Full Circle

Hello Everybody,

The skinny white man and Indian woman fluttered about like balloons in the parking lot of the closed down coffee shop. He wore giant white tennis shoes and his pale thin and scabbed legs sprouted from them like sun-starved stalks of grain. She was barefooted, a tattoo here and there, and wore a black evening gown through which her beer belly desperately tried to escape. They both carried large duffel bags that seemed to be the only things keeping them from floating away forever. They twitched, spat, kicked at invisible objects on the ground, drifted away from each other only to collide again a few steps further down the sidewalk. I watched them from the window of the Chinese joint on the Yakima Indian Reservation in Washington state, where I dined that evening.


Yep, even in Washington State.

“Make sure you tell the waitress you want whatever you’re gonna get to be spicy,” said the young Indian host as she led me to my table, a few minutes before. “The cook doesn’t make it spicy and if you don’t get it spicy it’s…well…”

“Thanks for the tip,” I replied.

She turned away, took a few steps, then turned around. “Are you here for the hot rod show?”


“Why are you…here…then?”

“Heading back home to California.”

She smiled, walked away. I closed my eyes, rubbed them, rubbed them harder. I’d left Grand Forks, North Dakota the previous morning and had been driving straight on since, stopping only to sleep for 4 hours in my Jeep in a motel parking lot somewhere in Montana because there…

“Ain’t gonna be a motel room for you anywhere probably,” said one of the many hotel clerks I’d talked to along I-94 West. “It’s vacation season, they all headin down t’Yellowstone from every direction. And it’s construction season, too. And a course you got all the bikers headin down to Sturgis for the biker rally.”

I finally found a room at the Sunrise Valley Inn on the Yakima Reservation. $54. A dip in the mattress and a broken lamp, but a good air-conditioner. And of course, the Chinese restaurant next door with the Indian host and a leather-tanned gaunt shell of a waitress coming to my table and asking, “Hi there, honey, watch’a havin today?” just like out of some black and white TV show.

“I’ll have the General Tso’s Chicken.”

“Alright, I’ll be right back with it, dear.” Then she blew away to the kitchen like a tumbleweed.

I turned back to the window. The skinny white fellow and Indian woman had dropped the duffel bags and were moving about like pinatas being swung at by many invisible children.

20140810_205920I closed my eyes again, nearly falling asleep after a few seconds. I jerked my head and almost fell out of my booth. I looked around, no one among the half-dozen or so other customers seemed to notice or care. I rubbed my face, took a long gulp of ice water. It was after I swallowed the water that the decision I had to make – that I’d been able to outrun all the way from Grand Forks, ND – found me. The North Dakota Museum of Art had offered me the position of Director of Program Development. Nice salary. Insurance. Vacation. Personal and sick days. The whole shebang. I didn’t apply for the job, but I just so happened to be around when the guy who had it before gave notice. Laurel, the curator of the museum, said, “why don’t you take it?” I told her I’d think about it, then tried not to think about it. But now – in that Chinese restaurant on the Yakima Indian Reservation – take the job, don’t take the job echoed in my skull as I waited for my meal. I was torn. I didn’t want to leave LA, but the job promised creative freedom and a steady paycheck. I rubbed my eyes harder as if poking my fingers through my eyes and massaging my brain would somehow help me make the right decision. Right decision??? said one of the voices in my head. What the f#$k’s a right decision these days???

The waitress came. “Here ya go, honey.”

I dug into the plate with a fork, twisted the lo mein noodles, stabbed at a piece of radio-active orange chicken. Starving but not hungry. Tired but wired. I took a bite…oh, I forgot to order it spicy.

Back to the window. The skinny white man stood in the middle of the street, peering down the street in one direction then the other…I took a bite…his eyes were the size of silver dollars…tasteless…the woman squatted down and began digging through one of the duffel bags…I swallowed…her gown drifted up over her ass…chew, chew…she didn’t mind…swallow, another bite…she pulled a tube of toothpaste and a bottle of water out of the bag, shouted at the skinny guy…lukewarm, tough flesh of fowl…he scrambled over to her and they each squirted a load of toothpaste into their mouth, brushed their teeth with their fingers…chew, chew, swallow…then they each took a huge swig from the water bottle, gurgled, spat…another bite, sweet rubber…then they hovered down the street together like balloons not quite light enough to escape into the darkening sky.

Bite…take the job, don’t take the job, take the…chew.

An old Asian women came out from the kitchen and began wiping down tables. The gaunt waitress followed her from table to table.

“I’m ain’t gonna do that for him no more,” the waitress said to the old woman.

“Mmm-hmm,” said the old Asian woman.

“Not gonna put myself through it again.”

take it, don’t take it…


“Not for him or any other man.”


Another bite.

“I’m done with other people causin me problems.”

Chew. No expectations.


The waitress came over. “You done, honey?”


She handed me a check. “Have a good evening and come back.” Then she resumed following the little Asian woman from table to table. I paid the bill and left.

“Have a safe trip back home to California,” said the young Indian host on my way out.

Home? California? Take it…don’t…

I walked back to my room at the Sunrise Valley Inn, turned the AC as low as it would go and went to sleep.

The parking lot was full of classic cars the next morning. Male baby-boomers stood around wearing Hawaiian shirts, shorts, smoking and talking to each other about their cars. Female baby-boomers were putting luggage in the trunks of the cars. I threw my bag in the Jeep and headed out of town on Highway 12.

Three of the old cars followed me, westward, through the Cascade Mountains. Sunlight wiggled through the tall pines. The morning was comfortably warm. I rolled the windows down and let the sweet wet pine scented air come in. Everything felt so fine, like that moment of weightlessness between jumping high on a trampoline and descending again. I was on a road I’d never been on before, seeing things I’d never seen before. Where I really like to be. But every time I glanced in my side-view mirror and saw the old cars, it was as if I were transported to 1962, or thereabouts…when those drivers were young, working men, not retired old fogies…hey, if you take the job, you can work for 25 years then you can be an old retiree driving a classic car with a smoking habit on top of a zipper scar on your chest from a triple bypass underneath a Hawaiian shirt, too. Ok, I will ask you what you’ve been afraid to ask yourself, are you…that would be me…SELLING OUT if you…me…take the job?

20140803_080808-1I pulled off at the next observation area to let the three old cars pass me. I got out of the car, stretched my legs, took a few deep breaths, looked out across the valley to see Mount Rainier. Big beautiful giant bald Mount Rainier. I’ve seen you Mount Rainier, you are real to me now…that weird feeling weightlessness came back, but seconds later so was…take the job, don’t take the job, take the job…

From there I hauled ass toward the coast of Oregon. Logging, logging, logging. Like patchwork over the mountains, clusters of tall trees grew next to clusters of shorter trees that’d been planted to replace the felled trees that’d been shipped down to the mills along the giant Columbia River that twisted faithfully with the highway. At Astoria, the Columbia spilled into the Pacific Ocean. There, I turned south on Highway 101 and began the long slow trek down the Oregon coast.

…take it…don’t take it…take it…

My view out the left window was of the deep green forest. The view out the right was the endless Pacific. The smell of pine mixed with the smell of salt air. The sun was high in the cloudless blue sky.

