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    Truth is, the truth has always been imperfect, concocted after the fact from testimony and tale, an olio of impressions cooked to taste.
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Confabulations 

Truth is, the truth has always been imperfect, 
concocted after the fact from testimony and tale, 
an olio of impressions cooked to taste.  
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 fictious, just altered a bit to make the tale more compelling. 
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.

Basketball Never Stops
Tom Thumb and Johanna's Desolation Prose (Looking Back)
I’m no authority nor fanatic but I can say in all sincerity I believe that for most of his career Bob Dylan has not been the artist he once was—however briefly.  Specifically, if the three albums he produced between 1964 and 1966 had never been made, he would have never received the Nobel Prize in 2016. Or had Rolling Stone proclaimed a tune by Bob as the best Rock and Roll recording ever made. Experts on the subject have suggested it was youth that first enlightened him then age that led slowly toward mediocracy. But I disagree. Instead I believe the flame died almost overnight. Following Blond on Blond, John Wesley Harding was released a year later with great expectation. But for many, including myself, it was a huge disappointment. To me it was nothing more than a collection of dusty little ditties made mostly of muttered murmurs, as compared to the electrifying anthems and mesmerizing incantations in Blond on Blond, Highway Sixty-one Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home.

There’s only one good reason why the intensity of his work fell far and fast. And no, it wasn’t the motorcycle mishap outside Woodstock or the reality of stardom blowing his mind or an urge to father a family. In high school Robert Zimmerman had dreamed of becoming a rock and roll star like Buddy Holly. Then when recognition came he was ready and willing. However, though recognized by his peers, Bob wasn’t exactly being torn apart by multitudes of fans as if he was a star like Elvis or Buddy or the Beatles.  John Lennon loved living and working in New York in spite of his fame, willing to bump elbows while on line with the average guy at the door to Max’s, as he did in ’72 with an apology to yours truly. But for many in 1966 it was still like: Bob who? So it wasn’t exposure that snuffed the flame. Ten years ago Ed Bradley asked Mr. Dylan where the magic of that era had come from. But Bob could only shake his head like it was a mystery to him. He didn’t seem to understand or recall that he’d left the best days behind him by simply leaving New York, the muse that had made him a legend.

I’m no urbanologist nor historian but I can say for sure that these days New York City is no longer unique. Nor does it strike one that once it was the greatest city that every was. And it’s not the muse for anyone’s art that I know beside my own. What is here is now there, what’s there is here. You have your mall; we have ours, only bigger, but selling the same junk to the same gray consumers. But I have my memories of it at the time Dylan made his masterpieces here and it is because of that that I’m still here confabulating. I have no other choice . . . or no other opportunities to be a part of something that once mattered immensely.

So what the hell does all that have to do with the image I hope you are glancing back at: the street scene at 14th Street and Broadway? Not much. Only that at the time I grabbed those passer-byes, my head was filled with the rhymes and rhythm of those three albums that made Bob’s prize possible.  It’s why I came back to New York City ‘cause I do believe I can’t get enough.

   
Tony Who?
Did you ever hear of Tony Sarg? No? Well, until the other day I hadn’t either. Although he once was an interesting New Yorker it was not like he was famous and now forgotten. No, Tony was never a celebrity, but simply one of many who piece by piece and idea by idea, created our popular culture and who never received much credit for their talent, people who actually did something, being the polar opposite of jerks like the Kardashians who are celebrated for doing absolutely nothing more than being vulgar on a grand scale. Tony would have never understood the appeal of the Kardashians as he would never have understood the terrorist mentality. But he and others like him can now help us in our fight against terrorism — as well as bad taste. Let me explain.

In response to ISIS inspired attacks with large trucks speeding down pedestrian promenades, the city fathers and mothers of New York have recently sealed access to these soft targets with anything they could get their hands on big and heavy enough to stop a truck, placed at strategic locations around town. Most, if not all of these hastily conceived solution are unsightly, at best. Yesterday I discovered huge, jetty-sized boulders blocking a potential truck entrance to the Union Square greenmarket.  Several days before I noticed that the north and south entries to the recently created pedestrian zone along the Broadway side of Macy’s are now flanked by slabs of concrete that were pathetically dolled-up to look pretty covered by sky blue poly tarps, available at Home Depot for only about twenty bucks a piece.

I understand well the urgency of getting something up quickly, especially during the holiday season. But I know from fifty years of experience in this town that if what they did works, then to most of the people responsible, there is then little need to come up with something more pleasing. Again, an attitude Tony would have never understood. In his time a city became great not so much for the amount of money passing from bank to bank but by money being spent for public good that was both utilitarian and potentially artful at the same time. So in that spirit this is what I propose.

In my image you can see a total of six people, five that are enduring the first quarter of the Twenty-first Century, and one in black and white who seems to be pleasantly preoccupied in the second quarter of the century past: Tony Sarg. Tony now exists, thanks to Macy’s, in plastic and cardboard, his second life expectancy less than six weeks. Put what if Tony and people like him were re-casted in durable versions of the Macy displays, using iron and granite and a life-size likeness of them etched in bronze and placed wherever a potential threat exists? There must be hundreds of people in New York history who could be reborn as guardians of our safety in instillations that would protect us now from terrorist then entertain and education us for years to come, and remind us that the vast majority of our folklore heroes are neither politicians nor generals nor people with money and no brains.
Under Trump's Thumb (Easter 2018)
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. 
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. "Time 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 and 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 I was thinking working the cable release: 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 looked 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.


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. The school 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 was 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, it was a natural extension to 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 I knew next to nothing of the genre. But since I lived relatively close to Chinatown I knew there were several theaters that regularly showed the latest films from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

At the time 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 ten weekdays of that time shooting in the various theaters in the neighborhood.

That I did, and as it turned out the films were just right for the project. With all that emoted dialog 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.

So 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, for what it was worth. What I found was 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 was so much more effective than my mug imposed onto the screen that I was desperate for more.

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 two. 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 in which I’d shot before I quit. 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 a Ghost Shadow killed my enthusiasm for perhaps the best project I ever stumbled upon.

The Asymmetric Baptist
As God as my witness I did not knowingly intrude on anyone’s privacy. But upon discovery, how can I not exploit—tastefully, I hope—evidence of the occurrence? As it is, after all, anonymous and after-the-fact. If it had been a man and a woman rather than two women kissing passionately, would I be any less a scoundrel?

The massive church staging the accompanying scene, featuring four asymmetrical towers representing a certain biblical hierarchy, is The First Baptist Church of New York. Completed in 1893 it is, depending on your point of view, either a monstrosity or masterpiece. I’ll offer no opinion and leave that to architectural critics or experts on the era like Caleb Carr and say only that I’ve tried without success to confabulate under its bigness perhaps a dozen times in the last few years without success. So it’s been kind of like my Moby Dick that with this image I think I’ve finally harpooned and brought to bay. But that is not to say success rests only with the two engaging women in the background.

When the star of this show walked up and stopped just a yard from where my camera waited, I was aware of nothing but her. I started shooting, hoping the red light that stopped her would take forever to change to green. It did.  During that time my eyes behind my shades were only on her, hoping she’d stop munching whatever she was munching and look off into the distance. Finally, she did. By then I’d shot fifteen frames of only her. I thought.

At home that evening I uploaded my take into Lightroom then settled down for an hour or so of editing. When the primary character is obvious I usually start by populating the background then choose the more important players and lastly select the best frame of the primary character. But feeling I needed something or someone of interest in the middle-ground I returned to Lightroom to study the take one more time.  But I found nothing of interest that I had not already selected. Then, in desperation I perused the fifteen frames of the girl with the munchies.  There was nothing there, not in the first three frames. But in the fourth frame they appeared out the chaos of the deep background and walked to the newsstand, stopped, embraced and kissed. And kissed. And kissed. Until in the thirteenth frame the kiss ended and they turned sadly in opposite directions, the woman in the light gray coat disappearing underground, her companion walking toward me.

