Back in the 1980s, before I became a full-time muralist, I was doing residential murals as a sideline from my day job as a cabinetmaker. An interior designer hired me to do a kitchen mural for a downtown Chicago client; let’s call him Fred.
Fred’s condo was on the 12th floor of a building overlooking Lake Michigan. Actually, it was the entire 12th floor, complete with gymnasium, theater and game room. Fred had made his fortune in health insurance, and all he asked was to have, above his kitchen cabinets, the illusion of ivy that he wouldn’t have to water.
When I presented him the bill, which came to $880, he reached in his sweatpants pocket and pulled out a roll of $100 bills. Telling me there was no need to include Uncle Sam in this deal, he whipped off nine of them and handed them to me. I told him I didn’t have a twenty to give him change.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said.
About ten years later, I got a call from his secretary asking me to come to his new condo to do a mural. This time he owned a bigger condo in a building next to the old Playboy Building, again overlooking the Lake. He had moved out of health insurance after making a fortune on franchised fast-food places in the defunct Soviet Union and was now a movie producer. And with the new condo came a new trophy girlfriend. I wondered if I would see her in one of his movies.
In the new kitchen he wanted an end wall to appear as if he were looking out from the kitchen of his house in Acapulco toward the pool. He gave me photos, saying it was imperative that his girlfriend’s small white dog show up at poolside.
“I’d rather see the dog in the pool, upside-down,” he muttered as an aside. His girlfriend was in the other room.
He was pleased with the finished product, so I said, “Now you have to fly me to Acapulco to paint the view out your Chicago kitchen window, right?”
We looked out the kitchen window at the brick wall opposite and he snorted.
I gave him the bill. This time he had hundreds and twenties. He counted out the full amount and then plucked a twenty off the top.
“Minus that twenty you owe me,” he said. I was astonished, not just at his memory but at his frugality.
“Fred,” I said, “you’re kinda like Robin Hood, but in reverse, right?”
He smiled conspiratorially and said, “How do you think I got so rich?”