Every now and then, I’d come to a town. Most were bustling with tourists, with a few ratty drifters about, but others had more drifters, less tourists. The money just wasn’t in those towns, so neither was the heavy traffic, and I passed through those towns quickly. I couldn’t figure out why some towns had the tourists industry and some didn’t. Because you’ve never been able to get a grasp on the nature of money, Todd. But now with this job you can, though you’d no longer be your own boss. And you’d be in an office, wearing a tweed sports coat with leather elbow patches…look down from your desk…your feet are so cozy in those leather dress shoes…maybe on your two-week vacation you can come back here and be a tourist, if your boss ALLOWS you…shut up!

20140803_083901-1I pulled off the 101 somewhere south of Cannon Beach late that afternoon. I took a trail through a downward sloping meadow of high grass. The crashing of waves grew louder until suddenly I was feet away from the sharp jagged drop down to the ocean. The blue-green water below crashed into white foam against the dark grey stones 100 feet below. The sun was a couple of hours above the horizon, where the blue ocean stopped. Just like that, the ocean ended with a straight line as if everything started and stopped in straight surgical lines. No loose ends, what if’s or maybe’s. No emotional entanglement, no broken hearts. Just start…just stop…begin…end…psst…take it, don’t take it…or, just jump. It would be so easy, just lift one foot and then Geronimooooooo…

I continued onto the trail which ran along the ledge leading into a forest. Under the canopy of the trees, no grass grew. Only eons of dead limbs and leaves lay on the ground. The ocean breeze couldn’t reach me, and only a the stray sun ray could find me, peaking at me from behind a tree every now and then. But eventually, I was able to shake that sun ray, and found a place so quiet and dark where Existence reduced to a low hum and dull glow. On the trail before me lay a pile of fresh animal droppings. Too big for a squirrel, raccoon. What if it’s a bear, a mountain lion, Todd?! A pang of fear rushed through me, but was followed by total calm. I took a deep breath. My shoulders, my jaw, my back, relaxed as I let it out. A bear? A tiger? I wouldn’t run. Life’s been good. I wouldn’t run. The crashing waves sounded a million miles away. Tiny little snaps of twigs here and there. What are you gonna do? Me? Yeah, you. I’m gonna take the job. You are, why? Because it scares me more than not taking it. I’ve gotta do the things that scare me. Good answer, Todd. I know it is.

20140803_202012A few nights later, in Hollywood, I told my buddy Luis about the job offer, the ocean, the forest, the droppings, the decision.

“Sounds to me like you got a direct f#$king sign,” he said. “And a ticket out of Bohemia.”

“That’s what scares me, leaving Bohemia. I’m not sure if I wanna leave, or it’s just what I’m used to. You know, I saw a sign in Oregon, somebody was hiring carpenters—”

“You’ve done that, bro,” said Luis. “You know how to barely get by on building things. This is The Universe giving you something new. It’s the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new chapter.”

Luis was in between chapters of his own book, too. He’d been in LA all summer, performing for Independent Shakespeare Company’s summer festival. When the summer ended, he’d be returning to Houston to begin a new job heading up a youth poetry program in high schools across the city. He’d be drawing a steady salary, and could wear a tweed jacket with leather elbows to work, if he wanted to. We spent most of the night telling ourselves that we’ve reached the end of struggling to get by on whatever we can, that where we were headed was something bigger, better for the both of us.

“Man,” said Luis, as we walked down the dark Hollywood street – just after midnight – through it’s shadows, distant sirens and it’s eternal echoing of whispered promises, “I didn’t know I was a bohemian until somebody told me the other night that I was, in fact, a bohemian. I just called it living. But I’m done with barely scraping by, shit…I’m done starving, bro.”

We we got to my car I hugged Luis, said farewell. Then we stood there, staring at each other with something resembling smiles but more like silly, scary expressions of wonder.

“Man, we made it,” he said. “The next chapter. Travel safe, bro, talk to you soon.”

20140803_203409I pulled out of LA the next morning. Around noon I hit the bridge over the Colorado River and the end of California. My heart rate sped up, I grew shaky. “Man oh man,” I remember whispering. When I passed over the river, the last 14 years – LA to Chicago to New York back to LA – passed before me, and kept going. I felt like a part of me…died. Yep, died. But that’s ok, where things die, new things grow.

A fast drive to Texas. A fast week with my mom and sisters. Then a long drive straight up the middle of America. I’d left Grand Forks on August 1st, drove 7,500 miles in a complete circle around The West and by the time I arrived in Grand Forks on August 26th I was exhausted and huge chunks of me were missing. But new things are growing…

Be well…

Mni Wakan Oyate

Hello Everyone…

Last Friday, I left the farm and headed west on flat, flat, straight, straight Highway 2. When I got to Devil’s Lake, I pulled over, called my friend, Matt.

20140725_204641“Turn south on Highway 20. It turns into Highway 57 when you pass the casino, and that’ll take you straight in to Fort Totten. You’ll know you’re there when you see an old water tower and a new water tower being built next to it. You’ll go past those, then come to the tribal high school. Turn left after the school. After a while the road turns into a gravel road. You’ll veer left and you’ll see the rodeo. Once you pass the rodeo, you’ll see the pow wow.”

I was a little late on my way to the Spirit Lake Nation’s annual pow wow, but, “don’t worry,” Matt said, “this thing’ll go on til midnight.”

Highway 20. Highway 57. The casino. Two water towers. The high school with FORT TOTTEN SIOUX across the wall in giant letters. Paved road to gravel. The rodeo. Then a sea of parked cars. I parked, opened the door and walked toward the distant sound of drums, somewhere beyond the cars.

The pow wow took place an high meadow surrounded by a rolling sea of green hills. Shaded seating surrounded an open grass circle where all the action took place. I arrived just in time to see many old Indians dressed in old American military uniforms, marching slowly out of the grassy area. Two men in front of the procession held an American flag and the black POW-MIA flag. When the last old fellow marched out, the announcer said of the PA, “Alright, let’s give a loud, proud round of applause to these verterans!”

Matt found me.

“Did I miss much?”

20140725_204531“No,” he said, “just the grand entry and the veterans. Oh, man, and this guy running for the state legislature. Jeez, he came out and spoke and I’ve never felt a more uncomfortable silence. Pandering out here…” Matt shook his head. “Oh,”  he said, looking behind me, “there’s Johnny, one of the drummers we took to New York for the art exhibit I was telling you about.” Matt waved. “Hey Johnny!”

“Matt, hey,” said Johnny. Johnny was tall, stood straight and had a large hard belly and long pony tail and wore a t-shirt shirt and gym shorts. “How’s it goin?”

“Good, Johnny” Matt said, “yourself?”

“I’m good, workin, you know. Drivin a truck.”

“Good, they takin care of ya?”

“These guys are. The people I worked for before, goin all the way to Florida and back…they only paid me $500. Hell,” he slapped his belly, “I ate more than that on the trip, ha ha! Hey, here’s my son, Johnny.”

Matt shook little Johnny’s hand. Little Johnny was as tall as his father, but skinny and had a smaller ponytail.

“Look,” eclaimed Christine, big Johnny’s wife, little Johnny’s mother, “isn’t he as tall as his father!! Gonna be 17 years old in-”

“Five days,” said little Johnny.

