Conversation with a Young Art Historian
For a few days a mysterious Oberlin Ohio number had been appearing in my missed calls register. The voicemail yielded no clues and to be honest it was bugging me a little. Finally, curled up in bed reading yesterday evening I got my answer: A chipper young sophomore calling from the Oberlin fund. That’s right. My grace period of normal post-collegiate poverty has supposedly passed and I’m now on their roster of illustrious potential donor alumni.
“Sweetheart, you have the most difficult job, I’m sorry I’m so busted right now,” I told him genuinely apologetic, “If I had it, I’d give it to you because I loved Oberlin, the thing is, in a lot of ways I’m a typical Oberlin grad, I’m totally broke. I refuse to grow up.” I confessed, ruefully adding, “ if only you knew how many of my Oberlin friends are paying off their educations now working at coffee shops and video stores you would be shocked, kid. I am sorry we’re such a lot of losers!”
The kid laughed. “At least you’re nice about it.” He said.
“I wish there was something I could do for you that didn’t involve money,” I mused. “I had a number of friends who worked at the fund when I was an undergrad and I know how hard it is.”
“Well actually,” he began “It says here that you majored in art history and, well, I’m new to the department but I think it’s going to be my major so I was kind of curious what you’ve done with your degree and how you liked it and whatnot.”
A warm nostalgia spread over me and I started regaling him with questions. “Who are you taking classes with? Who is your advisor?” As it happened, the kid was becoming close with the professor who wrote me all my recommendations for jobs and graduate school and he worked as a docent in the museum just like I had. The young art historian and I began to talk some serious shop. I gave him gossip and tips and advice. He wanted more so I told him about the internships I’d taken and about beginning graduate school at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Turns out the ophomore is from northern Indiana and has dreams of a similar academic migration.
As I counseled him, revisiting my undergraduate career as a promising scholar with a mixture of pride and aching sadness, I became aware of how authoritative, crazy and, well, old I sounded. I had been a wild asshole, an emotional wreck and a raging alcoholic, but I was also a very good art historian. For years it was something that came naturally, it was a gift and I was being groomed to go great places. I did go great places. I beat out over a hundred applicants for both my job at the Brooklyn Museum and my spot in the graduate program at SAIC. I was poised to be a rock star, all except for the fact that I pretty much woke up one day and decided that art didn’t mean anything to me anymore. When I went to galleries I shuddered. In museums I yawned. I had no other choice but to drop out of school. It’s around the time that I did that this blog began.
“So what are you doing now?” Sophomore asks me. Again the chuckle.
“Well, I moved out to California kind of on a whim, shacked up in a warehouse with a friend of mine, another Obie actually, and I was working for this famous author but that fell apart and to be honest, I’m not really sure what I’m doing besides reading 3 novels a week and being frustrated with myself for not writing more poetry.”
I think this scared the kid. I didn’t really mean for it to. “Don’t worry honey, “ I told him “You are in an amazing program at a great school. Work hard and be friendly and you will be able to do whatever you want when you leave. I promise. And when you go to grad school, because you will go to grad school-everybody has to these days-go all the way. Get your PHD because otherwise you’ll pay through your ass ok? Do your homework. Get lots of help from the adults. I wish I had done a better job at that.”
I concluded by telling him he could drop my name up at the art library when he applied for a job on the condition that he promised never to fuck up there because Paula, my boss there is one of the most amazing people in the world.
By this point we’d killed half an hour rapping. “It’s great actually,” he said “I get paid to do this.” Before I relinquished him he managed to nail me for $5 miserable dollars, telling me that an anonymous professor was giving that amount for every new first-time alumni donation.”
“Are you sure you’re not laughing at me?” I asked him desperately as I read him my bankcard number. “I swear I’m not” he assured me. “It’s awesome that you’re giving anything at all…do you want the money earmarked anywhere in particular? The art library? The art museum?”
“Scholarships.” I answered immediately “I’m 7 G’s in the hole off one lousy semester of grad school, sweetheart.” I heard him making the appropriate clicks on the monitor.
“One more thing, Abby,” The sophmore said, “Do you have a change of address? We want to send you a thank you card.”
“Dude, my five dollars hardly warrants a thank you card!”
“Well I was going to write it personally because it’s been so nice and helpful talking to you.”
I really liked this sweet boy. But again, deep shame and discomfort.
“Thing is, I’m only at this address for another two weeks and then, well, I don’t really have a place to live after that so I don’t know where I’ll be. I told you honey, I’m really pretty embarrassing.”
Instead I gave him my email address and told him to write to me if he had any more questions thinking that I could morph into a former version of myself and take him under my wing.