Talking with John and Martin about their 33-year journey together made it clear that walking down the road of life hand-in-hand with another person can lead to taking unexpected paths.
This is part of my series, Love and Marriage, interviewing and painting long standing same-sex couples. To see the rest of the series so far, visit the Gallery I have here.
Martin: Two years ago, when there was the opportunity in California to get married, John said, “You’re going to think this is crazy, but what about going out to California to get married?”
John: That was on our 30th anniversary. We’d been thinking about getting married ever since Massachusetts made it legal, but we hesitated. Like a lot of things that we do together, we had to grow into the idea of getting legally married.
Martin: There was no real reason to get married. We had been domestic partners since New York City started that.
John: But that was for a practical reason. I work for the city, and Martin could get my health insurance benefits if we were domestic partners. We didn’t make a big romantic thing about the domestic partnership. I think it was also part of the whole process of my coming out. Like at work: when Martin’s mother died, I said I was taking bereavement leave and the secretary had to verify our domestic partnership. At work, they probably surmised that I was gay, but I didn’t discuss it. I worked in city government, which was very blue collar and very racially diverse and there were probably a lot of people that would be very much against gay people or a gay couple. So this was part of my very slow coming out process.
A year or two after that I changed jobs and I made a conscious decision that I was going to be very out. So I went into this office which was composed of a lot of police officers and civilians and I was very out about it and it was absolutely fine. There was absolutely no problem.
Martin: I had a different past, I was in the arts, I was in photography and I did theater work, so my whole adult career I’ve been around gay people and they knew I was gay and in that world it didn’t matter to me. When we moved to this neighborhood 11 years ago, I was a little bit nervous about moving together into a house, into a mixed race, primarily African American, neighborhood and I didn’t know how we’d be accepted. Well, from day one, from day minus one -- before we even moved in -- people were talking to us, friendly to us, including us in their families, their celebrations. We have an annual pot luck party that I started 10 years ago and we have anywhere from 70 to 80 people here every year, and those are gay, straight, black, white, all from within this neighborhood; it’s a very, very close neighborhood. When we got married last year, well, we had a lot of neighbors come.
John: We had a reception party at our church here.
Martin: Two new neighbors, a husband and wife from the next block, convinced us that we should have one. We had over 40 neighbors from the neighborhood come besides our family and friends. So I’d say that people have accepted us, and who we are.
John: About a dozen or so years ago, I started going to church again. I hadn’t really gone very much except at Christmas and Easter for a long time, but as you get more mature you start thinking more about spiritual things. When I started going to an Episcopal church in Brooklyn Heights, I thought there would be more gays there and it was a little bit of a disappointment that there weren't that many. Some gays choose to be in a totally gay world, and only have gay friends, go to gay churches, the whole thing. But Martin and I have chosen to be more out in the general community, as well has having a lot of gay friends, certainly.
Martin: Since society is not gay or straight, if you want to live in society you’ve got to be part of it. I know some people that only do gay things and only go to gay churches, their whole life is revolving around gay groups, gay organizations, gay everything and I don’t need that and I don’t like that. I do some gay things, but not exclusively.
John: My church is a very liberal congregation, and one year I suggested that the priest talk about upcoming Gay Pride. He said, “Oh yeah, that’s a great idea!” I said, “I don’t know how people might feel about that.” He said, “Who cares?”
So I was outing myself a bit, and of course he did mention it. He was straight, but very pro gay rights, and later on Grace Church participated in the Gay Pride Parade for the first time and we’ve done it ever since.
Martin: We’ve gotten into a lot of causes which have really solidified our relationship, like when John went on a Witness trip to Israel and Palestine, which I wasn't open to it at first.
John: It was a Witness trip organized by a retired Episcopal priest and his wife and an ecumenical Palestinian Christian group which helps the community of Palestinians to fight against the occupation in a peaceful, in a nonviolent way. Like Liberation Theology, using the Christian principles to liberate themselves. So anyway, they organize these trips with typical Christian pilgrimages to the holy sites, as well as meetings with Israeli people in the peace movement, and Palestinian officials and Palestinian people and we would travel in the West Bank to see the effects of the occupation, the settlements, and the separation wall.
