Day 273: Stephen Dixon

I'm almost finished putting together The Man Who Signed the City, although final tasks keep multiplying as if by spontaneous generation. Here is a bit of Chapter 12, which features the writer Stephen Dixon.


Door opens on Stephen Dixon’s life on June 6, 1936, but at birth he is not Stephen Dixon, he’s Stephen Ditchik, son of Abraham Meyer Ditchik, a dentist, and Florence Leder Ditchik, a former beauty queen and Broadway chorus girl, both born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side. Stephen is the fifth of seven children, last of four boys. He grows up in a brownstone on 75th Street that has lodgers on the top three floors and his father’s dental practice on the first. “He was an old-fashioned dentist,” Dixon recalls. “If he extracted a tooth and that cost $15, and you only had $10, he’d take $10.” When he works on his children’s teeth, Abraham considers Novocain an unnecessary expense. He is not much on preventive care, either, and by high school, Stephen’s mouth is a wreck. He decides he needs another dentist, goes out and finds one, and takes jobs after school to pay for root canals and the other procedures his decayed teeth demand.

His mother, Florence, is not allowed by her father to become either an architect or a doctor, her first wishes. So she becomes a professional beauty, and as Miss New York competes in an early edition of the Miss America pageant. Off of that success, she lands a two-year contract to dance in George White’s Scandals, a revue, modeled on Ziegfeld Follies, that in its day furthers the careers of W.C. Fields, the Three Stooges, Ethel Merman, Bert Lahr, and Rudy Vallee. It also acquaints Abraham with Flo. He comes to the show one night and watches her from the theater’s front row and, as Dixon surmises, likes her face and shape and begins courting her. The night before they are married, she has a toothache. Abe pulls the tooth in the kitchen. Without Novocain.

In 1941, he loses his license to practice dentistry and goes to prison for 18 months when he is implicated in a scandal involving a physician who was performing illegal abortions. When Abraham goes to jail, Dixon’s mother, furious and humiliated, never divorces him, but she does legally change her name and those of her children. Dixon says, “She went through the phone book. There was a question, would the name be Dodd or Dixon? She did it over the kitchen table.” Thus 5-year-old Stephen Ditchik becomes Stephen Dixon.

Day 246: Coming in a month, The Man Who Signed the City

I have growing confidence that The Man Who Signed the City will publish on September 1. (Please don't be snarky and point out how often that date has shifted.) I'm about to start the final proofing, and I'm dying to show you some cover design concepts, but the designer would kill me. Suffice to say it's going to look great.

Twenty-one profiles comprise the contents, and one of my favorites features the Baltimore painter Raoul Middleman. Here's a taste.

Raoul Middleman scoops paint out of a film can onto a palette. It is a November mid-afternoon in Baltimore, and the remaining daylight is making a run for it. If he is to paint a picture today, Middleman will have to work fast, but that is okay with him. He likes getting his hands going before his head has time to intervene. "If you get too analytical, you lose it," he says. "I try to see things before language. The painting has to have its own inscrutability, like the world itself. I'm not saying I get that—it's an aim."

Middleman has been painting full time, day in and day out, for 37 years. When he can paint seven days a week, he does. He has two studios in Baltimore; one serves as a warehouse for his work. He does not know how many canvases he has stashed there, but he guesses anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000. When representatives of The Ice Collection in New York came to select pictures for his recent one-man show, they gave up in exhaustion before they could survey the entire trove. The painter Paul Resika once said of Middleman, “I remember thinking, when I first met Raoul 30 years ago, that he had this enormous energy, like John Marin or Jackson Pollock. And that he had painted more pictures, of every subject and every mood, than anyone I had ever seen.” He paints portraits, nudes, still lifes, kitschy narratives, landscapes, seascapes, and cityscapes. He has painted in Scotland, France, Wales, New Mexico, the countryside around his farmhouse near Havre de Grace, Maryland, and the rusting industrial underbelly of Baltimore. He paints women in black bras and boots, woodland streams, rocky shorelines, grumpy self-portraits, horses, crab houses, carryouts, and, on one recent occasion, a writer who had come to interview him. He paints with bold color and vigorous brushwork. He likes to talk, he likes to eat, and mostly he likes to see what happens when he puts one color next to another.

