Queen Anne Hill - Seattle, Washington
The first week of August, 2012
Here’s the scene:
Afternoon on a high-summer day - warm, clear skies.
A wide sidewalk alongside a playground park.
Two little girls down on their knees drawing with colored chalk.
(The girls looked to be in the 7 to 8 year old, 2nd or 3rd grade category.)
A man is ambling along the sidewalk on his way to nowhere in particular.
The younger girl saw me coming, jumped up, ran up to me and declared:
“My sister will draw your picture for a quarter.”
“Sure,” said I.
The little girl caught me by the hand, pulled me along to the sister.
“He’ll do it,” she said.
(I learned while I posed that the two girls had gone with their parents on a Mexican holiday vacation and were inspired by seeing artists drawing portraits in pastel for a few pesos.)
The senior sister looked me over - said, “Hold still.”
She solemnly considered me, holding out her thumb in a most professional manner - as the Mexican pastel artist must have done.
She got down on the sidewalk and went to work, glancing up from time to time, while her little sister made suggestions. More red, more hair . . .
“There,” said the artist, standing up, “It’s done.”
On the sidewalk was a bearded clownish figure with outstretched arms and legs, wearing a big smile - and a bright red nose surrounded by lots of curly white smoke, as if his head was on fire
A classic 3rd grade image - impressionistic, lively, colorful, upbeat.
But not . . . quite . . . me . . .
Not even close, to be honest.
“What do you think?”
“Well . . . it’s pretty good - I like the smile and the smoke.”
The sisters held a whispered conference.
The youngest said, “Sorry, but we don’t think it really looks much like you, so we’ve decided not to charge you this time.”
“But it looks the way I feel inside,” I protested, “and that’s worth even more than a quarter. Since I don’t have any change, I’ll give you a dollar.”
As I handed over the money to the little sister, the older one went to work clearing off the chalked image with a scrub brush.
And I wandered down the sidewalk pleased with my patronage of the arts.
Posing for my portrait was more tolerable than having to drink another paper cup of warm lemonade.
(There are three lemonade stands being operated by little girls in my neighborhood and none of them provide ice.)
Sitting down on a bench some distance away, I watched the little girls.
They had snagged another subject for portraiture - another older man.
The girls made art on the sidewalk.
The same sisterly conference ended the session.
With apparently the same result.
The man smiled, opened his wallet, took out a bill, and paid.
A dollar? Even a five? I couldn’t tell.
But he walked away smiling.
The girls laughed and scrubbed the sidewalk again.
I don’t want to seem cynical, but . . .
It did occur to me that I had been scammed.
The sisters must be doing the same portrait over and over.
They may have not had a plan the first time they were overpaid for being artistically limited, but when it happened a second and third time they knew they were onto something big.
So they turned failure into success.
They may have learned well the lesson that says if life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Or, if your drawing skills are limited, be honest and sincere - accept sympathy and pity - especially if it produces cash.
No, I didn’t go back to confirm my suspicions.
I felt slightly ashamed to think I had been scammed, but on the other hand, it’s my experience that little girls are a whole lot shrewder these days than they used to be.
Still, I didn’t want to ask or risk an awkward scene or know too much.
Let it be.
Whatever my doubts, some facts were clear:
I had been delighted by their entrepreneurial energy -
I was certainly impressed by their artistic enterprise -
And intrigued by their astute social courage.
I don’t know if I had been scammed or not, but I’m sure I was charmed.
Besides, the drawing did indeed reflect the way I felt inside.
Moreover, I now have a story to pass on to you.
I got way more than my money’s worth.