The Man with the Dog
Act III: Uncle Jack
After leaving Madame DeFarge, I went up to my bedroom and opened the French doors to the veranda overlooking the pool. The night was unusually clear in LA and I could see the real stars. I took a deep breath as I thought of my task with Uncle Jack, the artist.
I felt like a hitman.
I would call the artist after dinner and make an appointment to see him. I would drive over the hill to the valley and I meet with Uncle Jack the next afternoon. It was set.
We sat on a huge black booth he’d rescued from demolition from the old Brown Derby in Hollywood. I had nothing to say. We knew each other on a soul level. He hadn’t insulted Madame DeFarge. He had made the right assessment and had asked the bitch the precise question: Who the hell are you?
“She doesn’t want to be your art student. She wants her money back,” I said.
“Thank god. Keep that harpy away from me. Please,” said Uncle Jack. “You were here when we made the deal. No money back. I don’t give samples. I’ve been screwed too many times by dilettantes.”
He was right. He had made the student and teacher deal clear. Madame DeFarge would soon be knitting a new row to indicate a new debtor in her weave of captured victims.
Uncle Jack had the clearest mind I’d ever encountered. He spoke and I listened, learning much I thought, and not realizing at the time just how much.
“I know everything about you,” said Uncle Jack.
What! I thought.
“Not the everyday details. But who you are.” He spoke with conviction. I knew he spoke from experience.
“I’ve got it,” said Uncle Jack.
I was ready.
“Let your old rich partner have her way. You will become my student.”
“I’m not an artist.”
“Oh, so you noticed that I’m an artist. I wasn’t sure. You never mentioned anything about all the art on the walls. Youll be my student of writing.”
It seemed right.
“We’ll begin right now,” he said.
It was late afternoon in the Valley. A lesson now, I thought. What did he have in mind?
“Are you hungry?”
I nodded in the affirmative.
“I know a great little Italian place nearby. Let’s go. I’ll drive.”
We hopped into a white vintage BMW and sped off.
“Nice car,” I said.
“Yes. Drew ... you know he was my student of art. A no talent hopeless case ... what can I say. He tried to stiff me by not paying for his lessons. Even though he was a pathological liar, he realized it would be smart not to screw Uncle Jack. He paid me off with his car.”
We had a fine meal. The owner of the restaurant treated Uncle Jack like a king. Uncle Jack told me it was a curious thing. People thought they knew him, that he was someone famous. So they gave him the royal treatment. He told me that to get treated like a celebrity without being one is the best of all worlds.
“You have to know how you feel about things, about life,” said Uncle Jack. “That DeFarge woman is insane. She’s trapped you with her bucks. You are a failed fortune hunter. You need independence if you’re going to make it.”
I knew he was right. I didn’t bother him with details about making it. I could see my lesson had already begun.
A world-class artist helped me escape the crone’s clutches and the millions of dollars she used to weave her sick, sticky, and suffocating web.
I escaped the dowager’s venom and moved north to San Francisco with the artist and his brood, leaving behind the paralyzing wealth, the mansion, the pool, the spiritual voodooists and vampires, and a life that was insidiously engulfing me. I remembered the movie Sunset Boulevard and the fate of the down on his luck writer who took up with a fading silent screen star for a meal ticket. Told in flashback, the film opens with the writer, William Holden, floating very dead in the pool of the very egomaniacal aging actress, Gloria Swanson, who did him in with a gun.
I was thirty-eight, savvy and smart in some ways, naive and ignorant in others, and unaware of the trials I was about to face.
The next two years were about purging.
Confronting my self image for what I truly had to offer was the task. Talent must be tested. The first rule I learned is to never believe your own bullshit. Otherwise, you don’t know where you stand and that makes you weak, susceptible to the caprice of outside influences. I heard: What stands in the way of your task, is your task. Seek and ye shall find, that is if you have the need and the courage. I edited out “obvious,” a dangerous word, from my vocabulary.
Growing up in the hood of an inner city project, I had developed a strong sense of self, a factor that had gotten me through the night many times. When it came down to stripping myself naked of lingering pretense, the steps were painful and the outcome uncertain. In the unblinking eye of self-discovery, all notions of identity were up for reexamination. Who would understand my actions? I could have cruised along fine, gone to brunches, read TV Guide, and lived and died an unexceptional life.
Destiny tugged at me, but for what purpose? I had left LA for the environs of San Francisco with a “wild” artist. I had no income and no prospects of a secure future. As my mother always put it: “You could be anything you want, the President, even a surgeon. You were born awake.”
The artist gives birth to himself, so it’s natural that he burns from the inside out. There’s no rational way to explain the fever to the straight world. The artist who has learned to shed ego for reverence, manages to transmute the fever into a life of wonder.
There are no assurances of success on a dreamquest, only results to reflect upon. Once committed, there’s no looking back. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger,” a quotation lifted and modified for hyping Conan, the TV series. There was no credit given to philosopher Nietzsche for the catchy and perceptive line.
