The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby (graphite and colored pencil)

It’s official.  My name can now be added to the long list of movie fans who got caught up in the craze of Director Baz Luhrmann’s release of The Great Gatsby.  Blame it on the “man crush” I’ve had on Leonardo DiCaprio ever since Titanic.  Leo’s Jack Dawson made me want to quit college, get on board a ship as a stowaway, go to Paris, become an obscure artist, meet a Rose DeWitt Bukater, and steal her away from her millionaire fiancé.  He made being a poor artist look cooler than being a gangster or a tycoon.  Fast forward 16 years, and you have, essentially, the same story.  A poor guy falls in love with a rich girl, and somehow has to convince her that he’s the right man for her.  He’s got to separate himself from the throngs of obviously more eligible bachelors and wealthy suitors.  He goes on a quest.  He painstakingly sets himself on a course of rigorous self-improvement.  Instead of mastering drawing, he perfects the art of becoming a gentleman; and makes nouveau riche look cooler than inherited wealth.  But this drama doesn’t unfold on the deck of a ship.  Well, part of it does.

Before I saw the movie, I decided to read the book.  Or I should say, I decided to re-read the book.  I remember being assigned F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in high school as a reading assignment.  Probably about 5-10 pages into it, I thought to myself “why the hell do I have to read this?”  I was an African-American teenager, living and attending high school in a predominately White neighborhood.  Back then, The Great Gatsby was just a literary reminder of being Black in a White dominated world.  As the title of Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece echoes, The Great Gatsby reminded me of what it felt like to be invisible.  I did not identify with the protagonist Jay Gatsby, because I did not grow up poor.  I grew up middle class.  The world of the aristocracy was not interesting to read about.  I considered myself anti-establishment.  I did not have aspirations to become rich.  I think mostly, like other teenagers who feel like they’re social outcasts, I just wanted to be left alone.

Fast forward 20 years, and now when I read The Great Gatsby, I don’t necessarily see Jay Gatsby in the mirror, but I do identify with him.  A little.  Somewhat.  I now know what it’s like to fall in love with a girl and lose her to a man who’s got money.  I’ve had that experience.  I know what it’s like to be poor, and want to move up the economic ladder to get the girl of your dreams.  That’s every poor man’s fantasy.  I identified with that hunger.  I identified with that ambition.  While reading, I hoped to soak up any vestige of fortuity still blinking, in this age of The Great Recession, of that “orgastic” green light that Fitzgerald so eloquently wrote about.

The best way for me to describe Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, is to say that it is a movie of contrasts.  From the start, this much is made clear.  A grainy, black and white projection is used for the opening credits, giving them a very Nickelodeon feel.  This nostalgic effect lasts only a few seconds, and gives way to a gilded makeover.  As the opening credits go, so does the music.  The Bryan Ferry Orchestra compositions used in the film constantly tangle with Executive Producer Jay-Z’s soundtrack.  Normally, I prefer a period film to only incorporate music from the era being shown.  Using Hip-Hop music in a Jazz/Big Band era at first would seem to be incongruent.  And it is, from a musical standpoint.  However, this incongruity helped to sharpen the contrasts between the lifestyles of the residents of East and West Egg, with that of the city (New York).  The extravagant parties thrown by Jay Gatsby at his mansion look like scenes from rap videos-everything from custom luxury cars to expensive champagne.  When the jazz music of the era plays in the film, all is gay.  When the rap music blasts from the Dolby Digital Surround speakers in the movie theater, you can taste the excess and touch the decadence.  No “old sport,” this is not your grandparent’s Great Gatsby.  About half way through the movie, I noticed that an older couple, probably in their early 70’s, decided to leave the theater.  I sort of chuckled, but in an understanding way.  They were probably expecting Duke Ellington and Artie Shaw alone to handle the score.  To be honest, so was I.  

The film also presented a spectacular contrast between the living and working conditions of the rich and poor.  The lush green acres of East and West Egg are paradise compared to the dry, gray ash heaps visible on the way into the city; where the sounds of steel driving hammers and gas pumps can be heard, workers are covered in soot, sweat and grease.  But the East and West Eggers are wrapped in pink and white clothes made of the finest materials to be found in the entire world.  It is class struggle in all of its cinematographic glory.

