The Dreamer

Long ago in that great, wild and creative urban wasteland that encompassed the area above Canal Street and below Houston Street, in a land called New York, there lived a scraggly, bearded rough-hewn individual bedecked all in black, shod in combat boots, with no visible means of support. A young man with no discernable attachments, except maybe to his art, who had, himself, some years before, kissed his mother goodbye, left kith and kin, and migrated North, from a warmer clime, to a cold and hard land–a land filled completely with strangers, millions of strangers, all in pursuit of a dream.

But it was HIS dream.

In those bygone days, as is still the case today, that area of the city was bounded on the East by Broadway and on the West by Sixth Avenue. Its main artery ran from South to North, just as the dreamer had run. It was known as West Broadway and forty years before he first trod its deserted streets, it had been the route of the Sixth Avenue Elevated.

It was a place dark and dank, of dusty warehouses with cast iron facades, streets with broken bottles and wind-blown paper trash, a place whose most numerous occupants scurried about on four legs or crawled silently on eight. Beady eyes glanced through dirty windows paying scant attention as elevated trains clattered past in both directions at all hours of the day and night.  

But that was then.

And now, it was an area that was slowly opening its eyes like an abusive alcoholic grandfather after a long and drunken sleep. The workers who had climbed stairs to manufacturing jobs in its buildings in its heyday and drawn their meagre paychecks and gone home to dirty-faced children at the end of a long day all lay dead in the graveyards of the outer boroughs.

And in time, the rats and the spiders, they too, were driven out by creatures that walked on two legs. For the most part, these were the outcasts, society’s rejects, those who didn’t fit in and marched to the sound of a different drummer, or a drummer that only they could hear, or, in some cases, to no drummer at all. And there were also those that did not march. Some people called them bums, others called them “hippies” or “odd” or “weirdoes“, or worse.

They called themselves artists.

They had made a pilgrimage to this cobblestoned corner of the city, just a stone’s throw from the Hudson River, in the shadow of the nineteen-sixties, from all across the world. Most were running away from something. Some were running toward something. They all had something in common. They sensed something inside themselves that told them they were different. They wanted to find out exactly how they were different, who they were, why they were here, what it all, in fact, meant, and to do that they knew they would first have to discover what kind of artist they were. They would have to make art. And they might have to suffer.

And they did.

Many would show their work in galleries. A few would go on to great success. Some would fall in love and have children. Some would get drunk or stoned. Some would get drunk AND stoned. A few would kill themselves or die of A.I.D.S. and some would return home never having found out.

Painting was big in those days and so were the paintings. A painter needed a large space with high ceilings to make large paintings and enough space to be able to step back and look at them from a distance. And running water and a toilet. And heat of some kind. And the place had to be affordable, too, so that one need not have to work all the time as a waiter or cabdriver or at some other menial job just to pay the rent.

And so the old loft buildings with their high ceilings and flaking paint and cracked plaster walls and leaking pipes and hissing radiators and their ghosts of women sewing corsets or making gloves and their cheap rents became their homes.

Orphan Fear

boys1950When I was about five years old,  I became convinced that my parents were going to send me to an orphanage.

They did argue a lot.

Their loud, frequent and contentious disputes made me nervous and I usually retreated into my room when it happened and closed the door so I wouldn’t have to hear them. I’d put the pillow over my head and cover my ears.

But it was impossible not to hear them. 

My mother and father seemed to be at odds on a number of issues. He couldn’t seem to understand why she couldn’t be the person he wanted her to be, rather than the person whom she was. And she couldn’t understand why he was so stubborn and set in his ways. She was thirteen years younger than he was.

Old people can be quite stubborn,” I thought.

It also didn’t help my anxiety regarding the tenuous and precarious nature of my relationship with them that my father complained to me about my mother. I was only five, after all, and just beginning to find my own place in the world.

On one particular train trip my father and I took to Jacksonville, Florida to visit his mother, my father confided to me about how frustrated and unhappy he was with my mother. I was only six or so, and after listening to his side of the story, I tried to cheerfully console him. I told him very earnestly and looked him right in the eyes while I said it, that I was sure he could find someone else, perhaps someone more to his liking.

But even this didn’t seem to satisfy him.

I remember one particular argument they had was over how many pairs of shoes my mother had. My father seemed to think that she had too many. They both worked, and she ran a business they owned together, but still he sought to control her. My mother was not the type of person to be controlled by anyone, much less my father, and once or twice she was not even able to control herself. If she had been, I wouldn’t be writing this.

But that’s another story.

I had heard of this thing called a “divorce” and had a vague notion of what that entailed. I loved both of them very much in my own way and wondered anxiously to myself which one I would eventually end up with.

Would it be my mother, with her great laugh and free-spending, fun-loving ways? She did go to the movies a lot. I liked movies. She even bought me popcorn and a drink.

Or would it be my father, a somewhat reserved, but fun-loving man, who dressed well and took me to church on Sundays, the very church he and my mother were married in fifteen years before, although I think that might have been the last time my mother had been there.

