Wait For It… a blog by Andy Ross

The Storage Space

Posted on July 14, 2011


In honor of my storytelling show Real Characters starting back up (the next show is August 15th at McNally Jackson Books), I thought I'd share another true story with you all. Here goes:

When I got out of college, my first job was painting signs for a Trader Joe’s grocery in Chicago. Mostly, it was coming up with stupid puns to write on chalkboard displays, like one for masala sauce that read, “Curry Simmer Sauces: Put These India Belly. (They Shere Khan Fill You Up.)” So, yeah, I was killing it at Trader Joe’s.

Every once and again, I'd get to paint a mural. I painted sticks of butter riding the subway or an onion at the beach, an old-timey ocean diver spearing cans of tuna. It was cartoony stuff done quickly, and that speed must have caught the attention of a higher-up, because I got asked to help open a new store in Minneapolis. They were on a tight schedule and needed someone to paint banners for a few windows.

Trader Joe’s flew me up to Minnesota to take measurements and reference photos. It turns out it wasn't simply a few windows; it was forty-three giant windows of varying sizes. Each one was around four feet wide and hovered between three and six feet tall. The store had built freezers around the interior perimeter, so anyone looking in would see backs of machines instead of an inviting grocery. I had two short months before the grand opening to fix that.

I flew back to Chicago and bought rolls of pre-primed canvas, which I cut to size and numbered. A coworker’s wife was a seamstress, and I commissioned her to sew loops at the tops and bottoms for wooden dowels. [As an aside, those two were the most adorable young Baha’i couple. Most people who marry young, I’d worry about. But, these two seemed so happy and serene. Anyway…] While she was doing that, I had to look for a larger workspace, because as it was, I had been painting at a picnic table behind the wine cases in the storeroom. Art is glamorous.

Someone suggested the storage facility on the floors above our store. The entire city block was one huge former candy factory built in the 1920s. It had uneven floors and thick cement pillars every twenty feet, so above the first floor, storage was pretty much its only viable option.

I explained to the storage facility manager that I wanted to rent a space for painting. He said that’d be fine as long as I followed two rules: I couldn’t bring any combustible materials in there, like oil paints or turpentine, and I wasn’t allowed to have a hotplate. That second rule was steadfast. It was meant to keep mentally unbalanced squatters from living inside the storage units. The manager admitted to that having been a problem in the past.

Now, it was mostly storage for pharmaceutical saleswomen, whom the manager pointed out were always incredibly gorgeous. [Another aside: It’s true. They are.]

I ended up renting a ten foot by ten foot space on the fourth floor. It had corrugated aluminum walls and a large vinyl garage door. The ceiling of the space was made of chicken wire, which let in fluorescent light from the hallway. It wasn’t the best painting conditions, but I planned on mixing my paint downstairs and applying flat blocks of color, so it didn’t matter. I thought.

When the canvases came back, I stretched them on sheets of plywood using coat hooks and broomstick handles. [Pretty clever, I think. I mean, not to toot my own horn, but I do enjoy a good round of problem solving.] I was aiming to complete one per day. I’d close the storage locker door behind me, plug my iPod into tiny speakers, and apply multiple coats of paint to each banner. And, as I completed each one, I’d hang it from the chicken wire ceiling to dry.

Every twenty minutes on the dot, I’d have to pull open the door and wave my arm out into the hallway. The facilities were huge and filled with labyrinthine grids of hallways with their lights connected to motion detectors. No motion in the hallway for twenty minutes, and the lights went out. But, that was fine. I couldn’t lock the door from the inside, so I didn’t have to unlock it or anything. Other than that small inconvenience, things were moving along really well.

I was painting coffee beans the size of footballs. Bread, olive oil, flowers. It was all in nice, bright candy colors, and even though it was simple and lacked depth, I was proud of my progress.

After the first week, however, I realized that the room was closing in around me. Literally. As I hung one banner in front of another, I had less and less space to work. Soon, there was only a tight, three-foot aisle between banners. Also, less of the sporadic fluorescent light could make its way in from above.

I was working nine hours a day in poor light and cramped spaces with no one to talk to. I got depressed. Severely depressed.

