BARBARA, THANKS FOR THE PAIN(TINGS)

One day back in the 1970's the residents of 222 Seaman Avenue (one of Inwood's  quieter
streets) awoke to find their building defaced with black spray-paint.  Apparently, in the
middle of the night, some one had hastily scribbled,
Barbara, thanks for the pain.

This message remained on display across the burnt-sienna bricks of the ground floor
apartments for a number of years and came, in the minds of some, to epitomize the
quirkiness of our neighborhood, evoking various scenarios of domestic turbulence all of
which culminated in a breakup devastating to the anonymous spray-painter whose grief, we
imagined, had overflowed the boundaries of privacy and gushed into the public domain
thereby condemning the named but mysterious woman, source of his anguish, to walk each
day, on the path to or from the bus stop or train station, across that glaring reminder of the
suffering she had induced,even as she feigned an air of pity, or obliviousness, or innocent
mirth.

Then one day, the graffiti having merged, like the renovated steps leading down to the
baseball fields, into the general landscape so that we barely noticed it any more, we were
surprised to discover that, under cover of darkness, someone had added to the original
message four new letters, in a similar script but with  a hesitant, faltering hand so that it
now read,
Barbara, thanks for the paintings.  

More vintage quirky Inwood humor.  Some undistinguished, law-abiding citizen, after years
of silent frustration, unable anymore to bear the weight of that unfocused, irremediable
sadness the message injected to his daily existence, had relieved himself along with the
rest of us - and Barbara as well - with a few bold strokes of paint, and that sorrow still
evident in the distinctive lettering of the original message seemed now somewhat alleviated
by whimsy, and deflected with mystery.

This updated version remained on display as well for a number of years, a perpetual
source of bemusement to the newcomer and the passer-by,even as, for the local residents,
it melted again into the vast terrain of all that's unconsciously expected. And so it's not
surprising that none of us remembers the moment it disappeared.  Perhaps new ownership
desired to improve the building's image;or maybe the instigation came for some tenants'
committee (comprised of that new breed of resident that aimed to "gentrify" the
neighborhood).  In any case, and finally, the message was gone, washed away.

But not forgotten.  Many years later and living in another place, I awoke with the phrase,
Barbara, thanks for the paintings on my lips.  My dreams these days (or these nights) have
been radiant and deep (unless I have too many snacks before going to bed, in which case
they are tortuous and humiliating) and so I've grown accustomed to lying in bed as the sun
comes up, ruminating  with a clear mind and an optimistic outlook.  So as I turned the little
phrase over in my mind, fresh possibilities sprang out at me that I had never previously
considered.

(For instance,) What if the phrase were devoid of irony?  What if the "thanks" were
sincere?  Far from the heartless villain we imagined her, perhaps Barbara was an artist,
talented and generous.  But then why the unusual, public display of gratitude?  Why not a
card in the mail, a telephone call, even a personal appearance, perhaps along with an
invitation to dinner?

And why more than one? - painting, I mean.  Normally one art-work at a time is considered
sufficient.  How many paintings did Barbara bestow?  A pair?  Three?  Eleven?  Do they
possess a common theme or form, like those medieval diptychs,  a larger unit?  (But then
the message would have read,
Barbara, thanks for the diptych.)  Are they miniature or
monumental in scale?  Complete with frames or just canvases stretched over wood?    

For that matter the question may legitimately be posed (in spite of all our assumptions)
whether Barbara painted them at all, or whether, instead, she merely procured them.  In
that case what is their provenance?  Are they taken from  a yard sale in New Jersey, or
from the bargain section of some department store?  Perhaps they are reproductions of
masterpieces such as the
Mona Lisa or the Last Supper.  Or is "Barbara" the code name
for a thief of international notoriety who, on the verge of being apprehended by federal
agents, unloaded the spoils of a recent heist at the doorstep of an unsuspecting
acquaintance.

