Coat me in fat, wrap me in felt and call me done.

Sophie Calle, the Letter "B"
Sophie Calle, the Letter

When work gets particularly alienating, as it’s bound to do when you work for an investment banking firm in the middle of a massive economic meltdown, it’s good to get away.  Far away.  Like, across the river.  I usually go to the Tate with something in mind, like visiting the Joseph Beuys’ room, which always comforts.  The erotic power his Felt Suit has over me is a mystery– and I’d like to keep it that way.  And, when you’ve been scanning expense reports until your eyes water, what better antidote than to gaze at the fine mess of his Fat Battery? It’s the poetry of survival, and even if my current rat race existence seems far removed from any sort of myth making, it still pushes all my buttons.

Today I stumbled upon Sophie Calle’s Hotel Room series.  Calle’s sexual, voyeuristic work predates Tracy Emin’s and far surpasses it in depth, humor and poetry.  In her Hotel Room series from the 80s, she worked as a chambermaid in a Venetian hotel where she photographed people’s belongings as she cleaned the rooms.  She then took notes on her findings and they become vingettes of voyueristic transgression, of human frailty and the mystery of private lives.  She records the used towels, the slippers, the half-finished crosswords, wigs, tablets, carnival masks, and in recording she becomes almost a fictional character, an embittered, compassionate trickster figure.

When I was younger, I worked as a maid, cleaning the houses of the wealthy in San Francisco’s Nob Hill and Pacific Heights, and looking at Calle’s work brought back visceral memories of being an intimate stranger.  Calle puts on the perfume she finds in women’s luggage and in one case, steals a pair of shoes that fit her.  Reading that, I had goosebumps.  I wished I’d written it.

Or grasp the ocean with a span…

My building is on the right.  Taken with my mobile phone.
My building is on the right. Taken with my mobile phone.

I have a job in the very heart of the city, across the green of St. Paul’s Cathedral. This morning I sat alone on the steps of the cathedral, before the rush of commuters and tourists, listening to the slap of water on the steps. Bucket after soapy bucket the water coursed down, and the man who washes the steps of St. Pauls smiled at me.

My job isn’t very glamorous. There are moments where the monotony can get to you, and your life flashes before your eyes. You have no choice but to luxuriate in the emotional channel-surf/reverie. It’s almost like being high. Or you can look at it that way.

After work, I went to a birthday get-together for a dear friend of mine. The pub was a trendy place full of media professionals. All the people who showed up for the shindig were were fashion designers and fashion-industry media types. I had just come from work sporting my Marks and Spencer synthetic suit, my best attempt at faking a professional face. The men were wearing bespoke suits that cost more than I made in a month.

So I met the social challenge with gusto– I stared at the wall. I was happy the walls were entertaining– filled with posters, a rhino head and naked ladies embroidered on hankies in a faux naive style. I read with irony a green 70’s poster in a circus font:

Tis true my form is something odd, But blaming me is blaming God. Could I create myself anew, I would not fail in pleasing you. If I could reach from pole to pole, Or grasp the ocean with a span, I would be measured by the soul, The mind’s the standard of the man.

a poem attributed to Joseph Merrick, the “Elephant Man”.

I looked to my lap and was mortified: in this crowd of fashionistas, my fly was open.

A man sat between my friend and I and I decided I’d had enough of the freeze outs from the table; I introduced myself. He asked me what I did, which is the rudest and most suspect of questions a stranger can ask. I told him, I needed money so I got a job in the City. He persisted, “but what do you do.” I said I worked at (insert name of multinational investment banking firm here), and this impressed him. He rubbed his fingers and thumbs together in the universal “moneymoneymoney” sign. I told him the best part of my job was that I got to go to the Tate during my lunch break and I as mumbled something about Cy Twombly I could tell he wasn’t listening anymore. He said, “That doesn’t sound good. The best part of your job is your lunch?”

I think most of the people working in the city could say that, frankly. A lot can be fit in an hour. A lifetime if you try. I make every lunch a pilgrimage. I go to the Tate and visit the Francis Bacon paintings. I sit in the church yard of St. Pauls. I watch detritis go by in the dirty river from my lichen-covered perch on the bank. Tourist season is waning, and I take my lunch late. On gloomy hours like this afternoon, the city and I have bit of privacy. If I listen closely enough it whispers endearments like a stubborn, proud lover.

At lunch, I perch on the bank and watch tourists wobble over the bridge
At lunch, I perch on the bank and watch tourists wobble over the bridge