The City Keeps You Company

There will be philosophizing and then pictures. If you aren’t here for the prose, or aren’t in the mood for it, scroll down for my myriad of 2021 Boston Marathon images. If you are in the mood for some choice prose, simply look downwards.

Here is where the prose will begin. So in September, it will be 13 years of living here in Boston. I mean I guess 13 isn’t a momentous number. I guess 15 or 20 or another multiple of 5 would be more noteworthy. But for me, 13 is a big number because it’s the number of years I spent in and around New York City. I lived there from age 5 to age 18 so I guess that was the place I had spent the most time in before this. I’m at the point now in Boston where I remember when this place was here and that store used to be here but it’s gone now. What’s crazy is that the school I worked in for almost seven years, the original building it was in is gone, not even a speck of it left and the school is out of business. It’s really sad to think it isn’t there anymore, even though when it happened, I already hadn’t worked there for four years.

The bigger thing here though is that when you live in a place for so long, it’s almost like everyone knows everyone. I was watching this documentary about the robbery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum and one of the people said — in Boston, everyone knows everyone. That part is true. I have this sort of odd friendship with this guy who helps me with rides to places. This cantankerous individual picks me up at 4am to get on my ski bus in the winter. Pronouncing Rs??? Yeah. Forget about that. That doesn’t exist. Don’t even get him started on our new lady mayah. Don’t even go there. But what’s so incredible about him is that not only does he know everyone in this city, I’m talking both Bulgers, the comedic, autocratic little Irishman from Southie and the crime lord, but his uncle worked the Green Monster at Fenway in the 1940s and met Ted Williams. Insane.

That’s the thing about this city. No matter what, you are near friends and never really alone. Case in point. I went to the marathon on Monday. I didn’t feel like roping any friends into it. I mean I was there, festooned in camera equipment, photographing the proceedings all day. I had my mega sonic digital firing cannon and my Holga, a tiny film wonder that has no electronics in it and is light on the wallet, $35 a pop. I’m usually there with my mom or a friend but this year I just went alone.

First, there’s the atmosphere. Everyone is cheering everyone on. Everyone. A guy is running and his shirt says “Bob” on it??? Well, everyone is ringing their marathon bells and cheering on “Bob” on his last mile in marathon. People are out with their dogs. Random people strike up conversations with you. That’s how my marathon day went. I was there with my giant camera and I ran into one of my students from my amazing summer class at Boston University, where we discussed such deeply academic topics as where to get the best cannoli in the city and the curse of the Bambino. We had a fun catchup. Two women from the Mormon church approached me to ask about my Holga. We chatted for a bit and I told them I am good for the God, having joined up with my local Baptists recently.

No matter if you don’t even know the people, you are among friends. They aren’t strangers. And the city keeps you company.

Oh and it was amazing to have marathon day back after three years of not having the marathon on Marathon Monday. A dose of normalcy in a couple of years that have been anything but normal.

Ok enough prose. Here are my ton of pictures from Monday. Enjoy:

We Paint Ourselves

Bill Cunningham gets quoted a lot on this blog and it’s not by accident. Obviously he’s my favorite photographer but really the man had my dream job. He people watched all day long and took pictures for a living. I do that, but just for fun, for the diary/chronicling aspect of things.

Cunningham said famously that clothes, fashion are the armor that we all wear against every day life. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. We are all blank canvases and we paint ourselves before we go outside to interact with the world. Recently when I went skiing, on one of those four hour interminable bus rides, I realized I was wearing plaid sweats, my BU sweatshirt with my Killington Mountain sort of Grateful Dead hybrid t-shirt and LL Bean boots. I was struck by how New England preppie I looked. New England preppie is basically the style I identify with the most. I love those knitted sweaters and the boat shoes. I love that kind of varsity stitching on things. I started thinking too that I don’t consider myself to be a fashionista but I do choose what I wear every day really carefully. I have an array of t-shirts from ski resorts, all of my weird animal and Godzilla t-shirts and just my general tendency to use my simple clothes to say things. We all make choices in that category, whether we admit to it or not. For me too, it’s kind of funny to walk into class at the university wearing some ski resort t-shirt with an animal on it. Yeah, usually the t-shirt is underneath a pricey preppie looking sweater or sweatshirt. I do work at a university after all. I don’t have one of those tweed blazers with the leather elbow patches. Yet.

