I've spent the last week with 2 days of jury duty in downtown Seattle - and then catching the 'jury duty cold' and spending the next 4 days recovering from it.
All in all it's more fun going to the dentist, where at least you feel like you've accomplished something. Hours of stressful boredom... thank gosh they allow iPads so I could stay in touch with my little online world.
I had to go in front of 2 judges and plea for my 'hardship' - which is namely two illustration projects due on deadline (38 pages of artwork). Many of the other jurors had employers who actually pay for the time they spend doing jury duty. It was very stressful trying to explain to the judge the odd nature of my employment. The first time I was a rambling mess - but by the second time I wrote down the key points of my defense, so I was more focused.
Anyhow - the whole thing creeped me out - especially spending days with so many homeless people downtown who everyone just ignores, walking past on their cellphones laughing on their way to a $100 lunch. I had two sandwiches so I offered one to 2 different homeless guys - but all they wanted was drugs or money.
I'm glad to be back in my cozy studio - listening to the radio and painting. And it FINALLY rained some significant rain in Seattle! Our 5 month drought broke at last in a dramatic fashion - with inches of gushing rain and thunder. All it needed was a Beethoven soundtrack it so dramatic - and SUCH a relief to find the world once more cool, dark and dripping wet with water.
How amusing to see Donald Trump is going to jury duty this morning - but he's been summoned 5 times before and never once showed up.
At last, the long winding tale exhausts itself... leaving the theatre empty and the lights gone dim. To those valiant readers who wintered over and endured the endless gales of verbiage, I offer my gratitude.
Life on West 78th Street was sketched neatly like a chapter out of Stuart Little or an old Jack Lemmon movie. I remember watching all the people bustling off to work in the mornings... through the dappled morning sunlight of the trees. I could smell the perfume of secretaries hurrying off to work and hear their clicking heels on the pavement from my 2nd story window. There was the Dublin Harp bar on 81st street in the evenings... quiet tables in candlelight, tasteful... full of opera buffs.
And never a dull minute in New York City. New York always steals the show.
Like the night at 3 am to be awoken by jackhammering in the street directly outside the window. JACKHAMMERING at 3 am??? And then, when dawn finally broke, the guy in a hardhat poked up in his hole in the middle of the street... sipping his morning coffee and looking as much like a groundhog as a person!
Or the time in the middle of one of those monster snowstorms, when the city was buried under a mountain of impossible snow. Only in New York would you see the traffic cop struggling on foot from car to car, digging holes down into each mound of snow to find the windshield to put on a ticket for parking violations!
The three strangest sights I ever saw in Manhattan:
1) Early one morning, I came climbing up the stairs from the 34th street subway to encounter a surreal street filled with dusty elephants silently marching along filling the entire street - dozens of elephants quietly shuffling on their way to the circus. Never seen anything like that before or since!
2) One bright spring day around 57th street and Lexington I came across a city street gushing deep with crystal clear water. Instead of the usual asphalt there was a sparkling, foot deep fountain of clear water filling the entire street. It looked exactly like an alpine river from the Rockies had issued forth... unreal. The sunlight reflecting through the water was entrancing.
3) One day in Central Park I saw the only smoking jogger I’ve ever encountered. An elegant old queen with an ash tray in one hand was shuffling along in a purple velour jumpsuit. All the while with the most wicked sort of grin... he probably enjoyed being the only smoking jogger on planet earth. Only in New York.
Of course New York City had it's dark side...
I mean Manhattan is exciting, but it’s tough to live there. New York was a world behind glass. You could look at treasures behind glass, but you can't touch them. The lure of the West Coast was calling. I suppose I needed a trip out of Manhattan by then anyhow, call it a vacation or whatever - but just staying there seemed too hard.
I guess I'm really a Westerner at heart. I have to have snow capped mountains in view.
We’d spend hours in the Museum of Natural History sitting in front of this one particular diorama with elk in the Flat Top Mountains in White River National Forest in Colorado. It almost hurt sometimes to sit there and just wish I could hear the river rustling and smell the sage and the campfire smoke. So we packed up and headed west. On the way we stopped for a much needed two week camping trip in the Rockies.