With an assist from teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, he has made a living as a figurative painter, no small accomplishment in the latter half of the American 20th century. His asking price at a recent show was $1,400 for a framed figure drawing. For some canvases, the tab ran to $28,000. Gerrit Henri, writing in Art News, said, “Where Middleman’s deep painterly energies are coming from is, considering the present art situation, something of a mystery, but the evidence of his powers is undeniable.” Other painters have been generous in their praise. Eugene Leake, president emeritus of the Maryland Institute, calls Middleman “a born painter,” and adds, “Everything is big, including his talent and ambitions.” In a letter, the late landscape painter Fairfield Porter once gave Middleman what could be considered the highest praise, painter to painter: “I envy your paintings. I wish I could paint like that.”

The object of all this laudation is a slouchy, baggy figure, age 61, with a gray woolly beard, thinning gray hair that is sometimes combed but usually not, an ever-present pipe clenched between his teeth, and stained fingers that could get him mistaken for an auto mechanic. No matter what he is doing—painting, teaching, greeting guests at a jacket-and-tie gallery reception—he latches a ring of 23 keys to his belt loop, like a night watchman. He has long forgotten what most of them unlock. Garrulous and hammy, he is a storyteller who can joke with a genteel, Chardonnay-sipping audience about painting pigeon shit on a rock, offending no one. He cheerfully describes himself as a vulgarian, a “Jew-boy from Ashburton” who misses strip joint burlesque and admires Rembrandt and other giants of representational painting for how they rendered life in all its earthy, fleshy rawness.

His primary studio, like the rest of his house in downtown Baltimore, is a remarkable jumble. His wife, Ruth Middleman, is a painter too, and neither seems inclined toward housekeeping. Stuff is piled, stacked, shelved, stashed, and tossed everywhere. Tubs of pigment with evocative names—alizarine crimson, burnt sienna, cadmium yellow. Shopping bags chock-full of the film cans he uses to hold the paints he grinds himself. Bottles of linseed oil, turpentine, and walnut oil. Tins of Rattrav’s Black Mallory and Dunhill Nightcap pipe tobacco. An old but indestructible dial phone. A paint-spattered stereo system beside a stack of CDs that include Bach, Mozart, Handel, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk. A human skull with badly bucked teeth and no lower jaw. Framing wood. A cart full of brushes. A couple of easels. A big circular mirror. Stools so encrusted with paint their original surfaces have not been glimpsed in years. Tacked to the walls are paintings of fish, landscapes, self-portraits. “Cultivate mess,” he likes to say. “For me, art comes out of mess. Disorder is crucial to discovery.”

Today’s painting will be a still life: a few lemons, one of them halved, a plate, a silver teapot, and some whole fish just purchased from Baltimore's Lexington Market. He works out the arrangement he wants, then begins the underpainting, sketching the basic composition in brown tones, laying in darks that will underlie the color. "This is like setting up scaffolding," he says. "You can just paint direct. There's more freshness that way. But there's more richness this way." He doesn't talk much while he works. The only sounds are the moist sucking noises of his pipe and the scrape of his brushes against the canvas.

Day 201: Take the fucking donuts

In a bit more than a month's time, I will publish The Man Who Signed the City—self-publish. Figuring out how to produce it has been fun, studying book design and publishing platforms and promotion and distribution and finances and all the rest. I am confident about the contents—there are 21 pieces slated for the book and they're all good. But I have not been confident about desiging the cover. I don't own design software and I'm not a designer, and that last one has been quite the hindrance.

I have two dear friends who are also fine graphic designers, and I've been sending them prototypes, asking only that they keep me from embarrassing myself. The other day, one of them looked over my latest ideas and said, "Would you let me help you with this?"

I never would have asked for her help beyond glancing at some PDFs and saying, "What you're doing there? Stop that." When she offered to take over, I had a hard time saying yes, despite knowing that she wants to help because she's a friend, she'll do a wonderful job, and the book will look really, really good. So why did I have to nudge myself into acceptance? Why did I have to tell myself to take the fucking donuts?

Regarding the latter: Musician Amanda Palmer is known for at least four things: her music, her marriage to Neal Gaiman, her prowess at funding her art, and her fondness for the word fuck and its many useful variants. She's also the author of The Art of Asking. In that book, she observes how so many people deride Henry David Thoreau for all the times he enjoyed weekly delivery of donuts from his mother or sister during his time roughing it at Walden Pond. Then she delivers this pungent bit of advice, derived from thinking about Henry in his cabin with some fried dough:

Taking the donuts is hard for a lot of people.

