The spring of Union Square 2014 started so strong. I was getting so many amazing moments, one after the other. Each seeming to upstage the next. To me it seemed like the beginning of the best year so far at the park. The best videos for me, the ones I go back and watch again and again, tell a story of some sort. Ones that give you a beginning, middle and an end, while showing you something unique. It may sound simple enough, but getting each of these moments on film when you have no idea what the middle or the end is, well, when it all comes together it’s perfection. A satisfaction that perhaps had something to do with the trouble I found myself in the weeks to come.
You Stole my Camera Show
The first situation happened in May. And at the time just seemed like another of several moments that happened that month. The “You Stole My Camera Show.” And for those of you who saw it know how it went. The performers who do their acrobatic act at the front of the square had their show interrupted by some guy pointing at Flips (the main performer) yelling “YOU STOLE MY CAMERA! I LET YOU AND YOUR FRIENDS INTO MY HOME AND YOU STOLE MY CAMERA! A THOUSAND DOLLARS!!” and so forth, bringing the entire show to a halt. I had already had the camera rolling because I was filming something else at the time, so I got the start, and the middle was happening right before my eyes.
This man was large, and had a booming voice. He had no problem being heard. And despite them trying to ignore him and do their show around him, he would not let it go. “CAREFUL! HE MIGHT STEAL YOUR CAMERA!” the man would shout, and here I am, camera hoisted above my head filming the whole ordeal. Eventually Flips takes the guy outside of the circle and shouts at him to call the police if he’s got a problem. And the guy admits he has no proof, but he obviously feels wronged, and won’t shut up about it.
At some point I’m walking back to where I was sitting on the steps, and just before I sit down Flips comes up to me saying “Delete that video! I already have enough negativity about me on YouTube. I don’t need any more. I already got a million views on YouTube. Delete that video! We’ve never had a problem before, Bob. But if you post that video we’re going to have a problem.” And as he walks away the other guy is already approaching me too.
“Do you need my information? I can give you my contact info and I can call the New York Times” he says into my camera.
“I’m not gonna call you about all this” I respond. And when it’s all over Shaggy’s sitting there saying “Haha! What are you gonna do Bob? You got yourself caught up in a mess!”
I got caught up in the excitement of posting so many neat videos, I couldn’t resist. And all seemed to be fine and dandy. For about a month it sat there on YouTube without a problem. In fact, I thought Flips saw the video at some point and decided he didn’t have a problem with it. He’d shown up at the square since the incident with a camera on a tripod to take pictures of his crew. At one point a couple weeks later he took a spill during his performance, and afterwards walked by me saying “Did you get that on film? This guy gets everything out here!”
I thought it was done.
Turns out though he hadn’t seen the video. And when he did, about a month after it was posted, he flipped.
Shaggy and I were sitting in our usual spot on the steps, and Flips and three of his guys were walking towards us. They were all pissed looking, and Shaggy says, “Hey fellas! What’s up? Haha”
These four guys are standing over us and Flips says “Why’d you post that video? WHY? Tell me why!”
To which I responded, “You wanna know why? Because you threatened me.”
“I threatened you??”
“I couldn’t have been more honest that I was in that video. Right after you got done telling me not to post it or we’re going to have a problem (I quote the video), I say, Well there’s the threat!”
So, long story short, he smacks my camera which was tied around my hand (and filming this, by the way), and Shaggy stands up, “Come on Bob, let’s go.” And one of Flips’ guys grabs Shaggy’s skateboard and holds it like a baseball bat acting like he’s holding himself back from hitting a home run with Shaggy’s head. As we stand Flips is yelling and we try to walk away and Flips does a jump kick at Shaggy and nails him in the ribs. Then he grabs me by the collar shouting “I’M GONNA HIT YOU! I’M GOING TO HIT YOU!” And I’m responding, I KNOW YOU ARE! I KNOW YOU ARE! THAT’S HOW YOU SOLVE YOUR PROBLEMS THROUGH VIOLENCE!”
