When he was 18 months, I took O to London to show him off to my parents. His second trip to London, it was quite an event, the minimum of clothing for me, the maximum amount of “stuff” for O; My parents were overjoyed to see him; it was only the second time they had met, and my mother, a true Neapolitan, could barely contain herself.
Mr. O and yours truly with mullet! eek! photo: cs
The flight and additional train journey to London had lasted many hours, during which O had remained awake and active. On our arrival at Victoria Station, I was met by my mother, who was clearly yearning to hold him in her arms. My son took one look at his grandmother, and much to her dismay, promptly fell into a deep sleep.
First day of school, PS 39 Brooklyn photo: cs
The marriage lasted until 1989. The divorce arrangement, initially at least, was fairly amicable: I saw my son every other week in a week-on, week-off schedule of visits. Everything, time and financial matters, were split equally.
Mr. O in the wings at kindergarten
On many occasions, I would be shooting, my clients playing with him in the play-pen, barely paying any attention to the shoot. Once, an emergency call from the nursery school required the art director to run uptown in the middle of a shoot, and bring Mr. O back to the studio. I knew I was fortunate, in that the nature of my work allowed me to enjoy this time with him. I felt, too, that he would benefit from the presence of adults going about their daily business. I rarely, if ever, used the services of a sitter, instead making sure that any of my appointments were set on the days he was with his mother.
Mr. O and yours truly in the rocking chair. photo: cs
The studio was a ninth floor loft on the West Side of Manhattan. Back in the eighties the neighborhood was quite barren; the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel serving mostly as a stopping point for party boys coming into the city (they were called the Bridge and Tunnel crowd back then). Serviced by the working girls inside the parked buses, they would then trundle off to the clubs, looking for “presentable women”, more suited to taking home to mother. I later came to know this practice to be called, “draining the hose”. A sordid and revolting practice.
Mr. O graduating PS 39
The loft building would shut down at 7pm each night and at weekends. There was no running water or elevator service. The skanky bathroom had no shower (or bath), and my kitchen consisted of a fridge and a burner. Bath-time for Mr. O, who was seven at the time, was “bath-in-a-bucket”. I would boil water, filched from the fire hose, and fill a large plaster-compound bucket, O going first; an amusing sight indeed.
As the elevator had been shut down, I tried to make sure supplies were at hand – sometimes we would go out to the local diner, and on returning, he would fall asleep, or pretend to, and I would have to carry him up nine flights. This being a loft building with sixteen-foot ceilings, it was quite a haul.
At the swimming pool. photo: cw
Each day I would take him to school, sneaking past the janitor, who turned a blind eye. Monday mornings, I waved goodbye, knowing I would not see him for a week; his mother would pick him up that afternoon and he would stay with her for the following week.
Mr. O on Long Island, my first trip with him after the divorce, 1987
In the fall of 1991 I met my second wife, Christine; ten months later in November ‘92 my daughter, J, was born.
Miss J and yours truly at the Spring Street pool 1994.
I was ecstatic; the joy and love I felt for my daughter was indescribable. At that time, it became evident that the studio was no place for a baby, so, three days before she was born, I found a live/work converted garage on Lafayette street in Manhattan.
Miss J and her mother, the garage on Lafayette Street, 1993
November saw me traveling to Columbia hospital, the old studio, and the new place on a circular route of moving, packing and preparing the new place.
Miss J and yours truly discussing particle physics. photo: cw
Miss J was a colicky baby, but with an intense personality. It seemed she rarely slept, but when I timed her sleep periods, it all added up to enough to be called normal – it was just scattered across the day and night.
Nothing, it seemed, would help her sleep for any length of time – neither the vibrating laundry machine, jogging, running up and down the hallway or other ancient and useless remedies. My thoughts about how this would bring us closer together made the endless wailing bearable.
Not quite as graceful as I would have liked – me I mean. photo: cw
My schedule with Mr. O remained the same. He loved the new studio and was very nurturing of Boo – (my pet name for J), although a certain reticence on his part bothered me until I became aware that he had been informed that Miss J was not a “real” sister.
Mr. O and his sister at Spring Street pool
His mother, Carin, had remarried and moved to Brooklyn. Her new husband, an erstwhile client, had a son, Y, the same age as Mr.O.
They had become close friends and were very funny together.
One day, on the way to school, O asked the meaning of a poster about AIDS. Little did I know that it had a certain meaning for him, but I took his question at face value, and gave him as good an explanation as I could, my theory being that if he was old enough to ask, he was old enough to know the answer – I have always been opposed to censorship.
The Brothers O and Y. Now, this truly is blackmail material. photo:cs
I told him that one way AIDS could be contracted was through sex, and suddenly, here was the talk I had always wondered about. So I gave it my best shot, in as straight and matter-of-fact a manner as I could muster. O said nothing, and I dropped him at school. It was a Monday, so I did not expect to hear from him, but that night I received a call from his mother, asking about what I had said. It seems that Mr. O and Mr. Y had had a conversation, and had retired to the bathtub, intent on staying there the rest of their lives, “because of sex”. Shortly thereafter, Carin informed me that Mr. Y’s father, C was HIV positive.
Miss J and a young friend.
In 1994 Mr. Y’s father died on the tracks in front of an oncoming A train. I was not privy to the details of his death; I knew he was very ill, and that he had talked of his wish to end his suffering. Sometimes, when I called to speak to Mr. O, I would hear him in the background, in the throes of dreadful coughing spasms. I felt the loss of C quite deeply as he had always been a very kind and soft-spoken man. He reminded me of a warm teddy-bear, which he resembled. He was an art director at Essence Magazine and we worked closely together many times. I owe him a great deal, as he was instrumental in smoothing over some of the difficulties between me and O’s mother, which were starting to get worse.
Washington Square park. photo: cw
One day, shortly after after C’s untimely death, I was to pick up my son from his after-school program at the Brooklyn Y. He was splashing about in the swimming pool. “Hey, Dad, d’ dad d’ dadd dad” he called, a pet game of ours, “guess what? We are all moving to California”.
And so began my first experiences of Family Court, the Human Mangle Machine.
Miss J at Halloween
I tried to talk to Carin about this decision, and whether it was wise, but all I got was “I’m the mother; I know best”; a phrase I came to hear many times over the ensuing years. With no alternative, I went to family court and asked for a stay. Based on my track record of time spent with O, it was granted, pending a full hearing. But it transpired that O’s mother had changed her mind and decided to remain in New York, at least for the time being.
She was furious that I had tried to prevent the move, thus, unwittingly, I had unleashed the dogs of war.
My two kids at the garage on Lafayette Street
In hindsight, I wonder if, had I taken a different course of action, my life and the lives of those around me, would have turned out differently. Perhaps I could have made a greater effort to work out an amicable arrangement, or even let my son go. But hindsight, something which sits on my shoulder every day, is always 20/20.
Miss J at two years
A few weeks later, I received a certified letter that contained several motions, filed by Mr. O’s mother, all of which pertained to money, child support, custody and visitation. My first reaction was one of horror. The amounts of money and descriptions of my lifestyle, were so alien to me, I could barely comprehend it.
I went back to family court, but was told that this was a financial matter now, and that I would need to hire a lawyer. No financial aid would be available. An immediate decision was handed down by the courts; I was to pay $1,500 per month in child support, plus a slew of sundry items.
The support order was totally unfair and unreachable, but as Carin had been involved in my career, her testimony carried a lot of weight. My lack of attention to my own financial affairs contributed greatly to this inequitable decision. In addition, I was to now take Mr. O to Hebrew school, and schedule a whole host of activities that would drastically change the nature of my time with him.
