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The Painter on the Street

On September 10th, 2001, just as I was emerging from a long period of depression, I had a chance encounter with an artist I would never forget. Years later, he shared his memories of the next day.

The Painter on the Street

September 10, 2001, my mother came to visit me in New York City. I lived on the Upper West Side. We went for a walk in Riverside Park, got tea at the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam, and then my mother suggested we go downtown for a late lunch. What she meant was that she wanted to go to Canal Street to buy a new ten-dollar watch. She was obsessed with these cheap Chinatown watches. She collected them, as she did many things—coats, carpets, cups and saucers, books, baskets, old plastic dolls, beaded necklaces, wooden masks, antique furniture, lamps, flower pots, silk scarves. Chinatown and all its chaos, my mother said, reminded her of the bazaars of Tehran, where she lived briefly with my father before the revolution, and of the farmers markets in Zagreb, where she grew up. Her penchant for cheap watches and her need to keep replacing them were never discussed.

“I hate Times Square,” she said. “Anything to avoid Times Square.” So we took the 2 Express train from 96th Street down to Houston and walked south on Broadway from there. It was warm and breezy out. SoHo was strangely empty and quiet. My mom held my hand for a moment as we crossed Prince. I remember feeling pretty OK that day, a welcome shift from a long and terrifying period of psychic agony. It had basically crippled me, and nothing was really helping. I spent most of my time smoking weed and cigarettes and ruminating over death and deep space and nothingness. All I felt I could do was stay alive until the darkness passed. I was twenty years old. In hindsight, my mom was probably visiting me in New York that day to check on me. At the time, I figured she just wanted a daylong vacation and a new Chinatown watch.

“I want one with a big face,” Mom said, looking at her bare wrist as we crossed Spring Street.

“I’m done with wearing watches,” I told her. “When I wear one, I feel like I’m plugging into the Matrix.”

“The Matrix,” my mother muttered. “I don’t know what that is.”

“It’s a movie about people trapped in a delusion.”

“Isn’t that every movie?”

We walked a block in silence. I remember being surprised by my reflection in a store window. I didn’t look as slovenly and insane as I felt. I looked really young and sad and sweet, I thought. Maybe that was why, despite all the horror I was describing, nobody seemed to understand how much pain I was in.

“My eyesight is withering,” Mom said. “How much farther until Chinatown?” And then, “Oh look, paintings.”

A young man in broken leather sandals had set up his artwork on the sidewalk. He was tall, thin, had loose dirty blond curls, and from the look in his eyes, was clearly not from New York. His eyes were pale green, I think. He seemed strong and calm, yet soft-jointed, impressionable, vulnerable, and warm. And his dishevelment was sincere, unlike the studied sloppiness of the boys I knew uptown. I loved him instantly. His artwork was colorful, mostly small oil paintings laid out across a canvas drop cloth in front of a closed storefront. Some of the paintings were of birds.

“Fifty, sixty, seventy-five…” An older man stood next to the painter, pointing at the paintings and announcing their prices.

My mother said the paintings reminded her of Mirka Virius. “You’ve probably never heard of him,” she said to the painter. “Croatian artist, a naïf, killed by Nazis of course.”

“I like your art,” I said to the painter.

“Well, I’m just saying,” Mom continued, “there is something in common here. You see that red? Red is such an angry color most of the time, but here, it’s so sweet.”

“Excuse me, hon,” a woman interjected. She was short, with bushy orange hair and black sunglasses, I remember, and she wanted to buy the painting my mother was just talking about. The painter was quiet. The woman conferred with the older man over the price, then said, “Sold. That’s the deal of the century.” I wondered for a moment whether she was part of a con: make it look like these paintings are hot shit so my mother and I would pay top dollar for whatever we could get. In any case, the woman started stacking more paintings to buy. The man tallied what she’d owe. I watched and wondered if the painter was as shocked as I was. After all, the paintings weren’t that good. I had the sense that the painter was better than these paintings. They were sidewalk paintings. They weren’t his real art.

“Where did you study? And where do you live?” the woman asked. “You’re how old? Spell your name for me, sweetheart.”

