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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And I Swore I’d Never Live in New Jersey

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Today we finished emptying out our home of the last 18 years.

It was the home our children grew up in. The home they left every day to go to school. And the home they came back to every afternoon.

It was an old home. We weren’t its first occupants.

When we were new there, in an upstairs bedroom, my wife rocked the little one to sleep and sang to him every night. He was just one when we moved there. It was the home where the kids had their friends over and we had their birthday parties and they played in the log cabin in the back yard near the rabbit and the two turtles who lived in an old washtub. The boys grew bigger and soon swang in the swings and slid down the slide. Our bulldog, Gertie, is buried in that yard.

The tooth fairy left money under the boys’ pillows and they tiptoed down the stairs on many a Christmas morning to see what Santa had brought them.

We had our friends over and we sat on the big front porch and ate pizza. It was a good old home. We loved living there. But time passes and things change and kids go away to college and there comes a time.

The time came.

It was a hard home to move from. It took us a few years to finally get all our things out and today I removed the last article. It was a little red plastic monkey with a hooked arm that had somehow found its way to the basement and I found it when I was sweeping up. I wiped the dust off it and hung it up in the rafters in the basement where no one will ever find it.

The last day we were there an old friend drove by and pulled over to say goodbye. It seemed fitting in a way that he was the last person to visit us there since he and his wife had been the only people in town we knew from New York and they moved to our little town just after we did.

Over the years we met many great people in New Jersey. Sometimes New Jersey gets a bad rap, but we really had some great times there.

At the end of a long day of packing and when the last box of old comics was safely stored in the back of our car, I noticed it was still unopened from that day over twenty years ago when the guy in the mailroom at Marvel sent it to me. I always knew that one day, I would get around to reading all those comic books.

But first, I had some other things I wanted to do.

But now I think the time has just about come to open that box.

The Man Jack

 

 

When the Old Brewery at The Five Points was demolished, its reputation as the most squalid tenement in New York was assumed by Gotham Court, sometimes known as Sweeney’s Shambles, at Nos. 36 and 38 Cherry Street, although the claims of this fearsome pile were disputed by The Arch Block, which ran from Thompson to Sullivan Streets between Broome and Grand. Among others the block contained the famous dive kept by a giant Negro woman known variously as Big Sue or The Turtle. She weighed more than 350 pounds and was described by a contemporary journalist as resembling a huge black turtle standing on its hind legs.” ( from Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury).

 

In 1975, my first art studio in Manhattan was just steps away from The Arch Block at 46 Grand Street, between Thompson and West Broadway. The run-down tenements and small brick buildings of the Arch Block had long been demolished, and by the early 1920’s, they had all been replaced by a large industrial building which stands its ground to this very day.

 

But it was in one of those darkened back rooms of the Arch Block, on Thursday, October 1, 1891, that The Baby Jack was born.

It’s even possible that Jack’s father stopped into Big Sue’s on the corner to have a two-cent beer to celebrate his young son’s birth, as he had no doubt done too many times before, although this time, he may have considered the blessed event as “just another mouth to feed”.

About a third of the children born on the Arch block died as babies, so regardless of what their fathers thought about them, they did not have to feed their mouths for long.

 

Not so with The Man Jack.

Even when Jack’s father was dragging him to prize fights in New York as a boy, and leaving him  sitting next to an empty chair in the audience for five or ten minutes, watching with wide eyes as his father climbed into the ring to win a few dollars by going toe-to-toe with some palooka to warm up the crowd before the Young Stibling fight, or some other bout, his father could never have guessed that his young son’s mouth would need to be fed that day– and every day forward– for over a hundred years.

 

At the turn of the century, at the foot of the Sixth Avenue El, on the Northwest Corner of Grand and West Broadway, The Man Jack was just The Boy Jack, then, an eight-year old kid selling The New York World and The Journal American to black-hatted men in heavy coats, who smoked cigars and flipped him two cents for his trouble. The Boy Jack often watched as Teddy Roosevelt, then Police Commissioner of New York, walked past him and down Grand Street to visit his friend who had a drugstore on the Northeast Corner of Grand and Thompson.

