Thursday, September 5, 2013

Boyd's TV Repair Shop and Art School

I spent the afternoons of my senior year in high school working at Boyd’s TV Repair Shop, located in a 1940s, sun-bleached storefront building in a working-class neighborhood in San Antonio, Texas. The place still presented a brave face, head held high, but everything around the middle had begun slouching toward sunset. The hardwood floorboards were worn as bare as the day they were milled, but infinitely smoother. They sloped ever so slightly toward a vanishing point in the back corner, so that crossing the floor always felt like getting up from the dinner table after a little too much wine. Window and door frames enhanced the effect by leaning imperceptibly out of plumb.

In this way the place reflected the proprietor, Mr. Boyd, a reliable and meticulous man who nevertheless showed signs of having stood too long behind the counter. Keeping the current of broadcast dreams flowing in other people’s homes was taking a toll.

It was 1978. The Bee Gees were Stayin’ Alive on Top 40 AM radio far longer than they should. Jimmy Carter was president, in the innocent time before there were hostages in the embassy in Tehran to worry about. Something called “stagflation” gripped the nation—simultaneous inflation and unemployment. Go figure.

But in those days if—heaven forbid—your TV broke down you could still call on Mr. Boyd to fix it for a reasonable fee. The massive things were meant to be repaired, not replaced at the first sign of trouble. He would write your name, address and a brief description of the problem on a triplicate invoice and pin it to the scuffed metal clipboard hanging on the wall beside the phone. That act sent repairman Tommy Pehl and I scrambling out to the well-worn white panel van, stocked to the roof with the parts and tools we might need to break the logjam and get those electrons flowing again.

Tommy looked a lot like Don Knotts. In fact, exactly like him when he coincidentally played a quirky TV repairman in the film Pleasantville. Tommy was the brains of the expedition. I was there to help lift and fetch—and maybe learn something about TV repair along the way.

And that’s where the story gets around to the creative life and what it means to be an artist. Not simply to make some art once in a while, but to be an artist, “balls to bones,” as The Oracle says in The Matrix.

The fact is, my head and heart just weren’t into learning to read schematics or the dusty entrails of television sets, hard as I tried to pretend otherwise. I give fervent thanks for all the people who are interested in such things. But in spite of the general appeal of “learning a trade,” as my family advised and hoped for, it just wasn’t to be. Here’s an example of why:

One day Mr. Boyd’s invoice led us to the very nice home of an elderly woman with a TV in need of only minor adjustment. It is a good thing, because all I could see was the fabulous baby grand piano in the corner. A Rolls Royce compared to the much-loved VW bug I was learning to play at home. The deep black glassy finish caught the late afternoon sun flooding through the window, a warm caress the keys seemed to be straining to answer, to complete the circle with sound.

Seeing my attraction, the woman invited me to play. From behind the TV set Tommy shrugged and nodded tentatively. Clearly this wasn’t on the schematic of what is expected of a repair crew.

I sat down and performed a song I had recently written—no doubt a forgettable and sappy love song. But for that moment, time stopped. The technology of television ceased to exist, along with the physics of electromagnetism and the universe that spawned it. Pure, unformed existence emerged when fingers and keys melded into sound, when voice and words climbed the music like a staircase leading home.

When finished, I opened my eyes and saw my reflection in the old woman’s expression. A lifelong lover of music, she had a look of quiet recognition, like she had heard her native language in the marketplace of a distant country. Tommy’s eyes never left the task at hand—an act of deep integrity, a reflection of who he was. Mr. Boyd charged his customers by the hour, after all, and he wouldn’t waste a minute of it.

Back in the truck he said, “That was wonderful.”

The scene has repeated itself in my life too many times to list—delaying a furniture delivery I was responsible for to watch a late summer wind push ocean waves across a field of amber wheat; ignoring my “legitimate” work because a story or a poem or a song has latched on and won’t let go. To this day I am easily distracted by shiny things. I tend to prioritize life in ways that make the world’s bean counters go crazy—God bless them, every one!

But there is a difference, now that I’m past 50, and one I highly recommend for you too, if you recognize yourself in this story: I’ve given up trying to be anything else or live any other way—not even for that most revered cultural Holy Grail: a steady paycheck.

I am an artist, you see. Can’t be anything else.

Next week: (No really!) the five traits of being an artist.

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