Bud, or Brad if you prefer, was born in St. Charles, a river town Northwest of St. Louis. St. Joseph's hospital protruded above the banks of the Missouri river, its bland post World War II structure in stark contrast to the surrounding 19th century red brick buildings. That day a car fire on the Blanchette bridge tied traffic up across the river. Dr. Stein sat in the traffic on a warm summer day in June 1967. His white oxford was damp with sweat. Already thirty minutes late, he looked across the river at the hospital on the hill and tapped his steering wheel impatiently.
The nuns in the St. Joseph maternity ward quietly discussed their problem, the mother's contractions coming now at one minute apart and the doctor had not yet arrived. The two sisters decided the best course of action was to hold the mother's legs together until the doctor arrived. Sister Ann looked at the mother, "Everything will be fine. The doctor is on his way." She smiled, then looked up at the other nun.
In the years afterward, this procedure was frowned on at hospitals because of the possibility of fetal asphyxiation leading to brain damage or even heart failure. Today's hospitals are able to monitor both the mother's and the baby's heart rate to ensure oxygen supply is not being restricted, but none of this was of particular of interest to the 7.4 pound baby whose parents named him Bradley Richard Bowers. Bradley, because they like the way it sounded, and Richard being his grandfather's name. Conrad, the happy father, cradled the crying baby, holding him up alongside the mother, Linda, who was relieved to see she had a healthy baby boy. Silently Bradley counted. One, two, three...
Outside, pagans built a temple out of stone in preparation for the summer solstice. While two blocks away on Capital Street shoppers looked for bargains on antique row and bought homemade fudge. Below the Earth's crust, tectonic platesshifted slightly, while a breeze from the north rolled into the region, rustling the tree limbs and lifting the heat wave.
Bradley grew up in the pleasant suburban community just across the river from St. Charles. His early years weren't marked with any particular distinction aside from the ability to hold his breath till he passed out, frightening some of the neighborhood mothers, but his mother knew better. "Oh he's fine," she would say into the receiver to a worried neighbor, "he just likes to hold his breath."
Bradley was outgoing and personable and made friends easily and, though somewhat hyper and hard to control at times, he did obey his parents when they raised their voices. He often found himself being sent to his room or at school standing in the corner, but he wasn't a bad kid, just lively. This all changed by the time he was fourteen and contracted mononucleosis: Afterwards he turned shy and introverted, or at least that's how his mom saw it, but maybe it was just puberty.
As was typical for an active kid of five or six, he bumped his head a lot against hard objects and often irritated his father by breaking his collarbone. The first time was from a fall while running naked from the bathtub to his room. His father also became upset when Bradley set his shirt on fire. Maybe these accidents were a cry for attention. For the most part, he fell into the traditional role of the middle child behind his older brother Bryan who was the achiever and his younger sister Adrienne who was the rebel. Bradley was the lost one. In a children's poem his father would recite when the whole family was together, his brother was Sunday's child, "full of grace." His sister was Monday's child, "fair face," and he was "Thursday has far to go." Brad wasn't sure what that meant, but it sounded exotic, like he was in the midst of an expedition deep in the heart of Africa. His mother said it was because he was born on a Thursday.
School posed a unique challenge for Brad. Some teachers thought he was a moron and graded him accordingly. "He lacks discipline and reads poorly." "He doesn't pay attention, fails to do his homework and when he does it's seldom satisfactory." By the third grade, after having Bradley tested, the school district requested that his parents allow him to attend the Special School District program for learning disabled children, but his parents refused, feeling he would never catch up with the other kids his age if he was separated.
Over the years Bradley continued to fail his classes and spent summers taking make up classes so he wouldn't be held back. Summer school wasn't that bad because they got to play games and Brad would see his friends he hadn't seen since the summer before. It was his impression for the longest time that it was normal to attend summer school, not fully realizing it had anything to do with his own learning difficulties. It wasn't until junior high, while reading the cartoon version of Moby Dick, he realized he wasn't on a particularly "fast track." The teacher had approached him one day all flustered and concerned that he was scoring A's on all his assignments: Maybe the teacher was afraid of losing a student, Brad thought. There were only four other kids in the class, so not wanting to disappoint the worried little man and enjoying the intimacy of a small class, Brad solved the problem by ceasing to do his assignments. Finally, in his sophomore year, he realized would be advantageous to raise his 1.88 GPA since he was going to go to college. But, failing to ever master the concept of "homework" he was only moderately successful.