“Can you believe it, Matt?” Asked Johnny. “He’s already as tall as me. Gettin old, man.”

“Our daughter’s already gonna be 21,” said Christine. “And I’m already scared. She know’s where all the bars are.”

“Are you drumming tonight, Johnny?” Asked Matt.

“Maybe tomorrow.”

The next drum circle began to set up behind us. Big Johnny, little Johnny, Christine, Matt and I went over to it.

20140725_211358“Did Matt tell you we went to New York?” Johnny asked. (Matt works for the North Dakota Museum of Art, they took a drum circle to New York the previous year), “We went to the top a that Empire State Buildin. It’s tall, man.”

“Have you ever heard one of these things up close?” Matt asked me, about the drum circle.


“It’s gonna go right through you.”

“So New York’s big, huh” Little Johnny asked me. “My dad says it’s big.”

“Well, yeah,” I answered. “There’s a lot going on. But it’s also a lot of people crammed in a small place. To me,” I looked up at the sky, down on the hills, “it feels bigger out here.”

Johnny shook his head. “My dad might get to take me to Chicago this summer in the truck. But I wanna go to New York someday, too.”

The drumming started and we all found places to get a good view.

“Alright ladies and gentleman,” said the announcer over the PA, here is the group, Yellow Snow!” The announcer chuckled.

Everybody around me chuckled. “Yellow snow,” said Matt, “get it?” I chuckled.

The men drummed softly, at first. Their voices were subdued, some sang in a low pitch, some in a high pitch. Then the drumming escalated into a hard driving cadence and suddenly all the voices shot up to a high, shreaking pitch that goes through a body like razor sharp icicles. Then the voices dropped, except one that maintained the incredibly high pitch. By itself, the voice sounded like it’s own entity, something unfound that dwells just on the edge of Reality’s Shine. Then the drumming softened and the voice faded down to the others – its disappearence leaving a hollow space in my chest. Then it all happened again, and again, the drumming and the voices rising and falling as if the song and the world came to me from far away on gusts of wind.

“Let’s go get an Indian taco,” Matt said.

20140725_205618As we made our way – along the various booths selling dream catchers, blankets, t-shirts – toward the food stands, Matt stopped to shake a hand here and there. Matt is white, but grew up on the reservation. His family had homesteaded in the Spirit Lake area before the land was allotted for the reservation, so, “my family’s and a few other families’ farms were grandfathered in,” Matt said, taking long, loose comfortable strides. Matt was home.

“Hey Sam Ann!” Matt swerved through the crowd to shake a woman’s hand.

“Matt!!! Oh my god, how are you!” They hugged.

“Sam and I grew up together,” Matt said to me, then turned back to Sam Ann. “My dad says he’d still adopt you in a heartbeat.”

“HIs dad,” Sam Ann said to me, “told me that every time he saw me.”

“How’s the girls?” Matt asked.

“Oh, Matt. I’m gonna be a grandma.”

“What?! Which daughter?”

“Both! Both of them, can you believe that? Oh well, I’ll be a young, fun grandma at least!” She looked around, then back to us. “Oh, I tell you I need a cigarette. Hey, have you heard…”

Behind Matt and Sam Ann, a young man in Army Dress was milling about, standing straight, his hat tucked in the crook of his arm, stretching his neck as he looked through the crowd. After a moment, his head jerked and he smiled. I turned toward the direction he was looking. A tall, large bellied man wearing a t-shirt and gym shorts was standing up in a crowd of other tall, large bellied men wearing t-shirts and gym shorts. He was smiling, too. The young soldier went over and shook hands with the man and the hands of all the other men. Then he relaxed his shoulders a little, sat down.

Matt and I grabbed our Indian tacos – a hefty portion of bison and lettuce atop a bulbous piece of fried bread – and weaved our way through the crowd, toward the pavillion, running straight through the cigarette cloud coming from a group of teenagers adorned in skull caps, black pants and heavy metal t-shirts.

“I’m guessing not many people make it off the reservation?” I asked, after we sat down.

Matt shook his head. “Naw. But more do than they used to. At the university (University of North Dakota, in Grand Forks) there’s a woman going to law school. Back in the 80’s or so, when I was a kid, that was unheard of. And some who did manage to leave are moving back to the Rez. The schooling is improving and there’s also a renewed focus on tribal traditions. But pretty much everyone you see here will never leave.”

20140725_204656A dozen men dressed in bright colors and feathers moved out onto the grassy area. When the drumming began, they started dancing. Their movements mirrored the drumming – feet softly tapping the earth, then stomping hard when the drumming came on harder, as if they were trying to crack the earth with each step. Every now and then they’d leap in the air as if they were trying to catch the shreaking voices. Then soft mincing with still torsos and relaxed arms when the drumming and voices softened together. All the men had their own distinct dance, but matched each other in intensity with the rise and fall of the song. The song finally ending on one final, Earth shuddering downbeat. All the dancers remained frozen in their last pose for a moment. Then they relaxed and the crowd applauded. The men shook each other’s hands, walked off, their chests heaving.

Later in the night, a gawky teenage boy in traditional dress except for a pair black horn rim Buddy Holly eye-glasses led a drum circle of equally gawky younger boys wearing t-shirts and gym shorts. The skinny group of kids swung down hard on the drum with sticks about the same size of their arms. Their faces contorted, as if they’d tasted something sour, when they went for the higher notes. Older folks stood around them, proudly, filming them with iPhones. After they came down hard on the last beat, they held still, caught their breath, then looked up at the crowd around them. During the applause, an older man walked up to the teenage boy with the glasses, grabbed his shoulder, squeezed it, stared in his eyes without saying a word, then walked away.

“Let’s give those boys another large round of applause,” said the announcer. “Now, we’re about done for the night. But I want all of you to not forget to head down to the casino tonight and have a good time!”

“Is that Arnie?” Asked Matt, as we were leaving. The short, fat indian wearing a cowboy hat approached us.

“There’s Matt!” Arnie exclaimed, then shook Matt’s hand.

“How’s it going, Arnie?”

“Aw, man…I need a drink!”

“What?! I thought you’re supposed to be on the wagon?”

“Jesus, Matt, can’t you take a joke?” He pointed to his cowboy hat. “You see the hat, the hat means I’m workin, not drinkin…but come on, man, you’re a Rezzie, you know how it is.”

20140725_204422-1Down the hill. Passed the dark rodeo arena. The highschool. The water towers. The casino. Highway 57 became Highway 20. Long, straight Highway 2. It was past midnight, the world was only the size of the reach of my headlights. It was a lonely world, with only the odd pair of headlights coming in to my world then leaving to resume the chase of their own world. But the thunderous drumming and those shreaking voices kept going on inside me. When I got to the farm I killed the engine, sat in the dark. I couldn’t even see the the dash. Then I stepped out of the car and stood still in the smoke-thick darkness for some time. The drumming. The voices. Cool moonless night. Then I looked up and gradually the entire sky was alight with stars. The drumming. The voices. The Milky Way fluttered so softly in a line from the Northeast to the Southwest. I like…I need…the big open sky. I need to see the twinkling stars clear down to the horizon, in every direction. To keep me reminded that I am amongst the starts, not separate from them. Not separate from anything.