Martin: I didn’t go with John. I had been in Israel 30, 40 years ago, when I went to live on a kibbutz for a year. My family were Zionists involved with the founding of Israel. So there was a history there. When John first talked about going, for about 10 minutes I thought of going with him. And then I said, “It’s too Christian, too Palestinian, I don’t think I can do it.” So I didn’t go. He went, and we had our annual Passover Seder two days after he returned -- we do a big Seder here.
I still thought that anything that Israel did was probably right, and these Palestinians were setting bombs off in Israel and they had to be stopped.
Two years later, John was going on the same Witness trip again. This time, I thought about it and I said, “I’ll go, but I’m going as a hostile witness.”
On the third day there, in the middle of the night I woke up at 2 o'clock in the morning, and I said, “I get it, I really get this,” because I had been humiliated the day before by the Israelis, who thought I was a Palestinian.
I lost my luggage when I first arrived and I had to go back to the airport in Jerusalem, and I went with a Palestinian taxi driver. I sat up front with him and we were held at a checkpoint, and I watched all the Israelis being allowed back into the airport. They held us for only a half hour, where some Palestinians are held for hours and days, and during that half hour I watched the Israeli soldiers drink their coffee, read their paper, and not to come over to ask us who we were, or what we were doing. We just had to sit there and wait. And it was a little bit of a humiliation.
When I started hearing Palestinians tell their stories in the next few days in all these meetings, I started to realize, “Hey, I know what they’re feeling, I know exactly what they mean, because I experienced that two days ago.” And before the end of the trip, I had changed and realized that it’s a human rights issue. Yes, the suicide bombings had stopped after they put up the separation wall, but maybe that was because the Palestinians stopped sending them, and not just because of the separation wall.
So I came back from the trip a changed person, and again, we were having a Passover Seder about a week later and I looked at what we usually talk about, about being the oppressed people by the Egyptians and all that, and I said, “Whoa,” and I threw out everything we ever said and I rewrote the whole Seder.
John: I just remembered what led me into going to Israel, why I started to feel the way I did: it was after Katrina.
Martin: We started going down to the Gulf Coast after Katrina, to help rebuild. We’ve been down there nine times. We started to see how the government was not doing anything and I think that’s why I eventually went to Israel.
John: As I became more religious and all that, I started thinking of wanting to give back to the world, and the idea of adopting a child has somewhat appealed to me, although it’s also quite daunting, but when I mention it to Martin he always says...
Martin: First we have to have a dog...first let’s deal with a dog.
One of the best things about Drawger is the friendships I’ve made, and one of the closest of those is with Frances Jetter. Drawger also sparked my series of profiles of illustrators, and I’ve always felt it wasn’t quite complete without Frances, a deficiency I’m finally remedying.
“My family worked in factories and my grandfather was a clothing workers union organizer. After I became an illustrator and was working for The Nation, he told me that around 1910 he spilled acid on cloth in shops that were open seven days a week. We are very pro-union in my family.
“When I was in high school I saw an issue of Ramparts at a friend’s house, with an article about Napalm in Viet Nam, and the first political piece I ever did was a portrait of a Vietnamese mother and baby. This was during the Viet Nam war.
“I didn’t want to go to a collegey-type place -- that was my protest -- so I went to Parsons for graphic design, not really knowing what graphic design was.
“The teacher that had the most influence on me, in the first year there, considered graphic design to be a mixture of illustration and problem solving. So it wasn’t the corporate-identity type thing --that didn’t interest me -- it was about coming up with ideas. Sometimes I built things and sometimes I did linoleum cuts, or other kinds of prints, but anything was welcome. We also worked with type, and I got to like type then, but I really liked solving problems with images.
