NEW YORK CITY 1987
While studying at Parsons School of Design, in N.Y.C., in 1987, I got a job as a busboy at the Metropolitan Cafe in Union Square. It was a fun job for restaurant work. I loved the atmosphere and helping out the interesting and glamorous waitresses who were pursuing other creative dreams like myself. The regular customer was a stylish, cosmopolitan type. One of the owners was a Scandinavian supermodel.
That December, the Metropolitan Cafe was always packed full, especially on the weekends. While bussing a table one night, I cleared the plate from a lady who had barely even tasted her meal. While doing so, I dripped sauce on her suede mini skirt. My arms were piled high, I knew I had to get rid of the plates first and then get back with apologies, and some soda water, to help clean her stained skirt with.
I returned to tell her about the damage I had done. When I offered her the napkin soaked with soda water, she was speechless. At my next shift, I Found out from the owners that her husband, who was present at the dinner, was a lawyer. He was suing the restaurant. My days were numbered there, I knew I had to find a new job fast.
Immediately I went to the job board at Parsons. Posted there, I read about a job looking for an artist to paint silk for a fashion designer. The Designer had a nearby address. I had experience with silk-painting from previous classes at Mass Art, where I was on exchange from. I loved the process, and the challenge that dyes on silk had to offer. I placed my call and got an appointment for later in the week.
Arriving at the interview, portfolio in hand, I stepped off the elevator on the seventh floor of a beautiful Cast Iron building by Union Square. The Loft was enormous, painted entirely in white, with white high gloss floors. Large, simple abstract paintings were hung on several walls. In front of many large windows stood massive potted ficus trees. Opera music was playing in the background, I saw to my left, and right, extensive flat wooden tables, covered with white silk. I instantly felt like I had arrived in heaven.
The Designer appeared, tall with closely cropped dark hair, he was dressed all in black and introduced himself to me as James Acker. Glowing with enthusiasm, a big smile, and a firm handshake, he asked me to sit in the lofts showroom area. Here he began viewing my portfolio, going slowly, from large sheet to sheet he continued to nod his head. I had arranged my artwork with examples of recent fashion illustrations done with India ink, and spot colors with pastels. I selected drawings of models in 50's style, satin dresses, as well as some historical fashion plates from my History of Fashion class. I had no examples of my painted silks with me, but I spoke of how much I loved that class.
James asked a tall blond man dressed head to toe in preppy classics to view my portfolio also. Soon a lady, who had been diligently arranging a dress pattern, on top of a table of brilliantly painted silk, also came over to see. As they began discussing my colors and line work, I studied a long hanging rack, covered by a large piece of black silk. Under the overlay of silk, popped brilliant colors of what looked like a collection of hand-painted silk designs.
The lady and young man returned to their work. The Designer, who had by now repeated the word "fabulous" about three times, began showing me his current collection. Tossing the broad swath of silk aside, he revealed marvelous examples of painted silk fashions. I saw lavish flowers in vivid colors, pastel stripes in varying broad brush strokes, abstract patterns of color blocking on quilted silk coats. Bold, black, and white polka dots on a full-length tunic. Several long, slinky cut gowns expressively painted with large tulips in alternate colorways. James skipped over each outfit in a rush, as if he had much more important things to do. The interview, I realized, was soon to be over. As I headed toward the exit, I realized what a special place this was. The craftsmanship, creativity, and quality of what I saw in production here were unbelievable.
Back at the Metropolitan Cafe, during a lull in my shift, the next weekend afternoon, I started polishing the brass hardware around the bar. Immediately the bartender asked me to find something else to do. I moved on, and by the end of the shift, she was apologizing to me. The next time I saw her, she offered me a bussing position at Grace Jones's new restaurant. It was set to open New Year's Eve. I was a significant fan of Grace Jones, so I agreed to bus tables for her restaurant's opening.
The next week I traveled to my parent's home in Maine to celebrate Christmas with my family. Stepping onto the front porch of my parent's old farmhouse, I saw my childhood dog Pehr tied up, and happy to see me. He was unkempt and smelled of skunk spray. I took one look at him, his overgrown coat, his dog odors, his neediness, and I guess I began to alienate him from my affections. I remember having no interest in expressing my love with him. I had moved out and left home for good now, I was no longer his rightful master. He looked at me with renewed friendship, yearning for his love to be reciprocated.