 

The Young Man Jack grew up loving horses and when he was old enough, he drove a wagon and two horses. In one of his heavy coat’s pockets were sugar cubes and he kept a few apples for his horses and one or two for himself in another coat pocket. He had an iron hook in his fist, its curved steel shank stuck out between his middle and index fingers and he’d quickly and deliberately sink it into large wooden cases or bales of cloth or other dry goods, with a pleasing CLUNK or THUK and leverage 600 pound bundles on and off his wagon using just that hook and his five-foot three and a half inches and 145 pounds of bone and muscle.

 

He and his horses and his wagon with its big wooden spoked wheels bumped along cobblestone streets dodging street cars and ladies in long skirts, all the way from the docks on the Hudson River to the garment factories in Lower Manhattan in the days before the Triangle Shirt Waist Fire.

 

One Winter day, around 1910 or 11, when Young Man Jack was around nineteen or twenty years old, he was sitting in his wagon waiting to make a pickup on the docks near Desbrosses Street when a brash, ill-advised “Irishman” driving his own team of four horses pulled in and got a little too close for comfort. It could have been a cold winter day and perhaps The Irishman kept a clear glass pint whiskey bottle in his inside coat pocket for himself instead of apples.

Young Man Jack called out to the Irishman,

“Hey—you almost ran over my horses’ hooves….”

 

Although Young Man Jack stood but five foot three and a half inches, The Irishman sized-up Young Man Jack incorrectly when he told him to,

“Shut your mouth– or I’ll get down off this wagon… and shut it for you.”

As I stood there listening to Old Man Jack, it was again a cold winter morning, about 70 years after the event actually happened.

In all likelihood, the man Young Man Jack had faced that morning–The Irishmannever spoke of that day to anyone. And didn’t like to think about it either.

 

As we stood face-to-face and Old Man Jack told me the story, out on the sidewalk in front of my studio, just down from where The Boy Jack had sold newspapers 80 years earlier, just outside our old apartment building on Grand Street, the same tiny one-bedroom apartment where he and his wife had lived since 1932, the one without a tub or shower, where they raised their daughter, the same daughter who came by car from New Jersey with her nice, insurance man husband on Sunday mornings and took them first to church, and then out to dinner afterward for years, then brought them back home in the late afternoon, Old Man Jack quickly dropped down into a slight crouch, his old knees, the very ones he had prayed on for years in the Church of St. Alphonsus, slightly bent.

 

I was young and he was old, but I confess to being a little intimidated by him as he faced me, his short, but trim 88-year-old body now assumed its fighting stance.

His gnarled hands once again formed themselves into bare fists. In the blink of an eye, he was Young Man Jack again.

It was a magical transformation.

Even more startling to me was that suddenly, I had been unwittingly cast into the role of The Irishman.

He started his story.

His body bobbed and weaved as his words brushed past my left ear.

“As I climbed down off my wagon, he took a swing at me and missed….” Jack ducked slightly to avoid The Irishman’s blow as he spoke.

 

“You didn’t even give me a chance to take off my coat”, Jack protested to The Irishman.

 

Old Man Jack, elbows bent, fists at the ready, head cocked slightly to the side, a wary look in his old grey eyes, shifted his 138-pound frame back on its heels slightly and gave a barely perceptible twist to his left, as he now told me how,

“He came at me again– and missed with a left hook– and as he went by, I dropped him with my right…..”

The Irishman, who was still wearing his winter coat, struggled to his knees in the snow.

And then he slowly looked up at Jack through his one bloody eye.

 

“I’ve had enough…” was all he had to say.

 

No doubt The Irishman’s team of horses, who had been watching the whole thing from a few yards away, and saw him fall, exhaled a mocking cloud of steam, indicating that, though they were but beasts, they too, had lost all respect for The Irishman.

 

Young Man Jack looked down at The Irishman on his knees in the snow.

And then Young Man Jack gave him some good advice, which I am quite sure The Irishman remembered until his dying day.

 

“Don’t ever mess with a little guy.”

After My Mother Died…

 

 

…. suddenly about ten years ago at age 86, I was going through the contents of the house prior to selling it when I came across an old wooden box containing some letters.

These letters had been stored away in the attic a half-century before by my father, who had, himself died, about five years previously, at age 94.

 

I grew up in that house, and when I was a boy, I used to go up to the attic, especially on rainy days. I liked the sound that the rain made on the tin roof. It gave me a safe, secure feeling to sit there, all alone, amid the old trunks and suitcases and rocking chairs and lamps that didn’t work, perfectly dry, as the thunder and lightning raged outside, and the rain beat down on the metal shingles just a foot or two over my little dry head.

