The night started badly for Frederic Kahler. His restless feet, tapping like Fred Astaire in that big showpiece number with Ginger Rogers in Top Hat, kept him awake.
He took his nervous energy over to his studio on Avenue D. He paints abstracts, portraits, landscapes, whatever. Lately he has been painting a lot of whatevers. They reflect what has been going on in the northern Gulf of Mexico since April 20, namely the gushing of millions of gallons of oil that already has taken a toll on wildlife, beaches and people who live on the coast.
The oil hasn't come ashore in Apalachicola yet, but it's on everybody's mind. Apalachicola, population 2,000, is the most important commercial fishing port left in Florida. Its small-town charm is catnip to tourists.
Kahler recently began calling himself the Oil Boy. He even has a Facebook page by that name. He usually makes small paintings because they are easier to sell. But he has a friend, Tamara Suarez, who operates the little Cafe con Leche on Water Street. He works for her afternoons. She is a passionate Venezuelan. She said, "Frederico, you must do a painting that drips with oil that looks like blood."
So that's what he did in the studio on the night he couldn't sleep. He commenced work on a huge, passionate anti-oil-spill painting full of misery and pathos. He'd hang it on the wall of the cafe, his Louvre. Maybe a tourist would throw down $500 and take it home. Probably not. Whatever. It would be the Oil Boy's grandest statement yet.
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He lives in what might be the last great Florida town. It has everything from seafood restaurants where diners suck down raw oysters without wiping their chins to an amazing bookstore stocked with everything-Florida volumes and enough yarn to keep every knitter on the Panhandle happy. One shop's inventory includes bandages that look like bacon strips. One street is named Oyster.
On the waterfront, ramshackle commercial fishing shacks appear poised to tumble into the river on the next full-moon tide. On the dock, men with ZZ Top beards, nose rings and tattoos haul sacks of oysters from boat to shucker. Yell "Hey, Jethro" and one or more may turn around. Someone may answer to "Pinky" and "Tiny" as well.
If an artsy guy who serves coffee by day and paints by night while singing opera to soothe his own tormented soul wants to call himself "the Oil Boy," nobody cares. It's still America, damn it. The Oil Boy has found a home.
He was born in France in 1962. An Army brat, he lived all over the world. His mother, Sonya, was a sign painter. He says he gets his artistic talent from her.
He was the oldest of seven children. His dad took off, which meant Frederic had to take care of the kids while his mother scratched out a living. "Life was all about chaos," he tells his friends. He joined the Air Force, he said, because he "loved the structure." The Air Force did not return the love. He's gay. Eventually he left.
He was a cook in Seattle and painted pretty desert pictures in Las Vegas. He and his partner, Dana, another artist, lost their Nevada home during the recession. They ended up in Apalachicola two years ago. In the evenings the Oil Boy pulls on a yellow Speedo, runs through the reeds and takes a dip in the bay.
He weighs 125 pounds soaking wet. "Eat something!" says his passionate friend at the cafe, Tamara. He drinks juice, has a carrot, maybe tears a hunk from one of her delicious cherry muffins. He chews listlessly. "Americans eat too much. We're too fat."
He has never learned to drive a car. He walks or rides a bike the 2 miles to work. Everybody downtown seems to know him. He calls people whose names he has forgotten "Darling."
He smokes six cigarettes a day, like the late Audrey Hepburn, but without the pretentious cigarette holder. He is a former crystal meth addict. He stopped drinking two years ago. "There is truth in wine," he says. "The problem is it can go too far. A man becomes a bad boy and a woman becomes a girl who goes wild."
Sometimes when he is downhearted, he cleans the RV or does the laundry. "I love doing laundry," he says. Dirty clothes represent chaos. After the oil accident, BP and other emergency folks established a just-in-case beachhead in Apalachicola. "Is there a place around here where I can wash my clothes?" asked an odoriferous worker.
"I'll do it," announced Oil Boy. For a while he has been washing the dirty socks, underwear, and T-shirts of emergency workers who are here preparing for the onslaught of oil. He hasn't sold any of them a painting.
• • •
His art studio is on the second floor. A self-taught musician, he sometimes picks up his violin and plays Beethoven or Bach as he incubates an idea. Sometimes he sits at an electric piano and plays something by his favorite group, the Carpenters, or perhaps a song by Diana Ross.
He seldom paints on an easel. He lays canvas on the floor and kneels over it.
The canvas for the grand artistic statement was about 5 feet long and 3 wide. He threw paint at it like Jackson Pollock on a bender. Maybe the paint was too thick. It refused to drip across canvas like blood or oil.
He carried the canvas downstairs to the water spigot. With a hose, he squirted enough water to make the paint run.
He jerked on the hose. Crack. The pipe had broken behind the spigot. Water rushed out. There was no way to turn off the spigot.
It was the middle of the night. The water ran out of the broken spigot like oil from the bottom of the gulf. Oil Boy is good with his hands, but he stood in the puddle of water like an impotent BP oilman.
His landlord came over and shut off water for the building.
Oil Boy felt like something mystical had happened. The oil spill. A water spill. Art imitating life.
He finished the painting.
"The epitome of chaos is the oil spill,'' he said.
• • •
He tossed and turned in his bed until noon, got up and drank juice. His partner drove him in the rain to the studio, where he grabbed his painting and walked to the cafe.
At lunch, patrons got to look at his masterpiece. He hung it between a painting of an oil-threatened lighthouse illuminated by a BP sun and a painting of a flower being attacked by a river of oil.
His grand artistic statement painting had a Van Gogh Starry Night thing going on. Except most of the action was taking place under the sea during a horrendous oil spill. Van Gogh's stars were replaced by the skeletons of doomed fish pouring from the broken pipe. They swam to the surface and became skeleton flying fish. Shining down upon them was another BP sun.
In the afternoon, a stout commercial fisherman walked over from the waterfront past the painting and ordered an espresso. The Oil Boy headed into the kitchen to prepare it.
While he fixed the coffee, he began singing, softly at first but then quite loudly. He sang something from the Phantom of the Opera, a number called Prima Donna. At the counter, the audience of one witnessed the performance in utter silence.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727.