When this hit the news just last week, the first person that flashed across my mind was a homeless man in San Rafael. He could have been a Shakespearean Actor; he had such bearing and poise. He was extremely focused on ritual. He moved in set patterns around Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. He would stand on a street corner across from the building where I worked in downtown San Rafael, and hold court.
He would go shirtless in the summers and display a well-honed and crafted ebony physique. He wore a rag on his head. He spoke like an itinerant preacher, belligerent orator, and professor-at-large, eloquent and unintelligible at the same time. He clearly had cycles of delirium, or medication, where on every third day, he would be lucid and be able to form clear sentences. The other days he would rant and rave, arms flailing, impassioned speech, just without any real point per se. Sometimes he would gather a crowd of onlookers, trying to decipher his speech. At other times, he looked like a dangerous crazy person, and passersby would creep to the other side of the street to avoid him.
On the occasional days when he was in his right mind, he would join me on the stone benches in the shade at the Bank of America building where I would have my lunch and read. At first, he frightened me a little. But I came to know him as harmless to me, and interesting. Fragments of conversations were all I was ever able to have with him. I never could get his name, I would ask, and he would get distracted by something and go off on a tangent. He wasn’t even on his best days completely cogent.
However, he complimented me, and what girl in her early twenties doesn’t want to hear something lovely spoken of her? In my early twenties, all my best physical features were more prominent than perhaps they are in my forties. I had long legs, a long neck and my red hair was much more vibrant in those days. He would call out to me, mid-rant from across the street even, and refer to me as “Legs.” That, alone, could be seen as objectifying, but remember, I was twenty and was rather proud of my long legs. But he also called me a Modigliani Girl. He would draw attention to me, as if the people wandering by quickly trying to get past him were his actual audience, glued to his every word, and he would tell them about me, that I was exactly the type of woman Modigliani loved to paint.
I had to look the painter up, and back then, I don’t think the internet was quite what it is today. I had to go to a Library to look up what kind of woman this made me. From what I could gather, Modigliani was one of those brooding, alcoholic artists, who squandered his talents and tortured his creativity with self-medication and drug induced deliriums. He died a pauper and his wife jumped out the window killing herself and her unborn child at the news of his death. It didn’t sound like a compliment by any means to be associated with this dark artist. But, I also saw that he painted elongated forms, long necks, long torsos, and ballerina-like long legs. Whether his models looked like this or not, he seemed to always see long, elegant shapes.
This fascinated me. I wondered about this homeless man and his knowledge of the art-world. I wondered if he himself was some sort of tortured artist, or simply a lover of art. Perhaps, art has always been how I relate to others, whatever their station in life, whether we have anything else in common or not, I find ways to discuss art, or the artist’s way, the need to create, the desire to communicate with others in some way, the ability to see beauty in tragic figures, the sixth sense that everything is connected, that all matter is here to be formed somehow into something beautiful.
Several years passed, and I was working in Sausalito. I walked outside my office, and there in front of the Safeway, was a tall, stately street-man with a rag on his head, relaxed, and resting against the wall as if he was in one of his calmer days. He looked up and quietly said, “It’s the Modigliani girl!” I smiled and shook his warm hand, and tears came into my eyes, that he would remember me.
Today, I wonder where he is, and if in any way, he is still a lover of arts, a soap-box speaker on a corner, enlightening people to the ways of the world, and pointing out what he thinks is beautiful to everyone who passes his way. I wonder if he knows that the artist who died alone and miserable and poor, just had a painting auctioned off for millions of dollars. Perhaps he only ever pretended to be crazy. Perhaps he bought it for himself.
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There are not free photos online of the Modigliani woman. This is a photo
of a street corner, with gorgeous shadings of dark and light, and it reminded me of the man in this story.