In the churning of materials involved in swapping studios I ran across a college transcript. There are courses I don’t remember taking, but reading through it made the time frame of that life apparent.
The first year at UW was quite bewildering to me. I was terribly shy, and inexperienced, quite ill, and socially inept, and, not surprisingly, having a hell of a struggle with my studies. The rural high school had done a miserable job of preparing any of us for college level math & science. I enrolled in an art class spring term hoping to get my GPA up a notch. When I returned in the fall of ’59 I took more art classes. I was good at it, and enjoyed it, and the other courses were liberal studies and they were interesting and relatively easy – I was done with math etc.
At the Art School there was a bulletin board and there were little 5X7 cards with notices and/or opportunities. In my first drawing class the previous year (Freshman) I had taken advantage of an offer to go draw at a ballet school a few blocks from campus. Oddly, I was the only student to actually show up with any regularity. I loved it, all these lovely young ladies in tights twirling about. It was amazement to me; I had no idea that precious young ladies actually sweat – the stains showing on their leotards. There were 12 or so dancers in the classes, all performing the same exercises with military precision. After warming up at the barre, there would be group floor drills. Neatly arrayed in rows, they would perform several linked moves – a small dance segment sometimes lasting several minutes. The pianist would play a musical segment, emphasizing the bass and beat. The dancers would go through the moves in unison, as if soldiers on parade, and the instructor would provide critique, suddenly stopping the progression occasionally. The pianist would start over, back a bit, and off they would go again. I recall being amazed at the precision, and on one occasion they were moving forward, then pausing, feet apart at a 90 degree angle, then slowly squatting down as their arms went up gracefully, heads up and turning to the slide slowly as the hands stretched up. Over and over again, but never quite right. Suddenly, as they are all squatted down as if seated, there is a loud short fart! Suddenly the action was interrupted, everyone was standing, looking around. All of them were in close formation and guided by group sonar, they all turned and to look at the young lady responsible for the retort. She is terribly embarrassed and there is a burst of giggling. In my innocence I had no idea that girls, mysterious angelic creatures that they were, could or would fart.
One of these divine creatures, on a break, came over and looked at my drawing and we exchanged pleasantries. The next week we chatted a bit more. Few of the other dancers ever acknowledged my presence. Elizabeth was 16 or 17, not in college and not going to attend college. She was a striking Nordic blonde.
I had managed to overcome my shyness to the extent that I could drop in to one of the more notorious coffee shops on the Ave. It was a great relief to me that my two-bits was as good as anyone’s, and they would serve me espresso – me, the undeserving invisible neophyte. This was a ‘real’ Beat coffee shop with bearded guys; girls with long hair and Mexican ponchos, and they sat and smoked, and talked Marxism, Lenin, and Trotsky. Occasionally someone would sit near me; once or twice I was actually a participant. It had been noticed that I had a motorcycle and a leather jacket so the assumption may have been that there must be something inside that shy stringbean.
So I suppose I seemed an urbane sophisticate when I was brave enough to suggest to Elizabeth that we go get some coffee after class. I was carrying my sketch board, and she was in a big lambskin car coat with wooden toggle buttons over her Dance-Skins, hastily pulled on jeans, and penny loafers. This became a bit of a ritual the last few weeks of the term. Looking back, I realize she just wanted to talk to someone about how depressed she was. Her career as a dancer was over. She was 5’10” and 160#, and there was just no place for a Nordic goddess in the ballet troupes. She’d danced since she was 6 and loved it, but she had never trained any place but Seattle, which was a backwater. Between her genetics and the family’s finances, which prevented her from attending better facilities, she was doomed as a dancer.
I have been fond of ‘The Dance’ ever since. Elizabeth would diagram in my sketchbook the floor move diagrams, and rhythm counts, and positions. All of this was amazing news to me. My interest in ballet has cooled over the years, largely due to lack of opportunity to actually see it. My interest in interpretive dance – particularly Butoh, continues.
