An Object of Beauty - By Steve Martin Page 0,2

shippers and craters, but she kept her wardrobe keen for her occasional pop-ups to the fourth-floor offices. An ivy-embraced college may have been her education in the high ground of art, but Sotheby’s basement was her education in the fundamentals. She hoisted pictures onto a carpet-covered table, stretched her tape measure over their backs, and wrote down everything she could. She flipped them over and noted signatures and monograms, trying to decipher artists’ illegible scrawls, and she scratched around in the cumbersome reference dictionaries, Myers and Benezit, to find listings of obscure artists so she could report a successful attribution to her superiors. During her first year, she saw the fronts and backs of thousands of paintings. She learned to precisely tap a painting with the back of her finger: a hard, stiff canvas indicated the picture had been relined, usually a warning sign about a painting’s poor condition. She was taught to identify varnished prints that were trying to pass themselves off as paintings—a magnifying glass would reveal printer’s dots (to the disappointment of excited sellers who believed they owned an original). She learned to distinguish etchings from lithographs by raking the print in a hard light, looking for telling shadows in the groove of the etched line.

The paintings in the basement were generally dogs; the finer works remained upstairs, hung over a director’s desk or in a private room until their grand display in one of the large galleries. The masterpieces were examined by conservators bearing loupes and black lights, while Lacey toiled downstairs in the antique dust like Sneezy the Dwarf. The subject matter she faced every day was not the apples of Cézanne, but the kitsch of the nineteenth century: monks tippling, waifs selling flowers, cardinals laughing, cows in landscapes, Venetian gondoliers, baby chicks in farmyards, mischievous shoeshine boys, and still lifes painted so badly that objects seemed to levitate over the tabletop on which they were supposed to be gravitationally attached. On her rare visits upstairs, she found serenity in the sight of the occasional Seurat or Monet and, sometimes, Rembrandt. However, through the drudgery downstairs, Lacey was developing an instinct that would burrow inside her and stay forever: a capacity to know a good painting from a bad one.

Her walk-on role at Sotheby’s stood in contrast with her starring role in the East Village bars and cafés. After her practiced and perfected subway ride home, which was timed like a ballet—her foot forward, the subway car doors opening just in time to catch her—she knew the bar lights were coming on, voices were raised, music edging out onto the sidewalks. She felt like the one bright light, the spotlit girl scattering fairy dust, as she walked the few blocks to her walk-up. Once inside, she slumped sideways on her bed, cocked the phone against her head, and sipped Scotch while she phoned Angela or Sharon, or sometimes, me.

“Hey… God, I miss you! Where are you? Meet me at Raku for sushi. Goddamn it! Sorry, I sloshed Scotch on me. Meet me now… No, now.”

Raku was the mystery restaurant of the Lower East Side. Large portions, low prices, and never more than four customers no matter what time of the day it was. Tables waited for Lacey like kennel puppies hoping to be picked. She rolled in at seven p.m. and sat down in solitude.

Lacey was just as happy alone as with company. When she was alone, she was potential; with others she was realized. Alone, she was self-contained, her tightly spinning magnetic energy oscillating around her. When in company, she had invisible tethers to everyone in the room: as they moved away, she pulled them in. She knew who was doing better than she was, what man she would care to seduce just to prove she could. She was a naval commander knowing the location of all her boats.

The East Village mixed the fast life with the slow life, and the two were sometimes indistinguishable. Actors huddled and chatted in crappy bars, while old-timers to whom the neon beer sign was not a kitschy collectible but simply a neon beer sign sat on stools and remained unaware that they would be, this year or next, pushed out of the increasingly younger neighborhood. Sometimes the newer crowd would clumsily light up cigarettes, and Lacey occasionally joined them.

The contemporary art scene was the left bank suburb to Lacey’s right bank, uptown art world. Her connection to it was the numerous young hyphenates that would drift across