When you need money, your mind, as a survival mechanism, has a way of reminding you of your talents. Anunziato Therabeaux’s mind discharged this rescue flair a little late in life. It came while walking past a tequila bar in Harlem on one of those hellishly hot New York City days, when you fried from the sun bouncing off skyscrapers above and baked from the subway breathing out hot exhaust below.
The tequila bar, Don-something-or-other, was the fourth restaurant in a row of restaurants that, for advertising purposes, donned chalk signs on the sidewalks in front of their entryways. Content-wise, some signs quoted funny sayings. Other signs were illustrated nonsense, rife with wannabe funny figures. Whatever they were, they all bothered Anunziato. At that point in time, he’d say they were annoying or stupid or too silly. Later he’d understand that these feelings really came from the subconscious knowledge that he knew he could do it better.
Such emotions, regardless of one’s misunderstanding of their root cause, can make one rather impulsive.
The result: for the first time in a long time, Anunziato’s fingers felt that long-forgotten tingling sensation, the one that was always there before he drew something in school that got him detention, the one that caused him to retire his pen. Perhaps it was destiny, but on that day, a piece of chalk was still lying on the top of Don-something-or-other’s chalkboard street sign.
Anunziato did some drawing.
A few chalk strokes later, pedestrians flocked to bear witness. That attracted the manager of Don-something-or-Other, who came out yelling before thinking, as restaurant managers sometimes do.
But a few yells in, the manager caught glimpses of joy from passersby, many of which fast converted into patronage and a lunch line for Don-something-or-others that stretched down the street. Scowl turned to smile. To express his satisfaction with Anunziato, the manager grabbed his wallet.
First paid commission.
Other commissions came. Before long Anunziato controlled the New York City sign-making scene. Any restaurant that was anything had a fresh ‘Therabeux’ chalk sign in their entryway.
After the New Yorker covered his sign empire, publicity skyrocketed even more, as did his bank account. Viral postings on social media followed, the only vaccine being more drawings.
Eventually, however, his street work needed a studio. Anunziato found what he was looking for in the form of a café for purchase uptown, in Washington Heights. It was there, with a few coffee cups and some chalk, that he began his greatest period of production, born out of which were his greatest masterworks.
Anunziato’s Cafe attracted artists and art lovers worldwide. At his urging, other people started to show up and draw their own chalkboard artwork. Along with his own, works produced at the café went up on the ‘Community Board’ wall, where buyers, hungry for more than scones, could shop for something to mount over their fireplace.
When a chalk drawing didn’t sell, on the Community Board is where it stayed. That is, until another artist was bold enough to erase and replace that chalk drawing with their own work, or, in the less aggressive alternative, to jam their own work in and around them. In Anunziato’s café, wherever there was space for a nail, there was space for a new chalk drawing.
Aside from art hunters, the regular patrons were mostly artists themselves. With Anunziato’s blessing, they spent their days drawing, drinking coffee and arguing about what chalk drawing was better, and whether better meant better, and who was to judge. Patrons spent their nights in the same spot, doing the same thing, with the exception that coffee, that drink of the morning, was replaced with wine and beer and liquor, drinks of the night.
Sometimes artists had no money for their orders. Asking for nothing in return, Anunziato still poured their mugs without judgment. It gave him great joy to do so, for pouring into their mugs in the present felt like pouring into his mug in the past. For similar reasons, when these same artists needed lodging for the night, Anunziato welcomed them with open arms and easels.
The café owner was clear, however, that these destitute patrons weren’t tenants. And the café wasn’t a flop house. For his hospitality, Anunziato expected artists to talk about big things, big ideas, big dreams, while sipping their coffees and producing art. Welcome topics included God and politics and everything else that the world had shied away from in honor of that false prophet, civility.
Artists who exchanged their personalities and their politics for coffee and shelter did not often stay impoverished. While some worked at Anunziato’s café developed impressive portfolios, some found their skill was in other areas. Quite a few, in fact, came to find that politics was art in different dress. Campaigns and elections in public office came next, often with the financial and political backing of the café.
For these gestures and other methods of paying it forward, Anunziato received massive return in the form of monetary donations, gifted paintings from café-affiliated artists worth fortunes, and daily visits from paupers turned famous painters and politicians.
On the hallway walls leading to the bathroom, that’s where Anunziato hung these donations of now ‘successful’ friends of the café. ‘Sellout row’ as the newer, poorer, artists came to call it, did not even contain the best works of the artists who were part of it. The real works of genius, by ‘Sellout Row’ artists and everyone else, were erased and replaced by something new on the Community Board. Only then did a work truly enter the soul of Anunziato’s café.