I met Hessie Nygaard at a furniture-painting seminar in San Juan Bautista, California. It was my “self-awareness” period. I was signing up for everything – the more expensive the better. Aromatherapy, chakras, aboriginal drumming, yoga, meditation, crystals for weight loss, you name it. I even did a firewalking thing on New Year’s Eve. To this day, I have no idea what I was supposed to learn from that.
So I had this nifty unpainted stool sitting around, something I had picked up on an impulse at Home Depot, and the poor thing just sat there in my den for months, butt-naked and dejected. One day I received a flier for a workshop led by some guy named Miguel Allende, a folk artist from the Chihuahua region of Mexico. It said Sr. Allende taught this special layering technique, using all kinds of fiery Latin colors, and I thought what the hell, at least I’ll finally get to paint my poor, butt-naked stool. And they were asking a really large up-front fee, so I knew it had to be good.
I got there the night before, stayed in a beautiful little bed and breakfast across from the Mission, then woke up bright and early for some huevos rancheros at a place called Tia Margarita’s. By nine o’clock I was seated in a sunny loft above the San Juan Bautista Art Gallery, listening to Miguel Allende deliver his instructions in a clipped Shakespearean accent. It seems that three years after his birth in Chihuahua, his family moved to Manchester, England. I felt gypped already.
After about an hour, he left us to create, as he circled the room assessing each person’s work with a practiced repertoire of oohs, ahhs and hmms. I had lain down this bright mango base over the seat of my stool, and was feathering some jungle green around the edges, trying to get a feel for the patterns in my head. There was a rather boisterous woman with burgundy hair next to me, working a gorgeous labyrinth of rust and gray over an antique coffee table. Her personal energy had been lapping in my direction like water from an overfilled bathtub, so I wasn’t surprised when she struck up a conversation.
“You are an artist.”
I let out a shy laugh. “Well, I suppose we’re all artists.”
“No, no, no,” she said. “I mean Artist. Capital A Artist.” She aimed a red paintbrush at me. “I have known a lot of Artists, and I can’t explain it, exactly, but there’s something that sets them apart as a species. Even the way their bodies work, the angle at which they bring their arms to the canvas, the ligature of their fingers. It’s sort of an intuition, but it also takes in certain elements of meticulousness, intensity, attitude... moxy. You’ve definitely got moxy.”
With a continuing smile, I pulled out the flame red, dabbed it with a small, clean brush and worked a squadron of vees around the legs of the stool. Hessie saw what I was doing, confirmed her previous observation with a self-addressed “Oh yeah,” and returned to her coffee table.
It was the first time in a long time that anyone had detected anything artistic in me. Naturally, I was enchanted. At the mid-day break, we walked out of the studio together and found a little ice cream parlor just around the corner. Between bites of pecan praline, Hessie told me about the Bel Canto.
“I had just earned a completely useless degree in comparative lit from Willamette, and I took a little drive down the coast, just for kicks. I was checking out this used bookstore in Hirshfield, a couple blocks from the beach, when I wandered around the corner and peered up to find this gorgeous hulk of a building overlooking the ocean. Of course, physically, it looked like hell – it was built in 1922 and hadn’t been renovated since – absolutely falling apart, rotten beams, roof shakes dropping like leaves, peeling paint, smashed windows, gaps in the foundation.
“When I went back to the bookstore and asked about it, the lady there handed me the front page of the Hirshfield Courier, and right there it said that the old Hadley Hotel was due to be demolished unless a buyer showed up in the next two weeks. Well, I immediately looked up the realtor quoted in the article, and three hours later I wrote her a check – ten thousand dollars. Then I rushed right back to Portland so I could borrow enough money to cover it. My friends and family all thought I’d gone loony, but they also thought it was better that I work on some hotel than comparative literature.”
She extended her hands palm-up, as if she were balancing a pair of cantaloupes, and said, “You will note, class, that the D.H. Lawrence is quite light, at approximately one half pound, and has a rough rose-colored fabric cover faded in places by drool-stains. The Tolstoy, on the other hand, is a good three pounds and bound by a sturdy chocolate-colored leather.”
She laughed loudly and unselfconsciously, then continued with her story.
“The thing was, though, I had curated a lot of student exhibits for my artist friends in college, purely out of my love for their work, and I’d done a pretty damn good job, too, I must say. I even got one of them on the cover of the Salem newspaper – this crazy conceptual guy. He’d constructed cremation urns from costume jewelry and cigarette lighters and filled them with the ashes of burned flags from various countries. Created quite a stir. The real joke is that the ashes were actually taken from ashtrays in the student pub.