My father seemed to enjoy nothing more than driving down to Florida to visit his mother or sisters. My mother never accompanied us on a single one of those trips. Something else which my father seemed to resent and could not understand. He was a different person when my mother wasn’t around. A happier person. He was more relaxed, more himself.

More free.

Then I thought about the old lady who lived next door to us. I wondered what life would be like with her. She and my mother’s mother had been friends for many years before my father and mother and I came to live with my grandmother in the little brick house on 51st Street. Mrs. Draughon, as everyone called her, for that was her name, was soft-spoken and kind and seemed always to have a white apron strung around her flowery print dress. When I was a child and playing in the driveway between our houses, she would frequently beckon to me to come to the white picket fence that separated her property from ours so that she could hand me a basket of hot biscuits, fresh from her oven, which she had covered with a red-and-white checkered napkin, and she bade me to give them to my grandmother who had fallen and broken her hip and was confined to bed or to her wheelchair.

Yes, I could be quite happy with Mrs. Draughon and it would be quite simple to move all my things over to her house since she was right next door. The thought of it gave me some relief from my worries.

Then those letters started coming.

I used to meet the letter carrier on the front porch and go through the mail and remove the letters from Father Flanagan of Boys Town in Nebraska. But those letters kept on coming, now, it seemed even with more frequency than before. There was a picture of a Catholic Priest, Father Flanagan, on the outside of the envelope and the return address was a place called Boys Town, in Nebraska. I didn’t know a thing about Nebraska, except that they grew corn there and there were probably a lot of farms. I didn’t like the idea of getting up before the sun had come up, especially to milk a cow.

Having lived my entire life as an only child, I did not relish the idea of living in a big orphanage and taking my meals in a big mess hall and sleeping in a large dormitory with hundreds of other boys.

So I made those letters disappear.

The top drawer of my father’s dresser was a constant source of wonder and amusement, especially on a rainy day–or on any day, really. There were old pocket knives, an occassional pack of Dixie Boy firecrackers, old watches that didn’t work, old sets of car keys with tiny flashlights attached to them. Brass keys to God-knows-what. Just the kinds of things to keep a boy’s imagination happily engaged for hours. And there were matches. Little books of matches which had been taken as souvenirs from various restaurants and places he had been.

Those matches were very conveniently placed for one who might be in urgent need of them in order to burn some unwanted correspondence from Nebraska out in the lane back behind the house.

Years went by, and the letters stopped coming.

But the arguments continued.

Just when I was starting to feel a bit more secure, my mother informed me that Mrs. Carter, another old lady who was friends with my grandmother, would be coming in a day or two to take me out to Bethesda, the local orphanage for boys on the outskirts of town. Horrified  and rendered speechless at the idea, nevertheless, in a day or so, I found myself dressed up in my Sunday best and in the passenger seat of an old blue car being driven by an old woman with reddish brown hair whose face reminded me of nothing so much as a chicken. A happy chicken, I’ll admit, but a chicken nevertheless. I nervously asked the lady chicken why I was being taken to the orphanage.

Purportedly it was so that I could,  “…see how the orphans celebrated Christmas.”

I had expressed no such curiosity about the celebratory habits of orphans to anyone and strongly suspected that I knew the real reason I was being taken there.

They wanted to interview me to see if I would fit in.

I was determined to be uncooperative when the time came.

The chicken lady parked her car near a large brick building that seemed like some kind of castle– or prison, maybe. She took my hand and led me up the steps and we entered through a large open door into the biggest room I had ever seen. There was a huge Christmas tree set up in the middle of the room with thousands of lights on it and many presents underneath and I could hear the sound of voices, many voices in unison, boy’s voices—orphan voices— and the orphans were singing as they began to slowly descend a large spiral staircase one step at a time–directly toward me and the chicken lady. Each orphan boy wore a  white shirt, and in his hands each boy held a white candle which illuminated his orphan face. These were the faces of the unloved, the motherless and fatherless children. With each step, the singing, unloved faces came closer and closer to mine. My heart began to beat with a sudden ferocity. I thought it might burst. I quickly let go of the chicken-lady’s hand and raced for the door. Not quite running, but not quite walking.

She let me go.

In about ten minutes, she walked back to the car and found me waiting there for her. We got in and she drove me back home. If we talked at all on the way back home, it wasn’t very much. I felt ashamed of myself and guilty that I had two parents–even if they did argue a lot and were secretly conspiring to get rid of me.

She parked her old blue car in front of the house and we got out and went inside. She went back to the rear bedroom to talk with my grandmother. I wasn’t really sure what they were talking about, or if it involved me, because I went straight to my room and closed the door and locked it.

If they were going to put me in an orphanage, next time they were going to have to break the door down and take me out by force.

You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man

lincoln-standing72

It was the Christmas of 1960 and John F. Kennedy had just been elected president. The 1950’s were over, and along with them, my boyhood.

