I performed this story at Turn Me into Gold: A Storytelling Party in the beautiful St. Joseph’s Arts Society in San Francisco. It was a wonderful night with so many old and dear friends in the audience. Wish my dad could have been there. But then it would have been a different story…
Dad Gives Me the Gold
It’s 2018 and we’re in my dad’s north beach apartment. He’s in a wheelchair because of severe neuropathy. He’s got wounds on his feet that won’t heal because he can’t feel them, and he keeps getting terrible infections. He’s refused amputation that could prolong his life, or could also kill him outright. He’s decided to die the slow way, and he’s asking me what I want.
I know he would not appreciate me breaking down in front of him. So instead of crying, I demand the most precious items I can think of: “Dad, I want the Peruvian gold statues.”
He’d inherited the statues from Uncle art, a mining engineer, a gold miner in Peru. Uncle Art’s San Francisco home had been full of Peruvian antiques and artifacts. It smelled of cedar chests and alpaca blankets. Thus, it was not super surprising to see two ancient gold statues in a museum-like case. The Incan man wore a square headdress and had a squarish body. He stood three or four inches high. And the bird was almost as tall, some kind of tropical bird. I don’t really know my birds, but we’ll go with toucan. Because it rhymes. The little man and the toucan were lit from beneath and glittered. They dazzled my little girl eyes.
I have a degenerative eye disease, which means that I’ve spent much of my life going blind. These two little gold statues remain in my mind’s eye, although I’ve not actually seen them in years.
My dad tells my partner, Alabaster, to take the two plexiglass display containers off the shelf and bring them to the table where we’re sitting. I remove the top of one of them. I’ve never touched these Peruvian statues before and when I go to pick up the little man my thumb almost punches through his breastplate.
“Shit!” He’s hollow. I’d always imagined they were solid gold. I suddenly feel unready to inherit these treasures.
In fact it’s a very strange time for me to be inheriting Peruvian gold artifacts or really anything of value. Alabaster and I are vagabond artists. He’s a composer and I’m a writer. We’re basically living out of suitcases. Honored as I am to inherit two ancient Peruvian gold statues, I do not relish schlepping them around the country.
Also, what I didn’t see coming, is that as soon as they are in my possession, these little gold statues get very heavy. Not physically heavy, you understand. They’re hollow. No, it’s a metaphorical weight, an existential weight. It occurs to me that these artifacts probably never should have left Peru. Objects I had no right to inherit. I need to find out if they are really what I think they are. And to figure out where they belong.
I have Alabaster take photos of the bird and little man from every angle. I begin Googling Pre-Columbian art and shoot off a bunch of emails to every likely suspect, from The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, to the Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley.
I keep getting the brush off. They say they don’t know. They refer me to others who never reply. So, basically crickets.
Sooo… I’m freaking out at airport security, as you do. Especially when you have lots of electronics. Particularly my braille computer, which apparently looks very suspicious. (No screen!)
They make me pull the plexiglass domes out of my backpack and put them back into the scanner. Part of me fears they will arrest me on the spot for having stolen property—like, international stolen property! But the only thing they bust me for is my oversized toothpaste.
My dad and I had a long-standing ritual of talking once a week by phone with a cocktail in hand. Before his final wheelchair days, he traveled around the world and loved to go to the theater and opera. He also loved reliving these experiences in our conversations.
These days our conversations are a bit awkward because he’s hardly leaving the house. Also, he’s skeptical of my life choices. He finds my writing career to be a bit… amorphous.
A few months after he gives me the statues, I’m reaching for stuff to say when he interrupts. “So, did you sell them?”
“No, Dad! I’m broke but I’m not desperate. Yet.” I describe how I’m actually researching them. I sketch out my emails to museums and appraisers. He’s not particularly interested.
Then he asks me what my book is about. I tell him: “It’s a personal and cultural history of blindness.”
He takes an eloquent sip of gin and says: “You think people will want to read that crap?”
He has no way of knowing that, just a few short months after his death, I will sell that crap—I mean my first book—to a little publisher called Penguin Random House. But for now, all he knows is that we’re both disabled. He feels it to be a curse that keeps him from enjoying the good life, while I, through writing, am finding a new treasure: Disability Pride.
One day I have a forehead slapper moment: my best friend’s husband is an archeologist!
Didn’t he do grad work in Peru? I email her the photos. My best friend relays his message that he doesn’t believe they’re authentic, but—and this is a big but—if they are, I shouldn’t have them.
Ouch. I’m trying to do the right thing… that’s why I asked him. But I get it: archeologists are probably not fond of gold miners.
On the other hand, his skepticism is a bit of a relief. I mean we are broke-ass broke. If these things are just gold pretending to be artifacts I’d sell the shit out of them. At least one of them.
After almost a year of research, and crickets, I find an online appraiser in London that seems legit. All they need are my photos, some details, and twenty pounds per appraisal. Two weeks later I get it.
Almost immediately after that I get a call from my dad. He has another infection that they can no longer treat. He has a few weeks to live.
We return to San Francisco. We’re having lunch at the only place my dad goes anymore. It’s the restaurant downstairs from his North Beach apartment and everyone knows him.
We barely make it past the first bloody Mary, when he asks again: “So, did you sell them.”
I take a big breath and tell him what the appraiser said: “They’re fake.”
OK, that’s not exactly what the appraisal said. Turns out an Italian guy in Lima manufactured these Incan replicas in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. made of a gold alloy. “Auction value: 10 to 20, dollars!”
Now this estimate is based only on photos. While they say a picture is worth a thousand words, I’m skeptical. So I take them to a pawn shop. Not to sell them, at least not both. I just wanted to make sure they weren’t gold. They’re less than 14 carrot. The chemical they use to test purity can’t go lower than that.
My dad is stunned. To break the terrible silence I say: “So do I get another inheritance pick? Because behind door number 1 was kind of a dud.”
We laugh and get smashed. It’s a wonderful last visit with my dad.
There would be no more inheritance picks. I didn’t have any more family treasures in my mind’s eye. That’s not really the point. My dad will die, and yes, he bequeathed me fool’s gold. But I will always be proud of the fact that, even when my dad was most doubtful about what I was doing with my life, he still entrusted me with what he believed was the real thing.