3374 words (13 minute read)

Camden Swanson and the Odalisque Sculptures (Three Days Earlier)

Camden stood on the elevated commuter train platform in San Carlos, gazing north up the tracks toward the city. The train was late, which in and of itself hadn’t bothered him, except he had hustled down the street so he wouldn’t miss it. Sweat now ran down his ears and neck, beading in his hair. He wanted to be back in his bed or else on a Hawaiian island.

With a whoosh of air and the screech of metal, the train disrupted the stillness of dawn. The doors clanked open and Camden took his usual top seat in the second to the last car. He recognized most of the faces, as the commuters from the Peninsula all seemed to enjoy the same spots to place their asses. Tired and hungover from a night of drinking beer on his back porch and communing with the squirrels, he could only stare slack-jawed at the lavender and pink clouds crashing like waves over the East Bay sky.

At the Caltrain Depot in San Francisco, Camden exited with the mass of people and began his usual walk up Fourth Avenue. After crossing over to Ellis and passing under the unlit neon sign of John’s Grill, he was around the corner from the Matisse Hotel, his place of employment. But instead of a direct approach, he circled around the block over the hill to the loading dock, what he referred to as his “sneaky back-way”. While he did have to pass a sex shop and had been asked to purchase heroin on a couple occasions, it became his preferred route because he could bypass the commotion every morning.

The employees of the hotel were all on strike, and they were in their usual places, holding signs and banging trash can lids. It was a city-wide labor action at most of the large hotels due to the union and the hotels’ months-long stalemate on signing a new contract. Back when he was a reporter in Los Angeles, Camden had done pieces on the transit and janitor strikes there, and those scenes were contentious. But the hotel strikers had only perpetrated violence against San Franciscans’s eardrums with their chants, megaphones and trash can drumming.

Jingle Bells was the melody, but the lyrics remained a mystery. A megaphone helped deliver the message, but the tiny Asian woman held it too close to her mouth to be decipherable. However, even if she had been more adept with the contraption, Camden wouldn’t have understood because the words were in Mandarin. But the next scream out of her mouth did not need a translation.

“Scab!”

The comment had been directed at an elderly woman who had entered the six-month-old Matisse Hotel. While it was true the woman in question had crossed the picket line of union workers, if the octogenarian wearing a Chanel suit and carrying a Tiffany bag was a replacement worker serving food or cleaning rooms, Camden was prepared to strip down to his underwear and board a cable car singing Randy Newman’s I Love L.A.

The Matisse Hotel, housed in a restored early twentieth century bank, drew visitors not just because it was the newest luxury property in San Francisco. The hotel had also become a destination for its prestigious Museum of the Twentieth Century, located on the top floor of the historic building. Included in the collection were works by Pollock, Hopper, O’Keeffe, Rothko, and Picasso. But the jewels of it all were the three eponymous Henri Matisse odalisque wax sculptures, reputedly worth one-hundred million dollars.

As a museum gallery attendant, his position was non-union, and Camden was not directly involved in the labor dispute. Except he had to cross the picket line every day or choose to work elsewhere. With the competitive San Francisco job market and his inability to work in his chosen profession of journalism, he wasn’t quitting despite the hassle and the shitty pay.

He accessed the hotel’s side entrance from the loading dock, which couldn’t legally be blocked by the strikers, and entered through the revolving glass doors without being bothered. He went through the lobby, with its wrought iron and painted glass dome and black and white tiled floor designed for the guests to think they were in Belle Époque Paris. After getting downstairs to the employee area, he grabbed his uniform from the community closet. Recently dry-cleaned, it reeked of chemicals.

Harry Hipple stood next to Camden’s locker dressed in the gallery attendant attire of blue blazer, striped tie, and black slacks. Hard-Case Harry, as the twenty-five-year-old was known to his co-workers, piqued his interest only because the guy could somehow remove his pants without taking off his shoes.

“Fucking assholes,” Harry said. “And it ain’t the democrats this time. The fucking assholes I’m talking about are the fucking assholes who’re holding the picket signs and calling a good, God-fearing American like myself, a scab. We’re not in the goddamned union. If we don’t cross the picket line, which liberal smart-ass group is gonna support us?”

