Dear Reader: I was looking around the house yesterday, and it slowly dawned on me that for the past 20 years of my short but intense life, I have been a collector of clutter – wait, let me re-phrase: clutter has been aggressively attaching itself to me for years. Where did this come from? Why am I so “clutter-prone”? Early childhood influences? Probably, and on reflection, this brief memory from my childhood growing up in rural New Jersey, might offer a clue to this malaise…
Once I got my head through the old, rotted, paint-peeling, vine-covered fence boards with my ears still intact, the rest of my 5-year-old frame squeezed through a little easier. The board in the middle of the fence was loose at the bottom and snapped quickly back into place once I was through: no turning back now. A thick morning haze of August heat was just beginning to steam-clean the dense, green wall of vines and bush in front of me and I could just make out the back porch of the huge, faded white clapboard house at the other side of the yard; the house of the odd woman on Back Street, the house whose lone occupant, Ms. Ruth Schmidt, was spoken about around Middlebush, New Jersey in low, hesitant, under-the-breath tones… like a bad report card or a bounced check.
There was no marked trail or walkway up to the back porch at the far end of the yard, just the vast, overgrown expanse that spilled out before me. My path to the wooden stairs going up to the back door of the house went straight through this lawless, unkept yard. I pushed directly into the brush, immediately engulfed waist-high, the heat especially noticeable once out of the shade of the fence trees and into the vast green underbrush that was suddenly neck-deep to an eight year old backyard explorer on a bright, blazing hot morning in August, somewhere between Front Street and Back Street in a little 2-street farming village in central New Jersey.
I bushwhacked out from the grass at the far side of the yard sweating and covered with bugs and black and yellow caterpillars, field residue and spores; I stood in the weeds near the bottom of the porch stairs looking directly up at the back door and the huge porch surrounding it. From where I stood I could just make out a railing and pushed my way up through the last of the wheatgrass, onion grass, and tall grass until I reached the steps that led up to the back section of the huge rambling white Victorian house.
A vast, wrap-around porch that could just be glimpsed from the back stairs along the gravel driveway was now clearly visible in the morning heat-haze and ran along the house to the front entrance on Back Street.
On it, and close to the house or leaning against the house, were stacks of dishes, a few lawnmowers, chairs in various states of decay, china plates, marble slabs for table tops, garden tools by the trove, peelers, a hand lawnmower, a set of fireplace tools, bricks, cans of dirt galore with sprouts of green in them, rows of seeds from years past all in their packages, weeders, golf clubs, old lamps, stacks of wood, tile, shingles and a few step ladders here and there, a big Esso sign, boxes of nails, rusted saws, piles of chain, rope, various stacks of cardboard now rotted and dried by the sun and held together by steel bands… and the flotsam of years of good intentions or something like that went along the porch, down the drive and around the front of the house and out of sight.
The paint on the clapboards and shutters was cracked, yellowed and peeling. The yard close to the house was strewn about helter-skelter with parts of mechanical devices in various states of industrial decay. By the grass, nearer the porch steps stood poles and rakes, strange tools with odd handles and large and small buckets, barrels and wheels and gears – mismatched, strewn everywhere were all manner of wheels and empty tires oddly paired together, some flat, some wire-spoked, some mangled and some simply cut in two. All these objects, so randomly dispersed, covering every few feet of yard close to the porch, objects laying about, leaning up against the house, the porch… and the bright sun flashed on the many storm windows, empty window frames and thick glass sheets propped against the house going up on the driveway.
I couldn’t see into any of the windows farther up the driveway from where I stood at the bottom of the porch stairs – even as I craned my neck to look in, all I could see were a few curtains, faded and lace-like, torn, falling apart and shredded by gravity and abandonment and a deep black purple emptiness into the interior; and everything was still, so quiet, so hot, so blazing sun hot, and so silent… the towering oaks and maples surrounding the yard stopped all but the most aggressive down winds; there was no breeze in the backyard, not a flutter or an errant draft… a natural greenhouse. So hot, silent, and everything absolutely motionless. Still, like a picture.
The only movement an occasional dragonfly and a few buzz-bomb sized house flies so bloated and overstuffed it was gravity-defying that they moved at all.
“Well? You coming in?”
