Category Archives: new york street arab

new york street arab

Being some reflections of a man selling art on the streets *

No. 7 – For world peace, sit on my face

A couple of posts ago I complained about being generalized against as an Englishman in America. Now I’m going to entirely undermine myself by conforming to the stereotype by quoting Shakespeare. But not to worry, Old Bill’s a hero of mine and his being dead has the added advantage that, unlike the Royals, I don’t have to read about it in the newspapers every time he gets married or goes to a party in a stupid costume or farts in a restaurant etc.

For world peace, sit on my face

“All the world’s a stage,” said Shakespeare. “And all the men and women merely players.”

Today in Union Square the human theater was out in full force. Shakespeare would have loved this place. I think he could have found enough material to get him going on a new comedy, at least a few tragedies. Two tragedies were playing out today on the steps by the southeast corner, just a few yards from where you may recall the sewer monster was beached last time round.

These two bums slept the whole day. They missed the World Falundafa Day celebrations going in the square just a short distance from where they were snoozing. Falundafa (or Falun Gong) is a spiritual practice started 20 years ago and which now claims to have millions of adherents around the world, 70 million of them in China.

The main principal of this “spiritual practice” (“It’s not a religion,” a young man who claimed to have had his life turned around by it told me), the main thing seems to be you have to sing really crappy songs off-key. As a result, watching the celebrations roll out was like witnessing an episode of American Idol filmed live from a mental asylum. I can only imagine what the bum’s dreams were like. Hideous nightmares no doubt soundtracked by screaming sirens and the hounds of hell howling at the moon.

The afternoon’s performances included Mr Wang Chin, who apparently won an MTV vocal competition, singing the catchily-titled “We are aware.” Actually Mr Chin had a decent tenor but “We are aware” sounded like it had been written by a sixth grade music teacher suffering a mental breakdown. According to their promotional literature, the Falundafas are persecuted for their beliefs in China. It is a terrible thing that someone should be persecuted for their belief. For their singing, well that’s another matter entirely…

One man who managed to stay awake through World Falundafa Day was Derek. I call him Derek to protect his identity and because, to be frank, I don’t know his name. I’ve seen Derek in the square quite often and he’s intrigued me. You’ll soon understand why. Today I got some of his story. I was set up next to Elinor, who sells elegantly stylish sketches and prints on wood blocks and cloth. We started chatting with Derek when he wandered by holding up the same sign he does every week.

The sign reads: “Peace through sitting on my face.”

In his other hand Derek holds printouts of photos showing various members of the public (all women as far as I could see) squatting over him as he lays prostrate on the sidewalk. The photos look less erotic than painful and it’s a wonder he hasn’t dislocated his jaw by now.

There are lots of questions spring to mind at this point I’m sure but rather than attempt any amateur psychology on Derek and his strange pastime I’ll just try to repeat as faithfully as possible the conversation we had with him.

“Why do you this?” We asked.

“I like the scent of a woman when she sits on my face. And I think it promotes world peace.”

“Right. And how’s that?”

“Well, I think if more men were able to connect with their masochistic sides then there would be less frustration and less violence in the world.”

“Have you been arrested?”

“I sometimes get hassled. I went to the site of the World Trade Center when Obama was there a few weeks ago and the cops were coming up to me. But when I showed them the photos they thought it was great. A lot of men in uniform are into that masochistic stuff you see.”

“Is it easy to get volunteers?”

“It depends. I think it has a lot to do with my mood. This week I already had four women do it so the hunger is not there as much. When I really want it I try harder to get it.”

“Does it pay well?”

“I don’t get paid to do this. I’m 29 and I live at home with my parents in Brooklyn.”

“How do you get by?”

“Well I get my meals cooked for me and I ride for free.”

“How come you ride for free?”

“Listen. If I can get people to sit on my face then I can sure convince them to swipe me onto the subway.”

All the world’s a stage! Happy World Falundafa Day!

* The title of these blog posts was taken from an essay about New York’s population of homeless children written in 1890. In no way, shape or form is it meant as a reflection on people of Arab descent. I just like the words.


new york street arab

Being some reflections of a man selling art on the streets *

No. 6 – Beached bum: A sketch

“Ha!” Said the fat black girl, a mean look in her eyes. “Now there’s some real New York art.”

