David Isay, the founder of StoryCorps, writes – In 1998, I made a documentary about the last flophouse hotels on the Bowery in Manhattan. Guys stayed up in these cheap hotels for decades. They lived in cubicles the size of prison cells covered with chicken wire so you couldn’t jump from one room into the next. Later, I wrote a bookon the men with the photographer Harvey Wang.I remember walking into a flophouse with an early version of the book and showing one of the guys his page. He stood there staring at it in silence, then he grabbed the book out of my hand and started running down the long, narrow hallway holding it over hishead shouting, “I exist! I exist.”
What a beautiful gift to give someone. You know we can all do that, just by seeing each other. For me, and maybefor everyone, the worst feeling in the world is that you are disappearing. I’ve always found it so funny when people are asked what superpower they would like to have. Some actually say invisibility. To be able to go anywhere and not be seen. I’ve had that “superpower.” It feels nothing like power. I’ve witnessed these so called invisible people. People without money. People without the right color skin. The right religion. The right race. The right gender. The right politics. The right zip code. We can give them their super powers back. All we have to do is see them. All we have to do is see each other.
And we can start with the people right in front of us. I remember when my father told my mother, “I could kill you and it wouldn’t even matter.” He was so wrong. So incredibly wrong. And so I paint my mom’s portrait. And I love her, as so many do, and she is seen. She is a bright and shining beacon of kindness. What could be more powerful than that. And so I paint my friends. My family. Strangers. They need to be seen. We all need to be seen.
And we don’t have to paint everyone. We can smile. Make eye contact. With every nod, we say, “You exist! You exist!” Nothing could matter more.
(For my mom’s birthday, July 6th, 2017)