Confessions of a Florentine Pet Sitter


Escape from the Night

This is how I defer cleaning my apartment for the coming inspection. The year of this story was 1997.  A small coastal town north of Mendocino, Calif. called Fort Bragg.

 Rooftops behind my Apartment

Rooftops behind my Apartment

With an oblique view from my bedroom window overlooking the parking lot behind Paul Bunyan’s thrift store, I stood just out of sight, watching the parade of night people coming and going. Some came to drop off donations; many came to pilfer. A sense of desperation and greed and wrong-doing pervaded the scene with people scurrying about in the dark under cover of dark clothing and hoodies. They didn’t want to be seen. They didn’t want to be recognized.

The thrift store provided employment and financial support for developmentally challenged and disabled people. After a night of thievery, it’s a wonder the worker volunteers find anything left in the morning that is worth selling. But the night people didn’t care that it was a community nonprofit organization created to help people, even those people who were stealing from the organization. For them it was a first-come first-serve help-themselves-buffet-of-goodies game. It was free and up for grabs, and that’s what counted.

People used the parking lot to dump their trash to avoid paying their own refuse fees.

After a night of pilfering and damage, the thrift store had to pay to clean up the area. They had to pay to haul damaged goods to the refuse site. As a consequence, they had few good donations left to sell for profit. All in all, it cost them precious monies used to help community people.

Every night, one by one, all through the night, people crept into the parking lot searching for the better donations—clothing, children’s clothes and toys, stuffed animals, a large stuffed purple Barney, electronic equipment, furniture, bicycles, exercise equipment, televisions, bed frames and old mattresses, and even stoves and refrigerators.

Dressed in big coats with hoods and carrying tiny flashlights, they scurried around in the dark. They tossed items from one spot to another, good items to good piles and the rest, just tossed. When they were all done it looked like a tornado had ripped through the parking lot – the concrete floor littered with junk, clothing, old toys, everything now dirty, wet from rain, or broken and unusable. Worthless. Profits for the thrift store transformed into scattered bits and pieces.

Some people tossed their own garbage in the bin behind the building. PB’s eventually put a lock on their dumpster, but even that wasn’t fool-proof. It only served to intrigue. The first night, two wily hooded gentlemen hammered for an hour to break the lock. Perhaps in their minds the padlock meant the bin was full of jewels. When they got it open, I heard them say, Shit, it’s nothing but garbage!

From my bedroom window every night, I spied a one-legged man waiting across the alley behind my apartment in his black Volvo with its darkened windows. When a person dropped off a donation, he moved his car the short ride from one parking lot to the other, got out, hopped on one leg around to the trunk, pulled out a wheel chair in which he sat and wheeled around while rummaging through the piles and boxes of donations. He found and took all the electronic equipment – radios, cassette players, TVs, stereos – and stuffed it all in the trunk of his Volvo, stuffed his wheel chair behind the front seat, and hopped back into the driver’s seat. He drove back to the other parking lot to wait again, waiting, night after night after night, sitting like a spider on the edge of his web ready to catch the next fly that flew into his sticky trap.

At the time I assumed he had an electronics repair business and was gathering material from the donations, making an illicit profit from items that might well have brought money to the organization. It dawns on me only now as I write this that maybe his purpose was altruistic, to collect the valuable equipment, clean it up and repair it for Paul Bunyan’s so they could sell it for a tidy profit. Maybe, just maybe he was a good spider, if there is such a critter!

Awakened bright and early one morning by a loud screeching sound, I got up to see a young man dragging a refrigerator down the alley. He was alone. All he could do was drag it, the metal scraping and screeching in protest. Someone called the police. They came, talked to the man, and left. They may have called the director of Paul Bunyan’s and received permission to help the guy move the refrigerator, for very soon they returned with a dolly and a truck. They loaded the fridge and the young man into the truck and took off. I thought it was the most kind and generous act of compassion I saw on that alley the whole two years I lived there. Kind to him, and kind to my ears and my night’s sleep. And the benefit to Paul Bunyan? They didn’t have to haul it to the dump or worry about little kids getting trapped inside an abandoned fridge.

Just in that moment’s musing of the good things we humans do for each other, a man teetered in a drunken stupor into my vision and urinated on a wall below my window. Damn! Why doesn’t he just go home to pee? Or find a gas station? He may have been homeless, or more likely, too drunk to know he had a home. At that time I wasn’t feeling too compassionate. Just don’t pee on my building! Oh, the indignation.

The alley was a convenient place for all kinds of odd and nefarious human and animal activities. It was dark and hidden, not patrolled by the cops, a no-man’s land on the baby-scale of no-man’s lands. And, as always looking for cheap rentals, I had landed in the middle of it.

I had moved to Fort Bragg on the California coast to find peace and quiet after my mother died. After having lived in hot valley towns like Chico, where it was often over 110 degrees in the summer,  and San Jose for eight years while I was a student, I longed for cool light and the majesty and power of the ocean. I wanted to paint the ocean and beaches and bridges in all their grandeur.

I soon discovered I had rented an apartment smack-dab in the middle of the movie Escape From New York, starring Kurt Russell and Lee Van Cleef. Although Fort Bragg was not a city prison as was New York in the movie, the events of the movie take place in the future and that future was 1997, exactly the year I had moved to Fort Bragg and discovered my nightmare neighborhood.

