Little did I know when emailing the finished illustration for ROLLING STONE’s National Affair section on the Squidopoly of raw materials by investment banks that it would be the last image I’d be creating for a Matt Taibbi article. It was announced on February 20th that Matt was leaving RS for another assignment at a new organization called First Look Media. I’m grateful at least that he didn’t announce on the 19th because I’d forever have to associate my birthday with that bummer news. It’s a bummer for me because in illustrating his investigative pieces since at least 2007 I’ve had the consistent pleasure of reading the raw copy with his own version of gonzo metaphors for the crooks, fakes, and liars in politics and business, and then deal with the challenge of matching the quality of his writing with images. The bar set by his writing was always high and the possibility of falling short in the illustration department was a reliably underlying concern. RS has a solid batting line-up of great journalists, but Matt brought a special sense of Henckel knife sharp humor to his pieces, not afraid to drop an F-bomb for the appropriate effect or trash talk and call out a repugnant member of the ruling class.
That trash talking reminded me of solid jock locker room humor and there was a reason for that. Carrying our association over from the politics in RS, I was assigned to illustrate his column for MEN’S JOURNAL, also published by Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner. It was there that I realized his passionate sports creds- as a basketball star for the Mongolian team in his mid-20’s, as well as his fanatical devotion to the Boston Red Sox among many other obsessions. Apparently, sports is his way of winding down from the politics/finance beat. I’ve worked for only three writers who could be positively gut busting hilarious when writing about sports- Rick Reilly in the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED days, a long and happy association with the one and only David Feherty who could actually make golf, and anything else, funny, and Matt when he was writing for MEN’S JOURNAL. My wife, Terri, can attest how often I would attempt and fail miserably reading to her at night rough copy I’d receive from the art director for a Matt column, unable to catch my breath, laughing like an idiot. In a weird way he is even more brutally funny when writing about sports. If he is an expert at deflating the egos of pols and bankers, he’s even more merciless with his sallies on athlete celebs.
It’s been a matter of no small satisfaction the frequency it has occurred in conversations that when people ask me what I do and, after the blank response when I mention illustration, they immediately have an a-ha moment when I mention the National Affairs columns for RS- “Oh, the pigs in suits!” "Of course, I know your work- you draw for the Taibbi columns." Seated one time at a lunch next to a perfectly amiable gentleman, I spent a little time explaining my work and who my clients were as he listened with apparent great interest. When I asked him what he did he responded, eyes half squinting, “I work for the Vampire Squid.” I stammered, “Oh, you must hate my guts then.” He responded no. He actually enjoyed the columns and didn’t dispute the accuracy of Matt’s disclosures, just that the writing was 'spiced' for the target audience. Now that I think of it, for what it’s worth, I’ve never met a Wall Street representative who took issue with the facts as presented in Matt’s investigations. The critiques have always been about the ‘tone’ of Matt’s writing. The pairing of Matt’s writing and my images has received quite a few thumbs ups from colleagues and readers in general. I like to think that this combination has added to RS’s great tradition of mixing illustration with great writing. Nothing matches Hunter Thompson and Ralph Steadman, nothing ever will, but it’s still nice to be linked, in a small way, to the spirit of that incomparable combo. I do regret never having had the chance to accompany Matt on the campaign trail a la Fear and Loathing, but it’s a small regret when compared to having been given the opportunity to illustrate his investigative articles.
I have only met Matt face to face once, maybe twice, and on both occasions when one of us was entering 1290 Avenue of the Americas, where Wenner Media is located, and the other leaving. Considering the combativeness of his journalistic prose, one could assume he’d be an angry guy ready to throw a punch, either verbal or physical, at a moment's notice. Quite the contrary, Matt has been utterly personable, low keyed, generous in his compliments and…..happy. Every once in a while I would get an email from him slapping me on the back for an image that had him rolling. That sort of acknowledgemnt makes for a very good feeling.
Tonight I'll be going over to a gathering place for farewell drinks from the RS staff for Matt. I was honored when Joe Hutchinson, Mark Maltais, and Will Dana asked me to create an illustration for a mock RS cover which he will be presented with.
