A month in a storefront
Reflections on retail, disability, and a life devoted to work.
Drawing at the shop. Photo by Cal Dannenhirsch
At noon in my apartment there is a rectangle of sunshine on the coffee table. I have lived in this apartment for five weeks now and I only learned of this today. It is the first time I have ever been in my apartment at noon.
Every day I wake up and walk to the shop and return home after dark to squeeze one last drop of work out of myself—an email, a bank transfer, a sketch for a client. Then I close my eyes and brace myself for a barrage of thoughts ranging from the mundane (“I should wear a sweater tomorrow”) to the anxious (“I need to order calligraphy pens for the shop”) to the existential (“Am I alone in life?”). These thoughts arrive sequentially or simultaneously, depending on the night. At an earlier stage in life, this intensity of thought would have kept me awake, or at least given me nightmares, but nowadays I am so exhausted that it has no impact on my sleep quality.
I don’t believe in happiness, at least not for myself. My aim is to spend my life in the right way. What is the right way? It is the way that leaves no room for doubt or regret. I will never regret the time I’ve spent writing, drawing, or building a business I care about so deeply that my eyes well up each morning as I watch the metal security gate open slowly, unwrapping my shop like a present.
Today is my first day off since I moved to Brooklyn, and my ears are ringing with the hundreds of conversations I’ve had as a shopkeeper. My body is reeling from the hundreds of hours I’ve spent at the drawing board, my shoulders burning with an urgent pain, my hands tingling with nerve compression, my neck sagging like an old plank under the weight of my head. I wonder why I can’t stop working, why I won’t let myself stop. I wonder if it will always be like this, or if this is only a single chapter.
It might sound like the typical artist struggle—the need to express oneself vs. the need to earn money—but that’s not really my situation.
I have earned a respectable middle-class income for the past five years, and all the while I have led the life of a penniless, masochistic monk. I don’t drink. I don’t go out. I don’t watch movies. I survive on eggs, potatoes, oatmeal, and peanut butter. I have one pair of pants and two pairs of shoes.
I live like this because I’ve realized that I can get far more satisfaction from expression than indulgence. I’d rather do a good drawing than eat well, see friends, look attractive, or even bathe myself. I am perfectly fine living in filth so long as I am doing my work.
What this means is that I never spend what I earn. I could and should be more comfortable than I am (especially considering my disability, which is beyond the scope of this essay). And yet comfort to me has always seemed pointless, empty. It’s not that I’ve blindly bought into some external doctrine of hard work and self-sacrifice. It’s that I had a choice, and I chose work, and as a result I am rarely clean, relaxed, or put together in any way.
I built this shop and I want it to continue to exist as a place for the creative and curious alike to poke around and have a nice chat and look at the art and maybe buy a pen or a print or nothing at all, which is totally fine because we’re all going to die and money will cease to matter then and all I really want to know in my final moments is that I created something, that I existed so fully and undeniably that it hurt, like bare feet on gravel.
When I think about what’s next for me, I have an image in my mind: a photograph of British writer D.H. Lawrence in Italy in 1926. Lawrence never spent long in one place—he lived in England, Germany, Italy, Australia, East Asia, New Mexico, and France. His longest stint (five years) was in England during World War I. Otherwise, he moved from country to country for a variety of reasons: logistical, professional, marital, medical. I keep coming back to this photo of him sitting at the base of the olive tree where he wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It looks like a sunny day with a bit of a breeze. He’s in his shirtsleeves. It’s hard to tell from his expression whether he’s happy or not, or if he even cares.
The photo comes to mind only intermittently. There are more urgent things to attend to now—a press release, a gallery exhibit, a new assistant. But later this year, I’ll return to the photo and decide what it means. And then I’ll take all the money I should’ve spent on socks and beer, and I’ll spend it on finding my own olive tree.
The photo pairs beautifully with a line from Lawrence’s travel book, Sea and Sardinia:
Comes over one an absolute necessity to move. And what is more, to move in some particular direction. A double necessity then: to get on the move, and to know whither. Why can't one sit still?
Thank you for reading to the end. It’s a powerful experience to watch my words travel beyond my computer screen and into someone else’s life. I’ll leave you with a few (entirely optional) ways to support my work:
Or just forward this email to someone who might like to read it
I totally believe you can find happiness, especially living a simple life. Your evolution as an artist has been inspiring, but I do worry you’ll work yourself to an end. Don’t forget the importance of nutrition!! “I survive on eggs, potatoes, oatmeal, and peanut butter.” You gotta give your body the building materials to heal itself. It’s begging you through the achy joints and muscles. Would love to see you creating art for a long time, so I’m sending this friendly reminder. Don’t let the disabilities get you down. Eating for nutrients instead of eating to feel full will alter your quality of life, and maybe even get you closer to what you’d define as happiness.
I hope your shop prospers, and you get your olive tree. Something tells me that with your degree of determination, this won't be a problem.