In the movie, the prisoner scavengers and rival gangs scurried about like rats during the day in the sewers and subways, living underground in the great maze of New York’s underbelly that WW III had left almost in tact. By night, they were above, out in full force, lawless, pillaging, killing, raping and torturing. It was a raging battle for survival and political power among the inmates. They controlled the night.

Like in the movie, the Fort Bragg night people came alive under the shroud of darkness and their hoodies, while I stood at my window watching it unfold, the light of flashlights flickering on the dark screen in the dark places of my mind. During the day, I looked out that same window, gazing over the rooftops into the distance to the ocean’s white light, the glare almost too much to bear as it returned me to sanity.

I must leave this place, I remember thinking.



It’s All Black and White

The Senator's Stairs, Collograph print

 In 1992, I was fortunate to be in a printmaking class where my teacher, Marion Epting, Professor of Art at California State University, Chico, encouraged me to experiment with black and white print images. With his encouragement to do as I pleased with the Intaglio (etching) plate, I discovered an appreciation for the spontaneity of monotypes and collographs and the inherent simplicity and unity of a black and white image. After I graduated, I continued with the black and white image making I had enjoyed while making prints, but instead, painted with black and white Gesso directly on printmaking paper.

The complexity of value changes in the interaction of black ink on white paper left so much to the imagination of the viewer, yet at the same time, because of its association with newspaper photographic images, black and white could carry the weight: the importance and truth of reality. It connotes a documentation of real life.  Somebody once told me that photographs always tell the truth, but the truth is they don’t. From the beginning the photographer’s eye and mental process influences his/her process and product, just like painting a painting. The “manipulation” used to happen in a dark photo lab developing process with chemical solutions and expensive photo equipment, but today it happens in the camera with the artist’s ideas and touch, and on one’s home computer.

New Monterey Pines, CA - Painting

In the sense of black and white photos, my black and white Gesso landscapes of the Fort Bragg and  Monterey Bay area document a local landscape as seen through my eyes and influenced by my moods and skills. I manipulated my images. They are not truth.  They are illusions. They give a glimpse of a truth within me. I like the confluence of truth and illusion signified by the black and white in these paintings.

Guided by my penchant for simplicity and aversion to detail, I honed a landscape out of black and white Gesso and tried to express the image that first caught my eye, focusing on light and dark shapes, patterns, and large simple flat shapes juxtaposed against a sense of distance and atmosphere. I enjoyed the inherent contradiction of push/pull created by the flat shapes against deep space.

Black and white Gesso satisfied my need for simplicity: it was easy to manipulate and was transparent or opaque depending on how I applied it. It still entices me away from color. I use it on paper or canvas.

Bixby Creek Bridge, Big Sur, CA painting
Collograph print, Lighted Doorway


Fence
 
 
 
This fence belonged to the motel where I stayed one week when I came back to Fort Bragg for a painting vacation. The Beachcomber Motel located on the bluffs at the mouth of Pudding Creek River overlooked the river and beach, the rocks and ocean, the trestle bridge, and the foggy trees on the bluffs that I painted so many times. The motel was also adjacent to the walking and bicycling path that ran for seven miles up the coast starting at the old railroad trestle that crossed over Pudding Creek. The path followed the railroad tracks that had been ripped out years before.
 
Standing there on this morning, on this side of the fence, looking between the fence boards, I saw the mouth of the river and the beach. I watched the river shimmering its way around the sandbar. A misty white-light haze hovered over the distant bluffs. A few rooftops of houses and buildings on the bluff shimmered here and there. The dark fence, a perfect foil, set off the magnificence of the light on the bluffs and houses. 
 
I liked the idea of looking over the jagged top of the fence and seeing a sliver of bluffs and buildings emerge from the white mist. The focus of this painting is ambiguous. You don’t really know whether to look at the fence or at the distant bluffs. I liked the push/pull effect of this ambiguity and the contrasting edge created by the dark fence against the light of the bluffs: the man-made structure juxtaposed against nature, one enhancing the other. That’s what caught my eye and inspired me to paint it.


Fort Bragg Landscapes

I’ve uploaded four of my Fort Bragg landscapes, painted during the time I lived in Fort Bragg. I painted with black and white Gesso and watercolors. This combination of media gives the paintings a milky appearance. Despite the awful events occurring behind my apartment, Fort Bragg inspired the creation of many paintings…which are now sold.

These four images are of a coastal park at Pudding Creek, about one mile north of Fort Bragg proper. I fell in love with these bluffs and trees and the small beach and cove at the mouth of Pudding Creek. A very active logging and supply rail-line crossed this creek high above on a trestle bridge. The natural cove and ocean sparkle provided a stunning backdrop for this man-made structure.

The Park area had seven miles of paved recreational trail from the bridge north. Off the paved trail were smaller trails leading out to the edge of the land, to the area where the trees were leaning with the force of prevailing winds. I had hoped for the bicycle/walking  trail to be extended over the bridge one day so one could ride or walk the rest of the distance into town, but while I was there it remained closed and inaccessible. A non-functiong structure except for the beautiful enhancing contrast to nature that it provided.

My Fort Bragg paintings




%d bloggers like this: