When I was a kid, there was less disposable income around. Instead of throwing out a worn pair of shoes, people got them repaired, re-soled and re-shaped, and had the heels re-built. There was a shop in the Greyhound Bus depot downtown that had, on any given day, what looked like dozens upon dozens of shoes in various states of repair, a couple of guys working diligently, and a curious, older guy who smelled like a Beefeater martini jaw-boning the customers and making change.
He would look at me and say, “Kid, do you know what they call a man who makes shoes?” and I’d say ,”A Cobbler?”, and he’d say, “That’s right, but what do you call the guys who repair his shitty work?” I told him I didn’t know and he told me, “Why, you call us anything but late for supper.”
All of the guys in the shop would crack up and I’d pretend to laugh, not quite understanding the joke. I was about 11 and my dad would get his wing-tips repaired here from time to time.
The place was full of old shoe repair signs and I never forgot this one.
He looked up at the sky. From the inside of the boxcar there was a perfect rectangle of inky blue-black speeding by. The stars didn’t move an inch.
The North Star just hovered up there in all its majesty like a stoic king, Ursa Major reached its long math across the sky over Kankakee’s rail yard like a Greek god lining up the perfect three-bank billiard’s shot.
He thought maybe if she bothered to look up at the same time–wherever she was–maybe, just maybe, they’d see the same carpet of light at the same time, and that would be a small something.
Her brown eyes were as deep as space. He’d stare into them, wordlessly, and swear he could see comets racing at the speed of his heart.
Yesterday, thousands and thousands of nurses marched on Daley Center during the first day of the NATO conferences. They walked from the Sheraton on Upper Wacker to Dearborn and Randolph. It was all very peaceful.
Their throwing in with the Occupy movement was pretty seamless and made for a powerful conversation. The police were very present as were other security types dressed as Streets and San guys with ear-pieces. They weren’t fooling anyone –nor do I think they meant to.
The nurses are not marching for more money for themselves. They are asking Wall Street to pay an equitable share toward the ailing health-care system. In short, they’re doing it for us. What they ask is that about a penny per trade be set aside for healthcare. What they are asking for is nominal…very small. Over the course of a year, these guys will spend more money on Tic-Tacs.
The impressive thing about this march was the sheer numbers involved. I talked to nurses from Detroit, Massachusetts, Los Angeles Georgia and Mississippi and many, many others. They all came here, on their own dime, to ask us to better help ourselves. Their first target was the G8 summit, but what the hell, NATO promised every world leader you could imagine. What better audience?
What surprised me was the myriad of other causes that showed up to make their presence felt–everyone from letter carriers to firefighters, all talking to people about their disappearing pensions and the pressure being brought to bear upon their union leadership. A great many working people feel like their jobs are descending into the status of “serfdom,” particularly here in Chicago. The few cops who would talk to me off the record, see the embattled unions around them–and they’re not stupid–they know eventually the little man with the shiny shoes is coming for them.
My guess, the teacher’s union breaks. Between the sucker bet of vouchers and being a very EASY union to denigrate…They’re toast.
It will come, of course, after a long destructive strike which will benefit nobody except Emanuel. He will have succeeded in bamboozling the public into thinking the problems with education, and the city’s ills in general, are those “greedy” teachers. Then it will be the “greedy” firemen, the “greedy” cops. Get the picture?
One of the cornerstones of democracy is for people to be able to bargain collectively to better their lot in the workplace. The conversation in Daley Plaza yesterday is one well worth having. We must ask ourselves, “Who do we want to be in the world?”
What is equitable compensation for what we do? And how do we protect it?”
Why now, is “pension reform” on the table for working people, though not for politicians?”
King Richard made sure a sweetheart deal was cut 20 years ago that guarantees our alderman an embarrassing amount of money–in perpetuity–for spending their career fucking up the city of Chicago.
Let’s see if I have this right: teachers have no right to job security or a living wage, but retiring aldermen do?
As I walked around yesterday, I saw the people I’ve known my whole life…people who wake up in the morning grab a cup of coffee and go to work. People like both of my parents. I also have two sisters I am endlessly proud of who are nurses. In my own life I’ve been close enough to death a couple of times that only the vigilance of medical professionals saved my ass.
I watched hospice nurses, men and women, ease my father’s suffering and provide the humane and kind palliative everyone should have at the finish line.
Whatever they pay nurses…? It isn’t enough.
I also saw some of the Occupy kids with the bandanas over their faces, goading cops who were too smart to take the bait. It was a useless bit of agitprop theater that hurts the otherwise necessary Occupy Movement. Really. Take the scarves off your faces–you look like assholes and you’re hurting a viable movement.