The 1960’s were just beginning, along with my teen years, and there was a palpable feeling of excitement in the country and in my growing body. I was 13, then, and a boy scout. That year, I received an interesting present from my aunt.

It was a green book with a sturdy cardboard cover and a couple of pages with little circular slots in them for pennies. It was designed and manufactured to be sold to coin collectors. Under each of the circular holes was printed a different date for that particular coin as well as the total number of coins that were minted that year at the various mints, Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco.

To advance up the ladder of success as a Boy Scout one has to earn merit badges. These merit badges are worn on a sash across your chest at special public events and during certain ceremonial occasions. They too, are round, and colorful, and are awarded based upon the achievement of a certain level of competence, experience and expertise on a wide variety of subjects. There were merit badges for hiking, cooking, camping, good citizenship, beekeeping and coin collecting. Each merit badge had a different graphic image on it.

George Linsky, 21, the assistant scoutmaster of Troop 108 was an Eagle Scout, as high as one could rise in the scouts, and had many merit badges across his chest. So did Doug Lang, another older boy of fifteen or sixteen. He was a Life Scout, one level below Eagle.

As an only child, who always wanted an older brother, I looked up to and admired both of these young men. In my adolescent mind, those merit badges were the teenage equivalent of having a chest full of medals, the kind of decorations that are awarded to heroic soldiers  in a war. Anyone who wore medals like that on his chest was a person to be admired and respected.

When I was a young boy, I had seen such soldiers from World War I and World War II marching in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in my hometown. I had seen the proud looks on the faces of other men and women, ordinary citizens, who lined the parade route and applauded and shouted out their gratitude to the heroes as they marched by.

I secretly hoped, and desperately wanted people to look at me like that one day.

In the meantime, I figured I might as well earn some merit badges. I determined to start with some of the easier ones, like stamp collecting and coin collecting. So my aunt’s gift to me came at a very opportune time in my life.

I went through the few pennies in my pocket and through those of my father when he came home from work, looking to fill the empty slots in the book. I went into my grandmother’s room and together we looked through her little black silk purse with the brass snaps on it. I climbed a small step ladder in my parents’ bedroom closet and went through each of my mother’s various pocketbooks, which she kept on a high shelf. I filled a few more slots in the book. 

On Saturdays, I would ride my bike to my mother’s place of business and she would let me go through the coins in the cash register. In this manner, I was able to fill a good number of empty slots in the green album with the gold lettering on the cover that spelled out the words LINCOLN CENTS, 1909-1959.

Within a few weeks, I was completely obsessed with finding pennies to fill the empty slots in the book. It was becoming increasing difficult to do so, and required my looking through many more coins and in more places than usual.

I began hitting neighborhood stores, a beauty salon and a dry cleaning establishment down the street.  Some merchants seemed to want to lock the door when they saw me coming, while others were friendly and helpful.

One such person was the owner and operator of a small Mom and Pop grocery store in my neighborhood called Manuel’s Marketeria. It was the store where I had spent my very first nickel. I had purchased a small box of Animal Crackers. His store was conveniently located near the kindergarten I attended in the recreation room of the church, which was located a mere fifty feet from his door.

He was tall and thin and wore a white apron which was tied neatly in the back by a bowstring. He had a thick crop of wavy black hair and behind one ear he kept a yellow wooden pencil with which he would write out a receipt for everything he sold. He spoke little, but smiled easily and his facial expression was that of a man who, in his own mind, had just heard the punchline of a corny joke he repeatedly told to himself.

He was nice to me and more indulgent of, and friendly to children than most adults I knew. Some kids I knew even thought him naive or perhaps slow-witted and sought to take advantage of him by shoplifting small items from his store.

Once, Hank, the boy who lived next door, who was two years older, told me that anytime he needed money for the movies or to buy ice cream, or a model plane, he would sneak out back behind the grocery store where the man kept the glass soda bottles and take as many as he could carry around front and redeem them for 2 cents each from the store-owner.

You could do a lot with a quarter in those days. Even if it wasn’t yours.

By the time I was in the fourth grade, I was going into the grocery store on a regular basis on my way home from school to buy candy or a bottle of soda. In Miss Guerry’s class, we learned that Abraham Lincoln had once run a small grocery store and since Mr. Manuel looked a lot like Mr. Lincoln, soon, the two of them became inextricably fused in my mind.

Then, after I began collecting coins, I would often stop into his store in the afternoon to look through the coins in his cash register.

One day, he told me that he had come across a very special coin that he thought I would be interested in.

He showed it to me. I had never seen anything like it. It was the size of a penny and was a dark chocolate brown in color. It had an eagle on the front that was in full flight and you could see all the feathers on its wings. The coin was dated 1857.

I told him that I would get a book on coins and find out what it was worth and that I was interested in buying it from him if I could afford it.

There were essentially two books we used to find the value of coins in those days. One was called The Red Book and listed the retail value of coins. The other was called The Blue Book and listed the wholesale value of coins, or the price a dealer might pay for a coin for resale.