“Later on, I majored in photography, because the photography teacher, Larry Fink, was the most interesting person and did the most interesting work. Then I studied with his teacher, Lisette Model, at the New School. She was very old then and she was very scary: very tiny and terrifying. She was ferocious. Really a unique person and tough and interesting.
“At one point I had a work study job involving taking pictures in prisons and mental hospitals. It was for an organization called Hospital Audiences which sent the entertainment to institutions. They sent good entertainment to the prisons and some ridiculous entertainment to the mental hospitals; they sent Charles Mingus to the Queen’s House of Detention. They were actually very afraid of what might happen with some of the prison audiences, because they didn’t have enough guards there, so they weren’t going to send them anyone boring.
“But for the mental hospitals ... I remember a performance where dancers had nude body suits on ... a really pretentious piece.
“I was supposed to take pictures of the audiences as they watched the performances, but then somebody in charge of the volunteers said, ‘You could end up here as easily as any of the people -- any of us could -- and would you like your picture taken here?’
“That got in the way of my taking pictures. Not just there, but in general, because it’s capturing someone when he or she may not want to be captured. I don’t view it as something wrong, but I started to think it was questionable to photograph a person in a mental hospital. And I missed drawing also, I guess, so I didn’t follow photography.
“I started to focus on linoleum cuts when I was showing my work around -- this was when you could still get appointments with art directors -- and one of the art directors selected one of my linoleum cut prints and said, That would show up best in my magazine. So I was hired for that place.
“I don’t know at what point I decided I wanted to work for The New York Times to do editorial work. I worked with the Book Review for awhile, which was pleasurable, but I really wanted hardcore political things. I was also working for the Ideas and Trends section of the Week in Review, which were softer articles. I think that’s the kind of things women were given.
“In my head, you could be one of the boys if you did the hardcore political things. Now I see that there was probably more freedom in some of the softer pieces.
“I didn’t want interference from a very young age. I thought it was a right not to have what you do interfered with, in any way. I don’t know where I got that from, but I thought that making these pictures was the best thing to do with your life. I was very bothered by even tiny interferences – I wanted my things to be left alone.
“I think I always had the feeling that it’s Us against Them, that it’s workers against management, and that management is the bad guys and that things aren’t equal.
“What I liked about editorial work is that I could make the subject matter my own and that I pick parts that I could relate to. The whole idea of playing with things and turning them upside down and finding what the article really meant ... plus the reading part was always the most fun.
“I spent lot of time reading the encyclopedia and I’d see if there were words or images in the reference material; that part was just delightful. And then playing with things and seeing the connections; when you’re really looking and you’re not nervous, you see how things connect to one another.
“By reading those articles, I became more interested in politics and social issues. I guess I’ve always been sort of angry or aggressive or looking for a fight and I think that fit in well with some of the political subject matter. For me it was having some feeling for the underdog as well as being somebody who is pissed off and rebelling because someone else is in control.
“I’d use up all the time doing sketches. I could go through one and a half pads of tracing paper doing sketches, trying to get the expression on the face and in the hands just right. At a certain point, if I’d been up all night, I’d decide, ‘Well, this has to do,’ because the piece was due in a few hours.
“Sometimes, when I handed in an illustration after being up the whole night, I’d be up the next night thinking of what should have been done with the color or what could have been better and really feeling miserable about it. And agonizing over it when it was in print.
“And then if it was something that was killed, then I’d be more in love with it than ever, because it would be like this dead thing that wasn’t realized or appreciated. If too many people like one of my pieces, I’m immediately suspicious.
“It’s different now that I’m doing almost no illustration or what I’m doing is not for a client; whether you call it fine art or illustration, I don’t really need to define that. But I’m doing it without someone interfering.
“I just finished a book about torture. It’s called Cry Uncle. It was largely based on what went on at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and some secret CIA prisons. It’s a picture book with some words in it. It’s a large format book -- the images are 18 by 24 -- and it’s hand printed. It has letter-pressed type; the type mattered to me as much as the images, as well as how the book itself how looked and felt.
