August 17, 2014

I received a paycheck from a client for a side job I’m working on (here’s a preliminary “cartoon” version of the animation if you’re interested: so I’ve been feeling a little more financially secure and, hence, generous. On Saturday I came into Cambridge and headed over to where Erich and his wife hang out, hoping to make good on my promise to paint the wife; they weren’t there, though. I wandered around a bit looking for a suitable model and handing out cash to the regulars: James, Jim, Michael, Susan. I gave Michael a dollar and he said, “Oh, you must have gotten a residual!” Then I gave Jim a dollar too and Michael shouted, “Don’t give him money! He’s a fraud!” I answered, “So are you.”


I found Ashanti sitting next to the CVS where I’ve painted so many panhandlers in the past. She was more than willing to pose and I started to set up, at which point she said, “Would you mind giving me the ten dollars now?” I said, “I’m sorry, but in the past when I’ve paid people in advance some of them have bailed on me before I finish. You aren’t going to bail on me, are you?” She said, “I’m worried that you’ll bail on me.” I pulled out the ten dollar bill I had on me and said, “Ask anyone, I’m good for it. There’s no way I can sneak away, either, it takes me ten minutes to pack up my stuff.” She said OK, but about five minutes later asked for the money again and I gave it to her after making her promise not to leave early, a promise she more or less kept.

I now make a point of holding off on drawing the portrait until I have a pretty good idea of which way the model habitually looks. After I set up my easel to one side of her Ashanti immediately started to look away from me, a problem I’ve encountered before. So before I started painting I moved my easel so I was standing directly across from her, waited for a typical pose, and started working. As soon as I had the drawing down she immediately started looking in the opposite direction, and ultimately I had to break one of my cardinal rules and ask her to look to her left as I had in  the drawing rather than catching the pose on the fly. That was so successful I asked her to hold her arms still so I could catch that gesture too. Eventually she got up and sat down on the bench next to me, because, she told me, someone else had started panhandling down the way and two of them weren’t allowed to do it at the same time. As promised, she didn’t leave; she just stopped posing and I had to finish up her pants and arms from memory.

The pickings seemed pretty slim for Ashanti. Several people gave her money, but it looked like, at most, a quarter. One guy chatted with her for a while, left and came back from Starbucks  with an iced coffee. Later, when she wanted to leave, she told me she had to go to Starbucks because he’d gotten her order wrong, then asked me for an additional two dollars. I gave her the sole dollar bill I had left in my pocket, and we each went our way.


Some Recent Paintings

August 10, 2014

Here’s a little landscape I saw in Cambridge. This is what I was on my way to paint when I ended up painting Erich.

Cambridge Common, 5 x 3.5

Cambridge Commons

I brought my paints into work on Friday and left early to do a panhandler painting; and once again there was nobody new to paint. This is starting to piss me off. I chatted with Keith, who is not doing well physically, then kept looking unsuccessfully. Eventually I ended up in front of the bank next to my office. There were Gary and Whitney. They practically begged me to paint them so I ended up doing my third do-over portrait of the season.

Gary and Whitney

I’m not really that happy with it. It’s more about a set of circumstances–two people who once again are homeless and now drag all their belongings around with them on a cart and in various bags and backpacks–than it is about two people. I’m unhappy with the portrait but reasonably satisfied with the genre painting.

I guess I should relate their story, which goes like this: they were staying in a room provided by an acquaintance who had lucked into a home by marrying an alien seeking a green card who was willing to pay to marry an American citizen. Once her residency was established she flew back to South America for a visit and it was while she was away that their friend invited them in. There they had provided their friend with necessary medication (I’m not quite sure about this) at their own expense and to the tune of $2,000 when the wife suddenly came home and threw them both out. Needless to say, they are furious about this.

On the plus side, Whitney is in remission from her cancer and looks very healthy. She was trying to pin down a shelter and needed to make a phone call at a certain time, but the battery in her phone was dead. So she needed to go into Panera to plug in her phone, but the manager at Panera was very rude to her and followed her around everywhere, even into the bathroom, when she came into the store. They made a point of buying a cup of iced coffee there each day so they could establish themselves as customers.

