Jose Rios, Artist Off the Streets

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Erik Maniscalco
Even if you noticed the burn scars on his hands, to look at Jose Rios now?47, graying at the temples, handsome in an Omar Sharif sort of way?you wouldn't be able to read anything about his past. He's bright and healthy and exuberant, with good reason to be?when I spoke with him, the first solo exhibition of his paintings was about a week away.

Even looking at his work, if you didn't know the background, might not tell you much at first?cityscapes, abstracts, portraits?acrylics done in a bright, direct style, with a sharp eye for color and line.

"That one's of my father," he said of one?a deeply lined, wild-eyed but smiling face that filled the entire canvas. "I call it The Dungeon Master."

In another, all the windows in two buildings at a darkened intersection are brightly lit. The caption reads, "Looking out my cardboard box, home, I know there's HOPE."

Rios had it tough from the beginning. Raised in a Harlem tenement by an alcoholic father, he started drinking at 11, and, as time passed, found himself hooked on heroin, then crack, "'cause it was the easiest way of escaping."

After graduating high school, he began doing construction work. "I was able to labor with my hands, and it was great," he said. "The only bad thing is?I don't know if you're aware of it, but everybody in construction gets high one way or another. So I was surrounded by all these people getting high, so my habit grew bigger and bigger. I was able to get stoned and still work, so it was easy."

By the mid-80s, though, his habit had cost him everything?his family, his job, his apartment?and he found himself out on the street, alone.

"I was out there for over 10 years," he says. "I started basically living in the streets in '86. I [went from] making something around $1000 a week to living in a cardboard box in less than a year. Your average person, from 9-5, don't realize that they're just inches away from being on the street."

But as a lot of people I've spoken with in similar circumstances will attest, at first Rios didn't think it was such a bad deal.

"Once you're out there, there's a sense of romance. You're intertwined with so many people. You don't feel that you're obligated to anything. It's like a freedom?but in reality, it wasn't, because I was a prisoner to drugs. In that time, every day was a hustle and bustle. You're caught up in your own little world. There's this completely different world going on around you, and you can either tune into it or stay away from it, depending on what you feel like."

The constant search for a steady drug supply brought him to the Lower East Side where he turned to burglary in order to support what had become a $100-$150 a day habit. Then one day, he ran into a friend who was peddling merchandise on the sidewalk, and got an idea.

"I said, 'Wait a minute, here's a unique way to make money, and I don't have to do anything negative.' I was able to live well on things other people had discarded. I would pick them up, clean them up, fix 'em a little bit. I had a spot on Ave. A. That's how I made my money."

So between 1986 and 1996, Rios sold objects, bought drugs and lived in a cardboard box all over the Lower East Side. I asked him what finally put the idea in his head that it was time for a change.

He told me it came one night when he was living in an empty lot on 2nd St. between B and C. His box was wrapped in plastic sheeting to keep out the wind and the cold, and Rios, inside, had nodded out.

"I woke up, and there's a blaze of flames all around me. I panicked and I jumped out, and the plastic fell on my hands. My hands were literally on fire, because the plastic clinged on there. The only way I was able to turn it off was to put them under my armpits. I heard the sirens, and I said, 'Well, they're coming to turn it off, so let me get out of here.' I was thinking, 'Let me go out there and cop a few bags of dope and get rid of this pain,' but somebody made me go to the hospital. A lot of people around here knew me, and this one particular guy, he was a churchgoer, and this was the first time I heard him curse. He told me, 'You're going to the hospital,' and I said, 'No, I'm gonna go cop.' He looked at me and said, 'If you don't get your so-and-so in the car, I'm gonna so-and so.' I said, 'Uh-oh, he's serious.'

At the hospital, they cleaned him up, put something on his hands and sent him away. Knowing he would lose his hands if he didn't get more treatment for them, Rios got stoned and went back to the emergency room, where he was lucky enough to encounter an intern who arranged to send him to Cornell's burn center.

"When I was there I was jumping off the walls because of the methadone habit and all the medications. When I came out, I said, 'I gotta get cleaned up.' So I got cleaned up, and it lasted about four-five months. But the urge to get high was still there. The pain that I thought was ending was still there. So I ended up right back in the street. I got on my feet so easily?in those four-five months, I had a vehicle, I had an apartment?but the fact that I still had problems and that I wanted to get high again put me back in the street for another five or six years. But what turned everything around was that the last year of being on the street, it wasn't as glamorous anymore."

Then, on Dec. 21, 1996, he was arrested.

"There was a lot of b.s. in the charge," he says, "but nevertheless I was happy about it, because I wasn't in the streets. I went through withdrawal and everything, and as my head cleared up, I made connections with my daughter, I started writing."

Rios was able to convince the judge to send him to Willard?a sort of military-school drug program in upstate New York.

"So I went to Willard, started getting my life together, making connections with my family again. And when they were ready to let me go, I requested an inpatient program. So I went to Phoenix House. I lived there for four months, which allowed me to get my paperwork together and work myself back into society. I managed to get my Social Security, my birth certificate. I got a little dinky job making six dollars an hour. So it was like going backwards, but it was okay, because that little backwards step would allow me to see what I had to do in order to go forwards."

He got a job, a place to live, and started painting. Ever since he was a kid, he said, he had skilled hands and an interest in art. All through school, in fact, he won a number of awards for his work. It was one thing he always had going for him?though it sort of fell by the wayside while he was on the street.

"Once I started painting, I did a little dance around the apartment with a brush in my hand. I was alive again. That was the best feeling."

And now he's about to have his first one-man show, featuring 20-odd pieces?paintings, he says, that tell the story of his past, present and future. (The show, incidentally, was arranged by Rios' daughter, Jephthahlyn Rios-Rodriguez.) And while that's a great thing, it's not his final goal.

"What I want to do, eventually, is start an art program, where people who've been in a similar situation to mine can better their lives. Being through what I've been through, I know that if you don't start something creative, you end up right back where you started."

Rios' first show, "Jewels of the Lost Artist," runs through March 17 (Tues.-Sat., 1-6 p.m.) at Gelabert Studios, 255 W. 86th St. (B'way). Call 718-671-5281 for information; or visit

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