I often talk about the comics classes I teach for 7th and 8th graders, but those aren’t the only classes I teach. In fact, the Cartooning program didn’t actually originate in middle school at all. Officially, it started on the beach.
I originally was hired by Seattle Parks and Recreation to teach at the Alki Beach Art Studio, and I’m still on staff there.
It’s called the Bath House, because it actually started as a bath house in the early days of Seattle. In 1911 or thereabouts, someone had the nutty idea that Alki Beach would be a great place to put a swim resort.
Clearly, this person had never actually tried to swim in Elliott Bay, which is rarely warmer than fifty degrees and usually closer to forty. The swim resort folded quickly once this became common knowledge, and the city bought the property that eventually became Alki Beach Park.
Most of the Pavilion was torn down but the city hung on to the Bath House, and it became the studio for the art classes offered through Alki Community Center. It hasn’t been an actual bath house for close to a century, and we’ve been an art school for almost thirty years now but somehow the name stuck anyway. At the Bath House you can find pottery classes, painting classes, a gallery… and me, doing my thing.
These days, the Cartooning program is so well established at the middle school level that I only do a couple of beginner classes in drawing at the studio, but I’m still around for things like the annual art fair and so on.
One afternoon not too long ago I had a drawing tutorial with a couple of charming little ten-year-old girls, Inga and Inger. (They were in no way related, and looked nothing alike; Inga was blonde and plump and a little bit of a diva, while Inger was dark-haired with wide blue eyes and endlessly curious about everything except her lessons. Still, it tickled me that two girls from different schools had such nearly-identical names and interests, and I always looked forward to “Tuesday with the Ingas,” as we’d come to call it around the studio.)
Neither one of them was terribly interested in what I was trying to show them that day, which was how to draw the shoreline outside our window using a simple one-point perspective.
There was a thump from the other room and Inger seized on that as a distraction. “What’s that noise?”
“It’s just Aaron, our pottery instructor. He’s locking up.” I waved at him through the partition. “Hey, Aaron.”
Aaron poked his head in. “Hey, ‘sup? Drawing class? Right on! You girls should pay attention, you got a good teacher there. You’ll set the alarm?” he added.
“Yeah, I got it. They finally gave me a key and everything. Only took fourteen years,” I told him. “You go on home, we’re covered.”
Aaron waved and was gone.
Inga said, “Why did it take fourteen years?”
“It’s a long story,” I said. “It has to do with the time they were going to tear the place down…”
“Tear this place down?” Inger was horrified. “They can’t do that!”
“No, no, it’s not going to happen,” I hastened to assure them. “We’re solid now, it all worked out. Mostly because of Aaron’s predecessor Sylvia. She used to teach pottery here and it’s because of her, really, that we’re still in business. A lot of other people helped too, I even did some stuff. But it was really Sylvia.”
“What did she do?” Inger wasn’t going to let it go, and now Inga was interested too.
“You really want to know?” I raised an eyebrow. “If I tell you the story, will you get some work done for me? Quid pro quo. I talk, you draw. Deal?”
The Ingas agreed instantly, and I thought about it for a moment. “I can only tell you about when I came into it. This was a long time ago, before the remodel. About seven or eight years ago, I guess. I was finishing up down here one night and Sylvia and her assistant caught me just as I was leaving…”
In my early years at the studio, I had little to no interaction with my fellow instructors or other artists there, due largely to what I came to know as the Coffee Incident.
I didn’t realize it was an incident at the time. There was a coffeepot at the studio and I drink a lot of coffee. So I’d make coffee and drink it.
What I was not aware of was that at the time there was a certain amount of bad blood between the studio artists. In addition to classes, the studio offered open hours for artists who wanted to use the space as their work area to do their own stuff, and a group of middle-aged beach ladies had largely co-opted the place as their private club. They’d paint, they’d do pottery, they’d hang out. However, schisms and feuds were often bubbling under the surface. The painters were usually mad at the potters and the potters were mad at the painters. Instructors would occasionally be waylaid by one faction or another and forced to listen to the litany of crimes the other side had committed.
I worked largely with kids, so I missed most of this. The first I’d heard about any controversy over the coffee thing was when an elderly lady stopped me one evening and told me if I was going to drink coffee I had to put in a quarter for each cup. I handed her a ten-dollar bill and told her not to bother me again until that ran out. The next day I brought in a three-pound can of Folger’s and stuck it in the kitchen with a note– a little caricature of me saying people should feel free to help themselves, I’d keep us in coffee, but only on the condition that they not badger me ever again about putting quarters into the kitty.
