I was riding the subway today when I heard the Star Wars theme music coming from the other end of the train. I was listening to my iPod at the time, so it was easy to ignore. (Ignoring noises on the subway is a survival tactic practiced by every veteran rider. Noises are normally attached to crazy people, or people asking for money.) But when the music didn’t stop, I began paying attention. I noticed it was coming from a boom box. Next to the boom box, a man stood, holding a three-ring binder, flipping through its pages, and announcing names. “Mario Lopez,” he said. He’d flip a page. “Ryan Seacrest,” he said. He’d flip a page. Star Wars music was playing the entire time. What is going on over there? I began to take my camera out of my bag. This could be good.
When I reached the other end of the subway, the man had already put the three ring binder away.
“Excuse me,” I asked. “But what are you doing?”
“I have a television show,” he said. A few people were gathering around now. (People are interested in strangers, they’re just afraid. But they’ll piggyback courage. Just like when crossing the street.)
“And who are these people that you’re naming?”
“They have all been on my show,” he said. “It’s called NYC TV Profiles. It’s on every Tuesday and Thursday.”
“Can you bring that binder back out? I want to take a picture.”
“Who’s picture do you want?” He reopened the binder.
“Whichever one’s your favorite.”
“Here’s Mario Lopez,” he said. ”He’s about as big as it gets.”
As Star Wars Man held up a picture of Mario Lopez, one man was straining to get a better look. He was young, black, athletic, and wearing a red hat. He had an interesting tattoo just below his eye. As the man leaned forward, Star Wars Man flipped to another photograph: “I know you recognize Forrest Griffin,” he said, “He’s one of the greatest MMA fighters out there.”
Now the man with the eye tattoo spoke: “Hey, I know all these guys,” he said. “I’m a boxer. I fight on TV.” As he spoke, I got a better view of his face. Holy shit, I thought, look at that tattoo. Star Wars man, however, seemed uninterested. He went on to the next picture, ignoring the boxer, and talking to me.
“We’ve had everybody on our show,” he said. But I’d stopped listening. I was paying attention to the boxer now. I’ve got to photograph that tattoo. But the boxer was still trying to talk to Star Wars man:
“Like I’m a real boxer,” he said “I’ve met those people.” I tapped him on the shoulder:
“Excuse me,” I said, “Do you mind if I take your photograph?”
“Ok, look that way.” The boxer turned his head, giving a clear view of his tattoo. The train was rattling around a curve. I did my best to hold the camera still.
“Shit, it was blurry. We’re gonna have to wait until the train stops.”
“Perfect.” I put the camera back in my bag. ”So you said you’re a boxer?”
“Yeah, I train out in California. Like I’m for real. I fight on TV.”
“What’s your record?”
“4 and 0”
“You’ve only fought in four fights? How old are you?”
“No no no no,” said the boxer. “Four professional fights. I’m twenty-four. I’ve been fighting since I was eleven. I fought Amateur for twelve years.”
“What was your Amateur record?”
“132 and 2.”
“Yeah man, I’m telling you I’m a boxer. Like I fight on TV. I’m fighting on TV in two months.”
By now the train had pulled to a stop again. Star Wars man was getting off the train. He shouted at me, “Hey man, what website are you taking those photos for?”
“Humansofnewyork.com,” I said, and I turned back to the boxer. “Do you train around here?” I asked.
“No, no.” he said. “I train in California. I grew up around here. I’m back here to visit my mom.” The boxer spoke softly. He was very calm. “This is my first time back in seven years. I grew up in the Marcy Projects. Where Jay-Z grew up. I got stories man. You don’t know, I got stories.”
“Why’d you go to California? Aren’t there gyms in New York?”
“The best gyms are in California. I train under Freddy Roach. You know who Freddy Roach is?”
**[Wikipedia: Freddy Roach is currently the trainer of world champion Manny Pacquiao, welter-weight champion Amir Khan, and UFC champions Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre. He was voted the Boxing Writer’s Association’s Trainer of the Year in 2003, 2006, 2008 and 2009]**
“He’s the best there is,” said the boxer. ”He’s the best there is. You know what I did? Seven years ago, I searched on the internet for the best gym in California, and he came up. His gym came up on the screen. And I moved out there. I didn’t have shit with me, either. All I took was my boxing gear. I went out there with nothing and I sat outside his gym for a whole year. And I worked hard. I worked harder than all his guys. Then he finally let me train, and I busted up all his guys. I busted em’ up one by one, and he had to take me on. Because I busted up all his guys.”
“You know what I like about you?” I asked.
“You tattooed your dream on your face.”
After speaking with Terris on the subway, I took down his email address so that we could meet later and finish his story. It proved difficult to arrange this, because Terris didn’t have a working phone. He had an Iphone— but with no coverage. So we exchanged emails. Terris said he didn’t have a subway card, so I agreed to meet him where he was staying, which was in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Sometimes, when I’m telling people how to get to my apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, I say: “Ride the train until all the white people get off.” But I’m mostly joking. I am not joking, however, when I say that I was the only white person on the train to Brownsville that day.