“One of these artists, Marta, became a good friend of mine. When I told her about the opera-hotel idea, she insisted on doing a room. She also spread the word. When I opened the door that Saturday morning, I got not one but a dozen of my favorite artists, willing to contribute their labor for pizza, wine and due credit. A year after opening, we got a big spread in People magazine, and the place has been packed every weekend, holiday and summer vacation since.”
It took me two years and a major emotional crisis before I actually saw the Bel Canto, and now Hessie was pushing me to visit her other creation, a cafe and classical music salon in Portland called – and I swear I am not making this up – the Rimsky-Korsakoffeehouse. She refuses to give me the tiniest description of the place, insisting that the only way to grasp its full glory is to go there in person.
With her schedule, Hessie had only two days to be with me in Hirshfield, so we made the most of it, whiling away our mornings on beach hikes, spending our afternoons at the various seafood places along the waterfront. As far as our nights went, we spent the first checking out some sappy chick-flick at the Hirshfield cineplex (two screens!) and the second at Gilda’s, where we enjoyed a long, sumptuous Roman meal and a few too many cocktails. Evidently, the place was brand-new, because it was the first time Hessie had eaten there.
It was a really nice place – lots of big bright paintings on the wall, stunning sunflowers and bowls of ripe fruit like cleaned-up Van Goghs and Vermeers. And the tables were intricate mosaics assembled from shards of broken china. A few of the shards were salvaged from those kitschy “collector’s plates” you see advertised in the Sunday newspaper supplement. Just under my silverware I spotted Judy Garland’s nose and the Cowardly Lion’s right ear, right next to Neil Armstrong’s right foot.
And the menu... the menu was to die for. Actually, to be tortured for, drawn and quartered for, to suffer a slow lingering demise for. I opted for another pasta/seafood combo, linguine with blackened salmon and a spicy Cajun sauce. Wow! This was followed by amaretto cheesecake, and after that a few rounds of Cosmopolitans. Done with her other tables, our waitress, a leggy Cyd Charisse brunette with the substantial name of Carlotta Catalani, was soon shanghai’d into our goofy conversation.
“So, Hessie,” said Carlotta, “I know you love the opera, but have you ever actually been in one?”
“Oh, no, I never had the nerve or the voice for that. But my son was in one.”
“Really!” I said. “You never told me about that.”
“Well,” said Hessie, pursing her lips. “Let us just say that it might not have happened had it not been for the artful conniving of Mama Nygaard. I’m on the board of the Portland Opera, yuh-see, and I got wind that they were recruiting youngsters for a production of ‘Carmen’ the following season. I said, Do not worry about this at all, oh good people and comrades – I will find for you a chorus of fine ragazzi. So I scoured the city and a found a pre-existing chorus at a Presbyterian church right there on the East Side, minutes away from the Rimsky-Korsakoffeehouse. I went to the director and said, ‘How’d you like to have your kids in the opera?’ And she said, sure, and I said, okay, but first you have to give my son Derek a tryout. Now this is a kid who was singing along with Luciano Pavarotti records at the age of three, so I knew he’d do just fine – and he did, and the chorus did just a wonderful job. And I... became a Presbyterian.”
Carlotta let out a crackling laugh. “You are an undiscovered politician.” Then she thought for a minute and said, “Hessie, I know you probably get screwy ideas like this all the time, but I was thinking just this morning that... oh, excuse me a second.”
Carlotta loped off to the register, where the manager, a young man half her size, asked her to sign a stack of receipts. Hessie, meanwhile, leaned in my direction, twirling one of those Seven-Year-Itch curls around her pinky, and whispered, “She’s right, you know. I hear every cockamamie notion in the Pacific Northwest. They figure if I can pull off the Bel Canto, I’ll... oh, here she comes.”
Carlotta came back our way and folded her hands in front of her apron.
“So okay, here it is, and don’t say I didn’t warn you. I have read that, in certain Indian tribes, when women get their periods, they are sent off to a special camp away from the main settlement, so that ‘the curse’ will not adversely affect the rest of the tribe. And I realize that this sort of thing sounds like a terrible, hostile, patriarchal thing to do, but then I got to thinking, Y’know, Carlotta, would you really mind disappearing for a while during your period? Would it really be that bad?’ I mean, if you think about it, my body is already hard at work on this terribly important biological function, having just everything to do with the very procreation of the species – why should I, at the same time, have to subject myself to the rigors of the work force? If, instead, I was sent away for a few days, I wouldn’t have to walk around in public trying to disguise the fact my female parts were hemorrhaging. I wouldn’t have to suppress all the moodiness that comes along with it. I wouldn’t have to be around all those men who don’t have the slightest concept what it’s like. Why, if I got a really bad cramp, I could just damn well rear back my head and wail like a coyote, couldn’t I?
