The Model is Not Your Friend
By Andrew B. Hurvitz
Two sober living men intoxicated by young beauties get drunk on self-deception.
There are some talented people here in Van Nuys.
One, Hector Suarez, an artist, lives here, downwind from the smoky outdoor grill run by Dos Hermanos Hernández on Victory Boulevard, west of Kester. He stays in one of those one-story garden apartments where people once slept with open doors and open windows behind the jasmine vines. That slow, hand-churned world of clothes hung on clotheslines was killed off, about the time girls stopped wearing gloves.
Today it is a never quiet place of constant lawlessness where fireworks are set off at night by derelicts and delinquents to arouse deep sleepers from sleep. And ever so often an unlucky man or woman is given up to gunfire.
Hector rents a little place with two rooms, in the corner unit. A steel door with bulletproof screens guards his front entrance. Behind the doors he paints.
Hector is an affable, baby faced, balding man in his late 40s who wears white t-shirts, paint splattered chinos, and a driving cap. He smokes hand-rolled cigarettes and frugally subsists on carrot sticks and jars of salsa.
I’ve been visiting his apartment for the last year, encouraging him to keep painting beautiful young men, young men who come to his studio and end up immortalized on six foot long canvases in colored oils.
We met at Alcoholics Anonymous, at a church on Kittridge, near the high school. The first time I met him, he was so kind and friendly (patting my shoulder, smelling of deodorant soap) that I wanted to stay close and buy him a beer. He is also my sponsor.
But as you will learn later I mostly take care of him.
At my first AA meeting we packed into the community room at St. Elisabeth’s with its yellow walls and orange wood floor. We sat, awkwardly, on steel chairs under scholastic style florescent lights in a space too honest and too ugly for lies.
I watched 20 strangers stand up and announce their addiction. Then I had to do it.
“My name is Mark Chiou and I am an alcoholic.”
That night, after secular confession, the priests and nuns served us little cups of fresh squeezed orange juice, just like old mission settled Californians. Father Ernesto told me they still had a small grove of trees behind the rectory.
It was January, the nights were cold, and the ripened oranges just picked.
In winter, the air in the valley is cleaner, and you can see the mountains clearer, and the fog of confusion is blown out of the bowl. In that atmospheric respite, the wise often seize sanity before the summer smog returns to muddle the mind.
Hector came by with two more cups of juice and handed me one. “Here. Get drunk on this,” he said. We sipped and stared at a large wooden cross hanging on the wall.
“Did you ever think that a cross gives you only four choices? You can go up or down, backwards or forwards?” Hector asked.
Absent God, I examined the cross, just on its own merits, and extracted some answers in its form: finite, precise, and definite.
Hector spoke that first night about his faith and his squandered virtue. But he transmitted his ideas seductively, gently, without fire and brimstone. He was attractive in his acceptance of all failings, his, mine and others.
I was on the precipice of ruin: unemployed, broke, living in a trailer. Addicted to Japanese whisky, a bottle a week of $150 Yamazaki, 12-Year-Old.
Hector worked and supported himself painting public schools around Los Angeles with a large firm that sprayed cinderblock walls in watered down paint.
Sometimes, I think of my failings and imagine I have to appear before Judge Judy (2017 Salary: $47 million per year) as she interrogates and castigates me for not having a full time job, or family, or for my addiction. She is cruel, but her meanness, like all highly paid scolds, is for my own good. I have no answers for her, because she talks over me. But, in the end, she is always right. And well paid. Which makes her right.
I remember work. I used to work. I had a paycheck and responsibilities. I sold houses. I had a couple of roles in Geico commercials. I conversed with an elephant and got thrown off a building. I made some money.
I bought a house in Van Nuys near the 405. It was loud but they built a concrete wall to shut out the noise and then homeless people moved behind the wall between my backyard and the freeway.
When I stopped being cute I was no longer cast in commercials. Then the real estate market crashed. I couldn’t sell houses. I couldn’t pay my mortgage. And I ended up drinking because all the losing shattered me. I told this all to Hector, confessing it for the first time.