Be well…



Hello Everybody,

A few evenings ago I was driving back from visiting my friends, Matt and Laurel from the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks, when I saw something moving in the road. I thought it was a rabbit hopping along the road until I got closer and saw it was a baby fox. Wow, a fox! A baby fox. I slowed down. The baby fox scurried to the left and to the right as if he was unsure of where to go. I stopped about ten feet from him, got out, watched him. He turned to me and froze. His pointy ears and wide eyes were very large for his little head. He kept his eyes on me as he moved about, uncertainly. He had none of the swift, smoky movements like a fox.

20140701_201051I gazed over the still-green potato fields on either side of the road. I didn’t see a mamma fox around. The only things out there other than potatoes were the irrigation sprinklers going phft, phft, phft, phft…and maybe the hum of a tractor, maybe not. I turned back to the fox. Hey there little fella, where ya tryin’to go? Tryin’ to go BACK somewhere? To go TO somewhere? Or did you lose your momma and you’re just scared? He skidded back from me a bit. It’s alright, little guy, I’m a friendly…gee, it’s good I have Matt and Laurel and the rest of the folks at the museum to visit out because after a few days alone out here I’m talking to myself and to the animals and trees and everything else as my thoughts swirl to a thick cream that I have to crawl through but ultimately get lost in and am I speaking out loud or am I thinking this?

The fox finally skidded into the ditch on the right side of the road. I watched his bushy tail bounce in the high grass until it disappeared. BACK? TO? Or just running? I scratched my head, pondering those possibilities. Such a poor little young fox…I scratched it again…lost out there…I scratched my head yet again…alone…then I scratched my arm, slapped my leg. The mosquito’s had found me, so I got back in the car and resumed my drive to the farm-house in McCanna – 35 miles west of Grand Forks – where Laurel and Matt and all the great folks at the NDMoA have set me up for my artist residency.

“The house was built in 1920,” Matt had told me, when I first came through North Dakota. Matt is the director of the Rural Arts Initiative at the museum. “Margery McCanna parent’s built it. Then she inherited and spent the summers out here until she died. She was a good friend of Laurel’s, and bequeathed the house and 10 of the surrounding acres to the museum.”

20140714_215251“The McCanna’s were one of the first bonanza farmers to come out here,” said Laurel, curator of the museum and Matt’s aunt, “in 1881 on the Homestead Act. In those days, a bonanza farmer would come out here, throw all his money into farming several thousand acres and they either made a huge profit and began a farming empire, or making a huge bust and heading back East a loser. A bonanza either way.”

I spend my days out here like this: wake up around 7:30, load up on coffee, have breakfast, meditate, have a little more coffee, spend the morning and early afternoon shaping up a novel I wrote about the time I traveled all over America on a Greyhound Bus…

*** It’s called It’s A Long Ride, Man and is due out late 2014, early 2015!!! Stay tuned for details!!! ***

This is my second residency with the NDMoA, second stay out at the farm. This time I’ve also hired me to fix the windows in the old house. Some of the windows have jammed in their frames, having been painted shut for decades, because the window frames have shifted as the house has settled, or for other reasons. I spend the afternoons and early evening working on the windows. The labor offers a welcomed shift of psyche after having my head in the book all day. I sand, scrape, chisel, oil, paint, moving from one window to the other. After I make a pass by all the windows, I start again, one room to the other, seeing which ones swing open, which ones are still sticking. After I make a few passes in a room, I clean up the windows and frames and touch them up with paint.

The other day I was working on a window in the master bedroom, upstairs. Through the window, I saw the wind whipping the tops of the trees around the house. Their trunks were still but the high leafy branches swayed drastically to the left and right like pom-pom’s shaken by giant petrified cheerleaders. The tree nearest to the window was a birch, the leaves of which are dark green on one side and light green on the other. The leaves fluttered fast from light green to dark green, making my view out the window look static-y as if the world’s rabbit ears needed to be turned slightly to catch The Great Frequency. I grew dizzy as I watched the leaves sway and change color, I turned away, rubbed my eyes. When I looked out the window again I noticed just how much the old tree was leaning.

20140717_124538“Pretty much every tree you see in every direction was man-planted, “Matt had told me, “The birch were planted out here when the house was built. So, almost 100 years ago. They planted them around the house to keep from going crazy from the wind.”

“Oh yeah,” said Laurel, the wind was maddening for the settlers. It was brutal, the wind and the cold and the storms without any shielding. Alcoholism was rampant. The men would disappear. The wives would be left alone out here, or left with a family to try to keep together. There were many suicides. My great-aunt came down with my grandpa from Saskatchewan in 1906. She killed herself out here.”

Very little of the wind makes it through the trees, at ground level. Many times a day I’ll walk about the grounds and let the sun hit me. The still warmth calms me and I am far from madness. But all I have to do is look up to see the tops of those trees, blown so hard like they’re about snap sometimes reminding me of the madness that’s just above my head.

After finishing up the windows for the day, I cook supper. Matt’s parents had butchered a steer and hog over the spring and he gave me several cuts of both. I’ll throw a little salt and pepper on the meat, throw it on the grill. Matt also maintains a garden on the farm, and in the evenings I’ll pull up some spinach, onions or swiss chard, clean it, cook it. Cooking’s always been a hassle for me, in the cities, when eating’s simply something to get out of the way. But out here, it is part of my day, part of my life.

20140717_190106Prepare, eat, clean. I like the process. I take my time with it, and do it whenever I’m hungry. It’s nice to eat when I’m hungry, not when I have to. It’s nice to be writing and get an idea for the windows and leave the laptop and pick up the wood chisel, as nice as it is to be working on a window when I get an idea on the book, and I head to the lap top. Or, stop it all to pick up the guitar. At all times of the day song lyrics and poetry flow into me and I immediately and I run to the note pad and pen in the kitchen. About 70% is just scribble, but the other 30% I will read or sing in front of anybody. I’ve got a strong connection to The Big IS out here. No, those rabbit ears don’t need to be adjusted, leaves are supposed to flutter in the wind, and the dizziness is just clarity. The shifting leaves is the clear view. And when it’s time to eat at 5pm…6pm…10pm or whenever, I look over my plate and feel truly grateful for the abundance. I give a thank you to The Big IS. Then I look at he clock on the stove and laugh. Ha, ha, silly idea, ‘time’.

Last night after supper, I built a fire, like most nights. Like most nights, I brought a book and my guitar out with me. But I ended up just staring into the fire for hours, like most nights. The chaos of my mind rages through the flames like a storm. I grow calmer. Sure, memories surface, but they tend to burn up quick. There’s nothing about the future – those thoughts, fortunately, are much too flammable and burn to nothing in an instant. Calmer. It’s just my infinite mind and the flames and strong, pure feeling of existing. I follow the thin plume of smoke straight up into the old leaning birch tree. The plume of smoke rises through the branches and the dark green then light green leaves, into the dark blue where that maddening wind ushers it into the indigo sky and it disappears. Hmm, the first stars are out. Calmer still…

20140712_220012I look down from the night and follow the smoke plume down through the branches and leaves, straight down into the fire that is smelting with my mind wherein the little fox appears. Hey little guy. Did you know in Old English, ‘Todd’ means…oh, you did? Hmm…so tell me, are you going BACK? TO? Or just running? The little fox answers. I laugh. Good answer little fox, good answer.

