When Art Doesn’t Like You

or, Exploding Blues

When traveling, I look for the local artisan market, which is often associated with the local farmer’s market, so two good things in one place. Sometimes I even ask for directions and if I’m lucky, I have a new friend who walks with me. So three good things and counting. If I’m hungry, or a piece of art strikes me, I take something home. During my last trip to Mexico, I stopped and admired a piece of art at a market. I was drawn to the image but not the underlying message intended by the artist, written in a short, pale phrase on the bottom. “Blues de muy abajo”, (blues from far below). I asked him about it, he laughed, ‘just because’. The fiery image he painted of blues music appealed to me, but his perspective of the blues being from the devil did not. It seemed he was painting a cliché, or maybe speaking to it, though I think the former given his written and spoken words. I walked.

The next day I found a different market and he was there, again, with the same paintings. I stopped again, still drawn to the motion and the fire of the image, the artistic portrayal of music in color. There was a way in which I wanted to see his imagery. I don’t have to accept his message, I thought. It has other meaning for me. That’s art, right? The artist may have a creative intent, but once it goes out into the world it belongs to the world.

So I bought it. One thousand pesos. Fifty bucks. It was a big expense for me at the time, really big for a discretionary purchase. I didn’t haggle, though I’m sure he would have taken less with even just a little effort. But sometimes it’s worth it to pay full price, to not haggle. We were both happy. Smiling, almost giddy, he rolled his work into a sturdy, white cardboard tube. I shook his hand, thanked him, and didn’t see him again. Yeah, I could’ve gotten it for a lot less.

After one last sleepless night in Mexico, I carried that white tube hiding fiery red blues a couple thousand miles away from home, its home, back to mine, through multiple security checks, scans, and x-rays; past grumpy, condescending, impatient, humorless border patrol and TSA agents, chucked into overhead storage bins and even used as a pry bar by one passenger. Finally, now just a few hundred feet from the car at my home airport, I put all my bags down to get my jacket out of the suitcase before heading outside into the freezing cold parking garage. Half way home it hits me. The painting is at the airport in the hall where I took my jacket out of the suitcase.

Unattended package’ I think. They’ve probably exploded it by now. The next exit is 16 miles down the road. I’ll use the ‘no U-turn’ crossover on the interstate. Nope, there’s a cop there.

I call the info desk at the airport. It’s a small airport, and I get a human on the phone. I tell Bob about my unattended package. He tells me he’ll go look. I imagine he probably needs to follow some TSA rules about collecting and exploding unattended airport packages. There are probably sacrificial robots involved. Half an hour later I arrive at the info desk, half expecting to see police and grumpy TSA agents waiting to interrogate me and search my car for more things they can pluck away with their robots and explode.

“Are you Bob?” I’m relieved to see he has grey hair. That tells me he doesn’t need to follow the rules if he knows he can get under them. He grew up that way. Like me.


“I’m Paul, did you find my tube?”

He hands it to me with a smile and I thank him, a little overboard on the heartfelt thanks, in part because I’m happy to have my painting back, and only an extra hour out of this long journey.

“I tried to call you back but there was no answer.” He shows me the number he wrote down, it’s wrong by a couple numbers.

“My fault,” I say, “I was probably mumbling. I’m glad you didn’t have to report it.” I’m glad to be back in Vermont where they’ll at least try to call you.

Bob smiles, I thank him again, and then he thanks me. Vermont. Grey hair. Humanity. All of it. I want to buy him a beer but he’s working, and when you haven’t slept in a day, every hour counts.

I take the white tube to my car and put it in the back on top of my suitcase.

One more hour home.

I stop at the co-op for basic supplies, hoping I don’t see anyone I know. Gas station, then finally home where I unpack the car, start the fire, pop open a beer and get dinner started. Chicken products are a staple in Mexico, and pork. Everything that comes from a chicken in Mexico tastes the same, and with an ever so slight but long-lingering, back-of-the-tongue taste of the meat section at an open air market. That’s why there are so many different kinds of salsa! I’m happy for my fresh green vegetables.

36 hours into this day where the only brief sleep was interrupted by a neck snapping head drop into my chest, or a kick from the seat in back of me when I realize my mouth is open, I was probably snoring, and the stewardess is asking if I want a drink and snack. All I can think is ‘I hope I’m not drooling’. I close my maw and wipe my face with the back of my hand. It’s dry.

“Cranapple please”

I put my dish in the sink. I need to sleep but want to unroll the painting. The tube is not with the luggage on the floor. I put on my slippers and walk to the car; shoes are too hard to deal with right now. Snow wets my feet. It’s not there either. It’s not on the porch, not dropped absentmindedly in the driveway. Not under the pile of laundry, not in the fridge or behind the freezer or in the woodshed. It’s just not here. Could it have rolled out of the car when I loaded my groceries? It would have had to roll out of the hatchback and onto my feet. ‘I’m just blinded by sleep,’ I hope. It’ll show up in the morning.

But it doesn’t. I look everywhere again, retrace my steps. Car, under the car, garage floor, snow drift where I peed, wood shed, porch, mudroom, behind the freezer, under the laundry, refrigerator, garbage. Not here. I have no memory of having placed it or mis-placed it. It’s in the parking lot at the co-op, 17 miles away. I call to see if anyone found it. Nope. I drive through the snow to go look in the parking lot. I’m the fourth car behind the plow and those guys never pull over. It’s going to be a long drive.

I’m looking for a white cardboard tube on fresh, unplowed snow in the parking lot for an object that apparently does not want to be part of my life; that may want to get away from me and the cold and snow and find its way back to the warmth of home, to its creator. Or maybe it just wants to see how hard I’m willing to work for it.

Every time I go to Mexico I lose something. Lost my camera the first time. A girlfriend the next. I’ve lost some fear there too, and expectations of how things are “supposed” to be in my small corner of a small life in a large world. This time I lost my Mexican painting. But loss means that I’ve found things too, loss makes room for something else. Because of the people I met traveling this week, the people who helped me despite language and culture barriers, the people who wanted to hear, to help, and to share, I lost my sense of being alone in the world. I lost that nagging feeling that I am nobody with no voice and nothing to offer. I lost the sense of living in North America where we get lost in the details and struggles of everyday life that is unique to this place but has little to do with the sea of humanity with whom we currently share the world. I lost things I’d like to have back, and I’ve lost things I didn’t know I had that I’m glad to be rid of. Those losses made space for finding a sense of fearlessness that comes from swimming honestly among the fish in this sea.

I return home, empty-handed and resigned to this new loss. ‘Just another thing.’ Hang up my jacket and take one more look around. I must have put it in a weird place in a sleep deprivation induced amnesia. Maybe it’ll turn up next time I clean. I look on the porch, and on the shelves, and again behind the freezer where this time I see a white tube standing where it can hardly be missed. I reach for it, testing it like you would test something you think might be hot, or that might vaporize like a dream.

With the tube in in my hands I see the rolled up edge of the canvas on the end where Bob tore the tape off to check out my story and I think, ‘what did I not see when I looked at you all those other times? Did I miss you with my eyes or my intention or my imagination? Or were we waiting; you to see if I loved you enough to find you, and me to see if you loved me enough to be found.’

Published by Paul J.

Writer, adventurer, maker

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