110º in the Shade
by Marc Charbonnet
I'll never forget the day I spent getting the apartment ready for a Canadian television show. It was the Canadian version of House and Garden Television, before that became the huge success it is today. The show's producers had looked at my website, and decided they just had to do a feature on me and what they'd seen. They wanted to talk to me at my home–just a quick interview type thing, maybe 30 minutes. I was thrilled.
I already had an idea of how I wanted my place to look, but I waited until the day of the shoot to finally prepare everything. Early in the day, my assistant and I "crossed the street" as I called it. I lived a block and a half away from the office, which might as well be across the street in Manhattan. So whenever I had to go from one place to the other, I'd say to whoever; "Let me go across the street." So very handy.
My assistant and I got there and we started setting out flowers, dusting off the porcelain, etc. I set out a brand new pair of potpourri urns I had recently purchased with a client, while trying to sell her some magnificent Jacob Petite porcelains. Even though I hadn't convinced her to purchase anything, I wound up buying the urns when I saw them. The price had been a real steal, even though buying them felt like an actual crime. They retailed at $14,000, which I got at trade cost; $9000. It was ridiculous, considering I didn't even know if I'd be able to pay my rent that month, much less charge $9000 to my American Express card. But oh how fabulous they looked on the mantel. Nothing's more alluring than the forbidden.
Apparently so, because years later my housekeeper was dutifully dusting off something that was teetering right above them, and accidentally knocked it downward. It was an ivory crucifix which had tumbled, one which I had purchased in Glastonbury. It fell and broke the lip of one of the potpourri vases. It wouldn't be the first time I'd sense the presence of holy castigation for my covetous decorating sins (or the last). Actually, it couldn't have come at a better time because they'd been insured, and I was able to collect their retail value of $14,000! So my sinful indulgence had been a good investment. Actually, I wanted to get in touch with the insurance company to see if perhaps they'd sell them back to me for $1,000 since they were only going to go sit in a warehouse somewhere, dusty and in a box–just like the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, hidden away forever. How many similar treasures are locked away like that? But today, they showed beautifully on the mantel.
I looked out the window. It was a gorgeous, lovely day outside. Blue sky. What a perfect moment.
"You know Marc," my assistant said, breaking the silence "the woman who looked at your website saw photographs of your living room when it was completely different from now."
She was totally right. I looked around the room. The photographs on the website, which had been taken a year earlier, showed beautiful American Empire, English and French pieces of the same period – Early 19th century to mid 19th century. It had been really quite a nice, masculine room, with a huge bronze of Diana on top of a table covered in a beautiful cloth.
It was a whole different apartment now. The space was full of Santos, which are statues of saints. There must have been over 100 in there. There was also a huge chandelier with candles, burning in the center of the room, and benches lined up on either side of the walls. Completely different, completely eccentric. The only noticeable traces that remained were two Rowler Wilson paintings. The client I dragged to the potpourri urn shopping spree was also the one who turned me on to Rowler Wilson's work–with his bizarre, realistic paintings of dogs and monkeys with sweat beads and olive pits floating in the background along with cigarette butts in some of the paintings–so truly wild. Also, the tartan curtains, and the carpet (purchased at an estate sale from a just recently passed away countess on Park Avenue). Those were the only clues left of what had been. Oops? What can I say? I'd felt inspiration to redecorate. For a moment, I almost forgot how completely fabulous I felt about the room.
So we sat there, awaiting possible television armageddon. For commiseration, I longingly looked over at the St. Jude statue, the Blessed Virgin, Blessed Heart of Jesus, St. Sebastian, the Magi, and an assortment of monks – St. Anthony, St. Francis, St. Benedict. So many saints. You know, I pretty much supported the museum base industry during their slow period in the late 90's. I was constantly having custom bases made–at $200 a pop–that now lined the walls.
