Sunday, August 7, 2011

If Floors Could Talk What Stories They Would Tell: The Fulbright Triptych and Memories of Brownsville

If Floors Could Talk, What Stories They Would Tell: The Fulbright Triptych and Memories of Brownsville

Mark Naison

After many false starts, I finally got to see my friend Simon Dinnersein’s extraordinary Fulbright Tripych at the German Consulate in Manhattan. Accompanying me was a former student who grew up in a working class family in Queens, spent four years in he Navy after graduating from Fordham and is now completing his doctorate at Cambridge (UK)

Both of us were completely blown away by this work. We stood there for over a half an hour marveling at each detail, from snippets of children’s art work to family portraits large and small, to passports, to window scenes of the German countryside to historic figures, to an incredibly realistic collection of artist’s instruments on a kitchen table that brought to mind, given the location of the exhibit, and the times we are living in, weapons used to torture prisoners of war or dissect victims of genocide- mixed images of Guantanamo and Buchenwald

But the single part of the Triptych that captured my imagination the most, and which also did so for my young friend, was the floor, a dark red tile underpinning for the painting that crossed all three panels. It was scuffled, raised, filled with what appeared to e thousands of small cracks, a floor for a working class household that had taken incredible punishment and like those who used it, somehow survived but were marked for life by those experiences. It was a floor that was familiar to both of us, and yet that we never expected to see in a work of art, and it made us feel at home enough with the Triptych to claim the painting, and the artist, as “one of our own.”

For me in particular, who has known Simon and his entire family for many years, and knows something of Simon and Renee’s upbringing in the Jewish working class neighborhood of Brownsville, the floor was a deeply personal message

It brought me back to the Sundays in my childhood when I visited my grandparents on my father’s side in a second floor apartment in a three story walkup on Hopkinson Avenue in Brownsville. My grandparents were immigrants from Poland who spoke little English, people who had escaped God knows what to come to America. My grandfather was a deeply religious, highly literate man who sold herring from a barrel on the streets of Brownsville until he was 90, but was a leader in his Orthodox shul and read Shakespeare in Yiddish, and my grandmother was a tiny woman, no more than 4’10” tall, who brought us tea and cookies with shaking hands and eyes filled with love.

Everything around them was shabby. The walls of the apartment, the seemingly ancient refrigerator and stove in their tiny kitchen, the glasses and dishes they brought food to us with, were old and worn down, yet there was a dignity about my grandparents that affected me even as a child, though I would never have been able to put those sentiments into words. These were people who had sacrificed everything so their children and grandchildren could have a better life and that experience had ennobled them while taking a powerful physical toll

And the floor that Simon had painted-that were the floors they walked on. The floor in their apartment. The floor in the hallways of their building, which they would soon leave for a Brownsville housing project- red tile, made brownish with wear and tear, ripped, scuffed, defaced, marked with the stains of food, and dirt, and urine and blood. Floors that had seen history made a thousand times in the lives of working class people whose history was rarely recorded. If floors could talk, what stories they could tell.

Well, Simon Dinnerstein allowed those floors to talk. To him, to me, to the thousands of people able to see the Triptych. As I see it, those floors could only have been painted by someone who not only who had walked floors like them, but had heard their message and incorporated them into the core of his being.

And in allowing those floors to speak, he affirmed the dignity of the people who walked on them, and in so doing, connected me to experiences that made me the person I am today, that helped inspire me with a love of learning, an identification with the poor and the oppressed, and the endurance to survive pain and hardship.

One final comment. It was Simon who looked at me during one of our tours of Brownsville, pointed at me and said “Bulyak.’- a Yiddish term, he explained, for men of unusual physical strength in a neighborhood where many men were small and thin- the men who carved up carcasses in neighborhood butcher shops, fought off Irish and Italian kids who sought to victimize their Jewish schoolmates, beat up strikebreakers in the garment district, and disposed of bodies for the mob.

No appellation has ever made me prouder- none ever touched more of a chord.

Simon, thank you for that, thank you for your friendship, thank you for your amazing art work and thank you for that floor, upon whose foundation I now stand, proud of all the people then and now who walked across it and invested it with their personal and collective histories

1 comment:

Roy Berkowitz said...

Great post. I ran across this from a google search of the word "bulyak". My father always told a story about his father, a tailor. This was either in the lower East side or Chelsea. My grandfather was a tiny guy, judging from my pop and two schnooks came to his store to shake him down for protection money. This had to be in the 20's. They said they were coming back the next day. A relative from the old country (Poland) happened to drop by and he was "a real bulyak"! My grandfather told him what happened. He said don't worry, I will be here tomorrow. When those guys came to the store, he jumped out and grabbed them by their collars, threw them into the basement and beat them like a rented mule, finally throwing them into the street. We should all have a bulyak in our family!