The Boy Who Could Draw Dr. King
Richard Grayson


The summer I was 14, I used to go to work with my grandfather at The Slack Bar, a sliver of a store on Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn, just a block from the Abraham & Straus and E.J. Korvette department stores.

The store was owned by my Uncle Matty, Grandpa Herb’s son, but it was bankrolled by Matty’s rich father-in-law. It sold nothing but dress pants, including those manufactured by my father and my other grandfather. The Slack Bar did free alterations, and Grandpa Herb and Carlos were the tailors who sat at sewing machines in the back of the little store. They spent most of the day arguing about baseball and the relative merits of the Jewish and Puerto Rican peoples.

The manager of the store, a white guy named Marty, had a connection at the main Brooklyn post office, who would, for a price, pass onto Marty pieces of mail sent out by First National City Bank (later Citibank) that contained BankAmericards (later Visa credit cards). In those days the bank sent people credit cards, with hundreds of dollars of available credit, even though they hadn’t applied for them.

Marty and the assistant manager, Joe, a young black guy, used the stolen credit cards to buy stuff at stores up and down Fulton Street. Once, when I walked through the main floor of A&S with Joe, all the sales clerks were greeting him by saying, “Hello, Mr. Goldberg,” sometimes with a smirk. The credit card Joe had been using that week had the name Bernard Goldberg on it. (This was years before Whoopi.)

My grandfather, who was counting the months before reaching his 62nd birthday so he could start collecting early social security and work off the books, did not participate in the stolen credit card scam. Neither did Carlos. Both of them also warned me not to get too friendly with “hopheads” and made sure I didn’t go down to the basement storeroom lest I get a contact high from the marijuana smoke that Joe and Marty left there. I think they liked going down there themselves, actually.

Most of our customers were black men, and we would do a tremendous amount of business on Friday because, Marty explained to me, that was when the customers got their paychecks and they wouldn’t be holding onto the money too much longer.

A lot of the rest of the week was quiet, especially the mornings, and I would sit on a tall stool by the cash register with my sketch pad and my India ink, drawing portraits of movie comedians like Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp and W.C. Fields holding a deck of cards and Laurel and Hardy glaring at each other.

I was a terrible artist. Nobody could recognize the subjects I was drawing. Marty looked at my Laurel and Hardy drawing and said, “Who’s that, your grandfather and Carlos?”

One day I brought in a Time magazine from a few months earlier. It had a pen-and-ink drawing of Martin Luther King Jr. by Ben Shahn. Somehow I managed to copy it just right on my sketchpad. It was the best drawing I had ever made. It basically was a fluke.

A man in his fifties came to the cash register to pay for a pair of sharkskin slacks and noticed my drawing when I put down my sketchpad and the copy of Time on the counter to take his money.

“That’s Dr. King,” he said to me.

I nodded, pleased that I’d finally drawn a person that someone could recognize.

“I’ll give you ten dollars for it if you make him black,” the man said. He meant that he wanted me to darken his skin with the charcoal, like in Ben Shahn’s drawing.

“I can do that,” I said, praying that when I used the charcoal it wouldn’t be so dark that it would obliterate Dr. King’s features and make my drawing worthless.

After Grandpa Herb took me back to our summer bungalow in Rockaway that night, I carefully used my charcoal to darken the picture. I managed not to spoil it.

But the customer who liked my drawing didn’t show up the next day. Crestfallen, I turned the page of my sketchpad and started a new drawing of Martin Luther King. Just before we closed, a woman who was buying pants for her two young sons saw what I was doing and offered me ten dollars for the portrait.

I showed her the better drawing, the one with the charcoaled skin, and she said she’d take that one instead. She gave me two five-dollar bills.

That was my first sale.

The next day, the customer who had originally asked for the drawing came back into the Slack Bar and bought the second picture.

Suddenly I started to feel like a real artist. I’d made more from the two sales of my drawings than I earned all week at the cash register.

