Monkey Tom. Discovery of an Artist

Private Property. Do Not Enter.

This is one of the most alluring signs. I enter.

It’s all very fascinating. Is it a trailer park, is it a junk yard, or is it a museum?

The road is wide and covered in pale gravel, bleached broken up corals, and faded wet carpets. From the entrance to the end is probably a hundred feet. There are six or seven shabby old trailers on both sides hidden beneath trees I’ve never seen before and surrounded by huge piles of junk. I am almost convinced that this place has been abandoned ages ago and there is no one living here. No signs of life.

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The road ends in the sea like a boat ramp. There is an improvised wooden pier, a yellow houseboat on the left and a grey house on pillars on the right sticking out of the water. The sea is calm here and in the distance lays a mangrove island and a small anchorage where a few sailboats quietly rest. An idyllic scene reminiscent of some distant past, forever lost, my dear Hemingway.

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This place can only be possible in Stock Island, I tell myself. In this poor neighborhood divided in small fenced in trailer compounds, like decrepit ancient campgrounds, one can see all sorts of strange dwellings. And this one surpasses them all. There are mountains of junk taller than the trailers.

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But as I slow down and inspect closely, I realize things have been carefully placed, the junk has been meticulously arranged. The discovery enlightens me. The place morphs in my mind like a rock becoming a turtle. The junk transforms into artworks. The trash is now found objects. The piles- installations and sculptures. Yes, this is a bizarre offbeat museum, a lunatic gallery, and I am thrilled!

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Art is all around me. Barbarous, paranoid, psychopathic art; crying, roaring, and laughing at me. What a discovery, what a luck, what a fortune!

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Then, as I celebrate, a creature appears. Riding some weird contraption that blends with the place and soon disappears among fishing nets and fake flowers, an old, very old guy with a straw hat slowly approaches and says nothing. I say, Hi.

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I figure, this must be the artist, and his noble steed. And it is.

His name is Monkey Tom.

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(He once had a monkey named Igor, but the pet died stung by a scorpion. Someone later told me, that Igor actually was killed in a bar fight.)

Monkey Tom showed me around, and we talked for a bit. I went back and visited a few more times, and we talked even more. His life is a saga full of love and betrayal, adventure and glory, and there are articles even books written about him. But that doesn’t mean he is famous, or rich, not in the sense you might think.

In Stock Island where he presently lives, everyone knows him. He is the local celebrity. But he is not at the least known in Key West where the galleries are and the tourists with money willing to buy „local“ arts. But that’s ok, his paintings are not what the tourist requires anyway: colorful seascapes, palm trees, and flowers. His are of bizarre creatures with three eyes, old men with white beards and faces covered in fish scales, ghost shrimp boats, sea monsters, and storms. He paints on whatever is lying around.Old paddles, driftwood, turtle shells, coconuts…

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And he would exchange an artwork for a good meal or two. In fact, a girl I met at the Rusty Anchor restaurant, Inka, has an extensive collection of Monkey Tom paintings which she bought from him whenever he needed some cash and a bowl of soup. The whole restaurant is decorated by his artworks.

Inka with dog Maya at the Rusty Anchor restaurant showing Monkey Tom paintings

Inka with dog Maya at the Rusty Anchor restaurant showing Monkey Tom paintings

Later, in a mechanic’s shop where Ivo was going to pick up some spare parts for the engine, I recognized Monkey Tom’s paintings all over the walls. Marc, the mechanic, collects them and has hundreds of them. He also receives Monkey Tom’s mail and helps him when needed…

I must end this post here, although I wanted to show you all the details of Monkey Tom’s place and his paintings… Oh, well, I will do this next time.

p.s.

Monkey Tom has a website with lots of details about his past life and his artistic explorations. Check it out.  www.monkeytom.org

 

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The Star Of The Sea

In the beginning of this journey, 9 months ago, many asked us: What are you going to do about money? Many still ask us the same question. We ask them back: What do we need money for?

Sure, it’s a joke. We all need money for so many things. But if you think about it, we need a lot less money than most of you guys out there asking the question, just because we have less needs than you, and we also have a plethora of alternative ways to get what we need without money. We don’t buy stuff (clothes, shoes, furniture, gadgets, electronics, etc.) simply because we don’t have much use for them, nor space on the boat where to put them. The things we really needed in the beginning after we got the boat were: fibreglass, paint, water pumps, marine toilets repair kits, engine parts, filters, insulation for hatches, buckets, fishing gear, electronics, and charts. For these we did spend money from our savings but hopefully we will not have to buy them too often from now on. Other than that, we are all set.

We don’t pay rent. We drop an anchor somewhere close to shore: it’s free. We don’t have an electricity bill: we have solar panels. We don’t have a car: we have bicycles. We don’t have to pay for freshwater: we collect rainwater or we fill our tanks at the docks for free, and we even have a watermaker which produces freshwater from seawater. We don’t work and we don’t pay taxes.  We fish, we barter, we volunteer at farmers’ markets in exchange for  fruits and vegetables, we even volunteer at museums for free access to art! Everywhere we go, we find a way to „survive“ almost without money.

