Confabulation?


In these troubled times where truth is under attack by none other than the president of the United States, there is still comfort to be had and art to be made in a vast gray area between the absolute truth and an outright lie.


Long ago while thumbing through a dictionary published in the 1930s I discovered a word that I’d never heard before, but one that aroused my imagination like no other word ever had. The word was confabulation. In that moldy old Webster’s confabulation was defined by two meanings. The secondary meaning referred to it as an inaccurate testimony by a witness anxious to help the police or prosecution solve their case, as a result recalling the event differently than what, in fact, had happened. Interesting, but not nearly as much so as the primary meaning.


For seven years now I have been writing anecdotes and essays inspired by images I have created. I call these words and pictures Confabulations, its primary usage unfortunately usurped late last century by the psychiatric establishment to describe a type of habitual liar. However, it was originally used to describe not a disturbed person but something like an act of art, whereas the user, a writer or more to the point, a storyteller, would innocently and spontaneously fill a hole in the narrative with something other than an actual fact in an attempt to make the delivery smoother and the story more entertaining or interesting, the facts and fiction of the story in time becoming indistinguishable to the teller. 


What I do is simply tell a story I’ve been telling for years based on fact accompanied by a picture story that is similarly based on fact, confabulated but not factious, just altered a bit to make the tale more compelling.   

< Where White People Like To Show Themselves #2


I pull up a chair in the shade, sit down and set up. Rarely do I have such a comfortable place to work. Rarely have any of my subjects, like I have that noon, experienced discomfort other than something self-inflected. Like a sprained ankle at their country club's annual amateur tennis tournament. For the next forty-five minutes I smile through it all, wondering if any of them have any idea what this particular neighborhood was like before the mall-makers and assorted money men arrived on the scene.


"It was the meat packing district," they'd chorus, if asked. "Still is," I'd answer, then point out a few places still in business. I'd tell them about the slaughter houses on Tenth Avenue up in Hell's Kitchen, and how it stunk so when they burnt the hooves and horns and flesh and bones they didn't want downtown and about the High Line, how it was used to transport the meat down here. Then I'd explain why it was really called the meat-packing district where meat was packed at places like Keller's and Dirty Dick's, then a little later, at the Mine Shaft, the Ramrod and, of course, at the Anvil.


If they were still with me, I'd tell them that all the nasty stuff was just a costume ball compared with how it was like one hundred years ago when the Hudson Duster's ( I love that name) ran the waterfront down here, from somewhere just above 14th Street clear down to Chambers. It wasn't called the meat packing district then, with or without a wink. And it wasn't called the far West Village, either. It was simply called the lower Westside. And like the lower Eastside, it was rough, maybe even rougher. If you don't believe me, the Bowery Boys of Monogram Pictures would set you straight. You remember them, don't you? They started out as the Dead-End Kids of "Dead End" fame. Anyway Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall and company would do anything to avoid a rumble over on the Westside. Now I wonder where the history is going to come from?

< Brooklyn Bridge Blues


I don't know why but I never really got behind the Brooklyn Bridge thing. In fact, it wasn't until this century that I actually got on it—walked across it for the first time. But it's been a tourist draw since the first cables were strung and they say four thousand people walk across it on an average day, both tourist and folks who'd rather walk over the East River than to ride under it. So it occurred to me that John Augustus Roebling's masterpiece which has inspired so many tall tales and high-jinx—and works of art, for that matter—should be included in Confabulations.


On a sunny and very hot day I melted into a stream of humanity and sweated my way to the first tower, a perfect spot to set up, I figured: space to work in, people pausing to take in the view (certainly world class), maybe snap a few photos, uncork that bottle of water. But when I arrived I found that the keepers of the bridge where busy keeping the bridge in tip-top shape. It was just a minor project, I was told, one that would be finished by the end of the year. With that I immediately about-faced it and started back, hot and tired and pissed off. But at least it was down hill all the way back to land.When I reached the walkway that leads from the street to the bridge I grabbed a seat on an empty bench, sat back, relaxed and watched the people pass—all four thousand of them, it seemed, shuffling slowly, keyed-up and jabbering in dozens of tongues and I thought: Why not here?


I grabbed at my gear, set up and was ready to shoot when I noticed a kid sitting on the bench next to me—bored to death, apparently waiting for his family to return from their big adventure, one he couldn’t have cared less about. As you see him in the photo he was staring down intently at his water bottle, turned up-side-down, it's cap just barely on, a drop of water slowly, ever so slowly, stretching out, reaching for the concrete. Then...drip. I nudged the camera so I knew I had him and we both waited for the second drip. Snap, snap, snap. Got it. Then suddenly the cap gave up to gravity and the next skinny little drop became a big fat gurgle, puddling at his feet. Which of course, I missed. But I didn’t miss everything.

Inside Outsider


How old do you think this kid is, ten or eleven? I’d say he’s about the age I was when I decided to be an artist. I don’t know how it is today but in my day, kids—mostly boys—had to have a good answer when asked by an adult what they wanted to do when they grew up. If not, they could expect to get lectured on the responsibilities of a young man. So if they didn’t know what they wanted to be they’d make something up. But when I answered I wasn’t just trying to please them. I really did want to be an artist. And I said so loud and clear. That is, I said so until I learned that being an artist was not a real answer. “You mean you like to draw. But what are you really going to be when you grow up?” So in time I told them I wanted to be an architect. I really didn’t want to be an architect but it worked so well that I fell in love with the idea of being an architect until I found out you had to be good at math to be one. So I stopped using that line. But by then they’d stopped asking, seeing how I looked and how I dressed and all. Which pretty much said I was a lost cause headed for nothing but trouble.


To me, being an artist was painting pictures of scenes of New York, with cool looking characters lounging around or bustling about. This work was called the “Trash Can” school, I learned, and was more or less led by a fellow named John Sloan. So I figured I’d be like John Sloan. Until I discovered Reginald Marsh who came along a little later and whose characters bustled so vibrantly they seemed to be actually moving over the canvas. Since both Sloan and Marsh lived in Greenwich Village. I thought I’d live in the Village, too. But the more I learned the less I believed I’d be able to do it because, it seemed, everything had changed. I found that no one painted pictures with people any more. There were no longer stories being told with paint and brush. Figurative art was done for; narrative work was considered dead. Abstract Expressionism ruled the art world and had done so for a score or more. In fact, new stuff was on the horizon that was crazier than the abstract. Even New York street photography, a direct descendent of the Ash Can school, was affected by the changing aesthetics, as Helen Levitt gave up the search for subjects because in her words everyone was up in their apartments watching television.


Although for many years of my life I lived in Greenwich Village I never became the artist I dreamed of being as a kid. What happen between then and when I was stabbed in the back and left for dead I could call a career. But I don’t. I call it continuing education which paid a wage and, from time to time, put me smack dab in the middle of a scene very much like what I dreamed of as a kid, not as a maker of art but as a director of the arts, as it turned out the art I directed being mostly photography. 


But now my time has come. Whether recognized as such or not, I know I am finally an artist. A starving artist, at that. As John Sloan once was. And like Sloan I too once labored for magazines. I just lingered a little longer in the trenches. And like Reginald Marsh I first study a location, then take photos, then return to my “studio” to compose a piece. I call these concoctions Confabulations. And although I feel the obligation to defend my work and to define them as legitimate stories that have been altered only to make them a little more engaging, just as Sloan and Marsh did, I believe it’s really not necessary to do so. For even though what I do might offend some purists—like many of the people who I once worked with and considered my friends—I believe if my work, like the work of the Ash Can painters, is really good, then fifty years from now no one will give a damn how they were produced. 

< Memory or Confabulation?


"Memory is an imaginative act; first we imagine what we'll want to keep and then we fashion stories from what we've kept. Memories don't just happen, they are built." 


The quote is from Walter Kirn's essay that opens the April 12, 2015 issue of the New York Times Style magazine in which Kirn laments the dominance of memory gathering with electronic devices rather than with human senses. Although unintentionally, he kind of hit the nail on the head that I have pinched between my forefinger and thumb. 


Which is, the truth has always been imperfect,

concocted after the fact from testimony and tale,

an olio of impressions cooked to taste.


Kirn was referring mostly to videos shot with an iPhone. However, there will be those who might say that this dehumanization of memory really began 180 years ago with the invention of photography. But I would not be one of those people. For a single image cannot tell a story. It can only suggest a story. It cannot build a testimony that would establish any one truth. And the better a photographer gets the more he or she has the power to manipulate what the viewer sees in that single image. Every photograph that is worth looking at is the result of what the photographer chose to show, what he chose not to show, the point of view she used, the lighting, the mood, the circumstances, all used to portray how the photographer felt about the subject and how they wanted to affect the viewer's experience. If that goal is achieved it is not so much a truth or an accurate reminder of a certain event but simply a work of fine art.  

< The First Guerrilla Girl Was A Guy


In the new New York crime is down and the subways are free of graffiti. So what. That’s to be expected in a gated community. Which is what most of Manhattan has become, populated by people welcomed in, not because of the content of their character or the breadth of their talent or the boldness of their dreams, but the bottom line of their bank accounts.


Although a vastly different city than it was when I fell to Earth here during the summer of 1967, it’s still my home because there is simply nowhere else I’d rather be. So I’ll continue to bitch and complain but take advantage of it for as long as I can, and even celebrate it every so often when it offers something really worthy of celebration. Like the public art that began to appear in the parks several years back. This was a concept considered radical not so many years ago, promoted by rebel misfits who believed that art should be freely available to the people and free of the tyranny of the museums. One, if not the first, of these hippy-dippy beatnik weirdo commie trouble makers was Harvey Stromberg.


Harvey was a wise guy from the Bronx who could have been a gangster like Dutch Schultz or a hustler like Morris Levy until he met Milton Glazer who supposedly turned him around. I met Harvey in the art department of a major record company where we both found ourselves one day without having had a preconceived plan to be there, just there for a bit to make some dough while we pursued other ambitions in the art world. Since Harvey was a couple years older and many times more knowledgeable of the scene than me, when he spoke I listened.


I remember whining to him one afternoon that I was having trouble finding my way, that I didn’t even know what medium I wanted to employ. He told me that the regimens of a specific medium no longer mattered, that it was the concept—the idea and the context—that was important and that the idea could be expressed in the simplest and most ordinary way one could imagine. I asked him how simple and ordinary. He cleared his throat of some phylum and spit it on the street, stopped to look at it, then said, “That’s just so much spit on the street.” Then turning to me he made his point, “But you spit your wad on a banker’s shinny shoe, that’s a work of art.” 


Harvey was a guy with bold ideas, alright, but he was also one who could practice what he preached. You don’t have the time and I don’t have the energy to list Harvey’s exceptional conceptional projects. Along with the artist, they’ve pretty much all been forgotten—save for one, Harvey’s lèse-majesté to the Museum of Modern Art. 


