SCAD’s bookstore/cafe sat directly across from the armory building: tile floors, brass rails, polished wood. Step in the door and turn to the left and you were in line for books and art supplies, turn to the right and you were standing in the food and coffee line. Fun fact: Hamburgers are cheaper than art supplies.
The move was simple: Browse the bookstore side, pick up a set of watercolors or whatever, see a friend seated in the cafe area, go say hello, then ease on over to the food line. The bored student working the bookstore side either would lose track of me or not really care, so off I went with books or supplies for the price of a burger.
I’m not proud of my time as a hardened art school criminal, but it happened. I ran out of money quickly, and though my mother slipped me cash whenever she could, my father held fast to his principles: Go to engineering school and never pay a penny, go to art school and never get a penny.
The obvious solution was to get a job, but I was eighteen and enamored with the notion of being a full-time art school student. I wanted to be like the other kids, like Chris from Atlanta whose father did well enough in advertising to afford for his son a beautiful apartment in Savannah’s historic district. The walls were pristine white, the soft carpet an arctic blue. Chris enjoyed central heat and air, a burglar alarm, cable television, and a well-stocked refrigerator. His hair and clothes were perfect. Chris was a Bret Easton Ellis character personified.
A bunch of us, male and female, went over to his place one night to watch Caligula ironically. Everyone laughed and talked about how disgusting it was, and I felt guilty for being the only deviant in the room who was storing scenes away in the spank bank. During our sophomore year Chris came out and his pops cut him off: No more Less Than Zero apartment, no more art school. I appreciated my old man’s stubbornness after that. My first year of college might have been financially rough, but it least it severed the cord.
Anyway, the bookstore/cafe. I bought, or at least acquired, a black bound Strathmore sketchbook and immediately began writing in it everywhere, all the time. I wrote while I walked, while I waited for classes, I even wrote while I was sitting with friends.
“Writing” is a generous description. Trying to reread that incoherent mess borders on impossible, but through the tangle of nonsense emerge three themes: loneliness, horniness, and borderline illiteracy. That first black book is the writer’s equivalent of a toddler learning to speak. Sometimes it’s better not to look back, and sometimes desire trumps reason. That first sketchbook/notebook contains no hint of talent, not a single sentence worth repeating, but it bears witness to an overwhelming urge to keep putting pen to paper.
What drives the need to make things? Why are some people so compelled to write, draw, sing, dance, sculpt, act, cook, carve? And why isn’t everyone enslaved by the desire to create? Maybe what fuels my appetite was the few times as a kid that I got lucky and made a good thing. Maybe I’m just a junkie chasing that first high, or maybe I came pre-wired for making things — born with the compulsion to create.
I don’t know, but it’s painfully obvious looking through that first black book that in my case compulsion and aptitude did not come as a bundle. Also apparent is my blissful self-unawareness. I carried that goddamned thing everywhere, transcribing conversations (“Eddie Plank was the greatest southpaw of all time”), playing with words as if they were model trains (“torn-thorn-horn”) and convincing myself that I was okay (“No longer scared!”). Bad doodles crowd the jumble of words.
When I bought, or at least acquired, my black book I didn’t realize that such a beast was catnip for some people. A girl named Margaret approached me in Drawing I. She resembled Carney Phillips pre-surgery, but in eighties art school clothing: Forenzas, Alison Moyet hair, over-sized coat.
“Is that your sketchbook?” she asked.
“Can I see it?”
“I write in it, too.”
“Oh, so like a diary?”
“No, just a book.”
“Am I in it?”
“Kind of. Yes. No.”
She stared at me. “You’re interesting. Why don’t you come over after class?”
That afternoon I followed Margaret back to Pulaski Square and hung out in her dorm room. Her mattress lay on the floor, wrapped in buffalo plaid sheets and surrounded by a white mosquito net. Sketches and art supplies covered every available space.
Pinned to the wall by the top bunk was a photo of Janis Joplin in all her Pearl glory — the big glasses, feathers and love beads, her erect nipple poking through her tank top.
“You like Janis?” I asked.
“That’s my roommate’s. She’s a hippy, and she’s bi.”
“And she’s beautiful. People can barely tell us apart,” she said, and then she gestured in some forgotten but silly way that signaled self-deprecation. “She should be home soon.”
On cue the door opened and there she stood: Giant blue eyes, long red hair, and full breasts wriggling beneath her peasant blouse.
“Hey, Tuesday, this is James,” Margaret said, and Tuesday locked her blue eyes onto mine.
“Hi, James,”” she said. “Oh, is that your sketchbook?”
I don’t remember whether I was able to speak. If so I didn’t have the faculties to transcribe my response in my black book, and I even if I had the words would be so jumbled that I couldn’t tell you what I said.