Portrait of the Boy as a Young Artist

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For reasons too complicated to explain– and which only became evident to me long after they had all died, my parents moved in with my grandmother when I was a month old.

Into the same house my mother had grown up in.

The war was finally over and my parents bought a laundry with the proceeds from the sale of their former home which my father had designed and helped build with his own hands.

The plan was that my mother would run their new business.

My father quit his job in Florida as a lawyer for the railroad and had gone back to his old job as a telegraph operator at the railroad station in Savannah. 

My parents both worked from 8 o’clock in the morning until after 6 in the evening five days a week– and from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Saturdays.

Consequently, from the time I was about a year old, I was entrusted to the care of my grandmother, 58, a widow who had lived alone and whose husband had died suddenly when she was 41.

Beginning when I was first able to walk down the hall from my room to hers, I’d climb into bed with my grandmother every chance I would get, cozy up next to her and she would read to me while I looked at the pictures in the books. She read the Bible to me–and illustrated Bible Stories–and Aesop’s Fables–and children’s books I had received as gifts– but best of all, she read me the newspaper comic stripsMany of those characters in the comic strips looked suspiciously like people I knew from the real world.

In “Bringing Up Father”, the main character’s nagging wife, Maggie bore an uncanny resemblance to my father’s Aunt Maggie, whom we would occasionally visit. The comic character, Roscoe Sweeney in ‘Buzz Sawyer, ’ looked exactly like my parents’ friend Ed. Little Orphan Annie was the spitting image of Ruthie, a little girl with orange hair who lived two houses away. The comic strip Nancy was obviously based on my cousin of the same name.

And there were others.

But the one that really struck me the most was HENRY— a strip about a little boy with a bald head and big ears. It had to be about the boy next door. It looked exactly like him. And his name was “Henry”.

I assumed it was just a matter of time until someone did a comic strip about me.

My father grew up on a farm and hated to waste things. He worked for the railroad, in the telegraph office. Information about freight and passenger trains from all up and down the “line” was constantly being printed out by teletype machinesThese machines were fed by large rolls of yellow paper– and if the paper ran out, the machines would keep right on typing –and all that information would be lost. To prevent this from happening, the last few yards of paper on the roll were dyed pinkThis alerted the “operators” that it was time to put on a new roll. My father would bring these almost-empty rolls of pink paper, which would otherwise have been thrown out, home. He showed me how to use a wooden ruler to tear paper off the rolls and make it  into “sheets.” He would type personal letters on some of the paper, but most of the sheets he gave to me.

There was also a never-ending supply of pencils from the SEABOARD AIRLINE RAILWAY.

Years later, he would give me the sheets of white cardboard which came with his freshly-pressed white shirts.

My earliest memory of receiving any approval for my artwork from my parents was the day after my mother had given me some crayons and a coloring book to distract me so that she and my father could go out dancing, dining and drinking for the evening. 

I was around three.

A year or so later, my mother made a big deal about a drawing of a squirrel I had seen in the backyard.

Once, when my father and I drove to Florida to see his mother, my grandmother sat me down at the dining room table with paper and pencil and had me copy a framed photograph of him. I wasn’t about to disappoint her. She might give me a“switchin”–or even worse–another one of those “enemas”. But I knew I could do it– and I wanted to please her.  I liked it when people seemed pleased with me.

By the time I was seven and in the second grade, I looked forward to those times when the teacher would hand each student one sheet of Manila Paper and we’d all take out our crayons and draw something. You could draw anything you wanted. One afternoon I drew a ship in a storm. It was being tossed about by big waves. Lightning was striking the ship and it was sending out an S.O.S. signal.  Afterward, a girl went around the room and collected all the drawings and brought them up to the teacher’s desk. A few minutes later, Miss Sutlive got up –and walked over to the blackboard– and pinned my drawing up so everyone could see it. The way she was talking to my classmates about that picture gave me a strange new feeling. I could even feel a couple of my classmates starting to like me. Up until that time, I just figured that everyone could draw. From that day on, I began to think of myself as an “artist”— someone special –who could do things that most others could not.

When I was at home after school and my parents were still at work and I didn’t feel like hanging out with my grandmother, who had fallen and broken her hip when I was four and was confined to bed or a wheelchair, I would often sit at the table in the dining room and draw pictures. 

