Free spirits and spectators

There’s a Sesame Street segment from back in the 1970s, maybe even the early 60s:

Children paint alphabet letters and animals on glass, and enthusiastically discuss the results. The camera films from the other side of the glass, so the kid watching from home sees not only the painting, but the child’s face and arm painting it.

As a five-year-old, I was entranced. (As an adult, I am also in love with that girl’s awesome cat-eye specs.) The transparency, watching forms appear midair, brush bristles wet and creamy with color, sliding around, only mostly controlled. I loved art already, but assumed that painting on glass was a craft reserved for children who lived in the magical world of TV.

That skit didn’t cross my mind for years, until the day I was gliding a rigger loaded with One-Shot in loops across a wide, clean, plate-glass window, and saw a kid looking through from the inside, transfixed. This happens all the time now… and not just with kids.

The spectator sport element is one of my favorite parts of being a window artist. It’s immediately rewarding, as passersby exclaim approval, strike up conversations, or watch quietly while trying to avoid my noticing that they are watching. (Doesn’t work, guys: glass reflects!)

This last foggy Friday, I was painting a Valentine’s scene of bluebirds unfurling heart-shaped ribbons around the jewelry display cases at R.P. Ellis Fine Jewelry. The store is right downtown, next to a peculiarly Missoulian institution, the coffeehouse/tchotchke shop/alterna-hangout, Butterfly Herbs. It was the perfect spot for engaging the early morning culture of Higgins Ave.

First came Paris, a Deadhead-looking guy in his sixties, sharing stories of traveling the USA with his buddies. “Just a couple of Fitch brushes in my pocket, and when we ran outta money, we’d find a store, say ‘Hey man, your sign looks like hell,’ and fix it up.” Paid by the acre, his friend would joke. “Like Woody Guthrie,” I replied. “Did you know that he was a sign painter during the Depression?” “No joke?” said Paris. Nope, no joke.

One of his drawings, I think an illustration in his autobiography
One of Woody’s drawings, an illustration in his autobiography, I think.

From there it was a string of commuters, wanderers and homeless people trying to stay warm via walking and coffee, and people with ideas for future window designs. You’d be surprised how many people know about this supposedly dying art form. “Isn’t it supposed to be 54 degrees out to put that stuff up?” (Yes, but if it’s seasonal, it’ll last just fine.) I’ve met pinstripers, tattoo artists, other signpainters, and lots of regular folks. In Americus, Georgia, I loved the company of older folks who had plenty of time to watch and chat. Sometimes it seemed they didn’t have many people to talk with, and it was good to listen to them as I worked.

After putting the finishing touches on the ribbons, I popped into the shop to check in with Rich, the owner. When I came back outside, a guy was pushing a shopping cart away up Higgins. Piled atop his load of possessions, probably all he had to his name, was my dropcloth, my mallet, and a quarter pint of red One-Shot. I went into autopilot: caught up to him, said “That’s my stuff,” and grabbed my supplies. He began hollering at me, called me every four letter word known to humankind, including, bizarrely, racial slurs: “You should be ashamed of yourself, you *@&^#! Stealing from a homeless person!”

The sad part was that, as a parting shot, he yelled, “You took my blanket!” And I realized he was talking about the dropcloth: damp, paint-spattered, none-too-soft. I almost gave it back to him, then reflected that he was cussing me out and had tried to make off with my gear– not behavior I would like to encourage. I don’t know what he wanted with the oil paint or the mallet, but no good could have come of it. He certainly was not in the frame of mind for a rational conversation. This was the first time in six years I’ve had any trouble. I dunno, friends… would there have been a better way to handle this?

As it was, I packed up my stuff and stepped inside Butterfly Herbs to thaw my bones. Their staff was kind enough to let me keep my paints warm behind the counter while I worked out in the cold. I wanted to give them a little business as thanks, and get something to warm me up en route to my other job. Lucas Phelan– an inventive, talented artist himself, also apparently at his other job– toasted a delicious cream cheese sesame bagel. Everything tastes better when you’ve been out all morning doing something you love. That’s a lesson learned hiking, but widely applicable!