He had once been my loyal, constant companion. On that icy winter day, I mentally abandoned him. I gave him a pat on his head, and a hug and went inside. The week passed without any renewed bonding with Pehr, except for a little caress here and upon going out to smoke a cigarette. Right before leaving to catch my flight, I did one last thing. I let him off his leash and told him to go and run. He had always been a roamer, he liked to chase deer and any female dogs in heat. He did not leave immediately but sat on the porch reproachfully, and forlorn as I moved my bags to the car and said goodbye.
I returned to N.Y.C. to enjoy my life away from home. Late in the afternoon of New Year's Eve, I arrived in SoHo at Grace Jones restaurant, La Vie En Rose. Upon meeting the manager, I set out to learn my job. I met the other busboys, restaurant career sort types, the wait staff seemed rushed and frantic, there appeared to be little order about. I began to familiarize myself with the inner workings of the restaurant. I noticed the manager trying to decide what tape to play in his sound system, he had very few to choose from and chose something not very inspiring. As he left, I took a look at the small tape collection and noted there were none of Miss. Jones's, how strange, I thought? If I had known this would be the case, I would have brought my own.
I considered Grace's music to be the ultimate, and most refreshing sounds around, I was in love with her rendition of "Send in the Clowns," and "Tomorrow." Her album "Portfolio" was so inspiring to me, my life, and my dreams. I began setting tables, preparing the restaurant for it's opening night. Serious Fashion victims and minor celebrities started to trickle in, My bartender pal told me one group of dudes at a nearby table was the band, Duran, Duran, come to think of it, the cassette now playing was "Hungry Like the Wolf." Then Grace arrived, wearing a full length, deep magenta, stretch silk charmeuse Azzedine Allia number, with matching magenta satin silk stilettos. Her silk hood up, she wiggled through the crowd, greeting her guests, explaining that she had been up all last night, and had a horrible cold. I was trying my hardest not to stare, I imagined myself being like a fox and blending into the background. Soon I was filling the water glasses at Grace's table. I slipped away and continued to bus other tables. There was the humming buzz of guests socializing, then her loud, deep laughter separating the moments in between silences. The night wore on, uneventful, and somewhat low key, for what I was expecting. I went to her table to replenish the water glasses with ice.
"Can I get you anything?" I asked her with a smile,
"Diamonds! Diamonds!, my darling."
I dumped ice cubes into her water glass, spilling excess water all over the white linen table cloth. I was mortified, my face, now glowing a bright shade of red, I cleaned up and hurried away,.. a peal of muffled laughter, and hmmm, was all I heard in the background.
I do not remember when the clock struck twelve, rolling in 1988. It was just a big party now, guests coming and going. I continued to bus, clean up, the place emptied out early. Seeing the manager drinking with the other busboys and wait staff, I realized I could head home any time soon. They seemed to be partying harder than any of the guests had that night. I collected an insubstantial amount of tips and left for my uptown apartment.
"Feel Up" was playing in my head as I walked in the drizzling rain to the subway. The early mourning sky was a deep shade of Magenta.
The next week I never followed up on the busing job gone bad, but I did receive a call from the fabulous fashion designer. I had been hired as a painting assistant and was to begin work there immediately.
THE FABULOUS DESIGNER
Arriving at the Designer's Loft the next morning, I was happy to meet all his other employees. Ed, the tall blond man, was Jame's first assistant and studio manager. Josephine, the older lady, working with his silks during my interview, was the patternmaker and head seamstress. I was to train as a painting assistant under Edwards supervision, but first was to spend some time tidying the Loft under James' guidance.
"was I good at organizing? "The Designer asked?
"yes, I'm an excellent organizer "
My first project was to climb up a high rolling latter and reorganize some shelves that were cluttered behind white muslin curtains. After that was done, I began to organize his work desk covered in papers. A large metal Rolodex was opened to Patty Hearst's phone number.
"Was I to answer the phone, and how would he like me to greet his callers?
"Hello, James Acker Studio," he said.
For the next fifteen minutes, I worked all around him, straightening up piles of papers, throwing out empty coffee cups, putting away pens, pencils, paper clips, post-it notes, personal letters, as well as many beautiful postcards. He showed me how he wanted his phone message book filled out.
"Did you know that Eleanore Lambert's Rolodex is organized with lists of all the favorite items and needs of her famous clients?"
I had no Idea who Elenor Lambert was, but I soon would find out.
James, "Could you place a call to Elenore right now and ask her secretary for an invite to my fashion show. I want to hear how they handle it."
I hesitate with the phone receiver in my hand.
James, speaking to me, "Elenore is the publicist for my show"
"What the hell is she doing for it anyways?" he shouts to Edward.
"don't worry about that," Ed says, like the company executive he is.
