Being an artist living through rough economic times is an odd place to find one’s self. Artists simultaneous occupy the pit and pinnacle of the social pecking order. Great pillared halls world ’round have been erected to house artworks created by people who’ve died in poverty or chopped-off a spare ear in anguish and despair. Personally I have no appetite for starvation or self-mutilation – who in their right mind does? But getting by on-a-dime goes with the territory. The only reason I’m not a “starving” artist is because poor people’s food is fattening. Otherwise I’d have wasted away to nothing ages ago. Basic needs are relative to how each individual feels toward their own criteria for creature-comforts. Artists are obstinate – and anyone who’s survived a length of time supporting themselves as an artist doesn’t have the luxury of costly indulgence – only the appearance and trappings of it. All artist have a certain personal style – but I don’t ask for much from life aside from the privilege of living indoors, producing my art and having food in my belly with my dog by my side. Winnie often shares my meals.
It’s not easy these days trying to live within your means in a world where the survival-bar is continually raised unfairly. Everyone secretly wants to be rich or at least more comfortable. I’d be a hypocrite if I said I disliked the rich – I don’t – in fact some of the wealthy I know are among the finest people I’ve met. It’s the greedy I despise – the people who hoard money without realizing they’re no better than cat-hoarders. You know who I’m talking about – the people who take without giving back. Having a wealthy class is necessary – what’s not necessary is the growing disparity between the two social extremes demonstrated by the disappearance of the American middle class. The middle class (may we remind the monetary hoarder) serve as the buffer-zone between the aristocracy and the guillotine. History bears me out.
The other morning I took Winnie for her AM walk to Washington Square Park as I’ve done so for close to 30 years over the life-span of 4 different dogs. I make this sleepy hermitage to clean-up after my animals in the historic, pristine park caddy-corner to Independence Hall. I usually look a ‘fright’ during early morning dog walks. All day long I work with messy art-supplies, so I try to keep what few good clothes I have neat and clean. I wear ruined cut-offs and Jackson Pollock-spattered T-shirts when I paint or merely bang around the house. Most mornings I throw-on my sloppy paint clothes to avoid leaving the house naked – purely for the purpose of walking the dog before showering and deciding what to wear for the day. I left the house one morning last week, looking totally groady, smeared with a spectrum of pigments and my hair sticking-up like I’d slept on the floor. When I wear this ensemble around town, suburbanite motorists lock their car doors and roll-up the windows. It makes me chuckle every time.
When I take Winnie through Washington Square Park, I’m acutely conscious of the importance that historic site holds as a Revolutionary War battlefield and cemetery. In Philadelphia, it’s considered sacred ground under which 3500 dead are buried, including run-away slaves, John Doe’s, yellow fever victims, farm animals and Revolutionary War soldiers. Patriots are buried standing-up and Hessian mercenaries are buried with their heads pointing-down toward toward the devil.
Here I was enjoying our morning constitutional to to Washington Square Park looking like hell and dragging a bag of dog-poop, when my cell-phone alerted me of an incoming text. I stopped and sat on one of the park benches to read the text in the shade. You know how LCD screens are impossible to see in bright, glaring light… Out of nowhere, the buckram-hatted National Park guards descended on me en-force. “Move it along fella – Move it along,” interrupting me from reading my text. “All the homeless have to leave the park before the tourists arrive” a ranger barked at me puffed-up by his own authority. All I could do was glare at him… I’d just been been damned, pigeonholed and condemned based entirely on my appearance. I continued to sit there stunned and slack-jawed. All the homeless have cellphones, and some have dogs too, so I was in no way immune to being marginalized at first sight.
I don’t know what made me stammer out the following comment, but I said, “I’m an accomplished artist.” To which the park guard said, “Sure you are fella, sure you are – now move it along…”
Sheepishly I moved “it” along.
“It” didn’t matter that I’ve had art published in Architectural Digest, a profile in the New York Times Home Section – nor how I’d been featured on the TODAY Show and profiled on HGTV. I’ve published an illustrated children’s book and I have art in notable collections and some lessor museums. But in the eyes of the over-grown ‘high-school-hall-monitors’ who’d landed cushy Federal Park Service jobs, Winnie and I were no better than the other unfortunates struggling for shelter and food while 2% of the nation blithely buy $15,000 pairs of shoes by the dozen. I was mistaken for one of the growing cast of sorrowful characters who grovel through trashcans looking for something they can choke-back for breakfast. Truth to tell, some of them don’t seem so different from me, and many appear to be very new to their circumstances. I don’t feel better than them – only luckier – at least for the moment…
I walked home, showered-off my embarrassment and reassured myself it’s really the Wall Street’s shame and embarrassment, not mine. It’s the legacy of moguls too selfish or obtuse to grasp the full significance of how their greed has brought about the diminished state of our nation. When people live insulated and exposed only to others who’re as comfortable as themselves, they loose focus about the world of struggle all around them. Perhaps they don’t care so long as they’ve got theirs and a way to steal mine – there’s no economic downturn… What economic downturn…? The greedy don’t notice anything out of place. Nor did Doctor Joseph Ignace Guillotin when he invented the device that bears his name and by which he later perished.
I think I’ll fix myself a cocktail and join Duck at the Betty Page Clinic searching for a cure for sobriety. Apparently some of us are put on earth to be poor.