A man with no shoes stands on a corner
Sad about his circumstance and being on the street
Then realized that it wasn’t that bad
When he was joined by another man that had no feet
A few weeks ago, finally settling in from my most recent move, I opened a box that I had packed nearly three decades prior, and found the above photograph, which I had taken in 1988 when I was 22 years old. At the time, I was living in Brooklyn, working various jobs by day and painting by night, living paycheck to paycheck. In those days, I drew creative inspiration from the streets of Manhattan, its vibrant life as well as its incredible architecture. The Flatiron District was one of my favorite areas of the City. Its signature building, the Flatiron Building, never failed to captivate me. Both angular and curvy, appearing almost two dimensional from certain vantage points, I could easily lose track of time gazing at this architectural marvel. Not far away was Tropica, a store in which I loved to browse, its colorful, exotic imported clothing, house decor and gifts like candy for my eyes. I couldn’t afford to buy much there, although I did once splurge on a small gift for my mother, a hand-carved, hand-painted wooden hibiscus flower that she still has today.
Back then, my Nikon camera accompanied me everywhere. Suspended around my neck by a long, thick strap, I wore it like a cumbersome fashion accessory. Unlike my camera of today, my Nikon served the singular purpose of taking photographs, demanding from me a certain amount of intentionality and thoughtfulness before it would comply with my directives: I had to load the film just so; remove the lens cap; adjust the focus, the shutter speed, the F-stop; and push the button on top with precisely the right amount of pressure for precisely the right amount of time. Since then, technological advances have dramatically changed the art and science of photography. Today, I simply tap my iPhone screen a few times and presto, a frozen image instantly appears. Unlike the Nikon, which required me to use my mind before it would comply with my directives, my iPhone seems to have a mind of its own and I often feel as if it is I who must comply with its directives.
One fine summer day in 1988, while mindlessly walking about, I stopped abruptly in my tracks and was shaken out of my reverie when, about ten feet away, I spotted the man in the photo above. He was destitute, his clothing tattered, his face cradled in his hand, a half-empty bottle of wine resting on the ground next to him, his crutches leaning against the window of Tropica. Unaware of the world around him, he had no idea that he had just roused this immature soul out of her free-spirited slumber. It wasn’t as though I had never seen a destitute person before. Indeed, the homeless and penniless were so omnipresent on the streets of New York that, in order to be able to proceed through my day without a heavy mind and a broken heart, I had to filter them out of my consciousness. Yet there was something different about this man, about this moment. The sight of an achingly desperate human life leaning against a store brimming with colorful, luxurious items—and the obliviousness of each to the other—was so powerful, so moving, that I felt compelled to capture the moment. Grabbing hold of my Nikon, I removed the lens cap, adjusted the focus, the shutter speed, the F-stop, pressed the button on top and took a photograph. Weeks later, it came back from the developer; the memory just as I had recalled it. That photo captured a turning point in my inner life: the moment empathy first stirred inside of me; and the moment I first realized that, no matter what I am going through and how much or how little I have, there will always be those who have it better, those who have it worse, those who have more, and those who have less.
I don't care if you living in a high-rise
You're no different from a man in a hut
Every single life is sacred in God's eyes
You ain't worth more cause you got more stuff
When I moved the following year, I packed the photo away in a box, and my memory of that moment quickly began to fade. Eventually, I replaced my Nikon with a smaller, more streamlined digital camera that was easier to carry, easier to forget about, and that made it all too easy for me to snap pictures mindlessly. That camera was, in turn, replaced by an even smaller, more streamlined, yet infinitely more complex and powerful device, a device so small it could fit in the palm of my hand, my iPhone. Purported to simplify life, the iPhone has an astonishing ability to multitask, to deliver a never-ending stream of information and entertainment, to provide instant gratification, and to perform nearly any function I ask of it.
Instead of simplifying life, however, my iPhone had complicated it, something I came to realize after I had lost it and received a replacement. On a Saturday afternoon, I put my iPhone in my purse and drove my son Liam downtown to meet friends. After dropping him off, I drove to the lake, parked, got out and started on what I had hoped would be a restorative walk, as I was worn down from a four-months-long (and continuing) series of stressful events. I went to grab my phone to make sure the ringer was on so I would know when Liam called or texted, but I couldn’t find it in my purse. I sat down and dumped the contents of my purse onto a park bench, but still no phone. In a full-blown panic, I retraced my steps, scoured the car, drove home and looked all over the house, but no iPhone. My mind started racing: “I need my phone. I have to be able to get in touch with Liam. What am I going to do? How will he get home? What if my personal information falls into the wrong hands? What if a client can’t get in touch with me? What if….what if….what if. . . ?” In this state, I waited fifty-four hours (yes, I was counting) for a replacement to be delivered. As soon as it arrived, I ripped the package open with a huge, audible sigh of relief. When I saw the words on the box: “Your life. Reconnected,” along with the image of a heart, I thought, “Yes, that’s exactly how I feel. They get it.” It felt as though I had been inside a pressure cooker and someone finally opened the relief valve.
It wasn’t long, however, before I realized that the hyperbolic nature of the words and the image on the box (my life…a heart), and my equally hyperbolic reaction to them, reflected the fact that I had given my problems (and my iPhone) too much power over me. Once I grasped how far out of hand things had gotten, and what a toll they had taken on me, mentally and emotionally, I finally understood what the late, great Maya Angelou meant when she wrote, “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” Or, as Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl put it, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” How liberating to realize that I can find peace, acceptance and well-being within myself no matter what the external circumstances are.
I miss my Nikon, its relative obtrusiveness of design, its simplicity of purpose, the mindfulness it demanded of me, the excitement I would feel when my photographs came back from the developer, days or weeks after I had captured a moment on film, and the feeling of wonder as time stood still while I gazed upon scenes from the past. As for the man in the photo, I doubt he lived long enough to witness the dawning of the age of the iPhone. Wherever he is, I hope he has found peace of mind and peace of heart. I am eternally grateful to him for helping me find peace of mind and peace of heart within myself.
I ain't sayin' what we feel ain't real
But understand just what it means to be privileged
That's when you ignore the circumstances of those
Less fortunate than you, that you don't have to live in
Bird's eye view
It's beautiful up here, might shed a tear