In the middle of the back porch, at the top of the stairs I was just about to climb, a porch door had opened silently and in that opening, surrounded by a large, dense cloud of ever-billowing cigarette smoke was the owner of the deep, #10 sandpaper voice… Mr. Schmidt herself.
There she was, standing in the doorway, looking directly down at me through her clear-gray, plastic frame glasses, a cigarette, half ash, and half tobacco, dangling impossibly from her thin, pale lips and her face, angular, but not too long, with steel-gray eyes that were dancing and sparkling. Sparkling all right, and framed by a head of thick and full gray-and-white-streaked hair, gracefully and naturally coiffed in the Lauren Bacall style but somehow heightened at the forehead and blown back, much like Moses descending the Mountain with The Tablets, after encountering the Burning Bush…
“Don’t touch anything,” she said, hand on hip, giving me – a small boy now feeling ever smaller – the once over.
And silence; long drag on the cigarette, head back to better study the small boy at the bottom of the steps. Cloud of Old Gold forming around her… billowing. Biblical.
I walked into the kitchen as she held the door open, and she pointed with her cigarette – still attached to her lips – towards a small kitchen step stool that had suddenly appeared next to the door.
“Sit,” she rasped in a voice that was friendly, soft, warm but very commanding and graded and graveled by years of smoking. Chain smoking. Train chain smoking.
I sat exactly where indicated, and tucked my hands into my lap. The door spring-closed with a bang and when I looked up she was already past me, moving like a blur, smoke swirling behind her, leaving smoke-eddys suspended in the still and hot kitchen air in her wake. She ducked under the clotheslines that ran across the kitchen from the left wall to the stick attached, somehow, to the island-table in the center of the room then on to be anchored in the pantry doorway that went off to the right… and she was gone.
Sitting with my back to the inside porch wall, behind me the stairs I had just climbed, looking at the far side of the kitchen, I was in a place I never imagined could exist, a place so far from anything I’d experienced, so new and exciting that I just sat there, taking it all in. The sun was flooding through the tall glass windows and the entire kitchen was bathed in the most intense, remarkable light and it was colored and hued, pouring in through every crevice, every crack, every possible opening and I was in a kitchen cathedral of light… Gazing at the windows it became clear what was happening – rows and rows of colored-marble-filled glass jars that sat upon shelves made of 6 inch wide weathered barnboards all carefully fitted in the window frames 7-10 shelves per window.
The full jars filtered the light as it blazed through the cats-eyes, aggies, shooters, peewees, jumbos and clear glass marbles by the thousands: the sunlight flowed, poured into the kitchen color-filtered and already energized, blazing into the room and lighting it up like a Baptist Window on Christmas morning…
The room was covered in everything… pots, pans, a huge stove, paper clippings everywhere, folded clothes, stacked apples, more gears and bicycle wheels, mops, brooms and brushes leaning against every corner and the clothesline that ran into the pantry was doubled back a few feet farther down, traversed the kitchen going away, and then came back a few more feet farther down from there. All hung with worn, thin washing remnants: a towel, and a few shirts, a few washcloth-type squares, a few hanging sundresses like the kind she wore at the moment: long, shapeless, grey with huge side pockets, buttons up the front and a wide cloth belt with a round, white – now yellowed – large plastic circle buckle. There we garden ornaments, garden tools, small boxes of dirt with sprouts everywhere, and ashtrays, ashtrays every few feet on every flat surface, completely filled and over-flowing with butts from her ciggies which she smoked right down to the finish.
Her brand was Old Gold, and she chain-smoked each one down to the filter. Before the one she was smoking actually got down to the filter, she already had another cigarette out of the pack and ready to go. She’d stub out the old one and a fresh one was out of the pack and in-between her lips, lit. This happened in one smooth, well-practiced, sublimely graceful movement.
When the end of a cigarette pack arrived, and she was smoking the last one, she made her way to the center island and in a series of careful, effortless movements she gently opened the side of the soft pack so the entire package was able to lay flat, face down, and then she carefully, like a surgeon with no insurance, separated the foil paper that covered the inside and protected the cigarettes, from the actual clean white-paper, unprinted back side of the Old Gold cigarette pack.
