December 5, ‘12
Today I met a very different Ted Sahl—in a deep ‘blue’ mood, so to speak.
After a shower of rains, he was raking a mess of leaves in front of his house when I happened to pass. He was very happy to see me. He had a black eye though.
What happened, Ted?
“I was on my walk. At one place near the drain, I lost balance. A woman came and then a couple of men…” “Was she good looking, the woman?” I meant to cheer him up. “I didn’t pay attention,” he continued matter of fact without noticing my attempt, “but she got my things. Then, one of the men said let’s call the ambulance. Not the ambulance, I said. The last time they were called, the bastards charged me a thousand dollars! Not them, just strap me and I would know where to get down… That’s when I passed out.” Then again he resumed, “But next day I went to the same place to pick up the pieces, those of my hearing aid. What are you looking for mister? Well, I was here yesterday and, there! That’s it, the equipment and the battery.” “Was it working?” I asked. “No,” he regretted. “So I went to Kaiser, where I was last time I had met with the accident and they fixed me the, the, the—” “Yeah, the heart regulating machine, you told me,” even I wasn’t getting the name. “There was a good thing that happened. You will be happy to know, there was a good thing. They looked at my records, told me I had one year warranty.” He smiled.
On my last visit he had told me that he was on the expressway about 6-8 months back when the view suddenly turned blurry and caused a smash up. It was a close shave and his stalling heart was the reason. At the hospital they embedded a pacemaker in his chest.
“You don’t drive any more, do you Ted?”
“No I take the public transport…”
“It’s so much easier, going right in front of your house.”
“Yes, an yearly pass costs just $275 and you can go wherever, chauffeured!” he smiled.
“It’s a pleasure to see you, Ted,” I said, “even though damaged slightly—“ “Black and blue,” he offered the expression and smiled. “But in one piece! In one piece, Ted. That’s important.” “Yes,” he smiled again, then instantly switched off, “But it hurts. They’ve put some glue on my hair, so—” This was the second time he was referring to the glue that I never understood. “Are you, single, by now,” I said pointing to the house. “Or she is still there, your woman?” “Well, I’ll be free shortly,” he was suddenly bitter. “You know I could have thrown her out, but, I am a kind man.” “Will she be gone by Christmas?” “Oh yes.”
Again a new connection formed in his mind. “Oh, oh, you know last time you left I had tried to remember the, the—” He drew with his finger an inscription on his roof. “Yes but you had pieced it together for me,” I butted in, and reached for my note pad that I was still carrying. “All the money in the world could not buy freedom!” I read out. “That’s it!” he sparkled. “Word for word! All the money in the world couldn’t buy freedom!”
“Well, well,” he suddenly remembered and gushed, “do write me your name, my friend. So, they’ll find it when I am gone—” “Oh, it would be a long time before that happens,” I tried to find clever words, at the same time reaching again for the note pad and pen from my shoulder bag. “But it’s quite a mouthful, my name.” I said. He waited. I wrote down in block capitals, then added my email ID. “Oh, it’s a mouthful and, and brain-full!” He laughed. “I was once on a short visit to Russia,” I told him wittily, “and the girl there brought an envelope for me. She’d written Alexander in place of Surendar! It helped. You can do the same.” “Oh I am so pleased to see you,” he said. “Tell me, who sends you?”
“You know,” he resumed on another hurtful subject. “I tried to put up a garden umbrella in my lawn and brought out all my paintings. But nobody pays any attention, they don’t care.” “Well they don’t know,” I was again at a loss for words. “It’s a whole life’s work and it’s all there—.” “Tell me my friend,” he beseeched, “who sends you?”
I was expected home for lunch; so promising to drop by another day, I left. On the footpath I turned round. He was still standing, looking, with his rake amidst half done wet leaves. I raised my umbrella and saw him wave back, before losing him.
What happens to our paintings after we are gone? I wonder.
I don’t know if Ted is solo by now; whether his ‘woman’ has left. Going to the library I pass his house every other day but don’t get to see him. He is hard of hearing, both for the phone as well as the doorbell. I do see a room light on when it is dark, but that’s no time to call.
The winter days being cold and short, I would have to take my chance when he happens to be outside and I am passing by. Until then, no news is good news.
My chance comes but I don’t know if the timing is opportune or disastrous. There is activity near his garage; a couple of strangers are moving something. I ask to see Ted. The woman, an Asian, 50-ish, responds; tells me to wait as she goes inside the house and returns. Ted then comes out after her. He manages a smile on seeing me.
“Is that her?” I ask Ted as soon as we are alone.
“That’s her. And that’s her relative helping out.” Ted is morose.
“She’s gone!” he suddenly declaims as though an actor on stage. Then adds softly, “It’s over. They are difficult to live with, difficult to live without.”
I want to leave but he asks me inside the house. It’s a much-lived space; empty where it has been just vacated. An inside room is where Ted apparently sleeps; this is not the one that I had been seeing with the light on. A small TV is playing here, mainly for its drone I think.