Add to that a creeping suspicion that I wasn’t alone. I kept hearing noises, which I knew were just pretty pharmaceutical sales ladies stocking up on Viagra samples. But, a door slamming in the distance always caught me off guard and made me fear the worst.

I was feeling logy and bringing home an air of defeat at night. Something inside me decided that the best way to combat depression would be to work faster to give myself time for naps. I’d race through the mornings, and at noon I’d curl up on a pile of drop cloths in the corner. It seemed to work.

One day, as I was getting close to finishing the project, I woke up with a snort, which meant that I had been snoring. The lights in the hallway had gone out, so it was pitch black. Off to the side---I couldn’t tell how far away---I heard a voice. It was angry.

“I hear you,” it said. “I hear you, asshole. I can hear you breathing, you cuntface motherfucker! You cuntface motherfucker, you can’t be living in here! THIS IS MY HOUSE, YOU CUNT! GOD FUCKING FUCK, YOU CAN’T BE LIVING IN MY HOUSE, YOU FUCK!”

I couldn’t tell where this guy was in the building. I heard him banging on the storage unit doors, but all the sound filtered down at me from above. Plus, the hanging canvases muffled the voice as if I had blood pumping in my ears. Clearly, the manager had been wrong referring to crazy squatters in the past tense.


That seemed to be coming from the complete other side of the building. At this point I could hear the guy moving around in one of the hallways, closer than before. I curled up into a little ball, just on the inside of my unlocked door. Most likely, it was the only one on the entire floor without a heavy padlock. If anyone were looking for that, it’d be pretty obvious.

I held my breath and tried not to make a sound. All I knew is that I wanted it to stay dark. Because, if the hallway motion detector switched the lights back on, that’d mean whoever was looking for me was right outside my door…

That’s the end of that story. Whew, cliffhanger right? It is 100% true. In trying to remember the number the number of banners, I even looked up the Minneapolis Trader Joe’s on Google Street View. And, the banners are still hanging there! So, that’s nice.

If you want to learn how the story ended up, you’ll have to ask me in person at the next Real Characters on August 15th at 7pm. Was I found and murdered? Am I now a ghost who doesn’t even know he’s dead? Was it not a psychotic homeless man but rather the mythical Minotaur, itself? Or, most likely, none of those things? You’ll have to come to the show to find out.

See you there.


My Amazing Mural

Posted on July 15, 2010

I’ve moved to a new apartment, and it’s the first one that I’ve been allowed to paint. So, I’ve gone all out and painted an apartment-wide mural. Let me describe it for you.

When you enter the front door, you see a swirling, paisley, Mandelbrot fractal pattern, and it confuses you. Your senses are assaulted, and you wonder, “Wait, did I just walk into an apartment or into the mind of a genius?” Well, in a way you did both.

The paisley pattern flows left towards the living room, where it smoothly and skillfully transitions into a forest scene. The forest is so amazingly photorealistic, it seems real, like a photo.

Then you look closer, and you see the trees are made up of a million little dots. And, each dot is a little face. And, each face is mouthing a different syllable, which if placed all in a row and played as a film would sing the complete Harry Belafonte song catalogue. That’s how many trees there are in my living room.

What’s that in the corner? Why it’s a little, painted porcupine pointing toward the kitchen. I think he wants you to go into the kitchen.

The kitchen is painted like a 1950’s diner, all red and white checkers. The cabinets look like rows of soda fountain glasses. The fridge is painted to look like a milkshake machine. The milkshake machine is painted to look like a cash register.

Finally, after pie, we move into the bedroom—the pièce de résistance. The entire back wall is a self-portrait of me and Heidi Klum riding dolphins into the sunset. But, the dolphins are robot dolphins. What does that mean? Is it the future where dolphins are extinct? It can’t be;  Heidi looks so young and pert, like from her first Sports Illustrated shoot. Even I’m not sure when the painting takes place. Great art challenges you.

In the painting, Heidi and I are holding hands. Our cheeks are flushed and our eyes sleepy. It looks as though we’ve just been through some sort of intense physical activity together. She looks like she’s had multiple activities. I’m winking. (In the painting, I’m winking too.)

I can’t wait until my wife comes back from her conference. I think she’s really going to like the mural I painted while she’s been gone.