LIFE IN AN ILLEGAL LOFT
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
And so, began four years of fear and anxiety, hiding from the New York City Fire Inspectors, in an illegal loft on East 26th Street. Throughout those years, the NYC Fire Department became our enemy. And we lived in constant dread of the day when we would be detected, in the course of a routine fire inspection.
There was no one, but myself to blame for getting us into this fine mess. I was totally unaware that living in a loft in New York City was illegal in 1960. So, when the former tenant, Peter Passuntino made reference to that fact, upon handing me the key, my stunned reaction was, “Now, you tell me?” That moment was devastating. Peter, who had assumed that we already knew this, made a hasty exit, and left us standing there, in 100 x 30 feet of vast unbroken emptiness, surrounded by all our belongings, which were strewn about, haphazardly, exactly where the moving men had dropped them, waiting to be unpacked. We were in a state of shock, as the realization slowly hit us that there was no turning back! We were stuck there; marooned on an uncharted island, hidden in the middle of Manhattan. Thus, with all our bridges burnt behind us, and not a penny in the bank, we reluctantly became illegal occupants, compelled to live a secret life, reminiscent of “The Diary of Ann Frank.”
Life in that loft on 26th Street, was far from easy. Throughout the four years that we lived there, we had an unwelcome roommate with us every minute of the night and day; “Insecurity” was his name. There are few wives who would put up with him, but Eunice did. We were in this predicament together. And, when all is said and done, I believe it would be fair to say that, in spite of all the hardships we endured there, we were happy. I, for one, was never happier.
The building at 360 East 26th Street was owned, and partially occupied by an electric company,” Mid-Town Electric Supply.” The ground floor, which was fully two stories high, was their warehouse. Its facade was no more than a huge garage door that was open to the sidewalk during business hours, 8:00 to 5:00. Trucks would pull in there all day to load and unload electrical supplies. A small door to the right was the entrance to the hallway, which contained the mail boxes and the wide flight of stairs that led to the four floors above. This door was unlocked, only during business hours. As there was no doorbell, any visitors arriving to see us after closing time had to call ahead of time, and we would walk down five flights to let them in.
Mid-Town Electric Supply continued on the second floor. As their door to the hall was often open, I could see that the front section of that floor had been partitioned off to create a kind of office, where the owners and a secretary spent the day. The office’s dividing wall had two plate-glass windows that enabled those inside to keep an eye on the rest of the floor, which contained a complex maze of shelves, packed to the ceiling with electrical supplies. It also contained the thermostat that controlled the heat for the entire building.
Floor number three, was a busy woodworking shop that specialized in cabinetry and general carpentry. It was always a beehive of activity. Over the next few years, when the need arose, I managed to earn pocket money by doing odd jobs for the owners. On one occasion, I helped install an air conditioner in a home in Westchester. Another time, I painted an atrocious mural that matched the hideous style of preexisting wallpaper on a Manhattan apartment wall.
The next floor, number four, which was just below ours, was an abandoned machine shop. Several two inch diameter holes in our loft’s floorboards enabled me to peek down and survey the idle work tables with unidentifiable tools, scattered about in disarray. It looked as if the occupants had dropped their work in progress, whatever it might have been, and made a hasty getaway. Everything visible through these floorboard peepshows was a dismal shade of gray, covered in the dust of many decades. This unused loft below ours afforded us the luxury of total isolation. We never heard a sound down there in the four years we lived upstairs. On the other hand, the fact that this area was unheated made the freezing winters even colder.
Thus, we were totally alone, sandwiched between the roof and the abandoned lower floor. And all the while that we were there, we lived in fear, waiting for the fateful, and seemingly inevitable day when the New York City Fire Inspectors would come pounding on our door.
I recently discovered a treasure trove of never printed negatives, photos that I shot over fifty years ago, thinking I would one day get a darkroom, and print them properly. I never did. Now, thanks to the computer and Photoshop, I was able at last to see these long lost images. My God, they bring back memories! It is because of these ancient photographs that I have undertaken these most recent pages. So, even though, some are quite personal, I will, nonetheless, post many of them here.
The photo below was taken nearly a year after we first moved into the loft on 26th Street. The occasion was a visit from my mother and grandmother in the spring of 1961. This photograph is the only one from the entire four years that offers an idea of what the loft and our lifestyle there was like. We made every effort to make the place look like nobody lived there, or would want to. I think you’ll agree that we succeeded. I even got gold letters from Austen Display and hung up signs that read, “Office” and “Showroom.” This photo was shot one third of the way into the space. I have no photographs that capture the stunning impact of its entire length.