It was exactly what we needed to unwind and relax in the sun. Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument... Rocky Mountain National Park... and we even made a point of searching out the exact spot of that museum diorama in the Flat Top Mountains in White River National Forest. We came close to the exact spot... but I think the artist must have fudged a few details, since we couldn’t get it to line up exactly.
We returned to New York the following September... but this time to Dobbs Ferry, in Westchester. It was quiet and leafy and much more live-able than Manhattan. That's where I put down roots as an illustrator, living in a wonderful old house built in 1840 overlooking the Hudson, with the most wonderful and eccentric landlord... a sculptor and art history professor and his wife, a photographer. But that's another story. It was the land of Sleepy Hollow, winding roads through the trees, historic estates of the robber barons. The Hudson River line to Grand Central was just two blocks away - so I still got down to Manhattan a lot for work.
But after four years in Dobbs Ferry, the West kept calling. I began to grow homesick for snow capped peaks, rain forests, desert canyons, sagebrush, the cool green Pacific... for wild places without hardly any people. I dreamed of Seattle, the proletariat paradise... or so it seemed... sailboats, coffee shops, mossy sidewalks and ferns. I subscribed to a neighborhood Seattle paper, which is the worst possible thing to do when you're homesick.
Anyhow, by now I had an agent... and FedEx made it possible to live anywhere. So my New York days were over.
All in all I got to be all misty eyed and choked up when I think about New York City and how it makes the All American dream come true for ragged immigrants who arrive on her shores with no more than a dream. All those cliches about ‘If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere’ and ‘Welcome your homeless, your destitute and all that’- I loved every minute of it. I arrived destitute with my own little dream and some talent... and it all came true for me. Thanks Manhattan!
I'd been a New Yorker for 5 years... it was everything I'd hoped it would be. But things move on. Amazingly I haven’t been back once ever since, even though I left decades ago. I never seem to go back to places. Life got in the way. And after 10 years I began to realize that they NEVER send illustrators on business trips. Never, Ever, Never. Did I mention they never send illustrators on business trips?
I've always envied people who get to go out in the world and travel as part of their work. I just stay at home and the work comes to me and I make my own little worlds. Of course since the internet arrived, it's all kind of one big electronic village.
I've heard people tell me that my editors and art directors will be glad to see me - but somehow I can only remember how when I was in NYC everyone was always too busy to see me or even remember who I was. So I've never gone back. I send postcards instead.
Anyhow, that was my tiny tale of triumph & tribulation... I'm sure everyone's got one that's just about the same, so thanks for reading mine!
Our trivial tale draws close to it's conclusion... as our footloose artiste finds his footing on the slippery slopes of publishing.
The real turning point and the place where I felt I was born as an illustrator was on a bone chilling February day. It was one of those days when the word ‘cold’ is the palest echo of the reality of the nose freezing, wind whipping, hide-in-the-nearest-doorway, sub-zero torturous COLD there could ever be. I had an appointment to show my portfolio at Holt, Reinhart & Winston on Madison Avenue, I think.
Inside it was warm... and wonderful... and seemed like magic. I was led back to the office of Miriam Chaikin, who seemed more like a fairy godmother than an art director to me. She appreciativley looked through my portfolio... carefully turning the pages and then paused and said. “Well, all we’d have for you now would be a little book. It only pays $800”.
More divine words have never into the porches of mine ears been poured. That offer, which I accepted on the spot, immediately tripled my bank account and made it possible to stay in Manhattan and try to become a freelance illustrator. Plan B was history. That job alone saved my career and changed my life... and I’ll be eternally grateful to Miriam Chaikin for her wonderfulness. She turned the course of my life then and there.
As it turned out, the book I did with Miriam Chaikin was fun. ‘School & Me’... featuring my totally cringeworthy artwork. I threw myself into doing it all. Color separations, designing the cover... things I’d never done before, but quickly learned. I did it all working in my tiny little studio room, delighted to be a real working artist. I remember the oddity of being woken up by a phone call from my ‘editor’ many a morning.