I’ve done my fair share of street style photography. I guess that’s the best way to put it. I spent years running from one side of Boston to the other and I saw A LOT of people. Now I’ve switched gears a bit, and I carry my Holga camera with me and I snap what I think would look good in black and white or if I turn the camera upside down. That’s kinda where I am with things. But I know I’ll get back to shooting street style again. The best fashion show is definitely on the street, always has been always will be, as Bill would say.

Here are some of my favorite street style moments from over the years, from my COMPREHENSIVE archive:

Andy and Me

I’ve been stuck inside of late. Well, of the past few days. I had a suspicious cough that I thought might turn into a cold or worse, the dreaded covid. It turned out to be a side effect from a medication I take for one of my middle aged person ailments. I’m negative for covid as well, thank the lord.

Well I did kinda think I was a disease vector and I had a bit of extra time, so I decided to cocoon myself at home and watch a bunch of things. One thing I watched was about Andy Warhol, an artist who had a major impact on me.

I guess it’s easy to say you have been inspired by Andy Warhol. I think anyone who has ever attempted to create art has said this. He’s a mass pop artist and in a way, the creator of the world we live in now. I bet that’s a dash of overstatement, but not by much. Warhol obsessively documented his life with films, painting, photography, all manner of things. Now you just open up that lighted rectangle in your hand and boom, your image goes out to a billion of your closest friends.

The other thing that always happens when I watch something about an artist, I want to create something. Yeah, I steal ideas a lot. A LOT. I have a book at home about my beloved Bill Cunningham that I keep at the ready all the time but I barely ever open because I get the biggest photography envy of all time when I do that.

Warhol also stuck in my mind because we crossed over in New York. Sure, he was in his 50s when I was about eight years old but we were around New York at the same time in the 1980s. He was a huge celebrity by then. I was using my allowance to buy Hello Kitty things at Bloomingdales and concerned about keeping my gymnastics leotard neat for my classes at Sokol, but yeah, I mean basically we were the same.

I was watching this documentary on Warhol and one of the participants said that New York was amazing in the 1980s and absolutely it was. It was everything people said it was. As I’ve mentioned up here before, I’m an only child and we didn’t have a lot of money then. We lived this nice contended life, my dad working at his university on York Avenue, us living across the street and my school across the street from that. My parents didn’t have money for a babysitter, so off I went with the adults. There was this insane electricity about the city then. I remember seeing guys in those Adidas jackets with the gold chains and the boom boxes walking around. You’d see these yuppies in these pin striped suits with red handkerchiefs in their breast pockets. The city just pulsated with this insane energy. Something was happening. Some kind of cultural shift was taking place.

You also saw vestiges of the old city. B. Altman was still open as a department store and that was roaring 20s New York, ladies mile New York, Mad Men New York. Finger sandwiches. The time when department stores sold everything, from food to stereos. There are still things in my parents house bought at B. Altman in my parents house, including an intact in the box selection of Christmas ornaments that still has the B. Altman price tag on them and were made in West Germany. Interestingly, B. Altman and West Germany went out of business about a year apart, some 30 years ago. But the ornaments remain.

Checker cabs still ran in the city and it was a thrill to ride in them. It was like riding in a horse drawn carriage. My favorite thing was these weird little stools inside the cab that were meant to fit more people into it. Again, I’m a tiny child in this cab. This would never be allowed now.

Even as a little kid, I remember wanting to see all of this, experience all of it. My parents are kinda proper and formal. I just found this world utterly fascinating but again, being a little kid, running away really would not have been in my best interest. But even then I remember wishing I had a camera to capture it all.

Most of all, I remember wanting to document all of it, like Warhol did. Oh and I forgot to mention. We used to run into him on the street. There were a lot of those famous people around then but Warhol was probably the most famous at the time. He loomed large in the city. He passed away in 1987 at New York Hospital, when we were still living in the city. New York Hospital was right behind where my parents worked. I also remember going to Sotheby’s auction house after he died where they had this huge display of his person effects. There was a ton of stuff but what I remember the most were the unopened cookie jars. There were hundreds of them. He was eccentric. That’s for sure.