I enlarged the fifteenth frame. By then she was only a step behind the muncher and was looking directly at me.  And, she looked like me! I mean if we were closer in age she could have passed for my sister. I don’t know if she saw the camera but I assume she had. Or maybe not. Maybe she’d noticed the resemblance as well. She wasn’t smiling but she wasn’t frowning, either. I’d say her expression was almost serene, perhaps a little curious but not condemning. I wonder how she read me.
Eisie's Icon
Like all kids now but fewer 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.
Chicken Gyro (It Takes One to Know One She Smiles)
This, from my off again, on again diary.  1/4/18 The road gets rougher and the grade steeper. My new coat (the first in a half dozen years) has a zipper problem that might cost me the coat off my back to fix. I did little else today but title one of my confabulations — the last born. It's POV-0258 but will from here to eternity be called CHICKEN GYRO (It Takes One To Know One She Smiles). It's of a knot of folks at the ass-end of Macy's, Xmas Eve, a hip chick eying me like she knows what grand dad is up to. A half century ago I'd have called out, "Hold everything! Don't I know you?"  She'd have answered still smiling, "You do now, George." Then I would have taken her hand saying, "Out of sight, Gracie. So let's go get stoned." Back to this sad century at this very moment the news is pushing the next big winter storm headed for the city like it's a product to buy. They might be full of shit but I don't think I'll be out on the streets any time soon.  
The End of History (Eldridge near East Broadway)
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 be on the lower eastside. 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 eastside 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 home 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 Rican 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?  
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 of Soho and Tribeca, and the neighborhoods still packed with 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 Bill’s 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 — instead of in a gutter on the Bowery. 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.
The Fall of the King of Canal
Just after I shot him The King was on his knees (or stooped 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.
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, occassionaly 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, inspite 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 awhile 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 shinning 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.
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 gashouses, 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 eastside 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.   
Psalm 23:4
It was the 8th of June and it should have been charming but that morning the day must have 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 a little — 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 big 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 ‘round the prowl of the Flat Iron 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, said 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 infectous. “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, anyway.
 
NYPD Round Up Illegal Aliens
Trump to God: You're Fired!
If I was the page one editor for a New York tabloid, that's the head I would have gone to press with the morning after I had thought Donald's balloon burst in the Iowa primary, the head inspired by the Daily News, October 30, 1975 headline, FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD, that set the standard for this type of trash. In fact, the New York Post—the paper being perused by the fellow in the photo—went with: CRUZ-IFIED. More to the point, I'll admit. While in another part of town the Daily News tried: DEAD CLOWN WALKING, which I don't think works very well even though they imposed a clown-face on a news photo of Mr. Trump. Hmmm, Gail Mooney or Fred Ritchen are you reading this?

But perhaps I mislead you. The image here was made around noon on Sunday, January 31, 2016, a day before the event in Iowa. While a Trump Tower and globe loom beyond his left shoulder, the headline for the cover of the New York Post that this guy is so into, was: GIANT RAPED ME! But I think the Daily News won that particular day with the similarly, yet slightly more  sleezy: LESBIAN SEX CELL HELL!

Actually, the primary subject of the image is the little girl in the blue jacket. Earlier, I'd watched her and her family (exuberant Italian tourist) cavort around the plaza munching their giant pretzels. But ten minutes later I saw that she was alone, terrified, calling out for papa in this desperate little voice. Then, just as the woman you see stepped forward, Papa appeared from stage left and their good times resumed as they rolled on to the next sight to see.​​​​​​​

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. 
My friend could, or perhaps, should have been named Howard Roark II, though I called him Mez, at the time, trusting  he was a fellow traveler and not the Ayn Rand-alogue that he turned out to be. Mez wasn’t an architect but a photographer whose firmer ground happened to be a floor-through loft on 23rd Street, just across the street from what was then the MetLife Tower. 

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 — all smallish and at least a bit peculiar — 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 lasted from March to September. And although we never made much money we were at the prime of our lives doing exactly what we wanted to do—in fact living what we were doing. Although Mez had a house in Queens, 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, at all hours music from King Crimson to B.B. and Ben E. King and everything in between, blasting from Harmon speakers as big as refrigerators. We’d call for take out from the joints on the street, 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 Slimy Limeys (Gordon’s Gin and Rose’s Lime Juice) and blocks of blond Moroccan hashish. But for me the most memorable times occurred on an irregular basis when we’d head down to Chinatown. 

Since the early days of the Twentieth Century 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 on one hand or dimly lit dumpling dives on the other. 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.  It seemed, that at the time, these guys where all freelancers, moving around from kitchen to kitchen according to the best deal they could negotiate the morning or afternoon before the evening they were needed. So if you were in the know, you’d know a few numbers to call where you might find one of the top chefs that you kept on a short list in your wallet.  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 finished, or 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 with its big yellow tank from the retired fright elevator where he kept it, push it out onto the street, 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, ash-blondish and rusty-red hair, whipped like streamers in the wind. Never a parking problem with a bike at that hour, we’d simply pull up in front of the joint, then near the stroke of midnight strut in to everyone’s notice, as if we were stepping from a silver screen.  It never got better than that. 

I was always mystified by how Mez was able to find Chushi whenever we’d decide to go downtown.  That little 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 ten years my junior and only a half dozen years in New York. “Hen Hao Chuchi,” I said slowly, trying my best to pronounce it correctly. Her face wrinkled up like she smelled a rat, then repeated the name clearly I was mumbling.  “Yeah, that’s it,” I smiled sheepishly. Which amused her. So much so she sat back (we were eating lunch a Szechuan joint down the street) and had a good laugh. I waited for some time, uncomfortable about what was so funny. Finally, “Hen Hao Chuchi?” she confirmed.  I nodded, a bit put off by her jolliness. “Hen Hao Chuchi,” she repeated again. “Means very best chef."   

Self-portrait In the Eye of the Beholder
Yulish (Amending My Manifesto)
During the last seven and a half years I have produced two hundred and fifty-six Confabulations, all but three—including the accompanying image—photographed in open sunlight at, or near, high noon.  My intentions were to create images that, because of the methods of manufacture and the intentions or pretense to art, would not be judged or compared to, or mistaken for, a standard photograph, whether the photo be identified as Street, Documentary or Commercial. So I chose to identify (or brand) my work by consistently employing several distinct characteristics. The most notable of these characteristics, beyond the sun-kissed, midday color, would be utilizing the smallest aperture possible to create infinite depth-of-field, then printed to a size large enough so that the viewer would not to be able to focus on every detail instantaneously, but to view the work as reality, not the photographer or the equipment imposing a selected focus but the viewer’s brain and eyes scanning the image, detail to detail in focus while everything else around it falls into a soft sea of color and shapes.   

But the problem is the Sun. It just doesn’t shine often enough. It doesn’t realize that I’m trying to make up for decades of wasted time, that I need to leave a body of work behind that is mature, something much more than just another one of my passing fancies.  Seven years ago I was thinking a thousand would do. Now, I’d settle for five hundred.  But at my established rate that will take me another seven years. I don’t know if I have seven months. Or seven weeks for that matter!  No, I can’t wait. I waited for the last five days for the sun to come back until this morning when it was shining brightly in a boundless blue sky. The problem is, it’s cold, really cold, below zero cold. I can’t hang around on a street corner for an hour shooting people who can’t be identified as people, either from the clothes they’re wearing or the speed they’re moving. So from here on in, give me a nice cloudy day with a temperature in the forties. 

Weegee's World
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.   
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. 

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 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 but simply a work of fine art.   

A West Side Story
I’m on Broadway looking north, to my left is the Julliard School.  A block behind me is Lincoln Center, named not so much for the president but for Lincoln Square, a clot of asphalt and earth where Columbus Avenue, Broadway and 65th Street converge. And as always when I’m in the neighborhood, I’m thinking of West Side Story. 

