Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

September 15, 2004 Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

I went to Milwaukee to meet someone whom I hadn’t seen in thirty years. When I was a child my parents owned a brownstone in New York City, which they had converted to two apartments. We lived in the downstairs one, and they rented the upstairs one. The Hartmanns moved in when I was a toddler. Their daughter Celia was my age – we joke now about how we were best friends when we were two. Their son Nicky was four years older. The Hartmanns moved to London when Celia and I were six, to further Erich Hartmann’s photography career. They came back when we were eleven, and Celia and I remained friends until we were in college. Twenty five years later, I sent her a “blast from the past” email, and now we are friends again.

Her brother Nicky – who, of course, now goes by the more dignified Nicholas or Nick – lives in Milwaukee. My memories of him are as what I think of as an English schoolboy – a skinny kid with gray wool shorts and knee socks - which must date to our visit to London while they lived there. I’d known him as a teen-ager and as a college student after they returned, but I didn’t see him that way in my mind’s eye. I wondered whether I’d even recognize him thirty years later.

Of course I did. We talked about work, about Milwaukee, about my travels. When I knew him, Nick wanted to be an archaeologist, and he has a PhD in archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania. But he has worked as a technical translator for years. As a youngster I wanted to be an archaeologist as well, so I wondered why he hadn’t stuck with it after investing so much in the field. He didn’t like the people – found the community to be unpleasant and inbred, perhaps because everyone is competing for limited financial resources, scarce permits to dig in ancient sites, and the few jobs in academia. The translation community, as he described it, is a jolly lot by comparison, and he is successfully running his own business.

His wife Chris is in museum conservation, and her stories were interesting as well. She is the head of conservation in the major natural history museum in Milwaukee, and she is frustrated. I guess in a museum, conservation is like infrastructure maintenance, or routine ongoing data collection. It’s not sexy, it doesn’t bring in the public, it doesn’t lead to attention in the media. It’s not like blockbuster exhibitions or glorious new acquisitions. Chris seems to feel she’s fighting a losing battle to get her museum to take care of its collections. She’s thinking about a career change. She said she’s done the serious purposeful career where she’s trying to accomplish something she considers important. Now she wants a reasonably-paid job that she can leave at the office at the end of the day, so she can put her mental energy into the rest of her life for a change. Nick and Chris moved to Milwaukee for Chris’s job, and neither

of them wants to retire there, though they seem to like the city well enough. Nick’s work could move anywhere – he often doesn’t even know his clients and interacts with them only by email – but perhaps Chris’s career ideas are linked to the thought of leaving Milwaukee at some point.

Meeting them – or in Nick’s case meeting him again – was interesting. They are intellectual and highly educated. Of course they share my politics. Nick shares his father’s interest in photography, and his website includes both a tribute to his father and examples of his own work. He looked at the stickers I’d put on the drawers in my van, small architectural renderings of Italian buildings that I’d picked up in Rome. I bought them because they were pretty, but Nick immediately identified the buildings. I mentioned my Egyptologist friend Salima from Cairo, and Nick said he was pretty sure she had spoken at Chris’s museum last spring. (I emailed her later about it – she had.) Seeing Nick again wasn’t like seeing his sister – Celia (in the photo to the right) and I immediately talked about our parents, our families, our fathers’ deaths, how she felt about going to England and moving back, how she feels about her life in New York. But then she and I were best friends when we were two, while Nick was the much bigger brother, so it’s not the same.

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