The stated goal of Humans of New York is to photograph strangers in every neighborhood in New York. I take pride in going anywhere, and asking anyone for their photograph. When I stepped off the train in Terris’ neighborhood, I thought to myself: I might need to change my stated goal. The only place that I’d ever felt too uncomfortable to take street portraits was the South Side of Chicago. I tried. But it was just too black. There were too many eyeballs on me. I felt too conspicuous, too out of place. I felt anger. The anger of the combatant for the non-combatant. I didn’t think New York had an equivalent, now I knew it did—Brownsville, Brooklyn.
I was relieved when Terris showed up. I instantly felt more comfortable. Terris knocks people out for a living.“Whats up man,” I said, “I’m really glad to see you.” Really glad. I gave him a one armed bro-hug. “Let’s see here—I want to get some photographs before the sun goes down any further.” I saw a long wall of graffiti across the street. “Let’s head over there,” I said.
I always have trouble knowing where to begin an interview. On one hand, there’s no delicate way to ask someone about the really tough shit in their life. The stuff that makes the story interesting. But at the same time, I didn’t come all the way to Brownsville to talk about the weather. We stammered through some small talk for awhile. But then I dove right in. I knew Terris had a story, and I was there to learn it.
“So I looked at your MySpace,” I told him.
“How’d you find that?”
“I googled it,” I said. I’d run his name through a search engine immediately after our first meeting. His MySpace page was just about the only thing that came up. There wasn’t much to look at. He seemed to be a man with a very one-track mind, doesn’t smoke/doesn’t drink, but that’s why he interested me in the first place. One thing did jump out at me, however.
“So on that page,” I told him, “you say the ‘Bright Lights and Dark Shadows of a Champion.”
“What does that mean?”
“The Dark Shadows,” I said. “What are the Dark Shadows?”
He motioned around him: “This,” he said. Terris was proving a man of very few words.
“Yeah, the street. The street and not having enough money to eat.”
“Anything else?” I asked. ”Or just the street?”
“You know,” said Terris. “Just the street.” This is going to be harder than I thought. We were at the wall of graffiti now. As we walked, I scanned the wall for paint that matched the colors of Terris’ clothes. “Here,” I said. “Let’s stop here for a photo real quick. Hop up there.” I pointed to a small ledge on the wall, and Terris climbed up on it.
“Hat or no hat?” He asked.
“That’s up to you,” I said. He put his hat on, then took it back off then put it back on. As soon as he seemed comfortable, I began shooting.
“I love this time of day,” I said. “See how the sun is so soft that you can almost look at it? That’s called golden light.” I once opened a photography textbook and read a single page. The page was about golden light.
“Oh yeah,” said Terris. “I know what you mean. That is perfect.”
We tried a few different spots along the wall, then continued walking down the sidewalk. Terris pointed at a patch of trees in the distance. “That’s a park over there,” he said. “I bet you could get some good pictures there.”
“Alright,” I said, “But let’s hurry, this light isn’t going to last much longer.” I was walking fast now. I guessed that we had about twenty minutes before the sun went down. There were small, poorly kempt houses on both sides of us. I scanned the stoops and stairwells for interesting colors. Finally I stopped.
“Right there,” I said. I pointing at a staircase. It was behind a fence, but the gate was open.
“We can’t go in there,” said Terris. “It’s private property.”
“Sure we can,” I said. “Just go real quick.” Terris was looking around nervously.
“I don’t know about this,” he said. “You sure? People live here.”
“Trust me,” I said. “Nobody’s home.” A ten year old girl was peeking out the window. I hoped Terris didn’t see her. I pointed at the staircase. “Just sit right there, real quick. Nobody will care. I do this all the time.” Terris took one last look around, opened up the gate, and slipped inside. He sat on the staircase nervously.
“Hat or no hat?” he asked.
As soon as I’d taken the shot, Terris hopped to his feet and ran back onto the sidewalk. He seemed relieved to be out of danger. “Let me see that picture,” he said. I showed him the photograph on my camera. “That’s awesome,” he said. “We should go back and take some more.” But when he turned back around, he noticed a man exiting the house next door to the one we photographed. The man was oblivious to our presence. “Never mind,” Terris said. “They’re home. Let’s get out of here.” I laughed. Aren’t I supposed to be the uncomfortable one?
We came up on a large vacant lot. It was almost all dirt. It was burned out, abandoned, strewn with trash. There were empty bottles and piles of broken brick. And it was bathed in golden light. “That looks awesome,” I said. “I’ve got to get a shot of you in there.”
“Man, we can’t go in there,” said Terris. But I was already walking into the lot.
“What do you mean?” I yelled back to him. “Of course we can. Real quick. I do this all the time.” Terris followed with high, tentative steps. I was far ahead of him now. I stood beside a pile of broken bricks, waiting for him to catch up.