Most folks who care about such things think that Lincoln Center replaced the block of tenements where the movie was set. But they’re wrong—two times wrong.  Lincoln Center did, in fact, replace two or three solid blocks of tenements, but not the ones where the movie was shot. A group of cooperative apartments called Lincoln Towers, two blocks above where I stand and a block west on what was then West 68th Street, was where all that posturing and footwork was put to film.  But, in reality, more than half the scenes were not shot on 68th Street, or anywhere else in the neighborhood, for that matter. That location would be up in Spanish Harlem, on East 110th Street.       
I first saw Westside Story at the Calderone Theater in Hempstead, Long Island, maybe January, maybe February, 1962.  I was sixteen and on a pilgrimage, one might say. Although my gang: Harry, Richie and Tommy, likely wouldn’t cop to that, would definitely call that bullshit, a strong accent applied to the second syllable. Or, maybe not Tommy Edwards. But I can’t ask him since he’s been dead for like forty-six years now. After surviving Vietnam, high on just about everything available at the time to be stoned on, along some drag strip of a highway on Long Island, he tried to beat-up a truck and lost. I think he was twenty-three. Anyway, we walked out soon after Maria started warbling about feeling so pretty, not to be be caught dead sitting through something so silly. Like everyone else I knew out on the Island, the guys in my gang were originally from the city. And since the suburbs then were nothing more than purgatories waiting to become some place else, most kids I knew clung to the city of their minds: the speech, the food, the neighborhoods, their friends and family still there. And the street gangs much discused, all legends with names like the Egyptian Kings, the Medallion Lords, can't forget John Gotti’s R&F Boys, and my favorite, the Halsey Bops. So I guess that afternoon the masterwork of a few middle-age legends in their own right, did not stand a chance with such demanding critics as the Pyramids of Levittown. Peer pressure always being by far the driving force of any teenager, I followed my friends out of the theater, though trailing a bit and turned toward the screen until finally pushing through the door.  And I did agree with my buddies that Sondheim, Bernstein and Laurents hadn’t gotten it right. But secretly, I suspected that what they’d gotten wrong was friggin’ boss — in a weird kind of way, maybe something I might really like—you know, when I get old.  

Smack Dab
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 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. So 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.

All that aside, the Arbus show was fabulous. Both the work and the innovative instillation.​​​​​​​
Millennial Myopians
Of Tourist and Travelers
In 1958 the phrase, Ugly American, was used for the title of a book about ham-handed American policy in Southeast Asia in the late 1950s. However, the title was "borrowed" from a phrase originally coined by a Cuban photographer as a title to a photo he'd shot of an arrogant American tourist, poolside at a Havana Hotel, ten years before the book was published. In spite of the popularity of the book—and movie, starring Marlon Brando that followed—the phrase has lingered not so much in a political context but as a put down of the insensitive American tourist abroad. 

Although the term may have had some truth in the past, it has become a bad rap, folks. I am a witness to the behavior of tourist from all over the world and I am here to testify that most American tourists no longer deserve the title of ugly. For twenty years following WWII the United States was the only country in the world who's middle class was mobile enough to travel overseas in large numbers. That has changed dramatically. Now the few Americans who remain ugly are vastly outnumbered by jerks from all over the globe.  So which nation deserves the title now, you may ask? I know but I'm not saying. However, I can say that there is a direct correlation of ugliness to the newness of that particular country's petite bourgeoisie.  And, there remains a huge difference between tourist and travellers. But travellers you rarely notice because they are so hard to tell from anyone else on the street. Travelers are comfortable with, and knowledgeable about, their surroundings. And it helps to be German. They seem to know best how to pull it off and never appear to be ugly, whether they are tourist or traveller. Much like the family in the photo. 

The Future of Photography
I never had much to say about photography's future. But I do now. In fact, enough to fill a book. However, I'm not writing a book, here. I'm just relating anecdotes that have something to do with the photos I create. It's hard enough to get someone to read three hundred words. Three hundred thousand? Forget about it. So the best thing I can say on the subject, briefly, is to recall a conversation I had a day or two after New Year's Day, 1992, just as the digital revolution was accelerating into overdrive. 

I was art directing the production of the annual report for a major telecommunication corporation, working with one of their vice presidents of public relations, who I had traveled with on photo shoots for the preceding five years. That evening we'd wrapped the last assignment for what I think was their 1991 offering and were relaxing pool-side at a plush pocket in the deep south, not really looking forward to returning to the snow and sleet of New York. Since, in those days, the growth of their cellular business was what was getting the most attention, I was going on at length about the challenges inherent in photographing people using smaller and smaller cell phones. Since we had a very good working relationship and had become good friends by then, and since we had toasted the project with a second drink, my colleague responded with more candor than a person in his position would usually do, mentioning in a lowered tone that the miniaturization of phones would not last that long, that in the rapidly arriving future a person's cell phone would be a device used for many other things than just phone calls. He gave me a few examples and then dropped the bomb that would change my world forever. "Soon your phone will be your office," he grinned, as if that was a very good thing. Then, checking if the photographer was about to join us, he said, "Don't tell John but your phone will be your camera, as well, in time capable of producing an image as sharp as anything John has in his equipment case. 

Of course I didn't believe him. I figured it was spin, that a professional photographer as accomplished as John Madere would never have anything to fear from some administrative assistant with a cell phone. I sat back, sipped my drink and suggested with a friendly smile that he was full of shit, that cell phones were only a fad. He nodded then leaned into my smirk and said, "So was Rock and Roll."

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 contaminents and human remains then rebuilt; and after the recovery and reclaimation 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. 

Whitney Sideshow #1
Phillip Roth Says It Best
I had a lot of fun with this one, clearly two interesting stories unfolding at once. At first I was going to call the image “Watch Your Back”, the blond gadgeteer apparently blind to her surroundings rapidly closing in. But on closer inspection the ladies in the foreground seemed to be a better choice, their expressions perfect as they shared a juicy secret. I was thinking “A Delicious Dish” or “Dishing with the Experts” might work.  But when I took a break to read the interview on aging with Philip Roth for a resent New York Times Book Review (the topic increasingly on my mind), and since he lives in the neighborhood where the dishing his being done, perhaps even visible to him from his balcony, I just had to honor his mastery with “Phillip Roth Says It Best”. Following is a tantalizing nugget from that interview.

In a matter of months I‘ll depart old age to enter deep old age—easing ever deeper daily into the redoubtable Valley of the Shadow. Right now it is astonishing to find myself still here at the end of each day. Getting into bed at night I smile and think, “I lived another day.” And then it’s astonishing to awaken eight hours later and to see that it is morning of the next day and I continue to be here. “I survived another night,” which thought causes me to smile once more. I go to sleep smiling and I wake up smiling. I’m very pleased that I’m still alive. Moreover, when this happens, as it has, week after week and month after month since I began drawing Social Security, it produces the illusion that this thing is just never going to end, though of course I know that it can stop on a dime. It’s something like playing a game that for now, even against the odds, I just keep winning. We will see how long my luck holds out.  
  
Sixty Hours
Give or take, that’s how long it took to make this triptych. Ever since I started this project I wanted to do a piece at this particular location, but mostly I wanted to do something really sweeping in breadth there, something that might exist as a symbolic counter balance to the blizzard of dumb smartphone photos we all have to endure, 99.9% that never should have been snapped in the first place but left to the imagination. Because in spite of what Apple thinks, everyone is not a photographer. That’s all I’ll say on that subject because I really don’t want to pick a fight. I no longer have time for that. All I want to do is spend the next sixty hours, sixty days, sixty months—if I have that many left—leaving something behind that will be interesting or even inspirational to someone sixty years from today. 

Please, before you move on, just this once if never again, indulge me and take sixty seconds to look closer at these three pictures, as large as you can click them. If someday the money is available, I hope to print them at least 30”X 90”, large enough to be read in six seconds or less. 

Thanks! Now that you have a good idea what’s going on—that this is not just a benign cityscape— you don’t have to read any further. Unless you’re really bored or very interested. 

This is Columbus Circle, the Time/Warner Center directly in front of us. That white, windowless structure on the left was once the controversial Huntington Hartford Museum but, after being vacant for years, has been remade as the Museum of Arts and Design. The multifaceted building behind it is the Hearst Corporation’s world headquarters (think ugly Betty). Moving to the third photo, appropriately toward the far right, is one of Trump’s grandiose erections sheathed in dark glass. And finally to the right of that is the monument to the sinking of the Battleship Maine, a talking point if there ever was one. It stands at the entrance to Central Park; the one Olmsted had envisioned as the main entrance to the park and, for some obscure reason, is called Merchant’s Gate. But now it needs to be renamed as Tour Merchant’s Gate because most of the people you see are trying to sell some kind of tour—either to the park or to the rest of Manhattan—to the other folks you see. And they hate to let those other folks slip away without nailing them for forty, fifty, a hundred bucks. 

