Friday, June 3, 2011

Autobiography Pt.7

     Steranko breaks the sleep barrier.

I graduated high school in June of 1971 and eight weeks later I was helping Jim Steranko refurbish a three-story row-house and helping him move into his new building. The deal was if I worked for him during the day he'd give me art lessons, room and board. He would decode comic theory and make me practice in the evening hours though he never mentioned the slave labor I’d have to endure for the privilege. It was kind of like a school and a work-house rolled into one. Steranko had just quit Marvel Comics and his new company SuperGraphics was getting a lot of attention. It was a very exciting place to be and a feather in your cap if you rode those coattails. I learned an awful lot about how to treat employees, or not to, a healthy approach to your work, and what you should and shouldn't allow companies to do to you. Jim was and still is a very dynamic individual and was my mentor for a long time.
       And when you live with people you get to know them on an in-your-face reality, laughs or not, you remember it. I got a crash-course in that in 1971.
       The building had been constructed in the middish-1800s and had originally been fitted with gaslights. Closer to my time frame it had been a doctor’s office. Something I could hardly believe as the décor was so shabby. Don’t get me wrong, this was a fine building, just a little run-down.
       One of the first things you learn about Reading, PA when you move there is that it’s the same “Take a Ride on the Reading Railroad,” as in Monopoly, and Ludens had a big factory in town. After a while I got to know the days of the week by the smells: Monday was cherry, Tuesday was peanut butter, Wednesday was licorice, and I can’t remember the rest. Still, days of the week via the nose, closed weekends.
       Near the end of August, Ken Bruzenak appears out of the blue from Pittsburgh. Now, I had no idea there was going to be another assistant. Kind of took the wind out of my sails, and my “special” quotient dropped to fifty percent.
       He was big for a high school graduate, with blond hair and a Kevin Bacon nose. We squared-off slightly and I doubted that Steranko had told him he’d be working with me. And, I’m sure he smelled competition at the same instant I did. Smart on Jim’s part, or maybe just functional, I don’t know. Still, there was friction in the air on Fifth Street.
       Now, I’m just reporting my impressions, but Ken didn’t seem like the brightest bulb in the pack. Unless Jim was around, there was nobody else to talk to and scintillating conversation it was not.
       Once, I was talking about the idea of “absolute,” and Ken argued that there was no such thing. Another time we talked about guns, and Ken argued that no gun was safe.
       “Even if you take it apart and know that there are no bullets?” I quizzed.
       “Yes, even then.”
       “Okay, you contend that there are no absolutes but say that no gun is absolutely safe?”
       “Well,” he answered, “one of my theories is wrong.”
       I rolled my eyes a lot around Ken.
       He played the trumpet and Jim demanded a show one late night shortly after his arrival. About high school level quality at the time and I tried not to pass judgment because my performance on the clarinet wasn’t any better. However, I was never in the building to hear him play again. He had this uncanny ability to know when I left, and when my front-door key hit the lock. I’d hear him practice while I was out on the street but once my key hit the lock back all was silence.
       I still can’t figure out how he pulled that one off.
       My first task, in the dead of late-August, with no air conditioning, was to steam off tree layers of wallpaper from every room in the three-story building. All twelve.  Now, three coats of wallpaper over almost a hundred years was nothing to brag about but it could have been much worse for me. The steamer was a contraption about the size of an orange crate with a black service-station-sized ten foot, heavy rubber hose, ending up with a tray which was about 16” by 12” with a handle on the back. The idea was that you’d fill the bugger up with water, start a kerosene fire underneath, eventually steam would pour out the perforated tray. Holding this against the wallpaper the glue was softened and you could scrape it off with a big putty knife, right down to plaster.
       I worked and sweated shirtless through the whole painstaking process, pushing my workday well into the night just to catch a break from the heat. This hot, messy job was finally coming to an end on the third-floor stairwell. Our tallest ladder, a twelve-footer, simply couldn’t reach the corner of the stairwell near the ceiling. We figured out that we would put the twelve-footer in the landing and the eight-footer on the third floor level and place one of the sixteen-foot shutters, currently in the basement on top of both it could work. Guess which two of us toted the dirty shutter upstairs four flights.
Once set, Jim steadied the big ladder and Ken the smaller. 
       Okay, so I’m sixteen feet in the air, on shaky ladders, on an even less reliable base, with a hot Mo Fo kickin’ cooler-sized thing just behind me. Hot tray coming through. Hottest spot in the hothouse and I am down to my last four square feet of old wallpaper. Still, though cramped and simmering, my face marked with hundred year old soot and wallpaper glue, the job was finally done. With immaculate satisfaction I placed the steam tray on the shutter and stood proudly at the top of the house, fists on hips.
       What I didn’t remember was that the condensed steam in the tray collected. The shutter was at a slight incline heading back to Ken and when the scalding water spilled out of the tray, it headed straight to my stocking feet. My soles were in some Ring of Hell. I screamed and leaped from the shuttering mast, over the steamer, Ken, and trembling wood.
       Ken and Jim got a big laugh out of that and I certainly couldn’t blame them.
