Storm Clouds Rising

The water slowly ran out of the fire hydrant, like a spring it ran across steaming hot concrete evaporating to rise and meet clouds forming a midsummer thunderstorm above me. The hydrant was on a dead end cul-de-sac in the Brownsville Housing Projects of Brooklyn. 

Once the meeting place of gangs, the space has been transformed by local non-profits like the one I was working for into a kind of oasis; murals, a flower garden, and large vinyl prints of photos and art attempting to change the spirit and maybe direction of the community. 

I was standing near the hydrant on a hot July day looking for my photography students. My co-teacher and I had given the assignment to shoot portraits of each other and they had fanned out into the community looking for interesting backdrops. I did not see any students at that moment so I was stepping toward the hydrant to douce my bald head and take a drink when a thin middle-aged man approached and threw down a black plastic bag. 

He knelt to take a drink and we began a conversation. He told me his name was Robert. I mentioned that I had a son with same name. I told him I was teaching photography to students in the community and that I wanted them to photograph this hydrant. 

 “You need to have them photograph the developers that are moving in here and turning buildings like that one ( he pointed across the street) into condos that no one living here now can afford. The anger in his voice rose as he explained. “They made millions in Manhattan and now they are coming here to make more money.” 

I agreed and I mentioned that in fact several of our students had said they planned to photograph this very topic.

“Do you live around here?”, I asked. He grinned and looked at his plastic bag. “I’m homeless man, I live in the shelter down the street. It’s fu*king violent as hell, but I’ve run into hard times. There are no jobs, none that can pay the kind of rents they are charging now.”

As he walked away toward the shelter I bent down and drank from the hydrant. As I stood up a private, sleek blue helicopter zoomed low over head, most likely shuttling some millionaire to Manhattan. It had come from the direction of the dark rain clouds gathering on the horizon. 

Kay Grayson Was Not Crazy. We Are.

Imagine giving up everything, including electricity and running water to live in leaky trailer in the middle of the Dismal Swamp. Crazy, right? Recently, I walked up a long, soggy, fog filled road near Columbia, North Carolina, to find a mobile home once owned by a women who spent 20 plus years living in it alone. 

Alone, yet not lonely. I am told she used to stand in the woods and sing. This brought out her pet bears. Yes. WILD bears -over 20 of them. Kay Grayson was her name and she was tall and beautiful. 

She had lived all over the US, including in Las Vegas, leaving town each time a man did her wrong. I think she gave up on men after a while and picked bears. She befriended them, protected them from poachers, even let them into her trailer.

In 2015, after Kay failed to pick up a friend’s food drop by her driveway gate along Highway 64, they found her remains scattered in the forest near her trailer. The news and internet picked up her death and spread it as a “I told you so” story of how the wild bears that she loved turned on her and ate her. A coroner later said there was no evidence of an attack or fight. She may have just simply died in the words from an everyday event like a heart attack. 

But “the bear lady” being eaten by her pet - but wild - bears fulfills a stereotype of nature being dangerous, so that it the story that spread and that we all remember. On the beautiful spring morning that I walked the road into her place, I found raccoon, not bear tracks, in the mud.

A door from her trailer lay on the ground, maybe ripped off by a bear, or a human. Looking through the open doorway of the abandoned trailer, I noticed that she had put a telephone pole up in the middle of her living room area to hold up a patched roof. Home repair books still lay on a table along with a box marked “Red Christmas Linens.” Small decorative bird houses hung from the kitchen cabinets.

Back out at the highway, plastic flowers still mark her driveway. On the back of a white cross I found a touching message. 

Her life story deserves a movie made of it. Outside Magazine did a lengthy article on her life and death.

Kay found her bliss in the woods, with animals she could better predict, and more deeply love, than humans. She wasn’t crazy. But maybe we are for not recognizing the value of the life choices she made and the importance of the wild animals she tried to protect.

Like us all, Kay’s life stood for much more than how it ended. 

Black Coffee, Please is Todd Drake’s blog on life as an artist, teacher, and activist. Drake lives in Brooklyn, NY and is originally from North Carolina. All images and writing copyrighted (c) 2017 

Ride or Die

Today, I realized I know this place is becoming home. I realized it after a day of biking across Brooklyn. It started with riding across Prospect Park and down 9th Ave through Park Slope to scrappy old Red Hook. It was a cold but beautiful morning. My fellow bikers and I waved at people in cars using our bike lane as too-narrow parking spaces. Past the Gowanus Canal, I saw a worrying crowd gathering near a bodega only to discover up close that it was a crew shooting a movie.