The two nearest the camera: the guy in the red trunks who promotes bike rentals in the park and the woman with the elaborate braids who sells tours of Manhattan for one specific bus line, are apparently native New Yorkers. However, the fellows in the outfield, freelance hawkers of tours my various means, are mostly Africans. But one should not have the impression that they are bumpkins just off the boat who are clueless of what they’re doing. In fact, they all seem to be very savvy, articulate and smooth salesmen. The truth is, if there are hayseeds in these images, it would be the tourist, no matter how well traveled they think they are. After spending at least six of the sixty hours observing the scene I found if there was any unpleasantness in the exchanges, it was usually the fault of the tourist, their mistake, being too damn friendly, and not recognizing that the exchange was all business and not an act of entertainment of some kind. These guys (I saw only one woman) all seemed to be working very hard to grab a foothold in America, very seriously engaged in a legitimate business and not out for a romp in the park with the great grandsons and daughters of folks that once were as serious as they are. So my advice is don’t flirt. If you are not interested in a tour, say so firmly and move on and so will they. If not, and you think it cool to rap with an African then blithely turn him down, you might have to exit the scene like the young woman in shorts. Just remember, many of these men have seen hell up close, and that leaves a little starch in ones collar when dealing with those who haven’t a clue.
A Short Skirt, A Sudden Gust and a Handy Man
There’s something I’ve wanted to write about but since it’s a sensitive subject I chose to wait until the appropriate image came along. The accompanying photo is that perfect catalyst. 

I’ve been shooting Confabulations with a camera at my feet on and off for five years now, but it didn’t take more than a few shoots to realize there were some people out there in peopledom who thought I was up to something deviant. “Hey man, you try’n to look up lady’s dresses!” He shouted, then, “He be try’n to look up lady’s dresses,” he screamed to his girlfriend who was trying her best to tug him away from me like she would a barking pit bull, all this rage taking place on the boardwalk at Coney Island on the 4th of July, many of the ladies in question passing by not in short skirts but string bikinis. 

His attack was absurd, but it stopped me from going out for several weeks. It was deeply depressing to think there were people out there so ignorant of physics and photography and so lacking in common sense, let alone decency, that they’d accuse me of something like that—probably something they’d like to do. But I got over it. And I get over it each time it happens. In over two hundred outings I’ve been accused of being a peeping Tom a total of six times: oddly, three by men of a certain age, and three by women of a certain age. But not the same age. Now when it happens I just look back at them like I don’t understand, ask them to repeat what they said several times then finally nod and tell them that the dirt is in their head, not in mine. 

The End of History (Chrystie and Grand)
To Lean On
I’ve given up the ankles for the knees—that is for a higher point of view. By doing so I realize I’m no longer invisible, the camera easily seen. But I thought it time for a change and time to examine more of my subjects than their taste in shoes. Also, I thought it time to trim the cast of characters from the usual crowd to three, two, or even one. That would give me room to add an inanimate object of some interest and graphic weight, as I did with the ballet poster on the left side of the frame in My West Side Story piece, and now here, with the bright red call-box.

I’ve always loved these old call-boxes. Actually, I believe there were some that were still in use when I arrived in New York, so many moons ago. I’m glad they kept them as curios, if nothing more. Maybe that’s something Bloomberg was responsible for. If so, my hat’s off to brother Michael for that one.

The convergence of Sixth and Greenwich Avenues and Eighth Street has always marked the bull’s eye center of Greenwich Village. Every famous folk who once roamed or lived in the Village no doubt crossed this intersection repeatedly, as have their anonymous neighbors—like me, for example. But I hadn't remember the most memorable time ( a Yogi-ism?) until I settled in that afternoon a week or so ago and I leaned my equipment bag against the old call-box on the corner of Greenwich and Sixth. Not only have I loved call-boxes, I’ve always enjoyed catching a glimpse of a fine looking female—discretely, to be sure—never lasciviously, even during my most lascivious years. It was really nothing more remarkable than picking wild flowers from the weeds, just something I automatically did when the occasion arose. As it did that summer Sunday—no, it just can it be? Forty-three years ago. 

It was around 6:00 in the morning. I was on my way across the Village to rendezvous with my pal at Astor Place. We’d been hired by Car and Driver magazine to shoot a banana yellow XKE convertible and a mid-engine Mazda (the very first in North America) with models and the works somewhere in the forests of northern New Jersey. But that’s another story. This story has to do with not two exotic automobiles but one even more exotic woman, standing alone, the only human in sight, two short blocks in front of me as I turned onto Greenwich Avenue. 

She seemed to be trying to hail a cab, albeit as successfully as fishing a river with no water. But there was something else bothering her. Something with her shoe. A high-heel. Was one missing? As I reached Christopher Street she’d given up the search for a taxi and had hobbled up on the curb, her right hand planted firmly against the old call-box as her left hand grabbed at the straps of her errant shoe. Then as I approached she became aware of me and looked up. It was Bianca Jagger, at the height of her fame. And there was nothing but me and her and the naked city and the heelless shoe that had brought us together. 

You can’t imagine the pressure I was suddenly under. What could I say? What should I do? I had to say something. I had to do something. But what? All my feeble mind could come up with was something about a horse and taking her wherever she wanted to go, in reference to a photo I’d seen of her riding a white horse, in or was it out, of Studio 54? But even in my state of shock I knew that wouldn’t do. I had stopped in my tracks and so I just gaped at her for what seemed to be hours but was only a few seconds when a fat flash of yellow appeared just beyond her. Instinctively, I raised my hand and a big checker taxi pulled up to the curb. Hearing it screech to a stop, Bianca turned to the cab, then turned back to me and gasped breathlessly, “No. I was here first. That’s my cab!” I gulped some air and managed a few words, something about not needing a cab and thinking she did, so I hailed it. “Oh, thanks,” or something like that, said she, padding for the taxi in stocking feet, her shoes, minus one heel, in hand. 
As it turned out the day ahead was so strange I didn’t even think to tell my friend about the incident with Bianca until well into the following week. But, like I said, that’s another story. 

Reefer Madness to the Max 
Where White People Like to Show Themselves
I pulled up a chair in the shade, sat down and set up. Rarely do I have such a comfortable place to work. Rarely have any of my subjects, like I had 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 smiled through it all, wondering if any of them had 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 dictrict," 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 just as 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?

Summer of Love, Day of the Psycho
If people still think of the Summer of Love at all they likely 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.

The blond bundle, frame left, might be second or even third generation removed from her great 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 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 was 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.
Waiting for a Miracle #1
That day I had just over four bucks 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 Hospital then dumped at a shelter, and maybe survive to do it all over again. 

Square Wise
There is no place in New York City that draws crowds like Times Square and I’m not sure why that is. In my life I’ve known three distinct versions: The crossroads of the World, that magical place of my youth where it seemed anything was possible; then in the 1970s through most of the 90s, a Sodom and Gomorrah, the sleaziest strip on Earth where anything crime-wise could be waiting around the next corner; and now Bloomberg’s Mall America, where a tourist can wander free of fear and purchase to their heart’s content just about anything they can buy back home for half the price.

It’s all very crowded but all very ordinary. Really. There are kooks and con artists. But nothing that doesn’t exist at the centers of activity anywhere else in America. Tough guys offering free Rap CDs — with a catch — are everywhere. I know they’re in L.A., San Francisco, Boston and the Windy City. An occasional nut walking around nearly naked is old just about everywhere nuts gather to roast in the sun. There’s only one thing that may be unique to Times Square, though I’m not at all sure about that. It’s those costumed characters.

For the last five or six years they’ve been a growing menace. Elmo was first. Then more Elmos arrived on the scene along with those phony Buddhist monks. Soon there were Captain Americas by the dozens, Spider Men infesting every block, Mickeys and Minnies and Saturday morning toons who I haven’t a clue their names. Their game is to welcome the visitor with a hug and an offer to photograph the tourists and to be photographed with them. I must say it’s very appealing, especially for the young children. But all the initial good will and joy disappears in a hurry when the photos have been snapped. That’s when the pilgrim will learn as he or she is circled by the costumed characters that he or she now owes Elmo or Minnie or Cinderella or Whatchamacallit or maybe every one of them, twenty bucks. 
Dead Man's Curve
For more than a decade I worked in an office at Park Avenue and 33rd Street overlooking the most dangerous pedestrian crossing in New York City, where through the years, I witnessed five fatalities among dozens of lesser incidents. However, as likely as it was for an unsuspecting jay-walker to be mowed down by a taxi barreling out of the Park Avenue tunnel, it was never as treacherous as navigating the original Dead Man's Curve.