Our friendship, my crush, progressed to holding hands a few times. I took her home once on the back of the motorcycle, and her mother happened to be in the yard and was disapproving. In those days, nice girls didn’t. Reputations had to be maintained. Chastity was a major virtue. We were as innocent as lambs, scared, eager and reluctant all at the same time.
That summer I went off to the job my Dad had arranged for me. One of his Alaska friends had swindled part ownership of a towboat company, and I gather that Dad was owed a favor, and I got a summer job. But the next year his friend had moved on to other projects and there was no slot for me.
It was the fall quarter of 59 – I was 19. I had worked the previous summer as a cook/deckhand on the tugboats. I enjoyed the tugboat job and the odd lot of workers. They were younger versions of the friends of my Dad’s, and as I got out from under his shadow, I found that I could be somebody.
When I got back to the UW, Elizabeth had disappeared. The Dance studio had moved across town. But on the bulletin board were a couple other opportunities; The Drama School was looking for volunteers to do some set work.
In one of my drawing classes there was a striking charismatic lady – 6’ tall, maybe 110#, big beak–like nose, quite a striking profile, and one of those smiles that shows all the back molars. Rachel Kornberg, striding about attracting all manner of attention. Rumor was that she had been expelled from a swanky girls school back east for misbehavior. She was probably 25 or so, decidedly an older, sophisticated and experienced lady, and more to the point; she was involved in the Theatre.
I went down to the Playhouse in the evening and was promptly put to work using hammer, nails, paint etc. I thought that perhaps my activities would at least make me visible to Rachel, but I think I saw her once from a distance, and her attendance in the drawing class was intermittent. She disappeared from the art scene and a couple years later I spotted her involved in some inappropriate public display of affection with a tall longhaired gent.
While futzing about with the set stuff I became acquainted with the guy I came to know as Malcolm. Malcolm and I were working on sets side by side, and he knew a lot more about stage sets than I did – I knew nothing beyond building chicken coops. I don’t know that he ever had anything to do with the UW other than hanging out and socializing. I know that he attended lectures occasionally, and film events, and was often in the stage crew, but I’m not sure he ever actually took classes. He had been stage struck in high school, supposedly playing “Nicely Nicely Johnson” in “Guys and Dolls”. He had been given a ‘professional’ performance role by his mother’s boyfriend of the moment.
The boyfriend’s name was Mack or Max, he was in his late 40’s, and had been making a living in the dying vaudeville/burlesque aspect of show business for decades. I met him several times; he was an amazingly low and vulgar character, rudely funny, outgoing, and equipped with a million stupid jokes in the Henny Youngman style. He appeared 3 nights a week at The New Paris Theater, a block up from Skid Row. This was one of the last venues featuring strippers, and the shows consisted of magic acts, flame dancers, jugglers, a contortionist, dancing dogs, clowns in fat suits, and ventriloquists. Max was the MC, introducing the acts and performing his comedy sets – which were slapstick take-offs of what I thought Milton Berle had invented, only to learn later that Uncle Milty stole it all.