The next day at school, I told a friend about the situation. I confided to him that I was going to be a little clever and show the man The Blue Book value of his coin– with the goal of buying it from him for a cheaper price.

My friend told me he had an even better idea.  

He had an old copy of The Blue Book from several years earlier in which the prices listed for coins were even lower. He suggested that I should take that book with me when I went to bargain with the man in the grocery store for his old coin. I went along with the idea without any reservations.

The next day, I took the old, out-dated Blue Book my friend had loaned me and two or three dollars I managed to somehow scrape together to the grocery store.

I found the man behind the counter in the area where the meat was sold.  He had a broom and a dustpan in one hand and he was sprinkling sawdust on the floor with the other. He greeted me in a friendly manner and he seemed to know why I had come. He took a break from his work to deal with me.

I followed him over to the cash register and he opened it and he took out his coin.

I told him the book said that the coin was listed as being worth $2.65. That was a lot of money for a penny in those days. He held the coin in his hand and asked me if he could see the book for a minute.

What could I do?

I handed him the book.

It was a thin book, dark blue in color. He looked at the cover of the book and read the title out loud. Then, he opened the book to the first page where I am quite sure he noticed the publication date: 1957.

Then he looked up at me and asked me, “Ricky…is this your book….?”

“Uhm. No, Sir…I borrowed it from a friend.” I said.

“Hmmm….I see…..” was all he said.

Then he looked up the coin in the book. The book said it was worth $2.65.

“I’ll give you three dollars for it, “ I blurted out, feeling quite guilty at having tried to deceive him, although he hadn’t questioned me about it.

“I’ll tell you what, “ he said, smiling at me and looking me straight in the eye.

“Do you have a penny on you….?” , he asked.

“Y-yes”, I replied, not sure where this line of questioning was leading.

“Well, then…..”, he said,  “I’ll trade you my penny for yours.” 

I reluctantly, and humbly, and sheepishly, with averted eyes, accepted his offer.

As many people know, a Boy Scout is friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.

The Boy Scout Manual didn’t say anything about being honest.

And five out of nine ain’t so great, either.

Whose Pants These Are I Think I Know

screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-12-48-40-pmI disposed of a body yesterday.

Or rather the lower half of a body.

He had been living with us for about ten years.

After we moved to Maine a few years ago, we left him behind in an apartment we still maintain in South Orange, New Jersey, though he never paid a dime in rent.

We had come back to New Jersey for a few days this week to attend the memorial service of a dear friend who had passed away and when I got to our apartment, I realized I had nothing to wear. It was then that I discovered our freeloading boarder was wearing the only decent pair of pants I had.

His own funeral service in 2006 coincided with an art exhibit I was a part of, in which a few dozen local artists opened up their studios to the general public for one day in June. It was called The South Orange/Maplewood Artist’s Studio Tour.

Art lovers mounted wooden steps and traversed our front porch and entered our home through the old front door and immediately blended in with a small crowd of the intellectually-curious who had gathered reverently around an open oaken half-coffin, of my own construction–perched upon two saw-horses. Beautiful white flowers from Lotus Petals and Gefkin Florists in Maplewood ornamented the display and lent an air of solemn reverence.

As one woman looked down upon his supine lifeless form and then glanced up at me with a slightly- puzzled look on her face, I asked her,

“Do you want to touch him? He’s anatomically correct.”

She averted her eyes and quickly walked away toward a small crowd gathered in a corner looking at drawings of human figures credited in the lower right-hand corner to an artist who called himself, “P. Dirt.”

Half Dead had been born earlier that year in our driveway. I had been his Dr. Frankenstein and he my monster. He never went out. He had no friends that we were aware of. If he had a name we never knew what it was. He never spoke. He was just there all the time.  We sometimes referred to him as Half Dead, as in “Half Dead fell over and toppled down the stairs last night while we were sleeping.” Or, years later when we were selling our home, “Half Dead scared the Hell out of the real estate broker who went into our bedroom.” He was formed from chicken wire and paper-mache and I dressed him in an old pair of black pants and put on his socks and on his feet I placed a pair old antique black high-button men’s dress shoes from the early 1900’s, which I had purchased decades ago, for no particular reason, at a flea market in New York City.

He had style.

To celebrate his arrival into the world and in an effort seemingly geared toward bonding with him, I drove him around to many of the places I frequented in those days and took his picture in front of each of them.

We went to the post office in Maplewood, which has since been torn down. Unlike many who detest standing in line, I actually enjoyed engaging in friendly banter with those I randomly encountered there, and when my turn came, I traded sarcastic quips with Charlie, the guy behind the counter, who always seemed slightly less-forlorn than usual when he saw me.  I photographed my friend with the shiny black shoes just outside the door to the post office, standing beside the American Flag.

He was a proud American.

Then I took him across the parking lot to the Maplewood train station, where I again photographed him –on the now-empty platform– as if he were waiting for a train into the Big City, a small leather briefcase at his side.

And he with no hand to pick it up.