"They don't see it, huh?" he asks pleasantly, his eyes on the camera. The camera at my feet, I'm standing near the southwestern corner of Union Square Park, near the Gandhi statue, the UK's greatest pain in the ass, eternally heading north in full stride. I've waited weeks for the weather to moderate and it finally has. But so far there's been too few pedestrians, the guy next to me now included in the count. He's fifty-something, tough guy handsome like gangsters in old movies, his speech like theirs, too. Which is music to my ears, a real New York accent now a rare find among a population who all seem to have been raised in the San Fernando Valley during the 1980s. I pull my carefully preserved enunciation of New Yorkese from my distant past and answer him with a grin of my own. "Too much to look at," I say, swinging my free hand from east to west. "Too busy textin' and shit," I add. He agrees nodding, says, "They should look around every so often, learn sumn' about the world 'stead of starin' at their little toys all day long."

Just then a warrior woman appears in front of the camera, her tethered German Shepherd leading the way, moving with the certainty of a cruise missile locked on a distant target. I grab two shots: the dog eying the camera, then gazing intently at the target ahead. "Dogs see it—and little kids. They know what's going on." I say. He chuckles, offers his hand. "Name's Albert," he says. I pass the release from my right to my left hand, give him a firm shake. "Charlie Spangler," I tell him. "So Charlie, my man. Parks must be good places to photograph people. No?" I agree, saying, "Especially Union Square Park." Albert frowns. "What's Union Square got that the others don't?" he asks. "History," I answer on that beat. Obviously uncomfortable with the subject Albert's expression goes grave as he watches a ditzy chick approach, her face buried in her little pink device. "What history?" he asks, tentatively. 

Where do I begin? I'm thinking, then opt for the most immediate response. "Say Albert, you ever hear of Dead Man's Curve?" He nods that he had. "Well dead Man's Curve began right here where we stand." With that Albert's disposition grows rosy as his curiosity kicks in. Encouraged by that I continue. "A long time ago, from roughly 1890 to 1910, a cable car line ran down Broadway from Columbus Circle to the Battery. The tracks veered left about here, ran thirty or forty feet, veered left again onto 14th Street, traveled east for a half block then dropped a sharp right back onto Broadway. Now the thing about a cable car is that it can't stop. Like a shark it has to keep moving. But for some reason that has escaped me the cable service did not extend around the park.  So the drivers had to increase their speed enough to make it through the series of curves without stalling, then pick up the cable on Broadway just below 14th Street. Nothing wrong with that, so far, right?" I ask. Albert shrugs. "Wrong!" I tell him. "When you have a two ton car rumblin' through these curves a few dozen times each day with the potentialality to plow through anything that stands in its way—human flesh and bone included—you have a situation that will get people's attention as well as go down in history. The Dead Man's Curve. Nothin' like it today. That's for sure.

Albert draws a deep breath, shakes his head. "That's a damn good story, Charlie. I just wish I could tell it as good as you," he sighs. "Hey, I don't own it. It's yours to tell, if you like," I say. He shakes that off. "No, I can't do that. Have a hard time remembering details." I check my camera, see I've shot well over two hundred frames, tell Albert I'm late for lunch.  "Just make them up," I say, removing the camera from the stand. "That wouldn't be right," Albert answers, earnestly. "It's called confabulation," I say. Albert's eyes go squinty. "Basically it's a true story but one that has a few additions here and there to fill in the blanks, make it more entertaining. Confabulations." Smiling a little, "Think it'd be cool for me to do that?" he wonders. I put my hand on his shoulder. Go ahead, man. Confabulate. Everyone does it. They just don't remember doin' 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 (now 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, now 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, artist still pretending indifference, no longer crowned by berets but baseball caps, hovering among art that's just as bad as ever.
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—who is sure to read this posting—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 these days my favorite spot is a bench in the southeastern corner of Central Park, just above The Pond and the wildlife sanctuary on its west shore. 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" (it's still splitting my ear drums). 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 his camera at his feet. 


Out to Lunch
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 for 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 uncracked 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. 
Five Points
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 a lot more 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 built to serve. In fact it was rebuilt to bury what was left of it. Once Giuliani was not part of the picture the real estate moguls soon realized that making a park out of what 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 nor 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, during a half  dozen visits I haven't seen even a single pigeon. 

But it's all good. Forget the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns, there's really just one thing I'd do to make it more democratic. I'd put up toll gates. New York City residents would have a card to swipe to be admitted free. But tourists (the 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.
Battle Ready
When I was shooting this piece several weeks ago I was struck—not the first time but probably the hardest—by how much contemporary urban fashion has been influenced by post Apocalyptic movies such as the Mad Max series and my only favorite among the genre, The Book of Eli. Which led me to consider the notion that we are now, in fact, at war, perhaps World War Three, and have been so since we watched black smoke bleeding from the Trade Center towers fourteen years ago. Then last weekend came the horrors in Paris followed immediately by the predictable media frenzy, the hand wringing, the usual saber rattling, chest thumping and truth spinning from many of the imbeciles running for President. Add to all that a prominent, second-generation hippie singing out that all we need is love.

But this morning I read something by the NY Times columnist, Paul Krugman, that deftly points out that referring to acts of terror as acts of war dignifies and elevates the barbarians responsible, playing right into their hands. Wars have armies and armies have soldiers and although terrible, there are rules of engagement for those soldiers to follow that were created especially to safeguard civilians—as well as civilization itself. But to these thugs, camouflaged in delusional religious rhetoric, there are no rules. That, in fact, killing innocent people is their primary objective.

If for a few moments I would magically become the news director for all world-wide media, I would proclaim that from this day forward no terrorist in any terrorist organization be referred to as a “fighter” (as they have since this crap first hit the fan) but simply as what they really are: terrorists. Or, if the reporter yearns to be a writer, they could insert one or all of the following: psychopath, miscreant, fiend, beast, murderer, butcher, coward, crackpot, fool, puppet, jackass, dog dirt, dimwit, creep or scumbag. 
Channeling Gene Smith
I met Smith just once, very briefly. He'd come to our office at Popular Photograhy 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. 

Like It Was
September 11, 2001, 9:03AM  I’ve told my 9/11 story to family and friends a couple dozen times, but always with a feeling of emptiness when I was finished, as if I’d failed to express what I’d actually seen and how I’d really felt.  And so I promised myself that I’d give that up as something I was incapable of doing . . . until I saw the kid in the green tee shirt. There he was, equal-distance from where the north and south towers once stood, his hands fixed as jets poised to strike, his expression serious but strained, as if he too, could not comprehend the unthinkable or fully understand what occurred that perfect September morning several years before he was born.   
 
It was all just a dream. No, that’s not correct. It wasn’t anything like a dream because dreams are built upon random events from your conscious life.  This was like nothing I ever experienced—or could imagine. Even though I’ve been struck by lightning on Fifth Avenue, thrown from my bed during an earthquake in Los Angles, stranded in St Croix for a week after experiencing a grade 5 hurricane, I had no reference at all for what I came face to face with that day. Like I would have no reference if suddenly dumped on the surface of Mars. Only: There’s an emergency at the Trade Center. Please exit via the stairs on your left.  Which took some time for an entire train full of riders to exit one set of stairs instead of multiple passages under and around the two buildings. 
 
On the stairs I heard the sirens. Okay, what’s the emergency? I wondered, still within the realm of the rational.  But as I reached a place where I saw a patch of brilliant blue sky and felt a cool breeze upon my cheek, I heard a gasp. It was not just one voice but dozens, if not hundreds of voices raised in a collective swoon and in the corner of my eye I saw the explosion as the second plane hit the south tower, and the fiery blossom in bright orange against a smoke black sky.