Hours passed like minutes. 

Battlefield scenes with airplanes, tanks and soldiers were a recurring theme. I went through my “Sunken Ship with rotting timbers and open chest of treasure guarded by menacing sharks while a skeleton in a deep sea diver outfit with a big brass helmet and a severed air hose that somehow still emitted bubbles” phase. In a couple of years people were referring to me as the “best artist” in the school and there were several other kids who regularly asked me to draw things for them. I remember this kid named Rolf always asked me to draw sports cars or a motocycle. 

I discovered that I was also able to think of funny things to say in class which would crack up my classmates. I loved to make the other kids laugh. But, in general, the teachers were not amused –and a couple of times, I was sent to the principal’s office. But the urge to make others laugh was stronger than any fear I might have had of getting into trouble. 

Eventually, I realized that drawing funny pictures–and passing them around —seemed like a safer way to get attention. I longed to fit in– and be accepted by the others. But after the laughter died down, I still felt like a reject with no friends.

One day when I was 12, there was a knock at the front door. Nina, our maid, whom I loved dearly, came into my room and told me there were some “boys from school at the front door” and they wanted to see me.

I never got any visitors

There were six or seven of them. I was thrilled. Finally I was going to be accepted into a group! 

Nina invited them into the house and they all crowded into my room. Somehow, they had  heard about my room and wanted to see it. My bedroom walls were completely covered with drawings of monsters and aliens I had copied out of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine. They loved it! But my feelings of elation quickly dissipated when I realized they were just stopping in for a minute because I was on their way to The Coastal Empire Fair in a nearby park. Almost as an afterthought, they invited me to come with them and I tagged along, basically ignored, and as soon as we got there, “Carey”, the “coolest kid in school” and leader of the group– began flirting with some girl in such an inappropriate and shocking way that it made me feel very out-of-place– and I was suddenly overwhelmed by an overpowering urge to flee. I half-walked, half-ran back home, went directly to my room and further retreated into the world of my own imagination.

One day Nina announced to my Mother that, Ricky is going to be an artist when he grows up…”  It seemed to me at the time that Nina knew me better than my own mother did. 

I received further validation when I was around 14. I was over at a friend’s house and it was a rainy day–and we couldn’t play ball outside. His older brother, whom I looked up to and respected– handed me a magazine with a photograph of newly-elected president John F. Kennedy on the cover. He asked me if I could draw a picture of the new president. I sat down at a table in the den and in an hour or so,  got up, walked down the hall to his room and showed him the drawing. He was very impressed with it and left his room. I followed. He went to show his mother the drawing. “Look at this, Ricky is going to be an artist…” There didn’t seem to be any doubt in his mind whatsoever.

And that was enough to convince me.

 

Concentration Charlie

 

snakebox When I was growing up, there was a boy in my neighborhood who was several years older than I was–and he was fond of bullying me. One morning, I was alone shooting baskets in our driveway when he approached me from the street. 

He was holding a small cardboard box. 

There was something weird about the way he was holding that box– away from his body –and out  toward me. He was holding it from the top and I could see there was a hole approximately 3 inches in diameter cut out of the front of the box and something was sticking out of that hole with some straw– or dried grass around it. 

The thing that was sticking out was a copperhead snake–with its mouth wide open. 

I dropped the ball and ran into the garage and jumped up on top of my father’s car and scrambled up into the storage space next to an old wicker rocking chair that was being stored there. The boy with the snake pursued me.

Or tried to. 

He jumped up and caught hold of a crossbeam to pull himself up and as he did, his hand came straight down on a rusty nail that was sticking up. He pulled his hand back, ripping it open. He ran screaming up the driveway, cradling his bleeding hand in his other.  He had dropped the box on the ground and I cautiously approached it. 

The snake, or about 8 inches of it, was still sticking out of the hole in the cardboard box with its mouth wide open,–but it was clearly dead. He –or someone– had cut off about a foot of it, jammed a bent coat hanger inside it to keep it taught and then pried its mouth open to show its fangs. 

Then he had come looking for me. 

I wish I could say that was the last time that boy bothered me, but it wasn’t. 

