Photobomb Ghosts At Penumbra

Ann Votaw’s spirit tintype by Jolene Lupo.

I have a soft spot for cemeteries.

Recently, I posted an Instagram photo of a crumbling headstone and got a like from Jolene Lupo, a stranger of the alive variety.

But upon closer inspection of her profile pic—a black and white of a marble-eyed brunette—I wondered if Lupo might not be a phantom.

My sleuthing revealed Lupo was not a hallucination but the tintype studio manager of Penumbra Foundation, a Manhattan nonprofit dedicated to historical photography. The more I scrolled through her feed, the more I became enchanted with tintypes—kind-of like metal Polaroids of the mid-1800s.

As the child of antique fanatics, I grew up going to flea markets. Yet I was familiar with tintypes of whiskered soldiers, not the bearded hipsters I saw on Penumbra’s accounts.

Penumbra’s tintype of Jake Gyllenhaal created a stunning cover for a recent edition of Deadline Magazine. A headshot of Al Roker made the newscaster seem less like a weatherman and more like a long-lost uncle.

I especially admired Penumbra’s macabre renderings. Modeled in the style of William H. Mumler, a 19th-century photographer, spirit tintypes traditionally contained a sitter and a ghost, who appeared during development. Manipulated without the client’s knowledge, these tintypes claimed to connect the living to the dead.

I wanted one.

After a few days of cyber stalking Lupo and Penumbra, I became familiar with all the ways a specter could visit a single gal like me: as a ghoul in a lantern, a thirsty vampire or a bony old lady in rags. While tintype photography is enjoying a nation-wide renaissance, Penumbra is unique in that it ventures into wraith territory.

In honor of my 43rd birthday, a boring number, I decided to splurge on a one-of-a-kind portrait. With increasing pressure to feed an online personae, I wanted a keepsake that romanticized my fine lines instead of eliminating them. My goal was to have a striking profile that illuminated my soul while leaving enough shadow to protect it.

When I arrived at Penumbra’s East 30th Street location, I recognized Lupo immediately. Small-boned and dressed in black, she reminded me of Mary Shelley re-incarnated.

The studio was spartan clean with wooden floors and white walls. Lupo led me down messier corridors to glimpse relics from a massive collection: a wooden baby holder for squirmy children, an adjustable neck brace and “Big Bertha,” a canon-shaped camera with a judgemental cyclops eye.

My attention turned to the spirit photo on the wall: a headless skeleton and a present-day gentleman in a suit and tie.

But I also appreciated a scene I saw on the website, two guys in blazers whose Ouija board session was interrupted by a transparent hand.

To modern eyes, the photos are pure kitsch, but in the 1800s, clients believed.

Lupo flipped through the studio’s copy of The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer. The paperback showed Mumler’s most famous work: a trifecta of celebrities that included Mary Todd Lincoln, her dead son, Thaddeus, and the 16th President of the United States, who had recently been assassinated.

Mumler made a career off grief, particularly from women who had lost sons and husbands in the Civil War. Clients like Mrs. Lincoln might have been influenced by spiritualism, a Victorian movement—with roots in feminism—that offered peepholes into the afterlife. In 1869, Mumler was charged with fraud, but the jury couldn’t prove how he generated his apparitions.

“I don’t think it matters so much how Mumler did it, as much as the fact that he was able to pull it off at all,” Lupo mused, “and without the help of the internet.”

I wondered if I might also struggle between tech and reality. Certainly I was a sucker for folklore, and Lupo could spin a tale.

Her surname is Italian for “wolf.” She is engaged to a man named Falco, Italian for “falcon.”

This wolf-falcon watched my face as I produced my beat-up copy of Jane Eyre, a prop I wanted in the photo. “What do you like about the story?” she asked, obviously fishing. I told her I loved Charlotte Brontë’s descriptions of a mad first wife chained up in an antic.

After this fun interview, I changed into a 1940s robe, a gift from my cousin. I didn’t have to wear a costume, but I wanted to show off one of my most unique vintage pieces.

In the studio, we played with angles and attitude. I would look down with closed eyes—convenient, since I’m a blinker—and open my lips to convey surprise. I practiced my position, holding my book with my left hand while my right rested on my chest.