A few days after we moved in, I went to Norbert Austen and proposed an unconventional arrangement, one that I had been contemplating since the first day of Daylight Savings Time, when I went into my isolated basement room at Austen Display before sunrise, and emerged eight hours later to discover it was dark outside. Now that I had unlimited space, I suggested that I could be even more productive than I had been in that tiny secluded room, if I were allowed to work at home, for the same wage. If Austen's didn’t feel that I was more than earning my $100. a week, I would come back to 19th Street, and they could watch me watch the clock again. Mr. Austin instantly agreed. And so, for the next year, that is what I did. I’d appear there for a meeting, once a week, pick up any materials I might need, and bring in the prototypes that I created when they were complete. As there was no limit to the extra time I would freely spend on a design, Austen Display was very happy with the results of this arrangement, and so was I. Thus, began a way of life, in which I never again held a job from 9:00 to 5:00.
This also meant that I was at hand to tend to all the challenges of our new life. I became not only the breadwinner, but also the caretaker and convenient baby sitter, which enabled Eunice to also do her thing. And, over time, we turned this massive loft into a home, even though, that was exactly what we knew we should not do. When, and if, the Fire Inspectors arrived, it must not look like we were living there. In our minds, the fact that Samantha had a crib seemed to be an explainable necessity if we were to care for her while we were working. But, having a queen sized bed there was really pushing credulity, a dead giveaway! If only we didn’t have a bed fit for a queen, and, instead, no place to sleep, then the story that we didn’t live there might be believed!
I would attempt to solve that problem, eventually, but for now, we had a more immediate dilemma to deal with: the heat! Or, more accurately, the lack of it! The owners of Mid-Town Electric controlled the thermostat. It not only read the temperature in the small well insulated area where it was placed, on the wall amid the shelves of electrical supplies on the second floor, but it also had a timer that was set to turn off the heat at 8:00 P.M. Thus, the amount and intensity of heat that made it up to the few radiators on our top floor was, not only, not so hot, it was also not enough. Worse still, on weekends, the furnace, would occasionally malfunction and go off. As the owners lived on Long Island, we would have no heat at all, until the following Monday morning.
Somehow, we toughed it out through the few remaining months of that first winter. I stapled sheets of transparent vinyl to all the windows. One could purchase these makeshift “storm windows” ready cut in any hardware store. We also invested in a small electric heater, and when it got really cold, or the heat went off altogether, we donned our coats, lit the stove, and opened up the oven door.
When spring arrived, so did my mother and my grandmother. I only ever had one grandparent in my life, Grandma Grace Heckingbottom, but she was enough, the perfect grandmother! You have all met her before, or at least her look-alike, in the story of Red Riding Hood. She knitted and crocheted from morning to night, rocked in her rocking chair, and got up only to bake pies and cakes, and say her prayers in church on Sunday. Of all the relatives in my family, I felt most warm and comfortable with her.
Among the recently retrieved photographs, the ones I treasure most are, unfortunately, the worst. It required all the Photoshop magic I could muster, to coax these images out of underexposed obscurity. The first reveals my grandmother, my mother, and me, with baby Samantha on my mother’s knee.
The second is essentially the same with Eunice in my place, and yours truly behind the camera’s lens.
And last of all, a classic, Four Generations of my grandmother’s family. This photo captures an amazing moment, in which we appeared to be fulfilling our predetermined destiny. Our lives were apparently unfolding the way the Good Lord had intended them to be.
When summer arrived, we were faced with a new challenge. As if, the lack of heat in winter was not bad enough, the oppressive heat of summer was too much. The roof consisted of a single layer of boards, resting on the exposed rafters, identical to the floor beneath our feet. These were covered with a layer of asphalt to protect them from the rain and snow. And that was it! There was no insulation in the ceiling to shield those in the loft below from either summer’s heat, or winter’s cold.
This inch thick roof was like the skin of an enormous drum. It amplified the beat of every raindrop that fell upon it from above. From the tinkle of a sprinkle to the roar of a thunderstorm, the cacophony of falling rain was a sound that I found pleasant. When a bird walked across the surface of the roof, we could hear its tiny footsteps, and when a neighbor crept around at night to peep into adjacent windows, the noise was like an elephant, treading on the ceiling. This early warning system for alerting us to strangers was a welcome feature. It was also a reminder to keep the windows to the fire escape closed and locked, at all times, even in the heat of summer.