Many years later, right after I got out of the army,  I ran into him at the beach. I was happy to see him, actually. Aside from my parents, he was the first person I saw that I knew after I had gotten out. 

As it turned out, he had been sent to Vietnam, so I asked him what it was like. 

As we stood there in the sunlight looking out at the ocean, he told me that his favorite thing was when his artillery unit fired “Concentration Charley” onto a predetermined position on a known Vietcong pathway at night. 

Then the next morning he and a few others would go out into the jungle to “see how many arms and legs they could find”. 

I’m no psychologist, but I know for a fact that he suffered terrible abuse as a child. 

I suspect the trauma of those events resulted in making him abusive toward others.

 

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Screen Shot 2020-04-15 at 2.22.29 PM.pngBack in the mid 70’s, after I received my Masters Degree in Art from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and before I worked in comics I was a taxi driver in New York City for a year and a half.

I learned pretty quickly that the “fares”, as we called them in those days, liked to get from point A to point B with as little money on the meter as possible.

After I’d been driving a few months, one of the older more experienced drivers told me about a way to get from LaGuardia Airport to Midtown Manhattan by taking a “shortcut” across Crescent Street in Queens.

This shortcut took you off The Grand Central Parkway and then onto Astoria Boulevard, through a quiet residential neighborhood and right to the “foot” of the Queensborough Bridge and then BOOM in a couple of minutes you were in Midtown and the meter only registered five bucks and change, most of the time because the fare depended on the distance traveled not just the time in the cab.

The first time I tried it, the guy in the backseat who had been chatting amiably with me suddenly said, “DRIVER–! What are you DOING??”

Looking out at the residential buildings on a quiet street he said angrily, “This CAN’T BE RIGHT”.

“I’ve been to New York many times and I can tell you this is NOT how you get to Manhattan.”

“Just wait,” I said, “you’ll see”.

Then we both had to live with the awkward and unpleasant tension for another ten minutes or so, until I dropped him off at his hotel.

The fare from the airport to his hotel in Midtown was only $5.50, but he was still pissed.

I thought maybe he’d give me a little extra in tip money since I saved him about twice that amount.

Nope.

Just 75 cents– if I was lucky.

I did it again a few more times and everytime it was the same result.

The fares always thought I was cheating them and taking them “for a ride” and they told me so in no uncertain terms.

I took great offense at this because, if there was one thing I prided myself on, it was being honest and truthful.

After I had been yelled at and cursed at for the last time, I resolved to just take them on down The Grand Central Parkway and across the Robert F. Kennedy bridge (for which they had to pay a toll) and up into Manhattan and  down along the FDR Drive and then finally onto an off-ramp to Midtown.

This suited them all just fine and they sat back and enjoyed the “Grand Entrance” into New York. Arriving at the same hotel.

The only difference was this way cost them around $13.00 and change.

But no one called me names or yelled at me.

 

(photo credit: Jaap Breedveld)

“Mr. Feldman Wants to See You”

Screen Shot 2019-12-24 at 10.14.14 PM.pngWhen I was a young artist and new in New York, the thing to do was to take slides of your artwork to the O.K.Harris Gallery on West Broadway and show them to Ivan Karp. I had already been in a group show at the Hundred Acres Gallery which Mr. Karp owned farther up the street . It was run by his protege, Barbara Toll, a brilliant young woman who later owned her own Gallery in Soho, so I was feeling pretty sure about myself.

In those days, my “artwork” consisted of a succession or series of arrangements of common and ordinary– or found objects, which I combined in new and interesting ways and then placed inside a small box and exhibited it in the window of my storefront art studio on Grand Street. These “assemblages,” as I later found out they were called, suggested a brand new sense of order– while remaining quite open to interpretation, being generally humorous and not easily explained.

One Saturday afternoon, I stood in a long line of eager young artists as Mr. Karp, who had discovered Andy Warhol and a number of other influential artists, sat in a comfortable chair inside his gallery and issued opinions about each artist’s work. To the attractive young woman ahead of me, Mr. Karp patiently and in good faith looked at her artwork and then told her in a matter-of-fact way, “Your work is alien to my consciousness.” She stepped back into the real world tentatively, and with a puzzled expression on her pretty face.

Then I was my turn.