Next, Lupo led me into the darkroom to show she had no tricks up her sleeve, other than a fumey solution containing ether and grain alcohol. “Cheers,” she said, as she poured the syrupy collodion mixture onto a 4 by 5 piece of aluminum. She placed this “wet plate” into a silver nitrate bath for three minutes. By the time Lupo stuck the prepared plate into the camera, a Super Speed Graphic, I was in position. We would get one shot. The final product would be a material object she would varnish, scan and hand to me in a cardboard jewelry box.

“Look down,” Lupo said under a red and black cape. “Look up a bit more. Now hold the book in line with your chin, so it is in the light.”

Lupo took the photo with what sounded and felt like a small explosion.

Thwack.

With modern lighting and electronic flash units, the exposure was instantaneous, but finding and holding the pose made my back ache.

As Lupo went into the darkroom to wrestle with my poltergeist, I got up to stretch.

“Get ready,” Lupo called, bringing out a container with my picture floating in it.

I set my phone to video mode and watched myself emerge. I thought my lanky limbs resembled those of Granny Holloway. My shadowed eyelids reminded me of Grandma Votaw or maybe Great Granny Blair.

At the last second, there was an addition above Jane Eyre.

“Oh,” I said laughing. Then “ooooooo.” To my delight, my spirit showed itself in the form of a “mourning ghost,” a veiled woman who was so sad, she had to cover her face.

No selfie has ever satisfied me as much.

Regular 4 by 5 portraits are $100. Spirit photographs are $125. Visit here to make an appointment

This article originally appeared in the Observer.

To The French On Bastille Day! We Are All The People

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

 

When our new president swore on two bibles he would “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” a revolution stirred in my heart.

As a New York City Democrat who loves her conservative Hoosier family, I wanted to hold him to his promise without breaking ties. First, I needed to hear my thoughts.

On Inauguration Day, I visited the New York Public Library’s main branch on Fifth Avenue. Desperate to quell anxiety exacerbated by fake news and social media, I entered the great hush of the Rose Main Reading Room, known to many for its role in Ghostbusters.

By chance, I discovered artist Morgan O’Hara and a few of her companions vigorously scribbling at a long table. Their sign announced they would stay until closing time to handcopy the U.S. Constitution, the oldest written and continuously used governing constitution in the world that is more than 229 years old.

Smiling, I accepted the offer of paper and a marker from O’Hara’s stash of supplies. This was exactly what I needed, a patriotic reminder of a common set of values. I settled into a heavy wooden chair, feeling goosebumps creep up my neck.

As I re-penned “We the People,” I felt calm. My 7th grade teacher made my class memorize the Preamble in the 1980s. I imagined her low voice meld each syllable into a poem. Now I sensed “the Blessings of Liberty” as a fierce, fragile organism. Warmth moved into my hands and feet. My breath deepened.

When I checked my phone, verbal warfare invaded my cell phone. I watched in horror as a New England acquaintance started a Facebook pile-on. “Wash out your uneducated hick mouth and go back to Arkansas,” he typed to the stranger. Fans lobbed onto the post, forgetting that an actual human being was being torn apart. But the Constitution grounded me with its inclination toward fairness. Without thinking, I switched from print to cursive, surprised I still knew how to form the letters. To my relief, I found no mention of political parties, so toxic during the 2016 campaign.

The next day at the New York Women’s March, fear of crowds made me a pathetic protester. I emailed O’Hara, the conceptual artist I met at the library, to understand why I preferred her impromptu gathering to a mass demonstration. “Don’t make me out to be some hero,” said O’Hara, 76, who saw her event as a visual project, a way to return to basics and protest in silence. While she did not finish after six hours—predicting 14 for the whole task—the physical effort allowed her to sense how much tension went into making our laws.

Most of the Framers were wealthy. Many owned slaves. All were white men. Yet nearly everyone played a role in the Revolutionary War with more to lose than many of us with our smartphones and double lattes. Despite privileges, they were prepared to sacrifice everything to form a republic.

Centuries later, I imagined Founding Fathers could embrace feminists like my pal Liz, a civil rights and peace activist since the 1960s. Liz reminded me that the First Amendment grants five freedoms, including “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” But she went a step further. “We have to respect our enemies,” said Liz, an admirer of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. “Otherwise, it’s just a mob.”

