I don’t really know where to begin this story, so I guess I’ll start at the
bottom and work my way up. The bottom is a good place to start because the
lowest point in my life, the moment I hit rock bottom, is quite a funny
I actually laughed after it happened, realizing I was finally at
the true low point of my dharmic,
drop-out-of-college-to-pursue-an-artistic-life unrestrained free fall. The
realization that I’d finally hit rock bottom triggered an unbelievable sense
of relief. To quote hippie prankster Wavy Gravy: “If you don’t have a sense
of humor, it’s just not funny.”
I was living in Los Angeles. I was down on my luck to say the
least. A series of decisions and incidents had led a bright and hopeful
artist - who had moved to Hollywood full of dreams and aspirations - to
being homeless, pushing my belongings around in a shopping cart.
It would be easy to call the choices I’d made leading up to (or
down to) that point “bad decisions,” but bad is such a polarized, judgmental
word. It’s hard to argue that they were the smartest things to do at the
time, but hindsight is as rare a blessing as the roof over my head.
All I can say for certain is that they were my decisions. It
doesn’t matter what I’d do if I could do them over again, because I can’t do
them over again.
From Buddha to Bukowski, legendary trailblazers of the dharmic
path have long considered every aspect of life to be a learning experience.
Through this philosophy, the humbling experience of surviving the streets,
and the wisdom that came out of that experience, is more than worth the
So there I was, collecting welfare, trying desperately to make
a living selling artwork door to door in Hollywood, and on downtown Los
Angeles sidewalks to busy business people who hurried busily by.
The paintings were not my own, unfortunately, as mine were
stuck in my aunt’s attic 50 miles east. With no safe place to put them in
Hollywood, they would’ve been ruined by the elements of my existence.
Some Israeli guys in the valley have a little shop where they
sell “hand painted” paintings, imported from Asia. The paintings must’ve
been done by slaves or extremely poorly paid painters because the Israelis
sold them to me for $12 each, plus $3 for a cardboard frame. Then I’d take
them out and sell ‘em for sixty, sometimes eighty dollars!
Things were going great until the bottom fell out of the
market. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one selling $12 Picassos for $80.
The Israelis recruited crews, literally organizing vanloads of people to
canvass office buildings door-to-door, floor-to-floor.
I tried that for two days. I went into the offices with J.J.,
a wacky French Canadian I’d met at the hostel I was staying in when I first
moved to Hollywood. He’d buy paintings from the Israelis, and I’d sell some
of them, giving him $40 for each one I sold. He had made quite a bit of
money selling paintings on his own and was trying to branch out to have his
Going into the offices was terrible. We had to sneak past
security carrying big portfolios full of paintings. The key was to get into
the elevator without being spotted, go to the top floor and work our way
down, making it harder for them to find us and kick us out for soliciting.
In the offices everybody’s so busy! They don’t have any time,
and the secretary’s job is to get us the hell out of there. She’s gonna try
it nicely, and then she’s going to get angry... and she’s just doing her
job, but my job was to convince her to let me show paintings to her busy
I hated going into buildings, so I started going into
neighborhoods. I’d knock on doors, and people would answer. Sometimes
they’d say, “Get the hell outta here!” and sometimes they’d say, “Cool, let
me see the paintings.”
My first night working the neighborhoods I sold 4 paintings for
a total of $315. I was working for J.J., and we had a curly-haired,
aspiring DJ named Timo (pronounced tee-moe, he was from Argentina), driving
us around, and we paid him $10 for each painting we sold. So, out of the
$315, J.J. got $160, Timo got $40, and I got $115. Needless to say, I
didn’t work for J.J. for very long. Once I started making money selling, I
just went and bought paintings directly from the Israelis.
There was another door to door salesman living at the hostel.
Sean (from New York City most recently, the Deep South by family origin)
sold candy bars door-to-door. He claimed to come from a rich family, and he
always seemed to have a bottomless ATM card. He also had a tax I.D. number,
so he could get bulk discounts on candy bars. He was selling the candy with
a scam he had supposedly paid someone $2,000 for. As far as scams go, it’s
pretty good. About as ethical as torturing puppies, but effective
nonetheless: he’d go into poor, Hispanic neighborhoods, saying that he was
selling candy bars to support the neighborhood soccer team. He looked lily
white, but he was half Puerto Rican and spoke flawless, fluent Spanish.
He’d knock on a door, and if a kid answered, he’d ask, in English, to speak
to the kid’s parents. The kid would go tell his parents that some gringo
was at the door... and when the parent came to the door, Sean would greet
them in perfect, fluent Spanish, giving them his bullshit shpeal about
raising money for the soccer team. He told me it worked at 80% of the doors
he knocked on.
There was no way I was going to tell such lies to make a few
dollars, and besides, I don’t know much Spanish, so I repeatedly turned down
his offers to come work with him. But the idea of incorporating chocolate
into my own door-to-door routine was brilliant!!
