Being an artist fresh out of art school can be a tough life.
I work as a tour guide at the Vatican Museums. When one moves to Italy illegally, doesn’t speak the language well, and has a degree in sculpture, this is what you do. I work with artists from around the world, all trying to get by. The tourist season came to an abrupt halt in November, forcing me to look for other work to pay off my student
I went around Rome posting flyers that offered private drawing lessons in English. I placed thirty of these around the city and received two calls, only one being a potential student.
He called on Thanksgiving while I was leading a tour through St. Peter’s Basilica. I had put on my flyer that the lessons could be held indoors or out. We agreed that if the weather suited we would meet at Piazza Barberini. He asked me if I was free immediately.
I said, “No, but I am free every day after three.”
“Well, it is almost three, why can’t we meet today?” he said, being a bit pushy.
I told him, “Today is Thanksgiving. We can meet tomorrow at three if you wish.” He agreed and I was more than excited, thinking about that twenty-five Euro.
The next day, I headed out to buy the materials that I said I would supply for the lesson. I bought a pad of paper, a pencil, and an eraser, totaling nine Euro. My twenty-five Euro was down to sixteen. At the supermarket I bought some fruit for a still life, and the sixteen Euro was reduced to eleven.
After I jumped on the metro to Barberini, my student called to say he had just received a phone call from some out-of-town friends, and he had to go to Termini Station. He would be at a place called Bar Bruno, and would be ready for me when I arrived. Frustrated, I got back on the metro to go to meet him.
Walking toward the back of Bar Bruno I passed some shady-looking characters, then realized there was no one in the place except for shady characters. I walked back to the front and saw a man in a black scarf and black hat whose voice matched perfectly with the one on the phone. He was missing his bottom row of teeth, and his nose was covered by broken blood vessels. I put my hand out to shake his, and he took it, squeezing firmly. Then he moved in to kiss me on the cheeks, a very normal thing for friends in Europe to do, but I was to be this man’s drawing instructor, not his friend. I began to feel the slightest bit uncomfortable, and thought maybe it best to leave. He gave me the opportunity, asking if I could wait outside while he spoke with his friends. He said he would be ten minutes. I had already spent the money on art supplies, so I decided to call my friend Yashar and ask his advice.
Yashar didn’t really have a chance to say anything before I saw the man leaving the bar. I told Yashar, “If you don’t hear from me within the hour, contact the police.”
The man said he knew a park nearby where we could have the lesson. We got on a bus and traveled up the Via Veneto. We exited the bus at the entrance of the Villa Borgese, a park about as large as New York’s Central Park, filled with some of the best museums in Rome. I asked him, “Why didn’t you tell me the name of the park? We could have met here; everyone knows where this is.”
The things that led up to this point, along with some uncomfortable conversation, had my adrenaline pumping, but now I was really wishing for my knife. I had left it at home, because I can’t bring it when I work at the Vatican.
We continued our trek through the park; it was filled with people, and I was comfortable with my surroundings. When I told him I didn’t want to go any further, he reassured me that the place is really close by, and pointed to it. It was close, and also close to the highway. The Villa Borgese has a highway running through it, and is raised a good seventy feet from the road. He pointed to a staircase, which led down. It resembled the type of lit staircase one would find in a parking garage. He motioned for me to follow him down the steps.
I let him know that I did not feel comfortable and he would have to go down ahead of me, and he agreed. I began traveling down the staircase, searching for the bottom. I couldn’t see it. I thought he was far beneath me. Then, I looked up, and he was right next to me. The staircase reeked of human feces, and now I was really scared. I looked over the stairs, and saw a disgusting mattress and a locked door leading to nowhere. My only way out was past this man, who had covered the three steps in front of me with urine. I took my chance to escape as he was still peeing. I leapt over the steps and ran for my life and he screamed after me.
I ran past groups of people into what looked like a metro entrance. I slid down the escalator, movie-chase-scene-style, and kept running. The hallway was lit red, and was so ominous-feeling that I was about to cry. I realized that I had made a wrong turn and was in a parking garage and not the metro. I frantically searched for the exit, found it, and went up. I was back in front of the park entrance. After all of that running, I ended up closer to the guy than when I started. I tried my getaway again. I got to the real metro stop assured that I was out of any danger, and called my friend Jordan and started screaming, “The ****** wanted to solicit sex from me!”
And Jordan told me, “I was meaning to tell you, I just forgot: there are a lot of crazies in the city, and you have to be careful.”
Previous Artjaw story
I can never get the smell of clay out of my clothes.
It was late on a Saturday night in mid-February and my cousin, a car freak and anything- stripper-related enthusiast, raced up to Philly. He dragged me to a local strip club to make sure that I didn’t spend all my time in the studio.
The Saturday night crowd is a rowdy one, full of sports fans, guys from over the bridge (Jersey), and no one I am overly inclined to chat with. So when my cousin left to go get a lap dance, I became totally introverted. I’d been drinking water all night, and being sober and alone in a place filled with half -naked girls made me totally self-conscious.
One by one, a parade of strippers came up to me to ask if I wanted a dance. They tried to say things to make me think they were interested. I got shyer with each passing dance proposal. After a while, the eyes of one girl caught me. She approached me nicely enough, wearing the most conservative outfit of all the girls, a long black dress that went down to the floor. She seemed different than the rest. She told me her name was Amber.
She brought me over to the side the club and gave me what started out to be the best lap dance of my life. She began with her head in my crotch and ran her face up my hoodie until we were face to face. Then, looking directly at me, she said I smelled like photo chemicals and asked if I was an artist. I let her know it was actually oil-based clay
she smelled. At that point the lap dance changed from being really fun into being an informative lecture with the occasional arousal.
Turned out I got a dance from a stripper who came to Philadelphia to work at an area museum, but as sometimes happens, the job fell through. While at a prestigious university in New York, she studied metalsmithing and photography, hence the reason she could smell that I was an artist. She talked enthusiastically about arc welding as she jammed her knee ever so slightly into my crotch.
She made fun of me for being at the strip club. When I told her about my cousin trying to loosen me up, she didn’t buy it and asked me to justify it art-historically. I told her Toulouse-Lautrec had a fascination with Burlesque dancers; he drew a lot of inspiration from them, and if she needed proof, she could go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She laughed and told me it was very different back then. Strip clubs as we know them today didn’t exist during his time. Apparently, those women had a tad more class.
While she was still on my lap, I told her about my upcoming senior show. She whipped out her cell phone and typed in the information. We exchanged some more artistic ideas, and then she told me her name, — the real one.