A year into our friendship Harvey asked my assistance with a major project he was planning: an instillation at MoMA that would include nearly 300 of his photographs. Stunned and excited I congratulated him then paused to ask why the museum’s staff wouldn’t handle that task. He grinned (Harvey was known for his devilish grin) then confessed that the museum knew nothing about it, that during the last few week he’d photographed there, not the installed art but the instillations: light switches, drains, tiles, key holes, door knobs and such. He’d then printed them on matte paper and applied adhesive to their backs. They were in black and white but so was the museum, by design, in black and white. He was ready to go. All he needed was help placing the prints. Needless to say I was impressed and eager to help, but as D day grew nearer I found that I was not going to be free the day he’d planned to hang his show. Instead I suggested my best buddy for the job, one of the cooler cats to have ever prowled the streets of the Big Apple.


They were successful, in fact so successful that nothing happened. Museum life went on as if the biggest show that was ever mounted there was not there at all. Harvey grew impatient, so impatient he reported the deed to the Village Voice, who wrote a piece about it, then contacted the museum the day before the issue hit the stands. Of course the museum refused to acknowledge the insult, calmly claiming some vandal did leave several crude photos here and there that were quickly found and removed. 


Two years later, after his latest stunt—placing tiny photos of cockroaches throughout the White House—Harvey returned to MoMA with a magazine reporter and found 72 photos still in place, still hanging in the face of the myopian sentries who, to this day, still guard the palace on 53rd Street, it's gate now higher and wider, its moat deeper than ever. And Harvey? Dead and buried for ten years now, his only legacy, a small notice in the June 28, 1971 issue of New York magazine. Check it out. No confabulation. No shit.

Mannequin Escapes Bloomingdale’s


Late yesterday afternoon a veteran store mannequin, facing yet another Christmas season relegated to the dreaded rear windows on Third Avenue, apparently made her escape with the help of Mr. Gerald Renquist, the flagship store’s head window dresser. They were reportedly last seen on Lexington Avenue near 59th Street entering a black Nissan Uber Car. Assistant director of personnel, Adrianna Socool, acknowledged that the mannequin, a Molly Holly System V, six-foot brunette, circa 1997, had been distraught facing her release from Bloomingdale’s this coming spring, apparently her only offer of employment being in an Orvis outlet in Reading, Pennsylvania. 

< Phishing and Fotography


Perhaps you recognized the three guys in the photo? They were once members of a 1980s interracial boy-band called the Universals. There were four of them, but the dude from New Delhi had a business meeting in Dubai and couldn’t make it to the group’s thirtieth reunion of their farewell world tour, which culminated at the Felt Forum, the first week of August, 1986.


Don’t worry if you can’t remember it because it’s not true. Beyond confabulation, it’s total bullshit. It was just an idea I had that I thought conceivable. Truth is, not only were they never a band, they never even met, likely never even stood waiting for a light at the same street corner. However, they might have, that day, right there on the corner of Canal and Centre Streets, August 4th, 2016. Just a few minutes is all that kept them apart. But together as a trio they’re so believable they prompt a narrative. Thus the boys from the four corners of the globe. I don’t know exactly why or exactly what it is I see in them, but whatever it is, it’s precisely what I always hope to find.


My first obsession in life was not photography but fishing. It was everything to me. From the age of six to somewhere in my early twenties it defined me: I was an angler. It was as if I was born to fish — biblically bound to the water and what swam beneath its surface.


Maybe it was because I was good at it. I think we all like things we can do well. Well, I was better than good. I was supernatural. Really. By the time I was ten I could throw a fly the length of my backyard (into the wind). And by the time I’d reached my teens I could wade into a Catskill stream and within a half hour take my limit of browns and brookies. In fact, Whitey, the long-time proprietor of the Beaverkill Camp Canteen, use to call me the Wizard on the Willowemoc.


It was not just trout fishing I was good at. My Uncle Bob was a hunting and fishing guide in Florida whose client list read like a who’s who of bigshots and A-listers of the 1950s and early 60s. Every summer for several years running I visited him and my Aunt Katherine on their antique houseboat, beached on North Captiva Island, then accessible only by water. There we fished for redfish (channel bass), snook, red snapper, trout (spotted weakfish), grouper, mostly, occasionally permit, pompano and jacks, and on calm days, wahoo, kingfish and bonito out in the Gulf. And every once in a while when we least expected it we were awed by the acrobatic flash of a chrome-plated tarpon. Even though I still had a lot to learn, after my first few days of my first summer visit, in spite of his Harry Morgan like demeanor and recognizing my divinely given gift, Uncle Bob would be sure to ask my opinion on where to fish before we’d cast off each morning.


There’s a ton of books available for folks who want to pursue the science and art of the angle. I’ve read a number myself. But the truth is there’s something else to it, something that’s impossible to put in words, something that goes beyond water temperature, water depth, seasons of the year, matches of the hatches, feeding lanes, presentation, and everything else a particular author can imagine. It’s something that’s born in the bones. When I was seventeen I could travel down highway 17 at sixty miles an hour, glancing down at the silver ribbon of river when suddenly I’d feel it, stop the car and get out. I’d slide down the bank into the river and be tormenting a trout within minutes, even seconds of my arrival.


Now, I do much the same, not with an Orvis rod and reel in hand but with a tiny Sony camera clinging to my chest. I don’t pretend to be as good a street photographer as I was an angler. But every once in a while I feel the same enlightenment that I’d experienced in my youth along Northeastern trout streams, on TVA lakes, farm ponds, along Long Island Beaches, and upon the cerulean waters of the lower left coast of Florida. I felt it a few months before I found the boy band, from across the street and I knew then I’d have to come back when the seasons changed and sun was shining down on that usually dark corner. So I’ve angled a big one, one of the best, I believe, now snug in the electric creel along with all my other confabulations. 

Summers of Love Seasons of Rage

Making Love Or Expecting Rain


Legend has it—or at least the urban legend dreamed up by a handful of savvy California marketers—that the Summer of Love occurred exclusively in San Francisco. Of course that’s nonsense. The Summer of Love, defined, if you will, as a youthful group-swoon or a drug induced communal bliss-out, occurred in any number of places. Lasting far beyond the summer of ‘67, it continued through 1968 to yet a third summer, finally peaking in August of '69 at the Woodstock Music Festival where the mercurial counter-culture became, in fact, the new pop culture.


What occurred during the Summer of Love in Haight Ashbury, in The East Village, or on just about any liberal arts college campus of note, all too often has been dismissed as so much silliness, or at best naive idealism gone amok. That’s entirely wrong since so many of the principles that we live by today were first promoted by these hippie-dippy beatnik commie radicals of fifty years ago: environmental  awareness, whole foods and tolerance of other races and religions being only the tip of a pretty big iceberg. But don’t take it from me. Instead dial up Bernie Sanders and listen to what he has always said and is still saying.


On that note I’d like to correct a shocking misconception that one smug young, neoconic millennial, has of Senator Sanders. In an opinion piece she scribed for the NYT she glibly compared him to her grouchy old Jewish grandfather, wondering how people her age could find anything they might relate to from this ancient, Depression-era leftist, ideologue. But like too many of her generation (see photo), she has obviously not included even a remedial study of history in her so-called education. Senator Sanders is not from the old left but from, and of, the New Left. Apparently she has never heard of folks like Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin or David Dellinger, and must be completely unaware of millions of other pissed-off grand dads and grandmas whose politics at long last have finally reached the floor of the United States Senate.

< My Audience With an Angel


To the photographer the photos where priceless. I'm not sure he still had the negatives. It was his early work, shot between 1914, when he was 20 and going off to war, and 1925 when he recreated himself in Paris as Andre Kertesz. We'd published a twelve-page portfolio in our “Masters at Work” issue, the first time many of the images had been seen anywhere. When the prints were ready to be returned his assistant requested that someone from the staff return them rather than trusting it to a messenger. I passed his building everyday on my way home from work. Might as well drop them off, I thought.


I thought I'd be leaving the package with the doorman. But no. Instead, I was directed to the elevator and to his apartment on the twelfth floor where I thought I'd simply hand the package to his assistant, exchange a pleasantry or two and be on my way. But it was not that simple.


It had been assumed I was making a pilgrimage. Tea had been made. Andre was waiting to sip it with his adoring caller. Don't get me wrong. I respected his work then and still do. And I must say I was a bit charmed by the old European style pomp and circumstance. But I'm a natural born tipper of sacred cows. And I have to confess Andre looked more like a sacred cow than any sacred cow I'd ever met. Especially one I took tea with. I don't much remember what we had to say to each other, but the thing I remember clearly to this day is how light and bright he was. Like an angel, his hair a halo backlit by the late afternoon sun. His pale blues eyes gleamed with the innocence of a child's. He was eighty-eight. And although the love of his life was no longer with him he'd likely never been happier.


When I began this project seven years ago I knew I must include an image that would commemorate this event. But for the life of me, for the life of this project, I failed each time I tried. Washington Square Park may still be a destination, even sacred ground to many people, but it’s not conducive to confabulations. I don’t know why that is but my losing streak finally ended with the help of a couple of talented north-country root musicians who call themselves The Coyote and The Crow, on an unhurried, old fashion, Labor Day afternoon. In the right foreground of the image is a surviving copy of the fore mentioned magazine, Camera Arts, November, 1982. But most significantly, Andre’s former twelfth floor balcony from where he photographed many of his well-known images, is the uppermost balcony just below the curve of the arch. And I can easily imagine that if the angle is right one might still catch a glimpse of an angel on that balcony, a camera in hand, his halo set aglow by the setting sun.

< Girl at the Crossroads


He wandered along 42nd Street then started across Broadway. But as soon as he laid eyes on me he changed his course. I looked away. I had only ten minutes of sun so I didn't want to encourage him. However, he was an intrepid German tourist who knew he'd spotted a real New Yorker. He walked up, looked down, "Please help me," he smiled. "Yeah," I answered like I could but maybe I wouldn't. "Times Square?" he asked. "What about it?" I asked back. "Where is it?" I thought he was putting me on. But then I figured most German guys might not dig the irony. "Turn around," I said. He did so then turned back to me and we shared a big laugh. I felt good about the exchange until I remembered the camera at my feet.


The German would have made a pretty good central subject. Oh well, tomorrow's another day, I was thinking, thinking of packing up when she walked up to me like he had. But unlike him she stared right through me, down Broadway as if into the future. To her I simply was not there. Which was fine with me. In fact, perfect, I was thinking working the remote: four, five, six frames in the can. But she kept coming until her head disappeared from her shoulders. "Can I help you?" I asked sharply, as if to stop her in her tracks. She stopped, retreated a step or two. Raising her sunglasses she glared at me like my tail was rattling a warning. She said nothing just shook her head now back on her shoulders, placed perfectly in the frame. She'd made my day but couldn't have cared less.

