See You at New Year’s
December 30, 2012
Remember those Mutual of Omaha shows? I think they were called “Wild Kingdom”.
For those of you who either do not remember or just have not one clue as to what I am talking about – it was a half hour TV show about these two guys lucky enough to travel the world and interact with exotic animals in their natural habitat. Well, actually the younger guy got to experience some dangerous monster for the show. The older guy discussed the ferocity of whatever animal they were visiting while the younger guy got to wrestle the damned thing in the background. “I stood off the side while Jim fought off three lions, two angry alligators, and some tribal leader’s wife with PMS . . .”
It was a classic set-up.
I always got a kick out of how the old guy pawned off the dangerous stuff to the younger guy. I was all of 8 or 9 years old, laying on the floor, and laughing my ass off watching this scenario play out every Saturday evening on the TV before the “real” shows came on. When I got older I saw the Mutual of Omaha logo go by every single day for 4 years when I rode the bus or drove past their world headquarters on my way to school downtown – and back.
Years later I would drive past the Flatirons above Boulder, CO with the same amount of interest. Both landmarks were there and they would always be there. The Flatirons are still in Colorado the last I heard and Mutual of Omaha is still in, well, in Omaha. I was so used to the buildings that were on the Mutual of Omaha campus that I never gave them much thought. I know some girls that went to work there after high school, I used to go to a bar across the street from the main building when I was in college, but I never gave the architecture or landscape much thought. It just always was. In Omaha, the new stuff sprouted up out west, east of 72nd Street – nothing ever changed.
Recently I heard they were actually revamping the area, but again, no big deal. I heard from other artists and friends in the neighborhood that the area has undergone a transformation like no other. I went there last week for Christmas and stayed at a hotel which stands on the same piece of land that I passed by at least twice a day for 4 years. New buildings replaced the parking lots and side buildings – ground level shops and bars covered by row after row of condominiums stacked on top of each other and set in a slight curve – all facing downtown. I stood at a rail above Turner Park, I have never stood above Turner Park before and looked at the downtown skyline across the interstate. This was a view of a part of town I knew very well from a vantage point I have never witnessed before.
While I was taking this view in – Ralphie was leaving a present for the next person who may decide to stop where we were. It was cold outside. Not cold like “oh it’s chilly”, it was about 8 degrees out. Ralphie weighs less than ten lbs, but his present packed a mean punch. Steam was rising off his sculpture and I was impressed with the little dot on top – kind of like a happy face on top of a frosted cupcake. I nodded my admiration to him and quickly looked to see if anyone in the scores of condos behind us decided to look away from the downtown skyline and witness a scruffy artist’s little dog defacing a tiny bit of green space overlooking a historic park on Christmas morning.
It was probably too early for anyone to care who was outside, even if they did happen to remain in town for Christmas. Ralphie is an early riser. I am not. But I have quickly learned it’s best to work with Ralphie in the mornings. My wife and children were still back at the hotel and I was standing with a little buzzsaw of a dog while we both stared at his steamer thawing out the snow. I was wearing a t-shirt, basketball shorts, Birkenstock clogs, and my worn out Navy peacoat, which by the way did not have any plastic bags in the pockets. We both started our slow side-step maneuver away from Ralphie’s evil work while scanning the area for any witnesses.
As we did our escape, I noticed the little red dot on Ralphie’s back – a laser dot. We stopped and I watched it slide from his back to his side – meaning it was coming from the condos facing the downtown skyline.
My cellphone rang. On the screen was a picture of Nanna. I tapped her picture to answer the call.
“Merry Christmas, Nanna.”
“Merry Christmas. Did you really think you two would get far after what he just did?”
“We were hoping.”
(Laughter) “I see that!”
“You up there in the condos, Nanna?”
“Yep. Been dating some professor or a genius or something.”
“Is he there?”
“Of course! It’s Christmas!”
“Is he tied up, Nanna?”
“Yes, but it’s not like the old days with that gray stuff – I got this new Christmas duct tape . . .”
“You gonna shoot my dog, Nanna?”
“Of course not, it’s Christmas – want to have a coffee?”
“Sure, what condo?”
“I’ll come down, all he had was jewelry, so I don’t have much to carry.”
I watched the red dot disappear and looked around. No police sirens, no cop cars. The old gal is a pro.