The painter answered quietly, steadfastly. He was twenty-something and came from Georgia. He said his name was Stephen Key.

“Who knows what time it is?” my mother said, pulling at my sleeve. “Is it getting late?”

“Which is your favorite painting, of the ones here?” I asked Stephen Key. My mother, meanwhile, had taken off down the block. I could hear her whistling for me to follow her like a dog. Stephen Key didn’t answer my question, distracted by the orange-haired woman’s pen swiveling around as she wrote him a check, I guess. “I’ll be back,” I said, and went after my mother, already regretting walking away from someone who seemed so special. Stephen Key wasn’t part of the Matrix. He was not part of the fabric of bullshit pulled over everyone else’s eyes. He stood there vibrating with life and consciousness, tender and fragile and courageous. Was he a part of me? Were we part of the same thing? Had he seen me the way I’d seen him?

Mom was now interfacing with a woman begging for change on the corner of Broome.

“Let me see what I have,” she said, digging through her mammoth purse, which seemed to contain an entire universe. One thing I’ve always loved about my mother is her generosity to strangers. She would split her last penny with you if you needed it and if she liked you, if she thought you deserved it. My sister’s German saxophonist boyfriend lived with my mother for two years after he and my sister had broken up. A Chinese girl I’d met when I was teaching English in Wuhan lived in my mother’s attic while she studied law at BU. When I was a kid, an Irish carpenter slept in my bedroom for a summer while my family went to Croatia to visit my grandparents. Years later I read in the newspaper that he’d been convicted of murdering his girlfriend.

“Isn’t this Leon?” I showed his picture to my mother.

“I guess it is, I hope he’s doing all right,” was her reply.

At last, we found Canal Street, and my mother bought a fake Gucci watch. We ate a few pork buns. We tried on bracelets. We stared into the slow-breathing mouths of enormous fish suffocating in Styrofoam cases full of crushed ice.

“Let me buy you something,” Mom said. “Why don’t you choose a watch for yourself? They’re all perfectly wonderful. Choose two!”

All I wanted was a painting by Stephen Key. “He might be the love of my life,” I said, sarcastically or not, I don’t know.

“Don’t get carried away,” Mom clucked her tongue. Still, we trudged back up Broadway. By then the older man had disappeared. Stephen Key stood peacefully in a slant of musty yellow light on the sidewalk. The light looked like a laser from a spaceship. It bent diagonally through the shadows of the buildings from a nearby alley. Otherwise the sky was filling in with heavy grey clouds.

“How much is that one?” I asked Stephen Key. I pointed down at a white-washed canvas with words written in pencil across it. It turned out to be the least costly of Stephen Key’s paintings. I gave him twenty bucks and watched as he wrapped the painting in a sheet of newsprint and put it in a plastic shopping bag and gave me his handwritten business card. I was overjoyed. It’s odd to me now. That moment with Stephen Key was some kind of threshold that separated my past from my present. When I think of it, I still get excited about the future.

At the time, my mother assumed my excitement was some kind of romantic delusion. “Yes, he is a beautiful boy. But his paintings were only so-so. Wouldn’t you rather fall in love with a genius?” she asked.

“Genius is boring,” I told her.

“True.”


My mother took an evening Fung Wah bus back to Boston that night and I went back to my apartment on West 110th. I remember walking home from the subway in the rain, holding Stephen Key’s painting against my stomach so as not to let it get wet. I set it over my desk and wrote Stephen Key an email that night. I don’t remember what I said exactly. Maybe just, “I love the painting.” I kept that painting for many years, from one apartment to the next, and then I lost track of it when I moved out to California in 2011. One line from the text in the painting has stayed with me these twenty years: “You’ll be happy if you love all weather.” I know it sounds trite—the painting, the nearly wordless flirtation—but meeting Stephen Key was important to me. Maybe all it was was an encounter with the innocence I felt I’d lost. But if that’s all it was, that’s plenty.

The next day was September 11th. I woke up to my radio alarm clock announcing that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center.


I emailed Stephen Key once or twice more, but I didn’t hear back from him until many years later.

