Sharp Angles and Shades of Blue

I turned the page and the first thing I noticed were the angles, the angle of the head, the angle of the hand, the angle of his legs, the angle of the guitar, the angle of the fingers. And then I noticed the different shades of blues and the way they worked together to say to me, “We see you are sad. There is a place in the world for sad men. See this man? He is sad, and the man who painted him was sad. You are not alone in your sadness. Sit down and rest. And it’s okay to cry.”

I was looking through an art history book for a class I was taking at The Behrend College at Penn State’s Erie campus. If you have ever been to Erie, then you know that it rains there a lot. The sun is a thing most people have heard of but few people have actually seen. In my worst moments, I am still waking up to go to class in the morning, and the first thing I see is a window opaque with rain. Outside the window everything is colored blue. I was lonely in that city, at that college. I ended up there for lack of a better plan, and I was taking an art history class because—I don’t know. I didn’t expect to study Picasso’s The Old Guitarist; I didn’t even know he existed. Then one day, in the library, in the dark, almost certainly while it was raining outside, I opened the book, turned some pages, and he was there.

It says something about the state of my life—or at least my emotional state—when a picture of The Old Guitarist, a painting from Picasso’s Blue Period, looked bright in comparison. I remember kind of envying the guy; sure he didn’t have any shoes, and his clothes were raggedy, and he had scoliosis or some other condition of the spine that caused his neck and head to stick out in such an unnatural way—but he could play the guitar, the lucky bastard.

I looked like I should have been able to play the guitar. I had long hair. I had a beard. I had torn jeans. I was often barefoot. It was 1996, and even though Kurt Cobain was two years dead, there were still many young men and women who took it upon themselves to fight the injustices of the world (of which there were many, oh so many) by being sadder than everyone else, and wearing that sadness on their grungy sleeves. I smelled the teen spirit late in high school. It had taken a while for it to drift from Seattle into my little Appalachian holler, the town of Rixford in northwest Pennsylvania, and when it got there it had to cut through a thick haze of aerosol hairspray. I got my first whiff in my bedroom while watching MTV on a 14-inch black and white television set. The cheerleaders for anarchy, the minor chords, the strange custodian, the atonal screaming, the acute camera angles, all told me that it was okay to feel bent and angry.

There is a tendency in America to romanticize the small town, but one should not make that mistake with Rixford, Pennsylvania. John Cougar Mellencamp toured through Rixford and said, “Thank Christ I’m not from there!” Ronald Reagan, when he campaigned there in 1984, decided he didn’t want Rixford’s votes after all and asked that everyone please remove their yard signs. Norman Rockwell, after visiting Rixford in the fall of 1942, called it, in an interview in the The Saturday Evening Post, “A motherfucking shithole.” So Rixford should not be romanticized.  It is, however, where I spent the first eighteen years of my life, and my mom still lives there, and I still go back from time to time, so I have to reckon with it.

Rixford is there because oil is there, or because oil was there. Rixford is, for all practical purposes, an oil field with houses on it. It also has an empty elementary school, a post office, an empty gas station, a bar, an empty mechanic’s garage, a fundamentalist church, an often-empty pizza place, and a general store that closed in 1987 and has been empty ever since.  And there are the remnants of the oil industry.

I grew up with oil pumping jacks in my backyard. The pumping jacks were used to pump the oil out of wells in which the pressure alone was not great enough to force the oil to the surface. All day long the jacks went up, the jacks went down, handles pumped by an invisible hand, angular animals at play in my backyard. My family did not own the rights to any of this oil; we just got to enjoy the infrastructure, while the oil and any profits from it, got pumped out of town. Pumping jacks look like mechanical horses. One could imagine them inside a dimly lit bar alongside a mechanical bull, part of a full-on mechanical rodeo. They looked so perfectly rideable. I was, however, warned never to ride one, lest it cut my leg off so fast it would make my head swim.

So that was Rixford. The one thing, the one kind of awesome thing, this bucking-bronco- robot-looking thing, the one thing of any interest within fifteen miles, the one thing that looked like maybe it could be fun, was a leg-chopping death trap that was sucking the wealth right out from under us.

My mother’s family was from the area. Her father, my grandfather, worked his whole life in the oil fields. He died of bladder cancer when I was two months old. His death from cancer and his life spent working in the oil fields may have been related. My grandmother was bipolar and she, depending on her state, would either be in our house crying or on the road doing things like setting fires in county jails. My grandmother’s father had also worked his whole life in the oil fields. He died in an explosion when my grandmother was a little girl. His life spent working in the oil fields and his death in that explosion were certainly related. I don’t think my grandmother ever got over his death.

