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Book 1: Praxis and Allies
A turtle and a pirate started all this. You've seen those drawings before, on television commercials and ads slipped into comic books. They were a test. Apparently, drawing a passable copy of those two characters meant you were ready for art school. At least one which only existed through the mail. When Andy Go was twelve, he picked up a well-bitten number two pencil and took the challenge. After figuring out how to compose addresses on an envelope, he mailed in his best renditions, unbeknownst to his parents. Much to his surprise -- and the inflation of his nascent ego -- he promptly received a letter of acceptance into the school, and a request for one of their salesmen to meet with his parents.
"What?" his dad asked around his half-smoked Marlboro when Andy proudly presented the letter. With the most grandiose words in his twelve-year-old vocabulary, the budding artist explained the concept of the mail correspondence art school as if he had just been accepted into Harvard. Then his dad replied, "What?"
Actually what he really said was, "Moh?" the Korean word for "what." Twenty years in America, and Andy's dad wouldn't be able to hold a conversation with Elmo. But he finally figured out what his son was asking with the help of his wife, whose English was marginally better. Andy begged and pleaded for his enrollment. As an art loving kid who came from a family aggressively indifferent to anything remotely artistic, even an art school through the mail seemed like Valhalla. His father was an obsessive newspaper reader, and every morning he would scoop up the day's newspaper from the driveway to read over his coffee. Like a religious ritual, he would always extract the Arts section first and immediately toss it into the recycle bin before he read a word of the paper. As if he couldn't enjoy the newspaper until the word 'art' had been exorcised from its pages. The artiest conversation ever to be uttered within a home of Andy's entire extended family was a curse-laden debate over the merits of Cleatus by his red-faced uncles one Thanksgiving. Cleatus is the NFL robot mascot on Fox Sports.
Much like the Arts section of the newspaper, Andy's parents answered his plea for enrollment into the mail correspondence art school by tossing the acceptance letter into the recycle bin. Andy cried into his pillow that night. However, looking back as an adult, he was much more sympathetic to his parents. There was no money for something as frivolous as an extra school to teach him how to draw better turtles. Especially in a home kept afloat by the meager earnings of a mall restaurant run by a couple of immigrants who barely spoke English. As their only child, Andy was his parents' big hope. Their son was supposed to be a doctor or the inventor of the next facebook so they didn't have to sweat over a fryer in their eighties for a bunch of tweeting teenagers who only order french fries.
But it was too late. That acceptance letter filled the fledging artist with thrilling encouragement and validation, fueling a fun hobby into an obsession. From then on, Andy drew every chance he got, on every margin of every piece of homework, on the cover of every binder and folder. When he drew, his humdrum life no longer held any boundaries. If he thought it, he could bring it into badly drawn existence. If his parents couldn't afford to buy him a comic book, he just drew his own. He could transport himself into any world of his imagination through his art, one in which he was not a disappointment to his parents, one full of turtles and pirates, or dragons and beautiful princesses.
Art only meant one thing to Andy then. A source of happiness. Art isn't something you do, it's something you are.
At least when you're a kid.
Ten years later, he was leaving a job interview at McDonald's. Andy was certain he had bombed it like the last three interviews that day. The crisp San Francisco air nipped at his face as he pushed through the greasy glass doors onto Market Street. From his backpocket, he pulled out a pen and a folded sheet of paper his dad had printed out for him. He crossed out "McDonald's - Line Cook" from the list. Also crossed out was a dishwashing position at Denny's, a janitor opening at an accounting office, and a graveyard shift security guard position at a community college. He glanced languidly at the next interview on his schedule. It was an opening at a zoo. The listing wasn't very clear about what the job entailed, but it did include the one condition Andy was certain his extensive array of job skills could fulfill: "no experience necessary." Of course, knowing his luck, he was sure it would involve cleaning out the cages or something equally majestic. Well, at least it was an interesting workplace, he thought. Hell, compared to his other prospects, this was like an interview at Google.
Oddly, he was to report to an address in the Tenderloin even though the San Francisco Zoo was on the other side of the city, near the coast. He supposed it wasn't that unusual for their recruiting office to be in a different building... Upon closer scrutiny, he realized the listing didn't even mention the name of the zoo. But he had to assume it was the San Francisco Zoo since it was the only one in the area.
He shrugged it off. Who cared? At this point, he was just trying to make his parents happy. For once. Andy burrowed his chin into his scarf and trudged forward to the nearest bus stop.
