Tuesday, December 16, 2008

What it is...

On a cold January morning, nearly 18 years ago, bright sunlight lit up the thin coating of freezing rain that had painted the city the evening before. In the crisp air a slender middle-aged man, a freelance artist/writer, walked at a careful but purposeful pace on the tricky sidewalk. The ice-clad trees along the street were dazzling, as seen through his trusty Ray-Bans. The woolly winter jacket his girlfriend had given him for Christmas felt good.


Since the freelancer couldn’t concentrate on his reading of the morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, he left half a mug of black coffee and a dozing cat on his desk to walk to the post office. He hoped the overdue check from a magazine publisher was waiting in his post office box.

Anxiously, he opened the box with his key. It was empty. He shrugged. An empty box had its upside, too -- there were no cut-off notices in it. With his last 20 bucks in his pocket, the freelancer hummed a favorite Fats Domino tune, “Ain’t That a Shame,” as he headed home.

By the end of the workday the freelancer's mission was to finish an 800-word OpEd piece, with an accompanying illustration, and drop it all off on an editor’s desk. With the drum beat for war in the air he wanted to focus on the inevitable unintended consequences of any war. Yet, with the clock ticking on his deadline he was still at a loss for an angle.

In early-1991 the nation was mired in an economic recession. The national debt was skyrocketing. War with Iraq was looming, it seemed all but inevitable. Pondering what demons might be spawned by war in Iraq he detoured a couple of blocks, to pick up a Washington Post and a fresh cup of coffee.

Approaching the 7-Eleven store the freelancer noticed a panhandler standing off to the left of the front doors. The tall man was thin and frail. He wore a lightweight denim jacket with a hooded sweatshirt underneath. Snot was frozen in his mustache. The whites of his heavy-lidded eyes were an unhealthy shade of pink.

During a time when a much younger version of the freelancer had run a night-life business, one in which he dealt with the public, he had determined his policy should be to never in any way encourage panhandlers to hang around. The rigid policy had lingered well after the comfortable job was gone.

On this cold day it wasn’t easy for the freelancer to avert his eye from the poor soul’s trembling outstretched hand. Not hearing his hoarse plea for food money was impossible.

When there are always so many lives to be saved in our midst, he wondered, why do we have to go to the Middle East in the name of saving lives?

Inside the busy store the freelancer poured a large coffee. Fretting profusely, he snapped the cup’s lid in place. It was one of those times when the little freelancer with horns was standing on one of his shoulders, while his opposite -- the one with the halo -- was on the other, both offering counsel.

The freelancer decided to give the panhandler food, rather than hand over cash that might underwrite a bottle of sweet wine. It might change my luck, he thought. He almost smiled.

Trying to max out the bang-for-the-buck aspect of his charitable gesture, the freelancer settled on a king-sized hot dog with plenty of free stuff on it -- mustard, chopped onions, relish, jalapeno peppers, chili and some gooey cheese-like product. Not wanting to push it too far, he passed on the ketchup and mayonnaise.

Outside the store, the freelancer found the starving panhandler had vanished. So, the crestfallen philanthropist took the meal-on-a-bun with him as he walked, softly singing a Buffalo Springfield song, “For What It’s Worth.”

"There’s somethin’ happening here,
What it is ain’t exactly clear.
There’s a man with a gun over there,
Tellin’ me I gotta beware.

I think it’s time we stop, children, what's that sound,
Everybody look, what's going down."

A line from that song’s last verse -- “paranoia strikes deep” -- suddenly snapped an idea for the OpEd into place, which launched an instant mini-mania. A block closer to home an image for the illustration occurred to him. He picked up his pace.

Back in his studio, rather than waste money, the freelancer tore into the feast he had prepared for a beggar. The food scared, or perhaps offended the cat, who fled.

Between sloppy bites the artist wiped his hands off and sketched furiously to rough out a cartoon of Saddam Hussein as the provocative Tar Baby of the Uncle Remus story, taunting/inviting America into a war.

About an hour later the heartburn started. Eventually, it got brutal.

The writer described the way propaganda works to sell war -- every war -- as glorious and essential to the everyday people, who risk their lives. That, while the wealthy, who rarely take a genuine risk on anything, urge the patriots on and count their profits.

Thinking of the war in Vietnam that thinned out his generation, he wrote: “After the war the veterans were largely ignored, even scorned.”

The freelancer lamented the popular culture having gone wrong, so there was no longer a place for anti-war protest songs. He wrote, “Where are today’s non-conformists?"

The freelancer turned in his work at 4:50 p.m. An hour later his sour and noisy stomach began to calm down during his second happy hour beer, which a friend bought for him. When he recounted the tale of the stuffed frankfurter and the inspiration of the Buffalo Springfield song, he made his belly ache seem funny to those gathered at the elbow of the marble bar.

Once again, the freelancer had met his deadline.

-- 30 --

-- words and art by F.T. Rea

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