Momentum carried me up the last steps and onto the sidewalk where I stopped with no longer a place to go, my ears split by a hundred screaming sirens, my eyes unable to look away from the hole in the north tower where debris fell like leaves from a giant oak.  I stood there like that for several minutes, transfixed as if under a spell or like being suddenly far out at sea, in a tiny boat, in a timeless place, beyond the recall of past or present. But very soon I heard cries come from here and there that what was falling was not debris and with that I grabbed a piece of consciousness and held on tight. And as my wits returned  I remembered  that I was a photo editor for one of the most important news gathering organization on Earth. And I knew where I had to go and what I had to do, even if the entire city was aflame.   To be continued.

Jet Scream
9/11/2001 continued  Witnessing people jumping to eternity shocked me into realizing I had a job to do. And to do that, I had to get to work. But how? Normally, I would have walked down Church Street, passed the Trade Center, made a right on Liberty, then crossed West Street on the pedestrian bridge that led directly to the lobby of my building. But that was damn near impossible because Church Street was now the staging area for the rescue operation, the destination for dozens upon dozens of emergency vehicles screaming their way downtown. In fact, it was already so crowded with men and machinery one could hardly see through the mess. Then, as I considered the option of at least giving it a go, an improvised crew of first responders appeared out of the haze and started moving the crowd back as they strung yellow tape across Church Street.  And for any swash-buckler who might be reading this, thinking you would have done otherwise, I’ll say that many of the responders were armed, some with guns drawn, one carrying an assault rifle. You must remember that at that moment, these guys were responding not so much to an emergency but to an act of war. Not that I knew that, then. Not that anyone around me knew that then. Most of us civilians, at say 9:05, knew only that two large planes had hit both buildings of the World Trade Center. In those moments, and for perhaps the next hour or two, you probably knew more than we knew at the scene, even being a thousand miles away.

Why? Well, there were no smart phones then and even if there were, cell phone service had been shut down and there were at least thirty people waiting in line for every operational pay phone. I thought about my wife sitting at home in front of the T.V. worrying about me. And, for a moment I almost started walking north. But then I imagined a hand full of my co-workers huddled together overlooking the holocaust, frantically figuring a way to do what they had always been ready to do—but would have never dreamed that someday they’ would have to do. And so I figured I’d go south: first up to Broadway then down to Liberty Street, and, if I was lucky, across the bridge to my building. So that’s what I did, as fast as I could, ignoring the backstage drama that was going on all around me. But when I arrived at the intersection of Church and Liberty, literally at the base of the south tower, I was met by several men in suits: FBI agents, who’d just arrived themselves and who insisted in no uncertain terms I perform an about-face, and fast. Which I did, but still with the intention of reaching my building, even if I had to walk down to the Battery then up the esplanade along the river.  

The next twenty minutes I can’t explain in words—only in pictures taken with an imaginary camera, since that day I had, for some reason, decided not to carry mine. But you’ve seen the pictures that were taken. And I could have done no better. As I worked my way south to the Battery I learned from conversations I passed that it was a terrorist attack and I just kept thinking how small the world had suddenly become and how fortunate America had been during the Twentieth Century, relatively unscathed from the suffering and catastrophic destruction that the people in the rest of the world had had to endure. So this is the Twenty-first Century was my mantra, all the way to the Battery, then worming through the crowds waiting for the tugboats to arrive, then at last, eerily alone as I finally neared my building.

As I approached I saw that, there too, yellow tape had been strung hastily from light pole to signpost to fire hydrant, leaving no access to the building. This time I ignored the tape and preceded quickly toward the doors, still strangely alone, save for a single police officer that seemed to have been stationed there to intercept interlopers such as myself.  I.D. badge in hand, I called out to him, from a reasonably safe distance, I thought, if in fact he’d spin around blasting first, asking later what the hell I was doing there.  But he turned calmly then told me to come no closer, and to stay beyond the tape. I explained to him whom I was and why I had to get into the building. Then, stepping down from his high horse he told me with an ironic smile that the building had been evacuated and that no one remained inside (not completely true).  So that left nothing I could do but go home. But first I thought I’d settle on a bench to rest a bit before beginning the long march back to Roosevelt Island, that at the time I figured accurately as between ten and twelve miles from where I sat. 

But only a few minutes past before I stood up, thinking I was making a bad mistake. Although the sky was brilliantly blue at the horizons, above me drifted a blanket of black smoke, smoke that might be laced with poisonous gases, I thought. Was I paranoid or perceptive? It was impossible to know.  But I really needed to take a break so again I sat down . . . until I heard the roar of jets engines. They were, in fact not a second wave of hijacked jetliners, but a squadron of fighter jets from the New Jersey National Guard. However there was no way to know that from my point of view.  So I got up, turned my back on my building and didn’t see it again for nearly a year.  About five minutes later, the South Tower fell. Finally, about four and a half hours after that, I walked into my apartment, the dust of 2 World Trade Center still in my hair.

Help Wanting (Zabar's at Eighty)
White God
Although there are a bunch of indie art houses in Greenwich Village, there is no longer a 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 accompanying 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.  

But 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. 

The Wrecking Crew
I always knew New York University had its hands all over Greenwich Village. My father was a Doctoral candidate there who liked to talk out of school about the low down of higher education. So by my early teens I was hip to the politics and power of that particular institution. But it didn't really smack me in the face until a little later when during the last weeks of 1962 I had the opportunity to explore the neighborhood for the first time on my own. What I found could only be compare to Dresden or Berlin, circa 1945. As I learned at the supper table that evening, during the previous decade NYU had acquired, by hook or by crook, much of the real estate to the south of their campus, then without any public debate, leveled whatever stood in the way of their future plans. At least six square blocks of history—from West Third to Houston Street, from La Guardia Place to Mercer Street, had been bulldozed to oblivion. The very loins of the Village, the part of it that more than any other gave it its notorious reputation, had been neutered. The jumbled warrens of artist garrets, opium dens and jazz clubs where life had been lived and painted and wrote about like no other place in this country was to my eyes that afternoon nothing more than sun-lit dust settling over just so much raw real estate as if nothing had ever been there before
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.



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.       



Flash Master Fink
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 on the 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, 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 showing 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 both and stops. Inside a summer hire not much older than myself 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

Indecisive By Nature
I once knew an old time New York flack and reporter by the name of Harvey Fondiller. Although it was the 1970s he was like a character who'd just stepped from an Earl Wilson column or from a film like Foreign Correspondent, still sporting  a fedora and a trenchcoat. When Harvey walked through the door most folks walked out, rolling their eyes. But I was always glad to see him. As I said, he was a real character. And there was alot of him to see. Don't get me wrong. It wasn't as if he was a huge man—all told. But his individual parts were all quite large: like his hands, and especially his head. In fact it was monumental.  I use to call him Mr. Rushmore, which he enjoyed, even though he didn't get it.

Anyway, Harvey use to write for Popular Photography—how to stuff for amatures, mostly. Because he could bill a few dollars more if he supplied the photos he always did. Which were always very basic, and always provoked a groan and a snide quip from me.  One day we were sitting in the conference room picking through his latest offering when I pulled a photo from the pile which was of the face of a clock and said, "Look, the decisive moment!"  

With that Harvey was off. It seems that around 1950 he was the first journalist  in the U.S. to do a comprehensive story on  Cartier-Bresson. He had visited the Magnum offices in Paris and was given access to their archives of contact sheets. He said he was surprised to see how many more files Henri had compared to his associates. When he inquired about that he was told Monsieur Bresson simply photographed more than the others. In fact it was suggested that he never paused, that his eye was almost always peering through the viewfinder, his finger on the trigger. It was added that it took him many hours to edit what he'd shot. Being a tipper of holy cows I rocked back in my chair and said, "So the decisive moment occurs not so much on the street but back at the office when Henri circles a frame and declares it, "Le moment décisif!" 

Mean Streets Redux
I've been thinking about that film lately, recalling how it was when I landed in New York after a couple years wasted in the midwest in a so called institution of higher education.  It was the summer 1967 and although I had much in common with the hippies in the East Village, I found that I was most comfortable with the home-grown downtown guys who were not unlike the friends I'd grown up with on Long Island, in a community of people who'd recently arrived from neighborhoods in New York, their culture still more urban than suburban. 