I handed five or six of my slides in their plastic sleeve to Mr. Karp, who held them up toward one of several track lights pointed in our direction. 

“There are several galleries in New York that would be interested in your work”, he declared matter-of-factly. A few others standing in line behind me inhaled deeply and shifted their weight uncomfortably while waiting their turns.

I was actually shocked to hear him say this, as I really didn’t think of what I was doing as “art” –and had just gone to him with my slides because it seemed to be a right of passage— and others I knew had done it.

And it was free.

The first gallery he mentioned was The Monique Knowlton Gallery, and the name of one of the other galleries, now escapes me.  I just remember they were both prominent galleries on 57th Street. And although I am sure I must have gone to both of them and been rejected, I don’t remember what their comments about my artwork, were, if any.

The third gallery that Mr. Karp mentioned was The Ronald Feldman Gallery, uptown, near the Whitney Museum on Madison Avenue.

The way it worked was, you would drop off a sheet of a dozen or so 35mm color slides with the receptionist and come back in about a week and pick them up and go to the next gallery. Or if you were smart, or could afford it, which I couldn’t, you would have multiple sets of slides at various galleries at the same time.

After my slides had been at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts for a week, I was back at the receptionist’s desk. Because I wasn’t a famous artist yet.….I reminded the receptionist who I was and that I had dropped off my slides the previous week.

“Oh–you’re Richard Parker…?”, she asked.

“Yes”, I heard a voice from somewhere inside me reply.

“Mr. Feldman wants to see you”, she informed me. 

I instantly wished that I had dressed better as I was not expecting to meet anyone important that day. 

She got up from behind her desk and walked around to where I was standing and said,

“Come with me, Sir…..” 

I was ushered through the exhibition space which was accessible to the public, and down a short hallway which was not, to an office with an open door where a well-dressed middle-aged gentleman was sitting behind an expensive-looking desk. He stopped what he was doing and stood up as we entered.

“Mr. Feldman, this is Richard Parker, the young man whose work you were interested in.”

“Oh, yes. Please sit down, Mr. Parker…” said the slightly-balding, dark-haired obviously wealthy man in the white shirt and understated tie.

Mr. Feldman sat back down behind his desk and held up the sheet of slides which his secretary had just handed him. 

My slides.

“This is very interesting, Mr. Parker…” I heard him say.

“These are somewhat reminiscent of the work of Joseph Cornell…” I absolutely loved the idea that this important art dealer was already comparing my work to that legendary artist’s work. I had first learned about Mr. Cornell’s work just a few years earlier from Dr. DeZurko, my ancient Art History professor at the University of Georgia . I could tell by the way Dr. DeZurko spoke in reverant tones of Cornell’s work as he flashed color slides on the screen that here was a very unusual artist. Not your ordinary Rembrandt or DaVinci.

Again, Mr. Feldman held my slides up to the light from his window looking out onto Madison Avenue and said, “I want you…. to come back here in 6 months…” 

Not wanting to unnecessarily complicate a situation which I recognized was going extremely well, I simply thanked him and tried to get up out of my chair without banging my swollen head against the ceiling– or knocking over any prohibitively-expensive sculpture on the way out. I hoped the receptionist could not hear my heart pounding inside my chest as I headed out the door.

Once safely back out the street, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of euphoria. And while I generally felt good about myself as an artist,  I would hardly describe myself as typically euphoric. 

My feet flew down the street as I hastily made my way back to the 72nd Street subway station and rode the “A” train back down to Canal Street and walked quickly up the stairs and back to my studio on Grand Street to resume doing my “interesting” Cornell-like artwork. 

With renewed vigor and a new sense of purpose I literally worked like an artist possessed as I produced dozens of new pieces over the next six months (when I wasn’t spending my nights driving a taxi in Manhattan.)

Six months later, to the day, I was back up  at The Ronald Feldman Gallery to drop off my two new sheets of slides. I’ll admit I was feeling pretty-cocky as I handed my new artwork to his secretary.

And exactly one week later, I was back at the gallery to pick them up– and dressed much nicer this time. If Mr. Feldman was going to make me a big art star, I was going to have to look the part. 

I was actually surprised when his secretary didn’t seem to remember me. Maybe it was the nice clothes. So as she looked at me as I stood there, I gently reminded her of who she was dealing with. 