“So you didn’t really do anything so terrible,” Hector said. “I’ve heard far worse. I think you’re going to be OK.”
After one AA meeting, on one of those nights in late August, we were on his front stoop. It was warm. There was a brush fire in Santa Clarita and the air smelled like smoke and grilled chicken. Police cars sped past spraying red splatters of urgent light.
A helicopter bladed overhead and shone a spotlight over the yard, and again we were in the midst of another nightly menace around us, somewhere, nearby. Hector sighed.
“So much barbarism in our midst. So much hatred. Where is love? Every night I sleep here, alone, and I think why can’t I have just one friend? These models come to my apartment, so young, so beautiful, so tender. Why can’t one of them be mine?” he asked.
“Can’t you just find someone to love?” I asked him.
“Even if I did I couldn’t go back to my parents in El Monte. I’m not coming out at 47,” he said.
“How about finding a secret love? Here in your apartment? Nobody has to know,” I said.
We spoke as two platonic friends in the protected intimacies of AA. I knew then, that the feeling of relief I once had from drink might be replaced by expunging secrecy. I felt calm with him, tranquilized, by talk.
We stood up and walked back into his apartment. The windows were open. A dusty floor fan blew sooty air. Hector pulled off some sheets protecting his artworks. He lit three important candles: Jesus, the Virgin of Guadalupe and Pope John II.
In dimness we moved among the paintings, silently. An introverted young man looked down from one.
Hector smiled. “Kyle Grovers from Fayetteville, NC. Only 22. He is 6’1, lean, with piercing eyes and a sharp jawline. He doesn’t have a drop of fat on him. I took him out to dinner. He ate one vegetarian taco and threw up afterwards. He told me he was sick. I let him sleep over here that night. But we didn’t do anything.”
“I do love Southerners. Even when they’re sad they’re full of joy,” I said.
Hector pointed to another half done canvas: a tall white woman.
“Megan. A Wilhemina girl. Smoked constantly. Hated her body too. You think they smell fresh, but I’ve been up close and they stink,” he said. I wasn’t sure if he was referring to Megan, or women, or all models.
“I used to try and cheer her up. She was so stunning. She lit up this dismal apartment just by sitting on a stool.”
“The model is not your friend,” he said. “The more you befriend them the worse they treat you.”
One Day They’ll Save Me
He went into the bathroom. I heard him pee.
I was in a moment that moment, a morose trance, in a room, surrounded by bodies and faces from heaven, half-dressed; a room of silent sensuality, a gathering of magnificent creatures, who spoke me no words, who shared me nothing but their own exquisite gazes.
Hector came out and went into the dark kitchen. He put two cigarettes in his mouth, bent down to the stovetop and turned on a burner with a hot blue flame. He walked back in, pulled one out of his mouth and handed it to me.
“I can’t deal with these models any more,” he said. He sat down on the floor, flickering ashes into a coffee can with wet brushes. He smoked and talked, soft and low, as if he were afraid of waking the sleeping crickets.
“I invest so much in them. I think one day they’ll save me. Their looks will attract me a patron of the arts who’ll buy seven paintings. And then one of the models will fall in love with me. And we will have such physical, emotional, wonderful sex,” he said.
“You have some fantastic aspirations. Almost too fantastic,” I said.
“Kyle came over one Sunday morning. He surprised me and took off all his clothes without me asking. He is straight he says. I don’t touch him. I just position him on the stool in the living room, near the window. He lifts up his long arms, showing me those dark patches of underarm hair. He puts his hand over his dick. Then out of the blue he starts to cry and break down and the tears are pouring out of him,“ Hector says.
“I ask him what is wrong. But my hands are off him. I stand 10 feet away. Then he stops. I give him a paper towel to wipe his eyes, blow his nose. And he doesn’t say another word. I resume my painting. He looks away from me. And we work for another two hours in silence.”
“These gods and goddesses that you think are so sparkling. They are really pathetic, needy, weak people.”
