Welcome. This blog site places before you a remarkable man, Charles Beck, an artist and teacher. This monthly series of stories begins by describing Charlie’s ways of being in the world, through my encounters with Charlie in the last decade of his life first as my colleague, then mentor and finally or rather for ever as my dearest friend. Year two of this blog expands to include my own hopefully and enduringly perspectives on art, on teaching and of a certain slant on life inflected by Charlie. ~ Peter London

Charlie and the Bowery Bums

"Peter, I have everything." ~ Charlie

The art gallery that Charlie and I were members of was on Tenth Street just off Second Avenue in New York City. At that time, the nineteen sixties, there were several art galleries along Tenth Street, and it had quite a high reputation as a place where serious, up and coming artists showed their work. Most of the galleries were cooperative galleries; the artists owning, directing and running the place. Not fancy, but lots of people always coming by, some sales, and great festival like openings where all the galleries had their opening on the same night and loads of people flocked between galleries, often in bizarre outfits, eating and drinking everything in sight, upstaging the artwork, and rarely buying anything.

Second Avenue, from Fourteenth to Houston Street, about twenty blocks, was also the home of the Bowery Bums. We now recognize these folks as homeless because of any number of illnesses and misfortunes, but then, a Bowery Bum was considered as just a bum; a boozer derelict good for nothing. For veteran New Yorkers, these fellows were a historic and apparently inevitable part of society. Except for better informed and most probably more decent people, these men, (the vast majority were men) were an accepted part of a big and tough and dirty city. Restaurant supply stores,  used clothing stores, and  pawn shops lined the streets, and many of these down on their luck guys were recruited for kitchen help; not the cooks, maybe some prep chefs or salad chefs, but all the many others who worked in the kitchen and behind that. The lore was, they would be recruited to work Thursday through Sunday night, get paid, get drunk, and be back on the street until the next Thursday. Bowery Bums.

Our gallery was just steps from Second Avenue, and so there were always these fellows sleeping all crawled up in our entrance way, covered in cardboard boxes and grimy blankets and sheets of one kind or another, their heads resting on tightly wrapped bundles of their worldly possessions. We would have to rouse and step over them to open our gallery.  Every
corner and alley had knots of these darkened figures. There were a few soup kitchens and overnight hotels, but these seemed to do little to put these fellows back on their feet; they were often beat up, dirty, smelling from urine, wobbly, stubbly and droopy eyed. Born and raised in New York, Brooklyn to be exact (the home of Da Bums, a.k.a. the Brooklyn Dodgers) I too saw these fellows as just Bowery Bums, and when I passed them in the streets, had nothing to do with them, avoided eye contact when they might approach for a hand out, and say not a thing to their requests or observations of the day. I left them alone and they left me alone.  They remained bums, I remained a stiff.

Some years after I had met Charlie and we became members of the art gallery, I picked Charlie up at

his place in Queens, where we both lived.  Before we left his apartment, I noticed that he filled both his pockets with quarters. I didn’t ask him what that was about, he often did things that I hadn’t seen anybody else do before. We drove in, and as usual, found a place to park some blocks from the gallery, and started walking over. Not very far along Second Avenue, these bums start coming up to Charlie, and saying, Hello Mr. Beck, how are you today? Charlie says, Fine, fine, how are you doin? After these exchange of pleasantries, and without being asked for a handout, Charlie puts his hand in his pocket, takes out some of the coins and without looking at what amount may be in his hand, and like a good bye handshake, gives the guy whatever is in his hand.  The bum, also without looking at what has just been given him, says, Thank you Mr. Beck, I’ll get myself a sandwich and a cup of coffee. Charlie says, See Ya. And the other fellow says, Have a nice day Mr. Beck. Thanks, you too. As we continue down the street, one after another and sometimes in two’s and three’s, these down at the heels fellas come up, some saying hello to Charlie, some asking if he had any spare change today, and all, whether or not they were bold enough to ask, receiving a hand full of quarters. Now that I think about it, nobody came up to me and asked me for a hand out. Maybe that was because they knew at a glance that I was a stiff.

Reaching our gallery, we would step over a couple of these guys nesting in the entrance way, shut the door, and get the place ready for the painfully few visitors and even more rarely; a customer. After this first walk through our neighborhood, and pausing a moment between chores, I turned to Charlie, and asked, Charlie, how could you give those bums money? You know they are only going to get a drink, they’re bullshitting you about coffee and a sandwich, or car fare. They’re alcoholics, they’re bums, you’re only encouraging them, feeding their habit. They are going to buy another bottle, get drunk, fall down, get run over or something.

Charlie sits down, stares a long while at his shoes, then at his hands, and says, You know, Peter, I’m a lucky guy. He stops there to look at his shoes again. Then, I have a good job, I have two nice girls, one is married and she has two beautiful boys. My other daughter is seeing a really terrific fellow, we have our fingers crossed with this guy, he seems to like her. Helen (Charlie’s wife) is a good mother. We have this nice place up in the country, right on the Beaverkill, terrific fishing, small stuff but really good fishing. Finished examining his shoes, Charlie looks up and at me and says, Peter, I have everything. These guys have nothing.

I don’t say a thing. We continue to work getting the gallery up and running. He goes about his business, I go about mine. Sometime later, Charlie picks up the conversation. Look, Peter, I know these fellows are going to get a drink. And they’ll be back on the street tomorrow and the next day until they probably will get run over or something. These guys are going nowhere. They’ll die here.  I know this. I know this.

I don’t say a thing.

A little while later he says, You know Peter, You and Marion (my wife) are lucky too.

We finish sweeping the floor, wait for somebody to come in, and because nobody does, we resume our ongoing conversation about Cezanne, Warhol, or some such thing.  I’ve read some things about Cezanne, looked at a number of his paintings, formed some opinions about his work, and so add my two cents to the conversation. 

~ Peter London 

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