Malcolm appeared as the straight man for Max. An act I vaguely recall was an intro to, for instance, the stripper Iva Handful, or Mona Lott. Max parted the curtain, dressed in outrageous women’s clothing, droopy bright dress, huge floral hat, lots of exaggerated makeup. And he would have a rapid line of palaver about how he was the next act and he was going to take it all off. “You guys came to see pussy? Well wait till you see my pussy! You never have seen Pussy like I got Pussy! Never seen it as wet and wild as this!” and he would seemingly pee on the stage – all of this to hoots and hollers from the audience. And at that point Malcolm, in ridiculous checkered oversize suit would come out with a sheet and some rags, acting as if he is in charge and is going to clean up the stage and wrap up this desecration of womanhood and prevent an unseemly display. When Malcolm bent over to clean up the pee, he got kicked flat onto the mess. As he struggles to get up from the slippery floor, he is hit with the hat, which goes kapow! And then an argument ensues and Max blusters that he has a contract, and out of his droopy bosom a huge rolled piece of paper is pulled, and then Malcolm was beat about the head with the rolled paper, and shortly the paper is torn in the altercation. The tussle results in Malcolm falling down a couple times, legs akimbo, and more whacks. Then for reasons unknown the paper catches fire, and Max lifted his dress revealing a seltzer bottle in a holster, and squirts the paper and Malcolm. Malcolm is now resigned to Max stripping – what with the contract and all – Max starts yelling about ‘her’ messed up makeup, and then shouted the key line: “I need Talcum, Malcolm!”, “Talcum, Malcolm!!”, and Malcolm would undo the front of his oversize suit with much exaggerated bumbling and pull out a huge 3’ puff ball loaded with talcum and whacks Max in the face releasing a huge cloud of powder. Great hilarity ensues in the audience, so much laughter that they have to do it again, and later again, after Max has struggled with Malcolm. Max trying to remove her dress revealing yet another dress, and below that a huge corset with straps to knee socks. The struggle revolves around Malcolm ineffectively flapping his arms like a chicken, trying to keep Max clothed, and Max’ determined efforts to shed clothing. There is much whacking, and falling, and sliding and shoring each other up and then stepping away letting Malcolm make yet more exaggerated pratfalls. Eventually Malcolm manages to give Max the bum’s rush through the curtains, and the band starts the intro as the laughter subsides enabling Candi Kane to slink out on stage in her shiny evening dress and feather boa
I don’t know how many of these goofy acts they had, probably many. They would do 3 or 4 a night. Sometimes they would screw up and get laughing so hard that they couldn’t finish, and would suddenly improvise. Malcolm was paid in Scotch, and towards the end of the evening mishaps could occur. I recall one show, they were both loaded, and the skit went south and ended with repeated paddle whacks. The story line had completely disintegrated.
I guess I went down there 8 or 10 times that year. It wasn’t all that interesting, and I was taking a full load of courses and working part time in a warehouse filling orders for shipment and doing inventory. Max and the guys sat in the dressing room and drank to endless stories. At the New Paris I was shown the secret backstage door, and it was amusing to sit and have a Scotch and soda with Max, Malcolm, and some of the acts, and the band. Calling them a band makes it seem organized. The one constant was the drummer – essential for cymbal hits and rim shots, and exaggerated drumbeats for the strippers. Sometimes it would be a sax or trumpet, bass player (huge upright bass). The theater had a 3-wheeled upright piano that could be ridden out like a bicycle. Guitars and amps were not common in those days. The ladies dressing room was off to one side, and while it was hardly segregated, the strippers huddled together in their seedy little dressing room nursing their own wounds. To me, at 19, they seemed old and worn, and a bit scary.
The strip acts were desultory. There was no inspiration. Each performer had her costume and song and routine and it was repeated a couple times a night in each program. There was the evening gown set, and the cowgirl costume, and the ‘exotic’ veil dance, and a tawny lady would do a dance to ‘jungle drums’ while playing with a plastic banana. One older stripper didn’t strip. She didn’t take anything off! She’d walk out and say, ‘Hi Charlie! How’s your wife? Say Hi to Jane for me.” “Sam? The children okay? Over the measles, are they?” “Bill! Good to see you sober and upright tonight!” “Officer John! I want you to come up and arrest this nasty rash I have,” and so on. And then she’d do one grind – one bump and that was it. The secret to the act was that a group of guys would go to the club, and one of them (in the know) would give the usher a $10 bill and a note, which would be given to Kandi Kayne. On the note would be a guys name and the topic – kids, operation, wife, dog etc. Kandi would put together a brief little set: “Officer Bennet! Quite a crime spree we are having tonight! How’s the little missus?” or “James, did you get that Ford fixed? I guess that’s why you don’t have any money for me!” each comment followed with a rim shot and laughter at the gentleman’s public disgrace.