       Jim jibed, “You looked like a savage Indian leaping from the rocks, ready to kill a settler!
       Hot-Foot tribe, I suppose.
       “Tomorrow morning, I want you to wash the glue residue off of all of the walls.”
       Back to square-one working with cool water and suds, rather than fire and steam.
       Same damned twelve room square inches. Twice.
       The shutters also came in handy when Jim decided to tile the ceiling in his workroom. Four saw-horses and two shutters were enlisted to allow Ken the height to do the work. About an hour after he started, scrubbing walls, I heard a huge crash. I ran into Jim’s workroom to find Ken waist-deep in rotten shutter, a smeared tile in hand over his head and a bewildered look on his face. I tried not to laugh. Didn’t work.
       One of Jim’s first plans was to convert the backyard into a parking lot to generate revenue. He had a tractor come in and doze century-old grass along with four inches of top-soil, called a gravel-pit and ordered yards of granite stones, then ordered Ken and I to spread it with old shovels, well into the night, me in front, Ken in back. In fact, Steranko had awarded Ken the contract and I was just a sub-contractor. "Heavy lifting" or some shit. About 9:30 P.M. there is a knock at the back door and a man complains that a lady walking down the alley had fallen into the Jim Steranko’s Monthly Parking Lot/Low rates drive, and just might sue. Well, being a sub-contractor has its benefits. Jim chewed out Ken’s ass much to my satisfaction and the last thing I remember was hanging plastic bags from some twine, fence to fence, in the soon-to-be-open parking lot.
       Now, I had my Ford Galaxy 500 in Reading at the time and asked if there would be a spot for me.
       I can’t be sure, but I love to remember it best as I shoveled cumbersome granite stone around his backyard.
       “Hell, no. These are for paying customers.”
       As a result, I had to move the Galaxy every two hours on Reading streets, during business hours, and woe to me if I ran out of quarters. Pretty soon I had a glove box full of tickets and the charm of it all was wearing off rapidly.
       One of my other less-happy memories was the drain from the third-floor bathroom resulting in a mess on the second floor-landing wall. This cast-iron mother had split in the wall at the second floor and it was my job to figure out how to fix it. Jim supplied some furnace cement and I laved it on. Turns out furnace cement is water soluble and it took lots of time to scrub off. I can’t remember whatever else we tried but the final decision was to get a piece of pipe larger than the existing one and bind it to the old pipe with adjustable bands. I went to the supply yard and was informed that there was no “next-bigger-size” that wouldn’t swallow the original so I bought a two-foot example of the same size, hacksawed it down the middle in an arm-wrenching two hours and spent the next two head-ringing hours trying to slightly flatten both pieces just enough with a cold hammer.
       So much for dreams of working on art with Jim Steranko and the stardom attached.
       Anyway, it finally worked and all was happy in Mudville until the next day. Seems that there was no wall between the pipe gap and the brick from next door. The vigorous work had dislodged the old lady next door’s living room wall and when we arrived, sure enough, a rude corner of a brick had poked through the wallpaper. I did some minor surgery on the disaster and retouched the pattern of her wallpaper with my paint kit. On another ladder.
       When we got home, Jim was still giving me hell about why every job seemed to take three tries.
       “I don’t know if you remember this,” I commented, “but I’m a month out of high school and I think expecting a professional plumbing job from me is asking a lot.”
       “But, you father was a carpenter, wasn’t he?”
       Sometimes when working with brilliant men they make no sense at all.
       The banister on the stairs was magnificent and I took it on myself to keep the reconstruction dust off of it, and love it down with lemon oil on a regular basis. Other fixtures in the house I wasn’t as fond of: The laundry machines. Jim informed me that I was the house wash-boy and that I would be doing everybody’s laundry, every week. When I asked Jim why Ken shouldn’t alternate with me, Jim informed that Ken was to do the heavy-duty mule stuff around the house. I’d seen the guy with his shirt off and heavy-lifting certainly wasn’t one of his strongest suits. He was just big.
       One of he first things Jim put us on was the erection of maybe eight huge, twelve-foot-tall bookcases he’d had constructed for his library. Ken and I stained and varnished them over a couple of nights and it was a massive, but well done job. As soon as the varnish was dry the hired-help moved Jim’s enormous book collection down flights from the old place, then up flights again to the new place. And that was the last I ever saw of Jim Steranko’s library. Treasure upstairs locked from public view, much less the hired-help’s.
In the early phase, we were preparing Jim’s living quarters on the second floor. He was anxious to move out of 501 Spruce Street and save some rent money, and who couldn’t be sympathetic to that? I remember that he wanted the wall in the first floor right-room, as you face the street, taken back to raw brick, a decision I whole-heartedly approved of. Hammer and fat screw-driver in hand I picked a random spot in the center of the wall and put hammer and driver to very old plaster. Ancient wall gave way with ease but as I pulled pack for a second swing I noticed something in the exposed plaster. Human hair! Red human hair.
       “Jim, get in here quick!” I hollered and he appeared from the other room.
       “Look!” I pointed.
       “That’s just horse hair used to bind the plaster. Stop bothering me and get back to work.”
