“Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you…
Is it only ’cause you’re lonely they have blamed you?
For that Mona Lisa strangeness in your smile?”
I got paid more than I expected. How often can an artist say that? It felt good.
It wasn’t just the money, which always comes in handy. It was the feeling of respect.
Just a little bit. Just a little bit.
The whole night felt like a privilege. I got to perform in a real theatre, in an affluent suburban village north of New York City. The show, Imagine Nation, curated and conceived, by singer-songwriter, Joe Crookston, had music, dance, storytelling, painting. There were dressing rooms, and dinner. White haired hippies and chatter. Good people supporting art. Good people making art. Good people believing in the common good.
I sang harmony on a song about racial injustice, and told the story of my near death experience. I felt happy. In my element. I still left early. Trains out there don’t run every 5 minutes. If you miss one, you have to wait another hour. 30 minutes later, I arrived in Grand Central Station. It was an easy ride. The whole night was an easy ride.
Walking through the station, I felt affection for the 20-something party-goers, who normally, I would find quite annoying. They seemed to be looking for love, and companionship. They would find their way, eventually.
The homeless were the heartbreakers. How would they find their way? Lined up against the walls, with rolling suitcases. Sleeping like weary travelers with no destination. Who can look without wincing? Since almost dying, I find physical comfort most gratifying. Food, shelter, warmth. These things are precious, more than half the battle of human existence. I want to put money into homeless pockets, but I pass them all.
It’s life in the big city. Sometimes you give, sometimes you don’t.
I head out the door of Grand Central Station, to fetch a taxi, when I see her.
She is the reason I left the festivities early. She is the reason I haven’t yet given money.
She is The Artist, The Art, herself. Mona Lisa.
I don’t know her name yet, but her work is vibrant, alive. White speckles on black, with clothing to match. She and her art are inseparable. Twinkling stars in an earthy night sky. I ask if I can give her money. “Oh yes,” she says, “I am always hoping for angels.” I reach into the brown paper envelope, asking if I can take a photo. She watches my hand. I pull out a five. I put it back. I got paid more than I expected. I am looking for a twenty. When I pull it out, she is surprised, pleased. “Oh, yes”, she says, “You can take a picture if you’re giving me $20!” We both laugh. It’s not just the money. It’s the feeling of respect. Just a little bit. Just a little bit. “Where do you do your work?”, I ask. “Oh, anywhere. Everywhere”, she says. She is smart, lively, open, self-aware. She is making art without a home, disproving Maslow’s theory. Spending money on materials, when some might say she should use it for practical matters. She is the final act of Imagine Nation. I’m glad I made it in time. Life is art. The artist’s life, devotion beyond what is sensible. We smile and talk. There is genius, and genuineness. She won’t let me ask about homelessness. She tells me about ex-boyfriends, about growing up with a name that got her teased, about growing up with skin that was too Black.
She tells me to listen to God. He will let me know who is genuine, and who isn’t.
“Listen”, she says. “He’ll tell you.”
Mona Lisa Clovianni, her father named her.
“Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa?”
She’s real. The real deal. A true artist.
She says she will go inside to warm up.
She says she will buy markers with the money I gave her.
She got paid more than she expected.
So did I.