Here’s the thing: I quit writing. Lately, I’ve been getting these great little snippets of thought, though, so I write them down and rely on the fact that I have them sitting somewhere, in case I ever need to write something. But here’s the other thing: I put them in this stupid little essay. So now I have nothing to fall back on, and I’ve got to start writing again. I’ve got no choice.
I just took a sigh of relief. Because I’ve been told, “Look, Jesse. Put that down. Listen to me. You can’t be a writer and an artist. Writers have to be understood. Artists can do whatever the hell they want.”
A few months ago, in Baltimore, a homeless man came up to me. He was deaf, selling small yellow papers, with the American Sign Language alphabet on them. Isn’t that a place where I’d like to be? People will donate money for a piece of paper that is only useful in allowing them to communicate with him. You have to memorize a WHOLE ALPHABET.
I guess that’s what all art is. For a donation, I’ll let you understand me.
And here’s another one: A few days ago I was drinking a chai latte, when I meant to order an ICED chai latte, chatting with a friend, when a homeless man handed me a paper that said,
DJ Commander Hot Rode
My name is T**** S*****
When I was small I was
Pushed from a NY high porch.
As I started to get older, I
began to suffer from epilepsy and
by Gods will I grew out of it
I got talent I imitate the
godfather of soul and James Brown
and other celebrities My family
helps me and looks after me
Please help me, God Bless
Happy New Year 2014.
My friend and I looked at it, saying to ourselves and each other, “I don’t get it.” But I gave him three dollars and read that piece of paper for the rest of the day, over and over again. Over the past three days, that man has hit me in the heart.
He sold that piece of paper for three dollars. He has made more from his writing and had more of an effect than I have in months. And neither my friend nor I “got it.”
I guess I spend too much time talking to homeless men, hoping they inspire me to write. And I worry too much about being understood.
Someday I’m going to stand on a ladder, chain smoking, dropping paint onto a canvas, flicking my cigarette butts into the dribbled colors. Because Jackson Pollock is easier to understand than black squiggles on white paper.
Last time I left New York, I took a cab ride with a Ukrainian man who had been driving cabs for ten years. But not really. He’d actually only spent a little more than three years at the job. Every year, he spends four months in the City driving a taxi, and then goes home to Ukraine to live off his New York earnings for the next eight months.
He told me about his love for Orthodox Christian art, which he collects in his modest Queens apartment and takes home each year to share with his family.
They (whoever the hell they are) say to write what you know. I get to know people, so I write about people.
Recently on a flight, I sat next to an old man. We never said a word to each other. Near the end of the flight, the flight attendants were running terribly late on the cabin service. They finally just resorted to tossing pretzels into the hands of whoever wanted them and pouring cold water from bottles into cups for any thirsty passengers.
As one stewardess rushed down the aisle, a package of two Biscoff cookies fell out of the lady’s pocket into the aisle next to us. They’re not the best cookies, but they’re quite nice on a flight. They’re the ginger ale of the cookie family. The old man surreptitiously picked up the cookies and placed them into his front pocket. Later, when the rest of us were all munching on pretzels, my neighbor had sweet Biscoff cookies.
This is a dumb little story, but I’ve been taught all my life to moralize at this point, and what am I going to say? A cliché like “sometimes people surprise you,” or “don’t judge a book by its cover,” or “old people are sneaky little bastards”? No.
Because (here I am, a hypocrite, and moralize about the compulsion to moralize), why do I have to assign value to things? Why do writers feel compelled to tell us a story AND tell us what it means?
This is the reason: it is awkward to tell a story and stop. It’s uncomfortable.
I go to an Anglican church in the West Village. Last spring, I would leave church, walk to the smoke shop, and buy a pack of unfiltered Pall Malls. I’d smoke them on my walk home, extinguishing the little unfiltered cancer sticks so I could walk into bookstores.
What I noticed on the walk to my apartment were the bicycles chained to trees along the sidewalk.
Written by Jesse Scott Owen