Respect requires empathy. To cultivate gentleness, I copied passages before bed, moving the language through my bloodstream like a prayer. Article I, Section 8 granted powers to Congress and shared similarities to the book of Genesis. Each line was a creation: post offices, a standard of weights and measures, the production of money and the ability to declare war and to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.”

My jaw tightened as I thought of my new president’s executive orders. But as I spent more time with the Constitution, I thought its language modeled a level head for civil discourse. I was moved particularly by the 19th Amendment stating no one should be denied voting rights “on account of sex.” Ratified in 1920, the amendment and its gender-inclusive wording felt especially fresh.

“Copying the Constitution is different from reading it,” said my library buddy, Ana, an American citizen originally from Romania. “When you see a road from the plane, you don’t see the pebbles.”

Curious about the details, I traveled to Washington, D.C., specifically to visit founding documents at the National Archives. “Take a close look at the first page,” a guard told me as I approached the Constitution. “Can you see a mistake?” To my amazement, I found an omission, a line that had been scraped and possibly covered with candlewax. Then he pointed out a childish error on the fourth and final signature page—“Pensylvania” spelled with one “n”—scrawled out by Alexander Hamilton, the man whose name would launch a smash Broadway musical. I was in love.  

So was my father as I described my studies. Instead of arguing about Trump—an endless activity—we met up for a family vacation in Philadelphia, birthplace of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Infused with the Spirit of ‘76, we strolled through museums and chatted with costumed actors portraying Betsy Ross and Thomas Jefferson. At the National Constitution Center, we paused at a video of a naturalization ceremony. Like couples taking marriage vows, these brave new citizens pledged the Oath of Allegiance, swearing to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, “foreign and domestic.” When the camera zoomed in on individual faces, Dad and I stifled tears.

As a natural-born American, I took my freedoms for granted. But by copying my blessings each night with my right hand, I drew a pact with God—binding me to country, family and fellow patriots, however they voted.

Forty-five days into the Trump administration, I finished the last sentence of the 27th Amendment, the final law regarding congressional pay cycles. I was now a re-Framer with my own 43-page document. When stapled together end to end, the yellow legal paper trailed from my front door to my bed.

Then I started all over again with a fresh piece of paper, beginning with “We the People.”

[This article first appeared in the New York Observer.]

Too Old For Yoga Pants? Depends.

I knew I must be showing my age when I opened my goody bag for this year’s Yoga Journal Live in NY conference and found a box of Depends Undergarments.

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A yogi for more than 15 years, I don’t feel the same zing when I attend these conferences, which seem to be giving way to festivals and social media. The yoga-lebrity doesn’t shine as bright as in years past, when teachers like Rodney Yee could create buzz just by walking through the hallway.

Although I’ve grown weary of yoga marketing and practicing in hotel conference rooms, I’m sad to see Yoga Journal Live go out of style. Materialism can be fun.

Even though I’ve grown weary of all the yoga stuff, including jeweled malas and $80 tops sold in the market place, I do acknowledge that the yoga I once knew is getting wrinkly. When I walked around the Midtown Hilton today, I felt like a step aerobics teacher hanging on to the last scrunchie. We conference-goers aren’t as perky as we used to be, or maybe there are just fewer of us. The millennials certainly aren’t hip to this scene, which may explain the adult pull-up diapers in our goody bags. While yoga is just as wanted and needed as it ever was, the accoutrements have become as passé as the leotard and as run-down as an un-toned pelvic floor.

My personal practice feels more authentic than ever, even though I’ve given up jump backs and headstands. These days, my regime looks like lying around on the floor. I’m still not ready for Depends.

But I’ll let you know for sure after I give them a whirl. I am an open-minded yogi, after all.

Your Local Samurai Guy

Yoshi Amao and Saori PHOTO: Emily Assiran for Observer

Yoshi Amao and Saori PHOTO: Emily Assiran for Observer

 “I have a wife,” Yoshi Amao, the instructor of Samurai Sword Fighting, says quietly the other day at Peridance Capezio Center in the East Village. “But the sword is the partner with my hand and soul.”

With his acrobatic frame and thick black bangs, the Osaka, Japan native resembles an anime character, especially in his hakama, voluminous black skirt-like pants. “People ask how I look so young because I forget my age always,” jokes Amao, who claims he can’t remember the year of his birth.

