September 6, 2014

My Life In Savannah (Part 2)

2. River Street 

The first (illegal) job I got in America was working in restaurant: washing dishes on Sunday, from 11am - 6pm, paid total $48. It was on the fourth day after I came to this country, when I had not yet settled down myself. Since then, my daily life was mostly from classrooms to restaurants, and back to my cheap apartment at late night. I was impressed by the beauty of the city, but could only enjoy it during some brief moments like when biking to school, or taking bus to restaurants. Most of time, my focus was on one thing alone: survive.

Hanging out with "rich friends".
Jacksonville, FL. 1996.
Working in restaurants didn’t help me to “survive”. SCAD is an expensive private art school. The first quarter’s tuition pretty much took most of (borrowed) money I brought with me from China. So I had to work very hard every day. However, despite of situation, mentally I was quite relaxing. I hanged out with rich students (most students in this school are from rich families), went to beach couple of times, occasionally went to parties, had lots of fun. One day in library, a guy from China told me he decided to quit school, “advised” to me that I should do the same: “I can’t believe you go out with those Taiwanese or Japanese… their one meal would cost your whole day hard work in restaurant!”

I didn’t take his advice. But soon after I found I was facing financial crisis. Working in restaurant part-time could not even cover my monthly life expense, needless to mention there was formidable tuition - thousand dollars - needed to pay each quarters. Situation looked dire, but I knew there got to be a way out. 

That was the second Summer after I entered the “New World” (how I survived to that point was also a “magic”. It’s worth to mention that I did received lots of kind helps from friends and schoolmates), one day after waking up I found I had only about $170 in bank, so I decided to do something I never wanted to do: custom portrait. There were people suggested that to me almost on the first day I arrived in Savannah, but I never tried it because 1, I was not fond of copying people’s faces; 2, rumor said it’s “illegal”. However, out of desperation, this seemed to be the only solution. So that day I produced couple of sample drawings, went to the very famous “River Street”.

That was a hot summer day of 1996, just like any other hot day in south. I set my drawing equipments in a shadow area near river bank, then sat there waiting for customers, patiently, yet a little anxiously. Two hours past, no one even bothered to ask, so I decided to change my “strategy”. I took a sample drawing and went to a small group of young women who were hanging out there, asked them if they liked to have a portrait done.

“How much?” One of them said so. “$15.” Then I added quickly: “if you don’t like it, you really don’t have to pay me.”

“Really?” She looked at her friends, and looked back to me. “Why not?”

So, I spent over 20 minutes made the first custom portrait in my life. It ended happily. I took the money, she took the picture. Later, I had another two customers, an old lady and a middle aged man. Around 7pm, I packed up, as I thought that’s the time to finish (later I realized that’s the time to start).

That’s my first day in portrait business. I made $45 in less than 4 hours, better than restaurant, I calculated. The second day, I stayed a little later, made $69. The third day, I made over $100. since then, after near 10 months struggle, I found solution for my financial crisis - River Street.

River Street is located in north side of downtown Savannah, along Savannah River, which borders South Carolina. The street was paved with cobblestones that were initially used by early colonists as ballast stones on their boats coming from England. After arriving in New World, people first threw them into river, but soon realized it made river bed shallower, so they reused them to pave roads. Now these stones became the most distinguishing characteristic of River Street and historic Savannah.

A railroad track was laid in the middle of street. Occasionally there was an old style locomotive driving by. The colorfully decorated locomotive was rebuilt just for drawing tourists, fancily named as “River Street Rambler”. Every time before it came, it would blow its horn, loud and long, made its appearance especially important.

On one side of street stood tall buildings, where you would see bars, restaurants or gift shops, on the other side was some empty space with benches for people to hang out. Beyond that, there was Savannah River.

The name of city Savannah is derived from Savannah River, and the name of the river is derived from the name of an Indians tribe who lived here when colonists just came: “Shawnee”. Broad and serene, everyday Savannah River flew from northwest, passing through the city, joining the ocean at Tybee Island, which is about 15 miles from downtown.

The purpose of building Savannah - other than protecting British colonies - was for commercial use, mostly for transportation of cotton. So from the beginning Savannah was one of the most important harbors in North America. During WWII, large amount of American soldiers were transferred by cargo ships from here to Europe. Today, Savannah is still one of the most important cargo ports in US. I remember often seeing those giant-size ships slowly moving toward river bank, making everything else looking so tiny and unimportant. Other people on River Street also looked at the ships in awe, like those who first saw Titanic 100 years ago. Some people even waved their hands to exchange greetings with sailors on ships, who must come from very far away.

1996, River Street.
The boat on the back carried
Olympics torch and landed on
River Street before on it
way to Atlanta.
On River Street I always set up my “stuff” next to Ted (pseudo name) - a middle aged black guy who played Trombone. Staying close to each other benefited both of us: my customers could listen to his music so they wouldn’t feel terribly bored while sitting “still”, and his audiences would sometime be genuinely interested in what I was doing, and some of them would be curious enough to sit down and see how they looked like in my drawings.

Ted often chatted with me, but the conversations mostly were mostly one sided, as my English listening skill was extremely poor (I understood almost nothing during classes, God knows How did I got all those “A”!). I could not enjoy his music much because he played the same music all the time. He usually spoke loudly to draw people’s attention: “Jazz, blues and Gospel, slow medium fast, you choice!” But it seemed to me, that if a tourist requested “slow”, he would play the same one he just played for another tourist who asked for “fast”.

During weekend, as if due to agreement, Ted’s spot would be taken over by three young black guys, who also play trombones. They usually materialized themselves suddenly during peak-time. The first thing they did was placing a white plastic bucket on ground for tips, then they stood together in a form of half circle, and after counting 3 times, they began to play. They played mostly Southern Jazz (I guess), which sounded much more exciting than Ted’s. Their bodies moved along with music, made the performance very energetic and attractive. I loved almost everything they played, though I didn’t know the names of those pieces. They drew audiences instantly, and many of them would dance with the music. During these moments, I was always deeply moved, and my thoughts would wander along with the music, instantly drifted away from my current “business”, to some unknown wonderland.

(To be continued)
part 3


  1. I am going through three books currently —which I am sure is another story perhaps you will find on my blog someday— and I must say your autobiography is turning out the best stuff I seem to have at hand. I am hooked, Yun!

    1. What a compliment Uma! It really means a lot to me. And I am glad you enjoyed the story.

  2. yunyi, I'm enjoying your memoir of your Savannah days so much. Nothing moves me more than listening to a friend talk about their life experiences.

    1. Thanks Marty! I am happy you enjoyed it. I also enjoyed writing them too, felt like living in those days again.

  3. Very interesting post. I also love reading about people's life experiences.
    Thank you for the comment you left on my blog.
    (I'm following your blog now).

    1. Thanks Julia Hones. And thanks for following! :-)