“Richard Parker”, I uttered in my most sincere and serious, yet non-chalant tone. 

She immediately swivelled around in her chair, leaned down slightly and retrieved my slides and the manila envelope with my name on it and handed it back to me without a word.

Momentarily stunned by her silence and seeming lack of recognition, I asked meekly,

“uh…….Mr. Feldman didn’t say anything…?”

 

“Oh yes……….” she replied.

 

“…he said, ‘–come back in two years’.”

 

The Problem With Flying

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I think it was about 40 years ago on the 3rd of July when the great comic book artist Herb Trimpe came up to the Marvel offices where I worked to turn in pages of The Incredible Hulk.
He told my boss, the much loved Danny Crespi, “Danny–!! I’m going to be taking my Steadman bi-plane out over the weekend!”
 Danny said it just so happened that he was going to be with his family at their weekend retreat outside Armonk, New York. Herb commented that Armonk was not that far from the airport where he kept his bi-plane.
 So Herb said, “Danny–!!  Watch for me I’ll buzz your house.”
We all wished Herb a Happy Fouth of July as he left the bullpen to go back to Kerhonksen. Danny was in high spirits when 5 o’clock rolled around, and he left the office  to take the subway up to his family in The Bronx and it was clear he was really looking forward to the long holiday weekend.
The following Monday, Herb was back in the Bullpen turning in pages and, as we always did when Herb came in we all stopped whatever we were doing and greeted him warmly.
Danny saw Herb talking to us and he got up from behind his desk and came out of his office and ran up to Herb and said, “Herbie—did you see me?? I was waving my arms like crazy as you passed back and forth over our house!”
“You did see me, right…..?”
Herb just looked at Danny and smiled.
“Sorry, Danny, he said.  “I had to work all weekend and never had a chance to take the plane out…”

“Draw This…”

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I was 13 and at a friend’s house after school and Predident Kennedy had just been elected and his portrait was on the cover of a magazine.

It was cold and rainy outside and a good day to stay inside.

My friend’s older brother knew I liked to draw and handed me a piece of paper and the magazine and told me to “draw this.”

I spent a rather nervous hour or so hoping to impress him and when I was done he came in and looked at the drawing and proclaimed in a rather matter of fact voice, “Ricky is going to be an artist when he grows up….”

I was both surprised and pleased to hear him say this, because I was an insecure kid and not sure about a lot of things.

But at least that part of my life had been settled.

Decades passed and we all grew up. Well, he did, anyway.

I guess I had my first big success as an artist when Beavis and Butt-Head Comic Book came out in 1994. I was working for Marvel and living in New York City at that time but was back in Savannah visiting my parents and I happened to pass the pharmacy where I knew my friend’s brother was now employed. I decided to stop in and give him a copy of the comic book I had with me since he had been so nice to encourage my artistic endeavors 30 years earlier.

I hadn’t seen him in about 35 years at the time.

The lady behind the counter went into the back to get him where I imagine he had been counting pills and putting them into a little vial.

“Hi, Jerry….it’s me, Ricky Parker…you remember me, don’t you?

 

He stared at me momentarily with a slightly fearful, but vacant expression.

 

So I continued…..

 

“You encouraged me to be an artist when we were kids. I brought you a present.”

He reached out his hand took the comic book and looked at it with a rather preplexed expression. It was one of those awkward moments.

“Thanks, Ricky”, was all he said.

“….Candidates….bow your heads for a moment of silent prayer…”

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No one dared move or make a sound.

Into our bunks we had already shimmied, so as not to disturb them.

We would ease out the next morning, like puppies being born –and pull the blanket up tight and not remake them.

Flat on our backs in the darkness we lay, between  white sheets, clutching our unopened candy bars and fruit pies, trying not to choke or drown in our own spit as our mouths watered from hunger.

Then one of our “Tac Officers” would regale us with some half-made-up story from his previous life as a civilian.

Sometimes, he would order one of us to tell a story.

I lived in fear that he might pick me, as I was positive that nothing in my life worth telling others about had happened yet.

As he began to intone his story, I could hear my contemporaries trying to slowly unwrap their candy bars or tear open the packages containing their cherry pies without making a sound.

I wondered why he couldn’t hear it.