The producer and crew would be showing up any minute, expecting a room long gone and irreversible. What to do? Despite the presence of saints, the media whore in me took over. I became worried I wouldn't get on television! I decided to cause a distraction with the only tool I had left. Me. I dashed to my bedroom and retrieved three huge bee brooches. Yes, bees. 19th century ones to be precise. One was a huge bumblebee with tiger-eye body, enameled in diamond wings. There was another large one with sapphire and turquoise beads and huge diamond wings, and the third was made of ruby with pink sapphire stones. Oh they were terrific.
"What do you think?" I said as I dazzlingly walked back into the room to show my assistant. She stood there and squinted at my chest. I took that to mean I'd at least made an impression.
But my confidence didn't last. The phone rang, and it was the doorman. They were downstairs! My subconscious had obviously decided to wait until the producer finally arrived before freaking out. I decided to practice breathing as they made their way up. When the knock at the door came, my assistant took one look at me and said "I'll get it."
The producer walked in, brandishing a friendly smile which I was helpless to resist imitating, and beamed, "Oh, this is lovely!" I exhaled a little. She saw the pair of Donald Roller Wilsons and said, "Oh these are what I really love." And then she then turned into the room. She was greeted by a seven foot statue of Christ, in the fourth Station of the Cross. She didn't say anything this time.
The statue is "Christ picks up his cross." It's a favorite in Mexican churches, as one of the fourteen Stations of the Cross, the procession that is celebrated (or, frankly, tortured) each Easter period. I remember as children in grammar school, besides attending mass, we were also forced to endure the way of the cross every Friday afternoon during lent. Once a nun became particularly angry with Glen–one of the bad boys of our class–who delighted us all by saying in the middle of a sentence, "…and Christ was removed from the cross," then adding in his New Orleans accent, "and he was wrapped up in tin foil." We screamed with laughter. Oh but there was Hell to pay.
Anyway, back to my TV show room switcheroo. Everyone in the room repeated the Canadian producer's silence. She was completely shocked, not knowing exactly what to do since the place she had come to film and interview me in was redone to look like a monastery mushroom party. I'm surprised the statues didn't weep. I stood there saying nothing, secretly amused.
Hadn't anyone noticed my bees?
Later I learned that I was on television in Britain, the Falklands, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, but not in America. I only got a videotape, which I showed friends to their great amusement.
"So, do you like my bees?" I remember asking someone as I proudly showed him the tape.
"I didn't notice," he quipped, "I'm too busy looking at your boobs." Nice, bees and boobs!
A week earlier, I'd received a call from Topeka, Kansas. A client I had done a couple of jobs for had asked me to lunch. He had relocated–to Topeka, of all places–and wanted me to "work my magic" as he put it. I assumed on his new home in Kansas. I was very happy because, frankly, work had been slow. So we scheduled a lunch at Sotheby's, and it just happen to be occurring right after the TV taping, so I showed up in a triumphant mood (I didn't wear the bees).
Well, this client indeed invited me to do his new home all the way out in Topeka. I'd never been there, but had always imagined it faraway and fascinating, mainly because of Judy Garland's version of "On the Acheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe." So I thought it would be a fun and interesting place to visit. I was half right.
This is back in the days when I weighted almost 360 pounds, and was scared to death of elevators, let alone airplanes. Even small bathrooms freaked me out. I could really be quite claustrophobic back then, often resorting to secret quirks just to avoid any potential situation. I usually had to rush home before nine o'clock, like Cinderella dashing out of the ball before midnight, to make sure I was home at my building in time for the service elevator operator. He would take me upstairs in that clanky contraption in the back of my own building, so I wouldn't have to ride the passenger elevator alone. So funny. I would take regular elevators in buildings where I was designing or working, because that way I could ride with a staff member. But at home, I refused to take the lovely, normal front elevator all by myself. Even though service elevators were usually rattling, creepy and filled with hard-to-imagine smells and stains, I just felt more secure being taken up and down with a man that worked there. I was always discreet about it. It's not the kind of thing one brags about to friends when slipping out the door too early from a social function.