Miss J at three, more backdrop testing
Mr. O’s mother had never been religious, in spite of her parents’ insistence of observing the High Holy Days. I had been raised a Catholic by my mother, but had stopped attending church in my teens, except for midnight mass at Christmas. As with Carin, it was more about family tradition.
Suddenly, Saturdays with my son were disrupted; religious after-school programs created havoc with my time. Rather than leave my son at Hebrew school, return home, turn around and head back to pick him up, I decided to sit in on his classes. It was somewhat frowned on, especially as it was known I was not Jewish.
Last day at PS 39, Mr. O and his pal Sam up front.
Sometimes I would join in, genuinely interested, but for the most part, I observed a form of indoctrination, ignored, or at best, barely tolerated by most of the kids. Oddly, it was not so important that he attend Hebrew school on the Saturdays he spent with his mother.
During that time, it became apparent to me that young Mr.Y had been cast aside. Over the next couple of years, I did my best to keep Mr. O and Y together. Whenever O came to visit, I would try and schedule Mr. Y to stay over. Often, Y would stay with me, even when Mr. O was away. It was a wonderful experience. Miss. J loved the two boys, and cheerfully put up with their teasing. Stylishly dressed in an odd version of Japanese Shabby, they were an amusing pair.
Recently I was overjoyed to reacquaint myself with Y when he came to visit, bringing his young son C, named after his grandfather. Y greatly honored me by saying that I had been a father to him during those times, and that his love of cooking stemmed from my own antics in the kitchen. At the time, I did not realize the part I had played in his life.
Mr. Y with his son, C earlier this year 2010
Young Mr C. and yours truly, 2010
Christine, Boo and I were now living in a loft on Green Street. It was 1995: Soho at the time was still relatively quiet and undiscovered, but was in the process of being gentrified. It was quiet at night: stores were closed; the neighborhood consisted of a close-knit community of artists and eccentrics. At my wife’s insistence, we were living in a space that rented for $3,300, far more than I could afford, feasible only because it combined both work and living space.
Miss J aged 6 on a shoot, 1998
In 1997, Mr. O’s mother met her fourth husband over the internet, and decided to move to North Carolina, taking O with her.
With my son’s consent – he was nine at the time – I contested the relocation. The case had been moved to New York Supreme Court, under the supervision of Justice Fern Fisher Brandveen. Jo Anne Douglas, a law guardian, was appointed for my daughter, and based on her recommendation and my deep involvement in Mr. O’s life, the relocation was initially denied.
Yours truly, passed out after a weekend school trip with Mr. O and PS 39 at Brooklyn Airfield.
The case then went into overdrive: psychiatric forensics were asked for, and ordered, all of which had to be paid for; doctors’ reports ordered and scrutinized. Attempts were made to portray me as an unfit father, depressed and manic, none of which stuck, but served to drain my meager resources and wear me down.
The teachers at Mr. O’s school very kindly testified on my behalf, but were torn apart on the stand for no good reason. The initial forensics report, by Dr. Paul Hymowitz, supported my position, albeit in a waffling manner.
But on the witness stand, the law guardian, Jo Anne Douglas, tired of the case, began to change her mind: the forensics evaluator, having had his credentials challenged, and unable to understand his own poor notation, wobbled.
The trial dragged on for three years. It seemed that the court were toying with us. Often, the judge would turn up an hour late, with little or no structure as to how the evidence was being handled.
Unable to make up her mind, we were sent to another judge, whose first question was, “is this about avoiding child support?” I felt very despondent.
Miss J and her brother, 2005
There was much pressure put on O to change his mind and move to North Carolina, and around 1998, after several visits with his mother, a tour of a new school, a dog and other temptations, Carin told the court that Mr. O would like to speak to the judge privately. I knew immediately why; it was clear he had changed his mind, and had chosen to move to the southern state. I was heartbroken and felt betrayed, but had to acknowledge my own part in this; the part in which I had lacked my own convictions, and had questioned whether my course was the right one. My own self-doubts played their part.
It was also taking a huge toll on my already shaky relationship with Christine.
Homework with Pudding 2004
In the year before the start of middle school, Justice Brandveen ordered that Mr. O relocate to North Carolina. The court acknowledged that he had been coerced, but expressed the opinion that it would be “in the best interests of the child” to approve the relocation, based on the theory that, as I was the more rational and stable parent, I would strive to make the relocation work. Whereas were he to stay in New York, his mother would be likely to continue the pressure to move, never letting O have a peaceful life with his father. Jo Anne Douglas, the Law Guardian agreed, but in her written decision, said that she, and by extension, the courts, had been coerced and that she regretted her change of mind.
In retrospect it seems that in this convoluted “reasoning” of the court, the irrational and surreal won the day. I was soon to realize that this was Standard Operating Procedure in Family Court.
The legal expenses associated had completely drained me and I decided to go Pro Se and finish the trial representing myself, making the best of a bad situation. I felt that any further legal action would destroy the very thing I was fighting for, i.e., my relationship with Mr. O, and I gave my blessing to the relocation.
The case ended in the fall 1999 with a visitation schedule and a mutually agreed child support payment of $500 per month. Earlier, I had joined a fathers’ rights group, and after listening to the various tales of woe, felt that at the very least, I had tried, and the relationship with my son was as good as I could make it.
Six months later in March 2000, the second shoe dropped.
My daughter is very creative and talented. Once, after cleaning up all the wood and detritus from building bedrooms for the kids, I found, in the middle of the floor, a pile of wood scraps, placed with great precision and grace; Boo, barely three at the time, did not mention that it was she herself who had created it, and seemed quite blase about the whole thing. It was an arrangement that deserved to be immortalized, which I did, hanging it on the wall after I bought it from her for $1.00 – a bargain. I wished to let her know that true art has value.
Taking my daughter to school, Grand Street 1997
She had enrolled in our local school, PS 130, in Chinatown; I felt a kinship with the predominantly Chinese children and their parents, and strove to be as much a part of this school as I had done with my son’s.
With few exceptions, I took my daughter to school every day, often rehearsing homework as we walked. I would wait, looking through the window with the other mothers, until I saw her take her seat. If she did not see me she would be terribly upset; tears would flow, necessitating my re-entry into the school to show my presence.
Sometimes, suffering the disapproval of her mother, I would pick her up at three in the afternoon, taking her out of after-school (really a glorified babysitting program, consisting mostly of watching cartoons until the parents finished work at six). We would go to the local park, or for walks, window-shopping, or come home and mess about with building blocks, clay and other fun arty projects. With few exceptions, I made dinner every night, taking time to lay a nice table. I knew that the emotions my daughter felt upon returning home from school, would stay with her for the years to come. Although we had a television, it was rarely switched on; there were so many more valuable things to occupy our minds. One game I played with my daughter, was to sit her at the kitchen table with her eyes closed, opening various spice jars, waving them under her nose. Her favorite was cardamom: mine too.
Miss J and Stardust for Redbook Magazine
Once a year I would combine my daughter’s birthday party with one for friends and clients, an eclectic gathering of Chinese families, art directors and creative people. A very special and enjoyable event, with me preparing and cooking food days ahead — my antidote to the bland and desultory McDonald parties, or high-priced yuppie packaged splurges. I recall that when my sister got married, our family was struggling financially, and it fell upon my mother to create, as it were from nothing, a sumptuous wedding feast, a sort of modern day Cana. I always remembered the warmth of that time, and I strove to re-create it.
