The Gypsy Star

The Gypsy Star

In conversation a few weeks ago, a friend of mine made a remark about “fucking gypsies.”  I was a little surprised and he elaborated, “Hey, they’ve more than earned every negative and ugly stereotype ever perpetuated about them.”   I was a little shocked.  This man is NOT a bigot, quite to the contrary.

He explained that all of his encounters with gypsies were negative and that they were a culture of thieves–a wandering people.
I had been thinking about the treatment of gypsies I’d witnessed in Istanbul, where they were not even allowed inside the Grand Bazaar.  Of course they controlled the commerce outside of it, where they sold knock-offs of everything from Adidas tube-socks to Don Ed Hardy T-Shirts, luggage, candy, black market caviar; you name it.  I’d mentioned it to Ali, the guy driving us around and he said, “Do not, under any circumstance, talk to the gypsies.  They’ll swarm you and pick your pocket.”  Though they certainly were practitioners of aggressive marketing; nobody swarmed me or pick-pocketed me.  They mostly said, “Big Man, I got leather. . .your size.  I got socks for big feet!”

One was certainly aware the gypsies were there.  One guy cracked me up by telling me, “Get your deals out here.  The Turks and Russians will fuck you until you are dead.  TOO expensive, my friend!”  While they were all over you,  they were no worse than the shills inside of the Grand Bazaar who will chase you down the aisles to persuade you into a sale.

Years ago, there were a whole building of gypsies next door to my studio on Damen and these folks were thieves.  The men beat on the women and the guys would surreptitiously sneak mountain bikes and 10-speeds that they’d spent the day stealing, into their building at night.  I’d called the cops on them many times over the four years they lived there, mostly for domestic violence.  If I heard the women screaming, I’d call the police.  I am not one to call the heat, (this is always a last resort for me ) but the beating of these women. . .some of them quite young. . .was beyond the pale.

One night, one of the younger mothers in their group bummed a cigarette off of me and smoked it outside for a moment’s respite.  I’d seen her with her kids many times.  She was about 25 and had three small kids and in another life she could have been beautiful.  At this young age she already had wrinkles and crows feet and she just looked tired all the time.  I’d see her standing outside once in a while, in her near-beauty, just trying to catch her breath between the needs and yelling of her children and from the beatings her husband inflicted upon her.  She would never press charges, and the asshole would be back the next day.  This was the last man I ever hit.

One day I’d called the cops after hearing a particularly desperate sounding howl from the building.  Sure enough, the cops came and took the young woman away and the husband who had bloodied her lip and blackened her eye.  It got back to him that I had been the one to call the cops and a few days later he came walking up screaming, “cocksucker” and a bunch of other crap at me and then he started poking me on my shoulder.  I’m okay until someone lays hands on me; then it’s over.  Before I could think, I hit him in the eye, he went down and when he tried to get up I hit him again, this time, much harder, and he stayed down .  The other gypsies came out screaming at me and dragging him away and told me they were calling the cops.  I went in and had a cigarette and called my lawyer and told him that in the next ten minutes I fully expected to be arrested and to meet me at Belmont and Western with bail.
I realized after about an hour, the cops weren’t coming.  Still, I never felt good about it.  It felt like an ugly kind of failure.  Over the next few days I’d see this man’s children eye me warily going in and out of their building and I could tell what they were thinking.  This is the man who beat my father.

As bad as I felt, I never apologized and I continued to call the cops when I heard the inevitable violence erupting next door.  The young mother continued to walk by with new bruises and black eyes and I felt like some people get their hell here on earth.  From time to time, she’d still bum smokes off of me, tearing the filter off and quietly smoking.  Once in a while dispensing a nod or a quiet “thank you.”  I asked her once why didn’t she leave and she said, “We don’t run away from our family.”  I explained to her that she should not have to endure the beatings, and she said in her gypsy wedding she’d promised to obey her husband.

I never pressed it any further and one night they moved out, having stiffed the landlord and leaving no word as to where they were going.

I’m still offended at the treatment of gypsies that I witnessed in Istanbul.  I don’t believe it is ever acceptable to treat any group of people in a dehumanizing way . Gypsies are definitely enigmatic and mysterious and like the rest of us, all too human.  Still, I think of that woman who was my neighbor and her duty to a lousy life that literally bruised her every day.  This one is for her.

Published in: on December 21, 2010 at 4:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The December Moth

The December MothI found this moth in a book.  Startlingly and chillingly white, like the Angel of Death or the Eucharist of Winter, these elegant ladies seem to entreat the abandoned Catholicism in me.  That radiant white always was part of the church’s ritual; the death flowers. . .white calla lillies and roses. ..this powdery white essence, as ephemeral as ashes.

We are creeping ever closer to winter here.  The  six months of  slush and gray that turn this city into a Ggulag.  I get a ton of work done in the winter.  I go out of doors less and travel more.  I’ve slowly but surely embraced a more monastic existence.  I don’t really go to art openings at all.  This will change when FireCat Projects opens publicly.  That is the one opening a month I will HAVE TO show up for; seeing as, along with my partner in crime, Stan Klein, I own the place.  I used to make it a point to go to the galleries and see stuff; still do. . .but quietly now; never at openings.  Openings here tend to bring out every jag-bag in the village and you can smell the desperation, resentment,  jealousy and petty vindictiveness on them .