Putting this post together has also inspired me to return to some of Hunter Thompson's writing. I picked up a reissue of "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72" the other night with Matt's introduction as well as "Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone" a fantastic compilation of Hunter's work for the mag. Matt is very clear and honest when analysing the connection made between him and HST, describing Hunter's reports as more novelistic and his as more hard core investigative journalism. No matter- he's been an extraordinary writer of great style all his own and it's been a pleasure to have been so connected to his work for Rolling Stone.
Best wishes to Mr. Taibbi.
The Vampire Squid Strikes Again. The last Taibbi feature just recently on the magazine stands.
To my memory, the earliest employment of the pig morphing into banker. Owes more to Georg Grosz than anything else.
Our Counterfeit Economy. "What really happened to Bear and Lehman is that an economic drought temporarily left the hyenas
without any more middle-class victims — and so they started eating each other, using the exact same
schemes they had been using for years to fleece the rest of the country. And in the forensic footprint left
by those kills, we can see for the first time exactly how the scam worked — and how completely even
the government regulators who are supposed to protect us have given up trying to stop it."
Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sacks.
Bank of America- Too Crooked to Fail.
One of my drawings that brought a real howl of laughter from Matt. Hugh McColl Jr. and Ed Crutchfield, respective leaders of Bank of America and Wachovia. "Obsessed with each other, these two men transformed their personal competition into one of the most ridiculous and elaborate penis-measuring contests in the history of American business – even engaging in the garish Freudian spectacle of vying to see who would have the tallest skyscraper in Charlotte."
Hank Paulson. Secretary of the U.S. Treasury overseeing the great collapse of 2008, protecting his own.
"Is Obama for Real?" I put Matt in this piece because more than anything it was his rumination on whether Obama was the real thing or just another disappointment in the making.
Taibbi's observations on the Hillary-Obama debates.
Never known for his religious beliefs John McCain's attempt to court the religious right and his conversion seemed forced as the campaign got desperate in 2008.
Michele Bachmann. Without comment, part 2.
Karl Rove was once seen as the puppet master. An evil Gepetto of sorts.
Profiles in Cowardice. It became known to me that Pelosi was not a fan of my work.
The Athlete's Arrest Manual- Men's Journal. What a romp trying to match the writing.
Barry Bonds. Men's Journal.
The NFL draft. Men's Journal.
Crybabies. Men's Journal.
This piece was about making leveling the money pool in acquiring players for most other teams other than the few richest.
The Second Coming of Larry Bird will not happen.
Don't Hate. Another opportunity to use Matt in a piece about his own sports partisanship.
A portrait that ran in RS for one of the banking collapse features.
Yet another for another feature in RS.
Finally, as it should end, Matt wrestling with the vampire squid. Don't Google images for the vampire squid. It looks nothing like my illustration and nothing like we imagine squids. But this incarnation fit perfectly with the iconic Greek image of Laocoon, replacing the snakes for tentacles.
With Will Dana, RS editor in chief.
When I saw the faux cover presented to Matt I couldn't help but think how great it would be to see more illustration on the covers of RS. Mix the format up a bit more; bring back a great tradition.
I had pulled off the road and was talking on the cell with my eldest son, Max.He was making a detour through New Jersey on his drive from Boston to Dallas returning home after doing some business in Beantown.
“Yeah, I know.”He was going to stop by the cemetery and pay a visit to his mother’s gravesite.He’s a parent now with three kids of his own, the same number Donna and I had when she was diagnosed with her terminal cancer.We compared notes on how 30 years could feel both so far away in time and yet so present via the simple act of a memory.Max was almost five and a half when she died on December 10th, 1983, and is the only son who has memories of her and growing up in our tight little family. This is ironic in a way as Alex- next in line and almost 3 on the day of her passing- had for years after Donna’s death the most crystal clear memories of her and events around her that left me both baffled and awed at how he could remember such details.Over time, sadly, he would lose those recollections of her. Ben was a year and a half, too young to solidify any impression happening as it did during her brutal struggle to live.