We left Manhattan in 1989 to live in this rather mediocre place in this rather mediocre area north of the city, just north, a place better seen in the rear view mirror of your car. I remember when we moved there thinking — what are we even doing here? I mean we’d been at the center of the universe and now we’d moved to this hole, this mediocre hole. I remember thinking — people escape places like this to move to Manhattan. Why had we gone in reverse? We’d go to Manhattan most weekends almost in a way to go home, back to what we really knew. Even now when I’m in New York and I start walking towards the East River, I think “I’m on my way home.” If I see movies that show the Queensborough bridge, or as we call it our family, our bridge, I slow it down to try to find our old building. In my mind, we’re still that family living in that apartment in New York.

After we left in 1989, I felt like the city lost some of its energy. In the 1990s, the city got cleaner, safer but also the energy died down. I mean you could actually go to Times Square because it wasn’t full of porn theaters anymore but the place wasn’t the same. I still see the vestiges of the old city when I’m there, periodically but more and more of them are disappearing. To me now the city is way too corporate with those giant, cold, anonymous condo towers. I do still miss the dollar slices, good bagels and the very efficient yellow cabs but I’m a Bostonian now, clam chowder, extensive sports opinions, lobster and the occasional dropped R. I’ve lived here as long as I lived in Manhattan and in that hole so I’m equally both places now. Up until I moved to Boston though, Manhattan was the place where I had lived the longest in my life and therefore, it was my home. In as much as I actually had one.

Anyway, most of you come here for the photos. I’m done with my Fran Lebowitz/Isak Dinesen type of memoir thing. As I searched for the proper images to illustrate this entry with, I thought — I’ve photographed a lot of people over the years in the city. I think they’d be perfect to illustrate this entry. I mean of course I would love to have a big record of what I saw as a kid in the 1980s, but I guess that just has to live in my head. But as soon as I was old enough, I started documenting the people of the city, August Sander or Bill Cunningham or a general love of sticking my camera in people’s faces. Take your pick. Most of these images have never been seen on this blog, so this is a premiere, of sorts.

The Photography Manifesto

I guess that is a rather strong title for a blog entry, but it is what it is.

I’ve had this blog for almost 16 years and it’s gone through a number of iterations. I’ve been a photographer for 25 years, in that I really started taking pictures with an all manual camera that year. As any story of a photographer starts, I borrowed my dad’s Canon AE-1. “Borrowed” in that I kept the camera for over 15 years, dragging it across continents and into any place that I wouldn’t get kicked out of for carrying it. And some I was kicked out of.

I know this is going to sound profoundly self important and pompous, but I’ve recently started to think about my “work,” my body of work as a photographer. What defines the photographs I take? I think two things profoundly affected me. The first was growing up in New York in the 1980s and seeing all of it. I saw the rise of rap and hip hop culture, the yuppies on Wall Street and that arts scene in New York. I would walk around New York with my parents and we’d see Andy Warhol. That stays with you. The other thing was going to museums growing up. A lot of museums. I’m an only child and babysitters were expensive, so I went where the adults went. Even as a kid, I remember going to those museums and thinking — I want to go create something. I want to be a part of this, but here’s the thing. I am absolutely terrible at drawing or painting. I just seemed so far away to be able to create the way those people created.

I was drawn to photography way before I ever picked up a camera. Way before. I absolutely had a vision of what I wanted to photograph but the technical skill to actually do this??? That was way off in the future. I never actually took a photography class. People always asked me if I did, but I never did. I did though take a class called “History of Photography,” which I absolutely loved. I mean LOVED. It had nothing to do with the good looks of the instructor and his luxurious head of hair. LOL. But in all seriousness, it was comprehensive look at a century and a half of photography, from Nadar to Cartier Bresson to the present day. I remember one day, the instructor asked us how many of us thought of ourselves as photographers. At the time, I had a point and shoot Ricoh camera that I took a lot of out of focus pictures with. I wasn’t going frighten Richard Avedon with my photography talent. A lot of people raised their hands. I remember thinking that I just love looking at those images and just getting inspiration. I also had no idea how to make any of them. Another thing the instructor said was that a lot of photographers start by imitating other people and then come up with their own style. Maybe that’s the way I would go. Imitate, then innovate.