Anyway, when the day arrived to go to Topeka, I was already wary about the plane ride. Then, to make matters worse, my back suddenly went out. My lower back, in particular, was in mortal pain. So in anticipation of the long, claustrophobic flight, I stretched, I rested, I used ice packs and I took a Percodin that I had left over somewhere near the bottom of the medicine cabinet. But no matter what I tried, there was just no getting over the agony. In a brief fantasy (probably from the pills), I suddenly imagined my building's elevator maintenance man riding on the flight to Topeka next to me, holding my hand the whole way. Now there's a song! Nevertheless, teeth-a-grinding, I pressed on.
I like to dress when I travel, especially air travel. So I put on one of the few suits that still fit me. The waist was a bit large, delightfully so, as I'd lost some weight recently (I used to weigh even more). So, I thought it would be neat to wear suspenders–called braces in the North–and a bowtie. It looked great! But as I bent over to tie one of my shoes, the pants were pulled the wrong way in the back by the suspenders, because they'd been stretched a bit. The interior lining, where the buttons were in the back of the slacks, ripped. This meant that if you looked at me, you saw this spastic situation where the suspenders had been pulled to the outside, with the buttons showing, which were supposed to be concealed by the waistband. It was not an attractive sight. Definitely not on someone who was supposed to be a decorator of note! But I had no other suit on hand, and I had to get to the airport. Resigned in haste, I just put everything on, realizing I couldn't remove my suit jacket for the rest of the day.
So, mummified in my designer duds, I successfully greeted my client, (who is the wife of the man I lunched with at Sotheby’s) at the airport, and on time. She was quite peppery! An amusing, small-framed woman. As we boarded our flight, I realized that luckily we were seated in the emergency row, in coach. A good omen. With the extra leg room, I realized this allowed me more space to move. Or slightly wobble. Things began to swirl a bit when I sat down. When I was downing a Valium with a shot of scotch earlier at the airport bar, I didn't imagine I would get this loaded. Oh well, at least I wouldn't be a nervous wreck. But that was the least of my troubles. Have you ever had to maintain a conversation with a spunky, petite woman–while drunk? It's worse than trying to drive drunk, and you should never do that either. Just smile and nod. Well, the plane finally took off and I was completely relaxed. I must have behaved, because by the time we landed Chatty Cathy next to me was enthusiastically yucking up a storm.
I got off the plane feeling great, thinking it was over. That was until I learned that we were to immediately get on another plane, as we were in Kansas City, not Topeka. When I saw the plane we were to board, it all came flooding back. It was a small prop-plane. Very small. My apprehension wasn't helped when we approached the passenger door. It was for hamsters! It was so miniature that I had to crouch, hold my breath, and pull myself in. I then huffed nervously over into my seat, which did fit–technically–but to my mortification the seat belt wouldn't wrap around my girth! I had to ask the attendant for assistance. How discrete can you be about something like that inside a toy plane? So I just asked loudly and proudly. They scrambled around and found an extension somewhere, which added onto the one I already had. I wasn't embarrassed, though my client was a bit dismayed, which I could read on her face even through her gleaming incisors.
Her perkiness just went on forever. Nothing could crack that grinning death mask of a smile. Having someone with a chipmunk voice sitting mere inches from you on a cramped plane isn't the most ideal situation when you're feeling panicky. Trust me. This was before we took off, and I hoped it would all just be over as soon as possible. How far can it be from Kansas City to Topeka? Then the captain told us all that there was an emergency exit on the plane's roof, should we need it. We looked up. I thought that thing had been a little skylight. It was about 20 by 18 inches wide. What if there was a disaster? I suddenly imagined myself pushing my smiling client out of the hole, along with the other passengers and crew, and me sticking my head out and screaming for help as I gurgled and submerged underwater after the plane crashed into Kansas' little-known lake district. Of course that would be only if I could get all of my seatbelts off in time. Oh well, at least I wouldn't have to take my jacket off.