30 years is a noteworthy stretch of time.How does one honor the memory of one so loved yet so folded into the continuing drama that is life? Last year I slept restlessly and thought about her for a couple weeks prior to the anniversary only to forget most of the day till one of the boys called to bring up Donna’s passing.
I know I didn’t mourn adequately, driven as I was to keeping the ship that was our family on course, and it probably contributed to some truly terrible decisions in the ensuing years, years that felt like the biblical wandering in the desert. Sleep deprivation was the rule, though at the time sleeping 3-4 hours a day seemed weirdly cool, like something was being accomplished by not resting.I became the angry, yelling father, a bitter replay of my own, and I hated myself for it. Yet, for all the mistakes and fumbles over the past three decades I have managed to make claim to not one but two happy marriages in my lifetime, where teamwork and mutual support worked hand in hand with love and respect.I am grateful every day for Terri, who walked into a house of four angry males and brought-no, insisted upon- civility and optimism and made us all better human beings in the process. Terri would often say that the foundation had already been set by Donna and even if the boys didn't consciously remember her they had absorbed her energy.
I am grateful for the years I had with Donna, the warrior hippie who also brought a relentless optimism and tenacity to all matters in life.She took the depressed, fear driven son of post WWII Eastern European immigrants and tightened him up even as she eased some of that ingrained sense of terror out of his system.The earth mother who insisted on home birthing, green juicing and holistic medicine; whose farm girl physique reveled in the hard work of organic gardening.The eastern mystic who wrote and directed the annual Christmas Eve plays performed at her mother’s house and decorated each individually made songbook collection of carols from which we all sang.Most of all I am grateful for our sons she gave birth to and for the foundation she helped establish in raising a family with love and discipline.The boys were boys, but they had manners.
I went looking for my sketchbooks going back almost forty years in an attempt to put together a portfolio of drawings of her from those six years.Alas, I’ve sadly, probably, lost more sketchbooks than I would want to admit, some probably victims of weather (we had a flood in the cellar when we first moved to our house in Stephentown that destroyed many boxes of belongings) while others not found might possibly be stacked in some box still unopened from all the moves.
But I found enough to put together a little memorial.Some of the drawings are okay at best, some good, still others too good for comfort.But they spotlight a history together that in many respects would play like a dream were it not for these reminders.30 years.
Very early drawing in the courtship phase. Short courtship- we were looking for a place to share within 3 months. One of the first things she did was start digging up a noteworthy portion of the backyard with me behind our side of the duplex for a vegetable garden. She was a reader of Rudolf Steiner and his philosophy of biodynamic farming. Most anything I learned about gardening and was to carry with me through the years was from her.
Brutally hot summer for a first time pregnancy. Still two months to go before Max entered the picture.
Number three, Ben. Donna reading to Max in his bedroom.
First Christmas card as a family.
Still a trio.
Jazz had entered the house in a big way- WBGO-FM was on almost all day when classical music wasn't flowing through the house. We were spending more time jumping into Manhattan and listening to artists like Dizzy at Fat Tuesdays. Years later Max would find himself singing Salt Peanuts for Diz at the Blue Note. Donna could read music. As much as I tried I couldn't. I had a friend who was a brilliant saxophonist teaching me but being a parent with a growing family was probably not the right time to start learning in earnest. I still have that Buescher 400.
Then the diagnosis came after months of pain- much of it she kept to herself- and about 6 months after giving birth to Ben. It was a ferocious cancer that left her but rare moments during those last 9 months when she was not in excruciating agony. She fought back with a fury against the wildfire raging inside her. She had no desire to leave the boys behind. It was probably her single greatest motivation to keep fighting. A few drawings from the final months.
You feared her waking up from even the shortest nap because the suffering would be right there waiting to pick up where it left off.
Final drawing. One day to go. She was somewhere else most of the time eyes darting around searching, waiting. The pain meds had no effect. It was a sort of delirium. The next day I went home to take a shower and got a call to return ASAP. She apparently was waiting for me to return before finally giving in.
I can't end this posting on a note of grief so will, instead, conclude with another Christmas card from the early years. The same way these Santas float in the mock Magritte background so too do our memories of moments in time.