When I think about all of the stuff we waste money on in this country and this city; all of the horseshit P.R. and empty boosterism–and we don’t want to pay educators or help medical professionals, (in many cases first responders) do their jobs?
The conversation around Daley Plaza was one that would have interested Old Man Daley. He was elected six times by unions. I imagine he’d have had something to say about the current administration throwing labor under the bus. It certainly got me thinking about who really matters in a city.
Teachers and Nurses? Absolutely. Try having a civilization without healers and educators.
And the next time Mr. Mayor starts running his head, telling you how expensive Education is?
Tell him if he thinks education is costly, try ignorance.
A funny thing happened at Sotheby’s the other night. The consumers in this rarified marketplace, met Occupy Wall Street. I wasn’t there, but from what I’ve gleaned from those who were, the OWS crowd showed up in support of Sotheby’s striking art handlers, Teamsters Local 814.
The august auction giant beefed up the security and escorted the bigwigs in under guard and, as Dennis Miller once said, “It was the sharpest bit of choreography since the Oswald prison transfer.” The auction-folk were shocked, shocked I say, to realize that the art market too, is considered a valve in the malignant heart of the 1%. If you notice, I didn’t say “art world,” though one can make a fairly decent case that many of its inhabitants are also the dreaded one per-centers.
And you know what? The OWS folks are right. In that atmosphere, for that activity, the goosing, cajoling and casual brutality of the market mentality, i.e. rich imbeciles measuring dick-size.
The OWS people, as well as Local 814, the Teamsters striking at Sotheby’s for a living wage, or a living in New York wage I should say, the OWS contingent could not have picked a better target. And the art world should get its head out of its ass and ask themselves just how the fuck they got there.
I think 50 years ago the artists would have been right out there in the streets with the myriad other folks, carrying signs and fighting back. Somewhere along the line we just got too damned complacent. The work of an artist became about “career” and “career path” and we forgot that the creative world was part of the larger world. Art people turned from scholarship to the market place. A good curator was no longer who knew the most but who could raise the most money. Museums started seeking out CEOs rather than scholars. To their credit, the Art Institute of Chicago just reversed this idiotic trend by selecting a solid art man in its appointment of Douglas Druick, rather than a human cash register.
Mr. Druick is a long-time curator at the museum, with decades of impeccable scholarship under his belt. Let’s hope other museums take the hint.
By all accounts, the Sotheby’s honchos were terrified at the prospect of some Adam Lindemann or Dakis Joanu-type encountering some unpleasantness with the great unwashed out in the street. So Sotheby’s did what the 1 % always does to protect its interests–they sent men with guns. AFTER, they twittered themselves silly boasting of the most profitable number ever fetched for a Clyfford Still painting, did they think the striking art handlers weren’t going to see that?
Somehow saying they called the police doesn’t quite define it in this discourse. When big business is pushed back (and make NO mistake, Sotheby’s IS big business), they send men with guns. Just like Halliburton. Just like the railroads and their Pinkertons a century ago.
Thirty years ago there were exhibits like Artist’s Call to protest the U.S. incursions into Nicaragua and El Salvador.
The artist as an agent of social change seemed alive and well. And then the 1980s happened. The culture of celebrity artists began in earnest. Young artists as rock stars. Instead of being reviled by wealthy assholes, they (and curators–their cultural caddies) sought proximity to the power-tit. Dollar bills became more important than bain cells. More important than content. More important than beauty.
The Marketplace became a beast unto itself and artists worked assiduously to assure themselves a place in it. Last Thursday at Sotheby’s was the morning-after moment; the place the market and fashion creeps have led us to. We have the art world we deserve.
A few nights ago, I watched Vik Muniz’ towering and humane Wasteland on cable wherein Mr. Muniz helps people working in a mountain of garbage, cull beauty and meaning from that which surrounds them–helping them gently realize the transcendent moments in their own lives. When it ended, I was near tears and moved beyond words. Right at a time that I’d felt artists had forgotten how to engage and include the world in their work, Mr. Muniz’ film restored my faith a bit. In a mountain of garbage, he elevated dirt poor people out of furious loss and despair.
It can be done.
Three years ago, I participated in the first New Orleans Biennial, Prospect 1, wherein curator Dan Cameron did much the same thing–lifting that beleaguered city’s art community into celebration and renewal against formidable odds, namely the city of New Orleans’ political structure, which barely lifted a finger in it’s own best interests. Prospect 1 changed the way I thought about what artists can do for a community and what,
regrettably , we’ve not done.
The Occupy Wall Street movement is a wake-up call. We can play tag-ass in the art world, or be part of the larger conversation which wants badly for the participation of artists; our communities. Who knows, we might learn something. . .besides what the Clyfford Still painting sold for.
