I finished painting lobbies at 10:00 arriving in Times Square at 10:30. I set up on 47th near Broadway, right in front of the Starbucks. I was barely done loading my clipboard when an Indian family approached. A girl in her teens was pointing at my self portrait. "Yeah, but I don't want it on a map," she was saying to her mother. "Can you do it on white paper?" she asked me.
"Yes, I can." I said, feeling disappointed, I really wanted to draw on the map.
"How much is it?"
"On the map it's $40. On white paper it's $20." She looked at her mother. Her mother creased her brow reflexively and shook her head scowling.
"Too Much!" she huffed.
"No, it's not. That's a great price." I smiled. There was no way I was going any lower if I didn't get to draw on a map. The daughter was looking back and forth between me and her mother. The price didn't bother her, I could tell, and she looked determined to get one.
"Over there" her mother waved across the street, "5 dollars!" Her eyebrows leaped to indignant heights.
"Those are CARTOONS!" I stood up. "I make PORTRAITS. NICE ones." I reached in my portfolio case and pulled out a white pad. "Those guys," I pointed, "do portraits too, but for 35 DOLLARS! Go ask them." I set the white pad on my easel. Her daughter had one hand on the chair. The mother was still scowling. She had been speaking in broken English, but I could tell she understood what I had said perfectly. I suddenly concluded that she had already talked to the Chinese guys and was putting on a show. I picked up a litho crayon. "C'mon. Sit down." The girl sat and began preening her hair. Her mother huffed away saying something in Indian, which I assumed was "It better look like you!" The younger siblings and father stayed to watch.
I did a nice job and when her mom came back she was all friendly. They paid five extra for a mat and left happy. I packed up and moved to my usual spot on 7th ave. as it was after 11:PM.
11:PM on Friday is mayhem. The amount of people walking by is staggering. You might think this would be good for business. I did, and I was wrong. Half the people going by couldn't even see me through the other half, and half of both halves were escaping societal overload by staring up at a gajillion watts of advertising overhead. Those who did notice me had barely a chance to react before being ushered down river. So I sat for well over an hour making flickering eye contact with about 10 thousand people. A 20 something photo guy parked his cart to my left when I first sat down, asking me the rules for selling in Times Square. At 11:30 a shish kebob vendor aggressively asked us to move down by jamming his cart against my easel, and saying "Move." We gave him space and he proceeded to do what these guys do best, that is, pouring marinade on an open fire, producing ludicrous amounts of smoke. Enough for thousands of people? Yes. Thankfully, he seemed dissatisfied and left after 10 minutes.
3 Chinese guys blew in and collected at the South end of our spot. They started drawing as soon as they sat down. They have a great knack for hopping in the river and coming out with a fish. Whereas I am compelled to sit and wait for the fish to come to me, sit in my lap, and beg to be drawn. Why? It appears to be who I am. The Chinese guys never get personable. They never show like or dislike for anybody. They never converse. This is not because they are unfeeling robots. (I know you didn't say that.) It's how they protect their culture from being swallowed by American culture, which is quite big on swallowing. This is wise. And good for business in Times Square. Me, I couldn't divest myself of emotion if you paid me. I can't sell anything without getting personal. My salesmanship depends on charm and don't confuse that with comedy. or cuteness. Charm is putting your heart inside somebody else's, understanding their emotional needs and providing them, making yourself indispensable to their happiness. I've found the best way for me to sell is calling out things people want to hear like "Hey! I Love your shoes!" or "feeling tired?" or "You ladies look lovely tonight." (My friend Habib, who I've promised to write about, is the master of complimenting the ladies without sounding sleazy or desperate.) Basically I can say any genuine thing that comes to mind in good will towards the person as long as it's not rehearsed and in no way tries to sell a portrait. If the passerby engages in conversation, I lay on the charm, but still never alluding to making portraits until they ask something like; "so you draw people?" At this point I'd say I have a 75% chance of getting them to sit.
