Earlier this year, walking among rows of student artwork as a juror in an annual countywide competition, I was stopped in my tracks by a portrait of a pitcher straddling a mound. Baseball was one of my great adolescent loves. For innings and months and languorous seasons at a time, the Dodgers spoke to everything that made me increasingly delirious but that I could hardly get words around: sun, air, group license to scream, the incrementally exquisite thrill of the wait between a pitch and a ball in play, the liberty to construct a hero out of nothing more than the way he tossed his helmet to the grass or squinted resignedly up into the outfield light. So it was that in a collection that boasted some elaborate wrought iron and ceramic sculpture, I was taken with this modest piece, tissue paper and watercolor in a cardboard frame propped against a wooden school chair. The pitcher, done in bold black strokes with his throwing arm cocked back and his brow set, floated in an unlikely sea of pastels. He was moving yet suspended, plain but as fancifully colored as sherbet, a quirky but lovely irresolution of doing and dreaming in the context of baseball.
I looked on the back of the portrait for contact information, and for a brief explanatory essay about the piece that was required in this competition (as a judge I didnt wholly agree with the requirement -- art should and must speak for itself -- but in this case I hoped the student had complied). The artist was Deandre Connors, a sophomore at Locke High School. His essay was really more a long caption that said he chose the subject not because he played or even watched baseball, but because he was 7 feet tall and was already weary, at 16, of the assumption that he was a basketball player, or that he would become one. So I drew baseball because Im imagining what else I might do, or be, he wrote. But I dont like it much. Maybe Ill like it better someday. But I dont think so.
I observed, as I did each year, that there were many other noteworthy pieces in the exhibit but precious few other entries from Locke, or any other inner-city schools. I tagged Deandres work with a purple Post-It and hoped a few other judges would follow suit, so that it might make it to the next round of competition. It didnt; the game was fierce. On an impulse I went back to the pitcher and copied down Deandres name and number, and the number of his art teacher at Locke. I would call and offer to buy it and in that way Deandre would know that his effort, and his significant representation of his school and its woefully underrepresented ilk, had not gone unappreciated.
I phoned him at home. At first his mother was guarded -- what do you want with my son? -- then slowly impressed. I talked to Deandre, who was friendly and cheery and didnt seem nearly as surprised to hear from someone like me as his mother was. He said hed been doing art ever since he was a kid. He agreed to sell me the baseball piece before I even got the request fully out; when I asked if a hundred dollars was alright, he exclaimed, Sure! Could I come to Locke and pick it up next week? Sure! Could I meet him fifth period, in his art teachers room? Yes, sure! he said once again. Ill see you then.
But I didnt see him then. I showed up on the appointed Thursday and announced to the folks in the main office that I was there to see one of their very talented students, that I had a very good purpose, and so on. I got indifference and a few baleful stares in return. You cant see any student here unless your name is on a list, said one woman with frighteningly long nails, pointing an index finger at a piece of paper with some difficulty. Sorry, maam. Those are the rules. I asked to see the art teacher, Mr. Acuña, and after a few more stares somebody summoned him on the phone. Well into sixth period he came to the office, wearing a paint-stained apron and a distracted air. Sorry about this, he muttered. Youd think this school would be happy about you being here . . . Come next week and ask to see me. Were having an art show, and you can meet Deandre. I said that would be fine, that it was no inconvenience, that I didnt live very far away and that Deandre likely didnt know or remember the visitor rules. Mr. Acuña looked at me a little queerly and said, Deandres in special ed.
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He didnt say anything else, and I didnt ask for anything else. But I felt my good deed immediately pucker around the edges -- who was I meeting exactly, and what did I have to prepare for? Driving over to Locke High from Inglewood, where I lived, was sobering enough; it was not in fact that far east, as Id told Mr. Acuña, but Manchester is a thoroughfare of several planets, and at San Pedro, east of the Harbor Freeway, it collapses into both Mars and Pluto -- an unlivable molten core right in the center of the civic galaxy, and a frozen sphere millions of miles away from the center of anything. I worried about Deandre, whatever he turned out to be, thriving in such a place. This was his home, the field where he should have advantage over time, the sky that should expand infinitely with his wishes. As I drove west, I imagined how it must look to Deandre, and felt vicariously hemmed in.
The next week at Locke, a student met me at the office to take me to the art show. She led me across a big, razed quad, through a cafeteria, over a worn stage, past the gulf of a backstage that was strewn with odds and ends that looked not like remnants of props or costumes, but generic stuff cleared out of somebodys house months ago, maybe years, and laid at the side of a curb. Finally we came to the last place we could come to. The art show, lacking a room, was set up under an outside tent. Everything was carefully arranged, and mostly everything displayed the same potent simplicity and verve that had attracted me to Deandres work. He saw me and stood up from where he was sitting behind a table -- unfolded himself, really, like a crane rising from a nest. He was indeed 7 feet, a height that may seem normal in pro basketball, but isnt in real life. He dressed in jeans and a windbreaker. He wore glasses. His hand swallowed up mine entirely when he shook it; one of his hands appeared a bit crooked, unusable, but not too much. He took me to his baseball portrait, which was arranged among other pieces of his, and said proudly that since we talked, another person had offered to buy it. Its a very good piece, I said as seriously as I could without being patronizing.
I gave him an envelope with a note card of thanks and congratulations on his artistry, and, of course, his money. He graciously didnt open it, but he did admit hed been looking forward to my coming because he needed to buy clothes for some upcoming events -- graduation, a dance. I gave him my business card, told him to keep in touch about his work. He said he would.
I had the piece decently framed, and now it hangs in my living room with the prints of Klimt and van Gogh and the jazz photos. That it is the only original piece of art in there is deeply and repeatedly satisfying. And last month I drafted Deandres pitcher as a kind of patron saint of the long-thwarted Angels as my husband and I watched them battle their way daily to their first World Series title. Fans in Anaheim proudly say that now, many more people in the world know the names of their players and where they live. Thanks to the magic of baseball and to a victory of a much more ordinary but no less self-illuminating kind, I can say the same thing about Manchester and San Pedro.