Some people had eighty dollars to spend and needed something to
fill a blank wall: boom, I’d sell them a painting. Others only had a few
bucks, but they wanted to support the arts. They saw I was an artist, and
they wanted to help me, and I was selling Newman’s Own organic chocolate
bars! Delicious, high quality organic chocolate! I’d buy ‘em for 79 cents
and sell them for five dollars (three for ten)!! And people would buy
‘em!! I was surviving on this!!!
My sales pitch had evolved into an honest one: I was an artist
raising money for my website (mindswell.org)
which displays various underground artists for free, yet doesn’t display any
corporate advertising. “No, these aren’t my paintings, if you’d like to see
my paintings, you’ll have to check out my website. These paintings were done
by Chinese artists, I’m selling them to raise money to help support starving
artists like myself... oh, you can’t afford to buy a painting today? Hmm,
well, do you like chocolate??”
It worked pretty well, and occasionally someone would just give
me money!! One guy handed me a twenty-dollar bill and said, “Keep doing
what you’re doing!” It was amazing, I tried to give him candy, but he
didn’t want any. He just wanted me to have twenty dollars!
But I’m telling the story of the low point in my life, so I’d
better get to it. Around the time of the 2000 election debacle, the bottom
fell out of the door-to-door art market in the City of Angels.
Over-saturation and fear of an impending recession dropped the prices of
the paintings dramatically.
All of a sudden, people were offering me twenty dollars for
paintings that had sold a few weeks earlier for eighty. They’d seen me and
the others out there so many times, they knew we were getting desperate,
they knew they had us, saying things like “I’ll give you twenty or
nothing.” There was no way they were going to spend more.
So downtown was out.
Luckily, the neighborhoods were still showing some promise.
Not much, but some. I was working alone, hitting the mansions on the side
streets off Laurel Canyon, the really big houses on the hills. I’d walk up
the hills with a backpack full of candy bars and 15 paintings in a portfolio
under my arm.
I was making enough money to feed myself and keep rent paid in
a weekly motel in the ghetto. Not enough to get ahead, but enough to
I was going down the escalator to the subway when I heard two
voices behind me. Two transvestite, transsexual freakazoids were marveling
at how cute I was.
“Can we see your paintings?”
At the bottom of the escalator I opened up the portfolio and
started showing them paintings. They were ooing and ahhing and cooing and
giggling to each other. Then one of them said, “I’d really like to see
pictures of you.”
I stood there, kind of shocked for a minute, made a comment
about not being that kind of guy, and started to pack up the paintings. I
walked away from the giggling queens to wait for the impending train. When
it came, everyone clamored aboard and I saw they’d gotten on at the other
end of the car and were walking towards me.
They sat down next to me and said it again:
“You’re so cute, we’d really like to see pictures of you.”
Finally I just looked at them and said, “Two hundred dollars.
For two hundred dollars, I’ll let you take pictures of me naked. No
touching, no funky stuff. Just take the pictures and keep them and do
whatever you want with them.” They seemed to be quite happy about this, and
asked for my phone number. “I don’t have a phone,” I told them, “give me
your number.” The more vocal of the two pulled out a pen and a slip of
paper and wrote down a phone number.
They got off at the next stop, leaving me sitting there, in
shock over what had just happened.
I was staying at the Olympic motel in Macarthur Park, a
one-hundred-and-twelve-dollar-a-week ghetto motel. Hookers, pimps and
various crazy people and freaks shared the building with me.
It smelled bad.
Walking up the hall to my room, I was forced to breathe shallow
through my mouth, holding my nose while trying to get the key into the
lock. Sometimes I wouldn’t get the door open fast enough, and I’d start
viciously gagging at the putrid smell of unwashed bodies, crack, urine,
crack, feces, crack, old sweat, and crack.
That’s where I was when the bottom fell out of the art market I
was working in to keep a roof over my head while still trying to eat.
Welfare paid single men $222.00 a month plus $165.00 in food
stamps. It’s not easy to eat cheap in Los Angeles, especially being a
vegetarian. I knew that if I went from the nearly vegan diet I’d grown
accustomed to, to eating .39 cent hamburgers, I would get very sick, so I
had to stick to my diet. I was probably the only person in that welfare
line who took my food stamps to Whole Foods Market and bought organic
fruits, vegetables, nuts, and of course, Newman’s Own organic chocolate
It was a sight, me in the check-out line buying organic fruits
and vegetables and a case of candy bars, paying with food stamps. The clerk
and the people in line behind me always seemed more uncomfortable about it
than I was.
So I was running out of money, living in a filthy hotel, trying
to figure out what the hell I was going to do, and suddenly I’m presented
with an opportunity to make $200 just for posing for some naked pictures?!
I thought about it for a couple of days, and finally, on a
chilly Saturday morning in January 2001, I grabbed the little slip of paper,
held my breath, walked quickly down the hallway to the payphone downstairs,
and dialed the number.
The phone picked up after the second ring, and a voice on the
other end of the line spoke to me:
“At the tone the time will be 11:42 am...”
Incredulously, I hung up the phone.
That was not, however, the low point of my life.
The low point of my life was when I picked up the receiver and
dialed the number again, just to be sure I’d dialed correctly.
“At the tone the time will be 11:43 am... BEEP!!”
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