Elisa asked me yesterday to write about my favorite picture of myself. It’s hard to choose just one image when you’ve been photographed for nearly thirty years by someone as talented as she, but I settled on this photograph for several reasons. Aside from being a strong image, this picture bookends nicely with the photo Elisa chose yesterday which is also from 1984. I also have a peripheral family connection to the venerable Village Cigar Store.
But most importantly, for me, this picture memorializes a time in my life that I regard rather wistfully from my present vantage point. I remember that Spring day well: Elisa and I had just met a few months before and were beginning what has become one of the defining relationships of my life. She was a photo major at N.Y.U. and we would spend long afternoons exploring the city and taking pictures. Even though you can’t see her, for me she is very much in this photo.
I had just moved the previous summer to Greenwich Village from East Brunswick, New Jersey, the oppressive, suburban town I grew up in. After so many painful years of trying to fit in and build self-esteem in a hostile, homophobic environment, I suddenly found myself in a new world where I was completely free to express my sexuality and my creativity. I didn’t move to the city as much as detonate there, in a cathartic, florescent explosion of self-actualization. Finally free from the stultifying repressive of the suburbs, if I could imagine it, I could do it, and in Elisa I found a wonderfully supportive and equally creative cohort. Because she was a photographer, each step of my adventure was captured.
At that time, the second British invasion was in full swing and I was very inspired by the looks and sounds that were emanating from the U.K.. Recording artists like Boy George, Annie Lennox and Duran Duran were major influences on my sensibility. On this specific day, I wore a vintage bowler hat from the 1950s, a gold, cotton, deconstructed floor-length duster, a pea green argyle cotton shirt from the 1960s, a cotton scarf I bought on St. Marks Place and an earring made of wire and nails that me feel vaguely tough (I still have the earring though I no longer have the piercing to put it though!)
Looking at this picture today, I see in my outfit and expression a new, flinty defiance against the restrictive social norms of New Jersey. In those pre-gentrified years, the streets of downtown Manhattan were teeming with artists who, when night fell, would fill the nightclubs of the era like Area and Danceteria with an over-the-top sense of the theatrical which freely spilled onto the streets.
In addition to the emotional aspects of this image, I also feel drawn to the setting. Originally opened in 1922, the Village Cigar Store remains remarkably unchanged today. In 1984, I didn’t know that my family had a personal connection to the store. As my mother explained to me:
“In the early part of the last century, Great Grandma Pauline’s sister jumped out of a window, leaving two children, Ruthie and Herbie. Great Grandma took them in and they shared a room with your Grandpa George and Aunt Laura. Ruthie married Sam Kaplan and he bought the cigar store around 1954. Grandpa and I would stop in to visit Sam and he would give Grandpa free cigars. Sam was a heavy-set man and he would sit in that tiny store like a buddha on a throne.”
When I look at the Village Cigar photo and think about that time, I remember the freedom and sense of purpose I felt. After so much childhood pain, the world had finally opened up to me in a way that felt inclusive and supportive. Perhaps like all young people, I felt comforted by the sense of space afforded by the road ahead, which seemed to stretch out forever and promised an infinite number of possibilities, circumscribed only by the limits of my imagination.
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