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The International Writers Magazine: Sidewalk Art

Shouts & Murmurs
International Arts Smuuggling
• John M. Edwards
Who is this Charlie Sands?
An American arts patron meets a down-and-out painter straight out of “The Real Thing” by Henry James.
Tin Tin and Snowy

After polishing off a serious lobster risotto and a glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzi at the flash Italian eatery across from the stately building edifice decorated with Stone Lions in Little Italy, I stepped outside into the alfresco and stylishly lit my Nat Sherman.

       I noticed a painter, dressed like Van Gogh, and with a beard to match.

       Standing on the corner calmly reproducing the memorable scene, he stood erect and oblivious to the brief stares of passing onlookers.

       He resembled a setup.

       Immediately a name came to mind: “Frederick Smock.”

       But of course he was not him, but somebody else entirely whom I had never met before.

       With my hand stretched out a mile, I introduced myself, “Hi, I’m John Edwards. I'm a travel writer.”

       He put his brush down and shook my hand, transferring some paint on to my palm in the process.

       “I’m Charlie Sands!”

       “Pretty damn good,” I said.

       I wondered if he was a touchup artist for MoMa (Museum of Modern Art) or just a talented hack pursuing his own interests.

       Anyway, I wanted this painting real bad because I had once many years ago photographed exactly the same scene, which had ended up as a washout at Moto Photo in Westfield, New Jersey, an old colonial Tory town only thirty minutes away from New York City on Amtrak’s or NJ Transit’s “Raritan Valley Line.”

       “Where do you live?” I asked, hoping he wouldn’t say either the subway or the street.


       “Newark?” I didn’t know anyone normal lived there. They must have had cheap warehouses for real artists there.

       Now this Italian eatery in front of which both of us were standing was a little more famous than you would might think.

       As famous as a historic handshake.

       Whose wooden bench I was not now sitting upon was always a nexus of chance and serendipity.

       I felt like I had just entered into a fantastical Paul Auster novel, the author of the filmscript “SMOKE,” filmed in his old neighborhood of Park Slope, below Prospect Park, in Brooklyn, once America’s fourth largest city and now just a borough of dumb guys.

       I had met Paul Auster once or twice with just a nod and a weak. Still, I’m sure he cadged an idea of mine for The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town,” presented under another nom de plume.


       Back at the Italian joint, I had met one of my college pals right here, Steve O’Neill, only a short while ago and near to “South of Houston” (any oil baron worth his frack, like myself, would naturally gravitate there, even though the selfish misers and nervous nellies who live in this neo-feudal mockup insist on pronouncing it “Howstown.”)

       The extreme tipoff that this was actually the very-much-looking-exactly-the-same Steve O’Neill, whom I had jammed with and commiserated with in college, was when he said he went to school at Sarah Lawrence, “because it was mainly a girls school” (sex ratios matter)--and only for a short time at Tulane, because it was too competitive.

       I didn’t want to say flat-out that I recognized him since I was drunk and wearing a beard, but I said, “Hey, are you a musician, do you play the guitatar?”—we had spent hours together refining Jorma Kaukonnen’s “The Water Song” in George Biancardi’s apartment, a band member of mine in “The Dingleberries” (a.k.a “High Entropy”).

       With a strange ecstatic smile, he said, “Just the tamborine. . . .”

       Also, he then said that now he was in the “Foreign Service.”

       “The Foreign Service? Hey, so was I!”

       I had temporarily joined the Foreign Service at the U.S. Consulate in New Zealand many years ago—and was forced to get a trip haircut before tackling the rest of the South Pacific. Of course, just to get the impressive stamp in my passport. An obvious Belgian mercenary gave me a pep talk, "I've been in several coups myself." I couldn't believe whom I thought this guy might be.

       “Now I’m a travel writer,” I prouded.

       A startled look crept over Steve O’Neill’s face, maybe because I had just realized he had red hair, not exactly cinnamon anymore, and he took a few paces backward and whipped out his cellphone, muttering something about “I’d like to make a background check.” Obviously, he had just remembered me.

       “Goodbye, Steve, nice seeing you again!” I said as I walked back towards the famous Broadway Avenue with all the cast-iron lofts.

       Now if you will forgive the digression, let’s get back to this painter guy who said his name was Charlie Sands.

       I asked, “Like George Sands?”
       He smiled and nodded in the affirmative.

       “How much do you want for that painting?”

       “It’s not finished yet, but I’ll sell it to you for a hundred dollars.”

       With no pause at all I said yes. “Oh, could you sign it for me?”

       He reacted by quickly signing this artistic contract.

       “I have a friend named ‘Loretta Howard’ who runs a gallery on the Upper West Side, near the Italian Embassy. . . .” I hinted.

       I realized from the weird glow in his eyes that he might be in some sort of trouble, without being in dire straights.