When the summer sun beat down upon this giant drum, it turned our living space, below it, into an oven, ten degrees warmer than the outside temperature above. It was then that out of desperation, I bought a hundred foot long garden hose. With one end attached to the single faucet of the kitchen sink, I fed the other into the hall, and up the stairs onto the roof. On the hottest summer afternoons I would go out there in a bathing suit, the one I wore downstairs as well, and wet down the blistering hot asphalt, in an often futile attempt to lower the temperature in the loft below. We even got an inflatable kiddy pool for baby Samantha to splash around in. Eunice and I, on occasion, were known to wallow in it too.
The experience of stepping out onto the roof, a vast expanse of open space that belonged to us alone, in the middle of Manhattan, was both eerie and exhilarating. Its asphalt surface was textured with a million glasslike beads that sparkled slightly in the sunlight to radiate a kind of dingy low-key magic. This faintly frosted plain was crisscrossed by haphazard patterns of tar patching, urban hieroglyphics that chronicled a history of repaired leaks and seams, extending over half a century. Two badly battered triangular skylights, intended to illuminate our loft below, rose above this asphalt desert, like the pyramids of ancient Egypt. These diverse elements imparted a kind of otherworldly quality to the roof on 26th Street that, sometimes, made reality seem irrelevant.
Standing alone on this isolated patch of emptiness, surrounded by towers of the World’s Greatest City, stretching out as far as the eye could see, one felt a sense of both omnipotence and loneliness. Beneath the vast umbrella of a sky that extended to the circular horizon in all directions, one could witness the ever-changing spectacle of the heavens, in what appeared to be our own life-sized Hayden Planetarium.
Yet, underlying this exaltation was a feeling of ever-present danger, for the wall that surrounded this mid-city oasis was really not quite high enough to offer a convincing sense of safety. Stepping near the edge made one uneasy, and painfully aware that sudden death was just a stumble, or a misplaced step away. This was not a place where a child could be allowed to play.
A man in the next building kept pigeons. Their constant cooing filled the air with music, melodious and repetitious, as if, played by an orchestra of panpipes. Every evening, our neighbor would step out onto his rooftop, and set his pigeons free. Suddenly unleashed, the birds burst forth to fill the twilight sky with a spectacular display of aerial acrobatics and precision flight. He’d watch them for a while, then dish out their dinner, and the entire flock would willingly file into their cage, again, to eat and spend the night. We never got to know the pigeon keeper beyond a friendly nod. Like most of our neighbors along this block of 26th street, between First and Second Avenue, he spoke only Spanish, and we did not.
One day, in the toy department at Macys, I spotted a really crappy telescope, for only $30. It consisted of a large wooden carrying box with lots of curious paraphernalia inside. The scope, itself, was a large white tube, with a parabolic mirror, and a myriad of attachments, including a makeshift wooden tripod. This suitcase full of magic cast a spell upon me, just as the Praxinoscope theater had done at the Flea Market in Paris, just a few short years before. Although, I couldn’t afford this glamourous gadget, I also couldn’t resist it. Therefore, that very evening found me out on the roof, with my derriere parked on a folding chair, determined to experience astronomy. I soon discovered that the skies above NYC were not star gazer friendly. The smog was just too thick, and the city lights too bright. They lit up the sky, and all but blotted out the stars. This left me with no recourse, but to observe the twinkling of distant windows.
High above the surrounding rooftops, five blocks away, rose the towers of Kips Bay. Like giant funny paper pages, each double page spread was divided into boxes. I was reminded of the days when as a kid I used to lie on the floor in front of the console radio, listening to the Comics Weekly Man, as he read the Sunday Funnies, spread open on the floor before me. The panels of the giant comic pages that I viewed through my new toy were dim and blurry, just enough to make them fascinating. There was no discerning details, but one could see sufficently to fill in the spaces, and connect the offset dots with one’s imagination. I can’t say that I witnessed anything amazing. This giant comic strip had little stripping in it, and it was rarely comical. There were no talking animals, or superheroes, just people leading what they thought were private lives, each doing their own thing, impervious to what was happening one square away, on the giant comic strip, in which they lived.
It has always been a wonderment to me that in this magic city, each point of light, and every illuminated window represents somebody’s life. Like offset dots on a printed page, many millions of lighted windows are required to make up the image of Manhattan. And the individual, behind each dot of light considers his tiny universe, his single lighted window, to be all-important, a total world unto itself. New York City invites the objective observer to face the impact of his own insignificance in the big picture. For the maintenance of self-illusion, few accept that invitation.
