The first time I saw Wendell was last summer. He was in Washington Square Park. It was a sunny day, so there was a large crowd of people. Wendell was making a scene. He was wearing a huge rainbow-colored wig. He was dancing and talking to himself. He stretched his arms out like a ballerina, and twirled in circles. He seemed agitated, unable to relax. After a fit of dancing, he’d sit down for a moment and take a swig from his water bottle. But then he’d pop back up and start twirling again, arms outstretched, making a scene. During one of these performances, I asked him for a photograph. He kept dancing, but extended his arm out toward me, rubbing his fingers together (Sign language for pay me bitch.) I put a dollar in his hand, and readied my camera. But he wouldn’t stand still. He kept twirling.
“Can you hold still for one second?” I asked.
But he kept twirling. “Pay me bitch,” he said again with his hands. He was sure to keep his back to me, not allowing me a picture of his face. If other people tried to photograph him, he’d spin away from them too. But I was intent on getting my dollar’s worth. So when he sat down for one of his water breaks, I photographed him anyway. When he saw me, he popped to his feet, and turned his back. I already paid you, you dick. But I’d finally gotten my photo, so I was satisfied.
I left the park that day not sure what kind of man Wendell was. The signals were mixed. There was evidence of crazy: the colored wig, the agitation, the dancing alone. But then there was that hand signal: pay me bitch. That was the hand signal of a gamer, a hustler, a calculator. I wasn’t sure what Wendell was, and he was twirling away too fast for me to find out.
Yesterday, I saw Wendell again in Union Square Park. Now that the sun is climbing higher in the sky, the parks are getting crowded again. The street performers are back. So are the druggies. So are the travelers. So is Wendell. I saw him from far away, sitting on the steps, wearing the same colored wig and chugging from a bottle of juice. Remembering our previous encounter, I initially tried to avoid him. But I’ve been making more of an effort to engage people lately, so I thought what the hell, and sat next to him on the steps.
“Hey there,” I said. “What’s your name?” I had no idea what to expect.
“Wendell,” he answered. I was surprised by this. He seems responsive, at least.
“My name’s Brandon,” I said. But already Wendell wasn’t listening. He was staring at something in the distance. It was a man with an expensive camera and a giant zoom lens. It was pointing at Wendell. Wendell hopped to his feet. He pointed at the man.
“YOU GONNA PAY ME BITCH?” he screamed.
Wendell’s voice was nasally, high pitched, reminiscent of Chris Rock. But reminiscent of Chris Rock in an agitated, angry, spewing way. His voice definitely contained the unmistakable edge of crazy. The camera man walked over, with a smile on his face. He seemed amused. He seemed European, like he didn’t speak English. So he just stood there, camera around his neck, smiling.
“He wants you to pay him,” I told the man. But the man just kept smiling. Wendell was very agitated now. He kept looking back and forth between me and the European. He felt threatened, double teamed.
“I’m not with him,” I told Wendell. I wanted to distance myself from the man. His smile seemed mocking, aimed to incite. He was killing my rapport. I wanted him to leave: “You should give him a dollar for the photograph,” I said. The man reached into his wallet, pulled out a dollar, and handed it to Wendell.
“Fucking crazy bitches,” Wendell said. I sat in silence for a moment, letting the agitation pass a bit. Then I resumed my questioning.
“So what’s your story Wendell?” I asked.
He stared at me. I tried again: “What do you do with your life?”
“I get high and I make fashion,” he said. He is responsive, this is going somewhere.
“What kind of fashion?” I asked. He looked at me like I’d asked the stupidest question in the world. He swept his hand downward, motioning toward the clothes he was wearing.
“Do you not see? Can you not see? Nobody has made fashion this elegant since the 17th Century.” Then he stood up. He stretched out his arms. I thought he was inviting me to take a photograph. So I did.
“You gonna pay me?” He asked. I didn’t have any cash with me.
“No,” I said. “I don’t have any money. Anyway, I’m your friend.”
“I don’t have any friends in this fucking city” he said. He was agitated again. He got up and started walking, snarling, and talking to himself. He walked to the other end of the park. I followed at a safe distance. He passed crowds of people, many of whom were filming him with camera phones. He was talking to himself, loudly, making a scene, inviting attention.
“I don’t have time to deal with broke ass idiots,” he snarled. He walked up to a girl who had been filming him with her camera phone. “You gonna pay me?” he asked.
“No,” she said.
“I fucking hate you,” he said. “I don’t have time to deal with you broke ass idiots.” Then he turned to me, and pointed. “And I hate him too.”
Fucking dick, I thought. I was nice to you. Wendell seemed only to value people by the money they placed in his hand. But even when someone did pay him, he still walked away agitated. Always wanting more, and snarling. Sensing that my rapport had been shattered, and that our conversation would most likely not resume, I walked away. I spent a few minutes exploring the rest of the park, finding a few interesting people and taking their portrait.