       I handed over the pretty polly and happily carried my new painting home to my ex SoHo Loft (with an aerial escape hatch located up a stairwell and into the ceiling leading to a deck rooftop with fine views of that part of the city, including scenic metal watertanks.) I proudly placed my new acquisition up on the aluminum shelf in my kitchen with a Sub Zero ™  and marble countertop, then slid a CD into the vagina vox of my Sony boogie box and listened to Jewel. . . .

       Months later I was returning from a dentist visit on Fifth Avenue with a neat view of the "Dadaist" Arch in Washington Square Park, when there again was Charlie Sands, painting something new.

       “Hey, Charlie, I’ve got a commission for you. There is this painting from the Louvre with William the Conqueror stepping ashore on what would later become Great Britain, filled with English speakers, not Welsh, Gaelic, or Pictish. The face resembles mine but the suggestion is of a T. Rex. Maybe you could check the old archives for me.”

       He seemed excited by the project.

       I flipped him one of my contact cards, and then completely forgot about it.

       But then one day I got an e-mail from somebody named “Alsop,” which turned out to be Charlie Sands. I perused the amazing paintings he had found, but couldn’t find the one I had happened upon under a magical spell in Paris, one of my old neighborhoods.

       Aha! “Charlie, I would like you to paint a picture of me and Tintin. How much would that cost?”

       The reply: only $500.

       Which was a veritable bargain if not exactly a steal.

       There was no devil to deal with on this one.

       We met, appropriately enough, at an undisclosed bistro on the edge of reason in “Hell’s Kitchen,” a neighborhood of real artists and snitches. Since he was Irish and adopted, we both drank Guinness (and only Guinness), the famous Dublin brewery and probably the world’s most famous dark beer, surprisingly originating from Protestant beer barons, plus German advisors.

       Anyway, on an unsuspecting day, he arrived with his good-looking girlfriend, with the painting in hand, unveiling it.

       “Wow! How much do you want? Fifty thousand?”

       “No, five hundred is enough.”

       With a feeling of elation, I picked up my acoustic guitar and began strumming one of my original songs, “Loft,” whose lyrics are “Come and look at my Loft! Come and look at my Loft!” Since I had turned down a job in high-school as lead bassist for THE STONE TEMPLE PILOTS, and PHISH keyboardist Page McConnell is still one of my best friends, I knew that eventually my remarkably catchy riff would eventually be published on a CD sleeve.

       I scan the credits for my name and wonder why it's not there.

       Very grateful to have the perfect cover art for both my upcoming literary annual “Rotten Vacations” and an advert for an eventual film called “Hershey’s Adventures of Tintin,” wherein the cowlicked cartoon snitch battles nefarious hooligans from "The Hollywood Square," including Rip Torn, Paul Lynde, and Charles Nelson O'Reilly (not to mention Nipsy Russell), I rushed to my closet and added an extra gift of an oatmeal-colored “Aran Islands” sweater from Babour.

       Charlie Sands seemed delighted with the gift, as was his impressive girlfriend who had said humorously, “Hello, I am here too.”

       Probably because I was avoiding looking at her to not hurt my new painter’s feelings, or pissing him off.

       Months later, I heard a familiar voice approaching. “John, John, hello!” There was Charlie Sands standing before me like a jack-in-the-box with a surreal painting of an Irish Jameson Whisky bottle (Scottish whiskeys always have the e) with a flower sticking out of it. Unfortunately, I was spending too much money so I couldn’t right there and then buy it from him.

       The disappointment was palpable. “I can’t really cover rent, could you please help.”

       Put on the spot like that I said, “Of course!”

       I handed him forty dollars to get home to his roost in New Jersey’s most dangerous city. Often mistaken by recent immigrants for New York, New Jersey’s “Newark” (aside from the disappointing “Ironbound District” and Portuguese restaurants) invites disasters, as I discovered from exactly three or four visits, a place where friendly illegals throw rocks at your car and burn down their free houses for show.

       “No new luxury taxes!” (Influence: Bush.)

       “Workfare not Welfare! Welfare not Workfare!” (Influence: Pataki.)

       In exeunt, I once again bumped into Charlie Sands who seemed awfully glad to see me again, standing outside of a famous smokeshop in New York City's famous Greenwich Village. Wow! I really wanted to buy this one, but he intimated that it wasn’t really up for sale.

       “Well, best of luck, Charlie, I’m sure I will see you again.”

       As I walked back I spotted a nice dreck with a table selling old Tintin, Babar, Lucky Luke, and Asterix hardcover comic books.

       “Where did you get these?” I asked.

       “Just cleaning out the old bookshelves for more recent things to read,” the dreck leveled with me. “Only a dollar each.”

       I bought roughly ten of them and went back home to catch up on my reading.

© John M. Edwards   March 2012
BIO: John M. Edwards is an award-winning globetrotting photojournalist.
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