My father grew up in Olean, NY, just over the state line, in another valley. His father was a veteran of World War II who hurt his back after the war and spent the better part of a year in the hospital. After that, he got so depressed he needed electroshock therapy. I guess that was his “Blue Period,” but I don’t think he painted any pictures. My grandmother worked in a bank and made apple pies and jellies. I always liked her apple pies and jellies.

My father was a smoker. His mother was a smoker. My other grandmother was also a smoker. There was a lot of smoke growing up. It washed everything in shades of blue and made it hard to breath. Blue smoke. The angles of the pumping jacks. Everything a little sad.

I went to college hoping to escape the sadness. In hindsight, for a young man hoping to escape sadness, Erie was a poor choice. Erie rhymes with dreary and that’s not just a quirk of language. It’s raining right now in Erie. I guarantee it. All the windows are covered with rain. The clouds are covered by clouds. The blues are covered with grey.

I went to college hoping to escape the provincialism of my small town. There was a Klan chapter that operated in the next town over, and I think most people in Rixford were jealous of that town. I wanted to leave that behind. My college roommate was named Tony and he was from Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh was a city. Cities were diverse. Cities were enlightened. People from cities were better. Tony seemed promising until he started talking.

“I’m glad all our other roommates are white.”

Tony was not better.

“I hate niggers. I’m glad none of our roommates are niggers.”

Tony was just as bad.

“Do you mind if I hang a noose from the ceiling?”

Tony was the worst person I’d ever met.

Tony was racist, Confederate-level racist, but strangely, inexplicably, he was open to everybody and anybody else. He supported gay rights, and occasionally dressed in drag for reasons other than comic relief. He was quiet, polite, well spoken, and I could sometimes forget how hateful he was until somebody mentioned, for any reason, Jesse Jackson. Tony remained the worst person I’d ever met for most of my first day of college. Then I met Frank. Frank had all of Tony’s racism, plus infinite homophobia, and bottomless sexism. He had the face of an ugly rat, and he said things like, “Man, Merle, you suck balls!” Merle was another roommate who was somewhere between Tony and Frank on the bad-to-worse spectrum. He said things like, “Fuck you, Frank! You suck balls!” Merle did not look like an ugly rat; he looked like a puffy woodchuck, which I guess is a cuter animal—so I guess he was not quite as terrible as Frank.

The story that sustained me, the lever that pumped some happiness from the bottom of my low-pressure well, was that Rixford was unique in its awfulness. There was a bigger world out there and someday I’d be in it. That bigger world was bright and full of people who were bright, and those people would create and be from other countries and know about music I’d never heard of, but they would play me that music and it would blow my mind, and I’d laugh at Def Leppard-listening Rixford, and then my new friends and I would experiment sexually, and I would never go back to Rixford, and the wells would finally be pumped dry, and the jacks would rust and collapse, and everyone there would either die or walk away, and Rixford would crumble, and the forest would grow over it, and I could pretend it never existed at all, and the empty houses would make nice homes for owls. When the bigger world proved worse than Rixford, I found it hard to breath, like when there was too much cigarette smoke in the room. I wondered if there was a place for me, and if there was a place for me, would I ever find it, and how much smoke and sadness could I bear while I tried to find it.

I turned the page in that art history book, and I saw The Old Guitarist with his head bent low, all covered in blue, and I didn’t feel so trapped and alone. I remember feeling kind of—relaxed. I remember exhaling. If this painting existed in the world, existed and was exalted as something great, then there must be a place for sadness, even my sadness. My lingering sadness. Like smoke in a living room. From sadness could come beauty. From the blue of his life, Picasso made this painting of a bent man playing his blue guitar, and it helped me learn to love my own sharp angles and shades of blue.

I’ve lived in Chicago for ten years. Soon after I moved here, I went to the Art Institute. Wandering through the Impressionist exhibit, I found The Old Guitarist hanging on the wall, on the scale Picasso intended. There is a bench right in front of it; it is a well-placed bench because I had to sit down. I felt like I owed the painting something, something that would say thank you. I figured that what a painting would want was to be noticed and sat with and loved for what it was. I sat with my sadness in the presence of its sadness. I had a place to sit down and rest. I took a deep breath. There, in Chicago, a place with its own hard angles and blues aspects, I felt at home.