The Killer Held a Can of Spray Paint
A few nights after that talk, I was half-asleep in my trailer, parked in the lot at LA Fitness on Sepulveda.
Hector called me at midnight. He had been crying.
“A couple of hours ago they killed my friend Arturo Montez on Saticoy. He yelled at a tagger to stop defacing the fence in front of his rental house. And he got shot. 40 years old. Married, three daughters. Oh my God. He is dead. Please come over.”
I rode down Erwin, up Noble, through the back alley and pushed open the unlocked wooden gate. He was sitting on the grass, near a tree, smoking a cigarette, surrounded by dozens of discarded, red, aluminum cans of Coca-Cola.
I laid my bike down, unloading my burden of transport to care for my friend.
I sat down on the ground and held him as he cried.
“Our families came from the same village. El Sabinito in Tamaulipas. Our fathers were friends. We were all friends. I know his wife Tara, his daughters, Ava, Olivia, Sammy. What kind of monster kills a father because he asks you not to tag his fence?”
“This is L.A.,” I said.
Two initials: a shortcut answer for a sensationalized act of desecration.
“Fuck Los Angeles! Fuck America! I used to envy this country when I lived in Mexico! I thought this was a paradise. The fucking land of liberty!”
“In Tamaulipas we are rural. There are rivers, and rain forests, and caves to explore. We grew maize. We had public squares, we were poor, but we were civilized. We lived in peace. We belonged to the Earth. Now we are lost,” he said.
We stayed under the tree, slept, awoke at dawn, in the same place, lost.
A few days later we went up to see Arturo’s family in North Hills to pay our respects to the dead wood worker.
A six-foot high redwood fence bordered a house blocking it from street view. Flowers, candles and cards sat on the sidewalk near the tags, at the death spot where Arturo died. This family once supposed, wrongly, that nailed redwood planks might keep evil out as screens on windows shut out flies.
We walked through the gate, into a yard littered with toys, into a ranch house normal in every sense except for the occasion. There were tables in the living room set up with silver foil trays of yellow rice, grilled chicken, fried plantains, pinto beans, and roasted green chilies.
Arturo’s brother, Cesar, a black mustached electrician, hugged Hector. “Where are the girls? Tara?”
“They are staying at our church. They have a rectory house. Two much noise and people here,” he said.
“But come see my brother,” Cesar said motioning to the coffin.
In the dining room, an open casket sat under a chandelier of antlers, two dead mammals repurposed for other acts.
Arturo was gone, yet all the life, all the people he knew, all the foods he loved, all of it swirled around.
A white haired woman, his mother Valentina, sat in a chair, in a black lace dress, holding a string of rosary beads, a few feet from her murdered son. People walked up to her, with kindness and touch, held her hand or kissed her, attempting to soothe her inconsolable grief.
Hector kissed her.
“Desearía poder ayudar. Nuestra pena es insoportable, ” he said.
I wish I could help. Our grief is unbearable.
The mourning mother, wounded and despondent, looked at me.
“Do you know my son made art? He was so talented. He was a hard worker too. He spent his life building beautiful fences and someone killed him at the fence! It’s like Leonardo dying in front of the Mona Lisa.”
Hector walked over to sleeping, insensate Arturo and kissed him on the forehead.
Nothing could nullify the obscenity of loss.
But that day, those palliative rites of death somehow seemed right and corrective and soothing.
The Mercurial Model
I encouraged Hector to paint, to soothe. He soon booked a female model gladdening me. And asked me to sit in the room while he painted her.
Lauren Zoberi, 21, a precociously sensual, blue-eyed model from Cincinnati was curled up on a brown sofa, a denim shirt she wore, unbuttoned, opened, revealed her smooth breasts.
“Lauren is going back to New York next week,” Hector said, attempting polite conversation. He lit up two cigarettes and handed one to me.
“You addicts smoke a lot of cigarettes,” Lauren said.
“A cigarette can be a life saving thing young lady,” Hector replied. Lauren didn’t care. She was eager to bring the conversation back to her.
“I gave LA a chance for acting and modeling and nothing happened yet,” she said.