And as the Winter turned to Spring, my schedule of assignments snowballed. I had an A4 sized drawing sample printed up and mailed it out and dropped off samples at dozens of publishers. It was so exciting! It was living first and later on maybe I could think about anything to worry about... life is exciting when it’s lived out ahead of itself in the most wonderful way.
So I started working... freelancing. My tiny room became my studio. I made a light-box out of a cardboard box with the bottom cut out and a lamp. I drew on translucent heavy vellum for the sketches and traced onto watercolor paper and painted. It all worked out great.
On a nice day I’d walk down to midtown though Central Park from West 78th Street to drop off a sketch or finished art. I started doing lots of jobs for magazines... and little spots for educational publishing. And to my amazement, I started to get rich... it felt like I was rich at least. By June I had almost $5,000 in the bank! I’d never had more than $800 before and that was after scrimping and saving for months. My dream was coming true... it was New York City... it was Springtime... life was wonderful.
And so my fledgling career began. I was now working for half a dozen clients. Travel & Leisure, Scholastic, Games Magazine, Macmillan, ABC Publishing, Harcourt Brace.
I even got to work for 17 Magazine... which seemed like the swankiest, most glamorous place I’d ever been before. I relished each trip to the art studio in back, where I’d discuss the sketch with the art director. My only disappointment was there wasn’t a single coed in a cardigan to be spied anywhere on the premises. But it was still thrilling to do an illustration and then see my work 2 months later in the magazines on the newsstands. It was all just too heady and exciting.
It almost seemed like as soon as I’d return home from dropping off an assignment, there’d be a new job waiting... for some fabulous fee like $375 for just one spot drawing! I used to have to push a broom for two weeks to make that much. This was the career for me!
I guess it was sort of a ‘La Boehm’ existence... only I felt rich. Did I mention there was no kitchen and only a shared bathroom down the hall? Amazing what one can adapt to... piling up dishes on the edge of a bathroom sink to wash them somehow under the bathroom faucet. The best technique was to use a frying pan cover as a tray, turned upside down, so it could balance on the flat top of it’s handle. Then all the plates and cups and glasses and pans and silverware all sort of balanced on top of that.
Manhattan had it’s charms. The Museums... the Met, the Whitney, the MOMA, the Frick, the Morgan Library and the Museum of Natural History. We’d go to the Museum of Natural History on cold winter nights just to have a place to walk around... stretching our legs through all the fabulous wings of dioramas. There was Central Park and the Lake. We’d sit on one particular rock that was like a peninsula stretching far into the water and just admire the beautiful view of Nature and the City. Those Olmstead Brothers did a bang up job of crafting Central Park. It’s hard to imagine New York without Central Park. I remember our mailman, who looked like a character right out of Stuart Little used to always sniff up his nose and say ‘Mmmm.... smell that wonderful fresh air coming from Central Park. It’s the trees that makes the air so fresh’. He was right.
Shakespeare in the Park... Concerts on the great lawn. Walking the winding sidewalks of Central Park past the lake to the Met. We went to the Met and the Museum of Natural History so many times we strung together all the tin museum buttons to make into a Christmas tree garland. Life on West 78th Street was wonderful... especially viewed through the lens of nostalgia. But would it last? Could it last?
Just one final wrap-up episode left, faithful readers! Hang in there...
The children's book illustration class with Maurice Sendak was held in a corner window studio on the 11th floor, high over 5th Avenue. I remember I was so nervous on the first day... waiting for the famous Mr. Sendak to appear. I’d have never guessed he’d turn out to be a disarmingly unpretentious regular guy from Brooklyn.
I told him I was nervous having him as a teacher because he was so famous. 'I'm just an old man with a beard... get over it', he said. He was totally unassuming... but he had this air of anxiety... must have been the genius gnawing at him or something. A cold draft of anxiety that always seemed to be there. But he was totally brilliant, entertaining, delightful.
