Camelot: Meeting the Neighbors

The Camelot Community Neighborhood Party

Jim Public, Camelot Community Neighborhood Party, October 29, 2011 111102

Last Saturday the Camelot project bore its first real social fruit. Until then, my neighbor-meeting and -drawing campaign has served three purposes of dubious communal value:

  1. It has given me an opportunity to test and toughen my nerve by cold-knocking on strangers’ doors.
  2. It has provided (so far) six subjects for ink drawings.
  3. It has offered something tangible for me to write about.

All of these aspects of the project have been totally good for me and possibly good, neutral, or bad for my neighbors. As I tallied in the results post last week, more than 60 of the 226 doors I knocked on were opened by nice people. I do feel more comfortable in this little subdivision now that I’ve spoken to many of my fellow residents. I have enjoyed doing these drawings of people who have been strangers until very recently, and I am brainstorming different ways to get more of my neighbors to let me draw them. I have also loved having a story to write about in these blog pages; I have only a speck of patience for other people’s written musings, and I try to hold myself to a standard of sticking with action as much as possible in these posts. I have a new appreciation for why the media loves politics, sports, and markets: journalists need to produce copy for a living, and these facets of civilization provide daily action which writers can turn into words and stories. I’m all about this.

With the occurrence of this party, I can say without scruples that the Camelot project has at last done some small but real good in the world. The bounce house was the soul of the event. One or two dozen people, mostly but not all young, took their turns jumping, flipping, falling, screaming, and panting in the inflatable castle that was our front yard for an afternoon. Amazingly, no one was hurt enough for it to have reached my attention. My wife turned some flips to prove that she still has it in her, which she absolutely does; I expect at least one annual bounce house in our future until she finally outlives her flipping years, and I think she’s got a lot left in her.

My next door neighbors and a family around the corner from us helped a lot with making the whole thing go down. It was great to have two adjacent yards for the action to spill into. We didn’t fully block off the street; rather, we staged our ballooned trucks at the front of our street to announce that something was going on, both to attract foot traffic and deter cars. I was too anxious about causing trouble with a full renegade road-block, and our pseudo-barriers did the trick just fine.

Much soda, chip, and hot dog was consumed. I manned the grill, cooking the one thing on it that not even I can ruin, which is a caution that perhaps we shouldn’t be eating hot dogs in the first place. In addition to the road-anxiety I was also nervous about serving beer, so I left it in a cooler inside my front door. I offered it to adults during the party but only had one taker until the festivities officially ended at 4pm, at which time the remaining 10 or so adults kicked back and the Newcastles and Shiners started making more of an impact on our bellies.

We estimated that around 40 people came through. I love the win-win dynamic of open invitations: it is a self-selecting crowd. Those who don’t want to be there don’t show up, so the assholes and misanthropes won’t wreck the party, because they won’t come. Those who do come are the sociable ones. A lot of the attendees I remember talking to on their porches, and their presence at the party felt to me like a reciprocal neighborly gesture. We had a good variety of ages, genders, and language groups. I was happy when a Vietnamese man I hadn’t met before arrived and started chatting with my new neighbor from across the alley who speaks very little English and is really friendly. There was a gaggle of meek Asian sisters from across the street who, when the bounce house had worn them out, asked my permission to go back home. Awwww, those sweet kids.

For the future, one neighbor has suggested to me on a few occasions that we should do a progressive dinner, in which several households prepare different courses for a meal that we all eat together in stages, moving from house to house. It sounds like a cool idea, but I’m more into baby steps. The outdoor potluck or chili cook-off ideas are more up my alley, and since I am now the unofficial social instigator in our community, I suppose that means that I get to set the pace of our future community get-togethers. I shall wield the power of future neighborhood fun with great care.

Need I say that all this represents a total blend of art and life? I’m far from the first artist to merge socializing with art-making, to fold the activities of artist and citizen into one activity, but this fusion of the two best things about life–experiencing art and connecting with others–makes me happy.