I guess he was too wrapped up in what he was saying to notice.

Sometimes, if the Tac Officer was a smoker, all you could see in the blackness as you sunk your teeth into your Mounds Bar or bit the end off your Butterfinger was the orange tip of his cigarette moving past each cubicle, or quickly back and forth to his mouth as he took a drag between sentences.

And the last thing you heard after he had finished his story was the steady tromping of his combat boots down the middle of the floor you had just finished polishing.

 

Safety Pin

 

img443aA Safety Pin can be used for all sorts of things, like to pin a crisp twenty dollar bill inside the pocket of a boy’s white shirt, like my mother did for me the first time my parents ever put me on a train  by myself in 1962.

I was headed to New York City from Savannah, Georgia and when I got to Penn Station I was supposed to take the subway “….over to Grand Central Station and continue on to Portchester in Westchester County”.

That folded up twenty my mother pinned in my pocket rubbed up against my chest in a most annoying way.

The next morning when the train arrived at Pennsylvania Station, this guy saw me standing there with a slightly-confused look on my fifteen-year-old face and came over to help.

“Where’re you goin’?” he wanted to know.

Grand Central Station”, I proudly answered.

“Follow me,” he said, as he grabbed my one suitcase and led me away.

I had to struggle to keep up as we dodged crowds coming toward us in the long white-tiled passageway, but I remember thinking at the time that it was pretty nice of him to have a subway token ready to put in the subway turnstile for me.

We took the “shuttle” over a couple of stops and then got off at The Grand Central Station Platform.

He put my suitcase down and just stood there looking at me.

“Uhm….what do I owe you….?? “, I asked.

“Pay me anything you want,” he said.

So I gave him the twenty.

The Brooklyn Cartoonist

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If you are one of the lucky people who got to be friends with my friend from Brooklyn, then, like me, you are very sad to think that we will all have to go on living in this world without him.

Still a relatively young man, he lost his life last week to brain cancer.

I first met my friend over 30 years ago when he needed someone to letter his comic strip and he brought it over to my studio each week for years. Then sat down next to me while I worked and we talked about all kinds of things, but mostly about comics.

We had a lot in common.

We both loved Forest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland, horror movies, Mad Magazine, EC Comics, independently-produced comics and wearing black clothes. And while I did it mostly so I wouldn’t have to think about what I was going to wear or worry about spilling ink on myself, I suspect he did it because he felt a strong connection to the newspaper cartoonists of old, like Winsor McCay, E.C.Segar, Frank King, and George Herriman, to name but a few. I have to admit– the man had style–and it wasn’t just in his art, though his art had plenty of style–it was also in the man himself.

And just like a story with a happy ending, he fell in love and moved away from his home in New York with all his pens and brushes and went to live in California with his Ladylove and they were happy there for 25 years.

I went to visit him in his studio once about ten years ago when I attended the San Diego Comics Festival. As I sat there in his studio watching him scurry about gathering up his books and the things he would need at his booth, I thought to myself. “….I don’t think I have ever seen any artist who was happier than he is in his studio this afternoon”. Not only was he in love, but he had created his own original characters and he could be his OWN cartoonist in San Diego and all his cartoonist friends would come out to California every year to see him–!

And while they were visiting him, they could also check out the show.

As I helped him carry his books and things down the street to the convention center, I was genuinely happy for him. “What a big change from the old days in New York”, I said.

And we both laughed.

And then suddenly I realized that I was happy, too, for he had that effect on people.

And he was inspiring to others. He didn’t just “talk the talk“, he “walked the walk“.

In style.

And he showed us the way. He knew what he wanted and he worked hard to make his dream into his reality.

For that reason and many others too painful to recall, I have decided that from THIS DAY ONWARD–, for as long as I can hold a pen in my hand, that right next to my drawing board where I can see it EVERY day, I am going to have that drawing I did of my old friend right by my side.

This time, he’ll be hanging out in MY studio –with ME!

He’ll be the first one I see every morning when I sit down to work and the last one I see late at night when I turn out the light. He will be the first to see any artwork I do. He’ll have no choice but to watch me doing it!

I might even ask him what he thinks of it! He was always honest and had a suggestion to make it better.

And maybe this time, I will actually listen to him.