Maurice would wait until the class was all quietly hard at work and then ramble on with priceless philosophical insights. I thought it highly amusing one day to hear him declare the obvious, “Of course a degree in illustration is completely superflous... it’s only one's talent and portfolio that really counts”. Another time he said “It doesn’t matter how many brilliant talented people you hang out with, it won’t make you any more talented”.
One day M.S. brought in the dummy pencils to 'Outside Over There'... they were incredible.. detailed down to each leaf. ‘It's like an opera’ I commented. M.S. thought that was an interesting, because someone else had also told him that. At the time I didn’t know his interest in opera was so keen... but I imagine that had something to do with it. I lent him a plastic bag to wrap the dummy up in, since it was pouring down rain... my brush with fame.
M.S. seemed to really care about his students welfare, unlike most of the other distant teachers there. He would make appointments with editors for his students to visit... invite them out to lunch (I actually turned down an invitation once because I had a stupid midterm the next class... something I'll always regret)
I used to come back to visit the class though even after I dropped out of school. M.S. was thrilled when I dropped out and started working. One day Richard Egielski was there too. He hadn't won the Caldecott yet. I don't think I met another illustrator for 10 years after leaving school. Amazingly I'd never even heard of the SCBWi. But the experience of those weeks was magical. It was like something you read about in books... like how Picasso and Renoir and Rousseu would all meet and have parties in Paris in 1906. I could scarcely believe it was me there... among the greats of the world of children’s books.
Also in the M.S. class were Steve Salerno and Vivienne Flesher. Steven Salerno has gone on to write & illustrate fabulous children's books... he was even chosen to do the art to a reissued Margaret Wise Brown book. The last time I saw Vivienne Flesher was one night on the sidewalk outside Balducci's... she hadn't landed a single illustration assignment yet and seemed a bit discouraged. In a few years I'd be seeing her incredible, unnervingly beautiful pastel draftsmanship on the cover of Time magazine.
I loved Walter and Niiad Einsel's class too. They were so calm and focused and seemed to impart wisdom almost by osmosis. Good design... basic aesthetics... the history of illustration. They really were a great team of artists. I wished I could have stayed on longer.
But after the Holiday break, my career as a ‘freelancer’ began in earnest. Underscore ‘earnest’ what with all of $275 in the bank account... make that extreme earnestness.
The decision to drop out of school was fairly obvious. I was terrified of running up a huge student loan debt. I wasn't really feeling like I was learning as much in school as I was from New York City. I was desperate to start making the rounds of publishers and actually start working. I hardly had to think twice about my choice. Also, my Mimi (a.k.a. Ann) had moved out to join me in my little 'La Boehm' room on West 78th street. We'd met in Seattle, and I guess true love can't be denied. She flew out at Christmas and together it turned out to be the start of a great adventure... since I'm still married to her. Looking back, no doubt it was the most exciting time of my life.
But on to work. What with $275 in the bank I really needed some work. This was it... Do or Die.
I still remember the first time I ever made a cold call to a publisher, trying to get a portfolio review. I was at a pay phone in the basement of the Museum of Natural History... and I was calling Workman publishers (who I still haven’t ever worked for to this day). My voice was trembling as I got through to the art director and lied, saying “I’m a freelance illustrator and I wonder if I could drop by and show my portfolio”. I guess it’s the lying part I remember so well. And the response was a total ‘No, we have no interest in seeing you at all..’ A total cold shoulder. But I had pockets full of dimes and just kept on calling.
I must have made the rounds to no more than 5 or 6 places before I landed my first job... doing an educational spot drawing for Macmillian. It was just $75... but it was money for making art... not pushing a broom. It was the first time I'd ever been paid for artwork. It was so invigorating to just be out and about in midtown Manhattan, meeting real art directors in real publishing houses. The energy of the streets, I think they refer to it. It was fun and easy and what I'd come to New York to do.
What did I have to lose? Not much... there was always Plan B - taking the bus back to Seattle. But I didn't want Plan B.