Miss J with Stardust 1999
In many ways my mother was a guide: were she alive today, she would not comprehend the events that have taken place over the past twenty one years. Perhaps it is a blessing she is not present; it would surely have broken her heart. It occurs to me as I write this, that grandparents everywhere, must surely be suffering deeply, their connection to their grandchildren, so vitally important, severed, or forever altered by events they had no part in.
Mr. O with his sister at my place on second avenue, 2006
Tension grew between my wife and I; I suspect a fair degree of naivete on my part – a reluctance to act in a mature way and to end the marriage in a responsible manner, if such were possible. The therapist I was seeing, William Cheshier, had told me that were I not to take action, action would be taken for me. I did not know if he was predicting, warning or promising me what was to come.
I had been introduced to William Cheshier, a clinical counselor, on a shoot three years earlier. A charismatic man, I eventually came to think of the him as the “poor woman’s Rasputin”. He was present at the shoot, ostensibly to write about the effect of “make-overs” on housewives, but really, it was the set-up for an affair with the beauty editor of “R” magazine.
On the surface, it was a fru-fru event, created for the purpose of selling magazines. I was however quite touched when I became aware of how much these womens’ lives were changed as a result of those make-overs. Marriages were lost or rejuvenated, careers changed; the course of small-town history forever altered.
Miss J and the Pikachoo snowman 2006
It was through Bill – as I came to know him – that for the first time I became aware of psychology in any meaningful way. In England, therapy was seen a peculiar and self-indulgent American infatuation, with many jokes made on the topic, as it was an anathema to the British “stiff-upper-lip”. At the time, I thought Bill was very smart.
We became friends for a while, and I noticed that he seemed to be searching for some form of self-expression. Obsessed with the subject of early childhood abuse, he spoke at length about its statistics. It was a topic I was not familiar with, as I had not suffered such a thing myself.
It was one of those things I had only heard or read about. My first wife had indicated she had been abused by her father, but the facts sounded strangely disjointed, and not quite credible.
Coincidentally, Christine alluded to the same history in her own life, but again, I sensed an odd dissonance, as though it never really happened. It was clear, however, from conversations we had, that Christine hated her father whom she never knew, as he had abandoned her at a young age, as well as her step-father, who she felt to be very overbearing. Eventually Bill told me he had “remembered” that he too had been abused as a child.
Miss J and Pudding 2005
For a while, I lost touch with Bill, but in early 1994, I reached out to him.
I have never been a busy photographer; work has always been on the verge of non-existence. I am not good at self-promotion or blowing my own horn. Money, or the lack of it, was bringing to the foreground the fundamental flaws in my marriage to Christine. Bill, who was practicing in New York and Chicago, agreed to help me examine the reasons for my lack of work, in exchange for some photography. He readily agreed, and so started a strange and ultimately destructive relationship.
Some fabulous silliness in Central Park. 2006
The first time he visited, we sat in the studio on Lafayette Street and discussed the reasons for my lack of work. At some point during the conversation, Christine came by, and sat in, seemingly quite interested. This was unusual, as she is a dismissive person when it comes to the other. She has few friends, and is highly critical of people in general, so I was rather surprised, and pleased at her interest.
I felt this was a definite improvement and I welcomed her into the discussions. As time progressed, a strange dynamic took shape. My personal counseling with Bill started to spread into areas of my relationship with Christine, and before long, my career counseling sessions turned into marital sessions.
Then marital guidance counseling for Christine and I. And a private session between William and my wife.
As I write this, I’m thinking, boy what a cuckold: but not a sexual one.
I was just witting enough, to see that my personal sessions would not be productive in this format, so I withdrew, but carried on with the joint counseling, and they – Christine and Bill – continued with their private sessions.
Bill had became embroiled in a personal lawsuit; he had been accused of planting false memories in one of his patients, and her parents were suing him for “loss of society” – a term meaning that the child had been turned against the parent for no justifiable reason. This made Bill quite anxious, and was the subject of numerous conversations at our home. The charged were eventually dismissed. At the time I was entering the last phases of my legal battle with Mr. O’s mother, and strange overtones swept through my home. Again with hindsight, I see he was intermingling his own life experiences with ours. I ignored many warning signs (a dreadful character flaw within me), and in fact continued to welcome and encourage his presence in our house. He came by once or twice a week, and Christine would always dress rather provocatively, wearing a peek-a -boo bra, not something she really needed, but certainly very effective and to the point: pun intended.
The last straw came when Christine informed me that Bill had told her I was no longer attracted to her. Although far from the truth, it must have carried weight, confirming her low feelings of self-worth – or perhaps for another reason.
Confronted, Bill did not deny it; he seemed to me to feel quite justified in his position. Either way, it was sufficient for me to tell him he was no longer welcome in our home. The relationship between Bill and Christine continued, however, via lengthy phone conversations taking place whilst Christine locked herself in the bathroom.
From this distance in time, my acquiescence to this and other behaviors seems insane, but I did not allow myself to see what was before me.
Boo had been having trouble with homework: a subject of much acrimony for all the parents, including us, although I was somewhat ambivalent about this.
Homework was supposed to take about two hours per night, which I felt was a lot for a six year old, but some kids were able to handle it. Many parents complained bitterly, and it must have been hard for the Chinese-born mothers and fathers, many of whom spoke no English, relying instead on the children to interpret for them.
However, the school had a high degree of success and I wanted to support their efforts; so we struggled through as best we could. But it wasn’t working and I began to realize that the numerous arguments between Christine and I were interfering in our ability to be effective parents. I objected strenuously to arguing in front of my daughter, to no avail. J seemed able to manipulate us quite easily.
Homework started to consume the entire evening, Boo effectively drawing out the process with tantrums and delaying tactics, anything to avoid homework. Evenings were miserable for all of us, especially J, and I felt it was my responsibility to help her. It clearly was an issue that required her parents to be united and steadfast. Neither qualities were present. Christine had recently read a book on childhood disorders, and had come across the term “ADD”. Still relatively unknown, at least to me, the syndrome resonated with Christine as a pharmaceutical epiphany, justifying years of failed dreams on her part.
In one fell swoop, we were all diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, manic depression, bi-polar disorder and a slew of other such syndromes and diseases. Even Christine’s mother was tarred with the same brush.
Christine immediately decided that J should be medicated, and found a willing pediatric doctor to prescribe that medication. I was unable to dissuade Christine from this course of action. Finally, in one last desperate plea for sanity, I asked that we try three or four nights where we would not interfere with the homework process, to be on hand for assistance, but not to get drawn into the evading and avoiding tactics J was very good at.
We were in the kitchen and I set the clock on the table, knowing that my daughter had some non-homework things she wished to do. The evening was very difficult, but had some very funny moments. At one point, Miss J looked at me with glaring eyes, saying, “it’s all his idea – I know”. (She was of course, referring to me).
Miss J, furious at me, doing homework at the dinner table, one month before my eviction, 2000
I had to turn away lest she see me grinning. It was all I could do to stop Christine going to her aid, and reverting back to the old way of doing things. That night my daughter finished her work in record time, and I felt that a milestone had been surpassed.
Alas, it was a hollow accomplishment; the next night reverted to the old ways, and a week later, my beloved daughter was on medication, specifically Adderol, then Concerta. I made a call to the doctor and was stunned to be informed that he had not even examined my daughter, but had based his prescription on Christine’s explanation. When I questioned him on that issue, his reply was, “I suppose I had better see her then”. Ye Gods.
As an aside, there may be occasions when medicating children might be justified, but in this case, it was definitely our poor parenting skills which were the cause of the difficulties.
