It’s 1pm on a Friday afternoon. I’ve just finished teaching an English 101 class at Cal State Fullerton. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by the number of papers I must grade over the weekend. But I have more immediate concerns.
I stop at Ralphs to buy sugar and flour to make wheat paste, which I will use to put up a big poster outside our gallery. We have an opening tonight, and there is a lot to be done. I text Chuck to ask him to pick up a couple cases of wine. Now I’m in line at Kinko’s, waiting to have the big poster printed. When I pay for the poster, I have this familiar internal debate: should I use the gallery credit card or my own credit card? Technically, I know, I should use the gallery card. That would be the fair thing to do. But, as usual, I use my own credit card, because I know our financial situation. I know that we can’t really afford this, but I can.
Back at home, I make the wheat paste and send out a facebook message about our show.
I zoom over to the gallery, where Brian and a few artists are installing the show at PAS Gallery, our neighbors. We hung our show last night, but there’s still lots to be done, like the labels. Shit. I gotta make the labels. But first things first...the wheat paste poster.
Putting up wheat paste posters is actually one of my favorite things to do. There is a rich history of street artists who have used the medium of wheat paste posters. Normally, wheat pasting would be a felony, like any other type of “graffiti.” But this is MY business, and so I can wheat paste the hell out of it.
While the poster dries, I start typing up the labels. Dammit. One of the artists forgot to give us prices, so I call her and for the 84th time I have the semi-awkward conversation about pricing artwork. I ask her to price it as low as possible because our patrons, in general, are not wealthy. Our patrons are other artists, students, families, neighbors. In this economy, not many people have a thousand dollars lying around to buy a painting.
Nick arrives, eager to help. Trying to sound as un-bossy as possible, I ask him to set up the DJ station.
Steve arrives. I ask him to fold t-shirts.
On art opening days, I usually have a mental checklist scrolling through my head all day, a checklist that usually doesn’t get completed until around 6pm, when the opening begins. Wheat paste poster? Check. Labels? Check. Wine? Chuck. Facebook? Check. Sweeping? Damn. Still gotta sweep. I bet Landon will do that.
Tony cruises in on his skateboard, wanders around taking pictures.
5 o-clock. Crunch time. Oh shit. The vinyl sticker. The show title for the front wall. I feel bad calling Casey, our vinyl sticker guy, because every month we give him the design super last minute and we’re like, “We need this in two hours!” As I’m texting Casey, he walks in with the vinyl sticker. Phew. I give him $40, and then Tony and I put it up. Alright. The show is ready.
As I drive home for a quick shower and an even quicker dinner of cold pizza, I start thinking about a playlist for tonight. What do I want the vibe to be? Punk? Dance? Everything! We will improvise, like we always do.
As I’m finishing my pizza, I get a text from my dad, “We’re here. Where r u?”
I head back over, a little tired and anxious, but ready. What I really want is a cup of Candace’s sangria and a cigarette. After the stress of the day’s preparation, it usually takes me about three sangrias before I can actually start enjoying myself.
I hug my parents and grandma, warning them that some of the pieces are, as usual, “a little risqué.” They don’t seem to mind. They smile and eat their cheese and crackers and look at the art.
The people are starting to come. When we first opened the gallery, our crowd (being mostly in their 20s, like us) wouldn’t really show up until 8 or 9. But now that we have a full-blown Downtown Fullerton Art Walk with over 25 venues, people come earlier, and the crowd is way more diverse—families, old people, middle-aged people, people of all ethnicities and socio-economic levels. A good cross-section of the Fullerton community. I like it better this way. The young people still come out later, ready to party, but this feels more like a community art event, which it is.
Nick is on the turntables (actually only one turntable—the other one broke), playing New Wave. He digs the New Wave. I’m more of a punk.
Lots of little conversations. Leah from the Chamber of Commerce. A super old artist describes his work as “magical seascapes.” He wants a show at Hibbleton, and I don’t have the heart to tell him that seascapes are more of a Laguna Beach thing. I take his card, which has a watercolor whale on it.
