Twenty-three years ago I was twenty-three years old. I’d just graduated from the Art Institute and moved back to Boston. I started driving a cab after a few months of not doing much of anything. I knew that my BFA qualified me for a job in the service industry and driving a cab seemed like as good a way to make a living as any. I knew I was a couple hundred years late to have any real impact on the culture if I was to continue making paintings of the people and things I saw around me. Painting of any kind had stopped being at the center of the national conversation decades before but it was the only way I knew to talk to the world, so what was I to do?
Two years later, after an abortive attempt at grad school and many, many cab miles, I had a show of paintings at a cafe in the South End neighborhood of Boston. It was by far the biggest success I’d had up to that point (or since). Buoyed by the couple thousand bucks in my pocket, I quit driving, figuring foolishly that I’d make a living from art from that point on. Broke a couple months later, I slunk back behind the wheel. Without an agent or gallery there was no way to sustain the art sales or public enthusiasm needed to keep collectors interested in what I was doing. So I drove the cab and painted and sometimes put the paintings up in coffeeshops and bars around town. Every now and again something would sell, but never nearly enough for me to entertain the fantasy of leaving the day job again.
Cut to 2012, when I finally walk away from the cab for good. I’m finishing up my second book (which will be published two years later) and I’m ready to try to get by on freelance art and writing gigs and art sales. Every day I open the laptop screen and try to shake a few bucks loose from an editor or art collector who’s never heard of me and is inundated by other cold-callers just like me, all of us trying to squeeze through an ever-shrinking door. Still, I do enough pet portraits, book reviews, and other miscellany to almost get by. It’s a grind and it’s often demeaning but I figure it beats driving a cab.
Then, this summer comes. Suddenly the book review editor who had been publishing a piece or two of mine almost every month is not returning email anymore. The newspaper’s book section is being eliminated. There is no longer any budget for freelancers at the other paper I write for either. So I’m left writing a few film capsule reviews a month, or rather, I write them and then have them mangled until I don’t recognize more than a couple words. There’s always a price to pay when you use creative energy just to pay the bills. It isn’t worth the humiliation in this case, so I decide to walk away. I take on a bartending shift at the bar at which I’d only been working door and start looking around for jobs which don’t involve art or writing.
I won’t give up trying to get my stuff out there. I’ll keep sending out the manuscript for my third book—finished a year ago and gathering dust in dozens of publishers’ and agents’ inboxes—and of course I’ll keep painting. It’s too late for me to try anything else, but I’m forced to conclude that at this point I can pay my bills better by serving drinks, checking IDs, stocking beer, and mopping barroom floors. I’m not the only one out there struggling to get acknowledgement for what I do, of course.
A couple weeks ago I went to the Hideout to see Dexter Romweber play. Granted he was up against a Cubs World Series game, but still, a city of several million could barely muster an audience of twenty for one of the true originals of rock music. The man’s always seemed tormented but that night he looked on the verge of tears. It hurts to keep banging your head against a wall that will likely never give. Still, what else is there to do?
I’ve been mopping floors at Bernice’s Tavern a week or two now. There’s a simple satisfaction to this kind of manual labor which you rarely get from making art. The floor was dirty but then from your effort it becomes clean. And you’re given money after you’re done and don’t have to wonder whether someone who doesn’t know you and doesn’t have any reason to care will see what you’ve done and find value in it. If you do this job correctly, you’re paid for it and there’s nothing else to think about. This is what I’ve always liked about service industry work. It leaves the mind free. I knew this same thing twenty-three years ago instinctively. Now, all these years later it’s as if I’m back where I started. Has what I’ve spent all my time on been worthwhile? It’s not for me to judge. I’ll just keep stumbling on.