Soap & Conversation

September 2, 2019 Yesterday at The Breakfast I discontinued the flag series, using the purple and blue left side of the gigantic wall mural instead. I set up my tripod so my humble spot in the parking lot looked like an outdoor photo studio, and prepared to offer a free picture to anyone who might cut across the lot from Washington from the Clemence Street alley as many of the folks heading for our meal site do. Since the back of  the car is loaded with soap and shampoo, razor blades, sometimes socks, etc. many people will accept the simple gifts I offer, and some even agree to stand still long enough for me make a portrait, flattered that I would ask. This often leads to conversations and the realization once again on my part that the men and women I photograph are really just like me but for a stretch of bad luck, a lamentable decision, or some terrible trauma or illness. A little recoding plays in my head, “It could have been you, Jan Armor.” except for a roll of the dice.

Gaylorrie was the first person to walk by. I’ve seen her here many times, always alone, rarely smiling. Although it was early, she was actually coming from the direction of the church, too early to have had breakfast already. I asked if she needed some socks and she came over and took a pair. I asked if she would like soap or shampoo and she shook her head yes and took a couple of small bottles as well as a bar of soap. Then I asked if she would consent to a portrait. She smiled. I could tell she was slightly flattered. At first she said no but finally agreed. After a few pictures we chatted a bit. She told me she was 63 years old. She said she was badly hurt when she was hit by a car a while back. She also matter of factly shared that the apartment house she had been living in had burned to the ground. She found herself homeless and on the street for three years, from 1996 to 1999. Now she had a place, she said. Then she smiled, thanked me for the socks and soap and walked on towards Washington Street. 

A small brown man was the next to walk past my tripod, seeming to be deep in thought. He looked like a prophet, all wrapped up in his green polkadot blanket. He was alone, as many of the Breakfast guests are. I asked if he would like a bar of soap and he smiled as he took it from me, holding it to his nose, taking in the pleasant scent.  We talked. His big smiling gaze seemed to penetrate into you. As we talked, I found him to be a gentle man with a quiet demeanor. He told me his name was Senthuran Nagendran. He said it slowly and I repeated it, mispronouncing it. He patiently helped me say it correctly, repeating each syllable until I got it right. I tried to write it in my notebook but gave up the spelling and handed him the pencil. He printed it out in tiny letters on the page.  He was articulate, speaking each accented word deliberately since English might be a second language. He told me he was from a country called Sri Lanka. He asked, “Do you know where that is?” I confessed I didn’t know exactly… He explained it is an island near the bottom of India. He came to the US with his mother. It was a very long journey. He laughed when I told him how photogenic he looked. I asked it I could take his picture and he agreed.

As he walked off on around the corner I was left trying to understand how this man with such a funny name, Senthuran Nagendran, could possibly have ended up in Providence, Rhode Island. I’m sure his is an amazing story that perhaps he might share with me next week.

I met many interesting folks after Senthuran. Tito was one, a repea. I took his picture the week before, standing in front of the flag. He walked up and said, “Hey, man, I like that picture you did, let’s do a selfie together! We did one and he walked off. I have no idea what that was about but he shouted over his shoulder, “Bring it next week!”

My last encounter of the day was with a jovial man named Paul. He took a razor and a small bar of soap. His is a truly inspirational story. Although he never allowed me to take his picture (and I badly did), he wanted to talk, so listen for fifteen minutes or more as he relayed an incredible story. He began by saying he was recently retired at 66. He smiled, “And now I can work full time for myself. I am a boiler repair man, gas and oil, big ones. I can repair them all. Now I don’t work for someone else, just myself, full time.” He said that if one works hard he will eventually get ahead as he pointed his finger up. He said he was a Cambodian. I had not noticed at first but as I looked more closely at his freckled face he did indeed look Asian. His was 9 years old during the time the Kymer Rouge ruled in Cambodia (1975 and 1979). I vaguely remember the horror stories, the mass killings, the starvation. He said the Rouge murdered his parents. At one point he considered taking his own life it was so bad. He threw himself under a truck and was severely injured. Somehow, this man who was just a boy at that time survived, and eventually thrived. When the Vietnamese invaded and ended  the Cambodian holocaust, Paul made his way to Thailand and freedom. As a refugee he was allowed to migrate to Europe. “I wanted to go to Belgium because I spoke French.” Instead he and a woman he did not know were put on an airplane to the United States. She later became his wife. Again, how in the world could this man survive such an ordeal and end up at the Mathewson Street United Church, at the Sunday Friendship Breakfast, in Providence, Rhode Island?