< Ground Zero


I'm seated on a hot slab of stone, facing north, roughly equal distance from where the North and South Towers once stood, a storm of recollection blowing through by brain. Although I'm doing what I've done for five years I'm fumbling my equipment like it's my first time out. Finally, I manage to get the camera set to the tripod, the tripod positioned correctly at my feet. I squeeze the cable release, spot the position of the legs with a marker, pick up the camera and check the angle of view. I see I'll get a full figure, tête to toe, at a distance of about eight feet, give or take. Close to perfect, I figure, based on the mainstream of people passing by. I place the camera back at my feet and immediately she appears in the corner of my eye. Although she's closer than eight feet and moving much faster than most of the strolling tourist, my trigger finger is fast enough to catch her dead in front of me. It's only after the shutter falls I see how pregnant she is and I can't help but take it as a sign.


Being in the vortex of a real-life disaster is nothing like what one usually sees on film. In reality it's all slow motion, no fast cuts, just a flash of action so surreal it's impossible to understand, followed by scenes of tedious chaos that stretch out for hours and days and months and years. For many who were there, as I was, or who lost loved ones, it continues to stretch out, likely to the very end. After my office at Dow Jones had been gutted and cleared of contaminants and human remains then rebuilt; and after the recovery and reclamation had dragged on for five years; and after pushing my way past tourists every day on my way to and from work, I was assigned to a position at Smart Money magazine, taking me out of the neighborhood, and free of being compelled to pick at the wound of what had happened on September 11, 2001, as part of my daily life.


I stayed away for years. Until one day not long ago, my wife suggested we make a pilgrimage to the site, that it would help me if I was to see it now—how it had finally been transformed from a place of death to a place of life — suggesting that perhaps it was time I included that life at Ground Zero in Confabulations. We did make that pilgrimage and I must say that the the transformation is truly amazing. Since the event, one of the most troubling images that has haunted me is that of the South Tower falling, not with a great explosion but as a muddy river rushing to the sea. In my opinion much of the architecture at Ground Zero has too much standard 21st Century glass and steel. But the water falling from the footprints is perhaps the greatest piece of conceptional art I've ever seen, forever cleansing my brain of the vision of the South Tower's muddy river. 

< Movable Chefs of Chinatown


“Nuts,” is what he was saying at that very moment. As in, “Dunkin' Donuts?” I shrugged and said I was sorry, thinking about the Starbucks right behind him, thinking maybe he had an interview at Dunkin’s. Then falling back into melancholy as he wander away I remembered the bars that use to sit on Canal Street and especially Diamond Lil’s, the dirtiest and most dangerous place I ever frequented. And from there my mind jumped a year or two either forward or backward to the restaurants of Chinatown.


1972 was my year of eating dangerously. Actually, it was only during the spring and summer of that year. And actually, it was not so much eating dangerously but simply eating late. Or living dangerously by repasting past midnight. I’ll try to explain but beware of tangents and confabulations ahead. It was a long time ago.


I was 26 and suddenly on my own. I’d left home at 18 and moved in with my girlfriend who, in seemingly one fell swoop, became my wife and the mother of my child. I’ll say nothing more on that subject, only that things didn’t work out. So one evening I found myself alone on the street for the first time in my life. A rolling stone with no regular gig and just twenty bucks in my pocket. But also in my wallet was a brand new First National City Bank Master Charge Card, as it was known back then. And better yet, I had a friend who was on firmer ground with a headful of big ideas that he wanted to realize with yours truly.


Mez and I had won a prestigious award the year before and had been talking about combining our talents in an enterprise that soon after would be known as a creative group. Since he was a photographer who knew something about design, and I was a designer who knew how to handle a camera, and because we both could write a bit, and since I was suddenly homeless and jobless, we thought it was the perfect time — no, we figured it was destiny that we begin that night.


So with a list of potential clients that Mez had romanced while he was an account executive at a big-time Mad Men ad agency, we went to work dreaming up advertising and promotional material we thought would put these nobodies on the map in a sly and slightly wacky way, naming our own organization The Third Bardo, a bardo being the time one spends between incarnations. This according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. 


Our bardo didn't last long. We never made much money but we were at the prime of our lives doing exactly what we wanted to do. Mez had a house in Queens, but we bunked in the studio, sleeping on the two client couches. There was a restroom out in the hall, but with no bathtub or shower we bathed in the darkroom sink, music from King Crimson to B.B. and Ben E. King, blasting from Harmon speakers as big as refrigerators. We’d call for take out, throw impromptu parties to break up the monotony of all-work-and-no play, fuel those parties and the next day’s workload with tumblers of Gordon’s Gin and Rose’s Lime Juice and blocks of blond Moroccan hashish. But the most memorable times occurred on an irregular basis when we’d head down to Chinatown.


Since the early days most every New Yorker who considered themselves city slick dined on occasion in Chinatown. But not just anywhere, there always being too many tourist traps or dimly lit dumpling dives. The deal was that it wasn’t any particular joint that was better than any other. Instead, it was the chef who happened to be in a particular kitchen on a given night. At the time, these guys where all freelancers, moving around from kitchen to kitchen according to the best deal they could negotiate the morning before the evening they were needed. So if you were in the know, you’d know a few names to keep track of. But my pal Mez had it down finer than that. He had but one name, the undisputed number one chef in Chinatown, Hen Hao Chushi.


It became a ritual that when we were near finishing a presentation or assignment, we’d work late but not so late that we couldn’t be downtown before the kitchens closed. Usually just before 10:00 Mez would be on the horn looking for Chuchi. And to my continued amazement he’d manage to locate the guy in time for us to lock up the loft, wheel my buddy’s 750cc Norton Commando from the retired fright elevator where he kept it, then in a puff of oily smoke take off for Chinatown, the big bike’s engine roaring like an artillery barrage all the way down Broadway as our long hair whipped like streamers in the wind. Never a parking problem with a bike at that hour, we’d simply pull up to our destination, then near the stroke of midnight strut in to everyone’s notice, as if we were stepping from a silver screen.


I was always mystified by how Mez was able to find Chushi whenever we’d decide to go downtown. That mystery was the reason that for many years I was prompted to tell the story about our midnight meals and all the other stuff that went down while the Third Bardo was up. Then, twenty years later, when I told the story to a woman I worked with who’d been born and raised in Hong Kong, the truth was finally exposed.


“The chef?” she asked, “What did you say his name was?” I wondered why she wanted to know since she was only a half dozen years in New York. “Hen Hao Chuchi,” I said , trying my best to pronounce it correctly. Her face wrinkled up like she smelled a rat, then repeated the name I had mumbled. “Yeah, that’s it,” I smiled sheepishly. Which amused her. So much so she sat back and had a good laugh. I waited for some time, uncomfortable about what was so funny. Finally, “Hen Hao Chuchi?” she confirmed. I nodded.

“Hen Hao Chuchi,” she repeated again. “Means very best chef." 


The End of History


If you can imagine Manhattan as a reclining nude with a generous figure, I’m settled somewhere on her lower left thigh. Which would put me on the lower east side. To be specific that’s the exhausted ass-end of Eldridge Street you’re looking at as it stumbles south to its end at East Broadway, immediately behind me. I’ve come here, and will continue to do so for the next few weeks, because soon it will all be gone.


I trust most people in America still know of Manhattan’s lower east side and are aware of the fact that more people in this country can trace their ancestor’s first toe-hold on this continent back to this neighborhood than any other location in this country. But what few people realize is that not only did many of us start here but our popular culture sprang from the grit of this locale early in the nineteenth century. Now after one hundred and eighty years the chickens are coming home to roost. And the tap-dancing rake over on the Bowery, the pick-pocket and con artist who won a saloon in a game of craps, who tried his luck at politics and dazzled the lanes and lummoxes and became the Republican’s nominee for President of the United States of America is the rooster at the head of the parade. But more about that at another time.


I’ve been standing here for about a half hour, as I did the day before when I scouted the location then shot the panorama I call my stage. Today I came back and found my players.

And, it seems I’ve survived with nary a hard look cast in my direction. But as recently as the 1970s or even the 1980s, I could be dead or be dying by now. Because this was a slum. One thousand feet to the west was The Five Points, once the most dangerous place in United States; made Dodge City and Tombstone seem downright playful. About fifteen hundred feet to the east was the river and the wharfs were the clipper ships sailed to Shanghai with guys like me who’d been sapped the night before, waking up to find they’d have to work their way to China.


It was the other side of the tracks before there were tracks. From about the time of the Revolution when the swampy land on the northeastern edge of town was the last place a gentleman wanted to build but the only place a poor Englishman, Dutchman or German could settle, to the 1840’s where it seemed half the starving population of Ireland settled in. Then came the 1870s and 80s and the Italians arrived along with the Jews who filled the steerage of the ships arriving from Europe. Then still more Irish and Polish and Greeks.

The Chinese came as well. Not many at first, they were unwelcomed and only allowed to live in what was then the northern end of The Five Points but is now what most tourist believe is Chinatown. Then when the immigration laws were eased they came in great numbers, Chinatown surging north of Canal Street, consuming Little Italy and what was once the Jewish ghetto to the east that more recently had been the foot-hold for Porto Ricans and other minorities from here, there and everywhere.


But now all that is history. Not only are the poor Englishmen and Dutchmen and Germans and Irish and Jews and Italians and Porto Ricans gone, but the Chinese are disappearing as well. Manhattan, whether its Harlem or here, is no longer for humanity. It’s not even for hunger. It’s just for the roosters of the world. But where in the world will history come from, I wonder? 

Survival Skills


What you see here is a single moment in a tragedy that played out in less than a minute. Although unexpected, it was a moment I’d waited almost four years to shoot.


I’m back in New York now, for the rest of my life, and for the rest of my life, for as long as I’m able; I’ll be going out on the streets of the city, waiting for the next scene to unfold of the greatest show on Earth.


I’d been there for about a half hour, my second day at that location, Broadway and 67th Street, the middle-eastern fellow who runs the food cart just on the other side of the trash receptacle, growing very paranoid, considering my camera on the sidewalk as he would an IED. I hadn’t seen him for maybe ten minutes when a car pulled up behind the cart, dropped someone off then zoomed back into traffic. That someone was a tall, well-built fellow barely in his twenties. I caught his glance, smiled a little, watched him disappear behind the wagon, just as a young woman brushed by me, dropping what appeared to be a half-eaten bagel in the trashcan.


Ten, maybe fifteen seconds ticked by when I saw the big fellow again. He was carrying a bucket of debris that he intended to dump in the trashcan while getting a good look at what I was up to. Okay, I was thinking, let him come. He was a good-looking subject wearing red, my camera perfectly aimed.


Just then I heard someone scream out urgently, as if for life or death. He appeared behind the big Arab, say twenty feet from me, running full stride, his fist clenched, apparently coming right at me. I caught my breath, shot a frame. I figured I’d shoot a second then duck what I guessed would be a roundhouse right. I pulled the trigger then heard what he was screaming: I’m starving, I’m starving!