Camelot: Meeting the Neighbors

Camelot Door-to-Door Results

Whew. I’ve finished the most difficult part of the Camelot project. It took just over 3 weeks for me to hand-deliver my newsletter about trying to meet all my neighbors and draw portraits of them as gifts. I usually left the house at 4:30pm on weekdays, with a few weekends in there to try to squeeze in more homes. I’m still processing the experience, and the results and consequences of this effort to be neighborly are still unfolding. Below is a picture of me in my Camelot-canvassing get-up. In case you’re wondering, yes, I do realize I look like a bit of a putz. My pants were high-waters on this day, which happens to be the last day of the mission. Also, I chose to tuck my shirt in on this last day, for reasons that escape me now, especially looking at the underwhelming visual effect of the ensemble. Listen, I try to look decent, but the fact is that my only real physical assets are that I’m still thin and haven’t started balding yet; other than that, I’m an awkward dude with bad hair and a second-hand wardrobe. I embrace this, even as I try not to look at too many photos of myself. Jim Public on his last day of going door-to-door in his neighborhood, Oct 28, 2011 I look like an upstart preacher who has neither congregation nor decent wardrobe, or an office temp circa 1975. I am anti-superstition, but I would like to share that I wore the same shirt for the duration of the door-knocking and I didn’t wash it till I was done. I’m not sure why. Maybe it gave me confidence to have a little secret to keep–that I adhere to 19th-century hygiene standards–as I approached strangers, feeling vulnerable. Let me assure you that the dirty bohemian lifestyle is not all affect–some of us are just like this. Here’s a breakdown of the data I collected so that I could look at evidence for how the experience went rather than rely on my faulty recollection.
  • 226–homes I visited (excluding my own)
  • 222–homes that appeared to be occupied
  • 82–neighbors I spoke to
  • 61–neighbors about whom I wrote the word “nice”
  • 8–neighbors who were obviously home but didn’t answer
  • 5–neighbors I spoke to through unopened doors
  • 5–neighbors with “no soliciting” signs
  • 5–neighbors with “no soliciting” signs who were not mean to me for knocking
  • 1–neighbor who told me it wasn’t a good time at all
  • 1–neighbor who warned me not to get too close because he was contagious
  • 1–stern English-speaker who refused the newsletter
  • 1–nice non-English-speaker who refused the newsletter
  • 1–couple who invited me into their home
  • 1–neighbor who Jehovah’s-Witnessed me on her own doorstep
  • 1–neighbor who later invited us over for a huge Vietnamese-Catholic house warming party, in which we were the only white people and we got to listen to a 15-minute call-and-response chant-song of the Stations of the Cross and Hail Marys as a blessing of the new home, which sounded absolutely unlike anything I’d ever heard
Plus, there’s the neighborhood party that occurs in about 24 hours that would not have happened had this project not happened. So, as jittery as I am about putting this thing on tomorrow in spite of my lack of experience with such events and my lack of organizational skills, I am happy that at least a few people will be gathering, bouncing, eating, and chatting in front of our house. So, the door-to-dooring is over for now. I know a few more of my neighbors. By tomorrow evening, the neighborhood will be a little more acquainted with itself. I hope that more people will come forward to have their portraits drawn. And, we’ll see how things continue to develop here in Camelot.
Camelot: Meeting the Neighbors

Neighbors, October 25, 2011

Jim Public's neighbors October 25, 2011

I’m happy to say that I’ve been doing a few more neighbor drawings. I had started to think that I wasn’t going to reach 10, much less my original goal of an easy 100. If people show up this weekend for the neighborhood party, there’s a chance that others will volunteer to receive a nice ink drawing from the local artist.

I do think the drawings are getting better as I go. Maybe my community is more shrewd than I’ve given them credit for: they want to be drawn later in the process when I’ve really gotten my chops down. I should be taking another photo this week, and I have high hopes for several more appointments after Saturday.

For a few weeks I had started to move on mentally from this goal of drawing the neighbors. So few people have taken me up, and it does take a decent amount of work for which I don’t earn anything. But, it’s not like this project is taking me away from making a living. Things are quiet right now, which is part of how I ended up here in the first place. Obscurity can offer freedom. I’ve accepted that I’m basically starting over as an artist, and when you’re starting over you don’t reach out to take–or at least I don’t. You’ve got to reach out to give.

I may have said this before, but I’m treating this as if I’m in the street musician phase of my career. I show up when and where I can, open up my guitar case, and just start playing. Maybe someone throws me sixpence, but I just want people to hear the music. Who am I to ask for people’s money in exchange for my trying to live the art dream? What do my life and career goals have to do with you?

These are some of my thoughts at the moment. I’m happy to draw as many of my fellow Camelotians as I can. It feels good to make the neighborly gesture, plus I get to reproduce the drawings and show them to you, which also feels good.

Camelot: Meeting the Neighbors

Up Next: the Camelot Neighborhood Party

The Rangers just lost a close Game 1 of the World Series, so here I am to compensate for my disappointment with the loss and my disgust with my own time-wasting by contributing to Jim Public’s web presence.