 

When I was a child, I remember seeing that box. It was old and wooden and said “UNDERWOOD” on its side in big black letters. It was very heavy. I always assumed it had an old typewriter in it, so I left it alone. Anyway, it was nailed shut.

 

My mother’s mother had had the house built seventy-five years earlier, using the $5,000 insurance money she had received when her own husband had died suddenly at age 39. My mother had lived in that house since she was ten years old and she and my father had lived there as a married couple for over fifty years. Apparently the box had been nailed shut for most of that time. But now my grandmother, and then my father, followed by my mother, were all gone and I was fifty-three and I was going to sell that house.

The time had come to clean out the house and open that old box.

 

Instead of an old typewriter, the box contained books and letters and photographs of beaming young women whose frozen photographic smiles  remained hidden for fifty years. The box held my father’s personal diaries going back to 1934.

It was nice to see what an active social life my father had led prior to marrying my mother. From the letters and photographs in that box, it would seem he had been quite popular with the ladies.

 

I picked up one of the letters. It was robin’s egg blue and addressed to my father in Florida. It was mailed Special Delivery from Savannah, Georgia and dated about seven years or so after their wedding day. It was in my mother’s distinctive handwriting. She was several months pregnant with me when she wrote it. She began “Dear Bill”…..

 

After telling him where she was and where she had been staying since arriving back in Savannah, and that she had been locked out and that she had a flat tire on the car, she said she had visited his old friend and roommate, the doctor, who had examined her and found her to be a “healthy young woman,” and asked her to convey his “Congratulations”.

In the doctor’s opinion there was a “four out of five chance the baby was his,” and anyway, abortion was illegal and “he couldn’t tell my mother how many hundred women had come to him following their illegal abortions and had to have operation after operation, removing various organs, until they were left just a “hunk of meat” unquote.

My mother wrote to my father that he could believe that information if he wanted to, and wanted to know, based on that information, whether or not he wanted her to come back. She wrote that she had no intention of being made into a “cripple” or of living life “unwanted”. She said she would rather be dead and would “do something” if he would not take her back.

 

I was an only child and my parents had been married for eight plus years by the time I was born. My mother had been nineteen years old at the time she and my father were married and he 32. It seems reasonable that they would have had hundreds of opportunities to engage in certain activities which could conceivably result in the birth of a baby or babies years before I came along.

But I was their first, their last and their only.

 

It’s true that my father had told me once when I was a boy that he had been sick with Undulent Fever when he was a young man but I never connected this admission with his ability to father a child. He told me that he had gotten Undulent Fever from drinking raw milk in a milkshake as we happened to drive past the place where it supposedly happened.

The only effect this had on me was to make me wary of unpasteurized milk, which was of no concern to me whatsoever since we didn’t live on a farm.

 

Not long after discovering the letter I attended a family event at which my deceased mother’s older sister was present. Sitting next to my 90-year old aunt, I told her about the letter and asked her if she thought it possible that my father wasn’t really my father. “Oh, we all knew that Bill was sterile!”, was her response. Not wanting to believe this, I thought to myself, “…surely she is in the process of losing her mind”. 

 

One of the problems of getting older is, with each passing year, there are fewer and fewer people around who can answer questions about things that may have happened many years before. There is genetic testing available that could determine with a large degree of certainty whether or not my father was really my father or whether he was merely a man who I called my father, who acted like my father, and who most people assumed was my father.

 

Even though he did take my mother back and there are photographs of my father and mother with me– and my father looks happy, now after all these years, I still can’t help but wonder whether when he looked at me as I was a baby, or as I was growing up, or ten thousand other times– and whether or not he wondered if I was his biological child, or someone else’s.

 

I have to admit I never thought I looked very much like him.  And if pressed to do so, I would not describe my parents’ relationship as especially affectionate toward one another.

There always seemed to be some tension.

I put it down to my father’s stubbornness and the age difference between the two of them. I’ll admit to having felt loved as a child and my father and mother were nice enough to me– and my father never said anything particularly unkind concerning my lineage, but he was a different person when my mother wasn’t around. When he was around her, he was a more reserved person, almost as if being his true self would land him in some sort of hot water.

On trips to visit his mother and his sister and nieces he seemed a much happier person.

Was he my father? What is the truth? Does it really matter? What does it mean to be someone’s father? Did he love me any less if he had doubts that I was his biological child? How did that affect me and my own development? When he looked at me, did he see reflections of himself or someone else?