So, between wetting down the roof, and browsing the Kips Bay funny pages, I spent a lot of time out there on the roof at 26th Street that first summer, marveling at and taking comfort in the seemingly contradictory sense of total isolation, even though, I was surrounded by eight million of my fellow human beings. It was not unlike a parable of my life, seeing the world through distant eyes, while attempting to remain out of sight.
At the height of summer, we left the sweltering heat and oppressive anxiety of our loft behind us, and traveled back to Michigan to celebrate Samantha’s Birthday. On the fifth of July, she would be one year old.
And so, Samantha was introduced to the world of plastic slipcovers, taking a crash course in my kosher heritage. My mother had hired the Blue Fairy to be her interior decorator. Beginning with a stark white condo, she conned Leila out of several thousand dollars to touch everything in sight with her magic wand, and turn it to a shade of powder blue.
There was one wonderful object in Leila's nearly empty living room, a wondrous singing bird that I had convinced my Pop to purchase in Paris, in the final days of our guided tour of Europe in 1953. Baby Samantha found it fascinating.
All things considered, the trip back to Detroit was more pleasant than I had anticipated. My mother, Leila, was finally warming up to Eunice. She was even smitten with Samantha, as much as she would ever be. Meanwhile, we didn’t see a lot of her. Although, we were only there a week, her evenings were pretty much taken up, gallivanting with her latest boyfriend, a coarse and vulgar, loud mouthed salesman. I can’t say that I cared for him, but I was glad that she had someone. Sadly, she treated him much better than she did my dad.
My mom’s new condo on the elegantly named, “Rue Versailles” was as austere and ordinary as our old house, just a few miles away on Seven Mile Road, had been luxurious. This Versailles bore little resemblance to its namesake in France. The condominium complex was not complex. It was simple, simply horrible! Architecturally, the Rue Versailles Apartments resembled a cheap motel. Right in the middle of where the real Versaille's formal gardens might have been, there was an elegant “Lot de Parking.” And in the middle of that parking lot, there was a swimming pool.
Thank Goodness for this oasis! We had a lot of fun there. Because of days spent, wetting down our rooftop beach in New York City, I had a tan already.
This trip back to the city of my past had two memorable highlights. One was a wonderful visit with the dear couple who had, in many respects, raised me. They fulfilled the dual role of being both my best friends and loving family, throughout my teenage years. I am speaking of Loucille and Charles Lahr. I have already told their story here.
The second joyous reunion of this journey was a visit with my High school art teacher and sustaining mentor, James Siddall. Without his support I might have, God forbid, become a lawyer. Just kidding! There is no way that would have happened. But seriously, Jim, his charming wife Dorothy, who was an artist too, and their three perfect children, Jane, John, and Jim Jr. were a life saving beacon to me, as I sought to escape the comfortable conformity that characterized the city of my youth.
The Siddalls offered me total acceptance, understanding, and encouragement. Alone, in a world where I never knew another artist, they welcomed me into their idyllic family.
Three years later, to celebrate Christmas 1964, we visited Detroit for what turned out to be the final time. We arrived on December 21st, which by sad ironic circumstance, happened to be the very day that Mr. Siddall died. I don’t know who alerted me, or how they found me, but I learned of that tragic event in time to attend his funeral. I had such great respect for Mr. Siddall that, even though, he encouraged me to call him Jim, I could never break the habit of referring to him as I did in high school. He was, and would always be Mr. Siddall to me. The impact of viewing him, lying in his open casket, struck down at the young age of fifty, was devastating. At that moment, I knew that I would never come back to Detroit again.
Life in the loft continued. Samantha was growing up. This photo not only shows her bath time, it also displays the primitive conditions, in which we lived. In the background, is the ancient stove we got from Peter Passuntino. When we acquired it, the grime and drippings of half a century were baked onto it already. The kitchen sink, of which one can get a peek of just the corner was where we did the dishes and brushed our teeth. I never took a picture of the ominous tin shower. If I ever imagined that there would one day be this thing called a computer, and I would be posting these memoirs fifty years later, I would have shot a lot more pictures.
In spite of all the hardships, somehow, there was a kind of Magic in the air, suspended there, delicate, and yet, spectacular, like this amazing soap bubble. Fear was in the air as well, we could never quite set it aside. Always aware, we waited for that moment when we would be discovered. And the NYC Fire Inspectors would bust through the front door and burst our magic bubble.