As the veneer of personality, the makeup worn for others, began to peal off me like weather-beaten brittle paint, the raw timber of my own voice revealed its organic luster. To paraphrase Jung, interpreter of the collective unconscious, a person must pay dearly for the gift of divine fire. The muses demand it. Fortunately, I would come to understand that intuition, not a muse, had been guiding me all along. An individual of character pays off this debt with humility, a form of legal tender the muses and intuition will gladly accept. This is the way of the sane artist.
Lessons require a context and an administrator. The artist had become my mentor in the school of man, the hub from which all artistic expression revolved and evolved. He had taken me on. No small undertaking. I was tough. A good teacher needs a worthy student. No act of charity here either. He owed me, although we never discussed it at the time. During our moonlit night drive northward to San Francisco, he suffered a stroke that left him temporarily blind. It was my karma to be his eyes, to save his life, to become his student.
The artist led a bohemian life. He lived with his wife, mistress, and children in a Marin County canyon house. It sounds sexier than it was. Family life, work, money for food and rent, and a household to maintain were the facts of life. From my point of view, the artist was an X-ray machine for all who passed in front of him. It was through him that I was able to see the true nature of the people we encountered. A counter puncher, he was a common man who treated everyone equally—always courteous first, verbal uppercuts and knockouts for wise guys. He was the same man with everyone, no separate personalities popping up to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of others. He was what he was and the lack of pretense gave him a remarkable strength of character.
During our rounds of the coffee houses, galleries, and late night hangouts,
I’d often have this sense that the artist was five hundred years
old and had lived many lifetimes. He had seen all the tricks, had heard
all the excuses, had been good and bad, and had come to conclusions
that had value.
I wanted to know what he knew.
We were inseparable for two years. He attracted people to him: royalty, politicians, art collectors, well-known personalities, and lots of beautiful women passed through the revolving door of his studio. There was no hiding in his presence. People would either let their hair down or they’d end up showing themselves out. He was Obi Wan Kenobi and I was Luke Skywalker. An artist is always a threat to the evil empire.
One early afternoon, I was resting on a bike path bench from a long ride when a brunette Marilyn Monroe placed her derriere next to me. She was a shapely and vivacious mixture: half Danish, half Iranian, and all tasty.
“Ah, you’ve attracted a harem girl,” said the artist upon meeting my delicious find during dinner. The artist and his family were now in their new house in the Cow Hollow section of San Francisco that overlooked the Marina. He leaned back against the huge posh booth that took up nearly one-quarter of the kitchen. He’d rescued the booth from the old Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood.
“I’m Axel’s anything he wants me to be,” said my dark-haired Marilyn as she slithered off the booth and did a fine belly dance.
After the fun and games that usually occupied the early evening time in the artist’s home, I had the privilege of seeing alchemy in action. I’d take a seat and watch the creator of art paint. I would witness the manifestation of the spiritual into physical form, an event that defied words. Without planning or preconceived ideas, he would create miraculous works out of nothing, and would do it on his ironclad trust in the unconscious. “In God We Trust” had a special meaning here. I was in the temple of culture and I had much to learn, no matter the cost. I was committed; I had no choice. I had jumped, made a leap of faith, and there was no emotional or financial net.
Art was life and life was art. There was an inexorable connection between art and sex—both acts of creation. Sex with the harem girl was breathless, insatiable, but not soulful. Perhaps one day, I thought. I was living inside a dream, knowing it was critical for me to remain with the artist. We agreed on the fundamentals of friendship, which was our mortal mortar. We also had agreeable disagreements. This was no cult.
Our lives cross with others who are life-changers, and we must decide to go for “it” or ride out life’s carousel in safe obscurity. I kept a diary of my escapades with the artist, feeling the material would one day fuel a book.
I made stupid choices. I submitted a screenplay to the new Twilight Zone. The story editor liked my script and invited me down to LA to discuss changes. I didn’t go; I didn’t have the airfare. An elusive Hollywood credit and a check, scale would have been about ten grand, had slipped through the cracks. My path was elsewhere.
My savings had dried up like one of the artist’s uncapped acrylic tubes. I was broke again. When doom and gloom hung over my soul, my idealism kept me sane. I felt the universe would take care of me. I wasn’t ready to say God yet: that was too personal. You have to meet your maker in the here and now before saying hello has any substance. Otherwise, you’re parroting the beliefs of others—and it is what it sounds like.
I was on a universal quest, a crapshooter for the Holy Grail. As Caesar said upon crossing the Rubicon, “The die is cast.” Yes, this Holy Roller was gambling the farm. I was the comeback kid, and who doesn’t get a charge out of watching the long shot coming in to win the race. Being the long shot is another matter.
What had seemed exciting and full of promise two years back had fallen apart. There was a major rift between the artist and myself—a “disturbance in the force.” The harem maiden, my material girl, had to go. I speak in broad brushstrokes, but the essence of broken dreams is true for us all. My life in California had been reduced from glamorous jobs and money, to day work: loading trucks, giving out samples of cigarettes for six bucks an hour—that sort of thing.
It was time to cut loose, time for new decisions.»