“So I was thinking, somebody’s missing out on a fantastic business opportunity: a retreat for menstruating women. Maybe even a spa! Kind of like the Bel Canto, only with... a different kind of theme.”
The highly developed marketing portion of my brain (located just between the fight-or-flight instinct and prostitution) latched on to this idea like a badger and began to spit out details.
“Bidets in every room. Iron-rich menus – half-price Bloody Marys around the clock. Sheets, carpets and towels all in deep scarlet red, so you don’t have to worry about... accidents. Perhaps a pre-admission PMS lounge with tackling dummies, punching bags and heavy-firepower video games.”
Hessie’s eyes were growing. “And not a man allowed near the place – except... except for dozens of buffed servant boys dressed in nothing but loin cloths, walking around handing out hot towels and neck rubs.”
“The heck with loin cloths,” said Carlotta, pulling up a chair. “I’m thinkin’ tube socks!”
Hessie put a hand to her temple, conjuring a vision. “Oh! And for the piece de resistance... in the lobby... a reproduction of Michelangelo’s David done completely in chocolate.”
“With a removable penis,” said Carlotta.
For anyone else, this line of concept development would lie strictly in the area of joking, but not with Hessie. Her eyes shot back and forth like a tennis spectator as she made her calculations. Then her eyelids closed and rose back up – at the rate of an automatic garage door – and she smiled beatifically.
“And now for the fun part, my dears. What do we call the place?”
Carlotta gripped the edge of the table and said, “Oh! I’ve thought about this. You wouldn’t want the name to be too obvious, because you’d want to give your patrons the opportunity to slip away incognito. So I was thinking… the moon. Villa Luna, or maybe Villa Athena, after the Greek goddess of the moon… and wisdom, I might add.”
“Oh, honey,” said Hessie, shaking her head in disappointment. “You’re being much too cerebral. Besides, you’re spoiling our fun. I think we should do the exact opposite. I think we should be downright crass about it. No timid bleeders here, I say!”
“How about... Hotel Menses?” said Carlotta.
“There ya go!” said Hessie.
“I got it!” I said. “The Tamp On Inn. Or... Casa Kotex.”
“Chez Phlebotome’,” said Hessie, then quickly retracted. “No, no. Here you go...” She took thumb and index finger and drew out a sign in the air. “Cycles: A Spa.”
“Oh yes!” said Carlotta, and then glanced at the front of the restaurant. “Whoops. Hate to break up the fun, but my manager looks like he’s getting antsy to go home.”
We paid our bill, gave Carlotta a ridiculous tip and sisterly hugs, and were headed across the street when Hessie caught a glimpse of something out on Knickerbocker Beach and beckoned me forward. Once across the parking lot and down the stairs, she stopped and spread her arms to the dark sky. “Would you look at this low tide! Look at how wide this beach is!”
We aimed ourselves at the now-distant ocean and trod through the sand until we came to a huge rock shaped like the humps of a camel. Normally surrounded by water, there it stood, high and dry; I placed a hand on the leeward hump and said, “Are you really considering this spa thing?”
Hessie clucked her tongue. “No, not really. It’s a wonderful concept, but I am a hands-on manager. Between the cafe and the Bel Canto I’m already losing too much sleep. Besides, if you think about it, the spa has certain logistical problems. You’re consistently ruling out the large percentage of not-currently-menstruating females, so you’d have to have a large urban audience to begin with. And then, what do you do about reservations? I don’t know about you, but my period doesn’t always come as scheduled.”
“Good points,” I said.
We turned to watch a line of foam chugging in like a locomotive pulling freight. It stopped a foot in front of us and sank into the sand.
“Sandykins,” said Hessie. “I really hate to leave you here all by yourself. Are you gonna be all right?”
I felt the need for another visual keystone, so I scanned the sky above our covert ocean and found the reclining zig-zag of Cassiopeia’s Picasso throne. “Oh Hessie! The last couple of weeks, I’ve had a regular Mormon Tabernacle flying through my head. Maybe if I’m by myself for a while they’ll all spin away and leave me the hell alone.”
“I understand,” said Hessie. “And maybe when I come back next week, you can tell me some stories.”
“Sure,” I answered. “No promises, but... sure.”
Photo by MJV