Christine, even to this day believes my daughter displays aberrant behavior, requiring medication. In court papers filed this year 2010, Christine states …
” …she suffers from Early Onset Bi-polar Disorder, Obsessive Compulsory Disorder, ADDHD with School as Stressor, and Severe Depression …”. (sic)
Two weeks showed no improvement in my daughter’s attitude; one evening, I was appalled to discover that Christine had doubled the dosage without the doctor’s knowledge. The feeling of complete powerlessness to be of service to my daughter left me in a very emotional state.
A week later, in March 2000, an argument between my wife and I occurred in front of our daughter and whilst I cannot say I was an innocent party, I was certainly, by any definition, not guilty of the term “Spousal Abuse”. I had been raised to never strike a woman or to abuse her in any way. It is a philosophy that is ingrained in me and one I have followed to this day – with one awful exception and its consequences.
Over the years, I experienced something that is quite common in marriages which have turned sour, and that is, the digs and barbs, the passive-aggressive manner of gaining the upper hand, and for my part, especially troubling, the underlying desire for it all to go wrong, so I could say, “See, I knew it, I was right all along”, regardless of whether it improved the situation. The need to be “right” – to prove my position, became paramount, and it fed the beast.
I have become aware, through the honesty of my friends, that my words, and manner in which they are said, cause far more damage and hurt than I realize, without affecting the outcome I desire.
My companion, Irene, has been most helpfully informative. Her quiet demeanor, patience and grace has reflected back to me my poor behavior, which I hope has improved.
It is a lesson I’m not sure I have yet completely learned.
Silliness on Second Avenue, 2005
Christine was not averse to physical violence, however. Sometimes, in a fit of rage, she would attempt to throttle me, or plant a hard kick to my back when I was not looking. Although this was deeply humiliating, I never responded in kind. I felt at the very least it was a truthful form of expression; one I could understand better than the thrust and parry of verbal warfare. It seemed very much that I was being goaded. Often, she threatened to call the police and have me thrown in jail. I have kept quiet about it to this day; this is the first time I have allowed myself to talk about it or even bring it to light.
On that fateful night in March 2000, an argument over dinner erupted into a physical pushing and shoving match. Her hands around my throat, I took a swing, and landed a punch on her shoulder. A flash of pride at my finally standing up for myself and the words, “that’ll show you”, jumped into my mind.
Well, instead, she showed me: I had played right into her hands.
Two days later, while I was sitting alone in the apartment, our dog started barking. I went to the door to see what the commotion was. Two police officers were coming up the stairs, led by my Christine. Instinctively, I knew what was about to happen. I had heard way too many tales of woe at the father’s rights group.
In a state of shock, I took the court papers the officers handed me, and in a daze, gathered up a few things I felt to be of importance. Ten minutes later, I was on the street.
Unknown to me, Christine had filed an Ex Parte Order of Protection in New York Family court. Ex Parte, in this instance, means the opposing party need not be present in the court when Orders of Protection are issued.
I was barred from going near my home or seeing my daughter, on pain of incarceration.
My camera is bigger than Miss J, Central Park, 2006
When a parent is evicted from the family home for domestic violence charges, the entire state machinery grinds into motion, and it becomes hard if not impossible to mount an effective defense.
In addition, the stigma attached to domestic violence colors and for sure affects every future appearance in the courtroom. Having no funds, and unable to find an attorney to represent me, one month later I came before the court, representing myself. My prior experience foolishly led me to believe I could speak adequately on my own behalf.
At about 10:30 in the morning and in under twenty minutes, before Justice Richard Ross, the court ordered a three-year Order of Protection which prescribed that I not be allowed to see my daughter except once a week on Sundays, for one hour, as supervised by the court.
The court refused to believe any of my testimony, branded me a liar, and also branded a colleague, who had been present during the dispute, as a liar, too.
That afternoon, as if I were in some bizarre judicial conveyor belt, I was ordered before a different judge, Justice Debra Schiraldi Stein, who issued an immediate and temporary child support order of $500 per month, plus rent and other sundry items.
I left the court house that evening in a state of disbelief and vertiginous nausea. It was March, and a sickly yellow light gloomed from the low clouds. A light rain was falling. As I blundered up and down the streets of Soho, my eyes downcast in shame and full of burning tears, I turned the corner into Lafayette Street, and, looking up, I saw, coming towards me, Christine and my therapist, Bill Cheshier, arm in arm. I was so numb, it barely registered, and, turning on my heel, I walked away.
My son and I soon after my eviction Summer 2000
I spent the next three years homeless and couch-surfing, sleeping at an office and with friends. It was especially hard on my son, who had lost all his possessions (as had I), and had no proper home to stay when visiting me.
My colleague Benjamin had kindly offered a place in which to work, and I spent my days there, helping out where possible and trying to rebuild my life.
Most of my possessions were sold on the street by my wife. I would see Yard Sale notices posted around Soho, and on one occasion, I watched as a couple loaded an industrial sewing machine amongst other possessions of mine, onto their truck, laughing at what a bargain they had gotten. I owned little of value, but I was most sad to know that the small library of children’s books I had collected over the years – as much for the quality of their illustrations as for the writing – disappeared into the black hole which was the wreckage of my marriage. Family artifacts, carefully preserved for my children, for them to know their ancestry, disappeared along with the rest of my former life.
Mr. O and I made the best of it, and for a while, I was able to maintain an active presence in his life, but I had few resources and that took its toll. Vitriolic comments by his mother about my lack of stability, struck home, and we saw less and less of each other.
During that time, I was shown great kindness by many who barely knew me, and some truly awesome kids and adults who became my dearest friends; many, if not all, remain so to this day.
Miss J playing basketball at the Spring Street pool, 2004
On Spring and Thompson there was a small playground, called the Vesuvio, named after a local Italian bakery. It had swings, a basket-ball court and a kiddy-pool, open during the Summer.
I had taken Miss J and O there every year since moving into the neighborhood.
The area, back then, was a second Little Italy. It has since changed and become gentrified, Wall Street being its biggest benefactor. It was also was very much a local kids’ hang-out. A little rough, perhaps (Manhattan has become soooo safe these days – boring is perhaps another term); a bit run down, but, we felt, very much our own space.
Mr. O at that time was about eight and I was keen on him developing a friendship with the local kids. We would, all three – Mr. O, J and myself, go to the park at any opportunity which presented myself. Carin was in North Carolina, and Christine was not very interested in coming with us. She had taken to sleeping most of the day, and then disappearing for the rest of the time.
I spent the summers at the pool with Miss J and O, and gradually we became part of the park kids. I grew close to the families, many of whom were under the assumption I was a single dad.
Given the state of my marriage, I almost wished it were so.
I watched as they all slowly grew up, the girls with their lustrous hair of spun gold, blinding me in the summer sun, the boys doing boy stuff, the minor squabbles and tears, climbing over the fences at night, trying to give the park policeman the slip, figuring out how to stay in the pool past the allotted time, sitting in the fading summer evenings laughing at silly jokes, the local gossip, and futile attempts to stop the encroaching yuppie influx.
New York University was expanding, a blot of purple ink on lower Manhattan, slowly seeping into the crevices of Soho.
Re-united, my first unsupervised visit with my daughter, with Ava and her mum Cheryl. Spring Street, summer 2000
In spite of my best “pro se” efforts, I was only able to see my daughter twice a week, on Sunday afternoons for three hours and after school on Mondays for three hours. In addition, at Christine’s insistence, my two kids were not allowed to see each other except under supervision.