I went through a whole period where I would try to imitate what I had seen other photographers had done. Slowly though I did start to develop a style of my own. I always want the photographs to be infused with a lot of life and excitement. I always loved a huge sense of movement in my photos. This is crazy to admit, but I watch old gymnastics routines for inspiration on how to photograph movement. I mentioned in these entries before that I always had this need to document my life. I kept diaries growing up, but photographs were so much more immediate and interesting. For a long time and still to some degree, I still seek out opportunities where I’ll be able to see interesting things but for a long time, the idea of photographing the same place over and over interested me. When I started working in Downtown Crossing in Boston, I photographed my path to work incessantly and what went on in that area. And A LOT went on. A LOT.

I guess I would boil it down to, my photographic manifesto is the following. Carry your camera with you everywhere. You never know what kind of crazy things you are going to see in a day. Photograph, document, infuse the images with life but at the same time, transmit how you felt when you were photographing that particular scene. Amazement, excitement, sadness, heartbreak, put it all in the photograph. Chase every possible opportunity to take pictures. Stick your camera in the faces of every unsuspecting person, famous or not. And always remember, the best photograph you ever take is always the next one. If you hit a creative block, go sharpen pencils until you come up with an idea. Well for me, it was to pick up the film camera after having put it down for 15 years. Thanks Covid. I can never thank you for all the fantastic opportunities you have presented me. Nah, I’m kidding. Just leave already. Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.

So here’s a carefully curated selection of my body of work. And by that I mean I randomly searched by insane archive. They’ve been taken in such exotic places as Sweden, the Cayman Islands, Florence, Venice, Copenhagen and of course, Albany, New York and Providence, Rhode Island. Some of these pictures, I have published before and others, they’ve never seen the light of day, so this is a premiere of sorts.

Where NOBODY knows your name

There’s a wonderful little documentary called New York made by Ken Burns. I put this documentary on when I kind of need soothing. It’s as you may have guessed, the history of New York, told by academics and historians with wonderful old pictures of the city as it was. It’s quite an old city, older than most people realize because next to nothing of it’s really historical buildings remain, lost to time and expansion.

There’s an episode about the history of the World Trade Center. It’s probably my favorite episode because it features a great hero of mine, Philippe Petit, who in some fit of madness swung a tight rope between those two towers and decided to walk between them. The episode of course culminates in the horrible and sad destruction of the towers on September 11. One of the speakers in the documentary says “”Whether you grow up in Beijing, Bilbao or Bombay, everyone has a New York in their heads, even if they have never been there,”a quote from Timothy Garton Ash, great historian. I think about this quote a lot and I was especially thinking about it on my last visit to the city when I snapped this picture:

I think it’s how a lot of people see the city. I mean it’s even how I see the city, as a person who grew up there.

I have a rather uneasy relationship with New York though. I spent my childhood there, a wonderful childhood, very normal and warm. Then we left when I was 12 to a hostile region just north of the city. New York was our safe place in that time, where we returned to go “home” whatever that means. If there was any wish I had had in those years was that we could leave where we had moved and we could just go back to the city, where we belonged.

Growing up though there was another place that was kind of MY New York. New York is an anonymous, rather impersonal city at times and I remember watching a show growing up where people hung out in a bar and formed a community of their own. That show of course was called Cheers. There was a place where everyone knows your name and they’re always glad you came. That really appealed to me growing up for some reason. Most people have a New York in their mind. Maybe fewer have a Boston on their mind. Not to mention, never in a million years did I ever imagine that I would be working as an instructor at the university up the street from the bar where Diane Chambers had matriculated and where her boyfriend occupied a chair. I also now occupy a chair at the same university, in that I have an office with a chair in it.

