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Take What You Like

There’s this painter that lives in an old bungalow on a narrow side street by Lake Ronkonkoma who hangs his paintings on his porch. He’s got a sign out there that says, “TAKE WHAT YOU LIKE, LEAVE WHAT YOU DON’T.” The paintings go at about the same rate that he paints new ones.

I stroll by his place about once a week on my early morning walks to see what new work he’s come up with. He paints several new pieces a week, using all different styles and mediums: Impressionism, Realism, Pop-Art, Surrealism, oil, watercolor, acrylics, pastels…. Sometimes he mixes-and-matches styles in the same painting. You’re never sure what to expect. But whatever he paints, you somehow know it’s his work. Or I do. Or think I do. It’s hard for me to explain because I don’t know much about painting or art styles and periods. But I like the way he sees things and paints them.

Once in a while I see him out on his porch painting or drinking a beer and smoking a cigar and stop to chat with him. He told me he works overnights as a custodian in an elementary school, gets off at four in the morning, and often drives to different places on the Island, sets up his easel, and paints. He says he likes the shifting light in the early morning and how the damp Long Island air affects it, especially by the water. “Things look different in different kinds of light,” he says. Sometimes he takes a sketch pad to bars and draws people, then takes the sketch home and creates a painting from what he’s drawn and remembers and can invent. “You can’t beat a good bar for atmosphere,” he says. He also likes to paint what he calls “misfit pictures” – things he sees that don’t fit together. Like Black Friday Christmas shoppers at an outlet. “I used pastels and spray paint for that one.” I’ve seen paintings on his porch of bingo hall disputes, bored cashiers slouching beneath bright supermarket signs, blowfish grandstanding at PTA meetings, and one that he did in several parts of a garbage man who picks up a big trash bag on collection day, pirouettes as he flings it across the street into the truck’s compactor, then does a leaping 180 onto the back of the truck. The painter says he is drawn to everyday contradictions and incongruences because they are surprising. “And how much surprise do people get in their lives?” he says.

I asked him about giving away his paintings for free. “I don’t know who would buy ‘em,” he said. “And what am I gonna do with ‘em? Put ‘em in a shed somewhere? It’s better that people take the pictures and hang ‘em up. This way other people can see ‘em, too.” I asked him if he had ever contacted art dealers to see if they’d be interested in selling his paintings. “Yeah, when I was just out of school. It was a hassle. I have no head for business. I mean, if somebody wanted to make me rich and famous, I’d take it. But what are the chances? I just like to paint. So that’s what I do. I feel good when I paint.” I asked him who takes the paintings. “I don’t know,” he said. “People usually take them when I’m not around. But if the pictures are gone, it means somebody must’ve liked them. So I keep painting them.” I asked him about his job. “It’s easy,” he said, “mop a few floors, empty some trash cans, take a nap. They don’t care if I sleep during my shift as long as I do what I gotta do. And the hours work for me. Because I like to paint in the mornings.” He paused. “And also,” he said, “I like to see the new drawings and paintings by the kids. They hang ‘em up in the hallways and in the classrooms. Always something new, original. I like the way the kids see things and express themselves without thinking too much about it or knowing what they’re doing…. Their paintings are honest…real…raw, I guess…but funny, too. The kids’ paintings give me ideas for my own paintings. I find them…you know…inspiring….”

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Eventide

On the ferry from Nova Scotia to Maine, you view a 360-degree horizon for the first time in your life. It’s been nothing but sea, sky, and clear, cloudless sailing since early morning. But at dusk, the top deck — which you have spent the entire ride on — is suddenly overrun by passengers. They are pointing cameras and gawking at the sunset. They maneuver and jostle and click and chortle and cluck and shoot all along the ship’s rail. As soon as the sun sinks out of …camera range, they rush back down to the slot machines and cafeteria and bar.

Then the top deck is yours again. You bask in the spreading afterglow of sunset.

Then, off the ship’s starboard side, on the far horizon, you see something begin to smolder.

Then glow. And emerge.

A full moon. Stoked and slow-burning, rising up from the ocean into the deep blue layers of evening.

That face.

You look at each other for quite a good, long while.

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Shrug and Reason

When God gave humans the ability to reason, He also gave them the ability to shrug. And it’s a good thing. Because when reason fails, shrugging sure beats banging your head against a brickwall dead-end. Over and over again. Or settling disputes with sticks, stones, sling-shots, and six-shooters. According to those-in-the-know, we’re in an evolutionary race for survival, and in this contest first prize does not go to the strong, swift, or self-assured, but to …the most adaptable. So in order to survive, you’ve got to adapt, and in order to adapt, you’ve got to learn to live with some things. Reason will only take you so far when dealing with others or wrestling with yourself — or when trying to understand the many discrepancies in life, like photosynthesis and the food chain, the Venus flytrap and the flight of the bumblebee, free will and compulsory Algebra, The Big Bang and The Great Beyond. And that’s the reason God gave us the shrug. And, hopefully, sense enough to know when to use it.

