. The SSB Drever and I drove through the Heights for awhile before we found parking a few blocks up on Opal Way. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and the wind was quiet, keeping all opinions to himself. The snow from last week had hung around, hugging everything with seasonal cheer. There had been a couple snows in between to give it support when it began to appear a little bedraggled, losing its festive magic.
We parked in front of the Sarkeesian house. There were brick pillars with globe-shaded lights on each side of the drive, starting at the entrance going all the way up to the carriage house. Vines had climbed up the brick pillar, from the bottom, all the way to the globes, weaving a cloak of green and brown on each pillar. The Sarkeesians had wrapped rows and rows of tiny white string lights onto each pillar to make them look like Christmas trees with big balls of white light atop each one.
Farther down the Way, we passed Dr. Park’s house. She is a retired acupuncturist and doctor of naturopathy who is also a beekeeper of some renown. Her home is a tiny fairy tale type stucco cottage with a swaybacked roof, rough hewn timber and arched doors and gates, that sits a bit off the road, nestled between two much larger homes. There are alternating rows of arborvitae, Emerald Greens and Green Giants, along with Weeping Serbian Spruce trees and Canadian Hemlocks. She has a clump of birches in the front from which she had hung huge, over sized ornaments. The scale of the ornaments juxtaposed with the size of her house, now flocked with snow, made the whole setting looked like a section of a miniature Christmas town.
The sunlight, displaying a tenacity here and there, with focused intent, had melted the snow on spots. Crunch. Crunch. Splish-Splash. Our feet played a winter tune as we walked through the puddled snow.
As we approached Golden Place North, I could see the activity around the Square Most of it was along the middle area and the eastern end, a swirling movement of people. It was as though the buildings were great bellows that sucked people in and then pushed them back out like steam into the cold air creating eddies in the currents of pedestrians moving from one gallery or shop to another. I looked from the east to the west. Buses blocked the shops in the west end buildings from view. As visitors made their way from toward the west, I could see adults abruptly leave the side walk, right where the line of school buses began, quickly herding the group of children in under their wing, each like a mother goose and her gaggle of goslings, across the street to the Jewel box, either to detour around the buses to reach the west side of the Square or to do an about face and head back east. I thought is was strange that everyone was missing the west end galleries.
We turned right for half a block to the walk way up to The Teal Mango. There were a few people holding their coffee or tea, standing on the veranda, sipping occasionally, but mostly staring across the Jewel Box to the area where the buses were parked, shaking their heads and muttering undiscernible words while they stood on the veranda. I thought I heard something about a ball and the word whip. I said hello, but what ever they were watching made them impervious to my greeting, their focus and thoughts drowned out my words.
I opened the door to go inside. I love the rainbows from the beveled glass. This morning they danced on the ceramic tiles in the entry way. They were darting spotlights highlighting the Ottoman-esque design, a nice touch to the blues, greens, and turquoise. The Mango was warmed with sunshine and what I call coffee jazz-instrumental jazz that is mellow and that is just, well, happy.
It was more crowded than usual for this time of morning. I dug a treat out of my coat pocket, handed it to the SSB, pointed to our usual spot in the piano room, and told her to go sit. There were about five women dressed in black right near the front of the line one by one placing their orders. They were talking about make-up, hair, and something about clients. Behind them was a rather slender woman of medium height. She had a slightly poufed pixie cut on her slightly browned red hair with almost violet undertones, with a wisp of hair coming down to a point in front of each ear which showcased gold with diamond studs that refused to go unnoticed. She hugged a belted, flared white suede mid calf coat gushing with white fur trim. It was a wonder that she could lift her hand as long as she did to clench her coat together at the chest because of the extra-ordinary size of the diamond on that hand. The pressure seemed to strain her delicate wrist.
The line was long enough, I consigned myself to waiting. I half listened to the chatter and half read the notice board on the wall by the entry door.
“The Ball is back.”
It’s going to be a Christmas Ball. In the Bernardi building. The gallery in the Bernardi building.”
I had just started reading the notice/invitation about the “Christmas Ball” at the Van Neely exhibit. At this point, more people dressed in black from the spa, three more women and Dustin, the owner of a spa on the Square, came through the door and I moved to the side to let them pass.The women with him and the one at the front of the line were his employees. They stepped ahead of Natalya Bernardi LaRue, the woman in the white coat. They placed their orders and didn’t miss a beat in their chatter. That’s when Natalya took a step toward them.