Amao, also an actor, banks on teaching the way of the Samurai as an unorthodox day job. Aside from his class, a 90-minute workout fusing martial arts with kabuki, he offers New Yorkers private lessons and hires himself out to corporations that want to convey the values of the Japanese warriors to employees, through physical instruction and storytelling with his troupe of 10 fighter-dancers.

“A Samurai is strong, strict and humble…I almost think it’s the opposite of American”—Yoshi Amao

“Sometimes workers need to experience another world and forget everything what they do, what they feel and who they are,” Amao explains. “They may be able to feel parts of themselves through meditation at the beginning and end of the class, swinging swords for many times with a big kiai [yell] and acting in the fighting scenes, eventually.”

“A Samurai is strong, strict and humble,” he continues, speaking slowly and considering each word. “I almost think it’s the opposite of American. Sometimes I think Americans are like this”—he throws open his arms wide and flashes a game-show-host grin. “Japanese more inner.”

In his class, beginner and advanced students (many are dancers and quick studies) perform choreographed scenes, what Amao calls “Samurai Showtime.” Newer pupils rehearse a kata that approximates movement patterns of ballet. They nimbly dart forward and back, while striking and blocking with wooden swords called bokens, as loud drumming served as the soundtrack. Next, seasoned fighters rehearse a scene with one man defending himself against multiple attackers. As the samurai twirl to face each opponent, his hair and pants flow like that of a matinée idol. Staged deaths follow realistic-looking slashes through the stomach.

“In class, Yoshi is serious,” says one of his lieutenants, actor Saori Goda, 31, who trained for five years and fights like she’s in Kill Bill. “He really thinks of the way of the samurai: You have to respect your seniors, your teachers. In New York, it’s rare to learn this style.”

Yoshi Amao.

Yoshi Amao. Emily Assiran for Observer.

Also from Osaka, Goda stands by Amao in the lobby, her raven hair in a high bun. Having changed into jeans, Amao perches on a stool, his left leg stretched to display a floral-printed sneaker. As fighters and ballerinas mingle in the hallway, he maintains a panther’s posture, bokens sticking out of his bag.

Amao moved to New York in 1990 to become a full-time actor. With his deep voice and heavy accent, he gets consistent voice-over work, providing narration to video games (Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories) and commercials. His athleticism frequently lands him TV and film roles like Disney’s Japanizi: Going, Going, Gong! and the USA series White Collar. “Mostly, I am the face of the Cherry Blossom Festival,” he says, referring to the annual event at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.

Every spring, Amao choreographs a 45-minute play for the festival. This year’s theme was “Dragon Fire,” featuring Samurai Sword Soul, his troupe.

Amao adapts excerpts from the production for up to 20 performances throughout the country. While most of his performers are male, females provide nuance. “People get bored of men fighting,” notes Amao, deferring to Goda. “In Dragon Fire, Saori’s boyfriend is totally weaker than she is. He proposes to her. She refuses.

“Say the line,” Amao requests.

“I don’t want to marry someone who is not as strong as I am,” replies Goda, smiling.

“That always gets laughs,” he says. “In the U.S., men say, ‘Ladies first.’ Macho. I think women are stronger than men.”

Then Amao reveals a secret. “She is my wife,” he says, pointing to Goda. The couple burst into giggles. Married one year after seven years of dating, Amao and Goda met in New York when they were both emcees at a social event for JaNet, a nonprofit formed after 9/11 with a mission to “cheer up and unite” the Japanese expat community.

Today, the couple lives on the Upper East Side and occasionally collaborates on fight scenes, a difficult task in their small apartment.

Amao envisions taking his samurai show on the road, ideally in Las Vegas and California. “Then I will feel like I have made it in in America.”

