Posts Tagged ‘Southeast Seattle’

From the Editor’s Perch

December 23, 2010

A Christmas Story

Just about forty years ago my college career was drawing to a close, (I hoped.)  And my dream, if I could have described it, would have been to have lived in a small studio on the edge of town – out on the prairie – where I would live and paint.  Just make paintings, I had no idea of what.

My high school had what was called a Dutch Uncle Program.  As a senior, you could pick what sort of career you hoped to have, and they would match you as best they could with someone in the community who did just that.  And you got to spend the day with them.  I had never considered what I wanted to be.  I was completely overwhelmed just trying to placate the various factions who competed to run me.  The present (and past, I suppose) had me absolutely pre-occupied.  But when I heard the news, a voice rang out clear in my head as if a bell had rung and it said, “I want to be a writer.”  This was odd because I had never heard a voice in my head before.  And, I had never considered becoming a writer.  But I wrote that down and handed it to the teacher and it went off somewhere into the gears of the administration where it was processed, while I waited.  I had read Hemingway in class and was very taken with his simple, poetic way of expressing himself.  And across from our lake cabin where we spent a large part of our summers lived a fellow who it was rumored had retired from being a big game hunter in Africa.  So, in my mind, I conflated the two, and pictured spending a day in a writer’s bungalow – where he ‘wintered’ out on the South prairie – talking (and maybe even drinking a bit) with a guy who looked like Papa Hemingway and had large animal heads and trophies hanging on his walls.  What I got was a tired, pasty complexioned, middle-aged reporter in a black suit and shoes who wrote the obituaries and military news for the Spokane daily Chronicle behind a downtown office door with guilt letters on a wavy glass pane.  I, and another student from across town, met with him at the newspaper offices and chatted.  I tried to ask intelligent questions, and in return he wrote an assessment for the school councilor that said he believed I could achieve a career as a reporter.  This marked the start of the two worlds I tried to live in.

I didn’t move out on the prairie and start writing.  I didn’t really consider it.  Instead, I went to the local state university seventy miles south of town, because everybody in our family went to college.  Every day now I feed our dachshund, Noodle, and then take him out to “pee and poop.  Because that’s the next thing, Dad!” (as I imagine our dog, Noodle, saying).  Well, college was the next thing.

There was always a point in here when I imagined the pressures of the competing factions would abate, an opening would appear, and I’d escape through the grate.  Unfortunately I was either too dutiful a student, or too good at college, and I got into medical school.  Never pick something to placate people and then tell yourself, ‘Well that can’t happen.’  Because damned if it won’t. 

So there I was lifting the body flaps off cadavers and trying to have relationships with people who just wanted to get well (thank you very much).  But this time, after four years, I slipped away.  Because it became plain to me that if I tried any longer to do something which didn’t interest me, it was going to start killing people.  I joke, when people say, “what a waste of an education” – that I have probably saved more lives by quitting medicine than a lot of doctors have by continuing! 

A lot of my humor doesn’t get a laugh.  But I’ve learned to live with it.  (And you will have to also!)  Anyway, there’s the background, and now to the point of this story. 

So, I’ve set myself adrift from medicine and decided to become an artist.  This is about 35 years ago.  Well, the first thing you do is suffer.  There are no paid entry level jobs as ‘artist’, and the homeless have more status – because people, I suspect, in a grudging, horrific way, respect the homeless.  They’re real.  It’s actual.  It’s authentic.  Somehow, seeing oneself as an artist is neither real, actual, nor authentic.  And on the sliding scale of how normal  people think, you go right out the spit valve.

This suffering will continue until you suffer a personal enlightenment:  ‘What does it matter what they think?’  It’s not like they’re doing me any favors.’  Then you wrap that flowing scarf around your neck (bohemian), or get that ‘gawdawful’ tattoo down your calf (contemporary) and stride forth proud and undaunted. 

But you still need a place to live and work and money to eat.  And though I might have qualified for a better job, I didn’t want to have one – because I didn’t want to think about what I was paid to do.  So, as an artist, I often ended up doing a job where I was “not paid to think!”  (Fine by me!)

Unfortunately, people who will hire and pay you not to think, won’t pay you very much not to think.   And it was soon apparent to me that I was going to have to work all the time, just to eat and keep a roof over my head.  So how was I going manage time to do my real work?  (This is what aspiring artists call it: their real work.  A term which only estranges them more from the normal crowd.)