“They don’t know who you are,” a young guard named Timmy responded. “They’re human beings who have rent to pay and kids to support. Overnight, a group of strangers took their jobs. They’re angry and have a right to be.”

“Then why in the holy hell did they vote to go on strike?”

“If you’re going to criticize unions, Harry, lest you forget that the concept of not working Saturday and Sunday and the forty-hour work week was also established by them.”

Camden’s head was beginning to hurt, and he wanted to move as far away from Timmy and Harry as possible. There were pieces of art that needed guarding, but he kept fumbling with his tie. Over and over he made it either too long or too short.

“Why don’t you go into the hotel via the loading dock from the top of the hill?” Camden finally asked, hoping to shut his colleagues up.

“And walk next to a filthy sex shop?” Hipple replied.

Camden finally got his tie right, resisted the urge to give Hipple the finger, and went to the auditorium for the gallery attendant pre-shift meeting. From the back row he watched Larry Aberlour, the Director of Security for the Matisse Hotel, cough, scratch his ass, and then begin speaking. His boss recycled the same information over and over, and in his six months of employment, Camden only knew of four pre-shift meeting topics: terrorism, vandalism, falling asleep in the galleries, and being vigilant for thieves.

“We could be a target,” Larry said loudly to the fifteen-people assembled in the auditorium. “You might think it won’t, but it could happen to you. If a security guard leaves his post for one minute, people could die or art could be stolen or destroyed.”

Larry began pacing, appearing almost like a penguin as we walked back and forth.

“Should you wander over to your gallery neighbor and begin talking, you’re inviting chaos.” He then lowered his voice a few octaves to mimic a dunce. “Hey, look at me. I don’t care if that guy leaves a backpack full of explosives next to the Picasso. I’ll just go talk to Sally Sue over here.”

Larry walked back to the podium and spoke into the microphone. “Well, you will care when boom, you’re all dead! C’mon, people, I can’t stress this enough. While you’re off gabbing or gawking at the art, that gives the bad guys the opportunity they’re waiting for. Whether it’s ripping a painting off the wall or leaving behind a swath of carnage and destruction. You have to stay alert, team.”

Camden looked around the room to take in Larry’s “team”, who were mostly frail art students and seventy-something-year-old men. Maybe three of them were listening. Cell phones were used to surf the web and send text messages, and hearing aids were switched off. However, Larry likely believed he had a captive audience.

“Yes, there is a full-time security force that works inside the hotel. And yes, there are cameras in every nook and cranny inside our museum. But you are the first line of defense. You’re not just for show.”

Camden inadvertently laughed with a loud “ha”. The thought of him, or anyone else in attendance, as being any kind of defense, was that ludicrous.

The laugh and the “ha” caused a wave of giggling. Larry glared at Camden.

“I’m glad you all find protecting priceless artwork and people’s lives, funny.”

“There’s nothing funny about it, sir,” Hipple responded.

“Thank God we have you.”

Another burst of laughter welled inside Camden. He slouched into his chair, gritting his teeth to avoid releasing it. There was a chance his kidneys might rupture.

“And remember what I’ve pre-shifted the entire week. The hotel’s owner, Mr. David Bouchon, is supposed to visit the museum. I don’t want you to embarrass me. Now get your keys and radios and be at your posts five minutes before we open.”

Camden tried his best to blend into the crowd and sneak out of the room, but Larry walked right up to him and blocked his path.

“I expect that kind of bullshit from the college kids, but not from the adults,” he said.

“My sincere apologies. I didn’t laugh because of you,” he lied. “I was thinking of something funny my girlfriend said last night.”

“Bullshit, Swanson. I’m writing you up for today, and if you do anything stupid while Mr. Bouchon is here, expect another one. I don’t have any problems coaching you the hell out of here.”

Camden had rehearsed at least a dozen eloquent ways to tell his boss to fuck-off, but he was in no position to use any of them. He needed to be responsible, apologize, and accept his punishment. He managed to that without vomiting in his mouth, but it would be an epic challenge to keep quiet for the rest of the day and not get fired. He hoped Larry Aberlour would stay in his office the rest of the day.

