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Charmed Life

Bar Scene

By Charles Cohen | Posted 11/7/2001

Charles Newton likes his bars. He likes them thick with smoke, half-filled with tight-knit regulars, with maybe a print or two of his up on the walls.

Newton is 73, and he's been making bars his base of operations for most of his life. Not a bar, like so many of his contemporaries who reach a certain age and settle into a single watering hole. Newton is always on the lookout for a new hangout and a new crowd, always a step ahead of the forces of gentrification. He's watched generations and subcultures come and go--beatniks, hippies, punks, hipsters. In the 1960s it was Martick's on Mulberry Street, in the '70s the now-defunct No Fish Today downtown. In more recent years it's been John Steven Ltd. or Leadbetters in Fells Point. These days he can often be found at a slanted table at another Point mainstay, Miss Irene's. That the paint is peeling from the tin ceiling and the old linoleum has worn down to the floorboards only endears the place to him more. At the moment he's musing on the events of Sept. 11 and the effect they've had on a generation "who thought they had it made."

"Every generation has its problems," says the Army and Air Force veteran who saw action as a teenager in the late stages of World War II. "It's just that it appears to me through history people have adapted to the situation. It's just that all the 30-year-olds have had it so neat, so easy."

Newton may like his Coors Light, but his bars are much more than a place to wet his whistle. They're also his muse and his livelihood. He paints pictures of the bar-stool slouches, the bartenders, the pool players. He paints the view through the windows. When he's not painting the inside of bars, he's outside painting streetscapes of his Fells Point neighborhood, capturing on canvas the cobblestone streets, the stubby rowhouses, the iconic tugboats, the slices of life. Most of his pieces start out as ballpoint sketches on the backs of coasters, with little reminders scribbled under the picture: "Bar rag foreground, heads in back, shit on bar"; "Rainy night mostly wet cobblestone"; "Woman pissing between two cars."

For Newton, painting is more of a trade than an art; the mere mention of that particular three-letter word is liable to pull his face into a jack-o'- lantern grimace, especially when the word "abstract" is appended to it. "They're not conning me. They may con somebody else," he says of the despised modernists. "Jackson Pollock was the biggest ripoff in the world."

Newton takes a huckster's approach to his work. He's accumulated lots of tricks, like setting up an easel at a marina and painting one of the high-priced show boats, knowing sooner or later owners will come sniffing around wanting him to do a similar portrait of their bay-going baby. He also takes aim at popular Baltimore taverns and landmarks like Johns Hopkins Hospital, easy sells with a guaranteed customer base. And "if I'm going to paint a tugboat--and I like to paint marine scenes--there's always going to be someone around who is going to buy it," he confides.

Even his upcoming exhibit at the Dead End Saloon is geared toward giving him a financial edge. The show is slated to open the day before Thanksgiving, which he reasons will get him in on the beginning of the seasonal buying spree. Even if people aren't flush with cash, if they want to buy one of his pictures as a gift, he'll oblige them with a layaway plan. "There's probably 50 people walking around this town that owe me money at any given time," he says.

Newton's approach to the arts has always had a practical element, since a fear of math prompted him to pick mechanical drawing while attending Forest Park High School in Northwest Baltimore. In 1945, at the age of 17, he enlisted in the Army just in time to catch some of the fierce final fighting in the Philippines. Returning to Baltimore in 1948, he took advantage of the GI Bill to study art history at Baltimore City Community College for two years before hitting the road.

"In the circles I traveled in, everybody went on the road like Kerouac," Newton recalls. "Everybody would hitchhike back and forth across the country. People would leave Baltimore, leave their furniture, their apartment, go to California. Somebody else from California would take over their apartments because the rent was paid for."

Newton crisscrossed the country, taking odd jobs--truck driver, ice-cream man, photographer, private investigator (all still proudly listed on his résumé under "Occupations")--and sketching in small pads. In a bar in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, he used to run into a guy who always showed up with a legal pad and "would write reams of stuff. I don't know what he ever did with it." The guy's name was Charles Bukowski.

Newton's rambling lifestyle culminated in a job as a deckhand on a shrimp boat he says was also running guns to Fidel Castro's revolutionaries in 1956. On one of the runs, Newton and a fellow hand opted to stay in Cuba and ended up getting arrested. After seven months in prison, he says, the Cuban government declared them vagrants and shipped them to Key West.

Following that experience, Newton settled into a steadier gig, signing up for a four-year stint in the Air Force. After his discharge in 1961 he returned to job-hopping, painting everything he saw along the way. Finally, in 1968, he collected his last regular paycheck, going full time into what he terms "scuffling through the arts."

Three-plus decades later, Newton often finds himself the lone old man in a bar full of "young kids." In some ways, they remind him of the "bohemians" he hung with in his youth, drinking and talking the nights away. Except so many of them are already locked into the career track. "They haven't got time to hitchhike to California to see what life's about," he grouses, "because they have to pay their cell-phone bills." Newton doesn't even have a phone at his Fells Point alley house, a fact he announces with pride.

"If someone is looking for me," he says, "they know I'm in one of these beer joints."

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