Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Very Rare Bird...

     One of the advantages of going to college on a small campus is that you get to know your professors really well. On Friday, Sissey's Sociology professor invited us to spend the day with her on a shopping and antiquing expedition at the Metrolina in Charlotte. The Metrolina is a once-a-month warehouse exposition that attracts hundreds of vendors from all over the East Coast who are  peddling a wide variety of goods: silver, jewelry, furniture, quilts, books, artwork, plants, rugs and other various collectibles.  Of course, they all have one-of-a-kind, highly collectible, extremely valuable, rare finds, one of which I am now the proud owner. Let me explain.
    Dr. Nancy Hazam is a fascinating woman. She is an anthropologist of Lebanese descent, a Rhodes Scholar, a cancer survivor, a sociology professor, an amateur beader, a world traveller, an animal rescue worker,  and a former Peace Corps volunteer who spent three years living in a mud hut with the Tutsi tribe in Africa. She is witty and funny and enjoys life tremendously. We were excited to be spending the day in her company and under the influence of her vast array of knowledge on many subjects, hoping a little of that knowledge would spill into the vast caverns of our eager little minds.
       Her years in Africa led to her passion of collecting the rare African art which fills the walls of her Columbia, SC home. She knows every dealer of African art on the East Coast, they know and love her, and her passion for collecting is contagious. Very contagious. Believe me, I know.
    When we arrived at the Metrolina, Nancy quickly instructed us on "The Plan." We were determined to cover every booth, peruse every article, uncover every rare find, and still have time to squeeze in the most important part of the trip-- lunch. We hit the floors running with Sissey loaded in her hot red wheelchair. The tremendous shopping bag made from African fabric which Dr. Hazam had given her last week was hanging from the back, empty and begging to be filled with treasures.  We didn't make it far into the crowd before Nancy spotted her first hit, a counter filled with silver cutlery of every imaginable pattern and being sold by the gram. The dealer informed us that it would all be melted down the next day, and Nancy, being a "rescuer" by nature, had to save a few doomed tines and blades.  A couple of forks and spoons went quickly into the bag.  These were followed by an 1817 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, leather bound, printed in London, and destined to replace my late grandfather's missing missile. His prayer book, which had been used at every marriage, baptism, and funeral in my family, had mysteriously disappeared after a baptism, and I figured with a little imagination and story telling, this one could replace the original.  A strand of carved agate beads joined the pack as we strolled down the first aisle.  It was beginning to look like a lucky day.
     That was when we spied THE BIRD. It was perched quietly on the edge of the very last booth of the aisle, a booth normally manned by Nancy's good friend and fellow collector, ViVi, who was absent today but had a friend covering the booth for her. Most people, normal people, would  never even have glanced twice at THE BIRD, but Nancy gasped when she saw it, and announced that THIS WAS IT, the had-to-have-it find, the one-of-a-kind piece, the real deal! She immediately declared that the German red-glazed pot with bas relief stags that she had been contemplating would have to be forfeited for THE BIRD.  This was not just any old bird, but an Ivory Coast hand-carved African ceremonial bird. It stood about two feet tall, was carved from a single block of wood, covered in hand-hammered metal with cowrie shells lining the crest, and sported a very phallic-looking bill that spilled from crown to claws.  It was ominous, to say the least, and Nancy had that gleam in her eye that the avid collector longs to get, a gleam that only comes when sparked by the appearance of a real treasure.  She bargained with the dealer for a better price, which he graciously conceded to (only because she was a friend of ViVi's and ViVi would be so happy to know that Nancy had bagged the bird), then whipped out her check book and stroked a handsome check for a pretty ugly bird.  Sissey and I "oohed" and "ahhed" over the treasure and went on and on about how much her twin brother, another avid collector of exotic finds, would just love that bird.
      Now here, I must backtrack a bit.  There are a few important personal characteristics about Dr. Hazam which I must explain. Not only is she interesting and fun to be around, she is generous and giving to a fault. When Sissey commented in class one day how much she liked her African fabric bag, Nancy insisted she take it and would not let her leave without the bag.  The agate beads which Nancy had bought earlier were slipped into Sissey's hands at the end of the day as a present for her. She has probably given away as much art as she has collected, and the same can be said of the animals she rescues. She is always finding a good home for the ones she does not keep, and she can tell you the ever-after life story of every creature she has rescued, including the dog which became the beloved member of Dean Catalano's family. So if you tell Nancy you like something, you had better mean it, because there is a high probability she will give it to you.
     Back to the bird.  As we continued shopping, adding more treasures to our bulging little bag, Sissey and I continued to tell Nancy how wonderful her bird purchase was.  That is sort of the secret code of professional must encourage one another after a major purchase so that shopper's remorse does not set in and pangs of guilt do not ensue.  We were both well versed  in this routine, had profusely praised THE BIRD, and everyone was feeling very satisfied with their purchases.
    Enter Sulaymane Berete: a tall, exotic gentle man from Guinea, dealer in BaCongo tribal art, a kind and soft spoken man, resident of New York, and an excellent salesperson.
     It was the end of the day and we were tired, but not too tired to stop by Sulaymane's booth to talk about his collection of beaded wedding crowns, passport masks, bronze cuffs worn by tribal queens, carved fertility statues, intricate ritual masks, and glory hallelujah! a disappearing-wax-cast-bronze ceremonial staff! Nancy grabbed the staff and held it to her chest as that old familiar gleam began to twinkle in her eyes. Once again, she gasped! Not a good sign....
   THIS WAS IT!, the had-to-have-it find, the one-of-a-kind piece, the real deal! A bronze ceremonial staff was just the piece she needed for her collection,  but alas, she had already bought the previous "THIS WAS IT!, the had-to-have-it find, the one-of-a kind piece, the real deal"  bird, and the staff would be just too much on top of that.  That was when Nancy had an idea, and I knew we were in trouble.
    "Beth," she said, "I know how much you really wanted that bird for Bro, and I insist that you take it. I don't need another carving, I have a house full of them, and I would love for you to have it for your son's collection."
    Sissey and I both emphatically shook our heads "NO!" and said that we would not think about taking her bird, that we knew how much she loved it, that we just couldn't dream of taking it away from her. But Nancy is not a selfish person,  she truly wanted us to have that bird, she really wanted that bronze staff, and I was caught up in the moment. I couldn't help myself. I couldn't say no. I'm just not that kind of person.
    So I whipped out my check book, wrote a check for the bird, threw in an African BaCongo passport mask for good measure, and walked home with the ugliest statue you have ever laid eyes on.
    When I entered my parent's home, I told my father that he was not the only one in the family that could bag a big bird, and that I, too, had inherited that hunting gene. I plopped ole ViVi-bird on the mantlepiece and stepped back. They, much like Nancy, gasped as soon as they saw the bird, and both asked me if I had been on drugs.
    I then called my husband and told him I'd been shopping and that  he might want to fix himself a drink
before I proceeded to tell him about my "THIS WAS IT!, the had-to-have-it find, the one-of-a kind piece, the real deal!"
      I heard him gasp and the line went dead.
      He must have been overcome with excitement.


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