James, gruffly "well….what are you waiting for? call her"
"what was I to say?" I asked
"Just say you are interested in attending my show, and you want to know how to get an invitation. Put it on speakerphone, do you know how to do that? Look, hit this button here."
I placed the call, a fussy sounding woman answered,
"put it on speakerphone!," I clicked the button again.
"Yes, hello, this is James Kudrovic, I would like to attend James Acker's Fall show, How can I get an invite?"
"Who is this again?" she gurgled," and what's the name of your boutique? do you have a boutique?"
James grabs the phone from me, "Eleanore, (rolling his RR's) it's James Acker," he begins in a very charming tone, I have not heard him use yet. "That was my new assistant, I had him call you. I'd like to know what you are doing to publicize my show?" (He turns off the speakerphone) Minutes later while hanging up, he quips, "She has never, ever answered her own phone, and now, the one time that she does, it had to be you who called her!"
For the remainder of the morning, I clear his desk completely, wash it with spray bleach, to remove the dye and coffee stains. I then return all papers and pads to neat piles while desperately trying not to get in the way of my Boss, who's busy hustling his phone all morning. At noon James utters,
"I'M FAMISHED" handing me a twenty, "go get me a sandwich, a cup of pea soup, and buy some food for yourself, you need to eat! your way to skinny, just keep the change. Will, are you still watering the plants?"
Will casually strolling around with a giant green water pitcher, "Yes, James?"
"Are you going to spend all morning doing that?"
Edward ignores James' question and continues to water the massive plants arranged throughout the entire Loft. There are lush Ficus trees, Norfolk Pines, tropical palm trees, and flowering bushes set before bright windows.
I bundle up and leave, sucking down a cigarette outside. Walking to the deli I ponder the heightened energy of the Loft. After picking out some sandwiches, and rushing back, I return to find James waiting for me by the elevator door.
"What took so long? Get it out, serve it up, hustle, hustle!
Let's eat over here, sit down." Ed and Josephine join us.
"Do you like the art of Toulouse Lautrec?"
"James Loves Toulouse Lautrec's linework!" Ed states
"Ed, don't interrupt, I think you draw like Toulouse Lautrec, I want you to do some Toulouse Lautrec like prints, Dancing CanCan girls, with luscious jewel tones, and amber for fall."
"The Can-Can girls should all be kicking their legs high up in the air in complete abandonment," Josephine chimes in with enthusiasm.
Halfway through lunch, James asks me, "Who is your favorite Designer? ( I really should have said he was, but I am not so clever at the moment.)
"Emanuel Ungaro'' I say, "I Love his use of print, and color, also his draping skills, the sensuality of his designs."
"You know you should never, ever mention another designer's name" he replied.
"Easy there, Eve," Ed said, laughing and looking at Josephine with raised eyebrows.
"have you seen the movie "All About Eve?" Josephine asks me,
"no, I haven't."
"Well, when you see it, you will understand the sarcasm."
"What do you think of Karl Lagerfield?" James asks me.
"I think he must be a very busy man. He designs for Chanel, Fendi, and Chloe, as well as his own label, I believe." trying not to sound like smartypants, while feeling victorious, and slightly smug about my answer, I then add, "Chloe is my favorite of them all, for it's ethereal and romantic look."
"Umm," he shrugs; Edward and Josephine are oddly silent, and continue to eat, the door buzzes.
"It's ABRA! "he roars, rolling the r's with much joy, and bolting to the elevator to buzz her in.
A minute later, a beautiful, Red-headed woman, saunters in, all smiles, her glowing white face framed by long, luxurious waves of red curls. They kiss and embrace.
"meet my new assistant," he gestures his longarms my way
"Nice to meet you," she says, demurely, the broad smile completely abandons her face as she looks me in the eyes and shakes my outreached had gently. *Note to self,…do not ever, ever mess with her, or it will be the end of you here.
"How do you like working for James so far?" she asks?"
"I love it!" I gleefully reply.
She seemed to roll her eyes slightly, looking back at her dearest friend, my new Boss.
After lunch, I am handed over to Edward to begin my training. We start by giving a third coat of black dye to a zebra print that he has already begone. I use a small foam brush he gives me, from a box containing dozens, and told to let the dye drip off of it before applying it to the silk. We carefully fill in the black stripes that are bordered by a thick line of wax. After filling in the outlined area with dye, I learn to buff, with paper towels the wet areas, carefully, so as not to stain the wax border.
Next, Ed and I get down a large wooden frame that hangs nearby. It was once painted white but now is covered in deep stains of dye. We cover the top edge with masking tape, so as not to stain the new piece of silk that we will be pin on it.
