I grew up through the Bridges & Tunnels of New York City, in Queens and Brooklyn to be exact. Manhattan was viewed by me through the eyes of an outsider. My father was an educated man, fluent in several foreign languages, very much an intellectual and a gentleman who led and taught by example. A Colombian of Spanish descent, he was the son of an entrepreneurial Spaniard aristocrat and entreprenur, from a prominent family of Conversos, who emigrated to the new world’s southern hemisphere where he became a business leader in the local community of Armenia, the center of the coffee growing region in Colombia, South America. My grandfather married down, as some would say, by marrying a woman (my grandmother) of Colombian Indian heritage and raised his children, including my father, Catholic.
My father left the relative comfort of a well connected, prominent and affluent family in his own country to come to the United States, and create a life in New York’s Bright Lights, Big City before Jay McInerney wrote about it. He became just another hard working professional in New York City trying to support a family. A man torn between his love for two countries, with family in both, was my father. No matter where he was, there was always a longing for those he cared for. You could see it in his eyes and his manner. It still brings tears to my eyes now to think of the depth of love and heartache my father had to experience in his lifetime. If you see something chivalrous or generous in me, it unquestionably comes from my father.
My mother grew up in a working class family of Italian (Genovese), German & Austrian heritage in Chelsea (it was a bit different back then) From my mom, I learned discipline, humility and common sense (which unfortunately I do not always apply). Their working lives and the people they knew opened my eyes to Manhattan. I had summer jobs on Madison Avenue working for the engineering firm for which my father was employed. When my parents separated, my stepfather worked for a Trump, Fred Trump. Donald was a prodigy on the verge of extending the Trump brand and taking it to a new level, in Manhattan. The next great thing he was or so my stepfather advised me. He was right! When you think of New York, a few names come to mind: Giuliani, Trump, Rockefeller, De Niro and Jeter etc.
You see, we knew people. People in my family ALWAYS knew people. We worked for them. There was honor in that and never any shame. Most of the time. Some people were more affluent and had more money but we never felt lesser nor did we begrudge anyone their success or good fortune. You see, there were also even some people that we could not really talk about knowing. It was not something that we discussed outside the house. That’s what happens when you grow up in a family of Italians (Northern and Southern (by marriage)) and Colombians, even if mom’s heritages was more WASP like. My father grew up in relative affluence but did not place a high value on material possessions, as much as he did his history books and music (Beethoven to Barry White). But it was o.k., it made me realize that we were different. My father taught me how to appreciate the subtle beauty of life, art and culture and respect for the alternative view. He challenged me to think and question everything and helped to fill in the gaps in my education.
Years later, I am still more proud of my letter of recommendation from Donald Trump on Trump Organization letterhead than I am by the law degree I received from the University of Pennsylvania, Donald’s alma mater. Because of Mr. Trump, a borderline candidate became a shoe in at UPenn Law. As my well connected college girlfriend’s family of prominent Philadelphian’s asked, “how does a kid from Brooklyn know anyone, in our town no less?” Well, very simple, my step father worked hard for an honest man (Fred Trump), who rewarded loyalty. In turn, in the summer months I found myself employed by the Trump Organization as a Janitor/Porter in Trump apartment buildings, sweeping floors, mopping hallways and packaging trash, not exactly “networking.” When I grew out of that, or thought my education elevated me above such work, even though the pay was significant for someone my age, I chose instead to work as a lifeguard at Trump building pools. The perks? A union wage and being the most popular kid with all the cute Brooklyn JAPS in the neighborhood. It was not a racial slur, rather it was an aspiration or so I later learned in college. When I went to Boston University and the University of Pennsylvania I was informed that JAPS or “Princesses” did not come from the boroughs but rather from places like the Fives Towns of Long Island, even though their mother and/or father often traced his or her heritage to Brooklyn.
Manhattan was a world I did not understand. Sure it was “my city” or so I bragged to non New Yorkers. The retort that I was was often met with was, “dude you are not from New York. You don’t live in Manhattan….you live in phucking Brooklyn with all the other bridge and tunnel people. You even talk like that guy, what’s his name, Vinnie Barbarino from Welcome Back Kotter. Too bad you don’t look like him, you might get laid more.” My girlfriend was right! Just kidding BUT, the fact was that on some level he was right. The lives being led there were so far different than my own, that I had to read about and watch movies to get insight and perspective about my “hometown.”