Be well…

At Home In Forever

Hello Everybody,

Last week, I built a portable picnic table to be auctioned off at Independent Shakespeare Co’s “Vaudeville in the Park”, the company’s annual fundraiser for their summer productions in Griffith Park.


Get tickets HERE!

I built the table out of scrap wood from previous ISC productions. A few cuts with a saw, some screws, some glue, some sanding and shellac-ing and VOILA!…a little table that folds up to the size of a briefcase. Unfold it and you and a few friends can sit around it, partaking of wine, cheese, little sausages, vegetables or tofu or whatever you desire, whilst taking in the love, laughter, pain and tears of a Shakespeare play. You can enjoy simple Existence in a park on a planet rocketing through a rapidly expanding Universe as the sunset, coyotes calling from the hills and the cool evening breeze rattling the leaves of the trees will make you believe that IT’s all moving much more slowly.


Last Friday, I checked out ISC’s production of Romeo and Juliet in the company’s studio space in Atwater Village. Only 8 actors were tasked with bringing to life the soaring melodrama of Romeo and Juliet, which they do so to great effect, effortlessly changing into other characters – donning a mustache here, a hat there – in between dancing, masquerading, falling in love, joking around, duelling, getting stabbed, getting married, getting stabbed some more and getting poisoned on a set constructed from the remnants of the set I built for last summer’s Shakespeare festival. Over the last year, the set has served as Scotland for Macbeth, the English countryside for She Stoops To Conquer, the Forest of Arden in As You Like It, Paris for Cyrano de Bergerac, and now Verona for Shakespeare’s timeless tail of underage love.

20140416_103128A utility ladder served as the balcony where Juliet famously asks the stars, wherefore art my Romeo? For that moment, I believed the ladder was a balcony. Romeo answered her from across the studio on little wooden bench which serves as a convincing tree. Little cut-out starts hung between the two teenagers to serve as the cosmos. Eternity spanned between the ladder and the bench, and the two lovers had so much hope in their eyes I almost believed they’d really be able to reach across Space and hold each other forever. But the gravity of the hatred between their families proved too strong, and the star-crossed lovers ultimately fell to an Earth. Romeo ends up poisoning himself, Juliet stabbing herself over her dead starlover’s body on the bench that used to be a tree, now serving as a crypt. A few scenes before it served as the honeymoon bed, on which the two stars collided, pawed at each other with so much sweet lust. But that happy scene felt like it never happened by the time the two dead children were carried offstage and their parents were left to live with the consequences of their rivalry…or former rivalry, for the two fathers looked to be void of hatred at the end, in fact, void of anything. They walked offstage together, two black holes caught in each other’s gravity for eternity.

My friend, Erica, wonderfully portrayed Juliet. After the show the following Sunday afternoon, I went over to her studio apartment in Burbank to build a divider wall.


Get tickets HERE!

“I have family coming to visit” she said. “I wanna break the space up just enough to be able to say, here is where we eat and where I sleep and here is the living room. It’s a teeny tiny place, but it’d be nice to feel that my home isn’t just one room, you know?”

Erica’s boyfriend Kevin – also performing in Romeo and Juliet – and I built the wall in Erica’s parking spot. Troy, the apartment superintendent, was repairing the railing on the second floor balcony of complex.

“Did Erica tell you, bro,” he said, after he finished working, “Erica locked herself out the other day, so I crawled up into her window to let her in…and some f#$king tenant, I don’t know who…yet…filed a complaint.” He was rolling up an extension cord, jerking the cord down the stairs. He had black paint all over his face and hands, clothes. “F#$king making this place nicer for people to live in, bro, and somebody does that? Shit…I don’t even wanna be here. I’m really an underwater welder. $80 and hour. But I got in a car wreck and ended up with this…” he lifted up a pant leg to reveal an artificial leg. “That’s the only reason I’m here.” He finished rolling up the extension cord and walked off, but seconds later he came back. “I mean that’s bullshit, right? Treating me like I’m some f#$king creep? F#$king right it’s bullshit, bro. You know, I can dive no problem with one leg, but shit…they won’t even let me drive.” Erica came down to see how we were doing. “He Erica?” Troy asked. “Can you give me a ride to the Red Line?”

Erica took Troy to the subway. By the time she was back, Kevin and I finished the wall. We carried it up the stairs, twisted and turned it until we got it in the tiny apartment. After a few adjustments, I mounted it to the ceiling and…BAM!…Erica had a wall in her home. The three of us squeezed into corner by the front door to get the best view of the place.

20140413_214154“Now it looks like I really have a bedroom! Kinda…” She said as she hopped over by the love seat that serves as a couch. “See,” she pointed throughout the room, “Eat there, sleep there, live here!”

A few days later, I hung out with my friend, Sean – also a friend of Erica’s and Kevin’s and member of ISC. A few months ago, he and his girlfriend found out they were going to have a baby.

“Granted…” Sean raised his eyebrows, cocked his head to the side, “…I’m not giving birth, but I’ve only felt a great sense of calm and love, since we found out. Where we’re gonna have the baby…they’re big believers on skin on skin as quick as possible. Like the baby comes out, and I open my shirt, and they put it him or her right on me, blood and all. They said bring an extra shirt. I can’t wait.” He raised his eyebrows, cocked his head again. “But four people were let go at work a while back, without notice. There’s not a great feeling of security right now. There never has been, really. I’ve always felt like any moment I’ll be let go, but now,” eyebrows, head shake, “you know, I…”

“I was let go by the restaurant,” my friend, Jason, told me, the next day as we drove around Hollywood. His four-month old daughter, Vivienne, sat in a car seat in the back – crying when we stopped, quiet when we moved. “I mean, I only took it because I had to travel so much with my other job. I thought I’d be nice to be home as much as possible, at least the first year of her life. It’s the first time I’d ever been fired from a job.” He pulled out his phone and began dialing a number on his phone. “I’m just gonna have to look in other directions to make money.” He looked in the rearview mirror. “She’s asleep.” He pulled over, slowly. “I gotta call my bank before it closes. My credit card was compromised and somebody in Connecticut’s been using it.”

Jason waited on hold for several minutes. By the time the customer service agent got back on the line, Vivienne had awoken, was crying. Jason told the agent what happened and the agent placed him on hold again. He resumed driving, Vivienne fell asleep.

“Oh,” he said, “did I tell you we almost moved?”


“Yeah, to Echo Park. It was a real nice 2-bedroom. The owners liked us and everything. I was just about to call you to come help move. But they wanted way too much up front. For a week, though, we thought it was ours.” The customer came back on the line, and he pulled over. Vivienne cried. “Uh-huh…uh-huh…so, the bank is closed for the weekend, so…whoever’s got my card number can use it? Uh-huh…uh-huh…call another number?” Vivienne cried louder, Jason began to drive. “…alright, yeah, I guess. Give it to me and I’ll call them.” He quickly reached for a pen in the console, wrote the number on an envelope. “Thanks.” He hung up the phone. “Actually, it was a lot of stress and anxiety, hoping we’d get the place. I guess it worked out for the best. I don’t think we could’ve afforded it if we got it, anyway.”