As he plodded past Powell street, he couldn't help but gaze up at the top of the hill at his old college. The College of Visual Arts in San Francisco, where he had devoted the last three years of his life up until five months ago. It was the start of the fall semester and the campus was abuzz with fresh energy. On the front steps, students were smoking and catching up after the summer break. The evening sun behind them cut their silhouettes into the pale sky with rims of gold. Ridiculously large drawing boards, ubiquitous to all art student, pulled heavily on each of their shoulders and clattered together like shields in an ancient battalion. A very nerdy, unfit battalion. Andy felt a pang of longing as their merry chatter drifted over to him like a siren song. His classmates were probably up there right now, having a ball bitching about teachers or arguing vigorously over some obscure golden age illustrator. Andy battled a burning urge to trod up there and join his tribe. But soon his envy turned to pity. Most of those poor deluded fools would be in the same desperate job hunt in a year or two. Then the thought of facing the deluge of questions which were sure to hound him if he actually ran into one of his classmates scattered his pity into panic. Andy took one last wistful glance at his former compatriots, and scurried toward the bus stop a block away.
His bus arrived after a short wait. But as he climbed inside, a familiar voice reached his ears. He spun around and saw three of his closest friends from school -- Roger, Tony, and Yumi -- tearing down the hill toward the bus stop. Their giant drawing boards clapped against their backs like frozen capes. Andy's heart sank.
"Andy! Hold the bus!" Yumi shouted.
Andy relayed the message to the weary bus driver. Once Andy's friends had caught up, they tumbled into the bus together in a jumble of backpacks, bus passes and drawing boards. Andy was stormed with a round of hugs and high fives as they toddled to a row of empty seats in the back where it smelled liked used gym towels. Andy's friends were breathless from their mad dash.
"Well well well," Roger panted. "The prodigal son returns." He sagged into his seat and tore open his jacket to free a jiggling belly.
"Dude, what are you doing here?" Tony asked, running his hands through his nappy hair.
Yumi's eyes grew wide as she unraveled her scarf. "Are you back in school?"
"No no," Andy stammered. "I was, uh... I was just in the neighborhood."
Yumi pulled out a little sketchbook from her purse and began to doodle. She drew so much, her lap would seem naked without a sketchbook on it.
Tony gave Andy a hearty pat on the shoulder. "It's really good to see you, man!"
He was wearing his usual uniform consisting of a Batman T-shirt and oversized jeans. Andy imagined Tony's closet holding an infinite row of hangers draped in the exact same outfit -- like Batman himself. The alternative possibility of Tony having worn the same shirt every day since Freshman year when Andy had first met him was too putrid to consider.
"You too," Andy replied. "I--"
"Why the hell didn't you come to my birthday party?" he cut in. His bulgy eyes narrowed sourly.
"Oh, uh... Sorry, I had family stuff..."
"Well, you could've just told me. Or just posted something on the facebook invite. What's with the M.I.A. routine? I haven't seen you in months!"
"Oh, I deleted my facebook account a little while ago," Andy explained, rubbing his scrawny neck.
Roger pushed his glasses up on his stubby nose and shot Andy a worried look. "Oh yeah, I noticed that. What's the deal?"
Roger and Andy had been best friends since grade school. There wasn't much they didn't notice about each other, even if they hadn't hung out in a while.
"Finally got sick of looking at Roger's tinder pics, huh?" Tony chuckled. "I feel you, dawg."
Roger's ears flushed red. "What? If he's sick of anything, it's the neverending posts about your damn webcomic. If I see one more post about 'Black Raven' being a 'viral sensation', I'm going to throw up in my mouth."
"If I see one more photo of you hugging a puppy, I'm going to throw up in your mouth too," Tony retorted. "Girls aren't going to fall for that, dude."
"You do realize other people have to post about something to be considered 'viral', right? Posting about your own comic every five minutes isn't the same thing. That's false advertising!"
"You don't even own a puppy! That's false advertising."
Black Raven was a comic book series Tony had been working on since he could hold a crayon. Sort of a cross between Batman and Kamen Rider. Some might say a shameless rip-off of Batman and Kamen Rider, but why nitpick?
Yumi flipped up Andy's five dollar necktie with her pencil. "What's with the tie?" she smirked. "Did you turn Mormon?"
"No, just on my way to a job interview," Andy mumbled. He tilted his head forward, hoping his shaggy hair would hide his face.
Yumi dropped her pencil in her sketchbook and looked up at him. "Oh, really? Who with?" she asked brightly.
Roger and Tony broke off their ribbing and turned to Andy as well, eager for his answer. Andy immediately regretted spilling the beans. The bustle of disembarking passengers churned around them as the bus rumbled to a halt at the next stop.
At the end of Spring, after the last class of their Junior year, Andy and his three friends had invaded a bar to celebrate. There, surrounded by empty beer bottles, Andy announced to his friends that he was dropping out of school. Everyone was worried. Everyone but Andy. He was so foolishly cocky. For the next few months he threw his portfolio at every job even remotely art-related. Not a single response came. Two weeks ago his parents had enough. His dad allowed one more week for an art job to materialize, but failing that, Andy was to pursue any job his father sent him out for. Thus he ended up leaving an interview at McDonald's.