My pal, Steve Earle was in town last night. He was signing his first novel amid some glowing reviews. I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive tells the tale of Doc Ebersole, who may or may not have given Hank Williams the morphine that killed him (if morphine even killed him) if it wasn’t alcohol or heartbreak or, as they once said of an old friend of mine, massive failure of. . .everything.
Complicit or not, Hank’s ghost chooses to tag along with Doc, hectoring him, cajoling him from the beyond. It is a marvelous novel about a deeply flawed man who, despite all is essentially good; or as good as a dope-fiend, defrocked, M.D. and abortionist can be. Doc is not only noble in his own way, but necessary. It is an unforgettable story.
The book is dedicated to Steve’s dad, Jack, whom I was fortunate enough to meet a few times. Jack Dublin Earle was one of the air traffic controllers whom Reagan fired in 1980 in order to break their union. PATCO wasn’t stiling for more money, but to build in tougher regulations about the conditions they worked in so that air traffic would be safer for you and me. In the anti trade union furor of the early 80s, they were easy to demonize for the great communicator, and thus started the long dismantling of labor’s ability to bargain collectively for rights, benefits and an equitable salary. The unions, some of them, had plenty of corruption of their own that just made this process easier. But the big loser in the union-busting 80s was the American worker, whose progress was undone in very short order by Reagan and his ilk. And after those years, Jack Earle’s life was never easy again. The PATCO workers had been black-balled and branded as malcontents and for a great many of them, years of unemployment followed. Reagan fucked them, but good.
We forget, often, who built America. When we marvel at skyscrapers, bridges, homes and skylines, we forget the human toil that comprised the making of them. The Irish digging the subways, the Native American workers walking the high-steel of great buildings, the myriad of Asian slave-labor who built the railroads, the Germans, Swedes and Italians who built homes, worked in bakeries and butcher shops, the Czechs and Polish who worked in the slaughterhouses and quartering shops. And in our most shameful chapter, the 400 years of forced labor Africans endured before being allowed to be Americans.
Working people and working poor people were also good enough to fight our wars for us, in numbers so great that nearly half of the men who fought in the civil war could neither read or write. Literacy, back then, was the provenance of the wealthy classes; not the great many of our citizens, farm and factory workers, who’d not had the luxury of an education.
We’ve benefitted from the sacrifices of those who came before us. When I think of Steve Earle’s father and my own, guys who are held by the neck by the circumstance of their industries, it makes me sad. I come from a long line of working people. My great grandmother, Nana, was part of the first union for domestic workers just after the turn of the last century. My dad, my mom, my uncles and grandparents. . .all working people. My brothers and sisters, same way. I was taught by my father that work dignifies us; provides us with a role. And if we do it well, an identity.
When I revisit the hobo alphabet and battlefield sketches and native american ledger drawings, even without words, I sense a very different American history is being told. This one by those who had nothing; those who wandered the roads and rails and battlefields. . .the people who live on the other side of the billboards. It is a visual language; eloquent enough to let you know what is going on. Slashes, stick-figures, diagrams and maps testify dramatically to a country taken by force; built by murder, conquest and the genocidal need to conquer. Though the witnesses were illiterate, they still testified. Ledger drawings by native Americans testify to the wholesale slaughter of their peoples and their own desperate slaughter of the buffalo in an attempt to remove the food source from the white man. Gospel songs sing of the whip and the chain and the long, bitter, middle passage of a kidnapped culture. These too, are a history, and now that I’ve paid more attention to these marks and markers, I see a different country.
It is the history that never gets told, as opposed to the lies we have all agreed upon. It is Custer slaughtering Indians–man, woman and child. It is a firing squad executing Joe Hill in Utah despite his innocence. It is the shot-gunning of labor activists in Arizona, and it is Dr.King, staring that long quarter-mile across the bridge at Selma. They, all of them, sacrificed for the America and life we now have. Let us be better stewards of their great hopes for a better country.
This is an etching called. The Map of Mercy
There is a horror implicit in the stick-figure, “Man with a Gun,” from the hobo alphabet. Its triangle with outstretched arms hints at a fleeing figure and encourages the viewer to do the same. Hobos were shot at, shot in earnest, and had a very real and rational fear of firearms. More than one of them admitted it kept them from committing serious crimes.
One hundred and fifty years ago we were the most well-armed country on the planet. We still are. Firearms were part of our contract with the idea of freedom and sadly, they still are. If one defies the government in any meaningful way, eventually they send men with guns.
If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we’d not have a Republic without guns. As much as I hate your hardcore gun nuts (you know the ones–the psychotics who need to own five automatic weapons for “home defense”), I have to agree with them about the preservation of the Second Amendment. Some years ago, our own Mayor Daley defied the Constitution and banned the ownership of handguns in the city of Chicago. Like every well-meaning big city mayor plagued by gun violence, he tried to apply the baby-sized band-aid to the gaping wound.
