The Heart of the Matter by Chris Green
There is a brisk north-westerly and the clouds in the distance are building. I am trying to finish a painting for my upcoming exhibition at 137 Gallery before the rain sets in. I was surprised to be invited to exhibit as 137 usually features installations and video art. Weird stuff, most of it. The most recent exhibition I saw there was of decaying vegetation, and they had one last Christmas that featured giant inflatable dog turds. Alarmingly, some of this stuff sells. At least, that is what the curator, Michel Lacroix tells me. My art is much more traditional. Oils, layer upon layer, applied generously to the canvas.
A woman wearing a tangerine mac comes along the beach towards me. She has a spring in her step. I imagine she is going to say something about the painting. She doesn’t.
‘Will you play a Chopin tune for my badger on your clarinet?’ she says. ‘Or Debussy will do. Barney suffers from nerves. Crowds unsettle him, and a gentle passage on the clarinet helps to calm him down.’
A bizarre request for sure. We are the only two people on the beach and there is no sign of a badger. Does she belong to a radical theatre group? Has she missed an appointment with Doctor Ramirez? Does she think my brush is a musical instrument?
‘Barney is used to living underground, you see,’ she says. ‘He’s more comfortable with other badgers than people. Badgers are not at all like stoats.’
I try to pretend she isn’t there, in the hope she will go away.
‘Stoats, as you probably know, are sociable creatures,’ she continues. ‘You can take a stoat anywhere. Sadly my stoat, Stanley, died.’
Ignoring her doesn’t seem to be an option.
‘Does Barney have a favourite? I ask.
‘He likes Chopin’s Mazurkas,’ she says. ‘Don’t you, Barney?’
‘A Mazurka it shall be,’ I say. Humouring her will probably save time in the long run.
I put the brush I’m using to do the impasto up to my mouth and pretend to play it. She starts to dance wildly with her imaginary omnivore.
‘See how much Barney loves it?’ she says breathlessly.
Barney looks pretty indifferent to me. Invisible badgers have this tendency. But this charade has gone far enough. I have to crack on with the painting. I turn away from her and pretend to spot something on the horizon. She doesn’t take the hint.
The clouds are moving in, the way they do when a storm is imminent. I need to concentrate on preserving my painting. I start to put away my gear. She hasn’t registered that I’ve stopped playing. She seems to be in a trance.
I manage to leave the beach with the painting intact and head home. A weird episode, for sure, but you are bound to come across strange people. They are everywhere. A sign of the times, perhaps. There are some in my street. Kieran Dexter who dresses as Noddy for a hedgehog charity is pretty peculiar, if not downright creepy, and Sam Jolley, with the dodgem cars in his front garden and drives a customised purple Dodge truck, is loony tunes. The Goat and Bicycle pub on a Saturday night is rammed with oddballs. Then there’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza at Ostler’s Yard and the guy who goes round the estate with the loud hailer. And Magic Pete in the house with the goats. Tangerine Mac is simply another to add to the list.
I have next week’s exhibition at Gallery 137 to plan. I am not a professional painter, so this is a new experience for me. Luckily, I have had time on my hands recently to build up my portfolio. I am waiting for my next assignment, which could happen at any time. I am not a hitman or a spy or anything like that, but I have to be prepared to drop everything at a moment’s notice. Should this happen next week, I have instructed my partner, Emma, what she needs to do for the show to go on.
The call comes through, just as I am leaving the gallery. It is O.
‘San Francisco’s a big place, Shaun,’ he says.
‘You don’t have to tell me,’ I say. ‘I was there two years ago.’
What is it O is building up to? My last assignment in the US was to discover where Gene Pitney was when he stopped to rest for the night, twenty-four hours from Tulsa. A bit of a random mission, especially for a Brit, but I’m getting used to random. For the record, where Gene lost control as he held her charms was in Pennsylvania, but after such a long time, it was difficult to pinpoint exactly where. The closest I could come to a location was a place called Somerset, off Exit 110 of the Turnpike. What was the purpose of the enquiry? I have never managed to find this out, but it’s work. And it pays well. Well enough to allow me to indulge my art, which doesn’t pay well.
‘I want you to find out where Tony Bennett left his heart,’ O says.
San Francisco suddenly sounds like a very big place and far away? Why is it important where Tony Bennett left his heart? Why does anyone need to know? Why is any of this stuff important? I can’t help thinking that trivia is overplaying its hand lately. If you are looking for meaning these days, you are likely to be disappointed.
‘Wouldn’t it be better to get someone from California on to this one?’ I say.
‘I don’t have anyone from California,’ O says. ‘Besides, I’ve already booked your flight. It’s this evening. Heathrow. Seven p.m. Terminal 3. Pack your bags and get to the airport.’
Oh well, there are plenty of art galleries in San Francisco that I can take in while I am there, and I am being paid for it. I tell O that I am on my way, and yes, I will take a new burner phone for him to contact me.
Of course I am familiar with I Left My Heart in San Francisco. It’s one of the most well-known songs of the 20th Century, Tony Bennett’s signature tune. Yet still one shrouded in mystery. The lyrics suggest we might find Tony’s heart high on a hill above a blue windy sea. If you have been to the Golden Gate City, you will realise this does not narrow its whereabouts down a great deal.
I sense Emma feels a little put out at the prospect of my untimely departure, but I tell her I will be back as soon as I can and I will make it up to her. I tell Michel that if I am not around for the opening, not to worry, I will be able to come along soon after.
On the plane, I scour the internet for information about the song and San Francisco. Tony didn’t write his own material. I Left My Heart was written by George Cory and Douglass Cross. But maybe easier to ignore this for now. Back in 1963, when the song was written, San Francisco would not have been the gay capital it is today, but being a key coastal city, it has always been a cosmopolitan stopping off place. People in motion and all that. The object of Tony’s affections might have resided in the prosperous Pacific Heights, or Potrero Hill districts. Seacliff maybe, or Russian Hill. Or even Haight Ashbury. Tony wouldn’t have been such a big name back then, so perhaps somewhere more downmarket. The less salubrious East Bay area, downtown Berkeley or Oakland? Probably not. He still would have had style before he became famous. Besides, these areas would be more dangerous for the outsider to explore.
Google tells me Pacific Heights and Potrero Hill have top galleries. This sounds like the place to start my search. Catch a few paintings and have a beer or two. I can move on to the nightclub area later, if I need to, but this will have changed so much since 1963, it could turn out to be a pointless exercise. Nothing will be as it was in Tony’s day. Not to worry! It is hard to take this assignment seriously. If I can’t pinpoint where Tony left his heart, I can make something up. When you come to look at it, very little is factual these days. The quicker I can wrap this business up, the quicker I can get back to Blighty and not miss too much of my exhibition.
What about Chinatown? Might Tony have left his heart in Chinatown? My mind goes back to the classic Roman Polanski film with Jack Nicholson. Chinatown seems to be as good a location as any. Plenty of drama here. Plenty of colour. What better place for an age-old mystery to be solved? So there it is, then. It’s official. That’s what happened. Tony Bennett left his heart in Ho’s, a discreet late night jazz bar on Kearny Street, which closed in 1964.
I’m debating how long I should leave it before giving O the news, in order to make it believable, when my other phone rings. It is Emma to tell me she have made my first sale. The woman in the tangerine mac has been to the exhibition with her badger, Barney, and bought a painting. The mixed media board of the musician on the beach playing the wind instrument that I put together at the last moment, The one Emma thought would never sell.
It’s a strange world.
Copyright © Chris Green, 2022: All Rights Reserved