During this time, Andy had grown completely anti-social. The crumble of all his dreams pulled him into a deeper depression than he could have ever anticipated. Moreover, he couldn't face his friends and have to explain what a failure he was. That was the real reason he hadn't attended Tony's party a few weeks ago...
"Pixar," Andy answered.
The bus lurched into motion again.
"Whoa! Pixar?" Yumi gasped. "Holy shit!"
Tony pounded Andy's fist. "Oh, snap. Congrats, man!"
Roger’s knees started bouncing with excitement. "Dude, once you're in, you've got to find me a job! You know it's my dream to work there."
"I knew you could do it, Andy," Yumi squealed. "What position did you test for?"
Andy laughed nervously. "Guys, it's just an interview. I'll let you know if I get it." He quickly switched gears. "But enough about me! How's everything going at school? How were the summer classes?"
His friends erupted all at once, filling him in on new classes, new teachers, and new projects. But Andy didn't hear much of it. His ears were ringing from the horrible lie he had just spun. Mercifully, Roger and Tony got off the bus after a few more stops.
"See you, man! Say hi to John Lasseter for me," Tony chuckled, stepping off the bus.
Roger lingered at the exit for a moment, looking at Andy paternally. "Hey, give me a call tonight, all right?"
"Sure thing," Andy replied.
"I mean it, man. Don't flake on me, okay? It's been too long."
"I will, Mom. Jeez." Andy grinned weakly.
"Okay, see ya. Bye, Yumi!"
The bus shut its doors and started to move. Roger and Tony receded into the distance, their long shadows stretching away from the setting sun. They turned and threw Andy one final wave. Andy smiled and waved back. He had forgotten how much he missed them.
"What do you think?" Yumi asked.
Andy turned away from the window. "What?"
Yumi scooted over to the vacated seat beside him and showed off her sketchbook. Andy saw a quick doodle of himself high-fiving Woody from Toy Story.
"Very nice," he chirped, laughing. He tried to think of something wittier to say but Andy was much too distracted anytime Yumi was near him like this. As she leaned in with her sketchbook, he could feel the warmth of her shoulders pressing into his. Wisps of hair from the side of her unruly bob tickled his cheeks. The fresh scent of her shampoo made his head swim.
Yumi wasn't the most technically proficient artist of their graduating class in the traditional sense, but she was one of the most exceptional. At least to Andy. Her gestures flowed like water, attentive and alive. The figures in her sketchbook floated through the pages, hinting at the subjects' inner life as much as their physical husk. Even this quick sketch of Andy had more motion and vivacity than something he could draw in an hour. Plus her knack for likenesses was uncanny.
"You and Woody have the exact same body," she snickered. "Did you know that?"
Andy grinned wryly. "I always thought my body was more like Gollum, so I'll take it.”
Before he could flip to another page, Yumi seized her sketchbook and continued to doodle. "I'm so glad things are working out for you out in the 'real world'. I have so much respect for you taking the world by the collar like this and not waiting for some meaningless degree."
"I had no idea how many jobs I would be automatically disqualified for without that stupid piece of paper," Andy muttered. "You're doing the smart thing, believe me,"
"Naw, just the scared thing. I feel like I finally got this college thing figured out and I'm not ready to forage for myself."
"With your skills, the only thing you'll have to figure out is which shelf to put all your Caldecott medals on."
"Psh, whatever." She blushed and buried her face in her sketchbook. "Thanks, Andy," she added softly.
Outside, the buildings were slowly turning grey as the bus drove deeper into the city's decay. Trendy cafes and bookstores were replaced with bail bond and check cashing outlets. A peeling billboard showcasing a horribly drawn cartoon car for a local insurance company crawled by the window.
"Do you ever wonder why we're doing any of this?"
Yumi looked up. "Say what?"
"Like, why are we killing ourselves trying to be 'artists'? Subjecting ourselves to the endless rejection and insecurity? What is the point of it all? Other pursuits have such clear-cut, noble goals. Ideally speaking, doctors want to save lives, lawyers want to uphold justice, scientists want to advance human understanding... What do we do? We just want to keep doing what we did for fun in kindergarten and expect to be paid for it."
Yumi nibbled at her pencil, thinking for a long moment. Then she held up her sketchbook at Andy again.
"Well," she said finally, "how did this make you feel when I showed it to you?"
Andy stared at himself high-fiving Woody again. He couldn't help but crack another smile. Yumi grinned.
"That's what we do." She tilted her head toward the window. "Look outside. The world isn't always a pretty place. We make it bearable."
"Do you think we'll do it?" Andy mumbled, almost to himself.
