Jerry’s gone missing.
He does this from time to time, dissociates from the meager network of five-dollar benefactors he’s built in Bay View, people who know him by name. These are the few who open their wallets when he goes to them begging, or sometimes to barter physical labor on an odd job for a small bill or two, enough to inspire a trip to Hub Super Market, where, according to Charles, Jerry likes to “lay down a Lincoln” for a pair of 20-ounce cans of the cheapest malt liquor they stock, Honest Abe’s admonitory gaze leveled at Jerry as he trades his earnings for vice.
Charles is brainstorming ways he might successfully put me in touch with Jerry. But from the sound of it, we might be out of luck.
“I haven’t seen him in, God, it’s got to be two weeks,” Charles says, admitting he’s gone months without a single Jerry sighting. At the height of their collaboration, Jerry showed up at Charles’ studio almost daily. But after four years of “buddy work” (as Charles calls it), the collaboration slowed to a halt about a year ago, and Jerry has since kept his distance from the studio.
“I’ll let you know if I see him,” he tells me. But the prospect looks bleak.
Providentially, though, just after eight o’clock p.m., I receive a text from Charles:
Found him! Was out for pizza & there he was! He’ll stop by the studio tomorrow, 10 a.m.
Let him know I’ll be there. See you at 10.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Ten o’clock has come and gone and there’s still no sign of Jerry.
“Should we take a ride, go look for him?” Charles asks.
“Let’s give him another five minutes,” I say.
Earlier, before my arrival, Charles spoke with Pietro, a neighbor and resourceful metal recycler, who claims to have spotted Jerry pulling weeds at a house a few blocks from the studio. Now, it’s 10:30 am, and Charles decides it’s time to be proactive. We’re going to see if we can hunt Jerry down.
He leaves a note on his studio door: Jerry, we are looking for you. Sit here. We’ll be back. Charles throws open the back door of his 1999 Black Toyota 4-Runner, and in hops Napoleon, happy to be going for a ride. Up front, Charles cracks a window and lights an Export “A”. He smiles, unabashed by the creeping thrill of nostalgia he feels now that we’re in pursuit of his elusive collaborator. But again, he warns me, finding him won’t be easy.
“He has a tendency to blend in,” says Charles, referring to Jerry’s street patina, a sort of urban camouflage that masks him from view. “He’s almost … like a ghost.”
We drive to where Pietro said he saw Jerry pulling weeds. We cruise past the Hub, thinking maybe he’s stopped in for beer and smokes. But again, no sign of him.
We drive Bay View’s backstreets, moving concentrically outward from Charles’ studio, once in a while doubling back to ensure he didn’t somehow skirt our scrutiny. We motor through the alleyway where Pietro and his crew are collecting metal, and he shakes his head as we drive by.
We pass one alley where a man is on his hands and knees digging with a garden trowel in a small dirt bed that lines a Dijon-yellow one-car garage. The man looks like he could be Jerry. But after closer examination, it’s clear it isn’t him.
Finally, Charles decides on a long shot: we head up Lincoln Avenue toward 15th and Windlake, where Jerry has kept residence—off the street now the past two years—in a small flat provided by the United Way. Charles tells me Jerry hates it there.
“It’s not his turf,” he says. “Jerry’s turf is the whiter end of Bay View. He’s never home, and his hours are weird. He might be out until eight, nine o’clock at night … you know, just wandering around, trying to get drunk, trying to find money, canning maybe.”
Our long shot renders the expected results: nothing. Dejected, we return to Charles’ studio to top off our coffees. It’s a few minutes before eleven now, and Jerry’s nearly an hour late. Admittedly, punctuality wasn’t a virtue I was expecting Jerry to possess. Still, I can sense a growing disappointment in Charles, who assures me he communicated to Jerry the importance of today’s meeting. And every moment that passes in Jerry’s absence seems a minor affront.
Readying ourselves for another canvas of the neighborhood, we mill about in the small parking lot behind Charles’ studio. He points to a kale-green plastic industrial waste bin across the alley and says, “That’s where I first saw Jerry digging for cans.”
At that moment, a figure on a bicycle enters my peripheral.
