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the column of lasting insignificance: December 7, 2013
by John Wilcock

How To Get By on $40 per Week

(a JW column from the 1950s)

FOR MOST OF THE 18 months since he arrived in New York, a young artist named Robert Cowan has lived in a third-floor walk-up near Second Avenue—spending his time walking, talking, painting, and loafing, in a manner usually thought of (by non-Villagers) as being typical of young Village artists.
    Here in the United States only by grace of a student visa, Cowan, who is 26, has not been allowed to take a job, but he has managed to get by fairly well on a weekly allowance of $40 from his indulgent father, a lawyer, in Toronto, Canada. At the end of next month, unfortunately, Cowan's idyllic life is to end, for Cowan senior has announced that he'll finally call it quits and present the inevitable ultimatum: find a job or else.
    On the whole, however, Bob's life in the Village has been a memorably carefree one, and though his story may not be at all typical, even for the Village, it surely serves as an outline of the way that many people, here and elsewhere, think they would like to live.
    Forty dollars a week (after NO taxes) is nowhere near starvation level, of course, and many people (including myself) live on less. But it's a figure that does necessitate a certain amount of budgeting and allows few extravagances even if—as Cowan feels—this is amply compensated for by the freedom of being able to work when one feels like it. Or not work at all.
    Before meeting Cowan, I exchanged a couple of letters with him, and in one of them he wrote:

I do get up when I feel like it (about 10.30 in the morning or later); I do not work when I feel like it, for this is against the law for me at this time, unfortunately; but I paint when I feel like it. I sit around in the evening, quite often at the Montmartre or Rienzi's, wasting time and money. I more or less live a life of leisure but I like to think that my painting makes life worthwhile and it does. If this sounds dull as hell, it may be—but here I am and here I intend to stay.