Road to Ruination

Sunday August 25, 2019   I like to strike up a conversation with the folks who want their picture made. That’s how I met John Wayne Voisine, a 49 year old homeless man who happened by my outdoor flag studio. I asked if he wanted his picture taken. He said, “Sure!” He was a friendly guy. I could tell he wanted to talk. After introducing myself as “Janthephotoman” which usually brings a smile, I began the conversation by asking, “Are you homeless? (because so many are.) He said, “Yes, I am.” but reassured me that he was on a list for an apartment and is hoping to get a place soon. ( thought to myself that JW might have a long wait. Inexpensive housing for single men is hard to come by in Providence. Men are usually last in line after needy families and single women.) I asked about the “John Wayne” handle thinking he was putting me on. He laughed, “Yes, that’s my real name. My grandfather named me! I love it, everyone remembers me.” Without pause he added proudly, “You know, I’m clean now. It’s been exactly 3 years, 5 months, 16 days.” as he double checked the calendar on his phone. Then he told his addiction story, one I’ve heard too many times before, a common path to ruination. “I was a chef in a restaurant and got injured on the job. My doctor prescribed  OxyContin for my pain. I got addicted to it. After a while it stopped working.  I needed something stronger. I started using heroin and eventually I got hooked on Crack.” He said drugs ruined his life. He seems to have gotten some of it back now, very proud that he has quit the drugs. He smiled, eyes shining, as I pushed the buttont. As he walked away he said “I’m clean now, and thankful to God for my second chance.”

Forgotten Americans: My friend Cliff

I met Cliff at the soup kitchen* at the Mathewson Street Methodist Church in Providence four years ago. We’ve always been friendly, and from time to time her would ask me to take his picture. I think this was more for a chance to connect as much as actually wanting a picture of himself. As is my custom, when I offered him his prints the following Sunday he would say, “No, man, I’ll get them later. I can’t carry them with these crutches.”  Like I said, photography was the excuse for us to talk.  

I asked Cliff if her would pose for my “Forgotten Americans” series  and he agreed. He’s been a guy who is always wants to please in spite of his rough  circumstances.  After I shot a few of him in front of the flag this Sunday he paused for about fifteen minutes to share some of his life story with me. He told me never knew his biological mother, instead was raised by foster parents from infancy. He repeated several times that has always considered his foster parents his real “Mother and Father.” He said they were very good to him. He mentioned he loved to read and that he had one year at BCC but dropped out, “One year was all I could take.” He admitted he became involved with drugs and alcohol in his early twenties and got in trouble with the law. He shrugged his shoulder even as he conceded, “Alcohol has probably ruined my life.” 

He has been on those crutches in this picture since his early thirties, battling a bone disease called avascular necrosis. It has left him crippled and in constant pain. Three surgeries haven’t helped. Still, he keeps hoping for a cure. He’s been off and on homeless for the last twenty years. He told me once the state got him housing on the third floor of an apartment building with no elevator.  He said, “I  had to give it up. I could’t get up the stairs carrying groceries with my crutches…” But through it all, Cliff manages to keep smiling.  I asked him if I could post his picture on Instagram and Face Book. He flashed that smile of his and answered, “Sure, man, what the hell, go for it!” as he hobbled away.

  • The Mathewson Street United Methodist Church supports a soup kitchen called the Sunday Friendship Breakfast where 200 men, women and children get a good hearty breakfast as well as friendship and some spiritual guidance every Sunday morning. Cliff has been coming as long as my wife, Kathy, and I, going on five years. They do good works!. Make a donation here:


The Pizza Man

Last weekend Tommy told me he bought seven pizzas and took them down to Kennedy Plaza to give out to the homeless people there. As he was distributed the pizza, a policeman approached and proceeded to give him $100 fine. Not sure what the charge was, or what the laws are, but it seems disgraceful that Tommy got slammed with a fine for feeding hungry people. Yes, he paid the fine, but I would've appealed to the judge rathe than paying this outrageous penalty.

Police Mess Things Up

The first time I met and photographed Natasha she was very subdued, sitting in the church foyer with her large protest sign and a frown. It was winter. She was bundled up against the cold. She didn't move, even turned down the Sunday Friendship Breakfast. I asked about her sign, "Police Mess Up Everything." Why was she making this silent protest to all who came through the door? She was unresponsive. I never found out what this protest was all about.

Fast forward many months to the summer of 2015 where I met her and her partner, Kevin. She was happy then. Kevin asked if I could take their picture together. I did and offered to do some more shots of her by his car. It was a fun little mini portrait shoot. I could tell it made her feel good. The next Sunday when I came back with her the pictures, she was extremely pleased with them, as was Kevin. The pictures captured her spirit.

Several more months went by. I would see her at The Breakfast, sometimes with Kevin, sometimes alone, often seemingly out of touch and vacant. Usually she gave no indication that she knew who I was. But once, inexplicably, as she walked by, she gave me a warm hug, and then, without a word being said, walked off.

I saw her off and on over the months but we never talked, just a quick wave or nod "Hello." She often seemed off somewhere, dazed, not really present. I'm not sure why.

When Kathy and I walked into the first breakfast in May of this year the place was abuzz. "Tasha's dead! Tasha's gone. Did you know Tasha?"At first I did not make the connection. "No, I didn't know Tasha. But I realized that I did know Tasha, she was the Natasha I had photographed last year, and earlier with her sign. Now she was gone,way too soon, at 26 years old!

Kevin came over as I was standing in an alcove during a meal a few weeks later. "How?" I asked. "She was so young." A stroke he said. He pulled out a pink piece of paper and handed it to me. It was the program from the funeral service, and on the back side, a remembrance. He wanted me to have it. It read in part:

In loving memory of Natasha M. "Tasha" Da Silva Sunrise: August 12, 1991, Sunset: April 26, 2017

"On Wednesday, April 26, 2017, God was looking down on earth for a special flower to pick, and He saw his daughter was getting tired and weak, so God reached down and cradled her in His loving arms and brought Natasha home to be in paradise with Him."

Tears streamed down Kevin's face. He told me he came home and found her collapsed on the floor as she stepped out of the shower. He said the paramedics could not get her breathing. It was too late. She was gone. He hoped I still had those pictures and I assured him I did. I said I was so sorry.

Little comfort though, whatever the reason, for this young women's passing at 26 years. Way too young to die. Rest in peace, Natasha.


Son of a preacher man

Al just sat on his bike with the sweetest smile, listening to a conversation I was having with another street warrior. He watched me do a portrait with interest. I turned to him and stated that I had never seen him here at The Breakfast. He said he came from time to time. He seemed like a real nice guy to me. We began to talk. Years ago his father was a minister at a local church. He reminisced of his childhood. He laughed, "I had to attend Sunday School every week without fail. I sang in the choir. I was a good boy." But things began to unravel when they found Al's dad face down in the Providence River. Another murder never solved. Al was just a boy when this happened. Fortunately, his mother was a strong woman. She went on to raise all seven kids by herself, at the same time getting her nursing degree along the way. Al trained to become a machinist and made good money, "$18 per hour." he said. Sadly, during the recession, he was laid off and things went south. He told me he never drank but admitted he started on "The Weed." He added that now he's over that, still hoping for a job. And he's still smiling.


Albert and Judy and two cats

She thanked me for the pictures I took of her four cats way back last fall. I hadn't spoken with her since but she continued as if we had spoken just yesterday, like we were best friends.  With a mix of anger  and sadness in her voice, she told me that someone had thrown Midnight, her favorite pet, into the Providence River last winter, never to be seen again. She was grieving even now.

She said Albert was watching their things in the back of the parking lot. "Why don't you go take some pictures of my kitties." she suggested. So I did. When I got there Albert peeled back the blanket that hid them from view and two little white cats peeked out of their cage for the portrait Judy requested.

Albert is a talker. I'm not sure how exactly it started but he began telling me how he grew up in Olneyville. He said he knew a few things about auto repairs and pointed to the baby carriage piled high with all their earthly belongings. Beside a cage containing the two cats, I made out a tarp and lots of bedding. Both back wheels were splayed out under the weight of load. He wasn't worried though. He thought he could fix it. Then he got back to his childhood, how he hid behind the tires at the garage when he was little, how he knew about these kind of repairs, how he worked there as a teenager. They reminded me of two modern day adventurers with a wagon load of all their possessions, looking for the promised land.

Judy came back so Albert could take his turn at the Sunday Friendship Breakfast. But he was in no hurry, still talking about the past. I remarked that the last time we met he barely spoke, only to tell me how he had gotten the side of his face smashed in, and even that in just a few guarded sentences. ("I was asleep. Some guy dropped a cinder block on my head.") Judy said, "Oh yes, her Albert is a talker, from the time he gets up in the morning till the time he goes to sleep. She has never known anyone that could talk as much as Albert."

She was pleased when I showed her the picture I had just taken of her two white cats. She reminded me not to forget to bring it next Sunday. I wanted to know more about these two rough sleepers. I asked if they stayed out all winter and Albert nodded yes. Judy said they usually camped under the bridge behind Providence Place Mall. "But what about when it got really cold?" I asked. She said they would come in to a shelter when it was really bad, sneaking the cats past the desk.

It's obvious they have much affection for each other. I offered to take a few shots of them right now and they were happy to pose. Here's the picture, with their carriage of clothes and the two cats hidden away somewhere amongst their things.


Walmart is hiring

I've been waiting to comment on this picture that has been shared with the intent being humorous and probably spurred by some underlying frustration.  Today is the day to serve up a little reality.  Here are my questions for the Walmart guy:  1) Will you hire him if he doesn't pass a background check or has committed a felony?  2) Will you provide him clothes to work in and when those get dirty will you help him get them washed or do you think that first paycheck will pay for an apartment, utilities, appliances, and laundry detergent?  3) Will you immediately pay for any healthcare including mental healthcare he needs?  With medications?  4)  Will you keep him as an employee if he has an exacerbation of PTSD, anxiety, schizophrenia, or anything else while at work?  5) Will you have someone watch his only earthly possessions while he is working so no one steals them?  6) Will you provide childcare or transportation or a bed for a good night's sleep or food to sustain him while he works?  (I could go on...)  Maybe the answers are "yes."  If so, kudos to you and I will be bringing a large number of friends to apply for every opening you have.  If not, hmmmm.... the "just get a freaking job" argument is not so easy to quip, is it?  Many of those who are homeless do work or want to work.  Many can't.  It is truly not a simple fix.  Judging them helps in no way at all!  Some homeless hold signs... One of the reasons is because people don't talk to them.  (I am fully aware there are bogus people out there plying on sympathies who hold signs and don't have legitimate needs.... I actually don't advocate for giving cash to those "flying signs.") My point is, "just get a damn job" is not simple.  Please take some time to understand some of the most devastating underlying issues.  These are people with feelings and worth.  Please treat them like it!! 


The Sunday Friendship Breakfast and afflliated programs served at the Mathewson Street United Methodist Church share over 800 meals to needy folks each month. However, and it's a big however, it is difficult or near impossible for some people to access the good works done up those stairs. The church is circa turn of the century, and there are stairs up to the main floor where the food is served. Too bad if you are in a wheel chair, unless some kind soul brings our your meal for a picnic on Mathewson Street.  I've seen Pastor Jack and 3 other big strong men struggle someone up those stairs. Older folk and people with crutches find the stairs a challenge. 


Sunday, Oct 2, 2016 at the Sunday Friendship Breakfast
I met Robert Boger yesterday as he was having a cigarette outside the SFB. I had noticed him as he talked with some of the guys hanging outside the church. They seemed to like and accept him as one of them.I've noticed this community of homeless folk are not as judgmental as more affluent segments of society. Mr. Boger was obviously disabled. I approached him, uncertain that he would want to speak with me since I had a camera around my neck. But he did want to talk, as many homeless people do. I suspect most people don't take the time. He told me he is 55 years old. He joked sarcastically that they call him "Lefty" as he took a drag on a cigarette that he held between his one tiny thumb and index finger that peaked out from his left shoulder. I got the joke. 

Robert is a Thalidomide survivor. He is also an inspiration.

He is one of the horrific and still negligently under-reported legacies of the Baby Boom era, the widespread use of thalidomide by pregnant women, which led to countless, yet still vastly undocumented, cases of children born in the United States and abroad with severe deformities, including the lack of limbs, hands, fingers and toes.

The drug, developed in the fifties by The Grunenthal Group in Germany and distributed out of Cincinnati, was touted as the “first safe sleeping pill” for pregnant women and, reportedly, approximately 2.5 million tablets were given to at least 20,000 patients in the U.S.. Yet, shockingly, the number of reported cases of affected infants — now adults — in the U.S. remains as low as 17. Robert is one of them. 

These thalidomide survivors have called on the media for deeper coverage of the truth about thalidomide and its U.S. victims, along with a meaningful gesture of apology — and ideally compensation — from Grunenthal, the company responsible for developing and mass marketing the drug that has had such devastating effects on the lives of so many — reported or not.

Whether due to the widespread and variable side effects of the drug’s damages, the fact that negative data from the “clinical studies” were not reported, the drug companies’ cover-ups, the FDA’s lack of protective measures for individuals included in drug research at the time, physicians’ reticence to indict themselves, or parents’ unwillingness to claim any connection to the drug, the result was a silent conspiracy to ignore the needs of those severely injured by thalidomide in the United States.

Robert wanted to tell his story. It gradually became clear that this man is very much a survivor. Against all odds, he not only has survived, but thrived. Many people might have given up. He has not. As we talked, it became apparent to me that Robert  is truly  an inspiration.

He told me about his childhood. It was hard growing up; the kids called him "Claw." But he went to the prom, graduated from high school, pretty much had a normal life as possible with his disability, and never did drugs in his teens. He attended a couple years of college. He was married for ten years and divorced. He said he had a special car fitted with the steering wheel on the floor so he could drive with his feet. In his younger days he even pulled some sort of house trailer behind his car. I was amazed.

He mentioned he even did a little stand up comedy when he lived in Massachusetts. He said by the time he was an adult, he was pretty used to the stares. He has a twinkle in his eye. He reminded me of a leprechaun. I tried to imagine his standup  jokes....

Robert fell into drugs after his divorce. He lost his house and car. I've heard this story before. Now he is homeless. He has been living in a group shelter in Warwick. He wants an apartment of his own. He says has his name on all the housing lists,  He is number is 149. He mentioned that although he is disabled, he doesn't get to go to the head of the line.

Elwoood interrupted our conversation. "Hey, Camera Man, take my picture." (Elwood is a tall, often inebriated black man who always asks me to take his picture every time he sees me.) I was annoyed but I knew if I took a quick shot he'd leave us alone. Robert watched me and I could tell he wanted a picture although he didn't ask. I offered and he said he wouldn't mind . I made several full length shots with his tiny left hand peeking out of his shoulder, and then a close up portrait. I noticed Robert has a warm confident smile. I liked this guy.

I am actually uncomfortable with this kind of picture, but Robert clearly was not. I'm not into "trophy" shots of disabled people. I ask permission and always try to return with prints for my subjects. I would not have taken Robert's photograph if he wasn't all right with it. But he was. He is used to people staring at him. Or more likely, stealing a glance then looking away as I had done at first. It must be very hard. And very lonely. 

He told me he has a dream. He said he hoped someday he could be a motivational speaker. Yes, I said, "I could see you doing this." I meant it.  He is articulate and seems to have a good attitude.. I bet he could do it... Hell, he was inspiring me out here on Mathewson Street.

I often think of the homeless people I meet and their struggles as I edit pictures from the breakfast. It can't be easy out there. But the difficulties of most pale compared to Robert's challenges. The simple tasks we do every day like tie our shoes, brush our teeth, comb our hair, even go to the bathroom, all of these and a thousand more must be incredibly difficult for this man, by a factor of ten. The obstacles he faced from birth must have been unbelievable. Yet as we talked, I realized he hasn't given up, and is not looking for any sympathy. Far from it, this man is determined to live his life as fully as possible with the cards he has been dealt. He's smiling. Yes, I do believe he could be a motivations speaker. His indomitable spirt is truly an inspiration.

Kathy came out, ready to go home. I started to introduce them but they already knew each other. He said she had served him breakfast a couple of times. Before we drove off, I  asked if I could share his story an photos on my website, maybe Facebook. I'd like other people to be inspired. He said, "No problem. And call me "Lefty."

