MISSOULA, Mont. — On his knees, nose to the concrete, Avin Sigurani blows a cloud of chalk dust away from his latest koi fish drawing.
The swirling fish appears orange and white. In fact, Sigurani has rubbed eight different shades of color into the image, wearing inches off the thumb-thick chalk sticks. The melange gives the fish a three-dimensional heft despite lying flat on the sidewalk. It glows slightly in the winter sunlight.
“It’s a butterfly koi,” Sigurani says. “They have a mutation that makes their fins keep growing. They don’t survive in the wild, because everything eats their fins off.”
Sigurani usually takes more than an hour to complete a fish. When it’s done, he takes a handful of change, if he has any, and sprinkles it by the koi’s mouth.
“Feed my fish?” he asks anyone who walks by the Wilma Theater.
Two passing teens don’t make eye contact, but one of them caws like a crow. He keeps cawing all the way to Front Street.
“I don’t know what that’s about,” Sigurani says. “Less than 10 percent of the people do anything at all. They behave like I’m a drug addict or a drunk. Maybe 1 percent will give $5 or a waterproof jacket or something useful. You can’t tell who’s generally a jerk in their normal life. Their beliefs are just confused. They’ll throw water on your stuff, throw water on the fish. They think that’s how to freaking act.”
Sigurani likes to sit at the end of the Higgins Avenue Bridge because he rarely gets run off from that spot. He’s had arguments with other business owners downtown. He said that before moving on, he tries to make a case: He intends to sit quietly with his fish and a “Blessed be your day” sign, hoping to get some donations. If chased away, he’ll likely be replaced by a group of much less friendly members of Missoula’s street people, ones who won’t leave until you call the police. Who would you rather have?
“I had one owner watch me doing … the whole thing with my fish for an hour and half,” Sigurani said. “I used up all this chalk. And as soon as I’m done, they go, ‘Hey, you can’t be here.'”
Sigurani pulls a half-smoked cigarette out of his pocket, snaps the filter off and lights it. The tobacco vanishes in three puffs.
“You’ve got to figure out how to stand out,” Sigurani said of the fish drawing. “So many people are just broke all the time. Sometimes you’ll sit there all day for $10. Sometimes you get kicked out before you get $5. Last week I made $100.”
He said he might make $250 or $300 for holding an advertising sign on a street corner. But when his wallet got stolen, he lost his ID cards. That makes it hard to get paid for any job requiring paperwork. You can’t get a bus ticket without one, either.
“If everyone that went by gave me a quarter, then my cellphone would be on,” he said. “You can find out who I am in a second with the internet. If I could get my stuff published, then I might get some more writing work.”
Sigurani has a Facebook page, as well as a Linkedin profile and a listing on Guru.com offering computer administration services, web design, programming and graphics design. The Guru page notes no income or feedback. He claims a master’s degree in biology training from Idaho State University and the University of Arizona. He said he’s worked in laboratories, and done construction.
He came to Missoula two years ago with a girlfriend and a U-Haul full of stuff. The relationship failed, he said, in part because she had a son with a drug problem. He would not elaborate.
Sigurani said he couch-surfs through Missoula’s winter nights. He tried staying at the Poverello Center once. There he overheard another man talking about stealing yet another homeless man’s boots while he slept.
“I spent the whole night with my boots on, lying on a mat on the floor, using my sleeping bag as a pillow under my head,” he said. “I got maybe two hours of sleep. Nobody who can figure anything else out goes there. The only way it’s reasonable is if you’re disabled, you’re a vet, or you’re just in town and don’t know anything else. I guess you could give them all the money you would have given one of us on the street, and see if it helps.”
Some days, if he has enough time, Sigurani might add a pond for his fish to swim in, and then a windswept tree overhanging the pond. He lists the elements like a recipe, a fixed image that goes together a certain way. It’s not a copy, but something of his own.
“You try not to look as miserable and pissed off as you really are,” Sigurani said. “You try to be friendly. Don’t think about being cold and hungry and tired. You don’t get anything done that way.”
A bearded man heading north on Higgins slows as he sees Sigurani’s fish, and drops a handful of change on the sidewalk.
“Hey,” the man says, “feed the fish.”
Information from: Missoulian, http://www.missoulian.com