In the center island, there was a little space where she did her daily household business, paid bills, wrote checks… and wrote notes. Notes were tacked up all around – lists of books to read, things to buy, letters to write, groceries to get and a list of friends who had come by which were more imaginary than real… and next to her small workspace were two stacks of paper about drinking glass high, which she used as note paper and these were the insides of the cigarette packs – the silver paper for important notes, the white package backside paper for the more mundane notes… and a few glass jars with marbles held an enormous quantity of pencils and old ballpoint pens and fountain pens, bits of string and washers, nuts, screws and razor blades – carefully bundled and held together by a strip of paper – Old Gold – and rubber bands.
I sat there on the stool for a good amount of time. The sun streaming, pouring into the kitchen, the sounds of the house becoming noticeable: the creaking, the glass shifting in the windows as it expanded, slowly heated by the sun, and the marbles shifting and settling in the rows and rows of glass jars as heated, trapped air escaped from hundreds of jars with a short, barely audible hiss. The kitchen was alive with movement and sound, sun and marbles, clothes drying by the pantry and the occasional, low hum of a car on Back Street heading towards Amwell Avenue.
Ms. Schmidt had still not returned from the recesses of the back rooms, although every now and then I could hear a rustle of papers in the far rooms I couldn’t see into from my stool by the door, so I got off the stool and carefully, quietly went to my left and past the kitchen stove and down a short hall and into the living room.
The windows were all covered in faded grey-white lace curtains, all the shades were drawn except for one or two by the stairs to my left and sofas and chairs were stacked with folded fabrics, clothes, table and bedspreads, baskets of tools, cans, jars, papers, coffee cans, stacks of paper bags, stacks of magazines and catalogs and books were everywhere and I could barely get through… the front door was now a little more visible and lace curtains hung over the inside glass, one end falling lower from age and the decomposing effects of sunlight, and a musty, old-wood smell of decay and neglect was everywhere.
I turned to my left now and looked at the faded and yellowed wallpaper; some of the seams had given way, peeled back and pieces of ceiling and wall crumble lay on the stairs between the railing and the books and papers, magazines and old records that covered half the staircase on each step going up. As I looked up the stairs and looking back towards the kitchen, to the left of the railing below on the living room floor, was a large box, and on that box sat a medieval miniature castle.
It wasn’t big, it was about 3’ wide and 18” deep…it was white with beautiful turrets on every corner made of paper towel tubes and the top spires were dixie cups turned upside down. Toothpicks had been inserted into the dixie cups pointed ends and small flags made of white paper were glued to the toothpick and flags flew everywhere! The walls were cardboard with the ramparts carefully cut out of cereal boxes taped and glued together and inside the castle there was an elevated area and the courtyard had steps that went up to a second level on which stood a chapel the size of a lunch box with 10” walls, had beautifully cut out windows with shutters and a soaring roof with turrets on each corner and bits of twigs with ancient leaves still on them had been very carefully placed at different levels around the Chapel entrance to create a medieval garden walk and above the beautifully cut outdoors was a 5” circle, intricately cut out with a carefully drawn and cut out miniature rose window that looked down into the main bailey and the sides of the walls had carefully cut arrow loops and the main gate had a drawbridge and string ropes that came through the outer curtain walls to the mezzanine… all in clean, beautifully whitewashed cardboard.
Mrs. Schmidt walked by the kitchen doorway, looked down the hallway and saw me and called me back to my stool. When I had gotten safely back in my seat, I tried to ask about the Castle but it got lost between the clouds of cigarette smoke and the need to have coffee so a coffeepot was produced, the water and coffee added and in a few minutes the smell of hot coffee merged with the billowing clouds of Old Gold cigarette smoke that traveled with her and the smell of worn lace curtain decay, and it was an exhilarating mixture of something exciting, something old, new, of the future and the long past…
We sat in the kitchen, amid glorious sunlight and she drank her coffee in-between long cigarette drags, talking with the cigarette in the corner of her mouth, her grey glasses sliding down her nose and the ash on the cigarette getting longer and longer and she just rambled and rambled on, and there were no easily grasped sentences, no string of conversational banter requiring a response that I recall, a few mentions about going west, now and then something about the Watchung Mountains in New jersey, a reference now and then to sons, no details, and the house we were sitting in; there was no telephone that rang, nobody came to the door and we just sat there that morning her, me on the stool, clouds of smoke and sunlight of a million colors flooding the room, highlighting everything and I watched everything, too… she drank coffee and smoked and the clouds of smoke that followed her everywhere billowing around her and forming a kitchen cumulus above her head and as she lit a new cigarette she said that now, guided by some unseen time device, would be a good time to fry up some marbles.
