Art & Artist

I wasn’t as nervous about starting my new career as I thought I would be – at least, not at first. I suppose part of my casual approach to the situation was the daily consumption of anxiety medication combined with the fact I had decided to call a part-time job working the overnight desk at a local hotel a career. Career carries a certain weight to it, I think. A weight that says “this is something I’m doing because I enjoy it, and not something I’m doing to avoid starving to death or losing my home.” A job is working a cash register at Speedway. A career is being an author.

The work certainly wouldn’t be hard. Staying up all night is something I’ve practiced since I was eight years old. All you really do is sit there and wait for someone who is probably drunk to ask you something. Every now and then, if I was lucky, I may even get to check in a family on a road trip in at 3 a.m., four entire hours after their scheduled arrival time. Based on the general demeanor of the father as he practically barks his name and information at me, the distance of the mother from the rest of her family, and the lights just starting to dim in the eyes of their two children, I can tell this family vacation is going very well.

Frankly, I was excited. Years spent on the fringes of society, months spent homeless – years ago – all seemed so distant in the rear view mirror of my memory. As I stepped out the door of my home that first night – a night filled with a welcome positive anxiety, for a change – I hardly even noticed that in the middle of my quiet, secluded neighborhood, long after the streetlights lit up to beckon home the odd few children who still played outside, there was a man standing on the corner a block away. 

Usually, I’m not in the business of acknowledging men in public at all, especially strange ones out in strange locations in the middle of the night. Were it not for the fact that he seemed to be playing a ukulele, I wouldn’t have even stolen a single glance in his direction. Any other man on any other night, and his presence in my mind would have been zero. The moment I stepped into my car and drove to my first day at the hotel, he would be forgotten – replaced by the lyrics of whatever song I decided I was going to sing along to during the trip over.

Any other man on any other night would have faded so distantly from my conscious thoughts that by the time the exact same road-trip-turned-depressing-Chevy-Chase-movie scene happened (exactly as I predicted it would) I wouldn’t have been too distracted to notice that the family seemed to be running from something instead of going somewhere until my drive home that night. The strange ukulele player tap danced around my brain, pushing away all of my ability to pay attention, shifting me from engaged to the automatic pleasantries of someone who is, technically, working in the service industry. When I finally got around to thinking more about that family, I wondered if there was something I should’ve done that wasn’t covered in the charmingly dated employee instructional video.

Road trips are make-or-break situations. This is a statement of fact, and I feel comfortable delivering it as such. A road trip can fill the canvas of the mind with exquisitely painted memories of joy, and invoke the best kind of nostalgia years down the line – The kind of nostalgia that doesn’t at all leave a bitter aftertaste in your soul when you think about the time you covered four states and a province in one day, from Chicago to Toronto, and had nothing but a fantastic time. Some good nostalgic moments are just not quite good enough to not leave you feeling like you wish you could relive the moment over and over, but when the feeling hits you properly, you could live in the hope it inspires.

I’m not quite sure if the man was still there when I got home at 7 in the morning. I can’t say I checked. I parked, marched inside, and promptly fell asleep. A mixture of overconfidence in my insomnia’s strength and poor preparation (no nap prior – an amateur mistake) made me so exhausted during my first shift that I felt slight detachment from my own body. More so than usual, I mean. I was asleep the moment my head hit the pillow, still in the quasi-uniform I had been asked to wear, and my dreams that night were so unmemorable I don’t believe they’re worth mentioning.

When I finally woke up in the late afternoon, I had forgotten about the ukulele playing man entirely. Instead, my mind raced over what I supposed was technically breakfast, hyper-focused on trying to remember whether or not that family was staying in the hotel for more than one night. One night could either be a very good sign or a very bad, and I was dead set on figuring out what exactly was going on. 

For every road trip I was on that managed to reach that near-impossible state of inducing a nostalgia that didn’t leave even an ounce of melancholic longing in my gut, I was on one that was on the other end of the spectrum – horrible, monumental disasters that were so bad in such a specific way that it was impossible to even repress the memories of them. Misread maps, familial arguments, awful driving, breakdowns… all of it at once, if you were “lucky” enough. Half a decade after my parents got divorced, I had the pleasure of being on two road trips so comically miserable that when I think about them I’m much closer to amused than upset.

As I left for work that evening, I was thinking mostly about the time my father attempted to take us to Canada with his new, younger, and far stupider wife. Although I saw the hockey hall of fame for the very first time that year, what I remember the most about the entire week-plus long experience was when my father, who had done every single second of driving our rented RV that trip, wanted to take a break from driving. He destroyed his knees and back playing high school sports, and naturally, he was in quite a bit of pain at all times. His new wife got behind the wheel, and within ten minutes, she slammed the RV into the median of the 401. She never drove the rest of the trip, and that’s my strongest memory of the entire vacation.