I decided I needed to lower and stabilize my living costs.  I liked certainty, so instead of leasing a loft I decided I would buy a home.  My top price was fifteen thousand.  But I wasn’t looking for nice.  I was looking for large.  And I found one: a repossessed, fixer-upper, in the poor southeast end of Seattle.  Say whatever you want about minorities, but they keep the prices down.  And this place was packed with everybody.  My neighbor two houses down, Hwang (I think), worked as a friendly cook downtown.    The Southeast Asians in the neighborhood would squat as they smoked at the bus stop.  Hwang and I discussed making his garage into another bedroom for his relations.  Kiddy-corner across the street was a quiet, comely single black mom with a shy young son who seemed – quite beyond anything she did – to attract rouge males: normals, Superflys, the gamut…  And, of course, there would be the dust-ups.  Early one morning (around 3 am) I remember waking up to the sound of pouring rain and some fellow yelling his head off.  I rolled over and remembered saying to myself, “I wish someone would shoot that Son-of-a-Bitch!”  “Pop!  Pop! Pop!”  That was the last I heard.  The rain continued.

Anyway, I succeeded in lowering my living costs to house payments of around $103/month.  And my studio was as big as the numbers of walls I decided to knock out.  I hadn’t anything to steal.  And I’m big enough I generally wasn’t bothered.  I purchased a wood stove, and one side of the equation was solved.  (I remember how outraged I was at the time when insurance and taxes had caused the payments to climb to around $130.)

The other thing I wanted to do was to make a living from my art.  It didn’t need to be grand, but I wanted that sense of moving forward and relishing each day.  (Forget marriage and having kids for far….. in the future.)  Drawing portraits seemed like it would fill the bill.  I’d watched others seemingly make a living at it.  Flattery and narcissism have given employment down through the ages and it hasn’t stopped yet!  I liked figure drawing, did it twice weekly, the face included.  Moreover I thought I could bring something to it, as they say.

So to get my feet wet I started off at the beach at Alki.  Not many customers and it was illegal, so I was run out of there fairly quickly.  The Seattle Center required all sorts of bureaucratic rigmarole.  The downtown waterfront looked ideal, what with the continual flow of tourists, but that area had been homesteaded long before I got there.  I considered paying the meter and setting up shop in a parking stall just under the viaduct, or better yet, right along Elliot.  Then I had the grand idea of going into business with Ivar.  He was our local restaurateur legend.  In all the ads he was very homespun and friendly.  He had run with the local art legends.  There is a statue of him now on the downtown waterfront feeding a bronze seagull.  Part of his building along the street was unused at the time. 

 Ivar wasn’t big on the idea.  He had plans to add on.  It seemed to me that live portrait art done in a front section of his business would be just the thing to attract the tourist crowds and “add a bit of artistic elan to the enterprise!” But when I pressed him on it, Ivar said, “What do you think?  I’m lying to you?”  (No, no…)

So, I ended up at the Market.  The Pike Street Farmers Market is where a lot of artisans ended up.  For around $3.50/day (I believe that was the fee) you could rent about 4 feet of counter space to show off your wares to a seemingly endless flow of people.  It was outdoors and cramped, but it had the crowds.  And it was romantic.  You had to show up early, around 7am, while they were shoveling in the ice at the fish stalls because that was when the stall placements were made.  Then you’d set up, and maybe go in for coffee at either Lowells or the Athenian (breakfast, if you were making money) until the crowds arrived.  You’d walk past the alcoholics at the bar setting up for their first drink of the day.  One of my friends there related how when the alcoholics arranged themselves before their first drink of the day, they would use a bar towel draped across their neck so that with one hand they could guide their other shaky hand with drink to their mouths safely, so as not to spill.   After a days work, we’d put our stuff away and have a beer ourselves.  (Again, if we’d made any money.)

Unfortunately, I wasn’t making any money to speak of, and as November arrived it was getting damned cold.  I dressed warmer.  I stood on cardboard.  I cut the ends out of my mitten fingers.  And I was getting tired of passing the time.  When you’re not making any money, there really isn’t a lot to say.  You’re not in the mood to talk.  You’re glum.  I started looking around.  A bright spot was the playing of the metal kettle drums.  That particular metallic banging for money carried down the Market concourse and out into the street – then seemed to echo and return until the cold air was a jumble of hovering notes.  The world, at times, never seems as beautiful as when you are poor.

