Slice of Life Series
© copyright 2013 Susan S. Barmon
All Rights Reserved
The Heiress and The Transvestite:
We met The Heiress through her Mexican Folk Art gallery in the Fillmore neighborhood, while walking around looking for “For Rent” signs. It was hard to get our heads wrapped around another move, but with little left to lose and most of our stuff in storage it became a matter of safety. We had been robbed recently and thought it would be a good thing to look for another place a bit more secure than our tiny garden apartment in Pacific Heights.
The Heiress’s gallery was a storefront in a Victorian building with two rental flats above. The MJMoore Gallery, neatly painted on the deep green awning, was inviting. We had been collecting Mexican folk art for years. After schlepping it cross country and throwing it all into our storage space in the East Bay, we were curious. The large room had a lot of natural light from the window facing Post Street. It was filled with folk art: from Day of the Dead statuary on strategically placed pedestals, reliquaries on the walls, and wonderful fabrics from Guatemala. There were the requisite cards, posters and jewelry from local and Central American artists, and a small office space and bathroom way in the back. Her small desk was near the jewelry display case by the front door.
After introductions we told her about our collection and our interest in hers. She wanted to know if we wanted to consign anything with her. It hadn’t occurred to us up until then but Matt told her we’d think about it and get back to her. We then asked if any flats were for rent and she told us her four-unit building in North Beach was going to have an available apartment in a couple of months and she would love to get it rented before the current tenants moved out. That would alleviate any stress on her end. After exchanging information we left, continuing on our apartment search. Matt and I discussed selling some of our art and figured we could consign a few pieces and see if they sold.
When The Heiress called a few days later we set up a time to meet the following week, giving me time to get to our “home away from home” in the East Bay to dig around and find what we were willing to sell. Meeting at the gallery was good. She liked our selections, suggested we run across the street to grab a cup of coffee and come back to the gallery to talk.
The Heiress started telling me about her life. You have to remember I knew no one and was amazed I was actually speaking, in the flesh, to someone in the same area code. She also told me not to call her Mary Jane. She preferred The Heiress. It was her favorite over the several names she had used in her life.
The Heiress was a small woman, about 5’5” with perfect posture and a tiny waist. She always stood and sat ramrod straight, hands manicured and folded, never speaking much unless the conversation was about her. Her breasts had been lifted after her daughter was born twenty-five years earlier and they had stood the “perky” test for a woman in her late forties. Her wiry long burgundy hair was piled on her head for lack of anywhere else to put it, except perhaps under hats, which she wore often. The Heiress had an awkward way of waving her hands around when she spoke, as if she wasn’t sure what they were and why they were at the ends of her wrists. The clumsiness of the movement always made me think perhaps her nail polish never dried. She wasn’t comfortable with her hands, but I think she thought the gesture was feminine and ladylike, something I learned later she always strived to be.
The Heiress had a nervous habit of pursing her lips whenever she was asked a question. She thought it gave her a contemplative, thoughtful “look.” She had great lips, full and heart-shaped, that is until she had them altered with plastic surgery after her mother died. Then they were caricatures of their previous beauty; looking as if a duck’s bill was about to sprout out of her face.
I realized after I’d spent some time with her that MJ didn’t laugh much. I later found out she wasn’t lacking a sense of humor but more importantly she didn’t want her face littered with laugh lines. Her wardrobe was stylish, mostly consisting of expensive long black skirts and pants to accentuate her small waist. (The Transvestite would later tell me, “Julia, I like to stand at the bottom of the staircase and when she comes down the steps I like to photograph up under her skirt.”)
She asked me to come back to the gallery in a few days because she got lonely sitting there all day and thought perhaps my background in Art Direction and location photography might help her self-promotion efforts. She couldn’t pay me with money but had wonderful connections to Mendocino Gold which she could give me in exchange. She told me her dealers came to the city about once a month from Mendocino and stayed in one of the empty spaces in her basement. The other basement space she had turned into an office with a small stand-up shower and a tucked-away toilet in a closet.
I said “Yes.” I knew no one and I was tired of talking to the cat. “Any port in a storm” was my motto and if it came with a little weed, so much the better. It was a lonely existence. When I showed up at the gallery the following week to help she closed up, locked the door and lit a joint.
Then she proceeded to tell me about her life. I was discovering that we shared some things in common. My mother had just died and hers was starting the process. We both had a daughter with a troublesome past, and thinking back on it, I think we were both “oddities” to each other and that created curiosity.
The phone kept ringing while we chatted. Her boyfriend and his two daughters, she explained, lived with her in her North Beach building. An electrician by trade, Marty worked little, which was a constant source of irritation to her. He was calling to tell her he had done the laundry and was cooking dinner. She told him not to bother because she didn’t want to eat, forgetting that the kids might be hungry.
She met him when she finished taking some neon classes at the Art Academy and wanted to open a neon studio with two friends. They found a cheap space in the Tenderloin neighborhood. He was the electrician they hired. He really screwed up their studio electricity- wise, which infuriated the landlord when they left. They sold nothing and left the studio because they couldn’t pay the rent and The Heiress wouldn’t pay everyone’s share. The Heiress said, “Julia, I love a project and I needed a man around to do everything in the house I couldn’t and those two little girls were adorable and needed guidance. I had just bought the North Beach building, with help from my mother, and it didn’t matter at the time that he was a crummy electrician. He and those girls were as cute as they could be.”
She didn’t let on about his proclivities but when I went to use the gallery bathroom I got a nasty shock turning on the light. She said, “Oh, he did that when I moved the gallery in here and he just won’t come and fix it and I won’t call anyone to do it because it’s his job.” She went on to say, “We were supposed to do this gallery together, but he was constantly challenging me and the arguments got to be too much. So I just did it on my own. There was also supposed to be wood work from Bali in here. On a vacation trip to Bali (Bali and Goa being the preferred vacay spot for monied San Franciscans) he bought all kinds of Balinese flower and leaf carvings that fit together like Tinker Toys. You know any configuration you want as long as the carved post fits into the carved hole.” Immediately I imagined a Balinese Tinker Toy jungle forest.
Continuing she said, “I begged him not to buy them but he said even if they didn’t sell in the gallery he could sell them mail order. I didn’t want them in the gallery and refused to have them here.” I asked if he knew about the mail order business? Negative. The Tinker Toy jungle was now set up outside her basement office and many large boxes were stored on the side of the basement where the dealers slept when they were in town.
I left that afternoon saturated. We made plans to meet the following week at her home office in North Beach. We could work on the mailing list and other mundane stuff for the gallery. MJ told me to come in the door as it was rarely locked, and come up the stairs. In the kitchen was a door leading down to the basement. She would see me there and show me the flat that was coming up for rent.
to be continued. . .
Photo Credit: “A pair of high heeled shoes with 12 cm heels,” by Wikipedia. Public Domain Photo.