“I wanted the paper to feel like skin on the cover. It’s got the words done in letter press, pressed in, and the paper is sort of fleshy looking and wrinkled, it’s paper from Nepal, and it looks like skin. Some of the other papers are from banana leaves and there’s something very much like human skin about the paper.
“The paper is also translucent, so you see everything that has come before, when you’re looking at the pages. It’s in an accordion fold -- and unraveled, about 40 feet long.
“It’s a very interpretive book, it’s based on what they did and my visceral reaction to it, because what they did was so appalling. In most cases they had a list of things they could do to the prisoner that wouldn’t leave physical scars, but it was intended to make somebody crazy. It’s not like they could even get information out of somebody after this kind of torture.
“Some of the descriptions of what they did were so disgusting that I’d realize that I was making the face myself, of someone who is being victimized. I think to get the feeling into the piece, you have to be reacting to what’s going on in it.
“In working on the book, there was a weird mixture of feeling disgusted over what went on and feeling really excited about making the pieces. I’ve always felt a little bit of guilt about that, because I was always doing things about tragedies and wars and illnesses.
“I love the idea of doing books. I’m planning another book that I started even before this one. But in between I’m going to be working on some other things. We’ll see.“
The video of my presentation at the Gel conference has been posted on their site. Every year Gel attracts about 400 managers, editors, user interface experts, finance managers...you name it... from companies like BBC, CNN, Microsoft, Google, YouTube, Time Warner, and The NY Times.
It was a blast!
Bill Salter on upright bass, Norris Bennett on banjo, mountain dulcimer and vocals, David Gibson on washboard (yes, those are shotgun shell casings on his fingers) and Henrique Prince on fiddle and vocals.
In Grand Central station on the shuttle platform, New York City commuters can be transported to a world of down-home celebration by the Ebony Hillbillies. When I asked Henrique Prince, the fiddle player and vocalist, to talk about what he calls Old Time music, he had a lot of history to share.
"I discovered a number of years ago the rhythmic possibilities of violin music, that there's a whole element of dance music to it. I love dance. I thought it would be wonderful to put together a band that did this old time kind of music, which is the truncation point of both country music and jazz. So I wanted to go back to that point where it was this wild sort of banjo fiddle music and had all this improvisation.
"No white man played a banjo before about 1820. The banjo comes from Africa and the original idea was that the slaves that were packed together on the ships used to die. It was believed that if they danced, it would keep their spirits up, but they wouldn’t dance to European music. So they captured, especially in the Gambia, iriti players -- an iriti is a one-stringed African fiddle.
"There's also the akonting, an instrument from Ghana, which is very similar in appearance to a banjo. It has a bridge on a skin made out of a big gourd, and a long neck and it has a short string also. So they captured akonting or ngoni players, and iriti players and they tied them to the deck. And the Africans would dance to that music for exercise to survive.
"So these people got to the New World and eventually they would make the instruments here, out of gourds. There's a famous picture of a black banjo player by William Sydney Mount, a Long Island painter who painted a lot of black people. Anyway, the African musicians got here and the music got transferred to Europeans, among them some who were living in the mountains, King Williams people --the hillbillies -- and eventually the hillbillies took it for their own.
"Banjo playing goes back to the 1600s, and they were playing them with fiddle players. There are accounts of people seeing this in the 18th Century. Slaves lived close to the master and white people started picking up and getting closer to it and learning it.
"By the 19th Century, there began to be white banjo players. Dan Emmett was a white banjo player, lived in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, near the family of black banjo players, and he probably picked it up there. He probably learned the song, Dixie, which he was given credit for, from them. He was the first guy to take burned cork and put it on his face, and he had a band, basically recreating African American music on stage and it was all minstrel, black-faced thing.
"I learned Bach early and I just liked everything on fiddle. I sort of learned how to do it and didn’t know what it was. And over a period of time, I just learned more and started to track down things and I found out about Murph Gribble who was a player in a string bands in Eastern Tennessee in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Gribble, John Lusk, Nathan Frazier, these are all black players and the music was well known and well recorded by black bands like the Mississippi Sheiks, and a lot of string bands and jug bands, like Earl McDonald -- the guy who discovered you can make music in a jug, instead of a bass.