Mary Parsons, one of my favorite art directors, called to check on my availability to do some drawings for The American Prospect in a ‘courtroom style’ for a feature piece by journalist Kat Aaron who spent several years following the workings of the civil court division- in particular the court that handles tenant/landlord/homeowner/bank disputes.It’s a very strong, empathic and nuanced piece of writing that inspires a sense of sadness and despair as well as some hope amid desperation.It’s difficult enough being on the low end of the social rung; attempting to defend yourself against attorneys and banks because you can’t afford representation while being pretty much ill equipped in working the system must be a nightmare.There are no real good guys or bad guys in the black and white sense.It’s a world of sad stories and sad lives coming apart and being dumped in the statistics bin.There but for the grace of god go most of us.A change of fortune, loss of employment, failure to pay rent or mortgage, maybe add some bad life choices and you are screwed.
I received the copy from Mary and after reading it, and especially after finding unsatisfactory visual reference on this court in Google, thought, “Well, this is crazy.Why fake courtroom drawings when I have the chance (didn’t know that yet) to go there and draw the real deal?”
Detroit is a 14 hour drive, factoring in bladder stops and food, and we had enough lead time for me to take a few days off and make the journey. I pitched Mary my idea.The story and setting were so specific that to attempt generic scenes seemed pointless.After initial hesitation- travel expenses weren’t in the budget, a point I brushed off- Mary signed on.She hooked me up with Kat who helped provide some background to the protocol and preamble with the court administrator she worked with.It was to turn out while on my drive to Detroit that Kat texted me to say that her contact person in the public affairs was no longer there.My response was, “Improvise, Adapt, Overcome.”I’d make it work once I hit town.There was enough in her article that essentially gave me the heads up on what to expect from the officers and public affairs personnel, and it wasn’t all positive and cooperative. I was feeling pumped and upbeat nonetheless.
My hotel was just a ten minute walk from the courthouse and I was there soon after opening hours the next morning.I knew what I couldn’t bring- cell phone, camera, any kind of recording device and any paraphernalia connected to them.Those items would need to be brought back to the hotel or car (were you to drive and park at the lots nearby) or trashed in order to enter.
There certainly were a lot of people filing their way through security on their way to finding out which designated courts their cases were assigned.I made my way through the metal detector- had my bag of drawing materials inspected- and headed over to the information booth. I explained what my intentions were and asked what courts I needed to look for. The officer behind the counter couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful (Actually, I found the general attitude of the court officers quite friendly while making sure everything was done properly. A smile and proper respect probably didn’t hurt to generate that response.).He came out from behind and got the list for the day from one of the officers at the metal detectors, explained which courtrooms I needed to go to and on what floor.I headed up there and walked into one of the three available.Court was already in session.I took a seat near the rear with the intention of taking that deep breath and simply getting a feel for the environment.I had set aside a couple days so as not to feel the need to rush into drawing immediately before digesting the scene.Without missing a beat from her deliberations on the bench, Judge B. Pennie Millender looked over her glasses and announced, “We have a visitor.Have you signed in yet?” All eyes turned to me- about the only white face in the room- and I replied in a parched voice that I was just there to observe.“Oh, well observe away.”