We finally sputtered off the runway and into the air–I've never prayed more in my life–and we were then told the temperature in the city was reaching 90 degrees. I had noticed that it was getting warmer. Then we learned that in the short distance to Topeka, the temperature would jump to 110. This wasn't the heat index, this was the actual temperature! After we were airborne, we noticed the plane was still sputtering and weaving a bit. The attendant told us not to worry. I tried to pretend that everyone wasn't pretending not to look at me. I just looked out the window at the sky. It looked bloody purple.
When we finally smashed onto the runway in Topeka–that's what it felt like–about thirty minutes later, we squeezed out of the plane and were thankfully picked up by a car.
As I sped through the city in the sleek long car with dark, soft leather seats, I realized that between the heat, needing a cigarette (as I smoked in those days), and the medication, I was beyond looped. We continued to circle and traverse over the city's highways and overpasses.
We finally reached the city and the car stopped on Main Street, where we got out in front of a tall building. It was only about fourteen floors, but in a city that had no other tall towers to compete with, it seemed like Kilimanjaro. I was a bit worried, as I've learned that the biggest buildings often have the most cramped elevators.
Sure enough, wedging inside the packed-to-the-hilt elevator wasn't helped by the fact that people would do that annoying thing where they would get on at the third floor, and get off on the fourth, on the fourth and get off on the fifth–and then a building cleaner with all his equipment would get on the sixth and get off on the eighth. Staircases anyone? I felt imprisoned. Even I didn't take an elevator one or two floors, in any situation.
At my bursting point, we reached the top floor and I almost knocked people down trying to get out. But I pulled myself together and prepared to met my client. We walked in the room and he looked at me, then looked at his wife, gave her a kiss, and looked back over at me, saying, "How‘s it going'?"
I was just fine.
It was decided they would take me around and introduce me to the girls and men who worked the place (I say 'girls' but I mean secretaries). Everyone was nice. I was then taken back down in the elevator (hooray!) to the first floor, to get something cold to drink. Not from a cocktail bar. After getting all the way down there and getting something, my client said he wanted to go back upstairs to make a few calls, and invited me up to do the same. Oh Lord, the thought of taking that elevator yet again was just too much. Enough treachery for one day! So I smiled through my straw and told him I would go outside to have a seat (I wanted a smoke anyway). The sidewalks were wide, and I found a lovely bench. Not in the shade, which would have made sense, but in the direct sunlight–which was sadistically hot. So I sat there in the Chernobyl-like heat, inhaling hot smoke through a lit cigarette. I boiled like an egg. The perspiration literally began to pour through my summer weight wool suit. I looked down and saw there was a tiny puddle on the bench, which was dripping directly off of my elbow (through two layers).
I'll never forget the expression on my client's and his wife's faces when they walked outside and looked at me. I had gushing perspiration stains the size of basketballs under my arms, which were little rivers leading to the main attraction; my back, which was now flowing like Niagara Falls. I may as well have been underwater, even though it felt like I was on fire. I probably looked like that guy at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark–once again–who's face melts off his skull. Yeaurgh! That's what it felt like anyway. I just sat there looking at them, holding a soggy cigarette alight in the air (my third in a row), and said "Yes?"
My client said politely, "Marc, would you like to remove your jacket?"
God yes. But then I remembered. "Oh, no I'm fine." I said, taking another drag.
They looked at each other as though I were completely insane.
They decided to cool me off with more traveling. They did? We got into a way-too-small car, which had been rented by my client (he had been used to driving around in Ferraris, Mercedes and Lexuses). It was the size of a mole, and looked like a luxury sedan for Oompaloompas. So we squeezed into this tiny little vehicle, which took forever to cool, and never really did because (surprise!) the air conditioning didn't work properly. Luckily I was in the front seat, but I was almost panting because it was just still so sweltering. They wanted to show me some of the places they were interested in.