Grammar Check: Why Celebrities Should Read ‘Elements Of Style’

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I know this presidential election gets people emotional, but that’s no excuse for bad grammar, especially if your name is Madonna. Take a look at Madge’s recent Facebook post promoting Hillary:

I love that the Material Girl has no shame, but her first sentence makes me squirm. Here’s a breakdown of her misdeeds, according to the fourth edition of The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White: 1) Bitches is a name or title that deserves parenthetic treatment when used in direct address. The Blonde One is talking to we bitches as if we were right there beside her. Therefore, “bitches” needs a comma. Ex. Bitches, are you in my gang??? 2) Because her statement is a sentence and not a title, Madonna really should ease up on the capitalization. If she wanted to pen a book, like The Catcher in the Rye or A Tale of Two Cities, she would have to italicize and use lower case letters for prepositions like “in.” Ex. Bitches, Are You in My Gang??? 3) Finally, no need for three question marks when one would do. With the way Madge zips through time zones, I recommend simplicity, especially when thumb typing on tiny keys.

As you can see, 29,000 people liked her shabbily written post. More than 2,000 fans actually shared it, which means Madonna is a person of influence. We have free speech in this country. I support her right to be offensive. She can continue to offer free fellatio to Hillary voters, but first, she has to polish her communication skills.

Bitches, are you in my gang?

 

Review: J. Brown Gets Tough

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Gentle is the New Advanced,” an online tutorial series, is J. Brown’s love note to any instructor who has ever felt like a fraud with a jacked-up neck and broken heart. His students, fellow instructors, nod and share their own views while sipping tea in a cozy Massachusetts studio. With creaky floor boards and snow falling against a picture window, this setting presents itself as an affordable retreat, a chance to earn Yoga Alliance credits without leaving home. Brown’s philosophy lands on all of us who pushed through the power vinyasa years only to collapse in a wasted sweaty heap, the only way we could experience savasana.

Through four practice sessions interspersed with four lecture/conversations, Brown admits to sacroiliac instability, possibly from all the full splits he forced upon himself in his twenties. “Man, why did I do all those hanamanasanas?” he laughs in Part 6 — Lecture: Practice Technique. His illustrated workbook highlights a 1997 photo of Brown in an impressive bow pose, toes pointed and chest lifted to the heavens. His practice looks much different today, due to chronic inflammation and a growing maturity that informs his methodology.

In his “radically transparent” style, Brown talks about his mother’s death, an event he sought to understand while simultaneously pushing away his emotions. Despite his advanced asana practice and travels to India, he couldn’t answer a simple question: How does this feel? Numbed out, Brown confesses to practicing and teaching so much that Mark Whitwell encouraged him to get a girlfriend. He did. Today, Brown lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children.

His methodology now focuses on breathing through core moves — including leg lifts, sun salutes, and bridging — that are building blocks for what are considered flashier Instagram moves like titibasana and side crow. When combined with ujjayi breath, each “easy” asana develops its own personality and level of difficulty. Perhaps I can let go of my flying crane pose with less risk of injury and more room for growth. 

In one of my favorite discussions, a teacher mentions the death of her father. His illness and passing presented itself as physical and emotional pain. She desperately needed to stop “performing” in her classes. Rather, she wanted to offer authentic techniques, something she could do by herself in private. Yet with pressure to maintain large class sizes, some instructors call out intricate sequences they don’t have the energy to do on their own. “If you don’t have the discipline to do this practice at home, I don’t think you have a leg to stand on,” Brown remarks.

Examples of exhaustive, repetitive asanas include headstand and shoulderstand. After a student injured his neck and never wanted to go back to yoga, Brown stopped teaching these poses. “They’re the king and queen of asanas, but I don’t care,” he laughs. Jump backs with percussive donkey kicks fall into the category of compromising behavior. While he doesn’t want to impede on anyone’s fun, he encourages jump backs for those who have first found their “floaty cloud” capabilities. In forward bends, knees can bend. In bridges, he invites full wheels, only if they feel right.

After all that breathing, “feeling right” is easier to judge, which is really the point of it all.

 

I’m Just Here For Savasana

“Final rest” can lend itself to macabre thoughts. Contrary to the cute T-shirt slogan, the pose is serious – even difficult. In Sanskrit, sava translates into corpse. When we practice savasana, we arrange our limbs in a funereal manner, sometimes with a bolster under the knees and a blanket beneath the head.

In America, we don’t like to talk about death, even though we see it each time we read about another shooting, another vigil. In less sensational terms, how many of us have lost jobs, family members ,or even a beloved restaurant that closed and gave way to Starbucks? These are all deaths, but in our culture, we don’t have a healthy collective way to process or celebrate them.