There was some more of this kind of shouting back and forth, all while my camera is wrapped around my wrist and rolling, and finally they march away shouting, “THIS ISN’T OVER YET!” and “Come on, they’re not worth it!” and so on.
Shaggy and I gather ourselves. We’re both stunned, but also kinda laughing about it because it was so surreal. This was officially the first time we’ve ever been attacked at Union in any way. We sat back down on the steps. I took some pictures of the bruise on his ribs. We hung out a bit, then a coupe hours later called it a day. Neither of us knew what this meant for us at the park.
Quite honestly, it wasn’t until that night that I started to think about what’d happened and realized I was going to have to see Flips almost daily at the park, and I had no idea what could happen because of all this.
I was not anxious to get back to Union. In fact, I talked to Shaggy about it on the phone that night, and we sort of agreed to skip going for a few days to let the whole thing cool off.
A couple days later Shaggy returns to the park. One of our Park Ranger buddies is there too, so Shaggy hangs with him most the time, Flips is performing there too, and Shaggy relays the whole story to him. Then, the ranger leaves, and Shaggy’s sitting there, and the next minute Flips comes around from behind him, squats in front of him so that Shaggy’s in-between his legs with nowhere to go. “Can’t run now, can you? I could smack you right now, and there’s noting you could do. Tell me why I shouldn’t hit you. Tell me why I shouldn’t hit you after what you done!”
Shaggy didn’t say anything, because there was nothing TO say. “You can’t beat or outrun a guy who can fold himself in two.”
There were more threats and such, and as Flips was walking away Shaggy said “Hey, I can tell Bob to delete the video.”
“DELETE THE FUCKIN VIDEO!” he demanded.
Then Shaggy called me, and I was actually walking down 14th to the park when he did.
“Bob. Don’t come to the park. Flips just got me again. We gotta take down the video.”
“I’ll do it tonight.” There was no question.
Even later that same night I got another call from Shaggy telling me that he was out in front of Starbucks and Flips found him again. This time though he wasn’t as pissed. He asked Shaggy, “Why’d he post that video?” And Shaggy replied, “Bob felt threatened.”
Flips told how he gets heckled and attacked all the time, so when this all went down he was in that mode, but it wasn’t a threat. And Shaggy told him the video’s deleted, and Flips immediately pulled out his phone, and my YouTube channel was already keyed up, and he saw it was no longer there.
I skipped the park that weekend. Then returned a couple times the following week. I knew I was still going to have to talk to Flips, and it was the last goddamned thing I wanted to do in the whole fucking universe.
It wasn’t until a week or so later that I was at Union, and Flips approached me. I gave Shaggy my camera and said to Flips, “There’s a couple things I want to say to you.”
We walked over to the side and I said, “I thought about this whole thing a lot, and I realized I didn’t have a right to post that video. I have no idea what happened between you and that guy, and it wasn’t my business. I want to apologize for it.”
Flips always looks angry. But I could tell he was shocked and pleased with my words. He told me he accepted the apology, but also said, “Did you know that’s illegal what you done?”
I told him I didn’t want to get into it again or have a discussion about it all, I just wanted it to be squashed. Shaggy insisted I use the term “squashed” when I eventually talk to him again.
He also told me to think about that other guy’s story. That him and 5 or 6 of his friends were all invited into that guy’s home, and none stole anything. Flips is the only one who stole something, and none of his boys stole anything? That doesn’t make any sense!
I completely agreed with him “That doesn’t make sense!” to which he completed the story even further telling me that he promised Flips and his guys he would get them a contract, and then he broke that promise, and he’s supposed to return the guy’s camera after that? To Flips it was perfectly logical. It was also him admitting to borrowing and not returning said camera.
That’s where the Flips story ends. He walked aways and I promised myself that’s the last time I’d film him. There’s been no other drama with him since, but it wasn’t the last time I was going to be threatened for something I shot that month.