"All that music comes out of the black players. What happened was they were on black record companies and in the ‘20s, when The Depression happened, all those companies failed. And they never came back. But white companies came back and they segregated the music. They would only record white country players, and wouldn’t record black country bands; the only black players they recorded were those who did the blues. And that’s why the music’s been sort of segregated ever since.
"Tunes like The Yellow Rose of Texas, which was originally about a light skinned black woman, is a song out of a black minstrel show. But nobody associates that anymore.
"The earliest improvisational music in America is black banjo and fiddle music. The jazz band is centered around a banjo and a fiddle player. All of the earliest jazz bands had at the center a violin and banjo. In fact, Elmer Snowden, the guy who originally had the Washingtonians before Duke Ellington took over, was a banjo player. Snowden was the same name, by the way, of the black family of musicians who lived near Dan Emmett in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, that he learned from.
"But the later Snowden, I don’t think is related. Anyway, Elmer Snowden was originally the leader of the Washingtonians, so it was very common for there to be banjo players and washboard players in jazz bands. Then, as the music got louder, as it got more modern, they kicked the banjo and the fiddle players out."
"If I could tell you what I feel about playing this music, I wouldn’t need to play it. Music does all that stuff that you can’t say."
This is part of my Overlooked New York series of portraits and interviews with impassioned New Yorkers.
Here are a few of the portraits I've been doing for an online gallery for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, profiling a cross section of the people who make The Garden flourish. Working on these portraits has given me a great excuse to get out of the studio and into one of the most beautiful and rejuvenating environments you can find in New York CIty.
Patricia, above, who oversees the Children's Garden
Caleb, above, who plans and tends the Herb Garden.
Anne, above, curator of the Rose Garden
And Niurka, above, who stands watch over the plants and people at The Garden.
Gregory holding The Church Lady, Miz Mildred, so named because her comb is the biggest and it flops over her head like a church-lady’s hat. Sometimes she’ll flop it over so it covers one eye. She’s very stylish.
This is part of Sidewalk Farmers, my series of profiles of people around New York City who grow their own food.
A few weeks back I went out to Brooklyn to talk to Gregory, who has recaptured an important part of his childhood by keeping a chicken coop in the community garden on his block.
"I was born here in New York City, but I grew up in Selma, Alabama. We had chickens, and one neighbor had rabbits, and another neighbor had a couple of goats, so we all bartered with one another.
"I loved the chickens. As a young child I saw them mostly as pets, until my grandmother explained that yes, you can treat them as pets, but they are a source of food, so you can’t get too attached. I tried to remember what my grandmother said, but I loved them, I loved them.
"I moved back to New York about 20 years ago to be an artist--I do wood sculpture--and I got married in '97 and when the kids got a little older, I started hanging around here in the community garden. It had become kind of overrun; the group of neighbors that started the garden, well, they became senior citizens and no longer had the energy. The block association wanted to keep the garden going, so myself and a couple of other neighbors volunteered and about five years ago we started renovating.
"What started me on wanting chickens is when I saw an article in Martha Stewart’s magazine about raising bantam chickens, and I saw the different colors of eggs, and it just brought back so many childhood memories that I was like, you know what? This can be done here! We can do it in our back yard! The kids would love it and I thought the community would really enjoy chickens here, too.
"I have a couple of senior citizens that help keep an eye on the garden. One of them, Miz Smith, lives right next to the garden, and she’s like the guardian angel. When I can’t come around, she'll let me know who was in the garden and what they were doing. If she doesn’t know them she will confront them. And a lot of times it’s kind of scary for the person, because they can’t see her, they just hear her voice as she stands up in her window, "Who are you? What exactly are you doing out there?" Like a God of authority coming out of the sky. She’s very helpful; I love her.