“Jerry!” yells Charles in a tone that’s one part jovial, two parts annoyed. “Where. Have. You. Been!?”
Jerry coasts up the alleyway (the bike he’s on is stolen, Charles informs me) and breaks to a slow halt closer to Charles than to me, an extinguished cigarette gripped like an afterthought between his cracked lips. He’s wearing a vermillion satin baseball jacket, the back of which bears a cartoonish logo for a restaurant or race team called Corleone’s Godfathers. On his head: a stained, blue truckers cap with a Switzerland patch, bent brim tenting his eyes, a cloth and mesh terrain of smudge and wear.
“I’m supposed to be weeding right now, man,” Jerry says to Charles in a slurred, bronchitic baritone. He apologizes for his tardiness and reluctantly admits he’s late because he went home to shower and shave, an attempt to clean up for the magazine guy, as he calls me.
“I even washed my hair, man!” he says, erupting in a cackle of complicit laughter, as if privy to an inside joke for which there exists no punch line. He turns his gruff gaze in my direction, and I notice several slipshod patches of gray whiskers peaking through his skin, overlooked in his attempt to clean up for me. His eyes are silent springs, pooled with emotion, the vestige of memories he’s likely not shared in years. Eyes naked with honesty, eager for revelation, welling toward an eventual overflow. He looks at me and the rest of his face fades to an expressionless exigency, a tabula rasa of expectation and regret.
Then, for the first time since his arrival, Jerry addresses me directly. Incredulous, he says, “What in the fuck would make you want to talk to me, man?”
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Inside Charles’ studio, Jerry eases into the chair opposite me. He reaches into his jacket and produces two sixteen-ounce cans of Natural Ice Beer. Cracking one open, he leans forward on the edge of his seat cushion—as if cautious not to get too comfortable—and tamps a fresh pack of Marlboro Reds.
Charles has told me how much Jerry loves to smoke. And here, Jerry opens the pack and fits a fresh cigarette between his lips, lighting it with a red BIC lighter. He takes a drag, exhales. For someone who enjoys smoking so much, what’s most striking about his method is how little attention is drawn to the physical act of smoking itself. Smoking, to Jerry, has become as innate as breathing.
“I’ve been smoking since I was seventeen,” Jerry says, and shares a story from when he was a young man on his father’s farm in Sussex, Wisconsin, cutting corn and baling hay. “I got in trouble once with the old man cuz he smelled cigarette smoke in the hayloft,” he says. “And that ain’t a good place to be smoking, you know? I mean … you start a fire, that’d be it!”
Thirty-five years later, that was it. Smoking got him in trouble again. This time, though, the consequences were substantial. It was August 2006, and Jerry was a forklift operator for United Milwaukee Scrap. One day, he ran out of cigarettes partway through his shift and decided to go get some more.
“I borrowed ten bucks from a fuckin’ truck driver. I was runnin’ a Bobcat out in the yard. Well, I tried to hide the Bobcat in between two piles of steel. And I thought, Okay, this is pretty good. I got it covered. Well, I had to walk two blocks to get a fuckin’ pack of smokes. I was only gone, like fifteen minutes. But I didn’t tell my foreman where I was goin’. I came back and boom! They said, You’re out the door, man. I got the ax.”
After that, Jerry couldn’t land another job, and unemployment only lasted so long. Soon he was without a home. He knew a guy in Bay View, an old buddy of his who offered him a spot in his breezeway. It was a tight fit, and cold, but it was somewhere to go. Somewhere off the street.
Shortly thereafter, he met Charles.
“I would come over here cannin’, and … his dog’s a trip. So we got to talkin’ about that and … next thing you know, I’m borrowing money from him.”
And then there was the space heater that got him kicked out of his buddy’s breezeway. And then the lean-to just north of Lincoln Avenue. And then it started getting cold. And just that fast, Jerry was in the hole $75 to Charles. And that’s when Charles asked him if he’d like to do a little artwork.
