Old Masters: A Frank Mason Walking Tour of Little Italy
Walk Taken: November 5, 2011
Directions: Take the A, C, E, N, Q, R, J, Z, 6, 2, or 1 train to Canal Street. Walk East along Canal Street until you get to Mulberry Street. Walk North on Mulberry Street until you reach the Mulberry Street Bar. It will be on the right-hand side of the Street.
This walk was inspired by the life and art of Frank Mason (1921 – 2009), a realist artist who taught at the Art Students League for over 50 years. He also lived and worked in Little Italy, where many of his paintings can still be found in bars, cafes, and churches. Here he is in a 1978 self-portrait.
First Stop—Mulberry Street Bar
Start at the Mulberry Street Bar at 1761/2 Mulberry Street, between Broome and Grand.
Until she saw the painting, Gertie thought she’d made a mistake. It was supposed to be a mostly safe adventure, to stroll down Mulberry Street one more time. But the walk so far had depressed her: the dust-dulled reds of the restaurant awnings, the speakers blaring arias to empty streets, the souvenir shops that displayed sweatshirts with tasteless slogans like, “I’m the boss.” Little Italy was a cheap theme park of its former self, and the Mare Chiaro Tavern was no different. Faded photographs in the windows and bright TVs above the bar, it lured in tourists with the glamour of its past and kept them there by being a comforting copy of the bar back home. Even the name had changed, from Mare Chiaro to plain old Mulberry Street. Gertie would have walked right out except that opposite the door, veiled behind reflected neon, hung the bar as she remembered it.
She recognized the white tablecloths, the old-world faces, the shadows cast on dark wood walls by lights that didn’t vibrate. And she liked the painting’s bartender. He was an older man in a long white apron over large black boots. His graying hair had receded behind the curve of his head, and many years of hospitality had carved themselves into his bones. The artist had caught him poised to take an order—standing behind a round man in a fedora, hand outstretched to tap him on the shoulder—but paused to let the man watch his team score a goal.
“Can I, uhhh, help you with anything?” asked the present bartender. She was a young woman with ballooning cheeks and hair pulled tight into a high, bleached ponytail. Her mouth dimpled downward in a constant frown, and her shirt veed so low that it revealed a dimple of a different sort.
“Oh no,” Gertie heard the sigh in her own voice, “I’m just remembering. This was the first place my husband took me to when we started going steady.”
“Awwww, that’s so sweet!” The dimples curved upwards now. “Will he be joining you here tonight?”
“Not in body, no. He passed away two years ago.” Gertie had to admit she took some pleasure in wiping the dimples from the woman’s face. Her lips stretched into a creaseless O.
“God, I’m so sorry. What a thing to say.”
“It’s all right, dear, there’s no way you could have known,” Gertie said, to be polite. Though really, when an 85-year-old woman was standing alone in a bar on a Saturday evening “remembering,” you could make an educated guess.
“Well,” the girl looked down and began to peal up the corner of a cardboard coaster, “Would you, uuh, like me to take your picture or anything?”
Gertie did not like pictures of herself; all she saw now was the empty space beside her. But social victory lay in treating the graceless with as much grace as one could muster, so she said, “Oh, that would be lovely, thank you. In front of that painting please.”
Yet this time, as she stood before the painting while the bartender squinted at her screenless camera, she imagined she was one with those oil figures. Besides being the only woman, she would not have looked an anachronism in her long brown coat and wool beret, gray hair curling out from under its lip. She imagined the old bartender was poised behind her, and she could feel the heat of his body and smell the beer and garlic on his breath.
“Oh, it’s a film camera!” the young bartender exclaimed in a moment of Proustian enlightenment. “I haven’t seen one of these since grade school!” As she held the viewfinder to her eye, Gertie settled deeper into the painting. They were both, now, relics behind glass.
Until the camera lowered. Gertie almost stumbled as she reached to take it. Suddenly she felt very cold.
The bartender must have seen the quivering backwards look Gertie gave the painting then, because she said, “You know, if you like that painting, there are more by the same artist in the café next door.”
“Oh, oh really? Oh, thank you!” Gertie was surprised by how much her voice trembled, how fast her heart beat, how her fingers tingled with warmth. Why was she so hard on this bartender? Clearly, she was a thoughtful, kind young woman; she just needed a better wardrobe.