The only qualm I had with the film was that I did not get to meet Jay Gatsby’s father at the end.  This was, perhaps, a minor omission by the film in comparison with the book.  Still, it would have been nice to see Gatsby’s dad.  But I’m just being a stickler, a purist.  I generally enjoy the book better than the film adaptation.  And this was no exception.  That being said, and only having read The Great Gatsby a couple of times, I would strongly recommend it to lovers of the book.

And all that’s really left to say (and please excuse all of my “blushing”) is that once again, Leonardo DiCaprio turned in an extraordinary performance.  By the end of the film, I think I was just as much in awe of Leo as Nick Carraway was of Gatsby.  Maybe it’s because I don’t get invited to parties.  I’m not what you call a cool or hip person.  I don’t have lots of friends.  I never was in the A crowd.  (What a rant!)  But when the movie ended, I felt like Gatsby was my friend.  I felt privileged to get to know him, captivated by how mysterious he was, inspired to throw caution to the wind and dream audacious dreams, like being able to “repeat the past.”  And yes, I’ve since adopted the phrase “old sport” and I plan to use it as often as possible.  (OMG…I think I’m turning into Nick Carraway)

© 2013

The Painting (A Short Story)

The Rose That Grew Out of the Guitar (graphite and colored pencils)

The painting hung on the wall as if it were being shown in a museum.  It beamed.  Encased in a gilded frame, the lavish acrylic strokes that formed a beautiful guitar possessed exquisite light.  But this painted guitar was not ordinary.  The artist, no doubt a surrealist, had taken great liberty with the neck.   Halfway up, the wood transformed  into a glass tube vase.  In the place of the headstock was a white rose, just beginning to bloom.  When Meredith found the painting on the floor of the back seat in a returned rental car, she had second thoughts about keeping it.

She knew who it belonged to.  The art dealer, whom she delivered the luxury sedan to, a Mr. Wiseman, spoke optimistically about all of the paintings he carefully arranged in the back of the rental.  His plan was to visit the galleries in the city while he was in town, and sell each one to the highest bidder.  “Every one of these miraculous pieces should fetch a small fortune,” he told Meredith as he brusquely signed the rental contract she prepared for him on her clipboard.  “Don’t you want to inspect the vehicle for damage before you sign?” she pleaded with him.  “I did so when you pulled into the hotel’s valet lot,” he answered.  “This vehicle is as flawless as every painting I intend to sell today.”

Having worked in the rental car industry for years, Meredith had retrieved a myriad of forlorn personal items.  In a hurry to drop off their rentals, customers were always leaving purses, wallets, cell phones and keys behind.  Once, she found a diary in a glove compartment.  She read several entries before closing it and putting it into the lost and found box kept in the back office.   When Mr. Wiseman returned his rental, he had cleared it out of all of the paintings he packed it with.  Or so he thought.  Unbeknownst to him, one painting strayed from his watch.  It stood upright, clinging to the back of the passenger seat.  Meredith noticed it when she performed her sweep of the vehicle for interior damage.  She did not mention the painting when she dropped him off.  Instead, she drove him to his hotel, hoping he would not check the back seat before he exited the car to go up to his suite.  “This has been a marvelous trip,” he exulted.  “I sold nearly every one of my paintings.”  Meredith smiled nervously as he opened the car door and said goodbye.  As he strolled triumphantly toward the hotel entrance, Meredith reached behind the passenger seat for the painting.  She felt the frame and  sighed in relief.

A glass of pinot grigio eased Meredith’s guilty conscience.  She sipped restrainedly.  She marveled over her new painting.  She stood in her living room staring at it.  Yet, she could not fully enjoy the moment.  What would happen when Mr. Wiseman checked his inventory and noticed the painting was missing?  She would be forced to lie to him and her supervisor.  She was now a larcenist.  The thought of this made her sit her drink down and momentarily take her eyes off the painting.  When she looked back up at the painting she noticed that something was different.  Oddly, the rose had wilted.  The guitar strings were now severed from the bridge and coiled.  Meredith froze.  There was a knock at the door.  “Meredith, my name is detective Argos.  I would like to ask you a couple of questions.”  The detective hearing a thud, forced the door open, and found Meredith’s lifeless body.

