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?