Oh, and without further ado, here are the cavorting bluebirds:

r_p_ellis_fine_jewelry2 r_p_ellis_fine_jewelry

P.S. If you can’t get enough of the adorable children of Sesame Street giggling at glass, there’s another video here. Enjoy.

P.P.S. This blog has been brought to you today by the letter B.

Project Homeless Connect

I forget to wear a red shirt. The church hallways are full of perky, red-shirted volunteers. I am usually excellent at following directions, but I messed up. My name tag says ANN in green marker, my nose is red from walking here in the fog, I’m wearing jeans and a corduroy shirt and a jacket that’s dingy from accidentally leaning against cars. The outfit is completely Goodwill. People can’t tell whether I’m a volunteer or a homeless person (“client”). They don’t know which tone of voice to use. I like it.

Atypically, I am actually myself with the two people I’m paired with: mostly silent, cautiously humorous, laissez-faire, no bullshit cheer, and kind of kind. Maybe I’m finally shaking off caring what people think of me, a concern that ironically can cause me to smile like a hollow rind and speak like the lady on the GPS, thereby landing me straight in benevolent-clueless-pansyland. But today I just shrug while Jack, my first partner, disses the salt-to-chili ratio of the soup, and pretty much everything else in sight.

“It’s demeaning to have to be followed around like a child,” Jack says. The church, in exchange for letting us use their space, require us all to sign in and out and maintain a one-to-one, lockdown partnership between volunteers and service-seekers. “I know. I can see how you’d feel that way,” I answer. Without a word he dares me to follow him as he gets up to grab a napkin and a cup of coffee. I don’t, and when he returns he tells me I’m in trouble with the lady in the red sweatshirt standing by the beverages. “She wants to know where my person is.”

“Ah, whatever. They can kick me out.”

We are both Bachelors of Art. His degree was Painting, University of Georgia, 1976. “I never got a dime from that. But it kept me out of Vietnam.” After scraping his plate, he’s fed up, in both senses, and heads for the door. “Well Jack, I wish you the best when you get your housing later this month.” “Thanks,” he says. “Nothing personal, you know, I’ve just had enough of this.” I wonder how his marriage was, whether he’s always this grumpy or whether homelessness gets him this way. When he was filling out his survey, I saw that he was divorced last year. That’s why he’s on the street now, at least that’s the stated reason.

Sherri, on the other hand, doesn’t say much, but there’s more levity in her attitude. She’s not hungry, and she doesn’t drink coffee; she’s here for the real stuff. She wants a shampoo and haircut, a bus pass, an eye exam voucher, HIV and Hepatitis C testing, and a state ID. Turns out the bus passes and eye vouchers are long gone, and there are long lines for everything else. A friend tips her off that a nasty landlord is among those giving haircuts, so that rules out the beautician station. We sit in the hall for forty minutes waiting for medical testing. Among volunteers and homeless people, there is an equality of confusion. I like this. The stakes are higher for the homeless people, of course, but nobody knows where to go, the hallways are crowded, and there is no order in the waiting. And I am far more impatient than Sherri. She’s probably used to hanging on for a long time for what she can get.

While she finally gets her tests done, I turn in her survey—not reading her answers—and in exchange, nab the last Safeway gift card for her. The event is ending and volunteers run up and down the halls with folding tables and bags of trash. When she emerges there’s a glimmer in her eye, a triumphant little glimmer. I wonder if and dare to hope that this means she’s clean.

We are the last pair to leave. The church is back to its vacant self again, and the service providers are wrapping up a long, exhausting day, a day of yes and no and please wait. I’m glad I went. It sucked and it was also kind of nice. It was life. Everyone tried, some things happened, others didn’t, some people felt worse, some better. Maybe some people connected. Some people will drive home and take off red shirts. And some people will not.