(The short story you just read originally was a submission to NPR’s Three-Minute Fiction contest.  The contest rules stated that the story must be no more than 600 words.  The challenge, set forth by author Karen Russell, was to “Write a story in which a character finds an object that he or she has no intention of returning.”)

© 2013

The 2013 Columbus Arts Festival

Yesterday, I attended the 2013 Columbus Arts Festival in downtown Columbus, Ohio.  The Columbus Arts Festival features some of the finest artists from around the world.  I was eager to get some pictures taken of all the art on display, but to my dismay, the festival committee enforced a “no photography” of the art rule.  That’s understandable.  If you visit the official 2013 Columbus Arts Festival website, you can view a list of all the artists featured in the festival, and a sample of their incredible work.  (There was, however, no rule against me taking pictures of the graffiti art I spotted just outside of the festival)

Lucky for me, and all the other festival goers, there were plenty of sights to take snapshots of in addition to the tremendous displays of realism, impressionism, postmodernism, mixed media, glass, metal, wood, ceramic, jewelry and photography.  Like many other people yesterday, I found myself pointing my camera at the bending arches and stretching bridges which highlighted the architecture of the riverfront.  The reflections of the downtown Columbus skyline upon the Scioto River, amidst the iridescent bejeweled Main Street Bridge, made for a terrific twilight scene.  The Main Street BridgeThe Main Street Bridge is something of a piece of art in its own right.  In fact, according to downtowncolumbus.com, “The Main Street Bridge is the first inclined, single-rib tied arch bridge in the whole United States.  AND it’s only the fifth inclined arch superstructure on the face of the planet.”

After walking around and looking at all of the art booths at the festival, I decided to visit the Community Stage, and listen in on acoustic guitarist Matt Steidle’s performance.  Matt played a slew of classic covers ranging from George Gershwin’s Summertime to Come Together by The Beatles.  Matt SteidleHe also covered Dave Matthews, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and played his own version of M.Ward’s Chinese Translation.  Though his interpretations of the classics were fantastic, I found his original songs that he shared on stage even more intriguing.  Particularly, one of his songs titled Giggles had the effect of tickling my fancy, as well as my funny bone.   As his skillful solo work on the high E string developed, he added a touch of improvised scatting into the microphone.  A group of children then promptly rushed to the front of the stage and began to dance.  I can’t help but laugh when I see children dance.  Children are so carefree and oblivious to the world’s constrictions, as if they are artists in the making.

After Matt’s set concluded, I headed over to the Word Is Art Stage to hear poetry.  But before I got there, I ran into 2 street performers.  The first performer was The Piano Peddler.The Piano Peddler  This guy was really cool!  He played an electric piano on top of the bicycle he used to arrive at the festival.  He also played a tambourine with his foot, showing off the full extent of his polyrhythm.  The second street performer was Mark Abbati of joyUNSPEAKABLE productions inc.  This guy was really, really cool! Mark Abbati

You’ve probably seen the performers who act as if they are statues and then all of a sudden, miraculously come to life.  If you have not, you’re in for a real treat if you visit his website.  Mark was dressed as a pirate, and entertained the kids and adults simultaneously during his performance.  It was thrilling to watch him spring to life, and then instantly turn to stone.  How does he do that?  (And yes, I did tip both of them, and you should too when you see amazingly talented artists performing on the street!)

Finally, I found my way over to the poetry stage.  Columbus has a very good poetry scene, so I was not at all surprised to find some of the city’s best poets congregated.  The first poet I listed to was Meg Freado.  Meg was the 2nd runner up in the 2013 Columbus Arts Festival poetry contest.  Meg’s poetry was deeply personal and introspective.  She shared a poem about her mother who passed away when Meg was only 17.  Meg FreadoShe shared deeply intimate memories and described, through descriptive prose, just how strong the bond between a daughter and a mother can be, even in the face of death.  Meg used cosmically illustrative metaphors like stardust and moonbeams to accent  her poetry.  My favorite comparison that Meg used to describe love was that of a storm chaser.  To paraphrase, Meg said that if searching for love is like chasing storms, then to find true love, you must not only be a storm chaser, but you must chase every storm.

