It's about 1:30 PM and I've been riding the 151 bus up Michigan Avenue. It's a warm afternoon and there's only a small breeze. As I get off at Huron, I see this little old woman, wearing a gray dress, long to the knees with scallops at the hem. It's old, tattered, open at the neck, but still somehow elegant.
I recognize her. It's Lee Godie, the street artist I've been searching for, for almost ten years. She's reaching out at the pedestrians on the sidewalk, who pull back in surprise, looking at this woman as though she's trying to rob them. She's mumbling something inaudible, her head bent down, her arm occasionally flying in the wind.
With her other arm she holds one of her drawings--two bluebirds, repeated four times--against her dress, showing it off. The canvas is about four feet long, narrow, and really quite nice.
I stop and ask her about it. "I'll sell it to you--for $500," she says. As she raises her head, it's hard not to notice the heavy layer of orange rouge that covers her cheeks and her nose and runs up under her eyes, almost rimming them.
I tell her I don't carry that kind of money. But this is Michigan Avenue, and Lee must figure that one of these pedestrians is a good bet.
"It shines," she says, turning the canvas back and forth the way a child examines a new toy. "Here, look at it in the sun." She walks almost into traffic, and I have to stop her, pulling on her arm to avoid a bus headed right at us. She's right, though; it does shine.
The birds are bright blue, and there's a light brown oil sort of washed behind them. The canvas looks as though someone has sprayed sunlight onto it. As she talks, Lee keeps looking at me. "I saw these birds at Marshall Field's. I sneaked in and copied them quickly. They're very nice. I'll sell you a piece of it for $35," she says, making a cutting motion across the canvas.
I tell her I can afford one set of birds. She keeps talking and I am determined to get whatever piece of this canvas I can. I have only $35 in my wallet, so a small Godie is better than no Godie at all.
Lee turns it around and around. She's shaking her head. "No, I can't. I'll cut the head." It's only now that I realize the canvas has two heads painted on the flip side.
I've wanted to buy a Lee Godie for so long that I start negotiating with her. I've been told it's the only way to deal with her. I think, I can get two-thirds of this canvas for $70 and she wants $500 for the entire thing. This makes no sense, but then, Lee is known for that.
People have told me that she asks exorbitant prices and will talk and talk to you before she finally sells it for something closer to reason. She sizes you up and decides whether you're worthy, I guess.
Luckily we are one block from the bank at Chicago Avenue and I tell her I'll buy two sets of birds if I can run to the cash station and be right back. "What gas station?" she asks.
I look at her and wonder how to describe modern banking. Too much to explain. I walk slowly with her a half block and leave her in front of Neiman-Marcus. As we walk, we have this conversation:
"Listen, honey, why don't you just give me $500 for the whole thing?"
"Lee, I don't have $500 on me."
"Doesn't everybody make at least $300 a week these days? What do you do for a living?"
"I'm a writer and an editor."
She nods her head. "Oh, dear, I understand. I was a writer once. I worked three telephones for a whole week and they gave me $12. Twelve dollars for a week. You don't have $500, I know that."
I figure maybe she'll understand even more if I tell her I spend all my money on my two kids. Lee is nodding, "Yes, yes. Twelve dollars."
She takes hold of my arm and gives me her advice. "Honey, the only way to make money is to do what your parents do, only better. My parents were painters."
I leave her at the corner and run across the street. Nobody is in line. After grabbing the last $100 out of my account, I rush back across traffic, hoping she's still there. Lee has the canvas up against her dress again, hawking it as I return. She stares at me.
"You know, a woman once tried to buy one of my pictures and she disappeared just like you did. She said she was getting money but she came back too soon and I wouldn't sell it to her. The bank doesn't give you money that quick. She lied to me."
"Oh, no, Lee," I say, pointing to the cash station, but really pointing to the people waiting to cross the street. "See that line of people. They're waiting to get money from that machine. It just gives them money."
"OK," she says. Like my two-year-old, she only wants an answer. "Can't you give me $500 for the whole thing? Just go into that bank and ask them for $500. They'll give it to you."
"It's a nice idea, Lee, but banking doesn't work that way."
"Well, all right," she says, pointing into Neiman's. "Come in with me and we'll find something to cut it with. They know me in here."
We walk up to the first counter, and the saleswoman looks at Lee as though she were radioactive. I ask for the scissors. I've probably got a better chance of getting them.
Lee is very careful and cuts the canvas slowly. I still think this is nuts. She's leaving about two feet of canvas and selling me clearly two-thirds of the painting. At least my section is signed. She turns it over, and the black-and-white profile of a young man she's labeled the "Prince of Chicago" is on the back.
Lee looks at the money and asks how much it is. I tell her it's $70--three 20-dollar bills and a 10. I realize anyone can give her any amount of money, and she doesn't know how much it is. She can't be going blind. The painting is too perfect for that. She looks at the money as though I've handed her only pieces of paper.
I could have given her five 20-dollar bills and told her it was $500 for the entire thing. Today, she simply wouldn't have known the difference.
Before she hands it over, though, she tells me how to hang it. She folds over the top and imitates a stapler with her hand. "I've seen these in Marshall Field's. They put a piece of stick through here and hang it. It's very classy. It's a classy place."
Then, before she finally gives it to me, she says, "Hang it high, especially if you have two children."
I walk her outside and while we're standing on the sidewalk Lee Godie points her finger at me, like a cross between an angry aunt and a concerned mother. "If you ever need money," she says, "I'll buy it back from you."
I tell her to put her money away. She is just holding onto it loosely, folded in her palm. "Yes, I will, don't worry," she says, walking away.