The Flips incident shook me up. For a couple weeks it really psyched me out. There were some nights I couldn’t sleep because my goddamned brain kept replaying how helpless I felt for such a stupid reason. I also over-thought where I actually stood on what I was doing. Is what I do there taking advantage of people? Quite honestly whether or not all of what I am doing, filming people and posting it for the world to see, immoral. It forced me to face my own vulnerability too, and even ask myself if I was a coward, a hypocrite, a user. Did I only use the weak, whereas the strong were now untouchable. All that shit. Stuff you don’t want to think about, but I think everybody should confront within themselves no matter how unwanted the truth at the other end may be. Then came Free Spirit.
The Free Spirit event also happened around that period when the shit show was daily. Soccer fever was hitting The Square. These guys made goals out of the garbage cans and lampposts and unwitting backboards out of the people who were sitting on the steps. You see, Union Square Park is a crowded place. There are people sitting there eating lunch, talking, hanging out, and staring at their electronic devices. In the center of all this now were 6 to 12 or more guys kicking a ball full force in every direction, often hitting people relaxing on the sidelines. So I filmed it.
It is hard to record someone getting hit, randomly with a soccer ball. You have to follow the ball in every direction, and beat it to its destination if you want to really get the hit. But that’s what I had to do to tell this story on video. It’s fantastic practice for a video guy. And before I knew it I had several hits, or at the minimum, the reactions a split second after the person’s been hit (including me), captured on film. Then came the confrontation. The people I was sitting with started shouting at them about constantly getting hit with the ball, or having to duck every time somebody yelled “HEADS!” And we all were commenting loudly as they played. One of the comments we’d shout was after someone on the sidelines got hit. We’d shout a them, “They’re Free Spirits! It’s okay for them to hit you!”
“Free Spirit” was something we’d been hearing lately as a term for someone who doesn’t get as angry and complainy as everybody else, especially during tense moments like this. It was the mojo these guys were projecting by laughing off every hit in the head with a joke. We were the sour grapes to their free spirited attitude, so that’s what we called them. Free Spirits. Mind you, none of these guys ever used the term. It was what we were calling them, sarcastically. One of the guys responded to our heckling, laughing, “I don’t even know what that is! Haha!” Then at one point, with the camera rolling, he sarcastically responds back to us, “I’m a Free Spirit!” Which is what I included in the video. This would become a problem later on.
Then, the now dubbed “Free Spirit” actually came up to us to talk about the importance of playing soccer to him, and why hitting people with the ball wasn’t as bad as we were making it out to be. “There’s been times when the ball hit somebody, and they turned around and saw me and said ‘I forgot how much I love this game’ and it got them back into this wonderful sport” or some shit like that. I was so entertained by the video I’d shot of him explaining himself. It seemed that in every other walk of his life he was beloved and celebrated by all. A good looking sports guy with long dreads and a charming smile. It was like the first time he’d ever had anyone complain about him.
When Free Spirit finally saw his video, it was the first time I’d ever seen him with the exact opposite of a smile. He was pissed. He came up to me starting with “I didn’t know you were filming that conversation. I know you have the right to film and say what you want, but I’ve been getting threats because of that video you posted.”
He was also mad because the hits that I showed in the video weren’t actually caused by him, and I edited it to make him look bad. But the one thing he kept coming back to was how he’d been run off the road by a cab because of my video.
“What?? How’d you know it was because of my video? Are you serious?” I couldn’t image, after over a decade and a half of me pissing off people on the web and never getting “attacked” in any way, shape or form in the real world, that this one video, just a few days after being posted, had people in their cars trying to run him off the road, for accidentally hitting people with a ball while he played soccer. Frankly, I knew it was bullshit. But I wasn’t there, so here’s how he said it went down.
“Yeah, he said to me “You’re that guy from that video on Youtube! Free Spirit!”
“And did you know what he was talking about? Had you seen the video?”
“No. I hadn’t seen it yet.”
“Wait” I said, laughing in astonishment, “So how’d you find the video? He told you the video’s called Free Spirit? I’m just amazed by this story!”