I wrote to my mother recently to see if she could find the painting. I thought I’d maybe stored it in my childhood bedroom. This was her reply:

Dear Tess,

I shall try to find that painting but I have not seen it for ages. I think it said something about the clouds.

I remember when you bought it. I shall never forget the way you and the boy looked at each other, as if you knew each other and had an understanding like a secret relationship from before. Like accomplices. I remember being shocked and left out. He must have been a student then, very slim and by look of his eyes also on some kind of herbal smokes.

It all took a minute or less, with no more words than, “How much is it?”

I have a lot of memories from that year, all rage and sadness. That was the year dad left.

The year leading up to 9/11 had been a hard one for me, too. My parents had split up, my best friend from childhood had died of anorexia, my dog had been killed by a car, some other stuff. I can see now that I was responding to a lot of trauma. But in the throes of all that, my “depression” told me that the details of life were too superficial to have any bearing on my deep, darkly exalted state of mind. Depression said, “I am truth, and I am wisdom.” It wasn’t a complete lie. Darkness can be illuminating sometimes.

That summer I’d come home from college and lived with my mother in Massachusetts, in the house I grew up in, and where my mother still lives. Once a week she drove me to a bipolar research center in downtown Boston to get my brain scanned, my blood taken, and to fill out the same questionnaires over and over again. “On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your desire to commit suicide?” There was something comforting about having my profound discomfort with existence reduced to a few dots on a spectrum of pathologies.

“Smoking marijuana helps me work with my existential despair in a more tactile way,” I told my clinician. “It’s like a shortcut to the terror. I think if I can get really close to it, maybe it will disappear.” I was just making up shit to say. Nobody wanted to have compassion for me and my agitation, which I described as an honest sensitivity to the deafening infinity of space and time, the crushing finality of death, the passion of life. I suffered from blind spots in my consciousness, disorienting fatigue, irritation and sadness, a distrust of reality in general, extreme loneliness of having only one mind, one body, separated, flawed, fear of what I didn’t know about myself and what I might do, either impulsively or intentionally. My clinician just gave me more and more pills.

One telling memory I have from that clinic is of a bitchy young intern asking whether I believed I had special powers. I told her I did: “I know that if I really, really want something, and I put psychic energy toward it, and I can imagine getting it, then I will.” She scoffed and rolled back across the dim room on her little stool.

“So you think you can control things with your mind and get whatever you want?”

“Well it’s true. It has happened.”

“Name one thing,” she said.

What I was saying seemed to really irk her.

“Well, like every time I’ve liked a guy.”

“Uh huh.”

“The other things you wouldn’t understand.”

The other things had to do with artistic endeavors, and I valued them too much to expose them to her ridicule and swiveling pen. To that intern, my notion of reality as a projection of consciousness was equivalent to me saying, “I have six arms but only I can see the extra four.” I know now that my belief that I could manifest reality was not a symptom of psychosis. It was a survival mechanism, an optimistic delusion that I had any control over anything. But at the time, all I was manifesting was doom. Many times I wished for an angel or alien to drop down out of the sky to save me. I imagined white orbs of light surrounding me when I closed my eyes. The white orbs, I believed, understood what I was going through, and respected it as a rite of passage. They loved me.

By the end of the summer, I’d quit taking my Lamictal, my Zyprexa, my Topamax, my Depakote, my Risperdal. I didn’t feel any less despair off the meds, but at least I’d stopped drooling. That day in early September in SoHo with my mother, meeting Stephen, that was nice. I felt better. I never manifested a romantic relationship with him—I’m not sure I actually wanted to—but he made me feel hopeful. I think maybe he made my mom feel hopeful, too.


My cousin had worked at the World Trade Center in the south tower for a computer company that has since gone out of business. I’d visited her at her office once. I remember hating it up there. I got dizzy looking out the windows.

“People are trapped,” the radio said. “The buildings are on fire.” I switched the radio off.