The Latin Kings still had guns.
The Gangster Disciples still had guns.
The 2-6 nation still had guns.
And you can bet your monkey-ass I still had one. Far be it from me to be the only unarmed fucker in the room. There is no percentage in bringing a knife to a gunfight. What Daley did was to make the average citizen less safe. The idea was that the police would protect us.
Fuck, the police are the ones I’m afraid of in this city. And the politicians who tell me who should be strapped and who shouldn’t.
Every dictator, tyrant, despot and opressor throughout human history has disarmed the populace as a first step toward bankrupting those cultures of their inherent freedoms. Dissent becomes non-existent.
I, too, was horrified when that asshole bought a loaded gun to our president’s speech a couple of years ago. It sent a message the responsible firearms owners should have been appalled by. I don’t hold with the crowd that wants a “concealed-carry” proviso in the law. I do believe one should have the right to own a firearm for his home or, in some cases, his automobile.
The most responsible gun-owners are people who have a healthy revulsion for just what it is that guns do.
As long as there are humans, there will be gun violence and the toothpaste is out of the tube. The best one can do in a society this well-armed is to protect oneself. I would like to be able to do it with kind words. I would like to do it with witty repartee. I would like to be able to do it with logic. But I can’t and neither can you. When the asshole breaks onto your home? Introduce him to Jesus. The word gets around the asshole community pretty quick: Break into my home. . .get dead fast. When kindness fails, a nine millimeter holds 16 rounds of persuasion.
If this seems like a less-than-nuanced argument, look around. The economy is in the shitter. There is less opportunity and more hunger and desperation. In Chicago’s tony Lincoln Park, there were jump-out crews working out of a van, robbing couples (and for good measure) beating the fuck out of them with bats. Three years ago, this didn’t happen. . .and now it does.
Liberals cream their jeans for gun laws. They love the fuckers, even though those laws do not make them one bit safer.
A great percentage of gun violence is an outgrowth of the drug trade; 15-year olds blasting away with firearms they can barely lift. Our ongoing tragedy known as the “War on Drugs” has armed every kid in the city. The “War” is not on drugs. It is on the poor. The more law enforcement dollars, the more profit margin for dealers in drugs. . .and guns. It is a zero-sum gain and a self-fulfilling prophesy of despair. The minute you legalize drugs, the profit goes out of the black market. It seems nobody remembers that we never heard the term, “bootlegger” again after the end of Prohibition.
This is what worries me about the government and the question of guns: A culture where only the government is allowed to have firearms? This is an invitation to tyranny. Think about everything the G is in charge of now. That is all working out swimmingly, isn’t it?
As much as I hate to side with the gun nuts–and they are nuts–part of why to have a gun is to protect you from THEM. I have to admit the deluded, deficient yo-yos happen to be right. But I also have a sign. It’s on the door. It says, “Don’t Worry About The Dog. Beware of Me, Mother-fucker.”
After the Civil War, a great many of the men honored for valor could not read or write. Less than half of Americans were actually literate. A good many of the Westpoint men died in battle–on both sides. For years, Civil War vets were tracked down by word of mouth to award them their medals, and a great many of these men refused them. The suicide rate among veterans of the North and South was astoundingly high; more than any of our other wars. There was no therapy. Post traumatic stress disorder was a century away from even having a name. The vets of the Blue and Gray called it “battle fatigue.”
After the war, many men took to the road, or the rails, hopping freights in such numbers they became a culture of people we now know as hobos. There were 300,000 unemployed men and lots of free transportation. Many looked for work and many more just wandered the country looking for a place to fit in, or call home. One of the ugly byproducts of the war was men discovering they no longer had a place to go home to.
The hobo alphabet was the language these men and women cobbled together; marks, slashes, stick-figures and pictograms left on fences around railroad depots, with which to alert each other as to what was coming their way; if food could be found, if shelter was to be had, if the cops were brutal, if they would be beaten or arrested. . .or worse.
There is anecdotal evidence these symbols have their genesis in cattle brands and battlefield sketches, which would make sense. What has always touched me about this set of symbols is how it united a culture of powerless people; how humans in any dire circumstance find a way to communicate.
As a kid, I was a ceaseless daydreamer, making doodles and odd idiosyncratic drawings while I was supposed to be paying attention in school. They were wildly elaborate and the nuns took to referring to these leaves of absence as going to “Tony World.” I’d make constant, ever-evolving drawings on my school papers; snakes, choppy arrow shapes, blood drops and networks of circles and airplanes and skulls– just whatever and it would make my teachers nuts.
