Brian J. Sullivan
It was now dark as I zipped up my canopy after a long day. The cool damp air had begun to condense as dew on the grass. Beautiful weather during the day had brought out thousands of people to the art fair and sometimes an occasional buyer. My work is gritty and filled with innuendoes which takes a special person to appreciate it. The art patrons at this fair seemed especially interested in my work and spent much time discussing it with me. I always enjoy the art fairs and all the unique people I get to meet. Today was no exception. Some even recommended places that I needed to see and photograph.
Since the fair was located in a park in the heart of downtown, I decided to leave my vehicle parked in the artists' lot and walk to the recommended sites. The direction in which I was headed was located in the old section of downtown with old turn-of-the-century buildings and wonderful historic architecture. The modern office buildings and skyscrapers were in the north side of downtown.
These older four-story buildings, many made of cream-city-bricks, stood testament to their tenacity as older neighborhoods crumbled around them. Weathered, they continued to serve each new tenant as best they could with cosmetic upgrades of drywall, drop ceilings, and modern heating systems. Each block that I walked was a plethora of visual stimulus.
After about nine city blocks, I could make out the eerie green glow of a distant sign. As I got closer, thousands of tiny white lights outlined the large theater marquee. It loomed three stories tall and hung perpendicular to the street. As if on cue, each letter flashed in sequence to spell out F-O-X in green neon. Its grand marquee and Art Nouveau ticket booth gave testament to the opulence of the theaters in the 1930s. Its restored outside lobby, easily holding 500 people comfortably, was of the arabesque style and was covered in gold leaf. It was truly magnificent. I took quite a few pictures and quietly basked in the periodic green glow of the sign each time it lit up.
Around the corner and several blocks to the west, I found the Varsity. Every city has got one. The classic diner/hamburger joint. Like a pilgrimage to Mecca, I always seek them out; or rather they seek me out. I am drawn to them not so much for their food as for what they stand for.
The Varsity is just such a place. Opened in 1926, it has weathered from the ravages of time as each new generation becomes acquainted with it. Part of the Varsity's charm is its eclectic interior space with its multiple rooms created as each new addition was simply scabbed onto the adjoining building and an entry hole was knocked between the two. No two walls line up.
These were the days before McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's became the accepted practice where aseptic and sterile environment was cookie cut to each store throughout the country. The Varsity has personality. Located in a seedy part of downtown and overlooking the expressway, its large Las Vegas style sign beacons all. Most restaurants would have given up the ghost a long time ago; the Varsity is a tenacious fighter.
Loud music, from cars parked across the street at the Amoco Gas Station, rattle windows and one's nerves. Everyone must pre-pay for gas in this neighborhood. Two long overhead roofs shelter the hoods of cars of customers who prefer to eat outside and be served by carhops. Inside, the dull stainless steel order counter is over 200 feet long and staffed by 23 registers—by far the longest I have ever seen. At this late hour, two armed security guards patrol throughout the restaurant. Their bulletproof vests read "Police" in yellow letters on their backs.
The Varsity is not well lit inside, and any fluorescent lights working are covered with grease and smoke. There are windows, but only along one wall of a past addition.
It does not feel clean, sanitary, bright, or cheerful like modern fast food restaurants. But rather, it feels dirty, cheap, nasty, a bit seedy, and a bit more real than the plastic façade of modern fast food places. Maybe that is why I like it along with all of the thousands who have dined before me. People of all race, gender, and economic income merge here.
Seating is in different rooms separated by holes in the wall as one goes from one addition to another. Booths line the walls, but throughout the mid-section are metal leg classroom school desks, all connected together in long rows and facing a TV mounted near the ceiling.
The black and white tile floor is probably the original and is worn away in high traffic areas like the doorways and registers. This is a national treasure, a city landmark and icon to those with nostalgic sentiments.
Onion rings, thinly cut, are neatly stacked one on top of another like tires outside a Goodyear store. Steam rises upward as grease drips downward from one onion ring to the one below it. Five anemic looking fried chicken fingers are in the next compartment of the Styrofoam clamshell box along with a plastic container of ranch dressing for dipping. Nothing fancy.
And if the truth be told, the food was terrible, and most of it ended up in the waste basket. Yet the experience was worth it. The people—the characters who enter the doors—scrutinized by the hired guards cannot be easily dismissed. How different, how rich an experience this is from the lily white suburban malls with their ubiquitous aseptic chain restaurants.
As an artist, I find that such experiences add to my repertoire of visual information which I use to create my work. I cannot sit isolated in a studio. I need, no, I crave the cities' energy.
It was now nearing 11:00 pm as I walked back to my van some 15 blocks away. Street people talking to themselves appeared from dark shadows between the buildings. Homeless people sat on exhaust grates to cut the chill of the night air. A wino, holding a bottle wrapped in a brown bag, sat on the curb. All intimidated me, all made me feel uneasy, but none bothered me. Tomorrow would be another day to make the big sale, but tonight I had already struck the jackpot.