When I approached my 40s, I wanted more calm in how I approached change. The laugh lines around my mouth reminded me that my body was only a temporary structure for my infinite spirit. While my muscles loved to run and stretch, my soul — which was so big it frightened me — also needed tender care.

For my body, I began researching anatomical donation. Eventually, I donated it to a major hospital (I’m still using it right now), even going on a tour of the gross anatomy lab and attending cadaver memorials. In order to move forward, I wanted a better relationship with letting go.

To my surprise, med students often told me about unusual forces within the lab. Their beloved cadavers — spread open with bone saws — held secrets of scars and old surgeries that made them as real as any yia yia or abuela. Despite religious beliefs, many of these future doctors felt like the bodies watched them, not in a threatening way, but with the benign matter-of-factness of elderly aunts at a wedding.

In the memoir Body of Work, author Christine Montross, a doctor and poet, describes cutting off the face of Eve, the cadaver she shared with her fellow students, one of whom had a panic attack. “Despite the inertia of the dead,” Montross writes, “they actively affect us. Even now as the term winds to a close.”

In Thai medical schools, Montross notes, cadavers are especially holy because most citizens are Buddhist and therefore reluctant to intervene with reincarnation. Students refer to their bodies as “great teachers,” giving them ceremonies before and after dissection.

In a dance of intimacy unknown to most of us here in the West, Thai medical students memorize their donors’ names, forever walking with the dead in order to heal the living.

When we lie down for savasana, we are likewise communing with our ancestors. Corpse pose is not for the weak, a powerful conduit between space and time that is more than a slogan.

This article first appeared in YogaCity NYC.

It’s The Super Bowl Of Naturalizations!

Judge Robert Katzmann presides over the largest naturalization ceremony in Ellis’ Island’s history. Photo: Sasha Maslov for Observer

When taxi driver Richard Valdez boarded a ferry to Ellis Island last Friday, he filed past scores of tourists for what appeared to be a VIP wedding. As one of 298 candidates representing 53 countries, Valdez would soon participate in the Super Bowl of naturalization ceremonies, the largest in the island’s history.

A native of the Dominican Republic, Valdez, 26, relished postcard views of New York Harbor under a cyan sky. Tall and athletic, he wore a navy sports jacket with brown elbow patches. To quicken his long commute from the Bronx, he brought Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez’ novel about love at first sight. Like many on the ferry, Valdez came to the United States for better opportunities.

Unlike most other new citizens, he stood alone. His grandmother back home could not witness the day when he pledged himself “to perform work of national importance.” In a few hours, he would be an American with the responsibility of jury duty and the right to vote in a heated presidential election.

Richard Valdez on the day he became an American citizen.

Nearby, Verna Genus, 66, who hailed from Jamaica, put Betsy Ross to shame in a white jacket, blue top, red lace skirt and crimson heels.

“I’m like the flag,” she remarked. With her braids piled high, she rattled off answers from her citizenship test in a heavy Caribbean
accent: “There are tree branches of government…The Speaker of the House is Paul Ryan.” Her son, Kirk Genus, 38, would also be sworn in. “I have never voted in my entire life, and I feel great,” said Kirk, who supports Hillary Clinton. Together, mother and son strode toward registration tables in the Great Hall, the cathedral-like space that once processed 5,000 immigrants a day.

This setting, with its relics and ghosts, moved Robert Katzmann, chief judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. His Russian grandmother came through Ellis Island.

“I admire new citizens,” Katzmann said before presiding over the ceremony. “I like seeing the joy on the faces. Witnessing the tears of their family members is always emotional. I think of it in terms of my own forebearers and their stories of sacrifice, service and patriotism.”

As the son of a refugee from Nazi Germany, Katzmann helped found Immigrant Justice Corps, a program providing legal assistance to non-citizens fighting deportation. Today, an IJC client would be sworn in as a citizen, a victory for the nonprofit organization.

After a presentation of colors and the National Anthem, candidates rose when they heard their various homelands announced. Among the first to stand at attention was Xinjie Quan, 24, a member of the U.S. Army National Guard, who emigrated from China and wore military fatigues. When the emcee announced the Dominican Republic, a large contingent moved to its feet—cheers ricocheting off the high, vaulted ceiling. Valdez was among them, raising his right hand.