“But it’s really muddy,” Terris said. “I’ll ruin my shoes.” Terris was wearing what appeared to be brand new Timberland boots.
“Those are hiking boots,” I told him. “They were made for this.”
“I paid three hundred dollars for these,” he said.
“You paid three hundred dollars for those?”
“Yeah,” he said. He was taking large, careful steps, aiming for solid ground.
“That’s perfect,” I said. “Stop there.” I began taking shots. “Hey Terris.”
“Why are you paying $300 for shoes when your phone is disconnected?”
After a couple of shots, Terris bolted back toward the sidewalk, all the while watching to see if any cars were coming down the street. “If the cops come, they’ll arrest us,” he said. “They’ll call this trespassing.” It was a possibility that hadn’t even crossed my mind. I was noticing a pattern. Terris was very, very afraid of getting in trouble.
After a few minutes, we reached the edge of the park, and started down a path through the trees. “So I want to know more about these dark shadows,” I told him. Golden light is great but I need dark shadows. Terris didn’t speak, so I continued. “You said the streets, before. Did you actually live on the streets?”
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I lived on the streets for a long time.”
“Here, or in California?”
“Both,” he said. [In the first installment of The Boxer, Terris told me that he had moved to California at the age of twenty one, because the best boxing gym in the world was in California. The gym was run by Freddy Roach, the coach of several world champions.]
“But I thought you were training in California,” I said.
“I was,” he said. “But every night I would sleep on the steps of the gym.” We were walking out into an open field now. The field had a dirt patch that seemed to double as a baseball infield.
“You slept on the steps? “ I asked. “How long did you sleep on the steps?”
“Eight months,” he said. ”Until Freddy said he would train me. See, when I first got there—the day my plane landed, I went straight to the gym and found Freddy. I had nothing. I went up to him and I said ‘Mr. Roach, I’m from New York, and I’m here to be a boxer. I need you to train me.’ And he said ‘no.’ Just flat out ‘no.’”
“So you waited outside the gym for eight months before he let you inside?”
“No no no,” said Terris. ”Freddy said he wouldn’t train me. But he knew that I had no money. He knew my situation. So he said that I could workout at the gym. He said he wasn’t going to train me, but I could stay and workout if I wanted. So every day I’d work out at the gym, and every night I’d sleep on the steps.”
“Did Freddy know you were sleeping on the steps?”
“He knew. He had to know. They all knew but they didn’t say anything. I mean, they had cameras on the building. So people knew. Everybody knew. But nobody said anything.”
“Stand right there,” I said.
“So what did you eat?” I asked.
“99 cent burritos,” he said. ”There was a Taco Bell across the street and they had 99 cent burritos. That’s all I ate for 8 months.”
“Shut the fuck up.”
“Dude,” I shook my head. “That’s horrible for you. Especially if you’re trying to be an athlete.”
“I know man, I know.” He looked at the ground and shook his head. “But that’s all I could eat. After I was done training, I’d go beg for money in the parking lot and buy some burritos. But after awhile, the people in the Taco Bell started to know me. So they’d give me free stuff every once in awhile. Like not burritos– other stuff.”
“I’m still confused,” I said. “So after eight months of sleeping on the steps, Freddy suddenly decides to train you?”
“I just kept asking him,” Terris said. ”I just kept working out, kept running. And every once in a while I’d ask him again. I’d say, ‘Any good news today?’ And he’d say no. Then one day– he didn’t say no. He didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no. And I knew then. I knew he was testing me. I knew he wanted to see how long I’d sleep out there. It was just a matter of time.’”
“So when did he finally tell you?”
“He was leaving for two months to go train [Manny Pacquiao] in the Phillipines. Right before he left, he called me over. He said, ‘I want you to stay out of trouble while I’m gone.’ Then he handed me the keys to the house where his athletes live.”
Eight months of sleeping on the steps. Eight months of burritos. Eight months of being ignored. But you had no choice. You had no money. You tattooed boxing gloves on your face. It’s hard to work a desk job with boxing gloves on your face. (“I’m sorry, it was a tough decision, but we’ve decided to go with the candidate who doesn’t have boxing gloves on his face.”) So you’ve got one option. You gotta box. You got to do what’s on your face. And you did it. You fucking did it. But, honestly it was just a matter of time. You had those keys before you left for California. You had those keys before you slept on the steps, and before you ate all those burritos. You had those keys the minute you tattooed your dream on your face.
“How’d you feel that day?”
“I’d never been so happy,” Terris said. He smiled. It wasn’t a big smile. It seemed a little forced. He saw me ready my camera, and he knew it was time to show that he was happy. There were some shadows behind it. Twenty one years in a rough neighborhood behind it. There were eight months of sleeping on the steps, and two thousand burritos behind it. But it was a smile. And for a second, I didn’t even notice the boxing gloves.