Sherri and I walk out the door, smile and nod, and say our parting words.

To let a quiet man be

The man seated in the deli was motionless. There was no plate or cup before him, nor newspaper nor wallet. His head was bowed. I went round with my broom and pan to glance from the corner of my eye, pretending to sweep crumbs. Yes, he is asleep. Sleeping in the deli after sunset on St. Patrick’s Day. I should tell a manager, I suppose, and do: “There’s a man sleeping in the deli.”

I expect action but she says, “Oh yes… he’s been there since six, I think.” She blinks. “He doesn’t seem to be drunk and he isn’t noisy, so we will let him stay.”

I am glad and tell her. How hard was that? How hard to let a quiet man sleep, here in a place of commerce on a night known for wildness? So easy. An easy kindness. Why not? Who would be hurt? Yet so few I know would let him be.

The old man’s tree

The old man was combing dumpsters for aluminum when he found the red bow. It probably came from a fancy tin of cookies, or maybe it was last year’s bow and no longer good enough. He pulled it out, keeping it above the dripping soda cans in his basket. Why you want this, he wondered. It’s no use to recycle. On his way through the park he left it tied to a spindly evergreen, just as the sun fell back toward the mountains after a half-hearted day’s climb.

The old man walked back to his trailer, from which a small part of the chill was removed with a few dollars of propane each month. While he drank tea and gin, the tree with the bow stood in his mind. He had not noticed it before, but the bow suited it. Not a bad tree.

The next afternoon a small flag on a pipe cleaner was twisted onto the tree. The day after that, four strips of silver tinsel shivered there as well. Still not bad. He wished he could reach higher than halfway up.

A square of suet was next, hung in mesh cut from an onion bag. He had tried to buy the suet with food stamps, which didn’t work, but the clerk gave him a lump anyway. Dirty old man. Who eats suet anymore?

The old man rested the day after that, sleeping through the few hours of daylight and waking only in time for tea and gin.

The next time he saw the tree, he stopped and put down his bag of cans and stared. There were two bright strings circling the tree, a string of popcorn and a string of cranberries. They made the tree fuller and rounder than he had remembered it, even with tea and gin. Moreover, there were three birds in the tree. The suet was nearly gone, and bits of red berry flecked the ground underneath, where two more birds pecked and quarreled.

Next there was a fishing lure. Then another lump of suet. A letter in a green envelope. Three cranes folded from newspaper. A glass angel. A chime that sang when the wind grew piercing. A candle on the ground, which he found burning one day. Orange quarters, hung for the birds with fishing line. A god’s-eye of blue and pink yarn. The best was snow, frosting every needle and ornament. The tree grew daily. Now even at night it glistened.

The old man’s trailer was still cold. He took his aluminum to the recycler and bought his holiday dinner, cooked and ate it, by himself; but also there was in his mind all that night the sight, and the smell, the feel, even the sound, of the tree with the red bow, the tree blooming, giving off ever more color, more size, more heat.


The deserted mill was long ago reduced to heaps of rubble and broken rebar. Cracked grasses obscure abandoned construction tools. There is a path alongside, hint of the development that will overthrow and then landscape these acres as soon as the Economy turns around and men resume their habit of expanding. There is only a little faroff morning traffic, and the air is motionless—but for a bit of steam rising. Two unobtrusive mounds, each the width of a truck and the length of two, are tarped in green plastic, weighted with stones. Between the seams, still the steam is rising. These two could be mistaken for smoldering piles of leaves, but for a passage of cut plywood, like the door to an igloo, and for a smell riding on the steam, unnameable but suggestive of southern states, of dampness, of childhood hideouts. The dog walkers do not notice, though the dogs do: this desert has a fruit, and a flower. This desert has a purpose; this wasteland is home.