It’s a great place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there. That is what one of the many intriguing characters I met in NYC during my 10-day trip said about Chicago. I guess I feel the same way about NYC, but I have to say, it is easier to engage in discussion with people in the Big Apple. Everybody wants to tell you his or her story. This makes for great conversation and good memories, but is ever so fleeting. You could be talking to somebody really interesting on the subway … and a few seconds later, poof – they are gone without even a goodbye.
John and Alfred
How delighted I was upon returning from a day uptown on the first Monday of my stay, when my daughter said, “There’s John Lithgow with some other guy walking down the street in our direction.” Of course she always sees celebrities, including Hugh Jackman, who goes to her health club, but for me this was a treat. Turns out they were shooting scenes for Love is Strange starring Lithgow, Alfred Molina, and Marisa Tomei, who unfortunately was not in these scenes. This shoot literally took place half a block away from my daughter’s apartment. After we went back to her apartment, I dropped off my stuff and went back out to shoot pictures with the other gawkers gathered on Seventh Avenue. The actors seemed bemused by all of this and I got some good shots.
The Street Artist
The second day I was in NYC, my daughter and I walked to Chinatown and the Lower East Side, stopping in SoHo along the way. A gentleman asked us if we would like to buy an artist’s work as we walked by the display. He bid adieu to the artist and we found ourselves engaged in conversation with a most interesting guy named Joe Strasser. He considers himself a street artist and is self-taught. We really liked his work and I admired his tattoos, many of which were designed by him. He told us that he sold more than 20 paintings in a two-person show he had in Switzerland. I mentioned Don Ed Hardy’s non-commercial work going back to the early 1960s, and Joe was familiar with California surfer and tattoo art – and was well read on the past and current art scene. Joe was one of the top five interesting characters I met in NYC on this trip, and definitely one whom I would like to stay in touch with beyond a few fleeting minutes.
The Outsider Artist
Manny Toonkel was without a doubt the sweetest, soft-spoken, and genuine person I had the pleasure of meeting on this trip. He sounded a lot like Woody Allen. On my second to last day, we were headed to the Tribeca Whole Foods and stopped in at Starbucks. I spied an interesting looking gentleman drawing in the corner near the window – a Pearl Paint bag and 30 or so markers and colored pencils scattered across the table. After my daughter bought her third iced tea of the day, we couldn’t find a table and gravitated over to him. He said we could sit down, and naturally, I had to ask him questions about what he was drawing. What ensued was a delightful 30-minute conversation with a fascinating character.
Manny mentioned that one day he had an epiphany and became an artist – he didn’t share anything about his past vocation. We asked to see his work and he pulled out stacks of colored prints. He said his work is temporary, made as dioramas with a variety of materials that disintegrate, so he sells prints. I showed him one of my pocket watch collage necklaces and he admired the craftsmanship and concept. He told us that he lives in nearby public housing, or as he said, the projects. One of his neighbors is the rather famous folk artist Malcah Zeldis – kind of a Jewish Grandma Moses. When I got home I googled Manny and found out that he was a longtime basketball coach and teacher at Brooklyn Friends. Not surprisingly, there were accolades galore – Manny was much beloved by his students. What a sweetheart of a guy.
When in NYC, I always find myself drawn to Chinatown and magically transported to a faraway land. I went here once with my daughter and a few days later by myself. NYC’s Chinatown is so enormous that it has surpassed that of San Francisco. We happened upon a group of men who were playing some kind of three-card monte game on the street. I snuck a photo of them – two anonymous faces in my adventure – taken in an area just under the Manhattan Bridge. There were several promotions going on with long lines of people waiting in the hot sun. I had the best dumpling ever at Prosperity Dumpling, a little carry-out only dive with long lines and bustling workers preparing food. While I took many pictures, a few faces of Chinatown are featured below.