The Arab kid stopped, watched him pass—as I did—then watched half of him disappear into the trashcan. Maybe he’d seen that many times before, in Cairo or Damascus, or even in Bagdad. Then the other young man—not much older, a veteran of Afghanistan, perhaps—reappeared, his dirty fist now clutching the bagel, his jaws working at basic survival, as close to me as the computer screen is to me now.


Then the curtain fell and it was over, no applause, no music, just the din of traffic and folks going on about their business, spending big bucks in the Apple Store inside the glass palace. So I packed up and left, a little angrier than I’d been a minute before.

< What Flash Master Fink Thinks


Papa papa papa papa ooom mow mow mow mow mow, papa ooom mow mow pounds through the radio's chrome grill, drills into our eardrums. "Louder!" Stud demands, twisting the knob that has nowhere to go but down. "Faster!" McCullough laughs. Then eying the speedometer, "Shiiiit! Under a hundred. We're crawling, man." I feel a cop close by, glance for a rear view. There's no one behind us but the girls in the backseat looking bored.


It's around midnight and we're crawling to the beach. We've had a couple of beers. We'll have a full quart of gin by the crashing waves. If we don't crash first. We're seventeen, pretending we're loose with nothing to lose. The deejay—Moondog or Muni or probably Murray the K pours it on. Rama lama, ding dong, rama lama, ding ding dong. I feel the peddle hit the metal, hear the whine of the tires in the music, feel something like pain throbbing in the steering wheel I cling to and I can't stop thinking about what it would be like to jerk a sharp turn. We may be crawling but we all know that certain death is only a notion away. That's the point. I'm hip. It's cool. What the fuck, I got nothing to lose. Just a headful of blond hair going mousey brown and a pair of pointy-toed sidewinders that need a shine.


Sure, I got this car: a '56 Chevy two-door hardtop. China Doll, I call her, her name printed in bamboo letters down by the front tire, often covered in mud. But I like it like that—her looking a little wild. And fast, too: raked a bit, nosed and decked, wearing baby moons and winking sleepy eyes. She's even got a four on the floor. But she's got nothing under the hood, man. Like me she's all style and no substance. The needle climbs to a hundred and five, stops right there.


A mile ahead the glow of the lonely toll plaza wakes me from my madness, my foot easing off the gas, China Doll slowing, drawing a deep breath. I wake the brakes, thinking how I hate cars and hate driving, clueless about my future at Car and Driver magazine. Ha, ha. But I love the music. China Doll rolls up to the toll booth and stops. Inside a summer hire not much older than me smiles down, maybe wishing he was me, his two little transistor radios on either side of his capsule set to the same station as the car's radio.


Bombaba bombaba bombaba bombaba bombaba bombaba bombaba dang a dang dang baba ding a dong ding blue moon moon blue moon dip di dip di dip . . . moo moo moo blue moon.


Abstract expressionism, as bold as anything Pollock, De Kooning or Kline ever spread on canvas but with a larger and younger audience, that's what it was. That's why I loved it so. And still do today. Although it has been pointed out during my maturity that modern jazz, specifically bop, or hard bob, is it's true musical equivalent. That's probably what Larry Fink would say. Here's what he said about this work:


Convulsive Collusion . . . the hooting anny show of history . . . all told telling about main characters of a life lived and never fathomed, only framed in a sea of events by nomenclature and happenstance, all moving through a perfect sky blue illusion of techni-real, born of bon bon and belly dance . . . this stuff is both unbelievable and irreducible . . . refreshing and compelling in its innocence, all seen by a single player who is an introduction of hope and haplessness . . . ridinger smooths one diving into . . . the deep.


Funniest sound I ever heard
I can't understand a single word
Is he serious
Or is he playin'
Ooom mow mow is all he's sayin'
Papa Ooom

Papa Papa Papa Ooom

The Fall of the King of Canal


Seconds after I shot him The King was on his knees (or stooped pretty low) gathering what he had just dropped. I don’t think it was the result of anything I’d done. He righted himself and stood but immediately dropped what was in his other hand, again stooping to the sidewalk, by then waves of pedestrians flooding the scene, attempting to pass from both directions. I shot that as well but I won’t show it. I’m not out for ridicule. And I care little about Winogrand-like or Friedlander-esque odd urban moments. Instead I’m interested in what I call the new Trash Can Aesthetic, New York narrative scenes rendered with a camera rather than on canvas. Like the social realist painters of eighty or a hundred years ago, I try to create a setting where things are ready to happen, a story just about to be told. Or when reading a novel, the first plot point reached in say chapter three were one might decide to settle in for a while and read a little longer.

< To Buy a Pair of Pants


My father went to Portugal, my mother went to France,

my brother went to Fourteenth Street to buy a pair of pants.


I was ten years old. It was October, cool and clear, I remember. Several weeks before my family had moved from a small town in North Carolina to Levittown, Long Island, arguably where the suburbs, as we've come to know them, began. Although I'd soon be well connected, that day I was alone in the schoolyard, waiting for the bell to ring that would end the lunch hour. As I watched the boys playing punch ball—something we didn't do in Dixie—I couldn't help but listen to the sing-song chant of the girls jumping rope nearby, the rope slapping the blacktop like a snare drum beating out the rhythm behind their breathless voices. They were reciting all kinds of little rhymes, mostly born on the streets of New York, where they too, had been born. I don't know why I've remembered the rhyme about the pair of pants and not the others. It's not exactly hypnotic. Although I heard it only that once, so many years ago, I've never forgotten it.


If one were to have gone shopping on 14th Street back in the 1950s or the 40s or the 30s, they would have either started or ended their outing at S. Klein. Klein (on the square) was a cheaper Macy's or Gimbals that over the years had devoured every building on the block between 14th and 15th Streets on what is now Park Avenue South, producing a labyrinth so complex it was difficult to find one's way out. Perhaps the reason for their success. But that success did not last, the store closing in 1975. It remained boarded up for a decade, one of the dreariest in New York history, I am told by younger people who were not there, as I was—having a ball, I have to admit. Anyway, the old buildings were razed and replaced by condos call Zeckendorf Towers, a tasteless pile of bricks and building material that now takes credit for leading the rejuvenation of the neighborhood, a "neighborhood" where today your brother's pair of pants will set him back well over a hundred bucks.

Landmark Occasion


We're on Sixth Avenue, walking north just south of 9th Street. You slow to a stop, stoop to tie an errant shoelace. "What's that?" you gesture with your chin. I don't have to ask. "Jefferson Market Library," I answer, hoping you don't expect a song and dance. You don't. "Fancy that," you grin slyly. You stand, I ask, "Fancy what?" "A Neuschwansteinian castle in the middle of Greenwich Village," you say. I shrug, "Not quite a castle but the fifth most beautiful building in the States, some say," I answer, trying to recall the source of that tidbit. "Built in the 1870s, I believe . . . as a courthouse. Had the first night court, anywhere. Polite society had to deal with all the after-hours nastiness in the Tenderloin, I suppose." You squint back at me, "Tenderloin?" Never mind," I say. "In the 1950s it was slated for demolition until wiser heads prevailed."


Continuing our stroll, "Any other points of interest around here?" you ask, squinting into the distance. "Beside you," I say. You don't get it. I point to the building practically within reach, delivery bikes chained to the iron rail that circles it. "What . . . here?" you ask like I'm putting you on. Did you ever hear of Trude Heller's?" I ask. You think that over. "A music venue?" you recall. I nod. "Before it was a franchised sandwich shop it was a bar and restaurant, turned disco, turned rock palace, unlike any other joint in the village. "I bet it jumped," you say like you’re sorry you missed it. "Trude Heller didn't like ballads to the point she told the talent to keep it swinging or she'd kick them off the stage and out the door." Grinning, "Were you a regular?" you ask. Shaking that off, "It was mostly a bridge and tunnel crowd," I say. "Don't think I was there more than twice. I know I caught the Isley Brothers sometime in the 60s. But you know what they say about the 60s: If you remember them you weren't really there."


In front of us the light turns red. For a few seconds longer we're stuck there in the past. I turn; throw a thumb at a neon sign hanging over the sidewalk we'd just walked up. "See that sign? I ask. "You mean the drug store?" I nod. "C.O. Bigalow's. The longest running pharmacy in America. Since 1838." You don't believe you heard me right. "You mean 1938?" you ask. "I mean 1838. Mark Twain was a customer. Originally it was a little further down the avenue. But since the turn of the Twentieth Century it's been where it is now. The soda fountain didn't survive the eighties, though. But during the fifties it was as likely for one to spot Kerouac's cheeks warming a stool there as it was a stool in the Kettle of Fish on MacDougal Street.


We cross the street, but stepping up on the curb you stop. "Wasn't there a notorious prison down here?" you ask, catching the vibe. I point across the avenue to a garden that borders the library. "You must mean the Women's House of Detention." "That's it," you nod. "Next to the courthouse. It was grim, a gray deco dungeon that replaced the original jail. During the depression it was supposedly progressive in its intent but went downhill in a hurry. By the time I landed in 1967 it was a circus of the absurd. Approaching it was not unlike a walk in a jungle, the incarcerated women calling out to their friends or families or guys on the street like jabbering gibbons or macaws cawing from the jungle canopy. It was weird but each time I heard it I knew I'd be home soon. And like anything else, after a while you get used to it, even enjoy it if it doesn't kill you.

< Summer of Love, Day of the Psycho


If people still think of that summer at all I suppose they think first of Height Ashbury. Supposedly, that’s where the phrase was dreamed up in the spring of ‘67, a prediction of what was in store for San Francisco the coming summer. But I think the spirit of that particular summer could be felt with equal intensity in many locales in the U.S.; places like Yellow Springs, Ohio, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Madison, Wisconsin, Topanga, California and the East Village in New York. In fact, perhaps more intensely in the East Village than anywhere else, the national media anxious to spread the news (or myths) to the rest of the world, headquartered little more than a couple miles north of St. Marks Place and Tompkins Square Park.


That’s where I made this image last Sunday, a beautiful morning maybe fifty years to the day, standing within sight of one of the most dreadfully influential events of my life—that had absolutely nothing to do with love.


In the image the blond bundle, frame left, might be second or even third generation removed from her grandparents, Polish or Ukrainian immigrants who once populated the tenements surrounding the Park. The approaching couple could have met at a hippy crash pad that year, fell in love, found work, found a crib of their own and never had good reason for leaving the neighborhood. The woman pushing the shopping cart could have come to New York around that time, as well, shortly after the immigration laws for Asians had been eased during the 1960s. Now consider the triangle formed by her blouse, her arm and the cart’s handle. Can you find the manhole cover? The same manhole cover I’ve seen in my dreams for fifty years.


That summer I’d come to New York to be an artist. I never thought of myself as a hippy. Since the early 1960s, to me, a hippy was a young African-American who lived in Philadelphia and who hung out on South Street (where all the hippies meet). By then I thought it was much better making love rather than war but what I was most interested in was not so much getting hip but finding a job. I was twenty-two with a wife and three-year old kid and although art was calling me, practicality had me by the balls. However, in the meantime I’d discovered Danny Lyon and Bruce Davidson and thought that their way might be the way I could go from subsidence work to art work. So I purchased a used SLR, a telephoto lens, loaded the camera with my first roll of Tri-X and one sunny Sunday noon, set off for where it was all happening.


