The 80’s: Making a Living on the Road
For several posts, I tell my story of exploring in the land of Art.
Chapter 1: Turtle Journeys in California
It was still possible to get away with living in a VW bus. My “Tortuga,” or turtle had a large fiberglass hump. Inside, a celestial menagerie swung from her walls. The sun, moon, and star were remnants of a short-lived puppet show. At night, their spangles danced by candlelight. Some evenings, I’d venture out to a cafe and draw to live music. My favorite place was Kalisa’s on Cannery Row. Infamous during the Steinbeck era, an aura of the risque still lingered. Glass chandeliers lit up the orange walls. Enchantment enveloped the sardine packed rooms. An array of characters came to listen to the jazz and folk music. They cavorted with neighboring tables. One evening, a spritely older woman started up a conversation and ended with her card, “Madame Burratinni, puppeteer.” In her early life, Pearl had been a ballerina. After an injury, she taught several kinds of dance and sculpted figures. When she became a friend and mentor, she revealed her passion for reading about the lives of saints. Sometimes I assisted with her puppet show, St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio.”
Meandering up and down the coast between Berkeley and Big Sur, I drew mostly people and designed an occasional menu. More interested in honing my skills than making a living, this lifestyle didn’t require much money. I needed a long cool breath after the turbulence of Berkeley. I was also wearied of waiting tables. The ocean beckoned. The waves soothed. Falling into a timeless rhythm, my enthusiasm recharged.
I enjoyed my solitude and also reveled in chance encounters. One day, while sitting on the pier at Pillar Point Harbor, an elderly man looked over my shoulder and saw the fishing boat on my sketchpad. Charlie had a strong build and a down home manner. After a while, he asked if I would make a drawing of his friend’s boat. Later, he asked for another boat. By then we were friends and he’d told me some of his story. What stuck was that before his wife died, they would dance every evening after dinner.
Charlie’s blue eyes brightened when he gave me the 3rd assignment. A secret mission involving collaboration. His friend Jim owned a grocery store. Charlie wanted me to draw a picture of him at work without Jim knowing. We drove there independently. I scoped out the best aisle, propped my sketchbook on the bread shelf and began.
Charlie leaned on the meat counter and started talking with Jim. Sketching rapidly, I was careful to avoid eye contact. But Jim was not oblivious to my presence. After a while, he asked Charlie to go chat me up. We quickly contrived an idea. I was writing down prices. After reporting back, Jim looked frazzled. A few days later, Charlie gave him the drawing for his birthday. Now he could stop worrying about the tax department.
Rules of the road:
- Don’t park in the same place two nights in a row.
- Try to park in front of an empty lot in a lower middle-class neighborhood.
- Get everything ready for bed in one place and go sleep in a different place. No lights on.
- Leave early in the morning.
- Take showers at a college. California is blessed with many community colleges.
- DON’T go using a friend’s shower when its offered.
I felt good about my independent lifestyle and didn’t want to feel like a mooch. But the final rule was to break a rule if it felt right.
During the early years, I sometimes ventured into a bar. Preferably one with snacks at happy hour. A bar was the easiest place to make a little money. But drinking alcohol and drawing didn’t mix well. A bottle of fizzy water was best. After drawing for a while, I’d check out the bartender’s reaction. He never seemed to mind. Why should he? I never hit on anyone. Scanning the room for a man with an interesting face, I’d start out with a pencil and then pick out the key lines in ink. I rarely drew women’s faces. One wrong line and she’d look too harsh or too old. Pen and ink was challenging and a portrait took at least 15 minutes. They never sat still like the models in a figure drawing class. Often my subject was unaware or uninterested and left without looking. If he came over to see the drawing and wanted to buy it, the price was negotiable. If I’d exaggerated one of his features, I might say that it was a portrait caricature, a style popular during the 19th century. Most of the time, satire wasn’t my intention.
Occasionally I’d frequent a bar that was owned by Clint Eastwood. I wasn’t hoping to meet him. But in the back of my mind, that possibility was exciting. One evening, his tall frame filled the doorway. His piercing eyes met mine in a showdown. I couldn’t handle it, quickly left and then regretted it.
An inspiring home environment was important to me. Probing the second-hand stores, I found something special to replace the sheet hung between the front and back seats at night. I took the skirt apart. In horizontal bands, the top tier was green satin and the bottom, red felt. Large sequined butterflies sparkled everywhere except in one area. There, also emblazoned in sequins, an eagle stood on a cactus holding a snake. I remembered that image from an Aztec legend. It had predicted the spot where they would eventually settle down. I found this relic in Pacific Grove, a stopover town on the path of the Monarch Butterfly. Now Tortuga’s interior would shine even more brightly!
One evening at a lounge bar on Lover’s Point, a woman with a haunting voice was singing. Under her spell, I drew an image without looking at her. It was a woman/singing/tree.
I teamed up briefly with a man who gambled. He was good at poker and needed to raise funds for his documentaries. George’s dark, penetrating eyes and large mustache probably helped his game. He’d play cards in the back room while I drew portraits at the bar. One time, I sat in the poker room and drew everyone around the table. In the one empty seat, I put a skeleton. We only worked in tandem a few times. During the last episode, George had a big winning streak. We celebrated by going to the beach. As we ran down the hill, all of his money blew out to sea.
During my travels, I only met a few people living in their vans. One was a guy in Big Sur. We were both enjoying the sunset. The view included a succession of rocky cliffs fading into the mist. An iconic picture of Big Sur. The terrace of the Phoenix restaurant was also where my favorite sculpture stood- a phoenix made of driftwood. He was an attractive man and a painter. Since I showed interest, he went to his van and brought back a small, realistic painting. It showed a long highway with a truck going off into the distance. The viewer was seeing it as if she was lying on the ground. In the foreground was a dead squirrel. He said that his only subject was roadkill.
One year I signed up for an acting class at Monterey Peninsula College. A dream in the 70’s had been to become a puppeteer. I’d tried it out but we’d only performed a few shows before the troupe fell apart. I had lingering doubts about my acting ability. Even as a puppet. In any case, this was an opportunity to stretch my New England reserve. The improv segment was a disaster. I was a walking block of ice. After that, we each chose a monologue to perform. I played Joan of Arc facing the Inquisition. She insisted that she’d never wanted to lead the French army. That it was St. Michael’s idea. To prove this, Joan re-enacted a scene of her younger self pleading with St. Michael to go find someone else. A knight perhaps. I’d played this role before at age twelve in a school play. Practicing the lines over and over, it felt like the “shoulds” in my psyche were dissolving. A blessed exorcism.