24th Street Homecoming

The sunrise on Wednesday, September 14, 2016, was one of those once in a life time gifts the photo gods bestow on photographers.  We had just come to Ship Bottom, NJ, for a short visit with my sister Vicki in the nursing home. I thought, feared, this may be the last time I would ever see her now that she is moving to her son's home in Frederica, Delaware, population 774. I hope it works out for her there, and in many respects this arrangement is far more sensible than living alone in our cold summer cottage on 24th Street. 
And it will cost less money than a nursing home.

I was up out of the lumpy bed room off the living room at 5:30 AM, the one we always thought of as Aunt and Uncle's bedroom. The same one that had so many memories for me in a wild and crazy youth "down at the shore." Kathy slept. I looked out the door to the north and saw lovely puffy clouds hanging out in a dark sky. This sunrise had the promise of something special.

We lived just a few houses from the beach. I climbed the stairs at the top of the street and as I cleared the top of the dune I noticed a silent figure sitting ghost like on the bench. It was a woman, bundled up against the cold. She sat perfectly still, perhaps meditating to the sunrise to come. I made a few exposures with her silhouetted against the deep purple sky, ditched my sandals, and offered her a "Good morning." Not a word came over my shoulder from her, no greeting, just a dark silence and sounds from the sea. I walked down the dunes to the shore. "Good, not another reliving soul on the beach in either direction." It is always a joy to be so alone, especially here. This place felt so familiar, an echo from my youth. The cool sand felt very familiar between my toes.

The sky lightened but large clouds hung very still to the north. I could see the lights of a distant ship way out on the horizon. I waited and watched the incoming tide begin to wash away a little bank of sand. I left foot prints in the wet sand but the waves reached up on the shore and immediately erased them, a reminder of how ephemeral our existence. 

The brightening sky. The clouds began to break apart. They floated into a perfect picture, as if arranged by some celestial director of sun rises. I could see those clouds again reflected in the pool of water left behind by the waves. The time was right for a picture. I could not have imaged it a more beautiful homecoming.

Everybody smokes...

We've obviously NOT won the war on smoking...

“We've won the war on cigarette smoking" is a mantra among health-conscious middle- and upper-class Americans. But within the remarkable half-century public health success story of declining overall rates of smoking is a disturbing subplot: Those still puffing away are a substantially more disadvantaged group than ever before. In a 2008 Gallup poll of over 75,000 Americans, the rate of smoking among people making less than $24,000 a year was more than double that of those making $90,000 or more.

I met a nice lady the other day....

August 24 - As usual, Paula walked into the Breakfast wearing her perpetual frown. She is hard to miss, a frail, impossibly thin older lady dressed in mismatched clothes, always wearing a sad face. She is almost always alone and seems to prefer it that way. She'll usually stand away from other people when she is having a cigarette break.

When I finally got up my courage to approach her, I found her very willing to chat. Her grumpy face immediately changed into a big smile when I said "Hello." She bubbled over into an animated conversation in a deep, husky voice that suggested years of cigarettes. She has lived on the streets of  Providence "too long." She was difficult to follow, jumping from one subject to another, often in mid sentence. She mentioned her alcoholism, her bipolar struggles and years being homeless, almost in one breath. Along the way, I learned she is 66 years old. She admitted she usually avoids taking her meds. And like almost all the folks I talk with at the Sunday Friendship Breakfast, she holds out hope that someday she will finally have a place to live. 

Bus Station - Kennedy Plaza, Providence, RI

It was bitter cold at 6:50 AM last Sunday morning when I visited the bus station on Kennedy Plaza. I found many (homeless???) people seeking shelter there. It's a heartbreaking sight. So many folks need housing. Although Mr. Paolino thinks one 9 to 5 social worker is going to solve the problem of homeless folk populating the plaza, per his letter in Projo the other day, I think perhaps providing decent housing might be a better idea. And maybe a far better use of our tax dollars than paying all these expensive salaries or buying pricey out of state branding that our extravagant governor seems want to do...

Mother Nature’s cruel April Fools joke

A very tough morning at the Sunday Friendship Breakfast today with the temperature at 36 and the wind chill way down in the low teens. Thinking winter was over, many of the men and women that live their days on the street had put away, sold, or discarded their warm clothes too soon. April Fool!! It was sad to see so many folks having to struggle once again with a bitter cold Sunday on the street.