“Here,” she said, taking at $10 from her wallet as she headed towards the door.
“Oh—“ the bartender’s mouth opened wide and dimpleless again. “That’s all right, you didn’t order anything.”
“I insist,” and she winked. “Use it to buy yourself a nice button-up blouse.” She almost giggled when she stepped onto the street.
Second Stop—Cafe Roma
Gertie stepped into the café and felt herself exhale. With its forest-green walls, marble-topped tables, and small chairs backed with silver curls, it answered the beating of her heart. It reminded her of Mr. Calvino’s ice cream shop, where she had met her friends in the Connecticut town of her childhood.
Then there were the paintings. She had thought the first might have been an aberration—what current artist combined the rich tones and realistic but expressive brushwork of the old masters? Yet here were Italian landscapes of a style and quality that could have hung in the nineteenth century European wing of any great museum.
She sat down under one of these, and heard herself gasp. Under a canopy of trees and columns, a young couple sat sharing lunch over a picnic blanket. The figures were small beside the trees and ruins; their faces featureless. And yet she could see in them herself and Frank, on their honeymoon in Italy. One day they really had picnicked under ruined columns. They had been so much larger than she expected—like giant tree trunks or narrow cliffs. Impossible to imagine them built by other humans. She had reached over the blanket and squeezed Frank’s hand, glad to have a companion in her smallness.
And now she was alone. Once again the coldness of it waved through her, and she wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. Why did Frank have to strand her in this foreign century, with its neon advertisements, ugly art, divorced children, granddaughters with live-in boyfriends, and all of these bills she had never learned to pay? When he had been alive, the changes had seemed remote, somehow. After all, she had followed him around the globe for his mining company job, creating New England living rooms in places as remote as Australia and Suriname. The 21st century seemed like just another foreign country they were visiting together. Outside, the natives could do as they pleased, but inside their apartment there was hot tea in the china pot and Mother’s braided rug under Father’s mahogany table.
Gertie was afraid she must have let off a whimper, because the waitress leaned towards her with a knitted brow. “Are you all right, Ma’am? May I take your order?”
This woman was almost too elegant for her job, with black hair fluffed back into a bun and a jacket that turned her shoulders into angles. Gertie did not want to look foolish in front of her. “Oh, I haven’t had a chance to look over the menu yet,” she said. The woman nodded and clicked away on the tiled floor. She had the feline poise of a film noir fatale. Gertie didn’t trust her.
She picked up the menu, more to distract herself from tears than because she had any interest in ordering. Caffeine made her heart race, and sugar had long since ceased to thrill her tongue. Then she turned it over.
“The paintings displayed here in Café Roma are scenes painted in Italy by Frank Mason,” she read. Frank? He shared her husband’s name! And they had both died in the same year—2009. A sob balled in Gertie’s throat. She had to leave before she began to cry. But where could she go? Tonight would be the first time she would stay in a hotel alone, and she hoped to be too tired when she reached it to notice the largeness of the bed. Blinking, Gertie read the rest of the menu’s small biography. Frank Mason had lived in Little Italy for 50 years, the menu said. And another of his paintings hung in Old Saint Patrick’s, on the corner of Prince and Mott. There! She would see the other painting!
Quickly, before the waitress pounced, she darted for the door.
Third Stop—Flags Over Broome Street
Just as she pushed out onto the street, something in her pocket began to bounce and wail. Gertie jumped and shrieked. She began to shake her coat, and the unnatural heaviness of the right side reminded her—it was only a cell phone. Gertie hadn’t wanted it, but Shelby had insisted she borrow it for her New York journey. “So I know you’re OK,” Shelby had said, and Gertie, who forced her children to phone and wake her up even when their planes landed at 4 a.m., couldn’t refuse.
Slowly, Gertie lifted it out of her pocket with her thumb and forefinger and held it away from her, as if its flip concealed sharp teeth. Then she used the thumb and forefinger of her other hand to cautiously open it.
“Yes?” she held the receiver an inch from her mouth.
“Hello, Mrs. Bertram? This is Shelby.”