Now as then there’s a playground in the park just to the right of where I stood while making this image. Not now, but then there was a large sandy pit with monkey bars, that day fifty years ago loaded with squirming monkey-kids. These were to be my first subjects. Standing in the street I raised my camera to my face, focused and took my first frame. I’d taken three more when what I thought was a passing cloud blanketed the sun. Just as I began to pull my camera from my eye in order to adjust the exposure, it happened. All hell broke loose.


We were eye to eye as close as one can get and still focus. He was older than me, maybe thirty something, dressed in rags. He was bigger than me, maybe 6’2”, maybe 220 pounds. His hair was long and matted, his beard the same. There was a fresh wound carved on his face from his brow to his chin, that glistened with infection. His eyes were wide and blue and bloody. He was screaming something I didn’t understand, my ears ringing so. But it wasn’t so much what he looked like or what he was saying that concerned me, but his filthy hands, both of which were grasping my neck so I couldn’t swallow or even breath. I assumed he’d thought I was shooting him rather than the kids.


I had been a physical kid with a quick temper who’d been in my share of fights during my teens. But the only way I was prepared for the situation that day was I instinctively knew not to let adrenalin gush, making me herculean for one moment then in the next about as lively as a herring laid out in the fish store on Avenue A. Realizing that instead of me it might be the camera or the film that was the source of his anger, I somehow managed to pop open the camera back, dig out the film and throw it to the street. I remember it landing at the edge of the manhole cover, ten inches of the exposed film snaking out of the bright yellow cartridge against the old iron cover. Immediately my attacker commenced jumping up and down on it, the sound of his boot heels cracking the cartridge. By then I was walking quickly away never to look back, never to raise a camera to my face on the street for the next forty years.

< White God


Although there are a bunch of indie art houses in Greenwich Village, there is no longer one first-run movie theater there. So what? You're likely thinking. I'm thinking your history is short and if you've never lived in the Village, then that's why it's not such a big deal to you.


But I've been around the block, many times. That block from the late 1960s to the early 1990s being in the West Village, where there were three showcase theaters: The once magnificent Loew's Sheridan on Seventh and West Twelth; in it's shadow, the Greenwich on Greenwich; and the less than grand Waverly on Sixth Avenue (its marquee in the accompaning photo). The Sheridan was demolished in 1969. The Greenwich was turned into a yuppie bodyshop in the 1990s. And the Waverly morphed into the IFC Center at some point early in this century. When I think back to what I saw in those venues it amazes me: Mean Streets, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. Everything Woody Allen made during those years. The French Connection, Apocalypse Now. One Flew Over the Cockoo's Nest. All the President's Men and Clockwork Orange. It goes on and on and on.


What what made the experience even more interesting than watching a great film in a theater rich in history, was that many of the characters you watched up on screen could be sitting not far from you in the darkened theater. I could offer a list of A-listers that I saw at those theaters through the years. But that's what a tourist would do. And I'll never be taken for a tourist, so help me God.


Of course not only actors could be sharing the dark with you. A celeb of any kind could have come in annoyingly late and settled in the seat in front of your girlfriend, his bald head glowing as the scenes change. Just like what happen to me on the first show of a long ago Sunday morning when the newest Woodie Allen flick was gathering breathless reviews. Then after the show was over, and after everyone sat and watched the credits to the very end, and when the lights went on, and the bald-headed guy got up — it was none other than Hizzoner himself, the unsinkable Ed Koch, grinning a hello at our sour scowls. 

< Channeling Gene Smith


I met Smith just once, very briefly. He'd come to our office at Popular Photography to see Jim Hughes, my friend and boss, his friend and biographer. When introduced he kept his hand in his lap, his glance so fleeting it likely never reached my face. To me he seemed barely there, as transparent and fragile as a bubble drifting by. I might be wrong but I believe he was gone the following year.


As time passed I was as much taken by the jam sessions he'd hosted at his loft as I'd been with his work. During the early Eighties I'd pass his former building on Sixth Avenue on my way to my office at Camera Arts magazine and imagine the ghosts of master jazz men pulling up to the curb then pulling open the rickety door on their way up to Gene's third floor crib. Decades later when I was planning the images for this project I knew that locale was a must, even though now days there's not much of interest there, just a few metaphorical dogs and cats digging the vibe that is still there to be dug if one can dig it. 

< Union Square Blues


The goofy human parade passing on Sunday art streets of Greenwich Village. 


That's how Kerouac begins his seminal poem, MacDougal Street Blues. Today the parade is still passing sunny Sunday afternoons: the self-believing artists, the naive sailors (or frat boys), the slow shuffling art-ers and the cigar smoking interesteds, puffing at the stroll, all still there. All's like it was sixty years ago, just a few blocks north in Union Square, the stroller's now looking more like the artists, their attention more likely on little gadgets they pull from their pockets and handbags than the art propped on the pavement, artists still pretending indifference, no longer crowned by berets but baseball caps, hovering among art that's just as bad as ever.

< A Few Minutes with Andy Warhol


My best guess it was 1970. I was on Park Avenue South, just across the street from Max's—where I hadn't been that evening but often was at that hour. A cab rattled around the corner at 17th Street and headed south. It stopped dead in front of me. The door opened, but not far. Apparently, the passenger was having second thoughts. Or maybe needed assistance. I offered a helping hand, pulling the door open wide. Suddenly I was face to face with Andy Warhol. I really wasn't surprised. After all, I was in his neighborhood: his hangout across the street, the Factory a little more than a block away. And it wasn't the first time I'd seen him, albeit never so up close and personal. "I forgot it. I'll have to go back and get it," he said. He then settled back and told the driver just what he'd told me, leaving me holding the door. But he didn't forget me. "I'm going downtown. Are you?" "Perry Street," I said. "Drop you at Sheridan Square?" "Thanks," I said, getting in.


Not a word was exchanged until we were rolling west on 14th almost to Sixth Ave when finally, someone spoke up. "You look familiar," he said. I held it back for a moment before, "So do you," I said, a big laugh fighting to break through my smile. His face was a pond without a ripple of emotion, "Have you been up to the loft?" he asked. "No. Maybe at Max's. Or the Electric Circus," I guessed.


Silence. Was that it? We turned down Seventh Avenue. I had to say something. "We're both stoners, you know?" I tried. But he didn't know. He showed me one eye, his brow just barely arched. "Keystoners," I explained. "You mean from Pennsylvania?" he asked. "That's right," I answered. "McKeesport?" I asked. "He nodded, saying, "I was born in Pittsburgh." Then, "And you?" he asked. "Gettysburg," I told him. That moved him. "Oooh," he sighed. "Ever been?" I asked. "Once," he answered. "It's so . . . neat," he said. "Neat," I grinned. "Tidy, he tried. But he knew he hadn't hit it right. "Like a garden?" he offered. "I knew why he wanted to get it right. I never had. "When I was a kid it was like a little paradise," I offered. He hung on to that for a few seconds, then, "Stranger than paradise," he said quietly. With that he'd nailed it.

We fell into silence for the last few blocks, me feeling snug and smug, thinking that at 25 I'd just hit the peak of hipness, sharing a cab with one of the greatest artist of the 20th Century, collaborating in a search to find the essence I where I'd come from. Too bad I still hadn't a clue where I was heading.


Fourteen years later when Jim Jarmusch released his film by that name I liked to believe he got the title from Andy. Sure, it was probably a coincidence, but you have to wander.

Help Wanted


For nearly seven years now I have been writing anecdotes and essays inspired by images I have created. I call these words and pictures Confabulations, a wonderful word, I believe, its usage unfortunately usurped last century by the psychiatric establishment to describe a habitual liar. However, originally it was used to describe not a disturbed person but something like an act of art, whereas the user, a writer or more to the point, a storyteller, would innocently and spontaneously fill a hole in the narrative with something other than an actual fact in an attempt to make his delivery smoother and the story more entertaining and or interesting, the facts and fiction of the story in time becoming indistinguishable to the teller.


But with this image I call Profile Discouraged, I know I mustn’t play with what I saw before me that day since a self-conscious act of art ignores the fact that many people’s lives could be at risk or, on the other hand, one person’s privacy could be grievously compromised. However, to me, not taking any action at all would be recklessly irresponsible. “If you see something, say something,” says New York’s MTA. But sometimes that’s not so easy. In fact, I can use some help with this. So please, for a few minutes step inside my shoes.


It’s around noon, the first day of the new year. You’re on a sidewalk on Fifth Avenue, settled safely in a little eddy, a step removed from the mass of meandering pedestrian traffic passing by. On your right is the southeastern most building of Rockefeller Center. Across the avenue to your left, Saks Fifth Avenue fills the block between 49th and 50th Streets. Behind you on the next block St. Patrick’s Cathedral looms large. Finally, six blocks past St. Pat’s, a deranged, orange-haired, orangutang mumbles to his cronies, fumbling the blocks of the Fourth Reich he’s bent on building. Now please turn. Directly in front of you a young man tends his food cart, his business brisk. He’s tall, and handsome, middle-eastern gone Americano, stylish and wired, not only buds in his ears but speakers at his feet, emanating an explicit rap rag thick as the smoke from his grill. He’ll make a fine primary subject.


Now take a look at my image. The young ladies on either side of the picture are there only to frame our subject . . . who is no longer the food vendor but someone else. This someone else is also middle-eastern in appearance, though shorter, not nearly as good looking nor hip nor is his bearing so coolly removed. In fact, he seems angry and uptight, scowling, his hands either jammed in his jacket pockets or rolled tightly in a fist. “So what?” you might say. “Not everyone’s having a happy new year.” But you say that having only stood here for little more than a moment while I’d been here for at least fifteen, maybe twenty minutes when I snapped that shot. By then that particular dude had passed me twice, and was about to begin his third lap. It’s true that the first time I saw him I hardly noticed him and would not have remembered him at all if not for his second appearance when I could almost feel his body language. Then, when I saw him a third time I tripped the shutter, more for recording evidence than making art, my paranoia beginning to build a case against him.


A split second after my shutter fell on him, his eyes fell on me. He’d made me. Then quickening his pace, he turned away as he approached then turned back, his eyes now bright and glistening like any number of excited out-of-towners in the city to see the sights. But I didn’t buy it. I turned off my camera and looked around for a cop. But I saw no one in uniform. I knew that up the avenue there was a small army of them guarding the funky monkey in his tower of power. Again, glancing around I saw no one of authority while our suspect disappeared into the crowd. As he did I imagined a sudden fiery blast followed immediately by a shock wave lifting me off my feet and throwing me against the vendor’s red hot grill. But nothing happened.


