For a moment, he looked disoriented. It must be his first time at Spot Coffee, I thought. He was black, about 40, perhaps a retired football player. No signs of fray. He wore a winter hat, a jacket and jeans, a backpack on his back. His eyeglasses reminded me of an owl.
Approaching cautiously, but with confidence, he introduced himself to our table. I did not catch his name. He was a struggling artist. Oh my, I thought, here we go.
He was neither a beggar nor homeless. At present, he received unemployment benefits and had an apartment, although money ran tight. Soon he might be living on the streets. But his intention was not to beg for a handout. He offered to draw a portrait of us in exchange for money – a matter of supply and demand.
So Carrie, Leo and I began the bargaining process. As a savvy consumer, Carrie asked if the artist could show us some samples of his work. No problem. He grabbed his backpack and meticulously pulled a portfolio from his bag. I expected to see a live rabbit instead of a bundle of yellowish paper.
His first drawing depicted a flying bearded man. “It is Zeus, a Greek God,” he said. We were witnessing the creation of the world. “Good,” I said, contemplating the graphite lines, the depth created by its shades and geometry.
Proceeding with his exhibit, the artist cheerfully commanded afro masks and tattoos to march in front of our eyes. His mood, though, turned into nostalgia upon showing a woman’s portrait. She looked beautiful, with curly hair and sparkling eyes. She was his ex-girlfriend. They had met in an encounter similar to this. “Oh, well,” he said. Then he smiled and told us that he had more drawings at home. One day he would be famous, that’s for sure.
Meanwhile, he needed to survive. His survival depended on the kindness and generosity of strangers like me and my colleagues.
Carrie said she could not help him at the moment, but that she would like to take art classes from him. He refused. According to the artists, Picasso never taught anybody how to paint. I guess teaching Carrie the ropes of the trade would divert his efforts and time from creating a masterpiece. Or perhaps the artist was afraid that a student might become a competitor in the near future.
Now it was my turn to show him kindness and generosity. Lacking cash in my pockets, I told him that he was a talented, smart and persuasive man. He knew how to get his foot in the door. I even said I thought he was an undercover sociologist doing some kind of research or study. I would look forward to reading the results of his project in the paper or a book. He took my words as a compliment. He appreciated that I did not call him a hustler.
Not having more praise to offer, I passed the torch to Leo. He gave the artist some money without hesitation, despite declining to model for him. God bless, Leo. When the artist shook his hand, I felt relief, because the artist had not wasted his time.
I was proud of Leo. I was proud to know somebody I could talk with about my hardships in these tough economic times. I was proud that one day I could count on his heart and checkbook to bail me out from this world of poverty, unfairness and injustice.
So, Leo, would you spare me some cash?
Alexander Hernandez, a refugee from Cuba now living in Buffalo, recalls an encounter with a local artist.