The first time I went to Market Square to draw portraits, I made $101 bucks. That was the day after the Chalk Walk and I haven't finished writing about it. The second time I went to Market Square was after two weeks of rain on a Saturday. The Farmer's Market was underway, and my grassy area was full of tents for the 200th anniversary of the Civil War. I made my way to the main square and waited an hour for the vendors to pack up. I chose a nice spot in the shade of a fenced tree, and set up.
It wasn’t long before a large black man with a bellowing laugh engaged me in conversation. I could tell by the way he scoped the square while he talked that he was hustling something. Turns out he’s an artist named Shawn. He showed me the Mother’s Day card he was selling prints of for $10 dollars. It was nice.
You’d have to be pretty charming to sell them for 10 bucks, but he was. He was very at ease and each time he let out a laugh, he’d study its ripple to the far ends of the square. As we talked, a grungy girl of maybe 30 trudged past, loaded down with sooty bags. “Hello,” she said. I was looking at Shawn at the time and assumed she was talking to him. I waited for him to respond. “I said, HELLO!” she said indignantly. I looked up. She had stopped and was staring at me. I thought, what’s this homeless girl with attitude want from ME? Shawn kept his mouth shut.
“Hello,” I said guardedly.
“Unh!” She turned in disgust and headed for the shade of the next fenced tree. I watched, puzzled, as she plopped her bags down, keeping her back to me.
“That’s Foxy,” Shawn confided. “She’s a spray paint artist. She’s very, umm … temperamental.”
“Ohh.” Now I saw I was possibly in her regular spot and I had not responded to her attempt to be friendly. Whoops.
Shawn wandered off and I began to draw a portrait of Bethany from my phone. An older man, maybe 58, in a straw hat and dress shirt ambled up. He watched me draw for a minute. “You new here?”
“I was here 2 weeks ago.” I replied.
“I could tell,” he said, “I’ve not seen you before and I know everyone in this square.” I kept drawing.
“Have you met Foxy over there?” He nodded her way. “She’s a good friend. She has her ups and downs,” he made a roller coaster with his hand, “but she makes nice work.”
“I said Hi to her,” I allowed.
“And down there at the end of the square … that’s Harley. The Magician. He’s a friend of mine. And over there …” he pointed, “that’s my buddy Hank.”
“You must spend a lot of time in the square,” I observed.
“That I do,” he said, pleased I was catching his drift. “Truth be told, I do a little drawing myself.”
“Really?” I said. I put my china marker down. I could tell he wanted my full attention.
“That’s right. Portraits, like you, only I do mine in pencil.”
“Oh, Yeah?” I was remembering that event services said there were no portrait artists. I was also realizing he was doing a territory dance.
“The name’s Doug.” He stuck out his hand. I shook it. “Yeah, I’ve been doing this for about 21 years now. I haven’t set up yet this year. I’ve had a bit of money come in and haven’t needed to. But I normally sit at that table over there until about noon then move to that table to stay in the shade.” As I turned to look, he took the opportunity to lean his bag against my easel leg and sat down in the customer chair. This was an act of aggression. I considered starting to draw him but sensed he’d find a way to sabotage it. My best course was to keep playing nice. “You had any problems with the police?”
“Not yet.” I said. “I talked to a couple cops two weeks ago when I set up. They didn’t seem to know what laws applied to me.”
“Well, I’m good friends with the sheriff…”
What followed was an hour of him giving me advice that was largely unnecessary and telling me stories that revolved around how well connected he was. I had to pull out my “I worked in Times Square” card to take a bit of the wind out of his sails. Eventually he left, and I went back to drawing my wife.
Within 10 minutes I felt a presence watching. I looked up hoping for customer, only to find a balloon vendor rocking on his heels and grinning a practiced stage grin. “Hello! I’m David and you’re new here!” He stuck out his hand. It was a welcome contrast, this straightforward communication. I seized his hand.
“I’m Michael!” I belted back. “And I am!”
“Well, that’s a firm handshake! And you have a very professional setup! AND you do very nice work!”
“Thank You!” A flat wire basket hung from his neck at chest level, in which he kept his twisty balloons and a hand pump. Several pre-twisted balloons and a sign were attached.
“Are you, sir, aware of the laws governing your table?” He asked.
“This, my good man,” I retorted, “Is NOT a table. It is an Easel.”
“Well put! An Easel!” He marveled. “Good answer! For you know, it is Illegal to set up a table without a permit. That is why I,” he gestured to his basket, “carry my table with me. I can see you are an articulate man,” he flattered. “Let me ask you this: How much do you charge for one of your portraits?”
“Nothing,” I smiled. “I ask only for a donation.”
“Another good answer!” he exclaimed. “We are not allowed, as buskers, to SELL our wares.”
