Tomas. First-gen Puerto Rican kid I met in West Chester, PA, and I was his art teacher, and he could draw like an old master when he was ten.

TylerArt6He and his friends showed up at our third-floor walk-up early mornings before school. I’d answer the knock—a toothbrush in my mouth. Tomas, the leader, would say, “We just like to watch you, Mr. Brennan.” They’d line up on the couch, the five of them.

I’d asked if I could draw him, he said okay, and I did—him sitting in the alley behind his house. I went home and painted a narrative portrait. When he saw it he asked, “Can I take it? Show my family?”

“Okay, but I want it back.”

“For sure.”

I never saw it again, and that’s okay.

On a Mission

MasksIt’s Friday night and everyone’s talking Spanish and you’re feelin the dance comin on and you’re in your groove and you’re owning the street and Tommy yells and flips the bird at a delivery truck and the black guy fryin up ribs in the trunk of his car laughs and you tell him you’ll catch him later and you pass the Indian place and Pancho’s Best of the Bay Burritos and you can hear the women inside chopping steak and chicken and the small Chinese woman herding a couple kids tells em to get out of your way and Brian says in his best-ever Elvis voice, “It’s alright momma, anyway you do.” He tips his hat and it’s an iconic jazzman’s hat and it’s alright. This is the last gasp of SF’s Mission District and the families and the cops and the hipsters and the drugged and the down and the gangsters and the artists and musicians and film-makers and poets and the gonna-be-poets and the long-term mental rental tenants wonder, “WTF?”

Sometimes it’s easy too look back and see where things went seriously and ass-over-tin-cups wrong.

GuzziOn the way in from the coast, across California’s nearly deserted great savannah and on a wonderfully wide, smooth road surface, I’d become a bit full of myself and let the bike off leash. “Let’s see what this thing’ll do,” I said into my helmet. Within seconds, I was somewhere north of 130mph and leaned into a long right sweeper. The bike couldn’t have been more steady had it been on rails. Plenty of throttle left, I kept my eyes on the exit of the turn and the long straight ahead. I was figuring this fuel-injected, pushrod Italian V-twin would be somewhere in excess of 150mph on that stretch when the doomed rabbit darted under my front wheel. The bike and I launched out of that perfect arc, and I was shot like a hockey puck across the opposite lane and out into God’s great outback of sage and rocks. On its side, the red bike plowed a hundred-mile-an-hour furrow. I slid close behind bouncing off rocks and branches like a pinball, feet first and on my back. My mind sped. Friction between my leathers and the ground heated up. By the time June slowed, got her bike turned around and back to where I had abandoned plan, I was on my feet.

Off her bike, she ran down into the devastation. “Are you okay?”

I pulled off my helmet. “Kinda stunned. Maybe okay.” I checked my neck, fingers. “Armor and leather—good. Help me get the bike up?”

“You’re white. You’re shaking,” she said.

“No shit.”

The machine, so elegant and adroit in motion, looked awful on its side with its bottom parts showing. Damn heavy, too. We muscled it upright, pulled metal, plastic and gravel away from the wheels and pushed the beast back up onto the road’s shoulder. If I’m ever on a bobsled team, I want June as one of the pushers.

The right side of the bike was wiped out: front brake lever, mirror, engine guard, and rear brake pedal. Zero brakes. Otherwise, the electrics still worked, and the fuel injection somehow survived. We backtracked along the skid marks and found the sheared brake lever and brake pedal. I wedged them into my tank bag.

June grinned. “Ready to try it again without brakes, hotshot?”

Memorial Day

RoseThey were young and strong brothers and they were the men of their family when the country came under direct attack with lives lost at Pearl Harbor. They dropped what they were doing, left the mines in Pennsylvania, enlisted, were trained with young men from neighboring mining towns and villages, and they fought back the invaders. The costs were dear. Just twenty-five percent of my father’s platoon returned from the Pacific, and they were changed men. We remember.

One of the skaters’ little known truths is how screwed their feet get from hours of training and competition. Blood in their socks, mangled toes, crushed arches and toe nails falling out.

Skate4

It started out as endurance racing in 1935. Then, in 1937, Roller Derby got to pushing-and-shoving and hysterically physical with teams competing in front of crowds of 10,000 people a day.

“Fans went wild for the derby. Fan clubs sprung up across the United States and thousands of fans subscribed to Roller Derby News, which changed to RolleRage in the early 1940s, to keep up with their favorite skaters. The roller derby appeared in over 50 major cities in 1940, playing to more than five million spectators.”  – National Museum of Roller Skating

It was my week to drive, we were late, and, technically, I was drunk. The Dodge wove between lanes and we were still an easy fifteen minutes from the Tyler parking lot, then another five-or-so to the painting studios.

TylerArt3

“You okay?” Ron asked. He had to be drunk, too, having just dropped me off from a long Friday night three hours ago.

“Yeah, sure.”

“Kinda fast. They don’t care if I’m late.”

“My guy does. We have a model, and he locks the door.”

“Oh.”

“Fuckin ‘oh’ and we made the light.”

I grabbed my box of paints, brushes and the rest of the crap and a couple tablets. “Later, Ron. Lock the car.”

I pushed in through the building entry, charged the stairs, dropped a goddam tablet, went down after it, back up the stairs, down the hall and to the studio.

The studio is generally as quiet as a church when there’s a model. Inhibition may play as large a role as respect—but it’s quiet. I pressed the door latch softly, hoping, begging that it wasn’t locked. It wasn’t. I entered and tip-toed between crowded tables, grad students and easels with my supplies sticking out both sides like a tinker’s cart. The model, a blond young woman, my age, stood naked with a plant on an elevated platform in the center of the studio. There, in the far corner, a space. I turned sideways to squeeze in and my cargo exploded! Jars, metal boxes, about a thousand pencils, tablets splayed, and a chair toppled. All eyes on me, including the model’s.

From across the room, the professor said, “Beautiful, isn’t she?”

A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth.

– John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)

4b5f982b79707edcb1bca98d56e402cb(Sojourner Truth from Pinterest)

We hope that artists pre-dating photography were really good at their art and had some sense of historic integrity—that Gilbert Stuart caught Dolley Madison’s early 19thcentury likeness and Washington’s army really did get horses onto those small boats crossing the Delaware as Emanuel Leutze suggests. We have to believe that Leonardo was pretty accurate with the Mona Lisa, right? Many of us find those images dear, fascinating—close to time travel.

Then came photography—arguably developed (ugh) between 1826 and 1839 and we get to see brief moments in the lives of Sojourner Truth, William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid and Frederick Douglass, prophet of freedom.

So, why images stashed in shoe boxes beneath our beds? Albums filled with first birthdays, grade school concerts, Nana’s picnic, Tyrone’s first car, Uncle Viv in Aunt Bobbi’s bra—some snapshots in duplicate and triplicate? The more organized among us have dated and neatly stashed albums covering (typically) three or four generations’ mostly mundane, rarely profound meanderings (“For future generations.”).

Then came Instagram! Whoo-boy, and look what I’m having for lunch!