Not Just A Place
By Robert Beck
I didn’t know what I wanted to paint when I approached the Riverside Memorial Chapel, the Jewish funeral home on Amsterdam and 76th Street, and I wouldn’t have been surprised or upset had they declined. Riverside is an important part of the Upper West Side, and I felt I had to ask.
I usually make my requests in person but wasn’t comfortable just dropping in. Submitting it in writing gave everybody time for consideration. Two days later, I received a call from an executive at the parent company, then subsequently one from Charles Salomon, the President of Riverside. Mr. Salomon is 82, and he has worked at the Chapel for 60 years. That’s a lot of taking care of people. I don’t think I’ve had a nicer conversation with someone I hadn’t met. We made arrangements for me to visit.
For Mr. Salomon and the staff, each encounter is one of acute responsibility. Every person is important. Respected. That’s the way I was treated, from the moment I walked in. Mr. Salomon showed me all around the building, and we talked a lot. About Riverside, the business, families, and art. When we were done, he drove me back to my studio. This is a guy who has spent his whole life being there for other people. Because he wants to. Otherwise, he’d be doing something else.
I initially thought I might end up painting in one of the chapels, but it was clear halfway through my tour that whatever my depiction, it had to have Mr. Salomon in it. Riverside wasn’t about the architecture; it was about someone attending to your needs at a really tough time. The place is staffed around the clock, to be sure that happens.
I asked to see his office. There is nothing unusual about it, but you know how a person’s office walls often have pictures of special people they’ve met, and maybe certificates of accomplishments? His wall has photographs of some of New York’s famous funerals. Screen stars, mayors, and captains of business, being brought down steps and hallways in dignified formality by pallbearers, and there in front of them all—one of the best at making sure everything is taken care of—walks Charles Salomon.
Having explored the ceremonial, the mannered, and the mysterious, I’d arrived where the pride lives. I told him I wanted to paint him at his desk.
Salomon sat in place for the first fifteen minutes while I did the basic layout, then he went off to take care of other things. Once I had the room painted, he sat for me another fifteen. I told him he didn’t have to pose or “do” anything. He pulled out his phone to check his messages. The phone that never gets turned off.
Robert Beck’s West Side Canvas observes life on the Upper West Side. His studio is on 79th Street, and you can contact him at www.robertbeck.net.
Robert Beck’s weekend column now has a new name, West Side Canvas, where he will describe, in memorable style, the places he paints around the neighborhood, and display the product of his labor. You can find his previous columns here.