Walking around the city, one would often see fire trucks, parked, or slowly inching their way along a street, as, one by one, the New York City fire Department methodically inspected every building. When we spied them in our neighborhood, we would panic, batten down the hatches, and go into hiding. Sometimes, they seemed to be dangerously near. Then, punctually, at 5:00 P.M., they would disappear.
Meanwhile, an event at Austen Display was about to change my destiny. One day, Mr. Austin treated us, his crew of four designers, to lunch at a fabulous Mexican restaurant, “La Fonda del Sol,” near Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. This amazing eatery with a Mexican theme had been designed and decorated by the great architect, designer, and folk art enthusiast, Alexander Girard. His hand had touched every aspect of the restaurant, from its sun motif to its menus. But, more importantly, its interior walls were studded with shadow boxes, displaying beautifully created scenes, made up of mind boggling treasures from his vast collection of Mexican folk art. Thus, there was a motive to Mr. Austen’s generosity. This was not just a lunch, it was a work assignment. That is why he instructed us to bring our sketchbooks. He hoped that the excursion would inspire us to create a series of display ideas with a Mexican theme.
This pleasant outing changed my life. This incredible collection, and the amazing way it was displayed, not only influenced how I would display my own collection, some day, but more importantly, it delivered the message that collecting, even to extreme excess, was both creative and OK!
Looking for ideas, one candelabra caught my eye. It was a crazy stack of unrelated images that all added up to a kind of pyramid with places to place candles. And it, like many of the objects that I saw there, was made of tin. I asked Mr. Austen about the possibility of making tin items, would such a thing be doable and practical? I did admire this man so much, for him, anything was possible. His answer was, “Absolutely! Design anything you want, Mel, and well figure it out!”
It occurred to me that I could design tin objects by making patterns and models out of heavy paper. So a few days later I appeared at 19th Street with a paper candelabra, and a small ascension balloon to, hopefully, be made out of tin, along with verbal ideas and enthusiasm for a whole line of such things.
Norbert Austen loved it! What an amazing man! Within a week, he was on a plane to Mexico to find someone who could manufacture the designs in tin. And he did! He discovered a small factory; I use the term loosely. They were actually a family who could make these things by hand. And so, a whole new venture and adventure began. I proposed that I would like to design the items, not for a salary, but rather for a 5% royalty. Mr. Austin, agreed, while at the same time, he offered me some fatherly advice, and a word of caution, as he was to do several times in the years to come, “Mel you are an artist, not a business man!”
And so, for the next year, I designed Mexican tin ornaments that were made in Mexico. I'd construct a sample in heavy paper, along with a set carefully worked out patterns for each item, or series of them. Then, my designs would go to Mexico, and a few weeks later, several perfect tin prototypes would arrive in New York City. The first samples were accompanied by a full set of quart bottles of transparent colored lacquer. There were only seven basic colors, red, yellow, orange, blue, green, purple, and shocking pink. The transparency and clarity of these paints was wonderful, I have never seen anything like them in the USA. With these quick drying lacquers, I'd color the prototypes and send them back again. Weeks later, finished products would appear, shipped in handwoven straw baskets.
There was a twist to this scheme that was almost diabolical, diabolically clever, I mean. Norbert formed a little company and named it “Mexico.” So each of these items appeared with the name Mexico stamped into it, and, sometimes, written on it in black paint. Thus, everything about these slightly contemporary designs radiated authenticity. No one would suspect that they were actually created by a young man of 23, in New York City.
Sadly, I recently discovered that storing these tin ornaments in the cellar for 40 years was a disaster, even though, there was a dehumidifier. The results are really heartbreaking. Corrosion has darkened the tin underneath the colored lacquers. So, the once vibrant jewel like colors have become dark and ugly. I’ve tried various rust removers, without much luck. The question is, should I even attempt to photograph these things in this condition, or not bother? With heavy heart, I will attempt the former, based on the not always valid theory that "something is better than nothing." Perhaps, if I light a few candles, their glow will create at least a little bit of magic.
This candelabra, which was stored upstairs, fared better than the rest. Nonetheless, it faded and discolored, over the years, and areas of rust appeared. You will see it glowing in its original condition on Christmas Day, two pages away.
By a small miracle, I have one ornament that has escaped the ravages of time. It continues to glow as brightly as they all did, 50 years ago. One Christmas, we were visiting our friends the Kurtens, as we did frequently, especially at Christmas time. I have written about John and Allelu, and their most amazing Christmas ceremony in John’s Eulogy. Among the endless variety of decorations that adorned their house every Noel, I spotted this single ornament, Santa on a bike. They had purchased it in 1962, the year it was designed. Allelu was thrilled to find out that I had contributed to its creation. Therefore, the following Christmas, she generously gave it to me. So, here it is, glowing with its original iridescence, the only remaining evidence of how bright and glorious these ornaments of tin, handmade in Mexico had once been.