That photograph turned out so well that without any objection from him, I made it into a poster and postcards and refrigerator magnets and they were sold for a year or two in the little coffee shop inside the station in Maplewood, with half of the proceeds from each sale going to help a local animal shelter, a favorite charity of the woman who ran the shop.

I also took his picture outside my doctor’s office on Springfield Avenue and then we walked over to Dunkin Donuts® next door, where  I often bought coffee. As I was photographing him, a middle-aged woman customer had been observing us through the window. As I clicked away with my 35mm camera, she became increasingly agitated. Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore and she left the store and came out to confront me.

What is going on here? I don’t understand—are you selling pants?”

 “No, ma’am. I’m an artist.”  

This information did not seem to greatly alleviate her skepticism. She turned away, without any further questions and walked back into Dunkin Donuts shaking her head as if to clear it of some terrible thought.

But that was all years ago.

Yes, today–right now, in fact–I needed those pants for the memorial service. My friend would have to involuntarily become undressed so that I, could be properly dressed. He would have to sacrifice his dignity so that I could save mine.

Had an artwork ever done as much for its creator?

The time for the memorial service was fast-approaching and my wife would be back with the car at any minute. There was no time to waste.

I lifted him up and placed him on the bed. I slipped off his shoes and socks and then undid his belt and removed his pants. He uttered not a word in protest. I was surprised at how light he was. He was never heavy, but seemed much lighter now.

I tried on the pants he had been wearing for the last decade.

Of course they did not fit.

I pulled on an old pair of blue jeans and a T-shirt and snatched him up off the bed.

I tucked him under my arm and went out into the hallway and pressed the button for the elevator, hoping no one would come out of their apartment and see us like this.

We took the elevator downstairs to the big green metal dumpster behind our apartment and I flung his sorry ass atop a pile of cardboard boxes.

There he spent the night.

I went to the memorial service for our friend wearing my old blue jeans and a coat and tie. I looked fine as long as no one looked below my waist.

That night, as I lay awake trying to fall asleep, I began to feel bad about what I had done.

I thought about my old friend out in the dumpster. My wife had inquired as to his whereabouts. I mumbled something about needing his pants. She seemed a little upset that he was no longer around. I dozed off into a fitful night’s sleep. Once, as I was turning over in the middle of the night, I thought I heard the straining groan of an approaching  garbage truck and the subsequent dull clunking of a dumpster being emptied.

The next morning I awoke feeling a terrible sense of loss. It had been almost 24 hours now since I had so rudely thrown my friend out.

“Did the garbage truck come in the middle of the night and haul him away?, I wondered.  

I felt an overwhelming  sense of guilt. Didn’t my friend deserve better than to wind up in a landfill somewhere– or be shredded and re-cycled and reborn as a stack of brown paper bags in some dark back room?

Wasn’t he in fact a work of art?

I quickly dressed– and foregoing the two-minute wait for the elevator, bolted down the stairs and race-walked to the dumpster behind the building. Someone had added more cardboard boxes to the dumpster, but with a little digging, I found my old friend and pulled him out. As I walked away with him once again tucked under my arm I turned around and glanced at the dumpster full of boxes. One of them had a cartoon face on it which seemed to be smiling at me almost in approval.

Safe inside our apartment once again, I dressed him in his old clothes and stood him up in the corner across from our bed. I slept well that night.

I was so happy to see him the next morning when I woke up that I rolled over and went back to sleep.

And I dreamed the dullest dreams possibly imaginable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Street Boss

screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-11-19-39-amIt was a cool, crisp, late Fall afternoon in The City in 1976 and I had been driving a cab at night through the mean streets for about a year.

I had always liked to drive and considered myself quite good at it. When you drive the same car an average of 125 miles each night, night after night, through the streets of New York for a year, it becomes an extention of your body. I had a good body then. I was 29, six feet tall, I weighed about 165 pounds and I didn’t take any shit from other men.

I was armed with an aluminum lunch box with a turkey sandwich with sprouts in a plastic bag and on the front seat next to me I carried a green apple wrapped like a hand-grenade in a paper towel that Shirley, my girlfriend at the time, had packed for me. Next to my lunch was my old wooden cigar box with a five-dollar bill and eight ones. Hanging on a steel strap next to the taximeter was my metal coin changer. It would make a decent substitute for a pair of brass knuckles should I need to defend myself against an attacker, although I would imagine that the impact against his grizzled face would have cost me a few lost quarters if not a few dimes and nickels. On my size 13 feet, I still wore my old black combat boots which had been the only things I had taken with me when I got out of the army several years before,  other than a few vague notions of what my life as an artist might be like after I moved to New York.  Back then, I never imagined myself as a cab driver.

Sixty-ninth Street between Central Park and Columbus is a one way street running West. And there are always parked cars lining both sides of the street. At times, there are even cars double-parked on both sides of the street– leaving only enough room for one car to squeeze through. I prided myself on my skill behind the wheel. I could run the gauntlet across Sixty-ninth street at 30 miles an hour with inches to spare on either side. Passengers would sometimes comment or, more often I would glance in the rear-view mirror to see them cowering on the back seat of my cab with their teeth clenched and their eyes squeezed tightly shut. Once I even thought I heard a man praying.