 

One thing I do know for sure, whether or not my father really was my father, or not, because my mother became pregnant with me, and they stayed together, he got a chance to be someone’s father.

And being someone’s father– or someone’s mother—for that matter, is one of the greatest joys in life.

 

 

 

 

Al

 

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I never knew what Al’s last name was — or where, exactly, that he lived.

 

It had to have been somewhere in my neighborhood, though, but not on my block, where I knew all the first and last names of every kid within five years of my own age on both sides of the street.

 

The same was true of the surrounding blocks North and South and West, but not East, (because of a busy street), where I had a comfortable working knowledge of most of the kids who lived in the modest houses up and down those blocks, as well as a few of their brothers and sisters.

 

No, the place where Al lived had to have been several blocks away, out in the mysterious districts outside my own little world, where the names and faces of the residents of those areas– as well as their children and pets, if any, not to mention their daily movements, were quite unknown to me.

 

It had to have been somewhere within a leisurely walking distance of my house, though, because if there was ever anyone who leisurely walked anywhere, it was Al.  Yes, it can now be said that Al walked leisurely—and often.

We kids saw him here –and there–and nowhere.

 

I can’t quite recall the first time I ever saw him, actually, although I’m quite sure the occasion was uneventful.  Al was always just sort of around. Nobody paid him much mind. I may have been playing catch with another kid in my driveway and Al may have been simply walking down the sidewalk on the other side of the street when he first entered my consciousness.

 

Al was an anomaly. Always alone, seemingly a kid with no adult supervision or friends, although, to be fair to his parents, in those days, we kids were all often left to our own devices, as, almost always, one or in many cases, both of our parents worked. I had no idea who Al’s parents were.

 

Strangely enough, I never saw Al in any of the places I normally frequented. He was not to be seen in The Soda Shoppe, on Waters Avenue, sitting at one of the black glass tables sipping a nickel coke and reading one of the many comic books on the shelves that lined the wall. The comic books and magazines that every kid read, but no kid ever seemed to buy. He was not ever in the movie theatre on Saturdays– and I never saw him on any of the little league teams or at any of the birthday parties that other kids got invited to. He never even rode a bicycle, that I could tell—and in those days, every kid over the age of five had a bicycle.

 

He didn’t go to school, either. If he had, I would certainly have known about it, because, being a small shy kid, I made a point of knowing the identities and potential for violent tendencies of most of the boys, anyway, and how fast they could run and whether or not they could beat me up.  I sensed that Al was older than me, although it was hard to judge his age, but, at any rate, I never viewed him as a threat.

 

One day all the students or “pupils” as they called us in those days, were assembled on the South side of our elementary school. The school principal, Horace Flanders, a bald man with glasses and a pointy nose, who always dressed in a dark grey suit ,was addressing us on some matter of importance which I probably forgot even before he finished speaking. My mind has always quickly wandered off course during speeches and soon I find myself thinking about random things that have nothing at all to do with the important information being communicated. On this particular occasion, however, the assembled multitude happened to be seated on the steps in front of the school listening to Mr. Flanders’ oration, but not hearing it, when I noticed Al calmly walking on the other side of the street.

 

The kid next to me saw him, too. “There goes Al, “he said. “That kid is 21 years old.”

 

I was somewhat taken aback by this revelation. He certainly didn’t look like an adult, but at least that explained to my nine-year-old’s mind why he was never in school.

 

A number of years passed before I would see Al again.

 

It was a Saturday morning and I was seated next to Cecil Martin in the high school auditorium. We were there to take the S.A.T.s.  Teachers and others were milling about and busily preparing to administer the test. Several hundred students were in the process of coming in and taking their assigned seats. The scene was rather chaotic. There was a nervous energy in the air.

 

Into this scene walked Al.

 

Cecil saw him first and elbowed me slightly—and with a slight nod of his head and a look of mild excitement and bemused anticipation in his eyes, he casually directed my attention to Al, who had quietly entered the auditorium unnoticed, amid all the hubbub, and was now making his way down the aisle toward the stage.

 

“Watch this,” said Cecil, with a knowing wink. No one ever knew more and knew it sooner and winked about it more often than Cecil.

 

Al walked right by a couple of teachers who were deep in some kind of friendly discussion, based on the looks on their faces– and Al, seemingly unnoticed by anyone except us, ascended a short flight of stairs to the stage. Then he placed his right hand on the solid brass doorknob and opened the cream-colored door with the shiny paint that led back stage.