In an instant the was stove engaged, a frying pan was produced, a glass was handed to me and I stood on my toes to turn the faucet on over the huge double sink and a clear gusher roared out of that faucet, water shot everywhere as it hit the glass and came back into the air above me… it was wiped up, the glass was full of water again, the frying pan was smoking a bit from the gas flame heat and a handful of marbles was extracted from a nearby container and after a few anxious moments while the surface heated to the correct temperature, we gently rolled them into the pan. 2 spoons were produced and we picked up the marbles from the hot pan and dropped them into the cold water and they snapped and popped and made a wonderful sound and the water hissed and a little bit of steam rose when we put the rest of them in!
This was science.. and so fun and engaging!
There was something completely absorbing about being around Mrs. Schmidt and doing this… the marbles had completely fractured and we looked at them when they were cold enough to touch and the glass was shattered inside them and we put them in a jar, placed them on the shelf of the kitchen window… and the sun created a whole new light spot on the floor and the far walls… and it was mine.
The rush of the morning overtook us. Mrs. Schmidt seemed like she knew who I was and where we lived and she took me to the kitchen door, opened the door and pointed to the back of the Slade house on Front Street and reached into her pocket, produced a cigarette, lit it and launched into something and was still rambling on as I was onto the porch, into the grass and running towards the fence, my heart racing, my senses overcome and overwhelmed.
I tried to visit Mrs. Schmidt a number of times on my bicycle after that day, but it was never like the first time we met and she got a little more reclusive as time went by. Sometime later we moved overseas and I didn’t see her again for a long time.
When I was in art school in New Jerseya few years later, we had a complete course on an obscure but very important development in Modern Art that bridged the surface of the canvas with the actual creative activity: Happenings. At that moment I realized her connection to Alan Kaprow, Claus Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, Jim Dine, George Segal, and Red Grooms through her son, Alan’s collaborator, Daniel Schmidt. The kitchen in Middlebush, on Back Street, was the focal point of this creative development, a center for the new artists who created and championed these Happenings… the house and the objects and the castle by the stairs all made sense.
I once brought my instructor Brooke Larsen from the Painting Department to meet Mrs. Schmidt. He taught the course on Happenings and he had been around the New York art world for some time, was highly respected and had an encyclopedic knowledge of all aspects of modern art movements. He was from the Yale School of Painting and knew Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Chuck Close and Leo Castelli and the whole scene.
When we met Mrs. Schmidt in her driveway she was quite a bit older now, and a little more apprehensive towards any new people and although I think she remembered me, I couldn’t be sure.
I tried ever-so-gently to talk our way into the house so I could show Brooke the fantastic castle on the stairs, but that wasn’t going to happen. She did let us explore the barn in the back where all the flats were stored from the early Happenings along with a few panels from The Building, Kaprow’s landmark Happening as well as some flats from Red Grooms’ “Ruckus Manhattan”. In the corner of the barn, we found two sneakers on a small square piece of plywood completely covered with thick grey paint with the words “J. Dine” done by a finger in the lower right corner. We brought it out and we gave it to Ms. Schmidt. As we drove down Back Street I looked back out the window and Mrs. Schmidt was waving and lighting a cigarette. I never saw her again.
My Painting Instructor eventually moved to New York and opened up a framing studio on Canal Street where I worked for a period making frames for the Mary Boone Gallery, and artists like David Salle, Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat… and I would make
castles at night in the basement of my parent’s house in Englewood, New Jersey, trying to recapture what I had seen that day in Middlebush.
I made many castles, and then I made many machines that used pinballs and marbles and rubber bands to trip levers that released flags and raised small wooden bridges all made with bits of wood and cigar boxes and all tied together with glue and string.
The artist and sculptor George Segal has a sculpture in New York City at the Whitney Museum of Art called “Ruth in her Kitchen” and I have never forgotten her kindness and those wonderful days in her kitchen with the smoke, the lace curtains, frying marbles, the hundreds of jars of marbles, the sunlight… and the castle on the stairs.
That day with Mrs. Schmidt saved me from an ordinary life.
Singer/songwriter Eric Sommer is an unbelievable intersection of improbable influences and experiences channeled into an amazingly diverse catalog and a résumé that reads more like a musical adventure novel than a series of career bullet points.