Black People Dress for God

Two sides of the human coin

Their independent churches have always been a refuge, though between the bricks of faith the mortar contained old fears as well as the preternatural powers of togetherness. Having one’s own church conveys the deep claim and belief that God protects, that freedom is guaranteed as long as one remains his houseguest.

I have experienced the extraordinary welcome of a black church. As a German stranger I was startled by the unanimous, extreme heartiness of the greeting. At the same time I sensed an unspoken spiderweb of historical dangers, a slight overcompensation, as if walking on eggshells to avoid ripping open old wounds. Almost a conspiracy of souls. As if the evils of the past could intrude once again if one did not carefully wrap the gift of sacred time.

The situation has the insecurity of a flickering flame, which is dispelled by a declaration of brotherhood, of sameness, a hunger for a peace at the hour of worship. It connects all concerned through a yearning for acceptance. Hallelujah.

When we came to live in New York in the seventies, leaving behind our secure, predictable life in Munich, we were so excited. Everything had the stamp of novelty. We dove straight into the river of the New, à la Studio 54, where we left my mother -- in her black, bejeweled cocktail dress, her gaze veiled by a little black hat upon which perched a tiny bird -- in the tender care of the coke-sniffers. She thought them the most divine group of people she had ever met.

See? Innocence is often delicious, and makes you experience pleasure without prejudice.

Our apartment was renovated by Peter Morino, fresh from Cornell. We were his second client, Andy Warhol having taken his architectural virginity. Of course we met Andy.

With our first apartment came Thelma, a black Southern personality. Without her we would in many instances have been totally helpless. The first thing she asked me: Which color uniform would you like me to wear?

She showed me three: pink, green, and blue.

But Thelma, you look great in your own clothes. As far as I am concerned you don’t need a uniform.

Yes, ma’am, I need one.

I was new to Black history and had only noticed that there were no black people on the streets of the Upper East Side, except perhaps the delivery boys or a nanny here or there. I learned only later that she truly needed the uniform, at least in our neck of the woods, to identify her as belonging, as being part of our lives and not just a stray citizen in her own right, her own dubious role. Discrimination of the instincts.

And so it went, all the way down the social ladder. Thelma in her turn did not trust the black delivery boy.

You stay and wait.

She would shut the door in his face when she went to fetch his money.

On Sunday mornings, Thelma would transform herself into a black fairy-tale queen.

Thelma, show yourself, I would call. We want to admire your regalia.

In the doorway would materialize a grand stranger, someone we truly did not know, transformed into a creature free of sorrows, luxurious and elegant. Only her posture betrayed her. She did not believe in her own magic. The violet dress, the wonderful plumed hat: a disguise that moved her so far from herself, so close to us.

Downstairs her son is waiting out front in a white Cadillac, and there, in the moment, she surrenders herself to the plastic paradise of the car, the flowered shawl spread over the frilled mountain of her breast, her purse waiting perched on her lap, sailing northward into Harlem. On the familiar course to Sunday service, she would exhale and transform herself back into Thelma.

Where does it come from, this uniquely Black feel for elegance? It is like jazz. Only around us is she insecure, as if remembering slavery; in her church, where she sings and dances herself into an ecstasy, she shows herself to her divine Father, clad in the garments of success, liberated from everyday banality, glorious, rich, in style.

It’s the philosophy of a better life: I show myself to Thee, O Lord.


Fear of drowning

I know my room from previous visits. Room 14 in the Piano Nobile. Four tall windows, two opening up to the street -- Calle Priuli, the bridge over the river -- two out to the garden, shadowed by olive trees.

A rug of green moss and tile, with several tables and chairs. A stone bench, propped up at a wall at the far end. Some sunflower beds. All of it watched over by a tall iron gate separating the garden from the street.

I lie down on the large bed. It is the room Casanova slept in when he ended up in Venice, tired and old, in debt, out of luck, his sex no longer an option, no more secret to his fame. The bed is high and looks like its era, the 18th century.

“Love can be surprising. Love can be heartbreaking. Love can be an art. But love is the singular emotion that all humans rely on most...and crave endlessly no matter what the cost...” Thus the great lover and adventurer, and con man.

What else? Here nothing changes, and as I know, the citizens of the world still have several old, well-described desires. They never change, only circumstance. From the ceiling putti look down, arranging garlands of flowers around the light fixture in the middle: back then, a chandelier with candles; now, small electric tubes with flames, giving only enough light to tap around the room on your way to the bath.

The late sun is trapped in the walls.

