Wednesday, May 26, 1999
I had few expectations for Montana: Big Skies. Celebrity ranches. Flat. Still, we started off in mountains I hadn’t realized existed. The Rockies? Okay, I’m a geological idiot. But these were easier to drive than their Canadian equals, though less amazing. And midway through our ascension was Kalispell, which the guidebooks dismissed in less than two sentences, emphasizing winter sports.
“Where to?” Tom asked as we pulled off the highway for a break.
“Right,” I pointed. A sign indicated City Center.
Which was longer than expected—six or seven blocks. Full of mini-bars. Mini-casinos. Mini-antique shops. Sometimes all three at once; these seemed to be desperate folks. Then I spotted a silver-painted storefront with a fully-rigged cowboy scaling two-stories up.
“There,” I said. It turned out to be an art gallery.
Weird paintings for Montana. Weird for TriBeCa. Huge, sensual nudes. The kind you need lots of white space to hang.
“Have you been in before?” the beaming manager asked.
“Hardly been in the state.”
“Then let me explain…”
He did. The central show was of vibrant, oversized flowers—fabric dye on silk. “Look at the way they just come out of the frame,” he directed. “Now here’s one simply done in watercolors, on white paper. Not nearly so astonishing.”
The next lecture was Sculpture.
“These are inspired by Native American pictographs, on rock. Now they’re rendered in unpolished steel, freestanding.”
But I couldn’t help eyeing those huge naked women.
“They’re something, aren’t they?” he grinned. “I’d like to add them to my own collection.”
The pair of joined paintings was relatively cheap, less than three thousand bucks. And I said as much.
“Yeah, but one of the guys I sell to says every time he buys something here, he has to spend twenty-five grand putting another room on his house.”
He introduced himself as, “Marshall Noice.” The same name as the gallery. Also, the name embossed over a wall of glowing black-and-white photographs, views familiar not only from the mountains we’d just traveled, but from the Sierra Club poster on display.
“Congratulations,” was all I could think to say. “Wish my camera could do that.” Actually, it probably can, with someone else shooting.
“Thanks.” He grinned again.
Meanwhile, Tom was studying the steel sculpture, which he liked. He soon bought a small, flat buffalo.
“That’s from Chief Joseph’s battle shield,” Noice informed us, pulling out shots of the pictographs.
Chief Joseph? The guy who fitted Custer for a toupee? Or one of Buffalo Bill’s quartet who inflicts “There’s No Biz Like Show Biz” on us? It turns out there’s nothing funny about Chief Joseph.
His Nez Perce name wasThunder Rolling Down the Mountain, and in 1877 he and his tribe were driven out of their Oregon valley by U.S. Troops. Chased for three months and fifteen hundred miles to nearly the Canadian border, they finally surrendered and were promised their land back. Only first they were herded to North Dakota, Kansas, then Oklahoma, their numbers steadily reduced by disease.
Meanwhile, back in the lightly comic gallery, I bought a softcover book of Noice’s photos. “Not that I can’t afford the hardcover,” I had to admit. “But you know I’m gonna tear this apart and frame the prints.”
“Long as people see them,” he laughed.
We wandered a while longer. I kept ogling the nudes, debating. But I’d have to strip my small apartment living room and whitewash the paneled walls to do the ladies justice. So I passed.
Moments later, in a strange little junk store, I bought something cheaper: a kid’s board game that cost a buck and made me feel ten-years-old. It was half-squashed under one of those ancient, home electrode devices, supposedly designed to help people lose weight. This was back when electricity was new and some of its uses were weirder than snake oil. I spotted the game box first, thinking it looked familiar, then couldn’t believe it till I finally saw the name.
When I was a kid—and distrust any sentence that starts that way—I had a game called Cabbie. I don’t know where it came from, maybe my godfather (who, it later turned out, was more generous to me, in his old age, than he’d been earlier, to his own son). But I was the only one who had this game. Other things we could play at all my friends’ house: Monopoly. Risk. But if you wanted to playCabbie, you had to come to mine.
Only no one wanted to play. Because its full name was Cabbie—The Game With Rules That Are Meant To Be Broken. And though we were all raised in New York, my friends couldn’t handle that.
The game was simple: each player was a taxi and there were passengers—tiny brightly-colored plastic donuts that speared on the cab’s metal spike—scattered all over the street map board. The point was to pick up the most passengers, fast. This involved taking wrong turns, and running red lights, and cheerfully clobbering nuns pushing baby carriages. Everything you learned in Driver’s Ed. Except when I did this—I never had a soul—my friends would shout, “You can’t do that!” And I’d yell back, “What’s the name of the game?
“Cabbie!” they’d chorus. “The Game With Rules that Are Meant To Be Broken!”
They could sing, but they didn’t want to go to hell.
So we didn’t play it a lot. Which is dumb, considering some of my friends grew up to be stockbrokers and producers. And over the years I thought, “Maybe I never really owned the game. Maybe it didn’t actually exist.” It certainly didn’t survive my mother’s ever-cluttered basement, despite the fact Amelia Earhart’s still down there playing poker with Jimmy Hoffa—“Pass them damn pretzels, willya?” Still, there was the game, flattened and battered, in crap-for-culture Montana. I happily took it along.
East of Kalispell was Glacier National Park. If we’d wanted to hike, or swat bugs—lots of ’em zoomin’—we might have explored. Instead, we mainly took pictures. Of Teddy Roosevelt’s Obelisk, oddly abandoned at a rest stop. Of the dog, marking the spot. Of a fellow tourist also marking a spot behind the still-locked restrooms. We didn’t take his picture, though I did wonder why the National Restrooms didn’t open till June.
We settled for the night in Shelby, a town less interesting than its name. And, no, I didn’t challenge Tom to Cabbie. With five weeks to go, I didn’t want to hitchhike home. And the dog was coveting my seat.