I have no doubt that the spirit of liberty will thrive with you as citizens,” Katzmann told the beaming crowd. “To become a citizen, you passed every test. And as polls show, you know more about our Constitution and government than most native-born Americans. Because of your personal histories, you have a special feeling for freedom…You will keep this country great. You will make it better as you assume the responsibility of citizenship.”

After the ceremony, Verna Genus continued sharing a stream of impressive trivia from her citizenship studies, even after she and her son held their official paperwork to secure them to U.S. soil. “There are 13 original colonies,” she shouted. “And the longest rivers are the Missouri and the Mississippi.”

Valdez had fewer words. “I feel like an American now,” he said.

This article first appeared in the New York Observer.

9/11 Stories: Rabbi Janise Poticha

Rabbi Janise Poticha holding the boots she wore on 9/11. Photo by Rick Wenner of The Observer.

Rabbi Janise Poticha holding the boots she wore on 9/11. Photo, Rick Wenner

“September 11 is still part of my life, but I don’t make it my life,” said Rabbi Janise Poticha, 63, the other day at a bustling diner near her Upper West Side apartment. “I expected to be a ‘pulpit rabbi’: to educate people, marry them, bury the dead and grieve with mourners,” she continued, her brown eyes a few shades darker than her cup of decaf. Her silver-streaked hair framed a tanned, youthful face. “Nobody ever thought somebody would hijack two airplanes and fly them into the most identifiable buildings in America.”

On the morning of 9/11, her doorman informed her that a plane hit the North Tower, probably a small aircraft gone off course. She thought little of it and set off for a meeting across town with the Archdiocese of New York. By the time she arrived, Flight 175 had crashed into the South Tower.

For the next four days, Poticha, who had EMT training, stayed around Ground Zero organizing triage stations. She placed the dead into body bags with first responders of all faiths. When a distraught firefighter noticed her kippah and chaplain vest, he asked if she would pray with him. “I said, ‘I’m Jewish, but we can pray together.’ We simply held hands and talked.”

More than 800 clergy mobilized after the 9/11 attacks—the largest multifaith chaplaincy effort in United States history.

“I felt compelled to be there, but I had to remember the high holy days were coming,” recalled Poticha, who has served as rabbi at Temple Sinai of Massapequa since 1998. “I had to take care of my congregation. On my last night as a responding chaplain, a construction worker gave me a ride home in his truck. It was 4 a.m. The moon was so bright. Looking up, I thought, ‘Things are still right in the world.’ The sun would rise in a few hours, and the moon would set. The organic sequence was still in place.”

Today, Poticha serves as president of Disaster Chaplaincy Services (DCS), a nonprofit that provides spiritual assistance in emergencies.

DCS provides pastoral support not just after tragedies but also during landmark occasions, such as the opening of the National September 11 Memorial Museum in 2014. In the museum’s first week, volunteer chaplains worked in shifts to care for survivors, family members and first responders who had a sneak peek of the site. “One man, a construction worker, saw his hat and pick in a glass case in the historical exhibition,” she said. “He had donated the items, but he didn’t know if they would be [displayed]. He broke into tears in my arms,” she said with a sigh. “There was a lot of that.”Ann Votaw for The New York Observer

PsychoBarn Is Home In NYC

Psycho House

PsychoBarn on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

Cornelia Parker’s site-specific sculpture, “Transitional Object (PsychoBarn),” is strangely at home on the Met’s rooftop garden, high above Central Park. I recently watched the sunset while leaning against the PscyhoBarn’s roped-off porch. Sipping beer and chewing expensive chips, I noted — once again — that New York is one weird city, especially at dawn or dusk when subterranean worlds collide with the respectable daytime veneer. Parker expertly caught the shadowy mood with her installation inspired by the Bates’ family home, the classic American red barn, and by the lonely paintings of Edward Hopper.

I just happen to be reading The Stand these days, a perfect summer epic about a world-wide pandemic. As a red sun flared through the trees and pleasant buildings of the Upper West Side, I thought of Rita Blakemoor and Larry Underwood stepping over dead bodies in the Lincoln Tunnel during a hail storm.

Like Parker, Stephen King knows a thing or two about fear.

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Art illustration from Stephen King’s The Stand