Along the way, my client offered at some point, "You really shouldn't smoke so much."
She wasn't wrong. I thought they were thinking of my health, but upon reflection I think I was actually stinking up the car, like a freshly extinguished tire fire.
We arrived at the home that they had just purchased and, in true heat stroke fashion, I fell out of the car. Fresh air! We took a look around, it was nice. We walked into the place, only to find (of course!) that the air conditioner had been turned off. The man who lived there was one of those weird passive aggressive types who finds air conditioning in the middle of summer to be "oh… too chilly." Since he was still there–although the act of sale had gone through– whatever he said was unfortunately law. I was paraded through the stuffy mansion like a wilting sock puppet.
We were introduced to the real estate broker who had sold the home to my clients, and he said he'd like to show us some of the sights. I was thrilled this time actually, because I pictured him owning a giant car with an expensive air conditioner system like a subzero freezer. Then we walked over to his car, and the first thing he did was turn around and apologize about the car's air conditioning system (surprise, again!), saying he thought it must need freon. I began to worry about dehydration. We got into his SUV and drove all over the city, gazing lovingly through sweat-stung eyes at all the different things he had sold, was eyeing, or perhaps just shops he thought we should check out.
I couldn't breathe.
To add to my width, I had a large bag full of samples with me; fabrics, wallpapers, borders, ceramic tiles, marble tiles, molding samples. The thing must have weighted a whole other 80 pounds, but lugging it around at least allowed me to wheeze more. I was also listing to the left, as my lower lumbar was all fucked up. And here I was in zillion degrees weather, sopping wet, loaded out of my mind on my prescription medication, now experiencing mild (I hoped) heat stroke, being driven around town by a real estate broker who was pointing at stuff and going "ohh isn't that to die for?" or "ohh that place makes amazing alfredo sauce!" in a vehicle with air conditioning that blew like a penny whistle. On top of all that I had a pair of clients who were getting more concerned about me as the minutes passed. At the brink of consciousness, I thought; I must be nuts to be here. What if I dropped dead? Who would be liable? At least the afterlife might be cooler.
We were dropped off at a decorator shop. I was almost in pure liquid form at this point, and still lugging my bag of tricks–a few bolts of fabric here, a pile of wallpaper books there. We walked in. The store looked nice. The air conditioning was so cold (finally!) it just blasted my face and shocked me back into reality. Ahh! I instantly stood up straight, which sent a mortal jolt of pain down my spine. My back still didn't want me to stand up straight, it was just more comfortable listing to the left again.
An overenthusiastic assistant ran up to me and started to take my jacket off, seeing my floods of perspiration. I turned around and, in an unfortunately natural reflex, shoved her with the bag in my hand, blurting, "No! Thanks! I'm fine!" As I did this, forgetting my own strength, the small woman propelled slowly backward into a stack of wallpaper books, which collapsed all around her like a house of cards as she fell to the floor. There was silence all around. The other employees assisted the woman up. I tried to help. My clients just looked at each other, and looked at me. Lord knows what they thought they had gotten themselves into. Overweight, chain smoker, lude-head, flight hazard, seatbelt embarrassment, elevator liability, sun-crazed, possessor of trophy-winning sweat glands, and now… batterer of women.
The day of getting to know each other ended with an adequate evening meal at a Chinese all-you-can-eat buffet (this was before one of the few restaurants opened in that town where you could get a good lentil salad and succulently prepared lamb chops). The place was in a strip mall, and it was very moodily lit. Too very. The lights reflecting off the buffet sneeze guard seemed to be the restaurant's only source of illumination. Actually, I think it was a Feng Shui thing–darkness does really feel cooler. The place was indeed pleasantly cool. I remember they had one of those giant ice cabinets full of crushed ice, and I kept picturing myself walking over to it, crawling in and shutting the door.