I’ve now lived in Boston for 12 years, longer than anywhere I have lived in my entire life. Am I a Bostonian now or a New Yorker? I am never sure. The New York of the 1980s, the Fran Lebowitz New York lives in my mind constantly. But on this past visit to New York, I realized that New York is the city where no one knows your name. I mean Boston, we ALL know each other. We are all two degrees of separation from each other. When I walk around in Boston, I always think — I’m with people I know, even if my fellow commuters are actually strangers. In New York though, I always feel like I’m surrounded by strangers. Maybe it’s because I haven’t lived in the city for a long time. I mean it’s New York, full of wonderful, amazing things but I can’t help it think that I do want to go back to the place where, corny as this might sound, everybody knows your name.

On every trip, I realize how much less of a New Yorker I am. I still cannot stand the subway. The subway stations are still after all of these years, absolutely disgusting to me. I really dislike the trains. The heights of the buildings overwhelm me. The number of people has started overwhelming me too. I have become what I fear most — a small town person. Boston will never be a big city to me and that is how I will always think of it.

On this past visit, I went to a place called Summit One Vanderbilt. It is a new observation deck behind the Chrysler building. It was one of the most amazing places I have ever been to in my entire life. I thought — how are they going to sell the New York skyline to jaded New Yorkers or even visitors? They found a way. The friends I visited as well in New York live in Long Island City, with an INSANE view of the city right out their window. No matter how many times I see that skyline, it still takes my breath away. That will never change. Have a taken a million shots of the skyline? Yes. Will I take a million more? Yes. Will I ever get tired of the skyline? Well, no. Probably, more than likely not.

My Bridge, Our Bridge

There’s an old joke in New York about having a bridge to sell someone. When someone says something particularly unbelievable, people say — if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you. They were trying to sell the Brooklyn Bridge. Now that is a lovely bridge but in my mind, the loveliest bridge in New York is the Queensborough Bridge. If I were in the market for bridges, I would buy that one, although I really don’t think it’s for sale.

The Queensborough Bridge though has always been my bridge, our bridge when it comes to the family. Our house growing up, our apartment faced the Queensborough Bridge. It was the sight I looked out at from my bedroom window.

I never really thought that the fact that I grew up in Manhattan was unusual or remarkable in any way. Doesn’t everyone grow up in New York? I mean that’s a strange thing to say but when you grow up in a jungle, you think everyone else grows up in a jungle too. It never struck me as unusual or strange that I had grow up there. Now I think though that it is really remarkable.

It didn’t really hit me until a couple of years ago when I met a lovely man who had grown up in a small village in the Swiss Alps. He also probably thought that everyone grows up in a village like he did. I remember he was quite embarrassed about the fact that he had grown up in a place like that. I remember telling him — everyone is from somewhere. I mean really could I try to one up him on this? No. It wasn’t my place and I’m not the type of person to do that anyway.

We spent a lovely evening together then, just talking about our lives. I told him about what it was like growing up in Manhattan, with the constant din of the city outside and our bridge sort of stretching off into the distance, across the East River. I also told him about when my elementary school took us to Central Park to teach us about ice safety and how we had to form a human chain across the pond next to the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park. I still don’t really understand why the school thought a bunch of kids who had only ever seen Manhattan would need to know this valuable piece of information. Our exposure to nature, I laughed that night. Well we both laughed at that.

Even though we haven’t lived in that apartment in Manhattan in over 30 years, I still consider it my home. I still walk through New York and when I start heading towards 1st avenue or York Avenue, I still think — I’m on my way home. I often think of this quote I once heard about how everyone has a New York in their mind, in their imagination, even if they’ve grown up on the other side of the world from the city, maybe for example in a small village in the Swiss Alps.

The bridge was a constant feature of my childhood, as was the Pepsi Cola sign on the other side of the river. I stared at it a lot growing up. These two things meant home to me and still somehow mean home. The bridge appears in movies a lot and I always pause them or slow them down to see our old apartment building. Signs of home, I guess.

This weekend I finally got the chance to see the Pepsi Cola sign up close and photograph the bridge from an incredible new observatory I visited next to Grand Central station. That entry is currently percolating in my mind. But for now, the Pepsi Cola sign with our bridge in the background and our bridge from up high in the building:

The Insistent Documenter

Last weekend I was packing up to go on my yearly church retreat. I was particularly looking forward to it this year, as it didn’t happen last year, because of well, we all know. The church retreat is our time to form community and really reach out to God. Oh and we totally hang out, play games, laugh with the kids and generally have a lot of fun.