It’s not the act of taking that’s so difficult, it’s more the fear of what other people are going to think when they see us slaving away at our manuscript about the pure transcendence of nature and the importance of self-reliance and simplicity. While munching on someone else’s donut.

Maybe it comes back to that same old issue: we just can’t see what we do as important enough to merit the help, the love.

Try to picture getting angry at Einstein devouring a donut brought to him by his assistant, while he sat slaving on the theory of relativity. Try to picture getting angry at Florence Nightingale for snacking on a donut while taking a break from tirelessly helping the sick.

To the artists, creators, scientists, non-profit-runners, librarians, strange-thinkers, start-uppers and inventors, to all people everywhere who are afraid to accept the help, in whatever form it’s appearing,

Please, take the donuts.

To the guy in my opening band who was too ashamed to go out into the crowd and accept money for his band,

Take the donuts.

To the girl who spent her twenties as a street performer and stripper living on less than $700 a month who went on to marry a best-selling author who she loves, unquestioningly, but even that massive love can’t break her unwillingness to accept his financial help, please….

Everybody.

Please.

Just take the fucking donuts.

Day 199: The sideshow historian chapter

Another preview of The Man Who Signed the City. This time, James Taylor, historian of the American sideshow, and a sideshow in his own right.


Ladies and gentlemen never have you met a man like the one exhibited here. By day he is a petty bureaucrat in an agency too fearsome to mention in front of the children. But at night, he becomes the Boswell of the Ballyhoo! The Annalist of the Outré! The Memorialist of All That is Thaumaturgic, Teratogenic, and Transmundane! And for the expenditure of mere minutes of life's precious expanse, you can meet this unique man on these very pages. Please step into our story, where the lovely Zamorah will direct you to your seats. Don't mind her beard, folks, she was born that way.

James Robert Taylor III has some interesting friends. There is Paul Lawrence, also known as The Enigma, tattooed from shaved pate to big toe like a blue jigsaw puzzle, with horns surgically implanted in his skull. Then there is Johnny Meah, the Czar of Bizarre. During his working day he drives nails up his nose and slides swords down his throat. Jeanie Tomaini, the Half-Girl, is 2’ 6”. She would be taller if she had legs, but if she had legs, she might never have made it in show business. And Matt "The Tube" Crowley...you may not want to know what Matt can do with a length of sterile tubing and a plunger bottle.

All these folks delight Taylor, 47, who is dedicated to putting the odd in periodical. He publishes Shocked & Amazed! On and Off the Midway, an illustrated journal of the sideshow, presenting its human oddities, bizarre performers, and Barnumesque heritage. Each issue mimics the entertainment that it chronicles. The cover art recalls the lurid banners that once advertised “Howard the Human Lobster” or “Percilla the Monkey Girl.” The table of contents reads like the spiel, delivered by a talker (carnies, Taylor explains, never use the term “barker”), that promoted the attractions inside and exhorted passersby on the midway to see the show. Once inside Shocked & Amazed! you encounter blockheads (performers who drive spikes up their noses), various anatomical wonders like Otis the Frog Boy, pickled punks (deformed fetuses preserved in formaldehyde), famous sideshow impresarios, and other attractions. Taylor calls the final piece in each issue “the blow-off.” In a sideshow, the blow-off is a last attraction placed at the exit to entice the audience to leave, making room for a new batch of paying customers.

There is an air of the 19th century about him. He wears silver rings on three fingers of each hand and threads a watch chain through the buttonholes of the waistcoats he favors. There is not much hair left on his head, but he does sport a fine set of muttonchops. He used to carry a walking stick and would not look bad dressed in a Victorian cape. He has a couple of physical anomalies himself: a little toe that curves over his other toes, and a heart situated at an odd angle in his chest. “Nothing I can make a buck off of,” he says. He is friendly, profane, and smitten with the sideshow life. His knowledge and friends have landed him on The Jerry Springer Show. He was consultant to The Learning Channel on its documentary “Sideshow: Alive on the Inside.” His collection of books, curiosities, and memorabilia is growing into an archive that he hopes to exhibit someday. He speaks sometimes of growing up feeling like an outsider. Now he is an insider, “with it” in carnival lingo, accepted by a crowd of professional misfits and anomalies.

The entertainment spectacles that he relishes have changed over the decades, but he doubts they will disappear. “The spirit of sideshows is eternal,” he says. “People will look. We're very curious monkeys.” He smiles and adds, “The human race is an amazingly exotic species.”