You will admit that these speculations are interesting.  But as I lay in my bed that morning,
contemplating with pleasure how possibilities can proliferate with the help of an active
imagination, from a single, simple phrase, the riddle I found more intriguing than any of
these was:  what do these paintings look like?  And the more I thought about it the more I
became persuaded that they were abstract.  I could visualize, in my mind's eye, the third
floor hallway, the door of apartment C, the 3 by 4 foot rectangles leaning against the door
with their streaks of orange and spatters of yellow, their patches of crepuscular violet, their
calm, cerulean blues.  The anonymous beneficiary, astounded and grateful, or perplexed
and hesitant, picks them up, one at a time, and examines them,  turning them now
sideways, now upside-down, in search of the right look.  

He loves them.  Or he is ambivalent. Or he despises them, in which case we can
understand his scribbled message as an impulsive act of retaliation.  Overcome with horror,
he grabs a nearby can of spray-paint, runs outside in search of the mediocre artist who has
burdened his living room, his bathroom, his existence, with objects not to his taste: she's
gone, and so he scrawls his message in sarcastic fury.  (Had he been calmer he might
have added ironic quotation marks around
thanks or paintings but he was at that moment
in no mood for subtleties.)  

But you will object that I've become confused: in the extravagance of my fancy I've forgotten
the order of events: before the message read "paintings" it read "pain" which is, for most, a
very different thing.  And therefore (you wish to remind me) there can be no question of
gratitude (sincere or not) for the supposed art-works: the "ings" was added years later, by
another hand.  

But (I respond) what if that hand belonged to the unfortunate Barbara herself, who, unable
any longer to endure her guilt, resolved to re-write (or re-paint) history?  And if so, did she
find this sufficient?  For while her public reputation would thereby be restored, she would
continue to bear within her a secret shame.  Perhaps, then, after scrawling her "ings," she
felt impelled to quit her job,to take up the study of art, to move downtown and live like a
bohemian, scratching a living producing charcoal portraits for tourists, or paintings for the
discount sections of department stores, or  federally funded, socially relevant spray-paint
graffiti - all this in the attempt to persuade herself of her innocence, to render plausible an
alternate past in which she had behaved generously, in brief, to alter the landscape of
memory as she had altered the face of history.

Ah, but why assume the worst?  Why not believe instead that Barbara is and always was a
painter?  That years ago she wished to surprise a dear friend?  She appears, one evening
without warning, her canvases awkwardly in tow.   Buzzing the intercom to her friend's  
apartment, she receives no answer.  What to do?  She does what Inwood's apartment
dwellers usually do: she convinces the building's superintendent to let her in, she takes the
elevator to the third floor, and leaves the paintings outside number 3C.  Our anonymous
recipient returns later that night, maybe a little tipsy.  At first he's befuddled. ("What the hell
is this?...Barbara who?...")  But gradually he pieces the facts together and, in his euphoric
state, conceives a wish to demonstrate his enthusiasm, a wish requiring immediate
gratification.  But he can't find her phone number among the scraps of paper littering his
kitchen table - in fact, he's not sure precisely where she lives: all he knows is that he often
meets her walking along Seaman Avenue on the way to work on weekday mornings.  
There is probably a soft and reasonable voice within him, cautioning him that the plan he's
devising is risky, but alcohol has enhanced his courage along with his magnanimity.  He
rushes out into the night with his spray-paint and begins, in a flowing script, to express his
happiness.  A police car appears; two officers surprise him in mid-sentence.  He panics and
begins to run.  Cornered in an alley, he turns on his pursuers, warding them off with squirts
of paint.  He's subdued, arrested, sent away for years to languish in a distant prison.  Free
at last (his enthusiasm, remarkably, undiminished) he returns to the scene of the crime and
notes with a smile that his uncompleted message has endured.  From the folds of his
clothing he produces a fresh can of spray-paint.  Satisfied, after thoroughly scrutinizing his
surroundings, that he is alone, he completes his message at last.  

Immediately a siren sounds in the darkness; a car with flashing lights approaches.  He
tosses the can of paint in the bushes and begins again to run...