The man was laid on the steps that sweep the south side of Union Square, a great corpulent mess of flesh and rags. He faced the sky, an arm hung out to one side. His hair was matted and curled and he had a sinewy beard. The fat girl waited to see if anyone would add to her commentary and then walked off, not quite sure if she had said the wrong thing.

sea monster

At first I wondered, Is he dead? Then the bloated pile of rags twitched and a face that shone red-brown, the color of mahogany, turned over on its side and snorted bull-like, his eyes still closed. After this I wondered, Is he dreaming?

The man had on a pair of soiled jogging pants that were split at the seam and his shoes were without laces and wedged over his huge clubs of feet. Between his jogging pants and grimy hoodie his gargantuan stomach showed through. It was spotted with moles and the dirt of the street and the great crease that followed the line of his hip bone was deep and long and dark like the sewers that ran beneath us and which may have been from where he had emerged.

Most of the passers-by ignored the sewer monster but every so often one would stop and stare in disbelief, the look in their eyes a mixture of revulsion and pity. Some people began taking photos (this is a photo of sorts). The man was there when I arrived at 8.30 until the police showed up at 11 and woke him.

An hour later he rolled by, rasping and snorting, filling the corridor between the art vendors with his vastness. As I watched him into the distance I noticed the top of his rump was exposed. That was the last I saw of him: thundering down Broadway, pedestrians dodging aside in fright, the massive crack of his arse offering a final, indignant farewell.

* The title of these blog posts was taken from an essay about New York’s population of homeless children written in 1890. In no way, shape or form is it meant as a reflection on people of Arab descent. I just like the words.

new york street arab

Being some reflections of a man selling art on the streets *

No. 5 – why I hate royal weddings

As a Brit living in America you’re expected to fulfill two main requirements as far as I can see. The first is to be witty as hell. If you’re not that’s alright because Americans will probably assume you are anyway, and since many of the best comedians are depressives, they can pass off your total lack of humor as part of a bipolar disorder and, therefore, further evidence of your comic genius.

The other requirement of a Brit in the States is that you should be a walking encyclopedia of facts and figures relating to the English royal family. This one is harder to shirk off. Even some of my smartest American friends can’t help asking me about the royals. It’s like all the dumb Brits I knew who felt it was somehow their duty during the George Bush presidency to ask every American they encountered what they thought of Bush.

I don’t know why people make these ridiculous assumptions based on someone’s nationality. The irony is that very often those who ask me about the royals know way more about the subject than I do. Maybe that’s why they do it? There’s a pleasant young man called Robert who comes by Union Square most weekends who fits this bill. Last time I saw him he brought a huge book on pageantry.

“Now tell me Paul, does a duke outrank a lord?” Robert said on a busy Saturday a few weeks ago.

“Well, I’m really not sure about that one. What does it say in your book?”

“Hmm, let me see. It says here that a duke is superior to a lord. And what about a baron?”

Oh God!

Now with the wedding of Prince William to the vulgar commoner Kate Middleton just a few days away my British credentials are being tested to the core. Actually that’s not true. Most of the customers out in Union Square have steered clear of asking me about it. Maybe they’re afraid I’ll get emotional: teary-eyed at the thought that Diana can’t be there to see it, start gushing at the prospect of Kate’s dress. That kind of thing.

Of course the truth is that I couldn’t give two f**ks about this totally boring news event. I mean, weddings are boring even when they’re your own. How anyone can sustain interest in the wedding of two people they’ve never met is completely beyond me.

The real truth of this royal wedding, and this may be a little unpalatable for all those Americans who get gooey-eyed at the thought of all that pageantry, is that this is a huge PR stunt designed to help prop up an institution that is so undemocratic, so inseparable from the tyranny and oppression their forefathers visited on Britain, that come Friday all freedom-loving Americans should turn off their TVs in disgust that such a institution still exists.

Kings, queens, lords, ladies, dukes, barons, princes, dames and all the other ridiculous names they dress themselves up in to feel important can’t hide the fact that the royal family are a corruption of democracy we could well do without. Similarly, all those Brit pop stars who have accepted knighthoods over the years (Elton John, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney et al) should be ashamed of themselves for allowing their vanity to lead them to support such a noxious and perverse system.

Come Friday I’ll be keeping the wedding of Kate and Wills well off my agenda. You might like to do the same.

* The title of these blog posts was taken from an essay about New York’s population of homeless children written in 1890. In no way, shape or form is it meant as a reflection on people of Arab descent. I just like the words.

new york street arab

Being some reflections of a man selling art on the streets *

No. 4 – The last few pages of Ulysees

James Joyce

New York is milky white today, a translucent film that means the sun is everywhere and nowhere.

