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Sunbone Begins

Illustration by Mitch Handsone

Andy Sunbone wrote and drew in his notebook every day or two. Sketches, mostly, with circles and arrows and 10-page captions in between. Each morning he rose at dawn and drove — sometimes for miles, sometimes just a few blocks — to his favorite hiking trail, in the western hills above the sea. With his notebook and a few pens, he hiked a mile up to where a small footbridge crossed a stream, then sat there on the bridge and, facing a small waterfall and a sycamore tree that looked like a bust of Peter Falk smoking a cigar, scratched ink into the pages for a solid hour or more. Then he hiked another two miles, up and around, in a loop, back to his car.

He’d been living out of his 1979 Honda for longer than he’d thought possible — almost a year already. Most of that time he’d worked full time at an art gallery in Santa Monica. He sat at the front desk, greeted wanderers, answered the phones, wrote press releases and typed up, manually, on an IBM Selectric II, semi-identical slide labels, over and over and over: “Untitled,” Laddie John Dill, cement wash, 30 x 48 in., 1988. “Untitled,” Laddie John Dill, lithograph, 46 x 38 in., 1987. “Untitled,” Laddie John Dill, cast paper, 36 x 48 in., 1986. Three nights a week, he also tended bar at a comedy club not far from the gallery. The bartending paycheck, combined with his salary from the art gallery, provided him with enough money for food and clothing, but not enough to cover the sort of shelter he required for both sleeping and painting.

So Andy Sunbone slept all over town. And wherever he woke up — a kind friend’s couch or floor or bed, or discreetly parked with the seat tilted back on a cliff above the sea — nothing, in general, felt quite as real, felt quite the way things used to feel, before the car-living.

 

Except for when he was hiking. If in fact Andy Sunbone hadn’t yet lost his mind, he was convinced that it was the hiking ritual that had saved it. While making his way uphill along the path of a stream, panting clean air through the thick vegetation, he’d work on his own standup-comedy routines, and replay, in his head, others’ routines that he’d memorized when he was a kid. And he’d feel almost normal again.

One of his favorites was David Steinberg’s Booga! Booga! album, which his older brother, Julius, had played for him, and which they both had liked all the more for its having an Al Hirschfeld caricature on the cover. After Hirschfeld and his wife had a daughter, Nina, Hirschfeld began hiding the word Nina in his ink hatchings, usually several times per drawing, in hair, folds of clothing and other places of transition from black to white. And then beside his signature, at the bottom, he’d add a superscript number to indicate how many Ninas he’d worked into the picture. Andy Sunbone had seen some Hirschfelds with as many as 18 Ninas, and heard there was one that had 40. The Steinberg Booga! Booga! caricature contained just three, which was most likely utterly insignificant, which made it all the more interesting to Andy Sunbone.

After school, the two Sunbone brothers used to listen to comedy albums while they drew and painted and wrote stories at the kitchen table. Often they’d start separate drawings, then exchange them and each continue where the other had left off. The elder Sunbone’s drawings were a bit more refined, with confident, swooping lines — sort of like Hirschfeld’s — forming soft-looking, Fleischer-y shapes. His younger brother’s stuff had a raw, hurried look; when he could control it, it resembled the work of Philip Guston, with a little Ralph Steadman thrown in. Their styles didn’t really look that great combined, but they didn’t much care.

 

Booga! Booga! track 1: About a minute into it, Steinberg’s talking about his father’s prejudice toward the outside world, toward what the old man called they: “He’d stand in the grocery store Christmas Day,” said David Steinberg to the audience and Andy Sunbone to the rocks and trees, “and look to the heavens, and wait for the first flake of snow to wend its lazy way down to earth. And as it would touch down, he’d go, ‘Ah! They got their snow again for Christmas!’”

After his hike, Andy Sunbone showered in cold water at the beach, then drove down to his storage space, on Olympic Boulevard. There, amid estranged mattress, boxed-up paints and rolled-up paintings, he changed into unwrinkled slacks, shirt and tie, grabbed a quick wank if he had time, then shot down Olympic to open the gallery by 9:30. After making coffee and booting up the co-directors’ computers, he moved pieces of art or paper in and out of files and storage racks, or got back to work labeling slides — anything to appear generically productive when the directors arrived at 10.

 

He didn’t mind so much that his notebook bindings were starting to disintegrate, but the hiking sweat was starting to saturate the paper, starting to affect the ink. So during his lunch break one afternoon, he drove to the camping store on Pico and bought a small airtight container, the kind used to protect documents from floods. The next morning he brought the container with him on his hike, and after he’d finished drawing and writing, he placed the notebook and two pens inside the container and buried it about 10 meters uphill from the waterfall, to the west, at the base of Peter Falk’s head.

Now he could keep one notebook buried up here, and leave another one in the car. He could spend his hikes performing comedy in his head, without worrying about ruining his work.

 

Andy Sunbone took his place at the bridge with his notebook, and dangled his legs over the side. During the past year of car-living, a year without a home in which to paint, the marks inside the notebook had changed considerably. What had once been an incoherently illustrated journal had become a kind of comic book — bordered pictures with narration and dialogue, mostly about a cartoon chicken named Jim — Jim Chicken — who lived in a sparsely decorated chicken house. Every day, dozens of Jim Chicken’s friends went missing, and dozens of new chickens arrived; Jim sat on his departed friends’ eggs, philosophizing with his new neighbors, waiting for his turn.

A lizard wriggled across the footbridge, fell and landed hard on the rocks below. “Ah!” said Andy Sunbone silently to Peter Falk and the waterfall. “They got their snow again for Christmas.”