1974 I founded PK Fine Arts, Ltd. on no capital other than the reputation I’d earned in 1973 for salesmanship, passion for art, and the trust of a series of artist friends. All that is or may come to be detailed in other stories and modules covering that period. Here I just tell the part about, having peddled my art from New York to Los Angeles before Christmas, I was now trying to limp back home to blow my kindling business aflame. I’d barely survived San Francisco, though I had a poentially big order there, on Fisherman’s Warf. I ground my teeth to my gums in Salt Lake City before earning the tank of gas I needed to leave. I arrived in Colorado just in time to be sick as a dog for a week. I limped east with my tail between my legs, only to collapse for another week in Kansas City. My cousin, Pat, housed me in Golden Colorado. In KC my old college roommate Bob housed me that that second week.
I’m thirty-six. I’ve written great literature, but no one cares. I’ve theorized a deep reading of Shakespeare, but not only does no one care, no one can follow it: and no one cares to try to follow it. (And no one’s income depends on their trying; no, their income depends on carrying the fraud of education on, as usual.) Bob is thirty-six. He’s still living with his parents. So is his older sister. But: Bob has finally gotten a job. He’s teaching pregnant girls about American lit in some special school for the purpose. He’s rodding around in an old ‘Vette. He and his parents and his sister drink each other under the table every night: and now I’m sleeping among them all day, and drinking with them all night, ripping an indignant Bob to shreds at backgammon. Finally, I’ve been sick on their couch for a week. It’s time to get up and get the hell out of there. I don’t want to spend another night under their welcoming roof for any purpose. My money is gone, my tank is empty once again. It’s Friday. I’ve got to get up, get out. Make a sale, fill the tank, and head east.
I see in the Yellow Pages that there’s a frame shop with two locations. Normally I just drive to the address, walk in, introduce myself, and if the owner is there, and doesn’t throw me out, hang around until I make a sale. But it’s Friday and I’ve got to cover Kansas City in this one day, taking what loot I can. If I wake up dead on Saturday I want Bob’s family to hear about it from another city; not in theirs. I’d passed the guests stink like fish time limit.
I phone the guy, I reach the owner. He says he wants to see me, but he’s busy that morning: can I call him at noon? I find another little nick nack shop and sweat blood for a check for $30. I now owe $15 to the artist. But I have to borrow the entire $30, and more, just to move on. When I get to NYC, maybe I’ll be alive, but I’ll owe thousands of dollars in royalties, and won’t have penny one to begin paying: and the rent will be due, and the phone … And of course I’ve given my wife and son nothing: for years. All my rewad for inventing the internet, for working for Christ / Ivan Illich. Writing and teaching and theorizing with brilliance wasn’t all I’d done. I might as well have been drinking with Bob, playing backgammon: maybe I’d have a ‘Vette and a bunch of pregnant teen-aged girls too.
It’s noon. I call the guy. He really wants to see me, but he’s really busy. Can I call him at 3?
At 5 he tells me he really wants to see me, but he’s really busy … And I see my move: I’ll drive to wherever he is, and shoot him. Then my worries about the gas and the rent and my artists will be over. My poor loyal dog will starve but I can no longer help that. But no: the guys swears he’s almost done. He really wants to see me; but he can’t go to the gallery, he can’t to to the other gallery either … Grrr, my teeth are knashing. But could I please, he really hates that he’s responsible for the inconvenience, but can I please drive out to his house? His gallery managers will both be there. So will be his framer. I can show him my line: and show them at the same time? He knows it’s late, but there will be booze, and food too.
He gives me directions. I follow them.
Kansas is famous for being flat right? When I drove across Manitoba and you could see a grain silo a hundred miles away and then still see it, a hundred miles behind you, in the other direction, from the other direction, that’s flat. But Kansas City actually has some decent hills in it. You wouldn’t know it, unless you were invited to this guy’s house: but he had found a steep wooded hill to build a mansion on. Big driveway, nice woods, nice three story mansion … bear skin rugs … beautiful tall willowly blonds as gallery managers, a nice tall kid for a framer, and now I meet this capitalist: and he’s all of twenty-two years old! Two galleries, more planned, but what he’d been busy with all day was some other business, or businesses. This kid’s father must have been the governor or something.
They brought me a big scotch, then sat eagerly as I began to open my portfolios for them. I open the first 30 x 40. I turn the big graphics one at a time. I narrate: “This is a serigraph, this is a mezzotint … This is by Ed Sokol. This Gail Bruce sold retail over night the first gallery I delivered it to, the ink still wet. This Rothe opened at $100. I’m down to my last one at $400: when I sell this one I’ll immediately announce that it’s now $600: You can buy it for $200 net, but sell it retail for $600: in a $200 frame, easy.”
They refilled my scotch. The seemed to follow everything I said. But at no point, through the turning of the graphics through four portfolios, did anyone say, “Can you put that one aside for us.” I really had to make a sale. I had to sell several things: at least a White Hat and a Three Dudes: those two would net me close to $200: and I might get home: or at least to St. Louis, or Louisville.