Chances are you’re familiar with the kind of schedule-craziness that forces you to drop everything and do something immediately, otherwise you won’t have a moment to get to it for a week, at which time it will be too late. Today, October 19, I realized that I had to design, print, and deliver 227 invitations to the neighborhood party we’re throwing on October 29, and I had to do this today because a succession of fully booked calendar dates begins tomorrow, which will obliterate my work-time for the next week.

This is no big deal; you know how these things go. I just share this stuff sometimes because I usually think of other artists as being solely devoted to their practice, like brush-wielding Ahabs, who forbid their children and family trips and dishes from deterring their aesthetic monomania. But life happens to all of us: surely Francis Coppola has had to put a script aside to take a son or daughter to a soccer game. Even during these spells when a tight home schedule pulls my hands away from paper and pigment and dispatches them to dishcloths and detergent, my mind is still in the art game, which I hope counts for something besides the regular sub-par performance of my chores. It’s said that sitting and concentrating on shooting free throws is as beneficial to a player as standing at the line and actually tossing them. I’m out to prove that this works for creative pursuits, too.

Here’s the flyer I designed, printed, and delivered today:

Camelot Neighborhood Party Flyer 111020 Jim Public

I’ll do my street tomorrow with my son, who doesn’t like being dragged along to neighbors’ porches; but, as my own street is pretty small, we should be able to get through it together. We’ll be asking my neighbors if they’re cool with me blocking the street with our cars for those few party hours. I called the city and learned that you can’t officially block a street for a party unless you’re a registered neighborhood association, and that is not what the Camelot project is about, though if someone wants to pursue the official path I’ll be most supportive of it. My interest is in getting together with some of my neighbors in our purely voluntary, unofficial capacities as citizens and humans. People, such as myself, often say they don’t know their neighbors but would like to; what I’ve done with the Camelot project is act on this desire that I know many of us share, and as a result of that little bit of action, we’re having a party that wouldn’t have happened had I continued to stay on my property feeling all lonesome. I hope you don’t mind my pride about this; it just feels kinda good.

More broadly, I think I’m feeling the spirit of independence that fuels both the Tea Party and the Occupiers. I think there’s something about civilization that periodically over-structures our lives and causes us to roar back like captive animals. Well, I’m not roaring so much as stretching my confined limbs, but I have become more aware of how absurd it is that we let institutions, both visible (government, corporations) and invisible (culture), limit the exercise of our wills and imaginations. If you want to block the street, you can call the city and start a weeks-long process of gathering signatures and filling out forms, or you can give your neighbors the heads up and park your truck across the road. If you want to meet your neighbors, you can keep on wanting it while your fear of rejection or embarrassment keeps you in your comfy chair, or you can comb your hair, walk out of your house, and start ringing door bells.

Oh, and I did have a funny thing happen in my marathon afternoon of putting flyers under welcome mats. After I delivered the goods to the neighbor who had me draw his dad and grandparents and then didn’t answer for his photo opp, I had just turned onto the sidewalk for the next house when I heard, first, a door fly open and, second, “You fuck–” The neighbor saw me and halted, muttering that he thought I was this other guy, then he emerged with his hand extended and thanked me again for what I did for him. When I told him that he stood me up of the photo opp, he apologized and smiled broadly at me, showing off the really nice dental work that he had apparently been receiving when I had last rung his doorbell. His tooth supply has doubled, and they look natural and quite clean. He said he’d be at the party, that I’d get my photo of him and his wife for the drawing. And he was, as I’ve come to expect, wearing only boxers.

Camelot: Meeting the Neighbors

Neighbor, October 9, 2011

Jim Public's neighbor, Octeober 9, 2011

When I met this neighbor around a month ago, I had just started the door-to-door phase of Camelot in earnest. Her friendliness and surprising lack of alarm at my pitch was refreshing. On the second day of walking and knocking the neighborhood, I was working an area several blocks from her home when I saw a woman walking her dog across the street. She asked how the project was going, and at that moment I matched her face to the one I has spoken to earlier. We had a nice, brief chat; she told me she had plans for the next day, but she’d contact me and make an appointment for the photo op.

This encounter was the first and only one of its kind, and the kind of chance visit I have hoped might happen more often as a result of this project. I love the idea of running into people in the neighborhood and not just politely saying hello to each other, but knowing just a little about each other so we can have an actual conversation.

Our little chat gave me the resolve to keep canvassing, and that day ended up being the longest day yet of going door to door, ringing somewhere between 40 and 50 doorbells. I hope she’s happy with the resemblance; I think it’s pretty good, but it can always be better!