*****

More than half-way through his shift, Camden, who had a degree from NYU and twelve years’ experience as a professional journalist, had to tell a woman not to touch the chest of a statue. It was a Pop Art marble slab of a woman with enormous breasts and a tiny waist. He had lost count of how many times patrons of the museum had fondled it.

He was standing in the 1960s Gallery, which featured works by the usual suspects of Warhol, Johns, and Lichtenstein. Before taking the position as museum security guard, Camden had never given pop artists a second thought. But six months of staring at their work had forced him into an opinion: much of their revolutionary art from the hippie days had not aged well. He enjoyed Jasper Johns, Lichtenstein, and several others, but to him many of the pieces seemed gimmicky.

However, there were scores of twentieth-century artists, such as Hopper, Braque, Modigliani, Clee, and Pollock, who interested Camden. And so did Henri Matisse, the deceased man who lent his name to the hotel. He especially liked the early paintings, such as the woman in the multi-colored hat displayed at a rival museum.

Except the Matisse odalisque sculptures didn’t do it for Camden, and it didn’t matter people had ventured across the world to gawk at those objects costing an unfathomable amount of money. With plenty of time to study the pieces when the gallery was empty, he could only see the three-foot-tall bulky black wax pieces as billowy shapes that barely resembled women.

Before dating Georgia, he had only known the names of four artists: Picasso, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and Raphael. And the latter two were due to animated, crime fighting turtles. Up to that point he had been inside two museums; the Cordovan in Boston because of a story he had reported on, and the Guggenheim in New York on a date. However, from his romantic relationship with an accomplished artist and his job as a gallery attendant, he had absorbed a modicum of art appreciation through osmosis.

But right now all he truly cared about were the wallet friendly Irish Coffees at the Gold Dust Lounge. Camden retreated to an innocuous corner and stood and guarded and tried not to think about the concept of time. Glancing at your watch was an occupational hazard for security guards everywhere and made the shift drag on and on. Which is why he had sold his at a pawn shop a few days after he took the job.

*****

Camden’s shift rotation, after his stint with Pop Art, went next to the Art of the Freedom Movement and ended with the Beat Culture. He had become fond of the Beat room, which featured framed handwritten poems by Kerouac, Ginsberg, Snyder, and Gregory Corso, because he could read them when pedestrian traffic slowed down. Although at first he took in the free verse to battle time, he now looked forward to it. These works inspired him to write his own poems. In his tiny notebook he had scribbled:

Char-broiled soul on a wingtip bun/ Monkeyfaced Monets sleeping on the run/ Give me two dollars for some nickels/ Extra plutonium but hold the pickles/ X-Ray murals now on the moon/ With Ruby slippers, minus the cartoon/ A harem of raindrops frozen into glue/ Climate controlled whiskey, at a theater near you.

Camden had been engrossed with his poem and failed to notice his boss walking into the gallery with Mr. David Bouchon, the owner of the Matisse Hotel. In a charcoal suit that likely cost more than Camden made in several months, and walking with an ivory cane, Bouchon was in his late fifties with short brown hair flecked with gray. He was fit and seemed ten years younger than his age. The hotel’s owner approached Camden with furrowed brows and spoke in a slight French accent.

“May I ask what you’re writing, young man?” he asked.

The universe was tempting him. Camden wanted to say he was cataloguing all the reasons why Larry Aberlour should be featured on a new reality show World’s Most Douchiest Bosses. Instead, without a word Camden handed over his poetry notebook.

Larry looked as if his face were going to melt and burst into flames. The Frenchman read the poem with a roguish grin and gave it back to Camden.

“Influenced by Bob Dylan, no?”

“I’m not sure where that one came from,” Camden responded. “When the muse hits, you gotta listen to her.”

“Please do not write when patrons are in the galleries. But if you’re alone, I’m happy to see you indulge in some artistic expression. Standing here must get tedious at times, no? Au revoir.