Pulling drawers of his desk looking for something Ted tells me of a painting of his that somebody came the other day and bought. “Fifty dollars is all he had and I said OK.”
“Oh wow, which one was this? Have I seen it?”
“Three women, with one of them winking, suggesting they are lesbians.”
“Have you got a picture?”
“That’s what I am looking for,” he says, then gives up.
I update him on my side of things; tell him of my meeting the day before with an artist in her studio in Downtown Campbell. The ‘historic’ marketplace has for years had an Art Walk festival every third Friday of the month, 6 to 9 in the evening, when all the studios of the half-kilometer stretch would bring out their wares among people ‘flowing’ around but post-recession only the announcement remains. All others have shut shop; only she and another owner-artist have held forth. He doesn’t know either of the two but reflects the same sinking sentiment in his own words.
“American don’t buy paintings, they only buy cars,” he says locking eyes with me as we hear the same cars go zip-roaring outside on the road.
All this while we have been standing; first in the passage at entry, then in Ted’s bedroom and now back again at the entry. Until end of March I still have about a month to leave; so promising some more drop-ins I take leave. The weather has certainly improved but more important, he is free—as he wanted, although 25 years of togetherness is not easy to shake off. I do hope he finds his happiness sooner rather than later.
Passing by one evening I saw unusual lights in Ted’s house. And through clear windows saw some of his large paintings on the wall. My heart leapt. So the scheming rogue was setting up his house as an art gallery! That’s the way to go my friend!
Armed with my camera I reached Ted’s house next day in the afternoon. The call bell went un-responded and the door wouldn’t take the knock. Then I spotted Ted bent over doing something through the window glass. As soon as the door opened, I went straight for his hand and shook it vigorously, complimenting him on his great idea.
We went in—he following me—to the recently vacated twin living rooms of the house where the pictures had been hung. There was progress but a lot more was to be done.
“That’s the spirit Ted! Now your work would fetch the price that it truly deserves! Paint in the garage and put them up here.” I went and sat down on the sofa. “Tell me, when is the inauguration? Not after I have left I hope!”
He looked lost. Had he heard what I was saying? He had his hearing aid in place I could see.
He had heard me all right but didn’t know how to tell me it wasn’t going to be an art gallery. “I have another plan,” he finally began. “Look at those folders,” he pointed to a rack-full of them, then went and picked out one. These were newspaper cuttings of Obama’s years in the White House. The man, his charming wife and girls (‘personal’ photographs sent to him), him at speech making, the news reports. Another folder had the cuttings of his work on LGBT (listed as Ted Sahl Collection in the San Jose State University). Another one, camera negative strips.
“But what do you have in mind to do about these?”
“Well, these are books, each one of them!” he said. “Hundred years later when people would like to know what the first black president’s years were like…”
Already the man was meandering. “What are these negatives Ted? Do you have positives of these to see, to show? Not paper prints, they need to be digitized. I can try and arrange that. And if you have some kind of a computer here, then you can see and show them just by pressing a button.”
First he evaded the question, then told me he had tried the computer but “it wouldn’t stay in place! It was forever changing!” Eventually it was a hindrance to his work and he dumped it in his basement. So frustrated was he that he led me to it—through his out-of-use dark room (complete with trays, chemicals, black curtains, clips on a string), down winding stairs, in the deep recesses of the basement. It was one of the early, heavy Apples I noticed.
An art gallery would certainly have been a happy ending to my present piece; I could end with a sexy slide show of the promising effort and the direction in which it might be headed. But Ted is a tired man, and alone—lonely. Framing all those large paintings and putting them up in a nice display would cost. And I realize too that running a gallery at reasonable level of efficiency needs sustained effort, which is clearly beyond the energies of my friend.
I didn’t have the heart to take out my camera. There was nothing to shoot there. For a long while I sat listening to Ted’s monologue. Then it was dark outside and I left. I don’t think the man has the energies needed to write a book either. His one and the only From Closet To Community (essentially a compilation of interviews and write-ups on LGBT in San Jose and Santa Clara county) was written in 2002.
It’s not as if Ted is suddenly 87. Before that he was 86, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and even less. As a typical westerner, he has, neatly, made all kinds of hypothecations in respect of his worldly possessions. His problem is just the decay that comes from old age. He can tick along for 10 years or stop in the next ten—what? It’s like seeing the setting sun.
I may or may not see Ted again on this visit but to me the abiding memory of the man would always be his magic garage…
And I would also remember what he wrote and stuck on a trolley—and where I take the byline of my present piece from—that he once planned to take out to sell his paintings. That would virtually be his ‘autobiography’ on the back of a large stamp.
“Ted Sahl; Artist, Writer, Photographer, School drop out at 16; 8 years of schooling; Has no AA, Has no BA, Has no MA (Thank God!); A self-taught artist dedicated to developing, and enriching the human spirit; If it be with a critical eye, So be it!”
May you live, Ted, to celebrate the anniversary of the feat of a certain Charles Lindbergh.