The floor is stone and looks like a slice of the Bavarian sausage called Pressack. I have been here at every season. in July, during the Fiesta del Redentore, thousands of boats fill the stretch between San Marco and the Chiesa del Redentore. You are invited to walk from boat to boat, drink wine and feast, visit and chat. When night falls, fireworks adorn the firmament, an orgy of form, noise and color, haunting, inexhaustible in its beauty, the images of the city drowning under the magnitude and splendor from above. A sanctified rain, feasting.

When I am here, I feel like a Venetian citizen from all previous centuries simultaneously. My shoes are made by Giovanna Zanella. The shop is at the end of a labyrinth of small calle. One walks through De-Chirico-like silence, ended suddenly by the shock of commerce and noise, like a train station.

At Carnival one can see one’s breath, take a glass at Ca’d’Oro, my favorite bacari.

I sit and lift the veil from my face, over the brim of the hat, and measure the small room. I take off my long gloves, to use my fingers for eating their cicchetti.

A man sits down next to me. A dark face, but I cannot find details establishing anything to fear. Only an inkling. He is still. Even after he smiled invitingly.

Luigi, he says, giving me a curt nod. I say my name.

Beatrix, que bello!

My costume has a long train of blue silk and lace, and an exquisite jacket, very narrow. A furry thing of a fox over the shoulder.

His is no disguise. He wears a Loden coat, and a black hat. He takes it off. His hair shines dark and long. In his face, a landscape of beard.

I could walk off with him. He is no tourist.

Another time, in summer, I am having breakfast down in the garden. June, July perhaps, or even September. The brisk brilliance of morning still in the walls. Attilio Codognato arrives at the gate. Doves fly off. He brings with him his assistant and a small suitcase. He smiles when he sees me.

I have rings from him. His grandfather made one for the actress Maria Felix. An enormous pearl, crowned by a diamond and encircled by a snake. The sun jumps off it as if bitten. I have it on, together with another of his, a skull with a poem engraved on its head. One can read it from multiple sides. A palindrome:

Sator - Arepo - Tenet - Opera - Rotas

Diamond eyes. It looks at you calmly.

Signior Codognato has moved closer and bows like an aristocrat, elegant and servile at the same time. He likes me, and my husband. Each for their own reason. Very clearly he caters to his clients.

I order a cappuccino and an espresso from Maria. We all sit in the shade of a black-and-white striped baldachin. Everyone is happy now, smiling in anticipation, speaking languages in small tokens, like a beggar.

The surface of the table gets cleared, the assistant rolls out a black velvet carpet. Doves coo. Breakfast clutter, background further off. Tourists step on Calle Priuli outside. Beyond them, the roar of a motorboat.

First a brooch, a Moor with an ivory body, with rubies adorning his jacket, his face made of onyx.

It is for both of you to wear, says Sr. Codognato.

The assistant confirms this with a grave nod.

Next, a snake ring. I try it on. It is very large for my forefinger, jutting far out over the knuckle. Fantastic emerald eyes shoot at you.

Signior Sorlino, the assistant, a fine gentleman, is by now in full tilt, representing the House of Codognato, while Sr. Cordognato himself relates little stories about Venice and its restaurants.

My husband is practicing his Italian. I am practicing being myself, with the snake ring on my finger.

A collier is laid out on black. Oval crystals engraved with dancing skeletons, held together by golden leaves and skulls. Inexhaustible symbols, rounding around the neck. It is still in its depth, like all beauty, like a veiled face.

When I look into the mirror, I know it is mine.

On my way to Cafe Florian, I pass by a gate. It opens onto the private courtyard of the Palazzo Volpi di Misurata.

Posso entrare?

The man with a broom nods.

Like all the gardens in Venice, it can claim centuries of neglect and resurrection, like an aging diva, her beauty inexhaustible. It is cooler there as I enter. Five degrees lower than on the street. Time has bleached the brick, centuries have brushed it with their precious clothes. The moisture of the Canale Grande has laid down moss between the seams.

In ancient stillness two male figures stand by the door, vines dripping down from above, hanging across windows, a veil over a curious face. Birds flit in and out. An iron balcony, balancing.

I step inside, to look down into the marble well. A sphere of stone lies there, forgotten, like a soccer ball thrown over the gate.

The street has me back. It is empty, except for some like me. It is that Italian time of lapse, not yet 5. Shops closed. The miracle of Venice keeps me company.

At Carnival, all the streets are covered with confetti. Now they are carefully swept, like a corridor. One can hear the steps, the boats’ motors, some conversation, some clutter, all separate, an orchestra in the stillness of a summer day.