After my meeting at the Red Hook Community Justice Center, I rode along the Gowanus Canal again and through quaint Cobble Hill (past the public sculpture of a new friend and artist) to BRIC Arts Media where I was given a walk through by the artist Miguel Luciano. His new solo exhibition is on Peurto Rico and the diaspora living in New York City. The show features altered and restored vintage Schwinn bikes from the 1950s through the 1970s. I owned one of those bikes back in the 70’s with the banana seats and sissy bars and the stick shift like gear changer. 

The title of the show is Ride or Die. The artist related riding a bike to being free - exactly how I feel when I ride. I talked Miguel into letting us honk one of his bike sculpture’s giant horns while giving tours to kids. I then rode my bike down to Dumbo for another meeting, this one at Brooklyn Arts Council with a room full of teaching artists waiting to welcome me. For one of the group building exercises we acted out a play depicting the overcoming of one’s fears. I used my bike’s red tale light as dramatic theater lighting. 

Afterwards, I stepped out into the cool darkness of Dumbo and looked at the cobble stoned streets, the swirling water of the East River, and the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges arching away into the night. I lingered and counted by blessings; to be in this place, calling this city my home and knowing how to navigate its streets, making and teaching art. 

I rode my bike back up the hill, away from the water, under the BQE and into Brooklyn’s business district. I silently passed police stations, colleges letting out their night classes, and nurses walking away from long shifts. I turned left near where I attend Quaker Meeting and soon was back at the Q subway stop next to Junior’s Famous Cheese Cake. 

One the subway, I braced my bike against the pole and tried not to bother anyone’s shoes with my wheels. Back in my neighborhood, I pressed my new remote and my building’s parking garage door opened. Like batman returning to his cave, I floated on my bike down and into the black. Home.

Watch for the Real Shows

Riding across the Manhattan Bridge today on the Q train the sun was shining almost white in the subway windows and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge and the statue of liberty off in the distance. The water in the East River was the same copper green as the statue and you could see it below and between the rail tracks if you stood at the end of the car and looked down.
A young group of “Show Time” pole dancers had come into the car at Canal Steet and had started with clapping and then some recorded music. They spun around on the pole nearest Robin and I, their perfectly fit arms and chests able to hold themselves out vertically from the pole like a flag.

Beside me sat two teenage Muslim women working hard to be oblivious of the shirtless young boys dancing just feet away. One of the girls read a book and the other played a video game on her phone.
Across from us sat a women in a fuzzy orange mini skirt. Her shoes had white feathers. Robin later commented on her patterned hose.

 As the young men spun she pulled out her bejeweled cat eyed sunglasses and put them on. She smiled just a bit and watched them behind the safety of her shades. Just down from her sat a young man dressed all in black with a small US Army patch on his sleeve. He hugged a black scooter and watched through his shades too- without a smile.
The boy’s moves and their music were good but I did not have any money to give them so I sat quietly just taking in the moment. Robin and I were on our way home from the Lion King’s Broadway production. It was an amazing experience, but what I saw in front of me was the real show of New York City. At the next stop the dancers got off. I looked at Robin and then turned back to see a young man standing in their place- with a surf board…..the show never ends.

Another Way to Dance

Deborah and Glenn are talented artists from Chicago who are determined to make it happen on the dance floor that is New York City. Here is their story.

Previous to our “migration” from Chicago to NYC, Glenn and I  had talked for many years about living in NYC for “a year or more.” We visited NYC often for 20 years before we had the opportunity to “migrate.” So we knew NYC quite well and always enjoyed the differences in “artistic energy” between Chicago and NYC. We also visited Berlin (less frequently, but frequent enough) and explored living in Germany for a time. Chicago is a wonderful city, and Glenn and I have family and friends (artist and non-artist friends) in Chicago.

“Migration” is a keyword for us in telling our story, because we continue to “migrate” to NYC, but we also return to Chicago, and we enjoy other “art centers” in other countries. We are asked sometimes why we are migrating towards NYC. The “short answer” is that we are seeking art/cultural opportunities. We do not see Chicago as “better or worse” in terms of artistic practices; different cities offer different opportunities. We see ourselves as artists whose work is able to reach people in many parts of the world. The location of NYC on the Eastern coast of the USA is helpful to us in terms of mobility, and also the abundant variety of artistic opportunities. 

The catalyst for our migration was that I was offered a part-time job teaching art in a private high school in Manhattan. I began teaching in February 2014. I found an AirBnB room for 6 weeks in South Park Slope – $1200 per month. After 6 weeks, I came back to be with Glenn in Chicago for 2 weeks (Spring Break at my high school – it was less expensive to fly back to Chicago than to stay in the AirBnB for 2 weeks.) After Spring Break, Glenn and I found an AirBnB room in Harlem for 3 months, April through June 2014. It was $1600 per month. We began to share our work with others in NYC in a more focused and disciplined way. 