20140419_135729I’d been looking for a new place to live, too (see the Jamberoo: Still Standing After The Great Shake) scouring the internet, walking around the neighborhood, calling any available apartment I saw. The rent in East Hollywood is skyrocketting, in perfect sync to the speed with which the Target Superstore on Sunset Boulevard is being constructed, which is in sync with the growing number of hipster bars, boutiques and cross-fit training gyms appearing on Hollywood Boulevard. A few months ago, I could afford quite a few places in the neighborhood. Now, most places were too expensive.

“The place was built in 1930,” said Patrick, the short, chubby superintendent of a bachelor-apartment building I inquired about. He sweated, panted as we rode up the tiny elevator together. “How many buildings you looked at with a elevator? But you’ll be using the stairs a good part of the time. Hey, it’s a elevator from 1930, it’s old, it breaks down.” We got out on the top floor and he led me into a tiny apartment. “One room, no kitchen except for the stove and fridge over there. Stand up shower, but hey, you get a great closet.”

The apartment was smaller than Erica’s. This is too small for me, I thought. And too damn small for the price they want! However, all I owned could fit in one corner of the closet. But what does it matter, if I can afford it? And I have all the room I need? And if I like the place, then…

“Listen, it’s Hollywoooooood,” Patrick said from across the tiny space. “This is a steal. You want it you can start now. But listen, I don’t want any bullshit, you know. You’re clean, you’re quiet, then we’ll get along. But you gimme bullshit…hey…I been a actor for 19 years, I’ll give you bullshit right back. So…it’s $125 to apply which, you know, I already like ya…and $900 a month plus all utilities, $500 deposit…”

…I could walk across the entire space in three good steps, my own little room in the world…

“For that you get a quaint, classy, classic place to live. This is Old Hollywood, you know. And look, the carpet’s brand new.”

…my own little place to call home, with new carpet…

“Oh, and no co-signers. I don’t deal with that bullshit.”


20140410_184025-1I decided I would not get an apartment until the end of the summer, when I’ll have more money. Where’s your proof, Todd? What have you gathered from your life that convinces you there’ll be more money at the end of the summer? Till then, I’ll live in my car, since I’ll be traveling so much over the summer. Uh, what car, Todd?

For hours, I descended into internetland, hoping to find a low-cost vehicle that would get from place to place, in which I could store my belongings and on which I could load materials for jobs. Everything was A STEAL! that the owner was selling ONLY BECAUSE I NEED THE MONEY! that they HATE TO LET GO! that RUNS GOOD! but NEEDS JUST A LITTLE TLC! My eyes hurt as I hung suspended in the Paradox of Choice.

You are fooling yourself, Todd. You can’t afford a car either. No car?! No apartment?! Whadd’ya gonna do, Todd?! I looked away from the screen, cracked my fingers, then did what I usually do when I threaten myself with that question, I googled…

…jobs fishing boats Alaska…

But as much as I think I want to drift into obscurity in Arctic waters, I can’t do it right now. I have to be in New York in May to act in a film. I have to be back here in LA in June to build ISC’s set in Griffith Park. Then I’m in North Dakota for the month of July for an artist residency through the North Dakota Museum of Art. From there, I go to Chicago to act in a play. Then I’m back in LA at the end of August to strike the set for ISC. There’s simply no time for fishing.

20140418_183104My life has gotten real big and vibrant, with all kinds of cool shit to do. Friends keep popping out of thin air. Time flies these days and every now and when I grasp how fast IT’s all going, I quit being an individual and once again transform to stardust…my natural state. And stardust is eternal. I’m eternal. So are you. The settings change over and over and over, but IT goes on forever. And there’s always a ride, always a couch, out here in Eternity.

Be well…

The Great Wide Open

Hello Everybody,

Minneapolis - Home of, Prince, one of the coolest dudes to shred a guitar.

Minneapolis – home of, Prince, one of the coolest dudes to ever shred a guitar.

Greetings from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport!  It’s bright and sunny here in the Twin Cities.  It’s also 2 degrees Fahrenheit.  Seeing the sunshine in such cold weather is on par with – I suspect – watching an ice cube not melt in an oven. It’s happening right before your eyes, defying logic. Logic, of course, was created by humans somewhere way back in the old timey times, and is forever develping.  We humans have broken our backs adhearing to our self-created logic, no matter how often Change opens up a can of whoop-ass on us. Hey, all I’m saying is that in some other universe – or alternative time track – an ice cube is not melting in an oven.  The uncertainty principle allows for such illogical events.  And the uncertainty principle was a conclusion brought about by logical thinking.  So it’s only logical that….bleh.

I’m waiting on my 2nd flight out of three – on my way back to New York.  Grand Forks, ND to Minneapolis, MN to Philadelphia, PA to The Big Apple. It’s already a long day and I still got a long way to go.  A long day, to close out a long, amazing week.

We – Matt, Greg and Jerry from the North Dakota Museum of Art, along with myself – set out from New York at 3pm on Tuesday.  If you didn’t read last week’s El Jamberoo, we were charged with the task of packing up everything in deceased artist Barton Benes’ Greenwich Village apartment and transporting it all to Grand Forks, where the museum will recreate the cramped spectacle of artifacts, oddities and art out on the Great Plains.  A gentle sun shined as we finished loading the trucks – which took two days. But by the time we lumbered the two hulking Penske rental trucks through the Lincoln tunnel and re-birthed them into New Jersey, the weather had turned and rain began to fall.  Matt and I paired up in one truck.  I drove first.

America is filled with all kinds of highs and lows.

America is filled with all kinds of highs and lows.

While Matt made phone call after phone call – lining up storage for Benes’ stuff, etc – I motored us onward through rush-hour on the rising and falling landscape.  The rain fell harder as we puttered through Jersey and into Pennsylvania, passing towns with names like Hopatcong and Tommahanny.  The traffic thinned after the Poconos – the rain stayed – and I was able to take in the scenery a little better.  Interstate 80 ushered us over the huge gorges and quarries of central Pennsylvainia.  The darkening sky gave Iron Country a haunted air, as the steam from rivers rose to join the darkness.  Railroads ran along mountainsides and it was easy to think I was driving further back into Time, when the rails were the arteries of the nation.  But after the last of the gray sky went dark, all I could see was the tracers of headlights coming my way, the taillights ahead of me, and the well lit billboards advertising everything we all need for a happy fulfilled American life.  Then it was easy for me to see I was in modern times.

Since Matt was on and off the phone I didn’t think he would be able to see much along the way. But when he hung up the phone for the last time, he looked at me and said, “Isn’t it amazing how most of this country is named after Indians but we all but erased them from history.  It’s just basically Geronimo and Sitting Bull in school and that’s it.”

The next day’s drive offered the same as they day before – gray skies, rain, Indian names.  We crossed over to Ohio and along the Cayahoga River, Black River and Maumee River, little towns nestled in the woods along the banks.  Pointy churches and pointy homes rose high, piercing the sky to let more water out.  The towns were rusty and old, looked as if they hadn’t changed in many decades and would not change for many more.  But I was wrong, everything changes. Even Ohio, which changed to Indiana in the late afternoon.  There, the landscape was flatter.  The weather changed, too.  Snow began to fall and soon I couldn’t see but a few yards beyond the hood.  We turned off I-80 and exited through an automatic toll booth that made change in Sacagawea dollar coins.  That made good American sense – to automate, so America wouldn’t have to hire an American to do the job.  The fact that the booth couldn’t make exact change was but a little matter, I’m sure, to the lawmakers who tell us they want to create more jobs.  That kind of logic is right at home in some other universe, I suspect.