 

“Uh-oh,” said Cecil, who seemed to be gleefully amused at the prospect of what might happen next.

 

Fifteen or twenty seconds elapsed as we fixed our gaze silently, but expectantly, upon the stage. Then, slowly at first, and then with slightly more force, the dark blue velvet curtain began to open– and then stood fully-opened and triumphant upon an empty stage.

 

I looked at Cecil who was now grinning broadly. It was the greatest show he had ever seen. Every scene in Cecil’s life would be like that. No one ever grinned more broadly– or more often than Cecil.

 

Then, perhaps in reaction to the slight squeaking noise of the curtains being drawn open by Al, the two teachers who had been pleasantly conversing turned to look over their shoulders at the empty stage. Then, they looked at each other. A few minutes later, the custodian, Mr. McGuire, a short man with close-cropped white hair and matching khaki shirt and pants appeared and quietly and gently led Al away. I watched as the two of them walked across the back of the stage, and in the darkness I could see Al, his eyes fixed on the floor, walking leisurely, as usual, and guiltlessly, as the man in the khaki pants and shirt with the big bunch of keys at his side escorted him away. Then the two of them disappeared from view. In a few minutes the blue velvet curtain was drawn shut and, except for the three hour test, that concluded the show.

 

One Sunday morning, a few years later, just one year after President Kennedy was assassinated, I was at home, upstairs studying American history.

 

Gradually, I began to realize that something unusual was amiss downstairs and that whatever it was, was upsetting my father, who was normally rather imperturbable.

 

Much to my father’s consternation, someone had locked a German Shepard dog inside my mother’s 1959 Cadillac, and then lit a fire consisting of leaves and old cardboard boxes and newspapers scavenged from the trash out in the alley behind our house.

 

Then that same person, perhaps in an attempt to douse the fire, had turned on the garden hose, but had opened the valve to such a great extent that the force of water through the hose was causing the hose to thrash about wildly out on the concrete driveway like some sort of wounded boa constrictor, spraying the old magnolia tree and spraying the azelea bushes and spraying a jet of water against the windows along the side of not only our house, but the house next door.

 

It was the water hitting the window on the side of our house and not the fire in the alleyway or the muffled barking of the German Shepherd in my mother’s Cadillac that first alerted my father to the situation.

 

I knew something was terribly wrong, but, being the type to let others take the lead in all situations, I decided to let my father handle it.

 

I stopped reading my history book, got up from the little green chair that used to be brown that my mother had painted and walked over to the upstairs window and looked down. Through the limbs and leaves and ladybugs of the magnolia tree next to the house I could make out a small male figure struggling to get his hands on the thrashing hose and getting sprayed in the face in the process but enjoying the experience immensely.

 

Into this scene, my father made an abrupt entrance stage left. Passing by the young fellow, whose clothes were now soaking wet from his futile attempts to grab the hose, my father immediately turned off the water at the spigot.

 

Then he smelled the smoke and noticed the fire in the alley. Taking the hose in his left hand, and turning the water back on once again with his free hand, and followed eagerly by the happy young man in the dripping shirt, the two of them managed to get the fire in the alley extinguished in a minute or two of my arriving on the scene.

 

The immediate danger over, and to my utter amazement, my father began to question the young man as to why he did what he did.

 

The young man just stood there dripping wet and stared back at my father in an unconcerned way. For a moment, I envied him. There was an awkward silence. It was awkward to everyone except Al. It was almost as if he expected my father to answer his own question.

 

Then my father and I heard the frenzied but muffled barking of a large dog coming from somewhere up near the street. Al eagerly lead us to my mother’s Cadillac where he had proudly and wisely placed his dog for safekeeping while he busied himself with the fire in the alley behind our house. The dog became even more agitated as my father approached the car and it jumped back and forth from the front seat to the back and back again, barking furiously as it did so. Unfortunately, the car was locked and my father didn’t seem to have the key.

 

Just as my father was trying to decide what to do next my mother appeared in a car driven by one of her friends. It seems the two of them had been out at Bonaventure cemetery that morning raking the leaves off her friend’s late mother’s grave. That’s what people did on Sundays in the old days.

 

My mother took the car keys out of her pocketbook and let the German Shepherd out of her car and, tail wagging, he and Al walked off down the street to wherever it was that Al called home. And they did so leisurely, at their own pace, seemingly in no hurry to flee the scene.