Next up was the winner of the 2013 Columbus Arts Festival poetry contest.  Her name was Izetta Thomas.  Izetta is a school teacher and specifically works with autistic children.   She’s also one of the best poets in the city, having competed and won in poetry slams (contests) all over the country.  Izetta interwove gospel-styled singing and character portrayal while reciting her poems.  Izetta ThomasHer poetry introduced themes such as identity, childhood, racism, acceptance, and survival.  Izetta’s poem about the teacher strikes that occurred in Chicago, Illinois, in 2012, underscored the urgency of African-Americans in that city.   She asked the question: Where do we draw the line between just compensation for teachers, and ensuring that children have a right to education.  Using the metaphor of cookies being baked in a factory, Izetta’s poem held back no punches, as she lyrically questioned the city’s true intentions in sending children to schools that are inadequately funded and operated.  With a booming voice, Izetta’s poetry stirred the soul of attentive listeners, and raised the consciousness of passing onlookers.

After the poetry ended, I heard a rumble that sounded like thunder.  I looked up and saw that there were no clouds in the sky.  Then I heard it again.  Then I realized it was my stomach.  Yep, time to get something to eat.  And what better place to eat then at a festival?  So I made my way over to the  North Market’s stand (home to delicious food from all over the world) where I happily ordered a lamb and roast beef gyro for $5 (And for the record, it’s pronounced “yeer-oh” not “jai-row” as I used to call it).  Mmmm-mmmm!  Needless to say, I devoured my gyro in less than 3 minutes.  So then I washed it down with a $5 frothy, frosty, full 12 ounce glass of Blue Moon Agave Nectar Ale – a must try for all of you beer connoisseurs out there.

So there you have it.  The 2013 Columbus Arts Festival in a nutshell.  I had a blast!  You will too if you ever decide to go.

Mark Abbati

Downtown, Columbus Riverfront (Graphite and Colored Pencils)

© 2013

The Art of the Garage Sale

There is an art to selling items in a garage sale.  I’m slowly learning this as I’m sitting in our family garage, waiting for the next customer to come walking up the driveway.  Our neighborhood is having a community garage sale today and tomorrow.  What better way to get rid of all the crap…I mean, unused stuff in the basement.  Of course it’s not really crap.  It’s just not useful to us anymore because we’ve either replaced the item up for sale, or outgrown it, or upgraded it, or broke it (yikes), or etcetera.  This was my first attempt to pull off a successful garage sale.  So I thought, why not offer all of you interested readers a narrative of how I helped to put it together.

My first step was to enter, what I like to call, “The Enchanted Forrest.”  It’s otherwise known as the crawl space in the basement.  I call it “The Enchanted Forrest” because it is home to all sorts of fascinating things, some of which can be found in an actual forest; things like insects, spiders, spider webs (huge ones), trees (mostly the kind you put up around Christmas time) and wood (possibly left-over 2×4’s from abandoned projects).  But also in “The Enchanted Forrest” you’ll find treasures; the keepsakes you hid away, money (usually coins but we’ll get back to that in a moment), documents you couldn’t find but desperately needed years ago, and all of the wonderful items that will enthrall your neighbors, as they search through your garage for that one special thing they’ll specifically be looking for.  So don’t throw anything away that you find in your crawl space, because as the old saying goes, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

After I sorted all of the items from the crawl space that I thought were worthy of consideration for our garage sale, my next step was to check with everyone in the house to see:  a) whom the item belonged to, and b) if they were okay with selling it.  The last thing you want to do is sell a painting that belongs to your mother which was given to her by a dear friend, who was a dear friend of the artist.  (Trust me!)  Next I lugged the soon to be merchandise up the stairs and into the garage.  Then I lugged the soon to be merchandise back out of the garage and into the kitchen.  Why?  Because I forgot to sweep the garage first.  So remember to sweep the garage first before you bring out the merchandise!  Your back will thank you.