I did sketch after sketch of Dr. King for the next few weeks. They all looked pretty much the same, much better than any other person I had ever drawn.

I sold about seven more King portraits that summer. I usually asked ten dollars for it, figuring that was the going price, but I sometimes took seven or eight dollars. I didn’t want anyone to think I was cheating black people.

One day, when I stayed home with bronchitis, Grandpa Herb came back from work with the news that some woman had come in wanting to see “the boy who can draw Dr. King.”

I envisioned myself as someone known throughout downtown Brooklyn as The Boy Who Can Draw Dr. King. That was exciting at first, but then it started to depress me. I wanted to broaden my repertoire, not be a one-trick pony.

So I vowed to draw only new people for a while. Joe scolded me for this. “Why mess up a good thing?” he asked. Even if he did smoke marijuana regularly, Joe really didn’t understand what it was like to be an artist.

So I drew people I found in a book of photographs of 1920s celebrities. But not only did my drawings of the actress Ina Claire and the set designer Jo Mielzner and the writer Langston Hughes not look very much like those people, nobody on Fulton Street seemed to know who they were—not even Grandpa Herb, who was young in the 1920s. I showed him my portrait of Ethel Waters and he stared at it blankly, even though he had taken Grandma Ethel to see her on Broadway in Blackbirds of 1929 just weeks before they got married on Christmas Eve.

After a few weeks, people stopped coming in to ask about buying my Dr. King pictures. “Word on the street is you’ve lost your touch,” Marty told me just before he left the store on another stolen credit card buying spree.

I shrugged. The summer was coming to an end, and I was too nervous about starting high school to do any more drawing. Most of my friends from Meyer Levin Junior High were going to Tilden or Midwood, but I was in the district for Madison, which was supposed to be a tough school because of all the kids who were being bused in.

I ended up staying at Madison only for a month, and then I made my parents send me to a private school on the Upper West Side. But I hated the long commute by one bus and three subway lines and didn’t really fit in with the rich Manhattan kids, so my parents got me into Midwood at the start of my junior year by saying that I was living with their friend Joe Cohn, a police lieutenant.

It was April of my senior year when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was watching the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite when they interrupted a story—it was about a man trying to design a table for the Vietnam peace talks that all sides would like—with the grim news from Memphis.

I was depressed and too scared to go to school for the next week. There were riots. For some reason I wrote a letter expressing my sorrow and fear and sent it to Percy Sutton, the Manhattan borough president and the top black official in the city. His chief of staff called my mother while I was out and told her I’d written a beautiful letter. All I can remember about it is that I ended by quoting a corny speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that went:

His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world “This was a man!”

Grandpa Herb had moved to Rockaway year-round by then, and he’d stop off at our house in the mornings and drive me to Midwood on his way to Fulton Street. One morning in the car in late May, we were listening to NewsRadio 88, a story about the Poor People’s March.

“Carlos and I were talking the other day,” my grandfather said. “We bet you could sell a lot of those drawings now.”

But I was about to turn seventeen—on that day Bobby Kennedy would be shot—and I’d be starting Brooklyn College in the fall.

I knew I’d never be a portrait artist if I could draw just one person in this world that people could recognize. And I didn’t want to be known only as the boy who could draw Dr. King.

So I never drew another portrait again. Instead, I started writing things like this, seeing if people would be able to recognize the boy whose hand held the pen.

 

“Visiting my parents in Arizona, I came across an old photo of me with one of my drawings of Dr. King, and I wanted to tell the story of that picture without disguising it as fiction. At the same time, I found another photo, of Coretta Scott King at a 1970 antiwar march in Washington. Looking at it, you’d think the photographer was standing nearby at the speaker’s platform, but actually my grandfather took it off his TV screen while we were watching the news. So any story of that picture will probably be fictional. The last time I worked selling clothing was in Fort Lauderdale in the mid-1980s, when my brothers sold shirts at The Swap Shop, the South’s largest flea market, at the corner of Sunrise Boulevard and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.”

 

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