Edward brings out a large bolt of white silk, 16mm, crepe de chine he calls it. He rolls it out, about four yards long, covering the whole length of the frame, and table. He snips it with scissors and tears it across the width. Josephine is standing across from us, working on cutting out a dress from a paper pattern that's pinned to silk already painted. She hums to herself. The Boss is in the back of the Loft, still in a quiet conversation with the lovely, but chilling Abra.
"First, we tac down the four separate corners, then place a tac every eight inches," he said, handing me a handful of tacks. We do this, trying not to stretch the silk out as we go along.
"He said THAT?" I hear Abra ask loudly, James speaks in hushed tones, they laugh.
Soon the whole table of silk had been tacked down. "Now look, say's Ed, you should be able to bounce a dime on it,''
He pulls a dime out of his pocket and tosses it on the silk. It bounces. Together we picked up the stretched frame of silk and move it back to where it was hung. More cackling from the back, getting louder, and louder, the opera music is turned up loud now too. There is a sizeable empty table opposite us, covered in stained newspapers. Edward begins to Place jars of dyes on that table.
"Now we'll clean up the dye area, I want you to empty out any containers of dye that are not standard colors." Pointing to rows of Powdered dye cans, each labeled with standard color names. I start by taking the most muted and oddball colors over to large porcelain sink in the kitchen area and pour them down the drain showing no mercy. Abra and James are stroking Jame's grey Prussian cat, China, who has just come out of hiding. Ed has me washout, with paper towels and rubbing alcohol, the stained, empty containers. The rubbing alcohol removes the dye stains almost entirely, my hands are stained ink black. Ed, seeing me look at my hands passes me a pair of plastic gloves. As I clean the many containers, over the rush of water, I hear Abra saying goodbye. I shout,
"Bye, Abra, nice to meet you!
Still washing up, and bleaching the sink, so it's no longer stained, I hear bits of a heated conversation from James desk,
"What do you mean they can't make it today?, OK, JUST GET THEM HERE TOMORROW JOY !"
Ed then has me remove all the stained newspapers covering the dye area, and replace them with fresh layers. Then we proceeded to replace all the remainder "true colors" of dye containers back to the dye area. At Jame's table, he quietly rearranges the many piles of papers. His opera music gets loader.
"OK, this is how the dyes are to be mixed, I know it's a lot to remember on your first day, it's OK if you do not remember it all, just watch and listen and you will soon learn it all."
Ed takes a clean container, cleans a stained dye spoon with rubbing alcohol, and then fills another vessel with water, puts it in the microwave, James is now singing along to the opera music. Ed takes out the container of hot water and adds two shots of rubbing alcohol, then two heaping tablespoons of the dye powder from the can labeled "YELLOW." He mixes it thoroughly and then cleans the spoon with a paper towel. We continue to do this with five more colors of dye powders, straight from the can. An emerald green, a gold, a light blue, a rose, and a pink are all mixed.
"I 'll teach you how to mix a black, it's complicated, you might not remember it all this first lesson. You can always ask me how to do it later. First, you will need a big container of boiling water and a lot of rubbing alcohol, about five shots, (Will also is a bartender, he has informed me earlier) Then you add five heaping spoons of "dark blue" dye powder, and one heaping spoon of black."
"You can not use just straight black, or it will stain the silk with a metallic color that you will never be able to get out, You now have to mix it very aggressively,"
"WHAT are you two talking about over there?" I hear coming from James, I look over and smile, to see his table now completely in disarray again.
"Oh just chill James" Edward quips back, "mix it fast for at least a minute, here I'll do it, you get a scrap of chiffon from Josephine."
I come back with the chiffon scrap, Ed tapes it to another large container, strains the black dye through the layer of chiffon,
"Throw this out," he hands me the black stained chiffon,( my hands are now stained black again)
"Add three more shots of rubbing alcohol and mix thoroughly."
"Shouldn't I be writing this all down?"
"No, after you do it a couple of times, you will remember."
"Really, Ed, are you done yet? I need you to go to the post office and the bank for me" Edward rolls his eyes, smiles, and goes to get the mail and banking ready.
As Edward leaves as the Designer, says, "BOY!"…., what's your name again?
"The same as yours, James"
"That's not going to work. there can not be two James, do you have a nickname?"
"No," I reply, I look over to see Josephine smirking as she hums to herself.