However, I was convinced something will happen. And there is probably nowhere else in the city where it’s more likely to occur than where we stand. It’s as soft and symbolic as a target can get. More so than the Trade Center. And there’s likely nowhere else in America where the sidewalks are so crowded. It’s going to happen. If not today, then during the Easter parade in April or next year’s tree lighting ceremony. But if I realize this location’s vulnerability, and if the terrorists are hip to it as well, then the authorities surely have presences here. I just can’t see them . . . or maybe I can. 


Take another peek at my photo. Find the guy almost lost in the smoke between the ketchup dispenser and the pretzels. I believe that’s the second time I’ve seen him. Looks like he could be following our man. Or maybe my supposed terrorist has already been scrutinized and forgotten? His jacket is cut trim enough to be unable to hide a vest full of explosives. His beard is trimmed enough to be fashionable and not a political or religious statement. Perhaps he’s walking back and forth anxiously because a lady he was to meet has stood him up? Maybe his face is grim after just getting a call that something tragic has occurred? A parent has died. Or a friend back home in Syria is missing and presumed dead. If he would clearly be of European or sub-Saharan African ethnicity would I have singled him out as a suspect? Obviously not. Am I a bigot? I certainly hope not. But like they say, I’ve seen something that may be a threat therefore I must say something. So I have, via social media.


What say you? 

Psalm 23:4


It was the 8th of June and it should have been charming but that morning the day had fallen out of bed with a hangover of cold April showers and nasty March breezes. I wasn’t feeling too hot myself. Or perhaps I should say I wasn’t feeling anything. You know? Like lust for life? A sense of purpose? Hope. But I did have a lunch date that might help — maybe.


About midway through my so-called career I’d given up the magazine racquet and climbed into bed (forgive me the second bed metaphor in as many paragraphs) with Mr. Monopoly and his corporate buddies. Of course you know why. Yes, for the money. But also for the bigger bucks I could offer the photographers. Because big bucks and travel with the right people with good humor and an occasional drink, often made for jobs well done. And that day I was to have lunch with two of the rightest and brightest of those people. John, the photog and Ed, the exec, hadn’t seen each other since our month in Venezuela, more than two decades before, though I’d seen both men separately on a more or less a regular basis. So I kind of knew what to expect.


I was twenty minutes early. I don’t know why. Not trusting the Seven Train? Probably. Our date was in a joint just a short block from where I often confabulate. So I decided to see if fish were running that noon ‘round the prowl of the Flatiron building, one of my favorite spots.

But the day was not a good day to confabulate efficiently. So I wasn’t expecting much while I glanced every minute or so up to the big clock above me on what was once known as the Metropolitan Life tower. Then, when my glance fell from the clock for the final time that day it landed on her. Smiling.


Why was she smiling? Did I amuse her? And what the hell was with her, anyway? Was she going to ask for money? She didn’t have a bag, not even a purse. She had no jacket, no umbrella, no accessories of any kind. Just her phone which she held like a torch . . . or a staff, as if comforting her on her journey through the valley of the shadow of death. But I think her smile alone would have been sufficient. 


“Excuse me,” finally, she called. I’d been expecting Spanish, wondering if I would have to blow her off or, with some luck, help her out. “Yes,” I answered, smiling back. Hers was incredibly infectious. “Where is Sixth Avenue?” she asked, like beginning a song. “A few minutes that way,” I pointed. As she turned, “Thank you very much,” she sang again, her beam even brighter, leaving me feeling a little better — for a little while, at least.

< Where the City is Still Naked


Once upon a time many, many years ago, Usher Fellig told a friend of mine that if you can't get a good shot on Canal Street you're probably blind. As insensitive as that statement might sound today, believe me, Weegee had the softest heart in the Naked City. Of course he was right about Canal. As he knew better than anyone it was the kind of place where photos come to you, and in a seemingly endless parade. In fact, it still is. A half century later it's still real. Unlike just about everywhere else on the Isle of Manhattan. 

< The Art Ark (with Sheep and Would-be Shepherds)


I’ve been to the Met a few dozen times in my life but I never really did it. You know, the entire palace at once? My visits were always for a particular show or opening or event. But I never played tourist. So last week Lea and I thought we’d do the whole joint—see what we’d been missing all these years.


But we found it impossible. Maybe one might be able to run through the place in a day like a rat in a maze. But if you take the subject seriously, which we do, it would take at least a week to do it right. For this human brain can only stand so much. So, reeling from visual over-load we staggered out and down the steps after only three hours, saving just a bit of perceptiveness to take in the new Arbus show that had just been hung at the Met Breuer several blocks south and east.


If you’re not from these parts you might be asking, “What the hell is he talking about?” If so, let me explain. 


When the Whitney decamped from their monstrous building on Madison Avenue and 75th Street for their spectacular new digs down on the lower west side, the Met moved in. Or I should say they moved much of their contemporary art there. Originally this arrangement was to be for eight years while they built a wing for the new stuff at the big house on Fifth Avenue. But that was before they started bleeding buckets of money. Now perhaps the arrangement might be more or less permanent. For my lifetime, anyway.


So after taking residence what were they to call the building: The Former Whitney? Instead they chose to name it for the architect responsible: Marcel Breuer. Thus the Met Breuer. Now I’m no expert in architecture. In fact, as most of the sheep visiting the Met who don’t know art but know what they like, I feel similarly about architecture. To me the pile of gloomy gray blocks is something that may have been discovered by Breuer in Albert Speer’s sketch pad after the war, a planned mausoleum for Der Fuhrer himself.


But the Arbus show was wonderful; both the images and the instillation made for the best show I’ve seen in a very long time. 

<The Little Prince


Looking west from East Sixtieth Street and First Avenue a hundred years ago, one would have seen pretty much what one sees today: the Queensboro Bridge, a row of tenements, a fire department call-box. The lamppost and its signage and the tram tower were added during the 1970s, the car itself, hanging high above, a replacement only a few years ago. But the people? Like a different species, altogether.


A hundred years ago First Avenue could have been described at the very least as rough and tumble. For approximately five miles, from what is now called the East Village north to Yorkville and beyond, it was basically where the city’s dirty work — and to some extent, dirty play — was performed: in slaughter houses and breweries, coal yards, lumberyards and brickyards, on the wharfs and in gas houses, in flophouse hotels, in houses of ill-repute, opium dens, gambling halls, pool halls and dive bars, where today’s frat boys would never ever venture, no matter how drunk they were.


But to be honest, the east side was probably no worse than the far west side. The waterfront on both sides of the island an equal hell. In fact, for years the measure of one’s place in society was based on how far from the rivers one lived, Fifth Avenue being the pentacle of success, First Avenue to the east or say Eleventh Avenue to the west, being the pits — where the rats lived, both the four and two-legged varieties.


Then in the early 1930s came River House, a 26 story deco palace on the waterfront at 52nd Street, a decadent display of wealth smack dab in the face of desperate poverty. In fact, it was so outragous an act of callousness that it inspired the Broadway play “Dead End” by Ben Kingsley, then the more famous movie a few years later written by Lillian Hellman, starring Joel McCrea as the good guy, Bogart as the heavy, and introducing the Dead End Kids, a gang of toughs always on the lookout for easy marks. Which finally brings this ramble to the little prince and his nanny, who, that day, could have been on a stroll from the River House, circa 2016, for all I know.


The little prince had been traveling pretty fast, his nanny anxious to make the light. But when it flashed red she stopped on that dime, her precious cargo safely a half dozen feet from the curb. But with the sudden stop the prince lost his grip on his little yellow Tonka truck, which likely, along with his floppy-eared bunny wrapped in his left arm, was his most favorite possession ever.


Little prince gazed down at his toy, stretched out his arm, his hand, his fingers but to no avail. He turned against the pull of his seatbelt and looked back. But nanny was hidden behind the hood of his stroller. He glanced back down at the Tonka truck, while I started snapping, expecting his tears to start falling, his howls to soon echo high off the girders of the bridge above. But no. Instead he withdrew his hand, and settled back in his seat, strangely a calm and resigned expression on his face. I was impressed, and inspired, realizing at that moment we shared the same existential metaphor at opposite ends of life. 


In the next thirty seconds or so, twice again little prince reached out for his Tonka toy, each time unsuccessfully. And I must say, I was very impressed with his patience, his repeated efforts and finally his dry-eyed resignation to this lesson in life—very important because, after all, he was not just any kid. He was the Little Prince.  

< Down Sized Up


To whom it may concern: Although it is unlikely that I am the applicant you might be expecting, with enthusiasm I am responding to your notice on Craig's List. I am an experienced editorial and corporate art director, a photographer and photo editor—most recently for Smart Money magazine. I have written for publication on the subject of photography. A winner of many awards, as my resume shows, I am most proud of my performance reviews that first and foremost have noted my ability to develop a rapport with my fellow staff members. I am always a self-starter, dependable and cooperative. I look forward to meeting with you at your earliest convenience.

Sincerely,
Thomas Ridinger


Asking only workman's wages I come looking for a job, but I get no offers, just a come-on from the whores on Seventh Avenue. And yet I've never felt better, never been more prepared. My work has never been better. I don't get it...but of course I do. It's called being over sixty. Or being over fifty, for that matter. But I wonder about discrimination. What does it really mean: that your too old or that you're too smart? I've heard the PSAT test scores peaked in 1965 (the year I took mine) then fell so far and so fast that at some point in the 1980s they had to make them easier. But perhaps that factoid is a bit confabulated.


I do know that as I've aged I've become invisible. In the mornings I use to get a kick out of crossing town on 28th Street, counting how many eyes I got from the young ladies heading for their first class of the day at FIT. Now, it's a rare pleasure every once in a while to catch a sadder but wiser smile from a woman my age. Believe me it makes my day. Otherwise I'm just this crazy old dude who stands around on street corners with a camera at his feet. Just a retired fisherman am I, waiting for a big one to bite. Or maybe just a little nibble, a glance of recognition from an interesting looking young woman who might suspect I was up to something other than just living too long.      

< A Goose, A Saber and A Bag Full of Bullshit


Once upon a time there was no Chipotle. Verizon was a typo. Steve Madden wore Keds to Kindergarten. A push-button phone and an answering machine were all the technology one needed to connect with a friend. Instead of Uber Cars there were big roomy rides called Checkers. And any person who chose to cross Union Square Park after dark was either a fool or a junky in desperate need of a fix. Now there’s a new park there that hosts a farmers market, allows artist to go through the motion of selling their art. There’s a fancy-schamancy restaurant due to open (or maybe is already in business for all I know) and a new playground to which rich kiddies are pushed daily by their nannies from townhouses on Gramercy Park. However, Dominick is sadly dead and buried and his tailor shop long gone from 857 Broadway.


857 is that little yellow loft building you see in the photo, its windows offering a grand view of the park. If I remember correctly, Dominick’s place was on the second floor. He was a good tailor—and reasonable. Back when it was hip to dress cheap chic in vintage vines, Flormont Tailors was the place to get those old duds operational once again. Now something called Pret A Manger hogs the ground floor, selling sandwiches that supposedly are so healthy you’ll live forever. But I’ll opt for a frank from the cart on the opposite corner — while it’s still there, while I’m still here. 