As students we were too broke to have phones, and so meeting was just fortuitous. I would bump into Malcolm at the coffee shop or on the Ave. He often had some deal afoot, and I was recruited for a few projects, all of which were supposed to just take an hour or so, and which always seemed to run far into the night, or on for days of evenings. I guess he got paid for some of his labor, I never got paid, and often had to buy the pizza. It was fun, but looking back, I realize that I was running myself into the ground that year, my colitis getting worse and worse.
In the spring Malcolm had an opportunity to produce a play – some organization paid for the hall etc, but he had to arrange the set, rehearsals, the selling of tickets etc etc. He had a small role in the play. Some local luminary – a tall prancing guy with a lot of swoopy gray hair, wrote the play. My memory is that it was pathetic, not funny enough to be serious, and not coherent enough to make sense. Malcolm was wooden in his acting, the lead actress far too attractive and vivacious, and the lead male seemingly in a daze. The play ran for a weekend and died, and all the sets had to be dismantled and hauled across town to an abandoned warehouse, which was our job.
The play got bad reviews, and Malcolm was quite upset about it, threatening to have the newspaper critic beat up, or giving up entirely and becoming a hermit. He was working in a Re-Tread Tire Shop that also did brake work. He was always wearing a filthy blue mechanics uniform day and night. Malcolm was 5’9” and square built, round headed, stocky but not fat. Through a mutual acquaintance he arranged to take the critic to lunch to discuss the play and review. This seemed suicidal to me. Here is this guy, barely 21, dressed like a mechanic, taking one of the leading bright light intellectuals of Seattle to lunch. Malcolm was able to eat anything from paper cups to wine corks, and, of course, the critic had food issues, and the originally proposed café was not suitable. He never spoke of the nature of the conversation, but said, “She was very fussy about what she ate, but luckily I had begun lactating the week before.” His next production, in the fall, got quite generous reviews.
In the middle of my sophomore year, through these episodes with Malcolm, I met Jack Pine, and that lead to a bunch of other adventures that I will write of elsewhere. The next fall I was 21 and returned to the UW for my junior year, feeling somewhat better. I found an evening job as a busboy in one of the new mall restaurants. Whatever health I had gained at home evaporated rapidly. Malcolm was way over his head in the production of a real play; Ibsen comes to mind. I helped take it down. That was the last time I was to work with Malcolm.
I didn’t see him again until ’75. I was in Seattle to see an art exhibit at the Seattle Center. My first wife, Jan, was crazed and drugged and left at home. I was working for UPS and sneaking a trip to Seattle to ‘research some equipment’. I had parked on the North side of the Center, not realizing that the exhibit was all the way across the facility. As I walked by the Playhouse, lo and behold, there was Malcolm, in a suit. We chatted briefly and exchanged addresses. He was on his way back down to Hollywood upon completion of the Seattle show. I sent him a brief letter and he replied months later, with his new address. This offhand correspondence went on for decades. I had a steady address and I guess he would run across me in his little black book and send me a letter with yet another address. Every year or so a letter from Chicago, or Atlanta, or Los Angeles, would show up with a page or two about his episodes. In the mid ‘90’s I received a little white invitation to his memorial service. Evidently someone went through his rolodex and sent out invites. I couldn’t possibly attend – it was 3 days away in Frisco.
Malcolm, Jack Pine, and I, and a few others involved in that loose knit group had many long conversations about life and art and human behavior. Not profound philosophy, but long and rambling attempts to define a creative life. Some of this became part of my mental DNA, and here and there I have hammered these thoughts into presentations at 619 as Proverbs for Our Times. Of course, what I can’t remember, I make up, refining the memory of a conversation.
Jack Pine suddenly had access to a car, a typically convoluted story he was frequently caught up in. He was just off the bus when he spotted a damsel in distress, holding a squalling child. They are standing near a car with smoke pouring out of one wheel. Jack was always on the prowl for maidens, so he wandered over to see what the story was. The little family had coasted to a stop in the parking lot, the brakes had failed. Jack offered to take a look – to check it out. She was just a mile or so from home, and he volunteered to drive it despite the smoking wheel and lack of brakes. He got the car to her apartment yard by rigorously downshifting and coasting through stoplights and intersections. She fixed him a bit of lunch and he went out and got under. He deduced that the brakes were absolutely shot. Through his network of low-life acquaintances he rounded up a similar vehicle and stripped the parts. A modest amount of money was involved in the transaction, and he and his friend borrowed a jack and a few tools and installed the cylinders, shoes, and drums on the front.
