The Real Change issue of September 1997 was the one in which I confessed to a duck-licking addiction. I really just wanted to get on the “all homeless people must be addicts” bandwagon and looked around for a distinctive addiction that might set me apart from the others even as I would be coming into the addiction fold, as it were.
So I wrote about hitting rock bottom, having been found face-down in a pile of duck feathers in a ditch alongside a road in Tukwila after a serious duck-licking binge. It was not my proudest moment. The column, I mean. The duck-licking was made up.
I felt much happier about the cover of the issue, which was a full-color rendering of a painting I had done called “Mikey, A Class Act.” In it, Mikey, an acquaintance I had experienced a few years earlier, is shown with an unlit GPC (“good people’s cigarette”) in his mouth and a lit lighter in his hand, which he is extending politely to light your cig before lighting his. Hence, showing you he’s a class act.
This goes on in the backyard of a house on cinder blocks, with a plastic flamingo, a used tire with grass growing out of it, underwear on a clothesline and a smoldering grill behind Mikey.
In real life, Mikey was a housemate for about a year. One of my most vivid memories of that year was watching my other housemates watch “Life of Brian” on tape on what I was told was a TV stolen from a motel. I watched without paying any attention to the movie because they insisted I smoke pot with them and share a bottle of Jack Daniel’s (“good people’s whiskey”). I was distracted by my watching them while being high. The movie was kind of a blur of colors.
Later on, they got me high again so I could not watch “Top Gun” with them on their stolen TV. I’ve never mastered the art of watching movies while stoned. I don’t know how the rest of you do it. I assume it’s just a matter of practice.
After the painting was featured on the cover, I think I managed to sell it for $15, or maybe it was $10. Anyway, enough for a cheeseburger or two and a six-pack of ice beer. That was how I survived during that year. I averaged between $100 and $200 a month selling silly paintings that each took less than three hours to paint, for an effective wage of $3 to $5 per hour while painting. I was, needless to say, homeless at the time, but I had some money because I had a couple of steady buyers for my output, until one of them up and died on me.
Being homeless at the time meant I was under a lot of stress, which explains why I would write an entire column about duck-licking and collapsing in a pile of feathers in Tukwila. Stress will do that to you.
I got into subsidized housing two months after that issue came out. Having lost my main patron, my art income dropped to near zero, so I got a fantastic break on rent. Rent was set at 30% of my income, so I paid $25 per month. Woo woo! My stress levels fell dramatically. The building management arranged a hot meal a week and had food bank food delivered, so I wouldn’t starve even though I had almost no spending money left after paying the rent.
I continued to paint for about two more years, even though I had very few buyers. My one remaining regular was a self-identified senior tennis bum. He was a retired man who drove a little red convertible and always showed up in a tennis outfit as though he had just stepped off the court and hadn’t showered yet. He bragged all the time about how good he was at crashing events, especially events that served food. But he paid a whole $50 for a silly painting of me and my childhood dog with our heads switched, entitled “The Artist and His Dog as Werdog and Werboy.”
I stopped painting around the turn of the millennium, when I realized that I got far more joy out of writing “The Artist and His Dog as Werdog and Werboy” than painting the thing.
Dr. Wes Browning is a one time math professor who has experienced homelessness several times. He supplied the art for the first cover of Real Change in November of 1994 and has been involved with the organization ever since. This is his weekly column, Adventures in Irony, a dry verbal romp of the absurd. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more in the Mar. 3-9, 2021 issue.