Our shows have never attracted that crowd of butt-wipes.  We get a healthy balance of real world and art world.  We keep things lively, we play music, give away the beer and always have a bit of food.  The vibe is always convivial and friendly.  Assholes and drunks are dispatched quickly and with all necessary encouragement, if they misbehave.

I’ve not had a show in Chicago in a few years and to be truthful, I was not in a big hurry to do this one.  The logic among my partners was that I had enough marquee value to assure  an audience for our first outing.  It also made sense as my last act there, in that space. . .the place I made my work for 17 years. It is your space now.  This show is really a way of saying goodbye.  I won’t have a public studio again.

More than likely when you visit FireCat Projects, you will meet my partner, Stan Klein, whom I’ve known since 1985.  Stan runs my career and Firecat Publishing as well as the exhibition space.  For the last year, we’ve quietly contacted the artists we wanted to shine a light on and we feel like we have a compelling collection of talent. We will release our first 18 months of exhibitions in the next couple of weeks.

I’ve been working like a fool to finish my pieces for this show.  I’ve always felt the toughest audience to please is here, and I really kicked it out for this show.  My first success was in New York and to a large extent this is where the lion’s share of my work goes to be sold.  In the last few years I’ve actually sold most of the drawing-collages  in Chicago, which was a huge and welcome surprise after 25 years of doing this.  I actually have a hometown audience.  I always had them for my etchings, but Chicagoans were slow to warm to my drawing-collages, but man, once they did, it was kind of amazing.

These pieces–the moths and superheroes–will be part of my next theater piece, “Stations Lost,” which I am writing as I make these.  It kind of builds on the questions that “This Train” asked–“What is home?” and “Who are we in the world neighborhood?”

Istanbul and its citizens made an immense impression on me as does the continual myth-making of the American narrative.  This body of work provided me with some answers.  I’ve outgrown the motives I had as a young artist and had my eyes opened a bit; enough so that the sight of moths circling the light, help lead me into the world.

Published in: on November 8, 2010 at 5:39 am  Comments (1)  
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The Messenger

The MessengerIstanbul has stayed with me a bit.  Upon landing at O’hare we were told about the suicide bomber that detonated a bomb in Taksim Square, 150 feet from the hotel where we stayed.  It happened about an hour after we’d left for the airport.  This shook me up a little.  I’d spent a lot of time in Taksim Square over that 11 days.  To me, it was the picture of a successful multicultural gathering place, not unlike Millenium Park here in Chicago;  a place where people from every part of the world congregate peacefully and enjoy themselves.  I walked there for a few hours each time, shopping and shooting the shit with the locals.  I learned a lot about life watching the visitors to Taksim Square.  Mostly I learned about what was possible for a city of wildly divergent populations.

The hideously ironic thing about this particular act of violence is how unpolitical it was.  The bomber was pissed at the cops.  This was not an act of Jihad, or at least not  an organized one.  The man, a Kurd, was pissed at the treatment he’d received at the hands of the Istanbul police in Taksim Square.

Law and order is dispensed harshly in this city.  There is a tennuous peace between religious and political factions and the police watch it carefully and adjudicate it with an iron fist.  The order is important in a city of this size and the cops mean to keep it.  I was surprised at the civility of a city this big and there is a reason for it; the vigilance of those in power.  Civil libertarians here would be appalled at some of the lack of freedoms here, but Turks have accepted it as the price of maintaining peace and order. There is an active anti-Kurd sentiment, but Turkey did take in the refugees when they had nowhere else to go.  Gypsies are also discriminated against in ways that would disgust us.  They’re not allowed in the Grand Bazaar, but rule the roost outside of it, being free to earn in the outdoor market.  Is it right?  No–but it is what it is and all parties involved have accepted it.  There is a system over there that all factions observe as the order and carefully observe the caste system as part of the natural order of their society.  If you are not from there you won’t understand it.  If you live there, this order is of great comfort to you.

There is bad in the good and good in the bad.

The days I spent there did not tip me off to any sense of an upheaval brewing among the populace. . .or maybe I am a dense motherfucker.

The style of conversation in Turkey is “argument” to the unaccustomed observer. Turks get right to it.  To someone observing, it might look hostile; but it isn’t.  It’s just the way it is.

I spent a lot of time over there talking to Muslims.  I’d realized that, other than some conversations with cab drivers here in Chicago, I’d never met anyone who was a practicing Muslim.  Like Istanbul, we are tribal here in Chicago.  We hang among our own.  One of the reasons I went to Istanbul was to see mosques and figure out what hell was so scary about Islam.  Truth be told, I met a lot of people who were not much different than us.  We want the same things they do; a decent life for our families, a dignified standard of living and to be left the fuck alone to think and do what we wish.

I met remarkable people who were generous of spirit and kind.  I was treated very well by people I didn’t know well.  I was also throughly taken with the city.  My friend, Penn told me that this was the difference between him and me;  he doesn’t much care about places; they don’t really speak to him; but has an immense affection for people.  I also like people and like Penn, believe that humans are basically decent.  Humans at their heart, I think, are good.  But I also do love places and the stories and history that shape those places.  He is right.

Istanbul, I felt let me return to my own country with less fear about the unknown–Islam and Muslims.  I feel like I now share some common ground with people our government has demonized at every turn; that there is a place in this world that I love, as do they, and feel protective of.  I feel happy that I have things in common with Muslims; a love of Istanbul and its people and places and a hope for our better selves  to understand each other.

Published in: on November 3, 2010 at 12:12 am  Comments (1)  
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