When his shift ended, Camden changed into his usual civilian outfit of jeans, Red Sox t-shirt, and black windbreaker when the weather called for it. He did it so quickly he left no time for either Harry Hipple or his boss to speak to him. His job was his to keep for at least one more day. When Camden reached Powell Street, he almost started to skip into the Gold Dust Lounge. Dickie, Sal, and Rubbish, the three other members of what Camden had dubbed the Unsuccessful Men’s Club, were already in a booth.

“The protector of antiquities,” Dickie said, after Camden had ordered a drink.

“Good to see you were able to pry your thumb outta your butt to make it,” Sal added.

Camden’s three friends had all gone to San Francisco State together and were co-owners of a sports memorabilia shop in South City. He had met them walking out of the Balboa theater after a screening of Blade Runner when Camden complimented Dickie’s “Replicants Rule” t-shirt. They ended up talking about the film, Phillip K. Dick, and dystopian sci-fi over several beers at the Hockey Haven. He thought his new friends to be strange and interesting, and they were the only ones he had.

The trio were each five feet, seven inches tall and dressed in the same manner of cargo shorts and hooded sweatshirts or t-shirts (though they never wore the same colors). They eschewed any clothing with logos because, as they would tell anyone who would listen, they refused to be walking advertisements for fashion designers, sports teams, or products. But they each had a wardrobe full of ironic t-shirts or sweatshirts.

Though the three were of the same height and body-type, they were never confused as being triplets. Dickie had long greasy hair, wore spectacles with enormous rims, and his fleshy skin was barely a few hues past a corpse. Sal’s pockmarked face was mostly covered with his bushy beard and muttonchops, and a tweed Scally Cap shielded his bald head.

Rubbish was the quietest of the three. He hadn’t said one word or even noticed Camden’s entrance, but instead stared at a tall, gorgeous woman in a tan skirt and black blouse. The lady did not pay any attention to Rubbish, a reoccurring phenomenon in his thirty-seven-year-old life.

“Hey, Rubbish, the peep shows are in the Tenderloin,” Dickie said.

“She’s gotta be six-foot-five. And super fucking hot,” Rubbish responded. “The peep show girls are all skanks.”

“Fine, but if her boyfriend wants to kick your ass, I’m holding you down.”

“If she’s got one, he ain’t here,” Rubbish said. “She’s been at that table all by herself since we walked in. Three guys approached her, all shot down.”

Camden glanced furtively in the tall woman’s direction, and then his attention focused on the waitress putting a warm beverage laced with whiskey in front of him. He put it to his lips and savored it, and let the other members of the Unsuccessful Men’s Club continue their banter. After ordering another drink, he studied the cherubs on the ceiling mural and then his eyes drifted to the painting of a reclining nude. He’d eaten nothing all day but half a bag of barbecue chips, and the Irish part of the coffee was beginning to create a fine haze in his mind.

“Written any new poems?” Sal asked Camden.

“Several,” he answered, pulling out his notebook. “Here’s a crowd pleaser:

I’m a free range chicken, with FDA approval and honey mustard dressing/ Standing all day with tie and blazer I keep nobody guessing/ So I look at a Matisse portrait with no oil, or canvas, or even genius/ Too bored with words and ideas I don’t even want to rhyme this with penis/ I’m a hundred years too old, or a hundred and one years too young/ Just a dishrag mopping up the mung/ So pelt my organs, my molecules, with heavily salted nuts of corn/ I’ll just keep on babbling and babbling and babbling, wishing I was never born.”

“Let’s get onto business,” Dickie said with head-shaking disapproval. “Who wants to start the discussion?”

Although Camden had deemed it the Unsuccessful Men’s Club, the four guys met under the auspices of a movie group. Like some do with books, once a week Sal, Dickie, Rubbish, and Camden met to discuss a film. Sometimes a new release, but often the movie was at least a decade old. They prided themselves on choosing obscure titles. Tonight’s topic was to be an experimental Korean film made in 1974.

Nobody had been able to find it, so Camden’s three friends began passionately discussing the work of Lee Chang-dong, Bong Joon-Ho, and So Yong Kim. He was not at all familiar with their films, so instead retreated to his mind and the booze he kept ordering. A haiku started to form in head, but he could only get the first line: Rock Bottom Dweller.

Next Chapter: Veronica Zarcarsky and the Matisse Hotel