“What?” Gertie gave up and lifted the phone up to—but not touching—her ear. At 85 it was a little silly to fear a brain tumor, but if Gertie was to die, she wanted it to be from a good, old-fashioned disease.
“This is Shelby.”
“Oh, hello Shelby.”
“Did you find the bar Ok?”
“Yes, yes thank you. I gave the cab driver the directions you printed for me.”
It was Shelby who had made the visit possible. She was one of the waitresses in the dining room at Bay Breeze Manor in Mystic, Connecticut, where Gertie and Frank had finally settled and where Gertie now lived alone. Shelby, like her granddaughter, lived with her boyfriend. She still had an Obama08 bumper sticker stuck to her used car, and she was paying her way through a graduate program in women’s studies. But Gertie forgave her all that because Shelby was one of the few young people who knew how to carry on a conversation, who could wait their turn and speak clearly when it came. So when pasta night had set Gertie to thinking of her first date in Little Italy, Shelby had been the waitress she’d flagged over to tell. And when she’d said, wistfully, that she’d like to stroll Mulberry Street one more time, Shelby had taken her at her word, acting as her Virgil through the frightening Inferno of online booking.
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” Shelby asked now.
“No, no—oh wait! Are you near a computer.”
“Yep. I’ve been studying all day.”
“There’s a painting I want to see, by Frank Mason, on Prince and Mott. Can you tell me how to get there?”
“Sure, where are you now?”
“The corner of Mulberry and,” she peered at the white letters of the green street sign, “Broome.”
“Sure thing, just a second, Ok. You just turn right on Broome. The next street is Mott. You turn left on Mott till you get to Prince. Got it?”
“Yes, yes, that sounds simple enough.”
Gertie looked down the street she was supposed to walk. In the misty glow of the street lights, the American and Italian flags seemed themselves to furl out of an impressionist painting. Impressionism was the last evolution of art Gertie could understand. And they said it was a reaction against the photograph, an attempt to steal back visual art from the harsh snap of total reproduction.
“Well, I’ll let you go. I’ll see you at the train station tomorrow.”
“Goodbye, thank you!” But as grateful as Gertie was for Shelby’s help, she was even more grateful when she heard the liberating beep of an ended call, permission to stuff the dreaded phone back into the oblivion of her pocket.
Fourth Stop—Outside Old Saint Patrick’s
Gertie followed Shelby’s instructions —or so she thought. But she grew increasingly nervous as the Italian flags gave way to Chinese laundries and the Chinese laundries gave way to small, dimly lit restaurants. The restaurants and their customers looked young and sleek, dressed in beige awnings and tight pants. The farther she walked, the less Gertie believed she would find a church in this world of exposed brick and metal counters. Had she missed it? Had she turned too soon? But there it was—a solid block of gray stone that had plunked itself down in lower Manhattan and refused to get up again.
She was surprised by its ancient simplicity. No carvings adorned the façade. No tiny details tamed its size. Fluorescent floodlights lit the front in green, separating it further from the golden-brown café-restaurants.
People were leaving the church in smatterings—shaking hands with the priest at the door then moving to stand with groups of three or four in the small courtyard. She had come at the end of something then. That was lucky. Gertie thought it rude to enter a church during a service, and she had been afraid the building would be closed altogether on a Saturday night.
The next woman to shake the priest’s hand, Gertie noticed, did not cluster. Instead, she went to stand off to the side of the door. She was an old woman, like Gertie, though unlike Gertie she leaned heavily on a wooden cane. She had thick gray eyebrows and a square, wrinkled face. Gertie watched as her gray lips puckered into a deep frown and she seemed to lean her sadness on her cane. She looked so much like Gertie felt that she couldn’t help but walk up to her and ask, “Ma’am, are you all right?”
The old woman swiveled her head slowly. “Oh, yes. I’m just thinking how small the crowd is tonight. When I was a girl, you could hardly find a pew for the Saturday evening masses. But, well, I’m sure you remember, back then people really believed. People today say they do, but they never come.”
“Well,” Gertie said. “You’ll have the last laugh.”
The woman’s lips twitched once, then broke open against the force of a resounding, “Ha!” “I like you’re style. I’m Bea,” she said, straightening her back and holding out a shaking hand. “You can’t be from around here; I would know you if you were.”