A few sangrias in and I’m feeling good. I hop on the turntable and play some punk classics: Dead Kennedys, Toy Dolls, Stiff Little Fingers, TSOL. Setting the vibe.
Landon takes over. He plays more rock n’ roll—The Kinks, electric Dylan, Cash, Howlin’ Wolf.
I wander over to The Violet Hour, Mike and Candace’s studio. Mike is at his DJ station, playing ambient music with spoken word stuff layered over it. He kind of looks like Andy Warhol. Candace is at the bar, pouring sangria. She is wearing a big pink wig and a nurse’s hat.
“You need another one, Jesse?” she asks.
More little conversations. City council member Pam Keller. The weird skinny dude who used to play at our open mic nights and make everyone feel uncomfortable.
“When you gonna bring back open mic nights,” he asks, a little aggressively.
“I dunno. We kind of stopped doing those. Have you checked out Max Bloom’s open mic nights?”
I wander over to the photo booth, where John Keller, one of my favorite people, is making buttons.
“Hello Mr. La Tour.”
“I’m like halfway through that Richard Feynman book you loaned me. It’s awesome!”
“I love the way his mind works.”
“Yeah, he’s this total physics genius, but he writes in a way that anyone can understand what he’s talking about.”
I bump into Landon.
“Any sales?” I ask.
“I think we sold a t-shirt,” he says, a little bummed.
“That should cover the rent. One t-shirt.”
“We are rollin’.”
What can we do but make jokes about our utter financial failure? But this place is packed. An art gallery on a Friday night in downtown Fullerton is full of people. If you said that three years ago, people would have thought you are were fucking insane. Maybe we are a little insane for doing this. But it feels good. It feels right. Money don’t make our world go ‘round. Music and art and people and love. That’s what makes our world go ‘round. And this place is full of those things. And it is beautiful. In this little warehouse in suburban America, we have found a kind of paradise.
I walk around, my head a little cloudy now from the sangria, drinking all this in: the art on the walls, the faces familiar and unfamiliar, the music. Now that the checklist has faded from my head, I drink all this in, and all this is beautiful.
Sometimes, Beatrice, I wish you could see me here. See what these hands, compelled by sorrow and passion, have helped create. Would you recognize me if you walked in here tonight? Would you see, in my eyes, the same scared boy you met in Seattle, the boy who was afraid to take your hand, afraid even to speak? Or would you see something new, a spark in my eyes now. A sadness still, but also a fire, a fire built by a man in a frozen wasteland. A fire I have learned to share. Would you see this, Beatrice? You are married now. I think you work in a hospital in Minneapolis. I have seen your facebook pictures. You seem happier now. I wonder—do you still carry the wounded loneliness I saw in you? I am still lonely, but I have friends. I have learned how to be with people and not to be afraid.
The loneliness is okay. I sometimes wonder if I will meet the woman I will marry at one of these openings. For so long, I was very very desperate. I ached for a companion, anyone who would have me. Sometimes, these days, that ache transforms into a quiet resignation—I am alone, but that is okay. My soul walks with me. My lonesome fiery heart. The ache is part of the beauty.
This is the part of the story where I let you go. Where I step out of the realm of abstraction and idealization, where I step into my skin as a living, breathing human being, and I let you go. I have carried you in my heart through hell and purgatory and now I, flesh and blood, step into paradise.
And now we are setting up to play music. The crowd has thinned a little—the late night crowd, the night owls. We set up the PA and the amps and the drums and the microphone. I am standing in front, wearing my “Reading is Sexy” t-shirt.
“We are Chicken or Fish. This first song is called ‘Fucking Awesome!’”
The drums and guitars scream, the bass thumps and then my voice, amplified and distorted through cheap speakers. This is my voice. A voice no longer crying out in the wilderness. A voice, and then voices, shouting out together:
“THIS SONG IS FUCKING AWESOME!”