In 1974, a year out of college, I landed in Manhattan.
From the vantage point of my current age, 71, five years seems like a fleeting interval. But looking back, I see that these particular five were among the most formative in my life.
While I worked an assortment of jobs, I roamed the streets with two cameras, a tape recorder, and a notebook, capturing what I saw and heard. When I left New York City in 1979 — after some achingly close brushes with publication of an early draft of a book based on this roaming fell through — I set the work aside. Eventually, I become a psychotherapist, a profession from which I’ve only recently retired. I loved being a therapist; it felt like a calling. But the images and the stories I recorded in New York have always stayed with me.
Last summer, in the run-up to retiring as a therapist, I started to scan the thousands of negatives I’d created, and then to go through the reams of notes, interview transcriptions, and story drafts I’d collected during that time. By year’s end, I decided to pick up where I had left off. The end result is my recently published book Street People: Invisible New York Made Visible.
I’d like to introduce it to you.
My intention was to re-create the largely forgotten world I explored, along with the aspiring reporter / photographer I was then, whose life ultimately would go in another direction.
In Street People, through the eyes and ears of that young man, you’ll prowl the nighttime streets with Margie — a drag queen who inspired more than fifty artworks by Andy Warhol — and Romeo, part-time mugger, full-time philosopher, and king of the corner of West 98th and Broadway. You’ll set up shop at the crack of dawn with Morris Kavesh, a Russian immigrant, as he assembles New York’s oldest newsstand, then spend the day with the denizens of his street corner society. Later, you’ll slip downtown and ride shotgun with amateur pimp and prostitute Frankie and Cookie on their first night out, and cross the bridge into Brooklyn to meet Edward, the self-appointed Second Coming of Christ, here to bring down destruction on the human race.
My black-and-white photographs combine with these and other stories to paint a portrait of a great city in a turbulent time, at its most raw and real.
Many of the stories in this book are character studies of people most New Yorkers would pass on the street without noticing. People like Morris, who spoke four languages fluently and had, by the time I moved to his corner of the Upper West Side, operated his makeshift newsstand for more than forty years. Here he is at the stand:
“When I came in here, was Depression time. I struggled for my life, here in America. That time, newsstand was open up to twelve o’clock at night. There was no television, no radio — people used to buy papers. When I was first here, Daily News delivered in horse and wagon. Horse and wagon! Now they have a hundred-fifty trucks.”
In another story, you’ll meet a bag lady standing near a burnt-out theater:
“Gaunt and worn, she rummaged through her pockets. She muttered, ‘You saved them with a million dollars. When they came back from the victorious war, they took over the country, they made it the way they wanted it. The savages don’t fight the same way the civilized soldiers do.’ She lit a cigarette and continued: ‘Retreating back into the past, the dim dark past ages, that’s where America goes, the dim, dark savagery.’”
Iconic subway scenes are woven into a tale of a fare-hike demonstration gone bad, an experience that permanently shifted my understanding of what is, and what is not, “fit to print.”
“The police held their positions for a few more seconds, but they were vastly outnumbered. One of the cops unholstered his gun, and in that moment, the state of our world changed. Someone shouted, ‘Look out!’ and somebody else, ‘Guns!’ Then dozens of people screamed in terror. I was shoved toward the exit doors as, in unison, all of us seemed to grasp what would happen if bullets were fired inside the concrete vault of the station. I got off one blind photographic shot before I was nearly swept off my feet.”
Portraits of the children I got to know on the streets of the Brooklyn neighborhood I moved to in 1977 intertwine with images of the urban decay in which they lived:
This is a brief glimpse of the lost world I have restored in Street People, and of the invisible people I have sought to make visible.
The book has been out only a few weeks, but it has already garnered some flattering reviews. One reader commented, “Not since A.J. Liebling’s essays has there been such a fascinating chronicle of life on the streets of New York.”
Please click here or on the book cover, below, to open the door.