Camelot: Meeting the Neighbors

I Think I’ve Been Had

Jim Public portrait of two grandparents, September 18, 2011

Early in the door-knocking phase of the Camelot project–I have only a few dozen homes left to greet!–I met a neighbor who, whether intentionally or not, got the better of me. Even before he answered the door, I knew I was dealing with a character. Minutes earlier, I had been chatting with a friendly retiree a couple doors down who told me laughingly that the neighbor in question was a Cajun Vietnam veteran reprobate, which he told me he meant affectionately.

I rang the doorbell, waited, rapped on the door, waited, and at last the man answered the door not wearing much. When I told him I was a neighbor and I’m doing this neighbor-meeting-and-drawing campaign, he told me I could draw his grandparents and went into the house for a few minutes. He returned with an 8 x 10 framed photo of his long deceased grandmother and grandfather, along with a very small photo of a man in uniform who turned out to be his father. He handed them over to me, asking that I not take too long because these were his only prints of these photographs.

A little stunned, but feeling open to the strange possibilities of my quest, I accepted the task, and told him that my intentions are to draw my neighbors, and he said, “You can draw me and my wife when you finish with these.”

Normally I would have declined. As with lawyers, accountants, nurses, so with artists: there are people who think, because they know you outside your professional capacity, that they can ask you to do for free what you would charge others for. I’ve had far more offers to draw and paint people for free than I’ve had offers to pay me for these services. But in the context of the Camelot project, I’m in a giving mood, so I went for it. I don’t plan to make this a habit, but that’s just how this interaction with this neighbor went down.

What really struck me about this conversation is that this guy was in no way caught off guard by a stranger on his doorstep offering to draw him as a gift. It was as if he’d been waiting for an artist to knock on his door so he could get some free drawings of his kin, and when I arrived, he was ready, as if to say, “I’m glad you finally dropped by; I’ve got just the thing for you.”

So, I did the drawings, walked them over to the neighbor, who was happy to receive them, and we scheduled an appointment for me to come and snap a photo for the drawing I had intended to do from the beginning. When I showed up at the designated time, there was no answer. I stood waiting at the door, slowly accepting what felt like a foregone conclusion: I’m not going to get a photo of this man and his wife. He probably forgot the appointment; I don’t think he meant to dodge the photo op. But, as I’ve gone through the neighborhood and found that very few people answer their doors and even fewer are receptive to the notion of my drawing them, I’ve realized that chasing my neighbors in order to be friendly and offer a gift isn’t the best use of my energy. I’ll continue to make the effort to connect with them, and leave the decision to have the drawing made in their hands.

Which is to say, I don’t expect to be making the drawing of my Cajun neighbor and his wife; but, if something changes, I’ll let you know.

And if you want a portrait like this done, I’ll soon be adding a page where you can commission one. They’re 10″ x 8″ and the price is $50 for the first person and $25 for each additional person. If you’re looking for a good deal on a family portrait, look no further.

Jim Public portrait of a father in uniform, September 17, 2011
Camelot: Meeting the Neighbors


The door-knocking, neighbor-meeting campaign continues. I’ve been going out each day between 4:30 and 5:30, which is a time that works well for me since it falls before our supper time, and, therefore, I hope, before most everyone else’s supper time, too. I’ve been to 138 homes, which puts me past the halfway point in this project.

In the past week I’ve developed a growing fondness for the word “welcome,” especially when it’s printed on door mats or crafty signs that people use to make their porches more cozy-looking. It’s not that anyone has made me feel particularly unwelcome. A few neighbors have spoken to me through their doors, one told me he wasn’t interested and turned down my flier, and one opened the door, looked me up and down quickly, and told me it definitely wasn’t a good time. No one has been hostile, which I appreciate very much, and I sympathize with those who are reluctant to have a chat with a dude who just knocked on their door.

When I approach a home that has nothing on the porch–no mat, no cute signs, no pots, brooms, or chairs–it feels a little cold, as if the residents aren’t eager to have folks approaching their door. Occasionally I see a “no soliciting” sign, which does strike me with anxiety for fear of a confrontation; I don’t savor the idea of trying to be polite and neighborly to someone who thinks I’m soliciting them. So far, thankfully, I’ve not had to defend my campaign to anyone, and honestly I’m pleased and surprised that so few front porches greet you by saying, “No soliciting”.

The welcome mat, the “enter and be happy” or “god bless this home” signs, these make me feel all warm and friendly as I approach the door. It’s not that my will to knock on the door is affected by how welcoming it is; I just get a feeling of general reassurance that there plenty of people even here in isolated suburbia who make the effort to put a happy face on that threshold where one’s private space meets the great, wide, public world.