That was then.

But now, I was in Lower Manhattan in the 20’s driving up the center lane of Third Avenue in search of a fare. There were cars and other cabs on either side of me and we were hurtling uptown in a yellow wave at thirty or thirty-five, timing it so as to catch all the green lights as we went. As I drove right up to the edge of recklessness, my eyes scanned either side of the Avenue and I positioned my taxicab so as to be the first one to be able to pull over to the left or the right should anyone be foolish enough to step out into the street from between parked cars to hail me.

Blowing past Twenty-third Street at forty miles an hour, I was in the lead of a group of cabs all jockeying for position. Block after block rushed by in a blur by as we all raced foward in search of a fare. Suddenly I noticed one of the cars speeding along in competition with me to my right. To my surprise, it wasn’t a Checker or a yellow cab or even a gypsy cab. It was a little maroon-colored car.

What kind of idiot drives a little maroon-colored car at forty-five miles per hour on a busy city street?

Whatever kind of idiot does, was behind the wheel and seemed to be in a big hurry to get wherever he was going and I watched in annoyance as he weaved in and out of traffic and kept pace with me. The nerve. I’d show that maroon who was the boss of the streets.

And so, I forgot all about fares and picking up people and making money.

Someone should let that moron in the maroon car know that it was dangerous to drive that way in New York City.

I decided that person should be me.

I quickly angled my taxicab over to the right with the intention of pulling up next to them and giving them some nice, friendly, helpful advice.

New Yorkers should help each other.

Instead, they sped up, so I sped up– and suddenly we were shooting uptown passing a few people who tried to hail me. I was rapidly approaching the edge of my comfort zone, so I made the determination that the best course of action would be to force the offending driver to come to a stop.

I pulled right along side of them and the driver looked at me. He actually looked surprised to see me, but kept driving. He was in the right hand lane and there were cars parked all along Third Avenue. I stayed parallel to him blocking him from changing lanes so that eventually he was forced to come to a dead stop when he came to a bus that was picking up passengers in the right hand lane.

I pulled up a little ahead of him, stopped my taxicab and got out.

As I walked back toward his car, I could see that there were two men in the car. I walked over to the driver’s window and offered the man behind the wheel the following helpful advice: “If you want to kill yourself, get a gun.”

The passenger door of the little maroon-colored car opened and the passenger got out and approached me.

He was a large man of Asian descent. He reminded me vaguely of a villain in a James Bond movie I had seen once, years earlier. He was about four or five inches taller than I was and outweighed me by about fifty pounds. Suddenly I felt very small and very stupid. He addressed me:

“You got a gun, cab driver…?” 

I tried to think of something tough and clever to say but I drew a blank. Besides, it didn’t seem like the kind of question where the asker expected an answer. It was more of a rhetorical question. So I just stood there, staring into his thick hooded eyes, and trying not to pee in my pants.

After a few more seconds, he said, “Get back into your cab and drive, taxi driver.”

Seemed like good advice to me.

And very helpful.

 

 

Weirdos, Zombies, Gangsters and Captain Kangaroo

captain-kangaroo

 

A few years ago, after sixty years of drawing pictures, and after moving to Maine, and faced with the reality of not having much paying work and with the children almost grown and the two of them becoming increasingly independent, and for wont of nothing better to do, I decided to finally confront an old nemesis I had been unconscioiusly carrying with me all these years.

Fear of drawing the human figure.

One nice thing about the graphic arts is that it is not like the performing arts. No one ever need see the artist’s mistakes, and in fact, in selecting examples of my work from the last three years for my recent exhibit, I burned many things I came across in my archives which for one reason or another displeased me, and I would not want anyone to see them as examples of my work.

I should say that I have never been one of those artists who feels that he has to have an idea in mind before starting to work. I think I have more in common with an explorer who sets sail for an unknown and faraway island with neither map nor compass to guide him. Confident that even though my small boat may spring a leak– or take on water– it will not sink. That I will sail on with my invisible crew, completely lost in the joy of sailing and somehow, every single time, I arrive at some beautiful destination, as if by magic, almost as if someone else had been piloting my vessel and I a mere stowaway.

So it was that with infinite vague images of humans in my head to guide me and with a seemingly endless supply of paper at hand, I sat down at my old wooden drawing table in the corner by the window and bravely touched the tip of my pencil to the nice smoothe surface of a fresh sheet of blank paper.

Several thousand drawings and a few years later I was beginning to understand how the skin stretched tight over a shoulder blade curved into a muscle in the back and how the bony structure of the skull underneath the eye socket can gradually over time become the sunken hollow of a once-youthful and oft-kissed cheek. Or how the calf muscle on the lower leg is slightly higher on the inside if you’re looking at the figure from the front and how the ankle bone is higher on the inside of the leg than it is on the the outside of the leg. In fact, the structure of the human body really does make a lot of sense from a practical point of view in addition to its incredible sensual beauty.

