Monday, February 6, 2012

Chris Arnade, Mimi the Cat and Telling Stories

So, back - with digressions - to the story of Mimi who lives under the Bruckner Expressway with her homeless human, Jaime, also known as Dragon.

We first met Mimi in November, when I was following Chris. The encampment under the expressway was deserted that day. We were there to hand over one of the large prints that Chris makes for all his sitters (and standers, and riders, and fliers) after he has photographed them. It doesn't hurt that by day he is a Wall Street banker and consequently has pockets deep enough to afford the frequent manufacture of these wonderful printed passports to the streets he walks in the South Bronx or East Brooklyn.

Photo: Chris Arnade

Anyone suspicious of his motives softens visibly when they see these images handed over for keeps. "People on the street think I'm a cop and cops think I'm a john or buying drugs." Apparently word on the street after I'd spent two days with him was that I was an undercover cop. That day we were looking for the pigeon guys, who keep coops on the roofs of their buildings. One of the movers and shakers in the hood was a man Chris knew from before, with a single name, no phone number and no one willing to share his phone number. But minutes after word was out on the street that you were looking for him, he or a proxy would call Chris. We walked up to one of his apartments - he owns several -  which contained not just an indoor coop with curtained windows, but a pool table, a large collection of empty and ornamental Hennessy bottles, and a small stage. The stage, Chris was told later, was so that strippers could dance comfortably.

Standing in that empty hallway, waiting for the door to the apartment to open,  I became conscious of my colour, my coat, the peephole in the iron door, and my hands in my pockets. So I took them out of my pockets, slowly,  and kept them in plain sight. The door was opened by a young man wearing baggy pants belted midthigh with sparkly white underpants above, and nothing else beside a superb physique. There was white stuff around his mouth. He was extremely polite, let us in to see the birds, then went on brushing his teeth in the bathroom.

See Henriette's photograph here.

Back under the Bruckner on the cold November day Chris was not comfortable hanging around in case someone took exception to our presence, so we moved to leave. But in the dark space where Jaime kept his bedding I noticed a movement and looked more closely. The movement soon became a little cat, tucked up in bed, who blinked sleepily before coming out to greet us. That was Mimi.

According to Chris, making appointments with someone who is homeless can get complicated, and he and Jaime were not able to meet for several weeks after Chris had offered to help get her spayed. When Chris did make it back, he found Jaime's gang of friends but no boss man.

Chris writes:

"Soon after he disappeared, Mimi and a few other guys were still there, but they spoke no English. After a few more attempts I eventually asked some policemen nearby. They told me he was arrested, but gave no details.

I managed to find a few old notes I had written, he had given me his full name of Jaime Alomar.  I then checked all the prisons in the area and found him in Rikers, arrested for possession of stolen goods and for violation of parole.

The area is filled with long haul trucks that are loading and unloading. He had told me that in the past he would lift a few items from the back of trucks in the area, mostly crates of food or such, but that he had moved on from that.

I am going to try and visit him in Rikers. They do not make it easy to visit an inmate, the corrections officers, after already spending a few hours navigating the prison, can without reason, deny your request."

So the spaying of Mimi has turned into a convoluted mission and a story that leads in and under and through the parts of New York that most of us do not see.

Chris and Jose, a pigeon keeper

One of the reasons I asked to travel along with Chris was to understand the nature of his rapport with people on the street. Years back, I was drawn to an image of Eshete, a man who haunts my own neighbourhood, swathed in a vibrant woven cloth. He is father and feeder to many stray cats in Red Hook. How, I asked on Flickr, did Chris approach someone and ask to take their picture? From a practical point of view I was envious of his photographic ease with strangers, and seduced by the intimate candour of his photos. Brooklyn Heights resident, kids at the exclusive Packer College, banker, a PhD in Physics, son of an anthropologist who moved the large family around the world to various hot spots, the hotter the better, drawn to record the frayed edges of New York City.

Photo: Chris Arnade

Anyone who has "more than one strike against them" is a subject who appeals. Colour, race, culture, drugs, economic circumstances, prostitution are often part of the picture recorded by his Nikon D700. But also part of his oeuvre are the trappings that make poor and crime ridden neighbourhoods positively human, such as the Hunts Point Alliance for Children, to whom he donates prints, and bodegas, which he identifies as the social hubs of the block. All news is gathered and dispersed there, they know what's going on. He visits a regular, all-day dominoes game in the back of one. And on the roofs above the streets where dealers sometimes hang on corners are the pigeon guys, loners who find life bearable because they love their birds. Tough guys whose eyes well up when they try to explain what their birds mean to them. Standing on a sidewalk in December I watched with Chris as a flock wheeled in the winter sunlight overhead - he was trying to pinpoint their home roof. As I watched a rufous missile broke the flock apart violently and dived straight down the side of the eight floor building before spiraling upward with a pigeon its talons. A red tailed hawk on the hunt.

Chris and Rafael

And Mimi? Still unspayed, but still in the crosshairs. 

Chris will have an exhibition on Smith Street at the Urban Folk Art Studio starting March 9th, 8pm.


  1. Marie - can I come with you? to Urban Folk...

  2. There but for the grace of the gods.....

    xo Jane

  3. Good Gods. Thank you for sharing more about Mimi, Jaime/Dragon, Chris and your experience. Your words changed my night. xx

  4. Thanks for the update. I had emailed Chris about Mimi but did not have a response.

  5. The human face of Wall Street banking. And he has a very human face. :-)

  6. Chris is quite a remarkable person with great skills. I am taking the time to look through his Flickr albums.

  7. This is quite a story. Chris does a good thing.

  8. Great story. Thank you for sharing it. Chris does indeed have a way with people and with his D700.


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