I finished. I showed the last one. They looked at me brightly. Could I start again, please. They had questions. I reopened the first portfolio. “This is a serigraph by Gail Bruce …”
“What’s a serigraph?”
Well: a huge part of my selling concerns information. I’m a teacher of graphic techniques while on the road, just as I was a teacher of Shakespeare’s sonnets while in the classroom. I routinely explain etching, mezzotint, lithography, serigraphy … to gallery owners and personnel who are selling etchings and serigraphics to the public. Routinely I explain framing to framers, print conservation to framers who are about to slap the pure rag paper up against acid board which will leach the life and the value right out of it: as though I were selling transmissions to car dealers and explaining was “oil” was for.
So now my class want to know what a serigraph is, and a mezzotint. I tell them. I tell them again. It’s nine o’clock. They’ve fed me scotch but now I need a potato, and a steak. So I ask them. I ask the owner, the boss, directly: “Have you liked any of what I’ve shown you?”
“All of them.”
By God. Frank Fedele once told me of running a gallery on 8th Street, in the Village. He said it was a rainy night. Not one customer had come into the story, not one browser. It was five minutes to ten. For once he’d close early, cheat by five minutes … when a guy pulled up in a limousine: and bought everything off all of the walls, and everything that had just been leaning in a stack against the wall. He owned a string of nursing homes, was redecorating. He didn’t dicker price, he didn’t try to dodge the tax. Neither did he take a thing with him: “Let the check clear, then deliver: I’ll pay you extra to hang it for me.”
Well, not quite. The guy didn’t buy everything. But he did buy a dozen. My net came to nearly $700. Boy, did I need that.
The framer put the purchases aside, then split. The girls gave me gracious smiles, then bade their boss adiux. The boss turned to me. He said how I’d been very patient all day, and now it was night and I hadn’t had dinner. Thanks for the good merchandise and all the good knowledge. He had to leave: more business. But I was welcome to stay. He showed me the liquor cabinet. He showed me the meat locker: I could cut my own sirloin, and my own T-bone … The potatoes where there, the veggies there, the deserts in the freezer … Upstairs there was a four poster bed. He’d be gone a week. I could stay as long as I liked. I could leave whenever I liked, just please shut the door behind me.
And I stood in his doorway saying goodbye to him: as though it were my house, and he the guest.
OK. I love that memory. I’ve told it in some detail, provided some context. But I only now arrive at the point.
The guy is just leaving, he’s in a hurry to leave. But I asked him to hold on one more minute: I’m curious about something.
He acquieses, with only a little impatience. I said, “Forgive me for presuming, but you’re a young guy.”
“Twenty-three,” he said, “graduated college last June.” (This was January.)
“Forgive me, but I kept wondering where your parents were, when you’re father was going to walk in and throw us all out.”
“No, this is my house. I paid cash for it.” Then he relented, and added: I see what you’re wondering. Of course you do, everyone does. So I’ll tell you fast:
I wanted to make money. Fast. So I went to college; but I didn’t fuck around. I didn’t join any damn anything. I studied engineering. I figured the way to make moey was to invent something, and patent it. Something good.
But I didn’t want to wear my days away with endless hours of maintenance. I wanted high profits, for short hours. I figured that a car wash was a good thing. Open the place, pay the water bill, empty the coins out of the machines, go home.
The trouble with car wash places was that they didn’t clean cars very well. The problem as I saw was in the nozzle. The water pressure wasn’t right.
So I went to work designing a nozzle. I came up with a prototype I thought should be good. I photographed the prototype, notarized the photos, so I could prove I had it by such and such a date. And I took my nozzle to an inventions company, here in Kansas City.
They said to leave it with them. They’d test it, think about it, be back in touch with me in about a week.
And he did hear from them. But they said that they thought my nozzle sucked at cleaning cars. But: hold on. They have another idea. Give them another week …
And, he said, they called him in in a couple more weeks and handed him a check to $200,000. They’d manufactured the nozzle, and sold the first run at at $40,000 each. What the nozzle was good for, very good, was cleaning beef. The slaughter houses, thanks to him, now had a new standard of cleanliness in meat production.
I slept in his four poster for three days. And left Kansas City feeling much better.
I also carried hope back to NY with me. With a little luck his galleries might succeed, might spread. He might franchise. I saw him helping me to sell out edition after edition of Bruce, Sokol, Rothe over the years to come. But in fact he only made one additional purchase. The check was slow to arrive, and bounced the first time I deposited it. The guy’s nozzles paid him big, but his other investments didn’t.
Maybe even a couple of hours listening to pk weren’t enough in Kansas City to know how to retail off the wall NY art to Missourians.
I tell this story to day to clear my throat for expounding on just one aspect of it: Patents, royalties, intellectual property.