Sacagawea, and Indian showing the White man The Way.

Sacagawea, an Indian showing the White man The Way.

We stayed the night in Michigan City, Indiana and ate a Texas Roadhouse.  Matt shelled out the Sacagaweas for the waitress’ tip and was amazed to see not a portrait of the Indian woman who saved the lives of Lewis and Clark and was a major factor in their success in crossing the continent, but portraits of Andrew Johnson, Rutherford B Hayes and Ullyses S Grant.  I knew they erased Sacagawea from the dollar coin some time ago, and I guess it made good American sense to replace a pivotal figure in our history with presidents who’s administrations ranged from rather forgettable to downright scandalous.  It was just a shame to be reminded of that in Indian-a.

The next morning – after coffee, an hour of the History Channel and commercials apealing to me to ask my doctor about testosterone defficiency – we headed further westward.  We left Indiana, traveling along I-94, and after paying about $150,000 to the Illinois Toll Road System, we hit the lanes of easy Wisconsin blacktop.  The land rose and fell so friendly.  Little farms peaked out over the snow drifts from the previous days’ blizzard.  People had to drive quite a distance to get what they needed, out there.  There were no corner delis or Fresh Direct for Wisconsin farmers.  The still trees, grain silos and red barns reminded me that America moves at many speeds, and that no speed was any better than the other.  Americans are animals, adapted to several environments, weather shaping the morals and logic of each region.  But we are all good animals, and there is room out there for all of us to feel and live the way we are compelled to live…and WE DON’T have to live the way TV anchors and bloated politicians say we want to live.  I couldn’t devote much time to my American theories that afternoon, however, for I had to share the road with many 18-wheelers.  Behind me, ahead of me and beside me, big rigs sped toward a deadline down by the setting sun.  I had to mind the road – or else – as I motored Barton Benes’ apartment through land that would make a fine painting. The only thing that would make the painting a masterpiece would be the sun, I thought. Then BAM! The sun burst underneath the clouds just before sunset, sometime after crossing the Kishwaukee River.

Every day happens everyday.

Every day happens everyday.

The western horizon glowed in fiery yellows, reds, pinks.  A Big Sky sunset – no buildings or anything else man created could hide it from me and it felt good to be out in the Great Wide Open. It felt good to be an American.  It really did.  Because out there in The Great Wide Open I can be the American I want to be, the American I can be proud of.  When I’m away from Electric, Spoon-Fed America, I don’t have to choose one side or the other.  I don’t have to choose blue or red, left or right, conservative or liberal.  Out in The Great Wide Open, I am reminded that there are many more colors – and directions –  known in existence than just two.  Further, I am reminded that given the choice of “one or the other” is no way to exist at all.  I’d gotten really wise by the time an 18-wheeler curled around me fast and close in the dark.  I had to hold my lane as to not drift onto the icy shoulder.  I watched the semi’s taillights grow smaller and steered my thoughts to the road, only the road.  Too much philosophizing takes a driver out of the moment, leads him away from the sun and into the darkness.

We stopped at a hotel in Monticello, Minnesota for the night.  We couldn’t get our things out of the back of the truck because the lock on the door was frozen.  I shivered uncontrollably while Matt put a flame to the lock.  My nose hairs froze and my face burned in the cold.  Each of us blew big clouds of steam in the blue black night.  It was -4 degrees and I was instantly reminded that I was from Texas.  I felt I would crack to dust if it got any colder.

But it was -15 degrees next morning and I still held together as Matt heated the locks again.  Matt’s from the North Country.  He moves in a way suggesting he is very familiar to the cold.  He had adapted to the weather.  I figured I was adapting, or just going numb. Whatever the case, I was able to fire up the truck and pull her out onto I-94.  It was a half day’s of drive to Grand Forks.  The sun was shining bright behind us and I had to squint against the glare of the pure white landscape before me.



But about two hours into the drive, the sky turned white and in no time it was impossible to tell earth from sky.  By the time we got to Fargo, ND, the snow was falling and the roads iced over.  Waves of snow crawled across the road like little snake clouds – mezmerising – albino serpents guiding us into the underworld.  I fought the temptation to follow the snakes into the white abyss until a green sign – “Grand Forks Next Exit” – hovered in the air.  I exited I-29, toward Grand Forks, away from frozen hell.  Minutes later, I was backing the truck into a loading dock.  Then I killed the engine, jumped down from the cab.  The trip was over. Such a long journey ending so quickly.  But don’t they all?

Barton Benes lived in his little studio apartment at West Beth Artist Housing for 42 years.  It took us two days to load up his life.  It took us two hours to unload it.  We had a good crew and we didn’t have to negotiate any steep stairways, narow elevators, broken cobble stones or grumpy New York shut-ins.  Seeing his boxed life in the big storage room in Grand Forks made it so clear to me how life comes and goes – how grand it is while at the same time only a burp in time.  Just before we left I took one last look at Bartons’ stuffed giraffe.  It was wrapped in plastic, almost hidden by cardboard boxes.  If it were alive, it would not be pleased with the weather of his new environment.  But it would’ve adapted to it.  Or died.  That’s what the lesser animals do.  It’s only the highest species – we who create wisdom, morals, Republicans, rape, Democrats, and logic – that has the priviledge to either adapt, die, or live miserably until we adapt or die.  But out in The Great Wide Open, we are reminded that we created misery, and reminded it is a choice.

Live Free or Die.

End of the road, yet life goes on.

Be well…

Move It On Down The Road

Hello Everybody,


Bell Laboratories, early 1900’s.

West Beth Artist Housing is a complex of buildings way west in Greenwich Village, a short walk away from the lumbering Hudson River.  West Beth used to be the famous Bell Laboratories, where the first sound motion picture, the first TV broadcast, and the first binary computer were first demonstrated.  It was the home of firsts for The Future.  Those firsts are inseparable from the USofA’s movement away from being a web of isolated communities to being one giganto power on the world stage.  In fact, not only did Bell Labs help make us a great power of the 20th century, it also paved the way to our position as the first great power of the 21st century and therefore, the first great power of the POST HUMAN ERA (echo, echo, echo, followed by evil laugh, then fade out).

Bell Labs closed in 1966.  But soon after – in another first – it was converted to living quarters for the city’s artist population.  Little 850 square foot, cookie cutter studio apartments – very narrow but lengthy, with bathroom and kitchenette – were handed out to some of The Big Apple’s big population of struggling artists.  Thus West Beth was born, and gave life to those in search for the meaning of it.  For the most part, anyway.  It was a rather utopian gesture developed out of sacred ruins of American Industry.  Now, some New York artists had affordable housing and could continue arting with a little more ease.  Barton Benes was one of those artist.

