He said on the phone that he lived in apartment #2, that the buzzer didn’t work, but that he faced the street and I’d be able to tell which place was his.
I didn’t worry about that when I got to his building on East 71st Street early and sat on the stoop for 10 minutes looking at passers-by and the part of the morning paper I’d brought to read on the train. When I sensed it was time to meet him, I turned to look at both sets of first-floor apartment windows, not knowing what would make his place stand out.
Well, I had to grin to myself. His two window sills were adorned with various kinds of plants and maybe the rest was Richard-made art. I didn’t know. But these weren’t your grandmother’s window boxes for sure. He knew I’d like them. I realized then that his phone voice the day before had been pleased that I would be coming uptown to see and be intrigued by what he’d made.
I called him then on my phone. I didn’t have a pebble to toss against the window. Suddenly there he was in the hallway, and he let me in.
He’s Richard-made art himself. Right from the instant you see him, you see this about him. I mean he’s wearing two good ties, and he had on a good oxford cloth shirt. He could be some eccentric wooden-boat-owner dressed for the porch of the American Hotel in Sag Harbor. He’s got these long forearms and long hands that a baseball player or a golfer would envy. Or you could think sailor about them, too, if you wanted to extend the Sag Harbor metaphor.
But you go inside the apartment and you see that these arms and hands sticking out of the sleeves of his shirt have been busy making art and making an artful place of his apartment. I was there to talk to him and we’re both eager talkers and so that happened naturally, but I could have nosed around his wonderfully cluttered, thickly cluttered, place in silence. “I’m a collector,” Richard Barr says.
If you were opening a restaurant from an earlier era, you’d want this stuff. Fishs Eddy looks like Uniqlo compared to Richard’s place. You want the mix of framed things on the walls. You want everything. You want to ask him about the Jim Croce vinyl album. You want to ask him about the old Donald Trump doll still in its box. You want to ask him about the small bedroom you peeked in with a bed that looks like Gertrude Stein’s bed might have looked or Whitsler’s Father’s. You want to ask him who cleans the place. You do ask him who’s the guy in the big black and white framed photo hanging in the kitchen. And he says that’s his father who was a newspaper editor in the Adirondacks, which is where Richard grew up and where he was given full freedom to roam and where he learned to love nature. And where he realized you could make stuff from what you found in the world.
When he talks his arms go out and up like Bernie Sanders.
You could listen to him all day. If you met him in a bar, in your drinking days, you’d be doing shots after a while. If it was in the afternoon, the bartender would be listening in to his stories. He’d be fascinated to hear how he knew Andy Warhol or how on a road trip to Florida once, he pulled over to the side of the road and picked up some pieces of truck tires that had blown out. He sensed he could make something out of them. He knew he could. That’s the thing about him.
And that’s the thing that most has his attention now. Those pieces of tires. Shredded pieces of truck tires. He’s made cool-looking bracelets from the stuff. He calls the tire pieces Furys. Not Furies, Furys.
The biggest Fury is the Global Fury. It’s his main thing right now. For that we’ll have to leave the apartment.
You know how you see precarious places where high school seniors have spray painted their school’s initials and their class year? Well Richard’s Global Fury is in a place kind of like that. It’s along a narrow pathway along the FDR that he calls the ‘Low Line.’ It’s one of those places where the cars are whizzing by so close to you that if you were playing pool you’d have to use the short cue. It’s scary. It’s the FDR, remember. You can see in the picture what it’s like. For me it was like walking along one of the mountain-ledge paths you see in movies where the packmules go single file.
Richard isn’t scared at all. His hands have things that they need to do. He fiddles with the Fury, the Global Fury, fixing this and that, rearranging this piece of wire, that piece of tire. Cars beep. People look.