"And then I have Miz Margaret, who in her younger days was a part of the garden; she helped get the garden started. She lives across the street from the garden and she also lets me know who's coming in. She can’t really see what they're doing but she can see them coming in and out and she will always let me know when someone was in the garden.
"Chickens are fascinating. They're very social social animals; you'd never keep just one--they need to be around other chickens. I love the way chickens interact with one another, the way they automatically build up their hierarchy. The term 'pecking order' is true about chickens, because they have a leader and each chicken has its place in the hierarchy. Normally the leader would be a rooster, but in the absence of a rooster, the most dominant female will take that role.
"They need open space, because they need to scratch the earth to dig for worms and other bugs, and they need activities that can be as simple as just pushing hay around on the floor. Or scratching very vigorously with their feet to throw the hay up in the air. They need to stay busy; if they don't, you can really have problems: they'll start pecking at each other and fighting and arguing, and jockeying for the best space in the coop, so you need to keep them busy. One thing that I do is to throw a handful of oats or sunflower seeds on the floor inside the coop, so during the day when I can’t be around that’s enough to kind of keep them busy.
"When we first got the chickens, Big Red was at the top of the pecking order, but Big Red is a little older, so now Hattie is in charge. Hattie's my favorite chicken; she’s like the mother hen, she’s there to make sure that there's no danger around, and when she sees a predator, like a stray cat, she'll start clucking very loudly and rapidly. That will alert the other chickens and they'll run for cover and after they're all safe, then she'll run for cover. So I like that, I guess because by nature, I’m a nurturer. I’m a youth worker by profession so I like to see that activity, that, wow, she’s really looking over her flock!
"The chicken that’s on the bottom of the pecking order, we call her Pecky. We adopted our chickens from another family that keeps chickens in Brooklyn, whose flock had become overpopulated for the size of his yard. Chickens love social order: everything has to be in place, and every chicken has to know what their role is in the flock. When they get overstressed, or overpopulated, they start picking at each other. Kind of like what humans do: when we’re on the train after work, we’re stressed out, and the trains are overcrowded, and we kind of nudge and elbow each other, because we’re looking for our own personal space. Chickens do the same thing, and Pecky was on the bottom of the pecking order and when we got her, she had most of her feathers pecked off by the other chickens.
"But she has all her feathers now and the other chickens don't beat up on her anymore, unless she oversteps her bounds. Once you understand the nature of chickens, you see there's a reason she’s on the bottom. Pecky can be very loud, Pecky can run around and disturb the flock, so she has to be kept in line. It’s sad, but at the same time, it’s a wonderful thing to observe. There's a lot you can learn from a flock of chickens."
Recently I met with Dr. Robert DeCandido, PhD, known around Central Park as "Birding Bob." In addition to his observations about Mother Nature, he shared some keen insights into Human Nature. He's the latest addition to the Bird Watchers section of myOverlooked New York Website.
"The first bird that turned me on to birding, growing up in the Bronx, was a Cardinal in my yard. To see something red was really nice.
"Later, when I was playing stickball as a kid I saw a bird with a red head bringing nesting material up under a metal awning on a porch. It turned out to be a House Finch, which is a non-native species, and it had color -- it wasn’t just a common Starling.
"When I got out of college I started hitchhiking around the United States and I wanted to figure out a way to work in one of the nice places I was visiting. So I started working with Bald Eagles in Arizona, and Peregrine Falcons in California on government funded projects, and I went back to school and got my PhD in evolutionary biology and ecology.
"I wound up back here in New York City, working as a park ranger, and they couldn’t find anybody to lead the bird walks in the park, and so they asked me to do it. That was probably in the spring of ’94, and though I'm not a ranger anymore, I’ve been doing them ever since.
"Our primary group is on Sundays, and on a good day there might be 60 people who show up. It's a group of people that you get to know: you hear about their lives, or if they got laid off or how their book is coming along. We have a lot of talented people with great life stories and we watch each other change and mature over time.
"But there are different bird groups and they each have different auras about them.