A friend called me crying. She seemed to be in a state of terrible self-pity. Nothing had happened to her, after all, so why was she so upset? I went downstairs to the lobby of my building and watched the thick stripes of smoke pluming up out of the towers on a little black and white TV. When people started jumping, something happened. It astonished me. I snapped into reality as though I’d been only half there until that moment, as though I was jumping, I was the one deciding, “Now! Now!” I heard a voice in my head say very clearly, “If your cousin is dead, then you can kill yourself. Her death will be God’s confirmation that life is hell. But if she is alive, you must live courageously. You have to shake off these bad vibes, even if it takes fifty years.”

Nobody’s phone worked that day. I remember sitting in a friend’s apartment watching them all get stoned, talk about escape strategies, theorize, proclaim, shake their heads in what seemed not grief to me, but just a gesture. Someone put on Nina Simone. Someone put on Phish. I should have left, but I just sat there, neither hating or loving anybody or anything. I had accepted my fate. Life or death. I was ready. I went to bed that night surrendered to whatever fate had in store.

The next morning, my mother called. “Your cousin is fine,” she said. “She overslept. I hate to think of the nonsense this will start now, the Americans love this kind of trouble. Etcetera.” And so life went on. School started back up. I stopped smoking weed. I looked in the mirror. I ate cherries. I asked a friend out to lunch and we ate chicken salad sandwiches on the wet lawn in front of the Barnard Library. I bought a new pair of shoes. I bought moisturizer. Every day, I felt a little more settled in being alive.


In the fall of 2015, I was working on a new novel called My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which is set in Manhattan in the year preceding 9/11, so all my memories from that time were in the forefront of my imagination.

I emailed Stephen Key again.

“I met you fourteen years ago,” I wrote. “Are you still painting? Do you remember me? How did you end up on that sidewalk in SoHo? Can you tell me about your life back then? Were you happy? What do you remember from that day, and the day after?”

After a few polite back-and-forths and a long silence, he answered my questions in full:

I first moved to NYC in the fall of 1999 to attend SVA. After foundation year it was clear I could not afford to stay, nor did I wish for art school to change my hand and line. So in the Spring of 2000 I moved home [to Atlanta] with plans to attend the state college. I didn’t. I couldn’t stop thinking about NY. After almost a year I had saved up $2,000 delivering pizza and was on my way back to NY to live with some friends in a railroad apartment at Maujer St. & Lorimer in Brooklyn. It was March when I moved back and that $2,000 (as I am sure you can understand) did not last very long.

I found myself with $40 and a room full of paintings. I was desperate so I grabbed an armful and headed to the city to try and sell them on the street. That first time going out I was so scared and shy that I set up the paintings in a little back avenue just north of Canal where no one was walking. I was there for a few hours when I realized I’d have to find a better spot. I found my way to Broadway between Spring and Broome, close to Spring St. on the west side of Broadway. There were some storefronts being renovated so I went for it. I just put my little paintings down and what do you know: I made $90 that day and sold everything I had! This was it!

I sold paintings there for that whole summer and into the fall. My rent then was $400 a month and I was able to make it somehow with my little street gallery. I became pretty good at this gig and began to notice trends in people’s habits. If I had plastic bags with me from the deli and someone was on the fence about a painting, they almost always changed their minds when I told them I could put it in a bag. I had these birds that I would paint in a certain style with different color variations and I realized that people responded incredibly well to these. If people were looking at my paintings, others would stop, too. And this was always good. You asked me if I was happy and I was. It was a very exciting time for me as I had dropped out of college and moved to NYC and was making it work, selling paintings no less! Stand in the same spot in NYC for 5 hours and you are guaranteed to be entertained and see a few wild things.

It was during this time you came by. It’s been a while but I will try to write what I recall…… You stopped by and said nothing but smiled and then indicated you might come back, and you did. I remember this because whenever someone said they would come back they never did. The little I remember is having intense eye contact with you, and I believe you told me you were a writer. I remember your mother I think, did she have long dark hair pulled back? She stayed mostly behind you and let you and I talk about the pieces and I seem to remember she too had the same intense eyes that communicated a lot. Sadly, that is about all I remember. I do remember thinking you and I had made a connection in a moment’s time.