“How long have you been here?” I asked as she stared at her smart phone.
“Three weeks,” she said. “Right now I need to take a toilet break gentlemen.”
She abruptly got up and walked into the bathroom. Hector looked at me and shook his head making the crazy sign with his finger.
“I need her for a few more days. But honestly I’d like her out as soon as possible,” he said.
Lauren peered out of the bedroom. “I have to just take a few minutes and check my phone. I’ll be right out,” she said closing the door.
Hector looked at his watch. He got up and went into the kitchen. “Want a Coke?” he asked me.
“Sure. Thank you,” I said.
There was a sudden crashing in the bedroom and a loud “Fuck!” We rushed into the room. Lauren was on her knees. She had tripped on a lamp cord. The floor was slippery too.
“Why is the floor wet?” Hector asked.
Lauren laughed demonically. “Whisky from my flask you asshole!”
“Whoa. You know I’m sober. I don’t want that shit in my house,” he said.
“Oh, so you care about the whisky more than me? How do you know I am not hurt?” she asked.
“Are you hurt?” Hector asked offering her his hand to pull her up.
“Fuck you!” she answered. “You don’t care about me!”
“Do you care about me honey? You brought alcohol into my house! You know I’m an alcoholic! I’m sober and you disrespected me!” he said.
“Oh fuck off Hector! You are really selfish! You have no consideration for others! You are into exploiting models! Who the hell are you? You are nothing! You don’t even have 700 followers on Instagram!” she railed.
“Just get out now,” he said.
She stormed into the living room, knocked her canvas off the easel and kicked the painting. Hector grabbed her from behind, locking her with two arms.
“Get the fuck off me! Get the hell away! You fucking Mexican faggot,” she screamed. He pushed her away.
She threw her t-shirt on, shoved her feet into flip-flops, grabbed her cheap, fringed purse and ran out the front door.
Her portrait, left behind, lay on the floor, torn through with a foot hole in its stomach.
Hector picked up the painting. “Kicked in the gut. Exactly,” he said as he placed the damaged art back on the easel.
“Mexican faggot. I used to think being a recovering addict was the lowest position on the social register,” he said.
I took a towel and wiped the bedroom floor.
“In LA a recovered addict is actually the highest status you can attain. Even better than a Master’s Degree,” I said.
Angus Muir Ale
A few months after the Lauren implosion, I left my trailer behind, set up a cot in Hector’s living room and spent my nights there. I found some part-time work at Angus Muir Ale on Bessemer St.
The brewery and taproom was in an industrial building in Van Nuys, on a street of auto repair shops and towing yards. I diligently cleaned floors, tables, counters, bathrooms, and brewing tanks and never took a sip of alcohol. I got paid $7.50 an hour and worked 25 hours a week.
Angus Muir had a large, black walled room filled with dartboards. Every few months they would take down the darts, hang paintings and turn it into a gallery.
Hector got in through my connection. He started promoting his upcoming show on Instagram. And Jesse Somera, a model and blogger with over 10,000 followers, liked one of Hector’s posts. Hector became ecstatic.
“This is cool,” he said as he showed me Somera’s like. “I checked him out. He is friends with Ingrid Fonssagrives. She is a very big art collector in Bel Air. She used to be in Andy Warhol’s Factory in the 60s,” he said. “He already said he is coming to Van Nuys for the show and bringing six friends!”
“Hector. Aren’t you forgetting the first rule? The model is not your friend. They are indifferent to your betterment. They don’t care,” I said.
“Jesse is different. He is Eurasian!” he said using the common liberal argument that race always matters when assigning virtue to a person.
Basil Floor Cleaner
In my life I was consumed, not with models or art, but of how to properly mop the floors at Angus Muir.
Keeping a close eye on me was the manager, Kathy Chin, a stocky, gray haired, middle-aged Asian woman, in flowered shirts, pegged pants and flip-flops. She had an MBA from USC (1991) and was given to speaking in every matter related to Angus Muir Ale in terms of numbers and units.