In fourth grade, I had a miserable old bitch named Mrs. Loversky who took special umbrage and used to take my pens away when she was talking, so then I would just daydream without doodling. One time she was running her head about fractions, “blah,blah, blah,” and I was thinking to myself, “Why don’t you just fucking die you old bitch.” Only I wasn’t just thinking it. I’d actually said it without knowing it until after it was out.
She went mental, waving her big flabby arms over her head like a mental patient, screeching until the nuns came in and had to calm her down. It turned out she had half a load on. Mrs. Loversky used to go to the restaurant at lunch and power down three or four brandy drinks to get through the day. This did not get me out of trouble. The brides of Christ took turns in the hall kicking the holy dogshit out of me. But they sent Mrs. Loversky to the Acorn Academy to dry out for four weeks and when she came back, she never took my pen away again. She told me, “If drawing while I’m talking helps you to learn then go ahead. I’m sorry I yelled at you.” After she did that I felt bad for what I’d said. She was much nicer to me after that and I began to kind of like her and feel bad for her.
I thought of this because of the peace I got as a kid from just drawing nothing in particular, sometimes just filling page after page of my notebook with marks and slashes and shapes and smears and continuous lines that seemed to hypnotize me while I made them. Etching entreats that same kind of sublime feeling for me; mark-making for the joy and curiosity of mark-making, letting my subconsious out to walk around and guide me a bit.
When I first stopped making etchings eight years ago, one of my fears was that they’d gotten a bit “pretty”–that the grit and grime had filtered out. Not to worry here. This one has grit and grime to burn. I had a lot going through my head when I made it. The hobo, the battlefield, the men without language making marks with which to communicate, the boy lost in his lines and wanting to stay lost.
This is a new 5-color etching. It is for sale. Let me know if you would like one.
At the end of March and in early April of every year, the smelts of Lake Michigan decide to kill themselves. The little fish haul ass from the deeper parts of this treacherous lake and head for the shore. On the way, they spawn, which means they bust one more nut on their way off this mortal coil.
For a great many generations, working class, immigrant Chicagoans were ready for them. Polish, Greek, Irish, Mexican, Ukrainian and Italians waited on Montrose Harbor and other docks lining the lake with fine mesh smelt nets full of nylon loops in which the smelt would oblige the hungry immigrant by voluntarily hanging themselves.
Every April in Greektown there was a special “smelt plate” featuring a dozen or so of the slimy fuckers, deep-fried and infused with garlic. There are people who swear by these. I watched Steve Earle gobble down a plate of these a decade ago and he was truly grateful.
“I love smelts, man. Greeks make the best ones.”
I reminded him that they caught these in Lake Michigan; the beaches of which were once in a while closed because of “fecal grease balls.” He just shook his head and said, ” Oh man, quit being a girl. All of the hoo-ha cooks OUT. Are you that big of a pussy that you won’t eat a fish out of Lake Michigan?”
I told him I wouldn’t eat Uma Thurman if she came out of Lake Michigan.
My friends Donnie Madia and Paul Kahan own a few wonderful restaurants in Chicago. Madia is the restauranteur and works the front of the house at Chicago’s Blackbird and Publican; and Kahan is the James Beard Award-winning chef whose food is as much a meditation on American working people’s culinary history, as it is a reinvention of dishes we thought we knew, such as bacon, oysters and pork. He is as much anthropoligist and historian as he is chef.
One night at their fine pork and oyster house-cum-Belgian beer hall, Publican, the always dapper Madia brought me and my daughter an elegant plate with two very hearty smelt on it. I was amazed. I’d never seen such robust examples of the Lake Michigan garbage fish. they were plump, shiny and meaty as hell. Madia assured me they were from Lake Michigan and Paul Kahan backed him up .
“The Lake has really come back, T,” Donnie assured me, “Not every part of Lake Michigan is like. . .ya know. . .Indiana”, he said with a furtive glance over his shoulder.
These were the best smelt I’d ever eaten and, of course, they were–Paul Kahan had made them. You could toss him a road-killed dachshund wrapped in a moldy jockstrap and he’d find a way to turn it into haute cuisine. Hell, one night he fed me duck hearts and I’d have crawled through broken glass for more of them.
For years, smelting was one of those Chicago phenomenons that transcended tribal boundaries. The Mexicans fished right next to the Ukrainians and Greeks and Blacks. Everyone was thrilled at each other’s haul. Cans of Old Style and Schlitz got passed around and inevitably someone would cook up a bunch of smelt in buckets with coals and smear them on Italian bread, or in tortillas with chopped onions and tomatoes. And you just ate the little bastards–bones and all. It was a people’s celebration of the coming spring and the new warmth in the air. One of those ephemeral and regional joys that happened every year without any great expectation or complicated definition.
