Ty, the Rambling Artist
The art of making drawing smiles and making connections, anywhere in the world.
Lesson 7: The Soft Spot.
As with anything we do in life, finding our purpose and our passion can be a daunting affair. with a road that is seemingly endlessly fraught with potholes and steep ledges - just waiting for us to fall into or off of. I make no secret of the fact that what moved us from Texas to Florida was nothing more than desperation - a feeling that we had nothing to lose. I didn’t start drawing at Walt Disney World because, at near 50, that seemed like a great career move. I did it because it was a way to survive. And at first, I will tell you that I was probably not much different than many caricature artists who have a skill and use that skill to create income for themselves and their families - and make no mistake, that is a noble and necessary objective. But as I was nearing the half-century mark, I was anxious to find something more in my work. I had always known that it was possible and that there was something more to be gained from these moments I had with people who sat down to be drawn at my easel. I have always looked at each and every encounter as a potential to make a connection with another human being. I knew it was possible for that few minutes to be more than just me drawing a cute picture, but I had no idea how much more until my wife and I made that crazy decision to, not just fall off that proverbial cliff, but to jump off, arms flailing and screaming with joy the entire way down.
I think a willingness to sometimes jump off the edge is what separates those who find their passions from those who do not. It’s just a key element, being able to do an about-face and change course when you need to. I’m not advocating tossing everything away and blindly leaping into an unknown void with no support system. If you’re going to jump, you have to have something soft to land on, especially if you’re going to jump holding hands with people you rely on you. For us, those people were our sons.
Since the great recession hit and advertising budgets had been slashed and corporations had cut event and entertainment budgets back to almost nothing, my well of work had virtually dried up. Had I been on my own, this wouldn’t have been nearly so scary . I had faced homelessness at times in my life, although then I was young enough to consider myself an artistic troubadour, untethered by the chains of society, but when you’re married with a family, that mindset doesn’t work. I was tethered, happily, to a wife and two boys. My wife and I had to find a way to survive. We were on that road with the potholes and the ciliffs and I think we always knew that we would need to eventually jump, we were just looking for that soft place to land.
My wife, feeling like she had reached a place in life where she was unemployable, had, as so many people do, returned to school. Her efforts to hone a sellable skill landed her in culinary school, something she had always wanted to do. Another great thing about having nothing to lose is that it eliminates a lot of excuses you make for not doing the things that you’ve always wanted to do. This was a great opportunity for her but as she was in her 40’s, it was also a scary time for her. She was filled with the self-doubt that all of us experience and, although she learned quickly and was one of the top students in her class, her time there was almost immediately overshadowed by the requirement that she get an internship before she would be able to graduate. It was this task that plagued her nights and never left her consciousness during the day. She hadn’t really worked in years. Why would anyone take a chance on her when the world was full of young, hotshot 20-somethings to hire. And so when she was walking through the halls of her school and noticed on the bulletin board that recruiters from Walt Disney World were coming to conduct interviews for their culinary internship program, she knew that this might be her shot. She came home that night with the news. You may be wondering what it was about this opportunity that made her feel slightly more confident. You see, she had a history with Disney. In 1989 as a Sophomore in college, she had been selected to participate in the Walt Disney World College Program. This program took selected kids from around the globe and brought them in to work and live at Walt Disney World. My wife was an advertising major at the time and worked in the Magic Kingdom, selling Mickey Mouse watches on Main Street USA. She was also able to take marketing classes from Disney executives and even obtained her “Ducktorate” degree - “graduating” with the highest honors from the College Program. And when she left, she did so reluctantly. She had fallen in love with the company and how they operated but college could not be put on hold - her parents wouldn’t hear of it. And so she returned to Texas, vowing that someday, she’d fine her way back. And then life happened. She got out of school and took a job in Fort Worth, she met a great guy, had two kids and lived life. That dream of working for the Mouse seemed like nothing more than a childhood fantasy. So some 25 years later when she saw that flyer on the billboard at her school, I believe that her reaction to it was much deeper than “Hey, I bet THEY will hire me”, which is how she broached the subject with me. I just think, that like so many desires that we have, she didn’t realize that her soul was pulling her toward this for reasons she didn’t yet understand.
To sign up for an interview with the chef recruiter, Crystal had to go online and fill out a Culinary Program application. Of course, on this application, she noted that she had once worked with the company and had received her “Ducktorate” degree and that she’d always wanted to return. She thought that they would soon call her and set up an interview during the time that they were at her school - more than a month later. Disney did call but it was not to schedule an interview for the next month - it was to schedule a phone interview for the next day. Her suspicions had been right, she was a viable candidate for their internship program. The next day Crystal sailed through the phone interview, answer endless questions about the safe temperature of various foods, something called “HACCP” (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point), which I don’t really understand to this day, and “What does sage taste like?” An abstract question she quickly answered with, “Thanksgiving”, making the recruiter on the other end of the line chuckle. When the call ended, she was relieved and hopeful. She suspected it had gone well. Her suspicions were confirmed a few days later when she received the email titled “Welcome to the Walt Disney World Culinary Program”. This took a huge weight off of Crystal’s chest. It was only September and the program wasn’t to start until May. Her biggest fear about obtaining an internship had been allivieated an it was only September! She had 8 months before the internship would start.