As I was getting ready to leave, my biggest decision was not what I was going to wear or what shoes to bring. It’s New Hampshire. I brought my finest LL Bean. My biggest decision was which cameras to bring. Yes. Cameras. Plural. I settled on my trust Canon D-SLR monster machine, my delicately elegant Rolleicord and a dark horse, a camera called a Holga which I acquired for the princely sum of $35. Two of those are film cameras, so those pictures will be up here. Eventually. Eventually. LOL.

Maybe it was being in the New Hampshire woods that got me thinking about this, that I have been obsessively sort of documenting my life since I was very young. I was 10 when my parents gave me a camera. It was a camera with four settings on it that came with their Time Magazine subscription but a camera nevertheless. It was kind of like — go. Start photographing.

Even in high school, I had a small Ricoh camera that I got to use on class trips. I had a little all automatic Nikon as well, the only Nikon I have ever owned. When I went to college, I decided to take the leap to finally follow my long interest in photography. I dragged my Canon AE-1 everywhere. I have pictures in buses, classrooms, the school library, around campus. Oh and then I dragged it across half of Europe. There was that.

If I’m really honest, I prefer two cameras. One for the formal stuff and the other for the casual, weird stuff. In Washington, I had a Lomo LC-A, a strange little spy camera that I took everywhere with me, into rooms where photography really wasn’t allowed. Then I moved on to a small waterproof digital camera as my daily carry. Now that I’m back to film, I’ve experimented with regular point and shoot cameras, a Sprocket Hole camera and now this Holga thing, which I still have no idea how the pictures look from. I wonder a lot of the time — do I really have to take this picture? I mean is this really necessary? I mean I’m probably late but I do it anyway. Insistent, incessant documenting, I guess.

So here’s some of my documenting from the past few months from the Rollei, Holga, film, sprocket hole and digital going through Florida, Georgia, Vermont and well, up the street.

The Mirrored Light

Yeah I photographed a Waffle House on the side of a Florida road. Yes I am about to wax poetically about my photographic inspiration in these images. Yes.

I have always loved photorealism, this sort of heightened, mirrored reality. There’s especially something about that light right before sunset. It’s so beautiful. Anyway, here are some photorealist looking shots of a Florida Waffle House:

The Zbig Show

Warning. A big VIP, well, actually VIPP flex is coming.

So I’m Polish. I always feel funny saying that, but it’s true. My last name has very few vowels in it. I put butter between the cold cut and the bread when I make my open faced sandwich. I love a good pastry, especially this Polish delicacy called pączki, which is a jelly filled bun of joy. I can be cynical. I think tea is a panacea for any health related ailments. Oh and wigilia, our traditional Christmas celebration with sałatka is sacred. My grandmother made the best pierogi. No, no need to question. This is just true.

But that’s about it for me being Polish. Poland doesn’t get a lot of play in American culture. Coach K, aka Mike Krzyzewski, Pope John Paul II and Rob Gronkowski. Sometimes. He’s on the bubble with being Polish. Just kidding Gronk. I love you despite the fact that you left us.

Growing up though, there was one person who kinda broke through, was sort of seen among the political grandees of this nation. This was Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Polish born diplomat who was National Security Advisor under Jimmy Carter. I remember growing up and seeing Dr Brzezinski on tv and thinking — look. That’s us. I mean Poland. Are we really represented in the media??? In the movies, we’re either maids or scientists. Slightly eccentric linguistics enthusiasts who love skiing and photography and teaching the TOEFL exam are not really represented in the media. We should be, but we’re not.

Anyway, back to Brzezinski. On my great American southern road trip, I visited the Jimmy Carter presidential library in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s quite an interesting place. It gives a really comprehensive look into the life of the peanut farmer from Georgia. No matter what your political leanings, Carter is an impressive man who has done a lot of good in the world.