We went to events almost every evening – events at museums, galleries, nonprofits, and alumni events for SAIC (School of the Art Institute in Chicago) graduates. At one SAIC event, I met the residency director of the Catwalk Residency in Catskill, NYC. We applied to the residency and were accepted for 3 weeks in August 2014. The residency gave us time to work on our art, but it was also an opportunity for migration from Chicago to NYC.

 During Summer 2014, we lived in Chicago and began to sell/give away our furniture and other possessions. We found renters for our condo. We stored our remaining possessions. We flew to Catskill with minimal clothes and possessions with the goal of finding an apartment in Manhattan at the end of the residency. The hardest part of our “migration” journey came at the end of the residency. The only “pay stubs” we had were my part-time job pay stubs – and those did not qualify us for an apartment lease. I mentioned our problem to a teaching colleague – she arranged for us to stay in a room at her church for two weeks at $30 per night.

We stayed at Metro Baptist Church in Hell’s Kitchen for 2 weeks and during that time we looked at apartments every day/evening. 

We were fortunate and finally found a man who rented us a small 450 sq ft furnished apartment in the Garment District for $2500 a month for 9 months. We had to pay several months of rent up front and there were other “restrictions” – for example, he did not want us to receive packages or mail at the apartment. But overall, we liked the apartment – it was our first “live/work space” in NYC, and we were very happy there for 9 months. 

In the summer of 2015, we received a matching grant ($6500 total) from the 3Arts organization in Chicago and we travelled and did art projects and exhibitions in Africa and Europe. It takes a lot of time and effort to get matching grants and raise money for our art projects. We were in a serious car accident during our travels, and it gave us a new perspective on how fortunate we are to be alive and retain our physical mobility. We are grateful that 3Arts and others supported us, both financially and emotionally, during our travels. 

It is noteworthy though, that it cost us less to travel (using the grant money) than to live in NYC for the 2 summer months. We are always sharing our art work with others, and we enjoy meeting other people who are interested in what we do. We are also very interested in the work of others and we help other artists whenever we can – so there is a synergy between our socially engaged work, helping other artists, and sharing our work with all who are interested. 

We could not “migrate” without the help of many friends and also our four parents, who are in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and who allow us to come back and live with them in Chicago when we need to. We are fortunate to have good relationships with our families and friends, and it takes time for us to nurture these relationships and not neglect them.

When we returned from our exhibitions overseas, we lived in an AirBnB room in Brooklyn for one month (approx. $1900) while we looked for another 9-month furnished apartment situation. We found a furnished 450 sq ft apartment in NoLIta through the Listings Project ( Again, the rent was approximately $2500 per month and we had to pay two months ahead. The location was great, but the apartment was narrower (railroad style) than our first apartment, and was not as functional for us as a live/work space as our first apartment. We continued to work our “jobs” and shared our work from our small sublet in NoLIta – and caught the eye of the curators at the Sheen Center in NoHo.

In February 2016, the Sheen Center offered us a 3-month residency for summer 2016 and also a solo exhibition opening in February 2017. As of this writing, we feel very fortunate to have lived at the Sheen Center for 3 months. Yet, it is also a lot of work to prepare for the exhibition. The materials for the exhibition will cost upwards of $3000. Our time to prepare (unpaid) should be calculated at approximately $6000-$7000. So, even though we are not paying rent for three months, we are not being paid for our time or our expenses to contribute to the cultural life at the Sheen Center and lower Manhattan.

At the end of September 2016, we must again find a place to live. We would like to find an apartment closer to $2000 per month. Glenn and I continue to look for more ways to earn steady income so that we will qualify for a lease. Glenn is an experienced small business consultant and an expert with Quickbooks. He has 25 years experience as an Operations Manager for a large corporation. I continue to teach part time  and will also be teaching a class on Art/Math fusion in Harlem. I can also work with Quickbooks and am very good with numbers! I founded and managed a design firm for many years, while developing our conceptual/socially engaged art practice. I am experienced with Photoshop and other Adobe programs – and I can hand-cut Yupo stencils with ease and speed! We would be glad to respond to, and help, others who would like to share their socially engaged work with us. 

We would be grateful for introductions to people or organizations that need bookkeeping, teaching (workshops), and especially high-level art and culture services! We are artists, first and foremost, and we bring a positive-upward-migratory energy to all that we do. We are here to contribute to the “common good” – in NYC and beyond! 

Contact Deborah and Glenn at

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