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Lakefront Real Estate

There is a one-story apartment building on Portion Road that is set right next to the shore of Lake Ronkonkoma. It looks like an old, 1950s motel: a dozen rooms, flat roof, rectangular in shape, built with cinderblocks, with a faded brick facing for show. The structure is about 10-feet high. I’ve passed the place hundreds of times, but never knew what it was. But now I saw it had a name. And a sign. “Lake Towers,” the sign said.

I drove another 100 yards… and saw that the little trailer park next to the Lake was empty. A part of local history was gone and I hadn’t heard anything about it. I wanted some answers, so I turned my car around and stopped in at Parsnips, the bar between the one-story Lake Towers and the place where the trailer park used to be. I went inside, ordered a beer, and asked the bartender what had happened to the trailer park.

He said the town moved the last of the occupants out a little while ago. I asked what the town planned to do with the empty lot. The bartender said the town was planning to build a walkway around the lake; they just had to get a few more structures out of the way. I asked him about Lake Towers next door. He said it was built in the 50s or 60s as “affordable housing.” Then he said a few more things about the place and its occupants, none of them complimentary.

I finished my beer and went out to have a look at Lake Towers next door. The rooms faced noisy Portion Road instead of the lake. And the back of the building had no doors and only bathroom windows. Poor planning, I thought. There was some overgrown grass between the building and the fence that separated the property from the lake, but no patio or patio furniture back there to enjoy the view.
I got in my car and drove away. I thought about it some. I’ve lived in this area for 30 years, I thought, and I’ve never heard anything derogatory about the occupants of Lake Towers. In fact, I’ve never heard anything about the place. I’ve never heard anything about any walkway being built around the lake, either. If the town really wanted to build a walkway, I’m guessing they would have found a way to do it by now. Even if there are a few holdouts along the lake, the town could easily detour the walkway around them. I mean, we’re not talking about building the Golden Gate Bridge here.

I hope Lake Towers stays, I thought. Why should rich people be the only ones to live on exclusive waterfront property? Some rich people don’t appreciate the view from their properties any more than the occupants of Lake Towers seem to. Low-rent people should have the choice not to appreciate what they have just as much as rich landowners do. At least once in a while. You know, to even things out a bit. It seems only democratic. Sure, it might be a cockeyed view of democracy, but a cockeyed view is better than no view–and it’s free.

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Makeshift Repair

You stand on your side
of the fracture;
I stand on mine.

We both
look down
at the cracked
gap
between us
and silently
put together
our options.

We can
each
choose to
limp away
and let
the fracture
try to
fix itself.

But if we do,
There could be
nerve damage,
leaving us
with
deadened feeling
and a lost
sense of touch.

There’s also
the possibility
of
infection,
which,
if left untreated,
could
result in
amputation.

Then again,
one of us
might
decide to
toss a line
across
the divide
and tell
the other
to give
tightrope-walking
a try.

And be told
in return
to take
their lifeline
back
and
give auto asphyxiation
a try,
someone said it’s a lot of fun.

But,
as I’m sure
you know,
both
rope routines
are a tad too
dramatic,
particularly
because
there’s no
audience
for us
to captivate
with such
daring stunts.

It’s just
us two
here,
now.

So whaddya say
we avoid
all that,
go the
practical route,
and patch things up
with a roll of
duct tape?

Duct tape
is at least
as strong
as any cast—
in fact,
duct tape
is the thing
most often used
to repair
casts.

We’ll rig-up
a makeshift splint
to bind together
the break
between us,
and we’ll be
building
a temporary
bridge
at the same time.

Then we can
cross the chasm
and get together
to determine
what we want
to do about
“our problem.”

After
we finish
congratulating
ourselves,
of course,
on completing
our hybrid
splint/bridge,
courtesy of
duct tape.

You know,
I think
our
performing
an engineering
feat
so ridiculous,
yet at the same time,
so practical,
is going to be
one for the books,
don’t you?

Ridiculous,
yet practical…

You don’t see
the two concepts
team up that often.

Something this big
is going to call for
a toast.

Maybe
multiple toasts.

So let’s
rig this thing
together,
and then
get going on
our
way.

Whaddya say?

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The End of a Promising Career

It was his first day at his new job and he was nervous. He was walking through the city streets on his way to the offices of People magazine. He had been hired to write fluff pieces about celebrities. No more beating the bricks, chasing ambulances, creating false innuendo, or purposely misquoting people for him. These Hollywood types had nothing to say, so he just had to do the work of a stenographer. He could think of something else altogether while he was typing if he liked. And he would be making a bundle. It was his dream job. But on his way to work, his appendix burst and he fell into the street. Then a newspaper truck ran him over. Then a network news van. And that was that.