“He came in, poked his head in the door and said, ‘Can you paint me maggots?’”
“Maggots. Another time he came in and said, ‘Am I in New York?’”
“Was he messing with you, or-”
“No, there was something wrong with him,” she cut in, giving the universal swirl-finger for crazy. “He was the most interesting one this month.”
My conversation partner was an artist. A woman in maybe her late 40s or early 50s, she had wild curly hair pulled back over a tank top and cargo pants. She moved quickly but gestured slowly as she pointed out everything in her Division Avenue art shop. The walls were lined with her works.
She had spotted me that evening as I walked outside. I stopped to look at the Cornell boxes in the window. She hopped out happy and flushed, gestured slowly at them, told me about the friend who did them and invited me in to talk art as she packed.
She didn’t do much packing.
“There was this one guy who got aggressive. He came in and was like, ‘Yo, yo, yo. How much to paint my family?’” she said, punching the air with each yo. “He was testing me. ‘Yo, yo.’”
She walked up to a painting that was entirely black but for a person in the foreground and a pair of women’s eyes floating in the background.
“I said it depends a lot on the size, how fast he wants it done,” she said. “But he started looking around. This painting originally I had as that woman. I decided to keep her eyes. I just liked them. And she was originally holding sort of an ornate cross- Oh! You can still see it!”
She brushed her hand over where, under the black paint, you could in fact still make out the raised outline of a Knights Templar cross.
“I went with it. He was looking around the place and said, ‘Yo, do you have any paintings of, like, crosses?’”
She had a big smile here. She ran her hand over the black painting as if she were a Price is Right model.
“And I said, ‘Like this one?’ That quieted him down. He had tattoos and his wife and a 3 year old with him.”
She was moving. Not by choice. The building was sold, so she planned to move to a spot on Ashland for the art she showed and the lessons she taught. That’s why she was there so late on a Thursday evening. She was packing to go.
“Yeah, a lot of people come in here,” she said. “They get a glass of wine and come in here. Talk with me for a while. Say ‘How much for a painting?’”
She trailed off.
“How’s the new place going to be?” I asked.
“It’ll be nice,” she said.
We talk about the new spot. It’ll be farther from the bars and restaurants of the Division Street strip. Closer to a few Mexican restaurants. Closer to her house, too.
I promise to come and visit her new location — it’s closer to my house as well. She makes me take a business card. She’s trying to get rid of them. The address is going to be obsolete.
I walk out into the bars and restaurants. Hip apartment buildings. A few scary Polish bars still fighting the good fight. And Division Street 2012 gets a little less weird. One fewer little art shop where the owner punches the air each time she says “yo” and where men ask for maggots. One less place where slightly tipsy people wander in to ask about paintings they have no intention of buying.
I can’t really be mad on this. I’m a gentrifier here too. So, probably, was the little art shop. But I guess I can let myself be irked that whatever the next step in this neighborhood’s growth, it’s a little less me.
And a little less Layne Jackson.