I probably should have been more diplomatic, but I was younger then, and I’ve never been good with office politics. I honestly thought I was being amusing, and in my defense I did buy the coffee for everyone, damn it. But for the following two years none of the studio artists dared to speak to me. Neither the potters nor the painters. Occasionally I’d meet someone new and after a moment they’d say, “oh, yes, you’re the one who drinks coffee.” Seriously, this went on for two years. Actually a little longer. Until that night.
All of this is by way of explaining that when Sylvia and her TA stopped me that evening I had only the vaguest idea of who they were. I figured it was just some new variation on coffeepot politics and I was gearing up to politely but firmly excuse myself and catch my bus.
Sylvia was a couple of years older than me. Our paths didn’t cross much. I knew she did pottery, she taught, and she was beautiful. Not so much in a whoa-baby way, but elegantly pretty, like a classical portrait.
Her assistant, whose name I could never remember, was the closest I’d gotten to making a real friend at the studio. She was a plump cheerful girl who always looked a little surprised that people were actually talking to her, she often seemed painfully shy. However, she had endeared herself to me by genuinely taking an interest in my kids and poking her head in the Tuesday Cartooning class every once in a while when she was monitoring the pottery open studio.
Sylvia was soft-spoken but nevertheless you could tell she had a will of iron, she always carried an air of focus and fierce determination with her no matter what she was doing. In fact, that evening in the studio was the first time I’d ever seen her look nervous or upset; in retrospect, that’s probably why I didn’t give in to the impulse to brush them off and head out.
Sylvia handed me a paper. It was a form letter asking me to e-mail the Seattle Parks Commissioner, the Deputy Mayor, and a bunch of other city officials over the new Pro Parks Levy plan to—
“What the hell?” I burst out. “They’re closing us down? Killing the school? Are you serious?”
“They want to make it a rental facility,” Sylvia said, sighing. “It’s beachfront property, they think they’ll clean up.”
“So they’re fucking over the students because they think they’ll get more money hosting corporate seminars and bar mitzvahs down here?” I was livid. “Are they nuts? Have they ever tried to actually park a car on the street down here in June? For Christ’s sake, there’s no street parking, everyone knows to walk or take a bus…. the idea that they’re going to get a bunch of middle-management types down here for rentals is insane, we’re not even close to anything…..” I trailed off, spluttering with fury. All thoughts of catching the bus were long gone. I took a breath. “What do you need from me?”
“So you’ll help?” Sylvia looked a little shocked, then embarrassed. “I mean… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sound so surprised.”
I grinned. “I don’t take myself seriously, Sylvia, but I take my students very seriously. They’re not joiners. This art program is their one thing. I’m sure not going to have it taken away from them because some asshole at Moneyswine Incorporated wants to host his frigging corporate retreat on the beach. Whatever you need, I’m your guy.”
Sylvia and her TA winced a little at my language but looked pleased at my vehemence. “Well, write those e-mails… and we’re having a meeting on Saturday. This is wonderful, thank you, I’m glad you’re on board,” Sylvia said.
“No problem. What time Saturday?”
“Ten AM,” Sylvia’s TA said.
I flushed. “I’m sorry, I’m a bad person, I’ve forgotten your name, even though I see you here all the time. I don’t think I’ve ever actually introduced myself. I’m Greg.”
“So, that was how it started,” I told the Ingas. “We had meetings and we had a rally one day, got the West Seattle Herald down here for that and we made as much noise as we could. The Herald really helped us, they gave us a front page and quoted me and Sylvia and they took pictures of the potters working in the studio… it was a real turning point. That was the rally, we had a big open house. I got a lot of the cartooning kids down here for that, it was actually a great day.
“I got to introduce some of my kids to the other teachers and I think it was the first time everyone was on the same page. The painters forgot about fighting with the potters and all of us instructors finally got to know each other and we had students and parents all promising to do whatever they could — and Sylvia and Frances, the other pottery teacher, had done this genius thing. They had all these pre-addressed envelopes to the Mayor and the parks commissioner, and blank paper. Anyone who came to the rally and said they wanted to help, Sylvia or Frances or Julie would ask them if they could just take a minute and write a note… and then we mailed them all. I think it had to’ve been at least a hundred, probably more. All hand-written letters, a lot of them from kids and the rest from mothers and dads, begging them not to kill the art school. That was the day when it really felt like we had turned a corner, we started to think we could actually win.”