There are many good books on human anatomy and figure drawing and even more bad ones. But I am the type of artist who prefers to search for things hidden in darkness rather than placed in plain sight in sunlight. The mind fills in more interesting answers than the obvious ones.

So with an empty house at my disposal and a desire to see some of my recent efforts on the wall and anxious to share my new-found drawing skills with a new set of friends and a few old ones, I proceeded to buy up every cheap plastic frame that Walmart® could supply.

Going through thousands of drawings and trying to decide what to include in an exhibition like mine was easy. I chose drawings I’d done which I liked and burned others I didn’t. One hundred and seventy-five drawings was just the tip of the iceberg and I later discovered hundreds of others that could easily have been included had I had a bigger space for an exhibit.

Then came the embarrassing task of publicizing the event. And the agonizing task of who to invite and who not to invite. Would the nice old couple I spoke to every day who walked their dog past our house each evening really want to focus their gaze on a rotting zombie with an upraised butcher knife? “They’re my generation,” I thought.

What the Hell.

So I invited them.

What about some of my artist friends newly-acquired in recent years from Portland? Of course, it goes without saying. I invited as many as I thought might like the show. One man, a comics-fan who has bought work from me in the past and paid me for other work which I have yet to complete, came to my show. It was also around my birthday so he came bearing gifts and never asked how that piece I promised to do for him was coming along.

I need more friends like him.

Here is a partial list of people who I wish could have come to my art exhibit on the 27th:
1. My grandmother with whom I lived for the first 16 years of my life. And the last 16 years of hers. She, more than anyone, instilled in me at an early age a love of stories with pictures.
2. My parents and other family members who have passed away. My mother once told me my work was “ugly” and she was right. But it was ugly in a beautiful way.

3. My biological father whom I never knew existed until last April. From what I have gathered, he liked taking photographs and writing stories. I think he would have been amused.

4. Larry Shell who loves comics and comics people and lives in NJ and no longer drives, but has been a great friend for almost two years now.

5. My editor at Papercutz, Jim Salicrup who is busier than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest. Jim has been a very supportive and loyal friend.

6. Mike Judge, who is the only person I ever met who didn’t like Beavis and Butt-Head Comic Book, but is cool anyway.

7. My old boss, the late Danny Crespi who gave me the only real job I ever had.

8. Vladimir Salamun, a friend of forty years and the best man at our wedding who I haven’t heard from in about a year despite repeated attempts to reach him. (I called him after I wrote this and we had a nice chat.)

9. My Pal Philip Felix, former Kurtzman assistant and letterer who doesn’t like to drive long distances.

10. The late great writer/editor, Archie Goodwin who came to see my art exhibit in 1980 and told me that people don’t like funny fine art.

11. Yukie Ohta who grew up in the neighborhood in Manhattan where I exhibited my work to the public for 12 years and was nice enough to include me in her efforts to preserve the Memory of the neighborhood when it was an arts community.

12. Art Dealer Barbara Toll, who gave me my first show in New York and told my ex, “He has a great mind.” My ex wasn’t interested in me for my mind.

13. Martha Wilson, of Franklin Furnace, a woman with a vision and an artist with a following.

14. Kyle Baker, the greatest cartoonist in the world and most creative person I know in comics.

15. My Buddy Jack Morelli, former Marvel Bullpenner with great creative talent and father of two and husband of one and friend to many.

16. Joey Cavalieri, who took an interest in my early work and encouraged me to give comics a try.
17. Herb Trimpe, who liked to draw and fly open cockpit airplanes. He died earlier this year. Of natural causes.

18. Mark Chiarello who lives in California and likes it.

19. Harvey Kurtzman who looked at my cartooning in 1982 and smiled sweetly but said nothing.

20. Jack Davis who was a huge inspiration to me as a young artist and only died a month or so ago.

21. Nina, our maid, who, when I was a kid, told my parents, “Ricky’s going to be an artist when he grows up.”
22. Jack and Irene Menotti, two old people who lived in the same building as The Barking Dog Studio in New York City. I would love to know what they were thinking when they looked at my artwork in those days. I should have asked them.
23. Joe and Jewel Brooks, two old people who rented a room to me for a dollar a day when I was in the army and took me with them to church every Sunday, after making me breakfast and treating me like the son they never had.

24. Paul Trusiani, my father-in-law and a real humanitarian, who died last year and who was never anything less than a great person in all circumstances.

25. My two biological siblings that passed away many years ago at 50.

26. My first cousins, Kathryn Braswell Hochman and her sister, Becky Braswell Botts who live way down in Dixieland.

27. My childhood friends, Allen Joyce and his brother Jim Joyce.

28. My old Buddy, Ray Anderson, who used to give me a ride to summer school in his Model A Ford and introduced me to my first girfriend.
And last and by no means least, all my old friends at Marvel who put up with me.

And yes, you, too.