Yumi burst out laughing. "Excuse me?"
"No no!" Andy laughed hysterically until he was choking on his spit. His face was beat red. "No, I mean, do you think we'll be one of the artists who make it bearable? Make a difference in the world. Like all the great artists who inspired us? Or will we find ourselves drawing a 'wacky' cartoon car for some insurance company? That billboard was illustrated by an artist who had hopes and dreams at some point just like you and me. All our hard work and studying could be leading to that. Or even worse, nothing could work out and some of us could end up working at McDonald's..."
Andy trailed off, looking down at his weathered Converse sneakers.
"I don't know," Yumi shrugged. "I don't think there's any point worrying about something you can't control. All we can do is make the best art we can. What it means to the rest of humanity isn't up to us. And maybe I'm just a dumb hippie, but I'll feel like I made a difference if my art makes the world a magical place for just one kid I've never met, the way Maurice Sendak's books did for me. No doctor or lawyer ever made me feel like that."
She lifted her eyebrows into her bangs and smiled. Then she lowered her eyes back to her sketchbook and continued to draw. Andy prayed there was an alternate reality where he just reached over and kissed her.
"Besides, what are you worried about?" she muttered. "You're a step away from Pixar! You're going to be fine."
Andy felt awful. He felt lower than his SAT score, which was saying something. He had to tell her the truth. Nervously rubbing his hands on his lap, he cleared his throat. But suddenly, Yumi peered out the window, finally noticing where the bus was idling. She bolted up from her seat.
"Oh shit, this is my stop!"
She gathered up all her stuff in a flurry and hustled to the rear exit just as the doors were closing. She wedged herself between them and turned back to Andy.
"Hey, what are you doing this Saturday?"
"You're going to the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park to sketch with me, that's what you're doing."
"Great! I'll text you the deets."
"Okay," Andy chuckled timidly. "See ya."
Yumi took a step off the bus then pulled herself back in, one foot still hovering in the air. "Good luck on the interview! You're going to kill it, dude."
Andy waved. "Aw thanks… Bye!"
She stepped off then quickly stepped back in again. "Everyone misses you at school."
"Let's go!" the bus driver hollered over her shoulder.
Yumi gave a little squeak and hopped off the bus. "Later, skater!"
Andy waved out the window while she walked backward and waved back with both hands, a playful grin stretched across her ruddy cheeks. She was still walking backward like that before the bus turned a corner and Andy couldn’t see her anymore. But he continued visualizing her through the buildings, walking the rest of the way to her apartment. He could see her in his mind's eye like she was still sitting next to him. Let's just say he had a lot of practice imagining her beside him...
Along with Tony, Yumi was one of the first students Andy had met at school. They became fast friends, and it wasn't long before his feelings for her blossomed into infatuation. But at the time, she was in a long-distance relationship with her high school boyfriend. So Andy didn't even entertain the notion of revealing his feelings to her. Not that he would have had she been single, let's not kid ourselves. When it came to relationships, Andy was a D&D player without a Dungeon Master: no experience points and no game. His one feeble stab at romance in the waning months of high school ended like a car wreck. Ever since then, a crippling fear of rejection prevented him from ever pursuing his lovestruck feelings.
Yumi was single now, but Andy had no clue if she harbored any mutual feelings for him. And if she didn't, he was terrified of ruining their great friendship by saying something. Besides, he had thoroughly convinced himself that she was "out of his league." It seemed inconceivable that someone as hip and outgoing as Yumi would resort to his dweebish level. So Andy was pathetically content with their friendship and the occasional sloppy hug when they were drunk. Once at a party, he got to hold her hair while she threw up into the toilet. It was a dream come true...
His stop was fast approaching. Andy put his hands on the empty seats on either side of him to push himself up, and felt something cushy under his right hand. He looked down and found Yumi's purse. She must have overlooked it in her rush to get off the bus!
Andy whipped out his phone and called her, only to be answered by a muffled ring tone purring from her purse. He unlatched the flap and peered inside. Sure enough, there was her phone, bleating away. He sighed and hung up. Along with other knickknacks like a chapstick and some pens, the bag also held her precious sketchbook. Andy cringed with sympathy, knowing how distraught Yumi would be when she realized her sketchbook was missing. A phone is replaceable, but drawings are like children, an artist will never produce the same one twice. Sadly, Andy couldn't double back and return the purse to Yumi at that moment if he didn't want to miss his interview. He had to do it afterward on his way home. What a perfect excuse to stop by her apartment though, he thought gleefully. Heck, maybe Yumi will be so thankful, she'll invite him inside and ask him to marry her!
Andy almost missed his stop, lost in his moronic daydreaming. He quickly tossed the purse into his satchel and skipped off the bus, whistling the Totoro theme song.
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