Barton Benes

Barton Benes

I rode the elevator in West Beth to the 9th floor and walked into Barton Benes’ apartment.  My friends – Matt, Brian, Danni and Greg – from the North Dakota Museum of Art – were already there, packing up Benes’ things.  Benes’ passed away last year – aged 69 – and had bequeathed the contents of his apartment to the NDMoA so that the museum could recreate his apartment as it was in NYC, in Grand Forks, ND.  I was glad to be a part of the packing.  I’d heard Barton’s apartment was filled with all kinds of slightly to downright macabre artifacts and oddities from all over the world.  I was not disappointed.  Upon entering the apartment, I also entered –  at once – a museum, freak show, live game trophy room, arsenal, opium den, 18th century English library, mausoleum, apothecary – and a place with so many rat droppings it could’ve been a breeding ground for the hantavirus.

Barton Benes' apartment.

Barton Benes’ apartment.

“Barton wanted this place to be his life’s work,” Brian said.  “This apartment was his life, his masterpiece.”

We spent hours boxing and moving items to an empty apartment on a lower floor.  Each time we’d come back to Barton’s, we’d give a collective sigh, for it looked like no progress had been made, whatsoever.  The room was chock full of stuff – floor to ceiling.  We twisted and turned, sucked in our guts, squeezed in and filled more boxes.  There was a pressure to the room.  More so, a force emanating from all the nicknacks and from the eyeballs of the stuffed goat, bull, foxes, squirrels and giraffe – yes, I said giraffe – and many other creature’s that I’d yet to google as of this writing.  Everything pushed in on, and over us as if a crease in the fabric of Space had developed by our dismantling of Barton’s life.  I felt like I was committing a cosmic wrong – erasing a man from ever existing.  But, this was Barton’s specific wish, his last request.  After noting that fact – several times throughout the day – the eyes of all the animals would turn their gaze from me and back to the underworld.  The chlaustrophobic feeling let up a little and moving around got a bit easier.


The remains of the remains of Brenda Woods, of which Barton used in one of his works.

Barton Benes first made a mark on the art scene by working with cash – which had been pulled from circulation,  that he’d procured from the United States Treasury.  He’d shred or cut up the dead currency and used it as papier mache, to decorate ash trays, compasses, drafting tools, necklaces, etc.  The works sported the dollar – that we so slave to gain enough of so that we may be able to slow down one day and make a decision with the kind patience that a fat wallet allows – in ways outside the magic and sugary appeal it holds, and shows us God Money is just paper.  Needless to say, Barton did not gain fat wallet from those early artistic searches with the dollar.  Later, after testing HIV positive in 1982, and watching friend after friend die – he began using his own blood as an artistic medium, along with the blood of others stricken with HIV and AIDS.  He would fill his and their blood into water guns, blot it on tips of darts, fill up perfume spritzers with it.  When someone would die, he’d work with their cremated remains.  He’d keep the dead of the fallen living in his work as he, himself, struggled to stay alive.  I don’t know if his wallet got any fatter because that, but I doubt he made much, if any, because just about everybody – even New York’s art scene – were hesitant and fearful to exhibit Barton’s work.  North Dakota wasn’t, however.  North Dakota showed the blood, ashes and truth.  North Dakota looked Barton in the eye, and a fat wallet can’t buy that satisfaction.  A little fame did come his way, though, as he kept at it.  I’m sure that was a nice consolation prize.

Little drawers holding the universe.

Little drawers holding the universe.

Joan, Barton’s neighbor for many years, poked her head in on Saturday.

“I just wanted to see it one more time,” she said, with one of those sad smiles one earns from the passing of someone close.

Brian and I followed her to her apartment to help the super switch out Joan’s old air-conditioner with Barton’s newer model.  Joan was a sweetheart.  She showed us how she made great use of the limited space of the studio.  High shelfs and loft space on top of cabinets capitalized on the high ceilings.  But even for all the spacial utilization, the place still felt cramped, like a pen.  Joan was around 60 years old, and she had to climb a latter then crawl in 3 feet of space onto her bed every night.  Not only that, but at about 60, she was still living in supportive housing.  Wasn’t she tired of that?  Fortunately, I didn’t insult her with that question, because at the moment I formed it in my head, I realized I’d been the butt of a MAJOR joke…a joke I play on myself all the time.  And I heard the Cosmos laughing when I froze in revelation.


View of Greenwich Village from Barton’s apartment. See all the little strugglers just like me and you?

I – once again – had fooled myself that, at some point, living goes onto a kind of cruise control and smooths out.  That when we get older, the roads get less bumpy, and there would be less of a struggle – month to month would be more like year to year.  That there would be no mystery attached to the next dollar I needed.  I mistakenly thought that – for Pete’s sake – the world gives a body a break and says, Alright, old kiddo, that’s enough.  You’ve done good, now get outta the ring and relax a little.  Come, lets get a mojito.

I’m not naive.  And I know everybody’s gotta die someday, and about that, I can say I’m truly not worried – actually I’m kind of curious.  And, of course life is a struggle for all of us.  But damn, if it’s not easy to forget that the 401K, the full health insurance and the stock options come to those who take a job that offers a retirement package.  Maybe like those employees at Bell Labs.  Someone hell bent on artistic search can all but be certain that a comfy retirement will not be there when he or she can go no further.  And, from what I hear from my friends with jobbie-jobs that offer retirement benefits – working on their own masterpieces in their own way – the modest-yet-carefree-American-retirement is going the way of the do-do bird.  Social security will be obliterated soon, co-pays are getting higher, just about everything from birth onward is a pre-existing injury today – and as far as gambling at the stock market’s table, it seems only the dealer’s winning.  So maybe there won’t be a retirement playground for any of us.  I guess that makes all of us artists.

Only a tiny percentage of artists hit the golden lottery.  Movie stardom, genius grants, royalties to a #1 hit go to those artists who are bankable.  But most are gonna toil as they search for enlightenment but only find love and then realize that the two are one and the same and find it’s that realization that one really needs to continue onward.  Love tells us we need not fight anything or anyone, only search.  The artist who goes into the wilderness of reality and finds the answer of love, learns love’s lessons stone solid, and will tell you life was absolutely worth it – every thorn and fang.  But, oddly enough, the artist has to rely on survival instincts to the very last breath, when they cross over to the great beyond –  in bed, on oxygen in their narrow, crammed part of the studio, where the guts of the TV were invented.  And – quite possibly – alone.

Barton didn’t die alone.  He had a group of warm, loving friends send him off.

No cult of fame, here.

No cult of fame, here.

But a little fame or no, there were no candles, pin-ups, or crying teenie-boppers at the entrance to West Beth the night of Barton Benes’ passing.  He wasn’t an Elvis, or a Cobain, or even a Ledger or Winehouse.  He was just an artist and his apartment said it all – A life is full of twisting and turning through the dead and dying and sometimes it feels like its all on top of you – the sunlight fails to reach you and you can only see the eyes of the animals.  Then you keep going.

But death is not the end!  The North Dakota Museum of Art is gonna do what they can to recreate the great roadside carnival that was Barton Benes’ life – which includes a stone from Larry Hagman’s gall bladder!  Seriously!  They hired me to be one of the drivers.  So, I’ll be heading out on the road to Grand Forks this Tuesday, doing my little part for getting Barton down the road…and adding another road trip to my masterpiece in the process.


You GOTTA have a sense of humor about it all.

Be Well…