Went to Union Square Monday after two weeks in Europe seeing family. The atmosphere was subdued (like today’s sky), conservative almost. JR and Pappy, two homeless guys who are always there, were unusually neat and clean-shaven. Maybe they’re preparing for the Royal Wedding.

When I am at a loose end there I like to recall some passages of writing that have stuck with me over the years. It’s one of the best things about having read quite a lot. This repository of beautiful words you carry around with you.

I don’t have a great memory so I can’t recall a lot. I can only quote a few poems in their entirety and usually they are very short. Here’s one, by Phillip Larkin. And another, a war poem that has always stuck with me for some reason.

The last few pages of Ulysses are my favorite lines from literature though I can’t pretend to remember them. They are spoken by the wife of Leopold Bloom, Molly. Ulysses is a dense and difficult text and much of it I gave up on the first time I read it at university. But Molly’s soliloquy has stayed with me over the years.

Like much of the preceding novel it is written as if her thoughts were somehow being transferred straight to the page (stream-of-consciousness). There is virtually no punctuation and in thousands of words of text only two full stops (periods). It is the first time we hear from Molly herself. Up to now we have only had Leopold’s stream-of-consciousness and it is not always fun. Bloom is a tragic figure: a hard-working man, affable and fundamentally decent, he is constantly being confronted with his own inadequacies, not least of which is the affair his wife is having with a self-important prig called ‘Blazes’ Boylan.

In these last few pages Molly redeems herself and our fallen hero. She recalls the beautiful things he said to her on a hilltop overlooking Gibraltor many years ago:

“…the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me…”    

The passage is filled with fragrant scents and romantic images and yet Joyce never allows it to drift into mawkish sentimentality. Look how Molly responds to Bloom’s famous description of her as a “flower of the mountain”:

“…so we are flowers all a woman’s body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him…”

Here are the final few hundred words of Ulysses with Molly’s last exultant affirmation, by which point I have to confess I am usually in tears:

“…I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red rose yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. “

* The title of these blog posts was taken from an essay about New York’s population of homeless children written in 1890. In no way, shape or form is it meant as a reflection on people of Arab descent. I just like the words.

new york street arab

Being some reflections of a man selling art on the streets *

No. 3 – What is more artistic:  a piece of driftwood or a piece of cake?

What is art?

This question has preceded many a long and boring conversation. It usually leads to the kind of toe-curlingly pointless pontificating that makes ordinary working folk want to fire the artistic types who indulge in it out of a canon. (Best thing for ‘em!)

It is a question of the modern age of course. After the Romantics elevated the status of the artist to visionary/genius, I guess it became more prescient to ask ourselves who can truly claim to be one.

A major trend of modern art, therefore, has been to challenge our assumptions about what is art. When done well this can lead to ground-breaking work (the best Pop Art is an example). Of course it has also ushered in a lot of garbage and some of the time you get the impression that the only assumption being challenged is the one that says that in order to be an artist you need to have talent.

In Union Square, the question of what is art has a more direct importance than the esoteric chatter in the cafes and parlors where “the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo.” On the streets of NY it can impact someone’s ability to make a living. The young Japanese mother I wrote about in my last blog, for example, got her fine not because she was giving out things in exchange for donations, but because of what she was giving out. As I wrote in the last entry, she had plastic bracelets and slices of cake. According to the city hall, jewelry cannot be classified as art. Nor can food.

The weekend before last I met Howard. He was a bright-eyed Californian with skin like burnt-ochre and a push bike with a cart on the back. On the cart he was carrying a few hundred kilos of wood. He lay down the wood on the sidewalk beside where I was setting up and began to arrange it so that the longer pieces were together. It was driftwood, he said, which he had collected on the banks of the Hudson in upstate New York.

“Look at these two,” he said, holding up two sinewy branches. “I spotted ‘em on the river and two weeks later I found ‘em again about a mile downstream. They was still together.”He held them up to the sunlight.

“Ain’t they beautiful. They’re a married couple. I won’t sell one without the other.”

Odd as it might sound, Howard had not been there more than a few minutes when someone bought some of the driftwood. He was there less than an hour but he made two sales in that time. Even so, he kept fretting about the Parks Department moving him on.

“They’s gonna tell me it ain’t art. Well, they can fuck off. It’s God’s art.”