Of all the sad events contained in this story, the one that pains me the most, is the allegation that my son was also a danger to my daughter, and that he be never left alone with J. They both missed out by that act of vindictiveness.
Justice Ivy Cook noted that the supervisor, Giselle Trinidad, had issued a glowing report on my relationship with my daughter; the judge said she had never seen such a positive report, and, in spite of strenuous objections from Christine, released me from supervised visitation.
Report to the law guardian
My wife tried to prevent me from participating in my daughter’s school, but with the support of the law guardian, Ms. Aswad, and the school principle, Lily Woo, I was successful in establishing a working relationship with the teachers and faculty. I remember them fondly, as they knew the true story, but were powerless to help, fearful of the wrath of “the mother”, those words always uttered by the teachers in overtones evoking secret police.
Report to the law guardian
In an abundance of caution, the courts required an additional one month of unofficial supervised visits. Cheryl, the mother of one of the girls at the neighborhood, agreed to be of service, as well as being a pick- up and drop-off point, and I made the best of an awkward visitation schedule. As the Order of Protection was in effect, Christine would drop J off at Cheryl’s home on Sunday at twelve, with me watching and waiting anxiously on the corner. We had little time together, a few hours at most, and I strove to make the most of it.
I was house-sitting in Hell’s Kitchen, on Theatre Row, and the journey there could easily take an hour, so I came to rely heavily on my friends, especially Cheryl, her daughter Ava, and Ava’s best friend, Flannery. Cheryl lived in a cramped, two room apartment on Thompson street, with her mother, Ava, and Ava’s brother Phillip. They shared their space and food, their love and companionship without a murmur, joyfully doing what they could for me and my kids.
I did not do the movie or normal daddy thing, whatever that is, but integrated our precious moments as a normal routine, trying not to travel far and waste the minutes waiting for trains. I did not even try to force her to pay attention to me, and was content watching her interact with the friends we had made, and be a part of that.
As winter approached, I grew more anxious as to how we could spend our time together.
On her birthday and doing homework with Flannery and Ava, Bleecker Street 2003
On September 11th 2001, the world changed forever.
I had found a affordable share in an old Brownstone on Bleecker Street. It was occupied by a well-known soap opera star, who was also a drug addict. He was only there a few days a month, coming in from out of state to tape the show, and then going on a crack binge. I dreaded those binges. If you have ever been around a crack addict, you will know the awful consequences of that addiction. A brilliant mind, he would disintegrate into a paranoid mess over the course of four or five days. At the time, I was in group therapy, hoping to find some illumination in my life, and wrote some verse on my time spent on Bleecker Street …
Cheap perfume made rancid by beer-breath, wrecked bodies and souls, savaged skin, pathetic eyes living corpses, wasted minds.
Waiting for peace, minute by minute, hour by hour, year by year, look back in sorrow, look forward in fear.
No sleep, noises inside and out, a floorboard creaks, I shake awake, shamed mumblings, the crack pipe bubbling, endless television, waiting forever for them to leave, them waiting forever to leave.
Change my life, how? “How Now Brown Cow,”said daddy amongst other things.
“Okay”, she said. “we’re leaving, right?” And sat down for another day. Waiting for him, him for her. Others waiting for them. All of us waiting for each other.
“God, I stink”. she said. hoping for a denial. I didn’t give it. I thought she stank.
“I’m not coming back tonight”, he said, coming back tonight. “I’m leaving this morning”. he said, staying another day. They took their time leaving. They took my time.
Opened another beer, lit another cigarette, She sat down, he got up. She got up, he sat down. Endlessly leaving, Always here.
I want to be in my place. But I’m in their place.
At 9am, on the morning of September 11th 2001, I was sitting crossed-legged on the bed at Bleecker Street trying to meditate, when I heard a plane fly over. Seems awfully low, I thought. A few seconds later I heard a distant crunch; I got up and looked out of the window; the front of the apartment faced North.
People on the street at the intersection of Thompson, were motionless, staring downtown. I went to the kitchen, and looked South.
It was hard to comprehend what I was seeing. In the distance stood the twin towers; the shape of an airplane front-on was imprinted on the North tower. Incongruously, it reminded me of something from a Tom and Jerry cartoon. What looked like confetti sparkled in the bright September sunshine. As I struggled to understand what I was seeing, I grabbed my camera and ran up to the roof. By the time I got there, the second tower had been breached. My upstairs neighbor, Susan appeared.
“The Pentagon has been hit” she said, “it’s an attack”.
I looked at her blankly, stunned. My daughter’s school was close to the World Trade Center. I threw on a shirt and sneakers and ran out of the house.
View from my share on Bleecker Street, September 11 2001
Running, short of breath, heart pounding in my chest, south down La Guardia Place and across Houston Street. I passed by the Angelica. People were streaming north, covered in white powdery ash.
A vast collective moangroan rose from the onlookers; I looked over my shoulder. The South tower was collapsing, enormous volumes of smoke and flames billowing outwards, upwards, solid with human remains, glass, computers, steel.
At the De Soto school in Chinatown, I was stunned to see that it had not been evacuated. The children sitting quietly at their desks, expressions unreadable, looking up expectantly as I peered through the glass doors: I ran to the roof of the school. A great pall of smoke rose high into the sky.
As I craned my neck, I felt as if I was looking at a monster.
Not gray, devoid of colour, the smoke thick, roiling in slow motion. I thought I could see lightning flashes; the face of darkness. The sound of a military jet could be heard against a single dissonant chord of a thousand wrong notes.
Not knowing what was happening, I looked at Christine and pleaded with her to put our differences aside, act in unison, and leave the area. Back down in the school office, she refused to leave, incredibly still insisting on portraying me as a violent and crazy man.
I sat in the school all day with my wife and daughter, and watched in frustration as parents, having struggled to get to the school from wherever they worked, came and picked up their children.
At 3pm, Christine finally consented to leave the area. I escorted them to the subway, joining an orderly crowd – most covered in white ash – entering Canal Street station. Few trains were running. After one final tearful plea on my part to stay together, I put them on one of the A trains running uptown. As the train slowly departed, I wondered whether I would ever see them again.
With the big girls, Ava, Flannery and Miss R.
After three years, the Order of Protection expired and I made a motion to the court to spend more time with my daughter. I had built a track record with Ms. Aswad, the law guardian, and Mr. Steiner, the court investigator for the Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Children. With their support, I made a plea for greater time with my daughter, for sleep-overs, and time to spend together in the summer.
This time, we were before Justice Helen Sturm. Perhaps deliberately mispronouncing my name, she treated us both equally as utter scum. Miss J’s mother vigorously contested any increase in visitation and any form of unsupervised visits. She claimed that I had been stalking her, threatening her and my daughter, and portrayed me has having various and severe disorders.
At first, I thought I might have a chance, as Judge Sturm questioned Christine’s very shaky testimony, which was not supported by the investigator and law guardian.
The reports by Mr. Steiner and Ms. Aswad had seemed to carry some weight, but in a series of sudden reversals, Judge Sturm “suggested” I accept an additional year of the Order of Protection. In return, I would get an increase in the time I would be able to spend with my daughter, but no sleep-overs or extended time for vacation. Judge Sturm demanded I make a decision right there.
Ava and Flannery this year, all grown up.
I stood rooted to the spot, unable to make the choice. I looked to Aswad and Steiner but they remained mute, barred from offering advice. Based on my prior experience with Mr. O, (the long drawn-out process of forensic/psychiatric investigations; the huge costs involved), and in order to spare my daughter and myself any further legal battles, I took an offer from the judge of an additional one-year Order of Protection, on consent; which is a legal way of moving forward without admitting to wrongdoing.
