Memories of New York and Prayers After the Storm

My prayers are with those people in New York City and the State of New Jersey, whose lives have been changed forever after Hurricane Sandy. What I pray for is the compassion and generosity of more fortunate people to open not just their wallets, yet also their homes wherever possible at this moment of oncoming winter. May you come together as communities, to help in this overwhelming period of transition for many folks looking at a different, and uncertain, future. For you, do not lose heart.

New York City is one of the world’s great cities, and may it continue to be so. Great cities are based not only on grand monuments, celebrated institutions and other markers of status created with money. More importantly, great cities have people endowed with a largesse of heart, who envision greatness in human possibility, and exercise it through actions that transform and enhance the human family.

What came to mind so powerfully this past week have been reminiscent moments of three visits to New York City, each visit more than a decade apart from the others. Even so, particular moments remain indelibly written on my memory as if they had happened yesterday.

That is the magical power of a great city, and it does not mean that such a city is perfect. In New York City everything is larger than life, such as the extraordinary evidence of achievements through generations, by all social classes. Indeed, truth be told, some accomplishments happen, heroically, despite continuing social and economic inequities.

It was early spring 1970 when my fourth-year class from the Ontario College of Art, in the Department of Drawing and Painting, unpacked our bags at the Times Square Motel. We spent a glorious week stomping around the SoHo art district during the day, and scouting the entertainment district of Times Square and Broadway, evenings – nothing upscale or trendy. In those days, artists and performers could afford modest digs in these districts while honing their diverse talents.

One evening I really had the `mickey taken out’ of me, as an aspiring stage designer and part-time student as well at a Toronto theatre academy. Seeking a book on one of George Bernard Shaw’s plays, I stopped outside one bookstore and decided to enter, looking for Mrs. Warren’s Profession. My assigned theatre student task was to design a set. Chirpy and innocent, I walked into what turned out to be a bookstore for pornography. Minutes later, resurfacing with no book, my classmates almost were rolling on the sidewalk with laughter.

Art Nouveau and Impressionism have remained among my favourite styles of art. On another evening I was dumbstruck, gazing in the doorway of an eatery, to see the vision of a figure that seemed to have stepped out of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting. An African American man was standing in a pose exactly like “Chocolat dansant dans un bar.”

Did you know that the multiple talented Gene Kelly struck the identical pose for a scene in An American in Paris? Director Vincente Minnelli integrated a lot of Impressionistic imagery. The 1951 MGM musical film was inspired by the 1928 orchestral composition by New Yorker George Gershwin, with lyrics by his brother Ira. Both Gershwin brothers, and also Gene Kelly, contributed to a lasting artistic legacy that continues to speak to the human heart.

More seriously, as a Canadian, I recall sitting bug-eyed one lunch hour while a New York police officer pulled off his jacket to expose a pistol for all the world to see. Then, there was the issue of just walking along the streets with my classmate David, who happened to be a Black Canadian. Both of us were given dark looks and subjected to rude and vulgar names. Such was the racism of the time, blatantly overt in the USA. In contrast, back home in Toronto, in our art college identities, we all were stigmatized equally, as `hippies,’ simply in our desire to become professional artists (and, more so, as participants in `sit-ins).’

The final big surprise was taking a short walk with another classmate, a block down the street from the Times Square Motel, to buy some snacks. The shop keeper cautioned that we should not be out that time of night. For heaven’s sake, it was only six o’clock; but he already was closing up. Sure enough, we two girls actually did sense being followed on our return trip, and never walked outside the motel again unless accompanied by our male classmates.

That memory brings me to the year 1987, when I was doing a series of interviews with a Native American photographer, who was a real tough cookie, and had to be. I do not mention her name, to protect her privacy. She lived in a neighbourhood run by the Porto Rican mafia, who did not mess with her as long as she kept quiet about any suspicious-looking activities on the street. In other areas of the city she had been mugged, twice, and repeatedly instructed me not to look like a tourist.

Doing so was not a stretch since I was living on a subsistence income as a writer. I walked miles just to save bus fare, to and fro from where I stayed with one of her friends, sleeping on a sofa. The reason was, her own flat looked more like a large closet than a small apartment. She reassured me that the mafia would not lay a hand on me where she lived, because I knew her.

Her words provided minimal comfort, given the several other neighbourhoods to walk through on my daily trips. En route, what broke my heart were the blankets laid along the sidewalks each night, on which were placed various items for sale, so that the owners could get enough bits of money to survive another day.

What truly humbled me, however, were the `pocket gardens’ distributed through these poor neighbourhoods. I refer to small, boarded, 4×8 foot plots of earth, each cared for by one or more individuals. They planted flowers and, sometimes, vegetables, all lovingly tended. My Native American friend tended several plots, and these usually were the places where we would sit for our conversations. She told me that no one ever vandalized them.

The local folks, many homeless, all took great pride in protecting these pocket gardens. For they embodied the beauty, and life force, of Nature – life as it ought to be for all living beings, when respected and nurtured.

Some of the homeless, in fact, slept in vacant buildings considered hazardous, and their repair neglected by the city. As for the many people who slept on the streets, even in areas in Manhattan, I never believed that that reality could happen in Toronto. Well, I was wrong. Shamefully obvious is the fact, as a city grows, with the veneer of greater economic wealth, the divide between the rich and the poor becomes greater as well.

In the year 2000, the Native American Film and Video Festival, organized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, invited my documentary film Soop on Wheels. I instinctively felt safe travelling through Manhattan alone, in daily trips to and from the museum and my hotel room, even late at night. Golly, I thought, New York City sure has changed. Or did it only look that way to a short-term visitor? One question has continued to haunt me: Where do the poor now live???

But, residential accommodation size had not changed. My very modestly-priced hotel room was barely big enough to swing a cat. I had to climb over the bed instead of walk around it, in order to get inside the bathroom once the bathroom door was opened, hitting the bed. In those years, I was no longer living on a subsistence income as a writer, but instead as a documentary filmmaker. Regardless, I loved my life and my storytelling work.

Not much else to relate here about adventures in 2000. Most waking hours at a film festival are dedicated to trying to see as many films as possible until you are pie-eyed, chatting with other filmmakers, schmoozing and promoting your own film, and surviving mostly on popcorn, muffins, free munchies and drinks for filmmakers, and coffee, through several days.

I will spare you the saga of trying to open my locked suitcase after I lost the only key, a tale which could resemble a slapstick short film starring a female Charlie Chaplin in regard to how the frigging thing finally got unlocked.

May the above tales bring a smile to the faces of whoever reads this blog post, as is their intention, especially to bolster the spirits of any folks in NYC, and also New Jersey, who might discover my blog.

Consider how storytelling can be a positive and strengthening activity, whether oral in the moment or following an event, as well as written or video-recorded. Our stories help us make meaning of life’s events, regardless how traumatic.

Gather groups of folks for talking circles, in which everyone receives an opportunity to share a story. Such circles can be very healing, when folks feel that their voices are being heard by others who care.

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