And so our tiny tale of hopeful striving rambles on... with our petite protagonist settling into his new life in the big city. Having dared to dream, he discovers that the world quickly becomes his oyster.
It was fun exploring my new neighborhood. There was the one grocery store where nobody spoke english... not even the checkout clerks. Somehow we managed. Then at the other grocery store, you’d be greeted by ‘Howie’ the manager... a real mustachioed character along the lines of Don Ameche. Howie really loved to sing. You’d walk in and he’d be crooning... “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie... That’s Amore!”. They don't sing like that in Seattle.
Outside, the neighbor kids would be break dancing to boom box music on flattened cardboard boxes on the sidewalk. They'd wait for the next delivery job to take groceries to some apartment on their special 3 wheeled delivery bikes.
There was 'The World Famous Pizza Joint’ on Broadway with live video coverage of ‘The World Famous Burger Joint’ just two stores down. There was the Apthorp Laundry and Zabars Delicatessen.... where one soon learned better than to just ask for 'cheddar cheese?' They had about 7,000 to choose from. I haven't seen a real deli anywhere west of the Hudson since.
And of course I needed to furnish my new lodging. In Manhattan, I discovered, this is as easy as picking through the piles of garbage on the street outside. You would not believe what people throw away in NYC. Probably within 2 days I had most everything I'd need. A desk, a swivel lamp, table and chair. And to keep the roaches out of my soap and toothpaste, I found a birdcage, which I hung from the ceiling. I'd keep my soap, toothpaste and the silverware inside. I strung christmas lights on the wall for a soft evening glow of illumination. So there you have it... La Boehm... right on West 78th Street. Everything but Mimi, of course... but she was to arrive later.
On to Art School
Art school was way down in Greenwich Village. It was a 15 minute ride in the subway or a 40 minute ride on the bus. I really liked taking the bus more because I got to see so much of New York City. I remember feeling totally happy one morning riding the bus down to school... as if it were a feeling I'd never felt before. The bus went past the FlatIron Building... past the Christmas Store... a crisp bright fall morning in New York city and it was wonderful to just feel almost like a different person. I had an apartment and a job at the Parsons School of Design. I had a whole new exciting life... my old and miserable life had been replaced almost by magic. And I liked the new one better. It was exciting.. it smelled an exotic, intriguing, edgy, big time smell... no telling what was ahead. Life was good.
At Parsons I got a job in the school tour office. It was the funniest little office. To get there you walked through a gallery space and then up a funny spiral staircase made of cast iron and looking very old fashioned.
Classes were okay I guess. Mostly just life drawing. It was all just learning all the art basics about colors and values and all that stuff. Drawing from the nude. You know how it is with art teachers. One teacher would teach all the students to paint just like her. She had us all buy the exact same brush she used... the same paper... the same palette. She had us hold the brush exactly like she did and move it just like her.
Another teacher would be busy torturing the models with absurd poses... and torturing the students with absurd commands. Some of the teachers were just great... and realized that we don't all have to paint just like they do. I had one class from Norman Rockwell's cousin... David, or Peter or something. He was a wonderful old gent in a sporty cap who'd tell great stories about the old days.
One morning I had the oddest experience. Walking onto the school elevator there was a girl I'd sat next to in my college german class for a whole year... 2000 miles away!
"Margaret! What are you doing in New York?", I asked, incredulous.
"Modeling for life drawing!", she smiled, "And trying to get into a broadway show".
We chatted a bit... but never did get together. New York never seems to allow anyone time to just hang out. Good thing I met her in the elevator. I imagine if she'd just walked into one of my life drawing classes out of the blue and dropped her robe, THAT might have been just too much! I always had kind of a crush on her. Auf Wiedersehen, Margaret... I guess she was chasing a dream too.
I’d have to say mostly the classes weren’t very interesting and there was a real undercurrent of discontent among many of the students about getting out into New York and seeing publishers and finding work as illustrators. I guess it was around that time that I found out you really didn’t need a diploma to become a freelance illustrator... all you needed was a portfolio and talent. And I already had those. This was a very happy discovery for me. As always, I was in a hurry... I'd already been to college.