"What's your middle name?" he asks gruffly
"Nicolas"… I say softly
"Well, that is what we will call you!" "Nicolas"
Thinking to myself, this is kind of weird, "I do not really like that name, It's my Father's name, and we do not really get along," I try to explain.
"WELL, WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE CALLED?"
"NO, That's my nick-name"
"How about something different, Jeffery, Sebastian?…Hank?"
"Umm," I say, bewildered, an drawing a blank as I crumple up some discarded newspapers, from the table.
"Nicolas, I Like that name, It is a good name, you will be called Nicolas." the phone rang "can you get that, Nick?
I pick up the receiver and reach for a pen and the message pad" James Acker studio" I say, this is Nicolas speaking"
"WHO? Are YOU? now,"
"a painting assistant," I state.
"Let me speak to James, tell him it's Snake."
"Give me that! "my Boss grabs the phone from me. I hear raucous laughter, and snarky humor from the back of the Loft, I smell a joint has been lit. I continue to cover the large table with fresh newspaper and get a bolt of 45" silk, to continue to cover the table with, as Edward had instructed me to do before he left.
James comes back, now glowing with his big smile, "BOY," …he pauses, "do you know how to mix colors?"
"YES," I say, what colors do you want?
"Silver-grey, use the one from the can labeled Silver, but use vinegar, instead of rubbing alcohol. I want a rich, deep, dark brown, a seafoam, a lime green, red, and chartreuse, I 'll tell you how to mix the red properly, as well the chartreuse, How will you make the other colors? "
"I can use deep blue, with orange for a dark brown," I mix it up, and show him the sample of deep brown.
"That's good, a rich brown is very hard to mix. Is that done by using complementary colors?" he asks, a bit intrigued.
"yes, dark blue and orange make brown"
"Do they now? what else?"
"I can use a pale turquoise, tinted with a little yellow for the seafoam." I pour a speck of yellow into a container of turquoise I have just diluted with water, and show him the sample of it.
"Ok, that looks good"
"Emerald green, with some yellow in it for the lime?'
"Just strait emerald with more water. Use yellow with a dash of violet, for my chartreuse, and for bright red, use the red straight from the can, with a speck of black in it. That is my secret for a stunning red! He then mumbles something about red needing that speck of black to make it pop. I mix the colors as fast as possible,
"Are they done yet?" I show him samples on paper.
"THEY ARE PERFECT!", seeing I am pleased, he asks, "are we having fun yet?"
"Yes, I love mixing colors."
"Well you are very good at it, I have never seen anything like it, REALLY."
"Here," he offers me a joint he has just lighted.
"I'll pass, not at work, I get paranoid," I explain, he inhales deeply.
"Can I take a cigarette break?" I ask
"A BREAK? well yes, you've earned it, go right ahead."
I go over to the sitting area and light up.
"T H A T I S A D I S G U S T I N G H A B I T" he articulates every syllable slowly, I roll my eyes and inhale.
With his burning joint in between two fingers, he picks up a photo, a foam brush, and a container of dye. He begins painting on the silk, with fast, frantic motions, enthralled, I watch in amazement, curious as to what may spill.
By the time I finish my cigarette, James has almost the entire table sketched out in various colors. It's a scene of large trees and bushes, and bits of a red sunset.
"You MUST work very fast for it to look fresh. Get a brush, and help me paint this area in." we work together filling in the designated areas with dye. I hear the sewing machine running fast; in the far front of the Loft. James hands me a roll of paper towels.
"Help me buff, you must rub the silk very hard before it drys," we both do this, fast and frantically,
"Get the green dyes you've mixed and start putting-in leaves around the tree branches" we both do so. The table of white silk is becoming transformed. We step back and look at the work we have been creating.
"FABULOUS," we both say together.
Josephine saunters down, with the outfit she has finished. It is an ensemble consisting of a red silk dress, under a calf-length silk Gazaar coat in variating stripes of red, silvers and black.
"That's FABULOUS," James says the word very fast.
I quickly try to find another word "IT IS STUNNING!" we all admire each other work, It is getting close to five, Edward returns, "Oh, your working on the tree sunset ?" It's gorgeous!
"F A B U L O U S," he says drawing out the syllables, and looking at the dress Josephine is holding. "Is that Anne Slaters' new outfit?"
"Of course it is Ed", James states matter of factly, and with a bit of condescension.
"NICOLAS, take the silks that are finished to the dry cleaner, Ed will give them to you, and write down the address for you, it's a nice walk down University Place."
As I head down University Place, in the setting sun of late winter day, I notice people gawking at the brilliant silks slung over my back, I have never felt so satisfied, and content in my entire life.