During this time, we often talked about the future and what it looked like. She would be gone for 14 weeks, living in Disney housing and the boys and I would hold down things in Fort Worth. We would miss her but we would survive and she would then return and get a job somewhere in the area, hopefully providing a pillar of stability that we so desperately needed. But as the months wore on and we found ourselves edging closer and closer to that cliff, the conversations started to shift from “What is” to “What if”. I remember the day that she first mentioned the “What if”. It was a few months before she was to leave and we had learned that our home was, most likely, going into foreclosure. Like so many, we had been unable to make those payments for the past few months and, while the bank, had been patient for a while, it looked like we were going to have to let it go. “What if we jumped off the cliff?” Crystal had posed to me as we were driving down a busy street. I knew what she meant but was unable to really process it. Crystal was the sane, responsible one in our family. If SHE thought it might be time to jump, things must really be bad, and they were. The truth is, that, while it seemed in the moment like we were discussing some insane ideas, we were edging close to the cliff and instead of falling off, we were realizing that we could jump on our own terms, and Crystal had spotted a soft place for us to land.
Within weeks, the plan had gone from an abstract “What if” to an actual strategy. Crystal would go to Orlando in May and live in the housing that Disney provided. I would stay behind with the boys and allow them to finish out the school year. In early June, the boys and I would throw what we could into our car and either store or sell the rest and we would head to Florida. When we got there, we’d find a place to live and I would get a job with the company that provides caricature artists for Disney - just until I was able to build up my own business again. Disney had become our soft spot on which to land.
Crystal had also hypothesized that having my best friend, Al in Florida would help cushion the landing as well. Al is a friend who is more like a brother. We’ve been through a lot together and he was even the Best Man at our wedding. Shortly after we married, he had returned to his Miami roots and was working as a caricature artist in that area, and doing it quite successfully. He was yet another lifeline we had to hold on to if we were going to survive the landing.
It’s important to note that, at this point, we had not even brought this up to our teenagers. We wanted to know (as much as it’s possible to know) how things would work. Our boys had veto power over the idea. Sometimes you have to make big life choices and your kids just have to live with them. That is a fact, but this was not one of those times and we knew it. We didn’t HAVE to do this and if they were completely opposed, we would have slammed on the breaks. I’m not sure they every realized they had that power but they did. We had always attempted to protect them from the troubles that we had faced as much as possible but when it came down to this moment, it all hinged on their reaction. And so we called a “family dinner” one night. Crystal made their favorite dishes, just to ensure that everyone was happy. When the meal was finished, Crystal was the first to dive in. “So how would you feel about moving to Orlando?” (she was never one to beat around the bush). The boys sat silent for a moment and looked confused. She then continued, detailing out our “soft landing” plan. We knew that the biggest obstacle was going to be our older son, Collin. He was a high school baseball player, heading into his sophomore year. We knew he’d be tough sell. Luckily, Central Florida is a great baseball area and there were many great schools with great teams, including the High School that was currently sitting at #2 in the nation. Crystal knew this an threw it in for good measure. By the time she finished her spiel, she had made quite the case for adventure. The boys both agreed. We were leaving Texas - something we’d thought we’d never do. This was happening!
The time from that point forward seemed to race by at break-neck speed. There were so many things to do, things to sell, things to pack, things to store and so many friends to tell (we quickly had to come up with a “short version” of the story). And then there were the goodbyes. We had grown excited about the future and hopeful that things were finally turning around but we had lived in Texas for more than 40 years and had developed some roots that ran very, very deep. If we described this time as “bittersweet” then it was because of the goodbyes and I’m not sure that until Crystal got on that plane, I would have deemed the bitter to be worth the sweet. But it was happening and I knew that coming to terms with the leaving was a key part of being able to enjoy the new. It didn’t help that when the day came for Crystal to fly out to Florida and begin the first phase of the adventure, she was a nervous, excited, sad mess. The tears flowed freely as she said goodbye to the boys and I, knowing that she wouldn’t see us again for 6 weeks, the longest we had ever been apart. And when I stood in the security area of Love Field in Dallas and bid her farewell, I was a little sad too - not only because she was leaving but because I knew what laid ahead and what I was about to leave behind.
The next six weeks were a whirlwind of goodbyes and getting our truly treasured items into storage and letting go of the rest. There was little time to worry or do much of anything. During this time, Crystal started working as a culinary cast member at Disney’s Port Orleans Resort. She immediately liked the people she worked with and was relieved when her roommate, Claudia, turned out not to be a 20-year-old sorority girl from LSU but a 40+ year old wife and mother who, like Crystal, was pursuing something new. Crystal’s primary objective was simple: Do well enough that she could get hired on permanently. That meager hourly income and the insurance benefits that came with it were going to be the backbone of making this work and she knew it. The stakes were high.