After about 5 weeks of becoming more disenchanted with the school, I went in to show my portfolio to Murray Tinkleman, the dean of the Illustration department. That experience turned things around for me 180 degrees. Murray just luved my work and immediately put me into Maurice Sendak’s children's book class which was mostly for 4th year seniors. He also switched me into some other more interesting classes.... with Walter and Niad Einsel. Both those classes were worlds better, and exactly what I'd hoped to find in a New York art school.
To be continued... when our ambling artist wannabe meets 2 Caldecott winners and strikes out on his own.
Our bumbling saga continues as our spanking new Knickerbocker finds his way around town... full of pep, vim & vigor.
Next problem... where the heck was I going to live? After about two days I started feeling way too at home in the Vanderbilt YMCA, except for the bedbugs. I could have stayed on for weeks actually... like in the old movies, when characters live in hotels. There's something about having a desk clerk, lounge, cafe and elevator that kind of gets to you.
The next few days I adopted a new schedule of looking around all the far flung boroughs of New York City. Being too clever by half, I figured I'd live out in some unpopular borough, and save on rent. I took the train over to Hoboken one hot sticky morning... summery sticky sidewalks and a mist of humidity in the air. I remembered the Frank Sinatra song about Hoboken. I must have heard something about Hoboken being nice... and it was surprisingly quaint. Old fashioned iron fences surrounding old parks and boulevards. Brownstones lined up and still keeping their diginity from the last century. But... Hoboken wasn’t for me.
I thought I’d outsmart the commute one day and locate on Staten Island! Brilliant! I figured it would be almost like riding the ferryboat across Puget Sound from Seattle to Bainbridge... only not quite as pristine. I remember taking the ferry to Staten Island (the first and last time I ever went there) and then riding the train out to the end of the line in Staten Island. I remember walking down the tracks... way the hell out in the middle of nowhere... feeling totally lost and impossibly too far away. Dumb idea I thought to myself. So I got right back to Manhattan. This wouldn’t be the last time I moved away in error... and came back to New York. I did that twice.
A few more days went by... I was getting used to NYC but starting to worry about finding a place. Then one bright day I picked up a Village Voice and looked through the want ads. There was a room listed on West 78th Street. I hadn’t even been to the West Side before... so of course I went. I think I might have walked all the way there, and the more I walked the better it looked. I remember walking up Central Park West and going past the Dakota... though I didn’t know it was the Dakota then. The streets were quaint and charming and totally New York. I loved it.
At the apartment, Maury, the ‘super’ showed me around. It was a classic Upper West Side brownstone. Maury was a delightfully crusty old bolshevik, with an accent as thick as garlic bread. He dressed in about 3 old tattered colorless coats. I’d later discover that’s what he always wore... winter and summer. He could have been a screen double for Charles Laughton... only tattered.
I loved my little room at first sight. A little sunlit room facing south on the second floor of a walk up brownstone. It was a really narrow room... you could almost reach out and touch the walls on each side, but it had a VERY high ceiling and it was quite long. A long narrow tall room with a window... a subdivided room actually.
Maury had one of those accents like onion soup... heavy, flavored, almost impossible to know what he was saying... but I liked him right off. He was my kind of bolshevik. I don’t think I ever saw him outside of his standard ‘moscow wear’... a heavy dark shapeless winter overcoat with a matching hat. He even wore the three overcoats to the Met, where I ran into him one day. "Paintings! You like paintings? Look around! Beauty!", he said. You just don’t meet guys like that in Seattle or Salt Lake. So I signed on... $35 a week... dirt cheap. It had a little refrigerator and a stove and a squeaky spring mattress and the shared bathroom was down the hall. Roaches, no extra charge.