You know who you are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Father I Never Knew I Had

BRASSWELL.train

 

I don’t really know how to address you, since we never actually knew each other in life, although I am quite sure you knew I existed.

It was a small world back then.

Just to fill you in on a little of what you missed, let me start by saying I had a pretty good childhood. As you know, I grew up in Savannah and after my Dad sold the house I was conceived in, we eventually moved back to Savannah and lived with my grandmother. You remember her, I’m sure. I read in my Dad’s diary recently that she invited you and your family there for dinner on at least one occassion. She made a great lemon meringue pie. I hope you got a piece.

I played little-league baseball and once bunted my way onto first. I was a fast runner. When my Dad came home unexpectedly one night and found you in bed with my mother, did you run?

I played football, too, when I was about nine and we had a dog named Muffet. She was half Pekinese and half Chow and had a curly tail. Did you like dogs?

Ours got run over when I was in school one day and by the time I got home my Dad had buried it under an old Magnolia tree next to the house. The bloodstains on the street out front were there for weeks, though. I can’t help but wonder how you would have handled that situation.

I liked to draw pictures and was known in school as the kid who could draw. Were you good in art?  I know you liked to write, I’ve read some of the history of your family which you wrote. Just curious. Am I mentioned in there? If I read between the lines, might I discover even the slightest hint of my existence?

Did you ever once dream about me?

After graduation from high school, I went to the local college and flunked out in short order. I was terrible in Math. Did I inherit that from you? It’s probably a good thing that you didn’t know about that, otherwise you might have been embarrassed. I know I was.

Anyway, as a result, I got drafted into the army during the Vietnam War when I was just nineteen, but they didn’t send me over there to fight, thank God. I’m really not a fighter. Unless I have to, in which case I’ll rip the person’s throat out.  I’m glad you didn’t have to concern yourself with that, I know my mother worried about me enough for everyone– and anyway, after three years and a couple of close calls, I got out of the army and went back to college on the G.I. Bill and studied art.

If I had known about you when I was young, it would have no doubt have caused a lot of problems, maybe even messed me up psychologically, so thanks for keeping a low profile and keeping your distance.

Recently, I looked at some pictures of you and your family in the old days. You all seemed pretty happy.

I have to ask you something.

Were you the guy who was rude to my father in the office building that day when I was about 13? My father went to see you about something and took me in with him. I remember you didn’t want anything to do with us. So it couldn’t have been work-related. It had to have been something personal. And that’s just the kind of thing my Dad would have done, too. That picture I saw of you online from that time period sure looks like that guy. If it was you, I’m glad that at least you saw me that once. People should get to at least see their children, even if they don’t want to have anything to do with them. It’s okay that you acted that way. Believe me, I’ve been in some awkward situations in my life, so I can totally relate.

I hope I’m not boring you.

After college, I moved to New York City to attend graduate school and be an artist. I had some pretty interesting experiences there. I worked as an artist’s lithographer and assembled designer furniture in an old building underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. I even drove a taxicab for a year or two. Did you ever go to New York City in the 70’s and ride in a cab? Wouldn’t it have been a strange if I had picked you up? That would have been a Hoot!

I know you liked art, because I saw a photo of you examining some photographs from an exhibit you were in. I liked taking photographs too, and won several photo contests run by a New York newspaper. I’ll bet you would have been proud of me. I even had my own art museum, too, where my three-dimensional art was viewable to the public for 12 years. Over the years, thousands of people must have seen it. I wonder if, by chance, you were one of them. Stranger things have happened. I’m sure you would have to agree with me on that account!

To make money, I worked in the comic book business for about twenty years. Did you read the comic strips when you were a kid? I know in the 1920’s when you were a boy, there were some great comic strips in the newspaper. I’m sure you read them. Everybody read comics in those days. Did you like Krazy Kat? You seem like the kind of guy who would have liked Krazy Kat.

You were a little crazy, too, from what I have gathered.

I’ve been married twice, if you must know.

My first wife died not too long ago. We weren’t a very good match.

If I may say so, you and your wife must not have been a very good match either, or I wouldn’t be here–so we have that in common.

Sometimes in life, if you’re lucky, you get a second chance. I guess I’m lucky because I’ve been married to the same woman now for almost 23 years and we have two fine boys. You would have liked them. But I know you had a bunch of grandchildren and I’m sure you enjoyed them. I told my sons about you already, and I hope this doesn’t sound rude, but they weren’t all that interested. You know how kids are.

Well, that’s all for now. I’ll probably write again after I’ve had a little more time to sort all this out.

Oh–!  Before I go, I do want to say that I am really enjoying having your two nieces as first cousins. And my uncle, Gene, whom I unfortunately never met, seemed like a great guy, too. Did you ever tell him about me? Sure you did. He was your brother. Brothers confide in one another. I wish I could have known mine. Joe looks like such a great guy in the pictures.

Oh well, I guess I can’t complain too much. I’m here, after all, and that’s what counts. Wouldn’t you agree?

And for that, at least in part, I have you to thank.

And so, for what it’s worth—Happy Father’s Day!