In the end, he was moved on by our old friends in green but not because of what he was selling. Howard got told to pack up his stuff because he had put his product on the sidewalk and not on a table. So the question of whether or not driftwood constitutes art was not resolved.

I’m away in Europe the next two weeks. I might try to blog from there or I may just give myself a sojourn. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a link to an incredible music video that considers that blurred line between art and life.

* The title of these blog posts was taken from an essay about New York’s population of homeless children written in 1890. In no way, shape or form is it meant as a reflection on people of Arab descent. I just like the words.

new york street arab

Being some reflections of a man selling art on the streets

No. 2 – The tears of Japan and the humans disguised as robots

The Buddhists say that everything is coming from you. It’s the individual that creates their own reality.

Everyone knows the truth of this concept (if I go about my day all moody and sullen, I’ll get more than my share of negative responses) as well as its limitations (if someone straps electrodes to my private parts and turns up the voltage my good vibrations are likely to be of limited efficacy in alleviating the pain).

This weekend I found myself in a funk. The weather could have been a factor. Manhattan was bathed in golden sunshine all weekend but it was cold. Back to January temperatures, hovering around zero (celsius), a bitter wind blew hard Saturday. Strong winds are the enemy of the street artist and, on Saturday, the howls and cat calls of Mother Wind were making mischief, blowing canvasses in to 14th street, sending CDs on to the sidewalk, and making all those potential customers walk briskly by, looking for shelter.

Though the wind had dropped off Sunday I was out of sorts. I’d had an argument with my girlfriend before I came out and as I watched the Sunday crowds wander by I felt an enmity for humanity overtook me. Those who stopped provoked me because I felt a disconnect and those didn’t stop provoked me even more, for ignoring my art.

Feeling angry I went to get coffee and asked another vendor, Mush, if he ever felt like killing everyone in the square and feeding their carcasses to the rats. Mush, who sells exuberant and eye-catching canvasses that celebrate New York’s jazz age, is Japanese and way too polite to find common cause with my mad ravings. He looked at me wide-eyed. “Really?” He said.

“Well, not really…But kind of…Well, actually yes. Right now I want
everyone dead.”


“I know. Do you want a coffee?”

In the Pret A Manger they gave me a free cream cheese sandwich, which lightened my mood some but I was still bubbling over with barely suppressed rage.

When I came outside I saw something that almost tipped me over the edge, and which brings me back to my original point about creating your reality.

In my first blog I mentioned how the square was scene last weekend for scores of Japanese raising money for the victims of the recent natural disasters there. Yesterday those numbers had dwindled to a young Japanese mom, who had set up a stand where she was giving out bracelets and slices of cake. On her small table was a bucket for donations and, beside her, her small daughter sat.

When you are confronted with a scene like that, what do you bring to it? I think for most people it’s relatively obvious. Here is a young woman thousands of miles from her homeland, feeling helpless no doubt as she watched this tragedy unfold, wanting to do something to help and seeing an opportunity to teach her daughter a simple moral lesson about human charity. As an onlooker, therefore, you bring a sense of empathy and compassion for what the Japanese have collectively gone through in the last weeks, and perhaps an admiration for this young woman’s passion.

Unfortunately, there are people in this city who, either through fear or a total lack of imagination, forgo these emotional responses in favour of a more immediate concern. These are the people – and you all know a few – who bring their job into every scenario. Concerned citizens of New York, these people are your real enemies. They are the same people who that phrase, “the banality of evil,” referred to when trying to understand why ordinary people so readily took up the nastiest elements of Nazi policy in Germany.

They are the people who, in perpetuity, are just doing their job. In Iraq or in the Welfare Office, lobbying on behalf of arms manufacturers, marketing junk food to obese children. Just doing their job.

By no means are they always in a uniform but the one yesterday was. She was an employee of the Parks Department and like so many guarded and fearful souls she hid behind shades. When she looked at the young mum and daughter she heard only one word ring out: ‘violation’. And perhaps somewhere beyond that, much quieter, the echo of another word: ‘promotion.’

She wrote the young mom a ticket for $250.

“What are you doing? You’re not writing her a ticket surely?”

From behind the glass wall of her aviators, she did not consider me worthy of a response.

“Not now,” said one of her lackeys, a black guy who was standing pathetically behind her looking half-ashamed.

“I just want to help my people,” said the Japanese girl, tearing up.

