Afterwards, I rooted around the museum, which had a fine collection of paintings by Hopper's contemporary Andrew Wyeth. Wyeth had his first one-person museum exhibition at the Currier in 1939, and developed a relationship with the museum much as Hopper did with the Whitney. Interestingly, Wyeth's favorite model had the same name as the woman at the front counter, Helga, and his extensive series of paintings of her parallels Hopper's exclusive use of Jo as a model. But the museum was as deserted of people as the city's abandoned mills down by the river that Chris and I had visited earlier that day.
So I sought out more employees in the gift shop where they sold reproductions of Hopper's paintings--bootlegged images. The shop's glass display counter and old-time register reminded me of the payout spots in Hopper's diners. Two women tended the counter: Annie was young and blond and pale, wearing a soft cloth dress. She had green eyes, a strong jaw, and a large nose. Maria was old and gray and olive-skinned, wearing a rayon shirt carved into different colors like a stained glass window. Pendulous silver earrings dangled across her patterned shawl. She sat on her stool, while the younger one leaned against the counter.
"When I think of isolation," Annie answered in a nasal tone, "the only thing I can think of: the mills of Manchester. That kind of isolates Manchester, not in a bad.... Well I guess it could be a bad way. People have different opinions on the mills. I think of isolation as distinguishing Manchester as the mill city.
"I never really thought of Manchester as being isolated. I'm from the country, an hour north, nothing like Manchester. I moved down here because I'm going to school here. I love the history of Manchester, the mill buildings, the great old stories about this mill town. I don't necessarily enjoy today's Manchester. This is like New York City for me. There's a lot of people. There's a lot of new stuff: condos, apartment buildings. But I don't appreciate it. They're building a new civic center for basketball and hockey, and that will overpower the whole section. Downtown is crazy on weekends. That's just not me because I'm a country bumpkin."
Maria finally cut in, in a raspy voice. "That center was voted out for so long, but they finally got it through. I tell you: the original people here, I mean really old, they don't want the changes at all. They still talk about the mills closing; they think that's terrible that that happened.
"I grew up in Manhattan," she continued, "so you can imagine what it's like to be in Manchester: old-fashioned in every way. I'll tell you what's different: the air is cleaner. I still haven't gotten over it, and I've lived here about 13 years. When I came up here, I loved the country. But the town? They consider this the big city. To me it's very small town."
"That's funny," giggled Annie. "You see how…"
"So opposite," Maria nodded.
As we left, Chris noted a pattern, as was his job. "Annie was an example of living out what you said Hopper often portrayed: coming from a small town and feeling lost in a big one."
We got back in the car and headed home. On the highway, we passed signs I had noticed earlier: "Liquor store and rest area."
"That seems like a questionable combination," I mused.
"Here in New Hampshire you can only buy liquor at a State-run store."
"I want to get some wine for dinner," I said. "Should we stop there?"
"No," Chris waved his hand before his face. "It's more expensive here. We'll go over the border and get it in Vermont; that's what everybody here does."
Bootleggers, it seems, is among compatriots.