***10 minutes later***
Wendell burst back onto my radar screen. I heard snarling and shouting. I looked at the noise, and saw Wendell shoving a guy in a blue hat. The man was trying to walk way, but Wendell had grabbed hold of his shirt with one hand, and seemed ready to throw a punch with his other hand. “Fucking broke idiot,” I heard Wendell say. “Pay me.” The guy tried to shove Wendell off. But Wendell kept up the harassment. I snapped some photographs. After a few more shoves, Wendell finally released his grip, and let the man walk away.
“The shuttle left earth without me,” Wendell shouted, loud enough for the entire crowd to hear. “They left me down here with broke ass idiots.” Wendell was riled up now. His agitation level seemed to be reaching a crescendo. He swung around, and turned his attention to an Asian man in a black jacket. The man had a camera aimed at Wendell. But now, having attracted Wendell’s attention, he pretended that he was filming something else. But Wendell wasn’t fooled. He walked right up to the man, and put his cup in front of the lens.
“Pay me, you broke ass idiot.” The man kept looking forward. Wendell got right up in his face. “I’m tired,” he snarled, “of everyone getting into my personal space.” Wendell was breathing into the man’s ear now: “Everyone is getting in my space!!!” But the Asian man held firm, and never acknowledged Wendell’s existence. So Wendell moved on.
Next he saw a young couple on the other side of the plaza. The girl had a camera phone. He marched over to them, and got in the girl’s face.
“Are you going to pay me, you bitch?” snarled Wendell. Adopting a different tactic than the Asian man, the boyfriend decided to make a stand. He pushed Wendell on the shoulder.
“You need to back up, bro.” I respected this. Wendell did not. He got in the guys face.
“You gonna pay me for my image?” He asked. “My image is worth one hundred dollars.”
“Your image is worth nothing,” the boyfriend said.
Wendell looked into the air, incredulous. He screamed to the sky: “He says my image is worth nothing. NOTHING!” Then he looked down from the sky, and into the face of the boyfriend: “What are you, anyway? A SLAVEOWNER?” Then Wendell walked away. He walked right past me. I was laughing.
“That was a good line,” I said. He stopped snarling.
“The one about the slaveowner.”
“Oh,” he said. And he moved on.
For the next several minutes, Wendell continued his pattern of extortion. He’d start dancing, or screaming, or causing a scene of some sort. Naturally, people would photograph the spectacle. Then Wendell would stop, scan the crowd for anyone photographing him, and then he would march up to them. He’d snarl. He’d threaten. He’d demand money. I followed him the entire time, keeping a distance of about ten feet. But that wasn’t far enough. After scaring the shit out of a teenage girl, Wendell turned and came at me.
“I’m tired of you,” he snarled. He walked right up to me. He grabbed my collar. “I don’t mind going to jail,” he said. “Just another day in the park for me.” I grabbed his hand.
“Wendell,” I said.
“You broke ass idiot.”
“Wendell,” I said. “You need to let go of me.” He let go.
After Wendell grabbed me, I decided I had enough material to write about him, so I decided to leave the Square. As I was walking away, a man ran up behind me, and tapped me on the shoulder.
“Yo,” he said. “Are you going to send that man those photographs you took of him?”
“No,” I said.
“You’re just going to take those photographs. And you aren’t going to pay him.”
“No,” I said. “I’m not.”
“That’s messed up,” he said. He wasn’t being threatening. He was just stating his opinion.
“Listen,” I said defensively. “I’ve taken 1700 portraits on the streets of the city. That’s what I do.”
“But you should still pay him. That’s messed up. You shouldn’t take all those photographs and not pay him. That’s how he makes his money. That’s his hustle.”
“That’s not a hustle. That’s extortion. He’s extorting people.”
“He’s not extorting people.”
“He is extorting people. He goes into crowded places, and does everything possible to draw attention. Then he spots some poor tourist fifty yards away, who naturally is trying to take a picture. Then he threatens and intimidates them until they pay him.”
“Well I’ve never seen that side of him,” the man said. “I have a lot of respect for that man.”
“You know him?” I asked.
“Yeah, I talk to him all the time.”
“You mean you have actual conversations with him? And he can be logical?”
“Yeah he can be logical. He’s a smart man. He’s very logical. Everything you see here is just a façade. That’s how he makes his money.”
“Then that’s horrible,” I said. ”If he’s crazy, it’s forgivable. But if he’s logical, it’s horrible. He’s scaring the shit out of teenage girls so that they’ll give him money.”
“Well,” he said. “I said he’s logical. But he’s still Wendell. I mean yeah, there’s something different about him. I mean, he isn’t like everyone else. You just got to know that about him. Like one time he asked me for a cigarette, so I gave him one. He broke it in half, threw it on the ground, and stomped on it. ‘I don’t smoke Marlboro’s,’ he told me. I could have been mad. But I know– that’s Wendell. So I let it go. I have a lot of respect for Wendell.”
“You respect him?” I asked. I didn’t see much to respect.
“Yes, of course. A lot of people do. I’ve talked to people who knew him 20 years ago. Back in the 80’s he was a respected clothing designer in Harlem. He still is respected. Supposedly there are a couple guys in Coney Island who dress just like him. Then he got on crack. But he tells me he doesn’t smoke that stuff anymore.”
I looked over at Wendell. He was running in tight circles. The crime scene tape that he’d wrapped around himself was blowing in the wind.