My father would walk me from one end of a dock to the other and tell me to close my eyes and see how many different languages I could hear. At the end of the dock he’d point out the North Star and explain to me how the captains of sea vessels would “box the compass” around it. And under the dock, the smelt were a whir of silvery light. . .indecipherable as the tails of comets.
It is remembering things like this that allow me to hold out hope for this city. Those moments when we are not at perpetual odds with each other. . .those instances of community that bind us as a species instead of a mere collection of ethnic collectives. . . those moments when we look out over that magnificent shimmering lake. . .we all see the same waves, bathed in the light of our city.
Last year I made a number of ‘Star’ pieces. They were the coda to a body of work I’d made about the great Indian warrior Crazy Horse. Id always loved using the shapes of stars in my work because they defied so many cultural and artistic borders. Every culture, religion, and government has the shape of a star somewhere in its visual language. In Istanbul — the Turkish flag is everywhere– it is a red field with a white crescent moon and a star–our own flag has 50 stars to designate states– and on and on.
Last year I designed a sign for Big Star, the now almost-impossible-to-get-in taqueria on Damen Avenue. I used a basic compass-rose star, very common in tattooing and once the symbol of the IWW, The Industrial Workers of the World, “the wobblies,” an organization that still exists. They helped form unions in the early part of the last century. It was a labor movement full of lefties and was often accused of harboring communists. For me, this star spoke to the history of Wicker Park, a neighborhood full of working-class Polish, Ukrainian and Hispanic people for so many years.
The star shape still holds a lot of mystery for me. Its definitions broaden and narrow with each passing generation. When one becomes famous, they are a “star.” As a young boy, on those rare occasions when my homework was correctly executed, the nun would return my paper with a red star on it. Tattooers love stars, often surrounding primary images with a field of spit-shaded stars. It is a shape that awakens something primal and positive in us. One of the great stories I’d heard about Crazy Horse out west was that he’d put a hail-stone behind his ear before entering battle, because he thought they were pieces of stars.
I had to stop making the star pieces last year in order to finish a show I was making about Crazy Horse. My idea was that his assassination was the moment the theft of our continent was a fait accompli. This body of work is part of my book, THIS TRAIN, which is about the idea of “What is home?” Why is this country our home rather than the people who first lived here, and how can we be better stewards of our home/nation/city? Oddly, there were no stars in the hobo alphabet. I didn’t notice this until I was finished with this body of work. I’d have thought surely this symbol would have worked its way into the arcana of slashed stick-figures and gestural marks that constitute this lost language, but oddly enough, in the hobo alphabet, there are no stars to be found.
I was bummed back then, that I had to move on to other work. I’d always promised myself that one day I would do a whole exhibition of stars or moths or birds, only. . .inevitably, to get distracted or curious about something else. So I figure from now until the first of the year, I have a little time to indulge this curiosity and I think I’ll make and meditate a little bit about the shapes of stars.
Last week, FireCat opened. After a year of planning, financial restructuring and furious footwork, we opened to the public and man did you guys ever show up! First, we are grateful for your support and hope that you’ll like and continue to check out our program. This place was built for artists. After years of hearing myself whine about there not being a place where worthy artists could show their work without being financially butt-surfed, I decided to shut up and open one. The inaugural show was my own for one reason. It was a way of saying “goodbye” to the place and neighborhood I’d worked for 17 years. If that seemed self-serving to some, so be it. It was the best strategy we had at the moment. Of all of the artists we had scheduled, I was the best known here in Chicago and we thought it would better our chances to draw a crowd and support. Also, I’d earned it. After 17 years of working there, I wanted a chance to say goodbye to my friends and neighbors.
I’d have not ever been able to keep such a lovely place going without the help of my landlord and good friend, Walter Aque. All over the art world you hear horror stories about landlords pricing artists out of their neighborhoods. Walter did not do this. He made it possible for us to stay there and became our friend and supporter and collector. He is a rare and fine person and we’ve been lucky to have him in our corner.
My friends at Three Floyds have been my collectors and beer sponsors for years now and they have also contributed much to our success. Lincoln, Barnaby and Nick have made every event we’ve had even more special with their generosity of spirit and beer and their unflagging goodwill.
While I have all of the organizational skill of a rabid ape, my partner, Stan Klein, is cool, measured and always about what is possible. He has kept this project between the ditches and moving forward. Our crew, Tanya Galin, Ashkon, Glenn, John, Michael and Tony and Lauren helped keep all of the balls in the air and I’m grateful.
It was unusual seeing this place change from an always chaotic and messy studio to an exhibition place. I’d never seen the joint so clean. When it was a print shop we could only spiffy it up so much. Now it’s. . .elegant. Who’d a thunk?