I had an address now... 161 West 78th Street. I loved my new room... roaches and all. If you leaned out the window you could just see the Museum of Natural History at the end of the street. It was like living in one of those great New York Jack Lemmon movies or something. It was a life I could never have imagined. Plane trees and fancy iron railings all along the street... a great place. Just one week earlier I’d been in Seattle... 3 days ago in Denver. Now I had my own place for a whole new life. Wow! My life seemed suddenly so very much more exciting. I’ll always be grateful to the Village Voice for listing a place like that. Just like always... when things seem impossible and there are no good choices... suddenly the BEST possible choice pops up at an affordable price out of nowhere. Life does things like that sometimes... but I guess you have to pay the price of waiting through all the other stuff first.
10 years later I was happy to see that Seinfeld's TV apartment was located on W 81st. St... just a couple blocks away.
To be continued... until your socks get bored right off!
And so continues our homespun tale of New York's newly minted immigrant... stumbling after his dreams. Having arrived in the big city with his duffel bag stuffed with illusions, ignorance, innocence and pluck.... along with hopes & dreams and socks.
Sunday morning, 10 am, Fifth Avenue & 10th Street, Manhattan. I finally arrived at the doors of the fabled Parsons School of Design. It was a place I’d dreamed about for 2 years, ever since getting a partial scholarship. Of course the doors were locked.
For about 4 years I’d been dedicated to becoming an illustrator. I'd been inspired by my late Uncle Ed. He had been an illustrator who worked outside of Philadephia and done very well with lots of advertising work and Little Golden Books. I remember being thrilled as a child to see his name in the artist credits printed in a book. Such fame!
But back to my narrative, I have to say I was disappointed at the sight of the Parsons School of Design. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was probably more than a beat up aluminum frame doorway in an ordinary building off 5th Avenue with just a skimpy name overhead. Later I found out that Margaret Wise Brown had her first apartment in New York City just a few blocks over from Parsons. But I didn’t know that then. She probably used to have breakfast and dinner in the same restaurant that I liked to hang out in around the corner on 5th Avenue.
Ah well, life never fits dreams all that well. I was tired and hungover from 3 days on the bus and I needed a shower. I figured I could pass for a student, so I hunted down the Parsons School of Design dormitory that I’d read about, 2 blocks away. I remember on my way there I passed an amazing carved wooden embelishment on a building that struck me at once as something I'd already seen in a strange dream that I’d recently had. I took it as a good sign that I was on the right track.
Anyhow, my first and last trip to the Parsons dormitory. I took a long hot shower and felt much better. Next item... find a place to stay the night. I didn’t know anyone... school wasn’t open yet, there was no one around. I suppose I’d planned on trying the YMCA... and looking it up in the phone book, it was just a bus ride uptown to the 48th street Y near the United Nations. It all worked out as planned. By Noon I was in my room at the YMCA and ready for whatever lay ahead. I came to feel right at home. Since it was right near the UN there were all sorts of exotic people staying there... never a boring minute, like so much of the rest of New York.
So... room keys in hand, duffel bag stowed... I set out to savor a little NYC culture. First stop the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I don’t know why I chose to go there first... but I sure as heck didn’t regret it. After living in the boonies out West for the last 10 years it was like getting slammed with a 2 x 4 of culture upside the head. I drifted in astonished wonder through the galleries... feasting on culture. I felt like I was a millionaire in those huge quiet granite rooms with skylights and perfect illumination on the paintings. I loved every minute of looking at original oils by Cezanne, Van Gogh, David, Tiepolo, Rubens, Rembrandt... it all reminded me of when I lived in Washington DC, where I went to high school, and the splendors of the world class museums there, that I’d visit every weekend.
Somehow the perfection of the artwork gave me a sense of triumph in my plans. I had radically changed my life. I had gambled and done the right thing. I remember thinking it had been quite a day... beginning with the exhausted squalor of the Greyhound out of Chicago to the Port Authority Bus Terminal to Greenwich Village to the midtown YMCA... and there I was at 3 pm soaking in the renaissance paintings of Vermeer in the perfect lighting and quiet of culture at the Met.
Ah, New York... the city of True Egalitarianism. What a town! If you only live once, might as well have a time of it. That’s sort of what inspired my whole adventure actually... but more of that later.