As I recall, it was about a ‘55 Pontiac Station Wagon – a huge boat of a car. Not very old, but very worn. The young mother, Maryanne, was recently divorced and the car had been a gift from her ex-in-laws – a sympathy gift acknowledging that their son was at fault and ‘no good’. Jack received several payments of romping sex for the repairs. He quickly wore out his welcome with Maryanne, but he was briefly able to borrow the car and thus we were cruising the streets on the way to a Mexican cafe. Mexican food was not franchised in the ‘50’s, and it the places serving Mexican food were very down-scale. Often little or no English was spoken on the premises.
Malcolm had the idea to swing by and pick up Julio, a stranger to Jack and me. Malcolm was under the misapprehension that Julio was Mexican. Julio was, I guess, Cuban or Brazilian perhaps. He lived in a tiny 3rd floor rundown apartment with a Murphy bed and a bathroom down the hall. We arrived mid-afternoon and found Julio in his pajamas, guitar in hand, sheet music scattered. He hadn’t had breakfast or lunch, he had been practicing all morning. He spent all day everyday studying Segovia and other classical guitar works. He seemed obsessed and quite accomplished, worrying about expression and subtle variations in tone and timing which he demonstrated to us. He had a 78 record that he cued over and over for our comparison. He is not interested in food. A young lady of rather extraordinary profile and style (very ethnic peasant) stopped by. She chided him on how he isn’t taking care of himself etc. It didn’t seem that they were more than just friends.
We were feeling flush and invited this pair to go to lunch, but he simply had to play a couple more hours, and she was on some errand. Several years later, like ‘68 or so, Jan and I attended a bit of a street festival out by Greenlake. There was a small stage and various musicians and singers played brief sets. At that point everyone was either in folk-music earnestness, or acoustic rock derived from Grateful Dead or Country Joe & The Fish etc. There was something distressing about the forced sincerity of this sequence of singer/songwriters that were so eager to get up and inflict us with their latest. We were drifting around the crowd when suddenly I spotted Julio. He had no reason to remember me, and he is now third in line to play. We waited for his solo performance. Julio is about 5’2”, very thin, a neatly trimmed black goatee, sideburns with slicked back hair. He wore tight pleated black slacks, a shiny billowy shirt/blouse with a knotted bandana around the neck, he had shiny black pointed boots with Cuban heels. In this crowd of scruffy slack jawed hippies, he appeared to be a freak from some other planet. He got on stage with his acoustic guitar and a stool. He sat down and started in on a dramatic Spanish/gypsy flamenco number, and the crowd fell silent. Here was this tiny, freaky, odd-bird, with a vaguely night-clubby sinister air to him; and he was vastly more accomplished and dramatic than the bunch of strummers and mumblers of the past couple of hours. He is knocking out great rhythms with those Cuban heels, and he is all over the guitar neck. It is an amazement and people are awed. His exit tune was an interpretation of Jimmy Hendrix. He got more applause than all the other acts combined.
One of Malcom’s standard refrains was; “Know your role and shut your hole!” One of his pet peeves was actors or others trying to take over the production; full of ideas about how to do stuff they knew nothing about. Actors that had small parts were always trying to expand the role or increase their visibility. I recall Malcolm dressing down an actor twice his age that was repeatedly fiddling up a simple ‘butler enters stage left’ scene. “Know your role and shut your hole, dammit” “Play it as it lays.” Julio would seem to be an example of how one can know the role and play it as it lays. A seamless performance, a minor role done extremely well is memorable.