“I’m going to help you,” I told her when she came by my stand with her husband later on, after the goons from the Parks Department had sloped off.

I’d like to. Maybe you can tell me how? My first thought is to write something for the NY papers. Let me know if you have any other ideas. Something to teach the androids that there’s more to life than following orders. Create our own world; one breath at a time.

* The title of these blog posts was taken from an essay about New York’s population of homeless children written in 1890. In no way, shape or form is it meant as a reflection on people of Arab descent. I just like the words.

new york street arab

Being some reflections of a man selling art on the streets

No.1 – This is union square

When the writer John Updike died a couple of years ago I recall in an Obit a thing he said about New Yorkers. According to Updike most of them went about their day secure in the “secret belief that people living anywhere else had to be, in some sense, kidding.”

This self-importance was also touched on by another writer, a died-in-the-wool New Yorker. In “Public Speaking,” a documentary Martin Scorcese made about her last year, Fran Lebowitz said that New Yorkers have an incredible sense of entitlement to their surroundings when in fact they own so little.

Why do New Yorkers feel so smug about their city? And why do they feel so compelled to claim it as their own?

For the answers to these questions, and to so many more relating to our city (I’ve only been here two years but I already feel myself coming down with Lebowitz’s entitlement complex), then look no further than the city streets.

For the last three months I’ve been going to Union Square to sell art. New York is almost unique among major world cities in allowing a free platform for artists to exhibit their work. As one of the painters who sets up his canvasses on the square is fond of telling passers-by in a thick New York drawl – “Step into my gallery. I am the artist.”

If you, like this ex-rock star, are also an artist – an “expressive matter vendor” is what they call it in the fine print – the city will let you setup your sidewalk gallery. In Union Square up to 100 artists can be selling their work at any one time. The only requirement is that you have a table or easel or something that keeps the artwork off the ground.

It is this creativity and entrepreneurship that is one of the reasons why New Yorkers love their city so much. In Union Square it finds its most visceral expression.

I was there this weekend and, besides the artists, and the usual troupe of junkies gathered to chat, bum cigarettes or nod out on methadone in the corridor of benches that snake through the middle of the park, there were scores of young Japanese carrying signs to raise money for victims of the quake and tsunami. They were inviting people to skip ropes with them. They were present Saturday and Sunday and I saw that whether they managed to raise much cash or not, it was important they find a place where they could meet and find solidarity and common cause.

That is what Union Square offers (the clue’s in the name) and, more generally, what New York can provide in its best moments. Here the artist, the vendor, the activist, the rough sleeper, the family of four, the business man, the cop and the crazy can all meet. It’s a New York tableau that can be both sublime and ridiculous, but which is never less than compelling.

I’d like in the course of these blogs (this will be the first) to capture some of the scene in the square, its vibrancy and its saltiness. I’d like to show you how the square, as in the case of the Japanese fundraisers, can be a mirror for the concerns of the wider world.

This brings me to the last, and most important fact about the street artists in Union Square. Their existence is under threat. The Parks Department wants to severely restrict the number of artists who can set up in the square. They say the presence of so many artists detracts from visitors ability to enjoy the square. Of course there are many visitors who would say the exact opposite, that the presence of so much art enriches the place, and still others who would say the art is the reason they come to the square.

As was pointed out in this article, if congestion was really the issue then why do they allow a farmers’ market four times a week that takes up far more space than the artists, or a Christmas market that runs for a month and occupies almost the entire south end of the square? Of course, the stallholders on those two markets pay a lot to be there and this is surely the real point. In modern Manhattan the real estate moguls rein supreme. It is anathema to them that a bunch of upstart artists should be getting a free ride – though I’m not sure how much of a free ride we’re getting standing outside for eight hours on a frozen January Tuesday.

This is not a new story. New York has been selling out its artists for a long time now. When I talk with my friends who grew up in the city they tell me how SoHo and the West and East Village were once a haven for artists, but that under the stewardship of Major Rudolph Guilliani large swathes of the city were bought up by corporate interests and the artists priced out.

All is not lost, however. There are court cases that separate attorneys are fighting – although there’s controversy surrounding this too, which I won’t go into right now. For now the artists are still out there. Not quite secure in the knowledge that to be anywhere else you’d have to be, in some sense, kidding.

* The title of these blog posts was taken from an essay about New York’s population of homeless children written in 1890. In no way, shape or form is it meant as a reflection on people of Arab descent. I just like the words.