The days that followed were fun and alive. New York doesn’t let you dwell within too much. You can’t stay bogged down with your own personal problems when there’s all that noise and commotion around you... when you’re amazed every minute at something new and outrageous.
I took right to it all... the noise, the bustle, the craziness. I remember walking by banks that had been bombed and had police tape around them... everyone just keeps moving like nothing had happened. Just being on the streets was a show... an entertainment. Just getting through the day an accomplishment.
Since my blogger's mind seems to have skipped a track - emptied out by the 95+ degree heat wave we've had here, I thought I might take a look back... and put up kind of memoir to fill the time over the next little while. It's the story of my move to NYC to become a children's book artist. The pictures are from my first portfolio that I took to New York.
Arrival in Gotham
The skyline appeared in the dim light of early dawn... must have been 4 or 5 in the morning.. there is was at last, we’d arrived. New York City! Skyscrapers bit into the skyline from one end of the horizon to the other. Immense, gigantic, huge... I’d think you run out of words to try and describe the view of New York from Weehawken or Parassamus or wherever the hell the bus was from across the river. But I was there at last... Manhattan. After sitting on the bus for what seemed like 3 days all the way from Denver I had finally arrived!
It was all so exciting... holding my breath as the bus ducked under the Hudson, through the first of many dark subterannean New York City tunnels filled with grime and ancient tiled walls. They all had famous names and bundles of electric cables and ventilation shafts and everything was covered with grime and dirt and beatup and crazy. All the way down the Hudson... all the way from Denver I’d been reading a book about New York City. It was a children’s book from the 1950’s with descriptive articles and hand drawn pictures of all the city’s sights. That’s what I was here for anyhow... to become a real artist. A children’s book artist more specifically.
My luggage consisted of one army surplus duffel bag filled with all my earthly posessions. Weighed about 45 pounds. I had $800 that I’d saved up working in Seattle. I was going to the Parsons School of Design on 10th street and 5th Avenue... right down in Greenwich Village. And it was all scary and exciting as hell.
There’s no describing the smells of underground New York. It’s a mixture of fumes, electricity, oily machinery toiling in the dark, urine and whatnot. The bus driver leaned out his window and yelled something about a garbage strike going on... and I noticed there were mountains of garbage stacked up everywhere. This is it.. the big time.
Hitting the streets, I basically didn’t know anything about NYC. I’d visted New York about 10 years earlier when I was in high school... but that was just a two day visit to Forest Park. This was something entirely different.
It was 6 am on one of those soaking humid late August mornings. First impressions are strong... and my first sight in the early morning dusk was of the trashed out empty streets outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Empty except for a lineup of transvesties all dressed up as glitzy women leaning against an alleyway. ‘Weird!’ I thought to myself and hurried on my way out of there. I remember one black dude in particular with an elegant woman’s hat on, a purple blue feather and matching dress... smoking a cigarette and blowing violet smoke into the thick damp air.
Other first impressions... giant 3 foot potholes oozing toxic bizarre unknown liquids. Could it be milk? Some sort of resin? It looked like milk, but that was all I could guess. Busted down everything.... signs busted down and coated with that special NYC grime... busted air vents, busted street lights, busted windows, busted everything. But the main impression was one of being towered over by the city... like a little scurrying bug where most everything was way up above me as I made my way through the streets below.
So... there go I, with my duffel bag over my shoulders on a hot August morning... arrived in New York. I walked. Walking was probably the ‘flight’ part of the ‘fight or flight’ panic thing. I walked and walked and walked... all the way over to 5th avenue and then all the way down to 10th street. Looking at the map I guess it’s about 3 miles or so... seemed like a long walk. But it didn’t occur to me to take a bus or subway.
Once again a happy book day dawns - a day with a new books in the mail.
This charming picturebook was the story of 'Stella... Almost', written by Willy Blevins with pictures by me - a tale of a sad little fox who needed some cheering up - all accomplished with grandfather fox's wise counsel.
From the good folks at Red Chair Press. And of course if you scroll back through this blog you can see all the rough sketches from the very beginning - from a year ago.