 

A year or two later, someone told me Al had died, I don’t remember who it was.

 

He was in his 30’s I think, a man, by some standards, but he always looked like a boy to me.

 

I learned in school and from my history books that, in the United States, “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among those are life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

 

Al may not have exactly been created “equal” and he may not have enjoyed a long life, but Al certainly had his fair share of liberty, and freedom–and from what I saw, Al always pursued his own idea of happiness as best he could.

How I Got Into Grad School 1972

It was getting near the end a hot July in Athens, Georgia, and in a few weeks I would receive my college diploma, whether I liked it or not.

The thought of attending a graduation ceremony and having a rolled up piece of paper with my name on it shoved at me, just didn’t seem like the kind of of recognition I was searching for as an artist. Short of fulfilling the requirements for graduation with a Bachelor’s degree in drawing and painting, I hadn’t actually distinguished myself in any remarkable way, although I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was somehow destined for something great once I got to New York City, although I wasn’t sure what that might be. I think I thought I was going to be some sort of famous artist and sell my work for large sums of money in art galleries. I have always been a dreamer.

My friend Ted, whom I had met a year or so earlier when we were both on the University of Georgia Studies Abroad Program in Italy, had already graduated in June, and along with twelve water turtles, was still residing in his upstairs apartment on Broad Street in downtown Athens.

For want of having nothing better to do, I decided to take a walk over to his place and knock on his door. I stepped out from the coolness of the Jim Herbert Mansion into the hot dusty Georgia Summer sun, nodding at one of the resident hippy chicks who was busy hanging Professor Herbert’s bluejean ensemble, which she had no doubt washed by hand, on the clothesline in the yard. She looked up for a second and then went back to what she was doing. It reminded me of the way that a cat on a front porch swing might regard a stray dog who chanced to walk across a distant corner of its owner’s property.

After a block or so, I passed the Tree That Owns Itself and slowed my pace for a step or two out of respect. Then I made my way down the hill to the commercial district of Athens, opened the door to leading up to Ted’s apartment and rang the doorbell with the name Lannom on it. Ted came out to see who it was and motioned for me to come upstairs. I think he may have been on the phone. After a minute or two of talking about I don’t remember what, we decided to go downstairs to the bar on the ground floor to discuss our future prospects.

I liked Ted’s work. He made large realistic acrylic paintings of trains on Masonite®. I guess you could say Ted was obsessed. His particular obsession was Transportation in general, and trains, specifically. The previous summer, I had watched in amusement and wonder as he ran across a grassy hill in England in pursuit of a steam locomotive.  I was impressed with his passion for trains. He was clearly chasing a dream and I could relate to that—still can.

It was dark in the bar and we hadn’t been there more than thirty seconds when one of the patrons, turned around on his barstool and recognized Ted. I did not know the man. Apparently, he had been one of Ted’s art teachers at the University, although I confess I do not know how they knew one another. The important thing is, though, he was some kind of artist who was older and had more experience than either of us, and when such a person engages you in conversation, you pay heed.

As he spoke to Ted and I stood back and listened. “So, Ted….you’ve graduated….what are your plans for September.” I remember thinking, “That’s just six or eight weeks from now.” Ted answered in a rather unenthusiastic monotone. “Oh, I don’t know…University of Illinois….University of Indiana….” “What about you, Rick…?”

Startled that he could see me in the darkness of the bar and even more impressed that he knew my name, I blurted out, “I was kind of thinking I wanted to go to Pratt Institute….” “Pratt Institute!”, he repeated. “I can get you into Pratt Institute!”

While I contemplated that suddenly I wasn’t too sure I still wanted to go to any school that someone could get me into that easily, and was rather put off by this stranger who seemingly knew nothing about me or my work, being able to get me into a school I had only heard about years earlier, although I think I had applied to it as an undergraduate and been rejected, Ted blurted out, “Can you get ME in, too?”

And so a few minutes later we found ourselves standing in the hallway of his apartment while he made a phone call to Dr. Ralph Wickheiser, the Dean of The Graduate School at Pratt Institute. Ted and I stood looking at each other not talking but unable to make out much of the one-sided conversation. The phone call only lasted a few minutes. Then he hung up the phone and walked into the room where we were waiting for him with open eyes and slightly-open mouths.

“Well, you’re in.” was all he said.