Here too is a fragment of a paper sketch, from which this ornament originated. In the beginning, I colored all the paper models that were sent to Mexico, but when I realized that they were going to send the first unpainted samples back again for me to paint myself with colored lacquers, I no longer colored them beforehand.
The rest of the set, which was always one of my favorites can be seen here, dull and dingy. The one that I liked best was the little guy with the sandwich sign. This whole series were essentially toys, all the wheels turned, and the sandwich sign Santa had tiny legs that moved as he walked along. Curiously, the one figure that I didn’t have was the one that Allelu gave me. That’s what I’d call Destiny!
Here is a series of three Magi, riding ponies, rather than camels. My knowledge of Biblical imagery was a little foggy in 1962, as is my memory now. I completely forgot this series. They are a nice surprise. With the original brilliant colors they would have been quite pretty, even spectacular. Their forms are quite voluptuous and lyrical. I have a feeling that there may be more ornaments, hiding around the house. There are several entire series that I can’t find. I know, for instance, that there was a set of rocking horse animals. And a modular abstract Christmas tree that was made up of tin triangles, with a mirror in the center of each. Linked together, they could build any sized tree.
The most ambitious project in the series was a complete set of tin soldiers. Beyond merely designing them, which was easy, the sheer hard work of making these in paper, over and over, for each variation was time consuming, and work intensive. The patterns had to be accurate; there could be no cheating. Each piece had to fit exactly in tin, and the paper models had to match the seemingly endless pages of patterns perfectly. The factory really outdid themselves on these. They rendered every detail, from the voluminous tuba to the impressive array of medals on the general. Each set came packed in a circular straw basket. I made sure that I got several.
Years later, long after Austen Display stopped importing these tin ornaments, they or their offspring continued to be made. Over time, my original designs, which represented a year of my young life, became traditional, part of the folk art repertoire. Every time I’d come across them, they would be a little different. They were in the process of evolving. The colors were the first element to change. Soon, the original colors that I had worked out with that set of colored lacquers in the loft on 26th Street were forgotten, and each new craftsman, who tried his hand at painting these, chose any colors that he pleased. Eventually, the designs changed too. Variations led to variations, until, over time, my original designs gave birth to generations of offspring that even I might fail to recognize. Sometimes, I would discover one or more of them in unexpected places, anywhere from flea markets to gift stores. They were the great grandchildren of the tin ornaments that I begat as a young man, so many years before.
The family in Mexico that ”manufactured” these had a most annoying tendency to work only long enough to make enough money to support themselves for a few months, and then, they stopped. When the money was used up, they went back to work again. Therefore, shipment and delivery of these tin ornaments was erratic. When all was said and done, in spite of the element of chance, and the hopes of earning more, I was still averaging the same income as before. Nevertheless, the year had been a lot more fun. I had fallen in love with the lure of the unknown. And so, with a little bit of this and that, in-between, we launched right into Boutique Fantastique.
Meanwhile, one "little bit of this and that" that cropped up in-between was the opportunity to actually do an illustration, my one and only. It was for a sleazy men’s magazine. The publication was called, "Caper." It was a poor man’s Hustler, very poor, indeed, and more than a little bit obscene. My lackluster two-color illustration for an uninspiring story called, "Love Nest For Two" that I believe involved wife swapping, might have been unimpressive, but at least it was clean. I hated doing it, especially the business part of it. And I felt nothing, but embarrassment, upon seeing it in print. This taught me a lesson that I already knew: Being an illustrator was not for me.
I still found time to do projects for Austen Display, mostly of a graphic nature, whenever they asked me. But, for the most part, all my efforts were directed towards our new endeavor. We began this adventure with Norbert Austen’s blessing, along with his warning, once again, that I am not a business man. Whether he was right or not, remains, to this day, to be seen.
This celestial chandelier was an attempt to look authentically Mexican. It also aspired to be spectacular. Norbert Austen never said no to any design, no matter how elaborate. And this extravagant piece of Mexican craftsmanship was elaborate indeed. The mere process of assembling it is a major feat. Six surprisingly large angels, each with a different iridescent color scheme, held aloft six candles. The colors have all darkened now, except for blue and green. These two shades alone retain their iridescent glow. A day ago, this was in the basement rusting. Today It shines again.