What struck me though throughout the exhibit was how much Carter relied on Dr Brzezinski, or as Carter pronounced it, Dr Brez-in-ski, which ok silver medal for pronunciation because our names are crazy hard to say. There seemed to be a really close friendship and mutual respect between these two men and Brzezinski seemed to be a trusted advisor of Carter. My little red and white heart sorta swelled up with pride when I saw how close these two men were.

It kind of brought back to my meeting with Dr Brzezinski. It was when we worked together in the White House. Ok TOTALLY kidding. The man was about 50 years my senior. My dear friend Andrea Kirk was working on a benefit where Brzezinski was going to get an award and hey, she needed a photographer and she happened to know this weirdo who would stick her camera in anyone’s face. Anyone’s. So I got the job. I also needed the evening off to go and see Brzezinski. My boss at the time goes — you need the night off to go to the Zbig show? Ok.

The night was really funny. It was a crowd of Washington grandees, sub grandees and normal folk. Everyone SWARMED Brzezinski when he came in. I was so nervous that I couldn’t speak to Brzezinski. I went up to my friend Andrea’s mother and got her to introduce me to him. I had prepared some Polish to speak to him. Oh and when you speak Polish and you are speaking to a person who is older than you and way more accomplished, you must say “Mister.” You do not call a man like that “you.” I nervously rehearsed these lines. He was a gracious and kind man and it was a very nice meeting. We even snapped a photo together:

Look at that fresh faced child. Oh and I got my own photos of the Zbigniew:

Oh and here’s a couple of snaps from the Carter library, a very worthwhile place to visit to go full politics junkie:

The Fight

I’m going to try to not get too philosophical, political, what have you in this entry. TRY.

Some years ago, no matter how many, I got a call to work at an institution called Boston University. To work there as an instructor. Exactly 23 years after NOT becoming a student there, as I had wanted, suddenly I was asked to work there. So every day happily I take the BU shuttle to work, staring out the window. We always pass by Marsh Chapel, in front of which there’s a statue of a dove made of doves dedicated to Doctor Martin Luther King, proud BU alum. Dr King’s dissertation is even on view at the library.

The version of the fight for civil rights in America we get is a very sanitized one. There were peaceful protest. Dr King spoke gently and eloquently. Of course the rights were turned over. But that’s not how it was. Not at all how it was. I studied political science long enough to know that and to have realized that, but that didn’t really resonate with me until I went to the Civil Rights Center in Atlanta.

For me, the first sign I saw in the Civil Rights Center was very familiar. There was the red script logo of Solidarność, the Polish trade union that rose up against the communist Polish government in the early 1980s, spurring change and the ultimate collapse of a political and economic movement that ruled half the planet for 50 years. Oh and the reason why I grew up in the United States and not Poland. It was amazing to see it featured along with the US civil rights movement, side by side.

As you walk through the Civil Rights center, immediately you are struck by something. This is not a dry representation of artifacts of the civil rights struggle. This is a live museum where you actually feel the way that the people doing the protesting felt. This is a very different experience than being a bystander or just a museum goer. At the center, you hear the speeches but also the yelling, the screaming, the gun shots and violence the protesters heard. You can if you want sit at a lunch counter and experience what the protesters did as they sat at lunch counters in the south. They put headphones on you and for three minutes, you are pelted with insults. It’s harrowing. At first I thought — ok, this isn’t so bad but by minute two, the insults got worse. There were death threats in there. It was terrifying. I’ve been to so many museums in my life but never one where you got to feel exactly what people were going through, like in that place in Atlanta.

What struck me was that this was a center dedicated to people who just wanted the same rights as everyone else in their own country. The right to sit anywhere on a bus. The right to attend the same schools as their white counterparts. The right to be treated equally under the law, things that so many of us take for granted. I had never really understood what people had gone through just to have that. And as we’ve seen over the past few years, the work is far from done.

In one of the exhibits at the center, I spotted a picture of Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first non-communist prime minister of Poland and a close friend of my uncle, who was part of the Polish anti-communism movement. Again, it was incredible to see him included there but I also thought that I wouldn’t be standing there were it not for the work of this man. The course of my life was fundamentally changed by the actions of that man.

We’re all recipients of the legacy of what the people in that museum did. We can never lose sight of that.