In particular I remember fondly my tambourine man, the guy from whom I usually bought my pot.  He was an artist, native to the neighborhood, the red brick tenement he grew up in visible at the right side of the photo, his apartment where he painted and sold his dope not in the photo but just a few doors out of frame, east on Spring Street. Every few weeks I'd pay him a visit, buy a lid, share a pipe full of blond Morrocan hash (his special stash), then go for a drink  at the lounge where all the neighborhood wise guys hung out, every one of them his best buddy, it seemed.  

I'd moved on by the time Scorsese made Mean Streets, but all the excitement it stirred up in the neighborhood reached me almost immediately.  As you might expect it was a huge event , all the young men claiming a certain intimacy with the project, taking credit where they could for being the inspiration for this character or that. I never knew them well enough to tell the bullshit from the facts but I did remember the lounge clearly enough to argue that although it may have inspired the hoody hangout in the movie, the two bars were not one in the same. The place on Spring Street was just too small to accomodate those scenes. 

Today there's still a joint there with a different name and a very different clientel.  In fact,  the cast of gangsters and rogues has been totally replaced with bourgeois walk ons . . . or in the case of this image, ride throughs.   

Monkey Business
Several years back a saffron tide washed over the island of Manhattan, Asian men in yellow robes flooding the blocks where tourists gathered in mass. For all intents and purposes they appeared to be Buddhist monks begging money to send to temples back home where, as they claimed, the funds would be used to feed and shelter the poor. But it's just another scam by the newest gangs of desperados grabbing a foothold in the promised land. Or putting together a stake for a run at the slot machines in Vegas or Macao. It's really hard to avoid them and before you know it they're in your face, a wide smile, twinking eyes, handing you a cardboard  amulet (check out his right hand), then if encouraged, slipping a cheap bracelet on your wrist for which they demand twenty bucks. 

But I've reached the point that I pay them no more mind than so many pigeons pecking around my feet for crumbs. However the other day as I was setting up at the busy corner of Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street I noticed this one rascal laying his snow job on an out-of-towner who was about my age and of my tribe (telltale signs of hippydom clinging to his otherwise mature demeanor). Obviously, these thieves have learned exactly who might have both deep pockets and a big heart.  So after maybe fifteen minutes working this guy for heaven knows how much he turned and spotted me. But he didn't realize that the tables had turned, that it was now he who was the chump. I stayed stoic behind my shades and let him come, closer and closer.  Then one, two, three, four snaps and I'd nailed the little sucker, meeting his bogus smile with an Eastwood glare and a silent "No" mouthed so loud he actually ran away.
Cautionary Tail
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." 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 some time in the sixties. But you know what they say about the sixties: 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 down hill 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 awhile you get used to it, even enjoy it if it doesn't kill you.      
The Proletariat


A Goose, a Saber and a Bag Full of Bull Shit
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 though his tailor shop survives at 857 Broadway.

857 is that little yellow loft building you see in the photo above, its windows offering a grand view of the park. If I remember correctly, Dominick’s place is 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 I don't know who's running the joint and who their customers may be. But downstairs 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. 
He As Me
Often I think about how it was the first time I was there—wandering the park's pathways then finding a bench in the sunshine. It was Spring and I was young and more alone than I'd ever been before, abandoned by my dad who was off with his "professor". But I'd never felt so close to a place I'd want to call home. It was 1959 and I knew time was on my side. 
 
Behind me two boys wrestle on a patch of brown grass sewn with cigarette butts and ground glass. In front of me a Good Humor man in his bright white uniform reads a folded News, frowning and smoking his smoke, every so often jerking a cord, tinkling the bells on his little pedal-driven ice cream truck. From under the arch at the north side of the park I can hear folk songs and union ballads sung by guitar strummers, their nasal laments just background for tales being told by khakied hipsters, lazing forever young in the soft glow of an early May noon. But it's all just a faded memory with no more presence than a black and white snapshot in a forgotten photo album collecting dust on a distant date that is NOW.
 
THEN? Just a breezy day in New York City, time wandering at my pace toward  an early evening. It's an extraordinarily ordinary day made from everyday moments of city life: A superintendent removing his pigeons from the roof of a condemned tenement; Sinatra crooning from the juke box in a Hell’s Kitchen bar; in a luncheonette on a dirty avenue, a blue plate special served up by a saucy waitress; a jazz club just off Times Square, quiet before the storm of Dizzy’s horn. 
 
I stretch my legs out, scrattering several mulling pigeons in search of crumbs, thinking about subway cars, their fans and the future of air conditioning. I look to the traffic circle and the dry fountain within its embrace and at the young people idling there. Now those were the days, I’d always thought. Oh boy, to be there as they were—as they are: gloriously disgruntled. And bitter? Better still. Beat? That’s hip, not hep. Snide and surly and cynical. On the road. On the rails. On the make. On the mend. On stools, stewed or stoned and over-drinking themselves under the table at the San Remo. Smoking minty Gauloises, living large and dying young or surviving as curios into their bleak, impotent, televised future; a future they could see coming but couldn’t do a damn thing about.
 
I laugh out loud. Those were the days?  You must be kidding me! Why they don’t appear to be living a legend. They don’t look moved by the movement what so ever. In fact, dare I say, they look a little square. Bored and cynical, maybe, but not all that hip—kind of like the elves on the L train do NOW. I realize I know them well. They’re not dead because they were never really beat. They're the gray-bearded attorneys and retired librarians of the future. In my NOW they’re suburban grandparents. They’re members of the comfort class who return on a semi-regular basis to the city they claim they still know. They train in to catch a show or to stroll the Village with their grandchildren, droning on about how they made history here and there. “Look, see. This place once was the Fat Black Pussy Cat. Now, those were the days! Oh boy, were they ever!” 
 
Forget them. Forget this. It's just a scoop full of foggy facts, the past lost in my net woven of confabulation and wishful thinking.  I get up. Returning to the future, I turn toward Sixth Avenue, a young man in black glancing at me, thinking  maybe I look familiar

Survival Skills
What you see above 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.

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 once 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 shinned 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 sentires 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. 
Incident at Broadway and Lafayette
So this guy emerges from subway safari 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.


Sharpen On Up
Though not so famously shouted out as during his later star-turn at Atlantic Records, Big Joe Turner claims in this tune that he don’t like to brag and he don’t like to boast, but he be sharp when he hits the Coast. Sharpen on up, meet his chick when he lands in town.

Back in 1947 Joe was headed for Central Avenue in Watts, three thousand miles from, and 68 years before, I sharpened on up at Union Square. Never mind what I say just dig the gleam, or the glare, or the glint in my subject’s eyes if you will, please. And my deepest thanks to my new camera, a camera I would have never believed was anything to be taken seriously.

Until one March day a few years back when under a Wuthering Heights sky I crossed the Delaware River—flooded by run-off from the snowy Catskills, white caps busting over it’s banks—and took a long lunch with Larry (Flash Master) Fink.  Professor Fink was on that day. After wolfing down his meal he had either a harmonica to his mouth or a camera—no larger than his harpoon—to his eye.  I tried to pay as little attention to his show as possible, even though for two hours I sat face to face with the man while he blew the blues, trying his best to blow my mind, alternately the lens of his little toy camera often kissing-close to my face while I tried to savor my steak or whatever the fug I was lunching on. And not only was the prof in my face but the face of our waitress, the bus man, and finally the chef who dropped by our table to schmooze, very likely the only half-famous guest he’d fed for several months or more. 

I wasn’t at all upset. Not really. I just figured Larry had settled into a second childhood. Maybe for him the marvel and mystery of making an image had faded and so he was simply returning to a time where there could always be a latent masterpiece in every click.  I couldn’t blame him for that. He told me that a well-known manufacturer had sent the camera as a gift. So I guess Fink was doing just what they hoped he would do.  And I tried not to pay any attention to the particulars of that relationship.

So when our lunch finally ended and we’d made our way back to his version of the Hog Farm. And when I’d been introduced to Merry Larry’s (remember Wavy Gravy?) cast of assistants and such, he ushered me into the studio where his product was perfected and where there were a half dozen very fresh and very large prints displayed, all portraits, all remarkable and remarkably sharp, all shot with the toy camera that had come between me and my déjeuner somptueux.

