I recently had a long ride on the New York subway, coming into the city from the airport. When I got on there was a man sitting in the farthest front seat, his body hunched protectively over the 3 ragged bags around his feet. A frayed woolen cap was pulled low on his brow, and he was dressed more warmly than the balmy weather outside might dictate. He stared at the ground.
Homeless. Possibly unbalanced. One glance took this in, as I and everyone else moved farther down the car. No one sat across from him, even though for some of us it meant having to stand. As the car filled up more and more at each stop, still no one chose to sit across from this man. I clung to the pole I had claimed as I tried to learn the unfamiliar movement of the train.
As soon as someone got up to leave a few stops later, I quickly slid into a seat. From my new vantage point I watched as a young man dressed neatly in a sweater and long shorts walked to the middle of the car and set down a small paper bag with a few dollar bills peeping out. One of his legs, from the knee down, was a gleaming metal prosthetic.
“Good morning ladies and gentlemen,” he began, as the train swayed into motion again. “I do not enjoy being homeless, and I try very hard to stay clean. If you could find it in your heart to help out in any way you might be able….thank you,” as a few people held out dollars and coins to him.
“Here, brother,” a voice came from the end of the car, and I turned to see the original “homeless” man moving forward, a five dollar bill clutched in his hand.
The man with the paper bag immediately waved him off. “No, no, I couldn’t let you do that. You need that. Thank you so much for your kindness, but no.”
“Yes, I want to!” The other insisted. “I’ve had a good day, and I’m not like that. I want to share it with you.”
“God bless you, God bless you,” murmured the young man.
The courtesy passing between them put all of our presidential hopefuls to shame.
The older man clapped a hand to the younger one’s shoulder. “You’ve done service for us, and for me. I know what it’s like to be homeless. I used to be out there, without hope or anywhere to go. I know how it is. But I got my life back together, with God’s help.” He flung one arm wide as his chest puffed up proudly. “And look at me now!”
Perception is a tricky thing.
When first starting the “Famous” portraits project, I looked for a way to contact Naomi Shihab Nye, whose poem “Famous” is the inspiration for the series. I wanted to see if she would consent to being included as a portrait subject. To my surprise and delight, she responded almost immediately to my first note, with a warm and very kind letter which included agreeing to let me paint her portrait.
Given that she lives in Texas, I live in Wisconsin, and she travels all over the world almost constantly, it was another matter to try to coordinate a meeting for a photo shoot. While not ideal, I don’t always get to do my own photography for portrait subjects—I suggested that I could work from a photo, if she had a good one of high enough quality.
She responded to that idea enthusiastically. Over the next few months during her travels, she sent me photo after photo, all of which were completely useless as reference material for a portrait. She sent a photo of herself in Abu Dhabi with a group of about twenty school children, her face almost lost in a sea of little smiles. There was one from Ireland: a snapshot of her with two men (“I’m the girl in this photo”), she sandwiched in the middle, all of them grinning happily with arms entwined. Hong Kong: a lovely view of lush forest—and Naomi in silhouette in the foreground.
Eyeing this last one gloomily, a phrase from her original letter came back to me: “Certainly I would consent to be painted, and it would be an honor to be included,” she wrote, “though I am no longer at my youthful sizzling best.”
I sent off an email: “I’m noticing a theme in these photos, which is that you seem to want to be hidden as much as possible.”
“Busted!” was her immediate reply.
What to do with a portrait subject who doesn’t want to be seen? I assured her that I took the responsibility of painting her very seriously. She assured me that she trusted me.
As luck had it, we did get a chance to meet in the fall of 2015 when she was speaking at a book festival in my state. Contrary to her internal dialog, she is very photogenic and I came away not only with some good material to work from, but an enhanced respect for her as well. I spent 2 days trailing her, listening as she spoke in schools and talked to kids about poetry. I watched her keep a large audience at a university captivated for an hour and a half, and duck her head in apparent surprise when they gave her a standing ovation. I learned that she doesn’t allow someone introducing her to list her awards (which are many); instead she wants them to talk about how her writing may have spoken to them personally, or which particular poem they like.
She didn’t read “Famous” while I was there, which was just as well since I would have undoubtedly burst into tears. She did read several of my favorites, including “Kindness” (the kids all call it ‘the kindness poem’):
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
(excerpt, Kindness, Naomi Shihab Nye)
Perception, humility, kindness. Two homeless men on the subway. A brilliant writer shrugging away accolades. People who don’t know me, opening up their time and energy to help propel this art project forward.
I understand that we all have an internal view of ourselves, and “know too much” as Garrison Keillor says, to really take ourselves all that seriously. I started working on Naomi’s portrait about a month ago. The painting is almost life-sized, which makes me nervous given her reservations about being prominently featured. Maybe she will forgive me. Maybe I will manage to capture not just the likeness of her face, but something of her spirit which refuses to believe she has done anything unusual, while traveling the world and inspiring people who have also found that kindness can be a rare event. That it can be like a cool cloth pressed to a feverish cheek. Or a five dollar bill offered on a subway.
“Look at me now!” The man’s proclamation still rings in my ears, weeks later. Who knows what paths have brought each of us to where we stand today? Who knows what obstacles have been overcome to get here? Before casting our mental vote assigning someone to a particular class or group, how often do we consider that they may well be proud of where they have gotten themselves?
While ruefully lamenting the loss of her “youthful sizzling best,” I dearly hope that Naomi has not missed the blooming of the beauty she has spread to the world, in a way that few of us ever will. She may wish (as most of us do) to turn back the clock and erase some of those lines we all earn with the daily effort it takes to navigate the world.
But oh, Naomi, look at you now.