I really wish that I was a less responsible driver myself. Before I backed out of my driveway that night, I checked each mirror – as all responsible drivers ought to. I wish I hadn’t. I wish I could have been someone’s younger and stupider wife and run over the curb. Instead, in the passenger side mirror, I got a perfect view of the corner, and the man standing there, ukulele in hand. 

Before I even had time to kickstart the same train of thought from the night before – to get just as confused and perhaps unhealthily obsessed with what possesses someone to play hold a ukulele on a corner in a quiet neighborhood away from any major city hub as I did the first night – I got a perfect view of a crowd who were gathered around him. 

I was exaggerating, and I knew it. It was not a crowd. It was three or four people, at MOST, if I was inclined to be generous. Frankly, I held no such inclination. I spent the entire drive to work wondering what the hell someone standing outside with a ukulele was doing that was interesting enough to merit a few people standing around him. Was he actually playing something? Is it a flash mob happening ten years after the term “flash mob” exited the public vernacular? Is it simply a case of teeangers being teenagers? Was this their version of stealing painkillers from your fathers new, younger, stupider wife – their rebellion? The absolute most important question of all is why the hell it was bothering me so much. What I liked to call my career as a 3rd shift hotel desk worker had just begun, and all I could think about was the absurdity of the man and his ukulele. 

It was around 3 in the morning when I finally decided that he was a street performer – albeit one with a horrible mind for choosing a venue. That at least explained away the more bizarre aspects of the situation. If he’s a street performer, of course weirdos with nothing better to do at 11 p.m. on a weeknight would stand outside to watch him. Rationalization can do wonderful things for anxious minds, and soon I felt the bubbling undercurrents of fixation and tension subsiding, and truly experienced my career for the first time, even if it was on the second day.

Not feeling like you’re living in the first half hour of The Big Lebowski does wonders for your mindfulness. When the dad of the family I checked into the hotel last night came down to the hotel-desk-store-thing to buy some cough medicine for his wife, I was fully aware of how sincere his apology for being brusk with me last night was. Apparently, he had two flat tires in a six hour stretch, and, on top of that, was pulled over for speeding three times. You’d think that after the second he would have learned his lesson. I told him this, and he laughed just as sincerely as he apologized. The lingering doubts about the family’s safety went from lingering to non-existent, and the rest of my shift continued without anything remarkable happening, one way or the other.

Unfortunately, I was better prepared for my second day of work. By the time I turned onto my street as the sun rose, I was not too dissociative to see that the crowd around that man and his stupid ukulele was now an actual crowd. No longer could I simply handwave the correct terminology for a gathering of people away. This was a crowd proper – a dozen or so, maybe even more. I was able to distract the simmering anxiety-turning-unexplainable-rage brewing inside of me for a moment by thinking about how different groups of animals have different names depending on the animal, and if “crowd” is to humans what “murder” is to crows. I knew that I was on the rails and would very, very soon be leaving them, and I did try ever so hard to steer my mind into biological and taxonomic lexicon intricacies instead of focusing on the ukulele man and his crowd. It would have worked too, if I hadn’t caught a glimpse of the crowd swelling in size by three or four more onlookers while I was collecting my mail. I drew my blinds, threw my endless amounts of coupons to stores I’ve never heard of into the trash, and collapsed on my couch.

This has to be something like that public performance art piece. The one that’s meant to play a song for a thousand years or something. Or that stupid thing that plays the song “Africa” by Toto forever and is powered by a solar panel. I must have just not noticed that he has been out there this whole time or something. The reason the crowd is gathering is obviously because there’s some kind of social media or news coverage of whatever it is this weird man with his weird ukulele is trying to prove. Whatever I could tell myself to make myself not think about this was what I was telling myself.

I spent the entire day before work that evening with the blinds drawn. I also spent the entire day before work that evening neglecting my friends and hobbies to sit in my room, smoke cigarettes out of my back window, and try to figure out what the hell it was about this that bothered me so much. I sort of consider myself an artist too! If anything, I should be supportive of the act. Maybe he’s like The Hunger Artist from the Kafka story or something. I love Kafka, so why was this setting me so close to the edge? When it was finally time for me to leave for work, I was excited. I was going to march right past that stupid artist, get in my car, drive to the hotel, and try to see if I could strike up a conversation with someone in that family about road trips. I had wondered, in passing, if all of their road trips involved so much automotive repair and police involvement.

The other road trip I took with my father and his new, younger, stupider wife that really sticks out in my memory for being remarkably bad was one out to Yellowstone National Park. Don’t get me wrong, the park itself was incredible. Wall Drug was very fun and very kitchse, and the Badlands were the most incredible thing I had ever seen at the time. The part that wasn’t fun was the ride home. After a two weeks spent in extremely close proximity to each other, a blended family of six is all but ready to murder anyone for any perceived slight. The van ride home was almost an entire day long, and my father kept getting pulled over. It was even on his birthday, which one cop even joked about, calling his ticket a birthday present. By the time we finally got back home, we had been arguing for hours – the GameBoy batteries were dead – and we wanted McDonalds. It was incredibly late at night, and the 3rd shift worker who tried to help us was not at the top of her game. My father, as he tends to do, decided to unleash all of his pent-up rage on a woman at a McDonald’s well past midnight. At the time, I thought it was kind of funny to see how snarky and sarcastic he would get. Now I wonder why he didn’t start seeing a better therapist when he was younger, or if he knows that woman is a person too.