The Piazza San Marco is just getting ready, like a woman in front of a mirror. The doves know that. Soon they will sweep down from the roofs, and from undisclosed homesteads, to peck around the cafes.

I stride through the large north portal, built by Napoleon, down some steps, out into the open, the square of sky, virgin blue. The piazza’s marble polished by centuries of conflict.

At Cafe Florian the orchestra is getting ready to play. I walk towards it, slow and deliberate, solitary. I love its festive rooms. To this day it is the oldest coffeehouse in continuous operation. At Carnival I would inevitably end up at, or begin from, the Cafe, the meeting place. Victorio, with a blue glass eye, would sweep through on his way, followed by Casanova in black leather, mask and all, to look for prey and friends.

I stroll into the Sala Cinese. I can’t help it, I am transfixed, walking slowly into the next salon, the one with the paintings of lovers. In the Sale degli Specchi sits nobody.

What happened? Oh, it is the Biennale this room is dedicated to! The usual small mirrors, framed in rococo, have disappeared. Instead, the whole space is recursive, an infinite regress of mirrors within mirrors.

I sit down upon a mirrored bench on a mirrored table. I am watched by myself watching myself. My hat is descending into the endless reproduction of myself wearing it. I touch my face, or someone touches someone’s face: one hundred hands cautiously stroke their respective cheeks. My own private Internet, self-addiction.

The Piazza san Marco presses in. I become part of the moving image from outside, of the perpetual stream of visitors. A clone in a predictable backdrop resembling myself, myself, myself.

I turn my head left, toward the window, smell the cakes from the buffet. Outside, the music. Vivaldi, and the piazza in pale tin. The lights go on across the way. The pigeons flutter, in no hurry when disturbed, like tourists themselves. The sun sets into the lagoon.

I order a tea and little sandwiches. The waiter smiles at me.

Bon giorno, Signora. He knows me from all the years I have been coming to the Florian. I am not a tourist to him, I am a guest.

In the midst of the piazza a figure steals my eye as the orchestra plays to my right. The window glass is ancient, littered with beautiful flaws.

He is strolling across the peopled piazza, diving in and out of that moving silence as if in a silent movie accompanied by Verdi.

I catch his gaze, searching for the cafe I am sitting in. I lose sight of him as he enters.

When I get up, the night has awakened. I step outside. The streets are hollow, echo with every step. I walk through them like a procession, church clocks answering to each other, skeletons carved into columns. Above entrances, Memento mori Et in Arcadia ego. From the lagoon, night wet enters the city’s passages. Canale Grande snakes through. I can see the water to the left. I know the way to the palazzo in my sleep.

Some young people are hanging around the steps of a church, drinking. One kicks the other until he tumbles down.

Vaffanculo stronzo! Testa di cazzo!

The swearing follows me into the canyon of streets. It rips me out of my silence. I have to laugh while bending into a low arch along a small waterway, gondolas pushing against each other in the whispering water. The facades before Strada Nuova are out of Francesco Guardi paintings. Green growing in niches, windows disaligned, gates rusted. Venice was old even then. City in the marshes of the lagoon: La Serenissima, Queen of the Adriatic.

Behind curtains and doors the night measures her hours, unmistakably precise to the end.

I turn right, towards Rio Priuli. The gate is closed. I ring the bell. Buona notte, says the night watchman.

No moon.

Nostalgia #1

We all carry an omnidirectional looking-glass

The park is driven by Sunday noise, enormous swarms of humans. Runners are running. The rickshaw bikers explain the encyclopedia of New York to their customers in loud, broken English. The Sheep Meadow is Coney Island on grass. The sky is laced with clouds. I feel like a leftover species, the only one that should not be in the Park on a Sunday.

And suddenly it hits me: an illuminated memory. This park, thirty years ago. We had fallen in love with New York, my companion and I, and our three sons. We had exchanged comfortable Munich for the City of Cities.

The Sheep’s Meadow seemed a dreamlike fata morgana. A bit worn, the grass, from a concert. Us spreading a tablecloth. Between trees appears a white Rolls Royce limousine. A bit stressed. Some rust on the chrome, and that tired white here and there, touchups in not quite the right shade.

The black chauffeur leans on the fender, smoking. We spread out our picnic, the folding chairs, champagne, fine glasses, prosciutto, napkins.

Thelma packed it. Now she herself comes walking with the baby stroller. She is terrified of the park. She wears her uniform so she will be recognized as belonging. It is the seventies, mind you.