    At that time I hadn't asked him why he came to this particular area to live, I gathered from what he said that it was for pretty much the same reasons that have attracted younger people for the past three or four decades: cheap rents, a quaint dissimilarity between Village streets and the rest of Manhattan, a general air of creativity—off-Broadway theatre, little galleries, craft shops—and a greater-than-usual tolerance for eccentricities of dress and behavior. Whatever the case, early in 1955 Robert Cowan, graduate of the Ontario College of Art, erstwhile picture framer and potential full time artist, came to New York, enrolled in Hans Hofmann's art class on West 8th Street, and began to look for an inexpensive apartment.
    “I walked up and down Fifth Avenue, taking the side streets methodically and knocking on almost every door,” he recalls. “Eventually I got wise and began to follow the newspaper ads, acting on them as soon as the papers came out.” He landed the unheated, third-floor walk-up in which he now lives far east on 5th Street. The rent is $30 a month, and to keep it warm in winter he uses an old trick: turning the oven up high and leaving it on.
    Furniture? “The Salvation Army will let you have a whole raft of stuff for five bucks—and they'll deliver, too.” What they delivered in his case was a couple of old tables, a gooseneck lamp, and a garbage can. The remainder of his furnishings include a Japanese screen, sent by a friend in Korea, shelves and a chest of drawers made out of covered 30-cent orange crates, some low stools ($5 apiece), and an old-fashioned radio “of hideous design but with a beautiful tone,” picked up on the Bowery for $10.
    He doesn't have a telephone and when I first tried to get in touch with him I called up a girl in the same apartment house and left a message. Later I found out that that is what everybody does when they want him. He has an amicable exchange with a girl in one of the downstairs apartments: she uses his apartment occasionally, as a studio—it is very light with the windows facing north—and he uses her telephone.
    “I used to pay half the bill,” he explained, “but she hasn't mentioned it lately.”
    I tried to explain to him that his life, whether “typical” or not, in some ways represented a pipe-dream for a good many people and I felt they might be interested in how he spent his time. And money. For example, how had he passed the previous day? This was a Sunday, about three weeks ago. We decided to retrace it, step by step.
    “Let's see,” he said, “I got up about 10 o'clock, as usual, and skipped breakfast, also as usual I've been trying to do some cartooning lately, and for no particular reason I suddenly remembered an idea I'd had about a month before.”
    “I had been thinking about expressions that could be taken literally, and the one I decided to draw showed a woman shaking her fist at a man and saying: 'Don't you shout at me, you old goat.' The man, of course, looked like a man except that instead of a man's head, he had the head of a goat.”
    He smiled apologetically, as if he realized that it was corny, adding that his main aim in drawing the cartoon was to improve his technique on that kind of work. He hadn't been able to sell either that or any of a handful of other cartoons, nor had he had any success with some science-fiction covers and magazine illustrations. It hasn't bothered him much because he did them mainly for practice. What he really wants to do is fine art.
    “Fine art?” I prompted.
    “Yes,” he replied. “Pictures, non-objective works—not commercial art. Painting is what I'm serious about—and what runs away with most of my money. I buy my paints and brushes and things at the Central Artists' Supply, on 3rd Avenue; that's about the cheapest place because it's always having artists' sales. Even with canvases at $2 apiece, though, the price adds up.”
    “Do you ever sell anything?” I asked.
    “Yes, sometimes. About two months ago I sold a picture from the show at the City Center. They have an exhibit every month and I usually enter—it only costs $2. The picture I sold brought $50. That pays for a lot of paint.”
    After he had finished the cartoon, he said, he went uptown to visit some of the galleries.
    “And after looking round the galleries?”
    “And after that I went back home and cooked up something to eat. That's an important point to make, I guess, if you're recording what I do every day. Most of my eating I do at home to save money. Seven dollars a week is what I put aside for food. I buy most of it at that market at First Avenue, near 9th Street.”
    “Any particular attempt to balance your diet?”
    “No balance. Lots of potatoes, and yogurt and sour cream and things like that. If you're going to stress how to save money, though, you should mention things like buying day-old bread and pastries for half price-and the free meals you can get in White Rose bars for the price of a 10-cent beer. Pickled foods-things like herring and potato salad. Not very exciting, but filling.”
    “Did you ever go to the Provincetown Landing?” I asked. “It's a bar south of the Square where they used to put on a free buffet every night. I don't know if they still do.”
    “Well, as a matter of fact,” Cowan said, “I was there last night for the first time. A woman I met in the Riviera bar took me there. Oh, but I'll tell you the thing in order.”
    After he had eaten he walked as he does almost every day.
    “I looked in the [San] Remo, the Rienzi, and the Montmartre.
    Nobody there I knew either, so I didn't stay. In the Limelight I found a couple of guys. I talked with them a while. . . what about? Oh, I guess the usual things. Most people complain about the general state of affairs, but I've often thought that the people who complain the most are the ones who have the most security and money.”
    “How about the contented ones?” I asked.
    “I don't think I've met many contented ones.”
    Cowan tilted his head back, hitched up his blue jeans (he was also wearing a brown shirt, open at the neck, and a light jacket), and continued:
   “Well, these two guys and myself went over to the Riviera, had a few beers and met this brunette. She was sitting by herself and we got talking to her. Turned out she'd come down to the Village to get away from things, as she did occasionally. She was married, but it wasn't her husband she wanted to get away from. Just things.
    “She took us over to the Provincetown Landing—I hadn't seen it before—and we had a few more beers before I got bored and I walked home, about 1 o'clock.”
    “And that's a typical day?” I asked.
    “About average, yes. There are other things I do occasionally and most of them don't cost much. There's a jazz at the Central Plaza on weekends. It's two bucks, I think, and you can take your own liquor or not. Just as you like. Sometimes I go to the Cafe Bohemia. A beer there costs you 90 cents, but you can stand at the bar with it all night and listen to top jazz men. And Ted Joans of the Galerie Fantastique has Dixieland parties on Second Avenue every Friday night, I believe; I've never been there, but I hear they're pretty good. A dollar—and take your own booze.”
    “And it's all over now?” I asked. “You're going back to Canada next week?”
    “Yes, I'm going back,” Cowan said. “I'm going to teach art for a couple of months near Parry Sound. But I'm also going to apply for a work permit so that I can come back to the Village in the fall. As a matter of fact, I'm keeping up my apartment.”
    “Things will be different, though? I mean you'll be working and earning some money?”
     “Well, I'll try to get a job, but it's by no means certain that I'll have any money—or any more than I've got now, anyway.”
    We shook hands and I wished him luck, though I felt he needed it less than most. I think he's about the most relaxed guy I've ever met.

11/30/13

[JW is resting after a hospital stay.]


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