I have also been adjusting the way I talk to people on their doorsteps. Specifically, I had been getting bummed by the consistent expressions of polite bewilderment when I told my neighbors that I wanted to draw a picture of them. It seems that when a stranger at your door tells you, after about 15 seconds of conversation, that he would like to take a snapshot of the members of the household and make you a drawing as a gift is cause for alarm. There is no precedent in my own life for talking to a stranger on my own porch and feeling that he is there just to be friendly, and that whatever he may be saying or offering is part of no ulterior motive, but a sincere gesture of neighborliness.

So, I now introduce myself as James who lives a few streets over, who has lived in the ‘hood for about a year and is going around meeting people in an effort to get more familiar with the neighborhood. I say that I’m also doing a neighborhood project, and I hand over the flier and ask them to look it over and contact me if they’re interested, and then I continue to talk about living in the ‘hood and see if the conversation goes anywhere. This approach spares me the awkward feeling of having just startled someone who is polite enough to stand in their doorway with me for a minute. I would rather have a brief, neighborly conversation than make a pitch for what is turning out to be an offer that is being far less warmly received than I imagined it would be.

That’s the great thing about taking your ideas out the front door and into the world of people: you start to find out just how big the gap is between the drawing board of your ideas and the field of play where those ideas confront reality.

Camelot: Meeting the Neighbors

A Nice Day for Door-to-Dooring

jim public door to door 110917

Friday afternoon I grabbed a stack of “A Quest for Camelot” newsletters and walked over to the front of our neighborhood, to the house I pass most often as we drive in and out of here. I was a little excited, mostly anxious, about knocking on all these strange doors. I was jumping into the Camelot quest for the first time. I rang 21 doorbells that day, and today I got up to a total of 66, so I’ve completed 29% my goal of knocking on all of the 227 doors in this neighborhood.

What happened at the first door (shown in the picture above) foreshadowed what would occur in 73% of my interactions on my neighbors’ front porches: the experience begins and ends with the knock. So, armed with my newsletter, I was prepared for this contingency. I folded them to show the title first, so that the neighbor would possibly recognize the name of his or her neighborhood, Camelot, and not throw away the letter immediately.

At several of the homes there were obviously people inside. Some people peered at me through a parted curtain and walked away, and others carried on talking in a different language and opted not to answer the door. Living in a neighborhood with a large Asian population, I am not surprised that they didn’t answer their doors often. One woman answered, smiled, said, “No English,” but continued to stand there civilly with me while I briefly tried to pantomime my little speech before thanking her and leaving the letter in her hands. I have found that if there are slippers and some kind of cement or ceramic toad/lion/dragon figure on the porch, no one is answering that door. The combination of simply not being home and the culture and language barriers have made this theory 100% accurate so far. We’ll see if it stands when I finish.

Of the 18 people I did speak with, two were suspicious and dismissive and spoke to me through their closed door, a few were reserved but nice, and 14 were between friendly and really friendly. All things considered, though I’m still anxious about how much more of this I have to do (cold door-knocking is just plain nerve-racking, but I think it’s doing me some good), it has been a good run so far. I have not met any blatant misanthropes, and I’ve met 14 nice people I probably would never have spoken to had I not knocked on their doors.

At this point, then, the glass is definitely mostly full. Let’s hope it stays that way as I try to get the rest of these newsletters hand-delivered by the end of the month!

Camelot: Meeting the Neighbors

A Quest for Camelot: September Newsletter

110913 jim public camelot newsletter september 2011

The Camelot project is a work in progress, and I’ve already had fun watching it shift and develop in real time since its inception this past summer. Having knocked on one or two dozen doors, not entirely as prepared or tailored as I had intended to be, I’ve decided that a monthly newsletter may be the way to formalize what I’m doing. The newsletter allows me to give something to my neighbors each time I visit; I like this because it lends a sense of purpose to what has started to feel a little like loitering. It also lets me communicate with people who may not be comfortable standing on their porches and chit-chatting with the local idiot, and it’s something I can leave behind when I knock and no one answers.

Each newsletter will feature some of the latest neighbor drawings. My hope is that those who are skeptical of my intentions, after seeing monthly renderings of people in the community, will come around and let me draw them, too. I feel that the newsletter, its contents and its monthly regularity, will build just a little sense of community around here. Even if it is short-lived, even if it revolves only around this project, a little bit of community building is always a good thing. In my wildest fantasies (which are an uninterrupted torrent in my imagination) I foresee pot-lucks, neighborhood parades, barn-raisings, and the like, resulting from the Camelot project. But, even if nothing materializes beyond what I’m doing right now, I will be happy for the experience itself.