We, our little group, has been slowly driving around in the park, to enjoy the car and the anticipation. The creation of a scene, the invitation to a fantasy.

New York was tough otherwise. In truth we were surrounded by reminders of the untamed drug subculture. But with us there were no dark shapes apprehended. We were joined to the brevity of the moment. My blood dances when I think of our naivete.

As New York neared bankruptcy and people fled to suburbia to smooth out the creases, we had bought a penthouse on 67th Street between Park and Lex for a mere $175000. In Germany, in a situation like this, the walls crumble. Everyone freezes. Entire structures might collapse. We admired the American optimism and adjusted quickly. Our new paradise had six bedrooms, four baths, a maid’s quarters, all wrapped in terraces.

The place needed work. We met Peter Marino. He was just beginning to be an architect. His baby steps into a grand future. His #1 client was Andy Warhol. We were his second.

Peter’s office: one bedroom housed a cookie-jar collection. He turned my kitchen into a black-and-white Wiener Werkstatt creation, the living room ceiling in pink lacquer, the wallpaper reminiscent of chinoiserie moderne. On the terraces grew trees, and we planted raspberry bushes, fruit trees leaning on espaliers.

My mother came from a country outing with a ‘lovely’ plant. She had fallen for its beautiful leaves. It grew fast, over everything, clinging its way along the edges of the walls. It turned out to be poison ivy.

We were photographed in this castle in the air, the corridor painted by me with sepia scenery. Anna Wintour made us one of the best-dressed couples in the incorruptible city. We were part of that short dance twirl of the late seventies.

German TV visited us. There was that curiosity to find out why we might have left after all, the fixation with the nonconformists stepping away from the pattern of transparent fragments of the past, of a well-known existence, into something profoundly different.

As I walk I have to laugh. A flock of dogs on leashes, tied together, the dog walker corralling them like wild game. We had a bull terrier then, Leopold. I would let him loose in the park, pretending he was not my dog, to give him a good run. It was so empty in those days.

When I arrive at my destination, the Metropolitan Museum, I am exhausted, not from walking, no, from a dense economy of noise and bodies. I am underwhelmed, drained of beauty, lonely. I stop thinking about it. The splendid water fountain drowns it all. There are chairs to sit in under umbrella trees. The afternoon is glinting in flashes of light.

On Fifth Avenue the cars wrangle in procession. It is Sunday. Everyone wants to get home. I am inside. I walk through the Egyptian wing. I follow the sign: Through the Looking Glass.

I walk into the company of Delfter Blue. It traveled from the China of gods and nobles, terracotta warriors, to the dresses influenced by chinoiserie, the robes linear in majestic symmetry, patterns of flowers embroidered into stiffened silks, a wearer’s dream. Centuries of tradition and symbols. Exhibited in between all those splendors, dresses created by Yves Saint Laurent, and the Asian Spring by Gauthier, exquisitely cut exoticism, sleeves wide as wings.

And right here the mirage begins to take me into its middle. As I walk through the corridors I am thinking about an exhibit from back then, an historical fashion show featuring Sissi, the Empress of Austria, her clothes and portraits.

Embroidered silken clouds of splendor, kid leather shoes gloved over her feet, and riding boots for her passion, worn to the sidesaddle with those tailored frocks. Domed skirts held by the architecture of crinolines. Her corsets wonderworks of fishbone, stitched into a magnificent piece of body art, to make Sissi forever into a goddess of art and artifice, that eccentric beauty from the household of the Bavarian king’s brother. Ah, and Sissi’s hair, a mare’s mane, a Rapunzel braid. Sadly I did not inherit it. My sister more so.

I am photographed by Bill Cunningham, Sissi’s profile and mine next to each other. She is my great-aunt, my grandfather’s half-sister. For the occasion I am wearing something in crinoline, my waist pulled tight to the barest minimum of breathable air, just like hers.

Sissi didn’t like being an empress. She was private, well-read and very chic.

Back then, we all, we being everyone, went to the grand opening nights of these fashion exhibits. Everybody was there decorating the crowd. Joey Arias, corseted and gowned, greeting you with a song. There was Klaus Nomi, who had sung for us while we dined. Diana Vreeland, her coiffe a Japanese geisha’s exaltation. Halston and Liza Minelli mingling with the downtowners.

They had pulled together Cirque de Soleil creations, death in artifice for an audience, for the only night, that moment of exalted beauty. It was the feast to end all feasts, the party to think about throughout the year.