“You cuts ze line! I waz hyere!” She snapped as she grabbed one of them and yanked her back. “How der you step in fronts of me?!” as she yanked at the next one. She didn’t care where she grabbed and what she grabbed. She yanked someone’s hair and ripped another’s sleeve.
“Excuse, me, lady, um, we’re all together. This is all on one tab,” Dustin had turned to face her to explain.
“I waz hyere first! I don’t ca-er ifs you ahr paying for all of zis. You must stands behinds me and go after me!” By this time, Natalya was very animated, Her face was so close to Dustin’s they were almost connected. “Do you know whos I am? I am Natalya Bernardi LaRue!” Her screams had gone way beyond the top of her lungs and were shattering the whole room.
Dustin was not to be beaten down.
“Back down, lady. For God’s sake, it’s Christmas! I told you we are all together and all their coffees are on one tab. And I don’t give a hoot who you are.”
Natalya had her hand with her white crocodile Gadino handbag raised, ready to swing and mow them all down with one sweeping slug. Maddie had come out from behind the counter and was calmly speaking to Natalya Bernardi LaRue.
“You’re right, Natalya. No one should cut the line. It seems there has just been a little misunderstanding. Tell you what-your coffee is on the house. And I’ll bring you a little pastry to go with it. We’ll just let it go. How about it?” she said as she guided Natalya to a seat away from the group from the spa.
“You know I don’t eat pasteries. But I vill take two.” With that Natalya sat down tapping her freshly manicured nails on the table and fumed a little more quietly, mostly to herself.
I stepped up to the counter to place my order. I felt like someone who has survived and had just walked away from some horrible hard hitting natural disaster who was still stunned and not really sure what had just happened. Maddie must have recognized the look on my face. As she handed me my coffee, she whispered to me, “I’ll come to your table and tell you about it in a minute.”
I headed to the piano room. The SSB must have given up on me. She was curled up on a window seat in a sunshine nap. I passed a couple women at a table as I headed toward SSB and my seat.
“They say he’s Scottish.”
“Yes, his partner.”
“Ahhh. … Well, how do they know?”
“That he’s Scottish.”
“Oh. Yes. He wears a kilt.”
“A kilt. He wears a kilt? Really?”
“Yeah, he wears a kilt. I mean, I haven’t seen it. But that’s what I heard.”
They had finished their drinks and had put on their coats and walked out.
A man younger than Natalya came into the “Mango”.
“Oh, Shtephahn, Darling. Come sits vith me. Let me get your coffee. Maddie is such a darling. All our coffees and pasteries are on ze house today.” With that she was flailing her arms around until Clark, the barista, came over to get her order.
I had been looking outside when Maddie walked over and sat down with a coffee for herself and a fresh one for me. I leaned my head in toward her and quietly asked, “What is going on here?”
“In here or out there?” she said.
“Okay, in here first. I know Natalya’s name. I have seen it with her picture in the paper. But who is she that she thinks she can act like that?”
“She’s married to George Bernardi one of the city councilors. And she has money-lots of it!”
“So she married Bernardi for the money?”
“No. He has a little political sway and power, but she has the money.”
“How did she get it?”
“She was a mail order bride from some East European country,” Maddie continued. “She was very, very young and poor. And he was very, very old and rich.”
“So not Bernardi?”
“Right, the first husband.Vinnie LaRue”
“What happened to him?”
“They say she killed him.”
“No!” I almost chuckled as I whispered almost too loudly in disbelief.
“She used a weapon that has been around for centuries. But the coroner wrote ‘heart attack’ as the official cause of death. He left everything to her.”
I raised my hand over my mouth to muffle a throaty laugh. “Oh my!”
“Don’t vorry, my darling Shtephahn. Don’t vorry about your uncle Zheorge. He von’t take your gallery space avay. I know how to handles him. Besides, ve haf some dirt on ze mayor.” With that we heard the door open and close as Natalya and Stephan left, heading down the steps and across the square toward the area where the buses were parked in front of the Stephan’s gallery space in George’s building.