We proceeded to have a lengthy conversation concerning the laws of the square, in which he was very well versed. His speech and approach were so like my Father’s, I found it quite enjoyable. He told me stories of encounters with event services and the police. His lawyer/girlfriend, Peggy, researched and provided printouts of the most current legislation. He used to set up a balloon tent with a helium tank. He also plays clarinet. He used to bring drums and instruments in for the kids to play. He’d play the clarinet while the kids played drums and had balloon sword battles. I was delighted! Then they changed the law to disallow tents for buskers.
While on this topic, Doug returned looking a little redder in the nose. I could tell from his approach that he was seething with aggression. He planted himself standing almost between David and I and folded his arms. There was the slightest hesitation in David’s story but he went on “ – and so I removed my tent and I replaced it with a table.”
“Only an asshole would set up a tent,” Doug declared.
“That’s true!” David smiled in agreement, as if Doug meant breaking the law.
Vehemently Doug said “No! YOU’RE an asshole!”
David took a step back, bowed his head and said “Thank you sir.” Then stepping forward again, “I don’t believe we’ve met. The name’s David.” He stuck out his hand.
Doug took a step back, arms still crossed. “I know You and you should know me, I saved you from getting punched in the face.” David looked at him for a second. “Thank you,” He said sincerely.
Then turning back to me, he continued. “And then they changed the law to exclude tables.”
It then fell to me, whether I would continue conversing with David, tacitly agreeing the matter was settled and the interruption was over, or would I respect Doug’s misgivings as to David’s character and seek to delve deeper into the mystery of its origin. I reasoned in myself that even if Doug’s assessment of David were true, his method of conveyance broke social protocol and made him appear to be the very thing he accused David of. Our anger at others, more often than not, is directly proportionate to our intimacy with that very shortcoming in ourselves. I concluded that David’s graciousness had netted my attention. “So that’s when you started wearing your table?” I asked.
“It is!” David beamed. “Now I carry everything with me and wander freely about the square.”
Doug stormed off in a trail of obscenities and entered the nearest bar.
“What do you suppose that was about?” David’s eyebrows were raised.
“I don’t know. You handled it very nicely, though.”
“Why, thank you!” He gave a little bow.
“Perhaps he felt that I was his territory since he spent an hour telling me, the nubie, the ropes of the square,” I suggested.
“Hmm … very insightful,” he mused. “Perhaps.” Then he launched into the story of how 16 nails had been pounded into all 4 tires of his car while in a parking garage some years back and the culprit had turned out to be a bar owner who had recently gotten out of prison for laundering drug money for his brother. (That bar right there, actually, where Doug had gone in.) David didn’t know why the guy hated him, but he’d gotten a brand new set of tires out of it, from his insurance. He said he has a strong personality and it sometimes has that effect on people.
While he talked he noticed my attention drifting to Foxy, who was explaining how hard and stressful being an artist could be to a glazey-eyed couple. They kept nodding soberly. “That’s Foxy,” David pointed with his chin. “Steer clear of her. She’s Manic.” Well, everyone can agree on one thing, I thought. “At least she’s out here making art,” I said.
“Well, I should let you get back to drawing. It’s been an unparalleled pleasure!” David bowed and sauntered away.
I went back to drawing Bethany, but my phone was dying. I was getting antsy.
Finally, around 7:00, two young black girls approached. “How much are your pictures?” one asked.
“They’re for a donation,” I said.
“We only have two dollars,” she mourned.
“Have a seat,” I commanded.
While I drew them, I felt a presence lurking. I knew it was Doug without looking. After a lot of throat clearing he leaned into my space and said “I’m gonna leave my bag here, I’ve gotta go to the market.” He started to put it against my easel leg. “You’ll be here for awhile, right?”
I didn’t look up from drawing, but pointed. “Not on the easel. Put it against the fence.” I commanded. He tried to say something else but I was really focused on the portrait. He left. I did a respectable job finishing and the girls were delighted. Unfortunately I had pulled in no more business and was sitting idle when Doug returned. He was fairly drunk. I leaned against the fence to help him avoid using my chair. He leaned beside me and offered me some corn liquor from a water bottle. I declined.
“Sorry for embarrassing you, earlier. It’s just that guy is a … well, he’s been really nasty to some good friends of mine. The owner of this bar here. He’s a really good friend. He lets me draw in there late at night when the crowds out here die down. That’s a good gig, you know, people are really generous in a bar, of course you can never draw for long because people keep buying you free drinks!”
“Well, what did he do to your friend?” I ask.
“It’s a long shtory,” he said, with a sidelong glance to see where my loyalties lay. “Too long to tell,” he decided.
“Well, I gotta pack up and go home to my wife,” I said, realizing how much I was missing her.
“Will you be out tomorrow?” he asked.
“Maybe,” I said flatly. I packed and left.
As I carried my things past Foxy I glanced at her work. It was painstakingly wrought. Not the slick caliber of the NYC spray artists, but at least it was her own, not formulaic. I thought, You go, girl, but I did not engage.