“No! He showed me the video.”
“What?!?! He tried to run you off the road then got out and showed you the video?!?”
“He came up next to me, and ran me off the road and up onto the sidewalk. And I said ‘What video’ and he pulled out his phone and showed it to me on YouTube.”
“And that’s how you found the video?!?” as I recited the whole event back to him to make sure I was perfectly clear, I’m sure I was smiling inappropriately. He scolded me as he had days earlier “You can laugh, but it’s true!”
The conversation went on and on and on and on. He got angrier and angrier, to the point where he was looming over me, shirt off, and shouting. Then he told me he got threatened with a knife by someone too because of it!
Finally, after about 15 minutes of this I told him I’d delete that video too. It wasn’t worth all this. It took some effort for him to shut himself up, but he finally left and I removed it that evening.
This bullshit was no doubt making me feel even less like coming to the park. Luckily I was going away for a couple weeks to Michigan to take a break from this place. But not until one more incident.
The Pink Camera Crew
I had plane tickets to visit my folks for two weeks set for me to leave June 24th, my birthday. I was still a month away from this escape. I kept figuring, just get through this month and I’ll have two weeks to be away, to think. Then Crackhead Tony showed up.
Now, I’d known of Tony for years. I have video of him dating back to 2008 when is was mainly him and Freddy who hung out together. Those two would play together at the park, making a scene, scaring the tourists, putting on a show and just going berserk. I had known Freddy since 2004. He would dance and rap and was also very good at expressing himself. Freddy is also a junky. He had no problem discussing in detail what his life addicted to heroine. He was one of my favorite subjects to film. And it was through Freddy and I met Tony. One of the first times I ever really talked to Tony was documented in a video where I’m showing him the very first postcards. I knew the first time I dubbed him “Crackhead” and Shaggy agreed that that’s his new name, there was a strong possibility Tony would not be on board. It was one of those discussions I wrestled with briefly, then just assumed Tony understood that he behaved like a crackhead and at some point in the future it’d be easily explained to him, and we’d see where the cards fall after that.
In the years to follow Tony’s behavior got worse. You could hear him coming from a block away, screaming at the top of his lungs. He thought he was a one man show everyone wanted to see, but the sound of him rumbling towards you would only summon dread. The videos I’ve shot of him show that clear as day.
He’s one of the only junkies I’ve ever seen who’s amped up when he’s loaded. I was told it was because he combined it with speed. Freddy had his moments of performing for the crowd while loaded, but Tony was an All Star Wrestler. A stalky, Italian bodybuilder who could go at 11 for hours. What finally set his “Crackhead” title in stone is when we knew he hated it and we wanted him to leave us alone. It sort of worked.
Not a week after the Flips and Free Spirit incidents Tony decided he’d had enough as well. I heard him coming from a mile away, so I had no problem turning the camera on him in time. He was furious and he let it all out on me. I betrayed my promise of not to calling him “Crackhead” in the videos (which is true). I don’t deny it.
At one point we agreed Toothless Tony was okay by him. But for me, and everyone else, Tony was way more crackhead than he was toothless. One of these titles he chose to hide, while the other he showcased.
The mix of drugs Tony ingested to make him act the way he did was a mystery to most. Tony was openly a heroine addict, but the adrenaline he showed was why he got the “crackhead” moniker.
I posted the video as is and shortly after was able to escape to Michigan for two weeks. I would return July 11th, and just a couple weeks after my return the Crack Head Tony story would pick up again.
I’m at Union interviewing this girl I know, Alexandria, on camera and another girl walking into the frame and she’s pointing her pink camera at me. She says she knows who I am because I’m the guy who exposes the homeless people at the park. I ask her for examples of who I expose, and Crackhead Tony is the guy.