It has been 3 months now since we last entered a store to buy groceries. We get enough food for the four of us from the Stock Island food bank where we work as volunteers once a week for 2-3 hours. I give a tour to people who come for food and Ivo works in the back unloading crates and arranging them on the shelves. This is one of a very few choice-pantries where people walk through and choose the food they need, which is a much better option than getting two bags of groceries half of which they don’t need, like in most of the other ready-bags pantries.

A mother and a girl are choosing groceries at the SOS food bank

A mother and a girl are choosing groceries at the SOS food bank

The Star of the Sea Mission, or SOS for short, is truly the best food bank we ever came across, providing food, clothing, and services to underprivileged low-income families and individuals in Key West, serving over 90 people per day, providing 57, 000 pounds of food bags per month. Located in a small building on Stock Island, it reminds me more of a home than an institution. There are a few small rooms in the front: an office, a reception room, and a small store. In the back there is a big warehouse with lots of stored goods inside, and a huge backyard populated by well fed chickens, with wooden tables under a big tree where the workers rest and eat lunch and where trucks come and go. Lunch is usually prepared by Lobster Bob for everybody: a big meal with salad and desert.

Lunch time in the back yard of SOS food bank

Lunch time in the back yard of SOS food bank

People sign up in the office, wait for not more than 5 minutes in the reception room, and then go in the „store“ where they get to choose two canned goods from this rack, one item from that rack, one meat item from the freezer, two salads from the fridge, two breads, two deserts, two drinks, etc. It’s like shopping, only there is no cashier at the end. And some people take a looong time to choose. No hurry.

A volunteer at SOS food bank

A part-time volunteer at SOS food bank

These are low-income senior citizens, low-income families, and homeless families and individuals who can come once a week, any day, any time, as the SOS is open 5 days a week from 10 am to 5 pm. That is why there are never long lines of waiting people. Most of the other food banks we have seen operate in a church basement for a few hours once a week and people are forced to wait forever in stuffy waiting rooms.

But what makes this particular food bank so wonderfully unique in my mind is the staff, the people who work there.

Donna Knull runs the place since 7 years now.

Donna

Donna in the office of SOS food bank

„Some people resent feeding the homeless… They don’t like looking at them let alone feeding them.

I worked 16 years at a hardware store. Then I retired. But couldn’t stay at home doing nothing; I cannot not work. So I started volunteering here. And became director-manager. I wanted to do something I felt good about. To wake up in the morning and be happy to go to work. And here I got so much more back than I have given as a volunteer. This place made me compassionate and understanding of others.

I remember in the beginning, there was this homeless person who came for food and irritated me. We were giving ready-bags back then. She got the bag, looked in it and shoved it back at me, I don’t eat this! But now they don’t irritate me any more, and she is still coming every week. Now I give her a hug when I see her.

I see people walking the streets, sitting in parks, with dirty clothes and backpacks, and I recognize them. I know who they are and I feel good about myself for being able to help them…“

Raquel is second in charge. She receives people and deals with the files. Raquel came from Cuba in 2005.

„I came with my son, a two-year-old baby, in a tiny 12 feet boat. I would never do it again…

We were thirteen people in that boat. It took us three days and there was no food. It was so scary, water everywhere. At some point water started coming inside the boat. The men started putting things in the hole to block it. We managed to get to a small uninhabited island and then the boat sunk. My husband, who was already in the United States, came to pick us up and now we are here…

First, I worked in Orlando, housekeeping. Then we moved here. We lived on a houseboat for three years. I didn’t like it, it was hard…

I started working at the food bank. Not for money, I like to help people. I feel I do something important. Now we have a home. Only when you have a home you realise you can help others who don’t.“

Then, there are the permanent full-time workers: Chris, Lobster Bob, Louis and his girlfriend, and other guys who came from difficult situations: homeless, alcoholics, ex-convicts. Some came through offender programs, others just needed a safe place and a fresh start. For them, The Star of the Seas is truly a home.

Louis and his girlfriend both work as full-time volunteers at the SOS food bank

Louis and his girlfriend both work as full-time volunteers at the SOS food bank

“ This is my safe zone, says Louis who is on parole and needs to serve community hours. I used to drink a lot and get into trouble, and they would arrest me and put me in jail. But when I am here, I know I cannot be drunk, because these are the rules, and I work, and I get food and clothes. I know here I will not get into trouble. It’s my safe zone. Even after I finish my community hours I will keep coming and working here. I love it.“

For many, the food bank is a midway home, a sort of a purgatory, where they get ready for a better life. And Donna loves working with them. They even installed a tobacco machine where everyone can roll a cigarette any time, because, they figured, this will make everyone happier and will prevent people from stealing.

Lobster Bob, full time volunteer and community cook

Lobster Bob, full time volunteer and community cook

Chris is the soul of the place. With a German accent, Chris can tell you loud stories and jokes all day long. He was the first one who gave us a tour when we first came to pick up food and he thought us how to arrange the bread on the shelves, how to walk people through, how to treat them and be careful and all.

Chris, resident, full time worker, and   the "soul" of SOS food bank

Chris, resident, full time worker, and the „soul“ of SOS food bank

And finally, there are the part-time volunteers, mostly retired ladies and gentlemen who come to help once a week, or people like us who like to give back to those who have given them so much. Thank you, Donna, Rachel, Chris, and all you guys at The Star of the Sea Mission! You have made a huge difference for our family!

 

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