As I opened my mouth, in my mind came the loudest voice I ever heard, screaming, warning me “NO”!
But alas, I ignored it, my cowardice overcoming that divine moment.
Amongst all the choices I have made in my life, this is the only one I truly regret, and with all my heart I wish I had had the courage of my convictions and followed through with my original request. Had I done so, I suspect things would be rather different today.
In spite of my wife’s objections, I was able to increase my visitation to four days a week: on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, but no sleep-overs or vacation time. I picked my daughter up from school and brought her back to where I was staying. By that time, I had stabilized myself to a certain degree, subletting small studio on 23rd . I also was able to see J Sunday afternoons.
As I was not able to have any sleep-overs, I was forced to return my daughter to the drop-off point at 7:30 after each visit. It was hard, as we never had the opportunity to relax nor I was I read her bedtime stories. To add insult to injury, Christine would almost invariably be an hour late.
In March 2004, I stopped speaking to Christine. I had been subjected to endless calls of a very abusive nature. Calling me all sorts of foul names, and accusing me of the worst conduct, the last straw came one night, at about 3am. I was awakened by a call …
“Your daughter’s hemorrhaging. I hope you’re satisfied”.
She then hung up. I was in a complete state; I tried to call back, but to no avail. At that time, the Order of Protection was still in effect; I did not know where they were living and so had no idea to where to go. All I could do was wait.
When I saw J later that week, she was quite healthy, showing no sign of distress, and when I asked her if she had been sick, she seemed quite puzzled at my question.
I helped out every Saturday with the school chorus program, which Miss J had joined.
Miss J was now ready for middle school, but Christine refused to tell me which school this would be. It took a series of phone calls to the law guardian before I was told that my daughter’s new school would be MS 51, located in Brooklyn. (There was another school she went to in between, and that could be a chapter in itself), but I do not wish to digress.
In spite of strenuous objections from my wife, and with the very kind support of the assistant principle, I was able to establish a very good rapport with my J’s school, where I became active in after-school activities, mainly as a means to stay involved and to be as close to my daughter as I possibly could.
The musical director, Alan Zwirn, knew me, as earlier he had taught at Mr. O’s school, and he welcomed me into the program.
Sadly, my involvement in the chorus was an added source of rage for my wife, as it showed I was anything but the crazy manic bi-polar lunatic she had portrayed.
The last set I helped on at ms 51.
In 2006, I was awarded a certificate of merit from the PTA and was honored for my assistance in creating stage-sets for the music department.
The school principal informed me that my active involvement in the school and my daughter’s life was the fundamental reason she had done well.
In 2007, I received a letter from the NYC Department of Child Support, acknowledging my consistent and regular payments over the years. In those seven years I never missed a payment, nor was I ever late.
In the meantime, in 2003, my wife had filed a successful objection to the order of child support and the matter was set for retrial.
Again, I represented myself, as I had no money or savings, nor anyone to turn to. I was tired of the endless court dates. As I had nothing to offer, I could but only be a part of this tremendous waste of all our few resources, and, not showing up would have resulted in an automatic bench warrant for my arrest.
I did the best I could, with no representation, copying all my financial records for the third time, many of which were excluded from admission as evidence, or dismissed as irrelevant.
In 2007 the court issued an order of child support of $3,100 per month, plus additional monies for spousal support and other odds and ends, and another $30,000 for my wife’s attorney.
In addition, it was made retroactive to 1999.
In an instant I was over $300,000 in arrears.
The logic of the order was based on my gross corporate income for 1999 which was $249,000.
I was not allowed any tax deductions incurred by my business. Not a single penny.
As a photographer, I incur some very large expenses. I am required to pay for models and studios, film processing, set building, all of which is laid out by me, and then reimbursed, which at the time accounted for two thirds of my gross income. In addition, photography requires a great deal of investment in equipment, advertising, self-promotion and space in which to work.
The order then “imputed”, my income, which means support be based on what the judge felt I “should” be earning, or what I am “capable” of earning, based on past records. It is not based on what the earnings actually are.
It is my understanding that in the law of this land, there is a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. But not in Family Court.
My personal income was about $80,000 for that year (1999). My wife was not working in any meaningful manner during the time we were together, and we owned little of value.
The reasoning behind the new order was that the court stated I had intermingled my accounting between personal and business expenditures and could not distinguish between what was a business expense and a personal one.
Although I had certainly issued some checks from my business account that were to cover personal expenses, those checks, and the portion that related to personal income, had been reported to the IRS as “personal income”. As I had a monthly dialogue with the IRS, due to my arrears, I felt fairly secure in that what was okay for the United States Treasury, would be sufficient for Family Court. This was not the case.
I kept my own books and record-keeping and whilst I might have been responsible for mediocre paperwork, I am an honest man and I was certainly not guilty of fraud, or tax evasion. Perhaps I might have understood an increase based on my poor presentation of the paperwork, but I cannot, under any circumstances, understand how my business cannot incur any expenses whatsoever. Cameras, film, processing, lights, all run into the tens of thousands of dollars. None of these items were considered an “ordinary and necessary expense”. My support obligation was based on gross corporate income for 1999, eight years prior.
In addition I had been audited by the City of New York, as I was behind on my taxes. They found me to be honest and straightforward, assigned me a hardship plan at $30 per month to which I am still adhering. New York State and the Internal Revenue Service have not questioned my returns, and, in spite of the fact I that owe them many thousands of dollars, I have kept them informed as to my poor financial state and supplied all of the relevant documents.
Personally, I do not think it takes vast intelligence to distinguish between a can of cat food and a camera. There was no evidence to show that I had been hiding money in some secret account, none to show that I had reported my income to be different than what was stated, and none to show that I had lied about what was a business expense or a personal one.
I have never owned a car, house or anything of value. I have no health insurance or savings, IRA, stocks or bonds, or any investments. In short, all I own is the minimal amount of equipment I use for my work, some books and my spirit.
On a day trip to Long Beach 2006
Dotage looms in my mind, and my social security payments at about $100 might cover denture cream, but little else.
Being embroiled in litigation every month for these last fifteen years, the constant stress and anxiety, ( I dread the mail-man), I have had no opportunity to save or take care of my old age. This particular type of litigation is not terribly conducive to becoming a success either.
The only thing I have been able to do, is to keep taking pictures and to develop my skills, art and craftsmanship in the hope it will lead to some form of future security. Certainly, I’ve never planned on retiring; my work is not a nine-to-five “job”. From the minute I open my eyes to when I close them, I am working, and I hope to carry on that way until I shuffle off this mortal coil.
My kids with yours truly. Miss J has the new kitten Milo. 2008
So, in one fell swoop, I was in arrears to the tune of $300,000, increasing each month by well over $2500.
At this point, I had established a friendship with an attorney who agreed to help me form an objection. The objection was found to have merit, but Justice Schiraldi Stein refused to reconsider her findings.
Early this year (2010), after putting together costly transcripts of the trial, many of which were missing, I appealed to the Appellate Division, but in May of this year, taking less than six weeks to review the original trial, I was denied an appeal on procedural issues.
I had also made a motion at this point to request a review of my financial situation, with a motion to grant a downward modification of my monthly obligation. I had previously avoided making that request, as it implied I agreed with the order, which clearly I did not.