Lowdown on the High Line (2011, 2014, 2017) >


Okay, the High Line is a great success. My hat is off to the dreamers who thought it up, made it happen, and applied the finishing touches — although there should be better public art and more spontaneous entertainment. Bring in the clowns, I say, some jugglers and maybe even a mime or two.


Of course the new High Line could not save the authenticity of the Westside neighborhood it was originally conceived of to serve. In fact, it’s reimagining has served to bury what was left of it. Once the real estate moguls realized that making a park out of what only the day before they'd wanted to tear down would accelerate the development of a new west side, one that had no messy manufacturing businesses and very few poor people to make respectable people like themselves, uneasy.


And boy, has that happened. The High Line is certainly a beautiful concourse, floating over newly neatened streets, through forests of sparkling multi-million dollar condos, where the bourgeoisie from the world over pad up and down an esplanade from one hot neighborhood to the next, nary a homeless person nor a beggar to be seen. In fact, after at least a dozen visits I've seen only a single pigeon.  And that was six years ago.


But it's all good. Forget the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns, there's really just one thing I'd do to soften the irony that people like me suffer. I'd put up toll gates. New York City residents would have a card to swipe to be admitted free. But tourists (the vast majority of visitors) would pay what they would for a subway ride. Then with the money I'd build affordable homes for the people who've been displaced through the years. Like my wife, for instance, who grew up on Ninth Avenue, her bedroom having a view of the old High Line, the tenements and factories, and just beyond, the ships docked on the waterfront—the real New York populated by real New Yorkers.

At the Edge of the Sun (Ghost Shadows) >


I’ve mentioned before how I’d gone to the world’s worst art school where they taught illustration by having the students endlessly copy old film stills. Although the school had little else going for it did have a huge collection to work from. So in the end I probably got my money's worth just being exposed to all that cinematic heat.


Then back in New York I soon became a regular at the film revival venues: The Bleecker Street Cinema in the Village, the Thalia on the upper west side, and the Elgin in Chelsea. Recalling all those iconic scenes from what I first saw as 8x10 glossies and having affected the swagger of many of the characters, I thought it would be a natural extension to some how join the cast. After much trial and error in the theaters as well as in the darkroom I more or less perfected a technique that at least put me in the same frame as the actors on screen, this all done nearly a decade before a certain someone became famous pretty much milking the same udder.


But soon the past grew boring. I felt I needed to apply the concept to films more contemporary and . . . unexpected. Which at the time (1973) was anything Bruce Lee was up to. Or anything like he’d been doing before he died so prematurely. What most people don’t know today is that Bruce wasn’t a very big star in the West until after he was gone. So at the time I knew next to nothing of the genre. But since I lived relatively close to Chinatown I did know there were several theaters that regularly showed the latest films from Hong Kong and Taiwan.


I was working at Popular Photography magazine and had almost a month’s worth of days off coming that I had to take or lose. So I’d figured I’d spend maybe eight or ten weekdays of that time shooting in the various theaters in the neighborhood.


That I did, and as it turned out the films couldn't have been better for the project. With all that emoted dialogue delivered to cameras with severe points-of-view it was just about perfect. Except for one very important glitch. The trouble was that I’d failed to learn that in Chinatown a movie theater was not just for catching a film while maybe munching some popcorn. In fact, the Pagoda, the Rosemary, the Music Palace and the Sun Sing were—especially during weekdays—like community recreation centers. There, mostly women and kids would hang out for several hours fraternizing with their fellow citizens, constantly leaving their seats (if they even bothered to have claimed one) and visiting neighbors they’d spotted several rows in front of them — in front of me. For a week I spent most of my time trying to grab a shot of the screen through forests of standing silhouettes.


Frustrated I gave up without ever even running a loupe over a contact sheet. I just went back to work and on to new projects. Then one day a few years later, with a few hours with nothing better to do, I pulled out the contacts, found my loupe and gave them some attention. What I found was amazing. The snaps happened to be some of the best stuff I’d ever done. The silhouettes playing out a scene in front of the actors playing out a scene on screen were so much more effective than my mug imposed onto the screen that I was desperate for more.


So the next day I made arrangements to take two vacations days the following week where at the Pagoda theater a Bruce Lee film was set to debut. But on the evening before the day I was set to go down, there was a news flash on the six o’clock news that there had been a brazen shooting in Chinatown at the Pagoda theater. If I recall correctly a member of the Ghost Shadows had opened fire on several rival gang members, killing one and injuring another. As a result the theater was closed for several weeks. And I never saw the inside of a Chinatown theater again.


In the photo that’s East Broadway running across the frame. Just out of view to the right, actually under the Manhattan Bridge, was the Sun Sing theater, one of three theaters I’d shot in before I called it quits. Up on Canal Street near the Bowery was the Rosemary Theater that had been the second venue I visited. And finally down East Broadway to the left in the photo was the Pagoda, where so many years before a Ghost Shadow had killed my enthusiasm for maybe the best project I ever stumbled upon. 

< Break'n At City Hall


He looked ten but didn't have enough strut in his stride to pull it off. I would say he was a big eight—a long-limbed Swedish kid. Or Dutch. He was carefully within sight of his parents, who were maybe thirty feet behind me, deep in conversation with old friends they'd come to New York to visit and could not have cared less about what their boy found to be the most exotic, exciting and maybe dangerous thing he'd ever seen in his life. It's hard to believe that he hadn't seen it on screen but I guess seeing it live only a twenty minute subway ride from where break dancing began had captivated him so that he'd ventured far beyond his parent's comforting shadow. And every few feet closer to the action he got, he'd stop and look back to be sure they were still there.


Although it is not my favorite piece, it is thus far, the most import because it comes closer to the target I've been trying to hit dead-center since I began Confabulations five years ago. The best way I can explain that is that I see much more of the work of John Sloan or Reginald Marsh in it than I do of Gary Winogrand or William Klein. After all, I really do consider it more painting than photography.

The Italian Tourist


So this guy emerges from subway safari at Lafayette and Houston with wife and kid into exotic locale theretofore only dreamed about. Guy (terminally cheery Italian tourist) assembles sedan chair for prince the son then commences to scream wildly with joy at what he sees, the likely destination of family foray in the New World. Blasé New Yorkers don't get it. I turn and what do I see that he sees? Hint: He's perhaps a young architect or an enthusiast of bygone satirical periodicals.

< Where Bill Bummed


This was my beat—all points in walking distance of Lafayette and Houston. During the early 1970s I crossed this intersection almost everyday. Often I’d pass here on my way home from my girlfriend’s loft on Lispenard to my crib on Bond Street, just a few blocks up the avenue. And here is near where I’d hang, if hanging were an option: at the Colonnades or Lady Astor’s up ahead on Lafayette; or behind me: the Spring Street Bar, or in time, a half dozen other joints in Soho. They’re all gone now, save but one, and obviously much has changed since then. But mostly it’s not so much the brick and mortar that’s different, it’s the people. I really don’t know who these people are, now. Maybe office workers, maybe tech nerds and assorted odds and ends. Back in 1973 it was like if you picked up Brooklyn today along the L Train somewhere in Bushwick, and gave it a big shake like a dusty old rug, all those elves that the media for some reason call hipsters would tumble out and land in a great circle around where I now stand: from the West to the East Village, to Noho and Nolita, to Soho and Tribeca, joining the locals already here: the factory workers and the people from the neighborhoods of Italians, Porto Ricans, Poles and Ukrainians. And of course, there were Bowery Bums.


I came to know Bill at this intersection. He lived on the Bowery, just a few short blocks to the right. What I mean is that Bill didn’t live in any one place just the flophouse or the occasionally accommodating crash pad he could sneak, charm or pay his way into on any given night. He was a derelict, but one with a past somewhere very far from skid row. Meaning, at one time Bill had a future. To finance their alcoholic intake, guys like Bill had to work hard, up early every day to meet the morning commute, the prime location being at the intersection of Houston and the Bowery where if an unlucky commuter would stop for a light, he or she would then have to survive the onslaught of a dozen Bills with their filthy hands clawing their windshields or driver’s side windows. But Bill was a lone wolf with a smoother approach that he practiced here at the intersection of Lafayette and Houston.


“A few coins would be appreciated, young man. That is if you can’t afford a nice crisp dollar bill.” I was no newbie. But right away I did go a little soft on this guy. I smiled, found a buck, handed it over like it was the keys to the kingdom and told him not to ask me again. He told me he wouldn’t...before the next time he saw me. 


So for the next few months that’s the way it was: a friendly exchange between Bill the Bum (as he referred to himself), and his young benefactor who he named Tommy Strider (Bill reminding me he never saw me riding in a cab, on a bike, or horse, for that matter). And I never approached that intersection with out at least a couple quarters in my pocket for Bill. Then my routine suddenly changed, winter settled in and I never saw Bill again. Except once.

During the 70s a close friend was, for a while, a bartender in Soho. Not a regular anywhere Steve was a fill-in guy for just about every gin mill in the hood. On a cold day in January two years after I’d last seen Bill, I walked into the joint Steve was working that day, climbed on a stool, glanced to my right, and there was Bill. It appeared he’d gotten a job of some kind or enough bread for some new threads and to have a few drinks at this establishment—a semi-notorious wise guy’s hangout at Spring and Thompson. He recognized me and we fell into a conversation like we never had time for before. It became very obvious in very little time that Bill was passionate about politics, his heart as well as his head very radically to the left. When I filled a pause in one of his monologues, questioning if he was, in fact, a communist, he looked at me like I’d asked him if tomorrow followed today. “Why of course I am, Tommy!” he said. “I can’t afford to be anything else.”


< Ordinarily, Extraordinarily Fourth Street


I lived in Greenwich Village for about a quarter century. And for most of those years Fourth Street was my Main Street. It’s where I shopped for groceries. It’s where I banked — when I banked. It’s where I laundered my clothes, bought my smokes and rolling paper, purchased my French underwear and ordered Chinese takeout. And it’s where I ate out, when eating out or drinking out or just hanging out was simply a nonevent that did nothing more than smooth me through the day. And boy do I wish I had a buck for every time I passed the curb where these images where made. If I did, maybe I could still afford to live there.


The folks in the photos are at the confluence of West Fourth and Cornelia Streets as the two smaller thoroughfares spill-fourth into Sixth Avenue. The camera is looking northwest, up Fourth Street toward Seventh Avenue — that is if the ladies joined at the hip were not there to block the view. The bemused fellow on the left in his baby blue tee (my stand-in for the occasion) is just to the right of the doorway to a hotdog joint that abuts a sex shop that abuts a tattoo parlor, all sad little enterprises that seeped into the neighborhood following the big cleanup of Times Square in the 1990s. But before the smut, the fast food and the bird-brained narcissists moved in, that doorway led to La Groceria, one of the most popular eateries in the Village during the 1960s and 70s. On that note, on the extreme right of the diptych can be seen the one-hundred and sixty-five-year-old building that once housed O’Henry’s, a hugely popular steakhouse of the 1950s, one of the first — if not the very first — dining establishment to offer New Yorker’s the option of dining or drinking at  café tables on the sidewalk out front. But none of what I’ve just mentioned is the real reason I chose to confabulate at this location.