On several occasions Malcolm, Jack Pine and I and others had discussions – bullshit sessions, really. Recently I attended a seminar of local established Artists and lo & behold the same topics are being discussed. For instance, the incredible curriculum vitas of our peers, is still a thorn. This is a sad and common realization – others have prospered beyond our imaginings. Their path is far from clear. On the one hand, we in the field feel that some of this work is crap and the citations and awards seemingly handed out at random, and on the other hand, we never get selected. At the seminar I brought up an extension of Malcolm’s theory, which was seemingly radical at the time, but which became one of my own sorry realizations during therapy processes surrounding my first wife’s schizophrenia.
None of us can begin to assess the extent of our own incompetence. We don’t know what we don’t know, and as individuals we can’t measure the unseen landscape of our own ignorance and incapacities. As mere primates we are afflicted with unfounded optimism. Thus we are inherently delusional and think we are pretty much all right, each of us is OK, struggling but accomplishing, much the same as our peers. Our own incompetence coupled with unwarranted optimism can render us blind to the subtleties and coherence demonstrated by others. We, the GI’s in the Art Infantry Unit hunkered down here in the trenches, have no clue about what the generals are up to, or what prompts troop movements. As participants in the arts, we are marching soldiers, not the civilians judging the efficacy of this or that maneuver.
As Artists we set our own problems. We are introduced to these in our training, and augment the realm of ideas by sorting likes and dislikes. We can chart the series of steps that led us to produce our messes of today. A personal history of serendipitous circumstances coupled with personal preferences, hero-worship, physical engagements, and the sad fact that none of us is good at everything, leads to ‘middle of the pack’ accomplishments.
Jack Pine (and to a lesser extent, Malcolm) ‘hated’ the Arts. He felt that all the so-called self-referential self-generated turmoil and agony was just bull shit. His insight led him to feel that each Artist establishes a territory of comfort in which the inadequacies of their personal abilities are fully displayed. In some cases, the hapless and ignorant populace applauds these, and in others they are ignored or shunned. He felt that practitioners within the Arts were simply knitting their own comfy sweaters over and over again. Once they learned a pattern they were doomed to endless repetition despite the fact that the shoulder was lumpy or the sleeves a bit short or the neck too big.
An Art show is simply a display of arch coziness for the well-to-do. Each piece cleverly drained of any discord and thus appropriately placed in the sumptuous abode of the affluent where the inhabitants can ignore the art at their leisure while assured that they deserve to be catered this amusingly exotic visual feast. It is money well spent if one is congratulated on the harmoniousness of the decor.
Oddly, this sort of Art trash talk seems more relevant today than it did at the time. Both Malcolm and Jack Pine were involved in ‘the theater’, and in that era there were vast changes on the horizon – a better, more honest and forthright society was on the verge of blossoming. Brecht, Orozco, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Henry Miller, Freud – the list of luminaries goes on and on. The world was going to be a better place, and Theater and cinema were going to lead the way. Arts such as painting, dance, poetry were subsidiary. It is difficult to explain just what became of that optimism, but it is certainly scarce on the ground today. Theater attendance is tiny, and the plays rarely have an edge. Cinema is now a mass entertainment, it was expected to be the great messenger of society’s transformation but it has come to cater to the lowest common denominator.
During the brief period of the late ‘60’s when I was occasionally exhibiting and selling artwork – abstract work of some vigor – the audience consisted of young professionals and graduate students headed for careers. They were vitally interested in the creative. Today we have many more graduate students and young professionals, but they are struggling with massive student loan debt and they are thus no longer able to consider cultural expenses. They have also been seduced by easy and cheap ‘pop’ music. In the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s the music of the intellectual was Jazz and classical. Rock ‘n Roll was a mere low class amusement.
The economic circumstances supporting the Arts has changed as well. The people we thought of as well off in the ‘50’s would be barely upper middle class today. While there were truly rich individuals, there were only a few and the amount of the economy, politics, and culture that these few rich citizens controlled was not large. Today we have 1% owning more than half of everything world wide and this has had a dramatic effect within the Arts. Economic and Political discourse in the Arts is almost invisible. If it is present at all, it is veiled and often presented ironically. The 1% don’t reward so much as a hint of criticism.