“Chuck asked me if I wanted to do any drawing,” says Jerry. “I never draw! I mean, when I was a kid maybe. But I never took an interest. He said, ‘Do you wanna come in and do some shit? Drawing and shit?’ I started thinkin’ what the fuck am I doin’? I mean I’m out here freezing my ass off. Why not go inside, you know, get a four-pack, drink in here?”
A warm room, a place to take a load off and throw back a few four-packs. For Jerry, it wasn’t about the art. Not at first, anyway. It was about coming in from the cold, the lonely life of canning, the wet Wisconsin weather when temperatures dipped below bearable. It was about the warm meals Charles would serve him, and the cats that learned to love him. It was about ashing in an ashtray instead of on some sidewalk. It was about anything, really, but art.
“There was this time,” Charles recalls, “Jerry’s sitting at the drawing table. And all of a sudden, as I pull an impression off the plate … wet paper … beautiful, rich, black paint … I lay it down, and I see him stand up. And he looks at it.
“For that moment to happen, it gave me goosebumps. It was a beautiful moment because he, for a second, appreciated what he did. And that’s something he doesn’t have a lot of. He made something beautiful. And he was proud of it.”
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Despite his homelessness, despite being unemployed, Jerry’s capacity to discover pride is undeniable. But those instances are rare and momentary. Jerry proved largely incapable of holding onto any such pride for very long, which is more often than not snuffed out by the time of his drunken departure from the studio at the end of the day.
Today, he has difficulty understanding why anybody might take interest in his artwork; why anyone might think anything he ever created bears value.
“My shit’s carnie art, man,” he says. “It’s carnie art. Chuck’s the artist, not me. I know nothing compared to him. Even after all this bullshit we did, I still don’t know nothin’. I mean, it was fun.” And here he pronounces the word fun as if his time with Charles was consolatory, destined to have passed. “I’m lucky I … hey,” he says, pausing a moment to straighten the muddle of his thoughts, “Let me put it to you this way: If it wasn’t for Chuck, I wouldn’t have done none of that shit, man. You know? But I had a grand time doin’ it. That was the hardest work I ever did.”
The large plates—the 24 by 30-inch copper sheets Jerry lugged up Kinnickinnic Avenue on a dolly to Mill Valley Recycling Center and traded in for $70—took three weeks each to create, the two of them toiling away together in Charles’ studio three to four hours a day.
“That was a lot of hours, man,” Jerry says. “Scratchin’ copper is fuckin’ hard. For a while there, I got finger cramps.” Then, turning to Charles, he says, “Hey, you remember that cactus? Man, I’ll never forget that cactus. I was sittin’ there bangin’ away at the thing and Chuck says, What in the fuck are you doin’, man? I had a hammer and a fuckin’ chisel and I’m sittin’ there bangin’ away at it like I’m tryin’ to chisel through stone.” He laughs a toothless laugh at the memory of his mistake, a chortle that sounds more like a dying wheeze than anything inspired by humor. “Man … lucky for me I didn’t warp the fuckin’ plate!”
“It leveled back out,” says Charles in a Zen-calm voice, attempting to reel Jerry in before he loses himself in tangential hysterics, which he’s displayed the tendency to do. “But then, we found flowers and figured out her costume and got references for her cowboy boots and references for bridals and horses.”
“That horse didn’t turn out too bad,” Jerry says. “Other than the damn thing looks like it’s got a beer belly or somethin’.”
“I like it,” says Charles, in earnest.
And with that, Jerry delivers one of his recurrent stock phrases, brandished anytime a conversation steers somewhere that forsakes his understanding. “Pssh,” he says.
Whether carnie art or “the beauty of brute naïveté,” as is Charles’ description for it, Jerry’s art commenced with a single scratch on a copper plate: his unwashed, untrained, unsteady hand wrapped tightly around an échoppe, tracing a blind inclination from left to right.
That inclination sought constant intercession from Charles, whose artistic instruction guided nearly every scratch. It was a close collaboration, with Jerry doing all the labor and Charles helming all the artistic decisions. The direction Charles decided upon for the works by Jerry was simple: tattooed girls, smoking cigarettes. It wasn’t until Charles found a poetry book in the alleyway dumpster behind his studio that the series truly took root in his mind and found its ultimate inspiration.
It was a book of haiku.