When Paper Men Matter- Part 2

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Image courtesy of the Delta Arts Center, Winston Salem, NC

My husband Kevin and I went to the Delta Arts Center on May 20th, and experienced opening night of Christine Kirouac’s exhibit, “Hawkers”.  As soon as we walked in the door, Byron, one of the featured paper men, welcomed and thanked us for coming. He gave a firm handshake with a soft hand.

We walked into the space where large 20” by 20” black and white prints hung on the wall. One face to each frame with their names underneath.  Kenny Ray, another paper man, played jazz piano in a tan suit as guests mingled with paper men, in print and in person.

About five photos in, James was standing in front of his likeness, reaching out to shake our hands. “Hello. This is me. I had Bell’s Palsy during the photo shoot, that’s why my face was hanging a little.” I had a good friend in college who suffered with this so we chatted.

He described his day on the street and how he gives out a few free papers every day because sometimes others need it. One person even brought him lunch and said, “let’s keep the good going.” He told us about his mother who had arthritis and how he understood how much pain she was in. It was because of her that he tries to give to others.  I told him about why I was here and how a dead paper man in my mom’s hometown in Connecticut made me stop and think to thank them. He smiled. We connected.

Kevin and I  continued to move around the room. After the first pass, I chatted with a woman waking up every morning as a widow. “I live alone. The first person who says ‘Good Morning’ to me every day is the paper man.” I wondered how many others in the room felt the same about being alone  and how a “Good Morning” changes the day.

On the second pass in front of 20 men’s images, I became more deliberate in noticing each one. Some stared straight ahead.  Some smiled. One showed the back of his neck. One had only one arm and wore a vest that held papers.

I was catching a glimpse of community through a different lens – eyes and souls.  “Hawkers” allowed for an acknowledgement that lasted longer than a stop-light. I took a minute to notice the wrinkles, the sunglasses, and the name tag.

Or, the gray whiskers, the cigarette, the hand on hip.

Some look up as if divinely appointed to their profession. Others look away, as if in thought about something else.

Every photo reminded me that their life stories go beyond the corner. The framed prints of each offer an opportunity to care. That’s what community is about – caring.

It meant I could expand my vision of “them” to include “us”.

It meant I could listen, and learn and smile and shake hands and reconsider who the “paper men” are in my daily life – the cashiers, or the mail carrier. The mass of nameless that intersect my life daily don’t have to be faceless.

On our way out, I met the artist, Christine Kirouac. I told her about Jimmy, the dead paper man in Connecticut. I thanked her for honoring these guys while they are alive and not just when there is a tragedy. She is struck, as a Northern Canadian white woman that they are part of her community and now her friends.  “If you have eyes open and heart open you find community all around you regardless of where you’re from.”

That’s what I learned. Stop and look. Acknowledge. Thank someone and look eye to eye. Maybe ask how they are or what they’re up to. Connection is in our DNA and we can all start somewhere.

I would like to imagine Jimmy, the paper carrier looking over his corner, had a mission. Part of it was to use his life to say,  “I’m here, and you’re here. I’ll start by waving and acknowledging you. Now you do this for others.”

And one by one community starts.

If you would like to visit “Hawkers” by Christine Kirouac, please visit the Delta Arts Center before June 30th, 2012.