"The Museum Group, for example, is a good place for singles, for people who want to meet one another. Our group, called The Bird Walks, has older people who are married and have kids. So for our group... yes, the birds are really pretty, and we look for rare birds and it's always fun to add one to your list, but if you took away the social part of the bird walks I don’t know if that would be good for the birding community or for yourself in the long-term.
"On our walks we try to make it fun and it’s relaxing and they learn a little bit, and get to move around. They start off as neophytes and they think, 'Wow, if I could just identify five birds in a year that would be amazing!' And then over time we watch them get really good, and then they can take it from there.
"Some of the bird walks you see are very serious and they're really focused on the birds. They're really quiet -- they don’t say a word -- and they're very disciplined and I go, 'Wow, I'm really impressed!' Me, I grew up in a big family in the Bronx, where it was rumble tumble and making noise, so that isn't my way.
"The Spring is the best time to watch the birds because they're all in their nice plumage and you can kind of be noisy and moving around because the birds are really concentrating on feeding. But then you have this thing between the groups: 'Oh, your group, they don’t know what they're doing; they're too noisy' and so on. So friction develops between groups.
"Take the Screech Owl project. Screech owls bred here in Central Park until the 1950s, and then they disappeared. Since they really don’t migrate, once you lose screech owls from a place, they are gone. So unless somebody comes and brings in some more, you ain’t going to get them back. In the 1990s, when I worked as a ranger for the Parks Department, we started a program to bring screech owls in and it was met with almost universal hatred: 'How could you bring in those poor little owls? It’s all for publicity! They'll never make it in the city! You're going to kill them!' It was crazy. It polarized the park. The flip side now is they're still here after 10 years, though they're hanging on by just a thread.
"Some people are going after me now because I do owl walks at night and I use a tape recording of a screech owl call to bring the owls in and it’s like, 'Bob! you are disturbing the owls, how could you do that?'
"They'll come right up to me and yell in my face. I watch their religious intensity and it’s scary, because here I am, making the owls known to people -- which the owls need in order to survive in the park, because the more people know about them, the more the Central Park Conservancy will notice and want more owls.
"The people who are attacking me are out in the park themselves seven nights a week watching the owls, so there's quite a disconnect: they say what I do is bad, but what they do is fine, because they care so much more about the owls than I do.
"You know, just because people like the environment, it doesn't make them any different than any other group of people. They think that they're holier than thou and living the Holy Life, but they have the same foibles, the same fears, the same mistakes as every other group. And the same anger toward other people.
"The environmental people are in some ways more conservative than other groups I’ve been in, because it's a matter of being Righteous: you have to be good to the environment, you have to behave a certain way, and they have their Rights and their Wrongs. That’s the scary part about it: when people feel they hold the moral high ground, it doesn’t matter what the facts are, they're going to justify what they do, because they feel they're doing the right thing and that's all that matters."
Matthew Wills showed me around The Ramble in Central Park, where he introduced me to the tufted titmouse and I spotted the first red tail hawk I've ever seen in person. He's in the new Bird Watchers section I've added to my Overlooked New York Website.
"My mother became a bird watcher when she and my father moved to Nantucket. This was in '79. So I finished high school there, and went off to college, and I would hear reports about how she was taking a class with some local naturalists and learning a lot about the island.
"One of the things they did was assign her a length of beach to patrol to find and collect dead birds, to identify them and help figure out what had killed them.
"In the fall of 2001, I quit my job. I worked for a dot com, so I made some money but I thought the job was completely soulless and horrible, and I quit before they fired me, because they were going through waves of layoffs.
"So that fall I had a lot of time. I lived in Park Slope, just a few blocks from Prospect Park, and I spent a lot of time in the park. I don't know if you remember, but it was a disturbingly, hauntingly beautiful fall that year, and I was seeing great blue herons in there and getting quite close.