The Art Consultant
I got into a packed E train heading for Queens on my way to my Mount Zion Cemetery adventure. More about that experience is posted in the next vignette. In any case, an attractive woman named Danette started a conversation with me as she was struggling with one of those reddish paper artists’ portfolios. She said she was from Wrong Island, which I found amusing. I asked her if she was in advertising and she said no, she was an artist consultant on the way to a meeting. So that began a conversation in which I discussed my work, the type of work she likes, where I was headed that day, and more. We somehow got the chance to talk about shrinks, our parents, and family history in the course of 10 minutes. She suddenly realized that her stop was nearing and bolted for the door without even saying goodbye. Although we exchanged cards, it seems meaningless now to contact her. Case in point about what I mentioned earlier – ever so fleeting.
Haunting Faces of Mount Zion Cemetery
One of the loftiest goals I had on this trip was to document the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire by visiting gravesites and buildings where victims lived more than 100 years ago. Despite several months of research and a detailed list, this project proved very challenging. According to the Cornell site, more than 40 victims are buried at Mount Zion Cemetery in Maspeth, Queens. Working around several Jewish holidays in September when the cemetery is closed, I decided to make the journey on a sunny, warm Wednesday. I took the E train to Queens Plaza and then a Q67 bus – the entire trip taking about 55 minutes each way. When I got to the cemetery I visited the office to see if they could help me further with the map and finding sites. This proved to be futile and I ended up locating just a few of the victims’ graves. However, I became totally entranced with the faces emblazoned on many of the stones and took countless photographs for another article I will be writing. Through a process called “enameling”, photographs of the deceased are burned into porcelain – a custom brought to America by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.
Jewelry Findings Gurus
I read a blog on a remarkable jewelry findings warehouse about a week before my visit and knew I had to see this place with my own eyes. I contacted Elyse Schimel, who runs the business with her dad Carl to make sure they would be open. So on a Thursday morning, my friend Barb in tow, we made our way to CJS Sales at 16 West 36th Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues). This place deserves a separate article and I plan on doing so, but have to mention Elyse, her dad Carl, and one of their employees named David. Carl wasn’t very talkative and they keep their trade secrets very close to the cuff, so he would not reveal much about his past business Kim Craftsmen. These finished pieces were plentiful and all over the place.
In any case, Elyse is quite an intriguing person – she is beautiful, ultra thin, and a practicing psychologist. She only sees patients one day a week due to the demands of the findings business. She scaled a huge mound of boxes containing finished jewelry (many her father’s designs) as agile as any mountain climber. David was employee of the month and quite friendly. We did find out that Elyse has one brother who decided not to go into the findings business and her mom called while we were there – I love family businesses.
The Elegant Antique Dealer
One the second Sunday of my visit, there was an awesome street fair on Columbus Avenue that spanned 20 blocks. Much to my delight, we stumbled upon the Green Flea Market on Columbus Avenue between W. 76 & 77 Streets. One of the indoor vendors had the most exquisite collection of small pieces that appealed to my tastes. She seemed very unassuming or shy and did not say anything to me the first time I stopped by. After perusing all the other booths I circled back and said that she had impeccable taste. I asked if I could take a few photos of her booth and she was a bit incredulous as to my intentions. Due to this reaction, I assumed that asking to take a photo of her was not a good idea.
I told her I was an artist and that opened the door for conversation. I mentioned I was visiting from Chicago and she was the one who made the remark about Chicago being a nice place to visit. She volunteered that one of her sons had lived briefly in Wilmette and Winnetka, but I could tell she didn’t want to reveal much more so I didn’t ask. I did find out that once upon a time, Barbara Muccio was a fine artist. She lived on the beach and every morning, would take a stroll on the beach to pick up pieces washed ashore for her sculptures. She told me that next to having children, art was her greatest joy, but alas, she had to give it up for financial reasons. Barbara is a beautiful woman with white hair and blue eyes – I told her so and that pleased her. I sensed a wistful melancholy and wish I could get to know her better, but that was the nature of my encounters with the many faces of NYC – poof!
A Few More Faces …