“Cannery Row in Monterrey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” John Steinbeck, Cannery Row
This is perhaps one of the greatest first sentences ever written into any novel. Steinbeck is best known for The Grapes of Wrath, the novel that won him the Nobel Prize for Literature. For me, I’ve always been a fan of his book, Cannery Row. This is the one I’ve always regarded as Steinbeck’s masterpiece. In this book, Doc, the oddly dislocated marine biologist and Mack, the putative leader of the local stumblebums, are not put out by their poverty of material, but rather enriched by their hope and possibility. Theirs is a world of flophouses, tenderhearted and straightforward hookers, and the natural beauty and stench that surrounds them. Steinbeck rendered them in all of their unvarnished beauty; a people caught between eras who led a threadbare existence but very rich, communal lives.
This book is fairly populated by hobos. In hobo-lore, canneries were a good place to get work on the West Coast, particularly Monterrey, where one could also sleep on the beach. Steinbeck’s coastal atmosphere is a pungent slice of down-at-the-heels America, populated by “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” even though a look through another keyhole would yield “saints and angels and martyrs and holy men” for, in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, they are all the same thing.
I love the language in this book. Very often I heard criticism of Steinbeck as being “too spare”–always from lesser writers who were not fit to knock on his door. What thrills me in his books is that, like Nelson Algren, he does not appraise his creations, or moralize; they are who they are. There are a million reasons people wind up where they do in life. His bums are the genuine article, fully committed to bum-hood, his whores honest about what you get for what you pay, and best of all, Doc, a collector of sea creatures, is the kind of man who tips his hat to dogs. Mack, a good-natured hustler and swindler, is one of those human case studies of “the good in the bad and the bad in the good.” And there’s Eddie, who supplies the hobos and bums with recycled booze filched from the backwash of the paying customers’ drinks…yum; and Dora Flood, the pragmatic keeper of the restaurant/whorehouse The Bear Flag. These are Americans. These are the people who the great Nelson Algren once observed “lived behind the billboards.” What a joy it has been to become reacquainted with Steinbeck. Dust this one off and rediscover a country no longer with us. We know the people in these books, they may go by different names and occupations now, but they still walk the walk.
There are any number of neighborhoods in my own city that, right now, reflect the same hardscrabble poverty Steinbeck described eight decades ago. I see men selling tube socks and bottles of water at the off-ramps in the city; panhandlers looking to feed themselves and hustlers selling two-year old Butterfinger bars for their “church.” Those who survive, have a hustle.
I’ve not seen an inheritor of Steinbeck in the literary world. Writing about working people seems to be out of fashion. I’m not whining; there are a great many writers who excite me right now–Jonathan Lethem, who writes with limitless imagination and immense humor; Murakami, who seems to take new shape with every book; Elizabeth Crane, whose short stories strike the heart and intellect with equal force; there is a lot of great writing right now.
I have a soft spot for Steinbeck and Nelson Algren, John Dos Passos and Carl Sandburg though. They were writers still trying to supply a definition for the ever-changing nation we were then still forming. They found it big, impossibly loud and full of hope; the body politic of our new nation hungry for a cultural identity of its own. Ambition writ large. We were willing to fix our country then. We were, as a nation, a community of tribes to be sure, but a community nonetheless. Sometimes I imagine I’d like to conjure their ghosts and show them the nation we made of all of that ambition; all of the murder and conquest. . .all of the hope and sweat and sacrifice. What would they think? Could they bear to tell us?
I feel like they’d understand. They had to hustle when they were alive to make their marks as artists and as witnesses. Like I said before, Those who survive, have a hustle. This is mine.
I’m a visiting artist at Anderson Ranch, a wonderful place full of talented people and committed artists. Despite my trepidation about going to an art camp, I’m enjoying it immensely and making a lot of work. You get a beautiful studio here and the people are marvelous.
I’ve moseyed into Aspen a couple of times and am not much of a fan. It is a culture of rich types and designer labels, and some of the art-world types are walking regurgitants. I know this appraisal reeks of unfair class-bigotry but there it is. Around the zip codes of affluence I always wonder how much misery was ladled out onto those not at the top of the scrotum pole.
Anderson Ranch was built in the late 1960’s on land donated by Atlantic Richfield, the oil company. It was somewhat heartening to hear that an oil company did something for a community, especially since oil companies have rat-fucked the American people since their inception. Nothing has degraded the American landscape like the oil business. No one industry has more consistently held an economic gun to the heads of working people like they have.
