Like many of you, I have a hobby. It's not an unusual avocation. I take photographs.
I was born on Manhattan island and have lived my entire life in this astonishing feast of visual diversity and eccentricity. And as a native of this town rather than a tourist, I enjoy the luxury of time allowing me to see far beyond the skyline, the great buildings and the rich tapestry of glamorous tourist attractions. Since childhood I've carried a camera. I've always been fascinated with the minutia of this city, those details that few notice: shapes, colors, light, broken windows, architectural and design quirks and the strange visual synergy of so many cultures on one tiny river island.
It has been my habit for many decades to occasionally spend a very private and spiritual Saturday roaming some corner of Manhattan, using my camera to capture a reflection in a puddle, the intense juxtaposition of colors and architectural styles on a street corner or sometimes a funny moment in someone's life. The experience has always been very private and a very special few hours allowing personal reflection and a very special kind of connection with my hometown.
I rushed out this morning, Saturday, January 20 simply because it was the coldest morning of the winter, a winter that has been bizarrely and constantly warm, warm enough to keep my seasonal hay fever active far beyond November. A crystal clear frigid Saturday morning would surely deliver funny coats and hats and wonderful games of light and color. Between taxis and my feet, I covered parts of the Financial District, Chinatown, Little Italy, Soho, Noho and Union Square.
But for the first time in my life there were many parts of these neighborhoods that I could no longer cover and where my camera and I were no longer welcome. I was tempted to post my photograph so that you could determine for yourself just how much I resemble a threat to democracy and freedom — but that's probably not wise. Suffice it to say that I'm a 58-year-old very white, bald, Jewish, Gay New Yorker with a very neatly trimmed silver beard. I was wearing a $1,500 Italian dark green leather and fleece coat, a black cashmere scarf and a matching black pull on cashmere cap. I looked like your typical over-paid and perfectly stylish self-indulgent New Yorker on his way to or from a chic brunch. Today's weapon of choice was my Canon Digital Elph with optical zoom.
However, to members of the New York City Police Department, several doormen and a couple of security guards, I looked like none of the above. I looked like a terrorist threat. Clearly, a lone man photographing details of buildings from various angles and wanting to enter lobbies of city landmarks to photograph cherubs, statuary and mosaics is now assumed to be a threat to the safety and security of our fair city.
I'm a photographer. I'm an artist. But such explanations no longer fly. I was denied entry to the lobby of the landmark and fantabulous Woolworth Building. I was asked for photo ID in front of a Soho luxury condo. Two of New York's finest approached me in front of a Prince Street church and asked me to please "move on." I explained who I was and what I was doing. The response was a second "please move on." Two security guards asked me why I was photographing crowds shopping the stalls on Canal Street. Why is it any of their business, I asked? "Please move on."
Perhaps on my next outing I'll rent a wife and a child to walk with me so that everyone just leaves me the hell alone. But the terrorists are probably already employing that ruse, so I might get shot.
The sad truth is in the details. How have 9/11, Homeland Security and George W. Bush changed our lives? Ask a guy who just likes to take pretty pictures for his own pleasure. Ask a guy who has lost the freedom to spend a Saturday by himself in the peace and beauty of his own world, a world that is now ridiculously interrupted by officious men in uniforms and requests for photo ID.
Photographing the details of Manhattan used to be a very enriching hobby, now it's an awkward negotiation through a maze of uniforms. I know. It seems to be a small price to pay for our freedom. But this morning I found myself asking, "What freedom?"