The guy brokering a deal was most likely this dude who used to work at the store next door. To give you a landmark, the store I set up in front of is now the Puma store on Broadway. Next door was some sort of men’s suit store and one guy’s job was to stand out front and get people off the street to come in. We became friends and used to chat with each other and he called me Leonardo and I think he respected me a little bit for getting out there and selling my stuff. The lady you saw might have been this woman who bought a lot of those bird paintings I was talking about for a store she had in Montana.

On September 11th, I woke up around 8:30am to be at work at 10am. Do you remember the storm the night before? Monday night poured down rain and I came home completely soaked and slept naked. I remember waking up naked and looking out the window (which faced North) and thinking how beautiful it was on this Tuesday morning. No coffee in the apartment so I slipped on some clothes and flip flops and went downstairs to go to the deli. I was in the first floor hallway when a neighbor came running into the building yelling something and disappeared behind her apartment door. I remember opening the door and seeing everyone on the street facing West. This was a very odd feeling and at this point I had no idea what was happening. I took a step out onto my stoop and slowly turned and left. I couldn’t compute what was happening. Have you ever heard the story of how natives on the beaches didn’t recognize the Spanish ships or didn’t really see them for a long time because they had never seen anything like a ship on the horizon? It was like that. I just thought, “Wow, the Trade Center is on fire… better grab my coffee and wake up my roommate.” I was inside the deli getting my coffee when the 2nd plane hit. This was strange because somehow seeing it on this little black and white T.V., it made sense. We were under attack and people were dying. I ran up to the apartment and woke up my roommate. We watched the T.V. and turned on the radio and began to realize what was happening and that it was two planes, and boom the first tower fell. We climbed up to the roof and watched with a neighbor whose father was a fire chief and she was very upset and we were trying to console her when the second tower vanished from the horizon into that cloud of smoke. We walked down to the river to get a closer look. Everyone was outside. I remember big biker dudes at the bank of the river passing a bottle of whiskey back and forth. I remember the lines at the payphones. I remember how the radio kept saying we were under attack and that baseball was cancelled. My roommate left on his bike and I was alone in the apartment…

This is what sticks with me the most…. on September 12th, the city was shut down to traffic below 14th street and the national guard and army were everywhere. I went to work [at the art supply store where I’d gotten a job]. I guess because I didn’t know what else to do. I got off at 3rd Ave on the L and took my normal route down 3rd Ave and then I would cut over at 12th street. At that time there were some NYU dorm rooms on 3rd. Ave. There was a mannequin half on the sidewalk and half on the street in front of the dorms and I thought, “Why did someone put flowers out by it….” and then I realized it was not a mannequin. I was all alone on this block and there were no cars below 14th and I just couldn’t breathe…. Here I was looking at a young woman who was dead on the sidewalk twisted into an irregular position with yellow flowers next to her. I just sat down next to her and cried. This was when it hit me. All the death all the anger all the fear all the destruction all the loss, my innocence was crushed and the world was ripe with evil and this young woman (who was probably my age) was dead on Third Avenue and no one was even here. Eventually some cops showed up and put a sheet over her body. In my mind she lost someone who she loved so much she didn’t know how to continue so she threw herself off of the dorm rooftop.

That week was a blur. My best friend from back home was in school at Boston University and so I made plans to take the Chinatown bus to Boston after work on Friday to get away from the city for the weekend. After work as the sun was setting I was on my way to Union Square to catch the train to Canal when I came across a vigil in Union Square Park around the Washington statue. I walked up and lit a candle and then realized that I had some white oil pastels in my backpack. I then realized that if I were to climb onto that statue of Washington and write the word “Love” on it that chances were no one would stop me. So I did. And then I just kept writing the word “Love” over and over, and then the crowd started to say it and the mood changed. It went from somber to a powerful positive mood. I can’t really put into words what this was like but it was amazing. I wrote “Love” and “Love one another” all over the base of that statue in white oil pastel, and then I jumped off and went to Boston. When I came back on Sunday the George Washington Statue at Union Square had turned into something else all together, a sort of positive assemblage of loss and confusion. Oil pastel is very hard to remove and you could see the outlines of my message for many years after they tried to clean it.

Courtesy of Chris Kreussling

Ottessa Moshfegh is a novelist and screenwriter living in Southern California.

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