But I was going to settle for less beauty and more money.  So I made my way uptown to the department stores.  Somehow or other I found myself in the office of the Manager of the Bon Marche (now Macys).   I showed him my portraits and pitched him.  When I think of a lot of the people I’ve liked, a large percentage of them are businessmen.  They tend to be honest and decent.  They’re tough, but then it’s very hard to be decent in this world without being tough.  Anyway, I liked this fellow.  And I think he liked me, for some reason.  We agreed on a percentage and hours and he took me to a spot in the lamp department at the head of the escalator on the 5th floor, which he thought would do.  (Later, I’d seen they’d even made up some posters for publicity.)  I commented on the way up the escalators that it had never made sense to me why we had to walk all the way around to continue our climb to the next floor?  Mr. Smith (that may have been his name) said that was because it gave them a chance to show off their merchandise on each floor as the customer walked past.  As we descended he added, “And know exactly how long it takes for a customer to descend the escalator, and what he can see of the floor below during each second of his descent.”  I found this very interesting.  I’ve always liked watching things.  And as I sat in my artist’s perch day after day watching the activity around me it was apparent that a department store is not the still display of wares the occasional visitor might think it to be.  Nope.  “If merchandise does not start moving within the first half hour that it is placed out there, it is either moved or replaced,” Mr. Smith said.  And I witnessed this, as I sat there through the Christmas rush.

I think the manager might have also been a nice guy, as I wasn’t doing that great a trade – yet he never threatened to can me.  “How’s it going?”  He’d say on one of his passes through the store.  “I don’t know,” I said despondently one day.  “I think I could take off all my clothes and I still couldn’t get their attention.”

“Well.  Don’t do that,” he admonished.

No matter where you are in this life, if you just sit still, you’ll see a lot.  If you sit in a department store, you’ll see how mobile all of the merchandise is – as I’ve said.  If you sit at the head of an escalator, you’ll get an idea of how dangerous they can be.  They would eat shoes, rubbers.  Childrens’ small fingers and mittens could get caught in the moving handrail, where it curved at the top of escalator to return.  There was an emergency button to stop the escalator which someone rushed to press.  An older wizened Jewish woman ran the lamp department with a younger middle-aged daughter who looked to me like a gypsy.   I think I was commissioned to do her portrait.  But I don’t think they must have particularly liked it, as I don’t remember them saying anything.  I couldn’t decide if the mother were trying to line me up with her or not.  On the whole, I think not.  She was too canny to want to introduce her daughter to a portrait artist.  Plus, she seemed a little old for me.

But it wasn’t like I sat still and waited for things to happen.  I changed my display samples.  I saw that sensitive pencil drawings just weren’t going to make it.  I saw that what sold were things with ‘punch’.  So I upgraded to charcoal.  And line-shading was risky, as much as I loved it.  It was hard to do correctly.  Moreover, a public portrait artist has quite a bit of surface to cover in 20 minutes.  The bigger the better, for pricing.  And there is nothing like smudged charcoal to cover that ground.  So, much as I detested it, I began smudging my charcoal – then discovered that the smudge sticks of rolled paper work like fattened pencils.  Sometimes a compromise bends your way.  And I added a conte crayon line.  I worshipped the drawings of Michelangelo and Da Vinci, and conte seemed as close as I would get to pencil with a ‘punch’. 

Still, things moved slowly.  As I’ve aged I’ve realized that some people have charisma and attract a crowd.  Some don’t.  I’m in the latter group.  It was said of the famous modern mathematician (Godel) that he was “anti-charismatic”.  He once voiced the answer – in the midst of a mathematical society meeting – to a conundrum which had eluded mathematicians for 2,000 years.  He was ignored.  I’m not maintaining that my anti-charisma is on that level.  But I would say that when I speak, around two sentences in, people lose interest.  By three sentences I pretty much have to step around to block their exit.  

Anyway.  I notice that customers are attracted by other customers.  So I would always try to either be busy drawing from a photo, or, I would see a face I liked and cajole them into sitting for me.  Unfortunately, it seemed to be that rule that whoever had an interesting face, judged themselves to be ugly and a portrait was the last thing they wanted to sit for.  And those who judged themselves good-looking were almost invariably uninteresting – you could almost hear the pencil yawn and the eraser sigh. 

I thought that perhaps my prices were too high.  So, I had discount prizes.  I would draw a face, smudge it over  –  and then offer, at half-price!, a portrait to whoever could name the famous person that it was.  They usually won!  Hooray!  “You are very clever!”  (Have a seat!) 

(“No.  It’s not Mr. Ed.”)  

Then, considering some might have a limited budget, I tried selling  just ‘a nose’ for 75 cents, or an ear for 50.  I put them in the the cutest little frames, (I thought).

(To Be Continued… )

Editor’s Note:  This story should complete by Christmas Eve, Elves willing.

Drawing by Carl Nelson

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