Tuesday, May 12, 2009

THE BABY SKETCH CHRONICLES, PART II: The Happiest Baby in the World, or How I Learned the Art of the Matador.

It was a perfect, temperate morning in the summer of 1997, and I was a couple hours into my shift at the Caricatures main stand at Geauga Lake. Despite my predilection for working outdoors in the summer for most of my life, I don't do well in high temperatures or direct sunlight, being both Irish and kind of hairy for a blonde guy. Regardless, I always appreciated the days when the heat and humidity kind of evened out, because it meant less discomfort for me. It was bad enough that Kaman's Art Shoppes uniform shirts back then were hot pink, but sweating through both my undershirt and my pretty fuchsia polo was just insult to injury.

My bitterness in the workplace had, at that point, finally subsided; about a month and a half earlier, I had been forced by my manager to get a haircut, lest I be demoted from my Lead Artist position and given a 1% pay cut off my commission. My hair had been about down to my shoulders at that point, and, admittedly, was getting kind of out of hand anyway, but since the decision to chop it hadn't been mine, I was pretty pissed for a while. Regardless, my hair was now about as short as it is currently, and my whiny, anti-fascistic streak of anger was over. I was idly staring into the midway wondering how many people at college wouldn't recognize me when I went back for sophomore year, when a young woman entered my field of vision, after unsuccessfully trying to get my attention a couple of times.

She seemed a little annoyed for a second, but she seemed to understand when I apologized for zoning out. She asked about pricing for a drawing of her baby, who was in a stroller in front of her, about four or five months old, wide-eyed, and staring at me. I read the prices off the sign, and was silently deciding in my head whether or not I felt like drawing her baby; I was fairly used to drawing babies at this point, but it was kind of a pain in the ass. I hadn't really been busy that day, and I decided to give it a shot.

I sat down at my easel and quickly realized that this baby, still staring at me, couldn't stop smiling. This made my job a lot easier, because while it's difficult to make a non-smiling baby smile, it's even more difficult to get them to look straight at you. This kid was totally helping me out, so I started talking to him, to which he responded by laughing at everything I said. I smiled at him, he smiled back. I laughed at him, he laughed back at me.

Now, those of you reading this that know me probably also know that, in situations where I get nervous, even slightly, such as when I draw strangers with a permanent, non-eraseable marker, I tend to use humor as a defense reflex. This hasn't always worked out for me in the past; as a matter of fact, many people that I've drawn have sat through the majority of their sketch in awkward silence after I bombed by making some obscure Star Wars reference, or started talking about drawing mullets while someone with a mullet has been behind me watching me draw half the sketch, or actually drawing someone with a mullet and talking about anything other than NASCAR, Skynrd, or Stone Cold Steve Austin. So, to recap, this baby in front of me was:

a) Looking straight at me,

b) Smiling, and

c) Laughing at my stupid jokes, even when he obviously lacked the cognitive capacity to understand them.

These three factors meant that this baby in front of me was, on all three counts, a better customer than most of the adults that I had ever drawn at Geauga Lake. So, this kid was my new best friend. I finished drawing him, and started coloring in his sketch. He was still the happiest little guy ever. I finished coloring. Still ecstatic. I signed the sketch and tore it off the drawing board. Pumped to be there. I held up the sketch in front of him, feigning that I was seeking his approval to make his mom laugh, which she did. Everything was going to plan. And that's when he opened his mouth, and, I swear to God, launched a four-foot long stream of vomit straight at the sketch I had just finished drawing of him.

Understand that I had just recently finished my freshman year in college, so it wasn't like I was any stranger to people throwing up in front of me. Maybe it was living in Porter Hall, experimenting with so many of my fellow borderline alcoholics, or maybe it was more of a universal thing at Miami, or just college in general. Regardless, I had become so used to it, that anybody vacating the contents of their stomach in my presence might as well have been coughing or scratching their nose. I had seen yack in pretty much every color in the spectrum, including curacao blue, Guinness black and wine cooler pink. So I was completely jaded to vomit at this point. I was, however, still vastly unprepared for this.

Things slowed down to Matrix-esque bullet-time. I remember that my first thought wasn't so much the fact that the kid was hurling, in the most literal sense, but that such a disproportionate amount of liquid was coming out of him. I swear that this kid must have had a hollow leg or something, because, while I was used to seeing puke, I wasn't accustomed to seeing a human being forcibly eject a third of their body mass out of their mouth. Amazed, my next assessment regarded the trajectory of said spew, and quickly came to the conclusion that it was headed straight for my sketch.

Instinctively, I yanked my drawing up and out of the path of the incoming barrage of churl, the weight displacement of my arms nearly causing a total loss of balance in my chair. The stream hit the ground behind me in a series of successive thuds. I quickly regained my composure and looked at the sketch to see if I still had a sellable, barf-free product in my hands. I did, and, almost impressed with my own reflexes, looked back at the baby, who promptly laughed again and smiled at me as if nothing happened.

The mother apologized, clearly embarrassed by her son's involuntary bodily outburst. I laughed, and assured her that it was no big deal, sold her the sketch, and hurriedly called Park Services to clean up the pool of upchuck, which had slowly started making its way across the cement in front of the front of the stand, which was on a slight hill. As I absent-mindedly watched the poor kid from Ecology pour pink flaky powder on the fluidic projectile that almost claimed my sale, Clay, the supervisor of the Guess Your Weight stand, walked across the midway.

"Dude, that was awesome!"

"What? Oh, uh...yeah. That was pretty f#$%ed up. He almost got my sketch."

"I know, I saw it happen. You pulled it up like...like some kind of f$%&ing bullfighter or something. A matador. Ha ha."

"Yeah. Yeah, I guess I did. Heh. Vomit matador. I don't think that one'll stick, man. God, I hope not, anyway."

And, despite minimal effort to keep it going, "Vomit Matador", or "El Matador Vomitos," was, thankfully, a nickname that didn't stick. I will say that I think of that happy, happy kid every time I draw a baby under a year old. And even when they scream, cry, wiggle around, or are otherwise difficult, I try to remember that it could always be worse; at least they aren't slinging Gerber's® and stomach acid at me.

I will also say that, to this day, I've never received a more blatantly honest, if not constructive, critique of my artwork.

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