If you have never met Nanna, you are lucky. She became part of our family in the mid 60’s I suppose. She was part of some precursor to the witness protection program. She’s getting up there in years now, slowing down a bit. She never was a “looker”, but she has always been a great shot and somewhat opinionated. Her early days were pockmarked with some criminal if not questionable behavior as were her middle years. But, her relationships with judges, prosecutors, and her ability to sing “Arms of the Angel” like an angel herself has pulled her out of more difficult situations than I am probably aware. Nonetheless, her loyalty to our family since she arrived is unquestionable. Although she may look more like the Abe Vigoda character in “The Godfather”, she is more akin to Clemenza in the movie. Loyal to the end, and I absolutely refuse to sit in the passenger seat in a car with her if she is in the back seat.
She stepped out of the lobby of the condo and struggled a bit with her shopping bag. She still had those black shoes on she used to wear when I was a kid. The nuns in my school wore the same kind. (I think Nanna stole a pair from Sister Clementine – that was probably a fight worth seeing.)
I know the exit routine. Ralphie and I were about 4 or 5 storefronts away from the lobby door. We went up the exterior steps toward the hotel. Nanna held back and walked slowly up the steps by the shut down fountain.
The hotel allowed dogs. They even had a combination water and food dish in the foyer. Dog guests could grab a drink and a mouthful of crunchies when they entered the hotel. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that Nanna felt the coast was clear. She stopped to smoke a cigarette outside presumably to make sure nothing has gone awry. She can hotbox a ‘grette faster than anyone I know. I poured two coffees in the dining area of the hotel and set them on the coffee table in the lobby in front of the loveseat. Ralphie and I settled in and waited for Nanna.
Nanna worked her way over to us when the desk clerk was busy with a check-out. She gave me one of her famous one-arm gangsta hugs and patted both me and Ralphie. She apologized to Ralphie “for that laser dot thing” and offered some Christmas presents to me out of her shopping bag. I reminded her that she already sent presents to the house. She pursed her lips and rolled her good eye – the other one is a glass eye.
“Sorry,” She whispered, “I forgot.”
We sipped our coffee and looked out the lobby window at the courtyard in front of the hotel. Small talk eventually went from her latest minor ailments to her latest “mark” up in the condo.
“Bastard had it coming,” she said, “he’s been robbing people blind for years.”
I learned years ago to avoid all discussion of ethics with Nanna.
That Dan Fogelberg Christmas song was on the speaker.
Our coffee was almost gone and I went back to get refills.
“How have your shows been?” she asked when I returned.
“Not very good Nanna.”
“The sales happen Nanna, I just have to work 3 times as hard to make half as much. Me and everyone else I know that wants to tell the truth.”
“The paintings are good?”
“Better than ever. People are worried. Worried about taxes. Worried about lots of things. The fact remains, most of the shows suck, they bring people – but not buyers. I often feel like I am decorating an event and paying them to do it.”
“Why do them?”
“I may cut back on them this year Nanna. I am tired, tired of being lied to by the shows about the shows. Tired of rising booth fees, rising jury fees. Tired of shows scraping the barrel and lowering the quality of the shows, pissing off the real art patrons, ostracizing artists that are authentic and speak up against making the shows ‘something for everyone’, screwing with applications, screwing with venues, combining events like marathons and art festivals, I could go on and on.”
Nanna set her coffee down.
“It’s hard for everyone. Even the rich don’t have as much to steal. They still have stuff, just not as much. I’ve had to re-think how I do things.” Nanna’s good eye stared intently at me while the glass one floated off to the side.
I stared at the downtown skyline from our perch in the hotel lobby while Nanna removed and polished her glass eye. She popped it back in and looked at me with her shiny new-looking eye.
“You need to rethink your perspective too.”
“She gave me one of her slobbery kisses on my forehead and patted Ralphie as she left.
“I’ll see you guys at New Year’s, think about which shows deserve your attention, the hell with the rest of them – they are stealing from you – believe me, I know.”
Nanna pulled her shopping bag off the loveseat.
“You want a ride somewhere Nanna?” I asked.
Nanna smiled and pulled the Lexus keys out of her shopping bag. The lights from the Christmas tree in the lobby reflected off the keys.
“Naah. I’m good.” she said as I heard her sensible shoes clip past the elevators toward the parking garage, “Things change, get a new perspective.” she said over her shoulder as she finally made it around the corner.
Ralphie and I watched the downtown skyline from nearly the same spot I used to pass every day.
Get a new perspective.
What we as artists are doing is not working.