“So who is Shtephahn?” I asked.
“Stephan? He used to be Steven. Steven Van Neely. Bernardi’s sister’s son.”
“I’ve seen that name before. Oh yeah, I saw it on a street sign-Van Neely Avenue.” I had been driving around the city one day and came across a neighborhood, north and slightly east of downtown, that was new to me. There were two story stucco houses in the style of California in the early to mid 1900′s painted in soft pastel colors, dilapidated from time. They barely had the luxury of the of sidewalks as a protective barrier from the street. What the city hadn’t provided, nature did on the form of large droopy trees that served as a canopy to protect them from voyeuristic stares. They were further shamed when Van Neely Avenue, which ran on the south edge of this once architecturally refined neighborhood, made a sharp right into an area of run down one story warehouses and cottage businesses.
“Van Neely is another old money name. George’s sister Maria married a Van Neely. That is a whole other story. Anyway, Steven-Stephan and Natalya became very close. It was just odd. Everyone thought so. So, Georges had him sent away. He just came back a couple months ago with Dugan Penrod, Stephan’s partner. Scottish I heard.”
“Penrod’s not a Scottish name. It’s English, isn’t it?”
“Maybe a Penrod went into Scotland and left his name.”
“I know some Scots would agree with that. Nothing new for the English. They have been leaving their ‘name’ in Scotland for centuries. Doesn’t he get cold running around in that kilt in this weather?”
” Don’t know. Sometimes the wind whips that kilt around but not enough that any of us can answer that question.”
“What’s the Christmas Ball I heard people talking about? I saw a notice on the board.”
It not really a ball. It’s just the opening for Stephan and Dugan’s gallery show. It’s title something like, “You take the bi road and I’ll take the down low road-an exposé on taboo sexual behaviours and societal consequences of denial’ or something like that.”
I peered out the window again. Some of the buses had pulled away and I could now see what was going on across the Square. Protestors flooded the walkway in front of the Bernardi building and spilled over into the street. There was a smaller circle of people within a larger circle. They moved like a whirlpool while carrying their protest signs. Some signs said “go”, some said “no”. But that is not what made me stare and mouth drop open. It was what they were wearing. They all had, slung around around their waists or hips, hung low over the groin where a Scottish sporran would hang, huge blinking Christmas ornament lights the size of bocce balls in either red or green. They were connected with wires to braceleted solar devices worn like yokes and attached to the shoulders. The protesters carrying the go signs were wearing the red lights for go away and the protesters with the no signs were wearing the greens lights for no, don’t go, but go on with the exhibit. There was one more group carrying “freedom” signs and they wore blinking yellow balls. It looked like one big traffic jam of people. I’m not sure if anyone really knew what was going on and where it was going.
Well, someone was going, rather coming.”Look, Maddie. It’s Stephan and Natalya.” They had run out of the Bernardi building, first Stephan with Natalya after him, pushed through the protesters, and were high tailing it across the Square toward The Teal Mango!
Stephan ran in, slamming the door after him, then Natalya, slamming the door after her.
“Aunt Tally, How could uncle George do this to me?” Stephan whimpered. he stood with his body facing toward Natalya, both of them standing next to the third table in from the door. Stephan had turned his head to the side, looking out the window, his left hand resting on his hip, his right hand flat against his mouth as one might place one’s hand when saying “whoops”. His eye darted around, emitting crocodile tears. It seems some sort of extreme confrontation had occurred between Stephan and George at the gallery.
“Shtephahn, Zheorge didn’t mean any sing he said about the exhibit. He’s not going to close you down over the condom vhip and ze health department. And ve vill have your Chrrismas Ball opening as you and Dugan have planned.Please don’t…”
But before she could finish a third person had run across the Square and into the “Mango”. It was George. It took him a little longer. George, a man who really enjoyed his material bounty in life-evidenced by the way the bottom of his wescot refused to meet up with the tops of his trousers-huffed and puffed his way in.
“Natalya! Steven!” George had to bend over to catch his breath, holding his chest. Maddie and I thought he was on the verge of a heart attack. He slowly rose, opened his mouth and the words gushed forth.
