Flogging art on the streets

I am a student, was once a vendor. Submit to the propulsive force of Manhattan circuitry and you may one day come upon my tombstone. It rests on West Broadway between Prince and Spring St. and reads: “Tyler Coburn, Vendor. One hour and eight minutes. On this spot did he awake and die.” For these next small but significant paragraphs, I have summoned the chariot of time to swing us all down to the low plateaus of the past, reviving a moment briefly realized and then forever lost.

What is that feeling that possesses the soul after a graduation? It is a melancholy at the detachment of the self from all things once closely embraced; it is the movement into a period of drifting. Fortunately for my 13-year old junior-high school self, this was the drifting from a lesser and quite dated form into one that was greater (though I must confess to annually building a shrine in honor of my former self, celebrating the mushroom-cut, the Airwalks, the Sailor Moon worship and, most important of all, the definitive Better than Ezra collection). My junior-high school graduation saw this material rebirth as I proudly took up the gauntlet of my imminent boarding school existence, invoking the texts and films of my youth in self-conscious preppy styles, be it in the left-of-middle part or the J. Crew V-neck sweater and button-down combo (sadly lacking Caulfield’s fantastic hunting cap to top it off).

By the time boarding school graduation came about, I no longer felt the pressing need for material rebirth. Through some miraculous concurrence of typical small-town boredom, a plethora of old women and blind chance, I discovered the Thrift Store. As my allowance flowed into the affectation of a style that the average 60-year old man can pull of with greater ease and authenticity, my soul lost its creeping sense that something was amiss. What then were the ordeals to confront me after graduation, I had to wonder? To what greater depths would my self-searching descend?

Amidst days spent swooning under these platitudes, my friend Tenley happened to visit me in Manhattan. She had two hours to kill; I had energy to expend. So we did what any normal, well-adjusted graduates would do: rush out to the street to vend our wares. It was a very simple process. I made art. Bad art. Really pretty terrible art that I was desperate to get rid of. Tenley brought sunglasses, a pink sailor hat and a horrible yellow vinyl umbrella. And I made power-duo “selling T-shirts” that contained eye-catching phrases like “Repent! And buy our art” and “Je m’apelle Pierre. J’aime– l’autobus, votre chien, nager dans la mer.” Perfect, succinct selling slogans for a perfectly seductive business venture.

And, of course, we brought a video camera, for what is the point of such public self-humiliation if one cannot also mercilessly exploit several passers-by? We carefully selected a spot on West Broadway in front of D&G, a section of the avenue that is often filled with street vendors. When hitting the street, I nervously eyed the products of my competitors, hoping desperately that my well-meaning (read: awful) art would stand up against wooden sculptures of giraffes, cityscape paintings and, of course, shockingly well-rendered portraits of Michael Douglas and Madonna. But it was too late for misgivings! Ol’ Daiquiri (Tenley’s professional name) began recording, so I began proclaiming:

“My purpose is to sell my art. I need the viewer to really express an initial desire, to communicate with me with their eyes, and not just eyes, with their souls, swaying over my art. It’s very much about an interplay, you know? One can’t exist without the other, just like train tracks can’t exist without trains.”

I wish I could describe how, in response to these lines, pedestrians harkened, the heavens opened and the domesticated animal stood up on two legs and began speaking bilingually. Unfortunately, it seemed that I, like many saviors of the past, was ahead of my time. Tenley had more success, heralding herself the champion of the many diverse walks of life. I quote from Daiquiri herself:

“We need the fat sweatpants-and-fanny-pack customer who comes in from places like Iowa and are looking for some real city excitement. They’re looking for a real product here and I’m here to deliver it. This is part of my existence, to pull myself into the art. I put myself on the street like this; it’s part of me I’m selling — uh, not so much in a physical sense though.”

Tenley’s greatest success undoubtedly came when she approached a woman who began spastically yelping “No!” even before Tenley could pitch her line. Discouragement settled in. Tenley: “It’s like I’m some sort of pariah in society. We can’t vend our wares without getting weird looks. I’m a freak! I mean, I’m sitting here like a freak when it’s really just all about the art. It’s not about me or my selling techniques, it’s just: look at the art, give it its due respect.”

Inevitably the ulterior motives of the day, namely pedestrian exploitation towards artistic ends, became our priority. Noting the public rejection of our products, we embraced the spectacle of rejection: the monologues became faster, wordier, fiercer. The camera also bore its teeth, transcending its regimented stasis to become a mean avant-garde machine. At one point of wild cinematographic gesticulation, we attracted the attention of a small goateed man. Martin Reed Wilson. Ah, Mr. Wilson, a man so hungry to succeed that he put his resume in our hands and leapt into some serious bit-part acting. We put Mr. Wilson’s skills in sales, short-order cooking and multiple format off-line video editing to use, transforming this petite individual into the role of the salacious thief, eager to get his hands on Daq and our precious wares. We allowed Mr. Wilson to celebrate his interests in free-styling, typography, anti-consumerism, Boy Scouts and the track squad as he darted down West Broadway, snatching our art for destructive ends. (How track squad! How anti-consumer!) Note: should any of you know of job prospects for this clearly multi-talented lad, I will kindly relay you copies of his resume, which contains even more stupendous information about him.

Needless to say, the theft of my art came as a serious blow to my vending persona. Even the eventual discovery of the stolen art (behind a tree on Prince St.), the symbolic reapplication of jam and butter to my beloved toast, even this could not shake me from the feeling that my career as a vendor had come to a close. Daiquiri and I plaintively closed shop. As we trudged to the Spring St. 6, I cast an admiring gaze at the other art vendors who daily carve their identities upon the rough cement of the streets.

But while I thought my adventure was complete, the camera had other ideas! Trapped within the dark interior of my backpack, it continued to faithfully record, in the process capturing my symbolic death as a vendor. Cars honked, women proclaimed “Joop-juh-yeah!” yet still the camera recorded only blackness. Later, watching this brilliant moment of post-mortem modernism, I saw for the first time my future extend itself beyond this ephemeral moment, realizing in all its maudlin glory the continually vital force art would play within my life. Vendor I was. Student I will again become. But there will always be the art.



Tyler Coburn desires that you kindly visit www.geocities.com/tylercoburn/vendmain.html for further vending pleasures.

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