Thursday, January 3, 2008

Michael Howell, Part I

It suddenly occurred to me that a major anniversary of Michael Howell's passing had itself passed without my noticing, and there is unfinished business.

The Michael Howell of whom I speak is the formerly homeless one who made a career in Seattle of sitting in public doing pen and pencil drawings of wizened old homeless white men, tinting them with watercolors, and selling them not to the subjects but to mostly female concerned idealists. He also, in late 1991, began what he called the Seattle Homeless Art Gallery, which later called itself the StreetLife Art Gallery.

When Michael died over ten years ago I was still very active in StreetLife, had been writing for Real Change, and everyone assumed that I would be the one to write the obituary. I'd known him since the mid-80s, and at one point I was for all practical purposes his principal assistant in running the gallery. But I said then that if by obituary they meant eulogy, forget it. I would not write a eulogy. It turned out it was a eulogy the editorial committee wanted, so fellow editor Michele Marchand wrote it.

I think ten years is long enough to wait. This now is the obituary the editorial committee would have gotten if they'd kept insisting. It's a little long, so they would have cut it. I'm going to run it here in installments -- because I can!

I first met Michael at Ralph's Deli at 4th & Lenora, around 1985, give or take a year. Dates in the 80s are a little hazy because of the divorce, the extreme grief (which resulted when I couldn't see my daughter anymore because she was taken thousands of miles away from me), the two bouts of homelessness, one long, one short, and the intense delayed stress syndrome associated with PTSD that was so bad that between 1984 and 1987 I couldn't look at the front page of a newspaper.

Ralph's Deli was a decent all-night grocery store and deli then. They didn't discriminate against the homeless like they do now. They let Michael and his buddies hang there all night long, only asking what all stores ask, that they occasionally pay for a fresh cup of coffee to justify their occupancy. Michael was there with a chessboard every night and wanted to play anyone who looked at all interested.

I was a cab driver. I came in every night to buy coffee and a sandwich. The sandwich would usually be my only meal in a twelve hour shift. I'd use the purchase to justify the use of the men's room. Sometimes I'd sit down and take a break, sometimes not.

One night I stopped to gaze at a chess game Michael was playing with a friend. The brief attention I gave induced Michael to introduce himself and spend the next several days twisting my arm to play a game with him.

While he was prevailing on me to play chess, I got to know him as an artist. Whenever he had no one to play the sketch book would open and he try to sketch the most wrinkled white man in the room.

The choice of white men as art subjects was not racist. Michael was racist -- I'll be getting to that -- but his choice of art subjects was NOT a manifestation of his racism. Michael was fascinated with wrinkles and the shadows they cast on faces. With white people the shadows are more pronounced because of the contrast to the white skin. Early on he would draw wrinkled old women, too, but there aren't as many wrinkled old white women around as white men because the women use makeup to hide the wrinkles. Eventually when he caught on to the fact that women were more likely to buy his art he convinced himself that it was old men they wanted to see. He thought old women would disturb them because they might identify. But they could just feel sorry for the old men.

Finally I caved in and played a game of chess with Michael. I lost. I played another and lost. And another. Over the next few weeks I lost 30 games in a row to Michael, winning none, tying none.

Michael was an insufferable gloating prick when he won. He was also hypocritical about the game. He bragged that he would never be a "book" player, but he never played any opening as White but P-K4, and he whined if you didn't follow with P-K4, saying you were "ruining" the game. On top of that he whined whenever he had to play Black so much that just to shut him up I agreed to play Black all the time. [Pictured: The start of a "good" game, as seen by Michael.]

So heading into the 31st game I was getting pissed at his petty whining and gloating and general unsportsmanlike behavior. I did something nasty: I went to the Seattle Public Library and found a big thick opening book that analyzed lines of his favorite opening to 20 and 30 moves. I found an obscure trap in the 12th move that was described as "unsound, but very difficult for an unprepared player to counter over the board." I memorized it and sprang it on him the next time we played.

As soon as he realized he was about to lose a rook to a knight (as the trap promised) he panicked. He started whining that I'd spoiled the game by playing a "weird" move. He tried to get me to take it back. When I wouldn't he started to get that it was a deliberate trap, and began to get hostile about it.

He had a friend who usually hung with him who was a tournament player. Michael got his friend to help him solve the problem posed by the trap. So I was playing two people now.

Michael might have pulled off a tie in spite of the trap by just exploiting his superior experience in the endgame, but he couldn't stand the thought of giving up his unbroken streak of wins against me to a tie so he took a rash risk that cost him the game, and I finally won one.

When losing a game it's customary for a chess player to tip his King over, acknowledging defeat. Michael Howell acknowledge his one and only loss to me by yelling, "SHIT, GOD DAMN IT, FUCK!" and hurling his King half-way across the grocery.

So I never played him another game. It pissed him off that I would stop playing after a win and not let him "settle the score." That the score was 30 games to 1 in his favor meant nothing to him. I guess he had to win the last game or he was a loser in his mind. I didn't care. I didn't want to be bothered playing such a sore loser again.

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