Beyond the bearded boys bumping bye-bye, beyond the sharply vined  cyclist, there is, in the deep shadows, a tapas bar that in my time was a comfortable little Greek cafe called O'John's which could boast a better than average jukebox and where I could often be found. Comfortable as the little joint was and unforgettable as the tunes that I grooved to were, a bit further down into the bowels of those dark shadows stands a building where I encountered the most magical moment of my life, that lightly confabulated tale coming with a future offering.

< Executive Indecision


I watched these knuckleheads for all of fifteen, maybe twenty seconds, but I can tell you exactly what was going on with them with little or no confabulation. You see I spent twelve years of my life reinventing the wheel for guys like them—or more likely like their bosses, each year, producing their annual reports. One just can't get any closer to the beating black heart of capitalism than I did from the early 80s to the mid 90s, shamefully engaged in the business of turning sow's ears into silk purses. Or to quote my man Van Morrison, lead into gold.


In my picture you see five young execs. In fact, there were seven, maybe eight, in all, the few not in the picture lagging a bit behind, still climbing the hill that rises above The Pond in the southeast corner of Central Park. Of the group, the two on the right are the hosts of this little outing, the guy reentering the frame on the right, the boss, the fellow with his tie over his shoulder reacting to the boss's body language, his direct underling who's job had been to plan a really cool and cheap lunch. The others are mid-level managers in from various offices throughout the country.


We're witnessing this little misadventure at literally the pivotal point of the plot, just as the sweat starts dripping, the ice tea almost gone, their Styrofoam plates not yet cracked open, and with rapidly dwindling hope that enough empty benches can be found to accommodate all available behinds.


But the thing that struck me beyond all that was: where are the women? Without them, I was thinking, it looked like something out of the 40s or 50s. But then I realized how wrong that observation was. First of all they would have been dressed much better—in Paul Stewart instead of Men’s Clothing Warehouse. But more to the point if it were to have been the 1940s or the 50s the mistake would not have been made in the first place. A savvy New Yorker would have never imagined that eight guys could stroll into the southeast corner of Central Park on a sunny day in June and find even one perch on a bench unoccupied. The mistake would not have been made because the schmo with his tie on his shoulder would have known better because in the 40s or the 50s he would have lived in the city and not in the suburbs and would have known how crowded the park gets on a sunny day in June. A wise career move would have been opting for the executive dinning room. 

< Eisie's Icon


Like most kids now, some kids then, I was influenced by the media: movies and early television to some extent, but mostly by magazines—the big magazines, like The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s for their word-stories, Look and especially Life by their pictures. Upon finding a story that was particularly interesting there were very few twelve-year-olds in 1957 who would look for the photo credit as I did. And among those credits the name that most often appeared was Alfred Eisenstaedt, capturer of one of the most iconic images of the Twentieth Century.


In late autumn of 1981 I had the pleasure of spending a couple hours in the company of the talented, charming, and always elegant, Gordon Parks. Jim Hughes (editor) and I (art director) had been invited over to Gordon’s apartment to make a selection of his new work—photographic details of painted abstractions—that was to accompany a profile of him we planned to run in an up-coming issue of Camera Arts. But that is another story. What happened that afternoon that is germane to this anecdote came at the end of our meeting as our host was seeing us slowly to the door. As we neared the door, but not yet in sight of it, I heard it open, then close, then footsteps shuffling in. “That must be Eisie,” Gordon told us with a wink and a smile. Next thing I knew I was looking down at a well-groomed bald head, then big brown eyes, below that a calm and pleasant smile, and finally the Leica on his chest that, in his words, made this rather small fellow, absolutely fearless. Immediately, I melted. My breath gone, my tongue so much meat in my mouth, I tried to speak—a hello, at least—but as moments of mirth settled in, I was speechless and wound so tight I was unable to relax and accept the invitation to be just one of the guys before Gordon, at last, reached for the knob, opened the door, then bid us a warm goodbye. I kicked myself for years, every time I remembered the event and how tongue–tied and star-struck I’d been. But in time, I realized that a cool, quiet act often makes the best impression. And besides, what would I have asked him, anyway? Probably, like everyone else, I would have asked him stupid stuff about THE PICTURE. It wasn’t until a couple weeks ago that I found something interesting to ask about, albeit a little too late. 


On Broadway this summer there stood a life-size version of Eisie’s photo of the sailor and the nurse, probably there because the 70th anniversary of the making of the picture was on August 15. A few weeks later I found the piece, several blocks south of where it was taken. I noted when the sun would fall on the couple, watched people interact with the figures, then returned the next day just as the sun was first settling on the two kissers, the nurse's dress aglow against the dark background. I lingered for almost an hour and had figured I was done when two giddy, giggling young women bounced from the traffic like errant tennis balls and in moments were joyfully engaged with the figures, taking pictures of one another, and although Japanese, letting it all hang out. And I had to wonder if they knew what they were doing, if they had any idea why that sailor was kissing the nurse. So I thought I’d asked. But before I could I was spotted by one of them who asked me to take their picture with their iPhone. Which normally I politely refuse to do. But this time I had a reason for cooperating. As I returned the phone I said I had an important question to ask them in exchange. They both smiled and nodded and thanked me. But when I asked that question—the one thing I could really report to Eisie if he was still with us—they simply smiled again and again thanked me. It seemed their English vocabulary began with please and ended with thank you.




< Fountain Service


Every great city has at least a few strategic locations for people watching. For me that spot in New York was a sidewalk table at a little touristy cafe on West 4th Street called Via Reggio (not to be confused with The Reggio on MacDougal). Along with a good buddy we spent what now seems like a lifetime lounging there, nursing our drinks, never bothered to get up and pay our bills because frankly, we brought a little authenticity to the joint.


But now my favorite spot is a bench in the corner of Central Park just above The Pond and the wildlife sanctuary. Trouble is, unlike that cafe in the Village, one must find a seat before the lunch hour rush. It turned out on the day I chose to do these images I was a little late arriving and found a busker and his gear spread out on my bench, the only seat remaining available, a little perch crowding a water fountain. Not to be denied a good opportunity on a beautiful day to document my confabulation, I sat down and set up. 


Very soon two issues became apparent concerning the busker and the water fountain. The busker was a soprano sax man from some corner of Eastern Europe who proceeded to screech out the American Songbook for the next hour with a particular emphasis on "Sunny Side of the Street" . The positioning of the knob that ran the fountain was quite another matter, the knob being very, very close to my lap. After the thirst of an initial visitor was finally quenched, I realized the only way I was going to avoid any embarrassing contact under the water fountain was to turn the knob each time a person approached. The funny thing was how they took it in stride, as if there were high-tech sensors in place, ready to serve them at their approach, not a nod nor a notice of that straight-faced guy and the camera at his feet.

< Waiting for a Miracle #1


That day I had just over four dollars in change in my pocket. I had planned to bother an agent at a subway booth to add three rides to my senior transit card before my ride home. Otherwise, I was carrying little or no cash, just an immaculate Jackson in my right shoe, as always.


I'd set up on 34th Street, just across Seventh Avenue from Macy's, when I saw him for the first time, the little voice of my conscience reminding me that there but for the grace of God go I. God who? I then asked in return, as a dear friend of a dear friend named Tiny would respond when asked about the outrageous misfortune of her young life. "What's wrong with this god who'd let so much bad stuff happen to his son . . . or me, for that matter?" she'd ask.


Not that I'm so jaded, but normally I would not have been moved so by the sight of another homeless beggar. I guess I just saw myself in him for longer than a moment. And I knew that no god had anything to do with the difference between his circumstance and mine. In fact, we were equally powerless to change those circumstances. The only real difference between us was that when the bastards stabbed me in the back I had a lifetime of good credit to fall back on, going into debt as a result but not going homeless or hungry... or not yet, anyway.


In the next half hour or so my new alter ego passed by several more times, each time his eyes wider, his gait more tentative. He seemed unable to actually approach anyone, so shamed by his condition. All it seemed he could do instead was to hold out his empty hand hoping someone would notice how desperate he was and place something in it. But it didn't appear anyone had.


What can I do? I asked myself, as others do, rhetorically. There are so many needy people and I have only so much money? But we all know that the money is there. Plenty of it. The plutocrats have shoes of solid gold, diamonds on their soles, but nothing in their souls. What is to become of this country? I was thinking, packing my gear.


I followed him up Seventh Avenue to 35th Street, his dirty white tee shirt flashing in the sunlight like a flag of surrender. I watched him turn the corner. I dug out the change and hurried after him. But when I reached the corner I stopped, let the change fall back in my pocket. He was sprawled on the concrete, two cops standing over him, one on his radio, calling an ambulance, I assumed. He'd be dumped at Belleview then dumped at a shelter, and maybe survive to do it all over again. 

You See What You Believe


“The real world of our memory is made of bits of true facts surrounded by holes we Spackle over with guesses and beliefs and crowd sourced rumors.”


So begins an article in the New York Times. It went on to quote witnesses to a police shooting that occurred two days before when a deranged man, who had been sought by police for hammer attacks upon random citizens, was shot and killed by a cop on a funky street corner on Eighth Avenue. The Times story quoted two eye-witnesses who claimed the white police officer had chased down the unarmed black man and shot him for no apparent reason. However, it wasn’t long before the authorities knew these two witnesses were badly mistaken. The truth, clearly shown by an exceptionally clear surveillance video, was that the man had been shot after pounding the policeman’s partner to the ground, as the attack continued.


According to the Times here’s what the so-called experts had to say on the subject. “It’s pretty normal,” said Deryn Strange (I’m serious), associate psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “That’s the hard thing to get our heads around (I’m still not kidding). It’s frightening how easy it is to build in a false memory.” Then the Times quote someone who claims to be a leading researcher in the field of witness memory. “If someone has a gap in their narrative they can fill it with lots of things,”said Elizabeth Luftus of the University of California. “Often they fill it with their own expectations, and certainly what they may hear from others. When someone expresses it with detail and confidence and emotion, people are going to believe it."


I got news for these two experts. There exists a very good word for what they’re beating around the bush. It's not false memory, it’s confabulation. As the reporter reminds us, “These are not the knowingly untrue or devious statements of people who are deliberately lying.” In fact, it’s not false anything, it’s simply human nature. It’s what separates us from machines and the new robotics. It’s good old-fashion story telling. And as long as it’s not testimony, it can be a gift — at best, an art form; at least something that we all do on occasion whether we know it or not. So don’t be afraid to be human. Go on and confabulate. I do every chance I get. 

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