It was 1986. I'd recently moved into my house on the corner of Marshall and Yupon, in the Montrose district of Houston, an area a stone's throw from downtown. Houston has no zoning and Montrose was the most unzoned: "adult" bookstores were next to upscale cafes, doggie day care centers next to hair salons, which were next to Victorian houses which were next to dilapidated apartment complexes where slum lords exploited/rented to undocumented Mexicans who often had five and six families in the one bedroom dumps. The neighborhood was known for being a primarily gay enclave; there were dance clubs open all night, lesbian biker clubs, jazz clubs, blues clubs--a world which we called "inside the loop," meaning inside the figure eight freeway that encircled the inner city, dividing it between those of us "brave" enough to live in the divine chaos and decadence and those who needed to get some sleep at night.
Yupon Street was a much traveled route between Westheimer and Alabama, Westheimer --five blocks from me--was the main energy force field for all of the action and also where Covenant House was situated. It was a wild and crazy jumble--drugs, prostitution, and all night partying was what it was about.
In the midst of all this chaos, confusion, and creativity lived Gertrude Barnstone.--a block and a half from me.
Her garage, which was her art studio, opened onto Yupon; and it was a carnival, a feast for the eyes, a magical mystery box, lit up for all to see inside.
Her garage door was always open. This was during one of the worst decades of crime in the city, especially in Montrose. There were rapes, murders, robberies, day and night; you couldn't leave anything unattended for long in your yard or it would be gone. I once caught a guy who'd gone in my backyard in the middle of the day who was carrying off my garden hose. The neighbors down the street in some apartments on the corner of Yupon and Alabama had ten recently planted rose bushes pulled from the ground and taken away.
In Gertrude's yard and drive there were piles of rusted pipes and tangled rusted objects strewn about. There was a thrown together shack built by Willie, her helper, who was very old, African-American, grizzled beard and dressed in overalls who came and went on a vintage bicycle. He used the shack for napping in between his odd jobs for Gertrude.
For the first couple of years, I hesitated to introduce myself, to disturb her--she was hidden behind her visor and goggles, wielding a welding torch, fire in hand, her torch ablaze, sparks flying. It would be ninety-eight degree humid nights in August, and she'd be out there. Her snow white hair poking out and up from her protective head gear. The Vulcan Venus of Montrose, I called her. The next days on my walks with Rosie the Airedale, I'd see some of the results of her all night blow-torching and sautering. They were delightful, quite large metal pieces--garden gates, driveway gates, iron balconies-- and within the iron webs she'd woven with fire were orange, red and yellow creatures-- birds and cats and dogs and birds, soaring through the metal. Gertrude is rather petite and was then in her seventies--(she is now almost ninety, I believe.) Her work was large, heavy and unwieldily. I was in awe. I was learning an amazing lesson by example about age and aging, about power and beauty; I was learning about Gertrude Barnstone.
She was the fearless woman who never barred her door, never worried about the marching band of misfits who made their way night and day down Yupon.
Later I would learn that Gertrude helped lead the way in the desegregation of Houston schools in the 1960s and a decade later served as president and treasurer of the Texas ACLU Foundation board.
Sometime in her forties she became a divorced mother of three young children, so she'd gone to work at a factory making plexiglass skylights.
This sparked her interest in sculpture.
"At some point I realized I wanted to do something that goes all the way around, something I can walk behind, something that makes a shadow," Gertrude said in one of the interviews she's given.
She signed up for a welding class at Houston Community College, where she was the only woman student.
She had once been the wife of the famed architect --Howard Barnstone, whose one of many design projects was the Rothko chapel. With him, Gertrude had been a regular in the social world, showing up often in the society pages of the paper. When I met her that woman was long gone--it's always been hard for me to imagine Gertrude in high heels! In Montrose, she had a uniform of sorts, walking her dog in sneakers and denim overalls spattered with paint. She drove a small white pick-up truck plastered with the most inflammatory, most provocative, most hilarious bumper stickers. There were many that made comments about "the shrub," the name given to George Bush by either Molly Ivens or Ann Richards. Such flaunting of her liberalism was honestly somewhat dangerous if one ventured outside "the hood."
One morning about ten years ago, Gertrude fell in her house, hitting her head, blacking out. The way she told it--several times during the night she got up because her pillow was wet. She looked in the mirror to see a thin milky substance leaking from her eye. The next day at the hospital, where her friend Olive insisted she go, the doctors discovered she'd ruptured her eyeball. Her eye had to be removed!
Later she told me that it was an "absolutely fascinating ordeal"--especially the way the "new" eye was made so that electrical robotic sensors moved her eye in sync with the uninjured eye. She was FASCINATED by the magic of this invention. She told me this breakthrough tracking system was developed by scientists at NASA. She was like a kid who just learned about Benjamin Franklin and electricity, or about anything wondrous that blew us away when we first learned about it in science class. The speed of light. The age of stars.
The porcelain eye was blank, in need of an iris. The only man in town who painted these artificial eyeballs was a crotchety old German in a pokey little workshop on the edge of downtown. She told this grumpy, brusque man that she wanted a cat' eye. He raised his spectacles on his head, looked closely at this woman whose blue eyes were notorious, were gorgeous, striking, almost too blue to be true--and he told her NO. Told her he would do no such thing, lecturing her that she would regret it and come back for a new eye and all this would cost her a lot of money. He spoke to her as if she were twelve and about to get a tattoo.
Olive--Gertrude's dear friend--had driven Gertrude there--since Gertrude now had no peripheral vision, and Olive was so angry. Don't you understand, Olive said to him, "This is Gertrude Barnstone."
Nope, he said..
Gertrude ultimately decided against the cat's eye. Strangely enough it was my adopted son--who was Mr. Goth--who'd told her that her cat's eye would scare the check-out clerks at Fiesta. That mattered to her the most--she would never want to make a working woman's life any harder.
After my book came out, Gertrude said something to me that has stayed with me.
What she said has a great deal to do with why I'm writing a blog.
She said--after reading my book--"Marsha, please would you just write down every day what you saw and thought on your walks around the block." She said she would be eager to read each and every dispatch.
This was a supreme compliment. Perhaps the best I've ever received about my writing.
She'd told me that she kept my memoir on her bedside table and read a page a night. As if each page were a poem, she explained.
When I broke both elbows and my wrist two years ago and was about to begin the WOE IS ME attitude, I thought of Gertrude, for whom everything is an adventure, EVERYTHING. I tried to channel Gertrude and actually had quite a fascinating time during my recuperation--in a nursing facility, of all places.
Now I am in New England, having left Houston because the heat was too much for me. Gertrude had sold her house about a year before I moved. She is in Houston, still, living with her son--"It's great, Marsha," she told me over the phone. "Like living in a spa!"
Gertrude, these blogs are for you, my perfect reader! I love you dearly and miss you terribly.