Many people, when relocating, have the luxury of scouting trips. Learning the area, finding a place to live. We did not. Not only did we not have the money required for any of this, but Crystal was working so much and did not have a car with her in Florida, meaning that scouting the location was next to impossible. The boys and I were heading out, not even knowing where we would end up once we were in Orlando. It was a little scary but it was mostly exciting. Once we had wrapped our heads around the idea of moving, the initial worry was superseded by plans and anticipation. On the second Sunday in June, we woke up at crack of dawn, put our duffle bags, television, art supplies and dog, Crockett into our Honda Fit and headed east, letting go of what had been and head toward what would be. And what would that be? It would be whatever we made it. At this point, I didn’t have all of the answers but I was positive that we would survive and maybe even thrive.
The trip to Florida was mostly uneventful, filled with a lot of music, some typical road games and moments of me being the only one awake. The boys were excited and got noticeably more so when they saw the first palm tree along our journey. For me, our objectives were clear, get to Orlando, find a place to crash and see my wife. Nothing else really mattered beyond that. We arrived in Orlando on Monday afternoon and we were road weary and in need of a shower. I found a hotel near downtown that allowed pets and would charge us a weekly rate. At the time, I had no idea how safe the surround area was (it wasn’t!) but I knew that it was a place to spend the night. We took our bags and our dog in, cleaned up and laid around a bit. The hotel room was small but it was clean and were here. In this adventure we knew that we were going to have to learn to appreciate the little things - because there might not be big things to appreciate for a while. It was going to be a difficult journey and we knew it. All of this raced through my head as I stood under the hot shower, thankful for the moment and anxious for more.
That evening when Crystal got off of work, we were there to surprise her. The tears flowed again but this time, there was nothing but happiness. The first big obstacle, leaving Texas, had been handled. It was now time to play. We headed to Disney World for the first time since 2001 and decided to focus on some of the good things that were in our immediate future. Little did we know that back at our hotel, a little of the bad was creeping in.
When I tell you that we handled leaving Texas quite well, I’m talking about the boys and I. I am not talking about our dog, Crockett. While Crockett never seemed to be agitated or upset, the stress of leaving combined with the long road trip had left him tired and confused. On that day that we had headed to Disney World, he had stayed behind in the hotel room and we never thought much about it. He was often left on his own at home and had always handled it well. He had food, he had water and he had been walked. But this was different. Being left in a strange place had been too much for him and his anxiety kicked in. By the time we returned to the hotel, he had scratched the bathroom door to pieces. Have you ever seen Monsters, Inc? So you remember how Boo’s door looked at the end when it was in shards? Then you get the idea. Not only had our sweet puppy destroyed hotel property but he had made enough noise to concern the neighbors - who had alerted the front desk. When we returned to he hotel - just a few hours later, security was waiting as we packed up our belongings, paid for the door and were sent on our way.
One of the many things that I’ve learned on this journey is that there really is something to the old adage that “everything happens for a reason” Knowing this has gotten me through a lot of ordeals that would have otherwise seemed unbearable. In this case, that hotel was not where we needed to be hanging our hats for any length of time. It was a long way from Disney and although we didn’t yet know it, was in a very unsafe part of town. We had made a bad decision in choosing that hotel and Crockett had unwittingly given us the opportunity to rectify it. As we looked for a new temporary home, we decided to find a place much closer to Disney. We drove up and down the main drag of Kissimmee, looking for a decent hotel that would allow pets, charge by the week and be a place we could stay for a few weeks. It wasn’t long before we settled into what would become our home for, not the next we weeks, but the next couple of months. A man, two boys and a dog in a hotel room with two queen beds, a TV, microwave and mini-fridge. What had we done? Crystal had elected to stay in Disney housing until she completed her internship (I couldn’t blame her) but we knew that in a few weeks, she’d be joining us as well. Our goal now was simple, get an apartment before school starts in the fall.
As I look back on that time, I’m amazed at how well we all adjusted to it. They boys were champs and I think it taught them some valuable life-lessons. It also taught them that they never want to eat Cup-O-Ramen again but as a family, we grew closer. We only had each other and we thrived on those moments that made us laugh, we thrived on our relationships and the things that would happen outside of that hotel room. We remember the funny moments. These were moments that my grandmother used to describe and “if we didn’t laugh, we’d cry moments” Like the time the upstairs neighbor tossed a lit cigarette over his balcony. The cigarette landed on the top of a nearby palm tree, which promptly ignited, turning into a flaming ball of palm fronds - quite the spectator sport for those of us watching,
For me, my one and only personal goal was to get a source of income. And that turned out to be by drawing smiles at the Walt Disney World Resort. I had no idea the impact this would have on my life. I truly thought that it was just a temporary jumping-off point for reestablishing my free-lance and character career. And make no mistake, it did all of those things. It gave us the money that we needed to live and to eventually move into a real apartment near the high school that my son wanted to attend. That job was a life-line for us and even more importantly, it allowed me to rediscover what I loved about caricaturing - something I had gradually gotten away from in Texas as I began doing more advertising and design work. That job is what reminded me of how much I loved to draw smiles.
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From Ty Walls:
After four decades drawing smiles I often encounter remarkable people. I've learned to create little special moments for people from all around the world with my simple smile-drawing skills. But sometimes, life creates little magical moments for me. This blog is my attempt to share them with you.