For this Doubting Thomas it takes some time to come around. But three or four days later I emailed Fink inquiring the name of the camera, thinking that when I grew tired of lugging around several pounds of DSLR and lens and when that DSLR had reached the age of antiquity, I just might get the toy he’d been playing with that day. Which turned out to be Sony’s RX100 II. 
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 18th Street, headed south, then stopped, dead in front of me. The door opened but not far. Apparently, the passenger was having second thoughts, or needed assistance. I offered a helping hand, pulling the door open wide. Suddenly, I was face to face with Andy Warhol.

I wasn't surprised because after all I was in his neighborhood, his hangout across the street, the Factory little more than a block away. And it wasn't the first time I'd seen him, but 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 what he'd told me, leaving me holding the door. But he hadn't forgotten me. "I'm going downtown. Are you?" he asked. "Perry Street I said. "Drop you at Sheridan Square?" he asked. "Thanks," I said, getting in.

Not a word was exchanged until we were rolling west on 14th Street approaching Sixth Avenue, when finally someone spoke up. "You look familiar," he said. I held back a moment before, "So do you," I said, a big laugh fighting to break through my smile. His face, a pond without a ripple of emotion, "Have you been up to the loft?" he asked. "No," I said. "Maybe the Electric Circus," I offered. Silence. Was that it? We turned down Seventh Avenue. "We're both stones of a sort, you know?" I said. 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 confirmed. He nodded saying, "I was born in Pittsburgh. "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." "Neat?" I grinned. Tidy," he tried. But he knew he hadn't hit it right. "Like a garden?" he tried again. I knew why he wanted to get it right becuse I never could. "In some ways, to me, it was like a small paradise," I said, coming no closer. But he hung on to that for a few moments then, "Stranger than paradise," he replied, quietly. With that he'd nailed it.

We fell silent then, me feeling snug and smug that at twenty-five I'd just reached the peak of hipness, sharing a cab with one of the most important artists of the century, collaborating in a search for the essence of where I'd come from. Too bad I hadn't a clue where I was headed. Fourteen years later when Jim Jarmusch released his film by that name I liked to believe he'd gotten the title from Andy. Sure, it was likely a coincidence. But still, you have to wonder. 


Xanadu, Once
My first memory of New York City—an image in my mind's eye not inspired by a photograph or postcard but an empirically witnessed cityscape—was of the original Penn Station. Pennsylvania Station, my parents called it then, smack dab in the middle of the 20th Century. Since then, for me, it has defined all things urban: bigger and bolder, more glorious and more beautiful than anything I could ever imagine being anywhere else but in New York City. However, it isn't just Penn Station that fills that remembered panorama. Across an avenue flooded by yellow cabs, was another grand building, one with four-story tall colonnades that seemed to go one forever. It's an image I recall a lifetime later as sharp as the day I first saw it. But I never had a clue where in hell I'd been standing. For years I'd dog my mother about the exact location. She'd always insisted that it had to have been on Seventh Avenue where we were—where we always were, coming or going from New York. And the other building? "The Hotel Statler," she'd answer, always reminding me we'd stayed there a couple of times. But the Statler had no colonnades.

Throughout my life in New York I've tried to avoid the void—that now grotesque jumble of low brow architecture that stands where once there was a masterpiece: one dreary office tower and Madison Square Garden, a circular mass of crusted cow manure with all the design acumen and charm of the parking garage for a suburban mall.

Then one day not long ago, probably on my way to B&H on 9th Avenue, I exited an E Train at the 34th Street stop and soon found myself climbing stairs I'd thought I'd never climbed before. Up the steps and out in the sunlight I paused to get my bearings, much like the Chinese tourists in the accompanying image. I was on the southeast corner of 8th Avenue and 33rd Street. Before me sat the ass-end of Madison Square Garden, electronic billboards flashing action of the Rangers and the Knicks above. Below, a set of doors led to what a sign claimed was Pennsylvania Station: as if there still was a Pennsylvania Station and not just a hellish subterranean labyrinth leading to tracks that once laid across the bosom of the most heavenly of any building ever raised—or razed—in this country. I squinted my tears back in my eyes and was about to catch the green light across the avenue when I saw it: the long line of colonnades fronting the Foley Post Office building on the far side of the avenue. I realized then I was standing in the exact spot where my memory was born, right there where the Chinese couple are birthing their own memories—a little less grand than mine, I'd suppose. Unless they can remember Xanadu. 
 
Perennials and Passing Fancies
I was virtually dead, a moody, dreary kid of thirteen. No dreams only nightmares, I saw the future as something to be avoided, delayed, denied. I wanted out, but I didn't know what I wanted in. I wanted in but couldn't find the door. There was nothing on the horizon but more of the same suburban monotony as far as light could travel.

Then along came my brainy, slightly bohemie big sister with enough brotherly love to take a day off that summer to show a kid around town — downtown — Greenwich Village. We hung out at the park, sipped espresso at the Cafe Reggio, dined somewhere exotic, then finished the day at night on Christopher Street at the Theater De Lys. I was the youngest person in the audience—ever, maybe. My sister probably risked arrest. With the Three Penny Opera I was born an adult. There were now possibilities. Life could be exciting!

Although Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill long ago moved on, I still feel their presence when passing through Sheridan Square on my way down Christopher Street. And by the way, that's me leaning against the lamp post, reincarnated as a young woman, keeping the circle unbroken.
Something in Common
Shooting Shoes?
I'd missed her. By the time I saw her she was out the door and quickly out of the frame. But she'd seen me, seen the camera, stopped, then asked, "Are you shooting shoes?" All I could do was smile. It was by far the best guess anyone had ever made. She'd asked it like she was from my tribe. But she was dressed like she'd had breakfast at Tiffany's — or lunch at Le Cirque. She was seventy something and exquisite, effortlessly so, so real, so unaffected. She was very rich and very famous but for the life of me I couldn't place her. We talked for ten minutes about photography and art and New York. Then when it was time to go she asked for my card. Gladly, I reached into my bag but realized it was the wrong bag. I had no card. She pretended to memorize my Web address then was on her way. A while back I saw her again. There she was on the cover of a fashion magazine. And I'm very glad it was her who she turned out to be.  


Considering the Life of Lin Zexu
The pounding heart of Gotham, the center of the concentric circles that define New York City, has been for some time a moving target. But for a good part of two centuries it was Chatham Square. No bit of Earth has ever been more New York than that chaotic piece of real estate. Perhaps no where else in the United States has had such an effect on our popular culture than what rose up from the sidewalks along the Bowery as it spilled from Canal Street to the swamp that was the Five Points. Tattoos and tap dance are two off the tip of my tongue. Now there is not much there to speak of.

The square is little more than an open wound on the hip of the city where the new Chinatown has been pulled apart from the old Chinatown, letting in some sunlight and fresh air, a space to plant a few statues. That's Lin Zexu in the above photo. Mr. Lin was a 19th Century reformer who initiated but pretty much lost the war on opium. But he still makes for an impressive work of art.

The Long Good-bye
The social realist painter — or satirist, some say — Reginald Marsh, never painted on site but in his studio over-looking Union Square. He would find a location he wanted to paint then get to know it by visiting it several times, observing before making sketches. But back in the studio he'd often rely more on photographs he'd taken while sketching. In doing so I don't think anyone ever attacked him for creating a moment that occurred only in his mind's eye, the scene he imagined inspired as much by what he thought as what he actually saw.

I go about making a photograph much like Marsh made a painting. But I'm afraid I'm going about it in a less enlightened time. When under attack I like to imagine the first artist to show up at the art cave carry brushes he'd fashioned of mammoth hair or saber-toothed tiger fur. "Unfair!" the others would cry. "Blasphemy!" the witch doctor would roar. "It can't be art if it is not created by the stump of ones thumb or the nib of a stick charred by flame," the flame keeper would proclaim, selecting the first stone to throw. 

The location on Roosevelt Island I did not have to scout, my wife and I passing there daily for more years than we ever thought we would. And like every other image in this project it was not created with the stump of my thumb. Every person pictured in the photo above passed my lens between noon and one o'clock on April 26, 2011, pretty much within a foot of where they're pictured. It is true that it was never like what you see but I believe it is just as true a representation of that specific place as any one photograph or painting can be. And for all you cavemen and women gathering stones, may I remind you it ain't the news.