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Look who the wind blew in


Marge Stein was the regular receptionist, and this was her day off. Stepping into Marge’s place at the front desk was like stepping into my very own ocean liner and steering a museum through a rainy Monday in 1952. The thick, half-round, hand-rubbed, oak desk was built high off the polished marble floor where the public echoed in and out from Tuesday through Sunday.

Marge looked like a museum receptionist should look, thick, straight, burnt orange hair, long enough to sculpt snake shapes around the back of her head. Makeup and lipstick as if painted by Vermeer. With a figure that mirrored the bronze Venus by Maillol standing in the foyer, Marge gave tailored suits, knit shifts and belted tunics a reason for being fine art. I was no visual match for Marge, not well-designed yet — an art student, working to keep herself afloat.

The under-counter fluorescent illuminated me and the whole front desk. Museum people arriving for work waved, winked and nodded. One, not noticing I wasn’t Marge, asked, “Did you play bridge at Carol’s on Wednesday?” I imagined I was Marge and said, “No” in two tones.

I checked the desk’s cubbyholes to see that the stamps, envelopes, rubber bands and miscellaneous drawer were in order and then read Marge’s note from yesterday, swoopily scripted in cobalt blue ink. It said, “Dora, Susan Levin will deliver Igor to the front entrance at 11 a.m. Be sure Max is there!”

Dora Oaks was Max’s secretary and the one who told me when to mimeograph announcements, polish the Samovars, dust the collection racks or, the best part of the job, attend the front desk. Dora wasn’t there yet, so I left the note on her desk blotter with the morning mail and ran back to answer the flashing phone, letting the caller know that Edward Steichen’s photographic portraits of New York and Hollywood famous-types was on view through November.

The museum was still and dark, except for reflections of the wet, gray day on the polished floor and the lit-up reception desk. The light-heavy, stopping-starting rain tones on the sculpture court skylights made a bluesy sound track for this morning. I was free to swivel awhile in my maroon, worsted wool, desk chair to study the Soutine painting above the south gallery doors — a baker in a white hat and coat leaning on thick cadmium red; to the shelf of Ming Dynasty bowls in the glass case near the umbrella stand. About 180 degrees from the bowls was the huge, black and white abstract expressionist, “Painting No. 7” by the artist-in-residence that year. 

At exactly eleven o’clock two dark bodies blew into the foyer — talking loud like sailors in a squall. My spine uncurled from the back of the chair. One tall man, one short, popping, shaking, spraying umbrellas and horn-piping out of their tailored overcoats.

The shorter man said, “This Portland weather, it is like a storm at sea!” He trilled his rs. The tall man said, “Yes, I’ve lived here five years and I’ve grown to expect a certain amount of stormy weather. I’ll take you to the upstairs gallery and show you how this weather influences some of our Northwest painters, but first, Igor, follow me, Dora has a hot drink waiting for us in my office.”

As they passed the front desk Igor winked at me. I wondered if Dora knew that plans had changed. It was Max, not Susan who delivered the renowned, Russian-born composer — Igor Stravinsky — and I think he just flirted with me.

Norma Heyser is a member of the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.