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September 19, 2010

The Blue Line to Damen

or, When I was a Teenage Boy and Watched Elephants

Damen stop, Blue Line. I used to know the stop because someone had graffitied If you lived here, you’d be home on a building near it. True. Go down the stairs, past Flash Taco (my friends call it Flesh Taco). Go past the expensive shoe store where a fabulous gay man told me its my own fault if high-heels hurt, its your arches, honey, you have weak arches, although I still blame The Man. Cross the street to the north, turn right, walk down a block, go to Quimby’s. Hurry. If you don’t leave now, you may miss it. All of it. The salesman, the graffiti, the puns, everything will be gone soon.

Quimby’s is a comic store, a book store, and a zine store. I didn’t know zines were real things anymore. They are. They are striking and minute, with colored covers and tiny pages and thin paper. Looking like elementary school projects. They cry out in tiny voices, exalting. Who could blame them? I’m jealous. They hold the comic strips where no one moves, Ray Bradbury quotes, arguments, manifestos, poems, stories, and, my god, people’s handwriting. The handwriting of a stranger—when did I last see that?

On the last Wednesday of the month Quimby’s has Work in Progress night, and I boldly go. Actually, I show up in Wicker Park early and camp out at a coffee shop, pretending to be cavalier and secretly hoping the guy behind the cash register thinks that I am pretty, not sad and alone.

I go in ten minutes late and the table is already set up, with a few guys sitting there (short hair, thick-rimmed glasses, all of ‘em) and this young boy who is talking a lot. It’s like one of those tests: which of these things doesn’t belong? Spectacled man drawing, orange hair? Belongs (his name is Sam). Spectacled man drawing, silly tattoo? Belongs (his name is Neal). Spectacled man drawing, brown hair? Belongs (his name is Jeff). Twelve-year old kid? Umm…

Belongs. He never knew that there could be comics about things that weren’t about superheroes. “I went into Quimby’s for the first time a few months ago,” he says, “and I was like, wow, this is awesome! Because I didn’t know they could be about anything. I can, like, just, draw. So I made my own zine. Yeah. Its called God Save the Zine, thanks to Jane for that name, and, like, it’s on issue three.”

“Wait, the really small one?” says Sam, who, in spite of looking similar to the other two guys, seems even nicer. “That’s awesome man. I’ve got the first three issues.”

“Wow, a fan!” says the kid. “Look, Dad, a fan! He reads my zine.” It is as cool as aliens.

“Yeah, here’s issue three,” the kids says, and shows me a copy. It’s about him going to the comic convention that happened in the spring. It’s mostly him going around and thinking shit is really excellent. And the pages are tiny, like, one inch by two inches. There are just all these tiny drawing of a kid in front of a stall, and the caption is like, and then we met a Jeff Brown, and the drawing of the kid saying “oh shit!” and pointing at a Jeff Brown.

“You have a gift, man” says Sam. And not in a pretentious way, like, I’ll-tell-you-what’s-what-because-I’ve-lived-and-learned, but just in the way that one person tries to tell another person that what they are doing is valuable. “You have this wonderful perspective of being a kid, and that’s really rare to find people who are expressing things at that age. And you are, and you do it really clearly. It’s like [some artist I don’t know]. With his work, it just takes you to this place with him. Like, I’ve never lived in New York, but I get it when he draws it. Or, like, I’ve never dated that girl, and I’m never going to date that girl, you know, but you can really feel it with him. And that’s amazing. And you can do that, and you totally should.”

“So what do you need to…” I stutter, looking around at all the books, comics, and everything. “Make one?”

“I just need this,” says the kid, holding his pen. “And Kinkos. I’m saving up to make a compilation. I’ve been drawing a comic every day, just about my day, and when I’ve done a whole year I’m gonna publish them all. So I’m saving up and we’ll go half on the cost of paper, right Dad?”

Dad nods. Dad has a sharp nose and a bald head, he works for Allstate. Dad appears in one of Lawrence’s zines. Lawrence enters the shop and it is so cool that he says I even had an interesting conversation with my Dad. Dad doesn’t care about zines. But you can tell from the way the kid talks that this is the best thing he’s ever seen. It’s the best thing he’s ever done. So Dad is here.

Dad looks at his Blackberry and waits, but Lawrence is still brimming over with excitement. I can see myself in this kid. I think he’s at the moment where I discovered punk rock. I didn’t realize it could be like this. I didn’t realize art could be about anything, by anyone. By me. And I reckon if I see myself in an overweight twelve year-old boy who draws, these other guys do too.

I really like the zines. The little voices that are funny, or angry, or ridiculous, but most of the time like Lawrence: just really sincere. There’s a comic compilation about two kids in El Pasco who do drugs, go hiking, go to shows, ditch class, and sleep with each other occasionally. Cool. You just have to be in a frame of mind where someone going to buy a burrito is totally worthwhile subject matter.

Another one is just some stories about a girl: how she threw up when she was young, how she worked at a Hello Kitty store, how her parents bought a mobile home. I read excerpts to my roommate. My favorite line was: Is it possible to be Jewish and white trash? Is there a word for that?

I read one where the author talks about biking home (drunk) and seeing elephants in the street. She stops to watch them, and:

Right then, Jon Ziemba will drive up, to join you by the fence for patchyderm ogling. Ziemba will explain that his brother, who can get anything because he is a cop, has scored him free tickets for to the circus. Jon is here to distribute them to animal rights activists so they can go into the arena and disturb the show. A bold plan! Only problem being, he notes, looking around, is that no animal rights activists have shown up today. Oh well, we stare with silent reverence at the elephants, trotting their slow circles, and then Jon says well, hey, I’ve got these tickets to the circus, do you want to go? And once inside Jon Ziemba is the loudest appreciator of the acrobats, clowns and fire-breathers in the entire auditorium, hooting and screaming encouragements down into the ring. His enthusiasm is contagious, and soon he’s drawn the attention of the people around him, who engage him in conversation. When the animals come out, Jon explains that he’s not really into the whole exploitation of animals thing. They listen, and you can see a couple of people even get that glimmer of a new idea. Thus Jon Ziemba creates his own spontaneous temporary autonomous zone, for a few people and a few brief moments, but that’s enough for now, and the thought of it can keep you going.

The thought of it can keep you going. I wonder. It seems no help to the elephants. But to Lawrence who will never be cool and probably never like the same things as his father, it does keep you going.

“You can take us there,” Sam had said. “You are twelve and you can take us to Indiana with you. And do it. Don’t stop. Never stop drawing.” I really like Sam.

“Yeah, you know, it’s cool cause it’s something I can do. Like, at school, they’ll be like a project with drawing and everyone wants me to be in their group, they’re like, Hey Lawrence be in our group, and someone else is like, Be in our group, and you know, its cool, I mean, I can draw for them, I’m like, I don’t mind.”

I can imagine him bent over the drawings while the other people in his group flirt with each other. He is not cool. The social world is not made for all people to excel in, especially when you are twelve. The word “cool” is not applicable to all people. This kid will never be cool. But he is quite probably liked, and appreciated (maybe). He is happy. And he’s got the obvious answer: a pen and paper.

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