By some God-given miracle I was able to get to work that night without even catching a glimpse of the street artist and his fans in my periphery. The dad came down again that night – this time around 11:30 – and asked if I could please bend the rules just a little bit and open the pool up. His kids wanted to swim all day, but a traveling Little League team was at the hotel after winning a tournament. The rowdy bunch of pre-teen boys spent all day in the pool area, and apparently scared the dad’s daughter too much for her to use the pool at the same time. 

Even if he hadn’t apologized to me after the first night of rudeness, I would have let him and his family into the pool. He thanked me profusely as I looked for the key, and his wife and his son and daughter did too when they got downstairs, already in their swimwear. I made them promise they would keep the noise levels down, and headed back to my desk. The mom lingered for a moment, pulling me aside after the door to the pool area swung shut.

She was just about to begin apologizing for her husband – something she seemed very skilled at, based on how delicately and expertly she was approaching the situation – before I cut her off and told her that he had already made things up with me last night. The forced, polite smile that most people wear in public melted from her face and became a genuine, warm smile in the blink of an eye. After a bit of conversation, it turns out that their road trips were famously bad, but they had fabulous times on cruises. Go figure.

The only thoughts that really surfaced on the drive home that morning that are really worth mentioning were brief annoyance at my GPS suggesting route changes because of emergency road closure. Although it only added ten minutes onto my commute, I was tired enough to be irrationally angry at small things. And incredibly angry at big things.

I finally turned the corner onto my street, and the whiplash from how hard my foot slammed on the brake pedal would have sent me through my windshield if I didn’t have my seatbelt on. 

The corner where the man was standing now had several rows of hastily constructed bleachers around it, blocking off roads alongside construction barricades. The dozens had become maybe hundreds. A carnival that was in town must have caught wind of the street artist’s performance and wanted to make a buck off of it, because there were elephant ear and fried bacon on a stick trailers pulled up to the curb, blocking the driveways of other homes and several fire hydrants. Men walked around with coolers of beer slung around their necks, as if this were a baseball game and not just some nobody with a hawaiian string instrument they were all gathered around. Children walked around with balloons. People took pictures. On the way in the house, I think I saw a petting zoo.

Even with the blinds drawn and the doors locked, even retreated as far as I could into the center of my house, the very particular dull roar that comes from a large crowd permeated my brain. The very same noise that people often attempt to (poorly) emulate by whisper-yelling carved through my body like an insult through the psyche of a 3rd shift McDonalds worker. What the hell was the artist doing? What about this was so important that it merited this kind of reply? Why was I so mad about it? Was I jealous?

I really hoped I wasn’t jealous. In fact, I was so averse to that being the reason for my slow descent into anxious, angry paranoia that I finally decided to check and see if I could learn anything about whatever was going on. Unfortunately, it turns out that I was very jealous.

Every social media outlet, every news site, every blog, even up to a national level in a few outside cases, were covering the event. They sang the platitudes of this “incredible artist” with “intense dedication to craft” in ways that made my mind spin out of control. He was not even doing anything. He was just standing there with his ukulele. Maybe it was beyond jealousy. Maybe what made me so mad about man standing on a corner holding but not playing a ukulele was the fact that he had a career and I only had a job.

I was not prepared for what happened when I stomped out of my house that morning, just past dawn. I was not prepared for when the dull roar of the crowd briefly picked up as I approached. In fact, I didn’t even notice it, because there was a man in what looked to be a racially charged costume of an Indian man giving elephant rides – actual fucking elephant rides – to children. I was not prepared for how the entire production came to a grinding halt once I crossed the street.

I was not prepared for the roar to become tense, eerie silence as I approached the fringes of the now-massive crowd. I was prepared to need to push my way past people – attendees, security, whatever – to give this so called “artist” a piece of my mind, but as I entered the crowd, they parted in a way that would make Moses jealous. I was not prepared for the entire gathering, including the “artist” himself, to turn their attention to me as I marched right up to him.

I was prepared to unleash a torrent of bizarre, misdirected, and unfocused fury at this man. I was prepared to ask to see a city permit for this gathering, and to point out how the hydrants were blocked, and ask why the fuck an elephant was here, and to say how unfair I thought it was that this man could do literally nothing and become an incredibly famous artist. I was not prepared to be cut off before I could even speak, when the artist shakily bowed to me and said it was an honor.

I was not prepared to be told that the crowd was here to watch me. I was not prepared to be told that he had seen me that first night, assumed I was performing a performance art piece, and spread the information around. I was not prepared for the realization that those news pieces and twitter hashtags were about me. I was not prepared to be the art, or to be the artist. I was certainly not prepared for work that evening.

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