“So what happened?” Inger asked. Both girls were rapt with interest by this point.
“They finally had a hearing, a big town-hall meeting, over at Alki Elementary School. And we packed that room. I’d sent a letter home with all my middle-school students, saying if they thought their kids were getting anything out of my class then would they please come to this hearing and tell the South Seattle Parks Commissioner.” I paused, lost in the memory for a moment. “The Cartooning students and their parents alone filled up two whole rows of seats. I’ll tell you, just thinking about that moment will keep me warm at night for years, looking out across that room and seeing all my kids and their folks, watching Devin’s dad thundering away like the wrath of God at that weaselly South Seattle Parks guy… man. I’ll never forget that. That was amazing.”
“Why was he weaselly?” Inger wanted to know, always alert for nuance.
I laughed. “Well, you have to remember I’m biased. But we were sure he wasn’t really telling his boss the truth. See, the Parks commissioner was a guy named Ken Bounds. We had tried and tried to get him to meet with us, we wanted to make our case in person. But the South Seattle guy and his assistant, a nasty hatchet-faced lady, just weren’t going to let us do that. They hated us and they especially hated the studio artists, they thought we were running some kind of private club down here. And sometimes the painter ladies did give that impression,” I admitted. “…but we were still a school. And Julie was sure that the South Seattle people were lying to Mr. Bounds, she’d seen a copy of some report or something, I forget what.”
“Did you get to meet with him?” pressed Inga.
“Yes. Sylvia arranged it. She was working up at Parks during the day, she did consulting and stuff at the main downtown office there. This whole thing was really hard on her, because she knew that every time she fought with the South Seattle Parks people they would find nasty little ways to get back at her at her day job, she was worried all the time. But she really cared about the school and the pottery studio and she didn’t want it taken away.” I smiled. “She loved my students, too. Every time she saw what you kids were doing — well, you know, not you, but kids like you — it would just light her up, she’d laugh and clap her hands, you’d think it was Christmas morning. She just loved to see people do art.”
“What about the meeting, though?” Inger wanted to know.
I snorted. “That was the funny part. It took less than twenty minutes. Bounds was actually a really nice guy. We made our case and then the South Seattle people chimed in and said they couldn’t justify the school when it was so much more expensive than a rental would be, and that was how we caught them lying. Because, see, we’d never said not to do rentals. We just didn’t want them to cancel our classes. We were totally okay with sharing the space. It was the South Seattle Parks people trying to make it an either-or thing, because they really just wanted us out. When we explained to Bounds that we would share, he just snorted and said he didn’t have any problem with that and let’s figure out a floor configuration for a remodel that worked for everyone. And that was that. It took all the air out of the South Seattle guys. We’d won.” I waved a hand. “And here we are. Studio space on either side and the big area in the middle for people to host their parties, or whatever.”
“So what happened to Sylvia?” Inger asked. “Why would she leave? You said she loved it here so much.”
“She didn’t leave,” I said, a little bleakly. “She got sick.”
Privately, Frances, Julie and I were sure that Sylvia’s stroke was brought on at least partially by the stress she was under during her day job at the downtown Parks Department office. The battle to save the Bath House art school had made her unpopular in certain quarters, and as a freelance consultant, Sylvia had none of the protections a staff employee would have had. I’m sure that every day she went in to work she wondered if it was her last day.
But Sylvia was the kind of person that was very gracious and self-contained, and rarely unburdened herself to others. She would have considered that selfish.
So none of us saw it coming. And since Sylvia lived alone, it was almost eight hours before anyone found her after the stroke.
I heard about it at the studio and immediately rushed up to Swedish Hospital to see her. Patricia, one of the studio potters, gave me a lift into town. When we arrived, we were surprised to see Ken Bounds himself leaving Sylvia’s room. He didn’t say anything, just nodded briefly at us and then the nurse escorted us in.
It made us both heartsick to see Sylvia, usually so elegant, with the right side of her face sagging and tubes coming out of her nose, her color blotchy and her hair a stringy mess. She could only speak in a gasping sort of whisper and words came hard. But she was glad to see us.
“Don’t talk,” I told her. “We just came to tell you we love you and we’ve got everything at the Bath House covered. You just need to get well.”
Sylvia’s left hand, the only one she still had the use of, flailed for a moment and then clamped on my forearm.
“Hulp…” she said.
“What?” I said. “Help? What do you need?”
