Domenick Ammirati talks to artist Whitney Claflin about surviving economic shock
My first impulse when it all started was buying groceries. My second was to see how people were doing. The art world, for all its flaws and cracks, is a community, and that’s what I have. When his outward signs go away at a time like this – as if there had been a time like this, exactly – you are left with people. I’m going to talk to some of them over the next few weeks, see how they are doing materially, emotionally, physically, financially, etc.
OVER THE LAST SOME YEARS, I lived illegally in the leaky garage of an old funeral home, which had been converted to an office at a time when woodwork was a generic interior option – “the hovel,” as I affectionately call it. Surviving body-to-mouth, check for check, no savings, and my credit battered by student loans, I have no chance of getting my name on a lease of any kind in New York City. But when I found the place on Craigslist, a collector came up with phenomenal help – the hovel is, after all, an incredibly affordable, one-of-a-kind, nothing-like-it-exists-to-work space. New York-plus – and he helped me sign the papers. Finally, for various reasons, I moved in completely. There is a shower and two sinks; carving out a way to hide a double bed and a hot plate was a no-brainer. I have to keep my clothes in a filing cabinet, but I didn’t have to worry about making two rents anymore.
Of course, the landlord refused to write a lease for more than a year, and since the space is zoned commercial, every year he scammed me, raising the rent by $ 100 per month. I was never able to keep up with the pace, but I always kept going. As the rent increased, I had no choice but to pay in installments, with 50 to 80 percent of each week’s meager income being left in an envelope for the landlord. One week a month my phone and internet are owed simultaneously, leaving me between zero and twenty dollars to fend for seven days, after buying a weekly MetroCard to get to work.
On February 28, I opened an envelope that I thought would be a lease renewal with a further price hike that I would have to find a way to handle like magic. Instead, I received my final invoice. The owner wanted me to go out on April 1st. Nature has poured me a powerful neurochemical cocktail of panic and dread, with a hint of relief. I put the envelope down and went to a friend’s opening in Chelsea. The coronavirus was still a topic of conversation that you could choose to ignore for the time being. Above all, we wondered if it was really good for us to graze collectively in the post-event deli-plates tower.
I work freelance floating bookkeeping in a nightclub. When I started I was paid fifteen dollars an hour, now up to ten, and capped at twenty-one hours per week. The amount of money I make, including any freelance work I land on top of that, is unfortunately less than what I need to make ends meet. I can never find enough well-paid concerts to fit into my leftover time. Making art takes a tremendous amount of time, and although I do a lot of work with found objects, it still comes with a fair bit of overhead. I love my job, but it’s really hard to cut my working hours even more than a week when the bar isn’t making enough money. In turn, I am grateful for the flexibility they offer when I have to travel for a show or spend more focused time in the studio. I can anticipate the loss of income, isolate myself to reduce costs and concentrate on painting. I eat two meals a day – oatmeal and lentils from the rice cooker – I’m a free yoga channel on YouTube to overcome poverty and ration weed. In some ways, not much has changed for me now that we are in quarantine.
March has arrived and COVID-19 has increased the volume. I spoke to the owners of the club about my unstable living situation; From April 1, I wanted to work more hours in any capacity. A week later, like all the other bars and restaurants in New York City, they were closed. I broke my shelter in place on St. Patrick’s Day to go there and help the owners put their accounts on hold, clean up, put away any food that could be kept in the walk-in fridge and d other sad and necessary tasks. I was able to save a lot of fresh mint that lost its job of becoming a mojito; her scent coming out of my tote was an emotional anesthetic as we walked to my hovel together, both faded, uprooted and out of work indefinitely.
With the end of the evictions, my crisis of what to do about the hovel was put on hold. Then I heard from a friend who has a room available for April. I followed and decided to take it. I’m not sure how I’m going to pay for it after May, but I feel a lot less alone knowing that almost everyone has landed on the same thin ice that I’ve been skating on for years.
Whitney Claflin is an artist living in New York City.