J learning how to sew at an art show. Williamsburg, 2005
These last few years have seen a great many changes in my field of work. The digital revolution has opened the doors to a vast number of would-be photographers, flooding the market with offers to work for little or no money. Everybody has a camera and a computer, and the technology is more than able to produce quite acceptable images. Indeed, the technology is an art form in itself. This is not to say that professional photographers with a history of learning, knowledge and experience have no place, but the financial compensation is drastically curtailed and limited to the highest echelons of the craft. In addition, a professional camera can cost up to $40,000 – more – with an equal expenditure to run its output on the computer.
The world is a different place.
The economy has taken a downward turn. My main client is no longer in business in the US, and as he had accounted for seventy percent of my income, I was in dire straits. Fortunately, I had invested a lot of time in building a body of personal work, and so started to receive small portrait commissions. Although generating a lot of money I sometimes worked for a donation: the subject in front of my camera in a equally poor and desperate plight. These commissions cover half the rent, some basic expenses, and enough to keep the cameras working, and at least something every month to the child support obligation.
I am fortunate in that I have a very loving relationship with the woman with whom I now share my home. Irene is very special, a beautiful soul, who stands by me through thick and thin, managing never to be drawn into this mess, but staying upright and strong, a source of wonder for me.
Christine countered with motions for contempt and violation on my part, as well as an increase of child and spousal support. The logic escapes me because, I was now in debt to her for well over $409,000. The new Support Magistrate overseeing the case, Magistrate Kolomechuk, required that I resubmit all my documents to Christine: the third time in as many months. I spent weeks putting it all together. The cost of making copies alone came close to $500. Although I have been unable to pay my attorney, I had to cover the costs of paperwork and filing fees, and together with the transcripts my credit card was now over $3,000.
Graduating MS 51 2006
Meanwhile, back in 2006, my daughter had graduated middle school, and had been accepted into Brooklyn Tech, on the basis of her involvement in the middle school chorus, and her general scholastic aptitude.
My big sister Rosemary who lives in Australia, pays us a visit.
The intervening years were fraught with difficulties in maintaining a healthy relationship. The stress of picking her up from school three days a week and bringing her home (I had by this time established a studio apartment on Second avenue in the East Village), cooking dinner, making sure homework was done, and then taking her back to her mother’s by 7.30pm, was very great. I longed for sleep-overs, so that time, so precious, was not my enemy.
Silliness on the subway
Many times, picking her up on Sundays proved to be a very tearful experience on both of us; I would be waiting for up to two hours, my time chewed up by various shenanigans created by her mother. It was hard to conduct the rest of the day in a peaceful manner.
My raw emotions at having lost so much time would take every ounce of my willpower not to carry the resentment through our visit.
Although clearly it was her mother who created the problem, I could not help but carry a bit of resentment towards my daughter.
That in itself caused another slew of guilty emotions; how could I possibly resent my thirteen-year-old, who had so little power in the situation?
At Long Beach 2005
On J’s 15th birthday. I organized a ladies-only night. I wanted her to hear the experiences of the strong women I know. Lorraine, Beth, Anthoula, Kristen, Delgado and Delgado’s mum. I made dinner and left, leaving them alone.
Although I felt that I had established a good relationship with J during our first seven years together, and although the time we shared from ages seven through thirteen was very meaningful in spite of the covert and active disapproval of her mother, I felt that the stress she would incur as she entered high school, with the current visitation schedule, would be an added burden.
One September evening, just after the start high school, my daughter and I sat down over a milk shake in the diner by her school. I suggested that J herself would be responsible for arranging the times we would spend together, based on her school schedule. I felt that, with after-school activities, and the terrible acrimony between her mother and I, things might calm down; an easier situation might blossom.
Miss J, hopefully with the relaxing of the tensions, would be able to see me with a greater degree of freedom; one aspect of her life, over which she had some control.
This was not to be the case, alas, as it has been ten years; the rage Christine emotes is greater than ever.
In hindsight, I realize I had made a poor judgment; perhaps I had given up my parental authority, merely for the sake of being a “nice” person, so to speak.
My companion Irene Delgado with Miss J and O. September 2008
In the ensuing months and years – four – to be precise, I saw less and less of my daughter. I ceased trying to create a connection with the high school, as I felt that, as with my approach to visitation, it might alleviate the tensions. My daughter did, however, invite me twice a year to her school concerts, which I simultaneously loved and dreaded attending, since it invariably included some form of poor interaction between Christine and myself. Since high school, I have seen my daughter three or four times a year. She lives twenty minutes away, on the B38 bus
My companion Delgado and I with my daughter, 2006
September 2008 was Irene’s birthday, and she sent an invitation to Miss J, which was accepted. J had come to all of Irene’s birthdays and I looked forward with eagerness to the visit. She arrived with two of her friends and a stray kitten, which she had named Mila, asking that we take care of her for a while. Actually, we all assumed Mila was a girl, until Irene pointed out that “she”, was in fact, a “he”.
Milo ended up being a part of our household, along with Pudding, her other cat, and Turtle, the turtle.
The party was wonderful, but as the afternoon wore on, Miss J started to receive multiple phone calls from her mother, making her agitated and tearful. Finally, at 6:30 she said she had to leave.
I gathered her things and escorted her home. On the bus, more phone calls kept her in a state of extreme agitation. When we got to her mother’s house by the Brooklyn waterfront, Miss J asked me to wait as Christine wanted to speak to me. I was scared and wished to leave.
At the end of the block, I saw her mother running full tilt towards me. I backed away, my arms held high in the air. A torrent of abuse then came cascading my way, all sorts of foul epithets, relating to my sexual life, my financial irresponsibility, and accusations of sexual misconduct towards my daughter. The entire high street came to a halt, my daughter pleading with her mother to stop it, to no avail. I had no choice but to move away, a never-ending stream of filthy language following me. I experienced such deep humiliation at these words, but, even worse, was my shame at it occurring right before my daughter, who I could not protect.
October 2008 was the last time I spent time with my daughter.
I have not seen her since, except for her performance at the school play, Sweeney Todd, in which she played a leading role.
I was in awe of her voice; Kurt Weill is not an easy composer to perform, yet she carried the piece with piercing accuracy and clarity. As I sat quietly in the back of the auditorium, trying to remain anonymous, I saw that the she is truly talented, and that perhaps music would become her savior in life. I was taught music at an early age; all in my family are musicians, so I feel I have the objective knowledge to believe this could be her calling.
It is my fervent hope that Miss J discovers inspiration in her voice.
Daughter mine, do you hear me?
My much admired companion, Irene Delgado and yours truly.
My work has become very important, and I have discovered a depth in it for which I have been searching these many years. Irene has been a source of encouragement.
In 2008, I was unable to maintain my apartment on 2nd avenue due to rising rents, and to the fact that my main clients had cut their budgets. By the end of 2009, my personal income had dropped to $12,500 and my gross corporate income was only $24,000.
In addition, I was behind in my federal, state and local taxes to the tune of $50,000
We moved to Bedford Stuyvesant, were we now reside. It feels like another world.
The poverty here, in supposedly one of the great cities of the world, is hard to believe.
I have a home photo studio, were I work with Irene, who is a make-up artist, seamstress and performance artist.
In the summer of 2009, I made a motion at Brooklyn Family Court to reinstate my visitation with my daughter. I also tried to establish a relationship with her school, calling several times. However, although I had every right to go to the school at any time that was appropriate, I felt that the wiser course would be to go to the office of the guidance counselor, hoping perhaps that that office would act as a mediator.
After several phone calls I did receive a call back, and was informed that the school was in a quandary. They made it clear that Christine was in strong opposition to any involvement on my part, and although I had every right to be present at my daughter’s school, they required that I get an order from the court before they would share any information, or be helpful with respect to my daughter’s school life. Their precise words were,”you were married to her, you know what she’s like”.