“You poured maybe half a cup of Mrs. Meyers in there. It only should be about a quarter cup. It’s expensive. We buy about one bottle every seven days. We should look into using less. Save money Mark,” she admonished.
She was already disliked by the staff for her frugal, persnickety spread sheets measuring how much beer was poured into every mug, how many bags of hops were used in a day, and how many hours of air conditioning were needed (only after customers arrived, the employees could sweat). She took notice of employee bathroom breaks, and removed toilet paper from the bathrooms that she only installed after the taproom opened.
Kathy was the one who decided to pull in more revenue by hosting some high priced art shows. She liked Hector’s work because the canvases were big. “The larger they are the more we can charge!” she said.
At a meeting with Hector she even made him pay for a can of sparkling water.
After Hector left, Kathy approached me.
“What do you think Mark? Is his work good?” she asked.
“He went to art school so I think so,” I answered.
“Only 650 follow him on Instagram. How good could he be? Oh well. If he sells we make money!” she said.
Bowls of Chips
Hector’s exclusive art show at Angus Muir was catered with bowls of potato chips, M&Ms, bottles of orange soda, and those little, dehydrated carrot sticks that come in the plastic bags from Trader Joe’s.
His works hung on the wall between the open garage door and the last dartboard. Fumes from the auto painting shop next door mixed with the hoppy air of the brewery; a taco truck from Dos Hermanos Hernández provided dinner and outdoor dining on asphalt.
The Montez Family arrived at 6pm: the wife, daughters, mother and brother of Arturo. These survivors, only months out of the shadows of death, came dutifully to an event they might have skipped.
“My man! What a nice show!” Cesar said with forced cheer. Hector kissed Tara, and the daughters: Ava, Olivia, and Sammy. The family walked over to survey the paintings, many of them with nude or half clothed men. Respectfully, by coincidence, only one subject was clothed: Arturo, standing next to a fence, an oddly, morbidly, prescient painting, a portrait that both anticipated and chronicled his short life and death.
“This is your papa, my husband,” Tara said to the little children who shook their heads in agreement, in love, no doubt, in pain.
Cesar smiled. “$4,500 for Arturo? I hope he is laughing in heaven.”
Karin came up to the group and said hello. “Why don’t you all come to the table and chairs I set up in the back of the brewery? It’s much cooler and less crowded back there!” She ushered the un-fashionables back behind the large silver tanks.
Hector looked at his phone. “Oh cool. Jesse just said they are leaving downtown and he DM’d with Ingrid and they are all coming here on their way to Ventura! Who is Taylor Zakhar?” Karin overheard his remark.
“I know those people. I keep up with Hollywood. These are the VIPs,” Karin said as she carried glasses away to the sink.
Hector leaned over to me. “Yeah. She is really in the Hollywood elite running this brewery in Van Nuys.”
9 O’Clock High
The art show attendees, those social media people invited by Hector, confirmed only hours earlier, none of them showed up. Jesse and his bunch did not send any messages. And of Ingrid Fonssagrives, rumored as expected, there was not a sighting.
Karin walked over to me. “Looks like a failure. Not something I want to put on my resume. I think if nothing sells I take it all off the walls. What good is hanging art just to hang?”
“I thought they could stay up for a few weeks?” Hector asked.
“Would you stock shelves with products not selling?” Karin asked. Hector, deflated, walked outside.
“Is this my fault?” I asked her hoping to deflect her callousness away from the un-selling artist.
“Of course not. I’m not blaming you or your friend. Successful people want to be around other successful people. It was stupid of me to think Hector could pull in buyers. I blame myself. I was hoping it would work out because I know you and he had tough breaks. And for you, being Chinese, like me, we never want to disappoint. Our parents drilled that into us. So let’s learn our lessons and move on!”
I went out into the never dark urban night and stood under the LED light where Hector was smoking. “Is your boss smacking you around?” he asked.
“I don’t care,” I said.
Hector slumped down to the ground, his back resting against the building. “You think people would keep their promise. Why don’t I ever learn? They hate us because we are old alcoholics and we live in Van Nuys,” he said.