Ludwig took me to the dinner soirees here at the Metropolitan, where we dined with Andy Warhol and his circle. Oh, gee, you are a princess, he blew onto my shoulder.

In the New York Times the next day, the caption below the photos of Ludwig Kuttner and Beatrix Ost and Jackie Onassis read: Look who came to dinner. We came from so very different a world that we had no idea, but we loved it, and yes, we were thrilled with the attention.

Those early splendid years in New York prepared us for a malady we were not excluded from: when your life splits into Before and After. The grand teacher.

The Serpent

A miracle is the most natural thing

Between the house and the buildings down below stretches a lawn and park, intermixed with shade and sun.

The dogs have made a path down the hill, past the chicken coop, down to the road and the Victorian barn, the roost of the secretaries with their computers.

The right side of the large room, which long ago was the hayrick, is now my studio. In spring we open the window out to the fields, to let the swallows come in and nest in the rafters above. Then, below their nests, cardboard squares are laid out to catch the droppings. The birds seem like black arrows, flitting in and out with building materials in their beaks.

It is a grand place for parties as well, and there, on one side, is a dangerously roaring wood stove for the cold winter months.

I am leaving the house to walk down the path to the barn. The hammock waits between trees for an event.

I have tea there sometimes, with my granddaughter Ava. We roll out the tea cart and lie down on the mesh in the cool shade, eating cookies, balancing cup and saucer like a circus act.

Hold still, Nona, Ava says. I don’t want to spill.

Here I stop for a moment. I feel privileged. The trees cast a shadow of their canopy across the lawn like a tattoo, and there is a bench hanging down from the arm of a linden tree. To my left, the wooden platform, ready for performances, surrounded by azaleas and willows.

The air is filled with melancholy songs. It is an arrival terminal of expectation.

On the wide-open lawn, the dogs are chasing a squirrel. Now the path tilts down, the reassuring sounds of banging metal from the repair shop.

I step out of the carpet into shrill green, and there she lies, with just two feet between us: a black velvet ribbon of a snake.

With still authority she begins to move, so visible in the grass that it overwhelms me. Her small head turns to me in greeting.

The dogs have no interest in her. She is not on their radar. She glides slowly away, in immortal procession, almost like a thought. Nothing else is as black as she. No camouflage. It makes me weep with love.

She wears an aura of wisdom, feminine, untouchable. She is so very old.

She glides through the high grass towards the chicken coop. There she will easily find an opening in the mesh. She will lift herself up into the nests. In a minute I will hear the hysterical cackling of the hens. She will coil herself around a group of eggs and begin to feast.

A day or two later, by the pool, children are jumping from the diving board. I can hear them from the terrace. Some of the guests watch them, encouraging a match between the swimmers. Occasional bursts of laughter erupt.

Suddenly Liam, the youngest, comes running around the tall edge of the house.

A snake! A snake! Huge! A black one! he screams, fiddling with his arms in excitement. Come see, come!

I dive out of my shade, down the steps, and take his expectant hand. We run down the stone path to the pool and there she is, embracing an agave plant like a band of friends.

She begins to move, in black, slow, like an ornament by the god of design. She marks her surrounding world with the gesture of majesty.

The brilliant sky is laid over with clouds, shoots of sun, the children breathless. One wishes she would stain the world she glides over with black tar. One could mark the history of her existence.

Her head enters a slit in the tall grass. The children come closer. The ornament is gone, the grass absolutely still.

The nights are chilly. The snake is sighted in the basement. Rex is called to find her.

Rex is the man of the moment. He has a laugh reminiscent of the chuckle of a bird, full of resonance, a joyful roar. His face is ornamented by a gray mustache, thick and rolled-up on both sides like an 18th-century Austrian emperor’s. His shoulders wear the trade of carpentry, ornaments of work and sweat. He evokes a fairy tale of giants and gnomes, feels as if he is forever, and women like him. He marks the landscape of sex appeal, innocently. The immortal lover fantasy.

When he comes up the basement steps, in his brown arms the black, black beauty, he is holding her like an exotic bracelet, the hallway stained with the unforgettable moment. The snake is so absolutely still as it is carried outside, back to the place by the pool. Sun flickers across the water.

The black snake glides along the stones surrounding the eye of the sky. She introduces her iconic beauty to the world. A tree mirrors himself.

I see my mother’s porcelain features. She holds a snake wrapped around her arm. She lowers herself to my child height for me to touch her skin, that exotic silken garb.

My beautiful sister from Paradise, whispering to Adam: Take the apple of knowledge. Take it.

Ja, ha ha ha ha...