Fire in the Belly - Act 5: The World as Viewed From The Water Tower
By the time May rolled around I had a large body of work together, and I was ready for attention. None developed. My trips to the AIC that summer involved, for the most part, staring at a small Van Gogh self portrait. I would drill into those eyes with everything I had. Nothing answered back, in a very deep voice. The painting was radiant. I was sullen.
But I was undeterred. I had seen Roger Murray sally forth in blissful ignorance, and look where it had gotten him! Surely I’d go farther. Hadn’t it been predicted?
“When you grow up,” folks would say, “you’re going to be an artist.”
My Mother would nod. “That’s right.”
They were cursing me, but they were right. I glided through all the high school art shows, drew cartoons in yearbooks and painted a portrait of my Grand Dad just before he died. It was the fall of my junior year of high school, and my Mom cried when she saw it. I almost did too. She was always the reason, she was the cause. While she unleashed withering criticism on anyone who dared disagree with her, she always approved of and supported me. And that approval meant everything in the world to me, because it was so rare to hear it from her. More than that, she had a sophisticated, if idiosyncratic esthetic. Everyone else in my family thought of me as a pathetic, indulged wierdo, but not Mom. No matter how outrageous my behavior, no matter how cruel, antisocial or thoughtless I could be, I was always covered by her umbrella of sanction. She was the one who bought me the sketchpads and pencils. She introduced me to all the Renaissance Masters, and she kept absolutely everything I ever touched. At school I was a pariah. At home I was a prince. An art school scholarship got me to Chicago, and I even had a painting on the cover of the School of The Art Institute catalog. I was poised for greatness.
It seemed at this time as though my slump would just be a blip on the screen. I had tugged on this little thread of found object sculpture, and now the thread was pulling on me. God help the man who has no muse.
Every failure in my personal life was excused by the fact that I was a great artist in waiting. I ran through jobs and girls. I even got kicked out of an apartment, but it never really mattered as long as I had this one thing in my life that was special.
I know I’ve made it sound like Roger and I never got along, but that’s not true. There were times, however few, when he could stop being a spaz long enough to enjoy meaningful interaction. Without question the best times we ever had together were up on the water tower.
The Belly’s greatest feature by far was the water tower on it’s roof. Standing guard atop the building’s southeast corner, standing like an extra from War of The Worlds, solid wood and wire cable. There are still hundreds of these old tanks in Chicago; they provided the water pressure for the old fire sprinkler systems. Most all of them have been empty for years, and one by one they get broken down and hauled away by wood dealers who sell the wood for a lot of money.
Our studio was in the southeast corner of the building, too, and there was a stairwell behind a bolted steel door situated in the corner. One day we decided to jimmy the bolt and have a look up top. The door wasn’t even locked. We’d spent 8 months in an unlocked work space. There were no lights in the stairwell, and we didn’t have a flashlight, so we groped our way up two flights of stairs. Furniture was strewn about, and we both tripped a few times, but we didn’t hear any rodents scurrying about, and we felt pretty safe. The darkness was worth it. Opening the roof door was like watching time lapse photography of a sunrise. The city of neighborhoods stretched out in every direction.
I think we were equally drawn to the tower, but how could anyone resist it’s allure? Neither of us spoke. We just walked right over to it and started climbing. The ladder was rusted but intact, and I don‘t think either of us looked down or stopped. The platform around the bottom of the tank was missing boards, but it was otherwise solid. We looked around, then sat down facing the river. It was a strange sensation to look down; the river was moving, and there was a lot of it. The result was to feel as though we were really above the water, as opposed to the small slope of shore beneath us.
We sat there for hours, and didn’t really say much. Roger pulled a joint out his pocket and we got high. The sun went down over the Kennedy and we watched it as the traffic eased. We just sat there and took it all in. The tower swayed a bit with the wind, but the effect was less noticeable when the sun went down. We didn’t go all the way up to the roof of the tank; that would have been overkill. But we were already a full 30 feet off the roof of the building, and easily 90 feet from the ground.
Next week: Act 6: It’s All About The M-O-N-E-Y
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