“My name is Gertie Bertram. I’ve only been to Little Italy once before, for a first date over sixty years ago.” She took Bea’s hand. It was so soft with wrinkles and bent with arthritis that it made Gertie’s weak grip feel strong. “I just wanted to see the painting of the resurrection, by Frank Mason, if that’s all right.”
“Oh, of course! Frank, he was a good man. I remember teaming up with him to stop that freeway they wanted to route through the neighborhood. He didn’t grow up here, but he still loved it enough to fight for it. Follow me, I’ll show it to you.”
“Oh, was your husband a city councilmember or something?” Gertie asked as they walked towards the entrance.
“No,” Bea winked at her, “My husband was a doctor. I was the councilmember.”
Last Stop—The “Resurrection of Christ”
Bea led her all the way down the center aisle and ushered her into the front pew. If the outside of the church was plain, the inside was a cacophony of gold. And at its center was Frank Mason’s painting.
It was not the comfort Gertie had hoped for. Yes, the Christ was as fully realized as any by Rembrandt or Raphael; his muscles bulged and his drapery fell in the familiar pattern. But unlike the scene in the bar or the Italian pastorals, this painting was not of any time. This Christ floated above a stone coffin against a blue-gray sky. He could have emerged just as easily from a monument in Central Park as from a tomb in the hills of first century Palestine. Gertie wanted the promise of resurrection. Instead she imagined the disorientation of waking up in a strange bed for the first time after a move.
“You don’t like it?” Bea asked. She must have seen Gertie’s face sink.
“It’s just, his other paintings are so concrete. This one could be happening anytime, anywhere.”
Bea smiled. “And that’s what I like about it. Jesus is rising for everyone, anytime, anywhere. Even,” she sighed, “if they don’t appreciate it. Oh, just a minute.”
Gertie watched in awe as Bea removed a black-framed mirror from her pocket. But it wasn’t a mirror at all—it was one of those fancy phones that her son used to send emails to his boss on vacation. And the shaky hands that had felt so weak to her were moving across the screen and making letters appear.
“I’m sorry,” Bea met her eyes when she had finished. “That was my daughter. She wants to know if I’m joining the family for dinner tonight. She gets quite panicked if I don’t respond as soon as possible. But that’s the price I pay for living on my own.”
“You can write with that?” Gertie knew her mouth and eyes were wide with a rude wonder, but she couldn’t help herself. This woman, who moments ago had been a peer, an ally against the strangeness of the future, was now strange herself. She seemed larger all of a sudden, both older and younger. A figure outside time.
“Oh, yes. It’s the easiest way for my children to reach me, and I like to keep up with city politics. Everything happens on twitter now.”
“Can I tell you something?” Gertie blurted out. “Something I’ve never told anyone?” It had been such a long time since she’d spoken to someone she could hold in awe, someone who embodied for her that schoolmarm mix of witch and Saint.
“All right,” Bea pursed her eyebrows but held her gaze.
“It’s just, my late husband and I, we met in college in the city. He was in Business School at Columbia and I was studying Russian at Barnard. He proposed to me the summer before my senior year. Anyway, that fall I wrote a paper in Russian about Anna Karenina. My professor didn’t like my argument. She thought I was too hard on Anna. But she said my command of the language was the best she’d ever seen. She offered to introduce me to a gentleman in the State Department, you know, because they needed people who spoke Russian. Of course, I explained I was engaged and that was that. I never told anyone about it.”
“And do you regret it?” Bea asked. There was no judgment in the question. Her voice was flatly curious, as if she’d been asking Gertie if she wanted cream with her tea.
“No! Of course not! Frank and I had a lovely life together! It’s only,” her voice grew softer suddenly. She felt like a child confessing a guilty secret to a wise adult. “It’s only, if I’d been the other kind of woman, you know, who had a job when it wasn’t proper. If I’d been one of those women who helped change the world into what it is, would I feel less alone, now? At the end?”
Every wrinkle in Bea’s face seemed to tremble. “No,” she whispered gently, “No.” She turned her head upwards, and Gertie saw she looked at the painted Christ, stepping from the tomb and looking out into eternity. “Sooner or later,” she said, “we all get left behind.”