So amongst some still awkward chatter, we sauntered over to the buffet with our plates and loaded them up with steaming chow mien and egg rolls and other assorted fried rice and spicy chicken and pork dishes, a couple of prawns and a little green vegetable. We then sat down in a booth, the two of them opposite me.
It felt so good to sit down, for real. I had a freezing cold Diet Coke. What could be better? Actually, I was quite hungry. Despite not eating all day, and with my medication wearing off, I felt ravenous. Mental and physical torture really does give one an appetite. Maybe my heat stroke had worn off too. So I took a bite of the food. It was alright, of course. The big, icy Diet Coke was actually the best thing about the meal. Mmm, delicious. My client was busy picking and squinting through his food, as the lighting in the place really could make Ray Charles blinder. Meanwhile, his wife was busy yapping once again about the plans, what we would do and how we would do it and how the curtains would be fabricated and the wallpapers and borders that would be used. I had given her all of these details on the plane ride, but had only done so to make the time pass.
As she was going on and on to her husband, she picked up an egg roll, dipped it into the sweet and sour sauce and put it into her mouth. All of the sudden–as if by some interstellar intervention–she stopped talking. Her lips closed shut around the circumference of the eggroll and her eyes stretched wide open with what looked like excruciating surprise (it was then that I noticed her subtle use of mascara, very lovely). Her face kind of vibrated for a second. Then she screeched like a banshee, and retched like a dog–she had quite a pair of lungs–and then reached into her mouth and started quickly pulling everything out that she had just put in. And I thought I had been rude! She almost pulled her tongue out. It was quite a spectacle. Half chewed food was flying everywhere. She grabbed my Diet Coke (I tried to grab it back from her) and downed it in one gulp. She then engulfed her husband's beer, and then all the water on the table. Her mouth was on fire. She had obviously taken the hot pepper sauce instead of the sweet and sour. She then sat there in pain and agony.
I was so delirious and spent, and not thinking twice, all I could do was point across the table and let out an uproarious laugh. It felt so good to laugh. Her husband looked at me (with a half-chewed lychee nut hanging in his hair), as though I had lost my mind. She looked at me, in physical and emotional pain, obviously angered by my outburst. I could see the veins in her eyes. I don't know why, but this made me laugh even harder.
Well, after dinner I was sure they had had more than enough of me, although they didn't state it. We finished up and then went to a hotel. Not really a hotel, but a resident inn. These are like little apartments that have kitchenettes, a little living room and a bedroom. I was so glad to be alone, although my back was absolutely killing me. Probably from all the laughing.
I freshened up. Afterwards I went down to their suite (taking the stairs, not the elevator, of course). I walked into the room blank-faced. They had stopped trying to hide the fact that they didn't care for me. Honestly who would have by that point? They had seen all my fears and paranoias during that day, plus the most perspiration they had probably seen on any one person in their entire lives. And I almost mauled a woman. They just sat there looking at me like they were holding imaginary hatchets.
I plopped my magic bag down on the table, and that's when it happened. As I pulled out the beautiful designer silks, satins, cottons and velvets–and I put them together with carpet samples, and showed them bathroom tiles and marbles, the moldings I would use, photographs of medallions and beautiful crown moldings, and how I would cleverly hang the draperies extra high and drop the sheers extra low, which would give full volume and height to the room, they sat there, delightfully aghast. They were so impressed, you could see it in every scan of their eyes as they poured over what I was calmly showing them. They gushed and gushed, seemingly unable to exhale. Their smiles stretched past their ears and their brows hit the ceiling. They threw thanks at me so rapidly, their temples throbbed.
Despite everything, all of the day's horrid events, the genuine talent I possessed sold the job, and me.
The next day we boarded the flight (first class this time, thank God, because the Mr. was flying) and I just passed out. I was told a couple of years later, by my client's wife, that I had snored all the way from Kansas City to New York, to the horror of everyone in the first class cabin. I just kind of chuckled, I think they would have forgiven anything at that point.