Sylvia shook her head. “Nuh.. hulp me. Hulp… Frances. Atsha ssudio. Classhes.”
“I promise,” I said instantly. “Frances and I are on it. The school will be fine.”
“Dun fight wi’ potters.”
“Hey, now.” I grinned at her. “We’re all done fighting. That’s all done. We won. You just do what your doctors say and get better.”
“Rest…now…” Sylvia closed her eyes.
The nurse nodded at us and Patricia and I made a hasty exit. I excused myself to go to the men’s room so Patricia wouldn’t see me tearing up.
Sylvia eventually was released to an assisted-living facility on lower Queen Anne Hill. After the initial groundswell of support from the teachers and studio artists, most of her visitors dropped away. I tried to make it a point to get up to see her once every couple of weeks, at least. And I know Frances would make regular visits. But except for her boyfriend, Steve, we were pretty much it.
Steve was a big burly fullback of a guy, a deep-sea fisherman. I’d never met him until Sylvia was hospitalized. “Never had much use for artists,” he confided to me. “Used to piss me off, how much time Sylvia spent at that goddamn studio. But I’ll tell you what, you and Frances are the only ones that come see her.”
I smiled at him. “So maybe some of us artists are okay?”
Steve snorted and let out a bitter laugh. (I had a hunch that bitter laughter was the only kind he was getting lately.) “Hell, brother,” he clapped a hand the size of a canned ham on my shoulder, “You artist guys are her family.”
Sylvia had good days and bad days. Sometimes she was very animated and happy, and other times she was wistful and sad. But unlike Steve — or Frances or me, for that matter — she was never bitter about what had happened to her. “I just have to learn how my new brain works,” she would say. “But I’b goi’g to make art again.”
She never tired of stories about my students. One time she asked me what was new, and I told her about how my Madison kids had decided that we would go as a class to see the new Spider-Man movie. She loved that.
“Tell me abou’ Spider-Man,” Sylvia said. “I don’ know abou’ him.”
So I told her the story. I told her about how Stan Lee had done it as a lark, a sort of put-on of Superman, taking every cliche about Superman and Clark Kent and standing them on end to get Spider-Man. She kept wanting to hear more, and I got lost in the story myself, narrating the tale of how bookish Peter Parker had been bitten by a radioactive spider and given great power, and how the death of his Uncle Ben had taught him that with great power also came great responsibility.
I have often thought about that particular night since, especially when I see comics fans sneering at Stan Lee’s writing as being dated or corny. I’m sorry, but someone who can write a story so powerful that even just having it narrated at third-hand by a guy visiting you in the hospital, it still can grab you and make you forget your own tragedy for a little while…. well, dated or not, that’s a story from a writer who’s got some game.
“Sylvia eventually married Steve,” I told the Ingas. “During the week she still lives in an assisted-living place, but on the weekends she comes to her old apartment here on Alki and stays with Steve. Up there, just across the street.” I pointed. “That’s her building.”
“What about everybody else?” Inger asked. “What happened to them?”
“Well, we all kind of scattered a little bit,” I said. “We were closed for a year and a half here, they still had to build the new Bath House. I moved over to the Community Center, because drawing classes are easy to move, but pottery and painting just took a break till they got the new place built.
“So a lot of folks moved on. Frances moved to Oregon for a year, though she’s back now, but by then we had taken on Aaron for the pottery classes. And Colleen’s new too, she teaches painting now. And Sarah’s our new studio assistant, you’ve met her. But they’re all new, which meant that I was the senior instructor by default, I’m the only one left from the old days. So they finally decided it was okay for me to have my own key.” I shrugged. “We all kind of found a new groove. Parks even manages to rent the place out once in a while. Mostly for weddings and receptions and stuff. The beach is a romantic place.”
“What about the other assistant lady?” Inga demanded.
“Julie?” I grinned. “Why, I married her.”
The Ingas squealed with delight.
“We got thrown together a lot, during the whole studio fight,” I explained. “And then, after Sylvia had her stroke when Frances needed help with classes and stuff, Julie and I were together a lot then too. What I never knew was that even before all that, from the very beginning, Julie actually always asked for the Tuesday shift so she could hang out with me. But I eventually figured out what was going on. I told you the beach is good for romance.”
The Ingas thought that was the best ending ever. Girls love romance.
Which is why I thought this would be a fun story for the column this week. Happy anniversary, baby.
And everyone else… I’ll see you next week.
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