The first thing I did with the assistance of my college girlfriend was work on my elocution. While I liked Brooklyn and still do, being annointed with my home borough’s name as my nickname, “yo Brooklyn”, in college was not a good thing. If they only knew I was born in Queens, between Kew Gardens and Forest Hills to be exact. Being called a Queen at that age could have been catastrophic. But like most things in life, as time goes by what was once stigmatized becomes “hip”…much like Brooklyn is now the new Manhattan or having Soprano like people in your family tree. It was not like it is today where every kid growing up in suburban affluence who happens to have a surname that ends in a vowel and has maybe watched too many episodes of the Soprano’s or the Gotti’s fancies himself a “gangsta.” I want to bitch slap some of these people. When times were lean after my parents separation, my mom served us alot of rice & beans and spaghetti with meatsauce. This is now considered “latino fare” and “pasta bolognese” for which you will spend a pretty penny at some trendy restaurants. Even mac & cheese is now an appetizer at some of the very same places. Go figure. We just ate that stuff because we had no money
I educated myself because I aspired to be “one of them.” As it turns out I now come home exhausted most evenings, looking forward to a warm bath followed by placing my head on a pillow. After putting in a 12 hour day at work downtown on select evenings, like tonight, I find myself camera in hand inside tony Upper East Side townhouses, places like the Doubles Club in the Sherry Netherland Hotel, the Park Avenue Armory and the Waldorf Astoria covering society and the world of philanthropy. Why? Because somewhere along the line I fell into wanting to capture the story, and to really understand how my city works, rather than be the story. I once wondered what it was like to be a guest at these parties. But now, truthfully, in observing and taking pictures I am enjoying myself more than if I were the guest of honor. Capische? You see, New York has two classes of people. Those who work and those who well let’s just say “work it.” Frankly, it is unlikely that you will ever see me “lunching” at Michael’s. I just don’t do lunch. I am reminded of the scene in the movie Wall Street, where Michael Douglas playing Gordon Gekko states to the somewhat eager and green Bud Fox, played by Charlie Sheen that, “Lunch is for Wimps.” But I digress. Many who work it do so for the benefit of others. As for posers unfortunately you are always going to have those in any social setting. For me, they are just part of the background noise. Consider the woman who I ran into at a Fresh Air Fund fundraiser a couple of years ago who waxed on about how she has been big supporter of the fund for years now because of the important work that the fund does for the enviornment. I rolled my eyes in disbelief and had to cough to refrain from laughing but did not have the inclination to correct and advise her that the Fresh Air Fund actually sends under privileged youth to summer camp or the country homes of sponsors for select summer weeks so that they can experience country life outside of their urban enviornments.
What is charity but the fulfillment or enabling the dreams of others less fortunate? To me the fact that there are some truly genuine people who devote their lives to philanthropy is inspirational and fascinating. This is no less true because there are social perks associated with doing so or that they often choose to celebrate their philanthropic endeavors with such regal style and flair. So what if they draw attention to themselves? The fanfare by which philanthropy is celebrated in the highest echelons of New York’s social world is really just part of the show. It is enabling, not disabling and is a necessity for it to survive.
So what is a typical evening like for Chris London ? Tonight I photographed Rockefeller’s, several of them actually, met some happy fella’s at the bar, definitely saw a good fella (you have to trust me on that one). I spoke to a Junior Leaguer, a Wall Streeter, took a picture of a former East Street Band Member but walked by a famous Auctioneer because I had already taken his photo several times before.
I listen with my eyes and document what I hear with my camera. I do not always know why but I know I like it and will continue to do it even if it never gets me anywhere. They say life is about the journey and not the destination. The turbulence I have encountered in my life is not quite that experienced by those aboard the Titanic even if I did meet Kate Winslet on this trip. Speaking of Kate, I did not even know who she was until about six (6) stiff drinks of dialoque she fessed up. How clueless am I? A socialite walks in the room, my head pops up. I am seated drinking with one of the world’s most famous actresses for a couple of hours and to me she is simply “Kate”. But then again it was more interesting that way. And with her I just listened and watched….and left the camera in its place because it was also much better that way. There is a time and a place for everything, I suppose.
Maybe I will learn my proper place, even if I am sometimes filled with existential angst, too concerned about how others perceive me or what they think I should be or could have been. As my Dad advised me at my law school graduation after taking my picture with Commencement Speaker, Senator Joe Biden, “son you are so smart, you could have been a doctor.” Never have I been content to accept wholeheartedly without qualification the projections or labels that some would bestow on me….whether it be photographer, lawyer, writer, bodybuilder, boy toy, boyfriend etc etc. What is so wrong about being a jack of all trades, if eventually you come to master more than one?
I closed my eyes, feeling the warmth of the bath water soothing my aching angles and thighs. In the background the radio played Neil Diamond:
“I am,” I said
To no one there
An no one heard at all
Not even the chair”
I am,” I cried”I am,” said I
And I am lost, and I can’t even say why
Leavin’ me lonely still
Did you ever read about a frog who dreamed of bein’ a king
And then became one
Well except for the names and a few other changes
I you talk about me, the story’s the same one
But I got an emptiness deep inside
And I’ve tried, but it won’t let me go
And I’m not a man who likes to swear
But I never cared for the sound of being alone
“I am,” I said
To no one there
An no one heard at all
Not even the chair
“I am,” I cried
“I am,” said I
And I am lost, and I can’t even say why
Leavin’ me lonely still
Written by Neil Diamond