Making people smile for 60 years
15 August 2009
Note to my readers: Less than a day after I wrote this column, Mert passed away. I didn’t feel right changing the column, because Mert didn’t like people to be sad.
Every year since I’ve known him, I tried to write a column about the cartoonist known as Star. It made him happy. I hope this last one did, too. Safe travel, old buddy. Coast to coast and worldwide.
His fingers won’t grip a pencil, much less a pen anymore.
The last of the intricately folded stars and hearts made from dollar bills are scattered about among friends and customers; other rings made from tightly-woven art paper, emblazoned with simple little stars, are tucked away in desk drawers and vacation suitcases and jewelry boxes.
For the first time since he returned from World War II, Mert Aduchefsky didn’t draw a single “five minute” portrait this year; his space at Goldston’s Arcade at White Lake was nothing more than a wide passageway for folks intent on enjoying a weekend of fun. My old friend was too sick and weak and arthritic to make every woman a bathing beauty in a scandalous bikini. No middle-aged men became Tarzan or boxing champs or hunters or fishermen reeling in a bass the size of Moby Dick.
But for all that, Mert still wants people to smile.
Mert refused to be cubby holed as an artist. The man who could insert anyone into their own comic strip in the time it took to get an ice cream cone was not, in his mind, an artist.
“Art?” he’d say, sneering. “Bah. What’s art? I want people to be happy. I like to see people smile.”
Those of us who have been privileged to know him best aren’t smiling; the tiny man who was once a boxer is gnarled and weak. Too many Marlboros, not enough to eat (“I ain’t hungry. Why would I eat if I ain’t hungry? Get all fat and big.”) have taken their toll, along with 86 years of an abundant and active life, making people smile.
Mert could barely sit up the last time I visited with him, but he tried to joke as he handed me a bag of dollar-origami and star rings.
“Don’t be all glum,” he said. “It ain’t like I got cancer.”
The first time I met Mert to talk with him was on a freezing cold night in the coffee-drinking area of a convenience store. He was laughing and visiting with some friends of mine, Ray and William, who found their way into Mert’s panel cartoons time and again. The late Donald Kinlaw, the White Lake police chief, who was a favorite subject of Mert’s pen, was also there.
Mert was a carny is the truest sense; one of his first jobs after being released from the U.S. Army was barking a game at a carnival. Through the years he drew people in with magic tricks, sketches, cartoons, copper-plate portraits, and anything else you’d expect to find under the lights of a midway or in a booth along a boardwalk.
As I’ve mentioned before, one of the happiest summers of my life was when Papa went to work as the front man for a little circus. I got to know a lot of carnies that year, both good and bad, and developed an affection for the folks who hustle and huckster their way into a hardscrabble living.
While we were talking, Mert was scribbling on a napkin. As I got up to leave, he handed it to me. In less time than it took to drink a cup of coffee, Mert had sketched a fair likeness of Yours Truly. It was the first of many.
“Something for your wife,” he said. “Make her happy.”
Mert has always wanted people to be happy; when we talked the other day, he wanted me to be sure that, if I wrote about him this year, I mentioned the people at the Veteran’s Administration hospital. The unending series of tests we must endure as we grow older is even more onerous at the VA, from what I’ve been told, but Mert had nothing but praise for them.
“They are nice people,” he said in his simple, matter-of-fact way. He then told me how he used to draw pictures of the doctors and nurses while he waited, always fanciful, something, again, to make someone happy.
Mert was proud of his service to his country, and appreciated those who take care of our veterans. His eyes would shine whenever he spoke of Larry Hammond and “Miss Cynthia” at the veteran’s service office in Elizabethtown. Mention his name to anyone in that office, and you’d get a smile.
When my mother was in the last few weeks of her life, the evening cup of coffee became a moment of peace. It seemed Mert was always there at the table (it was a bitterly cold winter, and during the off-season he had little else to do). He would ask, his Brooklyn accent oddly low and worried, how Mother was.
When I told him we’d given up and placed her in a nursing home, he promised to have me something to make her smile, something special. I thanked him, but didn’t think anymore of it. He later gave me a “special” cartoon portrait, one of the big, expensive ones, that showed Miss Lois’ youngest in overcoat and hat, newspaper in one pocket and pad in the other.
He finished it the day she died, and had written “To Mom with love” across the top. Those words were carefully erased and replaced with a note which, he said, was supposed to make me smile. That picture is proudly hung on our wall at home, and is one of the last things I see when I leave the house in the morning.
Mert has always wanted people to smile and laugh. The other day, he told me how Regina and Kenny, who have been caring for him over the past weeks, were too “glum,” and he pulled down his lips into a frown to show me what he meant.
“They’re nice people,” he said, “but they need to smile more.”
As I write these words, I have no idea how much longer Mert, the Amazing Star, will be on this earth. The man who started drawing to “keep from going crazy” in hours after the blood and hell of D-Day wanted to talk about his beautiful sister Rhoda, the retired professional dancer, and his long-time pal “Cholly the Monkey Man.” Cholly – Charlie – had to go into a nursing home in New York a few years ago, something Mert has repeatedly refused, even when the nice people at the VA promised to take care of him.
“I ain’t going to be in no hospital, no home,” he declared. “I gotta make people smile. Make’em laugh.”
A self-portrait he did just before he became too weak is classic Mert. His round ears stick out, his shoirt hair is flying, and his mouth is wide in a laugh.
“Smile, smile,” the lettering reads. “More smiles, feel better.” I wondered if it was a get-well card like he used to draw for folks, made out to himself.
Mert and I always had a kind of a personal joke; he said he wanted me to write his biography when he got to be nationally known, although through the years he’s drawn and sketched his way through most of the states in the union.
“You call it ‘The Amazing Star, drawing coast to coast’,” he’d say. I always questioned why just coast to coast – why not around the world.
“We’ll go in-ter-nation-al later,” he said, enunciating the last word for dramatic effect.
I’m pretty sure Mert, the Amazing Star, is already known coast to coast. Whether or not he likes the term, Mert is an artist – his work may not hang in the Louvre, and I never saw it when I visited the great museums in England, but his art hangs on refrigerators, file cabinets, office walls, and grandmothers’ mirrors. Every woman has an hourglass figure and flowing hair; every man is a body-building heartthrob; every child is happy, and every dog has a wagging tail.
His medium may be colored pencils and markers, but as far as I’m concerned, Mert’s art has touched many more people than any Rubens or DaVinci, as much as I love both. There is none of the pain or horror of a Van Gogh, or the plain old-fashioned weirdness of a Warhol.
Mert has always sneered at the term, but he’s an artist, nonetheless. He isn’t an impressionist or a realist or an abstractionist – he just wants his art to make people smile, from coast to coast.
– Weaver is a syndicated columnist