The next morning I woke up early and packed up any gear left in my father's office/guest room. After a quick breakfast I drove back down to the site. The highway was a surreal path leading into some place remembered from a dream. In this case it was just the day before. I got to work on the mural as soon as I arrived. "Wow, I got nothing done!" went through my mind. "So, I guess I start today."
"Day 1" might not be what you expect. You may want to change your "Day 1" depending on when you think you get started. But there's no accounting for the Day 1 when you have the idea to do something. Or the Day 1 when you commit to it. Or the Day 1 when you write down your shopping list. Or the Day 1 when you fly down to Miami. For some reason, it's easier to wrap your head around the Day 1 when paint hits the wall. I guess life is a series of Day 1's.
Days 2, 3 and 4 were kind of a blur and I wish I had the energy and brain power to blog about it as it happened, because it was quite the life event. The main take-away was this...
I never let my mind stray from the message on top of the mural: "Create. Love."
Two words. As strong on their own as they are together. I want to remind people to create, purposefully, positively, powerfully. And to use love as a verb. This is something I say often. I don't think love is an emotion. I think it's a verb. It's something you actively do or don't do. Love period. It is a command, like "Go." or "Think."
And this town needed love and creative solutions more than I thought. The strip of stores the mural lives on has a chicken place on the corner. They don't have chicken. I don't know hat the one person was eating, but they had no food in there, although it smelled like they had been cooking turned fish and garbage. Bottled drinks I never heard of were scattered about in no particular arrangement in the warm refrigerator near the front door. Their bathroom was small and hosted their bucket and mop which leaned against the toilet. Next to the chicken place was a Botanica store. I was told that they sell things for spiritual ceremonies, sometimes dark magic. I wanted to go in on sheer curiosity, but there was a woman rocking in a chair in front of the store, there but not there. Like something only I could see. A warning to not go in. Not inviting. Not pleasant. Couples would walk by, yelling ferociously at each other. It was a surreal circus of negativity and pain. And that brings me to my first impressions of the neighborhood and people who live there.
Let's start with the crack dealer on the corner. I live a sheltered life. I live in New York but never in an area like this. And, quite frankly, it scares me more than you'd think. The crack dealer was a big guy, about 6 ft 5 and about 250 lbs. He always had a couple of men with him. I saw the deals go down. He never bothered me, although I caught myself looking over at him way too much.
The crack hookers, or crack ho's. Two of them. Skinny, funny, sloppy, bendy and saggy. They would pass behind me as I painted the mural, each time with a new customer. They went down the side street a few blocks to a crack house. About 4 hours later, they would return for their next guest. I hoped I could put enough magic in that mural for those sweet unfortunate ladies of the daylight.
And, there was the skinhead.
A large, tattooed guy, completely hyper and strung out. He was with a woman who was equally messed up. They would stopped to watch me paint. And after a few minutes, he asked in an aggressive voice for a spray can. The first time he said he was going to paint a big penis on the wall over my mural. I ignored him which was tough because he was relentless. He stood staring at me, stepping into my space occasionally and talking trash to me.
Now, my wife, Samara, came down to help me paint. She got me the scissor lift and was right with me on the high top of that wall painting, working hard. And Jodi, a friend from my high school days, came by every day with water and food. She was the mother hen on location. She told me to take breaks. She was so into the process of creating this mural and she went above and beyond the call of... anything. So, I had two sweet, beautiful women with me. Both Jewish, which is important to mention because the third or fourth time the skinhead came by to try to provoke us, he yelled up to me from my vulnerable position on the lift, "You a jew???" A million answers raced through my head, but I was more concerned with Samara and Jodi who were on the street ten feet below me. I knew it was best to ignore him for the safety of everyone. He told me he was going to take a can of paint, but this time he said he was going to use it to spray a big swastika on the mural. I slowly got down from my lift and grabbed a new can of paint. I stood there shaking it, letting the mixing ball inside rattle around as loudly as I could. Someone told me that in a situation like this, spray paint to the face wasn't as effective as mace, but it will buy you enough time to get in your car and lock the door. He walked away and stood watching us from 20 feet away for about 15 minutes. I couldn't paint. I wanted to have an eye on him.
When he went away I got a call from my sister up in Toronto. Her husband had done some work with the local Miami police and she suggested I swing by the precinct and let them know I was there. This way they could send a patrol car every so often. I didn't think that was a good idea because I didn't want the crack dealer on the corner to think I was up to something that could get him in trouble. He wasn't bothering us, but his customers, the skinheads from another town, were.
Jodi is a very friendly person and had made friends with some local business owners and introduced me to the security guard who worked across the street at a clinic (situated between the dealer and the crack house). His name is Wagid. Wagid is a tall, skinny islander, up there in age. His uniform was loose and dirty. He was as much of this block as the cracked sidewalks. I asked him to trade phone numbers in case anything happens and he's not around. I put him at the top of my "favorites" on my phone's home screen. He tried to assure me that the skinhead was harmless. But I couldn't go back to painting. My hand was shaking. I was looking over my shoulder every minute. The paint was starting to smell more toxic than before. The heat was getting to me, I was completely sunburnt around my neck. I told Wagid that I didn't want to come back the next day to finish the painting. "You have to!" he commanded. "What you're doing is changing things. Nobody's done anything for this community like this. It will change things. And I'm the one who will be seeing more than anyone else, and I want to see it finished!"
So for Wagid and the desperate addicts who passed by that wall, I knew I needed to return. And I knew that I had to paint the words: "CREATE. LOVE." really big on top. High up so nobody could paint a swastika or a penis over it.
That night, Samara and I retired to a hotel in Miami. One overlooking the Miami River with scenic dining and a hot tub in the middle of the room. I could hardly walk. My body was beaten, I was sunburnt and exhausted. My kids were on speakerphone and my oldest son was very upset that I didn't take him with me. I knew I made the right decision leaving him home, especially given the skinheads and crack hookers. I felt terrible and my head was spinning. Somehow I showered and made it to the restaurant on the water where I nearly slept through our meal. Returning to the room, I fell into bed, but was in so much pain I couldn't sleep. Not at all.