“How could you? I put my neck on the line to get a variance for that display. But really, really -dead babies and dead black roses on the walls! A whip braided from used condoms! A…”
At this point all three of them were yelling. I only caught bits of the words in this familial brouhaha. “Used”…”Béchamel sauce”…”S&M”…”Mayor Ballentine”…”down low”…”blackmail” …
In the meantime, some of the shop owners had followed and now joined the fray.
…”Lost business”…”money”…”distasteful”…”divorce”…”telling mother”…”get out of town”…
The protesters were now outside protesting in front of the coffee shop.
…”We’re going to settle this here and now!”…
I had never seen Maddie angry. Her real name is Margo, her initials M.A.D. and her fiery spirit when riled are the source of her nickname-Maddie. She pushed through the mob, pulling and then pushing Stephan and George to and then through the door, yelling, “TAKE IT OUTSIDE!”
George and Stephan marched out side by side on the way to settling this, all the while adjusting their hats, scarves, gloves, and pushing their sleeves up readied to fight it out. Two by two the the other shop owners and the protesters fell into step. Across the veranda, down the steps, the walk way, and then a sharp right on the side walk along Golden Place North, a cross over Red Bud Row to the park.
Natalya straggle behind in her Fendi boots yelling “Vait, Vait!”
As The SSB came out to see where this was all going, I spied lanky legged Dugan Penrod striding, long strides like an antelope’s lope, across the Jewel square. He had a Dr.Who scarf streaming out behind him and an unbuttoned coat down to his lower calves. He clutched it at the neck and chest with one hand while he held his hat with the other. His coat was flapping and so was his kilt, but still not enough to see whether and how he kept warm or not. He joined the crowd at the park.
Everyone seemed to have positioned themselves in the style of European armies of the 1700′s, facing off , staring down the enemy. Then, as if on cue, everyone bent down, scooped up white powder into snow balls and began it began-pelleting, tripping, and stuffing snow down the coat of any of the opposition within reach. George and Stephan took turn doing a victory whoop each time one smeared the other’s face with snow. George had the mass to knock Stephan down if he caught up with him. Stephan was quicker on his feet and out maneuvered George. The protesters pretty much knew who the enemy was. Red lights chasing green and green lights chasing red. Even when the snow was flying thick, you could hone in on the enemies light and slam them with snow. The people with the yellow lights were attacked by both sides. Everyone was pretty intent and focused on destroying the enemy and reloading. But when Dugan bent down to make snowballs, when he bent a little too low and grazed the top of the icy snow, or took a tumble, almost everyone put the pelting on pause to say a breathed-in “Ahuhh”. Once it was verified he was okay, nothing was frozen, the fighting commenced.
The fighting had pretty much taken place at the foot of a hill. Most of the snow had been spent and trampled. A crowd of people had gathered on the perimeter of the fight. One of the snow ballers came up to one of the kids and brokered a deal for some undisclosed amount for acquisition of his saucer sled. He then took it to the top of the hill where the snow was still fresh to make a fresh round of ammunition and loaded it on the sled. Someone on the opposing side played a game of one up-manship and hired one of the kids to take his sled to the top of the hill and make snowballs for him. Pretty soon every child with a saucer sled had accepted membership as a mercenary ammunition producer for a mutually agreed upon price. This escalated the battle to a whole new level.
This went on for another hour on top of the one that had just passed. The sun was peeping a little lower to get a good view of the insanity in the park. At that moment, as quickly as it started, it stopped. everyone stopped. Everyone just took a step back, looked around and laughed. Some people headed back to their cars, some back to their shops. Stephan and Dugan helped George up out of the snow. Natalya joined them and they with a number of others walked back to The Teal Mango. The machines were steaming, coffee and tea brewing, milk pouring, whipped cream squirting, and the fire places blazing. Hands were warming and bruised egos mending. Tips were good.
After one last cup of hot chocolate, The SSB Drever and I packed it up to walk to the car before dark and head home.
George and Stephan had agreed to a four day show. Needless to say, there was no Christmas Ball, the Gallery had a soft opening. A few days after the gallery closed there was an article in the Star about Mayor Ballentine and some rumors about him and some extracurricular sexual activities. Bernardi was doing some quick political back pedaling. Natalya was having a hard time finding a replacement for the boots she destroyed in the fight at the park. Everyone else seemed to have had a happy holiday.