Adding a Little Light to the Darkness

Years ago I stood on the Brooklyn Bridge at night and made a promise to myself that I would someday live in New York City. I was a visitor then and the beauty of the sparkling city lights and the waves far below dancing in their reflection made me love this place. It is one of the most beautiful places in the United States and I hope someday you experience it. 

Last night, I stood on the same bridge beneath a full moon, with friends and family. There were children in strollers, small kids, young adults, middle ages folk, and elders. Each one answering a call to do something more than just despair. Each one held a sparkling sign that I and a small group of Quakers had made or taught them to make on their own. 

Our little working group, called Quaker Activists, had pulled together this second “light action” around all our too-busy work schedules. We walked in silence from the Brooklyn Meeting House, under police escort (we had gotten a permit to march) and immediately were greeted with smiles and camera phones. Yana, in a lighted body suite carrying a lighted dove led the way. Over twenty signs and 30 people followed. A few young women played their Ukuleles and softly sang. I helped my good friend Wayne carry a large sign that read “Unite.” Robin carried a sign that read love light. Nadine walked with her wife and kids and carried a sign their young son, Sam, thought of that said Kind is Cool. Maryland carried a BLM ( Black Lives Matter) sign bringing up the back. 

People applauded us from inside restaurants, drivers honked their horns, bike riders stopped to say “good job”. As we approached the bridge, tourist from all over the world started recording video and taking photos. We walked in silence letting the lights do the communicating. People thanked us when we thanked them for filming us. We handed out a one page paper that explained that we marched AGAINST hate and FOR being the light - Light we all hunger for in these dark times. 

One Spanish speaking couple borrowed a sign that said love in Spanish and held it over their head and kissed for a photo. Drivers in their cars honked their horns and filmed with their cameras. Families and groups of tourists simply stopped and filmed us walking by. 

At the last set of stone arches nearest Manhattan we stopped and sang “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” I turned to see one of the NYC Policemen who had escorted us singing along.

Last night, I stood on the Brooklyn Bridge not as a dreaming visitor, but as an invested New Yorker. I stood with a small conspiracy of good people drawn together by warmth and hope that came from each other, from the light inside each of us. 

For a moment, on the Brooklyn Bridge, the sparkling lights of lower Manhattan, and the full moon, took a back seat to our sparkling signs and simple voices making this place the most beautiful place in America. 

We will march again and invite you to join us. But where ever you are, push back the dark and let your light shine.

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.

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