Around 12:20 the crowd finally started to thin. I looked up as a patch of people cleared and saw a white lady of about 52 years on bended knee holding out a single rose to a black man and singing in a faint voice "You are so beautiful... to me." I could barely hear her. He was about fifty and obviously a seasoned hustler by his body language which telegraphed patient amusement. When she finished, she handed him the rose and got awkwardly to her feet. He gave a gracious bow saying "Thank You" and she gave him a delicate hug. Then holding his shoulders gazed deep in his eyes and said "Peace, Hope and Love." It was here I noticed the big bouquet of roses in her other hand and it dawned on me that he was not her only victim. I was too late. Turning from him she caught my eye and without ever looking away from my face began swimming a bee-line through the crowd to me. My brain was frantically kicking my optic cables screaming "look away! look away!" It was no use. I was somehow paralyzed by her intent. It wasn't until she was standing in front of me, leaning down, asking "May I sing a song to you?" that I landed on one way to make this bearable.
"You may," I said politely smiling, "if I may sing one back to you." Having taken my cue from the black man, I did not use the word 'retaliate'.
"Sure!" she said, delighted to have some form of company in her lonely endeavor. "That would be great!" And then, kneeling on one knee, she held out a pink rose and looked searchingly in my eyes. I was hoping for a different song, but no, the very same. "You are so beautiful... to meee" in a small, quavering voice. Quavering, perhaps, because I too was searching deep in her eyes. I was looking to see if she meant it. "Can't you seeee...what you do-oo to meee?" I was trying. I raised one eyebrow very slightly. There was a noticeable flutter in her voice, but she forged on and made it to the end of the song. As she gave me the rose and began to stand, I put out my hand.
"We had a Deal" I said.
"Oh Yes." she settled back on her knee.
Now I've been singing various Sam Cooke songs in the shower and occasionally when I'm painting elevator lobbies and no one's around I'll let loose a bit, because I really like to sing loudly and I don't get to do it at home for more than 10 seconds before my entire family (including the 2 cats and the turtle) have all suddenly remembered that 'very important thing' they were going to tell me. "Michael, did you check the mail?", "Look at my lego ship, dad... DAD! LOOK at my ship!", "Meow, feed meow?", "DA-AD! I'm THIRSteee!", Sploop Sploop Sploop Sploop Sploop (that's turtle frantically trying to swim straight up out of the water.) All these things sound trivial and mundane, but when I'm projecting 90- 120 decibels their importance sky rockets. But the point is; I like singing loud, and here was the perfect opportunity. So I blasted her.
"DarLIN' YOO-OO send me! I KNOW YOO-OO send me, DarLIN YOO-OO send me, honest you DO," I leaned in and half closed my eyes, "honest you doooo." My voice softened, "at first, I thought it was iiiin-fat-u-a-tion, Ooohh but it's lasted" loud again "SO-Oo Long. Lately I find myself WANTing... to" this "marry and take you home!" was the first place I wasn't able to sing with sincerity. Every other line there was someway my mind was able to mean it. So as I sung it, I broke eye contact and found a big semi circle had formed around us on the sidewalk. I was staring directly into the faces of about 14 women aged 35-50. I looked quickly back, and forged on, quavering a bit. "Whoa-oh-whoa-o-oh-whoa, darLIN' YOO-OO... thrill me, I kno-ow YOO-OOO... ThriLL mee, DarLIN' YOO-OO THrill meee, honest you dooooo." I supposes it was cruel of me to hold her captive and blast her but , man, it sure felt good to sing loud. She got shakily to her feet and I stood up as well and tried to hand the rose back. "No, you keep it" she said. And since I felt a little guilty, I let her hug me, but she didn't say "peace, hope and love." I had blasted that out of her. She slipped into the crowd and I turned around. 14 women were staring expectantly at me. I stood for a moment surveying them then said, "Anybody want a portrait?" sweeping my hand at the easel.
"Oh...No!" They put up their hands in protest. "We was just listennen to you sing." They shook their heads like breaking a trance and dispersed within seconds. I sat back down with this strange feeling that maybe I was in the wrong business. Eventually I did land a couple from Boston and someone on the heels of that, and the night became worthwhile.