I sat and watched the stream of humanity come up before the bench and explain, often in very awkward, unhelpful manner, their cases.Judge Millender was patient and often attempted to bring clarity to what the defendants were trying to say, even as she reminded them of their rights and procedure.There was also a sense of underlying humor in her demeanor that probably helped to keep everything from turning into a sort of Dante’s Purgatorio. She was no nonsense but not without compassion.Judge Millender was not one of the judges spotlighted in Kat’s story- in fact they had all been assigned other courts- but she seemed to fit Kat's profiles of bench personalities.About 45 minutes into the hearings I finally pulled out one of my pads and started scribbling away.I didn’t like my vantage point but intended to make lemonade out of the lemons and not call attention to myself.About 45 minutes into my sketching, one of the court officers walked over to me and asked what was I doing.I told her my mission.“Well you can’t do that.”“I can’t draw in court?”“Not without proper permission.”Suddenly, another taller, more armed, officer showed up and I was asked to leave.As I walked out he repeated the questions and I repeated my intentions.“Did you get proper clearance?Come with me.”We went upstairs to meet the deputy court administrator, Angela Hampton.I explained my situation and what I was looking to accomplish.When I mentioned the story written she asked, “Is this the writer from Washington?”I answered yes.“I know her from emails.”So I sat for a while signing forms and courtroom protocol instructions. I was told that because there might be undercover officers and witnesses in the hallways I was not to draw there as well as at the security station at the entrance. There seemed to be a concern that I would get too specific in my drawing and identify someone who shouldn't be spotlighted. This was a drag as some of the more poignant scenes were what was going on outside the courtrooms.Still, everyone was very pleasant and once the paperwork was signed I was brought back to the courtroom where proceedings halted while I escorted to the bench and explained my mission and intentions.Judge Millender said she had no problem with my being there and asked around.She then invited me to sit in the witness stand as there were no jury trials on the docket.Much better vantage point for sure. The courtroom had emptied out considerably by then but there were still enough cases to hear. I settled in and sketched.This went on for a while until a halt came to the proceedings and Judge Millender switched with Judge Wanda Evans.Judge Millender called me up and introduced me to Judge Evans who also expressed no reservation to me drawing and repeated the invite to sit in the jury box.The judges along with their staffs were gracious and accomodating to this stranger and I was grateful.
Kat’s story seemed to indicate that these cases were huge in number and the traffic before the bench endless.It was just my weird luck that for the two days I was there the hearings were uncharacteristically light and quickly dealt with.My concentration had to be on point as much as possible and without a camera to back me up many sketches were aborted because the cast of characters were gone in the space of a two minute pose.Still, I managed to get in some visual observations that spoke to the circumstances of these plaintiffs and defendants.Judge Evans presided on the second day there and after a quick paced clearing of the dockets which surprised even her, she turned to me and said she would check if there was anything else for the day elsewhere in the other courts.There weren’t.I thanked all and made my exit.
What I brought back and forwarded to Mary made enough impression that the number of spots doubled for the feature.It was a great assignment and I quite frankly enjoyed the experience in Detroit.The courthouse was less than a stone’s throw away from Tiger’s Stadium and the pennant was on the first night I was there.It’s a wonder that I was able to find hotel space.
From my brief walks through the downtown I was struck by its scruffy beauty and by the truly striking art deco architecture mixing in with the modern.My nephew who lives nearby gave me a nighttime tour.It’s sad that Detroit has fallen over the decades on such hard times but things seem to be changing for the better and businesses are setting up again.High tech more than auto industry related.But that’s how things evolve.Hopefully there will eventually be a new Renaissance for Detroit.
I want to thank Mary Parsons for calling me in on this assignment and being flexible enough to let me take the ride out to document on the spot, Kat Aaron for her assistance, and, in particular, note the courtesy and helpfulness of the judges, court staff and court officers at the 36th District Courthouse.
The drawings and story will appear in the November/December issue of The American Prospect.
Opening visual observations. The drawing I was working on before being escorted out to meet the court administrator.
Judge Millender. She possessed a very relaxed, patient, and friendly demeanor even as she attempted to get clarity from defendants. If they started going off on tangents she'd gently pull them back to the matter at hand.
While Judge Evans showed less patience with rambling and was quick to keep the plaintiffs and defendants on point answering the questions they were asked she remained gracious and attentive.
While I didn't 'draw' in the hallways during the waits, I made mental notes and quick placement scribbles. I'd go back to the hotel and try to replicate these ghosts. Treated them more as impressions and didn't concern myself with details. There was a poignancy in seeing people- any number of whom were taking time off from work- never a safe move- sitting, waiting to find out what new challenge they were going to have to deal with.
This young woman looked like a college student and the case- apparently revolving around repairs and shared costs- seemed like a huge misunderstanding more than any deliberate nonpayment of rent.
The day ended quick enough though to be last in line is still last in line.