As Artists we often feel that we are entitled to support from those with more money than we have. A short while ago times were flush and many in the ‘Arts’ were selling works, getting grants, finding venues. Unfortunately this easy money was generated by the greatest and most venal systematic fraud ever perpetrated in the history of mankind. As near as I can tell, Artists have not taken their share of the blame for providing decorative diversions to the crooks and thieves that claimed to be ‘the best and the brightest’. Our comforting little artistic performances were a small part of the luxury that enabled them to sleep well. The affluent bought the Arts just like they bought the politicians and the media. As Artists, our casual wishing we would get our share made us complicit in the destruction wrought by the clients of the Arts.
In my old age I have come time to reflect upon how each of us becomes the character in our own lives. For a few it is a bolt of lightning revealing direction and insight, but for most of us it is an accidental accretion of haphazard serendipities. Who would I be now if I hadn’t met Malcolm and Jack Pine? What if I hadn’t fought colitis to the point of collapse? What if there hadn’t been a traffic accident that day when I stopped for gas, and I hadn’t struck up a conversation with Tom Coffin who subsequently introduced me to exactly the wrong woman destined to destroy my life? We do things, we are bumped and jostled by seemingly inconsequential and casual activities and our course is changed.
Another episode occurred in my sophomore year: It must have been winter term; there was an opportunity on the bulletin board to assist in a mural project. I had long forgotten this episode and then a couple years ago it came back to me. I can’t remember the artist’s name, so Gonzalez will do. I have tried to track it back, but there seems to be no public record of the mural, creation, or installation. I suspect that he was just squatting at the UW with no permission or station.
The call was to show up and help with a mural. The work was done in one of the Officer Training Buildings left over on campus from WWII. A huge building, perhaps 6 basketball courts in size, with 30’ high exposed rafters and beams, wood floors, large side windows and dangling industrial lights. I suppose they drill marched in there. All those buildings disappeared in the late ‘60’s. Inside this drafty cold abandoned building Gonzalez was setting up a huge mural, about 12’ high and perhaps 60’ long, on panels, supported by rude scaffolding. The actual painting process was done on ladders, or seated on boards between ladders, and some frequently modified scrap wood scaffolding. The mural image was ready to fill in, the drawing mostly chalked up, the grid clearly marking where the panels would fit between building supports when installed. I have no idea where it was to be installed.
He was really glad to see me, and had some panels set aside for a test or training. The test amounted to filling in the rendering of a clothed denim bent knee. There was a jar of mixed paint, a jar of medium, cafeteria plates for palettes, some brushes, and a sample to emulate. The panel was 18 X 24 – and I was to stand at a bench and fill this in, quickly – it had to be done directly because the panel was slightly absorbent and the paint very liquid. It required brusque handling. I found it to be easy.
Gonzalez seemed an interesting character. I got the impression he was local – I thought he was from Ballard from his accent. He was a stocky guy, in his 40’s, 5’10”, with a bit of a paunch. He wore cream-colored cotton loose blouse shirts, and shiny big pleated pants, and sandals. When the building was particularly cold he would wear a white sailor’s cap and a peacoat. He had been decades in Mexico working with Siqueiros, Tamayo, and Orozco. He spent a lot of time at high speed; this huge project required a lot of energy. I suspect he anticipated dozens of art students showing up to help, but there was never more than a couple of us at a time. He had a bit of a fit when spring break came and no one showed up for two weeks.
We didn’t get paid, and worked 3 or 4 hours when we showed up. I was put on the main panels the second time I showed up. The time was spent filling in acres of blue denim overalls of the Workers. It didn’t require much thought; just follow the lines and the sketch. At the time it didn’t occur to me that this was valuable experience, but later I was not intimidated by working on large canvases, or laying out large areas loosely. After all, I had worked on giants.