When functioning properly, suburbia sanitizes the outside world. Brad grew up in a comfortable middle class existence with caring and attentive parents. He and his siblings weren't individually spoiled but collectively treated to hiking trips to the Grand Canyon and Canada, summer weekends camping by the lake and water skiing. Each had specific chores and an allowance. And once a week they would gather at the breakfast table for the family meeting. Despite seeming to lack much influence in this "democratic" process, Bradley had few complaints about his childhood, since he knew he had it pretty well off, so there was no excuse to feel the world was treating him unfairly. They received the newspaper. He saw the stories about starving children in Africa and the pictures of families whose homes burnt down on Christmas day. He heard how some children had parents that didn't care. He also knew that his parents grew up in conditions far less comfortable. His mother grew up on a farm with no plumbing and without her father, who had died in World War Two. His father had to run a trash route in the morning before he went to high school so his parents wouldn't lose their truck farm. Brad didn't have any hardships like these. When his parents went to college, they were the first of their sibling to do so, and it was a big deal. Brad always had food on the table and clothing without holes: He just assumed one day he'd go to college, there was no struggle involved.
College was enjoyable and eye opening for Brad, but mostly it fell into the parameters of the typical college experience. There were particular distinguishingachievements or failures except for the road trip to visit a friend at Vanderbilt University where he held his breath for three mile markers.
After college, he pushed aside his dream of fighting forest fires and got a job waiting tables. He worked five hour shifts four days a week. In his free time, he write short stories and poems. He took Russian language classes at the University. He also made ceramic vessels and illustrations. Though the writing was sometimes illegible, the artwork lacked finesse, and he was only slightly better with Russian spelling than English, they managed to justify his slacker (not a term he would ever use) existence. He had found a lifestyle in which he could apply his creativity and which allowed him freedom to pursue his dreams, whatever they might be.
In 1996 Brad was waiting tables just two days a week, focusing the majority of his time writing a novel. It was going to be called Sensational Nosebleed's. Like the Allure scare in apples or the cyanide lacing of Tylenol, it was a tale about mass hysteria, except this time it was nasal spray. Its hero David (Brad always named his heroes David) was an ad copywriter who struggles with his role in media sensationalism while simultaneously dealing with his own form of madness - depression.
Unfortunately, the novel writing came to an abrupt halt when Brad was hospitalized for his own severe depression. The irony did escape him at the time. Really.
Brad spent several months recovering at his parents' house. He spent most of his time working on ceramics and watching videos with his mother. It didn't matter he was no longer in control of his life, or that the hospital would only release him as long as one of parents agreed to always be around. Now he could let go. His struggle was over. He didn't care that he was 30 and living with his parents, that he was unemployed or that all the family and friends had seen him in this state. He no longer cared if someone saw him cry. He didn't need to hide his fear. He was a free man. Still depressed, unable to focus and constipated by his medication, but free.
As he felt better, his ceramics became more delicate and detailed. He found himself writing again. Mostly he wrote short prose and poems. He used these writings to illustrated his vessels, first writing the text backwards so no one could read the stories, but friends and individuals at juried art shows would attempt to read them anyway, and when that didn't work, they would ask. Okay, he thought, I am kind of hiding my thoughts and emotions behind an illegible writing, maybe I should be a little more forthcoming. So he reversed the text and even did some spell checking. But people continued to complain, "I get dizzy having to walk in circles to read your writing." So he began transferring the text to a separate sheet of paper and placing it next to the vessel. Then people complained about his spelling... . But it no longer mattered, Brad had finally realized what he always wanted to do. He found his dream. He wanted to be a transcriber.
Elliot Smith Contemporary Art was considered by many to be the best gallery in St. Louis. The chance for a young artist to be accepted there or any other established gallery in town was slim. They received hundreds of portfolios a year and might accept one or two new artists and almost never accepted a portfolio which was sent in cold (one that is not solicited by or recommended to a gallery). Bradley was aware of this, so when he set his portfolio on fire then dowsed it in the kitchen sink, he wasn't worried. He had nothing to lose. He then rolled up the burnt portfolio book, which he had made from scratch, tied a rope to it and to his Volvo's bumper and dragged it up and down his block. He unrolled the damp book and let it dry out on his dashboard. When he felt he had achieved the look he was shooting for, he inserted his slides and resume into the book and walked it to the post office five blocks away.
The postal lady thought it was beautiful, "What is this for?"
"I'm trying to get into an art gallery."
"Well I'm sure they'll be very impressed." She had a sweet smile and searched through her drawer for just the right stamps to put on the return envelope. They had pink hearts with lace.
Brad knew that most likely it would take six weeks before they would bother to look his portfolio. Then one day later he'd receive his rejected portfolio in the envelope with the pink heart stamps. Artist have far to go.
Actually, two days later the
phone rang. "Hello, This is Hesse from Elliot Smith Contemporary
Art. Is Bradley Bowers there?"