Okay, so back to the money that you will find in your enchanted forest of a crawl space.  That’s important because you’ll need change for all of your customers.  They’ll be carrying cash but not necessarily one dollar bills, let alone pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters.  Again, make sure it’s your money that you found and not one of your family members’.  The last thing you want to do is cash in your brother’s stash of pennies that he’s been saving over the course of the last 10 years.  It’s down right selfish and he might have been waiting for the right moment to take all of those pennies, roll them up, and buy a pizza.  By the time I rolled up all of the pennies I had saved up, it amounted to $16.  Not bad huh?  As they say, a penny saved is a penny earned.  So I took all my pennies to the bank and exchanged them for one dollar bills-enough to give change to customers who wanted to pay with $5, $10 or $20 bills.

Next, together with my family, we created an itemized list of all of the garage sale merchandise so that we could agree on a selling price.  We contacted my Aunt Theresa, who is an expert with garage sales, for advice on how much to charge for each item.  Here’s a list to give you an idea of what we came up with:

Microwave – $20     Dishes – 50₵     Glasses – 25₵     TV’s – $10     TV Stand – $7     VHS Tapes – $1     Lamps – $2.50     Steamer – $10

Vase – $1 (large)/50₵ (small)     Iron – $2     Ironing Board – $2     Typewriter – $10     T-Shirts – 50₵     Dresses – $2     Hats – $2

Jeans – $2     Hangers – 50₵     Mirror – $5     Electric Skillet – $2

There were more items, but you get the idea.  In our case, our neighbors will be doing us a favor by taking these belongings off our hands.  We’re never going to use them anymore.  They can go and buy this stuff cheap at Walmart or Kmart, or wherever.  But we are giving them a real bargain.  And they are saving us the trouble of having to store it in our basement for more years to come.  It’s good for the environment too, because this stuff won’t end up in a landfill.  It will end up in the home of someone who can actually use it.  It’s a win-win situation.  And the best part is that when they buy it, they’ll thank you and be happy that they found such a great deal!

Okay, not much time before the garage sale starts, and we have a few more important things to do.  Next, I plugged in all of the electrical appliances and entertainment items to make sure they worked.  Check√  Then I made 2 signs that said “Garage Sale” and placed them on both sides of our mailbox so that our neighbors could see it, no matter what direction they were driving past our house.  (I had to learn this the hard way after a man walked up to us in the garage and said “you should have a sign out so that we know you’re having a garage sale”-oops!)  Check√  Fortunately our neighborhood organization publicized the community garage sale on craigslist, and put out signs by the main road so that anyone passing by could see it.

Now, I’ve been told that having refreshments to offer your customers is a good idea.  My cousin P.J. who also has experience in garage sales says that water, sodas, hot dogs and chips can go a long way to boosting your profits.  Ours was a rush job, but in the future, I think that would be an excellent idea, and a nice touch to add in making your garage sale stand out from all of the others.  But I’ve also found out that a good conversation can go a long way in making a sale.  I’ve engaged several customers about their family, sports and other interests so far today.  More than not, the conversation has ended in a sale.

Whatever we don’t sale today, we plan to donate to the Salvation Army and the Kidney Foundation.  However much money we make from our garage sale, our family plans to split evenly.  A neighbor told us she once made $250 from a garage sale.  We don’t have quite enough items to sell in order to hit that mark.  But so far, on this first day of the community garage sale, we’ve made $28.  Not bad for our house being on one of the side streets of the residential community.  All of the houses on the main road get people’s attention first.  Then, if they’re still hunting for deals, they venture down the side roads.  That’s that old rule of where to place a business if you want to be successful-location, location, location.   We still have tomorrow to go.  In fact, tomorrow is Saturday and is being advertised as the “main day of the community garage sale.”

So for the time being, I’ve got a garage full of great stuff to sell, and I’m surrounded by loving family members and fond memories.  Not a bad way to spend the weekend.  Have you ever had a garage sale?  If so, how did it go and what did you do to make it successful?

© 2013