This is not to say I never got the last laugh on Jim.
Sometime during the fall of 1971, Jim Steranko, master of a thousand locks, MISTER MIRACLE, lost his keys and couldn’t get into the house. I remember the three of us in the parking lot shaking our heads. “Well, what do we do now?” was the theme of the moment.
       Now, Jim is really good at break-out but I excel at the break-in. As indicated: where I’m not supposed to be. It’s not so much that I want to rob anybody, I just like being in places I’m not supposed to be in and could figure-out one as fast as the best cat-burglar. I’d even written plans in my mind as to how to break into Jim’s place but was reserving them for a later date which had just arrived.
       “I can get in,” I tried to casually remark.
       Ken and Jim looked at me like a side-dish they hadn’t ordered. That whole “pit-the-other-against-the-other” thing.   I motioned down the something-of-an-alley at the side of the house, moved into it and they followed. I don’t know if they were shaking their heads, probably but I take great satisfaction in believing that they did. In the corner at the end was a great drainpipe and I approached it. Kicking off my shoes and coat, I began to climb it like an Islander climbs a coconut tree, hand and foot over foot and hand. On the second floor, I slid my young White ass to the sill and jimmied the unlocked window open with tiny fingertips. In a flash I was in, curtains blowing out, knowing Jim had just felt violated and not knowing if that was a good thing.
       I let them in the back door and tried not to look smug.
       Jim never kept the second floor windows unlocked again.
       I know, I checked more than once.
       I don’t remember exactly when, but it occurred to Ken and me that room and board was simply not enough to meet our needs. After a mutual discussion it became clear that Ken refused to talk to Jim about it so in some chilly oxidized-red-Volkswagen tripwith Jim, I broached the matter.
       “Jim, Ken and I need to get paid some kind of cash.”
       “Because we have needs. My shoes are falling off my feet, the new comics are due next Thursday, and I would kill for a pecan roll.”
       “Call your parents and ask them for money.”
       You need to decide for yourselves if that was cold or not.
       “Jim, I’m working for you now, for a living, I shouldn’t be calling my parents for money.”
       An uncomfortable minute ensued.
       “Okay. Okay, you’re right.
       “Your salary is ten dollars a week...
       “split between the two of you.”
       Now, if it seems like I paint Jim with stingy brushes it’s because I found him to be so, depending on your pecking order.
At times even stingy with artistic information. Here I was, slaving my butt off, getting five bucks a week, room, all of the Lancaster TV dinners I could eat as long as it was only one a day, and art lessons. And, there came a time when I quizzed Jim about how he’d managed to marbleize his illustration board, as he’d used it successfully on more than one paperback cover.
       “I’m not telling.”
       Now, I bitch about the conditions, but I’d sold my soul. If Jim Steranko would teach me, I’d certainly be his slave.
       Now, an aside here.
       The building had been built shortly after the Civil War and was showing it. The heavy, inlaid doors all allowed skeleton keys and SECRETIVE SCORPIO STERANKO was having none of that. He replaced the old locks with superior, 20th Century hardware. That done, he instructed me to fill the holes where the old locks were. Wood putty, putty knife, the stink that goes with it, and sandpaper in hand, I began the task. In the sandpaper phase I discovered that the doors weren’t solid Cherry Wood but rather some composite featuring a grain, which had been printed on. If I wasn’t careful, I’d sand off the printed grain and then where would I be?
       Phase three: Acrylics and a very tiny paintbrush.
       And there I sat, for hours, matching colors and matching wood-grains.
       Aside over.
       That’s the kind of dedication I had to the guy, but this “I’m not telling,” thing was too much. I was willing to belong to the Grunt-Labor Union if he was teaching me. And yet, here was the first time he had refused my question and on some level this wasn’t a guy I wanted to slave for as much.
       I was guzzling Pepsi by the six-pack at the time and Jim complained about it. Seems he paid for garbage disposal by the bag and my empty bottles were costing him a “fortune.” As a compromise, I set out an old bucket at the back door and whenever I was through with the bottle, would smash it to smithereens with a brick just to reduce the bulk.
       There was no smoking in the house either, so I’d either have to freeze my ass off in the backyard or take a drive in the Galaxy 500 just to puff a stogie.
       I got to know the town pretty well and drove the streets over and over, and looked for cute girls never to be found. One afternoon, I chanced to be in the McDonalds parking lot, across from V&S Steak Sandwiches (what was I thinking?) and  a high school bus full cheerleaders began to exit from it. My Johnson ready to be called back to active duty (I was seventeen at the time you perv) and I scanned for short plaid-skirts and tight sweaters through the windows with great anticipation. In a town where there seemed to be very few pretty girls this would be the Reading mother-load.
       Even the cheerleaders were butt-ugly.
        I should have listened to my gut and gone for the cheese-steak: Far less disappointment.
       Jim hates it when I tell that story.
       The girls in Reading were butt-ugly.
        BTW, the title of this thing is a reference to something Jim told me. "I was up for three days once and thought that that I had broken the sleep-barrier."
        It's really important to understand reality.

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