While we were painting a personable young Asian woman came along and offered to buy Gary and Whitney food. She soon came back with a meal and sat down with them to eat. She is one of those rare but charming slacker Asians, completely Americanized, casual and aimless; an indication of what the children of today’s obsessive Asian overachievers will be like.  Eventually another panhandler of the “grubby youngster” variety arrived, complimented her, and took her off with an offer to introduce her to the other Pit denizens, with all of whom he was friends. “He’s not friends with them,” Gary said after they left. “She should be careful around him.” However, she came back about an hour later, none the worse for wear. Then a young man stopped and asked them if they needed foam cushions to use as bedding. He also provided blankets. I later saw Susan at the T stop with a new pillow still in its packaging, which I assume came from the same source. I’ll have to find out if this was fairly typical of the largess the good people of Cambridge bestow upon their homeless population.

We were also joined by Joe, who had suffered either a stroke or a head injury–I’m not quite sure as this information was conveyed in a whisper by Gary–and certainly his speech had a characteristic halting quality. He was very interested to pose and so the next day I came back and painted:


Joe was not very forthcoming as a conversationalist. At the same time, he managed to extract from me quite a bit more information about myself than I was able to get from him, which was, as I said, zero.

At one point I pulled out my box of baby wipes, which I use to clean paint off my hands. “Can I have one of those?” he asked and I said of course. He proceeded to wipe his brow and his head and I soon offered him another one. By the end of the painting session he’d used four or five. When I was done I handed him a ten dollar bill and said, “Her’s your fee.” Then I handed him the box of baby wipes and said, “Here’s your tip.”

Carl; Erich

August 4, 2014

I brought my painting stuff to work and this time was able to get out early on Friday and do a painting. Carl was sitting next to a young woman with a “Homeless and Pregnant” sign. She was not interested in sitting for me. Carl, however, was very interested and, like Burton from last week, actively posed for me. He told me he had some acting experience and compared the experience of sitting for a painting to posing for his head shot. A likable young man.


I left my French easel at the office, took the painting and dirty paintbrushes home, then returned the next day with a new canvas. Once again I found very few potential models on a Saturday morning. I decided to head for a spot I’d picked out for a landscape, and ran into Erich where I’d come across Mike earlier this year: standing in traffic at the intersection of Garden Street and Mass Ave. Erich was carrying an extremely verbose sign that I did not get the opportunity to read. After I gave him my spiel he said yes but asked if we could go sit down somewhere and I said of course. Erich’s wife was sitting in the covered bus shelter and was working on her own sign. Erich told me they’d be back on Saturday and I could paint her then (unfortunately, weather and prior commitments kept me from going into town this weekend). The two of us headed into Cambridge Common Park.

Erich was wearing a Marine hat and a Marine tee shirt and told me about his time in the Marines. It sounded more like the Navy–he listed all the ports he’d been in, including all over the Mediterranean and, somehow, Bora Bora. A young man pulling a suitcase behind him joined us on our walk. “I was in the Marines too,” he said. “He was never in the Marines,” Erich whispered to me. “He forgot to take his meds.”

We were now joined by Erich’s son, another panhandler (but the only one out of Erich’s six kids), who talked about how good the pickings were at Alewife and that he was on his way there. He and the Marine with a suitcase left together. As soon as they were gone Erich complained about him borrowing money and never returning it. Now Gary and Whitney walked by (see my August 21, 2012 entry for Whitney–I painted Gary before I started this blog, so I will post his painting at the end of this entry) . Gary is also a Marine. He complained that someone had cheated or stolen $2,000 from them and apparently they have lost their housing again and are back on the streets, As he walked past me, Gary smiled and whispered, “Don’t believe him. Erich claims he’s a Marine but he isn’t.”

The subject of Erich’s sign was presumably the circumstances surrounding the absolutely hideous collection of scars that served him for a right leg. He had been hit by a car, and then, 14 months later, hit again. He was only wearing a sock on his right foot and later that week I saw him with a cane. Apparently some sort of living can be made from this wandering-through-stopped-cars-asking-for-spare-change gambit, but the occupational hazards are, well, hazardous. On the other hand, Erich was obviously using, as his description of various methadone options and side effects made apparent, and later by his nodding off as I was painting. He also told me about his father’s career as a small-time gangster and truck driver.

To a degree it’s hard not to be judgmental about the moral failings of others.I suspect Erich’s and his family’s woes are more the results of self-indulgence than of bad luck. I have an inking the same is true of Gary and Whitney. However, as I’ve said elsewhere, I am a terrible judge of character, so I will refrain from both approval and disapproval. Anyway, here’s Erich:


and here’s Gary:


Gary 2011