Occasionally his wife would show up. She was a revelation to me. She was a striking, tiny, dark, Aztec looking woman with lots of wire bracelets, dangling earrings, bright clothes, long skirts, and sandals. She was the most exotic person I had seen – perhaps ever seen. She spoke no English, but he was fluent in Spanish, so their heated and energetic conversations were opaque to me. She would storm in, trail him around in a volley of talk, and then wander out again. She was voluble, outspoken, and extravagant in gesture and dress. I had never seen a woman like that. Certainly no dull moments around her. She was very attractive in a stark, lean, Gypsy/Aztec manner, an amazing profile. I thought to myself, “When I grow up and become a real Artist, I’m going to have a woman like that!”
Occasionally the local socialists would wander in. I recognized some of them from the coffee shop. I was busy working, and there would be this muted echo of the dialectic – ‘Comes the Revolution Comrade’. I got a shred of cred from working on the mural. I guess I worked there 20 times during two quarters. I went home for the summer, and upon return, the mural was gone, presumably installed. Gonzalez must have been working on it non-stop day and night. There was a lot of work to be done when I left.
On a couple occasions his wife and her mother or housekeeper showed up with some food. A large heavy pot of beans and some hand made corn tortillas. A very plain and bland meal, accompanied with tap water. In those days, there were none of the so-called Mexican joints like Taco-Bell in existence. Downtown there were a handful of little Mexican cafes, and I had eaten in a couple of those; breakfasts or lunches while employed at the warehouse. One of my co-workers swore by Menudo as a cure for his frequent hangovers.
By the end of the school year I was in denial about my health. I had seen a specialist, and had some serious medicine, but I was exhausted. I could have continued the warehouse job, but once the term was over, I moved back home to Suquamish, and sort of collapsed. I tinkered with the Model A Ford, and I had a couple of motorcycles in stages of disassembly. I did a bit of painting and wood sculpture from rounds of cedar.
I don’t think my Dad had a clue of how sick I was, and Mother knew something was up, but it was never discussed. I simply couldn’t muster the energy to go find a summer job. At school I had been living on canned chili, Dicks Burgers (4 for a dollar), and beer, which I got from a guy that was of age. Once home, I ate much better, and started making homebrew which my Dad didn’t mind, and it was easy to sneak a shot or two or three from his several hidden bottles of bourbon.
Shortly after beginning of the winter term of ’62, I finally collapsed. I couldn’t walk, even with crutches, and couldn’t get up. Went home and was on the couch, unable to even walk to the bathroom. In those days, family doctors would make house calls. The Doctor showed up, looked at me, and I was in the hospital the next day.
Frankly, I don’t know how to continue from this point. I was surgically modified into some other life form, resembling human, but with a whole realm of hidden issues. At my final meeting with the surgeon he suggested that I look on the bright side. “You should just do what you want to do. You want to be an Artist, so just go and focus on that. You don’t need to be concerned about retirement, you aren’t likely to live that long.” He seemed quite chipper and positive about it. It was hardly a re-assuring assessment, and sure enough, a couple years later I was again in the hospital for an emergency operation, and then a couple years later I went in for another. This seemingly established pattern lead to some unfortunate life choices for a while.
After the first operation I was three weeks in the hospital and several months of creaking around recuperating. Towards the end of my hospital stay, when I was finally able to eat a regular diet, my Dad visited a couple times bringing me big French dip sandwiches. As part of my recuperation Dad would stop by Crazy Eric’s Drives and get a chocolate malted and pour in a slug of bourbon. His shot was like 3 ounces, and when Mother caught him in the act, that was the end of the Malteds. Once home, one of the neighbors thought perhaps I could use some exercise to put some weight on, and brought me his son’s abandoned Charles Atlas course and weight set. I started doing the exercises out of boredom. I wish I had that course today, a complete original booklet and weights is worth a small fortune. Eventually I was on my feet again, splitting firewood and tinkering about. I returned to college in the fall, transferring into Art Education courses in hopes of becoming a teacher. It was a ridiculous choice – there were virtually no jobs anywhere for art teachers.