I’m sure in her mind the tactic of filming me, shaming me on film, seemed like tactic. Problem is, I’m ready to talk about what I do to anyone, I don’t mind being filmed at all, and all things considered, I’m proud of what I do. I mean, I’m willing to reconsider choices I’ve made, admit to them, and right them if I can. But I cannot be shamed. Anyhow, she tells me she’s posting this video on YouTube, and leaves. I try to explain to Alexandria what happened, and she’s stunned and shaken.
Now mind you, this month between the Flips and Free Spirit incidents and now I’d been reconsidering my whole living in NYC situation completely. Union was changing, and my place there seemed to be changing as well. I’d just recently gotten kicked out of my apartment because the landlord, a friend of mine, sold the building, so I was already losing my love for this city. Now the park was turning on me. It’s hard for me though to explain the difference between those first couple confrontations, and this girl with the camera, but it was her second attempt to shame me that changed everything.
Last week, the first week of August, this girl and three friends of hers (friends of Tony), surrounded me. The biggest one with a scar on his face was holding that same little pink camera as that girl. And he was standing over me with it pointed down at me. I turned on my camera, but he refused to answer any questions I asked him. Then, without my knowledge, another friend of his squatted down behind me and pantomimed humping me, and with his hand gestured as if he were giving blow jobs. This was all meant to represent things that I do, and they were taping this for posting on the web. The public world wide web.
I tried to tell him that I don’t mind being filmed, and when I felt the guy behind me I turned the camera around which made him leap back. There were a few of them, and that girl was there, smiling. Justice was being served. I tried to explain to them that after their last visit I had taken the word “Crackhead” off Tony’s videos, which was true, but that wash’t going to stop them from delivering this justice pie. They yelled at me some, and when I told them that I’m actually proud of what I do, they exploded in a rant of name-calling, and accusations that I like to suck dicks, was bullied in high school and that’s why I do this, and that I couldn’t get a girlfriend.
Not as if I hadn’t already been thinking about what happened to make all three of these aggressive complaints happen within a couple weeks of each other, the first time anything of the kind had ever happened since I started this 12 years ago, but my brain was searching for answers. It was when Tony’s avenger had that pink camera pointed at me shouting “WERE YOU PICKED ON IN HIGH SCHOOL AND THAT’S WHY YOU’RE PICKING ON GUYS TOUGHER THAN YOU NOW?”
“I’ve always had trouble sympathizing with loud, brutish jocks.”
That was exactly it. I was indeed picked on in high school by jocks. I’ve always had trouble sympathizing with loud, brutish jocks. And what’s one thing Flips, Free Spirit and Tony all had in common? They were all athletic dudes. And each of them did what I considered a form of bullying. I also had to admit with each of them I took slightly more liberties in presenting them then I would have with others. My way of reverse bullying. With Flips I broadcast someone’s accusations without knowing the backstory, or having any evidence as to their accuracy. With Free Spirit I made it look like he referred to himself as such, when he did not. And with Tony I labeled him Crackhead even though I promised I would not. Each of these things I did on purpose, admittedly to twist the knife.
Coming to terms with this was reality check. But it also changed my outlook on everything I was doing. Each of these things I admit to and fixed as instructed. Flips’ and Free Spirit’s vids have been removed, and the “Crackhead” title from all of Tony’s deleted as well. Going through and finding Tony’s videos to re-edit also forced me to re-examine what it is I do. Am I all right with the videos I’ve made of homeless people, drug addicts, and others? The answer, a definite yes. I love that park and I love the stories that come from it. I adore the process of capturing a story on film, something unique and often unbelievable, and telling the story in a way that makes order out of chaos. Accomplishing that I find very satisfying. I also must admit I love to go back and watch my videos from previous weeks, months and years. I always feel like I’ve caught something important that would otherwise be forgotten over time. And I regularly get feedback from viewers confirming this.
We’re near the middle of August 2014 right now. And a couple weeks ago I was debating whether or not the park was where I wanted to be, even if New York City still felt like home. Now I’m back on track, and even looking forward to seeing what the those crazy junkies have in store for me next.
And if that’s not enough, here’s the 2014 Year In Review where we talk about all this further.