Mr. O and J : PS 39 Brooklyn 1996
My motion for visitation dragged through the courts and in late September 2009, I came before the judge. The law guardian, Allison Kolins had interviewed my daughter.
I am unaware of the substance of their conversations, as it was confidential; I had chosen not to pry or spy on my daughter, as the last time I had done so, when she was nine years old, I had looked in her school bag; I wanted to check her school books and homework. It wasn’t easy as she refused point blank, but after a tug of war, as I opened the bag, my daughter in tears, I was horrified to see that her mother had “required” her to carry the Order of Protection at all times on her person.
Upon my discovery, we both looked at the ground in shame.
Thereafter, I was forced to reconsider every interpretation of the word “father”, and the meaning of the phrase, “my daughter”.
The law guardian, a baffled look on her face, juggling copious notes written by Christine, told the judge that J was “really too busy to see me”, as she was concentrating on her studies. Judge Bernard Graham suggested that, as she was now 17, there was not much he could do. He offered to order a visit six months hence, in January of 2010.
Christine insisted the judge bar me from any attempt to involve myself with my daughter’s school.
I withdrew the motion; the point was moot. It seemed the wiser cause of action; I could see no help was forthcoming. This was my last-ditch attempt.
In the early part of this year, the motions for my incarceration for “willful violation” of the support order, and my request for a downward modification, came to trial.
Justice Kolomechuk told Christine that she need not testify, as the case was “de facto” by virtue of the fact that I was arrears in excess of $400,000. The appeal denied, the amounts were reaffirmed.
In spite of this, Christine required me to submit every possible item of relevance as to my financial state: business, personal bank records, any record or any dealings with any entity, credit card receipts, etc., ad infinitum. This was the fifth or sixth time I had had to do this, so my records were in a fairly cohesive state, but still, it took many weeks, applying myself diligently. The magistrate continually cautioned Christine that the case was won; at the time I wondered why that was so often repeated. I now believe the outcome was a forgone conclusion; the court did not want any excuse to pay heed to my testimony.
But, for the first time, I had an attorney, and I felt optimistic that I would be able to enter all my evidence in a cohesive manner, and be heard.
Second Avenue 2005, hurry up and press the button.
As the trial progressed, I wondered how this court could possibly issue a decision that would stand side by side with earlier decisions. In twenty years I had not changed anything in the way I conducted my business; the accounts were the same, my personal account had been attached by the Child Support Agency, and there were liens on my business account. I was in greater debt than ever. The big question in my mind was that if my documents carried any weight as evidence, there would be a big discrepancy. For instance, how could a camera be a necessary business expense one year, but not allowed years earlier? I attempted to call as witnesses my business agent and my companion Irene, as they had relevant paperwork. This request was denied, on the grounds that it was not needed. Puzzled, worried and deeply exhausted, I hoped for the best. I was soon to find out how the disparity would be resolved.
In the last days of August 2010, I received the Findings of Fact (sic) from the Family Court. It was a horrendous decision; my request for a downward modification has been denied and the court has told me that I must come up with a good faith payment of $75,000 by September 24th, 2010 and that I will still be owing over $3,000 per month plus spousal support and sundry items.
,And the $400,000 in arrears would still stand.
The court, it seems, did not believe a word of my testimony, and dismissed all of my evidence as fabricated, and has basically branded me a complete liar. Not a single item was given credence, and yet, no evidence or suggestion of hidden monies was presented; even my rent receipts were questioned as being non-existent, in spite of leases and receipts in evidence.
I am not a liar, I am not dishonest, and I am an innocent of all charges.
“Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.”
William Shakespeare, Othello, Act 3 Scene 3
I cannot meet my monthly expenses. We are on food stamps, I have no possessions to sell, no savings to dip into, my personal bank account has been seized, and my driving license revoked.
My clients have received lien notices and subpoenas, so I’m puzzled as to how to go about getting work.
It seems a little pointless to go on, yet go on I will, as, whilst I might not be the best fighter, I don’t give up, so I hope this story is not construed as a plea for help. It’s just a story, one of many playing out on this stage we call life. It is my intention to play my part with as much dignity, courage and humour as is possible.
I am not poor in spirit, and I feel grateful for my life and the people I have met on this journey.
Delgado and I. Photo at right by Ed Barnas
I am not permitted to know the name of the college my daughter might or might not be attending.
The last message I received from my daughter was on Father’s Day this past Spring.
It says the following … (a photo was attached):
I know we haven’t been in much contact, nor have we been particularly close this past year.
I’m not very proud of myself, for numerous reasons, and I hope you might understand my avoidance. I have many reasons why I have made little initiative to contact you, or update you, or even just to say hi. They may not be the best reasons, but I hope you will not hold this past year against me.
I still love you … and I miss you.
Crossing the Hudson 1998, Photo courtesy of Benjamin Oliver
Parting thoughts …
Family Court is a Spiritually deprived environment, the air dense with fear and animosity.
I cannot think of conflicts – at least in this supposedly civilized part of the world – that contain more rage, anger and the need for vengeance, than those within the walls of Family Court. These courts are overloaded with cases; arbitrary decisions, based on expediency, and the fear of being portrayed “incompetent” in the popular press, coexist with trials that go on for years, draining resources, emotions, lives and the spirits of those poor souls enmeshed in the system.
The shame experienced is intense; I have lived for the last ten years dreading that this all might be aired in the popular press and embarrass the children.
I believe that the Judges are influenced by the amount of negativity they see every day; my observation is that they reflect back the same rage they see every day.
I had started this essay from the standpoint of fathers’ rights. Whenever I tell my tale of woe, it always elicits the response that fathers are abused and treated unfairly in the family court system.
I was never quite comfortable with this rather rigid point of view. My observations have shown me that women suffer equally in the system, especially at the lower end of the economic scale.
Social standing and wealth have much to do with how the cases are viewed and adjudicated; I get the feeling that there is delight at causing much suffering on the people that come before the judges.
Perhaps they play sort of cruel game they play behind the scenes, a pot at the end of the month; given to the most creatively twisted jurist. If you have ever seen a cat play with a mouse … well, you get the picture.
I recall some news footage of Saddam Husein, laughing at the expression of disbelief on the face of one of his cabinet members, as he were being hauled off to the firing squad: “Yes Yes”, he appears to be saying gleefully, “it’s really happening; you are going to die.”
But at the end of the day, it is the children who suffer most. The scars might not visible, but they are there, affecting their behavior for the rest of their lives. I fervently hope that one day, these children will rise up as one, and storm the gates of this wretched institution called Family Court.
Maybe the best I can hope for, is that at some point in their lives, my two children will use their experiences for the greater good, to seek within themselves that which I have found: the people who stand by us, and those who change the world for the better.
In these last ten years, I have been blessed with the guidance, counsel and love of friends and colleagues. Sometimes, perfect strangers stop me and say some non-sequitur that leaves me pondering on some aspect of my life; once, as I was sitting on Prince Street, waiting for my son to come by, a passer-by handed me a book. “You might find this helpful”, she said.
That book was the most important I have ever read.
In 2004 I was introduced to Lorraine Neithardt, who was instrumental in showing showing me a way forward in my life.
I am and always will be indebted to her, as well as to all the others, mentioned or not mentioned in this story.
Each day I swing between many emotions and thoughts. Here are the two uppermost in my mind:
My friends, my work, and the support of those who know me are that gold. I am that Hanged Man.