We hung outside, smoking, on the driveway, avoiding the inevitable dismantling of the show. “I can’t go back in there. I don’t want to cry in front of Arturo’s family,” he said.
Improbably, a long, graceful Rolls Royce Silver Shadow drove up, steered by a white haired woman with an aristocratic face and a sprayed and powdered mane of perfectly coiffed hair which she stuck out the window. “Shall I give you my keys to park the car?” she asked Hector.
He shook his head and muttered. “I ain’t the valet. Just park your car here lady,” he said.
She smiled with closed lips and opened the door releasing a heady scent of gardenia that pervaded the night. “Thank you so much dear,” she said. And we watched the strange, surrealism of an older sweep of elegance dressed in paisley silk pants, high heels and a baby-blue fur jacket walk into the brewery.
“I should just be a valet. That’s how people see me,” Hector said.
Karin ran outside. “Get in here! That woman in a Rolls-Royce. I think she’s here to buy!”
We went in and the gallery was still empty. “Maybe she use the restroom,” Karin said. “Fill up the M&Ms! Some bags in back!” she ordered me.
I walked in back to look for the candy and found, instead, a laughing group of people. The rich lady was sitting at the table with Arturo’s family.
“Do you know this lady is a world famous fashion model? Come meet Ingrid. She used to model for Andy Warhol! She lives up on Benedict Canyon. Arturo worked for her!” Tara said. Just then Hector walked over.
“You’re Ingrid Fonssagrives! You’re Jesse’s friend!” Hector said.
“Who’s Jesse?” Ingrid asked.
“Jesse Somera. Mad Thirsty Dot Com. You are real friends on Instagram!” Hector said.
“Never heard of him! But I have heard of you my dear Hector. Arturo when he came to my house to build my fences, my cabinets, all his wonderful work, he would always talk about my friend Hector who is a wonderful painter. He would say Ingrid you have to buy his artwork! So now, on this bittersweet occasion, I have driven from Belair, down the canyon, up to Van Nuys and I can now meet Arturo’s family, his beautiful children, his wife, his mama, his brother, and especially you, Hector, whom Arturo idolized. Now I can see why!”
“He was my friend. He also said he worked for a well-bred, dignified woman who once knew Andy Warhol. But he never told me your name. I think he protected your privacy. Did you really know Andy? He was my hero,” Hector said.
“Andy was a dear friend. That car outside? He bought it for me in 1977. He said he was going to give me a $30,000 present and I could choose either an apartment in New York on 17th Street or a Rolls-Royce, so of course, like a fool, I chose the Rolls-Royce!” she said as everyone laughed.
Ingrid stood up, queenly, her long silk scarf blowing back, bracelets jangling, as the family followed her, like an entourage, right into the gallery. She went up to Arturo’s painting. Dabbing two of her right fingers against her coral lips, she blew a kiss to the portrait.
Karin walked over, humbly, as if she were a factory worker in the presence of her visiting boss. “Which one please you most?” she asked.
“All of them. I’m going to take them all,” she said.
Karin covered her mouth and clasped her hands in reverence. “Oh madam. This is an honor. Really. You are making a very good investment. Hector is soon going to be world famous. He will have many followers on Instagram. Maybe you can take a photo with him and I post in on Angus Muir Instagram!”
Ingrid and Hector stood in front of Arturo’s portrait as Karin’s snapped content.
Ingrid took Hector’s arm and pulled him into a corner, her voice lowered. “I’m going to write two checks. One to the brewery… And I guess they’ll give you a cut. But then I’m going to give you one, in secret, in private, only for you. That is just between us. Do you understand?”
“Yes. Ma’am. I mean Ingrid. How can I thank you? How did you ride out of the night and find me? This isn’t how I predicted things. You turned this event upside down. You made me feel like you care about me. How come I didn’t ever know people like you existed?”
Karin came over with a glass of beer and handed it to Ingrid. “Please. Have this complimentary glass of beer on us. You deserve it. This is truly gratitude from us to you Miss. Truly.”