The BP and Exxon Valdez disasters come to mind when one examines the atrocity ethic of the fossil fuel business. My friends in south Louisiana quietly tell me that the Gulf is destined to be a dead sea; that aquatic life will no longer be sustainable in those waters. No more tarpon or sailfish or flying fish. It is an act of corporate cruelty unrivaled in the history of American business. There are no shortage of oil business executives in Aspen. They love the clean air and unspoiled natural beauty that they so ravenously despoil in other communities; where the rest of us live.
This piece is called The Star Fish. It is a portrait of what the trophy fish of the future will look like.
When I was a kid, I did four months in Boy Scouts. It cured me of camping. The sleeping outside in a tent in the rain with another guy was not for me. Neither was the uniform or running around like an asshole for merit badges. The whole thing just seemed jive. Who wants to shit outside?
The only matches you were allowed to have (for emergencies) were Ohio Blue-Tips, on account of you could strike them on anything; and you carried them in this cool little silver canister-thing, that I later used to stash other substances.
Years later, I would meet a girl from Ohio who would strike these matches off of her zipper. She wore cowboy boots and tore around on a little Suzuki. She also smoked Tiajuana Smalls and carried a flask of Wild Turkey. She was way more comfortable around guys than other girls. The girly-girls hated her because she was prettier than most of them and they started whisper campaigns about her promiscuity, which weren’t true. In fact, she was damn near prudish in a lot of ways.
She hung out with the trouble-makers and creative types and she was a good friend when you needed a friend. Whenever you needed a light, she’d strike one of these matches with a fingernail, like Lee Marvin, and light your cigarette. She did this as one elegant gesture; one that had probably taken much practice. She was cool.
I’ve always loved these matches. They imply our covenant with fire. They put fire at our disposal with one stroke. I loved the way she lit matches–greaser-style. It was also musical in a way worth remembering.
Naturally, these were also the matches of choice for hobos; easy to store and necessary for cooking and fires. Some years ago I would, on occasion, run into bits of folk-art make from spent Ohio Blue-Tips; little cabin-like things or picture frames. There was a man in Washington Square Park in New York who made wondrous little boxes from them. I’d always meant to buy one but never quite got to it. He is probably still there. Next time I go to NY I will find him. He was there 30 years ago and I always admired his craft. It’s time to get one. It’s time to let that guy know that I admire his boxes and the act of faith they convey.
I live in Ukrainian village in Chicago. A great many of my neighbors don’t even speak English. They like being among themselves. They are suspicious, clannish, and at times, paranoid and unfriendly. This doesn’t surprise me. A great many of my neighbors are from the Ukraine and lived under harsh totalitarian regimes, under a czar or a dictator. Many of them are old enough to remember the scourge of communism in their lives. They don’t much like strangers; this is Chicago, a city of tribes and bone-deep grudges.
My neighbors have begun to thaw a bit. One lady brought me a sack of beets from her garden and, noticing that I had several bird feeders in my yard, told me the secret to attracting hummingbirds–red flowers and sugar-water. She told me that only she had hummingbirds in this neighborhood even though the city “is lousy with them– you have to know how to attract them.”
My other neighbor, the old Ukrainian lady, gives me the evil eye and pretends to dislike me more than she actually does. She calls me Mr. Big Shot and follows me when I walk Chooch (my mutt) to make sure I clean up after him. I also think she just wants someone to talk to as well. She calls my work, “crazy-man pictures,” but she always asks me about them. She also walks her old biddy friends by my place and points saying, “Famous big shot artist lives here; four doors from me.”
There are gorgeous gardens in my neighborhood. My neighbors work hard on these and from my back porch, it is a different city. . . explosions of color from yard to yard and giant sunflowers in some of them. There are also all manner of tulips and roses, columbine and wandering vine, weeping cherry and plum trees. It is an amazing thing to see in late spring and summer. It occurs to me that this is how people who have lived hardscrabble lives add beauty to their world.
They come from hard places in the world and now they are free and they guard that freedom with alacrity and a fierce sense of boundary.
In Chicago, property is the cornerstone of what one has in the world and in my neighborhood it is relished and lovingly adorned. My neighbors are under siege by people like me who move in and don’t understand the contract that they silently have with one another. Don’t play your music loud. Don’t have big parties. Don’t let your kids or dog run wild. Don’t let your dog shit on my lawn–or my tree-lawn. If you have an old person next door, you shovel their walk and if there is a blackout, you look in on them. If you see an old lady struggling with her groceries, you carry them for her. And when she makes you a cup of tea for your kindness, you sit your ass down and drink it and listen to her while she explains things to you. Who knows; you might learn how to attract hummingbirds. Know that you are talking to someone who comes from a hard place in the world where there wasn’t much to trust.
Shut up and listen, Mr. Big Shot.
This one is called “The Bruised Village” It is the hobo symbol for “Go.”