Carlton is sprawled out on the sidewalk in front of Bank of America along Dupont Circle, his feet extending over the edge of the curb and into traffic. His right hand, covered with paint, swiftly dances over the canvas of a landscape of a far off mountain accompanied by some trees in the foreground. He pops up and talks to a man who approaches him. He displays another painting that he has next to him to the man. They talk for a few minutes and then the man takes his wallet out and pulls a twenty from it and places it in Carlton’s hand. In exchange he hands him the painting.
I decided to go up to Carlton and ask if he would accept my $10. He was genuinely curious about what I was doing. We chatted about his past, the present and the future. It was a pretty memorable evening.
At 45 Carlton has been through a lot. But painting here at Dupont Circle brings his story full circle. You see it was here about 10 years ago that he used to sleep in the park and panhandle in front of the CVS. He was a homeless out-of-work drug user. One evening he went into the park and shot up with some dirty needles. He suspects it was that specific night that he contracted the HIV virus. He knew it wasn’t a good idea, but the addiction had blurred his judgment. It reminds me of Rob from Day 117 who said, “The thing about addiction is that people continue these behaviors in spite of catastrophic consequences.” Anyway, he went years without knowing he was infected until he started to get quite ill and lost a considerable amount of weight. He went to the hospital and found out that he was HIV positive. He says that his health is good these days thanks to three little pills that he takes every day. He says he knocked his drug addiction although still drinks alcohol which I could smell on his breath.
It was only about a year and a half ago that Carlton started painting. “I didn’t want to panhandle no more” he said. He got started when a woman left him some paint by the bench where he was sleeping. He decided to give it a try. “God taught me,” he answers when I ask if he was self-taught. The reason he chooses to paint at Dupont Circle is that he hopes that some of the same people who used to see him strung out years ago will see him today and realize that he has talent and that he has improved his situation. He talks to me about why he likes to paint landscapes, how he has deals with being HIV positive and being homeless:
With the money that I gave him he said he was going to buy some colored paints.
Here is another few minutes of my conversation with Carlton. I asked him how others can help him and I thought his answer was beautiful.
I really enjoyed talking with him. As it got late and he finished his last painting he said that he needed to catch the Metro. “Hey, why don’t you take this painting” he offers as he pushes the painting you see in these pictures toward me. I told him that I couldn’t receive anything in return for the $10 but I did appreciate the gesture.
If you would like to find Carlton, he is often at Dupont Circle in front of the Bank of America during the afternoons. And sometimes he is there at night, like today. His paintings range from $20 and up, depending on the size and type.
UPDATE: I ran into Carlton on June 1, 2011 and visited with him for a while. You can read about my latest encounter with him by clicking here.