Xenophobia in the search for cabinetry

Ingres' gilded terrarium, cobra-spined Mexican demo-boys, Peruvian werewolves of asbestos-removal and the love-inspiring, emperor penguin-like dignity of the Hasidim.

Published October 13, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I hate Rudolph Giuliani and the whole idea of shocking modern cock-art so much that I would rather dig out my own eyes with a plastic fork than go see the "Sensation" show at the Brooklyn Museum or the "American Century" show at the Whitney. Fuck them both. I went and saw the Ingres portraits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ingres. Now that bastard could paint.

It's a wonderful show; what swanlike, powdery forearms! What speed-freak persistence of graphite detail! What toothsome taco-folds of organza! Ingres, according to the legend on the museum wall, painted the "Who's Who of the ruling elite in France"  those over-privileged monsters of the upper 1 percent who possessed "birth, beauty, politics, wealth and intellect" in great measure.

About five minutes into the show you realize that Ingres' best subjects were winsome, horny young comtesses with husbands six times their age and the bored, walleyed trophy wives of civil servants in French occupied Rome, all of whose refined and dutiful gazes implored their portrait painter to knock over the easel and shred their foundation garments with his bare teeth; these, one can see, were the works that earned him real love. Not so his lurid Gothic Napoleons; Ingres should have known these would bomb at the Salon of 1806. After all, why turn a macho blue-faced dwarf of an emperor into the Infant of Prague; a fat, angry little head exploding from a regal white pyramid of bunny fur, replete with tiny golden toe-shoes and various holy playthings?

What I came away with was a sense of how gilded a terrarium Ingres lived in; a racially segregated, class-isolated, religiously aloof, white, rich world of opulent comforts, overcivilized enough to be discreetly smarmy. I was musing about this on the subway when the car was besieged by a born-again ex-crackhead, a body-built African-American fellow in razor-pleated slacks and tight nylon T-shirt who dropped his enormous duffel bag full of bilingual anti-Satan pamphlets and began screaming an impromptu sermon on the vengefully xenophobic inclinations of Lord Jesus for a full half hour.

His dogma was ruining my afternoon and hurting my ears, but I wanted to let him do his show. I sat through it because his peculiar mania needed us to sit through it; he thought he was doing us a great, spiritual, humanitarian favor; actually, we were doing him one, by not getting up in a huff and changing cars. "You all gonna die!" He screamed, with an ex-addict' s smug zealotry. "Maybe you'll die today! Ain't no getting into heaven unless you saved and born again! That's the only way in! Everybody else going to hell!"

Oh, shut up, I thought, silently, unable to read my fantastic Dawn Powell book. It makes me enraged that all organized religions arrogantly assume that they are the Only True Faith and that everybody else is dangerously, infectiously evil and going to hell and it's their obnoxious mission in life to tell everyone else how tragically wrong they're living. Patience and tolerance is the only recourse; one must find something positive about the tormentor to concentrate on. When he finally left the car, I clapped. He thanked me. I was clapping for his impressive volume; he would have been audible from a manhole three blocks away.

Recently, I've been having to purge myself of a lot of unavoidable xenophobia as a result of doing home renovation. Home renovation will introduce you to a gamut of culturally anomalous characters you would never otherwise have any need or opportunity to deal with. There are the cobra-spined Mexican demo-boys who spit on your floor, the toothless chain-smoking Irish dry-wallers from New Rochelle, the Peruvian werewolves of asbestos-removal and a bunch of other semi-benign characters from the low-rent, blue-collar canal of "It's a Small World" where you sit in a late-model boat with big scars of Bondo to watch the singing robots argue with each other, and the water is brown and foamy with industrial runoff.

Renovating a house, and working with such a huge variety of worldwide strangers, is a profound and scary education in patience and tolerance that will quickly expose any subterranean racial or class prejudices you didn't know you had like a wall of klieg lights.

For example, Arabs are great roofers and wonderful masonry craftsmen - it's an old-world thing they never stopped doing. Abdul, our masonry expert and devotee of Islam, refused to shake my hand when sealing the deal. "It is against my religion to shake your hand," he explained, with a shrug. "Can I kick you in the knee, then?" I asked brightly. He laughed. I stomped away and fumed. Why won't he shake my hand? Shit, he's taking piles of my money. Is it because I dare not wear a black tent over my face? I brazenly display my whorish wrists in the sunlight? Grumble, grumble, seethe. But Abdul was so great at his job, I had to get over my pesky personal need to be regarded as a fully fledged human being. We needed him. I decided to respect his annoying religious limitations and let my husband deal with him.

And it isn't just religious differences that interfere with people's ability to love one another. "Ron-o," our subliterate mustachioed security-door installer from New Jersey, had "WOW" vandalishly spray-painted on the back of his van. When we asked him what it represented, he explained that it was a function of the "Whip-it-out-Wednesdays!" program through the local classic rock radio station; apparently if a chick listening to the radio on Wednesday sees a "WOW" defacing your vehicle, she is somehow obliged, even while driving, to show you her tits. I accepted Ron-o's appalling love of softcore rock radio antics. Whatever mows your lawn, Ron-o. I decided to let my husband deal with him.

It makes me sick that I actually have to worry about somebody being offended by my saying this, but I'm just going to say it, and if you're offended, you don't understand. I have this one consolation driving to my construction site, and that is that every time I pass the Brooklyn Navy Yard I get to see the Hasidim. There is something about Hasidic Jews that fills me with love; they are a people with a totally different agenda. They're never saturated with advertising, never screwing around, their clothes are always arresting and superformal and they live together in a hermetic community with habits hundreds of years old, totally uninvolved with malt liquor or pizza nuggets or Heather Locklear.

I get a pang of respect and affection in my heart every time I see one of those bearded guys with their tall fur hats in the sun. When it's raining and they're all standing around wet and dignified like emperor penguins on the freeway on-ramp island, I keep wanting to give them a ride in my truck out of a pure humanistic impulse toward holy people, but naturally, they'd have to refuse. I am filth to them, after all, a nasty, soulless shiksa in body-conscious dungarees from the GAP who dares to have actual non-wig hair. I know this, it makes me sigh, but I love them nonetheless. Not that I think that makes me cool or anything.

Let it be known that here at the cusp of the millennium, woe betide us, is a New Year's Eve when citizens of every creed and color are petrified that Jerusalem's Temple on the Mount will be demolished by God-throttled lunatics and inspire world genocide, or that some extremist asshole will leak anthrax into the subways. If mosquitoes don't kill New York, surely Armageddon will make some kind of dent; I just hope we can all do enough of a spiritual roof-job on ourselves to keep out the rains of hellfire and terror when the Jihad hits the fan.

Everybody, please calm down! Hosannah!

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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