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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.