bottom

   

 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 story.
            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 journey. 
             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 own crew.
             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 co-workers!
             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 survive.
             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.
            Really 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 bars. 
            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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