"When I went home to visit my parents in Christmas of 2001, it turned out my mom had pancreatic cancer, which is one of the worst because it really lurks in there and you can't find it. So bird watching became a way to connect with my mom; I would tell her all about the red tail hawks I'd see in Prospect Park. That year they nested out in the open and when the young ones were out, they were just like everywhere! They were buzzing over the heads of people, chasing each other, totally freaking out the nannies. They were so close when they flew by that you could see the little mouse in their claws. It was pretty spectacular.
"I started to read a little more about birds and trying to learn more about these hawks, and I went up to Nantucket in the spring, and while I was there a box came in the mail and my mom had bought me a pair of binoculars. I hadn't used them before that ... I was just eyeballing.
"Bird watching has made me interested in other things around me as well; I'm sort of an amateur naturalist now. When I'm in the park and I see a fungus, I wonder, what kind of mushroom is that? And what kind of insect is that? And what kind of plant? Part of the appeal is also that you're in the woods here, but you look over and, yeah, we're still in New York. Even though obviously I love New York -- after all, I live here -- still, it wears you down sometimes and bird watching is a great refresher.
"It's also a way of using senses that you don't normally use, or use them in a different way. I mean, we're all about talking really fast in the city and trying to make our point and here in the park it's much quieter and you're listening for birds because each species sings in a different way. And there are all kinds of birds on the ground, and you can hear them rustling in the leaves, looking for grubs and other yummies to eat.
"I suppose some people get jaded, but I find it wonderful, entering this whole different world, turning on these different senses or expanding them or whatever I'm doing. There's a great sense of achievement when I see something that I haven't seen before, but just seeing the old familiar ones, that's still wonderful, too, because as you observe them more, you learn new things: like that little downy woodpecker over there, which is pretty small, but nonetheless very bold: they'll land on a tree this close to us!
"Even the city is a natural world and it's full of life. And that's another thing, people are like, what are you looking at in the park? And I say, if you just look a little closer, you'll see the most amazing things.
This is part of an ongoing series of profiles of people who grow edibles in New York City.
Between NYU swallowing the neighborhood like The Blob and mid level Wall Streeters spending their bonuses on buying up what used to be run down tenement apartments, the East Village is a pale shadow of what it once was. But it isn't the Upper East Side quite yet.
There remain some pockets that are thoroughly urban and emphatically New York, and one of them can be found on Avenue C, where Pancho Ramos is known as The Farmer.
"I've had this vegetable garden for 15 years at the 9th Street Community Garden.
"When I was a boy in Puerto Rico, my father grew plantains, bananas and tobacco. My family always had a farm: my grandfather, my father, my uncles. We all worked on the farm.
"I came here in 1959, and I've always lived in the East Village. I started on 11th Street, and I moved up and now I'm on 12th Street.
"How I started was that my friend Linda worked in the Garden here and then my wife did and then I came. And I like it so much!
"I retired 8 years ago from my job; I worked in the kitchen at the hospital. The first months after I retired, I missed it; I'd wake up at 4 o'clock in the morning, and I'd miss my people. But now? No, I don't miss it. But I still wake up every morning at 4 o'clock and I can't sleep no more. So I just stay in bed, and then at 6 o'clock I get up, I make some coffee, watch some TV, and then I come over here to work on the Garden. After a couple of hours, I go home, have some lunch, and then come back to work some more. It's nice!
"I grow tomatoes, green pepper, beans, collard greens, carrots, cabbage, cucumber, corn, and lettuce. I grow almost everything!
"I work 3 or 4 days a week in the Garden and I also like to do the carpentry projects; I made some of the wooden houses where we keep the tools and gazebos.
"I eat the vegetables, and I give them to my friends. Sometimes I take a big basket of vegetables from the garden, and by the time I get home, I only have two or three -- everybody wants to take some!
"My children, they're grown, but they never cared about the Garden. When children are born here, they don't like to get their hands dirty! But I don't mind the sun and the hot -- when you like something, you don't mind the hot.
"I begin planting in May, but it really depends on the weather. And it goes till September. And then I miss it in the winter. It's my life!"